An Open Letter to Michael Jonathan

from John Song-Gatherer.


A Sorta Long Essay About the Spring Gulch Folk Festival, 2017.


Dear Michael:


What follows is the result of Jamie’s and my attendance at the Spring Gulch Folk Festival (run by Michael Blumfeld, MC’d by his proud – and rightly so – father, Andy Blumfeld, who was one of the original group of Philadelphia folkies who conspired to bring about the Philadelphia Folksong Society and its consequent Philadelphia Folk Festival).  I’m combining this with my interpretation of the Love vs Money leitmotif of your lovely Woodsongs 3, about which I recently sent you my review, as a follow-up to my review of Woodsongs 2.  Ta-da!

Before I go any further, of course, I will have to note that Jamie and I left the festival prematurely, as I’d run into a wall of exhaustion, having over-estimated my recovery from this past year’s various illness, of which you probably have heard enough (Ye Olde Man’s Litany, sheesh).  So, take this with the necessary grain or two of salt, throw that over your left shoulder, and let me begin and go on, of course, from there….

The Spring Gulch Folk Festival came to our attention while we were planning a weekend getaway, to test my convalescence from the above issues.  Old friends Bob Yahn (who has made a lovely career out of being a folk festival photographer) and his consort, Jodi Lamhut, had arranged festival passes for us, so what better way to check out the Amish country of Jamie’s home state – Pennsylvania, south central, around Lancaster and York – than this act of generosity by old friends, with of course a tip of our hats to Michael and his father?

Given that lineage, we expected nothing less than a varied survey across the wide range of meanings of “folk” music, at a high level of excellence.  It’s exactly what we got.  However, we ran into unexpected trials getting there, and somehow that sank in as part of the story.  Prologue over, get in the car….

Running north from DC, via Interstate 83, around Baltimore’s Beltway and on up to PA, we found we’d started at the perfect time to catch the surf of commuters fleeing work for the mountains and beaches on Friday afternoon.  Tell you the truth, after a while all we could hear was Joni Mitchell’s great lament, “They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot…”  The parking lot was the Interstate, drivers with one eye on their iPhones and a finger in the air for fellow commuters, heart-attacks racing to catch up with one another at the next red light, police cruisers wailing along both verges of the highway carrying with them other first-responders – firetrucks, ambulances – to the distant exits where incident after incident provided warnings of the future fates for the sheepil on iPhones…..


But guess what? When we finally, ungratefully, ditched the farm-to-market Interstates and began to hum along the back roads of Amish country, the roads were clear and – OK, don’t believe me – smooth sailing.  First real sign of Amish culture was a horse-and-buggy clip-clopping along, straw-hatted young lad at the reins, demure young lassie by his side, hands primly in her lap, long purple dress to her ankles…. Next sign: as we rounded a curve under the trees, they opened out to an Amish baseball game – men in suspenders, boys pitching and catching, out in the outfield – and along the third base line, a train of little Amish children in toy locomotive buggies. We were headed for tranquility.

Not quite, of course. The motel reservation that Siri promised us was four miles from the festival took us all around the barn before we finally pulled into the Spring Gulch Campground, just in time for the start of the evening’s program, a sweet, contralto-voiced young singer dressed all in black, elegant behind the microphone, singing her heart out for the hillside of campers, the main audience for this lovely, community-based event.  Kirstin Maxwell – a young lady to remember. Five stars were beginning to form in our minds.

We located Jodi and Bob, down near the right hand of the stage at the bottom of the hill, tarp already spread, and put up our chairs while Andy Braunfeld performed his expected job of being a goofy MC with mildly bad jokes, while the next band got ready to take over, a line of monitors all across stage front, wing to wing.  Five minutes of sound-check, a couple of tuning jokes, and yes, Blue Highway, IBMA-award-winning bluegrass band, took over the festival, from left to right, with nearest us an incredible young Dobro player with Mike Auldridge licks – subtle backup one minute, driving lead next — on Blue Highway’s storm-along set.  We weren’t the only ones with bulging eyes and pricked-up ears – the photographers rushed the stage to catch young Garvin Largen before he got away.

The rest of the band took turns ragging him, in time-honored style, happily pointing out that, at age 21, he was two years younger than the band has been together. But the banjo-picker, from the left hand end of the lineup, made sure to come all the way down the line to cop a duo with Garvin, and the rest of the band were gleeful at their youthful star.

This was bluegrass, of course, the result – in this case – of about a (conservative?) hundred years of parkin’ lot pickin’ and singin’ sessions, and Blue Highway fer sure earned their spurs the hard way.  The hillside was on its feet, applauding and dancing, almost immediately the first fiddlin’ and mandolin pickin’ sprang to life in front of them.  The central trio around the front mikes – Tim Stafford, guitarist, lead singer, now college professor on the history of bluegrass, Wayne Taylor – bushy mustache, bald head glistening under the stage lights, electric bass providing the metronome for the band while he bounced jokes in all directions, himself included (“Boxers or briefs…? It depends…!”), and fiddler/mandolin player Sean Lane mostly played a rippling backup, but also ripped off a couple of breaks with young Garvin that proved this was a band, not a bunch of soloists, and the night was well begun.

They’ve played all over the world, these guys, and the hillside crowd was only too glad to welcome them to their camp-ground.. At one point, the central trio gave a demonstration of something close to a capella bluegrass gospel that had the hair on the back of a lot of hands standing on end.  Five star festival already, and the night was just begun with a roar.


The next act, however, a local gal gone Nashville by way of Boston, took the stage away, cowboy boots and short dress, a la Iris DeMent, to give us a real change of pace: jazz-influenced maybe-autobiographical songs about a series of tragically ex boyfriends, delivered in a voice that leapt up and down at least three octaves. Eyes popping, jaws on the deck once more, photographers in a mad rush for the front and both sides of the stage.  Liz Longley, blonde hair flying, had us all going and long gone.  At one point, she called out, “It’s alright, Ma – I’m not that bad!” Shades of Dylan? You bet.   Her switching off from one elegant guitar to another and back was more highly-polished craft and art. Another five stars!

I bet you thought she was the headliner, am I right?  But then Chris Smithers, blue shirt, brown mane of hair, hound-dog eyes and crooked smile, sauntered onstage, got that sound bidniss taken care of, and was long gone, rolling, rhythmic runs with all of his many fingers rippling up and down the neck of his geetar, sardonic reflections of the life of the bluesman in the 21st century flowing from both sides of his mouth, and you knew who was leader of this pack.  Amazing set, and a crowd that went wild for him, so he got a long, standing ovation that finally got Andy Blaumfeld to plead with him for an encore, and he sat down with a sleepy grin…. What he gave us was Blind Willie McTell reborn with the real deal blues. When he got to the line, “I ain’t good-lookin’ but I’m some woman’s angel-child”? (I mean, is that fair…? ) a group of women who had been dancing and whooping along, down past stage right, let out a collective whoop, and the set ended with Chris bowing and bowing his way offstage with a wide grin.  Maybe he escaped those wild women’s clutches… You never can tell.

What can you say?  You just can’t keep on handing out five stars all night, can you?  But avuncular Andy was up to the task, thanking everyone for being such a happy audience and pointing ‘way up the hill, under the trees, where a big camp-fire session was about to get underway and might last all night, who knew?  Tarps and chairs and instrument chairs all across the hillside – what are you talkin’, pickin’ and singin’ all night long? – and the crowd melted in minutes, clearing the way for Chris and Co. to make their getaways.

But of course, having been through three night sleep deprivation clinics enough times in our short lives, we managed to make it to our car after saying goodnight to our friends, finding our way through deserted Amish towns – horses and buggies put up for the night, all good Amish lads and lassies snug in separate beds – and so to our own bed.  The Rodeway Inn in Axton – that was our goal, and we were there by midnight ourselves.

`Saturday morning, fresh if cloudy, twenty degrees cooler than muggy Friday, greeted us as we rolled out of bed, showered, had breakfast, and made it to Spring Gulch by noon, when the program was scheduled to kick off with John Flynn himself, offering a Family Concert for all the hillside’s children.

Oops.  Seems a lot of those children, having persuaded Dad and Mom to let then dance around the campfire till well past their bedtimes, were not ready for singalong and dance around this early in the afternoon. No problem.  After a couple of kids’ songs as promised, John, expert veteran of the festival circuit, launched into the perfect song for the hillside of saggy adults:  “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine…” Bet yore bippy we do!  These ex-hippy farmers and camping veterans weren’t about to let John Flynn have all the fun!  Their own verses – their own songs – their own ideas – to fill out the submarine’s launching took over, and from then on, John Flynn had them all in the palms of his hands. 

