Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Smells Like Folk Music

Hello again.

In the belly of my being, I just experienced something remarkable. It could be that I'm just listening especially hard to the right channel, or perhaps we carry our ancestors memories in our genes. Or I'm crazy, you pick.

I was sitting here killing time, when I smelled a familiar smell in my hotel room. Smell is a funny thing... sometimes it teases you, just tickling your senses and trying to elicit a response, like the lady who passes you at the mall and smells vaguely familiar.

Sometimes, there is nothing vague about the memory and the smell directs you back to a specific time in your life, an event, a feeling, an action. The smell of Giorgio perfume makes me think of the placemats they used to use on Eastern Airlines flights. During the late 80's, Disney World sponsored them so they featured a rainbow originating from Cinderella's castle, and my mother - a flight attendant - brought them home for me to color. She wore the perfume, but the smell meant she was home... and the memory it conjured was of her humble gifts for me. They were always a little gift, and always made me so glad she was home. A placemat to color, my favorite pretzels, the rare succulent processed cheese snack. I still love processed cheese.

Just now, I had a transformative experience. I sat reading internet news with my noisy hotel neighbors, and suddenly, my left hand smelled like steel and silver. Probably a vague smell for anyone else, but for me... just now, I was on the floor of my parents' bedroom with wrapped violin strings. When I was a small child, my dad and grandpa both played the fiddle and spontaneous jam sessions allowed me into the world of the violin case.

This smell - right now, in Philadelphia, PA - 1500 miles from their house, just transported me back to a space (inside the blue/green velvet interior of a violin case) and a set of surroundings (a frayed horsehair bow, lead weights, and spent rosin cartridges). But the most spectactular association to this cold, metal smell is to a specific piece of music the men in my life played.

Were I to smell rosin now, I'm sure it would be offensive and toxic, but back then I was a small child who loved music. It could never offend me.

The piece of music that now resurrects my childhood innocence and passion was an old fiddle tune called the '8th of January'. It was written to celebrate the historic Battle of New Orleans, January 8th, 1812. Exactly 170 years after the battle I was born to the grandson of a migrant pianist who - at best guess - was from the very same city. Obviously it wasn't written to commemorate me, but it was a way my musician family loved me, they played me songs that reminded them of us. The collective us - which was sometimes one of very few possesions we had.

The tune plucks my inner strings of family, folk, origin, and history. That side of the family can't be traced past this single member, the genesis of my clan and the first teacher I can credit with my love of music. He bore this love through his children and it reached me as a legacy, handed down with personal tunes and real, raw expressions of song.

The fiddle tune is just like many others I heard growing up. A celebration of the 'folk' in music - squeaky and raw - played for people who appreciate the story it tells. This story, like so many southern families in the dust bowl, moved from job site to job site. It was full of hope and celebration, tinged with longing and hunger.

This singular song, and the smell that brought the past with it, give me hope. I'm hopeful that a new generation is making this bond with their story. It may be word, or song, or taste, or smell... but telling the story is the most important part.

We are stewards of a rich legacy, even those born from traveling musicians have vivid histories to share. No matter how rich or poor you are, your power lies in your potential being, your story, your adventure.

Enjoy the Eigth of January as I heard it then... no banjo, no fanfare. Imagine you're Alice exploring the inside of the violin case with me, but no cupcakes or magic elixirs, only smell and imagination. This can be your adventure's soundtrack.

Share memories and imagination with others.
Rinse and repeat.