April 16, 2010 | Comments Off
It was the honor of a lifetime to have a long chat with Billy Collins about a year ago. We talked about many things, including the Praying Hands in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Billy Collins read a few poems from his latest book Ballistics. Check it out.
November 6, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: My next guest on the show is the author of a wonderful book called ‘Lessons for the Living.’ It’s a very beautiful note that we can end the show on today. The author of this book is Stan Goldberg, and the subtitle is, ‘Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude and Courage at the End of Life.’ Welcome to the show, Stan Goldberg.
Stan Goldberg: Thanks, Kent, for having me on.
Dr. Kent: You went through a terrible experience yourself, and that’s how you got into this whole thing.
Stan Goldberg: Yes. I have prostate cancer, and when I contracted that, I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t know what the prognosis was. Through a series of events, I ended up as a bedside hospice volunteer.
Dr. Kent: Your background is as a professor, and of course you have your PhD in speech pathology, and all sorts of history teaching and presenting and all of that. Now how is this different from all of that?
Stan Goldberg: I think that the biggest difference is that in a world of academia, you tend to be very objective, very empirical, very data oriented, very almost constricted in some way. Being a bedside hospice volunteer, you have to throw all of that out, and it’s a very emotional, present experience. It was a radical transformation that I had to go through in order to be effective as a bedside hospice volunteer.
Dr. Kent: The book itself is obviously dealing with both you and them. How did you learn through these experiences of talking to these people?
Stan Goldberg: When I started to do my volunteer work, I really had no intention of writing this book. I was actually working on a novel. The experiences were so transforming that I thought that I really needed to write these things down. What happened was, I went from someone who pretty much fit the stereotypical view of a university professor to someone who was much more open, not only about what I was experiencing going through cancer, but also what my patients were experiencing. Being in their presence really allowed me to get much more in touch with myself, and pretty much learn how to live regardless of how long that might be.
Dr. Kent: All of us, from early on in life, have real problems thinking about death: of course we do. It’s a terrifying thing. You confronted it by being diagnosed first of all. It’s obviously a different perspective when it happens to you or when you see it happen to someone else. What did you see in seeing through the window, both directions?
Stan Goldberg: I think that there’s really three levels of understanding that I found. The first is what I had been most accustomed to, which was book [indecipherable]: essentially you can read about something and have an intellectual understanding of that. The second thing is you can actually watch it happen, and that would be at the bedside, and you’re seeing people confront their own deaths. The third most intimate, I think probably most genuine form of knowledge, is when you experience the thing yourself. I’ve been able to do all three of those things now.
Dr. Kent: There are such taboos around death. You shouldn’t talk too much about it, and nobody prepares you for those times when your family members are in the hospital, or when you yourself are diagnosed with something. What stories did you come across that made you write this book?
Stan Goldberg: There were many things I learned. If you look at the book, there’s about eight very specific lessons. They all seem to have very simple descriptions, such as letting go, not taking along with you something that no longer is functional. An example of that would be there was a woman that I served whose mother had difficulty accepting the idea that her daughter was dying. Because she couldn’t accept that, the daughter made a conscious decision to keep on living in spite of tremendous pain she was experiencing. Watching that happen, it made me realize that I was doing the same thing on some levels, even though it wasn’t that traumatic. Because of my cancer, I was putting myself in physical risk, because I did a lot of outdoor things alone, that didn’t make sense any longer. So that was one direct application, where watching what my patient was going through was a direct lesson to how I needed to change my own life.
Dr. Kent: So you have prostate cancer, which is something that is terrifying to a lot of men, and yet men rarely get checked for it, honestly. What can you say about the cancer itself?
Stan Goldberg: Get it checked quick, and soon and often. Prostate cancer is one of the slowest growing forms of cancer. If it’s caught early enough, while the cancer is still in the prostate gland, it’s a hundred percent curable almost. But once it’s allowed to get out of that gland, which has been the case with me, then those microscopic cells are going to be there forever. When I said that my diagnosis is indeterminate, what I really meant was that the cells are always there, and it’s a holding action that medication is taking essentially. My thought is that the cancer cells will always be there, they will be hungry, and they’ll be ready and waiting to go, unless something else beats them to the punch.
Dr. Kent: It’s fascinating to me to speak to someone who does have a close perspective on that: all of this healthcare debate is going on right now. Obviously one thing is Americans are thinking a lot more about health over the last several months, but what’s your take on the whole debate happening?
Stan Goldberg: One of the biggest problems that I saw was that you had people who had a vested interest in keeping the healthcare system exactly as it is scaring the most vulnerable people in our society, those that were sick and elderly. It’s taken the hospice movement numbers of years in order to have the whole issue of looking at end of life care as something that was important. I think a lot of the discussion on death panels, on pulling the plug, really put us back many years. I was very disheartened by what was happening.
Dr. Kent: Because it’s a political tactic on an issue that really all of these, even the people that were saying those phrases, advocated planning, which is the strange thing. So there’s this political thing happening for something that we really do need.
Stan Goldberg: I agree with you completely.
Dr. Kent: In terms of this book, what’s the been the feedback? Obviously there’s not many folks out there that are able to put this perspective to death. Of course the book is called, ‘Lessons for the Living.’ It’s not about how to die or something like that. What’s been the feedback, because clearly you do offer perspective that is new?
Stan Goldberg: It’s interesting. I think there’s two levels of feedback that I’ve been getting. The first one is a reluctance to read it because people have a natural fear of dying. They look at death as the finality of it, the horror of it, and whatever negative term they can think of for it. But when they actually read the book, the feedback is incredibly gratifying. I think the purpose of the book was to have people understand that the greatest teacher we can have about living really is death. A willingness to look at it openly and see what it can teach us is what I try to give people in the book.
Dr. Kent: What does this book mean to you in terms of what you’ve been able to do with it, and what it means now for you moving forward?
Stan Goldberg: There’s two different forms of satisfaction from this book. The one is in writing it, essentially I felt that I was given information and knowledge that I felt I was required to share. As I said, I had no intention of writing the book, but the message was so clear and so important, I thought I was obligated to share it. Now I’ve done that, and that was one of the purposes. The second is being in the presence of these people has radically transformed my life. For me, it’s more important that the quality of the life that I have not just physically, but also psychologically, than it is the quantity of life that I have left. That I got from my patients.
Dr. Kent: What a beautiful book it is. Give us another peak inside the cover. Tell us another one of the sections in the book.
Stan Goldberg: There was a woman who had spent her life waiting for a person that she had a relationship with to get out of jail, which was a very strange relationship they had. As he had about a few more years left, she contracted brain cancer. She realized that by waiting her entire life for this guy, she had wasted hers. At that point, when he would finally able to be released from prison, her life would long have been over. She came to understand that living in the future is a way of denying the present. That was a lesson that I took very seriously. That’s the lesson that a lot of the patients that I was with came to understand: we don’t know about tomorrow, we don’t know about the future. The past is gone, all we have is today. Live for today because that’s the only time we exist in.
Dr. Kent: Those are beautiful words. What’s the immediate job that you do? Tell us more, because I know from my time with family in the hospital, there’s some incredible workers that work with people. What is the work you do? Do you work at a hospital? Do you go to homes?
Stan Goldberg: I’ve been with four different hospices. Hospice can take place in a dedicated unit, it can take place within a hospital, it can also take place in homes. I’m currently with Pathways Home Healthcare and Hospice, and they almost completely go into people’s homes. So I will go into someone’s home, I will sit with them, I will talk with them. If something needs to be taken care of in the house, I will do that. But it’s usually that I’m there to – the best way to describe it is a midwife to death. I’m there just to listen to them, to be there to witness their pain, to talk to them about dying if they bring up the subject. It’s almost what you would do with a family member or a good friend, and that’s what a hospice volunteer does.
Dr. Kent: That’s also such an incredible opportunity to sit at someone’s bedside, because they recant the tales of their entire life at times, I’m sure.
Stan Goldberg: It’s an honor to be able to sit there and be invited into someone’s life, especially as it’s getting closer to ending. People are more honest with you than they are sometimes with their family members. They’re willing to share with you things that they’ve never told anybody. You walk away from the bedside of these people, a different person, a better person, every time you’re there.
Dr. Kent: On a lighter note, your latest blog entry talks about people who died in the middle ages. I’ve got to say I was chuckling – death is at sometimes sort of funny in a weird way. You talked about when people died, they said goodbye, gave away the furniture, and then they just stopped breathing.
Stan Goldberg: Yes, and that was pretty much how it was. At that point, death was viewed as just a part of living. As a part of living, it was treated no differently than birth. So it was this continual wheel that people accepted and they didn’t have any fear about. Now, it’s a very fearful topic. I don’t know if I mentioned that blog, but there was a story that Thomas Merton told that when his mother, Donna, was dying – this was about 1910 or 1913 – they wouldn’t allow him to come to the hospital, because they thought it would traumatize him, although he loved his mother and she loved him. What she did was to write him a letter that he was able to read after she died. It’s that kind of fear we have of death. I think it ends up doing two evils: one, it makes it difficult for those of us who survive people who have died to really understand what is going on and to learn from them, and the second, it makes it difficult for the person who’s dying. It’s important to say goodbye. It’s important to finish up things. There’s a lot of things that we can do for loved ones as they are dying if we just weren’t so afraid of the topic.
Dr. Kent: You know what’s interesting too, I was just thinking Halloween weekend is approaching, and it used to be that Halloween was a scary night because the souls of friends and family and other folks were just drifting about before All Saints’ Day. It’s kind of kids paint cemeteries, and they dress up as dead people and this and that, but it made me think, it’s all become so commercialized, that the kids aren’t actually thinking about death anymore. They’re just having a good time. I’ve heard that many cultures, even American culture 50 years ago, 100 years ago, it was much more talked about, death. There was always an open casket, and the whole town would come see. What’s the relationship that we have now adays with death?
Stan Goldberg: I think we fear it generally. We think that if we ignore it, it will go away. I think it also allows us to think in terms of the future rather than living for today. I’ll always have time to say I’m sorry. I’ll have time to say goodbye. I’ll have time to hundreds of different things, and I think in some way it insulates us from maybe some of the more difficult things that we currently experience. Like, if I screw up, I tell people now I’m sorry right away. I don’t wait, because I don’t know how much longer I have. I think it’s that insulation that people want. They would prefer to think that there’s always time to do it. If you believe you always have time to do it, then you’re not going to want to deal with death.
Dr. Kent: These lessons for the living, it’s almost that you’re telling people, there are things that we should be thankful for, and things you should apologize for right away. Is there some of that to what your book is about?
