Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Songs for Foodies #5

Here we bring the Songs 4 Foodies series to a close—65 foodie songs I like, as well as a couple of solid suggestions from readers’ comments.

This week’s baker’s dozen is an eclectic batch: some jazz (old & new), some punkers, some country, some etc. It’s also a bit quirky for two other reasons; it includes the one song I know mostly from performance & don’t have on any recording, & (horror of horrors) it includes a song out of alphabetical order. “Shocking,” as Eberle would say; but, alphabetization aside, I’m happy to include the last song on the list—it really needed to be in this series.

Hope you’ve enjoyed Songs 4 Foodies, & that perha
ps one or more of the tunes inspired you to check out some different sounds; I’ll be back with more song lists in the New Year. Also, I’ve appreciated the support the wonderful NoLa blog, New Orleans Ladder has given to the Songs 4 Foodies posts. Thanks a lot!

  • “Scrambled Eggs”: This song begins with possibly the greatest one-string cardboard electric bass solo ever recorded, played by Carrie Bradley. The song's composer, Dani Leone, sings & plays banjo uke, while Jonah Winter adds some really nice clarinet work. No matter what kind of eggs Dani tries to make—omelets, over easy—they turn out scrambled. But that's not all that's going wrong. Leave it to Dani to use scrambled eggs as a metaphor for unrequited love. NOTE: Thanks to Dani, the band line-up (instrument-wise) was corrected from the initial version of the post! (Ed’s Redeeming Qualities: At the Fish & Game Club: Slow River)
  • “Scrapple from the Apple”: Scrapple is odd stuff, coming from thriftier days when it was important not to let any part of a butchered animal go to waste—How does the old saying go? “Those who like sausage shouldn’t inquire too closely into its making.” Of course, the great Bird could certainly make something out of scrapple; actually, in this case, Charlie Parker made something great out of “Honeysuckle Rose,” because “Scrapple from the Apple” is a “head” based on the chord changes of the earlier tune. A caveat on the recording I refer to—it happens to be the one “Scrapple from the Apple” recording we have, but this was recorded live in a club in 1950: there’s background noise, & the sound quality overall is so-so. On the other hand, there’s the excitement of Parker live on his alto; & Roy Haynes gets in some fine drum licks. (Charlie Parker: Bird at St. Nick’s: JWS)
  • "Seafood Mama (Hold Tight)": Fats Waller’s pæan to seafood of all varieties, which he performs with great drama in a collection of Looney Toonesque voices. Eberle & I are huge Fats Waller fans; his piano & organ playing continue to amaze, & no one can sing a song quite like him (that’s Waller in the pic at the bottom of the post). The Andrew Sisters covered this tune at their peak—an odd selection for them in terms of repertoire, perhaps, but a version that stacks up very nicely, even when compared with the mighty Waller. Oysters, mackerel, porgy & tasty butterfish—this tune has it all, & it’s finger poppin’ good. (Fats Waller: The Very Best of Fats Waller: Collector Choice Music; The Andrews Sisters: The Golden Age of the Andrews Sisters: Jasmine)
  • "Shoo-Fly Pie And Apple Pan Dowdy": From 2003 to 2005 Eberle & I performed in a lounge trio called The Blue Notes. Eberle mostly played drums, & I mostly played bass in support of local piano player Bill Shore. We did dances & community functions & had a regular monthly date at the Council, ID Senior Center—playing music at senior centers & nursing homes is a great experience, & one that I’m planning to return to this spring. “Shoo Fly Pie & Apple Pan Dowdy” was always a big hit, & I’ve played bass lines to this song till they were (as my mom would say) “coming out of my ears”—literally (in a surreal sense…ok, almost literally). But I can’t recommend a specific recording of the tune, because I only have a passing familiarity with recorded versions—notable performers of the song include June Christy (with the Stan Kenton Orchestra) & Dinah Shore. For the uninitiated & curious: Shoo-Fly Pie is a molasses pie from Pennsylvania Dutch country & also popular in southern cooking.
  • “Sponge Cake & Spinach”: This wonderful tune was written collaboratively by clarinetist Barney Bigard, Duke Ellington, & Irving Mills. The recording is by Barney Bigard & His Jazzopators, a band that featured Duke on piano, Juan Tizol on valve trombone & Cootie Williams on trumpet. A nice upbeat number that really showcases Bigard’s clarinet & Williams trumpet. Lots of interplay between the two on this; & lots of fun. (Duke Ellington: The Duke’s Men: Small Groups Vol. 1: Columbia Jazz Masterpieces)
  • "Struttin' With Some Barbeque": Also in the classic jazz vein, here we have another instrumental appearance by the Hot Five, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano & Johnny St Cyr on banjo. The song kicks off with Louis’ cornet & Ory’s trombone weaving together, then Dodd joins the fun. As I understand it, there’s some question as to who really wrote this song; it’s credited to Louis Armstrong, but there’s apparently some thought that it really was written by his wife, Lil Hardin. Hardin was a very talented composer as well as a fantastic pianist, & she does get credit for a number of the Hot Fives’ songs (her composition “My Heart” is not to be missed). (Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives & Sevens: JSP)
  • “Sweet Kentucky Ham”: As I mentioned in a previous post, Dave Frishberg is such a great songwriter I can even forgive him for being a Dodgers fan. He’s also a marvelous pianist & singer. “Sweet Kentucky Ham” is a jazz ballad about life on the road & how eating in diners & all-night joints is never the same as “home cooking,” in any sense of that term. Frishberg sums up a lot of loneliness without ever beginning to stray into the maudlin or self-pitying, & accompanies his singing with some fine jazz piano. This is a gorgeous song that really deserves a listen, as does most of Frishberg’s material. (Dave Frishberg: Classics: Concord Jazz)
  • “Swiss Chard”: I never had the good fortune to know Dom Leone, Chris & Dani’s cousin & one of the founding members of Ed’s Redeeming Qualities; Dom died in the 80s at an age that now seems impossibly young. But he wrote some wonderful songs in his time: of course “Driving on Nine,” which was an Ed’s tune before the Breeders brought it more to the forefront—I played & sang it an one of our monthly jam sessions & was delighted that Tomm & Michelle Lemon knew the song from the Breeders’ version. “Swiss Chard” is another of Dom’s songs—a lovely parable about moving away from the familiar to celebrate going “where life’s hard.” Carrie Bradley sang this song with feeling, & it was captured on the Big Grapefruit Cleanup Job from an Ed’s show at the out-of-the-way but essential Baghdad by the Bay performance space, Kommotion, back in the 90s; Carrie’s singing & guitar is supported by Jonah Winter on mandolin & Dani Leone on one string bass. “Swiss Chard” is a “gardening” song—but, hey, that’s where food comes from, right? (Ed’s Redeeming Qualities: Big Grapefruit Cleanup Job: Slow River)
  • "Texas Cooking": When I think of the great songwriter Guy Clark, the first thing that comes to mind would be ballads—“Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “That Old Time Feeling,” "L.A. Freeway.” But Clark has written some wonderful up-tempo numbers, too, & this is one of them. Clark & his backing band give this celebration a full electric country gospel treatment, with piano & back-up vocals & a nice bass beat. The song praises fare like chicken fried steak with white gravy on the side, fried okra, ranch-style beans, etc. Sounds good to me! (Guy Clark: The Essential Guy Clark: RCA)
  • “Velveeta”: Now I hadn’t listened to this song for a looong time before making this list—I forgot how much fun the Mr. T Experience was—a sort of Beserkely, CA incarnation of the Ramones. There’s very little that’s subtle about the music, but there isn’t supposed to be—the guitars, bass & drum are just coming straight at you. The lyrics are a trip, however, because here’s a tune that equates a cozy (?) gal friend with the most infamous of processed cheese foods—“All my friends keep telling me/’Frank you must be sick/How can you have fun with a gooey processed chick?’/But she’s much more than that/she’s got a heart of gold.” etc. A blast from the past. (The Mr. T Experience: Night Shift at the Thrill Factory: Lookout)
  • "Watermelon Man": OK, I know this tune has come up on another Robert Frost’s Banjo song list, but it’s just a great tune. Herbie Hancock apparently wrote "Watermelon Man" with an eye toward commercial success, which he gained, not from his own version on Takin’ Off, but from Mongo Santamaría’s version. Hancock said of the tune, “"I remember the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones." Hancock also recorded a more funk-based version on his Head Hunters album. “Watermelon Man,” like a number of Thelonious Monk’s compositions, proves just how much you can do with a three-chord blues progression. (Herbie Hancock: The Essential Herbie Hancock: Sony)
  • “Would You Like To Have Something to Eat?”: I once made a passing reference to this song at an Alice in Wonder Band show, while introducing one of our own numbers—& heard at least one audience member register rather loud disgust. I realized after the fact that if you’ve never heard the Donner Party—a very fun San Francisco trio from the late 80s— the band name & song title might lead to a misunderstanding. The Donner Party was much in the tradition of Camper Van Beethoven or They Might Be Giants or Ed’s Redeeming Qualities—good clean fun. This is a cautionary tale about what will happen if you don’t eat the stuff mom tells you to. I have The Donner Party on a homemade tape (courtesy of Dani Leone); you can find this tune on the group’s Complete Recordings, but unfortunately this is a tough item to come by. (The Donner Party: Complete Recordings, 1987-1989: Innerstate)
  • “I Like Bananas Because They have No Bones”: OK, so why is this at the end of the list? Long story short: my multiplication skills were off the day I came up with the “final” list. I was lucky enough to get a Hoosier’s Hot Shots cd for Christmas, & I can’t recommend them too highly—at least if you like your typical vocal/guitar/banjo/bass/clarinet/Wabash washboard/slide whistle band. & I mean, Hezzie Trietsch could really play the slide whistle—full-on solos, fills, call & response with the clarinet; you have to hear it to believe it. “Cabbages & onions hurt my singing tones. I love bananas because they have no bones”—words for musicians to live by(?) Needless to say, these guys were a big inspiration to Spike Jones; & as with Spike & the City Slickers, the Hot Shots were hot musicians beyond all the comedy. (The Hoosier Hot Shots: Havin’ Fun with the Hoosier Hot Shots: Collectors’ Choice)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday Flicks #5 – “Holiday”

The holiday season is winding down—or revving up, if you’re one of those who goes in for New Year’s Eve revelry. For myself, I seem to have reached the phase of life where I realize midnight is likely to pass whether I’m there to see it or not, & I generally bid the old year farewell in my dreams.

& speaking of dreams, our final Holiday Flick is a film about them; the dreams that give a life purpose, & the dreams that destroy a life; about how dreams can draw people together in a vital, creative way, & about how dreams can destroy a soul. It’s the movie Holiday from 1938 starring Cary Grant & Katherine Hepburn, & directed by George Cukor. The film is based on a play by Phillip Barry—so as you fans of The Philadelphia Story will note, this is a precursor of sorts, combining the same stars, director & writer.
According to Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, Hepburn was the understudy for the role of Linda Seton during the 1928 theatrical production, & also lobbied for this role when the play was first filmed in 1930; Ann Harding was awarded the lead in the earlier movie version, however. Interestingly, again according to Osborne, Irene Dunne was originally slated for the role in Linda in the 1938 re-make, but Cukor insisted on casting Hepburn in the role.

When Eberle & I watched this film most recently, I found myself thinking a lot about how the role of Linda Seton might have changed with Dunne rather than Hepburn playing the character, & as much as I adore Irene Dunne, came to the conclusion that Katherine Hepburn was made for this part. She brings a passion to Linda Seton that animates the story, & her energy with Grant is palpable (of course, Irene Dunne & Cary Grant also were always great playing opposite each other).

The story of Holiday goes as follows: young, free-thinking businessman Johnny Case (Cary Grant) meets socialite Julia Seton (played by Doris Nolan) during a vacation in Lake Placid; they fall in love & plan on marriage—but Johnny doesn’t realize that Julia comes from such a wealthy blue-blood background. When he arrives at her palatial family mansion he uses the servant’s entrance, assuming she must be a secretary there, not the daughter of a millionaire businessman.

Of course, Case also meets Julia’s sister Linda there, & the sparks of attraction are set off immediately between Hepburn’s & Grant’s character. Linda recognizes that Johnny brings a new energy to a household where everyone is very much in service to Mammon & to social status. Case is self-made; he came from humble beginnings, worked his way thru Harvard, & is now a rising star in the business world, & on the verge of making a bundle of dough thru some creative deals. Once Julia’s father, played by Edward Kolker, can get used to Case’s distinctly plebian roots, he seems like a perfect match for Julia.

Johnny Case, however, isn’t a slave to money: he sees money as a means to an end, not the end itself. Once his fortune is made, he sees no need in accumulating further wealth; he wants to live while he’s young and—to use a term from a later era—“find himself.” He needs freedom to explore, freedom to live life in his exuberant fashion—summed up by his penchant for doing back flips (one can see that Grant had acrobatic training, as he pulls these off effortlessly). He also has befriended an older professor & his wife, played by veteran character actor Edward Everett Horton (who also played the role of Professor Nick Potter in the 1930 film) & Jean Dixon. The Potters typify the unconventional, fun-loving (in a deep, individualistic sense) ethos to which Johnny aspires—& the Potters immediately see Hepburn’s Linda, not the very conventional Julia, as Johnny’s true match.

Holiday moves at a brisk pace, & clocks in at 95 minutes. The first time we watched this film, both Eberle & I found almost excruciating suspense in the possible fates of the characters, but the film doesn’t diminish at all with repeated viewing. The cast is tremendous; besides Hepburn & Grant, who really sparkle, I’d also single out Lew Ayres as Ned Seton—Linda & Julia’s musician brother (some nice banjo scenes!) who’s been crushed by his father’s demands for him to be a businessman & to set aside his musical dreams; in fact, Ned is now a rather hopeless & bitter alcoholic, & Ayres does a remarkable job of portraying this character’s deep resentment & resignation.

The film’s title cuts in a few different directions: Johnny & Julia met on “holiday” in the British sense of the word; the film’s action takes place during the holiday season, moving from Christmas thru New Year’s—one of the story’s main scene takes place at a swank New Year’s Eve party thrown by Seton père, at which Julia’s engagement to Johnny is announced. Throughout much of the party, Linda banishes herself to the playroom, the one place where she can be herself (& where she has Ned’s instruments in safekeeping). The scene shifts between the ostentatious spectacle of the society party (where, as Professor Potter notes, there are “important persons”) & the unconstrained fun of the playroom. Finally, of course, there is Johnny Case’s dream of a holiday—now that he has money to live on securely for some time, he has the chance to live for life, & not live for work.

We often read how U.S. workers are clocking increasing amounts of hours over the past couple of decades. I recall in my own work for a “major U.S. corporation” how it became the norm for folks to work sick, to work weekends, for everyone possible either to become “management” (even if their job description didn’t fit legal standards for same)—“management” is, of course, not entitled to overtime pay—or “contract workers” (i.e., temps) because temps aren’t entitled to benefits, & often have to work overtime & weekends to make ends meet—been there, done that—worked every holiday but Christmas one year as a data entry drone in a big name San Francisco law firm. The technology that supposedly frees us (& I’m not against the technology per se) like laptops, cell phones, Blackberries etc., actually can make our existence into work “24/7” as the saying now goes. All of these are compelling reasons to watch Holiday & ponder its story; & considering the passion the marvelous cast brings to the story—especially Grant & Hepburn—you'll scarcely need another.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy on the Shelf #5

For many years I’ve proceeded from the standpoint that our reality is largely dictated by language—whether it’s Heidegger writing about how the “rootlessness” of Western thought derives from the translation of Greek philosophy into Latin (i.e., from a concrete language into an abstract one), or thinking of the various ideas of time that are possible based on tense structures in various language—for instance, some African languages that have a more complex understanding of past time than is afforded by European languages. Our language shapes the form of our thought, & by enabling certain forms of thought & not others, it also ultimately shapes the content, & the perception that generates that content.

This is why translation is such a tricky endeavor—there’s a different perceptual & existential shape formed by each language. For instance, to take an example near at hand, the use of the general pronoun “on” in French—sometimes it means something closer to the English “one,” (as in “one does such & such”) sometimes it can mean something more like “they,” sometimes it may best be rendered by omitting a subject pronoun altogether & giving the statement in some passive form.

This is a long way of saying that I read the fascinating The Narrow Road to the Deep North by 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō with an understanding that it’s simply not possible to access all of the work’s nuances. The Western mind—mine included, certainly—finds it difficult to grasp Zen thought; the Haiku form seems exotic & really doesn’t “translate” readily into English, either in terms of actually translating Japanese poetry or, in my opinion, of producing poems that really partake of the form itself. This isn’t a comment on whether or not it’s possible to write a good 17-syllable poem in English—I certainly believe that’s possible; but there’s a lot more to poetic form than rhyme patterns & syllable counts & metrical stresses—poetic form ideally crystallizes a mode or pattern of thinking. Even beyond that, the form of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, an integrated mixture of prose narrative & poetic expression (known as haibun to the Japanese) is alien to English, where we tend to like our literary genres “straight up”—novels are novels, poems are poems, & travel sketches are travel sketches: they don’t mingle. That’s not to say mixed forms don’t exist in English language writing—many folks produce them & enjoy them (myself included); they are still outside the “norm,” however.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Bashō’s other travel writings are formal mixtures, & in addition recount journeys that are not only actual, covering large portions of 17th century Japan (typically on foot, & not always in the best seasons for travel), but also “virtual,” in so far as they describe interior journeys that are both aesthetic & spiritual. Of course, to make a distinction between the aesthetic & the spiritual is immediately to step decisively outside of Bashō’s world, where these two categories can’t be separated.

Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North was written toward the end of his life, & describes a journey he took from his home in Edo (now known as Tokyo) into the largely unexplored northern part of Japan. Nobuyuki Yuasa writes, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Bashō’s study in eternity, and in so far as he has succeeded in this attempt, it is also a monument set up against the flow of time.” Bashō himself begins his work as follows (in Yuasa’s translation):

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind—filled with a strong desire to travel.

Interestingly, the work ends with Bashō beginning another journey to view the dedication of a shrine—the journey continues as long as the poet lives in the temporal world, as the existential journey is ongoing for each of us. In a sense, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a sort of Zen Pilgrim’s Progress—as would be appropriate to Zen, it is both realistic & minimalist in style, & it isn’t allegorical in the sense that we understand the term (it's an interesting comparison because John Bunyan & Matsuo Bashō were close contemporaries—the British writer lived from 1628-1688, while the Japanese poet’s dates are 1644-1694). One could make some interesting cultural observations by comparing the “progress of the soul” described by the two works.

In a sense, Bashō is a “sightseer” on his journey—he makes a point of visiting sites of natural beauty, or of historical or spiritual significance (again, the distinction between these three types of sites is imposed, since I believe the category of “spiritual significance” would cover all three in Bashō’s mind). There’s also some aim of interacting with these sites by producing poetry in response to them. On more than one occasion Bashō expresses regret that he was unable to compose any verse at a given location. This form of disappointment is itself somewhat foreign. To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, I don’t believe it’s the sort of disappointment a tourist might experience because he/she failed to get a good snapshot at a landmark. In fact, Bashō seems most creatively restricted when he’s too excited by a given scene, as for instance occurs at the gate of Shirakawa; he tells a companion, “I had not been able to make as many poems as I wanted, partly because I had been absorbed in the wonders of the surrounding countryside and the recollections of ancient poets.” When Bashō is able to achieve a focused detachment, he does produce startling haiku, such as the following after seeing a legendary helmet at the Tada Shrine:

I was awe-struck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet

Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

Bashō is generally considered the premier haiku poet, & also an innovator both in the haibun form & in “linked verse,” which is one way of describing the Japanese form of renga. This verse form links a number of separate poems, often written by different poets, into a coherent whole. Typically the master poet would compose the haiku (called “hokku” in Bashō’s time) that began the chain. The haiku could either exist as a distinct poem or as the opening of a renga. Bashō’s most famous haiku (which isn’t included in his travel writings) could read as follows in translation:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.

Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

Those who are interested can find 31 translations of this poem (including the original, transliterated to Roman letters) here. This page also provides a commentary on the poem. My understanding is that the line rendered by Yuasa as “A deep resonance” is particularly resistant to translation.

I recently read—& then immediately re-read—The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the Penguin edition translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. I read it back in my San Francisco days in a different translation, but I don’t have access to that book right now—however, I believe that edition may not be in print any longer after a bit of ‘net research. Yuasa’s translation is in print, & is very readable & engaging—I have no other objective criteria for judging a translation from the Japanese—& it has the virtue of containing four other travel sketches by Bashō: The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel¸& A Visit to Sarashina Village. All of these works are short (the entire volume, including introduction, footnotes & maps is less than 170 pages), & all are absorbing. Bash
ō's commentary about excellence in art from The Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel is fascinating:

ō in traditional poetry, Sōgi in linked verse, Sesshū in painting, Rikyū in tea ceremony, and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year. Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.

Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

Highly recommended for a quiet afternoon’s reading.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

PoeBiz Biz

Here’s a teaser about some upcoming poetry biz you can expect to see on Robert Frost’s Banjo in the New Year:

The long promised (threatened?) feature on poetry & song: You all thought you got off lightly with that Robert Creeley post, didn’t you? No. I really want to dig a bit more deeply into this one, so be on the lookout for Greek lyric poets, William Blake, Elizabethans & folks like Townes Van Zandt; not yet sure if this will be a series or a one-time post.

A series on various poetic forms: The virtues & vices of poetic forms have sparked debate/arguments/vitriol—possibly fisticuffs, tho I’ve never personally witnessed that. Amazing as it may seem to you non-poebiz types out there, this subject can get card-carrying poets plenty hot. As someone who has been called both a “beat formalist” (a term I like, coined by poebiz pal Mari Hata) & a “new formalist” (more or less accurately in Charlottesville, somewhat misleadingly, I think, in terms of my San Francisco poems & the handful that have come since) I’ve been embroiled in several of these discussions. Throwing caution to the winds, I’ll be writing about some of the well-known forms: the sonnet (which William Carlos Williams termed “fascist,” yet which distinctly non-fascist poet Ted Berrigan used so wonderfully), the sestina, & the villanelle, with examples of each. I may include a couple of other set forms, too.

“How to” read poetry: Some folks have expressed varying degrees of bafflement about the poems I’ve chosen to post, e.g., what they mean & how to read them. I realize Robert Frost’s Banjo has a diverse & general readership, which I like. I also realize that these days in the U.S. reading poetry is a habit only among poets themselves & some lit crit types—most other folks just aren’t used to it. So in response to requests for same, I’ll weigh in with my thoughts on the subject (& of course encourage any readers with thoughts on the subject to weigh in via comments). As with the poetry & song feature, am still debating whether this will be a one-time post or not.

More poems by yours truly: Eberle & others have urged/encouraged me to post my own poems on the blog on some sort of regular basis. I’ll be posting one a month for a while—it’s possible I’ll be posting more often during the spring & summer, but I’ll get into that when the time comes. Because some of my better poems are relatively long, these would be the morning “post of the day.” Shorter poems would be a secondary post in the afternoon. They won’t be weekend “poems of the week,” however. I may pick a regular day for them, but I won’t necessarily post a picture or commentary to accompany my own work.

& finally, with many thanks to Ron Silliman of Silliman’s Blog I now know how to make an indented line in Blogger—no simple feat, that. Not only does this give me more flexibility in choosing poems for the “weekly poem” series, but it also allowed me to correct the lineation on a few poems I’d already posted. These would be “A Wicker Basket” (corrected shortly after posting, so probably most folks saw it that way); “Final Farewell”; “Poem”; & “Sickly Autumn.”

& speaking of blogs, I’m always on the lookout for good poetry blogs to put on the Blogroll. While I’m often disappointed in the poetry blogs I run across…(I originally typed more about this disappointment, but politeness edited it)…I did find one original & fun poetic blog—or I should say, that blogger found Robert Frost’s Banjo. Be sure to check out The Y River (blue in green) for something novel. I’m not going to try to describe the writing—this sort of thing is better experienced than explicated—& while some of the music selections may not be quite in line with Robert Frost Banjo tastes, the concept & the writing far outweigh that as a consideration (& there is Miles Davis for cryin’ out loud). I’ve added The Y River (blue in green) to the Blogroll.

Hope you enjoy these features.

I’m not sure who took that photo of me reading at Williams Corner Bookstore in Charlottesville, VA back in ’87—it may have been old grad school pal, fiction writer & Timbuktu editor Molly Turner, who also read that evening.

MusicBiz Biz (etc)

I don’t believe I’ll be writing any retrospectives as ’08 winds down—of course all things are subject to change in blogland, but right now I’m more in the mindset of looking ahead than looking back. So today’s posts (this & one later on today) both will talk a bit about some “coming attractions.” This post will discuss the music side—the afternoon post will focus on the poetry side. This isn’t to suggest that other aspects of the blog will be diminished—in fact, I see the Country Living, “Happy on the Shelf,” “Life of Objects,” “Diners I Have Known,” “Things Seen” series all continuing, as well as film reviews, & recipes, etc.

On the music side, I’m happy to say there are still a number of Musical Questions interviews out there, & I hope to post a couple a month for the foreseeable future—& yes, if you’re curious, I’ll weigh in on these questions myself at some point down the line, probably when the others all have been posted. I really appreciate the time our musical friends have put into this series.

I’ve also been gratified by the response to the “themed” song series, both the Train Songs & the Songs 4 Foodies; I have some ideas about similar series, but I’d be interested in any feedback from readers about this. Obviously, any series would need to include a lot of songs in the jazz/blues/old-time/country realm, since these are the genres I know best—if someone wants a list of great death metal tunes, I’m not the guy to write it.

The recording & slideshow for “Silent Night” were a lot of fun, & I’ll be doing more of these—as proof positive there’s one at the bottom of this post. Eberle & I were both pretty burnt out on recording after two silent film soundtracks & background music for two plays in the course of three years, but I’m starting to look at microphones again with a friendlier eye.

There will be more musician profiles—some likely candidates in no particular order: Mary Lou Williams, Johnny Dyani, Maria Kaleniemi, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Ritz, Ukulele Ike, & Son House. & speaking of Son House, I’ll probably be writing about my current obsession, the resonator guitar (see pic at top of post—& by the way, I know it not a National, so let’s not get into that debate, ok? It’s not even a Beltona, which I would have taken over a National—to really incite the reso crowd—but us country blogger/musician/poets only have so much $ to go around—& I can’t get enough of this Regal). Now that was a long parenthetical aside, wasn’t it? But the history of resonator instruments is fascinating—an strange side route along the story of the guitar’s ultimate electrification, since the resonator design was another way to make the darned thing heard in a band setting.

Speaking of which, there will be more musical instrument history—besides the resonator guitar, I may look at the mandolin family, & possibly the bouzouki (now a sort of adopted mandolin, tho it was much different in origin, & still is a much different instrument in Eastern Europe). I might also do a feature on the baritone uke, itself an adopted instrument, & somewhat of a “special case” as ukuleles go.

Finally, at the urging of some friends, I’m going to do some posts—possibly a monthly feature—from a music teacher’s vantage point.

Hope these ideas seem interesting—as I said, I’ll post a similar "coming distractions" for the Poebiz end of things sometime this afternoon. In the meantime, hope you enjoy the tune & slideshow at the bottom of the page. The song is called “Rubato Kangaroo,” & it’s one Eberle & I co-wrote back in early 05. Because we figure you can never get too much mileage out of a song, this made it into our Back to God’s Country soundtrack as a guitar solo—somewhat deformed to fit the onscreen action—& also was part of our background music for Rootabaga Stories (for those of you familiar with Sandburg’s wonderful tales, it was part of the background for the story of the Two Skyscrapers). & of course, we performed it as a stand alone piece at Five & Dime Jazz live shows—it also made its way into a few wedding gigs. The slideshow incorporates Wiki Commons kangaroo pix with photos of Eberle & I in musicianly settings & pix of us in the San Francisco Arboretum several years ago (because it’s always pleasant to think about the Arboretum during an Idaho winter). The recording dates back to our minidisk phase, so the sound quality isn’t what we could manage nowadays, but it’s ok

Hope you enjoy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Poem (‘In the stump of the old tree...’)"

I first encountered the work of Hugh Sykes Davies’ in a relatively obscure anthology, English & American Surrealist Poetry, edited by Edward B. Germain, & published by Penguin. Germain’s anthology is quirky: any book that counts Yvor Winters & Thomas Merton among the surrealists is certainly using a very catholic definition; still, the book contains some gems, & is notable for collecting works by the 1930s London Surrealist Group, which included not only Mr Davies, but also David Gascoyne, Roland Penrose, George Reavey, & Ruthven Todd (et al).

The London Surrealists were “orthodox” (to use Germain’s word)—they were political & social radicals, practiced automatic writing, & enjoyed lectures by renowned Continental surrealists such as André Breton & Salvador Dali. Tho none of these British writers are currently included in either the working Lit Crit or Poebiz canons (which, as canons are wont to be, always tend toward the conservative—tho the content differs, the form remains the same), they produced some intriguing work.

Hugh Sykes Davies was one of the founding members of the London Surrealist Group, & was an active member at least into the early 40s; the Second World War was a social & political disruption that caused the group to dissolve. Davies life story is itself fascinating, & the essay by George Watson at the link given above is well worth a read. Davies was a man of many interests & many friends—how many folks could claim friendship with as diverse a collection of fellows as Anthony Blunt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Salvador Dali & T.S. Eliot?—tho Davies & Eliot fell out over Eliot’s staunch Anglicanism & his lukewarm fascist leanings.

Among the most interesting poems produced by the group (in my opinion), Hugh Sykes Davies’ “Poem” is a wonderful example of verbal repetition producing transformations—Davies’ “Poem” is at some level the dream landscape inside “the stump of an old tree,” but each time we enter this landscape the elements change slightly. It’s kaleidoscopic. One might try to read literal meanings into the landscape—the “stump of the old tree” being, for instance, bourgeois society with its “sodden bible”; while there may be some element of this narrative underlying the poem, I’d argue that it’s the poem’s least interesting aspect (I always argue against any reading of a poem—unless it’s a deliberately allegorical medieval work—in which this=that). The poet in me delights in Davies’ technique & imagery, in the actual story told, & not so much in the meanings toward which this story might point.

Hope you enjoy this unsual & vivid poem.

Poem (‘In the stump of the old tree...’)

      In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

      in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

      in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

      in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

      in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

      in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.

Hugh Sykes Davies, 1936
© Hugh Sykes Davies

Friday, December 26, 2008

Indian Valley Christmas

We got a real old snowstorm Christmas Eve thru Christmas morning; as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, we might still be at the Hermitage on top of Mesa Hill a few miles from home were Eberle not such a bold & skilled winter driver.

We spent a quiet Christmas at home—we’d had plans to travel to McCall, but couldn’t get out of our driveway (in fact our road wasn’t plowed till mid-afternoon)—& ventured out into a pleasant winter afternoon to tak
e some pix of the aftermath. It’s not always so snowy here, since we’re in the lowlands (by Idaho standards)—less than 3,000 feet above sea level.

Here's some of the scene:

The first pic shows a tamarisk at the corner of our house with snow cradled in its boughs

Our cat Weenie climbing thru the snow; a photo really doesn't do her epic ascent justice

Our old house, with various garden objects buried in the foreground
—including a trellis that's around 4 feet tall

The county grader plowing Whiteman Lane on Christmas afternoon

Tho it's not a fantastic pic, I couldn't resist: a quail in a pear tree

One of Eberle's garden sculptures capped with snow
—Eberle took this pic

One of the bird feeders, with a junco waiting for me to go away; note the left side is bent
— the feeder was catapulted off the post when snow came crashing off the porch roof

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Songs 4 Foodies #4

We’re home safe & sound from our midnight musical endeavors—thanks to Eberle’s intrepid snowstorm driving, & studded tires, & all-wheel drive. Last night, this part of Idaho was a wild winter wonderland….

It’s almost time for Christmas dinner, & this week’s line-up of Foodie songs would make a truly odd menu—no turkey or duck or goose for starters. But there’s a lot of fun, high-energy listening for your holiday delight (with a few mellow numbers & at least one that’s just downright odd).

