This morning on my walk I was pondering the question of why, when I was going through my first heartbreak back in my early 20s, I burrowed so deep into blues music to the almost complete exclusion of country western. Unlike most of my contemporaries I didn’t grow up listening to rock; my parents were into classical and a bit of folk (The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives), and my older brother played old-time banjo. So the first time I heard Delta blues guitar, I didn’t think “Wow, that sounds just like the Rolling Stones!” but “Wow, that sounds just like a clawhammer tune in a modal key!” Which, as I discovered years later when a friend lent me a Smithsonian Folkways compilation of very early recordings of Black string bands, is pretty much how that music evolved.
So that’s why I was prepared to like the country blues, but doesn’t explain why I ignored country western. Too schmaltzy, I always said, but that wasn’t fair to many country singers who avoid the schmaltz. Really, I think it was just that I preferred the more stoic and tough-minded approach to the expression of emotion in blues lyrics compared to the typical display of emotional vulnerability in country music.
And that too reflects how I was raised: in a loving but somewhat emotionally repressed family where it was exceedingly uncommon for anyone to ever talk about their feelings.
Also, virtually every traditional bluesman or woman I’ve ever read an interview with, when asked to define the blues, included in their answer the contention that blues is medicine. I can personally vouch for that. For a young person, at any rate, it was a mighty salve. In part I’m sure that was because so much of how we relate to each other, sexually and otherwise, has been fundamentally shaped by Black culture, with blues and rock lyrics as a major conduit. Blues and jazz changed the entire tenor of our civilization, made us freer and I believe also happier. Or at least a lot less sad.
These days though I don’t listen to much blues, and I’m not sure why. Music isn’t the all-powerful drug it was in my 20s and 30s. I’ve spent too many years listening to “the music of what happens.” John Cage was on to something. There’s music pretty much everywhere if you choose to hear it that way. I doubt it has the healing power of the blues in and of itself, but the physical effort required to go outside and explore such music will keep you on your feet long after most other concert-goers have checked out.
I love the fact that one of the most important American poets for actually understanding America was half Japanese: Ai. Another had an English father and a Puerto Rican mother: William Carlos Williams. Maybe you have to be half outside, half inside to see a thing for what it is.
I’m watching a small, black wasp flying from leaf to leaf and walking in circles with her antennae down, a female ninja seeking her target: a caterpillar of just the right species to act as unwilling nursery and food source for her progeny.
There’s not much to say about this that hasn’t already been said, by Darwin among others appalled by this apparent refutation of any notion of a just or benign cosmic order: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars,” Darwin wrote in a letter to Asa Gray.
For me it’s horrifying—but also mentally liberating, because I find the idea of a benign cosmic order deeply oppressive. We are not all inside anything, or at least nothing we’ll ever be able to fully comprehend. Order is just another name for chaos. And chaos, as the example of ichneumon wasps shows, can be a real bitch.
But I’m charmed to see there’s a serious attempt underway to get people to refer to the Ichneumonidae as Darwin wasps.
Walking through a Pennsylvania forest in August is a great incentive to cultivate mindfulness: one moment of inattention and you’re wiping another spiderweb off your face. I bow to the spiders; they are my true teachers. The deer flies circling my head will do for an offering.
The thing I admire about birding is the regular reminder to look up. The waking at 5 am and squinting at things through binoculars, not so much. But treetops are just kind of inherently trippy to stare into. I think it has something to do with the shortage of oxygen associated with craning one’s neck.