Arnie Naiman’s, “My Lucky Stars”

Published in Penguin Eggs, Issue #71, Fall 2016

my-lucky-stars-coverYou’ve got to love this album, and I’ll tell you why. Look at the liner notes. Each song lists the people that join Naiman, adding their stuff to his. Chris Coole’s there pretty much on every one. Love that. Naiman is credited on every track, less because he’s there than because he wants us to know which banjo he played: Vega Tubaphone, Romero. Love that! Honestly, gives your heart a bit of a thrill at every mention. Then, right after the banjo, there’s the tuning he used. Love that!!!

The reason why I love all of this, and why you should, too, is because Naiman himself so clearly loves it. There’s no other reason. He’s from Toronto. That says something. No, there’s no money in the banjo, and if you live in Toronto, it’s not cool either. If not for a very deep love, this wouldn’t be here at all. He loves clawhammer banjo—its tone, the tunes, the lilt—and it shows.

He wants to share it. And he does, quietly, carefully, and as comfortably as an old shoe. This is a beautiful, thoughtful, glorious collection of tunes that we can get lost in, precisely because Naiman does. Love it, love it, love it.

Dave Pomfret’s, A Devil’s Urge

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-1-35-59-pmI’m forever being impressed with the level, variety, and quality of music coming out of Hamilton. The city doesn’t have the reputation of Cape Breton or Nashville, New Orleans or Muscle Shoals, and one reason might be because there isn’t just one genre of music being produced, but so many. So, too, that the blues people, for example, don’t know what’s happening in the bluegrass or fingerstyle guitar community. But the recent unearthing of a long lost Gordon Lightfoot recording at a Hamilton studio is telling, in a way. The Band signed their first contract here, just as it gave rise to Daniel Lanois. Today it’s the home—bet you didn’t know this one—of Emory Lester, one of the foremost bluegrass mandolin players in the world. We tend to look at locals and think, “well, she’s pretty good for here.” But Alfie Smith is great for anywhere. And he lives here. And on and on it goes. Hamilton, when you really get down to it, is an embarrassment of musical riches, in spite of the fact that so few seem to really think of it that way.

This latest release, A Devil’s Urge, from Dave Pomfret only supports the point. I worry that people might hear this and think, “yes, he’s good, you know, for here.” But if it wasn’t clear before, he’s good for anywhere. (Musically anyway. As a graphic artist … um … let’s say, given the cover art here, his desire exceeds his grasp.)

He clearly is willing to take some risks, and they pay off. The horn parts that bring in “Ballad of the Body Building Bandit,” set an aggressive tone for the album, and underscores the intention to work beyond the tried and true rock format. There’s some clarinet in here, too. Nice.

The stories that he tells perhaps don’t stray as far, and the writing sticks close to the typical rock themes: failed relationships, trouble, and regrets. The tune “Bury the Hatchet” takes it into overly aggressive territory—he sings, “I’ll bury the hatchet, as long as I can bury you too”—and it perhaps backfires a bit. It’s a revenge song, but it edges into psychokiller territory. Maybe she was better without him, one starts to think. Just saying. It might just be a safety issue.

Where the album really shines is in the richness of the production, and there’s an impressive cast that have lent their skills to the project. They bring a lot of grit and depth, while also opening up some space on the ballads, as on “Maybe It’s Me” and “She Can’t Smile Anymore.”

From top to bottom, there’s a lot to like. I only worry that the album won’t gain the kind of legs that it should. Because it deserves an audience, one beyond the city limits. I hope that it finds it.

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, “Live at Southern Ground”

 

This isn’t a live album in the way that you think: it’s live in the sense of two musicians playing together, no overdubs or added tracks. There’s less audience noise than you’d expect from a live album, as in none at all. There’s more effect than we’d expect to hear on a live album, at least one that wasn’t recorded in the 80s. They say that it was recorded in a “handful of hours” within a single day. Um. Okay. I’m not sure why it matters one way or the other. It’s not a race, but if you need a stopwatch, fair enough.

Martin Harley is a dobro player, and he has the kind of voice we’d associate with the Avett Brothers, were we inclined to do so. Thin, forward, requiring a pretty face to come out of. Daniel Kimbro plays bass and adds a strikingly sympathetic backing vocal.

So, yes, there’s a bit of bravado here, though it doesn’t take long to really get on board. Harley’s playing is delicate, tasteful, and beautifully rich, restrained even when he ventures into rocking-out territory. Kimbro’s bass is gorgeous and full. At times be bows it, which is a nice touch. Between that and the vocals, there are moments when it feels like someone else has stepped into the mix, but they haven’t. It’s just the two guys, and their ability to move between moods and feels is a testament to the quality of the arrangements.

There are some covers here, including a slow take on Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” It’s like a porch swing on a hot summer’s day. Bees buzzing, all of that. It’s lovely. There’s also a lovely take on Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus.” As such, Harley and Kimbro make some connections that are as welcome as they are surprising. “Automatic Life” is one of those songs that you can get stuck on in the car, which is a great place to listen to this album. It’s a great accompaniment to staring at the horizon, thinking about where you’ve been and where you’re going. And then the song ends and you remember that you haven’t got a clue.

Joe Ely, “Panhandle Rambler”

 

The panhandle of the title is the Texan one, not the Floridian, and the album comprises a something of a tour of the writers and the styles that we associate with the singer/songwriter culture of Texas. All but two of the songs are written by Ely, though they reference many others, including Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, and Guy Clark. There are two covers, a nice take on Clark’s “Magdalene” and Butch Hancock’s “When the Nights Are Cold.” Ely doesn’t bring anything particularly new to either, and both serve as reminders of how great the originals were. Which, perhaps, is partially the intent.

Ely has spent the bulk of his career straddling the folk/country/rock divides, such as they are. In 1972 he founded The Flatlanders with Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, though the band was short lived. Their “Dallas” was meant to be a hit, though it wasn’t. (It’s puzzling that it didn’t catch on a bit more, actually.) Some sessions from 1972 weren’t released until 1991, and then bearing a title that is as good a précis of the band’s career you could ever hope to find: “More a Legend than a Band.”

Commercial success is fickle, of course, and whatever opportunities the Flatlanders were unable to make something of, on breaking up the members went on to find success as solo acts. Given the focus of their individual careers—Hancock tends to gravitate to folk music, and Gilmore to country—it’s easy to wonder if the Flatlanders suffered a crisis of identity more than anything else, with each member pulling in different directions.

Certainly, a more complex place than we might be prone to give it credit for. Ely has said that he was surprised at how many minor keys he used here on the songs that he wrote for the album. It’s darker than we expect out of Texas, perhaps, and light years away from smiles and winks of Bob Wills. This album isn’t folk, or rock, or country, but a conflation of them all. But it’s the songwriting that, rightly, pulls the focus.

Boarding school

(For OurKids.net) Before the Golden Goal, or the Stanley Cup win, or the NHL draft, Sidney Crosby was a student at boarding school, something that many Canadians may find surprising. But he was. As a tween, Crosby and his parents recognized that he needed something more than he was getting at home in Cole Harbour, NS. He was excelling in school, yet there were social pressures. In minor league hockey, Crosby was clearly more skilled than his peers, something that may have been celebrated, yet was increasingly resented. On the ice, and in the stands, he was becoming a target of aggression.

All of that—academics, athletic development, social development—were factors that prompted a consideration of options beyond those available locally. For Crosby and his parents, it was less about sending him away than it was recognizing and seeking the support he needed at a critical and decisive time in his life. <Read more>

 

The Noisy Locomotive

published in Penguin Eggs, issue #69 

On the face of it, Ben Nesrallah is the height of improbability. He’s 26 years old, has grown up in Montreal, and he plays old-time music in a duo with a friend he’s had since childhood, Trevor Pool. Together they make up The Noisy Locomotive. Their latest release, “All Nature Soon Will Settle Down to Rest,” isn’t just a lot of fun, it’s also a quick , adept tour of the form and its history.

For many Canadians, the music is unfamiliar, confusing. It’s associated with the movie Deliverance or the frantic dancing that George Clooney did, complete with fake beard and bib overalls, in O Brother Where Art Thou. Certainly, it’s easy to make fun of, and people laugh even when they don’t quite get the joke.

The fact is that there is much more here than most people think, and it’s the tradition, more than anything, that Nesrallah and Pool seek to promote. And, as they make clear in their shows and their work in schools, it’s truly one worth promoting, perhaps now more than ever.

Prior to the 1920s, there wasn’t such thing as old time music, or at least it wasn’t called that. It was just called music. It came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers, and once in the new world, took off on its own. Over time, it continued to change and evolve, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles across the eastern United States were as unique and clustered as English accents are even today. You could tell, within a few miles at times, where a player was from just by hearing them play.

Through the 20th century the sound of old-time music became more homogenous. So much so that these days, wherever you go—Tulsa to Tokyo, San Diego to St. Louis—the old-time style that you are most likely to hear is the Round Peak style, a highly influential music that comes from Surry County, North Carolina. Surry County is, um, small. Round Peak—the town that gives its name to the style—is even smaller still. But, if we wanted to stretch a point, we could say that for much of the 20th century, the epicenter of the Round Peak style was even more exact than that: Tommy Jarrell’s house, a small, white clapboard bungalow in Toast, NC, a town just west of Mount Airy. Jarrell was a great teacher, a lively personality, and a magnet for young players who wanted to learn old-time music. Some, such as Mike Seeger and Bob Carlin, made the drive down from New York City; others, such as Riley Baugus and David Holt, arrived from within Appalachia. But they came in the hundreds for the same reason: to sit at the feet of the master.

There are lots of indirect descendants, too, and Nesrallah and Pool are terrific examples of that. They play lots of classic tunes, including “Jimmie Brown the Newsboy” and “Lulu Walls” and they remain close to the traditional style. Fiddle often is forward in the mix, we might say these days, taking the melody and embellishing it through bow work and all those beautiful drones. The banjo is played claw hammer, and supports the syncopation of the fiddle melody. In much old-time music guitar is relegated to a back seat, providing rhythm for the fiddle and banjo. Here, that’s what it does for the most part, providing the accompaniment to the fiddle and mandolin.

“It’s music at a human level,” says Ben. “We’re all just so plugged in these days, in our own little worlds. The idea of sharing music by actually sitting down and playing with each other and learning from each other. It’s kind of a lost art form.

You can sit in a circle with a bunch of folks here, and I like that it’s not about ego or one person over another. It’s about sharing and having a good time and building something together. It has a lot to do with the idea that it’s not about the individual, it’s about the community, building a sound, and being in the moment.”

For many people, particularly in Ottawa and Montreal where Nesrallah and Pool come from and play, it can take some getting used to. Old time music is social music, meant for dancers to dance to—and for players to participate in—more than it is to be sat in front of and listened to. It’s about being together, not showing off. While instruments will take turns with the melody, they don’t solo in the way that bluegrass, blues, and jazz musicians do. Instead, they play the melody straight, pretty much, which can make the music sound repetitive (and, well, it is).

What’s also wonderful about the music (and I realize that this might take a bit of a leap of imagination for the uninitiated) is the subtlety. Slight variations have meaning. Sometimes, delightfully so. “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” certainly has a home within old-time music, though we know it today perhaps largely because the Carter Family had a hit with it in 1931. On the recording by Noisy Locomotive the mandolin intro and turnarounds—the bars that Earl Scruggs added to the arrangement—quote another Carter tune, “You are my Flower.” (There are five Carter songs on the Noisy Locomotive’s latest disc, All Nature Soon will Settle Down to Rest. Can you spot them all?)

It’s delightful to have those kinds of nods and winks. For many people, these songs aren’t just songs, they’re like favourite bedtime stories, full of drama, history, interesting turns, and familiar faces. Tommy, Earl, Maybelle, AP, Charlie, Mac, and Bill. (And look, there’s good old Jimmy Brown, still not wearing any shoes!) This is music that comes to us through various filters, voices, and years. Like the steps of the Agora, they’ve been shaped and burnished over the years by all the people they have supported. Even if you don’t know all the details, you still can have a sense of that a lot of people have been here before, and there are hints of all lives that these songs have touched.

Those kinds of historical details, or whatever they are, aren’t essential though they can add some of the charm. When used best, of course, the songs aren’t presented for the nostalgia, but in order to say something new. “We’re bringing in old songs for a reason,” says Ben. “They’re songs that happen to be resonating with us at a certain point in time.” No, you can’t buy a table for 15 cents, as in the lyric of “Stern Old Bachelor.” For that matter, bachelor probably doesn’t mean the same thing it did in the 30s, when the Carter’s recorded it (at a time when AP and Sara were estranged, still singing together even when they couldn’t speak to each other anymore).

But the messages are larger than the details. The music is about austerity, disappointment and, as Ben says, “the struggles and the grief and the good times too.”

“Old time and the old country tunes, it’s just a style of music that resonates within us. And with any traditional genre, it’s got that soul in it,” he says, then adds with a chuckle, “And, hey, it’s just a lot of fun.”

 

It’s personal

When it comes to alternative education, is it possible to go too far?

rawImageAll advances in education are emblematic of their time, arising out of a specific political context and cultural experience. The education that Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner knew as children, for example, was severe. Classrooms were institutional, teaching was rote, punishments could be brutal. The methods they developed were intended to provide an alterative. In some ways, they simply took what was happening in typical classrooms and did the opposite: support rather than punish, encourage creativity, and treat them with all the the kindness we would like to develop in them. There are aspects of their work that we might not care to adopt as readily—Steiner’s anthroposophy, for example—though what distinguished their methods was that they created caring educational environments. That, perhaps more than anything else, was revolutionary.

It’s easy to wonder where the Montessoris and the Steiners are today. What are they reacting to? What ideas are they trying to put into practice? What problems are they trying to solve? Yes, we think that education on the whole could be better, and that innovation is an important part of it. We also like words like “personal” and “disruptive.” We are seduced by technology, and look to the corporate world for our models of success, Silicon Valley for innovation. Given all of that, AltSchool, might be the school for us. With 10 locations in the US, AltSchool is promoted as a collaborative network of micro-schools. For the people behind AltSchool, it’s an opportunity to change the nature of education in North America.

“The décor evokes an IKEA showroom,” writes Rebecca Mead, with “low-slung couches, beanbags, clusters of tables, and wooden chairs in progressively smaller sizes, like those belonging to Goldilocks’s three bears.” A staff writer with the New Yorker, Mead visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders at Manhattan AltSchool location. There she found “most of the children were sunk into their laptops.” All were free to describe the course of their academic day; as at home, the laptops—each student is issued one on enrollment—are endlessly seductive. Kids were often working alone, engaging with online curricula, including BrainPop and typing games. AltVideo, a surveillance system installed throughout the school, including cameras mounted on classroom ceilings, allows parents to check in, watching on their iPhone as their child taps on their iPad.

It’s the kind of school that a Google employee might develop, and indeed, that’s exactly what it is. Max Ventilla, still just 35 years old, left Google to start AltSchool in 2013. He had studied math and physics at Yale, and when he founded AltSchool he had no experience as a teacher or school administrator. Whatever he may have lacked in educational experience, he made up for as a corporate fundraiser: the school raised in excess of $100 in venture capital in 2015, including sizable donations from Mark Zuckerberg and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, among others.

“We started the company with the ambition to create a new model of how to experience school in the 21st century,” says Ventilla. Certainly he succeeded in that. It’s different. Really, really different. What the school doesn’t do, however, is reflect any of the centuries of academic thought that grounds education, something that is less oversight than benign ignorance. The school gives “individual teachers autonomy to make changes without affecting everyone else.” That is, to do whatever they want, whenever they want to, without requiring any of the checks and balances that we find in more typical classrooms. In a Forbes article, Ventilla asks, “Why doesn’t a teacher use the best lesson plan out there instead of having to use one of their own?” It’s not perhaps a question that we all would answer in the same way that Ventillo does (let alone formulate it in the tortured way he does). He defines a traditional instructor as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.” Real teachers, that is those with teaching degrees and classroom experience would and should take exception. They feel that they represent a tradition that is bigger than themselves, because education is, actually, bigger than ourselves. But Ventilla has other ideas. “We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” (Hunh?)

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“We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.”–Max Ventilla, AltSchool founder and CEO

“There’s a healthy amount of skepticism for anybody coming in with what they purport to be a new model,” he ventures. “But something needs to change in the education space, and the problem is so complex that we need all kinds of organizations and people working to a solution.”[1] The guiding principle of AltSchool sounds just as good, and is equally vague: “every child should have access to an exceptional, personalized education that enables them to be happy and successful in an ever-changing world.”

But is AltSchool the kind of institution that is best suited to provide that? And what does “exceptional” mean? For one, it doesn’t include languages. Says Ventilla, “If the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now—well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps.”

Indeed, it’s the efficiencies and redundancies of industry that provide inspiration for the school. “Facebook started as, essentially, a bulletin board for Harvard students,” Ventilla told Rebecca Mead. “Uber started as a private chauffeur that Garrett [Camp] hired and rode around with. This is a relatively common occurrence. You start in a very narrow way that you control and that really represents a kind of fundamentally different approach. And then you iterate.”

Christie Seyfert, a teacher that has been with the school for its entire history (it opened last spring) uses Torrent files as analogies for how children learn: scrambled rather than sequential. “What we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains,” says Kimberly Johnson, AltSchool’s head of product success and training. “Anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it.”

One of those things is assessment. Student progress is reported online, in real time, with parents able to check an app whenever they like: in-app scores, in-class snapshots of breakthrough moments, and tallies of Newsla articles read (or at least clicked on; Newsla is a site with Associated Press articles graded to specific reading levels). Teachers do have a role, including taking those snapshots of breakthrough moments, though Johnson feels that there is room for automation there as well.

AltSchool does meet with a healthy amount of skepticism, as it should. It offers a format that, unlike that of Montessori or Steiner, indulges the prejudices of the culture rather than providing an antidote to them. We like disruption, and the school proposes disruption as a goal, (though not for its investors, presumably). While the CEO and the board members are well-versed in the buzzwords of education and the language of change—“something needs to change in the education space”—it’s unclear whether they realize that the task of education isn’t coding a website, or building a better Uber, but in creating a caring, expansive, value-laden environment in which children can learn things that they can’t learn anywhere else.

Ventilla remains undeterred, using those millions in financial backing as evidence of the veracity and validity of his claims. “You are going to see, ideally, many more people enter the teaching profession and the role of the teacher be elevated,” he says, at a stroke congratulating the future and condemning the past. “Now we have the capital and leeway to learn ourselves by doing.” Indeed, whatever that means, he apparently does. Unsettlingly, his money is where his mouth is.

Sierra Hull’s “Weighted Mind”

Innovation has long been an important part of the musical endeavour, and it’s often the first person to happen upon a new idea—rather than the people who refine it—that remains foremost in our minds. That’s certainly true in bluegrass, and Bill Monroe will remain the king of the genre even when a majority of the bluegrass audience isn’t familiar with his recordings. Becky Buller includes the Monroe penned “Southern Flavor” on her recent album, though it’s likely that the majority of her audience won’t recognize it for what it is. Monroe, even if listeners aren’t aware of it, continues to be a force within the music.

That’s fine of course. Where the idea of innovation can start to get away from us is when it exerts too much of an influence on the music that other people are making, or becomes too much of a touchstone for the production and the consumption of musical ideas. In the world of mandolin, the force that looms large these days is Chris Thile. He’s an innovator extraordinare, and he’s also highly visible. Ask anyone to name a mandolin player, and if they can name one, he’s it. Most would then be hard pressed to offer a second.

His music is as distinctive as his stage persona—he’s as remarkable an entertainer as he is a musician. In the concert footage of the performance of “The Auld Triangle” Thile gets laughs with nothing more than a well timed tilt of the head, a glance, an upraised thumb, or a shrug, as after the line “Humpy Gussie was creeping.” That’s because everyone in the audience is fixated on him. Rightfully so. He’s just that compelling a performer, with an instinct for stagecraft that has been honed over the arc of a long, busy career. It looks effortless, of course, and that’s part of it too. Still, that shrug got a laugh from an audience of 1500 people—it’s not everyone who can command so large a room with so little.

It’s that command and confidence that affords him room for his musical innovation. His audience will follow him anywhere, and he rewards their trust—he takes them all over the place, and for the most part we’re all grateful for it. Even in the New York Times his playing is still discussed as bluegrass mandolin—with the ubiquitous references to Bill Monroe—though he’s come so far from that point that the reference doesn’t really have any meaning. He’s very nearly created his own genre. Perhaps the only thing it lacks is a name.

What’s unfortunate, perhaps, is that other players are left to deal with the elephant in the mandolin room—Thile—in the awareness that they are invariably going to be compared to him. The choices are to tag along, or to give him wide berth. On her latest release, Sierra Hull has chosen to tag along. She’s made motions toward Thile’s style of playing and composition before, though never as blatantly as this.

