A Tocks on all your houses

Much of Born Under a Bad Sign deals with a seminal event in the history of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains—the proposed construction of the Tocks Island Dam.

What began as a response to devastating floods along the Delaware River became a David and Goliath battle pitting land owners against officials, marshals and profiteers.

It was a big fight over a small piece of dirt.

Tocks Island is a spit of land in the middle of the Delaware River, north of Shawnee Inn and the Delaware Water Gap. Its tip is not quite visible from the top of Mt. Minsi on the Pennsylvania side of the river, with its soaring views of water that has run free for millennia.

It is also the fictional setting for the Reed farm and the mythical Indian Head Resort, named for the striated rocks resembling a Native American on the New Jersey side of the river.

In the 1930s, after decades of flooding, the federal government decided to fix the situation by damming the last free-flowing river in the east. The lake the dam would form—a 34-mile long impoundment stretching north to Port Jervis, New York—would not only control flooding, the feds said, it would generate electricity, tourism and jobs while providing recreation and water for New York City.

Government and business leaders hailed the dam as a win-win-win situation. Residents whose families had lived along the Delaware for generations had a vastly different view. For them, eviction from ancestral lands was a travesty. Those who weren’t bought out were kicked out. Homes spared by the bulldozer were rented to people the locals derisively called squatters, creating even more tension along the river.

Property owners fought with a passion that belied their numbers. As a reporter in the early 1970s, I interviewed several of their leaders, including Mini Hamilton and Monroe County Commissioner Nancy Shukaitis, both of whom lost their homes to a project that was never completed.

It is their spirit that animates the characters of the novel.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

 

For Everything There is a Season

Some days I feel I’m living in a parallel universe, as if the decade of the 1960s is repeating itself. That sense of déjà vu is one of the reasons I wrote my first standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign.

But it is not the only one.

The Sixties were a time of hope and conflict, of great promise and greater uncertainty. When I came of age, the Vietnam War hung over our heads like a bloody sword. Its protests tore the country asunder. Racial and economic inequity threatened to finish the job.

I grew up in a rural area with its own conflicts, chief among them the fight over the Tocks Island Dam, a project that saw the government condemn homes and evict their owners, only to rent those properties to people seeking an alternative life to the mechanized grind of the city.

For the youth of that small Northeastern Pennsylvania town, the Sixties were a struggle against personal injustice, too, against the conformity and abusiveness of the 1950s. It was a battle to find our own voice, to choose our own path.

The Sixties weren’t all protests and riots. There was peace and hope and goodwill. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, Kennedy and King, Beatles and Stones, Leary and Burnett (Carol, that is).

Portrait of the author as a young musician

There were festivals like Monterey and Woodstock, and music that offered an outlet for the raw passion of youth.

There was the beauty of nature, the view from the Appalachian Trail of the Delaware Water Gap and the flow of the river below, holy and bright.

And then there was first love and the great firestorm of emotion lit by that first kiss.

Twenty years ago I decided to write a novel about those experiences. It has taken this long to realize that dream. Am I trying to relive the days many see as carefree? Or am I sifting through memories like an archaeologist, digging for clues to how we became the people we are today?

That and more. I wanted to capture the spirit of the time in a way that, as a journalist, I never could. I wanted to reimagine those years through the eyes of two young people, Elizabeth Reed and Hayden Quinn, who embody the chaos of the late teen years and the excess of the era. They have many decisions—stay or leave, tradition or adventure, comfort or uncertainty. Yet like so many considered wild in their youth, they manage to hold fast to their values, to honor their families and, against all odds, to fall in love.

Writer Anne Lamott says it best. “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs—your truth, your version of things—in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer.”

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

The Delaware Water Gap

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

I came of age in the 1960s, absorbing the culture, learning the music, praying I wouldn’t get shipped to Southeast Asia. While my new standalone novel is fiction, Born Under a Bad Sign is based on a series of historical and personal events that played out in many of our lives, from the war in Vietnam to the fight against the Tocks Island Dam to the dicey gigs our band played to keep the dream alive.

The novel launches today.

Titled after the 1967 hit by blues master Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign introduces a pair of unlikely heroes, a Quaker and a rocker, Elizabeth Reed and Hayden Quinn—lovers, fighters and opposites in every way. It’s through their eyes that I’ve tried to capture the heady rush of those years. In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the most famous rock festival of our time, we’ll look at the impact of the Sixties, at Woodstock and Vietnam, at the government’s plan to dam the Delaware River and the people whose homes and lives were demolished by that project.

And, above all, we’ll reconnect with the music. Join me as we revisit an era that shaped a generation.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

 

 

A Change Is Gonna Come

It is the summer of 1969, capstone of an incandescent decade, a time of conflict and hope. Elizabeth Reed and Hayden Quinn have both. The couple are on a mission. Just not the same one.

