A Six-Pack Of North

Originally posted January 14, 2009

Readers from other areas than the United States’ Upper Midwest must sometimes wonder if my clear obsession with weather – especially cold weather and its travails – is mine alone or if I share it with others.

Let me be clear: Nearly all of us here in this northern tier of the U.S. are obsessed with our winter weather. We shudder at the thought of it every autumn, celebrate its leaving in the spring and remember it fondly during the warmest part of summer. And during the actual season of winter, we shiver, we kick clusters of accumulated dirt and ice from the wheel wells of our vehicles, and we cock our ears for the latest wisdom from our local television forecasters: “It’ll be brutally cold tonight here in the metro area, colder still in the outlying areas. Bundle up, and make sure you have your emergency kit in your car if you need to drive. If you don’t need to go, stay home.”

We talk wintertime survival with the folks next to us in line at the hardware store: “A fella could do a lot worse than to have a couple sets of jumper cables in the car, you know,” said one of the parka-wearing customers the other week when I was waiting to pay for my new show shovels. Three similarly clad customers – chilled cheeks and noses glowing red in the store’s fluorescent lights – nodded. Most of us, I think, settle for one set of jumper cables in our vehicles, but the man who advised us was correct: There are worse things that having two sets. You could have none and be stuck in the shopping mall parking lot with a dead battery as the day’s light fades.

Even the national news folks noticed our current cold snap. Our weather was the lead item yesterday on the CBS Evening News. The piece showed pretty accurately the perverse pride we take in surviving and maybe even thriving in brutally cold conditions. Later last evening, during one of those little chat moments that happen during local newscasts, the anchorwoman on another Twin Cities television station told her colleagues that friends of hers had moved to Minnesota from Florida in the past year. She said she’d had a difficult time getting those friends to understand what they’d be facing come this cold season. I got the sense that the truth had startled the newcomers and that the newswoman was taking at least a little satisfaction from her friends’ chilly bewilderment.

From what the weather mavens tell us, tonight and tomorrow will be the coldest in this particular siege. Here in St. Cloud, the temperature will drop to -27 Fahrenheit (-33 Celsius), and with winds coming from the north, the wind chill will range from -36 to -46 Fahrenheit (-37 to -43 Celsius). It doesn’t look as though we’ll be setting any records, though. On February 2, 1996, folks in the little northern town of Tower, Minnesota, kept heading outside every few minutes to check the outdoor temperature, hoping to establish a new state record. They succeeded: The thermometer reading dropped at one point to -60 Fahrenheit (-51 Celsius).

This cold snap won’t bring with it any such extreme, from what I understand. And that’s fine, except for those folks in Embarrass, Minnesota, who would like their record back. As for me, sometime this afternoon, I will head out into the chill wind to run a few errands. I won’t be out long, and I’m not going far. But as I walk from the car to the stores, I’ll hunch my shoulders against the wind and – metaphorically if not literally – look back over my shoulder to see what’s coming at me from the north.

A Six Pack of North
“Girl From The North Country” by Joe Cocker and Leon Russell from Mad Dogs & Englishmen [1970]

“North Star” by Jesse Winchester from Third Down, 110 To Go [1972]

“Northern Sky” by Nick Drake from Bryter Later [1970]

“Song for the North Star” by Jorma Kaukonen from Quah [1974]

“North, South, East And West” by the Church from Starfish [1988]

“Theme from Northern Exposure by David Schwartz [1990]

A few notes:

The Cocker/Russell duet, though it gets a little ragged at the end, is one of my favorite highlights from the Mad Dogs & Englishmen album. I sometimes wonder if Cocker and/or Russell thought for a split-second: “Oh, my god, Bob Dylan’s come to listen to us!”

The Jesse Winchester track comes from the second album Winchester recorded in Canada while he was exiled from the United States for evading the Vietnam-era draft. It’s a pretty good album, if a little bit inferior to his self-titled debut.

Nick Drake wasn’t utterly unknown during his lifetime, but he was a pretty obscure singer/songwriter. Now, in the age of CD re-release, he’s better known than even he might have though possible before his death in 1974. Bryter Later was the second of the three albums he released during his lifetime and is not quite a bleak as the other two records.

Quah was the first solo album by Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane. Since 1974, Kaukonen has released a string of good albums in a style that leans more and more toward Americana, with 2007’s Stars in My Crown being the most recent. (A new album, River of Time, is set for a February 10 release, according to All-Music Guide.)

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