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Deep Impact: NASA and Performance Art


On July 4th, NASA is going to bash a large plug of copper into a comet (discovered in 1867 by Ernst Temple). Nobody's sure exactly what will happen — which is the main reason to do it — but it should make a sizable crater in the comet and generate a plume of ejecta.

NASA seems to like to schedule landings and other such events to coincide with holidays (July 4, December 24, etc.). Not only are people at home and watching TV, but NASA's copywriters often try to manage some sort of tie-in. The resulting headllines can be agonizing.

In 2000, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft arrived at an asteroid (basically, a large rock) named Eros. A 1999 encounter had failed, and the spacecraft had to take more than a year to swing around again, so I believe the February 14th date of the encounter was a coincidence. But it generated endless headlines about Romancing the Stone in a Valentine's Day NEAR-Eros tryst, etc., etc. I shudder to imagine the headlines this year's unprovoked Independence Day attack on Comet Temple might generate in the USA or abroad.

In part, NASA designs its missions as public performace art and then tries to spin the missions to appeal to headline writers — but the agency is simply an inept storyteller. NASA's unmanned robotic missions are incredibly cheap, completely safe, visually and conceptually dazzling to the public, and hugely productive scientifically — especially when compared to the wasteful and dangerous manned space program. Nothing NASA has done in the last 30 years has inspired more interest and support than missions like Voyager, Viking, the Mars rovers, or the Hubble Space Telescope. The credit for these successes goes not to the cleverness of the PR department or the cuddliness of the astronaut corps, but to the skill and creativity of NASA engineers and scientists. Just go with what you do best.

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
Part 2: Slave Culture

Slaves on American Currency
Slaves on American currency

Years ago, reading the arguments in the 1800s over the abolition of slavery, I was struck by how often the debate turned to the religious beliefs of the slaves themselves. Pro-slavery types argued that slaves could not possibly grasp the notion of God or appreciate the stories in the Bible — and so slavery was OK.

After a while, this concern sounded almost desparate and obsessive, growing from fear: If slaves know who God is and God knows who slaves are, and if they pray to Him and He can hear them praying to Him, and they know He can hear them and He knows that they know He can hear them ... well ... well, white folks are going straight to Hell.

I'm very knowledgable about neither the Bible nor Negro spirituals. But it's clear even to me that African American slaves didn't merely understand the Bible, they related to it with a personal, creative passion that produced one of the most relentless, intense, complex, and beautiful musical traditions on Earth. This must have been troubling to some people, to say the least.

Both the Bible and Negro spirituals are basically examples of "slave culture" — their authors naturally understood each other. That's what I suspect. I came to the realization when researching the many and varied versions of the Ezekiel story in Negro spirituals. I even resorted to reading the Book of Ezekiel ...

To make a long story short, God takes his reluctant prophet Ezekiel to a field of very dry human bones. He tells Zeke to get those bones to get up take a little walk, and Zeke isn't sure he can get that done. So God tells him "Look, I'm God, and I ain't kidding around":

Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.

So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.

Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.

My mind reels, imagining the impact such a story must have had for an African American slave. In comparison, their white counterparts must have found the story rather, I don't know ... interesting?

Part 1

Steve Robinson: Astronaut Banjoist

Banjo Player and Mission Specialist, Steve Robinson

Believe it or not, the next Shuttle mission will send a banjo player into space. I mean, how monochordum mundi is that?

I wonder if he'll play us Well May the World Go (When I'm Far Away) from the launch pad. Anyway, check out NASA's official pre-flight interview with Steve Robinson:

I still want to be a musician and an artist someday when I grow up. I play music and I play guitar in a rock and roll band, and I play banjo and mandolin and bass and a pedal steel guitar.

Remember, in space no one can hear you scream "Yowza!"

Black Jug Bands


There's so much to say about jug bands (believe it or not), it's hard to know where to begin. Why not start with my own first impression — the thing that first made me realize there's much more to the story than I thought.

Before my interest in old music, I'd thought string bands with jug accompaniment were a white thing — a really white thing. Well, don't believe everything you see on the Andy Griffith Show, I guess. I purchased a two-volume compilation of early jug bands and was surprised to find that virtually all the performers were black ... really black.

And although it's turned out that the African American experience in the South in, say, the 1920's was much more rural than I'd imagined (being a northerner), jug band music is an exception — the jug bands recorded in the 1920's were usually urban, black, and southern. A few of these records do "sound rural" to me, but to that extent, these urban bands seem to be either making fun of country life, or tapping into a nostalgia for it.

I should also mention that the level of artistry was often extremely fine.

The whole thing is ... well, not what I had expected.

John Prine: Fair & Square

John Prine: Fair & Square
John Prine, 2005

"Fair & Square," John Prine's first album of new songs in a decade, was released today. I'm still absorbing it, but I like it just fine for an initial spin — I've hit "repeat" on several songs, which is a good sign.

A few years ago, Rolling Stone printed a story Prine told about running into Bob Dylan in a restaurant in Manhattan, if I remember correctly. They took a walk through the streets of Greenwich Village.

Prine doesn't say precisely why — what in the conversation inspired it — but for some reason, at some point, Dylan says to Prine something like, "Come here, let me show you something." He leads Prine over to a night club where the ID-checker outside the door is a woman about 25 years old. Dylan says, "Do you know who I am? Who either of us are?" The woman looks at them very intently and answers, "No."

Philosophy of Science, Part 2 of 2

I got to meet a philosphy of science hero of mine, Joseph Rouse, and talk with him at length. At the end of the conversation, I asked him to sign my copy of one of his books. For a moment, he looked very puzzled — apparently, philosophers of science do not regularly have fans who ask to have their books signed. Once he got the idea, though, he seemed to relish the opportunity.

A minor point in that book keeps coming back to me. Imagine, if you will, that you and a friend are walking along and happen upon two people who are having an argument.

One is insisting, "Snow is white."
The other insists, "Snow is NOT white."

I don't know why — maybe they're artists, or meteorologists, or, maybe ... zoologists?

Anyway, you and your friend are philospophers of science. You eavesdrop for a while and then get into your own argument.

You insist, "The statement 'snow is white' is true."
Your friend insists, "The statement 'snow is white' is false."

Now ... the question is, what are you two philosophers contributing to this debate that the two orginal debaters could not contribute on their own? Unless you're very much more careful, the answer is: Diddly Squat.

The problem has to do with what philosophers can do for (or do about) science without either becoming scientists on the one hand or, on the other, being totally irrelevent. If you want to debate whether quarks "really exist," or whether scientist's conclusions really follow from the evidence they've gathered, you are likely to repeat the same arguments scientists themselves debate very regularly and with a much better command of the complications involved than philosophers usually enjoy.

Thinking about this deeply left me finally agreeing that science — if well done — is something I ultimately trust to answer its own questions. It also left me feeling that I should leave the question of the value of the philosophy of science to others.

Philosophy of Science, Part 1 of 2

I studied a lot of philosophy of science in grad school, and I'm very glad I did — it deepened the way I understand a lot of things that are very important to me personally. Still, looking back, most of the big questions I thought I was grappling with then no longer seem important to me, and ring a bit hollow. But two details do seem to keep coming back to me ... and if they keep following me around, they must matter somehow.

We spent a lot of time talking about how much the stuff scientists talk about are "social constructs" — stories scientists tell each other as a group of folk that make up a culture — and how much they're something else having more to do with the universe they study.

Always, during these discussions, some guy or other would get rather aggressive and try to prove that "things exist" by banging his fists on desks, kicking chairs, thumping his chest like an ape, etc.

Eventually, it became clear to me that whether or not desks are, in fact, hard is rarely a question that real scientists debate for very long. More typically, they debate things like, say, how to reconcile two experiments that give different answers for the precise magnitude of dark energy, or whether a certain experiment in a particle accelator really did create a certain particle for a miniscule moment, thereby implying some new form of energy field, and so on. There's no need for philosophers of science to go around slapping themselves. The real questions are much more subtle.

You can draw whatever Moral of the Story you please. I suppose one lesson is that the most vivid, dramatic, immediately impressive arguments are very often not correct.

Thanks go to "The Bottom Line: The Rhetoric of Reality Demonstrations" by Ashmore, Edwards and Potter, in Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology.

Shaking the Hell Out of Folks

image adapted from poster at the Library of Congress

I think more deeply about pre-War folk and blues than I do most other music, so maybe it's me ... but it seems striking how many of these old recordings have lines that ring in your head, multiplying and deepening and getting sweeter the more you think about them.

Probably, that's one thing Bob Dylan learned from the old music ... but that's another story.

Uncle Dave Macon rewrote an old minstrel song into a song satirizing the automobile. His "Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel" was a "topical" song when it was recorded in 1927, even though its sentiments were already old-fashioned. You can hear it at Hongking Duck, and the New Lost City Ramblers have a great cover of it on "40 Years of Concert Recordings."

For now, never mind the fascinating chorus with its reference to the River Jordan. Let's look at one of the verses:

You can talk about your evangelists
You can talk about Mr. Ford, too
But Henry's a-shaking more Hell out of folks
Than all the evangelists do

There are multiple jokes packed into these few lines.

The most literal is about the suspension system, tires, rough idle of those 1920's Ford flivvers, not to mention the terrible roads they had to travel. A ride in the country in a Model-T Ford was so rattling and convulsive that Uncle Dave considered it even more violent than the jostling you suffered in the Holiness and Pentecostal church services sweeping the USA in the 1920's. So, that's one layer of the joke, and a pretty funny one.

Uncle Dave disliked the automobile, in part because it put him out of business as a mule teamster. He also disliked the disruption the automobile caused in society, in the way people lived. Ford's production methods and the cars they produced brought wrenching changes in the economy, social hierarchies, family structures, and geography of the USA, and fast. These shocks were widely discussed and debated.

So maybe we have the convulsive services of the Evangelists trying to shake people until all the hellishness comes out of them, while Ford's disruptions are bringing out the hell in people in quite another sense. And in this battle, Dave thinks Ford is winning.

But there's still one more joke in this little verse. Uncle Dave would have known very well that the Ford Motor Company had long campaigned to instill "moral purity" and "family values" in its autoworkers. They sent company reps to the workers' homes for surprise inspections, looking for booze, tobacco, loose women, soiled linens, etc.  Henry Ford, like the evangelists, was trying to save souls.

As part of this effort, Ford also sponsored old-time fiddle contests with enormous cash prizes, believing that white, down-home fiddling was more wholesome than the hot African American-influenced jazz and blues so popular in the era. Every mention of these contest I've seen treats them as a strategy by Henry Ford to instill his beloved conservative values in his workers and customers. 

I haven't made a thorough study of it, but I suspect Ford also, or instead, wanted to improve the reputation of his product.  He wanted to associate his newfangled contraption with old-time values, thereby dispelling the stench of sex, jazz, and chaos that seemed to hover around the automobile in the minds and noses of many potential customers.

I doubt Uncle Dave's sharp wit could have missed the irony that Henry Ford was pushing nostalgia and wholesomeness at the same time he was creating a sinful new American culture.

You can talk about your evangelists
You can talk about Mr. Ford, too
But Henry's a-shaking more Hell out of folks
Than all the evangelists do

Lisa Simpson Goes to Banjo Camp

My wife Jenny reports that the episode of The Simpsons that aired on Sunday, April 17 briefly showed Lisa Simpson wearing a t-shirt that said "Banjo Camp." I missed it because I glanced down to peel a shrimp. I would love a screenshot of it, if anybody out there can make that happen for me.

Also, if anyone would kindly explain to me just what's so funny, exactly, about wearing a t-shirt that says "Banjo Camp" ...

UPDATE (April 26, 2005)

It turns out that Lisa's shirt actually said "Band Camp":


"Banjo Camp" was merely wishful thinking on Jenny's part. Ah well, it could happen to anyone. Actually, it does explain a lot — of course, band camp is for dweebs, and so, is funny. But banjo camp? That would've needlessly alienated a key demographic, don't you think?

Art and Science on "Morning Edition"

NPR's Morning Edition has been airing a series exploring the intersections between art and science. It's had some fine moments, and it's definitely worth listening to on the web. Probably my favorite segment was on Louis and Bebe Barron, pioneers of electronic music in the 1950's.

An apparently eccentric husband and wife team, the Barrons found ingenious ways to get crude 1950's-era electronics to make strange noises. Frequently, they would deliberately push circuits beyond their limits, creating various whirrs, whistles, and pops as the circuitry fried — that is, they made instruments that made music through self-destruction.

The home page of the series reads like a kind of Dream-Jobs-Only classifieds section.

Orphan Songs, Part 4:
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

The Carter Family, via The Country Music Hall of Fame

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is one of the best-loved, most-recorded songs ever. I've always loved it, but never quite understood it — it's rather oblique. What circle are we talking about, exactly?

I was standing by the window
On one cold and cloudy day
And I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

Can the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Lord, I told the undertaker
Undertaker, please drive slow
For this body you are hauling
How I hate to see her go

I followed close beside her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

Went back home Lord my home was lonesome
Missd my mother she was gone
All my brothers sisters crying
What a home so sad and lone

It's no wonder I've been puzzled. It turns out that this version was based on an earlier song that gave a full explanation, but the story given in the earlier version has now been mostly forgotten, thanks to the new, familiar one.

A. P. Carter, of the great Original Carter Family, pieced together the more familiar version a couple of days before it was first recorded, during a session on May 5, 1935. He completely re-wrote the original song's verses — the storyline of the song — but left the chorus essentially unchanged. So, today, we all know the original refrain, but not the narrative that gives the refrain a literal meaning. (This was probably an improvement, songwriting-wise.)

The original song seems to have been first published in a hymnal in 1907. The idea of the verses was that, back in the good old days when our family was all together and happy and harmonious, we all literally sat in a circle — maybe around the hearth — warmly enjoying each other's loving presence. (You remember that, don't you?)

But now, years later, many of us have died and gone to heaven, breaking that circle. The chairs are emptying, one by one. But don't despair! In Heaven, that circle is slowly being re-assembled — member by member, as we all pass on — and some day, the circle will be unbroken once again.

But there's a catch ... well, beyond the fact that you'll have to die to complete the story, there's an even more serious catch. It's not a sure thing that everybody in the family will wind up in heaven to help complete the circle. Some of us may wind up ELSEWHERE.

So the song was written to ask, in essence: Will you go to Heaven when you die? Or will your loved-ones sit in Heaven, in their broken circle, looking mournfully at that empty chair where [ your name here ] should have sat, but was instead led astray? Will the circle be unbroken? It's up to you! It will be unbroken, but only if you quit your sinful ways and are saved!

Both versions of the song are "alter call" songs, used to invite you to come forward to the alter to be saved. Here's the lyrics to the original:

There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior
Now they dwell with Him above.

You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

You can picture happy gatherings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below.

One by one their seats were emptied,
One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken—
Will it be complete one day?

Note that both versions have nearly the same melody as the old Negro spiritual, "Glory, glory, Hallelujah, Since I Lay my Burden Down," which you'll find on your copy of the Harry Smith anthology.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Acony Bell

Time the Revelator (CD cover detail)

Gillian Welch wrote a song about a flower she calls the Acony Bell. Like most of Welch's songs, it's great — beautifully performed and written. The lyrics describe the flower in terms so detailed and specific, they remind me of the kind of formal botanical descriptions you find in guidebooks and taxonomic encyclopedias.

The flower itself has always been elusive. Early attempts by botanists to study it were frustrated by the fact that the flower is rare, hard to grow, and is found naturally only in a small geographical range way up in the mountains running through Tennessee, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. The plant was so elusive that it was eventually "discovered by a man who didn't name it, named for a man who didn't see it, by someone who didn't know where it was," according to an article in Harvard Magazine.

In a way, Gillian Welch has added another chapter to this long history of confusion. My first attempt at Googling the flower was frustrated because its name is usually spelled Oconee Bell, not Acony Bell as Welch had it on her CD. To help you along in your own research, here's some information about the Oconee Bell, also known as Shortia galacifolia.

Well it makes its home amid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world "Why should I wait?
This ice and snow's gonna melt away."

J. Dan Pittillo @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database


Banjos and Culdesacs

Flying into Raleigh-Durham Airport for the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, I looked through the window, soaking up my first glimpses of North Carolina and dreaming of banjos. Then I noticed how much culdesacs look like banjos from the air:

Banjo culdesac

And then I thought ... "I've got to stop thinking about banjos before I go mad!"

"Culdesac" is also a term sometimes used to describe a website that has links only to other pages within the same site, and has no links to anywhere else on the web. So if you're just pointing and clicking at such a site, there's NO WAY OUT.

And so, maybe banjos really are sort of like culdesacs. Hmmm, yes ... food for thought ...

Orphan Songs, Part 3
They All Pretend They're Orphans

They all pretend they’re orphans
And their memory is like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away

— Tom Waits, “Time”

She made up someone to be
She made up somewhere to be from

— Tom Waits, “Dead and Lovely”

In Orphan Songs, Part 2, I speculated about why I've found so many songs about orphans and being parentless. Here's one last possibility.

When we're young, parents are sometimes an embarrassment — a reminder of who we used to be, or that we're not yet who we hope to become. You often see this embarrassment in memoirs of the experiences of immigrants. Here you are in your American clothes with your American attitude, accompanied by your father in his black suit and yarmulka, or your mother with her sari and her bindi on her forehead.

To fantasize about being an orphan, of sorts, is to play with the idea of escaping your class, your status, and your cultural (sometimes even fanancial) inheritance.

Memory is an act of imagining, and to be an orphan is to “remember" (i.e., imagine) your parents, which is also to idealize yourself as someone able to advance your artistic, political, financial and other goals. It's the old story of leaving home, going to the big anonymous city, and becoming somebody else.

In a post — which is no longer online — to the unofficial Martin Guitar forum, journalist Don Hurley once wrote about an encounter with Bob Dylan in England, during the filming of Don’t Look Back:

“I took a photographer to his suite to do a profile for the next day's paper. I questioned him on his background and about supposedly running away from home at the age of eleven. He confirmed it all and said he could not remember when he last saw his parents, that he was “just an orphan of the road.” We finished the interview and made for the elevator which my photographer and I shared with an older couple and their son, who turned out to be Dylan's parents and his brother David. They were literally in the suite next to his!”

I'll write more about such "orphans" — in the context of the Folk Revival — in a future installment of this Orphan Song series.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Dark Was The Night: Candles

Candle flame

Night used to be dark — really dark. When the sun went down, you pretty much couldn't see your own hand in front of your face, unless there was a moon in the sky, a display of aurora, or lightning. Or you could get light from some kind of open flame. To accept this as fact is easy enough, but to imagine it as a reality is hard for people living in the 21st century.

Consider the problem of trying to imagine living by candlelight. Candles used to be made of tallow (essentially animal fat) and bee's wax. Both cast a dim, yellow, flickering light. Sometimes a tallow candle would spatter hot fat on someone nearby.

The first major challenge to deep darkness at night was from gaslight in major cities, made possible by late-19th century coal and oil refining. To respond to the challenge presented by the great steadiness and brightness of gaslight, the candle industry developed the paraffin candle, which produced much brighter, whiter, and steadier light than wax or tallow candles ever did.

But paraffin is a byproduct of the same refining technology that produces gaslight. So the candle itself has been modernized to respond to the challenges of technology.

If you want to imagine life before Night was banished, it won't work to simply light some candles and turn off all your lights (don't forget the VCR display and the clock radio and the light from your neighbor's porchlight leaking into your windows!). The candles you're likely to be usings are already modern lighting techology.

The Revolution Will Not Be Heavenly

Today, I bought a copy of Nicolaus Copernicus' book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in an edition edited by Stephen Hawking. The original 1543 book helped inspire people to give up the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and that the Earth circles the Sun, not visa versa.

As I understand it, the change was such a shock and so deeply altered the way people saw the hierarchy of things, in both the heavens and on Earth, that for centuries, whenever people talked about similar upheavals, they would call them another Revolutions, meaning Copernicus' book. After a while, the association of the term with the book got forgotten — hence the word "revolution".

Trouble is, in the original title, De revolutionibus orbium colestium, the word means "spinning around and around in circles," as in, "the going around of the celestial orbs." So the root word of "revolution" is not "revolt," it's "revolve" — to wind up exactly where you started and have to do it all over again.

And all too often, that's how revolutions have gone, at least outside of science. You wind up with the same cast of characters, at best, and you have to stage another revolution, over and over and over.

I swear, the fact that this is Tax Day is PURE COINCIDENCE!

Amazing Cat Facts

In honor of Ralph, visit the Animal Humane Society, or just check out some amazing cat facts. They are some pretty cool little buggers, them cats:

The worlds fattest cat was a neutered male tabby named "Himmey" When Himmey died of respiratory failure he weighed a whopping 46 lbs 15.5 ounces! He had a 15 inch neck, was 38 inches long, and had a 33 inch waist.

Worlds Most "Prolific" Cat was a tabby named "Dusty" gave birth to 420 documented kittens in her lifetime.

Cat's urine glows under a black light.

In ancient Egypt, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death.

Hunting is not instinctive for cats. Kittens born to non-hunting mothers may never learn to hunt.

Cats sleep 16 to 18 hours per day.

Besides smelling with their nose, cats can smell with an additional organ called the Jacobson's organ, located in the upper surface of the mouth.

Cats can't taste sweets.

The average cat food meal is the equivalent to about five mice.

Cats cannot see in complete darkness but they can navigate by sound, smell, and the sensitivity of their whiskers.

Taj Mahal: Banjo Detective

At the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, historian Ted Landsmark said he often gives talks to groups of nice, middle-class, African American church ladies, who reverently listen to him talk about black history. He brings along the usual objects of veneration — quilts and talking sticks and all that.

Then he brings out the banjo.

He said you've never seen a group turn on anybody so quickly. He tried to impress upon the Black Banjo conference attendees just how disgusted these audiences are that Landsmark, as a black man, would even be seen touching a banjo. It never helps much to explain that, of all the material culture produced by African slaves in the New World, the most persistent and successful is the banjo.

Well, given this taboo, it's nice that Taj Mahal is taping a segment for the PBS series History Detectives in which he researches the possible authenticity of a banjo once owned, supposedly, by an African slave. Taj was chosen for the segment because he is a knowledgeable banjo historian and player — and is, of course, a famous black bluesman. The show was taped in Cincinatti and will air some time this summer.

John Prine at The Library of Congress

John Prine

Today, my wife met Ted Kooser, the current Poet Laureate of the United States. That was neat. Even better, he told her out that he recently brought John Prine to The Library of Congress for a discussion and concert.

I highly recommend the webcast of Prine's appearence, which is riveting — all 90 minutes of it. (You'll need the free RealPlayer to watch it.) Prine said of his appearence, "You can bet I'm looking forward to it — taking all these people in my songs to the Library of Congress and letting 'em look around a bit."

Prine's first album in ten years will be released on April 26. Last time I saw him in concert, he said he releases an album every ten years whether anybody asks him to or not.

The Banjo and Africa

I just returned from the conference, "Black Banjo: Then and Now," held in Boone, North Carolina. This blog will plunder my memories of it for months, no doubt, but for now let me tell you a story ...

I sometimes hand my banjo to somebody who's never held one before and invite them to "make some noise." They always do very strange things with their fingers. They might rest their thumb on the "drum" head, above the strings, and pick up with their index and middle fingers, like an electric bass player. Maybe they'll rest all four fingers on the head below the strings and pluck down on the strings with their thumb. Maybe they'll sit like a classical guitarist and use their thumb and all four fingers to pick the strings.

It's interesting to watch what they do, and it's immediately obvious that they have no knowledge of any of the banjo-playing traditions.

But — in one incident after another, stretching back many decades — Oldtime banjo players hand their banjos to West African players of a Senegambian instrument called the akonting, and they immediately play clawhammer like they've been playing the banjo all their lives. Alternately, a banjoist will pick up the akonting and play like a master griot, much to the amazement of his West African hosts.

The banjo is an African instrument and clawhammer is an African playing technique. The instrument and the technique simply survived slavery and are alive and very well today in America, albeit generally in the hands of white Oldtime musicians. Knowing this fact, and fully imagining it, has been a profound shock and inspiration to me.