Aug 13

Where “A Lot of It” Came From

mississippi-john-hurt 2When I was in college I discovered the Lovin’ Spoonful and their kind of music.  I’d loved the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but somehow these guys were different and special to me.  If John Sebastian, the band leader, was wearing broad stripped shirts and funky little wire rims, that’s what I wanted to sport as well. I helped form a band, and their music was the first that we attempted to copy.  We looked at their album covers, and the looks on their faces, and we tried to put the same looks on our faces.  But what was it that we were really attracted to?

Well, we sure tried to find out.  Reading on the back of their first album that the band got its start playing at a club called the Night Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village, we put a trip to New York City on the agenda.  The joint was still there but the Lovin’ Spoonful weren’t.  There was a group playing called the Raggamuffins, with a girl lead singer named Sharon the Seal. For the moment, that was just about as good.  Their vocal harmonies, ride cymbal, and chiming guitar on “Four Days of Rain” induced a feeling in me close to ecstasy. If I was a Buddhist, I was in Angkor Wat.  If I was a Hindu I was with Krishna and his gopis.  This place had that kind of mystical aura for me.  And now Sharon is singing, “Come and find me in the morning rain:”  Hey, what’s the matter with right here?  I was contemplating the holy sacrament of matrimony.

Well, quite a bit later and after a couple of marriages, I still had not found that thing that I was looking for back then.  I’d almost given up, but not quite.  Being asked by one of my daughters to teach her guitar confronted me with just how far away I was from finding it. But there was a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. I bought a new guitar and signed up for the first ever Blues Week at the Swananoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College near Black Mountain, NC, where I lived. That week changed everything.  Guys, and gals, with little wood and metal guitars played prewar country blues music that hit me in the same spot where the Lovin’ Spoonful had touched years ago.  My life direction changed and the pursuit began.  In this particular pursuit though, you never actually actually get there, but you have so much fun on the trip, you don’t care about getting anywhere.

The first piece of music that I dedicated myself to master was Mississippi John Hurt’s “Shake That Thing”, which I found in a book transcribed by Stefan Grossman.  I’d never heard of John Hurt but I’d heard of Stefan.  I had one of his albums in the 60’s that was produced somewhere in Europe.  He was obscure, but credentialed. I plowed into that song.  I only found out much later that John Hurt himself probably spent a lot more time with a plow, than a guitar.

John was a sharecropper that recorded a few songs for some traveling techs from Okeh Records in 1928.  The recordings were not a commercial success and John went back to farming until 1963 (quite a row to hoe, so to speak) when some blues enthusiast (that’s en-theos, or God Within) named Tom Hoskins shows up in Avalon, Mississippi and convinces John to move to Washington, where he is shortly thereafter, recorded by the Library of Congress.

joh and the boys 1

John Sebastian, left, with Carlos, Michael, and Mark

A couple of years ago, during my annual Thanksgiving visit with family and friends in Pennsylvania, my old friend Mark treated us to a concert with John Sebastian.  He was playing a club in Bucks County as a solo.  I’d heard that Zal Yanovsky, the Spoonful’s lead guitarist died some years ago, and who knows where the rest of those guys are today. But John put on a great show by himself.  Although his voice is completely shot, he still has the same ole “magic” and great guitar chops. Towards the end of his captivating show, he talked about how the Lovin’ Spoonful got their name from a Mississippi John Hurt song of the same name.  He said that John Hurt was one of his heros and told us how he would play just down the street from where Sebastian and his parents lived in Greenwich Village. Mississippi John Hurt, who was revered as a genial, gentle soul, could spot the budding guitar enthusiasts in the audience and would say, “I can see that you’re watching my fingers.”  Ah, so that’s where a lot of it came from, uh? Mississippi John Hurt.  And thank God for video, and the internet, we can still all watch those fingers.

This is him playing Spike Driver Blues on some TV show in the 60’s that was not on any of my channels, Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest. John Henry, the mythical spike driving railroad builder, is referring to the “captain” and reconsidering his employment options.  Give him my hammer, he says, supposedly to another co-worker, and tell him I’m gone.  Can’t you just imagine how many listeners, back then, and even today can relate to that.  Here’s your hammer, dude, I’m outa here.

 

Aug 03

Some thoughts on The Blues on it’s day

Well yeah I know, there’s a day for just about everything.  There’s probably a day for bi-polar one-legged unmarried groundhogs.  But today, of all possible things, is International Blues Music Day.  And, I’ve noted, New York City is the host city for this year’s inaugural event.  When I looked at the poster for the proposed performances, I noticed that I had not heard of any of the artists or acts slated to take the stage today, even though I have been an active fan and player of this genre for more than 20 years.  This is not much of a surprise.  The blues is not about being or getting famous.  You won’t find Shakira, Snoop Dogg (Lion or Groundhog), or any of the Kardashians where the flatted seventh and the bent minor third are resonating.  I thought I’d take a few moments and write about what it is about for me.

You won’t find the blues at the shallow end of the pond.  The blues, like the true color of the ocean, is where the deep water is.  Transparent and profound, the blues puts the timeless archetypical experiences of life to rhythm and rhyme so as to resonate with our own individual lives and experiences.  It does not need television, mass media, or itunes to do its thing.  I have found it to be the most effective in small un-amplified gatherings, just as it was traditionally shared.  It has been able to transmute grief and despair into joy and release for me personally, alone with a guitar in hand.

One of the most common misconceptions about the blues is that it is about sadness, or makes you feel sad.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Imagine the down trodden sharecropper and the barely paid laborer of the 20’s or 30’s spending the little extra money that they had to pass a Saturday night at some juke joint hidden out in the piney woods somewhere in the South.  They’re there to feel a little sadder?  I doubt it.  They’re there to let that magic combination of harmony and dissonance, and improvisation and repetition set to a driving beat (probably mixed with the ingestion of some illegal alcoholic beverages or smoking herb) free their emotions and souls for a while.

Hearing the blues for some folks is a like a child tasting wine or beer for the first time.  To the developed adult taste, the better examples of these drinks can bring sublime pleasure.  But that taste had to be developed, nurtured, and educated.  And one often drinks quite a bit of Budweiser before he tastes Westvleteren Blonde.  And he will never find the Westvleteren Blonde unless he educates himself and develops his taste.  In the same way, I was introduced to the blues in its electric form by groups like the Rolling Stones, Canned Heat, and John Mayall in the ‘60s but now much prefer the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson or the rare brew of King Solomon Hill, for example.  Or, the modern day acoustic interpretations by some of my mentors like Paul Rishell, Mike Dowling, or Steve James.  Hey, thanks to you guys, and happy International Blues Music Day.

Let me leave you with a video.  I think this bangs home the “International” part of this Blues Music Day.  The blues belongs to everyone now. This is a piece by Robert Johnson, played on the 100th anniversary of his birthday at a club called Okurayama Muddy’s in Yokohama, Japan.  This Japanese guy, Hayasim, one of my favorite youtube artists, plays a nylon string guitar and captures the spirit of the blues as well as it can be caught.

May 21

Blues Guys (and some other people) Need Hats

So with that bland generalized title in mind, I have to tell you about the Bollman Hat Company Outlet.  Now, I was born in Reading and have been coming here to visit my Funk grandparents since I was a little tyker wearing my newsboy caps, and maybe even a similar earlier seersucker tight fitting small brim number.  So it’s no surprise to me to find an outlet store in Reading. Their heyday may be past, but there are still a ton of them here, principally the Vanity Fair Outlet which sells Lee’s and Wrangler’s jeans and a whole load of other apparel.

Call to check the hours, especially on Tuesday.

