Archive for June, 2011

Sometimes people come up with great ideas that are contained in small packages, and that are held in a tight circle of friends until it’s time – if, indeed, that time ever comes – to share it with a broader audience.

Communion, a great UK label started by son of Mumford Ben Lovett and his friends Kevin Jones and Ian Grimble, had just such an idea. They gathered some of their best mates last July and offered the following proposition (imagined conversation between label men and artists):

Label Men: “We’ll take over The Flowerpot [a semi-legendary and now defunct London venue that reminds me a bit of a British version of Decatur’s own Eddie’s Attic] for 7 days, and you guys can pretty much come and go as you want, but you’ll be matched up around lunch time every day with others of your ilk. You can write new stuff, practice old stuff, whatever you want – but that night you’ll all perform it together in front of the full house. Adult beverages may be involved, as well, and there will be no curfew on late-night jams.”

Everyone They Asked: “OK. ‘Adult beverages,’ you say?”

I first heard about the sessions only recently via an update on the Mumford & Sons site, and – recognizing only a handful of the artists but getting the gist of the wondrous idea in toto and immediately – I ordered the just-released discs. Still not entirely sure what I paid for it since it was in £’s, but I’m pretty sure it was worth it. . . (Also realized that I could have probably found a US site from which to order it, but that wouldn’t have felt like it was part of the whole communal experience.)

There have been some stunning revelations thus far; the performances from the artists I recognize have been stellar and there are a handful of formerly unknown (to me) that I can tell are going to make it into regular rotation, too.

First, the Knowns: All of Lissie’s contributions, whether her headliners or the tunes she sat in on (of which there were many,) are definite highlights. Likewise, Mt. Desolation (made up of two of the founders of Keane, the drummer from The Killers, and assorted other British musicians, some of whom appear separately in the Flowerpot collaboration) has a strong showing and are instantly recognizable when they pop up in the shuffled mix. The Staves’ “Mexico” is so far the standout track on all three discs for me, and their other tunes – again, whether they’re headlining or or providing the BGVs – are incredible.

Lissie, Mt. Desolation and The Staves

New discoveries for me include Pete Roe, a staple of the London folk scene and also one of the “assorted other British musicians” mentioned above as part of Mt. Desolation, whose “Bellina” is another of the set’s highlights for me; Angus & Julia Stone, who appear as often (or oftener) than anyone else in the collection, it seems – and for good reason: they’re amazing. Treetop Flyers, Monument Valley, and Passenger all provide outstanding contributions, as well. James Moss, with The Staves backing him up, delivers an excellent rendition of his own “For Birds.” Ryan O’Reilly’s “Brixton Hill” is good enough that, like most on this list, I’ll be looking him up for more. Damien Rice and Angus & Julia provide a fun, brooding (and a little scary) cover of “You’re the One That I Want,” that was a nice surprise, too.

As with most such get-togethers, it all sounds great on disc a year later, but it surely would have been an even more incredible experience to have been there in person during that week. 60-plus hours of recorded material boiled down to three discs means that tons of stuff had to be left out, and that plus all of the inside jokes, stories and drunken revelries would only have made this grouping even more powerful. To watch that type of collaborative process unfold, whether when producing brand new songs or interesting takes on existing ones, is the purview of only a chosen few, though, and we’ll have to make do with the curated results in this fine package.

And what a fine package it is:

Complete with a nice case that I’m sure is made of  uber-recycled material, three discs of music and one of visuals, and an informative booklet with complete song- and musician-listings tucked away in a pocket.

Check out the video below for a brief overview of how the process unfolded over that magical week. I’m sure it’ll make you wish you were there, too.

A Bit About the Flowerpot Sessions

The Flowerpot Sessions site (complete with a Family Tree that shows everyone who played with everyone else – pretty clever way to do it, too.)

Buy it here!


I’ll start by saying that, yes, I’m one of “those people.” The die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool, do-or-die, etc. fans of a colossal meme that permeates all of sci-fi/fantasy (and broader) society, like Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, or – wait, there really is no other franchise that comes close to what I’m talking about.

I have read The Lord of the Rings trilogy about 25 times. I have not kept meticulous track of that number, but I know that I read these books once a year from the time I was 15 until I was 35 or so, and then about once every other year since then, which makes it – about – 25 times total.

I have very few, if any, friends that have read it that often, and lots of people have said, simply, “Why?”

It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try.

Reading it, it feels BIG. It feels real. It feels like it was researched and documented and told by the fire for the last 3,000 years. It feels, in many ways, like reading stories from the Bible – not the Bible itself (more on that strange possibility later. . .) but like reading dramatized versions of stories told so often, and so well, that they’ve become part of some lost culture’s backbone.

There’s a reason it feels that way when you read these books, and, yes, even when you see these movies.

Tolkien was a fierce world builder.

Apocryphal or not, legend has it that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was so taken with the languages and legends of old Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology that he created, from scratch, his own slightly similar languages. Several of them, in fact, complete with conjugations, syntax, and – crucially – the changes brought about by the histories of the people who spoke and wrote such languages.

Once these languages were nearly whole, he needed to flesh out those histories as a way of explaining how they evolved over the centuries. What could have happened to these tribes, these cultures, to make these dialects split off of the main trunk and create the branches that he so painstakingly, so lovingly crafted?

Thus Middle-earth was born.

Reading the main trilogy year after year might get boring, or might not offer any new insights, you may think. I’ve found the opposite to be true. Each time I read them, I thought, the story was slightly different, had more and varied things to offer, whole sections that took on new and different meaning from the last reading.

It wasn’t until I was well into my 30’s that I realized that – obviously – it wasn’t the story that was different each time I picked up those weighty tomes.

It was me.

The way I approach the various aspects of the tale definitely differs as I get older. The 15-year old me couldn’t wait for the battles to get underway, hated the jumps back and forth to Frodo’s and Sam’s parts of the story (and truth be told, I still get kind of crazy when we leave the rest of the gang hanging and jump to “Death March through Mordor,” but I think it’s slightly less maddening than it was back then.)

Reading it as a kid and then doing so now that I have kids of my own are completely different perspectives, and only one of the variables that make re-reading this endlessly layered narrative just as fresh and exciting now as it was when I first turned the pages.

So, I’ve read the trilogy 25 times – how about its “prequel,” written in tandem but published much later, The Silmarillion? How many times has that one succumbed? Exactly twice.

I tried – and tried, and tried, and tried – to read that one when I was first discovering Tolkien. “I loved LOTR, right? Gotta be the same for The Silmarillion – can’t wait. . .”

Only it was nothing like the trilogy. At the time, it WAS like reading the Bible, or worse, reading a history of the Bible. Still felt very real, exceedingly well thought out and researched and logically intact, but it was hopelessly bogged down by names – place names, people’s names, multiple names for each – and the delivery style was 180 degrees different from the style of LOTR. There was no way I could slog through it, even though (comparatively) it was not that thick of a book.

So the teenaged me gave up on The Silmarillion.

Fast-forward to 2010.

By happy accident – I’m not sure exactly what led to the find – I stumbled onto the Tolkien Professor, aka Corey Olsen, a true professor at Washington College who teaches medieval studies and, surprise surprise, an entire college course on all of Tolkien’s works. And (super bonus) when I found out about him he was just getting ready to start that semester’s Tolkien course, AND he was podcasting every single class.

I can say without equivocation that if I had not had those classes and their rigorous reading schedule, chapter by chapter, I would never have gotten through The Silmarillion. Hearing the give-and-take between the teacher and his students, and learning about the common themes in almost all of Tolkein’s stories, their histories and his, made The Silmarillion and even the trilogy itself come alive for me in ways I did not think possible.

Simply put, and it’s really anything but simple, The Silmarillion is the history of the Elves in Middle-earth, as told through the generations by the Elves (and so somewhat biased,) and as compiled by Bilbo Baggins while in “retirement” at Rivendell, thinking that his part in the greater tale is complete. The so-called “Red Book of Westmarch,” which tells the tale that Bilbo started, Frodo took over, and Sam ultimately completed, was The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings, or the trilogy we all know and love. Bilbo also wrote three other volumes, Tolkien says, while at Rivendell, which he called “Translations from the Elvish,” and which became The Silmarillion.

Learning this, I began to see (even more) just how brilliant and how incredibly detailed and logical Tolkien was in his creation of this world. Weaving the characters in the stories into their development and evolution was just one of the strokes of genius which helps them resonate with readers as feeling “real,” and steeped in a history that truly could have spanned thousands of years.

One brief example: Tolkien needed a way to bridge the gaps he himself created when writing The Hobbit as (he thought at the time) a standalone story, and then the “sequel” which became The Lord of the Rings. There were several of these inconsistencies, one of which was exactly how Bilbo got the Ring from Gollum.

A lesser writer may have decided to go back and edit the earlier story to fit the later one, glossing over any such inconsistencies. Tolkien, however, came up with a very subtle, very elegant solution: Bilbo told it wrong the first time around. And he did it because the Ring made him do so. That very fact was one of the first clues that Gandalf had that this pretty gold ring that Bilbo brought back from his adventures with the dwarves may indeed be the One Ring.

That extremely wordy introduction was needed in order to explain how I came to challenge myself to read not just The Silmarillion, but the entire 12+ volume set of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth this year. I’m currently ahead of the pace, midway through volume 9, and it’s only June. Quick count: thus far I have read roughly 3,100 pages (not including the voluminous appendices and indices in each, or such recent “add-ons” as The Children of Hurin,) and I have no idea how many pages remain. Based on the average size of the volumes consumed so far, I’d say there are approximately 1,500 to 2,000 pages to go.

So how, you might ask, can anyone write (or anyone want to READ) this much about a story which was actually told using about 1,500 pages (Hobbit and LOTR combined) to begin with?

Because the stories are so incredibly rich in detail, so very deep in background, and so lovingly structured, written and re-written.

JRR Tolkien’s son Christopher has taken all of the surviving notes, drawings and scribblings that his father kept from the 1920’s through the 1950’s and tried to make some sort of sense of them all. No small feat, and (he readily admits) he’s not always successful at it. Later volumes often correct or expand on things he’d written when just setting out. His father’s journey from Hobbit through Lord of the Rings would take some 35+ years, all told. Christopher took around 15 years to complete the 12 volumes in the Histories.

In addition to notebooks, sketchbooks and random scraps of paper (some of which were the bits the elder Tolkien had used when working on his assigned portions of the Oxford English Dictionary, so it wasn’t unusual for Christopher to find an entry under “W” for the OED with the background of a particular story element from LOTR or The Silmarillion on its reverse,) his son relied on letters sent to him from his father during WWII. Imagine receiving such a letter when posted on an airbase during those tumultuous times, one that mentioned how the family was doing, what the weather was like, and “Oh, yes, you might find it interesting to note that Frodo and Sam are almost to Orodruin, and there’s a nasty surprise awaiting them. Didn’t see that one coming. . .”

Because of the nature and sheer volume of these volumes, there is of necessity repetition and correction – so much so that it’s sometimes hard to remember which version of the specific story being told is the “real” one, the one that made it into one of the published books. One conclusion, however, is inescapable:

The Elves – nearly all of them, no matter which splinter sect or branch – led a completely tragic existence, almost from the time they appeared in Middle-earth.

No wonder they walk so slowly and sadly, and seem so eager to take the boats into the West.

In these Histories we learn how Tolkien first envisioned the creation myth extolled in The Silmarillion; how Elves were the First People, the Children of Illuvatar; how Men came into the picture; how Dwarves and the other races and creatures appeared; and much, much more.

The story of Beren and Luthien is tackled first, and often – there are many, many versions, some complete and some not. It appears that this is one of those integral stories, though, one that resonated with Tolkien throughout his young adulthood and into his later years. Why else would he have given instructions, followed to the letter, that his tombstone would read “Beren,” and his wife’s “Luthien”?

The stories of how the Silmarils were created, the jealousy and hatred they sowed, the Kinslaying that resulted from the schism within the Elven people, the battles with Morgoth/Melkor (Sauron’s precursor and his original boss,) the coming of Men, the Rise and Fall of Numenor – each of these told of the bravery and tragedy that resulted from such events.

But crushing tragedy is not confined to the Elves in Tolkien’s world. No story that I’ve read thus far, in these Histories or anywhere else, is as tragic as that of Turin Turumbar, son of Hurin, and a man.

His story and that of his family is told in The Silmarillion, and in much greater detail in a companion book, The Children of Hurin, and the story’s genesis and additional background are spread throughout the Histories.

Briefly (ha!) it goes something like this.

When he’s still a baby, his father, Hurin, fights in The Battle of Unnumbered Tears (which tells you how that one went for the good guys,) and never returns home. His mother, pregnant with his sister, remains strong but when Turin is around 8 she sends him away to live with the semi-local Elf lords. He doesn’t want to go, but vows to return one day for her. While a guest of the Elven king, he accidentally slays one of the king’s retainers, a self-important prig who actually had it coming, and flees into the wilderness. He lives there for years until one of his best friends from the Elf king’s household tries to hunt him down to tell him everyone knows the other guy goaded Turin, all is forgiven, he can come home. The friend (Beleg Strongbow) does find him, and they form a merry band of woodland fighters dedicated to eradicating the local environs of all Orcish and other evil influences. All goes well, until Turin accidentally kills his best friend, who was actually trying to save him from the Orcs. Turin despairs, and runs further into the wilderness, convinced that he is indeed cursed.

Meanwhile, his mother and the daughter she’d been pregnant with when Turin was forced to leave them are wandering through the forest, trying to get to the Elf king’s domain. Bad things happen, and one of the last remaining dragons catches Turin’s sister and lays a spell of forgetfulness on her, so she has no idea who she is or where she’s from. She wanders through the forest some more, separated from her mother, until she comes across Turin and his band of fighters. He cares for her, they fall in love (neither knowing who the other is,) and she is soon with child.

Turin takes on the task of slaying said last dragon, and sets off to do so. All of his men cravenly abandon him at some point, leaving Turin to climb across a canyon and gut the lizard from stem to stern at the opposite rim by a raging waterfall. As it is dying, though, the dragon spies Turin’s sister, who has come to beg him not to challenge the beast alone. The dragon reverses the spell of forgetfulness, Turin’s sister remembers everything, and throws herself from the top of the waterfall. Turin then begs his sword to “drink his life,” as it has so many others, and it readily agrees. He falls on the sword and dies.

Cheery stuff, I know, but it’s told with such devotion to the form (reminiscent of Saxon or Norse tales of its kind, while still in LOTR mode,) and with such achingly beautiful but spare prose that, as crushingly sad as it is, it would be sadder to have never read it. The additional background lent by the Histories only makes it more so.

These volumes, each of them, are extremely dense with information and read like the scholarly treatises they are. They are as different from The Silmarillion as it is from The Lord of the Rings, or as different and as detailed as the LOTR is when compared to The Hobbit. Not for the faint of heart or for the casual Tolkienite, with some selective self-editing (which footnotes and appendices to dive deeper into, and which can be safely skimmed, for instance) they are a treasure-house of insight, background and knowledge, and they provide even deeper reasons for why the “main” stories have captured our attention so well, and for so long.

So far, the most interesting and compelling volumes of the Histories have been the last 4, subtitled “The History of the Lord of the Rings,” which brings them up to the time of the writing of the Trilogy. (And which adds to the confusion and further cements the entire series as more of a scholarly, academic endeavor than a commercial one: how else could you properly title and expect to sell something called, for example, Sauron Defeated, The History of Middle-Earth, volume 9; The History of Lord of the Rings, volume 4?)

That being said, if all 12 volumes seem too daunting a task, one could do worse than picking up these middle four, or the companion to The SilmarillionThe Children of Hurin; whether or not they lead to an interest in the remaining books they are, by themselves, wonders of scholarly research and compilation, and they provide even more evidence that Tolkien had no equal when it comes to world-building.

I’ll close with a piece that the Christopher used to open the History of the Lord of  The Rings, volume 1 (which is actually volume 6 of the broader Histories.) It’s an excerpt from a letter his father wrote to his friend W.H Auden in June of 1955, and speaks to the sense of wonder and magic that Tolkien kept intact throughout his life.

I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlorien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horselords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.

I’ll report back when I finish the task and the final volume is completed. . .

Billy Collins: horoscopes for the dead

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Visions

Having not read any poetry since school days, I’ve nevertheless had Billy Collins’ “The Trouble with Poetry” on my to-be-read list for the last few years. Never quite got around to searching it out and reading it, though. After reading the misleadingly thin “horoscopes for the dead,” I plan to correct that oversight as quickly as possible.

Collins was the Poet Laureate for the US from 2001 to 2003. It’s easy to see why.


If I were crowned emperor this morning,

every child who is playing Marco Polo

in the swimming pool of this motel,

shouting the name Marco Polo back and forth

Marco             Polo                 Marco             Polo

would be required to read a biography of Marco Polo – a long one with fine print –

as well as a history of China and of Venice,

the birthplace of the venerated explorer

Marco             Polo                 Marco             Polo

after which each child would be quizzed

by me then executed by drowning

regardless how much they managed

to retain about the glorious life and times of

Marco             Polo                 Marco             Polo

Though only a thin 102 pages, there are over 50 short poems here, just the right length to read four or five before sleeping every night, their simple yet powerful imagery an excellent precursor to an almost guaranteed night of symbol-rich dreaming.

Some funny, some touching, some simply true in an unassuming, non sky-is-falling kind of way, all of them bear the slight imprint of time taken with them, of the choosing of a specific word, a certain order, that alters the meaning of the whole just so.

Great for in-between reading, and for sipping rather than chugging, as I wanted to do after reading the first few. I exercised some discipline, though, and only read my proscribed 4 or 5 poems a night after finishing with the rest of the night’s offerings, and that felt just right.

Gotta find that “Trouble. . .” of his soon.

Since they’re short, and the book’s short, and this review is short, here are two more in closing.


The woman who wrote from Phoenix

After my reading there

to tell me they were all still talking about it

just wrote again

to tell me they had stopped.

After I Heard You Were Gone

I sat for a while on a bench in the park.

It was raining lightly but this was not a movie

even though a couple hurried by,

the girl holding his jacket over her head,

and the chess players were gathering up their pieces

and fanning out into the streets.

No, this was something different.

I could have sworn the large oak trees

had just appeared there overnight.

And that pigeon looked as if

it had once been a playing card

that a magician had transformed with the flick of a scarf.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of discovery that comes with reading the titular poem – it’s long and tasty and exceedingly clever and sad – but I’m sure you can find it out in the ether somewhere if you can’t find the book. I envy you who have not read it, or him, before.

I’ve only recently gotten into non-fiction, having preferred in the past to use the written word to make my escape from reality instead of learning more about it. Several good finds in the last few years, though, have meant that for every third or fourth work of fiction (be it science fiction, thriller, mystery, etc.) I seem to be finding these incredible palate-cleansers. Books like Maryanne Wolf’s Proust & the Squid and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering were life-changers, and Adam Hochschild’s most recent effort has proven to be no less than that, too.

The sum total of what I knew about World War I prior to reading this gripping story?

  • Trench warfare, which probably sucked in a big, bad way.
  • Mustard gas, ditto
  • Started by assassinating an Arch-Duke and his wife
  • The “Trench Poets”
  • Its end pretty much teed up the rise of the Nazi party and WWII some 20 years after it was over

And that was about it.

Until now.

Hochschild’s treatise is subtitled, “A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914 – 1918,” and the leaf indicates that his chief focus will be the home front, the conflicts affecting both sides away from the fighting – everything from women’s suffrage in England to how Conscientious Objectors on all sides fared during those tumultuous times.

It’s much more than that, though. While I learned a lot about many of the sideline (and not so sideline) players I also learned a tremendous amount about the battles and the armies involved.

What I learned about the former includes how the Upstairs/Downstairs class mentality in Great Britain was still going strong not only at home but even in the trenches. Also, the propaganda machine that Britain created and maintained virtually throughout the war was terrifying in its efficiency in feeding the monster that was the War with ever more, ever younger bodies. I never knew, for instance, that when gathering some of the most capable and influential British writers of the time in that cause, around the table at that first meeting were people like Thomas Hardy, James Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. (Kipling I knew about, but not the extent to which he was involved in creating some of the more incendiary – and false – atrocities attributed to the Germans in order to boost enlistment figures.) These exaggerations helped feed the public’s fears and would lead to the Draconian terms of surrender forced upon Germany, which in turn facilitated the rise of the Nazi party and the inevitable start of World War II.

Regarding the latter – the specifics of what happened on and around the front lines – the figures alone are staggering, and more than once made me pause and curse in wonder. I won’t include all of those stats from the Butcher’s Bill here, but one that stuck with me was this one:

At the beginning of 1915, the first full year of the War, Germany had invaded France and Belgium and occupied over 19,500 square miles of formerly foreign territory.

At the end of the year, and at a cost of over 250,000 British casualties, the Allies had recovered exactly 8 of those square miles.

Which would cause the Allied leadership, one would think, to change their strategy, right? Nope.

World War I was sort of an arching, connective conflict, one that bridged the basics of near-ancient warfare to those of the modern. Both sides, Allied and Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary, mainly [incidentally, A-H was much bigger in terms of land area and influence than I ever knew,]) still had relatively large cavalries, and fully expected that once they broke the stalemate of the trenches the War would be won by a series of heroic charges, as recounted in endless poems and stories throughout the previous 200 years of warfare. Those cavalries sat idly by for nearly the entire War as the artillery barrages, machine guns, gas attacks and the immovable trenches devoured huge percentages of each country’s most able-bodied young men.

I’d heard of the battles of the Somme, and Ypres, but never of Passchendaele, even though all three had elements in common; they were horrendous, needless, borderline-criminal wastes of human life. Though the British were the aggressors in each of these battles, with extremely complicated battle plans that fell apart almost immediately in every case, they took the biggest hits on all three, with over 250,000 dead and wounded at Passchendaele alone, and virtually no ground gained in any of them.

One of the biggest lessons I learned in reading this riveting, reinforcing work was that the leaders on both sides, but specifically the Allies in the early and middle years, were absolutely clueless as to what was going on at the front. They would order charge after charge into no man’s land, only to have entire regiments, thousands of men at a time, eradicated. Many was the time an Officer made it across and nearer to the enemy trenches, only to look around and wonder, “God, God where are all my men?” He was the only one of several thousand to remain standing. It was not unusual for five to ten thousand men to fall in one afternoon.

Yet the carnage continued with virtually no change in the battle strategy on either side until Germany, its back against the wall with the knowledge that the Yanks were coming, and coming strong, any day now, broke out of the trenches and launched a series of hugely successful raids into France and Belgium. They knew it was all or nothing, and though they made it hundreds of miles into French territory, at one point getting only 37 miles away from Paris, the advance ultimately broke down. They’d moved so fast that they’d outrun their supplies, and with no permanent defensive fortifications the British – reinforced by the now arriving Americans – rolled them all the way back to Germany and the War was, in essence, over.

No cavalry charges of any consequence were ever made. 21,000,000 killed on all sides, which didn’t include the civilian numbers in France, Belgium and around the rest of world. (Did you know there were battles in such far-flung locales as Cameroon, Mesopotamia, and the lower third of Africa? I didn’t.) The toll from the Russian Revolution, begun near the end of the War, was by itself responsible for at least 20,000,000 dead, and probably many more.

And all that was achieved was a virtual guarantee that something like the Nazi party would arise to fill the gaping holes left in Germany’s infrastructure, and that the same battlefields – and many more – would be revisited in 20 years or so.

A note on the so-called Trench Poets.

Men like Siegfried Sassoon, John McRae, Rupert Brooke, and perhaps most famously, Wilfred Owen, were brave soldiers who fought and in most cases died in battles scattered along the front lines. The fact that they could, between skirmishes and charges “over the top,” pause to reflect and capture such thoughts in verse boggles the mind.  (Note: only Wilfred Owen is mentioned in Hochschild’s book; I remembered reading about these others a few years ago and included them here knowing that such an opportunity may not present itself again any time soon.)

Some samples:

From Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches”:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.


 From McRrae’s “In Flanders Fields”:

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

            In Flanders fields.


From Brooke’s “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. . .

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And, perhaps most tragically, this quote not from one of his poems, but from a letter Wilfred Owen wrote home:

“My senses are charred. . .” When it came to sorting mail for the men in his regiment, he added, “I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters.”

He was 25. He’d been severely wounded and had spent months recovering at home in England and could have stayed there, but instead he returned to the front to ensure that his men were protected as much as possible from the folly of the generals. As his mother was celebrating with everyone in the streets of England on Armistice Day, she received a black-bordered telegram informing her that her son had been killed the week before in some gainless, nameless place she’d never heard of, one month after being awarded the Military Cross for exceptional bravery.

Hochschild may have intended his primary focus to be the lot of those who protested the War; those who refused to fight; those who promoted it from behind the lines; those who mismanaged and misunderstood it, and who sent uncounted thousands upon thousands to their deaths; but the passages which stayed with me longest and which had the strongest impact were those relaying the stories of the soldiers themselves. Their generals simply had no idea what they were asking these men to do, and couldn’t understand why their plans never, ever worked. They only produced more graves.

Which is where, for me, Hochschild’s narrative shines: in the telling of how these tremendous events affected the individual, whether at home or in the trenches, friend or foe. In this book he was able to personalize events that were truly on a worldwide scale, at the same time making them relatable to readers living nearly 100 years after these events occurred.

The verse he cites that stuck with me the most was written not by someone who lived beside these men in the trenches of France and Belgium, but from one who had employed his prodigious talents to craft untruths, to cajole and embarrass young men into enlisting and going willingly into Hell.

Conversely, in writing about Armistice Day, when the four years of previously unimaginable carnage was finally over, Thomas Hardy wrote,

Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery;

The Sinister Spirit sneered: “It had to be!”

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”

Like in all wars, arguments can be made as to whether it was pointless, or whether some end or other was achieved. But one thing common to all such conflicts is the waste of human life for what is almost always a nebulous, impossible to define gain. Our modern leaders and generals would do well to remember that, though all recent evidence indicates that they have not.

Quirky. Quaint. Quixotic. Other unusual words that begin with “q.”

Yes, each describes Eddie Vedder’s newest album, Ukulele Songs. But it doesn’t end there.

While I suspected when I heard about the project that Eddie wouldn’t be making a novelty album, that there would be some substance there, part of me also thought, “What? Really?” I didn’t quite giggle, but it was a close thing.

I’ve listened to it all the way through at least five times now, and any threat of impending giggling has completely dissipated. Though there are plenty of smile-inducing moments, none are of the derisive/incredulous variety. I shall attempt to explain.

There are plenty of examples of pure ukulele music, to be sure. Listening to his takes on 30’s and 40’s classics like “Dream a Little Dream,” “Once in a While,” and, particularly, “More Than You Know,” it’s easy to conjure pictures of men in loud Hawaiian shirts and fatigue pants, serenading their sweethearts while palms wave in the warm breeze and smiles of both sincerity and a knowing kind of “are-you-serious?” play across both of their faces. That’s not to say that these songs aren’t beautiful examples of the craft, but I’d wager that if I could travel backwards and show the 20 year old Vedder the track list of his future solo album, he’d hurt himself laughing, and/or punch me in the face. I’d never imagined that he would be drawn to such examples of the Tin Pan Alley school of songwriting. Maybe the medium made that transition easier? I think it did.

His voice, though, is surprisingly well suited for this type of crooning. Rough and gravelly still, oozing with experience and character – think Johnny Cash on any of his latter day American Recordings, where his voice was sometimes nowhere near the tune or the melody, where it almost didn’t even sound like singing, but speaking. Now subtract 50 or so years from that deep scratch and you’ll get an idea of how much of Vedder’s life experience and character seep through and into each of his songs, no matter the backing instrument.

Then there are songs that are pure Pearl Jam – they’re just played on four (or in some case five or six) string miniature guitars instead of being delivered via the crunching wall of sound we’ve all come to know, love and expect from these sorts of songs.

“Can’t Keep,” “Satellite,” “Light Today,” and “Longing to Belong,” even with its lovely cello (the only accompaniment I remember hearing on the whole disc,) could all be the stripped-back, acoustic only, demo versions of songs that he’d then take to the rest of the guys to be worked up into full blown Pearl Jams.

Not long ago I was discussing with a good friend who knows and appreciates great music as much as I do something about, but not unique to, Eddie Vedder. We concluded that he is an artist who either finds an outlet for his bottled energy, angst, anger, obsession, love, hate, confusion, frustration, et al – or doesn’t. If they don’t, they end up walking the streets, or worse. Wondering how to communicate all of these seemingly disparate thoughts, and not being able to purge them, give them birth and let others see and hear and experience them, and thus be rid of their caustic heat and acidity.

Eddie found Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, and the others in Pearl Jam – really everyone in the Seattle music community of the time – and was able to channel that brooding darkness through the filter of their instruments, that huge, crushingly liberating sound, dissipating and diluting it just a little so it wouldn’t burn us too badly (but leaving just enough that we could still feel that heat.)

Go back and listen to any of those one-word titles on 10 or vs and tell me there are not some deep-seated issues he’s working through, that it could have been anything less than cathartic to sing the words to “Jeremy,” or “Black,” or “Alive” surrounded by the beautiful anger of Gossard’s and McCready’s guitars, and (maybe more importantly) the screams from the appreciative audiences. Did they know or could they tell how purgative or even healing that process may have been to the performers? Maybe. Likely not. Who cares? They could tell something – they could see, hear and feel the authenticity of the words and music, and that was enough.

If he hadn’t survived in that crucible of raw exposure – plenty did not, and not just those from that particular scene at that particular time – he would not have been able to make Ukulele Songs. There are definitely shades of that early emotion and power here, whether it’s on the old or the new tunes – his voice is too distinctive not to leave a stamp on them. (Else why would so many imitators have come and gone in the last 20 years? I’m looking at you, Creed.)

Some of the most powerful songs on this record are the slow originals. It’s possible that he chose the uke to help deliver these missives to us for the same reason the would-be lotharios from the 40’s chose it for their moonlit serenades – the feelings are real, but maybe novelty of the instrument can also raise a smile, make them not take the message so very seriously. Or maybe he chose it so there would be almost nothing between himself and the listener. Songs like “Without You,” and this excerpt from “You’re True” are perhaps TOO true, and need to be cut with a little levity, a dash of frivolity that only the ukulele could deliver.

“’Open up,’ she said – ‘Be you. Be true.’ Now I’m at home in my own skin. . .

“Yes, you could be the one to hold my hand beneath the full moon, you could be the one – you’re true.”

A very pleasant surprise, and not at all the joke I feared it might be, this is a strong album that will always bring a smile to the surface when one of its denizens sneaks into future shuffles, as I know they will.

LOAD UP: You’re True, More Than You Know, Light Today

Longing to Belong

A quick note on the art direction and the photography used in the “booklet” that accompanies the album: phenomenal. Very striking, arresting images start with the cover and don’t let up at any point in the visual narrative. So a quick acknowledgement to the visual arts team:

Album cover sculpture & photography by Jason deCaires Taylor

Booklet photography by Danny Clinch

Aerial photography by Sonny Miller

Waterfall photography by Stefan Mentil

Chopper pilot Don Shearer

Abigail Washburn must be tired. Really tired.

Then again, I have a theory as to why she might not be as exhausted as all of her recent activities might lead one to believe.

I first heard about Abigail when she was blogging from China during the Olympics in 2008. Sounded pretty cool for an American banjo player to be tapped for that assignment, I thought. And didn’t think anything more about it, or her, for a while.

Until a good friend of mine with a similar penchant for new and unusual music told me about City of Refuge, Washburn’s latest full-length. The songs were captivating from first listen, varied and interesting enough that I started digging for more information on this Renaissance woman with such a myriad of interests and abilities.

Less than 10 years ago Washburn was studying at Colorado College, the first and only (at the time) Asian Studies major; she must have persuaded the faculty to offer one, which – after learning a bit more about this deceptively tiny woman – wouldn’t surprise me at all. The plan was, she says, that she’d go to China and study law. She’d spent significant amounts of time there on more than one trip, and felt like that’s where she might land.

Before leaving, though, she wanted to find something distinctly American to take with her, to remind her of these shores and of home.

So she picked up a banjo.

Having never played before she listened to some of the old masters, drawing particular inspiration from Doc Watson’s “Shady Grove” LP. (I know the guitar recordings of Doc and his son well, but never knew he played the banjo, too. First of several lessons Abigail had to teach me, it seemed.)

She taught herself how to hammer out some tunes – clawhammer them out, to be precise. She played with different groups of friends up and down the East Coast and before she knew it she had a record deal.

Abigail spent the next 5 years or so with Uncle Earl, an all-girl bluegrass outfit that recruited John Paul Jones to produce one of their albums. Again, that got my attention but for some reason didn’t hold it.

She recorded her first solo effort after that, which was produced by future-husband Bela Fleck. That collaboration led to the formation of Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, which included Fleck and which yielded an EP, a full-length, and extensive touring throughout North America.

After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed tens of thousands and changed the lives of many millions more, Abigail spent some time there with the volunteer relief effort. She visited villages across the affected areas and played for the locals. After these shows, she says, it was not unusual for children and adults alike to gather around and teach her their songs – trading meaningful sounds and words with each other in the midst of life-altering tragedy.

One of those children taught Abigail a song that the child’s mother – lost in the quake – used to sing to her. “Sala” would become the cornerstone of the benefit album Abigail recorded with David Liang and the Shanghai Restoration Project over the span of one week, released on the one year anniversary of the quake. (The album is called “Afterquake,” and can be purchased here:, but I prefer the slower, softer version of “Sala” released later:

The influence of these and her many other Chinese experiences inform nearly all of Washburn’s creations – whether in the ambient sounds of schoolchildren that open her latest album, the many tunes she sings in Mandarin (only one on “City,” but others available all over the Interwebs,) or the enchantingly lilting way that even her so-called traditional songs recall the Orient. The fiddle turns, the vocal structures, the pacing – there’s something about this magical melding of East and West that results in sounds that are totally unique, yet strangely comforting in their familiarity.

This love of sharing and learning isn’t confined to Eastern audiences, though. In one of her recent tour videos with the band of like-minded and equally talented musicians she’s taken to calling “The Village,” they visit an after school program in Aspen. Seated in a circle, teaching these kids old-timey traditional and new, fun songs to sing with her band providing the simple accompaniment, Washburn seems completely in her element and at home. She teaches them all to square dance (admitting in an aside to the camera, “I’ve never taught anyone to square dance before. . .”) everyone hopping and spinning and laughing uncontrollably. I’m sure those kids still carry that day with them.

I was lucky enough to see Abigail and the Village –with her husband playing in her band for much of the show (bonus!) – a few weeks ago at the Variety Playhouse here in Atlanta. Opening for The Wood Brothers in front of a near sold out crowd, Abby appeared surprisingly nervous on the first few tunes; I had expected that she’d be a jaded pro by now, unfazed by the spotlight. That brief glimpse and minor revelation added somehow to the overall charm of the show, and of Abigail herself.

She quickly got comfortable, though – the warm reception to each song probably helped – and before long she was intro-ing one of the previously mentioned Mandarin songs from the new offering: Taiyang Chulai, which she said “was taught to me by Old Lady Wong, and which means, ‘the sun has come out and we are SO happy. . .’” She also explained that when singing in traditional Mandarin, hand gestures are mandatory – the song is incomplete without them – but she was able to reassure us: “I know – it’s awkward, but it’ll be over in a minute. . .”

Abigail, Bela and the rest of "The Village" playing Taiyang Chulai at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, 5/9/11

Like the rest of the show, the gestures and the song were perfectly appropriate and melded seamlessly with the rest of the Washburn canon.

An unplugged version of “Keys to the Kingdom” was another highlight – so good it simultaneously raised both chills and goosebumps.

The liner notes on City close with a sweet plea: “If you like the music, would you send Gramma June a thank you letter?” since she and other family members helped bankroll the project.

So I did.

Dear Gramma June,

“Thanks” seems like such a small word for the incredibly huge gift you’ve helped present to the world with the City of Refuge album. I know you must be very proud of Abigail and of how the album turned out. It moved me deeply, and I listen to it often.

Thank you very much!!

I didn’t really expect a response, and after 6 or 8 weeks had passed I’d nearly forgotten about it. Waiting on me at home one day, though, was a postcard decorated in an energetic hand, saying “Thank you! With Love – Abby’s Gramma June.”

After listening to this music and reading about this diminutive, powerful presence of a woman, her history and her works, I can only conclude that her family has helped to raise and present to the world a bright heart that shines like a searchlight wherever she goes, bathing the people and places she visits in positive energy and reminding them that there is sweetness and good in what can sometimes be a dark and dreary world.

So here’s my theory: spreading and sharing such light and goodness must not diminish one’s supply, like draining a battery or a gas tank, but feed it and make it grow in the giver, too. Maybe that’s why she’s not exhausted.

Thanks, Abby. Can’t believe I thanked Gramma June and not you, too! Also can’t wait to hear all of the music and learn all of the lessons sure to flow forth in the years to come.

LOAD UP: Chains, Bring Me My Queen, Last Train

Making of City of Refuge, from Abigail’s site: