I’ve been hearing lots of people today talking about sleep deprivation. It’s one of the unofficial through-lines of the Gathering. But usually I don’t hear so much about the lack of sleep until Friday. There’s just so much going on that sleep loses out to one more conversation, one more song, one more Buckaroo brew from the Pioneer Saloon. After all, most of us only get to see each other once a year. Except for the folks we’re just meeting for the first time. So, throughout whatever else I might have to say about the amazing things I got to see and hear and do, take it all with a grain of salt. My addled mind probably isn’t getting all the specifics right.
Thursday started with the artists’ and volunteer’s breakfast, over in the Stockmen’s Casino. Introductions were made, we were all reminded of the things we needed to be reminded of, the sausage gravy was fine, and the coffee was a little thin. Hosts and stage managers grouped up to refresh everyone on the basics, and then we were all off on our separate assignments.
I was free for the daylight hours, so I made my way over to the Convention Center to see Henry Real Bird give the keynote address. That might have been my best decision all day. I’ve seen Hank read more times than I’ve kept track of. I’d show up to hear him read his laundry list. But thank goodness that wasn’t today’s program. The hundreds of other people who showed up for the keynote might not have enjoyed it as much as I would have.
Hank started off by teaching us the call he uses when he’s tending his herd, in place of the ubiquitous ‘He-ya’ we hear most of the rest of the time. Phonetically, I was hearing ‘beshay-jeeden da-whanna,’ with a strong, fast ‘h’ in ‘whanna.’ It sounded like a greeting to the cattle, followed by a reminder to stay on course. The ‘He-ya’ usually seems more straightforwardly like a sound for the cows to want to get away from.
Once we’d all (kind of) learned this call, Hank settled into the heart of his talk, spreading his feet wide, and holding the sides of the podium like it might try to throw him at any moment.
Hank’s address revolved around the horse and his family and tribe’s connection with horses. He mingled recent history, recorded history, and the mythic origins of the sacred beautifully. For me the talk highlighted the sacred that exists in our everyday experiences, and how our mythologies of our lands and animals really come from our everyday experiences. He spoke of how the first horses had come from the sea, to a woman who was fasting near the shore, and how they’d been lost and regained after someone in the tribe broke the single most important rule – to never strike a horse in the face.
Hank shared stories about his own experiences, and about the three generations of his family that preceded him. After many of the small stories that were mixed into his larger talk, he’d say “That’s where I come from.” A good reminder of how the actions of the generations that some before us directly impact our lives.
And it seemed to me that Henry Real Bird was really letting us deep into his inner self. The tears we all could hear in his voice when he was talking about trying to keep a horse from dying hushed the room and had many of us leaning forward in our seats. And for me one of the other most powerful moments was when he spoke of being given permission to speak in public by his grandfather. I can only imagine, as a poet, what deep cultural resonance it must have, and what a lasting support it must be to have the explicit permission and approval of older generations to make his voice known. Henry Real Bird certainly put that permission to direct and beautiful use in the auditorium of the Elko Convention Center on Thursday morning.
During the day, I also found time to do a little boot shopping (you can’t quite get EVERYTHING in San Francisco), and then I made my way over to the Flag View Auxiliary to take in some music. I caught Miss “V” the Gypsy Cowbelle – who I’d seen at one of the Gathering open mics last year and who has obviously been playing out a whole lot since then. Next up was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – who made it through two songs in twenty-five minutes. And finally, Glenn Ohrlin – who, from what he said, seemed to be playing the ‘clean’ versions of all the bawdiest songs he knew. Glenn has a surprising falsetto that he pulled out for a song called “Barnacle Bill,” which is a conversation between a recently disembarked sailor and his girl in that particular port. Glenn always keeps his audiences laughing, but that one was hysterical.
Not long after that it was finally time for me to get down to my stage managing duties for the day. I was tasked with keeping the last two shows of the night in the Convention Center auditorium on track. I got there a few minutes early, and there were already so many cowboy musicians tucked into the back stage that it took me some time to sort out who was in which band. I tried to maintain some order, and the sound crew got all the acts for both shows sound checked in record time. The front-of-house staff used some hard-won herding skills to get a thousand people loaded into their seats in less than ten minutes, and we were off at breakneck speed.
Jay Snider started the evening with a selection of memorized, recited poetry that kept the audience hushed throughout. My biggest challenge was keeping the musicians who were back stage from letting their visiting and carousing spill out onto the stage too soon. After Jay, Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie took the stage, and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Folks back stage just couldn’t keep themselves from dancing, and before long Nick Spitzer had pulled Geno’s mother out onto the edge of the stage to dance. Before long, other visitors and musicians from back stage made their way out to let their feet loose, too. It was a shame to have to keep them on schedule, but there was so much great music to come that Geno and his band only got to play a half hour or so before Wylie & the Wild West were up. Wylie and his band are incredibly skilled at leading an audience, too, and after a gentle, acoustic opening they cranked it up and got everyone shaking and stomping again. And Wylie knew just the moment to bring Paul Zarzyski on stage for maximum effect. The crowd wanted more, Wylie wanted to play more, but there was another show fast on the heels of the first, so we had to move things along again.
The front-of-house staff and sound crew worked miracles once again, and with only 17 minutes between the end of the first show and the start of the second, the auditorium was cleaned and re-loaded with a fresh audience for an on-time start. Paul Zarzyski kicked off the 8 o’clock show with the blend of humor and heartfelt western realities that audiences keep coming back for. When he dropped a couple words from one of his poems, he made just the right production of lowering his voice, finding his glasses, pulling out a copy of the poem, and scanning through it to find what was missing. With the words recovered (corned beef), he launched back into the poem at full cadence and volume, turning a potential disaster into a hilarious moment for the audience to enjoy. After Paul, Dave Stamey was up, keeping the audience laughing with wry observations, and then enrapturing them with his incredible songs and wonderful voice. Dave has an unassuming presence back stage – and, I imagine, pretty much everywhere else – but as soon as he gets on that stage, it’s clear that he is in total control of his instrument, his voice, and the audience. After Dave, Cowboy Celtic was up, doing their blend of cowboy and Irish and Scottish music that highlights the strong, direct connections between the two. Evidently many classic cowboy songs get their tunes from Celtic music brought over by immigrant cowboys in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. With a traditional Irish drum, harp, fiddle, guitar and mandolin, it was easy to hear the connections. Cowboy Celtic were able to swing between uptempo dance numbers and heartbreaking ballads – and even threw in an Argentine harp piece. They also brought Paul Zarzyski back out to introduce a song they’d written from one of his poems, and left the audience with a spring in their step and a hunger for more.
Once the show was over and all the final details were wrapped up, cleaned up, tracked down and closed up, I decided to walk back to the Folklife Center. I grew up in northern Ohio so I’m plenty familiar with the cold, but in San Francisco I get precious little opportunity to interact with ice and snow. It’s a special kind of cold that get my boot-heels clicking as much on the iced mud as they do on the concrete sidewalks. I loved the walk, and was glad for my scarf.
Of course, back at the Folklife Center the Pioneer Saloon was packed to the gills. I made a round of hellos and how-are-yous, got one beer in, and felt the day start to wear on me. The artists may brag about how little sleep they’re getting, but I still have to sleep some time. It’s only Thursday, after all, and this is a marathon, not a sprint!