Trying to describe my mother, her life, and the impact she had on nearly every person she ever encountered would be an impossible task. She was, as improbable as it sounds in this world today, a good and kind person.
I could tell you endless stories. I could show you quilts and homespun yarn. Walk you through the nursery school she opened. I could have the countless parents she guided in her work with Healthy Families share how helped raise generations of happy kids. Rambling for days would not begin to scratch the surface of the accomplishments of this small woman who could not take a step without pain.
There is a hole in Crisfield now. Perhaps the world. Our mailman was on the porch crying in my father’s arms yesterday. The parents she worked with are heartbroken. Even in our present sorrow, my father and I are following my mother’s example. Comforting rather than seeking any condolences for ourselves.
It would be easy for us to surrender to grief. To mourn the loss until her good work is simply a memory. That is not, I believe, what she would have wanted. Instead, my father and I will strive to continue following her example. To love fearlessly and give without thought to the cost. To see beauty in everything, and goodness in everyone.
If you want to remember my mom, bake some cranberry orange bread. Share it with a neighbor this weekend. Tear down whatever fences or barriers you have built to keep people away, and open your heart.
I will love you forever, mom. You are the best person I have ever known. It is an honor to be your son. Thank you for everything. No goodbyes because you are with me always, but I will miss walking beside you. My mother, my teacher, my friend.
Things have been eventful behind the scenes at Number Six Potomac Street. Unfortunately, I have been in too much pain to get much of this new material online. Catching the flu and a honking huge ear infection has not helped productivity.
I won’t bore you with tales of woe. We all have our problems in these interesting times. In some ways, I think the focus on personal issues rather than the big picture isolates us. While I am going through a great deal of pain, there are others reading this, perhaps many, experiencing even greater challenges.
What I will say is that I am becoming increasingly aware of the toll three years of near nonstop agony has taken on me, both body and soul. I’ll be working on being less of a mean old bastard as we move forward.
Today, I am heading to a new pain clinic. This time, I’ll let dad do the talking to get around the mean old bastard thing. Prayers and positive waves would be greatly appreciated. Not just for me, but for my folks. It is one thing to be in pain, but it may be worse to be a helpless witness as someone you love suffers.
Speaking of letting dad do the talking, if you have questions/comments just drop a not to firstname.lastname@example.org. Pop will get back to you.
On the music front, I do have new material ready to record. Working with the electric banjo to find my sweet spot in the pickup and amplifier settings has been a fun learning experience.
Paul the Beatnik, one of my early musical mentors, was pals with Dave Van Ronk. Because of this, Jelly Roll Morton and blues guitar came up often in our banjo discussions. While Paul taught me Jelly Roll’s Sweet Substitute and some early banjo tunes with a blues flavor, frailing the blues was viewed as an El Dorado.
He felt the same way about frailing bluegrass and rock. My other advisers agreed.
Gus Cannon and Doc Walsh recorded a smattering of slide banjo tracks about a hundred years ago. They both used modified instruments. Gus played lap style and Doc raised the bridge with pennies. Slide banjo was usually as a novelty.
My father was a plant manager. When I started messing with slide banjo back in the 80s, he brought the logic of running complex processes profitably into our musical dojo. Modifying the banjo was, in his mind, impractical. If I was going to play slide and other music outside the frailing banjo genre, my technique should be strong enough to make anything work with the instrument in my hands. A slide solo on its own would just be a trick. To do it for real, my dad figured I should be able to play anything with a slide. Go deeper than just knowing a slide lick.
If that seems rigid, be aware that my father is the main reason I can play at all. He was Mickey to my Rocky. I have learning disabilities that made learning the language of music and rhythm almost impossible. I am the musician I am today because my dad was patient enough to coach me through impossible obstacles.
For example, while it is easier to retune from G to C to play some songs, my dad would say, “Nobody wants to sit in an audience and watch you retune.”
Think about that for a second. Being a musician is not about your ego. The job, like it or not, is performing. Entertaining. To accomplish that, you gotta flow, baby. No stopping and starting for the right moment, setting, or tools. Work with what you have because on stage or in a jam it’s FFD (Fight, Fornicate, or Die).
It wasn’t all rules, logic, and FFD. Dad did get me an OMI made dobro banjo to experiment with. It was an instrument apparently built for mimes because it was nearly silent.
I was so disappointed in the dobro banjo that I traded it for a fiddle. The fiddle was junk, so I gave it to the fiddler in The Sons of the Pioneers, who fixed it up and gave it to the music program for the Marshall, Texas high school.
Ken the fiddler was so happy with the donated instrument that he sent us a handmade pottery Texas iced tea set. He got so excited, in fact, that he forgot to pack anything around the fragile pitcher and cups. By the time it got to Crisfield, it was just a package of shards and pottery dust. It was nice dust, though. Can’t complain. Like I asked dad when the weirdly shifting package arrived at our doorstep, “How many people get broken crap from The Sons of the Pioneers?”
Anyway, when I published The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar, there was a discussion (and I am using that word generously) about slide banjo. I thought back to all the slide guitar players I followed around as a boy, and broke out my bottleneck. That led to my Frailing the Blues DVD.
Now that my hands are basically crippled from arthritis, my father’s advice concerning technique paid off. I have been able to use the slide to work around my new disability.
Playing slide with banjo is not a starting point. Before you even think about putting a slide on your finger, you must master the left and right-hand technique of the craft. Everything after that point should, if you have mastered the basics, reveal itself in your training.
Everything is the result of evolution. Knowledge and technique are cumulative in that understanding and fluency take time.
If you want to play slide, get good without it first.