Tuesday, February 28, 2006

i'M Not Ready for iBluegrass

I read an interesting article the other day about the impact of the digital, i-music craze on orchestras, and what orchestras are doing to get in the mix. In fact, one major orchestral client recently made "experience with emerging media" a requirement of the selected candidate. This, coupled with the increased exposure over the last couple of weeks as to the value and necessity of digital music, has made me realize not only how far behind the curve I am technologically, but also why I'm behind the curve.

It seems that I view the next age in music the way my parents might have viewed the possibility of space exploration when they were my son's age. "Ha. Only digital? That'll never happen."

But, it is happening, in bluegrass, and jazz, and yes, even among symphony orchestras. One orchestra in Cologne, Germany even provides digital recordings of the performances from that evening -- you can buy a cd of the experience you had that night, on your way out. A number of renowned conductors and composers have their own blogs or web sites, complete with a lesson in a particular area, be it a particular piece or player or style. (Huh! Whodathunkit?!) The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra even boasts a blog! What in heaven's name is this world coming to? (Click here for links to listen and watch SLSO's Music Director, American conductor David Robinson, in action.)

The day is coming when this blog will have its own radio station, for example, or better links into the actual music making that goes on in bluegrass. At the same time, I'm reticent. I don't want us all to go so digital that we go home every night and lock ourselves in, the only live concerts we catch being those streamed into the little video screen in our kitchen while we make dinner.

As much as I believe that the electronic age will deliver bluegrass, and all music, to many audiences that might not otherwise have heard it, I worry that it also brings an element of distance. I hope that it doesn't mean the experience of live music making and listening becomes obsolete.

I'm going to force myself through all kinds of self-directed learning over the next several months, and part of that, to be sure, is to make myself so comfortable with other forms of media that I can manage audio files with one eye closed and the other playing a hot game of Uno with my daughter. Heck, even Bill Monroe has entire albums on MP3! But it's not going to be easy. I don't trust it all yet. But if my dream is to be a modern-day songcatcher, gathering and then spewing forth the wonders and benefits of traditional and bluegrass music to convert all those who seek, how can I possibly be successful without an iPod? Who knows...iBanjo, iMando, iLuvTrad.com?

And I thought watching a DVD of Jerry Douglas was way cool.

Some dear friends passed on to me an MP3 player over the weekend. I've pulled it out, and examined the cords, but, I have a looonnnnng way to go before actually leaping into action. And the first act is believing I can, and should. But I have to. I might be a bit of a relic, but bluegrass will never be.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Can I Fly Away, Now?

This is one of those rare periods during which I believe I've become what you could call "overstimulated." When my children were babies and we attended a family function or some other gathering that involved a lot of people, noise, touching, general constant activity, the day usually ended with me and baby laying in bed nursing in the dark so we could both calm down.

Those days, at least we had that. To find a similar tonic now would be welcome, but my kids are with their dad, and I have Hot Rize in the cd player, singing "Won't You Come And Sing For Me," appropriately enough.

I had a wonderful weekend. It started out with a very productive meeting of the board members of the Earth Day Coalition, a regional (NE Ohio) environmental organization with which I've been involved for about ten years. From there, I headed to Columbus to meet my friend Earl and enjoy an evening with Tim O'Brien backed by Dennis Crouch (we can talk later about how, despite my hopes of meeting up with a nice double bass player, when I actually DO, I manage to flub it), and the multi-talented Danny Barnes ("Oh, you're the banjo player!" which for some reason elicited a laugh from the group). After basking in Tim's presence, gabbing a bit about our old hometown and helping to move a few cds and t-shirts, it was off to Granville, OH, home to my alma mater and good friends I had not seen in a while. After spending the night, it was back to Columbus to meet another good friend and her family for some catch-up time and a lovely meal. The drive home was restorative; I realized it had really been almost a year since I had taken even a short trip alone (sans kids) by car. That is WAY too long.

I had recovered from the general activity of the highlights of the weekend, but arrived home to some pretty deep stuff. I learned that my niece, who suffers from biliary atresia, has what is described as sclerosing ascending cholangitis, a condition that only worsens the overall condition of the liver with each episode. She is a highly creative, funny, beautiful young lady, and to learn what may lie ahead is just excruciating.

While talking with her mother, I received an email from a close friend telling me that her niece died last weekend in Denver, in a screw up of massive proportions. She was in a car accident and was unconscious when pulled from her car. However, she was released from the hospital to the police because of some outstanding traffic violations, and spend the night in a jail cell, without medical attention, despite complaining of abdominal pain and numbness in her limbs. When the first shifts came around in the morning, she was dead.

And somewhere in here, I learned I had really done a good friend an enormous disservice; when I find the song that goes with that I'll give you the rest of the story.

So life has these ups and downs, and sometimes all in the same 24 hours. We've all been there. This time last night, I was standing around with my hero, laughing about the fact that the t-shirt he signed for my daughter will probably fall below her ankles; now, I'm hoping that a good glass of tequila will help me relax and fall into sleep, where I'm sure to meet troubling dreams.

While my spiritual side has taken a number of twists and turns in the last 18 months, I find that I still need moments to find peace, somehow. The friends I stayed with last night had a fridge magnet with a clever saying that suggested that peace is not not having trouble and heartache and confusion in life, but rather being calm at heart in the midst of all those things. Tonight I want peace, for me, and especially for all those I wrote about earlier. While someday we get to "fly away," finding a way through the craziness of the here and now without losing sight of doing and being our best is the challenge. This song may be steeped in a tradition that is no longer as relevant to me spiritually, but, it still helps me get to a calmer place. It also might be a retread on the blog but I throw it out again for the people on my heart tonight.

I hope wherever you are that you are finding -- and making -- peace in this crazy, crazy world. The peaceful photo is another by my friend Shannon.

I'll Fly Away
Some glad morning when this life is o'er,
I'll fly away;
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).
[Chorus]I'll fly away, Oh Glory, I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away (I'll fly away).
When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away)
[Chorus]I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).
Just a few more weary days and then,
I'll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away)
[Chorus]I'll fly away, Oh Glory
I'll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Girl Friday: Women with Banjos

Earlier this week another blog boasted a video of a woman with a hand-held keyboard; the accompanying comment was that this is the way to take an attractive woman and make her immediately unattractive. It was kind of funny, but I couldn't disagree more.

Take an already attractive man or woman, give them an instrument, and to me they become much more than they appear, and all the more attractive. My friends laugh about me and my soft spot for men with banjos, but to be sure, anyone with a banjo is likely no hack in other areas.

And so it is with women and banjos! Lynne Morris, Laurie Lewis, and the extraordinary Alison Brown are just a few.

If you are not already familiar with Brown, she's pretty extraordinary, and like Bela Fleck stretches banjo into areas of jazz and other acoustic/new age styles. But her roots are in bluegrass. At the age of 12 she met fiddler Stuart Duncan and the two began playing together -- recording a duet album when she was still in high school. She played with Alison Krauss when Krauss was somewhere around the ripe old age of 22. Oh, and she's a Harvard grad with an MBA from UCLA. Yah. Do you suppose she cares what you think about how she looks holding a banjo? I doubt it.

During my first trip to IBMA, I was astonished by the number of young kids trolling the event, teenagers hanging out and jamming. These aren't hacks like me, but young people who have mastered their instruments. There is something spectacularly refreshing, inspiring, and yes, even a little vindicating about watching a 15 year old girl wield a banjo like most girls her age wield a tube of lip gloss.

So here's to all you girls and women with banjos, and guitars, and double basses (like the amazing Bryn Bright), mandolins, and fiddles, oboes, and accordions, and tubas, and who bang the drums. Keep on jammin' and don't worry about what the boys think.

Sample Alison's playing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

O Brothers Where Art Thou?

Sitting down earlier this evening over homework, I remarked to my son that I didn't know what I'd post on my blog. He casually tossed out an idea to tie in something about Black History Month. He suggested I talk about Chris Thomas King, a formidable blues musician who readers will remember as the character Tommy Johnson in the Cohen brothers fim, "O Brother, Where Art Thou."

King, and his presence in the movie as Johnson (who is thought to have lived in the Delta and to have authored many of the songs credited to the much revered bluesman Robert Johnson, who's main contribution was to record them), raises a hard-to-ignore point about bluegrass and traditional music in general that frustrates me because, well, bluegrass is what it is.

Like most any industry, it's dominated by, well, white guys. Now, most of the time I'm not all that sensitive to this, because bluegrass as popularized by Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was and is largely a genre carried by majority musicians and fans. Last fall, I did see a family or two of color in Nashville at IBMA World of Bluegrass; the year before, when it was hosted in Louisville, the only people of color I saw during the entire three days were the men and women serving the sodas.

This was upsetting both on a personal level and on the professional level and concern I have that this music receive the fair and accurate treatment it deserves, outside of academic circles. The story of bluegrass does not begin or end with Monroe or McCoury. There are countless ways in which the music we know as bluegrass originated in African traditions. An instrument most central to the music, the banjo, is essentially derived of the African banjar. The spirituals and worksongs of slaves have made their way many times into the ranks of what are considered bluegrass favorites. To be sure, there were plenty of black secular songs as well, popularized throughout the Southern mountains and shared by families of all races. And it would be foolish to discount the contributions of instrumentalists like guitarist Leslie Riddle; were it not for Riddle and his ability to remember songs unlike his friend A.P. Carter, whom Riddle accompanied on many a song collecting journey, A.P. would not have left the musical legacy credited to the Carter Family.

So there you have a bit of an educational rant. As the story of bluegrass and traditional music unfolds for me personally, I want to make sure it is retold in full wherever it is to be shared. This is not the whole story, but it's a start.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dobro A Go Go

Today with its near-zero temperatures was a perfect day to find a sunny room and settle down with a good book. So I did. I was enjoying my friend Stephanie Ledgin's book, Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass. Stephanie has enjoyed a colorful career over the last 30 years as a music journalist and photographer, and has chronicled some of bluegrass music's favorites up close and personal. Her book is a fine primer for anyone just getting into bluegrass, but the stories and profiles are wonderful for bluegrass fans at just about every stage. (Oh, and that reminds me, check out her other book, From Every Stage, for fabulous photographs and interviews spanning her career as well.)

Before I even really fell for bluegrass, my ear found this odd stringed instrument called a dobro. It's a guitar that is mostly played with the instrument in a horizontal position, while the instrumentalist plucks with one hand and guides the other up and down the neck wearing a special finger guard of sorts. It has a resonator, which amplifies the sound in a certain way. I thought it was a kind of steel guitar, or some other country music type fad. I remember hearing a cut on the Alison Krauss + Union Station Live cd, a tune called Chocktaw Hayride, featuring the instrument. At the time, I was in my kitchen, and I had to stop whatever messy project I was into and listen. The performer was Jerry Douglas, who's name is of course synonymous with dobro and who has used the instrument to push the musical envelope much like Bela Fleck has introduced banjo into realms well outside of bluegrass.

Stephanie's book shares the secret of the dobro, so, seeing as the subtitle of this blog is, "And You'll Learn Something If It Kills Me," I figured I'd share it with you. The instrument was designed by a Slovenian immigrant, John Dopyera, who with his brothers, Rudi and Emil, founded the National String Instrument Company in Los Angeles. The Dobro, for Dopyra Brothers, was introduced in 1927. This unique guitar with its own amplification system was intended to bring a bigger sound out of the guitar in a group setting, but was overtaken by the first electric guitars. The dobro (a model pictured here was a Dobro Brothers creation from the late 1920s) became popular in bluegrass bands in the early 1940s and today it is a hallmark of several bands, Krauss' Union Station foremost among them because she's got Jerry Douglas.

So the next time you fancy to take in a bluegrass band, keep an eye out for the Dobro. And if you're looking to get the basics, order up Steph's book or ask the library to get it. It's a fun read, chock full of charming stories and little-known historical details presented in a way that reminds us that bluegrass is here and now and ever shall be.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Girl Friday #2: For Get Up and Go Girls

I realized recently that many of the women I'm fondest of or closest to share at least one life characteristic: at one point or another, they started over, like yours truly.

Starting over is NEVER easy. But sometimes the only thing to do is to just turn the damn page, already. My mother did it, when my dad died. My sister and I both did it, with little kids in tow. A greater number of my friends did it, friends who share the same parenting and other values that I do. We all did it, and survived, and many wonderful women I meet now through this blog are doing it, recreating their lives without the nasty aftertaste of a bad relationship.

It's a wonderful thing. Sure, it can get pretty scary and downright lonely sometimes. Usually, however, in some way, it's worth it.

This song is for all those women who are struggling with, managing through, or riding the wave of massive self-motivated change in their lives. It's for all of you who have had to tolerate pompous, arrogant blowhards or been victims of your own kindness toward cunning emotional vampires. Whatever brings you to liberate yourselves will fade in the light thrown by your own sizzling comet. Go supernova.

(Stormy-looking picture by Shannon from our 2003 trip to OBX.)

Blow Big Wind
(Ooh! Ooh! Click on the title to hear Laurie Lewis do the whole thing!
And here's a challenge: I may be messing up some of the lyrics for the second verse, and I couldn't find 'em online. If you can figure 'em out I'll think of something special just for YOU. Unless, of course, you're Laurie Lewis, because, well, unfair advantage ok? )

When you first claimed my heart
I was starved for understanding
So I planted a garden where none grew before
But the seeds would not take hold
In this harsh and barren land
And the only peace I found was in the eye of the storm

So Blow Big Wind, like the storm on the sea
Blow, big wind, you can't shake me

(fiddle solo)

Well I've been I guess I've been a ?
Or maybe just a fool
To ever think the storms would ever cease
But I just craved your touch
And tho the summers were short
They'd always bring sweet release

So blow, big wind, like the storm on the sea
Blow big wind, you can't shake me

(mando solo)

Well now I've pulled up my stakes
Packed up my bags
Tho' I can't stop my heart from grievin'
When the next storm comes rollin' in it won't catch me
Cause everything is over by believin'

So blow, big wind, like the storm on the sea
Blow, big wind, you can't shake me
You can't shake me

Full Moon Fever: Full Valentine Moon

I realized that last night was a full moon -- wow, on Valentine's Day! The moon is so often revered in traditional and bluegrass music, or plays some role in the songs. So I found this sweet little song while crawling the web and thought I'd share. It's the kind of upbeat, fun, and yes, even flirty kind of song that every now and then lifts my old-lady spirits and makes me get all hopeful about being really loved again. The photo is a sunset view of Roanoke Sound. The Outer Banks area is just about one of my favorite places on earth, and quite romantic. If I'm very lucky maybe I'll get there again with someone special someday.

Love Someone Like Me

That dancin' moon is on the water you feel inclined romantic'ly
If you do I think you oughta love someone like me
There ain't no place you should be goin' ain't no need for you to leave
It's a lover's night the stars are showin' you could love someone like me

Someone else might try and bind you
But my love will set you free
If your heart has got a mind to
You could love someone like me

You could love someone like me
That dancin' moon is on the water you feel inclined romantic'ly
If you do I think you oughta love someone like me
You've been thinkin' love won't find you honey, wait right here and see
If your heart has got a mind to you could love someone like me

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A LLLove Letter

A cornerstone of my early years as a parent was La Leche League International, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping breastfeeding moms and babies all over the world. Not only did LLL sustain me through some lonely times as a breastfeeding, co-sleeping, very attached mom, I met wonderful families; forged friendships with incredibly talented, funny, warm, engaging women, and grew friendships that will last me the rest of my life. I became a LLL leader and continue to help moms and babies work out the mother-baby dance. I love my LLL friends, even though some of us aren’t so much a part of LLL anymore. And what I learned there only validated my passionate feelings about motherhood, feelings that were guiding me then and continue to guide me now in the most important job I’ll ever have.

Quite by accident, I got to spend this Valentine’s evening with the two people I love best, my son and daughter, along with a sweet little friend of theirs. I have a hard time turning down an opportunity to be with my kids because they are awesome, and I love being their mom. Being a mom is not glamorous, or considered by most to be very sexy, and it is most certainly not convenient. People who like convenience should probably avoid becoming parents or getting too tangled up with those of us who are.

About a year ago, my former brother-in-law, despite pining for his own children, stopped just short of suggesting to me that the reason my marriage failed was that once the kids came along, “I was all about them.”

Nice guy, love him, but, WHAT a RETARD.

Now, coming from a person who doesn’t have kids, that comment was odd enough. But this person was well aware of my situation and knew and admitted what I was up against. Yet, evidently, not only was it still considered my job to carry, give birth to, nurse, and clean up after these two babies, it was also my job to sustain the marriage with the oversized child in the house, and continuously inject the relationship and our lives with merriment. After spending the day cleaning up vomit, or vomiting all night myself and then having to take care of kids all day, I was nonetheless expected to Be the Perfect Wife Forever, which evidently meant being the only person responsible for fun and intimacy. When I couldn’t keep up, my ex, who never once made arrangements for a single evening alone for us beyond our honeymoon, turned to other means.

My story isn’t all that unusual. Men generally are pretty inept when it comes to actually completing the transition from Boyfriend Wonder to Dad along with their wives, who become women who are also mothers. They expect to be able to live the life they used to live while expecting us to live that life AND pull double duty meeting their kids’ needs. I learned the hard way that some men just aren’t up to the task of being good partners and dads at the same time.

For those of you who are, or who want badly to exercise that option, I applaud you. You will sustain humanity and set good examples for our sons and daughters. The rest of you either can’t or don’t want to. That stinks.

Some nights, I still dream about being pregnant, or even about nursing a baby; I can actually feel the "let-down" of the milk flowing through my breasts and when I wake up I expect to be covered in milk the way I used to be with my newborns. That milk sustained them through all kinds of things during their first two years of life, and the countless days and nights of nursing them forged between us an incredible, unique bond. I know them and understand their needs in ways no one else ever will. We're nothing fancy. I can't afford to take them to a lot of places like their dad can, but we don’t mind hanging out together, whether it’s watching a movie, playing a game, or enjoying a bluegrass band. I guess I don’t have much romance in my life, but our little family sure has plenty of LLLove.

There's No One Like Mother To Me
Carter Family

Sadly I'm thinking tonight
Thinking of the sweet bye and bye
Memories of childhood so bright
Come back like a dream with a sigh

I've been thinking of friends and of home
In that cottage far over the sea
No matter wherever I roam
There's no one like mother to me

There's no one like mother to me
No matter how poor she may be
I'll go back to that home o'er the sea
There's no one like mother to me

When I left that old home o'er the sea
I kissed them goodbye at the gate
Somebody whispered to me
A loving voice asked me to wait

Her blessing she gave with a smile
And tears on her cheeks I could see
How often that sweet face I've missed
There's no one like mother to me

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Trad Valentine for My Beloved Reader(s)

I heard a funny quote over the weekend in an oddball video on Jim's blog. (I can't remember who said it, Walter someone, so you'll have to go enjoy the movie for yourselves. It's worth it.) Walter said, "The only way to know someone is to love them without hope." Story of my life.

This ballad, which I first heard live with perfect mountain intonation accompanied just as perfectly by a pining fiddle, was the one that captured my heart and stole me away forever. Music is my only true love; I wish for you a lover who embraces you as fiercely.

Love Is Teasin'
(Traditional, performed in the link below by Jean Ritchie, now in her late 80s. She is pictured at left with her father, many years ago of course. She is my favorite steward of the Appalachian ballad.)


Oh love is pleasin’, love is teasin’
Love’s a pleasure when first it’s new
But as love grows older, at length grows colder
And fades away like the mornin’ dew

I left my father, I left my mother
I left my brother and sister too
I left my home and kind relations
Left them all for the love of you

If I had known before I courted
That love was such a killin’ crime
I’d have wrapped my heart in a box of gold
And tied it up with a piece of twine

To Stretch Our Ears

American composer Charles Ives wrote that his father would occasionally have them play a simple folk song in one key, but sing it in another. This was intended to "stretch our ears and strengthen our musical minds."

Getting out once in a while to hear something other than that to which we are accustomed is something I haven't done in a while. Thanks however to my friend, Jim, I took in quite an earful last night. I joined him last night to hear and watch Sigur-Ros, a band from Iceland that produces a blend of ambient and rock music. They were joined by Amina, an all-women group of four string and percussion artists, in performing most of the pieces. It was quite an experience. The music was very intense, at times ethereal and at times driving, but always mesmerizing. The musicianship was very high; no doubt many of the performers had been classically trained. To sustain that level of repetitive sound as was their style, also takes great skill.

The music of Sigur-Ros is a far cry from my daily diet of folk, bluegrass, and traditional repertoire. Every now and then I'll throw in a symphony or concerto from my old days, or my contemporary favorites like Dave Matthews or REM. I should do that more often, and get outside the bluegrass box more frequently to stay in touch with all the other contributions being made to the traditions around the world.

Write and tell us about the most interesting concert experience you ever had, who played, and the venue. What made it unique? I look forward to hearing about it.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Into Each Drunken Escapade, A Little Trad Must Fall

Well, last night is a night I won't soon forget. Mostly, it's because I have to tell myself what a bad idea it is to go to bars and sit and drink. However, there were plenty of perks to last night, too, and one really uncanny moment.

I met my friends Gayle and Allan at Flannery's to do a little work for Earth Day Coalition and also catch a show later that evening by locally-based singer-songwriter friend, Joe Rohan. As the music started, Gayle and I somehow attracted the attention of an attractive but entirely too-drunk, self-pitying, desperate-for-sex man. We managed to enjoy Joe's performance while coping with this situation; having just been discussing the shortage of decent, available, attractive men, and my having just suggested that what we both need is someone older who can keep up, well, you can imagine our disappointment.

A word about Joe. He has a flair for writing love songs, can turn quite a few heads with his guitar playing, and possesses a powerful, honest, resonant voice that is a bit on the high side of the range. In addition to being one of my favorite people, he's certainly one of my favorite performers. Whether it's a Johnny Cash tune or something he penned, it's impossible not to be rivited when Joe sings it.

Between desperate glances shared with Gayle, I turned my attention back to the performance area. Gayle and I recognized the young woman who had taken the guitar in hand was the hostess who showed us in. Suddenly, the lyric, "She walks these hills in a long, black veil" waft over the sound system and I realize this young woman is singing the Johnny Cash tune featured on Tim O'Brien's grammy-winning "Fiddler's Green". He is joined on the album by the incredible Darrell Scott, a frequent songwriting collaborator. To suddenly hear this young woman singing this song was at once incredibly odd and unexpected, and entirely appropriate. And it gave me a good reason to get the hell off my stool and away from Mr. "You're-beautiful-and-I-only live-around-the-corner-why-don't-we...."

Somehow, I made it home to my own bed and my fluffy pillow last night. My head still hurts from the smoke and presumably the wine, but I've got my coffee and Joe's new album to keep me company. And I've got the memory of the face of a young Cleveland State music student suddenly out of nowhere singing a song I last heard recorded by my favorite musician of all time.

Better rest up and recover. Today its shopping with one of my best pals, Lynne, and a visit to the Kent Stage for more live local music. Maybe if I play my cards right and drink water or tea, I'll mee a nice double-bass player.

Long Black Veil

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed, 'neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
That the man who ran, looked a lot like me
The judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die
I spoke not a word, thou it meant my life
For I'd been in the arms of my best friend's wife

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

Oh, the scaffold is high and eternity's near
She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear
But late at night, when the north wind blows
In a long black veil, she cries ov're my bones

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Introducing Girl Friday

Driving to work today and singin’ my heart out to along with whatever female bluegrass vocalist was blaring from "O Sister!" Volume 1, I realized that my blog needs its own traditions. Every full moon is supposed to bring you a song with the moon in it; I think I missed the last one. Anyway, I’m going to introduce another regular feature today. We’ll call it, “Girl Friday.” With it I intend to pay homage not only to the many women in the bluegrass and traditional music circuit who work hard and remain far undersung, but also to the strong and beautiful women I’ve come to know in my life, both long and of late.

The most important woman in my life was, and always will be, my mother, June Anne Dawes. She grew up mainly under the influence of her own mother, whose husband left her with two young daughters to raise. There was no support back then, so my mother and aunt helped my grandmother with household services she performed for other families, in addition to acing all their school work, finding time to be in the Thespians (now now—you know, the old time theatre clubs; I could bore you with the tidbit that one of the more popular boys in my mother’s theatre club would later turn out to be the father of my first real love), and doing their hair.

My mother married my father just before the Korean war. Dad was a flight engineer in the Air Force. Both natives of the Pittsburgh area, they were stationed in Spokane, Washington. My artistic photographer-painter father fell in love with the place, and its there that they likely would have remained had it not been for the influence of his father, who convinced them to return home so dad could take over the family business.

And that business, along with raising five children, became my mother’s life. After dad died when I was just barely 12 and my sister 9, we moved into town, and became three girls on our own. My mother refused any help from my brothers, and insisted instead that they move on with their own adult lives, which they did. We missed dad, but life, under mom’s influence and with her acting something like glue, went on, and fairly heartily, until her own death in 2002.

I do dearly miss her company. We were just hitting the stride of our adult companionship when she passed away. My kids, especially my son, had a special connection with her that is impossible to pinpoint, or ever replace. She continues to influence them in subtle ways.

This song is one of my very favorite songs of all the music I know in all the genres I know. I hope one day to have the courage to sing it with my brothers or with anyone willing to put up with my weeping through it the first few times. It was written by another incredible woman, Hazel Dickens, and it’s called, “Mama’s Hand.” Recorded by Lynn Morris in the mid-1990s, it captured the IBMA’s “Song of the Year” award in 1996. You can download the full version at http://www.mp3.com/albums/174441/summary.html.

My mama was one special girl, and I dedicate this inaugural Girl Friday to her and to all my favorite mamas.

Mama’s Hand
Written by Hazel Dickens

I said goodbye to that plain little minin’ town
With just a few old clothes that made the rounds
I knew I was leavin’ a lot of things that were good
But I thought I’d make a break while I still could

As I looked back to wave once more
To Mama cryin in the door
For me and what the world might have in store
For she knew I’d never be her little girl no more

She was driftin’ back to another time
When she was young and hoped to find
A better life than what her mama’s had been
And it was hard to let go of mama’s hand, my mama’s hand

Chorus: One old paper bag filled with hand-me-downs
Plain old country girl, raised on Gospel sounds
With only the love she gave me, and pride in what I am
It was hard to let go of mama’s hand, my mama’s hand

I thought of all the love she gave
I thought of all the years she slaved
To try to make this run down shack a home
A dream that really died ‘fore it was born

Well she pulled us through the hardest times
And made us hold our heads up high
A we’d carry with us all our lives
We were so special in mama’s eyes

As I look down the dusty road
To mama and her heavyt load
I knew what I was leavin I’d never find again
It was hard to let go of mama’s hand, my mama’s hand

Chorus: One old paper bag filled with hand-me-down
Plain old country girl, raised on gospel sounds
With only the love she gave me
And pride in what I am
It was hard to let go of mama’s hand, my mama’s hand

It was hard to let go of mama’s hand, my mama’s hand

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

AND the GRAMMY goes TO...

Best Traditional Folk Album
Way to go, Tim.

'It's Just Sickness'

You know, there's just something about the South.

It's kind of like a cookie jar.

Most of the time, you put your hand in and out comes something sweet and sugary.

But every once in a while, you pull out a fistful of mouse dirt. Or, maybe a big, nasty cockroach.

In the past few days, nine churches in remote locations in Alabama have been set ablaze. Could be a race thing, although some of the congregations were predominantly white. Could be a religion thing; all the churches were Baptist. Could be an "I don't like Gospel music" thing. Whatever it is, it's a hate thing.

Now, I understand that, for many folks, a church is just a building. God is a concept. Religion is the opiate. But for the rural, predominantly African-American communities along the "black belt" of Alabama where most of these nine churches used to thrive, church is a central force in their small and often poor little towns. They are also targets; during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white supremacists routinely set them aflame. And as many as 60 churches have been burned down in Alabama alone since the late 1990s.

But there's no certainty about what drove an individual or individuals to torch these centers of worship. As a member of one of the congregations put it, "It's just sickness."

One of the things I have struggled with in regard to Bluegrass and traditional music is that there is the Gospel side of the music, and in the mountain music, there is that mystical but Christian flavor to some of the songs. While I have a certain groundedness that I attribute to a lifetime of spiritual questing, I have come to understand the world in a very different way of late, and that understanding does not embrace the notion of an all-knowing, all-seeing God-like being watching my every move, nor accepting Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. (Ok, that's not how it works in the Catholic Church, anyway, so who am I kidding?)While I might not believe in the same things that these songs communicate, they are still beautiful, and for many people, they do hold deep meaning.

This is one such beautiful song. It's very quiet and meditative, and in the tradition of the Southern Baptist ritual. For those whose hearts were broken by this string of violence, I hope they will think on this song, and wash the hurt away in the river. This clip is taken from the "O! Brother" soundtrack, and is also featured on the film, "Down from the Mountain," which captured a formal celebration of the music from the movie, filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Down To The River To Pray
As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord show me the way

Oh sisters let's go down
Let's go down come on down
Oh sisters let's go down
Down to the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way

Oh brothers let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Oh brothers let's go down
Down to the river to pray

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord show me the way

Oh fathers let's go down...etcetera

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way

Oh mothers let's go down...etcetera

As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord show me the way

Oh sinners let's go down etcetera
As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Wake Up Darlin' ME

It's been a little over a year since the passing of fiddle legend Art Stamper. I've only recently gotten to know his work. His community of followers is still strong, even stronger, now that he's gone. No question this is partly due to the release of his last recording, Wake Up, Darlin' Corey, which featured a stellar lineup of co-conspirators. According to the Web site, Stamper, while hospitalized several years ago for chemotherapy treatment, told pal Harry Bickel: "When I get out of here, I want you, me and Doc to record an album of old-time music." Wake Up, Darlin' Corey is that album.

Goes to show you, you can be pretty low down, you can just about be on your last mile, a fifty-cent cab ride from eternal rest, and find a way to make something happen.

I can hardly wait to get my hands on this recording. I really am sorry I'll never have the chance to hear Stamper live. He's influenced a lot of my favorite performers. A year ago, when I heard that Stamper had passed, my life was completely different. I had awakened enough to move on from my marriage, and then a few months later fell deeply in love with another emotionally unavailable man. Consequently, while I had sort of moved on, I had drifted back into a half-sleep, my life in a semi-suspended state while I waited for him to send up a signal that he felt as I did, that we were supposed to be together and move forward as a family. He was 350 miles away and my heart was with him, not really as much in my own life, where it should have been. So while I knew that Stamper's passing was meaninful, I was pretty clueless, and it was just another sad event in the community of music I loved.

Eventually, I woke up to the fact that I was running in place alone, and gradually gained the strength to release myself from what should have been "it". On the night before Easter, ironically, I celebrated my new life, avowed to stay awake, to not compromise my life the way I had been, mine and that of my children. I drove out to the country to see Ralph Stanley; his pin-drop-audible rendition of "O Death" ("Conversation with Death," popularized in the movie, "O! Brother, Where Art Thou") had new meaning. I had skirted another death of spirit and soul; later that year I would catch Death looking at me but would leave without giving him my number.

One thing that has meant a great deal to me as I learn about the people behind this music is that they never give up. Like Art Stamper, these brushes with disaster are inconveniences in the way of the next project. These are people who, like me, want to work until they drop because it doesn't really feel like work, it's how one lives. It's more than a lifestyle, it's a directive, a vocation for which we are chosen, and it's almost as if that bears us beyond whatever pain, grief, sorrow, or uncertainty holds us down. It's like we're all in this life thing together.

This lyric, for Darlin' Corey, is another of many versions that I picked because again there are phrases or ideas borrowed from, or more accurately, shared with, other songs of this ilk -- the "ilk" being an old time fiddle tune to back the story of a colorful mountain character. Personally, I like the idea of sitting on the shore, with a 44 in one hand and a banjo in the other. At this juncture, that's far more likely than sitting on the beach with John Cusack's head in my lap and a glass of Pinot in hand.

No matter. Cusack is a Who fan, and while the Who is awesome, I'm still waiting to see Pete pick up a banjo (yes, for all I know, he does play the banjo, and if you happen to know that, fill me in!). Click the title to hear a sample.

Darlin' Corey
Wake up, wake up, darlin' Corey.
What makes you sleep so sound?
When them reveenooers are comin'
For to tear your still house down.
Well the first time I seen darlin' Corey
She was settin' by the side of the sea,
With a forty-four strapped across her bosom
And a banjo on her knee.

Refrain:Dig a hole, dig a hole, in the medder
Dig a hole, in the col' col' groun'
Dig a hole, dig a hole in the medder
Goin' ter lay darlin' Corey down.

The next time I seen darlin' Corey
She was standin' in the still-house door
With her shoes and stockin's in her han'
An' her feet all over the floor.
Go `way, go `way, darlin' Corey.
Quit hangin' roun' my bed.
Hard likker has ruined my body.
Pretty wimmen has killed me mos' dead.

Wake up, wake up my darlin';
Go do the best you can.
I've got me another woman;
You can get you another man.
Oh yes, oh yes my darlin'I'll do the best I can,
But I'll never take my pleasure
With another gamblin' man.
Don' you hear them blue-birds singin'?
Don' you hear that mournful sound?
They're preachin' Corey's funeral
In some lonesome buryin' groun'.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

For An Unlimited Time Only

I apologize in advance for this unsightly ramble. You might get that here, on occasion.

I had been marveling a bit over the last week at the energy I seemed to have. Usually, work beats it out of me, as it does most any of us, and on the weeks I'm not enjoying my kids, I wind up squandering my free time when I finally get home. I might do a few loads of laundry, put in a new rotation of cds and maybe pull out an instrument to go along here and there, try to read, talk to friends and family, maybe have a brief inspiration for this blog. But by the end of the day, I feel drained, unawake, directionless, unadvanced. Stuck.

This week felt different. I'm not sure I know why. I've kind of kept it a secret, because it was so odd. (Yes, you're right. I should be thinking, "Remember John Travolta in that dumb movie, 'Phenomenon?' You have a brain tumor.")

In fact, today, I felt downright guilty. I think I have a piece of the puzzle figured out. And it fell into place as I was in the shower washing away a very bad stomping on I received for some yet unexplained reason, from the father of my kids. In front of them, over the phone.

Anyway. Earlier this week, I was exchanging pleasantries with a member of an online forum about being a geek and a fan of our dear beloved American folklorist, Alan Lomax. In the course of the exchange that followed, the Foreignlander remarked that "...there's never an all-knowing ethnomusicologist around when you need one...." and I remarked that, for me, that's evidently pretty much all of the time.

The obvious solution? Become one.

Before I was lured to The Cleveland Orchestra right out of college, my longing was to pursue a Master's in arts administration. Instead I fell into the incredible luck of working for a Top Ten orchestra, which I absolutely adored. I also got myself stuck in a relationship that had my friends and family repeatedly scratching their heads (although they said nothing), and I allowed it to advance to marriage. Youth being what it is, I followed that detour for a good 15 years or more. Now, I did get two marvelous children out of the deal, who have proven to be worthy companions with me on the bluegrass circuit. All things being equal, I could have been shit out of luck altogether.

And the cool thing is, I still have time. And after a close call with a precancerous condition last fall, I think I get the message that I had better use it wisely.

Funny. I could get all worked up over the time I lost, but, I had to get here, somehow. It wasn't time for me to understand. I've been tangled up in the question for almost four years. But it took one last kick in my integrity and a random comment or two from a stranger overseas to pull it together.

Goes to show you. Life really is work. Stay awake.

In honor of my past, present, and future, I share with you the following link. NPR offers these wonderful downloads of a real-life songcatcher.


Fans of Aaron Copland will recognize the fiddle tune, "Bonaparte's Retreat," as a pivotal theme in Copland's ballet, "Rodeo". And if you know blues, you know Leadbelly.

Alan Lomax and his father, John, dragged themselves and their equipment all over the world, capturing real-time, real life iterations of what we might call folk, bluegrass, traditional. However we romanticize it, they reminded us that this music is no relic. It continues to live on in the hands and voices of people who play and sing it every day. It turns up in pop songs, ballets, symphonies, preschool programs, Cingular jingles, movies good and bad.

It's here to stay. Get to know it a little. Learn a tune. Pick up a guitar or a fiddle, or as my son might do, play a fiddle tune on your sax.

Nothing is ever wasted. It's all music. And its all good.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Go Get Your Foreign Lander!

Hi folks,

Not too long ago I posted a piece that featured an old song called Foreign Lander, and probably gave you some crummy, 30-second sample to go with it. I'm delighted to report that you can download a live performance featuring Tim O'Brien, Edgar Meyer, and the fabulous and beloved Casey Dreissen at


The cut was recorded live at the Station Inn. Thanks to Phil "Nashphil" Harris for makin' it happen. Check it out, and enjoy!