Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pete's "Nobel" Work


There's a campaign in progress to get Pete Seeger nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Find out more and sign the petition here.

Pete's been in the news a lot recently. As I mentioned recently, he won the Best Traditional Folk Album at the Grammys for his album "At 89."

He got a whole jaded New York TV audience singing along on Late Night with David Letterman a little while ago. And he performed at the 2009 Inauguration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Bruce Springsteen.



It's hard to imagine a living musician today who's had more influence on the social movements of our times. If anyone deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, it's Pete Seeger. Go sign the petition.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Picture In Your Head

Over on Maplepost, the Canadian folk music email listserv, there's a conversation going on about the fact that iTunes recently deleted "folk music" from it's list of music genres, choosing instead to use the label "singer-songwriter."

For some people the term "folk music" is, well, corny. They argue that "singer-songwriter" is a term more likely to resonate with younger music fans, and presents a new opportunity for those of us toiling away in the margins of the music industry.

Leaving aside the question where people are supposed to find traditional fiddle music or The Watersons on iTunes now, the move somehow symbolizes the basic identity problem that folk music suffers from in the twenty-first century.

Personally, I can't help but feel disappointed that iTunes did away with the "Folk" category. Call me corny if you want, but I feel like "Folk Music" is the label that best defines what I do.

Yes, I write songs, and I sing, so I guess that makes me a singer-songwriter. But I also feel like I'm a musician connected to a wellspring of music that is part of our common heritage, songs created and shaped by masses of ordinary people passing tunes and words back and forth in an oral tradition. I'm also connected to contemporary musicians who created new music inspired and influenced by that wellspring. I don't know what else to call that wellspring except, "folk music," so I call myself a "folk musician."

But at the same time, there's a dilemma in calling myself a folk musician, which has to do with the picture people get in their head when they hear the term "folk music." And unfortunately, the picture people get in their head doesn't correspond at all with what I know and love about contemporary folk music and the folk tradition. Here's a paraphrase of a conversation I have actually had a few times:

Me: Do you like folk music?
Them: No, I don't like folk music at all. But you know what I really like? Traditional Quebec music, and gospel music, and east coast music, like the fiddle and the step dancing. And I like Bob Dylan a lot.

You get the picture.

So what do I do about this dilemma? Sometimes I call myself a singer-songwriter, and I intersperse terms like "roots music" or "acoustic music" when I'm writing or talking about my music. But frankly, I don't find any of it satisfactory. Mostly, I just wish people got a different picture in their head when they heard the words "folk music."

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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Story of Josh White's Guitar

Ron Olesko's blog alerted me to a PBS TV program that might interest folk music fans. It's about Josh White's guitar. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to determine when it will be on in my area. Here's the description:
JOSH WHITE GUITAR
AIRING: Season 6, Episode 11
THE DETECTIVE: Elyse Luray
THE PLACE: New York City and New Jersey
THE CASE: A Michigan man owns a Guild brand acoustic guitar that he says once belonged to legendary African-American folksinger Josh White, who is credited with introducing black folk, gospel and blues music to a world audience in the 1940s.

Our contributor met White after a concert when he was a kid, and the guitar reminds him of a confidence White had shared with him: the Guild Company was talking to White about making a signature guitar built to his specifications and to be marketed under his name.

If this is the guitar White had spoken of, it would be the first signature guitar ever created for an African American musician in the United States.

History Detectives explores the crossover appeal of Josh White’s music and his ability to win over a racially polarized music industry.
And actually, there's more. It looks like this episode of the show also has some other interesting folk music-related stories:
Special Edition: Slave Songbook; Josh White Guitar; Birthplace of Hip Hop

An 1867 book titled "Slave Songs of the United States" that may be the first published collection of black spirituals; a possible prototype for a Josh White signature guitar made by the Guild Company in the 1940s; the birthplace of hip-hop.
Now if I could just figure out when to turn my TV on...

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Perfect Crime

I follow a bunch of different blogs for a bunch of different reasons. One is ruk.ca, my old friend Peter Rukavina's blog (I don't think he even knows I'm following him - Hi Peter, if you're reading this!).

Today he posted on a new meme called "Wikipedia Names Your Band." Here's how it works:

1. Go to Wikipedia and click on the "random article" link. That first random page's title is the name of your band.
2. Go to this random quotes page. The last few words of the last quote on the page is the title of your album.
3. Go to Flickr's Interesting photos of the past 7 days page. The third photo on that page is your album cover.

Here's what happened when I did it:



I kinda like it!

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

No More Crows and Canaries


I can't count the number of times someone has said to me "I can't carry a tune in a bucket." Inevitably, when I probe a little more, I find out that someone has told them they can't sing.

It might be a teacher who asked them to mouth the words at the school concert, or separated the whole class into "Canaries" and "Crows." It might be a spouse, a parent, or a sibling who told them to shut up every time they opened their mouth.

For some reason we think it's okay to tell someone they can't sing, and as far as I'm concerned, that's just wrong. Think about the logic here: would we ever tell someone that they'll never be a great orator, so they might as well not even try to speak? I don't think so. Singing and speaking are equally natural human activities, and yet we somehow think of singing as a special talent that only some are blessed with.

Singing is a skill, made up of subskills, and like any skill, it can be learned. Some people, for whatever reason, are quicker at picking up the skills. But even people who have considerable challenges matching pitch and rhythm can improve over time. I've seen singers go from having a very hard time staying in one key, to being able to carry a tune with conviction and confidence. Over the years I've led workshops and worked one-on-one with many singers, and I've yet to meet a person who can't improve. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So, I've said it before, but let me repeat: we need more places where people can sing together for the fun and joy of it. No more crows and canaries, people, let's get singing!

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Apples and Oranges

Well, The Grammys have come and gone, and folk music did pretty well this year. Allison Krauss and Robert Plant won all five categories their album "Raising Sand" was nominated in, including Best Album and Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. I guess they were sort of like the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" of 2009 (interesting that T-Bone Burnett produced both albums). Pete Seeger won Best Traditional Folk Album for his album "At 89." The complete list is here.

Whatever you think of the term "Americana" for describing folk music, it's refreshing to see the Grammy categories divided between "Contemporary" and "Traditional" folk music.

Here in Canada, the Juno Award categories for folk music are divided into "Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo" and "Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Group." I'm not sure who decided how to divide the categories, but it makes no sense to me. Wouldn't it be much more meaningful to have a traditional award and a contemporary award? I don't think it really matters how many people created the music, as long as apples are being compared to apples and oranges are being compared to oranges.

Right now we end up with an odd mixture of acoustic pop, singer-songwriter, out-and-out rocking music, and maybe a bona-fide traditional or traditional-sounding album. It would be nice to see more traditional music represented. And it would be nice if there was so much contemporary folk music being nominated that they had to sub-divide the contemporary category into "solo" and "group." That I could support.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this?

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's amazing what you find...

...surfing around the internet.

Check out this site of bad album covers.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Praise of Ken

A while ago I said I would tell you more about my friend Ken Whiteley, who was recently inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame.



For those who don't know Ken, he is one of the most talented musicians and performers you will ever come across. He's also an award-winning producer, children's music pioneer, and some-time side-man to many other wonderful musicians. He plays dozens of instruments, and he's a walking encyclopedia of blues, gospel, r&b, folk, swing, and other roots music. He basically oozes music from every pore. He's been performing professionally since he was a teenager, in many different configurations, and along the way he has been an integral part of the roots music scene in Canada and beyond.

I met Ken shortly after moving to Toronto, at the tender age of fourteen. Ken came to my high school to teach a music class. And what a class! In no time, he had about twenty of us organized into a very large and unwieldy band that played songs by musicians like the Coasters and Sam Cooke. It was a pretty unorthodox music class, but we ate it up. My friends and I became Ken Whiteley groupies, showing up everywhere and anywhere that Ken and/or his equally talented brother Chris were performing around Toronto. It was a musical education that has had a huge influence on me.

Over the years, I stayed in touch with Ken. When I was in Grade 13, I asked him if he might be able to help me with a project I was doing on African American music history. He invited me over, suggested some books to read, and lent me a treasure trove of record albums. A few years later, I called Ken because I was doing a similar project on Women's Blues for a university class, and again, he invited me over, generously suggested people to talk to and, true to form, lent me some albums that changed my musical life forever.

As I got into performing, Ken was a natural person for me to work with. He has produced a few of my albums, we've written songs together, and we have shared the stage many times since he first backed me up at the Eaglewood Folk Festival in the 1990's. Whenever we work together, I'm grateful to bask in the reflected glow of his musical talent. Even more though, I appreciate the spirit of generosity, community, and support that he brings to the table each and every time. And I know I'm not alone in that. Ken has been a friend and mentor to many of us in the roots music scene. He may be a musical monster, but I think it is this spirit of generosity that is really the hallmark of Ken's contribution to the music community over the years.

So, thank you, Ken, and congratulations on being inducted into Mariposa's Hall of Fame.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My Recent Reading List

I've recently been reading a lot, indulging my interest in music history, creativity, the brain, and community. Here's a list of what I've motored through in the last few months:

The Gift, by Lewis Hyde: I loved it. For anyone who works in a creative field, it's a must read. It's hard to encapsulate in a sentence, but basically it's about the value of creative endeavor in a modern society defined by money and commodification. The book has been out for 25 years-- not exactly new on the scene-- but it's central theme doesn't seem dated at all. It was hard slogging in some places because the writing is densely packed and the ideas are pretty heady. But I found myself constantly underlining passages and reading parts aloud to my partner. And I'm still thinking about it, almost a month later.

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song by Steve Turner tells the history of this seminal song, from a detailed biography of the song's author John Newton, to a history of the song's rise to iconic status. Over the years, the myth of the song has grown, but Turner does a good job of clearing away the mythology and establishing the facts of Newton's life, as far as we know them, and putting the song in a historical context.

Continuing on my music history kick, I also read White Christmas: The Story of an American Song. Author Jody Rosen tells the compelling story of the most recorded song in musical history. There's a lot more meat to this story than you might think - the song's creation was anything but straightforward, and it did not become an instant classic. Although it's a short book, Rosen packs in a lot of insight into the life of Irving Berlin, the workings of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, social mores of 1940's America, the birth of Christmas music, and more. Highly recommended.

And, moving to my interest in music and the brain, Daniel Levitin's latest book, The World in Six Songs is a fascinating look into how humans evolved into musical beings. I loved Levitin's first book, This is Your Brain on Music, and the new book did not disappoint.

And finally, right now, I'm reading Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. Academic, but very juicy. I'll try to report back on that one when I'm done.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Go Steve!

It may seem a long stretch from "Let's Get Small!" but I say, go Steve! Comedian/Actor Steve Martin is releasing a new CD, called "The Crow." It's a CD of banjo music. (I guess I should have said "Comedian/Actor/Banjo Player Steve Martin.")

This New York Times Article gives more background on his banjo history and pedigree. And this article from The Banjo Newsletter (reprinted on Steve Martin's own website) gives some indication of the fact that he's respected in the banjo world (sidenote: it's interesting that in the interview, which seems to be at least five years old, he says he would never release a CD of banjo music!).

Now, some of you might be thinking, "He's gotta be kidding!" Or maybe, "Why doesn't he stick to comedy and acting?" But, as it turns out, Steve Martin is a good banjo player. (If you don't believe me, check out some of the sound samples on the Amazon.com page for the album.) The songs and tunes on "The Crow" are all original, and he's joined by a number of fine musical guests, including Tim O'Brien, Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick, Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and others.

Personally, I admire an artist who is not afraid to do something different. He's not a hack and it's not just a publicity stunt - playing the banjo has been a significant part of his life since he was a teenager, and he obviously has great respect for the music and the instrument. I look forward to seeing how the album is received and where this part of his artistic journey takes him.

Go Steve!

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Musical Sculpture

The Torontoist blog recently re-posted an interesting "help wanted" ad for a salesperson to help promote "musical water fountains." I was curious what that might be, so I snooped around on the internet and found out that the fountains in question are actually a musical instrument called a "hydraulophone." Here's an extensive Wikipedia article on hydraulophones.

It turns out that the fountain in front of the Ontario Science Centre here in Toronto is a hydraulophone, the largest one in the world. Who knew? In fact, it seems like Toronto is a hotbed of hydraulophone activity - Steve Mann, the inventor of the hydraulophone, is a professor at University of Toronto.

Here's a video of the Ontario Science Centre hydraulophone in action:



Here's a video of the Hart House Orchestra performing "Suite for Hydraulophone"

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Song Circles

The other day I talked about song circles as a way to share music with other people. Some of you might be wondering, what's a song circle? My friend Gene just wrote a great post on his blog about song circles. And that reminded me that I once wrote an article for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals' newsletter, Folkprints on the topic. Here it is:

Last night, I did something I do almost every week. I walked into the house of someone I didn’t know, I sat down in their living room for five hours, and I sang with them. Am I a member of a strange cult? Well, not exactly, but I am addicted. My addiction has brought me to houses across Toronto for the pleasure of singing in a group. What am I addicted to? Song circles!

Song circles come in many shapes and sizes, but the basic idea is a group of people getting together to sing and share music. There are song circles all across Ontario, each with their own unique character, attended by people who want to sing and make music with others. The great thing about a song circle is, anyone can start one, they don’t have to cost money, and it’s a great way of connecting with other musicians and music lovers.

The weekly song circle I attend in Toronto was started by a group of people who had attended Mariposa in the Woods (now called “The Woods Music and Dance Camp”), and it’s been going for almost twenty years [note: now it's more than 25 years]. The format is simple. We start sometime around 8:30 pm every Friday night. We sit in a circle (or as close to a circle as we can manage), and over the course of the evening, each person in the circle has an opportunity to lead a song, request a song, pass, or “defer” (meaning they can’t think of anything at that moment, but they might want their turn later). After everyone has their turn, we take a break, during which we eat all the snacks we brought. After the break, we continue, but we dispense with taking turns, and things become a little more spontaneous.

Before the break, we announce the next few locations (members volunteer their homes), and we line up more if necessary. Attendance is completely open-- anyone can come, although there is no formal advertising besides word of mouth. You can come as often or as rarely as you like. I have been to song circles with as few as three people or as many as fifty, but the average is somewhere between twenty and thirty people.

The emphasis in this song circle is on songs with good choruses or refrains that allow everyone to sing along. Over the years we’ve sung songs from many different traditions –sea shanties, lullabies, work songs, rousing gospel numbers, old-time country songs, Caribbean songs, pop songs, songs in different languages, contemporary folk songs, and lots more.

Here are some basic elements that I think can help any song circle work:
  • Agree on the format. When you first meet, have a conversation as a group about how you’d like your song circle to operate. There are lots of options! After you’ve been meeting for a while, have another conversation to see how it’s going and find out if you need to make any adjustments.
  • Adopt a format that gives each person a turn. If I had to name one aspect that’s essential to a good song circle, this would be it. It means that each person knows they will have their time and space without having to push themselves over someone else who might be louder or more confident.
  • Foster respect and appreciation for each person’s contribution. Some singers have difficulty with pitch, rhythm, or general confidence. But you will often hear “Nice song” or “Good job” or some other encouraging response when they are done. It’s amazing to see the progression over time as their confidence begins to grow. Fostering this kind of culture within the group requires a few people to “model” the behaviour in the beginning, but over time it can become a natural part of the group.
  • Listen to each other. The most important element of making music isn’t actually creating sound. It’s listening. At the Toronto song circle, things are more oriented toward voices than instruments. Although there are often plenty of instruments, we’ve learned over time to take our cue from the person leading the song – if they begin singing a capella, we don’t automatically jump in with instruments. On the other hand, sometimes a person will say, “this is in the key of G. I’d love to hear lots of guitars.”

Meet in a comfortable space. The right space will create the right environment. Private homes are wonderful that way, but if you are choosing a public space, try to find something that’s not too large for you—you don’t want to be completely lost—and look for a space that has warmth—comfortable chairs, good lighting, and so on. Wood surfaces are good for sound and atmosphere. Cement walls and tile floors usually make for a cold space that won’t feel cozy.

Those are just some of the things that I think make for a good song circle, but I started this column by mentioning that there are many different types of song circles. I’d like to hear from you about the song circles you attend.

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