Archive for the ‘busking’ Category

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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Here’s a link to Josh Hurst’s wonderful review of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s newest studio release “A Stranger Here“.


At better than 77 years of age, Jack is still very much the performer. Jack’s last new release I Stand Alone” was complex, dark and touching. It wasn’t too long ago that I had the great good fortune to watch him up-close-and-personal deliver a strong performance and encore to a packed house at the Beachland Ballroom. It was a powerful set and I thought he was still at the top of his game. He’s going to be up at the Kent Stage in a few weeks and I am going to see him then.

Here’s a YouTube find of Ramblin’ Jack performing Woody Guthrie’s Talking Merchant Marine on one of Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV programs.

I’m a great fan of the old Rainbow Quest shows. I think the black-and-white presentation and the el-cheap-o production values made these absolutely jaw-dropping acoustic live-in-the-studio performances stand out all the more.

And anyway, who says el-cheap-o production values don’t have their own charm?

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a YouTube find from Blind Blake

they just don’t make ’em like they used to…

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They take to the platforms and passageways of the MBTA each day: stoic classical guitarists, polished blues musicians working on their chops for the next club gig, up-and-coming singer-songwriters hoping to emulate the success of such former T troubadours as Tracy Chapman.
from Boston.com
by David Filipov

This year, their ranks have been swelled by a new wave: people who decided to play to the crush of commuters chasing rush-hour trains at a time when landing traditional employment aboveground is so challenging.

They represent a small, creative offshoot of the nationwide trend that has seen some of the recently unemployed reinvent their careers, often in occupations they find more rewarding, if less well compensated.

Jeremy Ross, 24, playing at Park Street's Green Line platform. (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

Jeremy Ross, 24, playing at Park Street's Green Line platform. (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

While some of the newer performers are talented musicians, others display a command of their instruments and voices that is rudimentary at best. They are all living a dream – even if they do not always get paid much.

Jeremy Ross was working in a cafe in December when one day the ax just fell. Instead of looking for work, he takes his Taylor 110ce guitar and Vox amplifier into the T station, where he belts out a mix of covers and his folksy, rhythmic original tunes in a brash, earnest voice, his face red, his foot tapping time.

“This is my job right now,” Ross, 24, said last week between songs during rush hour at the Park Street Green Line station. “Perhaps I haven’t been as ambitious as I should be about getting a new job. But I am happier this way.”

As T performers go, Ross was doing pretty well. The open guitar case beneath his feet had far more bills than the three singles he put there to “break the ice” at the beginning of his gig. Sometimes he makes $2 an hour, sometimes it is more like $20. He has a 12-song demo CD that he sells for $5, but those do not exactly fly off the platform. He plays well; he can solo on harmonica over his steady rhythm guitar, his voice does not waver or warble. Performing on a platform does have its downsides: the drunks, the loud trains, the people who walk by without listening.

“There’s problems, you know,” Ross said. “It’s strange waking up and saying ‘Geez, I need a couple of bucks, I better go play.’ This is my biggest audience, but no one stays for the whole set. The truth of the matter is, it’s fun.”

He kicked into the next song, a cover of “Two Coins” by Dispatch. “I reach into my pocket for some small change,” goes the refrain. No one in the crowd rushing by practiced what he sang.

Performers have to apply to play in the T. They pay a $25 fee, they provide references, they agree to perform in designated spots, on a first-come, first-serve basis. They agree not to play drums or trumpet (instruments deemed too loud). In 2008, from Jan. 1 through March 16, 45 musicians received permits, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. For the same time period this year, 76 were issued, he said.

Not everyone is as polished as Ross. A man plays a fiddle very badly at Park Street on the Green Line. Other legendary clunkers have included a singer who accompanied Stevie Wonder tunes blaring from a beat box at the Harvard Square Red Line stop (where Chapman got her start), and a guitar player who scratched out solos to canned music at the same station. Recently, at Government Center on the Blue Line, a harmonica player has alienated passengers.

“He just blows,” said Eva MacLeod, who commutes on the line. She had just dropped a dollar in the case of a musician whose work she found more appealing, Pablo Mendoza, 70. He was plucking Spanish guitar music from a bench at the station, almost completely ignored by the crowd as his simple, melancholy phrases echoed off the bare concrete walls. Mendoza has been playing here for four years; he stared impassively as a man in a Yankees cap sat next to him, absorbed in his iPod. Mendoza does not speak English, and he does not have a job. He does not remember the names of the songs he plays. He had four dollar bills and change until MacLeod made it five.

Pablo Mendoza, 70, playing Spanish guitar music from a bench at Government Center Blue Line station.  (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

Pablo Mendoza, 70, playing Spanish guitar music from a bench at Government Center Blue Line station. (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

Mendoza, MacLeod said, “is better than the crazy harmonica guy.”

Bobby “Clumsy Ninja” Bishop and Terelle “Miss Model T” Brown, who were playing blues at Downtown Crossing on the Orange Line, are probably better than that, too. Rush-hour passersby stopped to swing and sway to their stylish rendition of Elmore James’s “Done Somebody Wrong.” They dropped cash in the duo’s case as his smoky vocals and her fiery electric guitar solo, played over a silky rhythm loop track he had recorded to start the song, reached a crescendo.

