Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fitting the shoe to the foot in the UG classroom...

Originated in comments over on Terminal Degree:

[Query was re/ whether "12- to 14-hour work days" should be considered "normal":

From a just-post-tenure perspective, here's a two-pronged observation that may help you re-think your level of preparation a bit:

(1) Sometimes over-preparation (12-14 hours/day is *too much work*) results because anything less than "total prep" feels shaky to us. That is, we think "what if I run out of material in class?" or "What if the students (or observing colleagues) think they're not getting enough?" I would submit that, though understandable, this results from a MIS-understanding of the purpose of a lecture-based class in the arts. Your job is not--cannnot be--giving them "everything there is to know" or even "everything you know" about a given music topic. Though it seems an obvious insight, it's easy to lose sight of just how rudementary *any* undergraduate music student's background in the lecture's material can be. You need to adjust your expectations about the sheer volume of material they are *capable* of taking in.

In other words: you should not teach according to your sense of "what there is to know" about the topic, but rather according to your (trained, experienced, empirically-observed, pedagogue's) sense of "what they can assimilate" TODAY about the topic.

In this sense, I think that we can see excessive over-preparation as proceeding from a certain *lack of awareness* of the students' actual capacities.

Want to test this?
Ask yourself if you sometimes, frequently, or even regularly have *too much material* and find yourself having to skip bullet points, whole slides, or whole explanations. If this is happening, you are over-preparing.

Remember: in teaching lecture classes, the crucial pedagogical question is *never* "how much do they need to know?" (much as we might wish that) but rather "how much can they take and and USE at their current stage of development?"

NOTHING is so engrossing, in teaching fine arts to large lecture classes, as a dynamic, engaged, variegated, kinesthetic, bodily-involved lecturer. Yes, for our post-literate students, multiple (especially visual) simultaneous media are the norm--but the fact that they have not experienced the riveting capacities of a great *live performance* does not mean they will not respond to it: it's a basic form of human communication that goes back at least 40,000 years.

You should consider teaching at least 1 lecture in 3 with NO Powerpoints, readings, or other technology. Challenge yourself to provide *as much* engrossing visual stimulus with just the audio recordings and your own body. Move, gesture, change inflection, make jokes, address specific students, haul up a student to pose the next question for you, act out questions, etc. You will be surprised how much the students will engage with these techniques. You will also be surprised how many positive comments they will elicit on evaluations.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #052: Son House: The Original Delta Blues

There are two brilliant scenes in the otherwise-awful film Crossroads (Walter Hill, director of Hard Times, The Warriors and The Long Riders, among other greats, slipped up on that one) in which Ralph—apt name for the appropriate critical reaction!—Macchio plays a Juilliard guitar student who throws over playing Bach in order to run away to the Delta and learn the blues, and which climaxes with a truly wretched cutting contest in which Macchio’s callow-young-boy-in-a-porkpie-hat supposedly bests the Devil’s guitar-player—typecast with the great Steve Vai—by playing Bach.

Ralph! Or, more onomatopoeically: Bleaarrghh!

But there were two scenes that made the hairs on my forearms stand up. The first is the opening of the film, a beautifully-shot sepia toned evocation of Robert Johnson’s 1936 San Antonio recording session, when, according to Ralph Peer, Robert insisted on playing with his back to the room, facing the corner. Though, as Ry Cooder pointed out, this simply meant that Robert understood about “corner-loading” to amplify the bass—that nevertheless became the iconic image of Robert—so shy, so driven by his voodoo demons, his soul sold to the Devil—that he couldn’t even face his audience…and it became the iconic image of the LP of remastered 78s released in the ‘60s as King of the Delta Blues Singers. That image, and the stories of Robert as a terrible wanna-be harmonica player who “went away” for a year, and came back playing like a man possessed, which Son House claimed was because he’d “sold his soul to the devil,” were all over his song catalog—and we wanna-be blues guitarists in the ‘60s loved the story. It confirmed all the romantic legends we wanted to find in the blues, and that, truthfully, we wanted to find in ourselves. For the film, it was a great opening scene, made far greater by the smart inclusion of Ry Cooder as music director and guitar soloist. Most of the blues heads I knew hated the movie but loved that scene.

The other great scene, one that most people didn’t comment upon, was the spookiest in the whole film, for me: the POV jumps from Joe Seneca’s old bluesman remembering a 1930s encounter with Mr Scratch, the Devil’s henchman, at the crossroads, through a brief, hallucinatory montage, to the present-day Delta: Macchio and Seneca, young bluesman and old, standing in the dusty silence of the crossroads—an ancient place of power in African mythology—under a brown Delta sky, when a coal-black Camaro pulls up, and the tinted power window whines down, and the same Mr Scratch, 60 years later, dressed in a $2000 suit, glances sidelong up at them and says “Well, well, well, Willie Brown—fancy meeting you here!”

