Note: Last Saturday, March 29, Wilbur Hot Springs, one of my favorite places on earth, caught fire. The country inn I loved and managed back in the early 1980s, was partially destroyed. Fortunately, although all 60 guests were evacuated, nobody was seriously hurt by the blaze. But Wilbur Hot Springs, beloved by many, was seriously hurt, and will now be closed indefinitely for costly repairs. With best wishes to Wilbur, I am posting this article, which first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Black Lamb.
My short stint as a part-time, semi-professional musician began in the early 1980s, when I worked as the manager of Wilbur Hot Springs, a country inn and hot springs resort in Colusa County, California. Wilbur Springs was (and still is) twenty-five miles from the nearest town. Wilbur was a wonderful place to live and work, so long as I remembered that it was more a romantic interlude than a life-time commitment. I worked hard managing the hotel, the hot baths, the grounds, and the cook-it-yourself kitchen. There I learned how to rely on lists and schedules, how to remember the names of thirty or more guests each weekend, how to manage a staff of twelve, and how to cope with weather. The weather in the Wilbur winters consisted of rain and mud. Woodstoves and hot baths. But in the summers Wilbur Hot Springs was a place of hot days and hot nights.
At Wilbur I reconnected with the moon. I learned her phases and welcomed them all. The place used no electricity, so nights were dark on the ground and brilliant in the sky. On moonless night the stars dazzled and danced over our heads. Then as the month marched on, the moon took over, first as a waxing blob already high when the sky turned dark, then growing fuller and fuller, rising later and later, until it was plump and enormous as it rose over the hills in the east as the day wound down. This phenomenon of the rising of the full moon got better each summer month until we approached the autumnal equinox, when the ambient sunlight had dimmed and the moon appeared brighter, bigger, more warm and golden. I still can’t think of this sight without hearing, as a pleasant earworm, the chorus of “Shine on, shine on harvest moon.…”
Later every evening, I sat on the piano bench in the lounge and played my guitar and sang for any guests who wanted to hear and sing a song or two before retiring. I was, during my tenure at Wilbur Hot Springs, building a repertoire of American Songbook standards, and as time went on I began to draw a crowd of about a dozen fans every Friday and Saturday night.
Whenever the moon was bright outside, I sang moon songs: “Moonlight Becomes You,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Blue Moon,” “Moon River.” And I never neglected to sing “Shine On Harvest Moon.” The guests always joined in on that one, and I felt as if I had found my life’s work.
I first learned the song “Shine On Harvest Moon” when I was eight years old, in the summer of 1950. My family had just moved to our new home in the country outside Dallas, Texas. As another song had predicted, we found the stars at night to be big and bright, and as a whole repertoire of songs had promised, the full moon over rural Texas was worth singing about. So in the moonshine we sang.
My brother played guitar. My other brother and my sister sang harmony. Their college friends joined in. Outside at night, heedless of the chiggers in the grass, we howled sweetly at the moon. We sang “Blue Moon” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” but mainly we stuck to the barbershop standards:
“We were sailing along, on Moonlight Bay…”
“Oh Mister Moon, Moon, bright and shiny moon…”
“By the light of the silvery moon…”
and of course my favorite, “Shine on.…”
I left Wilbur Hot Springs in September, 1982, and returned to Palo Alto. It was time to leave country living in the country and get on with my life. But I was driven by a dream that I had hatched while sitting on the piano bench at Wilbur Springs. I wanted to be an entertainer. My plan was to find a bookstore job for the daytime and find a club where I could play and sing my standards in the evening—for money and applause.
I’ve written the story of this reality check before. I’ll only summarize this time and confess that I had come to town with no idea of how Palo Alto had changed in my absence. No, that wasn’t it. Nobody cared about old standards or sing-alongs anymore. No, even that wasn’t it. I just wasn’t good enough for a crowd bigger or livelier than a dozen relaxed guests in a country inn who had spent the past hour or two soaking in a hot mineral bath, swapping foot massages.
I gave it a try, though, for full year. I managed a bookstore in the daytime, and I played for tips in an ice cream parlor at night. I started calling myself Jack Daniel. I made a demo tape. I even, briefly, had an agent. The agent was a young couple, Alex and Cyndi, who were just getting started in the entertainment management business, and they were looking for talent: cheap family-style musicians they could book for bar mitzvahs. They listened to my tape and said I was perfect for such gigs. They went so far as to videotape me one evening as I performed for free on a makeshift stage at the Old Mill, a busy shopping center in Mountain View.
Between songs, Alex interviewed me as Cyndi videotaped. The ambient noise was horrific, and I was tongue-tied when I wasn’t singing, but Alex knew what he was doing. When he ran out of standard questions, and perhaps got frustrated by my one-word answers, he asked me, “Jack, what would you really like to do with your talent?”
“You know, Alex, I think what I’d really like to do is to sit around with small group of mellow folks and sing ‘Shine On Harvest Moon.’”
Alex grinned. He grinned at me, then at the camera, and then back at me. “Jack,” he said, “would you sing ‘Shine On Harvest Moon’ for me right now?”
So I did, and I’d like to say that all the shoppers at the Old Mill gathered around and sang along. Well, they didn’t, but I sang for the pleasure of it and for the love of the song.
For better or for worse, my career as an entertainer never took off. Alex and Cyndi broke up before they found me a gig, and I was back in the ice cream parlor, competing with an espresso machine and Ms. Pac-Man. After a year of floundering in Palo Alto I moved to Santa Barbara, fell in love, became a publisher and a writer, and found happiness. But the earworm still haunts me sometimes.
“Snowtime ain’t no time to sit outdoors and spoon, so shine on, shine on Harvest Moon, for me and my gal.”
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