Because You Have To

The Song SchoolIs why you do it. It’s that simple.

Last day of Song School talking with Beth Desombre. Sylph like, her voice is as delicate and precise as her guitar fingering. I’d heard her play the night before and realized that I had no memory of the song nor what it had even sounded like.  But what I did recall was the shadow of the feeling, that it was gentle and honest, as if she might be the sort of person you would want to turn toward when the airplane encounters turbulence and feel grateful to be embraced by her presence.

That’s kind of what the Planet Bluegrass Song School is all about. Not about being great or even good (although there’s plenty of that), but about finding that voice that is uniquely yours and giving expression to it.

These are people who are old and retired, or middled aged and struggling to make their way through day jobs, or some so young that they don’t know yet what a day job is. But what they have in common is a compulsion to give voice to something inside them. Sometimes it’s highly polished, or whimsical, or rough and unformed, but in all cases it remains unique to each person. That’s an Ali Handall Song. Or that one there can be none other than Will Pfrang. They’re trying to perfect their written and sung voices so they most accurately express that thing within.

We’re all humans. And we’re all uneven. But once you can accept that and get beyond the judging, things get interesting. Lots of great performers, all small. Most don’t have youtube hit counts over a hundred, but that’s hardly a measure of what they pulled off on stage a last week.

Each night on stage we were treated to the rare gift of watching a human being come into his or her own.  It’s that moment when you’re not paying attention and suddenly you can’t help but notice that up front something incredible is unfolding. And like the mariner fixing you with his glittering eye, you have no choice but to listen.

A round up of just a few that I remember:

Rhonda Mouser: Rhonda is maybe the reason why you go to Alamosa. Most of you will never in your lives have a chance to hear her sing Cecile. It’s not on Youtube. She has tried to record it but it just comes out flat. But what happened a few nights ago was nothing short of electric. By her own admission, she’s a performer and not a studio musician. Which perhaps is all the better. If you want Rhonda Mouser you have to find her. And what you may get will start out naive and unadorned in a Jonathan Richman sort of way, and then it veers left into the darkness of minor chords and swoops into elegiac longing, and then, if you’re lucky, it begins to soar. Try Feel the Ground or No Rain from Live at Milagros.

Will Pfrang: My daughter and I walked into town for a cup of coffee and ran into this tow head kid walking in the opposite direction. One hour and 31 minutes later we were heading back and crossed paths with the same kid in the exact same spot. And that simple coincidence of geography might speak to who he is. My daughter wondered if he was actually Mother Theresa. He’s finishing high school in Port Washington, Wisconsin and trying to figure out what he wants to do. Who knows. But as for who he is? His self seems to float almost immaterially on stage, trusting the world as might an innocent and exuding something: love, grace, gratitude – who knows what, you just know that you want to be around it.

Liza Beth Oliveto. In her role as the other half of Ten Dollar Pony, she lends a drop of nitro  to the music. As for her own songs, she still struggles with her identity as a songwriter. When in life is it too late? And what if it never is? And how do you know? I sat under a tent and listened to her play Beth DeSombre’s guitar. In that moment I could only wish that more people were present. Look for her and her songwriting partner in Carson City or Reno.

Christine Lodder. Picture this  17 year old girl still emergent, leaning over the keyboard and doing what she could to keep her body from twisting into a pretzel as she released herself and bent into the song. She’ll be leaving Salt Lake City this autumn for the Berklee School of Music.

Bethel Steele. A tough name to fill, but that night on stage Bethel’s person managed to do it. Again out of Massachussetts, you sense this woman wouldn’t hesitate to protect you from the schoolyard bullies. And she probably could out sing most of them to boot.  Try Whiskey.

Bella Betts:  Boulder may one day claim her as their own. Just a notch above her twelfth birthday, she’s been playing mandolin since she was six and only recently began writing her own songs. She strikes you as a permanent resident in the idylls and energy of youth. Not one to walk, she’s more prone to skip and run as she bounds around about the Planet Bluegrass Ranch. And she’s one of those rare kids who also feels like she’s a hundred. Listen to her if you’ve perhaps forgotten what it means to be thoughtful, or curious and young.

Bella Hudson: Mazie and I first saw her playing on a street corner in Telluride about three years ago.  Just turned 13, she knows how to own a stage and is able to sing a handful of years beyond that.  She’s recording her first album this fall in Nashville.

St. Vrain

Saint Francis Saint Veranus What if it’s not real? my daughter asks. I mean, what if none of that Jesus stuff happened and two thousand years of religion was based on it?  What a total complete waste of energy.  All the churches and wars and books and songs and stuff might be based on something that never existed. Just think of the amount of time people have spent on this stuff, she said.


The St. Vrain Creek running through Lyons, Colorado is not directly named, as one might suppose, for Saint Veranus di Camillon, but instead for Ceran de Hault de Lassus de St. Vrain, a child born of French nobility in St. Louis in 1802, who later decamped to the American West in the 1830’s to establish himself in the fur trade. To distinguish himself from his brother, he appended the St. Vrain.  He was responsible in part for the collapse of the Western beaver populations by 1842. He later helped crush the Taos uprising after the native Puebloans and Mexicans defending themselves against the invading Americans killed and scalped his trading partner, William Bent.  The volunteers serving under St. Vrain killed more than 150 rebel Taoans and Mexicans.  St. Vrain later served as a translator for the rigged military tribunal.  Deliberating for only a few minutes, the angry mob commended fifteen more souls to death.

