Thursday, December 31, 2009

Weiser River Pillow Book #13

[Here’s the December installment of Eberle’s Weiser River Pillow Book, & good news for Pillow Book fans: there’s enough left over to make one more post in January. Hope you enjoy it!]


The new black boots I bought in Boise look remarkably sophisticated by the time I arrive home with them. And the vinegar and spices that were tiresome to buy in a crowded store take on a hint of Arabian treasure when they are unpacked in the kitchen a hundred miles later.

Bittersweet picked in Massachusetts, now in a vase by my keyboard.

In Pernumbuco, a colorfully printed package of herbal tea that arrived from the States; it was the packaging that seemed unbelievable, such delicate designs; the tea itself was unremarkable in a place where you step outside the door and gather a handful of lemon-grass and orange leaves for tea.


A miniature white carriage from Chinatown looked as exotic in San Francisco as it does on my bookshelf.

Doritos, Pepsi, Milky Ways—the food items that have infiltrated the highway system and look the same everywhere.


A man talked to me of spending a winter 30 miles from the nearest passable road; his eyes gleamed when he spoke of shoveling snow off the roof of his cabin.

I smile when I remember hauling water in Pernumbuco from the cistern in a wooden-handled bucket to take a shower using a tin cup.

When I go out before dawn with water for the poultry, I usually hate it until I'm halfway across the snowy path and then I feel a particular elation.


Dreams that are filled with anxiety, but not quite nightmares.

Having to think about work-for-money, especially the people you must think about.

Social interactions where you are not sure you have acted appropriately.


Old wounds, from family.


Worries about money.






Manufactured homes being trucked on the highway.

The Life-flight helicopter on its way to Boise.

Trucks carrying two layers of cars.

Fog rolling in.


There is no way to remember exactly from year to year how beautiful the plants become when fog has frozen on them. There is a tall stem of chicory on the north side of the house I kept forgetting to pull out last summer. It is transformed now with delicate crystals differentiating its varied surfaces. Instead of being an annoying, presumptuous presence, it is a surprise, like a present—incongruous but delightful among the everyday things.


I dreamed there was a cougar in with the guinea hens, also a tiger and its baby. The cougar ate the tiger's baby. The cougar was full, the tiger was mourning, and so the guinea hens were not in danger—but there was no sense of safety.


One thing I like about winter is the sense of doing battle. But this troubles me. I can so easily imagine early Germanic peoples telling stories of war in front of a fire in the winter months. It is the essence of abstraction—tales of war becoming cozy as the snowstorm rages outside and inside the stack of wood is high. The rest is European history.


Beware that sense of virtue which comes from watching the sun rise—smugness creeps in on the superstition that you helped it.


Buying too many things.

Many stress-related illnesses; a loss of personal identity, values, and sense of beauty.

After too much word processing, a dream where I see the formatting of my mind in a Reveal Codes screen.


All I have in my head today is music. The writing I'm working on could not be farther from my mind. Everything in my head organizes itself into rhythmic units of 2's and 3's, building into 8's, into 12's. The leaves on the ground where they appear between patches of snow are doing it, the straw bales, the clumps of bushes against a white hill, everything is doing it—as if an audible pulse in my mind is going through my eyes and becoming visual.


Strange how the world seems brittle when a layer of fog closes in just behind the line of the closest hills. There is an illusion that things have gone two-dimensional and, if struck, would be shot through with tiny cracks.


Days with no social or work-for-money commitments.

Bubble bath, in winter.

Buttons of all kinds, especially old ones, and pieces of cast iron from the dump for garden ornaments.


You can spend the entire day making up drum rhythms.

You notice that the lace edge of a curtain is grimy with dust and your reaction is complete despair.

You forget to call your friends for days at a time.

Wanting large hunks of meat in the freezer.

Wanting to read Herodotus.

When the shape of the satellite dish is the only distinct marker in the freezing fog and you look up eagerly at the appearance of the flashing lights of the county plow as if a sister ship is passing your drifting house.

When you and your partner are talking about how to repair the water-damaged ceiling and feeling acutely aware of the lack of money, the lack of work, and a sense of bleak reality is mounting—and then there comes a loud sound of scratching from under the floorboards. You both fall silent and look intently at the floor. The sound is being made by something way bigger than a mouse and it is accompanied by gnawing. For some reason though, you both start laughing and the bleak reality disappears completely.


My friend talks about a gray stucco house she saw that had vines trained up the walls. Now in winter, she says, the brown lines of the stems and the blue berries looked perfect. Her sense of beauty is terrifying to me because it demands the subjection of everything to an ideal that is so exacting—the berries could not be red, the stucco could not be new, the stems could not be half-green half-brown. Who could live in a house that had attained such ruthless perfection? This kind of ideal is always seen from outside, by an authority that roams ghostlike, disassociated and judging. This is not a ghost I would choose. It would make life like a cliff-edge, it would make the stakes so high, and for what? Ultimately, art can't be based on snobbery, it just doesn't work out.


The craters that appear in the crusted snow are lunar in their sudden focus and make you giddy.

The dead grass looks sharp—at first, everything looks dangerous with the glitter and knife-edge of frost. You don't quite want to go outside at first.

For a moment, there is the illusion that everything has become glass and could shatter, could fall in fragments and disappear.

The stop-sign up on the rise where the road meets the highway flashes out like a shield in a return from battle.

