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.'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.