Posts Tagged ‘Notlob’

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From “Buy Local” to “Goodbye, Local”

15 January 2013

I admit that this week’s post is something of a departure, in that it deals largely with a landmark near my home base in Beantown, a subject that might strike some of my far-flung readers as parochial. Bear with me, however, as I believe there are universal lessons to be drawn from this story.

Sandys_Music_Seen_from_SideThis past Saturday morning, I got word through Jeff Boudreau’s informative notloB Music blog that a Cambridge musical institution, Sandy’s Music, was closing. I was saddened by the news and thought I should stop by the shop to spend a few last bucks and say farewell. However, when I got to Sandy’s some hours later, I was shocked to find the store already mostly disassembled.

Members of shop owner Sandy Sheehan’s extended family were busily packing up the remaining merchandise and hauling a ragtag miscellany of cases, stands and instruments up from the basement.

Sandy has been in poor health for some time now and therefore was unable to participate in the process of winding up the business that he started back in 1970. Located on Massachusetts Avenue midway between those famed institutions of higher learning, The Plough and the Stars and The Cantab Lounge— I mean Harvard and MIT— Sandy’s Music has served as a funky, cramped oasis for lovers of traditional American, British and Celtic music for over forty years. It was the kind of place where you could go to buy a ukulele for yer kid or an extra E-string for yer guitar and wind up having a 45-minute discussion about autoharp makers.

Family_help_to_clear_out_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThat’s because presiding over the whole shambolic enterprise was the unassuming, owl-like presence of Sheehan. Were someone to write “The Ballad of Sandy Sheehan,” it could serve as an anthem for the whole Folk Revival generation. Sheehan and his brother were born in Canada but adopted by a couple in the Pioneer Valley, north of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man, Sheehan migrated to Cambridge, no doubt seeking to connect with others who shared his passion for traditional instruments and music. It was the 1960’s and the heyday of “group homes” in Cambridge. In these communal households, residents shared everything from cooking to political philosophies. Sheehan lived for decades in one of the most durable and renowned group homes, an old house known simply as Old Joe Clark.

As the name of his longstanding abode implies, traditional music has permeated Sheehan’s life. He opened his store to pickers, hosting an old-time session that ran for decades on Monday nights. Jon Gersh, a friend who led the session for many years, described Sandy’s as a “space for people to meet, and new people to try out traditional music in a totally safe setting.”

Chair_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThough he is said to play a little banjo, Sheehan’s instrument of choice is the turntable, and it has been through the airwaves as much as anything that he has been able to share his deep knowledge of music with the public. Starting in 1986, Sheehan has hosted a show called “Traditional Folk” on WUMB in Boston. There are few pleasures to compare with driving along the Boston waterfront of an evening to the accompaniment of some chestnut from The Skillet Lickers or The Blue Sky Boys, followed by Sheehan’s succinct commentary in his distinctive burr. During Sheehan’s convalescence, the show has lived on through reruns. Until Sheehan is back on his feet, it will be hosted by Gersh.

When he wasn’t installed behind the microphone or the counter of his store, Sheehan could often be found in the lobby of a concert hall or in the mess hall of a music camp, selling music and instru-ments. His wide-ranging involvement in the New England music scene earned him a Boston Bluegrass Heritage Award in 2009. He once told me that he would have liked to have gotten out to see and sell at more events, but that too often required him to close the shop on weekends. “That’s when we make the big bucks,” he said with a dry laugh.

In truth, of course, Sheehan never realized much money from his passion, yet his store endured, despite decades of tumult in the music business. In closing at this time, Sandy’s Music joins a long list of local record, sheet music and instrument vendors who have recently thrown in the towel, a sad parade that begs us to ask, why now?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s stores like Sandy’s were able to fend off the assault from big box stores like Guitar Center (for instruments) and HMV (for records) by focusing on hard-to-find, local and used merchandise. Of course, they also provided a much more personable shopping experience.

Truck_in_front_of_Sandys_Music_Cambridge

In recent years, however, many of the stores have been done in by the Information Revolution. What’s interesting is that the internet picked these shops clean from two opposing directions. On the one hand, Amazon and Ebay gave customers access to a globalized marketplace that pushed prices down close to wholesale levels. On the other hand, Craigslist and the like provided ways for buyers and sellers of instruments to connect locally without the need of a middleman (unless you consider Craig and his list a middleman). Some of the small shops have managed to maintain a toehold by working their own internet sales very aggressively. Sandy’s Music was doing that a bit, too, but of course it’s very hard to be “heard” in the hurlyburly of the worldwide web.

I don’t see any real way of stopping the march of time, regardless of whether the wheels are turning in the direction of progress or decay, but milestones like Sandy’s Music closing give us an opportunity to reflect on what’s lost amid all the change. Small music stores haven’t just given us a place where you could seek out and talk with people like Sheehan who were knowledgeable about music; they provided day jobs for people who dedicated their lives to art and culture. It has never been easy for people to make a living in music, whether as a promoter, collector, DJ or performer. Stores like Sandy’s provided a way for such folk to devote themselves fully to music they loved. The shuttering of these stores therefore impoverishes the music scene not simply because it leaves us with fewer business outlets, but because it deprives the people who keep that scene alive of a livelihood.

Flyer_to_Benefit_Sandy_Sheehan-Sandys_Music

Although Sandy’s Music is no more, Sandy abides. Unfortunately, he currently abides in a rehab center, and that of course is very costly. That’s why Gerst and a big circle of Sandy’s friends and supporters have organized a benefit show on his behalf. It’s coming up on January 22nd at Johnny D’s in Somerville, so now is the time to lock in yer reservations. A cavalcade of performers will be on hand, including The Dixie Butterhounds, The Hi-Tone Ramblers, Lorraine and Bennett Hammond, Put Your Hoe Down, Laura Smith and a small army of banjo players. On that last note, you are encouraged to bring your “weirdest banjo” and join the “Dreaded Banjo Orchestra.” An event not to be missed! With luck, Sandy himself will be on hand.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Jeff Boudreau and Jon Gerst for much of the info included here.

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Waltzes Old and New

11 October 2012

Amid the scores of performances we at Team Curly have shared with you over the years, we’re not sure that any of them are waltzes. We’re therefore going to redress this shortcoming with a double dose of waltzes— let’s call it “the waltz in two steps.” First up, here’s a contemporary waltz that songwriter Emy Phelps wrote about two beloved canines:

Though it’s centuries old, the waltz is still a young musical form when compared to the ancient Anglo-Irish balladry and fiddle tunes that undergird so much of bluegrass. Even so, waltzes have been part of bluegrass from the start. Bill Monroe would leaven his sets of hard-driving bluegrass with a waltz or two, and he claimed that the first composition to which he ever set lyrics was a waltz, “Kentucky Waltz,” which he recorded in 1945. That was back in those prehistoric times when the primordial soup of country music encompassed the sundry offshoots of mountain and cowboy music. Indeed, it was around the same time that a couple of purveyors of Western Swing, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, penned a waltz that today is a favorite of many bluegrass bands. Here’s a lovely version of their song, “The Tennessee Waltz” as performed by Hot Mustard:

According to Wade Hall’s biography of Pee Wee King, there is a direct connection between “Tennessee Waltz” and bluegrass, for it was in fact by listening to Monroe’s just-released “Kentucky Waltz” that King and Stewart were inspired to write their song. Small world.

Of course, at the heart of the waltz is a dance, and I’ve often wondered if the enduring popularity of waltzes in today’s bluegrass scene owes something to ongoing cross-pollination with swing dance music on one side and contra dance music on the other. Just a theory. As always, yer input is most welcome.

Both groups featured in this week’s videos have been busy of late. Hot Mustard has just released a debut CD, Hot Mustard Live at Mole Hill Theater that nicely captures the group’s old school charm. You can buy a copy at the band’s website. Over the summer, Phelps and Anger played gigs across the country. To check on upcoming shows, seek them out on Facebook or visit Darol Anger’s website. Phelps has a new CD entitled Look Up, Look Down. You can hear excerpts from it on SoundCloud.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Evening Prayer Blues

31 August 2012

Anger, Phelps & Gilchrist Up Close

Fiddler Darol Anger and singer-songwriter Emy Phelps have been playing a bunch of shows on both coasts over the past six months. These performances have featured an assortment of talented friends, but one of Anger and Phelps’ more constant fellow-travelers has been the mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. Anger, Gilchrist and Phelps played an entirely acoustic house concert in Boston last April— no amplification whatsoever. As the sun set on a gentle spring day, the trio offered up this rendition of the haunting instrumental, “Evening Prayer Blues:”

As Anger noted in introducing this piece, “Evening Prayer Blues” started out life as a signature tune of harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey. Bailey, who has the distinction of being the first African-American member of the Grand Ole Opry, has resurfaced in the vast, bubbling cauldron of folk culture of late. Some months back, we shared a clip of Tony Trischka, another string innovator in the Anger vein, playing a “foxchase” that he had penned after listening to a recording of Bailey playing a similar tune.

But Bailey’s influence on folks in bluegrass and traditional string music is by no means a recent phenomenon. At some point Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass and fellow Opry member, picked up “Evening Prayer Blues,” and he recorded it late in his career. Bailey’s original sounded rather like a field holler translated to the harmonica. In Monroe’s hands, however, the piece was refashioned into one of those spooky fiddle tunes that marked his last years. Anger mentioned learning a variant of Monroe’s version from guitar ace David Grier. If you want to create a neat chain of influence from Bailey to Anger, it’s worth remembering that Grier’s dad was a Bluegrass Boy, touring with Monroe back in the 1960’s.

In their version, Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist let the fiddle and mandolin engage in a dialogue. Anger is of course one of the guiding lights in contemporary fiddling, while Gilchrist has built an impressive resumé in recent years by playing with bluegrass greats like Tony Rice and Peter Rowan. As they navigate their way through this tune, both Anger and Gilchrist acknowledge its antecedents while also bringing to it a deft and stylish touch that is their own.

notloB Music

Obviously, Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist deserve most of the credit for the spell cast by their version of “Evening Prayer Blues,” but the location doesn’t hurt. This concert took place in the intimate confines of the colonial-era Loring-Greenough House in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. It was part of notloB Music, an ongoing series organized by Jeff Boudreau. I love house concerts, and the Loring-Greenough House is a particularly inviting space. Sitting in such proximity to great musicians as they perform always gives me a profound case of the Warm and Fuzzies. As I offer up my own evening prayer of thanks for being allowed to commune so closely with the muses, I’m also reminded that, for tens of thousands of years, this was the only way that music was consumed. No wonder it feels so right. Boudreau recently announced the line-up for the fall notloB series. If you are in the Boston area, you should check it out.

Look Up, Look Down

Phelp and Anger’s tour coincides with the release of their new CD project, Look Up, Look Down. The album is a collection of Phelps’ compositions that Anger produced. We’ll be exploring a lot more stuff from the Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist show in the coming weeks. Along the way, we’ll be able dig into some of that new material. Stay tuned…

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. Big thanks to Paul Villanova (camera) and Lauren Scully (camera) for their help with this series of videos.

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