The Great American Desert is Maxwell Holmquist. Max is an artist whose ties to his Nebraska home are worn into the fabric of his songs. When he talks and sings about Lincoln or Omaha, you can hear in his voice a sentiment not unlike that reserved for family, old friends, first loves. And like his Desert stage name, his songs move in the space between the bleakness and beauty of a long-term relationship with all of the attendent pleasures and pain.
In “Whiteclay” Max ruminates on the lack of attention given to a crisis in the north-eastern part of his state near the town of Whiteclay, NE. As he discusses in our video, the Native American residents of the Pine Ridge reservation have, for years, purchased large quantities of alcohol in Whiteclay. Booze is banned by the tribal government of Pine Ridge and the situation in Whiteclay has become serious enough in recent years to incite litigation by the tribe against large beer companies that supply the bars and liquor stores in the region. Max interprets the situation by acknowledging the tragedy of regional and national silence surrounding the issue: “Ignore it, they’ll be fine” he sings ironically. The ache in his voice isn’t a performance.
Max recently released Carson City, a living room record that presents The Great American Desert at its most pristine: a man and his guitar with no frills. You can purchase it at http://thegreatamericandesert.bandcamp.com/
A fantastic mini-documentary came across my desk today. In it, you’ll find one of our favorite artists Damien Jurado talking about his music and his city, Seattle — including details about when, where, and how the songs “Nothing is the News” and “Yuma, Arizona” were written. The 25-minute doc is situated squarely in the space that Prairie Hymnal is committed to: one that explores roots in terms of place and shared cultural experience.
You can find the video by visiting BYUtv’s Audio-Files page which also features similar short-form documentaries on Low and Trampled By Turtles among others.
As you’ve probably heard, Woody Guthrie would have been 100 years old last Saturday. Though I’ve been a fan of Guthrie’s for years, I feel like that relationship is still in its infancy. I’ve just proposed to write a chapter in my dissertation about him and his connection to the labor movement in the 30s, so that relationship is about to get much more intimate.
I celebrated Woody Guthrie’s centennial by teaching my kids all of the verses to the songs “This Land is Your Land” and “So Long, its Been Good to Know Yuh” and we sang them over and over again all last week. I’ve caught them several times in their rooms or riding their bikes singing Woody’s lyrics to themselves. They love those songs. I can’t wait to teach them a bunch more.
Despite all the singing, I’m still combing through all of the articles published last week to celebrate Guthrie’s legacy. I’ve collected as many as I could here. Let me know if there are any good ones that I missed.
On Woody Guthrie’s Centennial, Celebrating the Life, Politics & Music of the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” - Interview with Nora Guthrie (daughter), Anna Canoni (granddaughter) and Steve Earle on Democracy Now!
At 100, Woody Guthrie Still Resonates - Bradley Klein
The Mix: The Woody Guthrie Collection (via Folk Alley)
Fresh Air Celebrates Woody Guthrie at 100 (Interview with Jeff Place and Ed Cray)
From No Depression
What Woody Guthrie Did - Kim Ruehl
Why Woody Guthrie Endures - Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic
‘Your Land,’ and Guthrie’s, Preserved - Larry Rohter, New York Times
Happy Birthday Woody Guthrie - Baron Lane, Twang Nation
I spent much of the late winter and spring re-watching my favorite TV series Northern Exposure. It is, for me, the perfect show. I started watching it as a teenager in the mid 90s when the early seasons were already in syndication. We didn’t have cable, and it would come on between 11 and 12 and every weeknight. There’s a certain loveliness in the cocktail of characters in that show: the philosopher, the eccentric, the shaman-in-training, the bush-pilot, the astronaut, the bear-hunting barkeep. I go back again and again: Comfort food.
In a 5th season episode, the astronaut hires the shaman-in-training, Ed, to put together a film festival to attract tourists to the small Alaskan town. Ed (who’s also a film-buff) decides to make it an Orson Welles festival. At one point Ed is watching Citizen Kane and Leonard (the shaman) asks how he can stand repeated viewings. Here’s their conversation:
“You’ve seen this movie a number of times?”
“Of course”, Ed says.
“Yet you want to see it again. Why?”
Ed replies, “It’s a great story, it’s beautiful. It’s fearless. You know that quote in the beginning where Kane says it might be fun to run a newspaper? Well, I think that’s the way Orson Welles approached this. It might be fun to make a movie. He didn’t know what he was doing and yet he did something that was perfect. Makes you think about what’s possible.”
Welles did something that was perfect. And I’d agree. But what is that?
The episode got me thinking about perfection. It’s such a subjective assessment, yet when something is perfect — when it hits all the right notes — there is consensus.
Last week I posted about the Beach Boys song “God Only Knows” — widely acknowledged for its perfection. But why? What are the criteria?
I came up with five standards.
- Time-tested – the Perfect Song has to be at least a generation old, and the perfection exponent increases after every new generation passes in continued agreement about the song.
- Wide Popular Appeal – Nearly everyone has to agree that it’s a wonderful song. As we move away from the mono-culture that existed well into the 90s, popular appeal is becoming more difficult to parse. Since so-called perfection under the previous determinate needs to be at least a generation old, we’ll let critics 25 years from now decide if Bon Iver’s “Holocene” or Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is closer. Tough call. Probably both.
- Emotion – Here’s where subjectivity reigns, but paradoxically, the ability to consistently draw emotion from the listener is also the Perfect Song’s most arguable (and provable) quality. The Perfect Song captures and represents its intended emotion without flaw.
- Repeatability – The Perfect Song, within reason (and as Ed points out as a moot point above), bears repeating.
- Sing-along-ability – You can’t help yourself.
Right now NPR is working on putting together a list of universally awesome albums or “Albums Everyone Can Love” — a noble pursuit — but I thought it would be fun to get a list of perfect songs together. I’d love for some help here.
Other than the Beach Boys tune, at the top of the list for me is Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. It meets all of the above criteria which includes the fact that I cannot hear the song without smiling and singing along. It’s my go-to happy song.
In the wake of the (let’s be honest) semi-bland Beach Boys reunion tour this summer, I’ve been thinking about Carl Wilson. Carl died tragically of lung cancer in 1998 but, during the long years of Brian Wilson’s weirdness, carried the torch of the Beach Boys — touring for years and years with Mike Love, playing lead guitar, and taking most of Brian’s lead vocals.
As a fan of Brian Wilson’s genius, I never paid much attention to Carl, but that changed recently when I went YouTube diving for old Beach Boys live performances. I learned that it’s Carl’s voice, not Brian’s, on “God Only Knows” (one of my top-five favorite songs of all time) and he also contributes prominently to “Good Vibrations”. In the later period of the band (post 1966) he moved into the lead singer roll, offering an anecdote for the cheesiness of Love and bringing some sanity back to the Wilson name. He sings on many of the songs on Smiley Smile and Wild Honey.
Carl was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, but continued to tour even after becoming very ill and weak. He would sit during his performances, an oxygen tank nearby for use between songs. During “God Only Knows”, though, he would respectfully stand. Pretty cool.
Here’s Carl with the band doing the tune in 1980.
It’s been a while. Too long. I’ve had to take a bit of a hiatus on the blog here in order to get my dissertation project situated and underway. I’m pleased to say that it is all but approved. I’ll be writing — big surprise — about rhetoric, music, the 1930s and Alan Lomax’s archive. So big projects loom large in my future, but I’m committing now to more frequent posts here at Prairie Hymnal — for sanity’s sake. We are working on booking more artists for our video sessions and will have some exciting news on that front here soon.
In the meantime we’ve got summer. Indeed, it’s summer and I’m trying to soak it up as best I can.
I work in an office where the oldies radio station plays all day and some of those tunes are so sweet I don’t care that I hear them over and over. Songs like Franki Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby“, Sonny Robinson and the Miracles “Tears of a Clown” and the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” — great tunes that somehow never get old. Oh, and Lighter Shade of Pale! Amazing summer tune. It reminds me of fireworks and the Wonder Years.
It got me thinking about this old post that I put together for Ryan over at Muzzle of Bees a few years ago. It seemed like a good time to revisit it. We carry around our musical roots as personal histories and sometimes, as is the case with the songs I’ve listed above, we carry around the musical genealogies of our culture. I’m intrigued by this still.
Here’s the piece, edited slightly for Prairie Hymnal. If you have a moment, post a comment about your own root system…
In 1991, Boyz II Men and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince put out the unforgettable singles Motownphilly and Summertime. If you were 11 or 12 like I was when those tunes came out, those were THE songs, right? You know you loved them. That summer, though, with high school on the horizon, I abandoned them—openly disdained them even. I hid my cassette singles and in their place new, shiny CDs appeared with pale, British faces on them: from Boyz II Men to Boyz Don’t Cry faster than you can say goodbye to yesterday.
This ebb and flow of our musical interests is common, I think, and though it may not happen as frequently (or dramatically) as it did when we were kids, I think it’s fun to think about how what we listen to changes over the years. My musical tastes certainly have changed and expanded over the last decade. I suspect yours have too. And thank goodness, really.
I think the watershed moments of our musical pasts are important to reflect on. What we listen to seems to be indicative of other shifts in our often tenuous world-views and brought about by other life changes, subtle or serious. No wonder songs and bands become both touchstones and course markers along the way.
A standout moment for me in the last ten years was when M. Ward and Jim James took the stage with Bright Eyes—Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis—during a 2005, pre-Monsters of Folk Austin City Limits performance. I was in the midst of a shift that year and was looking to shows like ACL and podcasts like NPR’s All Songs Considered for nudges in new sonic directions. Bright Eyes is a force to be reckoned with, to be sure. Oberst was (then even more) strange and catlike and I remember being intrigued (if in a pseudo-literary sense) by his poem-song “Waste of Paint.” He also did a lovely waltz with Mogis on mandolin called “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” from the critically acclaimed album I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. But it was when M. Ward and Jim James came out and played songs from their respective main projects that ears perked. Ward played “O’Brien” — a great song from his now classic, break-through record End of Amnesia (2001). Next, Jim James played the My Morning Jacket tune “Golden” (from It Still Moves, 2003) with Mogis on pedal steel. Something clicked. That Gibson, those chords, that melody, and the lyrics:
Watchin’ a stretch of road, miles of light explode.
Driftin’ off a thing I’d never done before…
Watchin’ a crowd roll in. Out go the lights, it begins.
A feelin’ in my bones I never felt before…
I watched and listened again and again. In the process, I discovered—from the first half of that episode—a little band called Wilco (tragically late, I know). And while I can’t trace back all of my current musical interests to that moment, it was very significant.
Tell us a little about your musical histories: What were the moments, songs, albums, artists, blogs, podcasts, tv shows etc. that brought on some kind paradigm shift in your musical world over the last five or ten years? How dramatic were your shifts? And, if you please, what brought on those shifts?
Before I dive back into Lomax, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of one of the world’s genius innovators, Mr. Earl Scruggs. As Noam Pickelny says in this short NYT video piece, he was the Babe Ruth of the banjo. His influence is immeasurable. He’ll be sorely missed.
The Lomax archive got another huge press mention a few days, this time over at NPR. The story mentions the thousands of artifacts that have moved online but also makes mention of one of the things that I’ve been struggling with related to how to approach the enormous archive: Where do you start? It’s easy to jump over to the site and just throw a proverbial dart. You’ll find something to listen to after just a few clicks. That’s basically what I’ve been doing in my visits thus far. But accessing the “Global Jukebox” in all of its depth and breadth requires a more informed approach. What’s more, critically thinking through this digital space as both a historical repository for vernacular musics (that have been transfered from analog sources) as well as a product of Lomax’s very distinct kind of situated enthnographic practices (with all of his attendant personal and cultural baggage) should require a kind of guiding principle or method, at the very least. A thorough approach to accessing and understanding the archive could be the work of major academic studies — and surely there are those who are invested in scholarly ways.
But many of us are first and foremost interested in the music. In my posts, I’ll do my best to fall somewhere in the middle. While this archive is of scholarly interest to me (I just proposed to write a chapter of my dissertation on it), I’m also a music fan and am anxious to uncover gems and polish them up.
What I’m getting to here is a call for a more deliberate approach to the Cultural Equity archive. I’ll begin my own studied inquiry here, but would like to encourage others, popular and academic bloggers alike, to do the same. My plan is to start working chronologically and to move through the archive as a way of not only mapping Lomax’s career but also to get a sense for who his subjects were. What were their stories? How is their music a representation of those stories? What gets left out?
In short, I’m interested in the listening. My hope is that by listening closely to these artifacts, I’ll be able to piece together a larger narrative of both the importance of the archive itself, and also what our responsibilities as listeners are to that archive. I’ll have a few other resources to guide me including Lomax’s book and Szwed’s monograph, but will also seek mainly to draw from the archive itself as a source for teaching me about what is there.
Now that I’ve made a case for a measured approach, I’m going to break with my new methodology immediately and point you towards this recording of Earl Scruggs with Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys at the 1966 Newport Folk festival.
Here’s to hoping there are banjos in the foggy mountains beyond.
I’ve started poking around in what is available over at the Cultual Equity site but am only just starting to get a feel for the mountains of content there. I thought I’d start this week in a fairly recognizable place: Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton and his long-form interview/oral history with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1938. At the time of the session, Morton’s career was in decline and the long interviews with Lomax gave the pianist a welcomed stage from which to voice his unique story, sometimes speaking, sometimes playing the piano. Having that keyboard under his fingers allowed Morton to punctuate the telling of his history with chords and melodies giving the story a multi-modal richness not possible in a typical interview. (It should be noted that Lomax’s approach to interviewing is not without criticism. The strengths and weaknesses of Lomax’s methods as an ethnographer will likely be a subject of many posts to come.)
As great as this session is — indeed, you can purchase the complete sessions (nine hours worth!) in a Grammy Winning box set from Rounder Records — this post is pointed specifically to the Radio Programs section of the Cultural Equity archive. Currently on the site, there are several hours worth of radio programs, spanning from the early 40s to the mid 50s, but Lomax’s radio presence stretched far beyond that. For now, check out the page’s first listing and you’ll find Lomax talking about and playing excerpts from the’38 sessions with Jelly Roll.
This initial crop of streaming radio programs give the archive visitor a sense for the immensity of what is currently available for streaming in the archive. Listening to each program leisurely might take months and these radio shows represent only the tip of the vast iceberg of holdings.
Frankly, I’m both excited and intimidated. There is so much to listen to, so much to learn.
*illustration by Brett Affrunti
Don Fleming, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris dropped by the Cobert Report to discuss the the folk music legacy of Alan Lomax and the Cultural Equity archive. Cobert, as we’ve seen before, loves good music. The interview and the attending performances are a tiny bit awkward, but mostly due to Cobert’s insistance on being involved. I’m sure we wouldn’t want it any other way (at least in this setting).
WordPress and CR’s flash videos don’t get along, so find the video here.
Prairie Hymnal has been on a short hiatus due to a PhD exam (passed!) and the birth of sweet little Asher. We return today with a song and video from one of my favorite acoustic duos, Mandolin Orange.
The song “Clover Tune” is from the band’s new double album Haste Make | Hard Hearted Stranger and was produced by Anson Burtch. Anson has one of the best ears I know and is my go-to guy for all things bluegrass. Enjoy the video and be sure to check out both albums from MO’s Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz.
We’ll be back with much more regular blogging going forward. I’m especially excited about the recent announcement that the Lomax archive that I have talked about here before is now wide open. All of the archive’s 17,000 songs are now (or will be very shortly) available for streaming on the site. We’ll be exploring a song a week.
Pat Hull is a singer-songwriter who grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Brooklyn, but he sounds like he could be from wherever you find yourself calling home at this particular moment. It seems like every town I have ever gotten to know intimately has a singer who, like Pat, needs nothing more than a guitar and a few minutes of your time to create something memorable. There is an unmistakable emotion in every human voice and I have always admired musicians who aren’t afraid to let that emotion become the focus of their music. I think this is why so many of my favorite memories of performances are intimate stripped-down shows in quiet settings. It can be so easy to call those moments home, even if only for a moment.
In “Deliver” Pat sings and talks about the wandering notions of home, how we are both tethered to that place we return to but also free to create closeness wherever we find ourselves. Pat’s song is a great reminder that our roots don’t have to be grounded by place. We carry our influences wherever we are and, in doing so, are always prepared to call ‘right here’ our home.
I want to mention and thank Michael Chinworth who is also featured in this video. Michael and Pat are currently on tour throughout the US. They were kind enough to pause on their way through Champaign-Urbana to have some breakfast and record this session on a snowy Saturday morning.
If you are interested in more of Pat’s music and Michael’s beautiful harmonies, be sure to purchase their latest album Light available at pathull.bandcamp.com.
On the road…
Tucson and Phoenix Arizona are situated on the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert, one of the most beautiful and complex deserts in the world. It’s the primary place that you will find the Saguaro, the iconic “armed” cactus that has come to represent the desert in many a b-movie and Loony Toon. Nearly every time you see the desert portrayed in film, however, you can tell that the set designers have never actually been there. In those films, the Saguaro is seen growing out of a Sahara-like environment, sandy dunes with solitary green cacti waving ignorantly at the audience. In truth, the Sonoran Desert is beautiful and lush, its vegetation a kind of miracle in the face of months and months of blistering heat.
The musician who calls himself Gill (a moniker, actually, of Tucson-native Jonathan Thwaits), is similarly enigmatic. His work eludes easy classification — he’s a chameleon, really — and he’s comfortable in a dozen musical modes and instruments and a master of most of them. Professionally, he’s one of those guys who could have been anything: a circus performer, a truck driver, an astronaut, an engineer. In fact, he’s been each of these things… or at least his songs would suggest as much. Most of all, Gill is a prolific and sweepingly talented songwriter. He’s played in scores of bands over the last 15 years in both Tucson and Phoenix and has amassed an amazing collection of songs. As you will hear in “David”, Gill has a special talent for tying poetic imagery and heart-felt narrative together into a seamless, genre-defying musical package. Arizona can be a difficult place to be a musician — the heat and relative isolation makes the task of getting one’s music into the ears of the masses a mystery all of its own. It’s my pleasure, then, to introduce you one of my closest friends and greatest inspirations, Gill.
This is our first “On the road” post, filmed in Tucson, AZ.
Six weeks ago today we set up on a street corner in Urbana and invited folks to play us a tune. It was an experiment — we had no idea what or who would take us up on the offer. What we discovered was what we suspected all along: we live in a wonderfully rich musical community. We are already anxiously awaiting next year’s festival.
We liked it so much, we’ve been using the slide guitar playing of today’s artist as an introduction to each of our videos. Today he gets the full treatment. Joe Asselin played three songs for us, and this was the first — an original called “Long Ride”. Look forward to the other two in bonus sessions to come!
Ladies and Gentlemen, Morgan Orion.
We’re reaching the end of our initial run of videos from our participants at the CU Folk and Roots festival. I have two more songs to post next week and then there will be some bonus sessions I’ll put together and post sometime in the near future. What a great project this has been!
Today’s session adds to our already diverse collection. Patrick Shea and Max Dragoo of the Urbana band Bad Columbus do a song by one of my favorite artists, The Tallest Man on Earth. The song is his “The Sparrow and the Medicine” , and their cover is charming. This reminds me fondly of my own high school band and busking days. Great stuff, guys!
Today’s session is a special one. As you’ll hear in the video, Gaye Harrison was one of a group of individuals whom, in the late 70s and early 80s, worked to compile a collection of Illinois folk music. The collection is titled Dear Old Illinois: traditional music of downstate Illinois (by Garry Harrison) and was published as large book of the collected fiddle tunes and was accompanied by three CDs. The original collecting activity was funded by a grant to the Tarble Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University, and was administered by Garry Harrison. This collection is now housed in the Library of Congress.
