Wednesday, January 7, 2009

August 2004: Memories of August Festivals

I. Woodstock
My definitive source of news lately the USA Today reminded me that August 15-17 was the 35th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts. I thought, or rather had fooled myself into thinking, that we were still living in Detroit when Woodstock happened. But, clearly, we had already moved to the Detroit suburb of Livonia. This was just before starting my junior year at Stevenson High School. I do remember learning of this landmark event on the radio but only after the festival was making news due to the incredible traffic back-up of miles on the New York State Thruway.

Woodstock took place Friday August 15 to Sunday August 17 in 1969. I remember clearly the weather in Detroit was good, great in fact. I was listening to WABX, the alternative rock station in Detroit, in those days it was called an underground station where the Disc Jockeys were under spoken and played more music than they talked. We were in the thick of the Vietnam War. It was the year after the Summer of Love. The times, they were a changin'. I learned about Woodstock on Thursday or Friday whenever the unexpected traffic jams were making the news. Woodstock. It had and has a magical ring to my heart and soul. I felt a real tug to go, to just get up and get there. It was a nine hour drive, with no twenty mile long traffic jam to deal with, but I felt the lure of the times and hype and hoopla that was beamed over the underground airwaves of WABX. That tug, that lure, was not only felt by me but many of us on the younger side of the so called generation gap of those changin’ times. That feeling was encapsulated perfectly, for me in Joni Mitchell's song: Woodstock.

We are stardust, we are golden, and we have to get ourselves back to the garden.

That was the mood and state of mind many of us were in.

A half million young people showed up. The weather turned against the throng. It became miserable. They ran out of food and all the facilities were woefully inadequate for the astonishing number of people that turned out. Yet, they were young, high and resilient. They persevered. It became something very special. A movie of the festival followed along with a sound track. I saw the movie a few times and wore out the cassette tape I napstered from a buddy's record.

I never made it to Woodstock. After all I was only 16, it was far away, I really didn't have access to a car and I was too risk averse to just up and hitch hike which would have been the true counter culture thing to do. I actually never even talked to any of my friends about this desire and lure to “head on down to Woodstock.” Maybe if I were in college with my own car, I might have raised the idea with friends about going. Probably we still wouldn't have gone, but we would have at least talked about it. After the news reports turned and started talking about the rain, the crowds and chaos, I felt kind of glad I did not go.

Upon moving to New York I became acquainted with two fellows that went to Woodstock. One of them still carries the ticket stub in his wallet it meant so much to him.

On August 13th of this year, I must have listen to both the Joni Mitchell and the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version of Woodstock a couple of dozen times each. When I was younger, I really liked the driving Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version. Now, I think Joni's performance better captures and evokes the magic and mystique of the times.

We are stardust, billion year old carbon.
We are golden, caught in the devil's bargain,
and we have to get ourselves back to the garden.
I dreamed I saw the bombers flying shotgun in the sky,
turning into butterflies above our nation.

Woodstock was indeed a turning point. Now, to me, it was not a beginning. It was a defining point and the beginning of the end of the movement. After Woodstock, everything gradually became more commercial. It was as if, the mainstream saw the incredible interest and buying power of the youth and began marketing and capitalizing on it.

Yet, there are things remained from those days. People have been trying to get back to the garden ever since in a variety of ways. America was never the same. While the Woodstock Generation has aged, we struggled with those lofty perhaps utopian principles while struggling to establish ourselves in society. We became entwined in business and the markets we created. We have taken over society in our various careers. We struggle with a war today, some of us straddling the paths of peace and dealing with the very real terror threats as defined in the 9/11 attacks. We still try to be spiritual. Some of us have become seriously Christian, others worship wealth and success. Others take a less defined and more mystical approach.

Thirty-five years have passed. I still look fondly on Woodstock and I still look fondly on the message in the music from that era. It was the era when I was coming of age. I wonder how many others were listening to the Woodstock sound track or watching the movie this month, reminiscing, thinking, and dreaming of how things have and have not changed.

II. Blessing of the Grapes
There is another outdoor setting for August festivals that has a much larger place in my heart and memory. It is a place in Ecorse, Michigan called Greenlawn Grove. It was a picnic ground according to a web search is still active albeit as a flea market today. It was where the Armenians of the St. Sarkis Church community of Detroit would gather for the Annual Blessing of the Grapes Picnic.

Literally for centuries, Armenians have been blessing the first grapes of the season. It is usually done the second Sunday of August in conjunction with, but not related to, the Assumption of Mary. In this Blessing of the Grapes a special prayer written by Nerses Shnorhali or Nerses the Gracious (1100-1173) is read. In this harvest blessing, reference is made that fruit-bearing trees and plants were part of the third day of creation. The first grapes harvested are brought to the church for blessing upon which they are distributed amongst the people. Traditionally, grapes were not eaten until after the Blessing of the Grapes. Today, the availability of grapes year round has made this last tradition most difficult to maintain.

These picnics were magic. They defined a whole part of me and definitely influence the music I love and perform. I remember the times with family and friends, the smells of the kebab cooking, the musicians, the dancers, the tavlu (backgammon) and card players, the kids running around with limitless energy, and the men and women who had been born in the “old country,” the folks of my grandparent’s generation.

While the name, Greenlawn Grove, seems like a more apropos name for a cemetery. This Greenlawn Grove was definitely a picnic ground and dance hall. There were a few ball fields, plenty of picnic tables and that dance hall. The dance hall was truly nothing fancy. It had a barn like floor worn smooth over the years. The roof was arched like a Quonset hut and was shingled, mostly, green but with enough white shingles to spell out Greenlawn Grove. The windows of this hall were large single panel shutters that opened inward, hinged at the top, and latched via hooks and eyes. There were lights, but not enough to make a huge difference which created the right ambiance the evening dances held there. For the picnics, most of the light in the hall came from the windows and three double doors. The hall was a rectangle with benches built in around the perimeter where older people would sit enjoying the music and dancing. Kids would climb and stand on the benches waving out the windows to passersby. Often, they would jump out of the windows soliciting warnings and scoldings about breaking their necks and such from their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other concerned village elders. There was a modest bandstand at one end, the end where there wasn’t a door. To me when the band on this stage struck their first notes, the stage became a window into our collective past. I remember the hall as big, dusty, and full of people dancing, watching, kids running, and musicians performing. I am sure if I returned today, I would probably be struck by how small the hall has gotten in these many years.

Besides the people, the Blessing of the Grapes, and the music and dancing, the food also defined the picnic. The main attraction was lamb shish kebab. You could just get a sandwich or a full dinner with salad and rice pilaf. The salad was made in industrial bowls, sitting in oil and vinegar for enough hours to give it that unique and coveted picnic flavor and texture. The pilaf seemed to be equal parts chicken broth, rice and butter, again, made in industrial batches. To this day, people still refer to “picnic pilaf” as the standard against which all others are measured. No one knew about cholesterol back then. If you didn’t like kebab or later wanted something else, there was watermelon, corn on the cob, soda, beer and occasionally khema sandwiches. Khema is like steak tartare but in this case raw lamb mixed with fine ground bulgur wheat, seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper, onions and parsley.

The shish kebab was most special food attraction at these picnics. The lamb was cubed and marinated a day or two in advance. The kebab was then skewered on long family sized skewers and three dozen skewers at a time would be cooking on a perfect coal fire on a long special barbecue someone had fabricated just to cook the picnic kebab. When done, the kebab was de-skewered, and the skewers re-loaded. This would go on all day, until the picnic ended or the kebab sold out. Those manning the cooking of the kebab took their jobs very seriously. They spent the whole day setting up the barbecue, starting and tending the fire, and cooking the kebab. In the August heat and humidity, it was a very hot and sweaty job. They would drink water, beer and even Raki (Arak or Ouzo) and better if the Raki was homemade. They would, of course, have to sample the kebab to make sure it was fully cooked and met their standards. This fraternity of kebab cooks, the kebabjis, was hard to break into. They loved and valued what they did. I do believe that no one had a better or sounder night’s sleep after the picnic than the kebabjis.

Me? I loved what went on in that hall most of all. I loved the music and the musicians. I spent most of my time by the stage, mesmerized. I loved the dancers especially that first generation dancing in that heavy stately style that no one born in this country has ever been able to match. Those born in the US were much more energetic in their dancing. The same held for the musicians. I was fortunate enough to have heard the Gerjekian band, the only first generation group I ever saw live. They were a trio of clarinet, a set of drums (really just a bass, snare and cymbal), and an oud. Only the oud player was amplified and his amp was the size of a small suitcase. There is no comparison to the musicianship, repertoire, and sound reinforcement of Armenians bands playing the same style music today. Yet, this trio of immigrants, along with their audience and dancers, could create magic. They somehow had a full sound, were plenty loud enough and had that “old country” flavor and style that, again, those of us born here can only hope to approximate. They were not fancy or articulate in their performance. The oud player while not a virtuoso had an amazing tone. I recall that he rarely used the upstroke, using mostly down strokes in picking. I can still hear that deep, woody tone that rang with each heavy down stroke. I would love to match that tone, or at lest the tone that haunts my memories.

What fantastic memories they were. I believe these picnics got me into the music. I still love to play picnics though many musicians can do without them. I play more picnics now than ever. They are best when the weather is nice and over the years we have been lucky in that regard. The musicians I perform with now are a great and fun bunch. The food, at worst, is good. It is a pleasure to be part of a tradition that goes back, who knows how many centuries.

In the diaspora, the church and church hall is the normal venue for things Armenian. Church is fine for religious and most cultural activities. But, at these picnics, these picnics at Greenlawn Grove, a place we rented once or twice a year, we were outside, we were Armenian. We lived in the magical illusion everything we surveyed was Armenia… and for those few hours on Sunday August afternoons it was.

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