Sonoma’s Green String Farm: Bobby Cannard’s Natural Process (and Alice Waters’ Secret) By Drew Stofflet
Sometime in the early 1970’s, after Alice Waters opened her beyond-iconic and groundbreaking Chez Panisse, she and her father were in a conundrum. It seemed that the vegetables being prepared at the pioneering Berkeley, California restaurant – and now farm-to-table cultural institution – were, in her father’s opinion, not as flavorful as they could be.
After a heart-to-heart, they decided he would seek out a producer of high caliber produce that they could not only rely on, but also call a “farm of their own.” A search of small organic farms through University of California, Davis revealed that there were only two in all of Northern California.
Waters’ father visited both, along with her mother. One was perfect in its rows, with its “victory garden” on display for all to see upon arrival. The other was an overgrown jungle. The first must have been grown chemically at some point, he thought. When the ambitious (and eccentric) farmer pulled back the jungle’s giant tangle of leaves at the other, he revealed the most beautiful carrots her father had ever seen. “And he was just crazy enough for us,” said Waters, relating her father’s account of his discovery that day.
That farmer was Bobby Cannard, and still to this day he preaches to the masses in a “top of the mount” fashion full of zeal and prophecy.
Since that fateful day more than thirty years ago, Cannard has been providing Chez Panisse with glorious, healthy and mouthwatering produce including (in his words) “the most nutritious carrots known to man”. Cannard tends to speak like a carbon-beatnik junkie; with enough philosophical fuel to fan the flames of a carbon-chaos-induced apocalypse, yet his heart is his guiding principle.
In 2008, Cannard – along with Sonoma’s “natural-farming-process” winemaking advocate Fred Cline – opened the 120-acre Green String Farm. It sits at the base of Sonoma Mountain; a corner of the windswept Sonoma Coast wine AVA where abundant sun mingles with afternoon breezes during a long growing season. Here they produce a mesmerizing array of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including kale, chard, cabbage, bok choi, garlic, onions, carrots, squash, potatoes, beets, artichokes, corn (for ground polenta) and various beans (for drying). They also grow parsley, verbena, mint, basil and maintain an orchard of Meyer lemons, cherries, peaches and olives (for olive oil, naturally). They raise chickens, and – on two separate properties in northern California – cattle (near Mt. Shasta) and hogs (in the Sierra foothills). In addition, they have a bountiful on-site farm store, open daily to the public.
Cannard and Cline also created the Green String Institute to pass this elder-agronomist knowledge of farming on. Conscientious students from around the world come here to study this model of sustainable farming. Sitting in the library and study room inside the farm’s schoolhouse gives pause to ponder Waters’ own lengthy bio, and feel echoes of one of her great achievements; the Berkeley located, non-profit Edible Schoolyard Project, founded in 1996.
The Green String natural-process method of agriculture is to build a self-nourishing system which works for, rather than against, nature. This means active cultivation and management of cover crops, growing them to maturity before folding them back into the soil for carbon retention. This is also good for the bugs and birds. Cannard points to the hillsides above the farm and says this aspect of humic soil building also prevents most of the precious water from running off towards the deep blue ocean.
The Green String mantra is to grow fifty percent of the crops for human consumption and fifty percent to give back to the soil. (Cannard thinks it should ultimately be 40-60, to return as much carbon to the process as possible.) Soil supplements are limited to low input, biologically active compost and compost teas, microbes and added trace minerals through crushed gypsum, volcanic rock and oyster shells. Their farming methods are not certified, rather resting their merit on a profound “trust in nature” ethos.
Artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are “poison” according to Cannard. He breathes fire when he speaks of these, like some carbon-junkie dragon. I spoke with him by phone and visited him at the farm recently. His many metaphors and analogies of our (unbalanced) carbon-based existence may leave you queasy. But beneath the flames, he speaks for the soil like the Lorax speaks for the trees.
He believes that “Soil biology is a contract between all points of nature, and that the regeneration of soils is the key task of our generation. Just like humans, plants need healthy digestion and a great relationship with the soil. If there is an unhealthy balance between soil and roots, this cannot happen.”
Waters’ and Cannard’s mission back in the 1970s were considered “forty years ahead of its time”. But to show how the times are a-changing, Cannard leaves me with this, about a giant commercial farm in Tennessee: “Grimway Farms – at roughly 30,000 acres – and the nation’s largest producer of carrots, is now converting to organic farming. They’re using crushed rocks and rebuilding the soil for plants with healthy immune systems that produce a sweeter, more nutritious carrot that also has a much longer shelf-life.”
To the long-term wealth of our soils and the health of our plants!
Find Green String Farm just east of Petaluma at 3571 Old Adobe Road; the farm store is open from 10am to 5pm daily, except for Mondays. Daily fare at the farm store includes whatever is in season, from fresh greens to cukes, roots, fruits, squashes and more; including heritage beans, nuts, olive oil, and a whole lot more.
The following are from previous Issue #19:
Dark and Sooty
by Drew Stofflet
This is not about skin color. Unless we’re talking about very dark red-wine grapes. And luckily, we are. So while dark and sooty may describe very well the wine I tapped the other night, it also is going to cover the artist and whose music I popped on while said wine decanted and a glorious, funky, minimalist meal percolated.
Miles Davis burst onto the jazz scene in the late nineteen forties, stalking the bebop circuit with his very own breadth of minimalism, referred to as “cool.” For decades, he wove dark, golden threads of sparse, remote, ancient and powerful blues though cool jazz, to hard bop, and eventually to late-career pop-ism.
But the in-between, where mystery lives, Davis journeyed into shadowy corners of hopped-up, hyphey, eerie shamanic, alien-inspired black magic of the rarest breed of afro-jazz-funk. Not the friendlier, ever-danceable square rhythms of say, Fela Kuti, the musical landscape of early 1970s-era Davis was a different sort of stalker music, like a lion or tiger was in the room, or just outside of it, in the alley, peering through the window with burning eyes.
This was Miles Davis mixing the ether with John McLaughlin and the English whirling dervish movement, Mahavishnu Orchestra. This was prog-rock synapses about to be blown. This was Miles Davis with Pete Cosey, whose flanged, distorted jazz-funk algorithms are some of the heaviest ever put down. Muted, dying horns like a gazelle being taken by a pack of lions; keys, drums, bongos and shakers incredibly, uncomfortably turning time on itself. Shrill but soft Sonny Fortune flute tones floating from afar, bringing back to tune, the theme, until Davis himself smashes it on an ashen altar, destroying all convention and symbolism as another gazelle runs into the future, chased by yet another pack of hungry cats.
So while the 2012 Tenuta di Arceno Chianti Classico Reserva decanted, a soon-to-be-released a 2014 Bee Hunter Oppenlander pinot noir did its own dark and meaty movement. I went into my medicine chest for two CDs (which I now can own on Spotify) an afternoon/evening set from Osaka, Japan in 1975, and released on two discs, called Agharta and Pangaea. Each is a double-cd set, and each cd is one improvisational movement; all are around forty-five minutes long. That’s a lot of searing, teeth-gnashing dark, arty, ancestral, psychedelic and psychotic experimental jazz. To call this funk is to call Davis’ late work simply watered-down funk.
Which is which I had hoped wouldn’t be the case for this wine. Lo, which is what another controversial and pioneering artiste Piero Antinori had hoped when he began trials to boost the flailing and weak Tuscan sangiovese as it fell off the worldwide market in the nineteen eighties. He recognized this and began to blend cabernet sauvignon and merlot into sangiovese, putting some meat on its bones, Like Pete Cosey’s muscular and textural guitar wah-wah rips coated Davis long thin lines in lush, fleshy texture.
While this was all happening in Tuscany, some applauded and others literally rolled in their graves, winemakers and winegrowers began to march across the desert of astringency towards the blooming palates of the west, and again, lo, sangiovese from Chianti gained, fat, meat, color and a new ground in the western market.
This particular bottle is an example of that. It was given to me by a friend who introduced me to Lawrence Cronin, the winemaker, a few years ago. He was making wine for a spell at EdMeades in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, after they were purchased by Kendall-Jackson, and later, Cronin went to work for another of their recent acquisitions, Tuscany’s Tenuta di Arceno.
Ya, so right there, that tells you a little bit about more breaking convention. KJ is not Tuscan, and when many of the Mondavis and the likes bought into Tuscany (and France) in the early nineteen nineties, they did so with an eye to the future, like that gazelle, hoping not to get eaten (in the marketplace). That so, these wines have a likeable plushness that was missing in the minimalist era, that was like concrete on a burnt glass floor to many minds and mouths. Gone is the bitter herb and dank old wood. In its place is a color more consistent with Mile’s alien musical black magic It has flashy, deep-set tannins that can solo all night. Powerful black fruit and clovey, peppery spices. It is big and extracted, with a long, dry finish. This is California-style Chianti all the way.
Good enough, then, to get down with a filet mignon dipped in browned butter pan drippings from a pan of roasted squash and black pepper, then cooked with tongs held directly to the flame.
Listening to the rise and fall of Davis’ Pangaea part one as it breaks convention, it is apparent, we are either chasing or being chased Our ass is either about to go into the fire, or we’re giving chase. In the wine world, that means we are clinging to old traditions; or we are trying to outrun death through new ones. In the marketplace we get both. Life and death.
