Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blueflint CD & Tour

Scots banjoistas (& friends of Robert Frost’s Banjo) Blueflint just announced that their CD has been picked up by a distributor (Forte Music) & will be for sale soon. It sounds like those of us on the far side of the Atlantic will be able to get the music from any number of likely online sources, as well as direct from the distributor at this link. Even better news for our friends in the British Isles: Blueflint has announced tour dates—please check out their blog for all the details.

If you’re not sure whether you should check them out or not, just watch the rollicking videos below. They are very good—love their sound! So please get out there & support some real musicians!

Have a nice rest the day of Sunday & a great Monday—see you Tuesday morning!

Mean Old Bedbug Blues

My little spate of webcam fun was curtailed as I got more immersed in “real” recording, but it didn’t end before I recorded one more video for your viewing pleasure. This one is me & resonator guitar taking on the “Mean Old Bedbug Blues,” a song I’ve loved for quite some time from versions by Bessie Smith (hers is sort of the “standard” version), Dave Van Ronk & Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Apparently the great bluesman Furry Lewis also covered this, but I’m not familiar with his rendition.

As far as the bigger recording project goes, I ended up with 12 tracks—I know I said at one point I was “satisfied” with 13, but I actually dropped two & added one since then. Now I’m in the mixing phase of the project—had hoped to get them completed & on cds by the final Farmer’s Market, which took place yesterday, but no such luck. Eberle & I are performing as a benefit for the Alpine Playhouse in McCall in mid September, & they’ll certainly be completed by then!

Tomorrow probably will be a day off here at Robert Frost's Banjo as I collect my thoughts for next month's posts. But for now, thanks for all the support of these “performance” videos! Hope you enjoy this one.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

“Of the Surface of Things”

This was supposed to be the Weekly Poem last Saturday, until I got in a snit over the news & fell into a bit of a funk that I could only resolve by posting "pity this busy monster, manunkind." This week, I’m back on my feet, psychologically speaking (“psychological feet”—now there’s a concept), so I’m posting this poem from Wallace Stevens’ 1923 collection, Harmonium.

It's a truism, no doubt, that “Of the Surface of Things” is deceptively simple, especially in its sort of “anti-poetic” diction & its apparently plain-spoken manner. Stevens seems to be having a bit of a joke at his own expense in the very “poetical” line, “The spring is like a belle undressing”; otherwise, the poem appears pretty matter-of-fact, & taken in by its prosaic syntax, we may encounter quite a shock when we reach the third stanza.

Questions that seem relevant to me:

  • Is the tree gold or blue “on the surface?”
  • Is “the singer” the speaker (the “I” of stanzas one & two) or someone else?
  • What is the relationship of the world that “consists of three or four/Hills and a cloud” to the world where “The gold tree is blue” & “The moon is in the folds of [the singer’s] cloak”? Is the latter stanza a transformation of the first stanza—or is it a deliberate “poeticizing,” such as “The spring is like a belle undressing.”

I don’t have “the answers,” really, but the poem intrigues me. Hope you enjoy it.

Of the Surface of Things

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
Hills and a cloud.

From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
'The spring is like a belle undressing.'

The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.

Wallace Stevens

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Down on the Farm #4

Amazing as this may be, August is drawing to a close, & with it our Down on the Farm song list series. I’ve really appreciated the great support folks have shown to this series, & there will be another song list feature in October. In the meantime, hope you enjoy these fine songs!

  • Peach Picking Time in Georgia: This tune is a typically rollicking number by “the Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers—a musician who had a profound effect on the development of what we now call “country music.” Of course, in Rodgers’s days, such genre lines were nowhere near as pronounced as they are these days, which enabled him record “country records” with jazz stars like Louis Armstrong & Lil Hardin, & also to employ Hawaiian steel guitars. On the great Tone Poems III, resophonic guitar masters Mike Auldridge & Bob Brozman cover this as an instrumental duet, with Auldridge playing a 1929 Martin 0-28KH—a koa wood version of the standard Martin 0-28 (thus, the “k” for Koa), that was also set up for lap style playing (hence the “H” for “Hawaiian”)—& Brozman playing a 1926 Weissenborn Style 4 Hawaiian guitar. It’s one of my favorite tunes on a great album. Check out Rodgers’ version of the tune below. Mike Auldridge, Bob Brozman, David Grisman: Tone Poems III: The Sounds of the Great Slide & Resophonic Instruments (Acoustic Disc)
  • Rabbit in the Pea Patch: Anyone who’s ever maintained a garden has had to put up with visits from our animal brethren. Most gardeners I know say they’d be happy to devote one section to everything ranging from deer to grasshoppers, but it just doesn’t work like that. The mule deer around here have an annoying habit of taking one bite out of each tomato! Anyway, this is a rollicking song with excellent fiddle & the incomparable Uncle Dave Macon playing banjo & singing—as always, full bore—about a rabbit in the pea patch, & exhorting his hound to “get that rabbit out of town.” When it comes to old-time banjo, there’s no one better than the great Uncle Dave! Uncle Dave Macon: Go Long Mule (County)
  • Red Rooster: I always think of this song as “Little Red Rooster,” but at least on my Howlin’ Wolf vinyl, it’s titled “Red Rooster.” Some singers (e.g., Mick Jagger) sing this one "as" the rooster—I’ve always leaned toward the farmer’s perspective, as he’s somehow trying to control this lazy but amorous bird. The song has been covered by lots of folks (even yours truly on banjo, as regular readers know), with good reason—it’s a fantastic song, & it tends to be a crowd pleaser, with plenty of spots to throw in your favorite riffs. Despite all the fine versions, Howlin’ Wolf’s is still my favorite; the song was composed by Willie Dixon, who plays bass behind the great Howlin’ Wolf; give it a listen below. Howlin’ Wolf: His Greatest Sides, vol. 1 (Chess—this is vinyl, but it’s currently available on Geffen’s Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection, & no doubt on other compilations as well)*
  • The Rooster’s Crowing Blues: The great trio of Gus Cannon, Noah Lewis & Hosea Wood give a musical exposition about the practical side of rooster’s crowing—at least to the lover who needs to know when “the working man is coming home.” Woods’ vocal on this is exceptional, as is Cannon’s jug work—Woods’ comes up with a vocalization that’s sort of halfway between crowing & a yodel. Do check this one out in the vidclip below. Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (Yazoo)
  • Tennessee Stud: Jimmy Driftwood wrote this song in the 1950s, & its one of those tunes that could be a lot older. Of course it was a hit for Eddy Arnold, but it’s been covered by lots of folks. Two versions I have on recordings are both excellent: Johnny Cash’s version on his great American Recordings album (the first in the series)—speaking of folks who can write a song or sing a song & make it seem really timeless, Cash was among the best at that. I also like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s version on Vanguard’s The Essential Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Ramblin’ Jack is one of the best when it comes to story songs. Some might object to this song’s inclusion as a “farm song”—it is, after all, a tale of wandering & adventure. But let’s face it: a stud horse is a farm animal. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (American); Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: The Essential Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Vanguard)
  • Tired Chicken Blues: Another great tune from Gus Cannon’s group, this time featuring Mr Cannon on the banjo & a lot of Noah Lewis’ harp playing—Lewis was an extremely accomplished harp man, & was an influence on later, better known blues harmonica players such as Sonny Boy Williamson. I haven’t sat down with this song & a guitar, but it sounds like there’s at least one unusual chord change here; to my ear, it’s really quite a compelling musical setting. Check it out below—have mercy! Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (Yazoo)
  • Turkey in the Straw: This is pretty much an “ur-song” when it comes to old-time American music, tho my understanding is that it derives from even earlier ancestor songs such as “Coney in the Creek” & “Possum Up a Gum Stump.” Obviously, there are tons of versions of “Turkey in the Straw”—from Looney Tunes cartoons to your favorite local bluegrass band. Here are two that are very good, tho: Diller’s clawhammer banjo version & the mandolin/guitar version from bluegrass giants Bill Monroe & Doc Watson. Dwight Diller: Just Banjo 99 (Yew Pine); Bill Monroe & Doc Watson: Off The Record, Vol. 2: Live Duet Recordings, 1963-1980 (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Wannabe Chicken: I really should have included some other songs from best pal Sister Exister’s album Scratch in the Down on the Farm series—for those of you who don’t know, Sister Exister is the nom de chanteuse of the Bay Area’s finest restaurant reviewer/nanny/ex-chicken farmer/soccer star/fiction writer/steel drum player/singer Dani Leone. But let’s at least consider Sister Exister’s song professing her desire to be a chicken. Rationally, I don’t follow all of Sister’s logic in this one, but musically, I sure do—check out the great tissue paper/comb solo about halfway thru; & without giving away any spoilers, I will say that Sister Exister’s final point about how she actually is a chicken comes by way of unassailable logic. Now how could you check this song out, you ask? On CDBaby, right here! Sister Exister: Scratch (Sister Exister)
  • Weather Bird: What’s a farm without a weathervane? “Weather Bird” (AKA “Weather Bird Rag”) is a beautiful hot jazz piece, & on this recording its played as a duet by Louis Armstrong on trumpet (not cornet) & Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano. They’re both in peak form, trading solos on this highly syncopated number. Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives & Sevens (JSP)

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Weiser River Pillow Book #9

[Here's the August installment in Eberle's Weiser River Pillow Book series; enjoy!]


Edible half-masks with chocolate eyebrows baked in.

Poetry, and stories of thefts that the ladies had committed in earlier years, including a P.A. system and a Canadian flag.

Columbine boutonnieres from the garden.

The idea emerged for Women’s Fantasy Performance night at the local theatre.

Joan wore: shorts and tennis shoes, and carried an evening purse of shiny red leather.


Next year’s mushrooms.

Fire-fighters—whether or not they will be able to buy prom dresses, new truck tires.

Victory for softball teams with older players when the smoke-jumper team has to forfeit.


Deciding never to have another job where stockings would ever have to be worn.

Deciding to write every morning.

Buying land.

Deciding to love my beloved.


A single tomato plant in a small greenhouse.

Buttons, handles, and furniture made of antlers.

A pair of emu feet.


Cover an archeological dig in a mining town up in the mountains for the newspaper.

Meet a friend for drumming practice.

Sell concessions at the theatre two towns away.

Get materials for mending the garden hose.


Buy herbal tea over the internet.

Write, garden.

Make green plum chutney.

Go to the courthouse restoration meeting.

Mail a book to a friend in California.


A bullfrog’s bright green head resting on duckweed in matching green.

The smell of apples fallen into the spring from the wild apple tree in the draw.

Filling the swamp cooler at night by starlight, and the thick swathe of the Milky Way.


The berry-picking buckets hanging inside the pantry door.

One yellow leaf on the front porch.

Cats lying on the sunny walkway.

Your darling’s crossword book lying open next to the bed.


Light falling on the open doorway to the music room.

Rain falling on the tin roof of the garden shed.

A wind so gentle it would be unnoticeable except for the rattling it makes among the dry cornstalks.


The difference between chokecherry leaves and serviceberry leaves.

Where to buy the best mouse-traps.

That the tiny pond-dragons are actually dragonfly nymphs.

No longer being afraid of leeches, black widows, or the long fat black slugs that drape their wrinkled lengths along the mown path to the draw when twilight comes.


I imagine the living room, the beautifully upholstered furnishings, everyone very polite around the coffee table with the glass top that makes everything directly under it wavery and murky in an underwater way, and, sticking out from under one end of it, a pair of human feet. They are never discussed.


Twenty years ago I choreographed a dance to this piece. Yesterday I saw, for the first time, an actual chick pecking its way out of its eggshell.

How strange to have images that are abstractions, that miss the point so completely. The struggle of the chick to peck its way out is way more horrifying than playful, its peeping from within, a sound that is desperate with exhaustion.

Typically, the eggshell is the dominant image, in the abstract-- the hard shape cracking cleanly. What’s left out is the elastic membrane, flexible as the shell falls away, the opening slits in it that swell and widen as the being within moves.

© Eberle Umbach 2001-2009

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Translation Tuesday again, folks, & today we have a poem by André Breton translated by yours truly sometime back in the smoky 1990s. There are a few of the lines in the original French that have really stayed with me over the years: Le désespoir roulait au ciel ses grands arums si beaux (third line) & also Une ferme prospérait en plein Paris/Et ses fenêtres donnaient sur la voie lactée (A farm prospered in the midst of Paris/And its windows looked out on the Milky Way).

“Sunflower” (“Tournesol” in the original French) is a poem about endings & beginnings; about memory & about the transformative axis between the sensory & the imagination. Hope you enjoy it!

On the mundane side of things, I’ll be gone all day today & won't be returning until tomorrow; however, I've scheduled the August installment of Eberle's Wesier River Pillow Book series. The final installment of Down on the Farm should be posted on Thursday.


The traveller who crossed the Halles at the end of summer
Was walking on her tiptoes
And across the sky despair furled its big calla lilies such beauties
And in the handbag was my dream that bottle of salt
Solely breathed by God’s godmother
Torpors spread out like steam
At the Smoking Dog Café
Where Pro and Con had just entered
The young woman could be seen only poorly and in profile
Was I dealing with the ambassadress of saltpeter
Or the white curve against the black background which we call thought
The ball of the innocents was in full swing
The lanterns caught fire slowly in the chestnut trees
The lady who cast no shadow knelt down on the Pont au Change
In Rue Gît-le-Cœur the pealing was no longer the same
Night’s promises were kept at last
The carrier pigeons the emergency kisses
Joined with the beautiful unknown one’s breast
Thrusting under the crepe of perfect meanings
A farm prospered in the midst of Paris
And its windows looked out on the Milky Way
But no one was living in it on account of the guests
The guests that one knows are more devoted than ghosts
The ones like that woman seemed to be swimming
And into love there enters a little of their substance
She takes them in
I am not the plaything of any sensory power
And yet the cricket that sang in the ashen hair
One evening near the statue of Etienne Marcel
Shot me a knowing glance
André Breton it said may pass through

André Breton
translation by John Hayes © 1990-2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

The “Humbling Bird”

Hummingbirds, or “humbling birds” as Eberle would have it, are a common visitor here in the summer months. I’ve never been positive about this, but based on the range given in bird guidebooks, I suspect they’re Calliope Hummingbirds—a nice name!

We do feed them, & Eberle’s the usual hummingbird feeder—for unknown reasons she tends to the hummingbird feeder while I usually take care of the seed-type feeders—just
happened that way. She has found that when the feeder is empty, the hummingbirds will start flying around her when she’s working in the garden, & I’ve noticed since she’s been gone that if a hummingbird is flying up to the kitchen window or the front door, the feeder is no doubt empty. They have us pretty well trained.

Just before Eberle left on her trip, she got some cool pix of a hummingbird at the feeder, & also something you don’t see too often—the hummingbird resting in a tree. Can you find him/her in the pic at the top
? The solution is at the bottom of the page!

et voilà!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Katie Mae

I’ve been keeping bachelor’s quarter for the past week plus, as Eberle’s been having a grand time for herself with her old friend Margot on an island in the St Lawrence River. Needless to say, I do miss her, but I have made good use of the time by getting a fair amount of recording done—a great thing to do in an empty house.

The “serious” side of the recording has involved the full set-up in the music room with our Boss Digital workstation (see pic); as of this morning, I have 13 tracks that I find satisfactory. The “fun” recording has involved our little webcam, which I gave everyone a taste of last week on Robert Frost’s Banjo’s one-year anniversary. Truth be told, as you heard last week, the little webcam mic distorts pretty badly with the banjo, & I haven’t had the time to test different set-ups that might minimize this. Good news is that the webcam mic has a much easier time with the guitar—even the resonator—so this week I’m posting my version of the great Lightnin’ Hopkins’ song, “Katie Mae.”

In case you don’t know, Hopkins was one of the real masters of fingerstyle blues, & he particularly favored a “boogie” style. Needless to say, while I’m a decent guitar picker, I’m not Lightnin’ Hopkins, so I’m not trying to play in his style—just having fun with a very fun tune.

Hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"pity this busy monster, manunkind"

It’s been a week with some palpable darkness in the news here in the U.S., & it’s gotten me brooding a bit. I’d planned to post a Stevens poem about the transformative power of the imagination (naturally), but as the week drew to a close it just didn’t resonate with me. Then I thought of a poem I first encountered either in high school or as an under-graduate—anyway, long time since—& I decided to post that one instead.

It’s a poem by E.E. Cummings, a poet who I think is unfairly pigeonholed as all typographical flurry & verbal hijinks. In fact, Cummings could capture a pretty wide range of lyric experience; I’ve long thought that “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” is one of the most remarkable love poems I’ve ever read.

Today’s poem, “pity this busy monster, manunkind” is a much darker poem, & really hinges on the lines “A world of made/is not a world of born” as it discusses mankind’s servitude to its own creations—not just the sinister make-believe world of advertising (the “deified” razorblade), but ultimately the whole impulse to shape the world from a position of “hypermagical omnipotence.” A dark vision in this quirky poem—appropriate, perhaps, as we in the U.S. wrestle with various dreams & creations that have unleashed some rather disturbing forces.

Hope you enjoy the poem.

pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
—electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
                                    A world of made
is not a world of born—pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if—listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

E. E. Cummings

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dad’s Photos #15

Howdy folks; here are some of Dad’s photos for your enjoyment. I believe these are the last of his Massachusetts’s photos; after these, Dad moved northward. But don’t worry—there are still quite a few photos yet to come from his days in a little shack in very rural Vermont!

Hope you enjoy these.

Reflection on Boyleston St, Boston

Looking East Over the Common

The pond – Public Garden

Boston City Library, Copley Square

Patio in Boston Library

Public Garden

The Huntington Ave Subway, Corner Mass. Ave.

Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. – Building to Follow

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

What Does a Bleeding Heart Liberal Look Like?

I’m not ashamed—for reasons you’ll soon learn—to have that moniker applied to me—so you can see one of those holding a banjo in the little thumbnail to the left. But you might ask: John, you grew up in a working class home in the country—certainly your liberal views are a rejection of the values you grew up with? OK, I did reject some values I grew up with, but I can tell you where a lot of my bleeding heart liberal views came from: the man in the Chief Petty Officer’s hat in the photo on the right. My dad: a WWII vet from the Pacific Theater, someone who grew up in a poor immigrant family, & who spent his life as a blue-collar worker: carpenter, cook, millwright, machinist. My father was also an avid outdoor sportsman, both a hunter & a fisherman. He owned a .22 & a 30/30 & a 20-gauge shotgun, & he used them to hunt deer & other game, which he intended for the table.

I remember once when visiting my folks in the 80s & something about a fight against a possible assault rifle ban came on the news. My father scoffed at the "right" to own assault rifles: though he certainly believed in the right to own guns for legitimate purposes, he was a hunter, & he knew there’s only one legitimate use for an assault rifle: killing people. We can talk all we want about Second Amendment rights, but let’s be clear about this. Some guns can be used for sport, whether it’s hunting or trap-shooting; some are designed with one purpose. Killing people. Do people who believe in the right to bear arms think they should have the right to store an atomic bomb on their property, or at least park a working tank in their backyard? Why not? If you were going to form a militia wouldn’t you want up-to-date weaponry?

Would my father have thought it was simply a misguided assertion of rights for people to show up at Presidential rallies packing heat? I can guarantee you he would not have. It seems that in the health care debate one argument from the right wing has to do with how public health care would abrogate personal responsibility (I don’t follow this, & wonder what our Canadian friends think about that—but then the longevity in the country is way better than in the U.S.—kinda odd, since they are saddled with what we’re told is a horrible healthcare system). Seems like someone forgot to get that memo to the gun-toting folks. Is it their “right” to have those guns where they do? Apparently so, since they’ve been allowed to do it. Perhaps we should also have folks going to church or the local grocery store with a 30/06 under their arm—I mean, it is their right, & God forbid anyone in this country have his rights taken away.

What about the right to a civil society? Do we have that right anymore? The “political discourse” in this country has appalled me for almost 30 years (by the way, I don’t exempt Bill Clinton from criticism on this score). I somehow hoped that electing a President who had statesman-like qualities & an agenda to actually try & fix some deep-seated problems might turn the discourse around. If anything, it has gotten worse—much more ugly, especially in the past couple of months. I’m very discouraged, & angry, & I hate to say it, but I’m relieved my father isn’t around to see this. I'm also beginning to have the sinking feeling that Mr Obama may share the one-term fate of the one other decent president we've had in my adult life, Jimmy Carter.

My father learned one principle in his life, & he learned it in a genuine way: “the rich get richer & the poor get poorer.” People can say what they will about the health care debate or the gun debate: money is fueling these; health insurance & arms manufacture are big business. The renowned liberal President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the power of the “military-industrial complex”—hey, folks, those are the guys making the guns. As far as the insurance companies go: how about this one: please be sure to get pre-approval on the hospital you go to before you have your heart attack. Probably a few days notice will be sufficient!

OK, I’m getting off the soapbox. Tomorrow—Dad’s Photos: without political commentary.

Hearth & Home, part 2

[Here's the conclusion on Eberle's Hearth & Home essay; hope you enjoy it.]

The “servant problem” was notorious in nineteenth century America—housewives had more trouble finding help than their counterparts in England partly because there was more alternative work available. The history of slavery in this country also created a different set of values about what work white servants considered beneath them and refused to do in order to separate themselves from a lower class of service. Racism affected household dynamics among servants as well as householders—Louisa commented that servants sometimes refused to work in a household with a staff of mixed color. Unless a household could afford to hire servants to cook, serve, wash clothes, clean and do chores, the burden of all house
hold tasks fell on the housewife and her daughters.

Gro Svendsen, a
Norwegian immigrant, wrote her parents about American housework in l862: “We are told that the women of America have much leisure time but I haven't yet met any woman who thought so! Here the mistress of the house must do all the work that the cook, the maid and the housekeeper would do in an upper class family at home. Moreover, she must do her work as well as these three together do it in Norway.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe in House and Home Papers (1865) describes what happens when household servants did not perform their duties properly:

Sour bread had appeared on the table, — bitter, acrid coffee had shocked and astonished the palate, — lint had been observed on tumblers, and the spoons had
sometimes dingy streaks on the brightness of their first bridal polish, — beds were detected made shockingly awry.

In a household with two servants, one would probably do the “heavy” work, and the other would help with a number of domestic tasks requiring a truly impressive range of skills— and Harriet emphasized that the housewife must understand these things thoroughly herself in order to instruct any servants she may have. Even leaving aside for the moment any outdoor work, a servant would need an understanding of yeast in order to make bread, she would need a wide knowledge of cooking as well as preserving fruits and vegetables in season, butchering if not slaughtering animals, and helping to prepare herbal remedies. She would also need to be initiated into the secrets of household cleaning in an era before the dazzling array of cleansers we now know appeared on the scene. Cleaning was more complicated in the nineteenth century than we might suppose:

The best way to clean steel forks is to fill a small barrel with fine gravel, brick-dust, or sand mixed with a little hay or moss; make it moderately damp, press it well down, and let it always be kept damp. By running the prongs of the
steel forks a few times into this, all the stains on them will be removed. Then have a small stick, shaped like a knife, with leather round it, to polish between the prongs, having first carefully brushed off the dust from them as soon as they are taken out of the tub.
Household Cyclopedia of General Information (1881)

Louisa acc
epted a position of domestic service when she was nineteen, and the dehumanizing aspects of that experience and the inappropriate power it put into the hands male employers, made a profound impression on her. In How I Went Out to Service (1874), she emphasized that housework was physically difficult, but far worse than the labor itself was the psychological submissiveness to the male that is assumed along with it. When she could endure this oppression no longer, she heroically made a “declaration of independence” from the scrubbing mat:

At first I innocently accepted the fraternal invitations to visit the study, feeling that when my day’s work was done I earned a right to rest and read. But I soon found that this was not the idea. I was not to read; but to be read to. I was not to enjoy the
flowers, pictures, fire, and books; but to keep them in order for my lord to enjoy. I was also to be a passive bucket, into which he was to pour all manner of philosophic, metaphysical, and sentimental rubbish. I was to serve his needs, soothe his sufferings, and sympathize with all his sorrows -- be a galley slave, in fact…. So he came and read poems while I washed dishes, discussed his pet problems all meal-times, and put reproachful notes under my door, in which were comically mingled complaints of neglect and orders for dinner.

I bore it as long as I could, and then freed my mind in a declaration of independence, delivered in the kitchen, where he found me scrubbing the hearth. It was not an impressive attitude for an orator, nor was the occupation one a girl would choose when receiving calls; but I have always felt grateful for the intense discomfort of that moment, since it gave me the courage to rebel outright. Stranded on a small island of mat, in a sea of soapsuds, I brandished a scrubbing brush, as I indignantly informed him that I came to be a companion to his sister, not to him, and I should keep that post or none. This I followed up by reproaching him with the delusive reports he had given me of the place and its duties, and assuring him that I should not stay long unless matters mended….

“Do you mean to say you prefer to scrub the hearth to sitting in my charming room while I read Hegel to you?” he demanded, glaring down upon me.

“Infinitely,” I responded promptly, and emphasized my words by beginning to scrub with a zeal that made the bricks white with foam.

After this scene of foaming at the mouth as well as the floor, she is punished her for h
er rejection of her employer by having all the heavy work of the household loaded on her. It was winter at the time, and the tasks she described included splitting kindling, sifting ashes, bringing water from the wall, and digging paths through the snow. It was the job of blacking boots, though, that finally made her baulk. To black boots they had to be cleaned, first with a wooden knife to remove loose dirt, carefully, so as not to damage the leather, then dried—but not too near the fire or else the leather would crack. Then they were further cleaned with a hard brush. Blacking was put on in successive layers and buffed with a shining brush, which had to be done while the blacking was still wet—too much blacking put on at a time would prevent a good shine.

In Work: A Story of Experience (1873), Christy, another of Louisa’s heroines in domestic service, also baulked at being asked to clean the boots of the master of the house. A conversation about this with the cook, Hepsey, led to a relationship between the two.

“ It isn't the work; it 's the degradation; and I won't submit to it.” Christie looked fiercely determined; but Hepsey shook her head, saying quietly as she went on garnishing a dish:

“Dere 's more 'gradin' works dan dat, chile, and dem dat 's bin 'bliged to do um finds dis sort bery easy. You 's paid for it, honey; and if you does it willin, it won't hurt you more dan washin' de marster's dishes, or sweepin' his rooms.”

As Christie listened to Hepsey’s story of living in slavery, her attitudes began to change, including her attitudes toward her wealthy employers. Louisa expressed the idea that workers, partly due to their ability to observe, have a moral right to judge what were commonly termed their “betters.” At first Christie felt she learned things from the upper class visitors to her employers, but as her friendship with Hepsey developed, she commented about these privileged beings:

Good heavens! why don't they do or say something new and interesting, and not keep twaddling on about art, and music, and poetry, and cosmos? The papers are full of appeals for help for the poor, reforms of all sorts, and splendid work that others are doing; but these people seem to think it isn't genteel enough to be spoken of here. I suppose it as all very elegant to go on like a set of trained canaries…

Louisa’s rather radical philosophy that workers held a unique right of social judgment stood in definite contradiction with social theories that justified placing workers or slaves in a socially disempowered position based on the “natural fitness” of certain groups for servility. Similar theories were also used by those who wanted to deprive women of basic social rights. In addition to questions of legal status and suffrage, serious concerns about the burden of housework and the deficiencies and dangers of household conditions were being expressed by women on many levels in nineteenth century America. Reform movements saw women thronging to address issues from the right of married women to own property to designing more comfortable clothes for women to wear. Poets of the time took on the question of housework as well:

Bright and big was the honey-moon,
But clouded by worldly care too soon.

For housework led her its weary round

Her feet were tethered, her hands were bound…

In her husband's house she came to be
A servant in all but salary…
Season by season, year by year,
Did she follow the round of “woman's sphere,”

Nor vexed her husband’s days or nights,
By any mention of woman's rights,

Till she did at last
too sorely tried
Her life's one selfish deedshe died.
Elizabeth Akers Allen, Madge Miller (1886)

Pix from Top:
A 1906 illustration of maid & mistress of the home
Gro Svendsen
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Cover page from the Household Cyclopedia of General Information
Louisa May Alcott at 20 - the period when she was in domestic service

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Down on the Farm #3

Wednesday has rolled around again, so let’s take a trip down to the farm for some more great farm songs. Blues, political folk tunes & just good old time music. Enjoy!

