Archive for the ‘americana’ Category

It’s my Beat summer; I’m wading through Howl, On the Road, Junky, Naked Lunch, The Dharma Bums, I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and Angel Headed Hipster, a Kerouac biography.

It all started from simple curiosity. I’d read about William Burroughs for almost thirty years. I had always been fascinated by how this product of the Ivy League, a son of money and privilege managed to attract scandal and notoriety to both himself and his literature. I had decided that it had come time to actually read William Burroughs. I put a reserve on Naked Lunch at the library and while I waited I started through a dogeared copy of a City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems I’d rediscovered on a shelf down in my basement.

I’m glad I started with Howl. To me, it is the hub of the wheel from which all the spokes radiate. I’m not much of a poetry reader, but I could catch the jazz feel of these goofy arrhythmic riffs shuffling and scatting like a Coltrane tenor sax solo riding on top of an Elvin Jones cool rumble. Since April, I’ve been through Howl about twelve times and I like the feel as much as I like the stream-of-consciousness ramble, its weird juxtapositions and its implied, ambiguous, murky interpretations.

The library called soon enough. Naked Lunch was a tough read for me. I couldn’t keep things straight from paragraph to paragraph, much less from page to page, much less from chapter to chapter. I found myself re-reading and then re-reading again to no effect. I was almost convinced that the emperor had no clothes until I remembered that Ginsberg had edited Naked Lunch. Then I started to recognize the juxtapositions and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings that I’d seen a few weeks earlier. I stopped trying to ‘understand it’ and started trying to just ‘get it’ and ‘feel it’. The surprise for me was how different Burroughs’s more-or-less traditionally structured Junky was from the wildly rambling and pointedly provocative and offensive Naked Lunch.

Ginsberg not only edited Naked Lunch, he tirelessly promoted the novel to any number of publishers for years. Despite Ginsberg’s carefully cultivated persona of an ethereal counter-culture free spirit, prior to writing and publishing full time he earned his living as a market researcher, an advertising copywriter and was a UPI stringer reporter for several years. He absolutely understood advertising, understood relentless self-promotion and understood how to exploit a news media hungry for scandal and lurid sensationalism. Ginsberg practically invented the the popular picture of the dirty, stoned, wine-soaked poetry spouting hipster beatnik and could always be counted upon to offer up wild stories of decadent “flaming youth” to any journalist willing to listen.

From the perspective of 65 years the Beats can look positively reactionary and even a bit, well, square. Kerouac was an honorably discharged veteran and Ginsberg served in the Merchant Marine. I never got a sense of the virulent anti-Americanism that metastasized a decade later in the writing of Abby Hoffman or Malcolm X and never a sense of the crazy-stoned psychotic acid ranting of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. With the exception of Neil Cassidy’s serial pathological irresponsibility, On the Road centers on Kerouac’s travels to either find work or to deal with various requests to help family members. For me On the Road is a celebration of personal freedom and individuality placed inside a narrative framework built with railroads, long haul trucks, highways and jazz rhythms. I think that at its heart On the Road is a novel of great patriotism and profound love for America and beat (beatific) Americans.

Ginsberg encouraged the press to think of Kerouac as the “King of the Beatniks”. Kerouac never forgave him for that, and I can’t say I blame him. Kerouac was a scholar/athlete from Columbia University and the product of a solid middle-class Catholic family in Massachusetts. Kerouac thought of himself as a serious writer and a serious artist; he found the celebrity and notoriety from his association with the beats (a celebrity and notoriety relentlessly encouraged by Ginsberg) to be a great distraction to his work and and an insult to his privacy. It was disheartening to watch Kerouac as he aged changing from the Young Turk into an angry, bloated and ill-tempered middle-aged creep until the alcohol killed him at 47.

Heres a great story from I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg:

“During all this turmoil, Allen had managed to pick up another permanent house guest, Harry Smith. Harry was broke and alcoholic himself, and stayed with Allen because he had nowhere else to go. While lodging with Allen “for just a few days”, Harry had been hit by a car, fracturing his knee and relegating him to crutches. Asking the felled old man to leave would have been unkind, even though Harry was cantankerous and nearly impossible to live with. He was a genius when it came to anthropology, ethnographic music, and filmmaking, but also a true curmudgeon and as irritable as anyone Allen knew. He ensconced himself in the tine guest room next to the kitchen, where he made paintings with his own shit and saved his urine, a la Howard Hughes, in old milk containers that accumulated on the floor. Rosenthal’s job was becoming something more than the secretarial position he had signed on for almost a decade earlier; now he was the housemother and caretaker for group of increasingly eccentric people. The only way to accomplish any work and keep from going crazy himself was to move the office from Allen’s apartment, so Bob began looking for outside space.

“In late March, Dylan made a rare visit to Allen in the middle of the night. They discussed possible titles for Dylan’s next album, and Allen showed him some of the photographs he’d been taking, including photos of Harry Smith and nude pictures of a handsome young man, Patrick Warner. Dylan was curious to know if Patrick was Allen’s new boyfriend, but Allen sadly answered, “No, just a friend.” Dylan was impressed with Allen’s talent as a photographer and was anxious to meet Harry Smith, who had put together the influential Anthology of American Folk Music for Folkways in 1952, a seminal project that had sparked Dylan’s initial interest in folk music. Since Harry was in the next room, Allen asked him to come out and meet Dylan, but an unimpressed Smith slammed the door in his face.”

Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (New York: Viking Press, 2006), 586-587

…and here’s Bob, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth down in the basement mixin’ up the medicine…


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I spent the last weekend in the Allegheny National Forest way up over there in north-central Pennsylvania. I had a great time.

I had gone over to count bats. We mid-western cavers have watched entire bat populations disappear over the last few years due to “white nose syndrome” – a fungus pathogen killing bat populations as they hibernate. No one is really certain where white nose comes from or how it migrates from bat colony to bat colony. There is considerable speculation that the fungus is spread by cavers with contaminated gear or clothing. I bleach my equipment after I get home now and so do most of the rest of the grotto members. Another likely explanation for the spread of white nose is that bats are contaminating themselves as they mate, but it is all speculation at this point. In any case it is a bad business and the Cleveland Grotto is conducting bat survey work for several research organizations “doing the science”.

Our grotto Conservancy Chair Eric Topeke asked me to drive over to the Allegheny National Forest and count whatever bats I could find in the mouth of a certain small cave known to be a bat hibernaculum. Eric had GPS coordinates and a description of where the cave was located. The directions involved parking at the very end of a ANF logging access road, finding an abandoned railroad right-of-way and hiking through old growth forest to see if I could find the cave located in the side of a small sinkhole.

Eric’s directions also noted that black bear were reported to “be active” in the area off the logging road and that anyone walking in the area should be very cautious and should carry at the very least “a stout walking stick” as “protection”. Well I decided I would be cautious and I decided to carry “protection” but I decided I sure as heck wasn’t going to be using any walking stick to attempt to reason with a Pennsylvania black bear.

It occurred to me on the drive east that morning that I was rolling along in a jeep full of caving gear, camping equipment, guns, a fiddle and a five string open-back banjo. I was ready for just about anything the Allegheny National Forest could throw at me. With a certain amount of self-satisfaction, for at least a few hours, I thought of myself as probably the most well prepared man in North America.

I found the Minister Creek campground located off Pennsylvania SR (I am not making this up) 666 and I set up camp. Then I headed for the cave.

I found the end of the logging road and I found the abandoned railroad right-of-way. I loaded my 12 gauge pump with some deer slugs. I cradled the shotgun in my arms the way I used to when I hunted with my brother and my dad and set off down the trail to the right. Besides bear, Eric’s directions also noted that wildcats were “active” in the area. I had previously had some experience with Pennsylvania timber rattlers and between bears, cats and rattlers I had lots of opportunity to reflect on my position on the food chain (“dinner”) as I made my way through the wood.

I never could find the sinkhole. I’m dead certain that I must have been within 30 yards of it (and probably closer). And I never saw any bear. Or wildcats. Or timber rattlers. It’s probably just as well. I’ve never been a big game (deer) hunter – I don’t think I have it in me. I actually had to go and buy a box of slugs to take with me. On the other hand, I didn’t see any bats either, dead or alive. I waited till it began to dim a bit – I didn’t want to wait too long as I wasn’t real sure of where I was and I wanted to make sure I could get back to the jeep and back to camp before it got too dark – but didn’t see any bats in the air.

I made it back to the jeep, unloaded the shotgun and packed it away in its case. I headed back to my campsite.

The campground was beautiful. I had pitched my tent within feet of winding, bubbling Minister Creek inside a heavily wooded and secluded site. The campground was located on the Minister Creek Trail hiking loop and I got to say “howjado” to any number of day hikers as they drifted past my campsite when they began and ended the trail. I am going to make plans to head back to Minister Creek later this summer or early this fall to hike the loop myself and camp and enjoy the campsite over a couple of days.

The new/old banjo got a pretty good workout too. I’ve been spending a lot of time on Needle Case and Pretty Little Dog. My banjo is an open-back frailer and does not have a tone ring in it. It is not a loud instrument and I have been trying to teach myself to frail with a pretty light touch. As a result I have been concerned that I am not getting as much sound out of the instrument as I would like. I am learning that there is a technique to getting as much sound as I can out of the banjo without beating it to death. It has its own voice and I will have to adjust myself to that while I try to remember to hold the instrument correctly and frail “firmly and confidently” but without trying to force a volume or a type of tone.

