Tag Archives: Strum Again

The SongKiller Saga….

14 Jun

Next up a three volume series from Scarborough on GSP Legends Promo. Image

Praise for Phantom Banjo from Booklist: “This book has just about every virtue one can reasonably expect in a contemporary fantasy tale, including a vivid portrait of the contemporary folk scene and a chilling emotional impact that makes many horror novels look pedestrian. Highly recommended.” “Contemporary” in the above review means the world as it was in 1992 when the book was written. The rapid changes in recording and communications technology make it seem like a period piece now, which is entirely appropriate for the subject matter. This is a fantasy series about a bunch of folk musicians, good pickers and flawed but likable human beings, trying to reclaim songs destroyed by the evil forces (or devils, including but by no means limited to the Expediency Devil, the Stupidity and Ignorance Devil, and the Debauchery Devil) that want humanity to lose its humanity. Hauntings abound, as they do in the folk songs. It’s a good yarn to read at Halloween, whether or not this is the music that moves you. And sometimes it’s really funny. There’s a lot of cussing though. Well, the characters are frustrated and scared a lot, and they beg your pardon for their language but you might do the same if faced with similar catastrophies, disasters, travails, frustrations, and circumstances Excerpt:  A WORD FROM A WAYFARING STRANGER     A good storyteller, I have learned, does not make the whole entire story center around herself, as if she was the most important thing about the story. I’ve seen many a fine songwriter who once wrote and sang wonderfully understanding songs about the lives of ordinary people fall flat on his ass when he gets a little famous, gets away from regular folks, and pretty soon all he’s able to write are songs about how god-awful it is to be on the road and how he is so a-lo-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-own.     So I want to make it clear that though I’m in it and I have a little part of it, this story is not about me. It’s about me telling about what happened when certain parties decided to deprive the world and these United States of America in particular of what is broadly, inaccurately, and disputedly called folk music.     About these certain parties; lawyers would probably call them the parties of the first part, but I call them devils. For one thing, they are, as you will see in this story and the other two parts of it that follow, mighty powerful and also mighty evil. That fits devils down to the ground. More than that, they’re mysterious and magical and we—my friends and I—only learned what happened on their end in little bitty pieces here and there most of the time and had to fit it all together as we went along. Because to begin with, I would say the common attitude among us was that we all were inclined to like magic without exactly believing in it, which was different from later when we were forced to believe in it but didn’t like it much at all.     It wasn’t your little Tinkerbell fairies or nice old bats with magic wands, none of that stuff. Not even wise magicians like Merlin or witches like that woman with the twitchy nose who used to be on television. So though I could tell you they were goblins or gremlins or all-powerful wicked wizards, I think I’ll just call ’em what my grandma from back in the Carolina mountains would have called them: devils. Not necessarily the hellfire-and-brimstone kind that get you if you don’t believe a certain way. Buddhists have devils same as Christians, same as a lot of folks. Most everyone has something like that. So just say these were basic, generic, all-around-ornery devils who were opposed to anybody having any kind of belief or good feelings in themselves that helped them get by. That was why they hated the music so, you see. That was why they set out to destroy it.     And that is why it’s been up to me, who never has been able to carry a tune in a bucket, to go before the others, back into where just about all the music has been pulled out by the roots. My job is to tell how it happened, to fertilize the soil, to make the people ready for when the songs come back, fresh cuttings transplanted from the old soil where my friends and I have spent these last harrowing years harvesting the songs from their own history, trying to save them from the oblivion where the devils sent so many of our own songs.     I don’t go on the radio or TV talk shows, now that I’m home, or anywhere the devils can find me and keep me from talking to people. I use my gift of gab I got from bartending and the performance training I got from dancing plus what I learned from hanging around all those musicians lately, and I travel around among the ordinary people, the kids, the bums, the working folks—anyone who is bored or lonely enough to have time to listen. I turn myself into someone else, someone as fascinating as a snake charmer, someone who is a worthy enemy of all those devils, and I make myself heard.     What follows, written down, is the important part of what’s been happening since I’ve been back, staying with a friend and with an audience as long as it seems safe, then moving on to carry the story farther, to break just a little more ground. It’s not in my voice because mostly it’s not about me except as I’m reflected in the eyes of other people. It’s about them, what they say, what they do, what can be guessed from the things that happen and from the lifting of an eyebrow or a quirk of a mouth. And of course it’s about the songs, which, when you hear them, speak for themselves.     So think of me, and of yourself, as if we were birds on a branch or flies buzzing in the air around that first schoolyard, where a funny old woman is talking to a bunch of kids, telling them about something that happened a few years before. Image

The ancient ballads of England, Scotland and Ireland are great stories to visit but nobody in their right mind would want to live there. There’s a high body count for every ballad and a happy ending usually involves boy meets girl and they end up sharing a grave. The musicians who go to retrieve the songs, with the help of the magic banjo, Lazarus, know this, but the fact is, the songs also contain a great deal of magic useful in defeating the devils who are out to dehumanize humanity by stealing the music. The Queen of the Fairies, aka the Debauchery Demon, Torchy Burns, makes them a deal they can’t refuse and the reluctant heroes find themselves thrust into the lives and deaths of ballad people they know are going to end badly. It’s enough to make a picker take up accounting! Excerpt: As if a night like that with the wind and fog and rain in an ancient monastery looking for a long-dead wizard wasn’t Halloweenish enough for everybody, Gussie was trying to get used to sharing her body with a ghost. Hell, she hadn’t shared it with a man on a regular basis for close to twenty years except for a one-night stand once in a blue moon. And this was a whole lot closer than being in bed together—it was like being pregnant with somebody else’s homemade film, full of voices and pictures that weren’t hers, even when Sir Walter wasn’t talking. It made her giddy. Not that he wasn’t as polite as he could be. It simply didn’t give a lady much privacy. She had never been quite so close to anyone even before she ran her old man off.     She felt a little like a ghost herself with her cold wet feet and her stringing hair trailing water all down her back and face, her eyes wide from trying to see in the dark.     As she passed through the gate, reminding Sir Walter that they had to physically open the gate and go between the doors, not through them as he had been used to doing, she saw Julianne wafting ahead of them, like something out of a Wilkie Collins novel.     At Willie MacKai’s back, the banjo was still playing that song and now more than ever the words came back—Gussie realized Sir Walter was feeding them to her.         “Cold blows the wind o’er my true love         And gently falls the rain         I never had but one true love         And in greenwood he lies slain         I’ll do as much for my true love         As any young girl may         I’ll sit and mourn all on his grave         For twelvemonth and a day.”     But as they crept farther into the abbey, the song changed to a major key and the tune became the one that urged them to “Take it to its Root,” the song that the banjo had taught Willie and Juli to write during the traffic jam from hell on the Oregon Trail. Willie stopped, listened, then continued on, stalking silent and wary, looking all around him like the soldiers on patrol in the war movies did. Anna Mae Gunn walked a little to his left as if she were on tippy-toe and if she were a cat her ears would have been swiveling all different directions. Brose Fairchild pitty-patted beside her with little reluctant steps, the irises of his eyes all surrounded by whites and his wiry red-gray hair seeming to stand on end more than ever.     “You seem ill at ease, good woman,” Sir Walter’s ghost intruded on Gussie’s thoughts.     “I am,” she muttered—no need to speak loud enough to wake the dead, so to speak, when the dead was right here inside her head, cozy as another pea in a one-pea pod. “I can understand how the atmosphere wouldn’t especially impress you but it scares the bejeezus out of me. And I can’t help wondering where that red-haired woman got herself to.”     “Oh, as to that, who knows about such as she,” he said, dotingly, Gussie thought.     “You evidently know her better than we do if you think she’s worth bowin’ over and so on,” Gussie said.     “Aye. I know her,” he said. Though he hadn’t quite recognized her in the long-distance visions he’d had when he first arose from the grave, the moment he met her he’d known her for what and who she was. He had been a sheriff and a lawman in life and he had seen a lot of deviltry—enough to knock sense into any ordinary man. But he was also the biggest romantic of his age and lived more in his head than he did in the real world most of the time and a little thing like dying hadn’t changed that. Gussie did not know what to make of the image he showed her of Torchy Burns with her red hair blazing under a golden crown with stars all over it and wearing a gown of velvet green decorated with silver trim and little silver bells. She just supposed that he liked redheads, which figured, him being Scottish and all, and that he was having the kind of fantasies about her that if he were a modern man, he would have dressed her up in a slinky evening dress and diamonds and maybe a mink coat. (Well, maybe not a mink coat what with the way people were reacting to those things these days. But most men having fantasies about redheaded women didn’t worry about animal rights politics or much of anything else at the time.)     “Here it is,” Julianne’s toneless voice floated back to them, an echo that didn’t repeat itself. “I found it,” she said. “Michael Scott.”     “Is he—uh—up?” Brose asked in such a small voice he had to repeat himself.     Faron and Ellie had been inspecting everything around them with interest but now that Julianne had found the tomb Ellie’s eyes were big as saucers and Faron’s Adam’s apple traveled up and down, up and down. They had already encountered several ghosts in the course of their journeys but the ghost of a wizard was surely something special. Both of them were big fans of fantasy novels and they knew that the quintessential question when it came to wizards was a paraphrase of the one Glenda the Good had asked Dorothy Gale, “Are you a good wizard or a bad wizard?”     Neither of the Randolphs had shown less courage than any of the others when faced with actual ghosts, but then they hadn’t had time to be afraid of the ones they’d seen before. The other ghosts may have appeared on atmospheric nights too but they didn’t have the fanfare of being announced by a descendant who was possessing a friend of the Randolphs’. The Wizard Michael Scott might have been a great philosopher, scientist, and scholar but he was also, like all competent magicians, enough of a ham to know how to make an entrance.     Ellie scooted closer to Gussie. She was shivering so hard her rain-wet goose bumps stood up like white caps. “Gussie, ask Sir Walter what this Mike guy is like.”     “He doesn’t know. He never met him.”     “But he’s going to wait until midnight, huh?” she asked.     “It’s only eleven,” Anna Mae said. “God, I’m freezing.”     “Me too,” Ellie said, jumping up and down vigorously to demonstrate her point.     “Maybe there’d be time to go back to Abbotsford for blankets or something,” Gussie said. “I didn’t lock up, Walt, did you? You don’t mind if I call you Walt, do you? And you call me Gussie. Seeing as how we’re getting so close and all.”     “Seems imminently practical to me, dear lady. I doot mah dear wife would mind even were she alive, and would join me in begging you to call me what you will. Walter or Wat, as you would have it.”     But his pleasant speech broke off abruptly and Gussie felt him stiffen and freeze within her, before with even more alarming abruptness she found herself turning and tearing back for the gate.     “Sir Walt—Wat, simmer down. What is it? Where are we going? You don’t have to return to the grave at midnight do you?”     In her mind an anguished howl let rip. “The swine! The dirty swine have returned. They’re after my bukes, Gussie. We maun save my bukes.”     He headed her straight for the gate. “Whoa, Walt, if you’re going that way you have to leave me behind. Even if we don’t go through walls I can’t run all the way back to your place.”     “We must!” he cried. “I canna bide here trapped while they destroy m’life’s work!”     Gussie was too involved with the distraught ghost to notice what the others were up to, but Ellie, who had been close by, grabbed Faron. “Come on, we’ll drive you back.”     “What about the wizard?”     “There’s an hour. The others can stay here. Once we get back to Abbotsford Sir Walter can un-possess you and haunt the vandals into submission if we make it in time. Brose, you got the  keys?”     He tossed them and there was a clink as they hit the paving stones, then Ellie, Faron, and Gussie/Sir Walter piled into the van and drove like bats out of hell for Abbotsford.     A diesel eighteen-wheeler with the legend Circus Rom on the side was parked outside Abbotsford and the front door stood wide open.     “Oh, my God, Wat, I’m sorry. I should have locked up,” Gussie said. “Might as well have printed an invitation.”     But she was only able to aim the thoughts at him as she ran for the house. Sir Walter forgot that she was no longer young and he had been dead more than a hundred and fifty years. He took the walk up to the house like a sprinter and Gussie passed Ellie and Faron, and did not hear the scuffling from behind her when the young couple came abreast of the circus truck. But Sir Walter carried her along so fast she did make it to the door before something came down on her head and she crumpled on the threshold just as a bright orange light blossomed from the open doorway to the library. 



What started in the States ends in the States. The song-saving musicians are back home, with heads and hands full of songs they saved with the help of the Phantom Banjo, Lazarus. The soul-destroying devils haven’t given up on killing off the music though, along with everything else that’s maybe a little fun or keeps people human and sane. Even the debauchery devil, AKA Torchy Burns, AKA Lulubelle Baker (of Lulubelle Baker’s Petroleum Puncher’s Palace in west Texas) AKA Lady Luck AKA, believe it or not, the Queen of Faerie, has fallen on hard times. Her fellow devils are willing to see her demoted to the lower levels of hell, where a girl can’t even get a decent mani-pedi. Her only hope is to convince one of the musicians–that would be Willie MacKai–to become her human sacrifice tithe to hell so she can get back her faerie kingdom. Once the magic banjo self-destructs, Willie decides to cooperate with Torchy. But the phone-in ghost of Sam Hawthorne and the music aren’t done with Willie yet, though it takes a ghost train full of cowboy poets and all of his friends to save him.


The cowboy they called Ute didn’t look Native American, Shayla St. Michael thought, but then you never could tell. As Shayla and the rest of the small band of Californian eco-feminists gathered around the campfire, Ute fixed them with a sardonic glance and continued sharpening his blue pencil with his pocket knife. He’d already cooked the women a nice vegetarian meal with a few edible non-endangered native plants and onions from the Valley, piñon nuts imported from New Mexico, and a little tofu imported from the soy fields of Kansas.
    The smoke that rose, some might say fragrantly, to the sky, was authentically coming from a fire of dried unspecified animal dung. He used to tell the tour groups which animals, but that had proved unwise. Unspecified was safest.
    Now, sated with their politically correct meal, the women sat around the campfire and watched the smoke spiral toward the moon.
    “I think this is lovely. No television, no radio, no computers,” began Barbara Harrington-Smith, a corporate tax lawyer.
    “I disagree,” said Shayla, who was a graphic artist for a large publisher. “I’m bored. We walked a great deal, true, but I miss my evening jog even though I do understand that we might trample indigenous wildlife of the fanged serpentine variety and be immediately chastised for our thoughtlessness. And I did as instructed and didn’t bring any work.”
    “Also,” added Heather-Jon Argulijan, “this fire stinks.”
    “I could tell you a mite more about the interestin’ things that have happened on this ranch,” Ute said in his quaint western twang. He was not offensively macho. Though the eco-feminist group had requested that their guide be a cowgirl, or more correctly, a cow-woman, the tour director explained that the cowgirls were all attending management seminars that week or competing for top prize money in the rodeos and wouldn’t be available but assured them that Ute, while absolutely an authentic member of his profession, was also extremely progressive in his attitudes and in fact was the one who insisted on bumper stickers that proclaimed “ERA Will Rise Again” for all of the ranch’s Jeeps and pickups.
    “Oh, God, not another environmental impact statement,” Heather-Jon moaned. “I’m sorry, Barbara, but I just can’t take any more.”
    Barbara sometimes thought of Heather-Jon as the weakest link, but she was also usually a lot of fun, and fun seemed to be what was missing.
    Ute grinned at Heather-Jon in a non-condescending, brotherly, and respectful way. “Why, ma’am, as important as such a thing is to all of us, I don’t reckon I’d undertake to tell you women about it orally like. That’s somethin’ that it’s only fittin’ should be read carefully in big old folios of recycled hard copy. No’m, what I had in mind was to tell you the story of how an old hand on this here ranch and some compadres of his, includin’ yours truly—”
    “All men?” asked Shayla in a still-bored tone that indicated she was just sure they all would be. She inched a little farther from the fire and slipped on her wool socks and pulled on a poncho her roommate had woven for her from the wool of organically grown sheep.
    “Hell no! Why, there was Sister Julianne Martin and Sister Anna Mae Gunn, Sister Terry Pruitt and Sister Ellie Randolph, not to mention Sister Gussie Turner, who did the advance work and told me most of what I’m about to tell you.”
    “Isn’t this a little—you know, out in the sticks, as a place to start a movement?” Heather-Jon asked.
    “Good as any, better’n most,” he said. “There’s songs in this story too, and as I sing ’em while I’m tellin’ you about how they was used, I’d appreciate it if y’all would join in, especially if you can do some nice harmony or play a mouth harp or anything.”
    “Comb and tissue okay?” asked Mary Armstrong.
    Ute’s eyes, pale as prairie skies and framed by wrinkles only a little leathery since he was careful to use plenty of sunscreen, lit up. “That’s fine, Ms. Mary. Fact is, I always have wished I could get the hang of a comb and tissue and never have. I’d be much obliged if you could maybe give me some pointers? I’d be glad to show you a thing or two about ropin’ in exchange.”
    “That would be acceptable,” Mary said gruffly, but she squirmed around a little, clearly pleased.
    “Well, then, for your information, ladies—and I use the term ‘ladies’ as one of respect and admiration and in no sense as a restrictive or class-conscious kinda thing—I happen to be by profession a cowboy poet.”
    “What the devil is a cowboy poet?” asked Heather-Jon.
    “I couldn’t have put that question better myself, ma ‘am, but if you’ll bear with me, I believe I’d rather not say right now. In line with the amended Code of the West, I aim to show and not tell you all about it. First off, I want you to imagine a little woman about sixty, sixty-five years old, but quick on her feet and strong from lots of dancin’ and a good judge of people and a way with ’em from years of bartendin’. She had thick curly hair that she just plain let go gray, as if there was nothin’ wrong in the world with that.”
    “And do you think there is?” demanded Barbara, whose well-styled bob was salt and pepper.
    “No, ma’am. Just shows she wasn’t one to put all them chemicals into the water system. Besides, lotsa people pay to make their hair lighter. What’s wrong with just lettin’ nature change it, is what I always say. Anyway, this woman had gone through some tremendous changes in her life because she happened to enjoy a certain type of entertainment with which we cowboy poets are also in sympathy, which is how I came to hear this story. You see, there were a bunch of devils, and I don’t mean only of the strictly Judeo-Christian brand, mind you, more what your Native American Indians might call the evil spirits. These folks decided to eliminate this particular type of entertainment—oh, hell, call a spade a spade. They used to call it folk music, though strictly speakin’ that’s not always an accurate term. Anyhow, these devils, who were rich and sophisticated and behind all the troubles in this world that people didn’t dream up all by themselves, decided to take away the music that sometimes makes people feel a little better about themselves and their work. Gives ’em a kind of what we cowboy poets would call an eagle’s-eye view of their situation, helps ’em get their lives back in control.”
    “Like a therapist?” Heather-Jon asked.
    “Yeah, but you don’t have to make appointments, and most folks could do it themselves even though sometimes they hired other people to do it for them, which is not as good but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick (which was all the devils had for them). Anyhow, for a space there—and y’all may not be too well aware of it, but me and my compadres were—these devils by killin’ and connivin’ managed to get rid of most of the most important singers of the songs and make everybody forget the words to songs people had been singin’ for hundreds of years.
    “After a while, they even made people forget the melodies, so the songs were gone from memory in this country. Everybody forgot every song sung by every dead singer. When the great Sam Hawthorne died on the very day the Library of Congress folk-music collection got blowed up, almost all the songs in the country were wiped from people’s minds. You notice I said people’s minds. Sam had this magic banjo that he passed on before he died, and it remembered the songs, though nobody knew how come. Now, this magical banjo eventually passed into the hands of a very small group of people. One of them was this woman I’m tellin’ you about, Ms. Gussie Turner. Others were the women I mentioned previously, Julianne Martin, Anna Mae Gunn, Ellie Randolph, and Terry Pruitt. All fine musicians except for Gussie and Ms. Randolph, who was a more academic kind of lady. Then there was Mr. Brose Fairchild, a gentleman of more than one color who was a crackerjack blues man and purveyor of Baltic ethnic tunes. And last but by no means least Mr. Willie MacKai, who used to work right here on this ranch where we are now working—though that’s another story. These were the people who came together and ended up as the guardians of Lazarus, Sam’s magic banjo.
    “Well, Lazarus knew good and well that Gussie and Willie and their friends couldn’t get back all those forgotten songs as long as they stayed in these United States, so the banjo helped them write a song in which it told them to go overseas to the British Isles, where the roots of much of American folk music were still dug in deep and sendin’ out shoots. They went over there and with some help from a bunch of ghosts, includin’ that of the famous writer Sir Walter Scott, his ancestor the Wizard Michael Scott, and a bunch of their kinfolk, they got back the songs. Then they went after songs from other places than Scotland, such as Ireland, France, Spain, and the like.
    “In the meantime Ms. Gussie, who had become a hell of a storyteller by virtue of bein’ possessed—though mind you in a very respectable and respectful way—by the ghost of Sir Walter, came back here to do a little low-profile advance publicity.
    “Now there was one of these devils, a redheaded user of many aliases, who was a little more complicated than the rest of them and tougher to figure out. She was the chief devil in charge of debauchery. Among other things the musicians learned in Scotland, one was that she used to be the Queen of Fairyland and had come down in the world since then. So she was the one who both helped them and hindered them when the musicians wanted to go into the ballad world to reclaim the old songs that would help them release the rest of ’em. Of course, as a devil she was bound to uphold what the rest of the devils wanted, which was to try to keep the musicians from living through the songs, making them their own, and bringing them back to this country to revive all the other songs with the powerful magic contained in the oldest and strongest ballads.
    “However—as she told the other devils—as the official Debauchery Devil she was in charge of wine, your less enlightened and self-respecting kind of women, and song. Musicians were some of her best people, and she was always a little ambivalent about the whole devilish operation to kill them off along with the music. Also, she was always a little wild, as if she was high on some of her own stuff. It seemed to Gussie that the redheaded devil’s unpredictableness made her the worst devil of them all—she was like the old mule who’d be nice to you for two weeks just to get a chance to kick you.
    “So Gussie was wary when this carrot-topped character plucked her off a nice reliable bus to give her a wild ride in a fast red sports car.”



Phantom Banjo:


Picking the Ballard’s Bones


Strum Again: