Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Donald Cobb

photo: The Willits News
I met Don Cobb in 1967, when the soprano Carole Bogard sang his Crazy Jane Songs at the Cabrillo Music Festival on August 26, with Gerhard Samuel conducting a chamber orchestra. Over the years since he drifted across my sight very occasionally and I never got to know him well — he always seemed a little guarded. He wasn't the only one; I'd found that a number of composers — artists too — seemed a little guarded in conversation. I worked as a critic at the time, on the Oakland (California) Tribune, and people don't always trust newspaper critics. Nor is there any reason they should.

He and I shared a few enthusiasms, but were divided by others. I'm a committed Modernist; he wasn't. He like the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters and James Whitcomb Riley and Vachel Lindsay; I preferred Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. He was particularly fond of the symphonies of Roy Harris; I was never interested in them. We were both dedicated Regionalists, I think; but for me Regionalism is a matter of terroir, genius loci; for him it had to do with vernacular.

What we had in common, I think, was preference of one's own way, whatever that was and wherever it might lead, to conformity to successful conventions. That, and a fondness for conversation.

Don taught at various places, always rather on the margin I thought. He seemed rootless to me: you never knew when he might turn up. He liked to spend weeks on the road, when he'd crash with friends, I think, or camp out, or perhaps sleep in the car in bad weather.

A year ago a score arrived in the mail: his Crazy Jane Songs, the accompaniment arranged for piano, in a beautifully printed edition. I wrote him congratulating him on the publication, and told him how much I liked the songs; and I sent him four little songs of mine, to poems of Lou Harrison's — I thought he'd like their style, and Lou's poems. But I never heard from him, and thought perhaps I'd offended him by suggesting, inadvertently, that they might somehow stand comparison to his songs.

Poor Don complained of feeling tired last summer. When he visited a doctor — unusual for him — he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The end came quickly, and he didn't complain. A friend e-mailed me about his death, and then a couple of weeks ago, at the Milhaud concert at Mills, I learned of a memorial service that was planned.

A couple of days before the service I was working through a stack of long delayed paperwork at my desk and ran across the envelope with my songs and letter to Don: I'd neglected to mail it. He never received it; never knew how much I'd appreciated his letter and his songs.

The memorial service was held in a community church in the Mendocino County town he's settled in. It was jammed. A number of his childhood friends from San Leandro were there, with fond and funny reminiscences. An even larger number of recent friends from Willits, where until nearly the end he was used to singing, teaching, playing his various instruments, delighting in folk music, old songs, bluegrass. He was a true Gebrauchmusiker, a maker of music for any kind of occasion, but above all for social occasions, where music provides a lubricant, a glue, a medium whose purpose it is to bind people into a community.

As I've posted on the website that's being prepared in his memory: I liked Don. He seemed like a man who knew how to be boisterously gentle, or gently enthusiastic, while still maintaining a critical and analytical mind. Above all he seemed honest and forthright, in his opinions, his music, and his conversation. He was in every sense authentic. I’m sorry we fell out of touch — my fault — and I'm sorry he’s gone.

An obituary appeared in The Willits News, posted to the Internet on Oct. 3.


Steve Van Strum said...

Hello Charles,

I was pleased to meet you at Don's memorial. Also to read your comments about him on your blog.
The Cabrillo Festival recording of "Crazy Jane" is on Don's web site under recordings, numbers 02-07

Steve Van Strum

Michael Cobb said...

Thank you so much for this thoughtful write up. Very kind of you. Planning making on making the website Googlable pretty soon. I believe you had wanted to see the Crazy Jane songs on the website and I wanted to direct you to the recordings menu. I believe you'll find an old unedited copy there. Be well!

Warm Regards,

Mike Cobb