Helping musicians helps keep the music alive in Austin (HAAM)

lhs-Haam-benefit-day-04Palaima: Helping musicians helps keep the music alive in Austin

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, March 21, 2015 Print edition Sunday March 22, 2015

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Can you imagine your life without music?

Really think about it, and not just about right now.

Think back through all the different stages of your life, your treasured memories, the rough seas and the stretches of smooth sailing, lonesome thoughts and spontaneous joys shared with friends and loved ones. Chances are you’ll remember songs and tunes along with them.

Rather than where were you when you first heard a song or a musician, think of the performers and their music and remember who you were then and who was with you in your life. To paraphrase lines from Austinite James McMurtry’s recent CD “Complicated Game,” songs write our lives. They remind us of our common humanity, in big ways and small.

This is no new development. In the period that is the focus of my research at the University of Texas at Austin, the late Greek Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE), the oral songs that defined the culture most people think of as the golden age of Greece were already being sung.

On a wall painting to the right of the royal throne in the sacred hearth room of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos (1200 BCE), a colorfully robed male singer, lyre in hand, sits outdoors on a well-worn rock outcropping. He sings and plays to banqueters sharing drink. A mythical bird flies off toward the throne, symbolizing the “winged lyrics,” the phrase Homer uses to describe the magical way inspired music reaches our ears.

Three centuries later, as Professor Joann Hackett reminded us in a recent presentation to our UT Institute for Scripts and Decipherment, from excavations of a shrine at an Israelite-Judean caravan stop in the eastern Sinai, we have large storage jars with painted “Hebrew blessing formulae and cultic scenes” referring to Yahweh and his potential companion goddess Asherah. Prominently depicted is a seated woman lyre player, perhaps singing out the blessing.

And the Rev. Will Rambo of Tupelo, Miss. — fittingly the birthplace of Elvis Presley — recently observed, after watching shepherds at work during a trip to the Holy Land, that the image of Jesus as a good shepherd derives partly from the fact that at herd collecting stations where shepherds brought their flocks for protection at night, there were no problems in the morning separating out whose sheep were whose. The sheep really do know their shepherds’ voices from hearing them sing their pastoral songs, just as I instantly recognize a Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee or John Inmon guitar riff or a line sung by Carl Hutchens, Jesse Gregg or Jimmy LaFave.

Pope Francis recently took aim at the “disastrous” homilies his flock of faithful hear from their priests, words that “do not reach the heart.” You know you cannot say that about the Austin musicians you regularly go to hear. They reach your heart.

Now try to imagine Austin without live music. A frightening thought, isn’t it? It will never become a reality so long as we continue to be good shepherds to the 9,000 musicians who, according to Chris Alberts, director of development for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, now live and perform in the Austin area.

History also proves unfortunately that being a musician, literally one of those dedicated to the arts of memory goddesses known as the Muses, generally involves an itinerant lifestyle and getting by on the kindness of strangers. Few Homeric or Judaeic bards, medieval minstrels, Appalachian folk singers, blues artists on the chitlin circuit or British shoegazers were free of troubles with money. Few of their descendants who perform at the Cactus Café, Poodies Roadhouse, the Saxon Pub, the Mohawk, the Gallery or the Skylark Lounge have large investment portfolios to manage.

HAAM got started in 2005 because the late Robin Ratliff Shivers was contagiously passionate about the music in her life and had the crazy idea that musicians should have access to regular medical, dental, vision, hearing and psychiatric care. She went about making that happen. Austin foundations, businesses and individual donors, too many to mention, have made it possible for the 60 percent of Austin musicians who do not qualify for subsidized medical plans and the 40 percent who have gaps in coverage to protect their health before crises develop.

If you enjoy the sounds you hear Austin’s talented musicians, young and old, making, go to www.myhaam.org. And remember Austin’s ever more challenging cost of living the next time the tip jar is passed.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.
– See more at: http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-helping-musicians-helps-keep-the-music-ali/nkbb4/#05de1d51.3469532.735775

AAS May 25, 2014 Listening Improves Humanity

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Palaima: Better listening improves humanity

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, May 24, 2014
Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday May 25, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

A few years ago, several veteran Austin guitar-playing musician friends — John Inmon, Derek O’Brien, Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee — took time to talk with my son about what their lives devoted to playing music were like, where their inspiration and passion for music came from, what difficulties they faced and still face.

What stays with me was how well these masters of soul-inspiring guitar sounds listened to what a 16-year-old fledgling musician had to say.

True attentive listening is a vanishing skill and underdeveloped talent. We all want to be heard. Yet it is the capacity to hear sympathetically that makes us truly human. The words we share in our native languages, the specific meanings we give words within our families and social groups, the feeling of outsiderness we have when we cannot understand what others are saying, all define who we are in our connections with or disconnections from other human beings.

Inmon posed a conundrum that applies not just to playing music, but to all other forms of human communication. He said: “When you are playing the guitar you are just sending out vibrations that travel through the air. They don’t mean anything until they reach the ears of the people who are listening. Figure out how to get what the song means to you across to your audience.”

What a wonderful concept. Applied to nonmusical communication, it asks that we do one simple thing: listen before or while we speak so that we can best express what we mean to others.

How is listening, especially John’s kind of pre-listening or imaginative listening to what others will be hearing, important? Without it, we lose contact with others and with ourselves, we become less able to help others and ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Freud Museum in Vienna and stood in front of the famous couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined and the famous chair where Freud sat, behind his patients. What he was practicing was called “the talking cure,” but it depended on patients knowing that a sympathetic, if invisible, listener was taking in what they were saying.

Psychoanalysis is now a multi-faceted science, but the art of sympathetic listening was known to Homer. Achilles, when in his deepest suffering from the public insult to his core self as a dedicated field commander, talks at length to his mother, Thetis. She listens with maternal care. Later when his closest comrade Patroclus is killed, Achilles unburdens himself to Thetis again about his sorrow and his guilt. He later speaks with Priam, king of Troy, who appeals to Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles had killed. Achilles in his anger and grief had tried to mutilate Hector’s corpse. Listening to Priam’s words, Achilles remembers his own father and becomes fully human once more.

Walt Whitman in his famous commentary on the abysmal medical care given the wounded well into our Civil War, “The Great Army of the Sick,” cites the case of J.A.H., “a young man from Plymouth Country, Massachusetts,” “prostrated by diarrhea and vomiting” and virtually catatonic because “no one spoke to him” or did so “with perfect indifference” or “heartless brutality.” Whitman “sat down by him without any fuss — talked a little — soon saw that it did him good — led him to talk a little himself.” By humanly listening, Whitman pulled J.A.H. from the brink of death from a despondency caused by nobody caring to listen.

Unfortunately, in our society the reward structures in many professions promote single-minded self-expression. A just-completed senior honors thesis at the University of Texas at Austin by Bethany Hamilton that Stephen Sonnenberg and I supervised looks at UT students who are military veterans. We need to listen to opinions like those Hamilton gathered from veterans. One was that veteran students would rather be at Austin Community College than at UT because the professors at ACC take time to listen when veteran students talk about their special needs.

This problem doesn’t apply only to veterans. UT has long had dauntingly high student to faculty ratios. And faculty members know that, except for award-winning performers in the classrooms, devoting time to research and publications is the one sure way to be among the chosen half of the faculty who now receive annual small merit raises.

The art of listening needs a public hearing, and we all need to lend our ears.

Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Manolis Stavrakakis and the Treasures of PASP

Report of Manolis Stavrakakis July 2012 as  Short Term Scholar in the Classics Department, University of Texas – Austin  Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP)

‘The treasures of PASP’

The title I am giving to this short report, ‘The treasures of PASP’, has a literal and a metaphorical meaning.

Its literal meaning stems from the variety, importance and number of the materials of the PASP Collection and Archives.

Its metaphorical meaning refers to the person who has created it, Professor Tom Palaima, as he is himself one of the ‘treasures’ of PASP and the ‘soul’ of the Program.

There are two themes with which I will refer in my experience as a short-term visiting scholar at the University of Texas in Austin. One is my studying at PASP and the other is the life in Austin.

As a Ph.D. student at the Architectural Association, under Mark Cousins’ supervision – to whom I am indebted for his support to work on this topic, his contribution, as well as his encouragement to go to Austin – I started exploring the connection between Michael Ventris’ architectural education and his decipherment. I received the ‘Michael Ventris Extraordinary Award in Architecture’ in July, 2011 so that I could travel for one week to Austin and work at PASP on the correspondence of Michael Ventris and Emmett Bennett.

It was there that I had the chance to meet for the first time with Professor Tom Palaima and discuss my Thesis with him. Had it not been for Tom Palaima’s enthusiasm and generosity I would not have been able to return to the PASP for a whole month, in July 2012, and I would not have been able to continue with my research. Up to today Tom Palaima’s invitation to work with him has been the most generous gift that this Ph.D. has offered to me.

My studying in PASP can be described within three different themes. Continue reading