Friday, September 30, 2011

“Bye Bye Blues”

A happy Banjo Friday, friends!  We have a special post today that features not one, but two—count ‘em, two!—superb banjo players!  Today’s post also addresses the fact that not all banjos come equipped with five strings.

Yes, it’s true—while what most people picture in their minds when they hear the word “banjo” is a 5-string instrument—& the sound of the 5-string, especially playing bluegrass, is probably what the majority of people hear as the prototype banjo sound—there are two other popular forms of the banjo that only have four strings & are played very differently from their 5-string cousin.  These are the tenor banjo & the somewhat less well-known plectrum banjo.

I spent several years playing the plectrum banjo, & I still have one (see pic!), tho it hasn’t made the trip to Oregon yet.  I’ve also dabbled on the tenor banjo, but sold mine along with several other instruments before I moved—mild regret on that score, but I didn’t feel as much affinity with that instrument as with others. 

Both the plectrum banjo & the tenor banjo were developed around the turn of the 20th century as part of the banjo orchestra phenomenon (yes, whole orchestras composed of banjos of various shapes & sizes!) & also as part of the burgeoning hot jazz scene.  The 5-string banjo is not especially suited to playing the more complex chord progressions of jazz tunes because the 5th string is a drone & would be a discord in songs with more complex harmonic changes.  The plectrum banjo is essentially a 5-string banjo without the drone string.  The standard tuning of a plectrum banjo is CGBD, which used to be standard for a 5-string too, with the addition of the high G as the drone string.  Plectrum banjos also are sometimes tuned to DGBE, like the four highest-pitched strings of a guitar—this is called “Chicago tuning” or “guitar tuning,” & was developed to allow guitar players to more easily double on the instrument.  In fact, that’s the way I always tuned mine.  As the name suggests, the instrument is typically played with a plectrum or pick, not with the fingers or fingernails as is the case with the 5-string banjo.

The tenor banjo most likely developed when the mandolin orchestra phenomenon morphed into the banjo orchestra phenomenon, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century.  One of the members of the mandolin family is called the mandola, & the standard tuning of a mandola is the same as the viola—CGDA.  From what I’ve read, the tenor banjo was developed to allow mandola players to switch easily to a banjo sound, since the standard tuning of the tenor is also CGDA (tho the tenor has been adopted into Celtic music, & in that context its often tuned GDAE like an octave mandolin.)  As you can see in the video, the scale length of the tenor banjo is also considerably shorter than that of a plectrum or 5-string banjo.  Again, the tenor banjo is typically played with a pick.

The two players in the video are top-notch performers on their instruments,  Cynthia Sayer  is one of the best plectrum banjo players going.  She is a member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, & has both consulted & provided music for some of his films.  Her most recent album, Attractions (Plunk Records) featured her duets with jazz guitar giant Bucky Pizzarelli.  I recommend it!

Steve Caddick, meanwhile, is also a top-notch performer on tenor banjo.  He’s recorded seven albums between 1987 & 2007, & he performs with both The Red Suspenders & Avalon.  Going back to my earlier point about the tenor banjo & the mandola, Mr Caddick also played mandola for a couple of years with the Providence Mandolin Orchestra.

“Bye Bye Blues” is a great old standard, & Sayer & Caddick take the tune on a delightful romp (admittedly, the spoken intro may go on a bit longer than is ideal, but hang in there.)  Enjoy!

Pic at top of the post shows my 1930s Stromberg-Voisinet plectrum banjo!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"This Poem"

[Today is a great day for the blog, because we're welcoming back our "Mystery Poet in Residence, B.N.—but now appearing under her current nom de plume, Brittany Newmark.  This is a powerful & moving poem, & I feel honored to post it on Robert Frost's Banjo.]

This Poem

This poem will not survive
Even the brittle page it is written on
Or the cool night that shapes the
Bare tree branches and ices slick asphalt

The page that opens onto the sheave of other similar silent pages
each accumulating the greasy ash smudge of deeper
                                                                secrets, resentments and loss
                                                                that collect in the dark.

Better to imagine the yellow and green plastic of ride along toys,
a blue wooden boat that transported the
children across the great lake to stand tiny on a distant shore. 

Come home, come home,
We are waiting
             for you

 And have warmed your place next to us,
Whatever it was
                                  (that came between us)


This poem will not be read in the dim halo
of a sodium street light and will never document the things kept hidden in our pockets, 

never recommend me for anything more that what I have here in my hand.  Empty the 
coins that haven’t been, the bent keys
The light returns like an echo. 
But there are still pages holding out for meaning
Here is the part in the book I told you about
The scene when we walk

And when I turn
The path back is strewn with abandoned objects

Brittany Newmark
© 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

“Wanting Nothing”

[I have to say it: this is one of my favorite Barbie Angell poems!  She had me at “unobtanium.”  & then there's another of  Barbie's cool drawings, which she tells me is titled "Paradox." I know you'll enjoy this too!]

Wanting Nothing

I’m getting used to wanting nothing
And it’s harder than I thought.
It’s made from unobtanium
And nothing can’t be bought.

I have nothing when I wake up.
I have nothing when I sleep.
So I figured that I’d give up
On the somethings I don’t need.

And nothing can be small.
It won’t take up any space.
And if I ever lose it,
It’s quite easy to replace.

I have some nothing no one gave me,
And I keep it in my mind.
There’s lots of extra room there,
So it’s easier to find.

And I’d like to give you something,
But I like you more than that.
‘Cause everyone gives something
when they don’t know where nothing’s at.

So here’s a piece of nothing,
Please keep it close to you.
If you find you’re out of something,
It’s nothing you can use.

Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

Monday, September 26, 2011

Any Womans Blues #14 – Deborah Coleman

Good morning—er, well it’s till morning out here on the U.S. Left Coast, at least for a little while (assuming you read this within minutes of when it posts.)  The Monday Morning Blues train has arrived, & better late than never as we always say!

Today’s feature is this month’s installment in the Any Woman’s Blues series, & wow, what an exciting artist we have for your listening pleasure today!  Deborah Coleman is a virtuosic guitarist, as well as a fanastic singer, & she infuses her contemporary blues with a healthy dose of soul.  After all, the term R&B did originally mean “rhythm & blues,” & included musicians like John Lee Hooker & Muddy Waters.  As you can hear from her guitar playing, especially on her live version of “The Dream” in the first video below, there’s also plenty of rock & roll bite—in all the best senses—in her playing as well.

