I must express my sadness that the season of Spargelzeit — the availability and enjoyment of white asparagus, that creamy, delectable and rare vegetable treat — is over for 2023. But there’s 2024 to look forward to, especially at my favorite Lower East Side watering hole, Cafe Katja, where I merrily waste away a few hours on most Friday afternoons.
Cafe Katja’s chef and co-owner Erwin Schröttner, whom I am happy to say is a good friend of mine, is the Spargelkönig of New York for a few months every year, and just recently Insider Business featured him in the below video that traces the journey of white asparagus from farm to table — not to mention the role of the European migrant crisis and the Russo-Ukrainian War in some of its recent seasons. I can attest to the fact that Erwin’s spargel menu constitutes a highlight of my culinary year (though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unique and delicious spargel ice cream that had a brief run on Koloman‘s menu a few months ago thanks to Erwin’s pal Markus Glocker). Enjoy the below, but beware: You won’t be able to sate your spargel appetite until next spring. (You shouldn’t wait to visit Cafe Katja, though: The rest of the menu is just as excellent.)
I’ve been an admirer of Rhiannon Giddens since I first heard her perform with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Sankofa Strings (along with Dom Flemons) in a jug band music documentary from 2007 called Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost. Since then she’s struck off on her own with remarkable success. So it was a pleasure to read about her new album You’re the One in the New York Times this morning, and I recommend that you pre-order it now — it’ll be released by Nonesuch on August 18. I’m hardly the first of her admirers, but there will be more, and she’ll be performing in March at the Beacon Theatre here in New York after a brief European tour. You can sample the title cut of the new album here.
Giddens and Flemons have been central in the effort to bring American roots music into the 21st century and claim a place for it in contemporary culture. Not a small part of this has been an educational effort, and as a sample of her historical studies you can watch the fine “Uncovering the History of the Banjo: From African Roots to American Music” below, first posted four months ago on YouTube.
Anyone interested in America roots music inevitably finds themselves in the 1950s and early rock-and-roll. Lately I’ve been enjoying Peter Guralnick’s fine biography of Elvis Presley, listening at the same time to Elvis’s Sun sessions. These sessions reveal the several strands of roots music — gospel, rhythm & blues, Delta and Piedmont blues, jug bands, boogie-woogie — that evolved into rock; as Elvis was inspired by the likes of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, so were the Beatles (“Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis,” John Lennon said; “If there hadn’t been Elvis, there would not have been the Beatles”) and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan; and the song goes on, as they say.
Elvis’s 1954 cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” is considered by some people as the first rock-and-roll record, but identifying anything as “the first” is a fool’s errand. Others would point to “Rocket 88,” recorded in Memphis in 1951 and released on Chess Records, as the first. The performance is credited to “Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats,” but the Delta Cats were really Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm Band. One thing is for sure: both “That’s All Right” and “Rocket 88” rock — they’re as fresh today as they were then. You can hear “Rocket 88” below. That’s Brenston on vocals and sax, Turner on piano, Raymond Hill on tenor sax, Willie Sims on drums, and Willie Kizart on guitar. The producer was the great Sam Phillips.
Older forms of popular music never die; they just get festivals built around them. The 33rd annual Carolina Blues Festival, presented by the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society, kicks off in Greensboro, NC, on May 18, and the annual Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will be held in just a few weeks in the birthplace of classical ragtime, Sedalia, MO, beginning on May 29. They also become enthusiasms for cranky individuals like myself. A few years ago Marilyn gave me an acoustic guitar, hoping to encourage me to take a more personal and practical interest in this music, and since then I’ve tried to get myself up to speed so that I could play at least some of it myself. It’s been hard to find the time to practice, alas, which I confess I regret.
Taking up the guitar in my mid-50s has been accompanied by a series of challenges, many of them time-oriented but some of them somewhat psychological as well. Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus published Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, a memoir of sorts about learning the guitar as an adult, in 2012. Marcus set out to discover whether the brain (specifically his own 38-year-old brain) remained plastic enough to acquire the knowledge necessary for developing musical or linguistic skills past childhood, the optimal age for beginning musical and foreign language education. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that, by the end of his project, he was unembarrassed enough to be able to play the guitar in public.
And good for him. But I’m 20 years older than Marcus was when he picked up a guitar again for the first time, as the saying goes. And I have my doubts that I’ll ever be able to play the Piedmont-style kind of ragtime guitar that I most enjoy. Piedmont blues grew out of ragtime; as the Wikipedia page for the music helpfully summarizes:
Piedmont blues (also known as East Coast, or Southeastern blues) refers primarily to a guitar style, the Piedmont fingerstyle, which is characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to ragtime or stride piano styles. … What was particular to the Piedmont was that a generation of players adapted these older, ragtime-based techniques to blues in a singular and popular fashion, influenced by guitarists such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis.
As much as I enjoy listening to this music, it’s also primarily a music to be enjoyed in live performance. Ragtime primarily circulated and was disseminated through sheet music and, less commonly, piano rolls; although the Piedmont blues became popular some years later via recordings and radio, it remained primarily acoustic in an age when musicians were increasingly going electric. This — and the fact that the music was often taught, performed, and shared in more intimate community venues, such as living rooms and front porches — meant that live performance is perhaps the best, and in some cases the only, way to enjoy this music, both in its performance and as an audience. All music creates particular soundworlds. Ragtime and Piedmont blues styles create a soundworld of plain elegance and often melancholy; of simple joys and more complex hesitations. Not a bad soundworld, these days, for someone like me to live in.
I don’t get to either Sedalia or Greensboro very often. But listening to more and more of this music these days inspires me to step up my game a little bit, and writing this post, too, is a way of encouraging me to learn the guitar with a little more attention and constancy. Malcolm Gladwell thinks I have to spend 10,000 hours before I become genuinely adept at playing this kind of music. But if I practice often enough, maybe I’ll be able to become a little better than zero. At least I’ll be trying.
When American roots music is celebrated, it’s usually done so with the Ken-Burns-like solemnity of PBS specials like American Epic — eminently worthwhile, but also studded with the kinds of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Jack White) who can tart up the joint enough to guarantee a least-embarrassing rating. All well and good, and if PBS can do its bit to keep this kind of music in the public eye, then sure, you can have my five bucks a month to keep the squirrel running in his wheel. But really, this history-minded survey class favors the past rather than the present, and if you want to hear this music and see it performed today — live, as it was meant to be heard and performed — then you have to look elsewhere. And the next best thing to hearing it live is to listen to contemporary musicians who still feel it important to keep it out there, as entertainment of the highest quality rather than a trip down memory lane. Not that it’s going to make anybody rich.
So it was with extraordinary pleasure that I sat down last night with Coney Island Baby, the new album from Eden & John’s East River String Band, a local outfit based in the deep East Village, which has been performing “a vast spectrum of traditional American Blues, Country and Pop music ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th Century” for more than a decade. To call the 17 songs on the album “roots music” — in the sense that PBS will tell you that true roots music is exemplified by groups like the Carter Family — is somewhat misleading. Eden Brower, John Heneghan, Robert Crumb, and Ernesto Gomez, the core group of the ERSB, have gathered together here a wide-ranging repertoire, from traditional blues and rags to more recent (relatively speaking) standards like “Nobody’s Business if I Do” and “He’s Funny That Way.”
This is not particularly concert music, nor, when it was first written and performed, was it meant to be. Back in the day, before the Victrola, the only way to hear music was to either hear it live or play it yourself: pick-up bands who took possession of a gazebo or bandstand in a small American town for a parade or barbeque, roadhouses and juke joints in more remote regions of the south, an occasional visit from a touring minstrel show, or a few hours just sitting around with a few friends on somebody’s porch. Coney Island Baby, at its best, puts you in the room with Brower, Heneghan, Crumb, Gomez, and the rest for spirited, relaxed musical good times.
Brower fronts the band with a solid, whiskey-dampened (if not whiskey-soaked) voice, a bright, mature sensual full-bodied woman’s tone instead of the girlish puerility of most contemporary female singers (as the father of two girls about ten years old, I’ve heard enough of these to last a lifetime). She’s bawdy and even a little beyond on “Moonshine,” “Skinny Leg Blues” and the delightfully dirty “Adam and Eve,” though capable too of some sensitive nuance on songs like “Nobody’s Business,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and maybe my favorite song on the album, “Arlena.” She’s backed by Heneghan on a strong, energetic guitar that offers a few of the rougher chords (he gets his due on his sole solo cut, “Desert Blues”) and Crumb’s vibrant ukelele, mandolin, and banjo, while Gomez contributes a terrific harmonica, especially on “Moonshine.” The “Sometimes They Show Up If They Feel Like It Players” — Pat Conte on fiddle, Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle, Geoff Wiley on bass fiddle, and Walker Shepard on guitar — fill out the one or two instrumentals on the album.
It’s worth pointing out that the term “American roots” is a little misleading too. The music that the ESRB performs may be characterized as distinctly American, but it’s only because that we’ve grown to hear it that way. This music didn’t magically spring up from the indigenous American soil but instead was the product of the music that was brought to these shores by a variety of immigrants and exiles, voluntary and involuntary: it has its origins in the music of Europe, but equally in the musics of Africa, South America, Asia, and even Hawaii. It doesn’t take long for enthusiasts of this music to go down the paths of its true origins. Heneghan does so in his own John’s Old Time Radio Show, often joined by Crumb, which I highly recommend; along with recent episodes about yodelling and ukelele music, Heneghan has also recently featured programs on early recorded African, French, and Brazilian music. Check it out, and do your part for immigration.