Tuesday, April 07, 2009

been pickin'

I'm just back (in Wisconsin) from Florida, of all places - but not the beach, or the Florida of most people's imaginations. This was North Florida, among the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, near the Suwannee River, a short distance inland from the Gulf. My anarcho-bluegrass friends Sloppy Joe have been playing a festival down there every spring for the last nine or ten years, and this time finally convinced me to join them.

I'd only been in Stevens Point (central Wisconsin) for a few days, after getting a train from Buffalo. The evening after arriving, I was down at the Afterdark coffeehouse (formerly, and to most people still, "The Mission") for their weekly open mic. As there was a fairly small turnout of musicians, Ed (who I've jammed with in previous years, and who now co-runs the open mic) just let a group of young players plug in and play their set, then turned it into an acoustic jam in the corner. This was Ed and Shawn Wolfe taking turns singing their songs with guitars, a UWSP music student called Paul playing upright bass, and me (inevitably) on saz. It felt good to be back there, especially as the usual 'performance'-based format of the evening had been broken in favour of something more communal. We played Damian Rice's "Hallelujah", a Bright Eyes song called "Landlocked Blues", with a beautiful melody I've had in my head for years (the first thing I'd ever heard Ed sing, two or three years ago - he'd mistakenly told me it was a Damien Rice song, so I'd been unable to track it down), Led Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Do?" (unknown to me), a couple of Glen Hansard songs from the Once soundtrack (I still haven't seen the film), some blues, "Norwegian Wood", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", "Heart of Gold", and a very nice song by Shawn called "Quilt of Dresses"

Listen Here

The next morning was the Spring Equinox, almost exactly coinciding with sunrise here, so I cycled along the Wisconsin River to the only 'sacred site' with which I'm familiar in this area - some little-known Native American burial mounds near the confluence with the (much smaller) Plover River. It's an amazing chunk of land, despite the proximity to a couple of big roads, and is fortunately protected from development as part of Whiting Park. There used to be a lot more clusters of these mounds along the river, I've read, but most have been destroyed. A nearby information board explained that the mounds are about 2500 years old, and was headed with, in big capital letters, the question "WHY PRESERVE THESE MOUNDS?". Perfectly good arguments were presented, and the intention was clearly good, but the real question is why anyone should even have to ask that question. A better heading is "WHY HAVE SO MANY OF THESE MOUNDS BEEN WANTONLY DESTROYED?". Anyway, I got a beautiful golden orange sunrise, played my saz until my fingers froze, munched some fruit and ricecakes, watched the ducks on the river, and then cycled back up into town.

satellite image of confluence at Whiting
satellite image of confluence at Whiting

A few days later, I was in a van with Jamie (who plays washboard with Sloppy Joe) and Lynn (a good friend of the band, and a glass artist who also plays some mandola and viola) on our way south, through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama into Florida. Most of this territory was entirely unfamiliar to me. We kept ourselves amused listening to various 'classic rock' radio stations and the almost indecipherable CB radio conversations on our way down through the endless featurelessness that is Illinois. Many hours later, as we approached the Kentucky border and the land started to get a bit more interesting, Jamie suggested I get my saz out. So I sat in the back of the van playing music clear across Kentucky, as the light faded. I didn't see a lot of Tennessee (we went via Nashville), but caught some dim sillhouetted mountains in the distance.

We switched (appropriately) to country music stations and this point, getting into the spirit of place. I'm well aware of the extent to which the "country" music of today has become hideously commercialised, overproduced, urbanised and generally stripped of any soul...but I wasn't prepared for just how bad it's become. I'd noticed during the daylight just how many small town small businesses (as well businesses advertised on the sides of trucks and vans) involve "America", "American", "All-American" or "Freedom" in their names, almost always incorporating the US flag into their logo. This has always gone on, but it seemed much more noticeable than usual, as if people needed to be continually reminded and reassured of which country they're in. The country music stations mirrored this perfectly. Every other song seemed to be about some strangely idealised notion of "America" or "American-ness", of what a "real American" should be like, etc. There was one song that stuck out in particular, called "It's America" with the chorus:

"It's a high school prom, it's a Springsteen song, it's a ride in Chevrolet
It's a man on the moon and fireflies in June and kids sellin' lemonade,
It's cities and farms, it's open arms, one nation under God, It's America"

One verse includes the line

"And I was thinkin' to myself I'm so glad that I live in America"

and the overall sound/production approach made it sound almost indistinguishabled from a radio advertisement - as if some particularly narrow concept of "America" was being advertised to the listeners. Perfectly offsetting this, a few days later, surrounded by an entirely other layer of American culture, with its own, very different, style of "American-ness", I was in Sloppy Joe's enclave at the festival playing along with various bluegrass and old-time tunes, when Jeff Sachs (SJ's multi-instrumentalist and engine of enthusiasm) launched into an almost-forgotten underground favourite from the 80's - Camper van Beethoven's "Good Guys and Bad Guys". I found myself with a huge smile singing along (my only singing during the whole week) with Jeff the brilliantly apt verse

"So just be glad you live in America,
just relax and be yourself,
'cos if you didn't live here in America,
you'd probably live someplace else

I slept through most of Alabama, and awoke in Floridian daylight. Getting out at a service station, I was immediately struck by not just the lush flora, but the unfamiliar smells and bird song. Before long, we were rolling into the "Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park". The Suwannee River, incidentally, is the same one referred to in the old song "Swannee River". We were reminded this by the signs beside each bridge announcing "Historic Suwannee River" (I've yet to encounter an ahistoric river) with a few bars of musical notation beneath. A few days later, someone informed me that the old song had actually been written about another river altogether, but the lyricist changed it because "Swannee" sounded better. In fact, he'd never even seen the Suwannee River! The Music Park hosts various big concerts, but most prominently the Springfest in late March and the Magnoliafest in late October. The former is more acoustic/bluegrass oriented, and the latter caters more to the young/hippie/'jamband' scene, although there's a lot of crossover, and Sloppy Joe come down and set up their "Slopryland" camp for both, every year.

lakeside live oak trees where Slopryland is located
lakeside live oak trees where Slopryland is located

"Slopryland" (for those not familiar with the country music scene, the name is derived from "Opryland", the famous country music themepark in Nashville) is a small patch of ground next to a lake, amongst the live oaks and palmettos. The band and their friends from Wisconsin and elsewhere turn up, set up camp and create a friendly, organic-looking space where spontaneous, communal music making can go on 'round the clock. The festival proper features multiple stages and numerous professional performers, so Slopryland sort of acts as the "fringe festival". A lot of the bands who come down to perform stop by the camp at night to jam in a more informal setting (David Nelson from NRPS and the songwriting legend Guy Clark come immediately to mind), and to a lot of festival goers, Slopryland seems to represent the true spirit of the festival. The organisers certainly see it like that, as they've been inviting the SJ crew back twice annually since their second paying visit. This year, Slopryland even made it onto the festival site map in the official programme. (If they keep this up for long enough, future hi-res maps of N. Florida may also show this tiny area by that name, to the bewilderment of future geographers!).

After crashing for a few hours in my borrowed tent, I awoke to hear some music coming from the central fire area. We were among the first to arrive, but a few Wisconsinites were already there. Troy and Timey were playing a gentle rendition of "I Know You Rider", so I tuned up the saz and joined them. Troy (a.k.a. "Snake") then revealed a bit more of his usual self by launching into an absurd, raucous version of Ween's redneck pastiche "Piss Up a Rope", by which time Lynn had joined us on mandola. She played a beatiful song called "Wildflowers" which, I was rather taken aback to learn, was written (not just sung) by Dolly Parton, thereby forcing a re-evaluation of the artistic merits of Ms. Parton (who I'd previously assumed was a bit of a joke...sorry, Dolly). She and I then attempted a version of "Ripple" (not bad) before the music sort of dissolved into a general people-arriving-and-socialising kind of afternoon. The music revved up again in the evening, as Jeff had arrived (with bass, guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin, all of which he plays brilliantly) and Denny, his bandmate from Insomniac Gypsy was singing a lot of his (and other well chosen) songs. Lynn was playing quite a bit that evening too (her instruments kind of disappeared over the next few days as the place got saturated by musicans), and all I can really remember is playing until I couldn't keep my eyes open.

