Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane - Book Review

With The Given Day Dennis Lehane steps into the world of major American novelist. Set in the Boston of the 1918 influenza epidemic, emerging labor movement, and Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox, the story follows a cast of characters reaching across barriers of social, ethnic, and racial separation to weave a story of depth and intricacy. I've followed Lehane for about a decade through a delightful series of genre mysteries set in Boston to his much more ambitious efforts in Mystic River and Shutter Island, soon to be a major movie. The Given Day takes on more challenging themes for both the author and the reader. Written with compassion that never hides the bitter violence, racism, and anti-red paranoia of the era, the book examines its characters and their lives as they take on the challenge of living and learning to become more human.

The novel opens with an arresting set-piece featuring Babe Ruth and his Boston Red Sox whose train is stopped along the tracks in Ohio. Ruth debarks and soon hears the sound of a ball game. He walks toward the sound to discover a group of black men skillfully engaged in a high level game. He joins them in his own boyish fashion, only to discover that their skills at least approach his. Other members of the Sox join in and soon the game becomes tense and nasty as the Sox realize they need to cheat to beat the local black men. All sense of camaraderie and connectedness growing from love of the game disappears as the Red Sox's racism destroys any possibility of overcoming barriers.
            Dennis Lehane
Cut to Boston in the period just before the end of World War I. Officer Danny Coughlin, of the Boston Police Department and son of Captain Tom Coughlin, is detailed to ensure the quarantine of returning soldiers suffering from influenza. The flu spreads across the city and then the country, killing millions as labor strife in Boston increases because the police have been denied any pay increases or benefits since 1903. Into this rich soup of fictional characters come the historical mayor of Boston and police commissioner as well as the likes of Governor Calvin Coolidge, John Hoover, a number of labor organizers, and, running through the novel, Babe Ruth seeking a raise from the Red Sox and confronting his own confusion about the racial, social, and labor strife surrounding him.

The intersecting lives of the Coughlin family and Luther Laurence, one of the baseball players in the opening baseball sequence in the red-baiting and racist environment of post-war Boston create a tense and enthralling reading environment while taking on serious issues still confronting contemporary society. The theme of terrorism is seen in the anti-union and anarchist scare just after the first world war as a strangely wrong FBI, well BI since it hadn't been renamed yet, agent named John Hoover shows up. One of the interesting elements of this intriguing and excellent novel is the appearance of real historical characters in well researched appearances true to their historical reality. In many ways I found The Given Day to be reminiscent of the works of Don DeLillo's Underworld, although much more easily accessible.

With The Given Day, Dennis Lehane has stepped up into the world of serious novelists. He sustains a convoluted and often violent story through over 700 pages of carefully wrought text while grappling with some of the central issues still beleaguering the country today. Of particular interest to me was Lehane's skill at capturing the demagoguery of the race and red-baiting of the era, used to maintain the power and control of the corrupt Irish police and Boston Brahmin city fathers. Their willingness to use any strategy to ensure their own control was as frightening in retrospect as it is today.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane is published by Harper-Collins and is available through all the usual outlets and as an e-book. Support your local independent bookstore.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Jennings Chestnut Memorial/Benefit - RIP

On Sunday, February 21st, well over 500 of Jennings Chestnut's friends turned up at Conway High School for what was supposed to have been a benefit concert to help raise money for his medical care and family obligations. Jennings had hoped to be there, but, sadly, had died a little over a week earlier of the brain cancer he had only learned of about a month earlier. The benefit turned into a memorial for a man who was loved and respected in his community, to which he had devoted much of his efforts through the years. As it is with such events, there were tears and a great deal of sadness at his too quick loss. There was also plenty of laughter as people remembered his quirks and qualities. And, as was almost always the case around Jennings, there was lots of fine bluegrass music. Through the efforts of Donald Smith, his partner in Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, the annual “Free to the Public” bluegrass festival he had built, Shane Hubbard, who has been running the Chestnut Mandolin Shop for the past several weeks, and especially, Alan Bibey, the great mandolin player who lives nearby along the Grand Strand, the Memorial/Benefit concert drew together many of Jennings' friends to make music and remember him.

Willi Chestnut & Ginger Campbell
Jennings Chestnut is survived by his wife Willi, five children, eighteen grandchildren, and eight great-great grandchildren.

