Past

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It’s funny how much the public discussion about climate change got lost in a nasty argument about ideology, at least here in North America.  Far more virulent in the States than the version we had here in Canada, but we had it too.  Our current federal goverment is the same party that argued that global warming wasn’t a serious problem.  Odd that very basic science should become something one can argue about as a matter of faith.  We don’t take sides and get all knotted up over whether we believe in the second law of thermodynamics.  Or maybe I just missed it.

I haven’t sung this song for years now, but I’ve been wondering if it might be good to add a few verses.  Although I could wish the piece was a little more dated than it seems.  I guess these sorts of unfortunate behaviours on the part of governments never go completely out of fashion.  The verses were written deep in the middle of a time when the politics of blame still held power.  We’re still feeling the effects of some of it.  Around here they gutted mental health services, and generally as much of the public healthcare system as they could get away with.  On the one hand telling us that we can’t afford it, and on the other hand trying to convince you and me that it’s somehow bogus to believe that a complete and fair public healthcare system is part of what makes our society Canadian.  And of course there will always be business interests who will make good money if the government does as little as possible.  I just honestly don’t understand how a business which must make a healthy profit in order to exist is going to do things more cheaply than a public system which doesn’t need to make that profit.  And am I the only one who has noticed that where our current system seems to be having difficulty is at exactly the same point where the public part of our system has to give way to the private part?  We’ve never had a completely public system.  Too many self-made business-people telling us it’s not possible.

kbcdlettersAh well, what do I know?  Not much, apparently.  Guess I’ll just have to stick to singing songs.

the song –>Learn to Behave–from the CD ‘letters from home’, 1997 (NHC 401)

Of Pedestals and Genetics

I was talking with someone last week about this song.  Well, actually we were talking about what this song is about, I’d completely forgotten about this piece.  The conversation had rolled around for a while and we found ourselves talking about how putting someone up on a pedestal removes them from the normal human experience.  I think I was pointing out that in fact it’s sometimes a way that people convince themselves that whatever is good in that person is completely unattainable for us mere mortals.  They’re up on that pedestal, and they’re perfect, and I could never be that.  So I don’t have to try.

I figure it’s the same kind of thought-mechanism that some folks are trying to use when they tell me they are convinced that the reason why I am ‘so musical’ is because ‘musical ability is genetic’.  What I’ve discovered in these conversations over the years is that they’re trying to close the door on not ‘being musical’ themselves.  They’re convinced  that musical grooviness is purely genetic.  And since ‘no one in their family is musical’, then it’s okay that they’re not musical themselves.  Makes their personal disappointment easier somehow.  The theory kind of falls apart when I explain that there was no music in my family.  Nope, none.

kbcdlongviewAnyway, it’s maybe just a little too weird that I’ve actually written a song about that whole thought, but there you are.  I guess the thought is that pedestals are no good for nobody.  I think the song maybe says it better.

the song–>Wisdom from the CD ‘The Long View’, 2006 (LV001)

Electric

I stumbled across this the other day, had completely forgotten about it.  A little bit of ancient history, getting close to twenty years old by my reckoning.  Al Cross is playing the drums on this track, if memory serves that’s Henry Heilig on the bass, and yes I’m on the electric guitar (I’ve played electric as long as I’ve had an acoustic guitar so this recording wasn’t unusual in that sense).  I don’t seem to have the masters for these sessions any more, didn’t make it through several life changes.  I remember there was a particularly interesting arrangement of the pumping shanty ‘Leave Her, Johnny’.  Oh well.  I think I’ve still got the version of ‘Lanigan’s Ball’ somewhere.  That was sort of my party piece for years.  People told me later that it was ahead of the curve at the time, although I imagine it would probably seem kind of normal by today’s standards.  I’ll see if I can dig it out for you.  In the meantime, this was intended for dancing, so feel free…

kbsitepicinstrument007the song–>Tom O’Bedlam

I never had any reason to release the tracks from these sessions, at the time there were no Canadian performers on the scene using electric instruments to play traditional music.  No gigs, no support, that simple.  God forbid I should’ve showed up to play jigs and reels with an electric guitar.  Like playing political music, electrified traditional music was deeply frowned upon–unless you came from somewhere else.  (‘Where are the political artists in Canada?’ said the well known British political musician during his visit to an early Canadian folk-business conference.  ‘Mumble mumble mumble,’ replied the individuals who were deciding who got hired or not at the time.  I was there.  Yes, that’s a quote.)  Apparently things are different now.  No longer being part of that world I really couldn’t care less.  But yeah, the scene really was that provincial.  Shame.

Tiger, Tiger

It was one of those images that stuck with me for a while before I decided to do something with it.  Afraid of something, but you don’t know what it is exactly.  Not fear of the unknown in general, more like a fear of a specific unknown, which is a different thing somehow.  As sometimes happens, I was talking about the concept with someone and I grabbed a phrase out of thin air.  “You know what that is,” I said, “it’s a tiger in the long grass.”  The concept hung around long enough that I figured I should do something with it.  And eventually this song came along.

kbcdlongviewthe song–>The Long Grass from the CD ‘The Long View’, 2006 (LV001)

Sometimes just by naming something it loses its power over us, calling it something that amuses you is even more potent.  Try it some time.  I know what that is…

I’ll Be Alright

When I recorded this album I had decided to make a collection of songs that I’d written and played to good response at concerts over the years.  Some of the pieces were new-ish, some of them had been around for a while.  I remember writing this one many years ago.  Took me most of the time since then to understand exactly what I think it was about.  But what do I know?  It’s out there now, so you take from it what you want.  I’m good with that.

Like pretty much all of my songs it wasn’t actually about me, although like most of my songs it’s easy to think that ‘me’ is exactly what it’s about.  No, it dances around for a while, but this one was for a friend who is now long gone.  In the middle of a tough time I remember him saying, as guys sometimes do, “I’ll be alright.”  Funny the things some of us go through when we’re younger, things that shape us when we’re older.  For some people it’s an affirmation, for others it’s denial.  All I really know is that I’ve heard it said a lot over the years.  “I’ll be alright.”  And sometimes I hear those words in my friend’s voice.  I’ve been told other people ‘carry colour’, they can remember what a colour looks like when they’re no longer looking at it.  Apparently quarks carry colour too, but I expect that’s different.  I’m not great with colour, but I guess I ‘carry sound’.  Sometimes stays with me a long time.

kbcdlongview

the song–>I’ll Be Alright from the CD ‘The Long View’, 2006 (LV001)

I can hear his voice even today.  Ah, friend, deeply missed even now.  I remember your kindness in so many ways.  And spending time on your couch while I tried to figure out exactly what had happened.  I passed it on a few times, never explained why.  I know some folks thought I was foolish, and yes I know I was taken advantage of more than once.  But all I was doing was paying it forward.  And that’s just a risk you have to take.  Thanks for that.  Figure I still owe you.  But yeah, I’ll be alright.

Of Bicycles and Happy Endings

Working on a recording the other day I was reminded that not everyone around here can play a rhythm part for a slip jig.  It is in my nature to assume that if I can do something anyone can.  It is apparently in the nature of the universe to remind me that it’s not necessarily true.

(If you’re asking yourself ‘What’s a slip jig?’, it’s like this–if you think of a normal, garden-variety jig as having two main beats, then a slip jig has three of those main beats.  No big deal.  So a single bar of a standard jig rhythm goes ‘bicycle, bicycle’, but a single bar of a slip jig goes ‘bicycle, bicycle, bicycle’.  Easy enough.)

Never really thought of it before, but I guess I’ve been playing slip jigs for years.  There’s something about having three strong beats in a phrase that I find really compelling.  So I love playing it.  I actually recorded one a while back.

kbcdlettersthe song –>Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie–from the CD ‘letters from home’, 1997 (NHC 401)

The tune is one of my favourite slip jigs.  Not because I wrote it, I just really enjoy playing it, both the melody and the rhythm.  And it’s nice how well the tune fit with the song by Robbie Burns.  It’s probably worth me pointing out that both the tune and the verses of the song are in a slip jig rhythm (call it 9/8 time if you count things that way), but the other sections of the piece are in normal jig rhythm (that’d be 6/8 in that same counting method).  As a matter of fact in places the arrangement flows pretty freely back and forth between the two.  I don’t know why I did that, really.  I think I enjoy the way the slip jig moves things along with that rolling, pushing ahead feeling.  While the normal jig feels a little more like marking time, waiting for the next flight (which is useful in its own way).

I think I like the song, too, because the guy gets to keep his fiddle and enjoys the company of some good people.  I’m a sucker for a happy ending.  And like all the best songs, it’s apparently a true story.  Go figure.

The Sound of the Harp

Recording the harp is an interesting process, it’s such a great sound it’s easy to get lost in it.  I feel like there’s a huge amount of space between the notes somehow, and all that space is full of rich, ringing tones as the strings resonate with one another.  You don’t notice it as much when you add other instruments, it’s an easy thing to obscure.  A badly recorded harp can sound pretty much like a cheap electric piano, at which point one has to wonder why not just go with the piano.  But on a good recording you’ll hear all of those harmonics rolling around.  Particularly when it’s a solo thing.

Working with the harp for so many years was great ear training for me.  Certainly was necessary to learn how to tell when the string was at the right pitch, with or without an electronic tuner.  I’m reminded of the saying common among players–that the harper spends half of their life tuning the instrument, and the other half playing the instrument out of tune.  Sad but true.  So you can imagine that tuning the average guitar is no longer a scary prospect.  I’ve had worse.  Way worse.

Of course once it’s tuned you have to do something with it.  The other day I said I’d let you hear some of the sound.  Here’s something.

The tune –> In the Bleak Midwinter

A seasonal thing I suppose, although that’s not why I play it.  It’s a melody I love, and was one of my father’s favourites as well.  Hard not to think of him while I’m playing it.  I think maybe that’s one of the things music is for.  I hope you enjoy it.

Songs and Tunes–How Can I Keep From Singing

I don’t try to attach a fiddle tune to every song, but sometimes it just makes so much sense.  You can get such a lovely groove going in so many different ways.  I know that groove may not be exactly how it might be played behind the tune when it’s in the tradition straight up, no ice.  But happily that’s not as much of a hanging offense in these parts as it used to be.

In this particular case I got to lilt the tune myself at the same time as I’m flat-picking it on the guitar.  The result is kind of what I hear in my head most of the time when I’m playing a tune, whether I’m responsible for the melody or not.  I certainly think that’s part of why and how I’ll play the rhythm part when that’s my job.  Of course I don’t hear the melody’s phrasing the same way it comes off a fiddler’s bow.  More like a flute player.  I suppose maybe because that’s where I started.  Well, actually it was a whistle.  But that’s a story for another time.  In the meantime, it was kind of nice to hear this again.  The words still mean a lot to me.

kbcdlettersthe song –>How Can I Keep From Singing–from the CD ‘letters from home’, 1997 (NHC 401)

Record What You Hear

Well it was a successful day.  Not as long as some recording days have been in the past, but a solid day and a fair bit accomplished.  It’s always been an interesting process for me, recording other people’s music.  One of the first things I usually do when all the gear’s set up is ask the person to play their instrument for me.  They’ll ask me where I’m going to put the microphone, and I say I’m not yet.  Then I sit down in front of them and ask them to play.  And I use my ears to guide me.  What does this instrument really sound like?  I mean before I put a mic in front of it, and they put headphones on, and I go in the other room and turn on the pre-amp and the converters and the amp for the speakers and a dozen other gizmos and then speak into my microphone so they can hear my voice in their headphones saying, “Okay, just play naturally.”

I mean really, when I’m producing a recording half my job is to make all the gear disappear so we’re just playing music.

And I think the other half of my job is to make all that gear work so that what you hear is the sound of the musician’s instrument the way that musician plays it.

So I sit down and ask them to play for me.

Once I’ve got a handle on what it sounds like I place a mic or two, plug in a pre-amp or more, and try to make it sound like what I just heard while I was sitting there listening.  I know I’ll never make it exactly the same, but I can usually get close.  I understand some people can ‘carry colour’ by keeping an accurate memory of it in their mind.  I guess that’s what I do with sound.  I get an accurate sound-picture in my memory, then I try to record what I hear.

Mind you sometimes the process is a little different.  Sometimes I hear the sound in my head first.  Then I try to record something that sounds like what I’ve heard.  Sometimes it’s easy–I hear an oboe part so I write it out, find an oboe player and we’re in business.

Sometimes it’s not so easy.  As an example here’s something I recorded a while ago.  I’m completely happy with how it came out, but it’s not what I heard in my head.

kbcdlongviewthe song–>Hope from the CD ‘The Long View’, 2006 (LV001)

You see I used to live across the river from a church with a carrillon, and whenever I sang this song my imagination heard those bells playing along.  Sadly when I got up enough nerve to ask whether it was possible I guess I must’ve got somebody on a bad day.  I suppose it’s not exactly normal that the guy who’s just asked if he can record your bells actually knows what he’s doing, fair enough.  But I think it would’ve been pretty cool, and while we were set up we probably could’ve recorded a few tracks for the church, maybe for fundraising or just for posterity.  Oh well.

Just record what you hear.

Sounds easy enough…

The Guitar Part (second set)

kbsitepicinstrument004I’m working on a little project I’ll think you’ll enjoy, looking forward to getting some of the sounds down so you can have a listen.  In the meantime, we were talking about guitar parts, so here is that second experience from that same series.

Messing around with mics, we were.  When we were done, I asked if they’d mind just one more for me.  These were the reels, never did have a chance to ask what they’re called.

First the tunes –>Reel Set

Two tunes, one firmly G-major, the other’s just as firmly in something else.  I think of this second kind of tune as a modal D.  The melody forces the chords to drop down one (yup, that’d be a C), then back up, to give it that particular feel.  Sometimes I keep the D-chord and move only the bass note.  I’m funny that way.  The ‘other’ chord in that tune is based around an A.  Neither major nor minor, I think of it as an A5.  Probably worth pointing out that I’m not playing the bass D-string on that chord, and I might not play the treble D-string, either.

GOkay, let’s be honest here, I never really know what’s going to happen in a set like this.  The sum total of planning at a session is often overhearing one player to another ‘three each?’.  Apparently the traditional response is ‘yeah, we’ll see’, which allows a player to either play the tune a number of times, or not.  That number might be three.  Or not.  Took me years to figure it out–don’t count, just play.

If I’m very lucky, a melody player will lean over and clue me in to a tune change, some nice people even supply a suggested key.  The fact that the letters b,c,d,e and g all sound exactly the same when spoken with a fiddle under one’s chin takes little away from the kindness of the thought, also makes for some very interesting arrangements du jour.  To tell the truth, I’m always happiest when I get a catch of eyes and a nod to tell me to pay attention, something’s coming up.

The rhythm of a set of reels is what it’s about.  Whatever you play, don’t get in the way of what’s being played.  After a time through I feel like we’re laying back into a groove rather than driving ahead.  In a reel I’d normally be tempted to start playing the off beats (one-AND-two-AND-three-AND-four-AND), setting up the drive in the same way as a mandolin in a bluegrass tune.  But on this tune I hear a different kind of thing going on in the second half of each musical phrase.  So I fall into the first off-beat, then I wait to hear what’s going on.  After a few phrases I can match the rhythm, and it translates well to the guitar.  Let’s stay here for a while.  At this point I start paying attention to the line of the melody so I can help accent or swell.  A little goes a long way, no need to overplay.

D/C bassA nod confirms that we’re coming into a new tune.  I’ve been warned beforehand where we’re likely to go.  The question is always whether the rhythm I’ve set up is going to work in the new tune.  One way to find out.  The tune stops, I know it’s coming, so I’m ready.  Hit the G to finish off the first tune, leave a space, then firmly on the downbeat with the new chord.  And I’m playing basically the same groove as before.  Hey, it works.

By this point my head’s down and I’m grooving, listening closely to what Pat and Kelly are laying down.  When you’re playing a tune like this one, no matter how long you play it, it never seems quite enough times through.  I understand why people put together medleys for concerts and such, but sometimes you barely get to know one tune before it’s gone.  I’m all for keeping people’s attention, but sometimes I just wanna hear the thing roll for a while.  Guess I played too many dances.

(Many thanks to Kelly Hood and Pat Simmonds for the tunes.)