Give Us A Chune

A virtual jam session

Monday, September 11, 2006

National Excuse Day

or..."If my steak doesn't come to the table in the next five minutes, the terrorists have already won."

I was in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, on September 11, 2001. We'd been traveling for about a week in a rental car, no radio, no TV, blissfully adrift, living out a dream. Then we pulled up to Newpark House to stop over for a few nights of the legendary traditional music of County Clare. It's a 17th-century manor house, replete with period furniture, manicured grounds and a peacock. Here's a picture:

As we pulled in, the proprietress--an older woman, round, short, and in obvious distress--hustled us in and said "you're Americans? Oh, terrible news, terrible news from America" over and over. She herded us up to our room, snapped on the TV, and the world shattered.

I can't add anything to the volumes written on how this country has changed since then. I have nothing to say about the horror of the attack, the twisting sense of loss, and the sheer down-the-rabbit-hole pointlessness of it all. I felt the anger bitterly on that day and still feel shame that a species capable of painting the Sistine Chapel, constructing the Alhambra, and writing Moby Dick is capable of such wanton acts of mercilessness.

Which brings me to the current wave of remembrances, memorials, and statements of intent by--primarily--our current administration.

When the US invaded Afghanistan, I thought "well, that's where the perpetratros are--yes, it makes sense to go find them." When the country began implementing stricter security measures and adopting special intelligence techniques I thought "well, that's what the rest of the world has been doing for decades to curtail terrorist attacks--the US has never suffered this before so we probably need similar structures." As the government rallied 'round the flag I thought "well, it's not my cup of tea, but perhaps it'll shake us into some sense of our position, vulnerability, and responsibility on the world stage."

What I have seen since 2001 is that we tend to use NineEleven (it's not a date anymore, is it?) as our national excuse to do whatever the hell our hawkish politicians deem necessary to keep the populace in a continual state of fear and acquiescence. I don't care what side of the political fence you're on, there is NO concerted national resistance to this sort of behavior.


1. NineEleven allowed us to move quickly from Afghanistan (where bin Laden still roams free) to Iraq. Iran has been discussed at the "star chamber" level as a target for invasion. Syria is also on the list of targets. To what end? There are, by the government's and military's own estimations, more terrorists now than ever.
2. Improved security has been taken to the NineEleventh degree: secret CIA prisons; torture of prisoners; unfettered, un-monitored, and possibly illegal spying; gargantuan and Machiavellian new government organizations (I always thought the Republicans were for reducing the size of govt) that are so myopically--and ineffectually--focused on one thing that we basically allowed an entire US metropolis to be washed off the map; and the new extreme looming: a wall across Mexico. Funny thing is, I know someone who flies every week and still gets a lighter through security 50% of the time.
3. "Rallying-round-the-flag" has become, for me, Orwellian. Not since the Star-bellied Sneetches have I experienced a more polarized political climate. I'm not old enough to have directly experienced the Freedom Marches of the '50's and '60's but I AM old enough to have experienced Reagan and Bush Classic. What does the dream of USA mean when we have gotten to the point where dissent is deemed traitorous?
4. NineEleven has been used as our Get-Out-of-Multilateral-Action-Free Card. Our foreign policy seems to consist of the phrase "we'll take what we want and we don't care who complains."

The sad fact of the matter is that I still think this is probably the best place to live in the world. So why do I complain and voice these fears? Same reason I practice mandolin every day:

We could be so much better.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I used to love the fall.

I was the aberrant kid who looked forward to going back to school. As much as I groused and dragged my heels, I secretly liked school shopping. The air crisp and tart as the apples on our trees, the woods flaming and mysterious, beckoning as it transformed tangled underbrush into golden carpet and twitched back its skirts to reveal hidden paths and crimson-roofed tunnels.

Fall was a promise kept. Fall was New Year's Day for me as it was for the Celts. Fall was change, new horizons, possibility.

I still love the Fall but like any love affair, the first blush of attraction has mellowed into something both more intimate and more distant.

I can see myself as I was in the colors, can smell my yellow rubber rain coat in the crisp, brown leaves, and I'm reminded more of paths crossed and left behind than paths opening before me. Fall is the fairy story of the child snatched from mortal lands to live in magic and wonder but at the price of having to age and wither while those around remain ageless and unchanging.

Well, this too shall pass, but it's been a tough patch of road lately. The music season is largely past, the festivals mostly boarded up for the year, and the instruments lie in their cases too long. Perhaps the offseason will prove to be a long, rewarding woodshedding time (odd expression, that, with connotations of punishment as well as bringing forth something new) but I'm worried that it'll be too much like last year--long stretches of inactivity wondering what the hell to do with myself.

This has become a time when I feel my remoteness more keenly as friends and family gear up for their Fall activities. It's incumbent on me to strike out on a new path but too often I either can't find one or I'm bewildered by the array of choices.

On a positive note, I have finally restrung my fiddle. I've long wanted to spend some time learning that instrument and this may be the season. I've also had some fruitful sessions of writing music and lyrics. I think I'll see how far into the woods those paths go.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Doom is nigh...Pt. 1

Juxtaposed on the Yahoo front page today:

"Moonwalking Ferret"--watch the entire video


"SAT Scores Plummet"

It just goes to prove what I have always said: People are stupid (persons are fine; one-on-one, humans can be very charming, literate, and intelligent, but there's no doubt that People. Are. Stupid.).

Monday, August 28, 2006

Media Solution

I believe--with the help of ace webslinger and killer artist Tom Gau (more to come on Mr. Gau)--that the mp3 hosting issue is solved.

So here's a tune I wrote a couple months ago as part of an exercise. I set myself the task of writing a tune a day for one week. Four of them were so-so--they sounded and played like exercises. Three of them sounded like music. I recorded this at home on a portable CD recorder so it's a bit rough.

It's in the key of F: untitled so far. I had been listening to the playing of Mike Compton a lot and so I wanted to try my hand at something that incorporated some of his style and feel but wasn't just a rehash. Don't know if I succeeded and don't really care so much about that. Time will tell if it holds up on its own.

Thanks for listening!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Fair...

I'm not a big fair guy for many of the same reasons as Deb but I had to go on Saturday to see my friend Cati Jo.

Cati Jo (nearly 13) is a fiddler who I've played with many many times over the past couple years, both on stage and off. She's absolutely fantastic and a great person to boot.

I called down to Cati Jo because Missy and I were going down to the Twin Cities to run some errands and I figured we could get together with CJ's mom, Sandi, and maybe have lunch. What I had forgotten was that CJ was appearing that day in the Minnesota State Fiddler's Assn Fiddling Contest at the State Fair. Missy and I changed plans on the fly and made ready to go.

The MN State Fair is huge. It's immense. It's crammed wall to wall with people, booths, signs, lights, noises, speakers, activities, free stuff, hawkers, and rides. If crowds are your thing, you'd be in heaven. It ain't for me but for one afternoon I can deal with it.

Here's a low res camera shot to give you some idea of the crowds. This was taken during the afternoon, before things get rolling.

The contest was great. There were about 16 kids in the 12-and-under group, a bunch in the young adult, maybe 6 in the adult and a pair in the over 60 camp (local hero Bill Hinkley won that). I'm not a big fan of contest music as a rule--too many contest players I've met can play a handful of tunes extraordinarily well but can't jam for fun to save their souls--but what I enjoyed seeing was how many kids were playing old time fiddle music AND how many people came out to support it.

CJ placed 2nd out of 16. I thought she won it--she played superbly. Here she is with her plaque:

We grabbed a modest amount of fair food and took off not long after the contest. If things go well, the next time I go back, they'll be paying me: the W'pigs played the fair last year and hope to do so again.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mea Culpa

I guess it's my inner Catholic that still lurks deep , but I actually felt a little guilty about not having posted for a few days. Since posting now takes on the added burden of serving as confession, I suppose I'll need to come up with my own penance, too. Bless me, fellow bloggers. It's been 3 days since my last posting...

Media update: I have started a website to host some mp3 clips. I haven't gotten all the bugs worked out yet, so I can't seem to link to it without hitting a security window. I'll keep plugging away there.

How about a couple pics? Since 75% of my life is spent alone with dogs, I guess I'd better get them some net time.

Here's Edelweiss with a very young Spitze (shpit-zuh--German word with two meanings: literally "tip" for the white tip on her tail as a pup; slang for "the best"). Edelweiss adopted the 6-week-old Spitze right away and they've been a pack ever since.

And because she's never been without a pack, Spitze feels comfortable wherever she finds herself.
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Yes, I have gotten to know a great deal about dog psychology and the pack mind over the past few years. Please bear this in mind if you ever come by the house. Eventually I'll get used to your scent and I will respond verbally.

Been kicking around a lot of melodies and lot of lyrics lately, too. I recall promising to post some here, so this will serve as my penance: I guarantee that I'll be suffering pain--it's easier to sing these than print them out as poetry.

The germ of the idea was two fold: I never knew my grandparents well. I was young when we moved out to MN (from NY) and most of my contact with them was through Hallmark. The other part of it was that I've talked to lots of people of the past few years who have mentioned that they had a parent or a grandparent that played the mandolin (or fiddle, or banjo, but most often mandolin). I always wondered what those oldtimers played and why their instrument always wound up in an attic.

Here's my first draft. Let me know what you think. I'm still in heavy edit mode so the final draft may look very different.

My granddad was a 2 dollar bill
Every Christmas and every birthday
Nothing much between us but a generation
And 2 thousand miles of highway

Granddad played an old taterbug
Hardly ever had a word to say
I remember watching how his face lit up
So I asked him if I could play


Say granddad I could learn that tune
If you played it nice and easy
Something about a shady grove
And a skillet good and greasy

I don't know why it makes me cry
When you play the Wildwood Flower
But it would make me proud if you’d show me how
Let me stay another hour

Grandad smiled and he shook his head
And said “Boy ain’t you too young?
You got to get a lot more living behind you
Before you sing these songs

Every one of these lonesome songs
Is a friend who’s gone to glory
Passing ‘em on to another man
Is like the ending of the story”


A package came with a letter attached
The day that granddad passed
It said “I made me a mess of mistakes in life
And the worst one was the last

I want to you have this old mandolin
I hope you still want to play it
I hope you can remember your last wish
I hope you have the courage to say it”


I'll be every old timer with a fiddle and a song
I’ll be the lines on a wrinkled face
All you need to ask is what I wouldn’t give
The day at granddad’s place

So I travel the road and I play my songs
I pass the hat and I pass the flask
I still see granddad’s face sometimes
And I always stop and ask

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Season's winding down...

My evil nemesis raised its ugly head today. After a couple absolutely beautiful, dry, sunny late summer days, it got heavy and sticky just in time to put on the fedora and go play some music. This time we were in a concrete canyon behind a glass cube in Bloomington, MN.

It's bizarre how these pyritic formations of metallic boxes have crystallized along the mightiest river system in North America. One mile from the sterility of the tinted panes, snowy egrets preened in dead cottonwoods and hunted in the Mississippi sloughs.

We were playing a private corporate party and while it was work--and sweaty work at that--the difference here was the pay. We were paid well and they had ice cream. Doesn't get much better than that if you have to grit your teeth and grind out a show.

The sad thing is that the season--the Minnesota bluegrass season runs from March to September if one is generous and the weather permits--is winding down. We don't have so many gigs on the schedule, the days are shorter, and the leaves are beginning to drop. There's a kind of brassiness to the afternoon sun that is one of the harbingers of fall to me.

I think we'll still keep working, though. It's looking good that we'll be able to harness some momentum and get our second CD done. We've done some talking about it, everyone is excited to do it, and now we just need to mark the dates on the calendars and do it. I'm stoked because we'll be recording a fair amount of originals.

I don't know if starting the blog has gotten the gears going or what, but I've been visited by some new musical ideas lately and have nearly finished a new song. I'll post the lyrics here when done just for kicks.

Been getting some good reading done lately, too:

Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (one of those I always wanted to ready and finally am)
The Paper Grail, James P. Blaylock (speculative fiction set in Northern Californian...great stuff)
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny (absolutely fantastic book--premise is that settlers on a far distant planet have developed technology to the point of godlike abilities and so they take on the attributes of the Hindu pantheon and reenact that mythology)

The last two were re-reads. The really good authors can bring me back over and over and still have something there for me to discover or see in a new light.

Time to go change the grungy strings out. I can just about hear the old string hawker out in the street: "New strings for old; new strings for old."