Archive for March, 2009

Throw Down Your Heart – The Banjo Goes Back To Africa

March 27, 2009

Everybody knows the story of the banjo, right? The minstrel shows and Oh Susannah! and the southern string bands and Dock Boggs and Uncle Dave Macon, right? John and Alan Lomax, the famous musicologists, called the banjo “America’s only original folk instrument,” and they know what they’re talking about, right? Well, not exactly.

The banjo first came to the Americas with the Africans who played it. Slaves in the Americas continued to make and play banjos, and whites never played it much until the minstrel shows took off in the 1840s. After Emancipation, black musicians wanted no part of the banjo, and the banjo’s creation myth took firm hold.

Scholars like Cecelia Conway, author of the landmark African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, have done their best to retire this myth, but it’s not dead yet. Now comes Bela Fleck, banjo virtuoso extraordinaire, to do some myth-killing of his own.

Throw Down Your Heart is a documentary (directed by Fleck’s brother, Sascha Paladino), in which the banjoist travels to Africa to connect with the history of his instrument and with the African musicians who keep that history alive. Can music overcome the cultural and language barriers Fleck finds in Africa? Will his CD come out OK? Find the answers to these and many other questions in this always entertaining and often moving film- if you can find a screening, that is.

Throw Down Your Heart wowed the festival circuit, but has not been able to get anything approaching wide distribution. It will be shown in New York City at the IFC Center from April 24-30, and you can find a complete list of screenings here. It’s worth seeking out. Here’s the trailer. Please enjoy.

Even if you don’t get to see the movie, the CD came out just fine- take a look.

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Pete Seeger’s Birthday Party: RSVP

March 24, 2009

May 3 is Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, and you’re invited to his party. It’s at Madison Square Garden, and helping Pete blow out the candles will be Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Kate & Anna McGarrigle and, I’m sure, some unadvertised others.

You don’t have to bring Pete a present-he’s got pretty much everything he needs right now-but you do have to buy a ticket. Tickets range in price from $19.19 (Pete’s birth year) to $250, but most are priced at $90, in honor of his milestone. All proceeds (not all profits, all proceeds) from ticket sales go directly to Pete’s favorite cause, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. Note also that, if you’ve never been a member of the Clearwater organization, your ticket purchase also entitles you to a one-year membership. Tickets are available here, right now. There are also some special, high-priced ticket options available that include all kinds of special perks. For those of you that haven’t given back your bonus money yet, there’s hardly a better use for it. Look here for more info.

The Clearwater is a 106-foot sailboat modeled after the 18th and 19th century Dutch sloops built to sail the Hudson River, and it serves not only as a working vessel, but as a symbol of how dedicated people can protect and preserve a fragile and valuable ecosystem. This was Pete Seeger’s vision when he inspired the project in 1966, and it will be his legacy for many generations to come. Read all about it here, and, if you’d like to contribute, you can do so here.

Here’s a little video from the Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival Festival 2008. Learn a bit about the project, listen to some good music, and please, help out if you can.

Mystery and Magic

March 22, 2009

Looking through the window into Harry Smith’s “Old Weird America” I am struck by how much we need to reconnect to much of the mystery and magic that attracted our musical forefathers and mothers to the past today.

We are only just a decade into the new century and have unprecedented access to the legacy that stretches back one hundred and fifty years before us now. 150 years? I would have thought that it was only back to 1888 (Edison’s earliest still playable recording) or 1878 up to a year ago, but then I discovered unearthed files of a “Phonautograph” from France this past year (discovered in their patent office)  that date from 1860 and have been recently decoded and transferred to the digital medium. These sound experiments aside, it is increasingly apparent to me that we are in a period of reassessment of our recorded history at every level, whether it be cylinder transfers, dubs off Vitaphone soundtracks to our earliest “talkies” (and “singies” so it seems) to the tireless 78 RPM restorations that proliferate online today.

For me the quest has led me to various blogs devoted to placing recordings back into the data flow or Archive.org‘s 78 section and a web ring full of fanatics selling diamond needles for the beautifully reworked 100-year-old players that still exist to tickle our imagination, if there is any left. Like many, I have succumbed to the glitz and polish of new technology (though somehow I have managed to avoid buying an mp3 player as of yet, though my stepson has an iTouch at hand these days) and its ease of use; to be honest I fully embrace mp3 culture and have no problem with the “inferior” sound. I have seen what real Hi-Fi looks like and have even heard it a few times. It’s beyond me to spend $24,000 for a turntable or $8,000 for a hand-carved jade cartridge at Music Direct.com. I’ll never have a high-end system. I’m lucky that my components match impedance let alone brand names. It’s okay. REALLY. I’m legally deaf and wear two hearing aids and can hear what I hear just fine, thanks.

I can still listen to the music, just the same way I did to my Sparky and His Magic Baton 78s on that lo-fi consumer grade record player I first used when I was three back in 1954. I still get a thrill discovering something I never heard before. My computer’s media player is set to random as I write and I’ve gone from Jackson Browne (The Load Out- classic rock) to Blaze Foley (Big Cheeseburgers – Texas singer-songwriter) to Al “Jazzbo” Collins (Little Red Riding Hood-fifties jazz rap) to Little Richard (Little Richard’s Boogie-proto-jump rock) to Alex Hood’s Railroad Boys (L & N Rag-1920s string band) to The Whiskey Daredevils (Let’s Lynch the Landlord- alt-country grunge) to Tears For Fears (Everybody Wants To Rule The World- remix culture) to Gaudi (Abhi Apna Abhi Paraya Hai- dub qawwali) to Devin Lima (If You Want Me To Stay- Sly Stone Tribute) to Roger McGuinn (Ballad of Easy Rider- unique movie soundtrack) in about an hour. Five of these tunes were brand new to me. The longer I listen the more I hear. I fully expect to regain my hearing by the time I die.In the meantime, I’ll be listening, waiting for the mystery and magic to appear in my ears.

Here’s some of the earliest ear candy for the eyes I could find to jump-start THIS voyage. It’s considered by most to be the earliest example of music and sound stil extant. I’ve got to tell you I discovered a whole lot on the way to find that. This is going to be a blast! Many thanks to Don for inviting me along. I hope you the reader will choose to share the journey.

A Great Day For The Irish

March 17, 2009

I hope you enjoyed the Tulla Ceili Band video yesterday (if you haven’t watched it yet, it’s one post down). It was one of two clips I considered for the post, and I finally decided it would be a shame not to run them both. So here is the Gallowglass Ceili Band, from County Kildare. They call the tune Bluebell Polka, and that’s the title the great Jimmy Shand used when he had a hit with it in the 1950s, but it was known well before that as Siamsa Beirte.

The Gallowglass Ceili Band started playing in 1949, and this performance was taped at a reunion concert in the 1990s. Everyone is taking it pretty seriously here, the discipline as strict as the tempo, but the music is great and the young dancers do a wonderful job. Please enjoy!

It’s Not Just Green Beer!

March 16, 2009

Up here in Boston, St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal. It was the site of the first ever St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 1737, and the first parade was held in 1761. For some, it’s just an excuse for a party (the date of the first green beer is unrecorded), but for many others (Boston still has the largest proportion of Irish residents of any U. S. city) it’s a reason to remember a great and good heritage.

And a big part of that heritage is musical. Tonight we’re off to County Clare, home of the Tulla Ceili Band, formed in 1946 and still going. A ceili is a traditional Gaelic dance, and the traditional form of dancing done at the ceili is the “set,” demonstrated here by the Clare Set Dancers. I think they’re having fun. Enjoy a safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Texas Songwriters – Nanci Griffith

March 13, 2009

What was originally planned as Texas songwriter week is, thanks to my inability to get the posts done, in danger of becoming Texas songwriter month. I will be moving along sooner or later, but before I do, let’s talk a little about Nanci Griffith.

She’s done such a great job singing other writers’ songs that her own writing sometimes gets overlooked. The one time a CD of hers was nominated for a Grammy (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1994) it included exactly none of her songs. But she’s written (or co-written) some great ones, including Outbound Plane, Listen to the Radio, Love at the Five and Dime, and my own personal favorite, the much-covered Gulf Coast Highway. Nanci’s songs, like those of her early mentor Tom Russell (see my post on him here), shine a light on those invisible folks we’d never take a look at otherwise. Where would we be, in times like these, without the songs Nanci wrote?

Here’s Nanci performing Gulf Coast Highway, which she co-wrote with James Hooker and Danny Flowers. Please enjoy.

Texas Songwriters Pt. 2 – Townes van Zandt

March 7, 2009

Steve Earle famously said, “Townes van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” That might have been something of an overstatement, but there’s no doubt that van Zandt  left behind a dozen or so truly great songs and a lot more very good ones.

Van Zandt’s personal problems kept him under the radar as a performer for most of his career, but he did have some cover versions of his songs hit the country charts in the late ’80s and ’90s, and the fierce devotion of his small but influential cult following never waned. He died in 1997 at the age of 52, done in by the drug and alcohol problems that had plagued him for most of his life. For all the details, check out Be Here To Love Me, the definitive documentary record of Townes’s life. The DVD extras include some great performances, too.

Pancho and Lefty is the best song Townes van Zandt ever wrote, and I’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table in my Chuck Taylor All-Stars and say that. Here he is, introdeuced by Nanci Griffith – please enjoy.

Footprints In The Snow

March 2, 2009

Up here in  New England, the snow is blowing, and there’ll be a foot or more on the ground by noontime. So it’s time for a snow song. Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, with the incomparable Kenny Baker on fiddle. Please enjoy.

Happy Texas Independence Day!

March 1, 2009

That’s right, Monday is Texas Independence Day – on March 2, 1836, the Texas Declaration of Independence was adopted (Texas was a spinoff from Mexico) and the Republic of Texas was born. It’s still an official state holiday in Texas, even though the republic survived only ten years – it was annexed by the USA in 1846.

In honor of the holiday, Harry’s Music is observing Texas songwriter week. There are a bunch to choose from and I’l get to as many of my favorites as I have time for throughout the week.

Leading off is Guy Clark, with a powerful live version of Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. It’s about a lesson a young man learns from an old man – death is inevitable, but we can’t let that knowledge determine the way we live.

The desperadoes of the title hear the train coming, and cock their guns and get their masks in place, ready to go. We see their bravado and we feel their excitement, but know trouble is at hand and know how it must end. The robbers know the ending too, I think, but still they charge the train, guns blazing.

Their charge, in the face of that knowledge, is an affirmation of sorts, and in the last verse of Desperadoes, when the old man, a day from death, adds “another verse to that old song,” it’s the same affirmation. Listen to Guy sing it and you can almost hear that train yourself.