Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Riding the Narrow Gauge


Up in the high country southwest of Baker City, OR lies the little town of Sumpter. The village was founded in the 1860’s when prospectors on their way to California found out they actually didn’t have to go any farther to find gold—& Sumpter was afterwards primarily a gold mining town with a narrow gauge railroad (mostly used for the local timber industry). As technologies for extracting & processing the gold improved, the town grew, & as often happens in such cases, became a real boomtown, & was nicknamed the Queen City.

Unfortunately, the town burned do
wn in 1917—a fire started in a hotel kitchen & burned down the equivalent of 12 city blocks. This was the “bust” that happens to most boomtowns, & the “Queen City” was dethroned, as it were, though the gold mining did continue in the area with the use of large dredges, one of which is preserved in a State Park locally. The most recent dredge was in operation until 1953.Nowadays, Sumpter is known—& not very widely, at that—for two things: its Labor Day flea market, in which the whole town turns into one gigantic yard sale, & the Sumpter Valley Railroad, the remnants of the old narrow-gauge line that once ran from Baker City to Prairie City (around 80 miles). Now it runs a 5-mile stretch between Sumpter & McEwan.Our connection to the Sumpter Valley Railroad goes as follows—back in the summer of 05, Eberle & I were making preparations to get hitched—we’d been together for several years at this point, but had decided to “make it legal.” This was all very much on a shoestring—we figure that (with lots of help from lots of friends) we did the whole wedding (a small ceremony in our garden, followed by a big party a couple of weeks later) for around $300. No, I didn’t forget any zeros on that figure—try that on Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? or Wedding S.O.S. The ceremony was sweet, & the party was a blast. We even had a late night Northern Lights show—one of the best I’ve seen, even including my 25 plus years in Vermont; it wowed the dozen or so diehards who were still at it in the wee hours—including, I’m happy to say, Eberle & I.

But that’s another story. Anyhoo, during that summer I got a call one day from a very nice woman who represented the Sumpter Valley Rai
lway & who, it seemed, was determined to have Five & Dime Jazz (i.e., Eberle & me) play on their Labor Day excursion train. However, the wedding was to take place on Friday, & she was asking us to play on Saturday. My first impulse was to turn this down; so I tried to explain to her: 1. We don’t play country music; figured that would settle matters, but no—she wanted “jazz,” & in fact what she meant by “jazz” was pretty much exactly what Eberle & I were doing at the time—namely, old standards. 2. We weren’t a “stage act”—we were more geared to background music; again, this was exactly what she wanted. At this point, I thought, “Well, I like trains—it might be fun"—& I was able to determine that Eberle was also “on board” (so to speak) with the idea, so we took the gig, & after the wedding & the wedding lunch, we packed up the flute & melodica & tenor guitar & baritone uke & headed west.

We spent the night at the Geiser Grand in Baker City—a gorgeous, historic hotel with an incredible restaurant, & headed to Sumpter& the flea market & one-room museum & dredge & railroadthe next day.
We were booked to play on the train from Sumpter to McEwan, & then also perform on a small stage at McEwan while the passengers were fed a picnic supper. We had a blast, but I will say it’s dangerous both for performers (especially Eberle, who plays wind instruments) & their instruments (my tenor guitar has a small ding in the fretboard binding as a result of both tenor guitar & I being launched backward into the seat mid-song.) Narrow gauge railroads were constructed to negotiate rough & curvy tracks, & it is certain that the conditions between Sumpter & McEwan warrant this. The landscape you travel through is memorable—not only do you see the picturesque mountain pines & creeks, but you also have land torn up on both sides of the tracks from the years of dredging through the area. There really isn’t much else that looks like dredged land—you see it up around Warren, ID, too—heaps & heaps of earth turned up, displaced boulders, stumps, etc—the tailings.

The picnic at McEwan was good—as I recall, fried chicken with potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, etc. The crowd was friendly, we had a good time—for some reason I recall particularly it was the one time we were both really happy with how we played “How High the Moon”…. & after the bumpy train ride back to Sumpter (in the dark) we drove off with great contentment for Indian Valley that night.


We haven’t been back to Sumpter since, sad to say. We were supposed to play there with the Spurs of the Moment the next year at Fourth of July, but we were in the midst of rehearsing for The Grub-Stake recording & couldn’t make it; the Spurs that day were an all-Leone affair: Chris, Dani & Gene. They reported the food was not as good as we had—sort of the standard burger fare
but they seemed to have had a good time, though Chris got a lot of grief from bandmates for playing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” for the assembled kids.Sumpter is a beautiful spot, & especially if you enjoy old trains or western history, it’s well worth the trip.

Pics from top: Train pulling into the Sumpter Station; The Sumpter Dredge; The Sumpter Flea Market; Eberle & Friends at the Geiser Grand; Yours Truly & a Train at McEwan; The Spurs of the Moment (l-r: Gene Leone, Dani Leone, Chris Leone) at Sumpter depot

Pic of me at McEwan by Eberle Umbach; Pic of the Spurs by Diane Vecchi

Monday, September 29, 2008

Banned Books Week 08


One of yesterday’s posts connected GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin to the issue of book banning. I’m aware this is a controversial issue, & that Robert Frost’s Banjo readers may include persons of various political stripes. I’ve tried to steer fairly clear of political discourse, because it’s not part of my agenda to offend or rile anyone up; nor can I say I definitively know that when Palin asked the librarian how she’d react to a book banning request, & then subsequently fired the librarian, what she (Palin) intended by either the question or the action. I guess Ms Palin is the one who could answer that question, but I’ve found over the years that it’s best to take politician’s answers (whether the politician is an “elephant” or a “donkey”) with more salt than I typically use when cooking pasta. I’ll also say that over the years I’ve found the adage “where there’s smoke there’s fire” is true more often than not; there’s also the more surreal adage: “If it walks like a duck & talks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” On the other hand, while I don’t have the inclination to surf the blogosphere looking for all the various nuances of the issue as it pertains to Palin, I do notice some reasoned voices who don’t seem to be in Palin’s camp are willing to be open-minded, & that also seems fair.

However, Sarah Palin aside, the banned books issue is a serious & ongoing one. Culturally, we claim to value freedom of expression, but my observation has been that this value often is put aside when it includes embracing contrary views—& to some extent, this is true for folks on either side of the left-right political dichotomy we have going on—in spades—in the U.S. right now; “needles to say,” (as Eberle would say) I’m not a fan of those maps on all the news networks with their grid of red states & blue states. I’m more a believer in something along the lines of this Will Rogers’ quote: “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other.” I don’t entirely agree, but I do get his overall point.

