Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival

Shakori. Even the general soddenness does not lower the spirit. You can feel so lifted there you walk on water—over the spring runnels and deep, red, sucking Chatham County clay. There was a lot of mud this year. Sections of the music festival that in years past have been meadows for camping and lying around in were shin-deep in rutted pools. Everything was mud-colored. People were mud-colored. “Hey, mud family!” one dread-locked celebrant yelled to a glistening, caveman-like four-pack who’d obviously done some kind of slip-and-slide down the hill for goofs. Stages were muddy. Cars, of course, whose models you couldn’t make out, slipped all over the place getting in, ours included. We pushed cars out of mud and got help pushing ours. Campsites were pure mud. Experienced festival-goers wore galoshes while the rest of us went barefoot or in subterranean, throwaway tennies.

Photo by Ania Welin

And yet the festival was full and vibrant. It always is. Our friends arrived early, in the classic, corrugated tick-body campers of pros. They set up pavilions and bag chairs and fire rings, made home for our group, set their kids loose. As in years past, we were in the “family camping” area next to the long road that enters the Shakori Hills festival grounds. Also as in years past, we took up with a party of friends and new, friendly strangers, with whom we parented and shared food and spent time. In principle the family camping meadow is quieter and more organized into little plots than the wooded areas up the hill, but the music plays every night until dawn and can be heard from every corner, music from the several different stages and venues merging and reaching into tents and bedrolls. At these volumes and in these circumstances, you don’t hear zydeco, bluegrass, cowpunk, or drum circle. It’s like one big Radiohead album (or maybe Band of Horses is a more appropriate analogy here), ambient but primal, all-night polyrhythms that in their persistence can be just a tiny bit frightening, but also like a lullaby. You sleep to it or just lie there and feel it wash over you. At dawn it is quiet again. Thick fog (or rain) and the sound of the odd tent zipper, birds waking, and cows lowing.

You meet people. Everybody is smiling, greeting one another. Fellow travelers, exchanging pleasantries about all the mud. There are several thousand attendees at Shakori, many of them not only listening but playing, making things, volunteering. There’s a place where you can build little rock towers. A rock labyrinth to walk through. Parades happen. You make a spirit mask or two. Kids in vintage dresses and trucker caps and bright blue hair are making out in the trees above the meadow stage. There are massage tables on rugs under little tasseled pavilions. In the DJ beer tent, there’s a handsome bearded galoot with all his belongings and liquids stuff into a Camelbak, a solo, shirtless, grinning dub-dancing marathoner. Also really classic, unreconstructed hippies–like, first generation hippies with stringy beards and rainbow mirrored sunglasses, two-finger peace signs for everyone and rope sandals (muddy).

The main thing about Shakori is that people from all different ages and walks of life are there together. It seems natural and it makes you feel how unnatural other parts of your life may be, how segmented. Days camping and talking and having coffee with hipsters and little kids, with old couples, fire-breathers, Africans and Appalachian banjo pickers and bolo ties. It’s the natural we don’t have any more.

We give lip service to the idea that music and art and diversity give us “perspective”, but you can feel real perspective in situations like this. Like I don’t have one of those ear piercings that stretches a golf ball sized hole into my earlobe, but when I see those or jaw tattoos or something like them at Shakori, I think, Well I could see how that would be nice. I can see what that young man means by that giant hole there.

Photo by Ania Welin

I want more of my life to be like Shakori. I want to be the person I am at Shakori. This happens at music festivals. You go away eager to bend your life to their rhythms. It’s kind of the idea —as in Shakespeare’s forest comedies, where the ordinary rules are suspended in generative ways. “You must change your life!” the poet said. This is what I felt. This time, my wife and I made a fetish out of campers to contain all our zeal in something concrete (and dry. Our tent was stinky and sodden within minutes of being set up): It was campers that made this communion possible! You lived simply, traveled where you wanted, home-schooled your kids in the back to keep them from being tested out of curiosity, boiled water. Put little blocks under your camper tires when you found your friends.


Most years, at least one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more legibly. Sometimes it’s my only resolution.

By legibility I mean literally making the words in my notebook something I can return to and read. I often can’t decipher my own writing, even immediately after. Why is this? Why don’t I write more clearly the things that I presumably mean to preserve?

It’s bad. Here’s a sample. No idea what it’s about, though it’s just a few days old. Something about Django :-)


I could say the thoughts are so urgent I can’t slow down and risk losing them, but that’s not right at all. I go on for pages like this and worse, sometimes just writing lines to make the thoughts come. What good is writing if it’s unreadable?

No, I know at some deeper level I’m not valuing the writing itself enough, that the sloppiness is a way of being dismissive about what’s in there. (And yet when I go back through and can decipher things, I sometimes find such interesting stuff!)

In a way illegibility in your own writing is a lack of regard for your other selves, for the you who will read this down the road, and maybe do something with it, reshape it, reconsider it.

This lack of regard is contagious, too. Ian-the-sloppy-writer transmits his lack of care via page to Ian-the-reader, who cannot bring himself to understand what was meant, what these garbled scratchings are. Ian-the-guy-from-yesterday-who-was-in-ecstasy-about-something-that-looks-like-care-or-is-it-core? Illegible writing makes the thinking itself less real. The words are like a dream that you forget upon waking.