Eberle Umbach
© 2000-2009

submit to reddit

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

“Independence Day” – Vic Chesnutt, Rest in Peace

I feel remiss not to have weighed in earlier on the death of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt earlier; he died at age 45 this Christmas Day after lapsing into a coma on December 24th. There is no question that Chesnutt was a big influence on me, both in terms of his music & his words; I’ve written here in the past how much I listened to music while writing poetry in the 90s, & it was an oversight not to mention Vic Chesnutt then, because albums like Little, Drunk, & Is the Actor Happy were a big part of my life’s soundtrack at that time, both poetical & otherwise.

For those of you who don’t know—& that may be a number of folks, since Chesnutt was always a cult figure & never a star—Vic Chesnutt was paralyzed from the waist down following a car accident in 1983. He had been a musician, but something about the accident galvanized his talents—amazingly enough, since the accident certainly affected his guitar playing skills, forcing him to rely mostly on simple, open chord shapes. But as folk song has proved countless times thru the years, simplicity, when followed all the thru, is no liability but rather a great strength; & Chesnutt combined compelling music with moving & literate lyrics. To say his voice was able to communicate deep & complex emotion is an understatement.

Chesnutt's death may or may not have been suicide; the cause was an overdose, & he apparently had some history of suicide attempts. There already has been much written about Chesnutt’s medical situation, & the amount of debt he owed for medical expenses, despite being insured. According to Rolling Stone:

It’s unclear whether Chesnutt’s overdose was accidental or intentional. His close friend Kristin Hersh tweeted, “No one knows much: another suicide attempt, looks bad, coma,” on December 24th. Chesnutt’s persistent medical problems had made him a harsh critic of American health care. Earlier this year he told Spinner that he was $35,000 in debt to a hospital despite the fact that he was insured.

I am no fan of a system in which insurance companies dictate health care, because it strikes me as an inherent conflict of interest—how can a business be responsible both to its shareholders & to its insured? But having said that, I’m not in a mood to rail against the machine, & I'd rather not politicize this post. As an artist, Chesnutt was about music & words, & that's how he'll be remembered in the long run. I debated whether or not to post a video of Mr Chesnutt performing one of his songs, or whether to “cover” one of his songs myself. I’ll be posting about Vic Chesnutt's song "Rabbit Box" on Just a Song a bit later this morning, so I decided I’d record one of my favorites, “Independence Day,”for this post.

Now, hoping I do the song justice….

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2010 (Speculative) Preview (& a Question )

The decade of the aughts is drawing rather quickly to a close, isn’t it? This month also is seeing the wrap-up of two long-running series on Robert Frost’s BanjoDad’s Photos had its final installment on Sunday, & the final installment of Eberle’s Weiser River Pillow Book will be posted in January; there will be a Weiser River Pillow Book post this Thursday, but it won't be the final entry—yay! Still, we haven’t completely solved the problem of filling these slots in terms of series that would run over a course of months, but we are putting our heads together, & we have at least one idea—more on that later.

January will
bring a few new periodic features to Robert Frost’s Banjo, as well as bring back a few you’re familiar with—for instance, Monday Morning Blues webcam videos will start appearing again on Monday January 4th, & the Guitarists We Like series will reappear on alternate Wednesdays, starting on the 8th. Other Wednesdays will feature a Blues Jukebox, with three old-time blues videos from YouTube, plus a small amount of commentary on each. On Tuesdays, B.N.’s poems will continue to alternate with my French translations. I believe I’ll also be posting local photos on at least a couple of Sundays per month.

One idea that Eberle & I have tossed around has to do with
serializing her first novel. This is a long work, & is unpublished at this time; & this is where we’re soliciting your opinion. I’m thinking that weekly installments of roughly five pages each (in MS-Word terms) would be workable in a blog format, but of course, the proof of the pudding is whether people eat it (& like it) or not. What do any readers who’d care to comment think? I’d also be curious to know if slightly longer installments would be ok. The book is several hundred pages, so we’re talking a very long-running series. I also should add that Eberle & I haven’t entirely decided if this is what we want to do, so apologies for soliciting your input on something that isn’t yet decided. Your input will probably have some bearing on the decision.

Of course, The Days of Wine & Roses & Platypuss-in-Boots will continue; the former posts on
Sundays, & right now we’re in the middle of a sequence I wrote in the 90s (& then sequestered) called Sonnets for Lily Yukon; Platypuss-in-Boots posts on Monday, Wednesday & Friday & right now the gang are in the midst of describing the Christmas wedding lollopalooza involving a bear & a giraffe.

Tomorrow will be the final installment of The (Blues) Christmas Train, & as I said, the Weiser River Pillow Book will conclude on Thursday. In the meantime, Eberle, Audrey, B.N. & I would like to thank all of our wonderful readers for their support in 2009!

Later update: Superceding the "Late Update" for any of you who saw that. Tomorrow's post will be a memorial to singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who died on Christmas Day at age 45. I'll also be posting about Vic Chesnutt tomorrow on Just a Song. The final installment of the (Blues) Christmas Train will be posted on Friday morning.

Yours truly, with guitar
Eberle, with watercolor
Audrey, with umbrella
& B.N. taken some years ago in a land faraway, with scaffolding, etc.

“Hunting Horns”

Happy Tuesday, folks! This is the final translation for December, so it ends our month of Apollinaire. I haven’t decided what (if any) theme Translation Tuesday will have in January, but do be sure to check in next week for one of B.N.’s fantastic poems.

“Hunting Horns” (“Cors de chasse”) was first published in 1912, tho lines 6-7 (& by extension, line 8) date to an earlier time, when Apollinaire was still working out his failed love affair with Annie, a process that also produced such wonderful poems as “Annie,” “L’Émigrant de Landor Road,” & “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé”—in fact lines 6-7 of this poem appear in a manuscript form of the latter work. This poem specifically is thought to be less about Annie, however, & more about the end of his relationship with Marie Laurencin. It strikes me, however, that this needn’t be an either/or situation, & that the two incidents could readily coalesce in the poetic imagination.

Thomas de Quincey is, of course, the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; as I understand it, de Quincey became infatuated during a single encounter with a streetwalker named Annie, but could never find her again. Apollinaire sees de Quincey as drinking opium to her memory—a complex image, since opium is both the stuff of dreams & oblivion.

The notion of “Let’s pass on pass on since it all passes on” (“Passons passons puisque tout passe”) comes up with some regularity in Apollinaire’s verse, most notably perhaps in “Le Pont Mirabeau.” But in a sort of parallel to de Quincey, who is engaged in an activity that potentially heightens fantasy but also blots it out, Apollinaire isn’t content merely to “pass on”—“I will turn back often” (“Je me retournerai souvent.”)

This is a lovely poem—& I should mention that in a sense this post is a two-for-one, since the image at the top of the page is one of Apollinaire’s concrete poems from his Calligrammes. It reads: “Mon Cœur pareil à une flamme renversée” or, in English, “My Heart like an inverted flame.” This is carved on Apollinaire’s grave in Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

Hunting Horns

Our story is noble and tragic
As the mask of a tyrant
No perilous magic drama
Not a single indifferent detail
Renders our love pathetic

And Thomas de Quincey drinking
Opium sweet chaste poison
To his poor Anne went dreaming
Let’s pass on pass on since it all passes on
I will turn back often

Memories are hunting horns
Whose sound dies out along the wind

Guillaume Apollinaire
translation by John Hayes, © 1990-2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

“The Coventry Carol”

Today is the last Holiday Music post for this season, & it’s a short video—three times thru the very old British “Coventry Carol.” The instrument I chose for this is a bit unusual: a 6-string Greek bouzouki that Eberle & I were given by her parents some years back. I fingerpicked the bouzouki in a “chord melody” style.

“The Coventry Carol” is appropriate for a post after December 25th, since it refers to the Feast of the Holy Innocents (held on the 29th), which commemorates the deaths of all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem in order to prevent the Messiah’s coming. The incident is related in Matthew 2:16-18, tho it isn’t mentioned in the other gospels or in any other contemporary accounts. It was a stock episode in the medieval mystery plays, with Herod being played as a larger than life villain—in fact, the character became a watchword for "chewing the scenery;" Shakespeare has Hamlet direct the players to “out-Herod Herod.”

In fact, “The Coventry Carol” was performed at the Coventry mystery play, in the Shearmen and Tailors' Pageant—this covered the entire Nativity story, from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents. The images are all from Wiki Commons, & all date to the 14th & 15th centuries.

Hope you enjoy it!

Pic at top of post:
The Flight into Egypt:
Melchior Broederlam (1398)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dad’s Photos #25

OK, you may ask how this is Dad’s Photos #25 when the previous installment was #22? I went back thru my records & found that my numbering has been a tad defective, & that I actually have had two more posts than I realized (it appears there were two posts each numbered 11 & 12). In any case, this is the final installment; the series has lasted a full year, with the initial Dad’s Photos being posted on January 4th. I do have some more old photos available, & I’ll be posting those as well, but this batch of pix brings us to an end of the specific photo album you see in the photo leading off the post.

As I’ve mentioned over the past few posts, my father seems to have lost his captioning inspiration toward the end of the album, so I can only guess at the context of these pictures. The last few may have been taken in Massachusetts, but he also worked in a restaurant in Newfane, VT, so that’s far from certain. As far as the flood pictures go, again, these could be more pictures from the hurricane of 38, but the area of Vermont where my father lived & where I grew up is in the Connecticut River’s flood plain, & the fact that they’re mixed in with other images I believe are from Vermont makes me think these all may be from his home state. The flood pictures easily could show parts of Westminster, VT that lie near the Connecticut River.

It’s been my great pleasure to make these photos available, & the fact that you have been so generous & enthusiastic about them has simply increased that pleasure many times over. My father would no doubt have been amazed to find that his work captured so many peoples’ interest & imagination.

Hope you enjoy these, & thanks again!

The Big Top! Looks like a real 3-Ring Circus

Unidentified flood photo. If you compare this with the fourth photo, you’ll notice a similar (or the same) step-like structure to the right; however, I can’t seem to figure how these two images might relate to each other spatially

More of the flood—this landscape seems very much like southeastern Vermont

Although it’s a bleak scene, this is one of my favorites among my father’s photos

Unidentified cook in unidentified kitchen

Waiter, likewise

What’s cooking?

Another view of the kitchen

submit to reddit

Saturday, December 26, 2009


We’re having a real holiday here, as proved by the timing of blog posts! I expect to be back on a normal schedule tomorrow, with the final installment of Dad’s Photos.

This month the Weekly Poem series has featured works in translation; we’ve had some great poets: Vallejo, Bachmann & Saba. I’ve been thinking about this week’s selection for awhile, & have been considering poems by two great Russian poets, Anna Akhmatova & Marina Tsevetayeva; the problem was, I just couldn’t settle on a poem by either. This morning as I was looking thru their works, still trying to make a choice, poems by another poet with whom I was unfamiliar, Bella Akhmadulina. As it turns out, I should be familiar with Akhmadulina, & I’ll take steps to correct this in the very near future.

