Sunday, February 27, 2011

Strum And Dang And Oom Pah Pah: An Essay On Guitar, Banjitar, And Accordion Busking

Oom Pah Pah!

I am thinking of learning (again) to play the accordion. And yes, I've heard the accordion jokes:

What's the definition of a gentleman?

Someone who knows how to play an accordion, but doesn't.

What do you call an accordionist with a beeper?

An optimist.

What's the difference between an onion and an accordion?

No one cries when you chop up an accordion.

But wouldn't an accordion be the perfect gimmick to take along on a busk? Maybe my mission is to help elevate the accordion to its former hoedown apotheosis? Especially if I were to tog up wearing the big bow tie, the wide suspenders, the wrinkled collared shirt tucked into the too short, short pants, complete with the oxford shoes and checkered stockings? I have seen Mr. Dress Up, and that is not the persona I want to deliver, not even on a busk.

That squeeze box, the accordion, is a childhood anachronism and I shall explain why.

When I was 11 years old my grandmother encouraged me to take music lessons. After all, the brothers who lived next door, Larry and Brent Hopfner had already started. Mr. Tait, a gentleman I remember with an aquiline nose, drove out from the city to our town offering guitar and accordion lessons. Larry chose guitar, Brent chose accordion, and then did I. Within a month, my grandparents purchased from Mr. Tait, a gilded pearl white 120 bass Hohner accordion. It was soon after that, that Mr. Tait, for reasons unknown to me at the time, did never again drive back to our town.

And then I met Mr. Pollard, a music teacher from a village just seven miles down Highway #43, Pambrun, Saskatchewan. My grandpa, Sid, used to load me in the cab, and my Hohner accordion in the box of his '64 Chevy half ton, and taxi me to lessons. Besides being the perfect gentleman, Mr. Pollard was also the perfect accordion teacher. For each lesson, the gnarly blond-haired Mr. Pollard always wore his soft brown suit jacket, rolling it off now and then to show me, with his banana fingers, just how to staccato this key and how to press that bass button. I remember really liking Mr. Pollard, and for whatever reason, I remember his wife, too, being the most pleasant person on Earth. Mrs. Pollard had long and straight bister locks and her name was Ramona.

David and Ramona Pollard, wherever you are, you are always on my mind!

In my adulthood I've met just two accordionists, Freeman and Roland, neither of whom in the costume of Mr. Dress Up.

It was on the six hour ferry crossing from Prince Edward Island to Newfoundland that I met Freeman. Freeman was an accordionist who performed at the multitude of summer music festivals throughout the Canadian Maritimes. With my wife and my son, and my son's girlfriend, I was drinking a beer in the boat lounge listening to Joe Fahey, an islander from Cape Breton, belt out some familiar and some unfamiliar sea shanties. Between sets, Joe asked if I would sing a couple of songs (which I did – House of the Rising Sun and Knocking on Heaven's Door). Freeman, too was in the audience, and joined us with his accordion. Freeman was a barrel of a man who was a barrel of fun.

That kind of musical ability is very rare, even here in the Maritimes, stated Joe of Freemen at the finish of the set.

As for Joe, he was an excellent singer and wonderful entertainer. He had the folk look, the shining unruly, silver hair complementing his silver goatee. We chatted a couple times over the phone shortly after, but I've since lost contact. I'm sure he is still singing shanties and sea songs and selling CD's somewhere on Cape Bretan Island.

And to Joe and Freeman, if ever you are reading this blog:

May you both be in Heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you're dead!

In Victoria, British Columbia I met Roland whose busking persona, is thee famous Pierre St. Pierre, mechanical musical marvel, L'Accordeoniste Automatique. (Google him – you'll love him!) Roland is an accomplished accordion virtuoso. As a statue he stands, rigid, in costume covering his demure stature and wire raven hair. When you toss coins into his busk/start box, he instantly becomes an accordion playing automation. Roland is a veteran street entertainer and spends half of each year busking in Paris, France.

As I practice, I am beginning again to acquire a liking for accordion music, but not for than more than two songs in a row. And I quite like the novelty of bringing an accordion out on a busk. In a way, bringing out the banjitar was a novelty during my guitar busking days. Now my banjitar is the norm, my 12-string the novelty.

Dang it all, when busking with my banjitar I do not want to present a hillbilly performance, and to avoid such, I dress crisply for the occasion. I always wear a long-sleeved white shirt, complete with starched collar. For leggings I wear the usual worn Levi's. On my feet I wear my walking leather boots, and on my noggin I always wear a bowler or a tam.

My choice of songs, while frailing my banjitar, is either familiar folk or a scattering of originals. Not strangely, nor does it matter, but when I play the banjitar I do not sing, because eveb if I did, no one could discern the words and melodies above the corny and tinny sound pickings.

It is time for a banjitar joke:

How can you tell the difference between banjitar songs?

By the song titles.

I am the most comfortable in my attire when I busk with my 12-string. I am in always the work boots, the faded jeans, and the t. More often than not, I wear the cool shades (a no-no I know when busking). With my guitar on a busk, I only strum, and I usually play and sing 60's folk songs.

And now for some guitar jokes:

What's the difference between a folk guitarist and a large pizza?

A large pizza can feed a family of four.

What's the difference between a guitarist and a savings bond?

Eventually the savings bond will mature and earn money.

How long does it take to tune a 12 string guitar?

Nobody knows.

And my favorite, What does a guitarist say when he gets to his gig?

Would you like fries with that?

I have it! Here is my hypothesis: I adjure that if you want to be successful as a street musician, you must learn to mix it up, learn new instruments for both yourself and your sidewalk consumers (though my proof is not yet in the pedestrian pudding)!

Buskers, let us band together, support one another, in our ambi-instrumentous ambitions!

I shall conclude with another accordion joke:

If you drop an accordion and a set of bagpipes off a 20-story building, which one lands first?

Who cares?

I wonder where one buys bagpipes anyway … Somebody stop me!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Pursuit Of Happiness: An Essay On The Qualitative Values Of Buskingdom

Whilst freeze-wrapped in wintry surroundings, within a couple short months my woolgathering imaginings of my littoral busks, congruent with my bastardized phrases of John Masefield (the shiny white gulls clamouring in the cerulean sky; among the flung sprays and the blown spumes; where the wind's like a whetted knife) are soon to be real. After all, April showers do May flowers bring! My vagrant gypsy life is soon to begin again – I can almost taste the sea salt!

'Tis almost time to thaw, enhance my blogging webhead days, and dance into the Buskingdom of summer. And I need not remind myself that such dancing in the street can be a mix of magical maxixes and parlous pirouettes. Depending upon the hour of the day, in early aft and eve, most audience members will smile and applaud; but anytime aft midnight, some of those members will likely be drunkards, untoward and belligerent. (Ahh! Such are the adventures and vagaries of street entertainers.)

We all know that life is ephemeral, that the continuum from birth to death is but a fillip, 78 years for males, 82 years for females. And we know that the older we get, the faster it (life) flies. But do we know that those of us who yen to busk ought to go busk?

We, as sentient beings, have the gift of introspection. We are constantly creating and pondering some existential questions on the values of our lives. Is my life important? How can I contribute? What do I do that excites and challenges? Am I addressing my passions? Am I achieving excellence?

Eventually, some of us will decide that our pursuit of happiness can only be achieved by busking. (What began as a sidequest for me has resulted in a busking obsession. Is it possible for an obsession to be a source of happiness? Generally, in Psychology, the answer is no. But specifically in my personal fable, the answer is yes.) Those of us who have fallen into the obsession of Buskingdom, further our flight/freefall into a kind Hobson's choice, which is really no choice at all. We can only be self-actualized (truly happy) when we become buskers; if we decide not to busk, then we are deciding to keep our lives forever drizzmal.

And how is it that one is able to discover so much happiness while performing on the street? From a faux busker point of view, here are my faux sapient notions of happiness and street entertaining:

  • Come Springtime all my infirm, gathered from the ponderous band life of equipment lugging and loading, magically fritters away, making way for the necessary walkative vigor seemingly enkindled by the summer sun on the sidewalks.
  • During my band months in Winter, I always have to tog up; during my buskations in Summer, I can dress down if I so desire.
  • Being a faux busker, I am seasonally incognito. The people for which I perform no nothing of my existence when I am off the summer swards and sidewalks. Busking, I think, would be too infra dig for most of my passers by, and to extrapolate this thought just a stretch more, a significant number of those pedestrians passing by consider me to be just a beggar with a banjitar.

According to a significant collection of folk, the streets in the summer of Buskingdom are but glut of beggars and ne'er do wells. This may be true. It is also true that this destination resort of Buskingdom, if ripe with buskers … is rich in happiness.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

From Heartache To Headache: An Essay On Being A Real Busker

So you want to be a busker. Really? All those romantic imaginings of following the sun; on the Riviera one day, the Mediterranean the next day, nothing but blue skies and chirping birds and the cacophonies of applause and the clinking of coins and the swishes of bills being tossed into your busk pot. Typically, these are the romantic idyllic descriptions I fantasize all Winter long, as I prepare for my Spring buskations.

If you are you ready to abdicate the middle class work routine of your regular life, and if you are ready to abdicate all of your accustomed creature comforts, then indeed, you are ready for entry into the alterity of buskingdom. But before saying your long goodbye's to your family, friends, and workmates, let us examine the sustenance and shelter budget of a busker.

Income: On a really good day a busker can bring in around $40 per hour for a two hour day, and given the endurance of a busker, another hour or so will bring in another, say, 20 dollars. The daily intake can generously be determined to be $100.

On a weekly basis, 100 dollar days will likely be limited to 3.

To be generous, let's calculate it to 4, making the weekly total to be 100 X 4 = $400.

Monthly income then would be 400 X 4 = $1600.

Expenses: Breakfast $5.00 (at a cafe)

Lunch 7.00 (at a market)

Supper 10.00 (at a market and including a wine or beer)

Total: $22.00 X 7 days a week = $154.00.

Monthly sustenance then would be 154 X 4 = $616.

Expenses: Rent

Monthly rent would be approximately $1000.

Monthly expenses for just sustenance and shelter total $1616.

Yes! That cold, black cloud is coming down; I've yet to calculate travel (never mind instrument maintenance and costume) and I'm already sixteen dollars in the red!

No matter. To acquiesce into the realm of buskingdom is akin to being accursed; once smitten by the busk, you shall be forever under its spell. You'll transmogrify into a personified anachronism of your previous state, and like the song says, between Heaven and Hell you'll have grand stories to tell.

(Maybe you'll start blogging!)

Once you're a busker, take heed. Your early career moments of angst will become cursory days of perfunctory performance. The romantic notion of delivering your aureate songs shall be quickly reduced to warblings of polished pewter, due to the economy of time and the baptism of fire.

Once you're a busker, remember you are neither a groundling nor a rapscallion, but rather a modern day Paladin on a lifetime emprise.

Once you're a busker, even though hundreds of strangers in the day will be exchanging glances, your sociability shall more than likely be hours of oneversations (soliliquies) and nonversations (talking to nobody).

Once you're a busker, the continuum from romance to reality is really succumbing to the heartache and longing to be a busker, to arriving to the headache and empiricism of actually being a busker.

Once you're a busker, your days of toil in the state of buskingdom, (as in other careers) shall prove to be a stick-and-carrot enterprise, the daily grind the stick, the smiles and applause and cash, the carrot.

Once you're a busker, your days in buskingdom will be either adventure or foppery, the weather and your spirits being the judges.

To conclude, putting a notion into motion takes considerable jam, and to keep in cliche …

A bad day busking is better than a good day at the office.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

From Niagara To Viagra: An Essay On Sexuality And The Axemen

From emerging adulthood to sexy senior citizenship, guys with guitars will always attract the ladies (band bunnies being just one sexist example of the popular culture). Certain female fans do become infatuated with guitar guys and oftentimes, guitar guys become infatuated with their female fans.

In a line: Condoms replace doldrums. As quickly as the stage can be cleared, some of the ladies from the ruck of fans will be consumed by the guitar guy, anticipating a pedestal evening of lust and sexual adventure. When the sun goes down, and the drinks, and the drugs, and the music comes up, so doeth the f/risky behaviors. These are the perfect storm conditions for the abandonment of fidelity and loyalty, both being readily displaced for compulsion and passion. Betrothed or not, these ladies will solely be preoccupied and absorbed in the idea of carnal pleasure, excluding all their common sense values in the pursuit. (These wanting ladies shall be easily recognized by their flicking eyelids and tittupping physical manoeuvres on the dance floor!)

I'd like to present to the reader some sweat equity questions:

  • Am I implying that guitar guys and their one-night stands have loose morals?
  • Am I implying that guitar guys and their one-night stands typically overvalue one another because of their compulsory natures in the heat of the musical moments?
  • Am I projecting the stereotypical sexist nature between these narcissistic guitar beasts and their flummoxed dancing beauties?
  • Are these namby-pamby night club attractions representative of physical attractions elsewhere and everywhere?

Also, I'd like to present to the reader some sexual philosophy on age:

Age is what it is, a number. Age determines when we can go to school, drive a car, vote, and go to war. We also have a biological age of which some of us are luckier than others. The age for sex is not just for the young. Fact. Men and women like have sex well into late life. Though our sexuality changes as we mature, our aging does not end our sex lives.

In our spring and salad years we are hot, hot, hot. In our autumn years our bodies begin to wrinkle and our leafs begin to curl. In our winter years, where there's a will there's a way. (We may not be having penis-vagina intercourse, but we will still have our hands, our mouths, and the coolest of sex toys.)

By the very nature of our sexuality, as long we keep our guitars strumming, we shall be desired.

I'm not just talking about Beatlemania or Bieber Fever guitarists. I am suggesting (in sexist fashion) that alas, fellow buskers, there is no need to be chopfallen and jealous of any bandsters and their guitar antics. Even for we, buskers, (again in sexist fashion) there'll always be available, the choicest of luscious ladies who are ripe and ready for our pickins'.

Erotic impulses are going to last our lifetime. All of our sexual rendezvous, from those honeymoon evenings in Niagra, to those afternoon tea time tete-a-tetes in the nursing home, are just reminders to keep in mind, guitar guys ...

that we have the rest of our livelong days to keep grinding that axe!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

'Til The Busking Begins Again: An Argy-Bargy On My Bandmates And My Banjitar

Alas, the clime here is not yet clement enough for busking, and so it gives me time and a certain delight to give some gossip about my bandmates and to brag about my banjitar.

Asunder, our band, the Grand Trunk Troubadours (GTT) is a collective of eight characters: singers Lillie, Judy, and Christina; guitar players Bill and Steve; Eric on the fiddle, Baron on the cajon, and I (basso profundo), on my banjitar. Lillie and Judy and Christina can play keyboards. Judy can also play the saxophone, and Christina can play the guitar. Christina and Judy are our pots & pans (auxiliary percussionists), and Lillie creates our song list and is our master of ceremonies for every gig. Lillie, as an MC, is not one to dissertate, since less chat means more singing!

Lillie sings soprano; Judy sings soprano and alto; Christina sings alto. Lillie and Judy and Christina are all distinctive and attractive vocalists, desirable assets for any band! Other singers in the GTT include Bill, who is a countrified baritone, Eric, a bluesy baritone, and myself, restricted to being a basso profundo.

Bill's guitar playing style is perspicuous; he is steady-eddy, having his cadence constant and predictable, and therefore putting those singers, within his proximity, at ease. Steve adds a choppy, punk-like rhythm into his guitar playing, providing our background beats a much needed modern appeal. Our congero, Baron, plays his invented and mean beats on congas, bongos, djembes, and cajon. The ever panglossian Eric plays the fiddle by ear or by note, his bow strokes sending violin chords eerily into our audiences, seemingly transcending all those strumming guitar sounds being emitted below. (Retrospectively, our band sound before Eric might be described as ennui.) Being the least skilled of our guitar players, I am redeemed only because of my fingerstyle technique on the twelve-string, and by my frailing fingers on the banjitar.

Ah … the banjitar!

1880's London. The Zither banjo is introduced. 1920's America. The six-stringed Zither is referred to as a banjitar, and is regarded as a serious solo instrument among swing and jazz musicians. And now in 2011, call it whatever, guitar banjo, guitjo, ganjo, or banjitar – Neil Young, Keith Urban, Bruce Springsteen, Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies), and Kevin Hayes (Old Crow Medicine Show -- pictured above) are just some of the signature names attached to it.

The banjitar is a percussion instrument that casts an empty, yet catchy, hollow string-stretched-over-a-barrel sound into its audience, and is quite endearing upon the moment it is strummed. In a band or on a busk, my banjitar has become very requisite to my identity and I love it (my banjitar and my identity)!

Back to the band. Our songs are varied because of our band philosophy: In the interests of band comity, all band members are given the opportunity to, and in fact encouraged to, sing. Should a member decide to sing, that member shall freely select from any genre his/her desired song. When the song is picked, it is incumbent upon the rest of the band members to contribute to that song in any way they can, attempting to make it the best song ever for the principal singer. For the most part, the songs chosen happen to be mostly from folk, country, 60's and, 70's pop. So far, it seems the tunes we've chosen are never demode, fresh even, in the sense that some of them haven't been listened to for ages! Soi-disant, and from the people that know us, the consensus is that we are a folk band.

In the beginning I do believe we were a cacophony of sorts, but now after seven years of steady gigging, our phone rings constantly. Regarding performances, we generally present very well, even though we do seem frenetic when it comes to start times and sound checks. The GTT has the standard time of 7 o'clock. Our pattern arrivals are as follows: Lillie arrives first, and plays the house piano until we're set up. Baron and I arrive right after Lillie, and we set up the microphones, amp, and monitors. Then Bill arrives, and sets up the speakers. Then comes Judy, Christina, Steve, and Eric. With five minutes remaining to start time, we do our sound checks, and this is always a bit hectic. Check. One. Two. Three. Check. One. Two. Three. Seems simple to write but proves difficult to be stated over and over again into the microphones until Christina gives the thumbs up on all five of them. I don't really know if this brief moment of perceived chaos creates any bias on the part of our audience members, but I cannot imagine it as having any effects that are positive.

However; saying this, the GTT has immeasurable positive qualities, one especially being that we are never a bully pulpit -- we keep our comments in our songs. And more importantly, because none of our members require the sustenance dollars our gigs provide, the GTT is but a sidequest for us all.

And all of us are in the Grand Trunk Troubadours for but one reason – Enjoyment!