Sunday, August 15, 2010

An old Ukulele

About a month ago, my wife came home and said "you should play the Ukulele". Seems she was provoked by a fellow at the art gallery she volunteers at who was learning.
This was coupled by the odd fact that she had been talking about learning the banjo lately. Now, understand there is always music playing in our house and she, in 18 years, has never expressed any interest in learning anything in spite of the fact that there are instruments all over the place.
Noting that a Banjo is a pretty expensive proposition and worried she would not stick with it, I figured I would run out to the music store and buy her an Ukulele...precisely what I got her, a $45 Makala Soprano that has a decent sound and intonation (it is what it is, but far better than anything else in that price range) and look what happened...she loves it.
Nightly practice got me going, and I figured it was time I had one too- went out and got a matching Makala Tenor (again, not the greatest Uke, but passable for a learner).  The nights of practicing and laughing became more fun with two, and I realized it was time for a homecoming.
Ukulele was my first instrument in fact. I guess we are here to tell the story-right?
In college, we all worked at a pet store. My girlfriend (now my wife), my friends- one big happy family. At the front counter was a gal we will call Shirley. Older than the rest of us and having just lost her husband (who was another 30 years her senior), a bit emotionally fragile and obviously extremely lonely. We all did what we could to include her in our tom-foolery and little jokes and make her smile. Probably a good move on my part in hindsight, but I try to be nice to everyone.
"Do you play and instrument?" she asks one day.
"Nope" I replied.
"Would you like to play an instrument?"
"Well sure- I suppose that is next on the list of things to do." I smiled and went back to work.
A few days later she comes in and hands me the tiniest, rattiest looking guitar case I have ever seen..."what the hell is that?"
"It was my husbands- it's a Ukulele".
Hilarious! This is going to be so rad- I am going to play punk rock covers all day on this thing...perfect.
"OK- but you have to promise to play me "Let me call you sweetheart" someday"
"Righto- when I figure it out...done"
So that last bit was a little weird (being a song her husband obviously played for her) but I am over it. I have a little tiny guitar and I am off to the music store for new strings and a songbook (hmmm- Let me call you sweetheart...the RAMONES don't do that, so I am stuck).
Thinking of course that a Uke is just a toy and I have some ancient neglected thing in my box here, I begin to dream about a real guitar. Better call dad first and see if I can figure out how to read music.
Sufficed to say, pops is excited I am playing ANYTHING as I had never shown interest until now, but I tell him I want a guitar. He says to come down and we can go guitar shopping, so about two weeks later I do just that, armed with three Uke chords and a fistfull of money.
"So let me see it"
"You didn't tell me it was a Martin! I think that's a pretty good one."
"Hmm- wanna see me play a RAMONES cover on it?"
Off to shop we go...and I quickly realize that, like my father, I was not given great hands for guitar. Crestfallen, on a whim Dad suggest we go to Gryphon Stringed Instruments- local Martin Dealer and experts. OK. Sure. I am a little pissed at this point that I am doomed to spend the rest of my life playing this little novelty, so we head off in the car and write the most flattering Ukulele punk rock song I can imagine for my girlfriend- she was ecstatic.
Anyway- Martin dealer is pretty excited about this little guy when I open the case, and starts offering money for it. He never once told me what it was worth, but he was bantering around $700. Wait- are Ukuleles worth $700? Who the heck buys something like that?
Confused, intrigued and a little heartbroken yet, I look at dad (who now loves this thing more than anyone) and I said to him "I ain't selling it- it was a gift. Not to mention it is a really cool one and I will just regret it later- will you take it so I am not in a position to pawn it?"
"Sure" he says..."What about the accordion?"
There is a whole different really crazy story regarding the accordion, but I can say there are now 18 of them in my house. I love playing them and I will be sure to tell you how an accordion last seen in 1964 just pops up out of nowhere soon. This is how my life works.
So when I called him last week to see if he ever played it he said no, but that he likes to show it off. With good reason...but I figured we would play it, so today it came home. Let me tell you what I know about my little jumping flea.
This little gem is a Martin Type 3M (meaning Mahogany) Ukulele. The style 3 was a "professional" model and production began on it in 1920. There was also a Koa version before the war (until Koa became hard to get). You can tell it is a style 3 by the intricate binding (the stuff on the edges), the fact that the fretboard extends to the sound hole (ROCKSTAR NOTES!), and the characteristic "skunk stripe" on the fretboard. A fancier "Type 5" was made until 1943, but it is my understanding that those would have "mother of pearl" binding and inlay- I have never seen one.
This one is post 1940 I have learned, because that is when the shift went from diamond markers on the fret board to circular ones. Now here is the funny part. Apparently, the celluloid whoop-de-do at the bottom was discontinued in 1940...leaving me with a real dilemma. Is this a 1940 that was caught in those changes mid way? That is where my knowledge ends and I hope to get some help.
In any event...this is one great little Uke and I am glad I had the foresight to save it from a trade in for brakes for my 83 Subaru (what a piece of crap that was). I take myself a lot less seriously now than I did then, and I am happily a Uke player, without reservations.
While it is priceless to me, I am estimating it's value based on searching for them and condition at over $2500...who the heck would buy an Ukulele for that much money? Oh well, I can't be tempted is safe with me forever.
Thanks for reading,

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sergeant Stubby, an American Hero

It seems that being a Pitbull owner, I am always called to task on my dog.
How does a dog breed that was the most popular in the states during WW1 become so maligned? The Pitbull was used as a symbol of America during the "Great War" and now it is a symbol of fear and hatred...a puzzle for sure.
I suppose we ought to get out of the way what Pitbulls are, and what they are not.
I have learned everything I know of the breed from a little dog who often occupies the space directly aside me, a rescue that was badly abused for the first part of her life, but has turned into my best friend.
Pitbulls are an ancient breed, going back to the mollosoid dogs who were kicking around in the time of Claudius (50 AD), which eventually evolved into all Mastiff and Bull breeds. They have, in their entirety (meaning all breeds of Mastiff and Bull Dog) always been used for war, fighting and hunting, as well as baiting cattle and farm work.
By and large, most of these breeds are "capable" of a few things as a being extreme ferociousness toward other animals, another being an unwaivering loyalty to their masters. That said, some "Pits" are ALWAYS going to be dog aggressive (what terrier is not?) and some are ALWAYS going to have prey dive instincts (again- terrier folks). They are also, for their size, remarkably powerful animals. They do not "lock" their jaws though...they are just stronger than most breeds in that respect, and capable of great focus (as well as often complete lack of focus, like any other dog).
OK- enough about Pit Bulls as a breed, I have no need to justify mine as I know what she is capable of. She does not (and will never) like other dogs for the most part, and she is never going to make friends with wildlife, so she stays on a leash when we are out, and lives in a well-contained yard. I suppose I ought to point out that I firmly believe that ANY particular dog that shows unprovoked aggression to a human ought to be destroyed. Aggression toward humans happens in all breeds, but a quick look at the ATTS site will show that it happens with Pit Bulls about as often as it does with Golden Retrievers. Know that aggression toward humans and aggression toward other dogs are two very different things in a dog brain...righto- on to our story.

While researching stories to tell people about how cool Pit Bulls are (seeing how they have the market on lousy press covered) I found out about this fascinating little fellow above, and wanted to share his story with as many folks as possible.
Sergeant Stubby was found roaming around Yale as a year or two old pup by a Mr. John Robert Conroy, who was in training to go to war. Stubby learned to march with Conroy, learned the Bugle calls, boosted the moral of the young men about to go to war and even learned the appropriate (modified for dog limbs of course). He was seen as an asset in training camp and thus, was allowed to stay. That however, is not the end of Stubby's service, and the cute nickname he was given (Sergeant) is not a nick name at is a rank, awarded through combat. 
Through basic training, Stubby had become the mascot for the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division, and when the lads shipped off to France on the SS Minnesota, Stubby was aboard in a coal bin until his cover was blown. He charmed the men on the ship, and went on to charming the commanding officer in France (with a salute). On February 5th 1918, Stubby accompanied the 102nd to the front lines under special orders as their mascot and began his active war time career.
Stubby learned to deal with artillery fire, and became so sensitive to it that when he heard incoming artillery he would dive into a trench. It got so the other men would follow his lead as remember, dogs can hear a lot better than we can. Stubby's first injury was  during a poison gas attack, and he developed a sensitivity to that as well, allowing the men to know when the slightest traces of gas were present (again- dog senses work way better than ours). 
Stubby also took on some shrapnel in the war, from a hand grenade thrown by retreating Germans. No worries though, he went back from the line to convalesce and then proceeded about his business of boosting moral for the injured while he healed. 
Among Stubby's many talents was also the fact that he could find wounded men in the trenches and alert the troops to the need for medical attention. It is assumed he did this by listening for English and then barking, but it may have just as easily been the smell of his fellow men that he found. 
Stubby's most historical act was when he single handedly captured a German spy. I imagine him stretched out next to Conroy in the trenches the way my dog does with me every night, end then suddenly pricking his ears for a minute (this plays out in our house often) before bounding off toward whatever the offending intruder may be. What Conroy found when he got up to investigate was a German prowler reeling and spinning, trying to ward off the snarling little ball of enthusiasm that had latched onto his rear end and was not going to let go. It is for this act that Stubby is the only dog to ever be awarded the rank of Sergeant in combat. 
The coat Stubby is wearing above was made for him and lovingly embroidered  by the women of Chateau-Theirry, and to the best of my knowledge, still adorns the stuffed body of Stubby where he rests in the Smithsonian Museum. 
Stubby served in, by the wars end, 17 battles. 
His coat displays:
3 service stripes
a Yankee Division YD patch
French Medal Battle Of Verdun
1st annual American Legion Convention Medal 
New Haven World War I Veterans Medal
Republic of France Grande War Medal
St Mihiel Campaign Medal
A wound stripe, replaced with a Purple Heart when it was introduced in 1932
Chateau Thierry Campaign Medal
6th Annual American Legion Convention
Humane Education Society Gold Medal 
   Awarded by General John Pershing, who declared him a "hero of the highest caliber."
Stubby was also made a lifetime member of the Red Cross, the YMCA, and the American Legion. He met three Presidents (Wilson, Harding and Coolidge), and accompanied Conroy to Georgetown in pursuit of a law degree post war, where he became the familiar mascot there as well.


As an important aside, I need to mention that Stubby is not the only dog to serve in war time. 4000 dogs served in the ten year campaign in Vietnam, and only 204 returned. None were returned to civilian life, leading us to believe they were either euthanized, died in combat or turned over to the South Vietnamese Army before we left the war. There are so many heroes of war, but these ones were all but forgotten. 
It has recently come to my attention that the Memorial in D.C. to Vietnam Dogs has been built, but I can't find it anywhere. If anyone has pictures or links to share- please do so. 
Be on the look out for some research into the Dogs of Vietnam soon.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Las Vegas?

Well, it was at least interesting. This week I had a chance to finally go to Las Vegas, which turned out far different than I expected for sure.
The occasion was a teaching conference, and well...needless to say, adding 4000 teachers to any landscape makes it a little more surreal. Anyway- I will not bore you with what I learned about implementing curriculum and practice so it is accessible to all students.
I guess I am too sentimental for this world. I was expecting the greats, and an homage to the old days at every corner. We stayed in the Riviera, which I think is the oldest Casino on the strip. Dean Martin did a stint there in 70-71, and apparently left nothing behind but a picture near a stage where now a bunch of certainly decrepit (I did not attend the show) women a little past their prime dance around nude.
For the traveler who is considering LV as a destination, I can offer a few words of advice. For me the best part is the ride home. This is quite possibly the most depressing place on the planet, and the state of our economy only makes it more so.
First, it is HOT. Our trip was greeted with 110 + temperatures, and the lowest temperature I could get was at 8 AM, when it was 91 degrees. Now, I live in a place that gets warm, but that is RIDICULOUS.
I met maybe one person who was happy with their job. The fellow who was the lifeguard at the "Riv" pool seemed as though he was happy with where he was in life...could have been the gaggle of young teachers from Tennessee that were enjoying the sun and splayed all over the patio in nearly nothing, but I am just saying. Oh yes, and the waiters and waitresses at the Restaurants. I will say this- Las Vegas has the best wait-staff on the planet, proven at three different locations. Other then that, everyone else I encountered had this dead, hollow look on their face, or worse, was pissed off that I was inconveniencing them by being anywhere near them (especially if I was not handing them money). I know you are supposed to tip hotel staff (Bellman, Bus drivers etc.) but the only tips I gave were to my frequent cabbies, as they were mostly good as well (and saving me from unbearable heat).
Night Life...well, my town is only 7000 people, so at first, this was overwhelmingly interesting. That lasted three minutes. The perpetually lonely throwing money away, the weddings (we saw three...not one person was over 20 and I am betting they last a week at best), the teachers (you can learn to pick us out of any crowd) and well, what I affectionately deemed the "slut parade". Remember that really pretty girl in college you saw barfing into her hair after that party? She is in Las Vegas now, and at 9 o'clock on the dot, she makes her way to the bar for an $11 cocktail before heading to a private club most of us could never hope to get into, only to highly probably end up barfing on herself all over again when the night is done. SHe is still fun to glimpse...and still equally as nauseating. Unfortunately, I missed the front row balcony sex on the strip others in our party were treated to...that is not to say I did not collect my share of completely shocking experiences that will forever taint my view of our species (and to the 20 somethings that kept hitting the bathroom and coming out rubbing their noses...we all know why).
I suppose I ought to say something positive...the people I work with are outrageously funny. While I am glad there was no HR person around to continually count our miss-steps in the realm of appropriate, I will forever remember some of things I heard come out of co-workers mouths (and probably regret where I took them after that...oops). That, and I came home $18 heavier after a round of penny slots. Thank you Las Vegas for teaching me exactly what I do not like about my species, thank you for showing me what conspicuous over-consumption looks like in a ravaged economy, and thank you for clearly deciding what my future travel plans will not be. I am so glad to be home.

Friday, July 9, 2010

So where have the Bones been?

The beloved bones all but disappeared for the last fifty years, fading in popularity as the Minstrel Show lost in popularity to Jazz and Blues and beyond (least I figure that is what it was). Mixed blessing seems that all the "bad" things from the minstrel show have in at least some part as we unconsciously dump our racial epithet  on our pancakes...and yet the music has died. Bummer, because the music was AMAZING.
You can bet there is more to come, but we hit a snag with the bones playing. These suckers are LOUD!
In order to preserve some semblance of domestic tranquility...I have visited Scott again at Dry Bone Musical Instrument Company and ordered more bones, this time of a quieter variety. I got a pair of plastic ones and a pair Pine ones (soft wood..quiet tone, totally makes sense), making us hitting at 7 pairs in two weeks...
uh oh.

Today, we play the Bones

Today I got tired of the ongoing project we have going (we are painting all the kitchen cabinets a fifties green color- it look AWESOME but it is WORK...I hate work), so I got out my minstrel bones for a little clickity clackety fun. 
Most folks have never seen a set of Rhythm Bones...or maybe seen them in an antique store, but all sources point to the fact that these are probably the first instrument humans ever played. Of course, that is in the name right? The things were originally made from table scraps...easy enough. 
In any event, these things have captivated me. I saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops  about two weeks ago and one of them, Dom Flemons came on stage with a pair of Bones and played them so well...I had to have a pair. 
Here- let me show you

SO, I immediately went out to the yard and searched for some hardwood...
Another story all together. The first Bones got here via Irish immigrants, were still made of bones, and were played with only one hand. It was the African American musician who played with two hands, and it was in America that the bones began to be made out of hardwood.
Mine aren't so bad- I fiddled with the design a bit and made three pairs, but information was HARD to find. In fact, I think I found one scholarly paper written about the bones (it is here if you're interested). I made them from an old wine barrel and it took me hours, but I am pleased with them. I also finished them in fresh beeswax right from my hives (which makes a fantastic polish).

Right- had to watch a little more...funny enough, if you all don't know, that song is a modern R&B tune, I think it was a hit a few years back. Of course, I think the original is not a spot on this one, but that is me.
Back to the Bones...I began to play with the sets I made and it dawned on me that I had never even held a set made by someone who had actually played them- off to see what I could find.
I stumbled upon Bone Dry Musical Instrument Company, and as luck would have it, Scott, the proprietor is a  Bone man, and knows a TON about these things. If you are interested in starting to play- I definitely recommend going there and looking around. I got two sets of unfinished, in Oak and Walnut, and began to clack...they are way better than mine for control it turns out.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What's on my Ipod ?

Why not start this Blog out with my favorite subject, Music?
The link above is to my little radio show, where I tend to play mostly classic reggae, rocksteady, ska, soul and funk music. My collection grows daily, and this latest little bit is some rare and not so rare Northern Soul. Give it a go and let me know what you think huh? Here's a tracklist...
1.It’s All Right- The Impressions 
2.Irresistible You- Billy Harner 
3.They’ll Never Know Why- Freddie Chavez 
4.Lucky Lucky Me- Jimmy Ruffin 
5.Under The Moon- Rufus Wonder 
6.Sliced Tomatoes- Just Brothers 
7.Crackin’ Up Over You- Roy Hamilton 
8.Let Your Love Shine- Lester Young 
9.Push a Little Bit Harder- The Metros 
10.Why When The Love Is Gone- The Originals 
11.Time- Edwin Starr 
12.Do The Skin- Kennard Garner 
13.I’m Coming To Your Rescue- The Triumphs 
14.She’s Puttin’ You On- United Four 
15.Dancing With My Baby- TKO 
16.Souly Ghost- Spinners 
17.Get Away From Me Girl- Willie West 
18.You’ve Been Away- Rubin Parker 
19.Gonna Wait For You- The Pentagons 
20.Shake and Vibrate- Sir Latimore

Track 10 just hit again as I have had the Soul in constant rotation lately...that tune is SOLID!

Made a thingy over there -------->
that will always have my current show ready for you.
Aren't I clever?