Bella Akhmadulina was born in 1937, & has been called the greatest living Russian language poet by Joseph Brodsky. Early in her career, her poems were suppressed because, like Akhmatova’s, they were considered too personal & intimate. Since the 1980s, however, she has received recognition, including a term as laureate.

Hope you enjoy this wonderful poem—& do seek Akhmadulina out online, where there are a number of translations, or in your local bookseller.


Winter, to me your gestures are
cold and careful: yes, in
winter there is something
gentle as medicine,

or why else would sickness
put out trusting hands
into that season, from its own
torture and darkness?

Weave your magic then
my love, let the kiss
of one curl of ice
brush over my forehead.

Soon I shall trust any
deception, and look without fear
into the eyes of dogs, as I
press close to the trees:

And forgive, playfully, with a
run, turn and jump; and
after a bout of forgiveness
forgive again,

become like a winter’s day:
empty and oval, though
in comparison to such
presence, always small.

I shall turn to nothing, and
so call over the wall,
not some shadow of myself, but light
I shall not block at all.

Bella Akhmadulina
Translated by Elaine Feinstein

Friday, December 25, 2009

The (Blues) Christmas Train #5

Merry Christmas to everyone who keeps the holiday, & happy Friday to those who don’t! It’s a lovely winter day here in Idaho, tho very cold. Eberle & I saw Christmas come in at Marymount Hermitage, where we played music for the Christmas Eve midnight mass & I got to break in a brand new banjo! More on that later on, but now hope you enjoy these blues songs that the Christmas Train is bringing into the station.

LONG TRAIN BLUES: This song is by one of the unquestionably greatest blues guitarists & singers ever, tho his name may not be familiar to many. Robert Wilkins was born in 1896 & lived to be 91 years old. Wilkins was not the prototypical bluesman, haunted by demons of various descriptions. He was apparently abstemious in his habits even before he gave up secular music in 1930 & became an ordained minister. He did continue to play gospel music after this, & even changed the lyrics to one of his best known songs, “That’s No Way to Get Along,” renaming it “Prodigal Son”—the Rolling Stones later covered this, & the song also heavily influenced Led Zeppelin’s “Poor Tom.”

“Long Train Blues” is curiously upbeat in terms of tempo, & its bright melody belies the tale of a
lover whose woman has left him on “the longest train she seen.” The second verse is a “floating lyric” that is similar to one found in Tommy Johnson’s “Bye Bye Blues” (a different song than the old standard of the same name:

“It's two bullyin' freight trains runnin' side by side
It's two bullyin' freight trains runnin' side by side
They done stole my rider and I guess they're satisfied”

Check out Wilkins’ guitar playing—some intricate fingerpicking mixed with interesting riffs. His guitar work is always first rate, tho it doesn’t have the pyrotechnic qualities of a Robert Johnson or Skip James. & by the way: check in on Wednesday’s final installment of The (Blues) Christmas Train for Wilkins performing one of the very greatest blues songs ever! Robert Wilkins: The Original Rolling Stone (Yazoo)

LOVE IN VAIN: Here’s another great blues tune that was later covered by the Rolling Stones,
Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” As in “Long Train Blues,” again the lover watches his woman leave him on a train, tho Johnson’s song is starker than Wilkins’, both lyrically & melodically. In fact, “Love in Vain” showcases some of Robert Johnson’s songwriting strengths—his choice of details in the lyrics is superb, with the great verse about the train’s lights:

When the train, it left the station, with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind

The song’s structure is based on Leroy Carr’s “In the Evenin' When the Sun Goes Down,” but just as Johnson makes Skip James or the Mississippi Sheiks musical material his own in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Come on in My Kitchen,” the musical style is unmistakably Robert Johnson. The song was autobiographical, & records his emotions at the end of a love affair with one Willie Mae Powell; in fact, we see Willie Mae, now elderly, listening to the song in the film The Search For Robert Johnson. As with all of Johnson’s recordings, this is essential listening for anyone with an interest in the blues. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Sony)

MOON GOIN’ DOWN: We wrap up our Blues Christmas Train installment with the great
Charlie Patton. Patton’s singing & playing are elemental—if the term “force of nature” could be used to describe a musician, it certainly fits him. It’s also impossible to overstate Patton’s influence as a renowned player in the area of the Dockery Plantation; he played with Son House & Willie Brown & many others, & was known to Robert Johnson & such later players as Howlin’ Wolf & John Lee Hooker.

“Moon Going Down” doesn’t create a narrative as much as a landscape—this can be said of a number of older blues tunes, with their use of “floating lyrics.” The train references in “Moon Going Down” don’t come up until the fourth verse: “Lord, I think I heard the Helena whistle.” Some have speculated that this may refer to a steamboat rather than a train; however, the next verse is a floating lyric: “Well, the smokestack is black & the bell it shines like gold.” As far as I know, the latter verse always refers to trains in other songs, which makes me think the “Helena whistle” also is a train reference. Helena, Mississippi is a town in the delta region; Robert Johnson also mentions it in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”

Patton recorded this song in 1930 in Grafton, Wisconsin; Son House, Willie Brown & Louise Johnson accompanied Patton to Wisconsin & also made recordings at this time. Rory Block also does a powerful version of “Moon Going Down.” Charlie Patton: The Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo); Rory Block: Best Blues & Originals (Rounder)

Top Pic:"American Flyer model of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Royal Blue 4-6-2 "Pacific" steam locomotive" photographed by Wiki Media user JGHowes, who "allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted."
Other pics thru Google Images

submit to reddit

Thursday, December 24, 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Today’s musical offering for Christmas Eve is one of my favorites among the traditional carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The melody has so much peace & gentleness to impart, & I’ve played it here on one of my old favorite instruments, a koa Lanikai baritone ukulele. I don’t play the baritone uke much anymore, but it’s hard to beat for a certain soft & melodic sound, with just enough low(ish) end to create some harmony.

