Willie, Kinky, and Ludwig Play Luckenbach

(Click image for a musical version of the sign)

Whether you’re hoping for cold beer, down-home music, or a sense of being part of a hallowed tradition, Luckenbach, Texas can fix you right up.

Rooted in the earliest German migration to Texas, Luckenbach takes its name from Jacob Luckenbach, who sailed from Bremen with his brother August and other family members on board the Johann Dethardt. Landing at Indianola near the end of December, 1845, the family arrived a month or so later in Fredericksburg: settling on part of the Fisher-Miller land grant obtained by the Adelsverein in 1844.

Luckenbach obtained both a town lot in the new village and a ten-acre lot southwest of town, where he built the family’s first home. After becoming American citizens in 1852, the Luckenbachs sold both Fredericksburg properties and moved twelve miles southeast, to the site that later would bear their name.

The history that followed is filled with disputes and contradictions: so much so that two historical markers have been erected in the town. What isn’t in question is the role played by the Luckenbach and Engel families in its development.

When the first post office opened in 1854 (or 1858) under the name South Grape Creek, William Luckenbach was postmaster, and Mrs. Albert Luckenbach, née Wilhelmina Engel, established a store and saloon. The post office closed for a time, then reopened in 1886 with August Engel as postmaster. Engel renamed the town Luckenbach, then passed on his position as postmaster to William Engel, who opened a larger general store. When William died in 1935, his son Benno carried on the family’s postmaster tradition.

Over the years, the town rose, flourished to a degree, declined, then rose again: but in 1970, its demise seemed certain. By that time, Benno Engle had retired, and he was ready to let go of certain other responsibilities. His newspaper ad read: “Town For Sale — $30,000, including the general store/post office/saloon and about 10 acres.”

By the time I waltzed across Texas for the first time, in 1973, the post office, general store, dancehall, and collection of really fine shade trees that constituted downtown Luckenbach already had sold to a friend of a friend. Houstonians turned up their noses at Hondo Crouch and his business partners, calling them a collection of “eccentrics, oddballs and kooks.” In truth, the description was accurate. Still, out in the country, their eccentricity was a selling point, and Hondo’s town took a turn for the better.

Hondo liked to call himself an “imagineer,” and imagine he did. 

[He imagined Luckenbach] was an old west fairy-tale-like principality and gave everybody titles. He… proclaimed himself Mayor. He made Marge [Mueller] the Sheriff and appointed ambassadors to foreign countries.
The trio began to use the nearly-abandoned buildings as a backdrop for anything that smacked of mirth and diversion: “Hug-Ins”, a Luckenbach World’s Fair, a Ladies State Chili Bust, a Mud Dauber Festival — and daily sessions of song-picking, domino playing, and beer drinking beneath the 500-year-old oak trees.

Dominos, beer, and Mud Dauber Festivals might have kept things entertaining enough for the locals, but destiny was calling. Jerry Jeff Walker arrived in town in 1974 with the Lost Gonzo Band in tow, ready to record Viva Terlingua, and the Luckenbach nation was born.

By the time Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman wrote their own Luckenbach classic in 1977, Hondo Crouch had passed away, but Luckenbach was established. Today, Waylon, Willie, and the boys still bring tears to the eyes of expat Luckenbachians everywhere.

One of Luckenbach’s best qualities always has been a willingness to accept even the quirkiest traveler who makes pilgrimage to the spot. As the sign says, everyone is someone in Luckenbach — but it should add that every someone is welcome: no matter how inscrutable or strange.

That kind of attitude made Luckenbach a perfect venue for Kinky Friedman’s political fund-raisers during his quixotic run for Texas governor. I suspect no one living in Texas in the mid-to-late 70s can forget Kinky, his Texas Jewboys band, or the satirical — and hilarious — songs that poked fun at everything that could stand a little poking. The thought of today’s feminists being exposed to Kinky’s “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” amuses me no end.

But the Kinkster, as he’s affectionately known, is more than a joke. Agree or disagree with his politics and proposals, his various campaigns — for Kerr County Justice of the Peace, for Governor, for State Agriculture Commissioner — were real. His support of the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch between Kerrville and Medina is equally real; his name, his money and a portion of his family’s land have been dedicated there for years.

Still, irony and biting satire are his stock in trade, along with the careful cultivation of a larger-than-life persona. Given his style of humor, his willingness to skewer pretentiousness in all its forms, and his devotion to animals, I can’t help wondering if he ever encountered the newly-established Journal of Animal Ethics, with its entirely serious proposal for revising language vis-à-vis animals.

Kinky and Willie, all cleaned up

Edited by Professor Andrew Linzey, theologian and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the journal found its first editorial widely reported in the press, condeming as it did the use of such terms as critters, beasts, wildlife, and pets.

