Reading disability

(for CanChild Connect)

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.

When 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 The Thing about Georgie by Lisa Graff. Georgie has achondroplasia, something that is met head on from the very first page. Sections of the book begin with an aside, asking the reader to reach their arm across the top of their head, or to rest their head on their knees, and it is noted that these are things that Georgie can’t to. “It doesn’t bother him not to be able to rest his head on his knees when he needs to do some thinking,” the narrator says. “But the thing is, he can’t.”

Those are asides, set apart and addressing very frankly the curiosity that a reader will naturally have about difference. The bulk of the book is about Georgie and his very typical struggles in grade school. Yes, he has trouble participating in some things, and that rankles, but he finds ways to participate and to have his voice heard. We see that, just as our experience of not being picked first for the baseball team, we all struggle with those things. Nobody’s perfect.

It’s a lovely book because it translates the experience of achondroplasia to kids who are unfamiliar with it while showing that physical difference is something that exists apart from who Georgie is as a person. His desires and frustrations are the same as ours, as is his intelligence, his thoughtfulness. He also isn’t any more funny or comical than anyone else. Graff’s story is a representation of life that is truer to the experience of those who actually live with disability. Georgie isn’t comical, or less intelligent, or less thoughtful, or perpetually childish. He’s just a kid. The story also isn’t saccharine or overly earnest—Georgie has his faults, too, and makes mistakes, and we see that he is as fallible as the rest of us as well.

Okay, all of that in order to get to this: if we were to put a book list on the CanChildwebsite, what do you feel would need to be included? Is there a book (or books) that you feel is important in how it represents or discusses disability, or which brings a different and important voice to the reader’s awareness? They can be kids books or books for adults, they can be fiction or non-fiction. (Movies are good too, actually, so send those as well.) Perhaps we’ll set up a number of themed/graded lists if we get enough responses to warrant it. Send ideas to glenherbert@sympatico.com or tweet them to @canchild_ca. If you could include a couple sentences as to why you feel it is an important book, or what you like about it, that would be great too.

Is there such a thing as a perfect album?

1979192_10152705885365744_217085881_o(Penguin Eggs issue #63) Is there such a thing as a perfect album? Of course we don’t think of art in those terms, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. There are works of art that feel perfect, such as Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Greg Foley’s Thank You Bear, two children’s books that are about as perfect as you could imagine a children’s book to be. There might be other examples, too: Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, (1658), Citizen Kane, “Jabberwocky,” the albums Louis Armstrong made with Ella Fitzgerald.

What puts them in the running, were we to play this game, are the things that they share: the artifice is less apparent than the message, the picture transcends the brush strokes. They are economical, powerful without shouting, made with care and skill though the stories come forward, not the storytellers. They avoid clichés, and offer more than you get at first glance without demanding or requiring study. They affect us, they feel close to us, they display dignity even when winking an eye. And if there are any faults, we willingly choose to overlook them in a visceral appreciation of what they have to offer.

This is all very grand, I realize, but I’d say that the latest release from Red June, titled Ancient Dreams, does all those things. The skill is clear, the musicianship is deft, the vocal harmonies are fresh and atypical. It’s a quiet album, for the most part, and the songs are allowed to speak for themselves. And it’s remarkably rich. “I Saw You In August” is a study in arranging, complex and delicately crafted to allow the focus to shift around the story that’s being told. It’s brilliant, actually. In fact, the whole album is, and for the same reasons.

Is it a perfect album? I know that it sounds ridiculous, but frankly I’d venture that it is. If I’m wrong, I’d be interested to know why. I really would.

Williams, Crowe, Lawson, “Standing Tall and Tough”

(for HVBA) In the liner notes to Standing Tall and Tough, Paul Williams notes “How amazing is it that three guys on Medicare can still be onstage performing this great American music called bluegrass?” It’s a comment, at least on the face of it, on the fact that they’re still standing, or some variant of that, and able to play remarkably well. But  while he may not have intended it that way, it’s also a comment on the audience: isn’t it great that there are still so many people who want to see them up there on stage, or to hear them in recording? Williams and Crowe have been playing professionally for more than 60 years, and Lawson isn’t all that far behind them. All three got their start with Jimmy Martin, and that commonality is one of the things that has brought them together over the years.

Indeed, what Williams’ comment underscores is one of the great things about bluegrass music, namely that it has a memory. Pop musicians from the 1950s, even those with long careers, aren’t revered in the same way, and certainly it’s hard to think of any who remain relevant to the music being made today. The same is true of actors, or even artists. Mickey Roonie was little more than a footnote or a curiosity at the end of his life, and younger audiences, despite Roonie’s footprint in film, had no idea who he was. The woman who cuts my hair has no idea who James Taylor is. We may go to a retrospective of pop artists—the ones who really commanded fine art in the 50s and 60s—and it is viewed only retrospectively, not as something that remains vital today.

In bluegrass, it’s nice that that kind of thing doesn’t really happen, or doesn’t have to happen. We want to hear these guys precisely because they are relevant, just as they have remained so throughout their career. What is particularly true of these three, as this recording shows in spades, is that they have retained their skills to command their instruments, to interpret a song, and to speak directly through the music to their audiences. They are revered not only for the things that they’ve done, but also for the things that they continue to do. Not all performers are as lucky to remain so close to the top of their games, but these guys are still there. And that, more than anything else, is why they still attract audiences today. These guys are masters, are recognized as such, and that’s what draws us. They aren’t being wheeled out to accept the applause, rather this album finds them doing all the things they’ve built their careers on: writing, arranging, playing, and interpreting. Yes, they began with some of the first generation of bluegrass players, and that’s kind of neat to think about, but their playing, their voices, and their ability to tell stories is why we continue to lend an ear.

Should you doubt it, this new recording will dispel that doubt. They are, all three, front and centre throughout. The material isn’t as blistering, perhaps, as some of the recordings they’ve made, but in a sense, that’s kind of nice. They include three songs that, while co-written with Paul Williams, Jimmy Martin made memorable. Also here are two Louvin Brothers’ songs, “Do You Live What You Preach” and Insured Beyond the Grave,” which are great songs but also great choices for these three, as they are so delightfully able to present, and play with, the Louvin’s harmonies. They don’t just do it, they do it effortlessly and masterfully.

“Blue Memories” is a song that Paul Williams started in 1959, but never completed. For this recording, Lawson wrote a second verse, and it’s kind of neat to think that the song took 55 years to complete, and that we hear it on this recording for the first time, inclusive of two verses that were written more than half a century apart.

But, again, none of that kind of thing really matters. This album finds them, per the title, standing tall and tough, still doing it, and still showing us why they’ve been so important to the music throughout their long career

Michael Barnett’s “One Song Romance”

Michael Barnett is a fiddler who, while young, has done a lot. He’s a prodigy, more or less, becoming a sought after teacher and session musician at a very young age. He was a member of the David Grisman Sextet, and otherwise has turned the ear of a who’s who of acoustic music. The album is packed with some of them, including Aoife O’Donovan, David Grier, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Noam Pikelny, Maeve Gilchrist, Chris Eldridge … there is enough talent here to make your head spin.

But this album presents another side of Barnett that, until now, hasn’t been apparent: his songwriting. It’s repetitive, quirky, and entirely uninteresting. “Dig, Dig, Dig” is a lovely swing piece, though the words are nonsense, and not in the good way. “Jabberwocky” is nonsense in the good way—it sounds like nothing, at least at face value, yet for whatever reason is full of inescapable meaning. It’s charming, moving jibberish. “Dig, Dig, Dig” on the other hand, is really jibberish. It’s about a shovel digging into a person’s brain, and finding sombreros and “silly things, like Belgian waffles.” You can imagine some twenty somethings sitting around giggling about this stuff, but are Belgian waffles silly? Not really. The lyric is a string of non sequiturs simply for the sake of it. The vocal harmonies aren’t great either. The piece would have worked brilliantly and delightfully as an instrumental. Too bad he didn’t leave it at that.

Elsewhere, too, the writing is cringeworthy. Tim O’Brien provides the lead vocal on two of the tracks here, “Little Darlin’” and “Change Her Mind.” It jars particularly because O’Brien is such an expert writer, though here is singing the kind of lyric that you’d find scrawled on a high-school student’s binder. I imagine O’Brien would defend the writing—what else could he do now that it’s out there—but it’s hard not to feel a bit embarrassed for him. Barnett sings, too, and has a nice voice, though there is more to writing than simply saying things. “It Wasn’t Meant to be That Way,” finds him on lead vocal morning the loss of puppy love as if it were the romance of the century.

The best pieces are the instrumental ones, such that we wish the entire album was instrumental. Though, even there, not all the instrumental tracks are equally successful. “Hopped the Train to Hudson” is a lot of flash, yet never really roots itself. “Raindrops and Puddles” is a chance for Barnett to channel Eric Satie, but only really makes you want to go find some Satie. “Bottom of the Barrel” on the other hand is a delightful swing piece, easily a stand-out here.

Ultimately, however, this album is alienating. We find ourselves in a room full of people who know each other and yet we are left to stand in the corner trying to make sense of all the in jokes. It’s Barnett’s first album, and no doubt he’s a very important and impressive presence in the world of acoustic music. But, to really hear what he can do, it would have been preferable to hear his interpretation of other peoples pieces, some standards included, and leave the writing for later. He’s trying to sound wise, and fails.

Mike Scott’s, “The Old Country Church”

(HVBA) Mike Scott is one of those guys who has a thousand-watt smile—his album covers look like ads for dental work—and always seem to be selling something. Indeed, what he is selling is himself and his ability to do so is prodigious. There are a lot of great banjo players out there, though of course you don’t have to be great to make good music, you just have to elbow your way in front of an audience. Scott is one of those banjo players, and more power to him.

His recent release, The Old Country Church, is less of interest because of Scott’s presence than it is all the other people on there: Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, Aubrey Haynie, Tim Stafford, Ben Isaacs, and Bryan Sutton. That sounds like a dig, but I don’t intend it that way. He’s assembled an A-list and has them play naturally, not intending to produce show stoppers, but rather to make music that draws the listener to it. They all turn in—no surprises here—beautiful performances. They cover a baker’s dozen of gospel classics, all staying close to the tradition, with none of the tracks sticking its head above the rest. “Where the Roses Never Fade” has a really nice entry, Aubrey Haynie coming in with a very delicate and sympathetic fiddle part; they pick up the pace on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” without feeing the need to burn down the barn.

Taken together, it’s just really nice music like the CDs that Cracker Barrel used to make. These days Cracker Barrel seem to do more reissues and best-of collections than anything else, but they used to make instrumental albums that were arranged and produced by Mark Howard: Flat Top Box, Bluegrass Railroad, Bluegrass Highway, Old Time Barn Dance, Front Porch Gathering. I can almost hear the eyes rolling, but that’s only if you haven’t heard these CDs—they all had an absolute A-list of performers on there, such as David Grier, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, and indeed most of the guys that appear on this latest Mike Scott recording. Because their names weren’t on the front cover, perhaps, or just because they were straight studio sessions, everything was toned down a bit, which was lovely. They were really, honestly great recordings. They also were wonderful to play along with—the keys were very accessible, as was the speed and the arrangements.

This latest Mike Scott CD is much the same: a very nice instrumental tour, expertly done, through a handful of chestnuts. It won’t knock your socks off, and that’s one of the good things about it. The melodies are straight up, passed around, and put down. It’s the kind of stuff that you can pick along to and get a bit lost within. Or nap to. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Music has many, many uses.

Through this life, part 1

“When I left I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling at all, that anyone else would ever follow me. So when I said goodbye, it was goodbye forever.” That was 1954. Herbert Gerber was 19 years old and had inherited his father’s determination as well as his destination: Canada. It was English speaking, didn’t have a draft. But he wasn’t running to something. Herbert was, in every sense, running away.

“The older I got, the more I could see that I had no future [in Germany]. It was before the East Germans built the wall, so the border was still a little bit porous. I applied for a visitors exit visa for four weeks to visit my relatives in west Germany. I went and I just didn’t come back.”

Maybe he’d like the story to be that simple: just leaving, not going back. “But it wasn’t as easy as that. I was staying with my uncle, and after I was there for a couple of weeks I got a letter from my mother saying I should come back immediately because if I don’t they’re going to hold it against my father and jail him. … After a couple days thinking about it, I decided I would not go back. But I sat down and wrote a letter to the city hall telling them that my intentions are to stay longer than my visa allowed me and that they shouldn’t hold it against me. I said that I wanted to continue my education, etc. etc. etc. And apparently that helped. They never approached my parents at all.”

Gerber Family Schneeberg - Growing Up

1.

Maria

In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson notes that through his research he was left with questions about what Berlin—the setting for his book—was like prior to the Second World War, or even prior to the rise of Hitler. We know a lot about the city during the war and after the war, though very little about the daily life of the citizens within the city in the mid to late 20s, a period of relative calm. Berlin, of course, didn’t survive the war in any recognizable way, and it provides an analogue for the county as a whole: more than thirty percent of the buildings of were left in rubble and a great percentage more were damaged beyond repair by the Allied bombing raids; the population was left confused and disoriented and divided by both geography and ideology. The city, and the country, as it was between the wars simply no longer exists.

Searching online for documents, photos—anything that could fill in some of the blanks—Larson found a film called Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt directed by Walter Ruttmann. It’s silent, and seems fittingly so. It shows a day in the life of Berlin in the spring of 1927, the year the film was made and first shown. After an arty prologue, and a simulation of a sunrise, we see a commuter train rolling past country homes as it approaches Berlin. The rest of the film is a montage of images: children arriving at school, shopkeepers opening their shops, salesmen hawking wares on the street. A new day begins and ends. In all, it comprises the most complete portrait we have of the quotidian life of the city during peacetime between the wars.

Today Ruttmans’ Berlin is inevitably viewed through a different lens: less as a film and more as an historical document. Watching it, we know that it is a portrait of a city and a way of life that is about to be erased. (Even the subtitle, sometimes translated as “a Symphony of a Great City” is freighted with meanings it didn’t have at the time the film was made.) The people, the buildings, the things, the sense of purpose—none of it will survive the war intact. Many people in the film didn’t survive the war at all. The lovers, chatting in the street, perhaps were parted, or fled; or maybe they endured the war in Berlin, surviving only with the scars of memory.  The children will now have grown up in a world that their parents couldn’t possibly imagine. Many of the windows were smashed, the shops looted. But here, on a sunny day in 1927, the citizens are as calm as anyone would be on a spring day in any developed city anywhere in the world. A woman walks past with a tennis racket; the animals loll in the zoo. Students arrive at school; a man has a lunch of sausage and beer; a shopkeeper mops the walk in front of his store.

For the people living in the city, everything in 1927 was strikingly normal. Watching the movie now, it is ominously so. We know that, even then, the world was already changing. The government of Germany was losing power. The Nazi Party was nearing its tenth birthday, and it had been five years since the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first frenzied grab at political power.  In two years a referendum would disrupt the government, and in six years, Hitler would become chancellor of a national coalition government.  While the people we see in the film couldn’t have known it, the country and its people were already on a crash course with the 20th century.

2.

One of the people living in Berlin in 1927, the year Ruttman made his film, was Maria Rosa Magdelena Eimeke. While she’d only been living there a short time, she no doubt would have appreciated the relative calm that we see reflected in the film. She had lived through the first world war, and while she didn’t know it, within a few years she would be married and into the second. Her life was defined—as it is just for us—by her context, that of uncertainty, an understanding of poverty, and war.

Born in 1904, she was 23 and had arrived in Berlin on her own in order to gain independence as well as a bit of stability, something she had had very little of in her life. She had only ever lived in Germany, though in her short life she had already lived through three very distinct iterations of the country: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the first rumblings of the Third Reich. Her parents were both gardeners, though her father left when Maria was just a year old. Quite literally, he was there one day, and the next he wasn’t. “The whole town helped to search the woods and to drain the ponds,” Maria recalled. He left a note wishing them well and asking them to be good to one another, which sounded a lot like the suicide note. Hence the draining of the ponds. He wasn’t found, or at least not immediately, though he later remarried and lived into his 80s.

Maria never knew her father beyond recognizing his face. There is no indication that she ever heard the sound of his voice. She talks about him in her memoir, though nowhere offers us his first name. She believed that he left her mother “without any excuse” though it’s understandable that she was likely never given a clear accounting of the circumstances. Late in life she wrote a kind of letter to him—he was long dead at that point, so it was more an exercise than a letter, a chance for her to imagine what she might have said to him if she had had the chance. The facts drift free of an objective foundation, and the tone of the letter is disbelief and exasperation. “My father!” is placed as a sentence, and a paragraph, unto itself, two words and an exclamation point that sit on the page like a lead weight. The one memory that she tells about (and quite possibly her own memory of him) is of walking down the street one day when he turned out of a side street directly in front of her. “It was as if I had seen a lion on the loose. I rushed back home in a panic and was inconsolable … I wept bitterly because of the encounter.” It was the last time she ever saw him.

If we take her at her word, she sent many letters to him over the course of decades, even sending a gift when his wife died, though only one reply was ever received: a note expressing regret that he had not been a father to her. (Where would she possibly have found his mailing address?)