This tune is very popular of course, & it seems evocative too. But as I was playing it, I began meditating on what, exactly, this song does evoke. What is the “little town of Bethlehem” we picture when we hear this melody? For those of us brought up in a Christian tradition, even if, as is the case with yours truly, we no longer subscribe to many of the faith’s beliefs, we may well see an image of a Nativity scene divorced from any historical context.

But Bethlehem is a real place, a city on the West Bank in Israel, with a population divided between the Jewish, Christian & Islamic faiths (with a Muslim majority in the population). This is an area of the world that could well use tranquility & peace, but the conflicts there are so deeply rooted that they sometimes seem impossible to resolve. The territory is essentially mythic for three major religions & beyond that, conflicting historical claims spring from various wars fought over thousands of years. By the 20th century, Bethlehem was part of the British Mandate of Palestine & was included in the state of Israel by the United Nations resolution in 1947. The city is the site of Rachel’s Tomb, a very holy site in the Jewish faith; it also is considered the birthplace of King David, as well as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.

One organization that has a very hands-on approach to resolving these conflicts is Ukuleles for Peace, an organization whose mission is “reating opportunities for Jewish and Arab children to meet & become involved with one another in their daily lives." One way the organization does this is by providing the kids with ukes so they can play music together. Please check them out. Is this the whole answer to the problems in that region? Of course not; but it strikes me as the sort of grassroots movement that could have a real impact, & perhaps spread to other areas.

All the images in the slideshow are from Wiki Commons, & all are in the public domain. They show Bethlehem & its inhabitants from the 19th thru early 20th centuries. Hope you enjoy the music.

Pic at the top of the post:
Main entrance into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, 2005
(photo released into the public domain by Wikipedia user Zero0000)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The (Blues) Christmas Train #4

Wow! The Blues Christmas Train is way behind time today, but it’s chugging into the station at last with three blues tunes for your listening pleasure.

In other news: I’m keeping my fingers crossed a bit on these items, but if all goes as planned there should be another Holiday Song tomorrow & another installment of The (Blues) Christmas Train on Christmas Day. The Holiday Song won’t be featuring the mandolin (as advertised earlier)—that simply didn’t come together, but it will be played on neither the guitar nor the banjo—so stop by tomorrow to check it out. Also, I understand that Platypuss-in-Boots has big plans this week—including a wedding!—so do swing by there to catch up on the adventures of the Big Bed Land gang whenever you need a break from the holiday festivities.

Hope you enjoy the songs!

HOBO BLUES: I tend to favor the old acoustic blues, but I also respect a lot of the blues players generally associated with the “electric” blues sound, & among these there’s no one better than John Lee Hooker. Hooker came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, from the area that fostered such greats as Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Willie Brown & many others; in fact Hooker saw Patton as an influence.

John Lee Hooker’s guitar style, whether electric or acoustic (as in the accompanying video) is always recognizable—lots of boogie lines on the bass strings, frequent drone notes, the frenetic fills at the end of lines, the urgent triplets. His baritone voice is also remarkable, both from sheer musicality & also in terms of emotional directness. In short, Hooker was among the very best blues artists.

“Hobo Blues” itself is a classic song, as great a song about life on the road as Hank Williams’ better known “Ramblin’ Man.” The first two lines sum up the freedom of this life & the cost of this freedom, in which a man has no attachments either to constrain or comfort him:

When I first start to hoboin’, hoboin’,
I took a freight train to be my friend, oh Lord

We see the singer’s mother accompany him to the freight train yard, praying for his safety; we hear that the next time he hobos, he wants to have his baby by his side, so the night’s won’t be so lonesome.

But enough from me—the song has a stark & compelling beauty that speaks for itself, so check it out. John Lee Hooker: Hobo Blues (Roots)

KASSIE JONES: Everyone knows the legend of Casey Jones, the famous engineer who died in
a train wreck. However, some folks may not know that Casey Jones isn’t merely the stuff of folk tales; he was a real person, an engineer on the Illinois Central line, who died in a train wreck on April 30, 1900. As is so often the case in song & actuality, “many a man has lost his life just trying to make lost time,” & this was Jones’ undoing.

Casey Jones had completed his usual run north to Memphis in the evening of April 29th, when he was asked to double back because another engineer had called in sick. He took Engine 382 south to Canton, Mississippi, but he started 95 minutes behind schedule. Jones apparently was quite determined to get the train in on schedule, & so was “highballing” (running at excessive speeds) the whole way, despite the fact that it was a foggy night. Near Vaughn, MS, the passing tracks were filled with stopped freight trains, & so many cars were involved that some were on the main line. Engine 382 came around a long curve at about 75 miles an hour when Jones’ fireman Sim Webb called, “"Oh my Lord, there's something on the main line!” Jones ordered Webb to jump, & then blew the whistle & braked the train, slowing the vehicle from around 75 to about 35 at the moment of impact. Because of this, Jones was the only fatality in the wreck. Interestingly, the line Casey Jones was running is still in use as Amtrak's City of New Orleans line.