The daughter of Quakers, Elizabeth is fighting to save the family farm from a dam that will flood the Delaware Valley. Armed with only grit and a camera, she documents the destruction wrought by a government intent on damming the last free-flowing river east of the Mississippi.

Hayden Quinn, the man Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, is committed more to music than Elizabeth, the woman he’s supposed to love. For the guitarist, a genius at fusing disparate genres like classical and rock, liberty is freedom from restraint. His dream is to take his group to Woodstock—if someone doesn’t kill them all first.

An explosion at the band’s homecoming concert, a fire that threatens Elizabeth’s farm, and a series of suspicious deaths plunge them into a race to identify the saboteur, a person closer to the pair than either can imagine.

Their lives are complicated by Quinn’s distrust of tradition, Elizabeth’s aversion to risk, and a youthful passion that blinds them to the dangers they face.

Born Under a Bad Sign, my first standalone novel, tells the story of a young woman torn between duty and love. Alive with the culture and music of the 1960s, the book marks the coming of age of not just a pair of star-crossed teenagers but of a generation.

On sale May 1, the novel is available for preorder through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

By the time we got to Woodstock

Two years after the Summer of Love and life in the rural town of Pennsboro, Pennsylvania is about to explode. A dam that would flood the valley pits family against family. Protesters riot. Buildings burn. Amid the chaos of 1969, two lovers risk everything to fight for their dreams.

That turmoil forms the setting for my first standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a book that captures the spirit of the era through the eyes of an unlikely couple—a pacifist Quaker and a rebellious rocker, two people who wield their differences like armor and sword.

Elizabeth Reed has three passions: photography, the river the government wants to dam and a musician who can’t settle on any one person or place. Hayden Quinn, the guitarist Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, feeds a single obsession—to play Woodstock, the biggest concert of his life. He presents Elizabeth with a dilemma: does she stay to save her family farm, or relinquish her dreams to follow Quinn into the unknown?

In a time when her generation trusts no one under 30, Elizabeth must face the greatest risk of all—whether to trust herself.

The story of Elizabeth and Quinn is inspired by real events. I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, the site of that proposed dam, and watched the conflict tear apart families and entire towns. Our band never would have made it to Woodstock but we opened for national acts and played some of the holes Quinn’s fictional group plays. And like Elizabeth, I wielded a camera for a small newspaper that covered the crises of the region, including the forced eviction of its citizens and the squatters who claimed their land.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the novel is a portrait of love and loss in the one of the most turbulent times in American history.

With an on-sale date of May 1, Born Under a Bad Sign is available for preorder through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

The Magic of Bob Dorough

For Bob Dorough, three is a magic number. For his legion of fans, it’s Bob himself who’s magic.

Whether he was singing times tables or scat, Bob made music and learning fun for adults and children alike. He died April 23, 2018, at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, at the age of 94.

In the late 1970s, I wrote an article about him for DownBeat that was never published. Here it is at last, the story in his words of how he created Multiplication Rock, presented as a tribute to a most remarkable man.

* * *

It can be no accident that Bob Dorough included the song “Because We’re Kids” on his album Beginning to See the Light. The piece not only sums up his attitude toward children, which led to his job as composer of the ABC-TV series “Schoolhouse Rock!” It reflects the relaxed image he projects, the open smile that reaches you even before the soothing Southern twang of his voice.

Intoning the words of Dr. Seuss, Dorough sings, “But we’ll grow up someday, and when we do I pray we just don’t grow in size and sound and just get bigger pound by pound. I’d hate to grow like some I know who push and shove us little kids [sniff] around.”

No chance of that now. Dorough has spent the past several years scoring “Schoolhouse Rock!” in which he teaches children math, grammar and civics in a respectful and entertaining way. Listeners have long associated him with jazz, from his work as an accompanist to his own 1957 classic on Bethlehem records, Devil May Care. But that challenge met, he turned to producing popular artists like Spanky and Our Gang and writing advertising jingles.

After a decade-long hiatus from the jazz world, his career has come full-circle and he’s back to doing some of his favorite things. The veteran of swing and New York City jam sessions has returned to nightclub performing (including a recent stint at Bradley’s in New York) and has released a new album—a live performance recorded in California with longtime associate and bassist Bill Takas.

The duo recorded Beginning to See the Light on their own label, Laissez-Faire, to achieve the artistic freedom they desired. The track from which the album receives its name—a Harry James, Duke Ellington composition—finds Dorough swinging on piano around Takas’s strong walking bass lines. Throughout the rest of the recording, Dorough livens the recording with his unique voice, a reedy sound that’s soft and thin as a whisper, spiced with a drawl that echoes his West Texas roots.

Born in Arkansas, Dorough fell in love with music while in high school, to the point of going back to school another year after graduation to take advantage of playing with various bands. He picked up piano by ear after discovering he could compose and hold down more jobs by playing that instrument, then headed for North Texas State at Denton to polish his skills. “It was the first college to put jazz on the curriculum,” he says. “It was just a hotbed of jazz.”

His salesman father had other ideas for his son. “I was a natural mathematician. My father said, ‘You could be an engineer ‘cause your math grades are so good.’”

But New York City beckoned. “I played in different bands and combos and mostly we jammed. We were always playing. It was a way of learning. And I also liked singing. I got into my own style of singing. I guess I pretty much formulated my own style at a fairly young age, although I had what I thought was a late start in music. I was interested in serious music, too. Composition was my major.”

Dorough’s late start may account for his affinity for children and his long life in the business. “I always endeavored to think young, act young and live young, and take care of myself. As I say, I felt I got a late start in music. I was drafted and was in the Army. All that threw me way behind schedule. I dropped out when I was 28 or so, working on a master’s degree I never got at Columbia. And I’m probably one of the few American boys who took a high school post-grad course.”

When jobs in his field ran thin, he turned to producing popular artists—Chad Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Spanky and Our Gang. He tried advertising work. That move gave him an exciting job and a whole new audience—children. “It’s like anything else. You make a contact and get a job, and if it’s good, you get another one,” he says of his introduction to “Schoolhouse Rock!” and its creator.

David McCall, president of the McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in New York, faced a problem that Dorough was soon to solve with twelve songs later released as Multiplication Rock. “His idea was to set the multiplication tables to music. He got it from his own child, who couldn’t memorize the tables but he could sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and memorize all the words. So my partner, Ben Tucker, claimed I was the man to do the job.

“Apparently they’d tried other New York City composers and they had gotten a kind of result they weren’t looking for, sort of a simplistic writing-down-to-the-children insipid approach. So I went to see them about it and that was it. Even though they were in the advertising business, they seemed prepared to develop this idea, which was nothing new, actually. It was a little bit new in that he [McCall] wanted the multiplication tables set to rock music. Everything was rock music in that year.”

Dorough calls the assignment “a rare opportunity, one of the most exciting commissions I’ve ever had, a chance to communicate with the younger generation. I didn’t know if it would be on record; I didn’t dream it would be on TV.

“I sort of laid back a couple of months. I didn’t want to go popping out obvious rhythmical tunes. So I just studied my math books. It’s strange. I’m a collector of mathematics books. I’m a mail-order freak. I’d see Fun with Games and Numbers and Mathematics for the Millions, well I would order the book. Maybe I wouldn’t even read it. When I got this assignment, I just came home and started cracking all these books. I was prepared for the job.”

He also received some help from his daughter, Aralee. “My daughter was just entering the grades where they studied math. It gave me a chance to try some things on her.”

While the outcome was supposed to be rock, Dorough found he had created a gentler sound. “Some of my friends said, ‘That’s not rock, that’s jazz. You snuck it in on them.’ I don’t know. It’s neither rock nor jazz.”

The advertising agency originally tried to market Multiplication Rock as a record and a book, but the agency’s animation department worked up a better deal for another client, ABC-TV. To date, the network has produced 25 3-minute films. Dorough makes several a year and works as the show’s musical producer and arranger.

Until now, Dorough has concentrated on writing and recording for some of the legends of jazz. His 1957 release, Devil May Care, featured himself and Miles Davis. The trumpeter later invited Dorough to compose and sing a number for The Sorcerer. Mel Torme and others have recorded Dorough’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” and the Fifth Dimension covered his “Winds of Heaven.”

Now he takes life easy on his 3-acre farm in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, playing piano and flute duets with his daughter, lounging in flannel shirt and wool socks in his sparsely furnished home, an easy hour from the studios in New York. “I sort of fell in love with this part of the country. This reminds me a little of my boyhood in Arkansas. It’s similar terrain. Matter of fact, my grandfather used to be this far from the river there,” he says, pointing to the Delaware River.

As for the future, Dorough is enthused about the rerelease of Devil May Care, out of print until it was reissued as Yardbird Suite. His plans include performing, finishing the TV series, composing and working on a grander scale with an orchestra. He will continue to compose along traditional lines, even though he embraces jazz-rock fusion

“I think it was inevitable jazz and rock would gravitate toward each other.” The musicians in both camps, he says, were using improvisation. “I think music is just coming together. It’s like the whole culture has been fused by communications. I myself was always in love with exotic music of all kinds. I liked Indian music from India and I liked African music. And naturally I liked some classical music, too, what you would call modern classical or modern contemporary.

“Culturally, I can see this fantastic blooming of all elements and styles. I’m definitely all ears.”

Jeff Widmer is the author of the CW McCoy and the Brinker series of crime novels.

Bob Dorough entertaining children in March of 1979 (photo courtesy of Donna S. Fisher; used with permission)