Thursday, November 2, 2017

Walt Koken's New Book

I just finished reading this:

Walt Koken, Fire on the Mountain: An American Odyssey, Pennsylvania: Mudthumper Music, 2017.


Walt’s book, long awaited, is a welcome addition to the literature in which the old time community seeks to document in memoir form the personal histories of musicians, the stories of old time bands, and local histories about old time music communities.  Walt’s remembrances, many of which appeared in serialized form as articles in The Old Time Herald, are related with gusto, in a very accessible form, often as lovingly told vignettes, tied together in a package that lends itself to being read cover to cover, in one sitting.   He writes with a light touch in simple, direct, measured language that at times struck me as though I was paging through one lengthy, well crafted song lyric.  He demonstrates a story telling capability, an ability to sustain a continuous narrative.  There is a nice symmetry in his telling of this story – the afterword brings us back to the start of his story in a way that reinforces the entirety of his life choices and musical pursuits. 

Many of the founding fathers of old time music, the legends, appear repeatedly in this text.  Walt tells a loving recollection of an impromptu one-on-one tune trading moment with Tommy Jarrell.  He speaks several times about how Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, Jeff Warner and others exerted influence, committed acts of leadership, and lent a friendly and supportive hand to fellow musicians in ways that suggested a selflessness, and a devotion to the music and musical colleagues.  An equal number of cameo appearances spell out the contribution to old time music made by people such as Alan Jabbour, Joel Shimberg, and Jody Stecher, among others.  Walt describes a tapestry of relationships, friendships, kinships that fueled and sustained old time bands, and old time communities, in his time. 

He captures the highs, and the lows, in the lives of old time bands, describes the realities of long distance hauls that strung together gigs, often requiring massive amounts of travel that characterized the peripatetic life of old time musicians in the 1970s and 1980s.  He talks frankly about the hand to mouth existence of performing, traveling string bands.  No matter how many times I hear such stories, the “criminality” of venue owners who welched or skimped on paying bands, or tried to get an evening of music in return for a hamburger, continue to leave a bad taste.  Walt, however, tells these stories in a way that does not dwell on these moments, these bad memories, and he does not lament his original choice to play music as a way of making a living. 

The book provides details that describe the arc of band life.  He talks about his own band experiences in ways that speak to the initial thrill of coalescing as a creative group, the honeymoons of varied lengths and intensities, the real hard work of building effective repertoires and rehearsing coherent performances, the withering away of the ardor as creative spaces widen and individuals seek their own musical paths.  He talks about the diminishing returns to labor of efforts to sustain bands beyond their shelf life – the realities of small group dynamics revolving around long hauls in seriously sketchy, small, un-airconditioned vehicles, and the centripetal forces of individual band members who over time come to see different musical possibilities for themselves.

As Old Time Herald articles, these articles brought out aspects of Walt’s Highwood Stringband days that were worth reading about, but as a book he very effectively laces together his own initial inspiration to play music, and very readably describes the various interlocking friendships and musical alliances that evolved into bands over his continuing musical career, describing aspects of the Old Time Music world that are worth having gathered in one place. 

I think the book would have benefited from an index.  So much is said in his book about the old time music icons, the festivals and how they have evolved, the lineage of old time bands, the music industry and recording companies that it would have been useful to have a map of these many threads at the end of the book. 

I have the feeling that Walt has more stories in him that are worth weaving together in future recollections that should be assembled in book form.   



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