Jam Camp Report Here's the more-or-less straightfo…

Jam Camp Report Here’s the more-or-less straightforward account of what jam camp was about; there were deeper things going on as well, but I’ll have to write about them separately.

The idea behind the bluegrass jam camp is to gather musicians who, because of shyness or lack of opportunity, have had little or no experience playing with a group of people, i.e. jamming, and giving them a chance to do so in relaxed and unthreatening surroundings, as well as teaching some of the basics of jamming etiquette and technique. Camp was held at Wilkesboro Community College, home of MerleFest, for the four days prior to the festival. Just shy of forty people attended, Chris and me included. Maybe half of the folks had attended the camp previously, and were returning for the sheer fun of it.

And it was a lot of fun. Pete Wernick, a.k.a. Dr. Banjo, is a fine musician and a fine teacher, able to keep forty people interested and on track while staying very relaxed. After a bit of introductory stuff, he dismissed the more experienced alumni for the time being, then got the thirty-five or so of us who were left to start playing along with some simple two- and three-chord songs. By late morning he was ready to take those of us who were confident enough for it and form us into five five-person jam groups that would practice on their own, with occasional visits from an instructor; the rest formed an absolute novice group that received gentler and constant attention from Dr. Banjo or one of his assistants.

Those first groups were intentionally assembled to have a wide range of abilities within the group, something that happens often in real situations. We stayed in those groups through Tuesday morning; at that point, we were reassigned to new groups where our skills were much more uniform, and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the camp. Early Thursday afternoon each group took a turn at performing a song for the rest of us.

The pattern was roughly a couple of hours of everyone meeting together for a talk or some hands-on instruction, followed by a couple of hours of jam group practice. One of the topics covered with everyone was harmony singing; we turned out to be pretty good at that (or at least enthusiastic about it), and so Pete Wernick spent extra time working with us on it, incorporating it into the group performance which ended the camp.

Preparing for that performance was major fun. We spent some time working up two songs, “Love Please Come Home” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” both with three-part harmony on the chorus. I couldn’t tell you how it sounded at the performace, being one of forty nervous people crowded onto a tiny stage, trying to sing at three widely-spaced vocal microphones. But we sounded quite good during rehearsals.

Chris and I enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, we learned a lot from our time there, and we plan on returning next year. And we plan to spend the intervening twelve months practicing to be a lot more competent than we were this year.

Festival Report. Sorry for doing this out of order…

Festival Report. Sorry for doing this out of order, but I think I can cover our experience as Merlefest attendees in one long post; the jam camp episode will take several of them.

It began for us in an unusual way, because of the jam camp—the culmination of that was an actual festival performance, at which forty of us got up on the Cabin Stage, a small stage to the right of the main stage, and played two songs for the couple of hundred folks who were there for the late afternoon performances. It turned out to be a good time slot, since we directly followed Doc Watson, who I know is popular, and led into a performance from Rhonda Vincent, who I gather is popular (at least she’s riding in the Martha White bus this year). It gave us a chance to check out the backstage area, which was fun, and to show off what Dr. Banjo had managed to teach us over the space of four days.

From there the campers broke up, and Chris and I went in search of dinner—the food at MerleFest is actually a highlight, provided by local volunteer organizations at a reasonable price, and in general pretty tasty—and then to our main stage seats for an evening of performances. Our favorites by far that evenign were Asleep at the Wheel, who have settled comfortably into their role of carrying the torch for Western swing, and play a solid set of standards with a very high level of showmanship. Ray Benson was in fine voice, deep and controlled; there were twin fiddles on this tour; and the piano player was especially adept at rising to the challenge presented by all the different styles that the band plays in.

On Friday, the rest of the family joined us for a day, one that was cut short because of bad weather. We’re not particularly valiant when it comes to outdoor festivals—MerleFest is even a challenge for us, and it is exceptionally cushy—so after a few performances we decided to eat a late-afternoon supper before sending Debbie, Matthew, and Elizabeth on their way back home, while Chris, Maggie, and I retired early to the hotel.

Saturday and Sunday were excellent days. On Saturday the weather turned bad in the afternoon, but that was fine because our plans had us mostly indoors at that point. We saw Doc Watson again, and some fine cowboy singing by Don Edwards, and a standing-room-only show by Hot Rize, a family favorite. On Sunday the sky was clear as a bell and the temperature was in the mid-70s—wonderful. Maggie had some clogging lessons, Chris attended a banjo clinic, and we heard Pete and Joan Wernick, Etta Baker, and a second Hot Rize performance. By then we were filled to overflowing with music, so we headed on home.

I can’t recommend this festival highly enough. It is friendly, well-organized, and surprisingly affordable. And it is an unparalleled experience to be able to attend show after show after show presented by the very best performers that Americana music has to offer. It was world-class, and most of it was up close and personal. We’ll be going back again next year, and probably for many years to come.

MerleFest. Well, we're back. Eight days is longer …

MerleFest. Well, we’re back. Eight days is longer by far than I like to be away from home. But the week was a rich one, and its events will probably dominate my weblog entries for the next week.

That is, if I can find the time to write them. Being gone from Sunday to Sunday leaves you with six days of work to catch up on, and for now I’m trudging through a pile of accumulated chores. If there’s not enough to read here, take the time to catch up with Cartularium and The Walker Mountain Sessions, and then pay a visit to a new entrant, Tim Varner’s WhetWords.

Anniversary. I see that we're closing in on one ye…

Anniversary. I see that we’re closing in on one year of posts to this weblog in its current incarnation. (It existed in various other forms for about two years before it became part of the HSC website.) The list of archive links on the right side of this page is getting pretty long, but I don’t know of any good way to fix that.

Merlefest. This is by far the best-organized and m…

Merlefest. This is by far the best-organized and most comfortable outdoor musical event I’ve ever attended. You can take stuff along if you like, including food and drink so long as it is not in glass containers. Or you can buy just about anything you might want while you’re there, at reasonable prices. One thing that is at a premium, however, is seating. Except for the main stage, the outdoor stages provide only ground to sit on. Lots of folks bring along lawn chairs and the like, a good idea but often not as portable as you’d wish.

Last year Jonathan Daugherty introduced us to the concept of ultra-light-weight camping stools (introduced in the sense that he had one and we didn’t). So we made sure to pick up five of them for this year’s festival (Elizabeth will be riding in the royal coach, i.e. her stroller).

The stool on the top is what the kids get; the somewhat smaller, lighter, and fancier stool on the bottom is for the grownups.

Hiatus There's one coming up. Merlefest (and the a…

Hiatus There’s one coming up. Merlefest (and the attendant Bluegrass Jam Camp), which I’ve been nattering on about for months, is finally here; Chris and I leave Sunday afternoon, not to return until late the following Sunday. So both this weblog and the HSC website will be out of commission for ten days beginning sometime today.

Music. I hope that the whole world is aware that A…

Music. I hope that the whole world is aware that Amazon has approximately one gazillion MP3 songs available for free download. Not just for wildly popular bands, either; I searched for “Dry Branch Fire Squad” and found that there were twelve of their songs to be had. Here’s a particularly good one, Memories that Bless and Burn, from their album of the same name that collects their bluegrass gospel songs—just mandolin, bass, and the amazing voice of Suzanne Thomas, who also wrote the song.

Favorite albums. Everything You Know is Wro…

Favorite albums.

Everything You Know is Wrong, Firesign Theater, Columbia (Sony) records 1974

Humor doesn’t usually age very well. Films that were a laugh riot when I first saw them are likely to be an embarassment when I rent them twenty years later. I’ve had favorite comedy albums over the years, but most of them seem boring and silly when I hear them now.

Some efforts are inspired enough and lucky enough to avoid this curse. Every time I see Monty Python and the Holy Grail I laugh harder, and am more amazed than ever that something so nearly perfect could have come together with such a hodge-podge history and a miniscule budget. But this is a rare thing.

The Firesign Theater were a hippie comedy troupe that did most of their work in the late 60s and early 70s. Much of their stuff is either trite, incomprehensible, or both, and so you have to approach their catalog carefully. But there were specific points at which they transcended their limitations (which were many) and created some work that was very close to inspired. Really, there are only two and one-half albums you should consider listening to: the Nick Danger side of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once?, and the two albums Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and Everything You Know is Wrong.

One of the significant innovations in comedy that happened in the late 60s was the recognition that a parody becomes one hundred times funnier if it also accurately mimics the thing being parodied. I first ran across this while reading National Lampoon, a satirical magazine that may still be around. When it started, the humor was first-rate, but the overall production of the magazine was amateurish. Then somehow they managed to hire a real art director, Michael Gross, who understood this deep truth about parodies. Suddenly things changed, and the Playboy parody looked like a real issue of Playboy, and the Mad parody looked like a real issue of Mad; details were mimicked down to the smallest detail, and it all became much, much funnier. Saturday Night Live carried this tradition into television (although SCTV ultimately did it much better), and now you are likely to cringe if a parody is done without such attention to detail.

