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Profile of Blues Guitarist Jon McDonald in Salt Magazine

Hey everyone,

I had the good fortune to get to sit down with legendary blues guitarist Jon McDonald for a profile in Salt this month. Jon is one degree of separation away from blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and is an incredible musician in his own right who has helped bring the uniquely American art of the blues all over the world. This story was lots of fun to write, and getting to jam with Jon was a rare joy and honor – he has so much to teach, about music and life.

Enjoy! Read it by clicking here, or scroll below.

BLUES MAN

by John Wolfe

“The blues is a rusty nail,” the great singer Etta James once said. What exactly she meant by that, I’m not sure, but I can tell you where to start looking. There’s a bar of the same name down by the train tracks on South Fifth, near Greenfield, and on Tuesday nights they host an open-mic jam, run by the Cape Fear Blues Society. A good place to start asking might be out back on the smoke-wreathed patio, where the musicians shoot the breeze between sets. Or maybe up by the pool table at the entrance, the clacks of cues striking intermingling with the upbeat crack of the snare. More than likely you’ll find answers at one of the tables in front of the stage: There are people here from all races and backgrounds and social situations, people at varying degrees of economic security and mental health. This is a place where everyone becomes the same shadow-draped figure watching the dazzling lights and the musicians sweating to create the sound which fills the low-ceilinged room.

They’re playing the blues — classic, timeless, yet still relevant; a uniquely American form of music that inspired almost everything that came after it. Your standard blues song has four measures of the root note, two of the fourth, two of the root again. The real exciting part: a measure of the fifth, where the music reaches up to heaven, then one of the fourth again, falling from grace, then back to the root again for the last two, back to Earth, back to where it all started, down low. But at the very end of the phrase, a sting, a beat of the fifth again, to remind us what this music can do. Twelve bars in all. So simple anyone can play it, but complicated enough that only a handful can play it well.

At eight o’clock the musicians start to shuffle in, lugging their instruments down the room’s left side to an alcove beside the stage, where a whiteboard hangs, conspicuously, on the wall. The board is divided into a grid; on the horizontal axis, the sets of three songs (or 20 minutes, whichever comes first). The vertical column is split into instruments: lead and rhythm guitar, vocals, bass, drums, harmonica, keys, brass. The musicians make their marks at the intersections. Chatting, casual, they hang a bit, drinking their beers, but one eye always watches the board to see who’s playing when, or if a new set will open up before the jam master decides it’s getting late and he needs to get home to his wife. They never know who they’re going to play with until they take the stage. Anyone could walk through that door and sign his or her name. The creation all happens in the moment, extemporaneously, which leaves it both vulnerable to colossal flop, or capable of actual magic; sorcery, even, when the right group of shamans walks up there.

One such magic player is guitarist Jon McDonald. He’s a fairly recent Wilmington transplant, from the Windy City originally — as was said of Luther Allison, “You can take the bluesman out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the bluesman.” Jon grew up there, on the south and west side of town, until his parents separated when he was 8. Then he lived with his mother, on the 19th floor of a north-side housing project in Al Capone’s old neighborhood, with windows from which he could peer down at his city — something he says gave him a different perspective. There was a lot going on outside that window. It was poverty, he says, but he was meant to be there. Lots of musicians lived in that neighborhood — a good place for a young boy who got his first guitar at age 12 (his parents originally gave him a cello to keep him from getting in trouble in school. It didn’t work).

Growing up there and watching great musicians on Wells Street, near where he went to Catholic school at St. Michael’s, eventually led him to getting up on stage. “I had a way of putting myself into, finding different situations,” Jon says, sitting next to me on a barstool, watching the world. “It was more fun to be close to the action musically than it was to be in the audience.” (Interesting side note: There’s a photograph of him standing behind Allen Ginsberg onstage at the ’68 Democratic National Convention.) He saw artists who influenced him — to name just a few, Rory Gallagher, Jon Rindborn, Major Lance and Hubert Sumlin — many of whom he played with later in life.

This makes Jon part of the direct lineage of blues musicians that can be traced way back to the very beginning. He’s one degree away from Chicago blues titans like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but the music goes back to the Mississippi Delta with players like Robert Johnson and Son House; back, back, all the way back to the slaves crossing to the Caribbean from Africa on the middle passage, unwilling passengers who communicated clandestinely through beats tapped out into their captor ship’s bulkheads. That’s where the blues began, says Jon. With the beat. “The beat — just the sound of it, you actually feel the word as well as hear it: beat,” says Jon. “And it’s the same thing with the blues: blues. It’s not always what you hear. It’s what you feel.” I say the words out loud, reaching for that feeling. Beat. Blues. And I do start to feel something: down low, in my chest, in my heart. “That seems to be a lost essence, as well as (a lost) art,” Jon says. “Without that feeling, you got nothing.”

The man who was the connection between Jon and Muddy Waters is an accomplished blues guitarist named Morris “Magic Slim” Holt, who had enough of that feeling to go around many times over, and he wasn’t shy about sharing it. Slim’s obituary in Rolling Stone magazine credited him with “help(ing) define the sound of post-war electric blues in Chicago.” Jon played with Slim for 13 years as the rhythm guitarist for Slim’s band, the Teardrops, recorded six albums, and toured with him extensively, playing gigs in the Netherlands and throughout Europe, Brazil, Asia, Canada, Mexico and nearly every state in America. Jon calls him his “Dutch Uncle,” and says Slim treated him like “a little brother.”

When Slim played guitar, he played without moving his hand up and down the fretboard, staying in one spot, but finding everything that was there. His style wasn’t about technical proficiency, or trying to cram as many notes as possible into a solo. It was about pulling people into his own experience with his music. Most of all, Jon says, a bluesman has to connect with his audience. “Slim was really great because he could play one note — and that was the point. In that one note, he was really expressive.”

The other thing Slim taught him, Jon says, was to stop trying to sound like Magic Slim. Take the music, make it your own. Do your own thing; tell your own story. The blues, first and foremost, has always been about the story, the history, of the person singing the song. When Jon steps onto the stage and picks up his guitar and plays, you hear a man who has spent a lifetime refining his voice. He sings in a smoky, booming baritone, textured as granite; when he lays down notes, they are bricks in the house he is building, the solid structure he then paints with wild wails of pure expression. Jon is a craftsman — a master. All his notes are as big as his personality, his presence — he picks up the guitar like it’s a lost part of himself, and there he is, suddenly, drawing you in with the kind of natural gravity all great players have.

There are people on stage at the Rusty Nail for whom this is their Tuesday night, and there are people on the stage for whom this is their entire life. Amateurs with shiny strings on their guitars get the chance to trade notes with pros who have played on stages much bigger than this one, across the country and the world. But everyone comes together to speak a common language, united against the shared sorrows of human existence, of life’s basic tragedy, and still find joy in those in-between moments which are magic, plain and simple.

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Terrapin Tally

Last weekend I had the pleasure of becoming a Citizen Scientist at the local wild place which I love most: Masonboro Island. I got to ride along in a kayak (okay, paddle along) with two actual scientists from the NC Coastal Reserve; together we observed the waters for any sign of Diamondback Terrapins, the only truly estuarine turtle in North America. For some perspective, I also interviewed Hope Sutton, the Stewardship Coordinator for the Reserve and site manager of Masonboro Island. It was a gorgeous morning on the water, paddling and observing and learning about a local species of special concern which may be vanishing from our local marshes.

Read all about it here.

Parallels Across the Pond

At the end of last month, I had the good fortune to attend the annual meeting of the Wilmington Sister Cities Association, at which a panel of experts discussed and gave perspective on the ‘Brexit’ decision of last June. There are parallels to be drawn between the English vote and the campaign that elected President Trump to office- something I was vaguely aware of as it was happening, and which becomes even more apparent in hindsight. In this essay I try to capture an interesting discussion about international affairs which reach far beyond my little Port City, but which hold implications which might change the way we live here, on this side of the Atlantic. Enjoy!

Read it here.

Interview with Rep. David Rouzer

Last Monday, in the spirit of political gonzo journalism, I managed to capture a brief interview with Rep. David Rouzer, U.S. Congressman from North Carolina’s 7th District, by simply walking up to him after a town hall meeting and asking him two questions, point blank. I think I caught him off guard. He let down his trained-politician slickness for a fraction of an instant, and gave me an answer which was both revealing and complex. I’m glad I was there to witness it.

This essay was co-written with a dear friend and writing mentor, Gwenyfar, whose guidance and advice have helped me grow as a writer in ways inexpressible. She owns a wonderful bookstore in Wilmington, which you can find online here, but she much prefers that you do it in person. The bulk of the voice in the piece is hers; I am responsible for almost everything after the paragraph break (surrounding the actual interview with the congressman), and contributed reporting with hand-scrawled notes. I was honored to share the byline with her, and hope we will do it again in the future.

Read the essay here: http://www.encorepub.com/live-local-live-small-gwenyfar-and-friends-attend-first-town-hall-meeting/

 

Continue reading Interview with Rep. David Rouzer

Two New Essays (and a short meditation) on Design

Earlier this year I was assigned two topics, both on the subject of local designers and builders (Michael Swart of Swart Amplifiers and Mark Bayne of the CFCC Boatbuilding Program), to research and report on for the March issue of Salt Magazine. I delved into the project with my usual verbose vigor and submitted two thousand-word essays, unaware that my word limit had shrunk to a scant two hundred and fifty words each. And here, dear reader, we catch a glimpse into the strange and collaborative process of creating prose for publication.