The Chestnut Family

Jennings Chestnut is perhaps best known as the promoter of Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, which will be having its fourteenth edition on May 8th of this year.  It was Jennings' conviction that the people of Conway and Horry County deserved the opportunity to enjoy world class music "Free to the Public" because many of the people who live there couldn't afford to attend festivals charging an admission fee.  As Donald Smith, his partner in the venture commented on Sunday, "Just because it's free doesn't mean it doesn't cost anything."  Through the history of this festival, Jennings tirelessly raised money and community support to provide the funds to make it happen.  In recent years, he was able to get his festival declared a 501 c(3) non-profit organization and seek foundation and public funds to help support the effort.  He was recognized by the State of South Carolina as a winner of the Folk Heritage Award. 

The Old Peanut Warehouse
When Jennings decided to inaugurate the first Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, he remembered the disused Old Peanut Warehouse owned by Burroughs and Chapin Corporation and located under the Main Street bridge.  He and Willi, along with a few friends, cleaned the accumulated mess from the historic old building, including years of pigeon leavings and offered the first festival held there.  Over the years, the back stage area has become legendary among bluegrass performers for the good food and warm fellowship offered by the crew of volunteers headed by Miss Willi.  Jennings estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 people attended the event annually. As a native of Conway, it was Jennings wish to provide an opportunity for his lifelong friends and neighbors to enjoy the music he so loved in a uniquely appropriate setting for bluegrass music.

Jennings and Daughter Ginger Campbell

At the Memorial/Benefit concert held on February 21st, a number of bands appeared to help raise funds and a number of items were offered as door prizes or by auction.  I'd like to reminisce some about our own experiences with Jennings over the too short years we knew him as well as present pictures of some of the many people who attended the event.  

The Pathway Bluegrass Band

Long-Time Volunteers
Eve Hinman and Dee Payne
We first met Jennings and Willi Chestnut in the Chestnut Mandolin Shop in Conway, South Carolina shortly after we had moved to Myrtle Beach for a brief period.  I had bought a banjo, but found learning to play it very slow going, so I called Jennings and asked whether he gave lessons.  He said, "No, but if you need some help, give me a call, come on out, and I'll try to give you some help."  So began what was to become an important relationship in Irene's and my life.  After we moved back north, we made it a point to spend a day or so visiting with Jennings and Miss Willi on our way through Myrtle Beach and were privileged to work as volunteers at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw.  Often, when we were visiting, a regular customer would come into the store.  Jennings would introduce us and then look towards the north-facing rear of the store and say, "Ted comes from up there; he's a Yankee, but he's all right."  At other times, he look at me with a twinkle in his eye, and then look out the back and say, "Ted, you know there's Yankees live up there."  Jennings was a man of his time and place - a true gentleman and a great friend.

Jennings often spoke to us of the Red White Band and their importance to him.  While White has passed away, his family gospel band remains and performed with fervor and skill at the benefit.

The White Family Band

Jennings began building instruments when his son, Jennings, Jr., has indicated he'd like to learn to play.  Not having enough money to buy one, he decided to make it, and the first Chestnut mandolin sounded O.K., so he thought he'd build some more.  At his death, the last three completed mandolins were still in his shop, but they've since been sold.  Ricky Stroud, of the Hagar's Mountain Boys, plays a Chestnut mandolin, which he prizes above all others.  Jenni Gardner, a native of Conway now a professional musician in Nashville, spoke tearfully and eloquently at the benefit about the importance of Jennings to her development as a picker and her love for her Chestnut mandolin, number fifty-six.  Jennings completed seventy-six mandolins and the pieces of four more remain in his work-shop.  His instruments are sought after, currently selling in the $6,000 range.  One is on permanent exhibit at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.
Jenni Gardner

Jennings was exceedingly loyal to his friends, sometimes hiring them to perform long after they had passed their peak as performers.  At the same time, he was a good judge of upcoming talent, immediately recognizing the young Snyder Family as excellent musicians and a good draw, and booking them for his festival a couple of times.  The Snyders, including four year old Owen, were eager participants in the benefit.

