Freedoms, Large and Small

Long before the advent of The Weather Channel, weather existed. Metal feed-store thermometers dangling next to mops and buckets on the back stoop recorded summer’s rising temperatures, while pools of imaginary water shimmered above the asphalt: swirling, receding, and evaporating mirages that marked the beginning of summer as surely as any column of mercury.

In midsummer, heavy, breathless nights made sleep impossible. Even the heat-laden trees seemed to murmur and complain as we dragged cots from the house to lay beneath the stars, lured toward dreams by the chirring of unseen crickets.

When the feathery blades of grass began to crispen and brown beneath an unbearable sun, sprinklers appeared:  four revolving metal arms whirling ribbons of water across the lawn with a soft, rhythmic susurration.

We delighted in running and sliding through the water, collapsing into giggles when we miscalculated and collided with a friend. As play grew more exuberant, knees began to skin and occasional howls of protest drowned out our delighted screams. At that point, doors flew open and an adult — a mother, a grandparent, a neighbor — would yell, “You kids stop it now! Go find something else to do.”

Always, there was something to do. We might hop on our bikes and pedal to the corner gas station, where the small glass case overflowed with root beer barrels, Walnettos, and soft, pliable circus peanuts. Candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink sugar flames, and Necco wafers were favorites; we bargained for our favorite flavors with the sort of savvy, ruthless determination a commodities trader might envy.

Twice each week, the Bookmobile parked in front of our grade school. In June, we attended Vacation Bible School before heading off to camp to enjoy hikes in the woods and evening campfires. Day camps found us transforming  popsicle sticks and plastic laces into mysterious, inexplicable treasures, or replicating famous paintings with dried-bean mosaics.

In short, summer was a time to explore: to try new things. We learned to throw softballs; to roller-skate; to push a lawn mower. Over time, we took on even greater challenges: walking with a friend to an uptown movie; daring the high dive; or navigating the town’s library stacks on our own.

If we hesitated before pushing new limits, it was our own timidity that held us back rather than the over-protectiveness of parents or caretakers. The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight. When you do fight, don’t hurt each other.

Beyond that, we were on our own.

The same sense of freedom infused our celebration of summer’s High Holy Day: the 4th of July.  After a morning parade, everyone set aside ball-playing and hopscotch to fold napkins, ice watermelons, or help to set the table. The menu itself was traditional, and the grilled hamburgers, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes still warm from the vine, potato salad, baked beans, and pies that the women produced could have fed a threshing crew.  We ate our fill, leaving what remained on the table for late-comers, or anyone who couldn’t resist just one more spoonful.

If there was risk associated with the abandoned potato salad, we didn’t think much about it, and no one seemed to suffer. For that matter, we didn’t give much thought to possible dangers associated with our evening’s entertainment: boxes of red, white, and blue sparklers waiting to be burned on the front lawn before we headed to the park to watch the town’s fireworks display.

With today’s airwaves filled with a new holiday caution — to avoid combining fireworks with potentially explosive hand sanitizer — I began thinking about the pleasures of those childhood fireworks and remembered an earlier caution issued by a representative of a local hospital who said, rather off-handedly, that no child, under any circumstances, ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler.

By the time she finished listing the possible consequences — a blinded eye, a burned hand, a torched neighborhood — it was possible to imagine a child with a sparkler bringing down the whole of Western civilization.

Certainly restrictions on fireworks — even total bans — are reasonable in areas of drought or high population. However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration.

But fireworks safety in the absence of rain or the presence of crowds was not her concern. She meant to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations.

Today, her advice seems a precursor of a phenomenon increasingly obvious in our society: the so-called ‘nannie factor’ — the attempt of self-appointed experts or general busy-bodies to control the behavior of people around them. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end: for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Lewis’s “omnipotent moral busy-bodies” also appear in Ian Chadwick’s essay on conformity. As Chadwick puts it:

Personal agendas do not benefit liberty: they hinder it. Pretty soon it’s dictatorship by committee – committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated, but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.

Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers, and over-the-hill potato salad. On the other hand, as warnings against products and activities multiply daily, I find myself asking: are we in fact becoming a nation of nannies — Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” determined to warn one another away not only from legitimate risk, but even from the richness of life?

The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live as they will: worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting, and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like freedom itself.

