Friday, November 19, 2010

Over the Rhine, My Muse

In Lilac Wine, Robert is tormented by nightmares and has been his entire life.   While on a trip to Chicago with Abelia in the Autumn of 1917, he has a particularly haunting vision---a vision that brings him to Abelia in the middle of the night: 
The knock came early in the morning, jarring Abelia from a sleep that had not come easy. Throwing on a housecoat, she stumbled in the dark toward the door.
     The knock came again, softer this time. Grasping the knob, she cracked open the door and peered into the hallway.
     Robert was there, disheveled and fraught. His cheeks glistened slightly in the low glow of the incandescent lights that lined the hallway.  “Robert?” she said, pulling the door open further, ignoring the immodesty of standing out in the open in a mere housecoat and nightgown. “What’s wrong?”
     Robert looked up from the floor, his eyes red. “Can I come in?”
I often write with music playing softly in the background or I listen to certain songs just prior to a writing session, in order to get my mind into a particular mood.  The crucial scene excerpted above was inspired in part by one of my all-time favorite songs: “Etcetera Whatever” by Over the Rhine.

Don't speak.
Words come out your eyes.
You're wet with this nightmare.
Like thorns you hold these secrets to your breast,
your slender fingers closing into fists.
(Words and Music: Linford Detweiler. Album:  Good Dog, Bad Dog 1996)

So much of Lilac Wine is connected in one way or another to the music of Over the Rhine.  It’s amazing that inspiration is so often wrapped up in the creative impulses of others. Music has that effect on me and Over the Rhine has been my muse.

I first became acquainted with Over the Rhine in 1993 when I heard “I Painted My Name” on a local radio station. I listened for the DJ to give out the name of the song and soon found myself in a local cd store purchasing the album Patience, their second studio album.  Little did I know then that a song from that album would provide the seed of inspiration for my first novel, Lilac Wine.

That song was “Flanders Fields,” a mournful reflection of a love lost.  With obvious connections to the First World War, I had used the song in class when discussing the war and as an introduction to the poetry from the war itself. It is a beautiful, yet mournful song.

In Flanders Fields far away
I lost my love one day.
(Lyrics:  Linford Detweiler.  Music: Ric Hordinski. Album: Patience,  1992)
One day about 15 years ago, I was driving home from work, the album playing on the cassette player in my car. “Flanders Fields” began.  And there it was, suddenly, as if it had been there in my mind the entire time: images of the Great War.  A young man swept up into the conflict. The eccentric, small town of Lily Springs on the upper Mississippi River coping awkwardly with the challenges of modernity. And a woman who had given up on love long ago, retreating into the comfort of her garden.  Lilac Wine had been born.

That was 15 years ago.  I wrote a few chapters and then shelved the story, unable to work out certain plot elements.  But the characters never left me, however.  The town of Lily Springs was always in the back of my mind, waiting patiently for me to pay a visit once again.

In the years since I first started Lilac Wine, Over the Rhine has become an indispensable facet of my musical library. There probably isn't a day that goes by without at least one song of theirs playing sometime during my day.  The core of the band is the husband and wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. Their music speaks like an old friend, sitting at the kitchen table talking over a cup of coffee.  They have a magical ability to express everyday emotion in heartfelt, bittersweet tones.   Through their melodies and Karin's sultry, sometimes gut-wrenching vocals, the everyday is transcended in an almost cathartic expression of the real.  And that is what Over the Rhine does best: express the various emotions that we all, at one time or another, have felt and they do it in such a way that it feels like it was written just for us.  

Last year, I rediscovered Lily Springs once again.  I was driving home from work, a mix cd playing in the car.  And I began thinking again about Robert Bishop and Abelia Brody.  And all of the problems I had with the plot were suddenly resolved.  I often get my inspiration while driving in the car with music playing.  And one of the songs that helped break the writer's block was Over the Rhine's "I Want You to Be My Love."  It has somewhat become the theme for Abelia and Robert.

