Dovetail Ensemble had a wonderful time performing for a packed house at Carroll Café, a delightful concert series in Takoma Park, MD, on February 13th. For this concert we were joined by guitarist Mark Puryear, who expanded our repertoire to include “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” and percussive dancer Agi Kovacs, who brought us a song from her native Hungary accompanied by a milk jug (a Dovetail Ensemble first but, we hope, not the last!) Even the weather cooperated, and the audience included many people who were hearing and seeing Dovetail Ensemble for the first time. Soon after the show we had a photo session with the marvelous Michael G. Stewart, a sample of which is here. More coming to dovetailensemble.com, and freydashands.org, soon!
I can’t find his name now—which seems fitting—but he used to have a blog called “Sorry I Haven’t Written”: a collection of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious excuses you find on people’s blogs…but naturally, he gave up writing it. Please excuse me for not making excuses. I’m happy to be back.
I was happy to be back in Louisiana last week, working with Wilson Savoy on editing our film for the Old Doors/New Worlds project CD/DVD. I’m happy to be back in the world of having a new release coming soon, after a long spell without one. I’m happy to be back home for the month of February, watching forsythia and daffodils dance with frost (although the frost has been rare!).
Carson Reiners, a beautiful contemporary dancer with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work, tells me that the back is the most expressive part of the body. A friend tells me he’s loosening the bricks in his lower back with yoga, and another is learning to think like a trumpet as she backs up a jazz singer with her violin.
In Kentucky, Backlick Road is a name and a neighborhood I’ve always liked. “Lick,” in case you don’t know, is a Kentucky word for creek. Which takes me back in memory to sitting on a porch with Cratis Williams, the wonderful storyteller and scholar of Appalachian dialect, who illustrated the mountain states’ predilection for prepositions with the sentence, “Come on out up from [back] down in under there.” Good advice for anyone, I think.
One summer when I was young, I told a wiser friend that I felt I was moving backwards rather than forward in…my fiddle technique? my emotional intelligence? who knows…but I do remember his answer, in the form of a joke:
“Mister, your hat’s on backwards.”
“How do you know which way I’m going?”
Whichever way you’re going, and whether or not you see your shadow on the way there, may your winter ease into spring.
Porch time soon.
We’ll be performing at Fólkatónleikastevnan 2012, the big folk festival of the summer, between July 13 and 20. We’ll be in the capital,Tórshavn, and in Gota on the big island, and also on Mykines, the westernmost island, and Fugloy, the northernmost island. We’re excited about meeting new friends and seeing this beautiful place!
The artist Cory Arcangel had a blog for a little while called “Sorry I Haven’t Posted” — a collection of people’s blog apologies. My favorite was “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while but I was busy! So, I will post this afternoon, so look forward to that.” Well, “this afternoon” has finally come.
It has, in fact, been a busy year for the Old Doors/New Worlds project. In May I went to Louisiana to rehearse for recording sessions, and in June Daron Douglas, David Greely, and Linda Handelsman came to Maryland for a full and productive week of recording with Charlie Pilzer at Airshow. We persuaded Leigh Pilzer to join us on bass clarinet for a few tunes, adding the perfect touch. In July David was back in Maryland and we gave a couple of concerts, including a full-to-the-rafters house concert on one of the hottest days of the year.
Now the full crew is coming to town for an intense week of collaboration, filming, recording, and our debut concert on Friday, Sept. 16th, 8 pm, at Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium, 7500 Maple Ave., Takoma Park, MD 20912 . You can buy advance tickets ($15; $20 at the door) at www.OldDoors.org, where you’ll also find samples of the music we’re working on.
The Old Doors/New Worlds CD/DVD will be out by February, and you can reserve a copy now when you make a $50 donation to our sponsoring non-profit organization, Freyda’s Hands (scroll to the bottom of the Old Doors/New Worlds webpage, or go directly to www.FreydasHands.org).
[I wrote this piece between the festival and the tsunami. Now, more than ever, we need the rich hours—not the obese, unmindful ones, but the real ones, the ones that connect us to our heritage and to the future.]
I didn’t expect to be celebrating Mardis Gras, but it turned out to be a very fat day indeed.
I’d expected grey weather, but woke to a crystal blue sky. Since unhooking from caffeine a few weeks ago, I keep being amazed at how good it feels to wake up feeling good. I wrote a “letter of thanks or apology”*. I stretched, meditated, rode my rowing machine to the tunes of the Mamou Playboys’ new cd [Mardis Gras Run, Washington-DC-style. Hey, it worked for me.] which inspired me to put on the Café des Amis shirt given me by my generous friend Larry. I put everything by the door before breakfast and left the house on time! (This is big news for me, actually, as I’m what the Swedes politely call a tidsoptimist, time optimist.)
At the Dr. Glass office, where I crunch numbers for some fine people once a week, we celebrated Philip’s birthday/Mardis Gras/International Women’s Day with King Cake and pizza. While learning something about Disk Utility, I also learned that even after waking up happy I can still be reactive and testy. Another little lesson in humility, like a handful of Mardis Gras beads casually tossed out by the day, avidly grasped, easily forgotten and trampled—or treasured.
At the studio Karen shares with me, I helped a student make the final choice between two fiddles, to live with over the coming years. She’s fifteen and her passion for the music knocks my socks off. Then, cancellations gave me a two-hour break. Karen’s face lit up when she heard that: “Do you want to eat with us?” ergh, I thought, I’d love to, but I was really looking forward to practicing. “We’re having pancakes for Shrove Tuesday, and mango lassi.” Well, how could I resist an offer like that!?! She’d meant to add vegetarian sausage, so I made a run to Trader Joe’s [Mardis Gras Run, suburban-Maryland-style**]. When I walked in, the muzak was cranking Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me by The Wild Magnolias, and since it was Mardis Gras people smiled instead of looking away in embarassment when I couldn’t help dancing through the aisles. Dinner with the family was wonderful—conversation about music, Gabe’s master class with Joseph Alessi, sweet and savory toppings and crunchy cucumbers and red peppers on the side. And everyone looked handsome in black clothing under the bright beads Karen gave us.
My next lesson was with a student who brings great emotional depth and imagination to her study of Irish tunes, so it’s easy to respond creatively to her—we’re partners in her project. I told her she could find slip jig dancers on YouTube (shuddering a little to hear myself actually suggesting YouTube) and then said, “You know those kitchen-table stories, where you’re sitting around with kids or old friends on a fall night and someone’s telling a story, and no one’s texting or jumping up to take a phone call, you’re all hanging on the next word?” She nodded and smiled in recognition. “Make this tune your kitchen-table story. Tell it ten different ways. Who’s around the table each time will influence that.” She nodded again. “Tell the part of the tune that can’t be told on YouTube.”
The evening ended for me with three strong conversations, two by phone and one by e-mail [Paul Revere’s Ride, 20th-century-style]…clarity in one, laughter in the second, and so much heart in the third that I had to just sit there for a while breathing deep and taking it in before I could respond, and then I responded, and then by’mby it was no longer Mardis Gras.
Ash Wednesday dawned gray and chill. The world is a mess, and I have new strength to care.
*from Carl Dennis’ delightful poem “A Maxim”
** for more about Cajun Mardis Gras traditions and their ancient roots, see Pat Mire’s short article www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/creole_art_dance_chicken.htm
Just came from the American String Teachers’ Association national conference in Kansas City. I’m fired up by new information and new connections, and warmed by deepened friendships. A highlight for me was Rachel Barton Pine’s master class. She is an extraordinary teacher as well as musician, eloquently conveying a wealth of information to the student in a style that’s direct but non-threatening—because she’s so clearly about the music and not anyone’s ego, and anyone would be happy to go with her on that! I also enjoyed Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s session on ergonomics and Martha Walvoord’s idea-rich presentation “Listen for Success: How to Develop Artist’s Ears.” I presented The Exquisite World of Swedish Fiddling to about 40 people. The best part of all, for me, was meeting Melinda Crawford, a Scottish fiddler who has just completed a PhD in music education (she had to leave the conference early to go to graduation!), creating a manual for Scottish fiddle instruction so that classical teachers can introduce students to the broad wealth of the tradition, rather than just a tune or two. We had a great time talking about traditional music, our mutual love of teaching musicianship and building skill, and the growing respect for fiddle traditions in the classical world. A kindred spirit indeed! www.melindacrawford.com
As lagniappe: I love stairs (when they’re not on a machine) and I walked down the 15 flights from our hotel room at least 15 times (but only 5 times going up). Not the slightest sore muscle: crazy. Even my body was inspired by the energy of ASTA!
The shock of the fall, still reverberating, was Warren Argo’s sudden death on September 27. WAR RRN: his big red dog had learned to say his name with the right intensity and joy. He was larger than life, always everywhere at the center of things where music, dance, and community were being made. “He was a person of many parts: fine musician, magnificent dance caller, discerning sound engineer, canny thinker, big bear-hugger, and kind, kind man….A room always brightened when [Warren] entered.” (from a Northwest Folklife Festival tribute)
It’s New Year, and I’ve just returned from Berea, where I lived thirty years ago, and the annual reunion of friends old and new called Christmas Country Dance School. I’ve known five generations of some families there. Being back always brings a flood of memories, and the delights of seeing the new generation take hold. One year it was a Kentucky rapper’s version of Green Eggs and Ham. This year, forty children dancing a Cherokee chant to greet the sun.
Warren: coming across the room with an enormous smile that says you are the exact person I would most rather see. Gradually the awareness sinks in that he has that smile for everyone, all the time. What can that mean?
Warren: introducing his banjo class at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, talking about the belly chakra and banjo as energy generator. Pointing out the musicality of one person’s note choices, the clean rhythm a dance band puts forth. Making you want to do better not by criticizing but by pinpointing, with exquisite language and true enthusiasm, the thing to aspire to.
I don’t remember meeting Warren; he was simply always there. He was the caller when I played my first out-of-town dances, the one who nosed out the café with the hottest salsa, who found the humor on the community center blackboard: “Muscle of the Week: Trapezius.” The one who welcomed me home over the years.
After a day of dancing and making (music, crafts, a mummer’s play) we at Christmas School sit down at Parlor. Parlor keeps alive the Kentucky family tradition of gathering around the fireplace for stories and songs, and even though there are three hundred in this room, it feels cozy and everyone belongs. There are songs we sing together and learn by osmosis; chances to enjoy a performance; stories and jokes that return year after year. Pat Napier tells the Old Dry Fry stories and we all chime in, “Everybody knows Old Dry Fry.”
It’s unnatural to write about Warren in my own voice alone. I have to let the community speak. Warren was community.
“Who else will ever be as happy to see us as Warren, as warm? Who will tell me about airplane mechanics? Who will make that amazing thin-crust pizza with enough anchovies? Who’ll play banjo in that sweet thrummy way? We all must hang on to each other.” —Molly Tenenbaum
“Maybe it was one of those 204 moments at Fiddle Tunes. A band lab dance where you play a tune or two. A coming out party for the closet musician, a jump in the deep end to the stage and the mike… or the first time you “got it”. That crooked tune, that funky rhythm. He’d notice. That moment. And there he was. Maybe right up front face to face, or way back in the back of the room, shaking his head back and forth, pacing around, shouting his approval with glee. How is it that Warren noticed all our milestones and recognized us each stepping stone of the way?”—Moe Bebe
I picture a memorial pole in the tradition his Pacific Northwest home, a moveable pole that would go to all the places he loved and was loved, with traditional carvings of Bear, Dog, and Banjo, and brushed aluminum tie-dyed para-glider wings to catch light and air.
When I was young, New England elder Bob McQuillen was new old tradition (and still is!). He writes tunes for people in the music and dance communities. Some of them have become chestnuts—Dancing Bear, Amelia. In Berea, Al White is becoming that guy, his tunes the go-to tunes, and I don’t quite get it that he’s a grandfather when I think we’re still twenty-five. And Kent, who was the bright, quick teenager on the dance floor—somehow he did become Old Dry Fry, and we spontaneously echo “Everybody knows Kent Gilbert” in a group rhythm that feels foreordained.
Linda Laing posts a photo of Warren at Morningtown Pizza, which brings a flurry of remembrance to the Facebook fireside where we’ve gathered. Me, I remember the Morningtown aura when I was a teen in Seattle, had no idea Warren was the one who started it. I love this photo, the stillness and readiness in his young face. He looked for a better way to live, and found it in spades.
At Christmas School there’s a group of friends who grew up together once or twice a year at camp, and have stayed close into their twenties and thirties. One night at Parlor this year, they stood up and presented the song by which they were cajoled into leaving the camp dance parties at bedtime. The “Pied Piper” sang it as he led them to their cabins, and they listened for their names to be included: “Sarah’s at the engine, Owen rings the bell, Hazel swings the lantern to show that all is well…”.
Maybe it is raining where our train will ride,
But all the little travelers are snug and warm inside.
Somewhere there is sunshine, somewhere there is day,
Somewhere there is Morningtown, many miles away.
Warren would have loved this moment.
Warren boarded the long train, singing all the way. The kids who went to sleep in summer dusk cradle kids of their own, for whom sleep is still the longest journey, and Morningtown still so new.
The song Morningtown is by Malvina Reynolds, copyright 1957.
I’m happy to say that the D.C. area has continued in a “snow hole,” avoiding the East Coast blizzards—we certainly paid our snow dues last year! Even without snow days, I’m enjoying January as a time to regroup, rest, and reflect.
The Christmas season was very busy with concerts and holiday dances. The annual Hoag/Kelley/Pilzer Scandinavian Christmas at the Institute of Musical Traditions featured Andrea Larson, a wonderful singer and fiddler from New Hampshire and a long-time friend. It was great fun to reunite, learn some “new” old Swedish carols from Andrea, and meet her family who had come all the way from the Midwest to join in the festivities. Christmas Country Dance School in Berea was another highlight. I’ve played there many times over the years, and I lived in Berea in the late 70s, so it’s like a huge family reunion full of music, dance, stories, and many friends. This year there were 50 teens among the participants—it’s great to see the new generation dancing and playing music!
- The Berntsons album is being mixed and mastered, and sounding mighty fine.
- Fiddling Gals, my group of musical teens, is going strong.
- The Old Doors/New Worlds Project pilot pod met for a productive session in November, and this winter we’re busy editing film and audio and planning for the future. Some fascinating new pods in the works too!