I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.
Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.
Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.
My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar. My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.
Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass. Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.
We must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them.
Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.
Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death. It is, in many ways, our most universal experience. It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship. The question is, “What are we to do with it?”
I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.
One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is this one:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thess. 4:13
I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.
The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows”→
For many years, a member of my church who knows my weird tastes in music (if most people have never heard about it, I might have; if mass media doesn’t write about, I will) gives me the annual Oxford American Southern Music Issue. Given my roots and rootlessness around and on the edges of this bizarre and wonderful region (politics=absolutely bizarre; unelected people generally fascinating and gracious; land, music and layer of cultue—wonderful), he knows it lines up with my interests.
The OA is a journal with as colorful and eccentric history to match the region it writes about, but plenty has been written about it elsewhere. Just a few lines to mention the music issue, which isn’t cheap ($12.95) but well worth it. Every year, a particular state’s rich heritage of famous and not-so-well-known songwriters and performers are showcased. Continue reading “Everything’s Bigger in Texas: the Oxford American 2014 Music Issue”→
“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read. Or rather, what finds us”
When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago. One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?” I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.
I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then. I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music. Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, Continue reading “Exploring the Discography of Life”→
Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, going out in a blaze of recording glory with his last work, four albums titles “American I-IV”. Ever experimenting and interacting with the musical world, the series, produced with the help of Rick Rubin, was highly acclaimed. “Hurt,” and the accompanying video, appearing three months before June’s death and seven before Johnny himself succumbed to diabetes.
The brilliant video serves as a summary and eulogy for the man in black. But apparently it was not the end of his recording career. This week the world is meeting the music of Johnny Cash once again. “Out Among the Stars,” a never-released album of songs recorded in 1984, was unearthed by his son and released to the public. I just got it and am listening through.
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is
The national outpouring of gratitude and mourning over the death of Andy Griffith goes on. It has spawned a jillion tribute video clips on YouTube and endless comments below each one about the comfort and familiarity each one brings. So here’s one of my favorites.
I have been plowing through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Save the World, which isn’t about Andy Griffith, but about culture and faith. It is nearly 400 pages, and reads like a scholar summing up his work to me. Mostly it is about the misguided foray of the church into politics over the past few generations—but also a recognition of the reduction of everything in our culture right now to national politics. Davison laments this, for cultures hold together by so much more than elections and news cycles.
He argues that we misunderstand the deepest work before us—to move the culture toward the divine vision of a kingdom that comes not through weapons, kings and coercion but through the power of persuasive love in human lives, ethos and story. It is a vision large enough, rightly conceived, to make a place for those who disagree with us without the need to punish, coerce and control them. This life we talk about begins with a man named Jesus and the character and depth that resonates out of stories and teachings that keep stirring up our thinking 20 centuries later.
Those stories in the Bible, like all stories worth reading, and like good acting, convey something that leaps from the core of the speaker and connects to us, resonates deep inside and keeps speaking long after we read it or see it. There is nothing like a life lived with its energies concentrated to something good and meaningful.
One of the tenets of Christianity is that we gain life by resignation from the egocentric self. In other words, while an “ego” is a normal part of human life, an egocentric life, obsessed with its own security, safety and control, can be quite destructive to the person and the people around them. This lives out large in the Stalins and Hitlers of history, but also in everyday life.
David Mace, the found of marriage enrichment, said at the end of his life that after all those years of talking about communication, money and sex with couples that success in marriage came down to one key—the ability to deal creatively and redemptively with one’s own anger. After 33 years as a professional minister, counseling, listening to troubled people, and coaching young newlyweds-to-be I believe he was right.
There is one key about the anger we have—the capacity to step back away from ourselves and take ourselves with less than ultimate seriousness. “Getting my way” is second to “getting it right,” don’t you think? But the egocentric self says, “It has to be my way or all is lost!” And you know what comes next.
I am watching “Andy Griffith” reruns with my wife in the evenings. Since they are recorded you can watch one n about 18 minutes when you take out the commercials. So when the news looks repetitive (as in EVERY night) or so dreary, or when we just don’t want to watch one of our history or biography programs, we pull up an Andy Griffith from the DVR and soothe ourselves.
This week, we watched one of our favorite episodes, “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.” It was written by Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who wrote many of the great “Mash” episodes and for many great comedy shows (a great blog about them here by Ken Levine CLICK
Opie finds a stray little dog, who disappears and comes back with some doggie friends. Andy and Barney are expecting an inspector from the state, so they have to get the dogs out of sight. They try sending them home with Otis Campbell, the town drunk, but they come back with more. Finally Barney drives them out into the country and dumps the dogs in a field to run and play. Opie becomes anxious when a thunderstorm begins, worried about their safety. Barney tries to explain that they will be okay, and in the course of his explanation hits of my favorite lines of all time. Dogs are not like giraffes, Barney says. They take care of their own, and they are low to the ground. Not giraffes. “Boy, giraffes are selfish. Just running around, looking out for #1 and getting struck by lightning.”
A marriage, a neighborhood, a church or synagogue, a club or a nation can only abide a certain quota of giraffes. Now dogs? More the merrier. I’d say Barney was exactly right.