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Joel Speaks

A writer's online journal of

opinion, observation and musings.

Archive: January - June, 2001



Click on the date that corresponds to the topic, 
or scroll down for entries in chronological order.  

01/01/01            TA-DUM
01/09/01            What's In A Name
01/14/01            O Brother
01/20/01            Bush, The Sequel
01/28/01            Duct Tape Blues 2001
02/02/01            Ground Hog
02/14/01            Be Mine, Valentine
02/20/01            Napster
03/21/01            Spring Peepers
04/16/01            A Taxing Issue
05/01/01            MAYDAY! Capitalist Pigs In Space!
05/22/01            Thank You, Ladies and Germs
06/05/01            John Hartford
06/14/01            Flag Day -- A Pleasant Evening

the rest of 2001's entries

Return to current "Joel Speaks" page 


01/01/01    TA-DUM!

The first day in a new millennium!  As I write this I am coming up to speed on website authoring.  I decided that I would dedicate one page -- this one -- to musings, meanderings, news and other tidbits that cross my mind.  I plan to make a regular habit of updating my "diary" here and I hope that you, the reader, might find something interesting.

This new year finds me writing this new website because my old site died with the old year.  For some five years, my web presence was hosted at "songs.com" in Nashville, TN.  It began as "NOMA" -- National Online Music Assn. and later changed its name to the popular "dotcom" nomenclature. It was a good thing while it lasted.  At the end, a few hundred  independent songwriters and performers had their CDs for sale and their homepages listed with songsdotcom. It wasn't perfect of course. For one thing I couldn't update nearly as often as I would have liked. Sometime about a year ago the small group of owners who started NOMA sold songsdotcom to Gaylord Entertainment.  Gaylord is an old family-run company that owns among other things, the Grand Ole Opry, big publishing houses, resort hotels, and Opryland (now Opry Mills or "Shopryland" since they closed down the theme park to make a mall).  And now suddenly Gaylord owned songsdotcom and with it, my little corner of cyberspace.  Let me tell you I was worried.  But there was lots of new cash down at the office in Nashville, and all was rosy, I was told.  

Then the crash came for the internet industries. Dot coms turned to dot bombs. Gaylord was no different than most Wall street firms in dropping the hot e-potatoes at the first sign of trouble. So as of Christmas eve of 2000, songsdotcom was abruptly shut down. The ghost of the website was to run for 30 days, and I got busy learning web hosting details. And here I am.

The new year starts with my new CD, Six of One, which I think is the best thing I have ever done.  The duets with Don Stiernberg and Madcat Ruth couldn't have turned out better, and I got to sing some of my all-time favorite songs.  Check it out -- I hope you like it.

As I get used to do-it-yourself web hosting, I hope to offer more features to make visiting more fun and rewarding.  I have some neat ideas in mind, which I hope to be implementing in the months to come. So do check back often, and be sure to visit this page!

Happy 2001 all!  (Weren't we supposed to be living on the moon by now?)



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01/09/01    What's In A Name?

I didn't want it this way, but my last name conjures up weirdness.  It seems that old seer, Nostradamus, mentions the name MABUS in his cryptic writing, and now there are those who will tell you MABUS is the name of the antichrist.  All I can say is -- it ain't me, babe.  Could be somebody in the family? There IS a former governor Mabus down in Mississippi...

Anyway, as a result of old Nostro, Hollywood writers and dungeon & dragon types have decided MABUS is a spooky name to invoke in their twisted plots.  It has shown up in Star Trek episodes, and on some new sexy sci-fi channel series (don't ask me -- I don't have cable).  In actuality it is an old German name. Centuries ago, before spelling became as structured as it is now, it was sometimes spelled "Mapes" "Mebes" "Maphis" etc.  Still no -- I am not Joe Maphis, nor am I directly related. The late Joe Maphis was a great guitar picker though, and I'd much rather be confused with him than a satanic demon!

On other fantasy fronts -- this month (week of Jan 15, I'm told) I can be heard on the soundtrack of "Xena - Warrior Princess"  Yep.  They wanted some "bluegrass" fiddle (!!!) in an episode involving some barnyard scenes and I was tapped for the job. They do the soundtrack work in Detroit.  Local picker, Bobby Lewis plays the banjo.  

No -- I didn't meet Xena.  Now, if she were to battle the antichrist in an upcoming episode...



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01/14/01    O Brother

I saw a wonderful movie this afternoon -- "O Brother, Where Art Thou."  I sought it out because of the music sound track which features artists ranging from The Stanley Brothers to Gillian Welch.  Set in 1930's Mississippi, it is based on Homer's Odyssey, and is at the same time an homage to the films of Preston Sturges. Sound confusing and scattershot? Not at all. Episodic, to be sure, but what episodes! George Clooney is perfect as the Clark Gable wannabe know-it-all who backs into a career as an old-timey singer with his slack-jaw cohorts from the chain gang.

My folks were radio and stage show entertainers in the 30's (see some photos) so there was some special resonance for me.  And then, I spotted two old music pals, David Holt and Ed Snodderly in the cameo roles of town idiots.  That was worth the ticket price right there.

There is always the double edged sword of popularity to worry about.  If this movie makes a big name out of Ralph Stanley or Norman Blake, it may be a boon for traditional music.  But having lived through the banjo craze -- and subsequent backlash -- that followed "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Deliverance" (both movies given a nod in O Brother) I'll keep guarded optimism about the mass appeal of this film.

I plan to see it again at the theater. It's that good.  It's got some breath-taking scenery, so you might want to catch it on the big screen before it's R-U-N-N-O-F-T.



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01/20/01    Bush, The Sequel

So today we have a new prez.  Well, can't say as I'm impressed.  

I'll give the guy a chance. But I'm ready to print up the bumper stickers at a moment's notice: 




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01/28/01    Duct Tape Blues 2001

So back in 1987, I thought of a clever idea -- write a little blues about Duct Tape.  The "Hay Wire" of the modern era.  This was before Garrison Keillor started the Duct Tape Council, before Red Green, even before the ubiquitous Duct Tape guys' books or Tim Allen's Tool Time.  I had no idea I was leading the wave of Duct Tape consciousness.

So Duct Tape Blues became a favorite request at my shows. I recorded it in 1988  on the Naked Truth album (vinyl originally!) and have been doing it since.  It grew into a regular routine for a time.  Then I got very tired of it and sent in on a sabbatical.  Well, it's baaaaack.

I have a new third verse, just for our shrub in the White House, and a new beat.  And now it's out on MP3. In fact that's the ONLY way you can hear it. Truly a creature of the new millennium. As I say on the recording, here we are in the 21st Century -- the world run by computers and held together with duct tape.

John Stites over at Arcadia Recording (see my links page) teaches a class in recording science at Kalamazoo College.  He asked me to come over to the studio to give the kids a taste of a real recording session.  I chose to do Duct Tape 2001 as a "demo."  It turned out pretty good. John burned it to a CD the next day, and a week later it's on the Internet! Ain't life grand.

Yes you can get it yourself -- if you have the will and the means to download. It's for sale at 98 cents at www.efolkmusic.com (that's actually cheaper than an actual roll of duct tape!) To go straight to the MP3 page CLICK HERE.

And if your modem is very slow, or if your fear of technology holds sway, or simply if your Luddite tendencies keep the new world at bay, never fear.  Come see me live sometime.  I'll sing it for you. Straight from my memory to yours -- my mouth to your ears.



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02/02/01    Ground Hog Day -- A "faith-based" initiative

My wife tells me that when she was a kid growing up in wintry Grand Rapids, Michigan, she thought the deal was, the Ground Hog sees his shadow and then there is only 6 more weeks of bad weather! Yippee!

Where I grew up, in southern Illinois, winter was real enough, but Spring would usually come around by the time you wanted it -- March.  Not so in Michigan where spring always comes late and fierce. Spring is the weekend before Summer.

Today I heard the statistic that the official Groundhog in Punxsutawney (that name is actually in my spellchecker) is only right 46% of the time.  That means that the odds are slightly in favor of good weather if the groundhog does see his shadow. So much for folklore.

Actually the hog is a latecomer to this tradition.  It's Candlemas Day.  At this time of year, the days are stretching long enough that you don't need to observe vespers by candlelight -- if you are in tenth century Europe. Today is the blessing of the  year's supply of candles. And if you are superstitious you'll believe that a sunny day on Candlemas is a bad omen. Why isn't it a good omen? Well, put on your hair shirt and crawl on your knees to the nearest relic and think about that, bub. 

Of course in those good old days, religion was religion, and there was hell to pay.  Now the right wing buzz word is "faith-based organization."  Got a new office of "faith-based initiative" in the White House.  Next year we'll see "faith-based meditation" in schools, no doubt, where last year they didn't have a prayer. I wonder, would a holy war qualify as a "faith-based intervention?"

So I heard that George W. had a "faith-based" revelation in his old drinking days.  He passed out and had a near death experience.  There he was at the Pearly Gate.  St. Peter saying "No, you can't come in -- we're not expecting you."  

"But you gotta let me in," George whined.  "Me and God are on a first name basis!"

"First name basis, huh? Well, tell me, George, what IS God's first name?"

"Andy." said George with a proud sniff.

"Andy?" Peter asked.

"Yeah, Andy.  You know -- like in the song: Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own..."



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02/14/01    Be Mine, Valentine

I guess I've had my share of romantic Valentine's Days.  A few lonesome ones too, like most people. One sticks out in my mind though.  It was the day I got my favorite banjo.  February 14, 1989, I took possession of my Bart Reiter "special" openback.

Bart is today well-known as one of the foremost makers in the banjo world.  But I've known him for years, even before he made his first banjo, when he was still a guitar repairman.  (He's a closet Jimi Hendrix fan, folks!)  But after he went into business making banjos, he would always bug me about playing one of his.  I had been playing a Vega Whyte Laydie with a repro neck.  I new I could do better with one of Bart's banjos.  So in the fall of 1988, I finally got together with Bart and talked about the design of my dream banjo.

Bart mostly deals in the Vega and Fairbanks school of banjo design, and that was the direction I wanted to go. I picked out a nicely flamed tiger-maple neck blank.  I wanted it just a shade slimmer than his production models. I picked out the inlays I liked from the Vega playbook, and the headstock design. I talked Bart into staining mine dark.  He now offers the dark stain and my choice of inlays as standard for his "tubaphone" style model.

But I have a different tone ring. (The tone ring is a band of metal that the "head" or "drum skin" stretches over.)  There are a variety of patented tone ring designs.  We talked about the Whyte Laydie, the Tubaphone, even the Gibson Mastertone (in an open back!)  But I wanted something special.  I wanted a Texas tone ring.

You see, a friend of Bart's down in Texas found that a standard item on an oil drill is a bearing sleeve of bronze. It's just a long bronze tube, eleven inches in diameter, that the drill itself slides around in. Well, a tone ring is made of bronze and 11 inches is the standard size.  So he sliced a bearing sleeve into rings and sent Bart a dozen or so.  In the 1980's Bart used these "Texas" tone rings (plated with nickel) for some bluegrass banjo prototypes he whipped up.  I had some students who wound up with these banjos and I always thought they sounded great.

So I asked if Bart had any Texas tone rings left. Yes -- one.  And there it sits in my Valentine banjo.  Recycled machinery from a worn out oil drill.  Even if you don't care for the music of a banjo (unthinkable!) you will have to admit it sounds a damn sight better now than it did pounding into Texas oil shale. (Spare me the banjo joke you are thinking up now.)

I took possession of this banjo on Valentine's day evening.  Drove out to Bart's house where he showed me the banjo in its case.  One of Bart's idiosyncrasies is that he wants the first fingerprints on a banjo to be the owner's.  So there it was -- as shiny as it will ever be, waiting for me to touch it first.  It was everything I wanted it to be and more.  I didn't have a sweetheart that year on Valentines day, so staying up late playing a banjo was not a problem that night.  A few months later I was dating the woman to whom I am now married and it's a good thing she likes (and plays) the banjo.  The five string banjo is not something easily overlooked between intimates.



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02/20/01    Napster

Napster is in the news again. In court again.  I can't say I am totally for or against it, since I don't participate. I have been told that a few of my songs have been "napstered" without my knowledge.  Under the principle of "what you don't know won't hurt you" I guess I am unhurt.  Under the principle of "if it was a snake it would have bit you" I am searching for bites. Under the principle of "follow the money" I got to wonder how a "free" service offers 5 billion dollars to call off the lawsuit.

