Marcia Ball


“Rollicking, playful, good-time blues and intimate, reflective balladry…her songs ring with emotional depth” —Rolling Stone

“A welcome ray of sunshine…Ball is a killer pianist, a great singer and songwriter. Potent blues, sweet zydeco, soulful, fast and furious Texas boogie…heartfelt, powerful and righteous”Billboard


“Fifty years have passed in a flash,” says Texas-born, Louisiana-raised pianist, songwriter and vocalist Marcia Ball of her long and storied career. Ball, the official 2018 Texas State Musician, has won worldwide fame and countless fans for her ability to ignite a full-scale roadhouse rhythm and blues party every time she takes the stage. Her rollicking Texas boogies, swampy New Orleans ballads and groove-laden Gulf Coast blues have made her a one-of-a-kind favorite with music lovers all over the world. With each new release, her reputation as a profoundly soulful singer, a boundlessly talented pianist and a courageous, inventive songwriter continues to grow. Her love of the road has led to years of soul-satisfying performances at festivals, concert halls and clubs. The New York Times says, “Marcia Ball plays two-fisted New Orleans barrelhouse piano and sings in a husky, knowing voice about all the trouble men and women can get into on the way to a good time.” The Houston Chronicle says simply, “She’s as perfect as an artist can be.”

With her new album, Shine Bright, Ball set out to, in her words, “Make the best Marcia Ball record I could make.” In doing so, she has put together the most musically substantial, hopeful and uplifting set of songs of her five-decade career. Produced by Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and recorded in Texas and Louisiana, Shine Bright contains twelve songs (including nine originals), ranging from the title track’s rousing appeal for public and private acts of courage to the upbeat call to action of “Pots And Pans,” a song inspired by renowned Texas political writer and humorist Molly Ivins. From the humorous advice of “Life Of The Party” to the poignantly optimistic “World Full Of Love,” the intensity of Ball’s conviction never wavers while, simultaneously, the fun never stops. Shine Bright is exactly the album Ball set out to make. “It is a ridiculously hopeful, cheerful record,” she says, in light of some of the album’s more serious subject matter. The secret, according to Ball “is to set the political songs to a good dance beat.”

Born in Orange, Texas in 1949 to a family whose female members all played piano, Ball grew up in the small town of Vinton, Louisiana, right across the border from Texas. She began taking piano lessons at age five, playing old Tin Pan Alley and popular music tunes from her grandmother’s collection. But it wasn’t until she was 13 that Marcia discovered the power of soul music. One day in New Orleans in 1962, she sat amazed as Irma Thomas delivered the most spirited and moving performance the young teenager had ever seen. A few years later she attended Louisiana State University, where she played some of her very first gigs with a blues-based rock band called Gum.

In 1970, Ball set out for San Francisco. Her car broke down in Austin, and while waiting for repairs she fell in love with the city and decided to stay. It wasn’t long before she was performing in local clubs with a progressive country band called Freda And The Firedogs, while beginning to sharpen her songwriting skills. It was around this time that she delved deeply into the music of the great New Orleans piano players, especially Professor Longhair. “Once I found out about Professor Longhair,” recalls Ball, “I knew I had found my direction.”

