Thursday, December 21, 2006

It's hard to name a fiddle tune

Photo by Michael Kanemoto. From our Liberty Hall Holiday Hoedown, December 2006.

Thanks, LVJ, for the inspiration for a new post from me.

LVJ mentioned a couple of new fiddle tunes of mine that were played at Liberty Hall:

Christmas Eve -- which is NOT mine, though I wish it were. It comes from Jim Bowles, a fiddler of whom I know little. Well, I just did a little search for him and found out more... he was from Kentucky. Even cooler is that "Christmas Eve" is mentioned in this article... the link is in the blog title here, for those who are interested. Now, why that tune is called Christmas Eve, I can't imagine exactly. But it is a great tune and I'm trying to learn it a little better for next year.

[So far I have 3 seasonal fiddle tunes which only get played for our holiday shows. For a while all I had was "Breaking Up Christmas" -- you can find great versions of that by Benton Flippen and Tommy Jarrell. Then last year I got turned on to "Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over", which was recorded by Fiddlin' John Carson way back in the day... he was one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry. That tune/song (it does have a few lyrics -- "country haiku", as Ike calls it) also appeared in the film "Cold Mountain", and Jack White sang it. I notice when I do a search for it that some sites credit it as BY Jack White... interesting, and just a note on how traditional tunes sometimes do end up getting copywritten by someone much later. Is this a good or bad thing? I am not here to judge that right now, just a side topic for later consideration.]

The other tune was Douglas County. A funny thing about that tune. It's not a new one; we've been playing it for a while, maybe almost a year. I originally gave it a temporary title: "Bob Holt Meets the Crooked Jades". That's a mouthful, at least! Plus the confusion of folks thinking I was talking about Bob Hope made it not such a good title. Not to mention there are a precious few who know of the Crooked Jades (if you are not one of them, look them up - we think they are awesome). So shortly before we set out to record, Phil suggested (strongly suggested, you might say) that I come up with a REAL title for the tune. Good idea.

[If you want to hear this tune, you can find it on our listen page -- on the left column, with the title "BHMTCJ"]

So... it's really hard to name a fiddle tune, sometimes. My first tune ever, January Waltz, was a gift from the heavens and was easy to name as it came to me in January, several years ago, and is a waltz. The first dance tune I came up with was inspired by Art Stamper's playing, but I was bound and determined to give it a GOAT-y name. Thus, Goat Creek.

However, there's a more specific reason for giving it a watery name.

Many years ago, while attending the workshops at Augusta Heritage Center (man, I love that place... hope to go there and teach some day), I was bowled over by a lecture/demonstration given by Alan Jabbour. Now, this fellow was the founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Smithsonian. He also is a dedicated fiddler and before he was all official, he spent a lot of time in West Virginia hanging out with the old fiddlers and such. Doing what I wish I had time/money/ambition to do my own self. Anyway. One of the things that Jabbour spoke of was river/creek fiddle tunes. He said that those tunes tend to start out high, jump around some, and that the B part was almost always low, or lower, than the A part. Case in point with a very common tune: Cripple Creek. See what I mean? So that was one of many things that got me all excited during Jabbour's talk/play session. My students get to hear about other things from time to time when I'm really geeking out.

GOAT CREEK was written without a title in mind. It starts high, jumps around a lot, and then goes low for the B part. Once I realized that, I had my title!

Other tunes I have had trouble naming, too. The tune now called "Old Dirty Boot" didn't have a name for quite some time. We even performed it nameless... we'd usually play it at the beginning of a show so I wouldn't feel compelled to talk on and on about it without a name, etc. You know how I can be. We had to name it eventually when it was included in the music we chose to have available for that Merlfest live download deal earlier in 2006. I sat and thought about it for a while and for whatever reason, that's what popped out. Well, kind of. I had "Old Dirty Boots" in mind, and Ike suggested making it just one boot. Good idea! I love that title now.

"Rock in the Woods" is potentially mistaken for Rockin' the Woods, so can be problematic. I told the story of that tune for a while on stage. We were at the Hiawatha Festival in the U.P., Michigan, summer of 2005. I was alone at our campsite for a while. It was a beautiful wooded camping grounds, with very tall evergreens and plenty of shrubs and plants and places for little things to live. As I sat messing around with this melody, a chipmunk appeared about six feet from me. It was munching away on something, moving around, and totally unconcerned. Some of you know how fond I am of almost all animals, especially the really cute ones... one of my very girly qualities. Well, I kept on playing and that chipmunk kept on hanging out. It was a very cool few minutes for me. All of a sudden, the little guy took off, going 100 miles an hour and right by my left foot... I could almost feel him. (maybe I played a sour note...) I was sad to see him go, but you know what? He came back! After a while. By then I had the tune finished and I tried really hard to name it after my little friend. But the character of the tune is not chipmunk-y or cute. It's a rocking tune. And it was written in the woods. I started out calling it Rocking the Woods, which has a cool double meaning when you think about our wooden instruments. However, I ended up with the Rock because I like tune titles that bring about imagery, or questions, or those that are a statement in themselves (Hawk's got a chicken and flew into the woods, anyone?).

So... back to BHMTCJ. This tune was directly inspired by the playing of Bob Holt, from Ava, Douglas County, Missouri. Then we added a funky chord partway through that gets played twice, on one full A part. That's the Crooked Jades influence. But the main thing for me is the melody, which is, to me, very Bob Holt-y. There is precedent for naming fiddle tunes after counties... Robinson County, an Ozark tune, being one good example. So, I thought maybe I'd name it after Holt's native county. We just recorded the tune for our upcoming album. I gave it that title for the recording. Then, when I announced it on stage at Liberty Hall, everyone cheered and Phil mentioned to me that we were IN Douglas County. Oh, yeah.

I love Lawrence and the people of Douglas County. But I don't want to have a fiddle tune with a name that references a specific geological spot be confused with a spot of the same name but different place, especially one so close to our home. Yeah, there's probably a Douglas County in most states, anyway.

So... guess what. This tune starts high, jumps around a lot, and then goes low for the B part!

I'm currently doing some research on rivers and creeks in the area around where Bob Holt lived. I even wrote an email to one of his friends, Jim Nelson, a St. Louis guitar player (who happens to be one of my favorite all-time old time guitar players). I asked Jim if he knew of any waterways that Holt was fond of. Sadly, there is nothing conclusive to report from that query. However, I am sure Bob Holt got around to many of the waterways in his county. I'm going to choose one of them and then that tune will have its final, hopefully long-loved, name.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Ritual of 6...

At 2am, we arrive at Motel 6-Iowa City-tired and grateful. I go to check in, leaving the rest of the gang in the van in various states of unconsciousness. The night clerk eyes me suspiciously as I walk up to the night registration window. I tell her, through the bullet-proof glass, that I have a reservation. We keep the nationwide Motel 6 directory book in the van, so we almost ALWAYS have a reservation. It sucks to arrive late at night and find the motel sold out. It means you are not going to sleep for at least another hour, and you will have to pay more, sometimes a LOT more. Worse yet are the motels you pay LESS for. But that's why we always reserve at Motel 6. We only got burned on a reservation once- in Lafayette, Louisiana. When I went to the window that night, they had given one of our rooms away. It was a costly clerical error and made for a tough night. We had to go to a Super 8 instead. It was more expensive, less comfortable, and had a peculiar odor. This time our reservation stands.

I ask the clerk for rooms on the second floor (this Motel 6 only has two floors). Although it's more of a pain in the ass to climb stairs with all your gear, at least you won't have an early bird walking around on your head in the morning. I also ask for rooms that are NOT next to each other. Noisy neighbors are a common hazard when you stay in motels, but for some reason. knowing your noisy neighbors is intolerable. I put the band credit card through the bullet-proof glass along with my driver's license. As usual, the night clerk has to run it as two separate transactions even though I'm paying for both rooms on one credit card. This inefficiency is typical of the entire Motel 6 chain. However, there have been a few times that I've been checked in by a star employee- one who has advanced training in Motel 6 computer ops. So I KNOW its possible to put two rooms on one charge card. Tonight's clerk is no star, and so I have to sign two separate charge slips, and fill out two separate guest information sheets. When I get to the vehicle line, I grumble and have to walk out to the parking lot to get the plate number. You'd think that I would have memorized it by now. But, I still have our old van license, HYF-493, cemented in my accessible memory. I am always surprised by the actual license number 382-YHT, and vow to remember it the next time. But I never do.

I return to the office and finish filling out the forms. The night clerk asks how many keys I want for each room. I answer two. Somebody always loses their key, or locks themselves out, no matter how short a time we spend in the motel. I finish up the transactions, and glance up at the floor plan map taped to the bullet-proof glass. I look for our rooms in relation to the office on the map. I can't figure it out. I never can. I decide to just drive around the motel and look at the numbers instead. I drive around the motel, looking at the numbers. I spot our rooms, slam on the brakes, and then everybody goes into immediate action. Like a swat team, we pull everything of value, instruments, microphones, computers, iPods- anything that somebody might steal, out and into the parking lot. One of us from each room grabs a load and heads up the stairs- while the other continues to grab luggage. This tag-team approach insures that the van is never left unattended. Nate and Ike have their load-in down to a science. Each of them purchased back packs at Wal Mart last year just for this purpose. Inside, they keep extra socks, maybe a clean shirt, pajamas, and their toiletry bags. Ike always makes his load in one trip. Sometimes Nate tries too. He looks like an overloaded camel as he lumbers up to the second floor with his backpack, bass and amp. Betse and I prefer the multiple trips approach.

Once everything is safely moved into our rooms, I move the van to a parking place that will accommodate the trailer. Sometimes this is impossible, and the trailer must be unhitched and parked in its own space. Tonight there's room against the curb, but I have to go around the motel once to get a better run at it. I turn off the van, pull all the shades down, and lock it up, then walk around the van, double-checking that all the doors are secure. I check the trailer too, yanking on the padlock to make sure. Then I head up to the room.

The rooms at Motel 6 come in one of three configurations. Betse has classified these as "A", "B" or "C". "A" rooms are usually older motels that have been bought, renovated and reopened as 6's. Their unusually shaped rooms are large and comfortable. "A" rooms have a table with chairs, and (sometimes) an easy chair for lounging. And the beds can be as much as 15 feet apart in these palaces of economy. We check into "A" rooms once in a blue moon. "B" rooms are slightly more common, and are smaller as a result, but still have plenty of space to move around. The beds in "B" rooms are 9-10 feet apart. Commonly, these types of rooms are at Motel 6 locations that are laid out on a single level, like a military compound. They are truly "motor inns" and you can park right outside your door making it easy to load in. And, because they only have one floor, there's never anybody walking on your head in the morning. Hands down, "B" rooms are my favorite.

I put my key card into the slot and open up the door. I groan because tonight we have a "C" room. I know it immediately because Betse is standing on the other side of the room by her bed unpacking her stuff. She is no more than 15 feet away from me, and I haven't even come into the room yet. There is only enough space for one person to walk between the foot of my bed and the poorly designed all-in-one shelving unit/desk/chair/TV stand. Betse's bed is against the bathroom wall and mine is on the opposite-jammed up against the heater next to the door. There is maybe 3 feet between our beds (think Laura and Rob Petry from the Dick Van Dyke Show). All other available floor space is taken up by instrument cases and our 2 suitcases.

It's now after 2:30am, and so we choose not to turn on the TV. Betse readies herself for bed in the bathroom, while I unpack my pajamas and toiletries. The room is freezing. Betse turned the wimpy wall heater on high heat, full blast when she first came in, but I still have my coat on. I hear a whimper of pain through the thin bathroom wall. Betse comes out in her PJ's and Robe shivering. "I hate to put on cold clothes before bed," she says as she jumps under the covers with a "hmmmmphh." I grab my pajamas and toothbrush and head into the bathroom for a hot shower. I prefer to wash off my filth at night before I go to bed. Betse is the opposite. She relies on a hot shower to wake her up. And she hates going to bed with wet hair. I haven't had to worry about that problem since my hair fell out in the 80's. The standard "C" room Motel 6 shower design looks like something from a Star Trek episode. The stall is round, and the shower head is above you when you walk in, pointing at the back wall. I turn on the water and wait for it to heat up before stepping into the transporter bay. The standard Motel 6 shower head is ball-shaped and sends out an uneven blast of water. Nate calls this type of nozzle a "horse piss shower". This is a particular pet peeve of his, and he often threatens to bring his own shower head with him on tours. So far, he hasn't.

Now nicely warmed, I turn off the water and step back into the cold bathroom. I put on my PJ's and brush my teeth. I walk back into the room and the chill begins to overtake me. Betse is reading in bed. I grab my own book, and jump beneath the covers. I check the heater- high heat, full blast. I put my hand over the vent, located right next to my bed. The air coming out is slightly warmer than cold, not an encouraging sign. I glance over at Betse, already lost in her book. Without fail, she reads before bed every night to get sleepy. Tonight, she is reading the new Charles Frazier novel, "Thirteen Moons". I open up my book, "A Riot of our Own-Night and Day with The Clash 1976-79". I read maybe three pages before I hear Betse exhale and shut her book. It's late and we both need to sleep. We wish each other a good night, and I reach up and turn out the light.

I am a crew member on an interplanetary space flight to venus. We have achieved orbit and are beginning our descent into the outer layers of the gaseous planet's atmosphere. As we begin to skim the upper mesosphere, a warning signal begins blaring. I flip open the control panel, and see that the exterior temperature gauge indicates a dangerous heat build up. I am worried that our heat dissipation panels might have been damaged during our long flight. My throat is scalding as the air becomes too hot to breathe. I fear we are not going to make it...

I awake in a pool of sweat. It is 6am, and apparently the wall unit is now working- high heat, full blast. It's easily 100 degrees in our room. I get up and crank the thermostat knob to "cold". I have to go to the bathroom, and I'm careful not to make any noise as I walk past Betse's bed. She is notoriously a light sleeper. I do my best to shut the door behind me as quietly as possible, so as to not disturb her from her delicate slumber. I pee and then drink 10 plastic cups of water from the tap. I open the door carefully and listen for a moment. I hear Betse's breathing, slow and steady, and gingerly move back toward my bed. As I pass by her, a joint in my foot cracks and she stirs with a gasp. She rolls over and groans.

The morning light is already spilling into the room from around the edges of the curtain. I pull off my bedspread and hold it up against the window, standing on my bed. I tuck the edge of the spread over the upper left corner of the curtain. Then, moving to my right, I work the bedspread over the curtain rod sealing out most of the light from the room. I then carefully tuck the bottom of the bedspread into the small gap between my bed and the the heater. It's still about 98 degrees, but at least cold air is now blowing out of the vent, and this makeshift barrier keeps it from blowing on my head. I lie back down, covers off, and wait for my body temperature to equalize. We don't have to check out of the motel for another 4 hours and I desperately need to go back to sleep. Thoughts begin to race through my head and I know sleep may prove to be elusive. I come upon an idea for a new blog entry. I go over various ways of telling it in my mind. I'm pleased with myself, but then begin to worry that I might forget some of this genius by morning. I briefly consider getting up and writing some notes. But Betse's breathing has steadied again, and I decide not to risk it. I'm not sure how much time passes before I finally drift back to sleep.

Betse's alarm goes off. At first I'm not sure where I am. I open my eyes and reality rushes back into my groggy brain. I am in Iowa City. I am on the road again. I am at a Motel 6. I am in a "C" room. And I am freezing again.

Dedicated to James Frey