The Elmo lives!

I was very pleased to read that Michael Wekerle (new guy on Dragon’s Den) has bought the El Mocambo with the intention of keeping it running as a music venue. The very first time I went to a bar to hear live music it was at the El Mocambo.

I don’t recall exactly what year it was or how old we really were, but I remember the evening – it was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. As some of you know I was a teen-aged blues-freak and Sonny and Brownie were legends to me.  There we were, seated at the Elmo, not 20 feet from these guys, drinking the foulest draft beer you could imagine, and having the time of our lives.  Sonny Terry made sounds on his harmonica that were impossible and perfect, mixed in with whoops and hollers along the way, punctuated perfectly by Brownie’s Piedmont guitar.

At some point much later – in the 80s – some friends and I would go on Tuesday evenings to see Washboard Hank and the Honkers. Hank had an elaborate washboard – I think it included a tin hat and he did tunes like Polyester Polly lit a tire fire in my heart (all about a girl in Hagersville) and the Midnight Ride of Red-dog Ray about the great Ontario beer strike.

The Elmo was part of an older Spadina, from before the dedicated street car deal that sucked the character off the street. Those were the days when Downchild played Grossman’s across the street and Gwartzman’s was THE place to buy your art supplies – and let’s not forget Chinese food at that joint just south of Grossman’s – does anyone remember the place I’m thinking about? They had a special in the window for deep-fried gobi fish and I think there was a yellow sign….

Who knows what the future for this old joint holds, but it feels good to know it has been saved and will to continue to be a place for live music.

How does memory and learning work, anyway?

I’ve been playing clawhammer banjo for close to two years and I’ve been working on learning new tunes and at the same time improving my technical skills. I find that some songs are much easier to remember than others, even though they are require a similar skill level to play them. Perhaps it’s because some melodies resonate with me more immediately than others. I’m not really sure.

When I started playing, I learned primarily from tabs, and I suspect that sometimes my brain gets lazy and uses the tab as a crutch. I can play certain tunes reasonably well if I have some music in front of me, even if I only occasionally glance at it, but when I take away the written notation, I sometimes have trouble. Once I learn a tune, I tend to try lots of different things with it and after a while the way I play it becomes somewhat different than the way I learned it. I like to watch videos of other players doing the same tune and sometimes I’ll try to add in some of the things I see them doing. When I was playing a lot of button accordion, I found that certain licks were key to remembering a whole song. In other words, if I remembered how a particular part is played the whole tune would fall into place.

I know that being able to hear the song in my head is key. I have poor vocal control so I don’t try to sing much. Some players learn to sing a tune first then try playing it. One of my goals is to wean myself away from using written notation. I’m going to try learning tunes by watching and listening to videos. There are plenty of videos on the YouTube in which a player goes through a tune slowly and I think those will be helpful. I think that hearing it slowly, having some visual clues by watching the video and really listening to what’s going on in the song will help. I suspect not having a tab to be dependent on will help as well. Once I’ve managed to learn a dozen or so tunes this way, the next step is to try to learn it from a recording without the visual aid. I think that’s a good goal to set, even if it takes me some time to get there.

When I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp, I was very nervous about jamming and starting in a slow jam helped build my confidence quite a bit. I surprised myself by being able to contribute to a jam on some tune I hadn’t heard before. Of course there are lots of things going on in a jam that help. I found that hearing the guitarist’s chord changes helped, and in a jam you know the tuning at the get-go and that helps too. Old time tunes aren’t that complex, even if they sometimes sound that way at first blush. I found if I could pick up some of the melody, and I could figure out the chords I could recognize licks that come up over and over in old time music and next thing I knew I was more of less playing along. Sometimes I would get in the weeds and play something that sounded horrible, but I think that’s part of the learning experience. I wonder if regular jamming would accelerate my learning on the incident or just my learning in jams. I’m not sure.

One thing I learned playing button accordion that holds true for clawhammer as well is that many shorter sessions cause me to learn more and faster than fewer long sessions, although that doesn’t make long playing sessions bad. Any way you look at it, practice is at the heart of learning an instrument. It’s true that for some people this kind of learning appears to come effortlessly, but I think most people have to work at it to get good. When my brother and I went to see the Kruger Brothers’ last performance in Toronto, Salvelinas had an opportunity to chat with Uwe Kruger, who mentioned to him that when they weren’t touring, they worked in the studio all day every day. It seems those guys play effortlessly, but I suppose it makes sense that they too work hard at it and practice all the time.

Off the mainstream and into the ditch?

A few months ago, a friend of mine said, “hey Eugene, you just like music that is outside the mainstream just because it’s outside the mainstream.” I protested. “No I don’t think so, I just like what I like.” After some consideration though, I wonder if there isn’t just a little bit of truth to what he suggested. After all, by the mid-70s, I found most of the music coming out of the star-maker machine pretty hard to take. I recall taking refuge by listening to Joe Louis hosting Folk Music and Folk Ways on “Ryerson Radio” every Saturday. That’s where I first heard Doc and Merle Watson. That was an eye-opener.  And U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. That was a mind-bender.

Like many others looking for something else, I listened to my share of punk and so-called New Wave, and I enjoyed a lot of that, though I obviously didn’t fit into that scene. Sorry sir, no nice sweaters allowed in here. Even today – I listen to a lot of hardcore old time music – I can’t help but think it’s not a big jump from there to punk, kind of like The Pogues and Irish folk music. I recall seeing Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille on one bill back in 1978 at Massey Hall. I was beginning to think pop music had a future. To this day I still love Nick Lowe’s music and all his recordings get a lot of play around this joint.

By university, I was a confirmed blues freak. I loved all the older obscure stuff (and I was sure it wasn’t just because it was old and obscure) and I wasn’t so crazy about “blues rock” and all the guitar hero blues guys. Toronto was a hotbed of the blues in those days. I got to see live performances by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Bo Diddley, Eddy Clearwater, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Honeyboy Edwards, Son Seals, Mighty Joe Young, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and more.

And there was Zydeco too, Fernest Arceneaux and the Thunders at the Horseshoe, Queen Ida, Terence Simien and the Mallet Playboys. And R&B. Hank Ballard and The Midnighters came to town, with horn section and matching outfits and choreography and The Twist. And then in the 80s there was Handsome Ned playing Lefty Frizzell tunes for Queen Streeters.

At some point in the early 2000s, i fell hard for accordion music, especially all things button accordion. I bought one, a vintage Hohner Corona II, which I still have today and vowed to learn to play. How hard could it be with only 31 buttons on the right side. Piece of cake. Then I discovered it was bi-sonoric, meaning each button had two notes, depending on the direction of the air. Still I persevered and learned to play pretty well. It opened up a whole world for me, from the driving polka of Scrubby and the Dynatones to Portuguese corridinhos to the music of Uruguayan gauchos to Basque Trikitixas.

It was a whirlwind world tour of free-reed ethnic folk music and I was loving it. Sun Ra was right. There are other worlds they have not told you of.

And speaking of Sun Ra, who I saw live in NYC in 1983, I found a little room in there for jazz.

I blame my brother the trout, Salvelinas Fontinalis for re-sparking in me a deep interest in hardcore oldtime music and particularly clawhammer banjo. Since I started playing banjo less than two years ago, I’ve immersed myself in old time music and I’ve been playing constantly. I’ve even fooled a few people into thinking I’m doing OK at it.

The fact is I came by my eclectic musical tastes honestly. The first record I owned was a copy of Ernest Tubb’s Walking the Floor over You. I knew all the lyrics to The Wreck of the Old 97 by age 8. I was the only kid on the block who, from exposure to Dad’s Dixieland, knew my Kid Ory from my Wingy Manone. I don’t think I set out to stray from the mainstream as a strategy. Still, I’m very conscous that culture or some version of culture is marketed to us extremely heavily. Just consider that there are now game shows for becoming a pop star, and strangely, they are very very successful.

I suppose anytime you ignore all the mass market stuff and choose your music or your art or your literature on your own, regardless of how it happened, it’s a little bit revolutionary, don’t you think? The thing about folk music is that we own it together, and I like that. How many pop stars sue one another about a riff or a melody? Considering most western music, at least in a popular vein, is pretty simple with 2 or 3 or 4 chords, it’s reasonable to expect similar themes to appear time and again. In folk music, adding to the the pool of music we own together by changing around an existing melody is perfectly reasonable. I’m glad Woody Guthrie borrowed the melody of Wabash Cannonball and wrote Grand Coolie Dam with it:

In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave
she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
of the day the Coulee Dam would cross the wild and wasted stream.

Wabash Cannonball was a hobo song, about the train that would take the hobo from the Traveling Nation to a better place, to the other side, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Grand Coolie Dam, of course is a whole different trip, yet they share a melody, and that’s OK by me. In Old Time music too, we see similar melodic ideas, and lyrical ideas as well, show up over and over again.

Sustain

My experience at the Mid-west Banjo camp kick-started my learning and since I returned home I’ve wanted to play and play and play. With that kind of immersion experience you get exposed to a lot of ideas, but most of them require plenty of practice to make those ideas part of your playing.

I’ve been learning clawhammer in isolation and suddenly I was exposed to jamming. Wow, was that ever fun! It really changed my whole experience of the music. I’d love to play with other people more often. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on adding some new tunes and ideas (to me at least) to my little repertoire.

I love learning new things, and when I take on a new challenge I like to jump into it with a lot of effort and enthusiasm. I started playing music – button accordion – in my early 40s, and now over the past year and a half I’ve jumped into playing clawhammer banjo. I’m encouraged that I can hear my playing improve and the more I improve the more I want to learn.

How music works

I just finished reading How Music Works, the 2012 book by David Byrne. I’d like to thank Hobie Post up front for recommending this excellent read.

For those who saw the name of the author and immediately thought the question, yes, it is by THAT David Byrne, the one from Talking Heads and loads of other excellent projects.

This is an ambitious book. It talks about so many aspects of music, from the creative process, performing live, recording, to the business end, the various types of contractural arrangements, and how the business has changed radically with technology. This is all mixed in with autobiography. Byrne shares his own experiences generously throughout.

One of the key ideas Byrne argues is that he believes we “unconscously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats”. He starts the book out by laying out this argument and in doing so he caught my attention right away.

“In a sense, we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue available to us. That holds true for other arts as well: pictures are created that fit and look good on white walls in galleries just as music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not in both). In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software “makes” the art, the music or whatever.”

How Music Works is written in a fairly conversational way. It is intelligent and thoughtful but at the same time it’s his own story and all the bits are mashed together. I think this kept the book from becoming too dry and as well it flavoured Byrne’s ideas with his experience.  The book is peppered with illustrations, although I  thought many of them were superfluous.

I think How Music Works could be improved with a little editing aimed at reducing the scope somewhat and shorting the whole business by a few chapters. Still, I found it to be informative and thought-provoking, and I recommend it highly for anyone who loves music. I’m giving Mr. Byrne the 27th Street Stamp of Approval for How Music Works. Read this one.

T-Model Ford

At one time I listened to a lot of blues music. Back in the early 80s when I was in university, I would go into the listening room at the York U library and sign out all sorts of obscure blues records, and sit down at one of the listening stations – each one of them had a turn-table and head-phones, and listen while I worked on assignments (some days I may have done more listening and less working).

I was attracted to blues that emphasized the song and the groove and I was never much interested in extended blues guitar solos.   Over the years, my musical tastes changed quite a bit, and I found myself listening to less and less blues, but still there are some performers who get my attention anytime I hear them. T-Model Ford is one of those. Ford was born in the early 20s and passed last summer. He didn’t start a musical career until he was in his early 70s. Here are a few performances I really enjoy, found on YouTube…

 

The Log Jam Song

I like log driving songs almost as much as I like train songs. Here’s legendary Canadian songwriter Wade Hemsworth.

Here’s my favourite of Mr. Hemsworth’s tunes, The Land of the Muskeg

Of course he also wrote the Log Driver’s Waltz and the Blackfly Song, both tunes I’ve known as long as I can remember.

Valerie June

Tuffy P came across Valerie June’s music recently and we’ve been giving her recording, Pushin’ Against a Stone a good listen. She sings with a lot of confidence, strums guitar and uke, and carries around enough hair for 5 or 6 performers. I think maybe she’s the real deal.