Friday, October 31, 2008

Coming Soon – Musical Questions!

We’ ll be starting a new feature at Robert Frost’s Banjo in November—interviews with various musician friends. I say “we” in the literal, not royal sense here, because I got lots of help formulating the final baker's dozen questions from Eberle & Audrey Bilger, both of whom know their way around an interview. In fact, Eberle was so helpful, she’s going to be the first interviewee—her interview post should be up on Monday morning, November 3rd; & there’s another one already scheduled after that—Council guitarist & mandolin player Dale Fisk of both Highway 95 & Hotwire has graciously agreed to participate, & Dale's interview will be posted on Monday morning, November 10th. After that, the series will be posted at semi-regular intervals, depending on how quickly we can get the interviews completed. It’ll continue until we run out of musician friends to pester.

Look for Eberle’s interview next Monday, & Dale
Fisk’s the following Monday!
Bottom pic: A trio of Musical Questions mad interviewers: Audrey, Eberle & yours truly at Claremont College after a Bijou Orchestrette show/Shipman screening

Thursday, October 30, 2008


What do you picture in your mind when you see the word “guitar?” It’s always interesting to me to think about these ur-images: do you see a flat-top acoustic like a Martin? Do you see a Stratocaster? The possible shapes have indeed proliferated since the invention of the solid body electric, since the contours of that instrument don’t determine the sound it produces. Some folks may picture a classical guitar, or even a shiny old metal National. Whatever may come into my mind as a picture (which might depend on the context), the guitar I most like to have in my hands is the archtop.

The development of the archtop guitar is entwined with the history of jazz music, & particularly the transition from the early days of hot jazz, where the banjo ruled, to the days of big band & swing, in which the archtop guitar brought a more mellow sound to the music; this was the origin of archtops being referred to as “the jazzbox.” But the archtop guitar was used outside of jazz—Mother Maybelle Carter played an archtop—a beautiful Gibson L-5 acoustic. Archtops are also used by blues players—both Buddy Guy
& Howling Wolf played Kay archtops, for instance; & for some time the brilliant (& musically unclassifiable) Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence played a Kay archtop, too.

The archtop guitar actually dates back before the jazz era; it was developed in the 1890s by Orville Gibson (yes, that Gibson) whose company was already making archtop mandolins. While Gibson’s original instruments featured the carved soundbox & the cello-like tailpiece, it didn’t have the violin (or cello) style “f” holes now commonly associated with archtops—the tailpiece & the “f” holes have led to archtops also being referred to as “cello guitars.” They’re also referred to as “plectrum guitars,” which is confusing, since “plectrum guitar” also refers to a four stringed instrument typically tuned like a plectrum banjo. The ca
rved soundbox of early archtops was later replaced by a lamination process on a number of models; carved archtops are still made, however.

Gibson’s archtops were large, & thus projected a bigger sound than the flat-top guitars of the day. They also were fitted with steel strings to produce more volume. Of course, steel strings are common on most guitars these days (other than classical guitars, of course), but in the 19th century, gut strings were more common, & simply couldn’t produce as much volume as steel.

Historically, the guitar has had the reputation of being a quiet instrument—for most of its existence since the 16th century, the guitar has only been suited for small ensembles with other relatively quiet string instruments. Of course, this has also meant that the guitar has long been an ideal instrument for vocal accompaniment, since the singer doesn’t have to strain to be heard. Obviously, the electromagnetic pick-up introduced in the 1930s changed that, but earlier developments also addressed the problem—not only the development of the archtop, but also the invention of the resonator guitar in the 1920s.

& speaking of the 1920s, in 1922 Lloyd Loar was a designer hired by Gibson in an attempt to boost their sales. Loar’s answer was the Gibson L-5, the first archtop featuring f-holes, & in time to become the rhythm guitar of the big band era. The pi
c at the top of this post (from Wikipedia Commons) shows the L-5 used by Eddie Lang, an early master of jazz guitar who played with (among others) Paul Whiteman, King Oliver, & Bing Crosby (back in the days when “der Bingle” could swing, before he became the pipe-smoking avuncular crooner).

An interesting observation about the sound-producing characteristics is made on this page. The writer states: "In the early days of radio, the hertz spectrum reproduction was very limited, lots of mids, very little low or high end. These guitar
s were designed to rule the middle ground, and they do. When playing a heavy rhythm style, they have no equal in the midrange department. " This, of course, also would help account for the popularity of the archtop in the days when radio was the main medium for disseminating music. In addition, because the archtop design is inherently strong & stable, the guitars can be readily fitted with heavy gauge strings, also enhancing the volume.

A number of well-known guitarists, both in jazz & other genres have been associated with the L-5; Wes Montgomery & Lee Rittenour are two renowned jazz guitarists who played L-5’s; Elvis Presley’s 1950s RCA recordings feature some red-hot work on an L-5 by Scotty Moore; more recently, Clapton has recorded using one of these guitars; & the L-5 appears on David Grisman & Martin Taylor’s wonderful Tone Poems II album.
Taylor plays an L-5 on the duo’s rendition of “It Had to Be You” (on which Grisman triples on L-5 mandolin, L-5 mandola, & K-5 mandocello!), & again on their cover of “Please.” The three-volume Tone Poems series is highly recommended, tho I’d have to say Tone Poems II is my own favorite.

Gibson didn’t hold a monopoly on archtops, however. Soon enough other companies came out with their own designs, among them D’Angelico (& later D’Aquisto, who bought the D’Angelico business),Gretsch, Epiphone (back in the days before it was bought out by Gibson to use as their low-end mark), Selmer, Kay, Guild, Harmony, etc.

When the electromagnetic pick-up was invente
d, it was put to use by the Benny Goodman band’s great Charlie Christian on a Gibson ES-150. This really brought the guitar to a new prominence, & was the beginning of the jazz guitar sound we hear today. There was a problem with amplifying hollow-body archtops, however, especially at high volumes—feedback. While the solid body electric was one response to this, the solid bodies don’t have the warm tone associated with archtops. In 1958 Gibson tried to address this problem by creating the ES-335, a “semi-hollowbody electric.” These instruments do have a soundbox, though it’s not as deep as that in a hollowbody archtop. They also contain a solid wood block that runs thru the center of the sound box in an attempt to absorb reflected sound. As an aside—can you believe ES-335s went for $267.50 in 1958; these days the re-issues are going for $2K to $3K. While this design has become popular & imitated by a number of makers, there still is some problem with feedback. Apparently B.B. King used to stuff towels into the f-holes of his 335 to eliminate feedback; later King simply had Gibson design him a custom model without f-holes. Semi-hollowbody archtops are popular in jazz, rock & blues, & are also associated with classic rockabilly.Bottom pic by Eberle—yours truly with my old archtop Harmony Master—definitely not a Gibson, but still well-loved—taken in our beach cottage at Manzanita a few week back— & this guitar player is a very long road trip back of any players mentioned in this post....

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Train Songs #3

Here’s installment three (of five) of the "Train Songs" series. If you missed them, you can find installments one & two here & here. Again, I’d love to hear about any train songs you like either in comments or by email.

· King of the Road: Roger Miller; R.E.M.– OK, this is both an obvious choice & a bit of a goofy song. But like many of Miller’s big 60s hits, it’s infectious, & fun to play. R.E.M. did a very boozy version of this on their Dead Letter Office album; you really do have to be at least a bit snookered to get lost in such a simple set of ch
ord changes, but I always got a kick out of this version. This song’s been covered by lots of folks.
· The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore: Jean Ritchie
(check out her own website, too, here); Michelle Shocked; Johnny Cash - From the ridiculous to the sublime—this is one of the songs Jean Ritchie wrote under the pseudonym of Than Hall. “The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore” is a moving song about a town in economic crisis as the coal mines close, & the train that used to carry the coal now just rolls past—the coal cars now are “standing rusty, rollin’ empty.” Ritchie has a great feel for the devastation that takes place when an industry leaves an area, even as she acknowledges the serious problems associated with natural resource industries (for instance, in her song “Black Water”). Both Michelle Shocked & Johnny Cash have done solid covers of this beautiful minor scale tune.
· Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad: The Carter Family; Bill Monroe– The definitive country gospel train-as-metaphor-for-life song; it’s been c
overed by lots of folks—the Carters & Monroe are simply among the best known (& among the best musicians). The song was written in the 19th century by Charles Tillman; the lyric is by a Baptist preacher named M.E. Abbey, who wrote the words in 1890. It’s also frequently called “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” I like it best at a slow to moderate tempo, but some bluegrass folks speed it up.
· Love In Vain: Robert Johnson – with all deference to the Rolling Stones, who do a credible cover of this tune, “Love in Vain” is a Robert Johnson song, period, end of sentence. Johnson's guitar playing & vocals are the very essence of delta blues.
· Midnight Special: Lead Belly – An interesting figure, Lead Belly—magnificent singer, & that big-voiced 12-string.... He was associated a lot with Seeg
er & the Weavers, etc., but he was way bluesier & edgier than the folkies—just listen to “Poor Howard” or the “Bourgeois Blues.” When Lead Belly wrote about prison, as in “Midnight Special,” (similar in theme to “Folsom Prison Blues”) he wrote the hard way, from first-hand experience. There’s a pic of Lead Belly at the bottom of this post.
· Mystery Train: Elvis Presley – OK, Elvis lovers, this is the one time the King makes it on the list. I’m actually a real fan of the rockabilly sides Presley did for Sun records, “Mystery Train” among them.
· Night Train: James Brown – “The hardest working man in show business” could take a song apart every which way, make it his own, & of course get folks dancing
—for my money about the greatest thing that can happen when performing music. James Brown was blessed with a powerful & exquisitely emotive voice & energy & dance moves to match; & I’m always blown away by the backing he got from his bands. If I had it all to do over again, one part of me would love to play bass or rhythm guitar in an R&B band.
· Nine Pound Hammer: Merle Travis – When you have a style of guitar playing named after you, you can be pretty sure you were darned good. What goes by the name of “Travis picking” is actually a bit different than what Merle actually played, but it sure is fun; & it’s always fun & instructive to listen to Travis. This song has been do
ne by lots of other folks, but it’s closely associated with the master country fingerpicker.
· Old Buddy, Goodnight: Utah Phillips - Recorded on his Good Though! album, “Old Buddy, Goodnight” is one of my favorites among Utah’s many wonderful songs. A heart-wrenching tale of loneliness, about hobos finding a dead & unknown hobo in a boxcar; the most memorable line: “There’s some thing’s worse than dying alone; one of them’s living that way.”
· On the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe: Tommy Dorsey; Johnny Mercer – a fun swing tune that’s been covered by lots of big bands, etc. Merc
er could really get folksy when the lyric called for it, but always in a slyly sophisticated way—music by the great Harry Warren of 42nd Street fame.
· One More Mile: Jean Ritchie – Another of Ritchie’s Than Hall songs. Ritchie has said she adopted the Than Hall pen name because she didn’t believe her compositions would be taken seriously under a woman’s name. There’s no question that Ritchie is an extremely talented composer, & it’s a shame this isn’t more widely recognized in old-time & country music circles. This song explores loneliness & isolation in married life thru the story of a railroad man who’s always abandoning his wife & child to go “one more mile.”
· Orange Blossom Special: Johnny Cash; Flatt & Scruggs – This song is associated with Cash, perhaps because of his version on the At Folsom Prison album, but of course it’s a traditional bluegrass tune that’s covered by folks you’ve heard
of & folks you never will, & everyone (bluegrass-wise) in between. These days it seems de rigueur to interpolate “The Flintstones Theme” into “Orange Blossom Special,” which is kind of fun. An odd jazz connection there: “The Flintstones Theme” is based on “rhythm changes,” the chord changes to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which underlie so many jazz compositions. So when “The Flintstones” make their way into “Orange Blossom Special,” this old country tune becomes a kissing cousin to bebop standards like Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Parker’s “Moose the Mooch” (actually, a number of Parker’s tunes) & Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.”

Two more installments in the "Train Songs" series
still to come...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sheep with Old Farm Equipment

I love this sheep pic taken by our pal Margot Kimball who’s been out in the Wild West the past few days, away from her home in Concord, MA. Sheep are among the most pacific of critters, & I always find it calming to watch them. The photo was taken yesterday on “Plum Alley,” just after the sharp east bend on North Gray’s Creek Road; it was a glorious day for a stroll. We all had fun contemplating the serene ovine lifestyle.


Halloween is a great season for catching up on classic horror films—needless to say, I suppose. These days (those of us well into middle age need remember) the term “classic” also includes films, music, etc. from our young adulthood; a slightly disorienting fact, but true nonetheless.

But I’ll be using the term “classic” in my own sense, which means I’m going a ways further back. There are more recent horror flicks that Eberle & I both enjoy: The Lair of the White Worm is a fun, if somewhat campy romp—Amanda Donohoe is both très sexy & très droll as the vampire—but generally we explore much earlier films come Halloween; & some of these are “classics” in the sense that everyone is (or should be) familiar with them: the Lugosi Dracula & the Karloff Frankenstein, both from ’31; the silent masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (’20), Nosferatu (’22—though I’m also a big fan of Herzog’s ’79 version), & the ’25 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera—this list could, of course, be expanded a lot. However, one of the best of the early horror films isn’t as widely known as the others I listed—that’s the 1932 Vampyr, by Swedish director Carl Dreyer.

The images & atmosphere of Vampyr are truly haunting—& haunted. From the opening shots of a silhouetted angel above a hotel sign & an old man shouldering a scythe while ringing a bell until the final shots of flour cascading down in a mill, the film is a swirl of eerie imagery. We see disembodied shadows, a man witnessing himself in a coffin (partly shot from the perspective of looking up thru a small window in the coffin), we move thru the claustrophobic but beautiful rooms of a chateau— & the objects populating the film, from chairs to a clock without a face to painted doors, are all photographed in such a way that they exude aura.
Frequently both the viewer & the characters are looking thru windows—as the protagonist Allan Gray is looking thru the window of his own coffin in a dream state. The film opens with Gray looking thru the lighted windows of an inn—& the lights are then immediately extinguished. Shots of windows proliferate throughout the film—tall windows in the chateau, a room in which the heroine is imprisoned seen thru a reinforced window, etc. At a certain point, we ask—“Which side of the window are we on?” This is “mirrored” as it were by the shadow figures—an evil peg-legged soldier who exists independently both as a body & a shadow; a shadow catching shovelfuls of earth as he “digs” in reverse; shadow dancers swirling across a room. At one point, we see an assassin’s shadow, & we ask, “Is this one of the shadow figures, or is this an actual shadow?” At another point, we see young Leone, who’s been victimized by the vampire, staring up from her sickbed in a shot that echoes our view of Gray looking up from his coffin.