I want you to be my love
I want you to be my love
'Neath the moon and the stars above
I want you to be my love

I want you to know me now
I want you to know me now
Break a promise make a vow
I know you want me now

Like I want you
  (Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

I Want You To Be My Love by Over the Rhine on Grooveshark

For me, music helps set the tone for what I want to write.  I have a particular playlist that I use when trying to get into a "Lilac Wine mood."  The playlist includes artists such as Jeff Buckley, Billie Holiday and Etta James.  Over the Rhine, however, dominates the list.  Although some songs might not have a tangible relationship to the narrative of Lilac Wine, the sentiment and the mood of particular songs provide a means to channel certain feelings into the text.  Songs like "Long Lost Brother,"  "Changes Come,"  "Suitcase," "Desperate for Love" and "Latter Days" have, in one way or another, been the soundtrack to my writing sessions, providing a necessary state of mind. There are other songs that may have helped shape some of the narrative as well.

For example, Robert and Abelia share a bottle of lilac wine early in their relationship.  Abelia has a penchant for concocting some amazing varietals using the fruits from her garden. They get drunk and do something neither of them had ever done at length before: talk.  They discuss dreams, fears and, of all things, Chinese food.

Pour me a glass of wine
Talk deep into the night
Who knows what we'll find? 
("Born" Music and Lyrics: Bergquist/Detweiler Album: The Drunkard's Prayer,  2005)

Over the Rhine is currently on tour.  And next month they will be playing two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music on December 11.   My wife and I have tickets to the first show.  Plus, my sister and brother-in-law will be coming as well.  In the 17-plus years of listening to Over the Rhine, this will be my first concert.  Needless to say, I am excited.

In the meantime, I will continue writing and listening.  Robert and Abelia's journey will undoubtedly take some twists and turns unforeseen at the moment. And through it all, Over the Rhine will be along for the ride.  Thankfully.

*Note:  The above clips are hosted on Grooveshark.  This service claims to have an agreement with artists and note that artists are paid:  "Grooveshark has an artists/label program to ensure that any owner of content will be compensated fairly for each time their content is played via Grooveshark."  I hope this is true and if not, I will remove the links to the clips.


Update 12/4/2012: For more information about Over the Rhine, please visit their website at   Check out their online record player.  Currently, you can download their Christmas album, Snow Angels for free or a donation at NoiseTrade.  Be sure to check out the latest album, The Long Surrender.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Cantigny.  May 28, 1918.  This small French village was the epicenter of the first American offensive in World War I.  More than anything, it was a test for the American Expeditionary Force.  The allies wanted to see what these so-called "doughboys" could do.

The battle figures prominently in Lilac Wine.  Robert Bishop, prone to nightmares which have a tendency to come true, is haunted by images of the war.  Cantigny is in his dreams:

The sky to the east was just beginning to lighten as the first of the artillery exploded overhead. As the shells found their marks, blasts revealed the silhouetted ruins of a small village in the distance. Except for a lone chimney standing defiantly against the barrage, rubble and fallen walls were all that remained; nothing but piles of brick and branchless trees.
     The men were packed tightly in crudely dug trenches, not more than three feet deep. Several hundred yards of wheat, pocketed here and there by large, blackened craters, lay between them and the decimated village. In the darkness, disrupted by sporadic flashes of light, those craters looked deep and endless, like mouths waiting to swallow up the unsuspecting.
     Some men looked up to the sky, struggling vainly to discern the stars that tried to shine beyond the smoke that drifted overhead. Some curled, face down in the dirt, clutching their rifles tightly to their chests. Others, with eyes closed, repeated prayers over and over. Each man contemplated what was to occur in his own way. Most thought about home, though---of loved ones they hoped to see once again.
     The artillery was answered with thunderous replies from the other side. Chunks of earth hurled through the air with each explosion, sending dirt and rock upon the helmets of those who sat in the trembling ground awaiting their orders. The pebbles striking the metal of the helmets were not unlike the sounds of hailstones pelting a roof during a heavy storm.
     The back and forth exchange continued from some time. The explosions were deafening. Screams would occasionally punctuate a burst. Men cupped their ears with their palms, not knowing if one of the whistles was going to bring instant death from the sky. That was the worst of it: not knowing where they were going to fall and knowing full well that there was nothing that could be done.
     The sun gradually peeked over the horizon and the men were told to get ready. An officer’s whistle cut through the clamor as the detonations faded and a momentary silence fell over the land. Although the artillery was now quiet, the explosions lingered in the ears of every man who now stood from his position and stepped up over the edge of the trench. Their bayonets caught the rising sun as they slowly walked forward through the wheat, the equipment in their backpacks gently clanging with each step.
     Suddenly, a deep rumbling sound came from both sides of the line. Large tanks rolled out of the woods. Like mechanized haystacks, the tanks led the men across the field, opening fire on the helpless village. Machine guns started to clatter overhead, providing cover for the soldiers while they ascended to the ruins. As they approached, men walked out of the rubble with arms held in the air. They were quickly apprehended by the soldiers and told with the barrels of their rifles to lie on the ground. Here and there soldiers of a different sort followed closely behind the tanks. They wore dark blue overcoats, the tips of their weapons glowing with flame. Their eyes searched the rubble for shadowed holes and remnants of cellars that once held fine French wine and wintered grain preserved from the last harvest, but were now home to enemy soldiers.
     “Raus mit ihm!” screamed one into a cellar just before pulling the trigger. Orange jets of flames shot from the tip, roaring like a waterfall. The air shimmered in the heat as rock and brick caught fire. Screams peaked for a moment from within the bowels of the darkness and then were silent. (Lilac Wine, Chapter 9)
American memorial outside of Cantigny.

