A miscellany like Grandma’s attic in Taunton, MA or Mission Street's Thrift Town in San Francisco or a Council, ID yard sale in cloudy mid April or a celestial roadmap no one folded—you take your pick.
NOTEfromYOUR HOSTESS PINKY: We take a break from Pirate Goat's Log today to bring you exciting news! We are expecting an ambassadorial visit from Monster K (alias Poetikat) and the animals who live with her and her husband at Hyggehus in Ontario, Canada. Here's the lovely introduction we received to these intriguing animals:
Clockwise, starting with the bear with the bowtie: Teddy (under all that crocheted goodness, is the original orange plushy bear circa 1961. He came all the way from England!), Richard Parker, the tiger (with the huge head) He was rescued from a boulevard where he was awaiting the big, bad garbage truck!, Manny, the Manatee, Pablo, the big bear (in his BLUE period!), Eli, the Shepherd-lamb (on his head and holding baby, Isaac), Carl, the cardinal, Goody and Will (the Lemur Mom and baby from the thrift store of a similar name), Gordon, the Ram (he never swears though), Sergeant, the German Shepherd, Flo (Florence) and Pisa (He leans) the Boxers, Hobo, the shaggy dog, who came all the way from Texas, Hennessy, the Highland Cow, Footix, the Official mascot of the World Cup in France, 1998, Shingles, the sloth with Ewen, the lamb, Henri, the French Arctic Hare, and Hush, the Basset.
We are all very excited about being transported to Big-Bed Land. As you can see, our bed is rather small, especially since Richard Parker takes up so much room and when K-Monster gets those hot flashy things, she moves into this bed and then there's no room at all. Plus, the fluffy red, cat-monster always comes with her!
We can't wait to go to Pirate Island and to see the ladybugs and meet everybody! Thanks for not minding us inviting ourselves. We don't get out much and we can hardly sit still with anticipation!
SECOND NOTE FROM YOUR HOSTESS: You can visit our dear friend Kat! The Big Bed Land animals are so excited about the visit (after official negotiations, scheduled for Monday, Monster Time (MT)) that they asked Polar Knight to write a verse commemorating this historic event! Platypuss will be working out the details of how to arrange a tour for the Hyggehus representatives, and of course I'll be busy too, especially planning the menu! I wonder what they like best to eat in Hyggehus and if they have similar etiquette to ours. Our rule of table manners is one of the first things we teach the young arrivals to Big Bed Land, since there is only one rule and animals tend to grasp it fairly quickly: Have As Much As You Want Of Whatever You Like. We can't wait until Monday! Hope to see you all there!
Greetings from our Platypuss,
Ambassadors from Hyggehus!
The animals from Big Bed Land
Extend a friendly furry hand
and thank fair Monster K, a sweetie,
for this first international treaty!
We hope ‘twill be the first of many
Where peace and poems don’t cost a penny.
NOTE FROM POLAR KNIGHT(Bard of Big Bed Land): “Poems” in Big Bed Land are pronounced “Pomes.” But I still have some doubts about that last line. And Poetikat, I found your tea-cup poem very beautiful and inspiring. Tea-cups, I feel, are sadly overlooked in the hallowed annals of verse. Thanks!
While I'm here, I would also like to thank the One whom Platypuss calls Audrey, Pinky calls Aunt, and I call Phoenix. "Madam! You are a phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, & your Virtues innumerable."
Aunt Phoenix Audrey sent the wonderful postcard I am showing you. A good motto for any bard. Best wishes to any other bards out there!
A happy Banjo Friday to you, one & all. I just know you’re going to love today’s song!
Two weeks ago, I posted a video of Cathy Moore playing a medley of “Star of Munster” & “Greasy Coat.” In addition to the fact that Ms. Moore’s playing is a joy to hear, I thought the video also served to illustrate the right hand technique of clawhammer style playing. I’m returning to that idea with today’s video of Cathy Fink playing the old-time standard, “Cumberland Gap.”
Now perhaps you’re not familiar with Cathy Fink, a musician who deserves to be much better known. She has performed for over 20 years with her musical partner, Marcy Marxer, & this duo has won two Grammy awards, in 2004 & 2005, & also received two additional nominations in 2003. Fink & Marxer describe what they play as “folk music”—a term that’s a bit passé these days, but which I believe describes their music well; they play everything from children’s songs to old-time music, & are also politically active in the best folkie tradition.
Cathy Fink is an extremely accomplished banjo player who typically plays in the clawhammer style. If you watch her right hand during the song, you’ll notice how the clawhammer motion has essentially two parts—the sweep down in which the lead fingernail (I believe she’s using her index finger) comes into contact with a string or strings, & then the stopping of that motion when the thumb comes in contact with a string. You’ll notice that the majority of the time the thumb lands on the 5th string (which is sometimes referred to as the “thumb string”—now you see why!), but sometimes the thumb continues down to the 4th, 3rd or even 2nd strings. This latter motion is called “drop thumb,” & in this case the thumb is joining the lead finger in playing melody. Obviously, having two points of contact can make for a more smooth flow of notes. I should note that when the thumb comes in contact with the 5th string in clawhammer playing, it doesn’t always actually play the note—sometimes it simply rests against the string as a completion of the motion. When it does strike the note, it tends to play the 5th string as a drone against the melody, & not so much as a melody note per se.
“Cumberland Gap” is an old folk tune (or “old-time” song in current parlance) that refers to a mountain pass in the Appalachian Mountains near the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky & Virginia. The song was first recorded in 1924, as a solo fiddle piece by Ambrose G. "Uncle Am" Stuart; it was recorded soon after by country music pioneers Gid Tanner & Riley Puckett, & a number of recorded versions exist, from folk song (Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger, for example) to bluegrass (Flatt & Scruggs) to skiffle (Lonnie Donnegan) to indie rock (Xiu Xiu). There are a number of “old-time” versions as well, including recordings by Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith & Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
There is are two banjo tuning named for this song, & these tuning goes as follows (5th string to first): fDGCD or f#BEAD. To be honest, I'm not sure which tuning Cathy Fink is using; someone on YouTube suggested she's using the fDGCD tuning, but with each string tuned up a half tone. Since I haven't had a chance to really play along & test this theory out, I'll just have to say it may well be right. It's true that the fDGCD tuning is currently more widely used for "Cumberland Gap." The f#BEAD tuning is more associated with old-time players such as Dock Boggs & Hobart Smith. With the exception of the D on the 1st string, this old-time tuning involves all "slackened" strings—strings tuned lower than standard pitch.
