Had the pleasure of seeing The Okee Dokee Brothers in concert at Lincoln Hall. My little niece is a superfan of the folk duo, which is how I got turned onto them. And since they are a kid-centric act, I got to experience the glories of an 11 a.m. concert start time. I’d go to so many more concerts if they happened in the morning.
Though my exposure to children’s music is limited, none of what I have heard is as broadly appealing as The Okee Dokee Brothers. It’s just straight-up good roots, bluegrass, and folk music. Can You Canoe?, Saddle Up, and Through the Woods are all excellent albums for all ages. (They said their next album, out in October, will be all about winter—as if I needed another reason to love them!)
They also solved a problem I’d stumbled into ever since picking up the banjo and exploring bluegrass music. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment but I promise it’s just a plain compliment: the Okee Dokee Brothers don’t seem focused on being impressive.
They very well could be savants on the guitar and banjo, but unlike some artists they don’t waste time trying to prove how amazing instrumentalists they are through a fusillade of notes. A round of applause for those virtuosos—but I’m much more interested in being taken on a good musical storytelling journey.
The Okee Dokee Brothers demonstrated this (inadvertently) during their show, playfully hyping up their soloing abilities only to reveal some fairly pedestrian two-bar or one-note licks. Meanwhile, songs like “Through the Woods” and “Hillbilly Willy” and “Walking With Spring”, seemingly straightforward folk songs “for kids”, boast strong narrative arcs, clever lyrics, and beautiful musical craftsmanship. And all without punching listeners in the ear with a barrage of frailin’ and fingerpickin’.
In other words: Songs over notes. I know what you can do with all those notes, but what about what you can do with only some of them?
There are two works of art I associate with an ex. One is the music of Mayer Hawthorne, specifically A Strange Arrangement, which had come out a few months before our brief relationship and was a primary jam for me that winter. The other is the Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog, which we saw together in the theater on one of our few dates.
I love both dearly. Hawthorne sounds like Motown reanimated (in a white dude no less). And The Princess and the Frog was a beautiful return to classic Disney form, with a jazzy Randy Newman soundtrack to boot.
But I had to stop listening to Mayer Hawthorne. For some unknown reason, I’ve been able to Eternal Sunshine the unwanted associations from the Princess and the Frog soundtrack and have enjoyed it for years.
Not so for Hawthorne. Despite trying mightily to enjoy A Strange Arrangement and his follow-up How Do You Do on their own terms, the associations that stuck to them overpowered any enjoyment they provided, so I had to say goodbye.
How one survived and one didn’t is a mystery. Scarcity isn’t the issue; it’s not like Disney soundtracks and soul music are hard to find. Maybe it’s because Hawthorne’s music is specifically about love and relationships, and that was harder to separate from reality than music sung by animated frogs.
Perhaps I’ll come back to Hawthorne and the patina of the past will have faded. In the meantime, I guess I just wasn’t willing to give up “When We’re Human”:
Today, in honor of International Women’s Day, here’s an all-female list of music I’ve been really enjoying:
“Ain’t That Fine” by I’m With Her, See You Around The soulful powers of Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sarah Jarosz combined have become I’m With Her (which I’ve learned pre-dated Hillary’s presidential campaign). Saw them live at Thalia Hall last week. Some bands sound better on the album, but not these women: you can’t fully appreciate their tight, soulful harmonies and virtuosic finger-pickin’ unless you’re up close. I hope this is the first of many albums from them.
“O Gracious Light” by Sandra McCracken, Songs from the Valley
With this blog’s top album of 2015, Sandra’s back this year with more goodness.
“It’s A Shame” by First Aid Kit, Ruins
Saw them live with my future wife back in 2012 when The Lion’s Roar came out. “Emmylou” is a special song in our relationship. They’ve been making equally great pop tunes ever since.
“The Eye” by Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter This was one of those albums where when I discovered it a couple months ago, I was mad I hadn’t discovered it sooner so it could have been in my life longer.
“Want You Back” by HAIM, Something to Tell You
Huge fan of their first album, and this one is more of the same, in a good way. So danceable, if I were a dancer.
“Sometimes” by Abigail Washburn, Song of the Traveling Daughter
As an aspiring banjoist, she and Bela Fleck are in my personal pantheon. I missed the chance to see them together in concert recently and I’m really regretting it. I’m hoping/assuming she’ll stay awesome and return to my town soon.
“To Know Him Is To Love Him” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, Trio Seeing I’m With Her reminded me of this classic women’s trio, which is more classically country. There’s just something about strong female harmonies.
Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki. Great little book on how to cultivate talent, specifically in children and music but also for anyone in anything.
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. Enjoyed the adventure of this winding, informative book on the nature of trails of all kinds. Like an erudite sequel to A Walk in the Woods.
The Million Dollar Duck. A documentary that follows 6 artists who enter their drawings into the apparently popular and lucrative annual Federal Duck Stamp design contest. Surprisingly dramatic.
Persepolis. Loved this graphic novel’s high-contrast black and white illustration style. Perfect mix of a girl’s light and funny memoir with the high drama of the Iranian revolution.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. It’s fun to watch Jim Carrey go full Method for Man on the Moon now, from a distance, but it looked like a nightmare for everyone else at the time. The Truman Show remains Carrey’s apex.
High Society. Great sick-day movie: Grace Kelly (in her final role) with a lot to do, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra quippin’ and singin’ around a mansion, plus a superfluous but lovely Louis Armstrong performance, in a funny and charming Philadelphia Story/Casablanca rehash that gives everyone a chance to shine. Hard to believe Kelly was only 26 when she retired from acting.
Phantom Thread. I realized pretty quickly this was a dark comedy, which helped me enjoy it in the moment. But not as much as everyone else seems to enjoy it. Pretty sure I was the only one laughing in my screening.
Ingrid Goes West. Taylor’s beefcake, possibly sociopathic bro holding valuable information hostage is the perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley right now, as is this movie overall.
Moonstruck. Can confirm that the conventional wisdom about this movie—”Nicholas Cage and Cher together in a rom-dramedy that strangely works well”—is correct.
It’s a meaningful movie for me, coming out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. Our guitarist/singer even had the same Gibson SG guitar that Jack Black’s Dewey uses.
At first, we’re meant to see Dewey as a delusional has-been, if a true believer in rock music’s ability to “change the world.” But in his new role as accidental teacher and musical mentor to a class of talented prep school kids, he finds a positive outlet for his enthusiastic idealism (if under shady circumstances). And his maxims about what rock is really about become sound wisdom for impressionable minds rather than just eye rolling platitudes.
This is evident in the scene where the band comes together to make something new together in Zach’s song. Not only does it capture the excitement of “creating musical fusion” with bandmates, but the smile that emerges on Dewey’s face as he steps back to watch the kids come into their own as musicians is a testament to the joy of creative potential being realized.
There are several laugh-out-loud moments throughout, not even counting the “I have been touched by your kids” scene. You really have to be a Jack Black fan to enjoy most of them, if not the whole movie. But even if you aren’t, I can’t see how he wouldn’t win you over with his relentless, goofy energy and legit talent.
School of Rock was a formative movie for me. It came out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. I still think of it first when I hear “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. (Thor: Ragnarok second.)
By no means am I an audiophile. Play an MP3, ACC, and WAV file of the same song back to back and I most likely couldn’t tell the difference. (Correction: I definitely couldn’t tell the difference, having failed this quiz.)
That’s because this new edition does more than just reformat the original tracks. Since the original album was configured for mono rather than stereo, the mix when played in two speakers or earbuds is often awkwardly lopsided. This new version was remixed from the ground up, using the original master tapes to create a balanced sound that’s optimized for our modern stereo ways.
That’s what I read anyway. I wanted to listen for myself to hear just how different the mixes were. After loading up both versions, I eschewed my typical earbuds and opted for my Sennheiser headphones to go back and forth between the old and new cuts. Even my simple ears noticed a huge difference.
Play, for example, the original version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Notice the opening organ only comes through one ear. This is the version we’ve had to live with for 50 years, until now, where the notes in the remix float evenly across the soundscape.
Paul’s melodious bass lines and Ringo’s drumming are the overall winners of this remix. On top of the overall songwriting prowess, those two elements are what make Sgt. Pepper’s such an aurally rich and relistenable experience.
Would that they performed this sonic sorcery on every Beatles album!
Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.
What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:
Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.
And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:
The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.
He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:
It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.
Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:
“Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
A willingness to sing;
A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.
Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.
Courtesy of the Steve Martin-narrated documentary Give Me The Banjo about “America’s Instrument”, here’s Mark Twain on the banjo:
The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. … When you want genuine music—music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose,—when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
Also by Twain:
A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t.
There’s a reason Mark Twain is quoted so often; it’s because he’s so damn quotable.
Since getting a banjo for my birthday I’ve been on the lookout for banjo-related movies and such. I watched Bela Fleck’s documentary How to Write a Banjo Concerto, and then just this week discovered Give Me The Banjo at my library. What else is good?
“Mvmt II: Begin and Never Cease” by The Oh Hellos, The Oh Hellos Family Christmas Album. You really ought to listen through the whole (short) album in one go, which is like one long medley, but the second movement’s ecstatic exuberance echoes Mumford & Sons mixed with Anathallo.
“Snow” by Sleeping At Last, Christmas Collection.O’Neal explains on a recent episodes of his podcast that it’s heavily inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life but also about the concept of home during the holidays.
“Silent Night” by Rosie Thomas, A Very Rosie Christmas. Rosie’s bouncy original “Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year” is always a fun listen, but don’t sleep on the rest of the album’s dreamy, riverine covers like this one. Great for a cozy nights staring at a twinkling Christmas tree.
“All I Need Is Love” by CeeLo Green & The Muppets. For successfully turning “Mahna Mahna” into a Christmas song.
“First Snowfall” by Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Leave it to OTR to capture a different kind of Christmas, ramshackle and real, far from the Norman Rockwell scenes traditional Christmas songs paint.
“12 Days of Christmas” by Relient K, Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer. There aren’t a lot of great versions of this song because it’s such a pain to make 12 repetitive verses interesting. But Relient K pulls it off with verve.