Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Summer Solstice

  This is the third full weekend in June, and once again the summer solstice is upon us. The seasonal cycles of nature and time continues to both repeat and to move on, taking us into another season and another series of nature’s effects. Although you would be hard pressed to recognize it from all of the rain we have been having, this solstice is all about light and sun. It is the exact opposite of the Winter Solstice, which celebrates the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight and the longest night of the year. This official start of summer features the longest day of the year in terms of sunlight, and the shortest night. It is a day about being outside a lot, the obvious blessings of nature, continued renewal, fertility, and the promise of a good harvest. It is about the sun as a symbol of hope, growth, promise, and new beginnings.

    Celestial occurrences have always been big events in most cultures and civilizations throughout human history. As we humans are dependent on what nature presents us with, an awareness of the regular patterns of the world around, above, and beneath us are essential to our existence. Even before the invention of writing we had ways of keeping track of these events, for they were very important. Some peoples would keep a calendar of sorts between these important events: laying out rocks per day, for example, or noting the rise/ reduction in water depth in a river or changes in the lunar cycle up above. Many Greek cities used the summer solstice as the very base of their calendar; the summer solstice always marked the first day of the year. Watching the growth of flowers or crops and learning to link these developments to larger goings-on in the natural world was another way some cultures kept track of what we now call “time.” And some ancients even spent years building elaborate stone creations to track the movements of some of those objects in the sky. Stonehenge is probably the most well-known of such structures, but Minoan and Mayan temples were also built to reflect astronomical happenings. In North America Plains Native Americans built stone “medicine wheels” throughout southern Canada and Wyoming that are believed to serve the same purpose. How and what we build often reflects what we deeply believe, and the time and effort put into constructing these types of structures reflects the importance of the knowledge of the celestial to early humans. It was vital information.

   Ancient humans also met important celestial happenings with rituals: patterned, repeated activities to announce, celebrate, and/or partake in something spiritually symbolic and significant. Bonfires, dancing and music were part of summer solstice celebrations in many Northern European cultures at this time as they celebrated the longer periods of light. Roman celebrations featured the sacrifice of a newborn calf freshly removed from its mother’s womb to symbolize new beginnings. The ancient Chinese featured ritual dances, prayers and songs that celebrated the yin-the feminine in the world and fertility. Many Plains Native Americans celebrated with Sun Dances danced around sacred trees. And as one of the promises of the summer solstice is a good harvest, flower wreathes and crowns also played a part in the rituals of many cultures. Tending the crop in hopes of a good fall harvest is directly linked to the solstice.

   In today’s modern Judaeo-Christian world the summer solstice is not considered a major cause for religious celebration. We think of BBQ’s, music, sporting events and the like, devoid of religious significance, when we think of summer rituals and celebrations. In early Christianity, though, that was not the case. John the Baptist was seen as the saint or Biblical figure most connected to this celestial event. Just as the summer solstice is believed to announce the coming of maximum light, so John announced the coming of Jesus-the light that according to Christianity, rescue us from our darkness. So John was the Summer Solstice, and Jesus  the Winter Solstice-the return of more light. Judaism likewise does not pay much attention to this solstice now, but it once did. Tradition says that Joshua’s Battle at Jericho, where the sun stood still, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden were both Summer Solstice events-God intervening in the way of the world. It makes sense that such connections would be there in the early days of both religions: monotheistic religions looking to replace polytheistic and nature based ones, would have to account in some way for the previous religions’ major beliefs. This is not needed so much any more.

  But symbolic meaning often works beneath the surface in cultures. It was no coincidence, I think, that for the longest time June and July had been the most popular months for weddings in the US. Those months have the great days of light (hope, promise, heat) hopefully leading to a good harvest (family, fertility, childbirth and an increased community). That is one way of looking at that cultural tradition. But this may be a little out of date; according to Kopf’s wedding statistics 40% of US weddings have taken place in the fall over the last ten years, and that stat continues to grow. This may well say something about our changing religious beliefs and relationships to cultural symbols in the 21st century. The old symbols may not mean the same thing they once did.

  Regardless of how our modern beliefs change or remain the same, there is not doubt that celestial happenings have a major influence on us as humans. Whether it be a ritual of flower wreaths, dancing and prayer, or simply a solstice party, or a special concert, or just simply working in the garden, we need to be in touch with what goes on around, above and beneath us. That is one of the ways we as a species make sense of this world and make our way in it. I hope you get to celebrate in some way the gloriousness of the sun, the process of the seasons, and the promise and hope of summer. Those are, to me, three of nature’s greatest gifts. Happy Solstice.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Early Days pt 2

DUKES FANS The Early Days pt 2

  This is the second installment of a little memoir piece I was moved to write after several conversations with long time and recent music- making friends looking back on our early days playing music in Philadelphia. Part 1 was in last week’s newsletter, but if you didn’t see and are interested you can read it either on our website ( or on our Facebook page (
Pt 2-The Square, Coffeehouses and Loving the Music
   The United States was undergoing rapid change on all fronts in the mid-1960’s, and Philadelphia was no exception. The so-called “generation gap” had hit, and everything from clothes to music to media to politics and more was changing and being challenged. The Civil Right Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movements brought marches, demonstrations and petition signing into the public. “Hippies” and longhairs were seemingly coming out of the woodwork with their long hair, denim jackets, blue jeans, and tee shirts with political and/or rude comments on them. The Black Power Movement saw many blacks wearing their hair natural rather than straightening it. Political buttons, peace symbols, drug use, music, and more clearly marked new social and political delineations in the country. The clear line of behavior that people thought of as emblematic of the 1950’s was more and more being challenged and replaced by what many people came to see as a “movement” toward more freedom loving lifestyle. Movements need their own places, and they need their own soundtrack. In mid-196o’s Philadelphia, Center City’s Rittenhouse Square provided some of both.
   Located between 18 and 19th Streets and Locust and Walnut Streets, the Square became the hub of a rising new social and musical scene, a place where all types of people gathered, from chess players and poets to musicians, political activists, and pot smokers. It was a place to hang out and talk politics or art, and most importantly, to play music. Guitarists, flute players, harp players, and more were there from the late afternoons into the evening most days. Jamming happened on a regular basis. A truly magical and vibrant musical scene grew up around the Square, and I was privileged to have been involved with it.  It was here through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that I started playing seriously, and I met some wonderful musicians. Hanging around the Square I got to hang with a number of great harp players including a young Steve Guyger, Richard Johnson, later from Philly Gumbo, Dave Lowenstein, Saul Brody, and others There were also a  number of great guitarists I jammed and traded licks with, and playing with them was how I started to learn what it meant to play WITH someone  and accompany rather than constantly soloing. The Square, then, was my” training ground” as well as one of my first “stages.” It put me in touch with an incredible network of aspiring and established musicians. And I was continuing to improve.

  During these times there were a slew of small coffeehouses that magically sprang up in different neighborhoods all around the city.  Churches were losing young congregants, and I think many of them, especially Episcopal churches for some reason, thought providing coffeehouses could draw some young people back to church. The Episcopal Church at Lincoln Drive and Carpenter Lane in Mt Airy had a weekly Saturday night coffeehouse where many young people held mini-concerts, poetry readings, jams and sing along. St. Mary’s Episcopal in West Philly on the Penn campus also had a regular coffeehouse where I sat in with other young musicians on a regular basis.. (That later became the site of the Cherry Tree Folk Club). Diane Bryman’s carpet store in Chestnut Hill had a coffeehouse on the second floor, which was where I actually got an early paying gig ($15.00). These were places where I hung out with and met a lot of musicians, and most importantly, had countless opportunities to play and jam. Yes, I made a whole slew of mistakes and errors. But I was playing continually, and that is the only way to learn music. And it was playing in these venues where I gained a lot of valuable experience, improved as a player, and learned to be a performer.

    The other thing I needed in my early days was chances to see real musicians in action, and Philadelphia provided that. The city had had an established folk music scene before the 1960’s, and it provided places where I got to hear, see and even meet some of my musical heroes. The Glided Cage was on 21st Street. Run by Ed and Esther Halpern, the Cage was a restaurant and coffeehouse where I got to hear both local musicians and national acts. I got to hear folks such as Dave Van Ronk, and  Buffy St. Marie, and it was where I first had French Onion soup (smile). It expanded both my social land musical scenes.

   The 2nd Fret was another place that was a staple of the Philadelphia scene. Located at 1902 Sansom Street and owned and operated by Manny Rubin, it was a place that featured different types of folk music including plenty of blues. I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie Mc Ghee there at least twice, and they even recorded an LP there. I saw Skip James there several times, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and James Cotton, who gave me a  couple of harp lessons. Around the corner from the Fret was the Guitar Workshop a great music store and guitar school the featured legendary Philadelphia guitarist Jerry Ricks among its teachers. If you knew some of the Workshop folks, you could hang out there and meet several musicians who were playing the Fret when they came in for supplies and/or just to hang out. Out in Bryn Mawr was the Main Point, a club that, like the Fret, included a diverse lineup of performers. I somehow got money together to go to these places, heard, met and jammed with some of my favorite musicians, and kept growing as a harp player. They encouraged me, gave me tips, and fed my insatiable musical appetite. And by the mid 1970’s I thought of myself as a harp player. Yes, I was a bank teller, a security guard, a broommaker, and eventually a teacher as well. But through it all, I was also a maker of music; I was a musician.

   I’ve rarely been a full-time musician-I tried that for two years and decided that I liked being able to eat and pay rent regularly. But I defined myself as a musician by the early 1970’s, and I have been one ever since. I am grateful for the music scene in Philly during the mid-late 1960’s and early 70’s and the experiences with which it presented me. It was a time of learning, experimentation, new experiences and growth as both a musician and as a person. Had I not been at that place a that time, who knows what might have happened?? As it was I had a wonderful first step on what has been a long lasting and major part of my life. I would not have had it any other way.

 (The Philly folk and rock music scene exploded by the mid-1970’s.There were clubs on Walnut and Sansom Streets by 1968: Artemis and the 2nd of Autumn on Sansom Street, and The Artist’ Hut and The Magic Theater on Walnut. Clubs also opened in different neighborhoods as well with Grendel’s Lair and World Control Studies in Germantown, and the Trauma and Electric Factory north of Center City. A number of players who later became nationally known musicians emerged from the area at the time: Jim Croce, Todd Rungren, Daryll Hall, John Oates, and  Steve Guyger among them. Here are a couple of sites that look back at that scene: (2nd Fret) 


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

John's Early Days pt 1

 The Early Days pt 1

  Over the last couple of weeks I have had several wonderful conversations about the joys, wonders and sometimes pain of playing music with a couple of friends. I have known some of them for years, and we spent time talking about the early days of our musical endeavors. We talked about people we had met and played with, places we had traveled to, exhilarating experiences that we had, embarrassing experiences we endured, hilarious events, and more. We also had lively reminiscences about some of the amazing places where we got to hear incredible music, and some great places we were fortunate enough to play. I enjoyed these conversations, and they got me thinking about my early playing days and the times. If it is alright, I would like to take the next couple of newsletters to reflect a bit on the early days of my love affair with music and how I got into playing.

  I come from a working class African-American family that lived in West Philadelphia. I was the youngest of three children, and I was born in 1950. Our first musical experiences were church-borne experiences; we were in the young peoples’ choir from early on, and we, of course, sang wonderful hymns during church services.
There was music in the house as well-we had a record player and mom played albums by Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington among others. We all had to take piano lessons from Mrs. Bush at 52nd and Girard when we got older. I was not good at all, and I hated practice. But my brother was quite good, and he still plays both the piano and the organ. We also sang regularly and had music lessons via the Thomas Dunlap public elementary school at 50th and Race Street. I took trumpet lessons for a year through that school, bringing no end of pain and suffering to my neighbors, siblings, and parents. I tried mightily, but it was clear I was not going to be the next Louis Armstrong.

   We had a radio in the kitchen, and I listened to WHAT and WDAS, the local black music stations. Through them I heard a mix of Motown music, doo-wop, Stax records,  New Orleans rhythms from the South, and even the occasional Slim Harpo, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Roscoe Gordon blues song. These were AM stations; FM music radio stations had not yet happened. But after 9 PM at night some AM signals would drift in from other cities and states, and if you were in the kitchen after dinner you could catch those stations. I did a hell of a lot of after-dinner dishes to stay in the kitchen and hear those other stations. The popular music scene in the late 50’s and early to mid-sixties was changing in amazing ways, and it was carrying me right along with it.

    Music was all around us, then, and it was changing in some major and dramatic ways. Rock 'n' Roll hit hard in the late 50’s, and it’s combination of blues, country music and more threw commercial radio into a mess. They were not sure what to do with it as it became more and more popular, more wild, and brought some people together the larger society wanted to keep separate. Folk music and protest music also hit the airwaves in the wake of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and some of this was going mainstream as well. The Beatles and the Stones heralded the English invasion in the mid-60’s, and we all know what that did to popular music and commercial radio. There seemed to be something new coming along every week, and eventually FM stations started appearing. I was a young kid through most of this, but I could follow all of these changes from our kitchen radio. There was not much in the way of programing, focus groups, or “data collection” then; disk jockeys would play pretty much what they wanted, and a number of them had widely eclectic tastes. I could hear, say, Ray Charles, the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Four Seasons, and The Supremes and Temptations all within one hour and on the same show. By my high school years I was still listening to WHAT AND WDAS, but also to WMMR FM, WKBW AM from Buffalo, NY late at night, WNYC FM in NYC, Temple University’s WRTI jazz station, and more. It was a wonderful, exciting, and free-flowing mess. And, I went to a high school that had a bunch of hippies, young political activists, and even a folk music club. All of these sounds were all jumbled together and they affected me mightily. By the time I was 15, I was eagerly devouring all types of music and all types of sounds. And then this happened:

   Seeing the Wolf on that episode of Shindig in 1965 launched me into playing the harmonica seriously and pursuing the blues wherever I could and however I could. I couldn’t afford to buy a lot of records, but the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library was there and it was my first blues feeding ground. The Best of Muddy Waters; the multi-volume Alan Lomax Southern Folk Heritage Series with blues, country music, gospel, string bands, and more; Leadbelly records, Bukka White: all of these and a lot more were there for me to listen to for free in the library's music room. Also at the library I found the book Blues Harp, by Tony Glover of the folk blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover. That book explained positions, taught me how to bend notes, and more. The Central High Folk Music Club had concerts at that time, including ones that featured blues guitarists/singers such as Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Son House. Through that club I got to actually meet many of the musicians and Dick Waterman, who managed them along with Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells. It was an incredibly magical time for me, and my path was just being set out before me. All I had to do was follow.
  So from my church, my radio at home,  the public library, and those wonderful high school experiences I was steadily learning and absorbing a ton of great music. And best of all, I was also in the right place for all of this and at just the right time. For the Philly folk and rock music scene of the mid and late 1960’s was booming, and I was spending a lot of time at its epicenter-downtown Philadelphia in the neighborhood of good old Rittenhouse Square. (to be continued…)