Archive for the ‘Music’ category

Again With The Voynich?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been fascinated about the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript ever since I first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich Manuscript?


In short, for those who haven’t run across mention of this ancient document which may come to us from the 15th Century or before, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown. It is also decorated with unknown star constellations and plants, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

You can look at a digital version of the manuscript for yourself on The Internet Archive.

Over the years, the most fascinating aspect of its mystery has become the proliferation of both plausible and bizarre theories about it.

Basic human psychology

There is a basic aspect of human psychology at play here: our tendency – our need – to create patterns and meaning out of ambiguous or mysterious raw material.  And then to clamp like a vise to these preliminary gestalts as if they’ve been bestowed by the gods themselves.  Once a shallow channel of belief takes form, it only seems to deepen with the flow of time and self-convincing, and rarely finds another path.

When last I wrote about it – my knowledge consists of web sources – there had seemed to be a minor breakthrough by Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor in England. He thought he had deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich. He believed he was able to pick out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams. He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

More recently Bax speculated that “the script was devised for a particular community, possibly to write down an already existing language, and then that script was lost to us, with the exception of the Voynich manuscript.”  He cites an example of lost languages only recently revealed in manuscripts kept in an old monastery in Egypt.

Bax, let me hasten to say, is one of the more serious and reasonable people to look at the manuscript.

Here is a short list of other theories:

— an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci
— written in the Manchu language with an original alphabet
— a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs
— a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia in the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages
— a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text
— created by an alien visitor to Earth

Artificial Intelligence and a finding of Hebrew

Most recently, computer scientists from the University of Alberta here in Canada used artificial intelligence methods to try to decode the manuscript.

As you may know, artificial intelligence has in recent years improved by an order of magnitude or more with such accomplishments as “Watson” winning the TV game show Jeopardy, and AI beating the world’s best at the oriental strategy game of Go.  The latter is especially impressive given the reliance upon a highly trained intuition about the shape of the game by the best human players, which is a step above the admittedly complex accomplishments of the grandmasters of Western chess.

In the Voynich case, in preparation for tackling the manuscript, the scientists trained the AI to decipher 380 different language versions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AI determined after the first 10 pages of the manuscript that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.

So the researchers tried to have a native Hebrew speaker translate.  He couldn’t do it.  Then they tried Google Translate!!

With that, the first sentence read something like: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”  It could possibly make sense….

The scientists also translated the so-called “herbal chapter” and seemed to get words like “farmer” and “air” and “fire.”

Of course, we have to remember that this AI was trained on modern-day languages.  Even if it was Hebrew, Google Translate only works with the modern language, not medieval dialects.

And 20 percent of the examined text didn’t seem to be associated with Hebrew at all, but gave wildly different results, such as Malay and Arabic.

The Times of Israel provides a detailed review of the history of the manuscript and an analysis of these most recent results.

The article points out that the AI analysis is based on the premise that the person who wrote the manuscript encoded by both substituting letters for one another, and mixing up their order as in an anagram. This is an assumption that is unproven.

Another researcher tested Google Translate with another sample of the manuscript (with another manipulation process) and ended up with Hindi….

We are still left with the mystery of the Voynich.  The only proper response seems to be to celebrate its inscrutability.

And that is what composer Hannah Lash has done.  In the 2016 post, I mentioned that she was creating a symphony based on the enigma of the Voynich, a creative reaction amidst the noise of all the theories.  As of 2017, she completed it, and the symphony in its entirety has been performed.

You can hear an excerpt from the third movement at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra site.

If you really want to get into her musical process about the manuscript, there is a large selection of videos on YouTube.


Note:  For an interesting breakdown and comparison of Voynich images with other sources, see this analysis of the illustrations at René Zandbergen’s site about the Voynich Manuscript.

Also, it is sad to note that linguist Stephen Bax cited above recently passed away.  His site, and fascination in the last part of his life about the Voynich, will apparently continue to have some connection with fellow “Voynichero” René Zandbergen.


The White Album

November 20, 2016

For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.

It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968.  I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before.  That album exploded into public consciousness.  I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967).  That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music.  My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.

We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.


And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.

It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation.  It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected.  It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.

The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it:  the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man….  I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.

But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.

The summer and fall of ’68

That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread.  Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together.  Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.

With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November.  My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.

The oldest son of the family was a renegade.  I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals.  He drove a flash pick-up.  He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.

But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up.   He had The White Album!  In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go.  He was eager to play the first LP for us.  The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little.  And that was the first time I heard The White Album.  We were all amazed by it.  It was an event. “Listen to this!”

I’ve recently found a  remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.

So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.

the-beatles-pr-608x408From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation.  The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.

But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment.  Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.

There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.

But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.

The Ukraine girls really knock me out

Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”

Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.

There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality.  They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think.  For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.

And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.

One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is.  The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.

I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).

Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio.  I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).

And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.

I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly.  He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.

Number 9, Number 9, Number 9

And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to.  It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”

I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two.  Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up.   I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes.  And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it.  There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”

It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track.  Not any more.  I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.

It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now.  Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.

It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.

The Beatles.  They were a force.


At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….



The Perennial Music of the Grateful Dead

June 21, 2015

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

— “Box of Rain”

The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, the 50th anniversary concerts in July by the surviving members, is a cultural moment.

The band will be joined by Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish most famously, filling in for Jerry Garcia (gone since 1995), and Bruce Hornsby will also be there for the farewell in Chicago.

Dilapidated and grey, like most of us who began to grow up in the 1960s, the Dead still evoke a time and a musical atmosphere that has long faded. After July, those times will only flare again into light for a few minutes when visiting the musical and visual record.  It will be a second-hand way, but the only way, for those born too late.

I was never a Dead Head — my favorite bands were the Beatles, the Who, CSN&Y, CCR and Dire Straits.  But I also listened to a lot of other bands, and I did buy The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa — the 1969 album with “China Cat Sunflower,” a song long appreciated by the Dead’s fans. I remember that at the time I didn’t like the album that much.

grateful dead aoxomoxoaBut now I’ve begun to listen to the Grateful Dead to understand what I missed.  I remember when I lived in San Francisco for a year as the 1970s rolled into the start of the 1980s, that the Dead came to town on at least two occasions.  Suddenly there were wildly painted VW vans and bugs all over the place, and long-haired fans in unfashionable clothes everywhere.  Crudely painted signs on cardboard asked for tickets to the shows from those who had them to give or sell.

I was living pretty close to the bone, trying to write, and to learn and practice aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.  I didn’t have extra money for a band that from a distance even at that time seemed a relic of the past.

I’m coming to revise that opinion now.  Of course much music from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Allman Brothers Band, among many others, will persist beyond their times.

But there is something even more timeless about the Grateful Dead, in a much different way than say the long-lived popularity of the Doors’ music, who seemed to have a sensibility acceptable to those of this millenium.  There’s something both quaint and perennial to be heard in the Dead’s music.

Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
— “The Music Never Stopped

You listen to the Dead’s recordings, you hear something of the time the band came into being, a shimmer of the west coast explosion of the Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, and all the rest.

But the Dead’s roots go further back, to old-time blue grass music, folk, country and gospel.  The Dead’s main lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia played together in very early days in blue-grass bands such as The Tub Thumpers.

Although mainstream understanding has always denied this, the impact of psychedelic drugs, including LSD and marijuana, was to open a portal of creativity that transformed those influences into something new.  Many of the bands of that era had their doors of perception opened that way, including the Beatles and many others, and with the impetus of natural musical talent, incredible music flowered.  Of course, those drugs and others not so creatively inspiring such as heroin and cocaine were also a source of great danger, and Garcia himself fell victim.

Robert Hunter, who supplied the words and worked with Jerry Garcia for many of the Dead’s best songs, was according to Wikipedia paid to take LSD, psilocybin and mescaline and report on his experiences at the University of Stanford in a CIA-sponsored program in the early 1960s.  He sees this as “creatively formative.”

Now that I’m in my mid-sixties, a lot of the Dead’s lyrics speak to me in a significant way, from “what a long, strange trip it’s been” to “let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

I’ve become enthused enough by the Dead’s music to acquire a couple of books of their music for guitar, so that I may learn it.  Just looking at the words, tabs and notes, their music starts playing on my internal jukebox.  “Sugar Magnolia….”

The most popular songs, like “Truckin'” and a “Touch of Grey,” always remain listenable to me.  The song “Box of Rain” though has become one of my favorites, along with “Ripple.”  I anticipate that there will be others that I come to appreciate greatly as well.

But it’s “Uncle John’s Band”, a song that I always thought was catchy but disposable, that I want to learn how to play for myself now.  Its structure, looking at the music on the page, is surprisingly complex. But the lyrics are evocative and meaningful to me as the band immediately begins to play in my mind.

I hail the Grateful Dead as they pass.

Come hear Uncle John’s band
playing to the tide
Come with me or go alone
he’s come to take his children home.




The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On

February 11, 2015

I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
— Steve Miller, Jet Airliner

At this point on my guitar learning adventure (as previously chronicled in such posts as The Impatience of Learning Guitar and Manchild with Guitar), I’m trying to challenge myself to play in more difficult territory and perhaps be able to claim to have some intermediate skills eventually, rather than to be just a beginner.

I’m still taking lessons from the same rock guitarist and music producer I’ve gone to for several years.  They are funny kind of lessons, but they have evolved over time and suit me.  I bring in a piece I want to learn how to play.  One time it was a simplified, if still complicated, Bach tune, another time a very fast (for me) blues-rock number.

I’m not quite sure what Eddy thinks when I bring along something like these to learn, at the edge of what I’m able to do.  He very patiently goes through each piece with me as we work on phrasing and technique.  As a working musician and quite a good teacher for a young guy, he’s a master at simplifying, if only temporarily, until I get up to speed on difficult passages.   I tend to throw my hands up in dismay at my effrontery in even thinking I can play them.  But we work through that, and with more practice than I like to say, I make progress.

Because Eddy loves to work with music, even my efforts, he’s taken to recording them in his home studio.  I think he likes to record me because I’m not going anywhere in particular with what I’m doing, and there are no expectations or demands or requirements on him for the finished results.  We just get to play around.

I now have a half-dozen or more recordings of my renditions.  They sound pretty good after he’s done splicing and editing them meticulously together.  They’re fun to have and to show off to any friends or family whom I can impose upon….  And I get to learn a little about music production, although half the time I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about.

All Along the Watchtower

My latest project is to learn to play All Along the Watchtower, that wonderful version of a Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.  I think that’s my favorite Hendrix tune.  So I gathered together a bunch of instructional videos off of YouTube, got some sheet music together and backing tracks, and presented it to Eddy as what I wanted to do next.  I have to hand it to him, he didn’t blink, and started putting the backing tracks and the original song into ProTools to work on.

I want to do it like a Ventures tune, an instrumental version including the voice parts, which you don’t find done so much.  Although I had started trying to learn the opening rhythm section and the first intro solo, it was a bit of a shambles.  It’s another example of me ruing my ambitiousness.  So we’re going through the song step-by-step.  We’re up to the second solo and it’s starting to sound not too bad.

Hendrix was a monster player, as every guitarist realizes.  He played like there was absolutely no barrier between his musical will and his hands and fingers expressing that will on the guitar. And he must have had incredibly strong hands to bend the strings like crazy as he does.  Eddy has got me cheating on some of the more extreme bending, but it still sounds good.  And there’s one very fast passage so far — I’m working hard to get it into my fingers so I don’t have to think about it, and just do it.

There are many great solos in this song, and even if I’m not able in the end to play any of it very well (although I hope for better than that!), I’m still learning a lot by pushing at the boundaries of my ability in this way.  Even if I feel like a schmuck when I flounder, as I often do….

Useful Guitar Learning Resources on the Web

In my guitar journey, in addition to the useful sites mentioned in previous posts such as the great Robert Renman’s two — Dolphin Street and Master Guitar Academy — I have found some very good additional sites.  Almost all of these sites have a free lesson component and then offer lessons or material to buy.  The proportion of free on the ones I’ll note here is quite high.

The kind of free instructive material is also important — some of the most commercial sites just offer fragments to entice you rather than anything useful.  I think the better sites like Renman’s are actually very smart marketing — I’ve learned a lot from his free stuff and I’ve gone on to buy several lessons I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in.  I know the detail and care he puts into them.

1) Fundamental Changes — Lots of lessons “In the Style of ….” (Dave Gilmour, B.B. King, Keith Richards, etc.) which are good for picking up new licks, and also many videos on theory and technique (Harmonics on Guitar, Chromatic Notes in Solos, etc.).

2) Fret Jam — Very clear and well taught videos (and written material) on many aspects of guitar musical theory, in particular.  For instance, one recent free lesson is on “Suspended Guitar Chords — How and When to Play Them.”  Another recent article is “The Best Guitar Chord Software & Chord Tools On the Web” which will lead you to a number of other good and informative sites.

3) Fachords — Although it also has free video lessons, the most interesting part of this site I find are the free online Guitar Apps .  These include a scales finder, a chord finder, fretboard trainer, speed trainer, interactive scales harmonization, and more.

There is just so much good guitar instructional material on the web.  I am guilty of buying more books, having more links and downloading more videos than I will probably ever go through in the detail they deserve.  I just wish it was all available when I was a kid, when I made my first unsuccessful stabs at learning the instrument.




Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)

February 16, 2014

“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
Judy Collins

I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.

The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s.  The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.

220px-The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallIt’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”  It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too.  But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….

I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online.  But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.

After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle.  She had gone there to see her mother  and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad.  There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.

In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records.  Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them.  It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years.  The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.

Sierra Exif JPEGIt strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends.  None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure.  But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.

As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!

Pete Seeger After the Weavers

So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.

I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.

Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew.  Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs.  Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.

If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations.  A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”

But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:

“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”

Bob+Dylan++Pete+Seeger+2943980698_ec9703aeec_oThere are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie.  He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.

And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way.  The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar.  Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”

At first the audience is hesitant and quiet.  We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him.  The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice.  Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does.  They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise.  Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race!  …But you got to have hope….”  The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.

You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out.  For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.

He’s gone now.  That embodiment has given way.  The songs go on.



Note:  The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.


The Impatience of Learning Guitar

August 16, 2013

As I continue to struggle, and to enjoy, learning to play guitar, I’ve come to understand better those stories of teenage boys practicing five or six hours every day for months and years who later turned into an Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or Robbie Robertson.

Besides all the emotional sides of that kind of commitment, of determination, of loneliness, of raging to master one thing that couldn’t be taken away or denigrated, of fulfilling some kind of inner calling, there is the matter of how much damn time it takes to play anything decent on the instrument.

Where’s that inner fire?

In my sixties, I don’t have anything like that inner fire, or probably even the modicum of talent needed to sustain it, but I still want to improve what I am able to do.  I’m sort of at the cusp of a beginner and lower intermediate player.  I do get deeply unsatisfied about my fumblings, and it pushes me to practice more.

There have been some recent books and other writings about learning guitar.  I’m thinking most specifically about Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.  I mention the book because it looks like it would be well worth investigating, but I just haven’t got around to it.  I should have read it before writing this!

But one of the author Gary Marcus’s points that I did pick up from reading a review, and agree with completely, is the importance of patience.  Younger learners seem to just have more of it than us older types.

Patience, patience, patience, as one practices a piece yet one more time.

For a change from the usual blues or rock tunes and exercises that I usually work on, I found an “easy guitar” version of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

moko back front web I should explain that as a boy, I loved versions of classical music set to a rock beat.  A classic for me is Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble and the Stingers.

There’s also that Moe Koffman album Back to Bach, which horrifies purists, or even regular music fans, with its often disco-like take on some of the classics which appealed to me greatly in my younger years.  And there have been many more – from Emerson, Lake and Palmer to At Vance.

So I got out my trusty ChordPulse software and put together a backing track in 3/4 time with a kind of soft swing style beat, since the Bach music provided the chords to input.  Then I began to try to learn “Bach Joy” on the electric guitar.

The first stage

The first stage for me in learning any piece is a combination of figuring out what fingering is going to work as I slowly puzzle my way through, and trying to get the notes to combine, however haphazardly, into a semblance of the tune at hand.  But I need to have a sense of what the darn thing sounds like….

Some of the typical blues or rock tunes I work on, I have videos and mp3 backing tracks, so a lot of this initial stage is often already well-presented for me.  However, with this, I had to listen to various versions online to get a sense of what the melody should sound like in detail, and then see if the tab on the page let me get anywhere close.  (I’m not using the backing track yet, that would be too much, and confusing, information for me at this stage.)

I divided the music into sections or long phrases that seemed to make sense, and went through each methodically.  I have considerable dexterity in my hands, but little in my ears in seems because it took endless repetition, checking against what versions I could, to start to get something recognizable.

Then on to the next section and the next, slowly, slowly.  A lot of patience is definitely required, but if you can hold on long enough and work at it, you can finally detect some slow facility and improvement in whatever piece one works on.

But then I tried to incorporate the backing track.  The problem was I couldn’t tell at first by ear where I was supposed to be in the music, where the correlation was between note and chord.  So I would play too fast, or too slow, with awful cacophony, and never end up in the right place.

But by sheer repetition I started to hear the chord changes, and where I should be with which note on the guitar.

So then in the next phase, I started to string together all the sections I had learned without the pauses between them, with the backing beat to pace me.   Slowly, slowly again, the seams started to blend, and there began to be moments when my fingers played without me directing too much.

And now finally, after a couple of months, I can play, almost, the whole thing at a decent speed accompanied by the backing track.  But I always screw up one or two phrases on each play through.  So more practice.

Addicted to practice

My music teacher, who luckily happens to be a person of great patience, has taken to recording me in his home studio, partly because he likes to play around with all his fancy equipment, and because it encourages students like me to play better.  But it adds another layer of demand in a play-through, and there are always a few glaring mistakes.  But no matter, he edits the takes and we finally get something that I can show off to my friends and family.

But I continue to work on “Bach Joy” and I’m making fewer and fewer mistakes.  I’ve become, to a certain extent, addicted to practicing.  That urge to try just once more to improve is part of the long patience needed to see any development.  But then, I’m probably just slow….


Some further notes:

I wanted to provide some praise for ChordPulse, mentioned above, as a straight-forward way to make useful backing tracks on the PC, especially for us solo guitarists.  It has some limitations in the styles and rhythms available, but it covers almost all the bases.  The program’s author also provides some free programs at his website, a metronome program and a four-chord song application among them.  Well worth checking out….

I’ve also written a couple of other posts here on my adventures learning guitar:

Aging Guitar Enthusiast

Manchild with Guitar