Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Georgia Volunteers

One of the brass at NDU who was not a problem was the vice-president, Dave Larder. His academic training was in chemistry, from England, and he was the first person to explain to me the hopes in computer technology for science. Researchers, he said, would have instant access to all data concerning their field. This would save time and effort. Up to that point I was aware, vaguely, that base 2 was only for the benefit of the military, whose computers were as big as an entire barracks. What I talked to Dave about was my hopes for a better formation for school teachers and the possibility of setting up a programme within the university to produce just that. I had aroused a certain degree of interest among a good handful of the students, by that time, and had been asked to put some things down on paper.
I'll cut to the chase for now, and say that the programme did nothing but garner me a nice group of friends and also kept me from getting too involved with academic work, which I abandoned anyway in order to begin, in the new year, the third version of "The Yacht", my good old first plot. But this time I added a priest, a good one, possibly in reaction to what I had found in the collar at the college. We were just about out of money, but I made what felt like a good beginning to the story, and then started work at a series of casual labour jobs that gave me a look at different locations in my new and probably permanent homeland. I felt as if I were becoming a paysano.
Meanwhile, as God had closed the door on academics and a degree, he had opened a window on music.
The Nelson area, with students from elsewhere added, seemed to have a population of folk musicians unlike anything I had ever seen! In that area, we had no end of company, and it was all company to be learned from. From October on there were a series of hootenannies, and the house parties - some of them at our place - were even better. I acquired a choice of two lead guitarists, depending on the occasion, and so at least on the entertainment front, life was very good indeed.
One of my guitar pickers - he sang too - was Eric Johnson. He had grown up in Nelson, where his father had become foreman at the Municipal garage, and as well as loving folk music he had picked up his fair share of classical smarts from membership in the Nelson Choristers, a large mixed choir conducted by the formidable Mrs. T.J.S. Ferguson, widow of a United Church minister who had died many years previously and left her to raise their four children by her skills as a music teacher.
I met her because Eric asked me to join him in the guitar section of a Christmas season presentation of the story of "Silent Night". As everyone knows, the mice ate the bellows in the Oberdorf church, so Hans Gruber could not play the organ for his original composition and had to use his guitar.
We rehearsed, in Amy's studio, in her house across the street from the Catholic cathedral, and I was delighted not only to make the acquaintance of a provincial legend, but also keen to pick up any new insights into the mysterious world of those who made their living dealing with written scores. "Silent Night" is in Bflat, so I probably capoed the first fret and strummed and arpeggioed in A.
All seemed to go well enough, but at one point she said, "Young man, when are going to learn to double-stop?"
I asked her what that was.
She said, "playing just two notes at once."
That gave me a picture, but I had no idea how to make use of it, so I said, "I probably will do that, one of these days."
Shortly after that exchange, came another of those interior messages. "One of these days, you will succeed her."
Now I was not at all bothered or insulted by her question. Eric had glanced at me to see I was having a negative reaction, to see if I had felt challenged, but I was not and had not. In such company I was as eager to learn as I was to be of use. It had been the same in Terrace for two years in the company of other singers and an especially accomplished organist. But the locution about the succession business sure set me off, albeit entirely within. What are you talking about? I'm a classroom teacher, aching to get back to the blackboard! I don't want a choir, and I'm not interested in having my days filled with piano students!
So much for locutions, for the moment. The next encounter with the Muse really pulled my soul about for a bit, making me ache for the grasp of a beauty I couldn't fully identify by any means.
Somehow there had come into our possession a booklet of the old sing-a-long classics, which on its cover displayed an image that simply of itself set my spirit soaring and persisted in haunting my thoughts for some duration. It was a very simple woodcut; black, white, red, I think, was the colour scheme. Arranged for piano, with guitar and/or banjo chords. There must have been banjo chords with this text, because the cover showed two people in a small boat on a moonlit lake, with one of them plunkin' on the ole banjo. This was in the spring or summer of 65, at about the same time as the small voice was telling me that the university was going to go down but the films were coming.
I actually owned a five string, a light weight John Grey I had picked up in the music store in Terrace, and it had served me well as far as it went, but I was not really any wiser on it than on the guitar, in spite of having owned Pete Seeger's manual for years. I had a very lively right hand, for sure. I could probably paradiddle like Earl Scruggs himself. But the left was another story, and not a very exciting one. Again, just a rhythm player, because, dammit, I have to sing too.
The image really nailed me, and I had no idea why, except that I'd read a fair bit of Southern literature and loved my banjo as much as I could. But then sometimes I 'd think about the geographical parallel. The Kootenays lie in the south-east corner of the province, and the South, where the banjo came from - actually, came to - was in the same location in reference to the United States. Yeah, and some people in the big cities thought of us as hicks, too, wouldn't you know it?
One piece of southern literature I had not read was Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind".
I had seen the movie, back in the 50's at the old International Cinema theatre in Vancouver. Ed, Fred, and I were regulars there on Saturday night. The IC was the house that brought back the old classics or showed somewhat more arty films. For me, at that time, the film was much like any other historical drama, and subsequently I recalled no scene as vivid enough to me personally to remain for the rest of my life as a reference point, such as, for example, the scene in the 50s Hollywood version of "War and Peace", where the supreme commander of the Russian army, Kutuzov, cries with relief when they bring him the news of the French withdrawal. It was then, I would say, that I began to ruminate on the meaning of the term, "General Winter".
It would be a long time before I actually read Tolstoi, and even longer before I read Margaret Mitchell. Christmas season, 1995. By that time I had a custom of selecting some book that seemed somehow appropriate, more often than not for mysterious reasons.
Now I had actually tried GWTW in 1981, with a year of "Contemplatives" behind me, and I was so affected by the first seven or so chapters that I was tempted to wonder if I had somehow not got my own beginning quite right. Obviously the spirit of Mitchell's own text was a horse of a different colour than Selznick's film, and my own understanding - quite unresearched - of Ms Mitchell's actual person had been way off base. I think I'd assumed that she'd been a spinster school teacher.
I didn't read any more at that time. Her voice was not mine, of course, and I was not always sure of just exactly what mine was. In the spring of 81 I had yet to introduce Geoffrey Haldane, in fact I didn't even know he belonged to the structure.
My journals tell me it was on December 19 that I reserved GWTW at the Nelson library. There do not seem to be any notes explaining what got me interested again - possibly some rebuke from the editor-in-chief - but it was most certainly in part at least as a way of filling the vacuum left by my resignation as a kind of once-removed spiritual director of John Paul II. My horizons, which God likes to keep as broad as possible, needed some other large project to keep them filled. I don't know what happened to the copy available to me in 81. On the 22nd the library phoned to say the book had been returned early. I went down immediately, counted the number of pages, and told myself I must read 50 pages a day over the three week loan period.
I did this, enjoying the whole thing immensely, and then in the beginning of February my oldest grandson phoned and offered me and Grandma a pair of comps for the upcoming Nelson Opera Company production of "La Boheme". He was in the children's chorus and his Dad had a solo part.
For a production which had as an orchestra one lone piano, it gave us a wonderful night. By this time too, I was reading a biography of Margaret Mitchell and thinking of a play about just how it was that GWTW had come to be published. That was a story in itself. Harold Latham exploding with joy over the manuscript on the night train from Atlanta to New Orleans.
But a few days later, late Saturday afternoon, we were watching the deBoer's "Travel, Travel", the one in which they put together, contrary to their usual format, two episodes thousands of miles apart from each other. One was about the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Bavaria, the other about the Lewis and Clark Trail.
At the end of it all I asked my learned wife, "How many operas are there in the "Ring Cycle"?
"I think five," she said.
"Good Lord," says I. "There must be at least three in 'Gone With The Wind'."

No comments: