Tuesday, November 20, 2012

the locks and bolts do hinder

Warning: this post acknowledges the existence of sex & virginity.  (I know!  But no pictures, should be safe for work.)  (I always feel a little goofy with that warning, but hey I work at summer camp and I want the kids to know that just because I wrote it, it may not be right for kids to read.  Probably it would be pretty boring anyway.)

Okay.  I have been at Michigan State talking and talking about ballads, and I want to talk about this one:

Locks and Bolts.

I sing a version quite similar to this one by Shirley Collins, that comes from the singing of Emma Shelton.  She was from western North Carolina, and had some songs taken down by Cecil Sharp when he traveled through the southern mountains, with his assistant Maud Karpeles.  Karpeles later returned to those regions with a tape recorder, and found many of her old (and by then aged) sources.

I love this song because it seems courtly and erotic.  Especially the opening verses:

come here to me, and tell me your name
I'm talking about my darling
she's the little one I love so well
she's almost the complete one

her yellow hair's like glittering gold
come a-jingling down her pillow
she's the little one I love so well
she's like a weeping willow

The poetry is so fine it makes me want to weep.  It's very delicate--even exquisite.  The first verse doesn't even make literal sense.  It's like an imperfect translation from a foreign language, which are always so beautiful.  There's something kind of neurotic in there too, reminding me of the inner monologue in the movie Annie Hall, or of that show about the serial killer, Dexter, where he says in his creepy deep voice, "I think I may have finally found the right woman for me".   Where you get the impression that this guy will never be satisfied, because this "right woman"--the "complete one"--doesn't exist.

Then, oh then, the first two lines of the second verse.  Eleven words that say everything.  The onomatopoetic "jingle"!   The pillow that tells us they've slept together!  And then the perfect rhyme of willow, which follows the non-rhyming first verse.  All the "L" sounds.  In both verses, how happy that phrase "she's the little one I love so well" sounds (which is all major-sounding in Emma Shelton's version), followed by the minor-ish last lines, which, while still generally positive in their tone of praising the beloved, still include those heart-breaking modifiers: "almost" and "weeping".  Oh my god.

So a lot of the song is about yearning.  You learn more about our hero as you find:

you caused your parents to hold me a grudge
and to treat me most unkindly
because you're of some high degree
and me so poor and needy

I went unto her uncle's house
enquiring for my darling
but all they would say, there's no such here
and then oh, what weeping

Doesn't he sound young?  First kind of like a young Springsteen, or even Billy Joel (your mother never cared for me/ but did she ever say a prayer for me?) and then to me he sounds like any of my friends' swains from high school in rural Virginia.  Her uncle's house!  I just get the best simultaneous visions of (A) a Rapunzel tower, and (B) a log cabin up some dirt path in the pines, and (C) a trailer like my friend lived in with her Mom, and her boyfriend lived in the spare room.

but when she heard my lonely voice
she answered at the window
saying, I would be with you soon my love
but the locks and bolts do hinder

I stood for a moment all in amaze
I viewed her long and tenderly
my spirit flew, my sword I drew
I swore that house I'd enter

Okay, so even if you weren't on board with the Rapunzel tower before, you get it now, right?  With maybe a small hint of "I guess women were 'protected' in some interesting ways in those olden times, huh"?  She is literally in captivity, which is historically and dramatically interesting, of course, but there's something more there, too.  Here from the Song of Solomon:  a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Hint: it's talking about virginity.

I can't say how vital it is to the story for us to hear her voice.  Everything, really, turns on the moment when she expresses her wish to be with him.  For one thing, we know now that he's not just a stalker.  For another, it prompts in our narrator this kind of ecstatic moment and what an aroused moment it is.  He gazes at her long and tenderly, draws his sword, and swears to enter?!  It's ridiculous!  Even the capital I's are phallic, or am I reading too much into this?  Do capital I's even matter when a song is passed through oral tradition?  Am I allowed to sing this in public??

the blood was shed on every side
till I got her from among them
and all you young men who get such wives
just fight till you overcome them

Then this maybe (ha!) allegory of virginity turns a little queasy as you realize, whoops--we're in another ballad where your boyfriend just killed your whole family.  Hope you like your marriage!!!  Gents, try it, it's fun!!!  Seriously though, this whole story wrecks me.

Not to get all relevant on you here, internet, but all of a sudden I started thinking about Twilight and vampires (except obviously not all of a sudden, I think about those things all the time).  About these stories of blood that allegorize sexual maturity--loss of virginity, desire, adulthood (with the implication of leaving/losing the family that nurtured you as a child), and, yes, marriage (remember that bible quote that talks about leaving your family and cleaving to your spouse, or if you'd rather, think about Arwen's sacrifice in Lord of the Rings, when she accepts mortality for the sake of marriage).  I know not everybody is on board with this, but for me choosing a partner and forming my own family is a very, very deeply embedded desire, and I know I'm not the only one.  I'd also argue that stories like this song and like Twilight are not causing that embedded desire.  They are a result, or symptom if you like, of that desire.

OR YOU COULD JUST ENJOY THE STORY, SORRY I'M NOT SORRY FOR ANALYZING THIS ONE VERSION OF A BALLAD TO FREAKING DEATH.  Actually, I've heard about this conscious allegory of virginity called "The Romance of the Rose" that I still haven't read, so I should probably check that out and get back to y'all.  BUT I ALSO THINK ABOUT THIS STORY VERY LITERALLY.

Friday, November 2, 2012

officially fascinated

Here's an article with a preview for a new movie, plus a thoughtful and dare I say perky interview:


This raises questions I haven't thought about since my American Studies class on Performance Cultures.  Actually scratch that.  This raises questions that I should have thought of during my American Performance Cultures class, but didn't.

The standout moment in this preview for me is the dude smashing the watermelon from on high.  It reminds me very much of the AMAZEBALLS Spike Lee movie "Bamboozled" (trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMZ6zp-3oGY).

Also I was just singing at a festival in Northern Virginia called Watermelon Park Fest.  It's at historic Watermelon Park and there's a lot of watermelon-themed stuff going on: jack-o-lanterns made of watermelon, boats made of watermelon.  Saturday night during an old-time set, insanely great dancers Matty and Emily flat-footed & clogged and did their thing.  And also a guy in a felt watermelon suit came out and did some crazy-legs dancing.  I mean, I'm sure nothing racially charged was intended, probably?  It was charming and utterly harmless but I couldn't help thinking about race and the history of banjos and dancing on stages (read: minstrelsy) and I couldn't help noticing predominantly white faces on stage and in the audience.

So, if this watermelon is in need of smashing in the "Dear White People" trailer, seems to me, if this guy needs to like, kill this symbol of minstrelsy, thennnn some performances of "blackness" are Ok and some are hurtful.  Now, folks black white and otherwise perform blackness all the time--now and in the past, hurtful or helpful.  I get that.  I play banjo.  I do flat-footing.  These are things that connect me to what I see as the history of my region.  As Americans we're totally blessed that African culture is part of our culture.  BAD. ASS.  But....how honorable is it to claim that culture as your own?  Does it depend on the color of your skin?  A White American claiming African American culture as part of her own culture?  It's part of a shared history...that was really effed up.  Do we live in a sufficiently post-racial world???????  Maybe we do because I've seen Dom Flemons of The Carolina Chocolate Drops do a jig in front of a lot of all-white audiences and it was awesome.  Or was it?  Yes it was.  I also saw him play the bones while dancing a jig to a tune that some white folks stole from some black folks back in the day, so maybe this post is not actually about my thoughts about race which are kind of shallow at best but just about how wonderful the Carolina Chocolate drops were.  I remember when I first saw them play it was Mt Airy fiddler's convention and my friend M. was like, come see the black old-time band and I realized in that moment that I had never seen a black old-time band before and that I had never even given that a second thought.  Y'all, Rhiannon was barefoot, and they served watermelon.  Carolina Chocolate Drops forever, they rule.

But then OK.  Here is my question.  What is the bestest way for me, a white lady, to move this train forward, eh?  As I approach this shared history and culture?  I meeeean, I am lover of The South as a thing.  So.
Cool then.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

caught in a trap

At the Rural Retreat Heritage Day last year: Midsummer

A couple in their sixties sit in front of me while I eat my ribbon fries.  They are shaped short and round and happy, like gnomes.   We watch the people on parade--mostly families with blond kids whose hair has long gone paler than their skin from the sun, kids who glow in an ocean of pink clothes and July sun.

A couple of high-schoolers linger in front of us, a boy and a girl.  They’re together, but slightly mis-matched; she’s got a vaguely punky athletic look:  black knee-length shorts, neon sneakers, pink tie-dye shirt.  I decide she plays volleyball in school.  Her face is a little wry, in a sparkly way.  Eyes full of amusement, like Lizzy Bennet’s.  

His look is classic Garden and Gun: jeans, belt buckle, white undershirt, baseball cap with the bill cocked high above his hairline and curved.  I know those caps don’t come with the bill curved.  I went to high school right across the street from where we are.  I used to watch the guys on the bus reaching up their hands to their hats to push the sides in, push the sides in, push the sides in.  The boy has one of those stoic faces.  He’s pretty cut to be honest, muscly.  Tan.  

The funny thing is that he looks radiantly happy as they pretend fisticuffs on the lawn, laughing and pawing at each other.  It's like a damn music video.  I think she’s conscious of the people watching--not of us specifically, but of the crowd they’re in.  I wonder how long they’ve been dating.  I wonder if his face will ever look that open again.  Lady gnome says to gentleman gnome with a chuckle, “They get along, don’t they?”

Later I hear the Elvis tribute man in his sparkly jumpsuit sing “I’m caught in a trap, I can’t walk out, I hope this suit don’t tear up baby”.  The ladies love it.  Dusk is falling and I’m on my way home.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

quarter century

Soon going to be 25.
I first typed that as, "Soon going to me 25".  Equally appropriate!

Crankies crankies crankies

all day all night

Here's my house:  it's going to be so yellow!

Here's a crotch shot I know you wanted, of my new red pants:

Here's a process shot of a shadow show I'm working on with Anna:

It's about King Orpheo!  Here is how I described in an email to a friend:

(Shetland song, based on French romance, based on Orpheus myth)
This is the "overworld" kingdom, where Orpheo goes hunting, loses his lady to the king of Fairy, fasts in the forest for 7 years, and witnesses a "hosting" parade....
Underworld not pictured.  Well, you can see a tiny bit of the king of fairy in the bottom right, with his moth-wing throne.

Edit to this post--now I really AM 25.  BOOM.

Monday, August 20, 2012

book of longing, book of mercy; or, literally the best thing ever: Leonard Cohen

I love Leonard Cohen so much.

I was a teenager when my elder siblings saw fit to gift me with Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits.  The one with this picture on the front:

Then I fell in love with him.

I named my favorite brown corduroy hat "Leonard"; I still vow that he's the only only artist I would gladly be impregnated by, in real life, for real.  Fun fact: this happens so much to women in his life that he wrote a poem about it called "Because".  All about how these women love his words so much that they still totally want to get with his geezer self.  I am one of them.

Still not sure why, at 15 & 16, I felt intimately familiar with emotions of bitter regret when basically all I had to regret was not kissing a dude I liked, and pranking my counselors at summer camp.  Not to get all horoscope-y on you, but I think this album and its iconic existence for me  is representative of my Scorpio Moon.  Airy Libra exterior; cold deep dark emotional center!!!  On the one hand, folksy jews' harp!  On the other hand, the words, "like a baby stillborn/ like a beast with his horn/ I have torn/ everyone who reached out for me".

I have a bit of a running mental "musician tarot", and I'm still not sure where Leonard Cohen is.  Nick Cave is the Devil, I'm sure about that.  I think that Joni Mitchell is the High Priestess.  Joan Baez could be the Star; Roscoe Holcomb could be Death....or maybe Dock Boggs is Death...anyway.  Cohen could be the Heirophant, but I think he might be more like the Hanged Man.  He has some elements of self-abasement.

What's so great about L. Cohen?  Everything.  He was a Zen monk.  He's Canadian.  He has this vast detached compassionate monk's-eye view of everything, but he still believes in love and romance and sex.  Sex is a big theme for Cohen, and he treats it reverently and also self-deprecatingly.  Other themes include: religion, Western Culture, Eastern poetry, sacrifice, and Jazz Police.  Sometimes you wonder what in the heck he is talking about, and why it makes you feel so sad, or so pleasantly dirty.  He wrote a song based on a Cavafy poem!  Cavafy, an intellectual Greek poet who writes about obscure heros' purple capes.  He wrote this:

Dear Heather
please walk by me again
with a drink in your hand
and your legs all white from the winter.

One time I read a novel that was in the Oprah Book Club, and also I had seen someone perform an excerpt of it as a monologue.  The novel was White Oleander by Janet Fitch.  One of the characters is real real sad a lot of the time even though she has this great-on-paper suburban life and she sits in the bath for hours listening to Leonard Cohen and crying.  I was like, whuuut?  Turns out "Leonard Cohen is for depressed people" or "Leonard Cohen makes your depressed" is a trope; it shows up in The Devil Wears Prada novel as well, where the best friend goes into this self-destructive spiral and the main character is all "whyyy didn't I notice the signs, she was listening to Leonard Cohen!!", and it showed up in a real conversation I had at music camp two weeks ago.

I don't think I'm so depressed guys.  It's not prostrating sadness to me in his songs.  It's prostrating beauty.  As in, it drips into me like drops into a pool and I feel still and I think revelatory thoughts.  Joyfully I sing along, Take this longing from my tongue...let me see your beauty broken down, like you would do for one you loved.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Emma at Clifftop, WV

This past week I was campin out in the woods at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Camp Washington Carver up in Clifftop, West Virginia.  Foolishly I only brought one book with me, but it was a good one.  My second Jane Austen novel: Emma.  I think it's even better than Pride and Prejudice.  It made a beautiful little space of relief anytime I wanted to get away from the crowds of the fest.  I heard there were four thousand there on Saturday.

The weather was strikingly beautiful, with a full-then-waning moon, a very blue night sky, and shooting stars.  Usually evening is my favorite time of day, when there's still a bit of sun, but the moons were really the highlight of the week--supplemented and balanced by candle-light.  Fun to watch musician's faces in dim lighting, or lit from below by a gas lamp on a table.  Performer's bodies are fascinating, there are as many facial expressions and stances and movements as there are unique voices or bowing patterns or whatever.  I talked to S. for a while about the allure of instruments and their players, and part of it is surely the concentration, the unconsciousness with which the players move.  Sometimes music takes you out of your body.  One time when I was just watching and listening I thought a fiddler looked like an imp, crouched on a low camp chair, elbows flying to the rhythm of the tune, candlelight flickering around like some rite under the moon.  The tune was "Cold Icy Mountain".

Candles and moons are thematically appropriate because Anna and I filmed a video of our Lost Gander crankie, which we set up in a little clearing in the woods past the tents and got folks to walk out to holding candles and lanterns.  The crankie ends with the image of a full moon, made of paper with lanterns shining behind it, and the silhouette of a bird flying across.

Back to Emma, Emma is like a goose because the character is silly; also I sometimes imagine the Gwyneth Paltrow movie version of Emma, and it strikes me that she looks a little like a goose in some way?  In a very pretty way.

The book made me chuckle and it also made me nod and wince in recognition of those times when you realize you are kind of a twit, and worse than a twit.  And I found the descriptions of love and affection really touching and lovely.  You don't get a lot of that for real until the end of the book, but there is throughout this very sweet constant thread of non-romantic love: Emma's love for her former governess; and especially her love and care for her father. This anchors Emma's character for me because every time I became dangerously close to being totally disgusted with her, I was reminded of that obviously "disinterested" (to use the word with Austen's meaning--without selfishness) bond.  Just a beautifully crafted story.  Several times during the week, independent of thinking outright about Emma, I was struck with the thought that "people just want to care for each other so much".  Cheese factory, I know, but I'm not complaining about any positive thoughts that come my way.  Grateful old me.

Now I'm away from home for the second week in a row and I'm book-less.  But it was worth it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom at the Abingdon Cinemall

Y'all, I have been watching so many movies.  And reading so many books.  I feel gluttonous.  Let's bullet point:
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus - blazed through this in 2 hours in the Abingdon Cinemall parking lot, straining my eyes in the dusk while I waited for Moonrise Kingdom to show.  The Stranger made me cry real tears in the first few pages, because it's honestly quite beautiful, and then kind of disgusting and then confusing and then REALLY BEAUTIFUL and then sad and then beautiful again.  During the first few chapters I felt that Camus was expressing something universal about the stream of consciousness and that such a concise picture of the inside of the head was remarkable in how un-gendered it was.  Then very shortly afterwards I was totally mystified by the characters' choices and had the feeling for the first time that this wasn't just words from inside A mind, this was words from inside a MAN'S mind specifically.  And I wondered to if that thought was reductive of some of the mystery of the character, saying "well, maybe men are just like that".  I might think of something to say with regards to my feeble understanding of existentialism but I'm not there yet.  Perhaps I ought to get to Sartre's commentary before I speak.
  • I have two distinct memories of going to that Cinemall: when my brother refused to go to our local historic movie theatre anymore because the speakers were so bad, and so we all went to Abingdon to watch the Star Wars re-releases, the ones with the doofy computer animation added.  Not worth it! Second, when I was sixteen or fifteen and I went with my geek-bestie N. to watch Underworld with a couple of dudes.  N. and I were really close, especially where fantasy and fiction and drama and characters were concerned.  I was approximately a billion times closer to other girls in high school than I got to any dudes.  Since I looked about twelve, the people at the counter checked my ID and would not let me in to see the R-rated movie.  The actually memorable thing about this is that N. let the dudes go on and watch the movie while she hung out with me in the really dim arcade area for two hours, even though she was totally old enough to go in and she was probably more pumped about the movie than I was.  We played DDR, which as of course you know, stands for "Dance Dance Revolution".
  • So I saw Moonrise Kingdom, and I had a surge of love for Edward Norton (It's Not Unusual).  And I also wished I had a love story like those twelve year olds, and I also thought Wes Anderson is obsessed with fox masks/foxes in bandit masks and I am OK with it.  I remember having all these thoughts about place and naming places (the two kids name a tiny cove for themselves) and myth and history while I was in the theater, but now I feel like Whatever, because I am at home.  The soundtrack was, as usual, lovely and quirky.  I missed the folksy-ness of Fantastic Mr. Fox though.  I love that sweet Buckeye Jim song.
  • Ripped through Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler's Wife) while I was at a festival (Floydfest!) and it was gripping, partly because Niffenegger is frank about how often people think about sex, as in, a lot.  However, I found the characters kind of less likable because they seemed to have no moral compass but just drifted in a stream of being skinny and indolent and then doing bad stuff for no reason.  Actually the subplot about the dude with OCD and his Dutch wife was the best part of the book, much better than the whole soap opera twins thing.  The "set" and "props" in the book were beautiful though, a London Cemetery and old, rare books.
  • Started Emma.  Charming alert!!!!  
  • FINALLY FINISHED EGO AND ARCHETYPE!  Guys, that book is so good.  So good.
  • Here's a picture of a waterfall - little oasis from another part of my summer, the camping blissful part.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

solstice, is it the first day of summer or is it midsummer or what

I love summer so much.  I've been noticing some weirdness in myself about honesty, I'm trying to be more honest.

Work continues apace on Long Tall Sally, the little house with 3 stories that can't decide whether it's a little too spooky or a little too cutesy.

Many of these stones picked & hauled from up the valley by me & my Dad:

The creek right next to the house:

The threshold of the new kitchen door, with a profound message:


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Long Tall Sally

My sister was just married and my mother and I made 6 layers of cake that rocked the socks.  I made one gallon of buttercream icing out of whipped egg whites with a hot syrup gradually added, and then 13 sticks of butter beat in.  It's for this reason that we're thinking of calling my future house "Chateau Beurre".  You know, "Butter House".  

That's actually a picture from Christmas, but you get the idea.  The house is yellow, it's dilapidated, and one day I'll be making all the foods and weaving on the looms there.  And keeping all the bees.
Here is a picture of the house:

Hahahahaha!  Why yes, I'm planning to live there.

Haha, Whoops!

I guess I mentioned Baroness in a post (and when I say "mentioned", I mean "said they were literally the best thing ever", and that happened right as Baroness was announcing a new album that's coming out and also they are on tour with Meshuggah?  So now by far and away my most popular post is the Baroness one.  Sorry, guys!  I might never mention Baroness again!  I don't regret my post, but they are only one part of my musical tastes!  I mean, when I think about it, isn't Joan Baez literally the best thing ever?  Isn't Charlie Patton?

I'm also a little sad because before I did that metal post, the one with the most hits was this post about Earl Brand.  I guess the old ballads will always be a niche market, even smaller than psychedelic metal, Elizabeth, why must you learn this lesson over and over again?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Come tell with me the long courtship

Couple of person-less images from the Great Northeast Crankie Tour,
plus 2 from my computer hoard of cool stuff to look at.  "Ain't Got No Use For Your Red Rocking Chair; I've Got No Honey Baby Now".
And a witch cooking up some frickin spells, you go witch.  A Vermont field in the rain, and the stage of the Montague Grange Hall in Montague, Mass.

I got out "Traditional Ballads of Virginia" today, just to leaf through; every so often I decide I'm going to pick a version of something from a book, and totally resuscitate it for us all to enjoy.  Got my eye on version G of Fair Margaret and Sweet William (Child Ballad 74), mainly for this wording:

I like my coverin' very well
And I also like my sheets;
But I love, I love that pretty fair bride
That lies at my bed feet.

(Collected by Miss Nancy Pearson, Sung by Mr. Armistead of Cobbs Creek, VA, September 14, 1915)
This is the only version I've seen where he says he loves her, instead of just liking her best.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In the Gold Room: A Harmony

HER ivory hands on the ivory keys
  Strayed in a fitful fantasy,
Like the silver gleam when the poplar trees
  Rustle their pale leaves listlessly,
Or the drifting foam of a restless sea         5
When the waves show their teeth in the flying breeze.
Her gold hair fell on the wall of gold
  Like the delicate gossamer tangles spun
On the burnished disk of the marigold,
  Or the sun-flower turning to meet the sun  10
  When the gloom of the jealous night is done,
And the spear of the lily is aureoled.
And her sweet red lips on these lips of mine
  Burned like the ruby fire set
In the swinging lamp of a crimson shrine,  15
  Or the bleeding wounds of the pomegranate,
  Or the heart of the lotus drenched and wet
With the spilt-out blood of the rose-red wine.

Oscar Wilde

Monday, March 19, 2012

Like Wheat (or a golden bough)

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Camp friends, is it just me or does this fellow remind you of Gabe Kauper?

OK, OK, here is a more straight-up version.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Visionary Art, Home Art, Unsung Heroes

A follow-up (the connection is loose) to what I wrote before about Visionary art.

One time I went to a thing called a "ballad summit".  It was crazy!  It was SO fun.  I got together with some truly awesome people: Colleen Cleveland, who learned a bunch of ballads and songs from her grandmother (Sarah Cleveland) in New York state; the ever-inspiring, down-to-earth, and gentle George Ward (great singer in his own right); kick-ass dynamo folklorist Sally Van de Water; the brilliant-insightful-creative teaching duo Peggy Yocom and Susan Tichy, who bring such sensitivity and creativity to a subject they obviously have a lot of reverence for.  Yes, reverence.  I think reverence is under-rated in our post-modern times.

We talked and talked and talked!  All about how traditional musicians can make their way in the world; about the what ballads mean to us.  We um, all cried at some point.

One thing that comes up in my reading (and listening to interviews) about ballads and singers, and definitely came up then, is how dang personal music is.  Which I guess is no surprise.  But everybody remembers well how they learned their songs, and especially the people they learned from.  My dad once summed the concept up this way: "A ballad is not a thing, it's an event," and he meant that the songs are tied up to our own past, our colors, our images--this collection of experience and memory that I sometimes call my personal "mythology".  As in, one of my biggest dreams-come-true was getting to meet the granddaughter and daughter of one of my most admired ballad-singers, Texas Gladden--because from hearing Texas's voice, hearing her stories, and looking at her pictures, and especially from learning her songs, I already felt a little like I knew Texas.  Meeting a real person with a real face and a family resemblance, who had real roses in her yard and real jokes to tell--now that sent me way over the moon.

For my favorites songs, there are personal memories that go with them.  Intense flashbacks to times that I sang them, or when I was learning them.  The images that flashed through my head when I got right up inside the story for the first time, or had a new insight into their meaning.  At this "ballad summit" we talked many times about the "movie in your head"or "movie behind your eyelids".  If you get in the right headspace, and let the distractions fall away, and just follow the story, whether you're listening or singing, you can watch all that shit go down.  Lots of ballad-singers talk about this.  You hear the words, and your mind fills in the characters, gives them faces, costumes, body language.  Your mind gives the story a setting, a terrain, a cast of light, a time period.  You get to live in this world--half given to you by the story-teller/author/singer, and half furnished by your own spontaneous dreaming/awake mind.  I believe it to be a deeply theatrical (in the best sense) experience, and one that in the best of circumstances can actually take performer and listener on the same-yet-different surprising journey.

ANYWAY...it's intense.  And best of all, it's hands-free entertainment for milking cows, washing dishes, sewing, braiding flower-crowns, and other stereotypically female employments!! (kidding) (sort of).  Fact is that yes, some of the most transcendent and truthful poetic and theatrical performances our English-speaking heritage has ever known took/take place in the damn kitchen, in the barn, on the porch.  I'm not sure it really has that much to do with gender.  There are so many incredible male ballad-singers.

Back to the Ballad Summit, though.  One particularly informative chat was with Bill and Andy, the folks who run the Old Songs festival.

Bill and Andy, as producers, gave us a run-down on their hiring process: what they look for, what turns them off in a performer, what marketing was useful or attractive to them.  I mean, that's handy stuff.  I have at least a mild-to-medium interest in graphic design and branding and stuff, and I know that it matters to performer-types like me.  A lot of it shakes down to pure human impatience--if the cover of the CD doesn't have a picture of you, or some clue as to what the heck kind of music you play, these guys aren't so likely to pick it out of a pile.  Do these guys listen to more than the first several seconds of the first track on your album?  Not usually.  That's just what happens when folks go through a LARGE body of material looking for what they will like.  Personal preferences!  So far so good.

Then Andy dropped this bomb that turned out to really spark some strong feelings.  She voiced another opinion: "I hate it when a singer closes their eyes during the song."

Colleen, my mother, and I all exchanged looks.  "We do that ALL THE TIME," we said.

Now, Bill and Andy run this great festival with their blood, sweat and tears.  Hell, they hired me twice. They are genuinely sweet people.  Andy was just telling it like it is.  "Well," she said, "I just think it totally closes off the audience.  Like the performer is deliberately shutting the listener out, severing the connection."

We begged to differ.  You can't always tell whether an audience is into it or not.  But sometimes, it just feels so right, and you could hear a pin drop, and whatever else, and you know that everybody is with you.  And whether I have my eyes closed or not?  Has no bearing on this.  In fact, sometimes I do my very best concentrating and communicating (and yes, movie-in-my-head-watching) with eyes wide shut, as they say.

Our folklorists, Susan and Peggy, were even more emphatic.  "That's authentic," they said.  "When I see a ballad-singer with closed eyes, I know they're into it.  It's an invitation for me, the listener, to close my eyes too and join them in the world of the ballad."  "That's part of the tradition!" they said.  "Not something singers should try to change--it's essential to the art."

Andy stuck to her guns.  She's spent years of her life giving work to traditional artists.  It's something she believes in.  She said, "I'm just trying to tell you about what's marketable.  We love traditional music, and if you don't want it to go back to the kitchen, you do need to think about what's marketable."

OK.  If you are still reading, my question to you is this: Do you want it to go back to the kitchen?

I think that's the salient point here.  It's bigger than eyes-closed or eyes-open.  What's more important?  That I be able to make my living with music, which I've done my whole adult life?

Or that music happen in my home?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Baroness

Once I was killing time in a Borders in Virginia Beach.  I picked up a bunch of CDs of listening I had been meaning to check out.  But on my wanderings something caught my eye.

There was no information about what kind of music this album contained, just song titles and eye-gougingly beautiful art.  It was a hefty jewel case with the pleasing weight of extensive liner notes.  It was shiny and solid.  It reminded me of LP-cover art-objects.  I bought it!  Risky business, that's me!

What awaited me upon opening the case?  A mother-f-ing Hesse quote, that's what.  And f-ing gilt art-nuveau decorations on every page.

“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.” -Herman Hesse

Friends, this was my introduction to the Baroness Blue Record.

Metal vocals can be a bit hard for me to sort out, and it took a few listens to get in the zone.  Uhhhh what a zone though.  Driving in the car: suddenly epic!  It is crazy to admit how very, very into the lyrics I am.  They are dramatic and vague, with the kiss of true metal nostalgia.  "Crawl past the soft/ spiraled sinewy teeth/ 'Soiled dove!' steal the fruit of its jaws/ Lady!/ Keep those hounds at bay" "Maybe the sawgrass can feel/ burnt Confederate steel/ spoiled milk on the graves/ we were wrong".  What even?  I love it.

All this delivered with the carefully-crafted dynamic sweep of "sludge metal" (whatever that is, I looked up Baroness on Wikipedia and they said they were sludge metal).  The article I'm linking to at the bottom says something about Baroness combining metal with "the lazy embrace (the languid embrace?) of psychedelic rock".  Mmmmmmdelicious yes.  Gimme gimme gimme: pagan flower-child, sword & sorcery, with a dose of the old-timey lush dusty fatalist of the South.  I read an article that called them "the nicest metal band ever" or something, all about how they grew up as pals in Lexington, Virginia--Southwest VA, that's where I live!  Is there no end to the awesomeness?

I started telling my friends that I had found my quintessential geek-out metal-band.  "I'm a big girl now," I thought.  "A metal band of my very own!"  It is really quite rare that music comes to me from the aether like that, without even reading the name anywhere, or hearing a recommendation from a friend.  Baroness feels synchronous and mine in a special way. 

Oh yeah, guess what, you know the mind-blowing-amazing Gillian Welch & David Rawlings new album cover THE FRONT-MAN/ILLUSTRATOR MADE THAT TOO.  All the awesome people hang out, I guess?

This art is amazing in the way that tarot cards are amazing.  It makes me want to have more events in my life where my costume is a lily-crown and a rooster on my head, with a necklace of phallic eggs; accessorize by holding a fish.  I guess in general there's something about the aggrandizement that appeals to me.  The people in my life: I see them this way, as these forces of nature, surrounded by their totems and in dignified, awkward poses.  So powerful.  Playing a role in many ways.  Events can be couched in the most beautiful of terms.  Sometimes the strangest funniest details, the ones unsuitable for polite conversation, make the most poetic truths.

This interview!  Is SO GOOD.  STICK TO YOUR ARTISTIC GUNS, JOHN D-B.  When he says that he doesn't want to explain the personal significance of the lyrics & symbols; that that detracts from the audience's connection.  A rare reserve in these times; obviously one I don't possess, but one I really admire.

I realize I honestly have no idea whether anybody reading this will enjoy Baroness, or if there's some alchemy in it that is just perfect for  me.  But I highly recommend.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

fROOTS magazine review

Dudes, some of this review is embarrassing (the part about the pathetically out-of-date website), but mostly it rocks because...well, the words crikey, copasetic, and croonette are used.  To describe my music?!  Wanted to share.  If you want to pick up a copy (this issue also includes an interview with Gillian Welch) go here: http://www.frootsmag.com/

And I always like to include a little gratuitous photo-ing:
The back of my Mac (of course now I have wiped it off and painted something new on--it's just acrylics).

Birds' Advice
Old 97 Wrecords

As a pretty hard and fast rule, fRoots doesn't review anything that we weren't sent for that purpose and we certainly don't buy things to review. But every now and then even the hardest fastest rules need breaking and this one deserves it.

