A Late Night Poem

To whom:

our breath reaches only so far

into sky and hearts on the honest

hope of connection.

Leave the anger behind.

This truth may be confusing

may be too much to disolve

into worth.

I am not looking to impress.

Sharing requires a certain

something that this limited voice

booms to leave behind.

An Interview I Wish Would Happen

So, you are working as an engineer on the only steamboat operating in the United States?

Well, the Steamer Belle of Louisville is the only operating steamboat that survived the packet era of river boat commerce. There are other boats that are steam operated, however, none of them are over one hundred years old. And I work there yes, but what I really am doing is escaping from a life that was being threatened by automation.

What do you mean by that?

Well, by the time I had worked sixteen years in the railroad industry, I had witnessed the transition of totally manual operation of trains to an almost entirely computer, robot operation of trains.

What will happen when most jobs are handed over to computers and robots?

Well, humans will and always have longed to be loved and cared for, so, I hope that we as a people will go back to doing the things that have as much love and care contained in them as possible. It is suggested that humans have a tendency, when disaster strikes, to put differences aside and to help each other out unconditionally in the face of extreme difficulty. This to me is the saving grace of humanity. Unfortunately, waiting till the last minute to make changes is also a human trait that historically has caused so many disasters. It is obvious to me that the bottom line economically is most of the time the reason given for not making the changes required to avert many human made disasters.

You used to be very active in labor and social activist groups, what are you doing now?

Enjoying my new life as a river worker and member of a crew, reading a lot and writing.

What do you mean, “member of a crew?”

Well, Anne Feeney, my favorite labor singer and rebel folk musician has a song titled, War on the Workers, wherein she suggests that “if they call you a team, you better learn how to scream.” I hate it when some manager suggests that a group of workers are a team. On boats, we are all on the same boat is our motto, no teams. We have one goal, keep the boat floating and all the folks safe that are on board. We are all on the same boat is one of my favorite metaphorical reasonings. Something like asking this question – What would we do if we were all on the same boat?

This is the essence of a lack of competition. If teams were applied, then somebody would lose. In human existence and in labor, an injury to one, is an injury to all. The suggestion of an injury to one, is also the very essence of a compassionate community that recognizes that decisions must be made with every one person involved. If there is even one person suffering, then everyone must stop, recognize and discover what is troubling this member of the crew, because ultimately, the crew is also suffering. It takes a full crew to operate a boat safely.

We do not live in a perfect world.

Sure, and we don’t live in a constant state of emergency when all hands must be on deck at all times. And, in emergency situations a good crew would be strong enough to work with a member who can not work at full potential. Such as a strong community that operates with members who are suffering.

What is a community?

Unfortunately, community is sometimes just a word that has been co-opted as a brand and gimmick for profit takers. The same goes for free trade, cooperatives, green, sustainable, local and nonprofits. Many non profits will work their organizers, interns, directors and volunteers to extremes to enjoy a sort of free labor of love aspect of doing business, such as some businesses that make it their gimmick to create and sometimes support worker and farmer led cooperatives, but when it comes to their own workers, union cooperative collectivity is not something that is necessary to achieve.

Do you still support the union?

Well, I have been an active member of one of the oldest unions in the United States, The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. I have also been a member of one of the largest and most powerful unions, The Teamsters. What I found being a member of these unions was the same thing Eugene V. Debs found. Corruption, competition and a lack of human care taking. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, however, it seems to me that the labor movement has lost its way. That is why I was a union reformer and supporter of democratic movements in the unions that I was a member of. Democratic principles are nice and all, however there must be dissent for democracy to exist. Power corrupts. Care taking of the minority view is difficult to manage while in power and the troubling results of overpowering the minority is what fails many an organization and community minded endeavors.

Do you support Democratic movements and organizations now?

At the moment, I am not a member of any group or organization. I am still a supporter of Railroad Workers United because that is the organization that taught me most of the deeply held beliefs that I have adhered to as I transitioned out of the labor movement, so to say. I am a solidarity member, however, I am not in the railroad industry, community any more and my work as of late has been internally, moreover, personal and that has taken most of my time and energy.

What about the I.W.W.? I thought you were a member of that union.

I am not a dues paying member of any organization right now. I am only a solidarity member of railroad workers united in so far as I still talk frequently to the secretary and would support works that they might do. If I were called upon, I would give my advice and take the time to offer what time I might have in opinion. As for the I.W.W. That union is closer to my deeply held conviction that Labor is Entitled to All Wealth created by labor. This is not the belief of many of the trade unions of today. I am also more inclined to be a member when what I can offer is wanted. The labor movement in general has lost its heart and soul. That is my department. I am a singer, poet, storyteller, folk musician and griot.

What is a griot?

A Griot is a West African word that belongs to a certain caste of people who are the keepers of the oral tradition of the community that they belong. They are born into the trade and have a high place in society. They are poets, musicians and somewhat the journalists of their community. I am somewhat also a Djeli. There is some crossover in those two terms, however they are closely related in what those roles play in West African Culture.

Why do you consider yourself a Griot?

Well, I was born into a very musical family. My entire German side of my family were and still are members of a social club centered around singing. I grew up in that rapidly disappearing tradition. My father and uncles were folk mass singers in church and my Lebanese grandfather was a chanter at his Greek orthodox church. Back in my school days, (1984) I was a trumpet player in band. One day an artist was contracted by our band teacher, Malinda, to come, build and play African Drums. Herbie Johnson came and we made drums out of PVC pipes. Painted them and did a performance with them. This was my first experience working with African Music. Eventually, I would meet him again and the drum would change my life. I got my first west African Djembe in 1994. I still have it now.

My first paying gig was playing drum for an African storyteller. Her name was amazing. Oyo Fumilayo M’fundishi, something like that. What a name. I went on to study with Baba Olatunji and several of the Drum players who have worked with the Guinea National Ballets and other West African groups. Bolocada Conde, Famidou Konate to name a few.

How does this make you a Griot?

Well it doesn’t really, because I am a Kentucky boy, not African born into a caste system, however I was doing the work that folks like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were doing. They were storytellers, poets and musicians. Most of my work, when I was working at the railroad and in the democratic reform labor organizations, was done innocently, doing what a griot in Africa would have done. My goal was to document the working conditions of the American railroads using the old myths and stories of the people as my guide.

What do you mean, “old myths and stories?”

I recently met a banjo player who has been working with Rhiannon Giddens. She was playing a folk festival here in Louisville. She has written a song that deals with the ever changing and being added to song John Henry. She wrote a song about John’s wife, Polly Anne. John Henry was a real person. To me, he was a moral to the story. The moral to the story was all about automation and pride. Moreover, to me that song is very triggering, because I worked very closely with families who were dealing with the tragic effects of automation. John Henry, lives in the memory of every worker who was killed on the railroad. To have her adding to the body of folk tradition, and adding to the what happened to Polly Anne question to me was absolutely fascinating. Not to mention this woman was a powerful young black woman playing the banjo. We certainly could use as many of those as we can get!

What have you been reading lately?

I have recently devoured all I can find in audiobooks. Joseph Campbell has been a recent study. I have also been reading tons of Idries Shah and other Sufi works. As of late, I am reading the Harlan Hubbard Payne Hollow Journal. Wendell Berry is a poet and essay writer I enjoy reading. I am finding also that Alan Bates is an excellent Kentucky author.

Who was Allen Bates?

He was a river worker who designed and worked on several steamboats. His books are written in a very easy to read way. Technical, but also capturing the human elements of what goes on out on the river.

What music have you been listening to?

The Grateful Dead, once a deadhead, always a deadhead. Sun Ra, I love Sun Ra. I listen to lots of West African Djembe groups and as of late, I have been listening to the birds mostly. I pulled out some Bill Monroe a couple of weeks ago, but mostly I have been listening to John Hartford’s steamboat stuff. Kinda goes with the territory.


photo by Greg Acker

To My Brothers in the Brotherhood

To My Brothers in the Brotherhood

(When I left work – exhausted and hot.
Our secretary was hanging directions
to our meeting on the union board.)

Peace be with you.
And also with you.

It is my direct action to love!
Go home directly, hug my boy –
kiss the wife and hit the sack.

Peace be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray.

Brothers, one day you will take
this union as sacrament.
This power we seek is to unite human
heart with sacred vision.
To be forward thinking – with resolve.
Our kinship, our favor.
Our love for one another,
will be our saving grace.
It is radical to speak without kind intention.
It is what it is, is the mantra of the broken.
Reality dictates that our strength comes in numbers.
It is ignorance that expects people
to come, who have not been invited.
It is morality that guides us to be all inviting.
Conscience that tells of our failure.

Peace be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray.

Let us not fall to fear of what might
happen if we raise our voices on high.
They will say, “they won’t stick together!”
They will say, “they don’t care!”
They will say, “they have fallen to
greed and don’t understand!”
Let us be like the tree,
planted by the water.

For I was happy but now I’m not.
I was lost but now, I’m found.
Was blind … but now I see.
I am employed by your favor!
Let’s not get lost in arguments.
Peace be with you.
And also with you.

Let us now greet each other &
feel open hands meet &
raise our voices on high!

There is power in a band of working folks
when they stand hand in hand.

In solidarity!

I make motion to change
the name of our union to also
include the word.
Can I get a witness?


Prana meets the Beats inna Firehouse in Monterey, Kentucky

This is a chapter from my book The Table that can be purchased HERE.

Rest in peace Mike Bell!

Chapter 12 – Prana meets the Beats inna Firehouse in Monterey, Kentucky

We were young men, in a percussion ensemble circa 1993 -1995 named for a Vedic word used to describe the life-giving force. A source, per definition of the word, that comes from the sun. We were a rag tag team of twenty-year olds, very much innocently – delving into conceptual organic soundscapes – very much inspired by the resurgence of world music that came after Micky Hart released his book and companion CD, Drumming at the Edge of Magic. We were winging it.

We had a didgeridoo player, blacksmith, who had mastered the circular breathing technique of the Australian native peoples. A DunDun player wild man, new to African music, photographer and deep thinker, seeker. We also had the young son of a Presbyterian minister, Zak Fry. My first percussion student. We had Leland, the friend, who would end up sticking around in NYC after the Rant tour, that ate the beat poets, and then would travel with me to the place that was founded by the Sufi, Inayat Khan’s son. Several Folks would come in and out of this group. Toby the hippie dude who disappeared. I think he split out to Bloomington, Indiana. We also had Joshua, the white Rasta, soon to become quite a hardworking man and husband. Not to mention kick ass Djembe player in his own right.

Three of our members came as a troop. High school buddies. Our Dundun, bass drum, mask wearing, philosopher – burning man, was a close friend of Eric (habibi) the blacksmith frame drum player. Some of the troop sometimes now honor me as their first teacher, and that is an honor. But we were all new to this culture. Not a study into the factual historical relevance of the Djembe, however, we were on a journey that would take us into Smoketown, Kentucky to do a presentation for impoverished African- American neighborhood kids.

We ate Monterey, Kentucky and played the firehouse in that little lonesome forgotten tobacco town. We played the Twice-Told coffeehouse many times. I suggested that we would eventually play in Egypt and all around the world. I think big. We would wear African masks and put cool Indian carpets on the stage like the Grateful Dead. We were going further, for real. Once we had a copper bullroarer fly off the rope and almost kill somebody in the audience. It was awesome,

Back in the Prana days, I was deeply studying Islam and Sufi poetry. I was playing and making bamboo flutes. I was attending the working-class mosque on 4th street in old Louisville and praying as much as I could. I was reading books written by a Sufi guru named Bawa Muhiyadeen, a lot. My wife and I would later visit the fellowship in Philly that was organized and overseen by Bawa. On our honeymoon, we would pray in the fellowship’s mosque, eat mung bean curry and read Bawa texts in his bedroom. We would then travel to the Gershwin hostel in NYC, and sleep in a Barbie themed bed. We were ecstatically in love, still are. And,

Once upon a time there was a Cat Swami. He sat in the grain house and convinced rats to follow him. He told the rats that the cats and the rats had made friends. The cat was awesome, right? He would preach fire and brimstone, the one big union, sing solidarity forever and all was good on the farm. One day, one of the fat rats disappeared. The cat told the fat rat to stay after one of the sermons, because he, the cat, thought that he, the rat, was awesome, right? um, so. Well, when no one was looking, pounce.

The other rats got the picture and figured out the moral of the story and they all lived happily ever after. Right?

That is a very simple version of a Bawa story that was in one of his Children’s books. It is a story that teaches folks to be very wary of guru’s, plastic shamans, new age bull chicken and the such. Bawa’s stories are deep and his teachings, wonderful. Nobody can find any dirt on him. No cars, women, drugs, no wild sex and other things that sometimes come with Indian guru new age crystal visions. I am not Muslim now and my Lebanese Greek Orthodox grandfather would have killed me, if he knew my wife and I got married in the mosque. I am a huge fan of Sufism and, I digress, often.

I think the important thing to mention is that none of us were music students at the college. The non-academic qualities of our group are important to this story. The living and breathing fact was that we were all struggling to figure out some relevance in a world that had lost its way. Lost its culture. I think that it is also important to mention that while some of us were studying the liner notes of all the new world music CDs we were sharing about our collective. We never called it a collective.

We didn’t have a website, email and a blog. We released a cassette. Our rehearsals were held mostly at our Dun Dun player’s house and were naturally centered around food and friendship. A dundun is a common general name for the bass drums that are the backbone of traditional west African village music from the Malinke people.

We were mixing together the rhythms that I had learned from a collection of African rhythms from two of my earliest teachers, Herbie Johnson and Musa Uthman. It is important to note that these two people were African Americans, from Louisville, Kentucky. These two folks were part of the generation of African Americans that had found African music from the previous generations. From the pan African 1960’s.

It is also important to note that the resurgence of World Music, that can be directly blamed on Mickey Hart, was fueling this group. We were adding to that mix, a study of Classical Indian music that found our group traveling to Cincinnati to a birthday celebration for Zakir Hussain’s father. If I remember correctly it was his 70th birthday and the concert was a long tabla recital with his two sons. Long, meaning over three hours. Zakir Hussain is one of the most celebrated Tabla players of his time. His father was one of the most important Tabla players of his time. Time.

Eric, our didge player and I had become very good friends. We were dropping acid, playing music for hours, talking, laughing. Eric, is a trickster, seer, magician. He was at the time a Blacksmith. His homemade Didgeridoos, made of copper, were exquisite. To make a serious point, I think Eric is one of the most talented musicians that I have ever played with. I have been places with Eric, in music, that are hard to explain. Other Worlds. Sun Ra has a song called, I’ll Wait For You. That is where we went.

It’s a far place.

Many light years in space …

I’ll wait for you,

I’ll wait for you!

Where human feet,

have never trod,

human eyes, have never seen –

I’ll build a world, full of abstract dreams –

I’ll wait for you … I’ll wait for you.

Something like that. Before Prana, I had a friend named Blue. He played the Japanese flute. Blue and I worked at the Good Neighbor Food Cooperative together. He was an ex-Marine, turned hippie, lost son of a folk musician – step son of a biker. Not just a biker, but a real one. His step-father was … well, think biker gang, Louisville Outlaws – think, Hell’s Angels. That is how Blue grew up. We met and would become inseparable. We would spend hours and hours playing our flute and drum, in the burned-out chapel upstairs from the Co-op. We named our group One Song, from a line in a poem by Rumi. Blue and I would frequently go to the place that is described in the Sun Ra poem.

To get to that place, a Sufi poet once gave perfect directions. The instructions read:

to enter that place one would need to fly through a window,

but, why do that, if there were no walls

Something like that. Jazz musicians call this place, “In the pocket.” Miles Davis called his notes colors. Many musicians have tried to describe leaving the human world of language and place. It’s like a magic carpet ride. L.S.D helps, but like Timothy Leary had suggested in his time – once you get across the river, why carry the canoe – …

The river I was crossing with PRANA was a poem that would have many rewrites over time. Drum, Beat, Dance. The poem turned into an elaborate stage presentation called The Rhythm of Civilization. Here is one of the versions that is in my journal that I carried in my grip while eating NYC, meeting all the old farts of poetry and going to meet Baba Olatunji. The poem is Circa 1994.




Sounds that came from a

place inside you that

you didn’t know were there.




from the heart by the

hands the sweet music

flows, Sounds of a


Drum – Beat – Dance …

Children dancing on

the skin that stretches

across …

Looking at the sun

the white heat grabs you.

Drum – Beat – Dance!

A new civilization singing …

Lonely for the flute,

I come looking

for you …

Drum – Beat – Dance …

We Celebrate, with music –

and wine, not made from grapes!

In a place, you can’t imagine.

The Marriage of flute and drum.

The Rhythm of sound.

The breath of life.


Sound and Power.

Drum Beat Dance and Sing and Dance

and Love and Life and Drum – Beat – Dance …

with you.

We started the song with forest sounds, clicks and the bullroarers. The didgeridoo drone would then lead the way to a deep six-eight pattern on the drums. I would do a flute presentation and then start into the poem. The song ended with a long flute solo and then finished with the conclusion of the poem.

When we played this song in Monterey, Kentucky, my flute, right in the middle of my solo, broke in half and fell to the floor. It was surreal. The solo that I had taken had moved me to start crying. Of all the performances that we experienced as a group, the firehouse gig was my favorite. The hash was good, the L.S.D that we took was pure and the creek we swam in was cool. I was young and with my friends. Monterey, Kentucky holds a special place in my heart. I had never experienced that sort of mystical feeling before. A deep rapture that broke my flute. Right?

Mulberry Hill

Mulberry Hill

on the Clark
family home place –
George Rodgers Clark Park –
my front yard – Mulberry Hill –
where Louisville’s first family settled.
I’m sure there is plenty to say about George.
I’m sure they were privileged. It was a blessing –
to play in the rich Grey Kentucky clay! Play war in our
grass forts, throwing walnuts at each other. My
Brother and Sister at my core – our undaunted childhood
discovery. We were privileged to be free to play.
To be told not
to come home
until the sun
was sinking low.
I remember “no niggers” painted on the roof of the
lodge, in the park where we swam. We played basketball
together – they had big family picnics, family reunions.
I remember when they painted over the
wrong words with white paint. And then
the letters would eventually bleed through –
like some sort of cruel joke, like a stain.

I don’t remember seeing any “niggers” in the park!
My mother told me the word on the roof was
wrong. I remember “stop busing” painted on the
stop signs. I remember the two black kids in
my neighborhood catholic school. They stuck out
like a sore thumb. They didn’t stay long …

I remember the mean man who would run us off
when us kids would get too wild.
He ran the park from a little office in the lodge.
His name I don’t remember. He carried a five gallon
bucket and picked up trash.

I remember majestic grandfather cottonwood
trees blowing in the hot humid summer breeze –
sapping cherry trees and the flooded creek.
The tree that was surrounded by a large fence –
the story behind it. They said an Indian woman
sat there with her dead child in her arms.

Her tears watered the tree as it grew around her.
They said you can still hear her weeping if you put
your ear up to the tree. They also said it grew from
George Rodgers Clark’s sword.

Oh how I remember walking across that park …
to find my Dad. At the end of the bar at Tim Tams.

– I would stand under his shadow.
His work truck parked in the lot.
Oh how I remember the real cherry
cokes! Pickled bologna and crackers –
the men and their work conversations.
The wooden shuffle board game and
the heavy metal pucks.
Falls City beer in ten ounce glasses,
salt shakers on the bar –
the telephone that would ring –
the bartender telling the woman on the
other end – “ no, he is not here.” –

Privilege is relative, not a good place to start
a conversation. Political correctness is relative too!
Triggers are pulled and buttons pushed! We can
only be so careful not to offend.

It was a privilege to be a free child –
before Anne Gottlieb was stolen –
before those Trinity boys were raped –
before they beat to death that gay man in
Cherokee Park with a Louisville Slugger.
Before media told us who we were supposed to be –
before AIDS became a household word.
Before cable T.V. terrorized our airwaves
with a constant droning.
Times are a changing. Time has been known to do
that. Naturally. I act out in defiance of the norm. I rebel –
taught to question – raised by resilient men
and women. People who were trying to dream. In America.
The land where their fathers and mothers died.

It is a privilege to be alive –
it is work to tread water –
to keep your head above it all.
May peace be with you.

The Sabbatical of the Belle

They call me old man.

My crew. Nothing has really changed

in the over 100 years our lady has

made her way around.

They call her a tramp.

The boat. They use her to make a point,

of how things used to be built to last.

They say she is haunted.

By a deckhand, who walks the lower

deck whistling a mournful tune, and

by a captain who loved to gamble.

We are not a team.

For a team is out to win something.

Competes in game-playing.

We are a crew.

Wherein We, is the only way.

There is no, Them.

They call me old man.

My crew. Of young boys of summer.

Spirited like freedom, like

fireworks. Crass, salty and no different

than any other working men –

I have experienced.

They give me shit, and I give it back –

as they carry large bags of ice up a grand

staircase. I shirk that work, as they

miss the details, skip the corners –

walk around in circles,

day dreaming of

cute girls,




There is something about her –

our Southern Belle. She breathes

with the ebb and flow of the river.

As her lines tighten and slack.

One little mistake could skin

a finger, pull a body into the water.

And that is our only goal, to keep

everyone out of harms way.

The river, our river –

much like how this boat

has been at times.

Trashed, dirty and rolling free,

like the murky blood

of a forgotten country.

And I walk the decks, a reincarnate

of Floyd the whistling deckhand.

Singing railroad hobo songs,

traditional blues. Making up

words to go with the troubles

I have seen, the struggles I feel.

A continuation of a body of

working songs, left in the air

like vibrations reverberating

in time with the clicking of

this massive machine.

They call me old man.

As I honestly greet every passenger

with a southern charm –

that is not a gimmick.

The rich, who shuffle on the

boat without making eye to eye.

The children, scared by the

grandness of our lady’s strength.

The old woman, who rides for free.

The Mayor, just making an appearance.

All the people, no matter

their lot, greeted in the language

of a native son.

Welcome to the Belle,

watch your step and then

Y’all have a gooden or,

take it easy now,

Y’all come back

and see us.

The Sabbatical of the Belle.

They call me old man.

A river man now.

Who once blew

that lonesome whistle,

all the live long day.

I am a stowaway most of

the time, laughing under my



my crew,

if they only knew.

Old man river.

That old man river –

he must know something.

But he don’t say nothing.

He just keeps rolling –

He keeps rolling along.

John Paul


On Woody Guthrie’s Birthday

Oh Woody, I am thinking about you!
I have grown somewhat bitter.
I must admit!
I know you – sometimes I fancy
that I am just like you.
But maybe it is because I know too much
and have been burnt by the fire.
So, a few questions I might ask. For
I am romantically involved so as to
mention – Sarah Ogan Gunning!

Was she bitter because Aunt Molly got
to hang around all them rich folks?
Was it because Pete played for the
Rockefellers, while singing –
I don’t want, your millions mister?

Hypocrisy is a bitch!
If you point it out –
they will bury you!
How much more crap should I take
before I “die with my hammer in
my hand?”

I heard Sarah ripped your ass once –
because you did one of her songs.
She picked your little ass up and
almost ringed your neck.
Is that true?

Woody, brother, i see what you saw,
and I think I know why you wrote all
night, alone, falling asleep on your
typewriter, full ashtray …

It takes a worried man,
to sing a worried song.

I certainly am worried.

One last question:

Did you ever hear Joe Hill talking
to you? I have.He said,
Don’t mourn, Organize.
So, i organized my life.
Trying not to get bitter and
am working now as a deck
hand on a Ohio River
Steamboat built two
years after you was borned.

I wish we could hang out!
See, I worked on the railroad.
Found a lonesome darkness
engulfing me.
I gave it all up.
Once I built a railroad ..
you know the rest.

For your birthday –
I offer you a song.
I wrote it for Jimmie
Rodgers. I have alot
in common with him too.

When the song
gets to the part where
I sing “I think y’all knowd.”
That part is for you!

Happy Birthday.

JP “Catfish John” Wright


You wanna hear some shit?
I heard Sarah Ogan died at a
singing circle. Time came
for her to sing. She took a
deep breath, and died.

I wonder if the dress she
wore was blue?

She sure knew how to
drive that steel!