Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Epiphany Road"

 Happy Saturday, friends.  I have something special for you today.

I’ve spun my wheels a bit on the creative front since the move to Portland.  Not surprising, given all the circumstances of course.  So I’m really pleased to bring you a recording of a new song composed by yours truly—it’s my first venture into composing instrumental music since the early summer of 2008, & a welcome return at that!

The song is called “Epiphany Road,” & I’m indebted to a dear cyber friend for both the title & the inspiration to compose the piece.  That friend is Sandy Maxey, a brilliant person who I'm fortunate indeed to know thru Twitter.  If any of you doubt that Twitter can be used to convey important information & indeed, both deep thought & observations, you clearly haven’t experienced what Sandy Maxey can do with the form.  But more importantly—as in all friendships, whether in “3-D life” or in the “virtual” sphere—there has been a chance to share on a real level.  For this, I have so much gratitude; & in the course of such a conversation, Sandy told me about a special place that she calls “Epiphany Road.” 

The name stuck with me, & I began noodling on the guitar with that conversation in mind.  This was the result—a humble piece given the amazing title, but one that I like.  It’s played on my Gold Tone wood-bodied resonator guitar tuned to open D.  It’s actually the first time I’ve ever come up with a song in an open tuning & I must admit it presents some challenges—it’s not as easy to rely on a string of extended chords to give some melodic interest for example. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the recording equipment I used to use at my disposal anymore.  For the time being, I’m using an Olympus hand-held digital recorder—not a bad piece of equipment for what it is, but not up to the quality of the Boss workstation I’d been using.  I do have a little Sony condenser mic, which is a big step up over the Olympus’ built-in, tho again, it’s not the same quality as the mics I used when recording in Idaho.  The song is a single, “live” track.

So here is “Epiphany Road” for Sandy Maxey—& very much hope you all enjoy it too.

The photo isn’t a picture of the actual “Epiphany Road,” but rather of a road not far from where I grew up along the Saxtons River in Vermont.  It seemed to fit on a few levels.

Friday, December 30, 2011

“You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming”

Hey everybody: time for Banjo Friday!

If you’ve been following along, you know that all month we’ve been featuring great bluegrass banjo players—& a good thing there were five Fridays this month, I must say.  Still, you can only cover so much ground in the space of five posts, so I promise we’ll be featuring more bluegrass banjo in the New Year.

Today’s featured player is Ron Stewart, & what a talent this man possesses!  In fact, if one were running a similar series of posts on great contemporary bluegrass fiddlers, Stewart would be deserving of a feature there too—he’s that strong of a double threat on banjo & fiddle.  Of course Stewart also plays guitar, mandolin & bass too, but who’s counting!

Ron Stewart has worked with some of the top names in bluegrass music during a 30 plus year career that dates back to his youth—he played on a live album with Lester Flett when he was age 9; he spent a half dozen years playing fiddle with JD Crowe, & also played with the Lynn Morris Band & with Curly Seckler, as well as filling in with acts like Rhonda Vincent & the Lonesome River Band.  As a first-call session musician, he’s appeared on scores of albums adding his fiery instrumental expertise.  Stewart is currently the banjoist in the Dan Tyminski Band.

Lynn Morris, a certified bluegrass star in her own right, has said, "Ron Stewart has Flatt & Scruggs in his deepest roots, the feel of a Mississippi blues man in his soul, & the power of a lightning bolt in his touch."

We began this month’s series of bluegrass banjoists with the legendary Earl Scruggs (naturally), so it’s fitting that we bring it to a close with a contemporary version of a Scruggs’ classic, “You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming.”  Earl Scruggs played this as a banjo & bass duet with the Foggy Mountain Boys’ bassist, “Uncle Jake” Tullock.  Leave it to Scruggs—always an innovator—to take a 1930s pop tune & give it full-on Scruggs picking treatment, but with a bass solo!  “You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming” is in fact not a “country” song at all, but a “standard” that’s been covered by the likes of Billie Holiday—& was introduced by Dick Powell, of Busby Berkeley musical fame!

Stewart brings his considerable banjo chops to bear on the tune & is joined to great effect by bassist Marshall Wilborn of the Lynn Morris Band & other top-flight bluegrass outfits.

It’s a rollicking good time—enjoy!


Thursday, December 29, 2011

"A Letter From The Committee For the Advancement of Loss"

[A big week for poetry here on Robert Frost's Banjo: today, another stunningly good poem by Brittany Newmark]

A Letter From The Committee For the Advancement of Loss

I am making a drawing of the world,
an analogy in ink dotted outlines

                between that which is lost
                                by our own errant ways
                                and that which is torn from us
                                and that which recedes with time.

We will speak of these quietly in hushed tones,
that are leaned into.
It serves as a history lesson,
                                And that freight an uneven load.

As always, in my imagination
                My lecture today begins
                as my lecture yesterday began
                and as I will begin tomorrow.
There in the repetition of what has been said—a long silence

Once it had everything to do with the chestnut trees
and a poplar wood, a tan pup 
tucked under a blue woolen coat with horn buttons.

And I.  Steinmetz, a star man
                                                                and stone cutter
Who traveled that great distance in a wooden cart

hidden beneath the straw bales.

                in a codeine stupor
of ten thousand clocks and brass gears and enamel hands,

And  later

licking the icicles beneath a truck’s chassis,
or were they hanging from the roof of a boxcar? 
No matter they were cold and slick. 

The thirst: a reminder, drink
                                                                you must drink.

The long always
                                        winter on the back of the eyelids, specks of snow
the shadow of wolves

Like what the letter should have said:

                Dear Mr X,

                The committee has met and discussed the unfortunate situation that was your family. 

                We wish to thank you for your generous contribution to the world of loss.  Their names should be                 blessed and you should be written in the Book of Life

                Respectfully Yours,

                The Committee For the Advancement of Loss

                PS.  We cannot await a reply.

Brittany Newmark
© 2011


Tuesday, December 27, 2011


[L.E. Leone assures me that her poem "The Grumpiest Man" was essentially found by her on a random sheet of paper that was originally some sort of non-poetic school exercise.  If so, we must congratulate her unerring poetic eye, as it's a truly delightful poem!]

(a found poem)

1.  The man didn't like people.
He didn't like cats.  He didn't
like dogs.

2.  A man was working on the street.
He made a noise.

3.  The little girl went to the store.
Her father told her she could have
a new game.

4.  The little girl didn't get a game.
She saw some earmuffs that she

5.  The grumpiest man was happy when he
put on the earmuffs.

L.E. Leone
© 2001

Monday, December 26, 2011

Any Woman’s Blues #17 – Bonnie Raitt

A happy Monday, friends.  If you were celebrating Christmas yesterday, I hope your time was merry.  If for any reason the merriness has worn off or worn thin, don’t worry: we’re here with the Monday Morning Blues!  (Sorry it's a bit late.)

Today’s post is a special one indeed: the last post of the year in our Any Woman’s Blues series (I want to stress: this series definitely will continue in the new year)—& I saved a very special musician for the year’s end: Bonnie Raitt.  Let’s face it, if you’re having a series about great blues guitarists who also happen to be women, you can’t overlook Bonnie Raitt.

Although Raitt may be best known to the general public for more commercial material that’s a step away from hardcore blues, her blues roots run deep.  She began playing guitar at age 8—& in good blues tradition, her first guitar was a Stella.  She also credits listening to the album Blues at Newport 1963 while in her early teens with piquing her interest in this style of music.  While Raitt was a freshman at Radcliffe, she met blues promoter Dick Waterman, who handled such performers as Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell & others.  Raitt became friends with Waterman & thru him had a chance to perform with & learn from these veteran bluesmen.  In particular, Raitt learned much about bottleneck slide playing from McDowell.

While at Radcliffe, Raitt had performed local coffeehouse gigs, but she left school in her third year to devote herself to music.  At this point she was performing as an opening act for some major blues stars, & Warner Brothers signed her to a contract that led to her self-titled debut album in 1971.  This was largely traditional blues, tho it did include a Stephen Stills song & two of her original compositions.  From the very beginning, Raitt was able to present contemporary material in the mix with more traditional sounds.

Between 1972 & 1989, Raitt released eight other albums, generally to critical acclaim, & she won a solid fan base that was drawn to her great singing, guitar playing & strong material, both original & covers.  However, none of these albums really “hit”—the highest chart position any reached was number 25 by Sweet Forgiveness in 1977.

This changed with the release of Nick of Time in 1989.  Now on Capitol Records, Raitt worked with renowned producer Don Was, & the result was a number one record that won three Grammys—including album of the year—& went 5 times multi-platinum in the U.S.  Raitt built on this success with a string of three more platinum albums, Luck of the Draw, Longing in their Hearts, & Fundamental

Bonnie Raitt’s main guitar is a Fender Stratocaster, tho I have seen photos of her early in her career playing a Gibson ES-175 hollow body; & she also (as in the second video below) plays a Guild jumbo acoustic.  Raitt is a masterful guitarist & slide player.  One particular quirk—for lack of a better term—Raitt has is that she wears the slide on her middle finger.  This is quite unusual; typically people use either the pinky or the ring finger, as either of these keep the more dextrous index & middle finger free for fretting the strings.  While I can’t see any advantage in using the middle finger—& can see some distinct disadvantages to it—I have to say it doesn’t hurt Raitt’s playing at all!  I’m only aware of one other guitar player who wears the slide on the middle finger, & that’s Joe Walsh.  Again, it definitely doesn’t seem to handicap him!

Two videos today, as usual: the first is Raitt covering Elmore James’ “Coming Home,” while the second is her original composition, “Love Me Like a Man.” 

Hope you enjoy them!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"Fairytale of New York"

It’s Christmas Eve, friends, & I have a short post for you today, along with one of my favorite Christmans songs, one that never fails to bring a small tear to just one corner of my eye!  

The song is of course the Pogues' great "Fairytale of New York" from their If I Should Fall From Grace with God album.  The Pogues are without question one of my favorite bands ever, & the song seems so perfect for an aspect of the season: the dreams countered with disillusionment, all delivered with thrilling & heartbreaking voice by the great Shane MacGowan & the late, great Kristy McColl.  Of course, the accompanying music is superb—the Pogues could really play!

But here we are, Christmas Eve!  Whether or not a given Christmas season has seemed stressful to me due to obligations, financial worries, loneliness or any of the other myriad woes that can assail us this time of year, Christmas Eve has often seemed a peaceful & magical time.  While I lived in San Francisco, I went on epic walks on Christmas Eve to watch the lights & ride the streetcars—back then you could ride the streetcars with a monthly Muni pass!  In Idaho, I often performed music on Christmas Eve—usually in churches, which is odd I suppose, since I am a distinctly non-churchy fellow.  But these & other, earlier rituals have always proved a balm to me.

This year I’ll be dining & visiting with friends this afternoon & evening: very grateful for that!  People in Portland have been so generous in taking me in to their circles & helping me in so many ways as I've made a new life here in rather straitened circumstances.  But all of you have been wonderful, & all my friends are near to my heart today.

& with that, I leave you to your holiday, with all my best wishes for a true Christmas of peace & goodwill.   If you don’t celebrate Christmas, I wish you the happiest time in whatever festival you do celebrate to mark this season of passing from darkness to light.

Much merriness to you, friends!

Friday, December 23, 2011

“I’d Worship You”

A happy Banjo Friday, friends!  We’re back with a feature on another renowned bluegrass banjo picker & let me tell you: today’s video clip is short—but man, is it sweet—& it might just have some smoke coming out around the edges!

Sammy Shelor reportedly first learned banjo at age 4 on a homemade instrument that used a pressure cooker lid.  Whether that’s true or not, it makes a good story, & it is definitely a fact that by age 10 he was performing on the banjo in bluegrass bands.  His first full-time professional gig was with the Richmond, Virginia band Heights of Grass, which he joined at age 19 in the early 1980s.  The Heights of Grass became the Virginia Squires, & when this group at last disbanded, Shelor joined the Lonesome River Band with Tim Austin, Ronny Bowman & Dan Tyminski.  Their 1991 album on Rebel, Carrying the Tradition, proved to be a breakout hit for the band, & with Shelor at the core, the Lonesome River Band has continued as a top-notch bluegrass outfit to this day, tho with many personnel shifts—in fact, Shelor is the only remaining original member.

Shelor plays a hard driving style that has its basis very much in the roots of Scruggs picking.  Still, he has made that prototypical bluegrass style very much his own & has added more than his share of licks to the bluegrass banjo repertoire.  Shelor has won the International Bluegrass Music Association banjo player of the year award four times, & he was also a recipient of the 2011 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass (his connection with Steve Martin ought to endear him to one of our resident poets!); the Steve Martin Prize is picked by a panel including such luminaries as Martin himself (who is, in case you don’t know this, a fine banjo player in his own right), Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka, Béla Fleck & others—a true honor when one is picked by such luminaries!

“I’d Worship You” is not in fact one of the many bluegrass gospel songs—it’s a high speed love lament originally popularized by the Stanley Brothers.  Here the Lonesome River Band gives it a barn-burning rendition, with Shelor’s banjo pyrotechnics definitely starting several fires in the process!



Thursday, December 22, 2011

“Three Angels”

 Happy Thursday, kids!  I’m checking in today with odds & ends, not to mention some Xmas Music for People Who Hate Xmas Music.

The holiday is really almost upon us of course, & I must say it’s been an odd one for me, living on my own after a number of years of sharing holiday traditions in a relationship.  It’s lonely at times, tho mostly I consider myself fortunate—indeed, in a real sense of the word, blessed—to have so many dear friends with whom I can share the time, whether they’re friends here in Portland or friends scattered not only thru this country but in others as well.

The holiday has been simplified for me, that’s for sure.  I bought exactly one gift, which was for my mom—95 & still maintaining back in Massachusetts.  I did “splurge” on some Christmas cards, which I enjoyed sending & which helped me feel like I was acknowledging the holiday in a way that meant a lot to me—again, getting back to the friends who’ve so enriched my life.

Speaking of friends, some local friends loaned me the small tree that you see in the photo above, as well as the decorations.  That also meant a lot to me—the tree is perfectly in scale with my celebration this year, & I enjoy it daily.  As far as other holiday festivities go, I’ll be attending a Christmas Eve dinner party, which I’m really looking forward to—some great folks involved—including great cooks!—& have decided that I’m going to watch (for the umpteenth time, but who’s counting) Chaplin’s Modern Times on Christmas Day itself—one of my very favorite films.  It sounds pretty nice to me.

I’ve loved today’s song for many years.  Bob Dylan’s New Morning album has always struck me as a somewhat overlooked gem in his oeuvre; admittedly, “If Not For You” was a hit, but all in all, I think the album hasn’t received the attention it deserves.  Songs like “Sign on the Window,” “Time Passes Slowly” & “Day of the Locusts” are really powerful compositions, both lyrically & musically, & the album has a definite sound—lots of piano on this one.  While writing this post, I was looking thru the list of outtakes for New Morning—it’s quite long—& was fascinated to learn that Dylan recorded both “Yesterday” (yes, that “Yesterday”!) & “Ghost Riders in the Sky” for possible inclusion on the album!  Wow. 

Anyway, “Three Angels” is a beautiful recited piece—complete with the “angel chorus” at the end.  I’ve never been sure whether I liked how he ended the song lyrically—it seems a bit pat to me—but the rest of the lyrics are very strong.

Robert Frost’s Banjo will have posts right up thru Christmas morning, so stay tuned for your holiday listening & reading pleasure.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

“No Vacancy”

[It’s time once again for my favorite Chaplinesque Poet-in-Residence Barbie Dockstader Angell—a sad poem this week.  Now it’s just a guess, but if you’ve enjoyed reading Barbie’s poems & seeing her art as much as I have, I think this would be a great week to stop & leave a comment telling her hello & thanks!  I’ll start things off by saying: Thanks, my friend, for all you’ve brought to this blog—it’s a joy to work with you & to share your work!]

No Vacancy

I’ve taken down the sign.
Please don’t call here anymore.
The vacancy’s been filled.
Quit pounding on my door.

The ad’s no longer valid.
The space is not for rent.
My mind is quite made up.
I really won’t relent.

It’s true the place was nice,
at a rate you could afford.
Now please remove your foot
‘cause I’d like to close the door.

The room was fairly small,
but it grew in a short time
and you started occupying
too much space inside my mind.

And I’m not sure if you cared.
And the place was in a mess.
Feelings cluttered everywhere,
Confusing all the rest.

No one else has taken it,
the space inside my brain,
but it’s in no shape to rent now
‘cause it’s filling up with rain.

Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

Monday, December 19, 2011

Martin Dreadnought's Got the Blues!

It’s Monday—got here before I knew it, it seems!  Here’s a slightly belated edition of the Monday Morning Blues!

Our monthly examination of famous blues guitars continues with what may seem at first an odd model to include.  After all, while Martin dreadnoughts are highly prized guitars, but they are generally thought of as quintessential bluegrass & country instruments, & secondarily as prime rock/singer-songwriter acoustics.  One doesn’t generally associate these large guitars with fingerstyle blues—& yet some great fingerstyle blues players have used them.

Although Martin produced dreadnought style guitars as early as 1916 for sale under the Oliver Ditson Company name, the first actual Martin brand dreadnoughts appeared in 1931.  The guitar’s name refers to a large British battleship, the HMS Dreadnaught, & indeed, these guitars are large: the upper bout (the upper flare of the soundbox) measures 11-1/2 inches, while the lower bout measures 15-5/8; the body depth is 4-7/8 inches.  This size gives the dreadnought a very “bassy” tone, & as such it’s an ideal rhythm guitar, able to define the underlying harmony & even being able to approximate the role of a bass if one doesn’t happen to be around!  When dreadnoughts were first designed, the guitar neck met the body at the 12 fret—this was in fact standard for guitars at the time.  The Martin Company made a significant innovation by building guitars on which the neck joined the body at the 14th fret, giving access to higher notes; from what I read, this innovation was particularly aimed at drawing in plectrum banjo players, who are used to much longer necks, at a time when the guitar was seriously beginning to supplant the banjo as a rhythm instrument.  However, it’s generally considered that guitars on which the neck meets the body at the 12th fret have a superior tone, simply because the soundbox is longer, so Martin re-introduce the 12-fret neck models in 1967.  While the 14-fret models are simply designated by the letter D followed by a number in the Martin classification system, the 12-fret models are designated D, followed by a number, followed by an S.

At least four noteworthy blues guitar players used Martin dreadnoughts: these were Brownie McGhee, whose main guitar was a D-18; & Elizabeth Cotten also played a D-18 along with other Martins & a Gibson jumbo.  During the 1960s, Skip James played both Martin D-18s & D-28s, while RL Burnside played a D-28 for much of his acoustic material.  So while the Martin dreadnought may not be a “classic” blues guitar like a Stella or National, it sure has found its way into the hands of some great players!

The two videos I included here illustrate that nicely.  Brownie McGhee’s “Born & Livin’ with the Blues” is a great example of his clean, melodic & even jazzy playing (accompained as he so often was by the great Sonny Terry on  harmonica & whoops), while Skip James’ version of “Devil Got My Woman” from the 1966 Newport Folk Festival is sheer brilliance.  Perhaps James—one of the most skilled blues guitarists & singers going on even an average day—was particularly inspired by the presence of Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt & Son House: quite an audience!  By the way, while McGhee is playing a D-18, I believe James is playing a D-28; I think I see binding on the guitar, which is found on that model.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Photo of the Week 12/18/11

Seasonal Window Display in the Light Bulb Store
N Failing Street, Portland, Oregon
Friday 12/16/11

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Dear Reader,"

[Another poem from Brittany Newmark—fantastic, & a privilege to post]

 Dear Reader,

Easy now, all I am going to do is talk

And not even say
                                One way
                                or the other that
                                The story does not end at the


Or the journey on a snowy evening alongside a vacant lot
                                                                                  in a city full of promise. 

No doubt, I have read too much
                                into our lives,
                                                  the lives of our family,
                                                  our friends
the tables we gather around.

The light accumulates and settles into the recesses of the room
And never exposes us to one another.

Friends, I am sorry I can’t stay
It is late.

Where have I been?
To Indiana and New Hampshire
Jerusalem, Ohio
Texas, Virginia twice
Each place a promise

And lived well enough to call it a life
A glow aloft

I’ve carried infants in my gut,
                                                                my arms,
                                                                my heart  still asleep
                                                                on my back
And been completely fulfilled by a fat fist no bigger than a baked roll
And clenched tight, alive.

A simple observation:
sunflowers growing in an open field always face east
And serve sometimes as the only compass
for the especially impoverished and misdirected.
                The ones that notice such things
                                as the tilt of a thousand flowers.

                you know
                (as well as I,
                                before I had the words for it you knew)

                human hurt—
                                                                a water stain
                and that in those future beds of straw & hair every kiss will taste like ash.

I promise to no longer be fool-hearted

I promise to no longer mistake the swing of
a girl’s hips
                for some hint of melancholy

I promise to linger long enough to be taken

Brittany Newmark
© 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

“Shuckin’ the Corn”

A most merry Banjo Friday to you friends!  Hope your day is off to a great start, & hope we can make it a little better with some fantastic banjo picking!

As regular readers know, this month the Banjo Friday series is looking at some of the stars of bluegrass style banjo playing—there are five Fridays this month, so we’ll be taking a look & a listen at five great banjoists who’ve made a big mark in the bluegrass field.  In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should note that I don’t have anything like the background in bluegrass that I do in blues, old-time or jazz.  As a result, this particular series has required a bit more research than other music writing here on the blog, simply because I have less experience with the music. 

Now of course Earl Scruggs & Ralph Stanley were pretty much automatic choices.  But following them there are several bluegrass banjo players who make music at an extraordinarily high level.  The next one I picked for your listening pleasure is JD Crowe, a man who’s been making music of the very highest quality since the 1950s when he was barely 20 years old—in fact, his first recording with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys was made in 1956, when he was still only 19 years old.

Martin’s band was a traditional bluegrass outfit, but Crowe began to experiment with other songs, rhythms & sounds than those heard in the traditional style—it’s interesting that one of Crowe’s early musical inspirations was Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitar player on his groundbreaking late 1950s recordings, & his original dream was to play electric guitar with Ernest Tubbs! 

Instead, Crowe became one of the bandleaders who most influenced the changing sound of bluegrass music, & this was especially true with his band that formed in the 1970s, the New South.  The 1975 album JD Crowe & the New South really healded a new era in the music; the album featured Tony Rice on guitar & lead vocal, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin & tenor vocal, Crowe on banjo, Bobby Slone on bass & fiddle, & Jerry Douglas on dobro—a line-up of future all stars.  The New South has existed with various personnel changes over the years, but always with Crowe & his hard-driving & virtuosic banjo playing at the helm.

Today’s song features a slightly later version of the New South.  Here Jimmy Gaudreau has taken over on mandolin & Keith Whitley on guitar, while Steve Bryant plays electric bass (!) & Bobby Slone plays fiddle,  Crowe gives us three superb & smoking banjo solos in the space of two minutes!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Joseph Spence is Coming to Town

Happy Thursday folks!  I’m here with another installment of the series Xmas Music for People Who Hate Xmas Music, & I changed the song title slightly so as not to scare away people that fall into that class.  In fact, today’s selection is the great Joseph Spence’s singular interpretation of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

If you’ve never heard Joseph Spence, you are in for a major eye-opening.  To my mind, he was one of the most inventive guitar players you will ever hear—& I’m not alone in that assessment.  Ry Cooder famously proclaimed:

It started with Joseph Spence when I was a little kid.  He was one of my all-time great inspirations.  When he did those bass runs, I didn’t understand it.  I was so mad all the time.

Other notable admirers of Spence include Taj Mahal, John Renbourn, Olu Daru & Woody Mann.  In his all-too brief Allmusic biography, Mark A. Humphrey states, “he was a folk guitarist's Thelonious Monk,” & as a fan of both men’s music, I’d have to say that is a truly fruitful comparison. 

Spence lived in his native Bahamas thru his entire life—born in 1910 & passed away in 1984.  His guitar playing—which to the best of my knowledge was all done in the “drop D tuning” (meaning that the lowest sounding string is tuned down from an E to a D), is extremely intricate, featuring Cooder’s aforementioned bass runs acting as counterpoint to the melody & melodic improvisations on the guitar’s treble strings.  Now it is true that Spence’s guitar is not “in tune” by Western standards—he didn’t tune to A=440 (which is the Euro-American standard for playing in tune), & even given that the base criteria for tuning is a bit off, there’s a slight but noticeable disjuncture in tuning between the bass & the treble strings, & especially involving the third string, which would be tuned to a G (G below middle C for those who care about such things.)  However, one thing about Spence’s tuning that has been pointed out & confirmed: his tuning was always consistent.  He didn’t tune this way because he was incapable of hearing the correct pitch, but because this was the correct pitch to him.  In fact, the pitches that we use for notes in Euro-American tuning are dictated by equal temperament tuning, which essentially is a tuning that means you don’t have to re-tune an instrument every time you play in a different key (as was the case with earlier tuning systems.)  In fact, equal temperament dictates that one has to “split the difference” on the pure mathematical proportions between notes, so in fact some intervals that we hear as correct, musicians from other cultures would hear as being “off.”  This is especially true of the major third—i.e., the note “mi” in the do-re-mi” scale.

But enough for musical relativism!  In addition to Spence’s rather amazing guitar playing, his singing is also unique—in fact, the casual listener may focus more on this idiosyncratic vocal style than anything else.  In essence, the words of a song seem only of passing importance to Spence; instead he hums, does a sort of guttaral scatting & overall includes all manner of vocalized effects almost as another counterpoint to his guitar playing.  Those of us who are older, remember the 60s expression “blow your mind.”  Joseph Spence will, indeed, blow your mind.

You will never hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” like this, I promise.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


[Our favorite Chicken Farmer Poet in Residence is taking stock, & not chicken stock neither!  Another delightful dead-serious/comic romp with L.E. Leone!]


Then it was time to stand back and take stock of my life. I had reached "the age." So I did, I stood back and took stock. I went outside, at night, in just a shabby sleeping gown, and stood on the sidewalk. If anyone asked, I would say that I was taking stock. Of my life!

A street person walked past. His face, set deep inside his oversized hood, was darker than night itself. In fact, he might have been death. “Aren’t you the one keeps chickens in an old RV?” he said, without even stopping to hear my answer—which would have been that I was not, I was the one who was taking stock of her life at three in the morning, in a shabby gown.

For distance I went to Paris, France. I don't speak French. My first morning there I met a fellow American who said, "Have you been to Paris before? This is my third time, although: it's the first time I’m spending real time here. The first two times I was more like passing through, touring Europe and such. But Paris is the one city in the world I always want to come back to. Except in winter." And he gave me a look that said, I know you know.

“Me,” I said, “I'm taking stock.”

“I think I understand,” he said.

“You do?”

“I think so,” he said.

For distance, I came back home.

L.E. Leone
© 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Wild Cat Blues"

Hey folks, it’s a musical Monday morning here on Robert Frost’s Banjo—this week’s edition of the Monday Morning Blues!  We’re back with our monthly installment of the Jazz Me Blues series, which looks at (& listens to) various points where the blues & jazz genres meet.

When you’re talking about the great early jazz soloists, one of the first names that must come to mind—perhaps the first name after that of Louis Armstrong—is Sidney Bechet.  In fact, if one looks at the recorded history, Bechet actually beat Armstrong to the punch with some of his 1923 sides with Clarence Williams’ Blues Five (a group that also featured Armstrong’s cornet playing.) 

For those who may be less familiar with Bechet (whose name is usually pronounced  buh-SHAY, tho it reportedly is pronounced BAH-shay by the family), he was born in New Orleans in 1897 to a Creole family.  Sidney Bechet was a prodigy, first performing with his brother’s band at age six, & performed with such New Orleans luminaries as Bunk Johnson, King Oliver & Freddie Keppard in his teens, even touring as far north as Chicago.  Sidney Bechet’s instruments were the clarinet & the soprano sax.  In fact, prior to Coltrane, Bechet was probably the most noteworthy jazz performer on the latter instrument.  Bechet’s style on both instruments was passionate, & he favored a broad vibrato tone—a characteristic that has made listeners tend to form strong opinions either favorable or unfavorable about his sound; but he most certainly made a huge mark on jazz history along the way.

“Wild Cat Blues” comes from a 1923 recording by Clarence Williams Blues Five made for Okeh.  The band for the session was Sidney Bechet (soprano sax), Thomas Morris (cornet), John Maysfield (trombone), Clarence Williams (piano), & Buddy Christian (banjo).  The song, which was composed by the great Thomas “Fats” Waller & Clarence Williams, isn’t technically a blues at all—it features four separate 16-bar patterns rather than the conventional 12-bar pattern of blues, & the structure owes more to formal rags.  However that may be, "Wild Cat Blues" is a fine example of hot jazz, with the typical New Orleans polyphony forming a basis from which Bechet’s solo can soar up & away, & soar he does!

This ought to chase your blues away—enjoy!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Photo of the Week 12/11/11

Mt Hood in the Distance, Portland South Waterfront in the Foreground
from the Observation Deck at Oregon Health & Science University
Friday 12/9/11

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Night, sporting her lover’s black sportcoat
—a few sizes too large at that—

arrived unlooked for & said: You knew I’d be back,
— her voice a traumatized snowdome—

always a small woman despite her sunglasses—white
smoke from her cigarette coalesced to lace curtains—

& those windows offered a vista on the lost
highway & headlights shining on poplar leaves—

green enamel dishwasher on casters in a dark hallway,
a linen closet, a metal frame twin bed, an orange crayon

the apple tree stunted by the fence’s corner
brace heaped white & gray with cold rocks—

a maple bannister, a red tin roof, a chrome guitar hushed
on a stand—everything in angles & hard—

no, I never was sure, I said—in black & white she
sat next to me on a red loveseat—it was all as if in a

silent movie—a movie that grinds to a close in a
smoking projector—lost highway—empty white farmhouse—

smoke—everything I wanted to believe right there in a
poem like a fistful of white pills—like

the redwinged blackbird’s trill from the wild apple—
the purple finches frenetic in a spring snow flurry—

which have morphed to stone silence & muted
sepia photographs on a gravel road in frozen fog—

ice crystals invading the lungs—breathe despite them—
she said: wake up, it’s time to go home—

Jack Hayes
© 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Clinch Mountain Backstep"

It’s another Banjo Friday, kids!  A bit late, but none the worse for the wear.

This December on Banjo Friday we’ll be featuring some of the best bluegrass banjo pickers—an exciting series, but with only five Fridays & so many great bluegrass banjoists from which to choose making the selections is a bit of a challenge.  However, just as Earl Scruggs was the obvious choice for the lead-off Friday, so I believe today’s featured artist, Ralph Stanley, is also a clear choice—a masterful player with a distinct style who has been as much a part of bluegrass history as Scruggs himself.

If you know your bluegrass history, you know that Ralph & Carter Stanely were the Stanley Brothers, performing with the Clinch Mountain Boys from 1946 until Carter’s death in 1966.  Although Bill Monroe at one time claimed the Stanley Brothers were mere imitators of his bluegrass sound, to my ear I’ve always heard a harder, more old-time edge in the Stanley Brothers’ music, & as such the Stanley’s have always been among my favorites in the bluegrass field. 

Certainly Ralph Stanley’s formidable banjo playing & powerful singing were a major part of the Stanley Brothers sound; Stanley’s strong, plaintive tenor voice almost defines the “high lonesome” in a bluegrass context for me, & his three-finger banjo playing is quite distinctive (Stanley also has played in the more old-time clawhammer & two-finger styles, but generally adheres to the bluegrass three-finger method.)  A concise description of his playing style can be found on Wikipedia:

"Stanley style" is distinguished by incredibly fast "forward rolls," led by the index finger, sometimes in the higher registers utilizing a capo. In "Stanley Style", the rolls of the banjo are continuous, while being picked fairly close the bridge on the banjo, giving the tone of the instrument a very crisp, articulate snap to the strings as the player would strike them.

Although Carter’s untimely death ended the Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley has continued a solo career with the Clinch Mountain Boys as back-up almost until this day.  Stanley is a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, & has received a National Medal of Arts, as well as being named a Library of Congress Living Legend in 2007.  From the early days with the Stanley Brothers right up thru his recording of “O Death” for the Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (& beyond), Stanley has put an indelible mark on the bluegrass sound & on the US musical tradition.

In choosing a song to represent Ralph Stanley’s banjo playing, I was fortunate to find a clip of him playing “Clinch Mountain Backstep” solo on the old Pete Seeger Rainbow Quest TV show.  “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is attributed to Stanley, & while it certainly contains a lot of traditional music, the song also is re-shaped by Ralph Stanley in such a way that he “makes it his own.”  My only regret is that the clip isn’t longer.

I know you will enjoy this true bluegrass legend’s amazing banjo playing!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”

Happy Thursday, friends!  Hope the day is treating you well.

It is Christmas season isn’t it?  Yes: December 8th, just two days past the Feast Day of St Nicholas, the Greek/Turkish Bishop who has somehow morphed into the red-cheeked & portly elf of unfettered capitalism. 

Christmas is an odd season for those of us who live by the Christian calendar but are—like myself—agnostic/secular humanist or just more or less non-religious rabble.  Because while the holiday is most certainly religious in origin, what it’s become in the States at least has very little religious content, but instead huge content related to “getting & spending,” to countless pleas to sentiment, to any number of “feel-good” stories from the blatant to the subliminal that seem to prime us for parting with significant amounts of money, while at the same time expecting our friends & family to do the same.

But make no mistake: while I may point this out, I’m as susceptible to the charms of the season as the next guy or gal.  I’ve always enjoyed the decorations & all the small traditions that grow up in a life regarding this holiday: watching a certain movie, always including a certain dish for Christmas dinner, always buying a beloved partner a particular type of gift, & so forth.  Most of us could compile a list.

& this list might include what may be the most pernicious aspect of theseason: the insistent holiday muzak track that assaults us in every single retail outlet, from grocery store to pharmacy to boutique & beyond.   Now, I should note that I don’t necessarily dislike the songs themselves; after all, I’m a working musician (at least when there’s work to be had!), & I’ve played a good number of these songs myself—in general, this season is a good one for getting gigs whether for cash or at least “singing for your supper.”  But the aerial bombardment of holiday muzak: this is truly pernicious.

In the past, I have posted holiday music on the blog, versions of holiday songs played by yours truly on various instruments.  I toyed with doing that again this year, but I decided against it, in part because I decided I didn’t feel like adding to the soundtrack of holiday standards. 

But then it occurred to me there’s something a bit strange—even phony in a way—for a blog that’s set-up like Robert Frost’s Banjo to pass the holiday season by without comment.  In fact the Christmas season is very much on my mind, tho I expect my observation of it this year will be much different than in most past years.  I’ll write more about that on the next two Thursdays.  & at the same time I’ll post a song that is related to the season without being in any way part of the usual soundtrack.

Today’s song is—of course!—by the great Tom Waits from his amazing 1978 album Blue Valentines.  While the song only mentions Christmas in its title, the litany of wishes, dreams, disappointments, losses & lies found in its lyrics seem to mesh perfectly with the season, as does Waits own compassionate if bemused view of the song’s prostitute narrator.  The music meanwhile is vintage 70s late 70s Waits: beautiful jazz chords put forth thru a tasty piano accompaniment.

A great song in every way!  Enjoy! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Four-Thirty Thoughts"

[A bit of a seasonal meditation from our favorite Rockstar Poet-in-Residence, as she contemplates craving & disappointment.   Another lovely poem & drawing—enjoy!]

Four-Thirty Thoughts

I don’t really like the taste of food that much.
Not really.
Not the way I’ve seen other people truly enjoy it.
However, I do have one exception.
There is one taste that I spend 10 months waiting for,
and two months savoring.
Egg Nogg.
I crave it in April.
I crave it in June.
I crave it in the heat of summer and two days after
they’re out of it at the grocery store in January.
And in those two blissful months that Egg Nogg is
flowing like a breath stealing, cream-colored stream….
My thirst for it is insatiable.
It hit the stores yesterday.
I purchased my first half-gallon of the season
in a fevered state, and I could feel it slip down my throat
from the moment I reached for the carton.
I perused the dairy section for a full fifteen minutes
trying to decide which flavor to try first.
Because when Egg Nogg is an option, the selection of
styles is seemingly unending.
Lite, Traditional, Laesch, Kemp’s, Premium, and on and on.
I chose carefully.
This was not an impulse buy.
This was not a key chain or a lock de-icer.
This was, after all, Egg Nogg.
I left the store with all the eagerness of a twenty-one year old
purchasing his first legal bottle of booze.
And when I got home, I poured myself the perfect glass of my seasonal addiction.
But when I tasted it,
when all of the sweetness of it ran over my tongue,
I thought of you.
And I realized that maybe I was never meant to have
any of the sweeter things in life.
That maybe I shouldn’t set my heart on something
that I’ll only be able to have for a short time.
Because it only makes everything more difficult when
the Egg Nogg isn’t available anymore.
I dumped the rest of the glass down the sink.
And I left the carton in the fridge.
Maybe someone else will drink it.
Someone who won’t become as addicted to it.

Barbie Dockstader Angell.
© 2009

Monday, December 5, 2011

Poor Boy Long Way From Home #7 – John Fahey

Monday morning, kids—you know what that means: time for the Monday Morning Blues on Robert Frost’s Banjo

Today is our monthly visit to the song “Poor Boy Blues” in its many incarnations, & our feature today is unique in a few respects.  First, it’s the only scheduled post in the series that doesn’t feature a vocal version of the song; second, there are two quite different versions of “Poor Boy” here, both played by the masterful John Fahey.  The first video, a live recording from the late 1970s, features Fahey’s more or less original “Poor Boy Long Way From Home,” while the second video features Fahey’s instrumental take on Booker White’s “Poor Boy,” a version we explored in this post

With this post, which marks chronologically Fahey’s 1958 recording of “Poor Boy” for the amateur Fonotone label under the pseudonym of Blind Thomas.  The song was later re-issued on Fahey’s own Takoma label on his 1965 masterpiece, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death—Blind Joe Death being another of his musical alter egos.

Fahey’s appearance on our timeline marks an important point in blues history, since by the late 1950s blues was very much attracting the attention of white musicians & record collectors (sometimes, as in the case of Fahey, these two categories existed in the same person.)  This was the time of the folk revival—Dave Van Ronk, like Fahey, a white musician who very much internalized much African-American music, also released his first Folkways album in 1959, & of course Bob Dylan’s first Columbia album—which included covers of old blues tunes such as Booker White’s “Fixin’ to Die”—was only  a few years away. 

Some things changed as the blues became subsumed by the folk revival—in all its permutations, which should be stressed, because Fahey was never a coffeehouse guitar picker in the stereotypical mode: he was arch, sophisticated & an adamant outsider right from the first.  In addition to the music now being performed by people of European-American descent as well as African-American descent, two other big changes should be noted: first, at least prior to the British Invasion & Dylan going electric, the white musicians focused on an acoustic sound—they focused on it in their own playing & they also expected it in the playing of African American blues musicians.  Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta documents numerous stories about performers such as Brownie McGhee & Big Bill Broonzy who essentially led parallel performing lives during the revival: they played acoustic for the white folkie college crowd & electric when playing in African American communities.

The second change is that the blues came to be thought of more as primarily “guitar music” & thus less as primarily “vocal” music.  To this day the work of people like Fahey, Stefan Grossman & others almost gives the impression that the old blues musicians were guitarists first & vocalists only incidentally.  For instance, while I admire Grossman as a player, composer & teacher, if one looks at some of his instruction books it looks as if he’s teaching instrumental pieces, whereas the guitar parts played on recordings by the old “country blues” players were accompaniments, however sophisticated they might be.  

Fahey is a bit of a special case here, because in addition to being an extraordinarily talented guitarist, he was also a formidable composer who essentially brought together elements of old country blues playing with elements of modern classical music.  His compositions have been as innovative & inventive as the titles he gave them (“The Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Invisible City Of Bladensburg” for example), using open tunings & ideas from far flung sources to put together a remarkable body of original work.

Fahey is not as well known to the general music listening public as he should be, not by any stretch.  His career was marked with personal difficulties: alcoholism, Epstein-Barr Syndrome, even such extreme poverty at one point that he was forced to pawn his guitars.  He died at age 61 in 2001, far too young.  His music is still played tho—it’s a delight & a challenge to many of us guitarists!

Hope you enjoy the amazing John Fahey’s two versions of “Poor Boy”!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Land of Nod

Happy Sunday, friends.  Apologies to fans of the long-running Photo of the Week series—the way this week went down, I simply don't have a photo for the blog.  What I do have is a new poem!  & I'm pretty excited about that, because the last poem I wrote prior to dates back to early May.  This new poem—#4 in the following sequence—was written yesterday.  Since the other poems in the sequence appeared on the blog back in the spring, I'm taking the liberty of posting the sequence as it now stands for the sake of context.  Hope you enjoy them!

The Land of Nod #1

nighttime busy as a ship the stars frozen the
radio signals crackling along a north wind an
orange teddy bear ditched beside the highway in

April—in the middle of life under a eucalyptus—
you must excise all the connections—in the middle
of life in a sodium light spotlight, the moon’s

fingernail, the porch on Myrtle Street its
chipped paint railing & clothesline—nighttime busy as
a semi truck on a 6% grade a sheet of

particle board a  toy cat’s porcelain
face with inscrutable grin, in a sepia photograph a
gin bottle in the mirror—in the middle

of life on interstate 70 west of St Louis the gas tank
leaking—a rope hammock above the
blue blue crocuses its dreams decomposing:

there was a guitar with f-holes an
N-scale train depot, a wind-up toy duck
dressed like a clown on a trike but

wound down—a fire escape in green streetlight glow—
nighttime busy as a ship off the Oregon coast a
frozen light in blackness between dreams

The Land of Nod #2

the molecules congeal the molecules dis-
sipate, The Seven Samurai black-white-gray on TV in
a Bozeman Comfort Inn—you’re learning exhaustion’s alphabet

one cup of coffee at a time—steam from a Vicks vaporizer—
another Silver Surfer comic book, magenta &
gray splayed across a card table’s diamond veneer in-

lay—you are floating between your body’s past &
what’s to come several inches above a green
upholstered sofa, the molecules

congeal the molecules dissipate—a spiral
notebook covered with doodles of your name &
geometry’s leftovers—a grandfather clock with wooden

gears & lead weight—you are floating between
solid & air like a bright yellow school bus
in November flurries—short of breath in an Astoria

courtyard in March drizzle—an oxygen concentrator’s
lugubrious sigh in murky hours—an
espresso machine huffing between the poem’s

syllables on Valencia Street on an evening pungent as
licorice—you are learning exhaustion’s alphabet
floating gray between your body’s dimensions

The Land of Nod #3

fractured sunlight in a strange
land helter-skeltered in yellow wind:
black umbrella, white paper box kite, a

fistful of goldenrod, an email arriving thru
ether any given Sunday—an array of
things that may in fact be hopeless: a

pink inflatable Easter bunny nodding in yellowish
breeze beneath a pine beside the highway—
where are you going—fractured sunlight

a plate of toast, the the silver-yellow
clouds to the east, the lies you told yourself—
an array of things: a packet of Carter Hall

pipe tobacco—you are always awake—
laundry shaking on a rope clothesline in
yellow gusts & lies you tell yourself a-

mong thin air & fragments—anxious
rib cage, a box kite’s pine frame
snapping when you don’t let it go

Land of Nod #4

a good place to be from—dead
cottonwood the century rose climbs—
are you in a good place now—a 

dogwood in traumatic blossom a-
cross the street from the ER—fear as-
cending rhythmic in work boots on stair treads—dead

cottonwood the century rose thorns in-
crementalize—a hospital gurney within gray branches—
a good place to be from—

green-yellow godawful
streetlights buzzing the scale of trauma’s
shining increments—a good place:

gray dead cottonwood treetop—an in-
cremental century rose—a night
without steps climbing up to it

Jack Hayes

© 2011 

Saturday, December 3, 2011


[Our somewhat less mysterious Mystery Poet in Residence has kindly agreed to let me post some of her new poems here, & to say the least, I'm jazzed.  Brittany Newmark is a stunningly good poet.  You will see why I say this here.]


We all have our own acre of pain
The heat, the bilirubin rising.

Tonight, the feverish body is braille
Under the finger tips
And the swelling smooth and
              Warm like a polished stone.

The mystics cure hepatitis by tying live pigeons to the stomach,
After they quiver and die under the leather straps.

You rise
                            The world begins again sans jaundiced eye.
The mystics can see to the other end of the world
And everything they see, they know.
While we just diddle around.

The consolation is that we can wait in the ante-
chamber and let Maria Callas pour in from speakers,
and outside the violet sky spreads an ink spill.

In the distance the machines of the world grind glass
and metal conducts particles like musical notes
In some future Opera—of how the world works.

              Tonight, nothing extraordinary will happen
                                                        not to us at least.
Our lives will be unchanged,
              Except the feverish mind can wander
                            the eyes hot in their sockets see halos around
                            all the objects in the room, lose their edges and definition and the wall becomes a
Rothko of color.

              What if every face you pass on the street
              wears the veil of pain, not just a weary countenance,
              and every voice hollow at the other
              end of the call is asking to be healed?

              On their behalf
              I could make a tally: the greatest lies ever told?
                            The check is in the mail
                            Doing it like this you can’t get pregnant
                            Arbeit Macht Frei

It’s all conjecture and conjured up
from that remote sad outpost of:
                                                                                    Once there was
like that memory: you were nine and the Goldman’s green Dodge was first base and the sewer grate second and home plate was only imagined
and distant
              as the older boys that came racing around the slope and the dogs
              began that twilight bark at the ends of their chains.

And when you reach that place, a plateau, you will be free in retrospect,
there, where the river moved slowly through town.

As a student you learned under the electric tube of lights that
hummed like bees,

              and sounded the same as the
                            hive that Samson saw in the lion’s rib cage.
He took something brutal from that image
And then later knew to set the foxes’ tails on fire.
And the fields, they burned.

Tabula rasa.
I can put the two-pronged question out
              Is a fable pulled taut
              A truth or is it just
              another stab at it?

The mystics know tightening the straps
That the pigeons’ honeyed voices and crushed wings cure jaundice

something else needs to quiver and die for us to be cured.
                                                                                                                              Recognize that.

What does it matter now?
there are the letters that were never sent
and more that never arrived.

In our dark history guards rolled cigarette from pages of Talmud,
Some of the words could have been worked
into great volumes of the future.
All poems after all are transcribed by
ghost writers and etched into the open palms.
A cataract, a clavicle,
The deep blue endless reality—not giving a shit.

The fabulist realizes: you cannot see what there is not there to see
Like a tattoo on the child’s bones.

Brittany Newmark
© 2011

Friday, December 2, 2011

Salty Dog Blues (& More!)

A happy Banjo Friday, folks!  There’s some great music today, so let’s get down to business.

Over the past couple of months on 
Banjo Friday we’ve looked at some less well-known types of banjos & banjo type instruments, & we’ve also looked at the regular 5-string banjo being used to make some types of music not usually associated with the instrument.  As a result, we’ve gotten quite far from the type of old-time banjo picking that I like best of all.  Fact is, when I sit down to listen to banjo music, it’s most likely to be players (& singers) like Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashely, Bascom Lamar Lunsford & others of that earlier generation.

But let’s face it: although that’s my personal preference, the average person doesn’t hear those weird old modal sounds so much when thinking about banjo music.  No—what they hear is bluegrass banjo, an exciting & virtuosic style that wouldn’t exist in its current incarnation without the huge contribution of one man—Earl Scruggs.

With the exception of Bill Monroe (with whom Scruggs played in the 1940s), no one person has done more to create the sound that we call bluegrass music.  Others have made huge contributions of course (including Lester Flatt, Earl’s partner both in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys & later in Flatt & Scruggs)—but Monroe’s singing style & Scruggs’ banjo style were truly formative. 

Scruggs Picking or Scruggs Style is a so-called “3-finger” style of banjo playing.  While many old-time banjoists would use one finger & the thumb (or one finger’s nail & the thumb) in so-called 2-finger & frailing styles, 3-finger playing uses the thumb, index & middle fingers to pluck the strings.  In Scruggs Style, the banjoist always wears fingerpicks & thumbpicks on these digits, while the pinky & ring finger brace against the banjo head for stability.  The three fingers then execute “rolls”—arpeggiated patterns that very often feature syncopation, or a shift in accent to the offbeats.

I should note that Scruggs was not the first player by any means to use a 3-finger style.  Old-timers like Dock Boggs, Charlie Poole & George Pegram all used 3-fingers frequently in their playing, & the great Uncle Dave Macon would actually switch between clawhammer playing & 3-finger style within a given song!  But Scruggs Style differs quite a bit in technique & sound from what these musicians & other early 3-finger style players produced.  Those who are interested can find a further explanation & both notated music & banjo tablature here.

“Salty Dog Blues” is simply a great song, & the fact that we get to listen to Scruggs pick a short but sweet version of his “Flint Hill Special” just adds to the enjoyment.  I like this video also because it gives a pretty fair view of Scruggs right hand, so you get to not only hear but actually see Scruggs Style playing from the man himself. 

This month will be all bluegrass here on Banjo Friday, so if that’s the banjo style you like best, there are some more great tunes to come!  In the meantime, I know you’ll enjoy this!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

I Feel Like Going Home

The new Robert Frost's Banjo Central
Hello friends, & welcome to Thursday!  Also—especially for those of you who don’t know me thru other forms of social media—welcome to my new home!  

Bay window with donated easy chair & rocking chair!

Yes, it’s a bit of a virtual housewarming as today’s post takes you on a tour thru the new Robert Frost’s Banjo Central.  If you’ve been following along here, you know that I’ve been looking for a place of my own since moving to Portland on August 5th; as of this past Saturday, that search reached its end when—with much help from various friends!—all of my earthly belongings were transported across town to my new digs in northeast Portland.

Living Room w/beloved Harmony archtop

More guitars, with couch & dining area!

Come on in my kitchen

& what would a party be without music, right?  So I picked two different songs that share the same title: “I Feel Like Going Home.”  The more upbeat number is the Muddy Waters’ tune, a 1948 recording featuring his slide guitar work on yet another re-working of the Delta classic “My Black Mama/Walking Blues.”  But Waters sure makes the setting his own with a beautiful slide part & his soulful vocal. 

The eponymous banjo & other musical instruments-Chaplin & Bow prints by blogger artist Kate Gabrielle!

In fact, both of the songs feature truly great singers.  The second “I Feel Like Going Home” is by Charlie Rich—& as Tom Waits said in an inspired rhyme, “he sure can sing, that son-of-a-bitch.”  The Rich song is sad, resigned—& while finding a place to call home has been a joy for me, I included this song because there’s sadness about this new chapter of my life as well—& a good deal of introspection & considering all the changes of the past several months.