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Music meme 2: A song you don’t mind having stuck in your head when you’re having a midlife crisis: Buddy and Julie Miller — Rock Salt and Nails

September 21, 2015

I’ve written here before about my frequent possession of earworms. Everyone gets them sooner or later, but for me it is often the status quo. I regularly get tunes stuck in my head for days at a time, often because there’s something in them that I’m trying to figure out.

Last night’s rehearsal was a blast. I never knew that I always wanted to be in a band until I began to play occasionally with this group a few months ago. I started off at my friend S’s apartment, where we ran through the fiddle duos ahead of the main rehearsal while sitting on her couch, figuring out new harmonies, cracking up every time we crashed and burned and whenever we’d land on an especially dissonant chord. After a while, we packed up our fiddles and walked up to the bench on the corner to wait for the accordion-player M to pick us up. As we drove to the guitar/dobro/harmonica-player’s house for rehearsal, M an S told stories about a house concert they’d been to the night before where the performances were, shall we say, a little uneven.

House concerts are big around here, maybe because finding public venues can be difficult and expensive, but maybe just because it fits with neighborhoods that likes organic produce and backyard chickens, Maker Faire and Brooklyn Flea. But we are not playing a house concert. We are playing in a bar. We are coming with mikes and amps and cables and lots of instruments. We are closing the festival. And we had come to rehearse.

I’m playing on just three songs, which meant that I had the pleasure of listening to what others are doing. I’ve played with them before, so I know most of their repertoire pretty well, but I haven’t played with them in a while, so it’s nice to hear it again.

One of my favorite songs that they do is one called “Rock Salt and Nails.” I’m particularly fond of this version by Buddy and Julie Miller (2001). It’s also the one that is most similar to the way the band does it:

The song’s been around for a few decades. It was written by Utah Phillips, whom the Washington Post described in his obituary as a “folk singer, rabble-rouser and anarchist,” which might explain the sort of shocking last line of the song (the one that gives it its title).

Here are the lyrics in their entirety:

On the banks of the river where the willows hang down
And the wild birds all warble with a low moaning sound
Down in the hollow where the waters run cold
It was there I first listened to the lies that you told

Now I lie on my bed and I see your sweet face
The past I remember time cannot erase
The letter you wrote me it was written in shame
And I know that your conscience still echo’s my name

Now the nights are so long, Lord sorrow runs deep
And nothing is worse than a night without sleep
I’ll walk out alone and look at the sky
Too empty to sing, too lonesome to cry

If the ladies were blackbirds and the ladies were thrushes
I’d lie there for hours in the chilly cold marshes
If the ladies were squirrel’s with high bushy tails
I’d fill up my shotgun with rock salt and nails

What makes this song work, is its heavy reliance on standard tropes of bluegrass/americana/country. It’s packed with cliches of the genre “On the banks of the river,” “where the willows hang down,” “down in the hollow,” “too lonesome to cry,” etc. By the time he brings up the ladies in the last verse, you think you know what this song is about because you’ve heard it before. And then you get to the last line. Um, maybe not. At least, I wasn’t expecting it. Lucky most versions repeat it, so you get a second chance to hear that yes, in fact you were right about the lyrics. Possibly the most bitter song ever written.

There was a different singer at last night’s rehearsal. Last time I played with them, this was the singer:

Last night’s singer/guitarist had a much lighter voice, so the song sounded quite different, but still just as wrenching. And of course they played it through several times and then the first and last verses a few times so the dobro-player could make sure he had time to get all his finger picks on and grab his slide — no mean feat.

I might have had this song stuck in my head anyway, but after hearing it several times, there was no shaking it. There are some people who, when they get tunes stuck in their heads, try to chase them away by playing something else. I am not one of those people. I approach earworms more like exorcisms. I have to burn them out by listening in So today, I piled a bunch of versions onto my iPhone and spent the day listening. Here are a few of the most noteworthy (in chronological order):

Rosalie Sorrels (1961) with Utah Phillips. This is the original:

Bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (1965):

Joan Baez (1969). I love Baez and I love her voice here, but somehow she doesn’t quite seem to have caught the spirit of the song:

There’s a beautiful version by Kate Wolf and Don Lange from the 1970s (released 1994) here.

And there are a dozen or so more recordings. Want to explore some more? Find a list here.

As for me, I keep coming back to the recording by Buddy and Julie Miller. Either that or the recording in my head from the living room of a neighbor, my fiddle laid out on a lace-covered dining table while I listened and wished I were playing too. I came home feeling like I’d had more fun than I had in months, maybe years. It carried me through the day. And tonight, when I pulled out my guitar, it was the first thing under my fingers.

What songs do you not mind having stuck in your head?

Music meme 1: A song for making friends: The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”

September 20, 2015

I’ve reached the point now with guitar where I can do things with reasonable speed. I can sightread most songs. I’m gradually adding new chords and chord voicings to my repertoire. And so I’m trying again to work on singing and playing in different rhythms at the same time, something that still doesn’t come easily to me.

One of my techniques for practicing has been to take a song that is basically a simple chord progression and arpeggiate it. That is, instead of playing the chords in one big chunk of a bunch of notes all at the same time, I string the notes out melodically. One of the best examples of arpeggiation I can think of is “House of the Rising Sun” as performed by The Animals

The song is a folk ballad and has been recorded by dozens over the years. The earliest known recording dates back to the 1930s. Ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax collected a version shortly thereafter, which helped get the tune out in front of a bigger audience. But The Animals version is the one that most of us have heard, along with the slightly earlier version by Bob Dylan, from which they took an inspiration. Their chord progressions are similar to Dylan’s, but Dylan doesn’t arpeggiate. (Listen to Dylan’s version here).

Songs that are arpeggiated like the Animals’ version aren’t always that interesting to play. They feel a bit étude-like, and are good for you like an étude — playing them forces you to be really methodical about rhythm. Good for woodshedding. But I’ve always liked this chord progression, mainly because it does that simple trick that a song can do to get me to like it — it plays with your expectations of major and minor chords. The melody is resolutely minor, the darkest despair of a tune. But most of the chords that accompany it in the Animals’ version are major. Only the tonic chord (the chord that defines the key the piece is in on which phrases begin and end) is minor. That tension between what the melody leads you to expect and what you actually hear is what makes this piece interesting and what can sustain it through a bazillion verses (only a fraction of which are presented here). Arpeggiating the chords also gives the tune motion, a sense of moving along even as the rhythm and chords relentlessly repeat, so it feels both stuck (as is its narrator) and also energetic.

“House of the Rising Sun” is one of the songs on the set list for next Sunday night, when I join my friend’s band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival. I’m probably not playing on it — I literally play second fiddle and not every song needs a second fiddle. But I played mandolin on it last time I gigged with them — a shimmery, jangly, arrangement with more than a touch of urban anxiety–and thought I’d like to try my hand at the guitar part just for fun.

This afternoon I was on a roll. I played through the whole thing twice at tempo, worked on it for a good half an hour. And then I grabbed my bag and went out to run some errands.

First stop was the music shop. This is one of my favorite local stores. It mostly sells records and CDs, but they also have a small selection of strings, picks, cables, rosin, and other music-making paraphernalia, just enough to get me through when I didn’t manage to place an order with the string shop soon enough. A guy was standing at the counter chatting with the owner but stepped aside so I could approach. “Can I get a couple of sets of electric guitar strings? One light, one medium gauge, please.” He pulled a couple of d’Addario’s off the rack and handed them to me.
Do you carry Gibson picks, by any chance?” “No, but I’ve got Dunlop.” I weighed my options. Dunlop are pretty good, but I’ve gotten really attached to my Gibson picks. They just sound better. “No thanks. We’re picky in our house.” I hadn’t meant to crack the lame joke, but grinned anyway. “No pun intended.” The owner kindly fought an eyeroll as he handed me my change. “Enjoy your day.” “Thanks, you too.”

“House of the Rising Sun” is a good song to have in your head if you’re taking a leisurely stroll through your neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day, taking a good look around. I felt the bassline in my feet.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

Next stop was another one of my favorite neighborhood stores. It’s a clothing shop/sewing workshop about a mile from my apartment with a hot pink door and a black and white striped awning. They teach sewing lessons and sell clothes handmade out of vintage or vintage-inspired fabrics, along with manufactured clothes that fit a similar aesthetic. It’s one of the few places I actually enjoy shopping for clothes, and even if I don’t find anything, it’s always fun to see what they have. About 30 seconds after I walk in the door, I hear The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” come on over the store’s stereo system. I looked up, because it felt like some kind of joke. About the same time, a guy shopping with a friend for their wives turned to the friend and said, “that’s so funny, I was just listening to this.” He showed his friend his phone as evidence. I turned to them and said, “I thought it was funny too, because I was just playing this on guitar about 10 minutes ago.” We had a brief Animals vs. Dylan conversation with a sprinkling of Alan Lomax and then we went our separate ways, they to the cash register, me into a fitting room.

When I came out, they were gone, but another guy had come in, although I didn’t notice him at first. I always think it is especially brave of guys to come into this shop. It is so very pink. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in there. I went to the counter to pay and was chatting with the clerk who asked about our conversation about the song. She thought the coincidence was funny too. “You play guitar, are you in a band?” I explained about my friend’s band and how we were playing the festival next weekend and that I was actually in the store trying to find something to wear to the gig. “Well this is great,” she said as she wrapped up the blouse I’d picked out, black with white silhouettes of birds. “I hope so,” I said. “Not too Portlandia?” “Definitely not.”

On my way out, I passed the guy who was shopping. “Excuse me,” he said, “Did I hear you say you were in a band? Because our band is looking for a keyboard player.”

“Oh, I’m just a ringer for a friend’s band. I’m a fiddle player, mostly. But I know some people. Do you have a card? I could pass on some names. Is it based here in the neighborhood?”

“Oh, we’re all over. I don’t think I have a card with me” he said, rifling through his wallet anyway. “But maybe I’ll run into you again. In the neighborhood.”

“See you around!” I said, shrugging my shoulders. The bells jingled as I walked out into the afternoon sun, humming under my breath.

My mother was a tailor
Sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

After a quick stop at the hairdresser’s to make an appointment for later in the week, I stopped in the wine store. No music there. Just wine. I grabbed a couple of bottles from the refrigerator and a couple from the shelf. The owner rang me up. “That’s supposed to be a good one,” he said looking at a sparkling wine made from malvasia, “but I haven’t tried it yet.” “Someone talked me into trying it the last time I was here. I’ve been looking forward to it.” “Let me know how it is.” I nodded and paid and was back on the street.

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

As I hiked up the hill to home, I could still feel the song running through my fingers. But now, in the door, it’s time to move on to the next song and the next instrument. With a glass of wine in hand, I’ll tune my fiddle and play through a century’s worth of waltzes before tonight’s rehearsal. Life is sweet.

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one


September 5, 2015

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been interested in doing another music meme here, but existing suggestions don’t seem to be inspiring me. Instead, I think I’m going to build my own. It’s likely to be quirky and personal and maybe not suitable for others, but if you’d like to play along with one or more of the subjects I propose, I’d love to hear your songs.

Blogging about music is now part of my job – not a big part, but a little part. And one of the things I love about it is that it gives me a chance to talk about music that matters to me — often figuring out the reasons along the way. I got to write an obituary for Lou Reed a couple of years ago and it turned out that the things I wrote about were not about sound. They were about the role his music played in defining myself, in belonging and not belonging, in growing up. That wasn’t what I was expecting to write.

