Classical Banjo?

Several weeks ago, a good friend asked if I could help with a special music project in her part of NYS.  Chemung County was preparing a month-long Festival of Women in the Arts, which included a great deal of music.  DC was hostessing an all-women jam at the end of the month and our trio was already slated to host, so the request was ‘above and beyond’ what westward traveling I’d anticipated.

It happened that local composer/conductor WW had secured the rights to perform a “bluegrass mass” — The World Beloved — which has only been performed by the original musicians until now.  As part of the Women in the Arts festival, women musicians were preferred, and the score included parts for banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and bass.  I own all of those instruments, and I happen to be the right gender — the question was whether I could dredge up any dim memories of how to read a musical score.  And, I had to do it in four weeks…

I thought I was going to play guitar for the show, but a far better guitarist (male!) was secured; no other banjo players were available or willing (either or both?) to tackle such a complicated piece on short notice, and I only agreed when a pianist was added to the mix.  Her electronic keyboard was configured so her right hand would make banjo noises and play all those notey leads I couldn’t decipher.  All I had to do was plink out the chords.

How did it go?  Rather well.  After listening to the cantata for weeks, over and over, I learned a lot of it by ear, which spared me counting along with a score that went 2/2 to 3/4 to 5/4 and back to 2/2 with wild abandon.  I photocopied and sliced-up the score to make the page-turns possible, and decided that, for better or for worse, it would be over in a mere 45 minutes once we got going.  I heard a few fumbles in the performance, but the audience would never have known the difference, and they were too amused by the odd assortment of instruments accompanying the choir to really care too much.

When it was all over, I took a moment to shake the conductor’s hand, saying, “Congratulations!  You managed to paper-train a bluegrass band!”  No small accomplishment.

Lowen & Navarro: What Kind of World Do You Want?

There are times when someone says something so powerful, something so important, and says it in such a way that hearing it becomes equally as important; this is one of those times.

Lowen & Navarro are musicians I met years ago at the NERFA folk music conference. I remember Eric Lowen as a very tall, powerful man who walked with a cane. We went down a hallway together on one of those hectic evenings and I remember him asking me about what I do. I told him I wasn’t a “real musician” as he was, because I don’t write songs, don’t record them, don’t do all those things we associate with professional musicians. I remember he looked down at me with those kindly eyes and laughed. “None of those things make me real and you not,” he said, “It’s only that we do things differently.” For the rest of the walk, I felt as tall as Eric.

I hadn’t seen him since then, and now I know why: ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And, what does Eric do with his music now? He sings it better than ever, and raises his voice with those of others afflicted with ALS, to raise money for the research into finding a cure.

Please watch Lowen & Navarro’s video – each viewing generates a donation. This is folk music at its most powerful.  Sing along.

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.

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…

Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.
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We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)
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After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.

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One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

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We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.

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We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.
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We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.

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After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.