 

In a world where sprinklers are allowed, might we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass bending beneath our feet? Of course. Could we over-indulge in tainted foods and suffer the consequences? Certainly. Will the sun or sparklers burn; the bicycle tip; the bone break; the puppy nip? No doubt, for anything can happen in a world where nothing is guaranteed. Given the realities of an unpredictable world, we need to exercise both caution and care on behalf of those who live around us.

But too much of the wrong kind of caring can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than an expression of thinly-disguised fear. For those who live in fear of what ‘might’ happen; for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled; and especially for those who prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency, and pain always will be a part of life, there never will be enough caring.

“Don’t you care about your children?” ask the experts. “Don’t you care about your health?” “Don’t you care about physical security, or the acceptance and approval of others?” Certainly, we care. But we care even more for life and freedom; for speaking with dignity and demanding truth; for celebrating and enjoying the multitude of gifts freely offered by the world.

In truth, when we choose to worry less and participate more, we often discover even the most dire warnings dissolving beneath the summer’s rising warmth. We run through the sprinkler without slipping. The sparklers light up the night like the stars, and the last bit of warm, wilty potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.

As the children fall asleep, we tend to them in the darkness as the world itself sighs everyone home: safe, sound, and free as a bird crying through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Armadillo Whispers

If it weren’t for the Alamo, bluebonnets, longhorn steers, and Willie Nelson, I’ve no doubt the lowly, nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)  would trundle to the top of the list of Texas icons.

It’s a strange one, this tank-like creature. Named for nine parallel scutes neatly tucked between somewhat larger hip and shoulder scutes, it’s the only armadillo species in North America. Whatever outsiders think of the creature, it’s been granted status as the official small mammal of Texas, and everyone from dry cleaning establishments to bars seems eager to cash in on its popularity.

Austin’s beloved and just slightly weird Armadillo World Headquarters may be gone, but Gary P. Nunn still brings a tear to the eye of displaced Texans everywhere with his plaintive longing to be “Home with the Armadillo,” and more school districts than you might imagine have adopted the animal as a mascot.

Still, drivers on Texas highways sometimes suspect the only armadillos left in the state are dead ones. Most armadillo sightings involve unfortunate creatures who’ve met calamitous ends. You see them everywhere — tipped onto their backs with feet splayed heavenward, tumbled into ditches, or smeared across the concrete.

One reason they’re so often killed along highways is their strange ‘startle reflex.’ They’ll sometimes turn and run when they sense danger, but just as often they’ll use their powerful muscles to launch themselves straight up into the air.

Animal predators find the unexpected behavior so surprising they stop in their tracks, giving the armadillo a chance to scuttle off to safety. Unfortunately, jumping into the air in front of an F-150 isn’t so effective, and another armadillo bites the dust.

They’re better at crossing rivers. Burrowers by nature, they’ve developed an ability to hold their breath for minutes at a time while face-deep in dirt. Confronted by a stream, an armadillo simply takes a deep breath and walks across the bottom. If a river’s too wide for the creature to ford by walking, it fills its intestines with air and starts swimming, having become its own personal flotation device.

Away from the highways, finding a live armadillo is easier than you’d think. Their preference for a diet of ants, beetles, grubs, and spiders means they gravitate toward gardens and lawns, and they’re fond of roaming wooded areas filled with moisture and decay.

Armadillo stalking can be great fun. Their hearing and sense of smell are highly developed, but their eyesight is poor. If you happen upon one browsing for dinner and remain very, very quiet, you can walk up to it from behind, reach down, and grab it at the base of its tail.

What’s next is up to you. Catch-and-release is the best option, although some people have taken it home for dinner. During the Great Depression, East Texans frequently ate the creatures, calling them ‘Hoover hogs’ — a reference to the President they blamed for the Depression and a nod to the armadillo’s pork-like flavor.

Over the years, armadillo chili gained favor. At Apelt’s Armadillo farm in Comfort, Texas, you could have armadillo barbeque, sold from this little stone building at the side of the road.

 

Charles Apelt, a German immigrant who came to this country in the late 1800s, didn’t begin by cooking armadillo. Instead, his background in wicker furniture-making and basketry, combined with an unexpected new-world experience, launched a unique and remarkable Texas business.

One day, while walking about his farm, a strange little animal sprang up and began to hop away. Mr. Apelt picked up a stone and with excellent aim hit the animal’s head. Otherwise, the plated armor would have turned the missile aside, like the armor on a battleship.
When he gathered up his game he surveyed it with wonder. When he went out to tack that hide to the barn in some sort of fashion, the hot sun had dried it until it began to curl up. He picked it up and instinctively he said, “Basket.” Then he fastened the end of the tail to the head and made a handle… As it dried he shaped it with his hand, and lo, the first armadillo shell basket that the world ever knew became a reality.
Charles Apelt on the steps of his showroom at the Armadillo Farm

After perfecting a way to preserve the hides, Apelt opened his factory in 1898 and sold 40,000 baskets in the first six years. Plain baskets cost $2.50, while fancier versions sold for $4 and up.

Human creativity being what it is, the Apelts soon began innovating. Customers could purchase fringed or unfringed floor lamps, table lamps, bed lamps and wall fixtures – all made from armadillo shells. As production peaked in the 1920s, fifty hunters were employed to supply the critters, and at least a cook or two was hired to turn all that meat into barbeque.

As demand for their novelty grew, the Apelts supplemented the supply of armadillos provided by hunters by actually “farming” the creatures in an elaborate series of concrete burrows and tunnels built into their front yard. Not all became baskets — many were sold to zoos, medical research facilities and private individuals seeking an unusual pet.

The family owned the business for seven decades. After Charles’s death, his second wife Martha took it over until her death. Daughter Ruth Dowdy assumed control in 1947 and moved the operation to Salado, Texas, but it returned to Comfort in 1951.

At that point, Apelt’s daughter-in law Kathryn took over, continuing the traditions of the farm and producing the same baskets and shades that had made it famous, shipping them to shops and individual customers world-wide.

This vintage advertising card shows a display of Apelt products on one side, and a snippet of explanatory text on the other:

Published by Chas. Apelt, Wholesale and Retail dealer in Original Armadillo Baskets, Colored Souvenir Postals, Comfort, Texas.
Its shell or armor is fashioned into pretty and novel baskets, suitable for cut flowers and hanging baskets. The shells are also lined on the inside with bright colored silk, making very beautiful work baskets for the use of the ladies.

Sybil Sutherland of Kerrville remembers her aunt, Vida Lowrance, working for the Apelts.

She would line the armadillo baskets with bright colored satin, the kind of colors you don’t usually see anywhere else. Lots of kids around here would go out and catch armadillos and sell them for a quarter apiece to the farm, and put them in tow sacks. They caught them by the thousands! I went out with them sometimes, too, with a boy named Paul Harbin. Even though he used a crutch, he was usually ahead of us all.”

Clyde Beaver remembers being one of the kids who hunted them, and the need for finesse.

You had to be careful not to pull them too hard by the tail, or you’d yank it off,” he said. “If they got down into a hole, you’d have to just pull on them gently, and get them out little by little.

Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that, had the Apelt Family started their business in the Pleistocene era, they might have been able to expand their offerings even farther.

The Gylptodon, one of the biggest ancient armadillos and an ancestor of our Texas cutie, originated in South America before moving northward, perhaps as far as Texas. Like the nine-banded armadillo, it was well-armored, with a dome-shaped body, a helmet-like head, and bony rings around its tail.

Glyptodons survived well into early historical times, going extinct about 10,000 years ago, Huge and slow-moving, they probably were hunted to extinction by early humans, who no doubt favored them not only for food but also for shelter. Evidence exists that early South American natives sheltered from snow and rain under Glyptodon shells — shells roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Today, cottage industries based on nine-banded armadillos have become extinct as the Glyptodon, and the Apelts’ Armadillo Farm is due for more changes. Several owners have held the property since the business closed in 1971, but thanks to antique dealer Harriet Gorman of Comfort, Texas, and her late husband Bill, the house and its outbuildings were brought back to life.

The old Armadillo Display Room (where Charles Apelt is shown sitting, above) became a three-room cottage: serving as a home for Harriet during two years of the restoration process.

The newest addition to the property, a Texas State Historical Marker, was sponsored by Walter Apelt, Charles’ grandson. Conveniently placed for inspection by the antiquers and vacationers who frequent the area, it provides a brief introduction to the complex and interesting story.

Tonight, the glyptodons are gone. The hunters with their dogs have disappeared into the darkness; the basket-shapers and lamp-makers, seamstresses and cooks have faded into the hills.

With the restoration of the house completed, passers-by who notice the sign  stop for photographs, and ponder what they cannot understand. In the little stone house by the road, barbeque has been replaced by memories of Hill Country life — the pungent, smoky taste of meat exchanged for the taste of another time.

Amid these implacable changes, the armadillo still roams. Burrowing in peace along the moonlit banks of the Guadalupe, foraging amidst the sweet, bending grasses, rooting up bits of history embedded into the banks of its ancestors’ creeks, it murmurs to itself as it passes.