The 28th Regiment of the American First Division successfully wrestled this French village from the Germans, marking a successful first offensive for the inexperienced doughboys.  For three days, Germans pounded the village in a vain attempt to regain the territory.  The village was destroyed and the Americans suffered over 1,000 casualties. But they held the line until reinforcements came.

Cantigny may have been a small battle when compared to others.  However, Cantigny's influence was enormous.  This was the first step Americans had made on a world stage, tipping the scales in a war that had consumed the youth of Europe for almost four years.

Next week is Veterans Day.  Originally "Armistice Day," the holiday was created to commemorate those who had fought and died in the Great War and is still celebrated as such the world over.  Poppies are symbolic of Armistice Day as it is believed that poppies grew where soldiers had died.  In 1954, Congress changed the name to "Veterans Day" to commemorate all veterans who had fought and died in America's wars.

There aren't too many veterans left from World War I.  In fact, there are only three worldwide. Frank Buckles, now 109, is the only living American veteran from the Great War.  He was a mere 16 years old when he served, driving cars and ambulances in both England and France.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Charlie Chaplin in Chicago

The Music Box Theater in Chicago is a throwback to another era---an era when going to the cinema was an experience, not a diversion.  It is small---it has seating for a mere 800.  It lacks stadium seating.  The screen is not huge, but is it behind a curtain that opens when the film starts.  On a ceiling that is meant to resemble a night sky, projected clouds casually drift overhead.

The Music Box is an experience.

Built in 1929, it was not a theater visited by Robert Bishop.  It was built in a different decade, a decade that saw the elevation of movie houses into palaces. Our form of the medieval European cathedral.  Although not as big as those palaces found in the Loop, the Music Box Theater was, no doubt, something Robert Bishop would have loved to see.

Starting this weekend and continuing until November 4, the Music Box is screening a Charlie Chaplin film festival.  It will screen over 12 films from Chaplin's career spanning 1918-1957.  Films include classics such as City Lights, The Great Dictator, Modern Times and The Gold Rush.  Also screening on November 2 is one of Chaplin's best shorts:  Pay Day.

Pay Day is a film that was completed in 1922 and features Chaplin at his comedic best.  It is a film that Robert Bishop was waiting to see from Chaplin.

More information about the festival can be found here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Genius of Charlie Chaplin

Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1917
I love Charlie Chaplin.  I was first exposed to Chaplin while in high school.  In fact, I think my interest in film coincided with my first exposure to the genius of Chaplin.  I remember the first film of his I ever saw:  Payday.  The film was made in 1922 and featured the familiar "tramp" character.  There was something about that character:  the waddle, the twitch of the mustache, the endless striving to do what is right but always, somehow, falling just short.  In essence, Chaplin represented us. All of us.

My fondness for Charlie Chaplin was channeled into the character of Robert Bishop.  A loner, living in the metropolis that was Chicago in the 1910s, Robert took refuge in the many Chicago theaters, escaping into the relatively new world of cinema.  And, in particular, the world of Charlie Chaplin.