Jimers and Stef arrived the next day, with stories of having had their vehicle stopped and searched twice by ignorant, bigoted Georgia State Patrol officers on the flimsiest of pretexts. This eventually gave rise to a new song (more below), but served as a reminder that despite the idyllic surroundings of our immediate environment, this was the deep South.

After an afternoon of setting up the camp structures and making the place beautiful, some mellow afternoon music started to flow. I can recall a variant on the bluegrass standard "Sarah Jane" (something with "Trouble" in the title, possibly "Short Life of Trouble"), "Shady Grove" (an obvious Americanisation of "Matty Groves", same melody, but a different story told by the lyrics), "Whisky Before Breakfast" (basically the Irish reel, but with lyrics added..."Lord preserve us and protect us, we've been drinkin' whisky 'fore breakfast" and a modal jam with Jamie playing some simple, solid bass and Sarah Ludeman (she of Irene's Garden, back in action I'm told) on fabulous wooden 'rhythm box', which is now mounted on a set of wooden rockers, for a more rockin' percussion style.

As darkness set in, an epic evening and night of jamming kicked off. It's called "picking" (or more correctly "pickin'") here. Lyndsay Pruett, an extraordinary young fiddler, stopped by the camp. Stef introduced her as an old friend of the band. It turns out that her parents are involved in the festival organisation and she's been attending since she was fifteen. She later explained that because her father, grandfather (and great-grandfather?) were bluegrass musicians, she'd instictively rebeled against that and chosen to pursue classical violin. But being exposed to the Slopryland approach to bluegrass (as opposed to the more serious/purist Bill-Monroe-based approach), she'd been pulled into the vortex, and now bridges the two worlds. After studying (classical) music in Nashville and getting together "The Puppets Revolt", a classical/improv experimental ensemble, she now plays as part of the Black Mozart Ensemble, under the directorship of visionary inventor/composer/percussionist Futureman (formerly of Bela Fleck's band). Her playing was really quite breathtaking - the fiddle seemed weightless in her hands, the music flowing effortlessly, like some kind of musical fountain. A small circle of us played our way through numerous bluegrass standards, old-time and country songs, really joyful stuff, perfectly balanced between musical purity and rough-hewn folksiness.

Lyndsay Pruett
Lyndsay Pruett

I didn't attempt to record any of this, partly because it felt like it might have violated the spontaneity, and partly because of the issues of positioning a microphone in the dark, when the circle of musicians is continually in flux, opening, closing and shifting around the camp.

At one point fairly early on, a car stopped on the track near the camp, and three young musicians were more or less dragged out and handed instruments (guitar, bass and mandolin). They proceeded to play with us for the next five or six hours before worrying about the practicalities of setting up camp in the dark. They turned out to be some of a Tennessee band called the Fleamarket Hustlers. The first song they launched into, one of the few originals we heard from them, was something of a statement of intent - a populist anthem called "Goin' to See Jerry".

"When I die, I'm goin' to see Jerry
so don't you cry, 'cos we'll be pickin' and gettin' high

I can imagine this will catch on. It was interesting for me to see the amount of Grateful Dead influence on this Suwannee festival scene. There were countless T-shirts, drapes and car stickers in evidence displaying the skull-and-lightning "Steal Your Face" logo, almost as if the space were being declared a Temporary Autonomous Zone under the jurisdiction of the Deadhead family. David Gans, who presented the Grateful Dead Hour radio show was even on the bill (he's a singer-songwriter too, it seems). I'd guess that a very significant proportion of the musicians and festival-goers were drawn to this bluegrass and American folk/country music not via the usual channels, not via family ties or regional traditions, nor via the Bill Monroe thing, but rather via the Deadhead subculture of the mid-60's to mid-90's. Loud, accessible, electric music that drew in throngs of young seekers ultimately has led them back to the roots of that music (which the Dead were evidently very fond of, as is clear from the wonderful acoustic sets played in 1970 and 1980, as well as Garcia's work with "Old and In the Way", David Grisman, etc.). In fact, I'm told that the people who started the festival (linked to the "Suwannee Bluegrass Mafia", with whom Lyndsay's dad Steve plays mandolin) were 'Heads who wanted to keep the spirit of the scene alive after the fat man left us in the summer of '95.

'Old and In the Way' album art; fractal 'Steal Your Face' logo
'Old and In the Way' album art; fractal 'Steal Your Face' logo

I'm aware that there was a weird/fried marginal thing going on within that scene, projecting some kind of messianic status onto Mr. Garcia (the reason he gave for almost never speaking on stage during the latter half of the band's career was "fear of being interpretted"). Having spent a few days around the Fleamarket Hustlers, I don't think they seriously believe the Jerry-is-Jesus thing (Tom who wrote the song struck me as an entirely sensible type, and very dedicated musician), but rather are subtly playing with the more conservative tendencies with bluegrass that blur into gospel song and from there into a kind of right-wing evangelical Christianity. By replacing the usual gospel/bluegrass lyrics about crossing the River Jordan and going to see Jesus when you die with "Goin' to See Jerry", I sensed a kind of populist desire to replace the old monotheistic messages with a more open-ended Dionysian/pantheistic kind of celebratory thing. I hope so, anyway!

Quite a few Dead songs (and traditionals they covered) got an airing during the week - the FH's do a nice version of "Me and My Uncle", a "Sittin' on Top of the World", as well as a nod to their home in the form of "Tennessee Jed". The latter's one of the few Garcia/Hunter songs I'm not too keen on, but they've changed the rhythm in a way which makes the song a lot less annoying, and it was fund to play with.

That night saw the FH's lead us through a beautiful "Wagon Wheel" (an Old Crow Medicine Show song built around a fragmentary Dylan lyric, as far as I can tell) - gorgeous harmonies, a couple of anonymous hippie women twirling in the darkness, most appropriately - and "May the Circle Be Unbroken/I'll Fly Away" (the former being one of the few links back to the British folk scene which I heard during the festival - I saw the original Pentangle play it a couple of times last summer, and John Renbourn even mumbled along with the words)

Josh and Stef setting up Slopryland some years ago
Josh and Stef setting up Slopryland some years ago

A drunken, yet extremely competent mandolin player called Marcus (who declared both me and my saz to be "insane, dude!") joined us for a while. Someone calling himself "Gypsy" (deep southern accent, not sure where from) led some mellow country songs like Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and Gram Parson's "Hickory Wind". As things wound down, Stef, Lyndsay, Lynn and I got a little two-banjos-viola-and-saz jam together (how often has the world seen one of those?). Lyndsay's just starting to learn clawhammer banjo, so Stef's been helping her get started with a few tunes like "Willow Gardens" and "Sugar Hill". This little session was among my favourite bits of the whole week - my playing was already well loosened up, with a bit of a swing in it, from hours of jamming, and the 3a.m. intimacy of the old ballads in such excellent company won't be easily forgotten. Marcus joined us for "The Cuckoo", once again proclaiming the insanity of me and my instrument (", dude!"). We finished with an attempt at Michael Hurley's "The Moon Song", a beautiful waltz Stef is just learning the words to. I've liked all the Hurley songs I've heard thus far, but this one is something else - I can really understand what all the fuss is about. It was funny - she, Lynn and others were trying to read the lyrics off a paper plate she'd scribbled the lyrics on earlier that evening. Apparently this is typical of how Sloppy Joe learn new songs (and usually just before a gig). We worked it out properly and played it quite a few times during the week, possibly my favourite newly-learned song of the festival.

The next day I jammed with Sarah playing some box during the afternoon, then ended up jamming along with James on some great songs - Eric Burdon & War's "Spill The Wine", Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" and "Jack-a-Roe", a folk song popularised by the Grateful Dead. Jamming on "Jack-a-Roe" was a pure joy for me, and it was great to get to know James. He lives down there, had met the band at the festival back in the early years, and even moved up to Wisconsin for a while to be part of the band. In fact, we'd met briefly one night at the Northland Ballroom a few years ago when he was visiting (you can hear a rather distorted recording of some of that here). We got on very well, discussing ethnobotany, astronomy, mathematics, artificial intelligence and various other far-out topics between jams (I need a bit of that amidst all the down-home folksiness).

Early evening, I met a friend of the Fleamarket Hustlers, a percussionist called Andy who now lives in North Carolina. I was surprised to see he had a dumbek (or similar hand drum), and he was surprised to see I had a saz. Both of us have played music to accompany belly dancing, and he was able to play in 5's and 7's, so we were briefly able to break out of the dominant grid of 3's and 4's for a little while. A bit later, Stef had finally settled in and broke out her guitar. A long string of Sloppy Joe favourites then followed. Jeff led Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" (an unlikely choice, but it worked really well for us and our choice of instruments...last time I played that it was with Pok singing "Fly Like a Pigeon" as Rosie, Aurelie and unidentified friend danced round a funeral pyre cremating a deceased pigeon that had been found in the belltower of the squatted church in North London where we were staying). That was also when Jeff pleased me greatly by singing CVB's "Good Guys and Bad Guys"

"So just get high while the radio's on,
Just relax and sing a song,
drive your car up on the lawn,
and let me plaaaaaaaaaaaay your guitar...

Oh yes, the car thing. I love the overall sentiments, but could we keep the car off the lawn please? Listening to old CVB tapes some years back, I was struck by how many songs involved cars. I love them and their oblique take on American culture, but all this car stuff bothered me. But then, I reasoned, America is a very vehicle-oriented society, partly due to the sheer size of the place (driving down to Florida took longer than flying here from London). The campsite at Suwannee is largely amongst the beautiful live oak trees, a beatiful space in which to camp, but it was somewhat marred by the sheer number of pickup trucks, vans and "recreational vehicles" parked everywhee. It would be nice to think that in future years, they'll adopt the approach of the Big Green Gathering, for example, where vehicles are left some distance from the main site, and camping gear is carried in on non-motorised wheels, to create a largely machine-free camping experience. As well as all the parked vehicles, I couldn't quite believe the extent to which people were using electric golf carts (provided by the park) to travel relatively short distances. When I mentioned my wish to walk down to the Suwannee River (which turned out to take me about 25 minutes), some people expressed disbelief that I should consider such a thing. People were driving these carts just to get a short distance up the track to where the festival stages are. Argh!

According to my scribbled notes, we played "King of the Road" that night - another song that's just sort of become part of a loose canon of American song. Another, from only twenty years ago, is "Copperhead Road", a Steve Earle song I've always liked, and which the Fleamarket Hustlers have worked out a nice acoustic arrangement. Lyndsay appeared with her fiddle and a big, stomping bluegrass jam followed. There's a nice protocol where (usually initiated by whoever started the tune in question) everyone in the circle is encouraged to take a solo, so I made the most of that, the sound of my saz generally getting a bit lost in the overall sound when everyone was playing. We played a familar-sounding Django-ish thing, lots of fun - I was since told (I think it's the same one) that this is a David Grissman thing, generally known as "EMD" (a.k.a. "Eat My Dust"). Rushad Eggleston, the hyper-eccentric cellist from Tornado Rider (the band everyone was talking about this festival) appeared in ridiculous pointy hat and leggings, with a fiddle strapped diagonally across his chest, tore things up for a while with some twisted, angular soloing skillfully surfing the edge of chaos. A superb mandolin player who's name I missed, almost certainly from one of the performing bands, dropped in for a while, he and Lyndsay flinging impossibly intricate nets of jewelled notes about in all directions. Eventually I had to crawl back to my tent (probably about 4a.m.). The last thing I remember was hearing a bluegrass version of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" coming from the circle I'd just left!

