A song for a dark autumn night

I’m up on a secluded wooded hilltop in Virginia, listening for ghosts on a dark and spooky Halloween, and just listened to a haunting performance of song called “In the Pines” — just the mood music to be playing in this little cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills tonight — performed by a quartet called the Parkington Sisters.

It’s good to know that some 21st century musicians still know and appreciate the music of Huddie Ledbetter, who went by the name of Leadbelly, and who is probably best known for his songs “Good Night Irene” and “Rock Island Line,” and sometimes gave “In the Pines” the alternate title “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

I knew this song via Leadbelly, but also through a great rendition by the classic country duo the Louvin Brothers, who give the song their own Hank Williams-esque sound. And, in fact, it’s origins are as a Appalachian folk ballad, at least 150 years old.

It’s a great old song, worth a triple-listen:

Here are the very sincere, very country and very authentic Louvin Brothers:

And here’s the legendary Leadbelly’s definitive version:


She walks these hills…

Now, thinking back, I keep hearing that haunting song, “Long Black Veil,” and especially this part of the refrain: She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail…

As far as I know, there are no graveyards at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which occupies what was once a horse farm, outside of Lynchburg, Va. But it is, indeed, located atop a windswept hill, and it was nighttime, very late into the night before Halloween, actually past midnight, so it was already Halloween. And – who knows? – maybe there’s an old farm family’s graveyard somewhere in these fields or woods.

The writing studio I was assigned is more remote than some of the others, which are spread through a sprawling former horse barn. This stands alone, a small cottage. There are woods behind it, then a rural road, and then railroad line used by freight trains that rumble and roar down the tracks more often than I remember from previous stays.

And there are sounds. The hooting and screeching of owls. The yipping and howling of coyotes. The occasional shriek of what sounds to me like a bobcat. And, with the windows open on a cool October evening, there are the things that go bump in the night – weird thumps, unexplained creaks and even, a few times, what sounded like the footsteps of somebody walking right outside my window, although a quick look outside showed that there was no one there and that it was probably just a sound conjured up in the mind of writer who was sitting by himself, in a small cabin, at the edge of the woods, near the freight-train tracks, on a dark hill in Virginia, with no one around, on the eve of Halloween.

There are explanations for all the familiar creepy stories that make the rounds at Halloween – or else they’re so outlandish, told so many times as stories that “really happened to the cousin of my college roommate’s best friend,” that the stories feel safe to tell or hear once more: the ghostly hitchhiker… the babysitter who gets creepy phone calls from inside the house…the life-sized clown statue in the corner (“WHAT STATUE!,” the freaked-out parents scream at the babysitter over the phone. We DON’T HAVE a clown statue!”).

But what about when something really happens? When there’s something that’s not just some urban legend or passed-down story? What is there to say and what is there to think when it’s long after midnight, on the night before Halloween, and the crescent moon is bright, and you go to your cabin door and look outside — and there you see very clearly a slow-moving, misty form gliding softly across the lawn.

You look at it once. You look at it again. And the vision takes shape, and you realize it is a woman in a flowing white dress, and at first you wonder if it’s one of the other artists and writers staying at this place. But it’s late, and the studio across the way is unoccupied, and you just know that this figure – this woman pacing slowly in the moonlight – is not one of us…at least not anymore.

She’s a vision, she’s a glimpse of something we can’t explain and might regret explaining if we could, she’s a spirit or a ghost or some goddamned thing that I can’t explain, and if you have doubts about whether I really did glimpse this woman who walks these hills in a long white dress, then tell me why I went to the cottage door at just that moment. Tell me why I opened it. Tell me I was just hearing things. Tell me that it was just my imagination, that no one really rapped, rapped, rapped at my cabin door.

Feeling at home , missing home…and then a horse appears in the mist


I’ve been spending time in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, at a wonderful retreat called the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve done four residencies here, working on my fiction, as a visiting fellow.

It’s become so familiar to me that it feels like a second “home” — not at all comparable to my first “home,” New Jersey, where I’ve left behind someone I love dearly for about three weeks so that I can chase my elusive muse, but “home” enough that I’d love to have her here with me so she could hear the coyotes and bobcats and owls at night, and could help me count the stars in the velvet-dark sky, and could enjoy the quiet (except when the freight train rolls by, which it does frequently all through the night) and could meet some of the interesting and inspiring writers and artists and composers I’ve met during my stays here on this former farm called Mount St. Angelo.

