Betty Duffy

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"You're On A Freight Train Headed for the Blues"

--Jack White

Several months ago, my husband and I went to “Ribberfest,” a blues and ribs festival in Madison, Indiana on the banks of the Ohio River. I’ve never been much of a blues fan, and that night didn’t change it all for me, but it piqued my interest.

We sat on a stone wall next to a couple of bikers who’d been to this festival annually for the past few years. They were blues aficionados, and talked and sang and smoked as though anyone around them were welcome to join the conversation, so I did. Robben Ford played with a bassist and a drummer. I wasn’t familiar with the band, so I was listening for clues in the bikers’ conversation.

“They’re putting out a lot of sound for just three guys,” one of them said. I’d hardly noticed how many people were actually playing up there, because I just heard the product, a bluesy song that sounded much like every other bluesy song I’d ever heard.

“This guy’s the real deal,” said the other.

The real deal? “Why?” I asked, joining the conversation. Was it because he’d won a grammy? Because he’d collaborated with Joni Mitchell (a true accomplishment, in my opinion)? And if this guy was the real deal, why weren't there more people in the audience?

“Watch them closely,” the guy next to me said. “They’re having a conversation up there.”

I wanted to see this conversation up close, so I went up to the front of the stage, where the serious appreciators danced with their eyes closed.

The three members of the band breathed together. They communicated with eyes, with toes tapping, with the swaying of their bodies. Bass’s mouth puckered while his shoulders hunched. He appeared to be chewing. Reminded me of the puckered expression that would show up sometimes when people took pictures of me playing the cello, one of the reasons I was too vain to let go of myself and play with attitude. Drums watched him closely, then they both turned to Robben, who was getting down on the guitar. He was the leader, the big breath, the ignition. If he stopped, they would all stop.

My husband and I recently watched the documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” in which three iconic guitarists (Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White) come together to discuss their craft and make music. At one point, Jimmy Page talks about what it felt like to hit his groove in a band: “When passion meets competence, it’s absolute musical heaven.”

Yes, these guys were the real deal.

The three band members relished their command of the unspoken language. “How can I get some of that?” I wondered. It was a dance, with plenty of improvisation.

Pentimento spoke here (in the comments) about how music speaks a language beyond words, but I’ve found that the written word can also take on an aspect of "unspoken" communication.

In “It Might Get Loud,” The Edge said he considers the guitar his voice. He uses the sustain feature on his amplifiers to make his notes converse with the notes he played seconds before. His present music becomes a duet with the very recent past. I’ve always wondered what it was that made U2’s music so compelling. In a large part, it’s this conversation between the past and present, this "sustain," that has been taking place right under my nose all these years without my being aware of it.

I think Pentimento uses a sustain feature in her writing. I’ve often read one of her posts, like this one, and wondered what is it about her writing that makes me want to keep reading. It is the conversation between the past and present that is so skillfully executed, I hardly realize it’s taking place. It’s no coincidence she’s a musician as well as a writer.

“Music evokes location,” said the Edge. “Where is this music being played? Where does it take you?” The best writers evoke location. The Southern writers, O Connor, Faulkner, Percy, are not called the Southern Writers for nothing. I’ve been thinking lately about what the particular music of the Midwest is these days. Maybe it’s these new blues, Robben Ford singing, “I want to see what it feels like to be nothing to nobody.” Midwesterners always want to ditch the good stuff and run off to the coast.

The Edge spoke of a moment in U2’s early days, acknowledging that no one in the band knew what they were doing. They weren’t trained musicians. And he one day had the realization, “Our limitations as musicians were not going to be a problem: I can do that.”

For about eight years after I started having kids, I didn't write much. I decided that instead of writing, I would be a reader. Someone had to buy the literary journals. Someone had to appreciate all the words sent off to find their way in the cosmos. I would be that person. I spent most days reading all the books to which I didn't pay attention in college, and others that my liberal professors wouldn't have assigned.

I read a lot of good writing. And a lot of bad writing. And one day, it dawned on me: "I can do that." I could write somewhere between the good and the bad. What do these people producing all these words have that I don't have? Is it competency? Is it passion? Is it time? Am I not allowed to write? I decided that I would not let my limitations, whatever they were, be a problem for me. I was allowing my limitations to intimidate me. I was allowing them to make me feel like an imposter in a world I was born to inhabit, not the "Literary World," so to speak, but the world of my every day life that I longed to decipher in the written word. The only way for my limitations to cease being limitations was to surpass them, daily, little by little.

Though my limitations are still likely a problem for whoever reads this blog, writing it makes me feel like I'm a part of that three-way conversation, picking up cues from, breathing in accord with God and the world around me. It's my own little Midwestern blues band I guess. Not quite "the real deal," but one of these days...

More Quotes from the Movie:

Edge on the creative process: “There will always be something if you keep going.

Jack White: “When you dig deeper into Rock and Roll you’re on a freight train headed for the blues.”

On writing music: “If you don’t have a struggle inside of you or around you, you have to make one up.”

Jimmy Page on early experimentation with dynamics on electric guitar in rock music: “It’s the whisper to the thunder, the quiet invites you in….Light and dark, crescendo—wouldn’t I want to be employing that?”


KimP said...

I'm thinking the 3 piece blues band makes a great metaphor for the Holy Trinity; 3 guys breathing as one and making music as the "the real deal".

BettyDuffy said...

Kim, I thought about that too, but it seemed like the metaphor I "ought" to draw, so I was being stubborn and didn't do it. But maybe I'll go back and see if I can work it in.

Christy said...

I think too, that my marriage - my husband, myself and God are also like the 3 piece blues band, and when I am paying attention to the other 2 we make beautiful music but if I get caught up in myself I throw the sound off.
Great, thought provoking post.

mrsdarwin said...

"Ribberfest" -- ha ha! I suppose that's only amusing to people who are familiar with the tri-state area, though. :)

I, too, feel like "I can write somewhere between the good and the bad", but my problem is feeling that inspiration at the moment of of writing, instead of in the middle of the night or driving the car or somewhere where I can't put the words cramming my head (indeed, almost exploding) down in any concrete form. And if I wait too long, they're lost.

BettyDuffy said...

Mrs. D, I got so annoyed with those thoughts that would flee from me when I sat down to write them, I started keeping a notebook next to my bed so I can write things down without getting up. Last night, I found myself writing in the dark so as not to disturb my sleeping husband. Trying to make out what I wrote in the dark this morning--a bit difficult to read.

Enbrethiliel said...


Blogging as being in a Midwestern blues band? That's just beautiful, Betty!

Moreover, I agree that there's a definite musical quality to everything Pentimento writes. =)

TS said...

Beethoven said music was more revelatory than philosophy. He might've been biased but...

Pentimento said...

Betty, that's a huge compliment, especially coming from someone whose writing often leaves me breathless. Thank you, and may you continue to write with your accustomed skill, beauty, and grace (in both senses of the word) in the new year.

Enbrethiliel said...


Betty, the day I read this also happened to be the day I decided when to announce that I will be shutting Sancta Sanctis down. Later, I fell asleep and dreamed that I was back in my family's old home, in the room with the Yamaha organ my grandmother bought to impress the neighbours in the 70s. In my dream, however, it wasn't a Yamaha organ in the corner, but a desk--a desk with a cabinet full of books by "Bad Catholic" authors like Father Greeley, Bud McFarlane and Diana Gabaldon. When I woke up, I remembered this post.

BettyDuffy said...

I'm proud to haunt your dreams, E.

Pentimento said...

Yikes - you're shutting down, E? I'd better go read about it.

Marie said...

On writing, and reading, I think this is one of the ways our country might break out using the internet, if we don't get stuck in a new trap. It reminds me of Belloc and his idea that centralized capitalism was not a product of new tech. Capitalism was already centralizing, and so the powerful centers used the tech to make it more so. But the same rail system that made centralization possible could have been used to make local production more viable. Same, to me, with the internet. A few big guys might take it and dominate and turn out consistent dreck, but right now we've got Betty Duffy blogging.
So, I guess I'm saying that publishing right now is an industry like the others. Newspapers, for example, there used to be several in each city, now there is one in each place and many are owned by some corporation in another place that owns fifty more. There are some magazines and publishers bucking this trend, but while I would buy a book of Betty Duffy essays before most of what is on the shelves right now, I don't know how likely it is that there would ever be one sitting on a Walmart shelf. It's not about whether it's written well or has good content, the choice to publish or not is a marketing one.
Not that there isn't some good stuff out there, but it's out there because it markets well, being good is on the side.
So I'm really glad there's a way for good writing to get out there without gatekeepers. But if you ever go with a publisher, I'd dig some money out of the mattress for that. . .

BettyDuffy said...

Thanks Marie,
True, internet makes it possible for me to have readers I otherwise would probably not have. Making money writing, however, seems to be going the way of the newspapers. For a writer to make money on the internet means the writer must also sell something, or at least make themselves a doorway to the market through the placement of ads on their blog. I suppose it's a small price to pay, but something in me bristles at the thought that everyone is selling something. I was reading some of the BIG blogs the other day, the mommy blogs, Dooce, etc, and there is still a voice that sells. Sort of startling, that they all seem to have the same or a similar voice, full of snark and the F word, and "I was all..."

Which is to say, in order to enjoy this little niche in the internet, and to keep churning it out, there has to be some other payoff for the writer besides money and a vast readership. I don't want the pay-off to be just a satisfied sense of self-importance, (living for comments like yours, for instance), so I keep looking for justifications.

Starrball said...

Breathing in accord with God and the world around me. I think my blog is the same for me.