Landscape and Language as Character

Reflections on reading The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy. (Wikimedia)

Reading Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novel The Woodlanders returns me to a lifelong fascination with his writing. Hardy was an early literary touchstone for me in my self education as a writer, and remains my favourite novelist of the Victorian era, if not of all time. Tess of the D’urbervilles was likely the first of his novels I read, and I remember being struck by the way his use of language vividly conjured the Dorset landscape. So vividly, in fact, that when I first saw Roman Polanski’s film Tess (released in 1979), I recall the happy shock of recognition in the scenes he filmed in Dorset—it was exactly as I had pictured it in my mind. To me this is one of the greatest things a prose writer can accomplish, since it can be devilishly difficult to say anything original about landscape. And more of a conjuring feat yet to render the peculiarities of a southwest English landscape with such loving accuracy and detail.

Landscape is thus an essential character in Hardy’s novels. It seems a little surprising that he went to such lengths to disguise actual town and county names in his fiction. But the fact that he devoted so much attention to the beloved landscape of his childhood indicates its importance in his work. In my own recent writing of fiction in Mountain Blues and now the sequel Mountain Showdown, landscape is also an important ‘character,’ only this time my own beloved Kootenay—more specifically, Slocan Lake—landscape. My Dad said recently that when the Dene people of northern British Columbia (in the Finlay River country) were moved from their ancestral village due to the flooding of the Peace River dam system, their community collapsed into the despair of alcoholism, drugs and violence. They were moved by the government to a place that had never been home to them in all the millennia of their occupation of the landscape. “Native people are very attached to their land,” he said, as if this were unique to aboriginal peoples. But in fact, all of us are attached to the land that cultured us from the cradle, unless we’re born into that select tribe of wanderers who seem to feel at home anywhere on Earth.

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The River Stour seen from White Mill bridge, Dorset county, England.

Reading Hardy today, some 130 years after The Woodlanders was published, makes one realize just how drastically the English language has changed in that time. And, I would argue, not for the better. Creative writing schools for decades now have been schooling writers in the ‘less is more’ aesthetic—keep your sentences short and snappy and lose the adjectives. That’s a genuine shame. In my view it has been part and parcel of the impoverishment of the language, another component of the ‘dumbing down’ phenomenon that has accelerated over the past 30 or 40 years. A recent Norwegian study found that IQ levels in their population have been on a steady decline since 1970. This followed a generalized boom period in the 20th century—known as the ‘Flynn effect’—when they were steadily rising by about three IQ points per decade. The ‘dumbing down’ seems to have picked up speed, with an average decline of seven points per decade. This is not a purely Norwegian phenomenon but has been observed in other countries as well. “This is the most convincing evidence yet of a reversal of the Flynn effect,” said psychologist Stuart Ritchie from the University of Edinburgh.[1]

Coming back to reading Hardy some three decades later has required extra effort to parse the long, looping sentences, the ornately detailed descriptions and use of words now largely vanished from our common vocabulary. One such example that springs to mind is Hardy’s use of ‘lucubrations,’ a word I had never heard of. According to my trusty 1980 Merriam Webster dictionary, it means either “study by night, work produced at night,” or “laborious study, meditation,” or even “studied or pretentious expression in speech or writing.” Growing up in a household where reading was encouraged from an early age, I learned quickly not to ask my mother what a word meant. “Look it up yourself,” she’d say. At the time I thought it was brusque and dismissive. Now I realize she was teaching me to teach myself, and it enriched my vocabulary far beyond what I would have learned at school. David Bowie once said as a child he thought of the Oxford dictionary as one long poem. What a lovely idea! No doubt Hardy would have agreed. We had a similarly voluminous dictionary at home—though not the Oxford—and I often sat reading it for entertainment. Rather than pandering to the simplistic or the convenient, we should be encouraging people to expand, not shrink, their vocabularies. Learning new words expands our worldview, adds another shade of colour to the world. As my mother would say: Don’t understand a word? Look it up.

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The eight arches of White Mill bridge, dating to 1175 AD.

There are more personal touchstones for me in Hardy’s writing. As a young man I had no idea why his novels resonated so deeply with me. It was only in my middle age, when I began researching my father’s family history—the Joyces—that I discovered our ancestors had spent nearly 500 years living in Dorset county. I learned that my great-grandfather George Ochiltree Joyce had left the idyllic dales of Dorset for the siren call of London and the possible futures it offered—or seemed to. He soon suffered the fate of so many lower class immigrants in London—the grinding hours of poorly paid work gradually wearing him to a shadow of his former self. His son, my grandfather Cyril William Joyce, was sent to Canada as a British Home Child by his mother after George died or left the family. As far as I can tell he never forgave her for it. Once in Canada, like so many of these immigrant children, he quickly learned to hide his British accent for fear of bullying. The old class prejudices of empire lingered on in the new world, and in British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder were treated as disposable. Canadian newspapers regularly decried the influx of immigrant children they viewed as the “refuse of the Empire,” “gutter trash,” or little better than stray animals. This was all condemnation sight unseen, based purely on class prejudice. Like the xenophobic backlash we’re seeing now, it’s a reminder: people throughout history have reacted irrationally toward immigrants—even those of their own race. Xenophobia was always with us, it just changes targets.

