Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sister Rebecca Mary!

I promised a host of Libra birthdays being celebrated on Robert Frost’s Banjo, & here’s yet another (& as an aside—we’re not quite done yet!). Today is the birthday of our dear friend Sister Rebecca Mary of Marymount Hermitage. Long-time readers will remember Sister Rebecca Mary from her turn in the Musical Questions series.

Life takes us to unexpected places, doesn’t it? I’d never have imagined myself being friends to two devout Catholic hermit sisters; but this friendship developed & has continued despite the fact that my view of the universe & its workings differs fundamentally from the view held by Sister Rebecca Mary & her fellow hermit sister (& fellow good friend) Sister Mary Beverly.

Sister Rebecca Mary is without question one of the most deeply spiritual people it’s been my privilege to know. A big part of that spirituality is her ability to listen compassionately & to help others within their own frame of reference. She has helped me on any number of occasions—including some times of actual crisis. In addition, both Eberle & I have thoroughly enjoyed our many “jam sessions” with Sister Rebecca Mary—often we simply pick a musical "mode" & have at it in free improvisation (& with instrument switching!); it’s a very freeing musical experience.

Our musical association with both sisters goes back to when we first met them, playing music with them for their Christmas Eve mass in 2003. Shortly after that, Eberle & I assisted them in a recording project: we helped Sister Rebecca Mary record her songs—with lyrics in Hebrew & Aramaic—as she accompanied herself on guitar & dulcimer. The recordings were professionally mastered & issued on a CD that the Sisters have sold for the past five years; & the sales have been very impressive for a rather humbly produced CD. If you're interested, you can find the CD for sale here, at the Marymount website.

Sister Rebecca Mary’s creative talents go beyond music, however—she’s also written a trilogy of children’s books—the first installment, The Midnight Rose, has already been published, & is also available from the sisters’ website. In addition, Sister Rebecca Mary is a skilled illustrator, painter & jewelry worker—she fashions gemstone rosaries that the sisters also sell to support themselves.

The vidclip below is Sister Rebecca Mary performing her setting of Isaiah 49, accompanying herself on guitar (one of the cuts from the CD). Most of the words are Hebrew, but this is one of the few songs in which she also sings the lyrics in English.

I think you’ll find this song moving—I certainly do. & happy birthday, Sister, & thanks for bringing so much light to those around you!

Dad’s Photos #18

My finely crafted blog schedule is, in a word, discombobulated! The last two days have been very busy, & I’ve had no time for writing, so the usual Guitarists We Like installment will be posted tomorrow (I hope!). However, there will be music later on today from a very likable guitarist (& singer & dulcimer player & baritone uker), so please stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are some of my father’s photos for your enjoyment—more images from his camp in Athens, VT where he lived during the winter of 1939-1940. These images are noteworthy because they include the first images of my mother; also, on a “technical” level, some of these images are printed on 4 x 6 photo paper, the only photos in the album reproduced at that size.

Hope you enjoy them!

Woodard’s Steers

Even “they” thought I was nuts

“Beginning” - 1939-1940

“On the Trail”

“Down but not out” – Woodard’s Pasture


Home for the day – (Got the Bacon)


Tired or just lazy??

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Translation Tuesday returns! Today’s offering is a poem by Swiss-born writer Blaise Cendrars (born Frédéric Louis Sauser). Cendrars was born in 1887, & began writing poetry in the early 20th century while apprenticed to a Swiss watchmaker in St Petersburg; he later studied medicine, but after traveling to Paris & New York, he became convinced that poetry was his calling, & wrote such significant long modernist poems as Les Pâques à New York & La Prose du Transsibérien et la petite Jehanne de France. He also befriended a number of avant-garde artists & writers, including Chagall, Modigliani (note the portrait at the top of the post—one of the very few images of Cendrars in which a cigarette isn’t perched on his lower lip), & perhaps most significantly, Apollinaire. Apollinaire & Cendrars became good friends, & in addition to mutual respect, it’s usually thought there was considerable poetic influence between the two.

Like Apollinaire, Cendrars served in the French Army in World War I—also like Apollinaire, he was seriously wounded. In Cendrars’ case, he lost his right arm—one of his war memoirs was titled La Main Coupée ("The Severed Hand"). Cendrars continued to write, tho he turned away from poetry in the 1920s, & became involved in the burgeoning film industries. He was listed as a “Jewish writer of ‘French expression’” by the Gestapo in World War II, but he survived the war, & died in 1961 after his health failed following a stroke.

Cendrars is another poet I like very well—he can be prismatic, & his lines have great energy. The poem “Contrastes” comes from his 1919 volume Dix-neuf poèmes élastiques (19 Elastic Poems). I translated the entire sequence in the 90s, & I’m sure more will appear here.

Hope you enjoy this one.


The windows of my poetry are wide open on the boulevards and in their display cases
Gemstones of light
Listen to the limousines’ violins and the Linotypes xylophones
The scrub painter rubs his hands on the sky’s towel
Everything’s stained with color
And the hats of the women who pass by are comets in the evening’s conflagration

There’s no more unity
All the clocks now point to midnight after having been set back ten minutes
There’s no more time.
There’s no more money.
In the Assembly
They’re watering down the raw materials’ marvelous elements

At the bar
The blue-collar workmen are drinking red wine
Every Saturday game hen
They’re playing
They’re betting
From time to time a gangster passes by in a car
Or a child plays with l’Arc de Triomphe…
I advise Mr Big to put his protégés up at the Eiffel Tower.

Change of ownership
The Holy Spirit on sale in the smallest shops
I read with rapture swarms of calico
Of poppies
It’s only the pumice-stones of the Sorbonne which have never bloomed
The Samaritan sign plows through the Seine
And over by Saint-Séverin
I hear
The streetcars’ relentless bells

It’s raining electric light bulbs
Mountrouge East Station Metro North South waterbuses world
All’s halo
Rue de Buci they’re hawking L’Intransigeant and Paris-Sport
The sky’s airdrome is now, ablaze, a Cimabue painting
When in the foreground
Men are
And are smoking, factory chimneys

Blaise Cendrars
translation: John Hayes, © 1990-2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Birthday, Eberle!!

As you’ll continue to see right here on Robert Frost's Banjo, I like folks born around this time of year; September & October are two of my favorite months, & always have been, & some of the best people I've known have been born this time of year. But of all the wonderful September people I’ve known (both Virgos & Libras, for the astrologically-minded), none has been more wonderful to know than Eberle Umbach.

I’ve known Eberle for a good long while—we first met in 1984 in Charlottesville, at a party at the house of writer George Garrett. We remained good friends throughout much of the 1980s, having many marathon conversations about things ranging from courtly love & religion to the French Revolution & poetry; we sure smoked a lot of cigarettes during those! Ah well.

For various reasons we fell out of touch at the end of the decade, with me moving to San Francisco & Eberle ultimately moving to Brazil where she spent a few years in the interior living on a farm. We got back in touch in 1996, & a whole new phase of my life began—a phase that involved music & country living & the kind of true companionship I’d mostly missed until that time. The subsequent years—despite the ups & downs that inevitably come to us all—have been very happy & filled with amazing collaborations, especially on the musical front, from our first days playing music together in my San Francisco apartment to our most recent show at the Alpine Playhouse earlier this month. We’ve been companions thru a succession of bands, various farming ventures, lots of fun road trips (short & long—practically everything’s a road trip when you live in Indian Valley), & thru good & bad times.

Words can only say so much—so I’m adding a little slideshow I think Eberle will enjoy—& hope you will too. The background music is me singing a very old tune called “Green, Green Rocky Road,” which Eberle tells me is her favorite of the songs I perform; the pictures are ones we took of an old homestead just about a half mile down the road from us. It’s one of Eberle’s favorite spots, & tho it’s dilapidated (even more so now than when these pix were taken!) it still captures her imagination.

So hope you, our wonderful cyber friends also enjoy this little virtual party! Happy Birthday, Sweet Pea, & many, many happy returns!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cocaine Blues

The post title doesn’t refer to any personal problems, thank goodness—my wildly unkempt appearance in the video below not- withstanding— but instead refers to an old blues song by the great Reverend Gary Davis—in case you’re curious, this bears no resemblence to the Johnny Cash song of the same name. It’s a song I’ve been drawn to for many years, ever since first hearing it (can't recall who the performer was) on University of Vermont radio when I was but a callow youth—probably in my very late teens. When I began playing the guitar it was certainly high on the list of songs I wanted to be able to play, & I have been messing around with it now for several years at least, finally settling on playing it in the key of D (in case you were curious!)

I believe this will be the last webcam post for a while—I have other ideas for Sunday come October. I’d also be interested in hearing from any blog readers who are so inclined about what they might like to see more of down the line. Robert Frost’s Banjo has been a work in process since the beginning & will continue to be, but I know some things get more “air time” & some less depending on the phase I happen to be in, so please let me know.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy the song & have a wonderful Sunday.

Picture of yours truly from the 09 Council Mountain Music Festival by Tim & Lori Hohs

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Red Shift

I’m wrapping up the September series of personal favorites in the Weekly Poem series with a piece by a poet whose work I always find inspiring, moving, & “poetic” to its core—Ted Berrigan. I’ve posted a couple of Mr Berrigan’s poems previously on Robert Frost’s Banjo—you can read them here & here, & if you have the time, they are very much worth a read. If you’d like to find Berrigan’s work in book form (something I’d encourage) you can find his Collected Poems available thru the University of California Press, & his complete Sonnets (a tremendously important work of late 20th century poetry, at least in my opinion) thru Penguin. There are also some good selected poetry editions around—I believe they may be out-of-print, but available at a reasonable price if you look around.

Berrigan was a poet of great feeling & exuberance—his wife, Alice Notley has written about his openness to the reader (see her introduction to Penguin's Selected Poems)—a sort of conversational welcoming to the poem—even tho Berrigan’s poems can be in a sense “difficult,” there’s always a sense of direct communication, & if you consider that some of our most important communication lies in a realm past strict verbal meaning (in the sense, e.g., of “dictionary” meaning) it stands to reason that even difficult poetry in which literal meaning is elusive can communicate something direct if it’s written with that intent.

Enough from me—except to say you can hear Berrigan read this poem (& lots of others) at the Pennsound page here. Hope you enjoy this terrific poem by an electrifying poet.

Red Shift

Here I am at 8:08 p.m. indefinable ample rhythmic frame
The air is biting, February, fierce arabesques
                on the way to tree in winter streetscape
I drink some American poison liquid air which bubbles
                and smoke to have character and to lean
In. The streets look for Allen, Frank, or me, Allen
                is a movie, Frank disappearing in the air, it's
Heavy with that lightness, heavy on me, I heave
                through it, them, as
The Calvados is being sipped on Long island now
                twenty years almost ago, and the man smoking
Is looking at the smilingly attentive woman, & telling.
Who would have thought that I'd be here, nothing
                wrapped up, nothing buried, everything
Love, children, hundreds of them, money, marriage-
                ethics, a politics of grace,
Up in the air, swirling, burning even or still, now
                more than ever before?
Not that practically a boy, serious in corduroy car coat
                eyes penetrating the winter twilight at 6th
& Bowery in 1961. Not that pretty girl, nineteen, who was
                going to have to go, careening into middle-age so,
To burn, & to burn more fiercely than even she could imagine
                so to go. Not that painter who from very first meeting
I would never & never will leave alone until we both vanish
                into the thin air we signed up for & so demanded
To breathe & who will never leave me, not for sex, nor politics
                nor even for stupid permanent estrangement which is
Only our human lot & means nothing. No, not him.
There's a song, "California Dreaming", but no, I won't do that
I am 43. When will I die? I will never die, I will live
To be 110, & I will never go away, & you will never escape from me
                who am always & only a ghost, despite this frame, Spirit
Who lives only to nag.
I'm only pronouns, & I am all of them, & I didn't ask for this
                You did
I came into your life to change it & it did so & now nothing
                will ever change
That, and that's that.
Alone & crowded, unhappy fate, nevertheless
                I slip softly into the air
The world's furious song flows through my costume.

Ted Berrigan

Friday, September 25, 2009

“Keep An Eye On The Sky”

It was a long time ago now: Charlottesville, VA in the mid 80s. I’d been introduced to the music of Big Star by a girlfriend who was, by the time this particular story begins, an ex. Some time after the break-up, I was in a record store, & I picked up an album called Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers. The cover showed a portrait of the band’s lead singer, Alex Chilton, in contrasting blue & black tones. If my memory is faithful, I believe I knew one or two songs from the album before I took it back to my little cottage apartment to play it—I’m almost positive I knew “Nighttime.” But even that small amount of familiarity really didn’t prepare me for what I was about to hear.

To this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever been obsessed with a record album quite the way I was with Sister Lovers—the title I always identified with it. I listened to music differently then, it’s true: music created a whole world that I was able to walk into & inhabit. Since I began playing music more seriously in the 90s, I’ve lost that ability—I don’t mourn its loss, because now I hear something different & wonderful in a different way when I listen to music. But it’s true that at the time, music almost had the world-altering potential of a new love.

Coincidentally (or not coincidentally,
as I believed then), my obsession with Sister Lovers began at almost the same time as a new love entered my life, & at the same time as I began to write a series of poems that were probably the best I wrote during my Charlottesville days. To me, the music from Sister Lovers was a backdrop to those poems, just as it was a backdrop to my life.

Things, as they sometimes do when we are young & prone to intense poetic passions, went from wonderful t
o devastatingly horrible—I say this in a detached way—after all, it’s many years ago now. But I think it’s important for me to say, because I’m trying to convey something about a terrific box set, Big Star: Keep on Eye on the Sky (Rhino), & because my association with Big Star’s music is intensely personal, I think I should be clear about that up front. In the interest of full disclosure, I also should say that while I like the first two Big Star albums quite well—#1 Record & Radio City—they never completely captured my imagination in the way Big Star’s 3rd did (some of Chilton’s post Big Star material, particularly Like Flies on Sherbert & Bach’s Bottom also intrigued me a lot).

For those who aren’t familiar with Big Star, the group formed in Memphis in 197
1, & included Alex Chilton & Chris Bell as a sort of southern Lennon-McCartney, backed by Andy Hummel on bass & Jody Stephens on drums. That particular configuration (more or less) recorded #1 Record for Stax in 1972 & Radio City for Columbia (which had bought Stax out) early in 1974. The band name “Big Star” was ironic—besides the obvious, there was also a supermarket chain in Tennessee called Big Star; Chilton had already had the experience of a #1 record at age 16 when he sang “The Letter” with the Box Tops—& had turned down a chance to sing lead with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Of course, the first album, #1 Record also had the same irony.

But back to the box set—first, the obvious: this is a collection of some seminal rock music. Big Star’s influence on many of the 80s' alt rock bands was huge & freely acknowledged—R.E.M’s Peter Buck put Big Star’s 3rd on a par with Highway 61 Revisited, Revolver, & Exile on Main Street, & the Replacements—among others—also credited Chilton & Big Star as shaping influences. But there’s more to this box set than simply being a compendium of Big Star’s songs.

Tho I may no
t have put this into words, I believe one thing that’s always appealed to me about Big Star & Alex Chilton is the sense of a music in process. Chilton carried this to extreme levels on Bach’s Bottom (an obvious take-off on Box Tops), where he deconstructs his own (& other people’s) songs in the studio in a fascinating act of creative destruction. While Big Star never went to such extremes, the demos & alternate & unreleased tracks reproduced here are far more intriguing & provocative than the usual collection on compilations. In the case of Keep an Eye on the Sky there is a real sense both of evolution & of the fluidity of creation—not simply that the song started as this & ended as this, but an examining of various & even disparate possibilities for each song. The insight into the process for all three albums is fascinating, but the window this box set opens onto Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers has provided me with quite remarkable food for thought.

The box set contains two versions of almost every song from 3rd; both a demo & the actual recorded version—actually there are demos for all the songs on the original lp version, but Rykodisc re-issued 3rd in the early 90s in the form—as I understand—Chilton originally intended, & this added five tracks to the lp. Interestingly, the five tracks that were added have always seemed to me to muddle what otherwise seemed a clear concept album—to this day, I don’t know what Chilton meant by including “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On”—but the box set probes the question more deeply by including two versions of the previously unreleased “Lovely Day,” a buoyant pop song that plays in stark contrast to some of the albums very dark moments, such as “Holocaust” & “Big Black Car.” “Lovely Day” at some point morphed into “Stroke It Noel,” the lead off song on the vinyl version (check it out in the video below). We see the gorgeous song “Nighttime” transformed from the sweet love song of the demo to something else—a sweet love song tinged with a distinct air of darkness—for more on "Nighttime," please check out my post on Just a Song right here.

I’ve had an interesting email exchange with Audrey Bilger, who regular Robert Frost’s Banjo readers know for her contributions to the blog, about Big Star’s 3rd. Audrey tells me she’s always seen the album as being suffused with light, & there’s certainly a lot to be said for that position—plus I always respect Audrey’s opinion when it comes to music, because she’s one of the sharpest music critics I know. For me, the album’s light has always been set off by an underlying darkness—consider “Kanga Roo” & “Big Black Car” below. While the box set doesn't answer the questions about underlying intent, it certainly enriches & enhances an examination of the album's themes. Oh yes: I should point out that Audrey's spouse, Cheryl Pawelksi, co-produced the box set. Ms Pawelski has had a successful career in the recording industry, producing compilations & re-issues of groups ranging from the Beach Boys & the Band to Vince Guaraldi & Sonny Stitt.

Keep an Eye on the Sky is a 4-disc set; the sound is superb. Discs one & two cover #1 Record & Radio City—including precursors to Big Star, like Chris Bell’s earlier band, Icewater, performing “All I See is You.” The demos for 3rd begin on disc two—& these are gems in themselves, especially ones like “Blue Moon” & “Femme Fatale” (yes, the old Nico song by the Velvet Underground) with Chilton accompanying himself on acoustic guitar—while disc three is all Big Star’s 3rd. The fourth disc contains a live performance from 1973—since Big Star was more of a studio outfit than a live band, this is a rarity, & a welcome one at that. The set is rounded off with a 100-page book (I’m thinking 100 pages is more than a booklet) containing essays about Big Star & lots of pix.

If you’re interested in music from the 70s, or alternative rock music—or simply in uniquely powerful music, you really must check this box set out.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Lana!

It’s been my great pleasure recently to connect with some old & dear friends, & one of them—a friend from my days in Burlington, VT & also for a time when I was in Charlottesville — is celebrating a birthday today.

Robert Frost’s Banjo birthday wishes to Lana Bortolot! Lana is a globe-trotting, self-described girl reporter & an all-round great person, with an adventurous & generous spirit, & real integrity. Many happy returns to you!

As Jimmie Rodgers sang (& I believe)

The old pals are always the best you see
New friends you can find ev’ry day [ed. note: not so sure on that]
But they can’t take the place or ever be
Like the old pals of yesterday [amen to that, Jimmie!]

Things Seen on Farm To Market Road East of Donnelly

For the past several weeks, Idaho State Highway 55 thru Donnelly has been torn up by construction, so as I wend my way to Cascade on my weekly round of appointments, I’ve started taking the long way round on the aptly-named Farm To Market Road. This road runs all the way back to McCall & eventually intersects with Highway 55 south of Donnelly—along the way, you pass thru historic Roseberry, a partially restored settlement that dated back to the very early 20th century—venerable by local standards. On either side of Roseberry, there are pastures & pines & locusts & creeks & cattle—Idaho bucolic in all its beauty. These are some of the things I’ve seen.

  • Behind a whitewashed fence (in serious need of re-painting), a wood bench swing hung by chain from a locust tree
  • The water in a cattail-lined irrigation ditch turned blue by the reflected sky
  • A sheet of fog rising from a hilltop to the east shimmering a spectral white in the morning sun
  • A faded red barn
  • A large slab of gray driftwood erected as a sculpture in front of an old white house with a red tin roof
  • Mulleins lining both sides of Farm To Market Road, some taller than a man, growing from the gravel
  • Cordwood rounds laid out in a large circle in a pasture
  • On the other side of a creek, more cordwood—maybe about a quarter of a cord—stacked & surrounded by cattle
  • A pasture with at least a dozen skeletal dead & white pines, the bark peeling from them in dark gray layers
  • Four turkey buzzards circling high over the pasture, riding thermals & never flapping their wings
  • A black metal sign in the shape of a large, wooly sheep at the end of a gravel driveway
  • A yellow highway sign saying “Bridge Out” in the midst of a pasture lane
  • The locusts trees lining the road with leaves turning yellow from the trees’ crowns down, but still green toward the trunk
  • The bandstand at Roseberry, painted red & white, with pastures & piney hills in the distance
  • An Amish buggy parked next to a green plastic garbage can; the can rests on an old-fashioned wooden two-wheel hand truck
  • The Roseberry General Store at the intersection of East Roseberry & Farm To Market Roads—an old yellow Shell pump & two rusty old red wagons being used as planters
  • A red fox waiting for my car to pass before crossing Farm To Market Road in Roseberry
  • A black 1919 Model T for sale
  • A pasture gate fashioned from two tall, weathered cedar posts & a strand of barbed wire
  • Cedar split fence posts leaning at such an angle they almost touch
  • A mound of earth & squared stones—an old foundation
  • An abandoned osprey
  • A red fox standing on a stack of large round hay bales
  • A single-wide trailer under a weathered green tin roof; icicle Christmas lights dangle (unlit) from the roof—an array of electrical transformers across the road

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When a Woman Gets the Blues – The Music of Rory Block

Generally speaking, I’m a “roots” kind of guy—I like the old-time performers playing the old-time music. But I’m not fastidious about this—hey, I mean I play Robert Johnson songs on the banjo, so it’s not like I’m against trying new things! & somewhat in that vein, there’s a contemporary blues artist who’s really really worth checking out—she’s been on the scene for years, but has stuck to the music she loves & isn’t as well known as she should be. That’s Rory Block.

This isn’t to say Ms Block's career has gone without accolades—she has won the W.C. Handy Award (now known as the Blues Music Award) five times, has appeared on Austin City Limits, Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Soundstage, has toured worldwide, & has recorded about 20 albums dating back to the mid 70s. She’s won her share of well-deserved praise: consider this from The New York Times:

"Her play
ing is perfect, her singing otherworldly as she wrestles with ghosts, shadows and legends."

or this from The Bo
ston Phoenix:

"Singing as if every syllable were filled with an explosive charge, she makes traditional blues tunes sound menacing, ecstatic, redemptive, and, most important, as if they were her own."

The blues is—in terms of its bare bones’ form—a simple music: typically (tho not always) based on a very standard three chord progression. On the other hand, blues is the soul of a very complex music—jazz—& that fact should give us a big hint that the form really has almost unlimited potential for expression; to me, that means you have to give of yourself to play the blues—you have to make it your own, not merely thru technique (tho that’s important of course), but also thru heart or passion.

Folks often write about Rory Block as someone
who preserves the old blues traditions, & that is unquestionably true. But the notion of Ms Block as a “mere” preservationist seems to miss what’s most important about her music, whether she’s playing a Robert Johnson tune or one of her own compositions, & that’s the fact that her music is dynamic & vital, & played with an almost ferocious passion. Rory Block came to the blues in a really traditional manner, learning firsthand from such masters as Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House & Skip James.

But even learning from such truly great players can only take a person so far—the extra has to come from within, & if that spark isn’t there, no amount of learning or technique
can bring it out. Block has this spark, & combines it with killer guitar playing & truly amazing singing—just check out (for instance) her version of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” in the video below.

Ms Block continues to tour & record; she released her tribute to Son House last
year—it’s called Blues Walkin’ Like a Man (Stony Plain Music), & it’s fantastic (check out her take on “Preachin’ Blues”); House’s music seems to me particularly hard to “cover,” because so much of the music’s greatness comes from his ability to just give himself over completely to the song; but Block can carry this material off because she shares that ability.

If you’re looking for a soli
d introduction to Rory Block’s music, I’d recommend checking out her 1997 compilation Gone Woman Blues (Rounder). This album draws its material from five earlier albums (all Rounder releases), especially from 1991 Mama’s Blues, 1995 When a Woman Gets the Blues, & 1992 Ain’t I a Woman; there’s also one track each from 1996 Tornado & 1989 High Heeled Blues. The material covers songs by Robert Johnson, Skip James, Charlie Patton et al., as well as a couple of original tunes, including the title track.

Hope you check out this powerful blues artist, & that you enjoy these videos as an introduction to her work.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Equinoctial (Revisited)

[Sorry to those folks who came here for Translation Tuesday—that will be back next week. This week I hope you’ll excuse me for re-posting a piece I ran on last year’s autumnal equinox—September 21, 2008. Very few of the current readers were looking at the blog at that time, so I don’t think it’ll be redundant for many. Hope you enjoy it.]

Today: a suspended chord hovering between two open doors….

thru one the eggplants & tomatoes & peppers hang on their vines & absorb whatever sun breaks thru; the pears that were out-of-reach are still ripening yellow & falling; the zinnias are orange & magenta in the herb bed by the oregano, itself blooming white….

thru one the willow & cottonwood leaves are turning & starting to fall in the breeze—yellow raincoats strewn across the gravel driveway—the small apples at the fence line are ripening & dropping too….

This morning: the twilight’s first pale blue is a scar across the night where the horizon’s wrist folds into the sky’s hand curving black & starry overhead….

Night isn’t really infinite, it’s just a hand that’ll lift us into prehistory; the stars are so many diamonds compressed from wishes & memories & prayers swirling away ….

The moon shrinking white & quiescent into the last quarter, rising late in the night & wandering thru the afternoon sky between the clouds….

Summer was a waking daydream—even the short night’s a daydream of heat & smoke & crickets, & falling asleep in the daylight—here at the western brink of Mountain Time where the sunlight lingers almost into tomorrow (which never comes)….

& the pears we couldn’t reach hang on the boughs for a short time yellow & ripe….

Autumn will be a wakeful night, the cold light of planets & constellations burning back thru time—a thousand thousand lighthouses burning in a dark sea you won’t cross except in the thoughts that carry you thru the nighttime….

Today—briefly—a balance as day & night both leave their doors ajar—a suspended chord hanging between the stars glinting like pinpricks glittering thru black fabric & the leaves glinting yellow & slick as the sun breaks thru….

A balance—the blue scar of morning’s twilight a tightrope you’re walking between the day & night—

A tightrope—balanced on the streak of magenta—a wound between the horizon & the gray clouds at sunset—

A stasis that doesn’t last—a chord that could ring chilling or hopeful between the stars & the horizon & between the sunlight & the cottonwood leaves all falling yellow, & the chord asks to be resolved….

Monday, September 21, 2009

Weiser River Pillow Book #10

[Here's this month's installment of Eberle's Weiser River Pillow Book series. In case you've forgotten, Eberle wrote the Pillow Book in 2001, which will put these September musings in a larger context.]


What we are, I suppose, is inevitable: dull-witted, guilt-ridden, violent, joyless, smug masters of denial, good at video games.

Possessed by the remarkable ability to believe ourselves deserving of privilege.

Believing in the inherent goodness of the parent superpower, in spite of the continuing tradition of astounding brutality.


Strange to discover that fall is a time of things returning. Instead of counting off the disappearances—basil, plum tree leaves, marigolds--I watch for what returns: magpies, quails, owls. The pumpkins and acorn squash emerging all at once and abundant when their vines shrivel under frost.


The dryness of the leaves.

Then the insects come.

Dust pillowing the ground under wild apple trees where the cows take shelter.

Mice rustling loudly in the dry grasses.

Hawks circling overhead.


The house is brimming with moonlight.

Wind rushing in the cottonwoods, the far roar of highway trucks.



The curve in the road past the last trailer house, wild yellow plums and the rosy kind as well. Now the weather has turned and there are quail, wild turkeys sometimes. Cattails and rose-hips in the ditch. I’ve watched a large sunflower stay the same solid yellow as the fields behind it dry to brown. The No Hunting sign attached to the barbed wire fence with baling twine, a large rusted piece of farm machinery sticking up as if it had toppled, nose first, to the ground, a mastodon caught unawares by an Ice Age.


Walking into the forest.

Drumming, especially outdoors.


Making love, especially in the afternoon.


When it’s easy, it seems that the sounds are already there, all I have to do is listen. All it is, is suspending fear, listening past panic and sense.

Rapture is simple, but not comfortable.

That night, sleeplessness: the sound of rain dripping onto the straw bales unbearably loud, the moths crashing into the screen window.






People have put up, everywhere, flags printed by the big city newspaper. But using colored pencils to make your own flag is apparently not as socially acceptable an option.

A lovely flag would be pink and green stripes, with an eggplant among the stars.

Re-reading May Sinclair’s description of the outbreak of flags before the declaration of Britain’s involvement in World War One—the same hysteria, the same blindness, the same rush to curtail civil liberties.


It’s the third time in twenty years this country has gone to war against people it empowered: Noriega, Hussein, Bin Laden.

The technological direction we have chosen creates the arsenal—sky-scrapers as weapons, DNA research enabling biological warfare.


In spite of logic, I feel so sick and depressed. Logic says terrorism is bound to become another part of life, and in fact it is no more brutal than all the other brutalities people have decided they can live with in this country. But it is sad.


Not finding bodies, realizing that they were part of the ash cloud falling on the city.

Cats and dogs, dead in locked apartments whose owners never returned, where neighbors didn’t know each other well enough to do anything.

In Afghan refugee camps, millions facing death from starvation.

During the Taliban takeover, computers, videos, cassettes, nailed in masses to a pole; children vowing murder.


Giving Native Americans small-pox infested blankets as part of the genocide campaign.

Killing countless people to control oil, and enabling the Taliban to come to power.

Fearing Taliban-backed suicide artists infecting themselves with small-pox and walking among us.


Three sisters by a river, planting trees; twenty years.

Two friends, a ladder between them.

Four boxes of pears; the dehydrator.

Pear-shaped skin-thin slices, veined and grained with summer.


A leaf, colorless and dried where leaf-maggots have been.

Empty hay shelters.

Telephone poles along the treeless road, looking invertebrate after the fields have turned to a uniform khaki.


Shirley Jackson. Rebecca West.

Anna Kavan. Jean Rhys.

Barbara Comyns. Stevie Smith.

Mary Shelley. May Sinclair.

Angela Carter. Lynda Barry.


The superpowers have to figure out that they can’t wantonly wreck people’s basic rights without eventual reprisal. This is not a moral premise, since a superpower, by definition, is incapable of thinking morally, but a matter of pragmatics. Eventually, people will fight back, and they will be able to do damage. Eventually, the smugness and self-encumberedness of a superpower means that is incapable of running a war against anything but another superpower competently. We ourselves created this mine-field.

Eberle Umbach, © 2001-2009

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Good Show!

Hey everybody! Eberle & I had a blast last night, & the audience did too—they were great. We did 17 songs plus an encore, & things went off pretty much without a hitch. Our good friends, & crack photographers, Tim & Lorie Hohs took lots of pix during the show, & I’ll post some of them when I get ‘em. In the meantime, here are a few snapshots from the pre-show.

Eberle warming up

Basket of stuffed animals—de rigueur at a blues show!

The set-up: note Buffy the Buffalo has a place of honor on the speaker!

Yours truly - sound check

Sign outside the Alpine Playhouse

Eberle backstage

Yours truly, ditto

Basin Street Blues

Howdy everybody. I’m posting this ahead of time because I’m expecting to be pretty well zonked on Sunday morning following the Saturday night show—may have a more up-to-date post later on.

Here’s my take on “The Basin Street Blues” for your enjoyment this morning—despite my voice being a little bit under par the day I recorded this (& despite some minor brain locks on the lyrics!) I was satisfied with the result overall. As you can see, I’m not playing my resonator guitar here, but instead am fingerpicking my old Harmony archtop.

The Harmony Master archtop went for between $45-$50 in 1958 when this one was made; as is the case with a lot of things, they have appreciated since. But they’re still pretty much a bargain if you get one that’s in good shape, as this one is—there are some cosmetic “issues” here, but the old gal sure sounds sweet. As far as the set up goes, I actually like the thick & wide neck—it’s nice for fingerpicking or flatpicking, & as typically is the case with archtops, the sound projects really well. The guitar’s been played for 50 years (I’ve only had it for a few) & I’m sure she’s good for many, many more.

Hope you enjoy this one!

Saturday, September 19, 2009


As I mentioned last week, September’s set of Weekly Poems are all long-standing personal favorites—poems to which I feel a strong connection: not simply poems I admire but ones that “speak” to me in some deep way.

This week’s offering is by poet Elizabeth Bishop, a long-time favorite poet of mine. The poem’s title is descriptive of the poem’s form—i.e., a sestina is a poem of six 6-line stanzas (often, but not always, as here with a 3-line envoi). The form is built on a series of end words that change according to a set pattern:

Line 1 in the first stanza becomes line 2 in the second
Line 2 in the first stanza becomes line 4 in the second
Line 3 in the first stanza becomes line 6 in the second
Line 4 in the first stanza becomes line 5 in the second
Line 5 in the first stanza becomes line 3 in the second
Line 6 in the first stanza becomes line 1 in the second

& so on thru the six stanzas, each succeeding stanza being formed in the same order relative to the preceeding one. If this pattern were followed all the way thru a seventh stanza, then the order of the end words in a seventh stanza would have come full circle—they’d be the same as the first. In the case of Bishop’s poem, the six repeating words are “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” & “tears.” As someone who’s written sestinas (actually a “fun” form in my opinion) I can tell you that Bishop’s choices are interesting—five of the six are quite flexible, but almanac seems extremely unlikely! Bishop handles it beautifully.

Of course the poem isn’t simply “about” being a sestina—title notwithstanding; it’s really poignant in an under-stated way. Hope you enjoy it this September Saturday.


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dad’s Photos #17

Autumn’s not too far away, is it? & this installment of Dad’s Photos reminds us of what comes after that! I’m hoping the fluffy white stuff is still a good long ways off, because for my money it always looks better in a photo than in real life.

These are more photos from the winter of 1939-1940, when my father lived in a little cabin in the small village of Athens, Vermont (town typically pronounced with a long “A” by the locals). My mother had some interesting insight on these photos; she said that my father was working as a cook at a pretty swanky restaurant in a nearby town—the Newfane Inn, which is still extant, so I’m thinking the old Ford that shows up in these photos got quite a workout that winter. My mother also pointed out that the snapshot you can see on the dresser in the photo titled “Room Plus Me” in the last installment (you can see it here) is her high school graduation portrait! My mom has gotten computer access at last at her assisted living home, & my nephew Ethan Rosenberg is going to be giving her an internet 101 tutorial. It makes me happy that my mother is finally able to see Robert Frost’s Banjo on a regular basis, & thanks to Ethan for all his help.

My dad’s caption for the pic at the top of the post was simply Home. Hope you enjoy the photos!

Who’s There??

Just a Flop!! [this is my father, who typically was anything but a flop on either skis or skates—I believe these smaller photos (an odd size—roughly 2x4, whereas most of his photos are 3x5) were taken with a different camera, & at least in this case, by someone else)

Camp (North Side)

Ford I

Putney – “Tame” (Putney is the name of a nearby town, but I assume it was my father’s name for this deer)

Woodards Farm – Looking East

Bright Eyes

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