Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Old-Time Fiddle Tunes and Songs from North Georgia

Skillet LickersThe Skillet Lickers

Old-Time Fiddle Tunes and Songs from North Georgia
Now that I’m back in the good ol’ Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I’ve of course been playing old-time music again. Lots of it. Nearly every night, in fact. (This week, I took Sunday night off. I’ve jammed with people every other night.) And, having traipsed about Ireland for a bit participating in sessions there, I’ve got a bit more perspective on what I do and don’t like about jams in this part of the mountains.

What I do like, of course, is the music. I heard some really terrific Irish music while I was traveling — much more energetic and aggressive than the watered-down parlor facsimile of Irish music that we tend to hear around here — but it still couldn’t quite stack up to the energy of a good old-time string jam. I also like the fact that people here dance, which was something that I only saw at one of the sessions that I went to in Ireland (and only one person, at that). A good driving jam with good dancing is a pretty transcendent experience.
That said, there was at least one thing that I found at the Irish sessions I went to that is sorely lacking at most old-time jams I’ve seen. In those sessions, the direction of the session was very much a community effort. Everyone took turns picking tunes — my old-time American self included. The piper would lead a set, the fiddler would lead a set, the accordion player would lead another set. Even the novice musicians were explicitly offered the chance to lead sets of tunes (which they usually politely declined). If there were singers around, the tunes would stop every so often so that somebody could sing a ballad. There was very much a sense of the music not being owned or run by one person, but something that everyone had a hand in.

Contrast this with the Alpha Fiddler syndrome of nearly every old-time jam I’ve ever attended. In most old-time sessions, there is the One True Fiddler — the Old Silverback Gorilla to whom everyone else defers. The Alpha Fiddler picks the tunes; if there’s any singing, the Alpha Fiddler usually sings the tunes. If anyone else leads a tune, it’s with the Alpha Fiddler’s permission. There may be a very real sense of community in the jam, but there is nearly always the One True Fiddler who stands just a notch or two above everyone else. And it bothers me, even when that Alpha Fiddler happens to be me. Which isn’t to say that I never give in to Alpha Fiddler temptation — I certainly do. But I’d be perfectly happy to play behind a good melodic banjo player given the chance. And I’d certainly be happy to have the guitarists sing some ballads to give the dancers a break every few tunes. So I think I’m going to embark on a conscious experiment — to use my own Alpha Fiddler powers for good, not evil. We’ll see if it throws too many sessions into disarray, but I suspect it will just make some of them a lot more fun.

OK, but about The Skillet Lickers — a good case of Alpha Fiddler syndrome if ever there was one. One some albums, the band name appears as “Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers”. Gid Tanner being of course the Alpha Fiddler, and The Skillet Lickers being his Skillet Lickers. Sure, people also know of the legendary guitar playing of Riley Puckett, but you’ll never see an album of “Riley Puckett and His Skillet Lickers”. Don’t get me wrong — Gid Tanner is a great fiddler — one of the best — but that ain’t all there is. Without those sweet guitar runs, these tunes wouldn’t fly nearly so well. The Skillet Lickers — the band The Skillet Lickers — are knock-out phenomenal. Too good to fit within one man’s reputation.

Post-Birthday Stress Syndrome

OK, there’s not actually any stress. But it is the day after my birthday — I’m 29 years old, and feeling tougher than ever. Happy birthday to me.

I’ve started to get a bit more comfortable in my post-travel Blacksburg life. The first week was kind of hard. I felt like I wasn’t ready to be back, wasn’t supposed to be back, and everybody kept asking me why I was back already. Fortunately, that part is pretty well past. Now I can finally get around to the business of just being back, and figuring out what to do about that.

This month, I’ve been staying in The House of the Blissfully Engaged and Their Cat, which has been working out pretty well. I can’t help but feel like That Guy Who Comes Home Drunk Long After They’ve Gone To Bed And Passes Out On The Spare Bed, but that’s probably because that’s pretty much what I am. But they’ve been tolerant of me, I’ve been washing my dishes and not leaving my underwear around the house, and things seem to be going smoothly. In another two weeks, I’ll have a home again and will actually be able to take a few things out of storage, which should make life simpler, and should help me to feel a bit more like I live here again. If nothing else, I’ll be able to get mail again.

In any case, yesterday was indeed my birthday, and a fine birthday it was. I had almost forgotten about it this year. Usually I’m reminded of my birthday by the cards and phone calls that start coming about a week before the event, but since I have no permanent address and only just got a phone last week, there was little warning until somebody said a few days ago, “Hey, isn’t your birthday on Tuesday?” to which I responded, “Crap. Yeah, I guess it is.” So there wasn’t a party per se this year. At least not yet. Instead, I spent the day canoing on the New River with a good friend and a bottle of warm red wine. Getting slowly drunk in the hot sun while floating lazily through a millions-of-years-old gorge was about the best birthday present I could imagine.

The second best birthday present I could imagine, though, I also got, courtesy of Mary D: A TV-B-Gone. The inventor of this device should, in my opinion, be given a Nobel Peace Prize. The device is billed as “useful electronics for a better world”, and I believe it to be just that. For the uninitiated: the TV-B-Gone is a universal remote control with just one button: OFF. Its beautiful little microchip brain contains a database of infrared commands to turn off nearly any make of television in North America. If you’re like me, this solves one of the greatest nuisances in going out to bars — the ubiquitous glow of televisions that hardly anybody is actually watching, but distracts everybody from actually looking much at one another. TV-B-Gone solves this problem at the touch of a button. From their web site:

Q. Why?
A. Because a tv that is powered on is like second-hand smoke. Why should you be exposed to tv just because someone else is addicted to it?

I gave my TV-B-Gone a try just minutes after receiving it. I was out for birthday beers with some friends at The Rivermill, and the wall behind us was dominated by one of those e-fucking-normous plasma screen monstrosities showing the NBA finals or something. I casually reached into my pocket, fished out my keychain, and pushed that beautiful, beautiful OFF button, causing the commotion and noise of the basketball game to instantly wink out of existence. The effect on the startled doorman was profound. He lept into action, immediately re-igniting the TV, and then ran back to the bar to fetch the remote control in case such “malfunctions” were to re-occur. So I took my TV-B-Gone to the back of the bar, and started winking out televisions near the pool tables, where nobody seemed the least bit bothered by it. We briefly debated whether we could get thrown out of the bar for turning off televisions, and decided that we probably could. Which, if you’re going to get thrown out of a bar, is probably the single greatest way that I could imagine to do it.

So I look forward to many pleasant 29-year-old evenings of television-free bars. Thank you, Cornfield Electronics. Western civilization may yet be saved.


Frank Herbert

More and more often these days, I seem to be hearing about water issues. In the news, in people’s research, in casual conversation about town zoning issues — everywhere people seem to be more and more concerned about clean water. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard commentators say that over the next ten years, wars will shift from being about land control to being about water control. I don’t know enough about the economics or ecology to have a good sense of whether environmental and human conditions have changed significantly of late, or whether people are just paying more attention to that particular issue.
I finished Dune just before departing for Ireland, which was a pretty stark juxtaposition. Dune is a great story about political intrigue, but more than anything else, it did a great job of making me hyper-conscious of my own water usage. The setting of the novel is one in which water is so precious that people even reclaim their own sweat in order to stay alive. I didn’t go that far, but I did find myself wincing more than usual at dripping faucets and lawn sprinklers.
And then I went to Ireland, where water conservation seems to be about the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. And who could blame them? I didn’t see a single day in Ireland that didn’t have rain, and barely set foot on a dry piece of earth the entire time I was there. In the cities, there is somewhat greater reason to pay attention to water usage, as the transformation of waste water into drinking water does use energy resources. But in the countryside, where everything is wells and septic tanks, it hardly seemed a concern. There wasn’t much worry about anyone’s well running dry, as the rains topped the groundwater off every few hours. I still couldn’t bring myself to let the faucet run while I was brushing my teeth, but it wouldn’t have mattered too terribly much if I had. That moisture would have left the septic tank and been back in the water table in a matter of hours.
The much more interesting issue there was one of energy. From what I could gather, a large part of the energy produced in Ireland is from good ol’ King Coal. But not Irish coal — there isn’t any. It’s coal from Poland or the Czech Republic. As in America, the effects of coal mining aren’t felt much by those who consume it, and it’s those who are poorest who work in and live with the industry. The other major power source is a uniquely Irish one — turf. I don’t have a sense of what proportion of power is peat vs. coal (more research required once I have an Internet connection), but I do know that turf burning constitutes a large part of Irish power generation. Like coal, it’s a non-renewable (or at least very slowly renewable) resource that does environmental damage to harvest and burn. “Turf farming” is kind of like high-speed strip mining. Certainly peat can be produced much, much faster than new coal, but still not fast enough to keep up with demand. So the Irish are looking at other alternative energies. Solar ain’t gonna cut it in a place that cloudy and that far north. Instead, I read a lot in the news about wind farms. It seems like a no-brainer — you’re an island in the middle of a big, cold sea, and there’s certainly no shortage of wind. And yet, there’s opposition. The reason: windmills ruin the scenery. Not like those pretty carcinogenic coal-smoke sunsets. The other reason, and the one that confuses me even more, is that windmills will kill birds. Unlike, say, acid rain or mountaintop removal mining. I mean, come on, people. Is it that hard to put some goddam chicken wire around the front of a windmill? My bedroom fan already has it, right?

May Day

My last night in Clonakilty turned out to be even better than the others. The day started off badly. While posting my last journal entry, I checked my e-mail to find that my cat had not been seen for over a week. Not good. I instructed his temporary caretaker to hang some signs around the neighborhood, and said I’d give him a call the next day to see if he’d had any luck. I spent most of the rest of the day just lazing about town. Since I expected to stay with my Greek friends that night, I looked up Panos at work and got him to put my backpack into his apartment so I wouldn’t have to lug it around all day. Then I spent most of the afternoon sitting in a pub drinking coffee, reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and trying not to worry too much about my missing cat, a task at which I was marginally successful.
The nightly session at An Teach Beag turned out to be a bust. Only three other musicians showed up, and while they were competent, they certainly weren’t outstanding. I stayed for a bit and played a few tunes with them, but was kind of glad when Panos showed up and I had an excuse to leave. We tossed the fiddle back in his apartment, and then met up with some of his friends in town — two other Greek guys, and two Czechs. All of them are in Clonakilty to work. EU labor laws being what they are and Irish wages being what they are, it’s an attractive prospect for lots of eastern Europeans. Pitr, one of the Czechs, was telling me that he could make as much in one week working as a line cook in Ireland as he could in one month at any job he could get back home. So he works for a few months in Ireland, and then goes back to Czech for a bit for school exams and to visit his girlfriend. The other fellows were all doing likewise. Seems that a large number of the labor-type jobs in Ireland are done by Poles and Czechs, particularly construction work and the like where they can bid on a per-job basis, rather than having to worry about getting an hourly minimum wage. This was one of the things that Patsy had told me — that the Poles would come and bid most construction jobs at half the price that the Irish would take. Hence, lots of Polish labor coming into the country.
Anyway, we did the bar thing in Clonakilty, which mostly meant the bunch of us hanging out and talking which Panos went from table to table trying to meet girls. Once the bars closed down, Panos, Christos, and I met Maria (Christos’) girl back at the apartment and drank up a bottle of wine that I had bought earlier in the day. They played some traditional Greek music for me and showed me some Greek dance; I played some traditional American old-time for them and showed them some square dance. It was great fun. When they had to leave for Kilkenny the next morning, we parted ways fondly with promises to see each other again somewhere, some time.
Meanwhile, I checked back in with the missing cat situation. Rob had hung posters around the neighborhood and kept his cat locked in for the night, but still no sign of Meowser. It was clear that he was feeling increasingly guilty, unecessarily responsible, and generally really stressed out about things. As was I. I told him that if things didn’t change and he wanted help, I’d come back to help with the effort. Since there was no off-season bus service from Skibbereen to Bantry, I had to go back towards Cork anyway, from which I could go either on to Bantry or back to Dublin fairly easily.
I set off for the bus station, and as I stood there reading the timetable, a fellow pulled over and offered me a lift. This was the third time in a week that I had been offered an unsolicited ride from a complete stranger. Naturally, I took it. The fellow was some sort of businessman on his way to look at a truck in Galway. Since he was going by way of Cork (which, now that I think about it, isn’t really on the way from Clonakilty to Galway at all), he said he could get me that far. We talked mostly about environmental politics in the car, and he left me off on the outside of town. I walked in, and checked e-mail from an Internet cafe there, to find a panicked message from Mary D. She had gone down to Hillsborough to help look for the cat, and was knocking on doors and snooping around garages and sheds. I decided that it would be best to continue on to Dublin, and check back with them once I got there.
On the bus on the way to Dublin, I did a lot of thinking. Was I really prepared to fly home to look for ten pounds of missing bone and gristle? Would it do any good if I did? If they found him before I left, what would I tell them to do with him? If we didn’t find him, wouldn’t I have flown all the way back for nothing? Would I come back to Ireland immediately, or stay and travel around the US a bit? My head was churning with possible scenarios.
When I got back to Dublin, I couldn’t get through on the phone to America, so I continued on toward the airport. Just before heading to the ticket counter, I tried one last time to check back with Rob and Mary, to see if things had changed. I still couldn’t get through, so I found myself walking across the terminal toward the Lufthansa desk.
There is no doubt that I knew that what I was doing was crazy. Cutting my vacation short, paying a hefty change fee, and flying back across the ocean to have some small chance at rescuing a cat was utter madness. But I knew that if I didn’t do it and the cat never came back, I would feel sick and horrible for long after the vacation was over. So I ponied up the 75 dollars and got myself a ticket on the next flight back to Philadelphia the following morning. This is not something that I expect most people to understand. But it was (and is) in my mind the right thing to do.
I passed my last night in Ireland in a hotel in north Dublin, and got up at 4:00am to catch my 6:30 flight. From Dublin to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to Philadelphia, and I was on the ground in Philly by 2:30 in the afternoon. Without, as it turned out, my luggage. But no matter — as long as I had my wallet and fiddle, there wasn’t much in the backpack that I was worried about.
Then began the more arduous part of the trip. From the aiport to the train station on the SEPTA, from Philadelphia to Harrisburg on the Amtrak, from the Amtrak to my parents’ house via my brother, and from my parents’ house to North Carolina via my truck. Total travel time: something like 28 hours. Ouch. As I came into Hillsborough after having been awake for over a day, I kept seeing posters with a picture of my cat on them taped to telephone poles and street signs. It was a strange experience. I rolled into Rob’s place around 3:00 in the morning, grabbed my flashlight, and went out to look around the neighborhood, low on hope but high on determination.
As it happened, fortune was with me. One loop around the block calling to my cat, and I heard frantic rustling coming from a vacant lot. Sure enough, out he came — skinny, ragged, and crying up a storm. I collected him up and brought him back to the house, to the utter amazement of Mary D, who had walked around the same block looking for him no fewer than three times over the last 48 hours. Guess he just needed to hear my voice.
So the startling conclusion to our tale is that I’m now back in Blacksburg with no job, no place to live, but lots of supportive friends and an extremely appreciative cat. I’m still reflecting on what the whole trip means to me. I will take at least a few more days for that to sink in, I think.