YouTube Picks (#41) – Music Outside the Industrial Complex

In 1961 President Dwight DavidIkeEisenhower in his farewell address to the nation, expressed his concerns about the dangers of massive military spending, particularly deficit spending and government contracts to private military manufacturers, which he dubbed  ” the military-industrial complex”.  His warnings were prophetic and much of his concerns have come to pass. The growth and influence of “the military-industrial complex” in the US has led to a distortion of the political and economic make up of the country. For the past 50+ years the US has been in a permanent state of war for which there seems to be no end in sight.

Now, it is not the same thing of course, but I suggest that the music “industry” seems to be in in a similar predicament. The mere fact that we consider music as an industry at all  pretty well under scores the existence of a “music-industrial complex”. Of course we don’t call it that. We know it simply as the “the entertainment industry”. It implies that if it doesn’t “entertain” then it has no value”.  I suggest that this is responsible for the sorry state of music in general. All pop music sounds the same. Maybe it is because I now fall into that  group of “old farts” who are incapable of recognizing “new and vibrant music”. Maybe, but I don’t think so. It is now usual for music to be pigeon holed into various genres and categories and within these groupings the music has been homogenized to point where original and creative performances are hard to come by. If you hear one good Blue Grass band then you have pretty well heard them all. The formula is there and to make a living the musicians pretty well have stick to it. Every rock band seems to be still rattling around inside the standard configurations pioneered in the classic rock era. Imaginative instrumental music has been replaced by a thousand and one singer / song writers. There are some great wordsmiths out there but a lot of the music is pretty ordinary. So much so that audiences no longer know how to listen to interesting  instrumental music.They don’t know the instruments, the  forms and the repertoire. Instrumental music is just too abstract for most audiences.

Every Community College and University in the land markets a range of diplomas and degree programs designed to dissect all aspects of music and parcel it up for students looking to equip themselves for a career in music. Even the “high art” genres such as Jazz and Classical music seemed to have fallen prey to the mass marketing of career building skills. The end result is the flooding of the “market” with thousands and thousands of highly trained and highly skilled musicians, producers, sound engineers, and support staff for careers in music that just don’t exist and probably not likely to exist in the future. The result is most musicians, etc barely make a living. Those that do usually end up in teaching careers. This aspect of the Classical Music Industry was very successfully explored in the book and the TV series Mozart in the Jungle. The whole topic brings to mind a conversation I had some years ago with a classical viola player who, despite a music degree and tenure in a number of symphony orchestras, was heading back to school to get either  an unrelated degree or vocational training to equip her for life “in the real world”. She found the rounds of soul destroying auditions had become too much to bear.

All is not lost. In fact technology has come to the rescue in the form of YouTube. It is possible to spend many hours a day exploring performances on YouTube  that fall outside “the music-industrial complex”.  Here is an example. I have no idea of the exact  name of the song. I have no idea of the content of the lyrics. I can only surmise that the music is probably Greek. The performers are two female vocalists who harmonize in a style that sounds some what Eastern European (Balkan, Bulgarian, Romanian, Turkish, Armenian  – pick one) and is way outside the norms of the entertainment industry. One of the girls accompanies the performance on the Arab Oud. She uses the standard oud pick called a Risha  that gives the music a vibrant percussive sound that  also sets it further outside current  entertainment norms. The other lass uses some finger castanets to add some percussion variety.  Take a listen to a performance that, to my ear, is creative and  imaginative.

I was fortunate to stumble on an analysis of the song on the website Oud for Guitarists. If you are a musician take a note of the key signature in the manuscript. With its Bb and a half Eb notations it is not a key signature that the average western musician would know. As an analysis the video it it is a good introduction to some of the nuances of Middle Eastern music.This is music way outside the norms of the  “music-industrial complex”

Here is another interpretation of the same tune by a young musician on electric guitar who is jamming along with the video of the two girls.

So, as I said. All is not lost. Explore the back roads and by ways of YouTube and find the hidden gems that are sitting there waiting to be discovered.

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More of the same :

 

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A Little Voodoo Light in the Pandemic Tunnel

A LITTLE VOODOO – Contemporary Blues, Centre 64, Outdoor Covid Protocol Concert; Saturday September 25th, 2021, 6pm.

We are over 18 months into the Covid Pandemic and across the nation and the world it has taken a devastating toll on the hospitality and entertainment industries. Live music performances have virtually disappeared. Recently the Fisher Peak Performing Arts Society managed to sponsor some performances in Cranbrook’s Rotary Park but a projected music festival scheduled for late September had to be cancelled because of the  uncertainties surrounding the pandemic. Apart from that, there has been no significant musical events for around eighteen months. However, there was a glimmer of light when the Kimberley Arts Council decided, in a limited fashion, to go ahead with their late summer schedule of musical events. The first event in the schedule is an outdoor performance by the Calgary rock/blues band A Little Voodoo. In keeping with Covid Public Health Protocols attendance is restricted to only 50 patrons with social distancing the order of the day. The tickets sold out in half a day.

This Calgary band has been around for many years. The two principal protagonists, Ron Burke on vocals and lead guitar, Tommy Knowles on bass guitar have been performing together for nigh on thirty years. As a band A Little Voodoo is a staple on Calgary blues scene.  They have won many awards and opened for the likes of Colin James, the late Jeff Healey, The Headstones, Paul Rodgers, Long John Baldry, David Gogo, Omar and the Howler, Bo Diddley and a host of others. In 2010 the Calgary Blues Music Hall of Fame named Ron Burke as the Guitar Player of the Year and bassist Tommy Knowles repeated his 2009 win as the Bass Player of the Year.

A Little Voodoo is not new to this area. They last performed here in Studio 64, Kimberley in October 2015.  Rob Vulic was the drummer for that gig. For this beautiful late summer evening concert Ron, Tommy and Rob were joined by Geoff Brock on second guitar.  They kicked off this evening of loud rocking music with Tired of Living Hand to Mouth and followed that up with two hours of an exciting mix  of original tunes and standards from the blues/rock repertoire.  Included in the evening’s performance were B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby, and from way back in the 1960s folk era, a stellar rocked up version of Donovan’s Sunshine Superman.There were some Jimmy Reed Memphis sounds and a wonderful faux peddle steel solo by Geoff Brock on Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. Also in the musical atmosphere there were some Chuck Berry, Stevie  Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winters  vibes all spiced up with great slide guitar riffs and lots of sterling solos from both guitarists.

And, as they say in the movies, “as the sun slowly sunk in the west” or in our instance, over the North Star Ski Hill, “we bid farewell” to A Little Voodoo and the light they shone into our dark pandemic tunnel.

Here are some more images from a great night of music……….

   

My thanks go to the members of A Little Voodoo, to Ray on sound and the brave  members of Kimberley Arts Council for putting themselves out there to promote and stage this event.

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Read any Good Books Lately? (#19) – The Recent Past

I like reading books with some historical basis. Historical novels work for me as does a significant number of non-fiction books. The published works of David Halberstam (April 10, 1934 – April 23, 2007) are non-fiction works well worth reading.  He  was an American writer, journalist, and historian, known for his work on the Vietnam War, politics, history, the Civil Right Movement, business, media, American culture, and later, sports journalism. He won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1964. Halberstam was killed in a car crash in 2007, while doing research for a book……. Wikipedia.

For me the following two books had instant appeal because they are about the recent past, just before my time, but close enough for me to see and feel the reverberations of what has just gone by.

THE RECKONING by David Halbertam

“New York Times Bestseller: “A historical overview of the auto industry in the United States and Japan [and] the gradual decline of U.S. manufacturing” (Library Journal).
After generations of creating high-quality automotive products, American industrialists began losing ground to the Japanese auto industry in the decades after World War II. David Halberstam, with his signature precision and absorbing narrative style, traces this power shift by delving into the boardrooms and onto the factory floors of the America’s Ford Motor Company and Japan’s Nissan. Different in every way—from their reactions to labor problems to their philosophies and leadership styles—the two companies stand as singular testaments to the challenges brought by the rise of the global economy.From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Fifties and The Coldest Winter, and filled with intriguing vignettes about Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, and other visionary industrial leaders, The Reckoning remains a powerful and enlightening story about manufacturing in the modern age, and how America fell woefully behind”.

THE FIFTIES, by David Halberstam

“This vivid New York Times bestseller about 1950s America from a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist is “an engrossing sail across a pivotal decade” (Time).

Joe McCarthy. Marilyn Monroe. The H-bomb. Ozzie and Harriet. Elvis. Civil rights. It’s undeniable: The fifties were a defining decade for America, complete with sweeping cultural change and political upheaval. This decade is also the focus of David Halberstam’s triumphant The Fifties, which stands as an enduring classic and was an instant New York Times bestseller upon its publication. More than a survey of the decade, it is a masterfully woven examination of far-reaching change, from the unexpected popularity of Holiday Inn to the marketing savvy behind McDonald’s expansion. A meditation on the staggering influence of image and rhetoric, The Fifties is vintage Halberstam, who was hailed by the Denver Post as “a lively, graceful writer who makes you . . . understand how much of our time was born in those years.” 

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Acoustic 12 String Guitar

Way back in the early 1960s the first 12 String Guitar music I remember hearing was on the recordings by Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter, 1888 –  1949). He was  an American Negro folk musician, notable for his clear and forceful singing and his powerful use of the 12-string guitar. His popular performances  predated the folk revival of the 1960s but  his recordings were staples of the era. In 1988 he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The first live performance of 12 String Guitar I witnessed was by Pete Seeger on his 1963-64 Australian tour. Pete walked onto the Stage at Sydney University with a a banjo in one hand and a 12 String Guitar in the other. He then proceeded to give a spell binding concert that is still imprinted on my brain. Included in the performance was his classic tune  Living in the Country.

