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Monday, March 23, 2015

Singing with John McCutcheon

My friend and colleague and long-distance mentor, John McCutcheon, has just released a recording commemorating the 100th anniversary of the (legal) assassination of union organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill.

The composer of songs like Casey Jones and The Preacher and The Slave, Joe composed songs to be used at union meetings and on picket lines and rallies.  It was in this tradition I've been proud to stand while serving as a co-coordinator of the Religion and Labor Council in Kansas City, and while serving my union locals (American Federation of Musicians, Local 1000, DMA 20-623 and Local 6).

So when John offered the invitation to Local 1000 members to join the Labor Chorus on the final cut of this CD There Is Power in the Union, I was eager to jump at the chance.

With the wonders of modern technology, I was able to take the tracks that John sent from Georgia to work with my friend and engineer, Oscar Autie at El Cerrito Studio in California and add my voice(s) to the Labor Chorus.

I am excited to hear the final released track this morning as I write this blog post.  Can't wait to hear the rest of the tunes....I bet you can't either!  You can get your copy at this link.

(Disclaimer: I have no economic interest in this project, just proud to be part of it.)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Gut-String Gourd Banjo

While looking for something else in storage this week, I was able to find the documentation of this fun adventure in patience, support and partnership in musical instrument construction that I want to share here!

It was after hearing Mike Seeger play a fretless, gut-string banjo at Winfield several years ago that I feel in love with that warm sound and thus began a hankering.

It was only natural to purchase the banjo neck from the Deering cast-off bin just inside the vending space at Winfield the following year.  And, as the story below attests, that neck lived in two cities in two different states for a few years before meeting its life-partner, a gourd from Kentucky.

(You can click here to see this page full-size)

The finding of that gourd was interesting.  

Colorado is not known for its many gourds, but when I inquired on a mountain dulcimer listserv about a source for acquiring a suitable gourd, Lorinda Jones from Kentucky replied, "I've got an attic full of them!"

So we bartered.  I agreed to swap a complete set of my Dulcimer-Friendly Evening Prayer Service for a gourd that she would send me.

However, first we had to determine the size I needed.  My research thus far had suggested that gourd banjos in the 1800s were usually tuned to an open D tuning, rather than the open G tuning that is in common use today with instruments that have a steel tone ring.  My sources also suggested that I would need a goatskin head 8"-9" in diameter.  I found the head from a nearby drum maker who purchased his goatskins from Pakistan and I communicated my size needs to Lorinda.

But she responded, "Diameter?  I can only measure circumference!"

Uh oh.  I swore to Mr. Gerke, my high school geometry teacher that, not only was I NEVER going to need what I learned in his class EVER in my life, but that I wasn't going to REMEMBER it, either.

is what came into my head!

"Where did that come from?" I demanded from my disobedient brain!  "I promised I wasn't going to remember any of that stuff."

Then I realized I was going to need to find what


 I wonder how to find that?

"3.1417" pops into my head.

"Well, I'll be doggoned!" I think in amazement, everything is up in this noggin to help me accomplish the deal.  I did the math using the equation and the constant and Lorinda shipped me a mottled-looking gourd with specific, detailed instructions on how to clean it.

After soaking it in the kitchen sink in a dish soap and bleach solution and turning it every 30 minutes, I took a paring knife and scraped off the detritus to find this beautiful, butternut colored gourd.

Charley Gannon, of what used to be Osprey Music in Fort Collins, helped me with some binding and fret-position filler on the neck and then it was time for the final construction.

(You can click here to see this page full-size)

With the cooperation of all of us, including the required investment made by a school teacher with an unwilling student,  this project was completed!