The Blues

It’s such a cliche to say that, as a harmonica player, I love the blues. Still, I haven’t primarily been a blues player since the mid-1990s, I’ve fallen away from the local blues community (such as it is), and a true blues gig is a rare thing to me. I’ve mostly been playing rootsy stuff and Americana and whatnot for a long time. But a few days ago, I picked up a rando pickup blues band gig with Brian Gross, a guy I played with regularly a quarter-century ago, and up showed Daryl Davis, a fantastic pianist who I have been watching for a very long time. Madness ensued:

Prison time

The Missouri State Penitentiary was a big part of my childhood life. It sat six blocks from my house and was a massive, old-looking place with real stone walls instead of fences. There were towers along those walls, and you could see the guards armed with long rifles in them. It was imposing and scary, although not as imposing and scary as some of the people in it. This was the state’s maximum security pen for the entire 22 years I lived in Jefferson City, and for a chunk of time afterward.

Honestly, I always thought it was as scary as hell, especially when there was an escape or one of a seemingly endless parade of inmate murders — Time magazine once named it “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” It sat on a steep hillside, and I could look into the center of the prison yard from spots on the outside. Those prisoners were just a few hundred yards and a million miles away from where I stood. Sometimes you could see them waving handkerchiefs to the people outside the walls.

It was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi when it closed in 2004, having opened in 1836. By then, I was more than 30 years gone from Jefferson City, and I hadn’t thought about it much in the intervening time. Large chunks of the prison were torn down and redeveloped within a few years, and the rest began to rot.

Or it did until it was turned into a tourist attraction. Now you can go on a variety of tours through what’s left of the prison. That has never sat entirely well for me, especially since the options include ghost tours and the more deluxe “overnight paranormal investigations.” In the gift shop, you can buy lip balm that comes in a little ball-and-chain holder and T-shirts with the “I Did Time in…” theme.

But I was in Jefferson City with my wife recently to visit family and we were looking for something to do one afternoon. My sister suggested the prison tour. I was hesitant, but I had pretty much shown my wife everything else in Jefferson City over the years, so we decided to take the option.

It’s still creepy, of course, and large parts of it continue to crumble and have been condemned. But the tour, to my great relief, was respectful and informative. The guide knew his stuff and laid out the long history of the place, along with its famous inmates (including Pretty Boy Floyd, James Earl Ray, Sonny Liston and even Emma Goldman). He kept his tone appropriate, even when we were brought to a large, windowless punishment “hole” where lights were left off 24/7 for the prisoners who were thrown in there. He turned off the lights and the utter blindness just descended on you. Imagine living in that for a few days or weeks.

When the guide brought us to the end of a hallway and started showing us display photos of the gas chamber, I knew the tour was almost up. I honestly think that hanging, if done properly (it breaks your neck and kills you instantly), is a more humane way of death than hearing those cyanide tablets hit the vat of acid beneath your seat, creating the gas that would kill you once you inhaled. I imagine some inmates held their breath as long as they could. Forty of them died in that chamber.

To get there, you needed to get back into your car and drive around to the back of the complex — they used to hike people down there but the steep hill turned out to be a problem on several fronts. My sister told me that people like to sit on the gas chamber’s two seats and have photos taken. We decided we didn’t need to see that, so we went to Central Dairy for ice cream and a little soul-cleansing.

I’m still reflecting on how I feel about that tour. Perhaps that was the whole point.

On mourning the loss of a tree

The wood bowls we just got are made with a level of skill that says “I care.” They’re lovely, made from oak. I know they’re from a tree that was 71 years old because it grew in our yard for a generation until it didn’t, and part of it was still alive until a crew cut it down this morning.

I honestly think that the oak in our side yard might have been the best feature of our entire house and property. It was at least three times taller than the house itself, and it was so broad that it shaded most of that yard. It was beautifully shaped, or it was until the last couple of years, and it wasn’t unusual for passers-by to stop and just stare at it for a while. Cars would stop and park underneath it on the street just for the heck of it, their occupants shaded while the driver made a phone call or ate a quick lunch or just took a break in a shady spot. We brought in a tree service every few years to trim it and get rid of any deadwood that might show up. It was just a magnificent thing and part of the fiber of the neighborhood.

