My apologies for this rare mass email, but I have lots of news to share, and it’s all good. Within the last several months, I got married and moved to Oberlin, Ohio. Foundry Hall moved to a new location in South Haven, Michigan, and is going strong. And I’m touring and tuning pianos, hopefully near you. Details are next, followed by a true tale, entitled “Drunk Greg, the Wedding Crashing Trail Police.”
Here’s a photograph from the wedding …
Tomorrow, I head to Detroit to play at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Corktown, directly across from the field where Tiger Stadium used to be. This show is a fundraiser for St. Peter’s Church, an affirming congregation which provides free hot community meals five days a week, offices for regional social justice organizations and non-profits, a community garden, and water distribution for those whose water has been turned off by the city. The sanctuary itself was only partially complete when the 1929 depression hit, and sat unfinished until 1941, when enough work was done to make it suitable for services. It’s a unique space, a grand cathedral minus veneer and material excess, with exposed brick walls and clear windows where stone facing and stained glass were originally intended. This is a beautifully humble building for beautifully humble work, and it is one of my favorite places to play. Behind the Times, a Detroit acoustic trio, will open the show.
13 Nov – LOUISVILLE, KY – OPEN Gallery
A brief math and history lesson: When I was last in Louisville, about 10 years ago, nothing happened. There were no fireworks, no commemorative plaques, no keys to the city. If I remember correctly, there were two people at the show. If we get four this time, that would double the previous turnout. Six would triple it. And so forth.
Another Detroit fundraiser, this one is for repairs to the exterior of Trumbullplex’s Corner House. If you’ve seen it lately, you know what I’m talking about. Officially known as the Wayne Association for Collective Housing (or “Detroit’s sexiest anarchist collective”), Trumbullplex is a decades-old radical housing collective with two Victorian houses and an all-ages artspace and performance theater on Trumbull Street. It was also the site of the 2010–2011 Detroit Folk Festivals, which is significant ‘cause my wife had the festival posters on her wall when I first visited her home; it was surely fate.
Coming in 2016
For the first time in years, I’m planning tours to the Northwest (February) and South (April-May). If you’re interested in having me play your town, or if you have a piano that could use a tuning, check my availability here and drop me a line. I’m adding new shows almost daily, so be sure to keep an eye on the website for updates.
16 Jan – LUDLOW, KY – Folk School Coffee Parlor
14 Feb – SEATTLE, WA – Beery House
15 Feb – EVERETT, WA – Cafe Zippy
22 Jul – SOUTH HAVEN, MI – Listiak Auditorium
Many of you know that I took a break from touring in 2007 to start Foundry Hall, a community performance venue in an old factory in my hometown. What began as a one-year commitment kept me home for the better part of six years. During that time, Foundry Hall hosted more than a thousand performances and events of all description, and became a bona-fide 501(c)3 performance and educational organization. Last November, the building, which we rented, sold to become an antique mall. The move was quick and difficult, as such transitions often are, but thanks to an amazing board of directors, supporters and volunteers, the organization is now stronger and more vital to the community than ever. Check it out at www.foundryhall.org.
Did I mention that I got married? I’ll write more about that in a moment. My wife, Dr. Sarah Gerk, is a historical musicologist teaching at Oberlin Conservatory this year. In June, we packed two cats, my pump organ, and 17 tons of books into a UHaul truck and drove to Oberlin, Ohio, home of the first coeducational college in the country and the first to admit African American students. It’s nice here, though it does remind me that I still owe a small fortune to Sallie Mae, and the song I wrote for her didn’t make a difference. What the move does mean is that my old South Haven mailing address is no longer the fastest way to send me $2 bills (the new mailing address is at the bottom of this email), and if you’re ever traveling near Cleveland we may have a guest bed for you. But please contact me first, ‘cause I’d hate for you to show up and find that we’re gone, or busy, or moved, or that the bed is unavailable. That would be annoying.
“Drunk Greg, the Wedding Crashing Trail Police”
It was a small, simple wedding (as most start out to be), consisting of only our parents, the pianist (Patrick, who had been a friend to both Sarah and me even before we became friends to each other), our housemate, landlady, and two officiants. The ceremony was to take place in a public gazebo off a boardwalk between the Kal-Haven Trail and the Black River. I walked, rode my bicycle, or skied past that gazebo almost every day for the three-mile trip from home to town, and knew it was rarely used. Most folks didn’t seem to even know it was there. It was secluded, it had nature, the river, a roof, it even had a small boat dock… all it lacked was a piano.
Thankfully, the Foundry Hall move had made a seasoned piano hauler of me. I found a 1939 Wurlitzer for $40 on Craigslist, and my brother and I picked it up with a tiny UHaul trailer. There were no pictures in the advertisement, but the piano could not have been more perfect! As anyone familiar with Wurlitzer pianos knows, whatever they may sometimes lack in tone and playability is mitigated by unusually creative design. This one was covered with white naugahyde, which the label proudly claimed was fade-resistant, waterproof, and virtually indestructible.
I should probably mention that I intended to leave the piano after the wedding. I figured maybe people would be more likely to use the gazebo if it had a piano in it. Hell, there was a roof, this piano was even “waterproof,” and old console pianos are a dime a dozen. This was my $40 donation to the arts, and I knew it would be used and appreciated.
So we drove the piano to the trail, put it on a cart, rolled it the quarter mile or so to the gazebo, and I tuned it. This was Friday, the day before the wedding. As I left, someone who’d been sitting by the river was playing Chopsticks.
The following morning, Saturday, the day of the wedding, I arrived early at the gazebo to sweep, move benches, and scrub the naugahyde. To my surprise, there was a piece of cardboard with a note scrawled on it:
Please call me … I need to know why piano is here on boardwalk. I am on trail everyday & am known by D.N.R. & VBcRC. as trail police. Please make sure All trash is removed. Please call me A.S.A.P. thanks, Greg. I stayed here till dark making sure no one stole it.
I wondered who Greg might be, but did not call him. At that moment, there was something bigger on my mind. I mentioned there was a boat dock on the boardwalk, right? The other part of the wedding plan involved a boat, specifically an electric powered river launch called the Lindy Lou, operated by the Michigan Maritime Museum. The Lindy Lou was to take our small wedding party from town to the dock at the gazebo, where the pianist would be waiting, and the wedding would commence. While I swept and scrubbed, I saw the Lindy Lou edging near the dock. Someone in the vessel was probing the water with a long stick. I didn’t know what this meant, but it didn’t look good. I left a small note on the piano saying “gazebo reserved for a wedding today 4-6pm,” and returned home.
Upon my return, there was, of course, a message from the museum; the river was too shallow at the dock for the boat to drop us off. I had my heart set on that boat ride! We chose to take it anyway as far as the gazebo, turn around, return to the museum, drive to the trail, and then walk to the ceremony. Simple plans were becoming increasingly complex.
Nonetheless, we had a lovely excursion up the river, rounded the corner by the gazebo, and saw two men in official-looking uniforms and a somewhat disheveled and obviously excited third character talking animatedly with Patrick, our piano player. Patrick pointed at us, the men in uniform acknowledged us–kindly, it seemed (to my relief, no guns were drawn), and the other fella, Greg, ran to the dock yelling that the water was deep enough for our boat, he was sure of it. He yelled plenty more, too, but I don’t think any of us understood half of it. Of course, we didn’t dock. The boat turned back towards town. As we left, the officials waved, smiled, and started walking away. Greg ran along the boardwalk, trailing our boat as it rounded the bend. He yelled something about seeing a couple little girls playing the … and a lively piano tune followed our little vessel down the river.
Thus it was that 45 minutes later, as we walked up the trail to the gazebo in our wedding clothes, we were met midway by Greg, whose breath exuded more alcohol than air, who immediately and profusely lectured me as we walked–I in my suit and Sarah in her wedding gown–on how a person could not just “reserve” a public space because it was, after all, public, and if public wanted to be there we had no right to turn him away, and by the way, how much he loved the piano and could we keep it there, and he’d make a tarp for it, and some little girls were playing it just that afternoon, and he might just learn to play it himself, and he’s called the “trail police,” because he’s always on the trail keeping an eye on things, and he called the DNR–they call him the trail police, too, on account of he picks up litter–because we tried to reserve a public gazebo, which we couldn’t do, ‘cause it was public, and also ‘cause there’s not s’posed to be a piano on the boardwalk, and so on, and on, and on ….
In our absence, Greg moved all the benches back to the periphery of the gazebo. For a couple minutes, there’s a lot of scooting and rearranging going on. Now everything’s back where it belongs, the piano’s playing, the guests and officiants are all seated, Sarah and I are ready to start, and drunk Greg the trail police will neither shut up nor sit down. At this point, poor Sarah, who’s been ignoring the content of the trail police’s ramblings, hears her very-soon-to-be-husband invite Greg the drunk wedding crasher to “Please sit down and enjoy the wedding, because we’re getting ready to start, and we’re sooo pleased you’re here to celebrate with us.” I don’t fully recall what she said to me through clenched teeth, but her look alone was enough to wither a redwood tree. Greg did not sit down, but he did move near his bicycle and become respectfully quiet.
Sarah’s a Quaker. That’s important to know, because the first 20 minutes of the wedding were to be silent; Quakers call it “expectant waiting,” in which people occasionally speak when moved by the Spirit to do so. About ten minutes into the Quaker silence, after three or four guests had each shared a brief thought, Greg asked if he might say something. He thanked Jesus for bringing the two of us together, said how happy and thankful he was for us, and asked God to bless our marriage. He was weeping. I was truly thankful he was there.
About five minutes later, though, Greg had apparently tired of this hippy service. “Who’s the minister here, anyhow?” he asked. The minister silently motioned to him. “What church are you from?” Greg asked. “Did you bring a bible? Does anybody have a bible?? I have a bible in my bag. I always carry a bible with me.” The minister motioned to Patrick to start the music.
After the silence, the second officiant gave a beautiful and meaningful homily. Greg, who was standing almost immediately behind Sarah, began rolling a cigarette and brought out his lighter. I, in my usual way of dealing with awkward situations, pretended nothing unusual was happening. Sarah asked Greg to please not smoke during the wedding. He obliged, but made a lot of motions and said a lot of words. Perhaps he was being profusely apologetic. No one seems to know. Sarah missed the homily entirely.
Then there were vows and a kiss. Greg sure came in handy when it was time for the group picture. We all feared he’d drop the camera and tumble from the bench upon which he stood so precariously, but he didn’t, and the photograph turned out great. When it was all done, while we picked up our litter, Greg gave me a long-winded lecture on the role of a husband to provide for his wife, whatever the cost, and told me he’d take good care of the piano. I thanked him, and we went home and had an amazing dinner, in which even the turnips had been cut into heart shapes.
Two weeks later, Patrick called to tell me the DNR wanted the piano moved. They’d gotten his number when they arrived in response to Greg’s call. I’d been keeping an eye on the piano daily, and it was obviously being played regularly by visitors to the gazebo. But that didn’t matter to the DNR; they were concerned someone would push it into the river. I offered to bolt or chain it down. Still no dice, so we moved the piano, which probably made Greg sad.
Every wedding needs a story, and that’s ours. We kept the cardboard note. It’s hanging on the wall, above the wedding picture. If you ever come to visit, we’ll show it to you.