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Core Samples

Just one glance at the poster and I found myself splattered up against the wall.

The full-face shot of my longtime friend Paul Swenson tacked to the end of a bookshelf down at Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake immediately got me to thinking that I’d missed him doing a reading and signing of his latest book of poetry at the bookshop.

When I bent down and peered over my glasses to read the small print, however, the floor opened up and I began falling into a bottomless abyss. It’s been the better part of a week now, and my ongoing plummet into dark space shows little sign of terminating.

The poster, as it turned out, not only announced Paul’s passing and impending memorial service but, as an additional slap in the face, positioned the events in the space-time continuum of this past January. How I could have been so out of the many loops which no doubt, in real time, spread the word of Paul’s death throughout Utah’s cultural community is beyond me. I felt hollow.

As editor of the extremely literate and highly celebrated Utah Holiday Magazine when we first met back near the dawn of the ’70s, Paul became an early mentor of my all-night "Mellow Country" radio program at KMOR-AM which featured old-timey, bluegrass, folk, blues, and classic country music.

Besides writing about the show in his magazine, he called often to discuss various obscure genres and musicians, continually educating me on that with which I was most unfamiliar the best example being the night he stopped by with the latest Utah Phillips collection of railroad ballads and hobo songs.

In other words, there would have been no "Moose Turd Pie" in my life without Paul Swenson. He would also bring me up to speed on Utah Phillips’ radicalization by the local Catholic anarchist and union activist Ammon Hennacy, who ran the Joe Hill House where hungry hobos could always get a meal. "Being a pacifist between wars is like being a vegetarian between meals" was one of Paul’s favorite Hennacy quotes.

You might say that Paul was a different kind of Mormon. Or as Susan Elizabeth Howe reflected on the back of his poetry book, "Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake," "In short, he is a corrective to the ascetic, bland, self-satisfied, and authoritarian aspects of Mormon culture."

Musicwise, Paul could talk about Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley, Bill Monroe, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt, Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, and the New Lost City Ramblers until the cows came home. And he never tired of recalling the evening he sat next to Son House as he sang "Death Letter Blues" on Rosalie Sorrels’ front porch.

He often journeyed up the canyon to Park City for live music. He was there when Ramblin’ Jack Elliott played the bar at the Utah Coal and Lumber restaurant back in the day and also a year or so later when Elliott joined John Prine onstage at the Egyptian Theatre. Not to mention getting in line early for the Taj Mahal show at Main Street’s old Cowboy Bar.

As a well-known writer, journalist, and film critic for a wide cross-section of Salt Lake print media, Paul became a mentor to many who would follow in his career footsteps. At about the same time I wrote a bluegrass review for Nick Snow’s alternative newspaper, The Mountain Flower, in Park City, Paul had me writing a piece for Utah Holiday on those of us who commuted from the mountains to the valley.

More recently, I began running into him at various poetry gatherings around Salt Lake in places like Westminster College, the University of Utah, the Book Festival at the Main Library, and at Ken Sanders Rare Books.

When the annual Utah Humanities Council Book Festival chose to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of his poem "Howl" with an October 9, 2005, reading by Alex Caldiero at the Library auditorium, Paul and other Utah poets joined the tribute by reading from their own work.

Coming from the family poetic tradition that produced the world-renowned poet May Swenson, Paul’s oldest sister, it seems that it was May’s death in 1989 that triggered Paul’s full immersion into the art form. His book "Iced at the Ward, Burned at the Stake and Other Poems" was published in 2003 by Signature Books.

A total gas to spend time with, whether discussing music, poetry, films, or literature, Paul Swenson had a way of punctuating even his most droll and ironic comments about art with a twinkle in his eye. He was also a man of deep love and demanded the same of his God.

Thanks for always being there, Paul!

Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.


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