Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

January 30, 2012

Youtube Playlist

Filed under: music — Tags: , — paragardener @ 7:14 am

All the Youtube videos from the Springtime Country Blues Explosion were put together with a few bonus tracks and posted as a Youtube playlist. That is all.

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January 25, 2012

American Music Held Up on African Roots

Filed under: music — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 2:39 am

The best American music combines European techniques (three-note chords, tightly structured songs) with African techniques (freely sliding pitch, polyrhythm). There is a cultural myth that America is the heir to Western Civilization, a torch passed to us through an unbroken line of progression from the wise forefathers of Classical Greece. That’s great and all, but we have also absorbed plenty of culture from the natives we nearly exterminated, the slaves we bought or kidnapped, and the great books of Asia which we’ve been reading translations of over the last 150 or so years. So, here I explore African music and its influence as a partial antidote to Eurocentrism. You may, however, find this post hopelessly Bluecentric (I’m actually looking for musical examples to help me understand passages from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues ).

One crucible of America’s distinctive music was cosmopolitan New Orleans, where slaves were allowed to participate in drumming parties at Congo Square, and blacks soon got a hold of reed and brass instruments and learned to play them by inventing jazz. I sure wouldn’t condemn it, but I don’t really dig jazz. Every so often, I hear some prig on NPR say that “jazz is the only truly original American art form,” and I want to slap them through the radio. Blues? Rock and roll!?

The blues is jazz’s country cousin. While Jim Crow laws were being passed and white terrorism was raging, railroads and post offices were connecting the rural South to the rest of the country. Blacks could buy a guitar through Sears and Roebuck, then hang out on the front porch singing about “I’m gonna leave my baby, ’cause she mistreats me all the time” (double meaning: “I’m gonna leave this plantation and the shitty white family that runs it.”) The early bluesmen wove together work songs, religious music, white folk/country, and rhythms from a deep memory of Africa.

The earliest wave of slaving had taken many Africans from Senegambia, a dry region of West Africa heavily influenced by Arab culture. The griots there are a caste of professional musicians. Griots might play on the street, or play to coordinate group projects, or play for royalty (singing long, praise-filled histories of the royal family). The satirical songs of a griot scorned are much feared, perhaps especially by the powerful.

Here is griot Lamin Saho singing about peace, love, and unity between the peoples. He’s using the kora, the leader among all the instruments of that region.

You can hear a little of the Arabic tendency to torture a melody in Saho’s singing. Check out how one hand plucks an insistent bass line, while the other indulges in crazy runs of lead notes. Country bluesmen often pick a bass pattern with thumb, and lead notes with fingers. The most intricate country blues players may indeed come from the Southeast, where most of the Senegambian slaves ended up. Also, said slaves almost certainly introduced the banjo to this continent, probably with fretless models.

I wanted to embed a video of a guitar-playing bluesman from the Piedmont region of the Southeast here, but this is too incredible not to take its place: here is North Carolinian George Higgins somehow playing bass and lead parts on the harmonica!

Speaking of harmonica, one can speak through a harmonica, or blend a vocal line into harmonica music almost seamlessly. In old-time black American music, kazoos are not unheard of, and neither is moaning into a jug. Black slaves were mainly denied horns, just like drums, because they were loud enough to serve as a signal for revolt. Still, there may be a tenuous connection between idiosyncratic wind instrument playing here in the States, and the talking horns of Africa. Sometimes made from animal horn, sometimes from a gourd, the talking horn can be played like a brass instrument (by farting with one’s lips), or by singing into it.

Here are some songs utilizing talking horn — I suggest “Humans are Not Food.” I can only assume that the talking horn is that instrument that sounds like a big old kazoo has been shoved up the bell of a trombone. It’s funny that the one example of singing horn I can find is an African band playing American-style jazz!

Here’s the Memphis Jug Band doing “Cocaine Habit Blues,” aka “Take a Whiff on Me.” I’ve been messing with an old brown jug, but I can’t seem to draw a note out of it.

Later waves of slaving moved from Senegambia down the African coast, to the stretch once known as the “slave coast” (it’s that long stretch that faces southwards toward the Atlantic.) As a well-forested land, the slave coast provided big trees for making big drums. The area is a center for African drumming and rhythm. Communal music, involving the whole village, is the thing. Anyone can clap their hands or join in simple harmonies. Slaves taken from here tended to come in later, farther west, and were used more in the field than the house (thus, they had even less opportunity to get ahold of instruments.) Here is just a bitty example of community music-making from Nungua, Ghana.

When I heard this, it seemed instantly familiar. It’s like the fife and drum music of Mississippi. So check out the Ed Young Fife n Drum Corps, rocking a 60’s folk festival.

Properly, a Mississippi fife ‘n’ drum corps would play at a picnic, at night in the middle of a field. Male dancers surround the musicians, maybe getting in a grind with the bass drum, and everyone else hangs around on the dark edges. My favorite part is when a fifer gets down, slaps the ground, and wipes the dust on his forehead… the meaning is lost, though, when you move the action onto stage. On the plus side, ladies such as Sharde Thomas can lately be full participants (you can look up her Rising Star Fife and Drum band, a strong family outfit that has been going on for decades with different players. It rocks, especially because Sharde is a fireball of energy.)

How did blacks keep their excellent rhythmic skills through slavery and the attendant restrictions on instruments? Probably by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet. It was a happy day when some miserable black draftee finally had a snare drum stuck in his hands!

There is one more musical idea I’d like to explore, polyphony. Basically, it means that people are making up melodies as they go, but listening to one another. You can hear it in the scattered “response” part of an old call-and-response work song, or in a Beck track where Beck has overdubbed his voice three or four times. The masters of polyphony are the Aka pygmies. These people were not slaved much (I guess, if I were working slaves, I’d want bigger, tougher-looking slaves), however, their neighbors picked up their polyphonous and yodeling ways. (Yodeling is slipping in and out of falsetto, also called “whooping.”)

Here are some girls singing a lullaby:

That’s what forest people sound like. Take the soul of that music and throw it in a prison:

This topic could go on forever and ever. One thing I’ve definitely learned, is that there is no traditional old “true blues”: the blues was going through changes since it came together and will go on changing as long as someone is playing it. It reflects a world in constant change. Just as dinosaurs faded and birds rose, old music is forgotten and reborn in new forms.

To leave you with, here is a haunting piece of traditional acid jazz, the initiation song of the central African Ongo.

January 22, 2012

Finally, a Candidate worth Wasting my Vote on.

Filed under: Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 7:08 pm

Lately I’ve been watching the cable news networks, thinking that a little passive absorption of infotainment would keep me informed in a very general way. Like, I hate it when I realize that everyone’s been talking about an earthquake or a hurricane or a war almost breaking out for the last week, and I was going about my life all oblivious.

When I tune in, though, it’s nothing but the Republican primaries over and over. “Romney said a jackass thing last night at a fundraiser. Gingrich piled onto Romney this morning with petulant comments. Whose advantage will it play to?” When I get into political discussions with friends lately, I tend to twist the topic into the race for Presidency. It goes against all evidence, which suggests one President is the same as the next (to do: start a war without Congress’s say-so, enhance police powers, grant Wall Street’s every whimsical request, rearrange the hoops educators must jump through to get Federal funding…).

It depresses me, to find myself pondering questions like: would I vote for Adolph Hitler or Ghengis Khan? Some pushy character would surely get in my face: “Every patriotic American must vote for Adolph Hitler — his record is slightly less violent than Ghengis Khan’s! If you don’t vote for Hitler, it’s like you’re giving up on democracy! How could you just throw away the precious, precious vote our forefathers fought and died for?”

What is the bare minimum of acceptability for a President? It’s unlikely that I’ll get a candidate who agrees with me on economic policy, imperial policy (aka foreign policy), gun control, abortion, marijuana, environmental protections, the best Federal holidays, etc, etc. I’m not looking for perfection here. I’m thinking: at the least, a President should not make problems worse for the country as a whole. Otherwise, voting for them is also making things worse.

