The Chrysalids at 60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jayme Stone and The Lomax Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baltic Crossing, The Tune Machine

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

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

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

Interview with Sarah Jarosz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mac Wiseman, Songs from my Mother’s Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing about music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Blog, “The Circus,” November 13, 2013.



Silent Bear’s “The Green Lion”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Tao of Peter Rowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering Peter, Paul, and Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fleck and Washburn

(for Sing Out!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Seamons and Hunter, “Take Yo Time”

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

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

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

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

Being Noah Richler

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Andrew Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of McMaster Children’s Hospital

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

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

by Glen Herbert

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

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

Health care in a changing world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Championing a cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] emphasis in the original

House of Horrors

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.

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

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

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

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

What’s eating you?


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

What is that?

TINEA PEDIS (athlete’s foot)

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

It’s not what you think…


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

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

VERRUCA PLANTARIS (plantar warts)

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

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

HERPES SIMPLEX (cold sores) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duhks, “Beyond the Blue”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Cleveland, “On Down the Line”

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

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

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

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

Willie Watson, Folksinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

A room of their own

Published in Penguin Eggs, issue #63, Autumn 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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



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.


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.

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


“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.

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


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.


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.”


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?


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.


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.


“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.


[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.


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.


“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.”


“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.