Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Remembering Doc

The following is a reprint/re-post of the blog from back in March when WUMB was celebrating Doc’s 89th birthday. Sadly, as you’ve probably heard, he will not make it to his 90th. Stay tuned all day for our ongoing musical tributes to the man who was one of the pre-eminent folk/country flatpicking geniuses of all time.

-My youngest brother is a worldly type; born and raised in the Midwest, schooled in the deep south, and found his calling here in New England, eventually leading to gainful employment in such exotic places as London, England and Luxemburg. Which, in turn, has opened many a door for him both travel-wise (he regularly drives from country to country) as well as land him, shall we say, many friends and girlfriends from afar.

-Long story short: my dear Mom was celebrating her 80th in Kentucky a few years back, and my aforementioned brother wanted to show off his (then) girlfriend from Yugoslavia. Pleasant and unassuming, I couldn’t help but notice that she insisted on parading around with a beat-up old boombox, listening to nothing but…Doc Watson! On cassette no less!

-Obvious point being…the man’s music is and always has been…universal! Knows no boundaries!

-You’ve no doubt heard the story…Folkways records his family & friends in 1960 after having played in various incarnations for 20 or so years, he debuts at Gerde’s in NY in late ’62, then on to Newport, his crowning achievement being his flatpicking contributions to the groundbreaking Will the Circle Be Unbroken in the early 70’s. Despite being middle age when he was ‘discovered’, Doc continues to be active to this day, hosting the annual MerleFest music festival in honor of his late (also very talented) son Merle.

-Doc passed away quietly yesterday (5/29) leaving behind an unparalleled catalogue of  musics of all genres; join us as we pay homage to a man who’s contributions have entertained us for 50+ years, not to mention all the years to come.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Farewell, Levon…

Farewell, Levon…

Concerts can become such a vivid part of who we are.  You can trace a time and state of mind to the real special ones.   You can trace friendships.  You may have become friends at a concert.  There are some people you may only see at annual concerts—for example at  music festivals, at WUMB member concerts, Grateful Dead shows…  Certain concerts are not just music shows.  They become life experiences.
So when a group that’s meant so much to you breaks up, it’s like you lose a friend.
For the most part, it’s inevitable that a group will eventually break up.  At some point, members decide they don’t want to go on the road anymore.  They lose the creative buzz. Those old Artistic Differences crop up.  Etc, etc.  But has any group ended it with the panache of The Band? 
Talk about doing it right.  When The Band decided the time had come to call it quits, they had a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco, where they invited an all-star lineup of musical friends.  And they had the show on Thanksgiving Day (how poetic)… with dinner for the concert-goers.  Thankfully the concert was recorded.  We know it as The Last Waltz.  If you’ve not heard it, get the 4-CD box set version from the library and spend a rainy afternoon with it.  The spirit and the mix of emotions is evident in the recordings.  The liner notes make you feel like you are part of the concert. 

Of course, the individual members of The Band went on to do notable projects of their own.   In 1986, Richard Manuel tragically ended his life.  In 1993—17 years after The Last Waltz—Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson reunited as The Band for three more albums (Jubilation in 1993, High On The Hog in 1996, and Jubilation in 1998).  Robbie Robertson maintained his solo status.   Rick Danko also did two albums in the 1990’s with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeldt, before he died of heart failure in 1999. 

 Levon Helm built a home studio in Woodstock, NY in 1975.  In 2004, it became the site of monthly concerts he’d do with his band and various musician friends.   Sometimes the music would start around 7:30 at night and wouldn’t end until long after midnight.  They came to be known as the Midnight Rambles.  Between those two events, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996.  But he beat it.  His voice was a little more ragged for wear, but he continued to record.  His albums from 2007, 2009, and 2011 all won Grammies.  His daughter Amy of the band Ollabelle often sang with him.  That’s a nice comeback from being diagnosed with cancer.

 But as you know, the cancer came back and claimed Levon on April 19th (he had been well enough to perform in March, so the onset must have been quick).  Levon and Robbie Robertson were apparently estranged since the days of The Band’s break-up.  But at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony on April 16th, Robertson made a speech sending “love and prayers” to Helm.  And he was able to see Levon in the hospital the next day.

 Saturday April 28th from 11am to Noon, WUMB will air a special on Levon Helm.  Tune in and re-experience your time with Levon’s music.  And by all means, feel free to reply and share your stories of Levon Helm--solo and with The Band.  Perhaps you attended a Midnight Ramble.  Or maybe you spent Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco…

--Perry Persoff.                              

Saturday, April 14, 2012

April Centenaries, 2012

“History” is often the least popular of the core academic subjects.  The irony is that the subject notorious for stunning students into boredom with a litany of mind-numbing dates and places to regurgitate…is fed by perhaps more human interest stories than the other academic subjects.

It’s not always what you tell, but how you tell it.

Two examples—one international, one local—have their 100th anniversaries this month.

Long before “Molly Brown,” the passenger ship Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable.  The ancient Greeks would have said that such a public boast could only tick the gods off (including Poseidon, God of the Sea).  The Titanic left on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.  She struck the fabled iceberg late on April 14th, and went down in the early morning hours of April 15th, 1912.  As if April 15th isn’t already a difficult enough day…

Those are the dates.  It is because of the stories within the dates that the Titanic continues to live on in our imaginations.  There have been at least two films about it: one in 1953 with Barbara Stanwyck, and the recent James Cameron movie (also called a disaster of, uhm, titanic proportions by its detractors).  The Titanic has become part of the vast legacy of nautical disaster songs.  There is Spider John Koerner’s Titanic (it was sad when the great ship went down).  Other ship disasters have spawned dramatic  songs from Stan Rogers (The Jeannie C, White Squall, et. al), Gordon Lightfoot (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald), and others. 
A few years ago there was a traveling exhibit about the Titanic that included replicas of passenger cabins, among various depictions of life on the great “unsinkable” luxury liner. 

There have been far too many tragedies at sea.  But the Titanic remains the Granddaddy of them all.  And not because of the dates and places.

Locally in Boston, Fenway Park turns 100.  This is a good time for a moment of silent contemplation [cue the stadium organ]:  “Dear Lord, thank you for not letting Frank McCourt buy the Red Sox back around 2000.  For had that happened, the occasion of this anniversary would not happen.”  McCourt was among the many who wanted to tear Fenway down.  For more reasons to be glad McCourt did not buy the Red Sox, spend two hours with any LA Dodgers fan.  [Cue “This Magic Moment”]

Fenway Park--what a cathedral of magic moments within that awkward band box.  Here are the dates:  April 9, 1912 was the first actual contest, an exhibition game against Harvard.  The first official game was on April 20th 1912 against the Noo Yokk Highlanders.  Of course, the dates alone do not tell the stories.I have been fascinated with Fenway Park since watching the fog roll in over the Green Monster on TV games as a kid in Los Angeles (where I worshipped Baseball at the cathedral of Dodger Stadium).  I’ve been very lucky to experience my share of spine-tingling moments at Fenway Park in my short time here:  John Valentin’s 7 RBI’s in Game 4 of the 1999 playoffs against Cleveland, which the Sox won 23-7.  Trot Nixon’s electrifying pinch-hit home run to win Game 3 of the 2003 playoffs against Oakland.  And Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees.  In the 10th inning of that game, my buddy and fellow Red Sox fan in LA Tony told me on the phone, “sleep is overrated--do not leave.”   In the 13th inning—three hours before I normally left for work—I nervously headed for the subway.  In the 14th inning, at the end of the State Street station, someone with a radio let out a WHOOP as David Ortiz singled in the winning run.  The rest is…History.

There are some terrific Various Artists collections of baseball songs out there.  And don’t be surprised to hear from Chuck Brodsky on WUMB.  His Baseball Ballads has many surprises from the sport’s history in song.  But for pure FenwayPark goosebumps, you’ve got to have The Impossible Dream, The Story of the 1967 Red Sox (narrated by Ken Coleman).  Thanks to my friend Troy who welcomed me to Boston with a vinyl copy of this! 