Marcia Ball Performing “Shine Bright” at the Austin City Limits Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony (with Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson, Carolyn Wonderland, and Shelley King lending their vocal talents)
When Freda And The Firedogs broke up in 1974, Ball launched her solo career, playing clubs around Austin, Houston and Louisiana. She signed with Capitol Records in 1978, debuting with the country-rock album Circuit Queen. Creating and honing her own sound, she released six critically acclaimed titles on the Rounder label during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990, Ball—collaborating with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton—recorded the hugely successful Dreams Come True on the Antone’s label. At the end of 1997, Marcia finished work on a similar “three divas of the blues” project for Rounder, this time in the distinguished company of Tracy Nelson and her longtime inspiration, Irma Thomas. The CD, Sing It!, was released in 1998 and was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Marcia Ball has appeared many times on national television over the years, including the PBS special In Performance At The White House along with B.B. King and Della Reese, Austin City Limits and HBO’s Treme. She performed in Piano Blues, the film directed by Clint Eastwood included in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series which aired on PBS television nationwide in 2003. Marcia also appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman with The New Orleans Social Club, where she not only reached millions of people, but also helped to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. In 2012, she had a role in the independent film Angels Sing starring Harry Connick, Jr., Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson. In 2017 she performed on NPR’s A Jazz Piano Christmas, live from The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Ball joined Alligator in 2001 with the release of the critically acclaimed Presumed Innocent. The CD won the 2002 Blues Music Award for Blues Album Of The Year. Her follow-up, So Many Rivers, was nominated for a Grammy Award, and won the 2004 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Blues Album Of The Year as well as the coveted Contemporary Blues Female Artist Of The Year award. Her next release, Live! Down The Road, released in 2005, also garnered a Grammy nomination, as did 2008’s Peace, Love & BBQ (the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart). 2010’s Grammy-nominated Roadside Attractions and 2014’s The Tattooed Lady And The Alligator Man successfully grew her fan base even further. Altogether she holds ten Blues Music Awards, ten Living Blues Awards, and five Grammy Award nominations. She has been inducted into both the Gulf Coast Music Hall Of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame. The Texas State legislature named her the official 2018 Texas State Musician. As her hometown Austin Chronicle says, “What’s not to like about Marcia Ball?”

Since joining Alligator, Ball has blossomed as a songwriter. Each album has been filled with fresh, original songs, never more so than on Shine Bright. Ball easily draws her listeners deep into her music with instantly memorable melodies and imaginative imagery. Her songs paint vibrant musical pictures richly detailed with recognizable characters, regional flavors, universal themes and colorful scenes, both real and imagined. Living Blues declares, “Her originals sound like timeless classics and southern soul masterpieces that no one else can imitate.”

Now, with Shine Bright, Ball’s new, aggressively hopeful songs are energized by Steve Berlin’s inventive and exciting production, creating electrifying music that is daring, inspired, poignant and timely. The Boston Globe calls Ball “a compelling storyteller” who plays “an irresistible, celebratory blend of rollicking, two-fisted New Orleans piano, Louisiana swamp rock and smoldering Texas blues.”

Of course, Ball will bring the party on the road, playing her new songs and old favorites for fans around the globe. “I still love the feel of the wheels rolling,” she says, “and the energy in a room full of people ready to go wherever it is we take them.” With both her new album and her legendary live performances, Marcia Ball will shine a light into the darkness, making the world a brighter place one song at a time.

blow away cherry blossoms | Tsurusawa Tansen


“blow away
cherry blossoms” 

From the property of Hirohashi Koremitsu’s daughter. A postumous gift to Baisen-in temple. But the most spectacular feature of this wonderful scroll is its painted tromp-l’oeil mounting. It represents the elaborate frame of a poem composed by Konoe Motohiro (1648-1722) brushed by Tsurusawa Tansen.

Young women on Hatsuse river making threads.
Spring winds from the mountains
blow away cherry blossom.
Respectfully written by Tanzan
(i.e. Tsurusawa Tansen)

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Caray! Coronavirus shuts the Mexican beer industry down, and the country is running dry ~ The Washington Post

A man emerges from a store in Hermosillo with a case of beer. The government shut down beer production in early April, calling it a nonessential activity during the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Now stores are running out of the beverage, and people are grabbing what they can. (Norte Photo/Getty Images)

National Treasure: Gary Snyder ~ Lion’s Roar


Gary Snyder. Photo by Festival of Faiths.

Shortly after his eighty-fifth birthday, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, naturalist, and all-around Renaissance man Gary Snyder read from his latest (and possibly last) collection of poems, This Present Moment, as part of the City Arts and Lectures program at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater. He drew an interesting crowd of young techies and older hippies. Actor and activist Peter Coyote, who credits Snyder with introducing him to Zen, asked a question from the front row; Michael McClure, who had read along with Snyder and Allen Ginsberg at the legendary Gallery Six reading in SF in 1955 was there; and California Governor Jerry Brown, who appointed Snyder to the California Arts Council during a previous term, attended both the reading and a small after-party held in the poet’s honor. Shortly after that evening, I spoke to Gary Snyder. —Sean Elder

When I was in high school, young people were still carrying copies of Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums around in their backpacks. After its publication in 1958, you found yourself identified with Japhy Ryder, the fictional character Kerouac based on you. Did that annoy you?

The Western Buddhist world, however it is, has to live with The Dharma Bums. I don’t have to live with it too much—people don’t talk to me much about it anymore.

Jack was a novelist; he wasn’t a journalist. I am only one small model for the Japhy Ryder character. A lot of what Japhy Ryder does is fictional, but some of it is interestingly drawn on what Jack and I did together—the mountain-climbing scene is close.

I learned somewhere that Buddhists and Hindus included all the different creatures in their moral concern, and I said, “Well, that’s for me!”

As a piece of writing, The Dharma Bums is not one of my favorite Kerouac novels. It was written too hastily, and you can see the haste. He just banged it together because his publisher said, “On the Road is doing so well, let’s have another novel right away.” Jack sort of got into that, so as a writer you have to be careful what your publisher needs. Turns out that On the Road is the all-time bestseller in the Kerouac oeuvre, and The Dharma Bums is the second best.

I think On the Road is a very fine piece of work. The Subterraneans is a wonderful book, and Dr. Sax is charming, a playful, youthful piece. Both of those I like better than The Dharma Bums.

Can you talk about your relationship to the Beats? Was there any sense at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955—where Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” and you read “A Berry Feast”—that this was the beginning of a movement?

There was already a movement. I was very much a student of the poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. He had an open seminar twice a month in his apartment out in the Avenues district of San Francisco. I got over there and listened to what Kenneth had to say. It was from Kenneth that I first heard discussion of labor unions, the anarchist movement, the history of West Coast Communism. The circle of people around Kenneth were part of my continuous education in the history of the West Coast left. Kenneth in his earlier days had gone to all the early meetings of the Italian Working Men’s Circle on Potrero Hill. He had a lot of crazy opinions but also had very good insights.

The first time I met Allen Ginsberg was at Rexroth’s house—Allen had just come up from Mexico. The first time I saw Kerouac was when Allen brought him to Rexroth’s place. Because Allen was living in Berkeley, I saw more and more of him. Kenneth thought of both Jack and Allen as “talented jerks.”

Was that his phrase or yours?

I don’t remember. They weren’t quite grown up yet.

What was your first exposure to Buddhism?

Gary Snyder. Photo by Festival of Faiths.

I had a definite argument about the ethics of Christianity—or the absence of what I thought was ethics—in their inability to extend concern to non-human beings. That’s when I quit going to Sunday school—when I found out that our heifers that died couldn’t go to heaven. Then I learned somewhere that Buddhists and Hindus included all the different creatures in their moral concern, and I said, “Well, that’s for me!”

The first big hit of East Asia that came to me was at the Seattle Art Museum, which had a wonderful collection of East Asian, Chinese, and Japanese landscape paintings. Looking at the Chinese and Japanese mountain landscapes, my thought was that they sure looked a lot like the Cascades in Washington. I also thought, “Gee, these guys really knew how to paint!”

When you look at a European landscape, it might seem familiar if you live on the East Coast, but it was a very unfamiliar landscape to me. East Asian painting covers a mountain landscape with ice and rocks and clouds that looks very much like the landscape of interior Washington.

I ran into Buddhism again in college, partly through anthropology and world humanities courses, and partly through the presence of one Chinese gentleman who had been in the American army in World War II and was going to Reed College on the GI Bill. He was an expert calligrapher in both Chinese and the Roman alphabet.

I managed to make my way to Japan and stayed there for twelve years.

After one semester at Indiana University studying linguistics, I went to Berkeley and started studying Chinese full-time. Then I went to Asia with the goal of studying with a Zen teacher. By that time, I had narrowed my territory to Zen Buddhism—its particular kinds of discipline, its poetry, and its heart. I managed to make my way to Japan and stayed there for twelve years.

How were you embraced as a Westerner?

As long as you speak the language and have good manners, you can go anywhere. At first they think you’re a little odd and then they get used to you.

Were you in monasteries?

I was partly in monasteries and partly living in a little place nearby. I had to do that because I needed to be able to look things up. They don’t have a library or a dictionary in a Zen monastery, so I had a place just a ten-minute walk away. To pay the rent I took on conversational English teaching jobs.

Part of the time I was very much in the Buddhist world, but also I got to know Japanese intelligentsia and various European and American expat types, the bohemian subculture of western Japan. I learned a wide variety of Japanese that way: from Zen Buddhists, who speak the most learned and polite Japanese when they want to, all the way down to the dialect of the southern part of Kyoto, which has gambling and prostitution and bar zones. They have quite a vocabulary too. [Laughs]

You were raised on a very small dairy farm outside Seattle in what you described as “a hardscrabble rural poverty life.” Would you say that existence informed you politically?

When I say “hardscrabble poverty,” I’m just talking about the Depression. Everyone was poor, everyone that we knew. My dad was out of work for eight or nine years, but we did all kinds of other things, including splitting shakes, cutting old cedar stumps off close to the ground. We had chickens and cows and eventually fruit trees.

I never had a consciousness of poverty until later, when I realized there were people who have it a little easier. But compared to the kinds of poverty you see in other parts of the world, we always had a car that ran, at least. It’s all a matter of degree.

For a poet and a writer like myself, you can’t help but be a public intellectual. People ask you for your opinion whether you have one or not.

You have to understand that the whole Northwest was much more left wing than it is now; the whole country was more left wing. On the western side of Washington and Oregon there were a lot of proto-socialists and downright Marxists. I sat around and listened in on a lot of conversations. My father was part of the League of Unemployed Voters, an early Seattle mutual aid association that had cooperative auto repair shops, cooperative food stores. It was flourishing so well that some people say it was why President Roosevelt started the New Deal welfare programs—because he didn’t want the West Coast to go Communist.

How would you describe yourself politically now, or do you?

Self-definition is presupposed before we start talking politics, which is also to say: What picture of the world have you managed to create for yourself? For a poet and a writer like myself, you can’t help but be a public intellectual. People ask you for your opinion whether you have one or not.

Tell me about your early interest in Native American culture and traditions.

Our farm was at the north end of Lake Washington near Puget Sound, still home of many Salish groups of Native Americans. At Pike Street Market in Seattle, down at one end where the Hmong women sit now selling embroidery, there were Puget Sound Native Americans sitting on blankets on the ground, selling blackberries, huckleberries, and dried fish. That was part of my world when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the anthropology museum at the University of Washington—my parents would drop me off there when they were going shopping in that part of town. I took note of all that cedar carving and so forth, and talked to Native American guys when I could. So it was a sort of an easy, gradual move from an interest in Native American culture to an interest in East Asia.

Both interests—Native American culture and Buddhism—were later embraced by a lot of young people in the sixties and seventies. Did you see yourself as sort of a trailblazer in that regard?

I had no intention of that. Most of what I see, I think, “They’re not doing a very good job of it.” But I appreciate the steadiness of a lot of the Buddhist people. I have a current companion and she practices vipassana meditation. She asked me, “What is the relationship of vipassana to Zen?” I said, “Vipassana is like going to college. Zen is graduate school; you really get down to where you’ve got to make it work.” I think she’ll probably find her way into Zen eventually.

Of all the things I do, poetry is the one I think I do well.

The one thing I haven’t talked about, and I should say something about, is poetry. Of all the things I do, poetry is the one I think I do well. I’ve been watching what poetry can be for a long time, and part of it is orality. Poetry is very old—it predates
writing and literature. That’s also part of my linguistic and anthropology background—I learned to appreciate nonliterate cultures and prehistory, and what is now called deep history.

Years ago when we were young, Jim Harrison and I did a poetry reading tour in upstate Michigan. It was a pilot program to see if poets in the schools might be a viable idea, to see if students would sit still and listen to poets talk about poetry. That was before Jim wrote short stories.

The kids enjoyed it a lot. For one thing, we said bad words. Poetry gives you permission to say any kind of language, using any kind of grammar. One of my neighbors has been doing poetry classes for children for years. He says, “One of the first things I do is I tell all the children in the third grade, ‘Write a lie.’ They love it. They say, ‘You mean we can write something down that’s not true?’” It’s a wonderful permission.

You’ve said that your new collection of poetry, This Present Moment, will be your last. Does that mean you’re not continuing to write poetry?

You don’t plan to write poetry. If it comes to you, fine; if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.

It took me ten years before I felt like I could let this collection go. I’ll be writing some more, of course, but I don’t think I’ll be putting together another collection. In fact, I’m gearing up to do a new prose book taken from a history of the environment of China I was working on in the 1970s. Most of it is already written. Its title is The Great Clod, which is a Chuang Tzu line. He was a contemporary of Lao Tzu’s, the other great creative Taoist writer. He says, “The great clod nourishes me, comforts me, chills me, feeds me. If I appreciate my life I should appreciate my death.”

You also said that you weren’t sure if you liked This Present Moment. Have you made up your mind about its merits?

Its strength is that I let it be imperfect. [Laughs] That’s what I’m learning. There’s a Japanese saying: “Imperfection is best.” That’s one of their aesthetic sayings. I decided I’m not going to hold it down to the line and get it just right. There are things in there that I don’t know what I think of. But people like it; I can see that.

A Poetic Journey Through Western China ~ NYT

For years, Silk Road travelers made the grueling trek past towering mountain ranges and ancient cities now lost to time. Centuries later, one writer attempts to retrace the journey.

A temple on Crescent Lake at Mingsha Shan (Echoing Sand Mountain) near the town of Dunhuang in Gansu, China. Dunhuang was an important strategic base along the ancient Silk Road, near the entrance to the Hexi Corridor.
Credit…Zhang Xiao



“DO YOU BELIEVE the voices are real?”


My Chinese guide and I were standing in the Yardang National Geopark, on the border between Gansu Province and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s extreme northwest. The nearest town was Dunhuang, 110 miles to the southeast. Enormous yardangs — curving sandstone and mudstone strata carved by winds — towered over us. Others floated on the far horizon.

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“You mean the singing sands?” I asked. On my map, an asterisk marked this strange feature of the Kumtag Desert, three miles from Dunhuang. If you throw yourself down the dunes in that place, the air resonates — sometimes like the lowest note on a cello; sometimes like a crack of thunder.

“Not the singing sands,” the guide said. “I mean voices. Like ghosts. Do people in the West think they exist?”

The Chinese pilgrim and scholar Xuanzang wrote in his A.D. 646 book “The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions” that in this desert region, travelers often heard singing and shouting, shrieking and crying. Disoriented, they would wander, get lost and die of thirst. More than 650 years later, the 13th-century Italian merchant Marco Polo described the same phenomenon; sometimes the voices would even call a traveler by name. “If you’re thirsty enough, and exhausted, and afraid, I guess you might hear things,” my guide murmured. He was looking away from me, into the maze of eroded landforms. We were tiny as pixels on an Imax screen.

