Banjo Practice (Sandy River Belle)

I mentioned the other day I was working on the tune Sandy River Belle on clawhammer banjo. Learning this tune is my first experience playing in the Sandy River Belle, or Old G tuning (gDGDE). I like the tuning and I’m going to figure out how to play some other G tunes that way.

I recorded a practice session this morning and picked out one attempt at the tune to share here.


Imagine one of those cooking competitions in which Gordon Ramsey yells at all the contestants and makes them feel small and inadequate. Now translate to a music school. That’s Whiplash in a nutshell.

I don’t have any admiration for abusive teachers. The idea that such a horrible character would be allowed to teach people about something so rich in spirit is a disappointing one. And yet it would not surprise me if people like that are out there.

Parts of this film were difficult to believe. I would think, for instance that most if not all the students at the best music school in the country would be able to keep tempo without being slapped silly.

There were some strong performances in this film, but I’m not going to recommend this one.

Did you see Whiplash? What did you think?

Sandy River Belle

Sandy River Belle is a well-known fiddle tune, but it also has a special distinction. There is a particular banjo tuning – The Sandy River Belle tuning – named after it. I should say tunings with an s because there are variations on the Sandy River Belle tuning. I’ve been learning one of those – the one that’s also called “Old G” tuning (gDGDE). Among other things, this tuning is well suited for the tune, Sandy River Belle. Curiously enough, this tune is also played in good old G tuning by a lot of players. I’ve been learning the tune on clawhammer in Old G, and one of these days I’ll try recording myself playing it on video – but for now, here are a couple excellent versions.

Let’s start with April Verch, a fantastic Canadian fiddler from the Ottawa Valley. There are not many April Verch videos around that do not show her playing fiddle. In some she plays fiddle and dances, but in this one she dances and the music is driven by her banjo player.

Next, I stumbled into a version of the tune featuring squeezebox. Here is Sharon Shannon…very nice.

Dig it

The guy who dug that mystery tunnel up by York University – the one that has had all the news attention – has come forward saying he did it because it was his dream to build something like that; it was a fun project for him and his friends, a place to hang out.

To me that is an explanation I can understand, much more so than the various nefarious explanations floated in the media. I share that desire to build things that don’t have a rational use. After all, I built the imagination stations out behind our house. They are shelter-like but I didn’t intend them to be shelters. I don’t know what I intended them for really. I just thought it would be fun and interesting to build structures out of garden waste and other things found out back.  I don’t think of them as art, or specifically as sculpture but I can see how some people would look at them that way. They are just imagination stations.

I don’t  think the fellow who built the mystery tunnel thought of his project as an art project, but it seems to me that it shares some of the same spirit as some of the earthworks sculpture that has been done over the years. The most famous example must be Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Smithson built this huge jetty – 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide – into the Great Salt Lake way back in 1970.

There are also various so-called folk artists who re-purposed things around them. I’m thinking of people like Felix “Fox” Harris, whose creations we saw at the Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaument. Whatever he thought he was doing, I bet Mr. Harris never expected the things he built to be in a museum, treated as art.

For over 20 years Harris crafted his sculptures of recycled materials and displayed them in his yard, creating a forest-like environment. Harris was inspired to make art by a vision from God telling him to set aside his old life and make a new one.

It turns out the mystery tunnel never got finished. Elton McDonald was considering expanding it, adding a couple rooms, maybe bringing in a television. I love the spirit and the ambition. He was really making a place, marking a place for himself. When would he have stopped? When it got big enough, would he have furnished it, hung pictures on the wall, installed a toilet? We’ll never know now as it has been filled in. Too bad the powers that be were so quick to do that.


Two great covers

Time for a daily dose of country & western.

Let’s start with Iris DeMent covering Merle Haggard. I could listen to this tune about 100 times in a row.  Funny how some music does that to you, grabs you where it counts and won’t let go. Iris DeMent just hammers this one home, backed up by Marty Stuart and his very well-dressed band. The single snare drum is a beautiful touch.

Although Iris DeMent is not a prolific songwriter, I usually think about her as much as a songwriter as a performer, because she has written some great ones. However, as I listened to the last tune, I thought about this one, written by Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock – God May Forgive you (but I won’t).


The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway came to me well-recommended. When I say came to me I mean just that – the book arrived by mail. I had asked for recommendations and here one arrived at my doorstep.

I asked for recommendations in an effort to read some books I might not otherwise read. That seemed like a reasonable strategy at the time. Yet when the book arrived, for some reason I don’t understand, I avoided reading it. And I continued to avoid reading it for some time.

Then one recent day I needed a book to read. I was about to go out to the 27th Street book box and shop, but my eyes fell on The Cellist of Sarajevo. Ah, I should read this one now. Then I remembered, oh yeah I don’t care for books set in wars any more than I care for war movies. Maybe that’s why I’ve been avoiding it.

I picked it up and flipped through it. OK, I’ll read the first chapter. OK, well I’ll give it one more chapter. And one more. At that point Mr. Galloway had sucked me right into this strange world, Sarajevo under seige, her inhabitants targets for shells and snipers.

What is bravery, what is cowardice? How would you behave? How would the situation change you? What happens to the human spirit in the face of senseless, arbitrary death and the destruction? The horror of the situation is humanized through the eyes of three characters, four if you count the cellist. Two are simply trying to survive, trying to cope. A third – Arrow – is a sniper. She works more or less on her own and picks off the soldiers in the hills, soldiers who are at the same time trying to target her. The Cellist hauls his instrument into the street and plays for 22 days, one day for each of the victims of a senseless massacre of people lined up for some bread.

Galloway doesn’t tell us much about the warring sides, the factions, who did what to whom. To his characters, there are only people in the city – targets – men in the hills, and some gangsters and their money thrown into the mix. We don’t learn much about the complexities of the conflict, nor about the ethnicity or religion of the combatants. Galloway strips all that down to the bone and puts us into this strange fishbowl with his characters.

Good book. Good read.


Check out the fantastic coyote photos at the Friends of Sam Smith Park blog. Our dog walker has seen them twice recently while out with the partners. She noted that one of them had a tracking collar as well.

Morning panorama

So this is March. I took this shot while walking the partners this morning down along the lake by the yacht club. It isn’t as cold as it has been and lots of dogs and their people were out and about. Still there is plenty of ice in the basin, except for one spot around the wrapped yacht where the water is kept moving.