[This is mainly musical miscellany.
For specific comments on traditional music, see our Remembering the Old Songs page,
as well as the articles linked in the Brandy Snifters Home Page.
And, yes, the title is misleading: there's only one entry between 1999 and 2010.]
|PLAYING BY EAR
Sept. 29, 1992:
[Addendum, June 8, 1994: I recently talked to an
woman who is a classical musician, and adept at sight-reading, but who
also plays keyboard with some Cambodians who play traditional
music at Cambodian weddings, funerals, etc. I told her of my
experiences with Blind Mary, and she says she has the opposite
with Cambodian music, which is of course aurally transmitted. When she
learns a piece with the Cambodians, she first has to learn it by ear,
which for her is a tedious process. She then transcribes it onto sheet
music, and as long as she doesn't lose the sheet music, can play along
with that specific piece anytime. But once she has transcribed it, she
is dependent on the sheet music, and can no longer just play along
without it: sight reading is her natural mode. I once read the
allegation that one of the things we lose when we become literate is
the ability to memorize long pieces of information. In other words,
bards like Homer or oral historians like the ones in Melanesia (or is
it Micronesia, or maybe Polynesia?) who know everyone's family tree
back for 20 generations can only exist if they are illiterate. Once
they learn to read and write, they can no longer make use of the full
capabilities of the oral mode. After my experiences with sheet music,
I'm inclined to agree.]
VENEER CALIPER; DOC RAYMOND
April 23, 1993:
My favorite poetry of the week comes from the cassette I'm reviewing for Old Time Herald magazine: Native Virginia Ballads, Blue Ridge Institute Series BRI-004. Titled Highway 52, it was composed and sung by Little Doc Raymond & the Coleman Pardners in 1968. I imagine they had dreams of making as much money from a truck wreck song as you used to be able to do with a train wreck song. The really poetic part is a recitative:
One day I saw a driver
THIS OLD MANDOLIN
This old mandolin, playing so fine,
Now there's poetry! My only complaint is that Bok didn't carry
it far enough. I thought of some variants he could use:
January 10, 1994:
A nought is a nought, and a one is a digit,
And, as a special bonus, a second verse came to me:
B is a consonant, A is a vowel,
June 8, 1994:
I read somewhere (I think it was in Roger Penrose's The
Emperor's New Brain) that the cerebrum requires somewhat more than
a second to process information, while the cerebellum reacts very
quickly. Therefore, if a task requires any amount of dexterity
(driving, typing, playing music), the task must be controlled by the
cerebellum, and the learning process consists of moving the
cognitive/motive skill from the cerebrum ("let's see now: Every
Boy Deserves Favor") to the cerebellum, where you "don't have to
about it." The only reason for practicing scales is because the notes
in a specific scale appear in a musical piece more often than those
that are not in the scale (Schoenberg music excepted, of course).
However, since the cerebellum is also where the ability to produce
expressive music originates, it seems to me that it's better to learn
the musical pieces directly rather than wasting time practicing scales.
Sept. 23, 1994:
She's made about 400 viol-family instruments in her career. There's a short article about her in the 9/3/94 issue of Science News.
She collects old wood wherever she can find it: a spruce beam (1756) from a demolished Swiss chalet, and some planks from a Connecticut hospital built in 1830. She says:
A wood's age is very important. Violin makers' lore says that it takes 50 years for optimum seasoning. I respect that lore. Most of the time it turns out to be right.
No one is quite sure why aged wood sounds better, but once a tree is cut, crystals begin to form in its cell walls. The older the wood, the greater its crystallinity and the less susceptible it is to airborne moisture. Hutchins believes that those crystals alter the wood's resonant frequencies by augmenting its vibrations.
[Martin used to put non-adjustable neck trusses in their guitars, on the theory that no one would ever need to re-straighten the neck of a superb guitar. I suspect they only put the truss in at all as a marketing tool, to keep up with the Gibsons of this world. If they were using 50-year-old wood for their necks, they probably didn't need trusses.]
Craftsmen believe that a top violin needs 80 years of good playing to get broken in properly. Players often report that an unused instrument "goes to sleep" and requires regular playing to bring back its luscious sound. Hutchins thinks the explanation lies in how the harmonic vibrations of bowing affect the polymer chains of violin wood. Over time, the polymers tend to suffer microscopic breaks, which then reform into subtly different patterns. To test her theory, she ties some instruments to speaker cones and subjects them to 1500 hours of classical music. "They do sound better afterwards," she says.
[I still remember the disappointingly thin sound we heard when, in Columbia, MD, we went to hear a string quartet play Stradivarius instruments that had been safely locked up in the Smithsonian for many years. Notice that classical music is required, and quite a bit of it. I have heard there's a CD player on the market that holds 100 CD's, and will shuffle through them repeatedly. This idea is the only one I can think of that would justify buying such a player. There's no telling what would happen to an instrument if you exposed it to 1500 hours of Fiddlin' John Carson.]
[Note added 2010: Carleen Hutchins died in 2009, at age 98.]
Speaking of such things, I finally convinced someone to work
on my new computer to get it running properly. The first time it was
set up, it was sort of goofed up, and I don't understand anything about
autoexec.bat or something.sys or whatever the troubles were. Anyway, it
turns out this one came with a CD player, ostensibly for loading
programs and accessing data (CD-ROM, harrumph). Actually, though, you
can plug in inconspicuous headphones and play regular CD's while doing
other things on the computer. It works great, at least until someone
without an ear for music or a sense of humor finds out about it. So
far, I've only had time to listen to the Burns Sisters, the Rounder
Leadbelly Titanic, and Laurie Lewis' new CD, True Stories.
player, has an extra feature, a rewind/Fast Forward control that
moves through about 15 seconds of music at a time. Terrific for trying
the words right. Of course, I'd never dream of using company time for
entering the words on my word-processing program while listening to
them on the CD.
be dishonest, like stealing pens or computer paper.
INVENTION OF THE FLAT PICK
Nov. 15, 1994:
December 1, 1994:
I got the generic blues, although I'm not to blame, Lawd,
March 2, 1995:
Dear Friends: I'm doing a study of special "meanings" in traditional American folk song, that is, of the sense or manner in which these old songs touch our lives and experience. In a related sense, I'd like to know if there might be a special reason you would choose to sing an old-time song, that is, do these old songs "say" anything in general (or particular) that you think is important (or ought to be important) in a social, cultural, spiritual, or even political sense--small "p" of course. Your reflections would be very valuable to me, and, should I cite what you say, I'll credit you with the idea in an end note. Hoping to hear from you.
I'm sorry, Professor, but I need more than being "credited with an idea in an end note" in order to explain the gustatory importance of I Heard The Voice af A Porkchop, and I imagine that another member of our band would feel the same way about the spiritual significance of Orphan Songs. And as to social importance, the human race would undoubtedly die out without songs like The Cuckoo's Nest, because otherwise where would we get our sex education? Not in the schools, that's for sure. Besides, I think such people as Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell have already written a little on the subject, although they might not have commented directly on the educational import of, say, Lightning Hopkins' Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl, which, as I recall, goes something like this:
Good morning, little schoolgirl,
I wanna be your chauffer, I wanna drive,
Come to think of it, in this age of rampant alleged child
abuse, maybe this one will become a political protest song. Sing this
one outside a school yard, and you'll be singing it on your way to
GREENWICH VILLAGE FOLKLORE
March 22, 1995:
Subject: Re: REQ: Song lyrics about Greenwich Village
In article (Andria L. Fiegel) writes: Hi -- this is a personal project of mine. I'm trying to compile a list of songs which mention NYC's Greenwich Village or streets/landmarks therein. (Bleecker Street, West 4th, etc.)
One example: Elizabeth Cotton's well-known 'Freight Train' has 'When I die please bury me deep, down at the end of Bleecker Street.' It was, I believe, written while she was Pete Seeger's parents' house-keeper. Greg
It's a well-known fact, of course, that Pete's parents lived on the end of Bleeker Street, which is why Pete had such a short walk to Washington Square, where he could hang out with Woody & Cisco & Bob Dylan, and learn songs from them. Libba only went down there to play chess for money, though, because she didn't want anyone to know that she was sneaking John Jacob Niles' dulcimer out from under the bed and practicing with it when she was supposed to be Hoovering the carpet.
Here are some other famous Greenwich Village musical references for these internetters who are so hungry for knowledge:
The Houston Rag was named after Houston Street.
Leadbelly wrote a song about the Village:
My Mama tol' me, My Papa too,
Ernest Stoneman's song about the subway:
A message arrived at the Fourteenth Street Station,
Actually, his name wasn't Stoneman, but he was hanging around Christopher Street, and his eyes were red, and he was watching entertainment that no one else could see, when someone came up to him and asked, "How ya doin', Pop?" to which he answered, "I'm stoned, man." And the name stuck with him.
The Little Sandy Review fan magazine was named because one of the old-time denizens of Greenwich Village, Paul Pankake, went across town one day to Sloppy Louie's by the Fulton Fish Market, and ate an order of clams, which were a little sandy. Some years later, he was taking a bath when an electric heater fell in his bathtub, which caused the water to heat up, so he turned all red, thus inspiring him to compose his famous song:
Water-burned and I can't get home (3)
And who could forget this old chestnut -- er, bleeker:
Wake up, wake up, Darlin' Gerde,
And this one:
It was down at the White Horse barroom,
He said, "I went down to Saint Vincent Hospital,
Finally, there are all those folk singers who took their names from Greenwich Village coffeehouses, like Leadbelly's and Blind Lemon's, and other 1960's nightclubs too numerous to remember.
I'm really glad they're bringing up this historical folk music
stuff, because I had forgotten it all.
March 31, 1995:
The band consists of 5 members, all in their 20's. The drummer , though energetic, reminded me physically of Arvid, the dimwit in The Emigrants movies -- the one who drank the poisoned water. They had two rhythm guitarists (no lead guitar). Actually, one of them was a lute, but played like a rhythm guitar. The lutenist had a woodchopper look to him, and stomped around the stage in time to the music, sometimes lurching perilously close to the edge (we were in the front row). The other guitarist, as well as the fiddler, were of that sparrow-like, fine-boned Scandanavian somatype that must be descended from nobility, because none of my relatives look remotely like that. The fiddler played a standard fiddle (although in some tunes he tuned the G string way low, perhaps down to the D of I Ride An Old Paint or Midnight on The Water). He sometimes played a Hardanger fiddle (actually, that's a Norwegian word; I found out when I was in Sweden that the Swedish word for it is charleks viol --CHAIR licks fee UHL, or love fiddle, which is a literal translation of the Italian Viola d'Amore. My source on this, who is a classical violinist, said that both the Swedish and Norwegian versions originally came from Italy). The fiddler's tour-de-force instrument, though, was an electrified hurdy-gurdy that had some wonderful low notes to it. The fifth member occasionally played the Hardanger, but mainly functioned as a chick singer. That is, she dressed like one, with a 1970's Grace Slick pageboy haircut, lumberjack boots, unmatched ear-rings, and a silver decoration of some sort stuck through one nostril. Her singing, though, was a wonderful clear (non-bel canto) soprano that I've heard on tape from other scandanavian female singers. She also performed with a rigid sort of physical reserve that I associate with Scandanavians: I wonder where the myth of easy Scandanavian sexuality came from? We're either like that girl, rigid and unmoving, or we're stomping around like the guitarist. No wonder the Vikings headed south every chance they got.
Her songs, though, were in some wild scales that at the same time sounded traditionally Scandanavian, or rather like some pre-Christian version of Scandanavia, and many of the songs were old ballads. They had written some of the others themselves, but they still sounded traditional to me. They did not play any chestnuts, either of the Swedish or Swedish-American genre. The singer also gave an entertaining demonstration of Swedish cow-calling.
They ended their last number with what used to be called in
Rock & Roll a "Rave-Up", with volume to the max, and the sound of
the Hurdy-Gurdy being modified by a wah-wah pedal, and all the band
stomping around on the stage, except for the chick singer, who sat
primly on a chair at the edge of the stage, because her singing was
over. No, I'm not making any of this up. Everyone cheered and yelled
"bravo" (I thought people only did that for symphony orchestras and
operas), but we didn't hang around for the encore. The 400 Club
bar had a
sign saying that Sleepy LaBeef was there last night, but I looked in
the window when we walked by, and there was no sign of any performer.
Maybe he was dozing.
April 16, 1996:
Neo-Luddites had loosened the railings,
And Unabomers: well, there's no tradition at all to draw on there, either from the bomb or mail aspect. With all these news happenings that have no previous songs to cannibalize, I guess it must mean that the millenium's coming, ready or not. After all, the last batch of check blanks we ordered came without the "19__ " imprinted in the dateline.
Incidentally, I saw in the paper this morning that they sang I'll Fly Away at the little girl's funeral. It's hard to top that, at least in the Wish Fulfillment Category.
I can't help, though, but thinking that the Clinton's are
somehow to blame. Maybe Chelsea, in a fit of jealousy, shot down the
plane with her .22? We should appoint an independent counsel to
RETIRING OLD VIRGINNY
January 29 1997:
Mama's run away,
PEAT BOG MUSIC
May 14, 1997:
This just in from the Associated Press:
ASTOUNDING MUSICAL DISCOVERY IN DANISH PEAT BOG
A German musico-archaeologist today announced a musical find that he claims clearly predates the recently discovered Neandertal flute. Professor Helmut Schitz, of Gotterdammerung Universitaat, announced the discovery of a well-preserved banjo buried with a body in a peat bog in Denmark. Both were darkened, but otherwise in excellent condition. The anoxic peat environment had evidently entirely prevented decay of the instrument.
"Dis ting's gotta be ein hundert thousand jahrs old," said the professor. "It's got that flute beat by a lot, that's for sure."
Professor Schitz theorized that the banjo might have been used to accompany the crudely stomping dances that he believes were popular among the Neandertals.
When asked if he might have mistaken a previously-unknown
percussion instrument with sympathetic resonant strings for a genuine
banjo, he responded, "Not a chance. Ve're sure it's a banjo, because ve
tried to tune it up, und ve vere unsuccessful."
LEADING THE BLIND
September 11, 1998:
SO -- I'm going to revise my c.v. to say:
December 27, 1999:
Mr. Kurtz was Jewish, and, on his deathbed was actually
calling for an Israeli dance:
June 18, 2001
[Note:I wrote this in response to a thread in the USENET group rec.music.country.old-time discussing the use of the bass in old-time music. Someone mentioned the helicon, so I of course remarked that the major area for developing the instrument was Helicon Valley. Someone asked where Helicon Valley is.]
Don't feel bad. A lot of people don't know the history of Helicon Valley. It was the site of an investment boom and bust not unlike that experienced by modern-day dot-com companies.
In the 19th century, every little town had a marching band, so there was a great demand for helicons to provide the bass beat for marching. That need was met by Californian entrepreneurs, who built numerous helicon factories in an area that was subsequently called Helicon Valley. The site, located at the foot of the Oompah Mountains, had previously been famous for its bass fishing opportunities. Success was due to the nearby brass mines, as well as labor from a supply of unemployed pretzel makers. Housing costs were outasight.
Unfortunately, when the Sousaphone was invented, everyone
wanted to buy them to replace their helicons. Asousa, California, a
suburb of Los Angeles, had a monopoly on Sousaphone manufacture, so
Helicon Valley was deserted. All that's left now is the ghost town of
its capitol, Tuba City.
December 12, 2010:
I've managed to miss most of these, and of the ones I've seen (such as La Befana), I don't feel the need to see again. And I've managed to miss all the annual presentations of Handel's The Messiah oratorio. That is, until this year, when it was part of a series of Minnesota Orchestra concerts for which we bought tickets. I suppose that managing to miss The Messiah for 74 years is something of a miracle. I certainly haven't missed The Hallelujah Chorus -- no one could miss that. And when, as a teenager, I was a member of the Harris, Minnesota, Lutheran Church choir, we sang And The Glory of the Lord one Sunday morning. That was a foolhardy attempt on the part of the director: the choir consisted of 6 sopranos, 4 altos, 3 basses, and 2 tenors. I was one of the tenors, and the choir director was the other. Unfortunately, I couldn't read music and sang only by ear, so, most Sundays, I just sang the soprano part one octave lower. But Handel had a different idea -- he thought tenors were supposed to be singing their own part, and not in unison with the others, either. Maybe the mess we made of that performance had something to do with my avoidance of it.
Nonetheless, I decided that, despite the prospect of a two-hour (plus intermission) performance, I could sit through it. Osmo Vänska is one of my favorite conductors, and the tunes to Hallelujah and Glory of the Lord are very nice. What I didn't realize is that the reason those choruses are played a lot is because none of the rest of the vocal music has any tune whatever.
The orchestra had been pared down to chamber music size, about 30 or so musicians, and the rest were replaced by the Minnesota Chorale, which has about 50 members. The soloists were a soprano, counter-tenor, tenor, and a baritone. For some reason I couldn't understand, Handel decided against having any of them sing together. I think a vocal duet or trio might have helped.
By the time he wrote The Messiah, Handel had been composing for 40 years, and maybe he was getting a little tired (I noticed that, for one of the arias, he threw in an accompaniment from his earlier Water Music.). Or maybe there's a long tradition of not allowing soloists to sing tunes. I admit to a strange prejudice: I'm not bothered by orchestral music that has no discernable tune, and my ears can stand quite a bit of instrumental dissonance without objecting. But there's something about the singing human voice that seems to me to require melody to sound complete. Most genres of sung music meet this criteria. Even if the tune is in an unfamiliar scale or mode, I can tell when there's a tune and when there isn't. Although operas may have recitatives, the arias are almost always tuneful. Only classical music seems to have a tradition of making even the arias sound like recitatives -- recitatives performed by singers who stammer, and try to overcome the problem by starting each verse over again.
Fortunately, the words were printed in the program, because it's impossible to even tell what language a classical vocalist is using, much less what the words are. Unfortunately, the printed text made me realize how much repetition is used. I believe the record for economy of words is held by the counter-tenor aria at the beginning of Part II, He was despised ..., where Handel manages to make 16 words last for 16 minutes.
Eventually, we got to the Hallelujah Chorus, and I was astounded, because everyone stood up at once, just as if it were some sort of national anthem. Was I the only one in the sellout crowd who was caught off guard by this?
Finally, the oratorio was over, and I was left to reflect on one more mystery of Christmas: that there are lots of people who evidently come back every year to hear the skillful performance of unintelligible words sung to tuneless melodies.
I suppose I wouldn't object so much if this were a piece of secular classical music, or if my sole experience with sacred music were the bloodless Lutheran hymns we sang in the church of my youth. But I experienced a musical conversion years ago on a cold morning in rural southern Virginia. We were staying for a few days with an African-American family (a whole other, much longer, story, not relevant to music), and went with them to their Baptist church, located at a crossroads far out in the country. Because of the severe cold (-15º F in Virginia!), the church was almost empty, and the choir was about the same size as my old one in Harris. But they produced a sound that, for a couple of hours, turned me into a believer. The gospel songs they sang were not just about a living God -- it seemed as if that God were actually present, almost visible, and certainly palpable. Later, I ran across a quote from the Gandhara Tantras in Joseph Campbell's introduction to Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren:
One should worship a divinity by becoming oneself a divinity. One who has not become a divinity should not worship a divinity. Anyone worshipping a divinity without becoming a divinity will not reap the fruits of that worship.
That was the miracle wrought by that small choir at the Second
New Buffalo Baptist church in Virginia. I now believe that you can't
properly worship God without joy. No wonder The Messiah leaves
cold as the winter weather outside here in Minnesota.