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Sunday, May 1, 2016

True Storytelling: a May 1st, long ago... when people actually DID things (not virtual things)...

Saturday's FULL EDITION has today's festivals
— including today's 26th Annual "DYLANFEST"
— plus concerts, music news and feature stories, and more. It's right here at a separate click.

This edition? It's a special. A story of May 1st.

The Guide brings you storytelling festivals and events. Being based in journalism, we don't get opportunities to do much storytelling here. Unless the story is true. Presto and voila.

So we're sharing a fun true story of a time when people actually got out and DID THINGS. Real things. Like building the Empire State Building as the tallest in the world, and opening it on May 1st, 1932.

Being that it's a tale of May 1st sweetens it, because it's a much longer-standing worldwide celebration of two things:

•  an ancient blessing of nature's abundance as Spring hits its stride — "Mayday;" and,

•  a centuries-old celebration as "Workers' Day," or a similar title, which nutty Americans decided was some communist thing because Russia has long been among those who celebrates it.

Today, our society deludes ourselves with the idea that "work" is sitting on one's derrier gazing for prolonged intervals into glowing screens.

That's the right place to contrast too much that's "fake" with the VERY REAL of going out to make or experience LIVE MUSIC (!)

It's the Guide's most oft visited theme.

The REAL is going out to actualize one's activism, to do, to interact, to learn, to advocate, to experience, to make things better.

Does our story of May 1st cover all that? Well, no. But May 1st occasions the opportunity to read and go forth energized by its fun.

Does this sound a bit like one of those Garrison Keillor admonitions? Well, okay. Except his are works of fiction.

Either can bring motivational, inspirational, hope-to-help-you-make-others thoughtful, let's-change-the-world aspect. It's also a story that's a whole lot of fun.

Because ...

Physically DOING exciting things — instead of "virtual" things — was what everyone did more recently than, say, thirty or forty years ago. Before all discretionary time got devoured in Cyberia. Used to be that people actually went places, smelled the scents of flowers in the air, the sudden close pass of a honeybee, the gentle rush of a breeze in a tree where birds sing, the gentle raindrops... the sound of crawfish shells bouncing off the railroad ballast (wait for it)... and when you went somewhere, you interacted with those who lived there.

In our tale, they brought important and real historical objects along, to show and to share. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s preacher's robe and vestments. Jamie Wyeth's portrait of JFK. George Washington's working copy of the U.S. Constitution as the founders were crafting it. Lincoln's stovepipe hat and his personal lawbooks. The 1904 automobile that won the first transcontinental race. Not pictures on a little screen. The real stuff.

Native American heritage was represented. Those who endured the slave ships and survived and endured and overcame. European immigrants. Asian immigrants. Latinos, Eastern Europeans, Pacific Islanders. Iconic objects important to each of these groups and their positions. The first U.S. Patent models. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty. The originals. So much more.

It happened only once, taking it all to the 48 contiguous states, bringing appreciation and imparting tangible memories.

And, well, it seems its crew even brought things beyond what anyone expected.

And that's our story of 40 years ago today.

Best of all, it is a tale with a train, AND from a very special time of celebration and excitement when America needed it as badly as any time we've ever needed something — anything real — to restore our spirit.

It was, in terms of the ability to actually do it, made possible by generations of people doing REAL work, in the construction and maintained presence of the nation's railroad network. Something which enabled all kinds of work to be done — including the journey of one unique train. Enjoy.

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Set the wayback machine. We’re doing this in the present tense. It's forty years ago today: May 1, 1976. It's the Bicentennial of the founding of the U.S., and the only project observing it that's nationwide in scope, is well into its journey.

Dubbed the American Freedom Train — AFT for short — it's a one-of-kind cutting-edge multimedia museum-and-beyond on rails, dramatically pulled by one of three vintage, massive steam locomotives. Which engine you get, based on where you are.

It's a chance for ordinary citizens to see key artifacts and experience pivotal moments from their country's history and heritage, right in their own hometowns. In the immediate wake of Vietnam, Watergate, '60s assassinations, hard-won civil rights struggles, the pride of going to the Moon but once again left with a hollow sense that it isn't going to mean anything, the nation hasn't gotten its poop in a group in time to celebrate its 200th birthday, and it isn't clear it wants to.

The American Freedom Train is proving otherwise. It's taken the West Coast, Midwest and Plains states by storm, after beginning in the East.

