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January 28, 2014

To Pete Seeger

Goodbye Pete and thanks.
Pete Seeger just died, and I need to write this because he was the most important public figure in my life. I only met him once, but he was a mentor to me in my days of singing folk songs in public schools and hosting a radio program, for a decade, of American traditional music "With a banjo on my knee", plus a Master's in folklore with a massive song collection and analysis as my thesis. In my 1960's elementary school, we listened to his records and learned the songs by heart. His music rang throughout the anti-war protests and anti-nuclear demonstrations of my teen years (We Shall Overcome). His impact on American politics is great, but his impact on American music even greater. He taught us Americans our own music, not the commercial products forced down our throats. When he was blacklisted and starving, he recorded hundreds of traditional songs in Moe Ashe's tiny Folkways studio, many of which might have been forgotten without his careful conservation. Influenced by his musicologist father and classical musician mother, Pete studied and transcribed and recreated from live musicians (see Rainbow Quest) and scanty recorded sources. He reconstructed a nearly lost heritage that inspired the Folk Revival.

"I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

I have his records and books, but I also have several old-time banjos. Would so many people be playing this peculiar instrument without the promotion Pete did for the five-string? Maybe some bluegrass players in the Scruggs style, but not the 60's style folk banjo, frailing, clawhammer, old-time. He drew a banjo on the book he signed for me.

When I met Pete Seeger at his after-concert birthday party in the mid-80's, I was singing regularly in the Sicilian schools with a program of American folk songs and a booklet of translations and historical context. I told him about it and thanked him for his example. He thanked me for keeping the tradition alive, taking it abroad; Carry It On was the name of the book he'd just produced. I had had the impression that he was a crusty New England hermit-type, but he was warm and friendly, wanting to know who I was and how I got to where I was. We shook hands, and later he was given a banjo-shaped birthday cake. After we sang him the song in three-part harmony, Pete gave the first piece to me. It was the best cake of my life.

Carry it on. I tried to copy Pete in my playing and singing and life-style, as did thousands of other people, almost a generation. He always wanted everyone to sing along, and so we did. I'm sure I'll have more to say about Pete Seeger in the coming days, but this is for gratitude and remembrance.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt and Jeff are busy playing banjos and acoustic guitars in the next room, singing at the top of their voices the American Favorite Ballads.

January 16, 2014

Getting Old in Good Company

I had a birthday recently.
Along with the beautiful people in these pictures.


I got a letter recently.
It came in the mailbox, hand-addressed, with expensive American stamps on it, little works of art.
It felt like the 80's, when you could keep these precious expressions of love and friendship in a box in the basement.
My mother wrote me once a month back then, and I answered.
I miss hand-written letters.

I met an old friend recently.
We knew each other in the 80's and, apparently, had great times together. He listed them.
He was thrilled to see me again, invited me over, would not take 'no'.
I smiled and nodded.
I have no idea who he was, no recollection of him at all.
I tried but nothing.

My nephew wrote an essay for school recently.
It was all about me, his mythical uncle.
He told about the great things I do or have done.
He left out a lot that he doesn't know about.
Some of it would not impress him if he did.
The essay, though, was flattering, almost a eulogy.
According to him, my birthday should be made a national holiday.
Am I that far gone?

Are you getting old too?
Do you feel the fire dying down inside?
I don't.
I'm feeding it more than ever, like a fireman on a steam locomotive, who does the opposite of a fireman in town.
I may look nostalgically back down the track, but there's still plenty of road ahead. Shovel that coal, blow that whistle, and catch me if you can!
Plus I got plenty of beautiful people to ride with. As do we all.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Hey Jeff, did you ever work for a living?
Jeff: A living? No. I worked for money once. No, just kidding.
Mutt: One time I worked in the woods as a lumberjack, but I just couldn't hack it, so they gave me the axe.
Jeff: I tried to be a tailor, but I just wasn't suited for it. The job was only so-so anyhow.
Mutt: I attempted to be a deli worker, but any way I sliced it, I couldn't cut the mustard.
Jeff: I wanted to be a barber, but I just couldn't cut it.
Mutt: My best job was being a musician, but eventually I found I wasn't note worthy.
Jeff: I studied a long time to become a doctor, but--guess what?--I didn't have any patience.
Mutt: I got a job in a shoe factory; I tried, but I just didn't fit in.
Jeff: I became a professional fisherman, but discovered that I couldn't live on my net income.
Mutt: I thought about becoming a witch, so I tried that for a spell.

Jeff: Seriously?
Mutt: I managed to get a good job working for a pool maintenance company, but the work was just too draining.

Jeff: My last job was working at Starbucks, but I had to quit because it was always the same old grind.
Mutt: After many years of trying to find steady work, I finally got a job as a historian, until I realized there was no future in it.

Jeff: I tried working in a muffler factory once, but that was exhausting.
Mutt: Yeah, so is this.
Jeff: You got that right.
Mutt: Confucius had it right.
Jeff: Yeah, tell your boss what you think, and ...
Mutt: And?
Jeff:  The truth will set you free.

January 12, 2014

The Dead by Susan Mitchell

The Dead by Susan Mitchell

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our fortunes,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.