Bonded To The Firmament: One story about Timberbound by Joe Seamons::
Joe Seamons is a folklorist, educator, and musician who more than any one person is responsible for continuing the legacy of Timberbound songs, and the group of 70’s “back to the landers” who set-up in the Oregon tall trees and lived a simple life. They wrote folk songs about that life. Joe not only knows the story first-hand (starting as a baby!) but is the first to record all the songs in a full album, called Timberbound. Hear the songs below and read Joe’s story – GV
The vast majority of American folk music was created and developed in the southern states and the Appalachian mountains. There are historical documents that show what music the pioneers brought west with them, but most of that music is simply imported from the aforementioned regions.
I was born in 1984, and was lucky to grow up in rural northwestern Oregon amid a tiny community of folks that you’d probably call ex-hippies, even though they were just a shade too young to really be a part of the upheaval that happened in the sixties. My folks and their friends are more accurately described as a part of the “back to the land” movement that got going in the 1970s. One of those friends is a man named Hobe Kytr. Like me, Hobe is a lifelong Oregonian. He lived in Portland and Astoria as as kid (and has lived in Astoria since I’ve been alive), and was one of the many school children who assisted in replanting trees in the wake of the devastating Tillamook Burn.
Hobe and our friend Dave Berge recorded just one album, ”Dog Salmon and Rutabagas,” a stupendous collection of Hobe’s original songs that I heard in person at parties and on a cassette tape as I grew up riding around the long, twisting roads of Oregon. As it happens, my mom was among the folks asked to sing for “The Rutabaga Chorus,” chiming in on the album’s title track. For some reason, mom held me (still a little baby) in her arms as she sang, and so you can hear me wailing in the background on that recording. That neat little circumstance is a happy coincidence, but it is not the reason I have dedicated much of the past decade to interpreting, performing, and disseminating Hobe and Dave’s music.
Both men are fantastic songwriters, and their songs are far too obscure for how important they are–both as works of art and as historical documents of the ethos and culture of the Pacific Northwest. Hobe and Dave were partially inspired to begin writing by John and Kim Cunnick, a couple who lived together in Keasey, Oregon for a few fateful years during the mid-seventies. John was a musician, a poet, and a sometime-journalist for both Rolling Stone and Seattle’s Helix magazine. He grew up in Cincinnati until he ran away from home at age fifteen and bounced around until he wound up in Seattle during the late sixties. Kim grew up in Longview, Washington, and had some training as a classical pianist before John turned her onto blues and old time music soon after they met in Seattle’s U district around 1969.
As they began to delve into folk music together–John on harmonica, mandolin, and banjo, Kim playing guitar and fiddle–the couple studied great duos such as the Stanley Brothers while developing their own incredibly intimate and playful style. They forged friendships with many people in Seattle’s underground scene; among these was Charles Laird and John Ullman (who around this time started the Seattle Folklore Society). Charles and John invited John and Kim to be caretakers of property they had bought outside of Vernonia, Oregon at a place called Keasey.
John and Kim soon accepted the offer, and moved into one of the old logger’s cabins that had been hauled out to the site by train when the Oregon American logging company was working in the area during the 1930s or ’40s. The couple continued to work on their music as they fixed up the place, and John found a job working part-time in a nearby sawmill for Russ Ellson. Kim worked once a week at Sam’s Food Store in nearby Vernonia, but since they paid no rent and lived off the land as much as possible, most of the work they did was getting firewood, hauling water from the creek, and developing their music.
In researching John and Kim’s performances, I’ve learned that they played at least one gig as far away as the Oregon coast, but mostly would play little cafes or bars that were closer to Keasey. There are photos of a performance they did at the Vernonia Friendship Jamboree, and my suspicion is they were gigging as much as they could when they weren’t snowbound in their cabin during winter.
Their neighbors just down the road were Jim Buxton and Cici Bell, who a year or three ago provided me with a few pages of John’s typewritten notes. These seem to be either journal entries or letters to his mother which he never sent. Here are a couple of excerpts I’ve transcribed from these writings which (like John and Kim’s songs) give us a splendid window into the mood and spirit of that time:
“The seeds of something remarkable are growing, tho I am not confident it is strong enough to survive whatever the world is coming to. If left alone by bombs and war, the country has, I honestly believe, a chance of growing into at least such paradise as mankind can expect. There is more promise in the fact that people are getting in their gardens, however inexpertly, than all the turmoil of Haight & Ash and Yippee. It is not a withdrawl, there is too much energy and too much interest in life, greater interest in other ways of living and attitudes . . . I think it indicates a fund of spiritual strength–flexibility maybe–where we had neither right nor reason to expect it. It’s a little tenuous, I suppose, examined carefully. But that’s to say, it involves human beings at the root and is for that reason riddled with inconsistency.”
The passage above clearly demonstrates why we should not conflate the perspective of these “back to the land” folks (an imperfect phrase I use here for its convenient vagueness and for lack of a better term) with the hallucinogenic optimism of the people the press referred to as “hippies.” John’s words show us that there is something keener and more clear-eyed here to go along with his refreshing optimism. When you take his songs into account along with his writing, you find a man who is outside the tiresome dynamics of today’s cultural spectrum, someone who is focused on enjoying and experiencing the world as he found it, not trapped in anyone else’s definitions or perspective. This is one of the many reasons that his art resonates so strongly with us today.
Another excerpt that also refers to John’s dog, Dufus:
“We spent today in Longview, getting strawberry plants, some from the store, some from Kim’s parents, and raspberry starts. We will get them in tomorrow morning and next week asparagus and rhubarb. Kim is doing little carpentry projects, making a pea trellis out of twine, very pretty design. Dufus carries sticks and avoids the garden in most considerate fashion. I will, when I get time, be splitting cedar shakes, I hope. There are a number of cedar blocks still on the ground from two inhabitants ago, and that is a most rot resistant wood. I am busy all day long and seem to do no work, but bounce from recreation to recreation and things just come together.”
Sometime in 1975, John and Kim befriended Dave Berge and Hobe Kytr. Berge (pronounced “BURR – GEE) was a logger and a commercial fisherman who played guitar and auto harp while singing with a deep baritone voice, the beauty and gentleness of which belied his slightly wild appearance and sizable frame. One of Dave’s tunes gives a better back story than I’m capable of:
He come from the Rockies to Oregon
Because he loved the trees.
And worked and he drank and he played real hard,
And endured the bugs and bees.
– Dave Berge, Timber Faller
Hobe, like Dave, should probably have a whole book written about him, and my hope is that in singing the songs and telling the stories of both men I will eventually spark the interest of someone more capable than I to rise to the task. Suffice it to say that when Hobe met John and Kim in 1975 he was well on his way to becoming one of the most knowledgable souls alive about the history and heritage of the logging and fishing cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Hobe’s friends have confirmed to me that the great Utah Phillips once pronounced accurately that Hobe must have a little old man trapped somewhere inside him. Nothing else could explain the way in which Hobe’s compositions mourn the loss of the bygone eras of American culture in the Northwest while also making the stories of what happened just as clear as daylight.
Anyhow, both Dave and Hobe really hit it off with John and Kim. But this blessed little window of time was closed far too suddenly when John drove his truck off the road in January of 1976, Hobe described it thus:
On January 4 he opened up the door,
Drove Kimberly to work and turned around.
But I guess he gave death a lift
Cause he drove it off a cliff
It was several days before he could be found.
– “Enterprise in Disguise (Ballad of John Cunnick) as printed in the Timberbound Songbook
I’m certain Hobe would not be offended to hear me say that this song (written to the tune of “Jesse James”) was one of his more immature efforts. But, not long afterward he would take another folk tune, “Diamond Joe” as performed by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and create new lyrics, turning the subject of John’s tragic death into one of the most beautiful elegies ever written.
Now, I’d like it if that last link went to Hobe’s recording of his song, “Trees,” as included on the aforementioned album Dog Salmon and Rutabagas, but Hobe is not interested in putting his music on the internet. So, until I succeed in badgering my old friend into sending his album to CD Baby so that the world can at least have an easy way to obtain a copy–currently the only way to do so is to go find Hobe and ask to buy the thing–you will have to make do with Timberbound’s version of the song, sung by yours truly.
John Cunnick wrote many very fine songs while living with Kim, and I should emphasize here that in most cases he wrote the lyrics and she created the melodies. This arrangement was cleverly depicted in one of their finest efforts:
Tell me what you have sung here
And what have you heard,
If you lend me a tune, love
I’ll give you my word.
As printed in the Timberbound Songbook
Sometimes I get damned angry that John didn’t stick around long enough for my generation to get to know him, and for his writing prowess to drag him out of obscurity, but most times I’m just thankful that he and Kim were so prolific in the three years they lived together out at Keasey. Not only that, but we are lucky Kim preserved their work together in the Timberbound Songbook, a document that is beginning to be something of a collector’s item.
The degree to which John’s sudden death still anguishes those who knew him–now nearly forty years after he died–is rather shocking to me. Folks are still pretty tore up about it in the community, and I can only think that Timberbound is a big part of the reason. Because even people like my parents–who only came to know Kim after John had died, are really sad about John even though they never talked to the guy. By “Timberbound” I mean the original band that formed in early ’76 as Dave and Hobe began to visit Kim at Keasey and support her as they grieved together.
When the summer of ’76 came around, one of the owners of the Keasey property–the aforementioned John Ullman–heard Kim, Hobe and Dave playing with their friend Mark Loring. Ullman said, “Hey, you all are sounding pretty good!”
As it turned out, John Ullman had started bringing artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Reverend Gary Davis, Elizabeth Cotton, and Mike Seeger out to the northwest and booking them shows around the region as a part of his work with the Seattle Folklore Society. So when he heard Timberbound he thought they’d make a great opening act for Seeger. Apparently Seeger was pleased when he heard the group, liking that their music was traditional-sounding but original while also being regionally focused. By this point in time the group was also including Hobe’s songs in the mix, “Cedar Mill Boys” and “Spring Rain” are the two tunes that one can hear on surviving recordings of the group’s live performances.
But Timberbound never went into a recording studio, and by the time 1977 rolled around Kim felt that she had adequately grieved for her husband and understandably wanted to move on with her life. She remarried and moved away, while Hobe and Dave continued to play their own songs and develop their music until they were ready to record it in 1985.
Timberbound (live at Woodcrafter’s Theatre, 1977) “Oregon-American”
Hoby Kytr & Dave Berge “Roustabout” (1985)
I was raised about an hour outside of Portland, Oregon in a house my parents built on a small piece of property they bought in 1983. The house lies back up in the hills roughly equidistant between the small towns of St. Helens and Rainier. I attended Rainier public schools from kindergarten through high school, after which I moved to Portland to study music and English at Lewis & Clark College.
Most of my childhood was spent immersed in the small town life of Rainier, but sometimes on weekends my folks would drag my brother and I out to Keasey for a cider pressing party, or down the river to Astoria for a square dance. Until I was about 16 I didn’t really care too much one way or the other about my parent’s old ex-hippie friends. Until that time I wanted to play basketball, and once I got into high school I hated that kids in Rainier called me a hippie because I played guitar and didn’t have a crew cut. I was tired of a culture that revolved around high school sports, I was heartbroken by a beautiful girl, and thankfully I had no real access to alcohol or drugs (I lived deep in the woods), so my drug turned out to be the songs of Bob Dylan.
When you get heavy into Dylan’s lyrics, you can’t listen to modern music anymore. The only place you can go after that is a place where things are even crazier than “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I am talking, of course, about old time blues and folk music. By age 17 I started listening to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie and any other artist I could get my ears on who was alleged to have influenced Bob Dylan.
Upon arrival at Lewis and Clark College I immediately met a kid from San Diego named Gavin Duffy, who was and is better at playing music than I will ever be. Gavin’s biggest quirk is that, despite clearly being the best musician in the room in nearly any company you can imagine, his default stance is a supportive role. He’s not interested in leading tunes–though he’ll shred a solo at the drop of a hat–he wants to fit in, support the music, play tastefully, and remain stylistically appropriate at all times. Doesn’t matter if you want to play Peg Leg Howell or post-Genesis Phil Collins, Gavin is down.
Gavin and I hit it off and started playing together immediately; I remember that the first thing we played was Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey.” Within a year or two I told him about Hobe and about these Timberbound songs I had grown up with, and we started fooling around with a few of those tunes along with Dylan and Paul Simon songs. One other record that was a big deal was by another all-too-obscure modern day folk dynamo named Jody Stecher. His album was Oh the Wind and Rain–glorious versions of ancient English ballads.
By the time we were juniors at Lewis & Clark we had played “Spring Rain” and “Timberbound” and “Fisherman’s Life” enough to include them in my Junior Recital at for the school’s music department. It ended up that my old family friend Kate Sandgren had chosen the same school, so I asked her to sit in on our cover of the Red Clay Ramblers‘ song “Regions of Rain.”
That was about it. Gavin played with my band, Renegade Minstrels, for a couple years and then he went off to study classical composition at Indiana University. Kate moved to France and taught English there for a couple years. But after he got his masters, Gavin decided to move back to Portland and start a sandwich shop. By this time Renegade Minstrels had become Renegade Stringband and I was frailing the banjo and trying to play Hobe’s songs Hobe’s way instead of whanging on the guitar and trying to become a songwriter.
Kate ended up moving back to Portland, too. Some of my Renegade Stringband buddies wanted to stay more focused on our original stuff instead of being a Timberbound cover band, so I started a side project with Gavin and Kate and it was clicking because they could both sing like Canyon Wrens and everybody loved each other like siblings.
On that note, it’s important to give a little more back story about sister Kate. She grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, both of her parents brilliant artists. Her grandfather, Nelson Sandgren, was friends with my grandfather Tom Vadnais ever since the two men met at the University of Oregon in the 1940s. Later, Nelson ended up being the head of the art department at the U of O, and around the time John and Kim Cunnick started writing songs in the woods Nelson started taking his students on a lengthy excursion to the Oregon coast every summer to paint the stupendous landscapes there. This tradition continued when Nelson retired, and so I came to know Kate when we were small children–our parents and grandparents would take us down to the coast around Newport, OR every summer and we’d camp at Fort Stevens and the folks would paint all day long. That tradition continues to this day.
Anyhow, Kate’s dad Erik Sandgren and mom Kathryn Cotnoir ended up being close family friends and the two of us were singing the soundtrack from the movie “Aladdin” together when I was about seven years old. Not only that, but ever since we were small tiny–by sheer osmosis–we have been compelled (through lectures and by examples) on the ways in which a landscape forms its people and how a region shapes an artist’s creations. Our parents’ landscape paintings ended up priming us to be the interpreters of these Timberbound songs–all we’ve been fed our whole life are these depictions of the Pacific Northwestern ethos.
So, when it finally came time for Gavin, Kate and I to record the Timberbound songs–few of which had ever been captured before in a recording studio–we had the perfect team in place to make the album’s artwork. One more friend from Lewis & Clark also got involved, as well. It ended up that Scott Bergstrom–who had recorded Gavin’s senior thesis concert as well as my aforementioned recital and some of our Renegade Minstrels album–went on to become a damned fine recording engineer in a full time sort of way. So, Scott lined us up a studio in Portland right before Christmas of 2013 and we went in there and banged out 18 songs for his microphones in 3 days. It was the most fun I ever had in the recording studio, an environment that is usually sterile and frustrating.
Happily, Dave Berge still lives in the Portland area. And, though too many decades of hard living have taken a steep toll on his once-robust physique, old Berge still sings and plays his autoharps every day. So, with a lot of help from his wife Dana, I was able to meet with Dave and gear him up to contribute to the Timberbound album. This proved to be the icing on the cake, because though his body is giving out Dave’s is still a great spirit.
So, the whole thing turned out pretty good. And yet another college buddy was kind enough to write up the story in a concise fashion, the thing got published on the cover of the Oregonian’s A&E section at just the right time. This caused our CD release concert at Artichoke Music to sell out, an especially happy occurance given that three quarters of the original Timberbound group were able to attend.
One of the funny things about doing these songs and telling this story is that people are always thanking me–“Thank you for keeping this music alive,” they say. But that always struck me as funny and I couldn’t figure out why until I heard the great Corey Harris say this about playing the blues: “We don’t really have to preserve it–it’s preserving us.”
The experience of playing, interpreting, inheriting, and disseminating this music is deeply humbling. I am given credit for doing what comes naturally, when the credit needs to be going to Hobe Kytr for being the Northwest version of Woody Guthrie. In order to give credit where it’s due I am pestering Hobe to record more of his songs–he has at least 2 and probably 3 – 4 albums worth undocumented. One other long term goal of my project is to collect and publish a second, expanded edition of the Timberbound Songbook that includes most of the tunes from “Dog Salmon and Rutabagas” as well as all of the original content.
Happily, Hobe and Dave are both open to having their tunes included therein, and Kim Cunnick has given me her blessing to do so. It is rather absurd that I have written this much about Timberbound and said so little about Kim. She and her second husband, Steve Fergus, ended up settling in Costa Rica, where I visited her a few years ago. She traded the wilderness of Oregon for the southwestern coast of Latin America. Instead of an isolated backwoods she lives in a beautiful two story house with no walls but bamboo curtains in a tiny village with Steve and many friendly Ticos. She makes beautiful hats and weaves lampshades from giant leaves, sometimes she writes and sings jazzy sounding songs on her small electric piano.
Kim is really supportive of what we’ve been doing with her songs, and we worked out a handshake agreement by which I will sell the remaining copies of her songbook for her and in return she’s given her blessing and full permission to produce and sell the expanded edition of her and John’s wonderful songbook.
(If you want a copy of the songbook, simply email me an inquiry and I’ll provide details on how to obtain one.)
During one of her visits to Oregon a few years back I got to hear Kim singing dramatically re-imagined versions of a few of the Timberbound songs with her daughters. One granddaughter has flaming red hair just like she used to have, and is learning to play the fiddle. Kim doesn’t care if people try to play the songs in the style she and John used, or with the melodies that she carefully notated by hand in her songbook–she’s just happy to see the songs still spreading and changing–just like any good folk song should. Like Hobe and Dave, I am proud to call her my friend.
Taken as a whole, I see the Timberbound songs and the music of Hobe and Dave as the seeds of a new tradition. You might choose to view them as a part of the tradition established by Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs. But to me these constitute a batch of music that is not only distinctive, but distinct. This is music by people who are not merely from this place–they are of this place.
The music is not merely potent because the melodies are lovely and the lyrics are keen–it is rooted in traditions, seamlessly fusing old American music with the spirit and the working world of Pacific Northwesterners. It has lead me to meet my new friends Phil & Vivian Williams, Seattleites who are a vital part of a fresh tradition of Northwest fiddle music. They, in turn, have lead my dear friend Ben Hunter and I to discover the incredible story of Lou Southworth, an artist whose repertoire we intend to explore.
Timberbound will continue to expand and perform when and wherever possible. I have chosen to make this band into the Northwest division of the Rhapsody Project, the goal of which is to strengthen communities through song and spread the gospel of folk and blues music. Rhapsody is the integration of performance and teaching through public events and school workshops designed to facilitate cross-generational, cross-cultural interactions through the medium of music.
I want young kids to have an avenue into folk music, and to discover the living bearers of tradition in their region and study with those people.
One of my favorite things about John and Kim’s music is that they make their love of blues music explicit. They name-drop John Hurt songs in the course of their defining waltz, and the title song of the Timberbound Songbook contains these lines:
I been bonded to the firmament
I been bound to love the blues
And I swear to god, my friends
There’s times I been Timberbound like you.
John Cunnick cannot know all of the people he has gone on to inspire with his words, and I’d like to leave you with one more passage from his unpublished writings:
“I am needless to say nearly ecstatic, I believe I am a lucky human being. Really, I believe more and more in fortune. I can see where I may have created my own luck in little patches, but that I was even able to make a right decision was a matter of fortune, the most carefully planned human life is a tidy little bundle of accidents and mind is closer to a clothes hamper of happenstance.”
– John Cunnick, circa 1975
Timberbound (featuring Joe Seamons) “Timberbound”