Less Is More

‘Tis the season for excess.

At this time of year, when we should all be thinking of others and trying to be the person our dog thinks we are etc., the impulse to go overboard can get the best of the best of us.

When my children were little, and still true believers in the miracle of things appearing under a magic tree once a year, I felt the weight of their belief on my shoulders. I wanted to give them a happy day. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it? Yet, now that I’m older, if not much wiser, I realize that happiness isn’t something you can wrap up with a bow and hand to your kid.

Happiness has to be won through struggle and toil, trial and error, through rain and cold and dark of night. And then, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a few moments when the drab wet raincoat of trouble falls to the floor and the radiant joy of life is yours and everything seems worthwhile for a few incandescent seconds.

The secret to being happy is to learn to appreciate those fleeting moments, and to remember them after they quickly vanish, like a beloved song you heard once but can’t download onto your hard drive.

In December it sometimes feels as if too many insipid holiday songs have been weaponized. It doesn’t matter if you only go to the drugstore for a tube of toothpaste, or if you’re stuck in the express line at the grocery waiting to pay for your milk, the tortures of Rudolph and Frosty will make the experience memorable, and not in a good way.

I love music. But as the years have gone by it seems I’m ever more cranky and hard to please. So when I tell you I recently discovered the charms of ukulele music, trust me, it’s that good.

For those of us who had the misfortune to grow up when Tiny Tim was the most prominent ukulele player on the entertainment scene, the mere mention of the instrument was enough to empty rooms. It was a classic case of blaming the messenger.

The ukulele itself is a remarkable instrument, accessible to a small child, yet capable of producing anything from classical to jazz, from rock to bluegrass. And yes, even heavy metal, uke style.

I learned all of this, not only from my ukulele playing nephew, who is always way ahead of the curve on these things, but from a charming short film titled “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.”

Shimabukuro, a native of Hawaii, began playing ukulele at the age of four. He had early success with a small band and gained local recognition. But Shimabukuro’s talent has taken him far beyond the island. His passion for an instrument seldom granted much respect outside Hawaii has made him an inspiration to a new generation of musicians, dazzling audiences around the world with his brilliant playing and his infectious personality.

And he does it all on only four strings. Who could ask for anything more?

Heavy Medal

I tuned in to the Concert for Valor last night, after I learned that HBO was unscrambling its signal so that even non-subscribers such as I could enjoy the Veterans Day tribute.

I expected the usual bland assortment of pop music stars delivering the usual red, white, and blue anthems with earnest efficiency. And the first couple of performers I caught didn’t do much to stir my soul. The Black Keys were pleasant and capable. Carrie Underwood, bright-eyed, blonde and slightly pregnant, delivered a mild set of forgettable songs.

I reached for the crossword puzzle to work on during the breaks. But then Tom Hanks showed up on the big screen in a prerecorded piece about Team Rubicon and suddenly I was totally engaged. Started by two veterans, Team Rubicon unites military veterans with disaster response teams to provide lifesaving assistance in emergency situations worldwide. The project not only rebuilds civilian lives, it offers vets a new sense of purpose and fulfillment after their military service is over.

The theme of what happens to veterans after they come home gave last night’s tribute a deeper resonance than a mere collection of musical performances could provide. The examples of veterans, some with devastating injuries, returning home and finding ways to keep inspiring others, was profoundly moving, and underscored by the presence in the audience of those veterans. The emphasis on the veterans, true heroes who give all that is asked of them yet often return home to find they can’t get a job, made the Concert for Valor more meaningful.

Of the 800,000 people in attendance, many were uniformed service men and women invited into the areas closest to the stage. They sang along to some of the songs. But no act got a more enthusiastic response than the band that has for more than thirty years exemplified the gritty power and controlled fury of heavy metal.

If you had told me thirty years ago that I would ever be a Metallica fan I would have scoffed at the idea. I’m not scoffing now.

Those guys are incredible. The audience, which had been listening with polite attention to all the previous acts, jumped into action when James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich unleashed their blistering brand of rock. Let’s just say it was a far cry from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Of course, the truth is, the world is a much different place than it was in 1940. Wars have changed. They seem to be continual, for one thing. And the adversaries are harder to define, much less find and root out. The only thing constant is that young men and women continue to suffer and die to keep the rest of us safe. And we owe them. More than an occasional concert or parade. We owe them a country worth fighting for. A country that takes care of its own, and more.