Interestingly, Deborah Coleman dates her interest in blues to a show she saw at age 21 which featured Waters, Hooker & the great Howlin’ Wolf, tho she also lists a number of other influences—from Jimi Hendrix & Memphis Minnie, & from Patti Smith to Bessie Smith.  Ms Coleman grew up in a musical family, & began learning guitar at age 8; she also began her professional music career as a bassist at age 15.  However, she married in her mid twenties & spent the next several years working as an electrician & a nurse, while keeping music as a sideline.  Then she entered the National Blues Talent Search of South Carolina's Charleston Blues Festival in 1993 & won first prize, which then propelled her into a full-time touring & recording career.

Deborah Coleman has released eight solo albums, starting with the 1995 New Moon Records release Takin’ a Stand.  Following this, she released five albums on the great blues label, Blind Pig Records, followed by releases on Telarc & JSP.  The latter is her most recent, the 2007 release Stop the Game.  In addition, she recorded Time Bomb with guitarists Sue Foley (who was our very first featured artist in the Any Woman’s Blues series) & Roxanne Potvin.

Deborah Coleman performs using both a Gibson Les Paul (again, check out “The Dream” video) & a Fender Telecaster (see pic leading off post.)  In addition to her great guitar playing & singing, she’s also a composer—in fact, both “The Dream” & “My Love Belongs to You” are originals. 

Deborah Coleman won an Orville Gibson Award for Best Blues Guitarist in 2001, & has placed two albums on Billboard’s top 20 chart—these were the Blind Pig releases Livin’ On Love (2001) & Soul Be It (2002).  In addition, she has been nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Music Award nine times!

What an exciting performer!  I know you’re going to love her music.

Pic of Deborah Coleman links back to source.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Photo of the Week 9/25/11

N. Lombard Street, St Johns neighborhood
Portland, Oregon 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Illustrations of Reality

Today we go back at last to Pirate Goat’s Log of Summer Island. Goat’s Log is a record of Pirate Goat adventures on the Island in the St. Lawrence River and is one of many layers of reality that intermingle quite happily on that enchanted isle.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to dwell on those multiple realities for a moment. I have heard Monsters express confusion and some discomfort about those who treat Animals “as if they were real.” This perplexes many dwellers of Big Bed Land, who find it quite odd that Monsters treat money as if it were real. When money is just bits of paper and plastic! Furthermore, Monsters have invented a kind of Time that is also a Monster, and seems to control them. Bink, while hesitating to criticize the “Time is Money” reality of Monsters when they have clearly worked so very hard on it for centuries now, would just like to point out that sometimes less is more. Less work, more play, Bink ventures to suggest.

Here are several viewpoints of Summer Island. Mouse Fairy Goldenrod joined Goat in many of Goat's adventures and even won from Goat the rare honor of a written description of her beauty! (You will read this later.) Adele, the Monster self of Mouse Fairy Goldenrod, drew this map to the Island- called Hickory Island by Monsters- and she clearly stated that the map was how she saw Goat seeing the Island. (It's actually all quite simple if you don't think about it too hard.)

She noticed that Willabear, the only BBL Animal at the Island who did not eventually go on any of the river-swimming expeditions, had a very different point of view of the Island - mostly from the vantage point of the porch where he often sat, visiting with the Animals as they took sunbaths after swimming, and dreaming of his fair Glamora. How handsome love has made him! M. Adele drew both maps into Goat's Log, and we thank her for her generosity. Mouse Fairies are notoriously generous except on the occasions when they are not.

Here is another view of the Island from the hands of the remarkably talented Monster Margot. She herself dwells in the multi-faceted realities of being Mouse Fairy Tulip, our Beloved Queen, as well as Pioneer Woman, mother, artist, and now community social activist for the arts!

Friday, September 23, 2011

“Greasy Coat”

A happy Banjo Friday, friends!  We’ve got another wonderful old-time tune for your listening pleasure today, so be prepared for some musical fun!

We’re back with another cello banjo take today—it really is an intirguing instrument, especially in the hands of someone as skilled as Cathy Moore (last week’s post) or Mary Z Cox, who’s the performer in today’s video clip.  

I’ve been a fan of Mary Z Cox for some time; she’s a talented clawhammer-style banjoist & also an excellent mountain dulcimer player.  Ms Cox has issued seven cds, six of which feature her as a solo banjo player (tho she also multi-tracks some duets with herself), while the other, Drumming On the Edge Of Banjo, also features her playing dulcimer & guitar in addition to banjo & places her in a group setting with drummer Yazid, guitarist Bob Cox & bassist Jim Crozier.  This album has been featured on NPR’s Thistle & Shamrock show.

Now don’t let the fact that Ms Cox’s cds are self-produced fool you—the production quality is high, & her playing is absolutely top-notch.  Mary Z Cox combines a wonderful & inventive melodic sense with the great rhythmic drive always associated with the best clawhammer playing.  After all, in the old days clawhammer playing was first & foremost used as a style for accompanying dances, so it has to have a strong pulse & rhythm.  Mary Z Cox will most certainly get you tapping your feet—at least!

I should mention that Mary Z Cox has a new cd entitled The Girl With the Banjo Tattoo; this is available directly from her website (see link above) or also at CDBaby, where you can get an mp3 download version.  I highly recommend her music.  The Girl With the Banjo Tattoo has an interesting playlist that includes both old-time fiddle tunes & traditional folk tunes, & Mary Z Cox plays a number of banjos—she says the album features “Cello banjo, cigarbox banjo, banjolin, John Bowlin 1865 fretless, Deering Gabriella  and more fun banjos on solos and duets.”

The song “Greasy Coat” is a standard in the old-time fiddle repertoire, & there seems to be an interesting story behind it.  Here’s what Andrew Kuntz has to say about the tune in his excellent Fiddler’s Companion.

There are several meanings for the term ‘greasy coat.’ It is an old-time euphemism for a condom, but it has also been suggested the term refers to an unwashed fleece (i.e. still retaining the lanolin), and a Confederate soldiers coat, worn, greasy and dirty from overuse.

Hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I’m Hip?

The Avalon Theater
Back when I was emailing friends to let them know about my move to Portland, I got this response back from a good San Francisco buddy named Pete (whose band the Enablers you can check out here); Pete said (in part): “Lovely city. Don't drown in the hipster quotient, though, all right?”  My response was “Heck, I'll be eligible for the senior discount in just over a month—not too worried about the hipster quotient!”

Of course, that month has come & gone, & I’ve now been in Portland for just over 6 weeks.  Yesterday I went out for a tour of the Belmont neighborhood, also in Portland’s southeast quadrant.  I have applications in on the waiting lists for a couple of subsidized housing places in that general neck of the woods, & I’ll also be giving my first Portland performance there on Friday, October 7th at the Bare Bones Café

If you're in the neighborhood, stop by on 10/7/11!
The thing that struck me—that also struck me a couple of weeks ago when I went out to explore Alberta Street & other parts of northeast & north Portland—I really am drawn to the “hip/funky” neighborhoods.  What can I say?  & at my age too! 

Now I should be clear: I really am not looking to become a hipster!  No piercings, no skinny black jeans, dyed hair, & no tattoos—never did get one, tho I considered it at various times.  At this point, I can’t think of any statement or image I really want indelibly inked on my person, & I also realize that—given age & the inevitable state of disrepair that comes with that, I can’t say my person as it is now configured is really a suitable canvas for body art.   As far as the rest goes
—hey, I've dressed/presented myself to the world in a similar way for years, & I'm not about to change now!  There is nothing quite so ridiculous as a middle-aged (or older) man who tries to disguise himself with the outward appurtenances of youth.

Just your usual neighborhood record shop/cocktail lounge
But that doesn't mean that I don't have a young feeling at least in a part of my heart—soul—being—whatever you want to call it.  & there’s something vibrant to me about these areas—the shops, the cafés, folks out on the streets.  I’ve always felt like, if I’m going to live in a city, I want a city experience—I want things a little bit gritty & funky, because it does something for my soul.  Who knows?  I might even start writing poems again or something!

The thing is tho: at my age, what does it mean that I would want this?  Shouldn’t I be looking for a suburban home to suit my late middle age?  Fact is: that’s just not in the cards, if for no other reason than because of financial realities.  I accept that.  From here on out, life is going to be a case of making do.  It will involve living in subsidized housing—which is often (but not always) in so-called “transitional neighborhoods,” or it may include living in shared space
—something I certainly associate with a younger time of life.  I really feel ok with this.  In fact, it’s an exciting prospect! Because the other thing is this: my life has probably come to this pass because of the way I've lived it—the decisions I've made, the way I've interacted with the world, the mistakes I've made & maybe even some of the things I did wisely.

Always a welcome sign: no lack of java on this street!

Anyway, not sure if these thoughts are coherent or interesting to anyone but me, but at least there’s a great song for your enjoyment.  Speaking of hip: no one could possibly be much more truly hip than the late, great Blossom Dearie, who tells us all about it in this great song.  As you may know, the song was written by Dave Frishberg, for my money about the best songwriter going, as well as a talented jazz pianist, & no slouch as a vocalist either, especially on his own songs.  & he’s a fellow Portlander!


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Adams County Makes the News - Adams County Leader #40

The Adams County Leader        Published Weekly On Friday
Wm. Lemon Editor and Manager
Member State Editorial Association 
Member National Editorial Association
Official Paper of Adams County Price $2.00 Strictly in Advance


294th Company CCC
Office of the Company Commander Camp S-221
Tamarack, Idaho

The Editor, Adams County “Leader”
Dear Sir:

Permit me to express to the people of Council through the medium of your paper, the sincere appreciation of the men and officers of this company for the royal hospitality extended to them on the Fourth of July.  Nearly three-quarters of the company were present in your city that day and for every one of them the celebration staged in Council made an impression that will never be forgotten,

Joseph C. Haw
Major, U.S. Army

September 22, 1933

Ben “Bernie” Bleckner singing—I Like Mountain Music
Freddy Anderson, Roy Baker, and Aaron Resenkranz—comedy, acrobatic act.
Tony Mancini, Bill Linsky, and John Wachine, trio—Moonlight Bay, Coney Island
Baby, Mademoiselle, Sweet Adeline.
Joe Brunetti singing—Black Eyed Susan Brown, Sunday Down in Caroline.
Izzy Goldberg—Rhumba dance.
Frank J. Walsh singing—Pink Elephants, Mississippi Mud.
Selections by the Council Wood Ticks.
Pete Sosnowski singing—Lazybones, and Let’s Call It A Day.
FINALE—Hills of Idaho.
SPEAKERS—Reverend Horton, Major J. J. O’Hare.

July 21, 1933

According to L. L. Burtenshaw, chairman of the Council school board, at the recent meeting of the school board it was agreed that Council high school league football and basketball athletics are obsolete, unimportant, non-essential, disorganizing to school work, and therefore “out of the picture” in the forthcoming school year.  The board is upheld in its position on this item by Carl Shaw, newly elected member of the high school faculty, succeeding Philip Manning, former coach.  The policy of the new superintendent on this subject has not been ascertained by this writer.  The school board, however, will encourage home athletics which will include all the students, giving each one an opportunity to benefit by such activities—all contests to be on week ends, separate and apart from school hours.

This policy of the school board no doubt will arouse wide and diverse argument.  Many will oppose the policy, but the Leader suggests and predicts that a very large majority of parents and patrons will agree with the board action.  One of the main reasons for opposing the league activities is the breaking into regular schoolwork and its disrupting influence.  Another is the necessity of student exposure on frigid nights when both girls and boys, regardless of health results, go on long journeys to play exhaustively and expose themselves detrimentally.  Any physical benefit derived by the athletic nature of the game is far outweighed by the exposures.  In fact, there are, on the contrary, decidedly dangerous results.

Some will argue that boys will not be interested in high school under such a regime.  In answer to that, it can be said that if athletics is the only motive drawing the boys to high school, it is an insufficient motive, and therefore those who refuse to go because there are no league athletics had quite as well remain out and turn their attention to a livelihood at once.

September 22, 1933

Since it has been feasible to dispense with football in the Council High School this year, tumbling has been substituted in the athletic program.  It is hoped that this activity will prove successful, and be a genuine benefit to the boys.  Since the aim of this activity is purely self-development, this sport should be a practical success.  Football has often been criticized on the ground that it gives little benefit to the smaller and weaker boys.  This is because football carries the greatest athletic spirit of any game, and the aim of the coach is victory rather than the self-development of athletics.  This cannot be said of tumbling, as it depends upon the individual, and everyone can acquire a certain amount of success.  All boys are urged to attend these classes, for here lies a real opportunity for boys who are unable to make athletic teams.  With strict supervision this is not a dangerous sport, for only simpler stunts will be taught, with probably some pyramid building after the boys have learned the preliminary work.

compiled by Eberle Umbach

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“The Sun is Always Shining”

[I love how Nancy Krygowski’s poem about mortality & redemption & childhood sunburn spins off a poem by Frank O’Hara—itself a spin-off from a poem by Mayakovsky—& becames something rich, strange & wonderful in itself—enjoy!]
The Sun is Always Shining

The sun is always shining, saying just try to be unhappy
like how it once talked to Frank O’Hara on Fire Island, who also wrote about the sun
but he wrote about everything, and I like writing
about death

so I’m trying to be weepy, somber, even petulant would do
but the sun, stupid ass sun, keeps shining  and I’m happy, so happy
 I force myself to remember how once I got
sunburned, second-degree sunburn—I was 13, at the beach with family—
how could they have not told me I needed sunscreen?

I try to get angry at my parents, or sad—they’re both dead now—
but  the sun, damn sun, reminds me how I peeled twice
and as my skin came off in big blank pages
I thought of the awful names kids called me—Pollock and fat ass—and wished
those days would go away

so I rolled up the names into little skin balls,  flicked them into room corners
out car windows, between my mean brother’s sheets
and guess what? 

the sun, that great forgiver, giant prayer, made me pure again

Nancy Krygowski
© 2011

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Big Sound of the Stella 12-String

Hey, it’s Monday again—must be the time for the Monday Morning Blues!

We’re back today with our ongoing feature about famous blues guitars, & today’s instrument is really iconic.  If you’ve ever studied blues history at all, you know that the Stella brand of guitars was one of the most popular among pre-war blues guitarists.  The list of players who used some form of Stella is formidable, & includes such names as Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Willie Brown, Sleepy John Estes, Buddy Boy Hawkins, “Bo Weavil” Jackson, & Blind Lemon Jefferson, just to name some well-known musicians for whom a Stella guitar was a main instrument. 

But if you’re looking at blues musicians who played 12-string, even a higher percentage favored Stellas!  Such noteworthy players as Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, Charley Lincoln (AKA “Laughing Charlie”), Charlie “Dad” Nelson, Jim Jackson (composer of “Kansas City Blues") & of course, Leadbelly all used Stella 12-strings of various shapes & sizes as their regular ax for much of their careers.

Perhaps the most unusual example of a Stella 12-string in the hands of a well-known blues musician involves Skip James.  As I understand (from info on the Early Blues site), James used a Stella 12-string re-strung as a 6-string on his 1931 recordings of such masterpieces as “Devil Got My Woman,” “Hard Times Killing Floor” & “Special Rider Blues.”  This seems a rather mind-boggling fact.

However, usually when a musician has a 12-string he wants it for all the jangling resonance, as well as the added natural amplification, which in fact make it a great instrument for an street performer or for someone playing without amplification in a noisy “jook joint.”  In addition, some of the bigger Stella models allowed for a lower tuning than standard—Leadbelly’s Stella was, I believe, pitched either a third or a fourth lower than a standard guitar.  Also, while a 12-string may not be the first instrument you think of when you think about slide guitar, no less of a slide master than Blind Willie McTell played one, & Barbecue Bob also played some slide on his Stella 12-string.

Now there’s a lot of talk about the relative costs of guitars played by the pre-war country bluesmen.  One school of thought stresses that they could get a great sound out of relatively cheap instruments, while others conversely stress the higher quality of these older guitars.  It’s true that the Stellas most people see nowadays are Stellas built by the Harmony Company after they bought out the brand in 1939—& in fact, most of what you see are Harmony Stellas from the 1950s & 1960s.  & it’s fairly certain that the Stellas of the 1920s & 1930s were substantially different from the later Harmony models.

I decided to do a bit of dime store research & found that a Stella Jumbo 12-string retailed for $28 in 1925.  Using an online conversion utility, I found that this would convert to $345.24 in current dollars.  In other words, the price of a decent student model guitar—something that can sound pretty good, but is very far from a professional model.  As a point of comparison, I looked up the prices of some Gibson guitars from the same period & found that  a Gibson L1 retailed for $50 in 1926, & that this would convert to $610.40 in 2011 currency.  Now you’re getting into an intermediate price.  Meanwhile, a 1928 Gibson Nick Lucas retailed for $125, & this would be the equivalent of $1,576.04 in current dollars—in other words, getting into the realm of professional prices, but really on the low end of that range.

My conclusion: you got a lot more guitar bang for your buck in the 1920s!  Anyway, hope you enjoy these two great songs played on Stella 12-strings by Leadbelly & Blind Willie McTell!

Image leading off post shows a 1930 Stella 12-string.  Image links to its source.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Photo of the Week 9/18/11

Above SW Gibbs Street, Portland, Oregon
Friday 9/16/11

I take this tram every week for a medical appointment at Oregon Health & Sciences University.  A fun ride & a great view!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I Am Here

The spot on a transit map, for instance, waiting for the next bus: “You are here.”  Well, yes.  This is where I am—a new place, a new life.  Sometimes I walk the Portland streets & everything seems alien.  What am I doing here?  But here is where I am.

The news from here?  Had a wonderful time last weekend in Centralia, Washington with my good friend & ex-churchmouse bandmate Wendy who whisked me away up there for an old-time music jam.  Old-time playing is not my forte, but I had a great time, & no one threw me into the river for using fingerpicks on a guitar (as opposed to flatpick, which is typical of old-time guitar back-up playing), fingerpicking the banjo (as opposed to clawhammer) or even for playing my resonator tenor uke!  & I got to meet some cool folks, including some fellow Portlanders.  So the upshot is I may be playing more old-time music in the near future.  A good thing.

& speaking of playing music, it looks like I’ve landed my first Portland gig.  I was approached last night about providing music at one of the venues for “First Friday” next month; “First Friday” is a monthly event in downtown Portland that opens a number of venues up to art shows.  More details to follow!  I am excited & am currently working on set lists.  I think I may try to work up the Paris, Texas theme song as an instrumental (I also do "Spanish Flang Dang" as an instrumental.)  You can hear Ry Cooder’s great original version below.  Of course, my version won’t include the background synthesizer!  (& apologies to folks who already saw/heard this on my Facebook post.)  There was a time in the mid to late 80s when I was just obsessed with that film.  Not happy times, but they are in the past now.  Maybe more on that some other time.

On the housing front: I spent some quality time with Portland Craigslist the past few days.  So far, my main focus has been on subsidized housing, but I’ve also looked into several other options, none of which has panned out yet.  I’m very comfortable where I’m living, but as I’ve said before, I do feel the pull toward having a place of my own.  Fact is, tho, with a fixed income (& any income from guitar lessons is hypothetical at this point as I’m not set up to give them where I’m now living), my options are either subsidized housing or a room in a house—I simply couldn’t afford a stand-alone apartment at Portland market prices, even a studio.  Sometimes I wonder if I was foolhardy to move to a place where that’s a reality, but this does overall feel like the right place to be.

& where I am.  Happy Saturday, everybody, & thanks for all the friendship & support!

Pic shows a view of Portland taken from the tram that goes from the waterfront to Oregon Health & Sciences University, where I have a weekly appointment.  Downtown is to the left, with a few of Portland’s many bridges across the Willamette River also in the picture.  eastern Portland is to the right (we’re looking pretty much northeast.)  The city is divided by the Willamette River, while the Columbia divides it from Washington state.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

“Betsy Likens”

A happy Banjo Friday!  We’ve got a great tune by one of my favorite banjo players today, so go ahead & pull up a chair!

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may know that I love the banjo playing of Cathy Moore, who occasionally blogs at the fine Banjo Meets World site.  Cathy Moore is not only an excellent player from a technical standpoint, but also someone who evinces real joy & exuberance in her playing, which adds that all important extra dimension to musical performance.  In addition, many of the videos on her blog are designed to teach, & she has a wealth of good ideas to share.

In playing today’s song, “Betsy Likens” (AKA “Betty Likens,” AKA “Betty Liken”), Cathy Moore takes an old fiddle tune standard & completely re-shapes it by playing the tune in an unusual time signature, 7/8.  For thos who are unfamiliar with this sort of musical terminology, 7/8 indicates that there are seven eighth notes in each measure.  In fact, having an odd number of eighth notes is uncommon in western European music (tho fairly common in music from eastern Europe), & fiddle tunes almost without exception are in 2/4 time, with two quarter notes per measure (a quarter note, as you may have guessed, has twice the duration of an eighth note.)  There are a few ways to count 7/8 time—in this case, in Cathy Moore’s words, “7 is counted 3+2+2 or "slow-and-a quick quick.”  By contrast, 2/4 is simply counted 1+2.

Adding to the unusual sound of her version of “Betsy Likens,” Cathy Moore is playing it on an unusual instrument, the cello banjo.  The cello banjo dates back to the early 20th century, when the banjo orchestra fad was in full-force.  At that time the cello banjo was a 4-stringed instrument tuned like a cello (C-G-D-A), typically played with a pick.  Recently, the Gold Tone instrument company has developed a new line of cello banjos that includes both 4-string & 5-string versions.  The 5-string Gold Tone cello banjos are typically tuned either to A or D, an octave lower than a regular 5-string banjo.  Especially when played clawhammer style (as Cathy Moore does), they sound almost Middle Eastern, which of course brings us back to the 7/8 time signature. 

The tune “Betsy Likens” is generally fiddled in A & is in a minor mode—so the banjo is tuned to “Mountain Minor” or “Sawmill Tuning,” either gDGCD & capoed or (as is the case here) to aEADE.  Most contemporary versions of “Betsy Likens” are drawn from the playing of Virginia fiddler Henry Reed.  Reed was born in 1884, & was finally recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1960s—the collection Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier is a seminal work as a record of old-time music.

But for today, here’s some old-time music with a delightful twist.  Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Poor Boy Long Way From Home #3 – Barbecue Bob

Happy Wednesday, everybody!  & being as it’s Wednesday, the Monday Morning Blues sure is late this week, right?  But here it is, pulling into the station at last, bringing another installment in the Poor Boy series for your listening & reading pleasure!

Today’s version of “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” is by Barbecue Bob, whose real name was Robert Hicks.  Barbecue Bob hailed from Atlanta, Georgia, & in fact was a cook at a barbecue restaurant when he was discovered by Columbia Records talent scout, Dan Hornsby.  Apparently the sobriquet “Barbecue Bob” was Hornsby’s idea, as was the idea to have Bob pose with his 12-string guitar while dressed in a cook’s uniform.

Although Barbecue Bob isn’t well-known today except amongst aficionados of old-time blues, he was quite successful during a career that was cut tragically short by his death from pneumonia at age 29 in 1931.  Between 1927 & 1930 he recorded 68 sides at 25 separate sessions, & his records sold well—actually, much better than the records of some players who are much better known nowadays.  In addition to playing solo, Barbecue Bob also performed with his brother, who performed under the name “Laughing Charlie.”  Laughing Charlie never found the same popularity as Bob, however.

Barbecue Bob’s version of “Poor Boy A Long Ways From Home” gives us a good sense of his overall style.  Bob used a big 12-string Stella, & as in this case, often played slide in an open tuning.  In fact, a number of the old-time Atlanta blues musicians favored the 12-string, most famously of course Blind Willie McTell.  Some music historians have written about an “Atlanta school” because of this, but as Michael Gray points out in his fine biography of McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, McTell’s playing style tended to be lighter & more melodic than that of Barbecue Bob & some of the other Atlanta players. 

Barbecue Bob’s playing style borrowed a number of elements from the clawhammer style of banjo playing.  Although his style is a bit more “heavy” & percussive than some of the players most associated with the Piedmont style of guitar playing, it’s true that this style itself is closely related to old-time banjo playing styles.  As you can hear in the recording, his singing voice featured a rich tone & a wide range.

It’s a great version of “Poor Boy” by a blues artist who should be better known—hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

“Despite All Requests for Rain”

[Who does sad & forlorn with as much wit & wry humor as Barbie Dockstader Angell?  Hope you enjoy today’s poem & artwork as much as I do!]

Despite All Requests for Rain

My life has reached its pinnacle,
it's all downhill from here.
Nothing left to do but wait,
and count remaining years.

I pile them up on the kitchen floor
and line them in a row,
ever watchful of the amount
and how long I have to go.

I can scatter them around the room
and lite them one by one.
They burn so brightly and so fierce,
they rival the desert sun.

When I have no more money left,
I take some in to town.
I trade them in for cigarettes
or for gin when I am down.

I’m not certain what to do with them,
‘cause I don’t want them to last,
and though the store will take them,
they prefer I pay with cash.

I find that I’m more tired now,
and I’m lacking the will to rhyme.
So I was wondering if you’d be so kind
to take up a bit of my time?

Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Photo of the Week 9/11/11

Street Art on Quonset Hut
NE Alberta St, Portland, Oregon
Tuesday, 9/6/11

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Talkback on Love

Last night after A Love Story, Willabear joined his fair Glamora for a wonderful night of star-gazing and she gave him some red roses to match his fetching red tie...

Webfootnote from Platypuss:
There has been some follow-up in Big Bed Land on yesterday’s post: A Love Story. I have been asked to clarify the fact that Goat isn’t against love, just thinks it’s not particularly important or interesting.
If you want to rescue a fair maiden you can do this from a sense of honor, Goat points out, without getting mushy about it. If a maiden turns out to be an expert swordmaiden, you can fight beside her without getting mushy, and even save her life (if that’s the best strategy given the circumstances) without falling in love.

Pocketnote from Bink: Honesty compels me to mention that Goat just made a terrible face when Platypuss said “love” that last time, and that Goat actually groans when there is kissing in the movies the Monsters watch.

From Goat: Well, if we’re being so honest, how about the time we were looking at listings on the satellite TV menu and you told us that the show White Chicks would be all about albino hatchlings right out of the egg and Chicklet was so excited, not to mention Tip Chick, and then the Terrible Disappointment?

From Bink: That satellite was full of misinformation and we’ve gotten rid of it now, haven’t we? Partly thanks to your complaints, I might add. It wasn’t my fault that there was no Animal Pirates channel, and while we’re on the subject, there are no Animal Pirates at all in the Monster Dictionary, have I mentioned that?

Piggles appears at this moment, not ominously, but silently glowing with a particularly fulsome pink shining she can have and the Animals fall silent for a few moments. Then there are apologies and kisses all around and the Animals get back to the tobogganing trip Goat has organized to celebrate the first sub-zero temperatures! We have noticed that these little conflicts often arise just before a trip, then they disperse. Queen Gretel is bringing the picnic in her pocket-hamper, and Bink gets to snack on the way!
Feel free to join if you'd like, or to visit with the stay-at-home animals (and the stay-at-home Monsters!) We will give you fair warning that tobogganing with a Pirate Goat and a Lefty Bear and the notorious Penguins is fairly riotous...

Friday, September 9, 2011

“Old Joe Clark”

Banjo Friday is here again, & we have a great version of one of the best known old-time fiddle tunes around for your listening pleasure.  

“Old Joe Clark” is presumed to be an old song, tho song collectors have apparently had some difficulty unearthing actual 19th century versions.  However, there are very early recordings of this tune: one by Fiddlin’ Joe Carson for Okeh in 1924 & one by Riley Puckett for Columbia in 1925.  It has since been covered by many well-known professionals in the old-time & bluegrass fields, & played by thousands of us regular musicians.  It’s a lot of fun, whether played as an instrumental or as a song with its multitude of wild verses—for instance:

Old Joe Clark had a house
Fifteen stories high
And every story in that house
Was filled with chicken pie

& so on!  The song is usually fiddled in A, which means the banjo player either plays in open G & capos up to the key of A, or else gets brave & tunes all the way up to open A.  The song is in what’s called the “Mixolydian mode”—pretty common in old-time music—which is a 50 cent word that tells us in the key of A, the two chords harmonizing the melody will be A & G.

It appears that Joe Clark was a historical figure, & the best guess at his identity makes him the Joe Clark who was born in 1839 in Clay County, Kentucky.  Besides being a Civil War veteran, he appears to have been a bit of a libertine—his wife Betty left him in 1864, as he was spending time with several local women, & also apparently fathered a number of children.  He also was a moonshiner. 

In this version of the story, the song dates from Joe Clark’s lifetime when some of his friends began making up lyrics about him to go with a current fiddle tune that hadn’t any words.  In any case, while there are several versions of how Joe Clark met his end, most involve some form of violence.  You can read more about the Old Joe Clark story here.

The version I’m sharing with you is by Cathy Fink, whose playing I love.  She’s playing clawhammer style, as you may recognize.

Hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Just Looking for a Home

Portland's TriMet: it's working for me so far
If it’s Thursday, you may ask, why is there no poem or Writers Talk interview or book review on Robert Frost’s Banjo?  It appears there may be some scheduling changes in the offing, dear readers.  In my new surroundings I am more interested in having some more “personal” posts on a somewhat regular basis, so that’s one thing you’ll be seeing at least some Thursdays.

I’ve been in Portland just over a month, & I’m very comfortable in a temporary housing situation provided by friends Sue & Jay who’ve shown me great hospitality & provided wonderful support.  But the fact is, I need a place to call my own, & living on a fixed income, this is a bit challenging.  But I will say this: I’ve gotten to know certain parts of Portland pretty fast as I’ve toured looking around at various subsidized housing complexes.  It’s also enabled me to get to know several bus routes fairly well in a short period of time. 

Food Truck, NE Alberta Street
 Yesterday, for instance, I spent the morning & much of the afternoon exploring north & northeast Portland, looking at subsidized housing units.  I like northeast Portland for several reasons, not least of which is that it’s flat!  Not a small consideration when you have a chronic lung condition!  In case you folks don’t know, Portland is essentially divided into quadrants, with a number of distinct neighborhoods in each.  The north & northeast quadrants are areas that are very much in the process of urban renewal/artification/hipsterification/gentrification—at least some parts.  Other neighborhoods over there are a bit sketchy.

A Night On the Town in Ortland? NE Killingsworth

But fortunately, there are several cool options.  I found it definitely paid to scout them out by bus & on foot—you can get a better sense of the neighborhood’s vibe that way, & since those will be my transportation options when I’m in my own place.  If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I love cars & road trips (witness the cross country drive in March of 2010!), but no cars for me in any foreseeable future.  As a side note to that, I am very happy to be someplace that’s on the Amtrak grid!  I’m hoping to make a California train trip at some point.

Anyway, it’s fun (tho it was a hot day, at least by Portland standards) to check out these new sights & figure out how I’d do things like buy groceries if I were living in a certain place.  Again, as you know if you’re a long-time reader, I’m not unfamiliar with urban life—I did live for almost 10 years in San Francisco.  But that was also over 13 years ago, so there’s certainly some adjustment.

The light bulb store - North Mississippi
Moving is not an easy thing.  I left behind a lot in Idaho, both literally in terms of stuff & emotionally in terms of important connections & a sense of continuity.  Sometimes it does feel daunting—I think about my age, the fact that I’m on my own, the fact that I have a chronic condition; all these things can be discouraging if I dwell on them.  But overall, I’ve felt most a sense of determination to make a new life here, & I’ve tried to focus on a few doable tasks everyday to build toward that.

& of course, it’s not like anything’s ever finished!  At some point, I’ll be in a place of my own, & there will still be new challenges.  Here’s hoping they keep me energized!

Oh by the way: any guesses on the source for today's post title?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Adams County Makes the News - Adams County Leader #39

The Adams County Leader        Published Weekly On Friday
Wm. Lemon Editor and Manager
Member State Editorial Association 
Member National Editorial Association
Official Paper of Adams County Price $2.00 Strictly in Advance

February 12, 1932


The Democratic party added no dignity to its standing when the motto, “He Haw! We are Coming Back,” was adopted for its 1932 catchy phrase.  We have read in an exchange, the following, well said: What kind of a motto is “He Haw! We are Coming Back!” for a party of high patriotic principle and of sincere resolve to serve the public and the nation?  Imagine Mr. Jefferson, creator of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the Democratic party; or Mr. Madison, inspired author of the Federalist Papers; or Mr. Monroe, sponsor of the Monroe Doctrine; or General Jackson the hero of New Orleans and of the greater battle against the United States Bank; or Mr. Cleveland, who protected the American people from privileged power and maintained the integrity of the western hemisphere from foreign aggression— Imagine the great leaders of the great party which outlined the fundamental principles of our government and more than doubled the extent and importance of our country, devising as a fit expression of their principles and their purpose the truly asinine motto, “He Haw!  We are Coming Back!”

October 2, 1933

Mrs. Pearl Brown, Council (Mrs. Billie Brown) has outgrown the environs of Adams county and even Idaho in her art of making fine jelly.  This was evidenced during the past week when she received notice of having won third place among 5842 jelly makers.  She had sent her contest contribution some time ago to the Household Magazine Nationwide Jelly Contest.  It was a glass of red raspberry jelly, made of Adams county fruit, using Idaho granulated BEET sugar.  (Some jelly makers say beet sugar will not make good jelly.)  Additional to the big red badge and the abstract honors, Mrs. Brown received a check for $15.

August 8, 1933

Mrs. D. Russell and Mrs. Emery, acting as an investigating committee for the Worthwhile Club, looked up a family of husband and wife and six children who were reported to be in dire circumstances.  The result of their investigation brought to light a most distressing condition: the mother and children without any of the bare needs of clothing, no bedding, nothing to cook with, no dishes—eating from tin cans, a thirteen year old girl with no clothing except a wrapping of rags about her body, a baby with no clothing at all, and a dejected mother on the edge of collapse.  The women report it a case of poverty beyond description.  Mrs. Russell, acting for the Adams county chapter of the Red Cross, will coordinate all local relief workers to set about to rehabilitate the family.  Mrs. Russell says that anything and everything is needed and that anybody who will contribute necessities should at once notify her.  The husband has been given work on the Alpine road job, but his wage will amount to but little to care for the family in its present condition.

August 11, 1933

Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 284, Council, Idaho
Editor Jersey Journal:

Just writing you a few lines to let you know what a member of the CCC has to say and is doing.  To start off, this state is a remarkable one, with its mountains, valleys, wampas cats, and ticks.  Our camp, I think, is one of the neatest ones in the country.  That is the report of boys who have been to other camps.  We have a mess shack seating 215 men and the meals are pretty good, nothing to brag about, but pretty good.  We sleep in large tents holding 24 men and we sleep well, God bless us.  Some of the boys have written home that snakes, wampas cats, bears, etc. come into the tents, but that is just talk and I hope our mothers pay no attention.  The sports we have are O.K.  Baseball, volleyball, horseshoe pitching, boxing, swimming, and track.  Every Tuesday we have an entertainment and dance and do we love it!  The Council folks are kind and generous to every one of us.  The time out here is going fast and our six months will soon be up.  One thing is bad for our pay—a bottle of beer costs 25 cents.  Just lately we have had a recreation hut built and that will help a lot.  The boys have books, hometown newspapers, game boards and everything to have a good time with.

Best of all we like the work of building roads through the timber country.  Swinging a mattie and shovel will make us all hard and healthy and when we get home we will be in fine shape.

Three Hudson City Boys
Vincent Wiebbroski
John Schanicy
Vincent Matthas

July 7, 1933

How and why people should start rumors about killings and murderous attacks and such bunk about CCC camp men is beyond understanding.  During the past week, rumors of various such affairs have been current and when traced down, there was nothing to say to any of them.  One report went so far as to say that two victims of a killing at Manns Creek camp were in the morgue at Weiser and the killers were in jail.  Not a word of truth in it.  Someone gets it from someone and then it goes, a sweet morsel in the mouths of scandalmongers.  Such matters, which are so detrimental to the CCC, deserve to be verified before being repeated by anyone.  If all CCC men are as respectable, on the average, as the Council camp men are, they will average up pretty well with local people and deserve to be treated right.

compiled by Eberle Umbach

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


[I love Nancy Krygowski’s latest poem!  I think you will too.]


Watch the thermometer rise
one more

degree.  I’m thirsty
for the irregular—

crow balancing on birdfeeder
as the wind picks up

his feathers. 

I wish my antidote to falling
was flying, my solution to anger

a sweet-smelling lotion fingered into
my brain.

Oh, that’s right—that’s what
patience is.

Nancy Krygowski
© 2011

Monday, September 5, 2011

10 Essential Delta Blues Tunes – Terraplane Blues

Welcome, everybody, to the Monday Morning Blues!  & also welcome to the final installment in our 10 Essential Delta Blues Tunes series.  If you’ve been following along, I’m sure it’s no surprise that the series (which only featured one song per artist) is wrapping up with a Robert Johnson tune.

Even folks with a very casual knowledge of blues music are familiar with Robert Johnson; he is without question the most recognized & most culturally lauded of all the pre-World War II blues musicians, & this has been true for some time.   This being the case, it’s interesting to note that Johnson was not especially successful in his own time; “Terraplane Blues” (with “Kind-Hearted Woman” as the B side) was the closest he came to a hit, & that record only sold 5,000 copies.  Of course, Johnson died at age 27, apparently poisoned by a jealous husband, & as such it’s impossible to speculate on what kind of career he might have had.  He appears to have been a respected musician among his peers, tho Muddy Waters at one time went on record as saying there were other Delta musicians who were as good at playing slide guitar as Johnson.  The two musicians who probably played with Johnson the most, Johnny Shines & Robert Lockwood, Jr, used mostly superlatives to describe his musicianship.  Lockwood, however, whose relationship to Johnson was somewhere between that of a stepson & a younger brother, did note that Johnson's tempos weren't always steady; but the same could be said of several other well-known country blues players.

But since his recording were first “discovered” by John Hammond in the late 30s, Johnson has particularly proved fascinating to white blues fans.  Hammond wanted him for the Carnegie Hall “From Swing to Spirituals concert,” but had to ask Big Bill Broonzy when he couldn’t locate Johnson (who, in fact, was already dead.)  Then the release of the lp King of the Delta Blues Singers by Columbia in 1961, along with subsequent covers of his material by high-profile rockers like the Rolling Stones & Cream, further cemented his reputation.  Johnson has been named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & was named the “5th Greatest Guitarist of All Time” by Rolling Stone (editorial note: I put zero credence in these types of lists, but that’s another story—I do think the rating is significant in illustrating his reputation among the rock & roll folks.)

There is no question that Johnson was a magnificent musician—his singing range is formidable & polls aside, a fantastic guitar player.  His lyrics are some of the most memorable of all the early blues tunes, & while a lot less of his music was actually original than many realize, he was talented at synthesizing quite disparate elements into an immediately recognizable style.  He certainly was important in popularizing the “boogie bass” that’s now so much a part of blues guitar style.

But for all that, there’s controversy surrounding Johnson & his reputation.  Although many talk about Johnson in superlatives, there are others, & folks with a lot of musical credentials who take a different view.  Elijah Wald, in his great book Escaping the Delta, analyzes Johnson’s playing & composing & comes to the conclusion that Johnson’s biggest strength came in his ability to synthesize styles—this seems to me a balanced view; Dave Van Ronk, on the other hand, dismissed Johnson as an imitator who didn’t come up to his models; Van Ronk particularly was thinking of Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, as well as Lonnie Johnson.  

For myself, I love Robert Johnson’s music, & I have a high respect for his musicianship.  I don’t like the idea of “rating” guitarists, but I do know that Johnson’s guitar work is masterful; on the other hand, comparing him with a guitarist like Lonnie Johnson who played in top-notch jazz bands (for instance, with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five)—well, you’re simply comparing apples & oranges there, & perhaps it’s best left at that.  

“Terraplane Blues” is a great tune—a masterpiece of blues slide guitar.  Interestingly, Johnson’s slide work is spare—there’s the usual move up to the 12th fret, & then there’s a very characteristic one note slide toward the end of each verse, the latter made all the more dramatic by the fact that so little slide playing precedes it.  The song as recorded is in Bb, with the guitar tuned possibly to open Ab (same as open G, but up a half a step); at least the Ab tuning is the one proposed in David Rubin’s Robert Johnson: The New Transcriptions.  

Although “Terraplane Blues” isn’t really a song about a car, it’s worth knowing that the Terraplane, a model made by the Hudson Car Company in the 1930s, is the auto referred to in the lyrics.  The Terraplane was a luxury car in its day.

This is the blues, folks!  Hope you enjoy it!

The photo of the 1937 Hudson Terraplane Super 4-door sedan is by Lars-Göran Lindgren & is published on Wiki Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Photo of the Week 9/4/11

Fence Art with Pumpkins
SE Francis Street, Portland, Oregon
Saturday 9/3/11

Saturday, September 3, 2011

“Whistle Down the Wind”

Greetings to an introspective Saturday here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.  A bit of an update on things in the new Banjo Central here in Portland for those who are interested, & a great Tom Waits song for everybody.

I very recently underwent a birthday—a significant one, too, as it’s the first of a few that enable one to qualify for “senior citizen” status (double nickels on the dime, as Minutemen fans will understand!)  Now in practical terms, this is not all a bad thing: besides the fact that it very much “beats the alternative,” I’m all for discounts, & it also makes me eligible for some housing out here.  In fact, seeking housing on a fixed income is proving to be the most challenging part of the Portland experience.  Without going into the political realities that have shaped this, the fact is that subsidized housing is tight here & the system appears pretty well strained.  I’m very fortunate to have an ongoing living situation that should see me thru until something comes open—a lot of folks don’t have that.  I’m also beginning to look at situations with just a room or roommate needed, as this seems to provide a bit more leeway, while allowing me to keep within a budget.

But practical matters aside, a birthday is often a time to take stock—to look back on what he have & haven’t accomplished, things we’ve done well, as well as our errors of omission & commission.  Waits’ song interests me profoundly in this regard: it’s the wistful song of a dreamer who comes to the point of realizing that his dreams have always remained in his head & haven’t come to fruition.  It’s a profoundly sad song, but one I think that expresses something we all feel from time to time: regret, & perhaps an ongoing wish to grab for something while there’s still time.

It also interests me because I really didn’t expect to see my 55th birthday starting a new life in a new city—starting over from scratch in many ways, at a time of life when many are settled in the consolidation of a life built over years of a career & family life.  For various reasons, I eschewed those things.  I know there are people who don’t approve of the way I’ve lived my life—who think I frittered away talents & opportunities; & I certainly know very well what regret feels like.

Still, the life I’ve lived so far has been my own.  & for all the anxieties & worries, & even the physical problems associated with a chronic condition, I still can wonder at the sunlight in the garden out my window or marvel at music I hear or even thrill to be able to make music come out of an instrument myself.  Tho there’s bitterness & sorrow in every life, there are also an abundance of other joys, great & small!

& so I watch Portland’s late summer flowers blooming along the sidewalks & parking strips, & “I shall take the Marleybone coach & go whistling down the wind.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

“I Truly Understand”

Welcome to another Banjo Friday!

Today’s post is a bit of a follow-up to last week’s, which featured the (more-or-less) original Carolina Chocolate Drops line-up covering the great old-time tune, “Georgie Buck.”  As fans of the Chocolate Drops know, fiddler/vocalist/jug blower/beatboxer/occasional banjoist Justin Robinson left the band earlier this year, & in his stead multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins & beatboxer/percussionist Adam Matta stepped in. 

I’ve been curious about the new line-up.  From what I’d read about Jenkins, his inclusion made sense; he’s a strong singer & a talented performer on everything from guitar & banjo to mandolin & bones!  I was less sure about Matta, & in all honesty, I’d felt pretty lukewarm about the EP the Chocolate Drops recorded with Sxip Shirey’s Luminescenti Orchestra—& wondered if the band was taking a significant step away from old-time string band music.

Recently I’ve come across a number of YouTube videos featuring the new line-up & I’m really happy to hear that the new Carolina Chocolate Drops are still doing their same great mix of string band/jug band/ragtime/medicine show & more.  Once you hear Matta as a percussionist & beatboxer in the mix, his inclusion makes perfect sense.  Jenkins, meanwhile, is a real force, as you will hear in the video below, which features his singing & clawhammer banjo playing.

“I Truly Understand” was originally recorded in 1928 for Victor Records by one George (Shortbuckle) Roark, backed by his family.  In fact, Roark also played clawhammer style banjo on the record. 

Dom Flemons is playing an interesting instrument in the Carolina Chocolate Drops version, & I wanted to write just a little about that.  This “panpipe” is known as “the quills.”  These were used by African-American slaves in North America at least since the early 19th century.  The best-known example of the quills in recorded music is probably Henry Thomas’ great song “Fishing Blues,” which is the final track on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  Thomas recorded a total of nine songs featuring the quills; another favorite of mine is his “Bull Doze Blues.”  Thomas was born in 1874, & thus is one of the oldest blues songsters who recorded in the 1920s; many have speculated that his playing style pre-dates the full-blown development of the blues as we know it.

Hope you enjoy this great tune!