So, there we were (Suzanne, Siobhann, Sarah) huddled around our campfire. Maybe “campfire” is a bold word: we had hauled damp driftwood from the beach to pile up and after a few minutes of coaxing (via a tampon: camping tip, tampons are the best fire starters ever), had persuaded a limp flame to kind of just, hang out among the drift wood. Banagrams having proved difficult to play with two layers of gloves on, we just sat and drank tea. It was cold, around 25 degrees, and we were on an island. Our parents were probably worried.
All of a sudden, a man stepped out from behind a palm tree. He looked like he was from Wisconsin.
“Hi,” he said, uncertainly. “My name is Lucas and I’m from Wisconsin. It’s my 30th birthday so, I mean, you should come over to our campfire. We have whiskey and a banjo and stuff.”
None of us can resist the siren of whiskey and a banjo and stuff, besides which; we could see their admirable campfire blazing from between the palm trees. So we walked over. As it turned out, all of our neighbors were from Wisconsin, which was thrilling because I’ve never met anyone from Wisconsin but I have watched Lars and the Real Girl an embarrassing number of times and I’m not even sure LATRG is set in Wisconsin but I imagine it is. Anyways, everyone looked out of the movie: thick beards, knitted caps, vests. They welcomed us, vaguely introducing themselves all as politically radical and working at radio stations (which, Sio romanticized, must mean NPR and I agreed) and told stories about gardening and camping on frozen lakes; exactly the kind of things I always imagined people from Wisconsin talk about. And then, the one without a beard pulled out a banjo.
I am not unaccustomed to banjo’s. This is not because I play a banjo or know the difference between a five-stringed, three-stringed or no-stringed banjo, but because I have been blessed to fall into groups of people who all happen to play folk instruments. This is how I know that folk music is real; because everywhere I go, there is a man with a banjo (wouldn’t that make a great novel? “everywhere edward went, there was a five-stringed banjo” except the rest of the novel would be pretty sub-par). I’m taking a class on the folk music revival of the 1960’s and have a tall stack of Bob Dylan books on my shelf; though I love these classes to death, in my more doubtful moments I wonder what relevance, if any, my Liberal Arts major has in ordinary life. American Studies and Folklore are studies of culture, but to a large degree, they are also studies of myth in every day life. We learn about folk songs from the Civil War, but then you think, so what? I like chasing ghosts, but sometimes the ghosts of the past become confused with what is actually happening in the present.
But sitting around the campfire with the Radical Wisconsin Radio Hosts, I remembered that, folk music is real (and so is my major…maybe…but it might not be). They made the round of folk songs, whooping and hollering into the cold. They sang Big Rock Candy Mountain, and the six-year old, who somehow in the dark had nestled his way underneath my arm, knew every word and sang it loudly. They sang Freight Train by my hero, Libba Cotten, who, as it happens, lived in Carrboro in the early 20th century and wrote Freight Train about the train track that runs by my house (and she was discovered when she happened to help one of the Seeger children find their mother in a department store! What are the odds!).
As a final birthday present, the non-bearded man sang Lucas a song he made up about Hobo Joe. It was brilliant and warbly and raw and about waterfalls and lost love. If I had been a true folk document-er I would have had a pencil and paper and could have recorded the words, but I didn’t. Instead, they trailed off into the emptiness of the island, and we thanked the Radical Wisconsin Radio Hosts for their campfire hospitality and said goodnight. Except, I had to run back to give Lucas his seashell. I’d felt rude going to someone’s birthday campfire without a present, so on the way over I picked up one of the 50-something shells I’d found up on the beach (with the ambitious idea that I’d get home and make CRAFTS with them-SHELL ART!) and presented it to Lucas, and said
“Umm this shell is for you. It might look like every other conch shell you’ve seen in your life, but it actually has properties to bring you good luck on your 30th year.”
He looked at me with watery blue eyes and accepted it. “I’ll carry this to the end of my life.”
I think he was joking, but you never know with hobos. If I run into him in forty years at a commune or camping, he might just be wearing it on a string around his neck.