Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"More Musings"

[Still more poetic musings from our own banjo-uking poet, Carmen Leone—enjoy!]

More Musings


Going out of business.
The shelves are nearly empty now,
picked over.
Like some folks I know.


Marriages and friendships fall apart
faster than one can keep up,
everyone looking for that happiness
that has eluded them— 
till now, they desperately want to believe,
till now.


At the nursing home
we gather around her.
She quietly picks at the food on her plate,
as we visit with each other,
catching up on all the events of our lives.
Smiling, she hears only herself chewing intermittently.


How strangely the fallen brown-pink leaf
wraps its crisp corpse
around the still green blade of grass.


Around the dining room table,
we strum three guitars, a tenor banjo,
a fiddle, and a stand-up bass.
We sing to an imaginary audience,
and our many aches and pains
take seats in the very last row,
chattering and ignoring the music.


The fat hose blows insulation into our attic.
as we below contemplate
how we might insulate ourselves
from our own wintry conditions.


At the wake
all life stops,
as we bide our time waiting, waking.
After the funeral
life will resume,
catching back up.


The letter that matters
sits inside the mailbox,
the cake that matters in the oven,
the dead man in his coffin,
waiting to be (respectively)
perused, devoured, justified.


I love these days when
there’s absolutely nothing to do,
and I feel confident in the morning
that I can get it all done by nightfall.


When I think of Heaven
I think of it as Sunday dinner,
where no one’s missing,
no one’s being missed.


We are the men who monthly,
after clichéd greetings,
sit at tables waiting for our food,
reciting stories from our glory days,
trying to forget for this brief hour
our desperate, brittle, sad, and aching bones.


I bought a Jesus, dirty, sweating,
smelling slightly bad from the heat,
ragged, hungry, confused.
But he wouldn't fit on the dashboard of my car.

Carmen Leone
© 2009-the present

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Death Defying Acts on the Sellwood Bridge

 When I left you last Rose City Wednesday, dear readers, I’d followed the Springwater Corridor from its beginnings in Portland’s inner southeast all the way out to the far-flung Sellwood neighborhood. The Corridor actually continues past Sellwood, tho there’s a one-mile gap at that point. However, I’d come to Sellwood with one object in mind, & yes, it was related to the ongoing Bridgetown expeditions.

The Sellwood neighborhood is home to the southernmost of Portland’s Willamette Bridges, the eponymous Sellwood Bridge. In fact, I believed that my goal of walking all eight of Portland’s bridges that are open to pedestrian traffic was in the balance—sometime this summer the old Sellwood Bridge will be undergoing significant construction, & I thought it might be closed for some time. Doing a bit of armchair research for this post, however, I find that’s not true: in fact, according to sellwoodbridge.org, the construction, which will begin this summer & continue thru 2016, is only expected to result in 30-day closures at any given time. 


Still, without that knowledge in hand, I undertook the crossing that day, & I can say that I lived to tell the tale. Make no mistake: as it is currently constructed & used, crossing the Sellwood Bridge on foot is not the sort of pleasant walk across the river that one might experience on any of the downtown Portland Bridges. Reasons? 1. This is not a drawbridge, so you’re walking across at a significant height, in case that matters to you; 2. the sidewalk is narrow & is for the accommodation of both bikes & pedestrians; 3. & perhaps most significantly: although there are signs clearly requiring that bicyclists walk their bikes across the bridge—& given the narrowness of the passage, compelling reason for them to do so—at least in my two crossings, I found that the majority of bicyclists don’t obey this directive. Thus, you’re always looking over your shoulder for the next bike (& the bridge is heavily used by bicyclists) & hoping it occurs next to one of the streetlights so you’ll have a place to duck away to relatively safely as the bicyclist goes past you. In fact, there was one other pedestrian on the bridge during my crossing, & he came very close to getting clipped by a bike simply because he neglected to look over his shoulder before moving back into the midst of the sidewalk after standing by the railing to look downriver—I pointed toward the bike for him at the last second & a mishap was avoided. Frankly, I would not like to be hit by any moving object at that height! 4. the bridge is in poor condition: it’s rickety, & just doesn’t feel very safe. In fact, sellwoodbridge.org lists the following “deficiencies”:

  • Poor structural condition, with a limited service life
  • Vehicle weight restrictions, which have forced an average of 1,400 trucks and buses each day to find a different river crossing route
  • Geologic instability on the west end that has damaged the bridge
  • Narrow travel lanes with no shoulders or median
  • Short stopping distances and lines of sight for motorists
  • One narrow sidewalk insufficient for bicyclists and pedestrians
  • Poor connections to established trails at each end of the bridge
  • Tight ramps at west end that cannot easily accommodate large vehicles
  • High risk of structural failure in an earthquake
  • A National Bridge Inventory sufficiency rating of 2 out of a possible score of 100
No, I wouldn’t want to be on the current Sellwood Bridge in an earthquake! 

Note peak of Mount Hood just above the blue hatchback

Mount St Helens: nothing like viewing an active volcano from a bridge that's seismically unsound!

You’ll notice I said “two crossings.” In fact I don’t believe there’s any Trimet bus service back north to downtown Portland anywhere near the west end of the bridge. Apparently Trimet buses used to use the bridge for some routes, but that was curtailed when the bridge weight limit was reduced. So once I’d survived the east-west crossing, I decided to head back to Sellwood with the thought that this would be the best bet for getting a bus back in my home direction in a reasonably timely manner. I didn’t know that the #70 bus route runs infrequently even on weekday afternoons! But after some considerable hiking around Sellwood hoping to find another option, it at last occurred to me that I could stand to “take a load off,” & found a bus shelter where I could take a good long 30 minute rest while waiting for the next northbound bus.

& I could say: I walked the Sellwood Bridge & survived!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Lessons Unfinished"

[We just had father’s day, so Barbie Angell’s tribute to her late father is seasonal, especially for those of us whose fathers are no longer with us—it’s a lovely tribute & a sweet remembrance]

Lessons Unfinished
(a poem for my father)

written for Frank Dockstader.
october 8th, 1949 – november 5th, 2001

I’m hitching a ride on a piece of a dream
with the strength of the tail of a kite.
I’m wondering why I fall asleep to my screams
and who gave the Big Apple a bite.

I crawl from one question to the next in the line
a convoy of unanswered thoughts.
Who teaches the teachers? Why do socks run away?
Why does everything end with a loss?

And my old man’s job was unfinished
when he went off to party with Pearl.
Does he know that I just wasn’t ready?
I guess I am still daddy’s girl.

I put the questions aside in the corner,
like garbage that needs to go out,
and I hope that someone will read this
and know what I’m talking about.

So I’ll try to move on and I’ll write a new song
that will take me away from myself.
But I still sometimes think
we should’ve had one last drink.
I’d have toasted him….
“Here’s to your health.”

Barbie Angell
© 2009-the present

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012

“Ten Million Slaves”

As you may know, next Tuesday is the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the end of slavery in the state of Texas in 1865.  Specifically, it’s understood as the date that the Emancipation Proclamation was recognized as law in Texas, & as such was a watershed day for the Proclamation becoming the law of the land not just in woird, but in action. While the holiday originated in Texas, it is now recognized as either a holiday or an “observance” in 41 states in addition to the District of Columbia.

Despite that official recognition, Juneteenth isn’t widely known, but it certainly deserves our attention. As my own small way of doing this, I wanted to bring it up in the context of Banjo Friday—because the banjo, with its African origin, followed by initial descriptions in which various European writers find it hardly “musical” at all, to its appropriation for mistrel shows & later morphing into a bluegrass instrument—is in itself a potent object that can teach a lot about shifting race relations & racial identity in the US.  A great place to start exploring this is Picturing the Banjo (which I wrote about some time ago.)

One arc traced in Picturing the Banjo is the history of the African American community turning away from the banjo & the string music associated with it, because these were seen as hearkening back to slavery. Other writers on the history of the blues have conjectured that the development of this music around the turn of the 20th century was itself a reaction to the older music associated with the fiddle & the banjo, again because of the slavery connection. In this reading, the blues became a revolutionary music, a turning away from the past.

The reality is never quite that simple, of course. As we know from the great Carolina Chocolate Drops, the string band tradition never completely died out in the African American communities, especially in the south, & there were plenty of popular musicians who continued to incorporate fiddle & banjo music into the blues & some of its relations (like hot jazz & jug band music) thru the first few decades of the 20th century.

But while that arc isn’t true in anything like an absolute sense, it is generally true in terms of an overall trend. & not only was that a cultural trend within the black community; it also describes the musical development of a talented & intriguing musician named Otis Taylor, who’s made a name for himself over the past 17 years as a blues musician & composer of considerable talent & vision (in fact, Taylor also was a performing musician as a young man in the 1970s, but he walked away from it for almost 20 years.)

Taylor’s first instrument was the banjo; however, when he learned about its history of appropriation & minstrelsy, he put the instrument aside in favor of the guitar. However, in recent years, Talor has returned to the banjo, & in fact released Recapturing the Banjo on Telarc in 2008, a seminal contemporary banjo album on which Taylor is joined by the likes of Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb’Mo’ & several other notable black blues artists to produce an album of reclamation.

Only in retrospect do we know both how much & how little was accomplished on June 19, 1865. There was the absolutely necessary implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, & a literal end of the horrific institution of slavery; yet this was followed by the implementation of Jim Crow & the feudal sharecropping system. & let’s not delude ourselves that these problems were restricted to the south; in Boston, once the center of the abolition movement, school integration turned ugly even in the late 20th century. Also, while we’ve advanced culturally to the point that we can elect a black man as president, it’s disturbing to witness the unconscionably disrespectful treatment he’s received from a significant portion of the population, including elected officials at almost every level. We still have far to go.

Hope you enjoy the music, & hope you take the chance to follow some of the links & learn more about Juneteenth, Otis Taylor, & the banjo!

The photo shows the Juneteenth committee from 1900 in Austin, Texas. The image is in the public domain.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Springwater Corridor Expedition

Monday morning came on clear & golden, with the sun shining thru the blinds, a perfect day for an outing, & I (more or less) had my itinerary in mind. That being the case, I caught the #4 bus later in the morning & headed for SW 1st & Madison, with my aim being to walk a long section of the Springwater Corridor.

I believe I mentioned the Springwater Corridor in my post on the Eastbank Esplanade. In any case, the Esplanade essentially connects to the Corridor, tho technically speaking there’s a small section that’s part of the Willamette Greenway belonging to neither path. So I hiked across the Hawthorne Bridge & once back on the east side, I headed south.

The Greenway path is quite lovely in itself, & also passes the OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science & Industry), so I’ll leave that for a separate post. It must be said that the north end of the Springwater Corridor isn’t an especially inviting prospect: your initial vista is simply McLoughlin Boulevard, & as you wend your way up the street, you eventually head past the Ross Island Sand & Gravel Company cement plant! After that, however, things begin to look up considerably.


The Springwater Corridor is part of a 40-mile loop of walking & biking trails in the greater Portland area; the loop itself begins in the southern suburb of Boring (in the sense that any loop “begins”) & travels eventually all the way to the St John’s Bridge in North Portland. Per Wikipedia, “it follows a former railway line of the same name in its route from Boring, through Gresham, to Portland, where it ends near the Eastbank Esplanade.” 


It was a warm day, & even a trifle muggy, at least by western standards; to my right as I headed toward my destination in the southern Portland neighborhood of Sellwood, there were woods & occasional small meadows, & of course always the Willamette River; to my left, the railroad itself, behind cyclone fencing. Birdsong; meadow flowers; views of the Southwest Waterfront & the Ross Island Bridge; an art installation in a meadow near the pier of an abandoned bridge; herons feeding in the backwater; the Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co. boathouse; redtail hawks overhead; the Oaks Bottom Wildlife refuge & the Oaks Amusement Park both accessible at various points (tho I didn’t avail myself of them); & at a certain point a small locomotive running north up the line. There was an almost steady stream of bicyclists & quite a few joggers, particularly nearer the north end; I was one of the few walkers.


As you can see from the photos, there’s a lot to see along the way. At the end of the line, I’d walked about 4 miles of the Corridor to reach Sellwood, & probably a good half mile from the west end of Hawthorne Bridge to reach the Corridor proper. As someone who deals with a significant respiratory condition, this seemed like an achievement indeed! I was helped by the fact that the grade on the Corridor is nominal—essentially flat ground for walking or biking.

Now here I was in Sellwood, very far from my north Portland digs—what to do next?: Tune in next week & you’ll find out.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


[Once again we have "Musings" from Carmen Leone, but different musings this time. I love the ambling pace & the gentle humor in this long poem, & I know you will too!]


On any given block,
in some house
someone’s crying in the bathroom.
This you’d never know
from the perfectly green lawns.

At the counter in Rite-Aid
people of all shapes and sizes
bob and weave in their individual seas of misery
while the pharmacist’s girls gossip
and count pills.

The tree people look at the fallen tree
in my back yard
and shake their heads in unison,
plotting my ruin.


The salesgirl totals the bill
And looks at me through—almost—tears.
I want to say, “Don’t worry.
It’s all right.”


Not all things are not what they seem.
Enough are, though, to make us leery
of even the surest things.

I would give you an example
if only I could think of one.     


It took four double A batteries
to light the fire in our fireplace.


I know I eat too much,
but did he have to ask me
when the baby’s due?


We agree that the next time we gather at a wake
we’ll afterwards go someplace to eat.
except for, of course,
whichever one of us has died.


When she died, he stood awhile perplexed
about what to do with the food we brought.
Then he put it away
and asked us if we’d like a cup of coffee.


What would happen
If nothing happened?


The summer sounds—
the mowers and the birds—
pretty much block out
the ringing in my ears.


The leaf that simply fell
several days later
gave me more pain
than its tree that preceded it in death.


The snow doesn't fall exactly
but each flake circles for awhile
looking for the time and place
to land
picking out its own
blade of grass
as if to say
will try
to purify


John Greenleaf may be Whittier
but Henry David’s more Thoreau.


What is so clear
as a tear?
Not soul penetrating
as a drop of  blood,
not so devastating
as a sudden flood
is, my dear,
but simply clear?


I made an imaginary garden
and grew giant vegetables there,
but who should rob me of my gains
but an imaginary hare!


Danny went into the woods to see what he could see.
Johnny went into the woods to see a maple tree.
Danny saw a snake, a frog, three birds, a stream, a bee.
Johnny saw--well, what else?--Johnny saw a maple tree.


Louisa May Alcott,
. . . but then again, she may not

I know my chords,
and, trust me,
she’s an E minor.


To Archibald MacLeish I meekly say,
a poem should not mainly mean,
but mean it may.

Carmen Leone
© 2009-the present

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Photo of the Week 6/10/12

Playground Structure, Peninsula Park
N. Albina Ave, Portland, Oregon
Tuesday 6/5/12

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Fine Morning at Peninusla Park Rose Garden

 If a city goes by the sobriquet of “City of Roses,” you can bet there are rose gardens to explore. In fact, you don’t have to walk many blocks in any Portland neighborhoods before you see the roses: in lawns, in terraced gardens, in parking strips, on trellises, & practically anywhere they can be planted.

In fact, Portland’s climate is ideal for roses—the moisture, the temperate winter, the moderate spring & summer all combine to make this a rose gardener's haven. & of course, that being the case, there are public rose gardens as well. With June being Rose Festival month here—& with the roses everywhere in resplendent bloom—I decided it was time to visit one of these.


There are actually three main public rose gardens in Portland: the extensive International Rose Test Garden in the west hills, the small Ladd’s Addition Garden in the southeast, and—as it turns out—Peninsula Park, which is not at all far from where I live. That being the case, I decided to visit local first, & just yesterday morning I strolled on over to Albina Avenue & headed north.

 It’s roughly a 30 minute walk from my place to Peninsula Park—& I’m a slow walker. The park is also easily accessible on the #4 bus—there are stops right at Ainsworth & N. Albina where the park is located.  My walk began under gray skies, with the occasional random raindrops—cool for the season—& I briefly considered catching the bus to get there, but having just missed one at the Blandena stop, I realized I could probably walk there before another one showed up, & I was close to being right.


The garden itself is lovely & magical—it’s a sunken garden, well below street level, with a venerable, 100-year old fountain gushing effulgently in the center (this made more true by the bright sun that appeared just as I came up to the garden), & long rose beds spangled with blossoms of many colors hedged by boxwood on finely manicured grass pathways. Catalpa trees also embellish the walks, planted in pairs & trimmed to an almost umbrella shape. 


In addition to the fountain, the other noteworthy architectural feature is an octagonal bandstand that dates to the early 20th century—the bandstand was used for concerts to raise money during the First World War, & is still available for usefor both music & weddings. The brick walls that line the north & south entrances are also hedged with roses, & along the street level walks above the garden there are benches for the contemplative or weary.


Although it was late Tuesday morning, there were all sorts of folks there to admire the garden’s beauty—joggers, moms with strollers, kids on bikes, young couples, older folks, & other solitary walkers like myself. It’s a beautiful setting, & well worth a visit. I’ll certainly be back!

Hope you enjoy the photos & my all-time favorite “rose song.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

“You are where you are”

[This poem showcases several of Barbie Angell’s strengths: the surreal personification, the wry humor & use of rhyme, & her always intriguing Chaplinesque, wittily forlorn narrator. The structure, which alternates limerick stanza with a four line stanza also is handled nicely—enjoy!]

“You are where you are”

My personality lives in the medicine chest,
my integrity lives in the bar.
My cynical side
has tortured my pride,
my anger’s wherever you are.

Curiosity died as a kitten,
and my glass is only half there.
‘Cause no matter how much I am smitten,
my heartache will always appear.

Who’s writing the movies I see in my dreams?
Who let them run free in my brain?
They leave me confused,
like I’m being used,
I no longer come in from the rain.

My soul has decided he’s quitting.
He’s leaving tomorrow at noon.
So I’m left in my mind simply sitting,
hoping a new one comes soon.

Barbie Angell
© 2009-the present

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Texas Blues #2 – “Levee Camp Moan” – Texas Alexander & Lonnie Johnson

Good morning! & yes, folks, it’s an actual edition of the Monday Morning Blues here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.

If your memory is good, you may recall that I’d just started a series on the Texas blues way back in early April. Then my season of blog malaise set in, & the series was put on the shelf. But it’s back. For the foreseeable future, I envision posting Monday Morning Blues & Banjo Friday in alternating weeks—I think that was the plan awhile ago, but this time I’m going to try to stick to it!

One of the most singular of the early blues musicians was a man named Alger “Texas” Alexander; in his recording career, he invariably went by “Texas Alexander.” Alexander was born in 1900 in Jewett, Texas, & came up as a street performer & a performer at parties. It’s said that he performed with Blind Lemon Jefferson, presumably during Jefferson’s time as a performer in Dallas.

Alexander was a singer, pure & simple—he didn’t play any instrument. As a singer, he was accompanied by some stellar instrumentalists, including guitar greats Eddie Lang,  Lonnie Johnson & “Little Hat” Jones, pianist Clarence Williams, & cornet player King Oliver. As I understand, he also used Lightnin’ Hopkins as an accompanist later in his life, & there is some speculation that the two were cousins.  Alexander also recorded with the immensely popular Mississippi Sheiks.

Texas Alexander was no smooth blues crooner, however. As you’ll hear in his great “Levee Camp Blues,” his style & delivery owed a lot more to field “hollers” & work chants than to melodious popular song. Given this fact, pairing him with great jazz players like Johnson, Land, & Oliver is itself singular—& indeed, most of his accompanist’s agreed that it was challenging to follow him, as he would often stretch the time, add beats, & even change keys while singing! Nonetheless, his duets with Lonnie Johnson are considered masterpieces of their kind, with Johnson—a guitarist who’s very underrated these days—was able to weave counterpoint accompaniments that meshed perfectly with the singing. An unlikely duo, certainly—but one that produced unique & memorable music.

This recording of “Levee Camp Moan” is from an August, 1927 session for Okeh, made in New York. Alexander made over 50 recordings for Okeh & Vocalion in the 1920s & 30s; but he was convicted of murder in 1939, & was in the Paris, Texas penitentiary thru 1945. He continued recording until 1950 with a group called Benton’s Busy Bees, & died of syphilis in 1954.

This is really quite amazing music—I know you’re going to enjoy it!

Pic of Texas Alexander links to its source

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Photo of the Week 6/3/12

Rose Blossom (in honor of the Portland Rose Festival!)
N Borthwick Ave, Portland, Oregon
Saturday, 6/2/12

Friday, June 1, 2012

“Shady Grove” - & Much More: Remembering Doc

Banjo Friday is back!

Happy to say that, but it’s a sad occasion in many ways, because I’m coming back with a tribute to the late great Doc Watson, who passed away on Tuesday at age 89. Of course, Doc was known first as a virtuoso guitar flatpicker—a guitarist who could play with the utmost musicality at unreal speeds: a combination that’s hardly ever found, because usually one of those traits is sacrificed for the other. Not the case with Doc Watson—he was a flatpicking phenomenon; I read a comment about his playing that it was based on “an economy of motion & an economy of sound”—that’s beautifully put. & secondarily, Doc was known as a singer—a rich, casual baritone voice that evinced his good humor & his passion as the circumstance required. As was the case with his guitar picking, he just sang so easily.

But there was more to Doc Watson as a musician beyond the flatpicking & singing. He was also a masterful fingerpicking guitarist who played in a two-finger style (thumb & index finger) much in the Merle Travis tradition—in fact, the video I posted on Wednesday, Doc’s version of “Deep River Blues,” was one of his well-known fingerpicking numbers. & he played a mean harmonica.

But Doc Watson also was an excellent banjo player who also played that instrument in a two-finger “up-picking” style. In fact, the banjo was Doc’s first instrument—interesting how that’s true for so many of the great traditional musicians—tho the oddest thing I found out about Doc’s early playing days is that at one time he was flatpicking fiddle tunes on a Gibson Les Paul.

I’ve loved Doc Watson’s music since I first heard him play & sing “Tennessee Stud” & “Way Downtown” on the great Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, released by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but featuring so many wonderful traditional musicians—not just Doc, but Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin & more. A man who overcame infant blindness to become not only a virtuoso musician, but a beloved figure & an important proponent of traditional music, Watson will be truly missed.

I wanted to showcase Doc’s banjo playing, so I picked his version of “Shady Grove.” I’ll admit that the internet has some disagreement as to who’s actually playing banjo on this recording: while many sources (including Abigail Washburn, if I understand her statement correctly) attribute the banjo on this track to Doc, I’ve also seen at least one source say it was his son Merle (a virtuoso player, again known more for his guitar work) & at least one credit it to Don Stover. So there you have it! But trust me, Doc could play some banjo!

In addition, I thought it would be appropriate to feature a video of Doc jamming with Earl Scruggs, another master musician who passed away recently, & one I regret not commemorating earlier on Banjo Friday; finally, since most of the guitar breaks on that video are done by Merle Watson & Randy Scruggs, I’ve added one of Doc flatpicking & trading leads with jack Lawrence, who was his playing partner after the tragic & untimely death of Merle in a farm accident in 1985. To memorialize his son, Doc started MerleFest, the great “traditional plus” music festival held each year in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

Doc played with real joy & passion—in combination with his incredible chops, those qualities made him a player for a generation. Hope you enjoy this wonderful music.

Pic shows the Doc Watson sculpture on the corner of King and Depot Streets in Boone, North Carolina. The plaque on the bench reads "Just one of the People". The photo was posted to Wiki Commons by user Geologik, & is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.