“When the wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up to dance.” An enigmatic phrase from a ninth century Chinese poem. When the old songs are sung, singer, listener, and the song itself come alive. That’s what it means to me.
The songs on Wooden Man have been with me for many years. Most of them were written and recorded well before I was born. They speak about lost love, natural disasters, prison, death, and more—themes of folk music that have sadly been discarded by the nabobs of popular music. But in a real sense they are popular music. Old songs continue to be sung because they carry truths about our lives. Such truths go beyond our direct experience—I never waited out a dust storm or sat in a small town jail or dreamed about kissing my dead lover. Vivid lyrics and plain melodies open another’s experience to each of us. In a strange sense, we live a new life, and the song becomes our own.
We recorded most of these songs in my attic on Russell Street in Berkeley during the spring of 2000. Brendan Doyle brought over microphones, stands, his computer, and a bunch of other gear, and we set up a remote digital studio. The musicians are old friends. We have been sharing music for many years, some going back to high school and college days. I put together simple ensembles that felt right for each particular song.
Although the material derives from styles of American music of the rural south, these recordings, our playing, and singing are infused with spirits of the place and time we inhabit. I hear Berkeley and New York City in the mix, from the mid-2Oth to the early-21st century. We have this wide circle of friends who try to be as true as possible to tradition, source, and root feeling. And who try to be completely ourselves. It’s an interesting and creative tension to live with. Whether we succeed or fail, the effort itself causes the wooden man to sing, the stone woman to dance.
—Alan Senauke May 2002 Berkeley, California
ABOUT THE SONGS 1. The Bravest Cowboy is often found in collections of cowboy songs. I learned it in 1980 when my musical partner Howie Tarnower and I visited Tommy Jarrell in Toast, North Carolina. Like many others who spent time with him, we found Tommy warm, open, and full of music right up to the end. I am grateful to have had these few days with him. Bill Evans: banjo Suzy Thompson: fiddle Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
2. Angelina Baker/Angeline the Baker has two sources. The song was composed by Stephen Foster. As a slave-era song it includes a verse or two I chose not to sing. I wonder if the tune predates the song or vice-versa? I have always loved the tune, and first heard the song from Mac Benford, when Mac, Jody Stecher, and I did a short tour of the midwest together in the fall of 1981. Bill Evans: vocal, banjo Suzy Thompson: vocal, fiddle Larry Hanks: bass vocal Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
3. The Blue Sky Boys’ version of The Unquiet Grave caught my attention on a collection of their songs issued by the Country Music Foundation in the 1970s. It is a morbid and mysterious lyric, a dialogue between living and dead that speaks to the persistence of grief and desire. I suppose that is why I like it. This version is a variant of Child Ballad 78, “Cold Blows the Wind.” The duet is by myself and Kate Brislin, one of my favorite singing partners for more than 20 years. Kate Brislin: vocal, guitar Jody Stecher: mandolin Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
4. The Preacher and the Bear was an 1893 hit composed by Alfred Williams and Joe Arzonia. It became a standard in the repertoire of white and black minstrel bands. This version is adapted from a 1975 Library of Congress recording by George & Ethel McCoy of East St. Louis, Illinois. Bill Evans: banjo Suzy Thompson: vocal Larry Hanks: bass vocal Alan Senauke: vocal, guitar Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
5. La Valse de Grands Chemin comes from the playing of the great Cajun musician Iry Lejeune. In the late 1940s and early 50s, his impassioned singing and fiery accordion playing set a new standard for Cajun music. He died before reaching thirty, but his influence is still strong. It flowed freely in the playing of our late friend Danny Poullard, who opened the door for many of us in California who play and love Louisiana French music. Suzy Thompson: vocal, accordion, fiddle Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
6. In his notes to Bear Family’s monumental CD box set, The Carter Family—No household is complete without it!—Charles Wolfe writes: “Diamonds in the Rough was another old shape-note gospel song that A.P. (Carter) found and rearranged. The song itself had been written and copyrighted back in 1897, with composer credits to C.W. Bryan.” Suzy Thompson: vocal, fiddle Bill Evans: banjo Eric Thompson: mandolin Larry Hanks: bass vocal Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars A.P. Carter, APRS, BMI
