A washboard, a birch bough, & a ham Sandwich

How are you this fine morning! “It is not morning” you will say, but that is not what I asked. Me? oh, the new artificial neck, like the new latex mattress it lies upon at night, is still just as springy & spry as the day it fell out of the factory. The pain is Exquisite. Plus I sprained my right wrist on the piano and if you don’t believe me I will strangle you with the hand that still has grip strength in it, just come over here real close so I don’t have to stand up to do it.

Here is a story! but I get repetitious in times of gloom so do be sure to let me know if I have told it before.*

*if you want to hurt my FEELINGS


Back in my wonderful midlife crisis year, right after I got back from bookbinding summer I went to folk music camp. Be slow, please, to judge; this was 2016 or thereabouts and back then mandolins were not yet as widely reviled as they have since become. Or were they? Memory is a great deceiver but I don’t play at the mandolin or even the mandola these days so it does no harm to let a lie be, you are at no risk of encouraging me with your kindness to play you any of the ten thousand melodies from the British Isles that are all in D and all sound exactly the same as each other. be not afraid.

Anyhow I miss my mandolin lessons terribly and I miss my mandola even more. A mandola is to a mandolin what a viola is to a violin: an improvement.

I didn’t yet have my beautiful mandola at the time I am reminiscing about; only a fine Collings mandolin I bought from a famous mandolin emporium on Staten Island which I believe does not exist anymore, its owner having died tragically and his heirs having sold it off. I could look it up to be certain of the second part, but it would only make me sad. I would go back there when my right arm works again if I could, but I can’t and no more can anybody else ever again, as I have said.

and I miss my old mandolin teacher most of all, he was—I dare say still is—a wonderful man full of authentic rustic folk wisdom. I recall one time, during the first airing of Twin Peaks: The Return this would have been, he asked me what this Twin Peaks was all about: and I gave him the vaguest and briefest possible description (an FBI agent comes to a small town to investigate a girl's murder, and then it is twenty-five years later and maybe it is all a dream but maybe it isn't.)  He had heard of it previously but had gathered no impressions about it at all, so my news was all surprising to him. I did not go into any more detail than that because I do not like to be a Twin Peaks bore.

but perhaps that little I told him was enough, because then HE says, That sounds a lot like Incident at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce, where the fellow escapes in the middle of being hanged and has many adventures in the course of escaping, and then you find out at the very end that he did not escape after all, those are just the visions he has as he dies.

and I found this to be so terrifically perceptive I did not even take up a resentment at being told who wrote Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, as if I didn’t know.

so that is some legitimate old folk wisdom from an old folk musician.

Back to 2016: whatever you say about old-timey folk music people, you can say it about my fellow camp-goers with accuracy & a clean conscience just as long as you don’t say it about me. Don’t say it about John Reischman, either; he is a Canadian and a gentleman from whom I took a very intimidating week-long tutorial back then & who does a slow solo instrumental arrangement of Little Maggie that haunts you just like a haunted bell, even or especially if you find uptempo bluegrass business to be unendurable, as I certainly do. There are exactly two ways to play the mandolin as a solo instrument that appeal to me: one is to hit a lot of dissonant drones and flail away like a bear bashing a salmon on a rock, and the other is to be so subtle and artistic your terrible audience will want to take off the vaudevillian-style straw boater hats it is probably wearing, out of respect. the first style is the only one I could ever get anywhere with.

[Various people at various times have tried to teach me to play things “in the style of Bill Monroe,” so to say. This is, to some, desirable. In the days of my youthful naivete I was impressed the first time I heard an old man tell a Bill Monroe story, but then it gradually unfolded itself to me how each and every folk musician over 50 has a Bill Monroe story and as time passes they grow less and less likely to be genuine first-hand reports, true in every particular. Still, I will admit they paint a consistent picture.

Now you may say, What is Monroe Style exactly? Well it is a state of mind mainly, let me help you into it.

well now you are a mad old man in a hat. you are ninety-twelve years old. the hat is big, bigger even than your belt buckle. hippies are growing their hairs down over their shirt collars, even the ones who love you and call you Sir, and what can you do about that? what can you and your mandolin and your hat do about that? everyone respects you and your hat but you are mad about it all anyhow.

 These terrible youths will hang on every word you speak because it is 1969 or 1975 or 1982 and what else have they got to do with themselves, smoke some drugs or grow some beards or not work in a sawmill probably. that is all degenerate youth do these days is not work in sawmills. "please mr. monroe will you play us a tune please" they say. Well now, how about you go out into the mountains with nothing in your pockets but a washboard, a ham sandwich and a birch bough and make yourself a fine suit of clothes and a sturdy musical instrument out of them, since we are all making requests of one another just like familiar friends.

you have been mad since you were eightyleven and you will not stop simmering as long as you keep your hat on. the hat keeps your mad from coming out the top of your head so if you want to spite these filthy degenerates, about all you can do is fall asleep at them or play the mandolin at them. you can probably do both at once. you are bill Monroe.]

Anyhow, Little Maggie is a song, with words (folk people are as particular about distinguishing songs from tunes as classical people are about distinguishing songs from pieces, and to as much or as little purpose. though I do it too.) Once I had a grand dispute with someone to whom I had said I enjoy certain versions of the song Little Maggie because it is a folk song about a woman in which the woman does not die: but this someone was taken aback and declared that she did, indeed, die, and that this is why you sing Wake up, little Maggie. That is to say (he said), the narrator is one of those folk-song types who is slow to figure whether a lady is dead or just resting.  Whereupon I said No, she is sleeping soundly because she drank too much and can't hear the tax collectors coming, just like the song says; dead is dead and asleep is asleep, this is not the new york times crossword puzzle and you are letting your bloodthirst get the better of you in your eagerness to misapply a metaphoric reading.

then he reminded me that Death is the brother of Sleep, unless it was I who reminded him, and I said Yes exactly, and you don’t treat siblings interchangeably, it isn’t decent. How would you like to be Hypnos all through grade school all your teachers reminiscing about how they’d loved Thanatos, & can you do the trick where you kill a guy, Hypnos, just like your brother? and the pain and unfairness of their disappointment when you assert your own identity, which after all is just as good a one, and would make you the popular brother if there was any justice.

the way out of this argument is to play it without the words, like I say: the melody is very pretty, actually, and the slower the better. this is one minute of real music, not some fucking mumford business or whatever. give me that much credit at least. benefit of the doubt. you must admit I have earned it. you must! “this album cover image in the video you link to isn’t in your usual line at all” no, well, that proves my sincerity, doesn’t it.

of course, it might could be sincerity is not what you are after, from me. but it is all you are getting today.

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