Texans are feisty about protecting their freedoms—and equally spirited about celebrating them.
In the city of Austin, freedom of expression is often celebrated through music.
The city bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World. The Austin Chronicle lists 250 venues offering live performances on any given night of the week. The city’s intimate association with music is a long-standing love affair.
• In 1933 the bar Threadgill’s opened in a converted gas station and later became a crucible for blending country, blues, folk, and rock for artists such as Janis Joplin.
• In the African American community, several clubs hosted musical legends, such as Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, and Ike and Tina Turner.
• Beginning in 1964, the Broken Spoke featured country acts, including Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and the young Willie Nelson.
• The blues club Antone’s fostered the careers of several musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, including Stevie Ray Vaughan. The city erected a statue of Vaughan along the Colorado River.
• The Armadillo World Headquarters opened in 1970 and, for more than ten years, featured music of all genres, from Bruce Springsteen to Bette Midler. Playing the Armadillo was a rite of passage for punk and new-wave acts, including the Police, Blondie, and the Talking Heads.
• The PBS live-music television show Austin City Limits first broadcast in 1974 and now airs internationally. It is difficult to name an artist who hasn’t appeared on the show.
• At South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual music, film, and interactive festival, more than two thousand artists perform.
I came to Austin in January to avoid a couple of weeks of winter in Ohio—and to hear the music of a couple of old friends.
Weirdness in Waterloo
Austin used to be called Waterloo, a Dutch name derived from water and lo (an ancient word for forest).
An independent record store in Austin, Waterloo Records, has been integral to the city’s music scene since 1982. The store regularly hosts live performances. Past in-store performers include Willie Nelson, Nirvana, Steve Earle, My Morning Jacket, Cheap Trick, Jeff Buckley, Norah Jones, Iron and Wine, the Shins, and hundreds more.
I was hoping to see a performance of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. All one-and-a-half-million of them. Every summer evening, hundreds of people gather to watch the world’s largest urban bat colony stream like a swirling black ribbon from under the downtown bridge. They eat up to twenty-thousand pounds of insects per night.
Every March they migrate north from Mexico to Austin. In June the females each give birth to a single baby bat, called a pup.
Unfortunately, while I was wintering in Austin, the bats weren’t home. They were wintering in Mexico.
Austin is home to the international headquarters and first location of Whole Foods. In 1978, twenty-five-year-old college dropout John Mackey and twenty-one-year-old Renee Lawson (Hardy), borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open a small natural-foods store. Soon, they merged it with another to become Whole Foods.
To experience Austin’s unofficial slogan, Keep Austin Weird, all one has to do is walk around downtown. I saw a crowd of people on a corner offering free hugs. A panhandler carried a sign: I’m So Thirsty I’m Farting Dust.
A bearded, ponytailed man emerged from an RV in shorts and a black bra. A band posed on the street for photos, one member dressed as a lavender-colored unicorn.
I watched a bartender and customer switch tops; that is, she put on his T-shirt and he put on her camisole.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be Texas without a dustup. At an intersection near my hotel I watched road rage escalate to a full-on fistfight. One driver berated another for blocking traffic. A few seconds later they jumped out of their cars and traded punches until the police arrived.
A convict’s story
William Sydney Porter was born in North Carolina. He moved to Austin in 1884, where he worked as a pharmacist, draftsman, journalist, and bank teller.
At the First National Bank of Austin, he was accused of embezzlement. A federal indictment followed. He fled to New Orleans and then Honduras.
Upon hearing of his wife’s illness, he returned to Austin and surrendered to the authorities. Following his wife’s death from tuberculosis, he was sentenced to five years in prison in Columbus, Ohio. While incarcerated he published fourteen stories under various pseudonyms, including “O. Henry.”
He was released from the Ohio Pen for good behavior after three years. In 1902 he moved to New York City, where he wrote and published hundreds of short stories.
I visited the O. Henry Museum, located in the cottage where the writer once lived with his wife and daughter. Inside, many of the family’s personal belongings were on display.
O. Henry’s most famous story is “The Gift Of The Magi.” He was a master of wordplay and surprise endings. The O. Henry Award is given annually to outstanding short stories.
European pioneers first settled the area along the Colorado River in the 1830s. In 1839 the site was chosen as capital of the newly independent Republic of Texas. The town’s name was changed from Waterloo to Austin in honor of Stephen Austin, “the Father of Texas.”
The city is a center for government, education, music, and technology. Its population is almost two million.
I walked up Congress Avenue to the Texas State Capitol, designed intentionally to be taller than the US Capitol.
In the foyer, next to statues of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin, I joined a small tour. The tile floor in the rotunda incorporates the seals of the six countries whose flags have flown over Texas—Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States. (Thus, the name of the Six Flags amusement parks.) Until 1845 when it became a state, Texas was recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States, France, and other countries.
We toured the senate and house chambers with their antique desks and chandeliers. In one of the chambers, a flag from the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto is preserved behind glass.
In this decisive battle of the Texas Revolution, Sam Houston’s army defeated the Mexican army in just eighteen minutes. The Texans rallied to the cry, “Remember the Alamo!”
Santa Anna, the president of Mexico, was captured and forced to sign the peace treaty that paved the way for Texas to become an independent country.
The current capital building was opened on San Jacinto Day, April 21, 1888. I was particularly interested in seeing the building because of a song, “Convict Hill.”
A friend, Michael Hawthorne, wrote the song and performed it with another friend, Tim York, as the folk duo T&M Express. The two Texans toured Ohio and Texas extensively in the 1970s.
Entered in the 1974 Great American Song Contest, “Convict Hill” won the folk category and was performed by Richie Havens, the singer who opened Woodstock.
The song tells the story of the prisoners of the State of Texas who were used as slave labor to quarry the Oatmanville limestone required in the building’s construction.
Tonight I hear the chains a-rattle at Oatmanville. I dream of dogs and 45s and work on Convict Hill, Breakin’ backs and limestone and sweatin’ in the sun. There’s a thousand acres on top of this hill But there ain’t no place to run.
The use of convict labor to build the Capitol was controversial. The case received national attention and stimulated a debate about whether free slave labor should be used when there were law-abiding citizens ready to do the work.
I was in downtown Austin for only ten minutes when my musician friend, Michael, gathered me from the hotel and drove me to his home north of town. He and his wife, Li Ping, are currently hosting four Chinese boys who are attending high school in the United States in preparation for college.
Li Ping stir-fried several dishes for dinner—chicken, pork, fish, veggies, and one so spicy Michael warned me away from it. We ate family-style around the table, dipping with chopsticks. It was the first time Michael and I had visited in over thirty-five years.
Another evening I met friends Ervin and Kay for a homestyle dinner at Threadgills’s—meatloaf, stewed okra and tomatoes, black-eyed peas, and cornbread.
The original Threadgill’s opened north of town and served as an oasis for traveling musicians, such as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, from the 1930s through the 1960s.
There, hippies, rednecks, and beatniks discovered common ground and fused their musical styles. Janis Joplin, with whom Kay attended high school at Port Arthur, developed her sultry style at Threadgill’s.
In 1996 the owner of the Armadillo World Headquarters in south Austin opened a Threadgill’s restaurant next door. The place is plastered with 1970s’ memorabilia from the now-closed Armadillo. The piano hanging from the ceiling was played by Count Basie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, and Leon Russell, among others.
On another night I met friends Tom and Vicki for a Tex-Mex dinner and a concert. At Strange Brew we listened to Chris Gage and his band play blues.
For years Gage served as sideman to Roy Clark and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, appearing on the Tonight Show, Hee Haw, and Conan, and at the Grand Ole Opry, Carnegie Hall, and the Royal Albert Hall. Tom and Vicki are knowledgeable lovers of local music and regularly host house concerts.
Knights in the Bible and the first photograph ever taken
Currently on display at the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus is the Crusader Bible, one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts in the world.
The picture book was likely made in Paris around 1250. The colorful, gold-foiled illustrations reimagine Old Testament stories in the settings of medieval France with images of knights and castles. The book originally had no text, just pictures. Over the centuries, inscriptions were added in the margins in Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian.
The Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the story of Texas from 1821 to 1936. Exhibits cover the Battle of the Alamo, the Texas Revolution, and the Civil War. Additional galleries are devoted to ranching, cowboys in the movies, and the music of Austin City Limits.
A special exhibit features the remnants of a wooden ship, La Belle, recovered from the coast of Texas. In the 1600s, the king of France sent it to North America with colonists and supplies.
The expedition’s leader, La Salle, mistakenly landed in Spanish-controlled Texas and was eventually murdered by his own men. (La Salle is known for exploring the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.)
In 1686 La Belle sank in a storm and the remaining colonists eventually disappeared. The wreck was found in 1996 and raised from the deep.
Exhibits at the Lyndon Johnson Library and Museum (also known as the LBJ Presidential Library) cover Kennedy’s assassination, the Viet Nam War, the space program, and passage of major legislation, such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. The top floor of the library includes a replica of the Oval Office, decorated as it was during Johnson’s presidency.
The Ranson Center on the University of Texas campus is an archive of rare books, photos, and art. Incredibly, in its small exhibit space, one can see three copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, and a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo.
Oh, and the first photograph ever taken.
It’s not a great photo, dark and difficult to discern. Anyone could shoot a better one. But it is the first. Taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827, the image was the view from a window in his home in France.
To capture the image, he exposed a chemically coated pewter plate for eight hours. Louis Daguerre improved the process a few years later, called it the daguerretype, and stole Niépce’s glory.
“This old heart’s got one more trick to learn”
After thirty-five years of solo careers and day jobs, Tim and Michael, the folk duo I knew from the 1970s, have reunited as York & Hawthorne.
During my time in Austin, I had a few opportunities to hear them rehearse many of the old songs—”Convict Hill,” “Elizabeth,” Pure Prairie League’s “Amie,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty.” Plus, some new ones they have written, “Living The Cowboy Life” and “Between The Lies.” They are perfectionists, confirming every note, tweaking every harmony. I had a front-row seat while they worked at crafting their set.
One Saturday Michael and I drove to Dallas for a concert he and Tim were scheduled to play at a corporate event. Upon arrival, they put me to work carrying equipment. Tim told Michael, “Let’s treat him well. He’s the only roadie we’ve ever had.”
After dinner and introductions, they launched into their set of songs, both familiar and new. Tim’s uplifting “Homage To Old Age;” Michael’s romantic “One More Trick.” Their guitar playing has improved through years of practice. Their voices, seasoned by experience, blended better than ever.
As I listened, my mind drifted to the countless times I heard them play in Columbus thirty-five years ago while gathered with friends at Deibel’s, Engine House No. 5, and Waterworks.
How fortunate we are to have come full circle. To reconnect with long-lost friends, recall memories, laugh at old stories, forgive and forget.
And to marvel that we are still around, singing old songs and new.
Watch York & Hawthorne on Vimeo.