  • “Marmalade”: A great LA band from the 90s, The Geraldine Fibbers featured the memorable vocals of Carla Bozoulich, some really intriguing lyrics, & a sort of orchestral cowpunk sound (fuzz guitar & bowed bass on this cut!) This is a love song with some sweet dissonance, & just a hint of country around the edges of frenetic drums & rave up guitar hooks. (Geraldine Fibbers: Lost Somewhere Between Earth & My Home: Virgin)
  • “Memphis in June”: OK, this song makes it simply on the strength of Cousin Amanda’s rhubarb pie—like “A Dreamer’s Holiday,” this isn’t really a foodie tune. But I love pretty much anything by the great Hoagy Carmichael, who on this occasion provides the music while Paul Francis Webster provides the lyrics. I also like to hear Hoagy sing his own songs—the version of “Memphis in June” on Hoagy Sings Carmichael (which features Johnny Mandel arrangements of the Carmichael tunes) is a delight, & the album as a whole is a must-have for anyone who loves Carmichael’s music. “Memphis in June” paints a lovely landscape both in words & melody. (Hoagy Carmichael: Hoagy Sings Carmichael: Pacific Jazz)
  • “Onions”: A 2:10 ode to “Onions, Green Onions,” sung with a lot of gusto by the magnificent bluesman John Lee Hooker. Some chorused, riffing saxes, some honky honk piano, bass, & Hooker’s own guitar fills. We can assume that John Lee definitely liked his chicken & potatoes with onions—it’s heartfelt. I have this on an import cassette tape—remember those? —apparently this particular collection was also issued on lp & cd, tho all seem kind of hard to find based on a quick Google search. (John Lee Hooker: 16 Greatest Hits: Blue City)
  • “Pig Ankle Rag”: A jolly country rag—picked in this case by Sam McGee, one of the truly great country fingerstyle guitar players. Between Sam McGee’s intricate picking & the nice back up by Clifton McGee, this piece turns positively fugal. McGee was a blacksmith when he was discovered by the great medicine show banjoist (& later Grand Ol’ Opry fixture) Uncle Dave Macon. McGee also played the banjo, as well as the banjo-guitar, & was himself a fixture at the Opry for years; he also was one of the first to add the right hand middle finger to old time style guitar fingerpicking; the real old-timers tended to do everything with the thumb & the index finger, as if they were playing a banjo. One thing you can say about Southern cuisine (to get back to the song title): they make the most of the pig. (Sam McGee: Grand Dad of the Country Guitar Pickers: Arhoolie).
  • “Pig Meat on the Line”: Speaking of pig meat—tho one would be stretching things to claim that this tune is about Sus domestica. Memphis Minnie was a great guitarist & singer—the fills she provides from her hollow-body electric are impeccable—& she’s nowhere near as well known as she should be outside of blues aficionados. The blues—especially in the 20s thru the 40s—was “a man’s world” for sure, & for a woman like Memphis Minnie to make it to the top she had to be really good. She was. It’s a shame she isn’t more widely known; this may be in part because she died before the 60s folk-blues boom could incorporate her into the old-time “blues canon” that developed during that period; also, she did play electric guitar, which the folkies tended to frown upon; I've read that the folkies always wanted to hear Big Bill Broonzy play acoustic guitar, even tho he'd been playing electric for a long while before the folk revival. That's Memphis Minnie in the pic at the bottom of the post. (Memphis Minnie: Queen of the Blues: Columbia)
  • “The Pot Wrassler”: OK, here’s the oddity. I have this old cowboy tune on an anthology tape called Back In The Saddle Again: American Cowboy Songs. Dani Leone recorded this for Eberle & me back in the late 90s, & knowing Dani it was taped from vinyl. Harry Jackson was a working cowboy, & he sings the song a capella. “The Pot Wrassler” tells the story of a camp cook from the cook’s perspective. We know he must be a good cook because: “I sorts all the big rocks right out of the beans, & I don’t wipe the frying pan off on my jeans.” (Back In The Saddle Again: American Cowboy Songs: New World Records; there are also MP3 downloads on several sites, including this one.
  • “Potato Head Blues”: Although this recording dates from 1927—usually thought of as Satchmo’s Hot Fives & Hot Sevens periodthis session found him as part of a nine-piece hot jazz orchestra; notably, the great Earl “Fatha” Hines also was in this group. “Potato Head Blues” is a piece that shows off the band soloing talents nicely: an Armstrong solo with those characteristic clear high notes, a beautiful clarinet break by Boyd Atkins, & a short but fun banjo break by Rip Bassett. (Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives & Sevens: JSP)
  • "Red Beans”: Between the boogie piano & a hot horn section, ‘Fess has more than his red beans cookin’ on this number. Hot sax breaks—hot piano breaks; as Professor Longhair sings, he will have you “jumpin’ for joy.” Dr John (who plays guitar on this album) said, “Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music." This is music to dance to, & as infectious as music can be. (Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta: Alligator)
  • “Ritz Cracker”: It’s a truism to say that the uke gets little respect, but given a uke of reasonable quality & a competent player, the jumping flea is capable of making some lovely music. Lyle Ritz is far beyond just a competent player—he’s really a master of the instrument—he was in the 50s when he recorded this original composition (along with a several old standards) & he still is today, in his “golden years.” Ritz was a professional bass player for years—he was the bassist on a number of 60s hits, including “Good Vibrations”—but in his retirement, he turned back to his first musical love, the tenor uke. How About Uke is an essential uke album. (Lyle Ritz: How About Uke: Verve)
  • “Roly Poly”: Western Swing at its finest from the King of same, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. The hybrid styles of Americana music are all fascinating, whether it’s New Orleans music or Western Swing, which combines big band sound with a cowboy sensibility. “Roly Poly” is, of course, about the corn-fed boy of American fable—eating “everything from soup to hay.” The guitar work on this one by Cameron Hill is spectacular. (Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: Take Me Back to Tulsa: Proper)
  • "Salt Peanuts": All of us who were around during the 70s will recall the White House version of this tune with Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet & President Jimmy Carter on vocals: “Salt peanuts, salt peanuts.” But this version—on old vinyl—dates from the mid 40s, from the birth of be-bop, & not only features Dizzy on trumpet, but also Charlie Parker on sax. “Salt Peanuts” is a well-known tune, but it may be less well-known that the song is based in part on “Rhythm Changes”—for those who don’t know, these are the chord changes of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” a song that has inspired a ton of jazz “heads” (i.e., songs based on the chord changes of an old standard). Besides “Salt Peanuts,” just a few of the more famous heads built on “Rhythm Changes” are Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,”—& of course, “The Flintstones’ Theme.” (Dizzy Gillespie: The King of Bop: Everest Records—apparently not issued on cd)
  • "Save the Bones for Henry Jones": The upbeat swing version by Nat King Cole is no doubt better known, but Danny Barker—who composed the song—puts a slower, bluesy spin on one of the all-time foodie tunes. Anyone who scoffs at a rhythm guitarist for “just playing chords” should check Barker out; he creates a beautiful texture behind his singing with chromatic chord runs, moving bass lines, & interspersed single string riffs. Sadly, it’s difficult to check Barker out, because his recordings all appear to be discontinued. Some of his music (including this song) is available at LastFm. (Danny Barker: Save The Bones: Orleans)
  • “Savoy Truffle”: You probably won’t see a lot about the Fab Four on Robert Frost’s Banjo; it’s not that I don’t respect The Beatles’ songwriting & musicianship, because I do. However, I try to lean toward pointing out musicians folks may not know as well, & let’s face it: if the Beatles have an exposure problem, it’s not under-exposure. But George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” is a great dessert song—& a cautionary tale about the effect of confections on one’s teeth. The distorted saxophones apparently were Harrison’s idea—according to Wikipedia, the saxophonists involved in the session weren’t pleased by the distortion added to their parts. (The Beatles: The White Album: Apple)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

“Silent Night”

The soundtrack of Christmas is unavoidable during the season, isn’t it? Even out here in rural Idaho, land of the internet Christmas shoppers, we hear it in the grocery stores, in the drug store, in the hospital lobby while waiting for a weekly appointment. So my apologies, dear readers, for adding to the soundtrack. But I am a musician after all….

We all know the lovely tune, “Silent Night,” & no doubt many of you know that it was written as a collaboration between a priest & a schoolteacher in 1818 (the lyrics having been written by the priest Father Josef Mohr a couple of years earlier). There’s a story that the schoolmaster, Franz Xaver Gruber wrote a guitar accompaniment because the organ at Mohr’s church had been damaged, but others believe Mohr simply wanted a song he could accompany with his guitar. The English translation that’s sung today dates back to the mid 19th century; it was created by an Episcopal priest in Florida (later a bishop), John Freeman Young. You can read a lot more about Bishop Young at this link, & you also can get all sorts of information about “Silent Night” at the Austrian Stille-Nicht Association, here (link leads to the English page).

Anyhoot, as a sort of Robert Frost’s Banjo Christmas card, the video at the bottom of this post features yours truly fingerpicking “Silent Night” on the 5-string banjo (tonight I’ll be fingerpicking it on a resonator guitar for a midnight Mass at which Eberle & I have played for several years—my year for playing this carol on slightly unusual instruments I guess). The pictures in the slide show come from Wiki Commons, a fantastic resource for public domain media on the web—Wiki Commons also was the source of the pic at the beginning of this post: the music to “Stille Nacht” in Franz Gruber’s hand.

So Merry Christmas, dear readers, & hope you all find the peace that should be a part of this season in the midst of the hubbub that actually obtains. Oh, & by the way—since as Eberle says, “a blogger’s work is never done”
tomorrow, Christmas Day: Songs 4 Foodies #4: a very odd but diverting Christmas banquet….

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday Flicks #4 – “Scrooge”

I’m ending up the Christmas portion of our Holiday Flicks series (there will be a New Year’s film next week) with an obvious choice, but one that’s a pleasure to watch: Scrooge from 1951—marketed these days as “A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge,” or other titles closely related to this.