The Snyder Family Band

Food Provided by a Local Restaurant

Jennings was also very clear about how he thought things ought to operate and what he saw as right and wrong.  While he claimed never to get angry, woe betide the band which ran over its time or behaved on stage in inappropriate ways.  He was a bluegrass traditionalist, once having refused a band permission to put electronic keyboards on the stage at Ocean Lakes, where he was booker for many years and acted as emcee during their annual August bluegrass festival.  Jennings stood by his principles!  

The Conway High School Acapella Choir

Lizzie Long, Miss Willi Chestnut, Little Roy Lewis
Jennings was determined that he would not leave Willi with huge expenses as a result of his death.  We arrived at their modest home a few miles outside Conway on a drizzling day to see a large FedEx delivery truck unloading something into his garage.  Jennings, dressed in a blue bathrobe and assisting himself with a wheeled walker was outside supervising the unloading of his own casket into the garage.  He told us he had had to purchase one when his brother died, and it had cost $3,000 dollars.  WalMart caskets were $895 and that was good enough for him.  While he had seemed to rally for a while, Jennings died on February 14th.  His funeral was held the following Wednesday, and again, he succeeded in managing his own exit.  Jennings insisted that his beloved Chevrolet Suburban, 'Ol Blue, be used as a hearse to transport him to the graveyard, and so it was.  His idiosyncrasies were a deep part of his character, and they were honored at his funeral and at the Memorial.  Both Donald Smith and Jennings' old friend bluegrass promoter Milton Harkey spoke at both events.  

Donald Smith

Milton Harkey Presenting a Check from His Festival
Bluegrass First Class

More musicians wished to perform than time was available, and the program inevitably ran over time.  Jennings would have been rolling over in his grave at this, as he was a stickler for timliness and having a highly disciplined stage.  Nevertheless, Alan Bibey drew together a top notch lineup of talent, and Cactus Jack Murphy, a local radio personality and station owner (WLSC in Loris, SC) tried valiantly to keep it moving along, despite the difficulty of getting some bands off stage.  Jennings would have known how to do it.
Alan Bibey on Stage

Jack Murphy Conducting a Drawing with the Help of
Shane Hubbard and the Tew Daughters 

The Gena Britt (Tew) Band

Little Roy Lewis 

The Successful Bidder for the Martin HD28 Guitar
With His Wife and Miss Willi

The Audience

The Jeanette Williams Band

The Morris Brothers
Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Carolina Sonshine

Dayton and Ginger Campbell, Miss Willi
and Grand Daughter Amanda Lynn

Jennings Chestnut often said there was nothing special or unusual about him, but he was wrong.  While he was a simple man who lived a simple and un-ostentatious life, he was loyal, sometimes to a fault, honest, and doggedly consistent in his commitments and his work ethic.  To make Bluegrass on the Waccamaw a success, he worked ceaselessly throughout the year raising money to support the event.  He didn't put on airs or high hat anyone.  Here are a few pictures of him doing what he liked to do best.
Giving Lifetime Service Award
The Late Rocky Springs' Family


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Palatka Bluegrass Festival 2010 - Saturday

Each morning during the Palatka Bluegrass Festival the Ranch provides a wholesome, rib-sticking breakfast at a reasonable price of festival goers.  In addition to getting a good breakfast, it's a good opportunity to interact with ranch personell to get a better idea of the place.  Under the leadership of Executive Director Ken Johnson the "Rodeheaver Boys Ranch provides a wholesome home environment with religious, educational and vocational training for at-risk boys. These boys have no home of their own because of parental death, desertion, divorce, disability or dysfunction. Rodeheaver Boys Ranch provides these deserving young men a second chance in life and an opportunity to build a strong foundation for the future. Rodeheaver Boys Ranch has been carrying out this mission since 1950." The boys live in houses scattered about the campus with a couple serving as house parents.  Every indication that we have suggests a loving, disciplined, supportive, Christian environment.

Ken Johnson

Typical Ranch Home

In the Dining Hall 


Morning in the Campground

Saturday dawned warm and lovely and only got better as the day progressed.  Lots of people enjoyed jamming at their rigs, while others headed for the performance shed for a day of fine bluegrass music.  The day began with an open stage.

The Swanson Family Band

Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans

On first sight Phillip Steinmetz promises a change of pace.  Dressed in homespun clothes and carrying an open back banjo, his look and sound resurrect the string band sounds of old time music that were the precursor for bluegrass music.  Singing Uncle Dave Macon and Grandpa Jones with healthy doses of music reaching back into the nineteenth century, his performance is authentic, tuneful, and enjoyable.  As Grandpa Jones' great nephew, he carries on the tradition of old time mountain music and entertains as he informs his audience.  His band for this performance also contributed a Carter Family piece using autoharp and guitar played in Mother Maybelle Carter's style.  
Phillip Steinmetz

Carter Family Style

Dry Branch Fire Squad 

For more than thirty years, Dry Branch Fire Squad, under the leadership of Ron Thomason has offered up traditional music and topical contemporary humor in a blend that amuses and presents some of the most primitive sounding, fervant gospel music along with songs of horses, the West, and the horrors of war.  Thomason, as well as being a fine singer and Monroe style mandolin player, is a serious thinker about the world, which he presents with an ironic twist that often skewers before his audience even knows the blade has been inserted.  

Brian Aldridge

Tom Boyd

Dan Russell

Ron Thomasson

Essential Workers


Bobby Osborne & Rocky Top Express

Bobby Osborne, along with his now retired brother Sonny, established a new and exciting band touring during the fifties and sixties.  They became members of the Grand Ol' Opry in 1964, and Bobby still performs there.  His appearance at festivals helps retain a sense of connection to the early days of bluegrass music. 
Bobby Osborne

Bobby Osborne, Jr.

David Crow 

Mike Toppins

Darryl Mosely 

Tom Boyd Keeps the Young Involved

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers took the stage for a double set occasioned by scheduling difficulties encountered by The Steeldrivers and The Travelin' McCourys.  Ninety minutes is a long time for a single band to hold an audience.  But from the time the band struck up the first three notes of their number one song "Ring the Bell" until a standing ovation recalled them for an encore, the Gibson's had the crowd with them completely.  They sang songs from their album "Ring the Bell" which has been number one on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts for three months as well as many songs from their catalog of great music, about sixty percent of which has been written by the brothers themselves.  Five successive number one CDs tell a lot of the story, but the on stage chemistry of this group grabs and holds an audience without gimmicks or showboating.  All they provide is great music and intense personal commitment.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson
It does the members of the Gibson Brothers a disservice to refer to them as sidemen.  Each is such a complete musician and adds so significantly to the overall sound of this superb band that their ensemble sound is currently unequaled among touring bluegrass bands. Their musicality, tightness, emotional intensity, and commitment to supporting Eric and Leigh's music is truly unsurpassed as they challenge and push the two brothers to drive themselves harder to exceed the high expectations they have developed for themselves.  The recent addition of Joe Walsh on mandolin has finalized the solidification of this band.  Long time bandmate, often called the third Gibson brother, Mike Barber always supports the music on bass with interesting and inventive play. Clayton Campbell on fiddle soars to places many other fiddlers never even attempt to reach. At Palatka, the band was joined by former band mate Junior Barber, who has recently retired to Florida. 

Joe Walsh

Clayton Campbell

Mike Barber

Junior Barber 



The Travelin' McCourys
As Del McCoury's sons and the other members of his fabled band become increasingly accustomed to working without their  Dad, the band will inevitably move from being an enjoyable group taking pleasure in working with each other into one of the top bands in bluegrass.  They will be aided by signing a regular guitar player to develop with him, and Josh Williams (who appeared with them at Palatka) would be an excellent choice for both the McCourys and for Williams himself.  Once they establish a characteristic sound for themselves, develop their own repertoire, and begin building a catalog of their own original songs tailored to the sound they wish to create, this band will find its place.  As it is now, they are an immensely likeable and enthusiastic group who still give the impression of being a group of eager kids out on a romp for the first time without adult supervision.

Ronnie McCoury

Rob McCoury 

Josh Williams

Jason Carter 

Alan Bartram

We needed to leave after the afternoon program, thus missing the delayed Steeldrivers, in order to attend the Memorial/Benefit for Jennings Chestnut, about which I'll be writing in a couple of days.  Meanwhile, I want to to especially thank Ranch Director of Development Jeff King and festival promoter Norman Adams for helping us out by allowing us to leave our trailer on site for a couple of extra days and providing us with premium seating to permit Irene and me to take the kind of photographs we like to post.
Jeff and Donna King

Judy and Norman Adams