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Les Marcott

Katiak - My Folk Life


September 2014

Katia Pillonel (aka Katiak) has been a world traveler, a dreamer of dreams (and maker of dream catchers), a journalist, a musician, and a dog trainer. She is someone who has been transfixed and transformed by the power of American "roots" music.  That's not necessarily unique, but what is so impressive is that Katiak hails from the French speaking part of Switzerland.  She currently resides in the south of France and is currently working on a memoir which details the many American roots musicians she has been influenced by.  The chapters usually revolve around a song written by artists such as Arlo Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, Mary Gauthier, Greg Brown , Guy Clark, Bill Staines, and Taylor Pie just to name a few and how these singer songwriters have impacted her life.  Her enthusiasm is infectious especially when she writes of encountering these artists' music for the first time.  She has kindly given me a preview and I have been greatly impressed.  She has also given me permission to share a chapter called Snow.  It is about singer songwriter Sam Baker.    




There is a DVD - Troubadour Blues - with songs and interviews of great singers and songwriters such as Peter Case, Chris Smither, Dave Alvin, Mary Gauthier, Slaid Cleaves as well as others.  It is a touching and interesting film.


Interesting when you hear these songwriters talking about their lives as troubadours, and the way they write their songs, each one in a different way. From digging deep to get "that one line", up to catching the song in the air at the very moment it is floating over you (This is Townes Van Zandt's way and some other songwriters' way). It is interesting to see that many ways can drive you to a good song and each way is the good one.


And touching, as each of them talk with simplicity, I would say humility, in front of the destiny that made them songwriters, singers and troubadours.


As the film was ending, I noticed a singer-songwriter who was unique.  At least it was what I felt. I didn't keep his name in my mind. He had long grey hair and his voice…


Now please let me do a clarification about voice. When I say "voice", it is not only the timbre, the texture, the power, the range and the tessitura of the voice. This, you have it. Like the colour of your eyes, it belongs to you all along your life from the day you were born - with some modifications due to your age, of course -. But when I say "voice", it is mostly how people use their voices, the vibrations emitted in a word, in a line, in a song. A voice I love is when I feel something through the voice, when the singer I am listening to gives me a part of who he is, what he lives, to be clear: a part of his or her soul. There are singers who have a thin voice, not always on key, but with so much emotion inside that you feel the thrill and those are the beautiful voices. 


There are voices that cover me with a kind of sensuality. I just lay my head against those voices and allow myself to be caressed by them. For example Ray Lamontagne, Jeffrey Foucault, Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac) when he sings live Never Going Back Again, Jimmy Lafave, and Ray Lamontagne, (oh! I already named him) Yes, I know! I don't have (yet) Alzheimer's; I am just listening to another song by him.


There are voices that evoke a colour, a smell, a taste, a landscape, a place, an event, an image… and now I come back to the voice of this singer with long grey hair.


He was not yet singing, just talking, when an image came in my mind. Something shining like the sun low over the lake and there are splashes of brightness that run quickly from wave to wave, and you don't see the colour of the lake anymore because you are blinded by the sparkling effect.  Or when you walk on a pavement made of granite on a sunny day, and each step you walk reveals hundreds of tiny dots of gold on the ground, shining bright, and the pavement disappears.  You just see the lights.


And I had a big smile when he began to sing, as the sun produced shining spots in his hair and on his cheek, and the tuning keys of his guitar were sparkling.


After the film, I forgot this singer (sorry, Sam!).  And weeks or months later, I heard that song:


First light city streets are white and pristine
Waiting on the tracks of the early machines
This city is so pretty when the snow falls just at dawn
Hey paper boy how about them Celts
This snow keeps falling think it's never gonna melt
This city is so pretty
Got a cup of coffee
A Sunday Globe
A table by the window
Watch the plows in the road
This city is so pretty
From ships in the night good sailors from the sea
Walk the streets at dawn
Down on Beacon Street
This city is so pretty
They are so far from home
Snow is deep
The road is long
Snow is deep
The road is long
So far from home
There is a stranger on the street
He is way out of sorts
He says hey mister I've come up short
You got any change
The lord loves a giver I believe
Small change to a stranger
Change on the street
Change to a man
Thought he'd never get beat
There are a thousand ways
A person in the snow gets lost
They are so far from home
Snow is deep
The road is long
Snow is deep
The road is long
So far from home
There is snow upon the ocean
Snow upon the land
Talk about forgiveness
Help me understand
Why I hold on tight
Do not let go
I walk these streets frozen in snow
First light city streets are white pristine
Waiting on the tracks of the dirty machines
First light city streets are white pristine

They are waiting


One after another, the words of this song softly awakened some memories "Yes!  I recognize this city. This is Nome, Alaska! And this voice? To whom is this voice? I know this voice. I already met this voice." And sparkles came in my mind. "Yeaaaah! This is the sparkling voice!"


And the name of the sparkling singer is Sam Baker, and the song is Snow.


You see, I am back in Alaska. In Geneva, after my travel, I said to my friends: "There is an invisible magnetic wire that attracts me to Alaska. I hope to go there again." Don't know if it will be possible, but at least it can be in this book.


I cannot say that all the lyrics of that song correspond to my stay in Nome, but the feeling is absolutely the same. When I hear "First light city streets are white and pristine" and "This city is so pretty when the snow falls just at dawn", I am in Nome. I walk its streets in the early morning while the snow is falling, and it is pure beauty. Nothing else… but pure beauty. "Got a cup of coffee, a Sunday Globe, a table by the window, watch the plows in the road", that was real and is still when I hear those words. I am sitting exactly at that table, by the window, drinking my coffee as the snow plows begin to write their tracks in the snow. The only difference is that there was no Sunday Globe.


Ok, there are other differences in the facts but no difference in the feeling. There were no ships in the night, the Bering Strait was frozen. The boats I saw were on trailers in front of the houses and there were no good sailors from the sea. But there were good Iditarod mushers and their dog sleds coming from the frozen Bering Strait, and they walked the street at dawn.


Nobody asked me for small change on the street, and I was the stranger. But an Eskimo came to me. He was holding a rather big glass jar and swimming inside were things, black, sticky, like some strange eels, obese and badly formed, rather disgusting. And I was not sure if these things were alive or not. As I was looking at his jar, he showed it to me and asked:


- Do you want to taste?


- Huuuuugh… (Why not after all? Maybe it is not so bad, and in any case it is unfriendly to refuse what somebody offers to you.)


- Why not?


And he began to laugh, bent over with laughter.


- You can't eat that, this is Eskimo food! You will not like!


- What is it?


- Eskimo food. You can't eat that.


And I never knew what it was, except "Eskimo food".


Some steps farther, two Eskimos came to me and the tallest one said:


- Good Iditarod!


- Oh! Thank you!


- I introduce you my brother Frank (and Frank gave me a friendly handshake) but I cannot shake your hand because my hands are too cold.


I put my own hand in my pocket and the Eskimo stopped me:


- No, no! I don't need!


He thought I wanted to give him money, and most Eskimos don't like that we give them money. They are proud. A guy there told me: "…in a certain sense, they are rich. What they find and catch themselves is enough for their life. They are proud of what they find and catch themselves. They don't need nor want anything else" (Wow!)


But in my pocket were those fantastic tiny thermal cushions. You open the envelope, shake them, put them between your hand and your glove and they warm your hands (or feet if you put it in your shoe). I took one, prepared it and put it in the hand of this Eskimo. He was very surprised:


- Oooooh! It warms!


And he gave me a badge "I Love Nome" that I preciously keep. It is always on my winter coat.


- Can I take a picture of you?


- Sure!


And they smiled. Mouth closed for one, quite closed for the other. The Eskimos don't like to show their teeth, since "we" (our society) brought them sugar to eat producing awful teeth. I took the picture and they thanked me warmly.


- Thank you! So now, you will never forget us!


- Never!


And it is true. I often think of them, look at the picture of them. They are beautiful with their faces wearing the marks of the cold and their smiling eyes. It is strange; you can forget what you did during days but never forget an event that took place just in a few seconds.


This is what happened to Sam Baker, an event that he will never forget, but his event is a tragedy. That was in 1986, in Peru. Sam Baker was in a train going to Machu Pichu. On the luggage rack above was a red backpack full of explosives. It was placed there by members of the Shining Path, an extremist group. When it exploded, Sam thought he was dying from a heart attack. But soon, he saw that the young German boy and his parents sitting next to him were dead or dying. Eight people died and 40 were injured.


Sam himself was seriously injured: brain damage, a cut femoral artery, a deflated lung, damaged eardrums, broken hands, and found bleeding near death. A station worker saved him from the debris and sent him to the hospital in a cab. At the hospital in Peru, he got gangrene in his legs, and a cerebral haemorrhage. Five days later, he was evacuated to a Houston, TX hospital.  And after long years in the hospital and seventeen surgeries, he could begin to move and did everything he could to adapt his wounded body to a quite "normal" life.


And what about his wounded emotion? You know, I turn to this point since for some days now after reading and listening to interviews with him, listening to his songs to find what I can write. Sure, I feel his emotion through what he sings, what he says, and it touches me deep inside. But I cannot find THE word, nor the thousand words or more assembled together to tell how he feels.  And if Sam himself had one or thousands of words, they will be influenced by my own feelings and will no more be the right ones. And along the days, along the years, the emotions can move and go either way. So, it is better that I don't say a word about it. It is just emotions.


Now, Sam Baker has lost mobility and a lot of his hearing. He suffers from tinnitus that gives him a constant ringing in his head. He has balance problems and brain damage that sometimes leaves him struggling for the right word. His right hand is badly damaged and he can use only his thumb and his index finger. So he learned to play guitar like a left-handed guitarist and use a plectrum to play with his right hand.


And he sings, he plays guitar, and his last album "Say Grace" made the top five of the Rolling Stone magazine chart.  Wow!


And he writes beautiful songs. Maybe you will tell me "many folk songwriters write beautiful songs". Sure! I agree! But Sam's songs are not like the others.  His are sober, perfectly purified. Some are autobiographic, like Steel : "I'm sitting on a train to Machu Pichu, The passenger car explodes…". Like Broken Fingers where he tells the young German boy who died beside him. "Forget his face? Of course I don't".


And other songs tell slices of life of some characters. But these slices let you guess their whole life. You see them; you know who they are, what they do, what they feel, and you would like to help most of them, to put your arm on their shoulders. Some of them are the  working poor, or the unemployed, a little like those you can find in Larry Brown's novels or in the world of Laura Kasischke, whose writing is minimalist, who can make you feel the abnormal, who shows a certain beauty in tragedies. And also found in Steinbeck's stories. No, I am not afraid to make a connection between Steinbeck and Sam Baker, as both of them let their characters live their lives, this without any judgement but also without any complacency, just with love for them, whatever they do, whoever they are. You find unusual women in Sam's songs. Funny how he can catch the soul of a woman, this is not given to every writer and unusual men too. The one who wears "a blue suede cowboy hat" and who sings "a song to himself, he sings waiting round to die" and he thinks "who in the world would write a song like that".


That makes me tell you that despite what happened to him, Sam Baker has a lot of humour. See him on stage, he will joke with you, and he will make you laugh, and he will laugh with you…a lot. 


For those of you who are not interested in googling and will not dive into his website, I would like to let you know that I discovered not only a singer-songwriter but also a very good painter and photographer. I particularly love the photo of a sunflower. It is a black and white picture, but with such light that you can imagine that it is a colour unknown by us human beings. Brightness once again, not only in his voice, but also in his art. And the videos he did during his tour in Europe with Carrie Elkin are particularly well done.


There are also a lot of citations, only positive citations from writers and poets all around the world. I was happy to find some I love, like Pablo Neruda and Ray Bradbury, but the citation I would like to write to close this chapter is the first lines of the last song of his album "Say Grace":


Go in Peace, Go in Kindness, Go in Love…

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Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior
Writer and columnist for Scene4. His latest book of monologues,
stories and short plays, Character Flaws, is published by
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