Tuesday, December 18, 2012

So Long, It's Been Good to Know You

The best song ever written is Woody Guthrie's "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, it's Been Good to Know You)." There's a whole category of songs that have tunes so timeless and perfect that, even when you hear them the first time, it seems like you already knew them. My best two examples are "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" by Fleet Foxes, and "King's Crossing" by Elliott Smith. "Dusty Old Dust" is the epitome of that phenomenon, but maybe that's because all Americans have heard it before, somewhere or other.

Maybe we sang it in elementary school, though I doubt it. I would have remembered that sad priest and the people running home and drifting along. I rediscovered it in the dank cheese cellar of Azienda Agricola Arpisson, a small dairy farm in the Italian alps where I spent two months in the summer. The farm was positioned halfway up a giant mountain, higher than any town, but not quite so high as the glaciers. (The glaciers, and the summer pastures, were a two hour's hike straight up.) The sun set behind Mont Blanc every day, which bookended the valley along which we were set. The cheese cellar had a mouthwatering odor. I'd go down there and start breathing so deeply I felt dizzy. It smelled half like rot and half like caramel, in an exquisite combination. It didn't smell at all like cheese. In the corner by the door was a little machine, a neon-light hoop with a fan in front of it, meant to attract flies. Every ten seconds you could hear another one zipping into it and being flung, in small black pieces, around the fan's perimeter. The cellar held maybe $50,000 dollars worth of cheese, from giant flat wheels of fontina to small basket-embossed goat cheeses.

The center shelf held the cheese monsters--the deformed, the ancient, the contaminated, the maggot-riddled or rotten-out. They were bright red or covered with inches of black mold. Some were so soft your fingers sunk into them like milk. If you had to handle them, you would smell bad for days. From time to time, Gabriella would split one open, placing the halves first in front of the chickens, who would peck out the writhing maggots, and then tossing the rest in chunks to the pigs. We watched the young pigs trample each other trying to get to their food, leaving none for their ailing mother, who died a little while after I left.

Once Gabriella salvaged a section from one of the most destroyed-looking cheeses. She cut off all the infested parts, ending up with a small triangle an eighth of the size of the original cheese. It was creamy-yellow and oozy, with a truffle-like flavor. She sold it for extra-high prices at the market in Turin. With its pedigree--raw milk from a 30-cow farm where the low pastures are above most Valdostano alpeggi, one-off from an unknown recipe--I imagined in some contest it could be pronounced the best in the world.

Less delicious was the goat's milk cheese that somehow went wrong and puffed up in the molds like biscuits with too much baking powder. We tried cutting it into little chunks on our pasta, but it had a loose, loamy texture that was hugely off-putting, and then Lucas found some tiny worms on his plate. I have no doubt I ate some of them, but at the time I was living in above a barn and bathing once a week, without access to a functioning toilet or a refrigerator. We kept the milk cold in the water-troughs, or down in the cellar. The rest of Italy was dying of drought, and the Valle d'Aosta was so overflowing with water that they kept the troughs and public fountains running with unrecycled fresh water 24 hours a day. We put our butter in the fragrant cupboard where we kept our cheese and salami. The butter was always meltingly soft, and we'd eat a kilo in several days. It had an icelike flavor and was dark-gold yellow, verging on pale brown.

Anyways, the Arpisson cheeses were high-maintenance because they needed to be washed almost every day in salt-saturated water. Surprisingly, the point of this is to make more mold on the rinds, which bestows upon the cheeses a complicated flavor. As the summer went on, the shelves filled up, and cheese-washing became an eight-hour task. It was a long, lonely time in the cellar. I liked herding the goats and running after them through the meadows of chin-high wildflowers, stirring up masses of flies, blue butterflies, and brown and orange butterflies who liked to suckle my fingers. The cellar meant cold, stinging hands, pickled fingers, all day in a raincoat that got dirtier and dirtier with salty brown water. I listened to Woody Guthrie for hours.

I am almost tragically indifferent to most music. As a character in one of my stories says, I'd prefer if the whole world would just listen to one song until it was entirely used up. I have 6,999 songs in my iTunes. Of the 1630 that I've listened to, I have listened to 700 exactly once. But my very favorite song ("Gemini" by Why?) I have listened to hundreds upon hundreds of times. Come to think of it, I'm not sure these statistics are so unusual. I wonder what the iTunes of a real hard-core music fan looks like. There are, of course, the songs I listen to on the radio all the time (namely "Titanium"). There are the ones I always listen to on Youtube (anything Nine Inch Nails). There are songs I passionately love and never want to listen to again ("Suavemente" on the bus from Cagliari to Nora, with Adriana, the most interesting girl in the world, a true connector who knew all of Cagliari's low-lifes, her black hair flying all over my face as she screamed the song out the windows, or "Chan Chan" by Buena Vista Social Club, at a grill dinner by an abandoned farmhouse in a lonely clearing in the Appenines, someone's dog tied up at a stake and freaking out because of the meat, and someone left their car doors open, engine off, battery on blaring "Chan Chan" as loud as it could go).

I just discovered I have only listened to "Dusty Old Dust" four times, according to iTunes. But what a change it wrought on that summer! It was my anthem, I thought. But it's a soundtrack I edited it in silently and maybe after the fact. I thought I was always listening to Woodie Guthrie, and can hear his voice in dozens of memories, but as it turns out, it was all in my head.

Above: A WWII version, with harmony.

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