Back in the 70s, when Dillon Bustin was alternating between studying folklore at Indiana University and homesteading in Orange County, Indiana, he got to know a musician-farmer named Lotus Dickey. “He lived in a one-room log house where he had been a little boy,” Bustin explains. “He still worked the 40-acre farm that his father had bought in 1913, and he was the kind of guy who would store his potatoes under his bed for the winter.”
Bustin was one of several folklorists who documented the life and work of the man who would become the namesake of Bloomington’s Lotus World Music and Art Festival. It wasn’t just Dickey’s music that inspired Bustin, he explains, but rather, “his whole lifestyle. It was all one piece.”
Travis Puntarelli shares Bustin’s admiration for the integration of Lotus’ creativity within his existence. “Yeah,” Puntarelli jokes, “I wanna store potatoes under my bed too.”
At 28, Puntarelli is more than a generation removed from Bustin, his collaborator in the musical revue, A Show of Hats. Before they met a month ago, Bustin seemed to Puntarelli to be almost as distant a figure as Dickey. “I kind of thought that Dillon was one of these other legends that disappeared and didn’t even exist anymore, like somebody from [an] ancient Bloomington past.”
I don’t think you want to be a literary scholar;’ Bustin was told, ‘I think you want to be a nineteenth-century romantic poet. And it’s too late for that.
Until Puntarelli’s bandmate Mark Haggerty connected the musicians: “About a year ago Mark gave us Dillon Bustin’s Almanac, and I really liked it. Specifically the song about collecting firewood, was really important.”
That he considers a song about collecting firewood to be important might provide a glimpse into Puntarelli’s world view. Discovering that his values, interests, and artistic sensibilities align with a previous era is a recurrent theme in his life–
When I was 18 I got a van and just took off across the county,” he relates. “And I got to Berkeley and the van was all graffiti’ed and spray-painted and had a big pair of cat eyes on the front of it. And I got out of the van in Berkeley, California, and some old-timer on the street goes, ‘Hey man, you’re forty years too late!’
Bustin chuckles at that story, maybe because he has been accused of anachronism, himself–
When I was here at IU as a freshman I spent a year in an American studies curriculum,” Bustin recalls, “and I studied American literature with Edwin Cady, and particularly focused in on Emerson, Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists until he finally said to me, ‘I don’t think you want to be a literary scholar; I think you want to be a nineteenth-century romantic poet. And it’s too late for that.’
Both musicians write about rural and agrarian pastimes–activities that seem to belong to a different place and time. How, I ask, can music about cows and chopping wood and gathering water be relevant in 2015, in a largely urban setting?
If I had to summarize what we were trying to do in the early seventies,” Bustin replies, “it would be about sustainability, although that wasn’t the catchword at the time. And that issue is more urgent than ever. I mean, I certainly thought that trying to farm by hand–that we were the last generation to try to do that–to try to grow fresh healthy food and entertain ourselves locally, pay attention to the old timers. And playing old-timey music, I certainly thought we were the last generation to do that—that it would end with us. There was no reason to go on! So now that there is a younger generation, it’s mind-boggling to me.
Puntarelli suggests why the old ways appeal to him–
Something that I think is really cool is that maybe Dillon knows some songs from Lotus Dickey who knows some songs from people far before him. So we’re getting these songs that have been passed down in this oral tradition. Maybe because those songs haven’t been passed through the media land, maybe because they’ve just been living in the hearts and on the tongues of real people all this time, maybe there’s something special about those songs. So it’s not so much a shunning of the new culture, it’s maybe just an embracing and cherishing of the old culture.