Taos uprisingThe Taoans originally followed the intricate Puebloan ceremonial cycle, but later subsumed their beliefs to Catholicism after the Reconquest in 1692.  In that year, Diego de Varga retook the Southwest and subjected the natives once again to Spanish rule and the dominion of the Franciscans.

Which leads to a greater irony.  In April 1847, a man of French descent who carried the name of Saint Veranus, a 6th century French bishop known for his charity, bore witness against 15 Mexicans and Taoan rebels who were then hung for treason.  Fifteen men who had allied themselves to the will of St. Francis – patron saint of animals, the environment, Italy, merchants, stowaways, and the Cub Scouts – fell to the will and untoward legacy of St. Veranus, the patron saint of nothing in particular.

An even greater tragedy is that you couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s enough to make you believe in God. And what a fellow he is.


Song Birds

ImageHer card describes Kristen Hein Strohm as a Wildlife Biologist and Statistician and is illustrated with a songbird (the species of which I do not know) and a warble of lambda equations and binary sets of numbers.

Last night Kristen (with her husband Steve in accompaniment) warbled something far different than lambda equations. Sweet and lilting, her voice strayed between a whisper and song. It was quiet and full in a way not dissimilar from her manner of speaking.

I bumped into her this morning as she was making her way toward coffee, her skirt stitched with swatches of fabric outlining an owl basking in the moon.

In addition to her fieldwork, Kristen also leads workshops in teaching people how to observe wildlife. Once you know what to look for, you don’t need many more tools. So much depends simply on abandoning preconceptions and investing the time to make the observations.

Kristen’s expertise begs a pet question: Did other species of birds express the same social complexity as the corvids?

It doesn’t take much to get a trained wildlife biologist going so fast that you can’t keep up with her.

The corvids are incredibly complicated, she says. They have intricate language and distinct vocalizations. She went on to describe how many species have song patterns that sound identical and repetitive to us. If you examine a spectrograph, however, you can see that these songs are chocked with microtones that are undetectable to our ears, but signal a range of meanings and references to the song birds themselves. Despite our manifold abilities, we perceive only a limited range of sound, essentially moving through the world with mufflers on. She goes on to explain how certain species of hawks hunt cooperatively and that each hawk is trained to fill a specific role: chasing, banking, cornering, going in for the kill, which they fulfill every time.

All the while as she talks, Kristen parses her sentences with the sweet chipper of bird songs, as if she herself was some hybrid genetically engineered species.

But not all birds communicate with songs, she says, and she talks about the condors, the carrion vultures that don’t have much vocal expression (at least that we presently know about), but instead demonstrate rich and complex gestural displays. As they reintroduce the condors to the wild, they bring in wild condors to tutor the young in the complex code of visual signals. The mentor condors teach the fledgelings a language that is particular to that set of birds. When at last reintroduced, the young have been known to seek out the training condors. When found, they repeat the gestures that they have been taught, including what amounts to a spread winged bow, as if expressing a kind of abeyance to the creature that taught them to be wild.

So much for coffee. Proof, perhaps, that we are, in fact, at the Planet Bluegrass Song School.

Say Yes

You know that bucket list fantasy you might have, that one day you’ll get up on a stage in New York, let’s say, and sing with Sweet Honey in the Rock?

It kind of happened this morning. 150 songwriters and musicians sat groggy and expectant as Dr. Ysaye Barnwell just off from nearly a quarter century with the Rock, ambled up and took a seat in all her massive self.

From the moment she presents herself, you can’t help but think that this is what a fully actualized person must look and feel like: passionate, brave, mindfully scolding, patient, of brilliant intellect, and even greater heart.

You all get in a circle, she orders. We need to be in a circle for this. Two deep, bass to the left, sopranos on the far right. No matter the circle was three deep, and who knows if people were sitting in the right place.

As musicians you all only need to know how to count to four, she declares. Sometimes six. But we’re going to count to eight. It goes like this: one, one two one, one two, three, two, one, she sings. And so on. We’re going up to eight. With that she launches.

Man, you guys sound terrible, she announces when we conclude in something slightly more than a disorganized jumble. Again, she says, but this time instead of singing the number four, I want all of you to clap. And off she leads us. And then again, this time in round and then faster. Succeeding or failing at this exercise ceases to have meaning.

Which leads to the second lesson. Why are we here? Why is Mazie here at a weeklong song workshop in the Rockies? Why are any of us here?

Dr. Barnwell has us sing a quodlibet which, she explains, has two meanings. The first is a legal argument of which she knows little about. The second is a song in which different melodies (and even different lyrics) are sung in counterpoint to one another.

My soul is anchored in the Lord, sings one group.

Lord, I done done, sings another.

And through it all Dr. Barnwell begins to weave us together with her own voice.

Her three octave range seems to stretch out as she pitches notes to the highest soprano and then back down to whatever the basses can muster. Within minutes she has 150 people singing in different keys, different lyrics in round that merges into a a tidal chorus.

Lord. I done done. Lord I done done. Lord I done done what you told me to do.

If only we all could say that.

Say yes, Barnwell counsels. Don’t matter what it is. Just say yes. You may not know what they’re asking you to do, and you may not think you know how to do it. But don’t worry. You all will figure it out.