Monday, June 23, 2008

Bluegrass is my Second Language - Review

When I sat down with my advisor to prepare the defense of my doctoral dissertation, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t write the study you proposed.” I gulped and looked helpless. “But don’t worry about it,” he said, “If anyone brings up the question, we’ll just change the title.” John Santa has written an engaging book he calls a novel, but which really could be more accurately called a meditation on music, the life well-lived, friendship, and the loves of an open and likeable somewhat lost man in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. His persona somewhat reminds me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of John Kennedy Toole’s riotous cult novel A Confederacy of Dunces in that he sort of collides with life as he experiences it, clumsily but effectively winning over those he encounters. Meanwhile, unlike Ignatius, he is won over by them, coming to love and appreciate the bluegrass sub-culture he enters.

John Santa’s Bluegrass is my Second Language is a self published novel describing how a somewhat bumbling musician, composer, video producer, and dog lover is introduced to and then seduced by the bluegrass world of pickers and pickin’ places in central North Carolina. Not really a novel nor a memoir, Bluegrass is my Second Language can, perhaps more accurately, be called a meditation on life, music, and the oneness of it all. It’s easy to be critical about its lack of structure, the need for more editing, its language idiosyncrasies, and more, but that’s all a waste of time because the story emerging in what Santa calls Book One, is a man of generous spirit taking the risk of sharing most of his life with readers. It’s also a coming of age story in that it presents a middle-aged man of significant accomplishment discovering a new self within and developing that self in full.

When I started reading BGSL (bluegrass for Bluegrass is my Second Language), I decided to put my preconceptions (fiction or not, self-published, double spaced, ragged borders, written in faux southern dialect) aside and to just experience the book. First, I learned the narrator came to bluegrass from a rich life in music as a multi-instrument musician and composer with broad knowledge of blues, jazz, and rock informing his introduction to bluegrass. He writes of a “blind date” picking experience “…you just…listen until it tells you…what to play. So after a while you just get good at LISTENING and hearing what things ‘need.’ This song would sound great with a little lead guitar and some harmonica fills, this one a banjo pushing it along, that one a mandolin. And of course, the cello.” All of which puts Santa in a league with the great Sammy Shelor who says he just plays in response to what the singer is saying in the song, or Eric Gibson, whose backup banjo is designed to serve the purpose of the song. This is musicianship of the highest order, so I know I’m not dealing with a person hearing a new language, only a different dialect of a language he’s already deeply familiar with.

John Santa

In the second chapter, John is asked to play a gig before a large party of political folks with people he hasn’t met before, playing songs he doesn’t know and magic happens, as it often does in bluegrass. The five men coalesce and make great music from the heart. He says, “…if you play from the heart and open yourself to music and just TELL THE TRUTH, the music will LIFT YOU UP.” Santa is a musician’s writer rather than a writer’s musician. His book is an extended riff on bluegrass music, a multi-instrumental bluegrass break referencing the tune. twisting it inside out, exploring around it, getting the essence while never being slavishly tied to specific format. His background in blues and jazz emerges in every word he writes while he captures the sense, the feel, the reality of the music. Readers know that to find truth, read fiction. Great truths about bluegrass music emerge in every page of Book One of this novel. Perhaps there are more truths to be learned about bluegrass in BGSL than in Neil V. Rosenberg’s great Bluegrass: A History. That’s the nature of good fiction.

Santa does a particularly good job introducing us to his friends in music, taking us into Haleyland or Brown’s Ol’ Opry, delightful venues where musicians come together to make music. (Shameless Plug – look at my Bluegrasser’s Dream Day here or Hometown Opry here) His tributes to people like Pammy Davis the Queen of Bluegrass, the Macs, Keith, Fred Martin, the Yarbouroughs, BJ, and more are affecting and honest. Their reintroduction in the Glossary is redundant and irrelevant. Santa’s journey through bluegrass is accompanied by several dogs who are lovingly and carefully rendered. His relationship with dogs shines with love, respect, and understanding. He’s a little less successful in his picture of women, though he tries hard. Women in bluegrass have been somewhat problematic. Women, you see, have not been, despite Mother Maybelle Carter, Hazel Dickens, Emmy Lou Harris, and Alison Kraus, seen as at the center of the bluegrass world, which has largely been, until recently, a pretty exclusive boys’ club. Similarly, black people represent a tiny minority of bluegrass population in both performance and audience, despite the fact that their instrument, the banjo, imported from Africa, is absolutely indispensible in bluegrass, as is much of the blues and jazz they also contributed to American music in general and bluegrass in particular.

Pammy Davis, Queen of Bluegrass

At about the halfway point in this volume, Book One ends. I found the story complete and shed a tear at its ending, just as one should when finishing a good book and wishing it would go on. Unfortunately Santa gives in to the urge to give the reader what he thinks the reader thinks he wants. More. He therefore follows up providing two hundred and fifty pages of back story, Glossary, and acknowledgements. This addendum is not completely without merit, as it provides some interesting insights and some moving moments. All of these, however, with good editing could have been folded into the original text, where they belong. As they are presented, however, they’re self-indulgent and irrelevant. They serve to weaken a strong book. And there’s the weakness of self-publishing. It’s like walking a tightrope blind-folded. Good editorial advice and competent copy reading pull a book together, make it coherent, give it form and structure, all the things Bluegrass is my Second Language is missing. Much of Book Two would more appropriately be placed in a blog, which I dearly hope John will undertake to write and maintain.

John on TV

In the end, Bluegrass is my Second Language is worth your time and effort. Book One is a thoroughly delightful excursion into a mostly rural world which the more or less urban sophisticate stumbles into and comes to love. That’s an experience many of us have had in some way or another. John Santa brings the ear of a professional musician, the eye and sensitivity of an artist, and the wonder of a child to exploring an exciting and new world to him. You can purchase this book directly from the author for $25.00 plus $7.50 for shipping or handling or from a number of independent book stores in the University triangle.