Opinions will always vary about what sort of music is best. But even if we disagree about whether or not Bruce Springsteen was right to sing an antiwar song at the Veterans Day concert, surely we can agree that it’s past time for us, as a country, to stop bickering about trivial matters and get back to working together on what matters. Let’s take care of our veterans, our children, and our world.

Bang your head once if you agree. Bang repeatedly if it feels right.


Let The Freak Flag Fly

Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.
Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.

The crisp feeling in the air, the rustle of dry leaves skittering along the sidewalk, the scent of fresh apples — these things signal the most poetic time of the year, for me.

Others may wax nostalgic about spring or soft summer nights, and those things have their appeal. But nothing quite compares to the bittersweet bliss of October, when the world tilts toward the darkness again, at least in this hemisphere. There is a rush of energy to this autumnal shift, a sense of urgency. Time’s a wastin’, get the harvest in. The season hums with a “back-to-school,” anything-can-happen mood of fresh opportunity.

This mood changed my life back in October of 1969, when there were a lot of fresh ideas, and some recycled ones, adrift on the shared consciousness of our nation. At that time I had already dropped out of high school, dropped out of college, and tuned in to the mesmerizing pull of a group of scruffy musicians in the D.C. area who were gaining momentum on the local scene.

They started out as a trio, guitar, bass and drums. Within a few months that core had expanded to a collective whose appearances included anywhere from six to 12 performers on stage. The repertoire was eclectic and the group dynamic was volatile, but when they were going good, they were as good as anybody, and better than many.

For the last century, to play in a band has become almost a rite of passage for a large percentage of America’s youth. The type of music doesn’t matter. It’s the playing that defines us.

The United States is a nation of bands. But what makes a band different from individual musicians who may be more skilled and talented than the average band, is that bands can only exist through consensus. And consensus is never easy. Ask anyone in Washington, D.C.

In the beginning of the band that dominated my life for three years, we all lived together in one house. When the band grew too big to fit into the house we shared in D.C., we found an old farmhouse in the Virginia countryside and moved there. The house was big and rambling, but it wasn’t designed to accommodate a horde. There were enough rooms that could be used as bedrooms, but they weren’t equal in size or charm. The question of who should get the best, or biggest, room was discussed. In the end, it was decided that the order of choice would be decided by a cut of the cards. The day before the move happened to be the drummer’s birthday. He was late to the card cutting and as it turned out the card he drew was the lowest.

Yet, as the guys went through the house for the first time the next day (none of them had seen it before; in order to rent the house we had sent our most respectable looking pair to negotiate the deal, keeping the musicians out of sight) each found a room that suited his needs. And most were happy, with the possible exception of the organ player who chose one of the smallest rooms because it had the only private bath, which later proved to be nonfunctioning. Also one of the lead singers chose an attic room that had great potential after he lobbied to have the group pay for his building supplies to fix it up. Those supplies are probably still sitting up there in the dust.

But the drummer, choosing last, selected an overlooked room above the kitchen. It had its own private staircase to the kitchen, thus ensuring a good spot in the line for dinner, and was the warmest room in the house, a key plus in the drafty old structure.

We were happy for a while in that old house. Everything the band earned was used to pay our expenses. The musicians got one dollar per gig.

If that sounds like communism, I suppose it was to an extent. But it was more than that. It was a democratic commune. We debated every expenditure. The milk vs beer argument was never won by either side. And there were other, ahem, expenses.

By the time the band broke up a couple of years later, we were no longer living together. We got together for gigs, but the day-in-day-out sharing of good times and bad had lessened, and without that daily closeness, understanding and sympathy lose the race with self-interest and ambition.

Yet the funny thing is, the band enjoyed its peak when everyone was more concerned about the group as a whole than about themselves as individuals. The willingness to work for the good of the whole benefits all the parts.

This is the key not simply to rock and roll survival, but to national strength. We in this country like to think of ourselves as champions of individual freedoms. But what made this country great in the first place was the readiness of all the individuals who sacrificed for the good of the whole.

It might sound corny, but sometimes nothing swings like the basics. The country that plays together stays together. We may never agree on the milk vs beer question, but as long as we keep the discussion civil, we still have a chance for greatness.

Summer in the City

Claude Jones played for free under the stars at Fort Reno Park in 1970.
Claude Jones played real good for free at Fort Reno Park in 1970.

Everybody sing: “Back of my neck gettin’ hot and gritty.”

In 1966, whether you lived on a farm or in a penthouse, chances are you heard that Lovin Spoonful hit floating on the breeze. It was everywhere for a few weeks that summer while it rose to number one on popular music charts.

