I first heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on a Friday evening in my home here in Cambridge, England. American friends began posting those strange messages to Facebook that lacked context like, “Tragedy. No words.” I had to go find the context, and I found they were right.
I felt a hole open in my chest and drop into my belly. I came very close to uttering the inchoate, incoherent wail of a bodiless spirit in eternal mourning. Then I wanted to utter a string of expletives until I found catharsis. I did neither of these things. But I did watch the coverage via the internet for a short time. In my calmer moments I realized I felt something much different from I did last time this happened.
I feel more connected to the loss of life than I did when I heard about Columbine. I am a father now. I have learned what it means to give everything you have and everything you are to someone who can only recognize that imperative, that drive, and that commitment when they are old enough to have their own children. Having a child is an act of faith that the future will be at least as good as the present, that the person you are creating will have a fulfilling life: love, friends, satisfying work, enjoyable pastimes.
To have that future torn away from my daughter as her life begins would be, for me, an inconsolable loss. And here the words are failing me. The thought of losing my daughter to an event over which I have no control fills me with grief. I can taste the pain the parents of 20 children in Connecticut are feeling. I know this is only a taste, and that fact is both comforting and horrifying.
Crying for the loss of those 20 beautiful souls and the 6 adults who cared enough to spend their vocational lives working with children is the most appropriate response I can muster. I know there are people who are angry. Some of them vent their feelings on social media, some call in to radio shows, some write letters.
But I have never felt comfortable in anger. So in the immediate aftermath of this horror I thought about how people respond to these types of tragedies and went looking for reasons to feel encouraged and hopeful about human civilization. I recalled another recent school shooting. In October 2006, a gunman entered West Nickel Mines school, a one-room school-house in rural Pennsylvania Amish country, and took hostages. He eventually murdered 10 girls, aged six to thirteen, all of them Amish.
The response by the Amish community is indescribably beautiful. It moved me then, and it reaches my core now. One murdered girl’s grandfather said, “We must not think evil of this man.” Other members of the community reached out to the gunman’s family and helped them grieve for the loss of their son who committed suicide at the end of his attack. The gunman’s widow was one of the few non-Amish allowed to attend a funeral for one of the murdered girls. The Amish community set up a charity to help the family this gunman left behind, and 30 of them attended his funeral.
The people of that community showed immense courage in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. They know that the best response to seemingly senseless destruction of human life is love and forgiveness rather than hatred and anger. They acted on that knowledge. I aspire to the same level of courage.
So my second response, beyond the grief I feel for the people who lost their children, is to make sure the people I love know I love them. I also want them to know that love does not judge. We all struggle with something, talking about our struggles helps us to address them before they get to the point at which violence seems a plausible cure.
Finally, we citizens of the United States need to address the issue of the availability of firearms in our society. It is long past time that we protect each other from gun violence by reducing the availability of guns. Countries in Europe and Asia have a staggeringly smaller rate of death by firearm than the United States because they control access to firearms.
As a Historian, I am well aware of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. It has two clauses. The second, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” is the part that our government seems to shape our laws around. The first part, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State,” is the part our government currently ignores.
It seems to me that the first clause leaves the door open to a great deal of regulation of firearms. And it could argued that establishing a law requiring gun owners to join a state-regulated militia or the National Guard would not violate the letter of the Second Amendment.
I can see a lot of space between our government’s current reading of the Second Amendment and my “Strict Constructionist” suggestion. We need to start a conversation about the role of guns in our society and from that discussion create some sensible regulations and restrictions.
None of us, whether we support tighter regulations on firearms or not, wants events like Columbine, West Nickel Mines, and Sandy Hook to happen again. But it is beyond time to recognize that the most effective way to make sure that none of us feels the loss of a child due to gun violence is to curtail the availability of guns.
Matt and I went to the Cambridge market square yesterday afternoon. Mandolin and guitar in tow, we walked through it twice scouting busking locations. One by one they were taken up by more experienced and decisive buskers. We finally settled upon the southwest corner, near a coffee shop and some likely looking kiosks.
I set out the mandolin case (my breast-cancer-awareness pink gig bag) and tuned up my Vessel F5. Matt tugged out the Rainsong and waited.
