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July 2000 Musings: The Susquehanna River/Chesapeake Bay Tour

Summer is in full swing. I’ve been reminding myself to enjoy it as it spins by far too fast. Today driving back home from eastern Massachusetts I realized the corn growing in the fields along Rt. 112 is nearly elephant-ear high. How did it get that tall so fast?

Despite the rapid tempo of what should be a lazy month, there’ve been a few gloriously savored days here and there. The month started out with an old-time festival in Vermont, great tunes and good friends to hang with for a couple of days. It was the first time I’d made it up there for this annual event. My two younger kids went with me. Tim practiced his knots—getting ready for a backpacking expedition in New Mexico—while Maggie picked wild strawberries and I jammed. No, not strawberry jam, banjo-fiddle-guitar jam. Yum. And we’ve managed to fit in a few of those treasured summer family activities – fireworks on the fourth, swims in Ashfield Lake, picnics, woods walks, and even a day at a ropes course for Maggie and me.

Most of my gigs this summer have been duo concerts with Dana Robinson, and the last two-thirds of July we’ve been going full tilt. We squished all our instruments and the rest of our stuff, the two of us, plus Maggie, Dana’s son Sather and his dog Side all into my trusty Subaru wagon (can you imagine?) and headed west into New York State, then south to Pennsylvania and Virginia for a 9-day tour. I am fascinated by the way concerts fall into particular groupings—my agent Pam works hard to put together a tour that makes geographical sense, but there’s often something that holds a tour together energetically that goes beyond that. This was the Susquehanna River/Chesapeake Bay Tour, for sure.

The Susquehanna has long been my favorite river in the country, ever since I first started touring in the early 80’s. I love the way the river grows in strength yet keeps her character as she winds her way from New York state down into Pennsylvania (where I’ve stopped to watch hawks soaring above her cliffs) and on out into the Chesapeake Bay. Just after I’d started playing banjo, in May 1999, heading out on a midwest tour along her banks on Rt 17 in southwestern NY, I pulled into a rest area beside her and took out my banjo. A new tune came out, a gift from the river, so I named it “Susquehanna.”

Seems this beloved river is Dana’s favorite also, and shortly after that, Dana returned from a tour with a lilting mandolin tune that he called “Harrisburg,” after the arched bridges that cross the Susquehanna there. But this spring, when words came for the tune, Dana had to re-name the song “Susquehanna” to fit the lyrics. It’s been my favorite song of the summer’s concerts, dancing in my head most mornings when I first awaken: “lines of laughter on your face, crows feet on your muddy banks.” And here we were, touring in towns from the headwaters of the river all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay.

We negotiated our route from western Pennsylvania down to northern Virginia to include a visit to the Rockville Bridge with its 48 stone arches. We detoured north a few miles till we could spot “Miss Liberty,” standing gracefully midstream on an old railroad bridge pylon.

Later in the tour, we circled around to stay with folks in Maryland right on the Chesapeake, very close to the point where the river merges into it. We pedaled their paddleboat out into the bay, where the kids and Side jumped in for a swim. A few days later in Virginia Beach, we headed for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny afternoon. By the time we got there, the sky was clouding over, but the drops beginning to fall just as we were stepping onto the sand didn’t dampen our desire to swim. The waves reminded me of Tubarão, in Santa Catarina do Sul, where Brasilian kids taught me—a foreign exchange student from the mountains of Vermont—to throw my body before the waves, riding them till they dumped me on the sand. This skill is as rusty as my Portuguese—I got more than one salty noseful before the lightning chased us from the water.

The next day found us, on our way north at the end of the tour, crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and descending into the Thimble Shoal Channel Tunnel, right at the point where bay meets ocean, completing our circle round the Susquehanna’s watershed. The tour was a pleasure all round, wonderful audiences and concert sites alike – from a beautifully renovated theatre in Endicott, NY, to the patio overlooking the fountains at the glorious Longwood Gardens in southeastern Pennsylvania. And delightful folks who generously and kindly hosted our entire entourage in their homes along the way.

Now we’ve moved into a new phase of the summer, with northeastern concerts and festivals at the end of the month, and more to come in August. Based at home again, I’ve been doing a good job of getting down to the woods each day, celebrating the summer while it’s still here. And if it ever stops raining and warms up, maybe I’ll get in another swim or two before fall hits!

Warmly, Lui

Posted in Musings

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