Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Tag: Wisconsin

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

No Quarter

coin-map

The bedroom was barren save some power tools, drywall sheets, and a step stool waiting for the work to begin again. I was home for Easter and my parents were renovating the basement and the basement room I’d called mine when I lived at home. The Cave I called it: in the basement and away from windows it was pitch-black and quiet and cool at night, and I could sleep there much longer than usual if I didn’t set an alarm. That cool and cozy silence induced a sopor my circadian rhythm couldn’t resist.

I was last here over Christmas and everything then was as it had been since high school, it seemed. But now everything was gone. Like the bookshelves. Their books sat in boxes waiting to be sorted, but the shelves had moved on. This disconcerted me most. When perusing my books I rarely considered their keeper, yet where would we be without them? Shelves in any place are prosthetic architecture. Vigilant, sturdy, selfless. Necessary, at times comforting if we regard them at all, but essentially invisible. Now they really were.

Last year I had a dream about this. I dreamt I entered my room to pack things to bring with me on a journey. The floor then turned into dirt and my belongings emerged from the soil as if they were vegetables for the harvest. A week after that dream, I had another one wherein I returned to the room and it was completely empty, along with the rest of the basement and the crawl space where my parents stored the accumulation of our years.

When I had those dreams I’d recently gotten engaged and started a new job. The future, nebulous as always, loomed large. But I’d now arrived in that future, and it looked like a half-dozen boxes of books and bric-a-brac, the props of my distant past, waiting for their sentence.

The sorting began in earnest. “Participant” trophies from youth soccer: toss. A ‘90s-era Brewers pennant: keep. Leftover CDs from my garage band: crawl space. My set of commemorative U.S. state quarters: consider. My grandma, twelve years gone now, got one of these green rigid cardboard display folios for each of my sisters and me. It opened to a vibrant map of the United States, color-coded according to which year each state’s quarter would enter circulation between 1999 and 2008. You’d pop out a quarter-shaped disk and replace it with that state’s shiny new coin as it was released. The United States Mint dropped one every ten weeks, five each year, in the same order the states ratified the Constitution. In 1999 when we first wedged in Delaware’s Caesar Rodney on horseback, Hawaii seemed so far away, and it was. But steadily we accumulated quarters and made our way through history.

The zeal of collecting faded over the years, but the joy of discovery did not. I’d weed through every quarter I could find, eager to see the newest design and see if I could beg, borrow, or steal a new state for the board. They generally fell into two categories. The scenic designs, which featured a key event, figure, or place from the state’s history, were usually better. Like Oregon’s Crater Lake and New Jersey’s Crossing of the Delaware: simple, iconic, and striking. The other kinds I call “greatest hits”; they cobbled together the disparate things you associate with the state into a confused, “floating heads”-style mashup. The pelican-trumpet-Louisiana-Purchase mishmash of Louisiana and cow-cheese-corn combo of my dear alma mater Wisconsin indicate obvious state pride, but they’re too on the nose to be extraordinary.

Whatever the states put forward, the series as a whole hit the jackpot. Bolstered by its “spokesfrog” Kermit the Frog, who did commercials promoting the series, the quarters generated $4.1 billion in revenue and nearly $3 billion in seigniorage (the profit from the difference between the face value of coins and their production costs) to help finance the national debt. Add to that another $136 million in earnings and seigniorage from “numismatic products” like, say, green rigid cardboard display folios. All that to say, they made a lot of these mass-produced tchotchkes, and made a lot from them, so mine wasn’t worth much on the market. But it meant something to me personally.

I pillaged it for laundry fare.

“Grandma would be laughing right now,” Dad said as I plucked the shimmering specie from their snug states. She would be. Do this nice thing for your grandson, a forward-thinking gift that will require of him patience, diligence, and an appreciation of history, then watch from beyond the grave as he pops them out one by one so he can feed them four at a time into a dingy basement washer and dryer. In my defense, she’d seen worse. As the single mother of two unruly sons, she had lots of experience dealing with her boys doing stupid, impulsive shit.

Should I have kept them? They will get me six full loads of laundry with fifty cents to spare, and then I’ll be back to zero. I could have tucked the folio away and forgotten about it for years, unearthing it occasionally to admire the completeness of the enterprise and ponder its market value. But I remembered: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sometimes it’s hard to decide how literal we’re meant to take Jesus’s aphorisms, but this one made sense on many levels. I like shiny things. And money’s nice to have if you can get it. But I’m not about an altar to mammon, however well-intentioned.

So I continued sorting. My dreams of room excavation felt more like prophecies as I weeded through the musty relics, plucking out the valuables like I did the quarters and packing them for another migration. A few things I didn’t have space for but didn’t want to throw away I sent to the crawl space, but everything else I either tossed, donated, or brought to my new place, which I’ll share with my soon-to-be wife. We’ve got stuff scattered around our apartment needing a shelf, drawer, or closet to call home.

One artifact that has made the journey is the glass Carlo Rossi wine jug I’ve been sporadically filling with spare change since Grandpa Cy, LaVonne’s husband, cut a slot in the cap, fastened a personalized leather tag to it, and gave it to me who knows how long ago. (My sisters got their own too: such always seemed the way of things.) It’s about half-full right now: the accumulation of the dozens of times over the years when I’ve both had spare change on me and remembered to deposit it. LaVonne and Cy’s humble Madison duplex apartment hosted an unfathomable number of wine jugs and liquor bottles through the years; the ones we got were probably whatever were handy when Cy got decidedly visionary and repurposed some for his grandkids.

A bit ironic, right? I rather flippantly disabused the state quarters of their hallowed status, despite the possibility they could grow in value as a complete set—all the while adding at a slow drip to the unassuming wine jug’s interest-free account. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it around. The jug doesn’t demand attention. It isn’t frozen in time or tender. It’s never complete; it contains multitudes. The jug abides. And boy, the years it has seen. While the quarters languished in the darkness of my former room’s closet, the jug sat in the corner between a bookshelf and the out-of-service brick fireplace and bore witness to my adolescence and early adulthood. Given the glacial rate of my deposits, it’ll witness still more.

My older sister, who had a longer and much deeper relationship with Cy, she said she’ll never spend the money she’s put into her jug because she put it in there while Cy was still around. Me? I’ll spend it. If it takes another twenty years to fill up the other half, I’ll be pushing fifty with a few kids and more stories to tell, God willing. Memories make us rich, not money. So I’ll fill the jug as high as I can, and on that day I’ll upend it into a bag, bring it to a bank, and watch the sum of my decades-long depositing transform into a slim stack of leathery bills. Then maybe I’ll get some ice cream, or put it towards a trip, or give it to the first person who asks for some spare change.

And then I’ll start it over. My wife, my kids, we’ll drop whatever remains in our pockets and purses into the clear glass chamber and hear the sharp ping of possibility every time we do. Those first few coins to hit the bottom will be there for the long haul. Imagine what they will see.

Rhinelander, Russia

Pushing through Command and Control, Eric Schlosser’s new book about America’s history with nuclear weapons. A fun tidbit: Strategic Air Command, the agency in charge of the Cold War bombers and missiles after World War II, used American towns for training their pilots:

The town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, became one of SAC’s favorite targets, and it was secretly radar bombed hundreds of times, thanks to the snow-covered terrain resembling that of the Soviet Union.

There’s a reason Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the upper Midwest were a Scandinavian haven. I guess they missed home.

Winter’s Harsh Beauty

“Wisdom comes with winters.” –Oscar Wilde

I’ve always taken for granted my ability to walk on ice.

Growing up in the Wisconsin winters, I had many opportunities to work and play on the ice, whether it be to shovel the sidewalk or play a pickup game of broomball. You learn pretty quickly how to adjust your walking motion when traversing a patch of ice; you can’t just amble through as usual, unless you want to repeatedly assail your tailbone.

Winter teaches hard lessons like this one. If you don’t learn how to walk, you’ll earn a quick trip to the icy pavement. If you don’t learn how to maneuver your car, a snowbank will find its way to your bumper on the quick. Winters in the north can be harsh, and they ought to be. Many people disagree with this, but they miss something good when they pine only for tropical temperatures. As Charles Simic writes, “The cold concentrates the mind. The moment we step outdoors, we do what we have to do with uncommon intelligence and dispatch, unlike those folks who can afford to sit in the shade on some Mediterranean or Caribbean island. … History, E.M. Cioran said, is the product of people who stand up and get busy. Can one be a dreamer or a dolt on the North Pole?”

When I take a walk or bike ride in the winter cold, my mind is razor-sharp. With the wind biting at my face and slowly numbing my less-layered limbs, the silly inconveniences of life I could care about only on a balmy 72-degree day evaporate with each cold breath. I expel so much energy bracing my body against the chill that re-entering a heated building feels purifying, like the cold is melting off me. I crave that feeling all year round.

The giddiness I display on a cold day or at the first sign of snow bewilders many. “How can you like the cold? You’re crazy.” I am. I’m a winter addict. I find my high in a walk through a snowy wood. In a soundtracked, nighttime snowfall. In the smell of the crisp winter air accented by a nearby bonfire. In a hot cup of tea thawing my frozen hands.

There is real beauty in the things we must struggle through. I love winter, to paraphrase a former president, not because it is easy but because it is hard. Some wish they could leap over winter into spring, escaping the blustery winds and slippery sidewalks for a more tepid time. But I say we need it. The deeper the winter, the more beautiful the spring. With their 75-and-sunny weather every day, Los Angelenos don’t know what they’re missing.

I’ll be able to appreciate all the more that first blooming flower in April not because it signifies winter’s end, but because I struggled through a season without flowers.

© 2018 Chad Comello

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