Soon enough, he got them to listen for a minute while he laid out the backstory of the next ditty: Miss Kirtsel’s second grade class, and the impatient young boy who wanted his song to be sung, and had his way with John, the teacher and his classmates (a bit of editing, natch).  “My Little Brother’s for Sale!/ Nothing but a three-year-old heart attack!”  Daddy’s glee and Mom’s horror on the hillside were swept away in fits of giggles everywhere, and by now the kiddies were dancing, running in circles, falling all over one another in front of the stage. Perfectomundo!!

Maybe the highlight of his set was about to happen, but you had to be careful, because maybe it involved a word you couldn’t say, let alone sing.  Meh… we were among friends by now….

John and his family, it would seem, were down in Florida, where John had a gig, His 9-year-old got a big hunger to get in the water with these humongous manatees…. After lecturing the lad on his accepted duty of looking after the safety of the children and so on , John claimed he provided the final solution to the kankedort.  Are you ready? You know it…” Ask. Your. Mother!”   OK, you coulda bin more… politically correct or sumpn… But the whole incident provided John with the best song on his children’s CD: “A Manatee Sneezed on Me!” (You may think it’s funny,/ You may think it’s cute/ But it’s not…!”  The kids in front of the stage were falling into one another’s arms, howling – “He said snot!!” And the Moms, Dads and assorted Miss Kirtsels in the audience were rolling on the ground, pounding the grass all around.  “Snot!  He said snot!”

Now, I’m going to put to the side the glee with which John’s fine set ended, and I’m gonna take a breath, and I’m gonna break my neck by whipping it over my left shoulder, and I’m gonna ask the question that I want to dominate —or at least share the stage with –  the rest of this wonderful – yes, five star! – festival….

Love versus Money.  There’s things you do for love, and you give them away, happily sharing your love with your world.  We all know that.  It’s bliss, is what it is.  Then there’s…. making a living.  Money.  What pays the rent and puts gas in the battered old van and new strings on the guitars.  Funny thing.  If enough other people love what you’ll give away for free, and insist on paying you for it, that living threatens to become a killing – No kidding!  You’ve all seen it, I know, all of you still reading and wondering where the happy crowd went to. Love  versus money.  The Garden of Song, versus The Bidniss Office – agents, managers, bookers, plastic.  I’m not gonna pursue this to Fred Eaglesmith’s mournful litany, “Alcohol and Pills,” though I’ll admit that’s just a horizon event.  Just this:  If Miss Kirtsel – or The Principal – or the Festival Booker – or the City Fathers – are too dreffly shocked, shocked, do you hear? – at That Word – or That Joke – or That Idea….. The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship, Mchael.  When you close off part of your imagination to walk between the lines, or stop at the edge of the box – what happens to Love?

John Flynn, God bless him, is expert at choosing his spots, picking his crowd, playing and teasing people into giggles and into being happy with their minds, imaginations and hearts.  What about the up-and-comers?  What about the stars of the folkie world, or the young musicians who have discovered the possible living you could make singing in classrooms or for school assemblies? What about freedom of expression in America?


Sorry – that one got past the censor.  I’m in trouble, I know.  Won’t be the first time, right? Oh well, meh and hoo boy….  So you and I agree about this kind of thing, and we’re working on keeping America the land of the free?  I love you guys!

Let’s go to the rest of that Saturday afternoon concert, courtesy of the Braunfelds, and to the Saturday night and onwards.  Let’s see how far along we can get, courtesy of more fine musicians than you can shake a stick at (and don’t forget the craftspeople and the Hoola-Hoop Contest, and the face-painting and the lessons in tie-dyeing T-shirts, all along the sides of this hillside camp-ground, all weekend long. We’re all in this together, all of us Song-Gatherers and Gardeners of Children. For true.)

Oh.  By the Way.  You can Google The Spring Gulf Folk Festival’s website, and see where this is going.  Even if you were there, that campfire smoke, you know…?

Ever hear of the No Good Girls?  A trio of angelic-voiced, cowboy-booted, floral micro-dress wearing country gals?  They sound even better than that, hand on my heart.  While I was running around, chasing down some other people for something approaching a story like what you’re reading, they were serenading the hillside with song after song, lifting them up and away into the woods and creeks around us.  If you missed them – your bad.

Or how about the Adam Ezra Group – Sarah, a classically-trained fiddler, hair down to her elbows and hips, whipping Charlie Daniels into shape – a Jimi Hendrix mad-man of a leader, on his knees behind the mikes, that guitar flailed away at, ready to burst into flame – a tip-top keyboard that the fiddler couldn’t help teasing by running her fingers up and down his scale – a drummer, encouraged into madness by that Jimi Hendrix guy who helped him beat his cymbals into shape, before everyone cleared out and gave the drummer room for a thunderous, hissing, booming solo like Gene Krupa would have killed for? Never heard of them?? But… they play 200 gigs a year, put something like 80,000 miles on the van… and they bent the idea of “folk music” so out of shape that folk will waddle for a happy month, happily remembering the experience.

Ah well. Blame who?  You came to the concert, right?  You danced in front of the stage, lost in your own yellow submarine.  You loved ‘em.  You’ll go to the next bar, the next college, the next football stadium that they appear in.  They’ve been just about everywhere, and they’re going more places in the next five years, too. 

Now, there we are.  Love Money? Both? Exhausting? Again, where’s that bippy you bet? And that Braunfeld guy – maybe Dad, maybe Son, don’t matter much to me – laid this feast – this… smorgasbord! – in front of you, dinner-time to supper-time, and going on past the kids’ bedtimes too. 

I know – I got lost for a bit there.  But when you think about it – what do the No Good Girls want to look back on when they’re as white-haired as Emmy Lou Harris?  What does Adam Ezra wanna do with next week? And to what extent – here you go – can they keep on keeping on, loving and giving, while battling to keep the Bidniss Office at bay?   


I don’t know the answers to them Big Questions.  I got lucky, in finding out how to ask some of the questions, with the help if friends like the Braunfelds and Michael Johnathon, and like the musicians I’m using to sketch out the ideas I’m driving at here.

So let me turn to two acts who fill out where I’m driving, both of them onstage at the 2017 version  of the Spring Gulch Folk Festival.

First, let’s take a listen to Mark Mandeville and his travelling companion, Raianne Richards.  It happens they’ve got a new CD – Google! — *Grain by Grain.*  It also happens both of them are music teachers in the public schools, from places like Rainanne’s hometown, Webster, Mass, to Mark’s life-work, proud school kids in the rock and roll band they asked for and he gave them (“Find out what a child wants to learn, and then help them learn it,” right?).  Next to them, I’m gonna put two young doods from the mountains of South-Western Virginia, Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes.  One of them is also a Berea College grad, the other an habituee of Dr Ralph Stanley’s favorite Applebee Restaurant; I’m talking mountain music, not bluegrass in this case, and in the care of Mark and Raianne, either, I guess Americana is the handiest label, though of course – as y’all know – labels… I dunno.  Can’t live with labels, gotta use labels to communicate or to block communication, am I right?

Grettin’ kinda high-falutin,; huh? (Or as Mark Mandeville reports, what the courteous old lady in the retirement home said to indicate sweet disagreement, “Isn’t that a pickle!”

Take these lovely, lush songs that Mark and Raianne sing on their most recent CD, *Chain by Chain.* Break your heart in places, bend your mind in others.   Both of them clearly love language, in Mark’s case with some fascinatingly Shakespearean twists.  Raianne, apart from her setting of Webster, Mass., in the same rust-belt that regrettably Hillary Clinton responded to so clumsily last Fall, also has a lovely clarinet to accompany and a clear, voice to harmonize with Mark. H’mmm.  Does some kinda Bidniss Office lie ahead, to swoop them up in its arms and put contracts in the tracks awaiting them?  I don’t know; they’ve got good friends and fans waiting to hear them, and for the moment, maybe that’s all anyone can ask.

