Friday, December 20, 2013

Brushy One-String

Brushy One-String
In the US, most people get their music the same way as they get their food; out of a box. Just as processed edibles are packaged and delivered to grocery stores, three major companies produce and distribute the majority of the pre-recorded music in America. Most consumers have no idea how one transforms an agricultural product into something like Honey-nut Cheerios.  They are equally in the dark as to the artistic process that creates the music they listen to.

It is so refreshing to see a live performance in a theater, but what about experiencing music first hand in a living room or on a street corner? How about where you can actually participate? Maybe we could call that "art farming." Certainly when you connect to music in its authentic form it is a horse of an entirely different color.  Granted, like the skin of an organically grown apple there may be a few blemishes and the cabbage leaf may have a couple holes, but cooked right, its way tastier soul food than that pre-processed stuff.

Posted below is a clip of Brushy One-String performing "Chicken in the Corn".  Check out the busted up body of the guitar he is playing.  Street musicians generally carry their instrument on a strap over their back where ever they go. Temperature and humidity changes have a tendency to encourage the strap peg to pull free of the wood or a worn leather strap to slip off the peg.  When this happens, down goes the guitar in a vertical dive, onto the cobbled street or the tile floor of the cafe, the butt end landing with a most sickening crunch.  Repairs are costly, often more than the instrument is worth, and money and time for repairs are always scarce as most professional buskers play every day to pay for their hotel and food. So if the sound isn't affected too badly, the instrument stays in service.
 
Now consider the owner of an expensive guitar like my Martin D-35, which I hand delivered to the Martin factory in Nazareth PA.  I dropped it off for warranty repairs on the 7th of September then called last week only to find it was still not done. Four months have elapsed and the company representative still couldn't tell me when it would be ready.  If that Martin was my only guitar and I was supporting myself as full time street musician, what choice would I have but to sell the instrument?   Certainly I couldn't afford to take advantage of the free repairs guaranteed by this world renown manufacturer.  So once again, the little guy, the fellow down on the bottom of the food chain, is out of luck.  That is just the way it is.

I imagine the reason Brushy started playing with only one string was because his broken guitar couldn't handle the tension a full set of six.  That handicap, along with a lack or resources for repairs, may have been the catalyst for this brilliant performance. 

A musicologist might trace this man's style of playing back to the Mississippi Delta and on to West Africa, where a simple instrument called the diddley-bow* was invented. It consisted of a single string stretched between two pegs separated by a length of wood.  Plucked with the fingers, pitch was controlled by sliding a piece of bone or glass along the string.  Blues guitar players in America's deep south later adapted this approach to the six string guitar and the style became known "bottleneck".

Could it be that some styles of music develop more spontaneously than that?   The early blues performers were often farm laborers and injuries to the hands in that line of work were common.  If a musician lost a finger to a piece of farm machinery he was forced to approach the instrument differently.  One solution was to tune the strings of his guitar to the intervals of a chord and then use a small glass bottle to fret other combinations of notes up and down the neck.  Such obstacles to the standard performance of a composition can lead to some interesting innovations.  

A musician can spend thousands of dollars on a finely crafted guitar and deliver a performance no better than the one you will see created on the damaged one string beauty featured in the attached video.  Perhaps that is why new styles in art often emerge from the most under-funded and unlikely sources.

Thanks Brushy One-String!  Keep up the good work!




                                          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8H-67ILaqc


* Bo-Diddley, the stage name of Ellas McDaniel, aka "The Originator" for his style of songwriting that led the stylistic transition from blues to rock guitar, apparently had no connection to the instrument named the diddley-bow. "Bo diddly" was also American slang for "absolutely nothing" which was predated by diddly-squat, also meaning "nothing" (thanks Wikipedia!) 














Friday, November 22, 2013

The Dog Line


one of six stone sentries

I was cutting up firewood when I became distracted by some odd shaped rocks left in piles where a stone wall had once stood.  I had hauled away what remained of the good building stones a few years earlier, as previous rock snatchers had left nothing but a horizontal heap along the edges of the depression formed by the wall's foundation. The chunky, irregularly shaped stones just seemed to leap up and start dancing, so I put down my chain saw and joined them.  Together we created an installation I call the "The Dog Line," named after the guard post on the Tasman Peninsula north of Australia's Port Arthur Penal Colony.

The narrow "neck" that leads from the Tasmanian mainland is only a hundred feet wide at its most narrow point. In the mid nineteenth century, when the Port Arthur prison was in operation, a wide furrow had been dug through the dunes to visually connect the two opposite beaches. This groove was then carpeted with a layer of crushed white shells. Torches burned all night, reflecting off the floor of the trench. A line of ferocious attack dogs were staked and chained along its length in such a way that no man could pass in between the canines and not feel the agonizing bite of their blood stained teeth.

It would be to the water for a prisoner trying to escape, and most would drown in the dangerous and fickle currents along the Tasman's rocky shoreline. If an escapee happened to outwit circumstances at Eaglehawk Neck and managed to get past the dogs and the armed, ever vigilant sentries, then it was assumed he would to starve to death because there were no fruits or berries or game available to be eaten in the dark, heavily canopied forest. And there weren't any villages, just miles of rough, forested land to the west and an ocean to the east.

My Dog Line is nothing like the one in Tasmania, though there is a long ditch and the forms that emerge from the stones feel watchful, like sentries, looking out across time, through a young forest that seventy years before had been a well tended corn field.
 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Viva La Poissum

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A possum is cleaning out the cat food on my back porch at this very moment. Clumsy bugger, I can hear him ramming the tin bowl against the wall as he gobbles up what's left of the Meow Mix.  

You know, possums have it tough.  In captivity they live only about four years, in the wild, two at best. Their brain is five times smaller than a raccoon, which might contribute to their high mortality rate considering they seem incapable of distinguishing any difference between a tree, a car, or a dog ( I don't know if that last part is really true, but it sure seems like it.).  They also got gypped on their development of the ever so human opposable thumb; they have them, but on their hind feet.  Come on, how do you have a nice dinner when every time you take a seat at the table you discover you are sitting on your hands?  

And then the ultimate short end of the stick; this marsupial has, not two, four, six, eight, ten or even twelve teats for nursing its young... it has thirteen!  I mean, lots of sky scrapers have no 13th floor just because of the superstitious connotations!  So what's it mean for this poor doomed beast to have thirteen teats, with the first twelve arranged not in rows like on a sow, but in a perfect circle around that wicked number 13!! 

Maybe that's why I don't jump up and chase the myopic little creature away (yes, possums also have horrible eye sight and their hearing isn't any better).  I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog; those down trodden, day-late, dollar-short types that America's copper lady has been holding a torch for all these years. 

(This is where the band strikes up the Possum National Anthem, if they had one...) 

Viva la poissum!... et merci au peuple fran├žais pour la belle statue!!  

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Little Things

     
The farm from the back porch
There are a pair of mallard ducks cutting a wake across the pond. Mister T has just finished his bowl of milk on the porch and is cleaning his chops with the back of his front paw. Lil Buddy remains in the basement, always a late riser and Fig, with her molting coat of calico fur, stopped by yesterday afternoon for some Meow Mix but this morning is no where to be found.

Yesterday was gorgeous and I spent most of it outside.  First on the agenda was bleaching away the mold that was growing beneath the deck rail.  With that sunny south exposure, its amazing the railing provides enough shade to allow that green skuz to grow on the deck's painted wood surface.  Lesson:  it doesn't take a big difference to make a huge difference!

By noon, the sun was high and hot, drying puddles and coaxing the heads of daffodils and crocuses out from beneath their leafy winter blankets.  I opened the pole barn and got the Dodge going and then parked it below the stone steps along the path to the pond.  The ground was littered with branches, so I went to work piling them into the truck bed and then cleaned the remnants of last year's shade makers off the stonework.  I thought of my grandfather as I brushed away a pile of gnawed walnut casings left by a squirrel on one of the large capstones he'd placed on the wall.  With canvas glove, I traced the barely visible initials that my brother and I had chiseled into the stone back in 1965. 

Forty-eight years.  What a different world it was back then.  I think of my mom up at the house making lunch and my grandmother "yew-who-ing" for us boys to come up and wash our hands and get ready to eat.  When it wasn't raining, we always had breakfast and lunch outside on the broad wooden table under the walnut tree.  My grandpa had built it from oak boards recycled from their home in New Jersey.  Of course they really didn’t consider it recycling back then.  You just didn’t waste things.  So when they tore out the old breakfast nook to modernize their kitchen, he used the thick, tight grained boards to create a picnic table.  He built a big, wide seat bench as well.  I repaired that bench many times over the years.  I wanted to preserve it as long as possible because it carried so many memories.  Even now I can picture my mom in shorts, sitting on it under the tree, her long legs pulled up close to her chin and her bare feet hooked over the edge of the seat, talking to my grandpa about which birds were nesting where.  She knew all the birds and always told me I should learn more about them.  

After loading the truck as high as I could go, I drove the load down to the lane were I have been making firewood from the big maple tree that blew down last winter.  Hard maple is great burning, but if it is left outside it goes bad quickly.  Its almost like the wood is so sweet and tasty, that every microorganism in town wants to munch on a little sugar maple.  By season three, if isn’t stacked and stored, the wood will turn whitish yellow and go soft and punky.  Some of the pieces I split yesterday were already bad and I had to toss them on the burn pile where I had dumped the truck load of branches.  I ended up splitting another two cords to add to the three pallets worth I’d put up earlier in the week.  With the help of the skidsteer, it will all go in the pole barn for next winter.

The afternoon sun was nice and warm and I always sweat  a lot when I get to swinging a sledgehammer.  Fortunately I had remembered to bring along a thermos of cold water.  Nothing better than cold water when you've been working hard!  I changed T-shirts and sat on the front bench seat of the pick up while I took my break.  I had the front door open wide and the four o’clock sun danced on my closed eyelids as I sat there resting.  I thought of Bob Smith and how he and his wife Carol would have dropped by on a spring day like this.  You’d see his pick-up coming down the road slowly, then you’d spot that big grin and those rosy red Santa Claus cheeks of his.  He would roll to a stop at the end of the driveway and he’d yell out across the yard,   

"So nice out I said to Ma, "Let's take a ride up and see how the kids are doin’.'"   

It always took Bob a while to make it from the truck to the back stoop.  He liked to talk a lot and his feet were bad, and he made frequent stops to catch his breath.  He had black lung, which is similar to emphysema, only its from inhaling coal dust down in the mines. I don’t think he ever smoked, but he did ride a BSA motorcycle when he was a younger man.  He told me about a joke he and his buddy played on a couple girls that rode with them.  

It was fall and the air was chilly and the ladies were without gloves.  So in the bathroom of the roadhouse, both men cut the pockets out of their pants and took off their underwear.  When they climbed back on the bikes and started down the two-lane, they told the girls that it was okay to hang on and stay warm by sticking their hands into the guy’s trouser pockets. 

“Well, “ Bob said, his eyes squinting and his red cheeks glowing even brighter  “Those bikes made a Hell of a noise goin’ up that road, but it was nothing like the squeal that come out of those two girls when they went to get their hands warm!”

Bob had crushed both his feet in a logging accident.  He was riding home on the front of the skidder when the driver went to push a log out of the way with the plow.  Bob was perched on the safety cowling where he often  rode, his feet braced on the cross bar behind the blade.   When they hit the log, the hydraulics lost pressure, and the front blade sprung back, catching his feet in between and crushing both of them flat as a pancake.  They were way up in the woods and it was a haul back down the mountain.  Bob didn’t have any choice but to continue ro ride where he was on the front of skidder.  Had he lost consciousness, the driver would have had to have left him, in which case he probably would have bled to death.

“I never even tried to take my boots off,” he explained “ I figured they were holdin’ the blood in.  Beside, I was afraid my toes would have come off with them.”

When they reached the hospital, Bob was still awake. He remembered speaking to the doctor and begging him not to cut off his feet.  As it turned out, with bone grafts taken from his hips during  a series of operations over several months, the surgeon managed to reconstructed the old logger’s feet.  He could never again work in the woods and had to wear blocky black orthopedic shoes, but he could walk.  Had he not liked his wife's cooking so much, I think he might have been able to walk a lot faster.

Bob seldom ventured further than the back stoop, where he would sit and entertain us with stories about the old days.  He had spent the summers of his youth in the house down the road, working on Frank Shepardson’s farm for room and board.  It was Frank’s father William who had built our house back in 1867.  All that remains now of the house where Bob  stayed is a hand laid stone foundation full of popular trees and a few snap shots in a shoe box.  As was his habit when storytelling, Bob would stop in the middle of a sentence and say:

"Ron!  Listen!  What's that?" 

I'd listen a moment and say, "What 's what Bob?" 

"That." He'd repeat, cocking his head a little to one side or the other.  "Don't you hear it?" 

I knew what was coming next, because he would do this about every time he came to visit, but I'd play along anyway. 

"Hear what Bob?  I don't hear anything." 

"That's what I mean kiddo, nothing!   No noise, just quiet.  Now that's the way things ought-a be!"

So as I sat in the truck yesterday, the March sun warm and my body hot from splitting wood, I closed my eyes and just listened.  A crow cawed off in the distance and then the soft coos of a far off morning dove drifted down off the hill.  And in between?  Nothing.  Just a slight ringing in my own ears, something I seldom notice except at night when I sit up in bed reading.  Yeah, it’s quiet.  Really quiet.  The way things ought-a be. 

I felt just perfect sitting there, completely in the moment, on the same family property that I have know and loved all my life.  Now that's something rare in this day and age, something rare indeed.

Treasure the little things, is what Bob would always say.  Like the shade cast by the porch rail, they can make all the difference in the world.  It is the little things, the simple things, the things that don't cost a dime that will make you the happiest.  All you have to do is take a little thing called time to appreciate them.

(Written for my kids on Easter Sunday who are off with their mom visiting DisneyWorld in Orlando, Florida.) 

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Sparkling Drop of Retsyn


"A sparkling drop of retsyn."

The phrase comes from a television ad campaign that was airing in 1968, the year the Viet-Nam War was at its peek; the year of the Tet Offensive and our most concentrated attacks on infamous Ho Chi-Minh Trail. * 

I was in 7th grade at the time and watched enough television to have this marketing slogan pop into my head forty-five years later as I lay in bed before a open window enjoying the cool evening air and reflecting on the beauty of the Tasman Bridge, its illuminated arch etched gracefully behind the empty masts of anchored sailing ships asleep on the still waters of Lindisfarne Bay. 

Who can possibly under estimate the manipulative, mind-altering power of media and advertising? 

And who will try the first civil case for damages inflicted on unsuspecting workers repetitively exposed to a daily assault of commercials, jingles, and pop music raining down from ceiling sound systems in department stores across America?

Who will put the first dollar figure on the cost of psychotherapy and related treatments? The  value associated with lost productivity from lethargy, irritability and sick days that result from depression and anxiety exacerbated by this kind of unrelenting audio conditioning?  (See "High Fidelity" Nick Hornby Victor Gollancz LTD 1995.  Narrator attributes his teen depression to the pop music he listened to). 


Consider the long list of suicides and drug overdoses of rock circuit performers forced to play the same emotionally debilitating, mind numbing songs, night after night to audiences “programmed to receive.” (Name that tune!) Could these untimely deaths be rooted in chronic self-medication to escape the torment of the very music they promote?  And what of those who have survived?  Just look at Ozzy Osborne.  Do you think he was born that way?    

Anyway, in 1956 some ad agency suggested to the American Chicle Company that if they wanted to manufacture a breath mint that would really sell, they had to come up with something different, something special, something better than just a plain old mint.  It had to contain something powerful, something magical, something that no other mint could possibly recreate.  In other words, what they needed was a secret ingredient.

So down to the candy lab went the wise men of the board, and to their head candy cook they announced,

“We need something new.  Something powerful, something magical, something no other breath mint could possibly recreate and we need you to invent it for us now!”

The cook wiped his hands on his apron and said, “Sure, just give me a minute.” 

Down from the shelf he took a box of sugar, and into a bowl he spooned a bit.  Then from over by a big cast iron stove, loaded with bubbling pots of sweet smelling solutions, he grabbed a bottle of partially hydrogenated cotton seed oil, a staple in any candy maker’s kitchen.  Into the bowl went a healthy dash.  A few seasonings, perhaps used in the classic Chiclet or spicy stick of Dentyne may have been added.  After all, both were company owned brands.   But it wasn't until the head candy cook reached beneath the sink and pulled out a big jar of copper gluconate and shook a liberal dose of the blue crystals into the bowl, that the mysterious mixture became the sparkling drop that would be added to each and every Certs lozenge.

“Voila” said Brooklyn born cook in his best French accent, “ I geeve yew, RETSYN!”

It sounded almost space age.  Retsyn, like that family of cartoon astronauts that would soon come to TV called “The Jetsons."  Yeah, Certs caught on in a flash.  It was as the ad said, “two mints in one.”  It had twice the punch and double the value.   A breath sanitizer and sweet treat within one tightly rolled, twelve serving wrapper.  

Remember, this product came from a company once owned by a doctor who understood that medicine didn’t have to taste bad to be good.  His name was Dr. Edwin Beeman.  He was a research scientist who was in awe of the incredible variety of garbage his pet pigs could eat while displaying not the least bit of gastro intestinal discomfort.  So the doctor took to analyzing the stomach juices that aided his pigs’ superlative digestion. 

Low and behold, after months of late nights in sty and in lab, Dr. Beeman managed to isolate the enzyme pepsin, which in repeated tests, appeared to work wonders in relieving human indigestion.  Unfortunately, his attempt to market pepsin as Pepsin, a soothing elixir extracted from the stomach lining of hogs, just didn’t go over well with consumers.  Dumbfounded, he confided to young shop keeper his bewilderment with why such a worthy product was such a failure.  The clerk just smiled and said,

“I bet it would sell if it tasted like bubble gum.”

So Dr. Beeman invented Pepsin Chewing Gum for the bloated, overwrought belly and sell it did!  Before long, the product caught the attention of William White, owner of Wm. White & Son, the largest chewing gum manufacturer in the world.  He bought Beeman out, and by 1919 had constructed a two million dollar plant under the masthead of the American Chicle Company.  American Chicle was responsible for a lot of American chewing gum standards, Chiclets, Dentyne, Clorets to name only a few.

After Certs became America’s number one breath mint, Warner- Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, flush with cash from their ever expanding drug sales, added American Chicle to their acquisition list.  Accustom to shipping its pharmaceuticals worldwide, tariff fee, Warner- Lambert took the US Customs office to court for classifying Certs as candy and subjecting them to international shipping duties. Come-on guys, this was Certs, America’s very own “two mints in one”!  Each lozenge contains a single, sparkling drop of retsyn, odor eater and oral bacteria cleanser. Certs is breath medicine made to taste good.

Unfortunately, since most of what goes into Certs is simply refined sugar, the Customs people didn’t see it that way. But thank goodness for mom, apple pie and well-heeled lawyers.

Arguing that the chemicals in restyn stimulated the salivary glands, releasing heighten levels of this natural cleanser, the attorneys for Warner-Lambert convinced the appeals court to forget the sugar and focus on the medicinal values of retsyn.  In the end, the lower court’s decision was reversed, and Certs, the breath mint that contained no mint, became the equivalent of a true pharmaceutical, imported and exported without the burden of profit-sharing tariffs.

With tax encumbrances removed, Certs became an even more popular commodity.  Pfizer, a global leader in drug manufacturing and sales, appreciated what a sweet addition Certs would be to its nearly endless list of medicinal, mouth freshening products.  In June 2000, the deal was done and Warner Lambert and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals merged forces, creating the most valuable and fastest growing drug company in the world.

Ah, that sparkling drop of Retsyn!  It must really be magic!


The ad:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdWVZfbDdw8&feature=fvwp&NR=1

* On November 11, 1968, Operation Commando Hunt was initiated by the U.S. and its allies. The goal of the operation was to interdict men and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail, through Laos into South Vietnam. By the end of the operation, three million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, which slowed but did not consistently disrupt trail operations.

The North Vietnamese also used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send soldiers to the south. At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi by this way. In an attempt to stop this traffic, it was suggested that a barrier of barbed wire and minefields, called the McNamara Line, should be built. The plan was abandoned in 1967 after repeated attacks by the NLF on those involved in constructing the barrier.