Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Memoriam: Mike Auldridge

[purchase solo works from Mike Auldridge here]

Like most players of the resophonic guitar - popularly called the Dobro, though as with Kleenex and Band-Aid, the term technically refers to a trademarked brand, originally coined by the instrument's inventor in 1928, and now produced exclusively by the Gibson corporation - Mike Auldridge got his start as a guitar player.

And to be honest, if he had remained a guitar player, we'd probably never have heard of him.

But while many who play the instrument treat it as an extension of their other fretwork, or treat it like a kind of overly-expensive slide guitar with high-tech acoustic innards (and play it that way), Auldridge saw something both unique and potent in the potential of the instrument as a lead voice, rather than just a session supplement. After Brother Oswald, who rescued the Dobro from obscurity with his work with Roy Acuff in the '40s and '50s, and after Auldridge's mentor Josh Graves came along and took the thing to another level as a bluegrass mainstay, Auldridge's subsequent pursuit of Dobro mastery, and his prodigious output on it both as a solo musician and as an integral part of the rising newgrass scene, with its fusion of bluegrass with jazz, folk and rock, brought the instrument to a new prominence in and beyond the bluegrass and country worlds.

In this, Auldridge joins a quite small group of musicians and craftspersons who almost single-handedly pushed their chosen instrument into a wholly new level of cultural and musical relevance. To say he made a huge splash as a musician in the last third of the 20th century is therefore both accurate, and a serious understatement of his impact on music.

That Auldridge's path to greatness - for himself, and for the Dobro - was so painstakingly slow is a tribute to his patience and his talent. For such recognition was neither easy nor instantaneous; indeed, although he was born in 1938, and was already playing the instrument by the fifties, Auldridge worked as a graphic designer full-time until well into the seventies, when his work with seminal newgrass group the Seldom Scene - a band which he co-founded in 1971 in the Maryland basement of banjo-player and mathematician Ben Eldridge - became popular enough to support full-time touring and recording.

Later, he would be a featured musician on albums by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Patty Loveless, and found newgrass offshoot Chesapeake with several other Seldom Scene members when it became clear that the collaborative nature of the group would always be subservient to the leadership of John Duffey. He recorded numerous solo cuts and albums designed as instructional showpieces for the instrument, each of which sports great beauty and clarity while demonstrating the potential of the resophonic guitar as a lead instrument and voice. He won a Grammy for his work on The Dobro Sessions, and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow in 2012. But although his solo work, as heard above, is quite beautiful, it is his work with The Seldom Scene for which he is best remembered, and as such, it is one of my favorite Seldom Scene songs which I have posted below in his honor today - check it out before we keep going, for both a clear shot at Duffey's camera-hogging approach to performance, and for Aldridge's solo, a wild ride which starts at 2:26, and lasts a full minute.

[purchase the Seldom Scene studio album of the same name]

Although choosing to stay in and around his native Maryland surely had some impact on his ability to spread the gospel of the Dobro, Auldridge famously never moved to Nashville, preferring even in his strongest decades to wait for others to invite him to tour and play on their records. But when he passed away just yesterday, he left a legacy nonetheless: one in which his own songs and sounds stand firm as a testament to greatness, and in which - thanks to his own work, and to his mentorship of other, younger masters of the instrument, such as Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes - his chosen Dobro has become a core component of contemporary acoustic music, both as a central element of the bluegrass sound, and as a familiar staple in other related genres, from folk to country rock.

In Memoriam: Davy Jones

YouTube copy of the "Official" video for the Monkees' "I'm A Believer"

In the mid to late 60s, I had a transistor radio (about the size of a fat iPhone) that received short wave frequencies. One of the stations I could pick up (it came and went/faded so that it sounded like a sine wave) was Radio Luxemburg – I was able to hear about ½ of any song. I have since learned that it was a “pirate” station: a ship stationed off-shore of England that broadcast its playlist “illegally”. Many years later (think” Jimi Hendrix”), I found it difficult to admit that I actually liked the Monkees. However, 40 years down the line, as I look back and research the times/history, I realize that I shouldn’t feel so bad: I am one of millions who propelled their music to the top of the charts.


The story behind the Monkees is unique. Originally intended as a TV show, they ended up surprising everyone. They were initially not permitted to play their own music/instruments. They were shuffled around various instrumental roles by management trying to maximize revenue. Dolnez, the lead vocalist of this piece, was not a drummer until his “handlers” decreed so. In the clip, Mike Nesmith plays the guitar. The February 2012 deceased who this post pays respect to is Davy Jones, dead at the relatively early age of 66. In the video clip above, Jones does backup vocals and tambourine. In many other Monkees’ hits, he did the lead vocals.

In Memoriam: Michael Dunford

Renaissance: Mr. Pine


When I looked at the list of musicians who died in 2012, there were a number of famous names from  diverse genres, many of whose talents I appreciated, but none of them jumped out at me. Then I was reminded that Michael Dunford, best known for his work with Renaissance, had recently died. Coincidently, I had recently downloaded a number of early Renaissance songs, and had delved into the very complicated history of that great and often overlooked prog-rock band.

The (somewhat) short version is that a band called Renaissance was formed by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, two of the members of The Yardbirds who didn’t later become guitar legends. That band also included Relf’s sister Jane on vocals, and it released a self-titled album in 1969. That album is a fusion of rock, folk and classical music. Over the next couple of years, the band went through a whirlwind of changes while touring and working on a second album.

During this period, Michael Dunford joined the band as a guitarist and songwriter, and ultimately, a second album, “Illusion,” was released. Dunford contributed “Mr. Pine” to that album, which is usually referred to as the least known in the band’s discography. Frankly, if you are reading this blog, I expect that you are interested in lesser known music—if you want to read about the late Whitney Houston, there are probably lots of places to look. The lead singer on this song is Terry Crowe, and Jane Relf (who has a beautiful voice, if not as spectacular as that of her better-known successor) sings backup. It isn’t a bad song, with three sections, and a nice keyboard solo by guest Don Shinn. Dunford used a theme from “Mr. Pine” in a later, more well-known song, “Running Hard.”

The revolving door continued for Renaissance, with Dunford as one of the few constants. In 1971, the band’s manager, Miles Copeland (probably better known for starting the new wave label I.R.S. Records and for being the brother of The Police’s drummer) reorganized the band around virtuoso singer Annie Haslam, who had joined the touring band earlier that year and had split vocals with Crowe, who was booted, and pianist John Tout. Dunford was replaced as guitarist, and focused on composing. The resulting album, “Prologue,” has the sound that I think most people identify as Renaissance, and is often confusingly referred to as the band’s first album (even by members of the band and on its website). Dunford rejoined Renaissance as a musician for the next album, “Ashes Are Burning,” and was a part of the group through their period of greatest popularity (including when I saw them back when I was in high school).

Like many of their contemporaries, when faced with the changes in the musical landscape of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Renaissance tried to strip down their sound, but unlike, say, Genesis, their attempts were commercially unsuccessful, leading to another revolving door and disbanding. At one point, both Haslam and Dunford had bands called Renaissance, and a drummer, Terry Sullivan, had a band called Renaissant. Starting in the late 90’s, Dunford and Haslam toured (mostly together) with various lineups under the Renaissance name. And to make things even more confusing, during the late 70’s, members of the original Renaissance re-formed as Illusion, releasing a few albums, including one called “Illusion,” that was different from the album “Illusion” released by Renaissance, and in 2001 released an album as Renaissance Illusion. Got that?

A new Renaissance album featuring both Haslam and Dunford, entitled “Grandine il Vento,” was funded through Kickstarter and should be released in 2013. Dunford’s songs for the “classic” Renaissance lineup were fusions of rock, folk, jazz and classical music which some might find a bit over the top. But to those of us who appreciate the ambition of prog-rock, they were remarkable and memorable.

In Memoriam: Ravi Shankar

[purchase this for a good introduction to Ravi Shankar‘s music]

The headline in the New York Times read, “Ravi Shankar, Sitarist Who Introduced Indian Music to the West, Dies at 92”. All perfectly true. Shankar blasted away musical boundaries, working with classical, jazz, and pop musicians in the West, and also engaging all kinds of audiences. I could go on about his importance, but I think a personal anecdote will cover it nicely.

It was the late sixties. I was the youngest of three brothers who were firm in our devotion to rock music. In particular, my oldest brother, at that age, was sure that he was going to be the next Eric Clapton. My parents had us when they were older than most parents in those days especially. So the generation gap was in full force in my family, when it came to music. My parents were amateur classical musicians. My father also remembered the western swing he grew up hearing on the radio in Oklahoma, while my mother grew up on the big band music that was everywhere in her native New York City.

So I have no idea where my father got the idea to take us boys to see Ravi Shankar. It was in New York City, at Carnegie Hall. So that gave it some legitimacy in my father‘s eyes. My oldest brother probably knew of the Beatles connection, so he was OK with it too. I, however, had no idea what I was doing there. Still, I went. I remember the concert as being something like the video I have chosen for this post. I don‘t think there was a video component, but the group was the small one shown, and the sound was the same. The four of us were spellbound. I don‘t remember any of us squirming, or talking, or anything but listening to this amazing new, (to us), music. For a brief interval, there was no generation gap in my family.

For me, that one concert has led to a lifelong fascination with music of the world. In his career, Shankar often worked with East-West fusions of various kinds, but that concert had a purity to it that has been my standard ever since for what world music should be. As I write this, it also occurs to me that that music probably helped me years later when I decided to learn to meditate. I credit Ravi Shankar and his music with all of that, and I can think of no better tribute.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Childhood: Calling My Children Home

Emmylou Harris: Calling My Children Home


My prayers go out to the community of Newtown, CT. In a recent bluegrass jam, I sang a rendition of "God Loves His Children" which I had learned from Flatt and Scruggs’ recordings of 1948-59. The gospel song wasn’t quite the same without an a cappella quartet and driven by Scruggs’ fingerpicked lead guitar work. It’s also difficult for some to make sense of the line in that song which states, “He will protect you anywhere you go.” If that’s true, why does he allow bad things to happen? One must consult the Bible for the answer and realize that God does allow bad things to happen, but there’s also a big difference between allowing those things to happen and causing them. God has his reasons, and he doesn’t have to explain them to us.

In any case, for this week’s theme, I’ve chosen another gospel song which I also like to sing entitled "Calling My Children Home." It has these simple but profound lines:

I live my life, my love I gave them,
To guide them through this world of strife.
I hope and pray we’ll live together,
In that great land here after life.

I can only imagine the grief and suffering which the people of Newtown are experiencing. Emmylou Harris dedicated her 1998 performance of the song to her close friend, bass-player Roy Huskey, who had passed on a few months before. Today, I dedicate it to those children, teachers and administrators who tragically died in Newtown. “I’d brave life’s storm, defy the tempest. To bring them home from anywhere.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Childhood: Kid’s Prayer

Dan Bern: Kid’s Prayer
[purchase City Folk Live X]
[Download the song from Bern’s Bandcamp page]

I am breaking my “no repeat” guideline this week, to post my second Dan Bern song, “Kid’s Prayer,” because it seems to be the most fitting song for this theme this week. I believe that the only official release of this song on CD was on WFUV’s City Folk II compilation from 1999, and re-released on the City Folk X disc in 2007. Bern recently posted it on Bandcamp for download with a “name your price” tag.

This song is Dan Bern at his most powerful. It was written after a school shooting in Arkansas in 1998. (Note-most of the information on the Internet says that it was written in response to a shooting in Oregon, which is what I originally wrote.  But Corny O'Connell, a DJ at WFUV, pointed out that Bern performed the song on the station in March, 1998--6 days after the Arkansas shooting, and a couple of months before the one in Oregon. Take a look here. So, I stand corrected, and reminded that what you read on the Internet is not always accurate) And since then, our country has taken the incredible position that gun laws should be made less stringent, and that an assault weapon ban should be permitted to expire. Thanks to the NRA and spineless politicians from both sides of the aisle.

The Newtown massacre has resulted in another bout of déjà vu. What Bern wrote in 1998 is exactly what I saw on TV over the last few days:

And all the world descends, and offers up their condolence
And offers up their theories what went wrong and who and why and when and how
It's all the killing day and night on television
It's all the movies where violence is as natural as breathing
It's guns and bullets as easily obtainable as candy
It's video games where you kill and begin to think it's real
It's people not having God in their lives anymore
Or it's all of it, or none of it, or some of it, in various combinations

Bern then offers up a secular prayer of his own, which is too long to quote, but the lyrics can be found here. His message is, essentially, treat your kids well and be open and honest with them. Encourage them, but set limits. I understand that much of the reason for the type of horrific incident that happened in Newtown is mental illness, and that no amount of good parenting can prevent that. But it can’t hurt.

And I hope that this incident finally galvanizes the President, Congress and state legislatures to restrict gun ownership. All the statistics that I have read support the argument that fewer guns, less widely available = fewer random shootings. Frankly, if strict gun control prevents just one mass murder (and it would likely prevent many more), I think that would be worth the restriction on the right to bear arms, as it has been (mis)interpreted (in my opinion). Constitutional rights are not absolute. The First Amendment, for example, does not allow unfettered speech.

So, for all of the politicians that read this blog, please get off your asses and do something. And for the non-politicians—tell your representatives to get off their asses and do something. I have, but in a somewhat more polite way.

Childhood: We Are the World


[YouTube link: click the image above]

We Are the Children. In my mind, there is no song more to the point of this week’s theme than this. It is at once a celebration of the best of many things: our children/our future and the voices of a collection of some of the best in music.

It is a song of hope and dedication. Hope for a better/brighter future. A dedication of the time and energies of some of our best voices to a purpose that focuses on our best hope for a better future: the next generation.

Part of the essence of Christmas is a celebration of birth: the birth of One who offered and promised a better future: in this world and beyond. And through this birth, we celebrate all births and lives, long or short.

Being that our time in this world is limited -  whether by a random bullet or a pre-ordained calendar that foretells a cataclysm that ends the world – it is up to us to make the most of our days, be they six years or six score years.

To me – and to most of us who live our days through the beauty of music – music is the essence of life. But life without the money to live in comfort and peace is also illusory. Thanks to the energy and dedication of Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and the musical stars whose names appear on screen in the video, this song helped earned in excess of $10 million dollars for charity and further raised $40 million in donations – much of it directly related to and spent on  issues that affect children (birth control, food and similar humanitarian aid). $50 million dollars wont bring back to life the children and teachers of Newtown, but it did make a small difference for some of the world’s children.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Childhood: The Circle Game


The Circle Game was the first song I thought of to begin this week‘s theme. Joni Mitchell walks us though various stages of childhood, and into adulthood. The song can serve as an overture of sorts for what is to come. I was lucky to chance upon this video. As nearly as I can tell, a sixth grade teacher assigned his class the task of listening to the song, and creating an artwork inspired by a section of the lyrics. These artworks have been matched to their parts of the song in order. The result may not be museum-quality, and you might be tempted to say that Joni Mitchell herself could have painted better ones. She is a fine painter, after all. But these youthful interpretations have a quality that few if any adults can capture, and they honor the song beautifully.

Childhood: A Moment of Silence

As you can see above, our theme this week is Childhood. Before we get to the music, let me offer a moment of silence to honor the children and adults who lost their lives in Newton, Connecticut last week.

The holiday celebrations at this time of year center around activities for children. Indeed, Christmas celebrates the miraculous birth of a child, as did many older celebrations at this time of year. Those celebrations will be harder this year. It is my hope that our songs this week can help our readers find a bridge from the horror of last week to the celebratory mood of next week. Some of the tears shed this week may be ours. I hope you can join us, and I hope it helps.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Holiday Transformations:Holiday Marmalade

Jorma Kaukonen: Holiday Marmalade


I grew up a secular Jew celebrating Hanukkah, and I think that the limit of my celebration was putting a couple of ornaments on a friend’s tree one year. Christmas was really no big deal to me, and the Christmas Industrial Complex had not yet become so ubiquitous. There were a few TV specials, and decorations, but I don’t think that there was such an overwhelming holiday craziness. No radio stations playing holiday music 24/7. No obsessing over “Black Friday.” And certainly no “Cyber Monday.” In fact, my most memorable Christmas was, I think, 1980, when my friend Eric and I split the entire day of programming at WPRB. He did classical, I did jazz. He started off the rock show, we shared the studio for a while, we ordered Chinese food like good Jews, and I closed down the station. We were pretty loopy by the end of the night.

My personal holiday transformation began in 1987 when I attended my first Christmas celebration with my future in-laws. After that first Christmas, it quickly became one of my favorite times of the year, and why shouldn’t it be—I drank, ate, napped and got presents. For a long time, we celebrated with my wife’s aunt, who had converted to Judaism, and her Jewish uncle and cousins, so there was always a number of tribesmen and women on hand. It was never about religion, but about family, and good times, and over the years, the celebration transformed—we started to share cooking and cleaning duties, we added latkes to the traditional ham, we changed locations and participants. And, pertinent to this music blog, I started to take increasing control over the music we listened to.

My in-laws love classical music, like jazz, and are generally ignorant about popular music. They lived in Africa in the early 1960’s, and somehow missed rock n’ roll. I (and my wife) began to include folk and rock Christmas music (and the stray Hanukkah song), until we pretty much took over the playlist completely. Luckily, my in-laws are good sports, and in this respect, are willing to indulge us.

When Jorma Kaukonen released his “Christmas” CD in 1996, I was all over it. I’ve been a fan of his work in Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and as a solo artist, and “Christmas” immediately became one of my favorite holiday discs. I usually throw it on when I am cooking, and invariably, one of my in-laws will remark about how much they like it—as if they hadn’t heard it every year since 1996. It remains one of their charming quirks.

“Holiday Marmalade” is an 11 and a half minute jam (get it? Marmalade….) with searing blues guitar based loosely on “Silent Night.” It is far from a traditional holiday song, but it somehow works. I find it exhilarating every year.

Interestingly, Jorma has gone through a religious transformation of his own. He is half-Jewish, on his mother’s side, and celebrated Jewish holidays as a child, but that whole 1960’s rock lifestyle pretty much distanced him from his religion (although the first guitar he played in the Airplane was bought with Israel Bonds that his grandmother bought him). His return to Judaism came through his wife, who was born Catholic, but was attracted to Judaism. She converted, Jorma went through a “reaffirmation” process and they both practice, in some form. More details can be found here: —it is a fascinating and personal story.  Jorma’s Jewish ancestors were, among other things, tobacco farmers in Ellington, Connecticut, about 30 miles from where I celebrated my first Christmas.

Despite the constant uproar from the Fox News crazies, there is no War on Christmas. As Jon Stewart pointed out recently, Christmas is doing just fine. Even if you don’t believe in the religious part of the holiday, the universality of its underlying message gives all of us the opportunity to transform the celebration, or recognition, or whatever, into something personal and special. Or you can spend too much money, fight with your family and be angry. I don’t judge.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Holiday Transformations: A Christmas / Kwanzaa / Solstice / Chanukah / Ramadan / Boxing Day Song

Christine Lavin & The Mistletones: A Christmas / Kwanzaa / Solstice / Chanukah / Ramadan / Boxing Day Song

[purchase Christine Lavin & The Mistletones “The Runaway Christmas Tree”]

With 2013 approaching rapidly, I picked up my new calendar and saw that this is the first year that Kwanzaa appears on it – starting December 26th. Just as many Christmas songs specifically relate to the birth of Christ, I suppose that other holiday songs have been transformed to adhere to the relevancy of those events. Perhaps much of it is just in the presentation of the song. A little research indicated that these tips might make your Kwanzaa song singing more meaningful:

** Sing a different song during each of the days of Kwanzaa, emphasizing that day’s meaning and values (unity, self-determination, collective work & responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, faith).

** Sing songs that teach about the history and meaning of the holiday.

** Learn basic words in Swahili, the language from which Kwanzaa and many of its names and definitions come.

** Choose a few modern singers (e.g. Aretha Franklin or James Brown) to complement the mood.

** Use drums and bells to accompany yourself when you sing.

I’m not really too in tune on how to transform songs to fit Kwanzaa, nor am I that familiar or hep with how songs should be modified for certain other special days around this time of year. So I’ve just decided to find a simple song (a round) by Christine Lavin & The Mistletones to cover many of the bases. After all, isn’t music a universal language? It makes a lot of sense to me to just have a song that’s appropriate for nearly everything - Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Chanukah, Ramadan, Boxing Day, and any other day someone wants to celebrate during this holiday season. Let’s hear it for a round that everyone can relate to.

Holiday Transformations: Arabian Dance

The Invincible Czars: Arabian Dance


Welcome to a week of musical transformations for the holidays. What do I mean by that? Geovicki gave us a taste of it with her post to finish last week‘s theme. This time of year, songs get asked to do things that were never intended. A song which has nothing to do with the holidays may become a staple on holiday radio broadcasts because Christmas, or presents, or even cold weather were mentioned. Familiar holiday songs may travel to strange dimensions, and come back with amazing genre makeovers. Lyricists may force a song into the holiday season by changing some of the words, or change a song from one holiday to another in the same way. All of that is fair game this week.

I wanted to start with a genre makeover, because I have a remarkable example to share. The bio on this band‘s website starts by saying, “The Invincible Czars are one of Austin's most adventurous rock bands.” All bands brag on their websites, but this statement is actually modest. The Czars fearlessly take on classic, (often classical), music, and turn it into an amazing stew of rock, jazz, klezmer, gypsy music, and probably a few other things I missed. Arabian Dance is from The Nutcracker, and the video is from an annual kid’s show that the Czars do where they perform the entire Nutcracker Suite their way. I haven’t seen the show live, but the album is as consistently crazy as this song. I love it, but I know not everyone will agree.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Horrors: Akahana no Tonakai (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer)

Nightmare: Akahana no Tonakai (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer) unavailable for purchase

It's not that I don't like some of Nightmare's songs, because I do. They did the theme song for Death Note, for example, which is pretty good. They're not afraid to take on new stuff, either: last year's Visual Kei tribute to Disney featured two reworked tunes by Nightmare.

But this song? What can be said for a song that starts out with ethereal keyboards and toy piano twee and then segues into speed metal without a by-your-leave? One thing it's good for, though, is clearing out the remnants of a house party that's gone on far too long.