Trying to rekindle the excitement of practising Frailing Banjo after a layoff of a couple of weeks.
One autumn night, back in 2016 we were woken by the smoke alarm at 2am which probably saved our lives. We blame the mobile phone that was left charging overnight in what seemed to be the seat of the fire, although the fire-brigade and insurance company were happy to conclude that the open fire we had that night had set fire to the newspaper that had been used as packing behind the mantelpiece sometime in the 1950’s, and that this newspaper had been smouldering quietly away to itself for several hours before flaring up and the flames making their way around the corner of the fireplace and into the alcove where they concentrated on totally destroying the power socket where the phone was charging and igniting the floorboards and papers in that area. Luckily our keys, wallets and passports which were on the mantelpiece were perfectly ok and so were we. Roll forward three months and the Loss Adjuster is trying to fit us up with plaster boarding over the Victorian lime plaster and generally not being happy about replacing antique Axminster carpets and expensive inherited mattresses.
This is an improvised song for Martin, the Loss Adjuster.
It happened so suddenly. I don’t remember exactly when it was as it was all so sudden yet it seems it has always been that way, a creeping yet speeding glacial movement. It seemed such an amazing feature, from the first time I configured my WAP settings on my clamshell phone and downloaded the headers of my work emails on the tube in Edgeware through to ‘always on’ Internet and beyond into emails alerting me 24×7 to their constant presence. And now there is GDPR, a constant stream of emails and alerts informing me I have to act now to stay in the loop, to stay connected, a barrage of emails telling my immediate response is required in order to keep up the barrage of emails. How the non-urgent carved themselves a niche in my psyche and it all happened so fast I hadn’t realised it was happening at all, I was so happy to be needed, to be wanted, to be alerted immediately that there was something or someone that needed my attention.
Well now I am finding that attention is in short supply, that multi-tasking has been tested and found wanting, that screens and bleeps and alerts drain creativity and imagination faster than scrolling though endless posts of ‘notice me’ posts on those social media soapboxes.
Today I have taken back control, I have implemented by own uni-lateral E-Mexit. I have turned off all the sounds, the alerts, the banners and all I have left are the badges. From now it’s like 1997 on my phone, I will check my emails at my convenience, when I have cleared a space in my mind to review and deal with whatever has arrived in the intervening minutes, hours or days without being distracted from whatever was that task in hand – like perhaps writing this blog, distraction-free, bleep-free, bing, ping and bong-free.
So if you have just emailed me expecting an immediate response all I can do is apologise for your unsolicited expectation. I, for one, have taken back control – maybe you should too?
It’s week 9 of learning to play the failing banjo the Patric Costello way by watching his tutorial workshops on YouTube.
I’m still learning to play ‘Boil ’em Cabbage Down’, a simple old-time tune of 3 chords and an endless choice of verses and there’s a couple of renditions in here as usual, what’s different is that we’re at the Red Dragon Music Festival in Llangollen, Wales and I’ve taken the banjo outside into the wide, wide world.
Week 8 of my learning the craft of playing 5 string Frailing banjo was a video challenge set by Patrick Costello to make a video of yourself playing ‘Boil ’em cabbage down’. Now I had spent the last couple of weeks learning and practicing ‘Sam Hall’ so I needed a bit of a run up for this one!
As featured on FrailingBanjo.Com
These guys (Patrick and Dear Old Dad) do great work – check it out!
Into week 5 of learning the craft of 5 string banjo – and my first recorded attempt at a song!
Sam Hall as recorded by Johnny Cash on American IV.
It was just a story, we were out walking the dog around the Croft in Stoke-on-Trent when I saw the woman, out walking her dog, except there wasn’t one. Actually, there was one, but it was small and obscured by the long grass but by then it was too late, Woman Without Dog had already grown legs and starting running off by itself. Who was she? What’s her story? The last verse came later, there might be a chorus added at some point in the future.
Dedicated to Pip, we’re all Woman Without Dog at some point.