Music for me has never been just about the sound. It’s always been a way of relating to the world, of learning about things I haven’t yet experienced. And there’s still so much to know.

I’m part of a small book group at my office that is reading books about music and psychology and cultural practice. We are not all musicians, but we’re all interested in the question of why we listen, how our listening and performing practices and preferences reflect other things about ourselves and our world. It’s been interesting, because we all have backgrounds in academia but we’re driven by questions that are primarily personal, practical, observant and curious. We’re doing this for fun. But in the course of our discussions, academic discourse has seemed ever more relevant. It’s made sense of my work. Past a certain point in an academic career, it can feel risky to dabble outside the area of your focus. But it’s so good to do it. It keeps me going, reminds me that just because you’ve selected your scholarly diet doesn’t mean you can’t be constitutionally omnivorous.

But while music blogging has been a way to sort out my own ideas about things, it’s also opened my ears and eyes to new things, new ways of thinking. The other great pleasure of blogging about music is hearing what other people are listening to and why it matters to them. So when I say I’d like to hear your songs, I mean it. Post in the comments, tag me on your own blog, slip me a note during social studies. Whatever works for you. I hope you’ll join me.


August 25, 2015

I’ve been absent again. I’ve been playing a lot of music and it’s been keeping me away from the (computer) keyboard. And also work at the Toy Factory is heating up again, as in addition to the giant extra project I already had on my plate building a new storage and display facility for toys, one of the larger toys I work on is undergoing a new design, a process that has put me in charge of stuff I didn’t use to be in charge of. And then my boss got usurped by another department for 6 months, quite unexpectedly, and so I’ve got some extra things to do there as well. I’ve shifted a little too seamlessly to a 10-hour day, but strangely, I’m kind of liking it. I’m also becoming resigned to the fact that I will never be caught up. It is the way things are.

But music making has been therapy. Some nice things have been happening with the music I play on Sundays. Not such definable things, but we’ve had some moments where everything just clicks and it feels great to play. Last Sunday, we got a very unexpected round of applause after a piece that we were enjoying so much that we were kind of surprised when it ended, an Irishy tune that was a duet between me on violin and my favorite singer. It was a bit of a challenge for me in that I had to sightread up a sixth, which is not something I’m used to doing, but I think the extra concentration required somehow enabled what happened, focused the performance. Because it’s such a chore to transpose at sight, I memorized it fast — one of the things all this playing is doing for me is improving my musical memory — and what was supposed to be a meditation for the congregation became another kind of meditation for the musicians. I’d arrived at the church tired and a little crabby, but left after more than three hours of playing (across two services with some rehearsal in the middle) feeling energized. Somehow as an adult I’ve finally found the flow I had a sense for but couldn’t control as a violin student.

But violin is the least of it, because I’ve become a little obsessed with the guitar (I can hear Mr. Spy saying “A lot obsessed.”) I play every single day, for at least an hour, I think, although I don’t really count it and it’s often a lot more. I don’t think I’ve ever been this virtuous about anything, nor do I think I’ve ever wanted to be expert at something in quite the way I am about the guitar. But it’s not like I say to myself, “If you want to be good, you need to practice everyday.” It’s that it is literally the first thing I want to do when I walk in the door after work. Every day. I think about it while I’m at work. I practice fingerings on the subway, figure out chord progressions while barreling down 35th Street on my way to the office. It feels more and more like an extension of my voice, a way of connecting and disconnecting with the world at the same time. Or something like that. I don’t really know how to explain it. I like the headspace it puts me in. The best therapy I can think of for a hectic day is sitting on the roof as the sun goes down and the dark comes up and playing…whatever comes to mind, really.

Because I pretty much think about playing guitar all the time and because I’ve had some trouble writing here of late, I’m thinking it might be time to try another music meme. Somewhere up at the top of the page is one that I never finished. I may give it a try. Or I may just talk about the songs that I’m working on. Or maybe a mix of the two. I’m not planning on turning this into a theme blog. I’m just trying to rebuild the habit. In addition to playing, I’m doing a lot of listening, as I try to get my head around what songwriting might be like. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what makes a good song, why well-written songs are not always the ones you respond to, and what makes songs meaningful enough that you’re okay with playing them over and over and over again until you can get your fingers to remember the sound.

Symphony in three movements

July 15, 2015

I. Scenes from my morning commute

* In the park, a middle-aged woman wearing a circle skirt and walking a beagle. She looks over to see if anyone is watching, thinks not, and spins, her skirt standing out nearly straight.

* On the subway, a man in a fencing jacket

* On 35th Street, a belly-up cockroach the size of a Buick*. And another one. And another one. And then one that was flattened.

*(if a Buick were about 3 inches long)

II. Grand Central Station

Things that happened while I was seated in the middle of a long table for a work-related social event.

* A discussion about footnotes that ended with someone showing someone else her dissertation on her cell phone (no, it wasn’t me)

* Two simultaneous conversations about humor. On my left, a discussion of how unintentionally funny Theodor Adorno’s writing about jazz is. On my right, a recitation (accompanied by hand gestures) of several jokes previous told by grandmothers in Yiddish. This particular counterpoint says more about the Toy Factory than just about anything.

* A glass of champagne mysteriously appeared in the middle of the table and just as mysteriously vanished a few minutes later.

III. Scenes from my evening commute

* On 38th Street, The Cinderella Building

* On the subway, a man reading an article about My Little Ponies

* Outside the shuttered corner store, two men smoking cigars, smoke curling around their faces

Ita missa est

July 12, 2015

This morning, like most Sunday mornings, I hauled my fiddle up to the choir loft and church to play the 8:30 Mass. I waved to the organist, got tuned, pulled out my music, prepped my hymnal, and adjusted the mike. The bell rang to start Mass and I played the first hymn. A few minutes after we finished the song, I heard footsteps on the wooden stairs and a small girl appeared by my side, and stood there very still.

I went over and crouched down to talk to her and she talked very quietly. I asked if she was here to see the organist and she nodded solemnly. I realized at her height, she couldn’t see over the organ console, so I grabbed him for her. He said a few words and set her up with a mike just her height and gave her some music. But when it came time to sing, she stepped away from the mike. She looked shy.

After the next song, I was standing with my fiddle under my arm running the baroque concerto I was going to play for the offertory quietly. I felt a tug on my elbow. “Can I stand over here next to you?” she asked.

“Of course.” I got her a hymnal and move the mike between our heights so we could both use it. When it came time to sing, she turned the mike back to me. “I’m scared,” she said. “Would you like me to sing with you instead of play?” She nodded. We stood next to each other holding hands for the next song.

“What’s your name?” I asked her afterwards.


“Hi, I’m Harriet.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m 47,” her eyes widened, either because I sounded alarmingly old or because she didn’t expect a straight answer. “How old are you?”

“I’m 6.”

It was time to play my piece. E stood stock still by my elbow watching me with enormous brown eyes.

When I had finished she asked, “Can I try?”

I whispered in here ear, “Not right now, but after Mass I’ll show you how to play.” She grinned.

It was time to say the Lord’s Prayer. I usually fold my hands, like the old timers. But this time it seemed right to hold hands like the current custom. I grabbed her hand and she looked at me and grinned. We said the prayer together.

At the passing of the peace, where you greet the people around you and say peace be with you. I waved at the organist. I held out my hand to E to shake, but instead she threw her arms around me and gave me a giant boa constrictor hug. I hugged her back.

“I need to go down and tell my mama something.”

“Can you wait until after the next song? I need someone to sing with me.”

“I’m just going to go down now.”

“Okay. Come right back!”

She came back a few minutes later. “I was so scared on the stairs.” The stairs are old and warped and they make tight turns where the steps are very narrow.

“I can help you when it’s time to go back down.”

“I want to go down.”

“Sing with me. Here.” I pointed at the hymnal for her as the organ played the beginning of the “Agnus Dei.” I held the mike between us and she opened her mouth and out came a beautiful soft soprano voice.

She took my hand and we walked down the stairs together. She ran to find her mom while I walked up the center aisle to take communion. When I got to the back of the church again, she was just starting to climb the stairs all by herself. “I’m not scared anymore,” she whispered when she saw me.”

We sang the last hymn and after it was over, as promised, I let her hold my violin, far to big for her. She held it and listened carefully to my instructions. She played a note and looked at me with surprise and then played another one. I sang her some rhythms and had her play them back. Then I had her sing rhythms to me and she played those too. Her brother came up to tell her it was time to go. I went down with her and my violin so she could show her mom what she had learned. I met her whole family, who were all lovely. Her mother thanked me over and over and asked if I taught. I said I used to but I don’t do it right now, but I’ve been thinking about it. She asked for my number and I gave it to her.

Later I had a message on the machine. She called to thank me again and to tell me a story. Her daughter has had a hard time. She has severe learning disabilities and is made fun of by other children and not always tolerated by adults. She’s often afraid to talk to people. Her brother is autistic and rarely talks to others. She said that both children were talking about being in the choir loft and about the violin this morning. She said that her son has never volunteered to go somewhere by himself before. He’s usually very afraid of strangers, but he ran right up to the loft. Music is a way he can communicate. She thinks it was because he plays violin too. And if I’d ever consider teaching, to please give her a call.

I was, needless to say, weeping copiously as I listened to this message, which was also full of parental heartbreak, the kind where people chalk up a child’s problems to bad parenting. This, people, is why music lessons matter, why we are in desperate need of music in schools and really just about everywhere. Music connects people when other things don’t work. It was that way for me, as a shy and awkward kid. It’s doubly true for kids like E and her brother. It’s a simple thing.

E. wanted us to take her picture holding the violin, but no one had a camera. I promised we’d do it next week if she’d come back. She promised she would. And I’m going to hold her to it.

Thank you

June 26, 2015

Today I was going to write about something else entirely and I’ll probably post it someday. But not today. Today I’m going to tell you a couple of stories.

A few days ago, on a beautiful summer evening celebrating AJ’s baseball team winning the league championship with a picnic and cocktails in the park. I was talking to the two moms of one of AJ’s teammates and they were telling me about what it was like when they were first together and pregnant and living in a neighborhood that was dangerous and not very open-minded. When they took their son to day care for the first time, they weren’t sure what to do but finally told the director, “C has two moms.” “Oh, no,” the director said. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” All of us listening made noises of concern. But the woman telling the story assured us it was not what we thought. “The director said, ‘I don’t want the ex wife coming down here and then the wife coming down here — someone always gets in a fight.” We all laughed, but not the teller of the story. “I cried. I couldn’t stop crying.”

* * * * *

Yesterday, I met up with a toymaker I work with at a conference I was attending. He lives on the West Coast with the man he’s been calling his husband for longer than he’s been legally able to do so, and I only get to see him once or twice a year. When I ran into him in the hallway yesterday, he had his phone in his hand, checking the Supreme Court rulings like my son checks for White Sox scores. We both cheered at the preservation of ACA. “Tomorrow,” he said. “They say it’s going to come tomorrow.”

* * * * *

It’s tomorrow.

* * * * *

Months ago, the park near my apartment scheduled a screening of Paris is Burning for tonight. I remember seeing thing film in college and being overwhelmed. It’s not a happy film, but there is joy and I predict it’s going to be the biggest fucking party my neighborhood has seen in a long time.

* * * * *

Today I’m thinking about everyone who will feel this most and I’m happy for them. Tomorrow I’m going to be happy for me, because tomorrow, the world will be a little bit better than it was yesterday.


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