Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Travels With Charley

John Steinbeck
Travels With Charley

Travels With Charley
I hadn’t actually planned to read this one. The truth is, I tend toward serial monogamy where my reading habits are concerned: I read one book at a time, start to finish, then put it down and move on to the next one. I’ve already been reading a short story anthology, and recommended Travels With Charley to a friend who had recently taken a similar cross-country road trip with her dog. As I pulled the book from my shelf to loan it out and started paging through it, I realized that it had been over a decade since I had read it, and while I remembered liking it, I didn’t actually remember a single anecdote from the story. What I did remember was pretty much what was on the cover: Steinbeck. His dog. Good times.

So I figured that rather than recommending a book about which I no longer knew anything, I should maybe read it again. Too bad for its intended recipient. But good for me. I am pleased to report that it is still a pretty good (and very fast) read. Steinbeck. His dog. Good times.

Of course, I should know better than to read travel literature. Because it makes me want to go, forever and always. Not on a road trip — staring at interstate highway is without romance for me — but on foot, into the world, out the front door with a pack and home again two months later. I’ve been home barely two months, and I could go again tomorrow given the chance. It’s a curse, a blessing, a lebensform. I’m no Steinbeck, but here’s to the restless everywhere. Long may we roam the earth.

Foc’sle Songs and Shanties

Foc'sle Singers
Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers
Foc’sle Songs and Shanties
At Les Bordées de Cancale in October, I got my first real taste of shanty singing, thanks mostly to the lads from Jenkin’s Ear. It was a great weekend of cider, singing, and stories. With my trusty field recorder, I collected a number of tunes to learn and perform at a gig later this year.
I’ve also started doing my homework and sifting through old records stored in the archive at the Virginia Tech library. It’s not a huge collection of material, but a few records, mostly put out by Smithsonian Folkways during the 1950s. Some of it is, to be honest, wretched stuff. It’s not hard to understand why so many of the old-timers have complained about the folk revival over the years. Some of the records of “shanty singing” that I’ve pulled from the library are actually records of revivalists finding shanties, and then performing them Kingston-Trio-style on acoustic guitar and/or banjo, with rhythms nothing like the original work songs. It sucks the life out of the very thing that makes the shanties great, which is big beats and unison singing. The folk-trio revival versions have about as much authenticity as minstrels in blackface singing slave songs with a rousing chorus of “doo-dah, doo-dah”. It’s not so much performing the source material as robbing it for fun and profit.

Paul Clayton and the Foc’sle Singers straddle the line uncomfortably. For some of the songs, they made the bewildering decision to include banjo accompaniment. What the hell? Why did the revivalists have to put banjo on absolutely everything? (Example: the Rainbow Quest videos, in which Pete Seeger can’t resist playing his banjo on f*cking everything, whether it makes any sense or not.) Banjo on eighteenth century sea songs? Check! Never mind that the banjo wasn’t actually invented yet when the damn things were written — it’s FOLK MUSIC! But there are some gems on the album, and those gems tend to be the a cappella tunes with minimal harmonies, like the outstanding rendition of “Haul Away Joe”. There are also a few diamonds in the rough, those tunes that actually have good material buried beneath the rather silly renditions.

I sound like a curmudgeon, and I probably am. Certainly I don’t have the standing to be much of a purist on anything, much less sea shanties. I’ve never been anything but a landlubber and a hack. But I do know what rings true for me and what sounds like hollow facsimile, and most of this sounds like facsimile trying to pass as authenticity. No doubt the same can be said about most of the music that I make, but nobody is offering me a Smithsonian Folkways grant to do it 🙂 It may be that some of this material would have vanished if the revivalists hadn’t preserved it under straight teeth and cardigan sweaters. Whether it’s better off dead or shrink-wrapped and packaged, I don’t claim to know.