Mainstream Republicans are right out for me, because they support imposing Christian laws on this land. They stand against everything that is right and good and cool about America.

If Ron Paul hangs in there, I might actually consider that guy. I’ve noticed that most of the attacks on him are actually attacks on the douchebag who wrote his newsletter, or some crazy supporter who supports the death penalty for gays, and this makes me think: Paul must be a really clean player and a gentleman if the media can’t really disparage him, himself. He actually stands up to banker central control of our economy. However, can he really cut $1 trillion from the budget and not hurt the rest of the economy? Would restoring Constitutional federalism have unacceptable side effects for women and minorities? I’ll have to consider those questions, if the dude can stay in the race long enough for me to get a vote on the matter.

Now Obama. Obama has supported an escalation of attacks on medical marijuana, started a foreign war, and bailed out the bankers ($10 trillion?) while offering us nothing but some coupons for energy efficient windows and a mandate to buy our own health insurance. He’s thoroughly demonstrated that he is worthless to the 99%. By turning a blind eye to Wall Street’s orgy of looting, Obama has shown that he is, in fact, bad for the country as a whole, and I would no more vote for him than Ghengis Khan.

I could abstain from voting. Since government has no respect for people’s rights, and government is selected by election, by voting I’m participating in the stripping of my fellow citizens’ rights. Unfortunately, non-voters are counted as “apathetic,” people so lazily squashed onto their couch that they could care less what is going on in the outside world. The solution is the protest vote – a vote wasted on someone who could never in a million years win. It counts as participation, without supporting the illusion that “we the people” actually want the leadership of either Hitler or Ghengis.

So, it looks like a vote for Vermin Supreme.

And remember- a vote for Vermin Supreme is a vote completely thrown away!

January 12, 2012

RIP, Back Lawn

Filed under: gardening — Tags: , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:25 pm

Since moving into my house, the back lawn has been lame. It was spotty and totally non-resilient to dogs running on it. My entire property seems to be low and it drains to a low spot in the street, where there is no storm drain and it just puddles up and spills back onto the side lawn. We planted grass seed in the Spring and the Fall, and watered it fairly appropriately, but grass seedlings just can’t anchor in the runny mud my yard turns into during the Spring and Fall, nor sprout during the heat of high Summer.

I could go nuts trying to farm turf out in the back yard there. I could move in truckloads of soil to raise the land, or dump fertilizer and sprinkle water all Summer to speed the growth of the grass, or redirect the water that spills off of the garage in an effort to impose some order back there. I could lay down sod and keep the dogs out of there for months while it comes together. However, the Lawn Gestapo can’t see into my backyard, so I’m free to say “fuck it!”

“How do you transform your lawn?” asks The Urban Homestead . “You lay down sheet mulch right over it.” Tamara and I went out there one warm January day and lay down a thick layer of straw. Besides our desperate need to contain the mud, laying down some mulch is the basic tactic organic gardeners use to control weeds and build soil fertility. Granted, my mulch could be more creative and use more layers (something nitrogen-rich?), but it represents finally stepping away from the Cult of Turf and into a healthier, life-supporting relationship with the land.

Straw-covered ground, with tree and dog

The Ex-Lawn, and Lawn-Destroying Culprits

Our largest crop in the United States is lawn. Meanwhile, something like 1 in 6 Americans struggles with getting enough to eat, and a vast majority of us eat low-quality, overprocessed food which leads to heart attacks and diabetes. If everyone grew their own veggies or relied on a neighbor, that situation would change in one season. Why sacrifice ourselves to the God of Green Grass?

Meanwhile, the Lawn Gestapo is organizing “block captains” to snitch on lawn heretics all over the neighborhood. Under these circumstances, I’m keeping the front and side lawns, but I’ve found an easy way to care for them. I leave the lawnmower blade set high to ensure that I don’t whack off the entire green part of the grass and end up with short, but brown, stubble. And, I don’t ever fertilize or water, so the grass doesn’t grow very fast!

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