During the classic rock and folk era of the 1970s the acoustic and electric 12 String Guitars were pretty well staples on the music scene.There were plenty of 12 String   players in that era but perhaps the most notable was the  singer / song writer Leo Kottke. He had a great voice and powerful driving finger picking style that was reminiscent of the classic country blues style. With the use of a slide he added a new twist to the classic techniques. Here are some Youtube videos of Leo.

Although there are a lot of clips of Leo’s  performances on YouTube the quality of the videos is mostly subpar. However the music and the humor are, as always, excellent.

Over the years the unique sound of the instrument has somewhat faded from the scene to be replaced by 12 String Guitars that sounds just like a a regular 6 String Guitar with just 6 extras strings. Musicians seem to have decided to abandon traditional low tunings to stick with the standard  guitar tuning.To my ear the thundering rhythms and bass runs seem to be missing.

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Of course there is always one in every pack. Some one who is just so different that he or she completely defies tradition and standard practice and ends up in a category all by themselves.  12 string guitar players are no different and the man completely outside the box is the jazz guitarist Ralph Towner.

 

Ralph confesses “I am a piano player who plays guitar”. He started on piano as a young child and was a serious trumpet player growing up. He didn’t tackle the fretboard until his final year at the University of Oregon, when he began playing classical guitar as part of his composition studies. “I somehow managed to buy one for almost nothing,” he told All About Jazz’s Mario Calvitti in 2017. “I started to teach myself and I realized I was not gonna go very far.”

After college, Towner scraped together the money to study with Karl Scheidt in Vienna. He set aside horn, keyboard, and jazz and spent a year focusing on his new instrument. “The classical technique got the most sound, the most colors and articulation,” he said later. “When I studied the classical guitar, all I played was classical music and I tried to stay away from improvising.”

A return to the U.S. did bring a return to jazz and improvisation—only it was on the piano, where he found a foothold in the NYC jazz scene. But the division between classical guitar and jazz keys crumbled in the 1970s as Towner co-founded the band Oregon and began collaborating with the likes of Weather Report, Gary Burton, Paul Winter, and his frequent artistic partner John Abercrombie. Besides the classical guitar, he would eventually bring 12-string and baritone guitars into his unconventional arsenal—additions that make a certain sense, as both instrument types have wide necks and fingerboards, closer to classical models than a standard steel-string acoustic.

“Towner didn’t have guitar players as role models for his unique style of guitar improvisation,” biographer B. Kimberly Taylor says. “The influence of Bill Evans was channeled through the medium of guitar instead of piano, and Towner [plays] the guitar in a ‘pianistic’ manner, almost transcending the instrument in a way that makes it sound like a small orchestra.” ……… 

Ralph has a completely unique sound and approach to the 12 String Guitar. While some of that is due to his background in Jazz and Classical music it is possibly his tuning system for the 12 String Guitar that give him his unique sound. His guitar is tuned CG / EbG / BbC / FD / AG / DD. Here is a clip explaining the tuning he uses.

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For many years I never had any real urge to take up 12 String Guitar. As an instrument it just appeared to be too difficult to play. In 1999 Jamie Wiens, a local luthier built me a wonderful small body  Auditorium  6 String Guitar. He followed that up with a custom Cittern that, through no real fault of Jamie, was not quite so successful. It was a first for both of us.He had to figure out how to build it and I had to figure out how to tune it and play it. The instrument has a wonderful sound and unbelievable sustain but over the years the long scale neck made it difficult for me to continue using it as my main instrument. I switched to a smaller scale instrument built by Lawrence Nyberg on Hornby Island. Mean while, Jamie had some nice Koa and spruce tone woods available and he persuaded me to commission him to build a 12 String Guitar. The result was a one-of-a-kind instrument that is absolutely magnificent. The instrument is a masterpiece but as a life experience the building process was horrendously bad. Jamie took eight years to complete the project and by the end we were no longer friends.

         

To complete the sonic possibilities my friend Dave Carlson installed a dual K&K contact pickup.  So with this magnificent guitar in hand how was I going to tune it to get a classic 12 String Sound? Shawn Robertson is a 12 String Guitarist in Kimberley who suggested that I try Leo Kottke’s C9 tuning. That is C G C G C D (low to high) with octave strings on the lower courses and unison strings on the top two courses. It turned out to be a great tuning and thanks to Jamie’s workmanship this guitar was easier to play than most 6 string instruments that I had experienced. It didn’t quite get the big 12 string sound I was hoping for but there were other musical attributes of the C9 tuning that more than made up for some  lost expectations. When exploring new tunes Jamie’s 12 String Guitar in a C9 tuning is my go to instrument. It is very easy to play finger style in the keys of C, G, F, Dmin, Bb, and C minor Dorian without the use of a capo. Of course with a capo playing in all keys is possible..

