Sweet Baby James in the Snow

From the living room boom box, I hear James Taylor singing his greatest hits. I purchased the CD to replace the LP I could no longer play, and I enjoyed it as long as I could. However, along with “borrowed” equipment that remains on-loan to this day, the resident teens would toss the nearest CD out of its case if they couldn’t find the one they needed, leaving the ousted disc to be damaged in various ways. JT’s Greatest Hits was one such victim, eventually found covered with scratches and dust. An apologetic offer to clean and polish the disc resulted in further damage – it turns out that you have to go from start to finish with the polishing process to get good results.

But, miracles happen, and the CD is playing through now, as I type. I have been to Carolina in my mind, saved my goodbyes for the morning light, and seen fire and rain. More than that, I have traveled backwards in time …

I found myself at Star Lake, in the Adirondacks, site of a cross-country skiing phys. ed. class. We were taught how to wax our skis, attach our shoes to the bindings, and “kick off” with our feet while doing something with our arms – I was flailing around, but that wasn’t it. Already suffering from the usual monthly discomforts, I was faced with further agonies: my long hair caught in the ski wax, my natural clumsiness made balancing on the skis impossible, and my thermal long johns were no match for the amount of soggy snow and ice that accumulated with every landing I made in the snow. And that was just the first night.

Saturday morning, we headed out on the trails for an eight-mile loop through the forest. The snow averaged 3-feet deep, but there was a crust of ice over the surface that made things interesting. Once we got moving, we could hit some impressive speeds, but if we fell, we dropped below the level of our skis and climbing back up was difficult no matter how often we practiced the maneuver. By late in the trip, our class had sorted itself into clusters by expertise, with a few showoffs already back at the cabin guzzling hot cocoa, several people actually taking their time to enjoy the scenery and exercise, and a handful of struggling newbies doing as much travel vertically from ground to skis as we did horizontally along the trail.

I didn’t learn how to ski that weekend. Instead, in the quiet evening hours, I hauled out my guitar and learned how to play Sweet Baby James.

This afternoon, through the miracle of music, I traveled back in time, finding far more pleasure in remembering the weekend than I had enduring it. I wonder if James Taylor remembered the snow-covered Turnpike that way, far more beautiful in retrospect from a warm cottage, having safely completed his trip.

Advertisements

Red-Haired Boys

One of the “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks” challenges was to learn to embed videos in our blogs. The truth of the matter is, I had an easier time figuring out the mechanics of that process than I did coming up with a reason for embedding a video in my blog. I finally decided that the best I could do was use this as an opportunity to explore regional variations and stylistic interpretations on fiddle tunes, and I randomly selected the Celtic tune Red-Haired Boy.

As a fiddle student, I have always had the option of reacquainting myself with sheet music, which I learned to read more than 30 years ago, in high school, when I played flute. Unfortunately, I stopped playing my flute by the time I left college, and now when I look at a score, I can easily finger my flute keys for the right note, but not translate that same knowledge to the fingerboard of my fiddle. It’s not impossible to overcome this, but considering the difficulty in reading sheet music now that I’ve reached the Age of Bifocals, it’s no longer the easiest route for learning to play the fiddle.

Instead, as I report to my lessons, the first question my teacher, Hope, asks is “What have you been working on?” This is because I sit in on a fiddle jam every week, and whatever song sticks in my head is the one I am most likely to have struggled with afterwards. Hope has taught me a few songs from scratch — such as Bus Stop, which we never play on Tuesdays — but the vast majority of tunes I work on are those I hear often enough to have them memorized. Hope helps me find the missing notes and refines my bowing techniques, but every so-often, we run into the issue of “that’s not how I learned that song.” Hope is quick to agree that there is no “right” way to play the old songs — it’s the regional variations that keep the songs alive. With that in mind, here are three videos I found of fiddlers playing Red-Haired Boy.

This video features the Sierra Swing Conspiracy at the Auburn Bluegrass Fest II; here we have a couple of young men taking some serious detours away from the standard version:

This video has Red-Haired Boy as the second tune in the medley they perform. The fiddler is Qristina Bachand, and the video is from Victoria, B.C. at the 2006 Saanich Fair:

And, for yet another variation, we have the Urban Ramblers on the Bruin Walk at UCLA:

No two versions alike, and none of them the same as the version Hope taught me or the way we play Red-Haired Boy downtown on Tuesdays. A few years ago, I traveled with several other musicians from Binghamton up to the NYS Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Redfield, NY (near Watertown, if you need a larger spot on the map) where we heard fiddlers from the Syracuse area play wildly different versions of familiar tunes, and the same thing happened when I sat in at a jam in Watkins Glen last summer.

The variations never leave the song unrecognizable: the chord pattern the guitar plays to back up the fiddler remains constant, and the gifted fiddlers are free to take flight like kites while the guitar holds the string that ties them to the structure of the song. Other than that, Red-Haired Boy is a lively tune kept alive the best way possible, not by being frozen in place on a piece of sheet music but by springing to life from fiddles, banjos, and guitars everywhere Celtic music is played.

New Authors, Listening Readers

In the two years I have been writing on-line, the real benefit has been meeting those who write far better than I ever will, in any style or genre. I don’t yearn for them to achieve Fame or Status or Celebrity, and yet, I do often wish that more people could read their writing.

On one site, we are able to email links to the stories we’ve enjoyed, and thus assist in growing the reading audience. This means we can share with our friends who are also able to connect to the internet. We can also print off a paper copy of a story and share it, but then we get into the murky territory of intellectual property rights and possible copyright infringement.

Libraries have always been treasure troves: books and magazines were joined by new media as they came into existence. Innovative librarians found ways to transform libraries from storehouses to portals, offering Internet access and digital downloads. The limitation to all this, in my opinion, is the dividing line between published and non-published material in the formal, traditional sense.

Enter the new website Sniplits. This innovative on-line service connects new, aspiring, talented — and dedicated — writers the chance to be heard. Yes: writers can be heard, not read. Sniplits offers the literate listener the chance to download smaller works to fill those times when a full novel is too much. Their own description is of stories to fill up a coffee break, a lunch hour, a trip to the dentist, or just a short drive. Certainly, an audiobook would allow listening to a few paragraphs, a page, or a chapter — whatever fits the timeframe — but this would just be a portion of the whole work. Sniplits offers a complete work, and subscribers to their site can browse by length of time for a work as easily as by genre or author.

Best of all, any writer may submit their work. It is the chance for new writers to find their audience, by way of filling the niche in their daily schedule. My poetic friend, who presents herself as a Little Fluffy Cat, has recently been accepted as an author at Sniplits. For a nominal fee listeners can download her original story The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and they are then free to store that story on an iPod, their computer, iPhone, or any other compatible device, and even share the story with up to 10 friends.

Sniplits fills several niches this way: the reader’s need for a story, the author’s need for an audience. I’m wondering if libraries — where authors can sometimes come to read their works, and often come to write them — might someday be able to offer this same service.

Songs I Wish Everyone Could Hear

I spend almost no time at all with recorded music.  With the exception of the songs I have uploaded from CDs to my computer at work, I have no electronic means of listening to anything — but, I’m not complaining.  The music I hear is all produced “live” — either I play it for myself, or I am in the audience somewhere enjoying what musicians are playing on stage.  My CD collection is almost entirely purchased directly from the musicians who wrote the music and made the recordings.

While reading the lists my friends have created, containing the songs they love and why they love them, it occurred to me that this was a perfect format for promoting the music and musicians I have come to love and admire.  With that, I present here a quick list of some favorite artists, with links to places where I found sound samples whenever possible.

Paul Kaplan.  Paul is based in Massachusetts, home of Click & Clack, the Tappit Brothers, and he actually got his song This Old Car included on their radio program!  If the link I am inserting works, you will be able to hear samples of songs off Paul’s After the Fire CD, one of my favorites — when was the last time you heard The Leaving of Liverpool?  I recommend Give My Bones to Greyhound if you want travelin’ music, and there is no sweeter song I have ever heard than So I Could Get to You for a declaration of love.  Look for Paul on YouTube, also.

Zoe Mulford.  I cannot praise this musician highly enough. She comes second on this list only because she lives in Manchester, England, now and as such her US appearances are limited.  Please visit her website and see if she’ll be in your area, because live music is best, but otherwise buy one or both of her CDs.  They are worth twice the price.  The link in her name should also bring up audio samples.  It’s hard to choose a favorite, but  Songs of Love and Distance off her Traveling Moon CD is a beautiful example of her crystalline voice and her wise lyrics all at once.  From Roadside Saints, I recommend Gonna Wear Red (an anthem for discarding rules) or American Wake (a true Irish wink of a song.)

Cosy Sheridan. The first time I heard Cosy, she was recording the song Hannibal Crossed the Alps for a Folk DJ’s radio show.  I was enchanted: a perfect and accurate history lesson in song.  Since then, I’ve read about Cosy’s work in teaching young women about the traps of false standards of beauty, so while I am a devoted fan of her music, I am even more in awe of the woman herself.  For a second song, I recommend How Will the Center Hold for those who want power and The Land of 10,000 Mothers for something sweet.  I’ve been teaching myself Walk On:

You are warned: any road is long / You are warned: any road is hard / There’s a boatload of “good advice” / It’s better just to disregard

John Flynn. A powerful young man writing the songs of social conscience for a new generation, he writes of international and inter-personal politics — just go and check out his lyrics.  There are song samples on John’s website, but most are of his children’s songs.  (Parents: he’s got some great songs for the kids!)  I love all the tracks on John’s CDs, but if I had to pick just two for you to hear I’d go with Put Your Freedom Where Your Mouth Is off his Two Wolves CD and Minnie Lou off his Dragon CD.

Kim & Reggie Harris.  Each and every time I have heard Kim & Reggie, it was a transporting musical experience — live and powerful, it felt like I’d been to an opera with a full pit orchestra, but up on stage it is only Reggie with his magic guitar and Kim’s dynamic vocals: check out music samples from all their CDs here.  (I’d also like to brag here that Reggie once borrowed my guitar.)  You have never heard Follow the Drinking Gourd better than Reggie plays it on their CD Steal Away, and the song Too Many Martyrs (The Ballad of Medgar Evans) on the CD Rock of Ages is a personal favorite.  Their website also offers an exclusive audio file they recorded with Peter Yarrow and his daughter Bethany.  Kim and Reggie sing the title track on What’s That I Hear: The Songs of Phil Ochs — a CD guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Johnsmith.  All one word for the name but he uses a lot more of them in his songs, and the pictures he paints with his words, the stories he tells, are just right for someone whose children are grown and off on their own life travels.  This age, sometimes called the “empty nest,” is a time for reflection, remembrance, and renewals, and I hear all of that in John’s songs.  Personal favorite songs are Survivors — a meditation on trees — and Kickin’ This Stone, the title track of my favorite Johnsmith CD.

If you follow even one of the links here, I hope it has helped you discover a new musician, a new song, or the inspiration to write about your own favorite music.  I feel as though this is only the first installment in a series…

Do Not Buy a Car from This Man

In our family, we date things according to which hobby Galahad was obsessed with, and  say such things as “That was back when Dad was into radio-controlled cars, right?” and, “No, that happened the year he was building dulcimers.”

It was during the Dirt Track Year, on an evening that had passed the wee hours of the next morning, the children fast asleep, when I found myself waiting to hear Galahad pull in to the driveway.  That welcome sound was finally heard around 2am, but was swiftly followed by the arrival of another car, and… houseguests.  Houseguests at 2 o’clock in the morning?

Galahad had recently spent every spare dime rebuilding the engine on his International Scout.  During the Mud Running Year, he’d pursued that hobby until the engine was toast, and then happily spent the rest of that year repairing, improving, and enhancing the engine to where we now found ourselves, unsurprisingly, in the Dirt Track Year.  Dozens of suburban yahoos would gather out in Elbridge at a banked oval dirt track and race each other, two at a time.  Galahad has always been an outstanding driver, and his competitive spirit knows no bounds.  He was grinning when he strolled in with his companions, so a good guess would have been he’d been out celebrating, but his companions looked terrified.

“Hey, Sweetie!  It’s been a helluva night!”

“Do tell.  Should I assume you were celebrating your victory to the point where these two had to drive you home?”

“Something like that.”

“O-kay…  There’s a story here?”

“Well, it was down to me and a Blazer.  We got there early and between the two of us we blew the competition away.  You should have heard the crowd!  By the time it was down to me and the Blazer, nobody was leaving – everybody wanted to see the last race.”

One of the Terrified Companions chimed in with an “Oh, yeah!” but his partner hushed him quickly and returned to devouring her fingernails.

“So… you won?”

“Well, no.  You might want to come outside.”

If you’ve ever seen a Scout, you know the general boxy shape of them.  Galahad, in the course of the evening, had modified his hardtop into a prototype we could call “Glassless Flattop.”

“What the hell — ?!”

He talked faster now:  “It was down to the two of us, and we were coming into turn 3.  I’d found the right groove, and knew the track by now, but he started to pull ahead of me – took it low coming into the turn – and he kicked up a stone that cracked the windshield.  At that speed, that’s all it took – one moment of inattention, and the Scout went right over the bank – “

“You [censored] rolled it?!”

“All the way over.  The roof was flat to the doorsill.  Lucky for me, the direction of the roll put me flat across the seat –  “

“You should have heard the crowd!  They were roaring – and then it was silence.”  This from one of the Terrified Companions. One look from me and his lips melted shut while his larynx caught fire.  At that moment, I realized what terrified them, and suggested that they had best be on their way home.  No need for witnesses.

“How did you get out?”

“Forklift.  You aren’t mad, are you?'”

Soundtrack

I’m getting used to this new stage in life, where I get a few hours to myself. The boys are all old enough to borrow my car or take off in their own, and until the husband gets home from work, it’s just me and the cat.

Listening has been the most important of the senses, for me. First, there was the pleasant aspect: the soft chime of my mother’s medal striking the cross on her necklace meant she was nearby; my father’s amazing snores meant he was home to keep us safe; and all the usual sounds of favorite television shows or songs on the radio — the usual reassuring stuff of normal life.

Soon enough, there were other things to listen for: the voice of an unfriendly classmate, the sound of the school bus engine, the unwelcome tap on the door, the heavy footfall of the person I was avoiding. Listening became a survival skill.

By my early twenties, listening grew even more important, when, as a new mother, I had to learn a language without words: was the baby breathing normally? Did he burp? Was that a hungry cry or a pain cry or a ‘diaper duty’ cry or…

I came to know every creak of every hinge and floorboard and stair tread, and all the neighborhood noises: car engines, doors, barking dogs, new voices. I learned to tell which of my children was in which room of the house, and what toys they were playing with, never needing to see these things, but just hear them.

And now, the world has grown steadily quieter. No more squabbles to hush between siblings, no more dogs to quiet down…

But somewhere outside, farther away than the windchimes crazily ringing in this winter wind, I have heard a muted booming sound. If this were daytime, I’d say it was hunters’ shotguns, but this is night, and there should be no such noises in the area.

And that’s when it hits me: there are places in the world where that booming noise would not only be a normal part of the soundtrack, it would be much closer, and it would be vital to know who was making it. In my part of the world, it might be fireworks; elsewhere, just heavy fire.