Archive for the ‘harmonica’ Category

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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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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Just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse in the American political landscape along comes a rough beast slouching toward Conneaut, Ohio; Conneaut City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a proud resident of Cuyahoga County (practically next door to Ashtabula) where we have learned to shrug our shoulders at the antics of our own wildly corrupt, arrogant and retarded political class. We have determined over time that ‘corrupt, arrogant and retarded’ is a ‘lifestyle choice’.

No, we here in Cuyahoga are no pikers in that regard, I assure you. In fact, I would put our corrupt, arrogant and retarded politicians up against your corrupt, arrogant and retarded politicians at any time and at any place.

I can almost certainly say that in any such contest our corrupt, arrogant and retarded politicians would leave your corrupt, arrogant and retarded politicians in the dust, binding their wounds, crying for their mothers and otherwise turning tail from the radiant corruption, the epic arrogance and massive retardation embodied by Cuyahoga’s elected representatives.

I say this without boasting.

working man reading socialist newspaper

Or at least that’s what I used to think until I read the Ashtabula Star Beacon earlier this week. It seems that Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. had some concern over a local blog posted by Ms. Katie Schwartz.

It seems Ms. Schwartz had the temerity to publish ‘information concerning City offices, fees and other City government information…without the express (sic) written permission of the City.’ In his hubris Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. demanded that Ms. Schwartz immediately ‘cease and desist’ publishing any and all material related to Conneaut city government and under threat of court order remove any and all material related to Conneaut city government from her site.

Evidently, no one in Conneaut, or anywhere else for that matter, was ever going to publish anything regarding Conneaut city government without the ‘permission’ of the city’s political class. Presumably public information would hereafter be communicated in hushed and reverential tones only by certain officialy annointed individuals and only then after some sort of vetting process held deep within the dark bowels of the Conneaut Star Chamber.

That is, at least, if Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. was going to have anything to say about it.

According to the Star-Beacon article, it didn’t take long after Katie Schwartz posted her blog until Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. corralled lick-spittle thug Council President James Jones, lap-dog stooge Councilman-at-Large Chris Castrilla and lackey idiot Ward 4 Councilman Tony Julio to join him in attempting to crush Schwartz’s web site under the hobnailed heels of their collective jackboots.

The site is still active. The site and all its archived posts are there for anyone to read.

The site is pleasant, conversational and full of a charming, straight forward, mid-western boosterism. Nowhere does Ms. Schwartz stoop to calling Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. ‘an arrogant little snot’, ‘a martinet’, a ‘neo-Stalinist’ or ‘The Pig’. Nowhere does she suggest that Conneaut, Ohio or even the entire world would be better off if only Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. would crawl back into his dirty little worm hole and leave everyone else alone. She never describes Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. as ‘silly’, ‘puffed-up’, desperate’, ‘clawwing’ or even ‘laughable’. She never once declares that Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. is ‘just another stupid asshole’. Not once.

Because she doesn’t have to.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. goose-stepping around his office in full SS regalia, grasping his riding crop and monocle, stomping his foot, shaking both fists, flailing his arms and screaming ‘But-but-but…she does NOT have my PERMISSION!’. Imagine Jones, Castrilla and Julio standing in a circle holding tire chains, and ball bats and with stupid, vacant smirks across their jowly faces pointing to Schaumleffel and muttering ‘yeah, what he said…’.

men and women of america - the militant

I think Schaumleffel and his goons are suggesting that the open exchange of public information is an idea which is probably too abstract for most of Conneaut’s huddled masses. It only follows that spirited public debate among free citizens in a free society will almost certainly lead to contention, ill will and possibly even (shudder) speech privilege abuse.

I think that Schaumleffel and his thugs are suggesting that the Little People frankly need to speak only when spoken to and otherwise keep their eyes lowered and their mouths shut in deference to their betters. The Little People frankly do not know what their best interests are and must never be trusted to use either words or ideas.

Far better that Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. and his brown shirted bullies take that gate keeping responsibility to themselves.

And anyway, aren’t the complexities, subtleties and nuance of city government best left to the great architects, the giants of public administration, the great and selfless Philosopher Kings such as are Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr., Council President James Jones, Councilman-at-Large Chris Castrilla and Ward 4 Councilman Tony Julio?

It’s for Conneaut’s own good, after all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The current and continuing 20 year depression here in the rust-belt is not an economic failure; it is a failure of our political class who lined their own pockets and consolidated raw political power rather than advocate for the citizens upon whom they fed. Like a grotesquely bloated, insatiable and ultimately fatal parasite feeding on a sallow and wasting patient, our politicians grew corpulent and morbidly obese while willfully and systematically starving their constituencies.

Think Jabba the Hutt gurgling ‘I’ll teach them what it means to offend the Empire. Send me Solo and the Wookie…and then send me Kathie Schwartz’.

Which brings us back to our first question: what would Woody do?

What indeed.

this machine kills facists

Woody was no stranger to thugs, bullies and goons. Woody’s autobiography Bound for Glory is one tale following another of individuals betrayed by their institutions and left to fend for themselves in the face of desperate circumstances. Bound for Glory is that one simple story repeated in variation again and again.

Woody wrote of the worst of times and the worst of people in 1913 Massacre, Dead or Alive, All You Fascists, Don’t Kill My Baby and Son, Hangknot, Slipknot, Pretty Boy Floyd, The Outlaw and hundreds of other songs.

I imagine that Woody would shrug with a familiar ‘seen it all before’ attitude, pick up his six string and begin to document with simple melody and rhythm the names, places and details of each affront, each insult and each abuse. Woody would build a picture of each and every insufferable fat-head, each self-important Kommissar and each of the creepy sycophants with whom they surround themselves.

And in each song Woody would let those people speak in their own voice and he would let them strut and preen and posture and stomp in their own gait through their own stories of petty insult, intrigue, greed and malfeasance.

And he would let them tell their own story without editorializing, without adding any artificial emphasis on their insolence and venality and criminality and stupidity.

Because he wouldn’t have to.

And then Woody would move on to the next song. And the next. And the next. Because it would be just one simple song repeated in variation again and again.

Here’s hoping that Katie Schwartz tells Conneaut, Ohio City Manager Robert Schaumleffel Jr. and the rest of his bully boys to take their ‘cease and desist order’ and go straight to hell.

Because THAT’S exactly what Woody would do.

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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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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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from Power Line
by Scott W. Johnson

Steve Earle is a singer-songwriter who, if he could sing a little better, might be a poster boy for the conservative shut-up-and-sing school of thought regarding entertainers. He’s a self-avowed Marxist who had a drug habit nasty enough that it led to his incarceration in 1994.

In 1999 Earle briefly united with the bluegrass traditionalist Del McCoury Band to record “The Mountain” and tour in support of the disc. I persuaded John Hinderaker and his wife to join us for Earle’s show with the McCoury Band when their tour hit the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

John understandably confused Earle, the purported star of the show, with McCoury, the guy with the superior performing talent. McCoury parted ways with Earle shortly thereafter, McCoury reportedly refusing to continue to subject his fans to Earle’s vulgarity; Earle says the falling out was over money and billing.

In his post 9/11 song “John Walker Blues,” Earle adopted the perspective of the Taliban spokesman and American traitor. “Sometimes a man has to fight for what he believes,” Earle sang. In the title and title song of his 2004 disc Earle proclaimed: “The Revolution Starts…Now.” Up against the wall! Earle is something of a sixties throwback.

I’d lost track of Earle until Ben Ratliff reviewed Earle’s show in the South Village at the City Winery for the New York Times. In his review Ratliff captured the weirdness — Ronald Radosh called it cognitive dissonance — of Earle plying his shtick at this particular venue together with Allison Moorer (Earle’s seventh wife):

Let’s break that down. Most of us would agree that this is an exquisitely strange time, anywhere, for the opening of a club and restaurant with wine-making facilities on the premises, where annual membership will cost $5,000, and a barrel of your own custom blend somewhere around $2,000. (Although you can buy a ticket for an individual concert without a membership, and order a Riesling and a sampler of cheese from Murray’s. Or just a glass of water; there’s no minimum.)

It’s strange that the restaurant — unlike comparable operations in Napa Valley — is located far from a major wine-making region; when you create your own wine here, you’re only halfway buying local. And it’s strange (but kind of funny) that what most people call a double bill — two artists whose work has something in common — City Winery calls “Pairings.”

But it was strangest of all that Steve Earle — a self-defined socialist and generally a songwriter and performer who doesn’t waste a sticky situation — did not comment on the dissonance of the evening. Here were songs, after all, about people whose lives are measured in miles per gallon, dollars per kilo, bullets per murder, and they were being played in a blond wood cabaret that seems built on the air jets of Wall Street status.

Ratliff doesn’t quite do justice to the absurdity in its fullness. Ratliff is respectful of Earle’s disquisitions on politics, history and political psychology:

Mr. Earle played a good, long and fidgety solo acoustic set of songs going back 25 years, with spoken asides about Barack Obama (he felt good about casting a Tennessee vote for a black man, and trusts that the next president will listen to protest); the historian Stephen Ambrose (whose work enlightened Mr. Earle about the Americans’ war on the Sioux, and led him to a firmer position against manifest destiny); and the death penalty (he wondered if the United States, if it didn’t have a history of killing the imprisoned, would have invaded Iraq without proper cause).


Ratliff found the feel of Earle’s songs about Kentucky, Tennessee, Copperhead Road, Taneytown, and Guitar Town, to be “very, very far away.” Ratliff finds Earle’s spoken asides au courant. Nevertheless, they also feel “very, very far away” to me, at least in time. They take me back to the sophomoric gleanings of my college days. And who cares what Earle says about American history when we could hear him meditate on whether love is lovelier the seventh time around?

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