Doug Leland's weekly column, August 6, 2007
Without peering up from the newspaper and in a hesitant voice of mixed surprise, discovery, and perhaps a desire to keep her discovery secret, Sally says to me, “Hey, Banjo Dan is playing in Portland on Saturday.” Her statement is an act of true love.
Blue Grass music is one of many genres I listen to occasionally, a little known idiosyncrasy Sally learned the hard way shortly after we were married when I suggested we attend the three day Galax Blue Grass Festival in Galax, Virginia. It’s truly as advertised: three days, 24 hours a day, and can be a bit unnerving for those camping within a mile of the stage who prefer sleep over a fiddle and banjo at 3:00 in the morning.
Sally was not a blue grass fan then, nor is she now, but she knows I’ve always had a soft spot for “Banjo Dan and the Midnight Plowboys.” Thus, she shared with me her finding in the entertainment pages of Thursday’s newspaper.
Some of my attraction is the characteristic sounds of blue grass. More, however, has to do with the uniqueness of Plowboy roots planted in my home state of Vermont at a latitude far north of traditional blue grass territory—a uniqueness accentuated by compositions created to capture and preserve little known stories and rarely expressed sentiments distinct to Vermont. Like minstrels of old, Banjo Dan and the Midnight Plowboys share history, culture, and emotions of “place” through song.
With a quick series of key strokes and even quicker connection to the Web site of the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, I purchase two $15 tickets for the performance, now just two days away.
The music venue, unknown to me until this evening, is an old stone church atop Munjoy Hill in Portland, currently in the middle of a secular transition. Arriving early, we engage a friendly staff administering a short “will-call” list. Entering the theatre, we find a small stage with one microphone facing tiered seating for maybe 100 people. Less than half these seats see an occupant this night, making for a very intimate environment where occasional dialogue with the musicians is carried out in conversational tone.
Midway into a four performance swing through Maine, I assume Banjo Dan and his Plowboys (performing together now for more than 30 years) are probably disappointed in the showing. If so, it doesn’t alter Dan’s insistence on a backstage pre-show warm-up and a subsequent performance for 40 that’s unchanged in energy or enthusiasm from one for 400 or 4,000. It’s refreshing to witness such integrity.
Blue grass music must be seen—not just heard—to gain the complete experience and adequate appreciation. Music and words are part of the mosaic, but so too are the fast moving fingers picking at a banjo or mandolin and the silky strokes of a bow on a fiddle. Rotating like a human “Tilt-A-Whirl” by the single microphone in rehearsed yet casual manner, each band member offers a solo with just about every number. On this evening, the Plowboy’s loss in terms of attendance is our gain in fullness of experience.
Well into the first set of music, I am surprised (and admittedly a bit disappointed) that most songs played are not their own compositions, but rather traditional songs familiar to blue grass aficionados. One exception provides a light moment at the expense of lead singer Al Davis who handles the situation with great grace, humility, and humor. Announcing the number, “Black Ice, Brass Moon, Blue Heart,” a song composed by Davis, the band launches into the song’s first few bars. It’s clear, however, that something is amiss as Al shares a somewhat dismayed glance back at the band and they begin improvising, realizing Al didn’t enter with vocals on cue. He steps back from the microphone and says something to Banjo Dan (though he appears open to a lifeline from any band member) before stopping altogether and addressing the audience. “It must be a senior moment . . . I forgot the opening line.”
Dan goes on to good naturedly chastise his friend by repeating that Al had written the song, and that it’s been the third song of their opening set for the past seven years. Having received a clue to the opening words, Al and the rest of the band go on to complete the song without a hitch. Before I know it, intermission arrives.
You can always tell the age of a group when they refer to CDs as “albums” and make no effort to distinguish the two. Such is the case this evening as the band mills about a tiny table with their CDs for sale. I decide to have a little fun with Dan and join the small gathering.
My first introduction to Banjo Dan and the Midnight Plowboys came with their first album, Snowfall, released in the early 1970s. I then lost touch with this Vermont blue grass band for many years after giving away my album when technology upgrades found me without a record player/turntable. While visiting my brother in Montpelier, Vermont several years ago and mentioning how I missed some of the early Plowboy music, he suggested a small music store on Main Street. Sure enough, they had a couple of Banjo Dan CDs, but not Snowfall.
Returning to California and listening to a few new songs, I soon discovered myself writing a Monday Message about one I found particularly moving, “The Ballad of Hawk Leno,” a little known story of a hero who lived life to the fullest and in complete alignment with his values.
I sent a copy of the Monday Message to Dan along with a short note suggesting that if he ever ran low on song material, he might consider a composition about the Vermonter, Henry Leland, born into poverty in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (which in monetary terms is true for just about everyone born in this region) and who went on to found Cadillac and Lincoln.
We’ve exchanged a few emails since to include one letting me know that Snowfall was coming out as a CD for the first time.
So at intermission, I approach Dan and ask if he has ever considered doing a song about the Vermonter Henry Leland, the guy who invented Cadillac? It’s clear from his reaction that the wheels are turning. He’s heard about this guy before, but can’t make the connection. I let him off the hook and reveal my identity. He says, “Oh, you’re the Monday Message guy!” We chat for a while. I ask if he plans to play a few more of their own compositions. To my surprise, he suggests not. If I pieced together his explanation correctly, it sounded as if most audiences want to hear traditional blue grass: “We can’t make a living just playing and recording our Vermont songs.”
What a shame.
I know of no one else who better captures the unique descriptions, stories, and emotions of rural Vermont. In fact, there may not be anyone else at all. “Snowfall,” the title song to album of same name describes the soft beauty of Nature’s white blanket forming one crystal and layer at a time as seen through the eyes of rural Vermonters, rather than those of Bing Crosby in “White Christmas.” Though it will require shoveling to reach the truck, the barn, and town, there is a peacefulness that accompanies a heavy snowfall and for a brief period it pushes aside all of life’s routine distractions. “Wood Heat” conveys the now seldom experienced manner in which one piece of wood warms you three ways— chopping, splitting, and finally in the fireplace. Nowhere else can you find songs like “Striped Maple,” “The Shores of Lake Champlain,” “Poultney Slate,” “Smuggler’s Notch,” “Where the Rivers Flow North,” and the history of “The Old Arched Bridge.”
A recently written song, “Black Cemetery,” is about an out-of-the-way burial plot where many headstones bear the name Black. I have a number of past and present relatives in Vermont with this last name, to include another Henry, the now-deceased former Attorney General. I wonder if it’s the same cemetery?
Banjo Dan and the Midnight Plowboys capture the heritage, humor, and hardship of Vermont life like no others. Their ability to play music is a God-given gift and their heartfelt creations are a gift to Vermont. I’m not sure the Plowboys or the State fully appreciate this inheritance echoing through the Green Mountains.
Dan, correctly noting I probably didn’t have his latest CD (the third in a series offering original compositions about little known Vermont stories), has me picking one off the table and pulling out a 20 dollar bill for a fifteen dollar purchase. He points me to Willy, his brother, saying Willy is the Chief Financial Officer, the man with the change.
With Willy reaching into his pocket for some one-dollar bills, I mention that one of my favorite songs is “Willy’s Lament.” He stops momentarily and gives me a bit of a startled look, “You know that song?” Almost without finishing his sentence and as if the song is not worthy of acknowledgment he continues, “Oh, did you just read that off of one of the CDs?” Had he thought about this he quickly would have realized the error in his question since the song appears only on the Snowfall CD, and no such CDs were on the table.
I told him again how much I liked the song and asked if there was any chance they could play it during the second half. “Oh no, I wrote that eons ago when I was just 21. We haven’t performed it in years. No one in the band would be able to play it.”
“That’s too bad … it’s a great song.”
Willy went on to say how surprised he was a couple of years back to hear one of his compositions played by another band. He seemed stunned that anyone would want to play his music.
He would probably be even more stunned to learn how many lives he has touched and continues to touch through songs written and history shared as a Vermont troubadour. We all have our special gifts and all too often we are the last to know what they are. We would probably all be stunned to know how many lives we touch by just being ourselves and freely sharing the talents we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge. We each have special gifts, our own voices to share with the world, and we are intended to share them—knowingly and humbly, with gratitude and grace.
“Willy’s Lament,” a song written more than thirty years ago by a young man with no intentions of making music for a living, asks the questions that haunt us all . . . and keeps us open to a lifetime of learning, growing, and giving:
“What am I doing with my life? Who am I hiding from tonight?”
I suspect when we stop hiding from ourselves, the answer to the first question takes care of itself.
Copyright © by Doug Leland. All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Doug Leland is a certified executive coach, retirement specialist, author, workshop facilitator, teleclass leader, and professional speaker with significant management and corporate experience. www.DougLeland.com