As an infant Maria was cared for by her maternal grandparents, the Goldmans, while her older brother, Helmut, lived with their mother. In time Rosa found a position as a housekeeper at nursery in Thüringen and Maria was taken to live with her. She was six and approached the reunion “in a very festive spirit. I loved both of my grandparents very much, and now I would be seeing my mother as well.” On arrival that day she happily found that her mother was living in a large, stately home on a street lined with mature chestnut trees. She was amazed by the parquet flooring and by “a solid swing on thick ropes which stood in the wide hallway.”

Her memories of that day remained vivid for the rest of her life, including how quickly the air of festivity dissipated. She was reunited with her brothers—both of whom she couldn’t have known well—and met Uncle Julius Thalacker, an “uncle” only by virtue of his romantic relationship with her mother. They weren’t married, didn’t live together, yet had a child together, Bernhard. “I found it difficult to greet this new uncle who was not my papa,” Maria writes. “I had many silent struggles in my childish heart.” One of them—again, she was just six years old at this point—was the fear of abandonment. After her grandparents departed she felt their absence deeply. Her brothers took her dolls and claimed them for their own. Whether it was the dolls, or the grandparents, or the parquet flooring, or whatever fantasies she had to relinquish, she began to wrestle with the pressing need to acclimate to a new family and a new life. For six years, in all practical terms, she had been an only child in a stable home. Now there were more relationships to parse and to negotiate—she was a sister, a daughter, and soon to be a stepdaughter to a man she, ultimately, would never learn to trust. All that, plus the lack of attention: “Mother was [the] breadwinner now and didn’t have much time for us children.” Her brothers provided much of the day-to-day care, from seeing that she got to school on time and home again. They also provided a sense of support and consistency while their lives—dependably, at least—continued along in a state of flux.

It’s hard to know how involved Thalacker as in all of this, though in Maria’s hands he seems fairly enigmatic. He had traveled, once living in Buffalo, NY, for a period of years, before returning to Germany. He spoke English fluently and attempted to teach the language to his children and grandchildren. He met Rosa at the nursery in Thuringen, where he leased land in support of his landscaping business. When the widow who owned the nursery remarried, the property was sold. At a stroke Thalacker lost the land and the means of his livelihood. Rosa and her children lost a home and a means of support.

Maria’s parents’ separation and divorce, Rosa’s employment, her undefined relationship with Thalaker, having a child out of wedlock—any one of those things would have been highly conspicuous for the time. Divorce was rare, and most women worked in the home. Seemingly undaunted, Rosa approached life as the challenge it was, and met adversity with decisiveness and fierce independence. When the nursery was sold, she decided to find work in a laundry in a nearby city. She found and apartment there and booked passage for her and the children on a train, and may have already found a job. Then Thalaker proposed, and it’s tantalizing to wonder what took him so long. Maria’s justification of his motive isn’t very flattering: “He had gotten so used to mother running his household and the nursery, that he suddenly realized ‘How am I supposed to get along somewhere else without this woman?’” Rosa accepted.

Maria describes it as beautiful a beautiful event, though her feelings toward Thalacker remained unchanged. “Mother often told us that he did love us a lot, but I had reservations about how strict he could be, and I worried about how he would deal with us in the future.” She knew from experience the kind of thing that she could expect. When her brother fell into a bucket of water, Thalaker removed him with one hand and beat him roundly with the other. “My heart wept at the sight. How can a poor boy be beaten after he had had such an accident?”

After the wedding, the family moved to a village with a population of 3000 to establish their own nursery—a move that Roas approached, says Maria, “in her usual courageous manner.” Courageous, yes, though unfortunately it wasn’t the wisest location for a business. Though Thalaker built a sign to place at the road, the property wasn’t anything resembling a major thoroughfare and they struggled to find customers. Maria sold forget-me-nots at market and helped make wreathes for the graves of the soldiers lost in the war. The business of mourning kept them in the black, a testament to the devastation that the war brought to the population of Europe and the world.

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Kaiser Wilhem II and the King of England, two cousins at war

3.

“A notice went out that the king was coming.” It was 1910 or so and the king was Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and leader of the German Empire since his coronation in 1888. He was a visible, handsome, impressively dressed figurehead. When he toured Thüringen, everyone went out to greet his motorcade, including young Maria and her grandmother. “People were standing several rows deep along the streets,” Maria writes. “Grandmother stood at the garden fence on top of a big barrel.” As the car slowly passed by, she threw a bouquet of flowers, hitting the king on the head. In acknowledgement, and no doubt a bit of ire—there is no mention of a smile in either of the two accounts that Maria wrote down—he turned and nodded. “That was a big event in my youth,” she writes. “Grandmother was very proud of it, too.”

Thüringen was part of the German Empire, a collection of 27 territories that were unified in 1871, creating the German Empire under the leadership of Prussia. It ways, truly, a mixed bag: 4 kingdoms, 6 grand duchies, 6 duchies, 7 principalities, 3 free hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Most were lead by royal families and all fell under the leadership of the king, and unification took place on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors within the Palace of Versailles.

When his son, Wilhelm II, was crowned in 1888, the German Empire was a force in Europe like no other. A hotbed of innovation, it led Europe and the world in industry, science, and technological development. It had the second largest navy in the world, the world’s strongest army, and the fastest-growing industrial base. By the outset of World War I, the empire would be home to more Nobel Prize laureates than Britain, France, Russia and the United States combined. The successes in technology, industry, and science, it was thought, were little more than a taste of what was still to come.

The reason for all that prosperity, perhaps more than anything else, was the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Though the empire was a monarchy, during his reign Emperor Wilhelm I wisely placed the responsibilities of running the state in the hands of his Chancellor. Bismarck was a normalizing influence. He brought an end to the culture war, the product of a hornet’s nest of competing religious, national, royal, and democratic argument. He refocused the government around a policy of revolutionary conservatism, and he created the world’s first system of state sponsored welfare. He was praised as a hero for unifying the empire around a singular vision and for being a moderate leader in Europe—one of few at the time. Historian Eric Hobsbawm writes that Bismarck “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.” His policies and his leadership created an environment in which the army, the bureaucracy, and the standard of living of the German population continued to grow. With it grew the respect of Europe and the world.

And then came Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was proclaimed emprorer after his father, Frederick III, died of throat cancer just 99 days after taking the throne. For the people of Germany, the Wilhelm II was a point of light, a restatement of the power of a historical, storied and once powerful monarchy—the Prussian House of Hohenzollern—that had been active for more than 900 years. Wilhelm was also undeniably well connected. His grandmother was Queen Victoria, and he was cousin to Tzar Nicholas, who was at that time in power in Russia. He was a Royal in every conceivable way, and in a range of uniforms—feathered helmets, flowing capes and presentation swords—he looked the part.

The one thing he lacked, unfortunately, was the slightest ability to organize a government and lead a country. Wilhelm had been educated, though the focus was on horsemanship—his mother felt a great leader needed to be, above all, a great rider. Due to Erb’s palsy, a chronic illness affecting his left arm, riding was a challenge that would take him years of effort to overcome. His memories of his early education consisted of falling off a horse repeatedly, only to be put back by his tutor and told to try again.

As king he lacked entirely the kind of diplomatic impulse that had been so successful in Germany under Bismarck’s leadership. Wilhelm was cantankerous, emotionally unstable, and he felt no need to consult with his ministers on any of the issues that came before him. Wilhelm idolized his grandfather to a fault, and a priority of his was to foster a military cult of personality around him, casting him as “Wilhelm the Great.” He was a bull that came with its own china shop. Two years into his reign he dismissed Bismarck and launched what he called a “New Course” in foreign policy. Regrettably, it truly was. His support of Austria-Hungary lit a fuse that led to the crisis of July 1914 that, in turn, initiated the First World War.

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German air pioneer Felix Laitsch flying his Albatros airplane, Berlin, 1911

4.

It seemed even then–as through so much of Maria’s life–that the major events of the world were never all that far away. The Kaiser drove past her house and, in 1911, an airplane flew in the sky above it, this just seven years after the Wright’s historic flight at Kitty Hawk. The plane that Maria saw was flown by one of the earliest pioneers of German aviation. At that point, that’s all there was.

As her life went on, she continued to bump into history. She lived through World War I, and the hardships and privations that made life difficult during the war only increased afterward. Severe food shortages and the hyperinflation of the German currency were part of the experience of living in a country that had lost the war and which was roundly condemned by neighboring countries. The end of the war brought a debilitating financial depression to Germany as well as a loss of purpose in the minds of its population. The great successes that the country felt under the leadership of von Bismarck, and the pride that came with them, were now a distant memory.

The uncertainties of her early life—her parents’ separation, the moves and the repeated disruption of family life—reflected the uncertainties of life throughout Germany at the time. By the early 1930s it may have seemed that things were beginning to settle out, both for the country and for Maria herself. In 1931 she was 27 years old and working in a flower shop in Berlin when her boss showed her an ad in the paper. “Read this,” the boss told her, “This is for you!” It began, “Truly sincere Christian lady to marry professional flower designer … .” It wasn’t an announcement, but a personal ad from a man seeking a wife. It asked that a photo be sent and, while Maria first chuckled and acted uninterested, she sent one, along with her particulars, to Herbert Gerber of Schneeberg, a rural town in Saxony. No sooner was the letter in the mail that she had second thoughts and scrambled to send another letter after the first asking Herbert to, well, forget about it and to please send back the photo. He did send back the photo, but he otherwise wasn’t willing to let things go so easily. He sent his own photo along with a formal letter of greeting. “What a man!” was Maria’s private response when seeing the photo, though outwardly she continued to be coy. Seven letters brought Herbert words of kind rebuff, though he likely saw them for what they were, namely an attempt to turn the dynamic of the thing, making him the pursuer instead of the pursuant. Satisfied with this epistolary pas de deux, Maria consented to have Herbert visit her in Berlin.

The visit was awkward (how couldn’t it be?) and while the details may be disputed, in every version is the sense that neither knew quite what to do with their hands. They walked and talked, they sat and talked, and the day went well. Herbert later said that he had decided not to make any decisions that day, though it seems that Maria thought the meeting implied a decision, and was surprised that he didn’t feel the same way. Years later, she regretted that she hadn’t been more forthright that day, perhaps to the point of kissing him goodbye at the train station.

In any event, the relationship moved forward in a twinkling. They next met in Schneeberg, and a photo survives from that day. In it Maria and Herbert stand self-consciously apart from each other. He’s in his best, she’s in a shapeless dress. Looking at the photo it’s easy to wonder what was going through their heads, what promise the meeting held, or what each felt the relationship could provide them. They seem happy enough, though in the way that strangers do, hoping to make a good impression without giving away too much of themselves. Whatever they were thinking—in truth, both of them were most likely pondering some fairly utilitarian thoughts about their goals and the means of achieving them, and Maria trying to remember the names of all the family she’d met—they were married within the year and took up residence on the family property in Schneeberg.[1]

Schneeberg was a day’s drive and otherwise a world away from Ruttman’s Great City. For more than 500 years the town has existed on the proceeds of the minerals that were mined there, which included silver, cobalt, and bismuth. The population was proud of their history, their relative wealth, and how those things were represented in the world around them. St. Wolfgang’s Church in Schneeberg—later known as the “Miners’ Cathedral” (Bergmannsdom)—is one of the largest late Gothic churches in Germany. It was built between 1516 and 1540. Inside is an altar painted by by Lucas Cranach the elder, considered one of the most important works of art in Saxony. As well, Robert Schumann, the composer, visited Clara Weick at an apartment in Schneeberg, continuing a secret relationship (her father didn’t wish her to “throw herself away on a penniless composer”) that lead to their marriage in 1840 and all that music Schumann wrote for her.

Still, that wasn’t the Schneeberg that Maria encountered on arrival, nor was it the Schneeberg that Herbert knew. Since the mid-19th century, industry had slowed and shifted to more established technological centres. (The population of Schneeberg today is only slightly greater than it was the day that Maria arrived for the first time.) It was an isolated working class town in a country that had shifted its focus from rural to urban life. At the time, Germany was the height of modernity, and lead the world in seemingly every way. The country was home to more Nobel laureates than France, Britain, the United States, and Russia combined.

None of them, though, were in Schneeberg. Thanks to the Kaiser’s hand in sparking World War I, the town was becoming a sleepy backwater, far from the culture that was nevertheless not more than a day’s drive away. To add further insult, it was also located in a country that, itself, had become isolated from the surrounding European community.

While he didn’t say it in the ad, Herbert must have felt keenly the lack of opportunity and energy within his hometown.He was a young man interested shaking the dirt of Schneeberg off his boots. He wanted in a better life, or at least a different life, and he was willing to go to some length to achieve it. A year earlier he had successfully sought the documents necessary to immigrate to Canada, and he was planning his getaway when fate threw a wrench in the works: the property where his father had been leasing space came up for sale. His father, wittingly or unwittingly, gave him an ultimatum: if you stay I’ll buy the property; if you don’t, I’ll let it go. Herbert stayed.

It was 1930, the beginning of the most tumultuous decade in German history. By the end of it Herbert would be in Siberia fighting within an army he didn’t support wondering if he’d ever see Schneeberg again. Robert, no doubt, was left to regret not letting his son go when he had the chance.

With the one possible exception of her grandfather Goldman, Maria grew up without a wealth of positive male role models. Her biological father was predatory, and Julius proved to be so as well. When Julius made a sexual advance, Maria set out on her own, ultimately working at that flower shop in Berlin.

That response was in keeping with the women who were closest to her. Rosa was a self-starter, comporting herself with confidence and determination, able to efficiently make difficult decisions. Clearly, though times were a lot different than they are now, she wasn’t a shrinking violet, and remained that way throughout her entire life. In her 80s, and staying with family in Canada, she decided to set out to visit the neigbours on the next farm over. Rather than walk the road, she went overland as the crow flies. When she didn’t arrive at the neighbours, and also was gone long enough to incite worry, a search party was sent out. They found her trying to get over a stone wall, though had gotten stuck there.

With perhaps a few lapses in wisdom along the way, Rosa was a leader, not a follower just as her grandmother, Johanne Theone, had been. Born in 1822 and Theone was (what else?) a gardener. After her husband died when she was 43, she raised her children alone, running her own business in order to support them. Though Maria never knew her, the description she gives is revealing, in any case, of the kinds of values that Maria prized. “I don’t have any other information about her,” Maria writes, “neither diary or letters, but I feel something very definite when I look at her. I feel that she and I are connected at a very personal level. In solitary moments, I give her credit for many of the traits that I recognize as flowing through my veins.” Independence, stamina, knowing the value of hard work, a commitment to bringing joy to others—those are the values that would continue to define her life.

5.

Melita Maschmann was a teenager in Germany in the 1930s and supported the government even during the war. One of the reasons was a story that she told about the beginning of the war, where the news reported that 60 000 Germans had been killed by angry Polish people within the boundaries of Poland. The killings were believed to be vicious, and to people like Maschmann it was clear that they amounted to a declaration of war. (If I told you that 60 000 Canadians were murdered somewhere in the world, that would disgust you, too. The attack on the World Trade Centres in 2001 took 6000 lives, and it prompted war. We can understand why, perhaps, though time has a trick of making those kinds of feelings more complicated. Often we want to fight, though it can become unclear, after a while, just what we are fighting for and how it can help.)

The rest of the world understood those same events in a very different light. There were Germans killed in Poland, though the correct number was 6000. They had attacked Poland at the command of their leader, not the other way around, and more Poles were killed in the battle than Germans.

But Maschmann didn’t know that. She only knew what she was able to know, namely whatever the news in the papers told her. She, and indeed many others, had difficulty believing that the government would want to fool them, or lie to them, and we have those kinds of feelings too. If we get a traffic ticket, we pay it; if there is an election called, we vote. We carry on in the belief that our government is, for the most part, operating in our interest, and we follow the. When the light is red, we stop, even if there is no one around for miles. We just trust that there are rules, and we feel it is best of follow them in the belief that the rules are created for the good.

Germans were no different, by and large, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They felt about their world much the same that we feel about ours. They weren’t overly political, and probably thought more about dinner than they did philosophy or politics. They were also proud, which was complicated by their experience of World War I and its aftermath. There was poverty after the war, and the outside world, so many Germans felt, was overly harsh with them, unwilling to see the good things about Germany, only the bad.

It’s also true that Hitler, as late as 1937, was still considered by US policymakers as a moderate, and believed that he was perhaps the lesser of a number of evils in German parliament at the time. In hindsight, they were clearly, tragically wrong. The Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King met with Hitler that year, and wrote in his diary that Hitler “is really one who truly loves his fellow man.”

The historian John Lukacs writes, “Hilter became chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. The significance, let alone the importance, of this event went largely unrecognized. Evidence for this exists in the reporting and the commentaries of virtually every leading newspaper of the world. His personal abilities were underestimated, indeed on occasion ridiculed. The German conservative political elite, who helped to arrange his nomination to the chancellorship, thought that they would be able to manage him. The opposite happened. He made them his servitors. More important: soon he became the most popular leader in the history of the Germans, perhaps the most schooled people in the world. The bitterness and humiliation that had affected most Germans after their loss of the First World War ebbed away; what succeeded it was a rising wave of national self-confidence. To an astonishing degree Hitler won the trust of the great majority of the German people.”

Certainly Mashmann, in feeling Hitler was a just leader, was in good company. Against her family’s wishes she became a member of the Hitler Youth. Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms.

Afterward, when learning of the truth of the war and the crimes that had been committed by German forces, she was horrified. In 1964 she wrote a memoir of that time in her life, titled in the English translation as Account Rendered. “Even the element of fate in a person’s life does not dispose of individual guilt,” she wrote.

“I found in the memoir someone who had been overtaken by history,” says Arthur Samuelson who published an English translation of Account Rendered. “Someone who was struggling to make sense of what no longer made sense, and to understand why it had once done so. And someone whose best self had been attracted to Nazism.”[2]

Indeed, this is a crux that any discussion about Germany prior to and during the war: what did the people know? Why did they act as they did? If we know people who lived through the war in Germany, we’d like to think that they didn’t know much, and that people in smaller towns, such as Schneeberg, were insulated from a direct experience of the horrors of war as well as its dilemmas and contradictions. We’ll never know what the population knew, or how much they chose to overlook. Some no doubt chose to overlook a lot, but we’ll never really be able to answer those kinds of questions in any meaningful way.[3]

But we know that the entire population experienced the war absolutely first hand, and that many of the effects of war were there, just beyond the doorstep. The impact of that experience is undeniable, especially for children. Wallace Stegner writes that “there is a time between the ages of five and twelve which corresponds [to a moment] isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life … [likewise] expose a child to a particular environment at this susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies.”

Werner’s particular environment, starkly unlike that of his parents—just as it would be of his youngest siblings—was Nazi Germany. “On Sundays we walked down to the church and there were always marching bands coming the opposite direction. Young Hitler youth, in uniform and with their flags, and they played their trumpets or fanfares, and that was very interesting for a young boy. I mean I was just a little kid, I thought, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to join this gang.’” (Maria, however, wouldn’t allow it. Werner recalls that after the war, when the communist youth paraded on Sunday, she didn’t allow him to join them either.) “You know, you’re so impressed as a little kid. It may sound silly if I tell that to somebody, but for a child that was reality.”

There are other memories, too. “I can still in my ears, I can hear when the bombers came, they bombed Dresden, you know the biggest air raid on Germany. They came very low. Dresden was only 80 km away from us. So they flew over us, we heard them approaching and then you seen them in the sky and you hoped they wouldn’t drop their bombs down on us. And then a little while later you see all the sky lit up like a fireball.” It was February of 1945; Werner was nine years old.

A few months later Schneeberg itself was attacked. “They put dirt banks on the roads and trees to prevent tanks from coming close. But that didn’t prevent them I guess. There was just on the road toward Zwickau, there was an elevation and they had artillery and they bombed Schneeberg with artillery, and there were quite a few houses demolished. They shot the artillery into the big church that is right on the top of the mountain there. It caught fire there, and we saw the church steeple fall down. In my recollection, in my head, I can see this still. You don’t forget these things.”

At home and around the table each night were prisoners of war that were working on the farm under the order of the military. Even despite the horrors of the war, the workers cried when news reached them that the war ended. They apparently knew the kind of life that awaited them back in Russia. Werner recalls that an SS soldier came to them on a horse and offered to give them the horse in exchange for civilian clothes. “So he got a suit, and we got his horse.”

There are some that would read that and see it as abetting a potential war criminal. “If you tell somebody, it’s hard for somebody to visualize what war is all about. Toward the end of the war we had so many air raids we had to go down [to the basement]. … There were certain houses that were designated as bunkers, so to speak, and our basement wasn’t a basement like you have in a house, it was natural stone wall and the ceiling was an arched brick support. We slept about two weeks down there toward the end of the war. It was damp down there. We had just a few bales of straw that we slept on. Quite a few neighbours came and, ah, well, it wasn’t pleasant down there. But anyway.”

6.

Germans were sometimes heard to say that they preferred “an end with horror, to a horror without end.” In the last years of the war, those were the only options they could realistically conceive. Men and boys were feverishly recruited into the army; by VE day, two thirds of them had been killed, creating a hole in the population where an entire generation of men used to be. And when the truce was signed, Germans faced a continuing and exhausting experience. Poverty was rampant, as was hunger and crime. There wasn’t any work, and there wasn’t a government that could begin to organize the relief efforts or the creation of the infrastructure. David Stafford, in his book Endgame, 1945, provides a summation of what lay ahead, which included “the urgent quashing of looting, rioting and random violence; the robust and often severe restoration of law and order; the reestablishment of basic services such as electricity, gas, water and sewage; the restoration of smashed roads, railways and telephone systems.”

The population of Germany didn’t get much sympathy then, of course, and to a large extent, if we’re allowed to be frank, that hasn’t changed. We don’t think of them as the victims, and there are reasons for that, reasons that remain simply undeniable. But they were victims, and they had a hand in their victimhood. But when did that start, and when did it stop? They trusted a leader who would leave their country in ruins. They trusted a government that was unjust, and if they had any inkling of the extent that things would run to, it’s right to assume that they wouldn’t have supported the government as enthusiastically. They supported actions of the government that should have been unthinkable—such as the laws barring Jews from owning property or holding jobs—though whatever they knew about those things came to them through the filter of the propaganda ministry. And they were afraid; the Gestapo was brutal, and the evidence of that was all around them.

They also couldn’t have known where things were headed. Yes, Hitler’s book was available, but who could assume that it was a plan for the future, and one that would be pursued entirely unchecked by the more moderate members of the government. Certainly there were efforts made to rein Hitler in, though they failed. The opponents in government were killed because of their opposition on the night of the long knives—a horrifying event that, nevertheless, was seen as necessary in order to avoid a government coup. It was bloody, though a coup, most likely thought, would have been bloodier. Whatever was reported in the press was most often greeted with skepticism. Those who believed the reports accepted the suggestion that Hitler had saved Germany from descending into chaos.

Meanwhile the government was making huge changes that—again if we’re allowed to be entirely frank—were understandably welcome. Yes, the leaders yelled and waved their hands a lot, but the roads were built, and jobs were created, and that’s what the majority of the population focused their attention on. The economy was righted, and an impoverished country was finding its way back to prosperity. People could afford a car for the first time in their lives. They could afford a home. The country was also being granted a new place on the world stage, as evidenced by the Berlin Olympics. The world, for the first time in a generation, was coming to Germany. There were angry signs, and troubling new laws, but extermination camps wouldn’t have been considered as a potential reality in the least. Most Germans, I’d suspect, just tried to stay out of things, something that the government was more than happy to encourage. Newspapers ran stories of success, and the population, understandably, wanted to have them be the truth.

Does it matter? I think it does. If we write Hitler off as a madman, and we suppose that the population of Germany saw and supported all the worst things that he would do, then we’re safe. We can say, ‘The Germans were different than us.” And that means that we’re different than them, and that we wouldn’t have done the same things, and that we’d never do the same things today. We’re off the hook.

It’s much harder to approach the history of Germany as something entirely within range of human experience, and to choose to learn from it through the assumption that the people living then weren’t different than us beyond the context the were living within and the options that were—and weren’t—available to them.

Like most Canadians, they chose to stay out of politics, and to read the celebrity gossip more readily than the news from Parliament. They wanted to live a life of their choosing, one that includes homes and families. They wanted to have a pride in their culture, and to feel that they occupied a respected place in the world. When there was violence, they chose to avoid it as much as possible. They wanted to live. That’s what regular people want, and they did too. But then, something went wrong. And then a lot of things went wrong.

Thinking about them as people just like ourselves, we have an opportunity to learn something, and perhaps something quite important. No one wants to elect a monster into a position of leadership. Assuming they weren’t themselves monsters, how did it happen? Why wasn’t it stopped?

7.

East and West

In the years after the war, the various sectors of Berlin and of East and West Germany were formalized. At the end of the war four sectors of Germany were created and granted to the four allied countries: France, US, Britain, and Russia. Because Berlin was entirely in the Russian sector, it too was then divided into four sectors. Relatively quickly—though by no means instantly—the borders were defined between East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The West was comprised of the French, British and American sectors, including the occupied zones of Berlin, which otherwise was surrounded by East Germany. The East was comprised of the states that were occupied by Soviet forces.

Even in 1961, the border was still porous. Wolfgang Herrmann was one of thousands of citizens of West Germany who lived in East Germany, commuting to work each day across the border. “We called it the Siemens’ express,” says Hermann of the S-Bahn, “because it was packed with thousands of Siemens’ employees.” It was a situation that, for him and the other commuters, was highly agreeable if admittedly a bit bizarre. Two governments, two systems—democracy and socialism—and two currencies within a single city that felt, from the citizens’ perspective, like just like that: a single city.

Herrmann and others hoped to take advantage of it for as long as they could, and otherwise gave it little thought. The wages in the west were vastly greater than those in the east, while the costs of living were dramatically lower in the east. Rather than thinking of leaving, Herrmann was able to keep his home, remain near his family, while having a good job and a wage that went a long way. It was the best of both worlds.

Then at a press conference on June 15, 1961, a western reporter asked the Chairman of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, about the rumours that East Germany was planning on sealing the border. “Mr. Chairman, do you believe that creating a free city will require the construction of a state border at the Brandenburg Gate and are you determined to see this through will all the consequences it entails?” Ulbricht’s response would become the most infamous lie of the Cold War period: “I understand your question in this way: that there are people in West Germany that want us to mobilize the construction workers of the GDR capital to build a wall. Am I right? I’m not aware of any such plans. … Nobody has any intention of building a wall.”

Through the summer of 1961 citizens of Berlin continued to cross the border in order to shop, to go to work, and to visit family, no one suspecting that anything impending action. Then, just after midnight on the morning of August 13, 1961, GDR border police and combat crew began placing barbed wire along the border, constructed barricades, and drove concrete posts into the ground. As the day broke, the city became aware of this new reality that left them stunned. Citizens on both sides gathered to watch in disbelief. Wolfgang Herrmann was in the west as this was going on, and quickly hurried back to his home in the east. “I didn’t have to think twice about coming over,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t I’d never see my wife again.” In an instant he became both unemployed and a citizen of the GDR.

8. 

Prior to August of 1961, nearly three million people had left East Germany for the west, a majority of them travelling across the relatively small border between East and West Berlin. Herbert Gerber was one of them. “When I left I had no idea whatsoever, no inkling at all, that anyone else would ever follow me,” says Herbert of leaving his family. “So when I said goodbye, it was goodbye forever.”

He knew that there was no life for him in Germany. “The older I got, the more I could see that I had no future there. And I just said to my parents one day one day, that’s what I’m going to do, and they did not stop me. The thing was at that time it was before the East Germans built the wall, so the border was still a little bit porous. I applied for a visitors exit visit for four weeks to visit my relatives in west Germany. I went and I just didn’t come back. But it wasn’t as easy as that. I was staying with my uncle, and after I was there for a couple of weeks I got a letter from my mother saying I should come back immediately because if I don’t they’re going to hold it against my father and jail him.” He was 19 years old. “After a couple days thinking about it, I decided I would not go back. But I sat down and wrote a letter to the city hall telling them that my intentions are to stay longer than my visa allowed me and that they shouldn’t hold it against me. I said that I wanted to continue my education, etc. etc. etc. And apparently that helped. They never approached my parents at all.”

A year later, Opa noticed in the newspaper that the local government was willing to issue passports allowing people to leave East Germany, something that had been very difficult prior. He saw it as a potential window opportunity for his eldest son, Werner. “He said, ‘why don’t you go and see if you can get a passport?’ So I went to the police the next day.” It turned out to be a bit more difficult than Werner might have thought, even if his father had had an inkling that this, like so many other things in East Germany, was likely too good to be true. Rather than a passport, Werner was met with suspicion. Asking for a passport, the official asked briskly, “What for?”

“He didn’t know what we were talking about,” recalls Werner. “The next morning there were three policemen at my house at 7 o’clock and they interrogated me for about three hours. You know, why I want to leave. I told them, I want to see the world. If I like it, I stay. If I don’t like it, I come right back. That’s it.”

Still, they stayed, asking the same questions again and again, for three hours. “I didn’t know what they were doing. But I just straightened my back, shook their hands and I said, ‘Good day, you know everything about me now. Tomorrow I’m going to pick up my passport.’ I left them standing there and walked away.”

True to his word, the next morning he went to city hall, saying he was there to pick up his passport. The official there asked for his name and then took out a small piece of paper and put it into a typewriter. He asked for Werner’s name again, which he gave, and what city he would like to travel to. He typed for a moment then took the paper out of the typewriter, signed it, stamped it, and threw it across the table. “Here,” he said. “Good luck to you!” The paper read, in its entirety, “Werner Gerber has permission to leave to go to West Berlin.”

At home, his father’s response appeared largely ambivalent, saying “Try your luck, see what happens.” It wasn’t a passport, but it had a stamp and a signature, both of which had a certain amount of gravity, give or take. So, Werner packed a small suitcase and the next morning kissed his parents and went off to catch the train. And that was it. “I didn’t know if I’d see anybody again. You know? [When] we came to the border the train stopped and in came the Russian soldiers and the German police with machine guns and bayonets. They went to each passenger and they asked for passports and documents and all I had was that little piece of paper.” He watched as they made their way along the passenger car, checking passports and, seemingly at random, motioning for the majority of the passengers to get off the train and stand behind a makeshift plywood fence next to the tracks.

“When they came to my seat and looked at my little piece of paper, they didn’t ask questions. I could stay put in the train. Ha! I couldn’t believe it. I was waiting in the train for two hours before people came back. And you know how many people came back? Maybe only half. The others they were probably sent to labour camps. And when the train left and I see I’m in West Germany, boy, it was an incredible experience. Like, imagine if you work all day and you are dirty and full of dust and sweaty, and you take a shower and you feel good again? That’s how I felt when I realized ‘I’m in West Germany now.’”

He was alone, young, poor, without a job or any conceivable support structure, a refugee from a country to which he suspected he would never return. And he felt cleansed and exhilarated. He had tried his luck with a little piece of paper, and it had worked.

 9.

“My mother lived 11 years under Russian occupation—from ’45 to ’56,” says Ann. “And she said ‘If the Russians haven’t gone by now, they’ll never leave.’” Certainly the Russians were making life especially hard on anyone they suspected of being less than enthusiastic about socialism or who otherwise were unwilling to join the communist party. The Gerbers were all of that, ultimately, also had two sons that had defected. As well, opposite the house was a manor home that had been converted in to barracks for Russian soldiers and officials and was the home of the commandanteur. The Gerbers were literally neighbours of the occupying forces, making it impossible to keep anything of a low profile. The hens, the beehives, the produce—all of it was conspicuous given a lack of food that continued to weigh heavily on the population no matter which side you were on.

For farmers, there was a quota system in place which increasingly required farms to deliver products in excess of what they were able to produce. If they had hens, they would be expected to deliver a set number of eggs each week, even if the hens weren’t laying. Not being able to meet the quotas was seen as a sign of incompetence and the property would be confiscated in the belief that it was being mismanaged.

Because the nursery produced bedding plants and cut flowers, the Gerbers were imposed upon to produce arrangements for births, weddings, and funerals of the Russian overseers and soldiers free of charge. With the threat of losing the home, there was a very clear impetus to meet whatever demands were made. The stress of meeting them fell to Maria. “It was awful,” says Ann. “She was pestered. We had maybe twenty hens and twenty people at the table to feed, but we couldn’t keep the eggs. And my father had a few beehives, maybe six or eight or ten, and all we’d hear was ‘Why didn’t you deliver us your honey?”

Whether it was intended or not, the noise of the barracks was a constant reminder, day and night, that they were living in a totalitarian state, and a Russian one at that. Speakers were hung outside the barracks playing Russian music. “The same tune day and night,” says Ann. “And it went something like [mock singing] ‘liverwurst! Liverwurst!’” She admits that it’s funny now, though at the time it was unnerving.

And then there was the Stasi, which is the more common name for the East German Ministry for State Security. “The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” according to Simon Wiesenthal, a writer and holocaust survivor. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.” And while the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, the Stasi era lasted four decades.

The goal of the Stasi was to ensure that the population would remain submissive. There was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans, though there were informers, too, people who used the Stasi to gain power, or food, or a better standard of living. There were lots of them, and unlike police, you could never really be sure who they were. They were secret, though it is estimated that there was one informer for 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests. They were literally everywhere, and both the Stasi officers and the informants and there was little they wouldn’t do in order to get information. Holes drilled through walls, coercion, secret microphones—all citizens would have lived in the belief that they were being watched all the time, and often they were right.

“In nearly every speech,” says historian Hubertus Knabe, “the Stasi minister gave the order to find out who is who, which meant who thinks what. He didn’t want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning. The East Germans knew, of course, that they were surrounded by informers, in a totalitarian regime that created mistrust and a state of widespread fear, the most important tools to oppress people in any dictatorship.”

The fears of arrest or imprisonment were very real. And defecting, of course, was a crime. When Bernie Gerber recalls the day that they left for the West, it is that context—that they may have been spied on, or informed on, and if caught the punishment would be extreme—that provides a background.

 When we were on the train from East Germany to West Germany, the train stopped at the checkpoint and, ah, they knew we were coming. And we were only allowed 100 east marks, which is peanuts, each for a week. We had a week’s permit, my parents and us. And anyway the train stopped and the Russian officers came in, and the east German police came in, and they checked our papers and they were relatively friendly, but they knew we were coming and that we had been through the right channels and we were going for only one week. And they checked our papers and everything was in order.

But the train was stopped probably a good hour or maybe more. Probably more, maybe two hours. That was forever, an eternity, and for my parents especially, you can imagine. Anyway, we didn’t have to leave the train, but they had a walk maybe from here to those pine trees over here. They had all kinds of buildings and they ordered people in there and strip searched them and everything else, including old women. Can you imagine? And they had this young officers, you know, and they’re making fun of old women, and, you know, they had their uniforms on and they had the power, right? There were people coming out of there just crying and their dignity was taken and [it was] just like they had been raped. It was the most awful thing.

They were on route to Hannover, and crossed at Mareinborn, the busiest checkpoint between the east and the west.

[1] Herbert’s parents, too, had married in order to grasp more at opportunity than love. Robert Gerber was born in Silesia, in an area that is now part of Poland. It was another time, in another world. Poverty was a fact of life, as were the quasi-royal families, or nobles, that controlled the land and resources. Robert, even when still very young, worked as an apprentice gardener on various estates.

When he was 20 he became a gardener to a local baron, though it came with a catch. “He said to me, You can only keep this position if you get married right away.’ He literally meant from today to tomorrow. But I wasn’t engaged and this put me in a desperate position. After all, who’s going to say yes that quickly?” The words are those of Maria writing in the voice of Robert, her father-in-law. As she tells it, at least, he was aware of a couple nearby who had 13 children, one of whom was a daughter who was “devout, attractive, industrious, and lovely enough” to suit his needs. (The list of attributes says as much, if not more, about Maria than it may Robert.) The fact that the family was so large—a father tasked with feeding 15 being less likely to protest a daughter’s marriage—he assumed would help him meet his deadline. In Maria’s version, Robert was more impressed with the girl’s mother than with her, and spent a moment “working up the courage to ask this remarkable woman if she’d be willing to give me her daughter in hopes that she would be a true replica of the mother.”

Maria’s characterization of Emma, the daughter, continues the theme. In her version Robert asks Emma to be his wife saying and that he will return the next day for an answer. When he returns, Emma said, “Mother is of the opinion that as long as that’s all that’s being asked, she’s okay with it. So I’m okay with it.”

Whatever was actually said, the marriage occurred and Robert kept his job. On the morning after the wedding Emma awoke in their new home, her blanket covered with violets—it was an impressive (if late) bit of romance on Robert’s part. He nevertheless spent the next two weeks gathering the nerve to kiss her.

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/i-was-a-nazi-and-heres-why.html

[3] There are, however, lots of enticing clues. The very last edition of the official newspaper of the Nazi government was published two days before Hitler committed suicide. The headline that day was “Fortress Bavaria!” The obfuscation was clearly of an order that is truly mind-boggling.

A history of Camp Wanakita

cabin groupThe shortest story you can tell of the camp’s history is this: in 1953 a camp on the shores of Koshlong Lake was founded under the name Wanakita, and it’s been there ever since. But, as with so many things, scratch the surface any further and things either get more blurry or, in another light, more interesting.

This history of the camp has been an ongoing document since the 1993 when Ted Thaler began interviewing alumni with the intention of creating a document that would reflect the struggles and successes of the camp. The reality is that the strength of the camp today–and perhaps even the fact that it still exists–is the result of the people who made it what it is. Thanks to strong leadership, the camp developed new ways of organizing programming, revised the relationship between staff and campers, and provided the best example of family camping in North America.

I think all of this is important. The camp that you see today didn’t happen overnight, or over a decade. It took 60 years, and it is still responsive to change, to new ideas. That said, for the first time in its history it is run by a staff that doesn’t have a direct link to the beginnings of the camp, and for whom the narrative arc of its development is largely unknown. That, of course, is inevitable in any organization–time marches on. But memory is important. If there isn’t an understanding of the what has come before, there is a risk of being complacent, and thinking that, well, it’s just camp. It isn’t. It’s far more than that.

See the Wanakita History page for the first part of the Wanakita story.

Larry Sparks’ “Lonesome and Then Some”

One of the great things about bluegrass is that it has a memory. People who played then are celebrated now, and the music that was made then is still relevant now. And people like Larry Sparks provide some proof of that. His first real gig was playing guitar for Ralph Stanley in 1966 after the passing of Carter. Just think of that. The Stanley Brothers are in the first generation of bluegrass, and to some extent formed what bluegrass is today. And Larry Sparks was there, more or less, and here he is, fifty years later, still doing it, and still turning ears.

Lonesome and Then Some …  is of course a play on the name of Larry’s band, the Lonesome Ramblers—the music here includes the Lonesome Ramblers who are joined by a number of guest musicians. Those musicians are telling, too: he could have filled the album with younger people, or more famous people, but he didn’t. He invited Curly Seckler to sing tenor on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” joined on the track by Bobby Osborne. Just think of that—a new track, recorded this year,  includes principle musicians from the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs. You don’t need to know that—it’s a great song all on it’s own—but there is something great about all that other stuff going on.

Another lovely moment—and there are lots of them on this disc—is Judy Marshall, Alison Krauss, and Sparks trading lead and harmony vocals on “Going up Home to Live in Green Pastures.” It’s just great music, and all egos appear to have been left at the door. We know the song—Emmylou Harris included it on her fantastic Roses in the Snow—but this new recording is haunting.

Indeed, that’s how the entire album is constructed. As music it stands on its own, but dig a bit deeper, and it’s rich with memory. Ralph Stanley sings on “Loving you Too Well” and the album ends with an unreleased recording of Sparks with Bill Monroe on “In the Pines.” The track opens with with Monroe, speaking away from the mic saying that “Larry Sparks is ready!” They sing it as a duet, and if you feel you never need to hear “In the Pines” again as long as you live, you’re wrong. You need to hear this one.

Lonesome and Then Some …  is billed as a 50th anniversary celebration of Sparks’ career, and for him that’s what it is. For us it’s a thoughtful, graceful, dignified tour through an approach to making music that defines bluegrass itself. As such, it’s a celebration of a lot more than just Sparks himself.

In Our Own Backyard

“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them.” 

–Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking

 

All the photographs in this book were taken on our property in the spring of 2014.  The idea was to take pictures of flowers, so there are lots of plants that we have in the garden that aren’t in here, either because they don’t have flowers or because they don’t have flowers that we recognized as flowers.

Some of the plants in here are ones that we planted on purpose, such as the kale and the dogwood. Others are weeds, which are plants that we didn’t plant, don’t want, and yet are having trouble getting rid of, such as garlic mustard and dandelion. Some of the plants have great names, such as the deadly nightshade and the witch hazel. Others have names that make no sense at all—the bugleweed isn’t a weed, and the Christmas rose isn’t a rose. Some plants are medicinal, while others, in the right quantities, can kill a small animal.

But this is something that they share: all of them are more interesting than we might ever have imagined. Peonies are symbiotic, for example, and can’t survive without the help of ants. The dandelion can clone itself, and kale is a biennial, meaning that it has a two-year life cycle. And how about this: The strawberry that we grow is descended from five little plants that were brought back to France from Chile in 1714. Every jam tart, strawberry sundae, P B and J, is a result of the voyage of the St. Joseph exactly three hundred years ago.

As well, the majority of the plants in our yard, from the weeds to the trees, have been brought here from somewhere else, including as far away as Asia and Africa. When you look at our garden, you don’t see what Canada looked like before Columbus, you rather see a portrait of all the things, the people, and the events that have happened here since. It’s not just plants out there, it’s our history.

FULL TEXT:

In Our Own Backyard (medium)
In Our Own Backyard (small)

 

Nickel Creek’s “A Dotted Line”

(for KDHX)

After seven years apart, Nickel Creek is back with “A Dotted Line.” As in the early part of their career together, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins are doing things that no one else is doing while serving an audience that is interested in picking up the Nickel Creek story where it left off.

Nickel Creek tends to get dubbed as a “bluegrass” band, though they don’t play much bluegrass, if any. Rather, in their career together, they have been interested in taking their instruments into new territory, and (either consciously or unconsciously) exploring the boundaries between genres, including pop, classical and bluegrass. They’ve done traditional songs, as with “The Fox” on their first release, though they also range across the musical landscape, such as Thile’s setting for Robert Burn’s poem, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” which was also on that debut album. It’s still hard to believe that three musicians who were so young at the time could create something so confident, interesting, and beautiful.

Despite the hiatus, their release this year, titled “A Dotted Line,” picks things up exactly where the band left off. The range of material is broad. The beautiful ballad “21st of May” sounds like something that Norman Blake might have written in the ’80s. The arrangement stays close to the traditional form that the song is set within, though it’s also clear that they’re not putting on a costume but rather playing in a style that they know intimately and clearly adore. With “Elephant in the Corn” and “Elsie” the trio moves further along the spectrum but still within the typical string-band territory and delivering careful, stunning performances.

That said, this is also a band that relates to pop music as intelligently and impressively as they do traditional forms. You’ll hear nods to the Beatles on “A Dotted Line,” as in the slurred vocal harmonies on “Rest of My Life” and “Where Is Love Now.” They engage with pop music on its own terms, honestly and convincingly taking up the energy and rebellion of youth, as in “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” That said, “Hayloft” is the true barb in this collection. It’s a cover of a Mother Mother tune. I hate, it, but even then it’s hard to fault the mastery that they bring to it. It may be off putting, but it’s still interesting.

This album, rightly, will get a lot of attention. You just don’t see this kind of skill very often, including technical skill as well as interpretive skill, courage and confidence. As players, the three are entirely sympathetic to one another, and their ability to play as an ensemble is remarkable.

You also don’t often come across albums that weren’t made in order to advance a career, or make money, or market a tour (though it probably will do all of those things). The album demonstrates, were we ever to doubt it (and I did) that Nickel Creek remains a grouping that offers each of the players some musical opportunities that they simply can’t get elsewhere. For us, the result is interesting, challenging, enjoyable, and a great way to spend the better part of an hour.

Interview with Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers

I reached Eric by phone while he was on the road travelling south for a few dates in Florida. I asked him about his (relatively) new Henderson guitar, brother duets, and life on the road. Always gracious, Eric is as delightful off stage as he is on it.

GH: How did you get turned on to bluegrass? Was it from your father?

EG: Yeah, my dad listened to it on the radio. Had a few bluegrass records, not a lot of them. I think the reason we ended up in bluegrass was because I just started playing the banjo, and Leigh started playing the guitar. I got turned onto Flatt and Scruggs, and then he did. And I think just the fact that we were playing bluegrass instruments lead us into the field. We liked classic country just as much, but Leigh once said that, you know, the banjo is what drove us into bluegrass. I never really thought of it like that. But, anyway, we got hooked on it early—in our teens or pre-teens—and we listened to a lot of different first generation bluegrass artists and then got into the more progressives styles as well. But cutting our teeth on the traditional stuff has informed our music more than anything.

Some people want to take the music further, and others want to stay closer to the tradition. It seems that your latest release is consciously sticking a bit closer to the roots than the branches.

Well, I honestly don’t feel that there was any kind of design when we made that record. We weren’t making a statement about tradition or anything, but on the spectrum we probably lean more to the traditional end of things. I find myself listening to all kinds of music and I think there is room for it al. But, my favorite bluegrass has moss on it. The older stuff is what I like the most. I don’t think there is anything out there today that does it for me like that sound.

There are performers and writers that seem to feel that that there is only value in doing things that haven’t been done before.

I’d like to think that, with our writing, we’re doing things that haven’t been done before. Maybe not groundbreaking in some people’s view, but I’d like to think that we’re adding to it in our own way. I’d like to think that. [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s true or not, but we take pride in our songwriting and in finding strong material. And I think doing that is helping us carve out our niche in the music.

But I also think that we have our own sound, and we have a band that we’re really proud of. All the guys really trying to serve the song, and no egos. There’s not a lot of look at me stuff, it’s look at the song stuff. I like that.

You’re harmonies are fantastic. What is it about brothers singing harmony? There seems to be something special there.

Leigh and I have talked a lot about that quite a bit. You learn to talk at close to the same time, from the same people. Perhaps it’s just they way you pronounce things, or the timbre of your voices. It’s hard for people who aren’t siblings to get that close a blend. Some people do, but being siblings gives you a leg up.

Certainly, it seems to, as with the Louvins, the Everlys, the Carters …

I love the Louvins. They’re my favorite duet, and I think Leigh would say the same thing. We’re actually working real hard right now at that stuff, going through material from all kind of brother duets because we want to do a tribute record where we go back to songs by the Louvins, Everlys, Delmores, the Monroes—all kinds of different brothers throughout country and bluegrass history. I think it would be a fun record to make, and every time we mention it, people seem excited about it. It would be a bit of a departure for us to devote a whole album to that kind of thing. We hope to record it this spring and then it would be out in early 2015. It’s something we’ve been kicking around for ten years or more, and now just seems to be the right time to do it.

Of the covers you’ve been doing from the stage these days, which are the ones that are really working well?

We’ve been doing “Childish Love” by the Louvin Brothers. I think that’s beautiful. And, you know, “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everlys—it’s instantly recognizable and people just love it. We’ve been doing “Long Time Gone” by the York Brothers. The Everlys recorded it too, but the York Brothers wrote it. “You’re Running Wild” is going over very well. We’ve added some songs to the show just recently, but we’ve got a bunch of others that we’re just getting ready to work up.

But we agonize over these decisions [around song choice]. I don’t know if people realize that, but we really do. We want every song to have its own space, and on a record I don’t want two songs that are similar. I want them all to have their own little spot.

You’re playing a Henderson guitar. How long have you had that?

I’ve had it for about two years. Leigh’s playing one as well and they’re a matched pair, made out of the same batch of wood. It’ll be two years this summer since we got them, and they’re just getting better all the time. And they were great to begin with.  We’re very fortunate to have that.

Did you have to visit Wayne Henderson all the time, and take him donuts and stuff.

[Laughs] You know all about that, huh? Yeah, we made some visits. We had a friend that just went through that. He had to find out what pie he liked. But Wayne’s so cool. I’ve never seen a more humble or more talented guy. He’s just so humble! But it would be good to be Wayne, you know? We played his festival, and just to see how much people respect him when he walks into a crowd. He just has a way about him. I feel really lucky to know him. He’s a joyful guy. Happy to be alive, and to have found what he’s really great at. And he really is.

You guys are on the road a lot, for a lot of years, and I just wonder if it gets tiresome? There’s that Claire Lynch song, “Hills of Alabam” where she sings “tomorrow brings another town/and we’ll be on our way/we’ll hit the road and have a song/and then we’ll have nothing to say/for hours on end.” Have you ever gotten to that point? Do you ever run out of things to say?

Oh, yeah, sometimes. But most times we marvel at the fact that we still have things to say. Lots of times we’ll drop Leigh off in the Albany area and then Mike and I have got three more hours until we’re home. That’s usually how our trip ends. And we still find things to talk about. Some of them are pretty foolish. [Laughs] But there are times when there’s nothing to say, but that’s when you read, or listen to music, or think. But that is a great song. [Lynch] recorded that one at least twice, and I love both of them.

 

A dissapointing disc from Volume 5

I saw Volume 5 at Merlefest and was immediately struck that I hadn’t of heard them before. Great musicians, very nice presentation, and some great story songs and ballads—a very complete package all around.

But (you could sense this coming, couldn’t you) this album, The Day We Learn to Fly is a bit of a departure for them in that it’s their first release of entirely gospel songs. All the things I appreciated of the band when I saw them live are here. “Nothing But the Water” is a great a cappella piece showcasing the vocal strength of the group. The production is crystalline, as is the playing and the arrangements.

Where it falls short, at least in terms of a secular audience, is the songwriting. Gospel is, of course, a component of bluegrass music. But can we judge gospel songs in the same way we do secular songs? “Tennessee Stud,” for example, tells a story; there is movement and drama, and that’s one of the reasons that its been recorded so many times. It’s just a great song.

I think there are lots of gospel songs that are great in exactly the same way. “O Death” by Ralph Stanley found a huge audience, and I’d say it’s because of the strength of the song, not the level of devotion within the audience. Some people, no doubt, approached it from a place of belief. Others, I’m certain, didn’t, and nevertheless were moved by the song and by the performance.

Indeed, Ralph Stanley is one of those musicians who stands as an example of how great gospel songwriting can be, and he also demonstrates that the division between gospel and secular doesn’t require a different approach to the music. There is drama, movement, and the songs work unto themselves. The songs are less about the product—a communion with God—than it is the process, the rocky road that leads a person there. For me, I’m more interested in the sins than I am the forgiveness.

Not so for Volume 5. In “Miracle Today” we hear that the narrator’s life has gone astray. But what did he do? His life is full of blame, apparently, but he doesn’t tell us why. And without it, there goes the drama, the real dimension of the story. The same is true of “Until I Found the Lord.” This guy has troubles, that’s plain, but good Lord, what the heck did he do? We never find out, though that’s what the song, if it were really to work on its own, needs to be about. The only glimpse of any real storytelling is “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.”