There have been a number of songs based on this event, from the well-known folk version popularized by Pete Seeger (the melody of which had been turned into a union song by Joe Hill) to the Grateful Dead’s eulogy of Neal Cassidy on their Workingman’s Dead album. One of the greatest versions of the tune is Furry Lewis’ “Kassie Jones,” which you can hear on The Anthology of American Folk Music (volume 1, Ballads). Lewis’ song doesn’t dwell too much on the wreck, but it’s a great tune with some wonderful guitar fingerpicking.
Furry Lewis: Kassie Jones (Future Noise Music Ltd.)

LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN: This is the first time Robert Johnson has appeared on The
(Blues) Christmas Train, but it won’t be the last. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” tells about working on the “Gulfport Island Road,” which is the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad. This line carried freight from the docks in Gulfport to the main Illinois Central line, & was in operation from 1850 to 1945, at which point it was absorbed by the Illinois Central Railroad.

Johnson’s guitar work on this tune has always amazed me—the great separation between the damped bass line & the slide work (not to mention the chime-like harmonics in the last verse), the hurtling turnarounds (a musical phrase that takes you from the end of one verse to the beginning of the next) all add great excitement to the accompaniment, & Johnson’s singing is always first-rate. One note: “the captain” is never a benign figure in old blues songs, as the term refers to a white supervisor or work crew overseer.

Sadly, Gulfport suffered severe damage from the 2006 Hurricane Katrina. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, vol. 1 (Sony)

Pix from Top:
N Scale Model of the CSXT4346 locomotive:
generously released into the public domain by Wiki Commons user William Grimes
Riding an oil car: from the Hobohemia site, which is well worth a visit
3-cent Casey Jones stamp: public domain image from Wikipedia
The Life & Times of the Belmont Line

submit to reddit

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


[Here's another of B.N.'s marvelous poems; please enjoy!]


Mercy is when you get
a clear shot
you take it. The animal's
legs give way
and crumble under him.

We know how to betray
the dead with beauty,
making each bruise gorgeous,
the mark a prophesy
spot, and each heart

For months we've lived
in the house with
peeling wallpaper,
alongside a child's stars pointing
home, and a stick figure
etched on the wall underneath,
thinking very little
of a sad child.

I need to feel the body
move. Jazz or blue.
Suddenly everything is strange
and exquisite. Perishing
is a blessing,
the world closes behind us
and the birds' wings
open like hymnals.

© to the author, 1983-2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

The solstice is here, a season when the light comes out of darkness. Festivities recognizing this time of year date back very far in human history, & of course, at least since the Fourth Century C.E., the Christian church has also celebrated the birth of Jesus at this time of year (it appears that this practice probably didn’t much pre-date the Fourth Century, as some earlier Church Fathers specifically prohibited any type of winter holidays).

One of the most beautiful carols celebrating this was the product of an odd collaboration; the lyrics are a poem by the very much underrated 19th century poet Christina Rossetti (pictured at the top of the post), with music added by Gustav Holst in the early 20th century—the poem has also been set to music by Harold Darke, Thomas Strong & Benjamin Britten.

The video below is yours truly playing a guitar arrangement by Doug Sparling of Holst’s setting (I made a few interpolations, but almost all of the arrangement is Sparling’s). The arrangement is for guitar in the DADGAD tuning—so called because those are the notes of the open strings, as opposed to EADGBE in standard tuning. The DADGAD tuning is particularly used by fingerstyle guitarists exploring British Isles folk music—the open strings taken as a whole are a “suspended chord”—one that is neither major nor minor, but hovering somewhere in between. It’s a lovely tuning, & one that loves to have open strings ringing.

I’ve also included the words to Rossetti’s beautiful poem after the video. But if you’re singing along, watch out! The poem is five stanzas long, & I only play the song thru three times. Hope you enjoy this.

In the Bleak Mindwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for him, whom Cherubim
Worship night and day
A breast full of milk
And a manger full of hay.
Enough for him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But his mother only,
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.

Christina Rossetti

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Riddle Me This

[Happy Sunday everyone! In this post, Eberle examines some old-time holiday entertainment. Hope you enjoy it!]

Imagine Christmas without movies or vacation packages to Las Vegas, without video games or trips to the mall to keep the younger generation occupied. Though perhaps more stay-at-home in the past, celebrations of Christmas were not necessarily idyllic. Mrs. Oliphant in her 1893 novel Hester takes Charles Dickens to task for his sentimentalized rendering of the family Christmas. It may strike modern readers as almost shockingly contemporary to hear Mrs. Oliphant refer to Christmas as that “often troublesome festival” and go on to say:

The amount of reality in the rejoicings may be very doubtful, but yet there must be a family gathering, and the different branches of the race must seem to take kindly to it whatever may be their private sentiments. Dickens did wisely in finding his types of Christmas felicity among people to whom an accidental turkey is a benediction from heaven, and the mystery of the pudding has not lost its freshness.
The apparent simplicity of a nineteenth century Christmas might seem attractive, but keeping
family groups occupied still presented a challenge.

I presume you are now all come home for the holidays, and that the brothers and sisters and cousins, papas and mammas, uncles and aunts, are all met cheerfully round a Christmas fire, enjoying the company of their friends and relations, and eating plum pudding and mince pie. These are very good things; but one cannot always be eating plum pudding and mince pie: the days are short, and the weather bad, so that you cannot be much abroad; and I think you must want something to amuse you. Besides, if you have been employed as you ought to be at school, and if you are quick and clever, as I hope you are, you will want some employment for that part of you which thinks, as well as that part of you which eats; and you will like better to solve a riddle than to crack a nut or a walnut…
Anna Laetitia (Aikin) Barbauld, A Legacy for Young Ladies (1826)

Riddles, published in magazines or books or passed along by word of mouth, made up a popular
past-time in the nineteenth century.

"Four stiff-standers, four down-hangers,
two crook-abouts, two look-abouts, and a whisk-about."
"Eh! who couldn't guess that?---it's nothing but a cow…"
"Through a riddle and through a reel,
Through an ancient spinning wheel---
Through the grass and in the skies,
If you guess this you'll be wise."
"Well, then, I am wise, for it's frost," replied Sally; but I doubt whether she could have come to this conclusion so readily from any meaning of the words. "Now I'll tell one you can't guess:
`Long legs, short thighs,
Little head, and no eyes."'
"Tongs, tongs!" shouted Jane Anne.
Alice Cary, Clovernook, or Recollections of our Neighborhood in the West (1853)

Every Family’s Book of Amusement (London, 1853) recognized the importance of
entertainment in the family domestic circle. In the winter, especially in country towns, visiting became impossible for days at a time and families had to amuse themselves at home. Every Family’s Book of Amusement contains rules for card games as well as backgammon, chess, dominoes, checkers. Sleight-of-hand and card tricks were described as well as a wide variety of word games. An example of an enigma:

“Five simple letters do compose my frame;
And, what is singular, when viewed, my name
Forwards and backwards will be the same
When I’m discovered you will plainly see
What the proud peer and peasant soon will be.” (Solution: Level.)

An example of a conundrum:

“What is that which is too much for one, enough for two, but worse than nothing for three?” (Solution: A secret.)

Charades are given in the book as well, for domestic entertainment; in the nineteenth century, charades took the form of verse, with one player acting out each syllable of the word:

“My first your sleepy head attends;
My second names your dearest friends;
My whole’s oft at your fingers’ ends.” (Solution: Nap-kin.)

Women writers in the nineteenth century often incorporated these word games in their books. Beatrix Potter, in The Tale of
Squirrel Nutkin, presents this riddle:

“A house full, a hole full, and you cannot gather a bowl full.” (Solution: Smoke.)
Jane Austen makes use of riddles and charades in her novels as well. In Emma, the following “well-known” charade appears:

My first doth affliction denote
Which my second is destin'd to feel.
And my whole is the best antidote
That affliction to soften and heal.
(First syllable, woe; second syllable, man; solution: “woman.”)

Eberle Umbach, © 2007-2009

submit to reddit

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Coming Distractions, & Season's Greetings!

It’s a busy season, this holiday time of year—to state the obvious—but if you’re looking for some distraction in the coming days, we hope to provide it right here at Robert Frost’s Banjo & associated blogs, viz., Platypuss-in-Boots & The Days of Wine & Roses. Let me give you a bit of a sneak preview of what’s coming up!

There should be a lot of music for your listening pleasure on Robert Frost’s Banjo thru the Christmas week, with Holiday Songs featuring yours truly on guitar & (I think) mandolin on Monday & Thursday; & there will be (Blues) Christmas Train Posts on both Wednesday & Friday, which is of course the day itself. In addition, there’s a special Women’s Art is Women’s Work post by Eberle tomorrow on various old-time Christmas parlor games, & also one of B.N.’s fabulous poems on Tuesday.

Speaking of poetry, you can check out the first installment of a six-poem sonnet sequence on The Days of Wine & Roses tomorrow. They’re called “Sonnets for Lily Yukon”—a project that I abandoned in the 90s for a variety of reasons (poetical & mostly otherwise), & one which I never shared in readings or otherwise during its initial phase in the early ‘90s. As I was recently poring thru old poetry manuscripts, I did some relatively minor revision, & now feel satisfied with the poems; hope you can check them out over the next several weeks.

& of course, there’s Eberle’s super cool Platypuss-in-Boots—I’m not sure exactly what’s coming up there—Platypuss & cohorts can be quite inscrutable at times—but I know it will be fun; & I do know that Eberle answered the “Seven Things About Me” meme on Friday, so you can stop by to see some fun facts! Platypuss-in-Boots posts every Monday, Wednesday & Friday.

Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season, & hope to see you around!

Pic is the first commercially-produced Christmas Card, 1843

“A Winter Noon”

This summer when I was playing at the local farmer’s market, the nephew of the florist shop’s owner (who hosted the market) liked to let loose a red balloon at the end of each day, & as I was packing up my gear I liked to take a minute to watch it rise up in the sky over Council—each time, I was reminded of this lovely poem by Umberto Saba.

Poet/translator John Frederick Nims produced a well-known version of this in blank verse, but as I was preparing for this post, I found the following version online. With apologies to the renowned Mr Nims, I really like the more simple & free lines in this version & so I’m offering it instead.

Umberto Saba is the nom de plume of Umberto Poli, who lived from 1883-1957. His poetry wasn’t received well until relatively late in his life: he didn’t begin winning critical acclaim until after World War II. Since Umberto Saba was Jewish, he had to spend much of the late 1930s thru the mid 1940s in hiding because of the “racial laws” in Fascist Italy. Saba also struggled with severe depression throughout his life.

This is such a wonderfully transparant lyric poem that it needs no further comment. Hope you enjoy it, & have a beautiful Saturday!

