May 8, 2005
In the Santa Clarita Valley
Poem: "In the Santa Clarita Valley" by Gary Snyder from Danger on Peaks. © Shoemaker Hoard Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
In the Santa Clarita Valley
Like skinny wildweed flowers sticking up
hexagonal "Denny's" sign
eight-petaled yellow "Shell"
blue-and-white "Mobil" with the big red "O"
growing in the asphalt riparian zone
by the soft roar of the flow
of Interstate 5.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It is Mother's Day. James Joyce said, "Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world, a mother's love is not."
And Mark Twain said, "My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it."
It's the birthday of the great bluesman Robert Johnson, born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi (1911). He was a bluesman about whom very little is known for sure, though we do know that in 1937 he recorded 41 songs in just two recording sessions. He had two photographs taken of himself at about the same time. Those were the only recordings he made and the only pictures taken of him. He died the following year at the age of 27.
People in the Delta said that Robert Johnson had decided as a young man that he hated working on a farm. He spent his time hanging around juke joints, watching a bluesman named Son House. And whenever Son House would take a break, Johnson would pick up his guitar and start banging on it. But people didn't think he was very good, so finally he left town. He came back six months later with his own guitar. When he sat down to play it, people couldn't believe how good he'd gotten in just a short period of time.
It was then that they began to spread the rumor that Robert Johnson had learned to play guitar with black magic, that he'd met the devil one night at the crossroads and sold his soul in exchange for skill at the guitar. People who saw him perform said that he often played guitar with his back to the audience, trying to keep other guitarists from stealing his technique.
He sang many songs about being on the road, "Traveling Riverside Blues," "Ramblin' on My Mind," "Sweet Home Chicago." Though he's known for blues, people who saw him perform said that he played all kinds of songs from hillbilly and bluegrass to Bing Crosby. If he heard a song on the radio in the afternoon, he'd sing it that night.
He died in 1938 after he'd sung at a bar in Greenwood, Mississippi, and many people believe that he was poisoned by a glass of whiskey laced with strychnine given to him by the bartender because Robert Johnson had seduced the bartender's lady.
The first album of his songs, King of the Delta Blues Singers, came out in 1961. His complete recordings were released in 1990. Robert Johnson sang, "You may bury my body down by the highway side, so my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride."
It's the birthday of the poet Gary Snyder, San Francisco (1930). He's had a long, steady career as a poet, environmental activist, Zen Buddhist, and a counterculture hero.
As a student, he worked on a trail crew at Yosemite National Park. He said, "I had given up on poetry. Then I got out there and started writing these poems about the rocks and blue jays. I looked at them. They didn't look like any poems that I had ever written before. So, I said, these must be my own poems." And they became his first book, Riprap, which came out in 1959.
It's the birthday of the novelist Thomas Pynchon, born in Glen Cove, Long Island (1937). His second novel made him famous in 1966, The Crying of Lot 49, about a secret international postal service called W.A.S.T.E., which uses a muted trumpet as its logo.
In 1973, Pynchon published Gravity's Rainbow.
He didn't publish another book for the next 17 years, became kind of a mythical figure, famous for his reclusiveness. Then in the late 1990s, an article in New York magazine revealed that he lived in New York City with his wife and son. He wasn't hiding out. He just wasn't seeking publicity.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®