Friday, August 21, 2009

Who WAS that masked . . . musician anyway? Meditations on an obsession

Back in the late 60's, I was invited to give a lecture-demonstration on Indian classical music to a group of outgoing Peace Corps Volunteers at their orientation in Putney, Vermont, and afterwards I somehow found my way to a . . . well . . . gathering somewhere outside of town. I don't recall now why I was in the area, or even the year. But I do remember one moment from that particular evening with crystalline clarity:

The sun was setting, with the intense luminosity of dusk in the New England countryside, and there was a house set amidst fields. It might have been on a farm, or perhaps, most probably, a commune of sorts, set on a farm.

I heard waves of music pulsing at loud volume from inside the house--in a distinctive style which I couldn't quite identify (some sort of 60's rock?) but with previously unheard melodic and harmonic colors--with a few people wandering around outside, and the odd figure dancing alone in the tarnished gleam of twilight.

I moved toward the house, wanting to get closer to the source of the music. When I went inside, I discovered that one of the rooms had been turned, in effect, into an enormous dedicated loudspeark enclosure (as someone there explained), with large speakers placed strategically to broadcast out through the windows into the fields, and the THUMPPP of the bass from huge woofers drumming in my belly as I stood inside.

While I was intrigued with the novel acoustic experiment, I was even more concerned with what the music was, and who was performing it.

When I began to ask around, my questions (What's the song? What's the album? Who's playing?) were met with expressions of blank astonishment.

"Man, I have NO clue . . . does it matter? Just groove, just groove . . . . let yourself go . . . "

But I couldn't let myself go. I had to know the origins of the music, and place it in some sort of context in the musical landscape of that heady Aquarian period of turmoil and consequent creativity. That was perhaps the first time that I realized explicitly how central a clear taxonomy of every aspect of life was essential to my perception of order in the universe, and how the absence of such conceptual structures could leave me bewildered and adrift . . . .

As a child, I had collected minerals, and had consistently won first prize as a junior member of the Colorado Mineral Society in identification and display contests. I had proudly assembled a small library of books on minerals, and studied them carefully, savoring the order of the precise systems of classification by chemical composition and crystal structure. I even made three dimensional cardboard models of the most common crystal forms from Arthur J. Gude's amazing (at least to a child) cutout kits.

I had collected butterflies (pinning them carefully with pins and wax-paper strips on trays in a home-made mounting box in preparation for display), and when I wasn't collecting, I was poring over the exquisite color plates of W. J. Holland's definitive The Butterfly Book--again, wallowing with pleasure through schemes of genus, of species and sub-species, and what distinguishes one individual butterfly from its closest, almost imperceptibly different, relative.

I collected Lincoln pennies and Buffalo and Jefferson nickels and Mercury and Roosevelt dimes, and kept them carefully in their blue Whitman albums, arranged by year and mint. I collected stamps, though fitfully--but then, my taxonomic mania had to come to a halt somewhere.

In the ensuing years, those impulses translated into an exploration of the world of music through listening and collecting, among the myriad categories and subcategories of melodic and rhythmic expression around the world: seeing the development of styles, how a previous composer or performer influences the neophyte, and how the music itself evolves and is transmitted and transformed over time.

I never did learn the names of the performers of the songs booming out from that farmhouse. But to this day I still feel my frustration at being unable to identify that music, to place it in context.

But just now, as I am listening online to Pandora Radio (see my initial posting on this subject) waiting for the caffeine from my morning espresso to kick in, I feel as though I have found a new home, with unlimited options for discovery amongst the taxonomies in the wondrous world of music.

More to come by way of explanation. But in the meantime, explore on your own the richness of Pandora, be your musical preferences classical, or jazz, or folk, rock, or pop, or metal, or hip-hop, or . . . .

As we say in Urdu, "If it comes free, what's the harm?" At least up to 40 hours a month of broad-spectrum listening which you can program yourself.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Finalé! from Gary Thomas at Broadstairs Folk Week

Friday, the final day of the Broadstairs Folk Festival, even as my friends across the pond are beginning the three-day Philadelphia Folk Festival, which is my usual venue at this time of year. Astonishingly, the English weather has held through the week -- sunny, warm, and barely a sprinkle of rain. In sum, perfect music festival weather, especially here by the sea (actually, the English Channel, to be perfectly accurate).

Well, I've been avoiding bringing up one English tradition, but it cannot be avoided at an English folk festival -- Morris dancing.

Morris, as it is simply known, is where teams, called “sides,” perform choreographed dances to the accompaniment of concertinas and fiddles and sometimes other instruments. The dancers have bells strapped on to their legs as they dance in a circle, waving handkerchiefs and clapping sticks together. The dancers are costumed in what might be called English lederhosen -- shorts with suspenders, white shirts, decorative ribbons. They are often seen with ale tankards clipped to their belts. (Drinking plays a significant part in Morris. I can't envision people taking it up sober.)

The dancers are mostly male, but there are female Morris sides. There are also great stylistic differences between regions. I've even seen a Morris motorcycle side who looked like a cross between Hells' Angels and Florida beachcombers. A tough crowd -- they clap together lead pipes rather than sticks.

No one knows how old Morris dancing is or its exact origins. Claims of pre-Christian tradition are dubious, but mentions of it are found in 15th century manuscripts. It was revived in the early 20th century thanks to the efforts of the great English folklorist Cecil Sharp. (Sharp was a key figure in digging out the ballads of the American southern mountains and documenting their similarities and roots in English, Scots, and Irish songs.)

Morris has its fierce adherents in English folk circles who see it as carrying on a great folk tradition. It also has just as vociferous detractors who find it all just a bit pretentious or silly. (Original joke: What is the crime of murdering a Morris dancer? Morriscide.) However you see it -- and you WILL see it at any English folk festival, and at any time or locale -- it is fascinating with a kind of bouncy infectious cheer. In fact, as I write this in a local pub (the only place in Broadstairs with a Wi-Fi connection) there is a Morris band playing. And it is quite conducive to drinking pints of strong beer. Cheers!

Great workshop this morning with Lynn Heraud and Pat Turner, two ladies with exquisite close harmonies, on “Songs Across the Pond.” It was like a very small university class, really, with all of the perhaps 8 attendees contributing songs. As mentioned earlier, versions of American and British/Scots/Irish songs traveled across the Atlantic and, in some cases, back again. This musical crosspollination has been an enduring theme here at Broadstairs Folk Week.

Tonight the big finale is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (after the March of 100 Ukuleles thru the narrow streets of Broadstairs). Let's hear it for superfluous strumming!

I should not let this pass without thanks to the Broadstairs Folk folk, and in particular festival director Jo Tuffs, and to all the great musicians who bother entertained and taught me.
And a very special thanks to my hosts, fellow musicians, and dear friends, Dave and Carol Partridge. I have known Dave and Carol since we discovered each other while working in Pakistan 19 years ago, where musical evenings were one of our only forms of entertainment (we even did a concert at the American Club in Peshawar). They have been the souls of hospitality in showing a heathen Yank around the byways of English folk music. The pints are on me!

Gary Thomas
August 14, 2009
Broadstairs, England

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Flashback to Irish music, spurred on by Gary Thomas

Back in March, I wrote at some length in an attempt to give some idea of the leading practitioners of Irish music. Reading Gary's two recent posts from Great Britain--and in particular his reference to the old Irish singing tradition--triggered the internal soundtrack in my brain, and some of those artists are playing and singing away there even as I type.

If anyone is so inclined, please go back to see my review of the Chieftain's concert in Washington, as well as the update in which Gary make some comments on the richness of Irish music. Also to my ruminations on St. Patrick's Day itself, with numerous links to the recorded music of a whole range of Irish artists--The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, the Dubliners, Planxty, the Bothy Band, Clannad, and the Pogues.

Meanwhile, we will wait for Gary's final despatch from Broadstairs. . . .

Gary Thomas from Broadstairs - Round Two

Aug. 13, 2009
Broadstairs, England

I continue to be amazed at what a learning experience the Broadstairs festival is.

I'm a big fan of Irish music (not to mention our own country/bluegrass, of course). This morning I attended a workshop on traditional Irish singing. It is known as “sean nos'”, or “old way” or “old style” of singing. It is unaccompanied, ornamental, and sung in Irish Gaelic language. It is stunningly beautiful.

Now, I don't speak Irish. (There are those who would claim I have problems with English.) But the teacher, the brilliant traditional singer Mary McLaughlin, managed to teach some 15 non-Irish speakers several songs in Irish by phonetic pronunciation. I will now embark on a personal learning program of several Irish language Christmas songs for the holiday season. (Mary has some books and phonetic tapes on her own Website.)

I went to one of the traditional “singarounds,” where everybody sits around and does a song. The crowd, primarily a bit older, displayed an amazing array of songs -- some funny, some touching. One fellow -- clearly an ex-British Army type -- performed a couple of really humorous military songs. And one white-haired elderly fellow stood up and out of his mouth came the most beautiful tenor voice. He turned and took his wife's hand and sang a tender ballad to her. Not a dry eye in the house (including mine). She responded with a song in kind. Whew!

I should also mention a fine American singer who was there, Debra Cowan. Blessed with a lovely voice and a fine sense of interpretive style of traditional song, she should not be missed if she comes around your area, in America or Britain.

Not to say there haven't been missteps. The center of this tiny seaside town gets overtaken at night by young people whose interest is clearly more in drinking -- and each other -- than folk music. But there are plenty of pubs and venues to take refuge and hear the squeeze of the concertina and the drawn bow of the fiddle.

And there was one performance called “The Liberty Tree,” billed as a tribute to Thomas Paine. Paine, who emigrated from England to the American colonies in 1774, was an intellectual godfather of the American Revolution (and the French Revolution as well). This was of particular interest to not only me as an American but to the English attendees as well -- the house was packed. I went expecting a life appreciation of Paine -- it is the bicentenary of his death this year -- with period music. But the performance was a keen disappointment. Paine was merely used as a vehicle for a slew of modern antiwar songs and similar political statements. You can't talk about Paine without politics, I know, and much of folk music is inherently political. But I really wanted more history and less sloganeering. I didn't necessarily disagree with the views expressed, but I found it jarring and greatly disappointing. OK, I'm just one heathen American visitor. My two English hosts who accompanied me agreed that I am an American heathen -- but they also heartily concurred with the assessment of the Paine show.

American music played by English groups is of astonishingly good quality. There was even a great workshop on jug band music! My interest was raised by my long affiliation with the Philadelphia Jug Band (they're off at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this coming weekend, which is more like the festivals I talked about in the last blog). Well, the Refried Ginger Jug Band taught a large group of jugheads methods of playing the jug and the washboard in a room with the worst echoing acoustics in the world. Very educational and great fun, but it was akin to listening to a dozen scraping washboards in a cathedral. Not recommended if you have a hangover (not that I had one, of course).

For you foodies, British pub food has come a long, long way. Fish and chips can be had, of course, but there are better options. I had some local Whitstable oysters --fresh and briny -- with a pint of local Shepherd Neame Spitfire bitter. Great combination -- and I didn't even mind that the beer was a good deal warmer than what we drink in the US. But the tepid temperature is far more tolerable when the beer has far more flavor. (Sad fact: the biggest selling beer in Ireland now, the home of Guinness Stout? -- Budweiser!)

More and a sum up later -- Friday is the final day.

Gary Thomas

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Homage to Mike Seeger, 1933 - 2009

Last weekend brought the sad news that Mike Seeger, one of America's most beloved and influential folk musicians, passed away at his home in Lexington, Virginia, at the age of 75. He was the younger half-brother of Pete Seeger, about whom I have written in a previous blog entry, and Peggy Seeger, also a major folk artist. He was also the son of Charles Seeger, in many ways the founder of the field of ethnomusicology, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, a major American composer.

Mike's obituaries were carried by many newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Telegraph,

A moving radio profile by Paul Brown ran on NPR the day after Mike's death. Some of his best loved and most representative songs can be heard on the associated NPR Web page.

Smithsonian Folkways--the world's pre-eminent archive of folk music, incorporating the historic Folkways Records label--has published an informative tribute to Mike's work, and has posted an interview and performance on YouTube.

Mike's own Website is also rich with musical resources.

I first became familiar with Mike Seeger's music when I was in college, and a number of the songs that I sang and played on the five-string banjo with my roommates Fritz Mulhauser (flat-pick guitar) and Daniel Simberloff (mandolin), were taken from the albums of the New Lost City Ramblers, a seminal group, co-founded by Mike in 1958, which strove to propagate or even revive a number of traditional musical styles known fondly as "old-timey music", featuring such instruments as the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, as well as the lesser-known dulcimer, dobro, autoharp, and mouth-harp. The Arhoolie Foundation (Arhoolie is a small but influential folk music record label) has posted a video preview of a documentary film on the group, "Always Been a Rambler", which includes some splendid footage of Mike speaking and playing with the Ramblers over the years.

I had met Mike briefly after a concert during my college years in the early 1960s, but was able to speak with him at some length in the hours prior to a concert which he shared with Pete and Peggy two years ago under the sponsorship of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. The event was a last-minute add-on following a major two-day symposium and concert at the Library of Congress, whose Website features Webcasts and photos of this extraordinary event--"How Can I Keep From Singing--which focused on the life and achievements of all the Seegers, who could well compete in breadth of talents and scope of influence with the Jacksons for the title of "America's Musical First Family."

Before the FSGW concert, during sound-check time, I was interviewing both Pete and Peggy for television features for the VOA Urdu Service (of which I was then chief), and--given the shortness of time--I resolved to interview Mike on his next visit to Washington, since he lived fairly close by. Though that intention remained, somehow we never reconnected, and sadly, this is my first writing about him--too late, too late.

I had sensed the gentleness, humor and deep humanity of the man through his music and performances, but to speak with him, sitting a few feet away was yet another experience--soft yet richly resonant voice, sparkling eyes, and an extraordinary musical wisdom.

Mike, we all will miss you.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gary Thomas reports from Broadstairs Folk Week in England

Today we are happy to welcome as our first guest blogger senior VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who is also accomplished and seasoned performer of folk and traditional music in the Washington, DC area.

Here is his report (with links I've added) from the week-long Broadstairs Folk Festival in Great Britain.

August 10th 2009
Broadstairs, England

It's summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and for many music lovers, that means festival time. There are scores of music festivals catering to just about every taste – rock, classical, jazz, and folk.

As a hardcore folkie, I have been going to folk music festivals for many years. My usual haunt has been the Philadelphia Folk Festival -- the longest-running uninterrupted folk festival in the U.S., I believe.

But this year I am trying something different. I am in the lovely seaside resort town of Broadstairs, England, for Broadstairs Folk Week. Broadstairs is particularly intriguing this year because this year's festival has a distinctly American twang. There is a great emphasis on musical cross-pollination between England and America, how ballads and songs came to America with the earliest settlers and in some cases crossed back over again in a reimagined form.

Many songs and tunes brought over by the English, Scots, and Irish emigrants who took to the wilderness of early America were rediscovered by folk musicologists many years later in the early 20th century. The great English folk collector Cecil Sharp came to the mountains of Appalachia in the early 1900s and found to his astonishment many of the same tunes, or recognizable variants, of traditional English folk songs. The mountains served as a musical time capsule. But more on that in a later blog.

There is also other indigenous American music -- a touch of bluegrass, a dash of spicy zydeco, a pinch of country -- in this British musical gumbo.

There are noticeable differences between American and British folk music festivals. Most American festivals are large outdoor gatherings that take advantage of American summer weather. But English weather is often cool and rainy, even in the summer. So many British festivals are, like Broadstairs, village-based. The large outdoor concert stages seen at American festivals are not at Broadstairs. Most of the concerts or workshops are in parish halls, community centers, and, yes, in the pubs. Yes, there is beer -- good English cask ales -- not only in the pubs but sold at other concert venues. Alcohol is banned -- at least officially -- at many American festival. I have seen little drunkeness here. But the audiences, at least at this festival, seem to be older than the young crowds I have seen at American festivals.

That is not to say there are not large outdoor folk festivals. The Cambridge Folk Festival is a large popular festival, as is the Cropredy Festival (very popular with fans of the great folk-rock group Fairport Convention).

Like those festivals, there is a campsite here, but many people opt to stay in houses or apartments for the duration.

The smaller indoor venues make for smaller workshops and mini-concerts. There are scores of them throughout the weeklong festival on everything from Irish concertina to American jug band music. What I find is that these are truly educational. They are not mini-concerts. They are workshops where you participate and learn. And many of the performers this year are Americans who are mingling, musically and socially, with English counterparts. Not well-known names in America -- the biggest marquee performer here is Australian songwriter Eric Bogle. But really fine musicians, including a friend and neighbor from Arlington, VA, blues guitarist Rick Franklin.

And I have found some SERIOUSLY good musicians here, people who play American fiddle tunes as well as Irish, Scots, and, of course, English ones. The free-for-all music sessions in the pubs are a joy of musical participatory democracy.

Oh, BTW, the weather has been astoundingly good in this charming town on the English coast, sunny and pleasantly warm. It would be welcome festival weather in America.

More later,

Gary Thomas

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pandora: The Sound of Things to Come

Tim Westergren, who founded Pandora Radio in Silicon Valley in 2000, held a Town Hall Meeting in Washington late last month, and I was fortunate that he was willing to come to the Voice of America studios for an interview.

Now, after a long period of seeking a suitable means to add sound files to this blog, we inaugurate the new audio feature with Tim's explanation, in his own words, of the choice of the name Pandora (drawn from Greek mythology) for the new online music service, which is now the world's largest Internet "radio" station:

A more extended audio presentation of the interview, and selected sound bites from the Town Meeting, will appear in the near future.

Stay tuned!