Linzey and his co-editor, Professor Priscilla Cohn of Penn State University, also hoped to see the elimination of such phrases as sly as a fox, eat like a pig or drunk as a skunk. Contending such language is unfair to animals, they suggested “we will not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use more impartial nouns and adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them.”

After I finished pondering whether dumb as a rock still qualified as acceptable language, I did some exploring.  Pete Wedderburn, a British veterinarian and newspaper columnist, mounted a defense of the editorial. As he said, “In a journal that explores how society’s attitudes to animals are changing, it makes sense to use the most objective language possible.” He went on to cite the editorial’s contention that “language is the means by which we understand and conceptualise the world around us” and proposed that “our existing language about animals is the language of past thought.”

Perhaps. But as Ludwig Wittgenstein, an earlier philosopher of language, famously said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

The increasing propensity of academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and promoters of various causes to arbitrarily impose new meaning on words or phrases, or to declare them unacceptable, results in an impoverishment of language, a diminishment of expressive possibility, and a wholly regrettable constriction of the worlds in which we live

Certainly, societies come to occasional consensus about the need for linguistic change — think of once-common ethnic slurs which are in the process of disappearing — but arguments in favor of “more impartial nouns and adjectives” or more “objective language” suggest a refusal of the natural ebb and flow of language; its delightful complexity; and even its own existence as a living entity worthy of respect.

“The English language is nobody’s special property,” says Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It is the property of the imagination. It is the property of the language itself.”

Those who declare “You can’t say that,” or “You must say this” are seeking control: seeking to limit our worlds even as they constrain free thought. To condemn the banning of books while allowing the dilution and constriction of our language without protest is more than ironic, and it does carry consequences. Lewis Carroll couldn’t have been more prescient when he tucked this exchange into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

Even in Luckenbach, a place where philosophers tend toward the home-spun and academicians sometimes pass themselves off as bikers, they understand Wittgenstein and Walcott. When Hondo Crouch styled himself the Imagineer and invited others to participate in his imaginings, he signaled to the songwriters, singers, poets, and beer-drinkers under the oaks that, in Luckenbach, their words would be honored: not censored, not shamed, not ridiculed.

In the midst of it all, Willie Nelson – rebel, raconteur, and imagineer extraordinaire — occasionally took to the stage to sing Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher’s gentle, melodic tribute to the freedom-loving of the world. I don’t think Willie, Cole, or Robert would mind my little version, and I suspect that Ludwig would love it.


(Click for the tune that goes with the words)
Oh, give me words, lots of words that are crying to be heard,
Don’t fence me in!
Let me write with the wide-open style that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me hear truth singing in the evening breeze,
Listen to the language of the cottonwood trees.
Never read a sentence, but I ask you, please
Don’t fence me in.
Just turn me loose
with some rhythm and some rhymin’ underneath my Texas skies.
Forget PC —
let me edit and re-edit till a thought takes wing and flies.
I want to write through the night til the dawn commences,
Gathering words as though I’ve lost my senses,
I can’t bear your prissy or pretend offenses –
Don’t fence me in.

Comments always are welcome. Photos, except where otherwise indicated, are mine.

The Poets’ Birds: Songbirds

Eastern Kingbird (Click for greater clarity)
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                      ~ Emily Dickinson

Around 1813, Emily Dickinson’s grandparents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, built what may have been the first brick home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fowler Dickinson, an attorney who participated in the founding of Amherst College, soon had company in the house other than his wife. In 1830, the Dickinsons’ son Edward, also an attorney, moved with his wife and young son into the western half of the Homestead. It was there, on December 20 of the same year, that Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, her sister Lavinia was born: also at the Homestead. (more…)

Published in: on June 19, 2016 at 3:06 pm  Comments (77)  
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Los Brazos de Dios

The Lower Brazos, unbanked (Photo: Doug Whipple)

In 1951, flooding rains filled the Missouri and Kansas rivers. One by one, bridges throughout Kansas City were closed, and our vacationing family was trapped. When engineers judged one bridge passable and opened it temporarily, my father, grim and determined, said, “We’re going home.” Only five years old, I was horrified, fascinated, and strangely numb as we crossed over the bridge, watching dead cattle and box cars pass only feet below our own car as we headed for Iowa, and higher ground. (more…)

The Poets’ Birds: Egrets

(Click image for greater clarity)
Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that’s how I came
to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets —
a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them —
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure:
by the laws
of their faith, not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.
                   Egrets, by poet Mary Oliver

According to Billy Collins, “Love of language and a sense of gratitude would be two ingredients in the recipe for making a poet.” Few poets use language more lovingly, or respond more gratefully to the world surrounding them, than Mary Oliver.
(more…)

Remembering People, Reclaiming Ideals

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly. Patriotic garlands still hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in small-town breezes.

And yet, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, movie-going, and the first road trip of the season.

As a result, the history and significance of Memorial Day is both more profound and more complex than most Americans realize. (more…)

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