I’m almost finished a book of poems following the fictitious fiddler, Virgil Johnson, who travels dust bowl era America by rail. He combines several fascinations of mine: folk music, folklore, and small town America. His last name makes reference to fabled blues musician Tommy Johnson who, as the story goes, went down to a crossroads at midnight to sell his soul to the devil. His first name brings to mind the poet, Virgil, who wrote some of the earliest pastoral poetry. Dante, of course, also made Virgil his literary guide through Hell in his masterwork The Inferno. My Virgil may or may not interact with the devil, but he does come across the otherworldly figure, Time, who lives in a cabin on the top of a mountain with his blue tick hound and builds motorized toys.
I grew up around the corner from covered bridges and old railroad tracks. I remember many nights falling asleep to the mingling sounds of wind through leaves and steel on steel.
The Reality of Myth
More than any other work I've undertaken so far, the Virgil project incorporates my love of stories and storytelling. Virgil is, in a sense, the subject of his own tall tale stretching across a mythologized vision of the American landscape. Unlike his counterpoint, Time, Virgil wanders freely, and what he sees is as big as what he can imagine. Virgil is an idea I aspire toward, a pied piper to a simpler, uncomplicated life.
My home state of Vermont has its own real-life railroad mythology in the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who, while blasting rock to lay more ties, had a spike shot clear through his brain. He survived, though he was never quite the same. This is me visiting the small town in Vermont where this curious incident occurred.
Tunes as Stories
Fiddling is its own kind of storytelling. When I'm part of an orchestra there's a certain formality--concert black, a conductor, ritual tuning, the chase toward technical perfection, every detail outlined in pages of sheet music. But fiddling gestures toward something else--like a good story, the tune stays the same, but it gets embellished a touch more every time. A plain melody becomes a series of repeats and flourishes: an eight-foot bear becomes a twelve-foot bear.