7. Jon Sholle and I have been playing Tom Cat Blues since high school in Great Neck, N.Y. We cobbled together our first oldtime/bluegrass band, The Smokey Mountain Revelers, in 1963, and we have stayed good friends. Without overstating the case, Jon is the most astonishing, fluid, and energizing guitar player I have ever met. I thought that in 1963, and I think it now. It was great fun to record this at his home studio in Ossining, N.Y. “Tom Cat Blues” comes from Cliff Carlisle via the New Lost City Ramblers, whose repertoire has been a treasure house for me and many others from the start. Jon Sholle: vocal, Papoose guitar Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
8. Special Agent was written and recorded by the Sleepy John Estes in the 1930s. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sleepy John wrote many of his songs from real events in his life and in the life of society around him, painting with a keen eye, rather than assembling songs from a store of vernacular verses. When Sleepy John says on record, “Got to do some recording, ought to be recording right now,” he brings an early expression of post-modern thought of into his blues. I remember seeing Sleepy John and his partner Yank Rachell at Carnegie Hall in the middle 1960s. Eric Thompson: guitar Bill Evans: banjo Alan Senauke: vocal, mandola John Adams Estes, Songs of Universal, BMI
9. She Has Forgotten comes from the country duo Karl & Harty, via Don Reno & Red Smiley, who recorded it on their album Country Songs. The sentiment in this sentimental song is enhanced by the singing of Suzy Thompson. Suzy and I have been singing together since the late 70s. The clear quality of her voice and her musical intelligence continue to astonish me. Suzy Thompson: vocal, fiddle Eric Thompson: mandolin Bill Evans: banjo Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Karl Davis, Hartford Taylor, Patrick McAddry, Universal Duchess Music, BMI
10. Dock Boggs was a rounder in his youth, so it is only natural that he spent some time in the Wise County Jail in western Virginia where he lived. At least he got a good song out of it. Although he didn’t record “Wise County Jail” until the 60s, it doubtless dates from a 1928 run-in with the “law” during prohibition. I first heard this from Jody Stecher, who has been a good friend and musical hero since the middle 1960s. Jody Stecher: fiddle Kate Brislin: guitar Alan Senauke: vocals, guitars Dock Boggs, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
11. In the late 70s, thanks to Paul Silvius, I came into possession of a bunch of live recordings of the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover taped off shows on the Harvard University radio station in the early 1960s. The Spanish Cavalier caught my ear right off. The song never made it onto their records. It was written by William D. Hendrickson in 1881 and drifted in and out of popular music for the next fifty years. The Sons of the Pioneers recorded a version in 1947. Kate Brislin: vocal Jody Stecher: vocal, mandolin Marty Cutler: banjo Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
12. Dust Storm Disaster was written by Woody Guthrie in the 1930s. It was a time when storms in Oklahoma and other parts of the west blew away a vast part of the fertile topsoil, that had been over-cultivated, thinned, and worked to death. The song was included in Dust Bowl Ballads, a compelling and unmatched song cycle that Woody recorded in 1940. Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Woody Guthrie, TRO, BMI
13. George Jones & Melba Montgomery recorded one strictly bluegrass album, Bluegrass Hootenanny, in 1964. Will There Ever Be Another is a gem from this album that Mary and I have sung together for years. Mary Gibbons: vocal, guitar Marty Cutler: banjo Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Melba & Carl Montgomery, Glad Music, BMI
14. I made up Fairbanks in 1983, while I was living with Ray Bierl on Fairbanks Street in Oakland, California. It came out of a wonderful, very beat-up 1943 Martin D-18 I had just bought—against my better judgment. Still have the guitar and the tune. My old friend and guitar partner Eric Thompson shares the spotlight here. Eric Thompson: guitar Alan Senauke: guitars Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
15. All Night Long is an old-time classic from Burnett and Rutherford recorded in the late 1920s. I used to be good all night long, but now I just sing the song. Suzy Thompson: vocal, fiddle Eric Thompson: mandolin Bill Evans: banjo Alan Senauke: vocal, guitar Traditional, arr. by Alan Senauke, Fifth Child Music, BMI
16. Meeting is Over comes from the repertoire of Jean Ritchie and the Ritchie family of Kentucky. Jean is an astonishing singer with a vast repertoire. My good friend Yassir Chadly, originally from Morocco, collaborated on this unusual setting, drawing out a deep spirituality that transcends cultures. Yassir Chadly: gimbri, bendir Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars Ritchie Family, arr. by Jean Ritchie, Geordie Music Publishing, ASCAP
I include two so-called “bonus tracks” after all the recent recordings. These were both recorded in New York City during June of 1981, when Kate Brislin was visiting out east.
17. The Honky Tonk Song is a classic country rocker which was performed by Webb Pierce in the 50s. Mel Tillis & Buck Peddy, Universal Cedarwood, BMI
18. What Was I Supposed To Do was written and sung by Paul Williams, who played mandolin on many of Jimmy Martin’s classic recordings. Kate and I recorded it again with The Blue Flame Stringband, along with Eric & Suzy Thompson. Sam Humphrey & Paul Williams, Universal Champion Music, BMI
Kate Brislin: vocal (on “What Was I Supposed To Do”) Jon Sholle: Fender guitar Matt Glaser: fiddle Evan Stover: fiddle (on “What Was I Supposed To Do”) Roger Mason: electric bass Michael Holleman: drums Alan Senauke: vocal, guitars
Biographical Sketch Alan Senauke is a guitarist, singer, and music writer who has been privileged to work with many wonderful bluegrass and folk musicians over the years. Alan was editor of the folk music magazine Sing Out! in the 1970s. Also in the 70s, as half of The Fiction Brothers, Alan toured extensively and recorded two albums for Flying Fish Records. He currently plays in several Bay Area bands including the Bluegrass Intentions (Old As Dirt, Native and Fine 906-4), the Earls, the Aux Cajunals, and the Blue Flame Stringband. In the early 1980s Alan and Eric Thompson recorded an instrumental album, Two Guitars (Flying Fish 393).
Alan is also a Zen Buddhist priest, living at Berkeley Zen Center with his wife Laurie and their children, Silvie and Alexander. From 1991 through 2001 he was Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an international organization devoted to Buddhism and social action.
Produced by Alan Senauke and Brendan Doyle at home in Berkeley, California between March 2000 and May 2002. Recorded by Brendan Doyle. “Tom Cat Blues” recorded and mixed by Jon Sholle in November 2000. “The Honky Tonk Song” & “What Was I Supposed To Do” recorded at Right Track Studio in NYC, June 1981. Digitally mastered by Myles Boisen at Headless Buddha Mastering Lab.
Special thanks to Brendan Doyle (without whom this would not be in your hands. I am glad he didn’t know what he was getting into!), Eric & Suzy Thompson, Bill Evans, Maxine Gerber, Laurie Senauke, Silvie and Alexander Senauke, all the musicians who helped out, and all those living and dead from whom I have borrowed music. Thanks also to Jim Nunally, Chris Strachwitz, Mike Cogan, David Gans, and Henry Kaiser.
Musicians: Kate Brislin, Yassir Chadly, Marty Cutler, Bill Evans, Mary Gibbons, Larry Hanks, Jon Sholle, Jody Stecher, Eric Thompson, Suzy Thompson. Musicans on the “bonus tracks”: Kate Brislin, Matt Glaser, Michael Holleman, Roger Mason, Jon Sholle, Alan Senauke, Evan Stover.
Album design by David Lynch Photographs of Alan Senauke by Eric Thompson Photograph of Brendan Doyle by Alan Senauke
For information and bookings contact Alan at: 510-845-2215 E-mail: email@example.com
Two Guitars: Alan Senauke & Eric Thompson At long last, here are liner notes (pdf).
Crossing the Great Divide (for “Moonshiner” magazine, Japan) by Alan Senauke, 10.08
Nineteen years have passed since I last played bluegrass in Japan. It’s hard to believe; the memories are so vivid. Laurie and I had just gotten married, and we had a unique kind of “bluegrass honeymoon.” I remember the smoky clubs all up and down Japan, late night drinking and sushi (something the bluegrass pioneers of Kentucky and Tennessee missed out on), and the music community’s great generosity to both of us. I remember looking out the Shinkansen windows at busy neon cities and flowing rice fields.
I had first visited Japan a year earlier, right after ordaining in America as a Soto Zen priest. A group of Californians were training at Rinso-in in Yaizu under Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi. Some local musicians from Shikuoka and Hamamatsu came to visit, and we played music long into the evening — for our own pleasure and for temple members who came by. It was wonderful way to bridge our cultures. But for these new Japanese friends, my interest in Zen Buddhism was hard to grasp. Zen was part of the culture they and their parents had grown up with, and now were growing away from. So it was odd to meet an American taking it up. They asked me about this, and I turned the question back on them. Was it any weirder that I would be interested in Zen, than that they would be interested in a relatively obscure rural American music — bluegrass? All we could do was to laugh.
In the years since these first visits to Japan, I have kept a daily Zen practice going here in Berkeley. I came to Japan for meetings three or four times in the early 90s, and then for six weeks of training at Zuioji on Shikoku, with ceremonies at the Soto headquarters temples of Eiheiji and Sojiji.
At the same time, music and people who play music remain central to me. For a long stretch after 2001, Bill Evans, Eric & Suzy Thompson, Larry Cohea and I performed and recorded as the Bluegrass Intentions. My own album, Wooden Man, came out in 2003, and various other tracks leading to a new album slowly accumulate. Most recently I produced an album of traditional brother duets by the Waller Brothers, Butch and Bob, The Old Photograph. Though I do much less performing now than twenty years ago, our circle of musical friends is unbroken, and of course, there is plentiful informal music at parties and at home. In a sense, traditional music and Zen flow together as my life. Every song and tune I sing or play seems to illuminate some part of that life, but not in a way that is easy to talk about. If I could talk about it, maybe I would not need to sing.
Long years playing bluegrass and old-time music taught me how to pay attention to what was going on around me. Like many others, I took up bluegrass and old-time music by listening to all the old recordings available. Friends got together to study the music and then play it. In time we went down south to visit the older musicians and see how and where they played, where their music came from. Learning Zen has been a similar process. First reading books, then meditating, finding friends and a good teacher, and whenever possible meeting elders who embody the tradition. In the end I will never be a Japanese Zen teacher. Nor will this New York cityboy ever become a rural southerner. Such goals were never the point. The point is to practice and play with ones whole heart. Period.
I would not be foolish enough to say that Zen training and musical education are the same thing, but there is another area of commonality. About twenty-five years ago, Sandy Rothman (a name no doubt known to Moonshiner readers, and someone I play with regularly) and I were talking about the way a bluegrass band works rhythmically. To my memory, he said that in a bluegrass band each person is responsible for maintaining time and rhythm; at the same time we keep the beat together. In Zen, each person meditates with his or her own body and mind, and also as part of the community, sustaining each other as we sit together, side by side.
Saburo asked what has changed in the way I think about bluegrass, going back to the Fiction Brothers, thirty years ago. Essentially, not much has changed in what I love about traditional music. I should say that back then I was keeping up with all the bands, listening to their recordings. Today I know very little about the current bluegrass scene. With responsibilities as a father, a temple priest, teacher, etc., I have much less time on my hands. Also, I confess, a lot of the newer music seems too perfect, every note thought out, each hair in place. It is too clean for me, not bluesy enough. My interest is in listening to the old stuff — in many different musical styles — then figuring out how to play these songs in a way that seems personally authentic and true, not imitative. Along with great singing and playing, the joy of the Bluegrass Intentions for me was in “owning” old songs according to our collective sensibility. We tried to be simultaneously true to the source and true to ourselves.
