Monday, December 08, 2003

Random Notes

I found a video cassette at the library of a PBS (actually a CBC) production called "Singing Our Stories," featuring Native American/First Nations women singing and talking about their tribal music. Before I had a chance to screen it, the program turned up on our local PBS station when I happened to be surfing through.

It's a very good program, but I took particular note of a moment near the beginning. Years ago at the summer arts festival in Pittsburgh, I heard a duo of two Native women called Pura Fe and Soni. They've since become two/thirds of one of the better known Native recording groups, Ulali. At that performance at the edge of Point State Park, one of them (probably Pura Fe) prefaced one song with a bit of history, involving an area of the South (I believe it was North Carolina) where black slaves interacted with Indians, and their music merged to become the blues.

I never forgot that, and the more of traditional Native music I heard, the more I heard aspects of the blues and elements that would be incorporated in jazz singing. But I could never find any documentation for what Pura Fe said. I still haven't, but at least I've heard her say it again, on "Singing Our Stories." In that program she was singing with four generations of women in her extraordinary family, in which there have been seven sisters for several generations. They were singing and dancing barefoot on a smooth and bending wood front porch. The blues was clearly in that music, and she said she felt that way, and intimated that a lot of Native people feel that way. The way she said it made it sound as if it is still a heretical observation.

I didn't hear Ken Burns' emphasize it in his multi-hour historical "Jazz" series, for instance. But as Pura Fe pointed out, there were American Indian slaves working side by side with black slaves in the Southeast. There is a clearer if almost as unacknowledged connection in New Orleans, where the "juns" in Cajun are Indians. This mixed blood music is part of the richness of jazz that left that city and headed north to Chicago and Kansas City, and to the world.

Music-making is an undeniably wide-open tradition. Musicians copy whatever sounds good to them, and they've been doing it probably as long as there's been music. It's one of the reasons that despite instances of exploitation, many of the first blows against segregation came from black and white jazz and rock and roll musicians playing together. Racial harmony was more literal than most people imagine. Cultural sharing extends to ceremonial music as well---certainly in Christian churches, black and white. But it's way past time for the Native American contribution to jazz and the blues be explored and acknowledged.

A Cat Column

Our favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Jon Carroll, has taken to warning readers in a variety of ways that a "cat column" is coming up.
Tess, the cat for whom I staff, deserves her column inches as well. So consider yourself warned.

I'm moved to write this because I'm now convinced that Tess not only uses language, she invents language. I don't mean her variety of vocalizations as much as her gestural language. For instance, she invented a way to signal that she wants her wet cat food from the refrigerator. Tess is very structured. She understands schedules and gets upset if we don't keep to ours, and of course, to hers. She knows how many times a day she gets wet food, and what part of the day. She's been known to demand it at exactly the same hour every day. The signal she devised for "requesting" it is to position herself in front of the refrigerator and shake her hindquarters in what we used to call her "tuna dance," before we stopped giving her tuna due to mercury content.

For awhile she corrupted this signal by refusing the food and wanting something else, so the signal became ambiguous. But lately she's returned to a one to one correspondence, Tuna Dance= I want my wet cat food, it's time.

The connection between her actions and what she wanted is pretty clear, and pretty eloquent. But then she began doing something that is closer to pure language. As she's gotten older she likes being held and petted a lot more, and more often. Lately she's been using a signal to indicate her desire to be held and petted. She vocalizes, then stands underneath one of the kitchen chairs, and vocalizes some more. If I don't get the message, she emerges and goes under another chair and repeats it.

What's really interesting about this is that her action has no relationship to the action she's requesting. In fact, it's counterproductive because it's difficult to reach her when she's under the chair. I've pointed this out to her a number of times, but she persists, perhaps because she sees that despite my complaints I get her meaning. Because of the difficulty of reaching her, I don't see how I could have given her the idea that if she goes under the chair, I am more likely to pick her up. This is a signal that she created, specific to this one thing she wants.

So what else is this but the invention of language-a meaning invented for a gesture that has no relationship to what's meant.

Tess considers herself a fully equal member of the household. Since we moved our kitchen table to an area she can see clearly, she has taken to eating or at least hanging out at her dish whenever we sit down for a meal. She participates in our daily routine and expects us to keep it. For the middle part of the day there is no set routine, as one or both of us may be absent, and she understands this, too. She also has routines established with each of us separately. Her sense of order orders us. But how she made the leap to inventing language is something else again.

American Dreams

This season's "American Dreams" has the kids growing up, the youngest getting an operation to correct a polio induced handicap, the middle child---the girl who seemed to be the central character in the first season---going on with her adolescence in this fraught context of the mid 1960s. The black family has also emerged as a strong if secondary set of developing stories. But the major arc follows the oldest of the Pryor children, the son who is now a Marine, and is now on his way to Vietnam.

There are no characters now in the series that correspond with my situation in the period---that is, no one for me to identify with, one to one. Nevertheless I feel an emotional connection to J.J., the oldest son, who is nothing like I was at his age. I'm surprised at the depth of my feeling after all these years concerning my contemporaries who went to Vietnam. Especially one I think about, a guy I didn't know very well in college-we had our political differences since he was gung ho ROTC, but we met accidentally alone shortly before graduation day, and made our separate peace. He was killed in his first week in Vietnam.

Maybe that's it---at the time, the draft and the war were at once so specifically personal, and also so political and large in implication. As I've said in this space before, whatever hostility there was for soldiers soon dissipated when the first of them started coming back from Vietnam, "radicalized." But perhaps this area between the very personal and the broadly political, the area of empathy, is one that I haven't fully experienced emotionally. So in a way I do identify with J.J., and his journey becomes my road not taken.

It's more than that, for Margaret seems to be similarly affected. And really, has there been the opportunity to emotionally experience this through a character over time? Not with the intensity of a book or a movie, but in these fully furnished moments of something like the past, stretched out over weeks and months? Following a character we've seen "grow up" for awhile? I don't think so. This TV show is not entirely accurate in its depiction of the 60s, but in particular scenes it can be devastatingly evocative. I never had to ship out to Vietnam, but in the draft process and otherwise I was in several sorts of military circumstances. So the scene of J.J. leaving was very powerful.

The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin is gone, can the West Wing survive? So far it seems to be successfully adding more personal and personality elements and conflict to political stories, in apparently well thought-out arcs that are subtle yet definite. Within the shows the writing is a bit uneven, especially the dialogue, but that's been getting better. (And, it's worth noting, at least one episode I noticed was written by a team of two women, a first for this series.) The integrity of the show seems to be intact. In any case, I doubt if any current TV series would produce an episode heavily advertised as a "Christmas show" that had less sentimentality and more reality about families and relationships, yet still had moments of authentic, earned feeling.

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