Elizabeth LaPrelle is a young - 24, if her Facebook page isn't lying - Appalachian style traditional singer from a musical family in Virginia, who was winning singing competitions at the age of 11. She's got that classic hard, high, nasal Appalachian style down to a T. On unaccompanied tracks such as Locks And Bolts (like a number of songs on here from the Maud Karpeles collection), The Cuckoo and Mathey Groves she just pins you to your seat in chilled wonder, goosepimples all over, as she completely inhabits the songs. I'd be hard put to think of any young singer in this tradition (and that includes Tim Eriksen) who is this good and I'm continually struck by the thought that Peter Bellamy would have loved her to death. On other tracks she duets with her mother Sandy, or is accompanied by friends on guitar, banjo and fiddle, on material from impeccable sources like Clarence Ashley, Texas Gladden, Horton Barker, the Carter Family and Doc Watson. We've heard lots of good young old-time players from the States in recent years, giving the impression that they're beginning to have a traditional music renaissance like we've had in England this past decade or more, but singersŠ she's something else. She is, as they used to say, one copasetic croonette!

SoŠ word had reached us on the grapevine and I checked out some of her stuff online. Crikey! I promptly emailed via her record label website: no response, but then it hasn't even been updated for this album, and nor has her MySpace pageŠ In the end I just ordered this from CD Baby and when it turned up it blew me away like I hoped it would. (Finally, I managed to make contact via her Facebook page, so watch out for a future feature.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Waking Dream

I guess part of growing up is realizing that no; it's not that you only like stuff that is good but not cheesy.  It's that for each person there is a cheesy that you like, a sentimentality that pricks you.
The first time I heard this song I was in college and I saw this woman Laura play it on the dulcimer.  Laura is so pretty; one time I was playing "what spirit animal belongs to your friends" and she was a dove, I thought.  Four years later I would be surprised by a dusk canoe trip with a person I really admire, to this day, at a time when I felt like crap (some people call that time "finals").

I just read this great book.
It makes me think of The Winding Stream as really sad.  Or did I think that before?  Or am I sad that all my experiences don't have the purity of canoe-ing a lake in Virginia?

Listen to them singing, though.  They got me.

Monday, January 30, 2012

b-i-r-d, lexington, ky

Jessie Dunahoo
is an amazing artist that Anna and I got to meet in Lexington, KY just a couple weeks ago.  Please follow the link, it will show you his amazing work, which makes me think of quilts, forts, beds, tents, vines, and wind.  We performed our crankies at Latitude Artist Community, and Jessie was there, working.  We showed him our sewn cranky by laying it on the table and rolling it by, tracing his hands over the applique shapes.  Anna put his hand on the bird and finger-spelled into his hand: b-i-r-d.  He got very excited.  His communication was a mix of touch, ASL, and mime.  As with any new language, we were able to catch very little of what he was saying--but each bit seemed like a victory to me.  I don't want to make this event all about me, but as a musician, it felt like such a gift to be able to share something physical, real, and creative with another artist who wouldn't have been able to hear my music.  With a cranky, I could share some of the things that are most beautiful to me about the songs.  Big, awesome shout-outs to Bruce Burris and Crystal Bader who run Latitude.

Anyway, on the same trip we got to perform at Institute 193, a gallery downtown.  Sometimes 193 exhibits work from artists from Latitude.  And they were awesome enough to document our show with photos & video, and make a blog about it!  And I wanted to put the link here!  So go here.

Thanks Lexington, it was real.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Tea Cake": another food blog moment

OK, number one cake that makes me feel smug: "tea cake".  I read a lot of food blogs, and many are all, "I never knew whole wheat could be actually tasty, I thought it was only for heavy hippie bread".  Or they're like, "Don't worry!  I'm not using whole wheat because it's healthy!  It's because it tastes good!"  What's wrong with both?  I was raised on heavy hippie loaves (peanut butter-n-honey sandwich of the gods), whole wheat hard-tack known as "binkers" (a biscuit alternative), and the most delicious chocolate-chip & oatmeal cookies: Whole.  Wheat.  Baby.

Not to say that I don't advocate judicious and thoughtful use of the WWF.  Pie crust gets half-and-half white & whole; so does coffee-cake.  Eclairs and cheese sauce are all-white.

But as a showcase of how mind-blowingly delicious and magically "Rustic" whole wheat flour is (meaning it makes your baked good is less fluffy, more crusty, and coarser-crumbed), Tea Cake is the winner.

In my house we like to use the Fannie Farmer cookbook.  Not only does it have a more hilarious name than Joy of Cooking, we find the baking recipes in particular to be more excellent.  So I have adapted this cake with the stupid-simplest change ever: everything is the same except the flour quantity is half white and half whole wheat flour.

But Then!!  Here is what drives it into outer space.  Same book, recipe for "Quick Caramel Icing".  Oh my gosh.  The combination is so homey and snackable, YET so sweet and kind of delicate.

You know how some sweets you really have to concentrate on, and you don't want to have another taste interrupt the experience, because then you have to start all over and let the flavors develop through a couple of bites?  And then some things have such a good "first taste" that you really just want that first bite over and over again, so you have to break it up with drinking some milk or doing something else?  (Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch is that for me, the Heath overbears the coffee after the first 3 or 4 bites and then I don't feel like I'm getting my money's worth).  Long tangent, but bear with me: this cake is in between.  It is beautifully balanced.  The first bite makes you want another bite, and the fifth bite makes you want another bite, AND it makes you a little thirsty, so it's perfect to wash it down with something like a big glass of milk...or, of course, tea.

Whenever books are like, "tea and cake", this is what I imagine.  This cake makes me feel like a hobbit.    I can't really think of anything better than that.

A couple notes on the icing.  It may look like you have too much.  It's a very sweet icing.  But use it all anyway, it's the perfect amount.  And I advocate stopping adding the powdered sugar a little earlier than you think.  It makes it less gacky-sweet, plus it oozes down the sides all charming and hardens a bit while it's on the cake.  The whole mess tastes even the better the next day.

Tea Cake
adapted from "Boston Favorite Cake" in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Eleventh Edition.

Butter a pan 9x9 inches.  Set oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit .
Sift together
1 3/4 cups flour--part whole wheat, part white.  Go for about half and half, but it doesn't need to be exact.
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
Cream thoroughly
1/3 cup butter
Beat in
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Beat until fluffy (this takes a long time if you're beating by hand!  But not that long.)  Beat in
2 egg yolks
Stir in 1/2 cup of the flour mixture.  Stir in
1/4 cup milk
Add another 1/2 cup of flour mixture and
1/4 cup milk
Add the rest of the flour mixture and beat just enough to blend well.
In another bowl, beat until they stand up in soft peaks
2 egg whites
Fold into the batter.  Spoon into the pan.
Bake 30-45 minutes, till a toothpick comes out clean.

You don't even have to take this out of the pan if you don't want to!  Just make sure that you pour on top of it:

Quick Caramel Frosting

Melt in a small pan
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
Cook and stir over low heat until the sugar melts. *(don't freak out!  You don't have to worry about temperatures!  If not everything gets all melted, it will be slightly grainy/crunchy in this awesome praline way.  No sweat.)
1/4 cup milk
Let cool.
Beat in until thick enough to spread *(POUR, but thickly.)
Confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla.

Eat more of this than you think you should.  Eat it for second breakfast, you solid hobbit, you.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Whut izz 'Murrika?

what is America
the stupidest question
but I actually think about it all the time.

And of course, the only way I can begin describing things is by SOUNDTRACKING THEM, duh.

Right now a lot of this on my mind.  Remember The West Wing?  This is like that, but better, because it's old-timey.  The other day at breakfast my Libertarian uncle said that America was made of 2 types of people: idealists and buccaneers.  You either come here to practice freely your most eccentric beliefs, or you come to make money.  Of course Bald Theatre Friend quickly rebutted with group 3: unwilling passengers of the indentured, prisoner, slave, and woman-kind.  Food for thought.  I'll admit it, guys.  Sometimes...sometimes I think about freedom.  I don't know.  Every time I see that "Appeal to Heaven" flag, it totally slays me.  It makes me think about Jung and symbols of the world and of transcendence, and about human yearning.  I thought Thomas Jefferson was actually sexy in that show in a strange way, with his pixie-ish harsh demeanor.  "Sexiest Founding Father" I called him.

Anyway...So some of it is this, too, right?

I think this is actually kind of perfect.  Cars, guilt, twangy yet a little existentialist and very frowny-faced?  This video is in lieu of a Dylan video, because Welch wears a Dylan hat, musically.  While Rawlings wears a cowboy hat, sartorially.

Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, sorry dudes.  I don't like it.  "Appalachian" means something a bit different to me.

When I listen to Roscoe Holcomb, I feel...a tension.  I also feel a trance.   I was just staring at his picture, and I started to think it looked like a death's head.  Holcomb makes me feel super-serious.  One time I trimmed my Christmas tree to the sounds of an entire Holcomb album, and it was really weird.  It was like, do I feel happy and excited?  Or like I am in a room being slowly deprived of air, walking on a tightrope, or in a depressing movie?
I love Roscoe Holcomb.

But Guess What?  This.  Ha ha ha!  I should think this was obvious: sex appeal that is slightly rugged yet squeaky-clean, "mainstream", cheery, un-poetic ("I need a love reaction"?!).  Not so much on the finesse.

Okay, obvs this is just a teeny tiny segment of what I think is America, or even American music.  I mean, I left out Blues and Old-Time and stuff.  But what do YOU think?  Is there something for you like Appalachian Spring is for me?  Something where you're like, "I don't believe you!  That's not freaking America!"  Or something that you think says it all?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Perfect All-Nighter

Here is a little whim I put together while I was procrastinating on an actual all-nighter.  I still think it's cute, so here we are.

Everyone has their own set of motivators and fuel.  I like to set up the scene as though it were a theatrical production.

It's important to turn all the lights on.  Bright, abrasive lighting allows you to view your project in detail.  It also "keeps you awake" (false.  nothing keeps me awake.)

Costumes feature super-coziness and bright colors for "energy".  note the scarf, socks, leggings, and extra-long sleeves.  NO SHOES.  That's important.  it must be extra comfy.  Note also glasses.  Contacts have been taken out because of that tired feeling you get when your contacts start to dry up.

Determining you caffeine source is important.  While I enjoy coffee, I prefer a steady stream of sweet, strong, milky tea.  Less jitters, more British pretension.

Stay hydrated!  Lots of water makes me feel less fatigued and my skin isn't as crappy in the morning.

Secret weapon: SHOWER.  At some point.  You don't feel gross after your all-nighter.  Or at least, you feel clean.  Hot water is relaxing, "without putting you to sleep".  (false.  everything puts me to sleep.)

Computer is vital for tunes and for distraction.

High-calorie hot food.  Seriously.  Duh.  I'm pretty sure that's chana masala leftovers on rice with a fried egg on top.

Now buckle down!!!