Many believed this concert was Miles Davis’ last powerful, meaningful moment. After, he became ill, disappeared from public, courted controversy, and became a gaunt, ashen smoking-jacket of a man before his final pop releases and death caught him, like it catches a gazelle at a watering hole.
To dark and sooty.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
FINE WINE CONSULTANT
WineBuyer and ListCurator, WineWriter and Author
Sommelier, British Court of Masters
Drew premiered in our “Salutes Psychedelia Issue” 2019 with his “Dragonfly Wings, Valkyrie’s Claws” report on the Santa Cruz Mountain Sol Fest. This article originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News, 2017.
Previous issues work follow, including Jeff Kaliss, Christie Nelson, and more:
Follow the Devil to the Deep Blue Sea
by Christie Nelson, excerpted from her memoir “The Biggest Gamble of My Short Life”
“Zander, you bastard,” Drew shouted into the phone from the kitchen. “How in the hell are you?”
I shifted my weight and balanced The Brothers Karamazov against my belly that barely revealed any sign of pregnancy. Ah, Zander, the devil’s playmate. Did I hear a thunderbolt rip across the sky, or was it just a car backfiring on the street?
“No kidding,” Drew said. “Those were good times.” He paused. “No shit. Really?”
I could hear Drew opening the refrigerator and then closing it. Water ran in the sink. A rhythmic tapping sounded against the linoleum, the slap of his bare feet. The air was filled with the feeling of inevitability.
“Well, I appreciate that,” he replied. “Did you know Chrissy is pregnant? Yeah, a big surprise. We found out after we got back from Amsterdam. The baby’s due in October. How’s your kid?”
Another silence. When Drew spoke again, his voice was louder. “Let me talk it over with her. The main thing is don’t let us hold you up. I’ll get back to you. Say hello to Frannie.”
He wandered back and behind his horn-rimmed glasses, his eyes glittered. I could feel the hand of fate brush against my cheek.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Zander’s bought a new boat and he wants us to join him.”
“He and Frannie are down in Miami. They found a double-masted schooner. They’re ready to sign the papers.”
I rolled onto my side and propped a pillow under my head. “What’s to prevent this boat from blowing up?”
“That kind of shit only happens once.”
“I’d say we were lucky.”
“Admittedly, we shouldn’t have been on the Atlantic in November,” he said.
No, we shouldn’t have, I thought. My mind wandered backwards five months to the frigid morning when Zander’s boat was tied up to a dock in Portland, Maine. The tide was out, and the dock that reeked of creosote hovered eight feet above our heads. In truth the boat wasn’t yet a boat; it was a monster hull—117 feet long and built like a Gloucester dory; long, tall and narrow, a square-rigger in the making. Powered by a ’56 Chevy V8, rough planks formed the deck. The hull was ballasted with hardened steel shafts reclaimed from a closed New England textile mill, and buried in the bilge under concrete. Zander had named the ship Hilgendorf, in honor of a legendary German sea captain known as “The Devil of Hamburg.”
We had been motoring from Northeast Harbor down the Maine coast heading for Miami with a small crew of friends. Once there, the ship was to be fitted with masts, rigging, and sails, and we were going to begin a trip around the world.
The miserable grey morning when the boat blew up was so bone-chilling I could see the breath of my shipmates turn cloudy around their faces. We had been trying to keep warm and stay busy with chores. A refueling tug bumped against the side of hull, pumping gas into the fuel tank in the bow. Suddenly an explosion ripped through the air. A static spark had ignited the gasoline and blew a hole as big as a truck through the deck.
I remembered Drew yelling my name. I was below deck. His hand reached through the rear hatch as he hauled me up into an inferno. Flames licked high across the decking from stem to stern. Smoke and fumes swirled in sickening waves. “Jump on the tug!” Zander yelled. Around me our shipmates were hurling themselves overboard. The distance between the tug and the boat was farther than I had ever jumped. Zander leapt first, landing on the tug. Below, seawater lapped against the sides of the hull. Frannie and Drew leapt in turn, each spanning the breach. Gripped by panic, I willed myself to jump. I hit the railing and felt arms yanking me up onto the tug. Zander pulled a bowie knife from the sheath on his belt and slashed the gas line. He shoved the dazed skipper aside, took the controls, and sped away across the harbor.
In a thick mist, dazed and in shock, we watched the ghost ship burn. The Portland Fire Department blew foam onto the flames and chopped holes in the deck. The Red Cross put us up for the night. The next day, November 22, 1963, at a bar on the docks, we waited to hear how much scrap dealers would give Zander for the metal in the charred remains. The news that would signal the end of Camelot flashed on TV: John F. Kennedy, our beloved President, had been shot by an assassin and pronounced dead in Dallas.
Back in our studio apartment, recalling those events, I shivered at the memory. “I’ve never been so cold,” I told Drew.
“You wouldn’t be cold in the Caribbean,” Drew answered.
“Can we be lucky twice?”
“Look at me. Am I lucky or what?” he asked. “I’m like a god-damned cat.”
I couldn’t argue.Drew had been thrown out of a prestigious ivy-covered college after his father found him drunk in a snowbank. There had also been the matter of cutting his wrists his senior year of prep school. This improbable act of desperation seemed at odds with his bigger-than-life personality. He was committed into a “nut house,” as he sarcastically called it. “When I realized the docs were serious about keeping me in,” he told me, “I figured out how to play their game and get out.” He headed West. Fueled by Kerouac and the Beats, he landed a stint at lumberjacking in the Oregon forest for a summer, and then hitchhiked down the coast to San Francisco.
“Okay,” I said, pushing him away. “Tell me about the new boat.”
“They’re taking it down to Nassau. Zander said we deserve a trip.”
“The plan is to sail to Jamaica through the Windward Passage. Zander’s papa has a spice plantation in the hills above Ocho Rios. Horses and all that kind of shit.”
I rolled onto my back and gazed up to the ceiling. I knew my days in the apartment were numbered. I had promised myself to never set foot on a boat again. But I could already hear the snap of the wind in the sails and smell the sea.
Meeting Zander and Frannie was an innocent twist of fate brought on by a phone call from a schoolmate of Drew’s when we were visiting his parents in Greenwich, Connecticut. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” the friend said. “The guy and his wife are building a square rigger in their backyard. I’m going over tomorrow night. You interested?”
On the drive over, we heard about Zander and Frannie. “She’s a trust-fund baby of a wealthy Philadelphia family,” Drew’s old buddy told him. “Zander’s the black sheep of the founder of one of America’s biggest financial institutions. His family endows libraries and museums. Each quarter the bank wires him a check bigger than what I make in a year. Let me warn you, though. He’s been in and out of Menninger’s more than once.”
“Just my kind of man,” Drew laughed. “We’ll get along fine.”
I listened, fascinated. His remark sounded like confinement in a mental institution was the same as membership in an exclusive country club. My world was spinning faster than I could have imagined.
The house Zander and Frannie had rented was a rambling mansion with a backyard that extended to a dark wood. The hull of the ship, constructed of steel and lumber, was held upright inside a wooden crib. We picked our way across the driveway, stepping over tools and around debris to find the front door.
Inside the house, blueprints, charts, and sheet music was strewn over the furniture and on the floor. White rabbits skittered in and out of a cardboard box stationed in a corner of the dining room. In a frenzy, Zander pounded the keys of a baby grand piano. A wild-haired Beethoven in rumpled jeans and a flannel shirt, his piercing black eyes acknowledged our arrival. Frannie was a blonde waif in need of a hairbrush and a dental appointment. She didn’t take her eyes off Zander, who went on a rant telling us about the boat, the Hilgendorf, and how they intended to take it to Maine, and then sail around the world. When we said good-bye, I was sure I’d never see them again.
Ours was a blue-eyed boy. When our son was three months old, we flew from San Francisco to Miami and hopped a flight to the Bahamas. At Nassau Harbor, I squinted down the dock. The schooner’s masts rose high above the other yachts. It was, as Zander had promised, a fine ship. Off we sailed–two certifiable inmates, one woman who could navigate by the stars, a woman who hadn’t passed the Red Cross safety swimming test, one infant, our son, and one child, just a year old, Zander and Frannie’s son.
For the next month, we sailed through the Windward Passage like vagabonds, going ashore at nameless islands, fishing, swimming and diving. Before we left the Bahamas, Zander gave one of his lectures, his hands flying to his hair as if he could pull it out by the roots.
“Getting to Jamaica from here is a long haul. We won’t see land until we get there. It could take a week if the winds are high, or two weeks if the winds die. When the winds stop, we stop. At no time do we run the motor. We’re sailors, not god damn mechanics.”
Our course was due southwest heading between the eastern tip of Cuba and the western fist of Haiti. I imagined the guns of Guantanamo aimed at our prow. On the third day in open seas, past any threat from Castro, the skies clouded over and the barometer dropped. The wind had a nasty whine to it.
We huddled in the cockpit, Zander at the helm. The barometer kept plunging. Rain began to spit from the sky. The wind picked up speed. My nervous system radioed danger, shooting electrical currents through my arms.
“We’re sailing into a mother of a storm!” Zander yelled above the wind. His black eyebrows furrowed into a continuous scowl. “Frannie, take Chrissy below. Strap down the kids and store every goddamn thing you see. He tipped his chin toward the darkening sky. “Have at us, you bastard. We’ll take what you’ve got.”
The wind howled and shrieked. The boat was like a pendulum. It rose on a wave, hesitated, and slammed violently over to one side. I braced myself in a doorway and stopped breathing until the boat righted. The sensation was a series of sickening freefalls in which there was no up and no down, only inevitable impact and collision. Once again the boat began another slide down the trough of the next wave before it was broadsided again. The grinding squeal of the boat’s ribs was deafening. The adrenalin in my body pumped so hard that all nausea vanished in an instant.
Frannie and I struggled toward the hatch. Rain dumped from sinister clouds. Cold and lashing, it came down in sheets. We pitched down the stairs into the main cabin, losing our footing as the boat crashed into a wave.
I tucked pillows around and over our son and against his head, leaving a little air space for breathing. I ripped sheets into strips and lashed his body tight to the bunk. I removed anything that could fly off the walls or floor and strike him. He was quiet as a lamb, his eyes closed, his body compliant. I knew if I climbed into the bunk to hold him, the force of a wave hitting the boat could send me on top of him and I could smother him in an instant.
Frannie shouted that she was going back on deck. She grunted against the hatch. I felt the wind’s blast as seawater streamed down the stairs and splashed into the main cabin. Then she was gone.
I cringe to remember that night. There were years when the demands of everyday life as a parent required all my energy and fortitude, and the memory of that night lay dormant in the recesses of my mind. We told ourselves that the only life worth living was the one where death was a possibility. What did we know of death? Of risk? Of responsibility? We thought we were invincible, but we were fools who were spared disaster only by providence. And so, the biggest gamble of my short life became my biggest folly. It would be an index of recklessness against which I would measure other choices, though none so mad as to board a ship with my three-month-old infant and sail onto the open seas.
And what of the others on that ship of fools?
Long after our adventure, Zander ended his life by his own hand on an island in Maine. The devils that hounded him finally found their mark. Frannie survived to settle on a horse farm in Connecticut. Drew rode away on his own star—far and wide. Our marriage was one that could not last.
And me? When I bolt awake in the middle of the night, my body soaked in perspiration, my heart is racing. You’ve been dreaming again, I tell myself. In the dream my son is drowning and I’m trying to find his precious little body in the waves. I wait for my heart to slow, and settle back onto the bed. Thank God, I tremble. What was I thinking? How could I have been so reckless? Now in the hours before dawn when the silence is deep and the air cold as a coffin, I am the one left to join the uninvited ghosts. I am the one left to remember.
Note: in this memoir some names have been changed.
About Christie Nelson
Christie Nelson ,1963, by Jack Welpott, used by erstwhile The Tides bookstore, Sausalito, for cover of their highly regarded literary magazine Contact. Reading at Book Passage Corte Madera, CA from her historic fiction novel in 2018.
Christie Nelson is the author of three novels, including Beautiful Illusion: Treasure Island 1939. Christie Nelson was born and raised first in the San Francisco’s Marina and then in the outside lands of Park Merced, within earshot of the roar of the lions in the zoo. She’s a graduate of Dominican University where she was influenced by the beauty of Marin’s wooded valleys and the majesty of Mt. Tamalpais.
While other dreams and forces took her far away, there are no places that have imprinted her as deeply as San Francisco and Marin. One part of her wanted to travel, another part wanted to dance, and yet another part wanted to write. In the end they each won out. Christie was last seen in these pages with her Mediterranean travelogue — Fall 2018 issue.
And, the Pulitzer Prize for death notices…goes to…
“Uncle Bunky burned the candle, and whatever else was handy, at both ends,” obited Jacobs’ nephew, Chris Santa Maria.
“When the end drew near, he left us with a final Bunkyism: ‘I’m ready for the dirt nap, but you can’t leave the party if you can’t find the door.’ “
It’s officially gone viral. “To commemorate his uncle’s fearless life and times, Santa Maria is now working with O.H.S.O. Brewery in Phoenix to produce a beer in his honor. Taking things a step further, Santa Maria and O.H.S.O. Brewery barrel program manager… hope to donate proceeds from Jacobs’ brew to local dive bars struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.” From Janine Puhak, Fox News report.
Metafiction by Jeff Kaliss
Inspired by Bob Will’s legendary hit song “San Antonio Rose.” Wills, the bandleader of the “Texas Playboys,” is considered the co-founder of Western swing and was widely known as “King of Western Swing.”
Thing about being a muse is…
Thing about being a muse is: there’s no retirement, no vacation, nothing like that. Time off ain’t really time off, it’s more like just looking for someplace to be. If that sounds easy to you, just remember you’re a human being reading this, you ain’t no muse. Even though, if you’ve somehow been tricked into reading this story, you’re probably one of those types who’s had the hots to find a muse, for most of your supposedly creative life.
I know, I shouldn’t be that way with you. Listen, I hope you do find your muse, whatever you’re looking for, and that you deserve each other. Hey — have you imagined what a muse looks like? Do you want him to look like that smiley dark-haired guy you watched grasping an IPA at that bar downtown last weekend? Should she be wispy but strong, with long legs and a small hand to guide you on to enlightened bliss? Or maybe something like that exotic je-ne-sais-quoi you wanted to get to dance with at that club in the gay part of town?
Ha-ha. Just thought I’d ask. Well, no, you don’t always have to see a muse, but for you humans it’s probably better if you think you can. Me? Hell, you can see me anyway you want, and probably a lot of folks have. And I’ve been changed up by Whatever Does the Changing, over the millennia. Muses sound different to different folk too, did you know that? Do I sound a little “country” to you right now? That’s no accident, ‘cause for this ride, I’m gonna let you see what happens with one particular (and particularly famous) country-and-western song and one particular country music artist, just so you can see how it works. You college types have always fantasized about riding with a cowgirl, or being one, but you never were able to find a cowgirl or a horse on campus, were you? Anyway, if it works, you can just think of me as your Cowgirl Muse, for this short ride. Are you down with that?
Oh, and where we’re going? The song I was talking about is “San Antonio Rose”. It was the biggest hit, long before most of you were born, a big hit for a very successful songwriter, fiddler, bandleader, and sometime cowboy movie star named Bob Wills. Here’s a bit of what you call “encyclopedic” stuff: Bob Wills, who was born and lived in Texas for much of his life — 1905 to 1975 — created a music called Western Swing, because of how it tied up traditional instruments and melodies in jazzy packages. More western than country, really, Bob never did cotton to country. Though when he was a kid, he did pick cotton, in Texas. That’s when he also started picking up music and jig-dancing from the Negro kids who were out there with him in the cotton fields. Aside from the blues, Bob was never a guy hung up on color, not where it came to the skin color of anybody sharing music with him.
“Rose,” the sound and sway of it, came into his life at the start of his career, long before all that fame, around 1927 or ‘28, just before his and Edna’s little Robbie Jo came into their lives, when Bob was still cutting hair over in New Mexico, amongst a bunch of Mexicans. He found himself sweeping up the sounds of their fiddles and the rhythm of their polkas, along with their locks of lovely dark hair, and the tune that he borrowed, he titled it “Spanish Two Step.” And that’s all it was, a fiddle tune — no words. Me, the Muse, his muse, I helped him out with that, slithering around in his brain and making sure he got the modulations right — that’s when a certain section of a song shifts to another key. He wouldn’t have seen me, though, except maybe when he’d been hitting the bottle, which was his one bad lifetime habit, if you don’t count an allergy to monogamy, and maybe you should.
Anyway, around Thanksgiving time, 1938 — Bob was onto his third wife and his famous Texas Playboys big band, probably spending a lot more of his love on the latter — Columbia Records, that big business in New York, decided Bob Wills needed to wax some fiddle tunes. And Bob, who had fiddle strings going back in his family for several generations, was only too ready to comply.
What was I up to? Well, when I wasn’t helping Bob get out of barbering, I was musing around with a bunch of other musicians. I was beginning to notice — and it was rather to my satisfaction, I may tell you — that those artificial useless fences human beings set up between different kinds of music were beginning to collapse. Country music was grazing over into pop music and vicey-versey, long-haired Jewish guys like Aaron Copland were putting country into classical stuff, and so forth. I had a lot of fun stirring up people’s souls and integrating their minds, racially and otherwise. The Lord’s Work, if you will.
So now Bob needs me again. He’s yearning back towards that “Spanish Two Step” I got him hooked on, but his Columbia boss Art Satherley wants him to rename it “San Antonio Rose,” to give it regional flavor but keep it inside the U.S. of A. Couple years later, there’s even more interest in that old shit-kicking tune: Fred Kramer, from Irving Berlin’s company, also back east in New York — this is just about the time Mr. Berlin, another Jewish show biz guy, was dreaming of a “White Christmas” — this Kramer offered Bob three hundred bucks to put lyrics to that “Rose” tune. Kramer’s people would publish the song, and then Bob and the Playboys could record it. None of ‘em had any clue how big it’d be.
But I had a hunch of what would happen, as soon as I saw how far Bob had gone with my inspiration. That word, “inspiration” — you smarties may know this, but you should take note of it again while I have you on the line — comes from “the immediate influence of a god,” and even further back, from “breathing in.” Breathing in. Try it. Consider it your creative yoga workshop. Better breathe out, too.
And now, listen and learn. ‘Cause I’m gonna try to show you how it worked with good old Bob and his hit song, and with the rest of those Playboys, at that session in the middle of April 1940 in Dallas, Texas. America was pulling out of the Great Depression, and wasn’t yet in the War, it was pretty happy times for Bob and everyone else, despite his problems staying married and on the wagon. This “Rose” was a tune, remember, with history for Bob.
So, here’s how muses work with this kind of thing, how we can do stuff you can’t, unless you sort of recruit us. Some of what we do, is with stuff that’s been lying around in someone’s soul for a while. Some of it is what you’d call in-the-moment (there’s your “inspiration”). Some comes from other souls you’re keeping company with, or used to keep company with, it just kind of rubs off on you. Some totally flashes in and out of time and place, so fast, so pretty, you can’t even tell the hell where or when you are. Or even who you are. Are you Bob? Andrew?? Philip?? Gloria??? Well, you don’t have to be able to tell, not most of the time, and not right now. Just enjoy the ride with this Cowgirl Muse. Even if you don’t know this Western Swing classic (yahoo, there’s always YouTube), see if you can make out how I managed to herd Mr. Wills into the aromatic pastures of creation, into leaving himself and his band and the rest of the human race something they could love as long as they keep listening to it, a bouquet of sound. Here’s the music and meaning and magic of “San Antonio Rose!”
I have Bob start this song in the key of B-flat, which is good when you have horns in the band, and the Playboys have a slew of trumpets and saxes, something you wouldn’t get with your run-of-the-mill country string band. But the first thing you hear — it might have been on one of those old scratchy 78 rpm shellac discs — is Twin Texas Fiddles, in this case Jesse Ashlock and Bob, invoking the melody of that old “Spanish Two Step.”
Lots of open fifth chords, they’re not crowded chords, they’re open and rather sweet, like sucking on a piece of sugar cane from down on the Rio Grande. I remind Bob that you can start opening your heart up in those chords, big enough to polka through with whomever or whatever you’re in love with, sweet enough to sweeten your tears of joy. I get Bob to work every part of his top-notch band, like a fit cowboy with all his body parts ready to ride in a rodeo or make love. Listening, your heart gets pumped by Son Lansford’s big boy bass, your joy gets all the time tickled by Al Stricklin’s tinkly piano.
Need to be reminded that you’re in cowboy country, with a cute-as-a-button Cowgirl Muse? Okay: here’s a little slidey break on Leon McAuliffe’s steel guitar, and that brings on the first of Bob’s trademark high-pitched cry-outs of “A-ha!” You hear ‘em on practically all his recordings, plain as day. And they always sound somewhere between a wise-ass crow and one of the wild mules he used to mount when he was a little dark-eyed tyke in West Texas. “Some of ‘em was dad-burn hard to ride,” Bob said about those animals once. The grown-up Bob, when he gets on top of the music and brays this way, is maybe thinking both of wild mules and wild women, and maybe a bit of the Wild Turkey he had a few nips of before he began the recording session.
But Bob, the song is moving on and you have to get back to your half of the Twin Fiddles, before Tommy Duncan starts in on his vocalization of the lyrics, in that I’m-as-solid-and-straight-as-a-pine-tree kind of baritone-tenor of his: “Deep within my heart lies a melody . . .” That melody, in this song, has already had two beautiful rises and falls, like the two pretty ears on a cantering horse. Bob urges here, “Ah, tell ‘em, Tommy!” ‘Cause this story is gonna be everybody’s story: Bob’s (who wrote it), Tommy’s (who sang it), and even you folks’s who’re reading this now and will be listening to Bob and Tommy on CDs or the streaming service du jour later on.
“A song of old San Antone,” Tommy stays singing. For six beats, Tommy holds the long ‘o’ on the last syllable of that colloquialized name for that South Texas city, sounding like an owl perched on the famous but broken-down wall of the Alamo, which, you might not know, is now within walking distance of the San Antonio Holiday Inn. History lesson? Product placement? Indulge me, and enjoy it.
“When in dreams I live with a memory.” Same chord structure as the first part of the tune, but with a change of the melody line; that’s nice, Bob. Like the different ways you find to tell a guy you love him, when you’ve been loving the same guy for a long time. And Bob shouts out, “Yes, yes, go on!” because he’s in on this dream, he wants you in on the dream, that’s why you row-row-row your boat and ride your wild mule.
“Beneath the stars all alone.” All alone, in the middle of the Lone Star State. You’re in a star, as well as beneath them. Does that help you belong to eternity? And you’re resolved, on the tonic B-flat note. But not for long. Because love, or the looking for love, will never leave you alone, Bob.
Here comes yet another stroll along that same chord progression, with that flirty shift from B-flat to B-natural on the C7 chord, which always makes you think, Oh, what’s this then? Ain’t you cute, to ‘B’ so “natural??” “It was there I found, beside the Alamo” — I told you — “Enchantment strange as the blue up above.” Isn’t it enchantment which makes the blue strange, though, Bob? That’s what happens when the love which wouldn’t leave you alone gets under your skin. It fills an ordinary unclouded blue day with rainbows and clouds that look like pillows you’d like to lie down upon with her or him.