But the Bollman Hat Company Outlet, in Adamstown needs some special mention.  If you’re a hat kind of person, this place is going to blow (boll) you away.  Bollman makes hats for Bailey of Hollywood and a whole bunch of other brands, and sends a nice stock over to their outlet store to let Trish and Rod sell them to you at “unbelievable prices”, to quote the brochure.  I’m gonna have to second that emotion.  My friend, Mark, walked out of there the other day with 4 stylish hip spring and summer weight fedora type hats for $35.  And we shucked and jived with Trish for 45 minutes which was great entertainment at no extra cost.  She’s great at giving her opinion, which is headwear experienced and right on.  “If you don’t think you’d wear it, don’t buy it”, she told me when I stuck a Kangol mesh driving sport cap on.  Ah, maybe if I had one of those Mercedes convertibles.  “No, that brim is too stingy for you!”  And so it went… Try ‘em all on.  The place is a gas!

Trish told me that Rod suffered a heart attack but is recovering and should be back in action at the store within a month or so. She says that he’s a blues/jazz pianist that has played extensively in the Reading area.

Remember, you can click on these images to enlarge them!

Apr 24

Valdes Days (Daze?)

The Poseidon in calm waters

I started this article 6 or 7 months ago after weeks of email exchanges with Doris.  It’s sort or appropriate that I’m posting it today, Easter Sunday, because it is a bit of a resurrection….of the article, and of the memories.  This is not about Guatemalan life….it’s about my life.  It’s an overview of a grand adventure in the early ’70’s.  I hope you enjoy it.  Let’s start out, just like they do in the real books, with a couple of quotes.

I want God,
I want poetry,
I want danger,
I want freedom,
I want goodness,
I want sin.
— Aldous Huxley

Well, we lived on an island,
In old B.C.,
Got fruit from the land,
And fish from the sea,
Watched the eagles, flyin’ high,
Got to thinking….., by and by,
‘Bout Truth,
‘Bout Existence,
‘Bout “What in the hell is going on here, anyway?”

Words to a song written by my cousin, and islander companion for part of the time, Stephen Funk Pearson.

At the time of my graduation from Lehigh University in June of 1970, it was pretty apparent that the cultural revolution of the 60’s had failed.  We had just been shocked by the May 4th shootings at Kent State University in Ohio, where Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 live rounds (pretty terrible for a non-terrorist group, don’t  you think?) into an unarmed student protest of Nixon’s recently announced invasion of Cambodia (guess they showed us….don’t protest our wars!), to kill four students, and wound 9 others, one of which was paralyzed permanently.  This was the establishment’s  coup de grâce that pretty much put an end to the generational euphoria that peaked three years earlier with the Summer of Love.  Heretofore, love, and just about everything else, shall have a price…again.

goverment sponsored terror

I felt pretty alone.   Most of my college friends had their career and marriage commitments cranked up on the front burner…cooking up a dinner for two that brought the curtain down on our four year communal romp together, through youth’s evergreen pastures at that time newly decorated with rock and roll, mind altering substances, and of course back dropped by the old standard mind muffler of the western culture, alcohol.  I was deeply disappointed and disturbed by this sudden conclusion and was not ready to give up on the vector that I found myself propelled upon.

Studying Henry David Thoreau in my high school English class made a deep impression on me.  Here was a guy who had marched to the beat of a different drum for sure, and since the general rhythm that I was just marching to (something maybe like Creedence’s Green River) had suddenly stopped, I needed to get on some other philosophic wave frequency to move on to the next stage of my life.  Walden Pond.  Yeah, the obvious, easily understandable, back to the garden variety interpretation of that of book was to go live in the woods.  And who had better woods than Canada?  At least the tranquility of their woods was not disturbed by sounds of youth being marched off to war, or posted with draft notices.  Seemed like a great choice.  And it was.

So, Cousin Stephen and I set off on a trip across Canada in my newly purchased used VW bus, beating out our own rhythms on the metal dashboard of Germany’s first mass export auto, searching for a paradise that was not completely lost or too vigilantly guarded

Hit the road Jack, and don't you come back, no mo....no mo

by cherubim and constantly swirling, flaming swords.  We were guided by a philosophic understanding that although worse could theoretically come to worst, it rarely, if ever, did.  And up and until then at least, it hadn’t for us, and actually we were usually pleasantly surprised by how much distance worse and worst achieved between themselves in our adventures.  But little did we know or realize, that we didn’t have much more chance of “getting back to the garden” than those original “Honeymooners”, Adam and Eve. Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 14

Steve James Workshops and Private Lessons at Blind Lemon’s In March 2011

Note: Steve James and I will be doing this workshop again next year, on the 5th through 9th of March, 2012.  What a great time to be in Maya Land for the year of the expiration of the Mayan Calender.  I mean, if the world ends on Dec 21, 2012, at least you will have done some of that work on your guitar playing that you’ve always wanted to do!  We are limiting this workshop to Seven Serious Students to make it as personal and effective as possible.  We’ll pick you up at the airport, get you to your hotel in San Marcos, and take care of most of the food and other details.  I am working on a short film about this opportunity that will be posted here and on Steve’s website shortly.

Well, here’s the info on Steve’s workshops here this year.  This is something that we want to do annually and we’re starting out this year.  Steve will be giving workshops and private lessons on Monday, March 7th through Thursday, March 10th.  He’s got a concert in Santiago on Friday the 11th, and here at Blind Lemon’s on Saturday the 12th.  If anyone wants to stay longer and get into more detail with me on the beginning to intermediate level, I can arrange that for the following week.

Gettin' into the details

We’re a little sketchy on the lodging details, but if you would contact me and let me know your needs, I am sure that I can arrange something.  I believe that this “starting out sketchiness” is going to translate into some real personal attention and a very special experience.  Steve sure put my trains on the track when I met him at the Swananoa Gathering’s first Blues Week in 1994.  His teaching style and abilities are unmatched for getting your solo acoustic blues style up and running.  And as I noticed this week again, with an hour session that I had with a friend, Woody, showing me some of the basics of video editing on Abode Premiere Pro, a little professional instruction can eliminate countless hours of wasted time and direct your practice time much more efficiently towards your goals.

Hanging out at Blind Lemon's.

And there’s one more thing.  There’s just something about hanging out with a master.  Something just passes between the master and the student that cannot be easily defined but is undeniable and real.  I noticed this in my playing and presentation after Steve was here last year….everything went up several notches.  Yeah, he showed me some very cool and applicable guitar techniques, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about information that is being communicated and passed on unspoken level.

So here are Steve’s descriptions of his offerings.  All this will be flexibly applied to meet individual needs.

WORKSHOPS  (2 hrs.  $25 per participant.  Basic to intermediate level instruction)
Blues/Roots Fingerstyle Guitar…tunes and techniques for the guitarist who likes country blues and bluesy country.
Bottleneck Slide Guitar…basic chord shapes and hot licks in open tunings, along with demonstrations of the “touch” that makes slide guitar sound so good.
Blues Mandolin….runs, chords and repertoire for the mandolinist who would like a bluesier sound.
Individual private lessons on the above themes also available. (1 hr. $25) March 5th through 12th.  Sponsored by Blind Lemon’s, San Marcos LL.
STEVE JAMES, based in Austin, Texas, has an international reputation as a performer, recording artist, writer and teacher with decades of experience presenting original and classic acoustic roots music.  For more info:  Contact Carlos Funk at carlosfunk@blindlemons.com or call (502)55024450

Dec 25

A Christmas Day Poem

Yes, another goofy update, Guate style, on the timeless, tired Classic. Of course I don’t remember this, but family history has it that my father worked with me to memorize this nugget

Look out Santa! It's dangerous up there!

when I was three or four years old and set me up to recite it before the extended family after Christmas dinner at the Grandparent’s house. They probably thought, oh, how cute and smart, he’s gonna be a lawyer like his daddy. There was little chance that they’d thought that I’d be a laid back (I was gonna say lazy-assed, but that’s not strictly true) expat acoustic bluesman, living somewhere in Central America. They’d have never thought Guatemala….that word had not formed in that climate yet.

So I woke up this morning (yes it’s Christmas…..but don’t you notice how blues guys over use this introduction….we just can’t help it) and this poem pretty much dropped into my head. It must be some sort of time sensitive memory continuum that got triggered. Oh well, here it is. I’m not trying to compete with Yeats or Gregory or anybody here.

The Day of Christmas

Twas the Day of Christmas,
and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse. (they were probably all killed the night before)

But the night before Christmas,
was a whole different case,
with bombs and fireworks,
exploding all over the place.

As Santa flew over,
He was totally is shock,
Thinking this was Bagdad, Fellugha,
or some other stop.

The candidates for mayor were the ones principally at play,
Looking to out-do each other to gain another four year stay.

The winner of course, was ex-mayor Salvador,

Who could throw more fireworks,

Because he’d been there before.

Using the money he stole,
during his previous years,
he could buy tons of Chinese bombs,
without going into arrears.

And having the volume on his stereo,
turned up all the way,
he’d been buying future votes,
giving maize away all day.

The shame of it all,
is the people don’t know,
that they’re selling their future,
to some clowns that have stolen their dough.

But the candidates here can surely see,
that being mayor of San Marcos,
is their ticket to prosperity.

So poverty continues and ignorance reigns,
with only a select few making big gains.

But I guess it’s the worldly way that the poor and the ignorant always take the hit,
In the end what Jesus wanted doesn’t count for shit.

Nov 01

Well, dang, a post about the blues!

Well, it seems like I’ve written about everything except the blues here.  I guess I’m just on about Blind Willie McTell right now.  He seems like one of the most courageous beings in our American History.  Can you imagine being black and blind in the 1930’s, in Georgia, the American South, and stepping out of your door of your rural community, and just setting off, by yourself, for New York or Chicago….without your iphone, your gps, or YOUR EYES!

I’m reading a book about Willie right now, and will review it here soon. It’s called Hand Me Down My Travelin‘ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, by Michael Gray.  This is not just for blues fans; this is for people who want to be inspired, and learn a little about the times of Willie McTell.

But for right now, I’ll leave you with this, my version of one of Blind Willie’s most famous numbers, The Statesboro Blues.  Although, for this youtube version, not all the verses are included, Blind Willie does not really explain what the Statesboro Blues are or why he or other persons that he mentions, have them, but if we do a little historical investigation, and maybe put one and one together, we might be able to suppose.

First of all, I don’t think it would have been very wise of Willie to be at all specific about these blues.  This was not the time or place for black protest songs.  In the history of Georgia, there have occurred over 500 lynchings, and Statesboro was the site of one of the most famous of these, that captured the attention of the whole country.  Two men, in 1904, were burned at the stake in a piney woods (they were both actually turpentine workers) after being accused and “convicted” of murdering a white family.  This craze of violence spread to other blacks who were whipped and tortured for things such as riding a bicycle on the sidewalk; and one man was dragged out of his house whipped, tortured, and killed when he protested the unexplained whipping of his wife three days after giving birth, before things calmed to “normal” again.

There’s so many white people, in our age that have written and sung what are supposedly humorous “blues songs”.  One I just found on Google, as an example, I’ve got them law school graduate blues again, mama.   I don’t think this was the vein that Blind Willie was writing in when he wrote the Statesboro Blues, and I would be willing to bet that in Blind Willie’s Georgia, there were no black folks who had those particular blues.   His blues were something that few of us can even imagine.  Besides that, what law school graduate would use “them” in that title.

Hey, I understand the intended cop on the genre.  I’m not criticizing anybody for having their fun.  I’m just saying that after singing this song for ten years myself, I had no clue what it was about or what it even could have been about.  Doesn’t it feel good when a few roof tiles of ignorance fall off the hard roof that rests on our understanding?

At the end of the song, Willie requests that somebody “reach over in the corner, and hand me my travelin’ shoes”.  Today, we’d probably grab the car keys, but the feeling is the same.  Let’s get the hell out of this place.  I’m sure now that he had his reasons.

Oct 21

Lessons on attachment, exactly like “pulling teeth”

I just had a molar extracted this week and I think that it’s about the best thing that I’ve done in years.  This tooth had been molesting me for years, or maybe longer.  I don’t know why I wanted to hold on so long but it’s been a great lesson for me.  I was planning on doing it before going to the States in November, but kept hearing the echo of my father’s voice in my head, something about “harder than pulling teeth”, which was one of the standard expressions in his repertoire,  and I just kept procrastinating.

Monday night, I brushed my teeth before bed and a little klink in the sink signaled that another piece of filling in this molar may have fallen out.  This suspicion was confirmed by that constantly roaming vigilante of the mouth, the tongue.  Well, I called up Norman, my dentista, to ask if he was going to be attending patients the next day (sometimes he goes to Guate City to buy his supplies) and he was.  He also told me that the road from Solola to Pana was going to be closed on Thursday for at least two months.  So it seemed like I was getting the dual signal to yank this spent ivory.

I’d heard that rains this year had royally trashed the road from Pana to Solola, normally a ten to fifteen minute drive over very steep terrain.   That I confirmed on the bus trip up there the next morning.  There’s one place on that route that half the road is completely gone and if old Bluebird Bill, the bus driver, misdirects his wheels just a little bit, that Guate painted ex-school bus is gonna be rolling and tumbling, and the people are going to be crying all night (morning, actually but to finish the extraction from the famous blues song) long, at least the ones that are still alive and able to cry!

Norman Sanchez has been my dentist here for years.  He wasn’t the first but he’s the last.  One guy I went to was horrible.  here’s the rest

Oct 11

A watershed advocate in Guatemala respects local economic realities

by Muriel L. Hendrix

(This article sent to me by a friend, reprinted from The Working Waterfront…..Carlos)

AMSCLAE, like Friends of Casco Bay, takes a pragmatic approach to its work, respecting the economic realities of the watershed’s population.

Juan Skinner, director of AMSCLAE, The Autoridad para el Manejo Sustentable de la Cuenca del Lago de Atitlan y su Entorno Ecologico (Authority for the Sustainable Management of Lake Atitlan Basin and Environs), is talking about efforts to clean up the watershed of Lake Atitlan — a magical lake at 5,125 feet in Guatemala. It is bordered by three volcanoes on its southern edge, the highest rising to 11,670 feet, and steep cliffs on its northern side.

At times, such as when he starts to talk about waste water treatment, Skinner puts his head in his hands, rubs his forehead and exclaims, “Ai Yi Yi … .so much is needed to clean up, it’s just incredible. I don’t know how we’ll ever get the money.” Or, he swings to the opposite extreme, as when he explains there’s only one municipal dump in the 224-square-mile watershed, which covers 15 municipalities and a total of 200,000 people scattered in the rugged mountains of the western highlands, and he’s trying to build four more dumps this year. Then, he laughs and laughs, with a hilarity fed by desperation. “Each dump is a lot of work,” he says, and rambles off into a string of hearty laughs over the understatement of these words.

Despite the difficulties, the effort to deal with waste management in towns around the lake and throughout the watershed is enjoying some success in protecting what Aldous Huxley once described as “the most beautiful lake in the world.” Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 04

Some Commentary on the Medical Experiments in Guatemala in the 40’s

In my Bible, the ten commandments take up less than a column of text, while one law, the Patriot Act (Patriot….Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism….who thinks up these acronyms, anyway?), is 342 pages of single spaced type. Maybe God really wanted to provide more detail, but was limited by the technology of the time. Imagine a Facebook where all the status updates have to be chiseled out of stone. And maybe there was a lot more to say, but how was Moses gonna get something the size of the Patriot act, lasered into stone tablets, down the side of a mountain, let alone build an ark for and carry them around all over the place. These days, God could just hand Moses a memory stick and provide much more detailed instructions on how everybody was supposed to behave themselves and what they should definitely stay away from.

Besides that, back then, I don’t think anybody was even thinking about doing medical experiments, so I doubt even if God and Moses had Macbook Pros with an ad hoc wireless network setup to transfer tons of data, the subject would have been mentioned. But by 1946 AD, far in time and distance from that scene on Mt. Sinai, this search for medical understanding was already well established.

This past week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint apology to Guatemala and its residents in the US for medical experiments with sexually transmitted diseases using uninformed Guatemalans. “Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that outraged? about what? read on…

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