For my friend Jim

Spring is upon us. Season of brightness and rejuvenation. New birds sing from the ground and the air. But winter leaves, taking away another precious life. My friend Jim McGown passed away suddenly last week. It’s a big loss. Jim was a radiant man, a man of peace, filled with goodness, kindness, and love. His spirit wondered at the world- its beauty, grace, and abundance, as well as the perversity of man’s wars, social inequities, and the devastation of our lands by our own hands. He spoke out for freedom and the oppressed from his humble place in Athens, Georgia. He happened to have been my Boy Scouts den master, I suppose it’s called, and I have a vague memory of lasso-ing a fake bull in a church social hall. I’m pretty sure Jim arranged that. But more important than helping my nine-year-old self actualize any western dreams, we became friends and colleagues when I worked at University of Georgia for nearly three years. We connected, and my respect for Jim has always been deep and massive. We worked together loosely, but mainly I enjoyed our conversations and lunches discussing religion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, travels, life, and all sorts of topics he was excited about and considering at the moment. Jim was one of the first and only “adult” colleagues with whom I established a meaningful relationship. You had to meet him. He was one of those few people whose care for the world, and every individual, was palpable and otherworldly. And he took action for the betterment of others. He wore his emotion on his sleeve and was a joy to spend time with. I would bump into him around town and always loved stopping, catching up, and getting into a great conversation. He spoke of having my parents and I over for a kosher dinner every so often. Sadly we just never set plans and made it over.

This weekend there was a memorial service for Jim, and it was one of the most powerful and beautiful services I’ve ever experienced. Todd and Evan, his sons, spoke, each in their own unique manner, and they captured his spirit and essence perfectly. Fitting, inspiring, and inspired tributes.

I’ll carry Jim’s memory on always, and am fortunate to have known this great man and been his friend. I hope I can bring to this world the same goodness and wonder that Jim shared. If you follow a faith tradition, consider Jim, as a Pastor said in his eulogy, a modern day Biblical prophet in Birkenstocks. His was the kindness of Abraham, and he loved the world and its people as Jesus exhorted unto his followers.

I wrote a song today for Jim. It’s not necessarily finished, but here’s where it stands, below. The final line about the peach tree is from Todd’s closing words.

I lost a friend/ we’ll never get him back again
and we’ll never hear him laugh again
I’ve lost a friend

Bright as the sky/ with his arms always open wide
and his heart it was Everest-sized
bright as the sky

*All the wreckage/ just a beautiful pain
and we may never be the same
but you taught us to be better
than our foolish ways

An artist holds a pen/ she draws forth the spirit within
she builds what cannot be built again
the artist and her pen

The words he once spoke/ read like a hidden note
echo like words from a long time ago
the words that he spoke

*All the wreckage/ just a beautiful pain
and we may never be the same
but you taught us to be better
than our foolish ways

Two weeks ago you put mulch below your peach tree
on a March afternoon
now the peach blossoms bloom

When the saints go marching in oh when the saints go marching in
how I long to be in that number when the saints go marching in

Swing low sweet chariot coming for to carry me home

I’m gonna sing I’m gonna shout I’m gonna praise the lord out loud
when those gates are opened wide I’ll see our star up in the sky
I’m gonna sing I’m gonna shout I’m gonna sing

RIP Jim McGown. I’ll miss you.

Here’s to Craig..

The Athens music community has lost a great friend and supporter. Craig Lieske passed away unexpectedly two weeks ago. I’ve been in and out of Athens a bit since then, mostly in Atlanta, and missed yesterday’s memorial service @ the 40 Watt, get-togethers at Flicker.. Wanted to take a moment to share my experience of Craig here.

Craig was a man about town- one of those figures you bump into downtown in a place like Athens, and can’t help but be intrigued by, and then get to know. Our interactions tended to be in passing, some short pleasantries as either I or both of us moved around the western edge of Washington Street. His laugh was a crazy cackle and he moved in sharp, constant gestures. Always shifting.

As many people have written or stated in memorials, he was a really supportive and encouraging guy. He seemed like an older statesman who believed in me and knew there were more and better songs to come, and even better presentations for my music. It was unspoken, but Craig knew you have to live your way into your songs, voice, and music. I didn’t mind when he said my albums were too clean. We both know it’s noble to keep writing, working, and finding different aesthetics for your songs. Too bad he didn’t get to hear the new album- it would definitely have been his favorite. He liked all kinds of music, but really seemed to love a performance that was beautifully rough and raw. He told me once I should break up with my girlfriend, get sad, and write some songs of real heartbreak. He also told us he’d dance at our wedding. Maybe he knew something we didn’t.

I hadn’t seen him play in a while, and he’d always let me know he was sorry to miss my latest show. But in Craig I felt a kindred spirit and someone who cared about me and my work. I was offered his copy of Neil Young’s new book at Avid Bookshop, but passed.. I’d wait for another one to be ordered. Hope he read and enjoyed it. The last night he played I’d played my Malian music set during happy hour at the Green Room and wandered down to the 40 Watt afterwards to listen to a few songs. I was standing outside and for a moment I could see Craig rockin on stage to Springsteen through a small shaft in the open door. He was epic. How awful and sobering that a life can just suddenly end in its prime. What do you do in the face of that? Hopefully you be true to yourself, find meaning and fulfillment in your interests, friends, and community, and bring light to others in small and unspeakable ways, as Craig did. I’m sure when I record and release my most raw albums I’ll think of him. I’ve got one in mind.