Still there is a thrill to hear the rhythmic mandolin and cutting tones of Bill Monroe, the swing and flow of Flatt and Scruggs, the mournful mountain sound of the Stanley Brothers, the drive and snap of Jimmy Martin. There is blues in all of this, joy that rises even in midst of sorrow. Those sounds run deep in me. And this is exactly what you and I continue to share across the divide of distance and culture.
Blues and Zen 6.1.05
I heard a good radio piece recently about the demise of “Your Hit Parade,” a show that ran on radio and television from the mid-1930s to 1959. Each week “Your Hit Parade” served up versions of the current hits, charting their rise and fall. The show began in the heyday of the American songbook. In those days songwriters like Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter were writing for wonderful song stylists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Judy Garland. The songs were musically and lyrically sophisticated, almost literary. The best singers were polished storytellers using rich, pleasing voices to transport their audiences. As the song goes, “Fly Me To the Moon.”
But in 1955 Elvis Presley brought the blues into our home through television’s front door. Thereupon, popular songs became simultaneously more plaintive and direct. Musically these songs were repetitive in form, often a 12-bar blues and a half-a-handful of simple chords. The singers, though, sang as if their lives were at stake. I remember watching “Your Hit Parade” as a kid, thinking that network television’s in-house singers were sappy, with their impersonal versions of the edgy, compelling rock and roll songs I loved to listen to at night with a new transistor radio under my pillow. These new hits were not easily rendered in Tin Pan Alley versions. They belonged to their singers, who were often the songwriters, too, tapping into deep blues roots. These songs were direct, raw, and personal—their feeling conveyed by a new kind of voice in popular music. Even Sinatra moved in this direction and found an intimate new style, lower pitched and rooted in the rhythms of speech. Actually this voice, the sound of blues, country and other ethnic folk styles had always been around in American music. Millions of people listened, played, and loved this music. But it was long ignored by self-appointed guardians of “culture.”
“Your Hit Parade” limped on a few more years, but the handwriting was on the wall. This period was a heyday for many kinds of “vernacular” music — urban blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, rock and roll — all marked by a strong personalism and expression, which by the mid-sixties led directly to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and others who radically transformed American culture. The music never looked back.
At this point you may well be asking, “What does this have to do with Zen?” In the same moment that music was changing and “Your Hit Parade” was making a last curtain call, the practice of Zen was appearing on these shores. D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts had sketched out philosophical and East Asian cultural dimensions of Zen. Beat poets and writers on the West Coast had eagerly consumed all available Zen literature in English (and created some of their own) in an attempt to find an alternative to America’s choking atmosphere of materialism. A handful of adventurers like Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Robert Aitken, Philip Kapleau, and Gary Snyder actually went to Japan, and studied with masters at their temples. Still, Zen in America was an abstract thing, philosophy and fantasy combined. No one yet had taught Zen as a rigorous yogic practice to be done with one’s body and mind. That was all about to change.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi came to San Fransciso in 1959. From 1962 to 1969 Yasutani Roshi crisscrossed America leading sesshin. Maezumi Roshi came to the U.S. in 1956, and founded Zen Center of Los Angeles a decade later. These Zen pioneers are our bluesmen, the Zen equivalent of Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, and Muddy Waters. In the 1960s thousands of young people bought guitars and studied scratchy records in search of something authentic in ourselves. In the same cultural moment thousands (some of the same young people who took up the blues) came to Zen centers and temples to practice and emulate the old Zen guys. We applied ourselves to zazen, that we might encounter our true selves. Like the early generations of blues singers, our original Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Zen teachers have now passed to the other shore. But their disciples keep the practice alive.
Like Zen, the blues is a simple form capable of infinite variety and deep personal expression. It’s teaching is about the heart of suffering. Each verse is different. Each voice is different. Even when words and melody seem formulaic, there is a mysterious, unique character to each performance. The blues singer’s cry is hymn to the fact of the First Noble Truth — that life is marked by suffering. The blues offers its own path of liberation, right through the lonely heart of the blues itself.
Zazen is like this. Where some Buddhist traditions have highly evolved meditations, visualizations, and devotions, the Zen method of shikantaza, or just sitting, is the practice of awareness, return, and renewal. Any Zen practitioner will tell you zazen is repetitive. But you never arrive at the same place twice. Any Zen practitioner can tell you that sooner or later there will be pain — in legs, in mind, in heart. We are taught to sit with pain, keep close company with it, and notice how it transforms. Pain never stays the same. The blues is like that.
Intimacy is a shared quality — intimate with joy, with pain, with the smallest details and things of our life. Zen Master Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” In the deepest not-knowing of lost love, Ray Charles sings:
Now my covers they feel like lead and my pillow it feels like stone, Well, I've tossed and turned so every night, I'm not used to being alone! I live on a lonely avenue…
The words convey intimacy. The voice emanating from grooves in my well-worn record of “Lonely Avenue” leaves no doubt. If zazen is not just as intimate, it misses the point. But it is not a simple point. Moment to moment reality is made up of feelings, perceptions, and formations in an ever-changing stream. The rocks and rubble and ordinary things of life are compelling detail; immediacy is both within and beyond them. It is the mark of zazen itself, and of the song in the moment it is sung and in the moment it is heard. Even though we can capture a song on magnetic tape or digital disc, immediacy arises fresh in each listening. Every time I listen to Ray Charles sing I hear something new.
There is another quality shared by blues and Zen. Blues singers and Zen masters are accessible. They are close to their students and audience, living among them, sharing the same food and drink, the same kind of life. “Ordinary mind is the way.” Whether on stage or in the dharma seat, a master’s gift is to express herself or himself completely, authentically. Descending from the seat or stage, there is an ordinary quality that allows us to identify with them. We feel “I’d like to be like them,” and our practice suggests that we actually could. This is a rare quality in a culture like ours where celebrity is idolized. Ordinary mind and ordinary life is not what you see on the cover of People magazine.
Within the ordinary, the extraordinary shines forth. The gift of a master is the unique way he or she can express things. The simple principles of reality become rough-hewn poetry. For example, Bob Dylan expounds on impermanence.
Broken bottles, broken plates, Broken switches, broken gates, Broken dishes, broken parts, Streets are filled with broken hearts. Broken words never meant to be spoken, Everything is broken.
Across a thousand years, masters from two traditions seem to respond each other. In case eight of the Gateless Barrier, the classic Zen koan collection, teacher Yueh-an speaks to a monk:
Hsi-chung made a hundred carts. If you take off both wheels and the axles, what would be vividly apparent?
From twentieth-century Chicago, Howling Wolf turns himself inside out, offering what one could easily take as response to Yueh-an, throwing in his trademark howl for good measure.
Smokestack lightnin' Shinin', just like gold Why don't ya hear me cryin'? A-whoo-hooo!
These traditions are simultaneous tough and fragile. The blues and Zen have endured radical transplanting—across an ocean, from rural to urban, and over time. While our first teachers were with us, there was no question about their tradition’s vitality. Now we must concern ourselves with adaptation and authenticity. I don’t mean authenticity in the sense of imitation. There are many sub-genres of music, say like Dixieland jazz, where the old masters’ solos have been absorbed note for note and beat for beat, and yet the essence is completely missing. Similarly, Zen practitioners in the west can copy the robes and rituals and forms of our teacher’s teachers, without making Zen our own. Making the music and the practice one’s own is the real mystery.
I started playing bluegrass, blues, Cajun, and old-time music forty some-odd years ago, when I was an upper-middle-class disenchanted Jewish high school kid from the suburbs of New York. These related forms of Southern folk music touched a nerve. Even though the music flowed from sources so far from my own upbringing, it resonated with something inside me that I still don’t understand. My friends and I learned by soaking up all the old recordings we could find. As soon as we were old enough we began to travel south to learn from the great old musicians, who were often eager to teach. Their time was limited and they knew this was one last chance to pass on the music to a next generation. These old guys did not generally mind our strange city ways. They were happy to have young people really pay attention.
Clearly I was never going to be southern, or Black, or hillbilly, or a good Christian. But many like myself learned our music as close as we could. We paid attention to the elements and nuances of traditional styles, and we could imitate such styles and techniques pretty well. But decades of playing and learning lead beyond technique. The music became our own, something new in the world. Sounds of the old south melded with the sounds we heard around us in the cities. The music came through our bodies, our fingers, our voices. If one could listen right, one could hear all the old sounds evolve according to time and place. Not necessarily better music, but honest and true to our selves.
This is also the path of Zen in America. We spend long days and years in upright, cross-legged meditation. We go to the mountains to live and study at monasteries. Some of us go to train in Japan. But no matter what we do, we will not become medieval Japanese monks. Thank god. So we are finding our own ways to embody Zen, ways that respect the old forms, without being stuck on them. Zen is life, and so the forms must be our own, or they are just lifeless imitation. I don’t see this as an abstraction but as an encouragement to practice.
It is worth thinking about the hit parade again. Popular music is the essence of impermanence. Hit songs rise to the surface and sink back into the pool of oldies. Styles change constantly. There was a time — lasting about twenty or twenty five years — when I prided myself on knowing all the hits. Now, when my teenage kids turn on the radio, I haven’t a clue. There are new bands, new sounds, even new sentiments. I guess it’s always like that. But the old songs also abide. They stay alive because they contain something true. So people keep playing and singing them.
The hit parade of Zen begins about sixteen hundred years ago in China. The old poems and stories and koans are our village songs. The repertoire grows with each generation. My teacher, Sojun Roshi, is always telling stories about Suzuki Roshi — about the look in his eye when you met at the door, about sharing a cup of tea, about just how it felt to be around him. And we, in turn, will tell stories about Sojun Roshi. These stories will be dramatic and mundane: how Sojun could suddenly bring forth a turning word of truth, how he would always do the dishes when we had dinner at his house, how — out of the corner of my eye I could see his sleepy shadow on the wall during sesshin. Actually there is truth in all of these activities. Our stories must bring forth the truth in our own voice, just as the old blues and Zen tales do. This voice has depth and expressiveness, avoids hokum and cleverness.
We will never see the like of these old singers again. Our immediate cultural memory goes from Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Robert Johnson, Bill Monroe, and Muddy Waters, to hip-hop and rap artists whose work I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know. But modern musicians like Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Lauryn Hill, and the Dixie Chicks consciously pay tribute to their roots. Each musical generation absorbs the notes, timing, and style of all that came before. As Zen settles in the West this is what we have to do. It is a post-modern koan. Can I cherish the tradition without getting stuck there?
In our Zen world, the teachers who doggedly and patiently brought the practice from Japan to America are no longer with us either. Now their students transmit Zen to us, and we, in turn, are bound to pass it to the next generation. There is the idea that a Zen student is supposed to surpass the teacher. How could this be possible? I can’t imagine myself even getting close. But my brother Norman Fischer, who also has wrestled with this question, writes, “Each student must be completely himself or herself, find his or her own way, express his or her uniqueness in the dharma.” Maybe in Zen to “surpass” means wholeheartedly to accept falling short. Being willing to be a “blind donkey.”
When the great Zen Master Lin-chi was dying, he asked his disciple San-sheng a dharma question and praised him, saying, "Who would have thought that the essence of my true dharma would be destroyed by this blind donkey?" With luck and perseverance, we can also grow up to become blind donkeys. Come to think of it, this might be a pretty good name for a blues singer, too.