Perhaps it remembers. Perhaps not. Disappearing into the damp, moonlight-soaked earth, it leaves behind only the faintest tracing of life along the trails of the night — the whisper of the armadillo.

Comments are welcome.
For  my encounter with an actual armadillo,  seeThere’s No Place Like Homeon Lagniappe.

Remembering Goliad ~ Again

 

If you’re a native Texan, you’re already laughing. If you’ve adopted the state as your own, or know some Texas history, you’re probably laughing, too. This adaptation of one of our most well-known state symbols — the so-called “Come and Take It” flag — is flying free these days: amusing, yes, but also a cheeky bit of inspiration for those who remember its history.

Only last month, I visited a site intimately connected to the original “come and take it” event. About a mile east of the unincorporated community of Cost, the first shot in the war for Texas independence was fired on October 2, 1835. Alongside the highway, an impressive monument commemorates the event. Dedicated by Governor James Allred on March 14, 1937, its inscription summarizes the tale:

Near here on October 2, 1835, was fired the first shot of the Texas Revolution of 1835-1836, the shot heard round the world. At Gonzales, the Texians defied the Mexican government and refused their demand for the Gonzales cannon with the Come and Take It challenge, until reinforcements arrived from other parts of DeWitt’s colony and from the colonies on the Colorado and Brazos. They then pursued the Mexicans from Gonzales to near this point and fired upon them with this cannon, driving them back to Bexar.

If, after admiring the monument, you were to take the road winding away from the highway into the country, you’d first pass some local ranches paying their own tribute to local history.

Then, in the midst of live oaks and pecans, you’d find another monument to that “shot heard round the world.” Funded by Gonzales school children in 1908, it’s thrilling in its simplicity, and a fine reminder of a story that’s assumed mythic proportions over the years.

Long before the 1835 skirmish broke out between Mexican soldiers and Texian militiamen at Gonzales, tensions among various factions in the area — Spanish royalists, Mexican revolutionaries, Anglo settlers, and waves of independence-minded and land-hungry immigrants — had led to remarkable changes.

Before formalizing Mexican independence with the signing of the Treaty of Córdoba on August 24, 1821, Spain granted Moses Austin permission to found a colony of Anglo settlers in Texas. Austin died on June 10, 1821, but before his death he charged his son, Stephen, with the task of continuing the work of colonization.

Reluctantly, Stephen agreed, only to find himself  himself embroiled in a series of complex events.

First, Agustín Iturbide, chosen by the Mexican revolutionaries as a military leader, celebrated independence from Spain by dissolving the Mexican Congress and declaring himself August I, Emperor of Imperial Mexico. Despite reaffirming the legality of Austin’s colony on January 4, 1823, Iturbide was forced into exile on March 19 by a group of army officers, including Antonio López de Santa Anna.

After Iturbide’s abdication, the colony law was annulled, but Austin once again managed to have it reinstated, and his three hundred family colony became a reality. By 1832 Austin’s colonies included 8,000 people, despite Mexico’s imposition of immigration limits in 1830 after hearing rumors that the United States was considering annexation of the region.

In 1835, a caretaker government headed by Valentín Gómez Farías eliminated the law limiting immigration to Texas, and lifted restrictions on land speculation. As the number of new settlers increased, so did the level of discontent. Taxes and tariffs were a point of contention, and the re-opening of customs offices at the ports of Velasco and Anahuac was particularly offensive.

The history of the battles, surrenders, retreats, and trickery at both ports is complicated. When Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos made known his intention to arrest William Barrett Travis for his role in the Anahuac Disturbances — an uprising of settlers — in June of 1835, and asked the Texans to hand Travis over, they were unwilling to do so. Needless to say, their refusal irked the Mexicans.

Two months later, Stephen Austin returned to Texas from his own stint in a Mexican jail.  After presenting President Santa Anna with a proposal to grant Texas separation from Coahuila, he’d been imprisoned for inciting insurrection among the colonists; he was able to return to Texas via New Orleans only after being freed by a general amnesty in July, 1835.

Upon his return, he found many had come to favor a clean break with Mexico, partly because of Santa Anna’s annulment of Mexico’s 1824 Constitution. Federalist in nature, it had guaranteed certain rights to the states, and its annulment caused many to believe their rights would be further curtailed.