With its catchy rhythm track that included the sound of car horns and even a jackhammer, the song evoked the kind of pressure cooker atmosphere that makes living in a major city such an adrenaline boost. You either love it or you don’t.

I did. Having been raised in the suburbs, I couldn’t wait to make my home in a city. In the summer of ’68, I lived in Washington, D.C..

The District is always full of energy and passionate people espousing causes. That summer was unique. The city was recovering from the riots that tore through downtown in the spring. Anti-war sentiment mixed with a surge of frustration and anger after the murder of Martin Luther King had left many people feeling hopeless and bitter.

But life goes on. And when we have a choice of either working to make things better or tearing down the whole country, I’d like to think our better natures will prevail. They did in 1968. People regrouped, rebuilt, and continued the process of trying to make things better for everyone.

One of the small steps taken in that summer of 1968 was the beginning of the summer in the parks free music concerts at Fort Reno Park in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Tenleytown was fairly low-key back then. There was no Whole Foods, no metro stop, and Wilson High School was relatively small.

The stage was nestled under some trees next to a basketball court. The concerts were casual and eclectic. I have fond memories of those first few summers in the city.

The city has changed a lot since then, but I was happy to see that the Fort Reno concerts are still going strong. Stronger than ever in some ways. The stage has been moved to an open field, and the crowds are much bigger. In fact, the scene has become so popular that this week there was talk on the news about shutting it down because the Park Service wanted organizers to provide paid security staff. As there is no budget for this, there was concern that it would be the end of an era. At present, it looks like the crisis has been averted, and I, for one, am glad.

Summer in the city, any city,  is a special time. When large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other, their chances to interact are influenced by the architecture of the city in which they live. Unlike New York City,  D.C. has no Central Park. Our riverfront is a work in progress. But our parks are vibrant and plentiful and full of life in the summer. The chance to enjoy free music together is an essential element of our shared environment.

Another song that got a lot of airplay in the late sixties was “Get Together.” Written by Chet Powers  in 1964, it became a hit after The Youngbloods released their version in 1967. The lyrics might strike modern ears as too earnest and sappy, but the message still resonates, even for today’s bright young millennials with their cute chapeaux and sustainably sourced optimism.

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now.

You need a lot more than love, of course. You need affordable housing, a decent job, access to health care — subjects too weighty for popular music. But lightweight as it may be, the songs of summer help lift the mood when the going gets sweaty.

It’s July. Let’s get together and celebrate the music of warm summer nights.

Now Hear This

Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.
Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.

When I lived in Seattle one of the things I missed most about the East Coast was the musical sound of songbirds.

Some diehard Seattle boosters may insist that Seattle has warblers of its own, and I’m willing to believe it. But in the six years I lived there I never heard one. The signature tune of that misty city is the quark and ratcheting caw of crows.

I’ve got nothing against crows. Although it’s a little spooky how smart they are. I read somewhere that crows can recognize human faces, and it doesn’t take much imagination to take that idea a step further and start to recognize the quirky personalities of the crows themselves.

But getting back to songbirds, the D.C. metropolitan area is serenaded by a variety of local songsters, such as mockingbirds and finches. Mourning doves wail in the shrubbery. Orioles pass through on tour. It’s a harmonious scene. If you grew up around here you could close your eyes and recognize the locale by the spring soundtrack.

On a recent trip to the Florida Gulf I noticed a few familiar bird calls. But Florida’s warmth and water attracts a whole different group of birds, not least of which are the ospreys and pelicans, hunters and clowns, neither of which could be mistaken for a songbird.

Fine feathers feast at low tide.
It’s a moveable feast at low tide.

Yet the birds that speak most eloquently to me when I’m in Florida do it silently. The herons, egrets and ibis, with their impossibly long necks, their graceful ballet moves, and their delicate manners, seem to embody a stillness that pairs well with silence.

I assume they must have vocal chords, though I’ve never heard a peep out of them. But that’s okay by me. Something in the way they move speaks volumes, without making a sound.

I could listen for hours.

Uncool Cat

Like a portal to a timeless era, Washington Square arch serves as the gateway to Greenwich Village.
Like a portal to a timeless era,  Washington Square arch is an iconic landmark of Greenwich Village.

I was intrigued when I saw the trailers for the recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The carefully composed images of Greenwich Village evoked the gritty glamor of the early 1960s in that neighborhood where poets, artists and musicians found cheap lodging and community.

I was some kind of excited when, at age twelve, I went with my Girl Scout Troop on an overnight trip to New York City in the early 1960s. We toured the United Nations, saw a Broadway musical and the Statue of Liberty. But what I was really looking forward to was seeing Greenwich Village. I’d read about the beatniks. I had a set of bongos. I aspired to be cool.

However, my hopes of breathing the air of Washington Square were squashed by the caution of the trip chaperones. Our tour bus did pass by the famous square, but we weren’t allowed to get out of the bus. Who knows what we might have inhaled?

The frustration I felt only made me more determined to experience the city on my terms. Five years later, in the winter of 1966-67, I moved into a small apartment on the Lower East Side. Suffice it to say I learned a lot.

By then the folk music scene had given way to upstart rock bands. There weren’t many bongo players around. But there were still a lot of scruffy young men wandering about with guitar cases filled with dreams.

When I watched Inside Llewyn Davis I was expecting to see something of that tumultuous time when civil rights and social justice were at the forefront of public discourse. But I hadn’t taken into account that this was a Coen Brothers film. The award winning duo has made some amazing films, among them Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men. Some even consider The Big Lebowski a great film. Who am I to judge?

I wanted to like Inside Llewyn Davis. It has the Village, folk music, Justin Timberlake. It even has a cat in a supporting role. But try as I might, I just couldn’t warm to any of the characters. Except the cat. The cat was cool, cooler than Llewyn, and considerably more likable.

The movie follows Llewyn Davis through one week in midwinter as he attempts to restart his career as a solo performer, after his former singing partner (spoiler alert) jumped off a bridge. The movie doesn’t spell out why this happened. But after an hour or so of watching the anti-hero floundering around from couch to couch, I didn’t much care if he jumped off a bridge too.

There are a lot of almost funny little scenes, slyly mocking the folkies of the early 60s, and the earnest fans who believed in them. There is a brief road trip sequence that channels the spirit of Jim Jarmusch, complete with an inscrutable drug addict and a chain-smoking Beat poet.

However, though I tried to care about this story of a lost musician, in the end it was just too much like work. When the film first came out the soundtrack inspired talk of the resurgence of folk music. But really, folk music never goes away. We take it for granted, assuming it will always be there, like that person who always knows the words at the hootenanny. Like Woodie Guthrie. And now he’s gone. Who could take his place? Not someone like Llewyn Davis. Unless maybe he takes up bongos.

Bye Bye Love

The Everly Brothers' flawless harmony charmed a generation.
The Everly Brothers’ flawless harmony charmed a generation.

In this country nothing defines generations quite so clearly as the music they love.

For my father’s generation it was the big dance bands that played swing music with full horn sections, driving rhythms and sweet melodies. I like that kind of music, but it was never mine.

It wasn’t until I heard the Everly Brothers on the radio that I began to sing along.

Bye bye happiness. Hello loneliness. I think I’m gonna cry.

The words may be simplistic. The harmony was unforgettable. For those who had the good fortune to hear the Everly Brothers when they first came on the scene, it was a joy ride.

These days music is embedded into every aspect of modern life. It’s piped into every public space, it’s easily available on countless portable devises, it streams constantly in the air. But in the fifties, when the Everly Brothers burst into song there were fewer sources for live music and tighter control over recorded music.

The Everly Brothers inspired thousands of young men to pick up guitars and start strumming. But while others attempted to copy their harmonies, no one ever did it better.

In the memorial coverage since Phil Everly’s passing on January 3rd at age 74, mention has been made of the friction that existed between the famous brothers in the later part of their lives. While it’s disappointing that they weren’t always as harmonious off-stage as they were on it, perhaps it’s inevitable that some discord would breed in such a long and close partnership.

At the height of their success they were almost never seen apart. In hundreds of photographs they appear joined at the shoulder, Don always on the right, younger brother Phil always on the left. When contractual disputes and the stresses of touring and performing grew, they still had to maintain that facade of Everlys, together forever. Until now.

But I will never forget how fresh and beautiful they sounded. All I have to do is dream.

May The Circle Be Unbroken

Round and round we go.

When the apocalypse finally limps over the finish line and the power grid goes down for good, things will get a lot quieter for many people. But in the silence of that new day there will still be music. Quieter, indeed, but no less marvelous.

Last weekend the 33rd annual Washington Folk Festival, blooming like a field of beloved wildflowers under the lofty trees at historic Glen Echo Park, Maryland, showcased the kind of music that has kept the human spirit alive for centuries.

A festival made in the shade.

Long before earbuds and iPods and virtual Clouds, there was music in the air all around the world, played by shepherds and troubadours, lovers and sailors, the lost and lonely, the hopeful and devout. Music was, and continues to be, a most potent magic.

One of the most precious things about folk music is that it belongs to all of us. Anyone can pick up an instrument, or raise a voice, and join in. It is the most democratic of genres, freely shared and lovingly passed on from generation to generation.

This reverence for the heirloom quality of folk music was clearly evident at the recent festival, where groups of younger musicians carried on the traditions of bluegrass, old-time country swing, gospel, blues and international folk music, showing reverence for the past while breathing new life and energy into the material.

Glen Echo Park is a perfect venue for such a vital process. While the much larger National Folk Festival down on the Mall attracts bigger crowds and more attention, as it should in the heart of the Nation’s Capitol, the more intimate and down-home Washington Folk Festival serves as a reminder of the heart and soul of the folk movement, which enjoys periodic revivals every generation or so, as new audiences discover its timeless charms.

The ride is gone, but the sentiment endures.

Glen Echo Park itself was begun in 1891 as an ambitious project to further the arts, and although the original effort failed, the site was reinvented in the early 20th century as an amusement park and enjoyed a long reign of popularity until it finally closed in 1968. Taken over by the National Parks system in 1971 and revived as a center of arts and amusement, Glen Echo now attracts a wide variety of visitors who come to dance in the  Spanish Ballroom, to take art classes, and to ride the beautifully restored circa 1921 Dentzel carousel.

At the recent festival the carefree music of the carousel wove in the air with the sounds of mandolins, bagpipes and Celtic harps. Outside the Cuddle-Up stage, where the New Old-Time String Band was playing a medley of gospel favorites, passersby sang along to “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”

I’d like to think that even if the circle takes a beating from time to time, it will still keep rolling, and playing a joyful song or two along the way.

Back Tracking

Dad took this photo of a steam engine approaching in 1955.

Since I moved back to the D.C. area last year I’ve been listening to a lot of bluegrass music on the radio. There was a time when I would change the station at the first clang of a banjo. But you know how it is. Time changes everything, and as my need for high energy rock and roll has waned, my appreciation for mandolins, fiddles and even banjos has grown.

Music enthusiasts often joke about the differences between various genres of popular music, noting how country songs tend to be about trucks, drinking and broken hearts, whereas bluegrass music often focuses on trains, home, and the difficulties of finding and keeping true love. I don’t have much to add to the musical conversation when the subject is trucks, or drinking, or matters of the heart. But when it comes to trains, I can blow my own horn.

Trains ran through my childhood. I didn’t care about them particularly at the time. It didn’t matter. My father’s love of trains began when he was a boy and lasted until his dying breath.

I didn’t get it when I was growing up. I mean, when I was a little kid I thought it was kind of cool the way my dad built model trains, and the way he would always take us to see trains, and stop the car on road trips to watch them go by, take pictures, and count the cars, listen to the horns. Some of my earliest memories of my dad are of him, head down, concentrating on some engine he was building at his small desk in my parents’ bedroom. With five kids in a tiny three bedroom house—no basement, family room or rec room—my dad had to put his dreams of a train layout on hold in the early days of his career.

But once we moved to a bigger house with a basement, he poured a lot of his time and money into building an impressive collection of replica HO gauge trains. By the time he had seven children he had more trains than he knew what to do with, and not much energy or time to spend with them, but he continued to hope that one of us kids would catch the fever and take over the layout.

That never happened. One by one each of us would try to take an interest in Dad’s hobby. But trains simply didn’t mean anything to us. They were Dad’s thing.

He would try to make us catch his enthusiasm. He had recordings of trains that he would play on the stereo, so loud that it sounded like the train was pulling into the living room. And he would be grinning like a little kid, sure that if we could only see what he saw in his head, hear what he heard in his memories, we would want to share it.

We all tried. But there was no way we could experience the romantic era of war-time train travel that meant so much to our dad.

But here’s the thing: all of these bluegrass laments about lost love and homesick sorrow go on and on about the lonesome whistle’s blow and the general sadness of trains leaving, etc.

My dad was never happier than when he was on a train. He lit up whenever he heard one in the distance. He looked forward to seeing them, riding on them, learning about them.

I’m glad my father got so much joy from his fascination with trains. I’m grateful that he shared his enthusiasm with me and my brothers. I’ve always loved the sound of trains in the distance, perhaps as a result of my father, or perhaps just because, let’s face it, the sound of a train passing in the distance is a kind of poetry. If you listen the right way.

Since he died last fall I hear music every time a train sounds in the night.

And sometimes, it’s a bluegrass song.

So long as there's a train somewhere...