We Lose an Old Friend: Don Sanders, Houston Music Legend

Don Sanders, songwriter and singer, died Saturday from the combined effects of frontotemporal dementia accompanied by ALS, a very cruel combination in the Alzheimer family of disorders. It was a final irony on his career that his death was big news in the Houston Chronicle, a paper that had paid him little attention during his most productive years.

7503086518_f45555ea0d_k
Don Sanders, July 1, 2012, during a visit to Lake Jackson.

I met Don Sanders just after enrolling at the University of Houston in 1961. Don came there from Jones High School in Houston. I arrived from Galena Park.

We had both been accepted into the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, the forerunner of today’s Honors College. We had several classes together each our first two years and a weekly colloquium in the junior and senior years.

Don was a sharp kid. He had an acerbic wit and a green corduroy suit that he wore almost every day of our freshman year or, who knows, he may have owned several. But I doubt it. He didn’t come from the kind of family where the kids had more than one suit. The suit was in the style of his heroes the Kingston Trio.

Don played guitar and banjo and sang folk songs that were beginning to pick up in popularity in the early sixties. We learned from Don about hootenannies, the Limeliters, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and Joan Baez. As Don became an accomplished musician, he sang with beautiful control and a great range. Early on, he was always high pitched and his voice could be irritating at first. The beauty and finesse of his vocal performances I heard thirty years later were shocking to me at first.

But Don was so much more than a folk singer. He wrote songs, performed on stage, did comedy, wrote a novel or two (never published as far as I know), performed for children, and wrote probably tons of poems. Apparently, even more than those things, he inspired other people to do their best work. Some of them are names you probably know very well. He was a regular at Houston’s Anderson Fair and on KPFT.

I wasn’t in touch with Don after college. His music scene was not one that I fit into and I was busy with the kind of boring white collar jobs he was intent on avoiding. His astonishing career is fairly well covered in the Houston Chronicle article. There is also an interview in the Houston folk music oral history archive.

Don and I were in touch again after Hurricane Ike in 2009 when he performed at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston as a benefit to help rebuild the facility that had been severely damaged in the storm. In 2012 he asked if I could help him with some memories from our college years for the personal memoir he was writing. I wondered whether it would still seem like a friendship after all those years pursuing our very different lives. But we found a lot of joy in our conversation that day, July 1, 2012.

7502630586_edeb91a961_k
Visiting with Don in 2012.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much I could offer to fill in the cracks in such a creative life as his. We reminisced about the day in November 1963 when we went to his house near the runways of Hobby Airport (it was Houston International then) to see if we could see John Kennedy on his arrival in Texas. There were several of us from University of Houston and we did, indeed, get to see the president and first lady, two days before he was killed in Dallas.

Three or four of us stayed over at Don’s house that night. His mother made breakfast for us and as we prepared to make our way back to our morning classes at UH, Don called out, “Charles, Tom: come and see these guys. I have never seen anything like this. They are going to be big.” So we rushed in to see the image of the Beatles performing on tape on the Dave Garroway Show. You could have fooled me. Although I became accustomed to and learned to love the Beatles later, I really didn’t get what was so special then. But Don had the ear for it. This was several months before they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and took America by a storm.

My regret today is that I did not pay more attention to an old friend as he struggled to make it in the music world. He apparently inspired others and they did the things they had to do to have fame. But Don wanted something else. He wanted peace: peace in the world and peace in his own life. Staying in Houston was his gift to America’s new great city.

Don came back to visit Lake Jackson again in the summer of 2013 when I invited him to see our Brazosport Center Stages production of Les Misérables. He had kind things to say about our local production.

I went to see Don at his home in the Heights a few weeks ago. By then, his disease had greatly diminished his ability to communicate. We spoke a few short minutes and he told me had to go somewhere which was highly unlikely. I held his hand and told him I would try to return when he had more time to talk. But I knew he was uncomfortable with the visit and I really doubted I would be returning.

Sunday morning, I received the email announcing his passing.

Finding the Light in the Cave of Political Darkness

Of course I do my best to survive the Trump years by consulting America’s most credible media. It helps to have online subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Facts, and the Houston Chronicle. I feast on MSNBC with a nightly visit from, at the minimum, Rachel Maddow. I switch over to Fox sometimes to get a taste for their coverage of some particular event.

But on the side of human contact, I am mostly limited to very apolitical spheres of friends in theater and church. These are both holy places in the sense that we agree to love theater and love God without bringing up Trump. I try to imagine that people who can be so good and so generous in those areas must surely vote as I do. Surely.

Well, not so fast. Hard data shows me that the people I live with in Brazoria County actually voted about 60% for Donald Trump in 2016. My precinct in Lake Jackson favored Trump over Clinton by 69.2% to 23.6%. So you can see that one’s ability to have normal neighborly relationships can turn on staying quiet in most social venues.

But then, a couple of weeks ago, an old friend from my more active organizing days called and asked me to come to a meeting of folks who were interested in participating in the local party’s writing project – an effort to put enough letters in the mail to local media and our representatives in Congress to at least make the point that they do not own a consensus mandate. He called just after I had seen news of the administration’s criminal treatment of asylum seekers at our southern border. For the last few years I have declined involvement because of some health limits, one being depression of that special political variety. But that day my anger and grief had hit the point that I was moved to say yes.

I am so glad I did. Seven or eight of us met Saturday over burgers at Fuddrucker’s and spent the morning making some plans for the writing project but, more importantly, we had that human contact that makes all the difference in making change. I feel a little more like a citizen today and a little more efficacious.

Thank you René Martinez for calling me and giving me the opportunity to hang out with your small group of literate, justice-loving, and totally enjoyable Democrats.

My Republican friends are probably longing for contacts like these. Should any of you wander onto this site, you are welcome to join the party and have a burger with us and learn to think and write like a Democrat. Yes, to do both at the same time.

Properties at Risk: LJ Alert

The Guardian published an article this morning giving fairly specific location information regarding forecasts of U.S. properties at risk of flooding from rising sea levels within the next thirty years. The maps were prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group not known as a fake news source unless you read more fake news than real. You can access their maps by clicking on site below:

https://ucsusa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=cf07ebe0a4c9439ab2e7e346656cb239

There are a couple of maps in particular that should interest Lake Jackson residents. One map shows the Lake Jackson area within the zone predicted for significant property losses within the period of a typical thirty-year home loan suggesting a loss of property values right away. Another map shows the areas that could be affected positively if action is taken by nations having advanced developed economies.

They make it easy to express your concerns to the folks in power. It can’t do any harm.

A Quiet Spring Day in Lake Jackson

I went out with the camera today to grab some shots of a couple of LJ sites that townies need to know about if they are coming to LJ for a visit. One is Shy Pond on That Way Street. Passing by on That Way you see some playground equipment, a large pond and a fountain spraying water into the air in the middle of the pond. But if you park and get a little closer you can get a view like this one.

27953388527_a7f8e3a2bd_k
On hot summer days, the ducks and geese who live at Shy Pond like to rest in the shade of trees on the bank but will go for a swim when a paparazzo arrives.

If you continue south on That Way you will enter the old downtown area of Lake Jackson. And there you will come across a restaurant called The Local. It operates in the finest tradition of an American neighborhood dining place. The owner, Gaye Linford, maintains high standards of quality and service. She has made it part of her mission to provide employment opportunities for young people on their way to college. Under her leadership, they receive some excellent guidance in how to provide good customer service and, even better, how to be good citizens.

This is the place you will be looking for in downtown LJ.

42822514111_b34da37487_k
The Local will be found at the corner of That Way and Circle Way in old downtown Lake Jackson.

There is also a patio for outdoor dining when the weather and temperature permits. The area is shaded and cooled by fans. Granted, most days in July and August you will want to go inside and enjoy the air conditioning and neighborhood ambience.

42104752114_0d058fd24e_k
Depicted here in cool black and white, outdoor dining is available on the patio at The Local.

So come on down and enjoy the slightly slower, healthier pace of life in the exurbs. And if you go to The Local, be sure and try their Riverside Burger with the grilled chicken option, topped with bleu cheese, grilled onions and a little mayo. Very good and good for you. They pretty well know to make it when they see me coming.

How to Welcome a Texas Hurricane

The still and heavy heat of Texas grows
like mythic rivers sent to drown out life.
But life won’t stop – nor laughing, so it goes.
We celebrate the summer as if strife
were far from towns that dot our coastal plain,
ignoring warnings recommending flight
from angry winds, and days of constant rain
with rising floods and lost electric light.
We fish; we swim; we bathe in cancerous rays.
We mow the lawn and slather barbecue
with sweetened sauces, then slug IPAs
until we see a storm come into view.
Then off we go with Grandpa in the back.
We head for Austin far from Harvey’s track.

Remembering Harvey

Summer approaches and a subtropical storm named Alberto has already made landfall on the northeastern coast of the Gulf of Mexico soaking Florida and Alabama.

It was late August of last year that Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas and dumped heavy rains to its east. Lake Jackson had 24 inches as I recall but some of the best was yet to come as Houston’s 51 inches headed downstream in our direction.  It has only been nine months. We know people in Lake Jackson who are still putting their lives and homes back in order.

36312458443_771469fdea_k
A friend’s home in Lake Jackson after Hurricane Harvey

This was what we saw when we went to visit a friend whose home had been flooded. Virtually everything they owned was piled in front of the house. But there were also about fifteen cars parked in the driveway. People from Chapelwood and The Center were there to do all they could to help with the cleanup.

36984082421_01f284608e_k
Interior of the friend’s home after the damage had been attacked by daily squadrons of friends

Continue reading “Remembering Harvey”

On a More Positive Note: Our Legacy of Hope

Growing up in Jacinto City, Texas, I was well within the urban lasso of Houston, yet I was insulated from its cultural amenities by barriers of transportation and income. Downtown Houston was a 30 to 45 minute bus ride from Jacinto City with lots of stops along the way for pickup and dropoff. We could do a few of the things that were free such as the zoo, the public parks, the art museum, and the free concerts at the Miller Outdoor Theater in Hermann Park. But those were rare occasions and I grew up without an ear for good music, with the barest exposure to the visual arts, and no experience with drama beyond the plays I saw on our high school stage.

My participation in the arts did not improve much as an adult after moving into the city proper and having a better income of my own. This reduced the impact of the barriers of distance and income but did not eliminate them completely.

Interior of the Freeport LNG Theater in the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences
Interior of the Freeport LNG Theater, one of the venues where Brazosport Center Stages performs in The Center

Then, in 1982, we moved to an exurban area of Brazoria County – south of town, Lake Jackson. We were far enough removed from Houston that its urban amenities were virtually out of reach. For the kids in the poorer homes in our area, they were distant dreams if they were dreams at all.

But not long after arriving here, we learned that the performing and visual arts were available, affordable and a quick three mile drive down Oyster Creek Drive to the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences.

My posts have tended to dwell on the things we have done wrong politically, socially and economically and continue doing wrong. Those things form the basis of the pieces carrying the title Our Bitter Legacy. But, of course, there are some things we are doing right. The Brazosport Center for Arts and Sciences is one of them. It argues for recognition that we are also at work on our legacy of hope.

Continue reading “On a More Positive Note: Our Legacy of Hope”