Saturday, November 13, 2010

Revisiting an Old Friend

I moved this summer, as you may know. It was perhaps my most discombobulating move ever, probably due to the fact I had lived 12 years in my last house, longer than anyplace in my entire adulthood.
That is enough time to accumulate a lot of stuff and more than enough time to lose track of much of it!
So, as you might guess, one very cool part of the process was the opportunity to rediscover a few lost treasures.
There is one such find that I feel compelled to share here...

Berrien Thorn was a friend of mine. A wonderful man - artist, poet, activist and one of the best musicians I have ever known. He had a wonderful collection of folk instruments from throughout the world and could play them all! (My personal favorite was a banjo made of an old tobacco tin - as "folksy" as it gets, I think!)
Berrien had a rich personal history, including a fair stretch of time in his youth working with migrant farm workers. The people and lessons of that experience never left him.
From those years came this wonderful collection of musings, gifted to me some years ago with an admonition to share the words and support the cause. And so, in honor of a man and his vision, I share with you (in his own words, copyrighted in 1988**) ...

  1. I am a newspaper for the illiterate. I bring the whispered word. I sing them their own stories as they were told to me. Set to a tune the word goes round, and when they recognize a camp they nod and grin, elbow the others into the know: "Hey, that's the hole where I got beat up last year!"
  2. The men are worn and beat and want to kick back. They're slugging beers and playing poker for money. The atmosphere is a juke joint in Alabama. The music is a touch of home - easy as a handshake. The women gather at the other end of the cookhouse and sing "About My Jesus". The music is a church; voices rise in their simplicity against the darkness.
  3. The people here are always tired. Some old black man sits in the corner wiping the saliva from his white stubble with a stray hand. Three shirts on him, two ratty jackets and an overcoat, worn out boots sizes too big. Twenty years of cheap wine and potato dust can coat the eyes.
  4. Brutal work stooping to pull potatoes from the earth is the bottom of this odd context. Going upright into the trees for fruit is the top.
  5. The camp is a cluster of tiny shacks made of cinderblock and tin. One of them is the cook-house; this is where I sing. The cookhouse has a large room with picnic tables, an old juke box, bare bulbs burning, and a small wire-meshed window through which the overpriced food they purchase from the crew boss is passed.
  6. These little places are closed societies. When I was a kid the old man I picked with taught me everything, from the basics of negotiating pay, techniques of travel and work, to the songs he would play me on his banjo at night. Boredom was a preserver. Certainly the telling of stories was integral to surviving any evening's isolation without electricity. This is only the life of prisoners, migrants and family farmers. These are definitely on my list of endangered species, as am I.
  7. Some of these people come from Haiti. Crowded into tiny boats they floated toward the mysterious promise of America. They are possessed of pure primitive undertones. The non-Haitians are rural folk from Alabama and Georgia. A few of the men don't want their pictures taken; they are working these fields because this is one of the few jobs left where you don't need a social security number.
  8. When I improvise on my flute for the Haitians they look at each other and nod, saying the Creole words for 'bird spirit'. They know that the voice that was singing through the tube of the flute was not my person, but a spirit voice that sang through and empty self, my ego temporarily suspended, my shell possessed by a lesser god. They recognize that voice; in the form of improvisational music, such as jazz, which is a black idiom, this does not feel so far from the truth of a moment when the musician has reached a trancelike state and 'lets loose.'
  9. They are totally at the mercy of the environment, often miles from the nearest town, in hostile white redneck areas. You would think twice about quitting a job and walking away into this limbo.
  10. God is bread. Red patent leather shoes. A dental trailer that visits the camps is worth its weight in God.

Berrien left this world too soon, having passed just a half-century among us. He left a wonderful legacy of music, friendship and more: his will provided for a foundation that grants Art scholarships to migrant farmworkers. Information about these scholarships can be found at

Please share this scholarship info with anyone you know who may need this assistance - Berrien would want it this way!
**all art in this post and these field notes are the work and legacy of Berrien Fragos Thorn and are reprinted and shared here in his honor and to further his life's work.