Sunday, June 11, 2017

This was the folk-music-icons weekend that was

Back in the day, by which I of course mean the late 1980s, I accumulated a few pen-pals. Yes, pen-pals -- remember those glorious days, of sitting down with pen and paper, writing a letter, and sending it off to your new "friend" who lived in another state or another country? I loved that hobby. Only one of my pen-pals lasted for years and years of correspondence -- she and I had quite a bit in common and a lot to say to each other, and even ended up both living in New York City at the same time years down the road and getting to meet and be friends in real life, which was in itself amazing. However, this particular story isn't about that pen-pal, but rather about a fleeting pen-pal with whom I briefly wrote letters and then lost contact forever but who, nonetheless, had an impact on my life through the act of sending me a particular cassette tape.

This particular fleeting pen-pal was named Nancy (I think? that's how long ago and fleeting this was) and was, again I think, from Oswego, NY.  I do hope I'm remembering that correctly and not mixing her up with someone else. Anyway, the fleeting pen-pal in question and I decided we would exchange tapes, and we sent each other lists of the albums that we owned and then let each other know which of the other person's we wanted and copied them onto blank cassettes and sent them to each other. (I know, hello, copyright laws, anyone?) We were young adolescents still with a manageable amount of albums, and I can't tell you what the hell else she sent me or what I sent her, but I very specifically remember one dark brown Memorex cassette she sent to me that had on one side a copied Cowboy Junkies album and on the other side Indigo Girls.

I even remember exactly where I was when I was looking at her letter with her list of albums and thinking, "Cowboy Junkies. Indigo Girls." I didn't really know what their music was going to be like -- anyone whose hit songs I knew and loved I had probably already acquired via Columbia House Record & Tape Club or from Sam Goody at Metrocenter mall, so browsing her list was a chance to try something new I wouldn't have otherwise stumbled upon. And this was the mother lode.

I played the hell out of that 90-minute, no-longer-blank cassette. I played it at home, in my parents' cars, and anywhere else I could get it in a tape deck. I loved those albums fiercely, and -- good future copyright law student that I was -- I eventually bought both of those albums properly, thus giving the artists and record companies their profits and more importantly getting my hands on the liner notes. And needless to say, that simple act of being intrigued by my pen-pal's album list -- I can still vividly see it in my mind's eye, can perfectly visualize her handwriting -- launched me on my lifelong Indigo Girls love and fandom.

What if I had never exchanged those handful of letters and cassettes with this random girl across the country? Would I have come to know Indigo Girls and Strange Fire, and then later, Nomads*Indians*Saints and Rites of Passage and all the rest? When? Would I have been too late? I once read a piece in Psychology Today that said studies indicate that the music you listen to during that adolescent time, like toward age 14 or so, resonates more deeply with you than anything you ever listen to in the future, no matter how much you like what you come across in the future. And among the cassettes I spent those early teen years playing over and over were Indigo Girls, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Simon and Garfunkel,  Cowboy Junkies -- folkies who still speak volumes to me today.

I bring this up because some remarkable things happened this weekend. Tonight, Sunday, I attended a concert at the Chicago Theatre: Four Voices - Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Indigo Girls. When this tour was announced a few months back my breath caught and I thought, this! This is something I cannot BELIEVE I am going to be able to witness! Now, of course I knew that they were all friends, and I know about Mary Chapin singing backing vocals on Amy and Emily's album and Amy and Emily singing backing vocals on Mary Chapin's around 1991, and I remember when the Girls performed with Joan Baez in the early mid-1990s for a benefit and she thanked them for letting her be an Indigo Girl for the evening and called them young whippersnappers, and I own the CD (yes, I eventually moved from cassettes to CDs) from the benefit where Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin and a bunch of other artists all performed with Joan Baez and planted roots for this blossoming friendship so I've heard them harmonizing in pieces and knew of their crossing paths but THIS - a tour called Four Voice, with lots of dates, coming to my town, playing cities near me - it was amazing news.

And it was an amazing concert, needless to say. There are so many highlights, and perhaps I'll tell about more of them in another post, but here let me just assure you that among the evening's joys was the final song of their main set, a cover of a particularly good, particularly relevant, Nobel prize-winning even! song that with their Four Voices became THE best performance of a song that I have witnessed being performed live, ever.

But there was also another little thing that happened at the beginning of this weekend. On Friday night, it just so happens, I saw Cowboy Junkies in concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. For whatever reason, I had never got a chance to see them in concert before this weekend. Unlike Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter, whom I've seen multiple times (Indigo Girls, dozens), I somehow had missed out on the Cowboy Junkies until just this past Friday. There was Margo Timmins, in all her fifty-something glory, and that voice! That achingly lovely voice, with all those heartbreaking, swirling Cowboy Junkies songs. That was the opening of my weekend, and then it ended with this other collection of voices, including the legendary Joan Baez, up there showing us what incredible things words and music can do.

And I thought, how odd, how odd indeed that my weekend was bookended by incredible, life- and music-affirming concerts featuring the two bands that were on either side of that blank cassette sent to me by pen-pal Nancy from Oswego, NY nearly thirty years ago.

And I thought, how beautiful, how beautiful indeed that we are gifted with time on this planet where we can make and share our art, where we can hoist our visions onto the world stage and where we can tuck recorded sounds gently into an envelope with a bit of extra postage and let them be carried across the miles to someone who needs to hear them, or where we can now just upload them with a few quick finger taps on a keyboard.

In spite of all of the hard things, and the misery that Margo openly jokes about (wondering aloud to her audience why anyone would come to a Cowboy Junkies concert expecting to hear happy songs), and some of the political happenings that Joan, Mary Chapin, Amy, and Emily talked about and sang about and alluded to, and just despite the ever-ongoing struggle -- in spite of these things, my god but isn't there some beauty to be found out there, to be brought into our lives thanks to the random simple chances we come across?

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