Sunday, August 31, 2008

Walking the Line

Back in the day, our area in Idaho was connected by a train line—of course, everywhere was connected by trains. The line ran from Weiser, 40 odd miles southwest of here, to New Meadows, 40 odd miles northeast. Weiser, which sits right next to the Snake River (also the Oregon border) is known for its annual fiddle festival, held every June. New Meadows isn’t known for too much—probably not well known for Meadow Valley days, held each Labor Day weekend, & which we drove through yesterday on our way to McCall. But New Meadows is the home of the last surviving Pacific & Idaho Northern Railroad Depot, which is on the National Historic Register.

Anyhoo, the local rail line was the Pacific & Idaho Northern Railroad, or the PIN as locals apparently called it. The first spike of the PIN line was driven in Weiser in 1899; the last spike was driven in New Meadows in 1911. Along the way, the line served the Seven Devils mines, the Mesa Orchards (& other local orchards, including ones in Council), & even provided transportation for the local baseball league—the so-called PIN league, founded in 1916.

The line closed in 1995—the train had already stopped going as far as New Meadows in 1979, stopping after that
at Rubicon, which isn’t an incorporated town, but one of the many named “settlements” along the rail corridor. Many things associated with the PIN line are now things of the past—the Mesa Orchards, the Seven Devils mining operations, a lot of the local timber industry—& of course the PIN league. In 1997, the rail bed was deeded to the Friends of the Weiser Trail as part of the “Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.” The trail now stretches from Weiser to Rubicon, ready for hikers, bicyclists & horseback riders. It is true that the southern stretch of the trail is in the best condition; north of Council the trail is still being developed, though it’s certainly usable.

The trail didn’t come to the
area without some controversy. The railroad had run its right-of-way through ranches & even backyards, & Idaho is a state where the residents have a very strong sense of personal property rights. It’s also possible that some of the actions by the folks backing the trail were perceived as high-handed or unreasonable. There were times when residents barricaded certain sections of the trail, trying to restrict access to it, & intimidating some potential users; there may also have been times when hikers haven’t been responsible about closing pasture gates; there may, too, have been times when some historic points of access for farm equipment weren’t respected. How this all shakes out I can’t say, because I only know these things by hearsay, & I also have the (probably annoying) tendency to see both sides of a story. It is true that Eberle & I avoided walking the trail for some time because the controversy seemed a bit overwhelming.

But yesterday, as a sort of early anniversary cel
ebration, we did walk the trail in Council—not sure how far we went, but we started at the parking lot near Hornet Creek Rd & went on to mile marker 61—apparently a stop that was once used to pick up fruit from the Council orchards. The mile marker there (seen in the pic below) is interesting in that it’s fashioned from two railroad spikes.
It was a gorgeous walk—we followed a large flock of blackbirds north up the trail. The apple trees were in fruit along the way (quite possibly seeded from apples once carried by rail from Mesa Orchards—there are lots of apple trees in this area that came from those seeds); the serviceberries were also holding their dark blue berries, & sunflowers & mulleins were in bloom. The sun was hot on what will probably be one of the last real summer days—it’s cool & drizzly this morning. We walked until we stood for a while in the shade of an old willow, looking at the old barns on both sides of the tracks, watching the blackbirds as they retreated before our approach—sometimes forming a long line across the power lines stretched over the trail. The trail is a fun walk, & for someone like me who’s no longer physically “up” to real hikes, it’s ideal, because in any given stretch there’s not much of a grade.

Later as we drove toward McCall, we saw a mountain biker getting on the trail near the old Fruitvale post office, & also a couple of women hiking the more rugged stretch near Rubicon. It’s a different world now, with hikers & mountain bikes, & no trains….

If you’re interested in the Weiser River Trail, check out the following: Friends of the Weiser River Trail (this one is under construction, but has some info); Rails-To-Trails Conservancy; the Idaho Department of Fish & Game; & check out the excellent book on the PIN line, which is available through local historian Dale Fisk’s website (he also has info & mp3’s for his two bands, Hotwire & Highway 95). I got some info for this posting from the P&IN book by Dale & his co-author Don Dopf.

The photo at the top of this post was taken by Eberle Umbach.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?

Today’s offering is a poem, & quite a departure from the first one we posted (by Frost, of course). This one’s by a poet I’ve long admired, Kenneth Patchen. For those of you who don’t know—& Patchen is woefully under-taught, under-read, & as a result, under-rated among American poets— Patchen wrote from the mid 1930’s to the very early 70’s (he died in 1972—was born in 1911). Patchen has been described as a surrealist, a marxist, a proto-beat poet, a jazz poet (he did readings with Charles Mingus’ combo in the 50’s), & also experimented with “picture” poems. All of these characterizations sum up a part of his work, but what strikes me always about Patchen is how directly emotional his poems are, even right off the page—something that’s a lot easier to convey in singing a song than in the printed word. The poem, “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” was published in his First Will & Testament (1939). Enjoy!

Do the Dead Know what Time It Is?

The old guy put down his beer.
Son, he said,
          (and a girl came over to the table where we were:
          asked us by Jack Christ to buy her a drink.)
Son, I am going to tell you something
The like of which nobody was ever told.
          (and the girl said, I've got nothing on tonight;
          how about you and me going to your place?)
I am going to tell you the story of my mother's
Meeting with God.
          (and I whispered to the girl: I don't have a room,
          but maybe...)
She walked up to where the top of the world is
And He came right up to her and said
So at last you've come home.
          (but maybe what?
          I thought I'd like to stay here and talk to you.)
My mother started to cry and God
Put His arms around her.
          (about what?
          Oh, just talk...we'll find something.)
She said it was like a fog coming over her face
And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying
You can stop crying now.
          (what can we talk about that will take all night?
          and I said that I didn't know.)
You can stop crying now.

Kenneth Patchen (1939)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Country & Western & Us Folk

Eberle & I had the great pleasure of playing with our Bay Area pals, Chris & Dani Leone, & our McCall, Idaho pal, Lois Fry a couple of weeks ago at the 7th annual Council Mountain Music Festival—that’s us, The Spurs of the Moment in the pic—(Lois, yours truly, Eberle, Dani & Chris, l-r). It was a fun, if somewhat hectic gig—playing the role of “house band” in between the headline acts on Saturday evening—less fun for the Leones going & coming, as they were in Chris’ van with no a/c, & the temperatures were pushing triple digits lots of places on the route from Sonoma County to Indian Valley…. But we did get a kick out of doing old country songs with steel drum, melodica & tenor uke! (how’d that guitar & fiddle get in the picture?)

Anyhoo, it does get me thinking about Country & Western music, & how it connects to folk music, etc. It also—just for the sake of a gratuitous anecdote—reminds me of an Alice in Wonder Band gig at a garden party in Council. Before we started playing a fellow asked me what kind of music we played—I said, “old jazz standards & stuff like that,” or words to that effect, & he told me, “Around here, we like both kinds of music: country & western….”

But more to the point (if there is one) it gets me thinking to the days when country & western music was at least partially subsumed by the folkies. Back in the early 60’s, the Newport Folk Festival could showcase everybody from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to the Stanley Brothers & the Foggy Mountain Boys (not to mention Mississippi John Hurt & Reverand Gary Davis, et al.) But somewhere along the line—I’m assuming for political reasons—the old time bluegrass & country people gravitated away from the folkies, & then Dylan plugged in & Seeger didn’t cut the guitar cables, & the rest was history….

& it also gets me thinking about one song in particular: “The Great Speckled Bird.” As you may know, “The Great Speckled Bird” is an old country gospel song. The site lists 145 recordings of this song, a number of them by Roy Acuff, but all sorts of other well-known names come up: from Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Cash, & from Kitty Wells to Lucinda Williams. In case you didn’t know (& to quote from the lyrics) “the Great Speckled Bird is the bible.”

But what interests me about “The Great Speckled Bird” is how the tune keeps re-surfacing with new lyrics: “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” “The Wild Side of Life,” “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” & more recently Townes Van Zandt’s “Heavenly Houseboat Blues” & Butch Hancock’s “Stars in My Life” are all essentially the same tune with different lyrics; & I doubt that’s an exhaustive list. & this strikes me as a good thing.

We were listening to a documentary about Woody Guthrie a while back (to go back to a place where country & western & folk converge) & Bruce Springsteen was talking about how no one these days could really duplicate what Woody had done. Well, one reason for that is that Woody Guthrie felt perfectly fine about taking any old folk or gospel song & fitting it out with new lyrics—something that the current copyright laws do kind of discourage. I looked up Woody on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame site & noticed that of the five songs they specifically mentioned (“This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Dust Bowl Refugees”) Woody only wrote the music for two, at most. “This Land Is Your Land” is set to the old gospel tune “When the World’s On Fire”; “Grand Coulee Dam” is set to “The Wabash Cannonball”; & “I Ain’t Got No Home” is just a re-working of an old gospel song by the same name. “Pastures of Plenty” is a re-working of “Pretty Polly”; “Jesus Christ” is the old ballad “Jesse James”; “The Reuben James” is “Wildwood Flower”—etc.

In doing this Woody was following an old tradition (& as Utah Phillips has pointed out, one that was also followed by the Wobblie songwriters). It’s the real folk tradition—taking material that everyone knows & re-shaping it.

Of course, these days our folk songs are different. Eberle & I once conceived of a hootenany for the 00’s where we’d have the Alice in Wonder Band perform the theme songs from TV shows & get everyone to sing along. That’s probably the new campfire songbook. & of course, there you enter into the land of commercial songwriters, corporations, copyright, etc. So how is that “folk music?” A question to ponder….

Photo is by Tim Hohs.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Western Legends #1

It’s August & the grasshoppers erupt from every plant as you walk down the garden path. They ping against the corrugated tin siding on the shop, they crawl over the leaves of the wilted flowers, they make their way toward the basil & peppers & tomatillos—because this is the time of year when the garden’s a vegetable garden, & not so much for flowers. But mostly for grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers are ubiquitous here— if you walk in the tall grass past the stile or the wooden gates, the grass rustles with their motion. They’re not frenzied, just intent. They love the tall pasture grass, & the one llama & one alpaca can’t keep the pasture grazed… the grasshoppers like the mowed & watered lawn less—the
ir natural habitat is the wilted yellow pasture….

The praying mantis lurk in the lawn—you scarcely see them, because they hunt grasshoppers by not moving at all. Last year, Eberle had a pet praying mantis that lived for weeks on our porch, & she being a gardener to the core was delighted at the carnage the praying mantis could inflict on grasshoppers….& she’d also sally forth in the morning, scissors in hand because grasshoppers are sluggish in the cooler morning air…. the scourge, Nemesis the gardener swooping down on the grasshopper hordes….

It’s more harsh on top of the mesa than at the base
where we live; the south face of the mesa drains through our property, so we actually have water & trees, which means shade & a lawn that keeps the grasshoppers somewhat at bay. When we go to visit our friends on top of the mesa, the grasshoppers swarm the car—they erupt out of the bitterbrush & launch themselves off the gravel road; they crawl on the windshield & get stuck in the wipers when you turn the wipers on to dislodge them. When our friend & long-time artistic collaborator Judy Anderson used to live on the mesa, she tells how the grasshoppers would eat the screen from the screen windows & the clothes off her daughters’ Barbies. Some of the newcomers move up on the mesa & plant a vegetable garden, & one day in July, or August at the latest, wake up to see that the grasshoppers have eaten every leaf….Back in the early days, we raised guinea hens because one thing guinea hens do well is eat grasshoppers; & Eberle would drive her flock before her, & the guineas would work their way through the garden eating grasshoppers at a furious rate. True, you sacrificed some strawberries & pie cherries to the guineas, but all in all, they did what we’d dreamed of when we raised them from chicks under a heat lamp in our old house—they defended the garden.

Problem is, as efficiently as the guinea hens ate grasshoppers, practically every other wild critter ate the guinea hens—foxes, coyotes, owls, skunks, weasels, hawks, etc. Although the guineas could be pretty fierce (being birds, after all, which makes them fierce by definition)—I once saw two guinea roosters face off with a raccoon at twilight—they also had a bad habit of roosting in trees, where they’re mostly defenseless at twilight & in the early morning….

But Eberle thinks, & she may be right, that the grasshopper population right in our own corner of the world has never really built back up to the old plague proportions since the guinea hen days. But as you walk down the garden path, the grasshoppers ricocheting off your jeans & bursting out of the blown poppies, you wonder, & you get a feel for the real old west….

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


One thing that surprises folks who are starting to make my acquaintance, & who think of me in terms of musician/poet, etc. is that I love baseball. Always have, always will. It’s the perfect sport—at once leisurely & but with a constant promise of suspense. It’s true the evil powers-that-be are doing all they can to wreck the major leagues these days—national blackouts on Saturday afternoon except for the “Fox Game of the Week,” the monstrous intrusion of instant replay, assigning blowhards like Chris Berman & Rick Sutcliffe to cover nationally televised games on ESPN—a real abomination! But the game itself still is unsurpassed, & we can fervently hope that it survives all these, & all the other recent attempts to make it—like practically everything else in 21st century American culture—into pro wrestling.

Anyway, I have a different take on baseball, too—as much as I like the major league variety (but I’ve been known to catch minor league games, & the Hawaiian winter league, too); & that was the experience of playing it as an adult—a really transforming experience because, like my experience with music, it gave me the sensation of participating in something I loved, not just watching (i.e., “consuming”) it.

Back in the earlyish 90’s I’d quit smoking for the umpteenth time (have since quit for good, & so should you, boys & girls) & was concerned that I was getting portly—at least by my rail thin standards at the time. My old poebiz buddy Jonah told me how his Ed’s Redeeming Qualities’ bandmate Dani Leone & others played baseball on weekends. I said I might look into that, but corrected Jonah, pointing out that adults didn’t play baseball, they played softball.

So one Sunday afternoon I showed up at Jackson Park in San Francisco, & found out Jonah had been right. & though I wasn’t very good at it, I kept coming back. We had pick-up games, first every Sunday afternoon at Jackson, then later Saturday afternoons at Portrero Rec on top of Portrero Hill. Only one guy got mugged & one guy got his car stolen; otherwise, there were no non-baseball casualities involved. There were a few hit batsmen that must have smarted pretty good, & a couple of times folks got balls in the face (including yours truly), but by & large we managed to stay intact & have a great time. We’d play with as few as nine people (usually both guys & gals, though admittedly more of the former), playing three-on-three-on-three with right field closed; occasionally we’d even have more than 18 & folks would rotate in.

& though several of the folks could actually play a bit (& a lot of us could play a lot less), it wasn’t the usual bunch of sports bar jock has-beens. Mostly, folks came from the punk & alternative music scene (note: drummers can hit—they have quick wrists), so when we decided to “go legit” & join the Roberto Clemente League as the Mission District team, we had T shirts that listed the following bands: The Bedlam Rovers, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, Flophouse, Her Majesty the Baby, Jawbreaker, Strawman, & Poets—the latter not being a band, but being yours truly & Pete Simonelli, though Pete has later played in bands such as Shotwell (a band not on the t shirt that was liberally represented on the team), & the Enablers, his current gig. & of course, I’ve been in some bands since, too. One glaring omission from the t shirt was a great San Francisco band at the time, Paddlefoot, which had three of five members on the team; & when Paddlefoot put out their self-titled cd back in the mid 90’s, they used the team picture (shown above) as part of the album artwork.

There was always some debate among folks as to whether joining the league had taken the “fun” out of the pick-up games, & there may be some truth in that. I always loved the ragged pick-up games best myself, though I’ll also always remember my one day of glory in the league (2 for 2 with 2 rbi’s & a run scored)—the junkballer on the other team was actually throwing “my speed” for a change.

But the real fun—& the lesson, too, though it didn’t feel like one—was getting out there every weekend & playing, even though I was far from being a good baseball player. Those were some good days….

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Good Guitar

Yesterday’s post was a bit lugubrious—sorry, folks! I actually first thought about it looking at that pic from Duncan Mills; odd how that innocuous photo took me down that track (so to speak)…. Anyhoo, on to a lighter note today.

My favorite guitar these days is a 1958 Harmony Master—that’s the very one in the pic to the right. As you can see, it’s not much to look it—the fretboard is worn, the “block inlays” are painted on & partially worn off— in fact, there’s paint that’s worn off in a number of spots, & the tuners are slightly stiff, especially if you’re used to more contemporary guitar tuners (fortunately, I’m also used to the tuners on ukes & banjos, so this is less of an issue). Still, I’m almost invariably happy to play this guitar. Why is that?

Some of it’s pure sentimentality. I think about the fact the guitar is close to me in age (about two years younger, depending on when it was made in ‘58). But it goes beyond that. There’s something real & solid about the instrument (solid: I do describe it’s neck as being like a baseball bat!), & there’s something warm & real about the instrument's tone, too. Sometimes, you feel a connection with an instrument (or presumably some other object) & the instrument seems to have its own life as it’s being played.

Now I don’t mean this in the sense of “I make the instrument come alive”—hey, I know my strengths & weaknesses as a guitarist, & while I do ok, I’m not someone who knocks folks dead with my lyrical lines. No, I’m talking about an internal sense, some sort of connectedness to that guitar.

& why would I have that with what—despite now being a vintage instrument—was in its origin a cheap guitar? After all, Harmony guitars back when this instrument was first sold were going for around $50—maybe a few dollars less. There are mitigating factors, of course—the average old Harmony that’s still in reasonably good shape (cosmetics aside) is a better instrument than the cheapies you see nowadays. They were built to be played & enjoyed, & were built with an eye (or ear) for the instrument producing music. Sadly, that’s not true of many of the cheap guitars you see nowadays—with action too high for anyone to play, horrible intonation, etc. & too, if an instrument has lasted 50 years, it must have something going for it—some folks along the line have loved it & loved playing it.

Sometimes on various sites I do see folks advising aspiring guitarists, ukers, etc. to buy the absolute premium instrument. If you want a flat-top guitar, get a Martin or a Taylor; if you want an arch-top, get a Gibson or a D’Angelico. Are those instruments good?— you bet. They’ll sound better & play more easily than that 58 Harmony Master, or any other guitar I own. But that’s not the whole point. For one thing, not all aspiring musicians have the $ to plunk down a couple grand on a guitar. For another thing, there are intangibles—if you feel the instrument “suits you,” if you like the sound & feel. & then, too, it’s the guy or gal who’s picking on that instrument that’s making it sing—you can give a “numb-fumbling” guitar player a 1930’s Gibson, & he’s going to still sound like a numb-fumbler. There’s a story about this—the way I heard it first had to do with the great guitarist Chet Atkins; I’ve since heard other musicians (& instruments) substituted for Chet Atkins & the guitar, so the story may well be apocryphal. But whether or not the story’s a “fact,” it’s definitely “true.”

Seems Chet Atkins was noodling on a guitar one day in the studio. Someone said, “Man, that guitar sure sounds great.” Chet stopped playing, put the guitar back in its stand and said, "Well, how does it sound now?”

If you want to learn more about Harmony guitars (& ukes, etc.!) check out the following sites: The Unofficial Harmony Guitar Home Page; The Harmony Guitar Page; The Harmony Instruments Blog; The Humble Harmony Uke.

Monday, August 25, 2008

If You Miss The Train I’m On….

In songs & poems it seems someone is always gone—beyond reach: lovers, spouses, parents, family, friends, even the singer's or poet's past self. The singer or poet has had to move on to—where? A different future, a new place….

When I was young the trains still were running out of the depot at Bellows Falls, VT. There was one that ran about 3:00 a.m. Sometimes—especially on summer nights, it seems—I could hear the whistle moan; a ghostly sound, though at that age one doesn’t know much about ghosts… they’re just entities from "ghost stories"; they’re not a constant reality…

& then, too, there were whip-poor-wills down in the wooded area we called “the swamp.” It was low-lying, & was flooded most springs by the Saxtons River. Occasionally the river would come right through our backyard… but that’s another story…. & yes, you could hear the whip-poor-wills in the humid evenings as you tried to drop off to sleep, & yes, remembering that I can think of haunted Hank Williams & his beautiful ballad, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry….

There was a time when I used to think abstractly about absence & the role it plays in poetry. It seemed wrong, somehow, unhealthy perhaps—it seemed as if a poet had to foster absence in his/her life in order to write. That was a long time ago, now…. time was different, then, & absence didn’t mean the same thing. It wasn’t irrevocable—no, somehow it could be overcome… perhaps in a poem or a song….

The train says: I’m going away; the whip-poor-will sings: You’ll never see me… These are the songs from a long-ago evening, a long-ago night. They’re the songs I’ved recalled, somehow, when I’ve written poems—the songs I recall when I compose a ballad on the guitar….

As I get older, I see gulfs between the past & the present. When I was a young man, these gulfs weren’t real—even as they were starting to form….

I told Eberle earlier this summer that when you’re young, poetry is about sex & when you’re older it’s about loneliness. Is this true? It may be. In some ways, they are two sides of our human state—sex, the apparent antidote to loneliness, though as we know from songs & poems galore, often the precursor to even more acute loneliness; later, loneliness itself….

But to sing a song or write a poem isn’t to acquiesce to loneliness…. it’s taking a stance somehow against it…. someone will hear, someone will understand….

The picture is me at the restored Duncan Mills, CA depot earlier this year—not apropos of absence, but apropos of trains…

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

If you’re going to have a blog called “Robert Frost’s Banjo,” you do need to have a bit of poetry now & then (besides my links to my own stuff). Here’s a lovely poem by Frost from his collection New Hampshire (1923). In some ways, it’s another take on the theme I explored a bit in my “Willow, Weep for Me” post a few days back; & it suits my mood today. Enjoy.

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

Robert Frost, 1923

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Revolutionary Song

Utah Phillips, folksinger, raconteur, hobo & anarchist passed away back in May (that’s Utah in the pic). This was a real loss to all of us who appreciated his repertoire of old songs about trains, & workers, & the west, who guffawed at his wry & often ribald humor, & who valued his “take” on practically everything.

I had the privilege of seeing Utah perform once, along with his band of other hobo musicians, “The Rose Tattoo,” at Noe Valley Ministry in Baghdad by the Bay. Eberle was more fortunate, as she had the chance to hang out with Utah amongst a group of folks back in the old McCall days at Lardo’s, (a McCall, Idaho eatery & long-standing institution).

Anyway, one thing it seems Utah Phillips always insisted on at his live shows was audience participation. You had to sing along to at least one song—he’d threaten folks with sending Mormon missionaries to their home unless they joined in. He’d also say:

“In a mass-market economy, a revolutionary song is any song you sing yourself. Welcome to the revolution.”

This is a pretty profound, if apparently simple, concept. It does seem that with our cult of celebrity (& hey, I like celebrities as much as the next person, but…) we’re easily seduced into certain ideas: we don’t look right, we can’t sing, our lives aren’t interesting, etc. etc. Someone with a deeper understanding of marketing & capitalism & all sorts of related economic concepts might argue that these ideas make us all potential suckers for the right sales pitch—“there’s a sucker born every minute; you just happened to be coming along at the right time….”

Although I grew up playing the piano (& even had brief & less successful introductions to the sax & sousaphone), I pretty much gave up playing music in early adulthood (or at least what passed for that chronologically), & spent a number of years as someone who loved to listen to music, but convinced that creating music was what other people did—I was never “that great” at the piano, I wasn’t a great singer, I probably couldn’t learn another instrument well enough because blah, blah, blah….

It wasn’t until the approach of middle age that I rebelled against this & took up first the guitar, followed later by most of the stringed & fretted instruments I could lay my hands on. Am I a great guitar player?—no, not by a long shot. & I’m still not a great singer. But you know, that doesn’t really matter, because playing & singing is fun & a great outlet for lots of things, whether done alone or with others, & whether just playing for yourself or in front of an audience.

So the only thing I’d change about Utah Phillips’ statement is this: “a revolutionary song is any song you sing, or play, or compose yourself.” Bearing that in mind, how’s about getting out that old guitar, or that uke or banjo, or sitting down at the 88’s, or just belting out your favorite tune? Welcome to the revolution.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Me & Uke

I think I first fell for the uke back before my “real” musician days—I was living in San Francisco, & playing baseball with a lot of guys—& a few gals—from various punk & alternative bands; we ended up fielding a team in the mostly Hispanic Roberto Clemente league that played its games at Crocker-Amazon park, & mostly we got killed….

But I was also going to a lot of shows & listening to a lot of music, whilst meantime typing furiously at my various poetical endeavors. & one person from the baseball bunch who I knew a bit from another old poebiz buddy was Dani Leone who was not only a scrappy infielder & a surprisingly good contact hitter with a quick bat, but also played the baritone uke in a band called Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. I believe Dani played an old Silvertone, but maybe she can correct me if I’m wrong.

Ed’s Redeeming Qualities was a bit of a phenomenon back in those days (& in the days before I knew Dani & her assorted bandmates). They were quirky, literate, gave you the impression that you could do at least some of the things they did as well as they could—an illusion really, because all the Ed’s folks had lots of musical ability, could write catchy & intelligent songs, & were great at “showmanship”—a quality that doesn’t necessarily follow other types of performing talent. The band was started back in Durham, NH by Dani’s cousin Dom, who died tragically; then the remaining band members: Dani, Carrie Bradley & Nino Perrota, moved to Baghdad by the Bay just in time to catch a dip in housing prices thanks to the Loma Prieta quake. Later, Nino headed back for Ohio, while Jonah Winter (my poebiz buddy from Charlottesville, VA) moved to San Francisco & joined the band.

Anyhoo, when Dani played the uke she exuded fun, so who wouldn’t want to take up the uke? Dani was also one of the people who was instrumental in getting me to think that if you love music, you need to make music, not just listen to it (my dear wife Eberle is definitely one of the others). But truth be told, it wasn’t till some time later, after I’d already taken up the guitar, after I’d moved to Idaho, that Eberle bought me an Epiphone soprano for my 42nd birthday. We spent that weekend up at Burgdorf alternating between strumming the uke in our cabin & taking dips in the hot springs.

That was practically 10-years ago; since then I’ve acquired other ukes along the way: a Harmony soprano, both a concert-scale & tenor-scale Fluke; a Hilo baritone (a “beach” uke, i.e. a beater); a Lanikai baritone; the “no-name” vintage banjo uke that’s on the masthead here; & a Beltona tenor resonator uke.

The uke has been fun—Dani was right, as usual. It’s easy to play, though you can certainly find ways to use it—like chord melody etc. that aren’t intrinsically easy & can be plenty challenging. Nothing sounds quite like one—& if you spend a reasonable amount of money, you can get one that sure sounds pretty. A lot of the bad press about ukes I think comes from the $20 cheapies you can find at most music stores. No, they don’t stay in tune, & yes they do sound like a half-broken music box. But there are plenty of $100 guitars out there that sound extremely odd & are extremely unplayable—& once some poor kid has plunked down cash on one of those, he/she is out $80 more with nothing more to show for it than you get with a cheap uke.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mandocellos & Helicopters

It’s about a year ago—a bit less—we’re enjoying a brief, impromptu visit from our friend Bernie Jungle (his real name), woodworker/message therapist/musician extraordinaire, passing thru on his way back from a wedding in New York state—a truly epic affair where we could have seen everyone we’ve known from a certain crucial part of our lives but for various reasons can’t make—so we catch the folks as they head back west.

Anyhoo—it’s August & we’re just back from Portland, OR ourselves & it’s hot of course & there are dry thunderstorms & about half of Idaho has burned up already what with a humungous range fire down in the southeast that lasts most of the summer & all sorts of fires threatening to burn down all the old mining spots like Warren & Burgdorf to the northeast of us, & all the smoke from said fires being pumped every dawn into Indian Valley because Indian Valley draws all the smoke in the summer as if it were a chain smoker inhaling hard (it also draws in the frozen fog in the winter, but the metaphor kinda falls apart there), which isn’t so great for someone like yours truly with bad lungs...

Anyway, I’m showing Bernie this new instrument I have—what looks like a guitar (or slightly larger) & has eight-strings arranged in four courses (i.e., four pairs) like a mandolin? A mandocello, of course—though few of us in the states have ever been lucky enough to get our hands on this weird machine. Of course, Bernie is playing it like he’s played it for years within minutes of picking it up….

Mandocellos aren’t used much in the States—more so in the British Isles—at least so I’ve been told (in the email sense) by Mike Soares' y of Soares' y guitars in Queens, from whom I purchased my mandocello. But back at the turn of the 20th century & a bit earlier, there was a big craze in the U.S. for “mandolin orchestras.” The mandolins (however many they could recruit) would play the melodic lines, like a violin section(s) (mandolins & violins, as you may or may not know, being tuned to the same notes), then there were instruments called mandolas that would take the viola part— & you guessed it—the mandocellos played the cello part. The orchestras also would have a bass & usually a guitar or two for the chords—& sometimes another remarkable device called a harp guitar, which is sorta like a guitar that sprouted several bass strings with no fret board. The orchestras played popular stuff of the day, & popular classics—a genre that died out about 100 years ago.

Meanwhile, apropos of nothing at all mandocelloish, my wife Eberle & I see Bernie out to his Toyota van & see a Forest Service fire truck headed down our (dirt) road, & wonder where the hell he’s going, not realizing that probably while Bernie was noodling beautifully on the mandocello, there had been three lightning strikes about five miles due east of here on the far side of a ridge—& a bit later on while doing dishes & looking at the view, I see columns of smoke coming up over the ridge— & then there are tanker planes & all hell breaks loose as the locals claim the Forest Service kept them from getting out with heavy equipment & digging lines that might have contained the whole thing & the Forest Service trying to answer all these accusations & meantime setting up a command post in someone’s pasture a few miles south…

In the evening the fire is running up to the ridge top & threatening the big new house half way down the ridge, & we’re trying to decide which instruments to throw in the back of the pick-up & which to leave behind. I think the mandocello made the final cut… I don’t remember now… but the fire turns northeast & heads for the big Tamarack resort up by Donnelly & coincidentally becomes a number one priority fire nationally. It ends up burning 25,000 acres but, miraculously, only one outbuilding somewhere along the way…

Why Robert Frost? Why the banjo?

So my wife & I are out driving on this yellow & stifling August afternoon coming down 50 miles & more than 2000 feet from the Idaho pines & the temperate lake breezes to the Idaho rangelands where the heat’s rippling off the blacktop & the landscape is all wilted yellow-purple-brown dotted with gnarly bitterroot & pale sagebrush & U.S. flags & where during the last boom formidable homes sprang up on 40 acre McRanches replacing the double-wides, & folks from the big homes would stop by in August & ask “Where’s the water? There was water on my property back in April when I bought it,” & of course the rangeland is emerald green in April, & temperate, & full of blackbird trills… & all the folks at the big houses buy their scotch pines to plant, because this is Idaho of course & you have to have pine trees, not noticing perhaps that there really are no trees in Indian Valley except aspens & cottonwoods—trees whose shallow roots can find some water above the hard-pan—so the pines either wilt in the summer heat & drought or are stunted….

So we’re driving home—but what does this have to do with Robert Frost or the banjo? We’re talking about the farrago of topics that occupy my mind & whether they have any unifying element—because I’m thinking a blog ought to be about something more definite than what I’m thinking about on a given day; & we’re talking about music & the history of musical instruments & all the anecdotes I’ve picked up between Vermont & Virginia & San Francisco & Idaho & various rest stops in between & maybe some sort of America the way it never was vision out of Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” & a postcard collection that takes up three bulletin boards & a rather large drawer in the old sideboard, & an off-&-on obsession with poetry that doesn’t add up in many ways, since it tends to focus on both Elizabeth Bishop & Ted Berrigan, & she says, “Well, it’s sort of come down to Americana—it’s like Robert Frost’s banjo.”

Robert Frost—the avuncular rural Vermont poet who writes about sleighbells in easy to read rhymed pentameter—except he wasn’t from Vermont (or New Hampshire—for which we native Vermonters can be glad at least) at all but from Baghdad by the Bay as it used to be called back when Baghdad stood for sinful glamour & not bombed-out imperialist apocalypse— & his vision of the world encompasses “Desert Places” & a lonely train ride across Utah & various forms of insanity….

& the banjo—so quintessentially American, though actually not American at all but African—a sort of elongated & 4-stringed thumb piano with a drone (because it seems, the string added later in the 19th century wasn’t the drone string); a gourd on a pole, a slave instrument that wouldn’t have much to do with 3-chord music but then later was transformed through minstrel shows & the early 20th century banjo craze to reflect white America’s tastes in popular music—was then pretty much abandoned only to re-surface both in bluegrass through Earl Scruggs’ re-interpretation of old time techniques & with the addition of thumb & fingerpicks, or in the folkie movement under the unremittingly benign vision of Pete Seeger, complete with frailing fingernail & thumb, or with Pete’s own re-vision of the banjo—long-necked & played sort of guitar style with the middle finger plucking up instead of the fingernail striking down….

So anyway, folks, thanks to my wife—also, if she’d ever practice, a far better banjo player than I am—this is “Robert Frost’s banjo,” & after all the talking is over, & the coffee’s drunk & you’ve cleaned up the last crumbs of strawberry rhubarb pie, this is still me just writing about whatever comes to mind. Hope you’d like to come along for the ride….