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Music Trails

Gift from Toshi Seeger

After writing yesterday’s post I located the Yamaha guitar I bought for $300 in 1970. It was under the bed, covered in dust, with two broken strings sticking out of the case. I opened it, saw the guitar was virtually unchanged, then closed the lid and slid it back under the bed.

Not yet.

Last night a friend posted Instagram video of Greg Brown, Iris Dement, Dave Moore, Larry Mossman and Ben Schmidt playing music around a dinner table in someone’s home. Instagram is not the best medium for music. Nonetheless, it captured the moment well enough to believe it happened. Maybe that’s the point more than the tunes they played.

The last time I played with someone was during a trip to Montana in July 2010. We overnighted at a friend’s remote cabin. We had played together in a band while I was at university. He had an extra guitar and I struggled to keep up with the simplest chord progressions. By the end of the session I felt my skills could come back. That’s as far as it went.

A high school classmate’s family owned an old farmstead near Bellevue. When we first went there, there was no furnace and many rooms were empty. Over years the family fixed up the place, furnishing it with second hand beds and furniture. I remember the children made quilts for the beds. I attended a wedding reception there. It made a cozy family gathering place. My friend invited me to a meet up with a group of his college classmates. He took my guitar to a remote corner of the house to play by himself. We all want to get better at what we do, as did he. They sold the place years ago.

Being a musician, even a bad one, requires practice. More practice than seems reasonable. What I found was there were not enough venues in which to perform. I’ve played at coffee houses, on stage, for small gatherings, and at least one wedding, but most of the time I played alone, or when I was in one, with the band. There is a certain self analysis in music making. Did I hit the right notes? Did I miss anything? How could I phrase that better? Practicing music is like writing in that there is always a next draft, that is, until one performs. The performance stands alone in stark existential reality.

I’ve seen countless musicians perform in person. Among the most memorable was Andrés Segovia who played in Iowa City during the height of influenza season. The audience was coughing and hacking throughout his performance until Segovia stopped playing, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and coughed back. There was scattered laughter.

Perhaps the most famous person I’ve heard perform was Sir Elton John at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Oracle hired him for the annual Open World conference attended by tens of thousands of people, including me. I was invited because our logistics company was installing a version of Oracle’s transportation management software.

During my time in politics music began to be associated with political events. When I managed a state house campaign we sometimes hired a musician to perform at fund raising events. Over time, I heard Carole King and Bruce Springsteen perform at big events for presidential candidates. I remember former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin singing “every day is a winding road” with Sheryl Crow at his annual steak fry. Can’t say I attended any of those events because of who was performing.

For now the guitar rests under our bed. It’s a question, I guess. Will I take it up to play again? It moves me toward practice and maybe performance, and that’s a form of progress even though I don’t yet know the answer. Before proceeding down the music trail I need to visualize it. With all the practice required, I don’t want to wander without a vision.

Vision comes slowly.