Wyoming Revival

I’ve decided to resume writing here at the b part. It’s been a five year hiatus since my last post but there’s a fair bit shakin on the music front. Most notably, Li’l Liza Jane: A Movie About A Song. It’s a documentary film that I’ve been working on since September with a dear friend, writer Dan Gutstein.

The concept for the film sprung from a post about the tune Li’l Liza Jane on his blog Blood & Gustein last spring. Though mostly a fiction writer and poet, Dan occasionally explores forgotten tunes from the middle of the 20th century — jump blues, early R&B, early soul, early rock, and so forth. Friends affectionately call him the “Alan Lomax of the Internet”. As part of his research he discovered Art Neville’s 1965 recording of Little Liza Jane on Cinderella Records. Over time he began to track down more Liza Jane songs, including versions by Nina Simone, Slim Harpo, Fats Domino, and more. As he explains it, “half the time I went looking for R&B Liza songs, I also came across country fiddle and banjo versions, often with very different lyrics and melodies.”

Nina Simone  01 David Bowie.

Dan’s post struck a chord. I knew a couple of versions of Liza Jane myself — having played one version for my audition at East Tennessee State where I studied fiddle a few years back, back when this blog was conceived. Liza Jane was one of the first tunes I learned on the fiddle and I recall an awkward afternoon back in 2010 at the Rockbridge Music Festival in southwestern Virginia, working out the notes and bow strokes with a hipster hillbilly. Those were the early days when my obsession with old time fiddling was kicking into high gear.

Li’l Liza Jane is a simple tune musically — but the diversity of artists that have performed it, and it’s dual evolution in both Appalachia and as a jazz standard suggest something quite a bit more profound. And so a project was born. I’m not going to say too much more here about this film, but you can follow updates on it on our website. We’re in the early stages, pre-production as they say, but have high hopes and dreams. 

All this being said, I am excited to revive the b part with news of this film…and there is more to come. Now that Wyoming is my home, I plan to delve into the Americana of the mountain west, everything from cowboy ballads to western swing and more. Stay tuned!

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Bourgeois Blues

Home of the brave, land of the free
I don’t wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord, in a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Lead Belly wrote the “Bourgeois Blues” after he, his wife, and Alan Lomax were thrown out of a couple of Washington establishments for being in an inter-racial party. Pete Seeger covered it.* And then the British singer songwriter Billy Bragg (who some of you may know through his collaboration with Wilco on Mermaid Avenue**) changed the lyrics for an anti-war, anti-Bush rendition titled “Bush War Blues.”

As Lead Belly experienced, Washington, DC is a city of profound and tragic ironies. It’s a town of powerful and powerless. It’s a town that shines as a beacon of democracy for the world over, yet its own residents lack full representation in Congress. It’s one of the most educated cities in our nation, but with one of the most dramatic achievement gaps between white and black students.

Washington’s a town that produces strong reactions among regular “Joe 6-packs”. For many of the people I spoke with in east Tennessee, Washington is not a place to be proud of. And I’ll admit, I’ve had my share of the bourgeois blues. But I’m a proud Washingtonian in my heart. Born here. I’ve spent most of my life here. I don’t apologize for its failings. Rather I am moved by its complexities. Its complexities are part of what inspired me to join Teach For America and work in education reform.

Sometimes it feels as if my passions are disjointed. Old-time music, local agriculture, social justice, education reform. But the more time I spend listening to American roots music–be it blues, old-time, folk–the more I realize how interconnected these passions all are. It’s hitting me in a profound way. And maybe I’m just feeling a little inspired, between Lead Belly, Black History Month, and my current reading, Dream City…but the connections are striking.

There is a thread that weaves through all our lives. We just have to find it.

* Stay tuned for the upcoming Folkways release of this song and many others in a live, full concert recording of Seeger’s concert at Bowdin College in 1960, at the height of the blacklist.

**Perhaps my favorite album of all time. Damn.

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Smithsonian Folkways

Woody Guthrie. Lead Belly. Hazel Dickens. These are just a few of the folks I spend my days with, at least in spirit.

I started working at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings a few weeks ago. If you aren’t familiar with Folkways, get familiar. Founded by collector Moe Asch in 1948 our mission is to record the world of sound. I first learned about Folkways through their old-time and bluegrass music compilations, but the immense collection includes lots, lots more, from Indian Love Rites to French language lessons and Cuban protest songs.

Here I’m just going to share some of the wacky and wonderful discoveries I’m making as I listen my way through the 3,000 or so albums in the collection.

Some of my favorite finds so far:

  • Square Dance with Soul, because really, square dances could use a little more diversity.
  • La OEA, Me Causa Risa  (The OAS Makes me Laugh). I would say though that the international crowd, including OAS employees are the best dressed, and best looking, people in town.
  • Hand Analysis: Beginners Introduction. NB: People with small hands see the big picture, but aren’t so detail oriented. So when choosing a dentist, choose one with BIG hands. Having a wide gap between your thumb and the rest of your fingers means you’re spontaneous! Finally, some clarity on my impulsiveness and lack of attention to detail!
  • Alas, Lucinda Williams‘ first two albums are pretty darn good too.

Almost the entire Folkways collection is on Spotify. So if these albums intrigue you, you can listen to more there…

Not bad for a Wednesday at L’Enfant Plaza, bureaucrat capital of the US of A.

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Mad (wo)men insights

To paraphrase Dr. Faye Miller, Don Draper’s love interest, or one of them, in Mad Men, Season 4: Our deepest conflict is what I want versus what is expected of me.

I arrived back in DC Sunday evening and my experience over the past few months already feels too distant. Though some company on the drive north helped soften the landing here, I’m not sure the trip is over. Residual delays. Baggage problems. Mixed up reservations.

Just twelve hours after I arrived home, I went to back to work. Metro-ed in and then sat in front of my desk for nearly the next eight hours, straight. Sure I went on a walk in there, had a few meetings. But basically I was staring at my computer screen, dreaming of something else. By the time I got home I was tired and had little focus for music. This is not how I want to pass my time here. l will quickly bore of this. I am already bored and it has been just two days.

I know I need to remember what it was that I felt in Tennessee. Otherwise routine–and bad habits–can quickly take hold.

The biggest thing I will miss about the past four months is time and space, and setting my own routine. Music needs time to breathe. I need space to breathe.

How I will carve out a new routine for myself here will be a work in progress over the next few weeks, so bear with me as I figure this out. And heck, while you’re bearing with me, if you know of part-time or contract work, do let me know.

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Tunings and begginer fiddles

Well, by golly, it only took me till the last week of classes to try playing my fiddle on a different tuning. Y me gusta. Better late than never, I suppose. I must add that to my list of accomplishments here.

I also took out my old fiddle last night to give it a go. And lordy, lordy it is a good thing that instrument has been retired. Like other retirees looking for a shot at redemption, it is currently working nights as a nude model. My landlady and I are designing t-shirts for the ETSU Bluegrass, Old-time and Country Music Program and while this has been doesn’t sound so hot, it still has a nice physique.

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Wrapping up

As the time draws near for me to part ways with this town,  I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned over the past four months. My ambitions were high when I moved to Johnson City in August. And the goals I set for myself–primarily musical–though not all– were not the milestones I necessarily reached. But it was a profound time nonetheless. As contrived as it may sound, it has been one of the most formative periods in my 30 years.

I understand now what it takes to learn a piece of music, and the time required to internalize a song. I’ve learned how to learn. You cannot have outputs without inputs. You have to listen to a lot of music before you can play music. You have to have the sounds in your head. That means listening intensely to a piece of music before picking up my fiddle, listening passively is important too. Music is sound, it is not written notes on a page. Having a tune in my head, makes translating the written notes to my brain and finger tips all the more fluid.

I know now how to work through a tough piece, practice the hard parts. I aim for seven times, seven times correctly, straight through before moving on. I need to sleep on a tune. Learn a tune one day, spend an hour with it and then, the next day, return to it. Simply by letting a song exist in my subconscious for a period makes it all the better the next time I pick up my instrument.

There’s been lots of other accomplishments too. I’ve loosened my purse strings. A little. I’m no big spender by any means but we’ve got one shot on this planet and what is the purpose of money if not to help induce greater enjoyment out of life. I’ve overcome my fear of cats. Not sure what that was all about, but it was quite paralyzing for me. And completely irrational. I’ve overcome my sleeping problems which plagued me back home in Washington and made bedtime a stressful occasion nearly every night of the week. I think, I hope, I’ve broken my addiction to stability and routine. Neither are in my nature, but had become so ingrained in my life over the past six years that I barely remembered another way to live.

I am so so incredibly grateful for this opportunity to take a break and reflect. I am excited to take this experience and carve out a new space for myself in DC and wherever I end up next.

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A new fiddle

Did I mention that I bought a new fiddle?

No, I didn’t get it at a Tarisio auction. The winning bid at their June auction was $15.9 million. That works out to $1 million per ounce of violin, around 625 times the price of gold.

I came here hoping to buy a fiddle from a local luthier, but the wait and cost were more than I wanted, so I went with a Samuel Shen, the 1000 series to be exact.

I’m pleased with my purchase. And even more pleased now that I had it “set up”. This past weekend I had the sound post moved (for a softer sound), the bridge flattened (making it easier to drone), the nut filed down too (making the strings closer to the fingerboard), and a new tailpiece put on. It feels really good. Some might say “buttery”.

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And for just a bit longer I get to delight in the faint smell of pipe smoke that seeped its way into the wood.

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