Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Summertime and the Living is Easy

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language"  Henry James

 “Oh, the summer night, Has a smile of light, And she sits on a sapphire throne.”Bryan Procter

“Music is the healing force of the universe.” Sun Ra


   This week summer officially arrived-the solstice comes on June 21st. The summer solstice occurs at the moment the earth's tilt toward from the sun is at a maximum, and on the day of the summer solstice the sun appears at its highest elevation with a noontime position that changes very little for several days. It is the day with the greatest amount of sunlight-the longest day of the year in our hemisphere. We often celebrate it in various “unofficial” ways. We take days off from work, go to ball games, have BBQ’s, hang by the swimming pool and engage in other leisure activities. Schools are out by then, so it can also be a time for families to be together. Historically, though, the summer solstice has been an extremely important marker to humans. Yes, there were celebrations and dances and feasts in many cultures, but they were about much more than just fun. They were about the cycle of the universe and our connection to and our dependence on how that cycle was happening. It was a holiday, but it was often a holiday in the original meaning of the word: a “holy day.” The observations were a tribute to the connections between humans and something much greater than human.

   In Ancient Egypt the summer solstice was especially important because it heralded the coming of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Shortly after Sirius arrived each year, the Nile would overflow its banks and the flood season would begin. The Egyptians relied on Mother Nile’s flood to revive and nourish the land. They believed that Sirius was responsible for the flooding, so if the solstice arrived on time Sirius would make its appearance at the right time. In fact, they set their calendar based on the star’s arrival in the night sky; as soon as the priests saw Sirius planting season and the New Year had begun. And it was the solstice that announced that. (Sirius, by the way, was also known as the “dog star”, hence the dog in the logo for Sirius Radio)

   Many other cultures also linked the summer solstice to fertility and the possibility of growth and life. The Chinese saw the solstice as time to honor the ‘yin’, or the feminine forces IN the universe. It announced the coming of a season of crop growth and nurturing-the earth giving birth. In ancient Greece, the solstice was one month before the Olympic Games, and festivals took place including Prometheia, which celebrated the Titan Prometheus, and Kronia, which honored the agricultural god Cronus. And for many Greeks the summer solstice was also the first day of the New Year. Northern European peoples such as the ancient Slavic, Viking  Druid and Germanic cultures all celebrated the solstice with bonfires and rituals celebrating the return of the sun. Their long winters nights were finally over and they could now go about their farming, trading and sailing. In Gaul (France) they had a celebration called the Feast of Epona. This festival honored a mare goddess of fertility who also protected horses. Once again, the solstice was linked to the Earth’s fertility.  North American Native Americans observed the solstice with feasting and elaborate ceremonies, many of which were coming of age ceremonies-rituals of rebirth. Clearly this was a universal time to mark a link between us and something celestial, supernatural, and holy.

    We can still do that festive marking of the solstice today, although it doesn’t necessarily have to have a supernatural connection. Make Music Philly is in its sixth year of sponsoring city wide musical events that celebrate the solstice with musical performances on streets, in parks, in institutions and more. These performances call on people to get together, recognize the solstice, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, celebrate it by making music at over 100 spots around the city. The key part of this celebration is the group participation. You can be part of a drum circle, sing with an impromptu chorus, play with a pick-up ukulele ensemble, sing with a barber shop quartet or a gospel choir, jam as part of a harmonica chorus, and much, much more. Organized by the Make Music Alliance and Make Music Philly, this city-wide event recognizes the solstice, and celebrates humanity and its unique and wonderful ability to create and make music in so many different forms and styles. The website for information is http://www.makemusicphilly.org/ There you can find listings of events to attend and participate in, directions to get to them, and you can even sign up to present an event yourself. So check it out-get active. So much of our culture these days is watching other people perform. That is great-as a professional musician I love audiences (smile). But it is also nice to participate; to do that uniquely weird and human thing of making and creating meaningful sound. We can open up our mouths or bring our hands together or grab something called an “instrument” or make an instrument, and somehow we get to produce this glorious wondrous  thing called “music.” So come on out-give it a try. Find an event or two or three and welcome and celebrate the summer by making music, Philly.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Twelve Days Without a Cell Phone

