Betty Duffy

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"You're on a Freight Train Headed for the Blues"

(--Jack White)

It's Ribberfest weekend! In honor of such a worthy occasion, here's a rerun:

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.

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. 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?


Hope said...

Oh, I needed to read this. Thank you. I've been scared of my limitations when it comes to writing and that's left me paralyzed for the past few months.

Marilyn Rodrigues said...

YES!! Thank you for putting this into words.

It's so startlingly what I needed to read today that I think you are the 'real deal' girl!

JMB said...

I've recently been on a Led Zep kick and can't get the song "Tangerine" out of my head.

Trish Bailey de Arceo said...

Wow! What a rich post! I'm glad you posted it on rerun, since I missed it the first time around. There's so much here to digest and think about... I find myself where you were a few years ago: feeling my limitations, yet also wanting to write more. I love reading you because I feel like you're just far enough ahead on the road for me to learn from you, yet not feel like you're in another galaxy. Lots to relate to here! And lots to admire. You write better than so many published authors!!

BettyDuffy said...

Trish, I think you're writing extremely well. And your life experience is a gold mine if you ever want to delve into those years in the Legion. The Church needs such historians, people who can tell that story from the inside out.

Enbrethiliel said...


I remember this one! If I had to pick my Top 5 Betty Duffy posts, this would easily make the list!

BettyDuffy said...

Thanks E!