Bobby \"Clumsy Ninja\" Bishop and Terelle \"Miss Model T\" Brown playing blues at the Downtown Crossing Orange Line platform. (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

They met here six years ago; Bishop taught her to play. Now their band, Steppers Heaven, plays clubs more than they play here, though they still like to come down.

“The intimacy here – there’s no parallel to it,” Bishop said in the clipped English of his native Gloucestershire. When Tamaki Hosoe, a physical therapist from Japan who works in Malden, started whistling to the music, Bishop held the microphone to amplify Hosoe’s makeshift solo.

Brown said she has noticed the arrival of new musicians in recent months.

“There’s a couple of guys and girls who got laid off,” she said. “Rather than look for a job, they have come down here to fulfill a dream. They’re doing what they want to.”

At the Orange Line stop of Downtown Crossing, Beth Fridinger was doing what she has always wanted to do. Strumming a simple, steady rhythm on her white Yamaha electric guitar, she made her way through a throaty rendition of “Dirty Old Town” by the The Pogues.

At the Orange Line platform of Downtown Crossing, Beth Fridinger strumms a simple, steady rhythm on her white Yamaha electric guitar.  (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

At the Orange Line platform of Downtown Crossing, Beth Fridinger strums a simple, steady rhythm on her white Yamaha electric guitar. (Globe staff/Barry Chin)

Fridinger started here in July, after playing open mic gigs for a year. A professional photographer, she decided to commit to playing music full time.

“Times are really tough right now,” she said, as she fingerpicked the chords to “House of the Rising Sun.” “It’s very hard to get a job. But if I got a job, I wouldn’t be able to do my music. I couldn’t do this and work a full-time job. I’d lose the spot.”

A woman stopped. “This is my favorite song,” she said. But she put no money in Fridinger’s suitcase. Fridinger – armed with sheets of chords and lyrics, an unabashed alto voice, and a tube of muscle rub – was ready to play a four- to seven-hour gig. She said she has made up to $200 a night, but she can also make much less. One night, her version of “Blowing in the Wind” earned her a quarter.

“In January, I was really sick. I almost starved,” she said. “But this is just so much fun, man. It’s been my lifelong dream to be a musician.”

Next to her sat Patrick “Patches” Vautour.

“If I had the money to buy a permit,” he said, referring to the $25 fee, “I’d do this. I’m unemployed right now. Rough times.”

Patches had not paid Fridinger for her music.

“I told her all I can give her are my two ears,” he said. “I really like her style.”

Fridinger was playing an original song, “Looking in the Mirror,” about an encounter with an old drunk man in a bar. A few faces turned but none lit up.

One man threw 50 cents in her case. He neither looked, nor slowed down.

He was wearing headphones.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.

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Why musicians make such appealing partners – they are tuned to tap into emotions.
from Daily Mail Online

Ever wondered why musicians attract such ardent fan bases?

It turns out they make ideal partners because they are finely tuned to pick up on emotional cues in conversation, scientists say.


A research team from Northwestern University found biological evidence that musical training enhances an individual’s ability to recognize and respond to emotion in sound.

‘Quickly and accurately identifying emotion in sound is a skill that translates across all arenas, whether in the predator-infested jungle or in the classroom, boardroom or bedroom,’ said lead author Dana Strait.

The researchers measured brainstem processing of pitch, timing and timbre in musicians and non-musicians who listened to a fragment of a baby’s cry.

Sensitivity to the sound, and in particular to the more complicated part of the sound that contributes most to its emotional content, was measured through scalp electrodes.

The musicians’ brainstems locked onto the complex part of the sound known to carry more emotional elements but de-emphasized the simpler (less emotion conveying) part of the sound. This was not the case in non-musicians.

The study, published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, also found that those who had more years of musical experience and began their music studies were better able to process the emotion.

The authors of the study, funded by the National Science Foundation, also noted that the acoustic elements that musicians process more efficiently are the very same ones that children with language disorders, such as dyslexia and autism, have problems encoding.

‘It would not be a leap to suggest that children with language processing disorders may benefit from musical experience,’ co-author neuroscientist Nina Kraus said.

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a YouTube find.

four hands, two heads and one heart.
I humbly acknowledge these guys’ Buddha nature …


The Beacons

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from Telegraph.co.uk

It was in January nearly half a century ago that Bob Dylan arrived in New York. Nigel Richardson sees the district that helped to forge ‘the original vagabond’.

We stand on the spot and Terre Grilli holds up a photocopy to compare the scene with the present day. “One thing I notice are the trees,” she says. “There are no trees on the block in ’63.” And in place of the blue VW campervan parked on the left is an SUV with blacked-out windows.


Bob Dylan - New York - January 1961 Photo: GETTY

It was a snowy day in February, 1963, in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. The photographer, Don Hunstein, set up on West 4th Street and shot plum down Jones Street as Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walked up the middle of Jones towards the camera. Bob thrust his hands deep in his jeans pockets, Suze clung on to his arm – and the result is one of rock music’s most famous album covers.

The photograph on the front of Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, encapsulates a remarkable time and place. For a period nearly half a century ago this grid of streets, barely a couple of square miles in total, generated a buzz of creative energy that forged Dylan’s artistic sensibility. “The air was bitter cold, always below zero, but the fire in my mind was never out,” he recalls in his memoir, Chronicles.

Greenwich Village – or just The Village – is a different place today and Dylan went west long ago. But the architectural mixture of classic tenements and grander, Federal-style townhouses is largely intact. And the spirit of the “original vagabond” who fetched up here in January 1961, and whose words and music shaped new ways of looking at the modern world, still clings to its fire escapes, backstreet cobbles and more outré street characters.

Terre Grilli, a 52-year-old folk music enthusiast, runs guided tours aimed at invoking that spirit. The tours are arranged privately and are pretty laid-back, very much in the freewheelin’ spirit of those Village days of the Sixties. “It’s kind of a labour of love,” she said. “We don’t advertise. It’s for fans.”

We meet on Hudson St at West 11th, across the street from the White Horse Tavern. This old longshoremen’s dive (the Hudson River is just three blocks west) has an impeccable bohemian pedigree: in the 1950s Dylan Thomas, as well as having his name filched by a young kid in Minnesota called Robert Zimmerman, drank his last at the bar before dying a few days later; Norman Mailer supposedly conceived the radical Village Voice newspaper here; and it was a Beat poet hangout. It was also where Dylan listened to the Clancy Brothers singing “rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof”.

The White Horse is still gratifyingly grungy, its walls covered in pictures and mementos of Dylan Thomas. A couple of doors up, a shop sells Dolce & Gabbana handbags for many hundreds of dollars, while an estate agent’s window on the other side of Hudson St advertises a one-bedroom flat – sorry, “stunning pre-war condo” – for well over a million. The cheap rents and edginess that made the Village a magnet for chancers and dreamers like Dylan disappeared long ago.

It was his former lover, Joan Baez, who called him a vagabond. The word captures the way in which he just turned up in “the city that would come to shape my destiny” with a readymade back catalogue of tall stories about himself and, in his own assessment, a mind that “was strong like a trap”.

“You would come to town and try to establish yourself and sleep on floors,” says Terre, leading me round to one of his crash pads, in Perry St. “You had no money for an apartment.” At 129 Perry – dingy brick, green fire escape – he slept on the floor of Carla Rotolo, Suze’s elder sister. Here, as well as meeting Suze, he would plunder Carla’s extensive folk record collection for ideas for his first album. “Carla really big-sistered Bob,” says Terre.

The folk singer Dave Van Ronk, whom Dylan described as “king of the street”, lived several blocks north-east on Waverly Place. Terre indicates number 190, a grey tenement building with a bright orange door. “Bob has talked about staying on the couch here,” she says. “Tom Paxton used to come by. And who’s observing all this?” Terre jerks her thumb over her shoulder. “Behind us at 191 lived [the journalist] Bob Shelton. “He was responsible for the New York Times review that catapulted Bob’s career.” She opens her ringbinder and flicks to a copy of the review, of a set Bob played at the famous venue Gerde’s Folk City, in September 1961 (“20-year-old singer is bright new face,” runs the headline).

Gerde’s no longer exists, but plenty of venues from those days do, many of them “basket houses” where performers passed round a hat. Principal among them is Cafe Wha? on Macdougal St, which Dylan sought out when he arrived in New York. Here, to an audience of “lunch-hour secretaries, sailors and tourists” he played harmonica for Freddy Neil, who later wrote Everybody’s Talkin’, popularised in the film Midnight Cowboy.

“You have to remember, the whole of Macdougal was lined with coffeehouses,” says Terre. At 116, in the basement, was The Gaslight, now a lounge bar called Alibi. “Hard to believe but this was a premier place to play,” she says. The Gaslight didn’t have a drinks licence, so after and in between sets they would all pile next door to the Kettle of Fish. The bar is now called the Esperanto Cafe. The hipster geeks sitting at its window tables with their skinny lattes and mint-thin laptops look the same age, 21, as Bob would have been when, in the sweaty basement next door, he first performed A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

Terre’s tour is exhaustive and fascinating – the former Commons coffeehouse in Minetta St where he wrote Blowin’ in the Wind; the former residential Hotel Earle where he lived for a while and which Joan Baez, in her bittersweet love song about Dylan, Diamonds and Rust, refers to as “that crummy hotel over Washington Square”; the magical spot on West 4th where he freewheeled with Suze Rotolo in the snow.

Twelve months after that album cover was shot, Dylan had found fame and broke up with Suze, who inspired Tomorrow Is a Long Time. Those halcyon coffeehouse days were over.

He has left no tangible mark on the Village – no plaques, statues or stores selling memorabilia – but that’s in keeping with the man. “Everything was always new, always changing,” he wrote in Chronicles. “It was never the same crowd upon the streets.”

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