One thing worth noting about book banning: it always stems from power, & power that’s energized by fear; & for my money, these are two of the most negative motivations there can possibly be. It’s interesting, too, to note that which set of books might get banned is completely dependent on who’s wielding the power at a given time. If we look at the history of book banning, we’ll note that the lists of banned books in the old Soviet Union & the list of banned books in the U.S. aren’t all that similar—what is the same is the practice of book banning. This reminds me of the observation by some conservative commentators who weren’t consistently enamored with our current chief executive as regards the expansion of executive powers (an expansion which, in fairness, has occurred under both recent Republican & Democrat administrations)—namely, they realized that whatever new powers were granted to a Republican would also be available to a Democrat. In other words (in an attempt to preach to the uncoverted, if any such actually show up here), you’d best think about all the ramifications of a policy that endorses censorship, (or other forms of power assertion) because it may come back to haunt you at some point down the line.One thing that disturbs me—to get on the soapbox just for a moment (hey, I am a blogger after all), is the way the “culture war issues” (if you can call them that) tend to obfuscate serious problems that need to be addressed: an apparently crumbling economy; & a related topic: a Mid-East war that—whether you agree with it or not—has to be seen as a potential “generational” conflict—i.e., it could last a loooong time, with all the consequences inherent in this—are we willing to buy this? How willing? Are we willing enough, say, to accept rationing as was done during World War II? Or a draft, as in Viet Nam—so that not only poor kids are dying in Iraq & Afghanistan? If not, why not? & if not, perhaps this is a sign that even the folks who drape themselves in the flag about this issue really don’t believe in it all that strongly…. & a related topic—like what are we going to do as oil dwindles as a fuel source & all the “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric about Alaska, etc looks to be about as effective a remedy as slapping an ace bandage on a broken back; & related to that—hey, have you noticed the interstates are getting pretty old & dilapidated, & that it’s real difficult to get anywhere by railroad, while meanwhile the government is sinking lots of $$$$ into a kinda crumbling airline industry? Infrastructure, anyone? Or the current chaos of the public school system, a system that provided education— & thus made citizens—of several generations in this country (including yours truly’s dad, who came from a poor, second generation immigrant background); & no, an escape to private schools is not the answer if we want to maintain democratic institutions (because those private schools don’t account for the folks nowadays who are in my dad’s situation)…. Thomas Jefferson said “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”Which leads me back to banned books. Because this is an issue about information & the ability to think. When one can learn only from a limited perspective, one’s mind can’t embrace difference. It’s disturbing to me that so much of the official discourse about difference has to do with its supposed corrupting influence rather than ideas such as freedom & tolerance—which I believe is practically impossible to achieve (to the extent we’re capable of achieving this) without knowledge & understanding. One thing to remember (going back to the Jefferson quote); being “well-informed” doesn’t just mean keeping up with news & current events… it means having an understanding of human diversity; having an understanding that there is a dynamic fluidity of world views & life experiences, & just because “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here” doesn’t mean that’s the only way to get them done.It’s an important “issue”—I hate to use that over-used term in this context—so if you can, spend some time this week researching it, or better yet, reading a thought-provoking book. You can find out more about banned book week here, & can see a list of 10 banned classics here (some surprises, so check it out).

The pics show some books I selected belonging to Eberle & I, all of which have been banned at some time & place. I didn’t make an exhaustive search of our shelves—I just wanted to find a handful that were well-known &/or had been important to us as readers & writers. In case I got too clever by half with the pictures & you can’t read the titles, they are:


Top pic (l-r): Ladies Almanack-Djuna Barnes; Naked Lunch-William S. Burroughs; The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas-Gertrude Stein; Ulysses-James Joyce
Middle Pic (l-r): Moll Flanders-Daniel Defoe; Candide-Voltaire; The Rights of Man-Thomas Paine; The Scarlet Letter-Nathaniel Hawthorne
Bottom Pic (l-r): The Grapes of Wrath-John Steinbeck; The Well of Loneliness-Radclyffe Hall; Howl-Allen Ginsberg; As I Lay Dying-William Faulkner

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Happy Birthday, Eberle!


My very, very, very favorite gal & dear wife is celebrating a birthday today—sadly for me, she’s out of town, so we’ll be celebrating it together a bit later. But happily for her, she’s up in the beautiful wilds of Sandpoint, ID, & I hope having a wonderful time. In case you’re interested, she isn’t researching the original stomping grounds of GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin….hmmm…. perhaps in honor of Banned Books week?….

But I hear that’s real pretty country up there, with Lake Pend D’Oreille (named for the Native American Pend D’Oreille nation) & practically snugged up against the Canadian border; & they do everything differently in northern Idaho, though they haven’t seceded yet—but they are in a different time zone. Anyhoo, sweet pea, hope you’re having a wonderful day, & many, many, many happy returns!


Pic shows Eberle on a Disneyland teacup earlier this year—the “happiest place on earth” is of course completely strange, though we’ve had great times there with our SoCal pals Audrey & Cheryl—may have to write more about this at a later date.…Admittedly, this has nothing whatsoever to do with northern Idaho—I just like the pic.

Fruit Curry


I love curry—I love it in practically all forms. Of course, as Eberle points out (as was pointed out to her once by a pal of hers), curry isn’t a specific blend of spices, but rather a way of cooking.

Yes, this is true, but I’m not enough of an expert to try to tackle such a subject in any intelligent way. I do know what I like, & what I can make, however, & thought some of you folks out there might like this particular dish, too. In fact, at least a few folks who read this blog regularly have been served this, & seemed to like it quite well.

I can’t claim that this is really an original recipe, though it is a fair departure from its ultimate source. It’s based on a recipe in my all-time favorite cookbook: The Africa News Cookbook by Tami Hultman. Sadly, this book has bee
n out-of-print for some time, though you can still pick it up used on the web. My fruit curry recipe—which is mostly vegetarian at any rate, & can be completely vegetarian or vegan quite easily (see ingredient list & explanations)—is based on the “Quick Fruit Curry” recipe in that book; however, the cookbook recipe uses both chicken & peanuts, & doesn’t use garbanzos, bell peppers, or broth.

1 cup of dried garbanzos
4 tablespoons of your preferred cooking oil (olive is nice) or 2 tablespoons of cooking oil & 1-2 tablespoons of butter—this makes very yummy curry!
1 yellow onion, chopped (I chop it a bit on the fine side)
5-6 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced (you can moderate this if you’re not garlic fiends like Eberle & I—but it’s very good for you & it wards off vampires)
1 heaping tablespoon of curry powder (or garam masala, or half & half curry & garam masala)
1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon cardamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne or 1 or 3 hot peppers (you need some heat to match the fruit’s sweetness—I like food quite hot, so moderate to taste)
1 bell pepper, chopped (when I say “one” I mean the general size of the standard issue supermarket bell pepper; when I use Eberle’s tasty homegrown ones—better by far, but significantly smaller—I use two or three)
1 apple, peeled, cored & chopped (the variety doesn’t matter too much, but I’d stay away from really tart varieties like Granny Smith or Delicious)
½ cup (or more) dried apricots

½ cup of raisins (one of the few organic foods you can buy in Council, ID! Golden raisins are good, too, & look very nice when cooked)
Juice of 1 lime (or lemon, if you swing that way)
1 cup of broth (now here’s where the rubber meets the road vegetarian-wise; I’ll admit that I usually make this with chicken broth; but I’ve made this for a few vegetarian friends—& Robert Frost’s Banjo readers!—& on those occasions have used
the broth from cooking the garbanzos; it works very well! If you’re doing something heinous like using canned garbanzos—yeah, I’ve done that in an emergency, too—then you could of course use a cup of organic vegetable broth)
Optional: feta or other goat cheese, crumbled, to sprinkle on top. Sometimes we do this, sometimes we don’t. I think Eberle likes it a bit better with cheese (she also likes it quite well without), while I might like it a bit better with no cheese (but also like it with—amazing—something I’d actually prefer without cheese!) Obviously, the cheese makes a more complete protein—good for you vegetarians, bad for you vegans, a matter of taste for everyone else.

Also—those three fruits work well, but you could experiment with others.

So—cook the garbanzos until they’re tender (done, bu
t remember, they will be cooked on low heat with the other ingredients later on; & I’m assuming everyone out there knows the quirks of soaking/cooking beans at their particular elevation etc.). Then in a separate heavy pot (I like using a 5.5 quart Creuset round oven as per the pic, but you can make do with something a bit smaller), saute the onions in the oil (or oil & butter) until they’re golden, & add the spices & garlic. Then several minutes down the line, add the green peppers, then the fruit, then the broth, then the lime. Let all this simmer away on some pretty low heat—remember, there’s a lot of natural sugar in there with the fruit, so this will burn if you have the heat up; & obviously, you should be keeping this moving with a spoon from time to time; I don’t typically time this, but I’d say 15-20 minutes from when the last of these ingredients are added until you add the beans—a bit longer is always better, assuming you keep the heat low. Once the garbanzos are tender, add them to the pot, & stir them in. I like the garbanzos to be in with the other ingredients a good 15-20 minutes on low heat—but again, within reason longer is better, as it gives everything a chance to meld nicely.

Traditionally, foods such as this are served over a starch called fufu. Back in my Bay Area days, I had occasion to try fufu at a couple of African restaurants. I’ll just say it seems to be an acquired taste. If you’re adventurous, you can find some recipes for fufu here. Otherwise, serve the curry over rice, & decide: cheese or no cheese? Then, enjoy!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

“The Song Of Wandering Aengus”


His good friend Lady Gregory once described W.B. Yeats as looking “every inch a poet;” & for all his Celtic Twilight mysticism & his involvement with The Golden Dawn & other occult folderol, there is no doubt that in writing as well as in look, Yeats was a poet thru & thru.

One of the commonplaces in talking about poetry is the idea of melding sound & sense. If that is in fact the touchstone of poetry, then Yeats produced some of the best, since his best poems are both extremely sonorous & profound in their thought.

Yeats was, of course, an Irish poet who lived from 1865 to 1938. He was a prolific writer—poems, plays, essays
& a bridge between the Pre-Raphaelites & the Modernists. Besides his mystical dalliances mentioned above, Yeats was at times involved in the struggle for Irish freedom (especially under the influence of the bewitching actress/revolutionary Maud Gonne, his “muse” from the 1880’s onward), was a companion of Ezra Pound, reputedly insulted James Joyce (supposedly saying, “Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it”), a captivating reader (check out his reading of his 1893 poem “The Lake Isle of Inisfree”), a scholar of classical thought—but most of all, a poet.

The poem below was published in Yeats’ The Wind Among the Reeds (1899); nowadays it can be found in any decent Yeats’ collection. It dates from his “Celtic Twilight” period—Aengus was a hero of Irish mythology. This poem reminds me of autumn (on a mundane level); on a less mundane level, it strikes me as a moving description of yearning; & as usual with Yeats, the words have their own music.

The poem has been set to music, however, though there’s some debate about who did so—based on the discussion here it sounds as though one version at least may have originated with Yeats himself. It’s been performed by musicians such as Judy Collins, Jean Redpath, Dave Van Ronk & Richie Havens.

This is a truly gorgeous lyric poem, & suitable for this time of year when the apples hang on the boughs & the morning mist settles into the valleys…. Enjoy!



The Song Of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

W.B. Yeats 1899

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pan-O-Rama


Like one of our heroes, Bart Hopkin, we like the idea of making music from “found” objects—a coffee can cuica anyone? (pronounced “QUEEK-ah”) Takes about 5 minutes (if that) to make, & (assuming you were going to drink the coffee anyway), costs nothing—we used one in the Alice in Wonder Band.

But what I’m writing about here is a
bit more of a “serious” instrument than the coffee can cuica (tell me, tho—how is something you “play” ever totally serious?)—namely, the steel drum.

For those of you who don’t know, the steel drum, or steel pan, is an instrument from the Caribbean, & more specifically from the island of Trinidad. In this case, a cruel necessity was indeed the mother of invention; the British rulers of Trinidad outlawed the use of hand drums in street parades in 1883, apparently fearing that the hand drums were being used to transmit secret messages & thus to foment unrest among th
e African population. Of course, the hand drum is the central instrument in African music—central in a way that really has no counterpart in European music. At first, drums were replaced by sticks, & especially by bamboo sticks (which could be tuned) called Tamboo Bamboo. These sticks were struck against the ground to produce a rhythm. The Tamboo Bamboo bands soon added other “found” instrument, including bottles & spoons (apparently gin bottles were favored), & then later parts of automobiles (such as brake hubs), as well as biscuit tins entered the bands.

The biscuit tin, then, was the first “steel drum,” though something more like the modern version was created when paint cans were pounded out from the inside in a way that allowed the musician to play different notes—if you’re reading
carefully, you’ll notice that these proto-steel drums were convex rather than concave, which steel drums are now. A drummer by the name of Winston “Spree” Simon is credited with creating the convex steel drum, while Ellie Manette is credited for the first concave steel drum; forming the steel drum in this concave shape is known as “sinking the pan.” The use of oil barrels (55-gallon drums) for steel pans probably started in the mid 40’s. The first all steel drum bands came about in the 50’s—the first of these, The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, toured Great Britain in 1951.

Nowadays steel drums orchestras are common in the islands—& elsewhere. There are a total of 13 sizes of this
instrument:

Soprano, lead, or tenor
Double tenor
Double second
Double guitar

Quadrophonic (four pans)
Triple guitar
Cello—typically made of three to four barrels
Six pan
Tenor bass (three and four pan variations)
Six bass (and numerical variations)
Seven bass
Nine bass (with numerical variations up to 12)
12 bass


The steel drum is also an effective solo instrument, particularly in the “lead” size. One very intriguing feature of the lead steel pan is that the notes are arranged in what’s known amongst us musician folks as the Circle of Fifths. As you can see in the pic, if you move in intervals of five, the movement across the 12 chromatic notes of a scale can be described in a circular fashion.

Anyhoo, the steel drum is something we really like—our very good pal Dani Leone is a steel drummer (she performs under the name of Sister Exister, & she does have a cd available!) Dani played steel drum with the Lipsey Mountain Spring Band, still plays with the Spurs of the Moment, & as I said performs both solo & with a back-up band as Sister Exister—the back-up band sometimes includes a cello & trombone—what a hoot! Dani writes her own songs (though she also does calypso & traditional country with the Spurs), & you’ve never heard anyone quite like her. There are some music clips on her MySpace page. Dani plays both with sticks & with ping-pong balls (Dani being about the best ping pong player I know—but it’s also a traditional way of playing the pan). She also has made steel drums both for herself & others (for $ of course in the latter case). The steel drum pictured below is the first one Dani had a hand in building, though in that case she was apprenticed to a more experienced maker.

Eberle also plays the steel drum; she loves the logic of the circle of fifths arrangement, & there is something so compelling about the bright notes with their overtones—the steel drum is an especially “ringy” instrument. As a result, it can b
e tricky to mike either in live situations or for recording. However, we used the steel drum (played both by Dani & Eberle) in our recent Moominpappa at Sea soundtrack & were happy with the takes we got. You can hear Eberle playing one of these numbers on our Moominpappa at Sea page. It’s the third selection in the “Sound Samples” section.

So next time you get a chance, check out the very wonderful steel drum.

Top pic is Dani w/steel pan at the 07 Portland Garden Eclectica Art Fair

** NOTE: I deleted the comments on this post. I felt the comment by "anonymous" was unwarranted & inappropriate, & several other readers felt the same way- no one I asked about this felt "anonymous'" comment was justified. Once "anonymous's" comment was deleted, there was no point in leaving my response to him.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hilarious Elegance


As those of you who’ve been following along probably have figured out by now, I like to give some exposure to people who seem to have “gone invisible” in our current culture. Today’s candidate is the very elegant & hilariously funny Irene Dunne, the great (& I don’t use that word lightly here) actress from the 30’s & 40’s.

Dunne isn’t unknown—certainly folks who have a decent knowledge of film from that period are aware of her work, & in most cases she receives well-deserved accolades. Still, in comparison with a very comparable actress like Katherine Hepburn, Dunne is “unknown”—her name isn’t a household word, though it should be, & she isn’t a part of the general cultural imagination.

One tag line you run into with Irene Dunne is
“the greatest actress never to receive an Oscar” (though she was nominated four times). Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne addressed this in an introduction to one of her films by noting that her performances were so consistently first-rate that no single one stood out as much as it might for an actor whose work was more uneven; Osborne theorized that the same might be true for Cary Grant, who also never won. Interestingly, Dunne & Grant were a magical combination in three truly great films, The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), & Penny Serenade (1941).

Dunne’s films Theodora Goes Wild (1936), her first comedy, & The Awful Truth are essential, because they define so much of the wonderful “screwball comedy” genre. In each of these roles, Dunne plays a complex character, & Dunne is capable of fully articulating these varied & even contradictory facets in a performance that never los
es coherence. In Theodora Goes Wild Theodora Lynn is a small-town woman living with her maiden aunts—& appears well on the way to becoming a maiden aunt herself—except that she secretly (& under a pen name) writes a steamy romance titled “The Sinner”; & after being jilted by a man she’s fallen for, she (however improbably) undergoes a thoroughly believable transformation into a madcap vamp who’s out to exact a hysterical vengeance on the man who “did her wrong,” at the same time exposing & overcoming hypocrisies related to both gender & sexuality.

In The Awful Truth, Dunne’s Lucy Warriner is a fully realized character, capable of incisive wit & true tenderness, of real devotion & giddy flirtation. She can be refined or a floozie—her turn as a drunken vamp singing along to the phonograph
is not to be missed. The plot turns around the characters of Dunne & Grant trying to get a divorce & the misadventures & revelations they discover—in some ways, it bears similarities to the (also great) 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story. There are so many high points in The Awful Truth it’s hard to single out any—Dunne’s scene with Ralph Bellamy & Cary Grant in a nightclub (her new boyfriend & ex-husband) is extremely funny, capped off by a hysterical dance number in which Bellamy plays the straight man.

What are the characteristics that define Dunne’s style? Although Dunne was a very attractive woman, she’s never afraid to “let her back hair down” in the service of comedy; & while she’s not a master of slapstick like Lucille Ball (who played with D
unne in 1938’s The Joy of Living), she was talented at physical comedy. But Dunne’s greatest strengths are her extremely expressive face—she’s able to convey both layers of emotion & rapid shifts of emotion as well as any film actor I’ve seen. Also, Dunne conveys intelligence & wit—you always sense a depth behind her words & movements. Cary Grant reportedly said that Dunne had the best comic timing of any actor he ever worked with. There’s also something appealing about the way she can be at once so elegant (Dunne’s outfits in a number of her movies are the height of stylishness), & also zany.

Of course, while comedy is—in my opinion—Dunne
’s greatest strength, she was an accomplished dramatic actress as well in such films as Magnificent Obsession (1935), Love Affair (1939), Penny Serenade (1941), & I Remember Mama (1948). She was also a gifted singer (though her heavily vibrato style is a bit dated to the contemporary ear); a couple of films that particularly showcase this are Show Boat (1936) & the Astaire-Rogers vehicle Roberta (1935). Dunne sang in a number of roles—her rendition of “Be Still My Heart” in Theodora Goes Wild is laugh out loud funny (or LOL as it were). I’d also single out both Love Affair & Penny Serenade as films in which Dunne “does it all”—demonstrates her dramatic, comedic & musical gifts in one feature.

Dunne played strong women—women who were independently minded, & were successful in getting what they wanted. She’s also able to convey an intelligent—though never “racy” sensuality, as in the final scene of The Awful Truth—no spoilers, but you won’t look at cuckoo clocks the same way again….

Anyway, in these days of NetFlix & video on demand, there’s no excuse for any of us not to be acquainted with the work of this marvelous actress, so do check her out. If you love comedy, try The Awful Truth first; if tearjerkers are more your sty
le, you can’t go wrong with Penny Serenade. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mark Twain on the Banjo


The banjo is an instrument that always manages to bring out the humorist—as someone who’s played banjo in a band, I know about banjo jokes. My favorite one—said by Alice in Wonder Band violinist Lois Fry on the Alpine Playhouse stage while I was tuning a banjo is:

“What’s the definition of perfect pitch? When you throw a banjo in the dumpster & hit an accordion.”

Ah, well…. I do have a weakness for the banjo & the uke, two instruments that are notorious for always being on the verge of going out of tune. But where this is going (in case you were curious) is Mark Twain—who I understand from some sources did himself play the banjo. Twain has two great banjo quips—they’re available elsewhere on the web if you go looking for them—but in case you don’t, now they’re on Robert Frost’s Banjo. Here they are:

The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music -- music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, -- when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!

& also:

A gentleman is a man who can play the banjo, but doesn't.


Gottschalk was a piano player; Pride & Rhoades, banjoists. Soooo—was Mark Twain a gentleman?

“I’m Happy On The Shelf” #1


Hey, folks, a new series at Robert Frost’s Banjo!—don’t worry, I’m more or less keeping track of them, & they’ll all keep turning up, hopefully not like the proverbial bad penny.

Anyhoo, although the title is a nod to “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” this has nothing to do with Fats Waller. It struck me that a goodly percentage of Robert Frost’s Banjo readers read books, & it might be fun to discuss some books I’m involved with from time to time. Leave it to me to write the first one of these about a book I’ve discovered is out-of-print. However, a Google search does show that you can pick it up from several online sources, & in some cases even for a good price.

The book is Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970, edited by Andrei Codrescu—that’s right, for you aficienados of NPR who aren’t also poetry readers, the witty NPR commentator who sounds like Count Dracula is a poet & a member of the literati—actually a member of some note, as he’s a prolific writer both of poems & essays, & also the editor of a big-time literary mag (in the sense any literary mag is “big-time”) Exquisite Corpse.

Codrescu’s aim in Up Late is polemical; he wants to present poets he sees as writing outside the accepted academic milieu (which of course includes most of the writing workshop bunch). In an informative & rollicking introduction, he excoriates anthologies that mix academic & non-academic poets without any regard for the aesthetic bias/stance of any given writer; he also traces the roots of his anthology by linking it to the Grove Press 1960 New American Poetry (still available under the title The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised). Obviously, his points about “mixed” & “proper” anthologies (which, in Codrescu’s terms, present “closed poems”) are points that can be debated, but Codrescu's position does have its logic—he’s carving out a place for the poets who are non-academic & anti-literary, drawing connections between them, & establishes their overall “voice” by the sheer number of poems & poets (the book is 600+ pages, though this includes additional material like an index & mini-biographies, & it contains over 100 poets). In doing so, he includes poets from divergent schools—there are both Beats, as well as the “East Coast beats” of the New York School (2nd & 3rd generation in each case), surrealists, political poets (actually, most if not all of these poets could be said to be at least implicitly political—& political topics range from general U.S. policy to gender, racial, & sexual politics, to meditations on general cultural conditions), minimalists, & language poets.

It’s a wild & wooly bunch, & very few if any readers will like all the poets included here. However, it’s a starting point for each reader to use in discovering which poets he/she finds moving/intriguing/inspiring, & then (it’s hoped) go on to discover more about those specific writers. This is always the ”job” of any anthology—other than being a book professors & grad students can order as reading material for their hapless under-grads.

What’s the importance of a book like Up Late to the average reader? After all, poetry in the U.S. these days is such a specialized field—it’s not read very much (the last poet to be on the Times best seller list? Frost, who at this point is a few generations back….); one wonders if in fact there are as many “poetry readers” as there are self-professed “poets”: certainly the circulation for the average literary journal is so low one has to assume that a number of folks writing poems aren’t reading that many of them. Eberle talks about the time she spent in what was Czeckloslavakia back in the 80’s, & mentions that the publication of a book of poems there had about the same cultural impact as the release of a big-name movie here stateside. I actually don’t come from the school that bewails the fact movie stars, etc. are making seven figure salaries & poets are clerking in bookstores—after all, I kinda think poets are best when they’re on the outside looking in, & as has been proved abundantly in our culture, the whole fame/celebrity phenomenon is one sure way of assimilating outlaw artists. & besides, as Frank O’Hara (a VERY good poet) realized—where would we be without movie stars? Check out his poem “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!” here.

So if you want a taste of U.S. poetry from “the wrong side of the tracks,” check your local used bookstore, or an online outlet for used books & give Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970 a look-see.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Walk on the Wild Side


Eberle Umbach

I wasn’t sure it was really a path—but several branches that might have been laid down intentionally drew me off the hot gravel road toward the shade of some trees. A bit of bright red ribbon caught my eye, then a license plate (DJAVIEW) fixed in the branches, near a wooden sign reading “Nada Nook,” and most especially a light purple bath mat on the groun
d. This mat seemed to be serving as an entryway, a welcome, into a small open space within a circle of tree trunks. Two small benches had been fashioned within this space; I walked inside and I sat down in wonder. Inside Nada Nook was another world, invisible from the road although so close to it, where the longer I looked the more things appeared: a figure of a pig above a triangle of colored glass, a carved monk inside what appeared to be a gumball machine, the statue of a frog at prayer, a rusted wrench placed carefully on top of a shopping bag reading “Always Something Exciting!” Up higher, the remains of a Christmas wreath near a wooden heart, once painted green, hanging in the boughs. I was completely entranced by this place, and by the V-shaped views of hills, trees, and sky between the tree trunks.

I came across Nada Nook walking on the grounds of Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon, on the first day of a weeklong stay. I went back the next day after morning prayers and breakfast, smuggling in a friend of mine, a stuffed pig named Piggles, in my knapsack. We sat across from each other on the two benches to have a cosy chat about the past and the on-going life of remembered childhood selves. I was kind of hoping a monk wouldn’t come along and expect me to explain this situation—but I wasn’t too worried because I had a feeling that in Nada Nook explanations weren’t strictly necessary. I also called my dear husband John from there—feeling that the locality of Nada Nook wouldn’t object to a cell phone under the circumstances and that it was, in fact, a kind of cosmic communications hub. Plus, I missed him. When he invited me to write a guest blog about my stay at the Abbey, I wondered if I could convey some of the remarkable nature of this place and community by writing about Nada Nook and the other shrines I visited while I was there.

I was sharing a guest house with my traveling companion (also friend and neighbor) Sister Beverly from Marymount Hermitage in Mesa, Idaho. The first night there I had been sleeplessly gloating over the absences that week held in store for me—no answering machine, no cars, no computer, no stores, no highways, no banks. That was one aspect of how perfect Nada Nook seemed to m
e—the way a corner of nothingness can so surprisingly fill with presence. But also, as someone long alienated from museums and other authorized packagings of art, to stumble into this place of objects and leaves and light by accident was a unique experience—to walk into a place that seemed as much outside as inside, as much created as organic, public as private, and that was so integrated with the land and community around it as to be invisible yet overflowing with beauty—this was simply to be seized by delight.

Not being a deep, silent kind of person, I im
mediately communicated my delight to Sister Beverly. She asked me if I’d like to meet Brother Mark, the creator of this shrine as well as of another shrine I had come across on my first day, called Field of Dreams. I was honored to shake his hand and tell him how thrilling it had been to see his shrines. His eyes smiled as he said: “There are four more. That’s all I’ll tell you. Keep looking.”

Well, there are 1400 acres of land at the Abbey. I’d like to say I found the other shrines through some kind of instinct I don’t actually possess—but my traveling companion came to my help once more, as a guide and by having the boldness to ask for a map. With her help, I came across Jane Junction and Marion Mound. Nada Nook is a memorial to Thomas Merton and to Father Bernard, a past abbot of the Abbey. Field of Dreams was created in memory of Brother Mark’s father, and Jane Junction in memory of a cousin who died of polio at fourteen. Jane Junction is in a leafy shady place, where you might see a stuffed toy dog high in a tree, or a stiff blue plastic brush attached to a trunk under fluttering banners spelling out “Equality” and “Diversity.” A cup handle clinging to the rough bark of a tree limb caught the sunlight and transfixed my attention as I found myself thinking: I guess that makes the tree the cup—“the chalice of existence” is a phrase from Poverty of Spirit, a book I was reading that week, and other phrases from the book came to mind as well walking through Brother Mark’s arrangements of familiar objects in the wilderness: “I am a stranger to myself, a no-man’s land.” The author, Johannes Baptist Metz, talks about poverty of spirit as being, among other things, a place—a place of encounter between God and human, the point “where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.” When I think of that phrase now I see a small dime-store statue of a boy and girl on a sled resting on a particular point of shade and moss deep in the forest of Jane Junction, Oregon.

The final stretch of the path to Marion Mound is lined with narrow strips of blanket and then with single legs from pairs of pants. Brother Mark created Marion Mound after the death of his mother and you approach it in this strange soft way walking with material underfoot—somehow receiving a sense of great tenderness in the midst of desolation. Of course there are objects along the path—a very small red mailbox caught my eye and (because there were no museum guards standing ominously around to preserve
the distance we must keep from the art we pay to see…) I knelt down and opened it. Hoping against hope. But of course it wasn’t empty: inside, an artificial pine bough with sprayed-on snow and a gift-wrapped box. The Christmas note kept sounding, past the monk-shaped bottle of Frangelico, a statue of a mother seal with a baby seal, a tiny Santa on skis in a plastic pot, and in the grotto itself many hanging things: a string of silver beads, and tattered Christmas ornaments spilling gold and crimson thread—all making the actual pinecones appear slightly suspect and self-conscious, as if planned.

In addition to Brother Mark’s shrines, I visited the community shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a high point of the hilly land above the abbey. Now that I’m home, her image is interwoven with my memories of t
he chapel and of the monks chanting, of the wild pear and apple trees and how they smelled by moonlight—words, leaves, silence, fruit.

Text & Pix by Eberle Umbach, except for pic of Eberle & Father Mark - this was taken by Sister Mary Beverly





Pics from top to bottom:
Nada Nook

Eberle Walking w/Father Mark the Hermit (not Brother Mark)
Field of Dreams
Jane Junction (2 pix)
Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine

Monday, September 22, 2008

Indian Valley Double Rainbow


A beautiful sight east of our house following this afternoon's rain....

Eberle Umbach - Guest Blogger Tomorrow!


Howdy all—something new & different & fun coming up tomorrow! Eberle recently got back from a weeklong retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Monastery in Lafayette, OR, & she’s busting to write about some of the homemade shrines she found on the monastery grounds.

Homemade shrines & statuary, & other homemade
art pieces—especially those involving found objects—have been a focal point of Eberle’s imagination for about as long as I can remember. Though she’s evolved from making advent calendars from magazines & other paper goods to working with fairly substantial metal objects salvaged from the Adams County dump (back when we could still do this—now it’s frowned upon), this type of work has inspired her creativity for a long while. It also dovetails with some of her deeply held aesthetic & philosophical positions.

So be sure to check in tomorrow—think you’ll find it interesting—& some good pix, too!


The pic of Eberle above was taken by Sister Mary Beverly

The pic below shows a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe which Eberle made from objects found at the dump (the statue itself was purchased online). Eberle spray painted the tank; the “bed fence”(also spray painted) is Eberle’s childhood bed.




Equinoctial


Today: a suspended chord hovering between two open doors….

thru one the eggplants & tomatoes & peppers hang on their vines & absorb whatever sun breaks thru; the pears that were out-of-reach are still ripening yellow & falling; the zinnias are orange & magenta in the herb bed by the oregano, itself blooming white….

thru one the willow & cottonwood leaves are turning & starting to fall in the breeze—yellow raincoats strewn across the gravel driveway—the small apples at the fence line are ripening & dropping too….

This morning: the twilight’s first pale blue is a scar across the night where the horizon’s wrist folds into the sky’s hand curving black & starry overhead….

Night isn’t really infinite, it’s just a hand that’ll lift us into prehistory; the stars are so many diamonds compressed from wishes & memories & prayers swirling away ….

The moon shrinking white & quiescent into the last quarter, rising late in the night & wandering thru the afternoon sky between the clouds….

Summer was a waking daydream—even the short night’s a daydream of heat & smoke & crickets, & falling asleep in the daylight—here at the western brink of Mountain Time where the sunlight lingers almost into tomorrow (which never comes)….

& the pears we couldn’t reach hang on the boughs for a short time yellow & ripe….

Autumn will be a wakeful night, the cold light of planets & constellations burning back thru time—a thousand thousand lighthouses burning in a dark sea you won’t cross except in the thoughts that carry you thru the nighttime….

Today—briefly—a balance as day & night both leave their doors ajar—a suspended chord hanging between the stars glinting like pinpricks glittering thru black fabric & the leaves glinting yellow & slick as the sun breaks thru….

A balance—the blue scar of morning’s twilight a tightrope you’re walking between the day & night—

A tightrope—balanced on the streak of magenta—a wound between the horizon & the gray clouds at sunset—

A stasis that doesn’t last—a chord that could ring chilling or hopeful between the stars & the horizon & between the sunlight & the cottonwood leaves all falling yellow, & the chord asks to be resolved….


Pic from the Nuremberg Chronicle - Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Uke Goes to the Movies


Another list for your amusement today—scenes from films featuring the ukulele. There are a few surprises here.

Buster Keaton: The Balloonatic (1923-silent)
Buster Keaton: Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928-silent)
Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards: Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929- a number of other films too)
Oliver Hardy: Sons of the Desert (1933)

Ginger Rogers: Stage Door (1937)
Irene Dunne: Love Affair (1939)

Gracie Allen: Honolulu (1939)
Alice Faye & Betty Grable: Tin Pan Alley (1940)
Bing Crosby: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)
Marilyn Monroe: Some Like It Hot (1959)
Elvis Presley: Blue Hawaii (1961)

Jason Robards: A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Steve Martin: The Jerk (1979-actua
lly played by Lyle Ritz—Martin is faking it)
Steve Martin: Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Mia Farrow: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Tom Hanks: Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)


There are ukes in other movies—& oddly, even more in publicity pix & posters—Bob Hope & Bing Crosby are shown playing the uke in publicity shots for The Road to Singapore (1940) & The Road to Zanzibar (1941), though they don’t play ukes in the film. Crosby also was pictured playing the uke in publicity stills for Waikiki Wedding (1937).So be on the lookout—you never know where the uke will turn up….

Gonna Move Up to the Country #2


Last week Eberle had an unnerving, but fairly typical “country living” experience: she was looking out the kitchen window & saw our alpaca Mo trotting up North Gray’s Creek Rd. Now North Gray’s Creek Rd is a dirt road, & not much traveled by cars or trucks; still when any sort of livestock manages to escape the fenced-in pasture, it’s always a frantic situation. I was in Donnelly, so I wasn’t much help—none in fact. Anyhoo, Eberle ended up tracking Mo down through our neighbors’ front yard & up to the fence line on the ridge above our house—essentially, Mo had gone back to where he belonged, but now with a barbed wire fence between him & the pasture he should be in. Fortunately, Eberle is a llama & alpaca wrangler from way back—her folks owned & operated High Llama Ranch up in Valley County, & she was taught by that notorious llama wrangler (& real cowboy) JD Smith. So she had a fencing tool & wire & a bucket of oats. Realizing that she probably wasn’t going to lead Mo a quarter of a mile back down the road to the pasture gate, she figured she’d take the shortest route & cut the fence, seeing as how Mo was already right there, though on the other side.

Now Mo is not the most tame creature ever; but oats are a great enticement for both llamas & alpacas; so after much waiting & coaxing & cajoling (& also taking care to get the llama Penelope well away from the now cut fence) Eberle was able to get Mo over to the proper side of the fence, & then splice the wire back together. She also repaired the section of fence we suspect (& at this point, hope) Mo managed to use as an escape route. Fencing is endless….

It’s an experience that leaves you frazzled—I know—a few years back I walked out the front door & saw all three llamas (we didn’t have Mo at that time) walking in the other direction down North Gray’s Creek Rd toward Indian Valley Rd—which is paved & does get some traffic. Not being as quick as Eberle, I headed off without oats; my wrangling episode involved hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up; getting a car to head the llamas off so they wouldn’t turn up the road toward Highway 95; & finally enlisting the aid of our neighbor to herd them back in the other direction (having initially overshot the mark after turning them back on Indian Valley Rd) & through the pasture gate, which they’d cleverly pushed open.

The pasture gates are now held shut with chain. More joys of country living….

Top pic: Mo was named after Maurice Sendak, because he looks like one of the “wild things” Bottom pic: Little Sister, Gertrude, Penelope w/Eberle & yours truly (& oats) – this pic by Margot Kimball

Saturday, September 20, 2008

“Insomnia”


The title of this post is a condition I have from time to time, but the post isn’t about sleep disorders. It’s the title of a very lovely lyric by the fantastic poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop’s stock has always been pretty high in the poebiz world—even when that world was dead set against poets who were in some sense “formal,” Bishop was widely accepted & admired. It’s been said that she’s a “poet’s poet,” & there may be some truth to that. Perhaps you do need to have turned your hand to writing poems to fully appreciate what seems like her often effortless mastery of form, her precise eye for detail, & her understated but very real emotion. Like so many who are masters of a craft, Bishop can make it all seem much easier than it is.

Still, in my opinion at least, Bishop is one of those poets who really deserve a wider readership—not just within the hallowed & whacky walls of poebiz. Bishop strikes me as a poet who, like Frost, is accessible in the best sense of the word.

Bishop was born in Worchester (for you westerners: pronounced WUH-ster, or if you’re from there, WUH-stah) in 1911; she died in 1979 in Boston. In addition to publishing several volumes of poetry, Bishop was the US Poet Laureate from 1949-50, & won a Pulitzer in 1956. She was associated with the poets Marianne Moore (there are real affinities between these two poets’ works) & Robert Lowell (both were adept with form, but unlike Lowell, Bishop didn’t write “confessional poetry”). She also was a skilled & sensitive translator, & in particular worked on translations from Brazilean poetry—in fact, Bishop lived in Brazil with her lover Lota de Macedo Soares for a number of years.

A side note to the poem “Insomnia”: Eberle wrote a musical setting for this poem, & the Alice in Wonder Band performed it in 2002 with our singer at that time, Kati Sheldon. Eberle’s setting & arrangement were (in my opinion) lovely & haunting, & the band did a good job of putting it across. Sadly, & for complicated reasons, we never got a good recording of it. However, Eberle & I did a scaled down instrumental version of the setting as part of our score for Nell Shipman’s The Grub-Stake. Those who are interested can hear that here; it’s “Sample 4” on our Bijou Orchestrette sound samples page.

“Insomnia” was published in A Cold Spring (1956) & later in The Complete Poems (1969). Hope you enjoy this lovely & powerful poem.


Insomnia

The moon in the bureau mirror
looks out a million miles
(and perhaps with pride, at herself,
but she never, never smiles)
far and away beyond sleep, or
perhaps she's a daytime sleeper.

By the Universe deserted,
she'd tell it to go to hell,
and she'd find a body of water,
or a mirror, on which to dwell.
So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

Elizabeth Bishop
© Elizabeth Bishop 1956

Friday, September 19, 2008

Things I’ve Seen on the Road to Donnelly


Every Thursday morning I head north up US Highway 95 on my way to Donnelly. Of course, this really is heading about due north in order to get somewhere that’s not that far from due east, but there’s this rather large mountain (Council Mountain) in the way if you tried to travel in a straight line. Actually, if you have plenty of time, & it’s the right time of the year (not winter, even at high elevations) you can take the spectacularly scenic Middle Fork Road over Council Mountain, but it’s not the route to choose when you need to keep an early morning appointment, & it’s closed this summer anyway for the salvage sale (logging, for the non-Idahoans out there) following last summer’s North Gray’s Creek fire.

So I head on up 95 to New Meadows, then cut east on Idaho State Road 55 up to McCall & then over to Donnelly. Some of the things I see during this 70-odd mile trip are as follows:

  • Sunflowers growing in the gravel beside the road
  • A trailer home with lots of dilapidated wooden outbuildings & a pile of railroad ties in the backyard
  • A burnt field encompassing the Indian Valley Fire Department’s Mesa Station
  • The gravel pit across from the turnout to the Adams County Landfill on Mesa Hill
  • A highway sign saying “Middle Fork Weiser River” hanging upside down on its post
  • Two closed pizza parlors in Council
  • The Old Adams County Courthouse on Courthouse Hill in Council; the windows are covered with sheets of plywood that high school kids painted with portraits of the town’s founders
  • The old “Zenith” sign at Sam’s TV & Electric—the Z is shaped like an electrical charge from an old cartoon
  • The tank in the Council Peace Park, with its turret trained on the new Adams County Courthouse
  • The white corrugated buildings of Adams County Rodeo Grounds
  • Various sheds with corrugated siding
  • Cows, horses, llamas, sheep, goats, mules one alpaca (ours), one burro (not ours)
  • The white house (with red tin roof) Dani thought of buying on the Weiser River in Glendale, with a smiley face painted on one of those humungous old satellite dishes in the yard
  • Deer crossing Highway 95, then hurling themselves up the sheer canyon banks
  • Ground squirrels (Idaho chipmunks) zig-zagging across the highway
  • Flaggers wearing fluorescent green vests & orange baseball caps
  • Log trucks
  • Trailer trucks
  • Lots of pine trees
  • Lots of Dodge pick-ups
  • Manufactured homes (in two sections on flatbeds) taking up their lane & some besides
  • Old concrete railroad bridges near Strawberry & Tamarack
  • Lots of heavy equipment—all kinds
  • The Tamarack sawmill, forklifts chugging across the highway, humungous piles of tree-length logs sprayed black with jets of water to prevent splitting, & the cogen furnace belching out white smoke
  • Canadian Geese on inlets of the Little Salmon River
  • Fields overrun with purple lustrife (quite a handsome noxious weed) south of New Meadows
  • An L shaped configuration of small “houses” (about the size of a commercial storage shed, but home-made & painted various colors) with a stone angel in their midst
  • The Old PIN Line Depot in New Meadows
  • A cattle truck parked by a softball field
  • Adams County Commissioner Bill Brown ambling down the main street of New Meadows wearing a baseball cap & sporting a resplendent white fu manchu
  • A house with a lot of old appliances & two Harleys in the yard
  • A brown & white dog who always lies down right next to Highway 55 in Old Meadows, but has been doing this for several years, & so must be savvy enough to stay off the road
  • U-Haul trailers parked in the lot of a feed store
  • Switchbacks on the climb up the Goose Creek Canyon grade, with sheer rock walls to the west & the black & white cascade of Goose Creek to the east
  • A sign saying “Valley County elevation 5324 feet”
  • Two stoplights (both in McCall)
  • The McCall High School
  • The McCall airport
  • The McCall Radio Shack
  • Lots of Subarus
  • Hot pink plastic flamingoes outside a nursery
  • Red barns & metal silos
  • An osprey nest on a telephone pole, often with adult ospreys & their young
  • A restaurant named “Buffalo Gal”—what happened to the other “Gals?”


Thursday, September 18, 2008

“The Wizard of the Strings”


It’s odd how some people & some phenomena just go invisible—for instance, the banjo & mandolin orchestras that were so popular 100 years ago have not only dwindled (in the U.S. at least) to a handful of revivalists, but have pretty much slipped entirely from the cultural memory.

Of course this happens with people, too. People may be quite innovative & talented in a given field, but then for some reason become largely forgotten in terms of the culture as a whole. One such fellow who fits this bill is “the Wizard of the Strings,” Roy Smeck.

Smeck was a musician who combined amazing virtuosic technique with wonderful panache & style. Eberle says she thinks his greatest strength is the sense of humor he brings to his playing, & the way he makes the instrument itself the performer. That seems like a real sound analysis to me—because once you get used to the breathtaking speed at which Smeck is capable of playing, you’re aware that there’s a lot more to
him than that. While playing very fast is virtuosic, just playing fast by itself isn’t necessarily great music. With Smeck, everything is compellingly musical. He has a great sense of swing, & an all-around musicality.

Smeck was born in Reading, PA in 1900, & lived to the ripe old age of 94. In fact, Smeck performed pretty much right up to the end of his life. Another thing I like about Roy is he endorsed the “people’s brand” of instruments—Harmony— & even used Harmony guitars & ukes in performance.

Now, I speak of myself musically as a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none;” Smeck on the other hand not only played more than one instrument, he played four of them at the very highest level: the ukulele, the tenor banjo, the guitar, & the Hawaiian or lap steel guitar. The techniques for all four of these instruments are quite different—Smeck flat-picked the guitar & the tenor banjo, used fingerpicks on the lap steel (which also is “fretted” with a steel, not one’s fingers), & used the old vaudeville thumb strum & finger rolls on the uke. Also, these four instruments are all tuned differently. His achievement in this regard is mind-boggling.

But Smeck took things further. He began his career in the vaudeville era, when a person who played these types of instruments was expected to be a singer as well—especially if he was performing as a solo act or a front man; & appa
rently, Smeck simply couldn’t sing. So in order to get bookings & have a successful career, Smeck devised all sorts of trickery in addition to his virtuosity. These included: playing instruments behind his head, playing a harmonica in his mouth (no harmonica holder! —by the way, don’t try this at home!) while playing the uke, playing with his teeth, beating out rhythm on various parts of the instrument & so forth.

Smeck was also an innovator in a couple of other important ways. He experimented with multi-track recording several years before Les P
aul, though Paul is more or less credited with being the innovator of this technology (no knock on Paul, who is—last I knew he was still playing in his 90’s! —a brilliant guitar player & less well-known than he should be overall). Smeck also was involved in early sound pictures—before The Jazz Singer (1927), Smeck made several short films where a record of his playing was “synched” with the onscreen action. You can see & hear the remarkable His Pastimes (1926) here on YouTube. Seriously, do not miss this 7:45 film that shows Smeck playing first the 8-string Hawaiian steel guitar, then the uke (anyone who thinks the uke is “easy” should concentrate on this segment), then uke & harmonica, & finally the tenor banjo. Through it all Smeck seems relaxed (you have to be relaxed to play that fast), & having a great time. This video has been on YouTube since ’06, so I’m hoping it’ll be around for a good long while to come.

If you want to check out Roy Smeck on cd, these days your best bet is “Roy Smeck Plays Hawaiian Guitar, Banjo, Ukulele and Guitar” on the Yazoo label. The cd was issued in ’92, but the performances on it were recorded between 1926 & 1949. Obviously, you're gonna get some pops & hisses with recordings of this vintage, but overall the sound is quite clean. To my mind there are no “bad” cuts on this album—two that really stand out are “Tiger Rag,” where Smeck plays the tenor banjo at just about supersonic speed
, & his hilarious steel guitar take on “Shuffle off to Buffalo” (the latter cut has a vocalist—not Smeck, of course—but the rest are instrumentals). This cd is pretty widely available at all the usual online suspects—& no doubt at your fine local record shop, assuming you live within less than a couple of hours of one.

It’s also worth mentioning that Smeck published instruction books for all the instruments he played, & also took on a number of students over the years. I have a copy of his “Ragtime Banjo For Tenor or Plectrum Banjo” (co-written with Mel Bay—so I guess you know who sells it). It’s a fairly difficult book (lots of chord melody, with single string passages thrown in)—I plug away at it (sometimes rather grimly) in those odd moments when I pull the tenor banjo out—but it contains some great tunes (standard notation only, no tab), several of them written by Smeck (the rest are arrangements of Joplin rags).


Anyway, however you do it, check out Roy Smeck
—you won’t be sorry!