My marvelous editor at Salt, Isabel, is responsible for the finished stories turning out as well as they did. She endured my ramblings with poise and grace, and wasn’t afraid to dive in with her editorial knife and “kill my darlings,” in the interest of creating pieces that were far tighter than what I originally gave her. Brevity is the soul of wit, she said. And she was right. We went back and forth via email, cutting here, clarifying there, and came out in the end with two much shorter, but still meaningful, stories, now out in the world to fend for themselves. What is left is the beating heart of what I was trying to say; all that was considered to be verbal excess now lies dead in a .odt file somewhere on my hard drive, and echoes down the halls of memory.

Yet, afterwards, I still felt a slight pang of missing what I knew was once there. One of the wonderful and dangerous things about a blog is that I am free to ramble. I have no word limit. Perhaps a little excess, every now and then, is a good thing. Everything in moderation, including moderation, as Wilde said. So, partly because the topics of both essays happen to be about the creative process of design, and partly because I happen to like a few of the phrases that didn’t make it to the printed page due to spacial constraints and am unwilling to let them die entirely, I’m publishing the initial drafts of the two essays below, for comparison. Why not? I’ve already written them. See them as they were originally intended to be seen- fat and full and meandering as life can sometimes be.

So please enjoy the final drafts here, and if you’re interested, scroll down for a peek behind the scenes.

Continue reading Two New Essays (and a short meditation) on Design

From Green to Gray

My little seaside city is a microcosm of the world. The problems that face my community in Wilmington are the same ones we struggle with on a state, national, and global scale. Specifically, I’m thinking about growth: there are more and more people moving here every day, but our peninsula is finite. There is only so far you can go on the land before you run into water. The same is true of everywhere else, but here it’s more pronounced. So with more and more people come more and more houses, buildings, and infrastructure, obviously. But at some point, we will run out of space to put it all. And in the meantime, Wilmington turns from green to gray, with all of our natural places vanishing under concrete and pavement.

How do we find a balance? Both colors are necessary to our modern lives, but too much of one and our people suffer. With concrete comes culture and convenience, but wild spaces offers us something we cannot get anywhere else- true open freedom. Our lives (or at least mine – I can only speak from personal experience) are found at the play between the two; If we cannot escape into the refuge found on the other side of the coin, our spirits become dulled. Green and grey are like modern Yin and yang.

This short essay raises these questions, and more. Even if you don’t live in my fair city, I’d be willing to bet the same shift is happening near you. I see it everywhere I go. It’s the defining characteristic of this epoch of human existence- at least on the landscape. The colors of the world we live in are changing. Whether it’s for better or worse remains to be seen. I have my own opinions; I won’t bludgeon you with them here. But the fact remains.

Enjoy. Read it here.

Cold Water Warriors

Photo Courtesy of Salt Magazine. Image copyright 2017 TJ Dreschel.

Happy winter, everyone!

I’ve got a new essay out in Salt magazine about the history of wintertime surfing in the frigid waters on the Carolina coast. It’s just the right read for this chilly time of year: in it, you’ll find what surfers wore to keep warm in the days before neoprene, and how the question of who developed the first wetsuit is actually a matter of contention in some circles. Who knew?

Enjoy! Read it here.

Also: I’ve got four essays coming out in the near future: one about community gardening, a short one about boatbuilding, one profiling a local builder of guitar amps, and one about how our landscape, in a trend affecting the whole country and world, is turning from green to grey, as seen through the lens of a local golf course. Stay tuned.

 

Here’s to the Land of the Longleaf Pine

Read the new essay HERE: http://www.encorepub.com/35848-2/

Friends,

Today I discovered that the best way to ring in a New Year is to see one’s name on the cover of encore magazine. My favorite independent weekly publication printed an essay I wrote in a fit of passion at the end of last year, in which I respond to a story reported by the Star News (read it here) about a new facility at our local State Port opened by multinational biofuel company Enviva. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Star News, but in this particular instance they didn’t get the whole story. So I felt it necessary to do my part, as an occasionally card-carrying member of the free press, to inform the citizenry.

The information in this essay was mostly sourced from the Dogwood Alliance (https://www.dogwoodalliance.org), an Asheville, N.C.-based nonprofit organization who Lorax-esquely defends arboreal interests in the state. They presented a film at ILM hangout Jengo’s Playhouse a few weeks ago, Threatened Forests, by a French citizen named Benoit Grimont. The film portrays the environmental detriments of burning biofuel in Europe, and how that all ties back to the forests of Southeastern America, like the one in my backyard. These hardwood forests are being cut down and turned into wood pellets, to be shipped overseas and then burned, and the company responsible, Enviva, has the audacity to call it “environmentally friendly.” Not on my watch.

Hopefully my little essay fills in the gaps in the story; hopefully this gets the message out to the people of my state and those who would strip her bare that we’re not going to tolerate that sort of thing around here. It’s time to talk back to the ones responsible for these decisions. Even though it’s slightly amplified due to my profession, I only have one voice. We need a chorus. So if this fires you up as much as it did me, say something. Call your congressional representative. Talk to our shiny new Governor. Tell them both that you’re a registered voter, and you’d like to see something done about this, please.

Read all about it here. Thanks to encore magazine and Shea Carver for publishing this piece. Spread the word!

Going Aloft, Chapter 26

The End.

Such a permanent little sentence, isn’t it? One often imagines it as the closing of a book, a final moment of quiet pause before it returns to the dusty dry shelf. But books, while they may imitate life, aren’t life. Stories end, but life keeps on going along (or aloft, if you’d like). By the action of closing one book of your life, you create space for something new. When you really look at it, The End of one thing is merely the beginning of another.

This is The End of Going Aloft– well, in this present serialized incarnation, at least. I have high hopes the story will find its way into tangible printed book form (so I can, in fact, close it and move on), and one of my goals for 2017 is to make that happen. There’s a lot more to this story that I just didn’t have room for. Whole months of my life, actually, that I couldn’t quite squeeze into twenty-six 1,200-word chapters. They’re all saved in a file on my computer, somewhere, as well as in the more ethereal stream of memory and consciousness. Eventually they’ll make it out into the printed word; after that, who knows?

But it’s not The End of this website, or of my writing career. Expect great things from both in 2017. You can count on more On The Water essays for Salt, as well as two more short stories in encore, and hopefully a few more new publications will join in the fun. And there are many other adventures both already experienced and on the horizon which will someday solidify into words. My stated goal in life is to live an interesting one, then write about it, and that goal won’t be changing anytime soon.

If you’d like to come along for the ride (and I quite hope that you will), stay tuned. Click the “Like” button on Facebook if you haven’t already. If you enjoy my work and would like to sponsor it financially, please consider becoming a Patreon. Or just shoot me an email and tell me what you’d like to read more of. One of the great joys of this profession is meeting the people who join you on a journey which began as a very personal one, but, through the magic of language, became an experience more universal that you could ever have hoped. I’m honored that you have joined me for the telling of this story. I’ve learned so much in the past year, and I couldn’t have done it without you, reader dearest.

So I don’t think of this as The End, even though it is. Instead, I think of it as The Beginning of even wilder explorations into the sea and into ourselves, a continuation of the voyage which left home’s distant shores many years ago. The ultimate goal of the journey, the star we are steering towards, is the realization of a truth, specific or universal (for truth has many manifestations). Without the daily ground work of experience and creation and sharing, the high pillars we have built will crumble. I’ll keep doing my part, conjuring words and crafting sentences, if you keep doing yours. A writer needs a reader. I hope that you’ll stay one of mine.

So I thank you, so very much, for coming with me this far. Let’s go even further, together.

Going Aloft, Ch. 26

Going Aloft, Chapter 25

Here it is, ya’ll: the penultimate chapter. Hard to believe I’ve been doing this every two weeks all year long. I’ll save the waxing poetic for the final installment, but I’d like to preemptively thank you all for joining me on this ride, and I hope you’ll stick around for the next one, too.

In this chapter I play around with form more than I have in other chapters. The first three little segments are meant to be imagined as being written on the backs of postcards home, and the bracketed text describes the photograph on the front. And then the final long section is a scene at night, what might be the climax of the book: when I realize that the Captain is just a man, like me, and realize my own future potential unfolding before me over the dark and infinite ocean.

One of the major points of this book is that humanity is capable of doing marvelous, dazzling things if we only focus our minds and hands on them. Feats which only exist in the imagination are quite capable of becoming real through dedication and hard work, and to me, that’s as close to magic as we’re going to get. The character of the Captain is kind of a shaman guide for doing just that. If you couldn’t tell already, he’s my own pseudonym for a close personal friend, mentor, and holder of the world record for longest sea voyage in history, Reid Stowe (Wikipedia page here for those interested). And while what Reid did isn’t always understood by everybody he comes across in real life or on the web (looking at you, SailingAnarchy), that fact makes his accomplishment no less magnificent. And he’s just a guy, like you and me, who worked hard and wrangled his dream into reality. Remember, this book is a work of nonfiction. All this stuff actually happened, in the same world you and I live in. The potential to do great things is within all of us; it’s in our own hands whether we make it happen or not.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy it. Only one chapter left in Going Aloft. But first, read this one here.