Update on Mali

These are tough times for Mali, a place that’s supremely important to me. Please visit the links below for a description of the past few months’ storyline. Since January we’ve seen the Tuareg rebellion in the desert north with subsequent human rights violations and refugee issues as well as a coup d’etat in the capital, Bamako, that has shaken the foundations of Malian democracy. Currently, problematic factions are vying for leadership in the self-declared but unrecognized Azawad (Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, the radical Islamist shariah law-enforcing Ansar Dine, and the rebel group, MNLA). All of this amidst a growing food crises throughout the region.

Read about the grave issues relating to Mali’s north and south in these following articles/sites:
Huffington Post
New York Times (on Azawad)/ New York Times (on the coup)
Bridges From Bamako
Time Magazine

The following organizations are aiding Malian refugees in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. Many are sending supplies into northern Mali and working to resupply medical supplies and other needs:
MSF (Doctors Without Borders)
Red Cross
Cri de Coeur
African Sky
See a map of the refugee movement (dates April 22nd) here.

Please consider making a donation to one of the above organizations and spread the word.

With hope for peace, freedom, and civil liberties throughout the world..
Ala ka nogoyake, Ala ka Mali yiriwa


Wanna inspire a song?

As some have heard at recent live shows or in conversation, I’m working on writing an album of songs now that tell stories from the global south- either giving voice to particular individuals whom I’ve met on my travels or learned about, or songs detailing sustainable development issues and themes along with the challenges and richness of life in ‘developing’ nations. I’m excited to write and share these meaningful songs and stories. I see this as music, and the folk music tradition, at its core and deepest expression- delivering important, inspired messages about life, the world, and our actions within it through poetry and song. A few of the songs for the album will have appeared before (“Don Fernando”, and “Diamonds” from the forthcoming Mali album, Dugu Wolo), but will be rerecorded and presented with a new sound. One or two others have been played at recent shows.

The record will feature issues and stories about which I’m passionate, but need not stem from my experiences alone. In fact, I wouldn’t even try now to put into song or writing all of the different people, issues, or moments I’ve been moved by in my travels and Peace Corps experience in Mali. I hope these will emerge at the right time. So, I’d love to hear about the issues you’re passionate about and try to write a few songs for this record which come from you. I invite you to share the story of an individual fighting for dignity, human rights, and development, or an issue you care about from the global south. I’ll work on writing a song about it for possible inclusion on this unnamed, work-in-progress album. You can’t force a song, of course. They’re tricky, unpredictable beasts. But I’ll give it a shot.

Email to suggest a song that matters to you- specific details on a compelling issue (sanitation, education, rural public health, labor rights, etc.) or a special person you believe is SONGWORTHY. Please include a phone number and I will either email or call to learn more about your song!

All song ideas submitted will be included on a website devoted to this record when the album comes out at a future date. Represent, y’all.

Hope to hear from ya soon,

Camelot, drop bears & Irish pubs

Backtracking, again, to the Netherlands..

Tuesday we made it to Nijmegen in the afternoon, left our bags at the venue, and wandered around to look for a hostel. No luck. None in town, actually. Passed the next few hours too tired to really do anything and just sitting around and waiting. In the evening we met up with the folks running the show, and were offered a free meal and drinks. Had fun playing there- small corner stage at Cafe Camelot. Good ambiance and there were a few people familiar with my stuff there, which is always a surprise and an honor. Got to hang out with them before going to our host’s place to crash. Played some music back at his place, and Crash played some fantastic songs he’s written, and that was that.

Wednesday we made our way to Alem to stay at a hostel I had been to in August ’09 for a few days. Had an amazing dinner at Theo’s, the proprietor, a workhorse and a supporter, and listened to the Counting Crows’ August & Everything After, which I haven’t heard in a while. Back at the hostel we sat with an Australian who lived way out in the country by Darwin. Heard some wild stories about crocodiles, swimming with sharks, wallaby hunts, and other Ozzie stuff, and made my way upstairs to sleep at the fine, rare hour of ten pm. Turns out the whole ‘drop bear’ phenomenon (koala bears getting high high up in the eucalyptus trees by eating the leaves, occasionally getting too dizzy, falling out of the trees, and, at times, killing people below by dropping directly on their heads), by the way, is the Ozzies taking the piss out of travelers. Still think it’s a great band name. The next night we played at the Irish Pub in Rossum, for Saint Patrick’s Day. Think this was the day we walked the three kilometers into Rossum to get food, walked back, and then walked back to town to the pub with our gear. Neat pub I’d been to and played in before (last time I remember walking around behind the bar and singing and playing from there) and people having a good time for the ‘holiday’. There was no amplification, and I practically destroyed my voice trying to sing out, but there was a group of cool youngsters listening and enjoying. Hung out with them afterwards- Theo, Lies, Gert, Tim, Thomas, and others. As we left I mentioned to one of the girls there, Maureen, a midwife, that maybe, whenever I get married, I’ll come back and she can help my wife give birth. She thought I said I was gonna come back, marry her, and we’d have kids together. She laughed and said “You’ll have to ask him”, pointing to her boyfriend.

Friday we helped Theo move a refrigerator and some other junk to his car and then the local dump, and caught a train north to Assen, where we were met by a prince among men, Thomas Kaldijk of Blueprint Radio. He took us to his place and we had some down time before heading into Veendam for the live radio show with studio audience. It was a cool show with a good audience, and a friend and Mali project supporter came in from a nearby village for the show. Had a full dinner back at Thomas and his lovely wife’s and spent a while perusing his massive music collection, listening, and talking about music. Good stuff indeed- love those nights. The next day they took us into Groningen and we checked into a hostel and walked around town looking for a potential venue to play that night. Ended up getting permission to play at O’Cealligh’s Irish pub and played solo acoustic there that night and hung out. Turned into a super late night as we ended up going to another bar after O’Ceallaigh’s closed. Got home at four or five. Slept in, got up, had some falafel, and made my way past the art museum to the train station intending to go visit Harlingen, a large fishing village on the coast and a departure point for the Frisian Islands. But decided to hang back and take it easy in Groningen instead. Crash and I went back to O’Ceallaigh’s and hung out with the staff and our new friend Rimt into the night. On Monday we headed to Leeuwarden in Friesland and met up with Marthijn de Witt, a really cool guy and radio dj. Had an incredible fish curry soup, or something of the sort, at his place, with Marthijn, his wife, and their three week old, and went to the radio station to record a session. Fun times there, playing and chatting into the night. He took us back to the guest house around midnight. We went back to Amsterdam the next day and visited a few friends- Valentine, a Dutch actress whom we had drinks with in Vondelpark, and Naomi Backer whom I met up with in a cafe that night. Good day there, and roamed the streets in search of food for a while, a long walk around that led to the Maoz falafel joint around the corner from the hostel. There was an Israeli guy at the hostel who had just fled from Israel, and apparently owes a ton in unpaid taxes, and he was on the lookout for a job to try to get started and settled in The Netherlands. He told Crash his father was from Ukraine, or Kazakhstan, and when he finally went to meet him at age twenty-five or so, he discovered that his father was a drunk just like everyone had said. Yikes.

The final push of shows began on Wednesday back in Alem, this time doing a house concert in a barn at the old hostel. Had to walk with our bags and guitars, again, from Rossum to Alem, which was another long and heavy stretch. First we swept and cleared the room of old furniture, wood, and all sorts of old stuff. Darius, a Latvian in Netherlands to buy cars and take back to his country to resell, was there, and managed to tow out of the barn an old Land Rover with no battery. “Dis is my biziness. My biziness iz carz.” Ended up being a great night. Thirty-plus people came, including our new friends in town, and we played for a while. There was a fire outside the barn door and we hung out by the fire for a bit and then got roped in by a drunk girl and her boyfriend to do a bit more. A few songs in, the electricity went out and the night winded down by the fire.Travelled to Bergen op Zoom Thursday for Jos Van den Boom’s Crossroads radio show. Beautiful sound and venue, and found a bit of time to sit back in the green room and strum around after we were treated to a good dinner of bread, cheese, and jelly. Enjoyed another night checking out our host, Bert’s, massive cd collection, chatting, and having some late night food.

Next day we had some down time at Bert’s and did laundry before catching the train for Leiden. A bit tricky getting to the venue, but we made it to Q-Bus just in time for a fantastic meal of Chinese takeout and played a show to a small listening crowd. One guy was in the back laid out on some sort of riser like he was tanning. Pretty funny when I noticed him in the darkness in the back posing like a model for some sort of nude painting. Never seen someone at a show sprawled out like that. I got to sit and play some guitar that night and work on a song while Crash hung out upstairs with a party band that was recording in the complex. Apparently they had some incredibly lewd lyrics which I can’t seem to remember, but really raunchy stuff.

It had rained in the night, first time it was overcast and really chilly, and we trained to the small town of Deurne and were picked up by Hans for the house concert that night in the smaller town of Vlierden. Enjoyed a nice dinner with the family and their gerbil who rolled around the kitchen and under the table in a little plastic round cage. We saw Lois extract a few teeth from the pet, too, with a pair of pliers, careful not to snap off his tongue. Wild. Lovely back yard- a lot of open space and fields for the kids to play in. Their kids opened the show- the son played one or two piano songs and the daughter on guitar. Very cute. We played and got to meet the folks briefly before rushing out to the train station to catch our bus in Eindhoven in time. I’ve always loved doing house concerts and getting to meet and hang out with the audience and hosts after the show, so it was unfortunate to jet outta there immediately after playing. Hopefully we can visit again and have more time with the folks in Vlierden. We got the train but it stopped at the next stop due to some sort of rail troubles, so we grabbed a taxi along with an Irish guy living in the area to Eindoven and got the bus in time. It was an overnight bus headed to London. We, as it turned out, were not.