Previous month:
April 2005
Next month:
June 2005

Mississippi John Hurt: Revival

Robert Cantwell
drawing of Mississippi John Hurt by Robert Crumb

In the mid-1960's, Dock Boggs told Mike Seeger that if he had his life to do over again, he'd learn to play guitar like Mississippi John Hurt. Around the same time, Dave Prine's little brother asked him for guitar lessons, so he gave John Prine a Carter Family record (so he'd know what good songwriting was), and a John Hurt album (so he'd know what good guitar playing sounded like). A college student at the time reports that he'd go to John Hurt concerts because all the best looking girls flocked to them, but he soon found that their eyes and attentions were focused exclusively on this 71 year old black man.

It's hard to grasp how profoundly unlikely all of this would have been only a few years before. John Hurt was a tenant farmer in Mississippi and considered himself an amateur musician. He'd recorded just 13 songs in 1928 and they didn't sell particularly well. The record industry shrank as the Depression set in and Hurt continued farming, apparently thinking little of his brief recording gig.

After WWII, the old records cut by southern musicians in the 1920's were not commercially available. They made the rounds mostly as bootleg tapes among a tiny subculture of obsessive, cranky collectors and a few college kids who took an interest in very obscure music. Hurt's records were particularly rare, since few had been manufactured in the first place. But Harry Smith put two John Hurt cuts on his influential 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, causing some of these hobbyists to go looking for him. They always failed.

Then in 1963, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, two young white folkies, got a tape of Hurt's Avalon Blues through their informal network of tape traders. Hurt had recorded Avalon Blues at the end of a week-long stay in New York that spanned Christmas 1928. Homesick in the big city, Hurt slipped in a line about his home in Avalon being always on his mind.

Hoskins and Stewart figured Mississippi John Hurt might have meant an Avalon, Mississippi. So, they grabbed a current atlas and studied the state. There was no Avalon on the map. So they found an 1878 atlas and there, between Greenwood and Grenada, was Avalon. They packed some clothes, guitars, and a tape recorder and drove south to look for Hurt, though they figured he was probably dead.

When they arrived in Avalon, they found it was basically just a tiny general store. They approached the men sitting on its porch and asked if anyone knew a guitarist named John Hurt. One man lifted an arm, pointed a finger, and said, "Down that road, third mailbox up the hill." Hoskins and Stewart drove, and found a little black man around 70 years old driving a tractor, looking startled by the sudden appearence of two white men who looked like they meant business. When they insisted he follow them back to Washington DC, Hurt decided he'd better go "voluntarily," suspecting they were the "police or the FBI or something like that."

Folk festival gigs back east were easily arranged for Hurt, and he was an enormous hit. Hurt played in a technically dazzling but graceful and gentle ragtime style, his thumb playing bass lines to take the place of a piano player's left hand, and two fingers picking out melodies like a pianist's right hand. Hurt's voice and demeanor were witty and heartbreakingly sweet. The crowds literally lurched forward to be close to him. When Hurt played the Johnny Carson show, he had never owned a television himself.

He died in his sleep at home in Mississippi, only three years after being rediscovered.

"The Folk Revival" of the 1950's and 1960's was a revival of interest in certain songs or styles, but it was also a revival of many talented artist's lives — or at any rate, of their music careers. Nobody is more closely associated with that aspect of the Revival than John Hurt. When I hear his recordings and wonder at the all-consuming benevolence of their sound, the generosity of Hurt's presence, and his virtuoso guitar picking, I'm swept up in gratitude for the Folk Revival. It went out and found John Hurt, made him one of the most deeply (if not widely) loved Americans of his day, and was able to tell him so in the last months of his life.

See also:
Dock Boggs: Revival
Blind Willie Johnson: Revival


Science Bass Ackwards

Science in the U.S. is taught backwards.

You generally start with biology, perhaps the most complex of all the sciences and the one that depends on every other science if it's to be understood.

You then proceed to chemistry, which is little more than memorization and explosions without a good knowledge of physics.

If you keep taking science classes, you may get to take some physics, which is the basis for all other physical sciences — certainly, biology and chemistry make little sense without physics.

Why is it like this? I don't really know, but I gather that the arrangement was codified in the U.S. immediately after World War Two, when physics enjoyed an unchallenged status among the sciences. Physics in the first half of the century had triumphed in the terms that science itself values most — in its predictive capacity and its ability to sort out basic questions about existence — but American culture also saw physics as triumphant militarily and politically, and as the basis for atomic power and atomic weapons.

As a result, the attitude was that little tykes were not yet fit for the revelation of such a Great Secret. And teaching little children had (and still has) a low social status. Teachers trained in physics could just as well do other high-status jobs, unlike those with training in biology who would otherwise be doing various "helping professions" (women's work, you might say). So physicists taught the young adults, and biologists dealt with the children.

Again, this is the story I've gathered. In any case, an "historical" or cultural explanation of this sort has got to be the right explanation. No more rational, functional explanation is likely, given that the current arrangement makes so little sense and its results are so damaging.


Families of Trees


Leaf shapes (don't have much to do with families of trees)

After five years of working for a professional society of plant biologists, I am finally educating myself about plants. My mother-in-law gave me The Golden Field Guide to Trees of North America. It is an excellent book, and I've spent many hours staring at the 1950's-era color drawings of trees, leaves, fruits, bark, etc.

I'm struck by the "families" of trees. You may know about the classification systems for living things — the basic level being species, such as the oregon crab apple (Malus fusca) or the Biltmore crab apple (Malus glabrata). The next highest level is genus, such as apple (Malus), ash (Sorbus), and hawthorn (Crataegus) — each having various species within them. Genus and species has always made sense to me.

The next level up (that is, the first of the "higher taxa"), the families, has always been something of a mystery to me — although I've heard of some families and I've even seen them mentioned in articles I've worked on for a living, it hasn't mattered to me what family a living thing belongs to. Now I get it, thanks to a very small amount of study.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Rosaceae, you mean it's part of a sprawling, dizzyingly varied, historically pivotal family of plants that includes more than 3,000 species and dozens of genuses, including the roses we get on Valentines Day, all apples, cherries, plums, pears, almonds, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, ashes, hawthorns, and more.

When you say a tree belongs to the family Platanaceae, you mean it's a sycamore, also known as a plane tree. The family contains only one genus (Platanus) and about six species.

Now I understand that when one biologist says that such-and-such is in this-or-that family, this may be hugely significant information to an informed listener. This confirms the assertion (of the movie Animal House) that "Knowledge is Good."


Dock Boggs: Revival

Dock Boggs
Dock Boggs, age 9

Ever since banjoist Dock Boggs made his first recordings, people's interest in him has often taken on a rare intensity, part revelation, part morbid compulsion.

In 2005, Rennie Sparks described his 1927 recording of Pretty Polly as "compassionless, cold as a cockroach." Greil Marcus devoted a whole chapter to Boggs in his book about Bob Dylan's Basesment Tapes — Boggs, he wrote, sang Oh Death with "the words jerking in his throat like a marionette." The night in 1932 that Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger first heard Boggs' recording of Pretty Polly, they realized that an American folk music was still alive and they dedicated the rest of their lives to it.

In 1963, Mike Seeger, Charles and Ruth's son, sought out the long-lost Boggs while traveling with his wife and three pre-school children in a Studebaker Lark station wagon. When they finally realized they were really getting close to finding Boggs, it was getting dark and they needed to find lodging. Mike's wife finally suggested they look in a phone book under "Boggs." Seeger was amazed — "Look in the phone book for Dock Boggs?" Boggs was listed, they called, and Dock was in.

In the last eight years of Boggs' life, Seeger became Boggs' recordist, booking agent, best friend, confessor, and maybe in a certain unforeseeable way, demon. Seeger writes: "I've often wondered if his second — his 1960's — music career was good for him."

In 1910, Boggs had gone to work under the surface of the Earth, in the coal mines, at the age of 12. He spent 44 years digging coal in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. In his youth, he supplemented a coal miner's starvation wages the same way many others did — bootlegging whiskey. It was a violent existence, reflecting a disregard for people's lives shared by the coal companies that dominated the region's economy. Boggs was often arrested, carried a gun and used it, beat a brother-in-law almost to death, and at one point plotted in detail the murder of his wife's entire family. "I'm talking about being set on it. I was set on it," he told Mike Seeger's tape recorder.

During the boom of the late 1920's, Boggs made several recordings and vividly glimpsed a chance to escape the mines through music. But the boom soon busted, and Boggs missed a last recording session because he was unable to scrape up any cash for a train ticket. He continued to play his banjo for a few years, but eventually had to pawn it during a run on the banks. Decades later, he would talk to Mike Seeger about these losses with acute pain.

When Mike and his family showed up in their station wagon, Boggs had just retrieved his pawned banjo no more than six months before. Members of his wife's holiness church considered the playing of music to be a sin, and to both Dock and his wife Sara, the instrument was an ominous reminder of their darker days.

He travelled and recorded extensively with Seeger. Boggs deeply enjoyed his second music career, there's no question about it. There's also no question that it was emotionally challenging for him as well. He started to drink heavily, at least occasionally. On one such occasion, with Mike Seeger's tape recorder rolling, Boggs threatened to buy a .38 Special and murder someone over legal issues regarding a cesspool, as well as the entire staff of an insurance office. One night, during a concert tour, Seeger and Boggs shared a sleeping room and at one point, Seeger awoke to find that Boggs had had a "rough wakening." Dock said he'd dreamt of "burning hell."

Boggs was a complex, intelligent, and sensitive person, so we'll never fully understand the conflicts that troubled him in those final years. Surely, his 44 years in the mines had a lot to do with it. Boggs was a staunch advocate of the United Mine Workers union, and understood the brutality of an extractive economy. Boggs' father had started life with 350 acres of land, but sold one farm after another to the coal companies until, "When he died, he never owned enough land to bury him on." The chance to make money and fans through music must've produced regrets over the time Boggs had lost, as well as something like survivor's guilt.

My copy of the double CD of Boggs' music from the 1960's is one of my most cherished possessions. Certainly, it's one chapter in the life of Mike Seeger, which has taken on mythic proportions for me and, I've noticed, a lot of other fans of oldtime music. But the facts of what Boggs' music meant to Boggs himself — how it framed, troubled, and gave meaning to his life — make his 1960's work some of the deepest art I've ever known. In the end, what really make these recordings so valuable is something I've barely mentioned here — Boggs' startling, touching voice and his exquisitely original and skillful banjo playing.

See also:
Mississippi John Hurt: Revival
Blind Willie Johnson: Revival


Fiddlin' Banjo Crap

Fiddle_banjo

Martin Mull memorably quipped that he once looked up "folk music" in an encyclopedia, fervently hoping that the first music made in America "wasn't that fiddlin' banjo crap." I was really amused by it as a kid.

Decades later, I started studying up on folk music myself and found that there's a riveting, convoluted, and ultimately mysterious story to be told about fiddles and banjos — two instruments joined at the hip. I may not be the person to tell this story (quite yet), but it's clear that the fiddle and banjo have sustained a long marriage that has had its ups and downs.

Soon after this relationship first dawned on me, I attended a banjo Q&A session conducted by Mike Seeger and my own (long-suffering) banjo instructor, Rachel Nelson. I was just about to raise my hand and ask about the brotherly fellowship shared between the banjo and the fiddle, when another guy raised his hand and demanded to know why some people seem to think the banjo is nothing but the fiddle's lowly, bootlicking lackey. Seeger and Nelson looked like they might have preferred my phrasing of the question, but it made me realize I had more research left to do.

The start of this mutual tradition is unknown — folklorist Cecelia Conway is unable to trace the pairing back much further than minstrelsy, around 1840. But certain areas of Appalachia (Virginia and North Carolina, I think) have such an old, rich, complex, multi-racial tradition of fiddlin' banjo tunes that it couldn't have originated with the Northern, pop phenomenon of minstrelsy.

The banjo has sometimes been the fiddle's rhythm section. Listening to the 1920's recordings of Charlie Poole, the banjo played second fiddle to the fiddle, yet was crucial to Poole's sound. But in the case of the Skillet Lickers, the banjo is barely audible amidst sometimes three or more fiddles.

Certainly, a great solo banjo tradition was captured in 1920's recordings of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley and others. But the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music — hugely influential in the post-WWII folk revival — included a marathon of seven solo fiddle cuts, and I wonder if this spotlight on the fiddle in such a prominent document may have left some mark on the post-war relationship between the two instruments. Two of the finest living clawhammer banjo players — Ken Perlman and Mac Benford — each developed their distinctive styles by replacing the fiddle with the banjo, using the clawhammer stroke to coax out their instruments the complex melodic lines usually played by the fiddle. They clearly saw some need to give the banjo its own place in the sun, unshadowed by the fiddle.

The banjo originated in Africa, and the fiddle is the classic folk instrument of the British Isles, so their pairing is sometimes said to be a microcosm of what makes American music such an intense mixture. But at the Black Banjo Gathering, a presentation on African banjo ancestors included slides of African fiddles, constructed almost exactly the same way that early banjos were constructed, only much smaller. So perhaps the banjo and fiddle did not marry for the first time in America — perhaps it's more accurate to say that they were separated at birth.


What You're Not Interested In

"It's amazing, the human capacity to not notice things that you're not interested in," Bram Gunther said. He's New York City's deputy director of forestry and horticulture and recently gave reporter Andy Young a tour of NYC's urban forest for an article in the May 23 New Yorker.

The city of New York has five million trees, a half million of which are "street trees" not associated with parks or yards. There are fowering cherry, honey locust, silver linden, pin oak, ginkgo, Japanese zelkova and pagoda, London plane, Kentucky coffeetree, dawn redwood — seventy species in all.

Beginning in June, more than 1,000 volunteer "tree stewards" — tree geeks, the article calls them — will take the first census of NYC trees in a decade. Driving along one block, Gunther points out to his reporter some of the reasons the tree population turns over so quickly: "Subway! Grate! Bus stop! Garage! Canopy! Grates! Vaults! Driveway! Awning! Light pole! Again with the canopy!" Along the way, they find injuries due to bikes chained to trunks, dog urine, lovers carving their initials, and Asian long-horned beetles.

Over the last few months, and after more than five years of working for an organization of plant scientists, I've finally begun learning to identify trees (so that's what a maple leaf looks like!). If my eye for the various species ever develops, I know it'll be one of those experiences that makes the world come alive for me all over again, much like when I learned about atmospheric optics.

I suppose learning about the urban forest has that same character that draws amateur folklorists, conspiracy cranks, poets in American, amateur scientists, certain varieties of bloggers. It's a way of turning your back on cable news, American Idol, the runaway bride, publicly-funded stadiums, Clear Channel, and inventing your own culture, your own way of seeing the world. ("There are 8 million stories in the naked city ...") It often seems that simply controlling your own attention and finding your own stories to tell is, increasingly, an act of civil disobedience.


Billboards in Space

Advertising in Earth Orbit
"Blogger Logo-rise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941"

The idea of creating very large advertisements and placing them into Earth obit has been very seriously considered. Such "space billboards," it's usually estimated, would be about the size and brightness of the full moon and would be visible for hours on end to something like a quarter or half the world's population at a time. Potentially, no sky on Earth would lack an ad for something.

Current technology is more than enough to do the trick, and actual companies have offered the service (for example, Space Marketing, Inc. of Roswell, Georgia, proposed space advertising for the 1996 Summer Olympics).

It seems that the only obstacles to actual space billboards are:

(1) Public opposition. Any company making use of such advertising would probably (or hopefully) be subject to intense and widespread public criticism. Indeed, I myself can think of few other causes for which I would be willing to go to war.

(2) National laws. At least in the U.S., a law prohibits the deployment of space advertising. Whether, and for how long, the law would stand up to challenges brought to the World Trade Organization, as well as domestic First Amendment challenges, I can't say. In any case, last week, the FAA asked Congress for the authority to enforce those existing U.S. laws (see CNN.com's story in their "funny news" section). I believe this is happening now because private space ventures are making rapid progress in the U.S., and the FAA — not NASA — enforces laws relating to private space travel.

Around 1998, I toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay about an underground group that sabotages a mission to install some space advertising. They were not the bad guys, either ...


Einstein Takes A Test

Bohr Einstein
Niels Bohr and Einstein think about it

In physics, there are often different equations for the same phenomenon, but you can usually do a little algebra and show that the different equations actually come from the same source. This is considered good and normal.

So, it's a lot more than a bit embarrassing that the two most important ideas in modern physics — quantum mechanics, which are used to describe teeny tiny things, and General Relativity, which is used to describe big-ass things — have no connection at all. They don't match. To go from one to the other, you have to close one book, put it away, and open another.

For example, Einstein showed that gravity is really just geometry. Mass warps space, and so objects tend to slide down the geometrical warps that other objects create, moving closer together. When we look at this, it looks like gravitational attraction. Unfortunately, quantum mechanics thinks of gravity as an effect generated when masses pass little particles back and forth between them. These ideas are no more compatible to physicists than they are to me or you.

Generally, the conflict can just be ignored, but in certain cases, the two worlds collide. When you want to talk about teeny tiny spaces with HUGE gravitational fields — like black holes, or the Big Bang — you're in real trouble. You need physics that hasn't been invented yet — you need "quantum gravity" or a "Grand Unified Theory". People are working on some interesting ideas (like string theory) in trying to develop this new physics, but it's not clear whether anyone is on the right track or not.

Check your local bookstore for a good article in the July 2005 Sky and Telescope, describing experiments designed to help break the log jam. In terms of the margin of error, quantum mechanics has been confirmed with a lot more precision than General Relativity has. If Einstein's work could be confirmed way, way down to the umpteenth digit, and if this work revealed some difficulties with the theory, it might help unravel the curtain separating the physics of the very large and the very small. Astronomy is at the forefront of the effort, hence the article in Sky and Telescope.



1969 and the Moon Landing
Part 2: Alice's Restaurant



Alice's Restaurant is a long, rambling, very funny song about a lot of things — particularly the absurd way that its author, Arlo Guthrie, got out of the draft.

A film version of the song was rushed to the theaters soon after the song became a hit. In Arlo Guthrie's fascinating audio commentary for the "special features" of the film's DVD, Arlo describes the writing of the song, and then its first public performance:

I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and they said, "Oh, Arlo Guthrie, you know, aren't you Woody's kid?" And they put me out in this field — you know, I was just 18 or 19 years old, I was a real young guy — and I remember playing Alice's Restaurant standing on a box in a field with about 300 people.
They got such a response that they put me on some other program later on that afternoon with, you know, about a thousand people and that got such a respsonse that they put me on at the very end of the festival, and that evening there were probably about twenty, thirty thousand people in the audience.
They were afraid to put an unknown person like me at the end of a big festival. It'd be really chancy, I mean, what if I was terrible? What if it was horrible? ...

And so Judy Collins came out, Joan Baez came out and then other people came out, and Pete Seeger came out. And by the end of the evening, all the performers were onstage singing Alice's Restaurant.
And that was the day that Man first walked on the Moon. I remember being onstage and telling everybody, you know, "There's people walking around up there." And looking at the moon. And it was a big day. Big day for me, big day for everybody. The next day, I started getting the phone calls from all the record companies and the execs and stuff.


It's true that the song made its public premier at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967. But "Man first walked on the Moon" two years later, in July 1969. There were no astronauts in space during the 1967 festival.

Part of what fascinates me about the film, and Arlo's commentary, is that they are both constantly haunted by endless coincidences, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and mysteries — some of which Arlo points out, and some of which he seems to miss. The moon landing the night of his great triumph at Newport, for example, happened only in Arlo's memory.

The timing of the song and the film interests me. Hollywood in the mid-60s was in pretty bad shape and the studios were desperate to get people into theaters. Bonnie and Clyde (produced by 28-year-old Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn) was a surprise success and helped encourage bolder movies by sometimes by younger artists, oriented toward younger audiences.

Alice's Restaurant was Arthur Penn's next directing job after Bonnie and Clyde, and has a disorienting strangeness that seems to come from being a weird hybrid of countercultural documentary and studio pandering. So, Alice's Restaurant feels like it catches Hollywood in mid-morph, trying to figure out how to do a new thing. The movie is one key to understanding Hollywood at that moment.

But I want to understand the year 1969 and how the The Moon Landing fit into it. One lesson of Arlo's mistaken timeline is that the recollections of the major players — whether astronauts or folksingers — are 36 year old, and are bound to be cloudy.

Certainly, any drugs used at the time are unlikely to help, but they're not the only thing that can make things "run together" — young people in 1969 had a lot on their minds, what with a draft, a war, assassinations, Nixon, and such. I often remind myself that between 1965 and 1970, there were ... well, just five years.

But the main lesson of Arlo's mistake is that it wasn't some other mistake — it was about the Moon Landing. It is testimony to the importance of the landing not just as a technological feat, but as a reflection and contributor to the headiness of the times.

The 1967 Newport Folk Festival was certainly one of the most important events in Arlo Guthrie's life. It changed everything for him, and it was inextricably wrapped up in momentous national events (just listen to the song). It really was a big day for everybody — every day seemed to be. 

So, it makes sense that memories would get pegged to Apollo 11 as a way of expressing their own intensity and, especially, to express the way those memories were shaped by various dramatic displays of American power.

Part 1

 


The Moon and Tom Waits: Part 2 of 2

Tom Waits Father
Tom Waits and his dad, Frank.

Ever since I first noticed in 1999 how often Tom Waits refers to the Moon, I've wondered what else could be said about it, other than Tom Waits likes to refer to the moon. At least one valiant attempt to really get something said has been made, but I don't think a "big picture" has ever been drawn. I'll give it a try.

Waits has said he likes his songs to have some weather, a map in case you get lost, and something to eat in case you get hungry. This strategy — of, sort of, getting enough furniture into his rooms that you can live them — winds up being crucial to how his fans react to his work. People who love Waits clearly love doing the work involved in sorting out his references. They ask, what's Mulligan stew? Where's Murfreesboro? What's a big black Mariah? Who's Wilson Pickett? And the moon is part of this same song writing strategy — often, Waits even gives you the phase of the moon, maybe so you can find your way around in the dark.

Reading over the list of moon references, I'm reminded of my own aim for The Celestial Monochord, which is like the challenge some artists set for themselves — if you only stick to one medium and one theme, you could explore the whole world through them. It hardly matters what you choose — you can pull the entire universe through a little buttonhole. The iterations, the returning to the subject over and over again, eventually polishes the subject into a mirror that will reflect whatever you put in front of it. The moon face is ever-changing but repetitious, and seems to invite an artistic project like that. Waits chose the moon as one of his Great Themes — but really, it could have been anything.

Waits has always been an outlandishly romantic writer. Of course, especially lately, I mean romantic in the sense that the love notes he sings to his wife Kathleen can be heartbreakingly sweet. But, especially early in his career, I also mean that other romanticism — an unrestrained belief in impractical fictions, a body-and-soul dedication to lovely baloney. For example, Waits has said that he's embarrassed by his early work, when he pursued the romance of the Great American Drunk (and he made sure that life and art did uncanny imitations of each other). And so, what could possibly be a brighter sign spelling "romance" (in both senses) than the moon? In a recent song, Waits asks, "What could be more romantic than dying in the moonlight?"

Waits is one of those musicians I mentioned earlier in the context of Mike Seeger — a middle class adventurer in revolt against his class, one who "can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise." As a young man, in the name of searching for his own true nobility — the diamond in his mind — he fashioned himself into one of The Common Folk that lived in his imagination. He renounced his Nobility in order to find it again.

In this context, I think about a line from "Shore Leave," in which a sailor on leave writes home wondering "how the same Moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there." It's a reminder that the moon really does have a "universality" to it — it's leveling, a commonality. The very same moon has been seen by Plato, Genghis Khan, Galileo, Hitler, Shakespeare, George Bush, Regis Philbin. It's the ultimate folk image, because it's been independently, organically rediscovered by everybody who ever had eyes.

I think Waits has used the moon's commonness, it's dailiness (actually its nightliness, which suits Waits better) to insinuate himself among us, among the ordinary — something he has needed both artistically and personally. The image of the moon — with its powerful combination of romance and ordinariness — is an emblem of that transcendent quality which Waits has always sought in being just plain folk.


The Moon and Tom Waits: Part 1 of 2

Tom Waits Vineyard
Tom Waits in wine country.

In 1999, I made a partial list of references to the Moon in Tom Waits songs. Since then, I've seen a few others do the same, but I don't think a complete list has ever been made. I estimate it would be about 100 entries long — averaging over 3 lunar references every year for more than 3 decades.

Below is only about 40% of the known references. I don't know whether you can make it through this, but I hope it will vividly convey the way Waits returns to the Moon, over and over, sort of turning it around in his mind to see it from as many different angles as possible.

The moon's all up, full and big — apricot pit in an indigo sky.

You wear a dress, baby, and I'll a tie, and we'll laugh at that old bloodshot moon in that burgundy sky.

Outside another yellow moon has punched a hole in the nighttime.

Looks like a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.

The moon's a yellow stain across the sky.

November only believes in a pile of dead leaves and a moon that's the color of bone.

The Moon is a cold chiseled dagger and it's sharp enough to draw blood from a stone. He rides through your dreams on a coach and horses and the fence posts in the moonlight look like bones.

And then they all try to stand like Romeo beneath the moon cut like a sickle, and they're talkin' now in Spanish all about their hero.

The moon's a silver slipper, it's pouring champagne stars.

Every time I hear that melody, something breaks inside, and the grapefruit moon, one star shining, can't turn back the tide.

I know I'm gonna change that tune when I'm standing underneath a buttery moon that's all melted off to one side (Parkay). It was just about that time that the sun came crawlin' yellow out of a manhole at the foot of 23rd Street and a dracula moon in a black disguise was making its way back to its pre-paid room at the St. Moritz Hotel.

Everything has its price. Everything has its place. What's more romantic than dying in the moonlight?

The Moon ain't romantic, it's intimidating as hell.

Cheater slicks and baby moons, she's a-hot and ready and creamy and sugared and the band is awful and so are the tunes.

It's 9th and Hennepin, and all the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes, and the moon's teeth marks are on the sky like a tarp thrown over all this.

The moonlight dressed the double-breasted foothills in the mirror, weaving out a negligee and a black brassiere.

Just then Florence Nightingale dropped her drawers and stuck her fat ass half way out of the window with a Wilson Pickett tune and shouted "Get a load of this!" and gave the finger to the moon.

Now the moon's rising, got no time to lose — time to get down to drinking and tell the band to play the blues.

And Zuzu Bolin played "Stavin' Chain" and Mighty Tiny on the saw threw his head back with a mouth full of gold teeth and they played "Lopsided heart" and "Moon over Dog Street."

I like to sleep until the crack of noon, midnight howlin' at the moon, goin' out when I want to, and comin' home when I please.

They be suckin' on Coca Colas and be spittin' Day's Work until the moon was a stray dog on the ridge and the taverns would be swollen until the naked eye of 2 a.m.

I talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling, and I wondered how the same Moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there — you know I love you, baby.

It's funny you know, cause every now and then — yeah, every now and then, when the moon's holding water, they say old Joe will stop and give you a ride.

Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did — I got what I paid for now.

I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west, I never saw the moonlight until it shone off of your breast.

And the evening stumbles home with his tie undone, and the moon sweeps 7th Avenue as usual. You lie awake at night, you remember when ...

Well, Jesus gonna be here, he's gonna be here soon. He's gonna cover us up with leaves, with a blanket from the moon.

You gotta roll out the carpet, strike up the band, break out the best champagne when I land. You gotta beat the parade drum, hit all the bars — I want the moon and stars!

I got the moon, I got the cheese, I got the whole damn nation on their knees.

My eyes say their prayers to her and sailors ring her bell, the way a moth mistakes a light bulb for the moon and goes to hell.

I'll wait beneath a blood-red moon, a blood-red moon, a blood-red moon, 'neath a blood-red moon. I'd rather die than part from you.

My baby ripped my heart out with every turn of the moon.

Every night the moon and you would slip away to places where you knew that you would never get the blues. Well, now whiskey gives you wings to carry each one of your dreams, and the moon does not belong to you.

There's a golden moon that shines up through the mist, and I know that your name can be on that list. There's no eye for an eye, there's no tooth for a tooth, I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.

When the moon is broken and the sky is cracked, come on up to the house.

When the weathervane's sleeping and the moon turns his back, you crawl on your belly along the railroad tracks.

Well, the smart money's on Harlow and the moon is in the street.

The Moon fell from the sky — it rained mackerel, it rained trout.

The moon in the window and a bird on the pole, always find a millionaire to shovel all the coal.

That’s the way the market crashes. That’s the way the whip lashes. That’s the way the teeth gnashes. That's the way the gravy stains. And that's the way the moon wanes.


The Crush Collision Trio

Crush Collision Trio

Recently, the Mullet River Boys, a trio of oldtime vaudevillean minstrels, saved what was, for me, an otherwise iffy show, The Ukulele Gala. I was surprised to find that they're a local group I'd never heard of. In terms of the kind of music I love, I'm more familiar with Memphis 80 years ago than with my own town today. I need to do something about that.

I first realized this a few years ago when I stumbled across another Twin Cities group, The Crush Collision Trio fronted by Lonesome Dan Kase. Lonesome Dan (LORD, what makes that Dan so LONESOME?) is an oldstyle accoustic bluesman — I mean an even older style than you're probably picturing.

The usual image people have of the accoustic "country" blues tends to come, I think, from people like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and Skip James as an old man. But when these guys learned to play the blues, they were kids in at least the late 1920's or later, and they were playing what was, at the time, a new approach. It was slower, sadder, with sometimes irregular rhythms not meant for dancing. Their lyrics were often pretty grim.

But among the first round of solo bluesmen recorded in the 20's were older men who played an older style that grew up in house parties, dance joints, and medicine shows. Their rhythms were more often steady and lively, their lyrics were geared toward crowds of mixed gender, age, and race, and they tended to play in a range of different styles, including religious tunes. I'm thinking of Charlie Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Henry Thomas, and Jim Jackson. Many of their songs, verses, subjects and styles were shared by older white songsters recorded at the same time, such as Uncle Dave Macon. A few of these older black songsters were recorded playing banjos.

This is the terrain that Dan Kase has claimed for himself. His band includes a mandolin (by Matt Yetter) and a washboard (Mikkel Beckman), and when I corner these guys in bars, they each seem to confirm my admittedly shaky grasp of this storyline. (Still, I can't speak for them, of course.) A high-ranking, unnamed source assures me that if I like the Crush Collision Trio, I'd love a guy who lives in Duluth named Charlie Parr. We'll see — Dan's music, with or without his Trio, always makes me feel pretty damned right with the world.

All these Minnesotans seem to be in their twenties or thirties. Clearly, this evidence from Minnesota — together with more familiar national acts like the Old Crow Medicine Show, Jolie Holland, Gillian Welch (etc., etc., etc.) — suggests that the "Folk Revival" that started in the 1990's is bearing fruit. Suddenly, there's a reason to see live music.

As an aside, The Crush Collision Trio named themselves after a publicity stunt. In 1896, William George Crush staged a head-on collision of two locomotives on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas train line ("The Katy"). Forty-thousand spectators watched the smash-up somewhere between Waco and Hillsboro, Texas. Unexpectedly, both trains' boilers exploded shortly after impact, killing two spectators and mutilating several others. (Crush Collision Trio shows tend to work out a little better.)


Orphan Songs, Part 7
We Are The Folk

The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen
The New Lost City Ramblers: Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger, John Cohen


The most electrifying book I've read about folk music is certainly "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival." Sadly, I can't bring myself to shove the book into the hands of anyone I know. It's dense enough academic criticism that I don't know who'd find it a "good read" without having studied the humanities recently. But I also don't personally know any academics who like folk music enough to care. So, I have to enjoy it privately, like some kind of dirty book.

But it was Cantwell's book that first made me think very seriously about Orphan Songs. So, I'll try to gently summarize one short passage from the book, hoping to convey a little of why that might be ...
 
 
Who are these "Folk" who make all this music, anyway? Louis Armstrong said, "All music is folk music — I ain't never heard no horse sing a song."

Well, you have to consider the idea of "The Folk." It derives and survives from feudalism, and so from before what we know as trade, the town, science, money, mechanization, and mass production. The idea of the folk can't make sense without that other feudal principle, Nobility. The two ideas are inseparable, since the folk is what humanity looks like viewed from above — from the position of nobility gazing down upon its dependents.

This may sound disparaging, as if folk music is just an illusion in the minds of bigots. But remember that when feudalism gave way to more modern economic and cultural institutions, its principle of nobility was adopted with great romance by the new mercantile middle class — that is, by MY class — as an ideal to be aspired to. Ever since, the nobility ethic has shown itself in middle-class culture, philosophy, politics, spirituality, in our sense of Self.

What does this have to do with Orphan Songs? As long as there are folk to compare ourselves to, our nobility must be seen as an accident of birth. The things nobility implies — independence, gentility, fairness, being worthy of the folk's dependence and so also of your obligations — none can be claimed or understood without knowing, experiencing, confronting, or perhaps even becoming the folk. (This chapter in Cantwell's book is called "We Are The Folk.")

Here, astonishingly, Cantwell considers the career and, I have to say, identity of folk revivalist Mike Seeger. Seeger is a complex character with a career running now more than 50 years. I can't do Seeger justice here, so I'll only say that Cantwell's description is vividly, stunningly recognizable to me. He presents Seeger as a kind of self-orphaned nobleman whose nobility runs in the blood so that, as a foundling among the folk, he must discover his nobility.

I'll end with excerpts directly from Cantwell:

Seeger is, through that music, in lifelong revolt against his class — and hence permanently exiled to that strange zone where the very phenomenon of social differentiation seems to have exhausted itself.

Like the returned Ulysses or the exiled Edgar in Lear, like the blackface minstrel, Mike Seeger can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise. This is the classic Byronic gesture, that of the nobleman recovering through a reckless and brilliant condescension, choosing virtue over power, the essence of his nobility. To have it and to repudiate it, and thus to have it back again in its authentic form: of all the tales that nobles tell about themselves, this essentially allegorical and religious story has been, from Luke and John to the Wife of Bath, John Milton, C. S. Lewis, and Hermann Hesse, the one most loved by the people of the town.

This kind of analysis in "When We Were Good: The Folk Revival" has pretty fully reworked how I think about not only the Folk Revival, but most musicians I love (see the anecdote about Dylan at the end of Part 3), plus the Beats and the so-called 60's counterculture, among other post-World War II cultural movements. Looking for Orphan Songs? You won't have to look far.

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

See also The New Lost Times

 


Thank You Mr. Sagan

 

THANK YOU, MR. SAGAN

Oh, it's nice to return
to the twentieth century
blockaded from invasion
and lame radio shows
about how Jesus
loves the athletes,
his rich children,
who can achieve
so much with a cleat.

In The Letters To
The Mount Wilson Observatory,
every day blazed
with irresistible keys
brandished by real citizens
with big sensitive heads
compelled to tell us
the almighty resided
in the Orion Nebula
or that humans used
to live on the moon
until it melted.

Oh, please can we
all be muscular
hummingbirds,
jeweled fools
beating our wings
at gaps in what passes
for understanding
in a vestigial wind.

The world is not
a polyphonic monster.
If possible, may we
refrain from eavesdropping
on erudite ancestors?

Consider what we've done
to virgins, toasting on an open fire
or hosting that obsession with reptiles,
all sacred and chicane. Humans
are a moony crew, a ship's list.
Still lost but stalking the location
of a true galactic home.
Neither frozen, nor crackpot,
not noble, not alone.

 

-----

 


This poem contains a reference to an online exhibit of very eccentric letters received from the general public by The Mount Wilson Observatory.

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 "Your Wife As Krakatoa."

 


My Dog Has Fleas: Review of the Ukulele Gala

For the little world of public radio, Minnesota Public Radio is a far-flung empire, built in no small meaure on A Prairie Home Companion. So when MPR held a Ukulele Gala, presided over by the hosts of "The Morning Show" (an excellent, eccentric, eclectic music show on one of MPR's several stations, 89.3 The Current), it seemed like a good bet to me. The show was held at the venerable old Fitzgerald Theater, home of Prairie Home and a gorgeous place to see a concert — ornate and amazingly intimate.

I can't say I was very disappointed, exactly. I've been spoiled recently by attending some transcendent gatherings of some of the best banjo players in the world, and I had imagined that a good cross-section of brilliant ukulele players would not be hard to assemble, if you know what I mean. What we got for our $31 a head (before Ticket Master) was two very entertaining local ukulele players and one flown in California, along with some dubious sketch comedy by The Morning Show's hosts.

The audience itself was a good show — acres of Hawaiian-print silk, a Tiny Tim impersonator (with latex nose), many child ukulele students, a guy with yarmulke over here, some nose rings and tattoos over there. Dozens were armed with ukuleles of all vintages, shapes, and sizes. Fifty ukulele-playing Minnesotans onstage and sawing away at Aloha Oy is not something you see every day.

As for the professionals, local musician Kari Larson is one of Garrison Keillor's "shy persons" and has a meager stage presence. But she earned great respect with some riveting instrumentals, most memorably a sweet, melodic piece exploring some variations on "When I'm Sixty-Four" and a ukulele/church pipe-organ duet on "Baby Elephant Walk." Again, not something you see every day.

The Mullet River Boys, a local group that's been known to play at a little pizza joint just up the street from my apartment, were unquestionably the Gala's highlight. Hearing them was like finding 20 bucks in an old jacket. They made me wonder once again just how many thousands of virtually anonymous musicians there are across America who are profoundly more talented than anyone you will ever see on Amerian Idol.

Their repetoire is all over the place but well-chosen, drawing from early jazz, Oldtime string-band, vaudeville, and minstrelsy. There are shades of Oliver Hardy in frontman Jack Norton, who claims to have known Tiny Tim during childhood and who today plays one of Tim's ukes. Sideman Jed Germond is more of a Stan Laurel, an exceptional jazz violinist, and a solid tenor banjoist. The third Mullet River Boy is a woman, Liz Draper, who, dressed in a high-collared long-sleeved white blouse, looked like The Church Lady, only sexy and with dreadlocks ... if you can picture that for a moment. She seemed to be a classically-trained but very versatile doghouse bass player.

Jim Beloff was the guy from California, which is apparently an epicenter of an ongoing ukulele revival. Not my cup of tea, Beloff is an amiable geek whose repetoire is deeply rooted in Tin Pan Alley, which I'm afraid still seems like an oxymoron to me. I'm working on it. His originals were built around themes I would have rejected as bereft of real ideas (e.g., a trip to the dog park) and which he used mostly to mine rhymes (e.g., "bark"). When he and his wife Liz began singing duets with much simpering drama ("Love is a Many Splendored Thing," for example) my own wife Jenny leaned over and whispered, "Waiting for Guffman."

I did very much appreciate the Celestial Monochordy quality of writing a love song around a "sheetmusic moon" of the kind you see on old piano-bench songsheets.

The show ended with an all-cast audience sing-along of the ukulele national anthem, "Has Anybody Seen My Gal." I left the theater thinking of the contrast between the Mullett River Boys and Beloff, remembering what Bob Dylan said: "Strap yourself to a tree with roots."


The Mount Graham Controversy, 1988

Squir1l

In the 1980s, I studied astronomy (actually, physics and mathematics was all it was) at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I also did a lot of hiking and camping in the mountains and deserts of the southwest, compelled by the same love of nature that brought me to astronomy.

So, I found myself in the company of both astronomers and environmentalists on a daily basis. I thought nothing of it, since so many amateur astronomers prefer to see dark, clean skies than strip malls, and often have to camp in the wilderness to escape light pollution. Similarly, environment-conscious hikers and campers always seem intensely aware of the night (and day) skies they get to experience.

But then came the Mount Graham controversy. In its early stages, the debate mostly revolved around a rare species of red squirrel that some feared would go extinct if a large observatory complex was built on top of the mountain. There was a lot to consider, and I tried hard to consider it. Unfortunately, I found no colleagues willing to help.

The environmentalists I met saw visions of chemical and radioactive spills, noisy research, great tracts of asphalt, and throngs of tourists in a pristine wilderness. I tried to explain that telescopes just bend light with mirrors and today require only electricity, not photochemicals. They also like native plants around them to absorb image-blurring heat, and tourists are only marginally tolerated at a serious research facility. Mount Graham already boasted a road system, a Bible camp, and an artificial lake. Nothing of the sort was in the least bit interesting to the environmentalists I discussed it with — this information was greeted as evidence alright, but only of the fact that my heart was not in the right place. The facts seemed to prove only that I didn't care.

I will say that they were somewhat more willing to engage than the astronomy students I tried to talk to — at least when those students were in all-male groups. There was no hope of even suggesting that accomodations might be made for the observatory's impact on animal habitats, or that a better understanding of the ecosystem up there might be interesting, or that mutual education between astronomers and environmentalists might lessen the tensions over the issue. I mostly remember one very brief, bruising conversation in which it was suggested that the group go squirrel hunting.

I eventually stopped paying attention to the Mount Graham debate, mostly because I doubted a real debate was possible. Being somewhat wet behind the ears, I was shocked that my interests could be aligned with people who were so obviously wrong and unwise. It would be many years before I really came to accept that even your ideological brethren can be routinely hostile to the truth and to the common good. I came to accept it as a fact, but I still find it rather unpleasant.


Classifieds: Biosphere 2

Biosphere2

Biosphere 2 was an attempt at creating a sealed-off, self-sustaining ecosystem of the kind astronauts would need for Moon or Mars bases, or for extremely long trips into deep space. The name implies that the Earth itself is Biosphere 1.

The $200 million venture was mostly funded by a Texas oil billionaire. With a lot of TV cameras aimed at them, the first crew was sealed up in 1991, but oxygen levels plummeted, crops failed, the isolated crew grew testy and weak, and no animals survived except abundant ants and cockroaches. It wasn't long before outside food and fresh oxygen were quietly brought in.

After a flurry of mission changes and lawsuits, the complex just north of Tucson is now up for sale:

"This is not all about the highest bidder," [general manager of company that owns Biosphere 2] said. "All things being equal, we'd certainly like to see an appropriate reuse of the Biosphere and associated buildings, but ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear."

I gather that some good science came out of Biosphere 2, and its certainly better to fail in Southern Arizona than halfway to Alpha Centauri. Still, Biosphere 2 may be best remembered as an especially bizarre example of America's (and The American West's) doomed utopianism.

It's also a dramatic example of something I've mentioned before — the intimate and often troubling relationship between American space science and the mass media. I'll do some exploring of that long history in future entries of the Monochord.

a>

Einstein's "Miracle Year"

Einstein

A hundred years ago this year, Einstein published a series of papers that reworked what scientists thought reality was. It was such a shocking gesture that 1905 is still sometimes called Einstein's "miracle year."

In science, advances and discoveries are almost always "in the air." That is, everybody is working on the same issue and kind of knows what's going to happen next — though usually not exactly how or when.

But Einstein's papers were another matter — they were certainly not "in the air." It seems like a batch of 21st century physics shot back not just into the 20th century — into 1905. I always picture a group of scientists gathered around discussing the details of some current sticking point, when suddenly a 26-year-old patent clerk clears his throat and asks, politely, "You know ... time?"

There's been so much written on Einstein, it seems silly to go on about him here. But to give a flavor of that year, let me draw an extremely quick sketch of what Einstein said:

Light occurrs in discrete "quanta." Everybody had accepted that light is a wave, but now Einstein says it's a particle too, and each light particle has a distinct, independent energy level. Nothing in quantum mechanics would be possible without this.

Atoms exist, and kinetic energy theory works. Einstein applied the idea that heat is ceaseless agitation of atoms to a phenomenon called Brownian motion — thus more or less simultaneously proving what heat was and that atoms exist.

The velocity of light is not relative, space and time are. The velocity of light isn't just how fast light goes, it's a number somehow woven into reality itself — that is, space and time organize themselves around "c".

Mass is a form of energy. And if you transform that "stuff" into more familiar forms of energy, you know how much you'll get using this equation: E=mc², where E is energy, m is mass, and c is that same number that's woven into spacetime.

It may seem anticlimactic after all that, but to mark the year, 33 physicists are writing online diaries (apparently also known as "blogs") all year long.


Orphan Songs, Part 6:
The Orphan Trains

Orphan train

Folksongster Utah Phillips wrote a song called "Orphan Train," which I first heard at the American Banjo Camp 2004. I'd forgotten about it until Celestial Monochord reader Marjorie G. suggested I write about Orphan Trains. Today's entry is based almost exclusively on the results of her research for the Monochord.

Once I had a darling mother, though I can't recall her name
I had a baby brother who I'll never see again
For the Children's Home is sending us out on the Orphan Train
To try to find someone to take us in

Chorus:
Take us in, we have rode the Orphan Train
Take us in, we need a home, we need a name
Take us in, oh won't you be our kin?
We are looking for someone to take us in

The UK had long engaged in various forced migrations of orphaned, delinquent, or just plain poor children. Since at least Shakespeare's time, kids were kidnapped from the streets of London and shipped off to "people the colonies" of the Americas and Australia. In the form of the "farm school movement," the practice continued in the UK through WWII.

I have stolen from the poorbox, I've begged the city streets
I've swabbed the bars and poolrooms for a little bite to eat
In my daddy's old green jacket and these rags upon my feet
I've been looking for someone to take me in

The Children's Home they gathered us, me and all the rest
They taught us to sit quietly until the food was blessed
Then they put us on the Orphan Train and sent us way out West
To try to find someone to take us in.

In 1854, the newly-formed Children's Aid Society started running orphan trains out of New York and Boston, carrying children from what Society founder Charles Loring Brace called "the dangerous classes." Conditions in these cities were indeed horrifying for homeless and orphaned children who had often immigrated from their native lands to escape similar conditions. Prominent businessmen funded Brace's orphan train project in an effort to head off the social turmoil they feared would result from such conditions.

The Catholic New York Foundling Hospital joined in, sending thousands of its "foundlings" west. Believing a strict policy of anonymity would help to save the most children, the hospital set up a kind of turntable near the hospital entrance. An "unwed mother," presumably, would place her infant on the table, ring a bell, and the baby would disappear into the hospital without mother and nun ever having to see each other.

Nobody knows how many orphans were shipped west. The 200,000 often quoted by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America is considered very conservative. In 1910, the Foundling Hospital reported that it alone had sent 2700 children just to Wisconsin — and the Orphan Trains went everwhere there were railroad tracks.

The farmers and their families they came from miles around
We lined up on the platform of the station in each town
And one by one we parted like some living lost-and-found
And one by one we all were taken in

Now there's many a fine doctor or a teacher in your school
There's many a good preacher who can teach the Golden Rule
Who started out an orphan sleeping in the freezing rain
Whose life began out on the Orphan Train.

In the accounts given by the riders of the Orphan Trains, they universally thought they were sent out on the only Orphan Train. Only decades later did they realize there were at least hundreds of such trains.

The riders also consistently report that the scene at the train stops was terribly anxiety-producing. The Children's Aid stops were highly publicized in advance to maximize the number of adopters, and the children were displayed, studied, groped and then usually rejected. But they feared being still on the train at the end of the line. Girls older than toddlers were the last to be picked.

Unquestionably, some riders didn't do well, suffering beatings, neglect, and all manner of abuse while also being used on farms as chattel slaves. But the president of the Orphan Train Heritage Society objects that most writing about the riders emphasize horror stories, while it seems most riders did fairly well. Apparently, Utah Phillips' hopeful song isn't too unrepresentative. A lot of ordinary and extraordinary people in twentieth-century American towns started out riding the Orphan Trains.

Thanks, Marjorie, for your help on this. Thanks also for taking in a lot of strays over the years, on top of raising the rest of us yahoos.

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


My Ferret Has Ticks



Last night, we went to see the Ukelele Gala at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater. I will write up a full-fledged review of it soon. For now, one of last night's running gags reminded me of a little quip one of the Canote Brothers (Jere or Greg) made at the 2004 American Banjo Camp.

He was showing the audience how he had tuned his banjo-ukelele. (Seeing as the audience was composed largely of Oldtime banjo players, he wouldn't dare stick to a standard tuning.) He slowly plucked the strings, one after the other so we could hear the tuning, and said, "So instead of My Dog Has Fleas, he's got some other kind of bug."