As night falls today, May 1, 1976, the AFT has just completed its final display day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, its 79th city. Now the crew sits aboard the train, its doors secured and boarding ramps, concessions wagons and field paraphernalia packed-up and ready to go. But this night, the crew sits pensively, unsure whether a very special delivery will arrive in time.

Suddenly, bouncing wildly over the rutted field through the rain, it's headlights of a full-size station wagon, a locally-supplied courtesy-car. Its driver seems on a drunken sailor course to avoid puddles that might be mud bogs. It's erratically racing for the train's car number 110, the Exit Car.

The long station wagon wallops to a stop below the big baggage door. Its occupants jump out even as — over the onboard generators' roar — two blasts are heard on steam locomotive 4449's steamboat whistle. The signal for stay clear: this train is leaving NOW. Frenzy. A rapid transfer — hurling and throwing — it's all being caught, up there on the train, without loss. The crew is feeling surprised satisfaction at their prowess. All aboard: a great many brown paper shopping bags, each stapled at its top. And a whole lot of canned beer. Jax Beer from New Orleans, perhaps, but no chance to read the label. it's flying aboard in a blur. And the train has started moving.

Somehow, all the cargo, plus personal gear and the young crew, all make it up through that baggage door into the train. The station wagon is left running with lights on and keys in the ignition. The wipers are on. It disappears into the distance as the train rounds a slight curve. The train's advance person, acting in the opposite role, will have to get it.

Those brown paper bags have mostly disappared aft to the Preambles for crew who chipped-in there. Remaining portions are opened tout suite, dispensing crawfish for the Exit Car contingent.

All of it originated 60 miles away, other side of the Atchafalaya. It's a take-out special from the annual big festival of crawfish and Cajun and zydeco revelry that most of the crew, while hosting AFT visitors, missed that weekend down in Breau Bridge.

Aboard the train, consumption of crawfish has ensued. Tentatively at first, since few really know how. Jay Bumpus, whose self assurance always conveys a natural knack for anything, quickly gets everyone qualified. Bobby Skillman, raised in Baltimore on Chesapeake blue crabs, adapts rapidly. Remember these two.

Others catch on to the Bumpus crawfish-eating coaching as he chides, "Don't throw that away — you need to crack it open with your teeth. Hey! You didn't suck everything out of there! You're missing the best part!"

All of which is received with hillarity and instructional value.

On board, Sunday is rapidly becoming the wee hours of Monday. The AFT is out of Baton Rouge and soon in the middle of nowhere, en-route to its next exhibition, in New Orleans.

The train is moving especially slow on this ride. Low-lying spongy ground doesn't invite rapid conveyance of a 26-car train chockful of historical treasures.

But the rain has stopped, clouds mostly gone, and the moonlit swamp makes disposal of crawfish shells simple — with the Bumpus assurance that "the gators will eat and appreciate them." And that big open baggage door is the broad side of a barn that's not there.

The Exit Car's open baggage door, being a fishbowl for gawkers while still in Baton Rouge, gets closed and reopened several times. Each cycle, things accumulate inside. Finally, the door stays shut. Either it's a tad chilly for somebody, or it's too many bugs drawn inside by the light. Or something. It's a small accommodation amidst shared distraction and gastronomical exploration. Whatever the impetus, the door rolls shut just as the Spanish moss-draped magnolias, poking out of the swamps, are getting fairly dense and interesting with the Moon brilliant on the patches of still waters.

The tracks are probably skirting the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. But the Exit Car contingent doesn't know. They're deep in the throes of their All-Board Crawfish Festival, complete with cassette tape recorder playing Beau Jocques or Clifton Chenier or Doug Kershaw or somebody's Cajun music they've never heard but really like.

Meanwhile, the fiery spiced crustaceans necessitate prodigious quantities of beer to cool the palate. That's surely true in whatever other parts of the train are participating in parallel. Isn't it?

But aboard the Exit Car, demolished exoskeletal structures begin to appreciably accumulate by that closed sliding baggage door. Better make that, the used pile from the fresh brown bags is reaching into quite a heap. And since none of that is being cast overboard any longer, all those empty beer cans are following a similar in-car trajectory, pumping up the volume of the pile. It's now sort of a linear berm along the closed door. What archaeologists seek as broken pottery shards and ancient meal remnants from the fall of some civilization.

Of course, ingesting spicy food raises the temperature. So excess clothing starts to shed. The youthful crew's usual train-ride-in-the-Exit-Car mode — assembling a communal warren of sleeping bags — is soon populated with underwear bedecked denizens. Their faces are smeared with Louisiana hot sauce. Bellies full of crawfish, cornbread hush puppies, sweet potato pie — and beer. Ears distantly aware of Cajun music and Willie Nelson's new "Red Headed Stranger" tape, alternating on the cassette player, it's tired batteries slowing the tempo.

It's taken hours to break open and eat all that crawfish. And fight the spicy fire. There's more? Such exausting enterprise. Fade to black.

The Exit Car doesn't have any windows. When the AFT sets-up at a display site, this car is there as the place to get the visitors out of the train before they wander into two cars of big diesel-powered electric generators.

Two of those four generators are always on. Always. Meaning, they prevent you from hearing much of anything that's outside, so you need to roll-open the big door and look.

If you ride a train all the time, you can sleep when it moves. If something changes, you wake up. And there is a realization among the Exit Car's crawfish-indulging ferroequinologists that the train has stopped moving. And now there seems to be a bullhorn or something out there somewhere, but you can't make it out over the generators.

The intrepid Jay Bumpus reckons he should determine night or day and location. Clad only in his boxers, he grabs the lock lever and throws the two-armed thrust needed to propel the sliding door, voicing a playful "Open Says-me."

Whereupon daylight blindness strikes; as a clattering and hollow clunking rain of empty beer cans and crawfish fragments depart the car, accelerated by gravity onto the tracks' gravel ballast, steel rail, and freshly-installed concrete sidewalk. Surrounding the base of the brand-new spiffy New Orleans Superdome.

Where the welcoming ceremony is underway with the mayor of NOLA, governor of Louisiana, dignitaries, luminaries, functionaries, and two senior management bosses of the American Freedom Train. The official aspects — the tableau thousands have come to see — supplanted by a cacaphonous clatter advertising the open door's raised dais of boxer shorts. It begins to pivot the tv cameras — as giant as battleship turrets in 1976 — from the intended scene to the latter spectacle.

It's the moment in life when cacophonous horns instantly blare inside your head.

A leaping Bobby Skillman is on it in a flash, reaching the door, crushing the last empty transient can or two, as it slams shut with the salvation of a loud metallic thud. Total elapsed time the door is open? A six or seven second lifetime.

Ahead here in New Orleans, in the shadow of the Superdome, the rest of the day is maintainence. The steam locomotive crew will do an al fresco annual heavy servicing and inspection regimen — to federal standards — that warranted a roundhouse 20 years earlier, in steam days.

All that will consume the arrival day and May 3-9, 1976, when the train sends thousands of thrilled visitors through the exhibits aboard its display cars. Most will say the moving rubber sidewalks — "the belts" — "went too fast."

Then New Orleans, the 80th host city, will be in the history books. Many more stops lie ahead, including a three-month foray all the way up into New England again. Before the train closes forever in the final minutes of 1976, completing its 138th display site in Miami, Florida.

In January, 1977, Jimmy Carter will be inaugurated as President of the United States, and the steam locomotive will begin its trip home to Portland, Oregon, where it had been rescued from being stuffed-and-mounted in a park, and rebuilt to do the work — all the way to Washington, D.C., and eventually, Miami.

But as May begins and the pile of trackside detritus is swept-up in New Orleans, the American Freedom Train has eight months to go.

And the belts will go too fast, to the very end. But there'll never be another clattering rain of crustaceans and aluminum to accompany a dedication ceremony like the one outside Louisiana's brand-new Superdome the morning of May 2nd, 1976. Voulez les bon temps roulez.


Music news, FESTIVALS, and events are in the UPDATED edition originally published April 16 and available at a separate click.

Much more, soon, on other topics.


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♪ The ACOUSTIC AMERICANA MUSIC GUIDE endeavors to bring you NEWS and views of interest to artists everywhere, more specifically to musicians and the creative community and music makers and fans of acoustic and Folk-Americana music, both traditional and innovative forms. From the deepest roots to today’s acoustic renaissance, that’s our beat. We provide a wealth of resources, including a HUGE catalog of acoustic-friendly venues, and schedules and inside info on FESTIVALS and select performances in Southern California in venues monumentally large and intimately small and cozy. We cover workshops and other events for artists and folks in the music industry, and all kinds o’ things in the world of acoustic and Americana and accessible classical music. From washtub bass to musical spoons to oboe to viola to banjo to squeezebox, from Djangostyle to new-fangled-old-time string band music, from sweet Cajun fiddle to bluegrass and pre-bluegrass Appalachian mountain music to all the roots of the blues and where the music is headed now.
The Acoustic Americana Music Guide. Thanks for sittin' a spell.

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