by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 25, 2002
BABY, I JUST DIED: THE PASSING OF ALAN LOMAX
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- July 19th was a somber day for folk music. The great musicologist Alan Lomax died at the age of 87, and one of his direct musical descendants, the great but almost unknown Dave Carter, died at 49.
Many people will be celebrating Lomax's life; he helped preserve America's and the world's musical heritage by making thousands of in-the-field recordings of folk, blues and jazz musicians from the 1930s onward.
A smaller circle of fans will be mourning Dave's loss, and I am one of them.
Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer - life and musical partners - were just getting started. Tracy sang lead and harmony and played fiddle and mandolin. Dave played guitar and banjo and wrote the songs. He used to say that all you needed for a song is two chords and the truth.
They had just boarded the fickle folk train for fame and fortune, or at least as much fame and fortune as folk music ever provides. Joan Baez had discovered and toured with them. She compared Dave to Dylan and recorded his songs. The duo's "Drum Hat Buddha" on Signature Sounds was a big Americana-roots radio hit. Nationally, they were developing a faithful following. So far, over 1,400 people have posted reminiscences and condolences on the Web (http://groups.yahoo.com/groups/dave-and-tracy/messages). The big Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York State this weekend will be dedicated to him.
One of the biggest secrets in folk music is that its best practitioners are poets, and Dave Carter, tall, thin, and handsome in a craggy way, was a great one. He created fluid rivers of words - torrents of them - and then made them dance to infectious melodies.
Take his "Tillman County": "Mother red river she flows like a copperhead, coils and boils over Dennison Dam. Little white houses, eggs on the rocky bed, I am the son of the serpent I am."
Like most great poets, Dave created images that made no immediate sense, and yet you intuitively understood them. Explaining a rocky relationship in "236-6132," for example, he had this line: "Though I play the highway kind, and he the china dancer."
I puzzled over "highway kind" and "china dancer" for a long time, especially since Tracy, who sings the song, is such a slender-boned, elegant young woman. Finally I asked Dave what it meant.
"Well, it means what you want it to mean," he said, seemingly embarrassed to be pinned down and maybe lose some of the magic. "When I wrote it, I was thinking about traveling a lot, and there was someone who reminded me of one of those porcelain figurines. So highway kind and china dancer, I guess."
But I had known that all along.
Dave's best-known song was "Gentle Arms of Eden," which got heavy airplay on folk radio. The chorus was written about the earth, but it expresses perfectly the way I feel about my home: "This is the only scared ground that I have ever known."
Dave was the son of an evangelist mother and a mathematician father, hence a life-long tension between the mystic and the logical. His solution, I think, was to write his words from his mystical place and then watch the mathematician take delight in squeezing them into complicated and super-fast rhythms. Then, Tracy complained, he made her sing them.
Dave was raised in Oklahoma and Texas, worked horses and computers, had a Master's degree in music theory, a B.S. in mathematics, and had completed post-graduate work in spiritual studies at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif.
He called his work "post-modern mythic American music," but some of his songs sounded liked they had been written 200 years ago. He strode that dangerous line between the spiritual and the sensual with profound grace and easy charm. But it must have tortured him.
"Mama she raised me on riddles and trances, fast-back, channel-cat, lily white lies," he wrote in "Crocodile Man." "Inside the house is a hall of mirrors, inside the mirror is the temple of sin. Inside the temple is the face of mama, and mama she know just where I been."
I'm not saying that every song he wrote was great. Many were sentimental ("The Cowboy Singer" comes to mind, and "The Mountain," which Baez and the Dalai Lama seemed to like.) But Dave had found his voice, and it was a unique one. He was also a brilliant on-stage story-teller. Unfortunately, I can't provide examples. Last year, in rapt attention at a string of their concerts, I forgot to take notes. This year I had arranged to see four Dave & Tracy shows in a row, and was planning to write a long piece afterward. That's why I feel his loss so keenly - I thought I had time, and then he was gone.
Last Friday the couple were staying at a hotel in So. Hadley, Mass., booked to play the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Mass. the next day. Dave went for an early morning run and came back feeling unwell. Then he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Yesterday, shortly after he went unconscious, he came back for a lucid minute or two to tell me, 'I just died... Baby, I just died...'," Tracy wrote to fans on the Web. "There was a look of wonder in his eyes, and though I cried and tried to deny it to him, I knew he was right and he was on his way."
He had died - the greatest spiritual adventure of them all, right? - and yet he found a way to come back and tell it to his great love. It was the perfect Dave Carter song.
"He stayed with me a minute more but despite my attempts to keep him with me, I could see he was already riding that thin chiffon wave between here and gone," Tracy wrote. "He loved beauty, he was hopelessly drawn to the magic and the light in all things. I figure he saw something he could not resist out of the corner of his eye and flew into it."
Many of us are wondering how Tracy will survive after losing her lover ("He was endless Spring to me, he was bountiful joy and gentleness and laughter,"), her musical partner, and her career, all at the same time. Certainly, for a while she will dedicate herself to the music they made together.
"It was always my mission that the world hear and know the poetry and vision and wonderful mystical magic of David Carter," she wrote.
The Greenfield festival was dedicated to Dave, and the great Canadian country-rocker Fred Eaglesmith found the perfect tribute - a song he had recorded in 1999 about the death of Carter Stanley: "White doves in the hollow. I heard somebody say. Nobody's ever gonna play those songs that way again... Now that Carter's gone."
"In the center of our hotel window earlier tonight, by lamplight, came the shadow of a bird to my curtain," Tracy wrote. "He held steady for a four flaps of the wing, maybe five, and then he pivoted away. My heart froze for an instant and then I felt some relief. I took this midnight messenger as a sign. You know that I have been desperate for a sign."
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.