Saturday, September 26, 2020

Lessons: musings of a teacher


purchase some Steve Martin [ The Crow ]

purchase some Tommy Emmanuel[ Guitar Mastery of ~ ]

Like at least one other of my associates here at SMM, lessons is what I do. Day in, day out for forty-two years now. But for some reason, this has meant that I have struggled to come up with something to share on this page at this time.

Like most school folk, as trite as it may seem, I am committed to life-long learning. I take this for granted. Until, that is, I run across research that shows that one in four Americans didn't read a single book last year. The good news is that apparently there has been  a slight uptick with the arrival of audiobooks.

The tradition location for a lesson - the classroom - has become a memory. I've been teaching out of a closet at home since March and it continues this fall. As a teacher, it cuts both ways: I've gone a month into the new year without having once met my students IRL. Tough to really know who's learning the lesssons. On the other hand, my double computer Zoom setup and the handy French press offer some mitigation. I record each class and post the video along with a copy of the presentation materials.

The first lesson of the day starts at 7:50. I suppose I could just about roll out of bed 5 feet away and power up the Zoom meeting in 5 minutes. But I need a bit more and figure the kids do, too. So ... this year, I've taken to starting the Zoom 5 minutes before "the bell" and cranking out some music as we wait for all 20 to arrive and pass through the waiting room door.

My selection of music for this use has multiple purposes: learn the kids something they might not have been exposed to in their home culture (we're not in America), as well as set some kind of a tone. At 7:50AM, that's likely to be something to help them get awake, like this:

At 2:20PM. when the students have been through 2 80-minute lessons followed by 3 40-minute lessons and are headed for one last 80 minute session until 3:40, my choice could be another bluegrass bounce, or it could be something along these lines:

Video doesn't stream particularly well through Zoom, so I've been converting YouTubes to mp3s and pumping those out. I've noticed that it is taking considerably more time to manage lessons in the zoom world both in preparations before and in follow up after. The time for downloading, converting and cueing the song seems to be worth it since  feedback from my audience has been positive and has led to learning and discussion beyond the course content: a well-rounded lesson for all, myself included.

Friday, September 25, 2020



Sting was famously a teacher, something the lyrics, and video, of the Police hit Don't Stand So Close make no small reference to, although surely in fantasy, it seeming hard to imagine any teenage girl being enraptured by the gormless looking Gordon. But this is not about him, this is the other side of the coin. This song is the world of crushes and besottedness, and relates more to the phenomenon of the spotty teenage oik, gazing in slack-jawed awe at the woman of his dreams. Add in the scenario of an all boy school, maybe a boarding school, and you can see how it happens, that teach being, perhaps alongside Matron, the only female form for mile, age and comeliness no hurdle for the bubbling surges of testosterone. And it's actually quite a bit creepier than Sting and co.

At least Danny Adler, onetime guitar jockey for pub-rock stalwarts Roogalator, made no bones about it. An unheralded talent who went largely unlauded then or later, he started off a guitar for hire in Cincinnati, getting gigs with some of the local blues scene talent, folk like Bootsy Collins and Slim Harpo. He later moved to San Francisco, hooking up with further bigger blues names, such as John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker. Another packed suitcase had him later being part of Frank Zappa and (later) John Lennon acolytes, Elephant's Memory, in New York. So quite how he came to be in London come 1971 is anyone's guess, other than the wanderlust that had led him to study jazz guitar in Paris.

Roogalator were a classic right band in the wrong time, and they shoulda and coulda, were it not for that timing. Part of the fizzing pub rock scene, where any style of music, whether derived from blues, from country, or from soul could make a name and a living of sorts, provided the sounds were held in sway by a tight rhythm section and the songs were short(ish) and catchy. The stirrings of an antidote to prog, more accomplished and more innovative than the later dawn of punk which, in turn, kicked pub rock off the stage and into the footnotes. And, yes, it's true, many of the denizens of that early 70s movement revived and reinvented themselves as new wave dawned, becoming elder statesmen feted to this day, your Nick Lowes, your Elvis Costellos, Graham Parker even. Not quite so was the lot of Adler, although he was, for a time, part of the studio band set up by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, under the names, variously, of the Disco Brothers and the Tartan Horde. Nothing of any great repute came therefrom, but it is interesting to consider what if made the the cut for the band Rockpile, instead than Billy Bremner.

No relation to the similarly London locked harmonica king Larry, or at least I think not, he then retreated to his roots in blues and boogie boogie, next popping up as part of the often Charlie Watts and Jack Bruce helmed collective, Rocket 88. In truth it was probably more the baby of Ian 'Stu' Stewart, the perennial 6th (Rolling) Stone, whose barnstorming piano play was a permanent fixture in their early career, even if his lantern jaw and short hair had him officially sidelined as their roadie. Lured in by the prospect of Watts and Bruce, neither of whom showed, I caught a memorable show by this two pianos and lashings of brass throwback to the 1940s, at Dingwalls Dance Hall, the fabled venue at Camden Lock, London. The nerdy looking guitarist with an astonishing tone was Adler.

After the demise of that project, itself probably accelerated by Stewart's death, Adler became an integral part of another collection of UK jazz and blues veterans, the De Luxe Blues Band, many of whom were seasoned session men from the 60s british blues boom, as indeed was Dick Heckstall-Smith, the ex-Colosseum reedsman, who later joined. Eventually his itchy feet again caught up with him and he returned to the USA. Since that time, the early 1990s, he has been continuing to plough his own idiosyncratic furrow, as well as buffing up his Roogalator and other back catalogues. The featured song for this piece comes from a collection, Hub-cap Heaven, about which I can find little, other than the purchase link below. The song is from 1986, seemingly the album part of a trilogy about early postwar England and America. Maybe. His personal website is intriguingly incomplete, his material, new and archive, seemingly best sourced through Bandcamp, with information via Facebook, as well as sporadic new offerings. Any guess as to whether or how this supplies a living is open to conjecture, but, if it works for him, all power to that.

Hubcap Heaven.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Lessons: Rock N Roll High School

Ramones, Rock n Roll High School

A lot of songs about high school are delinquent, party songs, or about hating teachers, rebellion and learning pretty much nothing useful. Ever. Alice Cooper's "School's Out" comes to mind, silly as it is. I never bought into the Beach Boy's "Be Cool to Your School"--in fact, I kind of resented the band for singing any kind of praise at all concerning school. Which, for most of my life, was a prison, rather than a place that should be celebrated with drums and guitars. the songs that spoke to me were the ones that reinforced rebellion. Maybe burning books. The best school songs are the ones about how much school sucks. 

Strange how those anthems speak to both the cliches and the realities of a lot of kids. I'm a teacher now, but I hated school from first grade until the moment I graduated from undergrad. Any song that dealt with rebelling against teachers, their dirty looks, all those pencils and books, spoke to me in a distinct, familiar and sympathetic voice

Songs like "Rock n Roll High School", and the eponymous movie (I believe the song came first and the movie was built as a vehicle around it) were perfect. Aggressive enough to feel good, pump the blood up on test days and my inevitable failing grades that followed, rock music was a saving grace in my angst filled teenage daze. The Ramones were silly punks, inspiring horseplay, girl-chasing, and petty vandalism rather than full on burn-it-down rebellion. I got into more hardcore bands as I got older, and Metallica was putting out their best work when I was in high school, so the kind of music that fed into my growing frustrations certainly played a role in my development, and a loud one. (I got pretty fed up with school for a while there, but somehow, stuck it out. The angrier, louder, meaner music that found its way to me helped me through, as well). But the Ramones hold a special place in my heart for providing the soundtrack to my earliest days of discovering music and the saving grace it would give me--a sustaining power, a joyous and continual discovery, and constant companion, music was the part of my life that made sense, and made sense of the parts I didn't understand. Or particularly enjoy. I can't tell you how many times a teacher confiscated my walkman and my cassettes. When I got in trouble at home, restriction meant my stereo and my guitar got confiscated and stored away in my parent's closet. I always managed to sneak my walkman out without them knowing. The lure of music was too great. 

But, the lessons of rock music remain the best ones I ever learned, my idols my best teachers. Rock music was what made sense. What moved me and what pulled me along with a promise of better things to come. It was a great promise. 

It still is, to be honest. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my life on music. I hated school, but I survived it.  And, I have music to thank for getting me through those odd days of my teenage years, and the odd ones that have followed. My high school days never quite lived up to the promise the Ramones made in their songs, but, I think we made up for it in college...but, those are tales best left untold here...

Lessons: Better Git Yer Learnin’

Our Native Daughters: Better Git Yer Learnin’

I’ve written fairly frequently and glowingly about Rhiannon Giddens, who is amazing. But I’ve barely mentioned the album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, a project that Giddens spearheaded, and which also included Amythyst Kiah (who I wrote about here), Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. It probably would have been my favorite album of 2019, if I ever got around to writing that list for my other blog, and I did write about the one cover song on the album, Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver,” for the Cover Me "Best Covers of 2019" piece (which also included a cover by Giddens). They also put on one of the best shows that I saw in 2019, at an outdoor venue, where even light rain didn’t prevent me from really enjoying the show. At one point, I posted on Facebook, “Rainbow to my left, sunset to my right, brilliant music in front of me and raindrops on my head.” It was a pretty great night. 

The liner notes for the album, which are extensive, as you’d expect from a Smithsonian Folkways release, explain the project as an attempt to shine “new light on African American stories of struggle, resistance, and hope, pulling from and inspired by 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources.” Giddens gathered the other three women of color, all of whom play, among other instruments, the banjo, an instrument with West African roots that nevertheless became an integral part of American music, including music made by whites (and usually white men). There’s a lot in the liner notes, and you can download them here, although better yet, buy the damn album. It’s fucking amazing (but if you want to hear this song, don’t buy the vinyl—it’s not on that version). 

Rather than try to explain the genesis of “Better Git Yer Learnin’” and what it’s about, here’s a long quote from Giddens from the aforementioned liner notes, because she wrote the song and knows it way better than me. Also, she’s a MacArthur Genius award winner, and I’m not: 

The tune for this song is attributed to the banjo performer Thomas F. Briggs, found in a banjo method book published in 1855 entitled Briggs’ Banjo Instructor. It provides an early glimpse into that first truly American cultural sensation, the minstrel show. These tunes were published with no words, which gave me the opportunity to engage with them as pieces of music with no baggage. After learning quite a few, I braced myself to read the original lyrics, and was faced with a mountain of offensive sentiments and the degraded characters of the “minstrel nigger” and “plantation darky.” I thought about what an actual emancipated ex-enslaved person might have to say in a song like this, and “Better Git Yer Learnin’” was born. Each verse refers to well-known difficulties in the African American world of the mid-1800s, and all around education. Education was what the enslaved person wanted above all else, yet even trying to learn to read was often a punishable offense. 

After the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 1863 (many in Texas and other territories didn’t find out until the June of two years later—a date celebrated by the holiday Juneteenth), young teachers (white and black) who graduated from schools like Oberlin went to teach at newly formed schools for black children all over the South, but the conditions were so bad many of them took sick and died, or gave up. 

Where all-black schools were established, sometimes white supremacists would blow them up. Opportunities for education were hard to come by but, to a newly freed person, worth fighting for. 

Despite the fact that this song relates to the 1800s, we are still dealing with the incontrovertible fact that black Americans do not get the same quality of education as white Americans. This sort of systemic racism is, to say the least, a huge problem, and won’t be fixed as long as people of color have generally worse economic health than whites, and as long as school funding is often tied to the wealth of the surrounding community. And the fact that the current president of the United States has appointed judges who refuse to confirm that Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided, and recently made a big deal about trying to prevent schools from using the 1619 Project information about the effects of slavery on our country, makes it clear that we have a long way to go—and that the way will be much longer if we don’t get rid of the racists in the current administration