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Back to the Future: Despite the overwhelming success of the C9 experiment the thunderous old time sounds still haunt  me. Is it the instrument? Is it the tuning? Is it my poor technique? A little research turned up some answers. Pete Seeger plays his Living in the Country in a dropped D tuning. Keith Potgers probably uses the dropped D tuning to great effect in in the Folk band The Seekers. It is probably part of the solution but not the complete answer. Further research revealed that Blind Willie McTell tuned his 12 String Guitar down to Dropped C or even even down to Dropped B. Going to these lower tuning can pose some problems with the required  heavier strings and some guitars can become unplayable when tuned that low.

The dropped C tuning is C G C F A E. It is very close the the C9 tuning but has the advantage of the availability of  familiar chord shapes. Just use the dropped D shapes to end up playing in the key of C, etc. If the guitar can stand it and the string gauges are suitable it is possible to drop all the strings down even another semitone or whole tone to get more bass.

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THE GUITARS:

THE STELLA 12-STRING GUITAR. This was the instrument favored by the classic blues artists such as Leadbelly and Blind Willie Mctell. It is described as a “Jumbo bodied Flat Topped guitar” with a tailpiece and a bridge glued to the top of the guitar. Generally most acoustic 6 string guitars have a scale length 24.75″ to 25.5″. The Stella’s have a very long length scale length of 26.5′”. That’s not the only difference. Luthiers chase three adjectives when sculpting acoustic guitar tops: dry, stiff and lightweight. Stiffness without lightness means a heavy, thick top that doesn’t reverberate. A light top that isn’t stiff means loose, flabby tone with blurred note definition. To get the perfect mix, luthiers often use very thin tops for reverberation and a series of braces to provide stiffness for definition. These braces also provide structural integrity to hold fast against the stress that string tension puts on a guitar body. The layout and precision of these braces influence a guitar’s character in a big way. Here’s a look at two historical approaches.

The Ladder Brace and the Fan or X Brace

 

Ladder Bracing | More Treble, More Air

The X-brace is what we now consider to be the standard top-bracing pattern on flat top guitars. But when you go back far enough into the history of acoustic guitar manufacturing, you would come across a period in which the Ladder-braced guitar was king. In the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, a majority of the flattop acoustic guitars being produced during this period featured ladder bracing. Many of these “budget” instruments, including the Stellas would go on to become the defining sound of countless blues, folk, and country musicians of the era.  In low tunings the Stellas were big robust instruments with a big rumbling sound with lots of bass

Here are a couple of images of a restored 1929 Stella 12-string guitar…..

 

Most modern guitar manufacturers have 12 String models available. Ralph Towner plays a Guild; Keith Potgers (The Seekers) plays a marvelous Maton EM100C; Taylor guitars has been used by Leo Kottke and is a very popular model. An outstanding, if unusual, instrument is the Godin A-12. It is a slim line guitar with a reputation for outstanding electronics and ease of playing.

A few years ago they were priced under $1,000 but, unfortunately, they are now listed at $1,600 (sigh).

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Postscript:  Serious musicians all travel a road of exploration and discovery.

Jamie Neve: A local musician who has traveled one such road. Here is his 12 String Guitar story………

“I began my journey with 12 string guitars in early 1972 with a Framus. It was a heavy piece of lumber with a rather heavy top made of plywood and a wide neck. Hence it was lucky I was young with a strong left hand but its voice was a bit dull and a challenge to be nimble on the neck. So the guitar left my collection. Fast forward to the mid 90’s and an improvement in my economic circumstances and the purchase of  slope shoulder sitka topped Larrivee. It was a huge step up, nice warm sound, but with some jangle. It also had a good quality Fishman pickup and preamp and worked well in the live situation. Again the neck was not quite right for my hand. But a nearby friend found it perfect so aaway she went.

But then I was in a music store in  Kelowna and enter a used  Alvarez AJ60 S. A unique jumbo with a solid Maple top, back and sides. I snapped it up. Now she is 25 years young. Luthiers would call it a bargain guitar. I call it a dream to play even up neck with a very true lie so no annoying buzzes. Paired with the Fishman. 4 band Tranducer and phase control it has a rich full spectrum sound. In all aspects a quality build from Korea.

As things go a band I formed with local mates led us down the rabbit hole of The Beatles and Byrds tunes with 12 string guitar. Enter a Danelectro Vintage 12 string – a rival to the Ricki and all other semi-hollow body electrics. Another easy to play gitfiddle with tons of tone management options that sounds great paired with the MXR Dyna Comp compressor.  Enter a tune up by local luthier Jamie Weins and string reordering flipping thin for fat on the lower 3 and what a dream to play.This guitar stands out on songs like My Back Pages and  Mr. Tamborine Man.

All in all 12 strings occupy a big space in my musical repertoire but they require a real commitment to practice that is for certain.

Play On ”

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Me and my 12 String(s) – Dave Prinn.  Another local musician who has also traveled a 12-String Guitar road.

Like the blogster Mr. Wilson, my first live exposure to a 12 string was also with Pete Seeger.  My experience though was in 1960 at Place des Arts in Montreal when Pete was leading The Weavers.  My mother told me I did not manage to stay awake through the entire concert, but I have had a soft spot for the full spectrum ringing of a 12 string guitar ever since.