Stuart McNair and friends at Slopryland during a previous Springfest

Friday daytime I was getting a bit disappointed by the lack of daytime music, but I played a couple of things with Lynn (including another attempt at "Ripple") and then headed off to the riverbank to play to myself. I got back to the main site in time to catch the beginning of Stef's musical saw workshop. She'd brought about fifteen carpentry saws and made a load of bows for the occasion. The rest of Sloppy Joe (including Gavin, who'd just flown in to Jacksonville, having somewhat limited time on this occasion) backed her up as she demonstrated what could be done with the humble carpentry tool, then she began to teach the correct techniques for holding and bowing the saw. I wandered over to the Amphitheatre Stage to catch a few songs from Tornado Rider. They're very amusing, rather like Ween with a cellist. The lyrics are all completely absurd, and if you were to replace Rushad's cello with an electric guitar (which it didn't sound too different from a lot of the time, due to the way it was being amplified), they'd basically be a very tight pop-punk band. The appeal is largely due to R's personality, the way he gets everyone to sing along with complete nonsense while bounding around the stage with a cello strapped to his chest. His musical skill has rightly been described as "otherworldly", though, and this was evident during a couple of brief bits of song where he'd interweave intricate folk melodies (while in midair, strapped to a cello!!).

I caught the end of the saw workshop, then we all drifted to a backstage area for some food and to fill in some time before the first of SJ's stage-based performances. This was on the "Old Florida" stage, which is in a marquee with no sides, so it still feels sort of outdoors. I was asked to join them for "The Cuckoo", which worked very well, I felt, some really nice energetic jamming involving interplay between my saz and Jeff's fiddle. The whole set was described, quite rightly, by Lynn as "smokin'". They did it without a setlist, yet without any timewasting, picked a really good selection of stuff, great musicianship throughout. Jamie's washboard soloing during "Purple Hay" (their version of "Purple Haze") proved that he is indeed the Mitch Mitchell of the washboard! Driving back, he expressed regret at having forgotten to set fire to his washboard with lighter fuel (Hendrix style) during the set - that'll have to wait for Magnoliafest this October.

Back at camp, James was enthusing about the Richie Havens set we'd unfortunately missed due to stage scheduling...it'd have been nice to see him doing his thing, but the jam that followed compensated very nicely. All kinds of songs got played, amongst the bluegrass standards. James knows a lot of Garcia/Hunter songs, so we did "Mississippi Half-Step" (with extended reprise, Sarah L on rhythm box and beautiful backing vocals), "Deal", "Mr. Charlie", "Bertha" (so much fun to play that!)...I can also vaguely recall Gavin (I think) leading us through "Rocky Raccoon". There was "Wooden Ships", "Make Me a Pallete on the Floor", "Big River", "Mama Tried", "I Can See Clearly Now", "Mama's Got a Squeezebox", The rest of that night is a bit of a blur, but it involved many hours of music with all kinds of people and instruments coming and going.

On Saturday I wandered back down to the river to play a bit more on the white sand beach (particularly striking as the water of the Suwannee is almost black), then back in time to see Darol Anger and Mike Marshall playing with Väsen, a trio from Sweden. One of Väsen plays a nyckelharpa which was nice to see. They got to play a few tradition-style polskas they'd written, the rhythms of which stood out quite noticeably against all the American musics. A few tie-dyed types got up to dance around to these tunes, and were clearly struggling to get in the less-than-familiar groove. Later that day Sloppy Joe played their second stage set, in the fully-indoor Music Hall. It's rather a dim, cavernous space with challenging acoustics, so it felt like a bit more of a struggle than the previous evening's "smokin'" performance. Stef was struggling with her voice due to the dusty campsite (although I didn't notice that, rather noticing how beautiful her harmonies sound against Gavin's voice), and the song selection was perhaps a bit less high-energy. The real obstacle, though, was the fact that the audience was seated. Sitting down watching Sloppy Joe just feels wrong. And unlike the Old Florida tent, this stage was elevated by about a metre - again, seeing them up on a high stage playing down to people seems to clash with the 'of-the-people' ethic they embody. But it was still excellent stuff, especially when James joined them for the last couple of numbers, got into some wonderfully chaotic twin acoustic guitar jamming with Jeff.

