George Washington’s Gift for Locker Room Jargon

Few characters in American History are as deified as George Washington. In grade school, I found him to be one of the most boring people in the social studies textbooks. These books failed to convey even a smattering of the man’s panache or spirit. They declared that General Washington was revered by his troops, but offered not one insight into the vivacity that made this guy the “the Father of his Country.” He is placed so high on a pedestal that you can’t even see his humanity. According to the school textbooks, Washington, the man, was as wooden as his teeth. (They were actually made of ivory, but that’s another story.) Perhaps professor Charles V. Willies was thinking of Washington when he wrote these words: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. We fail to recognize that we could go and Continue Reading

Categories: Schools.

Showmanship: The Persuasions Killed It

In the sleepy seaside town where I grew up, I acquired a reputation for being an obsessive collector of old phonograph records. While still in grade school, I could often be found cruising the bins of the local record stores and Lighthouse Avenue antique shops. Each weekend, I would prowl the garage sales listed in the Monterey Peninsula Herald, in search of vintage records. For a mere pittance, many of my classmates were grudgingly persuaded to clandestinely sell me their grandmother’s collection of dusty 78-rpm records. Back in the 1970s, before NPR tranquilized the airwaves with its homogeneous corporate-centric programming, the left-hand side of the FM dial was populated by small, listener-supported, non-profit community public radio stations. These eclectic regional stations featured local volunteer programmers broadcasting recordings from their own personal record collections or playing albums from the station’s vast music library. The Great Silence Broadcasting company, a hometown non-profit corporation, signed the tiny ten-watt Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

Tragedy and Performance: Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

On a Saturday night in May of 2003, I was invited to perform a living room house concert in Modesto, California, with a handful of other musicians. Although we were all friends we had never performed a show together and weren’t really familiar with each other’s repertoires. It was small crowd; it seemed there were as many of us performing as there were seated in the audience. Arriving late, about halfway through the show, a group of people seated themselves, more than doubling the size of the audience. Now the living room was full of people. Everybody was having a good time and they didn’t want the concert to end. Surprised by the need for an encore, we scrambled to quickly come up a song we all knew well enough to perform together for a big finale. This small group of musicians had in common a love of bluegrass and Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

Better to Fail in Originality than to Succeed in Imitation?

Herman Melville once wrote, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” And he knew what he was talking about. Though Moby Dick is now considered one of the greatest works of American literature, the critics panned it when it was first published in 1851. Fewer than 3,500 copies were sold during Melville’s life. The product of a year and a half of writing, the book draws on Melville’s experience at sea and on his reading of whaling literature. An unsuccessful poet, in later life financial troubles forced Melville to take a position as a customs inspector. He died in 1891. Three decades after his death – at the centennial of his birth – critics discovered his work and thus began the “Melville Revival.” Moby Dick has never been out-of-print since. A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown. As a professional entertainer, I Continue Reading

Categories: Concerts and Festivals.

And the Band Played On

There’s a library bond (Measure 10-145) on the ballot this year in mostly white, mostly poor, rural Douglas County, Oregon (population 107,000.) If the measure doesn’t pass, the ten branches of the local public library system will shut down for good. In many communities, the public library system is one of the sacred cows of local government. But in Douglas County, things are different. In a willful assault on the cultural well-being of citizens of all ages, elected representatives have actively conspired to shut down a library system that circulates 500,000 items each year. Can Douglas County afford the inevitable price it will pay as a county without a public library system – a county of citizens who will never be as worldly, well-educated or well-read as their neighbors in neighboring counties? This year, Roseburg Fire Products, a large manufacturer with 3,000 employees across the USA, moved its Douglas County Continue Reading

Categories: Libraries.

The Song of the Century

During the month of October,  I performed a series of preschool story time concerts in Oregon’s Douglas County Public Library System. Yesterday, I played a gig at the small library in Oakland, Oregon (population 927). The vintage 1910 building has thirteen-foot ceilings and large wooden-frame windows. The library resides on the top floor of the building and the Oakland Play School Co-op operates downstairs. In the 21st-century, it’s uncommon to find a public library within walking distance of a school campus, let alone one in such close proximity that the students can access the library, even on a rainy day. So, Miss Melinda, the school’s lone teacher, assisted by several parent volunteers, brought her class of a dozen preschool students upstairs to attend my concert in the cozy children’s room of the library. I taught them to sing Woody Guthrie’s “Put Your Finger in the Air” and “Why Oh Why?” We sang “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star,” “Old Continue Reading

Categories: Libraries and Schools.