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:

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.






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.)

Learning Finger Patterns

A guitar student asked if a finger pattern for guitar that I had taught
her would work for a particular song she loves. This is what I answered:

Angel From Montgomery is a challenging song rhythmically. I’d suggest
finding John Prine playing it on YouTube, and trying to just strum and
sing along. Or if there is someone else’s version you’ve imprinted on, try to play along with that.

On this one, he’s playing in the key of G. You can watch the chords change, (note the F chord!) and even watch his picking hand go up and down. He’s just strumming. But there’s a spot where the chords change unevenly, on “child that’s grown OLD.” If you try to play along, you’ll find you get lost at that spot. It’s because he’s doing something different there. It may take you many hours, or even longer, to sort out just what he’s doing and find a way to play along.

BUT there is a control for speed now on YouTube. Click the gear for settings in the lower right. Click speed. Then try 0.75, or 0.5, or even 0.25. It’s an amazing program which will keep John singing and playing in the same key. His voice will get really slurred, but you can watch that picking hand go up and down. Count how many up and downs before he changes chords. Listen for the accented strums.

His rhythm is loose and the strums vary. The most common pattern is Boom chucka-chucka-chucka (1  2&3&4&). Except it’s a bit syncopated.

Because of the SlowDowner, it’s possible it won’t actually take you many hours. And if it does, that’s normal. You’re not dumb; it’s complicated.

And it’s worth it. You will open up new neural pathways in your brain that you never dreamed of, and that never existed before.

Also, speed him back up and sing along a ton. Get up and move, walk, dance along, and notice where, in your stride, that bump is.

All of this is necessary analysis, and will teach you more than I ever could. I haven’t done this process for that song, but have done it for lots of other songs. And I’ve noticed the bump go by and know what it means. But how many strums or fractions of strums is he skipping? Are they upstrokes or downstrokes? It’s part of the wonder of that song.

Have fun! And bang your head against the wall, and when you do, remind yourself that this is you, being a real musician!

Encouraging An Audience To Sing

Here’s a post I made on Facebook a few years ago and a few of the comments that friends added—

There is a difference between singing songs TO an audience, and helping them sing with each other.

I am a musician who was born in 1950 in the USA. Today my husband Zeke and I listened to a bunch of young people singing activist songs from the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights, union and anti-war movements (also known as The Great Folk Scare). The young musicians did very well. Great singers, some excellent instrumentalists. Remembering some of the songs, and seeing and hearing those songs being cherished and offered anew by musicians who weren’t yet born then, brought tears to my eyes.

I also felt odd and bit sad, because though they invited the audience to sing along, they didn’t really facilitate that. The audience sang a little, softly. But they didn’t raise the roof or connect with one another.

I’ve been trying to think about what I do differently, and what Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and the other people from whom I learned those songs, did differently. I think it involves teaching, leading, and inviting until the audience kinda gets going, and then dropping back so the audience can primarily hear one another and realize they are part of something big. Also, it’s important to offer protection to those who fear humiliation if they sing. All together we are beautiful. But I hadn’t thought about how much it’s a learned skill to get a general audience to sing freely. And how necessary that such singing together be a primary intention if it’s going to happen well.

(Discussion Ensued)

Bob Franke: I think that the many young people who have grown up thinking that music is a commodity to be bought need to be taught that it is a birthright that has been stolen. 

Judy Fjell: Thank you SO MUCH for posting this, Flip. Yes, we folkies of the sixties learned some things we don’t necessarily know that we know. (Good grief it sounds reminiscent of Rumsfeld’s famous ‘known unknowns” quote). I know exactly what you are talking about and I so admire those who can incite an audience to riotous or heart-full singing

Max McLaughlin: This is what Utah Phillips preached from the stage most of his career. It’s why I became involved in the folk music community, it’s why I play and sing, it’s why I perform. To paraphrase Bruce, “The music doesn’t belong to the damned music companies. They flat out stole it! It’s ours goddamn it, and we have to take it back, and bloody well sing it!”

Adrianne Gunn: …you have a tremendous gift/talent for connecting with an audience. Eating out of the palm of your hand and leaning in for every breath kind of enchanting way with an audience….It’s like you’re gently spoon-feeding everyone each bite and phrase of your songs.

Flip Breskin: It’s been my experience that, with an explicit invitation that includes a description of the ways we’ve been silenced, and the specific loss of connection and power connected with that, at least in a house concert or actual listening venue, I can generally coax the audience into singing, even these days. But it takes explaining that group singing is a revolutionary act.