January 25, 2016

A White weekend: Six year anniversary

I have an anniversary coming up in two weeks, but circumstance caused me to celebrate early. Six years ago, I found myself stuck at home during a historic blizzard and spent the hours indoors developing a musical infatuation.  This weekend, the mid-Atlantic was hit by another blizzard of record-breaking proportion and I've been stuck at home for four days so far. I've spent these hours re-exploring that old infatuation and what it's come to mean to me.  

Anyone who's familiar with this blog surely knows that I'm talking about the music of Jack White.  I wrote about that weekend six years ago and he's been a predominant subject here ever since. On the surface it looks like an obsession but, really, it's grown into something else. Sure, I'm still infatuated with Jack. He's an endlessly fascinating personality and his music moves me in a way no other musician's ever has. But in following his work, I've begun to look at a bigger picture surrounding him and his music. He and the company he created, Third Man Records, have become symbols for me of a way to look at the world, primarily art and music, but also culture and society. 

For a while now, I've been wearing a silver ring on my lefthand ring finger, a set of three bands that look like bones. I've never told anyone why, but this anniversary seems like an apropos time to talk about it. The ring is a symbol for me, just like a wedding band is a symbol for anyone who's married. As in the film Elizabeth, when Cate Blanchett's Queen Elizabeth proclaims to Lord Burley, "I am married. To England.", I also feel married to something rather than someone, to an ideal rather than to a person. (Though I am actually kind of married to Jack, seeing as how I was at the San Francisco show in 2014 during which he decided to marry every woman in the audience in the middle of the song Blunderbuss. But it was the night after he'd sprained his ankle on stage and he was probably high on Vicodin and for all I know he had it annulled two days later without bothering to tell the couple thousand of us.)  That ideal I feel wed to may walk around wearing the form of Jack White, but I see so much more now when I look at him.  I've read and been told enough about him, and observed a bit myself, to know the man is way too human to ever qualify for sainthood or keep his balance on any pedestal. But I also see him continually striving to grow, and to make the world a better place in his own way, on his own and with the help of the people he's brought into his organization. Whether it's his New Year's Day advice in the Vault chat room, his inquisitiveness about history and art and science that he shares with his fans through all of the projects he's involved in and things he mentions in interviews, his constant urging to remember the romance and ingenuity of the past while admiring the innovation of the future, the efforts by Third Man Books partners Ben Swank and Chet Weise to spread culture and beauty through poetry, or the many charity drives organized (there are four links in that string of words, click on 'em all) by Third Man Records, that striving is what inspires me.  It's the one thing we can all do, regardless of our talent or ability or circumstance, we can always try to grow and be better-- Better at art, better at whatever it is we do, better human beings with a wider field of vision and curiosity and awareness.

Thank you to the unknown person on Tumblr who captured and posted this.

Bob Dylan said in Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie--

...You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

He wasn't talking about Woody in those last lines, or in any of the lines of that poem. He was talking about what Woody represented to him.  I'm no poet like Dylan, but I understand exactly what he meant about Woody because it's very much the way I've come to feel about Jack.  When someone creates something that moves us, or begins an organization or movement that inspires us, what that person represents can become something that's both incorporated within them and totally separate from them.  Look at Martin Luther King Jr or Abraham Lincoln. On a much smaller scale, look at Woody Guthrie and, more and more, look at Jack White.   

Of course, running underneath and through it all is the music.  And there's so very much of that to celebrate, not just this weekend but every single day...


January 17, 2016

Random babblings: Sunsets, snow, and bluebirds

Over a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan, I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' description of a Florida sunset:

The sun itself was trivial. It sank humble into a modest bed of subdued gold. But in the north, the east, the south, cloud piled on cloud, arrogant with color, luminous with lemon yellow, with saffron and with rose. Three bands of opal blue lifted suddenly from the sun. The west took over its own. The unseemly magnificence of north and east and south faded. The sun at the horizon came into its full glory and the west was copper, then blood-red blazing into an orgy of salmon and red and brass and a soft blush-yellow the color of ripe guavas. Northeast and south faded instantly to gray, timid at having usurped the flame of the sunset. Then suddenly the west dimmed, as though a bonfire charred and died. The was only a bar of  copper. All the sky, to every point of the compass, became a soft blue and the clouds were white powder, so that in the end it was tenderness that triumphed.

Then, later, in the middle of a deer trail through the trees alongside an old field, I found the spot where something devoured the bluebird of happiness, leaving behind nothing but a litter of electric cobalt feathers.

I came out of the woods and into the first snowfall of the winter, a late January attempt at appropriate weather in a peculiarly warm season.  First one flake, then two, so sparse that you'd wonder if you actually saw them until, yep, there's enough of a multitude to properly be called snow.  Wandered through it up past two of the farms on the Three Farms trail, and as I was coming back the sun bullied its way briefly through the grey. In about the same amount of time it'd take to devour a bluebird, the snow had dissipated to crystalized rain. So much for winter.

January 2, 2016

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Coming back

Started the drive home with the Danger episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio, then set the flashdrive back to shuffle. Ended up with a great assortment of tunes along the way, so this road-trip tale is gonna be as much music as babbling...

And of course I found the historic Ocala cemetery when passing through to get from route 75 to 301. Of course I did. That’s what I do, I find cemeteries. Driving along, I glance down a side street and, boom, I see headstones a couple blocks away. This was an interesting one, too, decrepit and falling apart, but relatively well groomed. Wandered around it accompanied by songs blasting from an oldies radio station playing all the way across a field on the other side the road at what looked like a lumberyard. Since I’d not brought my camera on this trip, I had to take photos with my tablet, first time I’ve attempted that. The shots came out tolerably well, despite being barely able to see what I was shooting because of glare on the screen. Made them somewhat serendipitous.  Though I always feel that cemetery photos should be black and white, so after some internal debate I ended up editing them before uploading.

A little ways beyond the sprawling horse farms north of Ocala, I passed both The Orange Shop and a turnoff to the site of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. Decided a few miles further on that those were stops I had to make, so I whipped a quick'n'vicious U-turn and headed back to check out both. 

What better souvenir of Florida than fresh-squeezed-on-site orange juice? And The Orange Shop itself looked to have been around way back when Hank Williams recorded what may've been his only political song-- 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead was definitely worth the prolonged stop. You have to squint a bit to block out the highway you’ve just turned off of, and the two-lane blacktop leading back to the park, and the park and boat ramp next to the homestead, in order to get a feel for the wilderness Rawlings moved to in 1928. Just inside the old gate at the entrance is a sign that helps. It reads “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood. Here is home.” And down the path is exactly what she describes, as you come around a slight curve into an opening that was once her orange grove. There are only a few more than a dozen trees now, but enough to give a feeling of what it was like, what with the old barn and big glossy chickens strutting around and roosting in the low branches of the orange trees. And Rawlings’ house beyond, maintained by staffers in period clothing. It wasn’t open this day, but I was able to walk around and peek in the windows, and wander the short trail through what’s left of the wilderness. I wondered as I walked what she meant by “here is home”. Literally, her home? Or a spiritual home that she felt all who entered the place would arrive at? The house appeared cozy enough, but the woods… not so much. They’re compelling, though, and certainly mysterious. The alien-ness of hanging mosses, strangling figs, palms that grow like ferns, and cypress knees creates a definite enchantment. But there’s also something forbidding in their mystery, in the way sandy soil gives way to springy marshiness, and then to swamp. What threats are hidden behind the fans of palm and in those clumps of Spanish moss? In my childhood, I saw the film of Rawlings’ book The Yearling, which makes the place seem innocent enough, despite the difficulty of life there. But I also saw Frogs and had nightmares about Spanish moss, so there you go. 

As I was coming back through the grove from the trail through the woods, the gentleman working there invited me to pick a few oranges to take with me. Take my word for it, the taste of historically significant oranges has a noticeable edge over anything you'll get in the grocery store. 

Was a bit jarring to have this come up immediately when I turned the key in the ignition, but the two that followed brought me back to a more appropriate mood.

The rest of the way up 301 to route 10 to the Jacksonville beltway and then onto 95 was swift despite construction squashing three lanes worth of traffic into two. The shuffling stereo got caught in a blue mood… 

But somewhere in the midst of Georgia, it brought up an appropriate tune (despite the fact that 95 runs by Savannah rather than Atlanta)- 

And then, as twilight ended, up came Blind Willie Johnson and some gospel… 

As I passed the exit for Effingham (which made me chuckle because I once passed another Effingham in another state and the same lame joke crossed my mind then), it was back to some roadtrip-appropriate hard stuff… 

Got off at an exit with three motels only to find that none of them had any available rooms. Decided to cross over the highway to see if there were more options on the other side, but what I thought was a road to somewhere suddenly turned into an exit that dumped me back onto 95 heading southbound, which was not what I wanted. When you’re hauling ass along a dark highway trying to get to the next exit to get back in the right direction, you could do a lot worse than My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult… 

That next exit back was for a town called Coosawhatchie. Instead of looping across the overpass to get back on the highway going north, I decided I had to see what Coosawhatchie looked like, even in the dark, so I headed in the direction the sign pointed. Either it wasn’t much of a town or I missed a turnoff to it, but I suddenly realized the dark road I was heading along was running parallel to the highway going north. Sure enough, it came back up to the previous exit where I’d had no luck getting a room. So I got back on 95 going in the right direction and high-tailed it some more to an exit with more hotel options, where it took three stops to finally get one of apparently the last five rooms around.

A room that, even after turning on the air conditioner, had a decidedly muggy, clammy feel to it. Floor, sheets, pillows, even my clothes the next morning felt ever so slightly damp. Plus, no wi-fi. Tossed all night, and did not sleep late the next morning. Got out of damp Dodge as quick as I could, with the Captain and Seu Jorge setting the tone for the morning. 

Stopped two exits down for breakfast at the Olde House CafĂ©, because “Country cookin’ makes you good lookin’”. We’ll see. 

Made serious time through the rest of S.C. and into N.C. thanks to another woman driving a red car. Can’t recall who initially caught up with whom, but we leap-frogged a few times, I ended up following her for a while, then got in front of her and maintained the lead for a long time. Then we got caught behind a slow pickup truck. When I was finally able to whip around and get ahead of him, I looked back and saw her roll down her window and throw a gesture of some sort at him as she passed. After that, it wasn’t so much fun having her follow me, so I put a little more pressure on the gas pedal and took it up to a speed she wasn’t as comfortable at. Though every now and again, when I’d get caught behind slower cars, I’d look back and see a red car coming around the side of the cars way back behind, as if she were trying to catch up. But once I was in the clear again, I’d step down and lose sight of her again. And then suddenly I didn’t see her no mo’.  Which was a bit of a relief, but also left me feeling a little bit lonely. Just a very little bit, though.

Along the way, just shy of Florence, I noticed that all the trees that weren’t pine were no longer covered with either Spanish moss or leaves. Though still down south, that made me suddenly feel like I was already back up north. 

Made a stop in Smithfield, NC to visit the Ava Gardner Museum. Don't  have much profound to say about her other than that what I learned at the museum put her right up there with Elizabeth Taylor in the list of women I admire.  Stunningly gorgeous, yet apparently a strong, down-to-earth broad through and through. Definitely need to see more of her films.

The skies began pouring down a monsoon rain as I pulled onto the highway from Smithfield. Obligingly, the stereo shuffled up an appropriate tune for what was ahead, again from Hank.

Because the rain just would not let up.  Other cars on the road became just pairs of barely visible red lights, until I came right up on them and got a glimpse of a vaguely car-shaped mass ahead or next to me.  I passed so many lakes alongside the highway that would have been fields on any other day, to the point that I was less concerned about having an accident with another car and more about coming upon a flood across the road. Especially when the stereo began shuffling up a string of damned fine driving tunes and I just could not speed up...

And this one, highly apropos to Ava Gardner's love of bullfighting and bullfighters...

Finally stopped for dinner somewhere in Virginia and came across this great quote in the most recent music issue of Oxford American, about why so much great music is made in Georgia: "Because of the humidity that surrounds us.  You lose your stinking mind and have to go crazy to remain sane!  Things are so backwards here. Frontwords is backwards. You know? One and one is two, but what's one?  Southern people are fucking crazy. And if you're not crazy, you're driven crazy. And if you don't have that crazy in you, you're not any good.

It ain't the humidity, it's all that scratchy pine and swampy water, I know it is.

And the second truism of the road is... a rainy highway is a rainy highway is a rainy highway.  Fortunately, the car stereo was yet again in tune with the drive and shuffled up a couple different versions of this one over the last hundred or so miles home...

Because if you're not in tune with your car, you just can't have a good road trip.

Christmas road-trip, Md to Fla 2015: Going

Drove from Maryland to Florida for a belated Christmas this year. Left Christmas eve morning, well, actually more like noon, and hit the dreaded I-95 Corridor through northern VA.  I've driven 95 from Connecticut to the Carolinas (before this trip) and the stretch through Virginia is consistently the absolute worst in terms of traffic slowdowns for no discernible reason.  Fortunately, there was a flashdrive full of music plugged into the car dash and it more than once set both the mood and the pace of the trip, both going and coming back.  Though I learned something important on this drive-- Setting music on shuffle makes time go more slowly than listening to something with a discrete time-frame, like a podcast or album. 

Hit the border of VA and SC a little after 8pm with the intention of stopping at that famous (notorious?) spot that is the entrance to SC. But South of the Border just does not live up to its kitschy potential. Very sad. Obviously there was a time when it was a fun spot, but those days seem to be over. I thought of staying at Pedro's motor inn just for the fun of it, but lost the taste for it after taking a quick spin down the road beyond and passing a gentleman's club and "Asian spa", where I would swear a drug deal was taking place as I pulled a u-turn in the lot. Went back and wandered the deserted aisles of Pedro's gift shop looking for a fun memento or silly gift for a co-worker, even just a bumper sticker or post card, but came up empty-handed. Just a lot of nothing clever there.

Woke up Christmas morning a little farther south than South of the Border and got back on the highway. Spent half of Jack White's album Blunderbuss tucked into a line of four cars doing a consistent 90-100mph. No one was being competitive, there was no tailgating, no passing. Just smoothly pacing each other at high speed. It was great. Then in the middle of Trash Tongue Talker we came up behind a clump of slower cars that couldn’t be easily passed and it all fell apart. 


When we finally got by, the two in front got slow, the guy from New York who’d been bringing up the rear got aggressive and that was it. All good things must come to an end. A few songs later, after one had gotten off at an exit and I’d passed the two who’d been leading, I put on the brakes myself to let New York get in front of me, and then watched him proceed to tailgate and pass cars up ahead, to the point of using an on-ramp to pass a truck on the right. 

On my own again and with 300mph Torrential Outpour Blues set on repeat, I started taking a closer look at the scenery, sizing it up and drawing conclusions about it. I think I wrote once years ago about driving through the desert of Utah and feeling that the landscape there, so wide open and lacking in coverage or shade, so much hot sun relentlessly pounding down on your head, could drive a person mad. But I got the same feeling looking at the landscape passing alongside the road in S.C. Instead of wide open, it’s dense with thick, seemingly impermeable stands of tall, dark pines and scrubby undergrowth, here and there immersed in stands of swampy water. Having to make your way through that back in the day before there were highways or even many roads would be a tricky thing for the sane, though a convenient thing for the insane or merely surreptitious looking for places to hide. And if you weren’t mad already, I could easily imagine it making you mad, all rough bark and sharp needles scratching at your brain. So easy to picture those convoluted woods filled with moonshine stills and guys like Ernest T. Bass

 Hopped off the highway for a moment for a break and bought a pack of Raisinets and a black-and-white, Harlequin-painted resin skull at the truck stop. Made sure to say “Merry Christmas” to the woman at the cash register as I paid for it. It was very tempting to follow the narrow road down through the pines on the other side of the overpass, but instead I hopped back on the highway and took off to the tune of Bear Cat. 


Had to chuckle a bit at the GA border over the fluttering U.S. and S.C. state flags, landscaped palm trees, and graciously worded signage (“Thank you for visiting South Carolina"). What is it about S.C.’s relationship with Georgia that made them put this up, in contrast to the sketchy neon kitsch of South of the Border up north by N.C.? 

 95 through Georgia spread immediately from S.C.'s 4 lanes split by a swampy pine divider into 6 wide open lanes with a Jersey wall divider. It also immediately became quite dull, aside from frequently having to pass folks with their brains stuck on cruise-control in the left and middle lanes. The monotony was broken here and there by marshy rivers like the Jerico and Cat Creek, which reminded me of Jug Bay and Blackwater back home in eastern MD. 

Perfect road-trip song, huh? Though I may live a predominantly static lifestyle, afraid to let go of the stability of a steady, well-paying-though-usually-unstimulating job, trips like this and the rest of the travelling I’ve done the last few years are necessary to keep me sane. Certain family members might consider some of the travelling I’ve done to be irresponsible and selfish, but my feeling is that I have to do it now while I can. I couldn’t afford to do it when I was younger, and in a handful of years I may have to take on the sort of responsibility for others that I’ve always shied away from. I don’t know what to expect, but the possibility of it is what drives me now to drive and fly and follow my addictions to road and music. Now is when I can do it and I have to take advantage of that. 

 After all the billboards along the highway had left visions of peach salsa and peach cider and peach ice cream and peach bread dancing in my head, I was very disappointed that Peach World was closed for Christmas Day. 

Spent several miles debating who recorded the better version of Solid Sender- Chico Leverette or John Lee Hooker.

Totally different songs, not variations of the same. Both have strong selling points, but I'm inclined to lean towards John Lee. 


Crossed over into Florida to the tune of Son House’s Death Letter. I don’t have much to say about Florida. It’s not my favorite state. The natural flora is exotic and mysterious and sometimes beautiful, but the human development (I almost said “encroachment”) seems mostly haphazard and ill-conceived, and frequently shabby. I’ve seen some interesting and even wonderful things in Florida (culture in Sarasota, the Edison-Ford Winter Estates, incredible cloud formations), but overall the state just leaves me on edge. It’s a hard place for me to relax in. Though I’ve always experienced it through the prism of family or work, so maybe this trip, driving through so much of it on my own, will let me form a different connection with it. 

Connections might be tough to form, though, as there seem to be damned few places to stop.  Went all the way from Jacksonville to Ocala via routes 10 and 301 with nary a rest area or hotel/restaurant haven, and thought I was going to be out of luck dinner-wise in Ocala. Cruising the outskirts of town, the Family Dollar store was open, but Burger King was not. That says something. Thank goodness for Aunt Fannie’s Restaurant, which, as the servers kept answering the phone near me at the counter, was “open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year!” The counter was so high that I felt like a little kid sitting there, especially as the stool was also so high that my toes didn’t touch the floor and the glass they served my sweet tea in was so big it took two hands to grab and lift it to my mouth. A bit Alice In Wonderland-ish, but the ham steak was damned good. Three hours to go, headed back to the highway accompanied by Hank Williams’ 6 More Miles To Go.

Looked over my left shoulder a while later to see the Full Cold Moon rising.  Listened to Son House singing Pearline and tried to imagine him at 60-something in a recording studio with “Blind Owl” Alan Wilson helping him to remember his old songs. Was Pearline one he originally did way back when, or was it made up during those studio sessions? I should look that up some day, see if I can find out. It’s my favorite of his songs, with lyrics that consist of pretty much nothing but “Pearline, what’s the matter with you?” and “Pearline, I love you”. His slide guitar sums up everything else about their relationship in between those two sentiments. 

One of the truisms of the road—No matter what state you’re in, a dark highway is a dark highway is a dark highway. 

December 8, 2015

Jug bands and Joe Bussard

Image borrowed from Dust & Grooves
Look at that wall. That's history. American history, musical history. That is a wall of thousands and thousands of 78rpm records. All pressed from the 1920s through the 50s, most of which consist of only 1 or 2 or a small handful currently in existence. Think about that: 1 or 2 records left in existence-- not 1 or 2 songs that were recorded, but 1 or 2 actual, physical records out of what was originally pressed however many years ago-- that represent musicians many of us have never even heard of.  Musicians who were famous in their time and recorded many songs of which many thousands of of copies were pressed, but who've been forgotten over the decades; musicians who had a few thousand records pressed and went to their graves relatively unknown; musicians who cut one record and then disappeared leaving behind only a few hundred pressings of merely one or two songs. It's staggering to think about, that there's so much music that's been pressed to shellac and vinyl that would be gone if it weren't for people like the man in that photo. That man is Joe Bussard and that wall is in his basement. This intro might sound hyperbolic, but I spent a morning with Joe a week or so ago and came away overwhelmed. 

Joe's well known in a small, somewhat esoteric circle of music historians, record collectors, lovers of old-time music. The Dust and Grooves article linked below the photo above is where I first heard of him.  I was tickled by the fact that he lived so nearby, but figured I'd never meet him.  I learned more about him and that incredible room in his basement when I read Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell At Any Price, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of American music, but still figured I'd never run into him on the streets of downtown Frederick. And then one of my favorite local record shops posted on Facebook that they were going to host a release party for The Year of Jubilo, a new cd compilation of Civil War songs culled by Joe from his collection. Hot damn, I could meet the man. When I did, he got a kick out of the way I bopped around to the live music provided by The Capitol Hillbillies and said "You should come up sometime and I'll play you some records!"  You have no idea how excited that invitation left me. A week or two later, after an e-mail exchange and a phone call, I was on my way to Joe's house on a wet, chilly Saturday morning.

I tried to take notes of the records he played for me during the three and a half hours I was there, but I didn't want to talk while the music was playing and when each song ended, he was either flipping the record in a flash or slipping it in its sleeve and jumping up to comb the shelves for another one faster than I could write.  I ended up with a piece of paper full of scribbles down the middle and around the edges and feel like I didn't write down even half of what I heard.  Joe started with 20s jazz, then into jug band, harmonica music, country blues, then he sat down on his couch and played me a bit of screwdriver slide guitar (beautifully, too), and then went back to the records with a dive into 40s and 50s country. And then I had to get on the road, but not before he played a couple of wax cylinder records and some Edison diamond discs on a windup player.  

My education in this sort of music began a couple of years ago with the two volume set, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, from Revenant Records and Third Man Records. They're a fantastic start to studying American music history, with 1,600 songs and a couple of books thick with information, like four years of high school devoted entirely to the vast catalogue of music released by Paramount. Stepping into Joe's basement and having him play dj for you is like graduating and going off to college.  There are so many directions to go in, so many connections to make, and he's a challenging professor to keep up with. On this first morning, the first lesson I came away with had to do with jug bands.

If you're like me, the idea of a jug band most likely initially summons up an image of Appalachia and hillbilly music. And yet, like so much of American music, jug music originated with African-American musicians in urban environments. Which explains the surprising diversity of jug music, as African-American players of that era were apparently rarely as conscious of genre as the historians who've come along since to classify them.  They just played, using whatever instruments were at hand or creating new ones from whatever was lying around.  As a result, the jug became a bridge between styles, providing a bass line for pretty much any combination of instruments you could think of.  Pair it up with a clarinet and piano, and you've got sophisticated, swinging jazz.  With a guitar and maybe a harmonica, you could create deeply mournful blues.  Throw in a fiddle and there's the Appalachian tone that I think most people would associate with it.  And it can be incredibly subtle-- On at least one song, I didn't even realize what I was listening to was a jug rather than a stand-up bass until I heard the musician's breath.

Some highlights of jug music and a few other things Joe played for me that I was able to find on YouTube--

Lordie, that harmonica... And to close it out, a tune used in a documentary about Joe--

And, holy heck, look at the lone speaker there in the corner that Joe plays his music through. Filled that room like nothing I've heard before.
Image borrowed from this person's tale of his own Joe experience

Needless to say, there will be as many more lessons as Joe's willing to give me. Soon as I can get a free weekend to head back down into that basement.

December 6, 2015

A walk in the woods, with a double

After Cassie at Lost Dog slipped a double espresso into my Walk In The Woods, I went for a walk in the woods. There, a pair of oyster fungi led to a rusted old coffee can which led to this---


I don't ever intentionally drink coffee, but that turtle shell is quite a prize.


November 8, 2015

A night at the museum: The BMA, 11/7/15

The spotlight was an ugly thing.  Metal fixtures clustered high on a metal pole, yellowish glaring light that could blind you if you accidentally raised your eyes in its direction.  But the silhouette its harshness created-- crepe myrtle branches cast like a photographic plate in black and sepia against the marble wall, sharply focused where the branches were close to the building and blurred where they were farther-- was so strikingly lovely it took my breath away. I'd driven through heavy traffic all the way to Baltimore after a long day at work and spent $30 on a ticket for an event that proved so dull I walked out during intermission, but that shadow on the wall was worth it all.

October 25, 2015

This is Baltimore, vol. 238

Teavolve was too busy,
Lebanese Taverna was not.
Fest in full swing in Fells.
A sweet pitch of orioles in the sculpture garden
(without a ball or bat among them),
a raucous murder of crows in Wyman Park Dell.
Playing spoons with a jug band in the museum.
This is Baltimore.

August 14, 2015

The delights of music, math, and hokum

So I've been reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One, getting close to the end at this point.  Hit a passage the other night that struck me and got me excited, in which he talks about feeling stuck, like he can't perform anymore.  Inspiration came to him through the memory of a lesson he'd learned from Lonnie Johnson, a blues/jazz musician I only have one record from but whom I absolutely love. Along with Little Willie John, Lonnie's one of my favorite crooners.

I owe a big thanks to thebobdylanfanclub.com for typing out that passage from Chronicles so that I don't have to.  Here's the part that jumped out at me: 

Besides my devotion to a new vocal technique, something else would go along with helping me re-create my songs. It seemed like I had always accompanied myself on the guitar. I played in the casual Carter Family flat-picking style and the playing was more or less out of habit and routine. It always had been clear and readable but didn't reflect my psyche in any way. It didn't have to. 

The style had been practical, but now I was going to push that away from the table, too, and replace it with something more active with more definition of presence.

I didn't invent this style. It had been shown to me in the early 60's by Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie was the great jazz and blues artist from the 30's who was still performing in the 60's. Robert Johnson had learned a lot from him. Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-number system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it. This was just something he knew about, not necessarily something he used because he did so many different kinds of songs. He said, "This might help you," and I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn't make sense to me at that time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across. It's a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes. 

I never used this style, didn't see that there'd be any purpose to it. But now all of a sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world. The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece. Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players. You probably wouldn't pay any attention to this method if you weren't a singer. It was easy for me to pick this up. I understood the rules and critical elements because Lonnie had showed them to me so crystal clear. It would be up to me now to expel everything that wasn't natural to it. I would have to master that style and sing to it. 

The system works in a cyclical way. Because you're thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you're playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects, and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you're using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don't have to plan or think ahead. In a diatonic scale there are eight notes, in a pentatonic scale there are five. If you're using the first scale, and you hit 2, 5, and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms. Or you can use 2 three times. Or you can use 4 once and 7 twice. It's infinite what you can do, and each time you would create a different melody. The possibilities are endless. A song executes itself on several fronts and you can ignore musical customs. All you need is a drummer and a bass player, and all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system. With any type of imagination you can hit notes at intervals and between backbeats, creating counterpoint lines and then you sing off of it. There's no mystery to it and it's not a technical trick. The scheme is for real. For me, this style would be most advantageous, like a delicate design that would arrange the structure of whatever piece I was performing. The listener would recognize and feel the dynamics immediately. Things could explode or retreat back at any time and there would be no way to predict the consciousness of any song. And because this works on its own mathematical formula, it can't miss. I'm not a numerologist. I don't know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is. Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren't even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key - all deceptively simple. You gain power with the least amount of effort, trust that the listeners make their own connections, and it's very seldom that they don't. Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm. As long as you recognize it, you can turn the dynamic around architecturally in a second."

I mentioned this at a message board where I've been talking to people about Dylan and was told by a guy who worked on the book for the publishing house that employs him that the passage I was so struck by was an example of the "delightfully Dylanesque hokum" that Chronicles is apparently full of.  That may be true, and it didn't surprise me.  I knew going in that Dylan has a reputation for deception and camouflage and I'd been wondering already what parts of the book were true vs hokum.   He may've never met Lonnie Johnson or, if he did, was never schooled by him (though there are people out there  who seem to think  there's something to the tale).  But that doesn't matter, doesn't diminish the beauty of the passage for me at all.   It was the mathematics of it that fascinated me.  I'm not a mathematically inclined person, my brain just doesn't work that way.  I can do simple math in my head, most of the time, but algebraic stuff leaves me flummoxed.  So the marriage of math and music is something that fascinates me.  

Music is intangible, ethereal.  Even if you own a record, you only own a piece of vinyl in which sound waves have been captured. What those sound waves contain, though, can't be held in your hand. Music is stories, notes that can break your heart or uplift you. Music can bring you to tears of sorrow or joy.  Music is the only form of art that you can enjoy while doing other things, like driving or jogging or washing the dishes.  It's the only form of art that makes us move.  That's how we're able to connect other experiences to music and, I think, a large part of how music creates a sense of nostalgia in us.

Math is intangible, too, but there's nothing ethereal about it. It's fact, it's cold, hard, rational and logical.  So the fact that music is based on mathematics blows my mind.  And you can't really do other things while you're doing math, nor can I imagine the sight of an algebraic formula giving anyone but a mathematician a nostalgic pang. Math can make you cry, though. I remember sitting in algebra class in high school and yawning until tears came to my eyes, sometimes to the point that a few would slip out and roll down my cheek.  One day I was wiping some of those tears away and the teacher asked me "Is this class that hard for you?"  I said, "No, it's that boring".  That's no hokum.

You were expecting Dylan videos, perhaps? Here, have one of Bob and John Lennon being silly in a London cab--

July 27, 2015

Random babblings: Blood On the Tracks and blood on my wrist

Hefted a rain-soaked fawn this morning, surprised at how flexible it was in its stiffness. Walked away with wet hands and a fleck of blood on my wrist.

After breakfast, an Idiot Wind blew me to Breezewood looking for a tunnel on an eroded highway.  Wasn't sure how far I'd have to walk, but then suddenly there it was.

On a day like today, you don't realize how hot it is until you stop moving, then sweat and denim combine to smother you.

Other tunnels I've explored have had a light at the end. This one didn't, it was just a throat of hazy blackness.   So I sat at its mouth, had a snack, read the graffiti, and watched the tunnel exhale a cool, dusty breath.  After a while, fellow explorers were heard long before seen, so I got up and headed back before they could step out of the darkness and destroy the illusion.

Crossed paths with a couple of local boys on the way back and some thoughts crossed my mind that I didn't want to have.  What a world we live in.  As the young men went on their way, I turned my mind back to the fawn to make the thoughts go, too.

Back at the car, pulled out and hit the road in search of a road on a hill that defied gravity.  Blood On the Tracks... blood on my wrist... a runaway truck axle-deep in gravel on the way to Bedford.

Lost my shit and was reduced to giggles coming down the mountain toward the junction with 522 when I took my foot off the gas to coast the descent and watched the speedometer slow down and down and down.  Would've just let the car come to a stop in the middle of the highway, but someone was coming down behind me.

At a Pentecostal church along Jack Rd.: "Nothing ruins the truth like stretching it".

Never did find Bedford or that physics-defying hill, but gave into giggles again coming around the first bend of an S curve to see a sign warning to watch for cows in the road.

Looked for the fawn as I approached home, but it was gone. Guess the county came and took it away.  Just as well.  I can still feel the muscles of its neck on my fingertips and see the blood that flowed from its ear as I laid it down.