Tag Archives: songs i like

Sylvia’s Mother

guitar playing
 
For the last two months I’ve been musically focused on a project for work. We’ve been working on a MathWorks related spoof of an old Dr. Hook song. It was great fun to work on, had thirty overdubbed tracks of audio and an associated video. Last night I returned from a trip where we had the good fortune to show the video to a couple thousand receptive audience members. It was a lot of fun, but mentally draining. After traveling all day, tired and a bit melancholy that the whole experience was over, I found myself feeling restless. Kids were in bed, wife asleep on the couch, not interested in watching T.V. and not focused or awake enough to read I decided to retreat to the basement and just play some guitar. Just play.

While I was playing I decided to try my hand at another old Dr. Hook song that I have grown to enjoy during the last few weeks. This time there were no new lyrics. No spoof. Just a straight cover. Also, no multitracking. One mic, one track, one take. Just playing.

Thanks to Sylvia’s Mother, I can now move on.
Sylvias Mother by baconworks

Country Roads

Country Road
 
Most people, these days, will not admit to being big fans of John Denver. I’ll admit it. Always have been. Ever since I was a child and my parents would throw that scratchy vinyl onto our gargantuan record player … you know the kind, where the speakers, turn table and radio dials are all built into a big honkn’ piece of furniture. It was big enough to make a good television stand as well.
 
stero cabinet
 
John Denver songs remind me of the innocence and beauty of childhood. It reminds me of a peaceful time in life where family is your only focus and you can’t ever imagine that when you grow life will present you with challenges. What is not to like about that?

While many will not freely admit they like John Denver, I have proof that most people actually do. I recorded this impromptu version of Country Roads Saturday evening at a friend’s house along with thirty other friends. We played lots of tunes and sang lots of songs. Irish tunes, sea chanties, classic rock, English ballads, drinking songs, songs about ale, songs about dog fat, songs about war, songs about trombones … but John Denver’s Country Roads is always the song people sing the loudest at parties. Always.

While the recording quality is not great I hear something wonderful in it. I hear friends. I hear family. I hear joy. And it brings me right back to being a child, playing in my living room with my family, my father trying to find the notes on his Goya while the record played. And I can only assume, when I listen to this, that the other players and singers have similar unspoken memories and feelings. The music brings them back, like a country road, to a peaceful and happy place, and in that space and time, it unites us. It completely transcends pop music and becomes folk music, which is really what music was meant to be in the first place.
 
Country Roads by baconworks

Busted!

My recording gear busted last week. Ughh!
 
busted
 
You know what that means, don’t you? It means that the only way I can post new music is by dusting off all the old crud laying around that wasn’t good enough to post the first time.

Here is a recording that I found settled in the dust. It is of an old American song called Shenandoah. I don’t even recall recording it, which can only mean that at the time I thought it stunk. Well, apparently time not only heals all wounds, if you believe that, but it also seems to wash away imperfections. That is not to imply that this recording is perfect. Far from it. But somehow I now find some redeeming qualities to it.

Having said that, I would consider this a learning track. In recording they say there are three things that make a good track; a good performance, a good arrangement and a good recording of the performance. When I listen to this track I hear a lot of “growth potential” in the vocal performance. For now I’ll refrain from any additional self deprecation on the topic of vocals except to say that listening to ones voice on tape can be about as much fun as gargling bumble bees.

I will say that I’m fond of the simple arrangement. Though, I think the melody may need something to break up the monotony, but I’m not sure what.

The actual recording was a challenge because both the vocal track and the guitar track were recorded at the same time. The downside to this approach is that I don’t have as much control over the tracks as I would like due to the guitar bleeding into the vocal track and vice versa. For example, I like to add a little delay to the vocal track. But if you listen closely to the guitar, milliseconds after a strum you can hear a ghost strum, which is the delay. So, I can’t add delay to the vocal track without adding delay to the guitar because of the bleed. Consequently, the guitar track is not as clean as it could be.

You might say to yourself, ‘why doesn’t he just record the guitar track first and overdub the vocals later’? Well that is sort of like eating one piece of bread with peanut butter on it and then following that up with another slab of bread with jelly. Even though it is all the same ingredients, it is just not as tasty as eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Anyhow, I digress…

With any luck, and some new gear, I may revisit this track again down the road. But for now, it is all I’ve got.

We Are the Mariners – Let the Good Times Ring

Music is many things to many people. For some it is relaxing, others energizing. For some it is therapy and some healing.

I know of one man where music was his lifeline. It was the strand that connected him to the living. Though it may sound like hyperbole, it is not. Music was the needle that wove together a tapestry of friendship and love that buoyed him and actually kept him alive. This man, this Mariner, was diagnosed with ALS and given only a short period to live.
 
Howard
 
ALS is a horrible disease where if you don’t die quickly, you gradually lose the ability to move. You notice that your arms are shaky when you pour a glass of milk. You get tired walking to the mailbox. Putting on your own cloths becomes difficult . Tasks like brushing your own teeth become impossible. Eventually you find yourself entirely paralyzed, unable to talk and locked inside your own body. The sick irony is that you are entirely aware of your demise. ALS does not affect your brain, it affects your neuromuscular system, leaving you to contemplate all the things you would like to do but can’t.

My friend, Howard, upon being diagnosed with ALS and well aware of his fate, realized he had a decision to make. Before he would lose his ability to take matters in his own hands he had to decide if he wanted to live through the torture. So, one evening, when no one was home, he went out to the barn. Locked all the doors. He got into the car. He put the key into the ignition. He sat there. Thinking. What will I have to live for? How will I find any happiness? How much of a burden will I be to the people I love?

As he sat there contemplating his options his mind wandered back to an old friend. He heard this friend say to him, ‘You have two choices. You can choose to live, or you can choose to die. If I had half your ability and determination, I’d choose to live. This could be the greatest adventure of your life!’ Howard then took the keys and removed them from the ignition. He got out of the car. Unlocked the doors, went back into his home and lived happily ever after.

There were no medical miracles. His body ultimately failed him and he lived entirely paralyzed for years, physically paralyzed that is. But, the part about living happily I believe to be true. He found happiness in his friends. He found happiness in his children, and he found happiness in his music.

Howard was a fifer, a chanteyman and was learning to play the concertina. When he could no longer play the fife, he sang. When he could no longer sing he wrote. He wrote harmony parts for the Ancient Mariner Chanteymen. He wrote songs. He wrote poetry. He wrote a book. He did not write using his hands, they had long since failed him. He wrote by using a computer that read his eye movements, the only muscle control he had.

In doing so, all of us who new him, learned so much about living life with all you’ve got, and making the choice to be happy.

You may ask, ‘what does any of this have to do with Switzerland?’ It has to do with the lessons we learned from Howard, who was, years ago, freed from his shackles. It has to do with how we share those lessons with new Mariners everywhere. It has to do with the music he left for us in hopes that we would always sing it together. When we play and sing, we are sharing our love for music, brotherhood and the celebration of life with all those who care to listen or dare to join us. In Switzerland, they came to listen and that reaffirms, for us, all the lessons we’ve been taught by men like Howard. We all have to make choices. Our choice, as Mariners, is to do our best to celebrate while we can.

Take a listen to the words and music that Howard left for us, recorded back in 2007 in Switzerland.

So before our time is nigh
Teach our children how to sing
So they may raise their glasses high
And let the good times ring
~Dr. Howard Hornstein

Sally McKnight: Call and Answer

Clam DiggerAs a child I spent many a summer day on the coast of Maine. More than a few of those youthful days were spent on the clam flats. While my father, who was perpetually hunched over pealing back the salty mud with a hoe, methodically filled a pair of hods with his finds, I scurried around the flats trying to find trouble. To an outsider the flats don’t look like much; Miles of nondescript mud, an occasional outcropping of seaweed covered rock and horse flies large enough to serve up with a badminton racquet. But, to a boy, it is a wonderland. Hand me one of them little red plastic buckets and a yellow shovel and I was off to the races.

If I was clever, I might catch some tiny fish schooling in the warm tidal pools. If I was lucky, I might find a horseshoe crab waiting for the sea to return. If I was creative I might collect the most beautiful shells you’d ever see come out of Sagadahoc Bay. And, if I was brave, I would make my way over to the seaweed covered rocks and confront some real danger.

crab It is well known that underneath the slippery green growth there are critters that are both feared and fetching to little boys. Dare to stick your fleshy little fingers into the thick tentacle like marine algae, lift it back and prepare to react, for you may reveal the pièce de résistance. Behold the Liocarcinus Vernalis, otherwise know as a vernal crab. Fierce little monsters equipped with their own amour and built-in weapons. I might as well have found gold.

I’ve learned through the years that the crab hunting gene is passed from generation to generation. My father hunted them as a boy and my five year old is already bolstering his courage in preparation for this summers journey to the flats.

Why am I telling this story? Well, one, because it holds fond memories for me. But that is not actually reason I wanted to share it. It struck me that finding good music is sometimes like traipsing through the mud, over to a promising pile of seaweed covered rocks and pealing back the layers to see what you can find. Most of the time you find more rocks and mud. But occasionally you find something that strikes you as magical like a crab or maybe something really special like a starfish.

starfishThis brings me to my actual point. A while back I wrote about a Hammered Dulcimer player that sang a beautiful song called The Call and the Answer. Her name is Sally McKnight. The moment I heard her sing I thought, ‘wow, people need to hear this’. Fortunately for all of us she agreed to do some recording and the other evening, as I was leaving the recording session at her home, it occurred to me that I’ve just peeled back some covering and found something really special.

No, Sally is not a crab in a pile of seaweed. Maybe it is not the best analogy. I am certain, however, that after listening to the way she harmonizes the dulcimer with her singing, hearing the crispness of her playing, and basking in the warmth in her voice you will agree that she is a star, and, I for one, am thrilled to show you what I’ve uncovered.

 

Hurdles and Ruts

ruts
 
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the struggles we all go through when learning and mastering a craft. In this case the craft I speak of is music. But, really, it could be any craft. As a beginner you tell yourself, “If I could just play a tune or two, that would make me really happy”. Then, that is not enough. You need to learn twenty, fifty and then a hundred tunes to be happy. After a hundred you realize that the first twenty that you though you learned need to be re-learned because the way you’re playing them really sucks. Eventually your repertoire grows, your technique gets better, your tool set more rich, and you set new goals for yourself. Here is the point. Beginners have one very key thing in common with experienced craftsman. They are both striving to get better.

Along the journey of musical development it is important to have mentors and role models. And it is important for the mentors to remind those following behind that everyone starts at the beginning, and that the most important key to getting better is to follow the path of your interests. Practice all you want, if you are not doing what you want, you ain’t gettin’ better. And if you’re not getting better, it is likely you are getting worse.

One of the things I like most about mentors or roll models is their war stories. What was the path they followed? What inspired them to work so hard and get so good? What hurdles did they have and how did they get out of their ruts? I also love seeing evidence of their own humble beginnings. It reminds me that they are just people and that they really did have to make their way around similar obstacles.

One of my role models is Paul Brady. The man is simply a brilliant guitar player and I am stuck in a rut behind him. One of my hurdles is to find my way out of that rut and cut my own path. For those that don’t know, Paul Brady took a traditional song called Arthur McBride in the mid seventies and made it famous.

Recently I was poking around YouTube and found this live version of the song from 1977 which, aside from a few amusing mistakes, is identical to the recorded version that drew so much acclaim. Check out the gorgeous base line that serves as its own melody. Listen to the finger picking…especially in the solo. Whewww! Classic stuff.

Now, you want to see something really cool? Check out Paul singing the same song in seventyfour. It sounds hokey by comparison. No beautiful base line. Very little finger picking. Mostly strumming. The singing has no character. Man he sucks! O.k., not really, but you get the point. To get from ’74 to ’77 he had some real work to do. If he had stopped in ’74 I don’t think we would be talking about this song.


So, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got to get back to practice. I’ve got ruts to get out of.