Category Archives: Folk

Not just singer songwriter–instrumental music, too.

Artifact

I created this hoax to defend myself from potential bodily harm on a tour of Sweden, playing concertina.

I created this hoax to defend myself from potential bodily harm on a tour of Sweden, playing concertina.

In the early 1990s I fell into a certain “company” of Scandinavian musicians in Seattle. Bleak as that may sound, it was an enjoyable few years in which I learned many things about the requirements of playing a hambo or polska. Most of the musicians were fiddlers, and they were taught by my girlfriend of the time, who was an expert in her field. As I wanted to play along, I brought out my wooden flute, made by my old friend Casey Burns, and I found that I was able to keep up with many of the melodies. But eventually I braved bringing out my English concertina, my main instrument at the time. Learning the tunes on the concertina was no problem for me. I just had to learn how to blend in to the ensemble sound.

Eventually, Skandia Folkdance Society was invited to tour a number of folk festivals in Sweden. Consensus in the group was that whoever wanted to go on the trip should be taken along, even if they couldn’t afford the trip. I couldn’t. Working as a beginning teacher in those days I routinely finished the month with less than thirty dollars in my bank accounts. I am eternally grateful that the society helped me buy my ticket so I could go along that summer. But I worried a little about bringing a concertina to those places of rigid tradition in Scandinavian dance.

It didn’t help when a Swedish concertina enthusiast I met in Stockholm marveled at my boldness. “They’ll kill you,” he quietly predicted.

Luckily I had done my research. Or, rather, I had done some artificing. If ever I were challenged about the authenticity of playing a squeezebox for Swedish traditional dancing, I would flash the button shown above. You can plainly see that this Viking era dragon is playing a squeezebox, perhaps even a concertina! I worked for hours to perfect the drawing that I later made into the button.

I need not have worried. Not only did I survive unscathed, but the Swedish concertina enthusiasts had me over for spaghetti (or some other traditional Swedish meal) and we had a good time. One big fellow tore the sweatshirt off his back and gave it to me. It had a rendering of a tattered horse’s head (of the English Morris Dance variety) and the words Eken Morris Dancers. Eken was apparently an old name for Stockholm. I still wear that shirt on cool evenings and I still smile about that evening when a bunch of unrooted folk enthusiasts shared some time and tales together.

Later during the trip I happened to find a poster of a painting of a May Day celebration. The painting, by a famous Swedish artist, dated from around 1880. The procession was packed with dancers in their traditional drakt, hauling a huge May Day tree to the site of their dance. At the head of the procession was a young dancer providing the music. He was playing a concertina.

The Day the Mountain Came to Town

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

On the 200th anniversary of our country’s birth my cousin Dale and I joined one of the last mass climbs of Mount Adams in south-central Washington. I left from work on the Friday afternoon, drove to Yakima to pick him up, and we went to a campground outside Trout Lake to spend the night. Of course the excitement and the noise of all the other campers kept us awake all night. I don’t remember getting any sleep at all.

We were rousted out for the climb around 3:00 in the morning. We received some orientation and instructions and lined up to begin the climb. One of the instructions was to stay in line and not to pass those ahead of us. We were young and strong. Many of those ahead of us were neither, so the temptation  to violate that rule was strong.

We reached tree-line just before dawn, and that morning provided one of the most spectacular views I will ever see. We watched the ghostly pale peak of Mount Saint Helens emerge from the night, turning raspberry pink, then dazzling white. Before it erupted, Saint Helens was nearly perfectly symmetrical. As we strapped on our crampons and struggled to keep our places in line, we watched Mount Saint Helens in the distance, a graceful and beautiful mountain that later proved to be powerful and dangerous. Continue reading

A Little Music for the New Year

The late, beloved Goku, inspiration for my tune, Spotted Cat.

The late, beloved Goku, inspiration for my tune, Spotted Cat.

I’ve spent the past few days reworking some of the music I’ve written over the past thirty years as a concertina and whistle player. Some tunes were also composed on the fiddle. The way the folk process works, some of these contain hints of melodies from other tunes. While I’ve copyrighted all of them, I’m putting the tunes out here for anyone to use, especially as they were written to be danced to.

To hear these tunes, you should download Easy ABC, a free music composition program available online. Copy my music, including the header, and paste it into the window labeled ABC Code. Then click on the play arrow to hear the tune. Print the music, play the music, mess with it. It’s for having fun with.

The first tune is one of the oldest, a jig written on the concertina in the early 1980s.  Because it’s a concertina tune, it presents a certain challenge on the fiddle. Continue reading

Remember This

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle "Remember Us."

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle “Remember Us.”

My family has long had a close relationship to the making of music. If you go back far enough in my mother’s family, we were probably connected to the German composer of operas and organ music, Johann Georg Kühnhausen, whose Matthäus-Passion (Saint Matthew’s Passion) is still occasionally performed. But for the most part, we played much more informally.

My father and several of his buddies toured around Eastern Washington in the 1930s and 1940s, playing dances in little towns like Othello and White Bluffs as the Five Jives. Two of his brothers were members of a long-lasting semi-professional band that formed under Steve Laughery in Moses Lake and which continued to tour the west after Laughery died in a landslide. The memory of these bands survive in some of the artifacts we still possess, some sheet music inscribed with “Five Jives” and a couple of vinyl albums from the Many Sounds of Nine, my uncles’ band. I have written before about the old violin my father used to play, passed on to him from one of my mother’s uncles. I use it to play dance music in a couple of contra-dance bands in Northwestern Washington now.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name "Elton" is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name “Elton” is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

Last month I found a very interesting instrument, seemingly meant for me. It had a peculiar back story and it fit a special niche in a musician’s repertoire. For there will always be a time when you want to create the most annoying sound you can musically make. In this case, with a banjo ukulele. Continue reading

Making Music

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half. On some of the instruments I may leave the holes out entirely.

A few months back my wife expressed an envy for a violin stand so that she didn’t have to unpack her instrument to practice. She thought she’d be more likely to play if the instrument was standing by, ready. It took only a couple of weeks for the stand to topple over, spilling the violin and bow on the floor. The fingerboard popped off. I later found a better-designed stand that grips the neck of the instrument automatically. If she wants another one, I’m ready with an idea.

As a rank amateur when it comes to fine instruments, I refused to try to set the fingerboard back in place. I suggested our old friend Dave Nerad might do a better job. The violin sat for a long time before she finally agreed to let me take it to Dave.

In the meantime I thought Patti deserved something less risky to play around on, and since we’d been talking about electric violins, it suddenly occurred to me that the first major project out of my new wood shop ought to be a gift for her.

A couple of years back I purchased an electronic book about designing and building an electric violin. With Christmas coming up, I decided to see what I could do about building an electric violin, my first attempt at building something from scratch.

The component search began simultaneously with the designing process. I went online with a list of items to buy: nut, fingerboard (being short on time I didn’t envision being able to carve a fingerboard or neck, so I intended to buy those parts), the end pin, tailpiece with its various related parts, the strings and so forth. The most important component would be the bridge, since it would include the pickup that would determine the quality of the sound.

I opted for a good Yamaha design, knowing that I would have a bit of re-wiring to do. The pickup was designed to be used on an acoustic violin rather than a purpose-built electric. I also wanted to figure out whether or not to use an on-board pre-amp to boost the signal from the weak piezo bridge pickup. I found an onboard pre-amp mounted in a jack, which would solve two mysteries at once. But the jack was bigger than I would have hoped, so it changed the design I had already  created, requiring me to abandon the left-hand cutout on the lower bout.

To design the body I first sought face-on images of fine violins. I selected an x-ray image of a Stradivarius to work with. I overlaid graph paper on a printout of the image and cut the fiddle back to its minimum requirements. I knew a violinist needs the sensory block of the body to help place their left hand on the high end of the scale, so that curve had to be maintained. Bridge distance was a constant, and so was body width where I would be mounting the chin rest and end pin. Continue reading

Wheatfield Gardens

(Continued from To Belfast)

The ferry to Ireland passed through a couple of light rain showers, but by the time it approached Larne the sun was glistening on the Irish Sea. Green hills rolled into the distance beyond the town: oil tanks and smokestacks, docks with freighters and yachts tied up at them, parking lots with cars and trucks and buses pausing in their duties. Shipping containers ranged along the shoreline. My train waited at the landing and I gathered my belongings, dragged my suitcase on its tiny wheels, my backpack stuffed to overflowing strapped to my back, my shabby concertina box clutched under my arms. I jostled down the ramp towards the station, leaving the sleek ferryboat behind.

As I left the ramp, though, two men stepped out of the crowds toward me. One, bulky in a down coat, red-haired and grinning; the other was a black-coated priest smoking a cigarette. “Are you Mark Danielson?” the man in the coat asked.

This encounter bewildered me at the time. I wasn’t expecting to be met at the ferry, and I had taken an earlier train than the one I had planned to be on. Even now, years later, I wonder how they knew I would arrive on that ferry. Was it by chance, or had they somehow been informed? It was the first of many mysterious events that took place that year in Ireland.

I would come to know these men reasonably well over the next few days. The man with hair the Irish called “ginger” was Ryan, an American volunteer who had been running the Glencree House at 14 Wheatfield Gardens in Belfast. It was my understanding that I would be taking over his position. The priest, Father Kevin, was the Glencree representative. I would never see him without a cigarette in his mouth. I should mention right here that I’m using pseudonyms, not just to protect the identity of those I worked with, but because it was thirty years ago and I don’t always have the most accurate memory!

Father Kevin set about putting me at ease. He asked about my hometown, my family. “Do you have any Irish in yeh?” Well, no. Most of my family were German or Scandinavian. “Ah, sure, they’re all the same North Sea bastards.” I had been adopted as an Irishman pro tempore. Continue reading

To Belfast

In 1985 I combined the Mount Saint Helens eruption with a self portrait playing my English Concertina to create a postcard image I called Concertina Blowout.

I arrived in Glasgow by train late in the day, bound for Belfast where I was expected. I remember thinking that this could be the last peaceful day I would have in a long time, the last day when I could do what I liked, go wherever I might choose, without consideration of any dangerous political ramifications. The scene outside my rainy window matched my mood. Desolation. The train clattered through filthy industrial parks, littered fields, broken down Victorian factory buildings and shabby streets.

It was 1981, and outside Belfast, in Long Kesh Prison Bobby Sands was approaching his sixtieth day on hunger strike. If he were to die there would undoubtedly be fire and shootings, bombs and riots in the streets of Belfast. I’d done enough research to understand The Troubles in Northern Ireland from a dissociated, rather academic viewpoint. It looked like I would soon have firsthand experience of the realities of the IRA struggle against the Thatcher government.

It was easy to be gloomy in Glasgow, after having spent a month prowling the more upscale streets of Edinburgh. Between stints with a wire brush, cleaning gutters and painting for my hosts, I had earnestly searched the tourist precincts and alleyways for my dream instrument, an English concertina. It was a search doomed to failure. I came to recognize that even if I were to find Continue reading