Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

I just got home from a glorious PSGW weekend of music making with 100 musicians from all over the US. The music was so loving, so intimate, so beautiful. I got to sit in a circle of some of the finest musicians I have ever known and led them in a jam on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. (Anybody too grown-up to join in that song is way too grown-up for me.) I suddenly felt like I was holding my (now grown-up) toddler sons on my lap, as they held my grandchildren, and at the same time my mother held me, and her mother held her. We were a many-generations-chain of parents holding small children, and we were singing all together.

This reminded me of something, and I thought I might share it.

If I feel tears close behind my eyes, I have a use for them. If I put my mind rigorously on the goodness and beauty of this world, and the goodness and beauty of the people around me, and remember whatever glimpses I can hold of my own beauty and goodness, then every teardrop that falls is a piece of confusion falling away forever.

Love/Fl!p

Musings on Oh Suzannah

Chord choices and accompaniment can transform the meaning of words. Oh Suzannah is my icon for that. It matters what chords I use, to help other people (and my own heart) understand just what I mean.

When I was a kid I loved the song – as bouncy and exciting as a ride in the back seat of an old Plymouth in a hurry on a gravel road with potholes. I had a clear image of Suzannah. She was a chubby white girl with freckles, maybe 8 years old, with her hair tied back in pigtails so tightly that it pulled the skin at the corners of her eyes. She was running down the hill with those braids flapping in the wind, with crumbs (and even some chunks) of buckwheat cake flying in all directions. The nonsense was just nonsense. The song was just fun.

When I was about 19, I heard James Taylor sing Susannah on his first album. The world just stopped. I wanted to burst into tears. I want to now, just remembering. He had something NEW to say about that song, at least for me. All those major 7ths and plaintive suspensions. The tenderness.

Suddenly, I got it! Susannah was black, and BEAUTIFUL. Slender and sad and worried, REAL, going about her daily life but thinking always of the singer (lover? husband? father? sister? mother? child?) sold away, lost, and longing for her too. She’s coming down that hill, and they both know where every bush and tree on that hill is, just where the little flowers poke their heads up in the springtime. It’s home.And she has the taste of home on her lips, and on her breath. Did they grow that buckwheat?

     It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry.

A break in the summer drought; everything washed clean.

     The sun so hot, I froze to death.

No matter what the weather does, I can’t shake the cold terror at the bone about what might have happened to you while I’ve been gone all this time. And of what might happen to me as I try again today to find my way home past all these strangers.

    Suzannah, don’t you cry.

All I can offer is that I’m coming as fast as I can. I’m sneaking my way across the land, hiding behind this banjo, pretending just to be a harmless musician. Amusing the white people, looking cute. With a subtext for my own people to hear. Maybe someone has news of her. And, I want to imagine her smiling, not with those helpless tears trickling down her cheeks, as they do down mine.

And then there’s this verse, which wasn’t on James Taylor’s album, but which is in the original:

     When I get to New Orleans I’ll look all around

     And when I find Susannah, I’m gonna fall right on the ground

     But if I do not find her, you know I’ll surely die

     And when I’m dead and in my grave,

    Susannah don’t you cry.

A wise man I used to know (Harvey Jackins) once said that people need love two ways. That we need to be loved as deeply and urgently as we need water. We’ll dry up and die without it. But, needing to give love, that’s like air.

Thanks for giving so much, and for receiving…

Another wise man I know, John Knowles, told me that someday, when we have truly solved racism, then we will go back, together, and look at Stephen Foster and his music. Right now that history is still deeply tangled with the vicious racism of so many of the original lyrics. I’ve learned not to sing many of his songs in nursing homes because it can trigger some elders to launch into the minstrel song versions, which are so damaging to our humanity.  It’s the past we have inherited, and we need to face it. I hope we can find ways to pull the jewels out of the dross. It’s going to take many long conversations with all the stakeholders. I love the work Rhiannon Giddens has been doing in that direction.

I don’t have answers, but I think the best education comes from seeking useful questions, rather than from learning “correct” answers.

Love

Fl!p Breskin

 

Lullabies For Activists

A couple friends and I played and sang lullabies last week to help young activists rest. A new setting for a most ancient human activity. We enjoyed it enough we plan to do more. If you’d like to come to one, RSVP and I’ll add you to my contact list so you hear about them. This is not a jam, and not a concert either. A small group of professional musicians who are particularly skilled at lullabies will do our best to actually help you fall asleep for an hour or so. Bring a sleeping bag, pillow and mat. Activists could use a bit of reassuring rest!

I have always loved lullabies. Here are a few with me playing that have been recorded over the years:

Flatworld
With long-time Puget Sound Guitar Workshop collaborators Richard Scholtz on autoharp, Janet Peterson on cello, and Laura Smith on banjo. I love the way the four of us have figured out how to slow time down with and for each other. Banjo is not often thought of as a lullaby instrument, but in Laura’s hands, it can do anything. Written by Andy Cutting, an accordion player from England.  Andy plays it very fast, but I have taken liberties.

Sweet And Low
A cradle song written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the 1860s and set to music by Joseph Barnaby. My mom used to sing us to sleep with it. My brother introduced me to Aimee Ringle the night before. In course of staying up all night playing music, we discovered that both our moms sang it. So in the morning we went over and sang it to my mom, Maryann Breskin, who joined in a bit. My brother Joe Breskin recorded us.

Burning Of The Piper’s Hut
With my friend Richard Scholtz, who also played on FlatWorld. He and I have been playing together for almost half a century. Traditional Scottish pipe tune. No video. Just sound.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
This last was recorded by an audience member with a cell phone. Mostly what you hear is the audience singing. This was not a children’s concert. I loved how people found their own early memories of these songs. My husband Zeke Hoskin joined in on his mandolin from the front row towards the end.

 

Requiem for Whatcom Falls

Twenty years ago today, there was a huge pipeline explosion in Bellingham’s Whatcom Falls Park. How can I explain to you who weren’t there?

The park is a brilliant green ravine of old cedars, ferns, salal and moss, with a sparkling salmon stream winding through it. The creek runs down through the hills into the city, from the Lake Whatcom Reservoir. Deeply cherished and actively used.

 When the pipeline blew, a gigantic cloud of smoke rose over our city. Scorched leaves, cedar fronds, and chunks of roofing from a nearby house were blown over a mile. A friend who was a Vietnam War veteran was sure our city had been bombed and napalmed. Zeke and I drove through the vicinity just minutes before the pipeline blew, and noticed the number of emergency vehicles headed the other way.

The pipeline had been damaged years earlier during nearby construction, and it ruptured at the weakened point, pouring thousands of gallons of fuel into Whatcom Creek. The fuel floated on the surface of the water and formed a cloud of fumes above. A young man fishing was overwhelmed by the fumes and died. Two 10 year old boys were playing with fireworks down by the creek and set off the inevitable explosion. They walked out with burns everywhere but the soles of their feet and died later that night. But they were conscious enough to worry that the explosion was their fault. I think that’s the part that grieves me most, all these years later.

Trees turned into torches. Even the soil was on fire, soaked in gasoline. The gas flow was stopped just short of I-5 by a beaver dam. Old Man Haskell had fought for years trying to get rid of those beavers!

Just on the other side of the interstate, Whatcom Creeks flows past a senior high-rise, then dives into downtown, running past the courthouse, the library, the post office and the jail. Catastrophe was so near at hand.

There are pipeline explosions constantly all across the USA. Pipeline companies are accustomed to “settling” with the families of those who die. But their money comes with a price tag: silence. A gag order. The Bellingham families were unusual. They refused to shut up and spent years reliving their trauma, testifying, lobbying, leading the fight for safer pipelines. Because of them, we are all a bit safer these days.

Our city contracts with the local radio station with the highest powered transmitter as it’s emergency information station. In Bellingham, that’s a right-wing station. Before the fires were even out, I listened to the announcer telling us “There are those who care about the families of those poor boys, and then (dripping contempt) there are those who just care about the trees!”

I was so furious at this attempt to divide us as a community in such a moment that I wrote a song. I walked through the park in my mind, looking at what was lost. The song came out better than I expected. Music can help me move through the most powerful emotions. The song, not the words or melody but my feelings and intention, have evolved since this recording was made. I’m more peaceful now when I sing it. It feels like a true requiem. A friend from Colorado created a choral arrangement last year for her Threshold Choir. I feel differently about the song most of the time these days. But June 9th brings me back to my starting point.

 

 

 

 

Twangoleum!

Some of you have wondered about this very weird guitar that shows up from time to time in photos of me. Meet the Twangoleum

 I found the Twangoleum hanging in the window of an antique shop in Seattle, on Aurora Avenue in 1969. I nearly drove off the road! Unfortunately the window faced west and got hot in the afternoon. The only case was a green felt bag, and the instrument was pretty warped. Strung up with steel strings heavy enough to support the Brooklyn Bridge. The family who had sold it to the dealer said their father brought it home from Europe at the end of WWI!

It’s had a few periods of being played a LOT. The “alligator tail” prevents it from being barred up the neck, and the intonation was off from the warp in the face. The saddle has been relocated to try to deal with the intonation. In 1973 I handed it, on permanent loan, to Andy Cohen, who was playing a lot on the street. We were both living in Syracuse at the time. He had fallen madly in love with it and eventually gave it its name. Thereafter, I got occasional missives describing their adventures, plus a huge poster touting “A. Morris Meltzer-Cohen, the Twangoleum King” complete with a great photo. He said, “There’s only one of it, so I might as well be king of it.” He played it on the street for years, and it did its job. Lots of people stopped to listen! I had told Andy that if he were ever done with it, he should give it back. I had moved home to Bellingham, Washington state, right after I handed it to Andy. One night around 3 AM I got a phone call that began, “I’m done with it, and I’ve got it a ride.”

“Huh? What? Who?” Well, once we sorted out what “it” was, I learned that the Twangoleum was headed for Port Townsend, Washington. My benefactor stopped in Bellingham on the way to bring my baby back home. 

It’s history with me has a lot of connections with Port Townsend. I think Rick Ruskin had it for a while next. He’s a great player from Seattle. I have a vague recollection of Elizabeth Cotten playing it during one of her visits, during the late 1970s. It’s gotten around!” Kerry Char of Portland did a restoration that included removing the whole fingerboard and sliding it up towards the headstock until it played in tune again. 

John Jackson whittled it a new bridge pin out of a holly twig one morning at the first CENTRUM Blues Workshop in Port Townsend. The old pin had mysteriously disappeared and John wanted to play my baby! John leaned off the porch, broke a twig off a holly bush, and pulled out his pocket knife. The Twangoleum was passed hand-to-hand among a circle of old blues players, who were delighted to feel the alligator tail vibrate against their chests. It takes care to keep from banging the back of your fretting hand against that tail though. Backs of hands have no padding, and it hurts!

We just took the Twango back to Port Townsend for my brother Joe Breskin’s 72nd birthday concert. It never made it as far as the stage, but was passed hand to hand around the audience (lots of players) while we waited for the concert to get underway. (Music actually starts at about 27 minutes in on that concert link.)