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Back Story Folk Guitar

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This Yamaha Red Label FG-180 guitar was probably built in 1969. The woman in the guitar store next to the Loyola Theatre in Westchester said Jimmy Webb had been in the week before and picked up this very Yamaha and played a few chords. She couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Jimmy Webb. It was March, 1970, and I’d just returned from active duty in Forts Bliss and Huachuca. Having talked to some other guitarists, I already knew the FG-180 was the guitar I wanted for the money I had, factory made in Japan, so inexpensive, but playable, reliable, and sound worthy. The guitar, case included, cost $100, a Martin dreadnought knockoff, no extra charge for the Jimmy Webb back story.

A back story is a forward. The forward is not a trailer, nor is it an abstract. The back story never spoils. It’s an appetizer. The back story, moving forward, provides the predicament that explains the current situation. Without a back story, new episodes drift aimlessly and meaninglessly, random dead links. The back story deflates absurdity and fills the reader with hope. The back story is a proposal, a hypothesis, an argument.

My first guitar was a hand-me-down from a neighbor friend, but its neck was broken by an early girlfriend jumping off the top bunk. I then purchased for $25 from an ad in the South Bay Daily Breeze newspaper, a nylon string, plywood top Orlando.

What is the relationship between physicists’ string theories and guitar? The on-line forums for both are full of confusing, contradictory claims, but full of back stories. A guitar often comes with a back story. Several guitar cases were recently spotted for sale in thrift shops, but the guitars were long gone. We might have some idea the age of the universe, but is it old or young, and what does it matter? The Ventura guitar case the guitar shop offered to throw in today shows the wear and tear of travel in a deuce and a half, to Fort Liggett and Camp Roberts and Camp Pendleton, and later trips to gold rush country and various ocean beaches, and not a few years sleeping in a dank basement while the guitar enjoyed an open stand in the living room.

This FG-180 has a spruce, two-piece solid top, mahogany sides, and a two-piece mahogany back. The neck is a thick bar of nato of one piece with the head. The fretboard is one quarter inch thick rosewood. The Yamaha link (above) says the backs were three-piece, but the top and back of this one are both two-piece, book matched. The bridge is rosewood. The FG stands for folk guitar. This one has a thin crack in the back of the head, at the top of the neck.

The top under the bridge has lifted some, and the head crack is a bit worrisome; light or extra-light strings will reduce tension. The FG-180 is now set up with D’Addario XL Chromes, flat wound, jazz light gauge, electric guitar strings. The electric strings when played acoustically don’t produce as loud or deep or full a sound as acoustic strings, but they pop, ping, and twang, “like a steel rail humming” (Pete Seeger, “Hobo’s Lullaby”), and if you do want to plug the guitar into an amplifier, use an old fashion, Dean Markley sound hole fitted pickup.

In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life,” Slavoj Zizek explains how we are seduced by ideology. If the universe has a back story, our present predicament can be explained, even if the explanation makes no sense. The Big Bang is a big back story. When an effect tickles or bites or bombards or floods us, we search for a cause. We reconsider our back stories.

We somehow must work and rework, correct or clarify, our back stories into our instantaneous presentations and performances amid the distractions, commercials, hypes, phobias, click bait, news tsunamis – the whole bafflegab of what’s up now.

Zizi Papacharissi, in “A Networked Self,” appears to understand the ability to “back-story” (to verbalize a noun, to go with the flow, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” as Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) as an adaptation skill, the ability to adapt to changes in social environments, from a supposed fixed state, where the self was assumed to be a character bound in a book with a lineal story, to a fluid self that is constantly seeking its own level, walking on the deck of a small boat, changing with every social interaction, mimicry as a survival technique (elasticity of demand in a social market):

“Narratives about the self have always been performative. That’s what renders aspects of our identity a discourse. What changes is that performativity is augmented through online means of self presentation. And it is this enhanced theatricality, afforded by certain online platforms (SNSs, and various forms of blogs and microblogs), that individuals find most appealing.

Sociability is practiced to the network, via the network. Performances of the self enable sociability, and these socially oriented performances must carry meaning for multiple publics and audiences without sacrificing one’s true sense of self. These polysemic performances not only contain many layers of meaning, but are remixed and remixable – sampling digital traces of identity to piece together performances that are further remixed and re-interpreted by multiple audiences and publics.”