Sam and Tyler are maybe another case entirely.  I bet you remember the late Dave Carter, partnered with Tracy Grammer until his tragically early passing from us.  He had an IQ right up there, and I guess a philosophical take on hillbilly life joined to it.   I could be wrong; I hear lots of Dave Carter in their songs, even in their singing from the mountains they grew up in. Real partners, their voices blending in beautiful melodies and harmonies you just have to hear – well, of course I’m talking five stars yet again! – they also have musical tastes ranging from Tom T Hall to Ola Belle Reed, from crystal streams and little rapids in the woods to flat-footing old guys to wondering if the world is yet ready to accept the extensions of human rights currently sweeping big cities but maybe not the lonely hillsides they come from.  That’s a steady acceptance that the political is personal and vice versa; it’s an open-handed reaching out of love, in some ways maybe like Mark and Raianne’s, but maybe in other directions too, in the name of human rights.

One way they communicate past the old labels, of course, is having mentors like Kathy Fink and Marcy Marker, who clearly had pellucid vision behind their help in production and mixing of this, Sam and Tyler’s latest CD.  Apart from the guys’ own skills with banjo, fiddle and guitar – an entire old-time band in two people? – there’s a studio-full of other musicians helping them deliver here, autoharp and mouth-harp.   Did they push their luck in their repertoire?  Well, certainly Tom T Hall and Ola Belle Reed make excellent stepping stones across these clear pools. What they make of mountain music like, “When We Love,” and “Mister Rabbit” – the former a meditation upon human love, the other a quasi-comic parable about how God’s creations are indeed God’s blessed creations – I think you have to hear.  Really hear.  And see what you are offered here.

As I say, some people might have been a bit mind-boggled at hearing their lovely, devoted singing in front of supposed rednecks and horny-handed farmers.  But, you know, remember that yellow submarine? And we all live there, true? 

  1. Ask yourself – does the future look good for these young musicians – well, John Flynn claims to be 60, but I dunno about that – as they offer love and court the risks of money in their lives on the road? I mean, don’t ask me – I think I know what my answer is.

I’ll tell you something else.  To judge by the hillside reception of every single one of them — we’re tearing down the fences and we’re making new friends in sunny fields. America – you heard it here – is in excellent hands, to judge by this crop of fine folk musicians culled by Mike and Andy Braunfeld. Tip o the hat to both of you. Really.

I could go on, but I shudder to do a word-count on this piece already.  If you want to discuss it, after listening one more time to your own favorite folkies – broadly defined, OK, OK – I bet you could get a friendly campfire where you could have a good time this Summer and onwards, listening and playing. For me – I gotta go.  See you around, and I mean that –


John Song-Gatherer McLaughlin



Labels:  always potential — in fact, almost always in fact — distracting at best, distorting often.  We slap them on things, on people, on ideas, on conflicts, almost unconscious, most of the time, of the damage they can do.  Ouch.  True?

My occupation in my second retirement is billed on Facebook and on LinkedIn as, “Writer,” so I should know who is especially guilty around here. Am I right?  Right.

Part of it — I wish it were all of it — is that, in my case, I keep forgetting something drummed into me back at Boston University’s College of Education, 1959-1960.  This was BU’s reading of “General Semantics,” demonstrated for us through our textbook, “Language in Thought and Action,” by S.I. Hayakawa.  The major point for this essay is the distinction between Denotation and Connotation.

Denotation is the act of labeling something by what is taken to be its external reality: a pipe, tobacco, a fireplace.  Connotation is our internal, emotional reaction to that external reality.  In 1959-60, a pipe was a neutral to positive item, suggesting or connoting pleasure and relaxation, in relation to tobacco, also neutral to positive, and fireplace, again neutral to positive — for most people.  In 2017, of course, that pipe, tobacco combination may connote cancer, a disease-term so heavily laden with negative connotation that — again, for most people — it swamps the neutral to positive connotations of the 1959 terms.   Note that, in this paragraph, I am attempting to convey as nearly as possible a denotative description of what I note to be heavily connotative terminology. If I am successful, I owe it to Boston University’s classes at CGE.

Other General Semantic terms that seem useful here are “concrete” (referring to a lower-level reality which can be touched, tasted, smelt etc), and “abstract” (a level of reality with almost no contact with external reality apart from an attached symbol such as a flag).  When someone uses a word like “flag,” the reference may be to an actual, concrete, flag; it is likely, however, that the word refers to abstractions such as honor, glory, loyalty. These are, for many people, highly emotional terms.  To be disrespectful of the flag is to insult other people’s loyalty to it.

And there’s the rub.  A label — a word — is often intended to communicate on the Denotative level. But of course it may communicate on a powerfully Connotative level, deliberately or unconsciously.  This is where labels have the potential to arouse conflicts, hurt feelings, create divisions, both consciously and otherwise.  Someone who knows what he or she is doing may be a powerful salesperson or propagandist.  Someone who is to a great extent unaware of these complexities may cause trouble without really meaning to — or, on the bright side, make people happy without knowing how he or she did so.

An interesting point, perhaps, is that I cannot really tell how much this essay has been either informative or boring, amusing or dull, to my readers.  I cannot see you.  I am writing to strangers.  This s why, in most writing classes, the issue of “audience” is first in the series of issues addressed.  If you are guessing at your audience, how do you know what words — labels — meant to be denotative are in fact — also? — connotative, and vice versa.  Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we attempt to communicate in words!

I believe I should stop at this point.  Cases that occur to you may be offered in comments to this essay.  Thank you for reading it.

— John McLaughlin.


The Law of Supply and Demand for Poetry.

“You can’t make a living writing poetry….writing non-fiction now….If you insist on being a poet — don’t give up your day job.”  — Gary Snyder in a discussion with Jim Harrison, in “The Etiquette of Freedom, ” edited by  Paul Ebenkamp (Counterpoint, 2010).

There’s the problem in a nutshell:  too many poets — spoiling the market for the kids. Too much output, lowering need for cash at the register.

Don’t believe Gary Snyder?  Check out the nearest Barnes & Noble box-store.  Or go to New Releases Poetry (maybe a shelfful). Flick through the stuff that is there.  Good stuff, almost all of it (OK, taste rules). Vivid, precise, thoughtful — excellent writing.

Then go to the big Non-Fiction area. Shelves or book-listings. a lot bigger than the New Poetry.  H’mm. Even though the New Fiction books are thicker, much bulkier than the New Poetry “slim volumes”– in this short-attention-span age (Note: Novellas are outnumbering novels even for beach reading — shorter. Less need to sustain attention or reading time, besides maybe less of an axe to grind into your brain).  Prose volumes: commercial successes. Poets – don’t give up your day job.  QED?

But, here’s an idea.  Leave that box-store or your computer.  Go around the corner, down some side street with small shopping arcades — bagel shops, coffee shops, that kind of thing. And small bookstores, with smaller inventories of everything – non-fiction as well as novels, small magazines.  and, uh, shelves of poetry.  The staff is young folks, maybe inventory clerks on break from Barnes & Noble.  What gives?

Fact is, a lot of them are, uh,  poets.  Slim volumes in their hands or back pockets of their faded jeans. No three-piece acanemic suits or striped neckties in sight, not even at the single cash register, which doesn’t “ka-ching” as often as over at Barnes & Noble.  Even some grey-bearded, aging hippies like, uh, Gary Snyder or other ex-Beat poets.  H’m.  Maybe even a poetry or novella chapter reading, off in a corner.  Barnes & Noble does them too, though not that often –crowds out a couple of bookshelves up on the upstairs Literature section over in the box-store.  In this sort of Mom & Pop — or Domestic Partner – little-mall-joint — maybe be in a sorner, near the door maybe.  It’s got chairs for people to sit down and listen.  Maybe no mike — who really needs one in this space?  And the little audience knows where and when to clap without prompting — and even gets a slim volume from the reader, signed, with thanks, and pays for it — OK, plastic, this is the USA. — in sight of their poetry-novella reader.  It’s basically an original-work place, for writers who don’t necessarily get gigs up in Barnes & Noble.  Maybe they’re actually making a living — not a killing — and in some cases, writing poetry does in fact seem to be their day-job, if you can believe your eyes and ears.

So Gary — what gives?

Maybe there’s something happening here — at this maybe-semi-pro level — that the iron Law of Demand and Supply doesn’t precisely cover — sort of like Beat poetry before it wound up being mass-marketed, around maybe 1965 or so…?

OK, it’s true, don’t give up your day job — could be now and then  you’re a college English profs — even tenured, if you remember that gig — who gets to lecture enough young writers, having fun , “teaching by reminiscence,” rather than following one of those boring syllabus thingies with Objectivers and Outcomes etc. Could once have been a rebel, sort of like those kids in true small bookstore in the shadow of Barnes & Noble’s semi-skyscraper and its voluminous inventory/stock.

