Folk in the Fortress

Verbs are the engines of sentences. The advice from master writers: ditch the adjectives and adverbs—they add flourish, but not structure. Verbs matter most.

An afternoon at the beach: preening, comparing, yakking, reminiscing, gulping, applying, re-applying, flapping, absorbing, breaking, rising, riding, digging, packing, building, billowing, sinking, smoothing, laying, throwing, browsing.

Driving my grandfather’s car: gazing, wandering, braking, shifting, turning, coasting, cruising, listening, speeding, discovering, monitoring, clunking, clicking, whirring,

This past weekend I attended the Newport Folk Festival, hosted in Fort Adams state park. The four stages were nestled between the walls of a fortress that once defended the coastline. A cannon, calmly defunct, perched over scenic views of flapping sails and the elegant spine of the Pell bridge.

It was a civilized affair, with festival-goers who skewed older. There were sunburned blackbirds tattooed onto aged shoulders, and tie dye t-shirts that yearned for a long-gone revolution. There were young dads bouncing toddlers on their shoulders, readjusting the headphones that (supposedly) block sound, and (supposedly) exculpate parents from paying for a babysitter. Ranks of acoustic and electric guitars lined up backstage like polished rifles. Musicians with flowing skirts and enigmatic beards dripped passionate rivulets of sweat.

At times, I imagined the divergent experiences of performers and audience members—physically, into fenced-off areas restricted by wristbands, and psychologically, between the mind-states of anxious entertainers and those impatient to be entertained. Only during the sets could we converge into the living flow of the music; let the sensory and emotional unity of smooth vocals, plucked melody and kickdrum wash through like a meditation.

During breaks between sets, I started a list of verbs in my notebook: twanging, scratching, trudging, baking, packing, rocking, tapping, lilting, strumming, clapping, lifting, toe-tapping, remembering, walking, crooning, snapping, marching, tuning, basking, glugging, confessing, feeling, belting, harmonizing.

When I looked up, the slogan “Guitars Not Guns,” had been projected on a large screen, above a row of dusty barracks. I imagined the list of verbs that once energized this place: drilling, practicing, standing, plotting, pending, aligning, preparing, polishing, commanding, stomping, disciplining. The preparations for battle and a live musical performance aren’t all that different.

In order to enter a raffle for a free guitar, (a formidable metallic beast, signed by a bunch of country artists I didn’t know) I visited the tents of several nonprofits set up amid the stages. I joined the mailing list for a conservation nonprofit. I signed a climate-change petition. Finally, I stopped into a booth run by a vegan activist—her notebook was printed with the tangled arms of a Hindu god. Over the table, she handed me the latest innovation in activist warfare: a virtual reality headset that gave me a 5-minute first-person experience of the life of a factory farmed chicken. I forced myself to watch til the end, when I was strung up by my feet and surrounded by the sight of the blood dripping from still-twitching necks. Languishing. Crying. Panicking.

Chris and I played a word game as we walked back from the festival (I probably forced it upon him; he was a good sport), along the peninsula and back towards town, with legs tired from standing and ears tired from listening. “The mind is…”—then fill in the blank with the first object you see. The fun is in the attempted explanation: The mind is a flagpole (vivid new thoughts get hoisted to its peak). The mind is a flock of geese (wild, wandering, and leaving a mess behind it). The mind is a gas tank (full of energy waiting to be expended; combusted in thought and action).

Metaphor—the comparison of two unlike things, that perhaps only humans alone are capable of—allows us to translate knowledge and communicate across gulfs of time and space. It’s the process of finding stepping stones that reveal the interconnection of reality. I wonder what metaphorical thinking looks like in the brain; what new connections must be forged among semantic maps.

Music is a hotbed for metaphor. Lyrics are are spacious, incomplete sentences; the meaning can hang in the space between beats. The performance is a military exercise, too: the microphone is a weapon of harmony; an exhortation for action.

As much as the tie-dyed tshirts would hope, based on this folk festival, our current era of musical revolution is quieter than Woodstock. The close alignment to consumer culture—t-shirts, vegan ice cream, sandals, dairy-free nut-free soy-free sin-free snacks—has watered down the ’60s blaze.

But some of the verbs are the same. Hoping, imagining, dreaming. Self-deceiving. Loving. Believing. Fighting.

 

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