Elsewhere is the typical stick-to-the-straight-and-narrow admonishment, as in “Color Between the Lines” and “Get Down and Pray.” Also are a few cliché statements of how great it will be to die, as in “The Day We Learn to Fly” and “When We are Called to Meet Him.” I suppose there is someone who likes listening to this kind of stuff, but it’s not me. A friend of mine who is a minister complains at times that religion in North America is a mile wide and an inch deep. The writing here supports that claim.

“White Wave Chapel” from I Draw Slow

There is an interesting moment in a recent interview with Dave Holden, guitarist of the Irish band I Draw Slow, when he notes that in America their music is described as Irish, and in Ireland, it’s American. The problem might simply be in knowing too much; the band may be from Ireland, but this is American music, drawing from the folk traditions of Appalachia. But, unlike a lot of old-time bands, the genre is a starting point, a beginning rather than and end.

“White Wave Chapel,” is a collection — like the two albums before it — that presents all new songs. That’s not something you’ll typically find from old-time groups from the U.S., where there is a tendency to stay closer to the roots than to the branches, and where the music tends not to reach too far beyond the boundaries of the genre.

It’s too bad, in a sense. The genre is very much alive, and even the hardest traditionalists aren’t CD players, but real musicians making real music in order to communicate with their audiences. In the worst examples there is a studied earnestness within the genre, the music presented not as something that is alive and fun, but as something that is good for you. It’s more bran than popcorn.

But the thing is, old-time music, even back in the day, was social music, played for one reason only: to have fun. It’s dance music, party music. The best performers within the genre approach the music in that vein. A few years ago, the Reeltime Travellers wowed audiences with their energy and their verve. They did lots of standards, but they also did lots of shouting and moving. As well, they used the music as a springboard to new material and new ideas, as in the song “Little Bird of Heaven” was as much of a “hit” as you ever get in old-time music.

In any case, I think the comparison is a good one, because the musicians of I Draw Slow, too, have reached new audiences with their energy, their verve, their creativity and their professionalism. Their song “Goldmine” is what got them noticed last year, bringing them to the States for the first time, in part because of the stunningly beautiful — and exceptionally professional — video that they created for the song. Last year, all the members still had day jobs when they came for their summer tour in the U.S. Through their debut spotlight at the IBMAs, they caught some ears, including those of Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck, who later joined them on stage at various events.

This year, I Draw Slow is back for another tour in the U.S., and if you have an opportunity to see them, you should take it. This is a captivating, exciting, energetic group with some fantastic songs to present, both from their earlier releases and this recent one. Their writing is skilled, rich and wonderfully mature. As in “Valentine” (for which the band did a video starring Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones”) they write about the complexities of adult life. There are no answers here, just edges and ideas.

Given its experience over the past year, the band has also gained a confidence that really fills out the package. You may have a chance to see the band this summer as it will be back in the States for a series of dates. Barring that, the album is a delight. No doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from I Draw Slow, or at least we can hope.

Fearing food

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

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. And, no, I don’t think I’m overstating anything here.

So, one of the things that it is impossible for us to truly have about food is perspective. Which is why I think Harvey Levenstein’s book, Fear of Food, (Chicago Press, 2012) is so valuable. He tackles a lot in the book, though begins with a mention of koala bears, which provides a nice counterpoint. Koalas are pretty much the exact opposite of us: they only eat eucalyptus. Wouldn’t it be nice to never have to decide what’s for dinner, and to always eat just the perfect food for you. (Levenstein doesn’t mention this, but for koalas eucalyptus is also mildly narcotic, so, there’s that, too.)

It’s not the perfect book perhaps—it’s a university publication, and perhaps not entirely intended for the lay reader—and in a sense, the title sets too small a stage. It’s not just fear that Levenstein talks about, but also preference, culture, industry, and mothers. That is, all of those things that influence how we decide what to have for dinner.

Where the book is the most telling is in its discussion of the industrial influences on our diet. A great example is the origins of white bread. Now a euphemism for lame, in the early to mid the 20thcentury it was the focal point of a number of very aggressive marketing campaigns. The wheat producers campaigned for people to eat more wheat (the 20s marked a downturn from which they hoped to recover, and ultimately did). White flour has a longer shelf life, and therefore is good for industry. Mothers of the 40s and 50s were told that less refined wheat was harder to digest. Hmmm. Further, vitamin producers loved white bread, because it gave them the leverage they needed to shill their products. Vegetable and fruit boards loved white bread because it gave them leverage to gain attention while taking it away from the vitamin people—“get vitamins from their source.” And, here we are, all these years later, with white bread, though the angle these days isn’t modernity, but nostalgia. One of the Wonder Bread slogans is “an essential part of childhood.”

What Levenstein reminds us, as in that example, there is nothing obvious or simple about so many of the things we eat. Indeed, so many of the stories he tells can make you feel like a dupe whenever they aren’t making you see how others were so easily duped. Acidosis, a vanishingly rare disease in the population—only diabetics need to worry—was the cornerstone for lots of money making schemes. The idea was that eating foods in the wrong combinations could kill, and lots of radio shows turned that idea into revenue. More recently, it’s the Beverly Hills Diet. Likewise, Upton Sinclair’s exposure (well, kind of) of the meat packing industry seems quaint and flawed to us today, though the modern equivalents, including Eric Schlosser’s  Fast Food Nation don’t. We are, in all, very easily lead. I’m certain that, if it hasn’t happened already, the wheat belly diet will have the lasting power of the Beverly Hills diet and have the same reputation. We’ll chuckle, and move on to the next thing.

The thing is, we don’t have a good guide for the decisions that we make. A friend who is both a scientist as well as a highly-respected physician is vocal proponent of the wheat belly diet, though reading even the first few pages of William Davis’ book it’s mind boggling how anyone with a basis in science could be drawn in. The fact is, he’s looking for an easy answer, and in that is very suggestible. And, Levenstein reminds us that, when it comes to food, we all are.

Is children’s lit as good as it used to be?

(ParentsCanada; CBC)

You might be forgiven for wondering what planet we’re living on when you read kids’ books today. Often it seems that excitement only comes from big things, big people and exotic places, which can make you long for the books of our youth: Harriet spying on the grocery clerks; Peter winning Dribble the turtle at a birthday party; the Great Brain’s latest swindle. The books that were popular for the under-10 set in the ’70s and ’80s seemed…different.

Marah presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania

(for Penguin Eggs magazine) Were you to hold a copy of this CD in your hands this is what you’d be thinking: What the $#$*% is this? And you’d be warranted in that thought. I’ll venture a provisional and entirely gracious answer: it’s a dog’s breakfast.

If there is any interest in this recording at all, it will come from a consideration of how many things someone can do wrong at one time, such as drinking during a recording session, recording in a barn, putting a mic in front of a kid who can’t sing, or not being able to play the instrument that you are holding in your hands. When it comes to Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, that’s not an exhaustive list, but it gets us started.

You’ll think I’m joking, but the notes that come with this CD are so small as to require a magnifying glass. Which, if you have one to hand, you can learn that (I’ll cut through all the self-congratulatory prose; you’re welcome) David Bielanko in the great state of PA found a book titled Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania at a garage sale that included some song lyrics from the 1800s. Lost gems!? Maybe, if there was actually music with them, or a suggestion of a melody, or if precisely anyone other than Bielanko had come across the book. He made up chords, melodies, noises. He bought beer, friends, and that one mic. He wrote the miniscule notes. And the result is truly impossible to turn off quick enough. It’s like electronic warfare. If you approach this recording expecting something abysmal, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Bosom Buddies: How dads can bond with their babies

(for ParentsCanada) Moms and dads do a lot of things (ahem) differently, and when baby arrives, bonding and attachment are often the first two of them. And that’s a good thing.

Not long after the birth of my second child, I took him to visit his great grandparents. When he got fussy, as newborns inevitably do, my grandmother said, wait for it, “Oh, he needs his mom!” Did you hear that? That tone? It may not come across here, but I sure heard it, and I don’t think it was just a lack of sleep and general touchiness.

What she was implying was that I was at fault for taking him away from his mom for the day. The feeling is that there are maternal bonds, mysterious perhaps, but they are there, and that anyone who gets in the way of those bonds, like the hunter between the cub and the mama bear, watch out; chins will wag.

Certainly there are many who believe the basic principle to be true, that there is something different about moms and babies, and that moms have more naturally assigned bonds with the baby, right out of the hopper, than men do. For one thing, they have breastfeeding and, frankly, that alone can go a long way in fomenting a relationship.

It’s a lot like the CEO and the mailroom clerk who come in after a smoke break slapping each other’s backs. That’s what frequent breaks can do. Us non-smokers simply look on, wishing we could share in that level of collegiality with the executive suite.

So it is with moms and babies. They have their milk breaks throughout the day, just to toss it around. They’re buds. First comes bonding But, there is more to the story, of course, such as this:

“About half of all parents, male and female, don’t have any particular fond feelings for their babies when they’re born,” says Dr. Armin Brock.

“We’re constantly fed the idea that we fall in love with our babies immediately, and most people don’t.” Good to know? I think it really is, because it’s that initial hump that knocks a lot of new dads out of their stance and it carries on from there. Dr. Nancy Cohen is a specialist in child development, director of research at the Hincks-Dellcrest Institute and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

She says “men often aren’t interested in children until they can be talking and be active. All of a sudden the baby may turn away, which can feel like a snub, when in actual fact, they probably just need a break.” All of this against a backdrop of mom and baby getting on like BFFs.

Use what you have What are dads to do? “Just try to relax,” says Dr. Cohen. “You don’t have to work so hard.” Certainly, part of this is the need to realize that it’s not a competition. No, dads can’t breastfeed as effectively as moms, but we’ve got other charms, to be sure.

Remember Harry Harlow’s monkey mother experiments from psychology class? He showed that baby monkeys, when given an impossible choice within a heart-wrenching set of experiments, will choose the warm furry “mom” over food. And, really, lots of guys have warm and furry pretty well wrapped up. Just saying. It’s quantity not quality

“What I recommend is just hanging around,” says Dr. Cohen. “You know, having the baby in your lap or in a baby seat, and just observing the baby and responding. Babies coo, and you coo back. Babies imitate you even hours after birth, such as sticking out your tongue.”

The old saw that says it’s about quality not quantity isn’t true, at least not in any mutually exclusive way. The more time you spend together, the better – it’s that simple.

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE

“Like any relationship it needs to build over time,” says Dr. Cohen. Babies grow into kids, who grow into teens, who grow into adults. And, actually, while I don’t have studies to show any of this, it seems to me that the idea of “daddy’s girl” is indicative of how well we do attachment over the long term.

My father-in-law once saw me hand my crying baby daughter, unable to console her, to my wife, whereupon the babe calmed immediately. He turned to me and said, “Well, Mom has her now, but you’ll have her in the end.”

BE YOURSELF

“Different people have different ways of relating,” says Dr. Cohen, and that’s a good point, too. Some people sing, others not so much. Mom will have her way, and you should feel free to have yours. Parents are different and they’re supposed to be. It’s one of the reasons, I suppose, that your partner was attracted to you: you’re a guy, you’re different, you do things differently. I don’t really need to say this, of course, but once the baby is out, some moms seem to lapse a bit on this point. They get their nose into things and keep it there. Are there times when we’d like to say, “Ok, back off.” Yes.

Should we say it in those terms? Probably not. But you should find a gentle way to say it. You’re your child’s dad, and that’s a person your child really wants to get to know.

 

Bryan Sutton Steps Out

What does it mean to sound like yourself? It’s not as easy as you might think.

A review of Bryan Sutton’s, Into My Own.

(For HVBA) I was once in the audience at a guitar workshop given by Bryan Sutton and Jack Lawrence, and it was as delightful as it was geeky. Sutton talked about how he, as a tween, would travel to festivals and record all of Jack Lawrence’s sets onto cassette tape. There is a photo of this in the liner notes to Sutton’s “Not Too Far From the Tree” and it’s as geeky as it sounds. He even held up a Radio Shack mic, one of the ones with the little switch on the side. At home he would play the tapes over and over again, learning Lawrence’s solos note for note. Lawrence told a similar story of how his mother says that he went into his bedroom at 13 and didn’t come out until he was 18. Seemingly for the duration he played Doc Watson records, moving the record with his hand over the solos, slowing them down in order to better hear the sequence of notes. “You could hold the records up to a light and see where all the solos were,” he said, the vinyl having been worn down by so many passes of the needle.

It’s true that for so many young musicians the goal is, at least initially, to sound like someone else. There are some players coming up today who are excellent, but who still betray that desire. Zeb Snyder, and excellent young guitar player from the Snyder Family Band and who Adam Steffey featured on his last recording, clearly has spent his time trying to play like Tony Rice—he’s still young, and he’s still doing it.

Sutton’s latest release, “Into My Own,” recognizes the weight of that experience, especially when you grow up and want to make music that is truly your own. Of this recording, he has said that he intended to make an album that only he could make. And while I can understand what he’s saying, I’m also a bit dismayed that he doesn’t see how unique and wonderful some of his earlier recordings have been. They’re aren’t many—and a new solo release from Sutton is an event unto itself—all of which nicely describe the arc of his career. The titles of the albums themselves tell the story. “Ready to Go” is the recording that any guitar debutante might make, at least one who was already of the Nashville A-list, having recorded with Dolly Parton and toured as a member of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. “Bluegrass Guitar” is almost a volume 2 of the first recording. Next was the breathtaking “Not Too Far From the Tree” which is as much a document as it is a wonderful recording; Sutton duets with his heroes, including Doc Watson in what would be Watson’s last studio recording. Sutton is gracious and supportive, as in his duet with the cross-picking legend George Shuffler. To my mind, it’s as important a recorded document as is Rice and Grisman’s “Tone Poems”—delightful to listen to, and it rewards a very close listening, contrasting styles of presentation, solo, and accompaniment. It’s a who’s who of some of the best flat-pickers, well, ever.

This latest record follows the arc in that, here, he’s not supporting others, or stating a claim so much as stepping into a space that, as he says, is more distinctly his own.

And he sings. (If this album were made during the 60s, I imagine it would have been titled “Sutton Sings!”) For Sutton, it’s a big leap. He’s taking risks—well, at least that one—that he hasn’t really taken before. Does it work? For the most part it does, though it’s hard not to feel that it’s a bit of a trial run. “That’s Where I Belong” works very nicely, and perhaps works better than any of the other vocals on the album. It’s a song that lends itself to a straight, uninflected vocal, and the theme is one that Sutton presents easily, and comfortably. The harmony, sung by Luke Bulla, supports Sutton’s voice beautifully, adding a welcome depth to the vocal.

But (yes, I know you’ve been anticipating the “but”) in other instances Sutton’s voice doesn’t match the sophistication of his guitar playing. He’s not able to interpret with his voice as delicately as he can with guitar, and it shows. On “Run Away” he is playing clawhammer banjo, accompanying himself, and it’s too bare a setting to support the limitations of his voice. It’s also too fast. The result is that we’re not convinced that he’s really had the experience that he’s singing about, which is the loss of a partner, and the piece risks parody. So too of “Been All Around This World”—in the best recordings that song is like a sigh, an exhalation, from a person who has suffered and inflicted suffering, and is coming to the end of the line. In the chorus, Sutton accents “been” rather than “all”—an atypical choice—and it’s not as minor a point as you might think. It changes the intent of the lyric. Again, it’s too fast, too chipper, and it sounds less like a reflection on a life lived than it does a travelogue. And he doesn’t sing the lyric about lying the jail, which is the most important one, or at least I think so.

Now here’s another “but”: the instrumental tracks on this release are where the album really shines, and it shines considerably. Each is breathtaking. “Ole Blake” reads as a tribute to Norman Blake—Sutton hasn’t said that, at least that I have seen, but between the title and the style of the piece, it reads that way. The ensemble is impeccable, including Noam Pikelny on banjo taking a few wonderful turns. On “Frisell’s Rag,” a piece by Sutton, he is joined by Bill Frisell, the jazz great of the title, and the result is … I’m running out of superlatives … let’s say, important. You need to hear this. Elsewhere, the players featured in the recording are equally worth our attention, including fiddle by Jason Carter and Stuart Duncan, mandolin by Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury.

And another “but”: the album is called “Into My Own” but it’s as much a tour of the players and the forms of music that Sutton has been seduced by as it is a statement of self. Jazz, bluegrass, old-time; Bill Monroe, Bill Frisell, Norman Blake; a waltz, a folk song, a breakdown—together the material here forms the fingerprint of a musician who is as excited by what he hears as he is about what he plays. This is, in a word, a simply wonderful album. If the singing doesn’t rise to the level of the playing, it’s nevertheless nice to see that Sutton is taking those kinds of risks in order to reveal aspects of his musical personality that we haven’t yet seen. Anyone can be cool, but it takes a bit of courage to be geeky.

Where old-time becomes new again

(for KDHX) Darol Anger is one of the most skilled fiddlers working today. He is interested in taking the instrument into new places, though he’s not interested in developing an entirely new vocabulary for the instrument, and I think that’s an important distinction.

While some musicians find innovation in doing things that are drastically removed from anything that has been happening—and I think the Goat Rodeo sessions is an example of that—Anger’s approach is more refined, and I’d say ultimately more musical.

There are so many examples of his quiet mastery out there, and you can certainly take your pick, but one that stands out in memory is a video that he did with Mike Marshall in order to demonstrate some of the concepts of playing and improvising as a duo. They take a typical piece, “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and make a bit of magic with it.

What’s nice about that video is, after the performance, they describe some of the decisions that they made. If you needed one — and those coming at this recording without a good sense of the genres involved just might — that video is like a Rosetta stone, allowing you to see what is going on in this latest project from Anger, called “E-and’a.” In both instances the musicians are playing very close to the traditional sounds of Appalachian Americana, namely old-time and bluegrass. But they’re playing with the form, too, and there is a delight in the details. The chops are there (Sharon Gilchrist, on mandolin, in particular stands out) but listen for some of the long notes, the interesting chord choices, the counterpoint.

At the beginning of some of these pieces you think you know pretty much where you are, but then a whole journey unfolds before you. “Fiddler’s Pastime” is a great example of that. It’s an old-timey fiddle tune, or at least written to sound like one. And then, it’s not, or at least it doesn’t progress in the way we might otherwise expect it to. It dips and dives, changes key, takes a walk over this way, then goes for a hike over that way. This piece wouldn’t exist without jazz, though more importantly it wouldn’t exist without old-time music either. It’s not an attempt to elevate a baser form of music (and as much as I love it, we’re all aware of the unfair assumptions made of the genre) but to celebrate the fact that here we are, in 2014, and it’s a fluid, vital genre of music that is just as alive and vibrant as, well, jazz. Anger shows us that the precedents for this recording—and all of it is new music—are still very much with us today, not just a moment in the past.

The mood changes as we move from piece to piece, such as the pointillist entry to “La Ville Des Manteaux” or “Canyon Moonrise.” Unlike some of the other pieces, with these it’s easy to have a moment of wondering where we are, exactly. And then we realize as the piece opens up that we’ve been here before, that we’re entering a room that is familiar to us even though the furniture may have been moved around a bit since we were last here.

Here’s a little beef of mine: so many musicians seek to challenge us, though they do so by first alienating us. They make it hard to approach the music, to find a way in. They make us work for it. That’s fine, I guess, though Anger has shown throughout his career that he is a gentler guide, and ultimately he’s more successful. And the environment he has always been most interested in is American music. He lives there, and he wants us to live there too. He’s spent his career showing us why we should.

I realize it’s only March, but if you give it some honest attention, “E-and’a” is one of  the best albums you’ll hear this year.

Revisiting the Fold

Carlene Carter, “Carter Girl”
Rounder Records

(for HVBA) I have an unerring fascination with the Carter Family—or more precisely the Original Carter Family—because everything about their professional lives as musicians (or “musicianers” as AP would say) is as exotic as it is unfathomable. We all know at least the outline of the story: AP hears Sara’s voice and falls in love, convinces Sara and Maybelle to drive with him to Bristol to record, despite the fact that there were no paved roads and Maybelle was nine months pregnant. Late, tired, hungry, they sit in front of a recording horn and, on the first day, record “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and, among other things, “The Storms are on the Ocean.” The next day they record “Single Girl, Married Girl,” and “The Wandering Boy.”  In all they recorded just six songs at those sessions, and four of them became part of the very fabric of Americana music.

The three took pains to present themselves as anything but the yokels they worried they may appear, but all the details of their lives suggests that yokels, frankly, was what they were. Everything that you read about their lives prior to Bristol is from another age entirely. They didn’t own a Victrola, and some of the first recordings they ever heard were their own. There was no music industry to speak of, so they also had no idea where the venture may take them. They were just tickled that someone gave them some money to sing songs into a metal horn. They weren’t after fame, and to their minds at the time, they weren’t aware that there was any to be had. The whole thing was just one of AP’s schemes—like his failed crops, the failed fruit tree venture, the portable sawmill—and there was no indication that it would have any more success than any of the others before it. Sara and Maybelle were humouring him, and it’s easy to suspect that Maybelle didn’t want to go to Bristol but that Sara begged her to come along, if only for the company. On the way out the door that day, Maybelle even asked if she should bring her guitar along.

Nevertheless, within a few years the three would deliver a songbook that we all know and play even today, and through their recordings Maybelle revolutionized country guitar playing. If you doubt it, think of all the times you’ve sat down with complete strangers and played “Wildwood Flower.”

Of course, that’s just the beginning. It’s a messy story, with sidetracks and tangents. They went on to snake oil salesmen and border radio; to illicit relationships, and families, and quiet divorces. They were photographed for the cover of Life magazine, though the attack on Pearl Harbor bumped them from the spot. In time Sara left AP to live with her true love in a trailer park in California, virtually never to appear in public again, on stage or otherwise. For much of her later life only her hairdresser knew who she really was. AP went and ran a small grocery store in rural Virginia, not far from where he was born, though most who thought of him, if they thought at all, believed him to be dead. Maybelle, of course, went on to fame with her girls, countless television appearances and recording dates, and looking uncomfortable with all of it from beginning to end.

Carter Girl

The story—and I know I’m not alone in thinking this—is endlessly fascinating. More than a creation myth, it’s a whole collection of creation myths: the birth of the recording industry, the birth of country music, the birth of mass communication, the culture of the Great Depression, the introduction of copyright, and the benefits and pitfalls of fame. All of that is in there.

It’s also a myth that really happened, and one that Carlene Carter engages beautifully with on her latest recording, Carter Girl. Carlene is June Carter’s daughter, and Maybelle was her grandmother. Carl Smith was her father, and her stepfather was Johnny Cash. Carlene has had a career of her own as country singer, one that we would typically think of as new country. She’s dabbled in the Carter songbook from time to time, including a record of “Dixie Darling,” though for the most part I suspect that her listenership is not one that comes to her from the Original Carter Family or from the world of acoustic Americana and bluegrass. They, and perhaps others, won’t notice that seven of the songs on this disc are Carter Family songs, nor do they need to.

But for those of us who know these songs, such as “Give me the Roses,” “Gold Watch and Chain,” and “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” what Carlene is doing here is fascinating. They are old songs, though here they aren’t distinguished that way at all. Here they are just songs, with a message and a delivery so modern that they could have been written yesterday. It’s a reminder that the reason these songs have been with us so long is because the sentiments within them are so honest. AP wasn’t writing/arranging (or plagiarizing) for an audience of millions, but rather for his neighbors. He was finding the stories within the songs that was comforting to those who have experienced the loss of love, have braved the minor injustices of life, and who were struggling with conflicted feelings of one sort of another. “I’ll be all smiles tonight” is a feeling I think we’ve all had, and that’s exactly how Carlene delivers it here: it’s not a piece of our musical history, it’s a presentation of an idea. Same with “Give me the Roses While I Live.” Hearing it in this recording I’m wondering why I’ve never thought to learn to play it myself. The new context that Carlene gives these song can also act to remind us of how deftly they have been assembled; “Roses” manages to keep the message from becoming maudlin simply through some skilled word choice. Have a listen with this in mind and you can see how AP was carefully avoiding some pretty obvious thematic potholes.

Also here is Carlene’s own story, particularly in “Me and the Wildwood Flower” and “Lonesome Valley.” The first of these is a song she has recorded before, beautifully recalling the life of the Carter family at home when Maybelle was still alive. In the second, Carlene begins with a song that is indelibly AP, “Lonesome Valley,” though with new verses that she wrote. The juxtaposition of these two things—AP’s alienation and Carlene’s reminiscences of moments in her family life—works brilliantly and beautifully. If you are familiar with the names she mentions—Rosie, June, Mama, Helen, Daddy—there is a dimension that comes from the awareness that they are real people who all, in one way or another, walked alone. Then again, if you have no idea who they are, I’m not sure the song lacks any of its power. It’s a chilling rumination on something we all struggle with.

So, no, this isn’t a bluegrass album and, to be frank, I felt my interest in it would be as a novelty, a knickknack in the long history of the Carter family. In fact, it’s a delight on all sorts of levels, not the least of which being that the album achieves so beautifully, entertainingly, the thing that it set out to do: revisit the fold.

Brush With Greatness

A piece I submitted to JazzFM was read on air this week as part of their “Brush with Greatness” series. It is posted to their site. The full text is also copied below.

 

I was working at a summer camp when Brainerd Blyden-Taylor came up for a week to do some singing workshops. Then, as now, he was the director of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. I was the piano accompanist at camp, and so I was there for all his workshops, etc., and we also spent a lot of time talking in the evenings. At one point he suggested that he use me as a guinea pig for one of his classes in order to demonstrate coaching and critique. The idea was that I would sing a song, accompanying myself on piano, and then he would critique the piece in front of the class. That way the students could see what the process was all about and none of them would have to be the first one on the hot seat.

So, it’s in the evening and it’s just him and me, and he asks, “So what are you going to play?” I had been trying to work up an interesting arrangement of Rocket Man, so I suggested it and he said, “All right, let me hear it.” I finish and he said a number of things that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. He complimented my voice and phrasing, and the accompaniment, saying that those things weren’t at issue. Then he asked why I chose that song. I said, well, because it’s a good song. And he said, “yes, but the world is full of good songs. Even great songs. Hundreds and hundreds of them. But you chose that one, and until you know why, you can never really sing it. You need to go back and look at the song, what it means, what it says, and you need to find out what it is within the song that speaks specifically to you. You need to know why you chose that song.”

Maybe for some people that idea would have been obvious, but for me it absolutely wasn’t. And, given the themes of Rocket Man, it was a fairly devastating thing to face. There was an anxiety/fear (whatever the word would be) within the song that was as obvious as it was a reflection of things I had been feeling … though I had missed all of that. Anyway, in the following days—and I would see him for that week in the summer for a number of years, so this became an idea that we returned to at a number of points—he suggested I look at all the music that appeals to me in the same way. Why do we like the music that we like? He suggested it’s worth thinking about in general, not only about the pieces we choose to play.

As I say, it’s a concept that I’ll never forget, and one that I apply to the music I listen to and the songs that I play. It’s the idea that music can function as a kind of mirror, and can tell us things about ourselves. It’s a dimension of music that can make our experience of it richer. And, in  terms of making music, it’s about knowing that singing a song isn’t just about timbre, timing, phrasing … all those bits and pieces. It’s about combining those things in the service of a consistent expression.

I later had the chance to see Brainerd rehearse his choir, and that was stunning as well. He doesn’t say the kinds of things that you might expect choral directors to say, and he knows exceptionally well how to bring out dimensions in the music. Just as he did with me, with his choir he goes for the core of the song, it’s emotional centre, and then works to support that. Its stunning to watch him in action, and I feel so privileged to have had those experiences. Brush with greatness? It absolutely was.

Special Consensus, “Country Boy”

(For HVBA) About a year ago, a tribute album to John Denver was released which was, in a word, awful. I reviewed it for KDHX radio, which was kind of fun, actually, given that you rarely get the chance to review something that offers itself up so completely to unequivocal derision. I know that it’s not cool to quote yourself, but here’s a bit of what I had to say about The Music In You: A tribute to John Denver, illustrating a point that I’d like to revisit here:

“The players here are a grab bag, from Brett Dennon, to Dave Matthews, to Lucinda Williams, to a number of people I’ve never heard of.  They share, between them, pretty much nothing. It’s hard to imagine that some of them even know who many of the others are. And I frankly don’t believe that they all actually like the music of John Denver. Lucinda Williams comes close to blowing her cover in one of the promo videos for this release, noting that she didn’t know the song that she was tasked to sing, and was surprised at how much she liked it when in the studio recording it. ‘The more I got into it, I was really moved!’ she says with a sense of disbelief. ‘I was actually moved to tears a little bit!’”

That, in a nutshell, was the problem with the album: the contributors didn’t participate out of love, or apparently even a knowledge, of the music of John Denver. Many are too young to have heard Denver when he was constantly on the radio, and they also likely don’t realize how much a part of the culture some of the songs have become. And, in any case, the result was abysmal.

Ok, now we move from the ridiculous to the sublime: The tribute to John Denver by Special Consensus released this month is the other side of the coin entirely. Special Consensus has consistently covered songs by Denver during its 40-year run. (Cahill has remained constant throughout, as has the vision and the quality of the performances and the recordings.) They’ve done so because, as Cahill says in the liner notes, “These are great songs.” The musicians’ appreciation of the songs shows in every note, even when they are bringing something new to them, as with “Country Roads” or “Sunshine on my Shoulders”—songs that can easily risk feeling a bit tired or threadbare, if only because we know them so well. If I were to tell you that I’m about to play a version of “Sunshine on Your Shoulders” and it’s going to give you chills, would you believe me? Well wait until you hear the version on this album, sung as a duet between Rhonda Vincent and Dustin Benson. It will give you chills. I challenge you to tell me that it doesn’t.

Now, I need to qualify that idea of bringing something new to these songs. The differences in the arrangements and the feel aren’t earth shatteringly great, but therein lies the point that Cahill is trying to make. The band takes the songs and plays them as songs—this is music, not karaoke. The result is that the songs begin to speak for themselves, and we’re given an opportunity to hear the sentiments within them fresh, almost as if for the first time. Some of the songs, such as “Wild Montana Skies,” “This Old Guitar,” “Poems, Prayers and Promises” and “Matthew,” don’t immediately even register as Denver songs, if only because they are less known. You could play them on bluegrass radio and they wouldn’t be “John Denver songs,” they’d just be good songs, and that’s exactly what the participants in this project intended.

The band approached the project along the same lines as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has approached their Circle projects, that is, serving as the house band for a range of guest artists. It works fantastically well. (The only moment that doesn’t work as well is the last track: “Rocky Mountain High” with Peter Rowan on lead vocal. He’s flat in places. I think he intends it, but it’s kind of grating. It’s like he’s trying to sing it through a filter of Tibetan Bhuddism, though the better decision would have been to just let the song speak for itself.)

In any case, this album is an absolute delight. It allows us to enjoy some chestnuts from a fresh perspective, and it also gathers a fantastic roster of musicians in order to shine a light on some fantastic songs. As such, it’s a tribute in the truest sense of the word.

Tony Trischka’s “Great Big World”

(For KDHX)

I wanted to love this album, and I’m having a hard time with it even now, because saying something negative about it is akin to sacrilege. Trischka has always been the focus of a lot of praise, and the liner notes by Bela Fleck that accompany this disc continue in that vein. For the most part, Trischka truly deserves all the praise he gets. His playing is unique, and he is one of the people who, out of nothing more than a faith and passion in the instrument, chose to devote his life to proving that the banjo ought to be taken seriously. That’s true on this release, too. He approaches the instrument, and his audience, with unerring sophistication. (He’s also been one of the drivers behind two recent projects celebrating the instrument, first his release “Territory” and the concerts that the album came out of, and the PBS documentary “Give Me the Banjo.” I also know, having tried to broker an interview between him and Jens Kruger, who I was working for at the time, that he is absolutely gracious and generous with his time.)

But this release comes with so many red carpets and built-in hyperbole that you’ll feel bullied into liking it. No doubt, critics will rave, if only because it feels odd saying anything bad about something that Bela Fleck feels is so good, or that includes so many truly fantastic musicians. The list of contributors is vast—you hear 33 performers, including Oscar-winning actors, dancers, electric guitars, a cello banjo, harp, flute, drums, spoken word, dancing ducks, seven lead vocalists, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There is a core band, as well as some fantastic players who won’t get star billing simply because they are outshone by John Goodman, such as Mike Compton, Russ Barenberg, Todd Philips, Noam Pikelny, and others.

Over the course of just 13 tracks, none of them gets much real estate. It’s a lot of cameos without a lead. Trischka likes weird, though perhaps he hasn’t had a chance prior to truly indulge himself.  This, apparently, is the opportunity he’s been waiting for—there are lots of non-sequitors, most of it at the hands of Elliott and Goodman in the baffling “Wild Bill Hickock.” Earlier on the disc the dancing ducks introduce a suite of melodies, each of them played on a single string of the banjo. There are five movements because there are five strings to the banjo. I got that much. The only thing I don’t understand is why. It’s a kind of parlor trick that Trischka seems a bit chuffed at pulling off—he’s mentioned the difficulty of this kind of thing in interviews—but unless you can see him actually playing it, you’ve missed the tricky bit.

Ultimately it is indeed a very big world, and with Trischka in the lead, it feels like we’re lost within it after dark without a flashlight, a map, or any sense of direction. In isolation there are some very nice moments on this disc, but there is nothing that roots them together. It’s, wall to wall, a room full of strangers. Between the flights of fancy, we get a few nods to the tradition, though they are as incongruous as everything else. “Do Re Mi” is a song that has been done to death, and reads as little more than a tribute to a great songwriter, Woody Guthrie. Still, the message of the song is hard (and perhaps impossible) to deliver in a way that makes it feel at all relevant to us today. Here, as elsewhere, it’s little more than a museum piece. Museums are fine, but this album isn’t meant to be one, clearly, and how he ever arrived at this particular song for inclusion is a head scratcher. (He’s been involved in a tribute to Guthrie, so perhaps it was just something close to hand.)

“Angelina Baker” is a nice song written by Stephen Foster more than 150 years ago. We rarely hear the words these days—it’s more commonly played as a fiddle tune though, as in a game of broken telephone, the melody has strayed over the years to the point that the words can’t be sung to it. In any case, it’s a nice idea to present the words, which many people are likely hearing for the first time (though some of the choices here are puzzling … the words too have been altered over the years, and anyway … well, it’s a long story). In the right hands the song can deliver a profound narrative of loss despite the passing years and changing contexts from when it was written. Here, however, it’s fractured and show-offy, and the narrative—one of a slave being separated from his love through the trade of human chattel—is lost entirely. Maeve Gilchrist’s voice and harp on “Ocracoke Lullaby,” are lovely, though she comes so entirely out of blue that it’s akin to finding a sapphire in a bowl of ice cream. (Didn’t expect that!) Two tracks later, on “Joy,” we land in the middle of an electric gospel tune. (Or that!)

But, yes, writing this I feel like a grump, and I suspect that this might be the only bad review the album will get. I feel a bit like the Emperor Joseph noting that Mozart’s opera “The Abduction from the Seraglio” contained “too many notes.” (Then again, it’s not one of the famous operas, is it? Joseph might have had a point.) But the message of this album doesn’t really feel like a musical one. Rather, it feels like you’re in an apartment across the hall from a party that you weren’t invited to. You see the guests arriving, and it sounds like they’re having a lot of fun. When making “Great Big World,” no doubt they were. Too bad we weren’t invited.

Rhonda Vincent, “Only Me”

(For HVBA) I was once helping with a satellite feed of the Kruger Brothers early one morning at Merlefest—the local television station was airing live segments from a hill overlooking the festival grounds—and Rhonda Vincent was the next up. The only problem was that her bus driver had gotten lost and wasn’t answering the phone. All the organizers were frantic, which was kind of funny, you know, having lost Rhonda Vincent and all. I noted that I had seen the bus in another parking lot on the way up, and they sent someone off running to set things right.

In the event, her driver got them to the right place with something like minutes to spare before the feed was supposed to begin. The sun was only just rising, and they had been travelling through the night, arriving at the festival something along the lines of minutes before, minutes that they spent sitting in the wrong parking lot. When they arrived where the filming was being done, some of the band members stumbled bleary-eyed out of the bus, one of whom was Josh Williams. And then, with seconds to spare, Vincent literally bounds from the bus, her hair tied quickly back in a pony tail, shaking hands, saying howdy, and asking which way to face. All business; savvy in every way.

She speaks the language of bluegrass musicians as well as she does television crews. She found her mark, asked if they wanted an intro (they did) and she counted it in and they were into a few bars of some very hot material. If your coffee hadn’t woken you up, she did.

In all, Vincent was a sparkplug, raring and ready to go. She gave an energetic interview, then another energetic performance until the producer said they were off, at which point she stopped mid chop stroke, said sincere thanks, and then she was gone.

No one knew quite what hit them. What hit them, of course, was a seasoned professional who has worked hard not only to become an A-list musician, but also an A-list entertainer. Look at any issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, and there isn’t another performer who is featured in so many festivals. She knows her business, and for decades, she’s done it tirelessly: she’s not out to change our minds, or educate us, or to challenge us, but to get people together and entertain them. Her show can seem a bit slick at times but, really, why not? There is a time for all things.

I’ve said all of that in order to say this: Vincent’s latest recording, Only Me, is impeccably produced, nicely conceived, and fantastically entertaining. There are two parts here, six bluegrass songs and six country songs. To be honest, I’m not clear as to why such a stark division is made—for those buying a physical copy, the songs are divided onto two discs—because all of the material comes from the same place, one of appreciation and delight. The country songs are covers and, to her credit, Vincent takes on some chestnuts—including “Once a Day,” and “Beneath Still Waters”—which in lesser hands could easily sound tired.

Here, everything sparkles thanks to the energy and the voice that Vincent brings, as well as the musicians that she’s assembled, including Josh Williams, duets with Daryle Singletary and Willie Nelson, and Mark Johnson on pedal steel. The result is a beautifully crafted romp through some fantastic material. It won’t change your mind about anything, but you’ll be singing along, and giggling here and there, and feeling blue now and again. And, as with everything that Vincent does, you’ll be entertained from beginning to end.

Blue Highway, “The Game”

(for KDHX) I think every bluegrass band could take a lesson from Blue Highway, and here’s why I think that is: they put the content, and the storytelling, before everything else. And, frankly, storytelling is what this kind of music, if not every kind of music, is really all about. At least I think so, and clearly Blue Highway does as well.

“It’s a similar formula to what we’ve had in the past,” says Tim Stafford of this new album, titledThe Game. “It’s mostly original songs—that’s one of the strengths of the band and it has been from the beginning.”

No doubt it is. Indeed, there have been many songs along the way that really stand out in memory, not because of a great lick or grandstanding, but because of the stories that they tell. If you’ve been listening to Blue Highway over the years, all you need are the titles of the songs to bring the emotions and the ideas flooding back: “He walked all the way home,” “Homeless Man,” “Lonesome Pine,” “Before the Cold Wind Blows.”

The Game —thankfully, delightfully—brings more of the same. It is another set of stories to get lost within, delivered impeccably. Really. Truly. Fantastic. You know the players, as they’ve been around a while and have played with everybody and won all the awards. Even better, this is a formation that, as is often said, have remained together, without any personnel changes, since they formed in 1994. I can’t think of any other band in the bluegrass world that even comes close. The result is a chemistry, and a level of comfort with who they are, that really sets them apart. The writing, the arrangements, and the deliveries are so crystalline, so mature, that they give you goosebumps. Just when you are drooling over Rob Ickes’ dobro, as on “A Change in Faith in Tennessee,” then there’s Shawn Lane on the mandolin. Then they go back and forth and do it again.

The Grascals, “When I Get My Pay”

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 10.01.02 AMThe Grascals are as capable as any bluegrass band out there these days. They know what they are doing, and they are doing it well. They were the IBMA emerging artists of the year in 2005, they’ve played the Opry, and otherwise spent their time polishing the ensemble and their writing. When I Get My Pay is their 8th studio release, and might well be their best, which is saying something given that all their albums have gained critical notice and places on the charts.

When I Get My Pay is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through some common bluegrass topics: the road, working, broken hearts, hard luck, and fun. (There is also the theme song for a reality TV show, “American Pickers,” a show about antiquing.) The Grascals might be first known for their energy, though some of the best material on this disc are the ballads. “Bluegrass Melodies” is about family and home and includes a few callouts to Bill Monroe. The harmonies are as good as the Grascals have ever done, and the fiddle parts, on that track and elsewhere, work exceptionally well.

The band is from Nashville, and they fall into some of the familiar music-city tropes, including a lap steel guitar and, unfortunately, an electronic piano. Piano is fine, but if you’re reading this, I suspect you might be suspicious of the ability to successfully add piano to bluegrass. As well, I suspect you might not love how the Grascals handle it. An acoustic piano would have helped, and a less soporific approach, as on “Silver Strands,” would have helped too. In all, they are better when they stay closer to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and vocal styles, and thankfully there is a lot of that on this album, as in “Roll On” and “Five Miles to Milan.”

All that said, there is a goofiness to the album cover that I’m having a hard time getting past. Whoever told them to dress up in overalls, slap grease on their faces and stand on a bridge over a rail yard should be fired.

In any case, if you don’t look at the cover, there’s a lot in this collection to love.

 

Best of 2013

(for KDHX)

This has felt like the official year of “well, it’s about time!” recordings. There seemed to be so many albums from really top flight players who haven’t released anything in, literally, years. In all cases, it was worth the wait.

It’s been ten years since the last O’Brien and Scott studio recording, six since Bruce Molsky’s last project, six since Pete Huttlinger’s last album of original material, five for Daily and Vincent (discounting a Statler’s Brothers tribute and an album of gospel tunes) and four for Claire Lynch. This year also brought the first ever solo project from John Driskell Hopkins, though he’s gained lots of notice as an integral part of the Zac Brown Band.

For fans, all arrived with a sigh and a “what took you so long?” Perhaps it’s emblematic of the state of the music industry that releases are coming fewer and further between these days. (I interviewed  James Alan Shelton this year, and he noted that he’ll probably never release a new album, as there just isn’t enough return to warrant the investment of time and resources.) Still, it felt like Christmas came early a few times this year, both in terms of surprise—who knew that O’Brien and Scott were working on another project?—and also in terms of quality: There were a few albums released this year that, in time, might well prove to be lasting hallmarks of the musicians’ careers, such as the first four on this list.

Noam Pikelny, “Noam Pikelney plays Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe”
A track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. Strange? Nope. Brilliant.

Dailey and Vincent, “Brothers of the Highway”
Says Vincent, “We wanted to make an album about the joys of a simple way of life and tell stories through descriptive lyrics about friends, family, and love.” They did, and it it’s there best album to date which, for D&V, is saying something.

Bruce Molsky, “If it ain’t here when I get back”
The freshest old-time music you could ever hope to hear.  This is a very important album, given what Molsky brings to the music but also because of how few albums he releases. Definitely, a big highlight this year.

John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”
A really nice mix from a musician from Zac Brown’s Band. I believe this is his first solo release, and certainly leaves us wanting more.

Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”
This album marks a move from the B league to the Majors for what is by any measure an extremely capable group of musicians. It also earned them a Grammy nod this year.

Cindy Woolf, “May”
She is an independent artist that vast swaths of the country will never hear, which is too bad. This album is confident, layered, and heartfelt. It’s funny, too.

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, “Moments and Memories”
Quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited, and is one of the best things to come along this year.

Pete Huttlinger, “McGuire’s Landing”
Huttlinger has resided largely in the shadows, with the bulk of his career spent as a session musician (he has even won an Emmy for scoring a PBS special). His health has been an obstacle, and is currently awaiting a heart transplant. It’s a situation that is far more dire than he lets on, yet through it all—his heart condition is genetic and one that he has lived with his entire life—he has still be creating music, all of which comes a place of stark honesty, musicianship, and an awareness of craft. This project literally began when he was in the hospital, vowing to begin work on it when he got up and about. The music is varied, gorgeous, and can stand on it’s own. Still, the project also comes with a long prose piece, a kind of novella, that the pieces illustrate. It’s a release that is truly remarkable in every way.

Claire Lynch, “Dear Sister”
Lynch is a great writer and presenter, though this album includes a line-up that is a draw in itself, including Mark Shatz and Bryan McDowell. Lynch gives them lots of elbow room, and the result is less an album than it is an event. If you haven’t heard it, you’ve really missed something.

Adam Steffey, “New Primitive”
The first track opens with a pop music flourish that you don’t typically find on old time albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. Certainly, it isn’t. Steffey looks back in order to look forward. And it’s quite a view.

O’Brien and Scott’s “Memories and Moments”

(for KDHX) The thing about Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott is that each project comes with the feeling that you’re joining a show already in progress. That’s true of their latest studio release, Memories and Moments, which comes a full decade after their first. Like everything they’ve done, it’s quirky, adept, interesting, intelligent and entirely worthwhile. This album was eagerly awaited and is one of the best things to come along this year.

But there is a distinction to be made here. The pop music format approaches each new release as an artifact, a collection of new songs presented as if they were etched in stone. Albums are understood to be definitive, complete, and unalterable. That solo on “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” is the solo and always will be. Audiences expect to hear it at shows, and if they don’t they feel that they’ve been cheated out of something.

O’Brien and Scott aren’t that. This album includes new songs as well as songs that we’ve heard before, and while not radically different, are different enough. “Brother Wind” was recorded for the Transatlantic Sessions with a rich cast of players and gorgeous production (and a great video). If you love that version, then you might feel that you’re being cheated out of something here. This recording of the song is barer, thinner, less lush. The lead voice is dry, and the instrumentation straight forward, just as if you were sitting in a room with two guys playing a song that, for whatever reason, they just feel like playing. Scott’s vocal harmony can sound a bit tentative at times, almost as if he’s still working out his part.

It’s not better or worse, it’s just a song. It doesn’t need a definitive recording, because it’s the idea that O’Brien is drawing us to, which is a quality that marks all of his writing and performances. He’s asking us to come along with him for a moment, and to take a look at something important. He’s successful because he is simply a brilliant songwriter, and that’s not because he turns out great lines, but rather because of what he allows us to consider and, for the moment, get lost within. The duo of Scott and O’Brien is successful because they both clearly share that approach; they’re not trying to etch anything in stone, but just turn over some ideas.

There are a couple tracks here that might get more attention than others, principle among them being a recording of John Prine’s classic “Paradise” with Prine himself adding vocals. Fine, but the song becomes a distraction with the presence of Prine pulling focus from the truly great stuff in here, such as the title track and the caustic “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.”

At the end of the day, it’s no matter, because there is a richness to this material that really demands your attention while reminding us that there is nothing permanent. It’s all just thoughts, ideas, memories and moments. The recording was apparently done over three days, and the feel is as if we are there with them, in the room, just savoring all of that.

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

(for KDHX) I’m just going to come right out and say it: I love everything about this album. The only way to make it any better would be to have it autographed. The art, the concept, the musicians, the arrangements, the production—in any way you care to look at it, Noam Pikelny’s latest release, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is a delight from start to finish.

The first thing that I love is that, on the face of things, the concept is so unabashedly geeky: It’s a track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. It’s right up there, in terms of cool, with Civil War re-enactment and stamp collecting. For the cover, Pikelny is wearing a Baker-era suit, tie (yikes!) and the same brand and style of Stetson that you see on the initial release.

The risk, perhaps, it that it could come off as mockery, though he negotiates that line carefully and we see the impulse for what it is: respect. Baker had been a long-time fiddler with Monroe, and spent longer playing in that band than any other musician. He was a master of phrasing and interpretation, and also such a Monroe die-hard such that when he went to make a solo recording, he did a collection of Monroe’s songs. Famously, Bill Monroe came by the studio for little more than to say hi and ended up staying throughout the sessions, and playing on every track.

That album, rightly, is prised for the approach that Baker brought to the music, though the subtleties can be hard for those less steeped in the music to hear. At the time, Baker’s playing stood out from the crowd for its polished feel and the elegance that it added to the music. It became a classic recording, a status that it retains to this day.

The concept of recreating it began, as is noted in the liner notes, when Pikelny joked in a text to Ronnie McCoury “Could I get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe?” The idea stewed a bit and, a year later, he decided that it actually was a very attractive one. Pikelny spent months transcribing Baker’s solos in order to bring them faithfully to the banjo. Why? Well, maybe it was fun, or whatever, but he did it, perhaps to work through the interpretations of a master with the intention of learning from them as much as building on them.

Once done, Pikelny brought together some musical friends that are all operating at the very top of their instruments: Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. All share a deep, abiding sense of the tradition of bluegrass music, yet all project their own personalities and their own voices through the music they play. Each is a delight on his own, and together they could play “Happy Birthday” and no doubt it would be absolutely entertaining. They are just that good. The album was produced by another great, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and the only regret is that we don’t get to hear him on here too.

The result is an album that is simply impossible to resist. It includes some very common bluegrass tracks, such as “Jerusalem Ridge,” and “Brown County Breakdown” as well as some pieces that are somewhat less heard theses days, such as “Road to Columbus.” The recording quality is crystalline, and while there is a dedication to what Baker and Monroe brought to this music, the voices of these players come through as well and there are a wealth of “ahh!” moments. McCoury is such a deft student of Monroe, though he doesn’t parrot the playing, instead using it as a means to explore new musical ideas. Stuart Duncan , well, there is no better or humble player out there today.

I could go on, but I won’t. It just doesn’t get any better than this. If you are a fan of acoustic music, and have a CD player in your car, get a copy of this album. If it doesn’t win a Grammy, then those awards aren’t worth a 70s-era tie.

Interview with James Alan Shelton

Update: When this piece was posted, Shelton emailed saying “I just wanted to say thank you so much for the wonderful story. It was one of the best I’ve ever had done about me and my music. I could tell from the interview that you were familiar with my guitar playing and I certainly appreciate that. It was truly a fine piece of work.” Not long after that he very sadly passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a wonderful musician, and a wonderful person.

(for KDHX) James Alan Shelton has been playing, touring and recording with Ralph Stanley for twenty years, longer than any guitar player Stanley has ever worked with. I reached him by phone to talk about what it’s like to have your dream job.

Continue reading “Interview with James Alan Shelton”

The Definitive Doc Watson

(HVBA) You can be forgiven for thinking, “Do we really need another collection of Doc Watson recordings?” When I heard of this release, that’s what I thought. My initial impression was that Sugar Hill was just releasing something in order to drum up some sales in light of Watson’s passing in May of last year.

Once I got my hands on this collection, I realized that the answer is, actually, yes, you do need another collection of Watson recordings, and this is it. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into selecting the tracks here, and Jack Lawrence, long-time guitar player with Watson, was one of the people involved. As well, the tracks have been remastered, evening out some of the sonic anomalies of the very early recordings, allowing them to sit well alongside the later recordings, the most recent of which is a duet with Bryan Sutton on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in 2006.

But then there is this: while there have indeed been many Watson releases over the years—he recorded more than 60 albums, and they were in turn redistributed in countless collections of one sort or another—this is the first one to jointly anthologize the Vanguard Records and Sugar Hill Records periods of Doc’s discography. The only thing better (and who knows, maybe one day we’ll get it) would be a collection that also anthologizes recordings from the Smithsonian releases, which were the earliest recordings of Watson ever made available. The first recording ever made of him was a field recording at a fiddle convention when he was still just in his early teens. It’s a rough recording, and the intro is brutal to endure, but once Watson plays, it’s fascinating. Smithsonian released the duets of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley and later the duets with Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie. You really feel those absences on this collection, as you do the duets he did with Chet Atkins, an album called Reflections which is now inexplicably out of print. (People in the US can get it in digital download through iTunes, and if you don’t have it, do yourself another favour and download it. I live in Canada, and can’t buy it through iTunes … so much for free trade.)

Nevertheless, this collection includes the broadest selection of Watson’s work ever released in a single product: 34 tracks recorded from 1962 to the last recording he made, that one with Bryan Sutton. From beginning to end, it’s a delight. There are lots of familiar tunes here, such as “Tennessee Stud,” “Shady Grove,” and “Black Mountain Rag.” But, there are also a fair number of tunes that, unless you are a diehard Watson collector, you may not have heard much of. There’s nothing rare, and everything is available on the original albums, but with so many albums out there, really, it’s hard to hear it all. I like that they begin this collection with “The Cyclone of Rye Cove,” and I like that they included “Southbound,” one of the few songs that Watson wrote that really entered his performance repertoire.

It’s interesting, too, that they choose material that sits well together, deciding not to include tracks from some of the albums that he did that were a bit further from the core of his work, such as the Docabilly album. What this collection comprises is a very informed collection of songs, chosen by people who worked with Watson. As such it collects a range of the material he released, not just the songs that get all the attention. There are some interesting absences—“Midnight on the Stormy Deep” doesn’t appear here—but, in fact, that adds to the collection as a whole, in that you don’t feel you’re just hearing all the familiar stuff all over again. It all sounds fresh and alive. And, with two wonderful liner essays, you really couldn’t ask for much more. This is the collection that really will remind you of how charming, talented, and entertaining Doc Watson was.

Old Time 101

(KDHX)

Photo courtesy Ray AldenToday we call the kind of music that Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller, and Jim Nelson play “old-time music,” though that wasn’t always ever thus. Prior to the 1920s, it was just called music, and it came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers. In the US the music naturally kept growing, changing, and evolving, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles throughout 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.

Continue reading “Old Time 101”

Second Time Around

(ParentsCanada; CBC)

For most people looking down the barrel of retirement, the thought of having another baby isn’t one they’re willing to entertain. Yet when Steve Heming said “I do” three years ago, he also said “I will.” For wife Tammy, having kids was always in the cards. Sure enough, nine months later, Steve welcomed his third child, Lucy, into the world. Then a year later, Thomas arrived. Steve is 58. This past year, while Steve was home changing diapers and singing lullabies, his eldest son, Shawn, 26, was a tree planting foreman in B.C., and his daughter, Kerry, 24, was a concierge at a yoga studio in Toronto. Continue reading “Second Time Around”

Revisiting Tommy Dorsey

When we were teenagers we defined ourselves through the music that we listened to, and I suppose that that is something which remains true for teens today. I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to James Taylor (even if I sat enthralled with “Sweet Baby James” when no one was around) and the same was true for big band music. In the 70s, big band music was the soundtrack of our parents’ lives, which was synonymous with lame.

Well, I’m older now, and with age comes the freedom to be lame in my children’s eyes. It’s a great freedom, because it allows me to listen to music in ways I never did before. Since I got a turntable for Christmas, I’ve been buying LPs at garage sales, thrift shops, wherever. As a result, I have a new fave: Tommy Dorsey.

No, “Tommy Dorsey” doesn’t sound very hip, does it. Dorsey was a famous bandleader, arranger, and trombonist. But there’s something otherworldly about so many of his recordings that I find myself resisting saying the kinds of things that David Sedaris quotes from his father, like “Listen to this! They really don’t make records like this anymore!” (But, seriously, they don’t. I’m not sure anyone even could.)

The frontrunner Dorsey album for late night summer listening is, hands down, a collection called “Yes, Indeed.” I say collection because it was never a proper studio album, but a collection of hits of a sort, some from the early 30s and then on up to a couple from the post war years. There was a time when this music was pop, but now it sounds veiled, clandestine, and mysterious. “Star Dust” “Song of India” “Marie” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” The album features a young Sinatra and the Pied Pipers, a vocal group. Group shouts, brass, mellow reeds—lots of variety and the kinds of intense arrangements that Dorsey was famous for. It just makes you feel like you’re someplace else. Someplace like Europe with an American regiment during the war.

Vinyl is important, because it really makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on another place and time. There’s something about knowing that the album is a thing that has made the trek from back then. It was once bought new from a record store and held in, perhaps, a young pair of hands. The copy I have was pressed in the late 40s, and the pops and background hiss add to the exoticism of the album. It just sounds like plantation humidity to me. There is a laziness to the record going around and around until the hiss, pop, and then silence when the needle lifts at the end of a side.  The liner notes are great too, including the ubiquitous note to “Beware the Blunted Needle.” There isn’t a hint of irony or sarcasm anywhere, which can seem disingenuous to a modern reader.

There’s nothing sarcastic or ironic about the music, either, even though the modern ear can play some tricks in that regard. But alone, late at night, if you just give yourself over to it, this is the kind of music that can remind you that it’s  a very big world out there.  I’m not sure why, but it just does. And it is. Bigger than I ever imagined.

Now what?

(McMaster University Department of Pediatrics)

As a nation, we’re getting heavier with each passing year, and the health effects of obesity—from depression to heart attacks to some forms of cancer—are on the rise, too. So what do we do? Well, not perhaps what you might think. New studies,  such as those led by Dr. Karen Morrison at McMaster University in Ontario are changing the way we think about obesity. They’re also challenging some central ideas about what we can do about it.

In the 1980s, Susan Powter became a celebrity by challenging widely held notions of why individuals are obese and what they can do to change it. Her mantra, repeated endlessly through her late-night infomercials, was “eat less, move more.” Getting healthy was, as she drilled into thousands of late-night couch potatoes, simple, easy to understand and easy to do. All you needed was to get up and do it. Right?

Well, no. Dr. Katherine Morrison, an associate professor within the Division of Exercise and Nutrition, says, “We know very clearly that if all you say to an individual is, ‘You know, you just have to eat less and move more,’ you can save your breath. Because we know that doesn’t work.”Continue reading “Now what?”

Don Rigsby’s “Doctor’s Orders”

(HVBA) Don Rigsby has been around a while, and as such he always seems to be there, not too far away. Many probably came across him for the first time in the movie Bluegrass Journey where he’s onstage with the Lonesome River band (in what some consider their best line up) at the IBMA’s and then later, in the hallway of the hotel at the conference, playing his heart out with Don Rigsby and Friends. Maybe we’d seen him in Lonesome River, but with the movie and the subtitles, he finally had a name.

There are some very memorable scenes in that movie, but the ones with Rigsby aren’t among them. He doesn’t have Rhonda Vincent’s teeth, or Chris Thile’s looks. He doesn’t have Tim O’Brien’s quick sense of humor, or Tony Rice’s cool, or Dolly Parton’s dress. He’s just Don Rigsby. His default expression seems to be worry. He’s playing and singing beautifully, though perhaps not transmitting across the footlights the way some of the others do. Even when he’s with his own outfit, he’s still playing the sideman.

That’s the Don Rigsby we find on this new album, too. He is self-effacing to a fault in the liner notes, which is dedicated to childhood memories of his hero, Ralph Stanley, to whom this release is a tribute. Stanley is on the cover, and he’s collaborated on a song, “The Daughter of Geronimo.” That song is a highlight, to be sure, but it’s just one song, so the gush of the liner notes seems, initially, a bit over the top.

When you listen closely though, even if Stanley doesn’t have such a personal presence here, the fact is that his music, and his influence, is everywhere. Where Jim Lauderdale pushed Stanley out front like a stage prop on his collaboration Lost in the Lonesome Pines, this album from Rigsby is much subtler, and is far and away the finer tribute. “Little Maggie” is a song that he requested at a Ralph Stanley concert on his sixth birthday, and it’s covered beautifully here; the reference to the banjo ring is as much an homage to Stanley as you can get.

There are some high-powered guests here in addition to Stanley, including a vocal turn from Ricky Skaggs on “Home in the Mountains” and “Tennessee Truck Driving Man.” Barry Bales is on bass throughout, and James Shelton and Larry Sparks are pretty equally represented on guitar. The song selection is strong, and the production serves the material as much as the stilted album cover photo (get it, “Doctor’s Orders”?) and liner notes undercut it.

This is a lovely album, and bluegrass fans will enjoy its calm confidence. “Sinner Man” is a gorgeous a cappella piece, and “Walking up the Hill on Decoration Day” is a highlight as well. Still, Rigsby is good enough to set himself clearly out in front, and if I were his manager, that’s what I’d be begging him to do. Rigsby has been a sideman for the vast bulk of his career, and it seems that he’s trying to be a sideman on this recording as well, which becomes the one fault of the project. Yes, he’s got lots of musical heroes, but there are musicians out there for whom he could be a hero if he let them perceive him in that way.

Adam Steffey’s “New Primitive”

(HVBA) The first track on Adam Steffey’s new album New Primitive opens with a pop music flourish of a kind that you don’t typically find on oldtime albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. And, certainly, it isn’t.

It’s his third solo project and one that Steffey says he’s been hoping to do for some time— namely to record some of old time tunes that are rooted in the musical history of Appalachia. All the pieces here are traditional ones that have been handed down in the traditional way, from player to player over the course of generations.

That’s how Steffey learned them too, and his pedigree for this material is as good as it gets: his maternal grandfather was Tom Carter, a cousin of A. P. Carter of Carter Family fame. In the liner notes that accompany this CD Steffey writes of Tom Carter that, “he was … a midwife/country doctor, of sorts. My grandfather (Fred Carter) once told me that the first time he heard a phonograph record was when A.P. Carter brought a phonograph over and played the records of the first Carter Family sessions that they had recorded in Bristol.”

He adds, “This music is something that is very dear to me and I count myself very blessed to have grown up in the East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia area. Having been allowed to hear and perform with so many terrific musicians from this area has made me the musician that I am.”

It was at The Carter Fold in Hiltons, VA, the home place of The Carter Family, that Adam first heard this kind of music. It is a place that still has traditional music every Saturday night and where Steffey occasionally performs. He has taken it around the US, and around the world, and traditional music could scarcely have a better ambassador. Steffey is a Grammy winner and IBMA mandolin player of the year … nine times. For a time he was a member of Alison Krauss’ band, Union Station, and has recorded with everyone from James Taylor to his own award winning band, the Boxcars.

But on this CD he mixes things up a bit; he returns to his roots, though he does it with an energy and an enthusiasm that is infectious. Some of the tunes are well known, such as “Cluck Old Hen” and “Raleigh and Spencer.” Others are a bit more esoteric to listeners less steeped in the Appalachian traditions. All sound absolutely fresh and alive. This recording isn’t a museum of old tunes, but rather a vehicle for Steffey to pay homage and also have a lark with some of the material that is so familiar to him.

Here he also presents the Snyder Family Band—a group that we’ve profiled in these pages—in a way that they’ve been featured before. Zeb Snyder plays guitar throughout, and absolutely tears it up on the faster tunes, such as “Chinquapin Hunting.” He’s coming into his own as a guitar player, just as his sister, Samantha, is as a fiddle player and singer. This CD includes a gorgeous vocal track featuring Samantha, “Who Now Will Sing Me Lullabies.” Her voice has matured even since her last recording with the Family Band, “Building Bridges” which was released this year.

Ron Block’s “Walking Song”

(HVBA) Listening to this disc, I wished that I had no idea who Ron Block is or any of the things he’s done in his career. By any measure, he’s done a lot, most notably as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station for twenty years. On his own, he’s released two collections prior to this one, and they—as this one—are populated by a lot of very high-powered musical friends, though his previous releases were more overtly dedicated to his gospel writing, which can often come off as preachy and lacking much depth or dimension.

This disc, Walking Song, is the first of his albums that I’ve really loved, and there is a lot to love. The musicianship is really beyond compare, and the guests comprise a group of players that is simply hard to get enough of. The main ‘band’ throughout this project is Union Station, with Krauss and Dan Tyminski taking turns on backing vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass. Other guests who appear here include Sierra Hull, Sam Bush, and Mike Compton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Also sharing vocals are Suzanne Cox and the stunning Kate Rusby. Like I said, there’s a lot to love, and all of it works brilliantly. Block isn’t a scintillating lead singer, perhaps, and his delivery can be flat, but the material and the settings make up for the shortfall. The material ranges from old-time (“Devil in a Strawstack”) to folk (“Summer’s Lullaby,” “Chase Me to the Ocean”) to traditional bluegrass (“Nickel Tree Line,” “Shortnin’ Bread”) to celtic (“The Fields of Aidlewinn”).

Throughout, it’s a lovely tour through some great ideas and sounds. The album is relaxed, free of some of the big ideas that he’s tried to present in the past, and the collection really benefits from the lighter approach. “Some of these songs are just fun,” says Block. ”They’re fun and they’re sweet and they’re just for a moment of relief or respite from the hum-drum everyday world. ‘Ivy’ is one of those, just a sweet little song. It’s not some grand philosophical idea; it’s a guy wanting to get back home.”

I wished that I didn’t know anything of his history because I wonder how it would be to come at this material absolutely fresh, with no baggage in terms of expectations, or all those thoughts that tend to crowd in. The reason is because this is an album that stands so beautifully, and brilliantly, on it’s own. If you had no idea of the background, you’d feel that you’d made a great discovery, and that in itself would be so exciting.

Anyway, it is what it is, which is easily one of the best albums released this year.

“Tell the Ones I Love” by the Steep Canyon Rangers

(HVBA) Culturally, we seem to like the idea of the struggling artist, someone who suffers for their work and who’s work seems to benefit from the struggle that goes into it. Would we revere people like Hemingway, for example, if their lives were idyllic and the only drama was in the pages of their books. I’m not sure the work would seem as honest, and that’s true in music as well. Roni Stoneman was a banjo player with the storied Stoneman family, and her relatives were there with the Carter Family at the Bristol sessions. She went on to star on Hee Haw and, when that was over, descended into crushing poverty and abuse at the hands of her husband. I heard her in interview once when she was asked to give advice to a 12-year-old musician. Stoneman said, “Enjoy the music that you play, because, most of the time, that’s about all you’re going to get out of it.”

If there is an opposite to that story, at least in the world of bluegrass music, it’s that of the Steep Canyon Rangers. There is a goofy, frat party quality to them, but in a good way—they seem to be five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, out to have some fun. Then, 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 the current 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. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music, and the gaze within the writing, let’s face it, is rarely from they heights down. Instead, bluegrass, like the blues, is about being down and trying to look up.

I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. On their latest release, Tell the Ones I Love, they break from tradition with bluegrass (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding many of the sounds of that other hard-luck music: country. Here are drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. They sing of hard times, as on “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken” though the music never really meets the sentiment of the lyric, nor does the lyric ever really develop the idea.

The musicianship is, of course, professional in every way, as these are five guys who know their way around their instruments. Songs like “Stand and Deliver” have a lovely sonic quality (and, in that case, is sung by Graham Sharp, providing a nice counterpoint to the typical lead voice for this band, Woody Platt).

The album was recorded in Woodstock in a barn on the property of the late Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band. Prior to Helm’s death he had been producing a series of events he called the Midnight Rambles, and the Steeps were involved with those. Not surprisingly, some of the material and production here approaches a tribute to Helm. “Camellia” has that lope-shouldered rhythm and harmony vocals that we associate with the Band.

But, again, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. Helm, too, lived a life of hardship and discord that made so much of his best music really shine. When he sang of lost love and hardship, it had an honesty that, in so much pop and rock, is hard to come by. 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. They are at their best in songs which say closer to home, as on the instrumental “Graveyard Fields” and “Take the Wheel.” They make up for more derivative material, such as “Las Vegas.” But, as I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is still yet to come.

The long journey of Doc Watson

(KDHX)

It’s perhaps easy to underestimate the impact that Doc Watson has had over the course of his career, in part because of the ways we choose to express it. We like superlatives—first, longest, fastest, best. He’s credited as the first to play fiddle tunes on guitar, and certainly he’s been influential in that regard, though it’s likely that, if not Doc, someone else would have shepherded the fiddle repertoire onto flattop.

Continue reading “The long journey of Doc Watson”

The Spinney Brothers’ “No Borders”

(HVBA)

Dick Bowden recently wrote a compelling cover story about the Spinney Brothers for Bluegrass Unlimited. Titled “On the road with the Spinney Brothers” (April, 2013) Bowden gives an account of one leg of the Spinney Brothers’ summer 2012 tour, following the band from the moment they leave the Bluegrass in the Hills festival in Hopedale, Ohio, on Friday to the moment they leave their next gig, Saturday/Sunday sets gig at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival near Norwich, Connecticut.Continue reading “The Spinney Brothers’ “No Borders””

Review, “The Music is You: a tribute to John Denver”

(KDHX)

There are lots of tribute albums around, though they are a curious bird. The assumption we make as consumers is that the people who contribute do so because they were inspired by the person whose work they are paying tribute to. I once bought a tribute CD to Jimmy Rogers that opened with a track from U2, “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes.” It was hard to imagine that U2 had ever heard of Jimmy Rodgers, and even harder to imagine that they had been influenced by him.

Continue reading “Review, “The Music is You: a tribute to John Denver””