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August 2014

52 Guitars: Week 35

B.B. King

It's time for the Three Kings: Albert, B.B., and Freddy. B.B. is by far the most famous outside the blues world, but that's not why I'm featuring him first. It's because it only took a few minutes for me to find three good YouTube clips for him, and I need a bit longer for the other two.

According to the person who posted this on YouTube, King considers this to be one of his best performances. It was filmed at Sing Sing Prison, sometimes in the 1970s judging by the clothes. And I think that opening guy was on a TV show that I can't remember the name of. This is one of his signature songs, "How Blue Can You Get?" There's actually not all that much guitar in this number, but wow....


The first line of this is one of my favorite lyrics in all the blues.


And the classic "Stormy Monday":


Coincidentally, I've been watching the DVD of Eric Clapton's 2007 Crossroads Festival. B.B. King is there, and he gives quite a moving tribute to Clapton. That segment of the concert is on YouTube, including parts of one of the songs he played, the massively politically incorrect "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss." And by the way I strongly recommend that DVD to anyone who likes electric guitar.

A Tribute to Stratford Caldecott

It's called The Beauty of God's House, and is edited by Francesca Murphy, and sounds really good.

When Mr. Caldecott was nearing death, I posted a prayer request for him here. But when he actually died, I was silent. That was because so many notices and eulogies appeared on the web that I couldn't sort through them all, and never picked one or two to post here. Nor did I feel like I knew his work well enough to say anything general. So I'll let the notice of the book at the link above serve as an obituary. And I look forward to reading the book.

(Hat tip to Janet.)

Decline and Fall: Exhibit 14,231

Dating Naked contestant sues VH1 after channel 'failed to blur out her crotch' in nude wrestling match 

Jessie Nizewitz was appearing on VH1 reality programme "Dating Naked" when she stripped off to wrestle her date on a beach. She claims she was promised by producers that her modesty would be "blurred out" when the show aired.

Her modesty?

Miss Nizewitz said she became the subject of ridicule on social media, and the footage had upset her family. She even claims it cost her a relationship, with the man she was dating failing to return her calls after the footage was shown on July 31.

Consider the fact that a show called "Dating Naked" exists, and is available to anyone who has cable TV. Consider the fact that this young woman chose to be on it, and in fact probably had to compete with others for the honor. Consider that the young man she was "dating", who was apparently not the young man with whom she was wrestling naked on television, is thought to have been accepting of the situation but for the presumably few moments when she was fully exposed.

And don't forget that the people responsible for all this are wealthy and influential. The CEO of Viacom, which owns VH1, is "one of the highest-paid people in corporate America", taking home tens of millions of dollars every year.

Update: I meant to include this headline, too, also from the Mirror:

"Watch twerking 'grannies' join Miley Cyrus craze as they are invited to perform on American TV"

 I am not, however, including the link. If you want to watch that, you can find it for yourself.

52 Guitars: Week 34

Bill Frisell

Like his contemporary Pat Metheny, Frisell has done a huge amount of recording. He also shows the influence of rock on their generation of jazz players (they're both in their early 60s). Unlike Metheny, though (as far as I know), Frisell has often taken to the noisy effects developed by rock guitarists.

I don't have enough acquaintance with his music to be able to select anything that I could call his best or even most representative work. The album I know best is a slightly odd one from 1991 called Where in the World? Judging by it, and of a couple of his more recent albums, he seems to be a very humble bandleader: though the collection is credited to The Bill Frisell Band, it's hardly a guitar showpiece. The compositions, all by Frisell, are interesting, somehow off-kilter things like this one, "Rob Roy": sometimes melodic, sometimes raucous, never conventional. Let me warn you that this one pauses at 3:15 and then comes back rather loud. 


Some years ago while browsing the CDs in the local library I saw one by the Ginger Baker Trio called Going Back Home. I thought that sounded intriguing and checked it out. I recognized the name of the bass player, Charlie Haden, a very famous one in the jazz world. But I don't recall that the name of the guitarist, Bill Frisell, meant anything to me. (Everybody knows who Ginger Baker is, right?) I liked the album pretty well. Looking around for YouTube clips for this post, I found what seems to be most of a concert by that trio, and it's very good. Since it's a trio and Frisell is the lead, these songs will do very well to demonstrate his gifts. Mostly he uses a more or less normal jazz kind of tone and technique here, but he kicks in the effects at one point in the twelve-and-a-half minute jam "Ramblin'".


As you can hear, his playing tends to be kind of eccentric, with a lot of space and and what often seems to me an odd relation to the beat. But it's always interesting. "When We Go" is more conventional than the two pieces above, though not in a bad way at all. This is a lovely little thing, and Frisell's solo is a jewel of subtle variations.


I have to say, before I go, that it drives me a bit crazy to look at that headless guitar. I'm glad that design didn't become the norm.

Charlie Haden died last month at 76, after a long and very illustrious career. RIP.



End of an Era

I mentioned, in talking about Pat Metheny's "It's For You" last week, that the phrase would soon lose its telephone-related significance. For many it already has, but I suppose the majority of people now living would at least recognize it, even if it hasn't been part of their lives for a while. 

I suppose it hasn't been part of mine, either, for a while, because my wife has used her mobile phone almost exclusively for a long time, and although I was several years behind her I was going that way, too. For a year or two now we have rarely gotten a call on our home phone that wasn't a sales or fund-raising pitch, or a political robo-call. A few months ago it stopped working, and weeks passed before we even bothered to do anything about it. Attempting to report it--via the web, of course--we were taken through a series of trouble-shooting steps only to be told in the end that there was something wrong with our equipment, and that it couldn't be fixed. Of course it could have been, if we had pressed the issue. But what would be the point? We had hardly missed it, only checking--again, via the web--every day or two to see if we had any voicemail messages.

So, after several hours in the AT&T store, and on the phone with AT&T customer support, we transferred our home number to my mobile phone, and cancelled the home phone. (I kept that number because for over twenty years it's been the number known to family, friends,  and businesses, and very few people other than my wife ever called my mobile number.) Lots and lots of people are doing this, of course. I'm not sure any of my children have ever had a "land line" phone of their own.

I'm tempted to draw some kind of conclusion about social fragmentation from this. But really, aren't we all a little tired of saying and hearing things like that? What really strikes me more is a mild nostalgia, and a sense that the world in which I grew up is passing away. Fourteen years into the twenty-first century, we are leaving the culture of the twentieth behind in more and more ways. I'm always inclined to think things in general are getting worse, and always having a conversation with myself about whether that's really true. But it does seem to me that many of the hopes of the twentieth have faded, especially the hope that followed the Second World War, at least in this country; it seems a meaner world, all in all, notwithstanding the fact that we then had the threat of global nuclear war hanging over our heads--that was the big picture, but the nearer picture held promise.

The family telephone seems quaint and old-fashioned now. This morning at breakfast my wife and I were discussing the old rhyme that children not quite into adolescence used to tease each other with, when a boy or girl was suspected of liking a girl or boy. Using our names, it would go:

Mac and Karen, settin' in a tree
First comes love, then comes marriage
Then comes Karen with a bay-bee carriage

That seems pretty quaint and old-fashioned, too.

World War I in Color

I often think about how photography conditions and limits our imagination of times after it was invented but earlier than we can personally remember. I think it's difficult for most of us to see events of roughly 1860 to 1950 in color, real color, exactly as we see it now. Or at least we have to make a bit of an effort to do so. And we tend to see the 1950s and '60s in color that's somewhat washed out, faded in the way that color photographs fade. This sometimes even works on me, and I have perfectly clear memories of the 1950s.

Movies often reinforce this, even contemporary ones, by filming earlier times in black and white, or in color that's tweaked to have a sepia tone, to suggest the early 20th century, or touched with greenish-brown to suggest the 1940s, or faded and slightly blurry to suggest the 1950s. I always silently congratulate filmmakers who resist that urge. And how hard is it to get out of one's mind the notion that in the 1910s and '20s not only was everything monochrome, but all movement was unnaturally quick and jerky?

In the last few years a number of early color photos have been published on the web, and for me they do a lot to break that monochrome spell, especially for times when I didn't even realize color photography existed. There's a new book out, The First World War in Colour, which, on the basis of the samples at that link, is almost startling.

And perhaps you've already seen this set from the 1930s, which appeared online a few years ago. There's lots more out there, if you look for it. Somewhere there is even a batch from, if I remember correctly, rural Russia in the late 19th or very early 20th century.



The Cult of Richard Dawkins

He's always seemed an evangelist for the religion which he calls "reason" or "science." But I had no idea he had begun to emulate the fund-raising techniques of American (and other?) evangelists, as described in this Spectator piece. Notice that the writer is associated with the left-wing Guardian. Apparently Dawkins has been offending the left for a year or two with comments offensive to Islam and feminism, with the result that he's getting less indulgence from that quarter.

Or maybe it's just that his nuttiness has become impossible to ignore:

At this point it is obvious to everyone except the participants that what we have here is a religion without the good bits.

An Unusual Approach to the Trouble in Ferguson, Missouri

From Neoneocon:

I continue to reserve judgment, however, until the forensic evidence comes in. There’s a lot more to be learned about the facts in this case.

Waiting to learn the facts before coming to a conclusion? It's not the Internet Way. You're supposed to respond instantly with outrage to a story like this, stake out your position on the right or the left, and stick to it, loudly.

It is, however, supposed to be the way of the American justice system. However much or often the ideal may be compromised or betrayed, it's what we're supposed to strive for. And it really ought to be the way of journalism, especially of journalism that prides itself on caring about the truth. From what I've seen, the media are behaving somewhat more responsibly than they often do with regard to racial conflict--than they did, for instance, in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.

Something that really struck me forcefully about that was the lynch-mob mentality that immediately took possession of the left, including a great many journalists. A liberal friend of mine remarked that the situation was "just like Scottsboro." (If you don't recognize the reference, here's the Wikipedia article). She had a point, but not the one she intended. She meant to compare Martin to the Scottsboro Boys, whose guilt was assumed because of their race. But it was really the other way around; it was Zimmerman whose guilt was assumed by a mob purely because of his race.

As far as I could tell, no one who asserted that Zimmerman acted out of racist motives ever felt the need to justify the assertion. The mere fact that he was, for propaganda purposes, white (amended to "white hispanic" when his ancestry became known), was thought sufficient. No evidence was necessary, nor did anyone make any effort to produce it. This is very often true of the charge of racism in general--merely to assert it is considered enough to put the burden of proof on the accused, and since it's impossible to prove that one is not a racist, the dirt tends to stick.

Zimmerman was "white," Martin was black, therefore Zimmerman must have been racist, and motivated by racism to shoot a defenseless teenager. The false accusation against the Scottsboro Boys was believed because white people believed that that was simply the way black people behaved. Zimmerman was held by many black people and apparently all white liberals to have wilfully murdered Martin, in the legal sense,  because that was simply the way white people behaved. There's a word for that.

Very few people know exactly what happened in Ferguson. I doubt very much that the policeman simply took out his gun and shot an unarmed teenager without provocation. Maybe he lost his temper, maybe he panicked; it certainly looks like he made a grave mistake. To the extent that he was culpable, he should pay for it. But those who go around saying, as they did in the Martin case, that we are in the grip of a crisis in which white people can murder black people on a whim with no consequence are either hysterics or liars deliberately attempting to inflame racial passions. The legal system ought to resolve the question, but I doubt that that any legal resolution short of life in prison for the cop--Brown's parents have called for the death penalty--will satisfy that mob mentality.

There is one good thing in all this. Well, a couple, really: it's heartening to see some of the black community in Ferguson attempting to discourage the rioting, and putting themselves in the street to defend businesses from the rioters. And it seems that people on all sides are increasingly disturbed by the militarization of the police. This ought to scare everybody:


52 Guitars: Week 33

Pat Metheny

I've been thinking that I should include some more jazz guitarists, because there are certainly plenty of them who are very impressive musicians. But I really don't have a lot of acquaintance with their work, which is because I don't listen to jazz guitar all that much, which is because I don't really respond to it the way I do many other forms of guitar music. That's partly because jazz guitarists typically use a very clean and pure tone, and when it comes to electric guitar I like the dirty and sustained tones that rock and blues players tend to use. To my ears, the typical jazz guitar tone is just less expressive than that of either a purely acoustic guitar or a noised-up electric.

But more importantly, I frequently don't grasp what's going on musically in jazz. I don't have much technical knowledge of music, and I can't describe in musical terms what's involved in, say, Mark Knopfler's famous "Sultans of Swing" lead, but I respond to it. I can on some level feel, if not articulate, the connection of what he's playing to the fundamental structure of the song. But much jazz has a more subtle and complex harmonic structure, and less elemental appeal, and requires a better ear and more knowledge than I have to be really appreciated.

Such were my thoughts over the past few days as, having decided to feature Pat Metheny this week, I looked around for a few things to post. He has a huge body of recorded work, and I've only heard a few bits of it. I sampled a number of jazz tracks, but there weren't many that really grabbed me. Perhaps if I listened to them more...but I didn't have time. I knew, though, that I would use the title track from one of the two or three Metheny albums I own, New Chautauqua, from 1979. It's not very typical of his work from the '70s, being all acoustic, and all multi-tracked Metheny, and not really jazz at all. I don't know what genre to call it, but I really like it.


Another Metheny album that I own, and like a lot, is 1980's As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. It's not, strictly speaking, a Pat Metheny album, but a collaboration with keyboardist Lyle Mays, and is really more a keyboard and group album than a guitar album. But roughly the last half of "It's For You" features a really fine guitar solo. 


It occurs to me that the title phrase will soon entirely lose the meaning it has for anyone who grew up before cell phones, when there was generally one telephone line and one telephone number per household. The phone rang, someone picked it up and said "Hello," and, if the caller wanted to speak to someone else, yelled "It's for you" to another person in the house. Already for some time the scenes in movies where someone in trouble searches desperately for a pay phone have seemed very dated.

 And here's a good one from 1978's self-titled album by the Pat Metheny Group, also featuring Lyle Mays: "Phase Dance".



Flannery O'Connor in Paperback

I mean paperback in the sense that it was used fifty or more years ago, when it referred mainly to the small editions badly printed on cheap paper of generally disposable if not trashy fiction--before there was such a thing as "quality" or "trade" paperbacks. For a book to have its original printing in this kind of paperback was about like a movie going directly to video without ever showing in theaters at all. And when publishers decided to put out a paperback edition of a good book, it was generally packaged as if it weren't.

Here's how they treated Flannery O'Connor. This Wise Blood at least has the merit of being not totally inaccurate. It is brutal, and it is passionate, and it is about sin and redemption. But not exactly in the way the cover suggests.


 The main graphic for A Good Man surely refers to the story "Good Country People," and I'm pretty sure Flannery O'Connor didn't have a woman who looked like that in mind for Hulga. The smaller picture must be for "The River," and really is not too bad. I give this artist credit for apparently having some acquaintance with the book. And the last image of that quote from Time is pretty good, really. 


 This edition of The Violent Bear It Away appears to be later, from the late '60s or early '70s. Again, "novel of depravity" is not totally inaccurate, but it's misleading. 


All in all, you have to suppose that some of the purchasers of these books were pretty disappointed.

I acknowledge having lifted these images from Crisis, where they accompanied three pieces on O'Connor, and in recompense I'll give you links to them. They're all worth reading. 

