I wanted to stay up on Friday night and see if a good song circle developed, but the last shuttle ran to the hotel at half past midnight. If I stayed, I'd have to stay all night. I didn't have a tent to crawl into if I got tired. I had to play an afternoon slot on Saturday. I gave up and went back to the hotel. I thought I'd get a good night's sleep and maybe stay up on Saturday night. Jet lag licked my face all night. I got up and wrote. I finally went back to bed at 6:30am.
I woke up at 9:30 to eat, because breakfast closed at 10am. I called in to the festival and asked them to pick me up at noon. I could only keep one eye open at a time.
The hotel had a continental breakfast, though England is most specifically not the Continent. There was salty back bacon which they called simply "bacon," sausage, baked beans, scrambled eggs, and potatoes like what I'd call tater tots. Pardon me, croquettes. The staff put out little boxes of cereal and muesli in a jar, some fruit including an endless bowl of blueberries which saved my life over the weekend, a commercial beltline toaster with white and brown bread, yogurts in a small fridge, and a great coffee machine that made anything I wanted, one cup at a time. I wanted to unplug it and take it to my room.
There was a television at one end of the room that was always on. On the news this morning, Neil Armstrong had taken his last step.
It's not news that he died. He was an old man and the world only tolerates us for so long. It was news because it made us remember that day when humanity's leash was suddenly two hundred thousand miles longer than we thought it was, that Sir Edmund Hillary was only a forward scout, that perhaps we were the favored race of a great supernatural power and it was possible to outlive our own planet.
Staring at the tube, too tired to understand plain English, my mind wandered. I thought three things in quick succession.
One: A month ago, in the Yukon, I met a carver who grew up in a small First Nations community in the far north. He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and could just barely read and write. Growing up, his knowledge of the world was a small circle of boreal forest and tundra. He wasn't even aware that there were other First Nations people. Then, when he was 15, he got on a plane and flew to Toronto for a student exchange program. He may as well have flown to the moon. He was a brave young man.
Two: The day Neil Armstrong made his one small step, my wife made her giant leap into this world in the back of a car at the corner of route 22 and 172 in Bedford Village, New York. Her father, a dentist by training, delivered her and cut the umbilical cord, and then drove his wife the rest of the way to the hospital. My sweetheart still waits for no one and makes an unforgettable entrance wherever she goes. This is how I remember her birthday.
Three: Do people really eat baked beans for breakfast?
A fellow sat down next to me with two pieces of toasted bread. He stacked bacon on top of one, piled baked beans on top of the bacon, squirted HP sauce all over the beans, topped this mess with the second piece of bread, and then clamped his face down on it. Baked bean juice squirted out of the bottom onto his plate. That answered that question. I went back for more blueberries and took a box of cereal for the room.
The driver was another retired Army man with lots of great stories about working in the Royal Guard. I got more dirt than a tabloid on the 30 minute drive to the festival. It was a guilty pleasure and woke me up with laughter.
When we got to the festival, I looked at the schedule and just happened to notice that my name had three appearances beside it. I had a workshop at 10am the next morning, "Flatpicking for Songwriters."
I've been offering that workshop to festivals for three years and Shrewsbury is the first festival to present it. When I saw it on the schedule, I was elated that I finally got to teach it. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell me and I hadn't worked up a lesson plan. It was just a concept. The workshop was an hour and a half long. I didn't want to just play songs and talk about how I play. I wanted people to bring their guitars and learn how to do it themselves. So, sometime Saturday, I had to come up with a method.
When I arrived backstage for my set, the act before me was midway through. They sounded like a string quartet playing modern arrangements of traditional tunes. The fiddles played against each other, pushing dissonant notes together. Their timing was sexy and breathtaking, holding beats out long and then pushing the time forward, but always locked together like the tides. Sometimes they sounded Scandinavian, sometimes more Celtic. I checked the schedule to see who it was. Vamm.
I went out to the side of the stage and looked. Three young women played two fiddles and one mandola. It was hard to believe there were only three of them. It was enchanted music.
The audience carried me along with their grace and the fact that they slept more than I did. I've never been too tired to play songs, but I do need an interested party. I gave an American history lesson and sang a song about cooking a whole hog. They were terrific singers. A drizzle hissed on the tent. I remembered and mentioned my Sunday morning workshop.
As soon as I was done, I walked over to the merchandise tent. It was a complete music store, a local record company with classic folk stock from their stores and then a table dedicated to the festival artists. They were happy to see me. "You're doing quite well," they said. I went out and sat down in an auxiliary tent off to the side, where I could sign CDs.
It pissed rain. New fans brought CDs to me and stood under the white awning while the rained pounded and dripped down in long runs. Everyone had their Wellies on, except for me. My boots were half alligator, half cowhide, and all dumbass in this weather. I danced around the boggy spots all weekend. I also had on a set of long underwear the whole time.
When the rain finally slacked, I headed over toward artist reception behind the main stage for coffee and maybe some curry, a kind of spicy meat stew thick as gravy. The British brought back two things from India that now seem essential to this climate: tea and spicy food.
On the way, I ran into some young guys playing the fiddle tune Blackberry Blossom. The banjo player was ripping. They all looked about twenty. One guy played a snare drum on a stand. He scanned me and said, "Get your guitar."
I fell in and picked the tune. It just happens to be one of about five that I can really shred on. We all shook hands and they picked another song to play. Their harmonies were classic. The banjo player was unstoppable. A crowd gathered. The sun came out. People undressed a bit.
Blue Horyzon was their name. They picked the songs and I played along. By the time the second chorus came, I knew it and jumped in on the harmony. It was the jam I'd wanted the night before.
The clouds came back over and a breeze picked up. It dropped five degrees Celsius in a few minutes. I was tired of being cold. I remembered my mission to get some curry and a coffee and I bid Blue Horyzon adieu.
The last time I wore my long johns all week at a summer festival was just last month in the Yukon, where I met the carver. After that festival, I jumped on Bob Hamilton's bus and rode back to Whitehorse. Bob owns Old Crow studio. I hung out with him for a couple of days and recorded songs.
His 19-year-old son was home from school and had a friend over for his birthday. The younger Hamilton made supper for everyone and a birthday cake for his friend. In the corner of the living room hung a record player, suspended on chains. The teenagers spun vinyl, mostly from the seventies. Ry Cooder. Al Green. Blondie.
After dinner, young Hamilton broke out Steeleye Span. His friend flipped out. The boys sang along with every word and played air guitar. They sincerely loved it. We passed the record cover around.
Here in Shrewsbury, UK, I walked into artist reception, set my guitar down, filled up a paper bowl with curry, and sat down at a table beside an interesting-looking lady. Her hair was dyed in layers, white on the outside and dark red underneath. She saw me and said, "I enjoyed your set last night."
"Thank you. I'm Jonathan. What's your name?"
Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span. She was not playing the festival. She just came to hang out. I said, "I have a story for you. If things don't work out here, you have a following in the Yukon." We hit it off right away and all weekend. I emailed Bob Hamilton later and said, "I have a story for you…"
On into the evening, I looked over and Kate Rusby was standing backstage. I thought about talking to her, but I couldn't. One superstar at a time. There's still a part of me that feels like I'm a pretender about to be uncovered. Like Kate Rusby is going to say, "What are you doing back here? Security!" That's no state of mind in which to walk up to her. I sat and wondered if I had a song that she might sing someday.
I wondered if I might sleep tonight. I wondered if I'd be able to put together a lesson plan for tomorrow morning. Alan, one of the festival directors, came over and said, "We can get you a taxi back after shuttle hours, if you want to stay up late tonight. Just let me know." I thought I should go back to the hotel and take a nap, come back later and play some songs under the beer tent or wander the camps listening for songs. Maybe I'd find Blue Horyzon.
I grabbed my guitar and walked out of the tent. The driver was standing there, looking out over the campus. I turned to see what he was looking at. The clouds had blown away. The half moon glowed soft and bonewhite, an enchanted boat in the dark ocean of the night sky.
He said, "Neil Armstrong's family said that we should wink at the moon tonight. That it would be a fitting tribute." I winked at the moon. It felt exactly right. Maybe Neil Armstrong looked around when he was up there and wondered what he was doing and if he was entirely worthy of being there. Just for a second. Then he did his job.
"Take me to the hotel, Will."