That space of time between finding a spot and starting to play was an interesting and slightly uncomfortable one for me. I have never busked before. I have never stopped on a spot in the street (or on a sidewalk), pulled out an instrument, and started playing with the expectation that people will feel like listening to me. So it took more than a moment to screw up my courage. When I was ready, we commenced to playing.
Some time after starting, I realized our first mistake. No amplification. The market square lacks automobile traffic, but it’s a busy place and some power would have been nice. Our effective audience range was very small. People needed to come in close to catch everything, and that just did not work to draw an audience.
The wind at our backs kept us from being drowned out by amplified competition, but that’s only because no one was playing behind us. And that wind was and indication of our second mistake.
The buildings in Cambridge are old. The first college at Cambridge University was built in the 1300s. Most of the buildings in town are not that old, but some of the late 18th century buildings still extant in Cambridge surround the market square and its adjacent streets. Those adjacent streets are also quite narrow by American standards of street widths. So sound can be effectively amplified by all the locally quarried stone if you pick the right spot.
As I said Matt and I had the wind at our backs and the market square in front. That was way too much open air for an unamplified duo. Our instruments and voices were picked up by the wind and carried away. If we had chosen a spot 2 blocks away in front of an empty store front, the configuration of buildings and the width of the street would have effectively amplified us.
My wife says, “Only people who don’t try never make mistakes.” Live and learn. I’ll pick a better location next time!
On a glorious early autumn Saturday I found myself on the road to Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Guitar Company, a small shop of guitar makers in Santa Cruz, CA, celebrated its 35th birthday in semi-public fashion, and I had scored an invitation from the owner, Richard Hoover.
The Santa Cruz Guitar Company, affectionately known as SCGC, makes high end acoustic guitars in small batches for dealers in the US, Europe, and Asia. They average about 750 completed instruments a year, in deep contrast to Martin Guitars, which makes about 750 instruments a day.
I was happily on my way to Santa Cruz that Saturday to celebrate the birthday of my favorite guitar brand, renew acquaintances with Richard Hoover and the SCGC crew. I was also hoping for the chance to jam with some of Santa Cruz’s finest musicians. I was not disappointed.
I arrived shortly after two in the afternoon. Traffic was thick for a Saturday in the Bay Area. It took me two and a half hours to get there. But the weather was magnificent, so from Pelandale Avenue to California Route 9 the stereo was up and the windows were down. I find it nearly impossible to get frustrated with traffic listening to Eric Skye, Richard Thompson, Maria McKee, and Emmy Lou Harris.
The community hall at Harvey West Park was all done up in cowboy style. Bails of hay were augmented with cowboy boots, saddles, ropes, chaps, etc. And a life-size cardboard cut out of the best singing cowboy around, Don Edwards, stood next to the front door welcoming us to the party. The décor went hand in glove with a recent marketing effort centered on a contest to name the cowgirl in the new cowgirl images SCGC may (or may not –I’m not privy to these things) continue to use.
Upon arrival I stowed my instruments and chatted a bit with a few friends. They described the previous night’s revels in some detail. Apparently I missed an excellent show. Conversation the turned to the impending completion of a custom-ordered SCGC guitar, one that I hope to get to play sometime. The details of this guitar are likely to be exciting only to those of us steeped in the minutiae of acoustic guitar materials and production, but attention to such details by both the purchaser and the maker ensure that this guitar will be sonically and visually gorgeous.
Discussion of a wonderful new instrument had whetted my appetite to play, so I went looking for my bassist and friend, Matt. When I discovered him he too was in the throes of new-instrument ecstasy. Matt had acquired a new upright bass and was itching to put it through its paces. Ever obliging, I retrieved my mandolin, and we took our time warming up on some of our more basic material. Matt needed time to get acquainted with the both the tone and the dimensions of his new bass. Getting comfortable with a new instrument can be a bit like breaking in a baseball mitt –in reverse. In this case, the player has to come to an accommodation with instrument rather than forcing the instrument to conform to the player.
The two of us made a non-guitar duo at a guitar party. I felt only a little odd about this because I knew that our hosts enjoyed it, and there were guitars all over the place. So our little impromptu performance could have been compared in an epicurean mind to a sherbet between the meat and fish courses of a large formal meal.
After a bit of chatting with both old and new friends, I fell into another larger jam with some of Santa Cruz’s finest local talent. Ukulele Dick and his band swapped tunes with me and Matt for a time. Our jam circle consisted of bass, ukulele, 3 different varieties of guitar, and myself on mandolin. We filled the deck outside the community building with an appreciative audience when we rambled into a spirited version of Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies.” We held them for a few tunes with an upbeat 4/4 version of Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” and a blues by Matt called “Duo Glide.”
About the same time the audience wandered back into the hall to hear Don Edwards regale them with his effortless and soulful renditions of cowboy ballads. I heard the performance was amazing from a friend who is not usually a fan of cowboy music, but I remained nailed to my spot. Guitarist and rhythmatist Bob Brozman joined our little jam, and injected an element of challenging musical fun.
Bob led us through some very cleverly written Calypso tunes from the 20s and 30s, explaining the complexity of rhythmic structure and pointing out the simplicity of the harmonic structure. Ukulele Dick and his band added fun jazz-pop tunes from the same era to the mix, so our jam kept rolling along. Matt and I hung on for the ride. I think we sat in that circle for at least 3 hours, because it was nearly time for dinner before I knew what had happened.
After a lovely picnic meal and some seriously rich chocolate cake we toasted Richard Hoover and his band of accomplished artisans. They make, in my humble opinion, guitars that can only be equaled, never surpassed. SCGC’s continued success as a business is an oasis of excellent news in our current economic climate, and it’s a testament to the old adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
They also know how to host one heck of a party. Hopefully we’ll get to do it again before another 35 years goes by.
I haven’t ridden my bicycle since I met you. I’ve been running from pillar to post trying to stay busy enough to cope with the lack of your presence in my day-to-day existence.
I go to work early to avoid the emptiness of my apartment and to keep my mind busy. Even so, thoughts of you can be powerful distractions. I may sit at my desk staring into space for a full minute just holding your image in my mind. Then I shake myself awake and get back to the task at hand.
Fall semester has begun and I am teaching again. Two nights a week I am occupied by class preparation and teaching. It’s work I love, and a subject I enjoy enough to sustain me for my entire professional life. But every once in a while in the middle of class I look down at my phone and touch the screen so that I can see your face.
The picture I snapped at the Mexican restaurant in Santa Cruz lights up. I am fully aware that you don’t like this picture. But I love it. You didn’t smile or pose. You weren’t aware I was taking your picture. The image takes me to a point in time when you were sitting beside me, enjoying my company, and sharing a meal.
In a perfectly candid moment you’re not looking at me. You’re looking off into the middle distance forming a thought, and about to say something that I am deeply interested in hearing. The ability to step into that moment, whether I want to relive the past or anticipate the future, is a gift I will never take for granted.
I continue to dive into every opportunity to play music. My weekends, since you left, have been filled with practices, jams, and gigs. I have stayed busy and kept moving. Our friends in Niles have been supportive and comforting while they have watched me fall in love with you and then wrestle with my anguish at your departure.
Matt and I played for nearly 12 hours on a Saturday and let it bleed into a Sunday. We started in his driveway, practicing while he and the rest of the town conducted an annual yard sale. We played for you via Skype. (Thank God for Skype!) After that we attended a party in Oakland where we played a few more hours, pulling out songs I had no idea we both could play. And by 10:30pm we were back in Niles at another party where we closed the evening.
Gluttons to the last, that Sunday Matt and I hosted a jam. But I have to admit that I was not up to form. Fatigue had set in and my mind was not in full contact with either my ears or my fingers. I was so exhausted that I am not sure how I made the trip home.
Do you remember the day we met? You came to Matt’s jam and played “West Country Girl” in the key of G-sharp, with a capo on the first fret of your guitar. As a mandolin player I avoid the use of capos, which made my job a little bit more difficult when you snapped one on. G-sharp is a devilish key for me. No open strings except the 7th note of the scale on the G strings. Playing the 7th note all the way at the lowest end of the mandolin’s range usually requires a little more musical bravery than I can muster.
But I was in tune –or attuned– that day. The melody seemed to float about me. I caught pieces of it under my fingers and explored their musical implications between your lyric phrases. I played either with my eyes closed or focused on the fret board of my mandolin. At the instrumental break I simply kept following wherever the melody led me. Eight bars went by, then 16 bars.
