Among the first LPs I purchased for my new turntable were the first few albums by the folksinger Patrick Sky, who left us just a few weeks ago at the age of 80. The New York Times obituary is here.
Back in 1979, John Pfeiffer strolled into my Bard College dorm room bearing a copy of Songs That Made America Famous — maybe the most scurrilous folk album of the era. Said Rolling Stone upon the album’s belated release in 1973:
Sometimes a record comes along that so affronts common decency, so offends public morality, and so insults established canons of taste that its very appearance understandably prompts cries of outrage, shock and indignation. Veteran folk minstrel Patrick Sky’s latest opus is just such a record. … Such a record belongs in every American home; enjoy it while you still can.
Sky’s album was a series of songs not atypical of the black humor of the era, the expression of an impatience with sanctimony that we could still use today. Some of them, like “Our Baby [Died Last Night],” were just offensively silly. But two of the cuts — “Child Molesting Blues” and “Bake Dat Chicken Pie,” Sky’s cover of a 1907 song by blackface performers Collins and Harlan — suggested that folk and roots music weren’t entirely a gentle traipse down Nostalgia Lane, but were potentially minefields. The “folk” weren’t entirely innocent nor bucolic; you could get your leg blown off that way.
Before 1973 Sky was one of the more popular and talented of the musicians to come out of the New York City folk revival (praised particularly by Dave Van Ronk, who wrote the album notes for his first few releases), and in later years he devoted himself to the preservation of the uilleann pipes, an Irish instrument not unlike the Scottish bagpipes. You can see him perform one of his signature songs, “Many a Mile,” at a 2013 concert here. (Don’t miss his comic reference to Oscar Wilde’s comments on bagpipes at the top of the song.)
Sky, like yours truly, was a great fan of W.C. Fields, with whom he shared a sardonic nasal twang. In a 1964 concert he covered W.C. Fields’ “song,” “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” which first appeared in Fields’ 1933 short subject of the same name. You can hear it below.
I was started on this when I paid a recent visit to a local stereo equipment store, curious about what kind of turntables and speakers they’re making these days. After a salesman set up a Rega Planar 3 and a pair of speakers, he sat me down on a chair and told me to listen, and listen I did, as I hadn’t in years. I won’t go so far as it say it seemed as if the musicians were there in the room with me. But I’ll go almost that far.
As keen readers of this site are aware, this is only another anachronistic interest of mine, to go along with American popular music of the turn of the century, as well as Mark Twain’s writings and that steadfast pillar of American culture, comics. Next year I’ll be turning the corner of six decades and am getting crankier by the minute. Over the pandemic I’ve been listening to a lot more music than I used to, and I’ve also become much more of a grumbler about the poor quality of sound reproduction on iPhones, iMacs, iEarpods, whatever, and am somewhat astonished that as the music industry seems to be doing just fine in this era of streaming and enthusiasm continues to run high for whatever music the culture produces, the quality of this sound reproduction is awful — tinny, without a wide listening spectrum, and cold to the aural touch.
I haven’t set the system up yet, but thinking ahead I bought a few vinyl LPs and a few days ago showed them to my children, 11- and 12-years-old, slipping the LPs from their sleeves and explaining that the music resided in the microscopic grooves of the record — that it’s not encoded on microchips. This was a bit of a revelation to them, and I explained that back in the Neanderthal Age in which I grew up that’s how you listened to music: either that way, or you’d turn on this thing called a “radio” (sort of like Bluetooth, except hundreds of thousands of people could listen to it at the same time, creating an invisible audience of listeners instead of private, exclusive enjoyment). Or, of course, you could make your own music, sing or play an instrument. I suppose what I missed about vinyl LPs was the warmth of the listening experience; the tactile quality of handling (carefully, carefully) the records, dropping a needle on them and hearing the result of that tactile experience come through the speakers. Not unlike the tactile quality of handling the pages of a book contributes to the reading experience. It’s somehow warmer; more human; and, what’s more, it’s concrete: It’s something you can see and touch, essential in this world of continuing digital dissipation and ephemerality.
Of course all these things age: vinyl LPs collect dust and imperfections, books can tear and yellow. But the digital world seems little better; when file formats change, files become unreadable, nonsense; and there’s bit rot to contend with.
Too, the content of vinyl LPs and books is less manipulable than their digital counterparts: you can’t just call up Word or Audacity and cheerfully begin to mess around with words and music. I have to admit I rather like keeping my grubby little hands off the books I read and the music I listen to, granting a little more respect to their creators rather than believing I can either (a) improve these things myself or (b) override the original creators’ intention just to suit my own pleasure.
I’m not enough of a Luddite to dismiss the digital sound world entirely, hence that Bluesound streamer and the CD player, and I’m sure they’ll sound great through those Polk speakers too. But they won’t match the experience and the ritual of placing an LP on a turntable and easing the tonearm over the opening grooves. It is said that a part of the enjoyment of marijuana is picking the seeds from the leaves and crafting the thin joint from thin cigarette paper: the high itself is the reward. I don’t think that vinyl is much different, really. That musical experience is the reward. And I’ll know more about it myself on Sunday.
In my increasing dotage, my interests have been turning more towards the analog forms of the past: I’m planning to purchase a turntable and perhaps even a real tube pre-amp soon (and I could use all the advice on this that I can get), and regular readers here will note a somewhat dispiriting emphasis on the entertainment of the past: silent film, even old-time radio on occasion. I’ve just dusted off my old acoustic guitar as well — it’s been a few years, but it draws me ever on nonetheless. I wrote about it in May 2019 under the title “Less Than Zero”; you’ll find that below; and I’ll probably write more about this tendency soon. As a wise man once said, sometimes when you’re too far down the wrong road, the best thing you can do is to turn back.
I could probably use a little advice on how to play the damn thing, but let’s take it one step at a time.
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. (See here and here, for example.) 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. Fortunately here in New York there’s the year-round offerings of Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music. And I have lessons every once in a long while with an excellent teacher. 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.
Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the death of Leon Redbone, the singer and guitarist who brought American popular song back to the attention of a jaded public through his eccentric appearances on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere beginning in about 1975. Although Redbone cultivated a self-consciously odd personality that some might find just a bit twee, it was this personality that drew audiences to his music, a collection of American popular song classics that included both standards and rarities from the early years of the 20th century. Complain about that self-conscious weirdness as you will, for me — a 13-year-old boy growing up in a declining coal town of northeast Pennsylvania far from any city — Leon Redbone’s appearances on Saturday Night Live in 1975 were my first exposures to this music, which I doubt I would have found anywhere else on my own; soon I was purchasing and listening to albums by Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and others. My enthusiasm for this music continues to this day, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who must credit Redbone for this discovery. (Not to mention I’ve come to appreciate his dedication to his art and his subversive persona more than ever in the past few years.)
Redbone during his lifetime remained a stubbornly private individual, but in the years since his death some of the mystery about his past has dissipated, not least because of Megan Pugh’s in-depth profile of the performer, “Vessel of Antiquity,” in The Oxford American, published a few short months before Redbone’s death (complications of dementia). The short 2018 documentary “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” which features footage of Redbone’s final performances as well as tributes from John Prine and others, can be found below.
This week I noted the recent release of a few books by and about R. Crumb and the upcoming release of a new recording of Scott Joplin rags, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken.
Like everyone else, I’ve been easing back into things, including this blog, after an extended period of admittedly intermittent activity. Along with the recent Plague-Year-and-a-Half (apologies to Daniel Defoe), we’ve been in medias res between living spaces as our recently purchased new apartment has been undergoing renovation. Private time has been tricky for all of us, and though Virginia Woolf insisted that a room of one’s own was a necessity, it’s not always a possibility. Still, a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and I hope that we can open up at full capacity soon, masks not required.
Fortunately my usual Friday watering hole is now permitting bar seating. I’ve come to believe that the first mark of a civilized society is the ability to walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and sip quietly at an adult beverage as one considers with a bartender and a friend (or in solitude, if that prospect pleases) the events of the day and the mysteries of life on this earth. Without this liberty, all is chaos. See you at Cafe Katja later today.