What have you learned about life?
by David Baker (Denison)
Bob and Carol Crawford lived four houses down from us, on East Circle Drive, in Jefferson City, Missouri. Right in the middle of their tiny trimmed yard was the white-brick house, so heavily paneled and carpeted inside that, sitting there one summer afternoon, I felt like I’d been plunked into a Kleenex box. But when Mr. Crawford—Bob—leaned over to slip me a new half-dollar, silver as a tooth, I knew I was destined to play music for the rest of my life. It was 1966. I had lugged my plum-red Gibson Melody Maker guitar and my amp, the size of a boot box, down to Crawford’s for my first professional performance. I played two songs—some scaly melody out of Mel Bay #2 or #3 and “Wildwood Flower” (or “The Groovy Grubworm,” as one guitar book called it). I no longer own the amp or guitar, but I still have that coin.
Music is one of my two great expressive loves. The other is poetry. The connection between these two arts is ancient and obvious. No other form of language aspires so completely to musical tactics like repetition, balanced intonation, rhythm, and harmonic phrasing. Remember Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that “It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired with the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles.” He further connects the two: “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I started playing the guitar 1965, at age ten, when Bill McMillan, and later Smoky Burd, gave me lessons in an empty room above Shaw Music. I began to teach the guitar at thirteen and did so through college. During this time I traded my Melody Maker for a scorching, sunburst Fender Stratocaster, then traded that one for a guitar I still have, a 1964 Gretsch Nashville Chet Atkins custom—the orange one, if you know guitars. I played just about every kind of music for every kind of occasion from weddings and church meetings to college formals, jazz festivals, pit orchestras, pre-disco dance halls, little-town proms and big-city bars. And our high-school talent show. I won first place in 9th grade, playing “Yakety Axe” with my best friend, Tim “Firedog” Gaines; third place in 10th grade accompanying on my acoustic twelve-string our school’s hippie singer on Elton John’s “Your Song”; first place in 11th grade, wah-wahing to “Shaft” with an eight-piece pre-fusion band; and first place in 12th grade, picking “Dueling Banjos” on banjo with Firedog Gaines on guitar.
And more: I played most Saturday nights at Tonanzio’s Italian Restaurant with Tom Snodgrass and one or two happy-hours each week, with Tom or by myself, at the local Ramada Inn’s lounge, The Library. I started bands, played with other bands, even wrote the score for a Missouri Highway Department movie, “The Watching Tree,” and recorded the guitar part at a studio in Kansas City. Once Firedog and I were banished from a live radio broadcast from Ozarkland at the Lake of the Ozarks, where we’d been invited to be the “featured youngsters” on a weekly musical show. We played three songs—“Yakety Axe” again, “Alley Cat,” and a thumping rendition of “Proud Mary”—after which we announced on air we didn’t think country-and-western was cool. Long static. Then we “left.” My father’s white silence on the ride home (we were too young to drive) clarified his feelings about our surprise disclosure. I still agree with Buddy Rich who, when wheeled into the operating room for a medical procedure and asked if he was allergic to anything, relied, “Yeah, Doc, I’m allergic to country music.” The operation was a success.
While other kids were suffering teenage angst, parental scorn, underage consumption of, well, everything, I was practicing, traveling, playing, and listening hard to music. I played with musicians famous, not-so-famous, wholly unknown, and yet almost always cool. It seemed—it was—a touch or two removed from the simmering mediocrity and boredom of middle-class middle America. That’s not to say I wasn’t a typical teenager. But I was able to evade some of the usual tortures and rotten summer jobs, thanks to my playing. I was the local guitar kid, and I thought for years that’s what I would do for the rest of my life.
Well, yes and no.
Playing and performing was hard work—hard on the ears, the body, sleep, time, and solitude. By the time I went to college, I was tired. This was 1974. I opted not to major in music and started taking literature classes. I still played guitar but had decided —without saying so aloud—that I didn’t want to live as a musician, or at least as the kind of musician I’d thought I wanted to be. Around age twenty I laid down one instrument and picked up another. My guitar became a poem.
Poetry is an intensely musical art. Its hours are demanding but flexible. The pay is invisible. Its performative aspects are complex and fascinating, at the podium or on the page. I remember one rock band of mine, The Back Country (named for a Gary Snyder book), that was particularly good at vocals. I remember singing away in four-part harmony during one late-night gig at a dance bar in my hometown; it was an Earth, Wind, and Fire tune or perhaps something from the Doobie Brothers. I remember turning around to check the P.A. system, seeing my microphone unplugged, and realizing we sounded so good because my voice was not part of the amplified mix. I remember singing along anyway.
That’s what it’s like to work on poems—to sing along, alone, in the quiet, with a wonderful, intricate, harmonic melody in your head. To sing with Keats and Dickinson, Sappho and Merwin, the whole big band of poets.
These days I listen to everything from Arvo Part and Edgar Meyer to Birelli Lagrene and Buddy Guy. When I was young, I listened to what all my friends were talking about—the Beatles, the Stones, James Brown—but I realize now that what really absorbed me were the guitar-driven bands and musicians of the time. For rock-and-roll, it was hard to beat The James Gang. Joe Walsh’s languid guitar licks were heaven to me. I loved The Best of the James Gang, which has songs from Funk 49, Bang, and Miami. Carlos Santana’s Abraxas dazzled me with his lightning-fast fingering of Latin phrasings; I can still play “Black Magic Woman” and “Oyo Como Va,” two very hard guitar tunes. Earlier, when I was just starting, I soaked up the great instrumental group, The Ventures. Telstar was the coolest album, though I owned and wore out a dozen more like Walk Don’t Run, Where the Action Is, and Wild Things. Likewise, I worshipped, and still do, the great Tennessee picker Chet Atkins. It was highly uncool to like him then, but I did. I loved Chet Atkins Goes Hollywood for his incredible self-chorded solos and Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles, which showed me how Lennon and McCartney’s rich melodies could deepen. My own finger-method derives from Chet’s: I hold my pick with thumb and forefinger but also use my third and fourth fingers to strum or to pluck. Chet is now considered the guitar-god of the last fifty years by everyone from Ricky Skaggs and George Benson to Walter Becker and Bonnie Raitt. About Walter Becker: Is there any better rock band, for guitar and instrumentation (and intelligent lyrics), than Steely Dan? Gods, they were and are, especially when Skunk Baxter played second-guitar for them, as on Can’t Buy a Thrill. But the most powerful band I ever heard was The Stan Kenyon Orchestra, whose 1972 Live at Redlands sounds like pure energy. I performed with the Kenyon band one time, in Springfield, Missouri, on one song, “Bogota.” I’ll never forget that Ken Hanna tune, charted in G-flat—truly hellish for a guitar with its six flats!—and featuring guitar in a very long trill solo. “Nice work, kid,” Mr. Kenton said later. I was 18. It was my greatest guitar moment.
I see now that what most turned me on as a musician was, and is, fusion—the blending of styles, musical histories, where hillbilly Chet plays The Beatles or where jazz and rock coexist: Chicago I and II, Blood Sweat & Tears 4. Do you remember the super-charged album, Chase, fronted by jazz trumpeter/singer Bill Chase along with two other stratospheric trumpets, a trombone, sax, bass, piano/organ, drums, and a slashing rock guitarist? I have that album still.
And I still play. When I taught my daughter, Katie, to play guitar, she used my first guitar, a $10 Kent, which I strung with silk strings so her hands wouldn’t bleed like mine had. I still own a banjo, a mandolin, and four guitars: the Kay, the orange Gretsch, a fine old Yamaha acoustic, and my prize. Four years ago I bought the guitar of my dreams, an archtop jazz box, a Heritage Super Eagle custom with twin gold Humbuckers, Grover tuners, hand-carved Swedish spruce top and carved maple sides and back, ebony bridge and board, split-block mother-of-pearl inlays on the curly-maple neck, and gorgeous blonde flame. It is three inches thick and eighteen inches wide at the lower bout, with a fatter sound than a Gibson L-5.
To celebrate my new instrument, I did what I’ve always done. I joined a band. For the next year I played guitar with the Rick Brunetto Big Band, in Columbus, Ohio, a seventeen-piece jazz band specializing in big-band era tunes. True hep-cat stuff. What a blast, performing with real musicians again. The guitarist’s job in a big band is mostly to keep rhythm, chunk-chunking away like Freddie Green on finger-bending chords. That’s what I like. Keeping time with the band. And, even when another soloist stands to play, humming along with the melody in my head.
David Baker is a professor and the Chair of the English department at Denison University. He is the author of ten poetry books and has been published in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker.
Essay originally published in Poetry Northwest.