Jan. 5, 2013

Bangers and Mash

by Donald Hall

We flew the Atlantic all night, your head
with its first streak of gray leaning
against my shoulder, and took a cab
to our bed-and-breakfast. We napped,
woke up at noon, and rode the tube
from Russell Square to Piccadilly Circus,
where we asked a stranger to take
a photograph of us standing together,
then walked for lunch to the Salisbury,
where in bomb-site London I drank
pints of Younger's before you were born.
Back at the hotel, we made love
as late light slipped through a gap
in the curtains onto your cheekbones,
your nose, your outstanding chin,
and your eyes—dazed like a baby's
sleepy surfeited eyes—that closed
as you said in my ear, "I will lose you."

"Bangers and Mash" by Donald Hall, from The Back Chamber. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

Today is Twelfth Night. It's the eve of Epiphany, the official end of the Christmas holiday season, and the day on which many people take down their Christmas decorations or risk bad luck for the coming year. Poet Robert Herrick wrote: "Down with the rosemary, and so / Down with the bays and mistletoe; / Down with the holly, ivy, all, / Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall." It's a last Yuletide hurrah before everyone returns to the mundane workaday world of the rest of the year. Though the origin of the celebration dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, most of the traditional observances of the holiday that have survived date back to medieval England. It was the end of a holiday season that began with All Hallows Eve and, in some cultures, it also marks the beginning of the Carnival season.

It's a Twelfth Night tradition to choose a king and queen for the festivities. Usually, this involves beans and baked goods. In English celebrations, a plum cake is baked with a bean and a pea inside. If a man finds the bean, he is crowned the Twelfth Night King, also known as the Lord of Misrule. The woman who finds the pea is crowned Queen. But if a woman finds the bean instead of the pea, she chooses her own king.

Part of the Twelfth Night tradition involves pranks, role reversals, and general chaos. Servants dressed as masters, men dressed as women, and people roamed the streets in gangs, decked out in costumes and blackened faces. Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night features many of the traditional elements of the holiday.

In some parts of England, Twelfth Night was also traditionally associated with apples and apple trees. People would troop out to their fruit orchards bearing a hot, spiced mixture of cider and ale for the "wassailing of the trees." They would pour the wassail on the ground over the trees' roots, and sing songs, and drink toasts to the health of their orchards. They also hung bits of cider-soaked toast in the trees to feed the birds. The attention paid to the orchards during the wassailing would be repaid with a bountiful harvest the following fall.

English settlers in the Colonies brought the Twelfth Night tradition with them. In colonial Virginia, it was customary to hold a large and elegant ball. Revelers chose a king and queen using the customary cake method; it was the king's duty to host the next year's Twelfth Night ball, and the queen was given the honor of baking the next year's cake. George and Martha Washington didn't usually do much for Christmas except attend church, but they often hosted elaborate Twelfth Night celebrations. It was also their anniversary; they'd been married on January 5, 1759. Martha Washington left behind her recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night cake among her papers at Mount Vernon. The recipe called for 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that Christmas became the primary holiday of the season in America, and at that point, Twelfth Night celebrations all but disappeared.

It was 40 years ago today that 23-year-old Bruce Springsteen released his debut album. It was called Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) and it was billed as a solo album, even though it featured many musicians who would later become members of Springsteen's E Street Band. The album had been recorded in a week, in one of the cheapest studios in New York City. It wasn't a huge hit — it sold about 25,000 copies during its first year — but it got good reviews. Robert Christgau, writing for Creem magazine, said: "This boy has a lot more of the Dylan spirit than John Prine. His songs are filled with the absurdist energy and heart on sleeve pretension that made Dylan a genius instead of a talent."

Today is the birthday of Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten, born Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (1895). She taught herself the banjo and guitar at an early age; she would sneak her brother's instruments to practice on when no one was home. She saved her money and eventually bought a guitar from a local dry goods store. She was left-handed, so she played her instruments "upside down" without restringing them. She fretted with her right hand and picked with her left. She developed her own unique style, which would later come to be known as "Cotten picking."

Cotten recorded her first album in 1957, at the age of 62. It's Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. She's best known for her song "Freight Train," which she wrote when she was about 11 or 12 years old.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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