Music for these hard times

Everything sucks, right? (At least, if you’re sympathetic to human decency and believe in facts, credentials, and that complicated ideas aren’t evil.) Less than half the country elected a fascist as President. Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie all died. Things just suck.

There are many reasons why music is essential to people’s lives. One of them, for me, is that the right song articulates the complicated thoughts and feelings of hard times. The darkness, the hope.

During these hard times, I offer a few songs you should already know, but in case you weren’t aware, here they are.

Learn to play them (ukulele’s are great christmas gifts), or just learn the words to each. You’ll feel better.

Mavis Staples + Jeff Tweedy = a new America.


Rule of thumb: when you feel like shit, dig into Sweet Honey and the Rock. They’ll make you feel better, pretty much every time.


I suppose we can take solace from those who’ve lived through dark times before:


There are two queer SW Virginian musicians I know who give me unbridled hope. They refuse to give up any part of their identities, proving that the world, and people’s lives, are more complicated and interesting that we usually recognize. Here’s a song from one of them.


This one’s for the nights when you don’t want to be thoughtful. When you hate “the other side,” but know the road is long, and complicated, and worthy, but still…

A song to keep the hypocrites honest. Or at least, to remind us to always check on intention. Why is this song still so damn relevant?!?!

The greatest call to action I’ve ever heard, perhaps because it’s so quiet. What I wouldn’t give to have seen Phil Ochs live.

In times of trouble, never forget the classics:

And don’t forget to love, forgive, and accept:

Giddens Sisters Review

My review of the fairly recent record from Rhiannon Giddens and her sister is up now at

Podcasts Worth Listening To: Otis Gibbs’ “Thanks For Giving a Damn”

Anyone who knows me well knows I harbor a love for less-well-known-than-should-be singer-songwriter Otis Gibbs.  Otis is the labor-friendly heir to the legacy of Joe Hill, Phil Ochs, and Billy Bragg. He is a great songwriter, and as it turns out, also a great interviewer. Recently, he has developed a podcast called “Thanks For Giving a Damn,” that features other musicians, usually those who get less attention than they should. Here Otis and his guests get at the heart of creativity, music, and the complexities of life. A good place to start would be with his most famous guest, Billy Bragg. In this conversation, Bragg and Otis talk about the legacy of Joe Hill, the Creationist Museum, collaborating with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, and the important connection between music and social activism. The two talk with humor, insight, and an infectious passion about why art is essential to the human condition. I highly recommend you check it out.

If you’re not familiar with Otis, start here:

If you’re not familiar with Billy Bragg, start here with a Phil Ochs cover:

Weekend in Hogtown

I leave Buffalo, NY around 7pm on Friday night, after working a full shift at my retail job.  The night is cold but the sky and roads are clear, and crossing into Ontario on the Peace Bridge is quiet, as I seem to be the sole traveler headed north that night.  Around Hamilton the weather turns and the last 40 KL are a brutally slow crawl into Toronto. I’m learning to think in kilometers. I’m learning to watch the weather.

I arrive at the Russian Orthodox Church in The Annex neighborhood of Toronto for the square dance around 10pm, two hours late. Regardless, I feel welcomed and expected.  People are taking a break.  We talk about the weather and the turnout for the dance—less than hoped for, though still sizeable.  They have enough for three full squares, which means there are at least 24 people there, plus the band and caller.  While it may have seem small, I think it is significant, given the fact that it is a frigid Friday night in late January and it has been snowing since the early afternoon.

Hannah is calling, all dressed up in her red gingham dress.  The band calls themselves Whistlehog. Sarah plays fiddle, Sean on banjo, Heather on guitar, and Lucas on bass.  They have played once or twice together before, but Sean is about to leave to work on a farm further north. This will likely be their last time playing together.


I shoot a few pictures before my DSLR camera goes black with an error message. A little fussing with it proves worthless, so I decide to leave it for later, and put my fieldwork equipment away. There won’t be much note taking tonight. I am dancing!

Those in attendance are mostly new faces to me, and I learn that many are there from invitations from those involved.  Out of the 30 or so people dancing, only three or four are recurring members of what I’m starting to recognize as the old-time community in Toronto. This, to my mind, is a positive step. The square dance is a new thing, a first for the community. They are expanding their reach. One of the organizers remarks to me, while we are cleaning up, that it wasn’t a bad turnout, considering it was a blizzard and there are a million other things to do in Toronto on a Friday night.


After the dance, we clean up and piled into our cars. Two of the younger crowd, Sean –the the guitar player from the band—and a friend of his who was dancing, are headed to a Robert Burns party in Roncesvalles Village. I offer to drive them, as it isn’t far from Peter an Debbie’s, where I’m staying. Almost immediately upon turning the car on, Sean comments on the CD in the player, what I’d been listening to on the drive up. “I love this record so much. The Dobro is just perfect with Chris’s banjo.”   This both surprises and impresses me.  This particular CD is one that counts its sale in the hundreds, yet Sean knows it within seconds.  We talk about my project as we drive Toronto’s snowy streets.  I mention the name Cary, the guy who had first introduced me to old-time in Toronto.  Sean replies, “Oh yeah, that guy lives on my block. I bought a mandolin from him at his last yard sale.”  Toronto is feeling much smaller suddenly.

I drop Sean and his friend off at the party, a rocking house party that shows no signs of slowing as we move into the morning hours. I drive back to Peter and Debbie’s, two of the ringleaders of the old-time community who put me up when I visit.

When I arrive, Peter and Debbie are just putting the equipment from the dance away. Peter is brewing tea for us all.  We stay up another hour or so, talking about the dance, the interesting collection of people there, and plans for future dances. I call my wife to check in, and settle into the guest room that’s growing increasingly familiar.  Without Peter and Debbie, I tell my wife, this project would be nowhere.



             In the morning I am given a freshly brewed cappuccino. This has happened each time I’ve stayed with Peter and Debbie, and I’m slightly embarrassed how I’ve grown to love it. I remind myself that I am surely the envy of every fieldworker who has ever lived.

Peter has some work to do in the upstairs office. Debbie is off to her graphic design office, a five-minute walk away, to have her picture taken for a student publication (she also teaches design at the local design college).  She decides to have some fun with it, taking her fiddle and a paper cowboy hat she found in a thrift shop.

camera dead

Peter helps me figure out where to get my failing camera checked out, and I tell them I’ll be out all day. They say they are thinking of having some people over to play tunes that evening, and we agree to meet back up around or after dinner. I head off to the camera shop and Peter and Debbie go about their day. The camera turns out to be dead, and I need to buy a replacement body on the spot. The store is in an old stone building, a beautiful artifice on the east side of town. To me, as a resident of Buffalo, NY, even these errands have a certain charm to them. The camera proves an unexpected expense, but I’m just happy I am to be able to fix such problems in a matter of hours, rather than days or longer.

That afternoon I head over to Chris’s house to interview him. Chris lives quite near Peter and Debbie in the Roncesvalles Village, on the west side of the city. Chris is one of the most well-known and well-respected old-time banjo players in Toronto. A professional musician for over twenty years, he is responsible in many ways for the thriving old-time scene today. While he doesn’t make it to jams too often because of professional obligations, he remains fully engaged with the community socially.

I arrive at Chris’s house around four in the afternoon.  As I’d only been there once before for a party, I wasn’t entirely sure of the address.  In addition to not being sure which house is his, you also have to enter off the laneway through the back yard, so even though I had the address, I was going mostly on memory and a map Peter had drawn. Chris arrives at the backdoor fresh from the shower, with warm cheer. We sit in his kitchen drinking beer while he dices an onion, chops garlic, and sautées tomatoes.  I am beginning to worry that I needed to get the interview done as quickly as possible, since clearly he has plans for later in the evening.  As it turns out, Chris is making dinner for us.  Homemade pizza from fresh dough with homemade sauce.  It is amazing.  Not just the pizza, but this man, who I had only met twice before, welcoming me into his home, giving me beer to drink, and making me pizza.  I comment about the amazing Canadian hospitality I’ve been experiencing, and to my surprise, Chris doesn’t think it’s a Canadian trait at all. In fact, he thinks Americans are more hospitable.  We discuss further.  Maybe the hospitality we’ve both experienced isn’t based on nationality at all, but on the common factor that we’d both hung out with old-time musicians. The desire for community, for participation, for give and take, is so integral to old-time music making, it seeps into other aspects of people’s lives.  Or vice versa; those who live a life based on mutual care and concern for others are drawn to old-time music.

For two and a half hours Chris and I talk about his history with old-time music and the aesthetics of his banjo playing. The greatness of Bill Monroe. The equal greatness and utter strangeness of John Hartford. We talk about the seminal records in his life, as he gets up to change what is on the turntable from time to time, choosing from dozens of records stacked in the kitchen. He talks about how so many records get made that don’t really need to be made. He tells me if you’re going to make a record, you should always be attempting a masterpiece. Django Reinhardt comes on next.  We talk about instruments. We talk about Toronto.  We talk about fishing.

I leave Chris’s house and walk down to the nearest coffee shop, where I pour over my notebook for another hour trying to get my thoughts together, importing new songs in my iTunes library, and downloading my interview files. During that time, Debbie sends me a text message: Heather and Hannah had come over and they were starting to jam soon.  I’m off to more music making!

Back at Peter and Debbie’s, they have just finished their own dinner. Heather and Hannah are there and the Knob Creek bourbon is out, though no one has touched it yet.  They are running through some tunes Hannah had been working on recently: “Hog Eyed Man” being one she wants to practice. Other tunes they play that night include:

Willow on the Lake

Abe’s Retreat

Tipping the Corn Back

Sally Will You Marry Me (Melvin Wine)

Sugar in the Gourd

Cluck Old Hen (Ed Weaver)

Old Beech Leaves


Yellow Gal

Speed the Plow

Boys and Buzzards (Gary Harrison)

Cookhouse Joe

Old Bob (Gary Harrison)

Hunting the Buffalo

jam without peg

Peter is playing guitar, Hannah and Debbie play fiddle, and Heather on banjo.  Although it isn’t long before Heather pulls out her own fiddle, and passes me her banjo.  Heather is beginning to learn the fiddle and says this would be a good time to break it out, among friends. She jokes that she doesn’t see my audio recorder, so it is safe.

Later that evening we are joined by Peg, a good friend and frequent community stalwart, who plays some guitar while talking to us all about local politics. She is fuming over changes at a local school. The jam is a safe place, where frustrations can be expressed, support is given.  This is a very real and evident example of the social aspect of the music community.  Often the music provides access for likeminded people to find one another, and the friendships take on dimensions beyond the music to become primary social support networks.

jam with peg

The music continues into the late hours, and the cold morning becomes a reality. Heather, recovering from a recent concussion, is feeling exhausted with a headache coming on. Peter and Debbie, seamlessly, suggest she sleep on the couch. Peter even moves her car from a side street to their driveway, where it won’t be ticketed.

Hannah and Peg march out into the cold night, while Heather falls asleep on the couch. I retire to the guest room.





Mornings at Peter and Debbie’s are fieldwork treasure troves.  Often we have sat at the kitchen bar, recounting the nights events, both Peter and Debbie giving and getting instant reflections or opinions on the old-time activities, Toronto, and Canadian-ness in general.  This morning is no different.  While Peter makes cappuccinos for everyone, Heather helps make breakfast.  We all sit around the table, taking travel, favorite books, and the concept of public intellectuals.

With the day moving on, Heather heads home, and Peter and Debbie move to their upstairs office to put in a few hours work organizing their respective teaching duties.  I spend some time organizing photos and writing notes, then head out to spend some of the sunny Sunday afternoon walking the Toronto streets, cold, but bustling with life.  I walk along Queen Street West, a hipster paradise with cafes, restaurants, and small shops. I see a group of young men playing a pick-up game of hockey in a schoolyard.  Canada sometimes plays to type.  This weekend is Design Week in Toronto, with many events scattered all over town. Fashion savvy Canadians seem to be everywhere, headed to gallery openings, furniture showcases, lectures, and parties. Peter and Debbie mentioned they were going to stop in to a friends book signing before they made it to the afternoon jam at the Gladstone Hotel.

Usually the Sunday jams at the Gladstone occur in the “Art Bar,” a room as far away from everything else as possible.  Because of Design Week and events at the Hotel, the Art Bar is in use for a showcase exhibit. The nice staff quickly puts away the breakfast buffet to make room at the back of the restaurant for the circle of fiddle and banjo players.  While initially the transition seems slightly awkward, the replacement of the jam to a more central location (near the washrooms) proves to be a fascinating collision of those playing and those who are a) curious, b) entranced, and c) totally confused as to what is happening. I don’t play in the jam. I take pictures from the periphery and am privy to conversations about what people were witnessing. I am also able to field quite a few questions.  At one point someone asks me, simply enough, what is happening?  I say it is a bi-monthly jam of American music from Appalachia called “old-time.” I think to myself, you have no idea how much more I could say!

gladstone jam

As the jam gets going, it begins to attract the attention of folks walking through the Gladstone restaurant.  Several stop to listen, and take a picture on their phone.  Some stay for several tunes, applauding after each ends. It is enjoyable to hear people’s comments and to talk to onlookers about what is happening. Peter asks me if I’m “spreading the Gospel” of Toronto old-time?  I reply it’s hard for me to reign it in when people ask me, “So, what’s this all about?”

There is a good turnout for the jam, and Heather has rallied. She is in fine form, enjoying a Caesar, the unofficial drink of Canada: Clamato juice, vodka, spices, celery; essentially a Bloody Mary with clam juice.  We had been discussing it earlier at breakfast, as I said I’d never had anything with clamato juice in it, and didn’t feel like it was something I needed to try.  Heather professed that it was something I needed to try. So I did.  I maintain that I did not need to try that.

The jam is a mix of friends and people I’ve never met.  A young couple, Dan and Megan, were among the new members.  I learn they have recently relocated to Toronto from Waterloo, ON, and have played a few gigs opening for the Foggy Hogtown Boys (local bluegrass legends).  They perform as the duo Blackwood Two. I also get to talk to Joan, a woman I’d met briefly before, who travels from Courtice, ON, about a 90 minute train ride into the city. Some of the tunes they play during this session are:

Sarah Armstrong


Kate’s Got a Wooden Leg

Grub Springs

John Brown’s Dream

Horny Ewe

Around five we pack up and several of us head back to Roncesvalles for Chris’s weekly show at The Local. I sit in the corner booth with Peter and Debbie, Peg, Kim (Chris’s girlfriend) and some of her friends. Chris’s show ranges far beyond standard old-time fiddle tunes, though he can play them all on the banjo. Songs and tunes from his set include old-time and bluegrass classics, like “Tennessee Waltz,” and “Hang Me,” but he also brings in song more familiar to the general audience, like Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins.” He is a superb musician at the top of his game. After a big, loud, sometimes messy jam session, it is a pleasure to hear such practiced talent. It is also fun to hear Chris enact all the theories he was espousing the day before. Singing the great songs, playing a style that is true to the performer, and one that respects the timelessness of the tunes.


It’s encouraging to be to see Dan and Meg, from the Gladstone jam, also having dinner at the Local. Our table is overflowing by the time Rachel shows up, and so she sits with them. This is how friends are made.

It is a great night at The Local, but I must leave earlier than I’d like to, since I need to drive back to Buffalo. On the ride back, I listen to Chris’s recordings with new enthusiasm and insight. Music on records takes on such pleasure when you’ve been in the artist’s home, and talked about their craft. It was an incredibly productive weekend in Toronto. I witnessed a community in three stages of development: the seasoned professional, the dedicated amateurs polishing their craft, and the seeds of something completely new.

I saw great thought, heart, introspection, and dedication at all three levels.  I saw the flow of tradition, not going past people, but through them, where they are able to embody its power, and make that power personal by adding their own touch, their own contribution. These people know there are many benefits to traditional art communities, both aesthetic and social, and that the core of a thriving community is its sustainability. This sustainability comes from holding to what works, what has survived, but not being afraid to adapt in the face of an ever changing world. Each time I drive the long lonely QEW home to Buffalo, I think about what I might experience next time.

Gems from Interviews

Conducting interviews is great fun.  Transcribing them is exhausting work. But without the transcriptions, we might otherwise gloss over moments of great insight people have about their own lives, their art, and their histories.

Here, my friend Peter recalls one of the first old-time jams he and his partner Debbie held at their home, a moment he later described to me as one of the most memorable of his life.

“And after everyone left, and it would have been two or three in the morning.  And I remember sitting with Chris and Erynn in the corner – and we were probably all drunk, which is not a surprise – but I remember Chris and Erynn playing that tune, ‘My Little Satchel,’ with just an unbelievable sense of musicality, and I thought, this is all happening in my life, in real time, and I never imagined I would experience that. And then suddenly it switched over to – well this is actually something we can do! This is something we will continue to do.” 

The role of the amateur player

When I entered graduate school, I was interested in all forms of American vernacular music (though I probably wasn’t calling it that).  I grew up playing music with my family in our living room and around the campfire.  My dad would lead songs on his weathered D-18, and my sister and I would follow along, eventually bringing others into the family band, and learning and leading our own songs. Between our family members, we played guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, autoharp, harmonica, bodhran, bones, and Dobro. We take turns, pass instruments back and forth, and work up songs as best we can.

My father always took the Pete Seeger route towards community music: everybody sings, regardless of talent.  This was the ethos I was raised with, which is also why I continue to sing along despite not being able to carry a tune worth a damn. I appreciate participation and amateur music making and find real meaning and purpose there. Consequently, I also never really got good at any instrument.  I can make my way on guitar, and can fake my way through a break on the mandolin (if no one’s listening too hard), and can boom-chuck along on the banjo – but I’ve never really become what I’d consider a serious player.

In graduate school this became a strange phenomenon, as I made friends with some AMAZING players, including some of the best fiddle, guitar and banjo players I’ve ever heard. Over the years I played often with my friends and I think got a little better because of it, but I never really got the chops I was looking for.  Either school work, social life, or lethargy took over.

As I developed as a scholar with particular interest in old-time music, I didn’t always follow the playing routes that were available to me. I took a couple of clawhammer lessons, but nothing more. I attended jam sessions, but more often equipped with a camera and notebook than a banjo. Playing wasn’t my path, documentation and scholarship was. I enjoy bearing human witness to the amazing art that is often made in living rooms, in school gymnasiums, small pub session, and around campfires. But I came to realize I’d left the world of those who just made music for fun, entertainment, and community involvement, and I’d entered the world where people elevated their music to art. I was now witnessing players who had serious dedication to their craft: technique, tone, repertoire, style, etc.

As I continue my research in old-time music, and I encounter both types of players (professionals dedicated to the art of the music, and amateurs dedicated to the art of the community) and many who walk that line, I feel that lack of ability more and more.  My new Canadian friends are as welcoming as my grad school friends, but still, I’m feeling the need to step up my game as a player.

If the first step toward improvement is admitting you’ve got a problem, I’m going to do what I’ve never done before, show off my level of playing.  Here’s my version of “Barlow Knife,” as I’m learning from Chris Coole’s DVD Elements of Clawhammer Banjo, without (much) practice beforehand.  I should say that the DVD is great, and any faults belong to me as student, and not to Chris as teacher.

Half Year Recap

About a year ago I moved from my comfy graduate town in Southern Indiana to Buffalo, NY, with a mound of books to read for my PhD quals, and only the faintest hint of a dissertation idea. I’d read online that Canadians had placed well at the Clifftop Festival the previous summer, and I’d had a few email exchanges with some old-time players and enthusiasts in Toronto, but not much else.

Once I got through my quals, I was asked to defend my dissertation topic, regarding the old-time Appalachian music community in cosmopolitan Toronto. My committee all agreed it was a great project, and wondered if I’d really find anything there, since the proposal was mostly on speculation. I wondered myself.

The past six months of research have yielded better results than I could have ever asked for. I’ve written some on this blog about it, and much more in my private field notebooks. What I’ve found is a rich, talented, thoughtful community centered in Toronto, but which extends across Canada and the US.

At almost ever event I attend I have my camera with me, snapping away – a fact my Toronto friends are quite used to by now. And I wanted to share some of these photos here.

I used to term friends honestly. The amazing people I’ve met in these past six months have indeed become friends and I have no doubt many relationships will continue long past this project.

Here is a quick recap of some highlights of the past six months, with apologies to several fantastic people who aren’t represented here.

Lonesome Ace Stringband, The Painted Lady, June 2012

Square Peg Stringband, The Holy Oak, July 2012


Camp Canada, Clifftop WV, August 2012

Camp Canada, Clifftop WV, August 2012


Ribbon for Nervous Tick and the Bites (1/2 Canadian) for Traditional Band Competition, Clifftop WV, August 2012


Scott and Anne, Buffalo, NY September 2012


Square Peg Stringband, The Holy Oak, September 2012


Sunday Jam, September 2012


All-Day Breakfast, Toronto Islands, September 2012


Kitgut Stringband, Toronto Islands, September 2012


Peg and Debbie, September 2012


Gladstone Hotel Jam, November 2012


Sue and Bruce, Gladstone Hotel Jam, November 2012


Gladstone Hotel Jam, November 2012


Chris, The Local, November 2012


Chris, The Local, November 2012


Chris, The Local, November 2012


Peter and Debbie, November 2012


Living Room Jam, November 2012


Me with Coleman, trying to keep up. November 2012


Peter and Debbie, November 2012

20121020-_MG_3875 copy

Peter, November 2012


Erynn, Kathy and Debbie, December 2012


Christmas Party Jam, December 2012