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June 26, 2016

I am on the road, a brief visit to Chicago for a family event. I love traveling alone. I am not so great at traveling with others, but traveling alone lets me unhook for a while. I get on the plane and lose myself in music and books for a while and, a couple of hours later,get off somewhere totally different.

Sometime during my year of traveling prodigiously, when I was moving back and forth to Chicago so often that I no longer had to think about what to put in my suitcase, my plane reading of choice has been memoir. Mostly musician memoirs. I think it started when, on one of my first trips back to Chicago from New York, I ended up sitting next to the editor of Pitchf0rk. He was reading the new collection of Ellen Willis’s Voice columns, Out of the Vinyl Deeps which, coincidentally, I had just picked up for the trip but had accidentally left it on my desk on my way out. I was brand new at editing at the time and somehow that conversation with another music editor made me feel a little bit more like I knew what I was doing. Musician memoirs are a bit of protection, if only because they remind me, while in the middle of change and strangeness, of who I am trying to be while allowing me to disconnect from my innate awkwardness and pretend I’m somebody else for a while. Somebody cooler.

For this trip, I chose to pick up a memoir of someone I used to know. Not well, but enough. And a long time ago. We went to school together, and I knew him through a good friend of mine with whom I’m still in touch. I should have seen this coming when I saw my friend’s name on page 1, not to mention his photo in the back, but I know half the people in this book and it’s weird as hell.

The plane was packed. The guy behind me smelled so badly of whiskey (on a 9 am flight)that I felt like I was getting drunk along with him just by breathing. He pounded bloody Marys all the way to Chicago. In front of me, a small unhappy baby was wailing and wailing, sending up an occasional chorus from all the other babies on the plane, shrieking in solidarity at the injustice of air travel (I feel your pain, babies. All of it.) But somehow I lost myself in this book and while I felt a bit dirty and cheap for reading it, partly because it’s not a great book and suffers from the usual name dropping of this kind of memoir (although not as much as some and in a way that strongly suggests an editor’s hand) but mostly because it feels a little like picking up someone else’s diary without permission — I couldn’t stop reading.

The memoirist writes about people I know, about concerts I went to, about events I was a part of, but his perspective is totally different from mine. He has photos similar to those I have in a box somewhere under my bed. I can’t argue with the accuracy — it’s all incredibly familiar but also different and odd. And I can’t put it down.

A long time ago, I read an interview with the memoirist in some zine or another. The interviewer asked him about his musical inspiration, about how he came to do what he did and he told the story of a favorite teacher who had given him a Bowie record so he could tape it when he was too poor to buy his own copy. His favorite teacher was mine too. He didn’t give me Bowie. He gave me Philip Glass and introduced me to John Cage and French New Wave film. The teacher doesn’t make the book but while I’m reading I’m thinking about how he may have saved the intellectual well-being of dozens of disaffected suburban teens. He changed my life in ways I wouldn’t understand for years.

At 30,000 feet, when I’m seeking to lose myself in the beautiful anonymity of a plane, I am reading a page that is forcing me to look back at my childhood, at the things I didn’t notice and the things I didn’t fully understand. I find I’m reconsidering my own perspective on the things that happened. When he quotes my friend on a topic I have actually discussed with him, I am there in that minute, even though I wasn’t actually. And suddenly I’m not sure sure if I’m losing or finding myself.

Somewhere under the bed, with the photos, are copies of the school paper I used to work on. The memoirist and I both wrote poems for it. His were cliched angst, full of things that I thought I wanted to experience. Mine were empty pretty words. Nothing special. But there they are, sharing a space, a couple of pages after a review of a concert he played in that I attended. I remember the agonizing embarrassment of that page. It looks different to me now and I wonder what it means.

As I sit on the plane reading, one of the memoirist’s songs comes through my headphones. The babies are gone. The whiskey man is gone. I am drawing a map in my head between where I am now and where I used to be, the dots spinning out from a place I lived long ago but am wondering if I ever knew.

A long time ago, I was on my way to a required school assembly with the other law-abiding citizens when suddenly I stepped out of line. The idea of a pep rally in the school gym horrified me. My feet gave out in the music department and I ducked into a practice room where I found myself face to face with the memoirist. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. “Hi,” he said.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was in here. I’m not supposed to be here.”

“Neither am I.”

“I hate pep rallies.”

“Don’t go.”

“I have to go.”

“Do you want to go?”


“So don’t.”

While that idea may have occurred to the feet that walked me out of line, it hadn’t occurred to the rest of me. I was too embarrassed to stay. I backed out of the room. But I didn’t go to the rally. I found another practice room and started banging out riffs on the piano,repetitive arpeggios, feeling a little exhilarated for breaking a rule that probably no one cared if I observed.

I’m not sure I ever spoke to the memoirist again. I moved away a few months later. But the moment stuck with me, maybe inspired me to pick up a book years later to see where he ended up. I’m not sure the book is going to really tell me that, but it may have told me a little something about the person I used to be.

Back on the plane, I turn the page. We’re landing in ten minutes and I want to finish the chapter. I wonder what happens next.


March 31, 2016

My orthopedist has a new office.  The old one was inside a large urban hospital, dusty and cramped and full of cardboard boxes and dead plants.  The new one is in a swanky office building near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Radio City Music Hall, much closer to my office.  It is gleaming white, like a scene from a space movie – white concrete floors, a white marble desk, bright white lights and rows and rows of identical blue chairs.  I am sitting in one of those chairs, waiting for an appointment with my hand surgeon, who is checking the progress of my formerly broken fingers.  I am dressed for work, where I will be walking afterwards, because it is a nice day and only 13 blocks.  Two rows over is the only other person in the waiting room.  She is also dressed for work. If you look carefully, you can see signs of wear, particularly in her polished shoes, but she is carefully presented, professional. She is African American. I am not. Is that part of this story?  I think it is part of this story.

We have been sitting here for a while. She is waiting for her orthopedist.  The desk clerk comes out from behind the counter and tells her quietly that they no longer take her insurance.  The woman is not quiet.  She is angry. The office had called her to check her insurance and then gone ahead and made the appointment. She names her insurance, which I know to be a budget plan designed for healthcare workers. She has taken off work because she lives far away from this place.  She works in the hospital where the office used to be. “We never took that insurance, really. We only accepted it as a courtesy for the people who worked in the hospital.  But we aren’t there anymore,” the desk clerk explains. The clerk’s demeanor is entirely neutral, as if she’s repeating a message she’s communicated many times.  The woman is seething but polite in pointing out the office’s lack of respect for her and her time. She asks to speak with the office manager and a beefy man in a custom suit comes out and says he’ll see what he can do and disappears down a white hallway and out of sight.  The woman sits down. A few minutes later, I hear a soft sound. She is crying. Her façade is falling apart and you can see that this is someone who has to fight for everything. She carefully arranges the layers around her, but when life is hard, it tends to get harder and there is no extra fabric to cover the holes. I have never been more moved to give a stranger a hug, but she was clearly embarrassed and I didn’t want to interfere.

A few minutes later the man in the suit returns and mumbles a few words to the desk clerk before disappearing down another white hallway.  The Desk clerk comes out and says to the woman, still crying softly, that the doctor has agreed to see her and will be out soon.  And then my name is called.  When I come back to the waiting room after my appointment, the woman is gone.

But I’ve been thinking about her all morning and thinking about how grateful I am for my health insurance that costs me relatively little because I have a job that helps me pay for it.  I am grateful that it lets me visit my doctor for an affordable amount. Let’s me visit almost any doctor. That I have a job that lets me come in late when I have an appointment and I get paid anyway.  Because when you’re sick or hurt, you need all of those things.  You need doctors who will see you when they say they will. You need doctors near where you live and work. You need child care and you need your paycheck, whether or not you are able to be at your job.  You do not need gleaming white marble rooms. You need warm and soft and gentle. You need someone to bear you up. You need someone to not only tell you it’s going to be okay, but to make it so. Otherwise for those the worst off, things can only get worse.  There has to be a better way to do this.

My hand is healing.  My heart is not.


February 6, 2016

Scene: A Brooklyn street at night.  AJ and Harriet are walking home after AJ’s basketball practice.

AJ:  I’d like to go to Sweden for vacation sometime.

Harriet:  Why?  I mean, I’d like to go there too, but why are you interested in it.

AJ:  They have hockey and pretty girls.

Harriet:  True.  Now that’s a way to plan a vacation.

The Spy family is not (alas!) going to Sweden, but we are taking an impromptu vacation in the not too distant future.  I’m not sure why we didn’t think of it sooner.  But Mr. Spy had spent a few days in Florida while working on his book and he came back feeling like he hadn’t had enough We are not going to Florida either.  I am okay with that one.) We had briefly toyed with the idea of going to an inn on a small Caribbean island, but it proved to be complex.  Also, when Mr. Spy called them to find out if it would be a suitable place for AJ, they replied “Oh, yes, it’s not just honeymooners.  We get all kinds of people.  Calvin Trillin is spending the month with us.”  It is very hard to get away from New York.  It  has a tendency to come with you.  (We are not going to a small Caribbean island).  We are, however, going to a small island, one with which we are intimately familar.  We plan to do very little.  I am very much looking forward to it.

I’m with the band

January 9, 2016

859089_10153859627244661_1377994805315229975_oWhen you’re a musical kid, people give you music tchotchkes at every possible opportunity, and it can make you feel like a cliché. I’ve had music mugs and pads of paper with “NOTES written on them (the 8th notes are usually written backwards). I had a bag covered in a Bach score that said “Music is My Bag” (at the time I didn’t even know what that sentence meant). I had violin bracelets and earrings that mostly stayed in their boxes, posters of small sad children toting giant violins. These things and others like them were markers of music nerds everywhere. They propped up my burgeoning identity as a musician, even as I wasn’t sure that I’d earned it or that I wanted to be limited by it. After a while you start to think they belong to you and that they are inevitable.

I don’t have any of these things anymore, save the chipped mug with an 8th note for a handle that I bought with my own money on a field trip to Boston when I was in middle school. The glaze is completely worn off, but it still holds my morning coffee. I knew by high school that as much as I loved music and relied on it as a way of understanding and commenting on the world around me, that it was not the only thing I wanted to do. But I kept doing it, sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of compulsion, sometimes out of a sense of retreat, a need to pull back from new things and remember who I was by going back to the last place that I knew for sure. Sometimes out of love.

My career has taken me many places, almost all of them musical in one way or another and this has never ceased to surprise me, even as everyone around me says it looks like I’m doing what I’m born to do. These other jobs, which I love, are about other things to me. They are about music; they are not music. Playing is something else altogether. Despite the physical evidence to the contrary, music-making has never really been about identity to me. It’s about communication. It’s about making meaning out of chaos. It’s about sitting down with people to do something together. And these things have only become more valuable to me as I get older. I couldn’t quite articulate them earlier in my life. It maybe took a nearly decade-long hiatus while I was living in exurban Chicago to figure it out.

Today’s physical evidence is different. It’s a pocket full of Gibson guitar picks (medium), a T-shirt from my kid’s last band concert, the remnants of frayed strings along the side of my bed where they seem to gather like autumn leaves against a stoop. It’s the grooves worn in my fingers and the mark on my neck. It’s the white stripes of rosin decorating the black shirt I wore last night, currently balled somewhere in the bottom of my closet because I got home too late from my gig to turn on the lights to find the hamper. It’s the small metal plate reading “Gibson” from my guitar’s old case that I will keep forever. These things aren’t props. They are evidence. The real thing.


In the last few months I’ve discovered that I’m in a band. It happened slowly and I’m still a sort of apprentice member, but I can’t tell you how much I love it. It’s entirely different from the symphonic playing I grew up with and even from the Irish seisiun playing I used to do in Chicago. There is no fear. I am not so focused on memorizing and creating perfect paths to accurate performances, on impressing anyone. Accuracy matters on some songs more than others – sometimes it’s about a good improv, which is all about communicating with the other band members on stage, the moment of performance. The people in the band are a huge part of what I love about it. We are all nerds with kids and interesting and creative jobs in other fields. Our music is quirky, a mix of unusual arrangements of well-known songs, covers of more obscure songs, and some gorgeous originals. We repeat our rep a lot, which makes it easy to hop in and out of gigs without a lot of work, but we change things up just enough to keep things interesting. I want to play more, so I’m working on arranging. But I’m also enjoying not being the one in charge. I do what I’m asked. I suggest things occasionally, and I do a lot of sitting and listening. Also laughing really hard. My ribs sometimes hurt when I come home from rehearsal.

Back when I had a stack of music stationery in my desk drawer, given to me by assorted aunts and uncles, when I spent a lot of time running between orchestra rehearsals and violin lessons, I used to imagine being in a rock band, standing in front of the mirror on my closet door, my violin held sideways under my arm. Now I actually get the chance to try it. Our rock credentials are sketchy – we play a lot of acoustic instruments. We’re kind of old for this business – we’re more likely to wear clog boots than stilettos. We play tiny rooms in the backs of bars. But our musicianship skills are solid, our repertoire knowledge is large, and those tiny rooms? We pack them and the audience hangs around after the show. Most of all, though, we have fun. There’s a reason they call what we do “playing.”


After a gig a few months ago, I was taking a very late subway back home after a gig that started at 10 p.m., my mandolin under one arm and my fiddle and tote bag of mics and cables slung over my shoulder. Two people walked by me to wait on the other end of the platform. “You were in the band that just played at Superfine, weren’t you? You guys were great.” I thanked them and we waited a few more minutes on the platform before getting in adjacent cars and disappearing into the night. For a few minutes I felt like a rock star. It was nice, but it pales by comparison to walking into a rehearsal and knowing you’re going to make some good music with great people.

The band’s on hiatus for a few months because we have lives and there are things happening – imminent babies, solo albums to record, apartments to move and theses to write. I’ll be using some of that time to work on some arrangements and maybe a song or two. I haven’t written a song – well, not a rock/folk/pop song anyway — since I was of the age to stand in front of the mirror with a violin-guitar. I’m not sure I know what to do, nor have I done many arrangements. But the kind of playing we do puts ideas in your head and I want to see if I can make them happen.

Part of the process of figuring out how to do this has involved listening – really listening – to lots of songs and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I’ve been thinking about melodies and lyrics and instrumentation, trying to consider what the band does best but also what sounds good to me. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good song in an effort to create some rules for myself to tame the terror of the long minutes at the beginning where you’re moving from noodling on your guitar to staring at a blank page of black lines. I’m hoping that writing about this will help me sort through some of what I’m doing. I think this is likely to be more memoir than how-to, but I’m hoping that maybe a little of the latter will shine through and may possibly be useful to someone. But part of the project is definitely going to be about the role this band has/is playing in my life and the things I’m learning from it. I’m aiming for writing at least once a week – more often doesn’t seem to be too realistic at the present moment, at least not on a regular basis. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.

Happy New Year

January 3, 2016

I haven’t done this questionnaire in a few years, but I’m feeling reflective this year and thought I’d resurrect it. Originally stolen from the lovely Mel Wadel.

  1. What did you do in 2015 that you’d never done before?  Joined a band! And also started a pick up band at work that lets me play guitar with others. Let’s put a big checkmark in the midlife crisis column, shall we?
  1. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions and will you make more for next year? I didn’t make any. I seldom do. But I actually have one this year, which is to write more here. More about that in my next post.
  1. Did anyone close to you give birth? My now far-away friend Fairlywell had a beautiful baby boy!
  1. Did anyone close to you die? No. But a number of people close to me lost parents this year.
  1. What countries did you visit? I stayed stateside this year. But I’m looking forward to making my first ever trip to Vancouver in 2016.
  1. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015? An assistant at the office. Ain’t gonna happen, but a girl can dream.
  1. What dates from 2015 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? The day my husband’s book went to auction
  2. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Speaking at a conference on a panel with much more senior scholars than myself and not freaking out. Starting an acoustic jam at my office (not sure if that’s really a “biggest achievement” but it’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most), joining a band and playing in public for the first time in a long while.
  3. What was your biggest failure? There is one particular task at the Toy Factory that continues to frustrate me. I wouldn’t call it a failure exactly in the sense that I got done what I needed to get done, but I have some sort of mental block about it that I’m hoping I can get past this year.
  4. Did you suffer illness or injury? I broke my finger on Halloween and will most likely be continuing to deal with that injury into 2016, unfortunately.
  5. What was the best thing you bought? My guitar, hands down. I’m still in love.
  6. Whose behavior merited celebration? I’m kind of fond of Carrie Fisher right now.
  7. Whose behavior made you appalled or depressed? Pretty much anyone in Washington or anyone who wants to be in Washington. Also anyone with a gun.
  8. Where did most of your money go? Rent, duh. This is NYC.
  9. What did you get really excited about? My kid’s rock band concerts. Have you heard him play? He’s awesome.
  10. What song will always remind you of 2015? For a song that captures the general zeitgeist of the year, I’d have to pick Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” But personally, I’d pick “Angel City” off of Rhiannon Giddens’ album Tomorrow Is My Turn, which was released in 2015. I also got to see her live this summer in the park by my house. She didn’t do this particular song there, but I’ve been playing and singing it non-stop for months.
  11. Compared to this time last year, are you:
    happier or sadder? Happier, I think, but pretty close to the same.
    thinner or fatter? Fatter. Definitely. Need to do something about that.
    richer or poorer? Richer.
  12. What do you wish you’d done more of? Reading. Sacrificed at the altar of the guitar.
  13. What do you wish you’d done less of? Working late. It almost never fixes anything.
  14. How did you spend Christmas? In Chicago with my husband’s family.
  15. What was your favorite TV program? I watched almost no TV this year, but I did binge rewatch Gilmore Girls and was surprised to find it holds up well.
  16. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?  I didn’t hate anyone then and I don’t hate anyone now. But I’m not too happy with the idiots making laws about guns, letting cops who shoot children dead in cold blood off the hook, gunning down innocent people in the name of religion, etc.
  17. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015. Do not underestimate the importance of making time for the things that keep you sane.
  18. What was the best book you read? Hmm. Good question. Maybe Stoner (not what it sounds like – it’s the main character’s name) by John Williams (not the composer). I got the novel in my office’s holiday book exchange last year and I’d never heard of it, but it was excellent. I think it was the first book I read this year.
  19. What did you want and not get? A raise.
  20. What was your favorite film of this year?  I only saw one, but it was fun – Spy.
  21. What did you do for your birthday, and how old were you? I turned 48. I had cake with my family.
  22. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? It was actually pretty satisfying. But some overseas travel would have been nice.
  23. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2015? It fits and it’s (mostly) clean.
  24. What kept you sane? My guitar.
  25. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? None of them? AJ would be telling me to say “Say Bernie Sanders! Say Bernie Sanders!” So maybe I’ll say Bernie Sanders.
  26. What political issue stirred you the most? The Syrian refugee crisis. Black Lives Matter. Gun violence. I can’t pick. They all break my heart.
  27. Who did you miss? My mother-in-law, who died in 2014. There were so many things that I wish she’d been around to see – AJ’s confirmation and 8th grade graduation, his first day of high school, his band concerts, Mr. Spy’s book contract.
  28. What did you want and get? My guitar.
  29. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. I’m not sure, but it’s probably something by Courtney Barnett, because, as Mr. Spy put it, “She writes about people like us.” You know, nerdy, arty types with social anxiety. “Nobody really cares if you don’t go to the party” is a good one. The chorus is “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home,” which should appeal to introverts everywhere.

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