She’s up at the park every day
Walking her dog, at least
That’s what she says
There’s never been a dog with her all this time
They all say she’s lost her mind
She lost her husband seven years ago
Walking their dog along the flooded rivers flow
Somethings can never be explained
They all say he flew away to Spain
Now she walks around all alone
Every night up there in the dark
Talking to a dog that’s not there
Another voice lost in the wild autumn air
I watch her slowly fade away
And I think I’ve got it made
She’ll be forever on my mind
I just hope I got it right this time
Progress is progress…
Music has always been with me and I have always been with music, I remember my first ‘personal stereo’ cassette player back when Walkmans were really Walkmans and the Grundigs and Thorns did the same for less money. I don’t really remember my dad being interested in music at all, maybe sometimes humming a big band tune now or then. My mum had a few records, Roy Orbison, the Carpenters and the like. She would always sing along to the radio in the car which was always tuned to BBC Radio 1 back then when we were lucky if the radio had an 8 Track player let alone a cassette tape player. My oldest brother recorded his Bowie records for me and I spent many hours digesting Space Oddity, the Laughing Gnome, the Little Bombardier, Life on Mars and all the others, not really understanding, aged just 9, what was unfolding through my headphones. New music came my way – Beatles tapes from my Mum’s friend Maggie, Queen and Dire Straits, 6th Form influences of Goth with the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim and the explosion of the Los Angeles sleaze metal scene headed by the unknown but soon to be very well known Guns n’ Roses, Faster Pussycat and the German metal bands Helloween and Accept and many others in between.
In all of this though, one thing I knew was that no matter how much music I listened to or how many concerts or gigs I saw there was never the slightest possibility that I would ever be able to make music. Of this one thing I was sure, I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t sing and like the other talents in life I didn’t have like being sporty or artistic or out-going I just accepted my place in life because at least I was kind of smart and if I got good grades and a good job everything would be ok.
In my later teenage years I picked up a guitar and learned some rudimentary chords, I learned that although I could remember the chord shapes I could never remember the order to play them in to play a song, let alone remember the words. I saw other friends grow in talent in leaps and bounds and I was left strumming quietly in my bedroom with a couple of song books and a borrowed guitar.
Suddenly it was the mid-nineties and the internet had been invented, I had no hope of tabbing songs for myself of hearing a chord or key being played and knowing what it was. The internet opened a new world of others tabbing songs and uploading them to ftp servers back when the internet was more than just world wide web, it was ftp, it was gopher, it was irc and a whole lot more in between.
I began to download song sheets with chords and found that I could now passably play and sing along to the Dog’s D’Amour and Counting Crows although I knew how bad it must sound and that’s how I remained, occasionally playing on borrowed guitars for the next twenty or so years.
Unlearning the programming, the Shadows of the past is a journey. It started with the gnawing sensation that there must be something more to this, with a two day corporate ‘Effective Communications’ workshop that taught me that I was not my thoughts and opened the door to this journey of discovery.
I wrote a lot of poetry at this time, performed a lot of it until the well ran dry. I’m happy I had it for a time and look forward to its return. Another chance remark from someone asking if I wrote songs as well percolated in my brain for a year or two until last spring half a dozen songs fell out. But what was I to do with them – they don’t read like poems and I can’t sing or play them, other than the in the safety of my own living room. So I picked up the guitar with earnest, learnt to finger pick over the summer and actually, finally, bought my own guitar.
How many hurdles had I crossed to have the stuttering confidence to walk into a guitar shop – a guitar shop! With real musicians playing real music! What the hell did I think I was doing? One corner of the store was a sea of acoustic guitars and we must have played every single one of them. Of course the guitar I fell in love with didn’t tick any of my pre-conceived boxes – it’s fully acoustic, doesn’t have a cut-away so I can’t reach anything below the twelfth fret and it was £150 or so below budget.
So fast forward to now, three weeks ago to be precise when I saw my friend Joey had a banjo. “I just play for myself”, he said, “I don’t care how I sound”. A few days later I heard him play and he could play. He showed me ‘clawhammer’ style – “strike, strum, thumb!” and a blue-grass finger picking roll. As I was leaving he lent me his banjo and urged me to search YouTube for Patrick Costello to learn how to play. I didn’t really understand why as I thought it was just a matter of learning some new chord shapes and getting some speedy finger picking practice in. How wrong could I be, the banjo is a craft all of it’s own, with percussion, chords and melody all in one. Patrick urges us to play, and better than to play is to share and show someone else how to play, to go out in the world and make music. He tells us that anyone can sing, anyone can play.
I made a couple of short videos of me playing the banjo after one week and after three weeks, just something to remember how it was when I started and hopefully see the improvement in the coming weeks and to spread the word and work and boundless enthusiasm of Patrick Costello. I didn’t make a video after week two – I was too self-conscious to record it with anyone else in the house. But then I made this, I’m not sure why. I can see all the flaws in it but in the words of Johnny Cash in his version of the Streets of Laredo I’ll “not mention his name and his name will pass on”.
I missed a week, but the extra week’s practice was worth it.