I was fortunate enough to appear on the December 6, 2008 edition of West Coast Live, a radio program that airs locally on KALW-91.7 FM and on some fifty-plus other stations, mostly in the West. My foot in the door was the enticement of live music provided by the Creole Belles with Andrew Carriere, musicians I had interviewed for my book. The band and I proposed to be on the show together, thanks to the agreeable leader of the Belles, Delilah Lee Lewis. I did not have a full author slot; those went to novelist Fae Myenne Ng (Steer Toward Rock), biographer H.W. Brands (Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and the fabulous Calvin Trillin from the New Yorker, who there to plug Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme.
My job, as the musicians saw it, was to do the talking between musical numbers. Sedge, of course, had his own ideas and started asking them questions after their first song. He had looked at my book, which has sections on Delilah and Andrew, and based his questions partly on that and partly just on what he saw in front of him. His questions of the musicians tended toward the silly ("Does your violin have a name?") and the teasing (does Andrew use his rubboard to do laundry). He invited me up after the second song, and the two of us stood among the musicians on the stage at the Freight and Salvage. He was smiling and pleasant, but I got my share of teasing too--all that research on music and dancing must have been hard work, eh Mark? Internally I was rolling my eyes (ethnomusicologists don't get a lot of respect within academia, so I'm a little sensitive about it), but I think I was a good sport, and he did ask me some serious questions too.
The last question was one I've heard many interviewers use, yet with stage nerves I found that it caught me off guard: During the course of your research, what surprised you the most? I did come up with something, finding out about how folk dancers infiltrated the church dances that Louisiana Creole emigrants were having in the Bay Area, but I'm sure he was looking for something more entertaining. If I had a do-over, I might answer with my discovery of the Folkways album entitled Berkeley Farms, a 1972 Mike Seeger production that featured several Bay Area folk musicians who can still be heard at the Freight and Salvage or Ashkenaz today. The album also has a couple of tracks of Cajun music on it.
All in all, the show was a good experience and I was grateful for it. I must say, though, having been a West Coast Live audience member a couple of times before along with yesterday's adventure, that Sedge is more in his element interviewing writers than when talking to musicians. The writers didn't come in for nearly as much joking and teasing, except for maybe Trillin, who could certainly take it and whose material is humorous to begin with. I grant that Thomson does a great job with writers; he has obviously read their work and engages them in wide-ranging discussions. With the musicians, he banters.
With singer-songwriter and political satirist Roy Zimmerman, the bantering worked well. Zimmerman has a quick wit himself and told me afterwards that he and Sedge have worked together several times. Roy also joked to me that he is having a sale now on all of his George Bush songs, they won't be much good to him soon.
Pianist Mike Greensill, who provides all of the jazz improvisation that glues the seams of the show together, serves the same sort of wisecracking bandleader role that has become an institution on late night television (Doc Severinson with Johnny Carson, Paul Shaffer with David Letterman, Kevin Eubanks with Jay Leno)--only he has no band behind him. Greensill works attentively to keep the show moving, fill dead space with a comment or a few bars of music, even playing tunes on request--some of Trillin's verses were written to be sung to the tune of... Greensill also offered a full musical number complete with vocals, Dave Frishberg's "Wheelers and Dealers," one of my favorite Frishberg songs and well chosen to match current financial events. So let this blog entry be my appreciation for musicians and all they do for us, even when we can't explain exactly what that is or manage to talk to them like the grownups they most assuredly are.