Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An American Hero

I’m not one for hero worship & I don't have much use for the U.S. cult of celebrity, which makes everyone from newscasters to athletes to movie stars to politicians into larger than life figures, as well as the fascination with celebrities’ deaths that frequently captivate the internet. But I do think heroism is possible, & that a person can indeed hold steadfast to his or her ideals even when all instincts for self-preservation may tell them to do otherwise. & such a man was Pete Seeger, who passed away tonight at the age of 94 years young. & in related news, I believe this man’s passing is worth memorializing.

Pete Seeger taught us many things—the power of song—that is of voices rising up in song, not as a single pop star on the stage singing to his audience, but as a singer who believed every song was an opportunity for a sing-along. Of course, the real lesson here is cooperation—working together toward a common goal & a common good, not in a zero sum game of winners & losers.

Along the way, Pete Seeger faced the HUAC, a blacklist, FBI investigations, & maintained his course. He said in an interview once that he always believed things would be set right, because he always believed in America. Remarkable that a man could react with equanimity toward a country that was, through the force of its governmental institutions, seeking to destroy him. But that is why no less of an American icon than Johnny Cash, who bucked the blacklist & asked Seeger to appear on his 1960s TV show during the height of the Viet Name war, could call Seeger one of the most patriotic men he ever knew.

Pete Seeger was an optimist—her took the Woody Guthrie slogan of “This Machine Kills Fascists,” taken from machine shops involved in the World War II effort & stamped on his guitar, to the much transformed “This Machine Surrounds Hate & Forces It To Surrender,” lettered around the rim of his banjo. Remarkable. Pete Seeger taught us how to play the banjo, but he taught us so much more, if we are willing to open our hearts & minds to it—simple lessons, because the most basic.

It’s easy to say Pete Seeger will be missed, & of course he will be; what a unique voice & force he has been for so many years, a man who in many ways embodied our best angels in his public persona & also in refusing to be broken. It’s just that he was celebrated in later life by the celebrity musicians of our own day, & it’s to be hoped that he passed on his message to them. But more than that, Seeger’s life is a life to be celebrated—perhaps the best way to do so is to put his lessons to practice in small ways.  It seems to me that Pete Seeger was always singing with a political soul (in the best & etymological sense of the word "political"), whether he was entertaining us with "Skip to My Lou" or lifting our spirits with "We Shall Overcome."

Image of Pete Seeger’s banjo links to its source on the woodshed.  The image is found on many sites across the internet.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014



Bescarfed, bemittened
and otherwise bundled and beshoveled,
he stood in the elements, glared heavenward,
and cursed the driving snow for falling.

If but one flake, hearing,
had settled on his nose
and cried itself into oblivion
he’d have been satisfied.

But No!
Ten billion trillion zillion
blew about him unimpressed.
His curses fell on deaf flakes
which gently bore them down,
an added burden for his shovel.

Carmen Leone
© 2014

Image is from Wiki Commons: "A black and white photo of a light snowstorm starting up."  Image by Solstrike, who has made it available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Photos of the Month - 1/16/14

My favorite local Christmas tree, with prayer flags

Those of you who visited this blog regularly before our hiatus no doubt remember the Photo of the Week feature. It was quite a regular thing from January 2010 until April 2013, though by that time it had grown sporadic. Part of that was just the general blog malaise, but it’s also true that in February 2013 I had a moment of butterfingers with the camera, which has left it still operable but a bit temperamental—which is actually better than the fate I initially believed it had suffered. A new camera exists somewhere on my wish list of items both real & imaginary—somewhere between the necessities of food, shelter & guitar strings, not to mention softball league entry fees & tai chi lessons, & the implausibly desired Tone Devil harp guitar.
Very large & tired teddy bear outside a daycare, N. Beech St.

But the camera still takes good pictures, & it has occurred to me that posting photos at some point each month is probably a workable goal. In fact, on occasion I may even post them more frequently. I walk a lot, & having a camera with me makes for a handy pastime, which I’m also happy to share here.
The headless uke player in a shop window on N Mississippi Ave

So here are a few shots of the neighborhood where I live in North Portland, in the area between North Williams Avenue to the east & North Mississippi Avenue to the west; they were taken (along with others that will probably show up here later this month) yesterday during an afternoon walk. A damp, cloudy January day—in other words, typical of Portland this time of year. But there was no rain!

Implausible snowman & unseasonal Christmas mouse atop the Maui bar, N. Williams Ave

& as you can see, the holiday decorations are still out.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

“The Path”

A rainy Saturday in Portland—January, as we experience it in the Pacific Northwest, is very much upon us. What better music for this than some cello music by Zoë Keating?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Zoë Keating’s work, she describes her music as being a marriage of “classical music & information architecture.” Coming from the diverse backgrounds of both a classically trained cellist & a technology wiz, Keating has broken ground with her compositions & innovative use of looping technology to create a sound that is fresh, unique, intriguing—& also familiar, in the sense of the music you might hear in a dream being familiar—you can’t place it, but you understand such music existing; it sounds “right.”

“The Path” originally was recorded for Zoë Keating’s 2010 release Into the Trees, which I reviewed previously on the blog; I also had the chance to hear Keating perform live at the Aladdin here in 2012, a show that I also reviewed on Robert Frost’s Banjo. If you get the chance to see Zoë Keating perform, I urge you to take advantage of the opportunity! You can also find her recordings on her website at the link provided above.


Image of Zoë Keating at eTech in 2009 is from Wiki Commons; its author is Ed Schipul, who makes it available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A New Year Poem from Barbie Angell

As I stare at my oncoming future,
it looks quite a bit like my past.
Though my heart could sure use some sutures,
perhaps I can get it to last.

The old year is packing a suitcase,
to head off to places unknown.
Trying to put on a bright face,
although his sole purpose is gone.

And the new year still waits on the sidelines,
but the pressure he feels is insane.
We expect him to fix all our bad times
and somehow erase all our pain.

Like the last-minute deal of a martyr,
we promise to be someone else.
We’ll bargain and haggle and barter,
instead of improving ourselves.

We put off the changes we’re needing,
we shove them all under our beds.
Perfecting all our self-defeating,
while ignoring the voice in our heads.

So I gaze at the me of tomorrow,
and she looks like the me that I am.
The me yet to be has my sorrows,
unless I come up with a plan.

I won’t curse the year that has ended
or praise the new one drawing near,
or expect to be magically mended
‘cause a ball finally drops in Times Square.

Barbie Angell
© 2013

Yes, Barbie Angell is back with her special poems & illustrations! The image leading off the post is one of her pieces in a show in Asheville, NC.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

“Cargo Cult”

So in the torpor of last year’s blogging, I never really had a chance to expatiate upon just how much I love Kaki King, not only because she is a superb guitarist & gifted compsoer, but also because she is such a wonderful creative force—there was a series planned about her, but it never quite got off the ground. So that’s one thing I can set right straight away.

Of course, Kaki King is far from “a new thing” at this point—she’s in the prime of a career that dates back to the 1990s, & her recordings go back to 2003, with Everybody Loves You on the Velour label. In the interim, she has established herself as one of the top guitar instrumentalists & composers, & is clearly one of the preeminent contemporary fingerstyle players.  “Cargo Cult,” here from a 2012 performance in Livorno, Italy, is from her most recent album, Glow from 2012.

But my purpose here is not to be on the leading edge, but simply to communicate about music & artists I care about (among other things), so while Kaki King isn’t a new discovery, she’s a musician who’s worth getting to know better if you’ve already heard her—& if you love guitar music & you don’t know her work, then I can’t recommend her highly enough!


Image of Kaki King by Daniel Temmesfeld, (cc) 2010, who allows its re-use with a Creative Commons Attribution.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

14 Strings for ’14

Obviously this also could be titled “I Spoke Too Soon.”

Yes, friends, Robert Frost’s Banjo is back, refreshed from the vacation! I really didn’t anticipate this back in August—or through most of 2013, in which I was anticipating shutting the blog down. But a while ago, I realized my main contributions to the Facebook universe were music postings—& it occurred to me that I could be doing this on the blog & maybe do some other writing besides. So here I am.

Robert Frost’s Banjo will continue to be the same in its broad outlines. However, I did learn a lesson from the past year or so that really only sunk in when I’d stepped away from the blog: the tight scheduling of weekly series was a great thing at one time, but it also has a limiting effect; so while I’ll still be writing about many of the same topics (& some new ones as well, I hope), there will be no ongoing weekly series. They do tend to defeat the notion of “A miscellany like Grandma’s attic in Taunton, MA or Mission Street's Thrift Town in San Francisco or a Council, ID yard sale in cloudy mid April or a celestial roadmap no one folded.”

So I hope to return to more of that original miscellany idea—but don’t worry, there will be plenty of guitars & banjos & the like in all their amazing incarnations. I’m also really happy to let you know that the four poet contributors, Barbie Angell, Carmen Leone, Mairi Graham-Shaw & AK Barkley will be back, though poems will appear just a couple of times a month rather than weekly.

Anyway, for today I have a wonderful guitar duet featuring the father & son jazz guitar team Bucky & John Pizzarelli. But in addition to being a rousing duet on the perennial crowd pleaser, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” note that both men are playing seven- string guitars.

Of course the quest to extend the guitar’s range is a seemly endless endeavor; & if you take the time to read the Wikipedia article, you’ll find that seven-string guitars have been around for a good long time. In terms of jazz guitar, they first caught on with George Van Epps in the 1930s, & while they aren’t uncommon at jazz gigs anymore, for a long time Van Epps & Bucky Pizzarelli were the main proponents of this type of instrument. The advantage is more bass—the seventh string is typically tuned down to a low B, just as a five-string electric bass will have a B on the fifth string. This means that the interval between the seventh & sixth strings (typically an E) remains the same for the added string—a fourth, as is the case with all the strings in standard tuning except for the third to second strings, in which the interval is a major third.

Seven-string guitars are used in many forms of music—jazz, classical, & more recently, even in rock & heavy metal. In fact if you search for images of seven-string guitars online, the photos of seven-string solid body electrics tend to predominate.

So: something that may be new to some of you! A happy New Year & thanks for coming back to Robert Frost’s Banjo!

Image links to its source at the top1000songs blog