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Cyril Joyce as a boy in London’s East End prior to being emigrated to Canada in 1926.

So I understand at an innate level the class prejudice that so often takes centre stage in Hardy’s novels. In The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury, the daughter of a country wood merchant, is sent away for higher education. When she returns to her home village of Little Hintock, she is courted avidly by Giles Winterborne, an honest but basically poor orchardist and woodsman. In just the short time she’s been away at school, she has acquired the affected air of a higher social class. Although still fond of Winterborne—they grew up together—she looks down her nose at him as a suitor. Meanwhile, her father has promised her to him in marriage. It’s a vivid illustration of class prejudice: It’s not just those born into a higher social class who look condescendingly upon lower classes. Most of the Canadian kids who taunted British Home Children for being “gutter rats” or “homeboys” were themselves from farm families—not exactly a high social class. Yet the prejudices had seeped down to them from their parents, the news media of the day, and reaching further yet, all the way from the motherland. It’s why I’ve always been acutely conscious of class divisions, whether based on race or economic status, and fought to develop a classless mindset. I’ve made it my mission to become a lifelong learner. That has meant becoming a voracious reader like my father, who with only a high school education is better read than some university grads I know. Yet, if I’m honest, I too have felt the stirrings of class prejudice. Often it’s a kind of reverse prejudice—not against the poor but the rich, the so-called One Percent and their stranglehold on wealth.

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White Mill from the front, facing the mill house. Cottage is to the rear.

I had the great fortune to visit Dorset in 2009 with my partner Anne, to see up close the landscape that had inspired me since first reading Hardy in my 20s. Again—as with the experience of seeing it on film—it appeared very much as I remembered it in Hardy’s novels. The Joyces had been tenant millers and farmers on an estate owned by British aristocracy, at a place known as White Mill on the River Stour. The mill and cottage is reached by an eight-arched bridge that dates to 1,175 AD, built with distinctive ‘refuges,’ triangular nooks for pedestrians to wait in while traffic passes. When we arrived, the remains of a huge elm tree stood in front of the mill and millpond, now sadly truncated and dead. That tree was probably several centuries old. I can just imagine its spreading foliage casting cool shade on the millpond. The river is hardly more than a shallow stream compared to our deep, boisterous Canadian rivers. But its wide flat surface creates a placid atmosphere, the whisper of leafy growth on the riverbanks suggesting that here is rest, calm and safety. The brick mill building with its dovecotes high in the eaves and the cottage, its narrow, winding staircase and cramped rooms, speak of lives writ small and all the better for it. Let the elite live out their self-made dramas and overseas intrigue, it seems to say. Here is warmth and quiet, a place to rejuvenate the soul. Sit down by the fire, smoke a pipeful, read a book. What could be more profoundly satisfying? The adventures of the mind are no less epic for being lived in the imagination.

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The author standing inside White Mill, where generations of Joyces worked.

Another detail of The Woodlanders that immediately spoke to me was Giles Winterborne’s vocation as an apple orchardist. When he takes a sapling to market at the nearby village, he puts a milking pail full of apple cider on the back of his wagon for patrons to enjoy free of charge. It’s a 19th century version of up-marketing: Taste the juice of my wares; if you like it, buy one of my trees. And with contemporary civilization taking a downward plunge into social chaos and deeper economic uncertainty, it speaks to the revival of interest in growing one’s own food. The ‘back to the land’ ethos of the 1960s–70s is back again, more relevant than ever, and we see it nowhere more clearly than here in the Slocan Valley. At our local K-12 school, children can learn and participate in the complete cycle of growth, from sprouting seeds to harvesting fruit and vegetables and making food from them at their annual harvest festival. For about 15 years now I’ve cultivated my own little apple orchard, a gift bequeathed by the former owners of the house I live in. Although I’m a slow learner where gardening is concerned, it gives me a deep sense of satisfaction to eat apples fresh from the tree, with their snap and tart explosion on the tongue. That pleasure is compounded by the applesauce and apple juice we make from those trees. Lately apples have been added to a growing list of so-called ‘miracle foods’ said to maximize one’s health. I wonder sometimes if my innate enjoyment of apples is part of my epigenetic heritage, from ancestors who likely cultivated apple orchards generation after generation, or just enjoyed the sweet product of their neighbours’ labour. Or it may simply be that I like apples.

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The ancient elm at White Mill.

One of the masters of English fiction, Hardy’s novels are known around the world. Not bad for a country boy. Certainly like Grace Melbury he benefited by higher education. As an architect he would have enjoyed a standard of living few of his Dorset county neighbours could claim. Yet—like Dickens—he never seems to have lost his love of the many characters of those people. And he certainly never lost his love of the Dorset landscape. It infuses every page of his stories, like a spring-soaked grassy field or a shady riverbank on the Stour.

My ancestors lived probably within 20 miles of Hardy’s home near Dorchester. Who knows? Maybe one of them bumped into Hardy on the Dorchester high street, on his way in for tea.

[1] ‘IQ Scores Are Falling in “Worrying” Reversal of 20th Century Intelligence Boom,’

Peter Dockrill, Science Alert,13 June 2018, https://www.sciencealert.com/iq-scores-falling-in-worrying-reversal-20th-century-intelligence-boom-flynn-effect-intelligence

 

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5G “epidemic” to hit Sacramento, also Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis

via 5G “epidemic” to hit Sacramento, also Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis

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The Fisher King Retires (poem)

Kane Creek pool 1 lo-res copyThe Fisher King Retires

—for Robin Williams, Keith Emerson, and all the wounded men

 

The decades wear down on us, not even

water on stone but water on clay—

flexible as muscle, yet weak outside the kiln,

our love-hate dance with fire and ash.

 

The damaged Fisher King in his cryptic realm,

casting hooks through water’s portal

to the otherworld, the salmon of knowledge

elusive as mist, the healing boon unreachable.

 

Thought swims finned in its viscous element,

unaware of its ocean. Poison the well

and you poison the kingdom. Stab a man’s

thigh and slaughter his heart, abandon utterly

 

his future. Excalibur’s lake a mirror image

of courage—the sinew to slash or caress,

the gut’s viscera keeping soul and body united.

Send no soldier to war we won’t welcome home.

 

Some eyes can’t bear the gradual starvation

of light, the body’s dismantling, limb by limb,

ache by ache. Time’s milk sour, clouding the pool,

the half-self drifting away in tatters.

 

Align the mind’s lance with the heart’s cup

and crack the conundrum. Pour the Grail’s wine

over an open wound. Let the green wave

fill the land with blossoms.

 

NOTES

At a time when women’s issues completely dominate media headlines, I wanted to shine a light on the seldom-discussed issue of male suicides. Comedian Robin Williams and musician Keith Emerson are only the tip of the iceberg, their fame making their suicides more noticeable than most. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die by suicide 3.5 times more than women. Robin Williams died August 11, 2014 of suicide. His wife Susan Schneider attributed his suicide to his struggle with Lewy body dementia. Keith Emerson, composer and keyboardist for the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, committed suicide March 11, 2016. Emerson suffered from depression, and in his later years developed nerve damage that hampered his playing, making him anxious about upcoming performances.

By now the Fisher King or Wounded King story needs little explanation. And although the use of archetypal myths in contemporary poetry is considered something of a Romantic throwback, I fall in with Carl Jung’s school of thought, which sees archetypes as endlessly self-renewing in the psyche. In this case the metaphor—employed for two creative geniuses who committed suicide—felt entirely apt, since the Fisher King’s wound is typically in his thigh, a medieval metaphor for the male genitals. The loss of male procreative power is thus a fundamental blow to the male psyche, analogous to an artist losing (or perceiving the loss of) his creative powers. Men tend to define themselves by their work and accomplishments. For Williams and Emerson, the impending loss of their creative work was enough to precipitate suicide.

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Replanting the Lungs of the World

I hate to have to say this to some of my neighbours, but logging as we know it has to end. We are cutting out the lungs of the world. According to the National Resources Defense Council, forest clearcutting is responsible for an estimated 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 5.5 million vehicles. When you consider the tons of carbon dioxide that a single tree takes out of the atmosphere in a year, it’s cutting our own throats to cut them down at the current rate. All these clearcut forests need to be our 21st century Kennedy moonshot. We need to monetize planting trees the way we monetized turning them into lumber. Pay treeplanters excellent wages, with bonuses. Stream former loggers and forestry workers straight into it. With the coming wave of AI and robotics eliminating millions of jobs, we’ll be desperate to find work for people. This would at least not be a total rupture with a logger’s outdoor mode of work and recreation. He or she would still be working in beautiful country, close to good fishing streams and lakes, clean water and huckleberry patches—an enviable lifestyle.

Evergreen fog lo-res copyAlthough it’s conceivable an AI/robotics hybrid could be built to navigate the treacherous mountain terrain of places like British Columbia, that could still be a long way off, if it’s achievable. Obviously treeplanting jobs would have to be primarily for the young or exceptionally fit. But who knows? With so many jobs, from manual labour to basic data processing soon to be taken over by AI, a sheen of glamour may well accrue to a wilderness job like treeplanting. Just as we once romanticized logging with the myth of Paul Bunyan and his sidekick Blue the Ox, we could do now with treeplanters. Call them the Green Rangers and give them official badges and uniforms. Make them our heroes, planting the foliage that rebuilds, an acre at a time, the lungs of the planet just when we need it most. These ‘Green Rangers’ could be designated as ‘essential services’ similar to our firefighters, paramedics, nurses and emergency services. And there’s no reason they can’t make a perfectly good living doing it.

The new IPCC report gives us a miniscule timeline for action: 12 years. The last time I blinked it was 12 years ago. Scientists say we have the technology to put on the brakes and start reducing our carbon load. We only lack the political and economic will. But by planting trees, cannabis and bamboo we can solve the world’s carbon needs at the same time as we fill the need for fibre, clothing, rope, personal care products, and almost anything else. We already have millions of hectares globally of cleared forests. At least a portion of these could be used for hemp, cannabis or bamboo cultivation. And unlike a forest, cannabis, hemp and bamboo give you a hearty new crop to harvest every year. Already hemp and bamboo are used for construction, clothing, soaps and oils, with new applications every year. Bamboo has a higher compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete and a tensile strength that rivals steel. In the construction industry, explains the Hemp Industries Association, “the parts of the hemp plant currently used for construction are woody inner core (for hempcrete), the outer fibrous skin (for hemp fiber batt insulation) and hemp seed oil (for hemp oil wood finish and deck stain).” And with cannabis now legalized in Canada, the stigma is off for those wanting to make a business out of growing the plant for various commercial and industrial applications. This should also encourage research and development of new products.

We could set new goals annually to replace a higher percentage of woodframe construction with these alternative materials. We could also promote building alternatives such as light clay construction, 3D-printed ‘tiny houses,’ and even a return to traditional brick and stone structures. With plastic clogging our oceans and even entering the food chain in micro-particles, we could be reclaiming that as raw material for construction. According to Green Building Solutions, “recycled plastics are used to make polymeric timbers for use in everything from picnic tables to fences, thus helping to save trees. Plastic from two-liter bottles is even being spun into fibre for the production of carpet—another recycled product solution for our homes.” Although the initial uptake of these materials into the construction market would be expensive, as the numbers go up the costs will come down. This could also solve a growing problem facing Western nations: the crisis in housing affordability. And if we can subsidize fossil fuel companies—some of the most profitable corporations on Earth—we can certainly subsidize the eco-materials market in its early stages. After all, this is a climate emergency, so emergency measures are needed.

Already national NGOs such as Tree Canada and the international NGO One Tree Planted have support structures in place—including grants or corporate funding partnerships—to further large-scale reforestation programs. One Tree Planted plants trees in North America, Latin America, Asia and Africa and has a campaign to plant a million trees in California alone to help the state recover from devastating wildfires and bark beetle infestations. After experiencing the worst wildfire season in BC history last year, our own province could benefit by such a campaign.

Some will argue that by creating cannabis, hemp and bamboo plantations we’ll still be altering the environment. True. But at virtually no time during humanity’s existence on this planet have we not done so. Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Or Yuval Noah Harrari’s Sapiens. It just so happens through an accident of blind biological and historical evolution we developed the capacity to alter the global environment drastically. And this just happens to be an emergency. If a percentage of clearcut forests and rainforests are used both to plant more native trees and provide some fibre cultivation, we can at least begin the healing process.

Then, as the carbon load comes down and ecosystems recover, we can allow more cultivated areas to return to their natural state. By that time our technology will have leapt forward again by orders of magnitude, making fibre production ever more efficient. As for example the recent exponential improvements in solar panel efficiency. In theory, that will gradually reduce our footprint for fibre production, allowing a greater percentage of wild forests to return. And with forests—with trees—comes life. Once trees are gone from a landscape, not even your water is safe anymore. Trees are as vital to life as water. As the National Geographic explains, trees “perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapour to the atmosphere. Without trees to fill these roles, many former forest lands can quickly become barren deserts.”

Once the trees are gone, an eerie silence settles on the land: where are all the birds? Imagine instead great wheeling flocks of them flashing in late afternoon sun above the forest canopy, lush and teeming with life.

Because, after all, why would you cut out your own lungs just for a dollar?

LINKS:

One Tree Planted: https://onetreeplanted.org

Tree Canada: https://treecanada.ca

Hemp Industries Association: https://www.thehia.org/Building-Materials

Bamboo for use in construction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_construction

Green Building Solutions: https://www.greenbuildingsolutions.org/life-cycle-assessment/recycling-plastics/

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC): https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/canadas-boreal-clearcutting-climate-threat

National Geographic on deforestation and global warming: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/

Live Science: Deforestation Facts, Causes & Effects: https://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html

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Jammin’ the Blues: Interview with JW Jones

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JW-Jones at Finley’s Bar and Grill, Nelson, BC, October 26, 2018, hosted by Kootenay Blues Society.

JOYCE: So we’re here at Finley’s Bar and Grill in Nelson, BC with JW Jones, upcoming blues star on the Canadian blues scene. I’m assuming Canadian—

JONES: Yes, Ottawa.

JOYCE: Oh, so you’re from the same city as Sue Foley then.

JONES: She was our guest on the Legendary Blues Cruise back in 2007.

JOYCE: So talk about how you came up into the blues and where that all got started for you.

JONES: Well I was initially a drummer listening to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and stuff like that. And then I realized they got everything from the old blues guys, Chess Records, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all that stuff. And I had some friends that were really, really into hardcore blues and they got me into all the right stuff. So I ended up switching from drums to guitar in around ’95 when I saw B.B. King for the first time; I was 15 years old. Since then it’s been ten records and I’ve played in 23 countries and just keep going.

JOYCE: You’ve been on some very famous blues labels, like Blind Pig. Can you mention a couple that you were on?

JONES: Yeah, I started out on Northern Blues Music, a Canadian label out of Toronto and we were the first artists signed to their label in 2000. And then after that—we did I think the first six records with them—and I did a couple on my own. I’ve worked with Ruf Records and then Blind Pig for our Belmont Boulevard CD, which was nominated for a Juno Award a couple years ago. And then I’ve done the last couple releases myself on my own label, Solid Blues.

JOYCE: Any particular reason for that?

JONES: Well, the whole landscape has changed. Blind Pig ended up selling the label to Sony, so it’s not really an operating label anymore in terms of signing new artists, it’s just a catalogue. It depends on your perspective, because you can release the record yourself and hire the publicist and do the advertising yourself and then you keep the lion’s share of the sales. Or you can go the other way, and the label keeps the lion’s share of the sales and puts all that money into it for you. I mean, there are pros and cons to both. But honestly for the live record, because I wasn’t expecting it to be a huge seller, I just wanted to do it on my own label. Live records don’t tend to sell as well as studio records.

JOYCE: Alright, let’s talk about influences. My guitarist friend Jon Burden tells me he hears a strong British blues revival sound to your music. Would you say that’s characteristic of your music or just one thing you do?

JW Jones @ Finley's 4 lo-res copyJONES: I’ve never studied any British blues. I think what he’s hearing there is that all those guys listen to the same guys I listen to. They all studied B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, all the great guitar players, and I’ve done the same thing. My biggest influences are B.B.—number one—Jimmie Vaughan is up there, Hubert Sumlin, Anson Funderberg, Little Charlie Baty, all the Texas guys and all the West Coast guys, Junior Watson. And I’ve worked with all of them in some shape or form so I’ve been very fortunate.

JOYCE: Really? Even Hubert Sumlin?

JONES: Yeah, he’s on one of my records with Charlie Musselwhite, they’re both on Midnight Memphis Sun. We recorded that at Sun Studios in Memphis.

JOYCE: And you mentioned a couple other people you worked with…

JONES: We recorded with Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds; he was on my second album, he produced my third one. Colin James was a guest on that one. I’ve worked with David ‘Fathead’ Newman from the Ray Charles Band, great sax player. Charlie Musselwhite, Little Charlie Baty, Junior Watson, Richard Anson, Larry Taylor—the best rhythm section in history if you ask me. Who am I missing? Colin Linden produced my last record and he was on it of course.

JOYCE: And you played with Buddy Guy?

JONES: I’ve played with Buddy Guy six times—four times with his band and twice with my band.

JOYCE: So how did you meet him? How did that happen?

JONES: We played at Legends in his club in Chicago and he saw me play and said some nice things to me about my playing. So he asked me to join his band for a couple shows in Ottawa. There’s some great YouTube footage of that. And then whenever we’re at Legends, he sits in with us and sings if he’s there.

JOYCE: I read a quote of him saying, “This young man is one of the people that’s going to keep the blues alive,” so I bet that makes you feel good.

JONES: Pretty cool, yeah. I’ve been seeing him since I was 15 years old.

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JW-Jones with Maple Blues Award-winning bassist Laura Greenberg at Finley’s.

JOYCE: So with your albums—and forgive me, because I’m not familiar with your catalogue of work—would you say there’s a diversity of sound, from Delta to Chicago to what you might call British, is there a style or a sound that you’re aiming to keep?

JONES: In the early days I was definitely emulating the Chicago, Texas, West Coast kind of sounds. I had a harmonica player who was on the first couple records, Steve Mariner. He was great and that was the sound we were going for at the time. And then as the years went on, I did a couple albums with huge horn sections with stuff kind of like Ray Charles, that jump blues sound. The last couple records have been a little more guitar-driven.

The music’s changed for a lot of reasons, number one because my writing’s changed. In the beginning I was just trying to write blues songs that sounded authentic to a certain style. Now when I write songs, the life it takes on is what it takes on. I’m not trying to fit into a box and that makes it sound—first of all, more original. Second of all, there are a lot more choruses that aren’t like the old blues records where it’s the old AAB thing—sing the line then sing it again and then rhyme the third one. And that’s just a personal preference. I mean, there are a lot of great songwriters who can totally kick butt doing that, but I feel that I need a little more space and different chord changes to make me feel like it’s fitting the song.

JOYCE: So do you feel like that’s part of the natural evolution of 21st century blues? Do you see that happening more?

JONES: You know, I think it just depends on the artist. Everyone has their own way of doing things. You look at Joe Bonamassa and he does everything from 12-bar blues to stuff that’s a lot more poppy. And that’s a good example of someone who’s at the top of the food chain right now, other than Buddy Guy. There are a lot of guys who are just sticking close to the tradition, and then there are other guys who are just going totally away from it into R&B and stuff.

JOYCE: Well, each artist has to forge their own path. I guess the important thing is, it keeps the blues alive in some form.

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JW-Jones with bassist Laura Greenberg and drummer Will Laurin.

JONES: Absolutely, yeah. Any time people are playing the blues or talking about the blues is a good thing. I mean, there’s a terrible stigma, that the blues are sad and slow. And that’s something we need to fix. And the way to do that is to keep getting it out there. I mean, we play shows all the time where young people are going nuts for the show. And they go, “I didn’t know this was the blues.” And they don’t know because they’re not exposed to it. We play high energy stuff, so if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know how we would do. That makes a really big difference for young people, because they feel that energy.

JOYCE: And in fairness to slow blues, some of the best blues is slow blues.

JONES: That’s right, and we do that too, we mix it all together. It’s all about getting the right balance.

JOYCE: I think of Ten Years After with their Slow Blues in C, that’s just an incredible slow blues shuffle. The notes just get wrung right out of that guitar. In closing, any thoughts about next steps for you?

JONES: Well, we just released the live record and we charted in the Top 10 Billboard chart for blues albums, so that’s pretty cool, first week out it’s number 8. So we’re promoting that album with the tour, that’s the plan for now. And then a studio album in the next two years. I release an album every two years on the dot. The next album will be all originals.

JOYCE: Well thank you very much for taking the time JW.

JONES: Thank you.

Special thanks to the Kootenay Blues Society, Richard Metzner and Jon Burden for inviting me to interview JW and hear his dynamic live show.

WEBSITE: https://jw-jones.com

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Nascent Poet or Hotheaded Murderer?

Review of Big Ledge by Brian D’Eon

Big Ledge by Brian D’Eon is that rarity in historical fiction—a story that combines historical veracity with narrative fluency and a deep poetic sensibility. D’Eon starts the tale from its endpoint, with its protagonist Robert Sproule sitting in a jail cell telling his story to a priest on the eve of his execution in 1886. Sproule is well-known to readers of Kootenay history for having been convicted of the murder of Thomas Hamill, with whom he had a dispute over ownership of the Bluebell mining claim on the east shore of Kootenay Lake.

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Brian D’Eon introduces his novel ‘Big Ledge’ next to an 1890s map of the West Kootenay, drafted during the mining boom that led to the book’s central conflict. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The author captures well the colloquialisms of late 19th century speech, adding to the tale’s believability. As any skilled writer knows, dialogue is a prime vehicle for storytelling, not just for revealing plot points but quirks of speech and character. D’Eon effortlessly masters the technique, easily drawing us into the tale. He also appreciates the value of including other sensory information in the narrative. Sproule’s confession to the priest is laced with his memories of the “pristine” Kootenay country—not just its visual grandeur but its smells: “…the firs and cedar, the black earth, the wild strawberries, even the smell of the lake—each has its own smell you know—that’s how salmon know where they’re going.”

The poetic dimension enters with a secondary set of characters, the Archangel Michael and Hindu goddess Parvati, heavenly eavesdroppers whose wry asides add a funny, philosophical dimension. Poetic quotes from Blake, Shakespeare, the Bible and others are woven seamlessly throughout Sproule’s narrative, though it’s uncertain what level of education he possessed, or whether he would have had quite the broad vocabulary D’Eon imagines. The dialogue between Archangel Michael and Parvati is often laced with humour, as when Michael wonders what it is that attracts mortals to tobacco. “Ah,” Parvati answered, happy to explain: “A native custom, and a most clever means of revenge against European invaders.” The celestial pair function as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting from the wings as they debate whether Sproule is an unjustly accused prospector with a poetic nature or simply a hotheaded murderer. In so doing, D’Eon skillfully engages one of Canadian history’s great mysteries, one that—given the contradictory historical accounts—may never be solved.

Adding to this narrative of multiple perspectives is C.J. Woodbury, a reporter who wrote several accounts of the Sproule-Hamill trial. Speaking to his fiancée Kate Buchanan, Woodbury makes an observation that could serve as the book’s basic premise: “It was striking the way people could so quickly judge these things. As if there could be no doubt about the matter. Label someone and you no longer had to think about him as a person.” With explorations of Woodbury as well as William Baillie-Grohman, D’Eon sidesteps the trap of investing too heavily in his protagonist’s point of view.

D’Eon successfully applies the techniques of the novelist to flesh out what would otherwise be—at best, given what we know of Sproule and Hamill—a very short story. One of the writer’s primary tools is a sense of empathy for a story’s characters, even those with an unsavoury nature. D’Eon clearly identifies strongly with the version of Sproule he has created, and his characterization is highly appealing. For many readers, it will raise serious questions about Sproule’s guilt and the “justice” meted out to him.

You can almost smell the smoke of a miner’s campfire, curling up into a night sky not yet crowded with satellites and air pollution, lake waters lapping meditatively as the tale unwinds. D’Eon has written a historical novel that ranks with the best of them.

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D’Eon’s decades of theatre experience served him well at the book launch. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

D’Eon’s launch at the Nelson Public Library October 18—once again thanks to the good graces of the aptly named Anne DeGrace, the library’s Adult Services Coordinator—brought out the full theatrical potential of the novel. D’Eon is well-known to West Kootenay audiences for his decades of acting and theatre productions, including a recent production of Big Ledge as a radio play, soon to be broadcast on Kootenay Co-op Radio. So it was no surprise that rather than simply reading from the novel, he acted out the parts in full character voice. D’Eon’s rich baritone and capacity to project to the back of a hall made the characters leap to life from the pages. This is just the kind of approach I favour in my own book launches. Nothing turns an audience off faster than listening to poets mumbling in their soup. Read it like you mean it!

D’Eon told the audience that the Robert Sproule story and the murder of Thomas Hamill has fascinated him for years. So long, in fact, that he recalls staging a much shorter version of the tale 20 years ago in Nelson with fellow actor Michael Graham. So the publication of Big Ledge is a deserved culmination of a decades-old labour of love, proving once again that history does not have to be a dry, boring recital of facts. It can be as gripping as the latest Netflix mini-series when done properly. And gods know, we could use a lot more historical context in this era.

Big Ledge is available from Otter Books, your fine independent bookseller in Nelson, BC, or from Home Star Press, 1019 Park St., Nelson, BC V1L 2H4. D’Eon’s first book, the novella Eta Carina, was published by Vagabondage Press in 2013, which will publish his second novel, The Draper Catalogue, in 2019.

Posted in book reviews, Books, History, The Kootenays, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kaslo Jazzfest scores another successful year

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Grand opening parade for Kaslo Jazzfest 2018 on Kaslo’s main street.

The Festival

From the swirl of colour and rhythm at the grand opening parade on Friday evening to the last sweet sounds trailing off into Sunday night, Kaslo Jazzfest once again made a lot of people happy. Over 2,600 of them, in fact – peak ticket sales reached 2,618 on Saturday. The local rumour mill claimed that 3,000 tickets had been sold, causing concern about overcrowded campsites in the village. But according to festival director Paul Hinrichs, it’s not true.

“We actually sold more tickets on the Friday in 2016 with Michael Franti. That day we sold 2,670 tickets. That was a record, the biggest day Kaslo Jazz has ever had.”

At meetings prior to each festival the board decides on a maximum capacity that will work that year given infrastructure, volunteer numbers, weather, etc. That number often falls far short of 3,000. “We’ve never sold that high because it would take a lot more resources. We sell to the capacity we’re comfortable managing,” says Hinrichs. “Even at 2,600 it feels full, it’s the sweet spot. This year Sunday only had 2,300 on site, so we didn’t quite get there for the whole festival.” This in part is what has earned the festival its reputation as one of the top outdoor festivals in North America—its family atmosphere and sense of intimacy.

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Kids find plenty to do at Jazzfest including learning the hula hoop.

Festival patrons noticed another change on-site this year – the floating stage rode higher in the water and has a new lighting rig. The stage was raised by 28 inches, partly in response to complaints in recent years about sightlines. In the past, dancers were relegated to zones on either side of the floating stage, keeping sightlines open to those sitting down. When the new management reversed this policy, allowing dancers up front, the view was blocked. To remedy the situation, the festival successfully applied for funding to renovate the stage, receiving funds from Creative BC, CKCA/CBT, and the Province of BC. This paid for a complete replacement of the superstructure, adding 50,000 pounds to its weight. The project is ongoing; next year the canvas arch above the stage will be replaced with trusses capable of suspending lighting and sound equipment.

Others noticed a new LED lighting system onstage. It’s also the first year the stage has used a smoke machine for effects. Hinrichs says many bands now stipulate in their contract the lighting needs for their show and come with their own lighting director. There were some issues with lights pointing into patrons’ eyes, but Hinrichs says by Sunday this was remedied. “Personally I expect a certain production value when I pay a couple hundred bucks for a festival ticket. We’re going to continue to grow the light show. Was it perfect this year? No, of course, we’re still learning.”

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Jazzfest floating stage in Kaslo Bay Park, 2016.

Although the festival has had to change its roster of performers to reflect a more eclectic music market and younger audiences, Hinrichs says he’s not really interested in tracking age-related demographics. He sees Jazzfest as an all-ages event featuring improved kids’ events and wheelchair access. “I worry that by tracking age you can end up with an ‘us and them’ factor. I just feel like music lovers can be any age. I’m much more interested if somebody’s a repeat customer as well as where they come from. I just want the best live music experience people can have.”

Visually the festival was a treat as always, kicked off by the delightful spectacle of the grand opening parade on mainstreet making its way to Kaslo Bay Park. It was Kaslo’s own Mardi Gras Day, with the dazzling costumes and stilt-walkers of the Circus Act Insomniacs, the pulsing rhythms of the Moving Mosaic Samba Band, and kids’ dancing choreographed by Glynis Waring.

The Music

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Mavis Staples: still vital at 79.

The content of the festival was sonically impressive, from the ‘newgrass’ of Greensky Bluegrass, to the new take on singer-songwriters manifest in Shakey Graves’ wildly popular show, to jumpin’ grooves by Shred Kelly, to the avant-garde ‘brass house’ horns of Too Many Zooz, to major stars like Mavis Staples and Buffy Sainte-Marie. These two women are icons of both popular music and social justice history, still performing into their late 70s. Mavis spoke of being part of the historic march with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. Her new album, If All I Was Was Black, is her soulful R&B message to a 21st century America ripped apart by racial tensions. She performed several of the album tracks, including Build a Bridge, Little Bit, We Go High along with classic R&B numbers. Her between-song banter was relaxed, as if chatting with us in her living room. Her band was unstoppable in their cover of Talking HeadsSlippery People, oddly enough an ideal song for Mavis. She said in a music career spanning six decades it was the first time she’d performed on a floating stage. “They tell me this festival has been going for 27 years now. What I want to know is, why you didn’t invite me before now!”

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Buffy Sainte-Marie, 77, delivered a powerful show at Jazzfest 2018.

Buffy Sainte Marie is one of the most decorated artists in music, with 12 honorary doctorates, an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and five Juno Awards, to name only a few. She spoke eloquently about the history of racial oppression but made it clear her activism wasn’t limited to racial issues, but to the cause of peace generally. As if to underline the point, she performed her 2015 song The War Racket, whose lyrics are unambiguous in exposing one of the most evil, profitable industries in the world. The crowd raised the roof with applause when she sang favourites like Universal Soldier, Starwalker and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. She also led the crowd in a singalong of the old solidarity hymn We Are Community. Like Mavis, Buffy is touring a new album that sees no diminishment of her powers, Medicine Songs. It was incredible to see enthusiastic fans as young as their early teens singing along to her songs right alongside fans old enough to be their grandparents. The stage-shaking cheers Mavis and Buffy received during their shows proves both their popularity and their message remains strong.

“I wasn’t around in the sixties when their message was fresh but I think it’s just as important now,” says Hinrichs. “If you look through our lineup a lot of the bands had a message in their music. Mavis and Buffy both seemed to have a fantastic time, so it meant a lot to have them go away feeling that.”

None of this is to give short shrift to the younger, newer artists who graced the stages at Kaslo Jazzfest this year. I betray my age when I confess how surprised I was to see how big a star Shakey Graves is with his audience, many of whom knew the lyrics to every song.

LINKS: Mavis Staples’ story and new album: https://www.mavisstaples.com/about/

https://kaslojazzfest.com

http://buffysainte-marie.com

Posted in Kaslo Jazzfest, Music, The Kootenays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment