Every year my friends Phil and Athina host an old-fashioned hootenanny, where we gather around the fire with a bunch of guitars, sing some songs, tell some jokes, break bread and have a cocktail or two. If all the politicians could get together and do the same thing once in a while, I bet we could make America great again. Force them to sit down in a field somewhere and play, "This Land is Your Land" until someone comes out to tell them that they're trespassing and have to leave.
I can just imagine the hootenannies we used to have if I grew up as a poor boy in the South, where we'd get out the banjos and fiddles and pick us all the old songs. That's the way we did it up in the hills of Kentucky. "When will she be coming 'round the mountain?" I ask the grownups, for the 45th time. "WHEN SHE COMES!" "OK. But why would you come all the way from Alabama with a banjo on your knee instead of carrying it in a case? And what are we doing up here in the hills of Kentucky when we live in the valley?" As a kid I had more questions than answers. I guess I figured that as an adult I'd have more answers than questions, and that it would all even out.
It was such a perfect autumn day, I really felt like harvesting something. If I could just get out into the fields with my bare hands and bring in nature's bounty, I thought I might be at peace with the world. I saw some berries growing at the edge of the property, so I went over to harvest them, and perhaps Athina could make a wonderful compote out of them. And perhaps she could tell me what a compote is. She's a fantastic cook. "Put those down, they're toxic!" Somebody yelled. "And you're standing in poison ivy." I thought I saw something moving down there- it might have been a snake trying to harvest me for a compote, so I beat it back to the gazebo where the guitars were.
We had a beautiful meal. She had made butternut squash soup for everyone, and man was it good. I didn't even know that butter HAD nuts, so I continue to learn something new every other year. After a tasty pot roast we were ready to strum some songs from the modern American songbook.
We all knew about half the chords to a of a bunch of songs that each other didn't know. We settled on "Honky Tonk Women," because everybody knows that one and it starts with a cowbell solo, so technically even a cow can play it. When we get to the part where we sing, "She blew my nose, and then she blew my mind," it made me stop and wonder what the hell the Stones were up to back then. I don't care how good-looking a honky tonk woman might be, I can't imagine her that cordial with my honker.
"Let's do John Denver: 'Country Roads!'" Somebody launches right into it before I've even completed my pre-flight check-in. "WHAT CHORD ARE YOU PLAYING?" I shout over the din of four guitars blaring away. "D!" Everybody shouts back. "DID YOU SAY B?" "NO, D, BUT NOW IT'S C!" "DID YOU SAY G?" "NO, C, BUT NOW IT'S E!" "DID YOU SAY E?" "YES, BUT WE'RE BACK TO D!" This used to be a beautiful song. I'm not sure what happened to it, but by the time it's over I can recite most of the alphabet out of order. "Crap! I think I finally have all the chords now- can we do it again?" "Dude- the country roads already took us home to the place we belong and we're not going back."
I play everything with what we guitarists call "bar chords," meaning that I learned them at a bar. They sounded a bit different once I sobered up, but using an array of these cleverly applied chords I can transpose any song from the key that it was already perfectly happy in, to one that sounds much worse. And if I don't know the song on guitar, I just switch to percussion. All you need is a spoon to whack on the side of a beer glass and you have instant percussion, and butternut squash soup all over everything (I forgot to wipe off the spoon).
"Maybe we should sing some protest songs," I say. "Aren't people dying every day, some of old age? What about all the injustices in the world?" I'd like to play something that calls out the wrongs that were visited upon me growing up as an upper middle-class child in Chappaqua, where my family had to fight for a decent table at a restaurant. What about the trials and tribulations I had to face as a straight, white kid who was not particularly good at math? Is there a song I can sing about that? Once again I had more questions than answers. And it seemed like there might be more problems in the world than we could solve on a beautiful fall afternoon. But thank god we knew enough songs to help us forget about them for a little while.
Is there any drug that can make more miracles than music? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind. And if that's really true
I should be able to generate enough answers to blow a sailboat all the way to China.
Support live music! Join Rick and the No Options band for some real live rock & roll on Saturday evening, Nov. 2, 9 p.m. at the Back Nine, 2050 East Main St. (Route 6) Cortlandt Manor
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