Monday, November 15, 2010

The Red Yarn Beard

This weekend I began working on Red Yarn's beard! All along, one of my ideas for Red Yarn the character is that he has this giant beard made of yarn. I thought it would help make him larger than life, like a huge puppet himself.

I've been collecting balls of red yarn for the last few months, and went to SCRAP for the other supplies: plastic embroidery screens for the structure, yarn needles, elastic bands, etc. I set to work yesterday and it all came together.

Introducing, Red Yarn, the Bard of Beards:

I wear a headband under that hat to keep the beard in place.

The beard is in two pieces. A movable chin strap...

...and the sideburns and mustache.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Big Day for Red Yarn

Today I (as Red Yarn) submitted an application to join Young Audiences' roster of teaching artists. Young Audiences ( is an awesome organization committed to enhancing arts in schools. They organize a catalog of artists who can provide performances, workshops, and residencies in school settings. YA also helps schools raise money to host these teaching artists. While YA teaching artists aren't guaranteed work in schools, YA seems to be the go-to organization when schools are looking to enhance arts programming. On my path to becoming a professional teaching artist, this seems like a clear next step.

Whether or not I am accepted, this was a great opportunity for me to clarify my ideas about the creative and educational work I want to do. I submitted outlines for two programs. First, a performance similar to what I've done with the Red Yarn Puppet Band, weaving together several animal folk songs into a cohesive puppet show. Also, a residency in which I would work with a class to learn a folk song, build puppets of its characters, and adapt it into a show.

Of course, I do hope to be accepted! Cross your fingers for me, I should hear in a month or so if I've made it to the next round.

Monday, September 27, 2010

More RYPB pics

Here are some more pictures from Saturday, courtesy of Tony's and Stef's much nicer camera.

Jessie and Corinn (one of the leaders of Trip the Dark Fantastic) helping me and the skeleton out of the green room:

Corinn helping the skeleton stand up:

The skeleton puppet in its full glory:

Stef's precious owl and Tony's lascivious cat:

Red Yarn Puppet Band & Pancake Breakfast

On Saturday the Red Yarn Puppet Band had its second legit performance, this time supporting a great Portland band called Pancake Breakfast at their album release show. I met Mike Midlo--PB's leader--through mutual musical acquaintances, and we immediately connected over our appreciation of animals in folk music. Mike saw pictures of a 15-foot puppet I made for my friend's birthday last year, and asked if I could do something similar for his album release show. We chose two PB songs that lent themselves to puppetry--"Pedro Infante," about the ghost of an old Mexican actor, and "Pea Green Boat," a play on the nursery rhyme about an owl and a cat in a little boat.

The Red Yarn Puppet Band set to work building puppets. Tony and Stef made an amazing cat and owl; Jessie built a fish and a seagull on rods; I spent the last two weeks constructing an 11 foot skeleton puppet (the bones of Pedro Infante). For the spinal cord and support piece, I mounted a PVC pipe on a backpack and bicycle helmet. The arms were made of cardboard and bicycle tubes. The fingers were small plastic tubes with a wire and rubber band trigger operation system. I made quite a mess of our sun porch.

We had our puppets and props mostly built by Saturday, the day of the show. Tony came over and we put the finishing touches on the skeleton and a backpack-mounted pea green boat (a kind of mobile puppet stage with a cutaway bottom... Tony wore it and Stef stood right in front of him so the owl and cat could sit in the boat).

We headed to the venue early, to make sure our puppets would actually fit in the door. The puppets got friendly with the band backstage. It was an amazing line-up--a great folk/soul band called On the Stairs opened, then a dance troupe called Trip the Dark Fantastic cleared the stage and performed a 30 minute dance piece. The crowd ate it up.

Finally Pancake Breakfast took the stage--all 12 of them--and launched in to a rollicking set that blended folk, rock, mariachi, truck-driving songs, even a bit of polka. At the end of Act I, Mike summoned the bones of Pedro Infante. Jessie and a few of the friendly dancers led me out of the green room and into the crowd...
It was interesting to study people's reactions to the giant puppet. I think a lot of folks go to shows to passively observe the action, and some seemed disconcerted to have to interact with the performance. It was in their best interest, considering that I might have collapsed on them at any point, or smacked their faces with Pedro's jangly finger bones.

Pancake Breakfast closed their set with "Pea Green Boat." Stef and Tony emerged from the green room in the boat, followed closely by Jessie with the bird and fish.
During a soft, spooky breakdown, the skeleton reemerged to dance with the boat. Neither Tony, Stef, Jessie or I could see what was going on from beneath our puppets. At some point the skeleton's rib cage fell off... as the song ended I collapsed on the floor in a pile of bones.
All in all, it was a great performance and a huge learning experience. Tony, Stef, and Jessie blew me away as usual with their puppet-building and operating skills. I was happy that no one, including myself, was hurt by the giant skeleton in the room. Mike and the rest of Pancake Breakfast seemed pleased with the puppets, and I hope that it added a little bit more magic to an already magical night.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Red Yarn Puppet Band!

It's been too long since my last post! Much has happened between April and September. As far as Red Yarn is concerned, the most important development is the creation of the Red Yarn Puppet Band. If you have followed this blog, you'll know that I've been dreaming up an Epic American Animal Folk Puppet Musical. But, given the scope of my visions, it's been difficult to realize them. Back in the spring, I decided that making stop motion videos would be the easiest way. Well, have you ever tried making stop motion videos?? IT'S NOT EASY!! And more importantly, it can be a pretty isolating process. I decided that rather than hole up in a dark closet for the next year, manipulating small puppets frame by frame, I wanted to take this project to the streets, to build community around creativity, puppetry, and folk music.

So, back in July, I put out an email to many of my creative friends in Portland to see if anyone would be interested in starting a musical puppet troupe. I had just enough takers--my old friend Jim would find time in his busy med school schedule to play banjo and try his hand at making puppets; my new friend Tony, who used to work at Laika (the stop motion movie studio that made Coraline), would build and operate puppets; my friend Nina, who is a master knitter, would knit and sew little creatures in her free time; finally, my fiancee Jessie got enlisted in to sing, craft, and handle puppets (a generous contribution of time and talent considering that she is starting an intense new job as a middle school teacher!). The Red Yarn Puppet Band was born!

I introduced the group to some of my favorite animal folk songs--"Mr. Rabbit," "Raccoon's Got a Bushy Tail," "Who Killed Cock Robin," "Froggie Went A'Courtin'." Everyone chose a character and we started building puppets (mostly with materials from SCRAP, an amazing craft store/educational organization that specializes in recycled art supplies). Jim worked on Uncle Rat; Tony built Mr. Raccoon; Nina worked on a snake and a nest full of baby birds; Jessie made Ms. Mousie; I finished a possum puppet and started working on Froggie. After a month of work, we had a large cast of characters to animate many of these old American animal songs. Jessie, Jim and I arranged the songs with guitar, banjo, and three-part harmonies.

We had our first show on Saturday at the Slabtown Community Festival in Northwest Portland. It was a huge success! We led a parade of costumed kids from a nearby park to the festival site. Tony and I played drums marching band style. Jessie and Tony's partner Stef worked puppets and led chants. Once at the festival site, we played a set for a great crowd of children and families.
We wove six old songs into a narrative about our hero, Bob Rabbit, traveling through the Deep Woods looking for adventure. I played guitar, sang, and narrated as Mr. Sun, looking down on all the action and interacting with the other characters. Jim played banjo and sang.
Jessie sang and operated Bob Rabbit, Mr. Mousie, and Snake.
Tony kept his hands full with Farmer John, Froggie, Uncle Rat, Mr. Raccoon, and Mr. Possum.
Stef made a rousing cameo appearance as the cat that chases Froggie's and Mousie's wedding party into the lake.

We received great feedback from the kids and parents watching. "I loved the dark Appalachian sound!" "Way to weave the theme of death into a kids' show!" "You guys are going to be as big as Raffi!" (Is that a compliment?) It was a wonderful inaugural show and got me very excited for the future of the Red Yarn Puppet Band. It feels so good to be working with a group of such creative people. They bring talents and ideas to this project that I could never achieve on my own. And they have imbued their puppets with amazing personality that brings new color to these songs and stories.

Our next project is building several puppets--one large-scale and four hand-and-rod or stick puppets--for a friend's CD release show in two weeks. If you are in Portland, come to the Pancake Breakfast CD Release at the Doug Fir on September 25. I'll post pictures after the show.

Hurray for community! Hurray for the Red Yarn Puppet Band!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bob Rabbit 2.0

Meet Bob Rabbit, my first stopmotion puppet. As I have alluded to before, I have dreams of creating an epic American folk musical based around animal folk songs and tales. During the 2008 election season, I was reading Br'er Rabbit stories, listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and other music from the '60s folk revival, and thinking about the election of Barack Obama as a culmination of civil rights dreams. I began connecting Br'er Rabbit characters to real figures from the civil rights movement and folk revival--the famous trickster rabbit shared the wit and wile of a young Bob Dylan; old Br'er Terrapin, the wise turtle who could outsmart all of the other animals in his own, slow way, seemed a perfect gospel preacher; Br'er Fox and Wolf took on the personalities of smarmy southern politicians.

I started making hand puppets to explore some of these character connections. My first was Bob Rabbit, the trickster/folksinger amalgamation of Dylan and Br'er Rab. Sewing a two-foot hand puppet was a long process for an amateur seamster, so completing Bob took me the better part of a year. Once he was completed, I started using him in my Jelly Jar shows (Jelly Jar is my fiance Jessie's and my kids band). Meanwhile, I was exploring old animal folk songs that featured characters from the Br'er Rabbit tales. I discovered wonderful songs like "Mr. Rabbit," "John the Rabbit," and "Possum in the 'Simmon Tree," and decided that more urgent than my goal of creating an epic tale with all of these characters was my desire to breathe new life into these classic songs.

As I thought about what it would take to realize my vision with hand puppets, I realized I would either have to assemble a 10-piece puppetry troupe/musical group or scale down my ideas. It occurred to me that it might be time to re-explore the artform that dominated my adolescence: stopmotion animation. From 5th-7th grade, I was a stopmotion nut. I built whole cosmos in my bedroom with homemade Sculpey figures and popsicle stick sets and shot stopmotion videos on VHS and Super 8. Then I started playing guitar and that obsession took over.

Fast forward almost 15 years. My musical explorations led me to folk music and folk tales, which led me to hand puppets, which are leading me back to stopmotion. For my first stopmotion puppet, I built a 15 inch wire armature with wire of various gauges to facilitate fluid movement. I constructed a head, hands and feet out of Sculpey clay. I mounted foam on the wire frame for the torso, thighs, and upper arms. Finally I handstitched clothes for the character. This is only the first step. Next I need to make possum and raccoon puppets, buy a nice camera and some stopmotion software to make movies, and record animal folk song soundtracks. My goal is to produce a series of music videos with my puppets animating these classic songs. It will be a long process, but I will keep you posted!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The evolution of a song

Now that I'm done Lomaxing for a while, I'm looking for other ways to keep practicing the creative discipline that my January project forced. Luckily, I'm in the early stages of starting a new band with my friend and longtime bandmate Peter, so I have a good reason to write new songs. The most exciting part of our new collaboration is the opportunity to explore different methods of songwriting and arrangement. In our old band, Bark Hide and Horn, we often fell into the same pattern: I'd write a bare-bones song, with set chord structure, melody, and lyrics, and we'd flesh out the arrangement at band practice. The end result was always a collaborative creation, with instrumental melodies, rhythms, and sometimes entire sections that I never would have dreamed of myself. In the later days of Bark Hide and Horn, we were experimenting with other ways of writing songs--sometimes coming up with a chord progression as a group at practice, then developing our own parts at home. But I had a hard time feeling as connected to these song structures as I would with a chord pattern I developed on my own. Writing lyrics was tricky, because the chords and melodies didn't necessarily carry heavy associations in my head.

In Peter's and my new band (still nameless... do you have any ideas?), we've been trying more and more to develop song structures together. Pete has come up with chord patterns and melodies that we'll develop at practice, then I've been trying to write lyrics at home. I'm finding myself more able to connect with these song ideas and to uncover the lyrics buried within the music. "Don't Be Afraid of Me(at)" is a good example. Peter wrote the chord progression and melody to the verse and chorus sections, and we came up with most of the instrumental bridge together. I sounded out some lyrical ideas at practice and landed on the refrain, "Don't be afraid of me." I wrote one set of lyrics from a ghost's perspective, but scrapped that idea. This week I started playing around with lyrics about a predatory animal feeding on his prey, and hit on some lines I really like. I spent several hours today fleshing out the structure on Garage Band. This recording is just me, but I imagine that Peter and I will start working on a new (better) recording soon. We'll translate some of these ideas, come up with some new ones, and then Peter will work his magic on the recording and take it to a new level of sonic inventiveness. I can only guess that the final recording will sound very little like this one. I'll post it as soon as we finish so you can hear how the song continues to evolve.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Days 30 & 31

I wanted to end the Lomax-a-Day project with a profound statement about the importance of American folk music, but after 31 days of this, I can't quite muster the energy. I can say this: I have barely scratched the surface. This giant, tangled web of songs contains millions of histories, millions of mysteries, and millions of keys to the American identity. I am bound to keep trying to untangle the web in my own way. Or maybe "untangle" is the wrong idea--perhaps to tangle yourself deep into the web is the ultimate goal. I urge everyone who cares about music, who cares about the idea of America, who cares about people telling stories, to do some tangling themselves. Lomax is a good place to start.

I'll let my last two recordings, "Railroad Bill" and a medley of "Careless Love" and "Troubled in Mind," speak for themselves. For the blues, "Troubled in Mind" sure strikes a hopeful tone: "Troubled in mind, I'm blue, but I won't be blue always/ Wind's gonna rise and blow my blues away."



Lomax-a-Day, Day 29

It's the last day of the month, and I have three posts to go. Lomax-a-Day Marathon, here we come.

The 'Work Songs' section of the Negro South chapter presents some particular challenges. I get the sense with most of these songs that transcribing the original, mostly improvised performance must have been a difficult task, especially for white, Western-music-trained musicologists. Every phrase contains rhythmic and melodic variation, with little of the repetition and predictability found in the white folk songs that fill earlier chapters of this anthology. The transcription process seems reflective of the whole history of white Americans commercializing and commodifying black American music: the songs are twisted and crammed into digestible structures created by whites, only to be misinterpreted and appropriated by white singers (like myself). In the by-line of "Don't Lie, Buddy," Lomax writes that the song was "collected and re-composed by Josh White." I'm not accusing Lomax of any more racism than is to be expected from a mid-20th century cultural collector--in fact, Lomax did a great deal to expose white Americans to black music and thus open an essential racial dialogue--but the word "re-composed" smacks of imperialistic musicology. Composition itself is a Western, scholarly concept that doesn't fit well with the organic development of most folk songs. Without a single author, without a definitive version, without an ego pining for credit, how can a song be composed? Perhaps Lomax could have just said "composed by Josh White"; if the song wasn't originally composed in the way we recognize, then how could it be re-composed?

Be aware of at least two degrees of cultural re-/mis-interpretation as you listen to my version of "Don't Lie, Buddy." The first was in Josh White's "re-composition." The second is my dumbing down of the rhythm, melody, and chord structure into something much simpler than what is printed, something I could wrap my structure-loving brain around.

One side-note: the "Jack the Rabbit" verse of this song is in the family of raccoon, possum, and rabbit songs I mentioned in yesterday's post, so I was delighted to find it once again in a seemingly unrelated song. I'm learning more and more that there is no such thing as "unrelated" in American folk music.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 28

My recent exploration of animal folk songs has often led back to a family of folk-lyrics centered around raccoon, possum, and rabbit. Three of the most popular characters in African-American folk tales (the Br'er Rabbit tales, for example), these furry varmints seem to have inspired a whole anthology's worth of slightly varying tunes. From what I can tell, the two most central verses are:

Raccoon has a bushy tail
Possum's tail is bare
Rabbit's got no tail at all
But a little bunch of hair


Possum in the 'simmon tree
Raccoon on the ground
Raccoon says to possum
"Won't you shake those 'simmons down"

These two verses are connected to countless others about the same animals, and sometimes pop up in totally unrelated songs (see "Twistification," Day 18).  It's a perfect example of the folk-lyric phenomenon I wrote about in my analysis of "The Fourth Day of July" (Day 10): a critical mass of common verses became the shared folk-song vernacular, with singers arranging them into endless permutations. 

As I searched for variations of raccoon, possum, and rabbit songs, "Bile Them Cabbage Down" was hiding right under my nose in Lomax's anthology. I've always heard that title, but never guessed that it too was linked to these common animal folk-lyrics. Not surprisingly, the chorus has nothing to do with the verses. 


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 27

OK, I'm one day behind, but I swear I'm going to catch up this weekend and post 31 songs by the 31st. Today's selection is from the 'Spirituals II' section of the Negro South chapter. "Wade in the Water" is one of my favorite spirituals, first introduced to me by my girlfriend Jessie's family. Each day-after-Thanksgiving, the Eller-Isaacs host a singing party, where they cycle through folk songs, pop songs, gospel songs... some with guitar accompaniment, some a cappella. At the first singing part I attended, two years ago in NYC, we sang a medley of "Wade in the Water," "Ride Sally Ride," "Let My People Go," and "Beulahland." While each of these songs is completely distinct, they locked together as if all minor-key spirituals are secretly part of one mega-spiritual, where all the anguished, searching, faithful voices throughout time are subconsciously in tune, in time, in harmony. It was an incredible introduction. Jessie and I sing together here, but I wish we had a room full of singers to really drive it home.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 26

You'll have to forgive me for posting this a day late. Last night I played a solo show opening for my friends Jim Stier and the Volunteers. I performed my favorite Lomax songs, so it was kind of like I was doing my Lomax-a-Day. But, in order to complete my goal of recording a song out of each section of the book, I need to do six more. This means no skipping a day! The good news is, I've entered the final geographical section, called 'the Negro South.' It's full of spirituals, reels, and blues, and it's the section I'm most excited to explore. So I should have no trouble with this home stretch.

No better way to start a day than by singing a beautiful spiritual. I recommend it to anyone with the midwinter blues. "When the Stars Begin to Fall" is a song I grew up on; we always sang a similar but more white protestant hymn-y version at my family's church. Singing hymns, and the feeling of community it made, was by far the best part of church. From an early age the black spirituals were my favorites. The lyrics of this one are so perfectly thankful:

My Lord, what a mornin'!
My Lord, what a mornin'!
My Lord, what a mornin'!
When the stars begin to fall!
You'll hear the sinner moan
To wake the nations underground,
Lookin' to my God's right hand
When the stars, the stars begin to fall.

The only nations underground I woke today were my downstairs neighbors. Is 7:45am too early to be hollering my appreciation for the loveliness of the morning?

When I started to record, the gray Portland clouds were shrouding the dim sky out of my apartment's east windows. Slowly, a sliver of yellow pushed up from the horizon. Layers of purple and pink and blue piled on. Now, a brilliant morning sun is beaming through the bare trees, through the dew and dust on the window, in onto my sleepy face. My Lord, what a morning!


Monday, January 25, 2010

Lomax-a-Day. Day 25

The more I think about my posting yesterday, in which I complained about how hard it is to come up with an original idea around folk music these days, the more I realize how badly I was missing the point. The modern need for originality is a construct at best, a complex at worst. If my goal is to immerse myself in the folk tradition, then originality should be my last concern. A perfect moment to land on 'The Last West' section of the West, which is basically a chapter devoted to Woody Guthrie. Lomax reflects on Guthrie: "Woody has never tried to be original, in the sense of the sophisticated songwriter. Like all folk poets, he uses familiar tunes, re-works old songs, adding new lines and phrases out of the folk-say of the the situation that demands the new song. He feels that his function is to sum up and crystallize popular sentiment, to act as the voice of the common man. Although his songs are conversational in tone, they have a truth, an authenticity, and a punch which no other poet of this age can match."

I love this. The folk poet doesn't demand a new song to feed his ego, the situation demands it. The folk song is not an event in the way a new pop song tries to be; a folk song is a response to the events beyond our control. There is an appreciation here in the outer world's ability to provide the folk singer with all of the beauty and originality he needs. If he has mastered the form, then he already possesses the tools to respond to the world with an authentic reaction.

The Lomax-a-Day project is not, and should not try to be, an original exercise. It is, among other things, an exercise in relinquishing the selfish desire for originality. If anyone can remind me of this, it is Woody Guthrie. In 1941, Lomax contacted Guthrie on behalf of the Bonneville Power Administration, who wanted to use the folk singer as a "public relations consultant." The BPA hired Guthrie for a month to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of federal dams. Inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, Guthrie wrote 26 songs in 26 days. The situation demanded these songs. My first reaction was that it takes some serious creative originality to compose 26 songs in so many days, but perhaps Guthrie was just a well-honed folk poet. A finely polished mirror with the ability to reflect the world back to itself. Regardless, "Roll On, Columbia" is a classic, a source of pride for Northwesterners, a reminder to all that this world contains some serious beauty and power. It is a narrow human view to think that we are the only creators of beauty, the only generators of power.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 24

On Day 6, I found that Jim Henson had long ago beat me to the idea of puppet bands singing classic American folk songs. On Day 9, I discovered that Walt Disney, among others, beat me to the idea of modern kids' entertainment based on animal tunes like "Cock Robin." Yesterday I realized that Roger McGuinn, lead singer of the Byrds, has been cataloging American folk music, including most of the Lomax songs I've chosen, on his website McGuinn's Folk Den. And today I found out that Dan Zanes, who also beat me to the idea of being a kids' performer who doesn't make adults want to throw up in their mouths, has an album of 25 songs from Carl Sandburg's American Songbag (where Lomax found many of the songs he includes in Folk Songs of North America). As folk music has proven throughout time, there is no such thing as an original idea.

Both McGuinn and Zanes recorded versions of "Wand'rin," which Lomax calls "one of the most beautiful of American folk songs" and the "finest of American hobo songs." McGuinn gives it a Byrds-y treatment, with his clean Rickenbacker guitar work and high-pitched croon (which, I must say, has seen better days). Zanes' version is a lovely, lazy shuffle with guitars meandering through the mix like so many hobos through a train yard. Lomax's version has a slightly different chord structure, with a major III and VI instead of minor like in McGuinn's version. McGuinn's and Zanes' chords flow bittersweetly into one another with an ease of motion that Lomax's chords complicate. I think I like the off-kilter sound of Lomax's chords. The hobo feels the twinge of melancholy in his life of wandering, and half-apologizes in the refrain. But before he can get too down, he feels that chugging rhythm of freedom lifting his feet again.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 23

"A man of the old West hardly ever got downhearted about anything unless something happened to the woman he loved and was married to. They were a quiet, solemn kind of lot, mighty short on kissing and all that stuff women are supposed to set such store by, but I reckon they loved their wives as much as any men that ever lived, even if they rarely said so." (Lomax, 393)

"Colorado Trail" perfectly captures that deep but understated love. Clocking in at just under a minute, the song packs an eternity of longing into 32 words. When the man of the old West can't himself weep and wail for his lost love, he lets the rain and wind do it for him. It's telling that the only time the singer says more than he needs to is when he repeats the word "along"--"all along, along, along, the Colorado Trail." So simply put, he's doomed forever to ramble that trail, forever to remember his Laura.


Lomax-a-Day, Day 22

The Chisholm Trail, a path used for cattle drives from southern Texas into Kansas, ran straight through my hometown of Austin, TX. My aunt and uncle live in an amazing house that used to be a Chisholm Trail hotel in Belton, TX, about an hour north of Austin. So it felt appropriate to learn the classic ballad sung by cowboys riding that trail. "The Old Chisholm Trail" is LONG--Lomax says the song had a verse for every mile of the way between Texas and Montana. Only 9 verses here, but they show the range of subjects that a cowboy ballad might cover. Plenty of verses are about riding on the trail, but then a verse will amble away, the cowboy's mind drifting back to a girl in the last town he rode through ("I know a girl who's going to leave her mother...") or drifting forward to his destination ("Oh, Abilene city is a dang fine town"). But no matter where his mind wanders, it always returns to the job at hand: the girl's petticoats flop "like a pair of saddlebags"; in Abilene the boys "liquor up and twirl those heifers round." He knows he's chosen his fate; when he dies he'll be "herding dogies up in Heaven in the sweet bye-and-bye."

Doing a bit of research, I found several versions of "The Old Chisholm Trail" that share lyrics with this one, but I couldn't find any with quite the same chord pattern. Tex Ritter does a hilariously chipper, yodeling version here; Lead Belly, an unlikely cattle herder, gives it a spin here. I think the somber tone and endless repetition of Lomax's version are fitting, and strip away the glossy romance that the Tex Ritters and technicolor westerns play up.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 21

This is cheating, I know. Today my creative energy has been pulled away from the holy anthology. Today I wrote a song.

It's time for me to come clean. I've had ulterior motives all along. My hope was to dig deep enough into this old American music that my own songs would begin to come from that same hole. Maybe it's presumptuous, that I could tap into the great American spirit from whence all classic folk songs come. But a boy's got to try.

"Empty Ring" is part "My Bonny," part "Ring of Fire," part death-of-a-lover ballad. Close your eyes and tell me, honestly, if Lomax might have transcribed this song from a field recording back in the day. If so, I've achieved my hidden purpose. If not, I'll keep trying.

Ten days to go, after all.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 20

Sometimes the hardest part of learning Lomax's version of a folk song is learning to forget the version I'm familiar with. I've heard plenty of versions of "Jesse James," most recently and most indelibly on Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions. The version printed in Folk Songs of North America follows roughly the same chord pattern, but the melodic movement is markedly different. As I stumble through this recording, know that it's not musical incompetence, but opposing melodies beating each other out of my mouth.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 19

Setting out on this project, I couldn't have predicted that I'd find a song with the line, "No one can tell how my bowels feel." But "Lousy Miner" lays it all out on the line--the indigestion, lice infestation, and heartache that comes with mining for gold. I don't have much time to write tonight, so I'll leave it at this: only a bitter '49er could deliver ridiculous lines like this with a straight face and such a heartbreakingly lovely tune. Enjoy.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 18

"Twistification" is a weird song in a lot of ways. Here are a few:
1) Twistification is not a word and appears nowhere the lyrics.
2) The chorus is simply the fives times table.
3) The verses seem totally unrelated. The first is about meeting a girl in the swamp, the second is about dancing, the third is about a raccoon and possum.

However, this song does have one of the awesomest stanzas I've ever heard:
"Take that little miss by her hand,
Lead her like a pigeon,
Make her dance just one more reel,
Scatter her religion."



Sunday, January 17, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 17

Finally! We emerge from the Southern Mountains into the West. The first section of the West, 'Beyond the Mississippi,' contains the first song I learned out of this anthology, two summers ago. I returned from tour with my band, Bark Hide and Horn, having recently released an album entirely based on old National Geographic articles. Many of the songs were from the perspectives of animals, and I decided that I wanted to continue working from this angle. I began digging through my American music anthologies for animal folk songs, thinking I could rework them from the animals' points of view. The first song I found was "The Hound Dawg Song," and I was immediately obsessed. I decided that there was no point in writing a new song inspired by this one, since the original is a perfectly infectious, hilarious, tragic masterpiece about a boy and his dog. The only thing I add is the instrumental bridge, which in my mind is the dog's chance to wail out his misery. The narrator's voice breathes authenticity with every phrase, especially with his use slang: "ornery old cuss"; "passel of yaps"; "that just naturally made us sore"; "he lit into them gentlemen"; "he shore mussed up the courthouse square." The chord progression is simple and bittersweet. The minor chord adds a touch of adolescent melancholy that always cycles back around, no matter how hard the V7 chord tries to brush it off. The narrator is downright desperate: "they gotta quit kickin' my dawg around!" When he and Lem Briggs and ol' Bill Brown, and then Jim the dog, finally get their revenge, it feels like a fantasy played out in the narrator's head. Inevitably, the song loops back to the chorus, and the sad fact that the bullies win every time. To me, this song captures the plight of every wimpy boy, the devotion a child feels toward his pet, and the power of imagination to bring justice to an unfair world.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 16

The 'Hard Times and the Hillbilly' section of Southern Mountains and Backwoods reads like a Merle Travis songbook. Travis was a Kentucky coal-miner's son who hit it big in the late '40s with recordings of traditional and original mining ballads. His intricate finger-picking style, now known as "Travis-picking," influenced generations of folk guitar slingers. Travis inspired me to swap the flat-pick for the thumb-pick and my furious strumming for speedy finger-work. His "Nine Pound Hammer" was the first song I learned to finger-pick, my gateway into the world of bluegrass and folk music. I first heard Travis on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The long-haired cosmic cowboys assembled all of the greats--Travis, the Carter family, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson--and made a triple album of classic bluegrass songs. It rotated steadily on my family's record-player growing up, ushering me into the world of hillbilly and folk music.

"Dark as a Dungeon" is a well-known, somber miner's ballad. I love the image that Travis returns to several times--man's blood and body filling with the coal that he mines: "It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,/ till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal"; "I hope when I'm dead and the ages shall roll,/ my body will blacken and turn into coal." It's a powerful symbol of man's tendency to let his work consume him, physically and psychologically. It's also a dark reminder of the tragic toll coal mining took on worker's bodies, communities, and local landscapes.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 15

There are plenty of directions I could take this posting about "Tom Dula" (also known as "Tom Dooley"). I could write about how the Kingston Trio's version of the song launched the pop folk revival in the USA. I could mention how the Kingston Trio's version , like many of their songs, strips all the grit and authenticity away from the source, replacing it with an utterly palatable, white collegiate gloss. Or I could delve into the true story behind the song, and the popular theory that it wasn't ex-Confederate soldier Tom Dula who stabbed Laura Foster in the North Carolina woods in 1868 on account of her giving him an STD, but instead his jealous lover Anne Melton, and that Dula confessed to being the lone killer simply to protect Melton. I could even try to pin down the song's writer--Lomax claims in his notes that Dula composed the song the night before he was hung; others attribute it to a North Carolina journalist. But mostly I want to consider the murder ballad: a truly bizarre genre. In what other type of song would the singer cheerfully exclaim, "I met her on the mountain/ I swore she'd be my wife/ I met her on the mountain/ and I stabbed her with my knife"? Or whine to his pappy, "what shall I do?/ I lost all my money," and as an afterthought, "I killed poor Laurie too." The Tom Dula this song presents is a total sociopath, remorseless for his horrible deed. Are we supposed to sympathize? Maybe it's like the appeal of reality TV, the guilty pleasure you get in watching the suffering of someone who has made terrible decisions. Or maybe it's just a morality tale. Stay away from red whiskey and pretty women, boys, and you won't end up on the gallows.

My girlfriend Jessie provides the lovely harmony vocals. (She's a pretty woman, I admit, but I promise not to drink a drop of red whiskey.)


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 14

With some of these old folk songs, I feel like the meaning escapes me because the lyrics are cobbled together from a hundred different singers saying a hundred different things. "Dig a Hole in the Meadow" is opaque in a more deliberate way, as if the narrator is leaving out important details to leave us guessing. The chipper tune belies the violent trouble beneath the surface. Like any good mystery, it starts with a cadaver: Lulie is dead. "Dig a hole in meadow/ just to lay little Lulie down." The singer then rewinds to dimly illuminate the events leading up to her death. He first sees her at the still-house door, making him the bootlegger inside. Then he's frantically waking her--"go get me my gun... I'll die before I run." Trouble is coming, and we already know that it's Lulie who's going to pay. The third verse pulls us briefly away from the action, but reminds us the end is near. As if in a dream, the narrator sees Lulie "on the banks of the sea/ two pistols strapped round her body/ and a banjo on her knee." What a badass. Facing death while picking her banjo. Then it's "Wake up, wake up" again--is she already slipping out of consciousness? "What makes you sleep so sound?" I see the singer locked up in the still, pistols loaded, a dying Lulie in his arms. "The highway robbers are comin'/ Gonna tear your playhouse down." That's one way to break the news: sorry, little Lulie, it's a hole in the meadow for you.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 13

"Shady Grove" is a subtly hilarious story of a desperate man trying to find a wife. The self-deprecating narrator knows he's little more than a grown boy ("Now I am a great big boy/ I think myself a man"), but he is fixated on his search for a mate. He finally has one by the last verse, but he's so hopeless that he loses her: "Every night when I come home/ My wife, I try to please her/ The more I try, the worse she gets/ Damned if I don't leave her." It was fun to choose and rearrange verses to emphasize this story line. As it's written in Lomax's anthology, the chronology is all over the place and several verses are unrelated. Sometimes you get the sense that he provides all of the verses he's ever heard sung in a particular song. This creates some interesting juxtapositions (one of the verses I didn't choose to sing in "Shady Grove" is about the singer's mulie cow--"took a jaybird forty year to fly from horn to horn"), and almost always provides plenty of material if you're looking to create a cohesive narrative. Maybe that's being untrue to the source material, but the way I see it, singers have been putting personal touches on these songs as long as they have existed. Now it's my turn.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 12

I took a bit of creative liberty with today's entry. This is actually a medley between two related songs--"King David," a black spiritual I learned several weeks ago from A Treasure of Afro-American Folklore by Harold Courlander, and "O David," a white spiritual from Lomax's collection. "King David" is the song that I use as the verses, with "Good Lord" as the imaginary choral interjection. "O David" is what I use for the chorus, with "Yes yes" as the intejection. The topic and several of the lyrics are identical. Lomax explains the interchange between black and white spiritual music: when shape-note and camp-meeting movements lost steam in the late nineteenth century, a new revival took hold of the rural South--the Holy Roller Church. "White Holiness churches, in the heart of the Jim Crow belt, invite Negroes to participate in their services. Negro churches have white members. Ministers and church officials move with remarkable freedom between Negro and white congregations. In the North and West, where this movement has taken a strong hold in city slums, Negroes and whites, possessed of the spirit, dance and roll on the floors together.... In this people's revival, Negroes and their music were openly received into the white church. 'O David,' a modern Holiness spiritual from Eastern Kentucky, has the shape of the most primitive type of Negro solo-chorus work song." Lomax's explanation is fascinating, but I take issue with the final sentence. "King David" is most likely the "Negro solo-chorus work song" that "O David" takes its shape from, but to call the earlier song primitive is overlooking its amazing artistry. The lyrics of "King David" are complex and poetic, gracefully weaving together Biblical moments and human concerns. "O David" is by far the simpler song, with its 3-5 syllable verses and repetition of phrases. Interesting how racial assumptions have dictated folk musicology through the years. Regardless, I hope you enjoy the spiritual mash-up:


Monday, January 11, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 11

I discovered "Rattlesnake" this weekend in the 'Across the Blue Ridge' section of 'The Southern Mountains and Backwoods.' I'm breaking my section-by-section approach for a day in order to go back to what I see as an almost perfect song. I'm fascinated by the use of animals in American folklore and folk song, in part because of their ability to illuminate the animal nature still intact in humans (see Greil Marcus' take on the cuckoo in yesterday's post). I also love a singer's or storyteller's journey into an animal perspective, both for the outsider status it allows in commenting on human culture, and for the sheer imagination it takes to inhabit an inscrutable brain and body. In "Rattlesnake," the singer effortlessly melds the animal and human perspectives. He starts each verse with an invocation and a question--"Rattlesnake, o rattlesnake/ what makes your teeth so white?" He then slips into the first person, answering his own question: "I've been in the bottom all my life/ an' I ain't done nothin' but bite." It's unclear just who's speaking. Is the rattlesnake answering? Or does the singer, through his own experience, feel the the miserable plight of this hated animal? The song goes on, creature by creature, revealing struggle after struggle. The line between animal instinct and human chore is blurred throughout. A few lines just kill me: "I've been in the bottom all my life/ till I'm mortified in my head"; "It's a wonder I don't smotherfy/ livin' down in the ground"; "Been robbin' your cornpatch all my life/ it's a wonder I don't die." Once again, what could be written off as a cute animal song for kids is in fact a profound, deeply sad meditation on life, duty, and death.