The blues has always occupied a “space in-between”—between our reality and the worlds inhabited by the old African pantheon of the orishas: Eshu and Obatala, Ogun and Oshuan, Shango and Yemanja, and the world of haints and spooks: Legba and High John the Conqueror; of the orishas’s new home in the swamps and cotton fields, piney woods and riverbanks of the Mississippi Delta. The reason most of us callow young bluesmen didn't sound right was because we didn't know that world--and, maybe, because we didn't know that other world.

The blues is about parallel worlds and their boundaries and dichotomies: black and white, North and South, rich and poor, Jesus and the Devil, prayer and sex, free and bound, and—overwhelmingly and at its very core—the inextricably intertwined continuum of joy and grief. The blues lives on those boundaries and it thrives—and depends—on the places in-between, where its symbols, and its players, and even its archetypes like Mr Scratch who’ll meet you at the crossroads—the boundary between four different directions—play at full rein. That’s what the blues does—it helps people negotiate the inevitable experiences of joy and grief. The greatest of the bluesmen learned to seek those boundaries and even to revel in them, to dance and drink and fuck and fight and sing in that liminal place “in-between.” Some took that liminal power as their arrogant due—like Charlie Patton; some learned to live there with a grin and a wink—like Peetie Wheatstraw, the “Devil’s Son-in-Law.” Some seemed to have been annealed by suffering to a place of spiritual peace—like Blind Willie Johnson. Some were simply too tough for the devil to defeat them—like Blind Gary Davis and my old friend Blind Arvella Gray.

Still others learned to live at that boundary, to inhabit both sides of that liminal divide, but never happily—rather instead to teeter back and forth on the sharp edge between God and the Devil, between lost and saved, between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Little Richard, in his greatest years, was like that, one year screeching about sassy transvestites and “good booty” and the next, upon hearing the news of Sputnik, hurling his jewelry into Sydney Harbor and going back to the church. So was (and is) the great Al Green: recording songs that were the soundtrack for half the seductions of the Sixties, and then, upon being assaulted by a woman armed with hot grits, going back to gospel.

Some never seemed to find a home, no matter how great their genius, and ended their lives in madhouses (like Buddy Bolden) or crawling on their hands-and-knees, barking like a dog, like Robert Johnson, the Tupac of his day (see Elijah Wald’s great Escaping the Delta for a radical and brilliant re-visioning of who Robert was and where he was trying to go before he was poisoned).

But the greatest of all these—greater even than Patton, his role model, and Robert Johnson, his disciple— was Son House, who was both a hellfire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher and the greatest, most ferocious, and most transported of all the bluesmen. Robert was afraid of him, and one of the seminal stories in the Johnson mythos is of the young aspirant showing up to Son’s juke-joint gigs, wanting to sit in on harmonica, and being chased out of the joint by Son and Willie Brown (who Robert name-checks in Crossroads Blues).

Son House was born two miles outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi around 1902 (he claimed to have been born in 1886, but that may well have been purely so he could claim to be as senior as the Delta legend and reigning champion bluesman Charlie Patton). He was a Baptist preacher from the age of 15, but, by his own account, he liked the bluesman's lifestyle too much. He recorded for Paramount in the 1930s and for the notorious Alan Lomax in the early ‘40s. He was one of the original Delta bluesmen who was “rediscovered” (a peculiar term--did they not know where they themselves were?) in 1964 by blues revivalists Nick Perl, Phil Spiro, and Dick Waterman. (There's a beautiful account of this in Eric von Schmidt's fantastic Baby Let Me Follow You Down, topic of a future "100 Greats" post).

Yes, Son was the greatest of them all—and maybe the most conflicted. There was nothing more powerful in the Delta than Jesus and the music (Son's a cappella version of John the Revelator is the scariest version of Revelations I've ever heard)—and that’s why the overseers at Parchman Farm (the notorious prison farm where Son, like so many bluesmen, did time) kept a close watch on both. That there was no-one among the bluesmen more powerful or more intense than Son, was because, I’m convinced, he really did believe that playing the blues was his one-way ticket to hell. He wasn't playing around: he knew he was damned.

And that’s what gave his music such intensity: here was this courtly, soft-spoken old man in a starched white shirt and a string tie, with the gaze-averted, careful manner that Delta blacks learned to use with white folks, sitting on the soundstage of a German TV studio with a National steel guitar on his lap. And he says, quietly and but with absolute conviction, “the blues is not what these young people think it is.” And then he sighs, and flexes his left-hand fingers with the slide, and hunches his body, and simply explodes, as he howls the opening lines of Death Letter Blues:

I got a letter this morning/ How do you reckon it read
Said ‘Hurry hurry, the gal you love is dead.’

And that spooky midnight Delta boundary place is right there, in the cold sterile black-and-white set of a German television studio. It’s in the way his body rocks back and forth as he stomps his feet, the way his right-hand (a sharecropper’s powerful hand) flails at the strings as if he’s going to tear them right off the guitar. It's the Crossroads, between heaven and hell, between life and death, between joy and grief. It’s that place to which some of the greatest, some of the darkest, and some of the most transcendent musicians can go, sometimes in the most banal of circumstances.

I once met an old Azeri accordion player who’d lost half his jaw to cancer and who couldn’t speak English who did it within the first couple of notes he played in a Midwestern radio studio. He sat down in a swivel chair in front of a microphone, waited for a nod, stretched out the bellows, and he was gone, from the first chord. During the tri-lingual interview afterward, he calmly chain-smoked the cigarettes his handlers complained he had been forbidden. And then, when it was time to play again, he went away again--within a few seconds.

That liminal space was in the darkness, the suffering, the history, the sounds, the funk of the Mississippi Delta, the dark damp place which had been a primordial jungle which was only carved into farms when white trash from the Southern Appalachians had realized they could push west, stake land claims, and, in a couple of generations, set themselves up as ‘aristocracy’—but would have to brutalize their slaves worse than anywhere else in the Americas in order to do it. It's in the work-songs and blues, stomps and spirituals, that Delta blacks created in order to cope. It’s in those musics' sense of long dark nights in slave-quarters and sharecroppers cabins and filthy lumber camps, with only the skeeters and fireflies, and the old, old stories of the Orishas and their New World descendents, for company.

That music told the truth: in the Delta, you best watch yourself at the crossroads, and you best believe it when a woman warned you not to cross her, and you best believe in the tricks and the charms of High John de Conqueroo and the Mojo Hand that had come to the South with the vodun religion of Haitian refugees, and you best believe that if you played the blues on Saturday night you best pray for your soul on Sunday morning. In that place, and that time, and that society—you really could go to hell for playing the wrong music.

But, if you were Charlie Patton, or Muddy Waters, or Bill Broonzy, you might even decide that, compared to your present situation, neither Hell nor the Devil seemed like such a fearsome proposition. And you might shake hands with Mr Scratch by-and-by--if it meant you could hitch a ride out.

That was the place in between, the place that Son House knew, and knew enough both to fear and to exult in—the place where joy and grief meet, which is where art begins. Art results from the transmutation of suffering, through effort, into beauty. And that's why the blues is beautiful--not pretty. Like life.

That is the fierce joy, the ferocious abandon, the liminal ecstasy possible only in the call-and-response that crosses the “place in-between,” when music and dancing—sound and motion—Jesus and the Devil—Brahma and Shiva—creation and destruction—shake hands across the divide. It is that very handshake, captured most compellingly in the music of Son House, that makes the blues, and all of existence, possible.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

What we do...

...is build things.

Had an old friend here over this past weekend, a fine fiddler from a town much higher on the horizon than ours: bills itself as the World Capitol of Live Music (and, taken objectively, they're pretty much entitled), recognizes that live music is their most powerful export and importer of tourists, and so on. Heck, even their airport baggage handlers are deferential to musicians.

Whereas we live in a distant, (mentally and physically) isolated place, the reddest county in a red state, the place Der Leader referenced when he said "I want these position papers to be so simple even the boys in [this place] will understand them," the Buckle of the Bible Belt. Great tradition for birthing songwriters and musicians, all of whom left as soon as they possibly fuckin' could.

When Dharmonia and I moved here about 6 years back, I was coming from a place where the traditional music was top-notch: national champions, an excellent (if ego-ridden) local world music festival, clubs/pubs/sessions, set-dancing, you name it. I moved here and found a half-dozen people sight-reading folk-song melodies out of loose-leaf binders. Needless to say, my heart sank.

But, it was a good job, with great colleagues and FANTASTIC students. And we took it. And, astonishingly, the administration basically gave me a free hand, saying, both literally and by implication: "we want you to re-build this department." And, even more shockingly, not only did they say they wanted me to do it--they helped me do it. They found me funds, and donors, and connections, and a title, and an Institute, and so on and so forth. Part of that assistance came in the realm of letting me define the widest possible range of projects as part of "research and creative activity."

So we set to work, with a slow session, and a pub session, and eventually a radio program, a Christmas fundraising concert, and now--most recently--a festival and an endowed traditional music scholarship.

So my fiddler friend came up from World Capitol of Live Music, and she had a good time: a workshop on Breton music-and-dance, a big "all-stars" concert, a late-night cabaret-feature concert, a concert of new and traditional dances. On the Sunday, when we were all done and it had all worked, she was packed and we were ready to head to the airport (one advantage of the boonies: the airport's 12 minutes from our house and it takes about 7 minutes to clear security). She said, "hey, when's the next time I can come back? This place is fun." We talked about a timetable, and then she said "I always tell everybody down there about these guys up here who've built this Irish music scene."

I laughed, and said "Yeah...brick by fucking brick." She agreed, and repeated, "Yeah, I tell them that, and they never believe it, but it's really true: brick by fucking brick."

Every human endeavor of any value, meaning, and longevity has been built brick by brick, usually by large numbers of anonymous people working, not for their own benefit, but that of their kids, and their grand-kids, and the benefit of everybody's and anybody's grandkids. Literature, social justice movements, art, tradition, earth knowledge, planting cycles, ways of communicating across boundaries, how to raise kids: all of those crucial knowledges have been built brick by brick, over centuries, by millions of anonymous people working to make the world a little better. I think of it when I see the Mexican guys around town roofing houses from "kin (see) 'til cain't (see)" on Sundays to make overtime pay so they can send their kids into my freshman music classes. When I walk into the auto-parts store to hear the counterman conversing effortlessly with two Spanish faculty members about Jaguar parts before he turns to me and asks, with the West Texas twang, "how kin ah help?" When my freshmen fall asleep in their morning classes because they've been working 10pm-6am stocking shelves at the local supermarket to make the money to put themselves through school to become high-school band directors and choral conductors, so they can help other kids boot-strap themselves up the economic ladder in turn (and, let's just comment in passing, it's in the immigrant communities that you find the truest, deepest, most generous support for arts in the schools).

It also reminds me of my wife's grandfather, who came over from Italy as an illiterate 14-year-old, speaking no English, with a painstakingly hand-lettered sign around his neck giving the target address of his relatives' friends in Western Massachusetts. He and Nonni raised 4 kids on a stonemason's wages, through the most ferocious government neglect of the Great Depression, and lost two mortgaged houses to bank failures and unemployment. Finally, Nonno got fed up with counting on banks and bankers, went out into the back-yard of the plot of land they owned, and started digging up clay. And he and his sons shaped and fired the bricks--brick by fuckin' brick--for another house. And he and Nonni built that house, and finished raising their kids, and lived in that house the rest of their lives.

I met Nonno there, when I started dating Dharmonia. By then, he'd had several (only belatedly diagnosed) strokes, and couldn't do much except sit in his Barcalounger and scowl at daytime TV (he was so tough--all five-foot-four of him--that after his first stroke, he'd show up on job-sites, and his sons would have to hide his mason's hammer from him to keep him from clambering up ladders onto roofs to help lay up stone for the beautiful chimneys that were the family's speciality). Nonni was in her kitchen (five feet all and not much less than that wide, but with snow-white hair and the china-blue eyes that her Tuscan relatives recognized years later in Dharmonia) chattering in Italian with her neighbor-lady friends, and pressing Amaretto cookies and lemon pie on us (into her nineties, she cooked her specialities at home, and Dharmonia and I would hoard the occasional care package of her hand-made capaletti in the freezer for months at a time), but Papa stayed in the living room.

Eventually the chatter was too much for his curiosity, and he sidled into the kitchen, leaning hard on his cane, because one arm and one leg didn't work very well. He looked sidelong up at me (I was at least 12 inches taller), and then began nudging one of Nonni's friends, chuckling and mumbling something to her in Italian--by then, he'd forgotten most any of the English he had known. The ladies began chuckling and whispering to each other, peeking to see if Dharmo or I understood what Papa was saying, before Nonni whacked him on the arm and told him Basta! (I understood that one, at least). Finally she whispered something to Dharmo, who in turn began giggling but wouldn't tell me what she'd said.

As we were pulling out of the driveway in the car, after accepting yet another serving of lemon pie and Amaretto liquer (one thing those old Italians definitely understood was how to mix sweet and sour), I asked Dharmo "What the hell was that all about?" She laughed and told me that when Papa finally had shuffled into the kitchen (where all important business in an old Italian family was conducted), he'd been nudging Zia and saying "É piccolo, huh?" ("He's little, huh?") (I don't know what it was about Dharmonia's dad's family, but they all seemed to feel obligated to comment on my size: her dad's version, when we drove away after the obligatory "meet-the-girlfriend's-parents-for-the-first-time" visit, was basically the same thing: "Big sonuvabitch, isn't he?").

When Dharmonia told me Nonno's comment, we laughed together. But 27 or 28 years later, with Nonno, and Nonni, and even their boy Leo--Dharmo's dad--gone, I am struck by my fiddler friend's comment about "brick-by-brick." If what I do has even an iota of the longevity, beauty, and practical enduring human value of the chimneys and planters and brick walls those men laid up--in the fiercest, economically coldest, most ethnocentric environments imaginable, much tougher than anything I've ever faced--then I'll regard it as an honor to be grouped with them.

That in mind, here's a poem I wrote a couple of years back, taking off from Isaac Newton's admirably humble "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

This poem is dedicated with admiration and love to the memory of Giuseppi Mariani--Papa Joe--and all the millions of other tough, brave little men and women who came to a new, foreign place (and continue to do so) and worked their whole lives to create a better life for their--and all--children. Grazie, Molte grazie, Papa.

If I stand on the shoulders of giants

If I stand on the shoulders of giants,

then they are modest giants:

small men in black suits;

turning potatoes,

or stooped in the bog,

cutting turf into clamps,

cupping unfiltered cigarettes

against the damp wind;

or curling callused fingers around cups of tea,

and pitchblack pints of porter,

as the flames roll over the turf,

and the chat ranges the centuries,

and the tunes rise like tendrils of smoke behind us.

--12.24.02, with acknowledgements to Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone

Thursday, September 14, 2006

For serious military-history geeks only

You scored as Finland. Your army is the army of Finland. You prefer to win your enemy by your wit rather than superior weapons. Enemy will have a hard time against your small but effective force.







British and the Commonwealth


United States


Soviet Union


France, Free French and the Resistance






In which World War 2 army you should have fought?
created with QuizFarm.com

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What I said at the start of class yesterday...

[Reporting on Sep 12 because I was fucked if I was going to grandstand/blog on the day, and because the kids expect us to say something]:

I don't know where you were five years ago today at about this time, but I'm sure you remember. I was here--in this class, as a matter of fact. Let's all take a minute to reflect on ways to use our time together to work toward a world in which things like airplanes flying into Twin Towers don't have to happen anymore.

What happened to "Mission Accomplished"???

WTF? Whatever happened to "Mission Accomplished"???

Bush: "The war is not over."

Why I love "The Wire"

Because producer/author/former cop-beat reporter David Simon says:

The new season fits into a plan that was decided upon during the filming of season one, back in 2001. "The first season was about the inherent cost of being an individual in any modern institution," Simon says.

"Whoever you were in Baltimore, you were getting fucked. The second season was to describe the death of work. The third season was to show what happens to reform and reformers and to examine the whole nature of why policy never changes."

"And this season is to take argument with those who feel that if you're born without privilege, but make the right set of choices, that you will be spared. To do away with that bit of national mythology."

Adds [former Bawlmer cop and public-school teacher Ed] Burns: "When you watch The Wire, don't begin to think you've seen the worst of what's going on with these kids. What's going on here is a crime against humanity."

Hear that, Chimpie? The man who "was born on third base and thought he hit a home run"? You and your whole bullshit God-fearin' money-grubbin' class are guilty in Bawlmer--and New Orleans--and Compton--and Roxbury--just as much as you are in Fallujah and Kabul.

[nb: "100 Greats" will return--we just got slammed at the beginning of the semester, and "100 Greats" essays take some effort and some emotional concentration--in short supply around here just now. Soon, though.]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Odyssey Project

Here's an example of true radical pedagogy: a slate of college-level humanities courses (for college credit), offered for free to low-income persons:

The class enrolls 25 to 30 students, recruited from the Champaign-Urbana community and surrounding areas. Prospective students must meet the following criteria: they must live at 150% of the poverty level or lower, be 17 years of age or older, be able to read an English-language newspaper, and, in interviews with the project coordinator, demonstrate a desire to complete the course...

The course is offered free of charge; there is no tuition fee, and books, transportation vouchers, and child care (at the Douglass Community Center, adjacent to the library) will be made available to all students. Students who complete the course will be eligible for six hours of college credit from Bard College; these general humanities credits are transferable to other two- or four-year colleges.
Wow! Talk about inspiring! Talk about turning the "college as corporate supermarket" model on its head!

I've done something similar to this, teaching participatory music skills at a free, weekly 2-hour session, since about 1992, but I never thought anybody would be able to talk upper-administration into granting credit. Talk about getting the wheels turning...

Prediction: those students who stick with the course will be some of the most responsive (and responsible) students thos faculty have ever faced.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Andre Agassi

I remember a snotty little punk with streaked hair and absolutely horrific manners (and nowhere near as good as he and his asshole father thought he was).

What I saw today for the last time (on a championship court, anyway), was a man who absolutely transformed himself. Most child athletic stars start out as jerks and get worse--almost none of them become better people.

But Andre did: he started out as a spoiled punk, and somehow, under the arc-light glare of the celebrity tennis circuit, he has made himself into a wise, courageous, generous old man.

Samson lost his greatness when he lost his hair. Andre gained his.

His press-conference after falling to Becker was one of the most amazingly sane public speeches I've ever heard from a professional athlete. Coming from the man who grew from that snotty punk, it was an astonishing rebirth.

A courageous gentleman, indeed.

100 Greats in 100 Days #051: Dean Magraw: Broken Silence

I could be a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch when I was young (now I’m probably just a son-of-a-bitch, full stop). Growing up in the dead-boring, striving-to-be-middle-class suburban bedroom community I did, there wasn’t much in the way of live music. They cut the music programs in my high school before I got there: this was in the days before middle-class parents had become convinced that extra-curricular activities (don’t call ‘em avocations, anymore—parents mandate them for their kids) would help them aim their 13-year-olds more surely at top schools. Back in the early ‘70s, the conviction was that top grades in hard sciences was what got kids into Ivy Schools and that money spent on anything else was wasted cash. I wasn’t facilitated by being the second Coyote offspring to go through my home-town’s public schools: my brilliant elder brother (too smart for just about any room he’s in) had blazed through them five years before, just prior to winning a full ride to Harvard at 16, after taking a year in Europe where he wound up as translator and part-time comptroller at American Express in Amsterdam. So I always got the pleased-and-relieved reaction from lady teachers, “Oh, you’re David’s brother!”

But I started finding my way a little bit in the folk coffeehouses that still sprang up like dandelions after rain around the North Shore of Massachusetts. A lot of these places were run by people who’d either experienced the great Sixties Folk Revival in Boston/Cambridge (documented in Eric von Schmidt’s masterpiece chronicle Baby Let Me Follow You Down), or by people who’d just missed the boat by being too young. I didn’t have other experience of live music—never was a band rat, never played in a junior high garage band, only went to a few rock ‘n’ roll parties—so I took my cues from the vibe of the coffeehouses. Which was, more or less, hushed, reverent, and—let’s face it—pretty well precious and holier- (or “folkier”) than-thou.

A coffeehouse was actually a pretty good place to play music: the musicians loved these clubs, because people didn’t smoke or drink and they would shut the fuck up while the music was on; the shows started and ended reasonably early (and you didn’t have to load out through a garbage-stinking service entrance at 2:00 in the morning). It was a little weird to listen to greats like Martin Grosswendt, Geoff Bartley, Paul Rishell, and Paul Geremia play the country blues in the parish hall of an Episcopal church, but the musicians liked playing there.

On the other hand, it wasn’t the greatest place to learn to hear music, if only because it gave you (OK, “it gave me”) some pretty rigid ideas about what were and weren’t acceptable behaviors around the music. I was there to listen, and, like all the other natural-fibered older folks around me in the coffeehouse audience, I expected a certain reverence about other folks’ listening behavior.

All of which goes to mean that I was a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch in a music bar. I would shush anybody, even the scary-looking biker guys and failed poets who hung out in the back room of the legendary Idler, a bar on the southwest edge of Harvard Square where some of those same Folk-Revival bluesmen held court. I could be sitting in the back room of the Idler when one of these guys was playing, and if somebody at the other end of the room started talking, I’d get in their face (it didn’t hurt that I was 6’5” and looked a little like a biker myself, having just moved back from Texas).

But even though I was a snot, it was my favorite place to listen to the solo guitar virtuosity of my hero, the Zatoichi of the guitar, Dean Magraw. He’d come out from the Twin Cities to study at Berklee, and like so many others, had quickly realized that the place was more adept at churning out carbon-copy studio players (and at charging them outrageous tuition) than fostering original creativity. He wound up playing the folk and jazz clubs of the area and teaching widely.

Dean—I realize now—was only about eight years older than I at the time, but he was such an astonishing virtuoso, his style an ungodly blend of Norman Blake and Doc Watson’s flatpicking prowess, the funk of Charles Mingus and the country blues, and the modal and harmonic sophistication of bebop and Indian classical music, that he seemed light-years ahead of me. He played the widest possible diversity of tunes, from the aforementioned Mingus and McCoy Tyner, Ravi Shankar and Roland Kirk, Doc’s and Norman’s and his own tunes, and his technique was amazing. He might have been the first musician I’d ever met who could truly play anything he heard.

When a musician gets to that place—when the physical technique, and the kinesthetic connection between the ear (inner or outer) and the fingers is as immediate as the hearing itself—a lot falls away. The battles fought with the instrument and the ear fall away, and the difference between a good gig and a great one comes down to the degree to which the player can enter a zone of relaxation, comfort, and confidence—because that’s when the ideas flow. Dean might also have been the first player I’d ever seen enter that zone—that place where the ideas flow unchecked. Late at night, when the people there were listening rather than talking, and it was quiet enough that the PA was behaving, and he’d maybe had a little bit of the smoke, he felt comfortable experimenting, and the music that flowed out of that was absolutely transcendent.

I don’t know if I was his most frequent listener, following him around to the little folk and jazz clubs he played, but I might give myself credit for being his best listener.

He played with Chicago-born accordion and concertina virtuoso John Williams—and buried Williams, and plays widely around his native Minneapolis with ambient-music maestro Steve Tibbetts, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, and a host of others. But his greatest, most intimate, and most beautiful music, I think, is the solo guitar stuff.

I was later blessed to work alongside Dean at the late and much-lamented guitar workshop, a magical place at which the owners—though in the end they proved to be piss-poor and unethical business managers—had an incomparable ability to recruit brilliant and compatible personalities. I took every class he taught and practiced every exercise he gave me (and still use some in my own teaching), and hoped that someday I’d be able to get within some kind of hollering distance of his chops, ears, imagination, and, most of all, his freedom. Tibbetts put it, “It’s guitar, but it’s so liquid, lyrical, and effortless, that it’s like listening to a dancer.” When it was late enough, and quiet enough, and friendly enough, and he was relaxed (one way or another) enough, he would just go somewhere, and we would be lucky enough, maybe, to go partway there with him.

He played a lot of things, and I loved a lot of his arrangements (he had a version of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance was just heartbreaking), and his versions of old bluegrass tunes were equally good: he wasn’t a conventionally “good” singer, but he loved things like Norman’s Church Street Blues so much that it didn’t matter.

I heard a lot of the blues players in the Boston/Cambridge folk revival, and noticed pretty early on that there was a range of concepts of what you did with the blues. There were the literalist quasi-musicologists—who knew all the details and the matrix numbers and the alternate takes, and could sometimes play gorgeous, 78-perfect versions of the originals. There were the poseurs—who tended to dress self-consciously for the stage, and for some reason seemed to think that a crucial hat was what would make them seem cool. There were the inhabitors—who got so deeply into the music that they could play the old tunes with total unself-consciousness, and could “go to” the place people like Blind Willie Johnson did: Martin Grosswendt was like that; so was Paul Rishell. There were the hipsters—who made everything they played work beautifully within a kind of uptown idiom: Geoff Bartley’s fantastic, sexy version of Chuck Berry’s Maybelline comes to mind. If I fell into any camp, it was probably a trap: the trap that you had to play your version of this or that Exactly Like The Record—if only to show everybody else that you had the chops and ears to figure it out. I never really go to where I inhabited the music that way.

But then there were the ones who owere just free—sho seemed to hear it all like One Big Music, who had worked so hard, for so long, that they could check their egos at the door, knowing that what they mostly needed to do was simply to get out of the way, and let the music flow through them. Dean was like that. His versions of tunes were deeply his own, and sometimes bore only passing resemblance to their originals. But he managed to find another kind of beauty in each of them.

My favorite tune of Dean’s was his version of Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. It’s a tune that had been covered and re-covered throughout the Folk and Blues revivals: Taj Mahal had done a fantastic semi-acoustic version with Jesse Ed Davis, the Allman Brothers had produced maybe the definitive electric version (captured most memorably on Live at Fillmore East), and Willie’s own original—high-pitched, whiney vocal; fingerpicked 12-string guitar approximately the size of a church organ; absolutely magnificent—is nothing to sneeze at. Most everybody who played it paid at least homage to one of those versions: even the Allmans’ stop-time version took off from Taj’s earlier shuffle settings, and most of the folkies I heard copped Willie’s 12-string partner.

Dean went somewhere else with it. He borrowed Willie’s dropped-D tuning, but beyond that, everything in his version changed: the groove (from a shuffle to a more bluegrassy straight-8ths), the technique (from fingerpicking to flatpicking), and the tonality: from bluesy sevenths to lovely, simple, diatonic triads.

But even greater than all of these lovely—and, given the canonic nature of Willie’s original and all the versions—daring changes, was what he added: a stunning, simple, eloquent D-triad-to-G/B riff, tumbling down the to the low strings. It was the one Dean lick I learned first, and the one I loved best, and the feeling it created in me when I heard it, and when it cycled around again in the tune, was the one that, for decades later, was the feeling I wanted to hear in my own music.

It wasn’t until almost two decades later that I found my way to the olace of freedom that I was hearing in Dean’s music—when I stopped trying to play everything, and, with the assistance of some wise musical elders, and one youngster with wisdom beyond her years (at least about me), decided to have a go at doing one thing well. I finally accepted I couldn’t do what Dean did—but I might be able to light out for the territory he had mapped before me. For 10 years at least after that, I carried around badly-recorded analog cassettes of those shows, playing them over the sound systems of the bookstores or restaurant kitchens I worked in, until they literally frayed into tatters or were lost in various moves.

There’s another thing that Dean showed me, years before I understood what it was, or why it was so powerful, or how much I wanted to find it in myself and my own music. And it’s a hard thing to talk about, in the typically-macho world of jazz, blues, and, shit, even of Irish music. But it’s a true, real, and important thing. It’s about love.

I wasn’t exactly a disciple, but, as I say, I was probably about the best listener Dean had. And I would always look forward to that moment in the evening, when it was quiet or intimate or relaxed or high enough—usually in the back room of the Idler—when he’d play the Statesboro Blues. I knew and loved all the other versions, but there was something about Dean’s—its beauty, originality, simplicity, eloquence, or things I couldn’t even name—that outstripped them all for me. I’d wait to hear that beautiful opening riff, because I knew the feeling it created; I knew how I felt while he played it. And I came to believe that he understood that.

One night at the Idler, when Dharmonia was occupied elsewhere, I’d trekked down from Porter Square on the Red Line to hear Dean play another sparsely-attended solo gig. It was the last set, I think, and I had managed to shush (or chase away) anybody noisy, so there were just a few of us left. Dean went into the opening riff of Statesboro, and could practically feel my eyes roll back in my head. I looked up at the stage, and caught his eye, and saw him smiling at me. And I knew, at that moment, what I heard in that tune, and his music, and how to understand it: I knew, for that four minutes, that he loved me, and that this was the music’s deepest message.

I’ve spoken before in these pages about love: of the musician for the music, of the teacher for the student, of the listener for the player. Finally, most privately, riskily, and eloquently, Dean Magraw and his Statesboro Blues taught me about the sacred love of the musician for the listener: about why many musics—no matter how earthly—because of this capacity, are “sacred” musics. Because of the emotions whose creation and communication those musics make possible. Because they enable musicians (who are, let’s face it, not necessarily some of the nicest or most communicative people in the world) to express love.

Dean Magraw’s music showed me the possibility of love within that sacred space. Beyond these limited words, I can’t describe it—but this record will take you there.

Loving the energy at the start of the semester

I’m an energy junkie: I like building, using it, consolidating it, maximizing it, getting messy with it. If the work of an artist is to make something new out of existing possibilities, then the work of the teacher is to make something new out of existing personalities.

When I walk into a classroom of 100+ kids—who, perhaps for the first time, are not being hovered-over by parents concerned about getting them into college (too late for that now, mom ‘n’ dad) or teachers concerned about guaranteeing (usually in marginally-ethical ways) that the little darlins’ excel on the standardized tests so that the school doesn’t lose its “No [white, middle- to upper-class, offspring of parents who might be persuaded to fall for the bullshit fulminations of “compassionate conservatives” one more time] Child Left Behind” funding—which would mean that the public school teachers would have to do still more impossible work on still less funding—that’s my métier. I wanna get in there and start working with that energy.

I don’t care whether it’s positive or negative, present or absent, latent nascent or intrinsic—I’ll find it, and I’ll build it, and I’ll send the little darlins out into the world as stronger, smarter, tougher, braver, more independent people.

That’s my job.