  • A Lazy Farmer Boy: This tune also goes by the name “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” It’s a cautionary tale, as the farmer not only gets no crop, but he also gets no girl. Interestingly, in some versions the song ends with both the “girl next door” & the “pretty little widder” send him packing, & that’s that—this, for instance, is the version printed by Pete Seeger in his wonderful little songbook, America’s Favorite Ballads. In the Carter & Young version, the song ends with the farm boy swearing vengeance on the girl who rejected him—certainly a more ominous note, & in keeping with the overall dark vision of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Buster Carter & Preston Young: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1, Ballads (Smithsonian-Folkways)
  • Little Red Hen: Malvina Reynolds is best known for her song “Little Boxes,” but she was a prolific songwriter & she turned out a number of really great political folk songs. This is just one of them, tho it’s one of my favorites. Reynolds takes the old fable of the little red hen & transforms it into a delightful political satire about how the hen’s thriftiness & her impulse to involve the other barnyard creatures in her labor are what get her labeled as “red.” Check her out below on the old Pete Seeger show. Malvina Reynolds: Ear To The Ground (Smithsonian-Folkways)
  • Long Gone Like a Turkey thru the Corn: Lightnin’ Hopkins has long been a favorite of mine, both as a singer & as a guitarist—he was a master of the fingerstyle boogie guitar, & this is a beautiful example of his playing style. The song moves along at a rousing clip as Lightnin’ sings about being “long gone with my long pajamas on.” Wherever he’s going, he’s getting there in fine style—Lightnin’ Hopkins: Country Blues (Tradition)
  • Milk Cow Blues: Kokomo Arnold’s tune has been covered by any number of musicians, but the Bob Wills & the Teax Playboy’s 1946 version & Elvis’ take from the legendary Sun sessions are certainly among the most memorable. They’re also a study in contrasts, too, as there’s a laid-back air to the Playboy’s recording (perhaps heightened by Wills’ many vocal asides—many even by his rather chatty standards), & punctuated with one of Lester Barnard Jr’s tasty electric guitar solos. Elvis had Scotty Moore behind him, of course, & they roar thru this number: as Elvis said, “Let’s get real gone for a change.” Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: Take Me Back to Tulsa (Proper); Elvis Presley: The Sun Sessions (Rhino—this is vinyl but the Sun Sessions must be out on cd)
  • Milk Cow's Calf Blues: You can come at this song from a couple of different angles—musically, it contains the characteristic Robert Johnson turn-arounds & licks with all their electrifying verve; lyrically, it’s kinda beyond racy, & is a prime example of cows & bulls cavorting in a blues sexual fable (cf. Charlie Patton’s “Jersey Cow Blues” from last week’s Down on the Farm). Johnson remains one of the foremost blues legends, of course, so check out his singing & playing at the end of this post. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues (Columbia)
  • Mississippi Boweavil Blues: As I understand it, even the encyclopedically minded Harry Smith didn’t know that the “Masked Marvel” was actually Charlie Patton when Smith was assembling his great Anthology of American Folk Music. Apparently, “the Masked Marvel” idea came from some PR guy at Paramount Records; there was a sales campaign promising a free record to anyone who could identify the singer’s true identity. It can be difficult to understand the lyrics in Patton’s singing—Howling Wolf, who knew Patton, admitted that he couldn’t always make out the words in Patton’s singing. But “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” follows the general narrative pattern of the folk song version I wrote about in Down on the Farm #1; Smith condensed the song as follows: “Bollweavil survives physical attack after cleverly answering farmer’s questions.” Patton’s music has such drive & uncanny rhythm—check him out in the clip below. The Masked Marvel: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1, Ballads (Smithsonian-Folkways)
  • Mule Get Up in the Alley: I love jug bands—one of my musical ambitions is to find someone who can blow a jug, but I haven’t yet—I occasionally try to pique Eberle’s curiosity. This rather surreal offering by Cannon’s Jug Stompers features not only Gus Cannon’s jug blowing, but also kazoo, here played by Hosea Woods, also guitarist & vocalist. The narrative mix of the singer’s streetwalking girl, Sue, a game of gin in the parlor & a mule being urged up in the alley never coalesces into a coherent story, but it’s a lot of fun anyway—check out the clip below. Oh, & the Kweskin Jug Band’s version is also top-notch! Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (Yazoo), Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band: Jug Band Music (Vanguard)
  • Over the River to Feed My Sheep: I must say I was disappointed not to find a vidclip of this song on YouTube; it’s a long-time favorite of mine, & perhaps my favorite among Jean Ritchie’s entire excellent repertoire. It was one of the first songs I could play on the guitar, & Eberle would accompany me on the dulcimer. For those of you who don’t know, Ms Ritchie is an extremely accomplished musician—she’s among the best Appalachian dulcimer players, & also a good guitarist; & she’s a fantastic singer. This is a lovely courting song—do check it out. Jean Ritchie: The Most Dulcimer (Greenhays); also (as “Over the River Charlie”) on Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson: At Folk City (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Pastures of Plenty: Woody Guthrie adapted his moving words about migrant workers to the very scary old folk ballad “Pretty Polly,” tho where the earlier song pretty much stays in a minor mode the whole time, “Pastures of Plenty” rocks bath & forth between the relative major & minor. I think the lyrics of this song are some of Guthrie’s finest poetry: “On the edge of your city you’ve seen us & then we come with the dust & we go with the wind,” or “It’s always we ramble, that river & I, all along your green valley I’ll work till I die.” An essential song from so many points of view, & both Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Woody’s sidekick at one point) & Woody himself have recorded great versions. Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land, The Asch Recordings, vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways); Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: South Coast (Red House)

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

“Avalon Blues”

Hey, let’s take a trip to Avalon, MS today—home of the great Mississippi John Hurt, & the town he was writing about in his song “Avalon Blues.” It’s my weekly shot on Citizen K’s Just a Song, a great blog with lots of fine contributors & lots of musical material for you music loving types. Please check out Just a Song. My “Avalon Blues” post is here.

More music on Robert Frost’s Banjo tomorrow as we go Down on the Farm once again for everything from a communist hen to a mule in an alley!


It’s Tuesday again, which means it’s translation day. This week’s selection is a poem by Philippe Soupault—the title poem from his 1926 collection, Georgia. Soupault was at the time a central figure in the Surrealist movement: he was a co-founder of the jornal Littérature, along with André Breton & Louis Aragon, & he co-authored Les champs magnétiques with Breton. Soupault later drifted away from the Surrealist movement, & devoted more time to journalism & novel writing. He was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. After the war, Soupault emigrated to the United States, but he later returned to France, where he was awarded Le Grand Prix for literature in 1972.

Hope you enjoy this.


I don't sleep Georgia
I throw spears through the night Georgia
I'm waiting Georgia
I'm thinking Georgia
Fire is like snow Georgia
Night is the girl-next-door Georgia
I hear all noises no exceptions Georgia
I see the smoke rising and scattering Georgia
I prowl like a wolf through the shadows Georgia
I'm running here's a suburban street Georgia
Here's a town that's the same
and that's strange to me Georgia
I'm hurrying here's the wind Georgia
and the cold the silence and fear Georgia
I'm scattering Georgia
I'm running Georgia
the clouds are low they're going to fall Georgia
I open my arms Georgia
I don't close my eyes Georgia
I'm calling Georgia
I'm crying Georgia
I'm calling Georgia
I'm calling you Georgia
Won't you come Georgia
don't be long Georgia
Georgia Georgia Georgia
I'm not sleeping Georgia
I'm waiting

Philippe Soupault
translation © John Hayes 1990-2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Country Living #7, or Eat a Peach?

As regular readers know, Eberle & I spent several years together in a rather ramshackle farmhouse that still stands just a stone’s throw from our new house. We had lots of adventures in that old house—some of them kind of unsettling at the time, but now recalled more fondly than not.

One thing: it could never be said that we didn’t share our space in that house with others of God’s creatures. Mice (everywhere), frogs (a “fixture” around the old bathtub), the occasional starling that would mistakenly fly down
the chimney (always, in May, during nest building season I suppose), even a “pet” black widow spider that lived in the bathroom (out of reach) the better part of one autumn—as far as insect life goes, wasps were also frequent visitors. Skunks, raccoons & feral cats lived under the house, but to the best of my knowledge none of these found a point of ingress.

Despite this fact, there is no question but that the house was quite permeable; both Eberle & I have described it as living in a large wooden tent. In retrospect, I realize just how devoted our city friends were to come & stay with us there, given the veritable wild kingdom that existed inside those walls.

There’s one story in particular I have in mind, & it also took place in the summer, too—but a much hotter summer than this one has been, & made hotter by the fact that our only source of cooling in the old house was a rather dilapidated old swamp cooler. In fact, the swamp cooler figures in this story not simply because it wasn’t working well enough at the time to dispel the heat…. but more on that.

At the time our story opens I had a telecommuting job for a “major US consumer good manufacturer” that involved starting to work at the rather early (or late) hour of 3:30 a.m.—long story as to why; & I still work for them, but thankfully not on a schedule like that! Our old house is a bit less than 1,000 square feet, so thankfully I did not have far to go from the bedroom to the front room where my computer was located.

There I sat, in the computer light; I remember the stifling heat. & not long after I got up, I heard footfalls in the living room. Wow, I thought, Eberle sure is up early—maybe she can’t sleep for this heat….

However, despite the sound of footfalls coming intermittently for the next couple of minutes, Eberle neither called out Good morning, nor came into the front room to see me. I thought this was odd, so I decided to go meet here & headed off thru the galley kitchen….

at which point, a rather large b
ushy tailed rodent launched itself off the counter that separated the living room & kitchen, & where (not coincidentally) Eberle had placed a large bowl of ripe peaches just the day before.

As you folks who are familiar with the U.S. West may have guessed, our visitor was a pack rat—Neotoma lepida, I suspect, tho there are a number of sub-species—& he’d been rolling said peaches off the counter the better to stash them in his various caches—it was the falling peaches that had sounded like footfalls.

An investigation in the daylight confirmed that the pack rat may have entered thru a new hole in the wall near the swamp cooler—a hole of ample dimensions for Mr Pack Rat, which I stopped up with plywood. Guessing that the pack rat had fled the premises when I accosted him, I hoped this was the end of the story.

Of course, the pack rat was back the next night, re-arranging his far-flung peaches & whatever else caught his eye. The next day I scrounged thru the loft in our shop building, amongst the various kick-knacks & sundries & pulled out the rat size live trap (the raccoon-sized one being way too big for our purposes. But that night Mr Pack Rat again had the run of the house as Eberle & I lay in bed, kept awake by the stifling heat & the various nocturnal bumps & rustlings.

It was just about 2:00 a.m. on the next night when a loud rattling told us that our guest had made his way into the trap—it was baited with peach of course. For a few minutes we both lay in bed—I remember it was a weekend, so it wasn’t as if I had to be up soon to work. Realizing that we weren’t going to get any sleep under the circumstances. we decided to repatriate our bushy-tailed friend.

It has been our experience that if you want to ensure that an unwanted wild critter not turn around & follow you straight back to your home, you’d best take it a ways away. So we headed for Fruitvale, a sparsely settled area north of Council—& a good 30-minute drive in the middle of the night. There, on a dirt road (& far from any houses), we let the Pack Rat strike out on his own, peachless but otherwise unscathed. & we were able to get to sleep when we got back home.

The rest of the story? I won’t say how long we continued to find the stashed peaches!

More joys of country living.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

“Little Red Rooster”

Hi again, folks—I’m back. By the way—off topic, but has anyone else noticed that Google Reader is taking forever to pick up post feeds lately? However that may be, here’s a bit more “anniversary” banjo—you can actually see yours truly singing & playing this morning via the magic of webcam & YouTube. I’m having a little problem with the mic in the Logitech webcam “clipping” (just another word for distorting, in essence), but decided to post this anyway. I’ll keep fooling around with the mic settings & see if I can get some better audio.

When I hear myself sing, I’m often reminded of Jonathon Richman’s immortal words: “They’d rather watch TV than hear a real person sing”—not so much the TV part, but the “real person sing.” In fact, you may indeed be tempted to watch TV—as a vocalist, I think I’m a pretty fair guitar player (or banjoist); some folks like the way I sing, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

The song “Little Red Rooster” was written by Willie Dixon, & first recorded by Howling Wolf; as such it comes from the electric tradition of Chicago blues, so my 5-string banjo version is probably a bit odd. I first learned “Little Red Rooster” on the guitar, but as I thought about playing “blues banjo,” it was one of the first songs I adapted—I knew it very well, & I play it in G (the banjoist peoples’ key)!

What you see (& hear) is what you get. Hope you enjoy it!

“The Red Piano Stomp”

One year ago today I posted two stories on Robert Frost’s Banjo, & that was the blog’s start. It’s been an enjoyable & eventful year, taken all in all—I was in rather a lot of emotional turmoil a year ago, as was certainly reflected in blog posts during those first few months especially. These days, that turmoil has quieted a good deal.

As befits the occasion, I’m posting a very upbeat & fun piece of music—one of Eberle’s compositions from our score for Nell Shipman’s 1923 film, The Grub Stake. Eberle’s playing a toy piano on this one—a little red Schoenhut piano that some kind soul literally left on our doorstep one winter morning several years ago. Eberle used the toy piano in both our Shipman scores. On this song, I’m playing the plectrum banjo—had to get some banjo in there on the blog anniversary!

In case anyone’s curious, you can read those first two posts from last August here & here.

& thanks everyone for all your support—without doubt, the communication that builds up around a blog is its most satisfying aspect, & I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you folks!


Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Tree At My Window"

It was a year ago this weekend that Robert Frost’s Banjo began—tomorrow is the “official” anniversary. That being the case, the Weekly Poem pretty much had to be by Robert Frost, right?

“Tree At My Window” comes from Frost’s 1928 West-Running Brook, & as I understand it was inspired by a tree on his New Hampshire farm. I’m always fascinated by poetry in which the poet finds his/her internal self echoing in the landscape (& vice-versa), & this poem is a good example of that repetition of internal & external landscapes. Of course, as is typical of Frost, the poem is a very good example of understatement, & also is informed by a wry, if somewhat dark, humor.

Hope you enjoy this—tomorrow, some original music for the actual anniversary; you can pretty much bet the banjo will be involved!

Tree At My Window

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Robert Frost

Friday, August 14, 2009

Council Mountain Music Festival

About 12 miles down the road from Indian Valley you come to the “big town” of Council—the Adams County seat & home to almost 900 residents. Most of the time, Council is a pretty quiet village, as you’d expect, but there are occasional exceptions to this—the 4th of July, for certain, the Christmas parade in early December, & also the third weekend in August—the date of our annual music festival.

The Council Music Festival began in 2002 & has bee
n held each August since. A number of local volunteers have done lots of work over the years to make this happen, but no one has done more than Dale Fisk, who long-time Robert Frost’s Banjo readers will remember from the Musical Questions series (check out his interview here). Dale has been the organizer, the booker, the stage-builder, the publicist—you name it, he’s done it. Of course, I’m happy to say that Dale also is a musician at the festival, so we get to hear him play, too! Speaking of stage building—Dale & others constructed the stage from a 1950s ear trailer home—check out the before & after pix!

stage as trailer home

trailer home as stage

Eberle & my involvment has actually been a bit hit or miss. The Alice in Wonder Band performed in 2003, & our friends in the Bay Area’s Lipsey Mountain Spring Band came for a few years running. Last year, Eberle & I played with our Bay Area friends Chris & Dani Leone, & our McCall friend Lois Fry as The Spurs of the Moment at the festival (see pic up top), & we also performed a fund-raiser for the festival a few years back with our now defunct band The Blue Notes. It just seems there’s always been something that interfered—a couple of years it was the film soundtracks we were working on; one year we were booked to play a wedding in Portland that weekend. This year, Eberle will be on her way to Canada to visit her friend Margot. However, I’ll be playing on Saturday afternoon at 3:45, injecting a bit of old acoustic blues into the proceedings. For the curious, my set list is looking like:

Mean Old Bedbug Blues (Bessie Smith, et al. including Rambling Jack Elliott)
Joliet Bound (Memphis Minnie & others—Rory Block does a fantastic version)
St. James Infirmary (everyone knows this one)
Candy Man (the Reverend Gary Davis version—the Mississippi John Hurt version might be a bit too racy!)
Peavine Blues (Charley Patton—incredible song)
Green Green Rocky Road (I know it from Dave Van Ronk’s version)

The Council Mountain Music Festival leans heavily in the direction of bluegrass music, which is appropriate given that country & bluegrass are the most popular forms of music locally—I remember being asked before an Alice in Wonder Band gig at a local private party what type of music we played; after trying to explain the Wonder Band’s music (not an easy thing), the man who’d asked pointed out that he liked “both kinds of music: country & western.”

The festival will run from Friday at 5:00 p.m. (with Dale’s band Highway 95 kicking off the show) to midday Sunday, with a picnic dinner following a musical worship service. All you local folks: plan to be there for some good music & good times. You can check out the band line-ups at the festival page here. Admission is free!