Sweet Baby James

by Mark Dvorak

Hey again, 

It's cold for November. The weather report was calling for snow and by the time my concert ended this afternoon and the truck was packed, the sky had grown overcast and the air was heavy and frozen. It is good to be finally heading home. The last ten days were good though; New Jersey, Delaware and Springfield, Massachusetts. The shows were well attended and I sang and played reasonably well. The audience at the Springfield Fine Arts Museum was especially energetic and refreshing. Lots of kids and families. It was fun to get them singing along and engaged in music and laughter.

Leaving Springfield, I headed west up through the Berkshires towards New York, towards home, and I remembered JT singing about this very turnpike in his song "Sweet Baby James." It seems like I have heard "Sweet Baby James" thousands of times by now. In bars and on jukeboxes, on the radio and plenty of times on my own record player. I've taught it to many, many students over the years, who slogged through the weird chord changes; none of whom could hold it in when the chorus came around. I remembered how sweetly I once heard James sing it in concert. The song seemed to want to wrap the whole hall, and the whole weary world up in some warm memory, and rock us all to sleep, cozy and happy.

James sang about the Berkshires, and how dreamlike they seemed in the snow. How dreamlike the Berkshires seemed this afternoon when the sun winked its last, and disappeared behind the high hills somewhere upstate New York, and November's weird low light glanced and finally faded, leaving silhouettes where there once were trees and houses and mountains. The shadows rolled in long and dark and the evening haze began to appear and rise above the river bottoms and across the blue horizon.

And then, while driving, there was this moment when I noticed my own heart beating. I heard it first in my ears and then felt it pulse down my neck and jaw and finally felt it in my chest. Tum-tumm, tum-tumm. While watching the headlights reach into the darkness and listening and feeling, I noticed too the gentle cadence of my breathing. It of course, had been there all along, but now it entered my awareness like the second movement of some quiet little symphony. I could hear my heart, tum-tumm, tum-tumm, beating along with the rise and fall of breath. I could feel and hear the little wisps of air being drawn and pushed through my sinus and mouth and nose. It was delicate. It was ballet.

Maybe the road does this to you. Sitting quietly mile after mile, day after day. Eating alone, thinking all the time and conversing with only yourself and those who are mostly strangers. It's sometimes hard. But you do get to sing.

I was happy and settled for the while spent listening to and feeling the little dance that a body does when it is alive. I wasn't thinking about being hungry or tired or worried about how many more mies there were left to drive. I listened for and felt the moment when a single breath began, and when that same breath was finished. And then a new one. Tum-tumm, tum-tumm. Then I heard the motor of the truck strike a groan as we pitched into the rising terrain of the Catskills. The truck shifted gears and the motor wound out some as we climbed. I left my listening to watch the road and negotiate the curves and traffic that had appeared from out of nowhere.

When the road had flattened again, and the cars and trucks were all gone, and the dark and quiet returned, I tried once more to listen for my heartbeat; to listen for and feel my breathing. My heartbeat and breathing were still there of course. But the moment was no longer. Thoughts of work and home, and scenes from the last week crashed in and clamored about, replaying themselves in an odd and boisterous montage of images, faces and sounds.

Again I thought about the Berkshires and about James. I thought about music and songs. I thought about my guitar and my banjo and how long they have been giving me a living. I thought about my new record and I thought about Frank and the simple magic that is always around us all the time. I thought about the Old Town School and my students. I thought about you.

And from somewhere I began to sing. I felt my mouth form the words and the tune was good. It rose up out of my dry throat and across my lips and I tried to make it sound a little like the sweetness I remembered the first time I heard James sing, "There is a young cowboy..." I really did.

Hope to see you soon, md


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