Whether it’s good beer, great music or a sense of history you’re wanting, Luckenbach, Texas is a fine place to find it. Established as a trading post c. 1849, it rose, sort-of-flourished and then declined, nearly passing away before its retired postmaster, a descendent of the town founders named Benno Engel, put it up for sale in 1970.
When I waltzed into Texas in 1973, Luckenbach – a post office, a general store, a dancehall and a collection of really fine shade trees – already had sold to a remarkable collection of people. Certain Houstonians turned up their noses at buyer Hondo Crouch and his pals, calling them a collection of “eccentrics, oddballs and kooks”. The description was fair, but out in the country their eccentricity was a selling point, and Hondo’s town took a turn for the better.
Supplementing dominos and beer with a Mud Dauber Festival provided a certain je ne sais quoi, but when Jerry Jeff Walker waltzed into Luckenbach in 1974 to record Viva Terlingua, the Luckenbach nation was born. By the time Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman wrote their song about Luckenbach in 1977 Hondo Crouch had passed away, but Luckenbach was established, and Waylon and Willie and the Boys brought tears to the eyes of expat Luckenbachians around the world.
One of Luckenbach’s best qualities always has been a willingness to push the boundaries a bit, to accept whatever travelers come in off the road. That helps to explain Kinky Friedman’s occasional appearances there, including political benefits held during his quixotic run for Texas governor. I suspect no one who was around in the mid-to-late 70s will forget Kinky and his Texas Jewboys band, or his classic feminist anthem, Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.
The Kinkster, as he’s affectionately known around the state, is more than a joke. Agree or disagree with his politics and proposals, his various campaigns for Kerr County Justice of the Peace, Governor and 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 and his love of animals, I can’t help wondering what he might have to say about the newly-established Journal of Animal Ethics during his current Springtime for Kinky tour through a clutch of Midwestern and Eastern states.
Edited by Professor Andrew Linzey, theologian and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the academic publication has found its first editorial widely reported in the press, condeming as it does the use of terms such as “critters”, “beasts”, “wildlife” and “pets”.
The editorial writer notes that Prof. Linzey and his co-editor, Professor Priscilla Cohn of Penn State University, also hope to see the elimination of phrases such as “sly as a fox, “eat like a pig” or “drunk as a skunk”. Contending that such language is “unfair to animals”, they go on to suggest “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.”
Once I stopped pondering whether “dumb as a rock” still qualifies as acceptable language, I did some exploring and found Pete Wedderburn, British veterinarian and newspaper columnist, mounting a defense of the editorial. “In a journal that explores how society’s attitudes to animals are changing, it makes sense to use the most objective language possible,” he says. He goes on to cite the editorial’s contention that “language is [the] means by which we understand and conceptualise the world around us” and that “our existing language about animals is the language of past thought”.
Perhaps. But as an earlier academician and philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 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 declare this word or that phrase “unacceptable” for use results in a constriction of language, a diminishment of expressive possibility.
Certainly societies come to occasional consensus about the need for linguistic change – think of once-common ethnic slurs which have nearly disappeared – but arguments in favor of “more impartial nouns and adjectives” or more “objective language” suggests a refusal of the natural ebb and flow of language, its natural complexity, 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.”
Even in Luckenbach, where the philosophy sounds homespun and the academics are wearing the same bandanas as the bikers, they understand Wittgenstein and Walcott. Hondo Crouch styled himself the “Imagineer” and said to the songwriters, singers and poets, “Ya’ll come”. The songwriters, singers and poets came, pushed the boundaries even more, and sent their words around the world.
And in the midst of it all Willie Nelson – rebel, raconteur and boundary-pusher extraordinaire – sang Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher’s anthem for the Imagineers of the world. I don’t think either Willie or Mr. Porter would mind my little version, and I think Wittgenstein would love it.
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 my Muses 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,
On my pc
let me edit and give credit till I just dissolve in sighs.
I want to write through the night til the dawn commences,
Polish my words until I lose my senses,
I can’t bear the prissy or “pretend” offenses –
Don’t fence me in.