Now maybe we’re getting somewhere. Mom & Pop don’t have investors and dividend-demanding stockholders. Could be, as suggested above, they’re in this too for a living, not a killing.  Could be.  Operating on a different set of business rules and regulations?

And their staff and customers?  Same set of what-do-you-call-em, “values.” Write a book (or sell a few). Beer or, uh, cigarette money?  Customers who more than likely have actually completed their own novel — or unrhymed, really free verse slim volume of poems,and know personally what an actual writer does with his time.

Not to be snotty, of course. But it’s sort of interesting.  Once you break away from iron — ironic? — market laws, something could happen.  Maybe it’s freedom. Personal choice? Unfurrowed brow, except for how to end that paragraph, write that… poem…? Maybe not steak for dinner — hell, maybe a veganly cheaper diet. One rattletrap second-hand car, bought used. Just the kind of existence that,I dunno, Allen Ginsberg existed in before he learned — for fun — to wear a nice if rumpled three-piece striped professorial suit?  Not yet — or maybe never — a lengthy trail of publications to be assigned in gen ed courses required for graduation, with grades, papers, pop quizzes and all. Like that.

So, is there in fact a real and iron Law of Supply and Demand, when the Art is just busting for expression ahead of a line of customers hungry for what Henry Miller described somewhere as “Half a yard of green books, half a yard of red books,” the kind of — I’m kidding — above-the-sofa interior decor?

Just a thought. Self-publishing via some online service — CreateSpace, anyone? — might be a middle ground, for writers starting out, passing through there Mom & Pop thing before heading for Barnes&Noble’s inventory room.  Or not. I dunno. What do you think, Gary?

THE END for now….

Game Theories and Medieval Literature


A Paper Written for Inclusion in the Program of the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 12-15, 2016.

August 9th, 2015.

John McLaughlin, PhD
Emeritus Professor, English Department
East Stroudsburg University
East Stroudsburg, PA 209002



There are two distinct lines of game theory concerning medieval literature. The first is that best seen in V.A. Kolve’s seminal work on medieval theater, “The Play Called Corpus Christi,” where the actors distance the audience from that emotional involvement in the drama which happens in “illusionistic theatre,” such as Ibsen and television comedies, to develop a discussion — or sermon — on the religious, liturgical concepts the actors are portraying onstage. I take this Kolvean game theory to be involved also in more recent discussion of the inevitable cross-dressing of males playing female roles. Without the “alienation effect,” they could be accused of public homosexuality, punishable by death in many places in this period. This early puritanical response to the medieval theatre of course reaches its conclusion with the closing of the London playhouses in 1642. The second “game theory,” less relevant for this paper although of great interest elsewhere, is that developed through mathematical analysis of the odds of given outcomes of specific actions taken by participants in, for example, Biblical stories. The best-known example of this development of game theory, to me, is the work of Steven J. Brams, on the Abraham and Isaac story in the Bible. An interesting modern offshoot of this version of game theory is the film “War Games,” in which computers get involved in hypothetical nuclear warfare, and decide this is not a game one should play: “How about a nice games of chess?” That kind of game theory would have horrified Wilfred Owen,, whose visceral anti-war poetry was clearly much more than merely rational.

Literature Survey.

This paper draws heavily upon Richard Emmerson’s magisterial TEAMS text, *Approaches to Teaching Medieval English Drama* (MLA, 1990), Further back, obviously, it draws directly from VA Kolve’s great work, *The Play Called Corpus Christi” (1966) and his discussion of Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect.” Kolve has a compelling Foreword to to Emmerson’s teaching anthology, and his own book is cited as a seminal work by the younger scholar/teachers of medieval theatre in the survey for the text by Prof. Emmerson; many of them belong to the Early Drama Society’s list of academics involved in scholarship and research into — as you might expect — Brechtian game theory and its application to these plays. This paper also responds to Steven Brams’ alternate “game theory” in his fairly current work, for example,
“Biblical Games,” (2003), which to me involves God as a merely equal partner in such games, entered into by a merely rational human partner, but with complete knowledge of God’s “full information,” a position I take to be not only anathema to the medieval literature but potentially leading, in modern times, to hypothetical war games which in turn may lead to unintended Armageddon. This conception of humanity would have, as noted, appalled Wilfred Owen.
Kolve notes the Brechtian analogy — the “alienation effect” — to the version of game theory underlying his own close analyses of the Corpus Christi cycles. Brecht, of course, claimed to have found this alternative to “illusionistic theater” in Chinese theatre, although he clearly did not have to go so far afield to find such acting and staging of the medieval cycle plays. The Oberammergau Passion Play was still being performed in his childhood in Germany. Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that, as a Marxist atheist, Brecht could not, politically and otherwise, cite a Christian source for his insight; Chinese theatre as a model permitted him to pursue the idea that modern “illusionistic theatre,” while providing a hypnotically familiar picture of bourgeois life onstage, which has been noted as a “blip” in the history of the theatre, from ancient Athens through Renaissance London, on up through the Restoration’s satirical presentations of the actions of the idle rich with their shocking escapades. Brecht wanted his audience awake, alert, thinking critically about the issues and ideas being presented onstage — alienated, as it were, from cozy identification with its heroes and heroines, who are representing their mundane marriages and domestic strife as the stuff of high drama. To Brecht, this was a constriction of the potential intellectual scope of the theatre, when placed next to Athenian and Shakespearean presentation of majestic hubris and inevitable fall to death and disgrace. For Brecht, who could just as easily have swept up medieval Christian theatre into this great history — what could be more noble than the Creation of the World, the Prophetic Annunciation of the Child who would redeem mankind from its sins by permitting himself to be tortured and crucified in his Passion for the sake of God’s creatures? — the only acceptable analogue was to… Chinese theatre. Ah well.

Kolve, of course, was not under any such historical compulsion to deviate from the clearly observable line, from Grecian tragic figures, through the noble Christian depiction of God’s coming to Earth to save His people, and on to Shakespeare’s great historical plays and regal tragedies. Among other points, there was an insistence, if the plays were governed by this Brecht/Kolve line of game theory, that the torture and execution of Our Lord Jesus Christ onstage was not to be taken as bloody blasphemy, when it should be taken, instead, as awe-inspiring demonstration of God’s greatness in thus rescuing all of His children from the fate that Adam’s sin had earned for them, thus partaking of his mortal fate. This seems also to be involved in the inevitable cross-dressing where males wear women’s clothing onstage, since women in medieval and other times were not permitted to act. This cross-dressing might well have been taken to be public display of homosexuality, which as we know was punishable by death in many places during medieval and early modern times.

What was needed, clearly, was an acting model and a stage presentation which would remove the action from mere emotional identification with the theatrical action taking place in front of the audience. Kolve demonstrates, to the satisfaction of his many readers, that the texts of the plays — in stage directions as in dialogue — provided that model for the medieval directors and producers of these gigantically conceived cycles of Christian dramas. He found his evidence in the play-scripts available to medieval readers and players, from all over the English scene. To Kolve, it was evident in the Creation plays, in the typological drama drawing upon Old Testament figures to foreshadow the coming of the Christ, through the complex and varied plays covering Christ’s birth and escape from the tyrant Herod, to the plays showing Christ’s ministry and passion, His Resurrection, and the Last Judgement.

This was a great pageant, paralleled in the stained glass of churches and cathedrals alike, and in the sermons preached weekly to a devout, if unlettered congregation, across Europe, in vernacular languages as well as in the holy lingua franca of Latin. It was not the petty bourgeois drama which, much later, catered to the petit bourgeois audiences available to Strindberg and Ibsen. It was filled with holy majesty.

That is not necessarily the view taken by the other “game theory,” as developed by Prof. Steven Brams in such works as *Biblical Games: Game Theory and the Hebrew Bible.* This kind of “game theory” is used for discussion of the potential outcomes of a given decision, between parties who, in the ideal situation, are completely rational and have total information about their opposing party’s knowledge of the situation in which both are engaged. In my view, these are impossible conditions to meet in the real world, let alone where impassioned, highly emotional enemies engage in quite deliberate disinformation campaigns, designed to distract opponents from their true intentions and information. I do not believe that this version of “game theory” could be applied to the medieval drama, as Prof. Brams applies it to, for example, the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, discussing the outcome if Abraham had decided, in fact, to kill Isaac, acting on God’s command. But the idea that Abraham could have complete knowledge of God’s informational background, or God had a lack of foreknowledge about Abraham’s ultimate decision, is clearly anathema to medieval theology.