On August 20, the the citizens of the Jurisdiction of Columbia circulated a broadside calling for a Consultation to be held at Washington-on-the-Brazos on October 15, 1835 to discuss the escalating friction with Mexico, and consider options for more autonomous rule for Texas.

Fully aware of restlessness among the Texians, Mexican authorities began taking steps to prevent further trouble, including the reclamation of armaments which had been made available to the colonists.

On January 1, 1831, Green DeWitt had written to Ramón Músquiz, political chief of Bexar, requesting a means of defending Gonzales colonists against hostile Indians. On March 10 of that year, James Tumlinson, Jr., a DeWitt colonist at Bexar, received and signed for a bronze cannon meant for Gonzales, given with the stipulation that it would be returned upon request. When the Mexicans asked for the return of their cannon in September, 1835, the colonists declined.

This either is, or isn’t the actual “Come and Take It” cannon, displayed at the Museum in Gonzales ~ Opinions differ.

After learning that Gonzales refused to surrender the cannon, Domingo de Ugartechea, military commander in Texas, dispatched Francisco de Castañeda and a force of a hundred men to retrieve it. Castañeda’s meeting with the Texans was less than successful. When he requested the cannon be returned, the Texans pointed to the gun, about 200 yards behind them, and said, “There it is. Come and take it.”

After a few days spent maneuvering, the Mexican forces skirmished with the local militia, led by John Henry Moore. Though Castañeda and his men retreated, the event was reported across the country as the first battle of the Texas Revolution. While hardly a significant battle (two Mexicans were killed, and one Texian suffered a bloody nose after being thrown from his horse), the encounter did serve as a potent symbol of the final break between American colonists and the Mexican government.

For their battle flag, the Texians adopted a design created by Cynthia Burns and Evaline DeWitt: a single black star, an image of the disputed cannon, and the phrase “Come and Take It.” There are suggestions the flag may have been carried by Stephen F. Austin’s volunteer army to the siege of Bexar. As DeWitt colonist Creed Taylor recalled:

About this time, on the tenth, I think, Stephen F. Austin arrived at our camp and was given quite an ovation. All looked upon the great man as a wise councilor and a safe leader, and so he was unanimously chosen as our commander-in-chief with the title of general.
To heighten the excitement and arouse further enthusiasm, at this juncture the general received a message from Colonel Cos, at Bexar, saying that he was coming to Gonzales with a large force to recover that cannon. When this news was circulated among the boys their enthusiasm was raised to the highest pitch. “Let them come and take it,” became the cry.

Like Goliad garrison commander Phillip Dimmitt’s “bloody arm flag,” raised in the quadrangle of Presidio La Bahia in December, 1835, both the “Come and Take It” flag and the cannon eventually gave way to other symbols of the new Texas Republic. Even so, the spirit they represent lives on; in Texas, it’s hard to escape the battle cry, or the symbols of that early history.

Over the bar at Frank, Austin, Texas ~ Photo by Seth Anderson
As a personalized Texas license plate
The speckled sea trout, Texian style
I wasn’t born Texan, but I got here as fast as I could ~ with the help of Come and Take It Movers
A yard sign of solidarity during the great Blue Bell ice cream disaster

And now, Texans are defending their stashes of toilet paper with the same verve and determination that once marked their defense of a cannon. It’s hard not to wonder what heroes like Austin, Fannin, Travis, Seguín, Houston, and Bowie might think about this new adaptation of their revolutionary symbols.

On the other hand, those of us who’ve come to love HEB, that most Texan of grocery chains, and who also love Davy’s Crockett’s famous declaration after his election loss in Tennessee — “Y’all can go to hell, and I will go to Texas!” — easily can imagine him saying to his pals, “Toilet paper? Y’all can go to Costco, and I will go to HEB!”

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Carol of the Guardians

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis (Wikimedia)

Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but nearly everyone who celebrates cherishes at least one or two. Some have been passed down for centuries. Others are newer, but no less beloved: a certain Christmas Eve dish; a favorite cookie recipe; a must-see movie; candlelight services at midnight.

My own celebrations recall the traditions of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns and pickled herring; strings of cranberries on the tree; bayberry candles, and sweet, tinkling angel chimes.  Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves have their place, but I prefer my family’s older ways, and probably always will.

Still, something new occasionally emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of our commercialized season to attract my attention. Some years ago, a snippet of song stopped me as I shopped in a local grocery. Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with indecipherable words sung in an unfamiliar language.

Eventually, I found the source of the song and learned its extraordinary history.

Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of the Cancionero de Upsala [sic], also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden, either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904” or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending upon which source you consult. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of ‘Upsala’ is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to ‘Uppsala’ until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs, printed in Italy, should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of the more delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, although how the manuscript traveled to Prague isn’t clear.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI.

This translation not only clarifies the collection’s contents, it sugggests its broad appeal :

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli, contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instruments and voices. On the other hand, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos.

Over time, villancico has come to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan, and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere, the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Well acquainted with the kingfisher’s call, as well as its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m more than happy myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s Carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the history of the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Today, versions of the carol abound. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of overly-produced recordings, the simplicity of the version offered by the Capella de Ministrers, an early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain, brings life to a timeless song of the season.

Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo
Riu, riu, chiu
la guarda ribera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera.
El lobo rabioso
la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso
la supo defender
Quizo la hacer que
no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original
esta virgen no tuviera.
Riu, riu, chiu…
Este que es nascido
es El Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca
de carne vestido
Ha nos redimido
con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito
finito se hiciera.
Riu, riu, chiu …
Pues que ya tenemos
lo que deseamos
Todos juntos vamos
presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos
nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar
con nosotros viniera.

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank is protected
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God
Knew how to defend her
He willed to make her
Unable to sin
Even original sin
This virgin did not have
Riu, riu, chiu…
The one who is born
Is the Great Monarch
Christ the Patriarch
Clothed in flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Though he was infinite
He became finite
Riu, riu, chiu…
Now we have
What we desire
Let us go together
To present him gifts
Let us all give him
Our will
For he came
As our equal
Riu, riu, chiu…

Comments are welcome.

Moon Lake Legacies

Moon Lake Casino Pier ~ Featured in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, a few miles north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena, Arkansas bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Far from a typical bed-and-breakfast, Uncle Henry’s Inn and Restaurant provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view over the lake, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude. Not every lodging encourages sitting and thinking, but, whether by accident or intention, Uncle Henry’s did.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was purchased in 1933 by a local named William Wilkerson. Known as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living, and assorted illegalities: primarily forms of gambling. Connections to the Chicago mob led to a loss of respectability, but locals eventually cut those ties, and the Club prospered as a family destination for dancing, dining, and swimming. 

In 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Bates Wright, and became Uncle Henry’s Place. In time, the Club seems to have passed out of the family’s control, but in 1986 Sarah entered into litigation that led to her reacquisition of the property.  After extensive renovations, she and her son, George Jr., re-opened the restaurant and inn, maintaining Uncle Henry’s name in honor of her step-father.

By the time I arrived, the place had become a little shabby and quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. A combination of dust, torn draperies, and the occasional skeletal mouse quietly fading away behind a sofa made it easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a prototypical Southern Lady: temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

Obviously, Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. As guests gathered for dinner, the room filled with regular customers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking, politely: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Somewhat later, when I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, they stopped eating and grinned. “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” one asked. When I allowed as how I’d not only stopped but had lingered for a few days, the other man said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But it’s a whole lot more interesting.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I called for a reservation after a late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival. Every motel had been booked for weeks, and most had waiting lists, but when  I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.”

After my arrival, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “so be sure you’ve got the right one. And don’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down through the ceiling into the dining room.”

Despite the less than perfect accomodations, I was willing to adapt, since Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — it had played host to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, another pair of Mississippi boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to head to the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult — sometimes sharing time there with Williams — but Tennessee Williams’s connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped him transform the Club into the Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, re-reading Williams’s plays and pondering what it must have required for him to transform this sleepy Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I happened upon quite a different piece: an essay titled, The Catastrophe of Success.

An addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag, the essay originally was published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, three years after the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and during a time when Williams finally was receiving recognition as a serious playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant — not only because I was in the playwright’s own country, but also because his words resonated with all the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

Most of us hope to succeed in one way or another, but Williams did succeed, and did so marvelously well. As he reflected on the circumstances of his life and career in the essay, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable, and worth considering.

Plantation bell ~ Uncle Henry’s Place, Moon Lake, Mississippi
The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading Williams’s essay today, I imagine the scent of dogwood and azalea, the dark, moody flow of the great river, and low murmur of mist-shrouded voices.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores along the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like riffs of breeze across the Delta.

Rocking in the early evening gloom, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning toward creation, while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and life begins anew.

 

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Today, George, his mother Sarah, and many of the locals who contributed so much color to Uncle Henry’s have passed away, and the Moon Lake landmark no longer is in operation. Needless to say, the memories remain.