Living alone at the remote Lost Horse Cabin — beyond the Service Road Only sign, beyond the Locked Gate Ahead sign, beyond the Do Not Enter sign, up the long, winding dirt road flanked by Joshua trees, Mojave yuccas, fields of desert dandelions, occasional stands of purple lupine, blooming cacti, and other desert wildflowers — I spent two weeks as Artist-in-Residence at Joshua Tree National Park in California. This book is the project that resulted from my residency.
Songs of Joshua Tree is a work of literary art — using oral history, documented artifacts, and my experience living in the region for several weeks — exploring music over the course of history in the area that now comprises Joshua Tree National Park and its surrounds.
During my tenure at the park, I met with descendants of pioneer families and musicians from the three primary Native American tribes that had inhabited the park; I explored the park seeking places and artifacts of musical significance; and I attended local music events. I kept a daily travel journal. Each night I fell asleep to the sound of the wind howling through the park, and awoke in the morning to the who-who, knock-knock-knock of the great horned owl and ladder-backed woodpecker in my yard, which served to underscore that in addition to the music people sang, played, and wrote here, the desert makes its own music. Because there was no Internet connectivity or cell phone reception at the cabin, the lack of digital distractions opened all senses to the desert environment. I felt a heightened awareness of the sounds around me.
Here, every sound stands on its own. With no minuscule microphones, and no recording equipment, I recorded the sounds of the desert — both of human musicians and of the landscape itself — in the only way I know: with my words.
This book is meant to be neither an exhaustive inventory of every music event nor every song written in the area. It paints the landscape of music that touched and shaped the lives of people here. Each culture brought its own contribution to the history of the park, including music history. Sometimes these groups or individuals influenced each other, but there is not a holistic arc of music progression seen over the course of time; there are pockets of "aha" moments when something in a later era evokes something earlier in history, and there are specific instances of one group borrowing music traditions from another. To a large degree, the progression mirrored what happened musically everywhere in this country, but the specific landscape and events of this desert park contributed a unique slant and mysticism that can only be understood by looking at the physical features of the desert and its oases, and the historic events that took place here.