Later that afternoon a few of us went to the Amphitheatre stage to see Guy Clark. I've heard him mentioned a lot over the years, but only ever heard his song "Always Trust Your Cape". Stef was very keen for all of us to go together, sit together - she's a huge fan, and among her most treasured memories was when he dropped in at Slopryland one night years ago, and she was able to sing harmonies on his "Dublin Blues" (sadly someone walked off with her camera that night). I'm glad she was so insistent, as this gig was a revelation (and, according to my companions, this was an 'off' performance). He had us all hanging on every word, such powerful, painful songs (as well as some joyful ones, like the crowdpleasing "Homegrown Tomatoes", which SJ based their "Deep Fried Gators" on, with Guy's approval!). He was backed up beautifully by Verlon Thompson on lead (acoustic) guitar and Bryn Bright on upright bass - the instrumental performance alone was breathtaking, but coupled with Guy's presence and gruff been-through-hell-but-still-glad-to-be-alive vocal delivery of his songs, it was almost overwhelming.

There was a particular moment in Guy's set that got me thinking. He was singing "Dublin Blues", a beautiful song of longing for home that seems to have been written after a tour of Europe. In it, he sings

"I have seen the David
I've seen the
Mona Lisa too
and I've heard Doc Watson play 'The Columbus Stockade Blues'

That last line brought a huge roar of approval from the crowd. I asked Stef about this, and she explained that Doc Watson (something of a living legend) had played the festival in years past, and was much loved by this crowd. But I sensed something more. From Guy's point of view, he's just writing about his life, his experience. From the audience's perspective, though, this affirmatory cheer seemed to be saying (I felt) "This American music is our art, and it's just as valid as any of the great works produced by the European masters." A kind of cultural defensiveness? Perhaps I'm over-interpreting.

We also dropped in to see SJ's friends Redheaded Stepchild playing in the Old Florida tent. They'd dropped by the camp in the days before, but not played any music. From their gentle personalities, I was expecting something fairly non-confrontational, but Katherine turns out to have a Janice Joplin like voice on her, belting out fiery lyrics while playing (electric) bass, interspersed with wild harmonica solos. Wow! Before we left the site, David Nanni, her partner dropped by one last time to play us a song he'd written about Jimers and Stef's double encounter with the Georgia State Patrol. Celebrating the beauty of Savannah, the taste of Georgia peaches and the music of the Allman Brothers, but decrying the "Georgia Police State of Mind", everyone was immediately hooked - an instant classic!

Sloppy Joe onstage at a previous Suwannee Springfest
Sloppy Joe onstage at a previous Suwannee Springfest

Back at the camp that night for more jams (and some famous southern boiled peanuts - pronounced something like "bo'l' p-nuuhtz"), I can remember Gavin leading a great version of Tom Waits' "Gun Street Girl" and a Danny Barnes song about "Counting the crossties to San Anton'" (which James pointed out was probably a reference to the way in which Neal Cassady died). Jeff's rendition of "Ashville Junction" worked particularly well with my saz. The Fleamarket boys were present, and we got to hear "Goin' to See Jerry" again, as well as another rendition of "Copperhead Road" - in the midst of the latter, Stef managed to lean over and whisper a suggestion that they interpolate the theme song from The Beverley Hillbillies (a stupid '60s TV sitcom about a hillbilly family displaced to Beverley Hills), which they did, seamlessly, with huge grins.

I broke both the high strings on my saz that night, struggling to compete with all the loud instruments, so Sunday morning I was out looking for sufficiently long .008 inch strings in the merchandising area. I managed to find some that, with a couple of carefully constructed knots, just about worked. In the afternoon I jammed with Stef, Gavin, Jeff and Jimers. Jimers has been writing a lot of protest songs and getting together a project with Jeff and others called the Free Radicalz, so we played a lot of those. Later on, I met Sam, a half-Irish, half-Ethiopian singer/guitarist from Atlanta who grew up in Puerto Rico. He's one of those "walking jukebox" types I occasionally meet that seem to know an impossibly large number of songs, never hesitating with lyrics or chords. He's very much into Cat Stevens, and has a similar kind of expressive voice. So we played our way through stuff by Cat Stevens, Don Maclean's "Vincent", James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, "Lay Lady Lay", Joni's "Both Sides Now", "The Sound of Silence", Johnny Cash's "A Long Black Veil", Willie Nelson...It went on for hours - I can't remember a fraction of the songs we played. Eventually he got into his Hispanic material, and that was really refreshing - after almost a week of a relatively limited set of rhythms accompanied by lyrics in American-English about freight trains, whisky bottles and county lines, it was a relief to be jamming with some entirely different material.

It had got dark and a session had started up around the fire, so I wandered over to that for a while. During a lull, I decided to orbit the lake, as it was the last night, and I thought there might be other sessions I was missing. Approaching a fire I heard two voices and guitars, and recognised "Cold Rain and Snow" (the Dead's arrangment thereof), so I slid in behind them, and jammed away, which seemed to create much happiness among those assembled. They then tried something I didn't recognise, but seemed to be able to play, which was even more happily received. Then it was Dylan's "Señor", something I (and likely they) know from the Jerry Garcia Band's repertoire. As that went on I felt drawn to fade myself out, by withdrawing into the darkness, still playing. I carried on 'round the lake, not much else going on. Back at Slopryland, an older woman in a cowboy hat was singing some country-ish songs, backed up by the usual suspects, so I joined them. Then more bluegrass, joined by a new mandolin player (who turned out to be Lyndsay Pruett's dad). I think we did Michael Hurley's "Moon Song" one last time. I can't remember how it all ended, but I eventually had to give in and get some sleep.

I didn't record much of what I've described. One night I tried gaffer-taping a mic to the end of my saz neck so I could control what it was picking up based on how I was standing. I got a couple of hours of that. Jeff had a beaten up old tape recorder (which had actually been run over by a motorcyle after he arrived), duct-taped to an old mic stand which he occasionally brought out - proper Slopryland recording style. He handed over two 90 minute cassettes before I left, so I've worked my way through all this and compile some of the good bits...

Listen Here

The best-T-shirt-of-the-festival award goes to Jamie, who was sporting an "Electric Mayhem - World Tour '79" shirt, with a circular picture of the Muppets' in-house rock band. I had to be reminded that the guitarist was called Janice and the bass player was Floyd. I'd grown up with this stuff, but didn't really have any musical context in which to appreciate it, so when I got back I had a look on YouTube and found, among other clips, this hilarious jam sequence.

Although I'm not the first to suggest this, it's hard not to be reminded of the Muppets when watching Sloppy Joe in action. Jim Henson and co. would have had very little difficulty creating a sort of Muppet hillbilly band based on them (Gavin has pointed out that he is "the least Muppetlike" of the band...)

Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem


Anonymous Michelle said...

Could you tell Stef of the annual Musical Saw Festival in New York City, please? She might be interested in going: www.MusicalSawFestival.org
(there's a video there from last year's festival when 30 saw players jammed together)


12:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you so much for recording your wonderful adventures... i really had a lot of fun with you!!!

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the read, but I have a correction, and a request for clarification. First, contrary to the lesson your friends gave you during Guy Clarks set, Doc Watson is still alive and well, and still playing and tacitly challenging players to strive to play as deep as he does. Doc recently appeared at the Birchmere in DC.

You mentioned a song "Sally Gardens" that I'm not familiar with. I was wondering if it is a play on "Sally Goodin" that is frequently taught to new players.

Thanks for a great article. Of course, we've known about the Spirit of the Suwannee for 15 years. Welcome to the fold.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Matthew Watkins said...

To Anonymous no. 1: who are you? Obviously someone I met, but who?

To Anonymous no. 2 - thanks for the clarification. I suspect that I just imagined Doc W was no more, simply because of his legendary status. My friends are much better informed about this kind of stuff. "Sally Gardens" was an error on my part, but only partly - the song I meant is called "Willow Gardens", which I expect you know. It's very clarly based on the Irish ballad "Sally Gardens" ('sally' being Irish vernacular for 'willow', from the Latin 'Salix', no doubt). The Irish version is a simple song of longing for lost love, whereas the American version has added a sensational, bloody murder to the storyline! I'm glad someone appreciates my ramblings. Did you stop by Slopryland?

11:41 PM  

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