Thursday, July 27, 2006

O Leisure, Where Art Thou?!

Last night after a ferocious Windex battle with a battalion of ants, I stood at my kitchen counter packing the kids' lunches for today. Having just returned two days before from a nice four-day weekend with them, I had to jump back into work with the kind of immediacy that more than broke the reverie of the days we had just spent in what we learned is called simply "The Bluegrass." Add to that the relative ugliness of Northeast Ohio compared to the green lush hills and hollers of almost Appalachia, and the pall over what was formerly known as "summer" is complete.

As much as I prefer to be busy and really believe I am not making better use of the free time I have, it's becoming more clear that after working, parenting, and keeping house (and not very well), there just ain't a whole lot of it. This is the story of most working Americans today. There never is enough time for thinking, dreaming, cultivating hidden talents, pursuing advanced degrees, really engaging your children or friends or lovers, furthering pet projects (like this blog!), reading or writing a book, or whatever floats ones boat -- oh, add boating to the list!

The best part of traveling, I think, is not the getting or being away, but the who you get away with. I love traveling on my own, but the time with my kids or other loved ones is what really makes those escapes extra special. A few weeks ago I spent a day at Jamboree in the Hills (photos to come), a pretty gosh-darned humongous country music festival. It wasn't the chance to see Mr. Nicole Kidman onstage or the attraction of spending a 95-degree day on a muddy hill with 80 thousand other drunk country music fans that appealed, but the time I got to spend with my brother and his family. Even with all the "stuff" that goes on in families, it was still a wonderful time spent in a beautiful part of Ohio with people I love.

And I think summer used to be more of that, more "downtime" to catch up with friends and family. Shannon posted some beautiful pics a while back of our last trip to Nags Head -- in fact, I think in one frame you'll see my family before we busted it up -- and those trips really captured it. I hope those days aren't gone forever. And I hope that in these troubled times, with a world absolutely wild with war and greed, and everything many of us work for slipping and sliding into and between the cracks, we can all grab on to some vestige of summer, or what it meant, a time to lay in the grass and dream.

Here's a guy you probably know, a former country star and head of Skaggs Family Records. This truly fun tune, "Sis Draper," is actually based on an old fiddle tune (most mando tunes are) called "Arkansas Travler" -- hence the line, "She stepped up and sawed one off/And uncle Cleve dropped his jaw/Said she's the best I ever saw/She must be from Arkansas." Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder recorded this Guy Clark song on their award-winning album, "Brand New Strings." It really gives you that kick-back-and-enjoy-summer feeling.

Skaggs has been playing mandolin since he was about seven years old. So he had like a 33 year start on me. Big deal! I can catch up, in my leisure time!

Sis Draper

Kick your shoes off in the corner mama
Tuck the babies all up snug
Sis Draper's comin' over, we all gonna cut a rug

When you see that lantern swingin' yonder
Comin' up the Holler Road
Them dogs'll get to barkin'
Ought to tie em all up with a rope

You boys better get in tune
Sis Draper's gonna be here soon
Don't shoot no dice nor get too tight
If you're gonna pick with Sis tonight

She came down from the Boston mountains
There was lightnin' in the air
Honey on them fiddle strings
Magnolia in her hair

She's a diamond in the rough
If you can't see the shine that's tough
Play all night for the likes of us
Sis Draper's got the touch

She'll play all night if she feels like it
Have some fruit punch if you spike it
Sis don't care who don't like it
See, ol' Sis has got a hell of a bow arm on her

She stepped up and sawed one off
And uncle Cleve dropped his jaw
Said she's the best I ever saw
She must be from Arkansas

I think Grandpa used to date her
Grandma says she still hates her
All the fellas stand up straighter
In the presence of Sis Draper

Sis Draper is the devil's daughter
Plays the fiddle Daddy bought her
Plays it like her mama taught her
She's a travelin' Arkansawyer

Put her fiddle in a box
Said it's getting awful late
She's on her way to Little Rock And Little Rock can't wait
So we all stood out in the yard
Hands all full of watermelon
Watcher her leave and watched her go
Wishin' I was in that wagon

Sis Draper is the devil's daughter
Plays the fiddle Daddy bought her
Plays it like her mama taught her
She's a travelin' Arkansawyer

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Bluegrass State Top Ten List

Hello readers, and greetings from Kentucky's Bluegrass region, where the kids and I have spent the last couple of days roaming about. It's back to Ohio tomorrow but I wanted to take the time to share a little bit about what we've learned:

10. Everyone in Kentucky drives at least 80 miles an hour. Doing 50 on a country road is considered obscenely slow.
9. They sure do have a lot of horses down here.
8. Kentucky comes from the Native American word Kentucke. We can't remember what it means.
7. Mary Todd Lincoln had 15 brothers and sisters. She lost three brothers and brothers in law during the Civil War, three of her own four children to illness, and a husband by assassination. She was only declared legally insane to protect her assets, but the action, which was reversed before her death, ruined the relationship she had with her only surviving child.
6. Cassius Clay was not only the name of a famous boxer but also that of a lionhearted emancipationist who served as a US diplomat to Russia. Yesterday we visited his home on the 103rd anniversary of his death. He did not make an appearance.
5. The Hummel Planetarium at Eastern Kentucky U is the second largest of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, my daughter had already seen the presentation at the Shaker Heights Planetarium. There's ten bucks I'll never get back.
4. My daughter loves to watch glassblowing. We watched an artisan in Berea make several glass pumpkins.
3. There is no place good to eat in Richmond, Kentucky.
2. We missed the most prominent attraction in our region, Fort Boonesboro, and all that Daniel Boone stuff, because the facility was closed due to a power outage. Something about that just doesn't seem right.

And the number one thing we learned about Kentucky:


But, we did find a wonderful bluegrass radio station, and listened to it while the kids taught me a few new games. I am not ready to return home to normal life, in fact life at breakneck speed. But I suppose that's why they call it a vacation.

Beautiful Moon Of Kentucky

There's a beautiful moon shining down on Kentucky

Where the fields of bluegrass are growin'
'Neath the beautiful moon shining down on Kentucky
Tomorrow that's where I'll be going
For the girl that I love she waits for me know
To return from ol' sunny Tennessee

'Neath the beautiful moon shining down on Kentucky
Tomorrow that's where I will be
Well I left my old home way down in Kentucky
And headed for old sunny Tennessee
But I'm on my way back to the hills of Kentucky
With my darling once more there I'll be

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Before Too Long...First Snow

Here in Northeast Ohio, we've just come through some of the hottest days we can remember. And it's not so much that they were so hot, but so constant. I spent part of the weekend in east central Ohio, at Jamboree in the Hills (more to come), and it was nothing but skin and Bud Light on a muddy hill in full sunlight for about eight hours with around 50,000 other people. Yet the heat did not deter the crowd from squeezing every ounce of summer fun out of the experience (although some of the drunks probably took care of that).

While we bemoan the fact that the heat has even the heartiest of us flipping on the a/c, all too soon Ohio will be under a blanket of fresh snow. Except for the hassle of driving, I do love the sight of fresh snow at night, glistening on the grass and the tips of trees, sending everything into a hush with a taste of peace and mystery. Of course, by February, I'm all but completely beyond this romantic notion and crying for the first robin of spring, longer days, and a sunburnt nose. But there in the deep winter night is always born a fresh idea rich and bold like thoughts sprung from the heart cheered on by a mug of mulled wine.

Here's a wintry delight in summer's dead heat: my favorite men all in one spot, playing for you a tune called First Snow. Tim O'Brien and Casey Driessen on fiddle, John Doyle on guitar, and Dirk Powell on banjo, recorded last fall in Asheville, NC. It's the kind of tune that will get the blood and bows moving on a cold winter night.

Music is coming back into my fingers now, not just in my head. With tunes to play and friends to play with, I have every reason to hope that this will be the best winter in a long time. I will be ready for first snow.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Girl Friday Special: Old Friends

This week I want you to meet two incredible women. They're not bluegrass players, although I think they could be fans. These are two of my best friends. We've known each other 22 years this August.

College is a funny time. You enter, all freaked out, thrown into this new world of being nearly on your own. And so somehow friends find each other, and something clicks, and you get through those first years of early adulthood together. Twenty years later you're sitting around in somebody's yard, having a beer and watching your kids play together, wondering how time got away so quickly.

We loved our time at Denison. We had great teachers, great epiphanies, great times. One of us loved it so much she's teaching there now in the history department and is enduring the tenuring process.

We decided we're not doing too badly today, either. One manages life as a mother and partner in business and marriage to her entrepreneur husband in one of the largest cities in his native South Africa. Another is living in the same college town where we all met, teaching in the history department, raising a family with her econ prof husband. And then there's me, and you know that story, mostly.

The time we spent together last weekend was precious. Our lives couldn't be more different from one another, yet we can't imagine our lives without each other. There is a bit of bliss and peace dwelling there, in what we started more than 20 years ago in a central Ohio college town.

This tune is a retread for the blog, but I'm sending it out to my fellow Denisonians Debbie and Cathy on this Girl Friday with warm regards and fond affection.

