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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

In Time of Rivers Flowing: Mason Williams' Musical Tribute

Air Date: Week of

The composer of the 1960's classical-style guitar pop crossover music hit "Classical Gas" retreated from show business to Oregon where he pursued a love of trout fishing. Due to his admiration of time spent along the river, Mason Williams returned to the stage to create and perform a show featuring songs and lyrics of fluid admiration. John Kalish reports.


CURWOOD: You may be old enough to remember this 1960s pop hit, but can you name the person who wrote and performed it? The tune is called "Classical Gas," and the artist is Mason Williams.

("Classical Gas" continues)

CURWOOD: Along with his songwriting, Mr. Williams gained notoriety as a scriptwriter for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Saturday Night Live. But after winning Grammies for his pop music and an Emmy for his TV comedy writing, Mason Williams dropped out of show business at the pinnacle of his commercial success and moved to rural Oregon. There he's carved out a career for himself as a regional artist, while pursuing his first passion, trout fishing. It's the fishing that led Mr. Williams to get hooked once again on performing. John Kalish explains.

KALISH: In 1982 officials in Springfield, Oregon, announced plans to build a series of hydroelectric dams on the north fork of the Willamette River. A stream that fed the river was Mason Williams' favorite trout fishing site, so he made a point of attending a public forum on the proposal. When he got up to speak he expressed a slightly odd notion.

WILLIAMS: I said well you know, the only person who isn't here is the river to speak for itself, and so I thought -- I doubt that you're going to hold your meeting down on the river, and I don't see there's any way to get the river to come over here, so I thought well, maybe in a surrogate manner I could have music bring the river into the meeting or into the mix.

KALISH: Which is exactly what he did.

(A piano plays. A man sings: "Of time and rivers flowing, the seasons make the song.")

KALISH: "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" is Mason Williams' 2-hour tribute to not only the Willamette but to all rivers, a concert that weaves together disparate styles of music about waterways. Everything from Johann Strauss to the Talking Heads.

(Talking Heads: "Take me to the river. Drop me in the water. Take me to the river. Drop me in the water, the water...")

KALISH: Mason Williams enlisted local bluegrass, jazz, and classical musicians for his river show, and he convinced one of Oregon's most famous literary figures to join the team, author Ken Kesey.

KESEY: [Backdropped by music] The river's murmur is the voice of my father's father. The rivers are our brothers and our sisters. They quench our thirst, they carry our canoes, and feed our children.

KALISH: Ken Kesey recites Chief Seattle's reply, an eloquent Native American response to a government offer to buy Indian land. At another point in the river show the author is introduced as Reverend Ken "For God Sake's" Kesey, a hellfire and brimstone preacher who decries the pollution of both waterways and human bodies with toxic stimulants.

KESEY: [Backdropped by preachy music] Aaah, yes. Life is like a river. We're a river of life flowing through time, trying to reach our eternal destination. But it is not an easy journey, for around every bend there are backwaters of badness and bogs of baloney. [The audience laughs] There are tributaries of temptation. There are shoals of evil. And you know and I know where most of these foul, polluted waters come from. They are the noxious and polluted waters of booze and dope that come pouring forth from a multitude of loggers' watering homes and cascading down the college campus corridors. Say Amen! [Audience: "Amen!"] Ohhh...

KALISH: Mason Williams says Ken Kesey's histrionics are just what his river show needed.

WILLIAMS: You know, I'm kind of stuck behind the microphone and my guitar, where he's roaming the stage in his clown suits and fish hats and [laughs] weird stuff, and he has a great time. So it's a more of a theatrical element to my shows.

KALISH: Mason Williams shies away from rhetoric or proselytizing in "Of Time and Rivers Flowing." One of the rare moments in the program where a political point is made comes in the performance of Woody Guthrie's classic "Roll On Columbia." A new chorus notes the development along the river since Guthrie first penned the tune back in 1941.

WILLIAMS: [Playing the guitar] Today there are 192 dams on the Columbia River Basin, so it's more like a chain gang of ponds than the mighty free-flowing river that Woody saw. And if Woody were alive today, and could see how this has turned out, I wonder if he might not be obliged to add a new chorus to his song to reflect our hope for the survival of this great river. Something like this. [Sings] Hang on Columbia, hang on. Hang on, Columbia, hang on. Power has dammed you, they've stolen your song. But hang on, Columbia, hang on. Hang on, Columbia, hang on. Hang on, Columbia, hang on. They're taking your salmon, you're rollin' is gone. But hang on, Columbia, hang on...

KALISH: "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" was performed in Eugene, Oregon, in 1983, as a benefit for a small group of fly-fishermen opposing the dams along the Willamette. Three sold-out concerts raised several thousand dollars, and the fishermen used the funds to lobby the state legislature. The effort was successful; lawmakers designated the north fork of the Willamette and its headwaters as part of Oregon's system of protected waterways. "Of Time and River Flowing" has also been used on a national level to promote river protection. The conservation group American Rivers used the title song in a public service ad that communications director Randy Showstack called very effective.

SHOWSTACK: Mason is a gentle soul. He doesn't hammer people over the head with this stuff. You know, Mason is ahead of his time. We hope not too far ahead of his time, because we want a lot of other people to catch onto the need for river conservation. Because rivers across the country are in terrible condition.

(A piano plays; Williams sings. "There's a red moon rising on the Cuyahoga River. Rollin' into Cleveland to the lake. There's a red moon rising on the Cuyahoga River. Rollin' into Cleveland to the lake...")

KALISH: Mason Williams has turned his passion for rivers into something of a cottage industry. An album of 14 tunes from "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" has been released on the Skookum label, and Williams says he hopes to produce a CD-Rom based on the show that would teach everything from river geology to the social history of waterways. This is all a far cry from the glitz of Hollywood, but Williams says he's more attuned to the simpler life in Oregon. The metaphor he uses to describe his career these days is plucked straight out of his rural milieu.

WILLIAMS: I have an apple tree up at my cabin. This apple tree grows beautiful Gravenstein apples every year. And sometimes people eat them and sometimes they don't, but they're beautiful apples every year. So the whole idea of them getting to market or getting made into pies or getting used is immaterial to the fact that they're great apples. So if somebody discovers me, great, but I don't know that I know how to parley this into a big career. I don't know if it's necessary.

KALISH: "Of Time and Rivers Flowing" will be performed on May 17 at the Holt Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon. Mason Williams and his ensemble of bluegrass, jazz, and rock musicians, will take the stage with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra to once again sing the praises of rivers large and small. For Living on Earth, I'm John Kalish.

(Music up and under; Williams singing, "So many homeless sailors, so many winds that blow. I ask the half-blind scholars which way the currents flow. So cast your nets below. And the gods of the moving waters will tell us all they know.")



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