This in itself mirrors the film’s initial description of Gray—a young man who has studied vampirism & the occult until the boundary between fantasy & reality have become blurred. Indeed, the plot of this very dream-like movie isn’t easy to follow; one is constantly questioning the “reality” of the onscreen fiction; how many fictive layers can there be? What does it mean in terms of “real” plot when Gray leaves his body to witness his funeral? What does it mean earlier when Gray awakens in his locked room at the end to find the Lord of the Manor there, leaving Gray a package inscribed, “To be opened at my death?” It’s the sense you might experience when you dream that you’re dreaming….
Vampyr was originally shot as a silent film, & it’s embued with the atmosphere I associate with silents. Though it was released as a sound picture, the added dialogue is sparse (my favorite line: when the heroine Gisèle asks, “Why does the Doctor always come at night?”) As with the better silents, the film’s world is much more visual than aural. The score by Wolfgang Zeller is, however, masterful. While never overwhelming the onscreen action (something those of us who work with silent film music should always keep in mind), it constantly supports & advances the story. The photography is haunting, & the effects (the disembodied shadows, for example) never seem cheap or gimmicky. Apparently parts of the film were shot thru a gauze filter, rendering the scenes indistinct, & again, illustrating the unsettling dream aspect.

Dreyer often used non-professionals as the actors in
his films, & Vampyr is no exception. Only two roles are played by professionals—the role of Leone (by Sybille Schmitz) & the role of the Lord of the Manor (by Maurice Schutz). While the performances by the actors all “work” well in the film, the atmosphere surrounding the action is the real star & the real story. Dreyer apparently told his cameramen: “Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered: everything in it has taken on another level; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed... This is the effect I want to get.” Alfred Hitchcock said Vampyr is “the only film worth watching… twice.” (interesting that Hitchcock, who was so disdainful of actors would be so taken with a film mostly made with non-professionals)Our copy of Vampyr was taped off TCM a few years back; however, I understand it’s now available on two 2008 DVD editions showcasing the beautifully restored version—these are put out thru The Criterion Collection (in the US) & The Eureka Masters of Cinema Collection (in the UK). It was shown on TCM this month, but sadly, it was before this posting; sorry ‘bout that (my personal pick from the TCM upcoming line-up: White Zombie from 1932 with the great Bela Lugosi—it’s being shown on October 31st at 2:15 p.m. Eastern Time). Netflix is listing Vampyr as a future choice; they don’t have it available to queue, tho it can be “saved.” It does appear to be available in its entirety at YouTube (the first 20 seconds or so are an intro added by the user, but after this the film begins as it should—I didn’t watch the entire film on this site, but the run length seems correct. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the user is correct when she claims that the film is public domain, but that's none of our business. From what I watched of the YouTube version, the visuals lost a fair amount in the transfer, but it does have the virtue of being free & available; the video has been on YouTube since ’06; the same copy also appears here on Google media. The Criterion Collection edition is available from Amazon.

If you can get your paws on this for Halloween viewing, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. This is true psychological horror, & chilling without relying at all on cheap thrills—a masterpiece of the genre.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Vegetable Mafé

We’ve been enjoying a visit with our Cambridge, MA pal Margot Kimball over the weekend, & as part of the festivities, I made a dish from the Africa News Cookbook that we all like—Vegetable Mafé. This is a great autumn stew, wonderfully heartening on a brisk day (tho admittedly, Sunday was gloriously warm), & makes use of the root crops you associate with the season. In fact, once upon a time, Eberle & I used this recipe for a Thanksgiving dinner.

Traditionally, Mafé or Maafe is served with meat; its distinguishing characteristic is the mixture of a tomato sauce with a groundnut sauce—for our purposes, peanut sauce. It’s found throughout much of West Africa, though it’s particularly associated with Senegal. According a 2007 Washington Post article about the development of southern co
oking, a variant of Mafé brought to Virginia by West African slaves eventually developed into Virginia peanut stew.

Here are the ingredients:
2 large onions, chopped fine
4 Tbsp of oil—I typically use olive oil these days; the official recipe calls for peanut oil, which I’ve used in the past.
2 cups (or a bit more) of yams—i.e., the sweet potatoes with orange flesh; from what I understand, these aren’t true “yams,” which are found in Africa (sort of like the musk melon that’s sold as cantaloupe here Stateside). Whatever they are, they sure taste great. You can substitute sweet potatoes (i.e., the sweet potatoes with yellow flesh), winter squash or pumpkin. 2 cups is roughly the equivalent of a medium-sized yam
—not one of those huge ones.
2 turnips—the recipe calls for four, but tho I like turnips, this seems like a lotta turnip to me in relation to other stuff. Again, of course, turnips vary a lot in size—I tend to go with medium sized ones (“moderation in all things?”)
4 medium potatoes, chopped—I’ve used both red potatoes (but not the real small ones, or if so, then increase the number to get the equivalent of 2 cups & a bit of change) & Yukon Golds.
2 large carrots, chopped
A note on all these root crops—they don’t cook real fast, & if you don’t want some of the vegetables that follow them into the pot to be reduced to an essence, I’d chop them into smallish bit-sized chunks—not chopped fine, but not real big chunks, either. This is especially true of the yams (or substitute) & the carrots.

½ a small cabbage, chopped coarsely
2 large tomatoes, chopped or quartered
1 bunch of leafy greens—you can use spinach, Swiss chard, or any number of delicious greens—or heaven forbid—a small package of frozen spinach)
1 tsp of cayenne—you can substitute 2 chiles if you prefer
2 cups of tomato sauce
¾ cup of peanut butter—I’d go for the creamy, but there’s no absolute rule against chunky if you swing that way.

First you sauté the onions in a heavy stew pot with th
e oil—our old workhorse 5.5-quart Creuset is just about right—remember, before this cooks down, there’s quite a bit of volume here, so it needs to be a large pot. The vegetables are added one at a time, & per the original directions, I sauté each of them for at least a minute—maybe closer to two—before adding the next. One thing to note: because the vegetables go into the pot in fairly quick succession, it’s advisable to have most if not all of the chopping done before you start—I’m usually a chop as you go kinda guy, but that really doesn’t work well with this recipe. You should plan on close to 30 minutes of chopping if you’re just an average Joe (“Joe the short order cook”?!?) with a knife, like me—maybe a bit less if you actually know how to handle cutlery (“Joe the chef?!?”) I’ve noted that it takes close to 45 minutes between the time you start to heat the oil to the time when you add the tomato sauce. Of course, you’re stirring occasionally throughout this time. I typically add the cayenne to the tomato sauce so it can mix in more freely—at that point in the cooking, the vegetables haven’t tended to yield as much water as they do later on. Anyhoo, when you add the tomato sauce, also add about a cup of water, stir, then let the stew simmer until the vegetables are tender—I cover the pot. This will take around 30 minutes, but of course check the vegetables from time to time. It’s best to check the yams, because they cook most slowly.

Then comes the fun part. You spoon up ¾ of a cup of peanut butter & ladle about a ½ cup of the broth from the pot. At this point, there will be quite a bit of liquid available. You mix the broth & the peanut butter, et voilà—you have a lovely peanut sauce. Add this to the pot, & let it simmer for another 10 or 15 minutes—longer is ok, but at a certain point I’d get the heat down as low as you can if you’re going to leave it on the stove—otherwise, you’ll have essence of greens.

I serve this over white rice, which as I understand is
traditional, though apparently different places serve different starches with Mafé—while rice is pretty “classic,” in some places it’s served over couscous & in some places over fufu (see this old post for my thoughts on fufu). I also think it would be quite good served over brown rice.

A great vegetarian stew for an autumn afternoon or eve
ning! Noble turnips

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Old Banjo

I’ve been reading Picturing the Banjo lately, the catalog from the exhibition of the same name. Fascinating stuff—how images of the banjo thru U.S. history have signified in often contradictory ways. I’ll be posting a full review of Picturing the Banjo at a later date; but this a.m., while stumbling around on the wonderful whacky web, I found a fascinating collection of old banjo (& guitar, mandolin—all bowlbacks, or tater bug, if you will—, uke, fiddle, etc.) images here.

This site is maintained by a banjoist named Joe Bethancourt. While the pix aren't high resolution, there are some very evocative images here—as well as a few somewhat problematic ones (for instance, musicians in blackface) which frankly, can’t really be avoided with an instrument whose history is so emeshed in the complicated & often terrible history of race in this country. Overall, the pix show the banjo & other instruments in a variety of settings—everything from posed pix of family bands & banjo orchestras to sentimental greeting cards & pix of bric-a-brac, from old sheet music to vintage cheesecake pix.

Anyhoo, Bethancourt has 40 pages of these images, with eight or nine (I believe) per page. He states that all the images are public domain, which seems very likely. I’ve included several with this post, just to give you an idea.
Bethancourt has a masthead that reads: “Edifying Pictures for the Collector & Historian”; this clearly seems to be tongue in cheek—still, there is an edification in terms of our culture: how it’s transformed, what its roots are; as an example—there are quite a number of pix of women playing the banjo. I know from other reading that the banjo was quite a popular “parlor” instrument for women in the late 19th century, yet in the (unfortunate) way that instruments take on aspects of gender, it seems the banjo now is culturally more indentified with the male.In addition to these sorts of considerations, there’s always something interesting to me to see people interacting with instruments in unfamiliar settings—what is different & what’s the same about a musician’s affect & bearing & presentation over time.

It’s an interesting site. Check it out when you have a chance.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Election 08

This is a looong one, so be forewarned….

Temperamentally, I have an aversion to controversy, & I try to be open to differing points of view. Because of this, I’ll have to admit I’ve been reserved—certainly by blogger standards—in openly declaring where I stood on this year’s presidential election. I don’t see Robert Frost’s Banjo as a political blog, but I also believe the presidential election is a serious matter, & that despite the blog’s relatively small readership, I also believe I should be open about my position on what could be a significant election.

I’ve always liked to think of myself as an “independent,” because I do have some serious problems with the two party system—I’d prefer more parties being given a real voice so we could consider more diverse opinions. Sometimes I’m struck by how the two party system as it currently exists creates a “liberal/conservative” dichotomy that all too often is simply a construct used to create divisiveness. Especially in an extremely powerful nation such as the U.S., politics on the national level is about power first—“liberal” or “conservative” positions run a distant second.

Because of this, I’ve voted for third party candidates in a couple of recent presidential elections. While I certainly never harbored any illusions about these candidates winning, I don’t equate voting for a candidate with betting on a horse. I believe it’s an act of conscience; I also believe that casting protest votes such as this can potentially alert the “powers that be” to the fact there are voters who’d like a different agenda considered.

This year, I won’t be voting for a third party candidate; I will be voting for Barack Obama. Do I have any illusions that Senator Obama is some sort of savior who’ll right everything that’s wrong with the U.S.? No—Senator Obama is a politician, & presidential politics is about wielding power, which is always fraught. However, Senator Obama claims to be interested in public works & infrastructure, something I’ve long believed needed to be addressed, & something I’ve long believed would be stimulate the economy—after all, my father was in the Civilian Construction Corps in the 30’s, so I come by this opinion honestly. It also strikes me that a candidate who’s not part of a ticket based on “Drill, Baby, Drill,” might very well do more to wean us off our dependence on petroleum. No matter where one stands on the global warming “question” (I don’t see it as a question, but I acknowledge some folks do), one has to admit that—since there aren’t any dinosaurs around these days to create more oil deposits—we need to start seeking alternative energy sources in a concerted manner. In addition, I believe it’s important that we start to pursue a foreign policy based first & foremost on diplomacy, with waging war as very much the option of last resort, & I believe the Obama-Biden is more likely to pursue such a course than the McCain-Palin ticket. I also believe it could be important for a relatively younger person to serve as president, & without doubt having a qualified & charismatic black man as president of this country ultimately could provide some amount of healing for an ugly history we often try to forget—but as Utah Phillips said, “The past didn’t go anywhere, did it?”

Speaking of this, there have been some ugly stories come out during this election cycle. Efforts to cast Senator Obama as some sort of terrifying “other” have been extremely disturbing; there are some alarming details in the following article. Of course, the McCain-Palin campaign per se presumably isn’t directly linked to the most egregious of these situations. However, the effort to tie Obama in with Bill Ayers—who was a radical during the 1960’s, when Senator Obama was less than 10 years old—are disquieting, & this connection has been drawn explicitly by the McCain-Palin campaign, especially by Palin. I only know what I read about such topics; based on what I read it sounds as though Obama & Ayers (for what it’s worth) are relatively casual acquaintances. I do know that I maintain actual friendships with several people who hold views
that are contrary to mine on a number of issues —views that, considered by themselves, separately from the person who holds them, I find disquieting; however, I wasn’t aware that friendship required a lockstep view of the world. In the absence of other information, I can only look at a question such as this from a personal standpoint; & I also question how much first-hand knowledge Governor Palin has about Senator Obama’s social network. Finally, I’d note that William C. Ibershof, the lead federal prosecutor of the Weather Underground case said in a letter to the NY Times dated October 8th 2008, "I am amazed and outraged that Senator Barack Obama is being linked to William Ayers’s terrorist activities 40 years ago when Mr. Obama was, as he has noted, just a child." Despite any of these considerations, Governor Palin, in a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, said she would reaffirm her statement about Obama “palling around with terrorists"—"I would say it again," Palin said.

There was also the following recent statement by Minnesota Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann when asked by Hardball’s Chris Matthews if she was concerned about Senator Obama holding “anti-American views”: “Absolutely. I'm very concerned that he may have anti-American views. That's what the American people are concerned about. That's why they want to know what his answers are." Bachmann has since said she regrets the statement, apparently blaming the remark on the fact she wasn’t familiar with the Hardball show….

On the other hand, there are some encouraging stories, like “Rednecks for Obama” (viewed at this link). I particularly liked the quote from Missourian Tony Viessman, who said, “My dad used to say, 'A poor man who votes for a Republican is a fool.'” It reminds me of my own father, a World War II veteran, lifelong hunter & fisherman, & as working class as they come; he always had the same sentiment. I also noticed that great old-time musician Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brother has recorded an endorsement for Obama.

At one time, I actually thought McCain could be an interesting candidate—I’ll admit, I wasn’t seriously considering casting my vote his way, but I respected him as a centrist & a “maverick”; his campaign tactics,
however, haven’t impressed me, & I question his judgment (& motives) in choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate; this choice was, I suspect, fundamentally cynical. Now it’s true that by current definition I’m a pretty “liberal” guy, so you’d probably expect me to say that. On the other hand, retired generals aren’t usually considered bleeding heart lefties, & much of what I’ve said echoes what I believe were reasoned remarks by Colin Powell.

Do the Democrats sling mud, too? Of course; in general, political campaigns are a distasteful exercise in spin & manipulated perception. While it strikes me that some of the Republican rhetoric this year has reached a disturbing level, I’m fully aware that both political parties distort facts. Do Democrats promise things they can’t deliver on? Yes, all politicians do this: I never forgave the Clintons for promising health care reform in 92 & then making a boondoggle of the process—overall, I was never anywhere near as impressed with Bill Clinton as he seemed to be with himself.

So do I know that Barack Obama will be a good president? No—I don’t have any pretensions to being a prognosticator. I do believe he & Joe Biden are clearly the better choice based on the information we have to date, & I believe it’s important to vote for him. Of course, living in Idaho, this has the force of a “protest vote” anyway, because there’s essentially a zero chance the Idaho electors will be Democrats—more on the “red state, blue state” biz next week—but it’s still an act of conscience.

I’m sure some readers will disagree with this—I certainly accept that as your right. For those who intend to vote for McCain-Palin, I accept your right to do so. I do hope that when you cast that vote, however, you’re voting from an active, positive belief in your candidates’ capabilities, & not from a position of prejudging or fearing the opposition.

TOMORROW: Back to Poebiz—with a surprise poet!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

From “A Refutation of Time”

I’ve been on a bit of a Borges’ reading spree the last few weeks—probably will post more on this later, in the “Happy on the Shelf” series. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with him, Jorge Luis Borges was a 20th century Argentine writer; he wrote short stories, essays & poetry, & these types of writing often coalesce in fascinating ways in Borges’ work.

During my recent spree, I came across one extended passage in his essay “New Refutation of Time,” from his collection Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 which I found especially moving & important. I most certainly can’t improve on what Borges said, so I’ll just transcribe it here. I did introduce one lacuna (mostly to keep the selection at a “friendly” length—this is indicated by “….”).

In this essay Borges is discussing George Berkeley, an 18th century British mentions philosopher of the “Idealist” school. A very five & dime definition of Idealist philosophy: The idealists believe we can only know the external world as a result of direct perception—existence is defined by the ability to be perceived. At the beginning of this selection, Borges is discussing David Hume, who was an 18th century Scottish philosopher. Hume was influenced by Berkeley, but is considered a more skeptical empiricist. Finally, Borges mentions Heraclitus, a 6th century B.C. Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers. The Pre-Socratics were not a “school” per se—they held various positions; Borges quotes what is possibly Heraclitus’ most famous statement. Heraclitus is associated with a philosophy of flux—all things are in motion, change is the only constant.

Hope you find this meaningful.

I deny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series that idealism admits. Hume has denied the existence of absolute space, in which every thing has its place; I deny the existence of one time, in which all events are linked together. To deny coexistence is no less difficult than to deny succession.

I deny the successive, in a large number of cases; I deny the contemporaneous also, in a large number of cases. The lover who thinks, “While I was so happy, thinking of my loved one’s fidelity, she was deceiving me,” deceives himself: if each state we live is absolute, that happiness was not contemporaneous with that deceit; the discovery of that deceit is one more state, incapable of modifying the “previous” ones, but not the remembrance of them. The misfortune of today is no more real than past happiness…. Every instant is autonomous. Neither revenge nor pardon nor prisons nor even oblivion can modify the invulnerable past. No less vain to me are hope and fear, which always relate to future events: that is, to events that will not happen to us, who are the minutiae of the present. I am told that the present, the “specious present” of the psychologists, lasts between several seconds and a tiny fraction of a second; that is how long the history of the universe lasts. Or rather, there is no such history, as there is no life of a man, nor even one of his nights; each moment we live exists, not its imaginary aggregate. The universe, the sum of all the events, is a collection that is no less ideal than that of all the horses Shakespeare dreamed—one, many, none?—between 1592 and 1594. I might add that if time is a mental process, how can it be shared by thousands, or even two different men?

Interrupted and burdened by examples, the argument of the foregoing paragraphs may seem intricate. I shall try a more direct method. Let us consider a life in which repetitions are abundant; mine, for example. I never pass Recoleta cemetery without remembering that my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents are buried there, as I shall be; then I remember that I have already remembered that, many times before. I cannot walk down my neighborhood streets in the solitude of night without thinking that night is pleasing to us because, like memory, it erases idle details. I cannot mourn the loss of a love or friendship without reflecting that one can lose only what one has never really had. Each time I come to a certain place in the South, I think of you, Helen; each time the air brings me a scent of eucalyptus, I think of Adrogué, in my childhood; each time I remember Fragment 91 of Heraclitus: “You will not go down twice to the same river,” I admire his dialetic skill, because the facility with which we accept the first meaning (“The river is different”) clandestinely imposes the second one (“I am different”) and gives us the illusion of having invented it. Each time I hear a Germanophile vituperating Yiddish, I pause and think that Yiddish is, after all, a German dialect, barely maculated by the language of the Holy Spirit. Those tautologies (and others I shall not disclose) are my whole life. Naturally, they are repeated without precision; there are differences of emphasis, temperature, light, general physiological state. But I suspect that the number of circumstantial variations is not infinite: we can postulate, in the mind of an individual (or of two individuals who do not know each other, but on whom the same process is acting), two identical moments. Having postulated that identity, we must ask: Are those identical moments the same? Is a single repeated term enough to disrupt and confound the series of time? Are the enthusiasts who devote a lifetime to a line by Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare?

Jorge Luis Borges, 1944

The translation is by Ruth L.C. Simms
© 1964 University of Texas Press
© 1965 Jorge Luis Borges

The photo of Borges is by Diane Arbus

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Things Seen on the Weiser River Trail in Glendale, October 19th

Eberle & I took a walk on the Weiser River trail in the Fruitvale-Glendale area on Sunday afternoon—from Starky’s hot springs north, well past mile marker 70. As those who live around here know, Sunday was a truly gorgeous autumn day. These are some of the things we saw along the way.

  • The old rail bridge leading north up the Weiser River Trail, with the bridge on the Fruitvale-Glendale road bearing off to the left a short distance away at an acute angle
  • The Weiser River
  • Birches in brilliant yellow autumn foliage amongst the pines
  • Ferns
  • Lichen, both in the trail & encrusting the pines
  • Mossy rocks
  • 2 Stellar’s Jays
  • 1 Magpie
  • 2 Flickers
  • 1 Robin, which later re-appeared in a dream I dreamt Sunday night
  • A large rusted washer (the kind used to fasten bolts, not the kind used to launder clothes)
  • Chokecherries (with leaves turning orange red), growing on both sides of the trail but especially the west
  • Chokecherry pits
  • Cowpies
  • Hay
  • PIN line mile marker 70 fashioned from railroad spikes
  • Yellow leaves floating in the current of the Weiser River, with the yellow birch leaves above the river reflected in the water
  • Rusted metal panels from an abandoned automobile
  • Metal fence posts draped with broken barbed wire
  • A split rail fence in which some of the rails had fallen askew
  • Fresh reddish brown pine cones strewn along the trail
  • Old grayish white pine cones strewn along the trail
  • A shrub with red leaves that had caught a number of falling pine needles; these hung on the shrub's limbs like tinsel on a Xmas tree
  • A tall dead pine that had been completely girdled
  • A grayish dead tree fallen into the Weiser River
  • Three cars driving on the Fruitvale-Glendale Road, above us & off to the west
  • A large log house with a green tin roof off to the northwest
  • An elderberry tree, with its purplish berries
  • Pine needles scattered across the trail
  • One section of trail about 10 feet across thickly strewn with yellow birch leaves
  • A man & a woman bicycling, first headed south & then later headed north
  • Various boulders along the edge of the trail
  • A section of trail rutted by heavy equipment, which apparently had been used to clean up a mud & rockslide
  • Bicycle tracks
  • Horse hoofprints
  • Cow hoofprints
  • Dog pawprints
  • Footprints
  • Red outbuildings at Starkey’s hot springs (a private hot springs)
  • The gray stone greenhouse at Starkey’s hot springs
  • A sign saying “¼”
  • A sign saying “X”
  • The green gates at both the south & north trail heads of the Weiser River trail coming off the Fruitvale-Glendale Road
  • Each other

Monday, October 20, 2008

On the Tenor Guitar

I had a pleasant email exchange this weekend with Robert Frost’s Banjo reader Ron from Toronto, who’s interested in the tenor guitar. This reminded me that I’d promised a while back to post something about the origins of the tenor guitar, a very fun instrument that’s not so well-known.

For those of you who’ve never seen a tenor guitar—I'm playing one in the pic; an archtop acoustic tenor made by Mike Soares’y of Queens, NY. As you can see, the tenor guitar has four strings, as opposed to six on a standard guitar. The instrument is typically tuned CGDA (from lowest tone to highest tone); you musician types out there will notice that the interval between strings is always a fifth, & in that sense the tenor guitar is in its origins also related to the mandolin family, since these instruments also are tuned in fifths. In fact, the mandola (which, if the mandolin is equivalent to a violin, would be equivalent to a viola) is also tuned CGDA.

While CGDA is the standard &
most common tuning for tenor guitars, they are also sometimes tuned DGBE, like the four highest pitched strings on a guitar—this is called “Chicago tuning,” & also for obvious reasons, “guitar tuning.” It’s the tuning I use on the tenor myself (as explained in more detail here), mostly because when I got mine, I had to be ready to jump in immediately on relatively complicated songs. In addition, some folks tune the tenor guitar GDAE, like a mandolin. In fact, I’ve even seen the tenor guitar referred to as a “baritone mandolin” on the wonderful whacky web. When tuned to tones other than the standard CGDA, the tenor guitar does need to be re-strung.

The tenor guitar is useful both as a rhythm instrument & as a melodic instrument. Some folks particularly love it as a rhythm instrument because the chord voicings in the standard CGDA tuning are quite unusual. There’s a wide “spread” between the notes, so the voicings are considered “open.” In other words, the instrument is spanning close to three octaves in the space of just four strings. In contrast, the four highest-pitched strings of a guitar only span an octave plus one note. Besides the unique sound of these chord voicings, the tenor is also a nice complement to a guitar in a rhythm section, because of the different chord voicings (again, assuming both are in standard tuning).

As far as melody goes, the tenor falls into a good melodic range, & is useful either for single note solos or for chord melody. The latter is a form of melody playing often used on guitars & banjos (mostly the four string tenor & plectrum banjos) which involves playing a melody by changing chords each time the melody note &/or underlying harmony changes. It’s a bit challenging, but is very fun. It’s also about the only way a person can play melody on one of these instruments when
playing without other accompanists, because this way you get both harmony & melody.

I’d always been under the impression that the tenor guitar was developed as a direct response to the move from the banjo sound to the guitar sound in early jazz music. Of course in its origins, jazz favored the tenor & plectrum banjos. Unlike the five-string banjo, these didn’t have the fifth drone string getting in the way of more complex chord progressions, & unlike the guitars of the teens & 20’s, banjos actually could cut thru the sound of horns & woodwinds, which were of course the main melody instruments. Also, a number of these bands (like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Hot Sevens) featured a piano, & I’ve always thought the piano & banjo are a particularly felicitous pairing. In the case of Armstrong’s bands, the piano player was Louis’ wife, Lil Hardin, a formidable musician & composer, & someone who most definitely should be more widely known. The banjo player was Johnny St Cyr—St Cyr actually played what we’d call a guitar banjo these days: a six-stringer tuned just like a guitar.

Anyhoo, I’ve learned more recently that the tenor guitar was probably developed in the late 19th century as part of the mandolin craze—those were the days of mandolin orchestras, which I’ve also written about previously. It makes sense that the tenor guitar would work in a mandolin orchestra setting—even though it’s in the same range as the mandola, it has single strings & the mandola has paired strings (like the mandolin itself). Because of this, the mandola would have a more “jangly” sound, & the tenor a more “direct” sound. However, there seems to be little argument that the tenor guitar came into its own in the late 20’s & early 30’s as jazz switched from the harsher banjo to the more mellow guitar sound. The tenor guitar provided tenor banjoists with an easy transition instrument. There was also a plectrum guitar for the plectrum banjoists, but these remained relatively obscure, & are hard to come by nowadays.

So who plays the tenor? There are some reasonably well-known folks who’ve used the tenor guitar, either as a main instrument or at least as an occasional switch from the standard guitar. Rabon Delmore of the early country duo, the Delmore Brothers played tenor, & when the Louvin Brothers later did a tribute to the Delmores, Ira Louvin (who usually played mandolin) played Rabon’s Martin 0-18T tenor. The McKendrick brothers "Big" Mike & “Little” Mike (obviously coming from a George Foreman type houseold: though the father’s name was Gilbert, all five brothers were “Mike”) played both tenor guitar & tenor banjo in the early jazz days—“Big Mike” played with Louis Armstrong’s bands. Tiny Grimes was a tenor guitar player who played swing & bebop using “guitar tuning.” Another relatively well-known swing jazz player who’s associated with the tenor guitar is Eddie Condon, but Eddie actually played the plectrum guitar. The late Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio played the tenor guitar; more recently, the folk punker, activist, & Utah Phillips cohort Ani DiFranco plays the tenor on some recordings.

So where do you get one? This isn’t the sort of instrument you can purchase by going to a common garden variety music store. There are some beautiful vintage instruments—both Martins & (sigh) Gibsons, as well as very nice luthier made contemporary tenor guitars. However, these aren’t cheap, to say the least. If you’re a “real musician” (i.e., have a day job), there are a couple of places to look for good but affordable alternatives. On the more affordable side, there are Soares'y instruments & Gold Tones. There are also some good old Harmony tenors around, & being a Harmony fan, I’d expect many of these should be a good deal. It's always advisable to do as much research as possible before buying an instrument, & the best way, without doubt, is to play the instrument before you purchase it.

There’s not a huge amount of info on tenor guitars online, but there is one great source, which is the Tenor Guitar Registry. You can find that site here. It has a lot of background info, plus an informative chat room.

Pic by Eberle Umbach


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Western Legends #3

One of the funniest people I know is our Beserkley, CA pal Tami Lipsey. We used to see her a fair amount up in this part of the country—sadly, we haven’t for a while, but I hear she’s doing great with two little Tami’s (in a manner of speaking) around the house in the East Bay. But the reason I mention Tami in this post is she always claimed to be just a wee bit scared to visit here because there are some wild creatures around. Eberle, in particular, found this astounding, because Tami is a city gal & thinks (or used to, anyway) nothing of dashing around at all hours in an urban environment. But she’s a bit less sure about wild animals. In fact, Eberle wrote a very fun calypso song for Tami called “What’s Up with the Animals?”—sadly, it never was recorded, but the first couple of lines were almost a direct quote from Ms Lipsey herself (I’m pretty sure she didn’t use the word “pout,” tho): “What’s up with the animals, you know I don’t want to pout, but they’re always making noise at night—I mean, what’s that all about?”

Of course, in fairness to Tami I think we did tell her the bear stories—which I’m about to tell you. Since both of these stories are about events that happened before I lived in ID, I have to take Eberle’s word for them—she told them to me
. Whatever her intent in doing so, I’m glad to say they didn’t dissuade me from moving here.

Anyhoo, it seems one day back in the mid 90’s, Eberle was working in her garden. As she weeded or mulched or did other chores appropriate to gardening, she noticed a lot of cars & trucks (probably mostly the latter) gathering on North Gray’s Creek Rd around our uphill neighbors—at that time, these were the Whitemans,
Judge & Mrs. One of the Indian Valley folk who was joining the throng came to get Eberle. It turned out that a bear cub was up one of the Whiteman’s cottonwoods, & a good part of the population of Indian Valley had come by to make an impromptu party out of this event. Eberle notes that the cub made it down eventually, & that everyone—cub included—escaped unscathed.

The other story may have been more alarming to Tami, because she was a member of the Lipsey Mountain Spring Band, which had a habit of camping on our lawn in the summer—Tami played pennywhistle, & sang a couple of numbers: a ve
rsion of “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” that was overflowing with gusto, & the fastest version I’ve ever heard of “I’m An Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande.” Well, in the second story the bear was never seen, but did “leave his calling card,” as it were in the crotch of our biggest cottonwood. In case anyone missed that expression, they call it “sign” out here (bear “sign,” moose “sign,” coyote “sign,” etc.), but it more commonly goes by the name we all know from grade school, namely, “poop.”

I asked Eberle about this again recently. She was quite informative. She pointed out that bear “sign” looks more or less like what we called “cowpies” in VT, but that it would be unusual for a cow either to have eaten plums (I’ll just say: plum pits) or to be in the crotch of a tree. She also noted that raccoon & skunk “sign” may contain plum pits, but is shaped more like dog…. “sign.” She pointed out that Mountain Lion “sign,” which could be in a tree, was a different shape & invariably contains hair. Now you know almost all you need to know to be a mountain tracker.

A while back, I wrote rather lyrically about Plum Alley; now you know another side of the plum story.Top pic: I’d like to thank our good friend Beartram for helping me recreate the bear in the cottonwood tree.

Bottom Pic: Ms Lipsey on North Gray’s Creek Rd, loaded for bear (or beef, as the case may be).

Friday, October 17, 2008

Being There

Hey folks, it’s political season again—sort of like the baseball season come September, when you might be checking the standings daily, except now you may be checking the polls, & reading or listening to the pundits & talking heads to determine what’s what & who’s where. Of course, just as some TV stations will carry baseball flicks around the time of the World Series, so too, you can watch films about politics: if you’re the optimistic sort you can watch Mr Smith Goes to Washington & contemplate how one righteous person can set things straight—sort of like the Lamed Wufniks of Talmudic lore; the 16 righteous men who keep the world from being destroyed. I’ve actually seen conservative bloggers compare Sarah Palin to Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith character from the great Capra flick, a view which, to be brutally frank, strikes me as mind-bogglingly wrong-headed. Or if you’re of the pessimistic bent, you could watch All the King’s Men (the 1949 Broderick Crawford version, of course)—the epitome of the "power corrupts" theme.

But if you’re like me, the film you may tend to think of every four years when presidential election season comes around is Being There, director Hal Ashby’s take on Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novel of the same name. Although this film is certainly dystopic, it doesn’t really stress the "power corrupts" aspect of politics (though this is on display in the film) as much as examining how politics, in the sense of the "political game" we view each election cycle, involves a manipulation of perception, & how this perception exists on a different plane than “issues.”

For those who aren’t familiar with the film, Being There is the story of Chance the gardener (portrayed brilliantly by Peter Sellers), a "simpleton" (to use an old-fashioned word that does fit) who has lived all his life in the house of a rich man in Washington D.C. As long as Chance can remember, he worked in the old man’s garden & in return has had his needs met—in fact, the man has allowed Chance to wear his hand-me-downs, which result in the gardener actually appearing like a smartly-tailored well-to-do man. Chance’s only passion besides gardening is television—he watches constantly, compulsively switching channels & often imitating the action onscreen.

When the old man dies, Chance finds himself homeless. The film explores how, thru a series of misadventures, Chance is transformed into Chauncey Gardiner, an advisor to powerful businessmen & presidents, & finally into a powerful political figure himself. Without giving too much of the plot away, this transmogrification occurs without any actual change to Chance/Chauncey himself. He’s changed because of the way he’s perceived, & it seems each person perceives Chance in the way that person wishes him to be.

This seems the most profound statement Being There makes about the politics game. Of course, the fact that Chance’s statements really have nothing to do with the issues people think he’s addressing, & on top of that are the vapid musings of a simpleton certainly speaks to our "sound bite" culture. But more importantly, Being There describes an essential narcissism underlying our political culture.

Chauncey Gardiner becomes a powerful figure because that’s the way he’s interpreted by people in power who want to see him in this light. There are the superficial aspects: particularly that he dresses like a wealthy man; the film also suggests that he wouldn’t have been perceived in this manner unless he were a middle-aged white man. But beyond these considerations, Chauncey essentially becomes what other characters want him to be based on their own misprisons. Ben Rand (a wonderful role for Melvyn Douglas) the dying tycoon needs to see Chauncey first as a businessman victimized by all the appurtenances of bureaucracy he loathes—the SEC, taxes, litigiousness; later, Rand needs to see Chauncey as a sort of heir; both a "son" & a sort of reincarnation of himself, since he implicitly suggests that it’s ok for his wife to be intimate with the Sellers’ character. Eve Rand (a splendid characterization by Shirley MacLaine) needs intimacy with Chauncey, & so transforms him into a brilliant & magnetically attractive man. Critic Roger Ebert took exception to the Eve Rand character, saying that MacLaine "projects brains," & that the film would have been more intriguing had Eve discovered the truth about Chauncey. While I agree with Ebert that MacLaine’s Eve Rand is an intelligent person, she’s also clearly a "trophy wife" whose elderly husband is decrepit & dying; within the context of the film’s portrayal of narcissism, it makes sense that Eve would need Chauncey to be devastatingly attractive.

The President, played by Jack Warden, also needs to see Chauncey as a brilliant advisor. Even when the CIA & FBI can’t find any background information on Gardiner, the President must believe that Chauncey’s (apparent) metaphor about the US economy being like a garden is the product of an astute economic mind. The President has based an important speech on this, & is in an embattled position, in need of skilled advisors & powerful allies. In a similar way, Chauncey (without ever intending to) draws a major TV talk show host, powerful journalists, “king-making” businessmen, & the country at large into believing he is power broker & policy maker of the first order.

It’s a commonplace that romantic love, at least in its initial stages, often has a strong narcissistic component. The beloved is ideal simply because she/he must be that way; & we’ve all seen situations where a person has been quite mistaken about the true qualities of a lover. This narcissism is, of course, a mirroring because it involves seeing "the other side" of our selves—in Jungian terms, the animus or anima. But it’s also the narcissism of the Rorschach blot: the inkblot is actually nothing, a cipher. It is "what we make it," as Chauncey Gardiner is what the other characters make him—in that sense, the
Rorschach blot is in every case, our selves.

As people debate such "topics" as a Vice Presidential candidate’s use of phrases like "You betcha" & "Joe Sixpack"; as we debate what either party means by slogans proclaiming "a time for change"; as we look at men & women running for positions of power & portrayed to us largely thru Chauncey’s favorite medium, we have to ask: what of ourselves do we look for in, or project onto, these figures? This isn’t to say we should become so cynical that we abjure the whole political process—most of us (myself included) have a candidate they favor, & should vote their conscience come November 4th. Still, it’s important to see this process for what it is—a dialectic between "the powers that be" & our imaginative, projected world (in which, ultimately, those powers are yet another creation).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Train Songs #2

Last Wednesday we looked at the first dozen train songs in a list I put together. Today we’re looking at a dozen more. Hope you enjoy reading the list, & thinking about it; if you have any train song ideas, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or drop me an email.

· Engine 143: The Carter Family; Townes Van Zandt (under the title “FFV”) - the Carter Family from the V
irginia hills have as much to do with the beginnings of country music as anyone, Jimmie Rodgers included. Their rugged & sincere vocals, Mother Maybelle Carter’s magnificent guitar playing (for which a whole style of guitar playing is named), the combination of musical sentimentality & stoicism all distinguish their style. Townes Van Zandt, a personal favorite did a version of this song on his 1971 Delta Mama Blues album. Steve Earle said Townes Van Zandt was “the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt’s response reportedly was, “I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”
· Fireball Mail: Roy Acuff; Flatt & Scruggs – A fun up tempo number popularized by another of country’s old-time greats, Roy Acuff—also a
major performer on the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry from the 30’s on, & a big part of its success. Everyone who’s watched The Beverly Hillbillies knows Flatt & Scruggs (& isn’t that everyone? Pretty much the best TV show ever…); it would be near impossible to overstate their contributions to bluegrass music. Scruggs popularized what’s now known as “Scruggs picking” on the banjo, playing syncopated melodic rolls so the banjo could join the fiddle & mandolin as lead instruments; Flatt was a talented singer & a rock-solid rhythm guitar player—it’s mind boggling to think he was playing with a thumbpick & a fingerpick (like Mother Maybelle Carter) rather than with a flatpick as would be typical these days. Flatt also is credited with “the Flatt Run,” a tag or riff often used to either kick off or end bluegrass tunes.
· Folsom Prison Blues: Johnny Cash – The best country songs seem to come from no specific time; they feel & sound as though they could have been
written any time within the last 100 years. That’s the case with "Folsom Prison Blues," an obvious choice for the list, but one that’s impossible to overlook. I only saw “the Man in Black” live once—oddly (talking about this song), that was in Reno. Cash had as much stage presence as any performer I’ve ever seen.
· Freight Train Blues: Roy Acuff; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott - Another fun number popularized by Roy Acuff. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott did a high-spirited cover of this on his Kerouac’s Last Dream album. Ramblin’ Jack is an original—for all his cowboy persona,
he's a smallish guy from back east, who got his name not from hoboing, but because he has a reputation for garrulousness. Whatever—Ramblin' Jack is the real deal, a fine guitar player & an energetic singer who really knows how to live inside a song.
· Freight Train: Elizabeth Cotton - & every guitar picker who’s ever tried to finger pick. It’s the first finger picking song many of us learn—few if any do it as well as Cotton. An interesting fact: Cotton was left handed, & she turned the guitar upside down so her thumb was playing the high strings & her index finger played the bass notes. It’s a bit like a style of old-time banjo playing (which often uses the thumb for melody, & Cotton also played the banjo), but then not really, since the banjo has a high-pitched drone string. Cotton was a guitar player of the first order—rags, blues, gospel, she could play them all. That's Elizabeth Cotton in the pic below.
· Frisco Road: Utah Phillips – Utah could sing about tr
ains, no doubt. His Good Though! album is as fine a collection of train songs as you’ll find. This song alternates between the exhilaration a hobo feels at riding the rails & the loneliness he feels from having no attachments.
· Hear My Train a Comin': Jimi Hendrix – Waaaay back when, in my misguided & often chemically addled youth, I was a Hendrix fan. No doubt about it, the man could play the guitar, & was a much better singer than he’s given credit for. Yeah, I have a problem with the dead rock star legend stuff, I’ll admit it. But this is a hot track with great call & response between voice & guitar, & is worth a listen.
· Hobo's Meditation: Jimmie Rogers – Only time Jimmie appears on this week’s list; this also was covered by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda
Ronstadt on the Trio album. I really like this song—a sad waltz with a chord progression that moves around just enough to make it interesting—“Will there be any freight trains in heaven” indeed….
· I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Hank Williams- When I say Hank Williams, I don’t mean Jr. or III—I mean the Hank Williams. This is one of those deceptively simple songs—fun to play & sing in a jam session, easy to follow along. Lots of folks do it: Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash et al. Our good pal & Spurs of the Moment bandmate Chris Leone does a nice version of this—I’ve been known to croak the song out, too. But no matter how good or bad the singer may be, I’ve never heard anyone who can make your hair stand on end singing this song like Hank could.

· I’m Movin’ On: Hank Snow – This was a big hit for the “Singing Ranger” in 1950. Snow is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, though perhaps not as well known anymore as some of the other honky tonk country singers of his day. “I’m Movin’ On” has got that great “train movement” rhythm, but my personal favorite Snow song (& one of my all-time favorite country songs) is “Yellow Roses.”
· If Love was a Train: Michelle Shocked – Michelle Shocked has always had a great spirit in her playing & singing, & it really comes across in this up tempo number from her Short, Sharp, Shocked album. “If Love Was a Train” was an unlikely chart hit in 1988, getting lots of play on college radio stations.
· It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry: Bob Dylan – Some folk love him, some folks don’t; some musicians I really respect have little use for Bob, but I still think he’s a first-rate songwriter. This is a pseudo blues from the great Highwa
y 61 Revisited (I say “pseudo” because it doesn’t follow a normal blues chord progression)—the lyrics, as often with the best of Dylan, exist in a world somewhere between the traditional & the surreal. Dylan himself said of the Highway 61 Revisited album, "I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to." Some dynamite back-up musicians on the album, like Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper, just to name two.

Check in next week for installment number three!