Friday, March 14, 2008

Whistle while you work.

Last Fall I had a fellowship at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I conducted research for curators and worked closely with Folkways Records, the official record label of the Smithsonian Institution (housed within the Center for Folklife). So wooed by my wonderful experience, I got it in my head that I wanted to work for the Center for Folklife/Folkways upon my Return to D.C.

When I moved to D.C. this past August, there were no paid positions open at Folkways, but I spent every Friday as a volunteer doing filing. Simply being in the office was wonderful, although I cried a little bit more each week about the steady disappearance of my savings.

I was just about getting desperate when two wonderful things happened: First, word hit the street that Folkways was lookin' to hire someone to (wo)man the phones, answer questions about the collection, and process and fulfill orders (package and ship 'em out.) The job itself wouldn't be too cerebral and hours were flexible so I could focus on my studies. Best of all- I'd be working with the organization and people I loved. A multicultural, intelectual, stimulating, experience.... even if I was just workin' glorified customer service. It seemed ideal, so I applied. And got the position.

Second, in the process of casting my net, I had also applied for a grant-funded position with a non-profit Historic Preservation organization. Through the grant, I would have the chance to actually practice what I was studying, to be mentored by people in the field, and have incredible access to all kinds of research and guidance that few others in my program would. When I was offered that position, too, I simply couldn't say no.

So... yes. While wrasslin' with graduate school I grinned slyly at two part-time jobs.... and tackled it all.

The goin' certainly ain't been easy. I’ve been poorer than I would have preferred, more exhausted than I can ever remember being, and there have been times when I've nearly tapped out. I've been kicked in the proverbial nuts a few times. And I've certainly kicked myself there, too, as punishment for my naive ambition. And the journey ain't over yet.

But one step at a time... one step. I've almost made it to May... when I'll change my lattitude and spend the summer working hard, but in a different way.

I guess since the days are getting longer again I'm able to look back and try to make sense of the past few months. Years. Whatever. And while my head is clear for these few moments, here is one epiphany for the record:

I'm not sure I'd have it any other way.

And although I'm being drawn in so many directions and sometimes barely make ends meet, I really am living a dream.

And I have a lot to be thankful for.

Friday, February 1, 2008

To redeem one person is to redeem the world.

This is Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (1889-1957):

And this is her cottage:

Frieda was a German psychiatrist and a contemporary of Freud. A German Jew fleeing persecution, she wrote to colleagues in the United States for assistance. Many US-based institutions offered her positions within their hospitals, securing both her career and her safety. Chestnut Lodge, located just outside of Rockville, Maryland, offered her one such position... and threw in a cottage to sweeten the deal.

The cottage lies a stone's throw from the "old main" building of the institution, so close that Frieda often treated patients right there in her own home. Dedicated to the belief that to redeem one person was to redeem the world, she lived in the cottage and treated patients at Chestnut Lodge until her sudden death in 1957.

Peerless Rockville, a non-prof preservation organization, recently acquired the cottage, and while the surrounding buildings and land that once belonged to the institution have been transformed by a new housing development, Freida's Cottage has been preserved and is the process of being restored. Work on the exterior is complete, and through the use of pictures and memories of Frieda's survivors, Peerless hopes to restore the interior. Peerless intends to rent the home to "preservation minded" tenents, while Freida's office, which can be closed of from the rest of the cottage, will be interpreted as a museum for Frieda, Chestnut Lodge, and the history of Psychiatry.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lady plays the dobro: the story of NJ Warren's guitar.

I went to the Barbershop Blues jam session last night. I'd left my instruments at home 'cuz my confidence in my jam-skillz was lacking, and instead of playing I sat on the edge of the circle and sang. NJ Warren sat not too far from me. He was playing a beautiful guitar... not the one pictured above, but the Dobro he's holding here:

After playing for a few songs he stood up to stretch his legs and made his way out of the circle. "Hey, girl," he said as he passed by me, "You play?" I laughed and shrugged. Before I could say anything else he'd handed me his dobro. "Now ya do."

Now, I've played guitar since I was about 11 or 12, when I cashed in my chips, broke my little pink piggy bank, and bought myself my very own 6 string. But until last night it had been months since I'd played the guitar. It took my fingers a while to remember what guitar picking was all about. I got it, though. In the end.

NJ took up his instrument again after sitting out for a few songs, and I sat empty handed once more. Jim The Bones Player called out, "Hey, someone! get that girl another guitar! "Although I politely said no thank you, I ended up with a guitar any way. And a prime spot in jam circle.

At first I was scared to death and blushed red in the face. But then everything suddenly came together, my fingers quit trying to play banjo chords and instead picked the blues chords smoothely, and I felt really comfortable playing along with everyone else. I kept my eyes trained on NJ's hands, watching him switch chords. I made a fair number of mistakes, but it still sounded smooth. I passed, though, when we went around doing solos.

Next week I'll bring my banjo. For sure.

"You think them blues ain't here on this banjo neck, the same as they're on that guitar? They're just as much on this banjo neck as they are on that guitar or piano, or anywhere else if you know where to go and get it, and if you learn it and know how to play it."---- Dock Boggs

(This event occurred in mid-December. I wrote about it elsewhere and I'm just getting around to posting it here.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pick Pick Pick a Banjo...

Cradled here in my arms is my new (old) beloved. It plays like a dream. I feel very fortunate that this piece of Americana is now in my stewardship. They don't make 'em like they used to because 1) old growth wood simply isn't available any more, and 2) the turn of the century makers were all bought out by multi-instrument makers such as Martin, etc. The pot (the part that's not the neck) is an original Fairbanks / Vega --- a mid 19th century company. It's a "Style F".. and judging by the info on the serial number... it was made in 1920.

It came with the original skin head still on it, signed by various folks who must have played together. Besides their names, they've listed the military academies they attended, the years they graduated, and greek symbols for fraternities.
Dick Ludebuehl-- Shady Side Academy, 1922. Swarthmore College, 1926.

Harry "Cowboy" Deland Barnhardt-- Shady Side Aademy, 1922. Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Va. John Hopkins University, Maryland.

Jay "The Indian" Stone---Culver Military Academy, 1918. (Unintelligible) Military College, St. Louis, MO.
The frats listed are Theta Pi Pi and the Eta Tau Omega. On the other side of the head is "M.C.H. '22"-- no clue what that is. There's also a sketch of a Lucky Strike cigarrette, as well as the name of a woman..."Peg Daubert." I'm thinking of naming the banjo after her. Peggy.The sound is still pretty awesome considering the age of the head, but I will have to replace it. I'll keep the original, though, and do my best to find out who these guys were!!!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Photos of H.A. Dawson's....

The following images appear here because my school email is too dinky to handle them on their way elsewhere. My apologies for the dearth of explanatory blurbations.
Friends, meet 18 and 20 West Montgomery, Ave. Rockville, Md.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Those barber shop blues....

I stood outside on the sidewalk. The barber shop was maybe 15 feet wide, and peering through the old front window I judged the depth to be about 50 feet. It looked as if nothing had been changed in 30 or so years. Along the right hand side ran counters, sinks, and shelves, cubbies filled with bottled of talcum powder, aftershave, and rusted shears. Vintage mirrors hung on the walls, reflecting avocado-green barber-chairs and the crazy colorful scene within.

Muffled music came through the foggy window panes, and actually entering the shop was was....well, I don't quite have words for it. I swung open the door and the music snatched at my heart, making it beat with new rhythm. It tickled, the same way those moments before a first-kiss tickle, all full of adrenaline and anticipation, sweaty palms, and racing pulses. All intense and playful and sexy but innocent.

A few elderly black men played guitars and someone else played the bones. A large man sat in the corner rocking a saxophone while a taller man stood slapping at an upright base. A white-haired woman wildly kissed a harmonica as she jumped up and down with the rhythm. And then there was the piano man! He was playing like some demented demon, like someone absolutely possesed. He twisted with the rhythm and jabbed marvelously at the ivories, completely impassioned, frenzied, by the soul. "GIVE ME THOSE BARBER SHOP, BLUES! OH! SHOUT IT!!"

Introductions were made above the enticing cacophany. There were handshakes, pats on backs, big smiles, and winks.

What was this place?! What was going on?! Who were these people!?

Archie Edwards was a black Piedmont Blues musician. A great musician indeed. This shop, the one I went to last night, was his barbershop, where he worked cutting hair. He used to host jam sessions every Saturday afternoon. Folks like Mississippi John Hurt, Jack Johnson, and Cephas and Wiggins, were all known to frequent the place-- they even taught other kiddos their songs and styles. Mr. Edwards died about ten years ago, but folks within the community have managed to continue the weekly jam sessions in his barber shop in his memory. I will certainly be returning, with guitar/banjo in hand. I'm in love.

Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Building, a mystery...

This is the building I've been researching. It's a simple painted brick business duplex. It has housed candy shops, boot stores, lunch counters.... it has been a lot of things. In 1993 one of the owners was murdered in the store and the whole place torched. It has been sitting empty since. The city is about to move in on it and slap the current holder with fines. Boarded up abandoned buildings in the middle of the county judicial seat (Rockville, Md.) does not make folks happy.

But before they tear it down, before the current owner remakes it into a shoe store, a cafe, a dojo.... there needs to be a pause and some reflection. Just by looking at that burnt out brick shell you wouldn't know its historical value, but it is one of Rockville's last-standing buildings from the 19th century.

I traced the deed back to the family who built the store, the Dawson family. According to the papers, the lot was purchased from the widowed Rebecca G. Fields in 1891. But there's something very curious. I found old Montgomery County Sentinel articles that refer to the construction of the convenience store happening on that lot... in 1870.

In addition, I tracked down store ledgers that were kept by the Dawsons listing things like 10 yrds calico, 1 pound sugar, a dozen eggs, etc. Names of reputable town-folk also appear in the log, indicating they frequented the Dawson's establishment. The three existing ledgers are from 1870, 1876, and 1880.... all before the deed signed by Thomas Dawson.

It seems like Dawson's store was well in business.... 21 years prior to the drafting of their official deed on the land.

What a jumbled paper trail.