1 As a small child, I loved a children’s story by Margaret Wise Brown called Never Worked and Never Will. I found it in a library book called Storytime Tales – A Treasury of Favorite Stories. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the illustration in the book: a group of children gathered in front of a shop counter festooned with various hand -carved and realistically painted duck decoys. The kids are all looking up at a white-haired, grandfatherly gentleman, who’s happily working behind the counter, a knife in one hand and a block of wood in the other, carving wild birds. The children asked about the sign that hung over the woodcarver’s door. It said Never Worked and Never Will. The old man explained, “It means that I never worked a day in my life and I never will. And you wouldn’t have to work either, if you knew Continue Reading
Running Away From Home
Running Away From Home is a concept that never goes out of style. Our folksongs and literature are full of stories about children (and adults) running away from home. It seems to be one of the kernels of American identity. Perhaps this is because so many of our ancestors really were running away from home when they first came to North America. As a child, I harbored dreams of escaping the expectations, anxieties, and responsibilities of life at home and, like Huck Finn, leaving it all behind. I think it’s perfectly natural to fantasize about running away from home. Some folks actually try it. Some folks pull it off. And some of us turn it into a profession. In so many traditional folksongs, the protagonist is either at home (and wishing they were away from home) or away from home (and wishing they were home, again). As an itinerant entertainer, Continue Reading
What is the Oldest American Folksong?
What’s the oldest English-language American folksong? If you heard it sung today, would it still be meaningful? I don’t mean a song that was sung in another land before it came to North America. And I don’t mean a song composed by the Indians who lived in North America for the last fifteen or twenty thousand years. What’s the oldest song we know about today, that was made up by English-speaking colonists in the British colonies in eastern North America? “Yankee Doodle” would be a good guess; its familiar melody had been popular in a number of Western European countries for centuries. At a time in history when people made their own music, songs were one of many ways American colonists could express their dissatisfaction with their British rulers across the Atlantic. British soldiers responded with songs ridiculing the colonists as country bumpkins, one of which told of a Yankee Continue Reading
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
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