Thursday, January 05, 2006


Levon and Ralph

Is there anything as satisfying as seeing two of your obsessions overlap? I was just skimming through a transcript of Levon Helm's December 30 appearance on Nightline--yes, these are the chores that occupy my mornings--and came across the following exchange:
VICKI MABRY (ABC NEWS): What does music mean to you?

LEVON HELM: Music is the language of heaven. That's what Emerson taught us. When I was a kid, I used to pretend that I was playing music. I would grab an old broom and, you know, pretend that I was singing and playing.
Emerson! Levon Helm is pushing the Transcendentalist line up in Woodstock! Very exciting news. Meanwhile, I found myself wandering over to the bookshelf and pulling out my dogeared copy of Robert D. Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. I can't imagine a better, more inventive work of literary biography. As he did in his earlier Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, the author divides his story into 100 bite-size chapters, and the final effect is eerily stereoscopic, as if you were studying the subject through a compound eye. One of my favorite parts is the final paragraph. Richardson has already dwelled many times on Emerson's fiery conception of the universe--a cosmic conflagration to which every human being contributes some minor spark. "We must have not only hydrogen in balloons and steel springs under coaches," the Sage of Concord insisted, "but we must have fire under the Andes at the core of the world." Well, in the last lines of the book, Richardson delivers this lovely, quiet recapitulation:
On the next day, April 21, six days before his death, Emerson was diagnosed as having pneumonia. Despite Edward's warning, Emerson got up, dressed, and went as usual to his study. After tea, he consented to go up to his bedroom early but would accept no help closing up his study for the night. He went from window to window, locking them and closing the shutters on each. Then, as was his custom, he went to the fireplace and took his fire apart, setting the sticks, one by one, on end on each side, and separating all the glowing coals. That done, he took his study lamp in his hand, left the room for the last time, and went upstairs.

These last two posts made my day. Levon Helm is a giant; that he has Emerson on the tip of his tongue is an added bonus. And thanks, too, for sending me deep into my iTunes for that Louis Armstrong recording. I listen to so much Bix that Louis' recordings seem to just explode out of the speakers by comparison. So much joy & life in that man . . .
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