I’m inspired by Gaye’s work and enchanted by her lovely violin. She plays “Humpback Mule”.
A quickie today from fiddler and luthier Jeff Yonkus. He plays “Chicago Reel”.
Today’s video is from Charlie Harris and Cody Jensen of Black Coffee Fridays. They play the now-traditional and oft covered song,”The Old Account”. It’s a lovely little number played by two pillars of the young bluegrass community in CU. Hallelujah!
We’re back after a short break for deep-fried turkey.
Today’s video is from Sam Payne. Sam plays guitar in the local bluegrass/string bands Corn Desert Ramblers and the Hot Iron String Band – I’ve seen the former numerous times in the last few years (once opening for Tony Rice!). It was great to hear him play solo like this. He brought us a version of Vassar Clements’s “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” that he arranged. Enjoy!
On the morning of the festival, I sat down in a small classroom with about ten other beginning banjo students and Christine Breen taught us some clawhammer basics. It was remarkable to watch. In the space of an hour she had the class (many of whom had never picked up a banjo in their life) hammering on, pulling off, and working that fifth sting like frailing was the easiest thing in the world. It was inspiring. I was glad, then, when she wandered by the PH outpost that she agreed to play us a few songs. Here is the first of two, the traditional tune “I’m Going Back to Jerico”. Thanks again, Christine!
A few weeks ago we set up camp at the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival and asked passersby to play us a song. That simple: play a quick tune or two and say something about it. The campaign was a success! Over the course of the afternoon, we recorded nine diverse acts playing original and traditional material and were knocked out by what we heard. This week and next, I’ll post the videos from each session. This morning, enjoy the first video from brothers Andy and Dainel Romanowitz. They play “My Own Dear Galway Bay“.
We’re honored this week to have an essay from guitarist and folklorist Nathan Salsburg. On Nathan’s album Affirmed (out today on No Quarter records), you’ll hear solo guitar picking that baffles the logical senses: too intricate to be so melodic, too pretty to be so complex. Nathan’s playing is virtuosic but disarming; the runs and chord progressions are complex, but his emphasis is always on the bright and pristine nature of the tunes. Artful restraint is a rare trait for a guitarist of such skill and Nathan’s restraint on Affirmed is a gift to us. His focus, instead, is on the songs. There are eight in all (and only one non-instrumental among them), each wonderfully crafted to tell a story, in this case about race horses and indefatigable spirit.
When I asked if Nathan would be willing to write an essay for us about his musical roots, I had no idea that he was also a folklorist and traditional music expert working for the Alan Lomax Archive I mentioned here a few weeks ago (read a great interview detailing some of his work there here). Serendipity, of course, is always welcome.
I’m extremely pleased, then, to introduce our first guest essayist, Nathan Salsburg — a champion for tradition, artistry, and innovation:
My earliest and most formative musical experience was my father’s playing “Railroad Bill” to me, on the guitar, for a lullaby. It was the closest thing I’d get to the “folk process” — he’d learned it off some fellow-traveling Washington Square Park folkie, who’d learned it, perhaps, from another, who’d learned it, perhaps, from another, and so on back to Saltville, Virginia’s late, great multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith, who had come through New York City for one of the Friends of Old-Time Music concerts in the early ’60s, and whose recording of the song, made for Alan Lomax, was then easily accessible on LP. (There are lots of versions of “Railroad Bill,” but his was the only “text,” as the professors call it, resonating through the early days of the Great Folk Scare.)
I was 17 when my father taught me its finger-style rudiments, and, like Fred McDowell said about his first tune, Tommy Johnson’s “Big Fat Mama Blues,” I worried those strings to death trying to play that song. After much effort I arrived at a tenuous satisfaction with my rendering, and could confidently pick it out for impressed friends who, having spent most of their conscious musical development in thrall to, say, the Bad Brains or Born Against, rarely if ever heard music like this. Five years later, however, I finally heard Hobart Smith’s recording. And it was a sublime and sublimely disappointing revelation: I was nowhere close to getting to the soul of the thing. I didn’t know and wasn’t told that Hobart had learned it from an old albino fellow in Saltville’s Smoky Row who had learned it from god only knows who; that Hobe’s was just a step in one of an innumerable quantity of staircases in the labyrinthine folk process, spreading out and up and down into infinity from the Ur-note struck on that celestial monochord Harry Smith turned so deftly into an enduring fetish. If I had, or had been, maybe I’d have adopted a more sanguine perspective, considering what I’d worked out for myself as one of minor-est stars in the song’s grand firmament, but a contribution nonetheless.
Eleven years after hearing Hobart Smith’s “Railroad Bill” for the first time, I’ve achieved a bit more sanguinity with regard to my own playing and its ever-increasing gallimaufry of influences, but the song has lost none of its power over me. It still rings as perfection’s essence, the tonic of the heavenly spheres — like the quarry of some famous Hindustani classical singer I was once told of, who practiced 15 hours a day for sixty-some-odd years, in vain pursuit of that single perfect note sounding forever just out of reach. And though there are countless other guitar performances that boggle my mind with their breathless grace and gravitas and humanity (and even, as some blockheads might say, greater “proficiency”), whatever it is at the core of “Railroad Bill,” deep down there in its banging heart, continues to delight, inspire, taunt, and drag me on after it, forever sought and forever hidden.
Check out the title track from Affirmed here.
And be sure to pick up a copy of the record over at No Quarter where you can get it on vinyl for only $11 (or on CD for a dollar less).
Thanks again to Mr. Salsburg for his wonderful essay. We hope it’s the first of many artist writing submissions here on the site.
The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles, and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. . . . When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strycnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo.”
Mark Twain, “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, June 23, 1865.
Last night I watched the PBS documentary Give Me the Banjo. The film, “a musical odyssey through 300 years of American history and culture”, is as good a documentary as I’ve ever seen and the fruit of the folks at The Banjo Project. In the name of full disclosure, parts of this documentary nearly brought me to tears. It’s that good. The project resonates with every part of my collective creative interests: personal, academic, political, patriotic, democratic, ethnographic. The banjo, folks. The Banjo!
When I was coming up, the sound of the banjo was something I was taught, somewhere along the way, to distain. My untrained adolescent ear heard “country” and “uncool” and, perhaps even, ignorantly, “redneck”. I wish now that I had the vision and maturity to take the road other suburban kids had when they first heard the twang of traditional music and instruments. Alas, I did not. Then, about five years ago, something shifted. I was listening to a bluegrass band play on an episode of Prairie Home Companion and when the banjoist took a solo, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. It was like an old-time revivalist evangelical conversion. Since then, the sound of the banjo has slowly pushed its way to the center stage of my musical psyche. Give Me the Banjo, for me, made the work I’m perusing as a part of my doctoral study AND the work that we’re interested in showcasing here on this site not only feel relevant, but more important than ever.
Just off the top of my head, here is a list of players that are featured in the video: Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Charlie Poole, Blind Boy Paxton, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, Noam Pickelny, and a bunch of others.
PBS uses a video player that isn’t embeddable in WordPress, but please take some time and watch the documentary here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2164506461/
You won’t be disappointed.
We were excited to be asked to participate in this year’s annual Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots festival! We’ll have a booth at the fest with a guitar, banjo, and a camera set up in hopes that artists and patrons of the festival will stop in, sing us a song and/or tell us a story. This is our first public community endeavor, but hearing songs and stories from the general population is directly in line with the goals of Prairie Hymnal. We hope that this will be the first of many community outings as we begin work on building a public ethnography of song.
Check out our own Cody Caudill’s interview with Brenda Koenig (one of the festival’s founding organizers) over at Smile Politely. Many of the events are free, and a $25 wristband gets you access to all of the events. We’re especially looking forward to seeing Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three! Stop in and say hello!