Archive for the ‘speleology’ 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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I’m tired of all the political and corporate scoundrels and I’m tired of all their mischief. My brains are roiled and I am otherwise distressed. I believe my circuits are overloaded and I am in danger of blowing a fuse.

I am forcing myself to take drastic measures.

I’m returning to First Principles; caves and American traditional music. Here’s a great way to enjoy both – Vernon Dalhart’s Death of Floyd Collins.

In January, 1925 Floyd “The Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known” Collins became trapped in Kentucky’s Sand Cave in a narrow crawlway 150 feet from the entrance. Efforts to save him became a worldwide media sensation, and many would say it was the media circus surrounding the event that eventualy killed him. After four days where he could be fed, a cave-in closed the entrance passageway to everything except voice contact. Collins died of exposure and starvation after about fourteen days underground, three days before a rescue shaft could reach his location. His body (minus a leg) was recovered two months later.

His embalmed body was displayed as an attraction at Crystal Cave in a glass coffin for many years before the body was stolen. The body was eventualy recovered and buried at last in a private Flynt Ridge cemetary.

Dalhart documented the affair with a number of recordings for various labels. I have a copy of a Columbia recording pressed under the pseudonym “Al Carver (Caver?)” in my own collection of 78’s. Vernon took vocals and harmonica duty while his regular collaborator Carson Robison performed on guitar.


The folk and Americana purists among us (and you know who you are) consistently wrinkle up their dainty noses at the odor of commercial success surrounding poor Vernon. The rap against him was that he was a little too popular and that his vocal delivery was a little too polished due to his conservatory training and that he sold a few too many records (over 400 titles for Edison, Victor and Grey Gull) to completely qualify him as a ‘folk artiest’.

But to my ears, Vernon Dalhart contributed hundreds of great performances in the service of hundreds of great tunes (The Wreck of the Old 97′, The Prisoner’s Song and the wonderful depression tune Eleven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat come quickly to mind).

Vernon had a huge hit in 1925 with The Wreck of the Shenandoah. To those of us here in Ohio the crash of the dirigible Shenandoah was the stuff of legend for our parents and grandparents. The great ship went down in Nobel County not far from my Grandmother’s childhood home and I can remember her telling of how my great-grandfathered drove out to survey the wreckage strewn over many acres. Vernon and Carson Robison wrote the tune and published the song under the pseudonym “Maggie Andrews”.

wreck of the shenandoah

I went on the Mammoth Cave wild tour a few weeks ago with some members of the Cleveland Grotto. After we finished the tour we took a short side trip to Sand Cave where Floyd met his maker.

There is an observation deck built to look over the cave and the rescue site, but you cannot see the actual cave shaft from the deck. Curt, Phil and I walked down what was left of the path to the cave and found the shaft sealed with a steel grate in the back of the cave. The pathway down to the cave was overgrown and covered in poison ivy.

It is a dirty, muddy, dark and an awful place. The sealed shaft is filled to about five feet from the top with leaves and garbage. My imagination could make out how the shaft wound down to its intersection with destiny.

That’s Phil on the left and me on the right. We are standing on the grate.

phil and gary at sand cave -1

There’s a solid streak of populism and down home charm that shows itself all the way through the Dalhart catalog. Vernon built a twenty two year recording career by capitalizing on tragic topical stories and by combining morality tales with wry observations of the world around him – in short, by using the palette of the American folk musician.


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I’m heading down the Big ‘Scioty’ River into Kentucky next Friday evening; I’m going to take I-71 into Columbus, then head follow the Scioto right down Ohio SR 23 into Portsmouth where it empties into the beautiful Ohio River. From there I’ll continue over the impossibly ethereal U.S. Grant suspension bridge and on down to Carter Caves State Resort Park just outside Olive Hill.

This is the SR 23 of Readin’, Writin’ and Route 23 fame. To his great and lasting credit Dwight Yokum got that lyric absolutely right. I can still remember hearing my father and my grandfather talk about “the three ‘R’s” around our kitchen table in Columbus’ west-side. I have family in Cynthiana and in southern Ohio and I learned early on that Columbus and points north were ‘up and out’ for my father’s family.

I enjoy the drive down along the Big Scioty. It’s equal part two-lane and four-lane and you have to watch your speed through Lockbourne, Circleville, Chillicothe and most of the other little towns down through there. There is a State Highway Patrol station just outside Circleville and between the local constabulary and the state police I don’t think a driver would have too much trouble finding an officer anywhere between I-70 and the Ohio River.

I think that this is some of the most beautiful country on this earth; I love watching the Scioto River Valley slowly turn into the foothills of the Appalachians. You can see Mount Logan from the Great Seal of the State of Ohio from the highway near Chillicothe.

If I have the time I like to stop at Mound City or make a short side-trip to the Great Serpent Mound a few miles over in Adams County. Both those sites are eerie, mysterious and other-worldly.

I was lucky to be at Mound City early one morning with the yellow late summer sun still low in the sky and a mist rising from the Scioto river and gently rolling over the park. There was no question in my mind that I was standing ‘between worlds’ at a sacred spot.

A friend of mine; a bio-dynamic organic farmer and a dowser with severe new-age tendencies knew that I would stop at the Serpent Mound now and again and asked me to bury a small crystal in the mound so that he might better ‘align’ himself with the monument. I did and now there is a thumb-sized amethyst point tucked into the serpent’s head.

The serpent has an astrological alignment to it; the serpent’s head points to the summer solstice sunset. My friend insists that the serpent and the Chillicothe mounds are (among other things) powerful markers along a series of energy transporting ley lines that served and instructed prehistoric peoples throughout the world.

On the east side of SR 23 just above Lucasville there is an old fashioned parking lot flea market that I try to stop into on Sunday mornings. I have found Indian artifacts (arrowheads, flint knives, broken points), old coins, vintage Coleman camping equipment, cast iron cookware, handguns, shotguns and rifles there all in great supply.

That flea market is very much ‘catch-as-catch-can’; you can’t say who will show up or what they will bring with them to sell. But things are rough all over Ohio these days. Lately it seems the vendor’s area is row after row of depressed and depressing elderly people selling tables full of Avon bottles and piles of dirty, broken Fisher-Price toys.

After a short stop in Lucasville (to say hello to friends and family) it’s on to Crawlathon at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive Hill. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend than crawling around in the cold, wet and dark with a bunch of wild cavers. The Crawlathon is as much about ‘social caving’ as anything else and it is always good to see Coy Ainsley, Rollie Hatfield and all the other ESSO Grotto members, Carter Caves support staff and volunteers who make this such a wonderful three-day weekend.

Carter Caves State Resort Park is also home to the J.P Fraley’s Mountain Music Gatherin’ every September. That just gives me another excuse to head south.

muddy old cavers - that's me in the middle

muddy old cavers - that's me in the middle

For the last few months I’ve been working on a fiddle to trade for some caving gear with George, a caver/oldtime musician buddy of mine. That fiddle is strung up and ready to go.

The fiddle turned out lots better than I expected. It’s a French factory fiddle with a real robust belly and back on it; sort of like a Stainer/Steiner copy on ‘roids. It has enough age on it to give it a little character. The fiddle has a label marked ‘Made in France – Medio Fino’ glued to the inside back just beneath the bass side F hole. The label is further marked on the right side by a lyre with rays emanating from it and the initials ‘J.T.L.’ The fiddle’s materials and craftsmanship are first rate and it has a nice voice in it.

The maker finished it off in a great looking dark red/maroon/brown varnish. It looks nice, it plays nice and it sounds nice. I know George will be very pleased with it when I meet up with him down in Kentucky.

It needed a bridge, some fine tuners, new strings and a set-up. It still needs about a two-to-three inch rattlesnake rattle dropped down into the F holes. The oldtimers used the rattles to keep mice out of the fiddle or to set up a sympathetic vibration ‘to improve the tone’ from the instrument. I can usually find those on Ebay but I haven’t been able to to find the right rattle at the right money. George will have to take care of that himself along with picking up a tuner and a humidifier.

I’ve been playing it all week and I will hate to see it go.

I have to admit I was feeling a little sorry for myself what with losing Frenchy and all. I was feeling a little sorry for myself right up until the moment I found this outrageously good banjo rendition of Big Scioty

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me squeezing through muddy old Casparis

me squeezing through muddy old Casparis

I took an Honorable Mention (tie for third) and a Merit Award (tie for second) in this year’s National Speleological Society cave ballad competition. I am flattered and don’t know exactly how to act in the company of some insanely talented people. The fact that they are all cavers too is just icing on the cake.

I received two beautiful “flow stone” art glass trophies as awards. I have them up in a window seat in the dining room where they can catch some afternoon sun.

This year’s winners are posted here on the NSS salon site. I think overall the quality of the entries is WAY up from last year in terms of composition, musicianship and presentation.

I also notice that there are hardly any obvious “cut and paste”, software driven type of presentations this year. Mostly, it sounds like real people playing real instruments in the service of real tunes – and that is very encouraging. This was beginning to be a sore point with me especially in a competition with a Technical Recording criteria.

Grotto Past-President Curt Harler came up with the lyrics to “Caving Blues” and asked me to see what I could do with them. Fortunately for both of us, music for lyrics this good almost writes itself and I finished the tune for the lyric in a few days. I wrote and recorded the guitar part using a 1964 Airline acoustic archtop guitar. Airline is the brand Harmony Guitars used for their product line distributed through the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog.

This tune is a perfect example of one vintage “airhead” playing another.

I ran into Mickey Skowronsky (our grotto Equipment Chair) singing and playing at the Barking Spider Tavern for BobFest, our local Bob Dylan 67th birthday celebration. I knew he would be just the man to bring some “beatnik cool” to the bass part. I couldn’t have been more right; there is no question in my mind that Mickey’s bass playing makes “Caving Blues” well and truly “swing”.

I started writing notes for Randolph County last September or so. Randolph County, West Virginia is one my most favorite places on this earth, it is so beautiful. The Cleveland Grotto gets down through Randolph at least once a year and I look forward to it every time.

I knew I wanted a melancholy, “high lonesome” Appalachian feel to the song, and I think I came pretty close.

I recorded the guitar parts using my own 1973 Gibson J-50 flattop. I used a borrowed Lou Stiver ‘A’ mandolin for the mando track.

Dale Walter is a wonderful traditional musician (banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar) and it has been my great pleasure to make music with him over many years. Dale recorded the banjo track using an open back Bart Reider Whyte Laydie.

We recorded, edited and mixed both songs in my basement over about six weeks on a $400.00 used Dell Latitude laptop pulling a Tascam 428 mixer into Cubase LE under Windows XP (SP-3).

With the exception of Mickey’s electric 1958 Fender Precision bass on Caving Blues, we recorded all instruments “acoustically”; mic’d, not plugged in. We used a Shure 57 and 58 with a “pop ball”.

I acted as my own recording engineer for this project. If you ever need advice on how to run Cubase LE on a Windows machine, let me know. I can save you at least four weeks of “building character”. Despite my early frustrations with the software, Curt, Mickey and Dale all managed to keep their expressions of artistic and aesthetic concern directed at me personally (sarcasm, insults, threats, shouting matches and fist fights) down to a really very modest level, all things considered.

While we tried to exploit the software to record, edit and produce as worthy a salon entry as we could, there is absolutely no digital sampling in my submission and there are absolutely no previously recorded copyright materials, or “cut and paste” commercial “jam tracks”, or “band-in-a-box” tracks or recycled karaoke tracks in this submission. All tracks are “real” performances played on “real” instruments by “real” musicians physically present for the purposes of this project.

Steve Boehm, this year’s winner has floated around the Honorable Mention/Merit Award categories now for the last several years and I believe he has won one or two in the past. IMHO Steve does know how to construct a tune and how to record a decent, honest, no frills presentation. His earlier entries are textbook examples of straight ahead production. On one of them you can hear him reach over and turn off the recorder at the end of the tune.

My favorite part of this year’s entry was building “Caving Blues” with Curt and Mickey. I think the performances were top shelf; the tune does in fact “swing” and it is rhythmically solid as a rock from one end to the other. The lyric is straight ahead, accessible and full of good humor. Those are the things I listen for whenever I hear a piece of new music. I still think the tune is everything a salon entry should be and I had it pegged as this year’s champion. Three heads, six hands and one heart – you just can’t add any of that after the fact even with all the software in the world.

I am learning that, in fact, there is no accounting for people’s taste. They (judges) like what they like, and you can not “go personal” or try to figure out the mechanics of what or why they like what they like. I think what I am doing is building some kind of melodic Rorschach test even when I think I am being as straight forward and literal as I know how to be…

I like to think of this whole Cave Ballad Salon exercise as a caver/singer/songwriter Special Olympics where, at the end of the day, “everyone is a winner”.

Thanks so much again to Steve Wilson, Jim Snively, Curt Harler, Mickey Skowronsky, Dale Walter and Victor Fowler for their help, advice and spiritual guidance.

Ars Grotto Artis

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george carlin 1937 - 2008

“The real owners are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying – lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”

“But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers –- people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they’re coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. You and I are not in the big club.”

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I won two Honorable Mentions from the National Speleological Society Cave Ballad competition for 2007. This was my first pass at any kind of songwriting competition and I was surprised and flattered that I got as far as I did.

honorable mention

Steve Wilson took this picture of my beautiful art-glass awards out on my front porch.

I won for an original fiddle tune (Collins’ Dream) and a guitar/accordion/vocal song (The 1908 Fayette County Cave Disaster). On reflection, any original tune OTHER than one about dead cavers would probably have won it for me.

Wait ’till next year!!!

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