Sunday, November 30, 2008

Western Legends #4

Water coursing across a large western state—heading north from its source in the harsh chill of the Sawtooth Mountains & thence winding westward thru a wilderness of moose & mountain goat & mule deer, & black bears & bighorn sheep & badger, & wolves & wolverine—forking both west & south in the midst of a wilderness—the “river of no return”—& the fabled middle fork cascading southward into wilds & the main branch flowing northwest toward the rafts & barrooms of Riggins & the long winding blacktop of US 95 as the highway flows north to Canada & south to Mexico—& crossing under the Time Bridge between the motor lodges of Riggins & the trailer houses of Lucille in the midst of beautiful chaparral hills & fruit stands & swooping 60-mile per hour corners, there splitting the state into two time zones—then following US 95 north past the expanse of White Bird Hill & into northern Idaho’s prairies leading to Grangeville— & curling west to its mouth at the Snake River, at Oregon’s watery fringe—

This is a mythic landscape, a mythic river: the Salmon, the “river of no return,” so called because the powerful current that draws whitewater rafters these days seemed impossible to turn back into up river—a river known by the name of the salmon, a fish that’s itself nearly legendary both in a good & bad sense of the word: in a bad sense, because
the species, stymied by dams on all the Columbia Basin rivers except the Salmon is swimming upstream into extinction—ancestral home to the Nez Perce & other Native American tribes, briefly named “Louis River” by the Corps of Discovery in honor of Merriweather Lewis—home to gold deposits as well as to Chinooks & Sockeyes & Steelheads—I only know a relatively small stretch of the Salmon River, tho it does hold a “mythic” place in my imagination; Eberle & I, usually in the company of other friends, have explored the River Road out of Riggins, crossing the bridge over the treacherous & flood-prone Little Salmon near its confluence with the Salmon itself (the Little Salmon caused widespread destruction in the 100-year-flood of January ’97, wiping out homes recklessly built in the canyon flood plain between New Meadows & Riggins)—

The River Road is as scenic a drive as I’ve ever been on—it’s also probably the most dangerous. A dirt road without a hint of guardrail, a sheer slope rising to the east in many places, & a very large & powerful river below a sheer slope to the west. It’s not a road for careless or hurried driving—in many locations the cars traveling north need to pull over so the cars traveling south (on the perilous river side) can creep by safely. Cars do go into the river every so often, with an assurance of tragic results….

A trip up the River Road checking out 19th century mining sites with a dipsomaniac Forest Service archeologist & Eberle & her old Idaho pal Roberta
was my first exposure to the real Idaho wilds, way back in October of 97; since, we’ve taken drives up the river in the blue-gray November mist, & outings on the beautiful white sand beaches in the spring; & of course I’ve watched the Salmon power its way northward parallel to US 95 as Eberle & I traveled into the lovely farmlands of Northern Idaho—all these images are part of the Salmon River’s mythos….

But none of these images, powerful & evocative as they may be, are the main story of the Salmon River to me, at least not as I’m writing this—because just as we can never step into the same Heraclitean river twice, we can’t ever imagine the same river twice—& most importantly, I con’t tell myself the same story about that river as my loved o
nes & friends tell…. & specifically, I know the story my wife Eberle tells herself about the Salmon is very different than the story I know—

I came to Idaho in my middle age—true, I came here with a passion for the western landscape, but my imagination regarding place was formed by close to 30 years in Vermont. There’s always something exotic to me in the vast & monumental western space compared sub-consciously with the enclosed horizons of New England. Eberle, however, has known Idaho since she was young, tho again, it was an imaginative contrast—in her case, with a
Frank Lloyd Wright house & an affluent upbringing in a Chicago suburb—in her case, these wild spaces have always offered some haven, & her dream has always been a cabin on the Salmon River—not the sort of majestic pseudo-rustic log palace with green tin roof that despoiled the wild in Idaho’s recent boom days, but a ramshackle folly she could build with her own hands, where she could commune in solitude with… the Divine? Her creative core? This is where it becomes her story, a story to which I have only a partial access, but which seems to include the hermits of Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert, the secret code of Beatrix Potter’s journal, Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” & Nell Shipman’s wild west independent artistry—

Do lives intersect like roads or flow together like riv
ers? Perhaps, as quantum physics teaches, they do both simultaneously, or either, depending on your perspective. Perhaps the courses taken by our life & the life of even our dearest companions pursue various courses in relation to each other—tangential, parallel, intersecting, unified, divergent—& even the most contrary can occur with virtual simultaneity—Eberle’s dream of a Salmon River cabin—solitude in a life stripped to its basics—one bowl, one pot for cooking—my own working class roots placing a value on comfort & a certain amount of materialism—& Vermont in my experience was rustic, not wild—the real wilderness, the stretches on the Middle Fork where Eberle & her family hiked & camped with pack llamas in tow are alien to me….

Sometimes, contemplating Eberle’s story of the Salmon River, I wonder if I’m capable of this type of dream about a landscape—Vermont, with its rocky streams & steely winter sky & frozen ponds & nature poems left far behind in the rearview mirror—Virginia, with its endless nights filled with insects & the fragrance of flowering trees & the obsessions of sestinas: a dream floating away in a blue haze of cigarettes smoked years ago—San Francisco’s painted Victorians & afternoon walks on tree-lined streets & late night strolls thr
u lights & bustle & poetry echoing between the sidewalk & a moon suspended over the Bay—Idaho, with its looming mountains & guinea hens racing across the lawn & its small-town rodeos & a banjo frailed on the porch—how can I add this all up to equal the coherence of Eberle’s Salmon River story, a story she forsook freely for my sake—

The river—a life—never stepping twice into the same water—

Saturday, November 29, 2008

“Lunar Paraphrase”

Hey, we’re having a holiday weekend around these parts—& as a result I’m a bit off my posting schedule; distracted by turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, macaroni & cheese, fried kale & spinach, pumpkin & pecan pies, etc. etc.

All of which has nothing to do with this week’s poem; & in fact, I’d assumed this week I was going to post a different poem altogether, one that would have been apropos of wintery weather, which all the forecasts were predicting for our little corner of the world going back several days ago. So, being the ever dutiful blogger I wrote up a weekly poem post based on that prediction—which, I’m happy to say, didn’t come to pass: our lovely fall weather is still hanging on.

Which is all to say that this week’s actual poem posting comes a bit on the fly in the midst of holiday feasting & long evening jam sessions & leisurely breakfast conversations; but it does bring us a poem by one of my all-time favorite poets, Wallace Stevens (somehow, tho, Wallace Stevens’ Banjo just wouldn’t have had the same ring….)

Stevens poetic career is itself an interesting study; he seemed to have been pulled between being a man of letters & a man of practical affairs throughout his life. On the one hand, his poems are characterized by whimsy, by word play, by a fascination with aesthetic & philosophical questions, especially focusing on the powers of the imagination; on the other hand, he had a law degree, & rose to prominence in the insurance industry, becoming a vice-president of Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. in 1934—this from the same man who’d submitted poems to Harriet Monroe’s seminal modernist journal Poetry in 1914 under the pen name of “Peter Parasol.” His first book of poems Harmonium (& one of my all-time favorite volumes of poetry) wasn’t published until 1923, when Stevens was 44 years old.

The poem “Lunar Paraphrase” wasn’t included in the first edition of Harmonium. It was added to the 2nd edition in 1931, tho the poem dates to the World War I years. The poem looks for consolation in a desolate November landscape, & moving past the images of religious figures, it focuses on the moon shedding light in the darkness (s0 to speak), tho this also is a “golden illusion,” which earlier is described as “old light” that moves “feebly.” Stevens is often a poet who contemplates the evening quietude, & who also looks to various landscapes as echoing an internal reality. His view of the natural world was inherently romantic, even as it was colored by his fascination with the French symbolist poets.

Hope you enjoy this Stevns’ poem; I’m sure more of his poems will show up on this blog in the future.

Lunar Paraphrase

The moon is the mother of pathos and pity.

When, at the wearier end of November,
Her old light moves along the branches,
Feebly, slowly, depending upon them;
When the body of Jesus hangs in a pallor,
Humanly near, and the figure of Mary,
Touched on by hoar-frost, shrinks in a shelter
Made by the leaves, that have rotted and fallen;
When over the houses, a golden illusion
Brings back an earlier season of quiet
And quieting dreams in the sleepers in darkness —

The moon is the mother of pathos and pity.

Wallace Stevens, 1918, 1932

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mayor of McDougal Street

As a music lover—even one who enjoys playing music more than going to shows—there are always a few performers you wished you’d seen before they shuffled off this mortal coil. For me, there are two in particular who fall into this category: Townes Van Zandt & Dave Van Ronk (odd that their cds stand next to each other on my more-or-less alphabetized shelves). I’ll always be jealous of good pal Dani Leone, who saw Townes at the amazingly intimate Spikes in Baghdad by the Bay, & I’ll always regret that evening sometime in the mid 90s when I knew Van Ronk was performing at the Freight & Salvage in Beserkley, but had something else I needed to do (forget what now….)

Sadly, Van Ronk passed away in 2002 at a relatively young 65. From the 1950s until his death, however, he was a larger-than-life figure on the folk m
usic scene, particularly in New York City, & particularly at that point where folk music intersects with the blues. It’s unfortunate that this marvelous musician isn’t better known among the public at large, tho he’s certainly admired both among the folkie crowd & by aficionados of fingerstyle guitar. Van Ronk’s fingerstyle playing, very influenced by the great Reverend Gary Davis, was first-rate. The Wikipedia article on Van Ronk (linked to above, & well worth a read, tho apparently not all source attribution is up to Wiki snuff) mentions that Davis played the guitar as tho it were “a piano around his neck,” & this seems a pithy description of both Davis’ & Van Ronk’s style.

Another thing Van Ronk had in common with Reve
rend Gary Davis was a big, powerful voice. Both these bluesmen were capable of singing like a force of nature—bringing a riveting & dynamic strength to their vocals (tho both were also capable of quiet, gentle singing when the song called for it). I know this sound from recordings—but it’s best described by folks who heard Van Ronk live. This, for instance, is from folk guitarist Happy Traum:
"I first heard Dave Van Ronk sing in 1955. It was a warm Sunday in Washington Square and from the opposite side of the park came the loudest, most raucous vocal sounds I had ever heard. I came upon a rather large young man flailing mercilessly on an old guitar and singing 'St. James Infirmary' at the top of his seemingly indefatigable lungs."
Happy, Traum, Traditional & Contemporary Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar, Oak Publications © 2005. (By the way, you fingerstyle guitarists o
ut there: this is a great book, & when you see Traum’s transcription of Van Ronk’s take on “St. Louis Tickle” you should be impressed by Van Ronk’s abilities—& by the size of his mitts, since he was effectively able to fret the A string with his thumb!)

A classic description of Van Ronk comes from music critic Robert Shelton: “[Van Ronk was] the musical mayor of MacDougal Street, a tall, garrulous hairy man of three quarters, or, more accurately, three fifths Irish descent. Topped by light brownish hair and a leonine beard, which he smoothed down several times a minute, he resembled an unmade bed strewn with books, record jackets, pipes, empty whiskey bottles, lines from obscure poets, finger picks, and broken guitar strings. He was Bob (Dylan's) first New York guru. Van Ronk was a walking museum of the blues. Through an early interest in jazz, he had gravitated toward black music its jazz pole, its jug-band and ragtime center, its blues bedrock..... his manner was rough and testy, disguising a warm, sensitive core. Van Ronk retold the blues intimately.... for a time, his most dedicated follower was Dylan." (copied from the Van Ronk Wikipedia page).It’s always been interesting to me that although Van Ronk made his reputation in blues & folk, he claimed to consider himself “a jazz singer manqué.” In fact, Elijah Wald (who collaborated with Van Ronk on the singer’s memoir, Mayor of McDougal Street) claims that Van Ronk owed more of his vocal style (in terms of phrasing & interpretation) to singers like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday & Bing Crosby. Wald’s article is really worth a read, & can be found here.Of course, it’s wrong to pigeonhole Van Ronk as "just a bluesman," because for all the wonderful interpretations he was able to put on songs ranging from “That’ll Never Happen No More” & “Cocaine Blues,” to “Statesboro Blues” & “St. James Infirmary,” his recording catalog includes songs by Joni Mitchell, Brecht-Weill, Hoagy Carmichael, Gershwin, a setting of a W.B. Yeats poem, & some wonderful original compositions, both vocal & instrumental. Later in his career he put out two albums that brought him back to the “old standards” of the Great American Songbook. These two albums, Hummin’ to Myself & Sweet & Lowdown are fine collections (some highlights: “Hong Kong Blues,” “Some of the Days,” “Comes Love,” & “Sweet Georgia Brown”). Although Van Ronk’s voice wasn’t as strong late in life, he could still get inside a song.But those who are looking to find out about Van Ronk might look at other albums. There’s a very complete Van Ronk discography here; if I were to be so bold as to offer a few suggestions, I’d mention the Chrestomathy compilation put out by Gazell—this has the virtue of showcasing lots of aspects of Van Ronk’s career. Another solid choice would be Inside Dave Van Ronk on Prestige, which focuses more on his folk & folk blues recordings. I’m also very fond of his Live at Sir George Williams University album, which showcases several musical styles, as well as his humor—after singing “St. James Infirmary,” Van Ronk notes that “Death is nature’s way of getting us to slow down.” has a good selection of Van Ronk here; & finally at the bottom of this post there’s a video of Dave Van Ronk performing Furry Lewis’ “Stackerlee’: the performance is prefaced by an interview with Van Ronk, & the playing starts around 2:26.

However you do it, please give a listen to this wonderful musician & genuine U.S. renaissance man.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Humble Horseradish

Did it ever strike you as odd that here in the U.S. we celebrate a harvest festival at the end of November? Seems to me the garden harvest throughout the northern tier of the country (at least) has been over for some time, back when the harvest moon was shining on—the harvest moon is either September or October, depending on when the full moons occur in those months. Could it be that Thanksgiving, like health care, is another thing the Canadians have figured out better than we have? They celebrate Thanksgiving in October….

The popularization of Thanksgiving (a 19th ce
ntury phenomenon) is a fascinating story, but not my story for today—actually, it’s a topic my better half, Eberle knows more about than me. In fact, I discovered yesterday that Eberle knows a whole lot about several very fascinating Thanksgiving topics, & I’m thinking next year at this time might be a good time for a guest blogger—or two, because it also turns that our SoCal pal Audrey Bilger knows lots about these subjects, too. So here’s an open invite to Eberle & Audrey to start thinking about spending Thanksgiving season 09 on Robert Frost’s Banjo…. tho I should say that in this case, Eberle was essentially the guest blogger—I'm pretty the amanuensis today.

But I digress. Because going back to my original point, we did discover one superb reason for Thanksgiving falling so late in the year, & that involves the humble horseradish.

The horseradish (Armoracia rusticana for you Latin freaks out there) is related to some other wonderful plants, like the cabbage, mustard & wasabi
. As I’m sure you know, horseradish has a delightful “kick.” Take a look at the site to learn all kinds of interesting facts about this venerable plants, including how a mispronunciation of the German word “meer” (sea) as “mare” may have led to its current English name.

Eberle’s wonderful garden has its own horseradish plant. She tells a good tale about this as well: seems when s
he first moved to Indian Valley, she really wanted to grow horseradish, so she bought a plant—only to realize later that there were several horseradish plants thriving around the property, since from one perspective the horseradish is a highly invasive weed. Because of this, some folks grow their horseradish in a bottomless 5-gallon bucket. Eberle, however, has hers pretty well surrounded by garden paths, & so has managed to keep it in a spot where it thrives nicely.

Yesterday evening she went out & dug up the wonderful horseradish you see in the pic above. Then she began to prepare the horseradish for making the delightful sauce I’m actually writing about here—nothing like taking a circuitous route (pun possibilities here) to the point.

The leaves need to be cut off the root, a rather messy task that’s best accomplished outside & probably requires something like stout garden clippers. Eberle notes that you only have to leave a small amount of horseradish root in the ground for the plant to return the following year. After you’ve lopped off the leaves, you then wash the roots with a produce brush & peel them. Now comes the “fun” part, & I use that term very loosely. You need to grate the horseradish, which one hopes is the closest you will ever come to chemical warfare. Apparently there’s some enzyme that gets all riled up when the root is grated & produces this pungent, & I do mean pungent, odor. Did I say it’s pungent? You should be wearing a rubber glove when handling the root, & you should be running any & all ventilation fans full bore. You should be prepared to cry & have excruciating sensations in your sinuses & lungs. But it’s all worth it! Trust me!
While you are still capable of doing so, you should heat olive oil & butter on low heat. Unlike your truly, who’s very keen on measurements when cooking, Eberle’s an improviser at heart, whether in the kitchen or in the music room (I also tend to play songs rather than jam on the Dorian scale for extended periods, too). Hey, it’s fine with me, ‘cause she’s a great cook. But this is a long lead in to say that the measurements are a bit impressionistic. Eberle estimates that if you have about a cup of grated horseradish, you’ll want to heat about 3 TBSP of butter & 3 TBSP of olive oil. Yesterday evening, she was in a grating frenzy (inspired, she said by the fame of appearing on Robert Frost’s Banjo) & ended up with close to two cups of horseradish—so we ended up heating 7 TBSP of olive oil & 6 TBSP of butter. Eberle says the point is that the grated horseradish should have a moist consistency when stirred with the butter & oil (see pic above). You can also add 1 tsp of honey either with the butter & oil or at the time you add the grated horseradish. Finally, you stir in apple cider vinegar. For this batch, we used ½ cup plus two TBSP, so you probably can do the math for a smaller amount—I’m guessing ¼ cup plus a TBSP (which I believe is 5 TBSP) for about a cup of horseradish. In any case, Eberle says it should make the mixture look like a “nice sauce” that you’d like to see on a plate. Any other ingredients? You bet! Salt to taste (we use a small amount), & somewhere between a dash & a pinch of cayenne.

By the way, Eberle insists on apple cider vinegar in this case, tho she points out tha
t she typically uses seasoned rice vinegar in cooking. She notes that the “native” taste of the apple cider vinegar works bests with the horseradish.

Once you’ve stirred the sauce to a nice smoothish consistency, place it in a clean, d
ry jar, & allow it to cool before sealing the cover. You should refrigerate the sauce. We know from experience it will last at least 3 months (about the length of the average Indian Valley winter)—we’ve never had any left at the end of this time, so we can’t speak about longer storage.

Today, we’ll be steaming some Brussels sprouts (you also could grill them) & serving them with this delightful sauce. It’s interesting to me how foods from
the same general plant family are so often complementary: Brussels sprouts are of course a form of cabbage, & horseradish is related to that noble family. Of course, in this case the “nobility” is really rather humble at heart, since all forms of the cabbage have been seen historically as peasant fare. But they’re delicious nonetheless. Of course, you can also use this sauce for fish or beef dishes, & really in any application where you want that singular horseradish kick. We serve the sauce at room temperature.

By the by, Eberle wants to be sure we mention that the original recipe for this sauce comes from our Portland pal Sue Rubin; we'll have the great pleasure of celebrating this Thanksgiving with Sue & her very own Okie husband Jay Atchison, who's just about the best breakfast cook around!

& to Robert Frost's Banjo readers: Have a Happy Thanksgiving, & as our hero Julia Child would say, “Bon Appétit!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Clawhammer! #2

When we left you last, we were at the minstrel show, that exuberant & disturbing phenomenon that played a Johnny Appleseed role with the banjo. The connection of the minstrel show specifically to the clawhammer or frailing style of banjo playing is that banjo historians trace the style back to the “minstrel stroke” (which had itself been learned by white musicians from black slaves). For those of you who need a reminder, the clawhammer playing style employs a loose fist, the fingernail of either the index or middle finger, & the thumb in a very economical motion; it produces a very characteristic sound.

Like all fads, the minstrel shows faded out toward the end of the 19th century. Interestingly, though, this didn’t also bring a corresponding decline in the banjo’s popularity. In fact, if anything, the banjo grew more popular in white America thru this period, & this popularity (with some important developments along the way) continued even into the 1920s. One thing that did change, however, is that the “minstrel stroke” faded from being the dominant playing style. Some historians conjecture that the minstrel stroke grew less popular because it was seen as being “too black,” & there’s probably no reason to vigorously dispute this. The U.S.’s complicated & troubling history of race relations (including cultural appropriation) can be studied quite well in our musical history, & the banjo (along with jazz & blues) is one of the more pungent topics.

In fact, the overall drive during this period was to ma
ke the banjo & its repertoire more “legit”—rather than playing the pseudo plantation ditties of the rowdy minstrel shows, the banjo now was taken into the parlor in refined homes & used for playing more sedate popular music & even hymns—often in a fingerstyle manner akin to the method used for classical guitar. In fact, there were arrangements of classical music for banjo from that time, long before Pete Seeger arranged “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” for his longneck banjo. Interestingly, the open-back, White Laydie design of banjo now prized among clawhammer & other old-time style players, actually came into prominence during this time. It was also at this time that banjos became a fretted instrument—the plantation banjos, both of the real slave plantations & the virtual blackface minstrel show variety were pretty much fretless instruments. Fretless banjos are still available, & are preferred by some diehard old-time players, but the changes in repertoire at the end of the 19th century required playing up the neck, & that’s a pretty tall order for a lot of folks without frets to guide them.This was also the era of the banjo orchestras, when large ensembles of banjoists would play instruments ranging in size from the piccolo banjo to the bass banjo, & take them on a romp thru popular & classical tunes. Tho the banjo orchestra died out as a cultural phenomenon with the birth of the jazz age, there are still some interesting banjo orchestras around. One worth checking out (in recorded form only—when you see the orchestra pic you’ll understand) is Brian Hefferan’s Heftone Banjo Orchestra; in this case, the banjo uke stands in for the piccolo banjo on leads.
Of course, the jazz age brought its own changes to banjodom. For the first 15-20 years of jazz per se, the banjo was a crucial instrument, especially in a rhythm section. Of course, this led to the development of new instruments like the 4-string tenor & plectrum banjos. The 5-string, with its drone string is suitable for modal songs (where chord changes aren’t a crucial element) or for your basic three or four chord song that never modulates far from the root, but it was not so handy in playing the complex changes in jazz tunes. The tenor & plectrum design dispensed with the drone string, & also were almost always played with a pick, boosting the instrument’s volume as it had to cut thru a horn section.
In the meantime, some changes had also been happening in the hill country where the banjo & fiddle still held sway, & the old time tunes were for the most part modal & crooked. But the advent of the mail order catalog suddenly made guitars both available & affordable for a lot of folks. As Wayne Erbsen points out in his Southern Mountain Banjo, “A guitar could be purchased through the Sears & Roebuck catalog for a whopping $2.45 delivered to your door.” According to this site, Sears catalog began offering guitars in 1894. Erbsen goes on to give a pithy description of how this affected the old-time music:

With its rapid acceptance by mountain musicians, the guitar made an enormous impact on…the sound of mountain music.… When guitars were added, the music was changed to fit into the three major chords that most guitarists used
for accompaniment. The beautiful modal tunes which were based on gapped or pentatonic scales did not fit well with the guitar, so many of these haunting melodies were put aside in favor of the more cheerful sound of the guitar. The steady squared-off rhythm of the guitar also affected the music. Many of the old ballads and tunes contained extra beats and were “crooked” as the roads that wound around the mountains. When these uneven turns and crooks met up with the guitar, they were straightened out just like the roads eventually were.
Wayne Erbsen: Southern Mountain Banjo (© 1995 Mel Bay)
If you want an illustration of this, listen to some old-time banjoist perform the song “Little Maggie” in sawmill (G modal) tuning, which is about as genuine “high & lonesome” as it gets. Then listen to your friendly neighborhood bluegrass band perform “Little Maggie” in G major….

But what about clawhammer & frailing? Have they just vanished from sight? Hang in there, folks—next week the folkies are coming, & old-time music, or at least its current incarnation, comes roaring back with a vengeance!

All the pics in this week's post except the photo of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are public domain pics from Joe Bethancourt's wonderful online banjo gallery. You can see the entire 42-page gallery starting here.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Remembering OLGA

No, this post isn’t some nostalgia trip for a long lost love of Eastern European extraction; it’s about the Online Guitar Archive—remember that? Home to page after page of chord charts & tabs, many of them not very well-conceived, but conveying at least some idea of how to play songs ranging from the most famous artists to the most obscure. OLGA has been shut down for quite some time now under the threat of legal action from the music publishing industry, tho of course scores of other chord sites are still available.

My history of OLGA in this paragraph was adapted from Wikipedia’s, so you can get pretty much the same info here. If you don’t feel like opening a new tab, I can tell you that OLGA developed from a newsgroup at the University of Nevada Las Vegas at which a host of other folks started compiling chord charts & tabs. In 1992, these files (which had been purged from the newsgroup every few days) were collected onto an ftp site, which later developed into In the early, heady days of the internet the collection expanded like dandelions on our lawn in April. Now, you can look at dandelions one of two ways. They are actually quite pretty flowers, & they also attract goldfinches. However, to most folks’ eyes, they’re just odd & unattractive when they go to seed. So it was with OLGA; the online guitarist community loved it, while the music publishing industry saw it as their worst nightmare. EMI filed a complaint with the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1996, & as a result the burgeoning archive was booted off their server. OLGA found a new server, & then again was forced to shut down in 1998 following a threat of legal action from the Harry Fox Agency. A third version of the archive, now OLGA incorporated, was closed following a takedown letter in 2006 from lawyers representing the National Music Publisher’s Association & the Music Publisher’s Association

So OLGA is no more, & realistically is not likely to resurrect itself. What is the actual basis of the Music Publisher’s objection to OLGA & similar sites? At first glance it would seem obvious: making a chord progression public without licensing must be a copyright infringement. Well, wait a moment there. A chord progression can’t be copyrighted; any number of songs share the same chord progressions; 12-bar blues is by definition a standard chord progression, & to name all the country songs built around a strict I-IV-V chord progression would result in a very looong list. The "Heart & Soul/Blue Moon" progression also has been used in hundreds of songs, from the two old standards I used to name it to "The Tide is High" & "Hungry Heart." & then there’s the time-honored jazz tradition of “the head”—basing a new song on the chord progression of an old standard. Any number of jazz tunes—each itself a copyrighted song—are built on the chord progression of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which is also still under copyright. Some other famous heads (with the original song on which they’re based noted in parentheses) include: Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” (“Sweet Georgia Brown”), Charlie Parker’s “Crazyeology” (“Back Home in Indiana”), Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” (“Whispering”), Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” (“Blue Skies”), Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” (“How High the Moon”), & Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” (“Exactly Like You”). This is a very selective list, & doesn’t include any of the numerous heads based on “I Got Rhythm.”

But the publishing industry was within their rights, not about the chord progressions per se, but about posting the lyrics along with the chords (without the lyrics, it’s more difficult to figure out where the changes come), because lyrics are copyrighted. Also, tablature that attempts to give a note-by-note transcription of a solo would be considered a copyright infringement. At first glance this makes perfect sense, but logically (if not legally) it seems a bit more complicated. If, as has been asserted, a number of such tabs were actually incorrect, they actually were re-interpretations (willy-nilly, perhaps). Any melody played against a given chord progression will have notes in common with another melody played against that same progression—thus you can typically hear similarities between a head & its original: only so many notes, even in a jazz context, will harmonize against the chord. In country or rock songs with shared chord progressions, there tend to be fewer harmonizing notes, simply because these types of songs don’t tend to have melody notes falling “outside” the chord changes (notes that aren’t part of the scale related to a given chord). It is interesting that OLGA removed lyrics from the site at some point in the 00s, & was still taken down, even tho lyrics seem to be the one irrefutable case of copyright infringement.

Now, I’m a musician myself, & I’m all for musician compensation. Being a musician in a small town where folks kind of expect musicians to play for free at various events & can react with anything from surprise to indignation if you ask for any remuneration, I know it’s tough to make a living off music. I don’t think that Keith Richards’ quality of life is materially affected by some kid downloading tab to “Wild Horses,” but I understand this is legally irrelevant. Why the kid wants to play a song exactly like Keith Richards (or anyone else) rather than like him/herself is a more complicated question for another time. However, I have a few points to raise about this legal dilemma which I believe are valid (tho I’m sure they’re not “legally” valid—it’s just that they make sense).

I understand that the MusicNotes site is backed by the Harry Fox Agency. This site offers sheet music downloads of individual songs at a reasonable price: $4.00-$5.00, which is pretty much the going rate for piano sheet music. In addition, a recent random & unscientific search I did on the site showed me that they have some stuff I wouldn’t have expected them to offer; it’s not all the 100 best-known songs. Based on this I’d have to applaud MusicNotes & Harry Fox Agency for going this far in addressing the situation.

But there’s still a problem. OLGA’s collection wasn’t based on what the music industry wants to peddle to us (even if they get sufficiently hip to realize folks want songs in addition to the best known or most aggressvely marketed). OLGA offered whatever some guitar player had the initiative to figure out & then post, so there was a lot of obscure stuff there; & frankly, once OLGA shut down, a lot of that stuff disappeared for good. So I guess one thing I wonder is: what’s the legal basis for enforcing copyright on material that publishers don’t make available? It seems to me (again, from a logical not legal standpoint) that the privileges & benefits of copyright should entail some obligation—i.e., “use it or lose it.” If you don’t want to go to the expense of making your copyrighted material available, I’m not sure that you really have moral high ground when you try to prevent others from doing so. Of course, I realize there’s a “real world” argument about this—do enough people really want the Yo Lo Tengo songbook (dating myself here) to justify publishing it? But it’s not just indy bands we’re talking about. I recently thought I’d learn the Willie Nelson song “One Day at a Time” for a local monthly jam session (I actually know the Flatlanders’ version, but Willie wrote the song). Being lazy, I looked up the chords on the internet, & found they’d been removed from several sites & didn’t appear to be available. Out of curiosity, I looked at the available Willie Nelson songbooks—none of them contain this song, nor could I find any anthology songbook that does (several contain the Kris Kristofferson song of the same name, but it’s not the same song). Now all of this web surfing took longer than the time it later took me to sit down with a guitar & figure out the chord progression myself—I mean it’s not rocket science, but then I’ve played for some time, have played in bands, teach guitar, etc. Would all Willie Nelson fans with a guitar be able to do this? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect some wouldn’t. The fact is, Nelson’s publisher apparently asked sites to remove the information without themselves being willing to make the information public (the Nelson song also isn’t on MusicNotes, by the way). Unless the publishers actually make the material available for purchase, it seems kinda difficult for the artist to profit by it.

& there’s another deep dark secret the music publishers may not want you to know as they bewail the lost revenue to artists from tab sites. There are a number of songs out there for whom the copyright claims are extremely dubious. One famous example: “Love Me Tender.” According to the Hal Leonard Ultimate Country Fakebook, the words & music to “Love Me Tender” are by Elvis Presley & Vera Matson, & the song is © 1956 Elvis Presley Music. This seems to ignore the fact that the music for “Love Me Tender” is identical to the song “Aura Lee,” which was written by George R. Poulton in the 19th century. While no one can deny that the words to Presley’s songs are different from “Aura Lee,” no one can deny that the tunes are the same—not similar but identical. I wonder: does Poulton have any descendants who are getting ripped off by this (again, I’m sure they probably have no “legal” claim, but it could be said they have a moral one)—should they have no remuneration simply because a rock & roll legend made a legal claim on music he didn’t actually write? In fairness, “Love Me Tender” is just an easy target—it’s by no means an isolated case. Another famous example would be the many 19th century parlor songs that RCA Victor had copyrighted in the name of A.P. Carter back in the 1920s. Just one other example—this one cracks me up: “Dance With a Dolly,” a tune from the 40s (that statement also should be in quotes); the Hal Leonard Ultimate Fake Book says the song has words & music by Terry Shand, Jimmy Eaton, & Mickey Lender, © 1940 Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. Now in this case, not only is the music identical to the old folk song “Buffalo Gals” (which may or may not have been written by minstrel show banjoist Dan Emmet, & writer of “Dixie,” but in any case was in existence in the 19th century), but the words are almost identical, too.

I’ll let you to draw your own conclusions—I’ll admit it’s a complicated issue, just as I’ll also point out the issue isn’t without double standards & misleading, self-serving arguments. I also don’t believe it’s any great secret that money & power & legal standing make a very cozy threesome of bedfellows….

Monday, November 24, 2008

Happy on the Shelf #4

As faithful readers of this blog know, I was in the Bay Area a while back visiting old pal Dani Leone & several other nice folks as well. What you may not know is that Dani Leone, AKA Sister Exister, steel pan player & songster extraordinaire, is also a published author & a newspaper columnist. But like many gals who wield the pen (or the computer keyboard), Dani writes under a nom de plume, namely as L.E. Leone. As L.E. Leone, she writes the weekly “Cheap Eats” column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which you can read online here. Recently, L.E. Leone also published a book of fiction called Big Bend thru Sparkle Street Books. You can order a copy direct from the publisher here; as far as I know that’s the only way of getting one unless you can wend your way to Dani’s quaint cottage in the redwoods in deepest, darkest Sonoma County. Amazon does seem to anticipate getting a shipment, tho.

Big Bend is Dani’s third book-length publication, tho her first under the L.E. Leone pen name. She also published an earlier book of short stories called The Meaning of Lunch, & the most original collection of restaurant reviews I’ve ever read, Eat This, San Francisco. If you’re expecting to find yourself in Baghdad by the Bay, do yourself a favor & buy this book. Collected from Leone’s “Cheap Eats’” columns, this book can steer you to some delightful & very affordable Bay Area dining. The one drawback: it’s several years old, & some of the eateries are no longer available to serve your gustatory needs—for instance, both the legendary Gravy’s in Daly City & the fabled Anne’s Café in Oakland are among the dearly departed….

But enough of that, since our main purpose here today is to talk up the virtues of Big Bend. For my money, the eight stories & one novella in this collection are all strong work. They present a coherent worldview in tales that ping-pong back & forth between a certain light-heartedness & an underlying sense of profound existential crisis. The fact that Leone’s characters are about as everyday as they can be—a drifter, a bohemian young married couple, a small town musician, a worker in a spinach processing plant—makes the angst more pungent because it’s our angst: the strange backdrop of delight & mundanity & emptiness that underlies our day-to-day existence; decisions made or not made; words said or not said; fun had or not had; love accepted or declined….

& that’s the most interesting thread to me. Because the angst itself is something we’ve all written about, back in the day; but what makes the stories in Big Bend most remarkable is the consistent theme of finding connection. Were the collection to have an epigraph, it could take the pithy E.M. Forster quote from Howard’s End: “Only connect” – though L.E. could probably find an old-time country lyric saying the same thing, & that would be even more to the point. The characters in Leone’s stories all find themselves in situations where some real connection is possible, & when this opportunity is accepted, then the character may find some solace. Connection is meaning, or at least capable of creating it. Whether this involves a boy & his father in a surreal Mexican standoff on a snowy porch, or a drifter & an adolescent girl in an asexual Lolita odyssey across the most barren stretches of the west, or a husband trying desperately to save his marriage thru the advice of his adolescent partner in a lemonade stand, the characters either stand or fall at their moment of decision.

It’s important to note, however, that there’s a lot of fun & just sheer readability in all these stories. Leone seems to write on the margins of the tall tale or the urban legend; the situations in her stories are improbable, but are consistently so in a “truth is stranger than fiction” way. Play & fun are also important in the stories—after all, these are some of our most powerful ways of connecting with others (also eating, music, & those sort of long talks that seem strangely mundane to us as eavesdroppers, but which we immediately understand would seem momentous to the characters engaged in the conversation). The stories also carry you along on a tide of plot—a feature that may not be stressed enough in serious fiction, which Big Bend most certainly is. A hint: don’t start the 60-odd-page title novellette at bedtime unless you want to be up past your usual lights out.

There are a number of memorable images here—the satellite photo of the U.S. at night, showing the places where there’s no light—a character keeps this stashed behind his van’s sun visor; the broken guitar washed up in a flood; the immigrant grandmother’s hope chest (the latter from the final story, “Hope,” which is among other delightful things one of the more arch spoofs on 1980s grad creative writing programs I’ve seen). I’d like to mention others—I especially think of the images at the end of “A Place in the Choir” & “Big Bend,” but I try to maintain a strict “no spoilers” rule here at Robert Frost’s Banjo.

Leone’s writing in this collection is very consistent—there’s no “weak sister” (Exister or otherwise) here. Still, I’m sure you’ll have a few real faves when you check the book out, as you most certainly would be well advised to do. For myself I’d especially mention the title novelette, “River Song,” “A Place in the Choir,” & “Hope Chest,” but the other five don’t trail by a whole lot.

This is very fresh, imaginative & compelling writing—so I’m just saying, head on over to & get yourself a copy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Musical Questions – Sister Rebecca Mary

This week’s Musical Questions interview come from a dear friend, a wonderful musician & composer, & someone who was a terrifically good sport to agree to the interview, since she lives a cloistered life & some of the questions, aimed as they are at “performers,” don’t necessarily apply to her.

Sister Rebecca Mary, who currently lives at Marymount Hermitage, entered the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon in 1964. During those years with the Sisters in Oregon Sister Rebecca Mary often played music for the liturgy and she says she also had a most enjoyable time teaching and singing music with the 4th graders she taught. They especially loved to learn rounds and "fun" songs like "I Know a Place." In 1981 Sister Mary Beverly and Sister Rebecca Mary came to Idaho to start the Hermitage where they are currently living. Sister Rebecca Mary has remained a practitioner of this same life of prayer & service to this day, while continuing to incorporate music as an important part of her spiritual life—of course, I suppose Sister Rebecca Mary would find the adjective “spiritual” redundant.

While Sister Rebecca Mary has never been a “performer” in the same sense as other musicians who will appear in this series, she has frequently played in public at religious services throughout her adult life. In addition, she has put out a cd called Hoshanah: Hosanna to the Son of David. This is a self-produced, professionally mastered cd that has sold in quantities that would make most of us DIY recording folks green with envy. The proceeds from the cd sale go to support the Sisters of Marymount Hermitage in their life of service & prayer. In addition to being a composer & guitar player, Sister Rebecca Mary is a fine singer, & also plays the Appalachian dulcimer, the baritone uke, the harmonica (both chromatic & garden variety) & recorder. She is a skilled improviser with a very fine ear, & can even be convinced to try her hand at unfamiliar instruments during a “jam session,” whether the instrument is the banjo, the bouzouki, the bowed psaltery or the thumb piano.

While I’m not a religious person, I must say that Sister Rebecca Mary is a great example to me of someone who is truly devoted to a spiritual life, & who has the humility & open-mindedness one would expect from such a person. Fortunately for us, she’s also a wonderful musician!

Thanks also to our good friend Sister Mary Beverly of Marymount Hermitage who transcribed Sister Rebecca Mary’s answers. You can learn more about Marymount Hermitage by visiting their website here.

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

Our family loved music. Mom played the piano and the three of us girls liked to sing and harmonize. Also, my music teacher in grade school introduced us to classical music, which I have always loved. Taking up guitar at age 16, gave me an even greater impetus to being involved in playing music, as well as singing and listening to music.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

Not having a very extensive background in music theory, there were, and are, times when I can’t find the chords for which I am looking. Also, when I began composing in Hebrew, there were difficulties with where the accents for the Hebrew words and syllables should fall relative to the music.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

No, it is contrary to my Christian/Catholic beliefs. I do feel inspiration is necessary for composing. My music comes from my personal prayer.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?

Usually, lyrics come first, next melody or chords, but at times, the title of the piece comes first.

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

Certainly, I like it when the music speaks to me, but also the competence of the performer or performers is important.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

Generally, I am playing accompaniment for the congregation with a musical group. I do not consider this “performing,” as such. The goal of liturgical music is worship of God, which means lifting our hearts and minds to Him in prayer. So when the singers and musicians are in harmony, the prayer is more what it should be, a sign of unity.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

I am always more focused on being in sync with my fellow musicians, because we are the support for lifting up the congregation in song and praise.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

My favorite instrument is the violin. More than any other instrument, it seems to speak the language of the heart. It has a very human quality of intensity and feeling. With arthritis and old age, I do not expect to actually learn to play the violin...but maybe in heaven!

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

At present, what is of special interest to me is Spanish Gypsy Flamenco, Greek folk music, Jewish liturgical and folk music, and classical music.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

Recently, I have begun learning the baritone ukulele. Due to arthritis in my left hand, the guitar is more difficult to play now. But I am really enjoying learning the uke.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

As a teenager, I started out playing country western music, and then I got into classical guitar playing. As a religious, I played liturgical music for Mass with a folk group of other Sisters in our community. One of the current musical influences for me has been the study of the Hebrew language. Always having a liking for Jewish music, I found a special love for composing music for the Hebrew psalms and texts. My prayer songs were recorded in our chapel by Eberle Umbach and John Hayes. You can hear a clip of my CD here.

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

I just want to say, “Do it!” In the beginning, don’t be afraid of criticism, but also do not be afraid to ask for help.

Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?

This isn’t a question, but it upsets me that some children are told they can’t sing, and then go through life believing that. I have found that most singers have a voice quality that is especially suited for certain types of music. I’d like to encourage people who don’t think they can sing well to explore different types of music to find what suits them.

Thanks so much Sister Rebecca Mary! & you readers be sure to check back in for upcoming installments in the Musical Questions series!

Pic of Sister Rebecca Mary was taken by Sister Mary Beverly

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Buck in Parking Lot

Thought I’d share this wonderful pic taken by Sister Mary Beverly of Marymount Hermitage. The buck is one of a herd (about 14) of mule deer that lives up on Mesa Hill & graze on the Hermitage property. Tho the Sisters make no attempts to tame the herd, these deer are the least skittish I’ve every seen—maybe something about that extremely peaceful & isolated corner of the world. I love the elements in Sister Beverly’s photo: the sign, the bitterbrush in the foreground, the deer’s unconcerned expression, the misty & snowy bulk of Council Mountain in the background….

This also gives me a chance to remind folks: tomorrow’s Musical Questions post will feature Marymount’s own musician/composer Sister Rebecca Mary. That post should be up first thing tomorrow morning. Be sure to check it out!

Thanks for permission to post the pic, Sister Beverly!

“Final Farewell”

I’ve been a fan of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for umpteen years—in all seriousness, I may have watched this film more than any other. I had the original theatrical version on VHS—the one with the hard-boiled voice-over—& then picked up the director’s cut when that came out (must be around 20 years ago?), which was even better. I loved pretty much everything about Blade Runner—the setting, the pace, the plot, the characters, the performances. I’m also a fan of the Phillip K. Dick novel on which the film was loosely based, the book with the impossibly evocative title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?(the Blade Runner term actually was taken from a unrelated work by Alan S. Nourse).

But what does all this have to do with our weekly poem feature? It turns out that poet Tom Clark, a fellow whose work I’ve admired for quite some time, wrote a poem based on the movie’s climactic scene in which android hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) confronts renegade android Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) on a rooftop in about the slimiest coldest rainfall ever filmed. The film & the Dick novel both explore the question of what it means to possess a subjective reality, even if the entity possessing this subjectivity is “made,” not “born.” Linked to this examination of subjectivity is an examination of mortality—as it should be, since subjectivity (not only the ability to perceive in an individual way, but the ability to recall those perceptions thru memory), not physical essence, is precisely what’s lost thru mortality; & these subjects are also the force behind Clark’s poem “Final Farewell.”

Clark was born in Chicago in 1941. He’s published over 40 books of poetry in a career that dates back to the mid 60s; in addition, he’s published over a dozen biographies, several books of non-fiction, a three-act play, & two novels & two collections of short stories. In between, he also was poetry editor of The Paris Review from 1963-1973, & taught at the New College of California. Clark has been associated with a rather diverse bunch of literary folk, ranging from beat poet Allen Ginsberg to British poet/mythographer Robert Graves. His poetic style tends toward the colloquial—he makes fine use (in my opinion) of slang & everyday speech in his poetry, often mixing this with somewhat more elevated language to nice effect. Clark also has the distinction of being a true baseball fan—he’s written a number of poems about various major league baseball players (always a plus in my book). I’m particularly fond of a four poem sequence he wrote titled “You”—I’ve only seen this is a rather obscure anthology titled English & American Surrealist Poetry (Penguin: 1978). Sadly, in doing research for this piece, I discovered that Clark & his wife Angelica have fallen on hard times—you can read more about this, as well as about efforts to help, here.

For those of you who haven’t seen Blade Runner & would like to, I should warn you that Clark’s poem might be seen as a spoiler—for everyone else, hope you enjoy it.

Final Farewell

Great moment in Blade Runner where Roy
Batty is expiring, and talks about how everything
he’s seen will die with him—
ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion
sea-beams glittering before the Tannhauser gates.

Memory is like molten gold
         burning its way through the skin
It stops there.
                             There is no transfer
Nothing I have seen
will be remembered
beyond me
That merciful cleaning
of the windows of creation
will be an excellent thing
my interests notwithstanding.

But then again I’ve never been
         near Orion, or the Tannhauser gates,

I’ve only been here.

Tom Clark
© Tom Clark 1987

Friday, November 21, 2008

Musical Questions Update!

I’m very happy to announce that our good friend Sister Rebecca Mary of Marymount Hermitage will be featured in the Musical Questions series this Sunday. Sister Rebecca Mary is a fantastic musician & composer, & she has a unique take on the interview questions. I think y’all will enjoy reading her thoughts. If you’d like to hear her play ahead of time, you can hear samples from her cd Hosanna to the Son of David here. To quote from the Marymount page: “This CD features 21 original musical compositions for Scriptural texts sung in Hebrew, Aramaic and English with guitar or dulcimer accompaniment.”

It’s also been very gratifying to me that a number of other musicians have agreed to participate in the series. We have quite a few interviews floating around out there in cyberspace, & now are just waiting for more to come home to roost.

Be sure to check out Sister Rebecca Mary’s interview, which will be posted Sunday morning.

Pic of Sister Rebecca Mary is by Sister Mary Beverly of Marymount Hermitage

The Life of Objects #3

I had the rather dubious pleasure of visiting Wal-Mart this week—another of the joys of country living, in a way, since the Wal-Mart SuperCenter in Ontario, OR (a mere 60 odd miles away) is the closest place to buy a number of household items at a reasonable price. The good news: I found a very sexy new toaster to replace our broken one! There’s nothing like a shiny new toaster to make me inordinately happy (well, maybe a Beltona Southerner Resonator guitar, but sadly I’ve never had that experience). But my reason for mentioning this isn’t to write about the toaster, or even resonator guitars (tempting as both of those are), but to note that “ the season to go shopping” is upon us—a trip to Wal-Mart is a visceral reminder of this—sorta like a slap in the face.

So by the time I arrived home I was wondering how I could get thru another consumerist Yuletide, & Eberle & I talked about our plans for celebrating Christmas this year. I should mention that, if anything, Eberle has always been more unqualifiedly put off by Christmas commercialism than yours truly. Of course, these days Christmas has a religious significance for her, which it doesn’t for me. But I get caught up (like most folks, I expect) in the rampant nostalgia & glee & enchantment & disappointment & anxiety & alienation for which this time of year is so noted—quite a potent cocktail, all that….

But after talking with Eberle, I was reminded of one thing that does “make the season bright,” as the old song goes—finding just the right gift for someone you love can be an almost meditative experience, & extremely satisfying. That’s not to say the most expensive or trendiest gift, or the gift with the most bling. All that takes is a lotta scratch, or a high credit card limit (both, I suppose, ideally). Oh, & on that subject, do people really give each other luxury cars for Christmas like you see on the TV ads—& if so, when did that start? I remember when a dishwasher or a table saw were seen as extravagant….

But anyway, what I’m talking about is a gift that shows you actually listen to the other person & understand something about her (or his) interior life. A great example of this is the red plane light Eberle gave me a few years back—I wrote about it here in the first “Life of Objects” post; & sometimes I’ve been able to find something that seemed to really reflect her imagination as well. The china elephant teapot (which stands serenely on the sill behind our kitchen sink) may have been one such object.

Eberle has always had a fascination with teapots—they seem almost to be animate beings to her. Is it their shape, at once voluptuous & delicate? The gesture of the spout? Is it their ability to sing? Based on my own affinities with certain objects, it could be all of these things, but all in the background of consciousness, where so much takes place. She also has a great fascination with elephants. Tho a number of animals catch her fancy, she has a particular affection for the elephant. She’s confided to me on more than one occasion that she would have loved to be an elephant girl in a circus—the gal wearing the spangly suit & feathery headdress who gets to ride on the elephant. We’ve watched a couple of circus documentaries where either an elephant or a woman elephant trainer was featured, & she always is on the edge of her seat—in fact, both of these documentaries are worth watching. One was on RFD-TV of all places; it was called Americana Backroads: Circus Flora. The Flora of the title was in fact an elephant who was featured in a small family circus. The other was a Netflix selection: A Circus Season: Travels with Tarzan, about the Tarzan Zerbini Circus, & in particular about Pati Zerbini, the elephant trainer.

Elephants are (as I understand) profoundly loyal. They’re also gentle but strong, & have a grace about them that belies their size. All of these qualities might say something important about the person who admires them, or whose imagination they captivate….

So one Yuletide a few years back I was in the Antique Peddler in Council (since moved down the road to the south, to Cambridge), & I saw the elephant teapot, & could see Eberle “in” it—or “thru” it….

There’s a lot of joy in gift giving when we do it in a thoughtful way. Too often we do it out of obligation—& perhaps sometimes we do it out of ostentation or with a sense of a reciprocal obligation. To me, all of these are just wrong—& wrong not only toward our loved ones, but toward ourselves.

The season is practically upon us. Something to ponder….

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Well, kids, November is zooming along & taking us right into the heart of soup & stew season. In honor of that, I’d love to post the recipe Eberle just came up with that practically cured yours truly overnight of a cold—a chicken curry made with red chili paste & roots crops & some other locally available vegetables (sadly, we don’t have a little organic produce market or anything remotely like that, so the next however many months can be a grim time where veggies are concerned). However, that one will have to wait for the next time Eberle whips it up (soon, I hope!) In the meantime, I thought I’d share another recipe from the tragically out-of-print Africa News Cookbook. It’s called Maharagwe, apparently a Swahili word for beans. According to both The Africa News Cookbook & some online sources, this is a traditional Kenyan recipe.

This soup is just the thing on a cold afternoon or evening—hearty with kidney beans & kidney bean broth, savory with coconut milk & turmeric, & spicy with chili peppers or cayenne. On top of that it’s incredibly easy to make—what more c
ould you want?

The ingredients are as follows:
1 cup of dried red kidney beans (I’ve seen variations on Maharagwe using black-eyed peas, but there’s something about the taste, size, & color of kidney beans that make them ideal for this dish)
2 medium sized yellow onions, chopped
1-2 Tbsp of olive oil
2-3 tomatoes, chopped (I vary the amount of tomatoes based on the type of tomatoes I use; for instance, I used those vine-ripened tomatoes for t
his recent batch, & used 5 of them, which seemed about right; I also blanch & peel the tomatoes when making this dish)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp turmeric (It’s come to my attention that some folks react badly to turmeric—having heard this from good friends who are Robert Frost’s Banjo readers; so I asked myself, what could you substitute? Some observations after looking around on the ‘net: Saffron gives the yellow coloring but not the same flavor & is muy expensive; turmeric is related to ginger, so you could perhaps substitute ginger, but ground ginger packs quite a bit
more wallop than turmeric, so there might be some experimentation involved; a blogger who seemed to know more about cooking than me by a whole lot suggested annato seeds, steeped in boiling water for 20 minutes, but I’m thinking annato seeds may be hard to come by in stores around these parts; the best suggestion I saw—somehow this strikes me as though it would work in this recipe: use an equivalent amount of cardamon—cardamon is also in the ginger family)
3 chili peppers or around 1¼ to 1½ tsps of cayenne
2 14-oz. cans of coconut milk—NOT light, if you can possibly help it (The recipe in The Africa News Cookbook specifies using coconut milk prepared
from scratch—I guess I can be a lazy cook—this has always seemed like a lot of trouble to me, even tho we do have a number of tools that would make the process easier than it might be otherwise. However, if you own some power tools, & want to make the coconut milk from scratch, there are recipes for this on the web—e.g. here; this site does neglect to point out that before you can work with the coconut’s flesh you need to get inside the coconut).

After preparing your kidney beans for cooking as usual (i.e., by soaking), cover them with water in a large pot (like a stockpot—see the pic of our beloved black Creuset) & simmer them until they’re getting tender). Then saute the onions in your fav
e saute pan until they’re golden. Once the beans are just about tender add the onions & everything else to the pot! The beans have made their own stock, so that’s all there is to it. Let everything simmer together for at least several minutes so the beans are tender & the tomatoes are cooked. As long as you keep the heat down (to keep the tomatoes from dissolving), you can keep this on the stove for a while & really let all those flavors cozy up to each other.

As with many African dishes, this is traditionally served over fufu or a similar starchy substance. I’m honestly not a fufu fan myself, so I serve it over white rice. The adventurous can find a few fufu recipes here.

Hope you enjoy this simple, savory, warming dish!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Clawhammer! #1

OK, friends, it’s time for a new series her at Robert Frost’s Banjo, & in this one, we’re getting down to this blog’s nitty gritty: the banjo itself. Actually, let me back up a step…. One of the ironies of the blog’s title is that I’m actually not much of a banjo player; I can acquit myself quite respectably on the guitar & all forms of uke, but with the 5-string (the banjo you think of when you hear the word “banjo”— the Platonic one) I’m pretty much a duffer. It’s true I’ve played some relatively serious stuff on the plectrum banjo, but in the Chicago tuning I use, this basically is a humungous, high-action baritone uke—a bit of a work-out perhaps, but not too difficult to navigate with a strong guitar & uke background.

With the more garden-variety banjo, it’s a different story. Eberle & I went halves 10 years ago on a beautiful old Windsor open-back banjo (20’s vintage). For those who don’t know, Windsor was a British banjo maker in the first half of the 20th century—their shop was destroyed during World War II—& we both immediately began learning the only banjo style that’s really interested either of us: the clawhammer technique. But other things intervened: Eberle, who’d gotten pretty decent on the banjo in a short time (see pic below), gave it up for other things, & I only returned to it sporadically. Over the past year or so, I’ve been back at it again whenever I have the chance, & always enjoy it.
So in the interest of full disclosure, that’s my relationship to the 5-string banjo & clawhammer technique—I’m far from an expert, tho it is an instrument that really appeals to me.

Now if you’re not a banjo gal or guy, the term “clawha
mmer” may strike you as odd. It may strike you as even more odd that this same playing style & its associated techniques are referred to by a number of names—the most common one (along with clawhammer) is “frailing,” but this type of playing is also called “knocking,” “drop-thumb,” “thumb cocking,” “rapping,” “whamming,” & “framming” (& several other things beside). I’ll write more about the nuts & bolts of this technique in later installments; for now, just picture the player’s hand held more or less like a loose fist with the thumb sticking out, & the player striking the strings with the fingernail of one finger (either the index or middle) in alternation with the thumb. If you want to see what this should look like, check out the videos at Cathy Moore’s blog, Banjo Meets World; she’s an excellent player with rock-solid technique.

Most folks agree that the basics of clawhammer banjo date back to the earliest days of banjo playing in this country, when the “banjar” or “banza” was an instrument brought over from Africa & played by the slaves. There is a West African instrument known as the akonting, which has three strings, one of which is a drone, & which is played in a style similar to clawhammer (tho with more poly-rhythms). These days, it’s thought that the akonting, or something very much like it, was the proto banjo. Also, an early 19th century Haitian banjo (or “banza”) was recently re-discovered at the Musée de la Musique in Paris (see pic to the left). Interestingly, this instrument looks fairly similar to banjos depicted in late 18th & early 19th century prints (see pic below), which are themselves being faithfully copied by some instrument makers. You can see examples of them at the wonderful Elderly Instruments site, here (first four items on the page).
Until about the mid 19th century, the banjo was pretty much exclusively played by slaves, & wasn’t considered a “proper” instrument. Around the 1820s & 30s, however, some white musicians started to learn these techniques, & not too long thereafter the minstrel show craze was born. One figure who has to be mentioned in connection with the transmogrification of the banjo from an African to a white American instrument is Joel Sweeney (see pic below). Sweeney actually began learning the banjo back in the 1820’s, so he was at the forefront of this movement. He’s also credited with converting what was a 4-string instrument into a 5-string one; however, most banjo historians these days believe he added the lowest (in the sense of “most bass” string—these days usually tuned either D or C), & that the drone string (which is usually referred to as the fifth string) was integral to the instrument all along.Sweeney was a part of the 19th century minstrel show craze that was crucial to the banjo becoming a popular instrument in U.S. culture overall; both Sweeney & Dan Emmett were connected with the Virginia Minstrels, the first of such troupes. However, the minstrel shows were about as fraught as they could possibly be, including musicians in blackface, songs of the “joyful innocent life on the old plantation,” & a general caricature of slave life (&, as they continued after the Civil War, also caricatured the life of poor blacks during reconstruction—often looking back to the “good old” ante-bellum days). A number of well-known old songs date from the minstrel show era—Stephen Foster tunes such as “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna,” & “Ring the Banjo” all were staples in that repertoire, as were Dan Emmett’s “Dixie” & “The Blue-Tail Fly,” & James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” & “O Them Golden Slippers.” Bland was one of the few black composers who broke into the minstrel show circuit, but he mostly performed in Great Britain, because white men in blackface tended to dominate minstrel shows in the U.S. Other African American minstrel troupes included Brooker and Clayton's Georgia Minstrels & Sam Hague's Slave Troupe of Georgia Minstrels. The pic below shows Bland on the cover of some sheet music.
The minstrel shows always featured at least one banjo—this was de rigueur. The fiddle was also pretty much required (thus forming the golden combination of banjo & fiddle still found in “old-time” music & bluegrass today). The minstrel shows also frequently showcased someone playing the bones & other percussion such as the tambourine. It may surprise current fans of old-time music to learn that the guitar wasn’t very important either in these shows or in the folk music from which they sprung. The guitar’s heyday in this kind of music (& a very transformational heyday it was, too, as we’ll look into down the line) really didn’t begin until the turn of the 20th century. The old guitar-toting cowboy is pretty much a Hollywood legend; however, if that same cowboy were around any time after the Civil War, he may well have been frailing a banjo.


Pic at the top of the post by Eberle Umbach