Maybe most of all, for some reason, I’d like her to see this dark horse and these misty hills, which I see every morning as I walk down the hill from my studio to breakfast in the dining room:


Screamin’ and Howlin’ for Halloween

One of them sometimes began his act by climbing out of a coffin.
The other, when he felt the spirit, you’d swear the man was really part-man, part-wolf.
As Halloween draws near, let’s listen to Mister Howlin’ Wolf talk about how he asked for water, but she brought him gasoline…and listen as Mr. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins explains that he loves you so much that he’s just put a voodoo spell on you…(check out the hand on the piano!)

Freight Train, Freight Train, Goin’ So Fast…

I was thinking Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and the romance of America’s wide open spaces.

Instead it turns out that the freight train rumbling through a wooded ravine near my writing studio a dozen times each day probably isn’t carrying hoboes and adventurers and descendants of Tom Joad. It’s more likely carrying Clorox bleach, or Pine-Sol, or Glad trash bags, or Hidden Valley salad dressings, or Brita water filters, or Burt’s Bees natural personal-care products.

Turns out this freight train, which seemed so poetic, is rather prosaic.

The trains run along the Norfolk Southern’s north-south mainline between Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama, passing through Amherst, Va., which is home to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’m in the midst of a fiction-writing residency – and to the Clorox Company, which manufactures all of those products. The freight trains service the Clorox facility here, according to the town of Amherst’s website.

My writing studio at the VCCA is at the crest of a hill in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on property which used to be a horse farm and where a few horses, lots of cows, coyotes, deer — and a woodchuck, which I spotted this morning peeking out of one of its holes in a nearby pasture – share space with about 30 artists, writers and composers.

So while I have been hearing some not-very-desirable sounds, including the hum of the nearby highway to Lynchburg, I-29, and the snap of hunters’ gunshots in the nearby woods and fields, I also hear the neighing of horses, and the barks of coyotes, and the hoots and screechs of owls — and the lonesome whistle and mighty rumble of that freight train.

The freight trains are carrying bleach and plastic trash bags and salad dressing and Pine-Sol? So what? It still makes me think of this song by the late Elizabeth Cotton, sung here by Pete Seeger:

A Mistake That Some People Supposably Make

Someone just posted this startling list:
10 Words and Phrases That Too Many Folks Say Incorrectly

I’m a writer. That means I use the English language perfectly. None of these malapropisms apply to me.
But I have heard people use, or misuse, the following words and expressions from the list:

“Irregardless” instead of the correct “regardless.”
“I need to lay down” instead of the correct “I need to lie down.”
“I could care less” instead of the correct “I couldn’t care less.”
I’ve heard someone say “I seen it” instead of “I saw it,” but I’m a good person, so I won’t name names.
And I’ve actually heard people say “expresso” when they mean “espresso.” (Unless what I heard was uttered midway through a conversation, and what they were really saying to the Starbucks barista was “I’m in an awful hurry, so I’d like my espresso — expresso!”

Here are the ones I’ve never heard – damn it!

“For all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.”
“Pacifically” instead of “specifically.”
“Ex cetera” instead of “et cetera.”
“Of upmost importance” instead of “of utmost importance.


“Supposably” instead of “supposedly.”

Life’s not fair. Once, just once, please God, I want to hear someone say “Supposably!”

Back in Old Virginny

It’s so quiet, so dark, so Virginia…so not New Jersey. There are at least six thousand stars in the sky – about 5,990 more than I can typically see in the night sky of Central New Jersey.
The train whistle I hear isn’t the Amtrak train barreling toward Penn Station…it’s a freight train bound for Lynchburg — and maybe bound for glory as it barrels toward the city of the smug zealot Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, a city where you can walk into a wonderful friendly place called Dudley’s and order brains and eggs and grits for breakfast, and to that I simply say “No, thanks, y’all,” to both the scrambled brains and to the late Mr. Falwell’s self-righteous and scrambled-brain brand of religion.
Last night I heard the yip and bark of coyotes in the woods. Tonight I think I also heard the screech of a bobcat and a hoot owl’s hoot. This is what you call authentic. I half-expect to hear a knock at my writing studio door to find John-Boy Walton and Daniel Boone and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos inviting me to the hoedown over in Danville.
Time for a little mood music on a Saturday night in a place that’s lovely, but clearly and definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line: