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B Flat Minor Seventh Flat Five

a sharp as brittle as glass Susan and Lisa Above Refugio
spikes strikes oiled wood
tie the ground below
a rose bubbled bottle

easy flats as surf foams
loosen smiles and sea
splashes rock dome
circled cutwater

as soft as flurry breeze
whistles and leaves
as hushed as memory
conjurors breathe

as down inside the chord
fingers fasten figure
for suggestions
in fretted spaces

as sluice and mosey walk
the line above the ocean
in single lens reflex
in frame free accord

James Joyce’s Guitar Chord in the 1915 Ottocaro Weiss Photo

What guitar chord is James Joyce playing in this photo?

The original photo, taken by Ottocaro Weiss, in 1915, is housed in Cornell’s James Joyce collection, in an exhibit in a glass closet titled “Poetry and Music.” I first saw the photo of Joyce playing the guitar years ago in the Ellmann biography, and I cut it out and pinned it over my desk somewhere, but I’ve since lost that copy.

Fingers to stray on Joyce’s guitar again after its restoration,” an article by Terence Killeen in the March 22, 2012 Irish Times, discusses the restoration of Joyce’s guitar and contains a fascinating video clip of the luthier at work on the guitar. Gary Southwell, the luthier, guesses, based on the finger wear on the fretboard, that Joyce probably was not a “fantastic” guitarist because the wear suggests mostly first position, standard chord forms: “He wasn’t all over the fingerboard.”

Can we tell from the photograph what guitar chord Joyce is fingering? Assuming his index finger holds the root note, then he’s playing a 1-b5 on the bass strings. If the root is an F, then he’s playing an F-B. But his ring finger appears to be positioned directly over the second fret, so it’s hard to tell if he’s fingering a D or a Db. But anyway a closer look suggests that his index finger is not on the 6th low E string, but on the 5th string, playing a Bb note, the middle finger then (still a flat 5) playing an E note, and the ring finger playing a Db note. But I can’t tell what frets he’s fingering, and at first glance, I assumed he was fingering an Em7 chord (guitar spelling: E, B, E, G, D, E = 1, 5, 1, b3, b7, 1).

In any case, Killeen, in the video, seems to say that Joyce is not actually playing the guitar in the photo. I’m not sure why he thinks not. Joyce looks relaxed in the photo, leaning a bit back and away, probably the better to see his left hand fingering, given his poor eyesight. The thumb of his right hand is hidden behind his palm, but it could certainly be plucking the 6th, 5th, or 4th string. Maybe he was not playing the guitar during the photo because he had to hold still for the photographer. But he’s clearly fingering a chord. Or is he? Again, his index and ring fingers appear to be hovering directly over the frets, not slightly behind them.

I recently acquired a hardback copy of “Giacomo Joyce” (Viking Press, reset and reissued May, 1968), introduction and notes by Richard Ellmann, and was surprised and delighted to find the Weiss photo of Joyce and his guitar used as a frontispiece, spread across two pages.

Perhaps the chord Joyce is fingering in the Weiss photo is from Finnegans Wake, a pun-chord, a humorous play on notes.

Follow up 8 Sep 13: Check out guitarist Gerald Garcia’s Joyce guitar analysis (read through post and scroll through comments section).

Hootenanny Revisited: Photo Essay of Old Songbooks

“As Woody Guthrie advised those who heard and sang his Songs to Grow On, ‘Now I don’t want to see you use these songs to divide nor split your family all apart. I mean, don’t just buy this book and take it home and keep it to yourself. Get your whole family into the fun. Get papa. Get mama. Get brother. Get sister. Get aunty… The friends. The neighbors. Everybody.'” Mose Asch quoting Woody is found in Asch’s “Foreword” to Pete Seeger’s “American Favorite Ballads: Tunes and Songs as Sung by Pete Seeger.” Moses said, “It was not until after World War II that young people in all walks of life and all parts of the United States made use of this folk music tradition and adapted it to their way of expressing their feelings and of tying up the past to their future…Now it is up to the children and grandchildren to take it from here.”  But that was 1961, and those children now have children and grandchildren of their own.

Oak Publications put out all kinds of folk music books in the 1960’s. Ramblin’ Boy and other songs by Tom Paxton was one of the best. My copy, well worn with taped binding, is a second printing of the book first published in 1965.

Says Tom in his “Introduction,” “I have a habit – the habit of sitting in Joe’s on West Fourth Street or the kitchen of the Gaslight…trying to carry on the work that Woody began.” 2012 is Woody Guthrie’s centenary.

Paxton, in his intro., wonders if the songs he’s written are folk songs. He says, “…it takes years to know for sure.”

A guy by the name of Jerry Silverman put together several instruction books. The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide came out in 1962, and was followed by The Art of the Folk-Blues Guitar in 1964. These books contain chord diagrams; traditional music notation and tablature; lyrics; photographs of players and scenes; and comments on the songs and how they might be played.

Happy Traum was another instruction book anthologist and player. His The Blues Bag came out in 1968, and remains an outstanding introduction to blues guitar song playing: includes lyrics, tab and classical notation, study notes, photographs, and additional resources information.

By far the most curious song book in my collection is Dylan: Words to His Songs. There is no publisher named, no price. It appears to be a bootleg project. Here is what the introduction page says, completely: in the upper left hand corner, “november 1971”; then, centered: “this book has no pretentions [sic] but to offer you the words to dylan’s songs including the ones released on his albums, singles and broadside recordings and a gathering of songs released on the white records: daddy rolling stone, great white wonder and little white wonder. you will find an alphabetical index in the back of the book”; and in the bottom left hand corner: “illustrated by holy cat.” The book is organized by chapters corresponding to Dylan’s albums, beginning with “march 1962 bob dylan,” and ending with “nov. 1970 new morning,” but that is followed by pages marked “broadside,” “singles,” and “other recordings.” The book is 79 pages in length, and 8 & 1/2 by 11 in size. The text is set in basic, pica-like, manual typewriter font. For years, my copy travelled with my old ES neighbor and friend Jon, but it’s been back home for awhile now. It’s falling apart, the pages falling out, songs spilling out, the way I think Woody would have enjoyed.

For anyone planning a hootenanny or a hoedown, a few songs from any of these books might play and sing happily well. Be sure you invite the children and the grandchildren.

Related Post: Schopenhauer’s Blues; or, On Jazz & Folk Music, from Hoedown to Hootenanny: A Happening Post

The Glass Guitar Ceiling: Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”

The women’s glass ceiling, that invisible, clandestine barrier that separates any upper economic echelon of men from their connected but not equal women counterparts, apparently extends to guitar playing, as evidenced by the latest Rolling Stone list, “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (Issue 1145: Dec. 8, 2011). There are only two female guitarists on the list, Joni Mitchell (# 75), and Bonnie Raitt (# 89). Joni Mitchell was # 72 in the 2003 RS draft, Joan Jett # 87 (Jett didn’t make the 2011 cut). Lists, of course, are made for argument, so why aren’t there more women guitarists on the list?

But it should come as no surprise to find that one woman’s floor is not another man’s ceiling, for the disparity in nearly every correlation shows women living on floors far below men in the economic castle. The gender income gap has narrowed in recent years, according to US Census data (see chart), but the disparity that still exists can no longer be attributed to causes like the so-called pipeline factor (that women MBA’s, e.g., relatively new cohorts, need more time to assimilate into the system):

Source: DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-239, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2011.

A recent study in Catalyst dispels the pipeline and other myths that would explain male-female, gender-income disparity. Worse, the Catalyst study shows that playing louder, faster, or more power chords isn’t likely to increase the struggling female guitarist’s chances to enter the ranks of the top 100. According to the Catalyst study, women fall behind men in job advancement regardless of what promotional strategies the woman employs. In other words, these are women who know how to play the game, but playing the same chords as the men play doesn’t seem to garner the same audience. A 2010 Catalyst census shows that 92% of Fortune 500 company top earners are men, and only 14% of women are executive officers. So what’s a poor girl to do? To make matters worse yet, the Atlantic on-line just posted that “68% of the sons of the top 1% work at their Dad’s company.” The Atlantic post links to a recent study, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Employers,” and a blog post by Miles Corak, one of the study’s authors. Says Corak, of the elite nepotism, one with harmful potential, in the conclusion to his blog post: “If the rich leverage economic power to gain political power they can also skew broader public policy choices—from the tax system to the education system—to the benefit of their offspring. This will surely start eroding the belief that labour markets are fair, and that anyone can aspire to the top.”

So what women guitarists in particular did we feel were unfairly excluded by the RS list? Here are some suggestions: Emily Remler, Mary Osborne, Ana Popovic, Elizabeth Cotten, Sharon Isbin, Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ida Presti.

And the ladies were not the only slighted guitarists omitted from the RS list. We would be remiss if we did not augment the argument with some of our favorite male guitarist no-shows: Gabor Szabo, Bill Frisell, John Williams, Leo Brouwer, Herb Ellis, David Rawlings, Leo Kottke.

No doubt you have your own greatest list: “God bless the child that’s got his own.”

Related: Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline

Where Listening Gives Rise to Silence and Fizzles

There lived in our neighborhood some time ago a locally famous pianist who enjoyed great demand for piano lessons from parents for their children. The demand was such that a prospective student had to interview with the teacher. One of the interview “questions” involved listening to chords: the child identified a chord as “happy” or “sad.” Children unable to pass this interview question eliminated themselves from consideration. It’s been some time since I’ve talked to the pianist, but I’ve wondered from time to time what emotion a Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5) might equate to, or an Eb7b9 (E flat 7 flat 9, as an inside chord, without the 5th, on the guitar).

How one distinguishes sounds, as in the experiment discussed over at Language Log, might explain musical preferences. Listeners who prefer a country western song, such as Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (and its many covers), over a short piece by John Cage, might not hear sounds the same way the Cage fan distinguishes sounds, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”) – as both Williams and Cage would probably agree.

The Language Log listening experiment might also explain reading preferences, why some readers, for example, prefer Charles Dickens to Samuel Beckett (Dickens writes in minor keys, invoking pathos and bathos and every other kind of oath, Beckett in jovial major modes with flurries of flats falling like ash in downward spiraling scales).

Emergence might be at work here, too (the entire piece can’t be predicted by any one of its chords), or simply that our ears sometimes grow tired or lazy, as do our tongues and our eyes. This is what Cage explored in Silence, and what Beckett meant by Fizzles.

Where jazz and literature get encaged

The 2009 Believer music issue (July/August 09) arrived yesterday, and there’s a perceptive interview with jazz guitarist Pat Martino:

“BLVR: What do you think jazz’s place in American culture is today?”

“PM: The only thing I can be definitive with is an example. Take the students of jazz in our conservatories and universities. They’re studying harmony and theory, which is not jazz, that’s music. Number two, they’re studying and transcribing artists of the past – past cultures, or stages of our culture, and that is not the reality of today. So it [jazz] is not alive the way it used to be. And they’re studying something that is encaged, and they’re analyzing it to participate in something that no longer exists” (p. 73).

I was reminded of Louis Menand’s recent piece in the New Yorker (June 8 & 15, 2009), on creative writing programs: “Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of ‘the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.’ That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside” (p. 108).

And John Cage: “A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell. Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in” (M, Writings ’67 – ’72, p. 212).

Lord I’m 500 words away from home

Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.

Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.

“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.

Hank Williams sings Huck Finn

“At the center of liberal education,” Northrop Frye gives us in “Ethical Criticism,” the second essay in “Anatomy of Criticism,” an attempt to create a science of literary theory, “something surely ought to get liberated” (p. 93). So what gets liberated?

“Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” Frye says. “Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally: the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music” (p. 97). The writer is not alone, after all. In fact, “the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (p. 97).

Not being alone means belonging to a community. Frye calls this “social aspect” of poetry archetype, by which he means “a typical or recurring image…which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience. And as the archetype is the communicable symbol, archetypal criticism is primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication. By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into the body of poetry as a whole” (p. 99).

We find a working example of Frye’s subject in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit song by Hank Williams, written in 1949, and since covered by numerous musicians across the musical spectrum, the original lyrics often amplified, or augmented, (the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has recorded instrumental versions on “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian”; and “Ghost Town”).

But what has all this got to do with Huckleberry Finn? In chapter I of Mark Twain’s novel, we find Huck, worn out by the parlor room evening with the widow and Miss Watson, alone in his room, trying “to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.” Hank removes Huck’s superstition and softens the tone, but the sentiment remains: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.”

So what’s so liberating? The knowledge that you are not alone, for one thing. We are encouraged by Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” to suggest both that Huck is a precursor to Hank, and that Hank changes our reading of Huck: “…the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. …The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, p. 201).