Folk-Musings

  • ADDLED ADAGES

    I have always enjoyed word-play of various sorts.  One of my favorite creations is a game I call “Addled Adages”.  One takes two famous old sayings, proverbs, aphorisms or some such similar phrases and combines them so that the result is true and poignant but unexpected.  The first of these I ever thought of, and the one which starts my collection is “A fool and his money is a friend indeed.”  Another of my favorites is  “Where there’s a will, there’s death and taxes.”
    Here’s a far from comprehensive list:

    “A fool and his money is a friend indeed.”

    “A bird in the hand makes waste.”

    “A penny saved is soon parted”

    “A rising tide runs deep”

    “A rolling stone waits for no man.”

    “Beware of Greeks bearing a dead horse.”

    “Children should be seen on the other side of the fence.”

    “Cleanliness is only skin deep.”

    “Don’t burn your bridges in mid-stream.”

    “Don’t look a gift horse at both ends.

    “Don’t throw out the baby with spilt milk.”

    “Early to bed and early to rise makes Jack a dull boy. ”

    “Feint heart never keeps the doctor away.”

    “Guests, like dead fish, make strange bedfellows.”

    “Loose lips are soon parted.”

    “Man does not live by the best policy.”

    “People in glass houses should be seen and not heard.”

    “The grass is always greener after the horse has left.”

    “The road to hell is its own reward.”

    “The squeaking wheel is a dangerous thing.”

    “Time is the better part of valor.”

    “Where there’s a will, there’s death and taxes.”

    “You can catch more flies with honey than a big stick.”

    “You can’t judge a book before you come to it.”

    “You never miss the water in mid-stream.”

    “You can’t teach an old dog to tango.”

  • FOLKLORE SERIES

    When I was a youngster, I learned many songs from my father and other non-recorded, non-written sources.  As a folklorist at heart, I have always felt it was important to document these songs in a pure manner, as close as possible to the way I remember learning them.  I have recorded some of them on my CD’s ‘It Would Sure Be a Miracle’, and ‘Lend Me an Ear’; but most of these are not songs which I include in my performance repertoire.  Therefore I have initiated a series of YouTube videos to preserve these songs for others with an interest in American folk song culture.

     

  • FOLKLORE MUSINGS

    LOST IN TRANSLATION

    Do you remember the old game “Telephone” where one person whispers a phrase to the next person who whispers it to the next and so on down a line until it reaches the end.  The last person then speaks the phrase out loud, and then the first person announces the original phrase and everyone laughs at the remarkable change it has made.  This game is even more funny if it is done with a language translation chain.  I know of one case where it was played with a joke which went through about 7 languages and managed to pick up an extraneous goat by the time it got to the final translation.  My CD, Travels With Dulcimers, was picked up by a Polish website and the final track, Trip to Durrow/ Boy in the Gap ended up renamed as Trip this Sorghum/ Page in the Gaping Spectator.

    Aren’t computers wonderful?!

    THE BRUTAL WORLD OF LULLABIES

    I wonder why it is that so many lullabies are filled with brutal and morbid images.  I’m sure a psychologist could do a great dissertation on repressed emotions and sublimation.  Here are just a few of the many traditional examples:

    Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops,
    When the bough bends, the cradle will rock.
    When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
    And down will come baby, cradle and all.

    Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,
    Go to sleepy little baby.
    When you awake, you shall have cake,
    nd all the pretty little horses;
    Down in the meadow, down in the meadow,
    There’s a poor little lambie:
    Bees and the butterflies poking out its eyes,
    And the poor little thing cries mammy!

    Hush-a-bye” comes from the African-American tradition and there is speculation that the woman is singing a lullaby to her master’s white baby while her own, the “poor little lambie” lies alone in a shack in the field.

    What’ll I do with the baby-O, what’ll I do with the baby-O?
    What’ll I do with the baby-O, if he won’t go to sleepy-O
    Pull his nose and tickle his chin,
    Throw him in the county pen.   (A distortion of counterpane – a mis-remembered lyric known as a Mondegreen)

    What’ll I do with the baby-O, what’ll I do with the baby-O?
    What’ll I do with the baby-O, if he won’t go to sleepy-O
    Every time the baby cries, stick my fingers in his eyes.
    That’s what I’ll do with the baby-O.  That’s what I’ll do with the baby-O.

     These American examples are absolutely mild when compared to the South African lullaby “Siembamba“:

    Siembamba, mommy’s baby,
    Siembamba, mommy’s baby.
    Twist his neck and hit him on the head,
    Throw him in the ditch and he’ll be dead!

    BAGPIPES AROUND THE WORLD

    Most people think of bagpipes as coming from Scotland and perhaps Ireland as well, but the truth of the matter is that one can find indigenous bagpipes in almost every country in Europe as well as north Africa and western Asia as far east as India.  Some countries have as many as twenty or more different kinds of bagpipes.  There are literally hundreds of different varieties of bagpipes in the world.  They differ in scale, range, reed set-up, material of the reeds, single or double reeds, one to three drones or no drones, chords or no chords, single or multiple chanters, material of the chanters, chromatics, some have metal keys, material and size of the bag, bag covering or no covering and dozens of aesthetic considerations.  I have about a dozen bagpipes in my collection, mostly from Bulgaria, with two from Macedonia (one of which is playable), two from Serbia and one from central France.  Although I mostly play Bulgarian bagpipes, the Serbian pipes are great fun as well and have more personality than any of the other instruments.  I acquired them on my first trip to the Balkans back in 1972, when armed with the addresses of a number of bagpipe makers, I went from village to village and really got to absorb the Balkan culture.  The picture below is a gajda from Niš (pronounced Neesh), a city in east Serbia.  It was made by Dušan Stoyanović, a master craftsman and musician.  It has a double chanter and a low drone made from rubber hose with a snake’s head carved at the terminus.  In the snake’s mouth is a wooden fish, all carved from a single piece.  In the fish’s mouth is a clip in which a dancer would put money so that the bagpiper would play a requested dance.  The more money given to the piper, the longer he would play the requested tune.  The traditional way of receiving the money would be to slap it on the piper’s sweaty forehead.  At the top of the chanter, Dušan has carved an excellent likeness of himself and the turn out of the sheepskin bag makes it look as though he is wearing the traditional hat of east Serbia.  Of course, by the time I met him, his hair was white. The bell of the chanter is covered in leather suede and adorned with tiny plastic flowers. The various doodads hanging from the leather fringe at the bottom of the chanter are mostly the kind of cheap trinkets one would find in a bubble gum machine in the 1960’s.  I was always struck by the irony of such a magnificent piece of craftsmanship and the cheap decorations.  Mixed in among the plastic toys is a miniature opanci (traditional Serbian shoe), a fake-ivory egg covered with rhinestones, and a small ivory hook which would be used to adjust the beeswax used for tuning the holes in the chanter.  The sound of the instrument is very pretty and sweet and relatively quiet.  Totally unlike the strident reedy sound of the Scottish war-pipe.Bagpipe from east Serbia

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    SIGN LANGUAGE

    There are those times and places where you just hope you have a camera to capture an image or a memory.  I have a pad of notes of funny signs and juxtapositions that I’ve run across over the years like the truck in Florida which advertised “Fresh Salt Water (call 876-FISH)”, or the sign on the “Bon Voyage Travel Agency” which announced “we’ve moved”, or the Ichiban Chinese Restaurant which existed briefly in Fort Lauderdale.  I was fortunate enough to have my camera when I passed this gem at the local Austin school for the blind:

    From a Viet-Namese grocery store… Someone seems to have serious trouble with the concept of Vegan:

    Here’s a look at quality construction in south Florida:

    Here’s one from near a local golf course when I lived in Binghamton, NY.  I guess those 4 wheel drive golf balls were a big problem.

    MY INSTRUMENT COLLECTION

    Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been surrounded by instruments.  My parents always had a significant collection of stringed instruments hanging on the wall, and I grew up listening to my mother playing piano and my sister playing harp, so music has always been a big part of my life.  My grandparents traveled around the world and usually brought back some of the local instruments from wherever they went.  As I grew up and began to travel, I also started acquiring instruments from the places I visited, and when my grandparents died, I inherited their collection as well.  As an adult, my instrument collecting became more focused, and more extensive, so by now, I have acquired several hundred different instruments from all over the world.  Visitors really seem to enjoy viewing the collection, so I thought it would be a good thing to share some of it on YouTube.

    THE GLASS BOTTOM BEER TANKARD

    While preparing for the Sea Songs workshop at the Austin Friends of Traditional Music festival, I’ve been thinking about sailor recruitment.  In the 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, it was common practice to try to force young men into service in the navy.  The crudest method was to knock them unconscious and have them wake up on the ship already in open waters, but a more legal nicety would be to give them money, usually a shilling, to go into service.  Thus the expression, “taking the King’s Shilling” came into being.  Of course most men of recruitable age were savvy enough to refuse taking money from strangers, but they would be more inclined to accept a drink from a new acquaintance in a pub, and the press-gang member would secretly drop a shilling into the tankard before handing it to the unsuspecting victim.  Once he finished his drink (which was likely to be doped), he would see the shilling at the bottom of the tankard and realize in his groggy state that he was now doomed to spend the next part of his life in the king’s navy.  Because of this, publicans began putting glass on the bottom of tankards, so that the customer could check to see if there was a coin there before accepting the drink, and the use of glass bottoms on tankards and ale mugs continues to this day.

    ALWAYS PEEL YOUR BROCCOLI

    The best birthday present I ever got was a 12 week course in Chinese cooking with Florence Lin at the China Institute in New York.  Of course after that I was expected to cook dinner once a week…  Clever parents.  Of all the things I learned, the one which made the biggest difference was peeling broccoli.  A little paring knife to pull off the peel starting from the bottom of the stem, and what an incredible difference it makes to both texture and taste, particularly if you are going to stir-fry it.  Mrs. Lin told us that the best Chinese chefs throw away the florets and the peel.  Well, I’m willing to eat the florets or put them in a different dish.  As for the peels, I boil them up and strain the broth as a base for a vegetable soup. Since that wonderful course in 1975, peeled broccoli has always been my benchmark for a truly top notch Chinese restaurant.  Sad to say, I am usually disappointed.

  • REFLECTIONS ON COMPOSING

    For some people, composing is an arduous process of coming up with a melody and refining it, then laboriously deciding on harmony and going through possible chords.  In my case, tunes generally pop into my head, pretty much complete.  I sometimes do a bit of tweaking, particularly if I wait too long to write them down.  And if I should try to get them back from memory without checking my notes, they may change in unexpected ways.  Usually the later incarnations are the ones which will stick.  Sometimes a tune will pop into my head multiple times, each being some variation on the other, often with dramatically different rhythmic implications.  Such was the case with Troll Road and Troll Ring, but I liked them both enough to keep them as separate tunes.

    When a tune comes into my head, it is generally in an ethnic genre or occasionally a classical one.  When I was young, I used to come up with a lot of tunes which could easily have been written by Chopin, but I rarely wrote them down.  These days it is more likely to be in the style of Swedish spelmanslag or an Old-Time fiddle tune.  Sometimes I’ll come up with the first three or four sections of a tune and have to compose the rest the old-fashioned way.  This is particularly true of tunes in a Bulgarian style, but fortunately the nature of the style is for each new section to expand on the previous part, so these tunes generally compose themselves.  Every once in a while, I’ll realize that a tune I thought I composed is really just a variation on a traditional tune I already know or have heard a lot recently; other times it turns out to be a pastiche of pieces of different tunes put together in a new way.  Then it’s a judgment as to whether I can really consider it my own.  Of course most folks never know the difference.  Indeed the traditional repertoire is filled with these types of “borrowed” tunes.

  • Inspiration—Playing the Bagpipes

    December 11, 2010

    I’ve seen quite a number of humorous musical “observations” enacted by cartoon bears, so I thought I’d try my hand at it.  I sometime get quite frustrated at the seemingly omnipresent misimpression that the Scots have a monopoly on bagpipes, so here is my humorous attempt at education on the matter: