BY BRENDAN MARTYN
The notional Silicon Valley, in the sense of the place where technological development happens, peters out around Los Gatos California, but the geographical valley, the Santa Clara Valley, continues to the south.
As you drive south you see fewer and fewer Porsche sports cars and more houses with porches, a front porch seemingly the hallmark of country person in the USA. A large section of the world’s garlic and artichokes comes from this part of California and you can sometimes catch glimpses of John Steinbeck’s world as you drive south past endless fields, rows of Mexican migrant workers in the distance, bent to their tasks and barely distinguishable in a heat haze like ghosts from Steinbeck’s imagination.
My friend and I work in Silicon Valley and one Memorial Day weekend we decided to take a drive to Monterey.
As soon as we got on the highway we fell in with a slow moving herd of minivans full of families bent on recreation. We got off 101 at the next exit and rambled in a general southerly direction, making sure the coast was more or less on our right, confident that since Monterey is a sea-side town we could not miss it.
Somewhere near Salinas (it is a plain fact) we passed a roadside BBQ stand, a big panel van with a hatch in the side pulled over in a lay-by, a couple of half-barrel type BBQ pits off to one side and two or three picnic tables in back. A handful of working pick-up trucks were parked up in no particular order. The bill of fare was neatly but manually painted on the side of the big white van.
By the time we processed all this as a potential source of food we were 100 meters down the road and our little Volkswagen Golf had a long, dusty, backward journey along the shoulder to the parking area. No doubt we were already a curiosity to the BBQ loving locals by the time we rolled out of the car. Next to the pick-up trucks our little VW looked like the dingy that a large boat pulls along behind on a bit of blue nylon rope.
I play traditional Irish tunes on the banjo and my friend Niamh plays the fiddle. We ordered our ribs, sausage and coke. For a laugh and because I have developed a fondness for playing music in odd locations we got out our instruments and struck up a few tunes. Before the kielbasa arrived we played Banish Misfortune and The Cook in the Kitchen, two jigs. The children were quick to come over to see what this was all about. The adults were more circumspect but they nodded in time with the music and smiled through their BBQ sauce. We kept playing between bites of sausage and ribs and slugs of coke – The Mountain Road and Drowsy Maggie’s. A couple of men who arrived after us sat at our table and nodded their appreciation. The ladies who sold the food out of the hatch in the side of the van came out to listen and they were soon improvising Irish dancing and laughing happily. After a set of reels one of the men slapped the table and said: “man I love that bluegrass music” and everyone laughed. I asked him for directions to Monterey that did not involve sitting and perspiring in traffic and told him we were not in a hurry. He explained how to get there over the mountain, down to the coast and along the storied California, Route 1. We were all friends by the time we packed up and hit the road again.
Half the time I dread taking out my banjo in the USA. Silicon Valley and Santa Clara Valley are the same place. But when I play in Silicon Valley people are quite forward, demanding even, with questions about what it is that I am doing, what is that instrument called and what type of music is it? I was even informed once by a man with an air of authority that the music I was playing is heavily influenced by Irish music. In contrast the people of the Santa Clara Valley were not informationally acquisitive in the least. The artichoke farmers took it in their stride. They had no need to classify what was happening and they seemed to connect with the bouncy happiness of Irish traditional dance music readily without the need for analysis and classification or even discussion. To them it was music and what to you do when you hear music? – You tap your foot.
Steinbeck’s characters are poor migrant workers of the depression era and I didn’t find any of them but it was refreshing and for me while in America not to have to explain or contextualize the music I play. For me it is not a patriotic act or an exercise in historical preservation – for me it really is a bunch of notes that when played in a certain sequence sound good and I was delighted to find folk who are folksy enough to simply enjoy it.