After 24 bars I decided everyone liked what I was doing enough to give me two breaks (32 bars), so when that ended I forced myself out of my musical reverie and looked up to see if anyone else was going to jump in or if we were going to end the song. When I opened my eyes, it seemed like everyone was quietly agape: as lost in the moment as I was.
I have always been of two minds at jams, practices, or even gigs. One mind was in the moment, focused, and loving the task of playing music with –and for– people. The other mind was pinned to obligations to someone who could not understand let alone share my passion for music. My second mind kept an eye on the clock or looked for non-verbal cues to see if it was time to go.
But that day no second mind appeared, all my attention was focused on your song. For the first time, I did not watch the clock and I did not need to be aware of someone else’s impending impatience and boredom. I was free to dig deep into myself and discover where the act of playing music could take me.
For the moment I have two minds again. You went home to England and now a bigger part of me than ever watches a clock in the middle of a jam and counts days out of a calendar, aching for your return. This time, though, I do not feel conflicted about keeping one mind somewhere else when I play music. I know you will return, and I know that when you do I will never need to divide my musical attention again.
I keep myself busy until that day comes.
So the bike has stood in the corner of my dining room patient and insistent. It waits for the day when I am home, the sun is shining, and the morning air is cool. A day just like today.
“If you like a ukulele lady, a ukulele lady like-a you…”
It came packed inside two boxes, swaddled inside a bubble wrap blanket, and cushioned by styrofoam peanuts. But it has no significant monetary value. Banjo-ukuleles, sometimes called banjoleles, have never been sought after. Even when they were being made in large mid-western musical instrument factories they were novelty items, nearly toys.
However, this particular banjo-uke belonged to my grandmother, Helen Louise Nestlerode, and it was an instrument she played her entire adult life. She played it around the campfire and in the kitchen while Jana, her youngest daughter, washed dishes. None of Helen’s children took up the uke, but Jana made sure that the instrument her mother used to serenade the family remained intact.
I never heard my grandmother Helen play or sing, she was always busy with one thing or another around the house. In fact, she never gave me an inkling that she was musical. (Indeed when I took up the guitar, I thought I was the first in my family to do anything musical in at least 3 generations.) I first saw her banjo-uke laying at the bottom of a closet in my grandparents big old house in Elmira, New York. I was 21, my grandfather had recently died, and she was hoping I might find a memento of him somewhere in that chamber of artifacts.
I was enchanted by the size and novelty of the banjo-uke, and brought it out to show her. I was surprised to learn it was hers and she wanted to keep it. I can remember thinking, “Wow. I had no idea.”
Years later, after Helen died, I asked about it. But no one seemed to know where it was or what had happened to it. The news saddened me a bit. Musical instruments are frail uncertain things. Ignorance of instruments often leads to wild over-estimation of their monetary value. But I was not worried that someone had attempted to profit from the sale of grandmother’s old banjo-uke. I was worried that it had found its way to the bottom of a discard pile or been snapped but by a stranger at the estate sale.
I heard nothing about it for more than 15 years, so I just assumed it was gone.
A few summers ago I was back east for a family reunion, when my aunt Jana brought out Helen’s old Mauna Loa banjo-ukulele. She must have had it all along. I was both relieved and surprised. Jana sought my knowledge regarding its proper upkeep and possible value (negligible).
Her boyfriend had strung the thing with steel guitar strings and securely wound those strings tight to the tuning machines. The strings weaved in and out of the tuning machine post holes making it impossible to remove them without some serious cutting. I was afraid that any tool capable of cutting the guitar strings might also damage the fragile old friction tuners. Worse, the strings, when tuned to pitch, were effectively folding the poor little thing in half. And the tension had already damaged the original animal skin head.
In the end, all I could do was take the tension off the strings and suggest that my aunt take the banjo-uke to Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia. That is the last time I saw it or heard about it until about a month ago when the old banjo uke arrived at my front door.
The email came from out of nowhere. Did I still want Helen’s banjo-uke? Absoloutely. A week later the little Mauna Loa was freed from the confines of its shipping container and resting on my lap.
The first thing I noticed were the nylon strings, tied by experienced hands onto the tail-piece and wound around the tuning pegs. Second I noticed the synthetic banjo head. A pity really, but better than leaving the original damaged skin head on the instrument. Aunt Jana had followed my advice: an expert had brought the instrument back from near collapse.
Musical instruments more than other inanimate objects seem to become the repositories of our memories. Cheap guitars and toy ukuleles reflect the feelings we have about the people who played them in our lives. They remind us visually and aurally about the people who played them.
“Barney Google” may have been a throw away, silly song for my grandmother. But the fact that she sang it to her children made a deep impression on them. It became a treasured memory. After she died the only extant connection to those memories was her old, nearly discarded and abused, banjo ukuele. It is the instrument she used to make those memories.
Receiving this instrument is an honor bestowed upon me by my aunt. It is not an insignificant thing for most of the members of my family. Like an African Griot, I have been given the responsibility of stewarding my aunts and uncles’ memories of their mother and carrying the tradition of touching lives with music.
The best way I know to honor the memory of Helen’s music is to make sure that the instrument on which she made that music continues to ring. If I don’t it will become an inanimate object and lose connection with the life and love it has held for more than 70 years.
A few minutes after I cracked open the boxes, I set Helen’s uke up on a bookshelf and snapped a picture. Then I sent Aunt Jana an email that included the photo letting her know that her prize had arrived safe and sound 2600 miles west of where it had started. Now it is incumbent upon on me to play the thing, a happy responsibility.
The more I think about why I am a musician, the more I run headlong into the idea of community.
As a young man learning to play, the guitar became the center of my sense of community. Perhaps a dozen of my high school peers played guitar, as a group of enthusiasts we got together, shared songs, discussed music, and coveted higher quality instruments than we owned. We were often competitive, but our shared interests and common location made us a community.
Later on, in college, I gigged around State College, Pennsylvania looking for a community to join. But none of the people I fell in with were very good at creating or maintaining a sense of community. State College is the home of Penn State, and as such has a high rate of residential turnover. Since most of my band maters, jamming buddies, and fellow solo artists were only going to be in State College for a few years, none of them felt the need to create a community based around their musical endeavors. And I had no idea that doing so would make playing music more sustaining and more rewarding.
I moved to Davis, California in 1988 to start a new band with some boyhood friends. We very nearly pulled it off. Again, not knowing the importance of community, we took our friends and fans for granted. That nonchalance about the people who appreciated us pushed me out of the band and back to school.
My girlfriend at the time supported in my decision to leave the band despite the fact that it was the reason we met. We married a few years later. Thus, even my marriage was evidence of seeking community through music.
As both an undergrad and a graduate student at Sonoma State University, I focused on my studies. Music became a spice of life rather than the staff of life. And so I spent most of the 1990s fumbling around with a sort of psychological blindfold on. I could neither find nor create a community that provided me a sense of complete belonging.
I discovered Bluegrass music about ten years ago. My attraction to it has never been the music itself, though I like it well enough and I respect its better practitioners as excellent musicians. What drew me to Bluegrass was the sense of community. Here was an entire population who played, listened to, and enjoyed not only the music but each other’s company. The community is tight knit, very organized, and it creates a strong sense of belonging. I had stumbled (still without knowing it) into the very reason I started to enjoy music in the first place. I was suitably hooked.
Recently I have been working on a musical project with a friend who lives in Niles. Niles is a small enclave of the city of Fremont that is geographically isolated from the rest of the city and has a separate history. These folks do community! Local gardeners supply local restaurateurs. Local musicians organize performances for the community and perform in them. Everyone, it seems, in Niles feel like they are a part of something special and unique. They honor it and draw both sustenance and enjoyment out of it.
As luck would have it, I have been made an honorary Nilesian. (The regulars took a vote in Michael McNevin’s Mud Puddle Shop during a local jam. [Look up Michael McNevin, he’s an excellent songwriter and singer who deserves your attention.] Moreover, many a Nilesian has stopped to suggest I move to the town. I have to admit a strong pull. Such a warm, welcoming, and musical community seems like heaven to me. I have good friends there and would be exposed to a lot of opportunities to play music.
Recently, my other (current) musical endeavor started gigging and finally settled on a name. Beggar’s Banquet has played a couple of Riverbank’s “Sip & Stroll” events, performed in the lobby of the State Theater during a Modesto Art Walk, and most recently has served as a “tweener” for local Bluegrass band, Red Dog Ash.
Playing with Red Dog Ash was the inspiration for this column. I noticed at the gig that the band had brought friends, family members, and even kids to the show. The audience was diverse in age and background, but they seemed to know one another. The connections are intricate and convoluted but they are there, and the guys in Red Dog Ash foster and support those connections.
It was a great night for a gig and a sort of epiphany for me. I realized upon reflection that Red Dog Ash is actively seeking to create a community. Then I realized that I have been searching for a sense of belonging to a community through the act of sharing music. And for one night I was exactly where I wanted to be. I am happy to be a member of their community, and thrilled that they think Beggars Banquet can be an active part of it.
Suitably inspired by both Niles and Red Dog Ash, I’d like to begin to create my own musical community. The trick for me is putting myself out there, letting people know who I am, what I do, and that they might enjoy it. I am a bit shy about sharing my musical endeavors, and I’m a lousy self-promoter. So I’ll need to turn over a backyard full of Modesto Ash and Sycamore leaves to change that about myself. Leaf number one: I invite you to look me up on Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, or just Google me. Contact me and come to a gig. Maybe you and I can become part of each other’s community.
The Mandolin Café web site has a forum for players and enthusiasts of all things mandolin. One of the boards on the forum is devoted to electric mandolins (they look even more like little guitars than their acoustic forebears). One of the questions that pops up regularly is a request to explain why those of use who play electrics prefer 4 , 5, or 8 string versions of electric mandolins. But I don’t think anyone has ever asked why any of us plays an electric instead of an acoustic. Possibly the answer seems self-evident, or perhaps we each have our own reasons. Still I’d thought I’d share why I’ve been playing more electric lately…
I play both acoustic and electric. Context rules the choice of instrument.
• The contemporary folk band I’m in, Beggar’s Banquet, is all acoustic. I tried using electric on a couple of tunes, but it did not work. Using an electric changed the nature of the band entirely. We started sounding more country and less folky. So I stick with my Gary Vessel F5.
• Backing other “folk” artists like Michael McNevin I use the F5 as well. Most people listen with their eyes. If you’re playing acoustic music, they want to see an acoustic instrument. As a mandolin player that means I need to use the F5. Otherwise a significant portion of the audience will be thinking about what instrument I’m playing rather than enjoying the music.
• But I have a duo that does original music. Bass and mandolin. (We’re going to add a cajón player and make it a trio soon.) We aren’t as utterly inventive as Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. But we’re pretty good. After listening back to some rough practice recordings, I decided to switch from the F5 to the electrics.
- Sustain. Matt, bass player, has a pretty active left hand. Likewise, the standard archtop acoustic mandolin needs an active right hand because of a lack of sustain inherent in the instrument. Going electric allows me to control sustain.
- Shaping tone in lieu of midrange. I can add chorus, flange, overdrive, delay, etc to an electric mandolin’s signal chain (though I think I’d like an effects loop soon). This goes some way to filling the space normally taken up by guitar. It provides aural interest and it allows me to more dramatically separate the solos from the rest of the song.
- Versatility. I’ve got three different electrics. All of them are distinct in their basic tone and output levels. This also allows me to shape tone in a way that I can’t if I stick with the F5. For example, my Epiphone mandobird can achieve a tone that very closely resembles Carlos Santana’s guitar tone. A little smooth overdrive is all I need and I’m ready for “Black Magic Woman.” My Fender has an uncanny ability to mimic Jerry Garcia’s Strat tones. And my new JBovier EMS comes off like a Les Paul in the hands of Slash.
Other benefits include…
- Freedom from feedback issues in an amplified situation. Solid body instruments don’t resonate to amplified frequencies.
- Increased volume capacity. I can get loud enough to be heard over a drummer.
- Ease of play. The 4 and 5 string electrics require less effort to play than my F5 because the lack double string courses.
If you’re a mandolin player and any of these issues sound familiar, think about grabbing an electric mandolin and an amp. You won’t be sorry.