“The cell phone has become the adult's transitional object, replacing the toddler's teddy bear for comfort and a sense of belonging.” Margaret Heffernan 
“People have no memory of phone numbers or directions now because of the cell phone - their address book and their maps are all in a cell phone.” Gordon Bell 
I got a new cell phone and I upgraded. That is a normal occurrence for most people, and it is not a big deal; I have done it several times before. This time, though there were complications that I neither expected or had experienced before, and they led me to some interesting realizations. These realizations have been very interesting to me and have helped me look at my relationship with a bit of technology in a deeper way.
The first problem with the process of upgrading was a technical one. The SIM card my carrier sent me turned out to be defective, but we didn’t discover that until I had spent the better part of two hours talking with a tech person trying to activate the new phone, taking a trip to STAPLES to see if their tech people could help, and being back on the phone again with another techie from my carrier. My carrier finally agreed to send me a new SIM card. The catch was that it was going to be delivered in five days, when I would be in Ohio birding. So I would have to wait even longer before I could have my new cell. Oh well-disappointing, but no problem; I still had my old model to use.
Except that I didn’t have my old model to use. Somehow in trying to activate the new phone my old account stopped working. So I again had to call my carrier. We tried everything to get my account up, but for some reason my account from the old phone wasn’t working. Thenthe phone itself stopped connecting with the carrier. We tried a variety of things; taking out and putting back in the SIM card; going through what the ICIS number was and trying to synch with the carrier, turning off the phone, leaving it alone for half an hour and then trying to restart it. Nothing worked. And then the final indignity: the phone just died. Expired. Passed on. Bit the dust. Out of here. Gone. I was suddenly cell phoneless for the first time in some 20 years.
That meant I was to spend over week without a cellphone, some of it while I was away in Ohio. When I first started using the computer I quickly realized how dependent I was becoming on that technology. Many of my contact with friends, family, clubs, booking agents and more became e-mail contacts and not phone calls and actual conversations. I have not hand written a letter in ages aside from birthday, sympathy and other greeting cards. And I rarely receive them. My school before I retired had become very computer centered-every student had and was encouraged to use a device of some kind-laptop, tablet, etc..I knew there were some social losses connected with that, and I think I have made my peace with that. It was simply the way of the world I was in, and I needed to get along. But when I got a cell phone (and later a smart phone), I was determined I was not going to be become overly dependent on it. I would not be one of those people having loud conversations on my phone in a restaurant or on a bus, constantly looking at a screen rather than around me and at the sky mornings at the train station, or sitting with someone in a coffeeshop and spending more time texting and checking e-mail than paying attention to my companion. I did not go to those extremes, but I realize now that I had only partially limited my ties-and my dependency-on the phone. Unconsciously I gave over a lot of things that I used to do over to my device, and over the next twelve days I came to realize that very quickly and very suddenly. 
Before the days of cell phones I knew what time of day it was within 5 minutes-I just knew it. I realized after a couple of days without the phone, though, that I had lost that ability-I gave it away to my phone. I also used to know by heart the schedules for the Chestnut Hill West rail line, the general times for H, 23, and L buses in the morning and in the evening, and the addresses and phone numbers of family members and close friends. I just knew this. But just like the people in the Gordon Bell quote above, I had forgotten most of that because I put them on my phone or used apps. I now had to try to recall those things, and it panicked me for a day or two. I did eventually recall most of the public transit schedules; the info had been dormant, but it was still there. That was a relief. But I still do not remember most of my family’s numbers, and addresses, and that disappoints me.
There were other realizations I had as well. Some were physical ones. I usually carried my cell in my front left pants pocket. That side of my body now felt strange-unusual. No phone. It took me days to get used to not feeling it in my pocket. I would often check my e-mail and text when I was in the bathroom, and I found myself for several days, unconsciously reaching for the phone that wasn’t there when I was in the john. I had not been aware of how much that was now a part of what I did automatically. When I was on the bus or train I realized I was now actually reading more of a book-I wasn’t interrupting the reading to respond to a text or a call. And when I was in Ohio, I felt lighter-less pressured. Part of that was due to the birding, of course. But part of it also had to do with not having a cell phone. The band, my family and a few close friends have my landline number, and if someone really wanted to talk with me they had to call my landline, leave a message and wait for me to get back to them. I would call in to my home once in the morning and once in the evening. If you left a message for me, I got back to you that within 24 hours. And no catastrophe happened. Another good thing was that there were no texts in Oho; none! I found it a great freedom to not be “on call” all the time or feeling that I had to get back to someone right away. I could spend more time being in the moment of where I was. That was so refreshing;-I was with myself where I was.
I do have my new cell phone as of a few weeks ago and it is working. I am glad to have it; I have sent some texts, checked my e-mail a few times, and learned how to synch my computer calendar with my phone calendar. I have a transit app, Google maps for directions, a calendar, and a search engine on it. And I also  have a new commitment to be more aware of how I allow the phone to be a part of my life-what I give over to it and what I don’t. There have been some changes, and I think they are changes for the better. I am  not necessarily responding immediately to a text, call or e-mail. Yes, if it is expected or important I do. But the vast majority of calls, texts and e-mails are really not so important that they need an immediate response. Most things can wait until I have finished my book, finished hiking, finished eating or whatever it is I am up to when the contact comes in. From the experience of thoe 12 days I know that I do not have to give huge chunks of myself over to my device. It can respond to me rather than the other way around. I do not have to give it control,and that gives me relief and peace. I can spend more time with myself.
(ps: If I did have your phone number or if you had mine, I need you to please send me an e-mail with your number. I was not able to recover the contacts that were on my lately expired cell phone. so I need the numbers again. This time I will put them in my computer as well as on my phone. As my mother used to say, “Better to have done it and not needed to than to not have done it and needed to.” Thanks)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"A Library Implies an Act of Faith"

Thursday, March 23, 2017

RIP Superharp; An Appreciation of James Cotton

   Last Thursday I was working on this week’s newsletter on my computer at about 10 AM in the morning. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an e-mail pop into my Inbox.  It read, “RIP, James Cotton.” Immediately I stopped working on the newsletter, clicked on the e-mail, and discovered that indeed James Cotton had died of pneumonia in Austin, TX at age 81. Wow! I was shook up and I went through a sea of emotions and memories that I am still experiencing and processing as I sit here listening to a James Cotton playlist covering all different phases of his career. All of Cotton was there coming out of my computer-his amazing 70 year career of inventive and powerful playing, his joyous singing and his sense of straight out fun. From his earliest recordings with Sun Records in the mid-1950’s through his time with Muddy Waters and through his time leading various bands under his own name, James was always “there”! He never just phoned it in. I saw him live more times than any other of my blues heroes, and he always gave it his all. Even in recent times, when his voice was fading and he couldn’t sing, his harp playing seemed somehow better and stronger. And man, could he rock a crowd! Being at a James Cotton performance was to be a member of an instant party. He was high energy, open, and inviting, and watching him you could tell this was a man who flat out loved what he was doing.  It was a blessing and joy to watch the man work.

     Looking back, it amazed me to realize just how long I had been listening to Cotton, trying to copy his riffs, trying to figure out how to get that liquid tone, and using him as a role model for how to be on stage. For more than half a century he has been my greatest influence, both as a harp player and a performer. While it was seeing Howling’ Wolf on TV which got me playing harp, it was James who most affected my playing and performing. So much about him just drew me in and inspired me. In the mid-1960’ I spent a lot of time at the Listening Room in the Main Library absorbing as much electric  blues as I could. I had just started playing harmonica, and of course Little Walter caught me first on those legendary recordings with Muddy Waters. But I also heard James on Vol. 2 of Sam Charters’ Vanguard collection, Chicago the Blues Today. His Cotton Crop Blues, Rocket 88, and West Helena Blues blew me away with his strong singing, raucous and intense harp playing, and Otis Spann’s unbelievable piano fills. That was one of the first LP’s I ever purchased, and I wore it out quickly. I also got his first Verve LP, Pure Cotton, and I was hooked for life. I was a Cotton fanatic; I listened to him over and over. Fortunately for me his band was playing Philly at the 2nd Fret one weekend in1968, and I was there every night. I was just a young teenage kid, and I went upstairs to the dressing room, knocked on the door and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Cotton; I am learning to play harmonica; I was wondering if you could show me some things on the harp.”  To my surprise, he invited me in, sat me down, and he showed me some things about breathing, using the tongue and more. What a weekend that was! I got to sit up front at the Fret for three days, talk with the band after each show, learn some licks from James, and see what is was like to be in a band-a group of musicians all working together to produce a singular sound and a show. That weekend influenced me to this very day.

    That was a great band that I heard that weekend with Sam Lay on drums, the great Albert Giaguinto on keys, Luther Tucker on guitar and Robert Anderson on bass. His bands changed personnel over the years, really clicking when the incredible Matt Murphy became his guitarist, and Charles Calmese and Kenny Johnson became his long-time rhythm section. But no matter who he had in his band when I saw him, James gave me some of the greatest live music experiences I have ever had. I got to see him once more at the Fret, twice at the Fillmore in NYC, at several blues, jazz and folk festivals, and twice on tour as part of the Muddy Waters/Jonny Winter tour following Muddy’s Grammy winning 1977 Hard Again lp. And when I was with the John Cadillac Band in the late 1970’s we got to open up for James at the old Starrs club at 3rd and Bainbridge.  Playing and looking out and seeing James standing at the bar filled me with both pride and fear. And when we finished our set and he came and told us we’d had a good one, I felt as if I was finally really a “musician”. James Cotton had seen and he had approved.

   The last four times I saw James he was not doing a lot of singing. He had developed throat cancer and he gradually stopped singing altogether. But his band was strong, tight, high energy as usual, and his harp playing was sounding even better than it had during the 1980’s and 1990’s. I last saw him at TLA doing an XPN show. He was seated in a chair the whole night, but nobody in the audience was still. People danced, shouted, laughed, sang along, smiled, and basked in the wonder of his playing and his band’s performance. I am glad that is my last memory of seeing James-his strong playing, his still playful and powerful music making, and him still being able to untie a crowd of different ages and bring them great joy.  I owe him so much. Hats off to you, Superharp. You were and remain one of the all time greats. Thank you for so much for all you taught me, gave and still give to me. It has been an honor to have heard and seen you play.
(Here are some of my favorite James Cottons recordings and appearances:
  Back to Old St Louis -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2q4SEd2JEY
The Creeper- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZXMWklGf84
Sweet Home Chicago and more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHCm6x_j6MA&list=RDgHCm6x_j6MA#t=0 
James Cotton website http://jamescottonsuperharp.com/)