In any case, I think there’s a lot to like in Cathy Fink’s playing, & I hope you enjoy it, too!
The pic leading off the post has nothing to do with the Cumberland Gap—it’s a little outbuilding in Indian Valley, Idaho. I just like the picture!
Thursday is upon us again, friends, & in this little corner of the ether, that means Poem of the Week.
If memory serves, I’ve never posted a William Carlos Williams poem on Robert Frost’s Banjo. My “relationship” with Williams is complicated—I admire his poems, & I respect that in his day he was a poetic revolutionary against the popular hegemony of formal verse & a lingering Victorian sensibility; but it’s been my observation that some of what Williams espoused in the name of revolt has now become its own form of orthodoxy over the past 50 to 60 years. By this, I don’t mean the use of “free verse” per se—heck, I like free verse as much as the next poet! But there's a certain type of poem that's become recognizable as the stock U.S. poem of the late 20th/early 21st century, & I suspect that some of the underlying formulae for this poem come from creative writing teachers at both the undergrad & the MFA level espousing Williams’ dicta (or at least peripherally Williams-esque dicta) as the current conventional sensibility.
But enough of the soapbox! “Summer Song” is a beautiful poem from Williams’ 1917 collection Al Que Quiere! Hope you enjoy it.
faintly ironical smile
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
where would they carry me?
The Adams County Leader Published Weekly On Friday Wm. Lemon Editor and Manager Member State Editorial Association Member National Editorial Association Official Paper of Adams County Price $2.00 Strictly in Advance
July 26, 1929
There are a lot of things that this editor doesn’t know about bears, but we do visualize the time, and not far distant, when bears will be a thing of the past in our Adams county mountains unless something is done to protect them. There is no closed season on bears and they are killed promiscuously—whenever and wherever it is possible to bag one. Under such conditions one can readily contemplate a time when bears in these woods will be no more. It may be that they are destructive enough to justify killing them off, but we doubt it.
The mere fact that they are all gone and that man has so wantonly divested these mountains and woods of one of its most interesting and rather likable wild animals makes us feel ashamed of ourselves. It is high time, we believe, for the state game department or the Rod and Gun Club to begin to look to some sort of protection for these animals, for they are none too plentiful now.
July 26, 1929
TOM MORGAN IS “AGIN” BEARS
To the Adams County Leader:
It seems that some of our town friends are getting alarmed and think the bears are becoming extinct. There is no need for this worry. There will always be too many bears. They are now frequently seen from the highway as was stated in your paper.
No. These cunning, destructive pests will always be with us; like the coyote, civilization can only keep him down to a minimum. The combat has been on ever since the seven she-bears ate those Hebrew children. The mother bear begins at two years old with two cubs and raises a pair every year for 8 to 10 years. I am glad this question has come up at this time. There has been considerable agitation to put bears on the protected list as a game animal when in fact they are one of our worst predatory animals.
Just two weeks ago you will see in the Statesman where at Fall Creek, Colethorpe and a partner had 400 sheep killed in a pile-up caused by a bear. The dread of bears is the sheepman's nightmare. Last year 26 head were killed within a half mile of the highway; 28 head in one night on Hazard Creek. Colethorpe’s loss alone will be around $5,000.00. Let something like this happen in a city. Would there be a protection put on the Cause. An attempt was made at the last Legislature to put a protection on bears, fostered by a lot of bear-hearted Gun Club fiends, and it was nearly accomplished.
Now, it’s just this: if we are going to protect pests, why not cover them all—rattlesnakes, codling moths, and all living things. Nature set us all going together.
Moses says that God told him that Man was “to have dominion over the world and subdue it.” Some job. And it’s not finished yet.
If you could put in a few days at Yellowstone Park, you would see what bears will do under a protective law. Check up the property damage, the number of people who have actually been killed by them. It’s appalling! The make of a bear’s anatomy naturally makes him a pest. He is a strange mixture—being both carnivorous and herbivorous. It requires an immense quantity of food to put on the fat necessary to carry him through his five month’s winter sleep, at which time he safe from all harm, consequently he must eat anything he can get. Toward fall, he becomes a wanton killer not satisfied with just enough.
In early times when they were more plentiful and they could get at a settler’s orchard, they would ruin the trees in a short time by breaking off the limbs. And to go in his hog pen and pack off his winter fattening hogs was a common occurrence. Coyotes will not do that. There is nothing too bold for a bear to do. He is dangerous as a pest. I have had my camps destroyed in the daytime, I have seen sheep killed while staked out on a rope. Now why on earth do they want to make it worse? With wool 18 to 26 cents per pound and a tariff of 38 cents per pound, isn’t this enough.
Another thing—there is no pest so hard on young game animals as bears and especially bird life. He is so snoopy and can clean up a bevy of little grouse quicker than anything I know of. If I can keep the bears from killing too many sheep, I hope to pay up expenses and pay for a subscription to the Adams County Leader.
[A great big Robert Frost’s Banjo welcome to Nancy Krygowski, who will be Visiting Poet here for a bit! You can find more info about Nancy & her work at her website here. But I will mention that she was the 2006 winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, & that her book Velocity was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Meanwhile, L.E. Leone is finding herself in spots such as France, Mexico & Pennsylvania, & as a result will be on vacation from the blog for a bit. But while we'll miss L.E., I know you are going to enjoy Nancy Krygowski’s fine work every other Tuesday!] Moving Van
And yet, there are the things that stay behind: old tweezers in the medicine cabinet, twist ties and rubber bands, post-it note that reminds you, someone, the garbage goes out on Tuesday. The day the storm came that tore the plum tree in two, I collected hailstones, kept them in the freezer. Little blind fish eyes, I said to myself. Now they are gifts to you. There is a rope that tied a hammock to the tree. There are skin cells posing as dust. (Stay away from the ones from the man that hurt me.) There are light bulbs and a half-used roll of toilet paper. There is this future the sun will illuminate, and it doesn’t involve me. Get used to it. The tree survived, only smaller. Dear someone, the fruit is best a little soft and dusty. Dear someone, I’ve nailed the last kitchen cupboard shut.
A happy Monday to you! Let’s get right to it, because I’ve got a great song for you in the 10 Essential Blues series, plus several links to other versions for the curious & adventurous.
As I’ve mentioned before, the way we conceptualize “Delta blues” is problematic—music historians who’ve written about this such as Elijah Wald & Mary Beth have each made a strong case that earlier musicologists & blues enthusiasts tended to romanticize the music from the Delta & the musicians who made it. Still, given that, we still find images in our mind conjured up by the term “Delta blues.” For me, one of the first images is a National guitar—a visual & aural image, because I hear that guitar being played with a slide. In fact, I hear that guitar being played by Son House.
If we are speaking of “the Delta blues” in terms of the concept formalized by the early record collector enthusiats or by Robert Palmer’s seminal (if now contested) book, Deep Blues, Son House is certainly one of a small handful of musicians most closely associated with the music, along with Charlie Patton & Robert Johnson. So there was no question about a Son House song being on the list.
& since these are “essential” songs, I decided on “My Black Mama,” recorded in two parts at a session for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin in 1930. The song was recorded in two parts simply because recording technology at the time limited the time on a single performance to under four minutes—thus, a number of old blues songs took both sides of a 78 & were recorded as separate takes. Of the five songs House recorded during that session, three were two-part recordings.
Why is “Black Mama” essential? I’d consider it so because at least three other great blues songs are closely based on its musical setting & lyrics. These are: Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues,” Muddy Water’s “Country Blues,” & Son House’s own later re-working of the song, “Death Letter Blues.” Clicking on each song title will bring you to a YouTube version. You can also hear a wonderful version of “Walking Blues” by R.L. Burnside here.
As is the case with many of Son House’s songs, “My Black Mama” is simple. It follows a basic Delta blues pattern in that it only hints at the changes to the IV & V chords. For non-musicians, blues songs often follow a specific chord change pattern in which there are regular changes from the root or “Do” chord (for instance, if a song is in G, as is the case with “My Black Mama,” the G chord) to the corresponding chords four & five tones away—the “Fa” & “Sol” chords—in this case C & D. It’s worth noting—if not stressing—that this pattern in fact was variable, especially in earlier blues songs, & particularly in blues songs played slide style.
There are particular licks associated with the “My Black Mama/Walking Blues” set of songs—among other things, these involve a particular “bent note” on the guitar’s fifth string (a bent note occurs when the guitarist stretches a string with sideways finger pressure to raise the pitch; the pitch may be raised a full step or more or—especially in the blues—raised a partial interval); there’s also a characteristic slide up to the tonic note on the first string on an “offbeat” (in other words not on “1, 2, 3 or 4” but on an “and” in between the main beats.)
From a lyrical standpoint, “My Black Mama” is a jumble of images & narrative fragments that never seem to really cohere. The derivative songs are all more focused in terms of their lyrics—because of this, I’d originally thought of using “Death Letter Blues” as the Son House song. But I decided that the “original” was the way to go. Of course, calling any old blues song “an original” is reckless. There were other contemporary songs dealing with similar themes: for instance, Ishman Bracey’s "Trouble Hearted Blues," Ida Cox’ "Death Letter Blues", Robert Wilkins’ "Nashville Stonewall," & Blind Willie McTell’s "On The Cooling Board." & it’s also worth noting that House recorded a song titled “Walking Blues” at the same Grafton session, but the song was never released. Was this song itself closely related to “My Black Mama” (perhaps so close in sound that Paramount decided not to release both?)
Yours truly needs something a bit lighthearted right about now, & this photo Eberle took on Wednesday evening is pretty doggone sweet. Of course, raccoons pack a goodly share of aggression along with their intriguingly mischievous looks—just try chasing a mother raccoon & her cubs away from the porch cat's food some evening! But these two young raccoons seemed to be as intrigued by Eberle & her camera as she was with them. She says they seemed to think they were invisible in the cherry tree!
Thanks, Eberle, for making this photo available for Robert Frost's Banjo—but don't share too many of those cherries with the raccoons!
Do you find yourself longing for some real old-time high & lonesome music? Must mean it’s Banjo Friday on Robert Frost’s Banjo!
I’m continuing my very impressionistic series of favorite old-time banjo songs today, & I think you’re going to like this selection a lot. If you’re familiar with old-time banjo playing, you probably know the name Buell Kazee. If you haven’t encountered this man’s music before, you’re in for a treat.
Buell Kazee was born in the Kentucky mountains in 1900. He began to play at a very young age—in fact, he was performing on banjo in church at age five! But Kazee didn’t live an isolated life—he went on to study Classics at Georgetown College, where he also received formal music training. He was interested in the folk music he’d learned as a child & wanted to be able to transcribe & document this. Even as Kazee became an ordained minister, he also kept up a musical performing career & recorded over 50 songs for Brunswick Records & Vocalion between 1927 & 1929. After this, he let his music career lapse & devoted himself full-time to his minister’s work.
Kazee’s singing & banjo playing caught the ear of Harry Smith, however, & Smith included three of Kazee’s songs on his groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music—the three songs were today’s selection, “East Virginia,” as well as “The Butcher’s Boy” & “The Wagonner’s Lad.” Kazee was “re-discovered & enjoyed a second musical career in the 1960s.
Kazee had remarkable talents both as a singer & a banjoist. When we speak of old-time “high & lonesome” singing, perhaps only Roscoe Holcomb can compare. Kazee played banjo in the clawhammer or frailing style, which we’ve discussed in several previous posts. Kazee’s frailing technique was impressive for its drive & crispness.
“East Virginia” is a song with many relations. It’s melody & harmonic structure are essentially identical to the old-time tune “Little Maggie,” tho it’s true that bluegrass musicians tend to make the root chord in “Little Maggie” more major than in the old-time versions. Other relatives of “East Virginia” are Clarence Ashley’s “Dark Holler” & “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which is descended from a song called “East Virginia Blues.” Kazee plays this song in so-called Mountain Minor tuning (Pete Seeger’s term), which has the banjo tuned from 5th string to 1st as follows: gDGCD. Clarence Ashley called this “Sawmill” tuning, but it seems the use of that term wasn’t widespread before the folk revival. This was also called both “Cuckoo” & “Shady Grove” in reference to two other well-known songs played in the tuning.
Hope you enjoy this beautiful & haunting old tune.
Photo shows magnolia blossoms in Charlottesville, Virginia—taken by yours truly in 1987!
Thursday is upon us, folks, & it’s time for another Poem of the Week!
I’m following last week’s Marianne Moore offering with a poem by another of the “major US modernists,” & a poet whose work Moore admired—in fact Moore & Stevens were long-time friends & allies in the poebiz wars of the Modernist days.
“The Plot Against the Giant” comes from Stevens’ 1923 collection Harmonium (but since it was first published in 1917, it is in the public domain.) I have had a long-running discussion with myself about Stevens’ poetry. There have been times that Stevens has taken a place high on the list of my favorite poets; there have been other times where his aesthete pose & underlying conservatism have bothered me no end. I also will be so bold as to say that his more explicitly philosophical/theoretical works generally don’t stir me these days.
But at his best, as in many of Harmonium’s lyric poems, it’s difficult not to come under his spell, even as the “Giant” will no doubt come under the spell of the “Three Girls.” Of course, in this regard it’s worth noting that Stevens’ nickname at Harvard was “Giant.” Certainly, whatever else “The Plot Against the Giant” may represent, it discusses or perhaps more accurately, creates an atmosphere descriptive of poetic inspiration & creation.
It’s a wonderful poem—hope you enjoy it!
The Plot Against the Giant
When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.
I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
Will abash him.
Oh, la...le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.
A happy Monday! Sure hope you’re in the mood for some amazing guitar-playing, because that’s what we have in store on this month’s Any Woman’s Blues edition of the Monday Morning Blues.
This month’s featured artist, Etta Baker, is a musician who really should be much more widely known; her guitar playing is superb both in terms of technique & feeling, & no less of a musician than Taj Mahal claimed her playing was “the greatest influence” on his own.
But there was only one recording of Etta Baker available thru much of her adult life, a field recording of her, her father & other family members that was released in 1956 as Instrumental Music From the Southern Appalachians. Following this, Etta Baker didn’t put her guitar aside, but she didn’t pursue a musical career. Instead, she raised nine children & worked in a textile mill in her native North Carolina.
But in 1991, she began a recording career that lasted until her death (at age 93) in 2006. She issued One Dime Blues on Rounder, & followed this with in 1999 Railroad Bill on Music Maker. Etta Baker’s final recording was a series of duets with Taj Mahal, also on Music Maker; Etta Baker & Taj Mahal was released in 2004.
I first encountered Etta Baker not on a compact disc but on a printed page, namely in Happy Traum’s Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar (Oak Publications) where he provides transcriptions of her versions of “Bully of the Town” & “John Henry.” The latter is a slide piece played in open D. Traum claims she played this using a knife blade as a slide on her Instrumental Music From the Southern Appalachians, & I assume he’s right; it was fairly common to use a knife as a slide in traditional blues playing. You can see (& hear!) her playing an excerpt from “John Henry” as part of a Music Maker video here—I love her version of this old great old tune. Later, I purchased One Dime Blues, & was wowed by what I heard; I’ve always held Etta Baker’s playing in high regard.
Ms. Baker plays what is called “Piedmont style,” a form of fingerpicking that owes a lot to old-time banjo playing styles (if you do watch the Music Maker video, you’ll notice that she only uses her right hand’s thumb & index finger, which was a common form of old-time banjo picking—& in fact Etta Baker also played the banjo.) Other guitar players associated with this style are Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Elizabeth Cotton & Reverend Gary Davis. In general, Piedmont style is associated with players from east coast states—Georgia, the Carolinas & Virginia—tho Mississippi John Hurt played in this style while living in the Mississippi delta.
Etta Baker’s recordings are virtually all instrumentals. By the time she began her recording career in the 1990s, she was well into her 70s, & her voice was weak. I don’t know if she sang much as a younger woman, but her guitar certainly always sang beautifully as she played!
Hope you enjoy the music from this extraordinarily gifted musician!
Such an exciting entry in Goat's log of Summer Island adventures today- one of the high points of Goat's stay at Sugarbush. This Platypuss, herself, has never been swimming with the monsters, but Goat makes it sound like fun. I have a feeling, though, that while Goat thought the Ladybugs had disappeared they were actually reading Goat's log! Who knows what they will do with the information they found there? I don't think Goat even realizes what happened! The picture was taken by Mouse Fairy Tulip, our Beloved Queen Margot, of Jewel Weed (carrying Goat on her hat), Violet, and Goldenrod of the Mouse Fairy Band. They are setting off for one of the Island swimming spots...
Pocketnote from Bink: Goat is referring to "Zebra Mussels," an invasive species (from the Monster point of view) with extremely sharp-edged shells that have made walking barefoot in the water quite hazardous. This is why Monsters and Mouse Fairies alike (most Mouse Fairies, that is) now wear water-shoes for swimming and wading. But they still get cut quite often and Goat was impressed by how much blood the dreaded Zebras can make flow without even moving! By just waiting there, in deceptive stillness.
Happy Banjo Friday! & let me tell you, if today’s musical selection doesn’t bring a smile to your face & a tap to your toe, well I just don’t know what we’re going to do with you!
If you’ve followed Robert Frost’s Banjo over the long term, you may recall that I’ve written in the past about a banjo player named Cathy Moore. As I understand it, Ms Moore has a “day job,” but I find her playing style very compelling, & I also think she’s a gifted teacher based on the instructional videos posted on her blog Banjo Meets World & her YouTube channel of the same name.
Clawhammer or frailing style has been known over the years as a particularly effective playing method when accompanying dances—it lends itself to strong rhythms, & is percussive & driving, at least in the hands of a strong player. Ms Moore is that indeed, & as I understand from her online writings & video, she has a background in traditional dance communities—that really comes out in her playing!
If you watch Cathy Moore’s hands as she plays (& this video seems to have been shot to facilitate that), you will get a good sense of the clawhammer motion. Tho the motion is very much driven by the wrist joint (as is the case with most solid right-hand technique on banjos, guitars & similar instruments), the hand itself is kept in a more static position than, for instance, in much fingerstyle guitar player or in many of the “up-picking” banjo styles. I tell myself that my fingerstyle guitar background is what has made my right hand so reluctant to learn frailing, but in truth there are some musicians who are very adept at both—Ken Perlman comes to mind. As an aside, anyone seeking instructional books on either clawhammer banjo or fingerstyle guitar would be well-advised to check out Perlman’s materials.
Cathy Moore’s playing not only demonstrates what clawhammer playing should “look like,” but it also demonstrates the great drive & swing that the style & the instrument allow. Listening to this medley, with tree frog accompaniment, never fails to bring a bit of happiness into my day; & it reminds me why Linus famously noted in a Peanuts cartoon that every baby should be issued a banjo to counteract existential angst!
A happy Thursday to you! As regular readers know, things are in more than a bit of upheaval at Robert Frost’s Banjo central, especially during the month of July. Despite this, I’m trying to keep the blog itself going mostly without interruption, & it does appear that this will remain true throughout the month.
However, since I’m a bit displaced these days, I’ve found it difficult either to arrange for writer interviews or to do book reviews for Writers Talk. So I’m resurrecting an old Robert Frost’s Banjo tradition: the Poem of the Week. Each Thursday at least into early August I’ll be posting a poem that’s in my head at that particular time.
This week, as soon as I thought about the return of Poem of the Week, the wonderful opening of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry” came to mind. What that says about where I’m at—well, I’ll leave that to speculation!
Ms Moore’s work has always held a strong appeal to me—her attention to detail, her wit, her intriguing system of lineation (much of it dictated by syllable count), her insistence on the particular all show her to be a poet of very high order, & to my mind she takes her place with the best of the U.S. modernists. You can read more about Marianne Moore here at the University of Illinois’ website.
In the meantime, please enjoy “Poetry.”
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and
school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
The Adams County Leader Published Weekly On Friday Wm. Lemon Editor and Manager Member State Editorial Association Member National Editorial Association Official Paper of Adams County Price $2.00 Strictly in Advance
August 6, 1920
WOULD CLOSE THE COUNTY’S STREAMS
In the latter part of the week, a petition was prepared for presentation to the State Game Department which asks that practically all trout streams in this county be closed for three years. The petition included nearly all important streams except the main Weiser below Evergreen. It is expected that the petition, which was signed by local nimrods in general, will receive favorable consideration. From conversation with farmers, we predict that the move will meet with general favor. During the past few summers, the great numbers of tourists that come into the county have been largely responsible for depletion of streams to the point where exhaustion is threatened. Hence, unless action is taken, game fish hereabouts will soon be a thing of the past.
September 23, 1921
Attaining the highest average since the inception of the work in 1915, nine hunters of the biological survey of the United States Department of Agriculture, working 247 days, killed 272 predatory animals in Idaho during the month of August, according to the monthly report issued Wednesday by Luther J. Goldman, inspector for Idaho.
February 10, 1922
Roy L. Black, Idaho attorney general, recently made a ruling to the effect that muskrats are not to be disturbed while in their houses. During the open season, traps may be set for them at any place except within their homes, but Mr. Black says the little animals are not to be disturbed after they have crossed their own doorstep. It is also declared unlawful to break in to the house of the muskrat for the purpose of setting traps.
September 21, 1923
Experts figure that in 85 years there will be no lumber in the world at the present rate of destruction. Reforestation is the only hope of averting this calamity, they assert. By this means, forests may be made a permanent asset, they claim.
September 21, 1923
In Bear Creek, easily accessible from a good county road, there is a stretch of what forest officials state comprises four sections of the finest huckleberries in Idaho or any other state. It is possible to drive an auto right into the patch and an ice-cold mountain stream flows through it, making it an ideal camping spot. In fact, almost adjacent to the berry patch is a regular campsite, fixed up with tables and other camp conveniences.
This season the local forest service has practically forced the sheep men to pasture herds of sheep in this huckleberry patch. In former years, the sheep men themselves have kept out, but this season it is understood that Superintendent Rice has told the sheepmen that if they do not graze the huckleberry section, a like amount will be cut next year from their grazing allotment, so they are practically forced to run their sheep in the huckleberry swamp.
We understand Mr. Rice is from Kansas, where they raise huckleberries only in barrels. Mr. Rice seems to think that 12 cents a season for grazing sheep mounts up on four sections to huge sums, and he says that amount of land cannot be spared from the sheep to furnish a few thousand people with huckleberries and the incidental recreation of camping and picking them.
The Leader believes Mr. Rice is wrong. Mr. Rice intimates that there is only one person interested in huckleberries, and that that one person is an ignorant faultfinder. The editor wants to add at least one more ignorant faultfinder to the list.
August 24, 1925
Last season, considerable commotion was caused when a simple request went in that grazing sheep in a restricted area at Bear campground, where huckleberries grow luxuriantly, be stopped and the place reserved for campers and berry pickers. The matter was of rather small consequence, but had merit, and the request was finally granted and two sections ordered so reserved, although not until a few persons had been wrought up somewhat and at least one man had lost his job or been transferred.
The facts are that the United States forest service invites and in every way encourages the public to travel through and camp in the forest areas. This being true, the effort last season to keep campers out of, or at least discourage them from coming into, the Bear section was directly in opposition to the general policy of the forestry service, as is proven by the fact that Mr. Rice, a man thoroughly qualified no doubt in other respects, was transferred to another less desirable station because, it is rumored, of “friction between the supervisor and the public.”
July 26, 1929
MAY CLOSE IDAHO FISHING STREAMS
Lewiston, Idaho, August 11
Idaho state game warden R. Thomas said tonight that the unusually dry summer had so depleted mountain streams in north Idaho that fish were in danger and that mountain streams may be closed to fishermen temporarily. The Little Salmon River, he said, is the “lowest I have ever seen it, and the Big Salmon River is running little water.” He said he had received many requests to close the Big Salmon to fishermen.
The state fish hatchery at Grangeville has almost lost its water supply and attendants are confronted with the problem of disposing of 800,000 fingerling trout in the hatchery’s tanks. Thomas said he had not considered a successor to W. M. Keil, who resigned the post of state fish commissioner recently. “We won’t fill that position for some time,” Thomas said.
We’re back to the 10 Essential Delta Blues series today with another great song, Skip James’ “Hard Times Killing Floor.” & having said that, I have to immediately mention some issues with including the song in the series!
First, if we went strictly by geography, there would be no Skip James’ tune in a “Delta Blues” series, since Bentonia, Mississippi lies a bit to the east of the Delta proper. Of course, James is often considered a “Delta bluesman;” & I’ll also note that the musician for song #10 on our list (this is #6) also is from a region a bit outside the Delta.
& for that matter, it’s interesting to consider what is meant by “Delta Blues.” Is it strictly geographical or does it refer to a style of music that grew up around Charlie Patton & his circle? (In that case, neither James nor Mississippi John Hurt would qualify for the list at all.) Or does it refer to “country blues” (to use another vague term) played generally in northwest to west-central Mississippi? In her book In Search of the Blues, Marybeth Hamilton makes a persuasive case that the entire category “Delta blues,” so important a part of received blues history, is an imposed construction that dates back to an obscure but influential circle of record collectors (the most famous of these being Harry Smith of the Anthology of American Folk Music), & particularly to an obscure but influential figure named James McKune. Elijah Wald, in his excellent Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues makes a similar argument about the concept of Delta blues (& “country blues” ) being, if not constructed, at least valorized by Euro-Americans during the folk revival period.
& then one further disclaimer. If this were the 10 Essential Blues Songs (not that I’d ever make such a list, but speaking hypothetically), I’d probably lean toward including James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” if for no other reason than the fact that Robert Johnson essentially used that song whole cloth for his famous “Hellhound on My Trail”—different, & very powerful lyrics by Johnson, but the music was virtually unchanged.
With that, on to an incredibly powerful song. As is the case with many of James’ composition, “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” is played with the guitar in open E minor tuning—EBEGBE—in other words, if you strum the guitar’s six strings unfretted, you play an E minor chord. This is also called “crossnote” or “Bentonia” tuning (in honor of James’ hometown, tho apparently there’s little basis to the idea of a “Bentonia school” that played crossnote, unless you consider James a school of one.) These days many guitarists who use this tuning take all the strings down a whole step so that the open strings produce a D minor chord rather than an E minor one—the E minor tuning is thought to put undue strain on not only the strings but also the guitar neck, as two strings (the 4th & 5th) are tuned higher than concert pitch, & there’s already quite a bit of tension created by the 4th string at concert pitch.
Although the guitar is tuned to a minor chord, the song isn’t strictly speaking in the standard minor mode. As is typical of blues, there’s tension between minor & major, with instances of both the major third (“Mi”) & the flatted one. In fact, I believe Rory Block plays James’ tunes in open D major, not D minor. It certainly could be done. Jo Ann Kelly does a wonderful slide cover of "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues," & I strongly suspect that's in an open major tuning.
James was known for intricate fingerstyle guitar work, & that is most certainly in evidence here. James also was a powerful (if at times, disturbing) lyricist, & I’ve reproduced the lyrics after the video because they are definitely worth a look. James originally recorded “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” in 1931 at Paramount’s Grafton, Wisconsin studio, as the B side to A side “Cherry Ball Blues.” The original 78 would be worth a small fortune—there are only two known copies! The story of economic depression is vivid & haunting—the term “killing floor” refers to a slaughterhouse—& James paints a word-picture of a region & an era when economic uncertainty existed at a very bare bones level for African-American workers.
Great song! Hope you enjoy it.
Hard time here and everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been before
And the people are driftin' from door to door
Can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go
Hear me tell you people, just before I go
These hard times will kill you just dry long so*
Well, you hear me singin' my lonesome song
These hard times can last us so very long
If I ever get off this killin' floor
I'll never get down this low no more
No-no, no-no, I'll never get down this low no more
And you say you had money, you better be sure
'Cause these hard times will drive you from door to door
Sing this song and I ain't gonna sing no more
Sing this song and I ain't gonna sing no more
These hard times will drive you from door to door
“dry long so” is a dialect term for poverty; it also occurs in Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen”
Photo at the top of the post is of a young Skip James. It is considered to be in the public domain.
Hey, everybody, it’s Friday, & you know what that means—time for some banjo music!
I’m continuing with my series of favorite banjo songs with one that is “seasonal”—after all, as Clarence Ashley famously sings:
Oh the coo-coo is a pretty bird
She wobbles when she flies
She never hollers coo-coo
'Til the fourth day of July
Based on this, I guess it’s time for the coo coo to holler!
Whatever the cuckoo’s actual singing habits may be, when you’re taking about old-time banjo frailing, you have to talk about Clarence Ashley. Ashley hailed from Bristol, Tennessee & from his teens into his 30s, he was a succesful performer, first in medicine shows, then later in string bands. He also recorded a number of sides for Gennett, Columbia & the American Record Company in the late 1920s. The recording of “The Coo Coo Bird” comes from a 1929 session for Columbia; it was included in Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, & was written about quite rhapsodically by critic Greil Marcus in his essay “The Old Weird America.” His inclusion on the Anthology, as well as music collectors’ interest in his other old recordings, led to Ashley’s “rediscovery” in the 1960s folk revival; he went back to performing in a band that included the great Doc Watson.
Ashley is famous for the “clawhammer” or “frailing” style of banjo playing. The banjoists we’ve presented previously in the favorite banjo tunes series all plucked “up” on the banjo strings in essentially the same way as a guitarist would pluck a string. In the frailing style, the banjoist strikes down on the string with the fingernail of his/her index or middle finger. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, most scholars agree that this form of playing dates back to the instrument’s African roots—as we saw in the post on the ekonting, a similar style is still practiced on one of the banjo’s closest African relatives (Rhinannon Giddens also plays in frailing style in the gourd banjo video posted last Friday—in fact, that’s Ms Giddens’ customary playing style.)
Ashley plays “The Coo Coo Bird” in the so-called “Sawmill tuning,” which Pete Seeger dubbed “Mountain Minor.” In “Sawmill,” the banjo is tuned gDGCD from 5th string to 1st string. While the tuning sounds very minor, & while the flatted third (the flatted “Mi” note, which makes a scale “minor” as opposed to “major”) is used a lot in Sawmill melodies, the actual open strings don’t produce a minor chord, but what is called a “suspended chord”—in other words, where you would normally find “Mi” in a major chord or “flatted Mi” in a minor chord, you have the “Fa” note instead (this is the C on the 2nd string). Interestingly, this suspended feeling produces a tension that’s not dissimilar to the feeling one gets with blues music, where there’s typically a lot of play between “Mi” & “flatted Mi” both in the chords & in the melodies. Sawmill tuning (occasionally taken up a whole step to aEADE to accommodate fiddles, or at least capoed to produce the same pitches) is one of the most common tunings in old-time music to this day, along with open G & double C.
Hope you enjoy this truly wonderful, haunting song!
A happy Thursday, dear readers, tho I admit I’m writing today’s post with a heavy heart. This doesn’t come as news to those of you connected to me thru Facebook & Twitter, but I’m now making the general announcement that I will be leaving Indian Valley, Idaho before the month of July is out—as of this writing, the exact date is still a bit up in the air.
I first visited Idaho in April 1997 to visit an old friend & new romantic partner—if you’re familiar with this blog at all, you know Eberle Umbach, at least thru her writing & music. Eberle & I have known each other since we both moved to Charlottesville, Virginia in 1984, & we became friends thru a shared love of writing, music, good humor & more. After falling out of touch for some time following her move from Virginia (& my eventual move to San Francisco), we re-connected in 1996 &, as they say, one thing led to another.
Although I’m probably by nature more of a town or city person, I must admit to being totally charmed by this rural setting in which Eberle lived. I remember well how it looked then, & all its changes over the years: the outbuildings, the garden, the willow boughs turning red & orange in the spring, the little pond out in the pasture, the massive old cottonwood in the yard & so much more. To make a long story short, I moved here in January 1998—what a time of year to move from San Francisco to Idaho!
Eberle & I have been together since, but that chapter is now coming to a close. Is this permanent or temporary? No one can say right now. I will be living in Portland, Oregon for at least the foreseeable future & I have no specific plans to return to Idaho. But a return at some point certainly isn’t impossible either.
As far as the blog goes, I’m expecting (hoping) the transition will be fairly seamless. It’s possible there may be a few more days off than usual over the next few weeks, but I believe all the main series will keep posting pretty much on schedule. It is odd to think that on next month’s blogoversary, the Banjo will be transmitting from a much different location, but that’s the reality of things. As an aside, I should note that I’m going to stop the 19 Elastic Poems translation series (which was appearing on alternate Saturdays), simply because I’m not satisfied with some of the upcoming translations, & under the current circumstances I don’t have the time, energy or resources to work on them.
Things have often been difficult over the past few years. At a certain point, I made a conscious decision to minimize mention of my personal life on this blog & instead let it develop into something more like a “magazine” than a personal journal. I’m happy with the way the blog now exists & will continue to keep personal news to a minimum here. However, I felt something of this much significance should be posted, especially as some specific aspects of the blog no doubt will be affected.
I’m torn as to whether to say more or not. There’s so much I could say about the past 15 years (since the summer of ’96), but perhaps this isn’t the right time &/or place—but I will note that when I state I could say so much, I mean so much “good.”
[A lovely verse by Barbie Angell about creation & transformation; & the drawing that accompanies it is one of my favorites. Enjoy!]
She’s living in a song
Somewhere inside a phrase.
A simple soft menagerie
Not breathing till he plays.
She’s safe inside the tune,
No fears can catch her now. Amidst the chords and melodies Until he takes his bow.
Creation of his mind Someone he almost knew Attached by dreams and sealing wax The fortunes of our youth Creation of his mind In search of something true And if you listen carefully Someday he’ll sing of you.
She comes to life on stage Each heartbeat is a note Given birth to on the page By the lyrics which he wrote.
And every heartache she endured And every love she left Is heard upon the radio
Happy Monday &, coincidentally, happy July 4th. I’m kicking off a new Monday Morning Blues ongoing series that will join with 10 Essential Delta Songs & Any Woman’s Blues. Over the next year, I’ll be running a series of monthly posts featuring different versions of the song “Poor Boy Long Way from Home,” AKA “Poor Boy Blues,” AKA “Poor Boy” (with variant spellings.)
Why select this song as a focus? Well, for starters, the 1928 Ramblin’ Thomas version is one of my all-time favorite songs. But in addition to that, there’s a fair body of scholarship that considers “Poor Boy,” in some manifestation, to be one of the oldest blues songs—& I’ve found a dozen distinct versions on YouTube with release dates between 1926 & 2004. Now that covers some musical history, & will show off various ways that blues songs have been approached almost since the first days of commercial recordings. I believe the series will be fun & maybe even instructive. The different versions will post in chronological order by recording date.
The first recording of “Poor Boy” that we know about was made by Bo Weavil Jackson for Paramount Records in 1926. Paramount was a major “race records” label & is responsible for producing some big hits by major 1920s stars like Blind Lemon Jefferson & Ma Rainey. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Paramount was renowned for poor production & even poor materials, & the sound quality on the old Paramounts typically is poor. Marybeth Hamilton writes about this (& many other topics of interest) in her excellent In Search of the Blues (Basic Books.)
Bo Weavil Jackson was discovered as a street musician in Birmingham, Alabama & brought to Chicago to make the recordings (he also recorded some sides for Vocalion under the name Sam Butler.) These recordings were made thru an acoustic horn—not thru microphones!—& so the sound quality is poor. But—in addition to some excellent guitar playing that's not completely overshadowed by the audio quality—there are interesting things to note about Bo Weavil Jackson’s version of “Poor Boy.”
For example, it surprised me a bit that the chord changes of what became known as a typical 12-bar pattern are so clearly articulated. Some later versions of “Poor Boy” are much more one-chord modal pieces, & a fair number of early recorded blues slide songs follow that pattern. Some blues historians tend to draw an almost evolutionary development from the single chord song thru songs that contained both the tonic chord & the V chord (or sol chord) on thru to more & more "modern" sounding 12-bar patterns, which have at least three chords & sometimes add additional ones when the song "turns around" from one verse to the next.
But the more one reads of blues history the more one realizes assumptions & generalizations—even ones that have been accepted as “fact” among blues fans & even blues musicians for the past 50 years—are often gross over-simplifications, & sometimes simply manufactured out of whole cloth! In this case, even tho the chord changes are indicated by fragments, the 12-bar pattern is present on a version that pre-dates at least one famous modal version!
Hope you enjoy this, & please stay tuned for more “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home!”
Photo at the top of the post shows James Jackson, AKA Bo Weavil Jackson, AKA Sam Butler
Greetings from Big Bed Land! Well, we're back with the third installment of Goat's Log from the Summer Island adventure. You'll read more about the mysterious plague of ladybugs and Goat's first S'mores, some notes from Pinky, and a brief mention of Dog,Your Cultural Archivist.
Another Goat Day
Too much is happening to track the days. Today is S’more Day. I must remember to make this native delicacy for the others in Big Bed Land when I get back. It will be perfect for when the bears bring dried marshmallows back after the spring Petunia Hunt. Strange how only bears have seen marshmallows growing wild on the bush and only when the Wild Petunias are blooming. I have traveled the Seven Seas and never seen a single marshmallow bush. A pirate’s life is full of mysteries like this.
(A NOTE OF ENCOURAGEMENT from Pinky Your Hostess: Don’t worry if you don’t understand about all the many traditions of Big Bed Land. After all, these have been evolving since time immemorial! Dog, who spends quite a bit of time digging in the Cultural Archive, will explain the traditional spring hunt for the Wild Petunia later on.)
Some of the monsters know about the ladybugs, mostly the Mouse Fairy girls, it seems, along with Monster E. and her friend Margot. They speak of the wild herds of ladybugs and of dangers, fearsome yet vague. But they also laugh and call each other “Ladybug.” Monster E. and Margot are unusually silly since the men disappeared. They call each other Pioneer Woman, whatever that means, and it is confusing that they seem to share this name. I fear that the Ladybugs might be using some kind of mind control as a weapon.
Around the fire, as the S’more flames burned low, Pioneer Woman swung their lassoes in a lazy but skillful manner saying, “Git along, li’l ladybugs.” I looked up at the stars (noting their position exactly) and listened to the monster girls sing “Yodel-ay-dee-bug, yodel-ay-dee-bug” into the hot and leafy night sky. For one moment I lost my keen sense of cunning and unceasing watchfulness—contentment overtook me. Could the Ladybugs be affecting me as well? I must be careful in my planning. Very careful, and reveal nothing.
No moon. I am writing this by candle light. I think the Ladybugs come from the Ancient West and I will not be hasty about their destruction. Tomorrow I am certain to discover more.
(ANOTHER NOTE FROM YOUR HOSTESS: I asked Goat if Goat would add some pictures of Summer Island to his log and Goat replied that this was not necessary as Goat already knew what the Island looked like. But I got approval for adding some pictures myself. This is one of my favorite views of the grassy island paths among the trees-- and a lucky sighting of Mouse Fairies! Here are Violet and Goldenrod walking together toward the waters that lap at the island's edges.)
A happy Banjo Friday to all of you, dear readers. The music today is a real treat: Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing a “mistrel tuned” gourd banjo. Since we discussed the ekonting two weeks ago, I thought it would be fun to offer some gourd banjo music this time around.
I had intended to make this post a bit more in depth, but I'm writing it "on the fly." I can tell you that if you’re interested in finding out more about the gourd banjo, you can find “The (Almost) Definitive History of Gourd Banjos” at this link. There’s a lot of good information there.
Should your interests lie in a more “DIY” approach, you can even find detailed plans about how to make your own gourd banjo at several sites, including this one! There have been a number of gourd banjo makers in recent years, including Scott Didlake, Pete Ross, Jeffrey Menzies, Bob Thornburg, Jay Moschella & David Hyatt.
Rhiannon Giddens tells us that the banjo is in “minstrel tuning.” One might think this is a precise description, but actually it’s not. One thing that we can tell for sure (either by listening to the music or by looking up “minstrel tuning”) is that the banjo is pitched lower than usual. These days the banjo’s most “standard” tuning is probably open G; we do know that the “minstrel tunings” were more in the key of E or D, so that the strings were lower in pitch by either a third or fourth interval. However, there were variants on the “minstrel tuning.” One common variant didn’t involve an open tuning at all—in other words, the strings when played unfretted didn’t produce a major triad of notes—but was a lower version of what was once considered standard tuning, that is: gCGBD. Again, this was all lowered about a third in pitch.