Stan Goldberg: That’s the whole book. The nut of the book is that the way that we live is going to be the way we die. If you live in the present, you take care of people. You say you’re sorry when you’ve done something that you shouldn’t have. You tell people how much you love them. If you do all of that now, and don’t think you have time for the future to do that, I’ve found that deaths tend to be much easier.
Dr. Kent: Yes. It’s so fascinating talking with you. What are you working on now? Obviously you’re doing some interviews, and giving this wonderful book out there, but what are you doing now?
Stan Goldberg: There’s another book I’m working on, don’t know the title yet, but it has to do with resurrecting one’s joy. One of the things that I’ve seen is that a lot of times, people will grieve a loss they have, whether it’s a loss for a person, a pet, a job, and many other things, and the question then becomes, how do you regain that joy that you lost? The approach most people take is, well, you look for an exact substitute. If your husband dies, you look for a new husband, if your pet dies, you look for another pet. What I started looking at is those people that I’ve seen who’ve recovered their joy did it not necessarily by looking for an exact duplicate, but rather, looking at the emotion.
Dr. Kent: I don’t know if you ever heard – where did I see this? On television or somewhere, the story of the couple that cloned their dog or their pig or something.
Stan Goldberg: No, I didn’t.
Dr. Kent: It was their beloved – was it a pig? I can’t remember – but their beloved animal, and they cloned it. Of course, the animal that they literally reproduced wasn’t the same animal. Exactly what you were just saying. It’s such an honor to chat with you, Dr. Stan Goldberg. Now your background is in communicative disorders at San Francisco State, and you’ve got political theory background, and philosophy.
Stan Goldberg: As my mother would say, I could never make up my mind.
Dr. Kent: Yes [laughs]. Exactly. Now you’re a writer in a topic that’s very important. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next, and this is truly a beautiful book. Thank you so much for talking to me.
Stan Goldberg: Thank you for having me on Kent.
Dr. Kent: People can check out Stan Goldberg’s newest book, and his blog: great amounts of information on StanGoldbergWriter.com. Of course his book is called, ‘Lessons for the Living.’ What incredible stories he’s told us even here, and go check it out. Next week on the show, I’m excited because we’re going to have a whole different lineup of guests. Every week, it’s kind of a different thing. I believe next week, we’ve got an author for most of the show, and then a musician at the end. Every day this week at 3pm, you can tune in and listen to Sound Authors interviews. I hope you’re all able to pick up a great book: Stan Goldberg’s book is a book that you need to buy for everyone in your family who has ever dealt with death or thought about it. It’s called, ‘Lessons for the Living.’ Clarke Buehling – what a fun conversation that was – talking about The SkirtLifters, his music of the last 20 years, his explorations of the last 40 with the banjo, and the origins of urban and country music, and of White and Black music. It’s been a great show today. Everyone have a safe week, and we’ll talk to you live again next Friday. Tune in every day at 3pm to hear some favorites of mine from Sound Authors radio. Have a safe week, and pick up a great book.
November 6, 2009 | Comments Off
From his website:
Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University with a Ph.D. in Speech Pathology, a Masters in Political Theory, and a Bachelors in Philosophy. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of learning problems and change. Dr. Goldberg has published six books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. His latest book is ‘Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life.’ In 2009 he was named by the Hospice Volunteer Association as ‘Volunteer of the Year.’
November 5, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Hello everyone. This is Sound Authors, and I’m Dr. Kent. I’m excited on this show today to feature someone who I found out about through Concerts in Your Home, which is an amazing project and website online. You could organize House Concerts there from all sorts of amazing musicians. At Sound Authors we’ve decided to team up with them in a little small way, and feature a lot of their artists because they’re extraordinary. I have two guests on the show today, one guest who as I said I’m featuring from Concerts in Your Home, and his name is Clarke Buehling. We’re going to talk to him in just a minute. At the end of the show, we’re going to have a brief interview with an author because today we’re going to feature on the “sound” part of Sound Authors. At the end of the show, we’ll talk to an author whose name is Stan Goldberg, the author of ‘Lessons for the Living,’ an incredible book with stories of forgiveness, and gratitude and courage at the end of life. We’re going to talk to him at the very end of the show, but before that, I’m excited to welcome Clarke Buehling, and he’s of course the master of The SkirtLifters and a real expert on the gourd banjo and many other cool things. So welcome to the show Clarke Buehling.
Clarke Buehling: Yes, hello!
Dr. Kent: Well it’s great to chat with you. I love your music, love the concept. Tell me a little about how you got into playing the banjo.
Clarke Buehling: I started the banjo back in the 1960s. That was a time when the folk boom was happening. I was attempting to teach myself guitar and several instruments. I was in high school. A fellow came to our school and played the banjo, and the fiddle and the piano, and that was Hobart Smith, and I’d been thinking about the banjo. But when I saw him play and heard him play close-up, that clinched it for me, and I went out about a week later and bought myself a banjo in downtown Chicago at the folk school.
Dr. Kent: So Hobart Smith came to your school?
Clarke Buehling: Yes.
Dr. Kent: That’s extraordinary!
Clarke Buehling: Do you know Hobart Smith?
Dr. Kent: Oh, absolutely! What an experience as a child. How old were you?
Clarke Buehling: I was in high school.
Dr. Kent: That’s incredible. Did you often get musicians? Was it because of the University of Chicago Folk Festival?
Clarke Buehling: I think so. The director of music at our high school, which was the Lake Forest Academy, had various folk musicians come up. Glen Orlin came up and sang there. George and Gerry Armstrong were good friends of his, and they came up to play for us. So I got a dose of good folk music and direction.
Dr. Kent: What do you recall about Hobart Smith? What did he play? He’s very gifted in many instruments. What did he play that day? Banjo?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, one of the things he did was to demonstrate a tune which was ‘Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,’ which he demonstrated by playing on the banjo, then playing it on the fiddle, then playing it on the piano, so you could hear the tune done in different instruments.
Dr. Kent: That’s the extraordinary thing about Hobart Smith. He really did think about the tune in a different way. Such a gifted musician. So you heard that and what was your upbringing before that? Had you heard old-time music before?
Clarke Buehling: I’m not sure I did. My upbringing included music lessons, so I had piano lessons. I think I studied piano for five years. At one time, I was taking drums, clarinet and piano all at the same time in elementary school, so I had plenty of music. I didn’t do that for very long, but I did have a sampling that way. It was some years before I actually found a teacher. I missed an opportunity to take music lessons from Fleming Brown, but later on, I was able to find an older man who taught the banjo in Hartford, Connecticut. His name was Frank C. Bradbury. He was a concert five-string banjo player, finger-style, a classic player.
Dr. Kent: That’s one fascinating thing about the banjo: it really was a parlor instrument 120 years ago, right?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, I think there’s some misunderstanding about what makes up parlor music, and the difference between parlor music and concert music or dance music: parlor music was fairly simple, and quiet and played in the parlor. Some of the same music, but in a more robust fashion, would have been played on the stages, Vaudeville and the traveling education program: Chautauqua. That’s where my teacher performed early in his years, back at the time just following the first World War. I also traveled around a bit. I hitchhiked and drove into the south, into Kentucky and Virginia, and did get to meet some of the old-timers that were listed in the Pete Seeger book, which was a good source. That was one of my early books: the Pete Seeger book. Another was a book in notation, transposing notation for banjos, republished from the 19th century. It included minstrel tunes, jigs and reels, some smatterings of classical themes. This book came out in the folk boom. I guess it was Langley and Fischer that put this book out to jump on the folk boom. There wasn’t much in the book that we would call Appalachian. Maybe ‘Granny, When the Dog Bites’ is the closest you’d get to that. But there was minstrel music, and jigs and reels and hornpipes, and I was working on that from the beginning – and finger-style. I also learned the claw hammer.
Dr. Kent: I’d like to start out and play a jig from your album, ‘Out of His Gourd.’ There’s a bunch here. How about ‘Circus Jig.’ Tell us about that one.
Clarke Buehling: ‘Circus Jig’ is from the Briggs book. Tom Briggs was a minstrel. He wore black face, played the banjo, traveled. He was around in the 1850s. He was playing a claw hammer style five-string banjo, fretless. It was tuned low. It was tuned about a fourth lower than a standard banjo today. This is from a book that came out. I found a copy of the book in the public library in Boston, and was able to pull some of these tunes out. Since then, the book has been republished.
Dr. Kent: Neat. Let’s listen to ‘Circus Jig,’ and then we’ll talk to Clarke Buehling about the incredible banjo he’s playing after we listen to it. ‘Circus Jig,’ from the album, ‘Out of His Gourd.’ Here we go.
[Music: 'Circus Jig']
Dr. Kent: Well that’s a wonderful little tune called, ‘Circus Jig,’ from ‘Out of His Gourd.’ Tell me about the banjo that you’re playing on that tune.
Clarke Buehling: May I mention that you can hear some clobbering in the background? I’m doing a foot pattern on a board that I learned down in Kentucky from a fiddler named Louis Lan many years ago, to keep rhythm with my feet. I’ll tell you about the gourd banjo. I worked on the pattern for this after reading about the early banjo. One of my favorite books on that was, ‘The Sinful Tunes and Spirituals’ by Dena Epstein. There was an illustration in the Pete Seeger book of some kind of a gourd instrument. Various things – I think I’d seen the gourd banjo in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. So I thought about it for many years, and decided I was finally going to put something together. I made a few of them, and I sold a few. I never did number them, but I made probably a couple dozen. It’s just a gourd about 8 to 10 inches in diameter. On this banjo, I have like a clear piece of premature calf stretched over the hole. The hole is about 8 inches, and I just nail it down to the sides of the gourd. The whole thing is about the size of a smallish banjo.
Dr. Kent: I know a little bit about the history of the banjo, but for folks that are tuning in that might not even think about the banjo all that often – that didn’t sound like the modern banjo too much – what’s the history of the banjo as you know it?
Clarke Buehling: Well [indecipherable] gut strings on it, gut banjo strings made by La Bella.
Dr. Kent: What kind of gut? Is it calf gut, or pig gut?
Clarke Buehling: They’re sheep intestine. Most of the instrument is biodegradable. I guess all but the tacks, and maybe the fourth string, which is wound.
Dr. Kent: Have you ever left one out in the woods just to test?
Clarke Buehling: No, but I could. If I did leave one out, it would be gone in a short time, wouldn’t it? [Laughs] Maybe I can think of other instruments that maybe they should be done that way.
Dr. Kent: Exactly. Was it common to use sheep intestine, or cat gut, or whatever it was on banjos a hundred years ago?
Clarke Buehling: Yes. All the early banjos were made for gut strings, or silk. All the old SS Stewarts, the open-backed banjos, the antique banjos that you find, almost all of those were made for a light string, that’s why so many of them are bent now: you put steel strings on them. The banjo as you know is an African derivative. It’s history goes back somewhere into African history, and there’s a lot of research being done today on this very thing. There’s a group called Black Banjo . . .
Dr. Kent: The Black Banjo Songsters? There’s an album called that.
Clarke Buehling: Well, yes, that’s an album. But there was a Black Banjo gathering a few years back in Boone, North Carolina. I think there’s a website, but I don’t go to it currently, but there’s a website where people converse and exchange information.
Dr. Kent: It’s a really interesting instrument because it’s so racially mixed, at the very beginning, right?
Clarke Buehling: That’s a good point, that the early history of the banjo is also a racial history. The back and forth reflects American problems, and dichotomies, and exchanges and friendship all the way back in exchanging music.
Dr. Kent: The gourd banjo itself, what was the draw for you? You saw it in Pete Seeger’s book.
Clarke Buehling: The draw to me, early on, when I was first learning banjo, I made a little banjo out of a salad bowl with that in mind, that illustration. I didn’t do anything about it for many years, but I had it in the back of my mind. Probably I’d been playing for 20 years before I actually sat down and made one. I was always interested in the history, and the earliest tunes spurred on by hints that I would see here and there bout the African angle, and the origin. To tell the truth, before I bought a banjo or ever had a banjo, I was listening to African drumming. Olatunji was my favorite, and I had some nice field recordings of African drumming, so that was always part of my background.
Dr. Kent: And that was the beginning of the banjo, right? A drum?
Clarke Buehling: I guess, see it’s a resonating chamber, so it’s sort of a drum with a stick on it, isn’t it? The origin of the African banjo probably goes back to India and Egypt. That idea of a sound chamber with a skin over it, it’s present in the Middle East, and in Yugoslavia, and in various places around the world.
Dr. Kent: You were intrigued by this, and you built your first banjo out of a gourd. What exactly is a gourd?
Clarke Buehling: A gourd is a member of the cucurbits family, like a squash, but it has a hard shell, and it’s inedible. The inside is filled with seeds and pith, and when you open one up – have you ever heard the expression, ‘sawing a gourd’? Sawing a gourd is like sawing logs. It makes a huge noise. It sounds like someone snoring. When you saw into a gourd, a large gourd, you find that it’s smelly. If you drink out of a gourd, the water is bitter until it’s been cleaned out quite a bit, leached out. So there you go. It may be an African plant that has floated across the Atlantic and into the New World, into our continent.
Dr. Kent: Where does one find gourds nowadays?
Clarke Buehling: They grow them in California. There was one large place, a woman died who once ran the gourd factory in Stockton. They’ve got them up here in southern Missouri, near me. I’m in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In southern Missouri, they have some people that grow gourds. They have a meeting of the gourd association in Ohio every year. If you go and Google ‘gourd,’ you can probably find quite a bit on it. Crafts people use them. They were used for bowls and utensils for many years, and for boxes for holding things.
Dr. Kent: The name of your album, ‘Out of His Gourd,’ it’s clever because it talks about banjo, but there actually is an expression that we use, isn’t it?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, ‘He’s out of his gourd,’ sure. Who else would put out an album with gourd banjo music?
Dr. Kent: So do people think you are a little bit out of your gourd?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, I think so. Well, they should.
Dr. Kent: Let’s listen to another jig. This is ‘Hard Times Jig.’ Tell us about this one.
Clarke Buehling: I can’t remember which ‘Hard Times Jig’ this is.
Dr. Kent: This is the one on ‘Out of His Gourd.’ How about let’s listen to it first, and then you can tell us about it.
Clarke Buehling: Okay, yes. There are many called that.
Dr. Kent: Here we go.
[Music: 'Hard Times Jig' and 'Old Virginny Jig']
Dr. Kent: That’s an extraordinary tune – I guess a couple of tunes there, right?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, there are two tunes there. I might also mention that I’m playing with a finger pick backward on my index finger, as if it were a fingernail.
Dr. Kent: I was wondering how you did those triplets.
Clarke Buehling: I’ll show you sometime. They’re written into the music. The first tune was ‘Hard Times Jig’ as in Tom Briggs’ book. The triplets on that are done with a hammeron on the second string. It’s a version of the tune; it’s the only version I’ve seen of that tune that seems to be in six-eight, although on the page it’s written in two-four, I believe, which to mean that the accompaniment is going to be in a cross rhythm. So that’s what it seems to me is going on there, which sort of makes sense when you get an overall picture of the other tunes that were published at that time. The second piece I think is out of Phil Rice’s book. It was called, ‘Old Virginny Jig.’ It’s related to two more familiar tunes: one is, ‘Old Molly Hair,’ and the other name is, ‘The Fairy Dance,’ which is Celtic music. So it’s a Celtic tune that seems to have been absorbed into Black culture as ‘Old Molly Hair’ probably, which comes up in Black literature, African-American literature.
Dr. Kent: It’s so intriguing in that you do quite a few gigs, probably half of your gigs, are in Europe, where actually I do know that they have an incredible appreciation for early American music. Part of that is in Ireland. What do folks in Ireland say about a tune like that?
Clarke Buehling: I don’t know that I’ve played that tune in Ireland. The audiences are good there. The European audiences are good. I think they would recognize it as ‘The Fairy Dance,’ and they may – I can only conjecture what their reactions are. I’ve not spoken to the Irish people about that.
Dr. Kent: The Irish tune in the hands of these incredible Black minstrels that were playing, middle of the 1800s, how did that happen?
Clarke Buehling: Well, you understand that most of these people in black face were White, a lot of them were Irish. These books were published in urban areas, where the Irish settled during the potato famine, where there was a great influx of Irish people, and folkways. If you remember Gangs of New York, there is a setting where you would find Irishmen picking up the banjo, among the Blacks in the neighborhood, learning from one another, just as dancing – tap-dancing and step dancing – had an exchange, some of the music styles had an exchange in places like that.
Dr. Kent: This album you put out, ‘Out of His Gourd,’ I’d like to play one more tune from that, and then we’ll go into The SkirtLifters. I’d like to play a tune called, ‘The Arkansas Sheik,’ and there’s a couple questions I’ve got. One is, how did you end up in Arkansas? And another is, tell us about the tune. So how did you end up down there?
Clarke Buehling: How did I end up Arkansas: I came into Arkansas aboard a hippy school bus from the west coast. I jumped on in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. These were people I knew and had run into before. Some I had met at Amsterdam, and some I had met in Berkeley, and they were going through, and they were coming to Arkansas – a band called Corn Bread. They were from Mandeville, Louisiana. So I ended up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, up in northwest Arkansas in the hills: a nice little town that had been an artist colony, and spa at one time. It was being rebuilt. I’ve come back here several times. I’ve moved out and come back. I’ve been in Denver and Boston, and come back to here. So that’s sort of the Arkansas connection. The song itself, I think it was Riley Puckett recorded it. I just made up the banjo part; there was no other source for that. I just remembered it as I remembered it, and kind of put it together.
Dr. Kent: You said Riley Puckett recorded it?
Clarke Buehling: I believe that’s right.
Dr. Kent: He was with the Skillet Lickers, right? Of course he’s a super favorite of Doc Watson growing up. That makes me think about, were you into the 78s? How did you come across some of this music?
Clarke Buehling: I’ve always been into the 78s, and of course mostly I hear them in reissues, but I have throughout the passage of time collected them, the actual 78s. I’ve referred to the old recordings that started generally in the ’20s, but now I also listen to cylinder recordings, and the earlier banjo recordings which were mostly finger style banjos, the bluegrass.
Dr. Kent: You were touching on it before, but what is classical style banjo? You just touched on that, but was there an actual performance style on stages?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, in the 19th century, that is, the 1800s, there were two banjo styles. When there was one banjo style, it was just banjo, and then there were two banjo styles: there was the stroke style and then there was the guitar style. People started playing like classical guitar. At first they used thumb and three fingers, and then after a while, they just went to thumb and two fingers. And especially as the banjo bridges became narrower and the pitch of the banjo was raised up a little higher, the thumb and two fingers seemed to suffice for most of the players that were playing by the 1870s and ’80s. That’s when finger style started coming in. There were some country styles, rolling styles, but we don’t know much about them. The things that were written down were the pieces that SS Stewart published, and other people published. But every large town, and every state, had somebody teaching guitar, mandolin and banjo, teaching finger style banjo probably, using music and publishing their own. Many places in the middle of nowhere published their own music for all of these instruments.
Dr. Kent: So let’s listen to the ‘Arkansas Sheik,’ – out of the country style?
Clarke Buehling: I’m still playing it stroke style, I believe. I don’t think anything on that album was done in anything other than the old style.
Dr. Kent: Right, and you’re doing it all on gourd banjos, right?
Clarke Buehling: Yes.
Dr. Kent: So let’s listen to the ‘Arkansas Sheik,’ from ‘Out of His Gourd’ by Clarke Buehling. Here we go, let’s listen.
[Music: 'Arkansas Sheik']
Dr. Kent: Great tune, ‘The Arkansas Sheik,’ and of course, there we heard you singing. It’s fantastic, great song.
Clarke Buehling: Thank you very much. The simple term, ‘Sheik’ in the 1920s was a ladies’ man, kind of a Rudy Vallee kind of a person. It’s from an older song; it’s derived from a song that’s pre-Civil War.
Dr. Kent: It’s so much fun. What kind of response do you get from people when you play these old songs?
Clarke Buehling: They like what I play. I get a good response for my programs.
Dr. Kent: I mean, do they say to you, ‘This makes me think of old times?’ Do they say, ‘I had no idea the banjo had such a long history?’ What kinds of things do you get?
Clarke Buehling: Well, both those things. If it’s an older person, sometimes it evokes a past for them, or somebody they heard at one time, or songs they sang when they were young. Yes, when I play the more virtuosic things, people are surprised. Or maybe when I’m playing the gourd banjo, the tone of it is surprising to them, the pleasant tone.
Dr. Kent: With all of the songs we just played, if you played them to someone with no preparation, I think they sound wonderful. But knowing that they’re played on a gourd banjo, it’s pretty extraordinary the tone and the pitches that you’re getting on it, because you are able to be very precise, which is not the easiest thing on a gourd banjo.
Clarke Buehling: Yes, it’s a frontless banjo, is it not? I try to stay in the first position, and I don’t always. I don’t do a lot of up the neck work. It’s just easier not to. Takes a lot of work to keep it up.
Dr. Kent: It’s such an interesting sound, because in a couple of earlier tunes, when you hit a note, because it doesn’t have frets, you have more freedom, and there’s sort of little . . .
Clarke Buehling: Nuances in the notes, isn’t there? It adds color to the notes.
Dr. Kent: Yes. As you play, do you find that the coloring of the notes is fun? Do you enjoy that part of it?
Clarke Buehling: Oh, yes. You notice that I don’t go out of my way to be sliding around. People sometimes ask me, ‘Did they invent the fretless banjo so you could slide?’ I don’t think so. I think the first banjos were fretless [laughs]. But if you were to listen to far south, you would hear some more complicated positions on the banjo.
Dr. Kent: I was about to actually bring up Mike Seeger. He played one of your banjos. Of course, tragically, he passed away this year. Did you have some interactions with Mike Seeger?
Clarke Buehling: Yes, I did. I got to know him. I made three banjos for him. He never wanted me to use a tack head on there. He wanted me to try to thread the heads with rawhide so he could tighten it.
Dr. Kent: What does that mean exactly?
Clarke Buehling: He wanted a system where he could pull the skin tight, but as you can hear on my banjo, it really is not a problem; it’s only a small skin area. So the ones I made were not as well-made in that function as far as stretching the skin. One of the three was a very large gourd. How big would that have been – at least about 15 inches maybe across. He wanted me to use that, and I made him one with that. It was always nice to talk with Mike. He was a very pleasant person, and always had nice things to say: encouragement and interesting things to pull out, anecdotes. He’s going to be missed. We already miss him. I was fortunate to be able to play in a program, about two weeks before he passed away, out at the Birchmere in Virginia. Even then, he was holding up pretty well.
Dr. Kent: It was extraordinary: he played pretty much right up to his death. It was amazing. Tell me a little now about your band: The SkirtLifters. That’s a fun title, and tell me about the group.
Clarke Buehling: The origin of The SkirtLifters was actually in Bloomington, Indiana, and Hawk Hubbard was the fiddler in a dance band there in Bloomington, and he came out to Arkansas. He moved out there to be near some family who had moved there, and found that I was in the area. We had known each other in Berkeley on the west coast. So we got the others started: he wanted to use the same name that he’d used in Indiana, so we formed The SkirtLifters. We had several guitar players, and settled on Bill Mathews. Bill played with us for a long time: Banjo Billy. Eventually, we had a split up in the band, and I played with another fiddler. That would have been Jim Lansford, and Billy was with us for a while there. Eventually, I found another fiddler and another guitar player. I kept the SkirtLifter name. The fiddler now is Tom Verdot, and Thom Howard is the guitar player. They both live in Colombia, Missouri. The band has been based out of Arkansas since about 1987.
Dr. Kent: It’s got a great sound. I want to listen to a track. After that, I’d like to talk about ragtime music. I’ll play a tune that everybody likes and knows, ‘The Entertainer.’ Then we’ll come back and chat about ragtime music. Here we go, from ‘A Ragtime Episode’ by The SkirtLifters.
[Music: 'The Entertainer]
Dr. Kent: That’s a great version of ‘The Entertainer’ by Clarke Buehling and The SkirtLifters from the album, ‘A Ragtime Episode.’ That must be so much fun to play. Obviously, as a banjo player, I wouldn’t even think of touching that tune, but it must be so much fun to play once you’ve got it.
Clarke Buehling: It’s a great tune! It’s one of the first ragtime pieces that I worked on. It was an arrangement that I actually got some help from Frank Bradbury before he passed away. He did some correction on my arrangement that we sent back and forth on a sheet of paper in the mail [laughs].
Dr. Kent: There’s parts to that I’m not familiar with. I guess the C-part in there.
Clarke Buehling: Right, that C-part wasn’t included in The Sting.
Dr. Kent: Well it’s such a beautiful tune. So tell me about this ensemble. You’ve got a string band sound, but it’s not like the Appalachian string bands I’m familiar with.
Clarke Buehling: No, this is more of the urban tradition. A lot of the things we have there are the original publications from the 1890s and the early teens. Also, we have a cello on some of that recording, and there was even a time when The SkirtLifters were five pieces with double mandolins playing. Curly Miller was in it at that time. I’ve been working with Curly Miller with the old 78s recently.
Dr. Kent: The group itself, how do you find your musicians? Are they playing on period instruments?
Clarke Buehling: It’s not easy to find somebody who can read the music and be willing to be in a band to play this. Most of the guitar players I’ve had, which include also John Behling was one, and he’s up in the mid-north, up in South Dakota someplace. They’re all classical players and jazz. Mostly they know jazz and classical guitar. For this, this is like another new area for most people that I’ve had in the band; this has been a new genre for them. There was, at one time, lots of music, in my private collection, a lot of sheet music published for two mandolins, banjo and guitar. This is the format that we’re using. Some of them, I’ve filled in arrangements for parts that were missing, or I’ve done them all from piano scores and written out parts for people to play.
Dr. Kent: What I know about ragtime is that it’s very similar to classical music in form. But tell me, when you first came across ragtime, and obviously this album’s full of it, what is it exactly?
Clarke Buehling: What is ragtime? Ragtime is the popular music that was railed against as being sinful back when it came in. It was sort of the rock n’ roll of its time. It was from the African American community, for one. In the late 1890s, this was the dance. The hot-craze in the dance music, the craze, was the ragtime two-step, and before that, the cake walk.
Dr. Kent: So cake walk – when I grew up, of course, the cake walk was a fun thing – kids did it. What was it originally?
Clarke Buehling: Originally, it goes back to slavery days – way back. It was a long story of one people imitating another, and that sort of going back and forth: we have the slaves doing dances in imitation, in parodies of the White slave owners and their family, and then we find the Whites finding this very amusing, and trying to dance as they are. And they looked really pretty funny themselves. Originally using cast-off clothing that was given to the slaves, and eventually it turned into really the zoot-suit of this period was [indecipherable] type of outfit with the long frock coat, the top hat, and walking cane, the stylized postures of the dance. You could go to Google, or YouTube, and you can put ‘cake walk.’
Dr. Kent: They were parodying in effect each other, and then of course, out of this parody came a style of music. So the White folks would dance to it in parties and that’s why it was risqué?
Clarke Buehling: No, the cake walk wasn’t the risqué dance. I think more the rags. At first, the cake walks, whole villages or schools, would all dress up, and the White students would put on black face and top hats, and the whole school would line up and march around, doing a march, and then walking.
Dr. Kent: That’s the origin of cake walk. Wow! It’s so fascinating. People think of ‘Oh, the banjo!’ If you ask the average guy on the street, they’d probably say it’s a White Appalachian instrument. It has such a rich, mixed history. We’ve got a couple more tunes here to choose from, but we’re running out of time. Let me ask you, what tune should we go out with? We’ve got some more rags, we’ve got ‘Hot Corn,’ we’ve got, ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ we’ve got ‘Creole Bells’ and ‘Carolina Tar Heel.’ What do you think?
Clarke Buehling: I would probably choose the ‘Hot Corn Jubilee.’
Dr. Kent: All right. Tell us about that one.
Clarke Buehling: The reason I chose that, ‘The Creole bells,’ people will recognize that, that’s a nice song, nice to cake walk. But I particularly like this one because of the voicing of the instruments and the counterpoints. Paul Eno from Philadelphia [indecipherable] the banjo in it.
Dr. Kent: And this again is from the end of the 1800s then also?
Clarke Buehling: Just after 1900, I think, well yes, right around there. I’m not sure of the date of that one.
Dr. Kent: So, ‘Hot Corn Jubilee.’ Are they talking about whiskey? Because I do like hot corn, I mean in terms of actually corn on the cob. But what are they talking about?
Clarke Buehling: I think at that time hot corn – this is before hybrids, and you didn’t have the hybrid corn that we see now. You had to eat the corn when it was young, and it was often sold in the street by vendors. So you would buy your hot corn.
Dr. Kent: You’re kidding! All right. You’ve inspired me, and hopefully many others to look back and dig through the history here, which of course you were inspired to do early on. Hopefully we can keep passing these traditions on.
Clarke Buehling: May I add something about this type of piece: they were often done as the composer’s idea of what an African American band, marching band or a dance band, would sound like. They tried to do the sound of what they heard being done in the more folk terms, but they were being classical in that they were writing it down. When I say ‘classical,’ it means the high point of the banjo, the banjo at its peak at that period, when it was most popular, more popular than today.
Dr. Kent: It’s been a pleasure chatting with Clarke Buehling. Tell us where we can find out more about you, and your music, and banjos, and all that.
Clarke Buehling: Keep your eye open. You can find us at our website which is going to be redone soon. There’s something up all the time at TheSkirtlifters.com. THE SkirtLifters.com – who knows where you’ll go otherwise. Or you could Google me if you could spell my name, then you can find me.
Dr. Kent: It’s Clarke with an ‘e’ at the end and Buehling with a ‘u’ ‘e’ ‘h’ – that should help. It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you. I love this old music. Actually I want to ask you one more question about Concerts in Your Home.
Clarke Buehling: Of course we’ve got to bring them in: Fran Snyder’s Concerts in Your Home website is real fun. It links together musicians with venues, so that if you’re a musician, you can sign up there and put your picture up and a little description of your music, and you can look up venues around the country, and get in contact with one another. For the venues, you can find programs there, people that you might like to have at your home.
Dr. Kent: There’s no greater venue really than having a musician in your home. What a great experience.
Clarke Buehling: I love doing the House Concerts. I love playing acoustically. I love playing in an intimate setting. I recommend House Concerts to anyone. Fran also gives an explanation: how to run a house concern, things that you need to know, a couple hints.
Dr. Kent: People can find out about that on ConcertsInYourHome.com. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to Clarke Buehling. You can go to TheSkirtLifters.com to find out more. We’re going to listen to ‘Hot Corn Jubilee’ from ‘A Ragtime Episode.’ Thank you so much for talking to me.
Clarke Buehling: Thank you!
Dr. Kent: All right, here we go. Let’s listen to ‘Hot Corn Jubilee.’
[Music: 'Hot Corn Jubilee]
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. That’s a great tune called ‘Hot Corn Jubilee.’ Makes us all think of our childhoods and cake walks – but Clarke Buehling gave us a whole new thought process around what that is and what it means. It was great to talk to him earlier on in the show.
November 5, 2009 | Comments Off
From his website:
Clarke Buehling has led the group, The SkirtLifters, for over twenty years. An internationally renowned group of performers celebrated for their outstanding skills and showmanship onstage, The SkirtLifters have authentically recreated the music of the 19th century riverboat, stage and parlor, enlivened by period humor, skits, songs and percussive dance. Clarke is unmatched in his mastery of the three-fingered ‘classic’ banjo style of the late 19th century and has applied his equally strong skills in traditional claw hammer and old-time styles as a workshop presenter at leading folk-schools around the country.