The Kumtag is a little desert (9,000 square miles) between the Taklamakan Desert (130,000 square miles) and the great Gobi (500,000 square miles), which covers much of northern China and southern Mongolia. The Chinese have named the giant yardangs here: the Sphinx, the Golden Lion Greeting Guests, the Western Sea Fleet. But the Uighurs, the minority ethnic group who populate this region, know the geopark simply as the Old City, because its sandstone promontories resemble the ruins common throughout China’s western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang: ancient walls, beacon towers and gateways created not by wind but by conscripted soldiers.

The desert rolled away in every direction, gunmetal grains mixed with golden ones. The day was almost windless. Around the sands and huge yardangs, the air was silent

Credit...Map by Daniel Wagner


FOR MORE THAN 2,000 years, a branch of the Silk Road — the 600-mile-long Hexi Corridor — has angled southeast from the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts to the Yellow River loess plains. The Hexi is hemmed in by deserts to the north and west, and by the great Qilian mountain range to its south. It is about 10 miles wide at its narrowest point, with oasis towns every 50 to 100 miles. For most of the Han dynasty, which lasted roughly from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, no soldier, pilgrim, explorer or trader could enter northwestern China without first passing through the corridor, which was vigorously guarded. In A.D. 123, the imperial secretary Chen Zhong, in a strategic memo to the emperor, translated in 2009 by John E. Hill, wrote that if the Western Regions were not defended, “the wealth of the [nomadic Xiongnu tribes] will increase; their audacity and strength will be multiplied,” and the four garrisons along the Hexi Corridor would be endangered. “We will have to rescue them,” he continued. The great cities of China’s central plain, including the capital, would then be left vulnerable to attacks.

Until the scientific map surveys of the 20th century, one of the best sources on traveling to the borderlands of western China was Xuanzang. The Buddhist pilgrim and scholar left the Tang capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) in A.D. 629 and traveled westward across deserts, then into India through the Tian Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. “The roads are lost in a vast waste, and its limits are unfathomable,” he wrote, as translated in 1996 by Li Rongxi. The ancient literary term for the deserts west of Dunhuang is “River of Sands,” denoting a place where travelers were guided only by the stars and the bones of men and animals; no other landmarks or signposts existed.

According to a seventh-century biography of Xuanzang written by two of his disciples, Huili and Yancong, on his journey, Xuanzang survived an attempted kidnapping, several murder attempts and, while deep in the Gobi, the loss of all his water. In these stories, he crossed the deserts and mountains alone and once hallucinated that an army appeared in the wastes: “Sometimes they advanced and sometimes they halted. … The glittering standards and lances met his view; then suddenly fresh forms and figures changing into a thousand shapes appeared, sometimes at an immense distance and then close at hand, and then they dissolved into nothing.” The scholar Jeffrey Kotyk has pointed out that these accounts (cited here from a 1911 translation by Samuel Beal) are likely imagined or embellished; Xuanzang probably traveled with a merchant caravan. The stories, however, convey the potential perils of such a trip.

After studying in India for almost 14 years, Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, bringing sutras, works of art and knowledge about the world beyond China’s borders. So thorough was his “Record of the Western Regions” that dozens of 19th- and 20th-century explorers — Russian, British, German, French and Japanese — used it to find forgotten settlements more than a thousand years after the Taklamakan Desert had swallowed them. When foreign archaeologists found an ancient town, they defined it by longitude and latitude, and then tried to match its site with one of Xuanzang’s vanished cities: Khotan, Kucha, Agni.

The sandstone landform known as “the Louvre” in the Binggou (Ice Valley) scenic area of Zhangye Danxia National Geopark in Gansu.
Credit…Zhang Xiao

~~~  CONTINUE   ~~~

Paul Bowles


Bowles’s mid-20th-century classic is one of the most utterly transportive novels you’ll ever read. It follows the travels of an American couple and their friend across North Africa as they confront situations in which their estrangement is laid bare. It’s a sumptuous, poetic and haunting work.