I’m working through Salt Fork/Salt Creek/Salt River (what is the right name for that tune, anyway?) now. I’m playing it out of a G modal tuning and I’m getting it all by ear – no tab. I’m kind of surprised that I am beginning to be able to “hear” the tunes with my fingers enough that I am able find them on a fingerboard. Progress!!

Onward! Upward! Excelsior!

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Here’s another YouTube find: an ‘old weird America’ version of Bonepart’s (sic) Retreat from A. A. Gray.

Ahaz Augustus Gray was born on September 7, 1881 in Carroll County, Georgia. He is best remembered as the fiddler for several “Seven Foot Dilly and his Dill Pickles” (John Dilleshaw) recordings on the Vocalion label.

Bonapart’s Retreat is the only solo piece A. A. ever recorded. The Okey label released the performance in 1924 .

I really enjoy A. A.’s version – he plays the tune in about as crooked a way as I’ve ever heard. Here’s how I count it out:

A part: 4 – 5 – 4 – 3 (once)
B part: 4 -3 – 4 – 2 – 4 -3 – 4 – 3 (once)

‘Tis a thing of great beauty and a pleasure to behold; I especially like the way the DDAD tuning grumbles and growls. This tune and maybe The Falls of Richmond will be the perfect tunes to play or listen to while I watch the Great February Blizzard of 2010 drop snow here in the Cuyahoga Valley.

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from the Colorado Springs Gazette.com

ASPEN — A banjo player accused of assaulting another man with his instrument will get to keep pickin’ while awaiting his trial.

Thirty-three-year-old Joseph Stancato of Denver faces second-degree assault charges after allegedly hitting another man upside the head with his banjo on New Year’s Eve. Authorities say Stancato got into an argument with two men at a bus stop.

District Judge James Boyd on Monday approved Stancato’s request to be allowed on the road to tour with a band while awaiting his next court date Feb. 6.

The banjo is considered “a deadly weapon” under Colorado law, so Stancato could face prison time, the Aspen Daily News reported.

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devil with fiddle
I attended a song circle last weekend at at the Canalway Lodge in the Cleveland Metroparks’ Ohio and Erie Canal reservation. Hank Mallory, an Interpreter at the reservation was our host. Hank is also a caver who used to work at Mammoth and who picks a pretty good flattop when the mood strikes him.

I run hot and cold on open song circles. There are usually lots and lots of really shiny, cheap guitars that absolutely cannot and will not go in tune. But you can never tell who is going to show up and you can never tell what type of tunes they will bring with them. I always enjoy the opprotunity to meet and listen to acoustic musicians. This session was no exception.

There was one fellow who showed up and introduced himself as “Gary ‘The Guitar Guy’ from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” – I’ve seen him around and heard him play several times. Gary has stenciled “This Machine Recycles” on the front of his guitar.

I’m a great admirer of the iconic Woody Guthrie series of “This Machine Kills Fascists” photos. They speak loud and clear about the man, his music and the historical framework in which he practiced his art. The one photograph in particular I’m looking at now has Woody standing with a slot-head classical slung low over his shoulder with his weight on one side of his hip, a harp and rack around his neck and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He is lean and mean and staring confrontationally right into the camera lens; “This Machine Kills Fascists” is hand printed across the front of both bouts of his ax. He looks like nothing less than some deranged gun slinger – Billy the Kid with a six string pistol.

The photo is startling and arresting. Whatever else you think you might know about “folk music” you know that you‘re going to at least have to take this man very seriously. There is absolutely no question in my mind that That Machine would in fact Kill Fascists or just about anything else that moved.

But, as Lou Reed reminds us, “…those were different times…”

“Gary ‘The Guitar Guy’ from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” also brought a made-in-China 5 string banjo with him. He tuned it like a guitar and strummed it with a flatpick “like Pete Seeger”. He lectured the circle about how “in Colonial America if you played forbidden scales on your lap dulcimer you would be burned at the stake as a witch”.

That was news to me. I regret that I don’t have the rigorous academic background of scholarship and historical prospective provided by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but evidently we were to take from this that the members of the colonial Dulcimer Star Chamber were barely one step removed from contemporary Christians or gun owners. Oh, wait… Well, anyway, I bet they didn’t even use the blue bin for their glass and aluminum.

It takes all kinds, I guess. But that’s what makes circles endlessly fascinating.

I had the great good fortune to learn to play in oldtime and bluegrass circles. Beyond chops, you pick up a real good sense of “jam manners” real quick. The great advantage is that when a given circle becomes too much “artiest oriented” or just plain dumb (“Hey…let’s play Rocky Top…”), you can always move on to the next circle. Or the next. Or the next. I’ve spent lots of festivals floating through the parking lots for hours on end.

The bluegrassers don’t suffer fools gladly, and I have seen plenty of people shouldered right out of a circle; the oldtimers don’t have any problem at all with “putting it in the case” until the participation in a given circle improves dramatically – usually by subtraction. But generally those are extreme responses to severe and aggressive ill-mannered assholery.

A silly old lady autoharp player stepped right up into the middle of a circle at a Pennsylvania oldtime festival I attended several years ago. She couldn’t play a lick but insisted that the “authentic” American folk tradition evolved from autoharp repertoire. She hadn’t learned banjo/fiddle tunes or if she knew them they were in her own “correct” key. That circle dissolved in under twenty seconds.

Circles are ephemeral and have their own “vibe” – very literally their own vibration. The best ones feel like some sort of reptilian, pre-verbal mental telepathy; everybody on the same wavelength communicating simultaneously and with absolute clarity with every other member.

Two years ago I played fiddle in a 3:00 AM circle at Clifftop with Mike Seeger at the center. The circle was better than 100 people around and we played in pitch darkness. That circle was a perfect and complete self-contained universe. We played some crooked version of Shaking Down the Acorns on and on and on for thirty minutes or longer until my psyche was lost in pulse and drone and completely absorbed within the group.

The pulse and drone open you up to all sorts of influences and I think the fiddle’s role in this kind of traditional dance music is one of the reasons the fiddle is known as the “devil’s box”. I honestly believe this is when competent oldtime musicians with an inclination toward that sort of thing can begin to call spirits.

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This in from my friend Chris Harrison. A nice short story for this nice short week.

“As a bagpiper, I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery in the remote countryside and this man would be the first to be laid to rest there.


“As I was not familiar with the backwoods area, I became lost and being a typical man, did not stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late.

“I saw the backhoe and the crew who were eating lunch but the hearse was nowhere in sight. I apologized to the workers for my tardiness and stepped to the side of the open grave where I saw the vault lid already in place. I assured the workers I would not hold them up for long but this was the proper thing to do.

“The workers gathered around, still eating their lunch. I played out my heart and soul. As I played the workers began to weep. I played and I played like I’d never played before, from Going Home and The Lord is My Shepherd to Flowers of the Forest. I closed the lengthy session with Amazing Grace and walked to my car.

“As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I overheard one of the workers saying to another, Sweet Jeezuz, Mary ‘n Joseph, I have never seen nothin’ like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”

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We should remember that ‘nice things happen to nice people’.

So far the nice people at United Airlines have watched their airline’s stock price free-fall by ten per cent, costing shareholders $180 million dollars since Canadian singer-songwriter Davd Carroll wrote and published the first of a three tune song-cycle entitled ‘United Breaks Guitars’.

Dave and his band Sons of Maxwell were flying on United to Nebraska for a tour in the spring of 2008. While watching out the plane’s window Dave noticed his Taylor road ax being thrown around by the United Airlines baggage handlers.

In the full sad, sad story posted on his website, David states “I discovered later that the $3,500 guitar was severely damaged. United Airlines didn’t deny the experience occurred but for nine months the various people I communicated with put the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate me for my loss.”

…and so the MP3 single “United Breaks Guitars“.

Did everyone catch that? UNITED (Airlines) BREAKS (Your) GUITARS (…and then treats you like the wretched little worm you know yourself to be when you dare lift your eyes in the presence these corporate titans, these transportation smart-money bigboys, these paragons of western capitalism…so if you wouldn’t mind too much, why don’t you just herd yourself back to your dirty, hoplessly cramped little seat in coach, sit down and kindly STFU. Thenkeww…)

There’s just so much to like about this story and this song.

I notce that Dave Carroll’s music is flowing like water around what could have been a real disaster. Let’s see:

  • YouTube video – check!
  • Branded website with long narrative explaining in great and excruciating detail the noxious free-floating assholery associated with United Airlines – check!
  • Interlinked Internet 2.0 social networking sites – check!
  • a well constructed guerilla marketing campaign – check!
  • …and a ruthless exploitation of the ‘new media’ – check!

There’s a lesson here for every working musician.

A pig is a Pig is The Pig and the new international corporate model of Debt Capitalism (aka ‘Slavery’) is very clear in its constant assertion that the only reason you are on this earth is to shovel money at your betters and be grateful for the privilege. And so when Dave Carroll pointedly and repeatedly sticks his thumb in United Airline’s eye I have to smile.

…because nice things happen to nice people.

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