One is reminded of Wilfred Owen’s version of Abraham and Isaac: “Then the old man took the youth, / and bound him with belts and straps,/ And builded parapets and trenches there, / And stretched forth his knife to kill his son,/ When lo, an angel called him, out of heaven, / and said, “Do not kill thy son, neither do anything unto him. / Behold a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. / Offer the ram of pride instead of him. / But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

One is also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s magnificent poem (a centre-piece of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” 1961): “On Seeing a piece of our artillery brought into action: Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, / Great gun, towering towards heaven, about to curse. / Beat at that arrogance which needs thy harm, / And beat it down before its sins grow worse! / But when thy spell be cast, complete and whole, / May God curse thee, / And cut thee from our soul.” But of course that has not happened, and our global Department of Defense has deployed “war games” to help us protect ourselves ever since.

This brings to mind the Hollywood movie, “War Games (1983) in which the computer decides to examine the global outcome of thermo-nuclear war. Blocked from interfering with the computer’s depiction of the action, horrified US military personnel can only watch as missiles apparently soar across the oceans, destroying all of human civilization in a total Armageddon. Thankfully, the war game turns out only to be a game, and the computer decides to let it end there; it is better, it decides, not to play that game at all. “How about a nice game of chess?”


Brams, Steven. Biblical Games: Game Theory and the Hebrew Bible. Revised Edition. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 20023

Clopper, Lawrence M. Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Emmerson, Richard (ed.) Approaches to Teaching Medieval English Drama. Modern Language Association, 1990.

Kolve. V.A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. London: Edward Arnold,1966.

Lasker, Lawrence, Walter F. Parkes, Directed by John Badham. “War Games.” 1983.

Owen, Wilfred. The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. C.Day Lewis. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Willet, John. Brecht on Theatre. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964.
John McLaughlin, PhD: Contact: 301.219-2201

Boxcar Lilies’ Knockout Music

The Boxcar Lilies, Knockout Rose…. (
Just listen: “Captain’s Seat….” (One of the three “focus cuts,” noted on the back of the CD) And that’s the first cut. OK?The title cut is #5, which means you might skip over 2-3-4. H’m. Bad decision, because #2 is “Not in My Name” — again, the gorgeous harmonies of Jenny Goodspeed [no kidding, that’s her name, for those of you new to their magic], complemented by Stephanie Marshall; are you listening to the words, I hope? “Papa Come Quick” — “Jodi’s gone to the city! “— follows on — snappy, toe-tapping, Katie Clarke’s clawhammer banjo sorta driving/tinkling alone, all three singing — but man, is it tough.

Again, if you skip #4 (“House of My Dreams”) to get to #5…. I dunno what to do with you….
Well, before we get to that title cut, I’m just gonna pass on a note to Biff Kennedy: Thank you, Biff. These gals only get better with each CD. Hailing from Western Massachusetts, this one comes from them with thanks to a number of fellow-musicians who helped out here — Mark Erelli and Jim Henry, Jesse Williams, Marco Giovino — complementing those lovely harmonies which always stop you dead when they start singing, oh my. I lose my way here, listening to the music. Is that OK?

Alright: There are twelve cuts here, in total: the first five alone wiped me out. Whatcha gonna do, Cap’m…? There’s “Travelin’ at night,” aka Home (Cut #7) — perfect road trip music, which I think Mary Granata would love. Jamie says at once: Kate Wolf. Karla Bonoff. It’s that kind of house that listens to this kinda music. Yours too, right?

Gawd, I hope they’re headlining at a festival near you soon… We’re gonna get outta here (wish this was radio!) on Far North…. Later?

Five Stars — but of course!

“Adjunction Function:  The Effects of Adjunct Reliance Upon the University  (and Upon the Adjuncts).”



Given three kinds of adjunct teaching within the university — pro bono, non-unionized, and unionized — the university has chosen to rely on all three for the bulk of its classroom teaching, perhaps as high as 70%.   Yet all three have quite different motivations and purposes, coming from quite different circumstances as they do. This has had profound effects upon the university, from helping the tenured professoriate unbundle itself of much of the teaching role, to handing over curricular decisions to a business office which has previously had financial but not curricular duties. Support for this discussion and its conclusions may be found on the Internet; see the web-links appended.


(Thanks to Bob Dorough, an auld acquaintance from the Poconos, for  the song, “Conjunction Function,” which inspired my title — although I now see by the Internet that Peter-Paul Wong, at the University of Texas in Austin, came up with the same title as mine on November 12, 2014, oh well).

 Given my funny foreign accent — I was born and grew up in Glesga, Scotland — I’m going to distribute copies of this paper to the people in this room. Here we go, matching action to many words: 

I begin this paper by noting that of course there are three major kinds of Adjuncts.  

There are, in Dani Babb’s lovely term, Adjunctpreneurs (TM). These are, as I understand Dani— she can of course correct me — adjuncts who have chosen this life, as an addition to their professional lives apart from teaching, and are in some sense entrepreneurial in their choice of classes to teach, where they will — or will not! — teach, how much of this kind of work they will perform, etc. Entrepreneurial, part-time teachers by choice, often making a substantial living elsewhere, in some sense pro bono because their lawyer’s or doctor’s or business executive’s salaries make this possible.  The colleges or universities love this kind of part-time teacher; their professional expertise brings something to the classroom which adds polish to the curriculum and the course catalogue; they quickly develop followers among students bound for those specific professions; they are welcome to come back any time; they may even get their own parking spaces closer to their classroom building. They are often  called “Professor” even by department chairpersons

The second group of adjuncts, having as it were “settled” for non-tenure-track positions in acanemia [sic], make a living teaching either online or in classrooms or in some hybrid or blended setting.  They are largely self-taught experts in shifting from one type of computerized method of teaching/learning to another; one’s own computer, with all the files one needs, is basically a working tool or necessity for this kind of Adjunctpreneurship (TM).  Shared computers in a “bullpen” or shared office space make for dreadful scenarios hardly necessary to mention in order to be recognized — confidential student conferences….?   They are often much too busy making ends meet to get involved in union organizing, for example; they accept their paycheck as a given, gratefully.  Life — need I say — is difficult for the second kind of adjunct, in a way that is hardly recognizable to the first kind of adjunct, who can afford to teach classes by reminiscence while checking their suit-coats for chalk dust. But this second class of adjuncts also see merit in learning how to do their job better, learning better how to teach online, how to achieve what might be called CI — “Computer Intelligence.” 

I see this class of adjuncts as, if not Adjunctpreneurs (TM), certainly ambitious and energetic in their attempts to get ahead in this, what they have come to regard as their chosen profession and lot in life.

Which brings me to the third, and — I believe — more typical adjunct teacher, as I see it, although I agree one could get an argument.

 These are PhD’s or ABD’s who were trained and prepared for tenure-track positions in acanemia [sic].  Still hoping against hope that such a position will open up — miracle of miracles! — they keep on keeping on, working steadily, two or three or even four positions, at different colleges or universities, commuting from one workplace to another, their office the trunk of their car, their livelihood dependent on last-minute enrollment needs — “just-in-time” contractees, often married, with children, falling into depression or even despair if their classes should not “make” in a given semester. They share a great deal, obviously, with the second group of adjuncts, even if they are not always quite as “computer-cool.”  As noted, they typically have advanced or “terminal” degrees in their fields, although they very rarely get the pleasure of teaching in their specialty. Some of them are even medievalists, who would thoroughly enjoy the recently published, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, In Old English” [Hwaet!!].  But — here comes the danger point for the university — they have not really “settled” for non-tenure-track positions, even if they do recognize the reality of their situation.  They are ready to unionize. (I apologize to the administrators here present, for my profanity/blasphemy).

In some cases, not only are they ready to unionize; they have done so.  SEIU — (the State Employees International Union?), unlike the more staid AAUP  (American Association of University Professors, tra-la) — welcomes them; SEIU even helped these “angry birds” — I apologize —  organize a “National Adjuncts Walkout Day” — February 215, 2015, with its own Facebook page.

And so, turning this mirror around —what is the Adjunction Function for the University?

Clearly, it differs from class of adjunct to class of adjunct. 

