Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Always Unfinished

[There’s a big announcement after the poem, so make sure to check it out after you’ve read this sweet poem by Barbie Angell!]
Always Unfinished

I try to piece together
This quilt of bits of time.
So I can sleep at night
With all I know is mine.
It will always keep me warm
And always keep me safe,
Those ragged little memories
Of the life I had to make.
And if you scan it closely
You’ll see that you are there
Among the stitched promises
And the empty cans of beer.
Amidst the tears and laughter
And the lovers that went wrong.
Somewhere in between
My countless favorite songs.
I’ve struggled all my days
To keep all the little scraps
Matchbooks and guitar picks,
An endless array of crap.
And I sorted through it all
And I weighed the good and bad
And I pretty much kept everything,
All the happy and the sad.
Yeah it’s taken me a lifetime
To be the girl I am,
And I refuse to live in bitterness
When life didn’t go as planned.
No I’ll take all that I’m given
And I’ll be better for it all.
I know it’s all just living
Every single time I fall.
I’m sure I’ve had it better
And I know I’ve had it worse,
But I’m not one to blame another
Or think my life is just a curse.
I want my quilt to span the globe
And cover everyone I’ve met.
I’d like to buy the world a coke
And toast a life of no regrets.
I want you all to sing with me
Some universal happy song.
And know that if you’re really you
Then nothing can be wrong.

Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

It’s my great pleasure, friends, to announce that Robert Frost’s Banjo’s own Rockstar Poet in Residence Barbie Dockstader Angell will be publishing a book of children’s poems & illustrations later this year. Barbie’s book will be published by Grateful Steps out of Asheville, North Carolina, a first-rate publisher of children’s literature, & a real force for community building in western North Carolina.

You can get a preview of the book as it’s in progress at this link, & also leave comments there; I know for a fact that Barbie & Grateful Steps are looking to get folks involved in the process, & to my mind it’s a wonderful opportunity to interact with the work of a talented & unique poet. 

For myself, I’ll say that this news has made me very happy. Barbie is not simply a contributor to Robert Frost’s Banjo—she’s also a good friend & someone whose creativity I hold in high regard.  As a contributor to this blog, her poems & illustrations bring an added dimension that delights me & readers as well—in fact, since Barbie came on board as a contributor in May, her poems consistently have been among the most popular posts. 

So please join me in offering Barbie congratulations in a comment, & also please take some time to go to Barbie’s issu site & look at her wonderful book in progress!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Any Woman’s Blues #18 – Elizabeth Cotten

Happy Monday, folks! A belated edition of the Monday Morning Blues is coming your way at last.

I must admit I was a bit shocked to realize that I’d written almost 20 posts in the Any Woman’s Blues series without featuring Elizabeth Cotten.  If you’re familiar with Ms Cotten at all, you know that her playing has been highly influential & that she was a fixture in the 1960s folkie scene. To this day, her song “Freight Train” is the one tune that pretty much every fingerstyle guitar player learns.

Of course, when I say influential, I should note that many players have reproduced her overall sound, but in fact, very few imitate her actual playing style, as that was singular. Cotten was left-handed, & when she was young she picked up a guitar in the way that seemed natural to her—namely, what would be considered upside-down & backwards.  These days, they make left-handed guitars (tho depending on the degree of left-handedness, a number of left-handed folks also play “as if” they were right-handed), Elizabeth Cotten came to the guitar after learning the banjo at age seven (she learned on her older brother’s banjo); again, she played the banjo “upside-down & backwards.” 

A banjo has a quirk in that the string that would be typically played with the thumb by a right-handed person is a high-pitched drone.  It’s also true that old-time banjo styles the thumb plays a good deal of the melody.  So in that sense, her approach to the banjo was slightly less novel.  But when she started to play the guitar, she came up with the odd technique of playing the bass strings with her index finger & the treble strings with her thumb—exactly the opposite of how the instrument is typically played.

Despite or because of her unusual playing technique, Elizabeth Cotten grew to be a masterful guitar player.  She also was a precocious composer—Cotten wrote “Freight Train,” as a young teenager, not long after she’d scraped together enough money to buy a Stella guitar. She didn’t become a professional musician, however, & by the time she moved to the Washington, D.C. area she’d mostly put the guitar aside. 

Cotten was working in a department store one day when a young girl became lost.  Elizabeth Cotten helped the child, who was Penny Seeger—yes, of that Seeger family.  The upshot was that Cotten became the Seeger’s maid, & at a certain point young Mike Seeger discovered that Elizabeth Cotten could not only play the guitar but could really play the guitar.  He began taping her performances on reel-to-reel tapes, & these were later issued by Folkways Records.

Elizabeth Cotten, now in her 60s, became a fixture at folk festivals from the 1960s almost until her death at age 92 in 1987—in fact, she won a Grammy Award for best traditional album in 1985 (for her Live! on Arhoolie).  As far as guitars go, Cotten mostly played Martins after her “discovery,” switching between three sizes of the 18 model: 00, 000 & D. She also sometimes played a Gibson Jumbo.

Today’s two videos show Cotten’s musicianship on a total of three songs; the first (despite the video description, which references “Spanish Flang Dang) has her playing “Washington Blues & an untitled jig—this is a live video, so you can watch Cotten’s playing. The second is her version of the great folk-blues instrumental, “Vestapol” from her wonderful Smithsonian Folkways release, Elizabeth Cotten. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Photo of the Week 1/29/12

MAX Yellow Line Light Rail Tracks
Seen From N Prescott St Station
N Interstate Avenue
Portland, Oregon
Saturday 1/28/12

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Ruchama In Her Worn Nightgown,"

[Much gratitude to my friend Brittany Newmark for making this powerful poem available to Robert Frost's Banjo.]

Ruchama In Her Worn Nightgown,


It has taken so long to arrive here, late,
                                              the dust in my shoes
                                              and my pockets
                                                                                turned out like some clown in a silent film. 

Sometimes it was like
Rowing across the lake where all the fish were named for saints
And feeling like you were not a tourist,
                                                                                (in other words feeling smug)
and then being slighted
And at last knowing, how fragile it is to belong.

Ruchama you had a white dress, before white dresses.
Do you remember it?
I do,

                                              on two counts,

1. it was so much more than I could have ever afforded, even now
and 2. It was braver than I have ever been, especially now.

 Nu, your feet are bare,
The wells of your clavicle filled with indiscretion. 
No need to worry the last bleeding cuticle
or to scour the teakettle at all hours of the night.

O you must be so cold,

Go, go back to bed.  What is happening will go on without you. 
It does not concern you.

Stay out of it.   No good can come of it.

I am sorry to say that there is no one left to comfort
or to betray. 

                                  Whatever beauty was
                                                            She has picked another hill to die on.


They were good times though,
                                                    those parties you used to throw,
                                                                                                  And how you served

                                                    entire meals of revenge, the sweet breads of ambition,
                                                    the small red fruits of petty resentment. 
                                                    You knew.

Really, what else can you offer to a room full of opportunists?
                With their hands outstretched like ghouls in a B movie

They got what they deserved
                                                    and that is so rare in this life. 
What did you tell me?
                            You had the salon repainted and the shutters opened wide
and even the workmen
yes especially the workmen thought
of bedding you,
                                                    it was hot repetitive work, 

they all imagined you
naked.  We all always imagined
you naked, with a pool of clothing at your feet.

That thought and those conversations
pure, like an American song on the green radio:

You don’t believe I love you,
            Look at the fool I’ve been.
You don’t believe I’m sinkin
            Look at the hole I’m in.

By that time, so many had abandoned their rituals, in the fields,
In the camps, in the gulags—

They understood oppression not as the boy in fawn colored pants
looking out of the French doors onto a garden,
but they knew it
                                  from a hut, the inside of a latrine.

Then there was the man, in the army greens
he waded through the canal
choked with corpses, both theirs and ours. 
And he told those stories over and over,

                                                    or the story was told around him
after he left.

Of course you know
He did not get separated from his unit
He walked away
                                                    at nineteen—armed to the teeth
We all know what happened from there, not pretty. 

And he left behind a lesson that would serve.

But even he went on to marry and have a life,
                                                            (meaning a wife and children)
Alongside a beach and striped umbrellas.
But of course you know that,

How else could he have slipped so neatly
between you and what could have been?
                                                How else was there always sand on your stone floors?


I am not sure if I fully understand the premise
                                                            But it interests me.
In each generation there are 36 righteous men.
I expect one or two must have been impulsive youths,
                                                                                              hellions in jaunty grey caps. 

Or just boys playing chicken on a long dark stretch of highway,
                                                                                                                                          and lost.
They are not angels these men, who may be fewer than 36
                                                            they may not even be righteous
But they carry a generation.
                              I can’t say how to manage the darkness or the isotopes of faith

You can no longer manage even the red scarf or the sassy quip,
they seem sad and ridiculous—old woman, ugly woman.

Because even if they are silent—long gone
the ghosts of guests are well positioned around the room,
                                                                                      just where you placed them
one in the blue velvet chair,
the other just leaning by the bookshelf.

They are not listening they do not look up from the papers they hold out in front of them. 
                              Ruchama, your hand,
                                                            you have a tremor.

In the hot wind of August
                                            and in another century
somebody on the fourth floor throws open the door and steps out onto the porch,

Ruchama, you are lovely with a belly full of loquats

                              that you picked up under the tree, just outside the gates.
Was it stealing? 

No more or less than the man, 

                                            what he took from you,
                                            he carried back to her
I suppose everybody needs to eat.

Brittany Newmark
© 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

“Steam Powered Aereo Plane”

Welcome to Banjo Friday! It’s the final Friday of the month, so if you’ve been following along, you know what that means: Bluegrass!

Actually, today’s song & today’s artist probably both defy strict genre categorization. Let’s consider the artist first. Chances are, unless you are a fan of modern bluegrass, & especially the “Newgrass” movement, you may not have heard of John Hartford—or it’s possible that you know him for the one song that made his fortune—which was not a bluegrass song at all. John Hartford wrote the song “Gentle on My Mind,” & was the first to record it. His recording was a modest hit at best, but when Glenn Campbell recorded the song, it became a real chart-buster & ultimately a song that was covered by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dean Martin, Lucinda Williams & R.E.M., just to name a few. In fact, during the height of the song’s popularity, the royalties were bringing Hartford a cool $100k per year; according to his online biography, “Hartford often said that Gentle On My Mind bought his freedom. He used that freedom to explore his various creative curiosities, and was usually happy to take his friends along on the trip.”

John Hartford had an abiding love of country music & bluegrass, but he was about as far from a hidebound traditionalist as one could be, & he brought more than a little counter-culture sensibility to his brand of bluegrass music. In 1971, he released the album Aereo-Plain on Warner Brothers, & this is one of those truly innovative albums that a lot of the general listening public have never heard or even heard of.  Aereo-Plain didn’t sell well at the time of its release, & in fact Warner failed to promote his follow-up work as a result, which led to him asking for (& receiving) a release from his contract. But history, at least, was on Hartford’s side, as Aereo-Plain is considered seminal to the “Newgrass” movement that sprung up in the 1970s, 80s & beyond. 

One thing about Aereo-Plain: Hartford assembled a dream line-up of bluegrass musicians to make the album. In addition to Hartford playing banjo & taking the vocals, Norman Blake played guitar, Vasser Clements played fiddle, Tut Taylor played dobro & Randy Scruggs played electric bass.  Actually, the story is a bit more complicated, because Hartford played some fiddle & guitar, Blake also played mandolin, & Clements added in viola & cello(!) 

The album is largely comprised of Hartford originals, tho it does contain a cover of the old country gospel song “Turn Your Radio On,” as well as a Bluegrass version of the old fiddle tune “Leather Britches.”  Otherwise, there’s some great song-writing by Hartford, & great music-making by all involved. Listening to the album while preparing this post, I was reminded how much Hartford partook of the musical clown role—evident in both his lyrics & singing style at times, tho he could also be as straightforward & sincere as they come on numbers like “First Girl I Loved.”  Of course, the musical clown role has a venerable history amongst banjoists, dating to disturbing origins in the days of minstrelsy, but having been largely transformed thru the years in the stage personas of great players like Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean & Grandpa Jones. I see Hartford very much as a part of that tradition. 

“Steam Powered Aereo Plain” is just sheer fun & great music. I know you’re going to enjoy it!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Raintown #5

2 empty hopper bird feeders dangling
from bare limbs on N. Mason—2 broken
concrete blocks out of kilter cast down be-

side a trailer—it devastates me not to
know the trees’ names—black gnarled
limbs out of whack yet budding blood-

red in January—black crow leaning in-
to its caw from a power line—my shortness of
breath, breathing thru pursed lips ex-

haling trapped air— alveoli col-
lapsed—2 pink flamingoes skewer a
lawn past the deadheaded roses—a second

crow swoops down on the blacktop—chest
rale as if someone mumbles walking just a
few steps back—on a concrete block

wall on N. Vancouver Ave in careful white
paint: tonight I can write the saddest of all
—disturbing not to hear sparrows in

red willows become unadulterated
melody—as if someone walked a few steps back:
our death unswerving comrade

Jack Hayes
© 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Welcome to Rose City

Downtown Portland-taken from the Portland Aerial Tram
Happy Wednesday, friends, & welcome to Portland, Oregon! As I mentioned last week, Wednesdays here on Robert Frost’s Banjo will be featuring posts about my new hometown. I hope to explore various places, events, & landmarks, with possibly a bit of Portland history & fun facts thrown in. One thing I know will happen: restaurant reviews! This is a great foodie town, & I’ll be checking out some places that look likely to have both good food & fit in my tight budget.

But today’s post is an overview & all about preliminaries—some of the “facts” here have been mentioned in previous blog posts, but as this is the beginning of the series, I think I may be excused for going over them again. Portland is divided into “quadrants,” as you can see from the graphic. The city is divided into “east” & “west” sections by the Willamette River, & divided into north & south sections by Burnside Street. Therefore, street names typically have the SE, NE, SW or NW tag, & people talk about their neighborhoods as being in “the Southeast,” “the Northwest,” etc. However, as you’ll notice from the map, there are actually five “quadrants,” because there’s also “the North.” & as I can’t seem to help being different, I live in that fifth quadrant.

Mississippi Studios - North Portland-my neighborhood
Portland Streetcar on SW Market in - you guessed it - Southwest Portland

Each of these quadrants—or for those who insist on mathematical corretness, sections—are divided into a number of neighborhoods, so it seems to me at least that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations about any one of the geographical designations—to say, “the Southeast is thus & so” or “the Northwest is like this.” Two things I should state, one a historical fact, the other personal. Portland originated on the west side of the Willamette, so from 1851 until 1891, the city existed solely on land that now falls within the Northwest & Southwest quadrants. In 1891, Portland absorbed Albina, Oregon & East Portland, Oregon, & these brought in parts of the current North, Northeast & Southeast sections; further expansion in 1915 gave the city most of its present-day territory.

Looking back toward Northwest Portland from the Steel Bridge

The Laurelhurst Theater on E. Burnside - the street that divides North & South

On a personal note? Fact is, I know the east side of Portland better than the west. In my almost 6 months of living here, I’ve been on the east side, & when I used to visit Portland while living in Idaho, I also spent most of the time in the east, & especially the Southeast, because that’s where many of my friends live.

Quonset Hut Bar - NE Alberta
Avalon Theater - SE Belmont

Other fun facts about Portland? It’s the 29th most populous U.S. city with a 2010 census population of 583,776, & the greater Portland metro area—which includes the city of Vancouver, Washington, as well as other areas in Washington just across the Columbia—numbers around 2,260,000, making it the 23rd most populous metro area. Tho Portland is Oregon’s largest city, both Seattle, Washington & Vancouver, British Columbia are larger cities within the Pacific Northwest. The climate? Per Wikipedia, “Portland experiences a temperate climate that is usually described as oceanic with mild, damp winters and relatively dry, warm summers.” Some might note that “damp” is a relatively mild term, & Portland does get a lot of rain, especially in the late fall thru the winter & into the spring. But as a result of its temperate & damp climate, it’s a great spot for gardening—hence, the nickname “Rose City” or “City of Roses.” 

The Portland Aerial Tram arriving at OHSU with the Willamette River in the background

Although Portland is a mid-sized city, it truly has a lot to offer, & I’m very happy & grateful to have the opportunity of living here.  Also looking forward to sharing it with you readers every Wednesday!

Here's the info on the neighborhood graphic: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Wiki Commons user Sean Kelly

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


[Hey, folks, time for an L.E. Leone poem—but not just any L.E. Leone poem: an L.E. Leone poem about trains! How cool is that?]



Two of my dearest dears wrote
poems about trains last week, so
I thought I would jump on board


One featured the clatter
of the tracks, while the other
touted the toot-toot of it all


That leaves me with steel
on steel. Or the tick, electric and
loud, between cars in the station


Silence. Hmm: This one
is way up there somewhere
in the mountains, buried in snow


To think, just last week I learned
that shhh is spelled with three h’s,
not sssh! . . . I am ready now.

L.E. Leone
© 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Poor Boy Long Way from Home #9 – Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

A happy Monday, friends, & welcome to the Monday Morning Blues!  We’re here with another installment in the Poor Boy Blues series, & this time around we have a version by the great Brownie McGhee, accompanied by his usual musical partner, the equally formidable Sonny Terry.

McGhee’s version of the “Poor Boy Blues” is one of the more mellow songs in the series, & the lyrics are more individualized; other than the “Poor boy, a long way from home” statement—which is de rigueur with slight variations for all songs in the series—the song doesn’t dip into the usual pool of “Poor Boy” lyrics—there’s none of the existential angst of the Ramblin’ Thomas, Booker White or John Dudley versions.

Of course, McGhee & Terry, at least in their folk music incarnation, were two of the most musically easygoing bluesmen around.  They were fixtures on the folk music circuit from the late 50s on until the 80s; as such, they lived different lives from many of their contemporaries—they recorded with Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger, for insatnce, & made recordings of songs like “Pick a Bale of Cotton” & “Skip to My Lou” along with such blues classics as “Key to the Highway” or “Sportin’ Life Blues.” 

But McGhee & Terry actually lived a few distinct musical incarnations in their lives. Both suffered significant disabilities from an early age: Terry lost his eyesight in his teens, & McGhee was unable to walk after having polio (an operation funded by the March of Dimes later enabled him to walk.) Growing up at a time when jobs were scarce for everyone, but certainly for African-Americans & even more so, men with significant disabilities, both relied on their considerable musical abilities. Terry became a street performer, & partnered with the great Blind Boy Fuller, & McGhee later came under Fuller’s tutelage as well. 

Fuller is considered one of the great exponents of the “Piedmont” style of guitar playing, & McGhee is considered another—not only did he learn from Fuller, but he was a gifted player in his own right, & with assistance from Happy Traum, who was his student, he published a book on his guitar playing in the early 70s.  McGhee & Terry met, of course, thru Blind Boy Fuller, & not long after Fuller’s death in 1941, they became a hit as a recording duo.

It’s interesting to me that McGhee & Terry continued a completely separate musical career during the time they were such prominent figures in the folk scene.  They fronted a jump band called Brownie McGhee & his Jook House Rockers" or "Sonny Terry & his Buckshot Five." This combo included not only horns & piano, but also McGhee on electric guitar, which was of course taboo in the folk music at that time!

I should also note that Terry’s harmonica playing is at least as masterful as McGhee’s guitar picking & smooth singing
—his blues harp is almost immediately familiar, & not just from his characteristic whoops, but from the sound itself. Terry was known not only for his ability to produce any number of effects using the harp, but also for his outstanding breath control.

Finally, I’m not sure when this particular recording was originally released. There is a live version of “Po’ Boy” (as they invariably titled the song) from either ’61 or ’62 (the notes on that vary), but this is a different recording. I do know that it was released on the 2003 Tomato release Sun’s Gonna Shine, but this is a compilation—both men passed away in the 1980s.

Hope you enjoy these two top-flight musicians’ gentler take on “Poor Boy Blues”!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Photo of the Week 1/22/12

Public Art Wall
N. Mason Street/Maya Angelou Complex
Portland, Oregon
Monday 1/16/12

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Raintown #4

black boughs gesticulate in gray
air, moss girdles these parking strip trees
sullen green—commenting on decay in

January drizzle—not merely shades of
gray: olive green gate chained shut on what must
be a garden—young mother on the #4 line

bus cradling her baby in a purple
fake fur-lined parka—her angular face re-
flective; her gray flannel pajama pants in-

scribed LOVE in faded red letters—at the
hospital the woman describes her lumbar
puncture, biting the tongue depressor, the

14-day ensuing migraine “meds didn’t
touch”—fluorescent lights humming a sham
yellow-gold, an electric guitar note bent

a quarter tone sharp—she explains we have
nothing to do besides talk
, talking bone
marrow renal failure talking god dangling her from

a  height  letting  her drop
—a Yellow Line
train passes over the double-decked Steel
Bridge & the polyrhythmic drizzle’s ab-

sorbed inside the Willamette’s gray
mechanical currents & fractured reflections:
none of us being merely broken

Jack Hayes
© 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

“One Morning”

A happy Banjo Friday everybody. Hope you’re ready for some fine banjo music, because that’s what we have for you.

Let me start by stating a fact: I am completely in love with Gillian Welch’s music.  For my money, there’s no better songwriter in US popular music today, especially when you consider the richness of the music combined with the poetry of the lyrics. The fact that Welch is also a top-notch, soulful singer makes her songs so very compelling—rife with emotion, evocative both in terms of sound & lyrical content. To my mind, Welch has something that a relatively small number of songwriters have had in the latter half of the 20th century & beyond—the ability to draw from roots American music in a way that makes the songs seem truly timeless—instantly recognizable both in terms of rootedness & contemporaneity. Dylan certainly has had this, as has Tom Waits in a somewhat different context. Others in addition to Welch? Very few.  I would put Welch’s songs up there with the best.

Now you may be saying: that’s all well & good, but Gillian Welch is a singer-songwriter, & we’re here for banjo music! It’s true that on the majority of her songs, Welch plays rhythm guitar behind the intricate solos & fills of her partner David Rawlings—a truly inventive guitarist, & a player of the first caliber. But Welch also plays clawhammer banjo, & while her playing is not “virtuosic,” it’s plenty good; on songs like “My First Lover,” “One Morning,” “Rock of Ages” & others it adds a stark & unexpected color to the music.

It’s interesting to me to see someone using the banjo, especially in the clawhammer style, as a singer-songwriter. We know about the clawhammer style being used for instrumentals & dance music (with or without vocals), but it’s not found much with singer-songwriter types, & I think that’s a shame. It’s true that the banjo is quirky & that its chord voicings can be ambiguous—certainly a guitar gives a fuller background for a voice to ride on—the guitar’s whole set up is geared to producing chords as distinctly as possible—I know this, because in much of the music I do, the aim is to get the chords back to sounding musically ambiguous! What the banjo offers singers is something a bit more spare & contrapuntal, & at its best, this can be a striking effect.

In terms of today’s clip: this is a live recording from a recent show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam; the song, “One Morning,” comes from Welch’s 1998 release, Hell Among the Yearlings. Now a word of warning—this is not a six minute song. In fact, Welch starts playing & finds the banjo is out of tune & stops while Rawlings re-tunes it. As a performer myself, I’m always fascinated to see how a seasoned musician reacts to something like this, so I enjoy watching the clip from start to finish. If you don’t want to see that part, move the slider to about 2:25 & you’ll be able to catch the actual beginning. Besides the fact that I find the first two minutes interesting, I also chose this clip because of the high quality of both the video & the audio, which I didn’t find on other YouTube clips of Gillian Welch with the banjo. Of course, David Rawlings' guitar playing isn’t exactly shabby on this!


The photo of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings is from Wiki Commons, & the image links back to the page of origin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license by its creator, Flickr user furtwangl.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I Am Here #2

The new Robert Frost's Banjo Central
Greetings from a rather soggy day in Portland.  I woke a bit late this morning to the sound of a garbage truck & big raindrops. In the right context, the latter sound can be almost inviting: asking you to stay in for a pleasant day of reading & music for instance—but the sad fact is, I need to get out & about on errands.  Timing is almost everything, & in this case, my timing is not spectacularly good!

It occurred to me that I haven’t posted a “personal” update for some time: we’ve been enjoying a lot of poetry & music here on Robert Frost’s Banjo, which is of course all to the good.  Yours truly has even started writing again, & that’s always a cause for some small celebration here at Robert Frost’s Banjo Central.

But as far as personal news goes: I’m settling in to my new place, which is a sweet little apartment & all in all, feeling much like home.  One of the most lovely thing about my place is that almost everywhere I look I see something that was a gift from a friend, & that’s something that makes my heart glad.  

Two such gifts-both very practical as well!
Still, truth be told, I deal a lot with loneliness—I state this as a fact, & given the circumstances, a rather obvious one, & not to elicit sympathy. But I am in a transition from being one person in a couple to being a person on his own, & I’m also doing that in unfamiliar surroundings. In addition, the move from southeast Portland, where I was staying the first few months, to north Portland where I now live is significant because the neighborhood is new & the connections I do have here are a bit further away—it’s about 45 minutes to an hour by bus to visit my friends in the Southeast. But on the plus side, I have found a music jamming pal over in my neck of the woods—a fine guitarist who goes by the name of Kentucky Bob—& spent most of yesterday jamming on tunes from “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out” to “Kodachrome.” Great fun.

There’s also a certain “finality” to the Portland move that comes from having my own place. While I’m convinced the move was the best thing for all concerned, I’m no longer in the “limbo” state I occupied from August thru November. This is also to the good, of course, but it does carry a concomitant stress & sadness.

In other news: I’m slowly building my teaching practice, now with two guitar students & two uke students. In addition, I explored some forms of assistance thru the state of Oregon, & these have actually made a significant improvement in my financial picture. So on a practical level, things are looking quite good.

As far as Robert Frost’s Banjo news goes: for the past while, Wednesdays have been an “off” day here. I’m going to be starting a new series, however, as of next Wednesday, which will explore an aspect of Portland each week—thanks to my good friend Scotty Houston for this suggestion! This will be fun writing for me, & it will also be motivation for me to explore—something that can be a bit difficult to muster in the rainy Northwestern winter. 

Hope you have a great Thursday, friends!

Rainy day-the view from my front door!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


[Funny, sad & sweet—another of Barbie Dockstader Angell’s lovely Chaplinesque poems! & some of Barbie's wonderful artwork too.]


I’ve packed too much again you see,
I do this every time.
I fill my bag up to the top
and I must leave things behind.
I have some extra memories
and precious souvenirs.
I left behind a wish or two
and lots of empty fears.
I took a ton of snapshots
which are stored inside my mind.
But I packed too much again you see,
so I left my heart behind.

Barbie Dockstader Angell
© 2009-present

Monday, January 16, 2012

Going Electric: Fender Telecaster!

A happy Monday, folks, as we come at you with this week’s edition of the Monday Morning Blues.  Time to explore another legendary blues guitar, & this time around we're going electric!

Actually, the Fender Telecaster is just purely & simply a legendary guitar—when you talk about solid-body electrics, the conversation always seems to start with three: the Fender Telecaster & Stratocaster & the Gibson Les Paul.  All three guitars have made a huge impact on music since the mid 20th century—& each has also made huge impact on guitar design.  The Telecaster was the earliest of the three, with a prototype known as the Broadcaster being available in the late 1940s, & the Telecaster itself going into distribution late in 1950.  A companion model, the Esquire, also went into production at this time.  The Esquires only had a single pick-up, whereas the Telecaster has two, one in the neck position & one in the bridge.

Leo Fender, who designed & built the Telecaster, incorporated a number of innovations that have since gone into widespread use with other models of solid-body electric guitars.  For the uninitiated, “solid body” refers to the fact that the guitar’s body is a solid block of wood rather than a hollow sound chamber as is found in an acoustic guitar or a “hollow body electric.”  When you think “electric guitar,” odds are what you picture in your mind is a solid body guitar.

While Leo Fender’s construction techniques were important—& if you’re interested in this, Wikipedia has a good article on the Telecaster here—the thing we all know is the sound.  Again, to refer to Wikipedia, which gives a nice thumbnail on this:

The Telecaster is known for its ability to produce both bright, rich, cutting tone or mellow, warm, bluesy tone depending on the selected pickup, respectively "bridge" pickup or "neck" pickup... [making] the Telecaster a versatile guitar, usable for most styles of music including country, blues, rock and jazz.

Yes, even in jazz! One doesn’t think of jazz guitarists as playing solid-body electrics, but noted jazz player Bill Frisell has used a Telecaster as his main guitar for years! Noted Telecaster players have also included players as diverse as Merle Haggard, David Gilmour, Bruce Springsteen & Joe Strummer—just to name a few.

But we’re interested specifically in the Telecaster being used in the blues, & there are some top-notch players in that field as well.  Albert Collins—the “Master of the Telecaster” (see the first video below), Muddy Waters (third video), Roy Buchanan, Snooks Eaglin (second video—amazing!), Robben Ford, Deborah Coleman, Sue Foley—even Keith Richards, who can certainly play some blues, & whose main guitar (named “Micawber”) is a Telecaster strung with only five strings & tuned to open G.

The proof, of course, is in the listening, & today we have three videos—in large part because I had to include both Collins & Waters, but couldn’t pass on the amazing performance by Snooks Eaglin!  Hope you enjoy them.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Photo of the Week 1/15/12

The Marquam Bridge (Interstate 5) Crossing the Willamette River
Taken from the Observation Deck at OHSU
Friday 1/13/12

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Raintown #3

despite this sky blue sky the
damp insinuates bone-deep—these
planter box violets on SW 5th avenue

slouch reigned as if they too waited for this
streetcar that doesn’t come—black
mulberry branches overhanging an

empty playground—leafless—the
difficulty exhaling in raw air, lungs in-
empty cream white corridor in the

hospital ramped for wheelchairs &
gurneys—a kid riding the aerial tram telling each
evergreen goodbye as it passes beneath—his

appointment was so good
his parents
explain—your hands are cold the RN tells
me—awkward, matter-of-fact, kind tho—odor of

isopropanol, blue scrubs, blue vinyl chairs, blue
pillows, blue chux pads, gold plasma flowing
cool thru the basilic vein over 30 minutes

weekly—this weekend will see snow on
violets mullberry pines alike—the
biggest mercies are what we are spared

Jack Hayes
© 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

“Old Corn Liquor”

A happy Banjo Friday to you, friends.  We’ve got two great music videos for your entertainment!

I’ve written in the past about how the clawhammer style of banjo playing has been associated particularly with dance music. That’s not only true in terms of the banjo’s history, but also true today.  After all, much of what’s called “old-time” music today is dance tunes, & “old-time” musicians routinely play at contra dances & similar events. When “old-time” banjoists play this music, the vast majority of them use the clawhammer playing style.  Its percussive, rhythmic attack, in which the banjoist uses the fingernail of either the index or middle finger to strike down on the strings, alternating with the thumb, is particularly suited for such dance settings.

This dance tradition thrived in both the African-American & European-American communities—a fact that isn’t as commonly known as it should be.  In part, this meant that there was a sharing of musical repertoire between the two communities, as well as a sharing of musical techniques.  There are a number of sources available for studying this confluence of musical traditions, but the most enjoyable no doubt are those “sources” that allow you to actually hear it—& for that, you can’t do much better than listening to the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

I’ve written about the Carolina Chocolate Drops frequently in this space—to my mind, they are one of the most exciting musical outfits going today. Without going back over familiar territory, I will mention that band members Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens & Justin Thompson (who has since left the band—Hubby Jenkins is now the third member) met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005. Following this, the three musicians began to play weekly with then octogenarian fiddler Joe Thompson, perhaps the last surviving link to the black string band tradition as it existed in the early 20th century. The Chocolate Drops incorporated much of Thompson’s repertoire into their own, & tho the overall sound they achieve is traditional, they added any number of wrinkles.  Joe Thompson’s version of “Old Corn Liquor” is found in the second video, with his brother the late Odell Thompson playing banjo. This is taken from the important Smithsonian/Folkways collection, Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia.

The song “Old Corn Liquor” is in fact a square dance tune (by square dance here I mean traditional square dance, not Modern or Western square dance), & a tune that was shared by both African-American & European-American communities. The song is typically played in G, so the banjo is in the “standard” G tuning. 

Great fun! Enjoy!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"My Blue Heaven"

[A remarkable new poem from Brittany Newmark-much gratitude for the privilege of posting it on Robert Frost's Banjo]

My Blue Heaven

Heaven is a continent with no oceans.

                    And it stands to reason that
                    all the languages spoken there are dead languages,

So, finally I can use my one phrase in Aramaic
                                                                                                    abra’ ki’dab’rah
                                                Meaning:  from this utterance I create.

But then I will keep my mouth shut.

In heaven all gray pack mules become horses
                    prancing with colored streamers or some become storms, huge dust devils

                     a wild herd across a grassy plain

                    others are armored steeds en fête for the Emperor’s parade.

In heaven the fact that you died ruined, humiliated
and slow, with those dark brown stains

                                                            on the sheets does not matter

because in heaven nobody has any bodily functions to carry

                                                                                                    around or leave behind.

Heaven is the green crack of the poppy bud

                                                                                just before it opens
It is the third prayer of the day.

In heaven David brushes Av’shalom’s hair and all is forgiven.

You can rest; your future is no longer rushing to meet you at some off the chart velocity, weighted by happenstance and awkward failures and phony politics.

Hard to believe but true, in heaven they only play the music you love
That song you long to hear over and over,
                                        and her voice
                                        what is it about that voice?

In heaven the cuffs never fall out of your pants
And a love that ended decades ago one bad winter stays like a secure seam
Stitched into a silk purse made from a sow’s ear.

The light in heaven is not artificial light

(but who am I to speak of the light of heaven,
                                                                                I am getting ahead of myself, I hope)

Mostly, there are warm nights in the Summer garden and friendly games on the grass

Be advised though that there are drastic changes in heaven concerning human
                                        O sweet relief

And after so many azure decades the beloved becomes the lover.

In heaven you will not meet those women with rouged cheeks and ballerina buns they
have gone elsewhere.

I have it on good authority that in heaven there are no arguments, no counter
arguments and no snarky retorts.

I do know that you cannot speak of heaven
Without at some point addressing the here, the now, and

the child that we will meet there,

                    (oh how fast she has grown, into a lovely lady)

on the sweeping lawn, that we wanted so badly to stay here alongside us

                                                                                                          (well I did, I should not speak for you)
 in all the narrow beds that preceded the last one.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      just breathe, please just breathe.

I wholeheartedly imagine that even a thief in his tunnel
                                                                                                        who prays
simply not to be caught will be in the Summer garden for a friendly game,
                                                                                          and among friends finally.

You may not know that until you get there
In heaven you can love notions without understanding them
and people that never lived long enough to be.

Brittany Newmark
© 2012

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


[haiku/by L.E. Leone/enjoy it!]


Like half a cherry
tomato on an iceberg
salad, I wonder


L.E. Leone
© 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

“Roll ‘Em”

A happy Monday, folks!  We’re here at last with a much belated edition of the Monday Morning Blues, & coming at you once again with a piece of music that explores the intersection of blues & jazz.

Up to now this series has only explored songs from the “hot jazz” era of the 1920s.  While I love music from that era, I didn’t want the series to turn into a sort of “moldy figs” appreciation of traditional jazz to the exclusion of later developments in the music—both because I love later jazz as well, & also because there are some prime examples of blues meeting jazz from all points in jazz history, & even from some composers who have been considered quite radical.

Today’s song comes from one of the most talented composers & pianists in the history of jazz, tho sadly she is still all too often overlooked.  That is the great Mary Lou Williams, of whom Duke Ellington wrote:

Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.

Mary Lou Williams began her performing career in the 1920s when she was still in her early teens, & at age 15 she was performing with Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians.  She made the claim—a true claim at that—that in her long career she played in “every era” of jazz, & in fact she composed & performed in the hot jazz era, thru the big band time & was an important tho frequently neglected figure in the development of be-bop.  Williams continued to be a significant force in the jazz world up to her death in 1981.

In addition to the fact that Mary Lou Williams was a masterful pianist, she was also a composer & arranger of note.  Her Zodiac Suite from the mid 1940s is a great extended composition, & she also composed a number of noteworthy songs, including today’s selection, “Roll ‘Em,” which she wrote in 1937 in response to Benny Goodman asking her to come up with a theme song for his band.  “Roll ‘Em” is a hard driving boogie, & the version we have today showcases Williams as a performer backed by the Benny Carter Orchestra.  In its basic structure, “Roll ‘Em” is a  12-bar blues, but it’s transfigured by Williams’ inventiveness & her powerful flow of musical ideas.

Hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Photo of the Week 1/8/12

The KOIN Center (AKA the King Kong Building)
Taken from SW 5th Ave
Portland, Oregon
Friday 1/6/12

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Raintown #2

weathered prayer flags fringe the porch's
chipped white paint molding, a paper

star dangling ungraceful alongside frayed 

cloth—nailed to cedar boards a Christmas

Scotch pine lies derelict & dripping at Albina & 
Mason—white wicker

rocker's set upside down in a drab Dodge
pickup’s bed atop heaped wheels & 

tools—this white air swirls: this stifling cold

smoke—lawn chairs, sun umbrella, patio
table all pastel, upturned at random be-

hind a snarled wire fence—this crimson 

bow lies on the sidewalk not so far from the 
Monster energy drink can—slat fence
spilling white spirea into white fog spilling

drizzle & wreckage—January’s red
roses cling to clapboards, yellow rose stands
all on its own in the parking strip—not

least: a rusted Schwin bike secured to porch rails:
it’s festooned with tangled icicle lights—
will mercy ever be sufficient

Jack Hayes
© 2012

Friday, January 6, 2012

Sometimes a Banjo is Just a Banjo?

Banjo Friday is upon us once again, friends.  & after a month-long fun excursion into the rapid-fire pleasures of bluegrass banjo, we’re back to doing what we do best: the odd & obscure!  However, I do want to announce that I’m henceforth designating the final Friday of each month as Bluegrass Friday, so you fans of Scruggs rolls, take heart.  & I’m anticipating a very special inaugural Bluegrass Friday coming up at the end of January—stay tuned for further announcements!

Early in the Banjo Friday series I devoted a post to the Ekonting, a west African instrument that is typically considered a close relative of the banjo, especially in the banjo's earlier American manifestations (4-stringed but with a drone, fretless, with a gourd head.) 

But there are other instruments in west Africa that have been connected with the banjo, & the principal one of these is the ngoni; the term ngoni actually refers to a few related instruments, one of which is used by the griots, who—to over-simplify things—are musical storytellers.  The ngoni is fashioned either using a calabash or wood for the body; when a calabash is used, a goat skin is often used as a resonating surface in much the same way as the head works on a banjo. 

The ngoni is not only used in traditional music, however; it’s also employed in the very vibrant west African pop music scene, & is played by a number of notable instrumentalists, including Issa Bagayogo, Bassekou Kouyaté, Baba Sissoko & Cheick Hamala Diabate, all from Mali. 

But musical instrument genealogy is an inexact science—even the taxonomy of a given musical instrument gets incredibly complicated!  Just think of all the different types of banjos we’ve considered on Banjo Friday: 5-string banjos, plectrum banjos, tenor banjos, bass banjos, banjitars, banjolins & banjo-ukes!  Are they all equally “banjos?” 

& if we look at instrument family trees, things can get confusing even with instruments that have been a part of the European musical tradition for some time—for instance, while a direct line can be traced from today’s guitars all the way back to 15th & 16th century instruments like the vihuela & the baroque guitar, considerable changes have occurred even in terms of number of strings & general lay-out of the instrument.  & while a number of people—including such influential players as Béla Fleck & Bob Carlin—have made a point of including the ngoni within the banjo world family, other researchers, like Shlomo Pestcoe have tended to downplay the connection between the banjo & the ngoni, seeing the ekonting as a much closer relative. 

I have no basis for forming an opinion on this—I will say anecdotally that the playing technique of the ekonting, which is very similar to frailing, seems perhaps in some ways more “banjoistic” than the ngoni playing technique—yet that technique is not all that far removed from two-finger picking.  I do know that Cheick Hamala Diabate told Bob Carlin all of his ngoni music “fits” on a banjo, & that seems a rather important statement in itself.

We have two videos for your listening & viewing pleasure: the first shows Malian musician Mama Sissoko improvising on the ngoni—it’s a beautiful piece of improvised music too!—while the second shows Cheick Hamala Diabate & Bob Carolin dueting on two banjos—Carlin is playing a Pete Ross Gourd Banjo in the frailing style, while Diabate is playing an open-back 5-string very much in the ngoni style.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Raintown #1

Raintown #1

watercolor gray white sky the
aerial tram swings into its 45 degree
descent towards the Willamette’s yellow barges—

a wheelchair the fogged glass a green
oxygen tank a cell phone—a child grasping
his mother’s shoulder—cyan blue

streetcar’s reflection in mirrored
plate glass windows, & mosses’ awkward
hand against a weeping birch’s trunk be-

low the streetcar’s electric wire—
green coffee cup half-filled on the
train perched by an empty purple seat—

the Willamette River viewed from the
Steel Bridge—impasto ripple
in oils running slate gray under the

Broadway Bridge— on the bus someone’s words
overheard, half understood—the
bare tree on the lawn surrounded by

slick brown leaves & hung with un-
gainly gold-blue-red holiday decorations:
you are not alone

Jack Hayes
© 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Gas, Heat & Water Included"

[Barbie Dockstader Angell paints a lovely word picture of “home” here—may she & we all have such a “concise” dwelling in which to play!] 

Gas, Heat & Water Included

For Eben

Life is where you live.
Home is where you are.
Worth only what you give,
Known only from afar.
My life is pretty small,
Though I like to say “concise.”
But I guess I have it all,
and I must admit it’s nice.
It has a lot of windows;
a good view of all I see.
The ceilings have a star’s glow,
though it never rains on me.
The shelves hold all my thoughts
and loves that I once had,
but the memories they bought
never seem to make me sad.
The table in the kitchen
is where we share our minds.
The bathtub is for swimming
whenever we have time.
Somewhere in the hall
is where we leave our jokes,
though silent through it all
on little paper notes.
Life is where you live it
and mine has lots of stairs,
free from all the bullshit
built up through the years.
And when I’m feeling lonely
at the end of a long day,
Happiness will greet me
and always want to play.

Barbie Dockstader Angell

Monday, January 2, 2012

Poor Boy Long Way From Home #8 – John Dudley

Happy Monday, folks.  It’s still Monday morning out here on the Left Coast (just barely) as this posts—so welcome to a much belated edition of the Monday Morning Blues.

We’re here with the next installment in the Poor Boy Blues series—there will be two installments this month, since there are five Mondays in January.  & today’s version is one I really love: some wonderful slide playing by a musician known as John Dudley.

We know very little about him.  The recording was made in 1959 by Alan Lomax during a visit to the notorious Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi.  Dudley was working in the dairy section of the complex—the photo leading off the post shows Dudley in a prison uniform—he’s the man to the right of center.  Lomax took two photos of him, & no other photographs exist.  All in all, Dudley made the following recordings during the session: “Clarksdale Mill (2 takes)", "You Got a Mean Disposition","Big Road Blues", "Cool Drink of Water Blues (2 takes)", "Poor Boy Blues",  "I'm Gonna Move To Kansas City," & an interview about "playing guitar at dances."  You can hear an mp3 of his “Clarksdale Mill Blues” on the page I’ve linked for a biography.  This song, a loose adaptation of Charlie Patton’s great “Moon Going Down,” is considered by some to be Dudley’s masterpiece.

Dudley came from Tunica County, Mississippi—also the birthplace of Robert Johnson, & one county to the north of Coahoma, where Clarksdale is located.  Clarksdale is of course one of the centers of Delta blues music, & it’s notable that four of Dudley’s songs are adaptations—I think the term fits better than “cover,” which implies an attempt to make the song sound as much like the original as possible—& three of those are versions of Delta standards—in addition to “Clarksdale Mill Blues/Moon Goin’ Down,” there are also the two takes on Tommy Johnson songs, “Cool Drink of Water Blues” & “Big Road Blues.”  Of course, the latter song has had such a history of adaptation in the Delta that folklorist David Evans wrote a book about it!

This music & two photographs are all we know about John Dudley—but it’s a legacy a man could be proud of, recorded under extremely adverse conditions.  Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Photo of the Week 1/1/12

The Willamette River with the Boradway Bridge & the Fremont Bridge
Taken from a Max Train on the Steel Bridge
Portland, Oregon
Friday 12/30/11