On June 24, 1917, Robert attended the Gem Theater, located at 450 South State Street, to catch a recent Chaplin film entitled The Cure.  Although the Gem screened movies, it was also known for its vaudeville and burlesque shows.  This was true for all of the theaters located in that area of town.  The more respectable theaters were in the north Loop.  Unlike today, most theaters changed their films on a daily basis and papers like the Chicago Tribune featured extensive lists of the daily films.
The Gem was a rather small theater, with seating for just over 400 people. It was warm and smelled of booze, urine and sweat. The dancers had been through for an afternoon show and a man was rumpled in a corner seat of the theater, passed out---probably the source of the piss odor, Robert reckoned. Other patrons sat here and there, talking loudly. Others were walking through the isles, looking for seats. The crowd was mostly men, as women were more likely to patronize the respectable theaters to the north. The women who were in the audience were working, so to speak, and sometimes conducted their business right there in the darkness of the theater.
     Although movies were not the main attraction at most of the houses on lower State, Robert, in fact, was there not for the dancers, but for The Cure, a Charlie Chaplin comedy that was set to kick off seven acts of vaudeville and burlesque. He didn’t know if he was going to stay for the entire evening of entertainment as he had tickets on the Illinois Central for the following morning and needed to be at Central Station by 7:30. But he had specifically come to this theater to see Charlie Chaplin.
     Although the film had played last week at another theater, he was unable to make that screening and he wanted to catch the show before boarding the train to Iowa. Robert had become a fan of Chaplin from the moment he saw His New Job back in 1915. That film was Chaplin’s first for Essanay Studios and was his only film to be made completely in Chicago. Located in the uptown neighborhood on Argyle Street, Essanay Studios had been one of the leading movie studios in the country, making films in Chicago for the last eight years or so. In fact, Essanay was the training ground for many of the nation’s top performers: Chaplin, Francis Bushman, Broncho Billy Anderson and Gloria Swanson, to name a few. Unfortunately for Essanay, those stars quickly left for more lucrative contracts in California. Although they had built another studio there in the more conducive weather of the west coast, Essanay was quickly getting crowded out by larger, more heavily financed ventures. Consequently, the Chicago branch of the studio was losing influence.
     When the lights dimmed at the Gem, Robert pulled out the growler of Edelweiss and downed a mouthful. Unlike the larger theaters in the Loop that sometimes had full orchestra accompaniment to the features, the Gem only had a lone piano player for the movies; the band that played during the vaudeville portions of the show took their breaks during the pictures. Unfortunately, the piano was sometimes not enough to drown out the moans and groans from the darkest corners of the auditorium. That didn’t matter to Robert, though. He wasn’t there for the music or anything else. When that small screen flickered and the title card appeared, he became lost in the images.
     Over the last couple of years, Robert had grown accustomed to Chaplin in his familiar costume: bowler, dark coat, oversized shoes, flexible cane and that small, twitchy mustache. That persona was well established in such films as The Tramp and Police. In fact, that persona made Chaplin famous and “Chaplinitis” had overtaken the city, according to the papers. Chaplin impersonators could often be found in the parks and along the shopping district of North State. Movie houses often hired them to stand outside under the marquees whenever Chaplin films were playing. However, this film was slightly different from the onset. Charlie was not in his familiar frayed jacket, but in a respectable white coat. He was now wealthy. And drunk. Not the true tramp of past films. Being led here and there by an attendant at a sanitarium, familiar antics follow. Charlie is drunk and caught in the endless turning of a revolving door. While he pretends to bathe at the pool and avoid the overzealous masseuse, the alcohol in his suitcase is discovered in his room and thrown out the window. It lands in the mineral spring and all who drank from it find themselves drunk as well. But, in the end of this film, Charlie actually gets the girl, which usually didn’t happen. That was what Robert liked: the fact that Charlie, an ordinary man---usually a tired and forlorn tramp---winds up at the end of the film just as he was in the beginning. Sure, he might be alone, walking in solitude as the picture fades, but you know one thing: this is not the end. The tramp is the eternal optimist; brushing off the dust, he simply walks to the next adventure, whatever that may be.
      Charlie waddles toward the camera, twitching his mustache. Edna Purviance, the leading lady in all of Chaplin’s films, smiles at his resolve just as he unwittingly steps forward into the mineral pool and disappears under the water. Laughter erupted from the small crowd at the Gem followed by scattered applause as the screen went dark.    (Lilac Wine, Chapter 7)

The Gem Theater opened in 1905 as The London Dime Museum.  Three years later it became The Gem and by the 1950s the theater was only staging burlesque and was known as The Follies Theater.  It burned in 1978.  Today, the main branch of the Chicago Public Library sits on the site.

The Gem and countless other small theaters have long gone dark, but the genius of Charlie Chaplin lives on.  I am amazed at his comic timing, his tenderness----the warmth that comes forth from that little man in the ragged suit.  The Cure may not be his best film.  Far from it, in fact.   But it it does give a hint of what is to come from a man who many have tried to emulate.  However, few---if any--have ever come close.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


    Today, I gathered fresh tomatoes from the garden and made one of my favorite summer dishes: gazpacho. I first had gazpacho while visiting a friend in Spain more than a decade ago. That memory lingers and the smell of the fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and cumin bring back some wonderful memories.
     In Lily Springs, gazpacho was Abelia Brody's favorite dish.  Not too well-known in the United States at the time, Abelia learned about the dish from a neighbor while growing up in Cincinnati:

After gathering garlic and onions from the root cellar, she next headed to the kitchen and pulled a ceramic jar of cumin from the pantry. She had been making this gazpacho recipe for years. It was one of her favorite things to make and the ability to produce it in early summer was a bonus. And every time she crushed those plum tomatoes in her hands, she thought about Rima, her neighbor in Cincinnati back when she was a child. Although she and her mother stood out in the heavily German neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine, they found a common soul in this small yet feisty immigrant from Spain----Andalusia, to be specific. Rima Reiniger was her name. She was married to Heinrich Reiniger, a local brewer. Although Rima provided plenty of hearty German meals for her husband, she also introduced him to the finer aspects of Mediterranean cooking and, in the process, introduced Colleen and Abelia to the wonders of the tomato.
     Although tomatoes were always growing in the Brody backyard, it was Rima who gave the tomato character. She told Abelia stories of Aztecs and conquistadors, of Moors and Castilians, often while crushing the “wonderful fruit,” as Rima called it.
    “It was my people, the Moors who invented this dish,” she told Abelia while pounding herbs with a mortar and pestle. “But we didn’t have the tomato at first. It was the Aztecs who grew this fruit and the conquistadores who stole it.”
     She told stories about the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice, often punctuating the tale by squeezing a tomato over a bowl as if it were a human heart. The tales frightened, yet fascinated Abelia. And she sat long hours in Rima’s kitchen, watching her cook and listening to her stories.
     It was there, in that small kitchen in Ohio, where Abelia tasted her first spoonful of the fragrant and delicious Andalusian gazpacho. And she has been making it ever since, using the same progeny from the seeds of Rima’s tomatoes given to her on that very day. Those plants grew in her greenhouse and Abelia tended to them with special care.
     “When making gazpacho,” Rima told the young Abelia, “don’t worry about the tomato seeds. The tomato is the fruit of love and the seed------”
     At this point she held up a tiny yellow seed, coated in sweet red flesh that dripped from her fingertips.
     “----has tremendous power. Passion. It has the power to set our hearts on fire.”
     And with that, she crushed another in her hand, the chunky flesh oozing between her fingers, dripping into the large wooden bowl on the table. Abelia stared in fascination, her mouth and eyes wide.
     “The Church banned the tomato,” Rima continued, picking up another red orb from the counter. “They called it the ‘Devil’s fruit.’ And you know what? They were right. Eve picked this from the tree of knowledge.”
     Abelia frowned.
     “Ah,” said Rima. “You don’t believe me. You think that Eve stole an apple.” She smiled and leaned forward, her bosom hovering over the bowl. “That’s what they want you to believe. They don’t want you to be tempted by this fruit. So, it was banished from the Garden just like Adam and Eve. It was banished to the furthest reaches of the globe.”
     Rima was very theatrical. The kitchen was her stage; the only place she had true freedom and she used it.
    “The Aztecs were not afraid of this fruit,” she continued. “Neither were my people. The Spanish called this pome dei moro--- ‘apple of the Moors.’ And we used it to tell the devil that we were not afraid of him.”
     Although Rima and her husband were Roman Catholic, she often told tales of the Moors as if she were not merely of Moorish decent, but still actively fighting to conquer the Iberian peninsula in the early Middle Ages. Abelia knew that much of what Rima told her was highly exaggerated. No doubt her Moorish bloodline ran dry a thousand years ago or so and she wasn’t at all related to the Moorish general who was defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732, but she enjoyed the stories nonetheless. And Rima enjoyed telling them, that was for sure.
     “Before the tomato we made ajo blanco---which I will make for you one day. It is made from garlic and almonds. But the tomato----” She handed Abelia the last tomato from the counter. “The tomato changed everything. It is the fruit of life. It is the fruit of love.”
     She stood up and wiped her hands on her apron. “Go ahead. Crush it.”
     Abelia squeezed the firm fruit in her hand. The tomato exploded around her fingers as chunks of cool, red flesh fell into the wooden dish. Rima took hold of Abelia’s hands, submerging them in the viscous mound. She squeezed her fingers together and swirled her hands in the bowl, demonstrating the proper technique to thoroughly blend the mixture. The tomatoes, seeds and all, swirled against the dark wood, the chunks of tomato getting smaller, becoming absorbed into the liquid. Rima removed her hands, once again wiping them on her apron before pouring in the cumin and garlic. A fragrant cloud wafted from the dish, and Abelia felt sweat beading on her forehead. Rima then dropped cucumbers, onions and peppers into the bowl and drizzled oil over the mixture, scolding Abelia if she slowed down the mixing process. Finally, Rima added stale breadcrumbs and topped it off with a squeeze of lemon and a stream of red vinegar, which she poured from above Abelia’s head. It splashed off her arms and into the deep dish. She counted out loud to five and then told Abelia to stop her mixing.
     “It is done,” she said. “Now, we let it sit.”
     Rima handed Abelia a towel to wipe her hands. Before covering the bowl with a cloth, she placed a wooden spoon into the concoction and removed a taste. With a smile, she handed it to Abelia. “First, you must try,” she said.
     Rima studied Abelia’s face, anticipating her reaction as the red, clumpy mixture entered her mouth. Abelia closed her eyes, letting the spice penetrate her taste buds. The fragrance floated into her sinuses, a simultaneous sensation that was unlike anything she had tasted before.
     “See,” said Rima. “It’s powerful. Nothing compares to a good gazpacho.” She picked up the bowl, pulling the cloth over the rim. “How do you think I got my husband?” she added with a smile.

Gazpacho is the perfect summer dish.  Back in Abelia's day, everything would have to be diced and crushed by hand.  Luckily, food processors make the creation of gazpacho effortless.  The following is a traditional gazpacho recipe, modified from that first gazpacho I tasted back in Spain.   I think Abelia would be proud.

 Abelia's Gazpacho Recipe

3-4 large, ripe tomatoes
1 large cucumber, peeled and seeded 
1 medium white onion
1 large green pepper
1 large red pepper
1 large garlic clove
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 lemon

Grind together the salt and cumin with a mortar and pestle.  Crush the garlic clove and mix with the salt and cumin.  In a bowl, add the olive oil and red wine vinegar.   Add the garlic mixture to bowl and set aside.

In a food processor, blend together the peppers, cucumber, onion and tomatoes.  Add the oil mixture.  Mix until smooth.

For smoother consistency, add water.  For thicker consistency, add stale bread.

Finally, squeeze juice from 1/2 lemon into mixture.  Let sit in refrigerator for at least an hour before serving.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Fate Marable and Riverboat Jazz

Fate Marable was arguably the most important of the early jazz pioneers. It was Fate Marable who introduced jazz to the Mississippi riverboat culture outside of New Orleans. In fact, Fate Marable's band, which played for over a decade on the Streckfus Steam line, became the training ground for such icons as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

By the early 20th century,  the feasibility of riverboats as a means of commerce had been destroyed by the railroad. However, riverboats would continue on the Mississippi in the form of excursion boating, tenuously keeping alive the romanticism of Huckleberry Finn's world.   Day trips. Moonlight cruises. Overnight cruises. Riverboats became a popular place for young people to meet and such excursions were often sponsored by groups such as the Elks, the Red Cross, churches and schools.

In 1917, Fate Marable was playing aboard the S.S. Sidney on the upper Mississippi with a band he personally put together featuring African-American musicians from his native Kentucky. Captain Streckfus gave Marable much leeway in regards to the music aboard the steamer, but insisted that in addition to jazz, Marable had to play other songs as well, such as traditional waltzes and other popular dance music. Marable obliged, but most likely lived for those moments when jazz flowed through his fingers and ignited his piano.