That could be used as a back story that may now explain the emergence of the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. The revival, originally acted out in small coffee shops, living rooms, and campus settings, was at first minimally commercial. Few expected to earn a life-long living from singing folk song covers, but that wasn’t the goal, and the identity of the performer was inseparable from the identity of the audience. The audience participated in the performance. But that participation wasn’t a surge of fans aspiring to go on stage. There often wasn’t a stage, and each time a song was sung it was renewed in an altered form. Many of these performances were not recorded. They were passed on as living songs. Folk music is chameleon and transferable.

One of my older sisters sang in a high school folk group, “The Travelling Trio.” Their travels did not take them out of the Los Angeles Basin. They sang in living rooms and the local high school gym. Imagine a young Judy Garland singing Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” But unlike my sister, whose voice flowed like melted chocolate over fresh strawberries, your voice sounds like a galvanized plumbing pipe rattling in the wall with trapped air bubbles. Such a voice might confuse Tom Waits with Hedy West. Still, your Kentucky grandfather played the spoons and the harmonica, to add more filler to your back story, and you were an easy target for the music bug early on.

But a singing gig was not to become part of your back story. You played finger style. You liked the guitarist John Fahey, saw him play at Long Beach State and again at the Ash Grove. Not only did he not sing, on stage he never said a word. You were playing what you pretended was folk blues and fell into jazz. You took up what you called jazz guitar, though not everyone necessarily heard it that way.

Classical guitar lessons are useful for a few years. Your fingers already know how to play, but your brain doesn’t always know what they are doing. Over time, you’ll use up several teachers who will walk you through a couple of Aaron Shearer books, and a few of the Frederick Noad books, and teach you the Segovia scale method (which you might later hear Joe Pass dis, along with the number system). Your first teacher will probably introduce you to Leo Brouwer and his “Etudes Simples.” The Cuban composer’s short pieces are of course not all that simple, but at least you don’t have to sing. You’ll learn to read, slowly, like a stuttering primary school student, and learn enough to work through a Dionisio Aguado book, “Studi Per Chitarra,” on your own. You’ll learn by heart the old cliché: “The guitar is the easiest of instruments to play poorly, the most difficult to play well.” You’ll return to jazz and folk and find your breath and take solace in another cliché: “Close enough for jazz.”

Close enough substitutes feeling for the pursuit of perfection which as Cornel West explains in “Examined Life” is the romantic road to disappointment. So it was in the spirit of close enough that I answered an invitation from Sunshine Dixon to read a poem at an artists’ reception in the campus library, but I suggested that instead of reading a poem I might bring my old FG-180 guitar and sing a folk song. I worked up a folk version of “Gospel Plow,” using Dylan’s version on his first album as inspiration. If a recording pops up on-line somewhere I’ll add a link to the back story or upload a piece of it to SoundCloud. Maybe sister Peggy Ann will tune in.

And if you’d like to read more about the artists’ reception, Sunshine and I collaborated on a short article now on-line here, already part of a back story.

Backstage

One Night At Flobe’s Pizza Below Frye’s Apartment

Flobe’s Pizza below my friend Frye’s apartment one night last April was puzzlingly rowdy, so we climbed down to see what was up. The place was steaming, crowded, people sitting on the ceiling, hot cheese slipping, falling pepperoni pieces and mushrooms, while a string band fiddled. The open mic was live, with Pepper, Herb, and Fava’s trio in line on the sign-in sheet to perform Joe’s “Surf Surge.”

Frye and I occupied empty seats at the end of a rambunctious table in the corner, and Joe got in line to order some pizza and orange soda. The porthole sidewalk window next to our table was occluded with steam, the string band zipping, and a couple without a table was dancing, one with the pizza the other with the beer. Suddenly, Willa and Raymond took the stage with ukulele and tambourine.

They sang of an old photo of Joan Didion sitting in a Corvette, holding a cigarette. A young man riding a piebald pony rode up to the takeout bar and ordered a veggie pizza with extra garlic and sauce. He fed his pony a breadstick. Joe came with the orange soda and said the pizza was a forty-minute wait. He poured us each a glass from the pitcher, sparkling yellow, not as orange as we had expected.

Joe sat by the porthole orb. He saw flashing lights, paisley globes filled with silver and gold light. The bubbles flew like electrified parameciums escaping down the side of the window, along its tarnished curved brass edge. Big Dada announced Joe’s pizza would not be ready until September. By then no one would be reading poetry any longer than a tweet, and that before they realized what they were hearing.

By the time Joe’s name was called (“Pizza ready for Joe!”), he had grown a pony tail and Frye had gone bald. Pepper, Herb, and Fava were on tour somewhere in the Midwest. I had tired of waiting and moved back down to Southern California to be near the beach. Every day I ride my bicycle along the Strand, watching the surfers come and go without a thought for pizza or poetry.

Baseball Pitch Sequence Tracking and Guitar Chord and Scale Illustrations

Watching the baseball playoffs, garage and basement guitar aficionados may notice the similarity between baseball pitch tracking and guitar chord and scale illustrations. A kind of visual metaphor conflates the two methods of viewing a sequence stilled for analysis.

The following tables illustrate a five pitch sequence that parallels a B minor 7th flat 5 chord. The first two pitches were high, and were called balls. The second two, rising fast balls, were swung on and missed. The third pitch looked good. The fourth pitch drifted inside as well as high. The count is two balls and two strikes:

1 2
3 4

The fifth pitch is high and outside, and the batter lunges for the ball and misses for strike three on the open 6th string:

5 1 2
3 4

The sequence of pitches played on the guitar might sound something like this, strike three sounding a muted bass note:

Punk Villanelle

but we really do careTele
stars emerge crash & collide
with the click of the snare

what the lyrics say we can’t hear
lufu songs behind us hide
but we do really care

what’s yr name the color of yr hair
right this way come inside
with the snack of the snare

saw you out at the county fairNo Thru Access
no thru access past the tide
blue mudflats of real care

have so much no need to share
in white spotlight gone walleyed
with Apollinaire’s uncanny stare

top of wheel a kiss & a prayer
what we missed we never cried
but we really do really care
with the tears of the snare

Bonus Bootleg Lines:

off yr rocker no way no scareText
all these lines eventually elide
with the test of the snare

with Apollinaire’s polished care
where strings in cushions hide
& release the strained snare

Abaft the Blues Fest

Red-orange earworms admonish taptoo! fashion,
now clear the drum is an old, beat suitcase
rigged with foot pedal, and, too, there they are,
tin bells on his curled toes, as literal as pencil lead,
as calloused as an oak pew hymnal.

Lavender fresh, she sang at Hop’s Hootenanny,
sipped mint juleps from a food cart pulled
by a calico cat in zither shade by a stream
under an old willow, but the bell pull string broke
under the weight of his monolog cartogram.

On top of it, academic aristocracy whizzed
by dressed in pressed berets and scholarly drafts –
what difference they followed the leader or not?
Collectors yodeled passwords, unlocking a juke joint,
and raspberry chords popped up oily fishes.

No need now to call placid plumber, three blue
hydrangeas wilting in bath humid heat,
down by the river, down by the wash,
down by the singing and the top posh posts
written with plush plumes of lacks and noods.

Safe sound spillway falls, noise overflows,
ears carp and loud lips cop bad press,
but dolce glissando this urgently close still
makes some sense, and at the first aid tent
they polish their moonstone eyes.

Paste fast food milk turns cast iron sour,
and butter curdles her chlorine-yellow hair
as they stuff bitter newspapers with trust,
dogpaddling thru pull duck old cobwebs,
but empty, golden juke boxes near finish him.

On Line 15 on the way back home, the night
quietly spinning, the river sparkling crinkly
as the bus crosses the Hawthorne Bridge,
a lone accordion pulls and lulls images only
understood asleep or listening to music.

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

Roddy Doyle’s “The Guts”

They were sitting in the living room, sharing stuff.
– Your man Roddy Doyle has a new book.
– I don’t have a man.
– It’s just an expression. It’s Irish.
– Are there any Sheas in the new book?
– That’s El Porto Irish.
– What’s my man’s new book about?
– Your man Jimmy Rabbitte is back.
– How old is Jimmy, now?
– Pullin’ 50.
– I might have known. Does my man have a woman?
– He does, and children, too.
– Sounds like a family affair.
– And Imelda is back, too.
– Who is Imelda?
– That’s what Aoife wanted to know.
– What?
– Aoife, Jimmy’s wife. It’s an Irish name. I had to look it up. It’s pronounced EE-fa, long e followed by f then schwa, the a the schwa sound, you know? The upside-down e.
– And is the F word back as well?
– It is, but somewhat diminished. Though it climbs toward the end. Not a main character in this one like it was in The Commitments, the F word.
– So Jimmy’s a wife, then?
– And children.
– Is it good, then, your man’s new book?
– It is. I’ve never read anything by Roddy Doyle that was not good.
– But didn’t Roddy dis your man James Joyce?
– Roddy Doyle did not dis James Joyce. He was merely pointin’ out there are other Irish writers besides James Joyce.
– Includin’ Roddy Doyle.
– Roddy uses the Joyce style quote marks, no quote marks, the dash to start off dialog, you know? And he’s a master at the stream of talk.
– Is there music in this one, like in The Commitments?
– There’s music, yes.
– Is Van Morrison in the new book?
– No, I don’t recall mention of Van the man.
– Your man Roddy probably thinks of Van Morrison the same way he thinks of Joyce.
– Maybe. I don’t know. But I get your point.
– So what does Jimmy Rabbitte do in Roddy Doyle’s new book?
– Come here. I want you to read it, Roddy Doyle’s new book.
– Come here?
– It’s another Irish expression, apparently. But I think it’s only used when you’re on the phone. It’s like a head’s up you’re going to get some request for a favor, or it’s a signal that something serious is about to be said. I’m not sure. But like Jimmy’s on the phone to his Da –
– His who?
– His Da, his Dad, his father. Fathers are what happen to young lads. And Jimmy says, Come here. Can I borrow your car for the weekend?
– He’s pushin’ 50 and he’s after borrowing his father’s car?
– Isn’t that very El Porto Irish of you. They’ve only one rig, and they need two to drive to one of those outdoor concert festivals.
– So music is what this new Roddy Doyle book is all about?
– No, not first and foremost. But come here. I want you to read it.
– You haven’t told me what it’s about yet.
– Remember that movie we watched, The Pope’s Toilet?
– No. Is your man the new pope in Roddy’s new book?
– Never mind. Your eyes are a pretty blue, a powdery, baby blue.
– Compliments will get you nowhere.
– Fair play. Jimmy has no friends, either.
– I might have known. You and James and Jimmy and Roddy should all get together for a pint.
– Wouldn’t that be something?
– You think your man Roddy reads your blog? You going to post a review of his new book?
– He first self-published The Commitments, you know.
– But he’s not still self-publishing.
– I guess not.
– You think he reads blogs?
– There’s a funny scene in the new book, where Jimmy goes back to work after being away for a time, and he’s got like hundreds of emails waiting for him, and he deletes all the distractions he’s subscribed to, without looking at them. That’s the Internet. Subscribe to something, like you’re following it, but never look at it except to delete the update. But there’s mention of blog, I think. I forget. But yeah, there’s mention of a blog.
– You usually circle that sort of thing.
– No marginalia in this one, dear. I didn’t want to mess it up for you. Come here. I’m after askin’ you to give it a read.
– Why?
– I don’t know.
– What’s it called, Roddy’s new book?
– The Guts.
– The Guts? So what’s it about, finally, The Guts?
– It’s about courage, maybe, the courage of the ordinary.
– Is courage getting good reviews these days?
– There are plenty of regular reviews of The Guts out there readers can check out. I’m going to post this.
– What?
– Our conversation.
– That ought to nail it.
– I love the ground you walk upon.
– Go away. Go blog or something.

Roddy Doyle, “The Guts,” ISBN 9780670016433 | 336 pages | 23 Jan 2014 | Viking Adult | 6.29 x 9.33in

“Bury My Heart in the Muddy Mississippi”

Dancers with Band The Touch Yous

“Bury My Heart in the Muddy Mississippi”
A Country Music song
Guitar Chords: GAD

(Slow intro with a little lilt)
G                             A
I took my girl to the Friday night dance,
D                                 G
But she said, “I really don’t like to dance.”

(Lively now)
(G) Then some handsome fella
with the (A) swagger of Godzilla,
(D) asked her do you wanna (G) dance,
(G) and the next thing I knew
(A) away they flew.
(D) He’s got her in a (G) trance.

Chorus
G                          A
Hey, Baby, don’t drive me crazy,
D                                                      G
I thought you said you didn’t like to dance.
G                                        A
Well, bury my heart in the muddy Mississippi,
D                                                      G
I thought she said she didn’t like to dance.

So I walked on down and I put my money down
On the counter of the mausoleum,
And I asked the mortician how much it cost to die
But he said I was a buck too short.

Repeat Chorus

Late one night I was stopped at a light,
Revvin’ up my hot rod Ford.
Along comes a Chevy, at the wheel’s my Baby,
Askin’ do I wanna dance.
I took her off the line, pink slips on a dime,
And the rest I’m happy to tell.
The moral of this story,
The letter of this tale (D – G…)

Repeat Chorus