A Winter Noon

Who in the moment of my happiness
(God forgive my using a word so grand,
so terrible) reduced my brief delight
nearly to tears? No doubt you'll say: "A certain
beautiful creature who was walking by
and smiled at you." But no: a child's balloon,
a blue, meandering balloon against
the azure of the air, my native sky
never so clear and cold as it was then,
at high noon on a dazzling winter day.
That sky with here and there a wisp of cloud,
and upper windows flaming in the sun,
and faint smoke from a chimney, maybe two,
and over everything, every divine
thing, that globe that had escaped a boy's
incautious fingers (surely he was out there
broadcasting through the crowded square his grief,
his immense grief) between the great facade
of the Stock Exchange and the café where I,
behind a window, watched with shining eyes
the rise and fall of what he once possessed.

Umberto Saba
translated by Geoffrey Brock

Friday, December 18, 2009

“Silent Night”

Happy Friday everybody—as promised, I do have a holiday tune for you all this morning, & a well known one at that—“Silent Night.” As a bit of a wrinkle, I’m playing it “classical style” (essentially like guitar fingerpicking) on a 5-string banjo.

I made this recording a couple of years ago, & no doubt I could play it better now, but I was satisfied with the take when I recorded it, & still don’t have any real objections to the performance—perhaps a few quibbles, but that’s it. Long-time followers will remember that this same music & slideshow was posted last Christmas Eve. Apologies for the re-post, but I wanted to jump start the Holiday Music series. Between last weekend’s rehearsals for & performances of the McCall Christmas Concert (with attendant driving) & the
accompanying if unrelated disaster of a our furnace vent pipe coming askew in snow & wind & causing up to $5,000 of damage before we caught it (coming home from dress rehearsal & finding the fluorescent light fixture in our utility room filled with water was a big clue), these have been a busy couple of weeks. We’ve also been hit by snow, then rain, power failures & the general scatteredness of coming back to day-to-day life after a week & a half immersed in an out-of-town performance.

I also feel a bit remiss because I failed to wish Jewish friends & family members a Happy
Hannukah earlier in the festival—so almost belated wishes to the Rosenbergs & the Kleins & Sue R., & all readers who observe this holiday. My plans for playing “Chanuke, Chanuke” in frailing style on the banjo (in the odd D minor tuning!) will have to wait for another year.

There will be another holiday music post Monday morning, & that will involve guitar. But this time around it’s the banjo. Hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jane Austen’s Muffins – part 2

[Here’s the conclusion of Eberle’s recreation of a morning in youn Jane Austen’s life—you can find part one here, tho I have reposted the cook’s song, which is referred to in the opening line of this segment. Enjoy!]

I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die;
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.
For she has made me the laily worm,
That lies at the fit o’ the tree,
An’ my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.

Jane has heard this song too. She was seven years old when she left home with her sister Cassandra to live with a family connection in Oxford, a stay that ended disastrously in illness. After a year recuperating, she went away again to school with Cassandra and only returned home to stay when she was twelve. Now that she is fifteen she thinks that being sent away so much might have been for financial reasons. She has already written quite a number of works, and financial insecurity plays a large and often nightmarish part in them, In Henry and Eliza (written between 1787 and 1790), a woman who has married for love later finds herself widowed and destitute and thrown into prison with her children. After a daring escape she sells her expensive clothes and buys a gold watch for herself and toys for her children. Jane describes the imprudence of this:

But scarcely was she provided with the above-mentioned necessaries, than she began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.

With the special ruthlessness that a teenger can possess, and over and over again, Jane exposes the social hypocrisy that veils the necessity of marriage as a commercial negotiation for women. In Jack and Alice (written between 1787 and 1790):

“Why do you hesitate my dearest Lucy, a moment with respect to the Duke? I have enquired into his character and find him to be an unprincipaled, illiterate Man. Never shall my Lucy be united to such a one! He has a princely fortune, which is every day encreasing. How nobly you will spend it!, what credit you will give him in the eyes of all!, How much he will be respected on his Wife’s account!”

Cassandra is in bed beside her now and Jane is careful not to wake her. She herself has been
awake for some time, having heard the steps of the housemaid on the stairs. She encounters the housemaid in person during Morning Prayers when the Family assembles with the servants. It would be rude on both sides for the housemaid and Jane to stare at each other, but these girls of identical ages do steal the occasional glance. Later Jane will write several prayers, including the following:

May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing Thoughts, Words, and Actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of Evil. Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we disobeyed Thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our Hearts these questions Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by Pride or Vanity.

Women had extremely limited opportunities for earning a living at this time, and for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and America, married women could not legally own property. Women were extraordinarily dependent on a successful marriage for their material as well as psychological well-being, and the theme of the “marriage market,” and what love can mean in this context, haunts much of women’s writing. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in a book about household management (House and Home Papers, 1865) introduces the theme of love among directions for how to get servants to work well and what kind of china to stock:

No home is possible without love

All business marriages and marriages of convenience, all mere culinary marriages and marriages of animal passion, make the creation of a true home impossible in the outset. Love is the jewelled foundation of this New Jerusalem descending from God out of heaven, and takes as many bright forms as the amethyst, topaz, and sapphire of that mysterious vision. In this range of creative art all things are possible to him that loveth, but without love nothing is possible.

Pix from Top:
Jane Austen:
watercolor by her sister Cassandra, 1810
Cassandra Austen: silhouette by an unknown artist

submit to reddit