My first 12 string guitar was an Ovation Glen Campbell model purchased through a music store in Calgary in 1972.  It was a high end special order that has a nightmare story attached.  I will perhaps relay that story in a different chapter of this blog. The guitar arrived nearly two years after I had paid for it, and although it sounded wonderful, I was young and did not quite understand the delicacies of wood or how a fine guitar needed to be treated.  The guitar traveled in the back of my truck and endured a tortuous three year existence until the top began to bulge behind the bridge from a lack of humidification.  The guitar never made it back to my hands from the repair shop – as I was handing it to the technician behind the counter, I beheld a 1974 Martin HD 28 Ambertone, and it was lust at first sight.  They took the Ovation as a trade-in and I left the shop a very happy young man.

A couple of decades later and an entry level mandolin was traded for an Takamine 11 string of unknown vintage that was covered in dust.  It too had a Fishman 4 band EQ and it sounded amazing – especially in “Drop-D” tuning.  Unfortunately, the neck had the feel of a smooth 2 x 4, and the guitar did not get played very often or for very long.  It was eventually sold to a gentleman who had a hand apparently shaped like a 2 x 4.  He loves the guitar.

Another couple of decades disappear and I am in the home of Mr. J. Neve (see article above) and he offers me a Larrivee 12 string to strum.  Nothing flashy, but Sitka Spruce top and rosewood sides and back.  To my hand the neck fit like a glove and to my ear – perfection.  I told Mr. Neve that if he ever decided to sell it, I would like to be at the top of the call list.  A year or so later I learned that he had sold it to the wife of a long time friend to be given as a birthday present.  Although I understood the “why”, I still expressed my disappointment to a mutual friend. When he advised me that he had the identical guitar for sale I jumped, and the 12-string that I had so enjoyed playing was mine.  I added a vintage “Big Tone” piezo under-saddle pick up and although a passive pick-up, the guitar has more gain than any other guitar in my collection.

I too dropped into the Byrds repertoire and learned the Roger McGuinn 12-string break in “Turn Turn Turn”, as well as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambouring Man.  I have yet to explore the tunings less traveled.  The 12 string is a guitar with a magical voice that add a depth to many genres of music.

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“Plucking” Instruments – pun intended

Conventional wisdom has it that guitars are a certain shape, have six strings and generally tuned EADGBE (low to high). That is, by and large true but it is not set in concrete. The Arab Oud, the grand daddy of all guitar like instruments is a pear shaped, round back instrument with eleven strings and comes with a number of tuning systems (Arab, Syrian, Turkish etc). The Lute is the first European descendant of the Oud and it maintained the pear shape and the round back and also came in a number of string configurations and tunings. The first recognizable guitar shape was the Spanish Vihuela followed by the Renaissance Guitar, the Baroque Guitar, the Spanish Guitar and in the mid- twentieth century the solid body electric guitar. Modern Luthiers are constantly tinkering with the fundamental construction techniques and the string configuration of the modern guitar. Everything from types of wood, plastics, composite materials, strings and tuning systems are up for grabs. Here is a video that briefly outlines the mainstream history of the modern guitar………

followed by a number of YouTube videos with more details………..

This description and analysis of right hand “thumb under” and “thumb out”  techniques used on the Renaissance Lute are very interesting when compared to modern classical guitar and finger picking folk styles of modern times . To a modern player the “thumb under” techniques would be considered awkward.

 

These configurations and variations that were involved in the mainstream development of the modern guitar are not the only possibilities that were explored over the centuries. There many interesting little side streams and eddies in the realms of folk music. One of the most interesting is the Portuguese Guitarra.

This is a six course flat backed  lute like instrument that appears to have resulted from the importation and modification of the English lute or English Guitar into Portugal. That probably occurred around the time of Elizabeth I or later (This is supposition on my part). Physically the instrument features a unique peghead  and tuning devices. Modern performers use a type of “thumb under” right hand technique aided by the use of attached thumb and finger picks. The instrument is the mainstay of the Portuguese Fado  and as such seems to continue the melancholic traditions of Elizabethan English lute music.

Amongst the folkloric instruments there are the Cavaquino, the Ukulele, the Cuban Tiple and Tres; The Mexican Guitarron and Mexican Vihuela; The Andean Charango; The Russian Seven String Guitar; The Brazilian Seven String Guitar and, of course the modern 12 String Folk Guitar and Electric guitars. The list does not end there. Any exploration of ethnic music is likely turn up many similar  guitar like instruments. As mentioned earlier, even In the Classical Guitar world Luthiers are constantly experimenting with ways to extend the range and tonal possibilities of the instrument by adding more strings and tuning possibilities.

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Nullarbor ….. been there done that

Nullarbor. It sounds like it should be an Aboriginal name  but actually it is a Latin word  meaning “a plain with no trees”. It is part of the area of flat, and I mean flat flat flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast with the Great Victorian Desert to its north. It is the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock,  and occupies an area of about 200,000 square kilometres (77,000 sq mi). At its widest point, it stretches about 1,100 kilometres (684 mi) from east to west across the border between South Australia and Western Australia. In the true meaning of the word it is the Australian Outback.

Below is a short YouTube animated video that captures the essence of the area.

To view the video click on the image below……..

For me, my “Nullarbor Year” was 1969 when, for want of a bit of adventure, I decided to hitchhike from Sydney, N.S.W. to Perth, Western Australia. I had two to  three weeks vacation so I figured I could get there and  back in that time. If not I could jump a plane or a train and come in under the wire and save my job. A  lot of the trip would be through settled areas of NSW, Victoria and South Australia where there was lots of traffic. Western Australia was a different story for right in the middle of the Nullarbor there was a huge gap in the pavement. No real road just bull dust and rubble.  On a trip to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia the previous year I had already experienced the bone chattering, teeth rattling rigors of driving on outback roads. I don’t know how I thought I could avoid that experience simply by hitch hiking  but I knew that the second hand VW Beetle that I owned at the time was unlikely to complete the trip in one piece. The planned trip would be around 4,000k one way – give or take a few hundred kilometers. I didn’t keep a journal of the trip but I do remember that the summer was over so I guess I set out around some time in April. I drove to my parents house on the outskirts of Sydney, said my goodbyes,  left my car in their driveway, walked the hundred yards up the suburban street to  Pacific Highway 31, stuck out my thumb and, the rest as they say, is history.

The initial plan was to travel down Highway 31 to Albury on the NSW- Victoria Border, then along the Murray Valley to South Australia, cut north across that state to Port Augusta, then all points west to Perth.

    

The first day went smoothly and  apart from a short stop over at Gundagai to visit friends I made it down to Albury on the NSW – Victoria border in good time, hung a hard right and by late afternoon was well on my way along the Murray River Valley.  In those days I did have a sleeping bag but I had no tent. So It was a case of sleeping rough. When evening fell it was over the nearest fence, roll out the sleeping bag and settle down for the night. I made no plans for inclement weather. I was relying on the benevolence of Mother Nature. As it turned out I don’t think  it rained on me at any time while on the road. I do recall a shower in Kalgoolie, WA but at the time  I was in town so no worries. Crossing into South Australia the days went smoothly with good weather and lots of rides with pleasant company. The only potential misadventure was a ride with a macho driver who insisting on seeing how fast his machine could go. I think we clocked 100 mph. Apart from that he was a reasonable fellow, maybe just a little crazy, who originally was from just down the road from where I lived in Sydney. The overnight stop was either in Eucla just over the border into Western Australia, or Ceduna  still in South Australia. My memory is a little fuzzy on that but I do remember a great night in the local Greek club. I was into Greek food, Greek wine and Greek music at the time.  I hooked up with some engineers who were working on building microwave towers across the Australian west. One guy was ex-British army. In those days British youth were conscripted into the army for two years National Service. He had spent the better part of his service in Eden, then as now, a political hot spot. He was now out of the army and was spending his new found freedom in the desert country of Western Australia. “Where was he going next?” His company was sending him to Nigeria to work on microwave towers in Biafra. Another notorious political hot spot that at the time was in the middle of a civil war. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

Up until Eucla  the country so far traversed was mostly civilized and pastoral. Beyond the wheat belt there were some arid areas but, so far the road was paved and looking good.  Once over the border into  Western Australia then it was true blue Australian “Outback” dry, dusty desert country. This is the land of “the Aussie Salute” – a characteristic swish of the hand to keep the millions of moisture seeking flies away from your mouth an eyes. Just as I hit the unpaved section of the Nullarbor plain I hooked up with a convoy of two New Zealand families out to see the world. They wanted company and I needed a lift. The road was barely a road. It was  packed earth overlaid with a thick helping of “bull dust”. The road just kept getting wider and wider as drivers tried to seek out the best part of the road. Here are  some old photos from that section of road.

This is the New Zealander’s convoy.  That hole in the foreground is a sink hole that leads to an underground system of caves that ran all the way south under the plain to the limestone cliffs overlooking the Great Southern Ocean. By dropping down into this sink hole one can get the benefit of the cool ocean air funneled all the way from the ocean. A little touch of cool relief in a very hot landscape.

When we finally arrived back on paved highway we parted ways. The “Kiwis” wanted to take some time to clean out some of the dust before continuing. I managed a little side trip into Coolgardie and Kalgoolie. In its heyday this was one of the world’s richest gold mining areas. Mining is still the economic driver of the area and at the time of my visit it was in the midst of a huge scramble for nickel. Back east stock prices in WA nickel claims were going through the roof. 80 cent shares went as high as $280 before the bubble finally burst a year or so later.

Western Australia has some of the racial and redneck proclivities of the southern states of the USA. I saw aboriginal families on the street in Kalgoolie in pitiful condition. Mum and dad were drunk and kids were snot-faced, barefooted and in threadbare clothes.   One white old timer who gave me a lift from Kalgoolie back to Coolgardie related stories from his youth when he was a boundary rider on the big cattle ranches. In those early days of the twentieth century, as a boundary rider, he was under orders to shoot “wild blacks”.

The westering desert highway ends in Perth. This is the capital city of the largest state in Australia and it perches on the south western edge of Australia. Some say that “as the crow flies” Perth is closer to Durban, South Africa than Sydney, Australia. In distance and philosophy that is probably true. Western Australia (WA) is the state least committed to the Australian Commonwealth and at the time of Australia’s independence it resisted overtures to join the proposed Commonwealth of Australia. It was only the huge influx of miners from the Eastern States to the Kalgoolie goldfields  that swung the vote in favor of joining the new commonwealth. In Western Australia there is always something afoot in favor of succession from the Commonwealth. In a referendum in April 1933, 68% of voters voted for the state to leave the Commonwealth of Australia with the aim of returning to the British Empire as an autonomous territory. The WA State Government sent a delegation to Westminister to try and achieve that aim but the British Government refused to intervene.  Over the years a number of movements, usually funded by big mining interests, have tried to foster succession. In setting up the Commonwealth at the time of independence the constitution was framed in such a way to prevent any state seceding from the Commonwealth. To a Canadian ear the WA rhetoric for secession is much the same as that voiced by the Canadian province of Alberta. “It is the abundant natural resources of the west that keeps the country afloat, we are underappreciated, it’s those Eastern plutocrats and  bureaucrats that keep us down”.  The big difference between the Canadian and Australian experiences is that Alberta is land locked and as an independent Alberta it would have to deal with that as an issue. WA does not have that problem. On every side but one  the state is lapped by the ocean. It certainly makes it easy to export abundant resources. The mining companies literally shovel raw material onto conveyor belts for transport to a convenient port,  dump it into the holds of huge bulk carriers for shipment to overseas markets.

After the desert of Western Australia the local YMCA with hot showers, laundromat and a regular bed with sheets was a welcome opportunity to clean up, rest up, do some sight seeing  around nearby Freemantle and contemplate how to get back home. Hitch hiking back across the Nullarbor had lost its appeal. A journey aboard the iconic Indian Pacific Train seemed like the best option. Train travels between Perth, Adelaide and Sydney on a spectacular 4352km crossing. I don’t recall what the cost was back in 1969 but I have noted that today that trip would cost you around $2,000. I had no intentions of taking it all the way to Sydney but crossing the Nullarbor to Port Augusta in the lap of luxury seemed like the way to go. The  day and a half trip sure beat the hell out of another trip through all that dust. Port Augusta was as I remembered from my previous trip to the Flinders Ranges last year. Nothing special, just an industrial port on the edge of the desert at the head of Spencer’s Gulf. I didn’t retrace my previous  steps across South Australia. It was a case of just heading due south, through Adelaide down to the South Australian / Victorian border then east along the Great Ocean Road.  

I did some sight seeing around Mount Gambier but, unfortunately, missed some of the grander ocean views of the Great Ocean Road. I was starting to run out of time.

The final leg of the trip was through Melbourne then all points north to arrive back in Sydney in time to go back to work. In summary it turned out to be a worth while adventure. My only complaint was my lack of decent hiking boots. Back in the day no such thing existed in  Australia. I did the trip wearing “desert boots”. Not really a boot, rather , a  light weight suede shoe with Crepe rubber soles. The problem was that the desert boot had great ” boot to road traction” but there was a tendency for your foot to continually  slip back and forth inside the shoe. The end result of a lot of walking was that the soles of my feet were on fire and towards the end of the trip it was “a bit of a pain”.

So what did my trip have to do with the YouTube video?. Well as a graphic representation of the Nullarbor section of the trip it is pretty accurate. The only thing missing is the heat, flies and the bull dust that got into everything. The only inaccuracy that I can detect is the scene where the parked car rolls away and plunges over the cliff. The Nullarbor is so flat that there is zero chance of a vehicle rolling anywhere.

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POSTSCRIPT: Australia is a big country of vast distances over challenging terrain that has resulted in a number of unique routes across the country/

  • Australia’s Highway 1 is a network of highways that circumnavigate the country, joining all mainland state capitals and Darwin. At a total length of approximately 14,500 km (9,000 mi) it is the longest national highway in the world, surpassing the Trans-Siberian Highway (over 11,000 km or 6,800 mi) and the Trans-Canada Highway (8,030 km or 4,990 mi). A part of the highway network is traversed by over a million people every day. Highway 1 was created as part of the National Route Numbering System, adopted in 1955. Although there are many scenic spots along the highway it should be remembered that Australia is one of the driest continents on the planet and the vast majority of the highway system is across arid and semi-arid desert.
  • Major Rail Routes. There are three major long distance routes in Australia. The Indian Pacific crosses the country from Sydney to Broken Hill, to Adelaide, to Kalgoolie to Perth. It is one of the few truly transcontinental trains in the world and includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track, a 478-kilometre (297 mi) stretch of the Trans-Australian Railway across the Nullarbor Plain. A one-way trip takes between 70.5 and 75 hours, depending on scheduling and daylight saving periods. For motorist not wishing to face the rigors of the Nullarbor a motorail service conveys passengers’ motor vehicles between between Adelaide and Perth. The Ghan – originally named the Afghan Express in honor of the early camel drivers who the crossed the deserts of Australia. This is a rail service that crosses the continent North-South and links the cities of Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin. Its scheduled traveling time, excluding extended stops for passengers to do off-train tours, is 53 hours 15 minutes to travel the 2,979 kilometres (1,851 mi). The Ghan has been described as one of the world’s great passenger train​. The Spirit of Queensland  is a Queensland Rail long distance passenger rail service. It is operated by a diesel powered Tilt Train that runs five times a week on the North coast line between Brisbane and Cairns, a distance of 1,681 kilometres (1,045 miles).

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Read any Good Books lately? (#18) – The North-West Is Our Mother

The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation  

by Jean Teillet

There is a missing chapter in the narrative of Canada’s Indigenous peoples—the story of the Métis Nation, a new Indigenous people descended from both First Nations and Europeans

Their story begins in the last decade of the eighteenth century in the Canadian North-West. Within twenty years the Métis proclaimed themselves a nation and won their first battle. Within forty years they were famous throughout North America for their military skills, their nomadic life and their buffalo hunts.

The Métis Nation didn’t just drift slowly into the Canadian consciousness in the early 1800s; it burst onto the scene fully formed. The Métis were flamboyant, defiant, loud and definitely not noble savages. They were nomads with a very different way of being in the world—always on the move, very much in the moment, passionate and fierce. They were romantics and visionaries with big dreams. They battled continuously—for recognition, for their lands and for their rights and freedoms. In 1870 and 1885, led by the iconic Louis Riel, they fought back when Canada took their lands. These acts of resistance became defining moments in Canadian history, with implications that reverberate to this day: Western alienation, Indigenous rights and the French/English divide.

After being defeated at the Battle of Batoche in 1885, the Métis lived in hiding for twenty years. But early in the twentieth century, they determined to hide no more and began a long, successful fight back into the Canadian consciousness. The Métis people are now recognized in Canada as a distinct Indigenous nation. Written by the great-grandniece of Louis Riel, this popular and engaging history of “forgotten people” tells the story up to the present era of national reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

2019 marks the 175th anniversary of Louis Riel’s birthday (October 22, 1844)

Torn Screen Door

Canada has a strong tradition of Singer / Songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, Ian and Sylvia, Murray McLauglin, James Keelaghan, Fred Eaglesmith, and Ron Hynes are just few that can be mentioned. If he isn’t already there then  David Francy  should be added to the list . He is the recipient of three Juno Awards and three Canadian Folk Music awards.  Francey was born in Ayrshire, Scotland  in 1954 and immigrated to Canada with his family at age 12. In his selection of subject material, use of language, imagery and melody he demonstrates evidence of his Scottish heritage, all the while he is telling Canadian stories.  He has worked as a rail yard worker and a carpenter for 20 years and , of course,  this has informed his music. At age 45, he began a career in folk music, finding success on the folk festival circuit. His debut album, Torn Screen Door, was released in 1999. The title track of Torn Screen Door is a fine narrative song that Francy delivered in an unaccompanied “hands in the pocket” style that pretty well set the pattern for the numerous cover versions that are out there.

In much the same way the Australian Celtic group Co-cheòl offers an unaccompanied version.

Similarly, the Canadian Folk / Harmony  group  The Good Lovelies,  consisting of Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore perform the song in an accompanied  style.

Canadian, and Australian songs, have a habit of crossing the water to Scotland and Ireland. I once heard Stan Roger’s song Field Behind the Plough over the PA system in a shop in Dublin. As time goes by good songs have a habit of evolving, sometimes in unexpected ways. Here is a version by the Irish Singer Ger O’Donnell. The tempo has been stepped up with some driving instrumental accompaniments on guitar and Irish Bouzouki.This would be my favorite version. I don’t know the name of the Irish Bouzouki player.

Last, but not least the Irish / Scottish / German Celtic band CARA gives the song the full on driving Celtic treatment with Button accordion, flute, fiddle, bodhran, guitar and Uilleann pipes.

There you have it. Torn Screen Door in various shades of Canadian Green.

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Post Script: David Francy’s disography

  • Torn Screen Door (1999)
  • Far End of Summer (2001)
  • Skating Rink (2003)
  • The Waking Hour (2004) with Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin
  • The First Set (2006)
  • Carols for a Christmas Eve (2006)
  • Right of Passage (2007)
  • Seaway (2009)[6]
  • Late Edition (2011)[1]
  • So Say We All (2013)
  • Empty Train (2016)
  • The Broken Heart of Everything (2018)[7][8]

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