Tag Archives: Jack Beck

♪ Old Friends ♪…. (RIP, Jean Redpath)

jean redpathAs I get older more old friends depart this life and this week was no exception. A special one took the trip a few days ago.

Fellow Fifer (as in Fife, Scotland) Jean Redpath and I crossed paths many times over the years as she blazed a trail for singers of genuine Scots ballads and songs here in the States. Her voice and her ‘Coinyach’ were wonderful. She died this week, in hospice care.

When I first started getting interested in Scots ballads and folksongs, Jean was just a little bit older than me. She was a member of the Edinburgh University Folksong Society, led by the famous and influential Hamish Henderson, so had access to the archives of the School of Scottish Studies and had already begun to make recordings that were an inspiration to me.

I eventually began singing in partnership with Barbara Dickson and I tended to be the researcher of potential material. Jean was always a regular ‘go-to’ and we ‘stole’ quite a lot of her stuff. :]

After she moved to the US, she would regularly return to Scotland to tour the folk clubs and festivals, and I always made a point of going to see her. On one of these  nights she said that one of the things she’d kind of forgotten was how polite Scotsmen were. While staying at her mother’s house in Fife she had gotten what she described as a ‘heavy breathing’ phone call. But the gent on the other end of the line started by saying “would you mind if – – -“. So Jean’s great sense of humor also permeated her performances and that taught me a lesson as well.

Many years later, just around the time I was touring the States quite a bit, I found myself sharing the stage with Jean at East Tennessee State University. During the afternoon we appeared live on the local radio station to help promote the concert. I had almost forgotten about that program until it re-surfaced recently; I was stunned when I heard her rendition of Robert Burns’ song ‘O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast’ – absolutely beautiful and a real challenge!

Shortly after that she again toured in Scotland and I was fortunate to interview her for my own radio show Scene Around. We did the interview in her late mother’s beautiful house down near the harbor in Elie, Fife–the same place where the polite heavy breather had phoned.

For someone so well known through regular appearances on Prairie Home Companion and other great venues, I found her completely charming and down to earth, never over the years turning the least bit ‘prima donna-ish’.

My abiding memory of her, though, is of her performing one of Robert Burns’ most explicitly raunchy songs–it’s so bad, I can’t even write the title here–to a typical audience of elderly ladies at that concert at ETSU, and getting away with it through her sheer personality.

Or maybe they just didn’t understand any of the words, given her lovely Fife accent.

Rest in Peace, Jean. You inspired successive generations, and you will be missed.


Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Scotland

What has it got in its Pocketses?

golumnPeople who own bookstores wind up with the most amazing things in our pockets at the end of the day. Here is an inventory of mine from yesterday:

a broken cat toy – Saw it on the floor, didn’t want a dog to swallow it, picked it up just as our first customers walked in, so stuck it in my pocket until I could get to a trash can.

guitar picks – Jack is often asked to spontaneously entertain bookstore guests, and he leaves these everywhere after.

wood screws – Ditto. I don’t complain; he puts up shelves every week, just about, or does some other repair. Sometimes I think he leaves the screws so I’ll know he was working there….

a crochet hook – This is the only thing I deliberately put in my pocket that morning. Because you never know when you’ll have spare time.

various receipts and school photographs – People are forever leaving these in books. I’m pretty sure I never bought “vg lmn ast 2pk $4.99″ from a place called “Far and Away” in Levington, MT. (IS there a Levington, MT?)

a mangled paperback cover – Our foster kittens sleep in the mystery room. Usually they understand the rules of correct behavior, but yesterday they’d had a go at poor Herman Wouk. I grabbed the shredded evidence from the floor because I was on my way to showing customers where Sue Grafton’s books were, and I didn’t want them to see what the kittens had done.

a lettuce leaf – We had several people eating buffet style yesterday. I don’t help serve, but was up there getting a glass of water and the leaf was just sitting, enigmatically, on a low shelf of food-themed murder mysteries. I picked it up, intending to throw it away, but someone was in the bathroom so I stuck it in my pocket until I could get to a trash can.

two pencils, a pen, four paper clips, and a pencil sharpener – Straightening a couple of shelves, I noticed some books didn’t have prices, so grabbed a pencil. Apparently about an hour later, I did the same thing, plus the sharpener. I grabbed the pen to tally a customer. I don’t know how the paper clips got in there.

a child’s sock – I found it in the children’s room, on a shelf. I don’t know why. I don’t know what to do with it.

two business cards – People come in; they tell you about their services; you tell them they can put a flyer up in the “local business” section by the door. They thank you, give you one business card, and leave. They never bring flyers. I don’t know why.

assorted bottle caps – Customers who come into the store with soft drinks or bottled water are usually very taken with the kittens, and give them the caps to play with. No problem, everyone likes this, but throughout the day I tend to rake in quite a haul.

a 500MG Tylenol – I meant to swallow it surreptitiously in our private kitchen, but when a customer asked a question, I pocketed it for later, and then it got mixed up with the pencils and the lettuce leaf, and the sock…

So, what’s in your pockets?


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, crafting, home improvements, humor, Life reflections

Books a Bazillion

In which Jack returns to writing his weekly blog post, and sighs patiently over a subject known only too well to bookslingers everywhere.

garbage-landfill Yesterday one of our cafe regulars asked if we bought books. I explained that we didn’t, but gave store credit if the trade-ins met our needs and standards.

“Oh, I can just donate them,” he said, and headed for his van.

That seemed like a clue that these weren’t going to be top of the line, but I went out to watch him struggle up the front steps with an enormous TV box–the kind I advise folk not to use, as they weigh a ton when full of books.

A better man would have helped, but I admit to you my moral failing: I knew what was coming and just didn’t care.

A quick glance established that most of his donations were older Grishams and Pattersons; to add insult to injury, they were minus their dust jackets. After explaining as gently as I could that  these were pretty much useless to us, I raked through to find eight acceptable hardbacks as well as more (useless) battered paperbacks. At this point he shrugged and said he’d got them from a friend.

(So – a friendship wall?)

This was the third time in as many days we’d had much the same experience, having to explain that we don’t take hardbacks minus their jackets, torn or stained paperbacks, romances including Danielle Steel or kids’ coloring books already colored in. It’s the law of used book shops: people don’t want to dump, so they donate. And they mean well for the most part, but a couple months of that, and customers will have a hard time differentiating your shop from a dump site.

Surveying our store the other week, with its spiraling pinwheels of shelves moving toward the center of every room, eking out the final frontiers of space, I resolved to become even more choosy about what to accept. And perhaps instigate a cull.

After all, folk are generally pretty sanguine when I explain our policy. What I hope is that people will begin to weed out themselves before bringing stuff to us, but in the meantime, I’ll stifle a sigh. And maybe help with the box next time.

Perhaps I can build a garden wall somewhere with all those jacketless Grishams and Pattersons? Wendy would like that….


Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book repair, bookstore management, crafting, humor, Life reflections, reading, small town USA


In which Jack guest blogs a book review
I don’t read all that many novels, tending more towards history or memoir as a rule. But Wendy and I headed off recently to our remote hideaway cabin in Tennessee, armed with some leftovers from ‘World Book Night’. These included Hotel, which she thought I might like.
Completely captured within a page or two, I could hardly put it down. More than that, I didn’t want to immediately start another one, in order to savor the ‘afterglow’ of Hotel. That may be the first time I’ve ever consciously done that.
The story concerns a Chinese American boy called Henry and a Japanese American girl named Keiko who live in Seattle around the time when Japanese are being rounded up and sent to ‘detention camps’ further inland for the duration of the war.
This seems like it would be a simple ‘boy meets girl’ tale in an historic setting, but there’s much more to it. For a start they are in their early teens and the relationship is (for most of the book) entirely innocent and really about childhood friendship. Hotel more explores the relationship between parents and children, and between different races and generations and all against a turbulent period in history. There’s even a search for a ‘holy grail’.
The detail and painstaking research may explain why I liked it so much. From the speakeasies of wartime Seattle to the bleak windswept detention camps of the mid-West, the author puts you right there, peering over the shoulders of the characters.
Without wishing to spoil this for anyone else, I wish there could have been at least one more chapter, though.
A very enthusiastic ‘two thumbs up’ from this reviewer!



Filed under between books, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, writing, YA fiction

Beam me over Scottie!

Jack’s weekly guest blog

Here I go again, a Scots-born American by choice, off to visit the Old Country for a month.

Regular readers will know that I came to live in the US some 11 years past and became a citizen in May 2012. Over here everyone thinks of me as a ‘Furriner’ with an accent so strange I’d have needed an interpreter had my bid for Town Council been successful- not that anyone here has an accent ;0). They also tell odd stories about me not saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

And yet, annually as I go over to my country of birth every year to conduct a small group of folk around Scotland, things have shifted more with each passing year. When I first started doing the tours it definitely felt like going ‘home’ but now it’s much more equivocal – where exactly is ‘home’?

ginnie 2Here in Big Stone Gap I now feel very much at home, and comfortable. The surrounding hills (they call them mountains here, sweet people) remind me of Scotland and the locals have so much Scots blood in their veins that I have no difficulty relating to them. Indeed, these American friends have become the foundation of my life now!

And yet – when I do go back to Scotia/Caledonia/Alba/Scotland/Ecosse it’s rather like boarding a time machine, as I consciously re-calibrate my vocabulary and grammar now that I understand (most of) the differences between American English, British English, and Scots.

So I’m beginning to think, now, of what it is that might actually feel like home to me? Is it a place that shares my politics? Ha! None do. Culture? But I like everybody’s music, dancing and food. It’s not religion, if  ‘good Christian values’ are defended by lying about others – oh no, thank you. I’m tempted to say that living rural does it, but I have very good friends and some truly great memories tucked away in cities.

So, what?

Maybe it’s a combination of the world being a much more connected place now, and me getting older (and wiser?). What got me on this track was a conversation Wendy and I had last night. She will join me in Scotland for a week after this year’s tour finishes and we were talking about old friends we’d want to visit. I found myself looking at this through her eyes and thinking, “Does she feel at home in both places, Scotland and here? Or does  she think of going back to Scotland as a holiday, rather than revisiting our first home?”

So I asked her, and she gave me an enigmatic look. “You’re asking where home is? Honey, human hearts don’t beat with accents. Home is you and me, together.”

Well, yes.WENDY&CAT2


Filed under Big Stone Gap, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Jack’s Anti-Book Book Review

In his weekly guest blog post, the normally mild-mannered Jack gets a bit exercised – -

When I started reading The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom I was fascinated. The book sets out the theory that human cultural groupings act as ‘super-organisms’ that transcend the notion of the individual need. My mind went back to long-ago classes in economics and educational motivation – maximizing utility and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs etc.

Bloom’s theories seem to go against all the accepted rules, but he argues that there is plenty of evidence throughout history that human groups will gather around what he describes as a ‘meme’ that will drive a particular group to dominance. The need to dominate is, in turn, driven by a desire that the group should have the greatest access to the ‘fruits of the earth’. He draws parallels with behavior in ant colonies, bee hives and families of apes and baboons, then introduces many instances of human activity to back his argument, such as the need for recognizable uniforms to distinguish ‘us and them’ as well as the value of having an enemy and the power of hatred.

When I started this book I was drawn into it by his many references to there being ‘a better way’ forward that could somehow avoid wars and the violent overthrow of existing hierarchies. As a Quaker I’m always keen to investigate anything that promotes a more peaceful world and this book seemed to be offering possibilities. However as I read on all I seemed to be reading about was the inevitability of this continual cyclical overthrow of existing dominant groups by the next kid on the block: Christians/Muslims, Capitalists/Communists, Democrats/Fascists, and so on.

Finally I reached his answer (drum roll, please)…..

America had to stay on top and learn how to remain there indefinitely.

Yes – really. Never mind anyone else; get on top and stay there, and that’s good enough.

Maybe Douglas Adams had a better answer – – – 42 makes more sense than “stay on top of the pyramid by keeping ‘lesser people’ on the bottom, and life will be grand– at least, for you.”

As Dorothy Parker says, “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”


Filed under bad writing, blue funks, book reviews, Hunger Games, Life reflections, post-apocalypse fiction, reading

The Monday Book: PARALLEL UNIVERSES by Fred Alan Wolf

Jack actually read this and kept tapping me in bed to share interesting bits, so I feel as though I’ve read it. Here is why Jack liked it:

The book is saying that Newtonian physics basically were accepted as the only way to see the universe until the early 1900s, but the trouble is that as it became possible to, if not observe, then imagine or understand the smallest particles that one finds even inside atoms, there were anomalies in the Newtonian system that couldn’t be explained by those rules. So a number of people independently started developing quantum physics. Although quantum did explain the anomalies within the Newtonian view, they provoked new anomalies within the quantum system!


Researchers working independently realized that the process of measuring and studying the particles actually effected the particles, changing their behavior. It’s that Schrodinger’s cat thing. So the act of measuring changes the measurement. And this has led to the theory of parallel universes. In other words, an infinite number of universes are probable, each with a slight change that takes it into an infinite number of different possibilities. (Think that original Star Trek episode where the transporter malfunctions and they wind up in a weird Enterprise that turns out to be in an alternate universe, aka where Spock has a beard. Or that movie Sliding Doors.)

Because you’re observing the universe that you’re in and only that universe, that becomes for you the one and only universe.


you are schizophrenic, or suffering from other behavioral disorders. The author suggests that what people in some conditions are experiencing is the actual observation or collision of that other universe. When people with “disorders” are seeing things other people don’t see or hearing voices or watching shadows or scared of something that hasn’t happened in history, they’re actually seeing for real what the rest of us can’t see.

Taking this a stage further, all these quantum theories suggest that there is a dimensional link between time and matter. This explains things like black holes and tesseracts and time bending. Thus in the same way that you can look back in time and see history, the future can also affect your present. You’re at a point on the continuum that has both ends all played out, but put that word predestination out of your mind, because both ends have infinite possibilities; you just can’t see the historical ones because you’re inside one of them. Got that?

So what you experience as the present is an immeasurable small piece of all the possibilities that have been and could be. And the future has an effect on the present, but we can’t see it inside the universe we’re currently riding inside.

Now keep in mind that this book was published in 1988, so there may be new stuff out there, but this book reads well. It’s a serious read, but it has lovely humor and references to pop culture and the guy writes well. So even if it’s not narrative, it flows well.


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Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, out of things to read, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading