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."

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

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

Banjos, Stars, and Creative Commons

How to play banjo

In elementary school, when we sang "This Land is Your Land" and the teacher told us about Woody Guthrie, it seemed like Guthrie must've been around before the USA was founded. He must've been a contemporary of ... of Paul Bunyan's. But to my great surprise, it turns out Guthrie had just died when I was 3 years old — and when he was only 55. I won't tell the whole story of how Guthrie came to hold such a mythical status so quickly — but if I were to tell it, it would mostly be a story about Pete Seeger. Seeger made building the Woody Guthrie myth into one of his major projects.

The more you know about Pete Seeger, the more you realize he wasn't just "famous" or "influential," he really helped engineer what "folk music" means, and even the terms on which "the folk" themselves exist.

Anyway, here's the point. His book, "How to Play the 5-String Banjo" has been known to virtually every banjo player in the world for about half a century. Seeger mimeographed the first edition himself while on the road in 1947, working for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign. He refused to copyright it, believing a copyright would hinder the spread of banjo-playing.

More recently, a guy named Pat Costello has written some excellent and entertaining instruction books, and declared them part of the "creative commons." According to Costello, sales of his books increased spectacularly after the books went copyrightless. The books are worthy successors to Seeger's landmark book — and I think the writer of "This Land is Your Land" would have appreciated them as well.

Star map

A collection of fine star charts has also now gone online (here too) as part of the creative commons.

Well May the World Go


Of course, maybe it's me ... I can't help but hear Pete Seeger's “Well May the World Go (When I’m Far Away)” as at least two songs in one. Is the narrator of “Well May the World Go” about to die? Or is he an astronaut? After all, Seeger based the song on an old Scottish tune (maybe a sea chantey) called "Weel May the Keel Row," which bids a bon voyage. Was Seeger thinking of death or space travel when he decided “The World” would somehow stay behind?

To my ears, “Well May the World Go” is a fine anthem for NASA’s manned space program. The song’s aims are like those of the program I thought I knew as a youngster – to reintroduce us to our own planet as a beautiful place, to collapse vast distances, to wish the world well. NASA still seems to want to be seen this way, and many of its employees are kids like me who never fully grew up. “Well May the World Go” still lurks somewhere in the gaps of NASA’s bureaucracy.

So why not really adopt the song as an official anthem? The trouble, from NASA’s point of view, would not just be that Pete Seeger has always been a proud resident of the blacklist and a sworn enemy of American missiles. The still bigger problem would be that the song is too apt. The manned space program has come to be haunted by Death, always there on the buffalo side of the coin. Many of us already think the risk to human lives and the measly return on investment make the manned space program a dinosaur.

The song could also be seen as reflecting the fact that the policy has turned its back on the world and its needs "when its far away." Instead of needing a new song, the Bush administration, to make the obvious quip, should consider naming its outlandish Mars program “No Planet Left Behind.”

Well may the world go
The world go, the world go
Well may the world go
When I'm far away

Well may the skiers turn
The swimmers churn, the lovers burn
Peace may the generals learn
When I'm far away


Sweet may the fiddle sound
The banjo play, the old hoe down
Dancers swing round and round
When I'm far away


Fresh may the breezes blow
Clear may the streams flow
Blue above, green below
When I'm far away


— Words by Pete Seeger/Stormking Music, Inc.

Spider John: Amateur Astronomer


You may know the great Minnesota bluesman Spider John Koerner as a character in Bob Dylan's recent book. He's portrayed there as, essentially, "the other guy" around Dylan's university neighborhood who, in 1960, played the accousic guitar and tried to sound 45 years older than he really was. Well, now John really is 45 years older than he really was, and you can still find him playing in bars near the same old Dinkytown neighborhood, sounding better than ever.

The City Pages now confirms the obvious — Koerner is an amateur astronomer. This great bearer of the folk-blues tradition is also a "StarGeezer." Since tonight marks the premier of a new documentary about him, "Been Here, Done That," it's a good day to award Spider John the coveted Monochordum Mundi, given to those who best represent the fusion of science and music we're looking for here at The Celestial Monochord.

Go to Spider John's website and try clicking on the pictures of him there.