Harry Graff Kimball
Harry was our inaugural citizen-artist in July 2017. He traveled to Houston, MN from NYC and spent the week of July 16th-22nd with us. This is his personal story about the experience:
Looking back a month after my week in Houston, I feel close and far away. Every day now, I work on recording the songs that I wrote in the Driftless; on figuring out the songs that have since been born out of my experiences driving around southeast Minnesota and meeting people; and on waiting for more songs to arrive, with my conscious help or not. I have a list of what I think they might be, but sometimes you can’t brute force these things. I hope and expect that “Spreading That New York Money Around,” a lyrical fragment that popped into my head the day after I arrived in Houston County, driving around Winona, will come into its own as a song. But maybe it’s a clunker. We’ll see.
I am hearing songs in my head and singing to myself all the time, and in that way Houston is close. The music is the concrete reminder that I was there. The rest of it feels a little like a dream. I have what I think is a good example.
On the Wednesday afternoon into evening I spent in the area, I drove down towards La Crescent along the River. A storm was coming — a big one — and the radio crackled back and forth between the La Crosse station and the independent one in Winona. The light was moving towards spectral, and the National Weather Service thunderstorm warnings started to come through. I’m not sure folks who are used to actually getting warnings can understand how I felt — when I hear those tones, I fully expect it to be followed by, “This is a test. This is only a test.”
I expect that every time. I don’t know what sort of thunderstorm to expect when the radio is telling me to get off the road. I found out. I sat out on the porch at Crystal Creek and watched the trees sway unbelievably in the wind as the water just kept coming down. The thunder was like…I could only compare it to other things I haven’t experienced. Honestly, right now, searching for a reference, the first thing that popped into my head was “artillery.” The second was “terrible, awesome music.” And the third is the song “Tupelo” by Nick Cave, about the Mississippi thunderstorm that ushered Elvis Presley into the world.
The day before I had hit on the idea of the rain and flood as central to the Root River communities and the Mississippi experience. I’d thought I’d write about it. I still haven’t, not really. To be charitable to myself, I think I am still processing that storm. I understand its importance, its reality along with its symbolic weight, but I can’t make it into a concrete thing yet. It exists as yet in the dream of my week in the Driftless.
I am terrified of forgetting that dream. That fear and some feeling of duty is why I wrote up a storm when I was at the cabin — three songs in just a few days. It’s a lot for me. I respect and value those songs—they are eager, full of wonder, full of me.
What I am hoping will come to me, will allow me to write them, are songs that are wise, full of terror and joy, and full of the people I got to meet so briefly. I think it’s possible that I will forget some of the crisp edges of my experience, but there is depth to be gained in remembering, and so I wait for little signals.
Right now I am sitting with a song about a farmer I met on my last night in Houston. He showed me around the place, I met his family, I got a sense of the different times that had passed. The song is probably done, but I haven’t yet had that moment where I know it’s done — so it remains unfinished for now.
The first verse goes like this — for now!
When we quit pigs
We had a lot more time
We had a lot more space
We had a few more dimes
To rub together underneath the open sky
I farm the valley
Others farm the ridge
This shelterin’ valley
Helped to raise my kids
Now my daughter’s moving back across the road