The first class, basically pro bono, is not only not a problem; it’s a welcome, one might say placid, professional addition to the faculty, as outlined above. Such — dare I say — elegant and polished stars in the firmament have a lot of fun in the classroom.  They *are* a lot of fun in the classroom.  They have contacts in their profession which they may even be willing to share with selected students (You know, the students whose papers they take one look at and say,  “H’mm. I almost wish that I’d written this!”).

The second class of adjuncts is of course quite tired from all the work they do, but, given their need for their positions and their desire to get ahead in this, their chosen profession, their disorganized or non-unionized state, they are, dare I say it, also a bit…docile? How could they be otherwise?  How could they make any emotional investment in the various schools at which they make a living? They are, in a word, unsettling —to a compassionate person —but very competent.  In another word, they are cheap labor. OK, two phrases. The school should be handling these guys with kid gloves — and some schools do, recognizing the reality that they rely for the cheap labor to teach about 70% of all their courses. 

The third class of adjunct may well be a significant thorn in the side of the university. SEIU lurks.  Ignore that fact at your peril, Dr University.  I don’t want to say, “At your peril piss ‘em off, Doc, ” but if I have to, reluctantly I will. 

The University gets a “function” from this third group — as it does from all three groups of adjuncts — and the Business Office, if not the Faculty Senate and the dying class of tenured professors, sees a role for them too, basically permitting the tenured professoriate to “unbundle” itself of at least one role — running discussions in class — and letting the Business Office decide what departments will be permitted to live (low enrollments = high cost), which subgroup of tenured professors will be politely asked to go and teach in departments they were not actually trained for, or just accept early retirement and…go away somewhere — all of it, in other words, giving the Business Office the right to shape and create the long-range curriculum of that university, summarily removing it from the hands of the professoriate, after a six-hundred year record of acanemic oversight and development. Huzzah, Business Office!

 So that’s the view from here. Agree, disagree — I’d be very pleased to open the floor to as much discussion as there is time allotted here.

[Original date of [Copyrighted?] composition, August 27, 2015]


[Note that these links were cherry picked from early 2014 to late 2015.  They can easily be supplemented by Googling “Adjuncts.”

Rachel L. Swarns, “Crowded out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty,”January 20, 2014:

Josh Wymore, “Let’s Unbundle.” Inside Higher Education, Feb 17, 2014.


Peter-Paul Wong, ADJUNCTion Function”

National Adjuncts Walkout Day, Feb 25, 2015 — Facebook.

“The Cost of an Adjunct,” The Atlantic Monthly,” May 5, 2015.

“News Focus: Adjuncts.” Inside Higher Education, August 15, 2015

“Adjunct Action, A Project of SEIU – Uniting Adjuncts for Better Pay, Job Security, and Respect within the University.” [Webpage] http://www.adjunctaction.orgHomepage for Adjunct Faculty at American University, DC [Webpage]


 “A Tenured Professor on Why Hiring Adjuncts is Wrong.” Talking Points Memo.

David Ashton, “The Case Against Full-Time Employees,” August 20, 2015.

Oral Versus Aural….

I’m almost certain I owe this title to Joe Russo, who used to teach in the Classics Department at Haverford, and like me came under the spell of Albert Lord (author of “The Singer of Tales,” an attempt to answer “The Homeric Question” — was Homer an oral poet? — posed for him and us by Milman Parry, Lord’s late mentor).

Anyway, Joe and I and a bunch of other young medievalists and classicists were at a conference honoring Albert Lord, when this idea popped out of his mouth: “Are we talking oral tradition or aural tradition?”

“Oral” tradition puts the emphasis on the composer and the *verbal* poems or or stories which he — or she, don’t forget — maybe Homer was a woman — has learned from other composers, over the years, passing along the texts of these traditional stories by word of mouth to their immediate hearers.  The emphasis is on hearing words, strung together in performance, as Milman Parry and then Albert Lord, his student, focussed upon.  They noted, in passing, that these poems were in fact sung, by the Yuogslavic bards whom they got to recite for them in their hotel rooms during the Feast of Ramadan — the Muslim Holy Month — when these oral bards would otherwise have been engaged in chanting these story/poems, accompanied by their own playing of there one-string “guslar” (fiddle?)  to their (all-male) audiences in the coffeehouses where — some folklorists would say — they “should” have been collecting their analogues to the Homeric poems, over the mountains, in Yugoslavia, from Greece.  Given that the Homeric texts had been collected, one way or another, in ancient Greece, and that there was, in fact a known tradition of oral poetry by non-letterred bards n Yugoslavia, just over the mountains, this seemed — to Milman Parry and to Albert Lord — like the closest one could come to collecting heroic poetry like Homer’s, in a still-thriving, still alive, oral — and unlettered — tradition of bardic verse.

Enticing, isn’t it?  If the nearest — geographically, culturally — thing to Homer was so close, and could be, in a sense, captured on a big Wollensack tape recorder, for later playback and transcription, revealing its own densely formulaic structure — and if the Homeric texts also demonstrated the same formulaic density,,,, then at the very least the *probability* that Homer was, like the Yugoslavic poets, an oral poet, seemed “proven.”  QED.

And so that was what so entranced people like Joie Russo, like the visiting scholars from South Africa and elsewhere, like myself (engaged in formulaic analysis of Middle Scots alliterative poetry and later-medieval alliterative, stanzaic romances from East Anglia).  We were working with at the very least the hypothesis that, if we found our chosen texts to be, let’s say, over 70% formulaic — like Homer, like the Yugoslavic heroic poetry, like the Old English epic poetry analyzed and discussed in Albert Lord’s *The Singer of Tales* — then we would have found the key that unlocked a door into the original act of — as Lord put it — “composition-in-performance” — of these ancient and for us, anonymous texts.

Down the line — see my blog post on the subject — we can go into Larry Benson’s later demonstration that there was clearly literary composition — in Latin — of poetry that had a densely-formulaic  translation into Old English (*The Phoenix(), thus, as I’ve noted, putting the cat among the scholarly pigeons, as far as any clear demonstration that anonymous ancient and medieval manuscript texts were necessarily carried forward in “oral” tradition by bards such as the non-lettered Yugoslavic poets,  chanting their tales in the Ramadan coffeehouses.. Lary Benson’s article was a devastating blow to young scholars engulfed in “oral formulaic” analysis of such poetry, but it was not yet published at the time of the conference where Joe Russo suggested that the word, “aural” should be considered, next to the term “oral.”

Once you’ve thought  of “aural tradition,” of course, you’ve opened the field considerably wider. You’re then possibly thinking of the act of hearing non-textual transmission of such things as traditional playing of instrumental  pieces — possibly, by completely “lettered” musicians, not the “non-lettered” poets called for in Parry/Lord’s vision of the transmission of the formulaic texts of ancient and medieval poetry.

It was in the middle of this confusion — dare I say chaos? — among people like myself, back in those days, that Kenny Goldstein, Chair of the Departnent of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, heard me out, in the book-filled basement underneath his living-room in Mt Airy, and, when I’d gone on sufficiently about how I understood the Parry/Lord theory, he said thoughtfully, “You’re very much under the spell of Albert Lord, aren’t you?”

I was taken aback; I’d just met this man, in fact looked him up at the suggestion of Albert Lord himself, on moving to Philadelphia to teach at La Salle College, and I knew little about him. Albert Lord I knew quite well, not only as the professor of a class in “The Oral Epic,” which I’d taken as a junior at Harvard, but also as my (non-official, non-departmental) guide in my “oral-formulaic” analysis of the Middle Scots epic poem, “The Valiant Acts and Noble Deeds of Schir William Waleys, Knicht of Ellerslie.”  So who was this.. person… indirectly critiquing Albert Lord, my — admittedly charismatic, kind and gentle — mentor, Albert Lord?  I answered somewhat stiffly, “Thank you very much,” and left his basement soon after, quietly seething.

But at that time I was teaching an introduction to English literature course at La Salle College — which that newly-coed school for which I’d come to Philadelphia, and thus to the meeting with Kenny Goldstein, at the suggestion of Albert Lord (passing me along to the next link in the chain?) — and one of my students (Paul Evangelista) asked while we were walking through the variant texts of the Child ballads in our anthology, if I’d ever gone down to “The Irish Centrre.”  No, I hadn’t. And he said there was a session — a performers’ party — each Friday night down there.  Always ready for a party – especially if admission was free (I *am* Scottish! — ever notice how many jokes are based on stereotypes? )- I arranged to meet Paul and friends down there that Friday night.

There, in the bar, waiting for the session to begin, there was a wee red-faced, white-haired man, who was joking around with my young wife, Jamie, until eventually I caught his name, and leant across the bar. ” Hey –O’Donnell?” He looked over at me, smiling. “Get yer own bloody woman!”  He laughed, we laughed, we were instant friends.  Later, I found out, he was Eugene O’Donnell, a champion fiddler, and an unprecedented six times All-Irelands Step-Dancing Champion.  When he played for dancers in that session, later that night, he was an electrifying figure, not only in there strrict-tempo Irish dance tunes with which the band acommpanied the dancers — who were led by Jimmy McGill and his wife Mickey — but also, perhaps especially, when he played slow Irish airs, up on his toes, as the dancers took a break.  Later, Eugene recorded an LP of “Slow Airs and Set Dances,” on the Irish label Green Linnet Records,, run by Lisa Null and Wendy Newton, two American aficionados of the music.

And who do you think turned up at the bar of The Irish Centre that night?  None other than Kenny Goldstein.  Later — also — I found that he was well-known in scholarly circles for his collection of traditional Irish music, over in Ireland itself.  Serendipity strikes deep, right? Turns out, Kenny was also one of the co-founders of the by-then-gigantic Philadelphia Folk Festival, held annually in Schwenksville, PA, a small town that Jamie and I had passed through on our way from the old stone famhouse we lived in, the first year we were married. We had seen flyers for that festival, on our way into Philly, where she worked at the Finbe Arts Museum while I taught at La Salle.

I know, a long way around to get to the point — this is a story that is rooted in Irish traditions, and my grandparents were Irish-born. (See?  Stereotypical joke.  “In Ireland the trains are always late — but isn’t the scenery grand while you wait?”).  Some time, not too long after that first session in The Irish Centre, a long-legged drink o’ water by the name of Stretch Pyott, sauntered over from talking with Kenny Goldstein — don’t worry, Mick Moloney also comes in here along true way — and spoke to me.

“So tell me, McLaughlin, when are you going to come and work for me?”  Turns out, Stretch was the industrial electrician, whose wife Teresa was Kenny’s secretary and was on the Programming Committee at Philly, and who – Stretch, not Teresa — was responsible for the wiring of the huge TV screens that flanked the Main Stage at Philly, so you could see, close up, the expert picking and fingering of the musicians playing up there in the afternoon and evening concerts (and so we all got a close-up shot of John Prine, swallowing a bee in the middle of a song one afternoon — but now I’m getting ahead of myself, rushing to catch up). He ran the Hospitality Committee, backstage  in tre Performers Tent, although right then I had no idea of that.  But I said “Sure” — nobody said no to Stretch — and so I wound up, close and sometimes personal, watching how aural tradition is in fact carried on among folk musicians in America.

Among those musicians was Eugene IO’Donnell, and his playing partner, Mick Moloney, also at the Irish Centre that night. Mick had been offered the chance to come over to America from Ireland, where he had a musical career already going, playing in a group called The Johnstons, with a lad called Paul Brady plus the Johnston sisters, by Kenny Goldstein.  A PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania? Sure.  Mick accepted, and has since goner on from strength to strength, currently teaching in the Irish Studies department at NYU as well as running musical tours in Ireland in the Summers; his printed scholarly biography is online, and it’s amazing.  ( By the way — you can read my lengthy — two-part — interview with Mick Moloney — and the shorter one, with Eugene O’Donnell — which was later published in “The Folk Life,” the maga-paper which my wife and I co-founded, at her instigation, in 1976; it morphed into The Digital Folk Life, when the Internet came along).

Turns out, among the things Stretch had in mind was for me to carry Eugene O’Donnell’s fiddle for him, and also keep him away from the booze pre-perfformances with Mick Moloney, at Philly, which I was of course happy to do.  Maybe two years later,, I was standing around with Eugene, backstage,and Stretch burst out of the big trailer trailer parked there, bouncing down the steps, and said, “You! McLaughlin! Get your car! O’Donnell! You’re coming with me!” We ran after him, uphill to where our cars were parked, and chased after Stretch and Eugene to the performers’ hotel, some distance from the festivals grounds.  Turns out a star French-Canadian fiddler, Jean Carignan,, and his accompanist and friend — whose name, God forgive me, I cannot at this moment remember — had been given a hard time at Customs, crossing the border south, and it had culminated in the performers hotel refusing to honor his Canadian money.   Carignan had blown up, phoned the festival, and told them he was leaving, going back to Canada — and he was scheduled to play on the Main Stage there.  (Stretch tells this story, among others, in The Folk Life interview, later). So Stretch, Eugene in tow, carrying his fiddle, went up to Jean Carignan, apologized profusely to him for his bad treatment, told him he’d get things straightened out, and said, “By the way, here’s somebody I’d like you to meet — play something for him, Eugene!”  Whereupon Eugene tucked his fiddle under his chin, and started playing, Jean Carignan got his fiddle out too, and the pair had an impromptu session right on the spot, Stretch ushered them both into his car, gabbing away to one another abu=out mutual friends and mentors,  I followed, with Carignan’s accompanist, and we got back to the grounds in time for Jean Carignan to play, as scheduled.

And that’s how stories get exchanged — and tunes get played — in the “aural tradition.”  ” I told you that to tell you this,” as the old ones used to say.  Thank you for the phrase, Joe Russo.


Oral or Literary Traditions…?

Years ago, as an English major in my senior year at Harvard (class of ’62), I got involved in “oral traditional analysis” of the Middle Scots epic of Sir William Wallace — our national hero, even more than Robert the Bruce — and ran into the puzzler that, in the middle of this poem, there was a section of clearly French-derived, non-alliterative verse, a prayer to Saint Andrew, patron Saint of Scotland.  Hmpf.  What was *that* doing in the middle of what I’d otherwise identified, under the spell of Albert Lord, as oral traditional verse, with what I thought I had identified as roots going back into the fierce Germanic traditions of, for example, “The Niebelungenlied”  — Wallace has enemies “burned in” at one point, driving them back into the flames of a barn near Ayr when they try to escape the fire that he has had set for them; the composer, who is identified as “Blind Hary”  — blindness being the mark of the bard (like Homer, right?), repeats over and over the chant, “It was his lyf and maist part of his fud/ Tae see them shed the byrnand Southern blud!”   Death to Sassenachs, right?  Very satisfying to a certain kind of Scotsman, clearly.  So what was this non-alliterative section of poetry doing here?  Scotland did, at that time, have an “Auld Alliance” with France, against the hated English, but still – how could this be *oral traditional,” presumably non-literate poetry, if it switched stanzas from Scots to French-based meter in the middle and then back again?   Hmpf again. So I put it to the side, and carried on, amassing dozens and dozens — hundreds – of 3×5 index cards, carrying exactly repeated formulae and closely-patterned “formulaic” evidence of the “oral traditional” character of this 11,858-line poem in 12 books (again – literate homage to Homer?), almost all in Middle Scots allitlerative couplets. And so it goes.

Later, at Berkeley, I spent a semester chasing formulae through the stanzaic — and sometimes alliterative — lines of Middle English — East Anglian — romances, almost all dedicated to courtly love or to religious pilgrimage by their heroes and ladies — different air from *The Wallace,* clearly — and with formulae switching from one character to another over time, but with a shared corpus of formulae among the group of alliterative Middle English romances poems I was studying.  I found the similarities and differences very fascinating. It was that kind of introduction to medieval literature — as much as the very entertaining undergraduate, two-semester class in Chaucer, run by BJ Whiting and Bill Alfred — which turned me towards becoming a medievalist — are we talking metanoia now — in the first place.

All of this preceded a game-changing essay (1966)  in PMLA — the Publication of the Modern Language Association, by Larry Benson – my junior year tutor — demonstrating quite clearly that “The Phoenix,” an Old English tribute to the ascension of Christ, which he showed was heavily formulaic (assuming a corpus including “Beowulf”) was also a close translation of a Latin poem on the same topic, and thus written by an obviously literate author — not by a nonliterate, oral-traditional poet.  The cat, as they say, was among the pigeons, and feathers flew in scholarly circles.  Had Albert Lord been wrong all along, in his “demonstration” that Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” were the result of transcription by literate scribes of non-literate ancient Greek oral traditional poetry?  Were all of us who had eagerly followed Albert Lord in parallel collection of what we had thought were “oral formulae” similarly deluded?  One might protest that such formulae needed at least close proximity of an oral tradition from which to learn formulaic composition, thus — maybe — saving the prior existence of an otherwise-non-recorded non-literate oral tradition; but to most people, that was a feeble attempt to save a theory whose application had been blown up by Larry Benson’s PMLA article.

And I think I was one of the head-scratchers of that time. Benson’s demonstration of the literate source of “The Phoenix” seemed truly unanswerable. But — what were the avenues of transmission of the savage narrative elements of epic poetry such as “The Wallace,”?  The prayer to Saint Andrew had cclesiastical sources, quite possibly. But  the (Germanic?) burning in of the Sassenachs?  The courtly and religious elements of the East Anglian  stanzaic tail rhyme romances — which to some people might echo the stanzaic verse of the coeval North-East, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” by the way — could it feasibly have been retransmitted via courtly bards (nonliterate?) and monks or nuns (scribal?) avenues…..?  But, let’s face it, this was a cul-de-sac for young scholars milling around in their pre-dissertation dazes.

For example, the Child ballads — that collection of variants of 305 medieval and later “traditional” poems, assembled by Francis James Child — in his “spare time” when he wasn’t  relegated to teaching first-year mathematics and English composition to Harvard freshmen — might, up until then, have seemed a ripe field for “oral traditional” analysis. Of course, one of Child’s live “informants” was a Mrs Brown of Falkland, who was a pastor’s daughter, and would have clearly rejected indignantly the suggestion that she was non-literate;  it might have been possible, pre-Benson, to have suggested that she was  in close proximity to a an otherwise uncollected, non-literate oral tradition,  Post-Benson, that would probably have earned a cold and beady eye from a dissertation committee.

So, like many another puzzled young scholar, I turned elsewhere for a dissertation topic — “A Comparative Analysis of the Nativity Sections of the Middle English Corpus Christi Cycles,” in my case, using a combination of their shared Biblical – both canonical and apocryphal — sources, and admitting of purely original variations (for example, the parodic action in “The Second Shepherds’ Play,” where Mak and his wife try to hide a lamb they have stolen from his fellow-shepherds, and he winds up tossed in a blanket — a traditional medieval method of  bringing about delayed birth — before his fellow-shepherds depart, merry but exhausted, to fall asleep in order to receive the Angelic call to go to the Manger where the Lamb of God is being born to His Divine Mother) — surely as original, in its way, as the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, if not as finely wrought.  And so on.

That formality over, I finished my graduate education and went elsewhere to continue my teaching career.  But still… is there something yet to be done in analysis of the still-potentially-oral sources of medieval literature?  Exactly how widespread *was* literacy in the Middle Ages?  Where did the anonymous author of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” get the narrative elements of that wonderful courtly romance he produced in the back-country of North-East England, not far from its border with Gaelic Wales?  Is all of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as easily traceable to literary sources as his “other masterpiece,” the tragic romance of “Troilus and Criseyde”?  Was the author of “Piers Plowman” a West Country oral poet, or a writer of an original, lengthy — and alliterative — meditation on the pursuit of Christ by the English peasantry?

Questions, questions, questions…. Not all of them, by the way, have yet been answered, as far as I know.  Perhaps it is still, “a fair field, needing folk.”

A New Feast from Oasis….

Oasis Disc Manufacturing: Acoustic Radio Sampler (Volume XV, #1).

Email: — Toll-free phone — (888) – 296-2747

Where do I start…. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, OK? The deal with Micah Solomon’s Oasis Disc Manufacturing Company — as far as I know, being outside the company — is that every artist who has their disc manufactured by Oasis also gets a spot on the appropriate radio sampler, sent out to DJ’s…. The way I know this is that, as a college radio DJ from 1978-2013, playing “folk” (broadly defined) on my show, “Roots & Wings*’ on a couple of different college stations, I’d get a lot of these discs come through the mail, over the years, and I’d play them quite a bit – Micah Solomon has great ears, lemme say that right now. Most if not all of the other DJ’s were interested more in rock & rap, some in things like — believe it or nor — Benny Goodman/Glenn Miller swing-jazz — so I was essentiality told to hold on to these for my show (college radio doesn’t have Master Music Directors who assign strict playlists, come on! — we’re all basically unpaid volunteers on most college radio stations, doing it ‘cause we’re sorta crazy, as far as I ever heard)

After a while, having accumulated a bunch of these discs, covering a lot of different (acoustic) genres, I decided one day to have a bit of fun. I lined up a pile of them. For my Scots/Irish, mostly traditional segment, with which I opened the show each week — after, of course, my theme tune, Dave Van Ronk’s version of “The Pearls,” natch — I went to a couple of particular Oasis CDs which happened to have maybe half-a-dozen Scots/Irish cuts on them…. OK. Then I went to the blues segment, which usually came next — blues from ‘way back, Ma Rainey, forward to Guy Davis…? And I grabbed a couple more Oasis CDs, which had a bunch of blues tunes and songs on them.…. After that., I normally went to singer-songwriters (most of those guys, one way or another, learnt their songwriting from the blues, when they weren’t trying to be the next Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell (and that job was already taken, am I right?). OK – another couple of Oasis CD’s…. I was having fun that day, lemme tell you!

To close up the show — last segment, next guy was almost certain to play rock or rap, right? — I’d do bluegrass — from the early mountain stuff – Dr Ralph Stanley absolutely gets his hawk’s feathers ruffled right up if you call his material “bluegrass,” lemme warn you! — on up through Bill Monroe to newgrass and jazzgrass,,,, I mean, The Newgrass Revival? Bela Fleck…? And of course there’s that gorgeous bluegrass – I mean, mountain! — gospel, with that lovely “brothers’ harmonies” — The Gibson Bros, etc. Maybe I’d start with the gospel music, maybe I’d start with the strict-time dance-music from the mountains. Usually I’d work up to the crazy pickin’ the guys learned from years of standing around in parking lot sessions — I’d just blow the next guy’s show outta the waterer, heh heh…. ! Anny-how…. I turned to my Oasis stack, and guess what? Sure. I was able to put together a whole closing segment from just Oasis discs alone…. Amazing. Lotsa fun all around.

So I told you that to tell you this, as somebody from one of the bands once said: I just got this new Oasis Acoustic sampler, and guess what? Same high standard, same fine compositional work, the same intricate picking, the same in your ear worm it goes…. H’m…. This time around, it’s 18 cuts on one CD — none of them can be too long, right there, right? – and it just rolls right along… It starts – for easy example — with Chappell & Dave Holt – been around the block, this lovely duo — with a real ear-popper, “Bohemian Moon,” a cut from their new release, *Stone & Fire.* So the CD goes on with Andrew Corbett — I never heard of him before, I think a lot of people will be doing so down the line — with a song, “Bright Blue Ball,” about the view from space of tiny Mother Earth, inspired by one of the astronaut’s retelling of his flight ‘way up there, and appearing on Andrew’s new, *Moments of Grace* — I really like that title, don’t you? Next are The Mad Andersons — the who? The Mad Andersons, c’mon — and “Let it Go,” a kinda art-song? — from their new release, “Light Through Glass.” (And — BTW — these guys all have websites, phone numbers, contact info — no flies on these guys, they are just tres hip)! And next up — The Better Halves, with a song from their new disc, *All Over the Map* — they’re from Texas, watch it — called, “Olden Days” — just a sweet, sweet piece of music…

What can I say? It just goes on and on like this (Sorry guys – I gotta get outta here soon — my apologies!) — and it’s just darn hard to pick a favorite from this disc, as per usual with Oasis. Oh – I just *do* have to mention Dee McPherson, and an instrumental based in — excuse me — Scotland, “Of Singing Swords In the Highlands,” from the new CD, * The Spa Dee Collection… * and also there’s “The Dink’s Song,” one of the oldies from the beginning of recorded music (John Lomax got it in 1904), in this case from Marienne Kreitlow’s new *Like Noah’s Dove,* marking, as it notes, her return to her folk roots, and very welcome too….

Somebody has got to stop me. There is so much here — Micah Solomon does it one more time — and there’s not a bad cut on the CD. You don’t believe me? Well, c’mon — put yer cash on the dashboard — give a listen, why doncha? You’ll agree with me, I’m telling you….

Oh: BTW – I just love this note: Underlying rights copyright the individual owners…. What can I say? What can I add? Support the musicians, y’hear?

—John McLaughlin, March 26, 2015.