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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“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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Chick Corea (1941-2021)

In the mid 1960s through the 70s Classic Rock and Fusion jazz groups populated the same performance landscapes and often shared the same audiences. Part of the reason for that must be laid at the feet of the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. While electric amplification was part and parcel of rock music of the day Miles and jazz musicians had only recently discovered electricity. Miles was an avid explorer of new technology, new musical genres, new bands and new musicians. His bands were populated by the brightest and the most technically innovative musicians of the day. Among his brightest stars were the pianists Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. At the age of 80 Herbie Hancock is still musically active; at the age of 76 Keith Jarrett has been sidelined by very significant health issues and is currently no longer performing; At the age of 79 Chick Corea Corea died of cancer at his home in the Tampa Bay area of Florida on February 9, 2021. He had only recently been diagnosed with cancer.   Chick was a prolific composer and performer right up until his death.

His most famous composition  is an Instrumental jazz fusion composition titled Spain. It was composed in 1971 and appeared in its original (and most well-known) rendition on the album Light as a Feather. It featured Chick Corea on Rhodes electric piano, Airto Moreira on drums, Flora Purim on vocals and percussion, Stanley Clarke on bass and Joe Farrell on flute. The introduction used in the song is from the second movement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s  Concierto de Aranjuez guitar concerto. The chord progression for the piece is | Gmaj7 | F#7 | Em7 A7 | Dmaj7 (Gmaj7) | C#7 F#7 | Bm B7 |.

This attached video is a later version recorded in Barcelona, Spain that featured Jorge Pardo (flute, soprano and alto sax) Carles Benavent (bass) Rubem Dantas (percussion) Hossam Ramzy (Egyptian percussion) Tom Brechtlein (drums) Auxi Fernandez (Flamenco dance) Tomasito Moreno (Flamenco dance).

The Jazz world, and the musical world in general, has lost one of the most significant musician of the past 50 years. He will be sorely missed.

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THE CHICK COREA AKOUSTIC BAND. JAZZ SAN JAVIER 2018.

“Nineteen years after his long remembered performance with the group Origin and Gary Burton during the second edition of the festival, Jazz San Javier is pleased to present the return of Chick Corea. With a most brilliant career which began in 1966 as leader of his own projects, with 20 Grammy Awards to his name, and 51 Grammy nominations, Chick Corea is one of the top piano players of his generation, alongside Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. An innovator with his electric projects like “Return To Forever” and the “Elektric Band”, he also shows his best facet as brilliant pianist through his acoustic projects, the brightest of which is the Akoustic Band, a meeting which is perceived as the jazz event of the year, with two other jazz greats, John Patitucci and Dave Weckl.”

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Floe Lake – Numa Pass – Tumbling Creek – The Rockwall – Goodsir Pass

This is another YouTube video that has hit my nostalgia buttons.

For more info check https://www.inafarawayland.com/rockwall-trail-guide/

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When we relocated to the Kootenays in British Columbia in the mid 1970s one of the first things we did was an April road trip into Kootenay Park followed by a circuit through Rogers Pass, Revelstoke and back down though the Arrow Lakes area to our home base in Rossland BC. As it was Easter and there was still lots of snow on the mountains and the scenery was spectacular. One of the most memorable scenes was the views of Mount Verendye and Mount Numa from Highway 93 near Vermillion Crossing. I didn’t realize it at the time that there were numerous trails that led into the area and along, what is described in this video, as the Rockwall Trail.

Over the years we had many road trips though Kootenay and Banff National parks with only a limited number of opportunities to explore the trails. As always time slips quietly by and before you knew it we had been in area nearly twenty years without having explored the potential of the area. I decided in the early nineties to remedy that situation by initiating regular late summer hiking trips into the parks. My son went off to University and my wife Mae, who is a five star hotel type of girl, had no desire to spend two weeks a year sleeping on the hard ground in the Canadian back country. So my my pattern for the next ten to fifteen years was to take two-three weeks each late summer to do solo backpacking trips in the National Parks. Every summer I would do a number of day trips and at least one multiday/7 night trip.

I started these endeavors in the summer of 1991.During that first summer I did a number of day hikes, including the Stanley Glacier Trail and a number of hikes to various destinations on the Rockwall Trail. The trails are very accessible from Highway 93. Often the trail head and the trail end are some distance apart. I solved that problem by leaving my bike at the end of the trail, driving to the trail head, hiking the trails, pick up the bike and cycle back to the trailhead to my vehicle. As a plan it worked well. I was staying at the Marble Canyon campsite on this trip  and used that as a base for the day trips and bike tours to Vermilion Crossing and Lake Louise.

On Thursday, the twenty second of August 1991, I set out on a day trip up to Floe Lake and back down the Numa Falls Trail. As described in my journal “I started out at 8:45am on a beautiful sunny day for the two and three quarter hour, 11k hike and 2,400 elevation gain up to the lake”. It was then just a case of kicking back, eating lunch and enjoying the sun and the spectacular view of 3,000 vertical feet of mountain dropping into a beautiful lake. The black flies were a little pesky and the gophers trying to forage food from inside my backpack were very cheeky. I set out for Numa Falls and the downward trail around three o’clock. All in all it was a 22K round trip of 5 hours of actual hiking. The photos are from the Floe Lake area.

Four or fiver days later I decided to do the Tumbling Creek trail. The logistics of the trip included leaving my pack at the Paint Pots trail head, driving to the Numa Falls trail head and cycling back to the Paint Pots, hiding the bike in the bushes and doing the hike. This was done to avoid a five kilometer walk from the end of the trail back the trailhead. I was on the trail earlier enough to make it to the pass by 1315hrs. Highlights of the trip up the pass were the wild flowers,  massive avalanche damage, Tumbling Creek, a scenic suspension bridge and a spectacular view looking north along the Rock Wall to Woverine Pass. Looking south there was the views of Mount Verendye and Mount Numa. The weather was a little cool after lunch when I headed off south down a very steep series of switch backs on the trail that joined up with the Numa Creek trail at Numa Pass junction. I made it to the parking lot around 16:45hrs and drove to Paint Pots trail head to pick up the bike. . All in all a 25K round trip of around 5.5 to 6 hours hiking. The guide book specifies an elevation gain of 2,700 feet and a max. elevation of 7,500 feet.

 

I ended that the 1991 summer vacation without accomplishing  an extended overnight back packing trip. At the time I was  insufficiently equipped to attempt an extended back packing trip. This was may first solo foray into the National Parks. I hiked a total of 60k and cycled 100k.

In the late summer of 1992, with the purchases of a new sleeping bag, portable stove, an upscale backpack and a  warm black toque for those cold evenings I corrected some of last summers deficiencies. Once again I camped at  Marble Canyon Camp Ground in Kootenay Park. To get in shape I did a number of day kikes that included the Chephen Lake  / Cirque Lake trail. This is a very short easy trail in the shadow of Howse Peak (3,295 metres – 10,810 feet). This is a very spectacular, formidable mountain that, on 16 April 2019 took the lives of three of the most talented international climbers of their generation. David Lama, Jess Roskelley and Hansjorg Auer, after climbing  a new route on the east face they were killed in an avalanche during their descent. That was way in the future and an endeavor that was way above my pay grade. I also did a 20 K / 5 hour day hike into the Yoho Park’s Yoho Glacier.

This year’s plan for the multi-day hike was to start from Marble Canyon Information Center parking lot and hike into the northern section of the Rockwall, with an overnight at the Ochre Camp Site, Helmet Creek, Mount Goodsir Pass into Yoho National Park,  McArthur Pass and another overnight at Lake O’Hara. I am not sure of the total distance but I suspected it would be around 52k. There were some significant logistical planning required. First of all a stop to park my gear at the information center and obtain permits for the overnight camp sites. Then a drive to park the car at the end of the trail at Lake O’Harra. At 12:30 I pulled the bike out of the car and cycled the the 52k back to Castle Junction, up and over Storm Mountain and down to Marble Canyon. The climb up Storm Mountain was pretty taxing and I ended up walking the the last  kilometer over the pass. I did it in pretty good time – 2hrs 10 minutes. I locked up the bike behind the cabins and was on the trail by 1600hrs

Monday Day 1- The distance to the campsite was only 7k and it only took around two hours. On setting up camp I discovered I was missing my eating utensils, a can opener and my camera. The camera was unfortunate but considering my food supply the rest were pretty essential gear. I made do with a tent peg and and rock hammer. I was the only one in the camp site for the night.

Tuesday Day 2- Despite the heavy frost I was up on the trail by 1030 hrs. Two and half hours and 6.5 k of steep trail later I was at the the Tumbling Pass campsite to have lunch, have a rest and take in the beautiful scenery. Back on the trail again at 1400hrs for the 12.5k hike to Helmet Falls. At the beginning it was steep but eventually it topped out into a beautiful alpine meadow, A short side trip Wolverine Pass gave access to huge mountains stretching away to the west. There were lots of hikers heading the other way but none going in my direction. Because there was bear sign on the trail I kept up some pretty noisy yelling every few minutes. I did not want any surprises and it paid off. While passing through a grove of pines that overhung the trail I heard a rustling in the trees when I looked up I spotted a bear cub about four feet from my head. I took a quick look around for mother bear and pounded on up the trail as fast as my legs could carry me. Thank god there was no sight of mother bear.  Nothing but great views of Helmet Creek Falls. By this time the sun was behind The Rockwall  as I headed down the  steep final section to the Helmut Creek Campsite.  I arrived and set up camp around 1830hr. Supper was a bit of a challenge – eating spaghetti with a tent peg was  an interesting exercise.

Wednesday Day 3- The morning was gloomy with a threat of rain. By 1030hrs I was on the good clean trail  that crossed over the Goodsir Pass and the Kootenay Park / Yoho Park Boundary. My guidebook book appeared to be a little out of date. Suggestions that Goodsir Pass trail was not recommended did not match up with the conditions I experienced. It was a short 4k climb to the top of the pass  for spectacular views of Sentry Peak (3,265 metres)  and the twin spires of Mount Goodsir (3,561 metres). The trail descended down into Goodsir Creek and the Ottertail River. I by passed the trail to the Ottertail falls. I met another camper on the trail and despite light showers we both made it to the McArthur Creek Campsite at 1400hrs. He pushed on but I decided to camp the night. I settled down and read for a while. By the middle of the night the rain was belting down. Tomorrow was going to be another day and I had no rain gear so it would be decision time. Do I push on or sit out a day waiting for better weather?

Thursday  Day 4- A soul searching decision was not required. There was mist over the creek with blue sky and brilliant sunshine overhead.I was on the trail by 10:30 am. It was a very pleasant gradually ascending trail until the new bridge  then it got steeper, then steeper and steeper until it topped out a little after 1400hrs. On the way to Lake O’Hara the trail passed by Schaffer Lake. I completed the 13.5k at the campsite by 1500hrs. The park warden briefed the campers on the rules. The area has a bad bear problem so the rules needed to be followed. I had plans for a nice meal at the lodge but no luck. I figured I was too dirty and unkept for a sit down meal so after a snack and a stroll around the lake I set up camp turned in for the night around 200hrs.

Friday Day 5- Heavy rain  with thunder and lightning woke me up in the early hours of the Morning, It was right on schedule. The weather forecast called for a thunderstorm around 6am and it arrived right on schedule. As the storm progressed the rain changed to a rustling sound that puzzled me until my tent collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow. There wasn’t sense in trying to get things back to normal and going back to bed. I packed up my gear and headed to the cooking shed to meet the 7:30am bus that was leaving for  the Lake O’hara parking Lot. We reached the parking lot by 08:30 It was another beautiful sunny day pretty. In summary it was a 52k hike with four overnights on the trail. It was a good introduction to extended back packing in the park. I learnt I needed to continue to improve my gear. Reduce the weight, a better tent that didn’t collapse under the weight of snow; and some rain gear would be a good start for the following year. And don’t forget the camera next time. I picked up the car from the parking lot and drove back to Marble Canyon to pick up the bike before heading back to Cranbrook. I had hiked a total of 85k, cycled 52k.

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Postscript: Some time in the future I would have liked to redo an extended repeat of the Rockwall Trail by starting at the Floe Lake Trail and continuing all the way through to Lake O’Hara with lots of overnights on the way. Or even better start at Lake O’Hara hike all the way through to Floe Lake then hike all the way back and take lots of photos. That was not to be …. Bear activity closed the  Goodsir Pass – Lake O’Hara section for a number of years. Instead I went on to work my way through a list of many of the other backpacking trips and solo day hikes in the parks.

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Unusual Musical Instruments – The Haken Continuum

Specifications and Description: The Continuum Fingerboard or Haken Continuum is a music performance controller and synesizer developed by Lippold Haken, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois, and sold by Haken Audio, located in Champaign Illinois.This a a modern electronic instrument initially developed between 1983 and 1998. It features a touch-sensitive neoprene playing surface measuring approximately 19 centimetres (7.5 in) high by either 137 centimetres (54 in) long for a full-size instrument, or 72 centimetres (28 in) long for a half-size instrument. The surface allows a pitch range of 9350 cents (about 7.79 octaves) for the full-size instrument, and 4610 cents (about 3.84 octaves) for the half-size instrument. The instrument has a response time of 0.33 ms. was initially developed from 1983 to 1998

Sensors under the playing surface respond to finger position and pressure in three dimensions and provide pitch resolution of one-tenth cent along the length of the scale (the X dimension), allowing essentially continuous pitch control for portamento effects and notes that are not in the chromatic scale, and allowing for the application of vibrato or pitch bend to a note. A software “rounding” feature enables pitch to be quantized to the notes of a traditional equal-tempered scale, just scale or other scale to facilitate in-tune performance, with the amount and duration of the “rounding” controllable in real time.

The Continuum also provides two additional parameters for the sound: it is able to transmit the finger pressure on the board as a MIDI value, as well as the finger’s vertical position on the key. These parameters are independently programmable; a standard configuration is where position on the X-Axis (lengthwise) on the instrument corresponds to pitch, position on the Y-Axis (widthwise) corresponds to a timbre shift, and position on the Z-Axis (vertically) corresponds to a change in amplitude. The Continuum is capable of polyphonic performance, with up to 16 simultaneous voices. Each recent revision has brought more features and sound diversity to the internal synthesizer in the Continuum Fingerboard. As such, the instrument can now be considered both a controller and a stand-alone instrument.

I became aware of the instrument when I stumbled on the following YouTube video of the Berklee Indian Ensemble. To my ear the sound is very much like the traditional Indian Veena and I can see (hear) that its use in traditional Traditional North Indian Classical music would not require much of a leap.

Over the last twenty years the instrument has found a place with  a  number of contemporary composers and is featured in a significant number of film and TV scores (including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

They are pretty pricey so don’t go looking for one in your local music store.

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YouTube Picks (#40) – Master Musician: Martin Hayes

Martin Hayes (born 4 July 1962) is an Irish Fiddler from County Clare. Hayes was born into a musical family in Maghera, a village in the parish of Killanena in East Co. Clare. His father, P.J. Hayes, was a noted fiddle player and his grandmother played the concertina.   His father and his uncle Paddy Canny, also an influential fiddler, were among the founders of the Tulla Ceili Band in 1946. P.J. Hayes led the band from 1952 until shortly before his death in 2001. Martin Hayes started playing the fiddle at the age of seven, taught by his father. At 13 he won his first of six All-Ireland Fiddle Competitions. He is one of only three fiddlers ever to be named  All-Ireland Fiddle Champion in the senior division in two consecutive years (1981 and 1982).[2] He joined the Tulla Céilí Band as a teenager and played in the band for seven years. Hayes moved to Chicago in 1985 and became active in the Irish traditional music scene there. He was a regular performer at weekly   jam session organized by Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll, who later described him as belonging to “that very narrow set of performers from any musical genre – not just Irish – whose every note is perfect”.  In 1993 Hayes moved to Seattle , where he lived until 2005. In 1996 Hayes formed an acoustic duo with Dennis Cahill, developing an “unrushed, lyrical, highly expressive interpretation” of traditional Irish music. Hayes and Cahill have released three recordings on the Green Linnet label: The Lonesome Touch (1997), Live in Seattle (1999), and Welcome Here Again (2008)…. Wikipedia

The Lonesome Touch (1997, Green Linnet #1127) This is the recording that first caught my attention with it’s exquisite sound and the magical interplay of Martin’s fiddle and Dennis Cahill’s  guitar accompaniment. This is one of the great musical duos of recent years and here is a clip of the duo in full flight on National Public Radio.

Martin and Denis play music that is solidly in the Irish tradition but it doesn’t stop there. They are continually exploring the boundary’s of their traditions. Here are a couple of examples of recent explorations. The first is an experimental quartet with bass clarinet player  Doug Wieselman and  viola player Liz Knowles.

“Taking leaps into the unknown and relishing their unpredictability: Martin Hayes’s appetite for collaboration with musicians from across the spectrum of the tradition and beyond is insatiable. His latest project is a head-turner. Prick up your ears and you’ll hear bass clarinet sidling up alongside fiddles (and Dennis Cahill’s guitar) so that tunes intimately known become something new. Opener The Boy in the Gap is a masterclass in interpretation that invigorates a familiar reel. American jazz clarinettist Doug Wieselman and American classical violinist and viola player Liz Knowles are Hayes and Cahill’s dance partners, and the four engage in some fine musical moves. Present here in abundance, as it is in The Gloaming and in the duo’s repertoire, is that stealthy building of a tune: unearthing its melodic essence and letting it blossom slowly, with intent. Circling the tunes are the combined forces of Hayes’s deceptively simple fiddle lines and Wieselman’s intuitive embroidering, the bass clarinet amplifying the internal logic of the tune as if they’ve been lifelong bedfellows. Knowles’s mix of playfulness and counterpoint is a delight throughout. It’s yet another thought-provoking escapade to relish from Hayes”

The second clip was recorded on a trip to India with Sarod player Mathew Noone.

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