As I understand it, napster works by linking lots of computers together -- you open your vault of sound files for anybody else to visit, and you visit anybody else's.  And if you don't have a broadband connection, expect to spend a lot of time to download just a few songs.  If you do have broadband, expect to spend a lot of time to download a LOT of songs.

It's a college thing.  College is the place where broadband connections are "free" (just like dorm food, right?) and time is relatively inexpensive.  Me -- I live in a house with one phone line which doubles as a link to the world via a cranky ISP. I do other things besides stare at my computer.  I also have a queasy feeling about poking around in other people's files.  It's a sixties thing.

As this relates to me as a musician, I am probably so far out of mainstream tastes in music, that I don't need to worry much this year or next. It's not like folk music is the happening thing on MTV. But things are changing rapidly.  The sound quality of MP3s or their successors is going to rival CDs someday soon.  And broadband (or the next generation of connection) will reach more and more home users soon too.  There may be a new method for getting music to the listeners right around the corner, and napster might be that corner.

What disturbs me is the attitude I've heard expressed that "all music should be free to everybody." Now I'm a child of the 60's too, and I'm all for freedom and no pawn of "the man."  But I also believe in "paying the piper."  Hey, I AM the piper!  I do plenty of free gigs, and give away plenty of CDs to radio stations who play them for free. But if I didn't SELL a few, I'd be in another business real quick.  As I used to say when I sang "Duct Tape Blues," -- your applause is payment enough.  But when the mortgage payment comes due, I can't very well clap my hands and say "great loan -- thanks a lot" and expect another month of free rent.

Yes, I know. Cast your bread upon the water -- give away a few songs on napster -- and your bread will come back to you in the form of new fans.  Maybe. Sometimes.  But I am worried that a generation of napster-heads will emerge with the dedication to the ideal of never purchasing a CD when a $2000 computer sitting on your desk can steal any song you want.  I know the same types from my old college days with their shelves of reel-to-reel copies of all the albums of every room mate they ever had.  

The thing is -- recorded music is not really music.  It is the image of music. The trace of music.  The fossil of music.  Music is made by people making the air vibrate. With their voices, their hands, their minds and a few tools, they vibrate the air.  Records of music make the air vibrate too, with the help of electricity and magnets.  There are way too many people alive today who have only heard the sound of magnets pushing paper cones in speakers.  It's so easy for them to devalue the worth of real people making real music, when it's all just digits on a disc.

Now, I have no love of the music industry that is waging the fight against napster.  I have no contract or contact with any of the big five (if there are still that many) record labels.  I just visited Orlando, Florida, and have seen how the loveable cartoon rodent has devoured the economy there.  I can understand the urge to rage against the system that keeps the plantation model alive. The small labels are not a whole lot better -- just smaller.  They do less damage only because the scale of operation is reduced. The rip-offs, the creative accounting, the lies, the theft, the broken promises -- it's all there in every level of the music business, just like you've heard.

That's why a bunch of us have grasped the nettle, and make our own records, market them outside the mainstream, and answer to no other master than our own abilities.  The new computer technology has made this so much easier.  Great recording equipment, mastering systems, duplication processes, website promotion -- it's all within reach of the "little guy."  The new technology makes it possible to make and market music without a "big brother."  People who make real music can now create their "images" of music -- recordings -- to sell to their fans, so that they can live as independent artists and not as slaves.  This is wonderful stuff, nothing less than revolutionary.

But it is the same computer technology that threatens to sink our little boats if the "all music is free" mindset takes hold. Maybe another retelling of the pied piper story is in order.  A hip-hop version perhaps? An MP3 for sure, music video, t-shirts...



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03/21/01     Spring Peepers

It's been a mighty tough winter here in West Michigan.  December was brutal -- several inches of snow nearly every day with no thawing in-between.  January and February didn't add a lot of snow, but didn't subtract much either.  Bushes were misshapen, trees bent, and the landscape generally bruised.  Now that the earth is finally exposed again and temperatures are above freezing most days, it is amazing to see the signs of life that were hibernating through it all.

The first oddity you notice is the mole mountains.  I don't say hills, since these are serious mounds of hard, compacted dirt.  Probably formed early with the deep December snow cover, these things have been there for months while winter pounded away.  About 4-6 inches high and perhaps 12 inches across and solid as rock, it's puzzling how these helped the moles breathe at all.

More puzzling still is the perennial song of the spring peepers, accompanied with the percussion of the tree frogs. These little bog frogs fill the night air already with their songs and will only get louder as the spring warms.  To think these fragile little amphibians were patiently waiting in the frozen mud  while we humans shivered, plowed, shoveled, chopped and burned our way through winter. 

The snow came last fall just weeks -- days -- after I did the last mowing of the yard. Came before the leaves could be raked.  Now I look at the flattened grass, gray from the lack of sunlight, having lain under snow for so long. I wonder if it will ever need to be mowed again.

It will. It will. 



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04/16/01    A Taxing Issue

Do you check the little box that asks "Do you want $3 to go to a fund that will give the millionaires running for President a big pile of free money? Don't worry -- it will not increase your taxes?"

Yeah right.  Take three bucks out of the general fund, another three for the spouse, four years in a row -- who's gonna miss it? There's plenty more where that came from, right?

If this fund were the ONLY money the candidates could spend, and if the money were truly available to ALL qualified candidates, and if the public airways were mandated to give FREE TV time to serious candidates, then maybe we could talk.  But as long as the dollars are in the grip of the two parties, whose coffers are bulging already from special-interest money, the primary purpose of said money being to pay off local TV stations who are charging premium ad rates to the same political campaigns they pretend to "cover." (The same elected officials who give away the public airways for private gain.) Hey, count me out!

I wouldn't mind the taxpayer's diversion of dollars from the general budget to specific issues, if there were other issues to choose from.  Not just presidential campaign coffers.  How about these check boxes:

    Would you like $3 of your taxes to go to a fund to pay off the debt early?

    Would you like $3 of your taxes to go to a fund to fight cancer? (or AIDS, or diabetes, or MS, or...)

    Would you like $3 of your taxes to go to a fund to supply health care for the un-insurable?

    Would you like $3 of your taxes to go to a fund to buy back handguns?

    Would you like $3 of your taxes to go to a fund to give armed forces enlisted personnel a year-end pay bonus?

     Would you like $3 of your taxes to go to a fund to recruit teachers and pay them a decent wage?

How about a page of such issues with your tax return?  Thirty-three such lines would only cost $100 per taxpayer and would feel a whole lot better than a 100 buck refund, in my book.  I wouldn't mind taxes near as much if I could have even a little say in how it gets spent. You might say I'm a sucker for "tax and spend" programs. I don't think so.  I'd just like a dash of democracy with my tax bill, thank you.

Until then, sorry, Mr. Bush and sorry, Mr. Democrat-in-waiting. Get your free government money from the other suckers, not this sucker. I may be in the minority on this.  But hey, this is America. Just because you get the most votes, doesn't mean you win.*


*(credit where credit is due: I got this last line from an episode of "The X Files.")


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05/01/01    MAYDAY! Capitalist Pigs In Space!

So here it is, Mayday, a day for downtrodden workers in most of the world, and a day in the good old US for smelling the flowers.  What makes this mayday interesting is the millionaire in space. The first space tourist is a California man who paid Russia 20 million dollars for a trip into space. The deal originally was for a stay at the Mir Hilton, but since the Mir (the word means peace) Space Station made a violent reentry into the Pacific (the word means peace) Ocean, the Russians decided to take Daddy Peacebucks to the new international space station under construction in orbit.

He's there now, under strict orders not to touch any buttons or hog all the Tang.  He's also not allowed to hang out with the Americans in their half of the station.  I suppose they have run a piece of tape down the middle, like Lucy Ricardo did when Ricky wouldn't let her sing at the Tropicana.

I guess the Russians are pretty desperate for cash these post-soviet days.  Selling shopworn nuclear warheads to petty tyrants is still considered tacky, but letting a capitalist entrepreneur (formerly known as pig) bail you out of the toilet by replacing 200 pounds of scientific experiments with a bald man in a slightly used flight suit -- well, now, that's just good business.  Of course, NASA, even with it's recent budget cuts, would never ever think of such a stunt as sending an unqualified person into space just to garner more support for the program.

Because we're better than that. You see, here in America, you can't "buy" your way into a place of prestige and power for a few paltry million.  You need to be a trained specialist or expert in your field.  Just because you can fork over a blank check, it doesn't mean you get to ride the space shuttle.

However, we WILL let you drive a nuclear submarine.



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05/22/01    Thank You, Ladies and Germs

An anniversary has snuck up on me.  As old show biz geezers use to brag on cheesy talk shows, ladies and gentlemen, this month I am celebrating 30 years in the show business! Thank you, thank you. No applause -- save it for the end.

I actually had my first paying gig just a week or two after graduating high school. And THAT was 30 years ago. Time flies -- whether you are having fun or not, it seems.  There was a little hippie hangout (actually "freak" was the preferred word in '71) that had opened in my hometown, and the word was that they had tryouts for entertainment.  It was called simply "The Coffeehouse."  I took my guitar downtown and sang all the best songs I knew, and got the job of sitting on a stool and playing for tips.  It was smoky and hot (with the famous southern Illinois June humidity of course) but that didn't seem to bother me much at the time.  I made enough money in my first week to buy a set of strings and a tank of gas for my mom's car I borrowed to drive into town.

Of course gas was cheaper then.

This auspicious anniversary had nearly slipped my mind, except for a delirium that seized me this past week.  This week has been a doosie. The week from hell. This last week I would swap with anybody, but I wouldn't find a taker.  I couldn't sell this past week on ebay if I threw in a pair of Brittany Spear's autographed panties. 

The week started simply enough on Monday morning with a bowl of organic spelt flakes and lowfat milk.  Then a splitting pain in my right flank and an insatiable urge to urinate told me something was amiss.  Two days later I'm screaming in the emergency room as I'm told just where my kidney stone is stuck.  Given massive painkillers I am sent home with instructions to drink a lot of water and pee through a paper strainer, which is now about every 15 minutes. Sleep was not really possible, but the drone of morphine-induced delirium above the thrusting stabs of abdominal pain got me to thinking about life, death, and my wicked wicked ways that brought me to this moment of doom.

Well, as the old saying goes, "this too shall pass." The worst of the pain was over by Friday. I was pretty sure the stone was down swimming in the bladder now, so I'm still peeing in a strainer to catch the bugger for posterity. Then I suddenly felt feverish.  I thought, well, maybe there's a little white blood cell action going on down there. That would be understandable. Saturday, it dawned on me that I had a very bad head cold coming on quick. By Sunday it was full-bore bronchitis. Thick gurgling sputum and a 102 degree fever were consuming me while I struggled for breath.  Now the painkillers were out of my system, my own fevered brain took over the torture detail.  My dreams now had little devils with pitchforks poking me in the kidney and choking my lungs with sulfur. "Take THAT, Mister Folksinger! Write a song about THIS, Mister Smarty Pants" I awoke in a cold sweat and it was then I realized that my career had begun exactly 30 years ago this month.

I don't know If I'll ever write a song about a kidney stone. Mine turned out to be rather smooth, but T-shaped. About the size of a misshapen pepper corn.  I've already written about a bad cold ("The Druggist" on Rhyme Schemes) and I don't chew my cabbage twice, if I can help it.  And certainly 30 years ago as a wise-ass 17 year old, I would have never dreamed of so long a career in music.  I thought the world would have blown up long before that. Or at least I would have gone out in a tragic Hank-Williams-James-Dean-Robert-Johnson blowout of some sort long before I reached the decrepit age of thirty. Thirty-year career retrospectives were for old farts like Milton Berle in a leisure suit smoking a cigar on the set of the Mike Douglas show.

But, hey, time flies whether you're having fun or not.

And I'm still here.



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06/05/01    John Hartford

The news has just arrived that John Hartford passed away yesterday.  He will be missed. If you are a fan of my music, I am confidant you know about John's. To most of the world he will be remembered as the composer of the iconic "Gentle On My Mind."  Some will remember him as the dancing banjo player.  A few will hold him in the ranks of old time fiddler.  A smaller circle of friends will think of him as a riverboat pilot and paddlewheel fanatic.

All of that is true.  Add in  poet, humorist, guitar player, down-home hippie, artist, calligrapher, and sentimental singer and you are getting closer to the man.  

I've been a fan and friend for a very long time. Back in the early 70's I knew most of John's songs by heart.  The Aereoplane album and Morning Bugle made special impact on me.  I learned from John that it is ok to follow your muse up strange byways, and let the river flow where it will.

I remember performing with John several times, either as opening act or at festivals together.  The first time would have been opening for him at Mariah Coffeehouse in East Lansing in the early 70's.  Those were his stoner days.  He told me then, "You can't trust anybody who doesn't smoke dope.  Trouble is, you can't depend on anybody who does."  I remember he always took his stash onstage with him.

Last time I saw him was a few years ago at the Strawberry Festival in California, his toking days far behind him.  We spent a good long time backstage swapping fiddle tunes, and talking about old Southern Illinois fiddlers we knew.  He had been ill but was not complaining -- just taking good care of his diet and exercise.  He was very proud of his son, Jamie, and was his usual gracious self.

On his passing, I recall a story I heard a few years ago.  A friend of John's had died and his widow was following his wishes of scattering his ashes in select places.  This friend had wanted some of his remains to float down the Cumberland River.  John's home is on the Cumberland, and the plan was to scatter the ashes from there. Trouble was, John had a broken leg at the time, and the banks of the river were unmanageable -- they couldn't get down close enough to the river to see that the remains made it to the water.  John disappeared into the kitchen for a moment and returned with a biscuit from that morning's table.  "I wonder if this will work?" So they loaded up a Tennessee biscuit with ashes and John sailed it over the deck and into the river.

I wish John's family well. Let us friends take comfort in knowing his spirit will be with us for a very long time -- as long as the steamboat whistle blows.



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06/14/01    Flag Day -- A Pleasant Evening

So it's flag day.  Most Americans need a reminder about this one.  It is a holiday that, like old Rodney Dangerfield, "Just don't get no respect."

It's understandable.  Hallmark doesn't offer Flag Day greeting cards, unlike the "sweetest day," "secretary's day," and "boss's day" cards that are touted alongside the traditional mother's, father's and earth day cards.  Nobody gets the day off.  Nothing like a day off and a good motor race to commemorate a patriotic holiday. There are no traditions to associate with it.  Well, there is the pledge of allegiance, but that is, sadly, not a once-a-year treat.  (Do school kids still recite this every day? Maybe in some places.) The trouble with flag day is that it comes after school is out for most kids.  It's hard to drill it into the kiddies to salute the flag on June 14, when they are busy skateboarding at the mall.

And it's not a Monday holiday. In America, you know you've arrived as a holiday when you are shifted to the nearest Monday.  Christmas and the Fourth of July are the only really big holidays that get to stand on the calendar as fixed dates.  (Actually Christmas is January 6 in some churches. Easter depends on the moon for a date. And I suspect that if they could only get people to stop referring to  "Independence Day" as "the Fourth" maybe it would become the first Monday in July.)  Monday holidays boost the economy, you see.  Events like a white sale, a hot-dog eating contest, a parade or a back yard cookout all depend on a long weekend to really get going.  

Poor old flag day.  Nobody can pinpoint the origins.  There are several websites that claim to -- but they all have different stories.  Some say the first flag day was celebrated during the Civil War -- others point to 1877, on the centennial of the first raising of old glory -- others seem to think it came a little later, along with the pledge of allegiance.

I'm not much of a flag waver by nature.  I'm not very upset that the flag is occasionally burnt in protest or waved by crazy people to back some wacko viewpoint.  But it is a little sad to see so many people ignorant of our history.

Including this little tidbit of history: the original pledge of allegiance. Composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892, the original recitation was designed for school kids to say on Columbus Day, exactly 400 years after he invaded, er... "landed" in America.  It went like this:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all." 

Short and elegant, I think. And much nicer writing than the ungainly thing we have now, full of commas and pauses -- a product of committee.  In the 1920's a "National Flag Conference" in Washington DC changed "my flag" to  "the flag of the United States"  because they thought some subversive anarchist immigrants were trying to pledge to some other flag while passing as true Americans. A few years later they added "of America" (insert dumb-slap here). During WWII, congress made the pledge an official document. A lot of benign traditions become official dogma during war it seems. Then in 1954, in a Joe McCarthy moment, a zealous congress got Eisenhower's signature for the "under God" clause, so that henceforth all true Americans would pledge fealty to the Almighty Jehovah if they wanted any part of our "liberty and justice."

I don't know.  I still prefer the pledge that a friend of mine thought was the official version when she was in the first grade -- "A pleasant evening to the flag..."



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