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In Like A Lion

 

Ten years ago, I read Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus. Besides overturning my assumptions about the role of folk and blues in Dylan's music, it was also a shock to read intelligent, productive, tough-minded writing about a subject the writer loved.

I'd spent too many years in a graduate English program, which I didn't enjoy for many reasons. In retrospect, I mostly wish I'd been encouraged to do something with my writing other than knock things over, expose them as less than they seemed.

It was only AFTER leaving graduate school that I became interested in my own intellectual life again, as I had been in college. I gave myself permission to read what turned me on, and Marcus encouraged me to go ahead and love things, including their misdeeds and contradictions.

Then it was Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis Presley and Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good in rapid succession. Both were amazingly benevolent and unguarded, and both the work of razor-sharp minds doing much-need labor under rigorous standards. I'd gained a lot of powerful intellectual tools in graduate school, but hadn't understood you could use them for this.

The Celestial Monochord grew partly out of that awakening.

But there were many more books and other amazing experiences first — jug band contests, a half-dozen Mike Seeger concerts, banjo lessons, banjo camp, the Black Banjo conference in Boone, NC, and on and on.

Around 2005, my knowledge was deepening to the point that it was becoming harder to find what I was looking for online and in books. None of it could be Googled, you might say. So I slowly began to feel like a "source" of some kind, to see my perspective as fresh. Maybe not authoritative, maybe not a lot of other nice things, but singular.

So that's where this came from. Not so much to report what I know, but to see what I could discover if I did a little writing on it — especially if more knowledgable people than I noticed what I was working on and said hello, which has certainly come to pass.

Editor's Note:

Total words written in February = 21,000
Average words per entry = 790
I hope to write more often than I was before this month's grand experiment, in which I've posted something every single day of the month of February.

For one thing, I will be "covering" the late-March Bob Dylan Symposium in Minneapolis. "Coverage" is not The Celestial Monochord's schtick, exactly, so we'll see what that exactly looks like. But I will definitely be there from gavel to gavel, notebook and camera in hand, business cards at the ready. I know it's no Battle of the Jug Bands, but ...

Thanks: Thank you for reading and writing back, both on and off the site. I have a lot of emails to respond to, and it'll take a little while to get to them.

Many special thanks to scholar Carol Mason, Brandy Snifter Lyle Lofgren, writer and musician Jerome Clark, and record collector/juggist Bill Boslaugh for their encouragement and tolerance. Thanks also to John Hinchey for the advertising.

None of this is these people's fault.

Most of all, thanks to my wife Jenny, who basically lost her husband this month. Thanks again for letting me print your poems. March belongs to you.

Jenny is generous, beautiful, brilliant, and steel-willed. But Celestial Monochord readers might appreciate this in particular — she's encouraged my interests to the point of paying my way to banjo camp, going with me to Boone, and giving me tall stacks of books, CDs, DVDs and concert tickets with breath-taking precision. She actually scolds me for not practicing my banjo enough around the house, and listens to me when I rave on and on about this hillbilly stuff. Several of this month's entries were suggested by her.

 


Against Camp: The Cosmological Argument

Indian head nickel
a nickel I bought in Seattle for a couple bucks

 

I have five nickels from 1940, all gotten as change over the last few years when buying coffee in the morning. You pay for a bagel and as change you get this thing minted before Pearl Harbor. Before the bomb. Before rock music. It says so right on it.

My wife Jenny sees me picking through my pocket change — or through hers — looking for a penny with an attractive patina or a dime from when Frank Cloutier was still alive.

I'm not a real coin collector. For me, coins are vehicles for thinking about the mundane objects of the past. Like old music, they're intimate little windows, in the palm of your hand, on what used to be intimately in the palm of somebody else's hand.

Old movies do the same job. A character picks up a phone, pauses, and finally says something like "Bensonhurst 5472." I saw it a hundred times before I ever really asked myself what was going on there. How did you used to make a phone call, and how does it matter that it's now different?

The small stuff is ignored by history, even though that's where all the significant changes happen. Money and politicians still shuffle things around — build stuff up, knock it down. Newspapers gin up wars overseas and most people worry about their livelihoods more than anything else.

What does change in dazzlingly profound ways are the mundane details. What does your pocket change look like? What are your shoes made of? What's playing at the local theater? Where's your bank? If Native Americans living in, say, 1491 could see today's America, the ephemera of our everyday lives would lead them to conclude that the world had ended — and they would not be wrong.

Here's the point. Somebody made the mistake of telling straight people about camp — I don't know, maybe it was Susan Sontag.

In any case, when I see old movies (say, 1967 or earlier) in a theater, there's always somebody who aggressively laughs as loud as he can. A kind of projected stage laughter. Hysterical, as if this were the first movie he'd ever seen in his life. It seems meant to signal that he recognizes something campy.

The last time I witnessed this, the movie was Rear Window. Everything about it was hilarious to the guy sitting immediately behind me. The sight of the murderer smoking a cigarette alone in the dark was a particular knee-slapper.

What's so funny, you wonder? It's the past. Anything marking the film as having been made before the current instant in time makes it worthy of derision, as if stupidity were confined to an earlier phase of cosmological expansion. The reason you and I happen to exist NOW, as opposed to some moment before now, is that you and I are mind-blowingly sophisticated. We're cool — that's why the current time happens to be "now."

But consider the alternative, as a cosmologist might. The past and the future are the same stuff. Both the past and the future are absent. They exist only in the mind's eye. They are only imagined. Neither is "here." Only the present is ... well, present to us.

But there is one difference between the past and the future. Exactly one difference.

It's cause and effect. Cause and effect goes in only one direction, from the past to the future. The arrow of causation never goes the other way. If it did, there would be no difference between the past and future.

And "cause and effect" is another way of saying "information." Information flows only from the past to the future. A coffee cup is information about the past — we can't drink out of a cup made in the future. Likewise, you can't meet a person born in the future — people, such as you and me, were caused in the past. We are information about the past.

This is why you should never trust a psychic — the universe depends on his being a liar. More to the point, this is also why old movies — and old music, and old newspapers, and old coins — are the closest you'll ever come to being able to look into the future. They're not funny, they're information about the past ... which is the only information anyone will ever have.

So wipe that smile off your face and sit quietly ... even if it's The Sound of Music. Even if it's Barbarella. Possibly The Ten Commandments ...

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 27 of a 28-part experiment. I'm trying to post one entry to The Celestial Monochord every day (or at least FOR every day) during the month of February 2007.

 


As Real As It Gets

The book reviews in next Sunday's New York Times (March 4) will include a review of Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor. The reviewer, Ben Yagoda, is disappointed in the book's prose — his own latest book is When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It — but he likes the book's ideas tolerably well. Certainly, the review is worth reading.

The book is about the ways American musicians have tried to convey their authenticity, often pushing back against powerful cultural currents challenging them on the point.

Especially interesting is Yagoda's discussion of the book's chapter on Mississippi John Hurt. His music was not black enough for Okeh's race records in 1928, even if his skin was too dark for their hillbilly line. Ironically, he was rediscovered in 1963 by white record collectors and introduced to contemporary audiences as a blues revivalist, although he didn't play blues. Or anyway, this is how I read Yagoda's reading of Barker and Taylor's reading of history.

As often as I wish I'd been there for that 1960's Revival of myth and legend, I'm just as often reminded that today's revivalism has great advantages over that gone paradise. I get the impression folk and blues people used to harbor fierce, malignant, withering resentments about the tuning of hammer dulcimers, whether you may use a plastic thumb pick, and whatnot.  They sometimes positively hated each other over such things. Or anyway, if so, it's pretty much a thing of the past.

A profile of Spider John Koerner makes it sound as if Koerner was hounded into giving up music and leaving the country because he wasn't deemed authentic enough (I think my reading of the article is a bit overly dramatic, actually). If this is at all close to correct, he really DID teach Bob Dylan a lot — as we all know, in July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in ... somewhere. Can't remember.

But it seems everybody went through their own version of it — if Barker and Taylor are to be believed, even John Hurt got pushed out of, and stuffed into, various authentic closets. I know a guy who bought his first New Lost City Ramblers album in the mid-sixties, and he felt he had to hide it on the subway ride home — the Ramblers, apparently, weren't considered authentic enough in his neighborhood.

Back in 2004, between banjo seminars, I saw the subject of authenticity brought up in Mike Seeger's presence. He said various sensible things about it, including something like "You always have to wonder, an authentic WHAT? " I don't remember what he said exactly ... maybe it was "Everybody's an authentic SOMETHING."

My understanding is that the Carter Family, between around WWII and the mid 1960's, were considered by many folk music enthusiasts to be grossly inauthentic pop country recording stars — sort of the mid-century equivalent of ... well, I don't know who ... Faith Hill?

In any case, people like Ed Kahn and Mike Seeger (not to mention Harry Smith) helped articulate a "reading" of the Carters that brought them to their current reputation as more real than reality itself. Mike Seeger, and especially Ralph Rinzler, did the same thing for Bill Monroe. Of course, Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe may have helped out a bit too.

The more I see and read, the less I worry about authenticity. There was never a time in some real down-home past when it was anything other than a pain in the ass. Elijah Wald's Escaping The Delta and and Benjamin Filene's Romancing The Folk are better educations in the matter than you'll receive here at The Celestial Monochord.

But you know ... we have it good, we who became interested in this music at the turn of this century, around the time of the complete Robert Johnson and the Harry Smith Anthology in CD box sets, of O Brother Where Art Thou, of The Old Crow Medicine Show, and so on. It literally took decades of fighting and arguing, going hungry and losing friends, writing and researching — not to mention playing and hearing and collecting a lot of great music — to bring me this long perspective I now (believe myself to) enjoy. In 1960, a lot of people would have sacrificed anything to read Wald, Filene, Cantwell, Marcus, Charters, and ... well, I don't know, maybe Barker and Taylor.

 

Editor's Note: Hey! Here I am! This is entry number 26 — count 'em, twenty six — in my 28-part mission to post something every day this month to The Celestial Monochord. And I mean, something Monochordum Mundi, not just any old thing. I mean, not my laundry list or something. Whatever a laundry list is ...

 


Summer of '88

Johnkoerner
Spider John Koerner listens to the The Phleshtones
at the Battle of the Jug Bands, Minneapolis, February 11, 2007

 

As I write, we're socked in here this morning with the biggest snowstorm in many years. Big drifts, lace in the trees, shovels everywhere, cars rocking back and forth. Whenever I see such scenes, strangely enough, I think of my first summer here in Minneapolis.

I moved here from Tucson in the summer of 1988, a miserably, scorchingly hot summer in the Twin Cities. The drought was so severe that nobody knew if the water level of the Mississippi River would drop below the intakes — if it did, a million people would suddenly have no running water. As if it weren't miserable enough, it was also an election year.

My move to Minnesota probably magnifies my memory of that summer. But it felt as if the whole state knew the same existential dread, almost as if we could all sense it was the first season of the end of the world (which, in fact, may not turn out to be so far from the truth).

More than a decade later, I first saw Spider John Koerner in concert, and was surprised to find this legendary Minnesota musician had written a great song about the summer of 1988. It sure seemed like he'd seen the same summer I had.

Good profiles have been written about John Koerner and I can't top them, not today. Even Bob Dylan himself — The Great Written About — wrote about Koerner at some length in his Chronicles autobiography. For one thing, Dylan says Koerner introduced him to the albums of the New Lost City Ramblers.

It's said that Koerner wrote "Summer of '88" after many years of not writing anything at all, and it does sound like something you'd say after a long silence. Koerner casts his eye on everything on planet Earth and pulls it all into the song — liberal-conservative left-right wingers, crop prices, fools in the local water hole, money boys, nasty boys, science boys, religion boys, a girl named Lou ...

A red-tailed hawk when he's flying up high
Can see a little bitty snake with his razor-sharp eye
And an eight-hooter owl with her sensitive eye
Can see a hundred-thousand stars more than you or I
Spider John was thinking about the Apocalypse that summer, too — quite a bit, it seems — only what he thought about it was that it didn't seem to be going on at the moment ... at least not around the West Bank of the University of Minnesota, where he's still playing his gigs, sounding better than he ever has in his life ...
Well the moon hangs low and the moon hangs high
And the good old Earth hangs in the sky
Well the sun never rises and the sun never sets
And you know it ain't over yet
You can get a recording of the song on his Raised By Humans CD. I remember there was footage of Koerner performing the entire song — and nine others, I believe — in the documentary about him, Been Here ... Done That, although it's hard to know how to get a hold of the DVD. I saw it in the theater.

The best thing is to see Koerner in person. I don't have his complete recordings, but from what I can tell, that's where the strange beauty of his guitar style strikes home best. He plays in ragged phrases that lurch, like a long deep breath, and then fall silent for a couple beats, and then start again. These wonderful pauses say a lot, and allow him the opportunity to just change tempo or meter, or key or song — whatever it takes — for as long as he pleases. It's an unmistakeable style. His voice is rough but high and clear, and is perfect for his playing and perfect for singing folk songs for people drinking bourbon. They say there was a time when people used to give him crap for not being "authentic," although it's hard to imagine now.

Well, there's a coda to this story. The first winter I was in Minnesota, I sat in an ice cream shop in Dinkytown, looking down 14th street just after that winter's first really deep snowfall. It dawned on me that I had seen that exact same street buried in that exact same snowfall before — big drifts, lace in the trees, shovels everywhere, cars rocking back and forth. But this was my first winter in Minnesota, so how could this be? I had not seen it in a dream, and this was not déjà vu.

It took about five minutes of puzzling to realize that, back on the hottest day of the summer of 1988, I had sat in the same ice cream shop and looked down the same street, anticipating what it would be like to experience winter for the first time after spending four years in Tucson. It was on that blisteringly hot day that I had IMAGINED how that snowy Dinkytown scene would look during my first Minnesota winter. I'd seen it before, but only in my mind's eye. So ... there was something about that summer of 1988, the way it played games with my memory and imagination, and maybe Spider John's too.

Spiderjohnkoerner

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 25 of 28 entries in which I seek to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day for the entire month of February. Around here, that's quite a feat.

 


Georgia Lee

Madonnachildjpg    Pieta

Back in the 1990's, Tom Waits wrote a song called "Georgia Lee". If I remember the story correctly, he wrote it after the body of a 12-year-old girl was found not far from his house.

She'd been dumped there in a patch of trees, and her death barely made the newspapers. This was around the time of the Polly Klaas case — or during some other headline-making search for an abducted girl — and Waits was disturbed at the possibility that kids like Georgia Lee don't get as much coverage because they're too poor, or too black, or too troubled, or they're not photogenic enough, or ...

While he was giving Mule Variations its final edit, Waits cut "Georgia Lee" from the track list. Tom's daughter — who was near the age Georgia Lee had been when she died — was appalled. Here Georgia Lee is used up, murdered, and thrown away and nobody gives a damn ... until, finally, somebody bothers to write a song about her ... and it GETS CUT FROM THE ALBUM?

So, Waits sighed heavily, restored the song to Mule Variations, and wistfully remembered his simple, care-free bachelor days when nobody meddled with his art except record company executives, producers, accountants, lawyers ...

Anyway, with that background, I'll get to the main point, which will take a while to explain. The lyrics begin:

Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She's too young to be out on the street

[Chorus]
Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?

Probably, the first line pays homage to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," a much-admired gospel/blues record from 1927.

Johnson's recording is a slide-guitar instrumental, basically — the sparce vocals consist of humming, or moans of grief. Occasionally, Johnson says "Ah well." The recording is clearly a profound contemplation ... but ... of what?

The full title of the song Blind Willie Johnson was riffing on is "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground on Which Our Lord Was Laid." For a long while, I wasn't sure whether it's a contemplation of Jesus buried in his tomb or the humble circumstances of his birth. After all, the body of Jesus was placed on the cold ground twice — once at when he was born, and once when he died.

Either story, or both stories — thought of together, as bookends — could elicit the overwhelming grief of Johnson's recording. The homeless child born in a stable, or the murdered holy man buried in a cave. To this blind, black gospel artist in the 1920's, either story might sound awfully sad and awfully familiar — even if most Americans, today, tend to miss the intense sense of pity that gives the Christmas story its meaning ... bad for sales, presumably.

Eventually, I decided "Dark Was the Night" was a contemplation of the crucifixion and the burial. After all, that's what Samuel Charters says in his liner notes.

I hadn't thought much about those three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection until I'd puzzled over "Dark Was the Night." Those days are about the grief and complete absence of hope that give the Resurrection so much of its emotional impact.

I was reminded of this again when listening to Bruce Springsteen's version of the old Negro spiritual "Oh Mary Don't You Weep."

Although the song is about the New Testament story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, it makes one reference to the Old Testament after another. That's puzzling at first, but the song comforts an old Jewish woman upon the death of her son. It's a song against despair, to be sung for Mary during those same three days, when she knew about the Old Testament and all too much about the crucifixion, but nothing about any resurrection.

Anyway ... despite all this thinking about the Crucifixion, the Nativity lingered in my mind whenever I heard Blind Willy Johnson's "Dark Was the Night." And this confusion of the two bookend images of Jesus lying on the ground eventually reminded me of something I'd seen in art history classes in college.

There's a long European artistic tradition of depicting the baby Jesus with the features of an old man, and of depicting Mary holding the crucified Jesus (the pieta) so as to echo a Madonna-and-child. The Nativity and Crucifixion are mixed up together. In the way I hear "Dark Was The Night," Blind Willie Johnson and Michelangelo share that ambivalence, that refusal to decide.

All that is what I thought about Johnson's recording at the time Mule Variations was released ... and here was Tom Waits, referring to "Dark Was the Night" at the start of "Georgia Lee" — a song about a dead African American child. Whether intended or not, "Georgia Lee" revives this confusion between the pieta and the Madonna and child, and does it through Blind Willie Johnson.

Tom's song also evokes "Dark Was the Night" in a subtler way.

While Waits writes a lot of wonderfully sad songs, "Georgia Lee" may be the only completely hopeless song he's ever written. Like "Dark Was the Night," it's as if "Georgia Lee" were recorded during the Three Days. It's a song about the total absence of hope, about despair. The chorus more or less says so, outright, in the unanswered question it leaves hanging in the empty air.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 24 of 28 entries in which I seek to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day ... every stinkin day ... for the entire month of February.


Bob Dylan Disappointed Folk Music Purists

Like a lot of bloggers, I'm unnaturally drawn to my site statistics. Of course, I like it when the number of visitors spikes up higher than usual — as it certainly has this month. But the real attraction is seeing where visitors come from, how they got to The Celestial Monochord.

You see when somebody's linked to you. I get a lot of hits from Boney Earnest's Suburban Hilltop Tent Revue, Cowtown Pattie, BanjoBanjar, and a lot of other places, especially BoingBoing, who once picked up an entry about my cats. The other day, I noticed somebody from the Weird Al Yankovic discussion list linked to that cat entry. Now and then, something about Dylan is picked up by Expecting Rain, which perks things up considerably.

Mostly, visitors come from Google. There are times when I can tell somebody has seen one of my entries somewhere and they can't remember where. So, they go to Google and they type in whatever they can remember. Why else would you search for something like "hillbilly fulgurite"?

Sometimes, it seems someone is looking for information and I'm gratified to see that they came to the right place — maybe they've searched for "einstein moe asch folkways" or "what causes sundogs". Other times, it's clear they've come to my site hoping to find a certain kind of information and it seems very likely they were disappointed, as when someone was searching for information on the 2006 winner of the Stanley Cup and got this.

But for nearly a year now, somebody's been pissing me off. For some reason, about twice a month EVERY month, somebody goes to Google and types in "In July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in what city.

Apparently, the person would REALLY like to know in what city this occurred, and they have a long-standing curiosity about the answer. However, despite never receiving a satisfactory result, it does not dawn on them that maybe they should change their search terms. Or maybe they should go to a damned library. I can't think of any other reason someone would type the same question into Google over and over and over again, for months. Apparently, this person is waiting for someone to put something on the internet with that exact string of characters, and then answer the question.

Well, that day has arrived, buddy boy. Since I can't think of anything else to write today, let me put a decisive end to this person's curiosity. (And — gentle reader of the Monochord — I'm sorry you have to witness this.)

------

Question: In July of 1965, Bob Dylan disappointed folk music purists by "going electric" at their annual gathering in what city?

Answer: NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND! NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND! NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND! NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND!

NEWPORT! NEWPORT! NEWPORT! NEWPORT!

RHODE ISLAND! RHODE ISLAND! RHODE ISLAND! RHODE ISLAND!

Now knock it off, you idiot!

HERE! Now you can find all kinds of interesting links to articles and other resources having to do with this over-blown, irrelevant, piddly little flap that happened FORTY TWO YEARS AGO! Read every single last one of them extremely closely and then drop dead!

------

Thank you for your forbearance, gentle reader.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 23 of a 28-installment marathon. I don't know ... maybe it shows. In any case, I'm trying to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day during the month of February.

 



Out Squatting in their Domain

Back in August 2005, I registered the domains NewLostCityRamblers dot com and dot net.

Remembering why I did this foolish thing causes me conflicted emotions, to the point that they cancel each other out. Today, I very rarely think of it, except to puzzle over why I did it and what to do next.

That summer, I was kicking around the idea of starting a blog devoted to the members of the New Lost City Ramblers. The band is the best-kept secret in America — their influence is truly incalculable, their musical output seemingly endless and of supreme quality, and almost nobody under the age of 50 seems to know who they are.

When I've asked baby-boomer folk and blues enthusiasts how they got into the music (hoping to hear a story about the Harry Smith Anthology), they've almost always said they were roped in by the New Lost City Ramblers. After a while, I started to take that message to heart.

The individual members of Ramblers are still out there performing, mostly on their own and often in mind-bogglingly small and informal settings. So starting a blog to trace their comings and goings — and what hot young bands were being compared to them, who was crediting them with starting their careers, and so forth — seemed both a fun project and a useful public service.

But it turned out to be something a good deal more. Once I started the blog, I found my own understanding of the band growing exponentially. I also became much more familiar with a wider community I'd have known nothing about had I not maintained that blog. It was a door to a considerably wider world than I had known.

It is now inactive, though I haven't given up on it completely. I never received one comment from a reader, and the site statistics remained virtually non-existent — it was as thankless as hell. When I started my full-time pursuit of the Anthology's Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe, something had to give, and it was the Ramblers blog. Still, I very much miss what I got out of it, and I hope it will somehow live again some day soon.

ANYWAY, point is, I was kicking around ideas for a name, so I went to a domain registration service and started plugging in ideas — BattleshipMaine.gov, BlackBottomStrut.net, LongPlayingShortSelling.com, and so forth. Soon, I thought to try the obvious thing — NewLostCityRamblers dot com and dot net. I was very surprised — startled — that the domains were just sitting there, waiting for anybody at all to just pay a few bucks for them.

So I puzzled over that. I had long been a fan of Tom Waits, so I knew TomWaits.com had been held for years by a cyber squatter. Going to the domain yielded a come-on for a flat-out porn site, plus a lot of pop-up windows. I hear Waits had to pay a lot of lawyers to finally get his name back. Although I'm not absolutely sure, it appears Mike Seeger's name is already being squatted on in an analogous, if slightly more clever way — perhaps the reason for the real Mikes's odd URL.

For several days in a row, I returned to the registration site. I thought about alerting the Ramblers that the domains were available, but figured they must already know. I wondered if there might be such acrimony among the members that none wanted to be seen as grabbing the band's name. Mostly, I foresaw the day that a cyber squatter grabbed the domains and set up his scam, at which point they would become much more expensive property.

After several days of watching and thinking, a normal person would have concluded that the domains were worthless, that nobody wanted them, and they would remain available forever. But not me! I started wringing my hands a bit over the issue, especially since knowing they were available made me feel partly responsible for any bad outcomes. I thought about seeking advice at certain discussion lists I follow, but going public might have resulted in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So ... one day, without really having thought it out very deeply — on a whim — I whipped out a credit card and nabbed them. (It's ssssooo easy to do, almost like "one-click" buying at Amazon.) Of course, this multiplied my involvement exponentially. Instead of resolving a puzzle, it turned the puzzle into a problem, and one that was decisively MINE. Maybe that's what I wanted — I'm not sure.

And so there it is. It's embarrassing, because it's ethically ambiguous and something only an obsessive "fan" would get himself into. It's a bit like Iraq — too costly to hold onto, especially since it was none of my business in the first place, but it's uncomfortable imagining what might happen if I walked away.

I'm pretty sure — assuming no other intervention — I'll hang onto the domains for a time and keep wondering about them. If the Ramblers want them, they can sure as hell have them for nothing. When I do let them go, I'll try to give their management plenty of advance warning.

In the meantime, the domains sit there as something for me to think about, a touch stone. The very situation itself is an episode in the screwy history of the band's under-appreciation ... and in the strange career this kind of music is enjoying in cyberspace ... and in my own obsessive, expensive relationship with both.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 22 in my 28-part attempt to post one entry of The Celestial Monochord every day during the month of February 2007. And boy howdy, am I running out of ideas ... but I'm still standing! I'm gunna make it!

 


Oysters Monochord

Consider_the_oyster


It's a measure of my laser-like focus on Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe that The Celestial Monochord has gone without any mention of oysters until this month. For you see, not only do I love raw oysters, I've also read two — count 'em, TWO — books about oysters since last spring.

The first was M. F. K. Fisher's Consider the Oyster. Fisher seems to have been almost a food-focused Dorothy Parker or Edna St. Vincent Millay — you know, a brilliant writer, and an independent, bohemian, bisexual, martini-swilling raconteur. More or less.

Her Consider the Oyster is a beautifully-written, tiny little book — elegant and kind and wickedly funny, if sometimes a bit too silly. Open the book to any paragraph and you'll see. Here she is early in the first chapter, discussing the early life of an oyster:

He is small, but he is free-swimming ... and he swims thus freely for about two weeks, wherever the tides and his peculiar whims may lead him. He is called a spat.
   It is to be hoped, sentimentally, at least, that the spat — our spat — enjoys himself. Those two weeks are his one taste of vagabondage, of devil-may-care free roaming. And even they are not quite free, for during all his youth he is busy growing a strong foot and a large supply of sticky cementlike stuff. If he thought, he might wonder why. [all original punctuation, etc.]

She gives many oyster recipes, and her ability to splice them seamlessly into a great story is dazzling. Writing before 1941 with an intimate eye for detail, her stories are vivid views of all sorts of gone worlds — fancy restaurants in France, roadside shacks in Maine, a girl's school in Michigan, if I remember correctly. It's only 76 pages long, and even I — slowest reader on Earth — finished it in a weekend. I'm even tempted to re-read it before the months without R's begin.

By the way, Fisher says refrigeration had already rendered oysters safe to eat even in Oskaloosa, Iowa in any month of the year. Avoiding the R-less months might help the oyster farmer, since oysters lay their eggs during the warm months, but no season renders them dangerous to eat. Besides, some say summer oysters taste better.

I do recommend the other oyster book I read last year ... it's not Mark Kurlansky's fault that a world-class stylist got to the subject first, and it's even less his fault that I read Fisher's book immediately before The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.

Kurlansky writes those pop history books where some very improbable thing changed the world forever — 1968, cod, salt. Stylistically, he's as workmanlike and kitchen-sinky as you might expect. But his oyster book did transform my view of both New York and oysters, and made me enjoy the education.

The Big Oyster begins with Europeans sailing into New York Harbor for the first time, which allows Kurlansky to show how beautiful, bountiful and sweet-smelling its waters used to be — how much New York's very existence was ABOUT those qualities. For me, it was an opportunity to finally wrap my mind around the confounding geography of New York City, and beginning with the estuary in its natural state turned out to be key.

But The Big Oyster has organizational issues, and can feel frustratingly directionless. I frequently thought of the fish in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life — the ones who complain there isn't much in the movie about the meaning of life. Still, there are moments when your mind spins. Do you know why Manhattan city fathers laid out two hundred streets going from side to side (the short way) but only about twelve the long way (Bronx to Battery)? Because they thought the main flow of traffic would be between the two riverfronts. New York used to know where it was situated.

Kurlansky does leave us much more savvy about oysters than Fisher does. You can read Fisher closely without really realizing that all oysters you're ever likely to eat have been seeded, grown, and harvested by farmers — and it's been like this for at least 150 years. There hasn't been a natural, unmolested oyster bed essentially anywhere for more than a century. If there were, you wouldn't want to eat oysters from it. Natural oysters tend to get huge, and eating them is like "eating a baby."

 

Editor's Note: Well, here I am! The Celestial Monochord is trying to post an entry every day during the month of February. This here is installment 21 of 28. Whoo-hoo!

 


yeeee - HA!

Ralph
Ralph


I started learning to play clawhammer banjo almost five years ago. I caught on to the basic stroke almost the instant it was shown to me, which was exciting since I'd never shown much musical aptitude before.

Soon after, I sat down at the dining room table and really played in the apartment for the first time. Immediately, our cat Ralph got up off the couch, walked directly over to me in a purposeful gait, and puked right in front of me. My first heckler.

I should note that Ralph always left the room as soon as he heard the voice of Johnny Cash. He was a very supreme cat and we miss him terribly ... but I'm sorry to say, his musical tastes WERE suspect.

Later, when I'd learned a few tunes well enough, I started frailing a little at family gatherings to entertain the troops. The instant I opened up my banjo case for the very first such concert, a boyfriend of a relative said, "yeeee-HA!" It was a sort of "stage" yeeee-HA! — at the volume of ordinary speech, but said in such a way as to suggest hollering very loudly. I just continued with what I was doing without acknowledging it.

But ever since, I've puzzled over why a person would say this, especially in this way. As when scientists say "So", I've wondered what it could possibly mean. I don't have an answer, but at least I can speak freely on the matter, now that the boyfriend has long ago been dumped.

First, it was not a sincere expression of joy, despite what's been suggested to me. I've expressed real joy with something like a yeeee-HA (a Shane MacGowen concert a few years back comes to mind), and my yeeee-HA's are entirely incomparable to his. Besides, would anyone issue such a yeeee-HA at the very sight of a piano or a trumpet?

No, this particular heeee-HA was not from anticipatory musical ecstasy — it was supposed to be joke. The best explanation I've heard for the origins of laughter is that it's a signal to a primate group that the sudden, unexpected, startling thing that just happened is OK — there's no danger, regardless of appearances to the contrary.

I think this heeee-HA was a joke intended to defuse a banjo-induced anxiety. It constituted a claim that, as an audience member presented with a banjo, he was not going to respond in the way the banjo supposedly demands. A possible way of responding — with a sincere yeeee-HA — needed to be invoked as a thing already refused.

The yeeee-HA sought to establish this fellow as a master of his own relationship with this banjo, but instead exposed the opposite. Karen Linn in That Half Barbaric Twang (which I haven't read yet), and Robert Cantwell in his chapter on Pete Seeger in When We Were Good, describe the banjo as persistently haunting and troubling the boundaries of social life:

The social connections of the banjo had been obscured by its repeated disappearances from popular music; it's marginality, its obdurate indissolubility in social meaning, gave it an eerily unlocatable quatity, a "signifier in isolation" ... As banjo music loiters on the edges of western musical categories, so it has tended to linger where sexual, social, and political boundaries are most ambiguous. [Cantwell, chapter 7]
Cantwell almost makes me feel sorry for the guy. Meeting our family for the first time, as a suitor of one of "our women," he would have wanted to be perceived as being well within a set of recognizably "safe" racial, economic, and sexual categories. And here he's presented with a friggin' BANJO, of all things. A banjo of black-faced minstrelsy, of folksinging HUAC-interrogated commies, of Deliverance.

... but in fact, it was just a banjo of MINE. Perhaps I'm too unforgiving and I have too long memory ... on the other hand, perhaps this incident foreshadowed reasons that he would some day be dumped. I don't know.

 

Editor's Note: This is day 20 of my 28-day marathon. I'm trying to post an entry of The Celestial Monochord every day in February 2007.

 


Bob Dylan's American Journey

Lord_growing
Lord Growing

 

Last night (as I write this), my wife and I had dinner at one of our regular spots, the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown. During my first 13 years in Minneapolis, it was a drug store. And Bob Dylan lived above that drug store 30 years before that.

Today, I went to the Bob Dylan exhibit a few blocks from there at the Weisman Art Museum. To my eyes, it has two sections. The first puts Dylan into the social context of Hibbing, Minnesota and the Dinkytown neighborhood where he nominally went to college. The second part displays cool and undoubtedly expensive collectibles from Dylan's later career.

When I visited Washington DC a year ago, I promised myself I would really try to learn something by studying the "social context" type exhibits. But after a lot of traveling and schlepping bags around and figuring out the Metro system, I was more than happy to just gawk at the actual gun that killed Lincoln, Archie Bunker's actual chair, Wilbur Wright's actual mandolin.

The Weisman exhibit's Minnesota section will not be traveling with the exhibit to other parts of the country (if I understand correctly), but it gives us the best of both types of museum experiences — insight into the Iron Range world Dylan was born into and what kind of environment he walked into in Dinkytown, as well as piles of "actual" stuff.

We get a couple actual pages of a high school term paper Bob Zimmerman wrote on the Grapes of Wrath (the paper is entitled "Does Steinbeck Sympathize With His Characters?" and we can see that the teacher felt Bob had over-used the phrase "You can't help but like ...").

We get a couple actual copies of Little Sandy Review, the folk music magazine founded by Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake. It turns out the magazine was actually LITTLE — about 4 x 7 inches. I imagine it was sandy, too. I should have named this blog The Big Tidy Review.

There's a copy of the real Anthology of American Folk Music — the analog thing you dropped a needle on. I've never seen it before.

And movingly, there's a little white t-shirt with "Greystone Park Hospital" stenciled on it. The card next to it reads "Woody Guthrie wore this t-shirt during the five-year period from 1956 to 1961 that he was confined to Greystone State Hospital — he called it 'Gravestone' ..." But it's roughly at this time that the revealing historical context starts to slip away and we're left with little else but these kinds of neat artifacts ... not that there's anything wrong with that. I like actual stuff, too.

We see the familiar "Mickey Mouse ears" camera with which Pennebaker filmed Don't Look Back, uncorrected galley proofs of Tarantula, Bruce Langhorne's actual tambourine (i.e., THE tambourine). There's a genuine Lovin Spoonful souvenir spoon (which looks like a mighty small spoonful, in my experience). I half expected to see Lord Growing stuffed and mounted.

I spent two hours on it and needed another, especially if I was going to listen to the audio clips and watch the videos, at least some of which came from Scorsese's recent documentary.

It's an excellent exhibit, really. If you're in — or can get to — Minneapolis before April 29, definitely do it and give it three hours. Then go have pasta at the Loring in Dinkytown. Most important, see some live music -- check my Monochord Minnesota links, for example. There's also a decent chance the brilliant Spider John Koerner is in town, and he is very much worth the trip from wherever you happen to be.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 19 of this thing where I'm trying to post something every day, all month long. Or was it all day, every month long?

 


Hearts in Dixie

Hearts_in_dixie

 

Lately, I spend a lot of my time in university libraries, city and county libraries, and state historical societies, often looking through old newspapers from around 1925 to 1959. I now have no patience for anybody who ever feels "bored" — just pick up a newspaper from the 1920's and go nuts.

I recently ran across the headline above in a July 1929 newspaper from St. Paul, Minnesota. "Hearts in Dixie" has been written about often by scholars working on media images of African Americans, and I can't add much to that work. The main subject of interest, of course, is the racist nostalgia for the antebellum South to which the movie appealed and which it reinforced.

But for me, finding the particular article above drove home a few things. It appeared in a newspaper from one of the highest latitudes in America — Minnesota's state motto is "The Star of the North." The article reminds me again that these fantasies of blacks yearning for the happy days of slavery were not solely — in fact, not primarily — southern fantasies. A lot of northerners liked images of African Americans who wanted to go back where they came from.

Roughly the same preference gave rise, a hundred years before, to black-face minstrelsy, which was invented in northern cities like New York and Boston and remained more wildly popular there than in the South. I often think of the American vision of Ireland as a place where people are always covered with shamrocks and drink green beer — a total lack of familiarity is ideal for growing fantasies.

For our purposes, gentle Celestial Monochord reader, it's the article's musical content that's most interesting. The short article consists almost exclusively of a list of 25 songs that appear in the movie. Presumably, the writer believed the Minnesota audience would recognize these songs and have an opinion about them. I have a relatively shaky grasp of the history of where that belief came from.

A few of the songs are familiar to me from simply being an American. I don't know, I guess I heard them in grade school — "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen", "Old Folks at Home", and "Swanee River".

But a surprising number of the listed songs were completely unknown to me until I started listening intensively to what's known today as "Old Time" music — The New Lost City Ramblers, Tom Brad and Alice, and so on. Others may have been familiar before, but I now closely associate them with old time, bluegrass, or the Harry Smith Anthology. The article lists "Lonesome Road", "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray", "Li'l Liza Jane", "Shine On", "Turkey in the Straw", "Old Hen Cackle", and "Oh Dem Golden Slippers".

As a consumer of so-called roots music, one line of the article is all too familiar:

Some of the other numbers are noteworthy in that they are foundation stones, so to speak, in the structure of jazz music.
Of course, jazz, particularly if loosely defined, was the most popular new music of the day, and it's funny to see that even back then, companies were using dubious claims of historical significance to move product.

I've written before, though, about newspaper stories that cited a kind of old time revival underway in the late 1920's, and this article is further support. One of those articles featured record store owner Harry Bernstein, who discussed the revival entirely in terms of repertoire, as opposed to performance style — it was old songs that were popular, not necessarily old styles of playing. THAT revival had to wait for Harry Smith and the New Lost City Ramblers. I haven't seen "Hearts of Dixie," although I'm sure I'd find the performances rather disappointing, stylistically ... at the very least.

I know vastly more about the history of performance styles and instrumentation than I do about repertoire (Benjamin Filene's chapter on it has helped a lot). This blind spot probably results from my being more directly a product of the revival of the 1950's and 1960's — which was so much about the rebirth of sounds — than a product of the various late-19th and early-20th century revivals, focused as they were on texts. If there had been an article about banjos in Minnesota, I would have had some good contexts in which to understand it, but this list of old songs is a little more mysterious to me.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 18 of The Celestial Monochord's great February 2007 adventure — we are posting an entry a day all month long! JUST IMAGINE ... magine ... magine ... THAT ... at ... at ... at ...

 


Observation — IRAS-Araki-Alcock

 

In May of 1983, IRAS-Araki-Alcock came closer to Earth than any comet since 1770 — about 12 times the distance to the Moon.

It was my first comet, and I saw it from the back yard of my family's house in Palatine, Illinois. Although Palatine was small then, it was already a Chicago suburb on O'Hare's flight path. I did a lot of complaining about the light pollution, but those turned out to be the darkest skies I've ever lived under.

IRAS-Araki-Alcock was a ghostly thing. It looked roughly the size of the moon, and spherical — it had no visible tail. You could see its nucleus, though ... overall, the comet was like a round patch of smoke with a star caught inside. Aside from its pale blue-green color, it looked like one of the little fairy sprites that followed the UFOs around in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Because it was so close, you could almost see it move against the background stars, like the minute hand of a clock (and believe me, I know how the minute hands of clocks move). I would try to get a fix on where it was in relation to the stars, but what my eyes were seeing would never match the image in my mind, which was always already obsolete.

Having spent so much of my youth with my developing brain focused on the sky, it felt a little perverse to have something new up there, especially something that moved so fast. I could feel in my bones why comets were regarded as disturbing omens of bad things to come.

Mostly, what it looked like was ... and this was the most remarkable thing ... it looked like an evaporating bit of ice about 12 times as far as the moon. Although I knew more than enough about astronomy to know why it had to be silent, I remember being amazed at its silence. It just slipped on by.

 

Editor's Note: This morning, my wife got her copy of her latest publication, a poem entitled "We Seek a Shepard or a Sign" in Court Green #4, a literary journal from Chicago's Columbia College. Check it out.

This is installment 17 of a 28-day experiment. The Celestial Monochord is trying to post once a day, sort of like a blog is supposed to do.

 


Achilles Is In Your Alleyway

 

When I first started hitting the old stuff hard, I mostly listened to blues from the 1930's through the 1950's. And some of my favorite recordings were things like Memphis Minnie's "Keep On Eating":

Every time I cook, looks like you can't get enough
Fix you a pot of soup and make you drink it up

[chorus]
So keep on a-eating
Oh, keep on a-eating
Keep on eating
Baby till you get enough

I know you're crazy about your oysters and your shrimps and crabs
Take you round the corner and give you a chance to grab

I've cooked and cooked till I done got tired
Can't fill you up of my fried apple pie

I know you got a bad cold and you can't smell
I ain't gonna give you something that I can't sell
And then there was another favorite, Sonny Terry's spirited rendition of "Custard Pie":
I'm gunna tell you something, baby, ain't gunna to tell no lie
I want some of your custard pie.

[chorus]
Well, I want some of it
Yes, I want some of it
You gotta give me some of it
Before you give it all away.

Well, I don't care if you live across the street
When you cut your pie please save me a piece
Now, when you listen to such songs metaphorically and creatively, if you read between the lines and against the grain, as it were, if you try to catch their double meaning ... it's almost as if these songs could also be about FOOD! And actually, they're kind of sweet as food songs. Maybe it's me.

Of course, my joke here is how these raunchy blues tunes supposedly fooled somebody at some point (who or when, I don't know) into thinking they were only about food (or deep sea divers, or horse jockeys), when in fact they were also "secretly" about sex. Today, anyway, most of us have to use our imagination and concentrate to hear them literally. The literal and figurative meanings have switched places — the "vehicle" has become the "tenor," as I'm supposed to say, sitting here with my masters degree staring down at me.

There's some old songs about sex that are on the other extreme. They do such a good job of hiding their meanings that the metaphors barely take place at all. The literal (non-sexual, tenor) images and the figurative (sexual, vehicle) meanings are connected by gossamer threads so tenuous, thin, and indirect that they almost snap. You're left with a set of nearly free-floating, abstracted images with little particular connection to anything — you're left with something like modern poetry:

The Old Man At The Mill

Down set an owl with his head so white
Lonesome day and a lonesome night
Thought I heard some pretty girls say
Court all night and sleep next day

[chorus]
Well, the same old man sittin' at the mill
Mill turns around of its own free will
One hand in the hopper and the other in the sack
Ladies step forward and the gents fall back

I spied a woodpecker sittin on a fence
Once I courted a handsome wench
She got saucy and she from me fled
Ever since then, well, my head's been red

"Well," said the raven as he flew,
"If I was a young man I'd have two.
One for to get and the other for to sew
I'd get another string for my bow, bow, bow."

Well, my old man's from Kalamazoo
He don't wear no yes-I-do
First to the left and then to the right
This old mill grinds day and night
Like a lot of other 20th Century modern art, Bob Dylan's poetics were inspired by "primitive" folk sources. Just as Picasso and T. S. Elliot and Brancusi and Stravinsky were inspired by folk art around the world (African masks, etc.), Dylan figured out the trick of modernism from folk music. He cracked the case of how to make a popular music (I mean music very large numbers of people wanted to hear) that was also modernist art -- abstract, with unstable and open-ended, shared meanings. Set the raunchy "Old Man At The Mill" beside Dylan's raunchy "Temporarily Like Achilles," for example:
Well, I rush into your hallway
And lean against your velvet door
I watch upon your scorpion
Who crawls across your circus floor
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin'
Honey, but you're so hard.
But to give credit where credit is due, the idea really settled itself into my head while I was thinking about John Prine's "Forbidden Jimmy." It's a bawdy song in which the sexual symbols are so unattached to their literal meanings that they're free-floating, they operate as modern poetry:
Forbidden Jimmy, he's got a mighty sore tooth
From biting too many dimes in a telephone booth
He's got half of his bootlace tied to the dial
Thank you, operator, for getting Jimmy to smile
...
"Call out the Coast Guard," screamed the police
Forbidden Jimmy, he's got three water-skis
He put two on his wavelength and gave one to his girl
She's a mighty fine person, it's a mighty fine world
...
I got caught cooking popcorn and calling it hail
They wanna stick my head inside a watering pail
Ya know, they're gonna be sorry, they're gonna pay for it too
Forbidden Jimmy, he's coming straight at you
John Prine and Tom Waits were from that first generation of songwriters to learn the trick of modernism from Dylan. Of course, both have also reached around Dylan ... let me rephrase that ... both have gone directly to the same source Dylan did, by listening to and responding to the old American blues and country.

 

Editor's Note: This is the sixteenth installment of my frenzied attempt to post something or other to The Celestial Monochord every day for the entire month of February without winding up like Katerina Ivanovna. This thing is more than half done! It's supposed to get up above 10°F in Minneapolis this weekend! There is light at the end of the tunnel! Go towards the light, Celestial Monochord!

 




Rocky Mountain Time

Time
(Watch photo from Watchismo.)

 

(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time

 

We begin with ringing, declarative chords as if introducing a rock anthem, but by the song's first words the mood has already quieted:

Station's empty
Trains were all gone
Reached in my pocket
Waited for dawn
It seems to be in waltz time, but it doesn't feel like it — its rhythmic sense is more the ebb and flow of breathing or thinking. And gets that effect mostly from such changes in dynamics, loud here and soft there.

Those dynamics have a purpose, of course. They mirror the song's emotional roller coaster, a volatility that rises in the narrator, but is unprovoked by the action in any plot. Literally, the song is just a description of the loneliness of a musician on the road. He even has to fantasize his own back-up band:

The clock played drums
And I hummed the sax
And the wind whistled down
The railroad tracks
In its own way, "Rocky Mountain Time" is a bit John Prine's version of Langston Hughes' famous poem, "A Dream Differed" — it's a psychological study of what becomes of dreams and desires when they're isolated, frustrated, and finally strangled. Emotionally, the song is as direct as anything else on Diamonds in the Rough. It almost seems to be Prine's last chance on this album to look us right in the eye and connect with us directly — seeing as it's the penultimate cut, and the album's last Prine composition.

But in terms of its ideas, the song has always kept me slightly distracted by little logical puzzles, trivial calculations. Maybe it's trying to keep me off guard while it prepares its punch. Consider the chorus:

Hey, three for a quarter
One for a dime
I'll bet it's tomorrow
By Rocky Mountain time
So ... if it's tomorrow according to Rocky Mountain Time, Prine's narrator must be east of the Mountain Time Zone. Right? If you're in New York and it's 1:00 AM, it's only 11:00 PM the day before in the Rockies. It's tomorrow by Rocky Mountain Time. Unless he means tomorrow IN Rocky Mountain Time, in which case he's WEST of the Rockies, in the narrow wedge of the planet from California to the International Dateline.

Time zone calculations — they're the kind of thing your mind does when you're far from home. Let's see, three for a quarter and one for a dime, so if you get three, they knock a nickel off the price. You can see how it would get alienating after a while.

The waitress yelled at me
And so did the food
And the water tastes funny
When you're far from your home
But it's only the thirsty
That hunger to roam
In a way, these puzzles in logic alienate me from the direct emotional impact of the song. But that's what the song itself is about — being stranded out there beyond your own emotions, trying to work out the logistics of getting along in a strange land. Again, it's a traveling musician's song.

Of the few cuts Henry Thomas recorded in his lifetime, a lot of them play this same magic trick on me, keeping me distracted with calculations while they prepare to hit me in the gut. Like most magic tricks, they use misdirection — Henry Thomas will sometimes keep me puzzling over celestial navigation until he's got me in tears.

In Lovin' Babe, a song that starts fast and accelerates, everything seems to be coming and going in every direction, while in the meantime, one of music's most painful psychological portraits is taking shape:

Look where that evening sun has gone
Look where that evening sun gone
Look where that evening sun done gone
Gone, God knows where

The longest day, darlin, ever I seen
Yes, the longest day I ever seen
Well, the longest day ever I seen
The day Roberta died

That eastbound train come and gone
That eastbound train come and gone
That eastbound train come and gone
Gone to come no more

Got the blues, God I'm feeling bad
Yeah, I got the worried blues, feeling bad
Got the blues, I'm feeling bad
Feeling bad, God knows why

That eastbound sun come and gone
Now, the eastbound sun come and gone
Yeah, the eastbound sun come and gone
Now, babe I'm all out and down

Roberta, babe, gone away
Yeah, Robert has gone away
Roberta, babe, gone away
She's gone to come no more
The most vexing question is "that eastbound sun," given that the sun travels west every day. It would be a great name for a train, but I find no evidence of an Eastbound Sun. Besides a slip of the tongue, or bad information, the only explanation I have is that the sun DOES move eastward — through the constellations, slowly, from one season to another. It takes a bit of slightly arcane knowledge to know that it does, but it does.

I wouldn't put such knowledge past Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, as he must've been pretty experienced in navigation. Every song of his entire recorded career is about moving from place to place — the freedom and hazards of traveling through America as a black musician during Jim Crow. The Road plays the same role in his music that the Gospels play in Blind Willie Johnson's. It's his grand theme, the concept through which his music is in conversation with the previous 4000 years, and the subsequent 80.

Songs like "Lovin' Babe" and "Red River Blues" are easiest for me to understand when I hear them in the context of the Underground Railroad — they are urgently, desperately focused on celestial navigation and the clock, the technical cornerstones of both freedom and imperialist empire. And while Prine is of a different time and race (this is a hillbilly blues, after all), "Rocky Mountain Time" is part of a long lineage that passes back through and before Henry Thomas.

"Rocky Mountain Time" is Diamonds in the Rough's way of beginning to say goodbye to us. With it, I find myself feeling a bit raw emotionally and alive intellectually. And I find Prine out there, fading, disappearing, puzzled and lost on the road, without a lot of hope of ever coming back.

Christ I'm so mixed up and lonely
I can't even make friends with my brain
I'm too young to be where I'm going
But I'm too old to go back again
That's yet another navigational paradox ... the final cut on the album could easily be construed as resolving it, through Christ's salvation. I haven't written about that final cut yet, so I don't know, but it's never been in Prine's character to offer an easy out. As he wrote about another song on Diamonds in the Rough, "I really love America. I just don't know how to get there anymore."

 

Editor's Note: This is the 15th installment of my 28-day marathon. The Celestial Monochord is trying to post something every day for the entire month of February.

 


Let's Talk Dirty

Slipped a Mickey
(a member of Slipped A Mickey plays a jug
mounted on a microphone stand)
 
 
It's funny.  Pat Donahue has been playing guitar on A Prairie Home Companion for over 13 years.  He's a world-class fingerstyle player, to my ears, and Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke (whose ears are better educated on the subject) agree.  Playing for Garrison Keillor must be a bear, as you have to be ready to ... you know, whatever ... play in almost any genre, or play as if you were a freezing-cold drunken cowboy, or make your guitar sound like it was broken in half or ...

Despite all this, my impression is that Donahue has not been especially well known in Minnesota.  At least given the fine, difficult, consistent, high-profile labor he's performed for us over a long time, it doesn't seem we've ever really focused on the guy and appreciated him.  Well, that's been my sense anyway.
 
Until that sushi song.  Back in 2000, Donahue played a song he'd written — a stupid song, really, but very funny — about getting sick from sushi.  It was called "Sushi Yucki."  The response was kind of huge, and it seems to be raising his profile. 
 
Tickets to an upcoming concert by Donahue were used this past Saturday to draw memberships during Minnesota Publc Radio's pledge drive — and "Sushi Yucki" was aired in its entirety, as if to remind us who the guy is and how great it would be to see him perform.  He'll have no choice but to play "Sushi Yuki" at his concert:

They think it sounds so yummy
But, hey, I ain't no dummy
I knew no way
It would stay
Down in my tummy
I took a bite
And I was right
No likee icky yucky sushi
A moral of the story, of course, is you never know what's going to draw an audience. 
 
Now, the 25th Annual Battle of the Jug Bands was on Sunday (the day after I last heard "Sushi Yucki" on the radio). One of the contestants was a band called Slipped a Mickey, which I enjoyed very much even if they just couldn't compete with the winners, The Hump Night Thumpers — THE FIGHTIN' THUMPERS!
 
Slipped a Mickey played John Prine's novelty song "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" as a kind raunchy, down-tempo, coffeehouse blues. Having heard the two songs so close together, I finally recognized their affinity.

Like "Sushi Yucki," you want to listen to "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" over and over until you feel like ... well, like you've had too much sushi.  Both songs begin in my stomping grounds, the Upper Midwest, and then travel to the islands of the Pacific, where the narrator's bodily functions dominate the action:

I am from Minnesota
I went to Tokyo-ta
Visit the land
Of enchantment and quaint pagoda
I almost died
The night they tried
To make me eat that yucky sushi.

--

Well, I packed my bags and bought myself a ticket
For the land of the tall palm tree
Aloha Old Milwaukee, Hello Waikiki
I just stepped down from the airplane
When I heard her say
Waka waka nuka licka, waka waka nuka licka
Would you like a lei? Hey!
Both songs could be seen as racist, of course, depending as they do on faux-foreign gibberish.  But like a lot of parody that traverses sensitive terrain, the songs are careful not to over-clarify the object of parody.  Are we laughing at how funny the Japanese and Hawaiian languages sound?  Or at Minnesotans — unable, as we are, to keep anything down but tuna casserole?  Or at the jejune mating habits of Wisconsinites?
 
When I saw Prine last year in Minneapolis, he made a rather deliberate show of trudging resignedly through "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian," as if he had to do it whether he liked it or not. Three-quarters of the way through this surprisingly lengthy song, he vamped for a few seconds and warned us, "There's more."

 

Editor's Note: I try to write these a day ahead, but given Valentine's Day, I might be a little late with the February 15 post. Do I piss off my wife or the readers of my blog? Gentle reader, you just might lose that coin toss.

Anyway, this is the 14th installment of my 28-day attempt to post something every day in February. So, this entry is like Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra's "Moonshiner's Dance" — the mid-way point is marked by the silence immediately following. Be seated!

 

 

Land of Lincoln

 

I thought a lot about Abraham Lincoln while I was growing up, which I guess is not very unusual in Illinois.

Today (as I write this) is Lincoln's birthday, and though his life is getting more important to me now, it was his death that mattered to me as a boy. It was by thinking about Abraham Lincoln that I first began to wrap my mind around the idea of death.

My dad spent decades working his way to the top of the hierarchy of the Knights of Columbus in Illinois, so our family criss-crossed the state constantly. Belleville, Peoria, Beardstown, Carbondale, Mattoon. It is a BIG state.

Around 1973, we saw the Dickson Mounds, a prehistoric earthworks containing a lot of Native American burials. They had the side of one of the mounds carved out to expose the bones, and they'd built a vast visitor's center where you could stand behind a railing and look at the skeletons. It was dark and dramatically lit, and there's a photo of a 9-year-old me standing at the railing, looking rather green in more ways than one.

Someone in our family also took some photos of the bones, and we came across them whenever we'd pull out the family slide projector. The last time we saw those slides, my mother talked about wrapping them up and sending them to the tribal government for proper disposal. She probably did, if I know her.

Anyway, it was on that same trip that we visited Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, and I half expected to see his bones, too. Of course, someone had stolen his body long ago and, when they got it back, it had to be locked firmly away so they'd stay put. But I remember imagining what his skeleton looked like.

Around that age, I read "The Death of Lincoln: A Picture History of the Assassination" by Leroy Hayman, from Scholastic. I still have it. One night, with that book at my side, I woke up around 3 AM thinking of Lincoln's recurring dream, the one where he was traveling toward some "indefinite shore" in a "singular, indescribable vessel." I freaked myself out, and couldn't stop my limbs from shaking in my bed.

And then I thought the little bust of Lincoln on the shelf above my headboard was moving. It was made of white wax — my mother had given me a quarter to get it made by a machine in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

That's when I woke up one of my brothers and told him what was happening. It was the night my child's mind seized on death, finally understanding it was real, something truly in the world, a pervasive thing. He told me not to worry about it, rolled over, and went back to sleep. In retrospect, that was pretty much the right answer.

The night culminated when I heard a terrible groan that seemed to come from everywhere at the same time. It was undeniably a ghost — I can still hear it in my head, it was awful. Now that I'm older and things are starting to come back to me, I realize it was exactly the same sound my dad — who was a champion snorer — would make down the hall when he rolled over in his sleep.

Obviously, that was a long time ago and I've very much moved on. But I do occasionally feel a bit like spitting at the mention of John Wilkes Booth.

 

Editor's Note: This is the 13th installment of my fool-hardy attempt to write something every day for the entire month of February.

 


Battle of the Jug Bands, 2007 Results

Gizmo
(Gizmo, a member of The Hump Night Thumpers)

The votes are tallied and authorized, and the winners of the 25th Annual Battle of the Jug Bands has been announced!

This year's winners — the jug band honored with one year's possession of the traveling trophy, a 1936 Holliwood-brand waffle iron — are The Hump Night Thumpers!

I'm proud to say that the Thumpers are from my sweet home, Chicago. The members of the band are the students of the Hump Night Thumpers class at the Old Town School of Folk Music — the band's membership rotates, with the lineup at any given moment depending on who has enrolled in the class.

The fearless leader of this band — and indeed, the leader of the large expedition that has traveled two years in a row from Chicago to Minneapolis to compete in the Battle — is one Arlo Leach, guitar instructor at the Old Town.

Unfortunately, they performed near the end of the evening, by which time I had pretty much abandoned note-taking in favor of photography. I would love to give a song-by-song analysis, but I was frankly spacing out. They certainly were a compelling jug band, I remember that.

The Thumpers were dressed in fine evening formal wear, circa 1930, bringing a bit of class to the Cabooze. In this, they joined the long tradition of elevating the reputation of marginalized musical forms through sartorial elegance and dignified personal conduct (recall Bascom Lamar Lunsford in his tux, for example).

I also remember that Arlo impressed both the judges and The Celestial Monochord by introducing their last song with this:

This next song was recorded in 1934 in Chicago, where we're from. A lot of you know the song "Jug Band Quartet" — well, this was the B-side of that record, and it's called "Little Green Slippers." [approximate quote]
See, after you've heard the evening's fifth rendition of that "Hey lordy momma momma, hey lordy poppa poppa" thing, you start to get the general idea. It was worth several extra points to hear some indication that the band knew jug band music had a life before the CD. And the LP. And the 45.

Congratulations to our jug-playing cousins to the south!

Saggy
(The feller and one of five grandmas
comprising Grandma's Saggy Jug Band)

Now, I know you're wondering how last year's winners, Grandma's Saggy Jug Band, performed this year. Grandma's Saggy, as you know, was given the honor of choosing this year's judging panel. Because they — no doubt unlike THIS year's wise and talented winners! — never contacted me about serving as a member of the judging panel, I had no choice but to JUDGE THEM ANYWAY. And believe me, I was very judgy!

Grandma's Saggy Jug Band mounted the stage looking quite well-fed and self-satisfied from an entire year of eating waffles made with their trophy waffle iron. Audience members were universally honored that they had even bothered to wipe the syrup from the sides of their mouths!

Now, I suppose a few of the drunker audience members were dazzled by their fancy musicianship — "Cigarettes and Whisky and Wild Wild Women," especially, highlighted the rhythm section's slick ability to maintain a driving, danceable momentum while also filling each measure with dense, intricate polyrhythms. It was breathtaking ... to some.

And the less observant might have seen their finale — the band's signature piece, "Cock-A-Doodle, I'm Off My Noodle," originally by Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks — as decisive proof that the band deeply understands and appreciates the "madcap" tradition in American dance music. Personal charisma and precise musical timing were the hallmark of great novelty bands like Spike Jones and his City Slickers and Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra. In the unlikeliest of venues, Grandma's Saggy Jug Band resurrects this tradition with intelligence, respect, skill, and genuinely funny showmanship. Or so some might think.

But I saw through that. Their rendition of "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind" was an extremely close recreation of the New Lost City Rambler's version — to the extent it deviated from the Ramblers' recording, it was more danceable, more compelling, more fun. What a garish display — the Rambler's version was plenty danceable, compelling, and fun to begin with, I assure you.

Most damning of all, their ... over-determined ethnomimesis ... failed to resolve the very contradictions inherent in the semiotics of the, uh, signs they were ... signifying. Their very Bernoulli Effect elutriated their own mycotoxicosis!

One year can make a world of difference, of course, so we'll see how this year's winners fair next year. We'll see if the fledgling Old Town School of Folk Music can withstand the treatment The Hump Night Thumpers might — or might not — receive from the Minneapolis blogging community.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 12 of our attempt to post something or other every day during the entire month of February. That's about 28 times the posting rate usually maintained around these parts.

 


Your Wife As Krakatoa, 1883

For today's entry of The Celestial Monochord, my heartfelt thanks to Minneapolis poet Jennifer L. Willoughby. Her first book of poems, Beautiful Zero, will be published by Milkweed Editions in late 2015. Contact her @hellowilloughby.

The Monochord has also published her poem "Thank You Mr. Sagan."

This is the eleventh installment in my mission to post one entry to The Celestial Monochord every day for the month of February.

-----

 

 

 

 

YOUR WIFE AS KRAKATOA, 1883


Did you hear that ravishing blast?
That was your wife.
Her explosion shocked even the smallest Australian sheep
eating green turf over 3000 miles away.

At Western festivities
languid relatives patted her head,
thinking she was pretty and backwards,
thinking she was alcoholic and strange.

Did you see wings of independence bobbing in her shoals,
did you see infants listening while she sang about England?

She being tame as cocoa,
a little armchair nation stationed next to Java.
Gentlemen whispered, inferred frigidity.

She being a slow colonial outpost
of the spice islands, shanghaied and traded,
her pepper and cloves seasoning putrefying meat.

Your wife was the kind of woman
who wore silk and went bare foot,
plumes of juniper spiking her hair.
Pye-dogs, the wandering mutts of Asia,
followed her whistles, lapped her salty knees.

She could tell time with a shadow & a pin.
She was good at falling in love with the peacock generation.

She had a fling with the Wallace Line,
raising eyebrows over glasses of gin.
They got down to business
with the poison flowers,
the strangling weeds,
the scavenging avians.

Your wife was either a shrew or a shrewd captive of nature.

In one day,
your wife destroyed life as she knew it,
went cackling madwoman, breaking the stone gates
of her oceanic laboratory, boiling down your horded annual capital
to a glutinous stew of paper boats, torn orchids and molten bones.

No one could hold her.
The shock wave of your wife traveled the earth seven times.
Her ashes sat in the lungs of merchants in Singapore like black milk.
She hotwired barometers from Bogota to DC and flung her aerosol spray
of sapphire and emerald suns to tango with the equator.

Your wife killed 36,417 people.
Your wife sent corpses sailing to Africa on pyres of steaming pumice.
Your wife was 10,000 times as strong as Hiroshima's atomic bomb.
Your wife was the mother of it all.

Some future tourist scouring the beach
for chambered shells or shiny tiki treasures
might know nothing about your wife.

Scientists have added your wife to their alphabetical jars
of formaldehyde, saline and amber. Etched her face on a fossil.

She fooled honest men in New York and New Haven.
They drove fire trucks to quench hallucinatory afterglows
as she rouged the sedate evening with mirrors of flame.

Forget your wife.
She was not beloved.
Her unusual sunsets continued for years.

 

 

 

 

 


The Young Musicologist

Today is the 39-year anniversary of Mike Seeger's recording of Dock Boggs singing "Careless Love." Last February 10, I marked the 38-year anniversary with a good entry about the song. That entry is one of the most-visited pages at The Celestial Monochord, and I won't try to rewrite it today.

Thanks to Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus, I bet Mike Seeger is almost constantly asked about Boggs these days. His "rediscovery" of Boggs in 1963 and the short time they spent working together have taken on the qualities of myth in a lot of people's minds, including mine. I always think of Mike and Dock alongside the story of Johannes Kepler at Tycho Brahe's death bed. I've tried to interest a show-biz relative of mine in the idea of a movie about Seeger and Boggs (maybe with Kevin McDonald as Seeger and John C. Reilly as Doc Watson? Any ideas about Boggs?).

Anyway, in the few, very brief exchanges I've had with Seeger, I've tried to avoid the obvious topics like Boggs — I asked him about Maybelle Carter's playing of melodic autoharp, for example. But I made an exception back in 2004, when I told him a story about Boggs. It seemed to go well — maybe it was good to be told something new about Boggs for a change.

Mike had just completed a workshop on picking styles and a few people hung around afterwards to talk to him. Someone mentioned Boggs, and I launched into the "conversion experience" story I tell now and then:

The first CD I got after The Harry Smith Anthology was the Folkways stuff you did with Dock in the 1960's. I put it on the stereo for the first time, and when "New Prisoner's Song" came on, I just burst into tears. I sobbed openly for a while. And then I collected myself and thought ... "My musical tastes have CHANGED."
And with that, Mike let out a big belly laugh. It seemed to me that he appreciated how bizarre and potentially intolerable Boggs' music could sound to someone in their 30's, as I was then, and understood my surprise at myself.

Among the other people in the room was a kid around 20 years old, I guess. He had the coolest, silliest haircut — sort of a cross between a mohawk and the coxcomb of a chicken. This young banjoist — who reminded me of a very young Bob Carlin — mentioned that he had an original Brunswick 78 of Dock's "Sugar Baby."

Mike was surprised. He said his "friend Greil Marcus," who "loves to write about Dock Boggs," had asked him to see if he could get him some of those 78s, but Seeger was unable to locate any at a reasonable price. The youngster said he'd payed less than a hundred dollars for his. About a half an hour later, during lunch, Mike and this mohawk kid were sitting together, engaged in some kind of intense discussion.

I'm finding that it matters, this getting up close to the people you write about.

Over the course of the long weekend of the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, Mike slowly painted a portrait of himself as a young, inexperienced folklorist in the 1950's and 1960's. Around 1953, he briefly met a black banjoist named Sam (the one he describes in the liner notes to "Tie Your Dog Sally Gal" on Close to Home). Days later, he asked a shopkeeper in a black section of Kensington, Maryland where he might find Sam. Mike explained, with obvious regret in his voice, "I was green, and looking for Sam, and he thought it may not be good for Sam." He never did find the banjoist.

That same weekend, Mike told a remarkable story about visiting Sewanee, TN, where he met the dean, Red Lancaster. Hearing that Mike was into the banjo, he invited Mike back to his house. This was OK, Lancaster said, because his wife was away. Young Mike wondered nervously what what this might mean, exactly. That night, Lancaster brought out some whiskey and began to drink it. Mike didn't feel he had much of an option except to drink it too, although Mike was definitely not a drinker of hard liquor. His memory of the evening is very cloudy, but he was able to record the session, and the tape is now at Chapel Hill.

What Mike does remember is that Lancaster consistently stroked the fifth string of his banjo with his thumbnail, flicking UP (not down, as everybody else does, regardless of style). He also remembers that Lancaster's thumb was clearly bloody after an evening of banjo playing.

This is the tension that would be great to get into a film — the young folksinger/folklorist, green and nervous, suddenly immersed in the universe of men and women very much older than himself, people who had seen a lot and who had many decades worth of demons, resentments, desires, and regrets to contend with. It reverses the old myth still so emblematic of anthropology — the picture of a worldly, sophisticated representative of the wider planet who comes to study an innocent product of a tiny, insular culture. When Mike met Dock in 1963, who was like a lamb, and who represented a big, complex world?

 

Editor's Note: This is installment #10 of The Celestial Monochord's great and stress-inducing adventure in cutting-edge bloggery — we are attempting to post one entry every day during the month of February.

 


If You Can Blog A Better Post ...

Still thinking, from yesterday, about Tom Waits and his adaptation of old folksongs ...

He doesn't really adapt them or arrange them to suit his style — as many a folksinger does — he strips them down to their "idea" and their "feel" and then writes an entirely new piece, beginning there, with the song's essence.

During the years in which I followed and contributed heavily to a Tom Waits discussion list, I was always finding examples — ad nauseum, as was occasionally pointed out to me. Often, the connection was interesting but flimsy.

Among the more convincing examples I found was "Swordfishtrombones." It's the title song of the 1982 album in which Waits finally left behind the drunken beatnik routine (which he'd grown to dislike), and began to reach for something more explicitly artful. I think he and his wife Kathleen Brennan sought direction the way everybody else does — by digging up the roots.

Before the Dylan Era, the song "Swordfishtrombones" might have been called a play-party nonsense song, while today it's impressionistic. It relates the wildly shifting fortunes and apparently supernatural misadventures of a soldier just back from a war:

He went to sleep at the bottom of Tenkiller Lake
And he said, "Gee, but it' great to be home."
. . .
He packed up all his expectations
He lit out for California
With a flyswatter banjo on his knee
A lucky tiger in his angel hair
And benzedrine for getting there
They found him in a eucalyptus tree
Now, I've witnessed people coming home from wars, and this sort of behavior looks sorta familiar. Certainly, half a pint of Ballentine's each day is on the moderate side.

Anyway, in the end, the song acknowledges the far-fetched character of some of its claims by drawing attention to itself as a piece of writing. It's just a tall tale:

Now, some say he's doing the obituary mambo
Some say that he's hanging on the wall
Perhaps this yarn is the only thing
That holds this man together
Some say that he was never here at all

Some say they saw him down in Birmingham
Sleeping in a boxcar going by
And if you think that you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you'd have to tell a lie.
When I first heard the woundrous Bascom Lamar Lunsford sing "On a Bright and Summer's Morning," I decided I knew where "Swordfishtombones" had come from. It turns out Waits' soldier was once a hunter, and is now imbibing in some sex and alcohol, but the song is essentially the same sort of travelogue. Some stanzas from Lunsford, the guy who wrote "Mountain Dew":
The money that I got for the venison and skin
I hauled it to my daddy's barn
It wouldn't half go —
It wouldn't half go in

I went upon the mountain
Beyond the peak so high
The moon come round with lightning speed
"I'll take a ride," says —
"I'll take a ride," says I.

The moon come around the mountain
It took a sudden whirl
My feet slipped and I fell out
And landed in this —
And landed in this world
The clincher, of course, is the last stanza, which Waits has changed only slightly:
The man that made this song and tune
His name was Benny Young
If you can tell a bigger lie
I'll swear you oughta be —
I'll swear you oughta be hung

There are a lot of versions of this song, under a lot of names, so I can't say what Waits was listening to — but he got it from one of em. I can come up with boat loads of these, given some time, but if my fellow Waits fans quickly got their fill, I'd imagine you would too.

Maybe, if you wanted a moral to this story, we could remember all the hand-wringing that went on about Bob Dylan's supposed plagiarism of Junichi Saga and Henry Timrod, and wonder aloud whether there's anybody left who hasn't decided all that kurfluffle was a lot of horseradish.

 

Editor's Note: This is the ninth installment of my attempt to post something half-way Monochordy every day for the whole month of February.

How's it going? Am I slowing down here? ... well, the important thing is that I'm still standing! Boo-ya! As T-Model Ford said, "I been shot! And I been cut! I been kicked in the head! I been hit with a chair! Nobody gets me down!"