A dazzling story of love, obsession, con artistry and revenge, directed by a modern master.
Here I was all set to go Elitist on the country singer Lee Greenwood, and I pulled the rug out from under myself. I shared Rachel Maddow's incredulity that the limping duck George W. Bush had appointed Greenwood to the National Council of the Arts. I even had my first two sentences written in my head: "Remember how the Bush takeover squad at the White House complained the Clintonites had unplugged all the PCs on their way out the door? As he steadfastly marches toward his own sunset, it is Bush himself who seems unplugged."
Zing! Totally unfair, but snappy, Bush had two vacancies to fill on the NCA, one for three years, one for six. Greenwood got the six-year term. He'll be the gift that keeps on giving every day during Obama's first term. The Council's job is to advise the National Endowment for the Arts on how to spend its money. I assume Greenwood will support the endowment's Shakespeare in American Communities Initiative, but you can never be sure about those things.
Da-ding! I was just getting warmed up. I was going to sympathize with Bush because fate has set a limited table for conservatives in the arts department. Liberals get Paul Newman, conservatives get Chuck Norris. We get Bruce Springsteen, they get Cousin Brucie. Does such a thing as a conservative dancer even exist? To be sure, Greenwood was a member of a dance ensemble, but that was when he was nine. Look at Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic party, who was a philosopher, author, architect, violinist , inventor, sketch artist and culinary expert, and still found the time to found another branch of the family. JFK told an assembly of U.S. Nobel Prize winners: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." I imagine George whispering to Laura: "Why didn't anyone want to eat with him?"
Ben Snowden: In Dixeland where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin'
Yada yada yada. But then I did a little research on Lee Greenwood and had to abandon my wisecracks. I concluded that Greenwood's career makes him a not unreasonable choice for the Council. To begin with, he is the perfect age, my age. He is a singer-songwriter. He built his own theater in Seiverville, Tenn., and performed there from 1995 to 2000. Wiki explains the theater was not located in the "heavily entertainment and tourist-oriented area of Pigeon Forge," which "contributed to its closing." Greenwood had the semi-obligatory cocaine addiction around the age of 20, which was not all that common in 1962, but "moved to Iceland to go to rehab." He is best known for writing and singing "God Bless the USA," which I do not prefer to Springsteen's "Born in the USA," but that's just me.
Greenwood has lived the American Dream. Raised on a poultry farm outside Sacramento by his grandparents, he started playing the sax at the age of seven. He's won all the big awards, including Singer of the Year and Song of the Year. He took time off to perform at McCain and Palin rallies. By all accounts he is a thoroughly decent man. Although his background may not parallel all of the other members of the NCA, why should it? He brings a fresh perspective. And there is absolutely no reason why country and western, that most American of musical forms along with jazz and the blues, should not be heard from on the Council.
John Prine: But life had lost its fun And there was nothing to be done But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill For a flag-draped casket on a local heroes' hill.
I love country and western music. You would be amazed how much of it I have on my iPod. And not just the Dixie Chicks and Willie Nelson. I'm talking Hank Williams Sr., the Blue Sky Boys, the Carter Family, Doc Watson, Patsy Cline, the Almanac Singers, Leadbelly, Bob Wills, Chet Atkins, Flatt & Scruggs, Asleep at the Wheel, Bill Monroe and of course my all-time most beloved singer-songwriters, John Prine and Steve Goodman.
John Prine made me cry when I first heard him sing "Sam Stone," and that was a long, long time ago, when he was still carrying the mail in Maywood, Ill. I do not believe in psychic powers, but sometimes I feel like I'm prescient. I said to my pals at my table, "He is the best singer-songwriter in America. That song is a great short story." He Is, not will be, because that first night I also heard his "Old Folks." If "Sam Stone" made me cry, "Hello in There" is the one song I've ever seen make Chaz cry.
Sam Stone came home, To his wife and family After serving in the conflict overseas. And the time that he served, Had shattered all his nerves, And left a little shrapnel in his knee. But the morphine eased the pain, And the grass grew round his brain, And gave him all the confidence he lacked, With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.
Chorus: There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose. Little pitchers have big ears, Don't stop to count the years, Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios. Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.
Steve Goodman, now taken from us by leukemia and sorely missed, wrote the greatest and most evocative of all train songs, "City of New Orleans." My dad used to drive us up Route 45 north of Urbana to watch the the City thundering at 90mph through Rantoul on its way from Chicago to New Orleans, fabled cities. Then we'd stop at the Home Theater on Main Street to buy popcorn and Necco wafers.
Nighttime on The City of New Orleans, Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee... Half way home, we'll be there by morning... Through the Mississippi darkness Rolling down to the sea. And all the towns and people seem To fade into a bad dream And the steel rails still ain't heard the news. The conductor sings his song again, The passengers will please refrain... This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.
Good night, America, how are you? Don't you know me I'm your native son, I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans, I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.
I am so lucky to have been a passenger on both the City of New Orleans and the Panana Limited when meals were still served at tables set with linen, china and heavy pewter utensils. Remind me to tell you the maple syrup story sometime. What the heck. I'll tell you now. I have known Jeff Greenfield for 43 years, I told him this story at a conference of college editors in November 1963, and he has insisted I repeat it every time we have meet since then. It always breaks him up.
My parents put me aboard the Panama Limited from Urbana-Champaign to Chicago. It was my first train trip alone. I had a new tweed sport coat, a tie that was choking me, and a $20 bill in my wallet. I would be met by my cousins Blanche and Ethel Doyle and taken to visit my Aunt Ida. I was to buy myself breakfast on the train. I rushed to the diner, was greeted as "young man," and assigned a table for two. The other seat was soon occupied by a passenger from further front on the train. This meant he was from below Cairo, because from New Orleans to Cairo the train was all Pullman, and then they added day coaches for the people from Illinois who were making the trip to Chicago--around two hours in my case.
Steve Goodman (1948-1984): I've got season's tickets to watch the Angels now
In those days you filled out your own Guest Check. This news seemed to subtly alarm my new companion. There was a sturdy pewter pencil holder with one of those stubby golf card pencils. I carefully printed out: "Pancakes and coffee." The waiter picked up my order. He asked my companion, "What will you-all be havin' this mornin, sir?" He replied, "I think I'll have the same thing my friend here is having." He could not have seen my order. He could not read or write.
Our orders arrived. Before me sat arrayed a majestic assortment of heavy pewter containers, which would not spill if the train rocked. Water. Coffee. Maple syrup. Cream. Half and Half. Sugar. I carefully poured syrup over my pancakes, and coffee into my cup. This was a big deal: The first cup of coffee in my life. I was king of the world. I dug into my pancakes. Something was wrong. They tasted bitter. I looked again at the table. If the coffee was on my pancakes, then where was the maple syrup? I blushed bright red. I was never going to admit my mistake to the waiter. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, I picked up my coffee cup and poured it over the pancakes. My friend studied this, and then poured his own coffee over his pancakes.
Steve Goodman and John Prine. Those were the days, my friends. I was at the Earl of Old Town way after closing time early one morning when Goodman first performed "The City of New Orleans" for Arlo Guthrie. Another night at the Earl, Stevie and John collaborated on what they billed as the Complete All-Purpose Country Verse:
Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison, And I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, She got runned over by a damned old train.
Lee Greenwood's song-writing may not rival that pitch of perfection, but his heart is in the right place. He wants to include, not exclude. For example, his album "Patriotic Songs" includes not only "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful" and his own "God Bless the USA," but also "This Land is Your Land" and "Dixie." Yes, "Dixie," that celebration of terrorists who wanted to destroy the American government. I imagine the selection can be defended, however, by recent scholarship arguing the song was co-authored by two African-Americans, Ben and Lew Snowden, who intended the lyrics as ironic. Think about them:
Well, I wish I was in the land of cotton! Ole times there are not forgotten! Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland!
It's not even very subtle irony, is it? Especially with that giveaway third line.
Footnote. Goodman and Prine both wrote much greater songs, but want to read some quintessentially American lyrics? Steve Goodman knew for years he had leukemia. Nobody ever heard him complain. Most of the time, he looked like a man who knew a great joke and was about to tell it to you.He'd drop out for a while for treatment and then be back at the Earl, where he always hosted the raucous New Years' Eve celebrations. He knew he was dying when he wrote The Dying Cubs Fan's Lament:
By the shore's of old Lake Michigan, Where the hawk wind blows so cold, An old Cub fan lay dying. In his midnight hour that tolled Round his bed, his friends had all gathered. They knew his time was short, And on his head they put this bright blue cap From his all-time favorite sport. He told them, "it's late and it's getting dark in here," And I know its time to go, But before I leave the line-up Boys, there's just one thing I'd like to know.
Do they still play the blues in Chicago? When baseball season rolls around, When the snow melts away, Do the Cubbies still play In their ivy covered burial ground? When I was a boy they were my pride and joy But now they only bring fatigue To the home of the brave The land of the free And the doormat of the National League
Told his friends "You know the law of averages says: Anything will happen that can." That's what it says. "But the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant Was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan" The Cubs made me a criminal Sent me down a wayward path They stole my youth from me (that's the truth) I'd forsake my teachers To go sit in the bleachers In flagrant truancy and then one thing led to another and soon I'd discovered alcohol, gambling, dope football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis But what do you expect, When you raise up a young boys hopes And then just crush 'em like so many paper beer cups.
Year after year after year after year, after year, after year, after year, after year 'Til those hopes are just so much popcorn for the pigeons beneath the 'EL' tracks to eat. He said "You know I'll never see Wrigley Field, anymore before my eternal rest. So if you have your pencils and your score cards ready, and I'll read you my last request."
He said, "Give me a double header funeral in Wrigley Field On some sunny weekend day (no lights). Have the organ play the National Anthem and then a little "na, na, na, na, hey hey, hey, Goodbye." Make six bullpen pitchers, carry my coffin and six ground keepers clear my path. Have the umpires bark me out at every base In all their holy wrath. Its a beautiful day for a funeral! Hey Ernie lets play two! Somebody go get Jack Brickhouse to come back, and conduct just one more interview. Have the Cubbies run right out into the middle of the field, Have Keith Moreland drop a routine fly Give everybody two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt, And I'll be ready to die.
Build a big fire on home plate out of your Louisville Sluggers baseball bats, And toss my coffin in. Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow From the prevailing 30 mile an hour south west wind. When my last remains go flying over the left field wall I will bid the bleacher bums adieu, And I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue
The dying man's friends told him to cut it out They said stop it, that's an awful shame. He whispered, "Don't Cry, we'll meet by and by near the Heavenly Hall of Fame. He said, "I've got season's tickets to watch the Angels now, So its just what I'm going to do He said, "but you the living, you're stuck here with the Cubs, So it's me that feels sorry for you! And he said,
"Ah, play, play that lonesome losers tune, That's the one I like the best. And he closed his eyes, and slipped away. What we got is the Dying Cub Fan's Last Request And here it is
Do they still play the blues in Chicago When baseball season rolls around When the snow melts away, Do the Cubbies still play In their ivy covered burial ground? When I was a boy they were my pride and joy But now they only bring fatigue To the home of the brave The land of the free And the doormat of the National League
Footnote, Nov. 7. There are so many wonderful comments below, but this one is in a category of its own, and I don't want you to miss it:
By Martin Gaspar on November 7, 2008 8:06 AM
John Prine used to play once a week at the old Fifth Peg, the Old Town School of Folk Music's pub on Armitage Avenue off of Lincoln. I would go to hear him about three times a month. It got to the point where he would recognize me by sight and on slow nights would give me a nod.
One of my best friends was stationed at Udorn Air Force base in Thailand. He was in a safe place away from the insanity faced by the grunts in Viet Nam. But Udorn was a place for R&R and for recovery of wounded troops with injuries not severe enough for Japan. He would drink with the with them at the E Club and listen to their horror stories. He was personally affected by their stories and became a sort of empath that took away some of the troops pain whose stories they would never tell their families. He saw it as part of his humanitarian duty to give what solace he could, even if it was only to listen.
After his tour of duty, he returned home for a month before his next assignment. He would wear his uniform at all times. When I told him he could lighten up a bit and wear his civvies. I had never seen such seething anger at me when he said he was proud to wear his uniform and did not give a damn.
I told him of this great singer I wanted him to hear. We went to John's show. We were sitting in the front row, no more than seven feet from the mike. When John came out, he did a double take at my friend in full dress. He sang every song except "Sam Stone". He announced his last song, and as he was about to walk away, I said "Sing it, John". He looked at my friend and said "Are you sure, man?". "Yes", replied. He sang "Sam Stone" and got away from his the mike as quick as he could.
My buddy said he was a really great singer. We left and in my car, my friend broke down and sobbed with heart rendering intensity for forty-five minutes. We did not speak until I got him home. When I saw him the next day, he was wearing civvies. "I'm never going wear a uniform again." He never did. His next posting in Eugenie, OR was a little loose and he wore civvies to work.
John may have saved him with one song in one night from nightmares for the rest of his life.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...