Legibility is a way of taking yourself seriously. Connecting your different selves and benefiting from them, maybe. Valuing thoughts. Making ideas more substantial. Like a time machine, clearly written words transport you to the place and state of mind in which they were rendered. When you read a printed novel, even the third or fourth time through, you get into the frame of mind the author must have had when he or she wrote it 1. This is in fact what literature is for, this going out of you and going into someone else, some place else, using texts like tools for small acts of self-transcendence.

I wrote this on my laptop to avoid the risk of losing it all somewhere in a Meade notebook and a Uniball, but I’m going to be making a practice of my slow, long hand this year.


  1. There’s a contrary view here, I realize: The actual longhand notebooks of Hemingway or Proust or whoever are for many readers way more time-travel-y and evocative than their published, new-paper-smell novels. I guess I’m trying to say that printed words and really legible handwriting can sort of disappear and not get in the way of what is written.

Geoff Dyer’s “Is Jazz Dead?”

Geoff Dyer deserves all the attention he’s gotten as a writer. He gets a top-heavy ton in some quarters: There are academic conferences dedicated to him—conferences that he himself cheekily proposes and then attends in a gentlemanly but “meta” way (“Geoff Dyer: There Should Be an Annual Festival Dedicated to Me”); fan websites, of course; anthologies, dissertations, editorships.

Essays that rhapsodize about his “genre-bending”, “uncategorizability”, and near single-handed “renovation of contemporary nonfiction” are part of a ream of adulatory critical writing. For all that, and despite the very personal and sometimes deeply moving works themselves, he remains a bit of a “writers’ writer”, a bit unknown.

I love him. I think all the hype about his single-handedness is true. For me, the piece “Is Jazz Dead?”, which appears in the collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, exemplifies what is best about his writing: The essay is earnest but a little rambling. Informal and conversational in shape but deep in its erudition and obvious love for its subject. Wide and deep, you might say.

Jazz is just one of a series of very wide-ranging subjects of his: An essay on Coletrane’s “My Favorite Things” appears in this same collection, but then so does “Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity,” an appreciation of the photographer Enrique Metinides, essays on comics, writers, clothes, the Olympics. But Dyer is a real jazz lover 1. In “Is Jazz Dead?”, he’s not actually worrying about the fate of jazz so much as taking a closer look at the kind of hand-wringing critics do all the time around musical forms: Is jazz a discrete genre of music that can be superannuated by new genres? What about Latin jazz, then, or jazz fusion? World music? Happy-crappy “smooth jazz”? Does jazz come from a particular combination of instruments, like: jazz is a quartet with the melody in a horn, a piano?

For Dyer, jazz obviously isn’t a genre but something more like musical innovation itself. It is a “dynamic” between a musical form and its restless, artistic interpreters—like Lester Young and popular dance music from the 40s. (But like a lot of other examples besides; let’s please not get stuck in Swing or Bebop). “Change is immanent to jazz”, Dyer writes. “[L]ike Woody Allen’s shark it has to keep moving, going forward, otherwise it dies.”

“Jazz as jazz died” before the twentieth century was out, Dyer writes, at which point paeans to Bebop like the movies “‘Round Midnight” and “Bird” quickly “acquired the patina of period pieces or costume dramas”. This kind of commentary about jazz is not new, of course, but Dyer is very good at it. He listens to and loves a lot of different jazz. And contrasts it eloquently with other forms:

The Who can play ‘Won’t Get Fooled Against’ again and again, forever and a day, without undermining the song’s credibility. Every rock song aspires to the status of an anthem. But as soon as a jazz tune becomes anthemic it is no longer jazz—it’s elevator music. (Yes, “A Love Supreme” is played in elevators.)

The knowingness and bathos and humor in passages like this are, for me, delightful. And amazing.

What I also like is that he includes newer musical forms like dance music and electronica in his ecumenical list of forms-where-jazz-lives, describing innovative (genre-bending?) players like Jan Garbarek and Nils Molvaer, remasterings like Bill Laswell’s of Miles Davis (Bill Laswell: Reshaping the music of Miles Davis). For all the openness that jazz musicians profess to have to music, there’s a tendency to exclude electronica. Maybe it’s a hangover from the jazz-fusion cheeze of the seventies. I love electronica—trip hop and downtempo, etc.—and have always thought of that as a separate musical compartment of my brain. But reading about Dyer’s jazz innovators and his “embarrassingly late” embrace of dance and electronic music, I can see new intersections running between, and begin to confront old discriminations I may still have.

Essays like this are rambling, but when you’re as good a writer as Dyer, the different lines come back together (yes, yes, like jazz lines), and seem necessary. And more important they move around like real thought, like step-by-step analysis of one’s own opinions and intuitions, like a mustering of one’s stored evidence (Lester Bowie’s rebuttal to Wynton Marsalis’s slightly ossified, “period piece” conception of jazz). Readers may find some of Dyer’s work too erudite as well, but in my view Dyer has a voice and has found a,…well, a new genre of his own that like a superheavy element can store more erudition than you might have thought you had the ear for, just as his sense of jazz comprises more diversity and good music than you’ve ever heard of.


  1. See his book But Beautiful for a totally different, Dyer-esque angle on jazz, this one a series of made-up, music-heavy biographical sketches of some of jazz’s haunted giants, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, others.