This "Caution on the Writings of Flannery O'Connor" is almost touchingly wrong-headed.

But if you will pardon me for saying so in a rather blunt manner, it is a very odd sort of an artist who conjures the gruesome and gratuitous massacre of a grandmother as a backdrop to debating points of systematic theology.

If you read that story, or for that matter any of O'Connor's work, as a set of debating points of systematic theology, you've mistaken the nature of what you're reading.

Much better is this piece by Karen Beebe, "A Good Woman Is Hard to Figure", and this one by Regis Martin, "Flannery O'Connor Fifty Years After". O'Connor died fifty years ago this month, and so there is more than usual talk about her in the Catholic press.

Finally, there is this "Defense of the Grotesque" by R. Jared Staudt, which answers some of the objections in the first piece. 

52 Guitars: Week 32

Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore and Lee Rinaldo)

I'm cheating; this week's installment is actually two guitars. But I can't separate them--they don't alternate solos or anything like that, and they produce one sound that I doubt could be produced by either of them alone. Perhaps one of them is more responsible for the strangely appealing dissonance that Sonic Youth produces, but if so I don't know which it is. Apparently a lot of it involves tuning guitars in very strange ways (I mean really: GABDEG? GGDDGG?!).

The only album of theirs that I know very well is Daydream Nation, which a lot of people seem to think their best.  Here's the opening track, "Teenage Riot," which is pretty mild and tuneful, and allegedly uses the tunings mentioned above.


Somewhat noisier: "Cross the Breeze". The image there is the cover of the album.


And here is something from an earlier album, Evol (orthographic pun intended, I assume), which is perhaps a better example of what they were exploring. I'm not crazy about this track, but from the musical point of view it's very interesting. 


Whatever you think of them, it can't be denied that SY discovered some new possibilities in electric guitar. Personally I think their techniques are very expressive, and if I were a musician I would try to figure out a way to use them. 

Flannery O'Connor's Prayer Journal

I finally bought and read this a couple of weeks ago. I suspect most people who read this blog and would be interested have already read it, but in case that's not true, I'll say that anyone interested in Flannery O'Connor should read it, both for what it reveals about her and for what it is in itself. 

Most of it is the searching self-scrutiny of a young and devout soul, and insofar as it is that, it is more or less what one would expect. In saying so, I don't mean that it isn't good, only that it isn't striking. What is striking, though, are the moments when typically O'Connor sparks suddenly fly from the page. I'm resisting the temptation to quote any of them, because they're better encountered in context. Several are extremely funny, or at least I found them so, and all are a bit startling, making you realize that there is more in this young woman than piety alone. This shouldn't be surprising, considering that she was already working on stories that would soon become Wise Blood.

To call it a slender book doesn't really convey just how small it is: the journal proper, typeset, is only 37 pages of relatively large type on relatively small pages with relatively large margins. The facsimile is longer, and though I didn't expect to find it interesting, I did. The original notebook was a black Sterling one of a type many people my age and older may recognize (but then for all I know it may still be available). Reading the facsimile is worthwhile if only because at least one of the funny bits is even funnier there, by reason of its placement. 

You just can't help thinking sometimes...

...that God better have a damn good reason for some of this stuff. Or at least I can't. 

That reminds me: a week or so ago Daniel mentioned Ananias and Sapphira in a comment, suggesting that Peter was way out of line in calling down capital punishment from God on them for what was, admittedly, a sin. I said, stipulating that I was only speculating, that I wasn't "at all sure God disapproved of what happened to Ananias and Saphira." Similarly, Janet said "Do you think Peter killed them? I don't think that God lets people call down power like that on people if he doesn't want it."

I've wanted to get back to this, because I think there's an important point here. First, since I only vaguely remembered the story (Acts 5), I looked it up, and there's actually no indication that Peter in any way caused, or asked God for, their deaths (text courtesy of Blble Gateway):

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” 5 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

Yeah, I bet it did.

But all Peter does here is confront Ananias and then Sapphira with their sin. He doesn't say anything like "Therefore the Lord will strike you down," much less "I call upon the Lord to strike you down." He does seem to know it's going to happen, at least in the case of Sapphira, in words I find very chilling. But he doesn't ask for it or threaten it. I don't think it's taking the account too literally, then, to suppose that these deaths are truly a direct act of God.

Which makes the theological problem more acute. We can't just say Peter committed one of his typically impulsive mistakes. Either you have to say this didn't actually happen, which opens the entire New Testament to a degree of skepticism that has no obvious limit, or that God killed these two people. (Well, I guess you could say it's a really really really far-fetched coincidence.) 

So, if it was a direct act of God, does that mean God is a harsh judge who may kill without warning or mercy if he chooses to do so? That he need not follow the counsel of forgiveness that he enjoins on us? Or, worse, that he is sovereign beyond justice and mercy, so that even if he condemned a man to hell for one small sin we would not be entitled to question or complain?

No. I think it means that his knowledge and justice and mercy are perfect. We can only speculate about Ananias and Sapphira. We have to remember that physical death is not the end, and we don't know what happened to them afterwards. We might be inclined to assume that they went to hell, but we really don't have any warrant for that. It may be that their being snatched abruptly from this life is precisely what enabled them to avoid hell. Or it may be that God saw that they were irrevocably set toward sin. We simply don't know, and can't know from where we sit now.

I don't think that God's justice and mercy are opposing things that are somehow perfectly balanced. I believe that they are ultimately the same thing, that his justice is in the end perfectly merciful, and his mercy in the end perfectly just. And, moreover, that his knowledge of the heart is perfect, so that he truly knows, in a way that would be impossible for us, exactly to what extent a person has freely chosen sin. He can penetrate the tangle of emotions and reason and will and genes and circumstances with a precision that is simply not possible, not even remotely possible, for us. There is no possibility that he can judge a person unfairly on the basis of insufficient knowledge.

And I trust his judgments. That's why the problem of hell has never really troubled my faith. Since I first encountered it many years ago I've always been completely convinced of the idea put forth by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce that ultimately anyone who is in hell has chosen it. This is not the same thing as simply resigning oneself and one's intellect to an inscrutable God who is entitled to make arbitrary judgments which are beyond good and evil and which we are not entitled to question. It's trust in his perfection, in the fact that he is God and everything which we know is good is perfected in him. Or, rather, that everything which we know is good is an imperfect apprehension of something in him.

None of this helps very much with stories like the one I began with, though. I can tell myself that it will all work out for the best, but I can't understand why that working-out requires pain such as that young woman's family is experiencing now.

52 Guitars: Week 31

Phil Keaggy

CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) is not the place you'd normally go to hear some shredding. That's part of the reason why Phil Keaggy's name is not widely known outside the circles of CCM and guitar aficionados and players. (He converted to evangelical Christianity as a rising rock musician with the band Glass Harp, and has remained committed to his faith ever since; that's impressive.)


Someone extracted that solo from an 8-plus-minute performance of a song called "Time." The whole song is on YouTube as well, and may help to explain the limited appeal of much of his music, even apart from its categorization as CCM. To my taste it's just not a very captivating song.


He's also staggeringly good as an acoustic guitarist.


Daniel Nichols introduced me to Keaggy many years ago via some good tracks on a cassette, but I can't remember their names now. The only album I ever bought was The Wind and the Wheat, a somewhat New-Agey one that came out in the 1980s. I haven't heard it for a while, but as I recall "The March of the Clouds" was one of my favorites from it. 


There is a persistent story that Jimi Hendrix, when asked how it felt to be the best guitar player in the world, said "I don't know. You'd have to ask Phil Keaggy." It is apparently false. But he is mighty, might good. I imagine there is a lot of great playing to be discovered in his extensive discography.