Old Friend

Old friend, you just grow dearer,
the lines grow deeper, the paths grow clearer
I recall your every look,

each of them an open book

And though long miles may separate us
my love for you endures
With warm regard and in fond affection, I am truly yours

Old friend, we've seen so much together,
stormy days and windy weather
And like a cloak against the cold
I wrap myself in friendship's folds

And though long miles may separate us, my love for you endures
With warm regard and in fond affection, I am truly yours

Old friends like warp and woof entwine,
each crossing defining the design
And though in places frayed and worn,

the fabric remains untorn

And though long miles may separate us,

my love for you endures
With warm regard and in fond affection,

I am truly yours

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pull Up A Bale and Play a Spell

Kent musician Dave Howard and student MM try to keep up with Jawbone's "Pretty Little Girl" at Music in the Valley, Hale Farm and Village, July 2006. Photo by Son of Mando.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Girl Friday #20: This Woman's Work

Today I want to tell you about one extraordinary woman. She wouldn't say so, but Tracy Grammer to me is a pillar of strength, a beautiful and talented singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter whose story has always moved me.

I first heard about the near-perfect in every way duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer just about this time back in July, 2002. I was just becoming reacquainted with folk and beginning to explore bluegrass and roots music when a friend pointed me in their direction.

Dave Carter had been a computer consultant, I believe, when he chucked it all in his mid-40s to follow the call of his indisputable songwriting gift. He met Tracy Grammer, a Berkeley grad with fiddletude, when she almost literally bumped into him after a songwriters showcase in Oregon. By 1998 the two were partners in music and in life.

Their first album, When I Go, was recorded mostly in Tracy's kitchen. That was followed by my personal favorite, Tanglewood Tree, and then Drum Hat Buddha. A few weeks ago, Tracy released their final recording, Seven Is The Number, which had not been fully engineered at the time of Dave's sudden death four years ago this month.

The duo was set to perform in Boston. Dave went out for a run. When he came back to get ready for their gig, he just didn't feel quite right. Within moments he had collapsed, and upon uttering the words, "Baby, it's really beautiful," died in Tracy's arms. He missed his 50th birthday by three weeks.

Tracy's response to this maddening loss was to enfold the musical community in its mourning, and lead fans and admirers down a new path of continual discovery in Dave Carter's music. I saw her perform twice shortly after Dave's death. There was an emptiness but yet such an indefatigueable determination to perform this music and to see that the legacy of Dave Carter's incredible songwriting would live out its legacy. She was pressing on alone. I can relate to that, although I've never suffered the kind of loss she has.

I have always told people that I'm a terrific behind-the-scenes girl. I really am. Helping other people to be successful brings me a lot of joy. I don't need a lot of credit, I just like to see things done well. I'm definitely a side performer but I have to say, Tracy inspires me to take the lead every now and then as a way of paying homage to what has gone before me and to the things that really matter most.

I've never had a partner with whom I shared such complete synchronicity -- I came close once, but it wasn't mutually recognized for what it was and I admit I had to give up when I couldn't support it alone and from 350 miles away. But maybe someday I'll hit upon such a thing again, and will at last be able to put it to some use before one of us is called away.

I deeply admire Tracy's courage, and her devotion not only to her karmic running mate and musical partner but to the promise of the endless beauty that might have been spun out for us. She is a soldier of the poetic and ephemeral. She's touched a bit of glory the rest of us can only hope to glimpse in our lifetimes. And she'd never think for a second of keeping it to herself.

This beautiful song, "Soldier of My Soul," is a goodbye song. It's as if somehow they always knew their time was short, so Dave wrote this stunning perfect love hymn which just floats along on Tracy's vocals. The last time I saw her perform, at The Kent Stage, there was simply no dry eye in the house listening to this beautiful person share something so deeply personal with us. But, it's her life's work.

Sample this but please visit to hear and learn more.

Gentle Soldier of My Soul


my love has gone
all upon the crimson trail
his drum at dawn
beating brimstone through the veil
clear light through smoke and ash
and balmy seas, where breakers crash and roll
gentle soldier of my soul


he lays me down in his garden growin bed
he weaves a crown,
twigs and feathers for my head
he sings the fields awake
and folds me in the love that makes me whole
gentle soldier of my soul


when i have passed through the forest of my trials
and stand at last where the shadows run for miles
we'll ride on ponies fine
with painted shields through fields of shining gold
gentle soldier of my soul


Lay-ed Away

I am wondering whether anyone else out there thinks Ken Lay’s death is a rather astonishing turn of events. I believe we are about to enter one of the most instructive periods of our modern epoch.

Because of twists and turns in the course of due process, despite having ruined countless lives all in the name of building his personal empire, his dirty little soul might be off the hook. Free and clear. The Willie Loman of the natural gas industry.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to hard working people who want to build wealth for their families, and sometimes their communities. On the grandest scale, even Warren Buffett, who could just as easily have chosen to create another monument to himself by creating a new foundation, is turning over his wealth to an existing foundation run by a smart businessman and proven grantmaker, Bill Gates.

But Ken Lay’s not like that. He tricked his way into wealth, built it on the backs of other people’s hard work and worse, trust. His way was not good business but instead to steal, cheat, and lie his way into comfort. There is no more repulsive type of person, to me.

Now, he’s dead. Yep, just about as dead as dead people come. Whatever he planned his contribution to be, whatever additional damage he could have accomplished, whatever redemption we might have witnessed, it’s over.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that. Certainly the world will be no worse off for his passing. Were it not for the many careers he destroyed and families he sent into destitution, I would consider it the end of just another sad chapter in the story of corporate America and its seedy downfall. But the truth is, as many lives as he ruined, there are lots of people like him. Greedy cowards are everywhere.

How does one go from being a paperboy in Missouri to the most notorious white collar criminal of all time? How do you hurt as many people as he hurt, and still win the praise of your pastor? How do you singlehandedly cement a nation’s mistrust in public corporations, and still come out whining about how hard it is to “turn off a lifestyle like a spigot” – how?

I’m not trying to moralize. I’m sure it sounds that way. I just really want to understand where the moral center comes from, or why some people have one, and others just don’t. There is nothing in Kenneth Lay’s family background that would lead me to suggest that he should not have learned wrong from right. I’m not sure I see from what I’ve read any big indicators of a madman addicted to pushing the envelope of how much he can get away with.

But that’s what happened. “Kenny Boy” was one of the single largest contributors to our current President, what our Commando in Chief might call a friend among “…the haves and have mores.” Was it power that gave Lay the impression that what he was doing was ok? What was his compass?

We all face temptation. But just because it is laid out in front of us like a Siren does not mean we have to succumb to it. I have plenty of little weaknesses, like music and good books and wine and conversation and flirting and eating ice cream with my kids. But I’ve never stolen anything more than a kiss. I just don’t get what that’s about.

It seems to me that Kenneth Lay must have been a pretty damn unhappy man to have wandered so far off the path, mislead so many people, wreak such enormous economic havoc, all for his own profit. Life is so short, time is so precious, and then it’s up. Whether you believe his act of checking out when he did is extraordinarily ironic or sickeningly transparent in its intention, he’s had his last shot, at anything. And that’s no different from any of the rest of us. At the end of the day, whether we lived honestly or lied our way through every day, we’re all going to be six feet under in the same damn muck, same damn worms wiggling through what’s left of us, same dust to dust to dust that will vaporize when the sun gets too hot and Earth is just a memory, no better, no worse than anybody else. Just gone.

What do you leave behind? There’s a banjo player turned hippie folk hero that I’ve come to miss because of what he left behind. And right now, it would be fun to believe that Ken Lay has to sit and listen to Jerry Garcia sing ballad after ballad.

This is a Mississippi John Hurt song. I’ve heard Hurt’s version, and Jerry’s with David Grisman. Hurt sings the version in the link below. Just seemed appropriate.


Mrs Collins weep, Mrs Collins moan
What made her son Louis leave his home?
Angels laid him away

Angels laid him away
Laid him six feet under the clay
Angels laid him away

Oh kind friends, now ain't it hard
To see poor Louis in a new grave yard
Angels laid him away


Bob shot one and Louis shot two
Shot poor Collins, shot him through and through
Angels have laid him away


When they heard that Louis was dead
All the people they dressed in red
Angels laid him away


Mrs Collins weep, Mrs Collins moan
What made her son Louis leave his home?
Angels laid him away

As irritating and unjust as all this seems, it occurred to me as I drifted off to sleep that Kenneth Lay probably knew little joy in his life. Real, honest to goodness joy should be a part of everyone's day. Maybe a lot of us have that little something that he never had -- that he couldn't have had considering he made such an ethical train wreck of his life. So be grateful for the little things that do work about your life, and how much easier it probably is than for those who have to spend every day lying their way through.

No thanks.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Tuned for Revolution

It's dark and stormy. Everything is a little soggy and moving slowly, including me. This can come in handy if one is trying to sort out the notion of what Independence Day is all about.

Now, while I'm not one to get all whipped up into a Uber Patriotic Frenzy, I do appreciate the great many sacrifices made to found our country, and to keep it running the first few years. And that's what we're really celebrating today.

Part of my Geek Heritage is my fondness for Colonial Williamsburg, which has over the years established itself as the model for living history programming, research, education, and preservation. The Foundation really is unmatched when it comes to the art of rediscovering the past and teaching it in an honest, straightforward way. Plus, it's really, really fun.
Amid the crowd, you get sucked into the action. Suddenly it's 1776, and men in the town are heading to the Congress, talking about a Constitution, maybe even war. The Governors Palace, routinely open to tours, suddenly goes on lockdown because old Governor Dunmore is dissolving the assembly and carting off the gunpowder from the Public Magazine.

You sit with the Randolph family as they sort through their confusion and prepare for Peyton Randolph's departure for Philadelphia. Randolph is presiding officer of the first Continental Congress, so all this stuff Dunmore is doing is going to be a big pain in his keister. It's not hard to imagine the outrage, or even feel it, or the surge of pride when suddenly, atop the Capitol, you notice the Union Jack is gone, and in its place flies the flag of an independent Virginia.

Then as now, not everyone agreed with what was taking place. Plenty in the assembly and among the citizenry were happy with the way things were, and not all that interested in creating a stir. Declaring independence from Britain was a dicey prospect and took a lot of years and an awful lot of blood to accomplish. I'm not even sure we finished the job, sometimes.

But today, history says we did.

I started taking mando lessons a few weeks ago, and one of the tunes I'm learning to play is Soldier's Joy, which is older than I realized. It's jaunty and fun to play, and it's easy to imagine how upon hearing it fiddled as a jig in colonial times, it was time to roll back the rugs and stand the chairs to the wall. It's an extremely recognizeable standard, and you almost certainly know it. In this 1938 recording, future Senator Al Gore Sr. and his band play it at a square dance. (Gore and his opponents would try to out fiddle each other as they campaigned across the state, and he was considered one of the best, so his band became very popular.) Another version on fiddle and banjo, in which the tune may be a little clearer, can be heard here.

Well, having heard all that, I guess I better go practice for the next revolution. Thanks for stopping by and spending a little of your Independence Day 'round here. I hope the rest of it holds for you some joy and time with special people, and dare I say, a little music, too.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Where'd He Come From, Where'd He Go?

This fine warm Sunday morning I am sitting here having my cereal and listening to a Library of Congress recording of Alan Lomax interviewing and collecting tunes from a fiddler named Marcus Martin, from Swannanoa, North Carolina. The recording itself is probably 50 years old, and both men are long gone. That's Martin on the left in the photo above which was found on a website dedicated to his son, Edsel, who was a woodworker.

When I put this recording on yesterday while doing a few chores, I was completely stopped in my tracks. This is not a throw-it-in-while-you-do-a-little-laundry kind of recording. To hear Lomax making his contribution requires and deserves my full attention. Certainly at some point it would be come vital to collect his collectings and begin ingesting them one by one (here's hoping I live that long!). Listening to him draw Martin out is like auditing a class that no university offers for traditional music preservation. I am the fortunate student.

I'm surprised at how many of the tunes are beginning to sound familiar. A great number of them as he plays them appear on other recordings I have. A great many more I may not recognize for what they are because of the subtle variations to which my ear is unaccustomed. And frankly, as boring as this may sound to many of you, I could see devoting every day to pulling each one apart, and finding its counterpart, and setting it free from its mountain confines and into the hands of the everyday American who might otherwise pass it on by.

You know, it's fascinating. Tens of thousands of Americans pass right through Virginia and North Carolina on their way to sunny vacation spots. I remember driving over the low flat watersheds of lower Virginia and northern North Carolina, pining to wonder what goes on in the evenings on the sagging porches we pass sitting in their fields of peanuts and tobacco. Maybe there was a time when these tunes migrated east and were played on those porches as the sun set on Pamlico sound.

Or maybe, in 1587, when Raleigh's first shipment landed on these shores, these tunes were among the lost treasures that disappeared with America's very first colony on Roanoke Island. Who knows if those sailors had fiddle tunes with them, and wandered with the Croatan into the hills or on the shores of the sound where they are still played?

That's a whole new reason to visit the Outer Banks. For me, anyway. On his blog, my good friend Shannon posted some pictures of our last vacation there a few years back. Maybe it's time I figured out how to get back there, with a new purpose and a new way of looking at that part of our country. Maybe there is collecting to do there among those families, the Midgett's and the Tillet's, a different kind of fishing than my father used to do. In the meantime maybe Mr. Lomax can teach me a thing or two about what I need to ask, how to ask it, if I can conjure him sweetly.

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Jawbone, fiddler, tune collector, and good all around human bean who is always willing to play a tune and tell the stories behind it.