“A moonlit pass that only she would know.” Did she know it before you took her out there with that rough striped blanket, Bob? Would it matter if she did? You might be the better for it, actually. “Still hears my broken song of love.” Resolved back on the tonic B-flat, is Bob resolved to have to walk, or ride, through that pass alone, with a broken song? Well, in a lovely lyric like this one, it probably makes for a better story ballad than just trotting back down the pass with some new, quick señorita or caballero or cowgirl or cowpoke or whoever.
Now, here comes the part of the song where it shifts keys, from B-flat to its dominant key, F. It’s an irresistible thrill! Bob might have looked for this kind of thing in a bottle, sometimes. But, we might say, if you’re from a different part of the Southwest, it might be like the fireworks in your brain, after you chewed up that peyote you copped from a friendly cactus and got past the obligatory puking. You’re still polkaing, or two-stepping if you prefer, but you’re in a higher key!!
“Moon in all your splendor, know only my heart.” My heart is now the splendiferous moon! Metaphor without simile! And with a blare of jazz which Bob imported from New Orleans, or maybe even New York, where Charlie “Bird” Parker would have just gotten “Cherokee” off the pop reservation and had begun to rebop it under his title, “Ko-Ko”. With my recommendation as a hybrid breeder, Bob makes sure we hear the jazz in the trumpeting of Everett Stover and/or Tubby Lewis. It animates that moonshine! (Sidecar (or is it sidebar?) : Did you know that Bob was part Cherokee, on his mom’s side, and that he had another hit with “Cherokee Maiden,” a year after “Rose”?)
“Call back my Rose, Rose of San Antone.” This Rose, whoever she is, is the heartthrob of the title, the girl in so many guys’ song lyrics. And maybe, with that F modulation, the guy’s heart is throbbing loud enough to sound like a tom-tom, or tambora, or whatever Rose’s people respond to, and to get her to give the guy another chance. Bob?
“Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart.” C’mon, Bob. “Petals?” Wasn’t Rose a little bit more actively involved in the kissing thing? Yeah, I know, it’s supposed to be your song, as your Muse I should know my limits. Or should I?
“Speak once again, of my love, my own.” This time, the long ‘o’ is holding (four beats) on the note, E-flat, which returns the song to its original key. And after the high of the ‘F’ bridge section, it feels like a homecoming, a lying down on your own bed, with or without Rose, but with different words, words of consequence for this romantic musical quest.
“Broken song, empty words I know.” Another reference to a broken song, but here’s where we, the listeners through time, may have to stand apart from the forlorn teller of this tale. Because, to our ears, the song has been as strong as it has been stirring, and the words maybe fuller and lovelier than Rose ever was or could be. I’m taking some kind of credit for that, folks.
“Still live in my heart all alone.” No, not alone, because your heart harmonizes with our hearts, and in big bands and in timeless tunes, the glow in the company of other folk shines on the cold silence of mortality. “For that moonlit pass by the Alamo.” We’ll ride it with you, Bob, again and again, after we toke up behind the Holiday Inn. “And Rose, my Rose of San Antone.”
After finishing his sing-through of the song, Tommy is comforted and congratulated by Bob (and by me) by means of a snappy guitar solo by Junior Barnard, a white man in a Stetson, channeling Negro-electric-guitar-pioneer Charlie Christian. Listen to how Bob moans over Junior’s magic. That’s a moan of color-blind delight, and maybe the pride of a bandleader who has led his boys where no band had gone before, and likely would not go again.
Then, there’s a flashback to that high bridge, the splendor this time shared by a mini-choir of cowboy angels — three guys, not identified in the notes but credited in our memories — and Bob jazzing and fingering his fiddle to a climax way, way up on the fingerboard. Finally, with no need of pretension (this ain’t the Basie band), Tommy finishes with a reprise of the song’s last four lines.
And there you have it. How a muse works through some good music. Did I already tell you that ‘music’ dates back to the Greeks, where it meant, “the art of the muses?” Though, I don’t think they had much to work with. Could you have squeezed out as much joy as Bob Wills did, if all you had was a lyre and pan pipes? Maybe, it you’d squeezed enough grapes to go with it.
But I’m sure all you writer types are hoping that a muse might make herself available for more than just music, and you’d be right about that. Or “write about that,” for a cheap wordplay You gotta give me that, I’m a little tired. I told you, we don’t get any vacation, like you guys do. Remember this: Bob loved mules, and ‘muse’ is only one curvy letter away from “‘mule.” Much obliged.
(Dedicated to Andrew Joron and his Speculative Fiction Playboys and Playgirls. Joron is a writer of experimental and science-fiction poetry and was of the circle of late Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. He currently is in the Creative Writing Department at SFSU.