Saturday, February 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Bette Hayes!


Today is my mom’s birthday—she turns 93 years young! Now that’s a lot of years. Think historically for a moment: what were things like in 1916? The First World War was raging; a lot of folks in the country (which covered way more territory than it does at present) still used the horse & buggy for transportation. The age of radio had yet to dawn—my mother still talks about how her family would gather around the radio in the evenings when one did come into her home.

She has mentioned to me that she has a memory of Armistice Day—she says people took to the streets banging pots & pans in celebration of “the War to End All Wars” coming to an end. She saw the transition to automobiles; lived thru the Great Depression & the New Deal; saw World War II from the West Coast, where blackouts in anticipation of air raids were a regular occurrence—not to mention rationing. She witnessed the beginning of the TV age, the turmoil of the 60s, saw the moon walk (I know that, because I was there watching it too), & has seen the rise of computers, the turn of a new millennium & the election of an African-American man as president.

& of course, there are so many memories on a personal level. She & my father were married in November of 1941 & remained married until his death in November 2005; a full 64 years of marriage. She visited every one of the 50 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Great Britain & Ireland, & Morocco. She lived in the Boston area growing up, & lived in the Bay Area, in San Leandro, during World War II (my father was stationed in the Pacific—he served in the Seabees). Later they lived in Ventura, then made the long drive back east to Vermont, my Dad’s home state. They built a home together on the GI Bill (& with my father’s excellent carpentry skills), where my sister & I were raised. In retirement, they moved to Florida for a milder climate & lots of fishing. For the past year, my mother has returned to the Boston area to be close to my sister & her family.


Longevity is something we all hope for—it’s difficult to think about the extinction of our “self.” Of course, such longevity comes with a price—the price of losing loved ones & friends. My mother has always persevered thru this with her characteristic Yankee grit & stoical outlook. Although she’s in her 90s, she continues to read voraciously, work on the Sunday Times crossword, keep busy with various sewing projects, & has even taken up drawing thru classes at the place she lives.

So: happy birthday, Ma—this post is just a token of Eberle & my respect for the life you’ve led. We all love you lots!

Top pic: My mother at a mere 82 trying to start a snowball fight. This was taken in June of 1998 at about 7,000 feet on the road between McCall & Burgdorf.

Second pic: My mother & father’s wedding portrait, November 1941

Third pic: from l-r: my sister Naomi, myself (qua hippie ne’er-do-well), my mother & father in December 1974 on a snowshoe excursion in Vermont. Pic was taken by my brother-in-law, Mort Rosenberg.

Fourth pic: Christmas 1986 in Westminster, VT: My niece Jessie, my brother-in-law Mort Rosenberg, my sister Naomi, my nephew Ethan, my very own self, my mother & my father

“Love—thou art high”


February is about to dip below the horizon, so here’s the last in our series of poems about love. This one’s by Emily Dickinson, & it’s a fine (if somewhat less well known) example of her poetic technique & thinking. The images & language are completely her own; for instance, the somewhat standard trope of two lovers rowing the boat of their love becomes transformed both by the phrase “sovereign Summer” & by the fact that their destination is—in potential at least—“the Sun.”

& also in characteristic fashion, Dickinson takes the poems conceits to a deep place—the final stanza is filled with darkness: “Smile—and alter—and prattle—and die.” The last three lines also seem fruitfully enigmatic—the words “Oddity” & “Nicknamed” carry connotative weight & can lead our readerly minds into poetic thinking. It’s worth noting that “Oddity” is a rhyming word, & as such is “underlined” & matched with “Eternity.”

A couple of notes: “Chimborazo” is an Ecuadorian volcano
. Because the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, the summit of Chimborazo is actually the surface point furthest from the earth’s center. “Ducal” means “Duke-like”—i.e., “royally.”

Hope you enjoy this profound meditation on love:

Love — thou art high —
I cannot climb thee —
But, were it Two —
Who knows but we —
Taking turns — at the Chimborazo —
Ducal — at last — stand up by thee —

Love — thou are deep —
I cannot cross thee —
But, were there Two
Instead of One —
Rower, and Yacht — some sovereign Summer —
Who knows — but we'd reach the Sun?

Love — thou are Veiled —
A few — behold thee —
Smile — and alter — and prattle — and die —
Bliss — were an Oddity — without thee —
Nicknamed by God —
Eternity —

Emily Dickinson

Friday, February 27, 2009

Musical Questions—with Yours Truly?!?


Not a joke—this Sunday’s Musical Questions installment will be done by the rather pensive looking guy with the guitar in the pic to the right; namely, me. Contrary to what I wrote late last year, my taking a Musical Questions slot doesn’t signal an end to the series, tho we might be in a little bit of a lull. There are interviews circulating with some good musicians, & I also have some thoughts about ways to expand the series. This just seemed like a good time for me to step in.

In a way, I’d hoped to get some of my new solo stuff recorded before this, but just haven’t gotten to that, & in all honesty, I’d rather get the solo material tightened up thru performance before I do much recording. I’ve been a guy who played in bands, often in a support role, so the solo turn is a big & exciting departure; actually had my first gig earlier today amongst a whole bunch of kids (& parents) at the Council library. It was a hoot—Eberle came along in a teaching role, & we had them singing & clapping along to numbers like “Frog Went A-Courtin’,” “Boll Weevil Blues,” “C-H-I-C-K-E-N” & “Whoa Mule Get Up in the Alley.” Anyway, you can check out one of my songs from an earlier incarnation in the video clip below. It’s an improvisation on a scale known as “the enigmatic scale.” I came up with this as part of the soundtrack for
Moominpappa at Sea last summer; for those familiar with that story, this music was used the first time a strange character named “the Groke” appears on the lighthouse island. I’m playing a solid body electric guitar (for those who don’t know, this is what you see of when you think “electric guitar”) & Eberle provided a lovely backing on the cocktail drum kit. We had a nice time recording this song, & hope you enjoy it too. Sunday I’ll post a clip of me playing a solo on the eponymous banjo.

So if you’re in the mood Sunday morning, it’ll be Musical Questions with me. But also be sure to check out tomorrow’s Weekly Poem & a special Saturday afternoon post.

Thursday Playlist on Friday AM #5

Yesterday morning was wild—a savage northwest wind sent rain rattling against the tin roof & the windows, & hurtling thru the willows. By the time I headed out to the car to begin the drive to Donnelly, the rain had turned to other things—ice, sleet, hail, snow—& highway 95 was transmogrified to a long narrow skating rink. By the time I started climbing to the higher elevations northeast of Council, the snow started to accumulate & conditions generally looked somewhat more somber & wintry than the freakish storm back in Indian Valley. It was a slow & nervy drive, but I reached Donnelly intact, & only a few minutes late for my 9:00 appointment.

Given the conditions, it’s perhaps best that I took a sharp turn in my playlist from the intensity of Son House & Buell Kazee—this week was just about fun music. In keeping with
that, the sun was shining brilliantly for most of the drive home in the early afternoon.

Leon Redbone: From Branch to Branch (Atco)

1. (Mama’s Got a Baby Named) Tee-Na-Na
2. Hot Time (In The Old Town Tonight)

3. Sweet Mama Papa's Getting Mad
4. Step It Up And Go
5. Your Cheatin' Heart
6. Seduced
7. Why
8. My Blue Heaven
9. Extra Blues
10. When You Wish Upon A Star
11. Prairie Lullaby

All three cds I’ll talk about today have some similarities—they’re all (more or less
) contemporary interpreters of old time material ranging from traditional blues & ragtime to tin pan alley & beyond. They all also have a knack for arranging this material in a way that makes it their own; & most importantly, none of them take the music too seriously—they all give the impression of having lots of fun.

Leon Redbone is probably the best known of the three artists/groups under consideration (certainly better known than the Heftones, & I believe Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, tho popular in the 60s & early 70s, have fallen below the radar now). I’ve always admired Redbone on a few levels: his repertoire is enviable: the song list on From Branch to Branch is simply fantastic. The arrangements on his recordings are invariably interesting, & he gets some great sidemen—on this recording, I’d particularly point out the four different clarinet players (Jim Rothermel, Bobby Gordon, Victor Morosco & Jack Maheu), & tuba players Jonathon Dorn & Jim Self. I was actually surprised that two different producers worked on this album—seven tracks by Joel Dorn, four tracks by Beryl Handler (with Redbone’s assistance)—simply because the tracks all seem of a piece. They have a distinct & memorable sound.

Of course a big part of that sound is the one constant: Redbone’s quirky & oddly satisfying singing voice. It seems to me that Leon Redbone is one singer who has figured out
very well what he does best & then proceeded to play to that strength consistently. The quality is hard to define: there’s a relaxed quality to his voice, & a playfulness—verging on wackiness at times. He also picks material that he can make his own, even tho “on paper” it might seem quirky: the old ragtime blues “Step It Up & Go,” the Hank Williams’ chestnut, “Your Cheating Heart” (with piano & tuba!) & the more contemporary “Seduced” running back-to-back? It works, as does the transition from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Prairie Lullaby.”

In fact, to my ear there aren’t any weak cuts on this album. If you don’t know Leon Redbone’s work, this is a great introductory album (as is also Warner Brothers’ On the Track).

The Fabulous Heftones: Moon June Spoon (Heftone Records)


1. When You Wore a Tulip
2. By the Light of the Silvery Moon
3. A Little Birch Canoe & You
4. Shine on Harvest Moon
5. Come Josephine in My Flying Machine

6. In the Moonlight
7. Ida Sweet as Apple Cider
8. When You Steal a Kiss or Two
9. In the Valley of the Moon
10. In the Starlight
11. When I Looked in Your Wonderful Eyes
12. Three O’Clock in the Morning
13. For Me & My Gal
14. Aba Daba Honeymoon
15. The Love Nest

For obvious reasons, Eberle & I have a fascination with duos—we love combos like the Darkwood Consort & the Great Auk for instance. But I suppose there’s an even deeper fasci
nation with musical duos who are also a couple in the usual sense of the word, as is the case with Brian & Lynn Hefferan of the Fabulous Heftones.

The Fabulous Heftones are well known in the ukulele community, & sadly not too much anywhere else. You won’t find this cd in your run-of-the-mill cd emporium, & you won’t find it on some of the well-known online outlets. You can purchase it from the best music store I know of (for instruments & gear & a good cd selection, too) Elderly Instruments.

The Hefferans, like Redbone, know their strengths & play to them. Brian Hefferan is a talented uke picker (also a very good banjoist), while Lynn drives the songs using a unique instrument known as a Heftone—it’s a BIG bass banjo (see the video below). Both the Hefferans sing, & they bring a lot of enthusiasm & joy to performances of these lovely old tunes. I get a kick out of the album title, because it’s strikes me as playfully subversive—there was a time when “Moon June Spoon” was shorthand for all that was wrong wit
h Tin Pan Alley music. We’ve moved thru a number of musical forms since, & now the Hefferans are back to capture all that’s right with this music: its verve, its humor & its tenderness. Their song selection is very good: they range from the most well-known of these old tunes (e.g., “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”) to some fairly obscure cuts. One thing that's fun even in the best known songs: the Heftones always sing the verse as well as the chorus; in the case of all these songs the verses have long since passed from popular memory, so that adds to the freshness of their presentation.

If you like uke playing or just really high-spirited & fun old time songs, this cd should be for you.

Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band: Jug Band Music (Vanguard)


1. Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me
2. Jug Band Music
3. I'm A Woman
4. Morning Blues
5. Vamp Of New Orleans (Sadie Green)
7. Don't You Leave Me Here
8. Somebody Stole My Gal

9. K. C. Moan
10. Good Time Charlie
11. Jug Band Waltz
12. Whoa Mule Get Up In The Alley
13. Memphis
14. Ukulele Lady
15. Rag Mama

Speaking of good times & fresh takes on old tunes, you can’t get much better than Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band. This group came out of the Boston Area in the mid 60s & included banjoist Bill Keith, & both Geoff & Maria Muldaur (née Maria D’Amato). There’s just so much to like about this band: as with Redbone & the Heftones, the repertoire is fantastic, & there’s some marvelous playing—Keith on banjo, of course, Mel Lyman on harmonica, & Fritz Richmond blowing the jug (in Lyman’s words, “& I mean he can really blow a jug”) & plucking the washtub bass, & other folks blowing any number of kazoos. At their best, the arrangements are amazing—a tight mixture of voices & guitars & banjos & kazoos & percussion with the jug laying down a stomping beat—check out “Vamp of New Orleans” or “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me” (just two examples). There are a few quibbles one could make: primarily—if I were in a band with Maria Muldaur, I’d want her as lead vocalist on more than one song on a recording; but she does tear up the Leiber & Stoller number, “I’m A Woman” (ably assisted by Lyman’s harmonica). & there’s one song on the album I just never quite bought, which is Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”: interesting to do it as a jug band tune, & it’s true that in some sense Berry came out of a tradition that dated back to the jug bands, but to my ear at least it doesn’t quite come off. Otherwise there’s so much fun to be had here: the delightfully over-the-top “Ukulele Lady,” the beautiful “Jug Band Waltz,” the foot-stomping glee of “Somebody Stole My Gal,” & a personal favorite, “Whoa Mule Get Up in the Alley.”

If you’ve missed Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band over the years, do yourself a favor & give them a listen.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Music Teacher's Notebook #3


I’m putting on my music teacher’s hat again today (is that the GCEA baseball cap or the Pendleton?) , & I’ll take my music teacherly thoughts in a bit of a different direction this go around, & focus on the physicality of playing a musical instrument.

If “I played it much better at home” is the most common phrase music teachers hear from their students, then perhaps the second most common has to do with any number of physical reasons why someone can’t play an instrument. Their fingers are too short or too long or their fingers don’t stretch far enough or their pinky is too weak &/or un-coordinated. A related observation from students is they don’t “have” the elusive thing we might call an “ear for music.” Oftentimes this has become ingrained from childhood music experiences, either from early attempts to learn an instrument or from childhood singing (which people often don’t realize is also “playing an instrument,” & as such also requires work).

I’m here to tell you that none of these reasons are valid in about 99.999% of all cases. Of course, if a person has certain actual disabilities from accidents, birth or disease (such as arthritis), these may present significant roadblocks—tho I recall a very inspiring post at Pat Costello’s Tangier Sound blog where he demonstrated how even a person with a prosthesis could play a banjo using a slide; the same would be true for a guitar in an open tuning. A dear friend of ours who played guitar from her teens well into her 70s can’t form guitar chords effectively any more due to arthritis—but rather than giving up on music, she’s taken up the baritone ukulele, which is less demanding in terms of hand strength & mobility. She plays well, & continues to enjoy music.

So even in extreme cases, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” But again, these sorts of considerations don’t apply to the great majority of folks who want to learn an instrument. Just speaking for the instruments I know best—fretted stringed devices—considerations such as hand/finger size are factors to be worked with, not factors that exclude the possibility of playing & playing well. As an example: my students see me fret certain chords & wonder how my little finger “stretches like that” (more on that in a moment). But on the other hand, my fingers are about as undouble-jointed as fingers can be. Certain guitar chord shapes can be facilitated by having double-jointed fingers—does that mean I can’t play the guitar? No, it means I work with my physical capabilites.

It’s also important to realize that physical capabilities aren’t fixed in stone. The first time a person tries to hit a baseball or knit a scarf or ride a horse or bicycle, there are new physical skills to be learned, because our bodies don’t employ these skills (at least in a coordinated way) in everyday life outside of specific activities. There’s no difference with playing a guitar, etc. Guitar chord shapes & scale shapes involve moving your fingers in ways that people don’t use for other activities. The way to make your fingers & hands comfortable with these positions & motions is thru studied repetition—(i.e., “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”). The reason my left pinky stretches more easily than a novice guitar student is that I’ve “built up” to that. As a teacher, I actually discourage students from trying to stretch too far until their hands can do this without anything but the mildest amount of discomfort. My wife Eberle who, as regular readers here know, teaches piano, always remarks on how uncomfortable a number of guitar chord shapes look. This is true for the novice player, but doesn’t continue to be true because of two very important physical considerations.

These considerations are comfort & relaxation, & they’re born both from practice & from general good physical routines—because postures & other techniques that allow for comfort & relaxation are far more important than the size or agility of fingers, or even the development of a musical ear when a person is in the initial stages of playing an instrument. Both Eberle & I believe relaxation is absolutely crucial to effective musicianship. Of course it isn’t always straightforward how to impart relaxation from teacher to student.

As a bottom line, we certainly want to get as far as possible from the days of music teachers slamming books around, as Scott Houston described in his Musical Questions spot, so a friendly, relaxed & interested attitude is important. Some sort of warm-up before playing helps—I have to admit I’m not as good about this I could be. I do try to keep a pretty informal atmosphere (the majority of my students are adults), & I do like to catch up with students in conversation when they arrive & give them some time to settle in. These are things that create a relaxed atmosphere. But there are also things to watch for & to help students with in terms of posture & body motion.

Where does tension accumulate in the body? In the shoulders, in the back, & in the joints. Although we may see the occasional rock “guitar hero” playing in a video with his shoulders raised in a tensed position, this is simply not a good practice. Relaxed shoulders are crucial to a relaxed physical performance of most any sort. The same goes for the back. Sometimes students tend to lean forward when playing the guitar, but this sort of “intense” position doesn’t typically translate to “instense” playing—just “tense” playing.

The important thing, whether one is playing sitting down or standing, is to feel “grounded.” Both Eberle & I like doing some basic Tai Chi, & one of the big principles in this exercise is establishing “root,” or a connection with the earth. While I certainly don’t believe Tai Chi is necessary for guitar playing, it does make you aware of bodily tensions. These tensions do disrupt our groundedness & they do affect our playing & overall musicianship. Of course, this is also the truth behind “I played it better at home”; at home, you’re typically more grounded than when visiting someone’s house. It’s also the truth behind the fact that most musicians (except for those at the highest levels) are well-advised to scale back a notch from what they might try while woodshedding when they’re playing a gig.

Another Tai Chi principle that applies to guitar & similar instruments (& probably other instruments as well) is what’s called “beautiful lady’s wrists.” In Tai Chi, movement thru the wrist should always be relaxed & supple & graceful. Ditto for the guitar. If you watch a real master guitarist (Doc Watson comes to mind) you see the grace of his wrist motion—& also the economy of his motion. The larger the physical motion, the more margin for error. In baseball, one of the most common causes of ineffective hitting is too much motion while swinging the bat—in particular this can cause the head to move, & it also can transfer one’s fulcrum point away from the hips. In guitar, driving a strumming or picking motion from the elbow rather than the wrist has a similar effect—for all the theatricality of Pete Townsend’s windmill strum, it’s simply not an efficient model for guitar playing! Instead, the right hand (assuming a right-handed player) should be relaxed (not clenched), & the motion should be almost one of gravity letting the wrist fall & then allowing the hand to rise naturally & loosely from that fall.

These are simply some considerations for either a teacher or student; but it’s important for us teachers to be aware of a student’s motions & postures, & for all of us as players to be aware of our own. Of course, even those non-musician types can get some good benefits from this sort of body awareness—& a 20-minute Tai Chi exercise can do wonders for your sense of well-being.

By the by: those interested in thoughtful discussions about teaching music really should visit Chris Wolf's excellent blog, Piano Posts. I invariably learn some good things when I visit.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

That D****d Mob of Scribbling Women


(Here’s another installment in the “Women’s Art is Women’s Work” series. In this section, Eberle discusses the community of women writers in the 18th & 19th centuries—so be sure to keep checking back for more installments.)

One way to know for sure what’s been important in the past is to look at what’s been left out of history. Women’s writing has had a curious tendency to get pushed out of sight, but the trail of ruffled feathers it has left behind can be traced across the centuries.

In 1855, a well-known male author complained to his publisher a
bout the “damned mob of scribbling women,” as he referred to the American women writers of his day. Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t think highly of the best-sellers penned by women; however, his main worry was not about their literary quality, but about the way they might cut into the sales of his own books.

America is now wholly given over to a d****d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash--and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumberable editions of The Lamplighter and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1855)

For a long time, writing was largely an old boys’ club, created by limiting education to men and by establishing criteria that effectively excluded women, granting privileged status to the male perspective—a writer had to know Greek and read the classics, had to be able to “see life.” And “seeing life” was conveniently defined more along the lines of visiting prostitutes than being one, for example-- or giving birth or raising a garden or learning how to make elderberry wine. Mary Astell (1666-1731) was one of the first to make a plea for higher education for women in her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of True and Greatest Interest (1696). It was published anonymously and proposed the foundation of an academic community for women. Although her idea attracted some enthusiastic support, men in positions of power opposed the idea.

Howev
er, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a literary revolution began to threaten the dominant status of the educated and wealthy male author. Writers from outside that privileged sanctum were finding publishers and, what was worse, they were finding hordes of readers. Ever since women began penning novels, efforts have been made to write them out of history. Gallons of ink went toward the project of explaining just why it was that women couldn’t write anything worth reading. None of that verbiage, though, solved the most troubling problem with women writers: their success.

In spite of
success, women writers could sometimes get annoyed at the constant belittling of their work. In Northanger Abbey (1818) Jane Austen lashed out unsparingly at criticisms of novels, most of which were being written by women:

Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensiv
e and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

Jane specifically describes writers and readers of novels as being women— holding up the works of Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney and their readers as examples. In contrast to these, Jane heaps scorn onto the work of “the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne,” commenting that the praise these men receive in contrast to women novelists is not always in proportion to their worth.

Jane makes a separation between the work of male and female au
thors and there is ample cause for this separation. Women, it has been noted, often seem to speak a different language than men. When women first became novelists they continued this tradition, speaking to each other in ways that men did not readily interpret. They wrote in a kind of code strewn with bustles and buttonhooks, where a bonnet could be a secret weapon and a scrub-brush give a heroine the courage to finally speak her mind.

The everyday mechanics of the household made up much of the material these women writers used to comment on the world around them. They wrote in this shared language, giving each other hints and help, analyzing society and behavior from this shared perspective. Many of the ways they spoke to each other were invisible to those unfamiliar with the intricate map of the domestic landscape. And so, dear reader, to find your way through scullery and armoire, the airing closet and the spring house, to become initiated into the secrets of pelisses and pariahs—read on.

Elderb
erry wine is particularly associated with spinsters—an association that is a remnant of the days when spinsters were not only making wine but herbal remedies and potions and sometimes credited with magic. In addition to wine, preparations of shoots, bark, and root of the elderberry tree were described in seventeenth century books on medicines. Also known as Lady Elder, the tree has ancient associations with magic. Elder wands were hung in doorways of houses and barns to drive away enchantment. Norse mythology tells of the Hyldemoer, or Elder Tree Mother-- the spirit who lives in the Elder tree, watches over it, and can take revenge if violence is done to the tree. Hawthorne and some of his colleagues wrote about witchcraft—but you can bet bustles to broomsticks they never learned how to make elderberry wine.


Eberle Umbach
© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009

Pix are all PD images from Wiki Commons; from top:
Jane Austen
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Title Page to A
Serious Proposal to the Ladies
Title Page to the 1818 edition of
Northanger Abbey & Persuasion
Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra Austen
Maria Edgeworth
Fanny Burney
An illustration by Lorenz Frølich from Hans Christian Andersen's story about the Hyldemoer

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

“Love Song #57”

Another poem by yours truly, this one also dating back to the early 90s in San Francisco. To quote poet Charles Bernstein, “if it’s in prose, there’s a good chance/it’s a real poem.” I believe this piece was influenced structurally by a Hugh Sykes Davies’ poem I posted a while back on Robert Frost’s Banjo.

This is a bit of a “dark” poetic outing
a common occurrence for me in the 90s—but hope you enjoy it.

Love Song #57

It was one of those nights the wind has lots of hands all groping for 16th notes the turntable spits out spinning off whistling black lips without any body— they sounded like a clarinet wheezing a kiss through exsanguinating teeth & it emanates from this birdcage that's in fact a wire mannequin's pelvis & there're no sleeping parakeets there, there's only a radio perched on the edge of a precipice & a pair of mirror sunglasses looking lonesome without a face;

& each hand gestured desperately like the hotel's curtains, & just as
out-of-breath & as stitched at the wrists, because one night at the same time Gwendoline snatched the pentangle down through the curtains thinking eternity & the Sunday Funnies as well as I want a blue ballpoint— which is nothing if not blue blue eyeballs exsanguinating— they'd come to realize they were not so happy as everybody thought they must be;

& each hand had a few too many blue blue eyeballs bursting the seams i.e. the lifeline, the loveline, they looked like paper napkins folded into hats transformed to the Sunday Funnies folded into hats— as if some stupendous haberdashery had been turned
upside-down & shaken through the curtains & then over the edge of the precipice;

& there wasn't much wine left & what there was tasted like combs & paper napkins & Gwendoline's blue blue eyeballs, it tasted like dried roses in a Mexican chapel, except it was white— & Jackson sat slumped on the edge of the bed because he'd come to realize he was not so happy as everybody thought he must be, in fact he was
out-of-breath like a turntable & had had a few too many, he was a sleeping parakeet caged in a mannequin's wire pelvis & at the same time slouching without a face inside his raincoat;

& as I was saying there wasn't much wine left behind in that hotel with stupendous curtains & what there was swarmed with spongilla & ciliata & hydrozoan polyps & of course flagella enacting a tableau from this Pompeian fresco emanating halos & combs & whirling black lace personal things stitched at the wrists, or was it actually the Sunday Funnies folded into hats;

& Gwendoline sat on the edge of the bed, the bed was a turntable whirling black lace personal things on a stiffened finger, & these things were actually black lips whistling without a face, & as I was saying this turntable it was spinning 16th notes into long black hairs combed straight through teeth through an out-of-breath clarinet;

& that clarinet spit up bloody teeth, it was the kind of kiss Gwendoline recoiled from tasting, all spongilla & ciliata & hydrozoan polyps & also this exsanguinating rose halo— she thought she must have been drunk in a Mexican chapel, & she was tired already from resuscitating so many suffering bastards;

& Gwendoline wondered what she should do with her hands, they were desperate gestures stitched at the wrists— or were those actually stitches or were they pentangles Jackson's blue blue ballpoint had inked in at the same time he was thinking paper napkins or 16th notes, because he was perched on the edge of eternity like a hat;

because it was one of those nights the wind has lots of teeth, when everybody realizes they're not so happy as everybody thought they must be, i.e. they would be headless mannequins sleeping in a Mexican chapel except they're white & unresuscitated, & Jackson's wheezing drunk on the edge of the bed, he's slouched inside his raincoat & at the same time recoiling from flagella's long black lifelines & lovelines stitched into the Sunday Funnies among the suffering bastards;

& Gwendoline sat on the edge of the bed, she was a radio perched on the edge of a precipice, which was in fact as like eternity as the hotel's curtains transformed to mirrored sunglasses, or was it pentangles the black lips spit up— because at the same time she realized she was not so happy as everybody thought she must be, i.e. she could not in fact be a halo, because Jackson's folded into a hat & stitched at the wrists & she's the flagellation tableau from a Pompeian fresco which is actually the Sunday Funnies upside-down in a birdcage;

& there wasn't much wine left & what was undrunk was actually exsanguinating roses & as I was saying it got shaken out like black lace personal things when the turntable's transformed to wind amongst lots of whirling hands, except the wine was white though it tasted like a raincoat & at the same time Jackson was perched without a face on the edge of a precipice like a 16th note groping for a kiss;

& Gwendoline wondered what she should do with her hands.

John Hayes
© 1990-2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Fine Day Out #1 - Council, ID


(Pic Caption: An old fire truck for the Council Rural Fire Department, an all-volunteer force. )

Hey, we’re starting yet another series here on Robert Frost’s Banjo. In the better months of the years, Eberle & I love to go on weekend jaunts, & we thought it would be fun to combine these jaunts with photos & stories for the blog. The Fine Day Out series won’t necessarily be appearing at fixed intervals, but it should be appearing often over the next several months.

Of course, to say that the weather in our area right now falls under the aegis of “better weather” is just plain wrong. The winter has been hanging on longer than usual (tho one thing I’ve learned in 11 winters in Indian Valley—there is no “usual” winter here); the mud is often as prominent in the landscape as the snow by late February, & sometimes there’s much more newly bare ground than snow by this time of year. Not in 2009, however. A combination of big snowstorms in late December thru early January & consistently cold weather since has left us with several inches still on the ground except on the steepest south & east-facing slopes.

With this lingering winter, Eberle & I were both suffering a bit of cabin fever yesterday, & we decided we needed a bit of a jaunt, even if just a short one. So with camera in hand, we headed up U.S. Highway 95 to Council, the next town up the road, & the county seat of Adams County, Idaho. At a population of just over 800, Council is the “big town” in Adams County. It was founded in 1873 by the Moser family. The Moser raised cows & hogs, & sold meat & butter to the miners working in the nearby Seven Devils Mountain range. The town got its name because local Native American tribes—the Nez Perce, the Umatillas & the Shoshone—used the area as a meeting place.















(Pic caption: The histori
c Adams County Courthouse—this building is on the National Register of Historic Places, & a group of tireless volunteers are working to restore the building for use as a community center. The group has received grant money from HUD & from the Idaho Department of Commerce, & things are looking quite hopeful for this old building. The building once contained both the courthouse & the jail, as well as all the County offices. Eberle & I have been involved in a couple of performances in the old courtroom, one of which was a screening of Nell Shipman’s Back to God’s Country, with the two of us playing our score live. This was very well-attended & received.)

Council is not an affluent town; it’s a place that has depended on various resource-base
d industries for an economy, & these industries have all pretty much “gone bust.” When the town was founded, its economy was based on the Seven Devils mining operations, but this industry died out many years ago. There was also the Pacific & Northern rail line (you can read more about the PIN line here), but that also has ceased operations; & the timber industry has seen a marked drop-off over the last 20-30 years. Council was especially hard-hit when Boise-Cascade closed its mill there in the 90s.

(Pic caption: Sadly, a lot of businesses have closed on the main street. Buckshot Mary’s was a marvelous curiosity shop, but the store went out of business a few years back & has yet to find anyone to purchase the property.)

Eberle & I hope you enjoy this short tour of Council; we had a blast wandering around town (especially before the rather raw wind came up) & taking pictures. As the weather improves, our Fine Days Out will of course venture much further afield.

The Ace Saloon—one of the few businesses open on a Sunday afternoon. The Ace is a popular watering hole, & also a karaoke hotspot. The building also houses the Branding Iron steakhouse, & has apartments upstairs.



Another building for sale. Two good businesses tried their hand at making a go of it in this fine old building—a combination café/used bookstore (with quite a nice selection—also a piano & a guitar available for use) & a pizza restaurant that served pretty good pies with interesting ingredients. Even our Bay Area friends spoke highly of the pizzas here. Neither business could make a go of it in the long run, however, & this building also has been on the market for some time.


The wonderful old Zenith sign at Sam’s TV & Electric. Sam's is a going concern, & has been a mainstay for years.
















The vet’s office. Of course large animal vets are in demand in any ranching town (tho a lot of ranchers do a good bit of the veterinary work themselves). In our case, the vet is also the mayor of Council; in fact, he performed the marriage ceremony for Eberle & me right in our garden one fine September day.

The People’s Theater was the town movie house, but its doors have been closed for a number of years; at this point, it appears that the building can’t be salvaged—a shame, because the People’s Theater dates back to the silent movie era. The daughter of the local newspaper editor used to play piano for the silents when they played there.

A local outbuilding, in better repair than many, & more decorated than most.















An alleyway running behind the defunct pizza place, past
Buckshot Mary’s, & finally into the parking lot of the local supermarket.







Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dad’s Photos #4

For Sunday: several more scans from my father’s photo album. Today’s pictures all date from 1938 during the summer he lived & worked in Bourne, MA (he was a cook at ther Bourne Howard Johnson’s. In fact, my father stayed loyal to the Howard Johnson’s franchise for years: as far back as I can remember, our family car trips invariably included a stop at the orange roof—for instance, whenever we drove down to Boston, we always ate at the Fitchburg, MA Howard Johnson’s.

In case you’ve missed previous installments of photos from my father’s photo album, you can find links to them on the side frame. The lead-off pic this time around was captioned, “Me, I’m a bust”—in fact, my father was quite athletic & was an excellent skater both on roller skates & ice skates.

Hope you enjoy—his cap
tions, as usual, are in italics:

Bourne Stand at Night

Main Dining Room

A Ride on the Cape Cod Canal

The School at Bourne

The Bourne Bridge


Onset Beach - not bad



Saturday, February 21, 2009

“The Garden of Love”

This week’s Weekly Poem is dedicated to our dear friends Audrey & Cheryl, whose marriage last year is now in jeapordy due to attempts to overturn such unions by backers of California Proposition 8. I realize this is an emotional issue, & that not all people will agree with my beliefs about this—possibly even some regular readers will disagree. I don’t post this to be inflammatory or to stir up controvery for its own sake. I have posted on my opposition to Proposition 8 in the past, & may well do so again in the future. I see it as a fundamental human rights issue. Other people may see it differently. Although I’m a married straight man, Proposition 8 has a very human face to me, & I see its consequences affecting the lives of people I hold dear. Because of this, I can’t in good consience keep silent.

Today’s poem is by the great British poet, William Blake, from his Songs of Experience, published in 1794. The only comment I’d make about the poem—which certainly can stand on its own—is that I don’t see Blake as “anti-religious” in “The Garden of Love.” Those who are familiar with Blake’s work will know that he was a man of profound religious feeling, tho his views were also profoundly heterodox. I do see the poem as “anti-institutional,” which to me is a very different thing. Many people I respect & care deeply about—including my dear wife, Eberle—are religious. I respect the qualities it brings to
their lives, especially when those qualities include peace & tolerance. Tolerance is an extremely important ideal to me—“live, & let live” (understanding that both parts of that adage are important). While this is an ideal we can only strive to attain—I fail too often myself—it seems a crucial one to our individual & collective existence.

Hope you find this poem meaningful.

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore;

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briers my joys and desires.

William Blake

Cheryl, Audrey, Eberle & I in LA in 2000; regular readers here will remember Audrey's wonderful interview with Lesley Gore; I hope to post more of Audrey's writing in the future.

Friday, February 20, 2009

“Babette’s Feast”

I’m writing today about a film I love—sometimes not the easiest task, to transform that experience into black & white; & the film isn’t one of the screwball comedies Eberle & I enjoy so much. It’s a much more recent film, tho it was released over 20 years ago. As the post title says, it’s Babette’s Feast.

We were all much younger in 1987 when Babette’s Feast was released. I recall seeing the film at Vinegar Hill Theater in Charlottesville, VA in the late 80s, & I recall being moved, not just by Isak Dinessen’s tale of redemption, but by the film’s amazing lyricism, its invitation into a sort of adult fairy tale.

For those who haven’t yet experienced Babette’s Feast, the story involves two sisters, great beauties in their youth, who’ve followed the teachings of their strict Lutheran father, a pastor who has created his own sect of followers along the coast of Jutland. Although the sisters are courted in their youth & have two admirers in particular, they remain unmarried & continue to do good works & maintain their father’s teachings among an aging group of followers. A French woman, fleeing from the revolutionary bloodshed in late 19th century Paris comes to them, recommended by one of their old suitors, & becomes their cook. When this woman—Babette of the title, played with wonderful bearing & deep feeling by Stéphane Audran—wins the French lottery, she persuades the sisters to let her cook a real French gourmet dinner in honor of their father. Tho the sisters agree to this, they grow increasingly distressed at the sumptuous ingredients Babette is using, & even fear that the dinner may become “a witches sabbath.” One of the sisters gathers the small congregation together to express her fears, & they all agree not to find any pleasure in the food & drink.

Of course what happens is far different than that, because the story is about redemption, reconciliation, overcoming regret at the deepest level. As I’ve grown older, this aspect of the film speaks to me more & more; as I wander here on the north side of age 50, I can sometimes wander into the “land of regret” (a phrase used by Kimy of the delightful blog Mouse Medicine in a comment here once, & a phrase I think about quite often). Although I generally see myself as a man who is happy in his life & who believes that he’s been fortunate to come to this point, there’s always that stretch of past time filled with decisions—as the Catholics say, “what I have done & what I have failed to do”—that can arise almost insensibly in the heart; because as much as our physical existence is linear, moving from point to point, our experience as thinking & feeling creatures is repetitive & circular—a fact underscored by Babette’s Feast, which resonates with echoed scenes. One of the most noteworthy of these is General Lorens Löwenhielm’s moving speech about mercy & truth. General Löwenhielm courted one of the sisters, Martine, when he as a dashing young cavalry officer. Now having come to a position of worldly power, but also evincing a deep world-weariness as he returns to the home of his love after many years, we see the feast transform him. His speech runs as follows:

Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and shortsightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no. Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

This is such a moving moment; it actually echoes a scene from earlier in the story when young Löwenhielm was courting Martine, & Martine’s father made a short speech containing some of the same phrases. But while the world of that earlier time seemed full of impossibilities (as Löwenhielm tells Martine at the time), now it seems that “all things are possible” (as the older Löwenhielm tells Martine after the feast). The concept that we have been granted both what we’ve chosen & what we’ve rejected is profound, & while this obviously can be seen as pointing towards an after-life, I believe it also points toward life in the here & now—this seems clear from Löwenhielm’s statement: “in this beautiful world of our
s, all things are possible.” The film has a profound spirituality which stands apart from any specific belief system—both Eberle & I (a Catholic & a non-Christian) find the film equally affirming.

Part of this affirmation is the act of creation itself. Interestingly, both cookin
g & singing are ephemeral arts, & this underscores the doubling between Babette & the other sister, Fillipa. Fillipa is a gifted singer, & as a young woman she was courted by a famous French baritone who’d traveled to Jutland for a retreat into solitude. This man, Achille Papin, was very drawn to Fillipa both because of her beauty & also because of her amazing voice, & he offers to give her singing lessons. These lessons continue until the two sing the seduction duet from Don Giovanni—following this, Fillipa decides she can’t continue, & Papin leaves, heartbroken.

But it’s Papin who sends Babette to the sisters, & Babette, like Fillipa, is a woman whose artistry has been suppressed by circumstance—even, one might say, by fate. Without giving too much away, the film’s final moments—an interchange between Babette & Fillipa—echoes a scene between Fillipa & Papin, & underlines the redemptive power of art.

There are many lovely moments in this film, which i
s quiet both in terms of its deceptively simple story & also literally—there isn’t a lot of dialogue, so when characters speak, their words gather that much more weight. Henning Kristiansen’s cinematography is beautiful, & the film moves at a crisp pace under Gabriel Axel’s direction. Babette’s Feast won the 1988 Oscar in the Foreign Film category, & also won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for a non-English language film.

Those who are interested in the gourmet menu can find more information here & here.

If you haven’t seen Babette’s Feast, I’d strongly reco
mmend it; if you have, I can say this is a film that rewards repeated viewings. It's art that works its way into the heart.


& finally, many thanks to our dear friend Margot who gave us the DVD as a gift to replace our dearly departed VHS copy!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Welcome to Our World #2

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, here are some more pix from our music room here at Plum Alley Studios. Today’s photos concentrate more on Eberle’s side of things.

& in addition to the photos, there’s also a music clip/slideshow featuring one of Eberle’s beautiful compositions, with her at the piano. Like yesterday’s clip of me playing the mandocello, this is a solo piece, & also was c
omposed for our Moominpappa at Sea soundtrack. In a big departure from past projects, 20 of the 29 total tracks we recorded were solo performances by one or the other of us (they actually split up evenly), with only 9 tracks featuring duet playing.

Moominpappa at Sea is a book by the wonderful Finnish author Tove Jansson. Ms Jansson’s stories fall in that sublime class that truly can be enjoyed by young & old alike; I highly recommend her Moomin series. In this particular tale, the Moomins have left their beloved home in Moominvalley to take up residence in a lighthouse—mostly to satisfy what appears to be Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis. Among many things that happen to them on the island, Moominmamma misses her garden, & begins to paint it on the lighthouse walls, &…..

Well, you really should read the story, because all sorts of rich & strange things occur. But Eberle’s song was used for scenes where Moominmamma was recreating her garden in paint.

Hope you enjoy:

Eberle's bass standing in front of one of the music room wall hangings. Besides adding some color to the room, the textiles also cut down on the echo of reflective surfaces. Eberle plays & teaches the bass.














Eberle's marimba; this instrument, which was made by a fellow in northern California (sadly, I forget his name), has been a mainstay of our music from the days of the Alice in Wonder Band right thru to various recording projects we've done as Five & Dime Jazz & the Bijou Orchestrette. In origin, marimbas are African. This instrument has a lovely tone, & Eberle comes up with tremendous improvisations with mallets in hand.


The Rocking Horse Fly has been one of our musical mascots since we played music for the production of Alice in Wonderland in the spring of 1998. The figure was made by local artist Gayle Dixon, who creates amazing objects (including a whole series of masks). The curtain came to us thru the Alice in Wonder Band's singer, Deadre Chase, who's a gifted artist in textiles & with beads as well.





Eberle's conga & her cocktail drum kit. I wrote about the latter here; it's really a fantastic instrument.
The conga has a rich tone, & was given a workout in the Alice in Wonder Band days. Your truly built the bookshelf behind the drums, which is hung with Mardi Gras beads.


A djembe, an African drum, & an instrument that Eberle has used a lot over the years. At one time, Eberle had an all-woman drumming group called Tender Buttons; the djembe also has been played at various drumming circles, in the Wonder Band, & even at a Christmas Eve mass! Eberle also uses her hand drums to work with her music students on timing & rhythm.







I've never been much of an eBay shopper—in fact, I can count the items I've purchased there on one hand—but one nice item was this set of concert bells, which I bought Eberle for Valentine's Day some years back. Like the marimba, the bells add a wonderful musical accent, & they've gotten a lot of use. As you can see, Eberle plays them on a keyboard stand.









Eberle playing her Gemeinhardt flute. This instrument has a beautiful tone— more accurately, E
berle's very capable of bringing out the Gemeinhardt's singing tone. Lately we've been experimenting with flute on some old blues numbers like Reverend Gary Davis' "Death Don't Have No Mercy," & Eberle has a great feel for what the flute can bring to that type of music.







Ah, the melodica— in Eberle's hands this is really a soulful instrument. Eberle uses a 36-key Hohner: the "Cadillac of melodicas." The melodica employs metal reeds like the harmonica & accordion, & has that same haunting sound quality.

As an aside: barefeet in February? It's thanks to our radiant heating. You can get a bit of a sense in this picture what a beautiful job our contractor Bob George did in coloring & texturing the concrete floor.



Hope you enjoyed the music room tour. Be sure to give a listen to Eberle's piece in the slideshow!