WAMC Night at the Mahaiwe

August 14th, 2006

This past Saturday night, I had the pleasure of being part of a benefit for WAMC public radio. I played guitar and sang harmonies to Wanda Fischer’s fine versions of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘Life’. We were both surprised and thrilled when, during soundcheck, John Sebastian and Artie Traum agreed to play with us. I admit I was a little nervous stepping out on stage, but managed not to throw any wrong notes in the company of a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
The crew from WAMC were great fun to spend an afternoon with, and Mike Merenda and Ruth Unger from The Mammals stopped by to back up their friend Dory Previn on a few songs. The picture shows John Sebastian and Happy Traum during soundcheck.

Snapshot from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival

August 14th, 2006

here’s a snapshot from behind the workshop stage. John Gorka and Dan Bern are relaxing between acts. The festival was a deep immersion into the wonderful folk community of both audience, promoters and performers. The late night song circles were perhaps the best part of the festival for me, though I loved Dan Bern’s mainstage set enough to watch the whole show in a torrential downpour.

Happy Independence Day!

July 4th, 2006

Today our great nation takes a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of the date whereupon the founders of this enduring republic released a document declaring that their leader, an oblivious despot named George (who had the job largely because of his father’s influence), was unfit for the task and had generally pushed them too far.
He had exerted his authority to subvert the justice system and had denied citizens trials by jury, he had manipulated the tax system to benefit his associates at the expense of the American public, he had conscripted unwilling citizens into his army and he kept a standing army which stood above the law, entitled to commit grievious crimes without legal consequence. Because of their act of defiance we live today in a free country where (for the moment) we have the right to speak out against the actions of our government and to overturn its leadership without sacrificing our system of government. Today, hopefully we take a moment between the BBQ and the fireworks to remember what a hard-earned privilege it is to live as a citizen of the United States of America. In the example of our founders, it is our duty to speak out and to act when the fine principles of our government are comprimised or threatened. Happy 4th of July!


June 29th, 2006

Here’s a snapshot from the Clearwater Festival a couple of weeks ago. The sloop in the picture is the Woody Guthrie, sister ship to the Clearwater. The highlight of the festival for me was seeing Pete Seeger, still bigger than his legend at age 87.

Internet Charisma Protocol:

June 29th, 2006

Have you ever noticed that it can be much nicer to see someone in person than to speak to them on the phone? Even in this age of technology, when it is easy to video-conference across the world and see and hear the person you are speaking to, it is still different to actually be there with that person. Tickets to see a performer in concert often cost more than the price of a DVD of that concert, even though the experience of being there often consists of watching the show on a giant screen. There is still great inherent value in being in close proximity with that person. Likewise, the experience of seeing a celebrity walking down the street is more highly valued than that of seeing the same celebrity interviewed on television, even though the interview is likely to give much greater access into that person’s thoughts and expression. Touching a celebrity- even just shaking a hand – is valued more highly than reading a dozen books about the same figure. Think of Beatlemania, when mobs became hysterical over the mere presence of a Beatle in their midst, striving to have any sort of contact possible. Whatever it is that accounts for the value of being there in person it is not something we can measure or reproduce. We can reproduce sight and sound. We’re not talking about the sensation of touch or smell or taste. There must exist something else, another sense, which can account for the experience of being near a person. Perhaps individuals like Elvis, John Lennon or Dr. Martin Luther King were able to affect that sense in a greater way than ordinary people, accounting for the tremendous power of presence that they were known to have in person. Perhaps there is value in being in a crowd that does not come from simply sharing the same values and ideas. I would postulate that adherents to liberal politics in this country tend to be more likely to be comfortable with technology and to communicate more often by email, blog and websites and that right-wingers are more likely to congregate in churches and meeting halls to share their ideology. Back in the days of the civil rights movement, the left was a good deal more unified than it is now and it also was more likely to congregate, either in churches, coffehouses or concert halls where activist preachers and singers rallied the crowd. This motivated huge gatherings like the March on Washington when those activists experienced both the thrill of the giant crowd and the influence of their most charismatic leaders all at once. If I am right, then what the left needs now is the Internet Charisma Protocol, a medium in which inspiration and presence may be delivered by email in the same way that a snapshot or an mp3 file may be attached. Or of course, we could make more coffeehouses and more concert halls and more performers could take the opportunity to rally their crowds to the cause. Sometimes the old technology – a guitar or a banjo and the human voice – works just fine.


June 26th, 2006

Where are you from? Is it a place that you have a real connection to, or is it just a name and a spot on a map, a set of familiar landmarks that make you feel at ease? I grew up in an urban setting; food came from the supermarket, the landscape was increasingly paved and developed as I grew older. I have two friends who live on old farmland and keep a productive garden and a few chickens out back. They feed the chickens largely on garden scraps, occasionally hunt deer and supplement the food their land gives up with produce from the stores in town. I have eaten meals with them which have been entirely created on their property. I have realized, mid-bite, that this delicious meal is all made of dirt. Dirt grown into onions and peppers and potatoes and lettuce and fed to chickens and laid as eggs, but still dirt. You are what you eat, the saying goes. And I’m not being critical- their land is so beautiful, I feel good knowing that some of that land is part of me. They’ve recently brought a wonderful little boy into the world, and as I’ve been spending time with this 11 day-old marvel, I’ve realized that he will grow up largely on the fruits of this land. He will play on the fields and in the woods, eat the vegetables and berries and eggs and venison, drink the water from the well. He will mature with a connection to his home which used to be entirely normal and which is now very unusual. He will also grow up as part of a generation which will take for granted the infrastructure of highways and fuel pumps and semi-trailers, the refrigerators, power plants, reservoirs, aquaducts and irrigation systems which will make it possible for most of them to grow to a healthy adulthood without ever having seen a farm or a cow or a garden or ever having been to the remote places, possibly in other countries, possibly in formerly arid deserts, where the food they eat was actually grown. If there is a tie to the land whence one gains his sustenance, this generation will be unaware of it. They will be tied to every corner of the planet and to none of it. What does ‘home’ mean to someone whose environment may be franchised out and duplicated in a thousand different towns, who has no physical tie to the land, whose parents grew up somewhere else and whose children will likely do the same? Maybe ‘home’ is an outdated idea. Maybe we are just getting ready for the next era in human history when we will identify with the Earth as our home and begin to expand ourselves out into the rest of the universe, but are we really big enough to claim an entire planet as home? There are certainly still many cultures here that are very tied to their land, their homes, but they tend to be disadvantaged when it comes to their access to earth-moving equipment, machine guns, tanks and planes, concrete mixers, refineries and oil. More and more, the dominant culture of industry converts our environment into a networked matrix of roads and wires and an individual has to make a deliberate choice to live with a particular piece of land, to care for the land and live off of its wealth. The more I think about it, the more it feels like we, as a culture, almost as a species, are losing our homes, losing our idea of ‘home’ to the grinding wheels of technological progress. I’m not suggesting that we stop this process, only that we make an effort not to lose sight of what we had and what we have. As a country, we obviously have to focus our efforts on reducing our consumption of energy and generating it from more sustainable fuels. Maybe as part of that effort, we could move back towards local foods and save some of the gasoline burned in hauling avocados to snow-bound New England or Atlantic salmon to Kansas. If we all depended more on our local land for sustenance, maybe we would start treating our land like our home and maybe then we would realize that we actually do have homes. Woody Guthrie might have been a visionary when we sang ‘I aint got no home in this world anymore’. ‘Rich man took my home and drove me from my door’ he sang, and he didn’t even know the truth of it.

Slow Jed’s Mudhouse!

June 12th, 2006

Here’s a photo taken by Al Goldberg of my show at Slow Jed’s Mudhouse. I can’t vouch for the mud, but I enjoyed an excellent cup of Earl Grey tea and the funky, comfortable atmosphere. The owner of Slow Jed’s has made a real listening room out of this small coffeehouse. I enjoyed having a mix of old friends and first-time listeners in the crowd. I’ll hopefully be playing there again.

Earth Day

April 25th, 2006

I had a good time playing at the Skidmore College Earth Day Folk Festival. The earth wasn’t entirely supportive; it was a glum, rainy day and the festival was held in the charming student center, but there was a good turnout and many strong acts on the bill. I looked out at the crowd as I played my set and saw people walking around in face paint eating veggie burgers and signing various petitions to try to restore balance to our damaged planet. Students were selling recycled notebooks and giving away free clothes and made many diverse efforts toward the vague but crucial cause of environmentalism.
Personally I have great respect for the planet earth. I have seen natural beauty from the mountains of Alaska to the Everglades in Florida and I think we are screwing it up royally and we ought to protect it. I also realize that the earth will be just fine and laughing about us after we’ve driven ourselves off the planet.
Ultimately, I think we need to find some peace amongst ourselves, the human race. The precious environment which sustains us is kind of like a china shop and we are kind of like a horde of drunken rioters in the china shop. The more we beat each other up, the deeper the piles of shards on the ground beneath us.
Gathering together for festivals is fun, and it is an opportunity to teach each other new ways to save the earth with face paint, but the most important aspect is that it is an opportunity to communicate with each other. We are increasingly isolated as individuals in a culture. Walking around in headphones staring at personal DVD players and reading our personalized newsfeeds on the internet we have less common experience than past generations. When The Beatles went on Ed Sullivan, most of America was watching. When John Lennon spoke out against the Vietnam War a few years later, he had an international audience. While it’s wonderful that we can each listen to our own wildly diverse music collections on our ipods, we sacrifice the opportunity to act as a collective mass, the opportunity to lead and be led. The powerful movements in the 1960s against war and against racism both started in hundreds of small places – churches, coffeehouses, union halls, schools – where citizens got together and shared ideas. Leaders emerged and those ideas caught fire and the gatherings became protests and marches and music festivals. Right now, we need to organize and start collectively doing the right things. we need to wage a lot more peace and a lot less violence and show infinitely greater respect to our natural world and our fellow humans. A fun time like an Earth Day Folk Festival is an opportunity for us to get together, listen to each other, support each other and generate the human energy and the collective strength to create real change in the world. Here’s a start: you’re reading this, and a bunch of people are reading this, so spread the idea around. Next time you’re at a concert or a festival or a coffeehouse, remember that you are participating in a gathering of your fellow humans, your fellow citizens. It is a unique opportunity to listen to the voice of your peers. Be the seed of change. If you can’t be the seed, be the fertile ground it grows in. Think about that on Earth Day.


April 7th, 2006

Well spring is in the air, cold and damp, but allegedly spring. Hope you’re all staying warm and dry. Tonight I’m playing at a friend’s party and I’ll try out my set for the Skidmore Folk Festival which is coming up on April 22nd.
I helped to pack some boxes at Caffe Lena today. We’re sending all of the historical archives at the caffe to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The American Folklife Center will have a collection on the history of the caffe. I think I might even be in there with a picture or an article or something.

Townes Van Zandt wrote songs!

March 12th, 2006

Friday night I sat onstage with Michael Eck, Wanda Fischer, Michael Jerling, Red Baumont, Doug Johnson, Hayseed and Kevin Maul and played Townes Van Zandt songs to a capacity crowd at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium. Townes wrote some great tunes. Wish I had met the guy, seen him play. The new movie about his life was disturbing. He beat himself up real hard. Self-prescribed airplane glue, heroin and alcohol and electro-shock therapy combined to really screw up his mind. It seemed like half the time he was on camera he had a guitar and the other half he had a rifle and a bottle of rum. I hope you don’t have to be that messed up to write songs that good. His music seems really depressing on the surface- like he said, not all of the songs are sad, some are hopeless – but what saves his work is how real, how human the characters are. It is as if, by making them real, he makes us aware of their joys and pleasures by talking about their weaknesses and failures. In ‘Waiting Around To Die’, when the character finds his Codeine fix, it actually seems like relief from everything that has been weighing on him. Go listen to his stuff, OK?