Thursday, April 30, 2009

Brewing Up Magic

(The latest installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series is appropriate for May Day eve, as you'll see)

Then came the blue-eyed spring, flinging forth over the land the blossomy robes of her glory; and we were to have a May-pole on the green, and a pleasant picnic, the first of May. This was a time-honored custom at Ryefield.
Louise Chandler Moulton, This, That and the Other (1854)

The connection of food with sacred celebrations goes back as far as the eye can see and probably farther. Hot Cross Buns are inextricably intertwined with Good Friday, and the mince pies we associate with Christmas used to have a hollow on top, centuries ago, to hold a figure of the Christ child. Those in power recognized the potency of these food traditions during times of power struggles involving religion. Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 attempted to ban the sale of Hot Cross Buns because of their Papist overtones. The Puritan spirit of Oliver Cromwell’s ban on cooking mince pies during Christmas crossed the Atlantic in 1659 and many New England towns banned mincemeat pies at this time. Restrictions on Christmas food continued in New England for over two decades.

Some holiday rituals involving food, like the Christmas Eve wassailing of the orchards, contain connections with more ancient ritual. May Day, a popular celebration with the English since medieval times, grew out of the Celtic celebration of Beltane. Eggs and milk were prepared in various ways for Beltane, and a special oat cake was baked, with no steel implements to be used in its preparation or baking-- a tradition observed up to the end of the nineteenth century. Many May Day and Beltane rituals are associated with agriculture, since May—also known as the Month of Three Milkings—was the month when cows would be turned out to fresh pasture. Women would deck even the humble milk-pail with flowers, as Jane Barker mentions in The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen (1726). The garlands that women wove on May Day for the cows they tended had protective powers; similarly, a special cheese was made on this day and kept throughout the year, a charm of protection.

May Day

THE village bells ring merrily,
The milk maids sing so cheerily,
With flow'ry wreaths and ribbons crown'd,
Now May Day comes its annual round;
The may-pole rears its lofty head,
Round on the turf they dance and play;
Mrs. John Hunter (1742-1821), Poems (1807)

In addition to May Poles, there were May Boughs and May Bushes, decorated with garlands and colored egg shells. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women claimed parts of the May Day celebration for themselves, perhaps because of the central role of their milkmaid predecessors. May Day was thought to be a propitious time for divination, and groups of young women would flock on that day to wells, dropping objects into them in order to see into the future. They would go hunting together for snails and bring them home—tracing, in the trails the snails made through flour sprinkled on the threshold, clues as to their own destinies. They would go wandering into wooded areas to find plants with special significance and uses—the hawthorn and the sweet woodruff. The pictures that emerge from these descriptions have one constant: that is, groups of women running off by themselves—at midnight and before dawn—away from their homes. We all know how heady that can be. You can still hear the chorus of these ghostly flocks of women of the past: “Here we come gathering knots in May, knots in May, knots in May” (knots meaning buds.)

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838) describes a dream, a vision appearing on May Day eve, that draws on the connection between May Day and women. She saw:

A fairy castle, not of those
Made for storm, and made for foes,
But telling of a gentler time,
A lady's rule, a summer clime.

The Golden Violet (1827)

Divination, magical protection, visions of a peaceful future—women’s involvement in domestic arts is related to their connection with magic and witchcraft. The histories of ritual or holiday foods reveal that cooking in itself contains elements of magic—it is no coincidence that witches are described as accompanied by a cooking pot thinly disguised under the name of cauldron.

Learning to control processes like leavening with yeast, distilling, fermenting, boiling to the proper stage for making candies or jellies, and preserving—whether drying, pickling, or bottling—bears a definite semblance to the work of alchemists. Although we think of Home Ec class as distinctly separate from Chemistry class, they started out in much closer association. With this one difference, however: if you fail your chemistry lab no one gets hurt, but you’ll poison your friends and loved ones if you give them improperly preserved vegetables or meat. Mince pies, in fact, developed as a way of preserving meat without salting or pickling (the brandy in mincemeat acts as an antibacterial agent as well as a flavoring.) The crusts on early pies were thick and closely sealed and not meant to be eaten—pies were actually an early form of the press-and-seal bag.

Women as household managers used to have to produce, in addition to food and drink, many of the cleansers used in the home as well as a stock of medicines and salves. Lydia Child in her 1832 household handbook The American Frugal Housewife details home-made remedies for conditions ranging from sore throat and ear ache to dysentery and paralysis. She gives specific directions for gathering plants from the wild:

Balm-of-Gilead buds bottled up in N.E. rum, make the best cure in the world for fresh cuts and wounds. Every family should have a bottle of it. The buds should be gathered in a peculiar state; just when they are well swelled, ready to burst into leaves, and well covered with gum. They last but two or three days in this state.

Beauty treatments were a natural by-product of home pharmaceuticals, and these could be closely allied with enchantment as well. On May Day, women would rise early and go into the woods to collect dew from flowers and plants. Bathing in this dew was said to give long-lasting beauty. Of course, it could have been just another excuse for running off to the woods.

One flower gathered on May Day found its way into a May Day wine or punch—sweet woodruff. This is a low-growing hardy ground-cover that blooms early in the spring. It spreads rapidly, so try starting a patch in your own garden in a lightly shaded spot. Sweet woodruff is often planted under grape-vines because of its association with wine; also, the woodruff flowers bloom before the vines leaf out, and the summer grape leaves provide the needed shade.

Recipe for May Day Wine or Punch (from the Joy of Cooking by Rombauer and Becker):
Gather twelve sprigs of sweet woodruff and place in a bowl along with: 1 ¼ cups powdered sugar, 1 bottle Moselle or other dry white wine, 1 cup brandy. Cover the mixture and let stand for 30 minutes, no longer. Stir contents of bowl thoroughly and pour over a block of ice in a punch bowl. Add 3 bottles Moselle, 1 quart carbonated water or champagne, thinly sliced orange, sticks of pineapple, and sprigs of fresh woodruff.

(Authors’ note: If you go out frolicking into the woods with your friends after drinking this and nothing happens, you will know you have a stronger head than your dairymaid sisters of yore.)

Pictures from the top:
A Swedish maypole
Pirosmani: Woman Milking a Cow
Kate Greenaway: May Day
Letitia Elizabeth Landon
A Home Ec class, Glendale High School 1949
Lydia Child
Sweet Woodruff

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Wayback Machine #1 – Indian Valley, April ‘97

Hey, a brand new series! Fellow Rocky & Bullwinkle aficionados will recognize the reference to the Mr Peabody & Sherman cartoons (tho strictly speaking it should be spelled “WABAC”). I was a huge fan of the entire Rocky & Bullwinkle cosmos, but Sherman & Mr Peabody were favorites among favorites. Now thru the magic of photography & a scanner we’ll be taking some trips back in my personal history—not as "wayback" as Mr Peabody & Sherman, & without “historical” characters & events. But we’ll hope it’s fun nonetheless.

One of my main worldly assets, along with umpteen guitars, ukes, & banjos, & enough paperbacks to keep me going for the duration, is a lot of photos, & they’re a resource I’d like to share; & I’ve spent considerable time over the past year trying to come to terms with various moments in my past; I’ve moved a fair amount in my life, & sometimes
my life in Virginia or Vermont or even San Francisco seems a separate existence from which I'm disconnected. Part of the intent behind Robert Frost’s Banjo is healing that sense of disconnection, & this intent also I think was an underpinning for the poems I wrote last spring & the current ghazal series.

On a lighter note, the Wayback series may also prove to be a way of marking certain significant events; for instance, I first came to visit Eberle in Idaho in April of 1997, just about 13 years ago. The pictures I’m posting today were taken on that trip.

Hope you enjoy them:

Our old house (& of course, the only house in '97)
taken from a vantage that would be in front of our current house. The small building to the right is the pumphouse; it's no longer extant.

This shot was taken from the top of the exterior spiral staircase that led to Eberle's old writing studio. The large outbuilding with
the open doors & the smaller building to its left are pretty much where our current house stands. These buildings, as well as the pumphouse in the forergound, all were demolished in 04 in preparation for the new house. The little shed to the far right is still extant, however - simply because I never got around to tearing it down! Note the raised beds; that's all a flower garden at this point.

The aforementioned steps to the aforementioned studio. You get a great view from
up there, but they're pretty rickety now.

Eberle on the eastern slope of "Weird Hill" - it's been years since we climbed this; n
ow there's a barbed wire property fence that splits the hill almost exactly in half, which is a drag. In 97, the large Whiteman Ranch hadn't been sold & split up into 40 acre parcels. Note the abandoned farm machinery; there was (is?) quite a bit of this on the eastern slope.

Me at the summit of Weird Hill amongst the sagebrush & rudbeckia (the yellow flowers). Rudbeckia is probably the most prominent spring wildflower in these parts. Who the heck was my barber in San Francisco? Yikes!

Eberle on the front porch - her old smoking hang-out (she quit about a year & a half later)

Yours truly, with cats, on the same porch. Th
e tiger cat (aptly named, tho very sweet with Eberle & me) was Romeo, a particular friend my first few years in Idaho. The black cat was named the Black Cat (we also had the White Cat & the Grey Cat at various points). She was our current cat Weenie's grandma.

& yours truly by
the pond - a favorite spot right from the beginning. There were a lot fewer cattails then!

Eberle in the pasture. It was a working pasture even back then, before the llama era. Eberle had a leasing agreement with some ranching neighbors who would pasture their cattle there for a period of time each spring. Idaho provides tax benefits to folks who lease pasture land to ranchers in this way.

Hope you enjoyed the trip!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Three Ghazals

I had a "three ghazal" morning yesterday—just one of those things—& I’m posting them here. A couple of acknowledgments are in order. It’s been years since I’ve read Through the Looking Glass, so I’m indebted to Sandra Leigh of the fantastic Amazing Voyages of the Turtle for reminding me of this; & then Eberle reminded me that Lord Peter Wimsey also quotes that line in one of the wonderful Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries. Also, certain among you may notice the L Cohen rip-off at the end of “6 Impossible Things Before Breakfast”—I’m sure Citizen K at least won’t miss it.

Hope you enjoy these.

Ghazal 4/27

redwinged blackbirds trilling from willow
limb to willow limb as the morning unfolds most blue & yellow

a daffodil bouquet in a white & green vase almost gone past the
blooms slightly wrinkled & fatigued a consciousness

vanishing as it shrivels—a rest home in Florida the staff
puffing cigarettes by the walkway the morning light quiet thru

tall windows—not knowing the time or the day or the circumstance—a
boat in the grey Gulf of Mexico rolling across the swell the

cormorants the scarcity of things to say amongst the orange bouys &
white gulls an am radio tuned to the Ray Conniff Orchestra’s

strings in Vermont in a green July humming with grey wasps nests
suspended above the workshop’s screen windows, the tablesaw’s

dire hum the shellac's metallic fish presence a
summer evening grey in the garden amongst orange poppies

the pipe smoke’s choking sweetness dispelled thru the trellis this
Idaho morning shifting to grey above the blue blue hills

"6 Impossible Things Before Breakfast"

blue dahlias a bass clarinet strewed thru golden gate park that mango
california forenoon you didn’t drop by for java & poems & smokes the

orange tulip rufous hummingbird dreams in this April’s new moon
perigee midnight amongst phosphorescent solar lights afloat in the

ling garden—the hex sign sunrise emerging from Lake Erie a
yellow horizon swabbing brushstrokes across the harmonic
          convergence a

vibraphone nestled amongst yellowed birch leaves last October the
leaves afloat in the Weiser River’s troubled glass—magenta

ice plants scattered across the Ocean Beach dunes that lime green
Saturday you couldn’t make it for bicycling & java the Blue Ridge

Virginia brick walkway dotted with dogwood petals those fractal
Petrarchan sonnets scattered by footsteps speaking in off-rhymes

Distance Equals Rate Times Time

the distance between a grey stone diner in South Hero, VT &
this green salad day April 27th 2009—the unsettled sky

the goldfinches’ hollow whistle—the distance as
measured against the speed of light or any imagined constant—

I have nothing to say about the white cirrus clouds as they canoed
over the motley sky in a distant Vermont October—a Camel straight a

scarf a cream turtleneck an instamatic camera the wind de-
scending thru Canadian silver birches their fall leaves in-

congruous lemons shaken in a grey breeze—the cattle across the
road grazing on new grass the prussian blue clouds waiting for birds

measure the distance to & in fact my mind wandering—the
geese veering across the bosom of Sage Hill late last month

there isn’t any circumference there isn’t any
fixed center there isn’t any sky blue nothingness to fly back into

John Hayes
© 2009

UPDATE: Thanks for the positive responses. Upon reflection, I decided to get rid of the epigram for the "6 impossible things before breakfast" poem. Not that I don't like Lewis Carroll; I love his writing; but the epigram was about as long as the poem - thus unwieldy - & also what drew me was the phrase itself more then the context. THANKS AGAIN EVERYONE.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Me at the Moment

Cheryl at the very wonderful Lizzy Frizzfrock blog tagged me for the “meme of the moment.” Cheryl has been a stalwart friend of Robert Frost’s Banjo, & for those who aren’t familiar with it, her blog is very much worth a look & a read.

Without further ado, here’s a snapshot in words of me at the moment.

1. What is your current obsession?

Just to make a qualification right off the bat, I do make a distinction between “obsessions,” which I have known in all their full-blown fury in my day, & activities I find absorbing. The former: you’re driving on unfami
liar roads in the evening, & you’re lost & all you can think about is reaching your destination, but you keep making wrong turns & risky manuevers & yet you never seem to get on the “right road;” the latter: an amble thru a meadow or a pleasant stroll thru a city neighborhood on a sunny day.

Having said all that, I’m putting a good bit of energy into my solo playing/singing at local senior centers & other venues—very few things give me more satisfaction than sitting down & playing the guitar & singing old songs for long stretches, so I manage to get lots of practice without it feeling much like a grind.

& Robert Frost’s Banjo is an absorbing pastime that brings lots of fun & l
ots of great communication with fantastic folks.

& finally: ghazals.

2.Which item of clothing do you wear often?

T shirts, always. I have an evolving collection—sadly, they do wear out (I always thought it would be cool to make a quilt out of old t shirts, but apparently never believed this so strongly that I decided to learn how to do so). Right now, in no particular order, my favorites are:

Frog playing a banjo (light grey)
Elderly Intrustment
s (dark green)
Ukulelia (light grey)

Banjar (light green)
Mr. Potato Head (yellow—an old standby that I don’t wear too much because it’s getting a bit worn)
Old-Time Music (olive)

Generally a very casual dresser—in addition to tee shirts, carpenter’s pants, jeans, etc. I do have a thing for sport coats, tho; & I do favor baseball caps. My current favorite is a black ball cap marked GCEA (the tuning of a ukulele).

Oh, yeah, I wear Hawaiian shirts, especially when performing in the summer….

3.What's for dinner?

We almost always have our big meal at midday (“dinner” in the original sense
of the word)—one of the benefits of working at home. Today: Red Beans & Rice! I use the New Basics Cookbook recipe, & it’s always a hit. A green salad with blue cheese dressing really complements red beans & rice, & we'll be having that as well.

4.What are you listening to?

Eberle & I really
don’t listen to a lot of recorded music—hardly ever in the house. The one place I do listen to music is in the car, & because I have at least one long drive per week, I get my quota of listening in at that time. My “setlist” from last week’s long ride was: Hank Williams: 40 Greateast Hits; Mary Z Cox: A Secret Life of Banjo & Son House: Delta Blues & Spirituals. A couple of other cds I’ve listened to recently have been Folkways: A Vision Revisited: The Original Performances of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly, & the Darkwood Consort: Tro og Håb Spiller. The latter is a cd I recommend very highly—it’s available at CDBaby here.

I just spend a lot more time playing music than listening to recorded stuff.

5.Say something to the one that tagged you.

Cheryl, the Lizzy Fr
izzfrock blog is always a pleasure to read. You’re a gifted photographer & writer, & your love of life really comes across on your blog. I always look forward to your posts, & I’m very happy you’re a good friend of Robert Frost’s Banjo. I also strongly believe you must have been a fantastic teacher, because you communicate so clearly & enthusiastically.

e vacation spot?

Manzanita, Oregon, in Tillamook County on the beautiful Pacific Coast. Occidental, California, up in the redwoods & very near the Sonoma coast would be a close second. We try to get to Manzanita every autumn, & stay for a long weekend in a rental house. We’ve found a rental that’s right at the edge of the dunes, but also an easy walk to downtown—there’s a lovely small market there, & a pub that serves great fish & chips; & we get to watch th
e sunset behind the Pacific every evening. I love the ocean in general & the Pacific Ocean in particular.

7. What I'm reading right now?

Mina Loy: Lost Lunar Baedecker (poetry)
Ring Lardner: The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring W. Lardner 1914-1919

I plan on writing both of these up for the Happy on the Shelf series here.

8. Four words to describe myself.

“Geez, I don’t know?”

9.Guilty pleasure.

This really is a guilty pleasure, too. I have counseling once a week, starting last summer. During the first few weeks & months of that therapy I was dealing with feelings of bereavement quite a lot, & when I was done with that session I would crave some kind of comfort food. What I hit upon was Amy’s frozen cheese pizzas, & most counseling days since this is what I’ve had for lunch. Yeah, I know—you don’t have to tell me. But they are “organic”….

10. First Spring thing?

Getting out for walks is certainly something I look forward to in the winter—because of my lung condition, it’s hard for me to do a lot outside in the cold winter air.

I also love this specific time of year—end of April, beginning of May—because most years the yellow headed blackbirds come thru. More often than not they move on after a few days (tho there’s a wetland a few miles from here where you usually can see them all summer). A couple of years they’ve stayed here all summer around the pond. They are such striking birds, & their call is like a very guttural version of a redwing blackbird’s trill.

11. What do you look forward to?

Gosh, lots I guess. In the near-term, I’m looking forward to getting a book of my poetry self-published—my goal is for this to happen next month thru, but I’ve been a bit slow on this; still proof-reading. Looking forward (I hope) to writing more ghazals & to my upcoming music gigs (both those already scheduled & ones I hope to get in later in the season). I’m also hoping to do some recording this summer—Eberle & I were really burnt out after last year’s project (& the projects that had piled up, one after another, preceding that), but I think I’m close to ready.

That's all folks. I believe a lot of folks already have participated in this meme, so I’m going to cop out on naming 9 new “memers” (meemies?), & just say “consider yourself tagged”—have at it if you’d like.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ghazal 4/25

I’ll be posting about our day yesterday—probably in the mid-afternoon. Meanwhile, another ghazal, this one written yesterday morning.

Ghazal 4/25

a 1940s car chassis planted amongst trilliums & ferns &
jack-in-the-pulpit the deep green & the grape vines gone native

as helixes climbing the maples—a creamy orange light
swathed to the east & the prehistoric hills & mountains

insubstantial & blue gray as storm clouds falling into the horizon
there was a refrigerator without a door a white bulk amongst

underbrush—white & the tiny flowers of rust blossoming
‘round the hinges—a club house with 1 window & 1 bench en-

wrapping another maple & later swept away amidst logs & green
rowboats & brown trout in the flood the sky is white in the

pond right now the water glass the poplars along the creek reflected
vibrantly green the cows lowing & grazing the sparrows

& blackbirds busy in the willow’s supplely
gesticulating branches the fractious swell of the Saxtons River thru

a 1960s Vermont woodland we no longer have access
to—the static pond to the east out of reach & white this white morning

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Hey, we’re expecting a big & fun day out here in the hinterlands, with yours truly playing the local Farmer’s Market late morning thru early afternoon, & then Eberle & I are off to the Council Chamber of Commerce banquet. I expect I'll be posting more about these events tomorrow.

In the interim, the Weekly Poem, another of my translations from Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools, one of the most perfect books of poetry I know. In fact, I’m almost positive this is the first Apollinaire poem I ever translated (tho it’s undergone some tweaking over the years), & it’s certainly one of my favorites among his short lyrics; it's a poem that is often somewhere in my head when I’m writing, & practically always in my head when I see roses. Although the roses haven’t bloomed here yet, the air is awash with birdsong & pollen—it’s high spring, & there’s something about that backdrop that makes this poem almost unbearably poignant. The gentle humor & the understated tone also contribute to this.

I truly love this poem. Because it’s short, I’m posting the original French below the translation. Hope you enjoy it.


On the coast of Texas
Between Mobile and Galveston there is a
Big garden brimming with roses
It also contains a country house
Itself a big rose

A woman often strolls
All alone through the garden
And when I walk past on the road that's fringed with lime trees
We look at each other

Because that woman's a Mennonite
Her rosebushes and her garments have no buttons
Two are missing from my jacket
The lady and I observe almost the same rite

translation © John Hayes 1990-2009


Sur la côte du Texas
Entre Mobile et Galveston il y a
Un grand jardin tout plein de roses
Il contient aussi une villa
Qui est une grande rose

Une femme se promène souvent
Dans le jardin toute seule
Et quand je passe sur la route bordée de tilleuls
Nous nous regardons

Comme cette femme est mennonite
Ses rosiers et ses vêtements n'ont pas de boutons
Il en manque deux à mon veston
La dame et moi suivons presque le même rite


Friday, April 24, 2009

Ghazal 4/24

A poem that happened this morning after a rather restless night. The ghazal is originally an Arabic form that also has had some notable English language practicioners—my favorites are Adrienne Rich’s Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib & her Blue Ghazals. Other English language poets who’ve used the form include Maxine Kumin, W.S. Merwin & Thomas Hardy.

Ghazal 4/24

the willow’s limbs fidget in an April breeze from the west
& the sun is nonetheless blind white in implacable blue

so I have to ask why the dead & the lost come to visit
as I wander the night away in an old house up a staircase

a maple bannister a light in a cut glass fixture a cold white
light—the bedsheets creased & wrinkled into alphabets &

so I have to ask why we have travelled so far from the white white
magnolia blooms of another April & the granite statue of Christ loom-

ing at Swannanoa lugubrious & floating on another wind rattling
with laughter “like dice shook” I said—the breeze agitating the willow

voicelessly—in a supermarket parking lot far over the hills & the
rolling gnarl of bitterbrush & the rudbeckia’s buttery eruption—

we were going our separate ways & there was eye contact
unsettling across the blue cigarette smoke years the curtains carried

across a street to a house as dark as spruce trees en-
circling a Vermont backyard in an August green

dusk—the lost & the dead come turning their faces into the
breeze—the sharp white ripples across the wind-stirred pond

John Hayes
© 2009

Happy on the Shelf #6 – "Picturing the Banjo"

It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted a book review/appreciation—not that I haven’t been reading, but simply that my reading wasn’t connecting with ideas I could write about. However I recently enjoyed very much Picturing the Banjo, a wonderful book that was published in conjunction with an art exhibition of the same name. The exhibition & the book are explorations of the banjo’s cultural meanings.

As a musician, I think of an in
strument’s “meaning” primarily in terms of the sound it creates—although in my current musical incarnation I’m keeping things simple, just playing a resonator guitar & singing, in the past (& probably future, too), I’ve considered why we might want the sound of, say, an oboe instead of a clarinet or a banjo rather than a guitar in a given arrangement. While an instrument’s overall “aura” may have played a role in some arrangements we made with the Alice in Wonder Band or Five & Dime Jazz, the sound was always the primary consideration.

But while an instrument’s sound is unquestionably its primary “meaning,” it’s also true that all instruments encode additional cultural meanings—all objects do, really, whether the object is a banjo or a telephone or a little red wagon. We’re all aware of this at some level, & if we think about any well-known musical instrument, we can probably begin to enumerate its cultural meanings—just to discuss some that are close to my heart, the guitar, for instance, has (most unfortunately, in my opinion) become endowed with a phallicized machismo in the wake of its deification in the rock world & in its current status as a video game “weapon” (e.g., Guitar Hero). It’s interesting to consider that 100 years or so ago, the guitar was considered a “feminine” instrument—a parlor instrument suitable for ladies in much the same way that certain instruments (the flute, for instance) have been “feminized” in our own time. The uke, on the other hand, has often served to some extent as an ironic prop (even for good players) simply because of its size & its reputation as a “toy” instrument. In a decided twist on that theme, it also seems that the uke these days is sometimes used subversively in the “Rock the Uke” & neo-cabaret movements—I’d conjecture that this also places the uke as an object in relation to the guitar, but in a way that “deflates” the latter instrument’s current cultural meaning.

Picturing the Banjo contains six essays that discuss various cultural meanings of the banjo. Obviously, the banjo has had a most problematic symbolic life in the U.S. in terms of encoding racial issues, & this has been true since the earliest European settlements here—from Thomas Jefferson writing that “the banjar” is “the instrument proper to them” (i.e. African American slaves) thru the 19th century blackface minstrel shows & the impulse in both 20th century country & western & folk music (in the sense of the “folk movement” music) to square up the banjo’s edges & render its voice more palatable to a culture raised in the hegemony of 4/4 time with emphasis on rather straightforward underlying rhythms (for the musically inclined: 4/4 per se isn’t doomed to carry a straightforward rhythm—just listen to some of the great fingerstyle guitar players, or Jelly Roll Morton or Scott Joplin or any number of jazz greats—but culturally 4/4 tends to be dominated by either the preponderance of the “backbeat,” which at this point is pretty squared off, or the very straightforward 4/4 of much pop music).

OK, I’ll step down off the musical soapbox & return to the matter at hand. Picturing the Banjo is filled with images, & these range from paintings by renowned artists such as Mary Cassatt to popular objects such as 19th century mechanized banks & “presentation banjos,” another 19th century phenomenon involving banjos used solely or primarily as home décor. In general, the work focuses on two loci of the banjo’s cultural meaning as encoded in these images & objects—the banjo's rac
ial & gender meanings.

To state the obvious, th
e banjo has had a long history in the U.S. as a signifier of racial meaning. The 19th century cult of the minstrel show (which extended into the 20th century in blackface production numbers in films, from Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn) was very much centered on the banjo as it created a mythic &, in fact, insensitive & racist portrait of plantation life for African American slaves. Images of this sort can be found in sources ranging from Currier & Ives prints (which are discussed in Picturing the Banjo) to early 20th century sheet music.

There is also an in
teresting discussion of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural The Sources of Country Music, which is displayed in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. In this case, the banjo is given a central but “diminished” place in the portrayal of sources—the banjo player is located at the middle of the mural but is much smaller in scale than the singing cowboy to the right or the dulcimer player & singer to the left. Apparently the banjo had played a “larger” role in Benton’s preliminary sketches. It put me in mind of a young banjo student I had who was quite incredulous when I explained to him that the banjo was African in origin; he’d thought it was “invented in Tennessee.”

But the banjo’s cultural meaning as presented in Picturing the Banjo isn’t only
as a tool of oppression or co-option. In fact, the three most discussed images in Picturing the Banjo all present the banjo as a more positive cultural force. These images are Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, Frances Benjamin Johnson’s photograph of Miss Apperson (used as the icon for our good friends Blueflint!) & Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South.

The latter painting (from 1859) is cast as standing in opposition to the “happy pla
ntation” imagery, & as representing an acknowledgment of African Americans as human beings with a real (as opposed to culturally mythic) life. The central banjo player isn’t portrayed in a caricatured manner, & there are a number of other “humanizing” touches, such as the lovers to the left of the painting. Interestingly, the one white person in the painting, the woman entering the gate to the right, is observing this scene from a remove. It's also pointed out, however, that Johnson's painting rather quickly became known as Old Kentucky Home, & was also re-interpreted by pro-slavery forces as buttressing their position, & was re-visited in contemporary prints that tended to revise the scene into racist caricatures. Given the historical context, even a nuanced scene such as Johnson's couldn't escape this cultural vexation.

Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson is discussed as an example of an African American artist restoring dignity to an object that had been caricatured. The older African American man is portrayed with a quiet dignity, lovingly teaching a child to play the banjo. One essayist, Leo G. Mazow, does have an interesting twist on this image, postulating that the painting’s dignity comes at a “sonic” price—that the quietude portrayed here suggests that there wasn’t a way of also restoring the banjo’s liveliness in the cultural context of the work’s creation (The Banjo Lesson dates from 1893).

As I mentioned, the banjo’s meanings regarding gender issues also receives attention. Johnson’s photo of Miss Apperson receives considerable discussion, as it subverts a stock image of the virginal maiden & the goddess of flowers by placing a young woman in a casual pose playing a banjo in the same context. Mary Cassatt’s painting The Banjo Lesson is discussed as a portrayal of emancipation, of women allowing themselves to take up an instrument that wasn’t seen culturally as “feminine.” In this context, however, there’s also intriguing discussion about how the banjo became transformed into a “parlor” instrument late in the 19th century; the discussion of the change in playing style from the percussive African down stroke (now known as clawhammer or frailing) to the guitar-style upward “pluck” may be of particular interest to banjoists.

Those who are interested in the banjo or 19th & 20th century U.S. art, or who are interested in the examination of cultural history thru objects will be fascinated by this work—I recommend it highly.

Pics from top:
Picturing the Banjo, "Happy on the Shelf"
Mary Cassat, The Banjo Lesson
Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South
Thomas Hart Benton, The Sources of Country Music
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson
Frances Benjamin Johnson, Miss Apperson

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Easy as Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

I love pie; & loving pie as I do it’s hard to pick a favorite variety—how can someone say, for instance, that a good pumpkin pie is more or less perfect than a good blackberry pie? As the saying goes, it’s all good. However, if I had to pick one favorite pie in some hypothetical Judgment of Paris type contest, I might have to settle on strawberry rhubarb.

I also have to point out from the get go that Eberle is a grand pie-maker. It’s true that pies used to make her nervous—so she said—tho she always made great pies. Eberle claims that the epiphany for her as a pie-maker was Dani Leone’s two pieces of advice, imparted to her back in the previous millennium: don’t handle the dough too much, & don’t worry about what it looks like. Sage advice this, & Dani is one who knows, as she’s also a very capable baker
I still recall the blackberry pie she baked for a poker game birthday party on my 40th back in Baghdad by the Bay.

So when Eberle announced yesterday that she wanted to make a strawberry rhubarb pie, I was quite happy; & she even agreed to have the process documented for Robert Frost’s Banjo.

Of course, one secret weapon in the recipe is the fresh rhubarb (see pic at top of post). Eberle’s rhubarb plant is, she says, the most worry-free of all her many horticultural friends—it’s hardy in the cold, & not even the voracious deer, who always visit in July & August, touch it—the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous, actually, & as I’m sure you all know it’s the stalks that are used in the pie.

The crust:

1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
1 TBSP sugar
¼ tsp salt
6 TBSP unsalted butter, cold & cut in pieces
1 egg yolk

2 TBSP of ice water

Combine the flour, sugar & salt in a bowl. Then cut the butter into bits & add these butter bits to the flour mix. Work the butter into the mix using a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingers until the mix has the consistency of coarse crumbs. Then add the egg yolk & ice water, & work the dough with your hands until it forms a ball. Cover the ball with plastic wrap & refrigerate it for one hour.

When you roll the dough out, make sure not to work it too much; working the dough too much will make the crust less tender. & of course all you bakers know this, but make sure there are no cracks or holes in the crust when it’s in the pie pan.

The filling:

approx. 2 cups each of strawberries (large strawberries should be cut in half) & rhubarb. The rhubarb is cut in 1-inch slices.
3 TBSP of minute tapioca
1-¼ cup sugar

Warm this mixture
in a pot on low heat until the tapioca dissolves. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Once the tapioca is dissolved, just fill up the pastry shell & place your pie in the oven. It should bake at 375 for 10 minutes, then at 350 for about 40 minutes. The pie is done when the crust is golden & the filling is bubbling.

Poetry on a plate. & be sure to check out the slideshow presentation of this recipe, with background music by Eberle & I. The song is “Gray Dog’s Holiday,” which we composed a few years back, & has had a few musical incarnations. I always play bariton
e uke on the song, but Eberle has played flute, concert bells (glockenspiel) & in this case, marimba. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

(Here's the latest installment in Eberle's Women's Art is Women's Work series; & don't worry folks, I'm still in existence & even expecting to regale the residents of the local assisted living center with music & song this afternoon.)

It does not come as a great surprise that men in the past often seemed to feel most comfortable with the idea of “Woman” when it meant young and beautiful and not too bright. Convenient scientific theories, such as the notion that too much reading would damage women physically, enabled men to keep education largely to themselves. Many male writers placed feminine accomplishments such as child-bearing and house-keeping on a lesser plane than their own chosen spheres of books and letters. Women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, presented an alternate view of the matter. In a variety of ways, they stressed the importance of the domestic sphere and reminded readers that it held its own with the weightiest concerns. Cooking comes in for its due share of tongue-in-cheek rehabilitation:

I have seen the time myself when an apple-dumpling changed the face of creation.
Harriet Spofford,
The Thief in the Night (1872)

Women, as producers of both food and books, were not ashamed to align the two. Literature itself, that product of the pen, can be compared to the products of the kitchen. The place where literature and cooking meet is of course in cookbooks, and women writing about cookbooks reveal their depth of feeling about this genre. Women as writers of cookbooks were authors creating multi-dimensional works about their lives, their thoughts, and their community with other women as well as about food. They took this authorship seriously.

Mamma says she will instruct me how various favorite dishes are composed, and I am to have a book of my own, in which to
write the rules and recipes of all that I make with my own hands. I don't see why it won't be as nice as learning a new language, and about as extensive too...
Lydia Howard Sigourney, Lucy Howard's Journal (1858)

For women, t
he cookbook holds a special place in literature. In The Adopted Daughter and Other Tales (1859), Alice Cary describes the intimate relationship a woman can have with her recipe-book, and the way it makes a connection with the past:

She had an old receipt-book of her mother's, yellow with age, worn almost to undecipherable tatters by ceaseless consultation, and marked all over with tastes or specimens of every article that had been made by its instructions in fifty years.

As an aside, the word “receipt” was used in this era the way we use the word “recipe.” Earlier cookbooks contained not only recipes for food, but also for beauty concoctions, household remedies, preparations for brewing and distilling, dying, cleaning and polishing—for all the various aspects, in fact, of the contained world of the household.

Alice goes on, somewhat heretically, to compare the cookbook to the Bible and to Shakespeare—just in case anyone felt the inclination to trivialize this genre of writing:

This was her vade
-mecum—her oracle—her almanac—we had almost said her Bible…. To (her)…it had a beauty such as the earliest folio Shakspeare had in the eyes of Charles Lamb….

The cookbook is also described as transgressing the rules of other books, and the na
ture of this transgression is intriguing. First of all, this cookbook is not ordered in a traditional way-- the rules of logic are thrown to the winds and words are delightfully mixed up with kitchen realities. Getting to one recipe is a concrete journey through many others rather than a process of abstract selection:

She was emphatically a woman of one book, and she spent the more time ov
er it because, although very bulky, it possessed no table of contents; so that in order to find a rule for salting down hams, one might be obliged to plough through plumcakes, soar with puffs, wallow in washes, stick fast in plasters, take the shade of dye-stuffs, and put up with all kind of sauces.

Finally, a secret sisterhood is implied, a kind of speci
al knowledge that unlocks the magic pertaining to the mysteries of domestic life.

All the eye-waters in the book were not sufficient to make it intelligible to any but the initiated.

Food has always been associated with the most profound mysteries of life. Whether it’s a question of eating the bodies of your enemies to obtain their strength (nineteenth century readers were fascinated by
reports and interpretations of cannibalism in other cultures) or a cake ritualistically edged with frilly edible flowers to celebrate a wedding, food creates a connection to the past, to a cultural heritage, to an inward identity.

Twelfth Night cake, for example, continued to be eaten long after 1752 when the calendar change placed Twelfth Night at the end rather than the beginning of Christmas festivities and brought its central role as a revel to a close. However, the plum cake traditionally prepared for Twelfth Night lived on and eventually found itself reincarnated as fruit cake.

The Twelfth Night cake of ages pa
st was a plum cake with a pea and a bean baked inside. Traditionally, the finder of the pea in her slice of cake was crowned Queen of the revel, and the finder of the bean crowned King. A mock court among the guests then assembled around these figures of royalty, drinking “Lamb’s Wool”—ale seasoned with sugar, spices, and roasted apple pulp.

Who can measure the magic of apples? From Eve’s temptation to the Roman goddess of fruit trees, Pomona, the poisoned fruit of Snow White and Harriet Spofford’s apple-dumpling, the apple has drawn to itself the power of myth. Wassailing the apple trees was another ritual of food and drink that took place on Twelfth Night. By the light of bonfires in orchards, people would gather around the most fruitful tree and pour cider or beer on its roots, drink toasts to the tree, place bits of moistened cake on bough tips or dip the boughs into pails of cider. This was the night when the Holy Thorn would blossom, leaves rustle without wind, and bees come singing from their hives.

For a taste of Twelfth Night magic, try the followin
g plum cake recipe, from the Household Cyclopedia of General Information (1881).

Plum Cake Recipe:
Take l pou
nd of fresh butter, 1 pound of sugar, 1 1/2 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of currants, a glass of brandy, 1 pound of sweetmeats, 2 ounces of sweet almonds, 10 eggs, 1/4 of an ounce of allspice, and 1/4 of an ounce of cinnamon.
Melt the butter to a cream and put in the sugar. Stir it till quite light, adding the allspice, and pounded cinnamon, in a quarter of an hour take the yolks of the eggs, and work them in, two or three a
t a time; and the whites of the same must by this time be beaten into a strong snow quite ready to work in, as the paste must not stand to chill the butter, or it will be heavy, work in the whites gradually; then arid the orange peel, lemon, and citron, cut in fine strips, and the currants, which must be mixed in well with the sweet almonds. Then add the sifted flour and glass of brandy. Bake this cake in a tin hoop in a hot oven for three hours, and put sheets of paper under it to keep it from burning.

The comforts and luxuries of life, its roast-beef and plum-pudding, are the oil that keeps the machinery of society in operation.
Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Married or Single?

Pictures from the top
Pomona, Goddess of Fruit Trees by Nicholas Fouché
Alice Cary (2)
An Illustration of a Twelfth Night Revel by Phiz
An illustration from a 19th century Icelandic version of Snow White
A plum!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hand Mowed

(Many thanks to Eberle, who stepped into the breach created by cold & cranky convelescence to come up with a most entertaining post for today!)

I loved John’s post on Saturday about Bernadette Mayer’s poem. And her vision of poets as a certain species of farmer is great. What I’ve always been fascinated by in subsistence farming is connection—to the seasons, the land, the weather—and poetry is a similar process to my mind. It’s not so much about ideas in themselves, ideas as objects, but about a process of connecting ideas—and making that process into a form of poetic economy. Prayer or meditation, in my estimation, involves the same process. Poetry and prayer are subversive in the economy of meaning as subsistence farming has always seemed to me subversive of the money economy. I lived for four years on a farm in rural Brazil and I was often struck by the fact that everything you ate, you could see growing around you over the course of the year. Also there wer
e no banks and very little hard currency. Even the houses and dishes were made from the earth with mud bricks and clay. One thing I never got used to was the total absence of pen and paper. I remember, early on, being taught how to play dominoes one evening and when I realized that keeping score was part of the game I thought for sure some kind of writing would be involved—but a handful of dried corn served as counters. I have always remembered this as an image that there are other ways of counting, of assessing value, of keeping score, than the ones engendered by the power structures of authorized culture. Subsistence farming, like the best fairy tales, makes sustainable use of everything in the landscape. This is a very different kind of economy than that of money, which attempts to render the value of all things and all activities in terms of a single system of currency, so that they lose the value they have inherently in themselves as themselves.

John was also accurate in saying that serious farming is a hard row to hoe. Most ranchers around here use heavy equipment and four-wheelers and various kinds of technology—although it’s still very linked to the land. Lambing season is just over, and a friend of mine told me about using an intercom in the lambing shed because the sound of the ewe’s breathing lets you know from inside your own house when a birth is taking place in the shed. John was also right about the fact that the time required by writing can come into conflict with the time required by working the land. You can’t spend all morning both hoeing and writing. It made me smile that on the day John posted Bernadette’s poem/essay, I was in a small field east of the house learning to use a scythe.

I bought the scythe last fall—not the garden scythe kind but the genuine grim reaper variety—made in Austria, with a blade about as long as my arm. I have always secretly wanted one of these, as a cool object and as a tool that would be amazing to use—if only I could figure out how to use one. I like to try new musical instruments and I’m pretty fearless about that, but there’s just something intimidating about a scythe. However, I was at the hardware store in McCall last fall and became mesmerized by this single real scythe they had among the other garden tools. A store employee came up to ask me if I wanted help etc. and in a moment of bravery I decided to be honest and say that I really wanted the scythe but wasn’t sure I’d be able to learn how to use it. As luck would have it, it was the right day and the right person. It turned out he used to live near my area in Adams County and had used this kind of scythe himself. The scythe had been in the store a long time. He pulled off the dusty plastic, took me into the workroom, showed me how to attach the blade, and sharpened it. Then he took me outside to practice on a convenient patch of weeds. He explained the principal of using your waist instead of your arms for propulsion. I came home with the scythe, but other things happened in the fall and I never got around to trying it.

Until today—one of the first great days of spring. I found a fairly secluded patch of weeds to test the scythe out on—one where I wouldn’t be shy about ranchers driving past and looking down critically at my efforts from their towering pick-up trucks. The weeds were falling under the blade, but I wasn’t sure I really had the right motion. I remembered that last summer when I wanted to learn how to play an oversized banjo-type of Turkish instrument called the Yayli tambour that is bowed like a cello, I went online to find videos of people playing it in order to learn how. So I did the same thing with the scythe.

The first two videos I watched on YouTube didn’t impress me. One thing I learned in Brazil, where my skills with a hoe were honed, is that relaxation and efficient movement are the key elements for working long stretches with a hand tool. If you do any physical activity for hours on end in a very hot climate, you learn to do this—and to see the beauty in the movements of the people who do it well. This is actually a principal John and I applied to learning the banjo—playing it for a long time sitting on the porch in the heat of summer really makes you relax with it. The same is true of drumming. More and more, we both emphasize to our students the importance of physical relaxation when playing music.

Anyway, I didn’t want to learn how to use the scythe from videos of people who looked tense and awkward. Then I found this video [see bottom of post], which was great— I love how the mower seems to be dancing! It made me remember when I was in college and my parents started raising llamas in Valley County; they hired my brother and I and a group of our friends to work on the ranch in the summers—a strange combination of manual labor and college philosophy, living in tents and a tipi—but I did learn how to fence. One of my friends and I realized one day how folk dancing came from work gestures—I think we were using draw-knives to peel bark off lengths of fence posts; we would raise our hands up and shake them to get bits of bark out of our work gloves; if you stand up and do this it becomes a dance. This is a good example of how knowing something abstractly is different from discovering it—because I had studied dance, I knew that some kinds of dancing were connected to the gestures of everyday activities, but discovering it for myself was thrilling—that was the difference. The same thing happened one day when we were supposed to build a shed and were trying to figure out how to sink the four corner posts so they were at right angles with each other—and suddenly I remembered the Pythagorean theorem. This was the only moment in my life when I felt a moment of absolute joy in relation to math—something that I imagine happens to true mathematicians quite often.

Watching this video, besides making me happy, made me internalize the importance of the backward step—that’s the part I hadn’t gotten. I tried it for a while standing in front of the computer, and then went out with my scythe to the patch of weeds I had in mind. This weedpatch flourishes in the drainfield of our septic system where there are dips in the land that make it impossible to mow mechanically—but the excellent growing conditions make for luxuriant weeds that got several feet high last summer. John has kept the patch in check with a weed-whacker, but I have been resistant about learning how to use this tool though John did give me great tips on using our self-propelled lawn-mower and I help out with that now.

This summer, I vowed, I was going to keep these weeds down with my scythe. It was lovely to feel the rhythm of scything starting to happen under my hands and feet, and daydreaming about planting a patch of raspberries in this spot next spring; people have told me that raspberries do very well over septic drainfields. Of course, a truly great mower would not be thinking of next spring, she would be merged with the moment. She would also not be distracted by the thought that mowing the whole patch would probably mean not being able to move much at all the next day—but I mowed it all anyway and I was glad I did.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dad’s Photos #8

Yours truly is a tad under the weather today with a cold—actually have been for the past few. Fortunately, on a day when my mind is rather sodden, I have the happy expedient of posting some of my father’s photos—more from 1938. As always, the italicized captions are taken from his album.

The last four photos are of my father, & obviously taken by someone else. "Ma Brightman's" was the rooming house where he lived while he worked in Bourne, MA.

For myself, it’s plenty of rest & tea & soup in hopes of g
etting back on my feet in time for this week’s gigs.


Buzzards Bay, Mass - Taken from the Bourne Bridge across the Cape Cod canal

My first view of Buzzards Bay - taken from train

Underpinning Bourne Bridge

In a Spin (me)

Onset Roller Rink

At Ma Brightman's

What a kick that was (beside the canal)

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Some sad news today—our dear friends Audrey & Cheryl have had to send their beloved Maddy on her way to where the good dogs go. Maddy lived a long, & joy-filled life with her two human companions; she was much loved & gave freely of her love & joy in the amazing way that dogs do this.

When I think about the sentience of animals (which I actually think about quite a lot), I usually go back to these great lines by Blake:

How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?

There is no question in my mind about the depth & quality of animal thought & feeling—simply because animals find no need to write or discuss The Critique of Pure Reason doesn’t mean that they don’t lead full mental & emotional lives; of course, as Blake pointed out, we only have limited access to this intelligence & feeling because our own perception is circumscribed.

But some animals allow us to share in that immense world of delight, & Maddy, like many dogs, was one of those. It’s been my impression that Corgis are generally amiable & happy, but Maddy was very friendly & joyful even by those standards.

Audrey provided an audio file of a song she & Cheryl wrote for Maddy about 10 years ago—it’s quite lovely, & appropriate, too. The audio came with an animation (not of Maddy), but unfortunately, Blogger doesn’t seem to like AAC audio, which meant I needed to convert the original file to an MP3 & then a video file for posting. The song appears at the bottom of the post. Audrey had this to say:

Here's a song Cheryl and I wrote about Maddy for the Pajamathon lullaby record put out by "The Sleepytones." It didn't make the record, so it's an outtake. But very sweet. The vocalist is our friend Frank Lopez. Lyrics: me; music: Cheryl. The album was released by EMI Special Projects in 1999. I would love for people to get to hear it, if it's something you could include on RFB.

Audrey & Cheryl are wonderful people who’ve lost a dear friend; of course, Audrey is known to Robert Frost’s Banjo readers from her delightful posts about Lesley Gore & our current featured post, “A Reformed Rake Makes the Best Husband?” Our thoughts are with them in a sad time, in hopes that they can reflect on the great happiness that was Maddy.