Or it was until a few years ago. Kristi noticed the dying crown first — not much of a dying crown, but we’d seen this play out elsewhere with oaks in the neighborhood. The crown dies, and then the center of the tree dies, and then the death expands outward until the tree is mostly dead, if it doesn’t fall over first. I’m not lying when I say that if that tree fell in a storm, it could destroy our home and perhaps its occupants. It was that huge and magnificent.

We tried to nurse it back to health. We’d been using the same tree service for years and years and trusted their arborist — in no small part because when we’d bring him around every couple of years, he sometimes looked at everything and said, “You don’t need any work right now.” But after the death in the middle of the tree kept spreading outward, we called him and feared the worst.

He prescribed emergency work — a fairly heavy thinning that cost the tree a lot of its beauty, and some deep fertilization. But another spring came and I could tell the death had spread yet again. I also noticed that the roots were becoming more visible — never a good sign. I braced for the worst.

We called him again a few weeks ago. He looked at it again and said it was time. And today, the tree was cut down.

There’s a smoothed-over dirt patch tonight where that tree stood this morning. Several neighbors came by to offer their condolences while the work was going on. One of them grabbed a hunk of wood and made the bowls. The wood they were made from is still moist as I write this. I couldn’t help but think that it was still alive somehow.

I wonder if we did something wrong — if we watered the tree too much or not enough, if we should have mulched it (several of my neighbors have A Thing about mulch and I am not a fan, so I never wanted that route), if we should have been more attentive to it when it was healthy. But sometimes, trees just die. That’s what I’m telling myself now.

The Show: You’re gonna love me

Oh, well, here we are again: Back with the Show, which isn’t the cultural powerhouse it was when it was The Show, but is a bunch better than it was in the years it fell to theshow status. And although there no longer are tryouts that involve 8 bajillion people filling football stadiums that somehow still produced off-key jokers in the Top 10, the regular judges’ brag this year about the depth of talent isn’t wrong.

I’m along for the ride again, of course; I usually go along, even though I don’t recall last year’s winner and can’t remember most of the champs for the last decade or so. This show and the others of its ilk don’t really produce pop stars any more; they produce game show winners who can sing, and it never seems to quite work out after that.

I’m thinking, though, that 2023 might be the year this changes. The country genre is particularly strong on the Show this year, and there are a couple of other performers I think I’d pay to see right now. There also are a couple of scenery chewers we’re all going to have to tolerate for a bit; that sort of performer always has been a pet peeve of mine, but a few of them turned out to be genuine stars after their Show appearances in past years, so perhaps I should keep my fool mouth shut.

Anyway, another year, another ride. I actually think this could turn out to create some good concert broadcasts — and not just some dramatic competition moments — in the weeks to come.

I’ve written dozens of posts about the show in its many iterations for years and years. You can browse through some of them here.

Smile because it happened

We recently returned from a week on Jost Van Dyke, a British Virgin Island that I’ve raved on about here before. This was our second full-week trip to Jost but the first since since hurricanes Irma and Maria, two Category 5 storms that hit within two weeks of each other in 2017. They flattened pretty much everything and created some changes.

The first thing that struck me upon looking out over White Bay after arriving this time was that things were browner than I remembered — a reality attributable in part to the hurricane and in part to being there late in the dry season. But the second fact that struck me was the amount of new construction going on.

Now, we’re not talking about mere reconstruction here, although a number of the island’s famous beach bars have been recast in concrete and rebar instead of the previous ramshackle wood. We’re talking about brand new construction that, in particular, is starting to fill the hillside behind White Bay, which is arguably one of the most famous beaches in the Caribbean. This is triggered in part by absentee property owners who sold out after the hurricanes. The new construction largely is, or will be, villas that will bring in more tourists on an island that is in many ways notable for its lack of tourists.

And then I reminded myself that I really had no right to gripe about the still-modest additional development. That’s when I reminded myself of the old saying: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

I got to see Jost when it was only lightly discovered, but nobody’s going to mistake the place for being hyper developed now, or probably any time in my lifetime. The old ways, with the characters staying at the campground at Ivan’s and the funky people hanging out at the funkier bars to the west of the Soggy, may be changing, but things always change. Too much nostalgia is always a trap — one that often leads to bitterness.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself on Jost again. It was just different, not wrong.