March 20, 2015
Guests: Samuel Charters - Phil Klay
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Samuel Charters, the blues and jazz historian who helped ignite the blues revival of the 1950s and '60s, died of cancer Wednesday at age 85. He was a white Northerner who as a young man became fascinated by Southern black music. During most of the '50s he was based in Louisiana and traveled around the South making field recordings of forgotten and previously undiscovered performers. He's produced hundreds of albums of blues, Cajun and Southern folk music, mostly for Folkways Records. In the mid-to-late '60s, he worked as head of artists and repertoire at Vanguard Records. For many years, Charters lived in Sweden. Charters also was the author of two influential books about the blues, books that informed and inspired Bob Dylan and many others. Terry Gross spoke to Samuel Charters in 1987 and asked how he was first introduced to blues and jazz.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SAMUEL CHARTERS: I'm one of those people who grew up in a family that had discovered jazz in the mid-'20s. My father and my uncles had played in an amateur high school band. And in 1926, they were playing at a little lake in Michigan, playing arrangements of dance songs of the period. And someone said to them, well, you guys are OK, but you should hear the band at the next lake. So they went up to the next lake, and there was the Hoagy Carmichael Band...
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Oh no.
CHARTERS: ...Playing jazz.
CHARTERS: And my family, to this day, has not recovered from it. And they instantly became jazz musicians and so, I just grew up with all of this. One of my aunts married a trumpet player who'd come out of Electra, Texas with the whole Ray McKinley and that group. So people would check in the house. Teagarden would be there, hanging up on the clothes hanger because he was too drunk to stand up, and there were band rehearsals going on. And my uncles would disappear and they would go off and, it turned out, they'd hitch-hiked to New York to see who the latest trumpet player was in the Duke Ellington band. And I assumed everybody lived this way. At the same time, they were deeply involved in Bela Bartok's music and they were deeply involved in theater. And there was just all of this going on. My uncles, when they were trying to court a girl, would play Bessie Smith records for them, which didn't go over very well - but they certainly went over very well with me. And it wasn't until I was really in my late teens that I discovered that what I'd had as a background was really very, very unusual.
GROSS: Well, you spent your life in search of music. In the 1950s, you moved from the North to the South, based yourself in Louisiana and started making field recordings of Southern blues musicians and singers. Why did you want to go specifically to the South and why were you interested in blues? It was jazz that you were brought up on.
CHARTERS: That's right. And absolutely if you were interested in jazz at that time, New Orleans was the city to go because it was still alive. I began playing clarinet with my own jazz band when I was 13 - and really wasn't very good - and was looking for models, and I always was very determined. If I wanted to do something, I did it. So I went to New Orleans as a teenager and looked up a man there named George Lewis. And George, for $5, would let me sit in the kitchen with him and we'd play two clarinet duets for hours. And we'd play a tune like "High Society" and I'd play the melody and George would show me 30 ways to play the chorus. And I'd read every word that you could read about jazz as I'd grown up and I thought I knew a lot. And then one day I met George on the street in the French Quarter. He was with Jim Robinson, a wonderful trombone player - George and Jim, and they were all dressed up. And I said where have they been? They'd been to a funeral. Who had died? A trumpet player. He said, wonderful trumpet player - Big Ben, a trumpet player from the '20s. I'd never heard of him and I'd read every word on jazz that had ever been published. So that night when I went to see George before the jump - he always rested, so he was lying in his bed resting - and I sat at the foot of the bed and he began telling me about all the history of jazz that we'd never known anything about. And suddenly I realized that this is what I was going to try to find out about. So for the next seven years I lived in New Orleans, on and off traveling at the same time, interviewing all the musicians - the black musicians, who'd ever played there.
GROSS: Did you have specific musicians you were going in search of, maybe musicians whose record you had on 78 RPMs and who'd never been heard of for the past 30 years?
CHARTERS: Well, the ones I was looking for hadn't even been recorded, most of them. In New Orleans it was all legends. You knew that there was someone Louis Armstrong had learned from and you'd heard Louis, but who was the one he learned from? Buddy Petit, and Buddy Petit had never made a record. So it became a wonderful, intense search for ghosts, looking for men who'd died many years before, trying to catch an echo of what their music must've been like. I tried to find every living member of the first jazz band - the Buddy Bolden Band - trying to get them to hum me their trombone parts, hum me the part that the guitar player plays, trying desperately to get to something that was lost, something that was lost forever but we still had a chance to catch a glimpse of it, get some little memories of it somehow or other.
GROSS: What kind of equipment would you take with you when you were going to record somebody performing?
CHARTERS: (Laughter). Well, when I first started recording - and this is marvelous, it becomes sort of like the history of early photography. People don't realize the struggles we had. The early machines in the late '40s, which I couldn't afford, were simply wind-ups which had a heavy fly wheel and always ran down. And then you could possibly get a new thing called a wire recorder, but they got all tangled up and had very low fidelity. And then you can get tape recorders, which was brand-new. So I bought my first tape recorder in 1953, one of the very first cheap models - had a little green eye that blinked at me. And the eye closed when I played things too loudly on it. (Laughter). And it must have weighed - sometimes I thought it weighed several hundred pounds, but I carried the [expletive] thing for five or six years and I did 35, 40 great records with it. I had a microphone that I stuck with me and I hitch-hiked around with that [expletive] thing. And it wasn't until finally I went to Africa in '74 that I was able to take a really good battery-operated stereo tape recorder with me.
GROSS: While you were traveling around the rural South, did you always have electricity to plug the tape machine into?
CHARTERS: (Laughter). In 1954, I'd heard of a group called the Mobile Strugglers, which was one of the last real genuine skiffle bands in the South, playing with wash boards and washtub bass and everything. So I went over, and I was very inexperienced, but I had my tape recorder and I managed to get the washtub bass player out of jail - where he'd gone from drunk and disorderly - and managed to track the guys down. We were in a little shack neighborhood outside of Mobile, back in the - sort of the woods. And I was looking for someplace to plug in my tape recorder because I had to plug it in, and the fella said well, there's a house right there, I know those people, go in there. So I went in and of course plugged in and everything, and I used the people's ironing board for the microphone stand. Of course, they didn't know anybody lived there. We'd simply broken into somebody's house. And the people came in later that afternoon, and here was this recording session going on with the tape recorder, and by that point we'd managed to find some beer. I was incredibly embarrassed, but they were very, very kind about it. They understood - danced along with the playbacks. We had a great afternoon. (Laughter).
GROSS: What kind of leads did you pick up on to find the musicians who you were interested in? How would you find out where they were? You had to be, like, a detective.
CHARTERS: Well, I felt sometimes more like someone - an insurance tracer or a skip claim tracer. You know, I felt I was doing something like that. You'd try to find somebody who'd last been seen in a little town outside of New Orleans in 1924, and you could usually find them. You just - you had to be patient.
GROSS: You've also discovered musicians who no one, aside from local people, knew about before.
CHARTERS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: One of them was Lightnin' Hopkins...
CHARTERS: That's right.
GROSS: ...Who's very familiar, I think, to people who listen to blues now. How did you first hear about him?
CHARTERS: Well, it was impossible to not hear the blues as a jazz musician, even though we tried to keep the two separate. As early as the late '40s, the jazz groups I was playing with, we had one or two blues records that we would listen to even though we knew nothing about it - nothing. And I heard over the radio - of course, I was part of the black community in the early '50s, and the radios were on, and I'd hear Lightnin' Hopkins who was a figure somewhere out of Texas, who was making some records for a funny little record company called Gold Star, which then went out of business, Lightnin' disappeared. But I always ate in a same sort of run-down restaurant in the French Quarter and turned out that I was talking one day about Lightnin' Hopkins, and the cook said, that's my cousin. And he at least directed me to Houston. And then once I got in the Houston ghetto, after about three days of asking around, found his sister, who didn't know anything. Found a place where his guitar was on pawn, they didn't know anything. And finally, I was sitting in my car at a street corner and a car pulled up beside me and a man rolled down the window and said, you looking for me? And I said, you're Lightnin? That's right. So I rented a guitar for him, got a bottle of gin, we went back to the little shabby room where he was living, and we made his first LP.
GROSS: What was it like?
CHARTERS: It was marvelous. I'd never heard anything quite like it in my life. Lightnin' went on and did hundreds of records, some of them losing the intensity, but - for me, this was the first time he'd had a chance to stretch out without time limits, to simply do a range of songs so he could - he wasn't having to worry about starting on time, stopping on time. I was sitting there with the microphone right in front of him and so he could simply be free. And he'd gone - he'd always been working with an electrical guitar and I rented him an acoustic. So he was playing with music that was - he was hearing himself in a marvelous way. And for me, I'd come closer, I think, to the genesis of the blues than I'd ever come before because Lightnin' was such an extraordinary artist.
GROSS: How old was he at this time?
CHARTERS: Lightnin' would've been in his - I think would've been 49. Born in 1910, I believe.
GROSS: Now, we have a recording standing by of Lightnin' Hopkins. Is this from that first session that you recorded?
CHARTERS: That's right, this is from - the first song he did, "Penitentiary Blues," where he took the old work song about - ain't no more cane in this Brazos, and turned it into a blues song.
GROSS: Why don't we hear it?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PENITENTIARY BLUES")
LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS: (Singing). Penitentiary Blues. Big Brazos, here I come. Lord, have mercy. Big Brazos, here I come. You know, I'm going to do time for another man when there haven't been a thing poor Lightnin' done. They say you ought to be on Brazos 19 and 10. Bud Russell drove pretty women just like he did ugly men. Big Brazos, oh Lord yes, here I come. Thinking to do time for another man and ain't nothing poor Lightnin' done. Well, you ought to be 'shamed.
GROSS: Lightin' Hopkins, recorded in 1959. I guess when you were recording this session with Lightnin' Hopkins that you weren't disappointed.
CHARTERS: I couldn't believe it, absolutely couldn't believe it because I had, in all these years been looking for the beginnings, been looking for the roots, which meant I was always working with older musicians. And quite often, even when they were playing for me, I was only getting a memory of what they had played like when they were young. And this was the first time I'd met someone really just at the height of his creative powers, that someone who had the imagination, had the flow and the vitality.
GROSS: Did this record change his life?
CHARTERS: It absolutely did. It - he was, you know, completely flabbergasted by the whole thing. Here's this person just showing up, handing him a guitar, giving him $200 and disappearing. And it appeared on a number of best records lists. It got rave reviews. In fact, the whole spectrum - jazz, folklorists, everybody loved it. And all of a sudden, there were four more LPs by the end of the year (laughter), and his career started. We'd meet over the years, we'd encounter each other at clubs and - always a very good relationship. We did a lot of records together after that.
BIANCULLI: Samuel Charters speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with folk and blues expert Samuel Charters. The influential author, field researcher and record producer died earlier this week at age 85.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You were living in the black community in Louisiana and traveling in black circles in the South.
GROSS: This is the 1950s. The South was still segregated. Were you - I mean, you must have really stuck out a lot...
CHARTERS: It was - yeah.
GROSS: ...Being one of the few people probably in black circles at that time and one of the few white people in black circles in the South at that time.
CHARTERS: It was always complicated because racism was an official policy of these small communities. It wasn't simply that people were prejudiced; it was simply the law. I was arrested a lot. I was picked up a lot, and I was scared a lot. Every person I talked to was immediately questioned by the local sheriffs, the deputies, afterwards.
I would - I remember I was looking for Robert Johnson in Mississippi. And I talked to a couple of people on the street in just one of the little towns there, Friars Point, and got down to the end of the corner. And I was looking at my map, and I look back and a deputy had both the persons I talked to up against a tree. And all I simply asked them for was directions. But I was not a car they recognized and I was white. And they wanted - so I always had to be very careful, not only for my own sake but for the sake of the people I talked with.
In New Orleans, it was quite literally illegal for me to shake hands with a black musician on the street. And the streetcars were still with those damn signs you moved up and down saying white, black, you know, segregated, and you had to move them up and down and - if you tried to do anything against it, you simply got people in trouble. And so when I'd go with musicians into a bar, they'd always have to - into a black bar - they'd always have to pass me off as a full-blooded Indian. He may look white, but he's a full-blooded Indian.
GROSS: Well, that comment that you just made reminds me, too, that I wonder if you've ever felt at times like you were in an awkward position with a black musician you were recording because especially in the 1950s when you were finding people who were really down on their luck, a lot who were poor who hadn't - no one knew who they were. No one knew about their talents. They'd been in and out of prison maybe.
GROSS: So you're coming from a more, you know, advantaged, privileged background. You have the money to give them and so on. It's not exactly a position of equality. And when you have this political sense that you're - that's motivating your work, you can really feel the unevenness of a relationship like that. How would you deal with that?
CHARTERS: There really was no way to deal with it because there was no way that they could understand enough of me or my background to in any way comprehend the complex nature of this. And also they were very religious, most of them, and deeply conservative politically. And that here was someone who was essentially areligious and rather radical coming down and doing this for his own reasons, so they simply regarded me as a white recording boss. And the only possible relationship, most of the time, was that. And, of course, there were - I was endlessly trying to make it friendship, but it couldn't be. It would've been - some of them wonderful ones like Big Joe Williams and things, they totally understood that they totally didn't understand. And they just accepted it all as some crazy cloud-cuckoo-land (laughter).
GROSS: But it must be tough for you to have this identity as the boss man to someone whose music you really admire, you know, 'cause you don't see yourself as the boss.
CHARTERS: No. And yet the only way I could make the thing happen because I - because to get better recorded sound, finally, I was using small recording studios and everything. And the musicians themselves had been waiting for a break or waiting to be rediscovered, that they were very much part of the musical world. To us, they were quaint folk musicians - to as many way - many people regarded them. But for as far as they were concerned, they were pop stars or had been pop stars, and they wanted to be on the radio again. And what I did in the first book, "The Country Blues," was I really exaggerated the romance of the search for these guys. So the book is incredible passages of prose about drifting around little towns in Texas because I recognize that at that point I was the only one doing this. I had the whole South, so I simply needed help. So I didn't say I need help. I simply wrote the most romantic book I could think of about being a young, white blues researcher driving around the South. So I - the book came out and I went to Europe for a year and I came back. And there were people in every small town in the South - young, white college kids - and they found everybody. It was one of the great research projects. In four or five years, they found every living blues musician - unbelievable.
GROSS: Have people who've read your books or heard your records assumed that you were black?
CHARTERS: Most do, and this has been difficult. It's been such a difficult point that for parts of the '70s, I decided I would do no more work in the field of black music. So I didn't do anything from '70 until '73, expecting that a young black scholar would step in and do this kind of historical work, but because of the sensitivity involved, none did. So back I went and started again. And there were series of books in the '70s, again, documenting the blues, documenting black music. But, no, I had always felt this kind of sensitivity.
That I - the only thing that really put it into perspective for me was after my first blues book came out, "The Country Blues," I was at a party with the Folkways office and there was Langston Hughes. And Langston was telling me how much he liked the book, and I said, Langston, thank you, but you could tell me so much more about the blues than I'll ever know. And Langston looked at me and said tell me something about Schubert that I don't know. And I realized at that point that this is simply something to learn about and that it didn't matter what color or what your background was. If you set out to learn it and you were open, you could learn. And so this has been my final justification for continuing to absorb myself in it. Absolutely, there may be nuances I miss, but after all these years there a lot of nuances that I get, and I'll settle for that.
BIANCULLI: Samuel Charters speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The influential author, folk and blues historian and record producer died Wednesday at age 85. Coming up, author Phil Klay on his collection of short stories about the Iraq War and critic-at-large John Powers on a new documentary directed by actor Ethan Hawke. Here's Otis Spann from the "Chicago: The Blues Today" collection, produced by Sam Charters. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETIMES I WONDER")
OTIS SPANN: (Singing) Sometime I wonder, but I ain't got to wonder no more. Sometime I wonder, but I ain't got to wonder no more. You're not for me woman...
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our guest Phil Klay won a National Book Critics Circle Award this month for his collection of short stories called "Redeployment" about Marines in the Iraq War and their difficulties adjusting to life back home. Last fall, it won the National Book Award for Fiction. These new honors add to the praise the book already has received.
In The New Yorker, George Packer described "Redeployment" as, quote, "the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America's recent war. Klay's fiction peels back every petty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought," unquote. Klay is a graduate of Dartmouth College and served in the Marine Corps in Iraq's Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a public affairs officer. After he was discharged, he went to Hunter College, where he received an MFA. He spoke to Terry Gross last November after receiving the National Book Award.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: Phil Klay, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the National Book Award. That's wonderful.
PHIL KLAY: Thank you so much.
GROSS: So let's start with a reading from your book. I'm going to ask you to read the opening of your story "Bodies."
KLAY: Sure. (Reading) For a long time, I was angry. I didn't want to talk about Iraq, so I wouldn't tell anybody I'd been. And if people knew, if they pressed, I'd tell them lies. There was this Haji corpse, I'd say, lying in the sun. It'd been there for days. It was swollen with gases. The eyes were sockets and we had to clean it off the streets. Then I'd look at my audience and size them up, see if they wanted me to keep going. You'd be surprised how many do. That's what I did, I'd say. I collected remains - U.S. forces mostly, but sometimes Iraqis, even insurgents. There are two ways to tell the story - funny or sad. Guys like it funny with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze on the horrors of war they can't quite see. Either way, it's the same story. This lieutenant colonel who's visiting the government center, rolls up, sees two Marines maneuvering around a body bag and decides he'll go show what a regular guy he is and help.
GROSS: So that's an excerpt of the story "Bodies" by Phil Klay in his collection of stories "Redeployment." We should mention we find out on the next page that the person speaking works for mortuary affairs, so it is his job to deal with the remains of soldiers. You know, after reading that passage, I was thinking OK, so what Phil Klay is saying is that it's really difficult to talk about what you see in war and there's different ways you can tell it and sometimes you just lie. And so now I'm talking to you and you're a vet and we both know what you've just written there. (Laughter) Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: So it just makes me feel so - almost uncomfortable asking you about the war, about writing about it, about your own experiences, about putting you through that, about putting you on the spot, about what it's like to always ask or not ask a veteran about what they've experienced.
KLAY: Don't feel uncomfortable. I mean, that's part of why I wrote the book - to have conversations about it. One of the things that he's dealing with is he went over and he experienced some very hard things, but he doesn't have the war stories like people imagine. And he doesn't feel about what he did; he doesn't feel a sort of unallied pride. He feels conflicted, and he doesn't know how to feel about what he's done. And what he's done doesn't fit comfortably into what people would expect, so he tells these stories where he knows how to get a reaction and how to fit into a particular type of narrative. And it's also a way of keeping people at a distance.
GROSS: You describe this character in your short stories who worked in mortuary affairs in Iraq as not having the war stories people expect. And I suppose you don't have the war stories people expect because...
GROSS: Because you were a public affairs officer...
KLAY: Yeah, absolutely. I...
GROSS: ...In Anbar Province, which, I mean, that - Anbar Province is now - a lot of it's been taken over by ISIS.
KLAY: Yeah, which is an absolutely horrific tragedy. It's - it was a very strange and very interesting job. I got to - I got to travel around Anbar Province, had a great group of Marines who worked for me, who traveled around Anbar Province. I got to hang out with a lot of different types of Marines and soldiers and sailors. But yeah, it was a staff job, so I was not - I was not kicking down doors; I was not in combat. I was - for the most part, a relatively safe job in a very dangerous place.
GROSS: What was your job as public affairs officer?
KLAY: So I had a group of Marines who worked for me who wrote stories and took photographs. And we organized interviews with press; we handled media embeds; I was an adviser to the general at Taqaddum, which is where I was based, which is a base just south of Habbaniyah, in between Ramadi and Fallujah.
GROSS: So when you were working with embedded journalists, what was it like for you? Because, you know, like, you're a writer; I'm sure you respect good journalism. And, you know, there are war reporters who are really like heroes to me because they're extraordinary writers and reporters and risk their lives to, you know, bring us the story. So I'm wondering what that relationship was like for you. And I don't know what kind of pressures are put on you by the military itself, you know, by the Marines to be very protective and not show certain things to reporters.
KLAY: I was interested in good journalism, right? It - if things aren't going well, it does the military no favors to have a press that is not reporting accurately on the situation, right? (Laughter) Because ultimately, the American people are supposed to be holding our elected leaders accountable for the decisions that they're making up and for the conduct of military policy. And they're not going to be able to do that without accurate information about what's going on - good or bad. So I was less frustrated by, you know, good or bad press necessarily than press that I felt was unduly partisan or not interested in what was happening. And I met a lot of really good, good journalists and also very courageous journalists while I was over there. I think it's - you know, people talk about the media as this abstract entity, but, you know, there are good journalists; there are bad journalists.
GROSS: So you weren't in combat, but you did see the aftermath of combat.
GROSS: And you wrote about that in a piece in The New York Times. And you write that most of the suffering that you'd seen didn't affect you as you thought it should have.
KLAY: Well, in that piece, I talk about a truck bomb that happened in I think the first month that we were overseas. A suicide truck-bomber had exploded in a crowd of families going to mosque and Marines brought the wounded onto base. Very early in the night, I was carrying a stretcher with a young Iraqi kid. It was the first time I'd ever seen anybody, let alone a child, who had those kind of injuries. Bombs do very, very bad things to human bodies; it's incredibly shocking to see. And I remember thinking that I would never forget that child's face. And then by the end of the night, I couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. I'd seen far, far too many injured people. The surgeons were doing surgery on the floor because the wounded had swamped the trauma tables. And, you know, in that sort of environment, it's just - it's very shocking and you look for a thing that you can do. There's a long line of Marines and soldiers waiting to give blood. The medical personnel were, you know, working frantically. Other people were helping with stretchers or bringing supplies or doing whatever it is they can do and you sort of settle into the routine. You do what you can do; you do your job. It's a little bit too much to take in and then you think about it later.
GROSS: You write in that article when you try to describe death that you witnessed, the telling tends to decay into a kind of pornographic, voyeuristic experience. You seem to really have this push-pull of, like, wanting to tell, but at the same time, not wanting - not wanting what? What scares you about telling stories like that?
KLAY: Well, it's why you're telling them, right? Are you telling them for the voyeuristic shock in the way that the narrator of "Bodies" is telling that, you know, lie to just kind of provide a particular type of shock? I mean, there's a kind of fascination with war. For about half a year, I student-taught middle school students, and when they found out that I was a veteran, they were all like, oh, did you kill anybody, you know? And then I said no, and we talked a little bit more about why that might be a sensitive question. And I've been asked that question by plenty of adults, too...
GROSS: What, if you killed somebody?
KLAY: Yeah (laughter) with a lot less excuse than a sixth-grader. And, you know, I've talked to veterans who say that's - that's the most obscene question you can ask somebody.
GROSS: So why is that the most obscene question?
KLAY: Because as another veteran who'd actually seen a lot of combat put it, he said it's not so much the question that offends me. It's that the people asking it don't seem to respect the moral seriousness of the question. And so for me, writing war stories - writing war stories where there's a lot of shocking things happen and where people are dealing with the aftermath of having seen or witnessed or been party to a lot of just really horrific things, why are you telling the story? What are you trying to do with telling the story and what's - what's the outcome? Are you enthralled to a particular kind of spectacle? Are you trying to really work your way through the really grave issues at the heart of the conversations that we need to have about war?
BIANCULLI: Phil Klay, speaking to Terry Gross last November. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with author Phil Klay. His collection of short stories about Marines in the Iraq war, called "Redeployment," just won a National Book Critics Circle award.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let me just ask you, while we're talking about experiences at war, what it was like for you to have a desk job but watching your fellow Marines go out of the wire every day? And you do a lot of traveling, so you were exposed to your share of IEDs - I mean, to the possibility of IEDs. Your job was pretty dangerous even though it was a desk job. But when you watched men that you knew well go out every day, what did you feel about that?
KLAY: Well, you know, you always feel - it's not just while I was there - right? - because, I mean, there's always somebody's who's risking more, who's given more. And that continues when you leave the Marine Corps, particularly during these wars, because it's a small, all-volunteer military. So, you know, I got out and yet, the people that I knew were continuing to go over. Every once in a while I'd find out about something that had happened to one of them. And you feel guilty about the fact that you didn't choose it to do the harder thing. And you feel respect for those who did. I knew a Marine who had had a friend of his die saving his life. And he volunteered to go to Afghanistan. This is when Obama was increasing troop presence in Afghanistan. Everybody knew that was where the fighting was. And I remember asking that Marine, you know, why he was doing it. He basically explained that he knew what it was like to lose somebody and then have to go out the next day and go on patrol and continue to do your job and continue to look out for the Marines around you. And he said, look, these guys are going to be going through a tough deployment and I think that I could - I can help them. And, you know, he went to Afghanistan and he died midway through his employment in an IED blast. And so if you know somebody like that, and instead of making that kind of very serious choice, you've chosen to, you know, go live in New York, it's something that you think about. I'll put it that way.
GROSS: Well, I think what you're describing is also survivor's guilt. It sounds like you'd feel guilty no matter what because you're here to talk about it.
KLAY: Yeah, I think a lot of veterans feel that way, even guys who have been through a tremendous amount of danger feel that way. You know, there's that feeling, and then there's what you do about it. I think - and it's not just - it's not just, I think, the guilt that people feel towards the, you know, Marines around them. But there's also the feelings that people have in relation to the amount of suffering that's happening in Iraq right now. And, you know, what do we do about that?
GROSS: So there's another short excerpt from one of the stories in "Redeployment" that I'd like you to read. And this is from a story called "Prayer In The Furnace." And this story is written from the point of view of a chaplain in Iraq. Do you want to just set up the reading before I ask you to read it?
KLAY: Sure. So he's had a Marine come to him and give a sort of confession. And basically this Marine has intimated that his unit has perhaps - has might've killed civilians, right? And he is having difficulty getting any traction in getting the command to look into this. It's a unit that's in an extremely violent section of Ramadi. This particular unit has very bad, very aggressive leadership. And he is struggling with figuring out what he's supposed to do, how he's supposed to minister to these men, what his responsibilities are as a priest, as an officer in the military. And while all these things are going on, more people from the battalion keep dying. Not long after Seppian's (ph) death, one of the divine office's morning prayers was Psalm 144.
(Reading) Blessed be the Lord, my help, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war. Kneeling against my rack in my spare little trailer, I faltered. I turned back to the previous prayer from Daniel. Today, there is no prince, no prophet, no leader, no Holocaust, no sacrifice, no offering, no incense, no first fruits offered to you, no way to obtain your mercy. I stopped reading and tried to pray with my own words. I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew he would not. I asked him to bring abuses to light. I knew he would not. I asked him, finally, for grace. When I turned back to the divine office, I read the words with empty disengagement.
GROSS: Why did you want to write from the point of view of a chaplain in Iraq?
KLAY: Well, I mean, in one level it just - it was fascinating to me, right? It was a way in to look at all these - these moral and spiritual issues that war raises. And so a chaplain seemed to be the perfect entry point for talking about the kind of impossible situation these Marines are in. He's at a staff level so it allowed me to look a little bit at the structure of the command and how, in a bad command, how that filters down to the lowest level and the things that happen at the lowest level. And also, I'm - I've, you know, I've always been a fan of a lot of, you know, the great Catholic literature - Flannery O'Connor, Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh. And, you know, I was educated by Jesuits, so that probably has something to do with it.
GROSS: You know, when - in the reading that you did in the story about the chaplain, he starts praying in his own words and he says, I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew he would not. In another one of your stories, a soldier asks a chaplain, why should I pray? It won't protect me. And the chaplain says, that's not what prayer is for. It will not protect you. It's for your soul.
GROSS: And he says Jesus only promises we don't suffer alone. And...
GROSS: ...I was wondering if a chaplain had told you that or if that's what you were thinking yourself.
KLAY: That's what I was thinking myself. Sometimes people talk about it. It seems like it's a lot of the best, most courageous Marines or soldiers who end up being the ones who die. And, you know, it's not - there's so many things that are not in your control. And so what do you do? What is the purpose of religion in - in those circumstances where you know that, you know, you can pray as much as you like, but, you know, it won't protect you from physical harm? It's very much, for him, about - I mean, ultimately, you know, what, as a chaplain, he thinks are the more important things. And how do you reach across within the context of a very violent place, a very terrible place, within the sort of isolated, angry suffering that some of the people feel lost in? And how do you find a kind of crack to reach out and commune with another individual?
GROSS: This is a very personal question, but I was wondering if you had religious faith before or during or after serving in Iraq and if you prayed while you were there.
KLAY: I did. I did pray while I was there. I said Jesuit-educated, so, yeah, I'm a Catholic.
GROSS: So just, you know, another question about prayer. Did you feel any more certain of the presence or absence of God while you were, you know, facing some pretty awful things? And even though you were a public relations officer and weren't in combat yourself, you saw terrible injuries. It was still an awfully dangerous place to be, in Anbar Province, whether you were officially in combat or not.
KLAY: (Laughter)When it comes to, you know, religion and the tradition of Catholic thought, it's something that I think very much helps you - helps you ask the right kinds of questions about these issues, right? There's a type of religious sentiment that is very certain of the answers and very certain about what should be proselytized. And then there's another type of religious tradition which is really much more about, you know, doubt (laughter) and working your way towards more and more difficult questions. And I think that's the tradition that appeals to me.
BIANCULLI: Phil Klay speaking to Terry Gross last November. His collection of short stories about Marines in the Iraq War, called "Redeployment," just won a National Book Critics Circle award. Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reviews "Seymour: An Introduction," a new documentary directed by actor Ethan Hawke. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Seymour Bernstein is an 88-year-old piano teacher in New York. But until he was 50, he was an acclaimed concert pianist. His unusual career is the subject of "Seymour: An Introduction," a new documentary by the well-known actor Ethan Hawke. Our critic-at-large John Powers has this review.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: As long as we're blaming baby boomers for everything, I'd like to add something to the inventory of grievances. It's the recent explosion of what we might call gerontological cinema, a pandering world of "Bucket Lists" and "Exotic Marigold Hotels" designed to reassure the zillions of gray-haired boomers that they're still alive and can still act like they're young. For an antidote, I prescribe "Seymour: An Introduction," an inspiring new documentary by the actor Ethan Hawke.
It's a loving portrait of his friend and mentor Seymour Bernstein, an acclaimed classical pianist who quit a successful concert career at the age of 50 to become a piano teacher. He's a quintessential New Yorker who embodies the wisdom of age. Bernstein was well into his 80s when they shot the film, a puckish man with an unabashed love of music. Keeping himself mostly in the background, Hawke interlaces footage of his subject at work with scenes in which Bernstein, a gifted raconteur, tells the story of his artistic life - how he came from a non-musical Newark family, how as a small boy, he heard Schubert's "Serenade" and wept, how at 6, he begged for a piano. By 15, he was teaching, and before long, he was on the concert trail. He played big halls, won admiring reviews and even had a patron - a spiritualist millionairess who paid to launch him in Europe and put him up in a huge house in Scarsdale where she had gifts delivered to his door every day.
Although he would appear to have had it made, he always hated the commercial side of things and was tormented by a profound anxiety at public performance. And so he just stopped. You see, Bernstein's relationship to his music is inseparable from his sense of himself, as he learned early on.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION")
SEYMOUR BERNSTEIN: When I was around the age of 15, I remember that I became aware that when my practicing went well, everything else in life seemed to be harmonized by that. When my practicing didn't go well, I was out of sorts with people, with my parents. So I concluded that the real essence of who we are resides in our talent, in whatever talent and there is.
POWERS: Ethan Hawke's talent is acting, and it's his own agonized relationship to it that first drew him to Bernstein and led him to make this movie. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. I'd long found Hawke slightly pretentious, maybe because years before James Franco became a Renaissance man, he'd already tried it, publishing novels, directing off-Broadway plays, directing films, starring in movies and appearing on stage at Lincoln Center where he was a terrific Bakunin in Tom Stoppard's "Coast Of Utopia." Now, ever since first making his name in "Dead Poets Society," Hawke has been a seeker. And in Bernstein, he finds a real-life version of Robin Williams's teacher in that film, the one who shows you the way.
Bernstein is a model of how you sustain creative passion over decades and decades. Not that he's some sort of self-help swami dispensing mantras and bromides. You can tell that from watching him teach, at which he's obviously brilliant. As a meticulous artist, he believes in hard work. That's the only way to get good. At the same time, he takes his students through their lessons with an upbeat gentleness that's no less encouraging for being rigorous. J. K. Simmons wouldn't win the Oscar playing him.
Everything Bernstein does is steeped in his love of music. The film opens with him working on his fingering of a Scarlatti sonata and ends with his first public recital in 35 years. One of the best scenes comes when he tests a group of pianos before a student recital. Every piano is like a person, he says, showing his knowledge of both. They build them the same way, but they never come out the same.
"Seymour: An Introduction" takes its name from a Salinger story, and the title, though cute, is apt. This tactful thing was only an introduction, not the whole story. While we do see Bernstein living alone with his Steinway in the cramped New York apartment he's occupied for 60 years, Hawke reveals almost nothing about this very private man's personal life. If he's had love affairs, kids or breakdowns, we don't learn. Gossip isn't what Hawke is after. No, what he's after is no less than the secret of a happy, satisfying artistic life - heck, of a happy, satisfying life in general - and the delightful Bernstein seems to have figured it out. It's not hard, really. Lead with your heart, Seymour tells us, then practice, practice, practice.
BIANCULLI: John Powers is TV and film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. On the next FRESH AIR, killer whales and Sea World.
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