The Firesign Theater understood this truth, and while the rest of hippie humor was venturing off into Cheech and Chong stoner routines, they were working hard to recreate the sound and feel of old movies, old radio shows, television commercials, man-in-the-street interviews, and more. What made it all especially funny was their stoned ironic detachment from what they were doing; they would get as much pleasure from twisting words around, or putting on a weird accent, or tossing in an obscure reference, as they would from getting to the punchline. The result was a swirling surrealistic atmosphere, where you came to take a deep and admiring enjoyment from the execution of the routine, much less than from the routine itself.

I probably hadn’t heard Dwarf or Everything in about twenty-five years, and so I was a little nervous about popping them into the CD player. Would I just feel embarassed and stupid about ever having liked this stuff? Well, it doesn’t approach the heights of Holy Grail humor, and there are a few clunky spots, but for the most part I’m laughing as much as I ever did. I can’t recommend them wholeheartedly—this was an acquired taste even back in its heyday—but it’s solid and well-done and not as time-bound as I expected.

Dwarf is the more surreal of the two albums. It centers around a movie, High School Madness, a sort of Archie and Jughead parody, which is being played on late-night television. The television aspect gives them the opportunity to do routines about TV evangelists, game shows, nostalgia shows, travelogues, war movies, and all kinds of commercials. And everything sounds like the real thing—a pep rally, a late-night TV announcer who is having technical difficulties, a telephone call where the caller has a TV evangelist running in the background. I think much of the surrealism was aimed at making some deep and meaningful point, one that isn’t worth digging out, but it makes for a fun ride.

Everything You Know is Wrong is probably their best album, because it takes all the other elements and adds accessibility. The storyline is more coherent, and it parodies a number of things that were front and center in public consciousness at the time—the New Age movement, Evel Knievel’s jump across the Snake River Canyon, the comet Kohoutek, Uri Geller, and alien encounters. Here’s how the record begins:

(strains of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustrua’, aka the theme music from the movie 2001)

I don’t know how you came by this record, but you are now embarked upon a journey that must certainly lead you to change your life forever. If you were never a special person, you are a special person now! Hello, seeker! Now, don’t feel alone here in the New Age, because there’s a seeker born every minute.

Yes, I’m Dr. ‘Happy’ Harry Cox, and call me happy because I am! Because you are listening to another in a series of my mind-breaking records, Men Never Lived on Earth, which started off with I Came From Outer Space, followed by Strangers at our Door, which includes the ultra-high-speed recording of real gas music from Jupiter! If you haven’t got ’em, buy ’em now! I was right about the comet! Get ’em and see why! Write me here in my award-winning communications trailer, Space 9, Blue Mouse Trailer Resort, Hellmouth, California, 90666.

(echoing voiceover) Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs Invented the vacation! Men and women are the same sex! Our forefathers took drugs! Your brain is not the boss! Yes, that’s right! Everything you know is wrong! (end voiceover)

Hello, seekers! Here we go again! And hello to the skeptic inside you who might still believe that pigs live in trees, and that faithful Rover is nothing but a pet sleeping by the doggie door. Well, doggone it, he’s smarter than you’ll ever be! Yes, I’ve got proof here that his ancestors came from the Dog Star milllions of years ago to rule the earth! He’s been there—and you probably don’t even know where you are. Don’t believe it? Well, listen to this.

And it goes on. All of this sounds exactly like the cheesy recording a conspiracy nut would have put together in his trailer outside Area 51 in the high desert of California. At some point it morphs into the actual story of Dr. Cox’s encounter with aliens, which doesn’t turn out exactly the way he expected.

Stay away from the rest. I don’t know why such a talented group would end up making exactly two and one-half funny albums, but there it is, and these are them.

Elizabeth report. She'll be eight months old on Sa…

Elizabeth report. She’ll be eight months old on Saturday. Sleeping through the night for a long time now. For awhile she’s been able to get places using an army crawl; this week she’s been cruising the furniture; last night she began crawling on her hands and knees. She has seven teeth so far, with some more apparently on the way (lots of drooling and finger-chewing). An incessant smiler, but still not much of a chuckler. She is stuffing herself on solid food, and every meal must be accompanied by lots and lots of Cheerios.

Motherhood. I thought about just linking to and co…

Motherhood. I thought about just linking to and commenting on the article which Carmon Friedrich alerts us to here, but then I’d be letting you miss out on what I think is a pretty good post on the topic. So rather than comment, I encourage you to read hers.

Well, except to note that this article is clear evidence that we usually fail to acknowledge how vast the gulf is between worldly thinking and godly thinking. The temptation is to engage in a point-by-point dispute with the author over the claims that she makes. But in doing so we end up arguing for something other than our own true position, because we unwittingly concede quite a few unbiblical assumptions that the author makes. We need to be careful to always begin with and build on our own understanding of scriptural truth, even if saying them out loud will lead folks like this woman to believe that we must be visiting from another planet.