Watching the river flow

I warmed up for the celebration of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday by attending a great show — Blondes on “Blonde on Blonde” — presented last Saturday as part of the Concerts at the Crossing series held in Titusville, N.J., near Washington Crossing, where, yes indeed, Washington crossed the Delaware and invaded Trenton.

I know…we should have let the British keep Trenton. But I lived there with my parents right after I was born. My young father was serving in the Air Force, stationed at Fort Dix. So if Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware and routed the Hessians, I’d be speaking with a British accent and…

I know.,.I’m drifting too far from the shore…Here’s a video of one of the “Blondes on Blonde on Blonde performers,” Sloan Wainwright, singing “Meet Me in the Morning” from “Blood on the Tracks” —

On the actual Bobday — Tuesday, May 24 — I sat by the banks of the Raritan River in New Jersey, reading a poem by Allen Ginsberg of Paterson, N.J., .listening to “Things Have Changed” by His Bobness…and watching and listening as an Orthodox Jew with a cantor’s voice stood alone at the riverside, first with his hands on his hips and then with his arms opened wide to the sky. The man chanted and sang a tune I did not recognize and words I did not understand, and he looked out over the holy river, and it was a confluence of Jewish poems and prayers, a meeting of the orthodox and the avant-garde, as the cantor and I sat and watched the river flow on Robert Zimmerman/Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday,

Here’s the song I was listening to, sung by the birthday boy himself:

And here’s Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton watching the river flow…

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There’s something about Maria

A few weeks ago, I got to hear two amazing New Jersey-bred poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Joe Weil, reading together in the monthly series run by Hank Kalet at the South Brunswick (N.J.) Public Library.

Now I’ll get to see and hear my friend Maria again when she gives a free reading on May 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Highland Park (N.J.) Public Library.

Maria, who read several times at the annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, writes provocative, emotional, touching poems which address simple, basic issues — love, friendship, aging, illness, ethnicity — in spare, simple, powerful language that elevates, invigorates and inspires.

She runs the master’s program in creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton. She’s founding editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She’s mentored and encouraged dozens and dozens of New Jersey poets. I could go on and on, and just might, except it might be best to let you hear it for yourself.

Here’s a link to a video of Maria reading three of her poems:

For good measure, here’s a video of a reading by the amazing Joe Weil:

Come to Maria’s reading in Highland Park, N.J., on May 24. You will leave feeling better about life than you felt before you heard Maria’s beautiful, powerful and stirring poems.

Rocking in “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz”

Who ever would have imagined? Somehow you find yourself in, of all places, Indiana, in a town called Richmond, just over the Ohio line, about midway between Indianapolis and Louisville.

You’re heading to breakfast at a downtown cafe and notice a large mural, about two stories high, of a 1920s-vintage blues musician carrying his guitar and his cardboard suitcase. As you wonder about the mural, you wander around the corner and there’s another mural — this one depicts (their names are under the pictures, although you easily recognize a few of the faces) Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and others.

Turns out Richmond, Indiana, calls itself “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz” — and has a legitimate claim to that title. Early in the last century, the town was the home of Gennett Records and Studios, which put out early recordings by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller. Really early recordings. The last commercial record released with the Gennett label came out in 1934.

I didn’t get a chance to stop by the town’s Starr-Gennett Galley, which displays artifacts and memorabilia and offers CDs of music by the label’s musicians. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Gennett Records Walk of Fame.

But I did visit the brick ruins of the former site of Gennett Records and the Starr Piano Company — Gennett was a division of Starr, which was famous in its own right and was founded way back in 1872 in Richmond. And as I tried to imagine the days when the place bustled with activity and reverberated with music, I also tried to get my head around the impressive roster of Gennett musicians — including Bix Beiderbecke and The Wolverines, Gene Autry, Big Bill Broonzy, blues diva Alberta Hunter, King Oliver, Lawrence Welk (yikes!) Hoagy Carmichael, country/bluegrass legend Uncle Dave Macon, and — holy moley and hosannah! — Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton!

Richmond, Indiana, where the Ku Klux Klan once thrived, where a hotel houses a collection of framed and mounted gaudy neckties donated by visiting Agway distributors and Kiwanis Club conventioneers, where the local history museum proudly displays one of only two honest-to-goodness Egyptian mummies in residence in the entire Hoosier State, which back in the 1920s and 1930s proudly proclaimed itself “The Lawnmower Capital of the World” — and where great bluesmen and great jazz musicians gave birth to great music at Gennett Records, “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz.”

Here’s Big Bill Broonzy:

Here’s Hoagy Carmichael singing “Stardust”:

Here’s Uncle Dave Mason:

Here’s Charley Patton singing “High Water Blues”:

And here’s Blind Lemon Jeffersonm, speaking for us all, singing “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”:

Night of the Round Table

The famed Round Table at the famed Algonquin Hotel in New York City

It’s nighttime in the City That Never Sleeps. We’re having expensive drinks in the Blue Room bar and there’s a buzz in the room — a TV star and his Broadway star spouse just sat down at the opposite booth.

But I’m not buzzing. I’m listening to the voices I’m hearing from the other room.

Dorothy Parker says, succinctly, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” then shouts “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice!”

She’s speaking to Robert Benchley, who raises his eyebrow and comments wryly, “Drawing on my fine command of the language, I said nothing.”

S.J. Perelman has fallen asleep but now awakens to declare, “Love is not the dying moan of a distant violin. It’s the triumphant twang of a bedspring.”

James Thurber summarizes the proceedings with “Early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy, wealthy, and dead.”

Yes, I’m in my element. Yes, this feels like home. Yes, I’m at the Algonquin Hotel. Yes, the ghosts of the Round Table are glad I’m here tonight — tonight, when everyone’s ogling a TV star and a Broadway star, when no one sees their shimmering ghosts and no one hears their witty murmurs….No one, that is, of course, but me.

The naked and the read

Wear a tuxedo. Wear jeans. Wear a formal gown. Wear a house dress. In other words, come as you are. Maybe even arrive, um, unclothed.

There’s no way there will be a dress code on Saturday, May 14, at my friend Steven Hart’s Nighthawk Books in Highland Park, New Jersey, when another friend — novelist Bathsheba Monk — reads from her newly published novel, Nude Walker.

Bathsheba Monk

Steve promises live musical entertainment, starting at about 2 p.m., followed by Bathsheba’s reading at 3 p.m. Copies of the novel will be available for purchase, as well as copies of B. Monk’s first book, Now You See It: Tales from Cokesville, a wonderful collection of linked short stories set in Pennsylvania coal country. After the reading, Bathsheba will gladly sign copies of her books.

Bathsheba’s a wonderful stylist and a witty storyteller. The characters in Nude Walker are colorful and engaging. And the novel’s theme, plot and setting are gratifyingly ambitious, with a story that ranges from an U.S. military base in Afghanistan to a left-for-dead Pennsylvania coal country town where foreign-born entrepreneurs and economic outcasts are the new “locals.”

It’s a really good book (which will someday also make a really good movie). Bathsheba Monk’s a really good writer and a really good reader. And you’ll have a really good time – so, on May 14, walk or run, dressed or not, to Nighthawk Books in Highland Park, N.J.