Stealing aboard the S.S. Sidney in the summer of 1917 with his new friend Billy Miles, Robert Bishop came face-to-face with the music that would soon take Chicago by storm:

Muffled conversation filled the air. The stomping of hundreds of feet kept beat to the fast-paced music coming from the large orchestra up on the second deck ballroom. It was loud aboard the Sidney and young people moved and weaved around posts, hung over the railings and chased each other up the stairs. Most held bottles in their hands. And they weren’t drinking Bevo, that was for sure.
     “Isn’t this great?” exclaimed Billy.
     “I don’t know what to say. How much----?”
     “Don’t worry about it. It’s my birthday and this is exactly what I wanted.”
     “At least let my buy you a drink,” offered Robert.
     Billy wrapped an arm around Robert’s shoulder. “Never can I turn down a drink, my man. Let me lead the way.”
    Billy guided Robert into a flow of people moving up the grand staircase to the second deck. The ballroom was huge and newly refurbished. Now advertised as the “Mirror Palace,” the highly polished wood of the dance floor stretched 180 feet down the length of the steamboat. American flags hung from the low beams and the electric lights were turned down, glowing gently from several chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. Even so, the shapes of hundreds of people fox-trotting to “Walkin’ the Dog” reflected on that floor as if it were water. The large windows were open and a nice Mississippi River breeze drifted through the crowd.
     Robert bought two cold Potosi lagers and handed one to Billy. “Happy birthday,” he said as they clanked bottles together, foam running down the sides. It had been a week since he last had a real beer and the lager tasted good. Granted, it wasn’t Edelweiss, but it was good enough.
     Billy grabbed Robert by the arm, leading him down the dance floor so that they could get an unobstructed view of the Kentucky Jazz Orchestra. A redheaded Negro with light skin and freckles pounded the keys of the piano while several other Negroes played along almost oblivious to the large crowd dancing in front of them.
     “That’s Fate Marable on the piano,” said Billy. “I first saw him about ten years ago on the J.S.  He played ragtime back then. He personally put together this band.”
     Robert had heard this song before. It was popular about a year ago. However, he had never heard it quite like this. The tempo was faster, to be sure. But there was something else. There was a certain intensity coming through the rhythm. The musicians all swayed with the music, eyes closed. Sweat glistened on their faces and foreheads. The large bass player tapped his foot loudly on the floor, each time lifting his entire foot off the ground. The clarinet carried most of the melody and the man playing it moved fluidly, his entire body oscillating gently with the tune, his instrument a mere appendage. They played harmoniously together, each man doing his own thing in his own way but never losing touch with what the others were doing. There was no sheet music to be found; no music stands. They were speaking to each other in a language only they knew.
     Robert was mesmerized and found himself unwittingly tapping his own foot along with the beat. And before he knew it, the song was over. Roaring applause erupted from the dance floor. Someone whistled loudly.
    The musicians all took out white handkerchiefs and briefly dabbed their brows. Fate Marable then counted to three and soon a standard waltz filled the room. There was an audible groan among the dancers, which brought a slight smile to the piano player’s face. And Robert knew instinctively that Fate Marable and his band were not born to play waltzes.  (Chapter 14, Lilac Wine)
Unfortunately, not much is left of Fate Marable and his contribution to early jazz.  He made only one recording, well after jazz had already exploded onto the national scene.  Nevertheless, there is something magical about listening to Fate Marable on "Frankie and Johnny," recorded in the summer of 1924.  In that brief melody, one gets a sense of what it must have been like sitting aboard a riverboat on a warm summer evening, the sounds of jazz echoing among the cliffs and bluffs of the upper Mississippi.

Fate Marable's Society Syncopators, "Frankie and Johnny" (1924):

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lily Springs

When the novel was in it's infancy, the title was simply Lily Springs, named after the town in which Abelia Brody lived.   Located just north of Dubuque, Lily Springs was a town trapped between two eras:
Carl and Otto Springer, twins from Germany who wanted to strike it rich in America, founded Lily Springs in 1856. After failed attempts at saloon ownership, beer-making, cattle raising and even a brief stint as minstrel performers, the Springer brothers trekked out west to Dubuque responding to an ad offering for sale land rich in mineral deposits. They purchased seven acres, some equipment and started digging. The lead vein they discovered instantly brought moderate wealth to the brothers and soon the town of Springer grew around the mine. Unfortunately for the Spingers, smelting was a process that they could not fully grasp and after failing in that endeavor and almost losing their lives in a small furnace explosion, they ended up simply selling the raw ore they mined to a smelter in Dubuque who ran one of the five blast furnaces in the area.

