Live at North Berkeley: Winter Evening Rush-Hour Guitar

Up above, that’s Dave Gardner — I’m not sure I’ve got his last name right — sitting on his amplifier and playing guitar as commuters emerged from the North Berkley BART station last night. I asked him how things were going. “Cold,” he said. Were people responding to his playing, “Some,” he said. Mostly, he let his playing speak for him, and I got out of the way so I wouldn’t deter any passers-by from dropping a buck in his guitar case. I liked the music. I think the two numbers he plays here are takes on “All of Me” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”     

Live at 16th Street BART


Here’s Dennis Blackwell, a guy who was playing at the 16th and Mission BART station on Friday. It does not look like a nice spot. The crowd’s hustling by, you have a little pigeon dung to deal with, and station agents who take in the whole thing with a cold eye.

Blackwell says he’s been playing for spare change for about a year. “I’ve been messing around with a guitar for 20 years. I’m 60 now.” He said he “came into manhood” on the streets of Berkeley, that his target audience is “aging hippies like me,” that he worked most of his adult life as a cook, and is on a fixed income now.

He played a little U2 medley, talked to me for a couple minutes, then launched into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” by Bob Dylan. I didn’t bring him any luck–I didn’t see a single person stop and give him anything while I was hanging around with my camera and recorder. Hope he did better afterward.

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Live at North Berkeley BART


Probably a feature of every big-city transit system: the itinerant musician who shows up to play at the stops along the way. The North Berkeley BART station a couple blocks from where we has a cast of folks who show up semi-regularly. There are three guitar players I can think of whom I’ve seen out there: a middle-aged guy who plays a nice classical guitar and always seems to land a decent pile of bills from the from passersby; a young guy who has sung himself hoarse thrashing out folk-rock tunes and looks ragged, like he’s barely hanging on; and the woman above.

Her name is Lily, and she plays slide steel guitar. I’m not a music critic, but I heard some nice touches in amid some scrambling to find the next logical note or chord. (Disclosure: I’m not sure I could find a single chord, logical or otherwise, on any kind of instrument.) I had my sound kit with me and recorded a little bit and talked to her briefly. The audio is below:

First of All Martyrs, King of All Birds

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
—”The Wren

Of course, in Ireland and like parts, the “king of all birds” was singled out for some rough treatment the day after Christmas. A somewhat sanitized version of the song, on The Chieftain’s “Bells of Dublin” album, alludes to the death of the wren, but doesn’t explain how it came to expire. Liam Clancy’s much earlier recording of a traditional number, “The Wran Song,” doesn’t leave much doubt about what had happened to the bird: “I met a wren upon the wall/Up with me wattle and knocked him down.” In fact, if you’re inclined to explore further the Irish (and fellow Celts’) Christmastime wren customs, here’s a book for you, “Hunting the Wren: Transformation of Bird to Symbol.”

A brief passage on the traditions of the wren hunt: “Typically, on the appointed ‘wren day’ a group of boys and men went out armed with sticks, beating the hedges from both sides and throwing clubs or other objects at the wren whenever it appeared. Eyewitnesses described the hunting of the wren in Ireland in the 1840s:

For some weeks preceding Christmas, crowds of village boys may be seen peering into hedges in search of the tiny wren; and when one is discovered the whole assemble and give eager chase to, until they have slain the little bird. In the hunt the utmost excitement prevails, shouting, screeching, and rushing; all sorts of missiles are flung at the puny mark and not infrequently they light upon the head of some less innocent being. From bush to bush, from hedge to hedge is the wren pursued and bagged with as much pride and pleasure as the cock of the woods by more ambitious sportsmen.”

And why is the wren “the king”? According to the book above, the appellation goes back to a fable apparently current in several cultures and in Greece and Roman tradition ascribed to Aesop: various birds vied with the eagle for the title of the king of birds. One by one, the eagle out-soared them. But the wren–the wren concealed itself in the eagle’s feathers, and as it sensed the eagle was tiring, flew up and away, farther than the eagle could reach.

But enough of the wren. I really want to talk about December 26, also known as Boxing Day (what’s that about? Here’s a rather tart view from early 19th century London) and St. Stephen’s Day. The latter is of special note for me, since my dad’s first name, and mine, are Stephen. A few years ago, my friend Pete offered up a find from an encyclopedia on Roman Catholicism on the life and times of St. Stephen, who is remembered as the first Christian martyr. The capsule version of his trouble is recounted in the New Testament book of Acts. Therein, it’s recorded that locals in the Greater Holy Land area didn’t appreciate everything Stephen, whom Jesus’s apostles had appointed a deacon and put in charge of distributing alms to poorer members of the community, had to say on theological matters. He was accused of blasphemy, hauled before the Local Religious Tribunal, and tried. During the trial, he continued to outrage his accusers, whereupon, according to Acts 8:

“…They were cut to the heart: and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: Lord, lay not this sin to their charge: And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord….”

A few years ago, I was in Paris and after wandering through the Latin Quarter and up toward the Pantheon, landed in front of a church where the denouement of this story is depicted above the entrance. I only slowly put the name of the church, St. Etienne du Mont, together with the story of St. Stephen (Stephen=Etienne en français). I stand by my earlier description of the scene (picture below): “Immediately above the doorway … Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn’t seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone.” One detail of this image I didn’t notice before: The sculpture was done in 1863, a good 240 years after the church was dedicated.

Newsroom Xmas Play List

Some of what we were listening to in the San Francisco Public Radio newsroom during our nearly-the holiday shift today (links to come, maybe):

Backdoor Santa/Clarence Carter
Christmas Wrapping/The Waitresses
Fa La Freezing, A Song for Chanukah/Rebecca Bortman
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis/Tom Waits
White Christmas/Barbra Streisand
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas/Judy Garland
Merry Christmas Everybody/Oasis
Rozhinkes mit Mandlen/Klezmer Conservatory Band
Baby It’s Cold Outside/Glee
Midwinter Graces/Tori Amos
Soulful Christmas/James Brown
Christmas Must Be Tonight/The Band
Miracle/The Maccabeats
The Christmas Waltz/She and Him
Merry Christmas, Baby/B.B. King
Have I Got a Present for You/Toby Keith (A Colbert Christmas)
Christmas in Harlem/Kanye West

And I'll add we didn't play, just because it's one I really love:
The Wexford Carol/Nancy Griffiths and The Chieftains

Web Billiards: Music Video-Skydive History Edition

A couple weeks ago, I happened across a nice time lapse of San Francisco scenes titled "The City." This is it:

The City from WTK Photography on Vimeo.

I duly shared the above via some social media platform or another. One of the things I really liked about the video is the music that accompanies it, "Dayvan Cowboy" by Boards of Canada. I didn't know from BoC, but I would characterize this as a jangly folk-rocky indie-esque electro-introspective piece.

About the same time, I got involved in a discussion about high-altitude parachute jumps. I remembered hearing or reading that sometime in the 1950s or '60s, someone had jumped from above 100,000 feet and that someone was planning to try to improve on that record. One thing always linking to another as it does out here, I found the man who made the famous skydive was Joe Kittinger, who was involved in Project Excelsior, a research program designed to develop high-altitude escape systems for the first astronauts. On August 16, 1960, he rode a balloon-lifted gondola to 102,800 feet–nearly 20 miles–above the New Mexico desert, then stepped off into the void and commenced a descent that lasted more than 13 minutes. He reached a top speed of 614 mph on the way down.

I promptly went on to other things, but the Boards of Canada music was stuck in my head. In looking for it online a couple days ago, I found an "official" video for "Dayvan Cowboy." The first segment of the video features Kittinger's Project Excelsior mission. Here:

I could hardly stop there. I figured there must be more extensive video of Kittinger's flight out there. Well, there is plenty, including several musical tributes to the flight (just Google "Joseph Kittinger" and "music"). Here's one that combines snippets of the flight video with a musical number ("Colonel Joe," by Alphaspin).

And here's one more, with a different soundtrack ("GW," by Pelican), that tech media guy Tim O'Reilly references in a blog post from a few years ago:

Jesse Winchester, You’re on My Mind


A while ago, I made plans with Randy, an old friend who lives far away, to meet someplace to enjoy one of our shared enthusiasms, a singer-songwriter named Jesse Winchester. It’s not literally true that we grew up on this guy’s music, but that’s how it feels. The idea was we’d go someplace where Jesse was performing–Austin, Texas, say–catch a show and enjoy a weekend catching up. It was a great plan, but we both got busy with other things and it didn’t come to pass.

Still, I check Jesse’s tour dates just to see if he might be coming back to the Bay Area soon. The last time I saw him was in Berkeley, with another high school friend, Gerry. A hIghlight of the show for me was when Jesse asked for requests. The crowd answered with a chorus of titles, but Gerry’s voice–he just said, “Mississippi!”–rang out above the others. “Well, I heard someone say ‘Mississippi,’ ” Jesse said. And that’s what he sang.

Sometime in the last month, in the midst of the ongoing political disaster better known as the 112th Congress, I was thinking about another Jesse Winchester song, “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt.” It’s a tribute to and a twist on a gospel-infused 1940s number that remembered FDR as a friend to African Americans and the poor (and here’s a gem: Bob Dylan introducing an older version of the song).

In looking for the lyrics, I stumbled across Jesse’s website, which I hadn’t looked at in a long time. And for a while, anyway, I forgot all about my song research. The front page carries an announcement that he’s canceled his performance dates because he’s undergoing treatment for advanced esophageal cancer. The good news in the story is that so far–as related by family members on an online journal–the treatment appears to be going well, and the patient sounds like he’s amazingly resilient.

So: Here’s to a full recovery, Jesse Winchester. I hope my friends and I have a chance very soon to hear you in person.

Me and Bob Dylan at the Fox Oakland

As reported earlier, we went to see Bob Dylan play at the Fox Theatre in Oakland the other night. The No. 1 reason I wanted to go: our son Thom invited us. The theater, a landmark movie palace that has been refurbished after sitting empty for decades, was also a draw. And also: Bob Dylan–why not?

I had seen him just once, back in January 1974 at the start of his tour with The Band. Others with a better grasp of Dylan’s history might correct me, but I think that tour was his first since the late ’60s. Anyway, the big draw to me then was The Band, which I had seen several times and whose music I really loved. And to get to see them play with Bob Dylan, just coming back onto the road and whom they’d performed with when he went electric, seemed historic. What I remember about that show is going with a big group, including my brothers and several friends. I remember people lighting matches during the performance (at the old Chicago Stadium), the first time I saw that at a concert. And among the songs played that stuck in my memory were “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” How would I have rated that show? Ten out of a possible ten, like every other time I saw The Band.

Before Dylan played the other night–our group consisted of Kate, Thom, Thom’s squeeze Eleanor, her dad, Jef, their family friend Ellen, and me–we talked about some of our favorite songs and speculated whether we’d hear them. I’m not what I’d call a really avid Dylan listener, but my experience is that I tend to forget how much I like most of his music until I hear it again. I was thinking I’d like to hear “Memphis Blues Again” and was wondering whether “Just Like a Woman” was something Dylan still plays in concert. He did both songs, even letting the audience sing the chorus of the latter number (not sing along with, because Dylan remained silent as the audience did its thing). Also: “Visions of Johanna,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “Cold Irons Bound” (which Thom remarked sounded very similar to covers of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” and I would easily have mistaken the song for that once he pointed that out).

A friend had warned me that Dylan’s voice wasn’t what it once was. I wasn’t worried about that; for one thing, I’d heard his band was great, and that turned out to be true; and for another, well, we’ve all heard the voice over the years and know how it’s changed. The only song on which I’d say his vocal performance was disappointing was “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Part of that is having Rick Danko’s vocal in mind when I hear the song, but partly is was because of the laughable understatement with which Dylan almost inaudibly intoned the climactic line of the chorus, “This wheel shall explode.” He infused it with all the drama of a Walgreen’s clerk saying, “This shampoo prevents dandruff.” Enough said. Any disappointment was more than outweighed by the fact the song was in the concert, and the band played it well.

Beyond any particular reaction to the songs Dylan chose or how they were sung was the constant strange time-shifting I experienced while listening to music that I first heard more than 40 years ago coming out of the mouth of the guy who performed it back then. Like I said, we’ve all heard that voice and how it has changed. Whenever I hear numbers from “Nashville Skyline,” I still ask myself how the guy you hear on “Lay Lady Lay” can be the same one you hear on “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Positively 4th Street.” Before that, a big part of Dylan’s folk audience was wondering how the guy doing those songs could have been the same one they loved as the heir to the Woody Guthrie tradition. So listening the other night, I was constantly going back and hearing a little echo of Dylan’s used-to-be voices as he sang with today’s voice.

Set lists:
January 3, 1974, Dylan/The Band show at the Chicago Stadium
August 24, 2010, Dylan show at the Fox Oakland

Annals of American Music: Stephen Foster

A ditty found in a recently discovered notebook kept by the beloved 19th century American composer:

Poop’s in the dirt patch,
‘Possum pot pie,
Mammy’s in the nuthatch
My oh my.

Popular music scholars say it’s from Foster’s “formative” period–possibly from the time he spent peddling Bibles by subscription across the South during his late teen years.

‘… Wednesday’s Worse and Thursday’s Oh So Sad…’

We’ve all thought about time travel and what we’d do with the gift to move backward or forward along the fourth dimension. I think the wish to be able to go back and undo a mistake came to me long before I ever encountered science fiction. I can’t tell you how many times I looked back on some rash action–usually from the perspective of a few seconds after the act–and wished I could have a do-over. Then at some point the notion of time travel came to me by way of Ray Bradbury, “The Twilight Zone,” elementary description of Einstein’s theories, and the Firesign Theatre. “Nancy! Nancy! I’ve just returned from ancient Greece! Look at this grape!”

I think time-shift fantasies fall into two obvious major categories: the visit to the future–either to check in on your future self or to visit the world we’re begetting with our blunders; or the visit to the past. The visit to the past hardly ever seems to be cast as a casual return to the olden days. It’s usually a trip back to an incident we see as crucial. A battle. An assassination. Any incident famous or infamous that we’d like to see firsthand or try to arrest with our knowledge of the consequences. What might happen if you could introduce Gavrilo Princip or persuade him to forego watching the archduke’s Sarajevo appearance for a nice raspberry gelato?

I was thinking about all this yesterday as I found myself listening, for maybe the 10.000th time, to the “Allman Brothers at Fillmore East” recording of “Stormy Monday.” I wore out a couple copies of the LP listening to that track and that side of the album. “While we’re doing that blues thing, we’re gonna play this old Bobby Bland song for you–actually, it’s a T-Bone Walker song”–is that Dwayne Allman introducing it?–and then the band rolls into the song’s first chords, followed by Greg Allman’s vocal: “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad. …

I could fit everything I know about music on a postage stamp; and not one of the big rectangular kinds, either. But I do know what I like. There’s not a note in the 8-plus minutes of that track I don’t savor. The vocals. The dual percussion. The bass. And especially the guitars, the way the Dwayne Allman and Dickie Betts trade licks and leads and complement each other through the entire piece. They’re so good it hurts to think of how short a time they played together.

So: My time-machine wish list? I think I’d skip Sarajevo to attend that one show.