She does it masterfully, of course. She’s long been worth our attention, even at a tender age (that becomes a comparison, too: both Thile and Hull are prodigies). Here she uses the light, clean touch that we associate with Thile, creating music that’s made with the delicacy that a microphone can afford. Monroe was the Ethel Merman of the bluegrass world, trading tonal quality for projection. Hull can do that, though here she’s the opposite: clean, clear, intimate. On “Weighted Mind” she varies between muddy and clean, using all the paints in the box, though it’s still very close music, full of all the dissonance and complexity that has become Thile’s signature sound. On “Stranded” and “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” Hull also writes with the autobiographical tone that Thile does so well. Or, if we’re being totally honest, better.

Sadly, that type of material feels like a distraction, as if the force of Thile and the genre that the Punch Brothers have defined has been too seductive, too overbearing. On this album, the best tracks are the ones where Hull remains closer to her own persona, or at least the persona that she’s presented in her music in the past. “Lullaby” uses a more familiar structure, one which allows her voice to really do what it does best.

One of the best things I’ve heard from Hull in the last while is her duet with Mac Wiseman on “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood” released in 2014. There her playing is adept, sympathetic, and entirely authentic. She’s supporting Wiseman, and while her playing and singing wouldn’t thrill a Vegas audience, it does thrill a listener who knows what she’s doing. Her solo is straightforward and, it’s the economy that exposes it for what it is: masterful. It’s that authentic voice that I hoped to hear on Weighted Mind. Instead, it feels like she’s wrestling with someone else’s persona rather than simply relaxing and being herself.

“Girl”

Winning Entry, Massey Lectures contest

Margaret MacMillan’s 2015 CBC Massey Lectures were about people who have left a mark on their own time, and on ours. Inspired by the lectures, listeners were asked: Who you think will be most remembered fifty years from now? Who will have the greatest impact on our times, and on the future? 

We love firsts, and we have a habit of committing them to both our personal and cultural memories. No one remembers the second man on the moon, or to circumnavigate the globe, or whoever might have sailed the ocean blue in 1493 …

The next big first, it seems, could well be a human mission to Mars, and whomever sets foot there first is quite likely alive right now. If Barak Obama and Charles Bolden’s suggestion of 2030 as the year we place the first footprint on the red planet, then the person who puts it there is certainly alive now. I’d like to think that she’s a girl, busily looking at bugs, or painting a picture of a flower. I’d like her to be a person of colour, any colour at all, but whichever colour it is, when her portrait is placed on the wall the other firsts, I hope she broadens our sense of who we are, all of us, down here on earth. I hope that, unlike the people that we see these days clamouring to go to Mars, she won’t approach the mission cynically: she’ll want to go, and she’ll want to come home, too. She’ll know that it’s not just about where we go, it’s also about connecting with where we come from, rather than thumbing our nose at it. I hope that she’ll distinguish herself a bit from the other firsts, approaching hers with grace and humility rather than bravado and hubris, and that we’ll have cause to remember her not just for what she did but also for the way in which she did it.

She’s out there somewhere. I hope. If so, then she’s the one that we’ll remember, and we’ll all be the richer for it. ♦

—Glen Herbert

Ronnie Reno’s “Lessons Learned”

Ronnie Reno is, I hate to say it, one of the last of a dying breed. He began his career in music at age 8, and while he’s spent a lot of time on stage, throughout his career it was mostly in the service of people that claimed a larger part of the spotlight: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, the Osborne Brothers, Johnny Cash.

The reason for remaining a part of the game for so long, if not commanding a greater portion of the spotlight, is because not only is he a brilliant, he is also tenacious. When he was 8, he stood on a milk carton to be seen. In a sense, he’s been standing on that milk carton ever since for no other reason, perhaps, than it’s just what he had to do. For him it was a job, just as making movies was for James Stewart. Someone once asked Steward why he made some duds, even later in his career, and his response was, well, it’s my job. If I’m not working, and I’m offered something, I take it. There are few stars in Hollywood like that today, and I’d venture there are few bluegrass musicians like Reno anywhere. He’s out there doing it because, well, that’s what he does.

This album, “Lessons Learned,” brings all of that to the fore. You can hear his experience in his voice and his mandolin. It’s called confidence. Which is different than bravado, of course. You can hear that too. Just rock solid, take it or leave it confidence. He’s not trying to impress anyone, he’s just trying to present some songs, and he does it impeccably.

Part of that, though, means that he’s not reaching beyond his audience, which is one that straddles bluegrass and country music. It’s traditional in the sense that he’s not breaking any barriers, yet the production is slicker on this project than some bluegrass audiences might like. There was quite a bit of knob-twiddling in the studio, which is unfortunate, as it didn’t add anything. Some might say that evened some things out, while others might feel it removed something. A bit of grit would serve the sentiments. There are drums throughout, and they are emblematic of a production style that comes more from Nashville than Asheville. Again, it depends on what you like, I suppose.

The sentiments here are more typical of country music, which is where Reno spent most of his career. Sorrow, lost loves, and, yes, lessons learned, and it’s not calculus he’s talking about. The band, however, is strong, and Reno’s mandolin—something that gets a particularly welcome outing on “Reno’s Mando Magic”—is worth the price of admission.

No, it won’t burn up the charts. But, a fall day, in the car, Reno’s a fine companion to have along.

The Steep Canyon Rangers, “Radio”

Since they began, there has been a goofy quality to the Steep Canyon Rangers, though in a good way. They were five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, and good chops out to have some fun. When they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wife is a friend of a friend of the band—they became his touring band and, ever since Martin’s Rare Bird Alert (2011) they’ve been his studio band as well. As a result they’ve gone to places—Carnegie Hall, recording with Paul McCartney—that most bluegrass musicians can only ever dream of. They’ve toured big halls and done a wealth of media, again, which most bluegrass musicians, including some of the greats, never attain.

It’s easy to envy them, but then again, it’s equally easy to wonder what might have been had they not had (at least what seems) such an effortless rise. Martin himself considers this idea from time to time, as in a recent issue of Fretboard Journal when he says, thinking of when he first started working with the Steeps, “I was a little bit worried. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll taint them a bit. They’re a traditional bluegrass band, and they’re teaming up with a comedian.’”

The fact is, he indeed may have tainted them a bit. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music. It suits hard luck, the life of the underdog not cruise ships and pop royalty. Would we wish that on someone? No, we wouldn’t, though just as Martin may have worried, the gravity of his association may have thrown them a bit off course creatively.

I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. Too much success may not be the best thing for a bluegrass band. On their last couple releases, and especially this one, Radio, they break from tradition (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. With Radio they’ve also added a sixth member to the band, Mike Ashworth on percussion. Also very present on this album is Jerry Douglas, who produced it, including having a large hand in editing and arranging the songs.

All that said, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. There is some lovely instrumental work, for sure, including the mandolin and banjo on “Looking Glass.” Mike Guggino, on mandolin, often takes a back seat to other members of the band that often command center stage, both literally and figuratively. Which is too bad. Another very strong entry in this collection is “Down that Road Again,” which features Graham Sharp on lead vocals. Woody Platt typically takes the lead role, though he lacks the kind of introspection that Sharp can clearly bring to a song. (True to the idea of being relegated to a back seat, Sharp’s name in the band’s Wikipedia entry links to the wrong Graham Sharp, a UK Olympic ice skater.)

That song, “Down that Road Again,” is an example of what the band can do best, though leads into a song, “Break,” that is the other side of the coin. Platt’s vocals are indelicate, over confident; Nicky Sanders’ fiddle breaks are indelicate, overconfident, and he’s reaching for things that he’s unable to deliver, something that he’s doing with an increasing frequency.

The Steeps make very nice music, and I wanted to love this release which, it has to be said, is the best work they’ve yet done. As I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is yet to come. Platt has said that, “We’re just getting started. It’s almost daunting, to think about how much more there is that we want to accomplish as the Steep Canyon Rangers.” The thing is, I wonder if the success they’ve had as a result of their work with Steve Martin hasn’t derailed things a bit. Yes, they get lots of ovations, though a bit of humility at this point—getting back to the basics and just telling good stories—might be what they need more than accolades. Are we happy for their success? Of course. But business and music are two different things. Are they making the best music that they can? For whatever reason, no, I don’t think they are. Not yet, but they remain a great band to watch.

The Steeldrivers, “The Muscle Shoals Recordings”

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is the place that musicians have travelled to when they wanted to change, to sound different. Aretha Franklin went to Muscle Shoals as an unknown pop singer who had recently been released from a recording contract. When she came back, she was Aretha Franklin, the one that we know today. The recording studio there—Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—began as a cinder block bunker in Sheffield, Alabama, literally in sight of cotton fields. Aretha, as with all the people that the studio recorded in the early days, arrived without a band, and used the session musicians that the studio had on hand. Locals, to a person, were white with thick southern accents. Bono, from U2, noted rightly that they looked more like supermarket cashiers than soul musicians.

Still, there they are on Franklin’s “Respect” the first song she recorded at Muscle Shoals. Wilson Pickett came, as did The Rolling Stones, Elton John, U2, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, and on and on. It’s one of those improbable stories that, for whatever reason, is true: this little place in the middle of nowhere, with these musicians, has had a huge impact in the world of pop, country, and rock music.

It’s the Muscle Shoals sound that musicians come for, one that is a bit grittier, more soulful, more situated in R&B. For some, they’re hoping that a bit of the storied success of the studio will rub off as well.

For the SteelDrivers, however, the sound on this album isn’t really different in any tangible way from what they’ve been doing all along. Chris Stapleton, the original singer for the band, has a rough, gouged voice that, if it doesn’t do delicate, it does loud, brash, assertive. It’s the kind of voice that people respond to, especially the ones who like to get up out of their seats and wave their arms around.

Stapleton solidified the place of the band within the grand sweep of bluegrass: rough and ready. He left the band in 2010, with Gary Nichols stepping in, a singer who continued pretty much in the same vein, though perhaps tending a touch more to the country end of the musical spectrum. He’s featured on 2012’s Hammer Down, though it’s clear that the band has been looking for a project that will gain a bit of a bigger splash, and they’ve found it in The Muscle Shoals Recordings. It’s gritty, forward, and full of all the allusions we expect from the outlaw end of the musical spectrum. “Brother John” is a criminal on the run. “Drinkin’ Alone” is about drinking and fighting. Elsewhere there is regret, cheap thrills, excess, ill-conceived affairs, and all of it drenched in country wisdom. “When the gas is gone, you’ll be left out in the rain.”

It’s the right mix for radio, and the album debuted at number 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart. The playing is tight, just as we’d expect from the SteelDrivers, and there is a lot of crossover here with the tropes of country music, not limited to the focus and the hooks of the lyrics. There are only two ballads in the lot, though they both lack delicacy. “River Runs Red” attempts to capitalize on the patriotism that follows the Civil War, and tries to gain emotion through strained vocals and quotes of “Dixie” and “Home Sweet Home.” And it works in the way that an advertisement does: hits the right notes to gain some attention to itself without adding anything to the conversation.

The album’s pretty good, I guess, if this is the kind of thing you’re into. But it’s an album made to appeal to a wider audience, namely a country audience. It’s achieving that goal, and no doubt this album will get a Grammy nod in the bluegrass category. Which I’m not sure is a great thing.

Rethinking Appalachia

9780252080814Phil Jamison
Hoedowns, Reels and Frolics: Roots and branches of Southern Appalachian Dance
University of Illinois Press 

(For Sing Out! magazine)

Alex Ross wrote recently in the New Yorker that “when classical-music fans hear that a new Hollywood production has a scene set at the opera or the symphony, they reflexively prepare to cringe. Typically, such scenes give a klutzy picture of musical life and come loaded with corrosive clichés.”

It’s a statement that could far more easily be applied to folk and old-time music. It’s true that classical music in movies is rarely sympathetic to the art form – “alleged geniuses compose NFL highlights music” writes Ross.

In the folk world, however, schlock never creates any sympathies, misplaced or otherwise. The banjo in Deliverance will be remembered long after the movie is forgotten. People these days see a bumper sticker that says “paddle faster, I hear banjos” and wink, though it’s hard to imagine that all of them have really seen the movie. The joke is so evergreen that the punchline lives in the absence of its antecedent. As wonderful/fun as “A Mighty Wind” is, the joke that folk music fans enjoy is two-dimensional in the eyes of everyone else. None of the schlock creates any sense of reverence. Ever.

At the heart of the matter, though, is the division between rural and urban sensibilities that reinforces those kinds of stereotypes. Classical music, despite Ross’ concerns, is reflexively thought of as enriching, skilled, and worthwhile, much like medicine is. You might not like it, but it’s good for you, the popular thinking goes. Even those who might say they hate classical music tend to consider it as a high form of art – just as rocket science and Einstein connote genius, an appreciation of classical music connotes an appreciation of culture.

Old time music, when used in films at any rate, is used to connote the opposite, and when a filmmaker is feeling extra punchy, it’s coupled with its visual component: traditional dance. George Clooney did it in O Brother Where Art Thou. His character was an amiable dimwit, and the dancing and the fake beard confirmed it. There, and elsewhere in the world of corrosive clichés, I’d venture that traditional dance suffers more than anything. Al Jolson has a better reputation, and we’re reminded that he was a cantor more readily that we are the fact that he made a living of, well, singing in blackface.

For many, traditional dance appears repetitive, disorganized, and hopelessly unsophisticated. Sneering at traditional dance is a great way to you appear urban,  thoughtful and informed. After attending a dance in Asheville, NC, Frances Hodgson Burnett described what she saw as “furious and erratic reel-dancing” accompanied by a “fiddler at work sawing industriously at one tune.” Hodgson is the author of The Secret Garden, a book about displacement and healing. But when it came to dance, well, so much for having an open mind – she found in it something unforgivable. Thomas Ashe, in visiting the south in the early 19th century, had much the same response. “I entered the ball-room which was filled with persons at cards, drinking, smoking, dancing … the ‘music’ consisted of two banjies, played by [musicians] nearly in a state of nudity, and a [flute], through which a Chickesaw breathed with much occasional exertion and violent gesticulations.” He concludes, cuttingly, that “the dancing accorded with the harmony of these instruments.”

It doesn’t help that in the 20th century more people experienced parodies of traditional dance forms than the dances themselves, perhaps principally via cartoons of the 1930s where actual chickens dance the chicken reel, and Minnie Mouse kicked up her heals with Clarabelle Cow. “In contrast to the contemporary jazz music and popular swing dances of the time,” writes Phil Jamison in the preface to Hoedowns, Reels and Frolics: Roots and branches of Southern Appalachian Dance, “these rural dances were portrayed simply as old-fashioned, down-home entertainment for ordinary country folk (or animals).”

The thing is, they’re wrong about all of it, which is something that Jamieson deftly, and refreshingly, points out in his book. The approach to rural dance, truly, is about us. It’s about the prejudices that, even today, urban culture projects onto rural life. “Duck Dynasty,” “Farm Kings,” etc., are the contemporary equivalents of Ashe’s commentary, Hee Haw, and Deliverance. Urban audiences, then as now, love to look down on rural life, believing that it’s simple and easily understood.

Rightly, Jamison discusses all that at the front of the book, getting it out of way, as he is more interested in the art form itself than he is the perceptions of it. I say rightly, because it is interesting, more than I suspect anyone knows. Jamison demonstrates how the history of dance is the story of America: immigration, race, trade, culture, identity, fashion, social stratification, and innovation. The closer you look, the more fascinating it all becomes. There are some great tidbits in here – one reason that jigs in 6/8 time aren’t found in the Southern fiddle repertoire, unlike reels in 4/4, is because it’s a difficult time to play on the banjo – though it’s the progress of dance and music, and what it says about us as a culture today, that animates the book. Culture is never static, as much as we might think it is.

In the course of the book, we see that pretty much all the assumptions we might make about traditional dance are wrong, prime among them the idea that it is a vestige of an earlier time, caught in the amber of rural Appalachia. “[To] writers of the late nineteenth century, these rural dances no doubt appeared unfashionable and antiquated but in fact were only a few generations old … not pure survivals of an ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation, but a constantly evolving folk tradition.”

And, indeed, that’s just the beginning. This book is about dance, true, but it also provides an analogue for so many other things, reminding us, once again, that few forms of art – perhaps even classical music among them – are ever quite what they seem.

Alive! In Concert! with Dailey and Vincent!

(for HVBA) It’s hard to be a Dailey and Vincent fan because they can be so unabashedly shameless. Where other bluegrass musicians grew up wanting to be like Bill, or Earl, or Doc, these guys grew up wanting to be the Statler Brothers. When I first saw them live I was turned off pretty much instantly by the pure geekiness and showiness of it all. On stage they are less people than they are Muppets.

Which is too bad, because they are truly great singers and can craft a song beautifully. They won me over when they released Brothers of the Highway in 2013. It’s a fantastic album, and it made me reconsider the one before it, Brothers from Different Mothers, which actually is pretty good too. When they came out with their tribute to the Statler Brothers I was enough of a fan to say, ok, that’s fine, it’s good for what it is.

This live album was recorded in Manassas, Virginia, but it comes, conceptually, straight out of Branson, MO. Glitter, rhinestones, bright lights, corny jokes. The instrumentation is way over the top, an orchestra adding soporific strings to four of the tracks, and soporific piano pretty much everywhere else. Their love for the Statlers is given another airing in “Elizabeth,” though other tracks are arranged to sound like the Statlers. “American Pride” is meant as a patriotic song, and it achieves it in the way that truck commercials do, by being artless and shallow. They play the same card in “Til They Come Home” about soldiers returning from overseas. People will applaud these songs because they’ll feel they have to, not necessarily because they want to. Dailey and Vincent are going for ovations through the easiest routes, and no doubt they’ll get them, though the applause will be as shallow as the songs.

It seems that they’ve got their sights on Vegas, and, clearly—and I think regrettably—they’re headed in the right direction. But if you’re a fan of bluegrass, and moved more by stories than by showmanship, you’re probably not going to be a fan of Alive! In Concert.

The Honey Dewdrops’ “Tangled Country”

(Penguin Eggs, issue #66) The Honey Dewdrops (Laura Wortman and Kagey Parris) have been around for a while now, perhaps flying a bit below the radar. In that time, Laura’s cut her hair, Kagey’s grown his beard, and they’ve otherwise built their skills, their confidence, their attention to detail, and this year might just be their year. At Merlefest this past April their sets were enthusiastically embraced, and that enthusiasm was well placed: gorgeous harmonies, thrilling arrangements, and some remarkably insightful, honest writing to apply all of that to.

In interview, when they could be talking about themselves, or their songs, or business, or the drudgery of life on the road, they instead say things like this: “Touring is like collecting images of landscapes, sounds of voices, contents of stories, moods of places and environments. All of that can be useful. It tells you something about human nature, about how the world works, little by little.”

With this album, the Honey Dewdrops have truly defined their moment. If you’re not giving some attention to it, then you should be. Like, right now. Start with “Horses.” Let me know how it goes.

Doodling with Darwin’s children

by Glen Herbert

Charles Darwin is the father of natural selection, but he was also the father of ten children, eight of whom survived infancy. Three of his surviving sons were knighted, and the fourth was no slouch either. They all succeeded in science and flourished in life, and given what we know about the kind of father that Darwin was — devoted, attentive, patient, caring, giving — much of their success was a result of the kind of man that Darwin was.

Still, for all of the knighthoods, the accolades, the important work and kind deeds, there is no greater testament to the life of the father and his children than what you would see were you to go to the library at the Unversity of Cambridge and ask to see Darwin’s draft for “On the Origin of Species.” It was a monumental work in ways that other monumental works…

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Anna and Elizabeth

(KDHX) Folk music is a lot more like golf than you might think, were you ever to think this kind of thing. The more muscle you put into it, the more erratic your game becomes. You can’t force it. You need to set your grip, and your stance, and not mess with them. Keep your head down. Keep things economical; let the club do the work. You’re the fulcrum of a pendulum, not a hammer to a nail. There’s a difference, and it’s a big one. Good golfers know that.

Apparently, good musicians know that too. It’s that kind of trust and economy that really underlies this simply brilliant album from Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle. There is no muscle here. Instead, they find their grip on the song, give it the support that it needs from them, and then they trust the song to do the work. The darkness in songs like “Little Black Train” is there without us needing to underline it; it’s darker if we don’t.

That might sound simple, but it’s not. Economy can be terrifying. Playing a song that has only an A-part—no identifiable chorus, no bridge, not even a little turnaround in sight—brings its own unique challenges. There’s just very little to hold on to, and that’s where the terror comes in, one that makes lesser musicians start running for ornaments, flash, and complexity. It’s just easier to get an ovation with “Orange Blossom Special” than it is ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and that’s because monotony can feel like an ever-present risk.

But it’s that kind of negotiation, and the unflagging trust in the songs, that makes Anna and Elizabeth so breathtaking and so unique. “Orfeo” begins with a single voice over a drone of the uilleann pipes, and when the vocal part ends, there is a long drone before the pipes take up the melody. Stark as stark can be. Yet the result is mesmerizing. That drone in the middle is like a pause in conversation, one that many people would be compelled to fill, though here it is fearlessly left to stand alone. And it’s utterly powerful.

“Everything serves the voice and the story,” says Anna. “We try to be direct storytellers—to express these songs in a way that people of today can feel connected to. We aren’t trying to transport people to the past—rather we are trying to bring the past back into the room, bring history into our understanding of the present.”

There isn’t a note amiss here, and the arrangements are deceptively complex, as with the harmony entries and exits in “Father Neptune.” Yet, in a time when some bands present old-time music as camp, Anna and Elizabeth choose to bring forth the dignity in these songs, and it’s absolutely welcome. Like the Carter Family mounting the stage in their Sunday best, this album grants a respect to the harmonies, the tones, the instruments, the depth, and the ideas that drive these songs. “Voice from on High” is slower, more reverent here than most people would play it, as is “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.” The result is something akin to hearing the songs for the first time. They bring the ideas forward, and with it the humanity behind them.

There are many comparisons to be made to another groundbreaking recording, Hazel and Alice, and I suspect some of them are intentional. Alice Gerrard sings on this recording, though her inclusion feels less like a cameo and more like a necessity. To find her here is as about as remarkable as finding her in her own living room.

If there is one roots album that will be selling better twenty years from now that it is right now, this is it. Albums like this don’t come along every day, or every year, or maybe even every decade. They are albums that are transformative, and that become a touchstone that later recordings invariably refer back to. This one is one of those.

Le vent du nord

(For Sing Out! magazine) I suspect that the Quebecois band Le Vent du Nord is unfamiliar to many in the English-speaking world. Which is too bad, because they are exceptionally skilled, exceptionally experienced, and exceptionally entertaining.

Since they formed in 2002, the band has been breathing new life into the traditional music of Quebec, often taking up some of the most traditional songs you could ever hope to find there. On their 2005 release, Les Amants du Saint-Laurent, they begin with the title track which, musically, is as much a statement about music historically in Quebec as it is about the band itself. The piece begins with the instruments that the Habitants would have played: a button box accordion, a mouth harp, a bodhran. As the piece advances, it’s like we’re coming forward in time, ultimately to electric instruments. It’s about the past, and it’s about the present, too. And it’s kind of thrilling the way it all plays out.

As there, this new album, Têtu, digs deep into the tradition and, again, it is presented as modern and vital. There’s a hurdy gurdy in here, and a mouth harp, and fiddles. There’s also a masterful approach to arrangement. “Petit reve IX” begins in a very traditional vein yet then expands to include complex harmonies, and a very rich, full arrangement that draws connections to the classical music of Europe. “La march des Iroquois/Papineau” does the same, though in a different way. Men’s voices in a drone harmony, singing non-sense syllables, accompanied by a bhodran. It sounds like a historical piece, something that might be sung over a round in a bar somewhere on the periphery of polite society. But then the harmonies grow, as does the counterpart, and you know that you’re here, now.

This is music that benefits from close listening, and a repeated listening. There’s something just, well, thrilling in the off-chords in a “D’ouest en est,” and the piano accompaniment, on that departs from the one/three accents we associate with eastern Canadian folk music, accenting rather in the way that a jazz pianist does. “Amant volage,” too, brings a jazz tradition to the music, yet in a wonderfully sympathetic way. The musicians here are not interested in building walls around the music they cherish, and they also are clear to locate themselves within the context of North American music today.

One of the things that I love about this recording, as with all the recordings that Le Vent du Nord have done, is that they clearly identify their audience as francophone. They are making this music for their community, and perhaps not thinking of the larger world of north American music, or the music industry that supports it. The notes are all in French, the only exception being a sentence or two describing each song in English. These descriptions are like found poetry, and can be as enigmatic as the capsule descriptions that Harry Smith wrote for the liner notes of his Anthology of American Folk Music. The description of “Chaise ardent,” on of the traditional tunes included here, reads, “Extreme curiosity drives the character to hell, literally, to see what has become of his lover.” The description of “Papineau” reads “After the Patriot’s War, an author took the liberty of changing the characters, probably to free himself of a political obsession.”

It sounds like curation, in a way, yet there’s always a wink or a nod or a bit of wisdom. The description of “Confédération” reads “A song about North-American French speakers who can often be forgetful. Perhaps they don’t recall their own existence.” Truly, that’s a message to us all. Le Vent du Nord reminds us that North America is perhaps a bigger, richer place than we my typically give it credit for.

Growing up

 by Glen Herbert

Looking at the current listing for Adult Contemporary within the Billboard Charts you’ll find two Taylor Swift singles along with songs from Meghan Trainor and Ed Sheeran. “Uptown Funk!” is on there, too. If you’re an adult (which of course you are, as no one else is going to be clicking through to the Adult Contemporary chart), it’s easy to wonder all the other adults have gone. Where is our experience reflected in the world of contemporary music? We did grow up, it turns out, and our thoughts have turned to different things. Popular music, however, doesn’t often provide much space in which to think them.

Yet, there are lots of people who are, in fact, adults, which makes it so refreshing to find some of them once in a while. People like Noa, who really should be better known than she is. She released “Love Medicine”…

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Ralph Waldo Emerson on living with intent

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Living with intent may prove to be the coin of the year, bumping mindfulness out of the bestseller lists. Both, of course–and indeed all the other topics under “well-being” at the bookstore–are attempts at answering a question that has long been with us: How do we live better?

While popular authors suggest journaling, or leaving your phone at home, Ralph Waldo Emerson approached the question with a bit of a stronger bite. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he is at risk of coming across as a wicked schoolmarm: Accept your place, don’t hide in the corner, work hard, listen to the voices you hear in the chaos, the dark, and the solitude. He writes that “truth is handsomer than the affectation of love,” and it’s hard not to believe that he wrote that without ever having experienced Tinder. He tells us that, in life, what we must do is all that concerns us…

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What we eat

Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein Chicago Press, 2012

by Glen Herbert

Whenever we talk about food, whether it’s just that or a broader discussion of nutrition, we’re actually talking about a lot more than we think we are. Food is culture and identity. It’s also science and understanding. I’d argue that there isn’t a richer more varied topic of discussion you could possibly have, and, yes, I’d include religion and the causes of the first World War in this as well. Food touches us all. We put it into our bodies, it’s intimate and personal, and while we can make choices about what we eat, abstinence is not one of those choices. Whether we’re eating a 20-ounce steak, poi, or quinoa salad, it’s an expression of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we intend to go…

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Reading Disability

It’s discouraging to think that, since the Wizard of Oz was released as a feature film, the foremost image in North Americans’ minds of dwarfism has been the lollipop kids. Comical, childish, awkward, short—it wasn’t wrong to cast those roles as the filmmakers did, rather it’s regrettable that no alternate images of achondroplasia have since risen to the level of public consciousness. Even in recent decades—with movies like Time Bandits, Jason Anũna, or the show Life’s Too Short—popular culture hasn’t served to broaden a general understanding of stature and, more generally, physical disability.

9780060875916_403x600When we think of knowledge translation we are thinking very specifically of knowledge within certain settings, that is, the research setting and in the clinical setting. At the same time, though, there are examples of knowledge being translated in a much broader arena–popular culture–in some delightful ways. A great example is the young readers’ book 

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Beyond borders

The following is an excerpt from Caring for Women, Changing Lives, a report written for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at McMaster University. 

Working Beyond Borders
McMaster as a centre for global health

by Glen Herbert

“I’ve just found that there are so many students these days that are interested in international health, and there’s not place to bring them together. Where do they get career counselling? Where do they get ideas? Where do they get content for the things that they want to do? It’s nice to say ‘I want to go overseas’ but how do you get from here to there?”

In her work at McMaster  and around the world, those are the questions that Dr. Jean Chamberlain wants to help students answer. She is an associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, co-director of the McMaster International Women’s Health Program and founder,  and executive director of Save the Mothers (STM) International, an organization dedicated to saving some of the 525,000 mothers who die in childbirth every year. She can spend half of her year overseas advocating for the health of women, McMaster is her home base, the locus from which she works to help others do the same.

“That’s been the focus of our conferences, really giving multi-disciplinary students here at McMaster and other universities as well—we invite people from Queen’s, Toronto, Western—because a lot of these universities now have centres for international health.”

The reasons are vast, and the details of international health, especially for women, can be stark. Chamberlain wrote a piece in the National Post recounting something she experienced Uganda. She wrote about Helen, a mother who had been in labour for two days with no chance of delivering naturally. “The only thing that stood between Helen and a safe delivery was the $60 that this government health facility required from her—after all, she needed to pay for the gloves, medicine and anesthesia required to surgically deliver her baby. Her alternative was to hop on public transit — in this case an overcrowded minivan — and risk a two-hour drive followed by numerous hours of waiting at the national referral hospital, where she would queue up behind the many other mothers trying to access free services.”

Chamberlain advocated for Helen, provided the funds for the procedure, and within an hour a healthy baby was born. Afterward, when approaching the operating room, Chamberlain found ten men waiting, “all lined up in a row, clutching their medical files with sheepish looks on their faces. They were scheduled for male circumcision — an approach to reducing HIV/AIDS transmission that shows some benefit in decreasing men’s susceptibility to infection.”[1] That procedure, unlike emergency C-section, was entirely funded by the government, who also advertised it nationally through billboards and radio campaigns.

“Because I have a medical background, I have a certain platform that I can work from” in order to affect change, and largely that’s what she’s doing when she is working in countries outside Canada.

A vision for women’s health

While she spends months at a time away from the university, the work that she does is nevertheless central to the vision that Dr. Leyland, as chief, has for the department. Of Chamberlain’s work, he says that, “I think that is a perfect example of what we ought to be doing as a department.”

“Part of what we do at the university, in addition to trying to expand our knowledge, is trying to improve the care of women, and that’s not limited to Canada or anywhere. And what Jean has been able to do is to use her skills as an obstetrician/gynecologist plus her own personal skills and abilities to make significant changes as an outreach in global health.”

Leyland himself is involved in global outreach, including giving workshops and talks in the middle east this past spring on the surgical treatment of endometriosis, something for which McMaster is particularly known.

But, there are lessons that those doctors bring home with them in order to advocate for women in this country. Says Leyland, “around the world there are places where women are still treated as second class citizens, where they are not considered to be full human beings. And we find that abhorrent. But even in Canada there are differentiations between how women are managed based on gender differences in health care. … People don’t know that there is a huge gap for women in many areas” including the approach and funding for the treatment of endometriosis.

What it takes is advocacy

“It isn’t only resources, it’s also people expectations,” says Chamberlain, including expectations around the frequency of maternal mortality, which in some settings remains shockingly high. “You know, if you shed a tear when your wife dies but there’s really no [recourse], you know, asking ‘What could I have done differently to save her life. …. What it takes is that advocacy, and mobilization of people, helping people to see things differently.’ Nobody wants their mothers to die, whether your in Africa or here, but we’ve put the infrastructure in place, and the expectations.”

The focus Chamberlain sees for the international women’s health program isn’t just to capture the desire to affect change, but also to guide students to the skills that they can best bring to the improvement of women’s health both at home and abroad. It’s a big task, perhaps, when you look at it in the broadest sense, but change begins here. Dr. Leyland says that, at it’s simplest, “that’s part of what our role is as a department.”

Making moonshine with Roger Lee “Buck” Nance

 by Glen Herbert

“Listen,” says Nance. “It sounds like rain on a roof.” And it really does. Large vats line the room, each filled with a roiling mixture of grain and yeast. The gas being released as bubbles is responsible for the sound and the smell, which is somewhere between beer and bread and turpentine.

5500816b00316-1.image On the right is Buck Nance standing next to one of the tanks that he made by hand. A professional welder, he made everything within the distillery by hand–tanks, pipes, coils–with the exception of the furnace. 

It’s an attractive facility, miles away conceptually and physically from the clandestine stills that come to mind whenever we think of moonshine. The Copper Barrel Distillery, which opened its doors this past April, is a boutique on par with the micro-wineries of Napa Valley. The building, once home to a furniture manufacturer, has been restored to bring out its…

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Being there: Norman Blake on a new recording and a long career

images(published in Penguin Eggs magazine, issue #65) “It’s kind of a downer if you listen to the words,” says Norman Blake about his new album, titled Wood, Wire and Words. He’s having a bit of fun—he laughed as he said that—and when pressed he admits that it’s just that, throughout his career, he’s been less interested in artifice and more interested in telling stories, in shining a light on a more intimate history of American life. He writes about the small struggles, joys, and doubts, and troubles that, while they may not have affected the life of the nation, have nevertheless shaped the context of his life. In “The Incident at Condra Switch” Blake tells a story of a murder along the railroad.

“I came to that through a railroad history type book. That happened close to home, about 35 miles from here, though it’s not common knowledge. I hardly found anyone who knows anything about it. It was written down in some railroad history.” But, of all the stories he could tell, why that one? “It’s close to home.”

Certainly “home” is the thing that has attracted his attention throughout his life and has informed his writing throughout his career. Home, of course, is Sulphur Springs, Georgia, a rural community near Chattanooga where Blake has lived his entire life. Calling him there is a bit like calling Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon, or John Updike in Brewer, Pennsylvania, the exception being that Blake writes about himself and he writes about a real place. His first album was titled Home in Sulphur Springs, a concept he reprised in 2006 with Back Home in Sulphur Springs. This latest recording takes up the same theme, again turning our attention to the small, intimate details of life in small town America.

The irony, perhaps, is that it is from the close intimacy of Sulphur Springs that he set out to participate, if reluctantly, in some of the moments that have defined and redefined roots and Americana music. He was there at the recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He played on Nashville Skyline, that great outlier in the Bob Dylan catalogue. He played on John Hartford’s positively seismic recording, Aereoplane, which created the space and the inspiration for what we now think of as newgrass. He was a fixture on Johnny Cash’s television show, one that renewed interest in the music of the Carter family, and unabashedly provided a venue for a number of musicians who, at the time, were all but banned from prime time television. In 2000 he recorded for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack; in 2007 he took part in Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ recording, Raising Sand. The only moment he missed, seemingly, was the Bristol sessions, though had he been alive in 1927, he would have been there, too.

If all of that is impressive—and certainly it is—any sense of awe is entirely lost on Blake himself. “I don’t think about any of that,” he says. “You know, I was really not trying to be on [the Circle recording]. I wasn’t feeling good—I was ill after a road trip with [John] Hartford, and I kinda got roped into that and I ended up being on it. I’m glad at this point that I was, but, you know, it was not something I was trying to do. I was trying to get out of doing it.”

“And I almost didn’t do O Brother,” again by trying to get out of it. “I’ve never been able to see these things; hindsight is twenty-twenty or whatever they say. But the album with John, Aereoplane, you know, we were just trying to make a living at that point, but I guess I was just in the right place at the right time on some of these things.”

In speaking with him, it becomes obvious that he’d much rather talk about trains, or murder ballads, or hoop cheese, which he mentions in “Grady Forester’s Store.” The store is real, and a photograph of it is included in the liner notes of Wood, Wire, and Words. “I was going there when I was a little boy to get the mail and stuff. That picture was made in ’43, and I was born in ’38, so I was going down there then. There was no electricity or nothing down there along the railroad.”

“In the old days cheese came in wooden hoops” in his accent it rhymes with ‘hook’, “like a banjo ring. It was about four inches thick usually. You had this wooden ring, and the cheese was in that. A circle of cheese. And you’d go to a store, like that song’s about, and they would cut you some and sell it to you. But it laid around unrefrigerated for quite a time.”

In the song there are cats sleeping on the flour sacks, the crackers are stale, and by the third verse the dog, Prince, is run over and killed by the ice truck. “That’s all true! There is some humour there. It’s tainted I guess. But all of that really happened just like in the song. … You know, this particular place had its drawbacks. We were living in a very rural part of the country, down on the dirt road so to speak. It was the good old days, but it was pretty rough shod as well.”

His guitar playing has been rightly celebrated for decades, and it remains as strong, comfortable, and honest as ever, seen best in the instrumentals included on the new album, a standout perhaps being “Blake’s Rag.” He’s not out to impress us with licks, but to capture a feeling. “I don’t care for a lot of hype about things, especially when it’s concerned with something that I do … It’s whatever comes out. I try to more than just accompany a song. Every tune has a particular individuality, and you can find something that fits with it.”

He’s retired now, or at least retired from the road, and he realizes that the songs on this album are not of a kind that will attract the attention of radio DJs. He made it because he wants to tell us about hoop cheese, the railroad, and the lights on the river. He’s always maintained that his music has never been just his job, it’s also part of his life. Thankfully, he’s allowed it to be part of ours as well.

 

 

 

Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, “The Travelling Kind”

by Glen Herbert

 

(For KDHX radio) There’s a scene in the first season of Nashville where Rayna James approaches a young rock producer to make her next album. She’s only written one song toward the project, but nevertheless, she’s more interested in her sound. She gets drunk, cuts a track at the hipster’s studio, and presents it to the CEO of her record label, who isn’t thrilled. Undaunted, she says, “this is my sound.” It’s a moment where she appears—and I realize that it’s written to be this way—defiant, confident, taking charge of her career by thumbing her nose at the bean counters.

Fine. But if I were the CEO I would have responded, “That’s your sound? Okay, but where are your songs?” She knows as well as he does that they haven’t been written yet. To be so fixated on sound, in the absence of content, seems a bit like an artist saying, “well, I don’t know what I’m going to paint, but it’s going to be red.”

Still, watching that scene between Rayna James and the producer, it’s easy to wonder if there was a similar interaction between Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois just prior to the creation of the Wrecking Ball album. I don’t suppose Lanois was resistant, but I think Harris’ desire was probably the same: to find a new sound. And she did. And, even now, she still hasn’t recovered from it.

The irony is that, in interview, Harris has said that her goal is to find her way back to the living room, that is, to what music was like before she was so much a part of the industry of music; a time when music was sitting around with friends, singing songs; a time when, I think we can infer, it was less about sound, or the electronic patina of a recording, than it was the content of the songs themselves. It wasn’t about sound, but heartache, loss, joy, friendship.

Indeed, Harris’ best work is when she is closest to that ideal, in recordings where she doesn’t rely only on the “sound”—using the term as Rayna James does—but trusts the content to get the message across. Listen, for example, to how she uses her voice on “Get Up John” or “Smoke Along the Track” from At the Ryman. It’s an understatement to say that she has a brilliant voice, and on those recordings she uses it to just to sing the songs, not to sell them or sell herself. There are none of the swallowed syllables, excessive vibrato, or breathed tones that characterize her later work. It’s not fair to compare her voice now to what it was thirty years ago, I realize, but again, I don’t think it’s about her voice—her voice has been remarkably consistent through the years—it’s rather about the choices she makes about how to apply it to a song. “Boulder to Birmingham,” “I’ll Go Stepping Too” everything on Roses in the Snow or Evangeline or Last Date—yes these recordings are from a long time ago, but they are also from a time when she clearly trusted the content, and it showed.  Those songs worked because she filled them with air, and then she let them go.

She can still do that, and we see glimpses of it from time to time. In 2002 she played Merlefest, as did all of the other members of the Nash Ramblers (though with other acts) the band she had with her for At the Ryman. Wrecking Ball had been out for seven years at that point, Red Dirt Girl for two, but it was the pre-Lanois voice and approach that flowed from the stage. She was having a blast, joking with Sam Bush about baseball, and she just sang the songs. It was, hands-down, the best performance I’ve ever seen from her.

The teaser and title track for this latest release—The Travelling Kind, a second album of duets with Rodney Crowel—suggested that it might be closer to that than she’s been in a long time. The track that ends the collection, “Le Danse de la Joie” is a broader arrangement, but it succeeds in the same way. Still, those two songs aren’t representative of the album as a whole. More typically, Harris forces the lyric, trying to put emotion into it rather than simply bringing forward the emotion that is already there. These songs are all very well written, after all, and expertly crafted and arranged. All she has to do is sing them, to trust them, and let the content do it’s work. As a demonstration, compare the entry of “Higher Mountains” or “Her Hair Was Red” on this recording with that of “Icy Blue Heart” from Bluebird. There, she stepped back; here, she steps forward, and in the process loses something. She wants these songs to sound mournful, and does it by sounding mournfully, which just becomes distracting. The breathed syllables on “No Memories Hanging Around” break the phrases where they shouldn’t be broken. She’s thinking too much about sound, not enough about the narrative.

The best moments on this recording, and there are more than a few of them, are when Crowell takes the lead vocal and Harris the harmony. She has always been an electrifying harmony singer, and it’s her presence on the two Trio albums, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, that take the material from good to great. Here, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now” is a standout for exactly that reason—she supports Crowell, who happily lets the song speak for itself, the harmony beautifully supporting his ability to do so.

In any event, I’ve been hoping that Harris would find her way back the living room, and had hoped that this album might be it. Instead, it’s another indication that she could if she wanted to, but for whatever reason is choosing not to.

Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways

Update: Since I posted the review below, Jeff Place, an archivist at Smithsonian Folkways, was in touch to note that I’m confusing the Library of Congress Collections with those of the Smithsonian. “All the Lomax etc collections are at LOC, I drew from the much smaller Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian, which is really Folkways and 12 other small labels.” Clearly, a very important distinction.

When I heard that Smithsonian Folkways was releasing a collection of classic American ballads, I was intrigued, maybe a bit excited, and also assumed that I would love it. Given that I’ve just said that, I guess it’s clear that the album is, at least in some ways, a disappointment.

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The universe in stone: An interview with Mark Wilson

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(for Patriarch)

This is how professor Mark Wilson describes the specimen pictured above: “The platform is the wavy outer layer of a bivalve shell. Attached to it are encrusting organisms (sclerobionts). The long, gorgeous tube is a rugose coral. At its base is a ribbed athyrid brachiopod. Also in this vignette are bryozoans, additional corals and some really tiny productid brachiopods. Beautiful.”

He is, of course, talking about something that can risk seeming a bit dull: fossils. But for Wilson, they aren’t just fossils, or rocks. They are something more, something vastly important. He believes that, given the right introduction, we can learn to see in these rocks exactly what he does: beauty, intrigue, and an endless source of inspiration.

Wilson is a professor of geology and Lewis M. and Marian Senter Nixon Professor of Natural Sciences at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He teaches “History of Life,” Semimentology and Stratigraphy” and a first year seminar in “Nonsense (and why it’s so popular).” I reached him at is office.

PM: What was it that inspired in you a fascination with geology?

I grew up in the Mojave Desert and had an idyllic childhood of nature activities in the dry wilderness around my hometown. My parents were remarkably tolerant and allowed me to have all sorts of adventures with like-minded friends. In high school I was part of an innovative federally-funded program on desert research for high school students, which gave me a scientific framework for what I was seeing and experiencing in the countryside. I considered myself a junior biologist, being fascinated with desert animals and their evolution.

It was in college that I first met geology. I took an introductory course from an energetic and enthusiastic professor named Fred Cropp. Until I then I hardly thought of the rocky bones of the Earth I’d been exploring in the desert, nor had I considered the implications of the fossil horse bones and teeth we used to collect. Immediately I found what I wanted to be: a geologist with a speciality in paleontology. I could thereby study rocks, fossil life and evolution as an integrated, historical narrative. What could be better?

PM: Why should people be interested in rocks? Maybe “should” is too strong a word, but it seems clear that you feel that rocks are worthy of our attention, and not just because, say, we’re looking for fossil fuels or precious gems or metals.

“Should” is a good word here! Besides the practical value of Earth materials (as the saying goes, if it isn’t grown, it’s mined) there is a philosophical reason to find rocks endlessly fascinating. They show us that the Earth has a history — a long, long history. They are immediate reminders that humans have been around for a brief instant compared to the immensity of geological time. Our planet was formed billions of years ago. Continents grew and broke apart, moving like puzzle pieces across the globe. Oceans came and went. Life blossomed from bacteria to us in completely unpredictable ways. There were catastrophes and mass killings, extraordinary times of evolutionary innovation, and landscapes we can scarcely imagine. All of this is recorded in the rocks beneath us. On top of this, the human story of how we recover information from these stony books is in itself inspiring.

PM: When you describe various specimens you use, really wonderfully I should say, the language of art: gorgeous, vignette, beautiful. Is it purely an aesthetic judgement, or does a perception of beauty come from what the specimen means to you, such as the moment in geologic history that it describes, or what it says about our biological heritage?

It is difficult to sort out emotions from rationality with such a topic. In part I feel a strong sense of natural order and consequence with fossils. Maybe a good word for this is “elegance” in the way a physicist describes a particularly fertile equation. Each fossil shows exquisite adaptations over countless generations, showing what extended time and biology can create. Yet no organism is perfectly adapted. Every type of life is trying to catch up with changing circumstances, staying just ahead of extinction. These fossils thus represent survivors of immense struggles in their circumscribed worlds. It is the beauty of the weathered tree still standing on the windswept hill from which so many others were removed. And on the other hand, as you suggest, the fossils simply ARE beautiful regardless of their historical implications. The symmetry of a coral, the repeated patterns of a bryozoan, the smiling commissure of a brachiopod. It is a joy to surround myself with these objects of natural art.

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PM: Are there any moments in your working life when you think, “this is exactly what I was meant to be doing!”

My moments of exhilaration are so frequent in this job that I can no longer list them.
I’m a geologist who is a teacher. I can’t imagine being anything else. Not only can I indulge my enthusiasms in the field and lab, I’m actually required to talk about them! And as we all know, teaching something is the best way to learn it, or at least to continually add to my understanding (and subtract, I hope, my misunderstandings.) My moments of exhilaration are so frequent in this job that I can no longer list them. They go from watching a student’s face light up with an idea in class to seeing a student accomplish a complicated procedure in the field with pride and satisfaction. There is nothing better than to meet my former students having their own such intellectual joys. I don’t take credit for their accomplishments, of course, but I’m proud to have been on the team that nurtured their growth. When I need to imagine a “happy place” (like when I’m deep in an endless committee meeting), I can literally feel the crunch of gravel under my boots as I hike up some desert wash looking for something new as the rocks unfold beside me.

PM: You offer a course in Nonsense. What’s that about?

My Nonsense course is a First-Year Seminar at Wooster. These are courses, required of all incoming students, that emphasize critical thinking and writing for students beginning their college careers. The faculty members can choose how they wish to frame their courses. I teach a course on critical thinking by exploring ideas beyond the fringe of rationality. It thus reveals modes of inquiry by outlining the boundaries between sense and nonsense. Why is it that some people persist in beliefs about ghosts, UFOs, astrology, numerology and the like in spite of so much evidence against them? We first outline what the issues are (and there are always new issues to choose) and then study the social patterns and arguments used in their discussion. The central question in the end is what motivates people to believe in the face of such scientific skepticism. The answers are complex, of course, and involve traditions, social stigmas, faulty educations, and so on. The course grew from my experiences teaching evolution and seeing so much resistance to it that went far beyond the science itself.

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PM: If you could tell everyone, anyone, one thing about geology, what would it be?

It is that geology shows us the Earth has a history. Once we take full account of that history and our place in it, our actions and philosophies change. We become characters in a long play that started without us and will not have us at the end. Our actions towards ourselves and nature then have profound effects on our short existence. Stewardship of resources becomes an obvious priority when we see how quickly circumstances can change on Earth. Organizing ourselves as a species with strong social ties and concern for each other is critical to our survival in a place that doesn’t owe us any favors.

For the post mentioned above, see: http://woostergeologists.scotblogs.wooster.edu/2012/10/21/woosters-fossils-of-the-week-silicified-sclerobionts-middle-permian-of-southwestern-texas/

The Chrysalids at 60

(for Patriarch) Sixty years ago this year, John Wyndham published a post-apocalyptic thriller about, well, you know, kids with telepathy. Which sounds funny, because as much as that’s true, the book has resonated with readers ever since not because of the telepathy, or the apocalypse — in the book it’s called the tribulation — or for being a thriller. It resonated because it said something about us.

And we thought we knew what it was. In the 80s, our minds were on nuclear war, and the Chrysalids took a place on the shelf next to Neville Shute’s On the Beach and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Life after global war was, by all accounts, very bleak. On TV was The Day After. Sting had a hit with “If the Russians Love their Children Too.” Really bleak. Yet it’s hard to listen to that Sting song these days and see it for what we thought it was. Context has a lot to do with these things, apparently. ChrysalidsMS1

That’s also true for The Chrysalids. It’s about the world after nuclear war. But it’s also about the dangers of fundamentalism, and difference as enforced by belief. The book illustrated the great strength that comes from realizing that you’re not alone. David finds Uncle Axel, though he also finds the Chrysalids. The voices that he had been hearing in his head weren’t just voices, they are real. (That word, “Chrysalids,” doesn’t actually appear in the text of the book. The characters have no name for themselves as a group. Wyndham changed the title at the last minute, from “Time for a Change,” though it’s telling that he didn’t work that word into the text. In the context of the story, they are just people, after all; A common identity was precisely the thing the were reacting against.) He finds that there are lots and lots of people who share his way of thinking, and by the end of the book he learns that it’s a much larger, more varied world than they ever could have imagined. Which is the reason that, by the end of the book, he finds that there is a place for himself in the world, too.

“But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks. Change is its very nature.”

Of  course the one thing that the book wasn’t emblematic of then — nor is it something Wyndham could have fathomed — is how well it provides an analogue for the internet. In Wyndam’s day, people were people. You knew your neighbours, or you didn’t, and otherwise, there were a bunch of strangers out there. Not in your head, or in your iPhone. They were out there.

But with the internet just as with the Chrysalids,  there aren’t just strangers out there, there are friends out there. And they’re not just out there, they are in what has become our collective consciousness: cyberspace. Just like the Chrysalids, we may not know their names, or where the live, or even their gender. They’re the people we play Words with Friends with. Or chat with. They are the people who show up writing about our favourite cheese, or who reviewed the last Norman Blake album. One of them is a guy who didn’t like a piece I wrote, and who for the last month or so has sent me, every few days, hundreds of new words of text telling me what a jerk the thinks I am. This despite the fact that he doesn’t know me, or I him. We don’t know where each of us lives, even our real names. We’ve never heard each others voices.

And, indeed, that’s where the Chrysalids might really have something to say to us. People look different, or speak different languages, or live vastly different experiences, but in our heads, were we to access their thoughts directly, we wouldn’t find the differences to be as important as the things we share. The voices, the people, would be part of us, and we’d first see them as friends, just as the Chrysalids do. Friendship, a shared humanity, would be the default position. How nice would that be? And, should we find ourselves in trouble in the Fringes, they’ll come all the way from Sealand to help us. Again, pretty nice, isn’t it?

In the 80s I thought that, metaphorically, I was like the Chrysalids. I knew there were kindred spirits out there, people who would get what I was saying and vice versa, it was just the finding them that was the problem. Indeed, today, we — all of us — truly are the Chrysalids. In the web, we as people have become dissociated from the Scrabble part of us, or the angry part of us, or our sexual selves. Parts of our personas argue with parts of other peoples personas, or play chess with parts of other people’s personas. They have names like Zyngawf_182. But, unlike the Chrysalids, we lack some basic insights, such as the need to be kind, or the understanding that nobody ever has an easy go of it. Which is too bad, actually. Because, instead of looking out for the kindred spirits, we become more like David’s father: we’re ever on the lookout for the mutants. And, just like David’s father, we seem to be spectacularly good at finding them everywhere we look.

Jayme Stone and The Lomax Project

(For Sing Out!) There is a recording of John Hartford in the studio giving direction to the musicians he’s gathered there. Whatever the song they were prepping – it may have been “Madison Tennessee” – he says, “this is not going to be a showstopper. I want to do this like it was ‘Brushy Fork of John’s Creek.’ I want it to be straight ahead, where it leads us to the music, and not tricky.” It’s an idea that was central to Hartford’s career, or at least the later part of it; his performances relied entirely on the content, and his arrangements were careful ones, built to support the content, to lead us to the music. He felt that it wasn’t his job to promote the music so much as to hold it up, to turn it around, and to show it to us.

Jayme Stone is cut from the same musical cloth. He’s accomplished enough as a musician to stop a show, and to be tricky, but what makes his work so effective is that he doesn’t. Like Hartford, he trusts the content, is obviously excited by it and wants to share his excitement with us. Like a child bringing a grasshopper in from the yard saying, “Look at this!” He’s not interested in building a better grasshopper, rather he wants to bring the grasshopper to us so that we can see how cool it really is.

Stone’s latest release, the sprawling Lomax Project, is an excellent example of that impulse. Over the course of 19 tracks he pays tribute to song collector and musicologist Alan Lomax, who would have been 100 this year. Lomax has had more influence on folk and roots music than most of us know, and then some. Stone has gathered a fantastic group of musicians to survey all the corners of the musical world that, at one time or another, attracted Lomax’s attention, from the hollows of Appalachia to the Caribbean.

There are lots of very familiar songs here, though Stone writes that “the unexpected chemistry of collaboration [makes] music that’s informed by tradition but not bound to it.” It’s a fine balance, and you need to give yourself over to it a bit. Some songs, such as “Shenandoah” and “Goodbye Old Paint,” are so familiar that any adjustments can feel artificial or forced.

But, even if some things might work a bit better than others, it’s true that everything on this disc is interesting, and everything benefits from repeated listening. It doesn’t hurt that Stone collaborating with some of the best, including Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Julian Lage, Margaret Glaspy and Brittany Haas. Molsky’s “Julie and Joe” is gorgeous, marrying two traditional tunes, “Julie Ann Johnson” and “Old Joe Clark,” the second done here in a minor key rather than the typical major, and drawing on a Cajun style of fiddling. It’s one of those tracks that you get stuck on, playing again and again.

Stone’s role, perhaps more than anything, is as a kind of musical director, bringing together the kinds of musicians that share a vision of traditional music as alive, important, and beautiful, and with the kind of chops needed to show all of that to us. The variety of songs is wonderful, and the program includes an a capella call and response work song, “Sheep, Sheep don’t you Know the Road,” and a calypso piece, “Bury Boula for Me” featuring Drew Gonsalves. There’s a charming song, “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y” that apparently was collected by Lomax in the Dutch Antilles. It features Tim O’Brien and Moira Smiley. Did I say it was charming? When you listen to it, you’ll see what I mean.

There is a lot on this recording, and there is a lot in the package, too including two essays as well notes on each of the songs. All of it is absolutely welcome. Stone is the leader, but this isn’t a “banjo album.” Rather, it’s an album of beautiful, intriguing, thoughtful music coming from a collaboration of outstanding musicians who apply their talents together.

It was a big project to undertake, perhaps, and of a kind that we see less and less of these days. It’s an album with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It asks us, as listeners, to immerse ourselves in the idea of it all, and it rewards that attention as much as it captures it, leading us to the music, rather than pushing us to it. It’s something we may not be so familiar with these days: give and take.

Baltic Crossing, The Tune Machine

This disc is an absolute, unbridled joy. Five musicians—two Finns, two Danes and one Brit—use the instruments and music of Scandinavia to, as far as I can tell, have about the best possible time you can ever think of having. A fair amount of traditional music, including jigs, polkas, fiddle tunes—there’s even a Schottische in here—is woven together with new material and new ideas and instrumentation, including bringing things like Northumberland pipes to the music of Italy, or hardanger fiddle to the music of England.

The band ranges across European music with an academic gaze—in the notes for “Menuet from Falster,” to give a typical example, they write that the piece “was written down in 1917 by a lady called Karen Suder and collected by local musician Rasmus Roxværd”—though the object, very clearly, is celebration not curation. There are at least as many exclamation points in the liner notes as there are umlauts, which is saying something (it looks like someone sneezed, what with all the dots).

In any event, these musicans’ spirit and their ability is infectious, poignant, and invigorating. Sometimes, especially in the world of folk music, we forget about the big wide world out there, or that irony and sarcasm aren’t the only serious emotions left to us. This disc is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that we aren’t alone. Apparently we’re surrounded by Scandinavians.

Interview with Sarah Jarosz

(KDHX) When she was 16, Sarah Jarosz came into the acoustic-music scene seemingly fully formed. She has continued to demand and hold our attention ever since. On her latest album, “Build Me Up from Bones,” Jarosz’s material is less guarded, and therefore more adult, though her writing and her delivery have always been astonishing, and not only because she was — and at 23, still is — very young. 

If there is an upside to getting older, though, it means that that there is less noise in her life. When I spoke to her she had just completed her first year of touring full time, the year since she graduated college. When she got her first Grammy nomination, she was in her dorm at the New England Conservatory. The first person she told was her roommate, then she called her parents, and then she got back to a homework assignment that was due the following day.

Then, and for most of her life as a professional musician, there has been a lot to juggle. What hasn’t changed despite the time on the road, which can be grueling, is her dedication to her work and her knowledge that this, above all, is exactly what she was meant to be doing.

Glen Herbert: In a recent interview you described this past summer as a whirlwind. Describe that for me. 

Sarah Jarosz: I’ve just been on the road full time because it’s the first time that I’ve been able to tour full time, and not having the commitment of school. So, it has been a whirlwind. I’ve been travelling all over the world pretty much. This summer we did a lot of festivals. We also did the Cambridge Folk Festival—we were over in the UK and Ireland for about a month, touring there. Which was a blast. I had never been to Ireland before, and we had some really great shows there. We did a bunch of shows opening up for Nickel Creek. It’s just been one thing after the next.

GH: Does it ever seem like a dream? It’s happened so quickly for you, and it seems that you just hit the ground running at pretty much full tilt. 

SJ: Yeah, I definitely have to pinch myself sometimes, especially with things like opening for Nickel Creek. Ten to twelve years ago was I was first starting to play the mandolin, and at that time I was so inspired by Nickel Creek. And now, to be on stage opening up their show, it’s a total dream come true. Because I am still so young, it does sort of seem like it’s all happened so quickly, and it has. But at the same time, I really have been working at this since I was really little.

GH: Were you always the driver? Did you ask for piano lessons, or did your parents tell you “you’re going to take piano lessons now”? 

SJ: My parents said “you’re going to take piano lessons now.” [Laughs] Yeah, I’d been singing basically my whole life, and that was just something that I naturally just loved to do. But with piano, I was always [saying] “I don’t want to practice piano.” I started taking piano lessons when I was six, and it wasn’t until I picked up the mandolin that I became very self driven and motivated to keep practicing.

GH: Do you have a sense of where that kind of motivation comes from? 

SJ: Initially, just because I was such a little girl, I think it just came from my first interactions musically in the central-Texas music community. Those interactions were just fun. Of course, at that time, I wasn’t thinking that this was going to be my career. It was more that it was just a fun hobby as a young girl. And I think that’s initially why I fell in love with it so much. I just loved it. Obviously, from there it grew into the realization that this is what I want to do with my life. So, having that realization, it became more of a self-driven thing to want to work really hard to become as good as I could.

It is funny with the piano. It’s not like I hadn’t been interested in music before that. But I think [with the mandolin] it was about wrapping my arms around an instrument that seemed unique—one that not a lot of people were playing—it just seemed like this fresh thing that I could get excited about.

GH: So, you get the mandolin when you are nine. Seven years later your first album comes out and you’ve got everybody playing on it. Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien … the list goes on and on. Darrell Scott is there, and he also co-wrote one of the songs. And you absolutely owned it, both in the recording and in performance. Where does that confidence come from? That incredible confidence, even then, though it’s of course remained to this day. 

SJ: It’s a good question! No one has asked me that before. I’m not sure. I guess, for as long as I can remember, I’ve just loved performing and singing and being on the stage. And it just made sense; it felt like the truest representation of my being to be performing and to be putting out this other part of me that was able to come out in songs.

But early on I think it had a lot to do with those heroes of mine that are on my records. I think it’s very telling of the acoustic music community for those people to even be willing to lend their talents and their time to a project of this, you know, this little girl basically. [Chuckles] I had really been able to become friends with a lot of those people just through the festival scene, the camps that I went to growing up, and just learning from them. I think that says a lot, and their willingness to be so open really added to my confidence. And [with “Song Up in her Head”] being my first time in the studio recording, to have the chance to be able watch those people in the studio doing their thing was the best learning experience one could ever ask for. I think that all just contributed to me becoming the person that I am, to have those incredible people to look up to.

As well, I’m an only child, so a lot of my life I was with older people a lot of the time. My parents would opt out of the baby sitter and take me with them to shows. I guess that’s maybe a part of it, too, actually: just always being around such positive, awesome mentors.

GH: The New York Times had a note in a capsule review that with this latest album you’ve kind of grown up, in a sense, and that you have moved “past precocity toward the full bloom of artistry: the singing is more deeply self-assured, and the songs are grounded in truer emotional terrain.” I think an example is in the song “Gone Too Soon” you sing: “You and I and this bottle of red/Getting lost under the moon/When the morning comes/I’ll be gone too soon.” Is it awkward knowing that your parents are going to listen to this? 

SJ: [Laughs] You might guess that it would be! But it isn’t. I guess that one of the reasons that I’m able and willing to be so honest in those songs is because I have awesome parents. I remember playing them that song and they loved it, and actually the thought of it being awkward wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. That’s just how open we are. And for as long as I can remember they were my first audience for the songs that I would write. I would finish a song in my room after working on it for a couple weeks, and the first thing I would do would be to go out into the living room and say “Okay, can I play you guys this song I just finished?”

So, they were the first ones to listen to the songs and often offer critiques and try to help me out. My mom has been a songwriter all her life, just as a hobby, never as a job. But to have those ears is something that I feel may be rare. And, anyway, the thought of it being awkward never have crossed my mind because they’re so supportive.

GH: How much of songwriting is art and how much of it is craft? Or is it indeed both art and craft?

SJ: I think it’s definitely both, mostly because I’ve had both experiences. I’ve had maybe two or three songs, in all the songs that I’ve written, happen very quickly, as in over the course of thirty minutes. That’s extremely rare. It’s happened, and it’s very special when it does happen, but more often than not it’s a lot of collecting of ideas over a long period of time.

I’m a very slow writer and I have a hard time writing when I’m on tour because the mindset of being on tour is very different than the mindset of being creative and crafting songs. At the Americana Music Awards a couple nights ago and Jackson Brown …  was saying [while accepting an award] that the hardest thing for a songwriter to do was to find a space in the world where they think no one can hear them. That really hit home with me, to hear him say that. Which is why I feel I can’t write when I’m on tour, because there are always people around.

So most of the time I’m just collecting words and phrases, lyric ideas, melodic ideas, making little recordings. Then when I do have time to sit down and be in my own space I sift back through those things seeing what might work and ultimately crafting a song.

GH: You’ve also covered other peoples’ songs, both on stage and in your recordings. What is it that you see in a song that makes you choose to record it? 

SJ: I think there are lot of factors that go into it. I have to love the song; I have to love to sing it and also feel that I can bring something to the song that is different and original. I certainly feel that there are songs out there that I love more than anything, but that I wouldn’t even dare touch. Song that you think, “well, that’s perfect!”

And that’s not to say that I don’t feel that way about some of the songs that I’ve chosen to cover, but if they bring something different to the table than my own songs, then I’ll consider doing them. With the Joanna Newsome song for example I don’t feel that I write songs like her. Her lyrics are very quirky, and it brings a different aesthetic to the table, which I like. I like bringing in another writer’s voice in order to have something a little different in the mix.

Other songs bring other things. With the Bob Dylan song, “Simple Twist of Fate” for instance, I wanted to record that one because it brought something different sonically to the table. Having just voice and cello it has a different texture from what was already included on the record.

GH: I once heard an interviewer ask Roni Stoneman what advice she would give to a young musician just starting in music. And  Stoneman said something like “You’ve got to love it honey. You’ve got to enjoy your music, because most of the time, that’s all you’re ever going to get out of it.” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but if you could give advice to the 14-year-old Sarah Jarosz, what would you say? 

SJ: Well, actually, I think Roni Stoneman nailed it on the head! That’s so true, and I think that goes back to what I was saying to you earlier about being such a young girl getting into all this music. The reason I was inspired to keep going was because I just loved it. It made sense to me and I enjoyed working at it. And, obviously, when you’re a young person you’re trying a lot of different stuff. You’re seeing what interests you and so it’s good to have your foot in a lot of different doors. But whatever you end up thinking is the right thing for you you have to love it. Even outside of music, I think that’s the way anything is.

Because, you know, this business is crazy and even this last year has been a real learning experience for me, to be on the road full time. That’s not something you can mentally prepare for ahead of time. You just have to do it in order to realize what it is. And it’s really hard. It’s really hard to not be home. So this last year has been the first time when it really has been “you have to love it.” Because that’s the only thing that’s going to get you through the really difficult times, is to be able come back to that feeling of “well, at least I’m getting to do this in the first place.”

Mac Wiseman, Songs from my Mother’s Hand

(For HVBA) This is the first thing that anyone will know about this album, so I’ll get it out of the way: Mac Wiseman is 89 years old. He’s old, even for bluegrass. In pop music terms, he’s ancient. There aren’t any pop musicians that we’ll be listening to when they are 89.

Age can be weakening, of course, or at least a gauge of what a performer has lost through the years. So many performers have pushed the envelope too far, such as B.B. King or Doc Watson, both of whom were placed on stage after the point they should have taken a pass and left us with the memory that both, sadly, didn’t have.

But, age is also a double-edged sword. It can take some things away, though it can add something, too. Like wisdom, or perspective. Joni Mitchell’s 2000 recording of “Both Sides Now” couldn’t be more different than the one she made in 1969: her voice is diminished by decades of smoking, the pace is slower, the accompaniment is strings rather than guitar. And it’s gut-wrenching in its beauty. Age, partly because we’re aware that this is a song she wrote when young and is now singing as a senior, adds a poignancy that is, in a word, remarkable. At an age when most pop stars have retired, she delivered a performance that we’d simply be poorer without.

Wiseman, with this recording, Songs from my Mother’s Hand, has shown himself to be in that same category. His instrument isn’t what it was in the 50s and 60s, but it’s not a question of quality, it’s just a different instrument. His voice at 89 is an important one, and he is using it to tell some stories that he likely couldn’t have told before, or at least not told as well.

The songs he presents here foreshadow that: they are all songs that his mother copied down in a series of notebooks from listening to them on the radio. She collected the songs in order to play them, and Wiseman, understandably, treasures those notebooks today. They are songs about life and death, poverty and uncertainty, faith and doubt.

Some of these are songs that he’s recorded before, and comparing this recording to the earlier one is telling. His earlier recording of “Little Rosewood Casket” is more confident, cleaner, perhaps slicker. The one on this album is better, more honest. It’s rougher, but age makes it a clearer reflection of what the song is about: reflecting, and comforting those who will be left behind.

It’s not all sad, and he takes a lovely romp through “Old Rattler” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” But it’s the ballads—and this album is rightly and understandably weighted toward the ballad end of the spectrum—that really grab our attention through their poignancy. The tear-jerker “Put my Little Shoes Away” could easily become morose, but Wiseman of course knows what he’s doing, and navigates the song expertly, steering it toward meaning and thoughtfulness rather than, well, not.

The musicianship here is gorgeous, though a standout is perhaps his duet with Sierra Hull, “You’re a Flower that is Blooming in the Wildwood.” Hull’s mandolin is so tasteful, so supportive, that you simply get lost within it. No hot licks, just a wonderful support to a wonderful song. Her harmony vocals are cut from the same cloth.

Songs From My Mother’s Hand will prove to be an important one in the scope of Wiseman’s work, though we needn’t think of it that way. It’s just a beautiful album that tells some stories, expresses some ideas, and we’d be poorer without it.

Writing about music

“It’s about us. Art doesn’t change, we do.”
–Peter Schjeldahl

Whenever we think of critical writing about music, from capsule album reviews on up, it’s hard not to recall that quote—apparently it remains a mystery as to who said it first—that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The suggestion is that the value of music is apparent in and of itself, a priori, and that it doesn’t need to be discussed: the language of music is music, not words.

It is a nice quip, which is why so many people repeat it—when Elvis Costello said it he added “it’s a really stupid thing to want to do”—but I don’t trust it. Anyone who writes about music begins with the belief that what they’re doing is meaningful and worthwhile. If they are approaching the task honestly, then it’s good writing. If not, then it’s bad writing: if they are writing in order promote something, then they’re not really writing about music, they’re marketing a product; if they are writing simply to condemn something, or to demonstrate their intellect, then they are simply insulting, especially to their readers, they are being dishonest.

Better writing, honest writing, requires an approach rooted in some basic understandings. The first is an understanding that all music—good, bad, or otherwise—is like any other form of art in that each expression is part of an ongoing conversation about the world around us, our history, our foibles, and our desire as listeners to be lead on a journey somewhere beyond the moment that we are in. All art comprises–or attempts–a journey of imagination and of understanding.

And every piece of art–be it a painting or a song or a symphony–doesn’t exist alone. Each is a single moment in an ongoing conversation. Being aware of the conversation the artist was joining into, or the context the audience experienced it within, is important. For example, here is a lyric from a Bob Dylan song:

the world’s on its side
and time is running backward and so is the bride
… it’s rush hour now, on the wheel and the plow
and the sun is going down upon the sacred cow

If those words were from a song on an early album, or one in the 1970s, we’d perhaps have an idea about what he was talking about, and an audience at that time certainly would, or at least they would have thought they did. The world was changing: the shootings in Ohio, the sense of disappointment coming out of Woodstock, Vietnam, and Watergate, the assassinations of the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights. The world was on its side, and the sun was going down on a lot of sacred cows.

But the thing is, he didn’t write those words then, or at least he didn’t sing them then. Those words are from “Ring them Bells” which was released on the album Oh Mercy in 1994. The wall had just come down, give or take, and the malaise of the X generation was in full bore. Of course there was a lot else going on then too, but those are at least elements of the context in which he wrote about the world being on its side. More importantly, those are elements of the context that his audience would have heard them within. Indeed, Dylan himself described the song as an update to “With God on Our Side” which he released in 1964. That song was cranky, but in a sense it was hopeful. It implied, with a sneer, that we can have some perspective, and that the concept of God being on our side was an old, dusty one, one that we’d have (or want) a chance to revise. “Ring them Bells” is just a description of a world in disarray and confusion, entirely lacking of a compass to point the way. There is no other song from the album that had as much resonance. It is, I think we can say, the best song on that album, both for how it was written—yes it’s very skilfully done—but more importantly for how it entered the artistic conversation that was going on at the time.

Commerce, of course, gets in the way. There are ticket prices, and album sales, but there is also PR, and corporate backing. Those who have been marketed well, and praised, are often able to rise above an honest critical eye. There is nothing that Bob Dylan will ever release that will be roundly condemned—he will always find someone to champion his work, including music journalists, no matter how off-putting it might be. Though, truly, he has released some positively awful stuff, such as the recent “Tempest” which probably gathered more negative critical perspective than anything Dylan has done. Yet, reviewers were kind. Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal called the title song “undisciplined and banal.” Fusilli nevertheless writes of the album saying that “it is an uneven work whose finest qualities are found in the shadings and subtleties. At its best, it reveals the skills of a master craftsman who uses a variety of American musical forms to create atmosphere in support of his lyrics, which have grown increasingly novelistic and as such are keen-eyed, colorful and effective.” Subtleties? Really? I don’t think there is much subtlety in anything Dylan has done–he’s always been about spectacle, perhaps most obviously since Newport in 1965–and Tempest is true to his form. And would a master craftsman really let anything out of his shop that was “undisciplined and banal” hoping that we’d, nevertheless, appreciate it’s mastery? 

For people like Dylan, or Bowie, or the Rolling Stones, no matter how bad some of their music might be it would take an awful lot to unseat them critically. With them, and to the envy of others, jounralists will look for the good, not the bad. Dylan may create a mind-numbing, trying, 14-minute retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, but we’ll still note his use of a variety of musical forms, and his ability to create atmosphere (and, with a voice like that, there isn’t much more he’d be capable of—everything sounds like a bar). Likewise, bands like Red June will be overlooked, no matter how phenomenally good their music might be (as with Ancient Dreams, an album that will go unnoticed, and it’s a shame).

But, of course, we should be able to expect that as easily as we should be able to discount it. Money, commerce, is never a good metric with which to judge any form of art. As Peter Schjeldahl has said,

“commerce in art is the way that art is moved around and is introduced into the culture. … [but] at the root of art and commerce is in fact a conflict that most of us feel, I believe, between money values and ineffable values. That art and commerce is a place where eros has a head-on collision with mammon.”

When asked what we should judge art on, this is what Schjeldahl says:

“Experience. What it does for you. What it does for your feeling; what it does for your thoughts; what it does for your sense of yourself; and what enhancement it brings to your life.”

Elsewhere he adds that “any price—many millions, a buck fifty—paid for any work of art is absurd.”[1]

Organization, or how we categorize art, is messy too. Alain de Botton has argued that art galleries are typically organized in a way that discounts the art that they collect. He notes that galleries are usually guided by the discipline of art, arranged by historical period or artistic style, rather than thematically. “Instead of being organized by period,” writes Joshua Rothman when summarizing de Botton’s approach,

“galleries could be organized around human-scale themes, like marriage, aging, and work. Rather than providing art-historical trivia, wall text might address personal questions: How do I stop envying my friends? How can I be more patient? Where can I find more beauty in my life?”[2]

If he’s right, then we don’t really need to understand the context for a work, but rather can access the work in its own terms–that writing about art is like dancing about architecture. The idea is appealing if only because it is so democratic: we all can approach art on the same level, and it doesn’t require expertise, just an openness of thought and perception. I read Rothman’s article during a trip with some friends to New York. Since Rothman, like de Botton, was using specific examples from the Frick collection, a friend and I decided to go to the Frick and test out the idea. At the time there was a collection of Dutch masters being shown in addition to the permanent collection. I took one of the audio guide headsets, but before listening to any of the commentary, I’d approach a painting and really look at it, wondering about what it was saying, about the relationships within it, and what thematic questions around “human-scale themes” they might be addressing.

Then I listened to the headset, which of course presented all the “art-historical trivia” that we’d expect from an audio tour. And it was entirely enlightening. Elements of the paintings that, prior, had seemed minor, were brought into focus. This is why: the vast majority of us are not students of seventeeth-century art, for example, and therefore we don’t have all the tools in order to engage with the pieces in a way that we truly apprehend the human-themes within them. We don’t understand the symbols, or the stories that the artists were using as tools to tell their stories. We don’t understand the context for the piece of work. That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand the life story of the artist, rather, we aren’t privy to the conversation that the artist was joining into, what the artist had to say, the artist was working within, or who the artist was responding to. But it’s worth a bit of effort–not a phenomenal effort, but a bit of effort–because the cost is fantastically outweighed by the reward. 

An example is a painting that was in that show: Jan Steen’s, “As the old sing, so pipe the young”[3]:

Mauritshuis_Steen_742

Even the title is well worth knowing; it is a Dutch proverb that Steen’s audience would have known well. It means that children learn through example. Is the scene judgemental? We might at first feel that it is, what with the man slouching in the corner, the debauch taking place all around. Fine, but what you wouldn’t know without a bit of background is that Steen has put himself right there, in the thick of it; he is the man laughing while he teaches a boy how to smoke a pipe. We also wouldn’t know that Steen was an innkeeper, so he not only saw many scenes along these lines, but participated in them and profited by them. The old man is wearing a hat worn by young fathers. These are all things that he would have been confident that his original audience would have known. As such, perhaps he’s playing with their knowledge, bouncing ideas around, rather than documenting a time, a place, or his personal perspective on a time or a place.

One of many scenes of this type that Steen painted, here the family is celebrating a baptism; the child is being baptized. Once we know that Steen has implicated himself in this, and he’s depicting a scene from within his social and political class, the piece becomes less judgemental, and we begin to look for other themes. Perhaps he’s saying that the child is not only being baptised into the life of the church, but into the life of the world, with all the good and bad that comes along with it. The parents will teach the child not only the things that they choose to—as perhaps the lessons of the gospel—but also all those things that they don’t choose to, such as smoking, and drinking, and lapses of responsibility. The parrot is a mimic, and it’s there in the corner adding a bit of punctuation to Steen’s idea. Then, as now, parrots were as likely to repeat swear words as they were names and “hello.” There is a stress in here that most parents share: we want our kids to reflect the better angels of our nature but, well, they learn lots of other things from us as well.

So, is it trivia, or is the background worth knowing? Is a bit of context worth reviewing? Is it worth our while to try to get a sense of the conversation that artists were adding their voices to? I think it is. As in the Steen example, the image becomes richer with these kinds of details in mind, and brings forward the human-theme rather than obscuring it: We’d all prefer to be upstanding in every way, though in fact, we’re not, we’re imperfect, and family life is messy. Further is a question that Steen implies: is it wrong that children are brought up within the full range of family life, seeing everything, and learning both our good habits as well as our faults? What a great question. Perhaps Steen has included himself in the painting in order to suggest a potential answer, that children are resilient and perhaps openness is better than overprotection, and that everything that we teach them has value because it is part of ourselves.

It nothing else, it just makes the picture more interesting to look at, it becomes a moving picture–moving through thought and idea–rather than a snapshot of a silly party all those years ago. It’s through some of this knowledge that the work really gains its ideas, its equivocation, and its interest. The ideas are richer than if we are left only to our own devices. Rather than therapy for the moment, we found ourselves able to get in on a conversation that lasts longer and could be, at least potentially, more meaningful; knowing a bit more adds to our experience, our thoughts, and the enhancement it can give to our lives. Putting the image in a room full of other Dutch paintings from the same time period, in this light, also seems to make sense. They are all speaking with each other, and if we can get into it a bit, we can get hear better what they are saying. Having them side by side only helps. A scholar of Steen might find the audio tour material limited given that she knows the entire range of things about Steen’s life, his work, and his world that the material there can only hint at. For the rest of us, while it may be limited, it gives us a necessary and welcome step up.

A good writer doesn’t tell us that he likes mustard on a hotdog, but rather he tells us what mustard is, what a hotdog is, and ventures why you might like it on a hotdog, or how it relates to the culinary culture and why. I think that’s what good writing about music can do, too. Each piece, whether or a review or a longer essay, needs to be about something, not just the person who made the music, or the songs they present. Good writing tells us about the context and gives us a sense of the larger conversation that the music is engaging within. Good writing can let us know why music is important, what it represents, what kinds of things to listen for and why it is worthy of our attention.

As well, good writing is readerly even to those who may never hear the recording being discussed. Rather, the recording is used as peg to hang an idea on, such as how times have changed, or how we judge quality, or some aspect of the history of music that is interesting and telling, or even how art interacts with the culture that creates it. Each piece should have some bit ideas, or at least some biggish ideas. 

Laurence Stern said “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” And, as at a cocktail party, it is polite, for the most part, avoids diatribes, and listens as much as it speaks, just like the most enjoyable party guests do. It interacts with the greater world, reaching out and inviting others in rather than shutting them out. It’s knows that it can only provide one moment, and works not to kill the conversation, but to open it up, add to it, and to keep it going for the sake of understanding, or enjoyment, or just to underscore the idea that we aren’t alone.

[1] Blog, “The Circus,” November 13, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/11/record-auction-sale-of-francis-bacons-three-studies-of-lucian-freud.html#entry-more

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/11/alain-de-bottons-healing-arts.html#slide_ss_0=1

[3] http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/mauritshuis/742

Silent Bear’s “The Green Lion”

I once heard someone saying that, given the ubiquity of 70s ranch-style housing, Frank Lloyd Wright had a lot to answer for. He was the source, and a very affective one, of a revisioning of domestic architecture. And while his prairie homes look as lively and affective today as they did when they were made, split-level ranch homes … um … don’t. The two styles are related, yet also underscore an important lesson in innovation and imitation.

I think that the Grateful Dead are like Wright in that sense, and we could say that they too have got a lot to answer for. They introduced some important musical ideas—stream of conscious lyrics, odd juxtapositions, loping guitar solos, a wash of sound—that perhaps solidified into a genre that, at the time, was fresh and inspiring. By and large it had some staying power, and if meaning was fluid and evasive, it somehow made its own kind of sense. Someone might think they know what “China Cat Sunflower” is about—the “silk trombone,” the “double-e waterfall” the “crazy quilt star gown through a dream night wind”—but they might just as easily be wrong. Still, for whatever reason, it seems to work. You may not love it, but it would be hard to write off entirely.

The problem, though, is that it looks easy. It seems that all you need are odd juxtapositions, a streaming consciousness, some loping guitar licks, and the result will have some sort of merit. Silent Bear, on their new album The Green Lion, unwittingly demonstrate that the formula is actually a bit trickier than that. If Christopher Guest thought to make a Spinal-Tap-style parody of psychedelic jam bands, this album could provide the soundtrack. Offered for ridicule, it would be hilarious.

Taken seriously, however, it’s just awkward. The Green Lion of the title and the cover art is an alchemic sign with a range of convoluted meaning, exactly the kind of thing that 20-somethings use to impress co-eds at toga parties. For the rest of us, it’s hard not to sigh and roll your eyes. In “Carrie,” the narrator of the song tries to impress the titular woman by saying “Your words are like fishhooks baited with fire/Your red hair is flaming like a bus that is burning.” Hunh? Elsewhere she’s “hiding behind bells, untorn and untattered/Like a Sphinx in the desert, unriddled by care.” The descriptors then turn to a direct harangue. Through a haze of Hammond B3 licks and swells, the narrator asks if she knows “the books of the writers who wrote on typewriters?/What do you see when you look in the mirror? Is it yesterday’s face on a finger of dawn?” Um, maybe. With the typewriters, are you thinking manual or electric?

That’s the first song on the album and, moving on from there, we get philosophers’ stones, Kerouac, angels, transformations, unicorns, peace, Mother Earth, Mercury … your basic grab bag of tired allusions and half-assed mythology.

Fine. But the reason that you’ll have heard of this album, if you’ve heard of it at all, is because Pete Seeger guests on two tracks, one of which is “Freedom for Leonard Peltier (Bring Him Home).” Peltier was the subject of an unfair trial, and is currently serving two life sentences. The impulse behind the song is laudable in the way that Dylan’s “Hurricane” and Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line are. If there has been a miscarriage of justice, sometimes it requires more than the courts to correct it. Certainly it’s because of the issue, not the art, that Seeger appears on this recording. His banjo is instantly recognizable and his voice is there in the mix, and he’s using both to draw attention to the issue of Peltier’s conviction. Fair enough, though if the song were better, less literal, and if the flute went flat a bit less often, it certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

Seeger also appears on “Ode to the Peace Master” reading the text of a poem, and it’s by far the most effective piece on the album. It’s a short track, meant as an introduction to the song “Teach Peace” but it’s over too soon, and we’re back into the fatuous material and strained rhymes that characterize the bulk of the album. It’s a good thing that it’s instantly forgettable.

 

The Tao of Peter Rowan

If you are a glass-half-empty kind of person, then this new documentary of Peter Rowan, titled The Tao of Peter Rowan, will seem like  a half-empty glass. The photography and sound are at times a bit south of polished, the lighting of some of the shots—such as the interview segments with Ricky Skaggs—could and should be considerably better. The edits are sometimes awkward, incongruous, or  jarring. In terms of content, you’ll probably long for a bit more substance, too. The interview clips from Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Jerry Douglas don’t really engage with the music, rather they come off like book jacket blurbs: “he’s really interesting, he’s really great.” As a film, I’m fairly certain that this one isn’t going to be winning any Oscars.

But there is a place for this film nevertheless. Say what you will about Peter Rowan (certainly many have, and not all of it or even the majority of it flattering) he’s had a long and fascinating career in music. He’s been a bluegrass boy, and he also toured as the opening act for the Doors. Those are probably the extremes, with most of the things he’s done falling somewhere between them. Throughout, if not at the top of the charts, he’s remained a prominent and important musical figure since he joined the Bluegrass Boys in 1963.

What he has to say about his time with Bill Monroe is fascinating, given that we’ve only ever heard snippets of it before. Rowan only toured with him a short time, and it seems that most of it was acrimonious. Here, however, we get a sense of why that may have been: Monroe didn’t pay him. “You know Pete, your money is as good with me as it is in a bank,” says Rowan quoting Monroe, then acknowledging that that kind of paternalism can understandably cause friction, and indeed it did. Rowan stayed on as an apprentice, and once he got what he wanted out of the relationship, he went elsewhere in order to apply it to another important concept: earning a living.

At that point, he was off: prog rock, jam bands, newgrass, “hillbilly jazz,” bluegrass, folk, reggae, raga. Perhaps we know parts of this story, but it’s interesting to see it all at once. The archival clips are as fascinating as they are hilarious, such as the clips of Seatrain. All of it underscores the fact, were we to doubt it, that Rowan is utterly unique—aside from his time with Monroe, he’s been produced by George Martin, toured with Jerry Douglas, and Tony Rice, and Vassar Clements. Old and In the Way was my first introduction to bluegrass music, as it probably was for lots of people who didn’t grow up on the blue ridge. The first time I heard it was during a party when I was a university student. It riveted me and, if it didn’t change my life, it was a moment when I found something that I didn’t even know that I was looking for. I believe that I was likely one of many. (Their first album is one of the few bluegrass albums ever to make it onto the pop charts, and for that reason provided the kind of lift that the O Brother soundtrack did many years later.)

It’s hard to imagine how so many different projects can draw the attention of one man, or that so many projects can appeal to the same audience. Of course, in terms of the audience, they don’t, and in that way it’s a bit hard to be a true Peter Rowan fan. His world music projects, such as the recent Dharma Blues album, can be hard nuts for a bluegrass audience to crack. But by the same token, there are some projects that are fabulously enjoyable, especially for a bluegrass fan, such as Peter Rowan and Tony Rice (2007) its follow up You Were There for Me (2009), and the recent The Old School (2013). There are other standouts as well, such as Tree on a Hill with the Rowan Brothers, and the positively delightful High Lonesome Cowboy (2004) with Don Edwards, Tony Rice, and Norman Blake.

Ultimately, the film is a unique chance to get your head around the kind of career that Rowan has had, and the changing musical landscape that he has moved though over the course of his career. We see him as the entertainer, though it’s clear that the filmmaker interviewed him at length and over a long period of time, and was able to get past the set pieces—how he wrote “Walls of Time” or talk of the “Buddhaverse”—to allow us to see him just talking in a less rehearsed way.

It’s fascinating, just as his music is. He’s at Merlefest most years, and I always make a point of seeing what he is up to. Many years, as the one he was touring Crucial Country, I don’t stay for more than a song. Other years, as those when he was touring with Tony Rice, I’d follow him around to every set of his during the festival. He’s just that kind of musician, frustratingly peripatetic. At one point in the movie he is seen during a break from recording and the producer notes that that one song presents a nice compact image while “the others tend to ramble on.” Rowan chuckles, saying almost apologetically, “but that’s my specialty, rambling on is my thing.” We may not like all the directions he goes off in, but of course it’s not necessary that we do. Throughout, he’s consistently fascinating, and for the most part this film is as well.

Drafting

(For an online ancillary to the Harbrace Handbook for Canadians, 6th edition. )

Jack Kerouac is said to have written the entire manuscript for his novel On the Road at a single sitting, all improvised around a few set themes not unlike a jazz musician building on a set melody or chord progression. The manuscript itself seems to support this idea: created in just three weeks, it is a single piece of paper—a r0ll of shelving paper—120 feet long, and written entirely without paragraph breaks. Few revisions were made to the manuscript prior to publication apart from the creation of paragraphs and the correction of typos. Once published, On the Road became a bestseller and, arguably, was a turning point in the development of the twentieth century American novel.

As nice an image as this is, there are indications that it is not entirely true. The scroll manuscript exists, but the process of creation is debatable. While Kerouac himself perpetuated the idea of extemporaneous creation, others who knew him at the time add a bit more to the story, as did Kerouac himself in later interviews. In actual fact, Kerouac was a prodigious note-keeper, working and reworking ideas in a notebook or on bits of paper, that he would then arrange and rearrange. Most of the planning and drafting, we can infer, happened long before he ever fed the shelf paper into the typewriter.

This draft, by Isaac Newton for his work Religion gives a better sense of what drafting is really all about. The manuscript shows countless revisions, many in different inks, made over an extended period of time. Above all, Newton wanted to be understood as clearly as possible, especially in light of the fact that his ideas were often at odds with the accepted truths of the day. His desire was to communicate complicated ideas as precisely as possible and, as a result, the manuscript has many signs of his labour. The result was a publication able to bear critical scrutiny.

Most writing assignments you will be given during your student career will require the same kind of attention and organization which, like Newton and others, is conducted in an awareness of your audience, your writing form, and what you are hoping to communicate.

Brainstorming and freewriting are two good strategies for jumping in. As in the example from Louis Dudek’s draft of Atlantis, the early planning is often the most creative and most fun part of the writing process. With the goal of simply getting some ideas down on paper, your drafting doesn’t need to follow any narrative patterns or, as in Dudek’s example, even be words and phrases—if a doodle helps you get the ideas flowing, so much the better. Here Dudek uses a drawing of his topic, and octopus, as a framework for clustering a draft of the poem. (See pages 5 and 6 in Checkmate for a more detailed look at clustering.)

George Bowering’s drafts from the notebook for His Life, A Poem, are more traditional. The collection was awarded the Governor General’s Award in 2000.

David Hodgins’ and Carol Shields’ manuscripts are organized and easy to follow, in part because the authors left space around the text and between the lines for handwritten notes and edits.

Carol Shields The Stone Diaries was written on a typewriter and then edited by hand. Shields notes that, when writing, she works to produce only 2-3000 words each day, and will stop writing when she reaches that, no matter how long it has taken, or how engaged with the writing she is. The Stone Diaries, won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Albert Einstein’s draft for his Special Theory of Relativity (1912) is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

Mark Twain drafted a dramatization of Tom Sawyer, though the play never received the same critical attention as his novel.

Even Beethoven had to make drafts and revisions. His draft of the Emperor Concerto script shows signs be being written quickly, and then adjusted just as quickly.

Some writing is so familiar, it seems strange that it was ever written, edited, or revised. However, from this draft of the US Declaration of Independence, we see that Thomas Jefferson originally wrote “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” but later changed it to “we hold these truths to be self evident.”

All of these examples show that writing is a process and, no matter your level of expertise, drafting can be difficult and, at times, somewhat ungainly. They also show that drafting is personal, authors working in a way that best suits their needs and the demands of the content. Ultimately, taking time to draft is not only unavoidable, it’s the task of writing itself.

Discovering Peter, Paul, and Mary

(for KDHX) I suspect that there are lots of things that the average person doesn’t know about Peter, Paul, and Mary. We think of them, if we think of them at all, as earnest and goofy, perhaps due to the persona of the most visible of the three these days, Peter Yarrow. On stage he can raise cringes due to a sincerity that is so arch it begins to backfire on itself, much like a car salesman’s statements of great mileage. And, fairly or unfairly, the media has never let us forget that he is a convicted sex offender.

More generally, the trio was formed in the same way that the Monkeys were, by an agent who sought to build an act to promote into a market that was ripe for it. All three—Noel Stookey, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow—were part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s, though Albert Grossman was drawn to them specifically because each remained virtually unknown. The market he was aiming at was the one that the Kingston Trio was monopolizing—a national, young audience of people who wanted to get on a bandwagon. Grossman wanted to supply them the boost. The songs were smart, modern for the most part, and he chose Travers for her sex appeal.

Curiously, he asked Dave Van Ronk to be the third to Yarrow and Travers, though he declined. “I would have stood out like sore thumb,” Van Ronk admitted, rightly, in his fantastic autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Of course Noel got the nod, at which point the three went into seclusion for seven months, working up a repertoire relying heavily on Milt Okun arrangements. Then they played the Bitter End in Greenwich Village as if they were just three kids walking by with some songs to sing. The first album shows them there, with their names chalked on the brick wall behind them.

Grossman, of course, was in the business of making money, not music, something he had a decided knack for. The formula came first, then the band, though that was not generally known at the time, as it would have appeared crass. But, if we are being honest about Peter, Paul and Mary, we have to also admit that it worked. There is a skill there, and a delivery, that was seminal then and remains impressive and effective today. They weren’t great guitar players, but together, the whole far exceeded the sum of the parts. Vocally, it was a beautiful mix, with Mary’s voice seeking the low register while, elsewhere, women folkies were seeking the stratosphere. Mary flipped her hair, threw her head back, and belted it out. Love it.

Of course, we can’t think of them today in the same way as audiences would have then. Not with the intervening years, the children’s material, the campfire scenes, the PBS specials, Stookey’s monologues, Yarrow’s colonoscopy song. They are the model for the Folksmen in “The Mighty Wind”—Michael McKean recalled that during a festival at UCLA “Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary looked at us and muttered, ‘Too close, too close.’” It’s true that the Folksmen didn’t have to do much to send up Peter, Paul and Mary, with them doing such a great job at it themselves. If at first they were sexy, as the decades moved on, they became Muppets.

Part of the reason that we perhaps view them harshly—and why the Folksmen can be so funny—is that we typically don’t look to kind people for inspiration or entertainment. As Peter Yarrow said in an interview, we look to people like “Paris Hilton, who take pleasure in their disfunctionality, or Donald Trump who takes pleasure in being a bully.”[1] We doubt kindness, which is one of the reasons why the media loves to remind us of that 1970 Peter Yarrow conviction. We live in a cynical age, and Peter Paul and Mary, throughout their careers, simply refused to. The liner notes to their first release praises the songs as “strong with the perfume of sincerity.” That’s funny. But it’s true. They are. That’s one of the reasons they are powerful.

This is true, too: their early albums are simply fantastic, and as worth our attention now as they were when they were first released. The first eponymous album, A Song Will Rise, See What Tomorrow Brings—in the length and breadth of American folk music, these albums simply demand a place.

This fall, impossibly, there is a new Peter, Paul and Mary album, Discovered. No, it’s not really new, but rather a selection of live recordings from the early 80s, well into the trio’s downward slide into mockumentary fodder. What is new, though, is that none of the songs collected here ever made it onto an album despite being common in their live repertoire. “You Can Tell the World” is a song that Simon and Garfunkel made famous, or as famous as it ever was, and the recording here is alive, energetic, and captures the energy that PP&M brought to the stage even two decades in.

The album, perhaps inevitably, shows the whole  spectrum of their material, including the kooky, as in “Parallel Universe,” and the toddler humor, as in “Space Suits.” Yes, as always, for the fan, these things can be an exercise in endurance if not outright doubt.

But it also very happily shows their strengths, principally to be better together than apart, as on “Show the Way” and “Midnight Special.” It’s a reminder of that ability to step out on stage with two guitars, three mics, goofy jokes, silly asides, sub-par solo voices, and nevertheless proceed to entertain us for two hours and to send us out into the night with a few more songs to sing. It’s nice, too, to be reminded that some people dedicated themselves to sincerity, and hope, and kindness. Yes, that sounds funny, but it’s true. This album won’t keep you coming back again and again in the way that the early albums will, but it’s a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

 

Fleck and Washburn

(for Sing Out!)

When I first heard that Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married I thought it was a joke, though that was in part because of the source of the news. The “Bluegrass Intelligencer,” a satire web magazine, ran the story under the headline “Strategic marriage will consolidate power within single banjo sovereignty: Fleck, Washburn promise male heir, Holy Banjo Emperor.” A faux anonymous source close to the couple is quoted as saying that the future bride and groom “barely detest each other at all.”

Of course, the article was meant in fun even if there was a bit of truth behind it. Which, as it turns out, there was. Yet, when Fleck and Washburn did in fact marry (they’ve also since had a male child, Juno, born last year) it still felt like someone was pulling our legs. As musicians, they have often seemed to be singing from different hymnals, so to speak.

Fleck is known, rightly, for a very complex, heady approach to the banjo, one based in the kind of precision that we associate more with classical musicians than, well, anyone else. Sometimes it works, as in an early recording that is now a classic, Fiddle Tunes for the Banjo, with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith. Fleck’s timing and precision, as well as his musical intuitions, really burnish the work to a sparkling sheen.

In other instances, that academic kind of approach doesn’t work as well. Fleck’s symphonic piece “The Imposter,” one reviewer noted “feels as if Fleck worried the piece into existence. It’s too fastidious, and it never really soars.”[1] If there is anything to fault in Fleck’s playing, it’s that inability to really loosen up, to relinquish a bit of precision in the service of feel, especially in settings such as jazz and swing that simply require it. In Ray Charles famous formula, “genius + soul = jazz,” though having soul, despite the apparent genius, is not something it’s easy to accuse Fleck of. In his work with the Marcus Roberts Trio, his accompaniment and solos float like oil in a vinaigrette dressing—they’re there, but they never really combine or take the flavor of the rest of the mix.

Washburn, while not as technically robust, brings a rich, immersive emotion to everything she does. She crept into the Americana mainstream through old-time music, rising to attention as a member of Uncle Earl, a group in which she demonstrated her ability as a singer and banjo player as well as her willingness to take risks in the service of reaching an audience. During sets with Uncle Earl she’d include a song in Mandarin, sometimes accompanying herself on banjo, and others, as in a translation of Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone,” with an old-time accompaniment. Because many in the audiences in those days didn’t know that she had lived in China and speaks Mandarin fluently, the idea, when first presented, felt put on, or showy, or just ill advised. Then she showed us why it wasn’t. She regularly brought audiences to their feet, perhaps none of whom had any idea what she had sung, let alone why. The emotion, and the power in her voice, was captivating and moving. Where Fleck wants us to listen to him, Washburn wants to speak to us.

That contrast animates their first album of duets, titled simply Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. The first track is an example of Washburn’s fearlessness: she opens with a reworking of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It’s hard to conceive of such a thing not seeming trite, and placing it as the first track has a whiff of bravado about it. She gives it her best, but it can’t avoid feeling self-conscious. The arrangement is set in a minor key, which feels like a feint toward adding depth. Fleck only adds to the tension, most noticeably when he inserts a few bars of the melody of “Oh Suzanna.” It’s campy and hard to bear. The political flourish at the end—“one day I’ll own this railroad, and everyone will ride for free”—comes out of left field and feels like another feint at adding thematic depth.

There as elsewhere the presentation is overly muscular and the album doesn’t find its emotional core until the fifth track, “New South Africa,” which is, frankly, breathtaking. It’s an instrumental piece pitting Washburn on one side, Fleck on the other, as they work through a composition that Fleck first recorded with the Flecktones in 1995. Here, it’s the musical equivalent of a mid-afternoon discussion over coffee—playful, light, comfortable, a moment away from the rush of the day. It works because it allows both players to express their own character and to retain their own voices—Fleck with his runs and complex chords; Washburn bringing in a lovely old-time claw hammer banjo—as they circle effortlessly, joyfully, and at times impishly around a number of musical ideas. There are other highlights too, including another instrumental, “Banjo, Banjo,” and a reworking of “And Am I Born to Die” which pays tribute to Doc Watson and his approach to that song.

But, in all, there is more here that doesn’t work than does, in part because they are trying to do too much. Instead of settling into a room and exploring it, they want to tour the whole building. In an earlier time, say even just twenty years ago, this album would have been the first of two or even three, or at least have been pared and edited in order to describe a clearer narrative arc across the album. An instrumental album would be nice, and “Railroad,” “Bye, Bye Baby” and “For the Children” suggest how nice a children’s album could be especially when framed as such. In choosing a smaller frame, they’d allow themselves the time to really settle into and explore specific musical areas, and to unpack them, to turn them over, and to work through them at a more leisurely pace.

These days, however, there isn’t the industry to support such a long view. Nor are there producers in the studio anymore giving suggestions as to what to try and what to tweek, what to include and what to leave off. We tend to sneer at that idea, believing that the musicians are the best judges of what to do. But, had it not been for Norman Granz in the studio, Oscar Peterson wouldn’t have written “Hymn to Freedom.” Likewise, there are reasons that people hire T Bone Burnett. Sometimes there is a benefit to having someone with an objective perspective weighing in and providing direction.

Given the approach, as well as the admission that the album was made in order to allow the two to spend more time with their infant child, [2] –it was literally recorded around feedings and rest—there is a risk of the fiction upstaging the reality. They’ve been marketed, including in the radio spots for their one Canadian tour stop in support of this album, as “the unofficial first family of the banjo.” We need a first family of the banjo, official or otherwise, as much as we need a holy banjo emperor, though it seems we now have both: those are Juno’s giggles at the end of the album, styling the final punctuation in the form of a birth announcement. Hakuna matata y’all!

[1] http://www.mercurynews.com/music/ci_26264764/review-cabrillo-festival-unleashes-bela-fleck-mattingly-norman

[2] http://www.abigailwashburn.com/#/belaandabigail/

Seamons and Hunter, “Take Yo Time”

(For Sing Out! magazine) For anyone who has learned to play an instrument in the usual way – lessons, scales, exercises, practice, recitals – Joe Seamons can make you feel like you’ve missed something. He grew up in a rural setting in the Pacific Northwest in a log cabin that his parents built. There he learned music in a way that most of us these days simply can’t: through active transmission, sitting and listening to the neighbors and, then, having a go himself.

It’s a (sadly) unique approach in our day and age when skill development, whether it’s math or hockey or music, tends to be prized more than having a bit of fun together. Because of that disparity, Seamons and Ben Hunter founded the Rhapsody project, an organization based in Seattle that intends to bring children to music. The goal, Seamons said recently, is “letting kids know that they don’t have to play music off a page … they can play music just by making noise with their instruments.” The project then shines a light on the kind of songs that allow children to do that, ones that are comfortable, familiar, and approachable. The point isn’t to keep perfect time, or to impress an audience with solos, but to exercise the spirit of the songs, and to encourage participation within a distinctly American musical tradition.

While Take Yo Time isn’t entirely derivative of the Rhapsody project, in that it can and will stand on its own, it’s nevertheless emblematic of it. Here Hunter and Seamons present the kinds of songs that invite participation, and they give lots of indications of the various forms participation might take. A hand slapping a knee on “Some of these Days,” a gloriously goofy kazoo on “Jungle Nights in Harlem” a pair of bones on “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” the solo callouts on “Jazz Fiddler” – whether you actually do grab something and play along, the point is made that this is not music for the stage, it’s music for the living room, specifically your living room, not just theirs. The very sympathetic production across the album underscores that idea. For those of us who aren’t able to be in the room with them, this disc is so inviting, so intimate, that you’ll feel like you were.

While the album needn’t be anything more than that, scratch the surface a bit and you’ll see that Hunter and Seamons are quite cunningly surveying the length and breath of American music in the pre-war years, that time when most music was still largely being made at home. They’ve beautifully chosen songs that might easily seem a bit like strange bedfellows. Duke Ellington’s “Jungle Nights in Harlem,” is placed with a Child ballad, Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues,” the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Jazz Fiddler.” The musical styles that Hunter and Seamons adopt beautifully reflect the genres that these pieces represent – the Appalachian fiddle drones on “Tom Dooley,” for example, contrasts the jazz phrasing on “Beaumont Rag” – though, despite those kinds of differences, they bring all of these various musical ideas together and demonstrate not the contrasts, but rather what they have in common. Which is America, after all. It’s not jazz or jug band, it’s not blues or old-time, it’s just songs to learn, to play, to play with, to clap along to. These are our songs to teach, to learn, and to share, if for no other reason that this: because it’s fun.

Being Noah Richler

Noah Richler’s blog regarding Jian Ghomeshi’s arrogance is informed, comically, by his own over-arching arrogance. The article is about him, and how he never succumbed. How he’s so above all this kind of thing, so immune to all the things that others so easily fall prey to. Hmm.

My one interaction with Richler was a call he made to me about an intern position at, while it hadn’t yet been named, the National Post. He said “I’m calling from the new Conrad Black paper” or something like that, to which I said “Okay.” It could have been a polling company calling for all I knew. Well, that’s the only word I ever said to him. He went off like a rocket, saying that he’d expect more enthusiasm than that from someone who wanted to work at the paper, blah, blah, blah. And then he hung up. Needless to say, if I’d only told him to hold the line for a moment as I seemed to have peed my pants in excitement, I may well be working there today. Instead, he trashed someone that he perceived was beneath him, or who wasn’t appropriately impressed to be receiving a call from a Richler. I never got an interview — which is why I suspect he may have been calling — or an internship.

He says that his first reaction to the Ghomeshi story was “pity.” Balls it was. He’s just zigging when others are zagging in order to imply distance and wisdom. Further, who cares what he felt? What possible interest could it be to me or indeed any of the others who read this piece? Yes, it’s a blog, so it doesn’t require any journalistic integrity, or so the thinking goes. But The Star published it, so I would think that they’d feel the same standards should be kept in all aspects of the brand, both print and digital. Perhaps they do, sadly. Richler, as much as Ghomeshi or anyone who has found success in journalism in the past decade, is wise enough to know that the story, above all, has to be about him. Certainly his surname doesn’t hurt either.

Humility, sensitivity, massive egos—change the names and the article could be about Richler himself. Those half-hearted feints at modesty are achingly transparent. He talked to a woman to help him understand!? Gee, what a nice idea. I hope he didn’t talk down to her, though the fact that he calls her “a very bright young woman in her 20s” feels a bit backhanded. Would he refer to a man in the same way? I doubt it. He finds that being both a woman and bright is worthy of remark, and indeed, I guess that’s why he remarks on it.

I don’t know what Richler does in his bedroom, but I know what he does on the phone. As he says about Ghomeshi: What a charmer.

Interview with Andrew Collins

As a solo artist and founding member of some of Canada’s most celebrated string bands, Andrew Collins is at the centre of a burgeoning Canadian acoustic music scene. His latest recording is A Play on Words.

What was it like playing bluegrass in Toronto when you were just starting out? You didn’t have any recordings, the career was all ahead of you, etc.

I didn’t know if one could make a living doing it, but I was so compelled in doing something that I loved. And I couldn’t imagine investing all of myself the way I did—and do—in music with anything else. So, it was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just so focused on the playing, and getting better, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. That was just exciting.

Now this is going to sound unfair, and it is unfair, but there is this understanding that it’s not Appalachia, and you didn’t grow up in the mountains, or sitting next to the old guys. And this is what I would have thought at the time: It’s great, but it’s not real. It’s Toronto. I wonder if you ever had those thoughts as well. That you’re outside the thing itself.

Hmmm. Interesting. [long pause] Well, I’ve got mixed feelings about that. Yes, I would have had those feelings, but over the years travelling around playing this music and meeting people all over the US, interestingly enough, Toronto has a bigger community than most places in the states, even though this music is American, just by virtue of the population itself. And the Toronto bluegrass scene actually has a good reputation for producing high-level players in a way that I never would have thought when I first started playing.

In some ways Toronto’s audience may not have been a bluegrass audience, but how does any bluegrass audience begin? It begins by hearing bluegrass music locally and then seeking it out. So Toronto today kind of does—amongst many other things, such as the Cuban community and so on—have a great bluegrass community and old-time community.

But back in the early 00s, sometimes I’d be the only person in the audience at the Tranzac on bluegrass night, and maybe Chris Quinn, or Chris Coole, or Dan Whitely would come in. Perhaps they’d sit and listen, or sit in with the band. And when you think about it, all of you guys have won awards now. I was sitting in a room with what, today, would be the band that you would hand pick for the All-Star team. You’ve got to admit, even though the community was small then, the hit rate was pretty good. Considering it was bluegrass night at the Tranzac Club.

[Laughs] I think community informs itself so I think the infectiousness of how drive we all were—we fed off each other. If you’re surrounded by people who are limiting themselves by not being focused. It’s one thing if it’s just up to you to create that inspiration for yourself … but that’s why I moved back to Toronto, to surround myself by people who were really determined and that attracts other people that are determined and tenacious. When you’re surrounded by people that are tenacious like that, you just see what’s required. So I think that’s just an infectious thing and everyone sees what’s possible because they’re surrounded by people who are pushing their own sense of what’s possible. It makes you just assume that it’s possible to get to that level that you strive for.

Is there a renegade quality to doing this in Toronto? And you really have to be tenacious, if only because you are doing something that most people around you don’t understand.

In retrospect, the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people we were their starting point. Whereas, now it might even be harder for a young band doing this sort of music, because there are so many people doing it now.

But, yes, it’s a double-edged sword: if you are playing this music—and particularly at the time that we were, in the early 2000s—the only way we could have an audience was to educate the audience that this music even exists. And the only way to do it is to get out there and play it and surprise people that they can actually like acoustic instruments and that it’s not just quaint compared to electric music, it does have power and require serious technical accomplishment.

I’m sad to say this, but even given how good you were even then, because it was in Toronto, there is something that just didn’t seem like it was the real deal. Then when you started touring with Emory Lester I thought, “oh, I guess they are real.”

Yeah, and I’m sure we felt that in some ways too. There is definitely validation from having your influences and people who grew up playing with your influences also appreciate your music. There is definitely some validation there. We’ve experienced that quite a bit over the years when we meet some of our favourite bands, or are teaching at camps with some of our favourite bands, and jam with them and the love jamming with us and that sort of thing. There is some validation there.

And this music really is an oral tradition. And we’ve done our research, we’ve listened to the albums that they’ve listened to, and the albums that they’ve made, and we’ve learned the vocabulary from the source, even though we were up here. You even find that travelling—the Foggy Hogtown Boys did a tour in Germany last year where we were in the Czech Republic, and there is a big bluegrass community in the Czech Republic, and we know the same repertoire. We have our own repertoire as well, but there are all these standards and we do share the same repertoire and have listened to the exact same recordings of some of the same songs.

I guess it’s different now. It’s a job now too. Does that make it better?

Well it definitely makes it better than working a job that I don’t love. But definitely you realize that once you’ve been doing it for 20 years that there’s no avoiding work in life. There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love. I don’t want to sound corny, but the truth is the end is the means. It’s not just making money. There is no avoiding the fact that I have to make money, and once I got past the naive immature stage … when I realized that I am in business for myself so I have to treat it like that. So, there’s a lot of work involved that I don’t like. I don’t like booking gigs. I don’t like doing PR. Touring is not a vacation anymore. I like creating music. That’s fun. The work that comes along with it isn’t fun but it affords me the ability to continue doing something that I really love.

History of McMaster Children’s Hospital

The following is an excerpt from McMaster Children’s Hospital: Celebrating the first 25 years, ISBN 0969743564, 9780969743569. The book was launched on October 16, with copies available through the university stores and select booksellers. 

What’s past is prologue
The origins of pediatric care in Hamilton

by Glen Herbert

In his address at the dedication ceremony, Dr. Peter Dent mentioned that “We were originally designated as a Children’s Hospital at Chedoke back in 1960 … there have been a lot of changes since then.” True as that statement was, there were likely few in the audience who had any clear idea of what he was talking about. The fact was this wasn’t the first time that a children’s hospital had been attempted in Hamilton. The precursor began thirty years earlier when Dr. Hugo Ewart, superintendent of the Mountain Sanatorium, started hatching plans to repurpose the aging hospital on the hill. It was a bold idea given that most people at the time failed to see the need for a pediatric hospital. Perhaps because of that context, Ewart’s approach, at least initially, could appear veiled and reluctant. In a letter to his board dated November 26, 1958, he wrote, “You have probably been interested in the report in the press, that we are considering converting the Wilcox Building to a children’s hospital and have wondered what is happening at the Mountain Sanatorium.” No doubt the board would have been very interested, if not a bit miffed that the public became aware of the plan via the media before they did.

The urge to refocus the institution came from a problem we don’t see much of these days: empty beds and a declining patient load. The Sanatorium had been created in 1906 as a centre for the treatment of tuberculosis. With the development of the antibiotic streptomycin in 1946, mortality rates from TB plummeted. Tuberculosis wards, an enduring symbol of the Victorian age, were becoming a thing of the past, the Mountain Sanatorium among them. Suggestions around the restructuring of the facility as a children’s hospital were met with quiet conservatism—many felt that the respite from tuberculosis would prove to be momentary—which was perhaps why Ewart felt he needed to handle his board with kid gloves.

Health care in a changing world

Efforts to proceed with caution proved to be the right approach. From the moment the plan became public it was surrounded by controversy, both within and without the confines of the Sanatorium boardroom. On March 5, 1957, the Hamilton Spectator newspaper ran a story that began like a potboiler: “A chill wind is blowing across the large, modern wing of the Mountain Sanatorium, where it is planned to establish a children’s hospital for Hamilton and district.” That ominous description foreshadowed the kind of  debate that would surround efforts at providing children’s acute care in Hamilton then as well as in the coming decades.

In Ewart’s time, there was a two-tiered health system, with open hospitals—those to which community doctors could admit and attend to their own patients—and closed or private hospitals, which had a dedicated medical staff and where community physicians were not able to attend their patients once admitted.

From the outset, Ewart had to walk a very fine line. The Sanatorium had been a private hospital, one that operated for profit, and the board, Ewart rightly assumed, wanted to keep things as close to that model as possible. It was the fiscal health of the institution, and a desire to maintain the Sanatorium staff—rather than a desire to provide better care for children—that ultimately guided him the most. “After a good deal of thought,” Ewart wrote to his board, “I am convinced that the children’s hospital which is being proposed must be open.” Children would be admitted as charges of the community and cared for by community physicians.

It was the grandest moment in all of Ewart’s correspondences, though very quickly the moral high ground fell from beneath him. In 1957, the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act was passed, a plan for provincial and federal governments to reimburse one half of the cost of health care and services, and universal health care would follow in the next decade.

Ewart, nevertheless, forged ahead. On December 9, 1960, the hospital was opened as the Chedoke General and Children’s Hospital. Invitations were printed, tea and a tour of the facility was given to members of the public who attended the opening. The Mayor spoke, as did the Minister of Health for the province of Ontario. The ribbon-cutting honours were handled by Dr. A. D. Unsworth, a community leader who, in 1906, had become the Hamilton Health Association’s first superintendent.

It was a brief moment in which the controversy died away, though any air of celebration was to be short-lived. Because of the changing face of health care in Canada, the new hospital quickly became irrelevant and, ultimately, entirely ignored. By the time it should have been celebrating its tenth anniversary, the Children’s Hospital at Chedoke had quietly vanished. The facility was renamed Chedoke Hospitals in 1971 and the pediatric beds and staff were amalgamated with those at McMaster University Medical Centre.

More than anything, the episode was a learning experience. Clearly, if there was ever going to be a children’s hospital in Hamilton, its creation would require a very different approach and be based on a very different set of goals and expectations.

 Championing a cause

One of the problems that Dr. Hugo Ewart faced was that of perception. Even into the 1970s, the need for a children’s hospital wasn’t at all clear to those outside the at times rarefied world of pediatric care. Most parents, and perhaps most community physicians as well, didn’t see a need for dedicated children’s services. Medicine was about medicine, the thinking went, not age. A surgeon who could take out the appendix of a 50-year-old, it was presumed, could just as easily take one out of a five-year-old. To have both adult and pediatric services often appeared redundant to those where were less immersed in it.

Those within the growing field of child health, however, were beginning to hold a longer view of the opportunities and the responsibilities that pediatric care could represent. In 1973, Dr. Angus MacMillan, then chair of the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster University, was asked by the Hamilton-Wentworth District Health Council, an agency of the provincial Ministry of Health, to report on the needs of the pediatric population in the Hamilton region. “Ideally,” he would write in his report, “the Hamilton community should look to the development of a child health program based on a thorough understanding of the needs of the children in this community as it might relate to the District and Region.”

While there were pediatric services throughout the Hamilton hospitals, they lacked a unified vision and therefore a unified application of care. Pediatric services were spread across the five Hamilton hospitals operating at that time: St. Joseph’s Hospital, Hamilton General, Henderson General, Chedoke General, and McMaster University Medical Centre. The placement of those services didn’t follow an internal logic and was developed independent of any overarching plan. All but the Henderson had pediatric inpatient beds, although that hospital was the centre for neonatal care. Of those with pediatric beds, Chedoke had the least, despite the fact that it was the centre for long-term care of chronically ill children.

In comparison, McMaster University Medical Centre could easily appear a poor cousin. Few of the pediatric beds that were available there were actually in use. No pediatric emergency visits were reported there in 1972 (the year on which MacMillan’s report was based), while Hamilton General reported more than 14,000 and St. Joseph’s Hospital reported close to 10,000.

MacMillan argued that children could be better served within an exclusively pediatric environment, which he defined as a single unit of 100 beds, with a staff trained in the care of children, and a robust program of outpatient clinical services. The unit, he said, should be situated in an academic centre (specifically McMaster University) so that research and teaching could occur alongside clinical work. In all, what he was suggesting was a global restructuring of the pediatric care in the city, and to locate the bulk of it at McMaster University Medical Centre.

From the outset, his report didn’t gain many fans. “It caused considerable outrage in the community,” MacMillan recalled recently. “There were complaints of disruptive and inconvenient logistics, interference in physicians’ practices, control issues, religious issues, choice issues.” Even as he put the finishing touches on the report—the document is palpably passionate and canny in its recommendations—MacMillan knew that the political realities within the city simply wouldn’t allow many of the things he was suggesting. In a story that ran in the Hamilton Spectator, he was quoted as saying of the document he authored that, “it’s a valid report but you’re crazy if you expect it to happen. It just won’t go politically.” Such a statement underscores MacMillan’s perspective at the time. He wasn’t thinking of Band-Aid fixes, or triaging what could be done first and what should be left for later. Instead he chose to use the moment to engage in some blue-sky thinking toward imagining and outlining the best possible case for the city in the long term.

He knew that the context, nevertheless, presented a range of significant challenges. Having worked in both settings, MacMillan was intimately aware of the conceptual divide between the secular approach of Chedoke-McMaster, and the religion-based approach of St. Joseph’s Hospital. Sister Ann Marshall, superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hamilton, noted publicly that if the proposal went through, St. Joseph’s Hospital would no longer be able to function as its board intended. She worried to a Spectator reporter that, with a restructuring of pediatric services, St. Joseph’s Hospital “would not be able to influence policies with which we work,” including policies around abortion, euthanasia, and genetics.

On the other side of the ledger, one of the most vocal proponents of the amalgamation of children’s services was Dr. Alvin Zipursky, the founding chief of the department of pediatrics, a position he would take up again in 1978 after a six-year hiatus. In a letter to MacMillan, Zipursky wrote “I believe we must not settle for the progress that has occurred, but rather look to the tremendous opportunities that lie before us. Because of the unique character of McMaster and of the development that has occurred to date, these opportunities are also responsibilities to ourselves, to our community, to our students, to our country and to health care of children.”[1]

It was clear to Zipursky that, one way or another, things had to change, and he accepted a second term as chair and chief in part to encourage them. The department had expanded to the point at which it became evident that, among other things, the residency program was being unduly stretched between St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Medical Centre. (St. Joseph’s Hospital established a partnership with McMaster in 1969 in order to take part in the nascent medical program.) “It was very difficult to maintain both of these [locations],” recalls Zipursky, “and I made the point at that time that we could no longer have residents at St. Joseph’s Hospital.”

“That became a cause celebre. … They had big meetings about how terrible Zipursky was and so forth. And I kind of weathered the storm, and it wasn’t very nice. It was a very difficult time. … It got to be quite nasty.”

MacMillan recalls that the most frequent argument came from physicians who feared that the changes would be detrimental to their practices, and would recast their role within the community. “But that’s not the important thing. The important thing is child welfare [and] the quality of the work we’d done. … I said that the importance of it is that we have a unit that serves children, not necessarily physicians.” After a chuckle, he continues, “But I didn’t think you could have had excellence in care and teaching if you tried to do it in a lesser way.” By lesser way he meant choosing a path of least resistance and making any range of compromises, such as accepting smaller units, a less controlled environment, and fewer standards. To work, MacMillan maintained vocally in the press and at public meetings, that it had to be the whole hog. “And for all the objections that were made, there was one thing that people didn’t mention: providing the best care for children.” A mandate had been set and plans, if haltingly, were beginning to move forward.

[1] emphasis in the original

House of Horrors

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.

When we were young, cooties were the height of disgust and fear. Never seen but horrifically imagined, they were the playground equivalent to serial killers. When playing tag, “cooties” added a dimension of engagement that was hard to duplicate. You heard the word and you ran, the only sound being that of your heart pounding in your ears.

Becoming a grownup marks an important transition in our relationship with cooties, namely an inability to flee. When cooties arrive in the house – and we now know it’s not just one thing, but lots of things, and most of them are real – it’s our responsibility to stay close and to deal with them in the knowledge that, when it comes to our kids, we’re the only ones who will.

I once told my daughter when combing her hair for nits that this is the ultimate expression of my love. Hugs are easy. Nits are gross.

And there is another transition that comes with parenting, and that’s the understanding that cooties in one form or another are normal, common and, despite any visceral reaction we may have at first glance, running away requires a lot more energy than simply dealing with them.

What’s eating you?

PEDICULUS HUMANUS CAPITIS (head lice)

“It’s got this negative ick factor,” says Dawn Mucci, “and people do tend to panic.” Dawn is the owner and founder of Lice Squad, which is a public health equivalent of Ghostbusters. In that role she spends her day fi nding and eradicating lice from our children’s heads, and educating people about how to deal with the wee bugs. “You can probably get rid of lice within the day as long as you have a good comb,” she says in order to underscore the idea industrial grade pesticides don’t have to be, nor should be, our fi rst-line defense. In fact, Dawn has made it her mission to demonstrate that we don’t need pesticides at all, and educates parents to be proactive and preventive rather than reactive and demented. “What we really try to do is make fun of head lice. We’re all going to get it at some time or another, so get the education, get it gone, and let’s not make such a big panic about it.”

> Ok, now what? Lice aren’t dangerous and they don’t spread disease, so the only reason you’ll want to get on top of it is because most schools have a no-nit policy. Excessive itching can also lead to a possible skin infection, so arm yourself with a good nit comb, a bottle of olive oil or some other kind of lubricant, and start combing.

Fun fact: Head lice have evolved specifically to live on the heads of people, and there is no other environment in the world where they can survive, something that has been the case for the past three million years. Where we go, they go. Kind of makes you feel wanted, doesn’t it?

PEDICULUS HUMANUS HUMANUS (body lice)

Yup, crabs. The lice so nice they named’em twice. They can remain dormant in a summer camp mattress. Believe me. They are a slightly different insect than head lice, though equally well adapted. If you’re not an entymologist, this is the distinguishing factor: they lay their eggs on fabric, not hair or skin. Good to know …

> Ok, now what? The less said, the better. Wash kid, bedding, towels, clothes in soap designed for the purpose.

SARCOPTES SCABIEI (scabies)

In dogs, cats, wild boars and apes it’s called mange. In people, it’s scabies. Whatever you call it, it’s a colony of invisible mites: the females burrow into the skin to lay eggs, which then become nymphs, and then emerge onto the surface of the skin as adults. You get the mites through direct skin-to-skin contact, and the result is an intense itch, redness, and in some, a strong allergic reaction.

> Ok, now what? Scabies is the third most common skin disorder in children next to athletes’ foot and impetigo, though it often goes unrecognized. Go to the doctor, fi ll the prescription and use it on everyone in the house, including the dog.

Fun fact: With its discovery in 1687, scabies became the first human disease with a known cause. And we still haven’t gotten rid of it.

INFANTILE SEBORRHOEIC DERMATITIS (cradle cap)

Outside of the winter months, if a baby is wearing a hat you can be pretty sure that it’s hiding something. Namely, a bacterial colony. Whatever cutesy-poo name you choose to call it – milk crust, honeycomb disease, cradle cap – it appears as thick, crusty, cracked brown scales, and it’s as disgusting as it is ubiquitous. Nearly half of all newborns get at least a mild form.

> Ok, now what? For most kids, gentle washing with a mild soap over the course of a number of days will take care of it. No biggie at all.

What is that?

TINEA PEDIS (athlete’s foot)

Were you to Google “athlete’s foot” (please don’t actually do this, or if you do, don’t say that I didn’t warn you) and click on the images tab, you’d be surprised. It’s hideous. And that’s what I saw one day when my daughter took off her socks. Zombie feet. (Cue the music from the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho.) It’s a fungus thriving on the moist, supple flesh of your child.

> Ok, now what? Spray, spray, and spray again, and a couple times more. You’re good. The only thing that will remain is the memory, which you’ll be stuck with for the rest of your life.

CONJUNCTIVITIS (pinkeye) 

Pinkeye can be transmitted – as you most likely already know – at a furious rate. There was an outbreak in Korea in 2007 that went from a few cases to 20,000 in the space of a week. They closed schools because of it.

> Ok, now what? Keep your child home from school in order to avoid communicating pinkeye to others, and apply antibiotic eye drops. Discourage kids from touching or rubbing their eyes as well.

IMPETIGO CONTAGIOSA (impetigo)

Because impetigo can run through a classroom quicker than a rumour, it is known in some circles as school sores. It’s a bacterial skin infection more common in children because they bump into each other a lot. It’s also gross: weeping, open sores, blisters and scabs. It’s a great look for Halloween, but otherwise, not so good.

> Ok, now what? See the doctor. The treatment is quick and painless, but the child will need antibiotics, either ointment or tablets, that aren’t available over the counter. Otherwise, the best prevention is to keep your child’s nails clipped and clean and tell him, whatever it is, don’t scratch it.

Quick Tip: With the head back, place a drop in the inner corner of your child’s eye and then have your kiddo blink several times. It’s easier than applying to an open eye, as kids get squeamish when they see it coming. Wouldn’t you?

It’s not what you think…

DERMATOPHYTOSIS (ringworm)

For some reason, wrestlers get it statistically more than any other group. It also isn’t a worm but a fungus growing on the skin. Round, raised and red, ringworm is also one of the reasons why kids should wear shoes – people who go barefoot are more at risk.

> Ok, now what? Get some antifungal cream. You may need a prescription for something stronger if over-the-counter medication doesn’t work.

VERRUCA PLANTARIS (plantar warts)

We tend to overreact to so many things, though the gap between the risk and revulsion when it comes to warts is particularly vast. I know. I’ve had plantar warts, and if anyone sees them, it’s bad. We think they’re hard to get rid of, which actually isn’t the case. Plantar warts are self-limiting, which means that in most cases they will go away on their own in time.

> Ok, now what? There are lots of options from freezing, to burning with a mild acid, to laser treatment. But duct tape actually does work. Clean the area, remove the callous and dead skin with a pumice stone, and cover the area with a piece of duct tape. Repeat every few days and, after a couple weeks, you’ll be telling everybody how much you love duct tape.

HERPES SIMPLEX (cold sores) 

About 90 percent of the adult population tests positive for the virus that causes cold sores, though the majority will never exhibit symptoms. For those who do, however, it’s no fun at all, precisely because cold sores appear on the face, right out there in plain view. They can be caused by contact (such as kissing). The virus is incurable, so even when any lesions have resolved, it remains dormant within the body and will re-emerge again after a period of months or years, most typically at the time of school photos and the prom.

> Ok, now what? Leave it alone: tell your child not to pick it or touch it. Many over-the-counter remedies will reduce the symptoms, though it’s also worth raising the issue with your doctor, as there are prescription treatments that will help reduce its visibility.

Father of three Glen Herbert has at tended to pinkeye, lice, impetigo, athlete’s foot, broken bones, broken hearts and throw-up.

Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein, “If I had a Boat”

Bob Snider is a musician you’ve never heard of, though nevertheless he has spent his life in music, playing in the streets of Toronto and in folk clubs across Canada. He’s also written two books on performing and songwriting, and they draw from his long experience reaching audiences. There is a lot of wisdom in those books—since he’s never gained fame, he always has to work hard to gain and keep the ear of an audience.

In his book “On Performing” Snider writes that for a performance to work “what you want is a clear, clean, simple unit that keeps moving.” He’s speaking about a set of music, not an individual song. “By clear I mean it should be easy to follow. In vaudeville they used to say ‘Tell ‘em what you’re gonna do. Tell ‘em what you’re doing. And tell ‘em what you did.’”

That doesn’t mean that you have to be simplistic or pandering, but rather you have to meet an audience’s trust with a sense of responsibility. You can take them anywhere you want, but you have to be the guide. That’s how the best performances work.

I’d add that that is also how the best recordings work. Rather than a collection of songs, they take the listener on a little journey. They used to talk about “programming” recordings, which was deciding on the order of songs. Still, even at that point, the songs should have been chosen to compliment each other, provide variety, and to make sense when set together.

And, indeed, these are the kinds of ideas that pop up when listening to the latest release from Jimmy Gaudreu and Moondi Klein, “If I Had a Boat.” Does it make sense? That’s an interesting question it turns out.

Gaudreau and Klein don’t have the same level of name recognition as some of the people they’ve been in bands with, but they’ve been present, in one form or another, though a sizeable portion of bluegrass history. Playing together is a recent thing, though that, too, has been impressive. Their first recording together, 2:10 Train, is gorgeous, including some unusual song choices that, nevertheless, really worked well. They covered a song that Linda Rondstat made famous, “High Sierra,” as well as Tim O’Brien’s “Colleen Malone.” Those were standouts, though the album was consistent: from beginning to end, it made sense. “Evening” was presented as a swing piece, and there’s a very playful take on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time.” Those two might have stuck out a bit from the rest, but they added variety and feel, and it worked.

Since then they’ve toured with Emmylou Harris as the opening band, and made a second album, Home from the Mills, that, if not as fantastic as the first, was nevertheless excellent. There is a care that went into the arrangements, and a delicacy of touch that was unique, to say nothing of how well the two played together. Like the first one, the sources ranged more than a bit. There’s Eric Bogle’s “Leaving Nancy,” Tim O’Brien’s “Rod MacNeil,” Bob Wills’ “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and Alpha Rev’s “New Morning.” You perhaps haven’t heard of Alpha Rev—I hadn’t—and frankly that’s probably a good thing.

Like the first album, “Home From the Mills” worked because it made sense. It reflected the personality of the musicians, but it also was a work that could, more or less, stand alone as a testament to the breadth of North American folk music, and everything there was presented through that lens. “Red Haired Boy” was set next to Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” in order to highlight all the things they have in common, not the differences they share.

This latest recording, If I Had Boat, doesn’t work as well. The personality remains, though they’ve stretched the project too far. “Waltz for Anais” includes a piano that is strikingly conspicuous, and not in a good way, because it jars with all the rest of the things happening both in the song and on the album. It’s far too saccharine to support the mandolin in that piece, and otherwise draws too much attention to itself. “Grassnost” too feels like something from a different album, also because it includes a piano part that plays at being classical, yet only succeeds at being Muzak.

There are some other head scratchers here, including the title track, which is a cover of a Lyle Lovett song released in 1987. It’s bizarre, lyrically, which may have worked for Lovett, but it doesn’t work for Gaudreau and Klein. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Did She Mention my Name” is a nice enough song, but the version here makes you want to dig out Tony Rice’s. The vocal harmonies are strained and distracting.

Those diversions are unfortunate because there are some real highlights in here. “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” may not be a song that you feel you need to hear again, but you do, it turns out, as the version here is as beautiful as it is fresh and surprising. “One More Night” is the Bob Dylan song from Nashville Skyline, and it works well, as does the first track here, “I’m Always on a Mountain.” There are some other lovely moments in here as well.

As a whole, however, this album feels less like a journey than it does a tour of Gaudreau and Klein’s sock drawers. Each piece comes with its own intention, and I suspect the only thing that unites them is that they like them, have fun playing them, or are amused by them. The piano is an idea that they had in isolation, and the same is true of “Grassnost.” If I’m wrong, it’s only because the performers haven’t done their job: at the end of the album, I have now idea what they intended to do, what they were doing, and what they did. It’s just songs.

The Duhks, “Beyond the Blue”

(KDHX) When the Duhks first came on the scene in 2001 they were, right off the mark, as challenging as they were entertaining, and as infectious as they were affecting. Jessee Havey’s voice was the band in a nutshell: soulful, though not typically so, and able to add depth to material that in other hands might be entirely unremarkable. The albums they made became essential expressions of the time and, on stage or on CD, they grabbed your attention and kept it.

And then it began to dissolve. There were regrettable personnel changes, and when Havey left it felt like she took the point of the band with her. The group slowly receded from view. When at last their website noted an indefinite hiatus, it was easy to assume that it had vanished for good.

Which makes the release of this new album, “Beyond the Blue,” such a welcome and surprising event. There is a new lineup, though the twin suns of the Duhks universe — Havey and Leonard Podolak — are very happily back together again. The ensemble is still finding its legs, it should be said, and this album isn’t as consistently authoritative or confident as some of the earlier material. At times the arrangements, such as “Burn” and “Suffer No Fools,” rely too heavily on repetition and inflection to carry the piece. The song “Burn” in particular comes off as weak, as far as content and sentiment goes, which is that a lover wants his ex to, as the title suggests, burn. (Ho hum. Yes, I remember high school too.)

The production across the album feels rushed and uneven, as with the snare drum and horns on “These Dreams.” On the other end of the spectrum, the production of “Je Pense á Toi” is wonderful, especially around the use of the percussion instruments to create a very lovely feel behind the layered vocals.

Still, the high points handily outnumber the low. The title track, “Beyond the Blue,” is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. “Je Pense á Toi” is stated and reprised, both tracks becoming highlights, as does “Lazy John.” If the use of horns and drums feels tentative elsewhere, the band makes up for it spades on “Just One Step Away.”

If there are a few soft spots here and there, the band has nevertheless revived its ability to command attention. This album grabs you, takes you on a journey, and when it’s over, it seems that the energy has gone out of the room. And it has.

Michael Cleveland, “On Down the Line”

(KDHX) Sometimes fiddle players can be hard to get a handle on, if only because it’s a kind of music making that we are less familiar with than, say, guitar. On this album as on all the albums Cleveland has made, it may not be obvious why he gets lead billing: he doesn’t sing, or write songs, and those are the things that general audiences tend to focus on. In performance, likewise, he also doesn’t move around, like Leahy or Sythian. His band, Flamekeeper, does all the singing and moving, and even some of the songwriting. Apparently nobody thinks too much about wardrobe.

But if you need to know why the world needs more Michael Cleveland, listen to the one solo track on this album, “Jack O Diamonds.” It’s an old-time standard that, when set beside any other recording (such as one by Bruce Molsky) demonstrates exactly what Cleveland is up to. He takes the piece entirely out of the old-time context, quoting phrases from bluegrass while also giving a few nods to jazz here and there. He adjusts the chord accompaniment, dropping a tone here, adding a minor there. He’s playing in the truest sense of the word, and as with any kind of play, there’s some humour in there, too.

And, indeed, that’s what he’s doing in all the other pieces on this album. They, too, are full of nods and winks, a masterful presentation that includes a wonderful sense of empathy and joy. The players he has with him are truly excellent, and it’s clear that they are there entirely because Cleveland is. That, precisely, is why this recording should demand your attention. These people are excited about it, and with very good reason.

The album ends with “The Orange Blossom Special,” a piece that Cleveland has been playing since he was a child. There is video of him at perhaps 12 years of age playing it with Doc Watson, and it’s a moment that I think of whenever I see Cleveland. They are backstage at the IBMA and, afterword, Watson asks if he has been blind since birth. Cleveland says “yeah, but I don’t think of it too much. You know, there are some things I can’t do, but I’m going to make do with what I can do.” Good lord, does he ever.

Willie Watson, Folksinger

(Penguin Eggs issue #63) The jacket design of Willie Watson’s “Folk Singer Vol. 1” is pure pre-folk-boom camp: he’s got a pipe, and the presentation is sparse to look like a Lomax field recording from the period. “Vol. 1”(I actually think it’s a feint here, and I’ll be surprised if there is ever a Vol. 2.) is true to the time of the early 60s as well, when collection was key, as north eastern college students fanned out across the country reel to reel recording units in hand looking to find lost legends.

It’s a gutsy move on Watson’s part, as he’s walking a fine line between insight and mockery. Indeed, Watson plays a caricature, a singing cowboy, a rambler thick with the dust of America. He’s got tendons that stick out when he sings, and sometimes his face turns red with effort. Even that term “folk singer”—in the folk revival period, that was apparently a term that people could use simply, like “car mechanic” or “postal worker.” It meant what it said. And then it changed. The term folk singer became earnest, and then it became laughable. That Watson uses it here brings up all of the contradictions of the period, and his desire to deal with them head on.

In other hands, it wouldn’t work. Watson is convincing because he’s using the persona in order to say something about the music and about our time. That’s what comes through in this recording. It’s not the 60s, and it’s not the west or the dust bowl, and that’s his point. The anachronism is meaningful.

It also works because he is so convincing, so deft and compelling as a performer, that at his best he is nothing short of mesmerizing. He’s in that film, Another Day Another Time, and just as we’re entranced watching him bob up and down through a performance of “Midnight Special” the other performers with him, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, look like kids at a fun fair, smiling with the shear joy of being involved in this thing.

Watson’s album begins with “Midnight Special,” in a more restrained version. He then goes on to present songs in as sparse a presentation as you’d expect to see at a Greenwich Village coffee shop just prior to the folk boom: one voice, a strained vocal, a banjo or a guitar for accompaniment. Bare as bare can be. And, while it was common then, it’s a presentation that is certainly less common now. In world of rich production values, the string sounds as on “Bring it With You When You Come,” or the tap of the banjo head as on “Stewball” reek of honesty. In some cases, as with “Mother Earth” the meaning is more clearly layered—when he sings “it doesn’t matter what you’re worth/ when it all ends up you have to go back to Mother Earth” it’s about what it meant then, but also what it means now, as in our relationship to our environment. Elsewhere the relationship between now and when these songs were written are less obvious, as perhaps with “Mexican Cowboy” but it creeps in nevertheless. He’s singing these songs because they mean something immediate to us today.

His voice varies from field holler to introspection, from plaintive to ballsy, and all of it works in the way that Pete Seeger worked: one man, a song, and an unwavering confidence in an ability to deliver a message about something important. It’s an album that demands your attention, though you also have to give it your attention. Because it sits so apart from our context, and is so quiet, headphones won’t go amiss. But it’s worth it. This is one of the most important and interesting and enjoyable recordings that we’ll see this year.

A room of their own

Published in Penguin Eggs, issue #63, Autumn 2014

73608782f50eb6af17bb69bdcd662692_LIf you’ve never lived in Toronto, it’s safe to say that you’ve never heard of the Tranzac Club. Then again, that’s safe to say even if you have lived in Toronto. It began life in 1931 as the Toronto Australia New Zealand Club (TRANZAC) to support Australian and New Zealand Culture in Toronto. It did that, and a lot else, too. In the 1970s it became home to Friends of Fiddlers Green, a folk music club, and soon became a venue for seemingly anyone who needed a place to play. Today it’s as much a fixture of the city as the pigeons roosting on the head of King Edward VII in Queen’s Park.

And, still, it makes no sense at all. It’s hard to describe the building, screened by trees just off Queen Street West. The entry is papered with photocopies shilling fringe theatre and Reg Hartt film festivals. The tables don’t match, and the bar is real wood only because, when it was made, they all were. The rooms are set about like a warren—the Tiki Room, the Main Hall, The Southern Cross Lounge—with the larger one in the back for bigger things, like fringe theatre, and the Zine Library, and the Chris Langan Branch of the Ceoltóiri Éireann Traditional Music Weekend.

It’s dark, the floor creaks, and there’s no cover and no food that I recall beyond the bags of chips hanging on a rack behind the bar. And yet, I’m not sure if you could find a place in Canada that has had as large an impact in the world of roots, folk, and acoustic music. We often make statements like that, but I honestly don’t feel I’m knitting anything here. Quietly, and for decades, the Tranzac has provided a focal point for a range of musicians that are as improbable as they are delightful.

I was living in Toronto in the early 00s and then, as now, they had music every night of the week. Lit only by a few incandescent bulbs, Wednesday night was Gypsy Jazz night, typically with four or five guys playing petit bouche guitars, expertly, and singing in French or Roma or whatever it was. It was mind-boggling. I had no idea where you could get a petit bouche, let alone find someone to play one with. But there they were.

Thursday, as now, was bluegrass night. Some nights, snow flying outside the window behind the band, I’d be the only one there aside from the bartender and the band. I didn’t know of any of the players, not then, but I do now. Chances are good that you do as well. Doug Paisley sang and played guitar, Andrew Collins played mandolin, and Marc Roy played guitar and fiddle and mandolin. At the time, none had made any recordings, though all of them have now. Roy has been named the Central Canadian Bluegrass Guitar Player of the year five times, mandolin player of the year once, and two years ago was inducted into their hall of fame. Collins was named mandolin player of the year five times, and went on to form the Creeking Tree String Quartet. Today Doug Paisley is known for his songwriting, as on his newest release, Strong Feelings which is out this year. He’s been reviewed by Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones called him “a quiet wonder.”

At the Tranzac, though, it was different. “It was just exciting,” says Andrew Collins. “It was fun and exciting without any forethought on how to make any of it work. It was just focused on the playing, and improving the level of music, and being surrounded by people that shared that drive. … It was all just friends who had a mutual interest.”

One night Paisley noted over the mic that Roy had turned 19 that week and was now legally allowed into bars. That he was so young was the least of it. Roy was astonishing in every way: beautiful rhythm, blistering runs, and an otherworldly confidence. I approached him on a few occasions, though it seemed that he didn’t really speak. He’d mumble something, look at the floor or to the left, as if expecting something.

As impressed as I was, I didn’t realize how good they really were. In Canada, bluegrass has all the gravity of a secret handshake; it’s just not a musical language that we understand, nor is it one that we typically have much access to.

“In retrospect,” says Collins, “the nice thing was that there was no void waiting for us to fill. You have to go out there and make people know that you exist and perform and get your music out there some how. Even though we were in a vacuum of this kind of music, that was in some ways an advantage because we were also educating people [who might] discover that they really like bluegrass music, but we were the access point so in some ways it elevates us in stature because, for those people, we were their starting point.”

I, frankly, was one of them. Over time I began to recognize some of the other people who came in to watch from time to time, and so many of them were musicians themselves. Chris Coole, Chris Quinn, John Showman, Dan Whitely, Max Heinemann—after sets at the raucous Silver Dollar, where bluegrass was accepted as a novelty more than as something to be honestly appreciated, they came to the Tranzac, perhaps sitting in, perhaps not. It was quieter, and if the audience was smaller, it nevertheless was less oiled and more knowledgeable. It was perhaps the one place in town where bluegrass, consistently, was not a joke.

At the heart of it, these were young people making music—they weren’t trying to advance a career, or sell tickets and recordings, and the stress that comes from music as a life, rather than an activity, hadn’t yet set in. “There is a lot of work required to make a living doing what you love,” admits Collins, something he would learn all too well in time. It was different. There weren’t the fireworks of Collins’ Creaking Tree Quartet, or the need to be unique within a crowded singer-songwriter market. It wasn’t Appalachia, or a job. It wasn’t a festival, or a contest, or a project. It was just music. And, tucked away in Toronto, they were free.