The lead mine brought prosperity to Springer for several years. Soon, the town had an ice warehouse, a post office, a creamery, a lumber mill and several businesses to support the families that had moved there. The mine ended up employing some fifty people in its heyday and became the object of attempted takeovers by rival mining companies. But the prosperity of the mine was not to last. Like so many mines in the area, the Springer mine penetrated the aquifer and quickly filled with water. Not wanting to buy expensive pumping equipment, the Springer brothers abandoned the mine, selling the deed to Charles Smithhouse, an entrepreneur newly arrived from the Albany area. Smithhouse saw potential in the waterlogged mine and set to build a steam pump to pull the water out and deliver it directly to the homes in the area, much like what was happening in the larger cities throughout the country. As a result, the town was renamed Lily Springs and soon almost every resident had fresh water flowing directly into their houses. That was in 1888, twenty years before even the prestigious Hotel Julien in Dubuque had running water in every room of the hotel. Lily Springs was billed as an “oasis of modernity in the country.” Although most homes still used outdoor privies, many of the newer homes in Lily Springs had modern water closets and plumbing installed. Even so, the water business was not profitable for Smithhouse and he went bankrupt; the pump works taken over by the city.

Gas came to Lily Springs before the water and, even though electrical lines were strung up along the railroad using the existing telephone and telegraph poles, few houses were electrified by the summer of 1917. The only automobile service station in town was recently wired for electricity and some farmers near the tracks purchased transformers and ran lines into their barns and homes. Other than that, few people saw a necessity for electricity. And many didn’t trust it. The three street lamps at each tip of the town triangle were run off of gas and were lit most evenings by Tom Brooks, except during the nights of a full moon. There was some vigorous debate at city hall in recent years about changing the gas burners to incandescent electric lamps, but the discussions never resulted in any definitive decisions. And that was the problem with Lily Springs: it was trapped between the 19th and 20th centuries---between being an “oasis of modernity” and a throwback to another era. People began leaving Lily Springs and the once vibrant small town grew smaller, until not more than 70 homes remained occupied within the city limits. Those who stayed, however, were proud of their small town and its traditions. 
(Lilac Wine, Chapter 10)

A few months ago I traveled to Dubuque to conduct some research and travel the country.   Although a fictional city, I wanted to go to Lily Springs.  It had become such a part of me, I wanted to walk the streets, stand underneath the Civil War statue in the town triangle and drink a soda bought from the Lily Springs Pharmacy.  I wanted to stand on the bank of the Mississippi, near the railroad tracks and smell the air.   Of course, I was doing that everyday.  But the physicality was missing.  It wasn't completely tangible, more like a memory or distant dream.

After spending the day between the library and the Museum of the Mississippi River, I set out in the car and traveled North, not knowing where I was going in particular but knew instinctively I would recognize my destination when I saw it.  Traveling the winding roads through the bluffs around the Mississippi River, I found it near the town of North Buena Vista.

Standing on the bank of the Mississippi, breathing in the moist air, I knew I had arrived.  Lily Springs had always been real for me.  Now, it had become tangible.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Welcome to the Lilac Wine blog

This is the blog for my novel, Lilac Wine. The novel is a work in progress. Here you will find excerpts, ruminations and various thoughts about the process of writing a story that takes place in 1917. When I first thought of this story back in the mid-90s, I had no idea where it would take me. I just planted a seed and had no details for the arc of the story. I had ideas but the details were lacking. I wrote a couple of chapters and then put it away. But it was never far from my mind. Last Fall, while driving in the car home from work, something clicked. Lily Springs once again entered my mind and suddenly those missing details came to me. It took some 15 years, but there it was. A story. Suddenly, a door had been opened. Characters were calling. A different world and a different time became very real. I began writing again and, in the process, Lily Springs has come to life and Abelia Brody and Robert Bishop have become kin.

Since the story takes place in 1917, I set out reconstructing that time period. Hours upon hours of research have gone into the smallest of details. I have had to learn to drive again, this time with a 1913 Ford pickup. I have had to learn how to make wine, all sorts of wine from blackberry wine to lilac wine while navigating the often confusing pre-18th Amendment prohibitionist laws that caused consternation among the Midwestern states of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin. I have become even more of a fan of Charlie Chaplin, who was just becoming a national sensation in 1917. I have learned to garden and to take excursions on Mississippi steamboats. I have sat on cool summer nights with Abelia listening to “Ave Maria” by Alessandro Moreschi playing on her 1906 Harvard model talking machine she purchased for $15.90.

I have learned of war and a place known as Cantigny.

So far it has been a fun and illuminating process, frustrating at times but often filled with those moments that make me so relieved to be writing. I hope you join me for the ride.