Category: Music

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

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.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

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”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. 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.

Mark Twain on the ‘glory-beaming banjo’

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?

Highlights from #XmasMusicBinge2017

As I near the end of my annual Christmas music binge, a few songs have stuck out. Check them out while the mood is right and the spirit’s up:

“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.

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

new-analog

“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Favorite Christmas song lyrics, ranked

I’m terrible at remembering lyrics. Even for favorite songs I’ve heard dozens of times. It’s an annoying deficiency when I try to sing along as so often I end up having to mumble certain lines.

But now, my yearly Christmas music binge in progress, I’ve started paying attention to the lyrics that have peaked my interest over the years. A phrase, a couplet, a stanza—whatever somehow embodies the Christmas season with lyrical grace.

So, to separate the cookies from the coal, here are my top 20 Christmas lyrics:

20.
Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow!
— 
“Let It Snow”

19.
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night

He will bring us goodness and light
— “Do You Hear What I Hear”

18.
Deck the halls with mistletoe

Let all your heavy burdens go
Up the chimney in a cloud of smoke
The fire’s burning bright
— “Merry Christmas, Here’s to Many More” by Relient K

17.
It’s that time of year

When the world falls in love
Every song you hear seems to say
“Merry Christmas
May your new year’s dreams come true”
— “The Christmas Waltz”

16.
Then comes that big night

Giving the tree the trim
You’ll hear voices by starlight
Singing a Yuletide hymn
— “Mistletoe and Holly”

15.
Later on we’ll conspire

As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid
The plans that we’ve made
Walking in a winter wonderland

— “Winter Wonderland”

14.
These wonderful things are the things

We remember all through our lives
— “Sleigh Ride”

13.
May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white
— “White Christmas”

12.
Light and life to all he brings

Risen with healing in his wings
— “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

11.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
— “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

10.
A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new glorious morn

— “O Holy Night”

9.
Faithful friends who are dear to us

Gather near to us once more
— “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

8.
Snowflakes a-fallin’

My old heart’s a-callin’
Tall pines a-hummin’
Christmas Time’s a-comin’
— “Christmas Time’s A-Comin'”

7.
Radiant beams from thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace
— “Silent Night”

6.
Repeat the sounding joy

— “Joy to the World”

5.
But what is this music

That falls on my ear
It’s the very first snowfall
Of a very long year
— “First Snowfall” by Over the Rhine

4.
Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
— “Angels We Have Heard On High”

3.
Christmas Eve will find me

Where the love-light gleams
— “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”

2.
Like the petals in our pockets

May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts
— “Snow” by Sleeping at Last

1.
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

— “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

With special mention to:

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne
— “Auld Lang Syne”

Yes, it’s not really a Christmas song, but it’s in It’s A Wonderful Life and it’s the song I want played at my funeral, so it gets grandfathered in.

In praise of wedding reception air drumming

I didn’t realize I had a reputation. At a wedding recently, the bride and groom told me one of the things they were looking forward to the most was my air drumming. They had seen it in action at a previous wedding and had enjoyed it so much that they decided they would make time at their own wedding reception to watch me perform and even participate themselves.

Humbled though I was, I didn’t set out to be a beloved wedding reception air drummer. Out on those shiny faux wooden dance floors, air music is all I can do. Because I can’t really dance—aside from the slow-dance swaying that hasn’t improved much since middle school—my strategy for participating in reception dancing is to pretend to play the music well enough to appear united with the exuberant, sweaty throng of guests who are actually dancing.

This doesn’t happen at every reception. The right combination of people I know, complete strangers, and alcohol have to be in place for this very particular set of skills to be unleashed.

Without:

  • people I know, I wouldn’t have the comfort of a supportive home base in which to air-boogie;
  • complete strangers I know I’ll never see again, I wouldn’t be OK with making a fool of myself;
  • and alcohol and the liquid courage it provides, I wouldn’t be dancing in front of strangers and people I know at all.

Until I learn one day how to go beyond the simple side-to-side two-stepping many tall, lanky, self-conscious white dudes like myself resort to under dance duress, air drumming will have to do.

And you know what? I enjoy it. I’m good at it. Though I tend to stick to drumming because I was a drummer before anything else, my air talents aren’t limited to the percussive arts. I’ll thrown down a mean air rhythm guitar, string, horn, or bass line too, and make it look good. Any palooka can flail around pretending to play “Don’t Stop Believin'”; it takes a true air instrument craftsman to accurately mime the crunchy guitars in “Party in the USA” or the synth solo in “Shut Up and Dance”.

There are at least two weddings on the docket for me next summer, so I have a few months to get back into air shape. Once I am, you’ll find me out there again, planted in my air power stance—knees bent, left foot forward, leaning back slightly, and doing my part to keep the party going.

The Christmas Songs

It’s that time of year
When the world falls in love
Every song you hear seems to say
Merry Christmas
May your new year’s dreams come true

— “The Christmas Waltz”

For a while I only listened to Christmas music in December. This rule kept that music fresh, even sacred (something I like to do), and tethered to the season it’s meant for. But as a compromise to my wife—a Yuletide hedonist if there ever was one—a few years ago I bumped up the unleashing of my Christmas collection to the day after Thanksgiving. This allowed me to enjoy Thanksgiving before switching gears to the Christmas season.

This year we kicked things off, as I always do, with Christmas With the Rat Pack, followed by She & Him’s Christmas Party. It’s not even December and I’ve already listened to the Christmas albums of Nat King Cole, Relient K, Perry Como, Hanson, The Oh Hellos (quickly becoming my favorite), Count Basie, Marty Robbins, and the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. But I’ve got plenty of stuff left to accompany me to the end of the year, when I send them back into digital storage to await their annual calling.

My Mount Rushmore of Singers

At this moment, anyway:

Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Whitney Houston

With a runner-up trophy for Marty Robbins.

It’s fall: what music are you listening to?

Here’s an incomplete, totally subjective playlist of music that reminds me of fall. Let me know in the comments what music reminds you of autumn.

“October” by Eric Whitacre. Played the orchestral version of this in high school, but the choral version is just as good and beautifully evocative of the season.

“Oh Shenandoah” folk song. Sang the choral version in high school, though really any version of it is bound to be good.

Keep It Together by Guster. Not really sure why. I don’t like any other Guster music, but this is the first of three indie-pop-rock albums I discovered in college that have clung to my consciousness in a specific seasonal way.

You Are My Sunshine by Copeland. Have a distinct memory of listening to this while walking through downtown Chicago at night in late November on my way back to my suburban college campus. “On the Safest Ledge” still gives me goosebumps. Eat, Sleep, Repeat is also a great autumnal album.

Everything In Transit by Jack’s Mannequin. Like Guster, I don’t listen to any of their other music, and again mostly the first half of the album resonates for some reason. Usually play this only once a year on a brisk overcast late November day, all the better if I’m in an emo mood.

“Adagio-Andante con moto” by George Gershwin. My friend Tim and I made a lot of live action and stop-motion movies together in middle school and high school. One (that was ultimately aborted) was a sort of impressionistic music video of our hometown, which at the time (and after) ranked among the Best Places to Live in America. We went to extreme lengths to try to align the footage with the music, including Tim sprinting through his house to turn out lights in time with the end notes of the song.

Meet Joe Black soundtrack by Thomas Newman. Tim had this on CD. We’d listen to it all the time and use it in our movies. I still have never seen Meet Joe Black and I’d like to keep it that way. (Runner-up Thomas Newman soundtrack: Little Women.)

Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Though appropriate for listening any time, this was another album (along with the Lord of the Rings soundtracks) Tim and I kept in heavy rotation when hanging out. Have you figured out yet that we weren’t cool in high school?

Media of the Moment

I want to do more to account for what I read and watch. I do use Goodreads for tracking books, Letterboxd for movies, and my Logbook for all of them in one place. But between occasional reviews on the blog here and there, a lot of other noteworthy pieces of art pass through my consciousness almost without comment.

So I’m gonna blend my “Music of the Moment” feature with Kottke’s ongoing “recent media diet” feature (minus the grading part) into Media of the Moment to try to briefly highlight and recommend cultural bits I’ve encountered recently.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. The latest selection for a two-man book club I’m in. Neil deGrasse Tyson should take notes.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

“The Imposter” by Béla Fleck. Watched the documentary about Fleck making a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, then got the CD of said concerto, and it’s great.

Landline. Really enjoyed Gillian Robespierre’s previous film Obvious Child, and she returns to form here with her muse Jenny Slate. I think I liked Obvious Child more, but this captures a particular time and family well.

The Florida Project. The latest from Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015. Knew basically nothing about it when I saw it; I recommend the same for you. Best Actress for the lead.

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. Always liked Shepard as an actor. After he died I heard about this collection of correspondence with his longtime friend and discovered a wise, searching, highly quotable dude.