A Conversation With Carl Goldstein, Champion of Bluegrass Music

A Conversation With Carl Goldstein, Champion of Bluegrass Music

By Steven Brodsky

Among those who’ve done the most to preserve bluegrass music and further its appreciation is Carl Goldstein.  Consistent with the informal yet respectful norm of the bluegrass community, I’m not using the title “The Honorable” before his name; he was a judge in Delaware for 40 years before retiring in 2013.  With two others, Carl founded the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music in 1971.  He’s provided leadership for the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival since its start in 1972. (The Festival was called the Delaware Bluegrass Festival until it moved to New Jersey in 1990.) Since 1977, Carl has hosted the Fire on the Mountain radio show on WVUD FM.  In 2011, he was inducted into the WVUD Hall of Fame.

Carl, what are your official roles at the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival?

I’m Chair of the BFOTM and Director of the Festival.

How long have you served in these capacities?

Since the organization and Festival’s inception.

How did you get introduced to bluegrass music?

I became interested in folk music during the “folk music scare” of the ’60s although I had listened to country music and blues even before that time.  I found the more earthy and honest music of early Appalachian music to be even more to my liking.

When you first got involved in bluegrass music, where did you travel to hear the music and to learn more about it?

I travelled with companions to southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and Tennessee to fiddlers’ conventions and the earliest bluegrass festivals.

What drew you to the music and how did it engage you?

The soulful, powerful and yet down to earth nature of the music drew me in.  I started collecting the music and eventually learned to play guitar.

In your early years as a fan of bluegrass music, who were some of your favorite musicians? 

The Stanley Brothers/Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Country Gentlemen were among some early favorites.

What were some of your favorite songs? 

Too many to single out I’m afraid.

What memories do you have of Sunset Park (the iconic country music venue that was located in Chester County, Pennsylvania)?

I lived only a half hour or so from Sunset Park.  I went there many Sundays during the summer months and was lucky enough to hear many of the greats of bluegrass and country music.  In addition, each week musicians would jam out in the field.

What caused the Delaware Valley to become a hotbed of bluegrass music? 

During the tough economic years of the ’30s many families from the mid south relocated to the area (NE Maryland, Southeastern PA and Delaware) in search of work bringing with them their culture and music.  Among these families were the Paisleys, the Lundys, and the Campbells (Ola Belle Reed) and many others.

How were Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe responsible for the first annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival?

Ralph Stanley, whom I had known from years of following his music, came to us on behalf of himself and Bill Monroe in 1971 asking whether our organization would host a festival – the first in the northeast. They were to supply the talent (although we did have some limited input) and we were to supply the venue and publicity.  We were delighted to agree. The Festival was set for Labor Day weekend 1972.  That first year it was in a KOA campground but moved to a newly constructed music park – Gloryland Park – the second year.

After the third year Bill and Ralph decided to start their own festivals that weekend in their respective home places.  From that point on we produced the Festival ourselves and after their festivals ended in a few years we had each of them back nearly every other year.

Did you believe that the first Festival was going to become an annual event? 

We had high hopes but that first year was a muddy mess.  They (Bill and Ralph) and we persevered.

Please tell us about a few of your most valued memories associated with the Festival.

It was Lester Flatt who stepped up that 4th year at a fee we could afford so we were able to present a fine lineup our first year on our own.

Doc Watson and Bill Monroe did a rare and historic set together in 1990, our first year in New Jersey.

We had some legendary folks perform for us over the years.  In addition to nearly all of the great bluegrass musicians, we have presented Merle Travis, Hank Thompson, and a number of special tribute sets and reunions that were very memorable like, for example, Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley.

I should mention that the Brandywine Friends and hence the Bluegrass Festival is run by a Board of Directors of 16 members.  They are all interesting, smart and funny human beings.  I mention it here because part of the joy of the Festival is doing it with these exceptional folks.

Congratulations on the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival winning the award for 2016 IBMA Event of the Year.  What components make the Festival a favorite of musicians and attendees year after year?

I think that because we are nonprofit and all volunteer we have the luxury of presenting a top-notch lineup of talent – top to bottom each year.  While our main focus is bluegrass, we have always presented some variety with comparable genres like old-time music, traditional country music, Cajun and French Canadian.

We also include features like a Children’s Stage and a Kids’ Academy where youngsters can gain instruction in every bluegrass instrument during the course of the weekend.  We are also known as a great jam festival.  Our campground is filled with folks playing day and night.

Please speak about the lineup for the 46th Annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival taking place on Labor Day weekend.

Once again we have a great lineup featuring some of the best acts in traditional music – Del McCoury, the Gibson Brothers, and a host of others.  We have the perennial favorites: The Grascals, Blue Highway, and IBMA 2016 Male Vocalist of the Year Danny Paisley.  All that in addition to relative newcomers like Becky Buller and Flatt Lonesome and powerful old-time music from the Foghorn Stringband and April Verch – not to mention Asleep at the Wheel who I will in a moment.

Are there performers that you are especially looking forward to seeing this year?  If so, why? 

It’s always a treat for us to surprise our audience with an act that may be unexpected but is fully within our view of traditional music.  This year it is Asleep at the Wheel – the legendary Texas Western Swing band.  That’s gonna be fun.

What do you most enjoy about hosting the Fire on the Mountain radio show?

I think it’s the audience.  Each week I get calls from interesting and informed people.  They have been very loyal over these 40 years and each year those folks lead all programs on the station for our fundraising efforts.  They’re just great.  Besides, if I weren’t playing that music on the air, I’d be home doing the same thing.

What does the future look like for bluegrass music and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival? 

If you’d asked me that question 15 or so years ago I might not have been as optimistic as I am now.  There are a great number of younger folks playing bluegrass and old-time music these days.  That in turn bodes well for the festivals.

46th Annual Bluegrass Festival

The 46th Annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for September 1-3, 2017.  It will be held at the Salem County Fairgrounds, US Rt. 40, 7 miles east of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  The event is run by the Brandywine Friend of Old Time Music.  Information is available at: www.delawarevalleybluegrass.org.

Information about the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music is at: www.brandywinefriends.org.

Posted 5/27/17


A Conversation With Dr. Daniel M. Peters, Senior Pastor of Limerick Chapel

By Steven Brodsky

Pastor Peters is a gifted Bible teacher.  People discover that about him at Limerick Chapel and through listening to his teachings on radio and on the Limerick Chapel website.  Pastor Peters is author of the book ‘SIXTEEN COUNSELING SESSIONS with the WONDERFUL COUNSELOR: God’s personal counsel to individuals as recorded in the Bible.’

When did you decide that you wanted to be a pastor?

I didn’t want to be a pastor because I saw what my father went through as a pastor.  Board meetings late at night, visiting old ladies and sick people didn’t interest me as a young man.  Preaching and singing like Billy Graham and Bev Shea looked a lot more interesting.  It was not until I was in college that the Lord showed me the joy of sharing truth through relationships.

What went into that decision?

I taught at a Children’s Bible Club in North Philadelphia for a year and that opened my heart to loving people and teaching them how to know the Lord.  Later, when a small storefront church in Kensington needed a pastor, I accepted and served that congregation and community for three years while living in North Philadelphia.  My wife, Diane, served with me at that church as well.

As a son of a pastor, did you ever go through a rebellious “preacher’s kid” (“PK”) stage?

I never openly rebelled since I had observed my older brother try that and I saw that it didn’t work.  But I had my battles with selfish desires.

How did this get resolved?

I surrendered my life to the Lord at age 16 at a youth rally.

To what extent did growing up in a parsonage give you faith by osmosis? 

My parents were genuine Christians who loved God and loved others.  They loved me and showed me how to live for others.

If you had not become a pastor, what other path might you have taken? 

My selfish desire was to race motorcycles for a living.

What bolsters your faith?

Reading the Bible and learning from the record of God’s miraculous works in the past and observing God’s miraculous work in changing people’s lives today.

If there have been challenges to your faith that you are comfortable talking about, please do so.

The death of our son, Nathan, at age 7 was the hardest thing we have gone through.  He was run over by a bus while riding his bicycle.

Over the course of a generation, many traditional Christian values have become countercultural to a large number of Americans.  Did you see this coming?

Yes, and I thought it would have become much more difficult by now.

How does the shift in their values affect you and Limerick Chapel?

People are more sophisticated in their unbelief and rejection of Christian values.

With regards to Philippians 4:8, what good things do you tend to think about?

I tend to think about how blessed I am to know that God is watching over me and mine and that we are going to Heaven when we die.

Please tell us about your book SIXTEEN COUNSELING SESSIONS with the Wonderful Counselor: God’s personal counsel to individuals as recorded in the Bible.

I wrote the book to encourage people to look to the God of the Bible for answers to perplexing questions.

Where and when can people hear your teachings on the radio? 

WPAZ 1370 AM and WEVW 103.5 FM at 8 AM and 5:30 PM seven days a week. Also on WBYN 107.5 FM at 8:00 PM, Sunday  Friday.

What does Limerick Chapel provide to people?

Godly traditional worship, encouraging Bible teaching and loving family fellowship.

Tell us about the Men’s Motorcyle Ministry and the archery program.

Motorcycle Men ride one Saturday a month for lunch and friendship. Centershot Archery is for parents and children together and is a free outreach program for the  community.

What blessings do you most enjoy in your life? 

I am blessed with a wonderful wife, six loving children and 13 amazing grandchildren.  I enjoy good health and riding my R1200RT BMW motorcycle.

What are two of your favorite hymns?

I love to sing “Blessed Assurance” and “Amazing Grace.”

Limerick Chapel is located in Limerick, PA.  The website is: www.limerickchapel.org.

A Conversation With Mary Pilon,  Author of ‘The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, And The Scandal Behind The World’s Favorite Board Game’

By Steven Brodsky

Mary Pilon is an award-winning journalist and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, And The  Scandal Behind The World’s Favorite Board Game.

What prompted you to write The Monopolists

The whole thing came about by accident. I’ve always loved games and puzzles and in 2009, while on staff at The Wall Street Journal, I was going to mention in passing that the board game Monopoly was invented by a man during the Great Depression because that was the story that had been tucked in my family’s game box, like millions of others. I started to look into it and soon found that it was far more complicated than I had thought. That led to the original article I did for the Journal, which then led to the book proposal. I felt as though the more I learned about the story, the more I was left with questions, hence the need for a book-length treatment.

What personal efforts went into researching the story and getting the book written? 

All told, it took about five years from when I started reporting to when the book came out. The reporting was intense, but the entire time I was also working full time as a staff reporter, so it was a labor of love on nights and weekends. That time frame also included a beat switch (from business to sports), changing jobs, moving apartments several times, then the usual life stuff – weddings, funerals, crises, good moments, bad, all that’s in-between. I traveled to several different states for interviews, libraries, game archives, often not knowing if it would lead to anything and struggled to pull materials from a variety of sources into one single timeline of what the game’s history was and who the main characters were in its evolution. I crashed on many couches along the way, too. (Thanks to those who loaned theirs!)

Did you ever consider giving up on the book?

No. As I sunk deeper and deeper into the research, it became clear to me that if I didn’t tell this story, specifically Lizzie Magie’s tale, no one else was going to. I think journalism, in general, has for better or for worse given me the curse of being bitten by a good story. Once it’s in you, can’t let it go. It becomes, well, a bit obsessive. I’m not saying it makes sense, but you do reach a point of no return, where you’re going to hand in the manuscript, even if you’re bandaged, bruised, and exhausted as you click send to your editor. Bloomsbury was very patient with me.

What kept you going?

Coffee. Lots. Of. Coffee. I also have amazing friends, family members, and mentors who were great sounding boards and cheerleaders along the way, which I know sounds a bit trite, but the importance of that can’t be overstated. For me, knowing other people were holding me accountable mattered immensely. Even if they didn’t entirely understand why I was still going with it, they respected that it was important to me. The whole story is something of an underdog tale, so I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I connected with that.

This project also differed from my regular newspaper and magazine work in that many of the key people in it were long dead. The deeper I got into research, and I know this sounds crazy, the more alive to me they became. I knew I had to do right by them. That’s motivating in a library rat kind of way.

I also seriously raised my game in distance running and completed my first marathon while writing this. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I needed the time to think about the story as I was running and marathoning taught me a new mentality when it came to taking big things and breaking them into smaller, more manageable pieces. I couldn’t think about running 26.2 miles, but I could think about running five miles each morning, then ramping up or down, one mile at a time. I found book writing to be the same. I still can’t think about writing hundreds of pages, but I could handle 1,000 words a day or so. I credit the athletes I write about with (perhaps unintentionally) teaching me a lot about motivation and goals.

Ralph Anspach, one of the central characters in The Monopolists, had tremendous determination to bring to bring to light the history of the development of the game of Monopoly.  Tell us a little bit about Professor Anspach, his Anti-Monopoly Game, and what his defense against a trademark lawsuit revealed. 

Ralph is a fascinating man. He was born in Danzig and fled to the U.S. with his family as a child, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s persecution. He went on to study economics and created his Anti-Monopoly game in the early 1970s as a more philosophically pleasing alternative to Monopoly, and as a teaching tool to use with his students in the Bay Area and his two sons. He had no idea at the time that his creating Anti-Monopoly was, in a way, bringing the game back to its counterculture origins. It wasn’t long before he heard from lawyers for Parker Brothers who said they thought he was stepping on their trademark toes. That kicked off a decade-long legal battle in which Anspach unraveled the game’s early folk history – Lizzie Magie, the Quakers who played the game, what actually happened with Charles Darrow selling the game to Parker Brothers. It went to the steps of the Supreme Court and played a huge role in Anspach’s life.

The Monopolists informs readers about Lizzie Magie and her Landlord’s Game.  Lizzie Magie’s board game was first patented in 1904.  Lizzie Magie was remarkable and ahead of her time.  Speak to this.

Lizzie Magie was a woman far ahead of her time. She was designing games before women even had the right to vote. Her father, James Magie, was an influential newspaper owner and voice in the Republican Party and had even traveled with Abe Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lizzie Magie also wrote poetry, short stories, performed in the theater, and was an impassioned follower of Henry George, a popular political economist of her day, and created her Landlord’s Game as a way to try to teach people about how George’s single tax philosophy worked. Like many Georgists, she was also an impassioned women’s rights advocate.

She intended her game to promote the “single tax” concept that  had been advocated by Henry George.  Why was her game popular in Arden, Delaware?

Arden was a haven for single taxers. Some lived there just for a season, others year-round. By all accounts, it was a great place to be, kind of had a hippie vibe to it. I went there for research and had a lovely time. There’s a great museum there, the Arden Craft Museum, that gives a great overview of the town’s quirky history and much of the original architecture from the early monopoly game days has survived. Arden was one of a handful of single tax communities that was backed by wealthy Georgists with the stated mission of trying to live out what George’s single tax ideas were all about. In Arden, you can still see that there’s an emphasis on shared space, as there’s a lovely green that’s shared among community members and a theater. Her Landlord’s Game also brought questions about community land and taxation to the forefront.

How did the Quaker community of Atlantic City modify Lizzie Magie’s board game?

Many of the Quakers in Atlantic City were teachers, so they did some things to make the game more accessible for children. They localized the board, which was common then, to have Atlantic City properties. Because silence is key to the Quaker faith, they downplayed the cacophonous auction elements of the game and put a greater emphasis on having fixed prices on the board. Funny enough, they kept the dice in the game, even though that was taboo in some Quaker circles, as dice were associated with gambling and games of chance.

When did people first refer to a board game as “monopoly”?

It’s hard to nail down, but there are indications that it wasn’t long after Lizzie Magie’s first Landlord’s Game was patented in 1904. She was very interested in monopolies as a concept and that was key to the language around her game. There are indications that folk players called it “the monopoly game” as a sort of shorthand.

Are you a Monopoly player?

I am! Among many other games.

Please share some of your game-related memories with us.

My family always played Monopoly on Christmas Eve, often with clam chowder or soup, too. Today, we still play board games during the holidays a lot, including Monopoly, but also Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Risk, Set, Exploding Kittens, among others. What I loved about games then, and now, is it reveals a completely different side of people you think you know. Playing Monopoly as a child was my first window into learning that my sweet grandmother had a completely fierce competitive streak. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch my cash and property stash super closely whenever we played. As far as Monopoly is concerned, in our family, at least, the idea of trust gets turned upside down.

A Conversation With Author Mark SaFranko

By Steven Brodsky

Mark SaFranko’s readers already know this: Mark is no literary wuss. There’s no evidence of authorial flinching in his novels.  The self-consciousness that swaddles lesser writers is nowhere to be seen. Mark’s writing has been compared to that of Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, as well as to some of the most highly regarded current “confessional” and mystery literature. 

Mark, your novel The Suicide has been getting deserved recognition.  Did you anticipate that the novel would be so well-received? 

Steven, I have no idea how anything will ever be received. One of my French translators once remarked that “Nothing in publishing ever makes sense,” and I think that’s certainly true. Whenever any of my work appears, I’m clueless about how it will go over.

The Suicide is recognized in Heather Duerre Humann’s book Gender Bending Detective Fiction: A Critical Analysis of Selected Works (McFarland, 2017).  There, a chapter is devoted to your book: “Detecting Gender in Mark SaFranko’s The Suicide.”  Heather Duerre Humann writes that Ellen Smith, a fictional transgender former police officer character “comes across as complex and sympathetic, and her presence therefore both challenges and represents a departure from the two-dimensional depictions of transgender individuals which were commonplace in decades past.”  Are there analogs in your life that you drew upon in creating Ellen?

Not really. I remember reading in passing a newspaper article about a policeman who showed up at headquarters for work one day in a dress. He was summarily dismissed. That planted the idea for the character in my mind. I think that it’s part of the novelist’s job to be able to immerse himself in the experience of a character — any character. Once I had at least a vague idea of what the novel would be about, I submerged myself in what I thought that character’s inner life might be and took it from there. I do believe, by the way, that Ellen Smith was actually the very first transgender police detective to make an appearance in a novel.

Did you intend for The Suicide to be as strongly character-driven as it is?

For better or worse, all of my work is very largely character-driven. In my estimation, literature of any value must be deeply rooted in character. It’s what I love about the best French films: you watch the characters develop and unfold without concern for pace as if they were in a novel. I say “for worse” because I’m not certain that character-driven work is the royal road to commercial success.

The book is mainly set in Hoboken, NJ, a year after 9/11.  When did you write it?  The place and time add to the tension experienced by the protagonist, Detective Brian Vincenti, do you agree?

Absolutely, though the events of 9/11 aren’t absolutely necessary to the story. I happened to be living in Hoboken around that time, so I had a feel for the atmosphere of the city. My windows looked directly out on the World Trade Center – I could throw a rock across the Hudson and hit it. And in fact my wife worked on the 55th floor of Tower One until just a year before 9/11. My son when he was very small played in the shadow of that building for years. I started writing the novel shortly after moving out of Hoboken in 2000 and the events of 9/11 wormed their way into later drafts.

How long did Detective Vincenti live within you prior to writing the book?

That’s a very good question, Steven, and one I haven’t given much thought to. I can’t say I thought about him – consciously — as a character until I laid out the plan for the book. And yet he unfolded quite naturally during the writing, so he must have been lurking just below the level of consciousness.

Does he still inhabit your inner world?

I’ve been planning a sequel for years and haven’t gotten around to it yet. This is a matter of allotting time to it, as I’m always in the process of writing several novels and stories at the same time. So I guess the answer is yes, Vincenti – and Ellen Smith  — are both still there.

Detective Vincenti exhibited extreme tenacity in working the case of a woman who died after exiting from an eleventh-floor window. Does tenacity enter into your writing life?  If so, how?

At this point I’ve travelled far beyond tenacity. I just wake up every day of the week, Sunday through Saturday, and go to it. I’ve been doing it for so many years now that it’s reflexive and don’t even give the process any thought. But I suppose the rigorous schedule speaks to a tenacity that was established a long time ago. And yes, tenacity still figures into the process in that I stick with a novel or story, draft after draft, until I come to some point of near-satisfaction with it. I’m never altogether satisfied, but yes, it takes a great deal of tenacity to persevere with something if you’re unsure of whether or not it’s working. Often you never know.

What gives you the ability to not flinch in your writing?

Another good question. There’s an old adage that if whatever you’re writing about makes you uncomfortable, you’re onto something good. I try to stick with whatever that might be.

How disciplined is your writing life?

Very, as I explained earlier. But there’s a looseness built into the discipline that comes from having to deal with real life. You have to walk the dog. You have to take the kid to soccer practice. You have to go to the dentist. But you always come back to what you’re doing. You can’t be too rigid or you won’t have a life at all.

How difficult is it for you to get into a state of creative flow?

Not at all. I can’t seem to get to all the ideas swirling around in my mind. But an ease with overall concepts and ideas doesn’t mean that you don’t stumble around over specifics, like the development of a character who suddenly appears out of nowhere. That’s when it’s more stop and go. Sometimes it’s a little tricky getting from point A to B, or B to C. You might have to stop here and there, but eventually you find the flow again.

What keeps your creative edge sharp?

Work, really. There is no substitute for work. When you sit with your story or novel or song or whatever, going back to it again and again to discover more of its possibilities, your edge stays sharp and more and more ideas occur to you.

How do you keep distractions at bay when working?

I don’t. I allow some of them in. Sometimes I write with the TV on in the background. Sometimes I listen to certain types of music. The dog bugs me to play with him. The telephone rings and I answer it.  I’ve conditioned myself over the years to not seal myself off completely.

Are you ever adversely affected by immersion into the lives and circumstances of your characters?  If so, how do you deal with this?

I try to keep my life and my characters’ lives separate if at all possible, but I suppose there is some seepage, that’s inevitable. But if that’s the case, I’m not conscious of it. My more autobiographical work – the Zajack novels for instance – are more likely to affect me. Then again, all of a writer’s work is autobiographical.

 Do you take vacations from writing?

Uh, no.

When did you know you were a writer?

Originally I wanted to be a writer of music – something I still do. But it began to seriously dawn on me halfway through college.  I was applying to law school when I realized that I had to change directions. The notion had been roiling beneath the surface for some time until it completely took over. By the age of 21, my course was set.

How important was the possibility of publication to you when you started out? 

Well, I wondered whether I could actually complete something decent first.  I don’t know that I thought much about being published in the early days. “Being a writer” was something that seemed very distant, like a star way out there in the firmaments. I’d written a lot before I actually submitted my creative work for publication. For a long time I knew I wasn’t ready, but I kept writing. When I thought I was ready, I wasn’t. The odd thing was that when I wrote for newspapers, I was published on a daily basis, but my creative work I regarded as something else altogether.

Our friend, the late Dan Fante, was encouraged early in his writing career by supportive words of Hubert Selby Jr.  Was there anyone who significantly did the same for you? 

It’s still hard to believe that Dan is gone. I miss hearing his voice. To answer your question, there was my wife. She believed in me and was supportive from the beginning. One writer who was supportive was the late mystery writer Mark McGarrity, aka Bartholomew Gill. But on the whole I had to rely on myself. And it wasn’t easy much of the time, especially in the early days when I had no belief whatsoever in myself.

Did you have a writing mentor?

Only on paper in the form of the writers I idolized. Dickens. Dostoyevsky. Celine. Henry Miller. Isaac Singer. Playwrights like Eugene O’Neill. Sophocles. Euripides. Simenon, maybe above all. Later, guys like Carver and Bukowski and Richard Yates. Paul Bowles. Women like Patricia Highsmith. And too many others to recount.

Can you tell us about your current writing project?

I’m always in the process of writing stories and novels, poems and songs and other things. I go from one draft to the next until I think they’re in some form of completion – and often I’m wrong. I’m working on two new Max Zajack novels that are quite close to being ready. A novel about a child prodigy violinist who happens to be a lesbian. A psychological mystery about a wheelchair-bound philanderer and his long-suffering wife. Etc. One of these days I’ll get to that sequel to The Suicide.

What’s most frustrating about your writing life?

It’s always the business end of it. Finding publishers and markets for my work. I like to say that the writing part is easy. You shouldn’t be doing it if you’re not champing at the bit every morning to get to it. But the reality of the shrinking marketplace? That’s an altogether different beast. That’s the really hard part.

What’s most satisfying?

Not having a boss. Being master of my fate for the hours every day that I’m at the keyboard. Being the Creator for at least a little while.

Mark SaFranko’s website address is: www.marksafranko.com.

Posted 4/10/17

A Conversation With Katie Fallon, Author of ‘Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird

By Steven Brodsky

Katie Fallon is a co-founder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.  She’s worked with many species of raptors and other kinds of birds.  Katie’s books include Cerulean Blues (2011) and the recently released Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird.  Her essays have appeared in a number of literary journals.  She has a lifelong love of nature.  I’ve heard that the first word she ever spoke was “bird.”

Your new book gives vultures, particularly turkey vultures, the positive attention these non-predator raptors deserve.  What brought about your interest in these maligned birds?

I’ve been fascinated by vultures for at least fifteen years. There was a roost near where I lived in West Virginia; every day I’d drive by this big, old dead tree with ten or so turkey vultures hunched in it. They became a familiar sight, and I looked forward to seeing them. Vultures are big and kind of dramatic, and in flight, there’s nothing more beautiful. In addition, they’re the ultimate recyclers—they turn death into life.

Many people in the U.S. have an aversion to vultures.  Speak about this.

I think vultures remind people of their own mortality. It can be a little creepy to think about a large, dark bird waiting to consume your body when you die. In general, I don’t think people in the US are comfortable with thinking of our bodies as food. Vultures remind us that life will continue after we die, and that some life will continue because we die. They remind us of our animal bodies. Which can be unnerving!

In the absence of vultures, we’d have major health issues to contend with.  Tell us why.

Vultures clean up our ecosystems by removing animal carcasses that could potentially contaminate soil and water. They can eat animals that have died of anthrax and botulism. In the absence of vultures, mammalian scavengers could increase in number, and many mammalian scavengers such as raccoons, skunks, feral dogs and cats can spread rabies; vultures do not. Several vulture species in India have suffered catastrophic population crashes in the last twenty years, and public health has suffered. India leads the world in human rabies cases, and the number of cases has increased as the number of feral dogs increased in the absence of vultures.

People get close to vultures by attending your presentations that feature non-releasable birds.  How are these birds acquired?  How are they trained?

The nonprofit I co-founded, the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, keeps eight non-releasable raptors for educational purposes (you need permits from the US Fish & Wildlife Service to do this, of course – the birds aren’t pets or personal property). All of our birds were injured wild birds that cannot return to the wild. We have three vultures. Lew the turkey vulture was hit by a car and suffered an injury to his shoulder that prevents flight. His “girlfriend,” Boris, was shot in the wing, and by the time she reached us the bone had already healed incorrectly. Our black vulture is Maverick, and he was hit by a car, which resulted in a shoulder injury that prevents adequate flight.

Our birds are all trained using positive reinforcement. We avoid negative reinforcement and punishment, and we try to empower the birds to have some control over their environments. We condition behaviors by offering food rewards when the birds perform the behaviors. Vultures (especially our black vulture!) learn quickly, and they are a lot of fun to work with.

What myths and misunderstandings about vultures do these presentations help to dispel?

People are surprised at how clean and charismatic the vultures are – and how beautiful they are up close, despite their featherless heads.

What vulture behaviors do people find to be most interesting?

People often ask if vultures throw up on us; our education vultures usually don’t (unless they get scared). Vultures also expel liquid waste on their legs and feet, probably to clean them as well as to keep cool. This often fascinates people as well.

Which species of vulture are found in Pennsylvania and neighboring states?

We have turkey vultures and black vultures. During the last Ice Age we may have had California condors, too, and possibly some other now-extinct vultures.

What has been learned about migration of these species?

Hawk Mountain has taken the lead on turkey vulture migration research. Dr. Keith Bildstein and his team have placed transmitters and wing tags on turkey vultures all over the Americas. They’ve learned that our eastern turkey vultures are partial migrants—some spend the winters in Florida, some on the New Jersey shore, some in Virginia, and in many places in between. Many western turkey vultures are complete migrants, leaving their breeding ranges in Canada and heading all the way to South America. And still others in the American southwest migrate into Central America and return. It’s fascinating how the different subspecies have different migratory strategies. Dr. Bildstein and his colleagues have ongoing research projects about turkey vulture migration, and are discovering more all the time.

Vultures have spectacular flying ability.  What makes this possible?

Turkey vultures are very light – they have almost the same wingspan as a bald eagle but weigh less than half what an eagle weighs. Their wings are long and broad, and are made for soaring.

How high can they fly?

The Ruppell’s vulture holds the record for the highest-flying bird. Unfortunately for that individual, it was hit and killed by a jet flying over Africa at 37,000 feet.

Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird informs readers about lead toxicity in vultures. How do vultures ingest lead?

Vultures (and eagles, hawks, crows, ravens, and owls) can ingest small pieces of spent lead ammunition in animal carcasses or “gut piles” left by hunters. When someone shoots a white-tailed deer, for example, the deer is usually field-dressed, and many of the organs are left. This can be a delight for vultures and other scavengers! In ecosystems, scavengers often follow the big predators to clean up the leftovers; here, the same thing is happening—a human is the big predator, a gut pile is the leftover, and a vulture or eagle is the scavenger. However, if small lead fragments are still in the gut piles, avian scavengers can inadvertently ingest the lead and become sick. Lead toxicity from spent ammunition is the biggest obstacle in the way of California condor recovery.

The Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia provides rehabilitation for injured birds.  What kind of care do vultures receive?

We’ve treated vultures with a wide variety of injuries and ailments—broken bones, head trauma, lead toxicity, soft tissue injuries. Every bird we admit receives an immediate comprehensive examination by an avian veterinarian, and is then treated as necessary with antibiotics, antifungals, anti-inflammatories, fluid therapy, or chelation therapy. They also receive orthopedic surgery if necessary. We do our best to get the birds back out in the wild if possible.

It must be very joyful to enable an injured bird to regain flight ability.  Please tell us about a memorable release.

Two and a half years ago we released a female turkey vulture that had been shot with a shotgun—she had three pellets embedded in soft tissue. We had to leave the pellets in her body because removing them would cause damage. Once she was nursed back to health, we released her wearing a transmitter to track her movements. We learned that she travels to northern Georgia in the winters and comes back to West Virginia in the breeding season. We are thrilled that this vulture was able to return to the wild—and thrive!

Vulture watching is growing in popularity.  Turkey vultures are very widespread.  Where are some of the best places and times to observe them?

In many parts of the southeastern United States, you can see turkey vultures any day of the year in a variety of habitats. In the winter, vultures can be observed roosting together in and near many cities: in Virginia, check out Leesburg, Staunton, Radford, Pulaski, and Charlottesville; in West Virginia, many vultures can be observed migrating in the fall over Hanging Rock Tower in Monroe County and over Harper’s Ferry in the eastern panhandle. During the summer and fall, the overlook at Cooper’s Rock State Forest near Morgantown, WV, is a sure place to see turkey vultures. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, of course, is an excellent place to watch turkey vultures and birds of prey during migration, especially in September and October.

What stimulated your interest in nature?

I’ve always been an outdoors person. I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I had horses as a kid. I spent a great deal of time with my horses, trail riding and competing, and when I got a bit older I often went hiking and camping with friends and family. One of my favorite childhood hiking spots was Ricketts Glen State Park—it’s filled with hemlock trees and many gorgeous waterfalls. It’s definitely worth checking out if you visit northeastern PA.

Was “bird” your first word? 

Yes! My parents had bird feeders in their yard when I was a baby (well, they still do) and my mother says she used to hold me in front of the window to show me the birds at the feeder. One day, she said, “Look at the birds! Look at the birds outside.” And I nodded and said, “Bird.” I haven’t stopped talking about them since.

Katie Fallon will be at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a lecture and book signing on Saturday, April 8, 2017.  She’ll return the following day for a Hawk Mountain members-only event.

Information about Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is available at: www.hawkmountain.org.

Katie Fallon’s website is: www.katiefallon.com.

Posted 4/5/17

A Conversation with Playwright Lauren Gunderson

By Steven Brodsky

Lauren Gunderson’s plays are enormously in demand.  American Theatre said that she is “the most-produced living playwright in America, who reaches that spot on the strength of six separate titles.”  One of those is  “I and You,” scheduled for production at People’s Light from March 29 – April 23, 2017.  The script won the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.  The questions and responses will endeavor to avoid spoiler territory; the play is best enjoyed in the absence of foreknowledge of its denouement.

Lauren Gunderson Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell

What stimulated your interest in theatre? 

The words came first. I loved crafting ideas through language even from an early age. I remember being so proud of a fifth-grade creative writing assignment where I wrote about a baseball being pitched in a World Series game (I was a big tomboy and loved Braves baseball). It was from the baseball’s perspective. The ball flew through the night air, cutting through the bright sports lights, spinning dizzily and arrested in the leather glove with a splash of wind and a smack on it’s cheek. I thought I was the first person in history to play with perspective like that.

I also loved acting and my mom will still tell the story of me playing Baby Bear in my kindergarten’s production of “The Three Little Bears” in Spanish. So playwriting was a combination of two things I loved and it’s what has kept me writing to this day.

At age 16, you wrote a letter to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson.  Tell us about the letter and the friendship that ensued.

Maggie is an Atlanta writer and teacher. I was overwhelmed with admiration for her play “Wit” when it came out and wrote her a note out of the blue expressing that. Amazingly she wrote me back and invited me over for tea to talk about writing. I couldn’t believe it. I will never forget the power of that gesture to a young writer. The respect and friendship she offered me set me going with confidence and inspiration. We connect every time I get back to Atlanta and I am deeply honored to call her a friend.

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a vehicle of connection for the two characters in the play.  Tell us about your first exposure to that poetry collection and how it affected you. 

I remember reading Whitman in high school on a misty fall night in Atlanta sitting on the roof outside my bedroom window. His poetry was so invigorating to me, so rebellious and bold. It was one of the first American literature assignments that felt so charged and scandalous and rule-breaking. But it was also hopeful – even defiantly so. I think his work really affected my sense of what art can do for us. It can surprise, challenge, inspire and energize us to keep being better people and living louder and seeing the goodness  and connectedness in all of us. Yawp!

How much fun was it to write about teenagers?

The language is fun, swift, rhythmic. It flows really easily and there is a lot of humor – self-deprecating or sassy. They can withstand emotion better than many adults because they can pivot from one feeling to another. The best part about writing teenagers is that they are at a time in their life where their future adulthood is imminent but inaccessible. They are all hope, idealism, and potential. They can be anything they dream… just not yet. That encourages a kind of grand thinking that is fun to write and also meaningful and nostalgic.

What did you experience in your teenage years in common with either or both of the characters? 

I was much more of a nerd like Anthony but way less athletic. I can admit to some of Caroline’s angsty tendencies but I was too much of an optimist to align with her personality.

What are some of the most gratifying comments you’ve received from people who’ve attended “I and You”?

One teenager saw it at a high school matinee and brought her parents and grandparents back with her to see it again! I also love seeing so many young black men on stages across the country in this play. Diversity onstage is deeply important to me and I am proud that this play is a part of that trend towards representation equity in American theatre. 

Was the writing process for this script much different than it was for your other plays? 

Yes! This play works like a music box – the mechanics must be tight yet fluid to earn the pop at the end. I had to really be conscious of creating honest characters with depth of heart so it’s not just about the surprise. But I definitely knew where it was going before I started writing it. I had to know the ending to craft the story just right.

What locations and conditions do you find conducive to writing plays?

Morning + coffee + quiet.

Tell us about your writing routine.

See above☺

You were the first playwright to present a Perspectives in Criticism Talk at ATCA’s annual conference.  How daunting was carrying out that honor? 

It was riveting actually. I was honored to speak to a room full of theatre nerds and everyone was excited to talk about real issues. The first line of my speech was, “Hello my name is Lauren, I am a playwright and you are a room full of critics and this won’t be awkward at all.”

Have reviews of your plays affected your creativity?

No. I have a policy of enjoying the good reviews and ignoring the bad one. Life is too short to feel bad if someone didn’t understand or appreciate your work. So I just think, “onwards!”

Who do you rely upon for constructive criticism of your scripts?

I have some brilliant friends who are writers and I often ask them to read early drafts. But I learn the most from hearing the work in the mouths and bodies of excellent actors. Their ideas and experiences within my work are always the best lessons on its efficacy and authenticity.

Does rewriting tend to be less joyful than composing first drafts? 

I love rewriting! It’s like solving a puzzle.

Were there many rewrites of “I and You”?

There always are. We learned a lot from the first production and continued honing the script after that. A lot of the rewrites were about heightening the tension between the two so it can burst and soften as they really start to connect on a deep, emotional level.  

Information about the People’s Light production of “I and You” is at: www.peopleslight.org.

Posted 3/21/17

A Conversation With Blues Master Toby Walker

By Steven Brodsky

At what age did you first pick up a guitar?
I was nine, but baseball got in the way. I picked it up again when I was 14 and was off and running.

Toby Walker Photo by Larry Sribnick

You started learning with an instructional book, yes?
I just learned chords from a chord chart and started to write my own songs with them.
Were there people locally who also taught you?
Many of my friends also played guitar and we all wound up constantly learning from each other. One of my early influences was a local guy named Mike Zuchlich, who was several years older than me. He played some wonderful blues and turned me on to some artists that, as a kid, I had never heard of. That would be John Mayall, among others.
When did you start to develop an interest in performance?
When I realized that the girls in my neighborhood liked guitar players!! We, meaning the guys I hung out with that played guitar, would try and out-write and play each other in order to impress those girls.
Which musicians did you most want to model, at first?
Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, David Bromberg, Robert Johnson, Johnny Winter, Jorma Kaukonen, Michael Bloomfield, Jimmy Reed, Keith Richards, John Hammond, Merle Travis,… the list goes on and on.
What fueled the intensity of your desire to master the guitar?
It was a way out of my neighborhood and a neat way to earn a living.
What sacrifices did you make in your pursuit of blues excellence?
The kind that any artist has to make in order to master their craft. While other folks were going to college, getting married, having kids, getting the mortgage… starting “real” jobs, blah, blah, blah , I honed my craft.
Did you ever question whether the personal costs were too high?
Not once. Ever. What was too high was NOT going after my passion.
Some of your training took place on the porches of blues masters in the Deep South. Share a few of your memories about those times and tell us about some of what you learned.
The most important thing I learned was to develop your own sound. Every one of the folks that I visited and learned from put their own, unique stamp on any song that they played. The stories are numerous. Check out this link on my site: http://www.littletobywalker.com/learning-from-the-masters1.html.
You have won international acclaim for your skills in a variety of music genres. Where did the diversity of your expertise come from?
From following my heart. If there was an artist, a song, or a particular genre that turned my head around, I did everything I could to find a way to bring that into my playing.
Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane is quoted as saying about you, “Flat out… you have to hear this great musician…I’m blown away.” (Toby is a down-to-earth guy.) How do you maintain humbleness after receiving that kind of praise?
I try not to think about that, or at least not let something like that go to my head. Jorma was one of my main influences and I have to keep pinching myself knowing that I get to teach at his guitar camp and actually hang with the guy while I’m there. That’s pretty heady stuff.
You’ve taught for years at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. Do you love teaching there?
I love teaching anywhere, but that place has its own mojo. I can’t explain it, other than everyone that goes there comes away with something special, students and instructors alike.
You are highly in demand as a music teacher. How and where do students learn from you?
Well, in camps like Fur Peace, private lessons in my studio and digital lessons. I’ve put out 8 DVDs with Homespun Instructional Music, as well as dozens of my own downloadable lessons that folks can find on my web site.
When teaching, do memories from those front porch years sometimes arise?
You bet, especially when I’m teaching the songs I learned from the folks that I studied from like James “Son” Thomas, Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, Etta Baker and R.L. Burnside.
Of the awards that you’ve received, which ones are particularly meaningful to you?
I’d have to say the very first one, that I won back in 2002. That was the International Blues Challenge award. It was real nice to be recognized nationally like that. But… equally saying, the one I was awarded from my stomping grounds of Long Island… the Long Island Sound Award from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame was just as rewarding. It’s nice to be recognized by your “homies” as well.
If it were it possible to bring to life, for a couple of hours, any of the now deceased blues masters who you never had the opportunity to meet, who would you most like to bring back and why?
I think I would’ve liked to have met and studied with Gary Davis. I missed that opportunity because when he was around I was too young. Everyone that studied from him said that besides being such a great player, he was a wonderful teacher as well.
What primes your own music creation pump? Do lyrics and tunes generally come easily to you?
Lyrics never come easy, but music always has. I usually start listening to whatever happens to catch my ear at the time and take if from there. Inspiration usually happens when you open yourself up to it.
How do you protect your singing voice?
I never thought about that. I suppose I don’t.
Do you sing in the shower?
I’d get too much shampoo in my mouth.
Do you sing in your vehicle while en route to performance venues?
You’ll be leaving shortly for an overseas tour. When does the tour begin and end?
I leave the day after Labor Day and come home October 7, 2016.
What countries will you be performing in?
Germany, Austria and Cyprus.
Of all the concerts you’ve given, which one is most memorable to you and why?
I think it was a club in Wales many years ago. Those folks go nuts for any type of music and their energy is incredible. They’re already primed long before I show up at the venues. After this one particular gig, I was invited to join everyone at the local pub across from my hotel. When I showed up the whole place cheered. One of the folks came up to me and asked me to walk over to a wall where there was this stuffed bird on a shelf. I had never seen anything like it. The thing was part pheasant and part duck. Then I noticed the little sign underneath it, which read ‘This is a Phuck.’ When I turned around the whole room exploded into laughter.
What’s most gratifying to you about your life in the blues?
It keeps me off the ledge.
Posted 8/26/2016

A Conversation With Radio DJ Michael Tearson

By Steven Brodsky

Michael Tearson is one of the most admired radio DJs of all time. Many readers know him from his years at WMMR, WMGK, and Sirius XM. About his time at each broadcasting venue, Michael told me: “I liked best what I could do on my own to create the content, when I could create shows entirely out of my imagination and without the station telling me what the content would be.”

You started on FM radio when there was a golden age of freedom for disc jockeys; they had far greater latitude in choosing the music that was aired. Where were you working and what did that freedom mean to you and to your listeners?
I started at WXPN where my very first show in October 1967 was the first album rock show at WXPN. Then in January 1968 I was first to do album rock on their FM. At the time the form was brand new and without history or rules, so I was making it up as I went along. It was entirely new and uncharted territory.

What caused the erosion of freedom?
The success of the format in drawing an audience led to the establishment of the Superstars format which skimmed off the album rock hits and boiled it down to a more predictable and even format–all hits all the time–and frankly that cleaned WMMR’s clocks for a while and caused management there to reel in their own format.

What did you most enjoy about your work at WMMR?
I most loved the idea that every night I would take listeners for a ride and that it was never the same twice. I loved that I could tell stories whether obvious or subliminal by selecting, sequencing and segueing. I loved the trust that was placed in me to do this, to not be unnecessarily self-serving, to deliver a balance of all the threads that made up the big picture of what the format was. These days DJs have not selected their own music since 1984 when the computer program Selector came on the market and made it simple for PDs and MDs to program a full day’s content with the push of a button. In an instant an entire generation of DJs skilled at creating shows had that forcibly removed from what we did. I submit radio has gotten nothing but worse and ever less imaginative and engaging/involving ever since.

The Saturday Morning 60s show was entirely my baby. I did it on my own and delivered the complete self-contained show. On the other hand I came to loathe executing the format when doing fill-in shows. At the end of 5 hours I’d feel my soul had been forcibly sucked out of me.

What are you currently involved with?
Currently I do two weekly webcasts Michael Tearson’s Marconi Experiment and The ATTIC which are both available free and on demand Monday to Monday at www.iradiophilly.com/podcasts.php. Here I am granted total artistic freedom to create shows as I see fit and possible. It is likely the last work I will do as the fences have been set up to rein in the Internet. In 2010 through 2015 I did nearly 300 shows at www.radiothatdoesntsuck.com, the best platform I ever had as I was NOT held to a 60 minute length and was free to allow the shows to find their own lengths. RTDS went dark along with thousands of other small webcasters when at the beginning of 2016 the royalty rates for such as we were hiked 517% essentially to drive as many of us as possible away and off the web. It worked.
I also have returned to being a performing folk performer, something I did back in the 1960s before I did radio, and this has been wonderfully satisfying.
I do not miss broadcast or satellite radio in the slightest. And they don’t seem to miss me either. They do NOT want DJs who care at all about the content of their shows. They want people who will go in say what they must and leave without creating ripples.

Posted 9/27/2016

A Conversation With Tamara Saviano, Author of ‘Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark’

By Steven Brodsky
Congratulations on your new book, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark. It was years in the making. What surprised you most about the journey of getting the book written?
The biggest surprise to me is that I actually finished it. I didn’t believe I would until the day I turned it in to the publisher. If I hadn’t told so many people I was writing this book, I would have quit. It was a massive undertaking and I felt overwhelmed during the writing process.

You first heard a Guy Clark album, Old No. 1, when you were fourteen. How did that listening experience affect you?
It started my love affair with Texas songwriters and of Texas in general. I grew up in Wisconsin, in an industrial town where my family and most of my friends’ parents worked at factories. Guy made Texas sound romantic to me. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” immediately became the theme song for my teenage angst. “She ain’t goin’ nowhere, she’s just leavin’.” Man. That’s what I wanted to do. Just leave.
Was exposure to Guy Clark’s records a factor in your choosing music journalism, production, and publicity as your profession?
Maybe. I loved music from an early age and I believe that music overall had a big hand in it. When I was a kid I wanted to write for Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Playboy.

Guy Clark supported the biography. He did not want a hagiography. You did not write one. Tell us about his support.
No one was more surprised than me that Guy agreed to my terms. I asked him to cooperate fully and introduce me to all his family, friends and colleagues and ask them to cooperate without Guy having approval on the final manuscript. When we started, I didn’t believe he’d give me anything but our first interview he told me about his girlfriend Bunny’s suicide and how he then married Bunny’s sister Susanna. He was not afraid to talk about the hard stuff and we talked about it over and over and over again.
Did Guy indicate discomfort about any of your research?
No. He was surprised at some of the things I discovered but seemed happy when I brought him new treasures that I found at his family’s home in Rockport or from research libraries.

You wrote: “Guy Clark was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve. He was taught from a young age to be stoic; to observe the West Texas credo,‘stand up and be a man.’ He learned one should put up a strong façade no matter what he is feeling inside.” Was this reflected in his responses to your interview questions?
No, and that was the most surprising thing about working on the book. Guy and I had intimate conversations. At first it threw me because that was not the Guy I knew. We started working on the book after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and I believe he was feeling mortal. He told me it was time to set the record straight.
You included some very tender diary entries of Susanna Clark, Guy’s wife. Tell us about those.
Guy handed me a box of Susanna’s journals after she died. I asked him if he had read them and he said no. I asked if he was sure he wanted me to have them and use them. He said: “Yes. I’m not out to rewrite the truth, Tamara.”

Was Guy jealous of Susanna’s love for Townes Van Zandt?
He may have been jealous at times but for the most part I believe he just accepted it as part of Susanna’s and Townes’s personalities and he loved them both. They annoyed him sometimes and he didn’t understand their collective sensitivities but he loved both of them more than he loved anyone else.

Were you always comfortable being privy to highly personal information about Guy, Susanna, and Townes?
No, I was often uncomfortable. I tried to comprehend it but never got to that place. I think about my own marriage and how tight my husband and I are…no one else is getting into our marriage, you know? Yet, Guy confessed that Townes took some of the pressure off of him to have to be the husband Susanna wanted. Guy’s stoicism was difficult for Susanna. And, of course, they all drank and took many drugs. I’m sure that shit didn’t make things any easier.

How difficult was it for you to decide what is appropriate to include in the book?
Difficult. A reviewer already called me out for not explicitly saying whether or not Townes and Susanna were involved sexually. I decided that the story is compelling enough without sensationalizing it. People can read between the lines. In the end, I just remembered that it was my book and my story to tell in the way I wanted to tell it. And I knew I was doing it with Guy’s full consent and that’s what mattered most to me.
Susannna famously served as muse for some Guy Clark songs. For those not familiar with Guy’s music, speak about one or two of those songs and how they came about.
Susanna was a muse for Guy, Townes and many others including Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. I came to the conclusion that half the writers in Nashville and Austin were in love with Susanna. Guy wrote about her often, the most recent being “My Favorite Picture of You,” the title track to his last album, which won a Grammy. Guy’s co-writer Gordy Sampson came to Guy’s house with the title and the minute Guy heard the title he turned around and pulled a Polaroid picture of Susanna from the wall and they wrote about that picture.
An early song Guy wrote about Susanna is “Coat From the Cold.” Guy stopped singing that song long ago because he said it was paternalistic and he couldn’t believe he actually wrote it. “The lady beside me is the one I have chosen to walk through my life like a coat from the cold.” Guy said: “What the fuck was I thinking? Like Susanna didn’t have any choice in the matter.”
A photo of a strikingly beautiful Susanna taken around 1957 appears in the book, courtesy of Guy. If the lyrics of “My Favorite Picture of You” are fully true to life, this photo wasn’t Guy’s favorite of Susanna. What photos (whether of Susanna or others) in the book are most significant to you?
I love the photo of Susanna in the yellow turtleneck and the debutante black and white photo the best. I think it’s because I’ve sort of romanticized the young Susanna. I try to imagine what she would have done had she not gotten involved with Guy and Townes. In some ways, I think they ruined her. Not that it wasn’t her choice, it was, but, she may have reached greater heights personally and professionally without them. Even with them, she was a successful songwriter and painter but I do believe Susanna’s love for these two men held her back. She jumped into a relationship with Guy when she was grieving her sister’s suicide. Maybe with a little time and distance before doing that, she would have made different choices. Of course, we’ll never know and that’s just me romanticizing what might have been.

Guy had the highest regard for quality of artistic expression. What instilled this in him?
His young life in Rockport, Texas was the start of it. Guy and his family read poetry around the kitchen table after dinner. He participated in poetry invitationals, read monologues, wrote essays and fell in love with the written word as a young man. As he matured he read beat poets and literature and dictionaries and thesauruses. Seriously, Guy would pick up the Dictionary of American Slang and just start reading from page one. When he went to Houston and met Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury, that inspired him to start writing songs and his quest to write, read and hear quality literature and songs stayed with him until the day he died. Guy is famous for saying to young songwriters “Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a star?” He didn’t think there was anything wrong with wanting to be a star but it’s a different approach. Artists are not willing to compromise in the way stars have to compromise with their material and their images.
Guy was very helpful to other songwriters. Cite an example of this that appears in your book.
Lyle Lovett is probably the most famous example. Someone slipped Guy a demo tape of Lyle’s and Guy copied that tape and handed it out to everyone he knew in Nashville. And he had never met Lyle. He thought it was that good and that someone needed to pay attention and give Lyle a publishing and record deal. And that’s exactly what happened. Guy gave Tony Brown at MCA the tape and Tony signed Lyle.
What song written or co-written by Guy, was Guy most proud of?
Guy’s favorite song he ever wrote was “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” He said it just came out easily and he loves the message of it.
Of his songs covered by others, which were his favorites?
Slim Pickens’s spoken word version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was Guy’s favorite cover of one of his songs. He also loved Terri Hendrix’s cover of “The Dark.” Those are two that stuck with him.

Which song most meaningfully reflects the person you came to know as a result of writing Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark?
“Stuff That Works.” It fits Guy perfectly.
Posted Oct. 12, 2016

A Conversation With Scott Weidensaul

By Steven Brodsky
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Peterson Reference Guide To Owls of North America and the Caribbean. You’ve authored over two dozen books on natural history, have been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and are renowned as a field researcher. Your writing has appeared in many major publications, including Audubon and National Wildlife. You are a popular lecturer and one of the world’s most highly regarded authorities on birds. Your first visit to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania was a formative event in your life as a naturalist and author. Tell us about this.
I was 12, and had been campaigning pretty hard for several years for my folks to take me to Hawk Mountain, which was about an hour south of our home on the edge of the anthracite fields in northern Schuylkill County. By luck, the day they finally relented was a perfect migration day in mid-October — blustery wind, ragged clouds, hawks peppering the sky. One sharp-shinned hawk, about the size of a blue jay, dove down in screaming rage at a papier mache owl decoy the hawk watchers had placed on a high pole, and it swept just a few feet over my head. I’d never seen raptors with such intimacy, and that day I became hooked on three things: birds of prey; the Appalachian Mountains, which formed this annual flyway; and migration. Those three elements have shaped much of my life and work in the 45 years since.

When did you decide that ornithology was going to be the primary focus of your life’s work? Why birds?
I was actually much more focused on herpetology, especially snakes, when I was a kid, and right through the start of college I planned to study them. But birding was always a big part of my life, and an ornithology course I took in college really got me hooked on the science of birds. With the love of raptors I already had, that steered me into field research, starting in the 1980s when I began helping Hawk Mountain’s research team with hawk-trapping and banding to study their migrations. Within a few years I was a federally licensed bander, working first with hawks and falcons, and later with songbirds, owls and hummingbirds. Why birds? Because they perform some of the most incomprehensibly difficult journeys, across immensities of space and time, that any organism undertakes.
Does your involvement with nature entail a spiritual component?
In the traditional sense, no. In the sense of awe and humility in the face of something greater, absolutely.

Are you most at home in the field?
Without question. I am definitely not a city boy.
Your work has taken you to some of the most incredible natural settings. Tell us about some of your favorites.
Hard to narrow it down. I’ve been returning almost every year for three decades to Alaska, and have traveled all over that state, from the outer Aleutians to the North Slope and interior, but spend a lot of time there in Denali National Park. For the past several years I’ve been working with several friends and colleagues on a project to use miniaturized tracking devices to follow the migration of many of the park’s birds, which travel to Central and South America, the southeast U.S., Asia and New Zealand. It’s hard work — we’re in the field by 3 a.m. most days — but to look up and see that 20,000-foot mountain looming on the horizon with the colors of dawn makes it worthwhile. (Especially if the mosquitoes aren’t bad and you don’t piss off a grizzly bear or a momma moose.)

Other favorite spots — the coast of Maine, where I teach for Audubon every year at their Hog Island adult camp; the Peruvian Amazon, where I spent a lot of time in the early ’90s and again more recently; the pristine rain forests of Guyana; the sea islands on the coast of Georgia; the Gulf Coast in springtime, when millions of Neotropical migrant songbirds are flooding back with spring migration.
Field work has its frustrations and disappointments. Describe times they’ve been present. What kind of harsh field conditions have you encountered?
Weather’s often the most frustrating, because there’s nothing at all you can do about it. You sometimes have a relatively narrow window of time you can be in the field in a particular location, and it’s hard to be stuck in poor weather that keeps you from doing what you need to do.

Maybe the most challenging conditions weren’t in some remote location, though, but tracking northern saw-whet owls all night some years back. We were working in teams of three, using radio receivers and directional antennas to track the birds’ movements by triangulating their positions. These owls come off the roost, catch a mouse, eat — and then just sit there for three or four hours in quiet, happy digestion. Meanwhile, we humans are trying to keep warm in a December snow squall and icy winds, hopping from foot to foot trying to stay warm, taking a new directional bearing every 10 minutes only to find that, as had been the case for hours, the owl has moved not an inch. Finally, about 3 a.m. or so the owl would start hunting again, and we could finally start moving, too, working a little warmth and life back into our feet and hands..
Have you been exposed to dangerous circumstances involving animals?
Occasionally, but usually the most dangerous part of field work is getting there — the drive on the highway, or to the airport, is vastly more dangerous than anything that’s likely to happen with an animal. That said, I’ve had some close calls with grizzlies, and once with a black bear, and I’ve had some near-brushes with venomous snakes. But the single most dangerous wild animal I’m likely to encounter is a tropical mosquito or sand fly carrying a disease like malaria, dengue or leishmaniasis.

If you had to choose one geographic area to confine your future field work, which one would you pick and why?
If I had to make that choice, it would be the Appalachians, since they’ve been the anchor of my life since childhood. If I had to pick beyond that, probably Alaska, for many of the reasons I mentioned earlier.

How many birds have you banded personally and how many in association with others?
I couldn’t begin to guess — many, many thousands, from hummingbirds to eagles, of hundreds of species and on multiple continents.

What kind of data does banding yield?
To paraphrase another ornithologist, almost everything concrete that we know about the lives of wild birds comes from marking them as individuals in some way, and the simplest and safest way is with a lightweight numbered leg band. This goes back to 1804 or ’05, when John James Audubon tied silver wire to the legs of eastern phoebes at his father’s estate at Mill Grove in Montgomery County, to see if the birds nesting in an old mine were the same ones each spring. (They were.)

Banding tells us where birds travel, how fast they migrate, how long they live, whether they come back to the same place to breed or to winter, whether they have the same mates from year to year. We would know precious little about the details of the lives of wild birds without banding and associated techniques like radio-tagging and color-marking.

You’ve studied bird migration extensively. What are some of the longest nonstop migratory flights that some species take?
The longest nonstop migration that we know of is made by a pigeon-sized shorebird called the bar-tailed godwit, which flies nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand and Australia every September, a journey of 7,200 miles across the widest part of the Pacific. Satellite tracking shows that the birds are in the air, beating their wings continuously, for seven to nine days. In March and April, they head northwest some 5,000 miles to the Yellow Sea in China and Korea, then make a final 2,500- to 3,000-mile flight back to Alaska. All together, they travel 18,000 miles a year, averaging 22 days of flight. And because they can live up to 30 years, they may travel most of the distance from here to the moon and back before they die.
Even tiny songbirds make incredible flights, although most are still too small to track in real time like the godwit. Blackpoll warblers and a number of other tiny songbirds make nonstop flights in autumn from the northeast coast of Canada and the U.S. across the western Atlantic to northeastern South America, a trip of some 90 or 100 hours — again, beating their wings continuously for about five days.

How is this possible? 
Birds are built for flight, and they are exceptionally aerodynamic and efficient, but it comes down to fat. Before a bar-tailed godwit takes off, it more than doubles its weight in a two-week bout of binge feeding, so that when it lifts off it is more than 50 percent fat deposits. A little warbler flying across the western Atlantic goes from 10 or 12 grams to 17 or 18 grams. By one calculation, if they were burning gasoline instead of fat, they would get 720,000 miles to the gallon.<br> There is much more, of course — their ability to orient and navigate using the night sky, the Earth’s magnetic field, ultra-low sound frequencies, polarized light and even smell; their ability to go days or weeks without sleep, often by employing nanosecond micro-naps or “hemispheric sleep,” where one half of their brain shuts down for a fraction of a second at a time.
Of now extinct bird species, which one would you most like to have had an opportunity to observe?
In terms of spectacle, it would be hard to pass up a flock of several billion passenger pigeons roaring overhead for days like a feathered river, or a flock of green-and-orange Carolina parakeets whirling in a loud, squawking mass through an East Coast forest. But the one I’d love to see the most was the great auk, a flightless, goose-sized relative of the puffin and razorbill that lived in the North Atlantic, including some of my favorite places on the Maine coast. It was the original “penguin,” since the Welsh term “pen gwyn” (“white head”) was first applied to this bird, presumably in its winter plumage, in the 1600s, and only later transferred to the unrelated birds in the Southern Hemisphere.
Who knows, I may get my wishes. There’s a project at Stanford University to resurrect the passenger pigeon, using genetic manipulation of the DNA of its closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon, and supported by the Long Now Foundation; they are also working to do the same with the heath hen, the form of prairie-chicken once found on the Northeast coast. And now a British team has announced they will similarly try to “de-extinct” (in the jargon of the day) the great auk, using DNA from old bones and eggs, and tinkering with the genome of its closest relative, the razorbill. Only time will tell.
Had you not focused on ornithology, what other career path might you have taken?
Hard to say. Probably something involving history or archaeology, which are two longstanding interests of mine.
When and why did you start to develop an interest in owls? 
The interest has always been there. I got involved in owl research in 1997, starting to band northern saw-whet owls in Pennsylvania — this is our 20th season of fall migration banding these small raptors, which only weigh as much as a plump robin and migrate through the East by the thousands each autumn. More recently, I helped start a huge, collaborative study of snowy owls known as Project SNOWstorm www.projectsnowstorm.org that uses cutting-edge tracking technology to learn more about their winter ecology.
“Wise” is the appellation that many accord to owls. How do these raptors rate on bird-brained intelligence?
Compared with birds like ravens, crows or parrots, not especially high. The “wise old owl” thing probably has more to do with the fact that they look vaguely human — round head, large forward-facing eyes — than their intelligence level. But they are exceptionally good at being owls.

How are owls equipped for their nocturnal activities? 
The most obvious adaptation are their extremely large eyes, which are even bigger than they appear to us. If we had eyes proportionately as large as an owl’s, we’d have eyeballs the size of grapefruits. The large eyes, with an abundance of light-sensitive rod cells, give them good night vision — though not as well-developed as some nocturnal mammals, which have a reflective layer at the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum (that’s why many mammals’ eyes shine in headlights). They also have excellent hearing, which in some owls may be more important for hunting than their vision.
Many people are surprised to learn that owls’ ear tufts don’t assist the birds with hearing. Why do they possess them?
The tufts are primarily for camouflage, and may also convey mood and emotion. The ears themselves are simply holes in the skull, usually at the lower edge of the round facial disk of feathers that gives owls their characteristic appearance. The facial disk, including muscular flaps below the feathers, act like parabolic reflectors to direct sound waves into the hidden ear openings. A few owls, like northern saw-whet owls, boreal owls and great gray owls, have highly asymmetrical ear openings, one high on the head and facing up, and one low on the head and facing down. This creates slight time-lags between when sound waves reach each opening, allowing them to very precisely pinpoint the source of faint noises, like those of small mammals.
What else surprises the general public the most with regard to owls?
That most of them sound nothing like our stereotyped assumptions. A few owls hoot, but there are owls that scream, whinny, toot, bark, meow, hiss, roar, click, snap and growl.

Which owls are Pennsylvanians most likely to see?
See? Probably none, unless you go looking for them at night. You’re better off listening, which brings me to your next question..
Readers of the book can download a companion album of 86 representative vocalizations for the 39 owl species you’ve described and range mapped. What vocalizations are Pennsylvanians most likely to hear in the outdoors?
The two most common are the great horned owl, which gives a string of five to nine deep, resonant hoots; and the eastern screech-owl, which gives either a high, descending whinny or a monotone trill. Juveniles of either species, in late summer and early fall, make a grating, harsh begging call demanding that their parents feed them. In some places, the most common owl is the barred owl, whose whooping call is usually rendered as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaallll?”

The one “owl” call that isn’t is the somber, four-noted call of the mourning dove: “Whoo-OOO ho, hoo-hoo.” If you hear what you think is an owl in the daytime, it’s probably the dove.

Is it difficult for photographers and other observers to get close to owls without eliciting fright and flight reactions? 
Depends on the owl. Many species can be approached carefully if they’re found in the daytime, largely because the owl would rather trust to its camouflage and remain hidden than risk a daytime flight when crows, hawks and other potential hazards might spot it. But some of the boreal and Arctic species, like great grays, snowy owls and northern hawk owls, seem to have little natural fear of humans, and will allow a close approach (though it’s always a good idea to give the owl plenty of space).
Why is the population of barn owls declining in many areas of their range?
Probably several factors. They need barns, old structures of some sort or hollow trees, and such places are harder and harder to come by. Because they feed on rodents, they are especially susceptible to rodenticide poisoning. Although barn owls nest in barns and the like, they hunt in meadows and open grasslands, fewer and fewer of which remain in many areas — and the landscape is more fragmented now with woodlots and backyards, creating good habitat for great horned owls, which prey on them. And finally, barn owls hunt by coursing back and forth low above the ground — meaning that they’re at great risk of vehicle collisions along roadways.

Which species do you take the most satisfaction in finding in Pennsylvania?
After 20 years, and more than 10,000 banded, I’m still not tired of saw-whet owls — and we’re still learning a lot about this small, beautiful owl.

Of all the species described in your book, which one do you find to be the most beautiful?
Tough question. Owls in general, because of their complex, cryptic coloration, are beautiful. Some, like the pygmy-owls and saw-whets, are simply cute to a human eye. Some of the tropical species, like black-and-white owl and crested owl, are strikingly attractive. But snowy owls have both the size and regal presence to go along with their stunning plumage — plus they’re fast, powerful and agile.

Are you working on another book?

I am — a book on global bird migration and conservation, which will have me occupied the next three years. I’ll be all over the map — India, China, Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Arctic and the high seas. And also in the lab with scientists, writing about the latest advances in our understanding of migration science.

Posted Oct. 27, 2016