Thank you, Mrs. Wolf in 8th Grade, for being such a great storyteller before I realized you were actually giving History lectures.

And thank you for reading this.  Consider yourself invited to share your Fenway Park memories, as well as any songs that make History come alive for you (Dave Palmater talked about many WUMB artists with songs that bring history to life on a recent Blog post:

Until next time, make use of history to enjoy your present.

--Perry Persoff


Friday, April 13, 2012

A Tribute to Lowell George

Lowell George passed more than 30 years ago, but in his brief 34 year tenure on this mortal coil, he left behind a legacy that is as fresh as when he committed his particular vision to vinyl back in the 70’s.
What a life! He appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at the age of 6, and by the time he was in his teens, he had mastered the flute, harmonica, saxophone, sitar and most importantly, the guitar.
He then started a band called the Factory in the 60’s which included future Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward (who recently passed) as well as a fella named Fred Martin who co-wrote later Little Feat classics such as ‘Dixie Chicken’ & ‘Rock’n’Roll Doctor’. During this period, his band also appeared on such classic TV sitcoms as F-Troop (as the Bed Bugs) & Gomer Pyle, was a member of the Standells & the Mothers of Invention as well.
Little Feat came next, releasing 7 unique LPs of hardly conventional, but an always intriguing mix of southern-fried blues, r&b, country and rock’n’roll. In addition to fronting Little Feat, Mr. George also found time to play on other folks releases as disparate as John Cale, Harry Nilsson & the Meters, as well as produce not only for his own band, but the Grateful Dead & Valerie Carter too.
I was lucky enough to see Lowell & Little Feat (or Seat; see ticket stub) in their prime, once on a grossly under-promoted tour with label-mates Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band (again see stub) in 1972, the other time on a visit to Boston at an ill-advised ‘dance’ concert at the old Garden with Traffic & Lindisfarne on 9/13/1974, making the mistake of perusing said experience from the open-seated floor dodging beer bottles raining down from the loge and upper deck seats.
The remaining members of Little feat still tour to this day, and yes, they’re good, but without Lowell Goerge, let’s face it, it…just…isn’t…the same! Tune in throughout the day Friday for what would have been Lowell’s 67th here on WUMB for Little Feat music throughout the day, as well as H61 Saturday morning, 8A – 12P…on WUMB!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

It's baseball time!

We who are Baseball fans must seem like odd creatures to those who do not share the fever.  Growing up in Los Angeles, when that certain extra dab of warmth in the March air suddenly arrived--I did say March in Los Angeles--you could sense those who loved the game merely by the look in their eye.  Did I say “who loved the game?”  Pardon me, make that “those who felt the game.”  It was like creatures who react by instinct to certain environmental conditions.  I recall making that baseball fan eye-contact with my manager one March.  In two years working with him, that was the first real human connection we’d had beyond employee-supervisor. 

One of my first and best friends in Boston is a longtime baseball fan and lifetime Red Sox sufferer.  When he and I pass a baseball or softball diamond, we can’t help but look at it.  I don’t have to explain this to him.  He does not have to explain it to me.  We don’t need to say a word.  We understand.  More rational people are clueless about this behavior. 

As another Baseball season opens, the question is begged: What is it about this game?

My first September in Boston, I spent Labor Day Weekend in Newfound Lake near Plymouth, NH.  I met one of my contact person’s neighbors in the campground.  Let’s call him Tom.  Tom and I are standing by the lake in the dark trading baseball stories.  He tells me his experience from Bucky “Freakin’” Dent.  I tell him how I had to pull over on the freeway in LA after Jack Clark’s 9th inning home run for the Cardinals knocked my Dodgers out of the 1985 playoffs…and how I felt like slumping over the steering wheel.  Two hours casually dissipate, and it’s like this stranger and I are cousins. 

What is it about this game of Baseball?  Is it the combination of a park, the lure of summer, and the camaraderie of a team?  I got one of my best answers after doing a typically irrational baseball-fan thing.

When you get home from an airplane flight, you probably unpack, eat, and nap.  What did I do after returning from a west coast trip in April 2004?  Change clothes, hop the T to Kenmore Square, and get in line at Fenway Park for the Red Sox home opener--hoping against hope to buy a ticket.  Among the festive creatures and refuse in the street was a guy passing out postcards.  He turned out to be a playwrite named Brendon Bates.  Fenway Park’s future was still in doubt back then.  Brendon was bringing his play called “The Savior of Fenway” to Cambridge.

A month later I did a phone interview with Brendon.  At first, I felt a little silly asking him if there was a lot of “theatre” inherent in Baseball.  By the time the question came out of my mouth, it seemed an obvious point.  He agreed completely.  Brendon’s play won an award in New York and had a good run.  A play revolving around Red Sox fans in a bar in Quincy was embraced in New York.  ??  Funnier still, many people who loved the play said, “I’m not even a baseball fan.”  The main character in the play is pretty exhuberant in the first half of the play.  Throughout the second half, it’s clear his personal life is going through upheaval.  The tumult of the Red Sox-Yankees game in the play becomes a shadow to the emotional roller-coaster of this character’s reality.  Despite the trappings of the title, Baseball was just a vehicle.

Over the long haul of the season, Baseball is replete with the trappings of the travails of Life.  There are a number of Baseball-based books on that theme.  Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin grew up a baseball fan in New York.  As a girl, she was among those who dealt with the Dodgers taking their heart out of Brooklyn.  It connected to essential parts of her life.  It’s a part of her memoir, “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”  For thoughts of connecting to old friends who were like your second family, there is David Halberstam’s “The Teammates”  This covers the journey from Massachusetts to Florida of Dom Dimaggio and Johnny Pesky, to visit Ted Williams when Williams was dying.  Along with Bobby Doerr, who could not make the trip in person, the four were very close going back 60 years.  How about mixing Baseball with international intrigue?  Learn about former Red Sox catcher Mo Berg in “The Catcher Was A Spy” by Nicholas Dawidoff.

The promise of summer, the camaraderie of friendship, the connection to social history back to the 1800’s, and even simply—as WP Kinsella wrote—the thrill of the grass.  Wrap them up together and you’ve got a special brew that goes beyond the game itself. 

Throw out the first pitch on the regular season.  It’s BASEBALL TIME!!  

Friday, April 13th will be the 100th Home Opener at Fenway Park (come on, having the 100th on Friday the 13th doesn’t scare us after the 86 years we went through).  This morning I played songs about Moe Berg--the Red Sox catcher who was a CIA spy during World War II--shortstop Ozzie Smith, and all the generations of fathers and sons (and daughters) who have played catch with each other.  Share your Fenway Park stories with us and ideas for other baseball songs to mark the occasion.  Thanks for reading this…and thanks for supporting WUMB!   

-        Perry Persoff   

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs - The Father of Bluegrass Music

Bill Monroe, often credited as the Father of Bluegrass music, had led his own bands since 1938, after parting company with his brothers. Briefly called the Kentuckians, he settled on the name The Bluegrass Boys in 1939. Oddly, considering what we think of as the Monroe sound today, the band often featured an accordion and did not feature a banjo player until 1942. Monroe's first banjo player was David Akeman, a musical comedian known as Stringbean. He was a "frailer" playing in the two finger style of his mentor Uncle Dave Macon.

While many of the elements that would characterize Bluegrass music were in place, it wasn't until December of 1945, when Earl Scruggs stepped into the studio to join the Monroe band, that the sound was complete. The tracks that Monroe recorded in 1946 and 1947, like "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Molly and Tenbrooks" and "Bluegrass Breakdown," further defined the genera as we know it today.

Of course, no one person can create a genera but the story of Bluegrass Music is more complex than the idea that Monroe created it single handed leads one to believe. Yes, Bill Monroe was playing great music before Earl's arrival but it was not significantly different from the music played by hundreds of bands all across the south. When Scruggs joined the band with his innovative three finger style of banjo, the band became something truly different.

Perhaps calling Earl Scruggs the Father of Bluegrass Music is over simplifying things as well. What I think we can safely say is that without Earl Scruggs there would not be Bluegrass Music as we know it today.

Earl passed away quietly in a hospital in Nashville yesterday but he lives on in the playing of Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Allison Brown and hundreds of thousands banjo players not just here but around the world. I can think of no better legacy.

~ Dave Palmater

Saturday, March 17, 2012

She Exemplifies International Women’s Month!

The intimate, rapt audience leaned in to hear the wispy-haired woman with the sterling silver voice sing about how she faced a life-threatening disease. They appreciated her bravery and her music. The crowd at state representative Jay Kaufman’s “Open House” last night was peppered with about a dozen of Jay’s fellow Summer Acoustic Music Week campers who came to hear SAMW teacher Penny Nichols perform with Mark Dann and Glen Roethel. As Penny spoke and sang about her battle with breast cancer, I reflected on what that might mean in the context of International Women’s Month. Fighting and winning against a disease that attacks such a distinguishing feature of a woman’s body puts into relief the underpinnings of International Women’s Month... because one day is hardly sufficient to honor the contributions of half the population of the world. The fact that Penny’s music speaks for all of us made me realize how the music of so many women has done just that over history – relating to every aspect of human experience.

Let’s start with the reason for International Women’s Day (March 8, 2012) in the first place. It began in 1909 as an effort to draw attention to women’s rights in the workplace. The 1912 women workers’ strike in Lawrence, Mass., sparked an entire American movement that continues to the tune of the “Bread and Roses” poem set to music by the late Mimi Farina. Activism in song on behalf of women pursuing “men’s work” carried forward. C’mon everyone, can I hear a chorus of Peggy Seeger’s “I Want to Be An Engineer?”

Women, we know, are about much more than work. During International Women’s Month, it behooves us to look back, for example, to the unalloyed courage of the much storied-in-song Sojourner Truth whose speech “Ain’t I a Woman,” has been sung and sung and sung in many versions, most notably in the Rory Block song. Think about all the songs you know that sing of the strength and power of women. One of the oldest I know is the 16th century ballad of “The Death of Queen Jane” in which she pleads for the life of her unborn child. We have sung of strong women in every era and every endeavor: Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Isabella Gunn, Frida Kahlo... too many too list, of course. And the recording artists themselves have made history and sung the songs of women’s rights and accomplishments: Odetta, Ronnie Gilbert, Bernice Reagon Johnson, Holly Near, Ani DiFranco... just to scratch the surface.

All these thoughts ran through my head last night, listening to Penny Nichols sing about “The Sands of Time.” International Women’s Month lasts, officially, 31 days. Listeners to WUMB know that songs of indefatigable women are sung every single day.

-        Marilyn Rea Beyer

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stuck in Traffic

I think one thing we can all agree on is that being stuck in traffic is one of the biggest wastes of time in history.  I find it frustrating because I inevitably start to think of all the things I could be accomplishing instead of staring at the same car in front of me.  My mind tends to drift and I think of the laundry that needs folding at home, how I’d love to run around in my backyard with my four year old, or even how sitting at my desk and going through some emails would be time better served.  With that being said, I was stuck in traffic last week, and I was actually upset when I meandered my way through road construction.  I was listening to Joe Pug’s new album called “The Great Despiser” and time was running out because I was now actually getting to my destination where the car and radio would be turned off.

If you’re not familiar with Joe, some quick background info:  Joe had an epiphany on the day before his senior year started at the University of North Carolina.  Joe was a playwright student and right before his first cup of coffee in the morning, the thought hit him.  The thought was “I am profoundly unhappy here”.  With that, Joe packed his bags, dropped out of school, moved to Chicago and started to pursue music on a full time basis.  (By the way…how great is THAT?!)

He’s been compared to the Dylan’s and the Springsteen’s of the world because he plays guitar and on occasion drops in some great harmonica.  Comparisons aside I can only stress to you that Joe Pug is the real deal.  He speaks from the heart.  He gets it

I will let you decide for yourself.  You’ll be hearing tracks off his new album “The Great Despiser” in the coming weeks, and the full album is out April 24th.  Maybe when you hear it, you’ll be as captivated as I was and will dread reaching your destination quickly and efficiently.

-        - Jay Moberg