There are any number of reasons to like this British film, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, with a screenplay by Noel Langley: the story moves at a crisp pace, the ensemble cast distinguishes itself without exception, the cinematography is gorgeous, with a number of memorable shots, & Langley’s screenplay stays quite true to the original—there are some cuts (not having read Dickens’ novella for several years, I believe these are mostly in the Spirit of Christmas Present section—I recall there’s an episode that takes place on board a ship that’s not in the film); also the role of the housekeeper has been expanded, providing a wonderful showcase for Kathleen Harrison. The score is understated & interesting; even the 1950s special effects (particularly involving Marley’s ghost) are well executed (remember, tho—yours truly is someone who prefers Ray Harryhausen to contemporary computer effects).

But the film in many ways belongs to Alistair Sim, the titular Scrooge. Sim paints his portrait of Scrooge with a full palette—we can see his mean-spiritedness, his studied callousness, & we see the deep cynicism & misery beneath this. We see his terror when confronted by Marley’s ghost—a truly memorable scene with a powerful performance also by Michael Hordern as Marley. We see the regret in his face when he confronts his past, the pain when he confronts his present circumstances & the circumstances of those around him; & we again see his terror & despair (believing now that he’s incapable of redemption) when he confronts a possible future. I should mention that George Cole, who plays the younger Scrooge, also provides a strong characterization— a background, as it were, for Sim to play against, & a youthful character that’s completely in line with Sim’s older Scrooge. Cole shows the young Scrooge as hapless & impressionable; a loner who’s given to few but intense relationships, & capable of great bitterness in reaction to pain. It does seem that the character of Scrooge can lend itself to caricature—does anyone else (to mention an extreme example) recall the Mr Magoo version of A Christmas Carol from the early 60s? Sim avoids this admirably. His transformation & redemption, too, are portrayed in transports that seem (to quote Kathleen Harrison’s Mrs Dilber) “in keeping with the situation.”

There are any number of memorable moments in the film; as I mentioned, the scene with Marley’s ghost is really first-rate, & completely delineates Scrooge’s dilemma—because Scrooge’s sin isn’t so much miserliness with money (as we may think of the character now), but a miserliness of spirit & feeling. This is what Marley means when he screams in agony: “Mankind was my business,” in response to Scrooge’s observation that they were simply men of business. A truly memorable scene comes at the conclusion of the Spirit of Christmas Present episode, when the jolly spirit draws aside his robe to reveal the two children, Ignorance & Want, who cling to him. When Scrooge asks if there can be no help for these children, the Spirit replies, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” echoing Scrooge’s own words when he rebuffed solicitors for a Christmas charity early in the story.

There have been a number of film versions of A Christmas Carol, & this is my favorite—one of the few times I’d prefer a 1950s film over a 1930s one, but I do prefer this to the 1938 adaptation with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. I didn’t realize this until doing a spot of research for this post, but film versions of A Christmas Carol date back to the very beginnings of silent film—there's a 1901 version, a 1908 version by Edison, & a lost 1928 version. There was the George C. Scott TV movie in the 80s, which has its fans, but doesn’t stay with me like the Sim version; more recently there was the 1999 TV adaptation starring Patrick Stewart. I must say this one left Eberle & I cold, even tho we’re both fans of Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard (or perhaps we couldn’t make the leap from the 24th century to Victorian England—but Stewart’s performance really seemed to be only one of the problems—e.g., Joel Grey as the Spirit of Christmas Past just to name one other). I also ran across a fascinating site, the Charles Dickens Christmas Carol & Scrooge CED Web Page, which shows comparative images from 13 different film versions of the story (dating from 1935 to the 1999 version just mentioned)—on this page you can compare 40 different characteristic images from all the films (for instance, all the versions of the haunted door knocker, or all the versions of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come).

As delightful as the film Scrooge is, everyone should take the time at some point to read the original novella. These days, thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can do this online here—with original illustrations!

I was surprised to notice that TCM isn’t showing Scrooge this December, as it seems to be an annual event with them. The film is widely available, however, including Netflix. If you haven’t seen this film, you really should make an opportunity to do so.

Christmas is almost upon us—“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ukes for Peace

I just ran across this item on the Ukulelia blog, & wanted to get it posted on Robert Frost’s Banjo asap—it was posted on Ukulelia a week ago, so I’m a bit behind my time. As faithful readers here know, the uke is dear to my heart, so I love to see it come up in something as idealistic & hopeful as “Ukes for Peace,” an organization that’s devoted to bringing Israeli & Palestinian children together as part of a ukulele orchestra in the towns of Tira and Hod Hasharon (not far from Tel Aviv).

Needless to say, this is a very worthwhile organization, one that’s trying to address one of the most tragic & impossible situations—& a situation that, as it currently stands, has powerful ramifications far beyond the Middle East, but most importantly now generates daily strife & misery for the people who are directly affected. There are a couple of ways to support “Ukes for Peace”; there’s a cd available for a $20 PayPal donation, & there’s also a tab ebook—with tab put together by some big names in Ukedom such as James Hill, Mark Nelson, Brian Hefferen & Dominator. The book is $15 until Christmas, & then $17 thereafter.

So any ukers out there (or, as far as the cd goes, any uke music lovers), this is a chance to make a small, relatively painless contribution that could make a difference to an organization with a really important goal.

The pic above is taken from the Ukes for Peace site.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Hanukkah

to any & all Robert Frost’s Banjo readers who celebrate the Festival of Lights, which began today at sundown. It’s a beautiful holiday: a celebration of the miracle of light, coming in the dead of winter—a profound thought about providence & hope & even eking out resources.

& on the lighter side, Hanukkah brings the delightful dreidel & the wonderful latkas. Oddly, I also associate a different form of potato pancake with this season, the sort as my mother used to make from the mashed potatoes left over from Christmas dinner. I believe egg is also involved in that form, tho they don’t have the wonderful hash brown texture of latkas.

Happy Hanukkah—especially to my sister Naomi, her husband Morty & my niece Jessie & nephew Ethan!

Musical Questions – Tomm Lemon

A few years back, Eberle & I each had the pleasure of taking on a delightful music student (piano & guitar respectively) in the person of Michelle Lemon. One big fringe benefit of this was that we got to know her husband Tomm, who’s now a fixture at our monthly jam session (on three instruments, & as a singer). As I mentioned in yesterday’s teaser, Tomm & Michelle have both become friends, beyond being student’s hubbie & student.

& as I also mentioned yesterday, Tomm’s musical journey is interesting & instructive. I really appreciate musicians like Tomm & Dani Leone getting into specifics of traumatic
childhood musical experiences, because many of us who now play music as a “serious” vocation or avocation (or some of both) had something similar back in the murky depths of youth (yours truly included), & have had to overcome these memories to enjoy music as a significant part of life. But more importantly, there are folks out there who’d like to play music but don’t allow themselves to try because of past difficulties—& it’s important to encourage people not to think why they can’t, but think how they can do something they dream about.

Off my soapbox for now—Tomm comes from a family that’s musical on both sides. His mother's parents played instruments for a long time, and several of his father's aunts and uncles are or have been music teachers in high schools. He describes his sister as “a mad genius on the piano,” while Tomm began taking violin lessons at around 5 or 6. He also studied violin in college at Southwestern Adventist University under Dr. Mugur Doroftei, & he notes that his violin training provided “an invaluable musical foundation.”

Tomm is a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, & what he does musically these days revolves around weekly school worships at Canyon View School in Cambridge, ID and Treasure Valley Adventist School in Payette, ID; he plays the guitar and the kids sing. Tomm (& more recently, Michelle) also perform music for church or community programs. The Idaho Conference of Seventh-day Adventists holds an annual camp meeting in Caldwell, & for the last two years Tomm has been responsible for the praise band in the youth department. Although Tomm & I don't view the workings of the cosmos in the same way, I have a great deal of respect for his tolerant & open-minded outlook, & for the way he works with kids.

Tomm is also a talented composer & is actively working on a CD of ambient music for prayer, inspired by the practice of Lectio Divina and Dick Eastman's ideas in The Hour That Changes The World. & he says he’s got a number of “rock-ish songs demanding to be let out of their cages”—so, here, out of his cage, as it were, is Tomm Lemon:

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

My grandparents paid for violin lessons for much of my early childhood. I ended up in the Suzuki method. By the time I started appreciating the music itself (in Book 3 or 4—the baroque stuff that was used to teach violin students in the 1700s was pretty good), I’d also discovered pop radio. This meant I was playing along with the radio, matching a part or making up a new one, when I was supposed to be practicing Seitz and Vivaldi, and in the long waiting periods during school ensemble rehearsals I was plucking out guitar hooks on the violin strings. In terms of pure music, the violin lessons were incredibly helpful.

I’m a preacher’s kid, so the music around the house was almost entirely religious. One of my earliest memories of listening to music involved an obscure Seventh-day Adventist folk group from the early 1970s called Take 3 (obviously a pre-Google band-name as you simply can’t find them online). Unlike a lot of CCM (Contemporary Christian), their stuff runs the gamut of the Psalms—light to really dark, in retrospect. Obviously a three-year-old can’t articulate this, but having their music in my consciousness paved the way for me to be able to write about spiritual themes a little more honestly (hopefully).

A few years ago Take 3 re-released their records on one CD, and IMNSHO it has stood the test of time. (Added bonus: when I moved to Idaho as an adult, it turns out that a friend’s sister is married to one of the guys from that band. He lives in CA now, but I got to meet him when he came up for a funeral.)

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

I stopped playing violin for years for a couple of reasons. I was stuck on a Vivaldi piece for a year in my lessons and was not permitted to try something else for awhile. It ruined Vivaldi for me. The other thing that killed violin was a performance at the office of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The GC is the closest thing Adventists have to a Vatican, and when I was in 8th grade our school choir was asked to play for their morning worship. Because I’d played with the choir for other things, I was assigned the fiddle run during the break in one particular song. I blew it—the tempo was about 40 bpm too fast and the part was too intricate. I’d tried to tell the director and pianist at practices beforehand but they didn’t listen. So I made it about 8 notes in, let the rest of the musicians continue without me, and shrugged. It got a laugh from the people in the GC auditorium—I know a few of them, they’re a generous-hearted bunch, and I see now they were laughing along with the shrug—but I only played violin in such an overtly religious setting one time after that. I’ve had trouble playing for other people ever since.

I started making my own stuff up in high school on a little Yamaha keyboard, and have graduated to digital recording and synthesis. Currently my biggest problem, writing and playing, is inertia and fear. I’m afraid it will be good, life-changingly good; I’m also afraid it will suck and no one will listen to it. :-D

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

Since that day at the GC, I have never worn a sweater. I hate them. Not while playing music, not ever. Other people can wear them, but not me. I wouldn’t call it a superstition—but the negative association is so strong I can’t imagine a superstition being effectually worse.

What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
My best music starts with a melody; my best lyrics also come alone. For me the middle way has been chord progressions. I used to do concept work in college and would like to go there, but I feel I need more experience.

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

To me, the best songs are rooted in melody and accessible lyrics, and thus transcend musical genres. That’s why everybody loves Ben E. King’s "Stand By Me," why there are so many covers of Bob Dylan songs, and why Johnny Cash could play Nine Inch Nails, Paul Simon, Depeche Mode, the Eagles, and Sting on one record and have it all work. Tori Amos has creepily-cool recordings of both "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana on a piano!?) and "Amazing Grace."

But I would hasten to add that my favorite song of all time, "Where the Streets Have No Name" by U2 is the exception that proves the rule. That song from 1987 is made not just by the melody and words, but by the hugely atmospheric playing and production. I’ve never heard a worthy cover of it.

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?

I think I’ve said enough about this, ROFL.

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

Neither; I’m preoccupied with trying not to screw up my own part.

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

I need to learn piano; I started and never achieved any level of proficiency. But for fun (actually it sounds really hard), I’d love to learn the hammered dulcimer—largely inspired by this Rich Mullins song and this one.

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

These days I listen to a lot of Pandora Internet radio—which means I’m discovering new stuff all the time. My latest discovery this past Friday, while writing a Christmas sermon, was Afro Celt Sound System (you can find lots on YouTube)—which tells you, trip-hop & world. I’ve also been listening to a lot of ambient, like Liquid Mind and Dr. Jeffrey Thompsen.

When it’s just my iPod, U2, Coldplay, Enya, Paul Schwartz, Enya, and Iona (see this link for one track from this vastly underrated prog-Celtic band). Robert Frost’s Banjo blogger John Hayes has me checking out Townes Van Zandt. Our Mother the Mountain is certainly interesting to listen to while driving on icy roads in the dark.

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

I’ve wanted to record my own songs & compositions for years, and I’m doing better about working on it thanks to GarageBand—starting with my own ambient. I’m hoping to make a more rock-oriented EP in 2009. I used to put all kinds of pressure on myself to create, and pressure doesn’t work. One foot in front of the other.

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

My influences are myriad and contradictory. Because of my family background and work as a pastor, Christian spirituality is the foundation, and I can’t think about music apart from that. I mean, my father bought me my first cassettes—Tchaikovsky AND rock. Work that other people wouldn’t find particularly “religious” falls within my frame of reference in that regard—even if it was intended as anti-religious. Bono said once that the music he finds most fascinating is music either “dancing toward God, or away from God” and I would tend to agree—if the music is truthful and not bound to religious party lines on one side (most CCM), or intended only to shock on the other (thanks but no thanks, Marilyn Manson).

Whatever you choose to fill your head with is bound to influence you—and most of that stuff on my iPod are the big influences. I would add to that Sting, Billy Joel, Chasing Furies, Rich Mullins, Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay … even (though I don’t own and will never buy) A Perfect Circle and Tool, who have demonstrated that hard rock can be musically interesting as well as noisy.

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

None. I’m a student in this. I sit at the feet of pretty much everyone and absorb what I can. Maybe that’s good advice.

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?

Why does so much of what’s on the radio suck? Because the musicians (and programmers) play what they think the audience wants to hear rather than coming from a place of emotional honesty. This goes double for most “Christian music.”

The good stuff always tells the truth, and on that, uh, note, some recent goodness from the recently-reunited Sixpence.

Pic by Michelle Lemon (thanks Michelle!)