Author Archive | Dan Wakefield

Invoke The Muse!: Music and Memory at “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam”

“The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam”

Tuesday night, April 30, 6-8 pm at The Jazz Kitchen


I could do my autobiography with music. Songs of an era bring pictures to mind.

“Don’t Fence Me In” – I’m on a streetcar going from Broad Ripple to Tabernacle Church to play basketball in the Eighth Grade, and my School #80 pal Dickie Richardson is with me. Itchy Richardson goes to Broad Ripple and becomes a basketball star; I go to Shortridge and write about basketball for The Daily Echo.

“How High The Moon:” Les Paul and Mary Ford are doing their version of the song that stands for all high school romance, we’re “parking” at Crown Hill Cemetery, or buzzing the D-Vu, or playing the jukebox inside at Spencer’s drive-in.

“Here Comes the Sun” – I’m lying on the grass in the Boston Public Garden with my hippie friends, looking up through a green panorama of leaves of the tallest tree we could find to lie under, and this weekend Janis Joplin is coming to give a concert and the following Saturday Joni Mitchell is coming this is as close as you get to heaven.

The Gypsy Kings are playing “Volare” and I’m driving my ten-year-old God Daughter to Oleta River State Park in Miami for a weekend family retreat of The Coral Gables Congregational Church; whatever The Gypsy Kings play it seems like Miami.

I have always played songs to inspire stories that become novels or memoirs, and I’ve learned that music is now being used in therapy with people who have Alzheimers, and with autistic patients. That’s what we’ll explore at the next “Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam” at The Jazz Kitchen on April 30 with music by the fabulous saxophone player Sophie Faught and her band – Kenny Phelps on drums and Jesse Wittman on bass. We’ll also have Dr. Meganne Masko with her guitar, which she uses in therapy sessions. Dr. Masko teaches at IUPUI and is one of more than 200 music therapists in Indiana, working in hospice, nursing homes, psychiatric facilities, rehab centers and clinics.

My writer friend Susan Neville, Butler professor and prize-winning author of books that evoke readers’ memories, will also be with us for the new “Jam.”  I want to ask her what music she might have used to inspire her moving Indiana Winter, whose lyrical prose seems like it might very well be set to music. I will pass this idea on to my musician friend Tim Brickley, who composed a song for the movie of my novel Going All The Way. Who knows what creative projects and powers will be launched that night? The music of Sophie and her crew is bound to inspire you. It’s “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam” at The Jazz Kitchen, Tuesday night, April 30, 6-8 pm. $20 admission, $10 for students (all must be over 21.) As we used to say in the days when I lay on the grass of the Boston Public Garden and

looked up at sun while The Beatles played in my head: Be there or be square!

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Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill opens March 13

The lively and impressive Fonseca Theater Company will present as its finale for their stellar season the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” opening March 13th at the Linebacker Lounge on W Michigan Street. This revival of the great Billie Holiday, who Frank Sinatra said was “the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing. . .”

Late one Saturday afternoon night in July of 1959 I got a call from Billie Holiday’s good friend Maely Dufty, husband of New York Post writer William Dufty, who ghost-wrote Billie’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues.” Maely explained that that Billie was in Metropolitan Hospital in New York, sick from heroin withdrawal. To add to her misery, the New York City police had come in to her hospital room and arrested her for drug possession, handcuffing her as she lay dying and maintaining a policeman in her hospital room. Maely was calling friends to ask if they would take around a petition for people to sign requesting the police to let her die in peace, without keeping watch in her hospital room.

Without hesitation, I took the subway up to the Dufty’s 93rd Street apartment and took copies of the petition, sure that it would be a popular cause, hardly controversial. I had forgot, however, that this was the 1950s, and we were still in the era of McCarthyism, when people who had signed what they thought were innocuous petitions for causes like aid  to mission houses in the Bowery, o support for the teachers union, and later were hauled before the McCarty committee accused of being Communist sympathizers. McCarthy and his minions had Americans fearful of signing anything, for fear it might later be held against them.

I happened to know there was a meeting that night of The Young Peoples Socialist League, headed by my writer friend Michael Harrington (he later gained game by writing the book “The Other America” that inspired the LBJ poverty program.) Mike introduced me and recommended people sign this simple request for humane treatment of a dying woman – yet many refused, backing away in fear that somehow, someway, this might years later be interpreted as some kind of “subversive” act! The popular statement of refusal to sign any document was “I’m not a signer.” Less than half the people in this most liberal-minded gathering imaginable were afraid to sign. The response was even more fearful and less supportive in other gatherings I went to in hopes of support – parties, bars, even meetings at churches. McCarthy had taught Americans to fear – not their enemies, but their own government.

I took my petitions with the signatures I’d managed to accumulate, and turned the in to the Duftys. Other friends had also brought in what signatures they were able to find. The Duftys and their lawyers, supported by newspaper articles about this travesty, were able to get a court order for the New York City police to finally leave Holiday’s hospital room a few hours before her death. She died on July 17. Her songs and her recordings are still classics played today – most notably “God Bless The Child,” and “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song that portrays the lynchings of black people in the South.

In 1961 Holiday was voted to the Down Beat Hall of Fame and Columbia reissued almost a hundred of her early records. In 1971 Diana Ross portrayed her in the movie “Lady Sings the Blues” and was nominated for an Oscar.

If you would like to catch Fonseca Theatre’s production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm and Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm at the Linebacker Lounge. There will be a special matinee at 2pm on Sunday April 7th in honor of Billie Holiday’s birthday.

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James Alexander Thom – Lifetime Achiever

James Alexander Thom has been given The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Lifetime Achievement Award. It is difficult to imagine a more deserving recipient. Many fine newspapermen say they will someday write a great novel, but Jim Thom is one of the few who really did it. After a distinguished service as a reporter for The Star, Thom warmed up with a novel based on the Indy 500, but then he really got serious with the heart-stopping story of a woman whose only strategy was to Follow The River and make her way over seemingly impenetrable mountains and forests to her home and freedom.

Since that triumph of a book, Thom has written a series of powerful historical novels native to our land and culture, from Native American and Civil War tales that are not only great story-telling but also impeccable history. My own favorites are Panther in the Sky, based on the life of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and The Red Heart, a dramatic retelling of a true story of a young girl’s kidnapping by the Delawares. In the course of his research for the Tecumseh novel, Thom met and married the beautiful Shawnee woman Dark Rain, and collaborated with her on the novel Warrior Woman and a book on writing historical fiction.

Many of his fans will arm-wrestle you to the ground proclaiming that his best works are those set in the Civil War era (Saint Patrick’s Battalion, Fire in the Water), but all will agree that no one delves into our American past and comes up with fictional pearls to match those of Jim Thom. He not only does his research by means of books and interviews, he puts himself through the ordeals of his characters to verify their deeds. He once filled his bathtub and sank below the water to breathe through a straw in order to test if a character in his novel could have done that when his paddle wheeler sank in the Mississippi river.

Jim and Dark Rain live in a log cabin in the woods in Southern Indiana – I am not talking about an architect’s version of an updated luxury imitation of a historical fantasy, I am speaking of a “real,” genuine cabin in the woods, made of logs, built by hand – or hands, both of them belonging to Jim.  From his porch you do not see a highway, or a building, or a paved road. You see the forest primeval. Where he lives is simply an expression of who is – “the real thing.” So is his wife, Dark Rain, the storybook companion such a man deserves. They both look the part – Jim, his Marine-tested body in good shape, his white beard glowing; Dark Rain’s black hair cascading down her back in full glory.

They not only “look the part” of genuine flesh and blood incarnations of the best of the American spirit, they live its ideals. I know. When I first moved back to Indianapolis after sixty-one years away, I had the good fortune to meet them early in my re-settlement days. In those first shaky months I was told I might need a surgery, and when Jim and Dark Rain heard of this, they volunteered to come and be with me during the ordeal. Fortunately, the surgery was not required, but I will never forget the offer of aid and comfort from two new friends who proved to be as genuine as their image of hardy frontiers people, the Americans we always hope are still here among us.

This is what I would have said had I been given the opportunity to present Jim Thom with his lifetime achievement award.

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Dan Wakefield was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.


Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield