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One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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I remember several memorable musical moments in my life. There was the Vancouver Folk Festival where I first heard Stan Rogers singing “The Witch of the Westmoreland” against the reflection of the sunset on the eastern clouds, and the first time Spirit of the West played the Commodore, when our table on the sprung dance floor was bouncing up and down. I remember, too, hearing Loreena McKennitt at the Mythopoeic Conference I helped organized, her voice floating through the hall while the crowd was open-mouthed and silent. But so far the greatest was hearing June Tabor and OysterBand doing their sendup cover of The Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.

The venue was the pub on the old Expo 86 grounds. I forget what it was being called at the time; several incarnations came and went before the fact that the space wasn’t commercially viable became obvious. It was a big space, and too far from the beaten path to attract many people.

The exception was the night that OysterBand and June Tabor performed, and you could see that the waiters were not happy with the crowd. It was a crowd that had come to listen, not to buy drinks, no matter how hard the waiters tried. I don’t know about anyone else, but after about the eighth invitation to buy another drink, Trish and I took to ignoring the waiters’ unsubtle persistence, except to turn away and face the stage more squarely.

If you have heard OysterBand live, it goes without saying that the set started fast and continued with almost perfect orchestration, the slow and softer numbers coming at exactly the right places to provide a change from the faster and harder ones. If you have heard June Tabor in any medium, it also goes without saying that her voice could make you world-weary or arouse tears just by the way she emphasized the right word. As usual, her voice with its faintly Northern accent sounded like that of a survivor, tough and proud and knowing everything there is to know about suffering.

We wished the set would never end, but eventually it did end. A long pause followed, and just as the last chances of an encore seemed to disappear, the lights turned psychedelic. Clouds of dry-ice started to obscure the stage, and June Tabor could be seen in a leather mini-skirt, striking a pose like the young Grace Slick, although she was forty-five at the time. She looked stunning – not just beautiful or sexy, although she had something of both, but someone both totally in command of the audience, yet simultaneously camping it up and not wanting anyone to take her completely seriously.

A few people in the audience took up her unspoken invitation and laughed. A few of us recognized the opening strains of “White Rabbit.” Like me, most of them probably expected a few notes, a reference like other bands at the time might make to “Stairway to Heaven” before segueing into another song altogether.

But after a few bars, the members of OysterBand appear to one side of Tabor, and the light show began to imitate that of the video in which The Airplane performed “White Rabbit” on The Smothers Brothers’ show. Slowly, Tabor began singing the first two lines of the song, “One pill makes you smaller / And one pill makes you small.” At the end of the lines, you could hear her accent.

By the third line, Tabor was no longer camping, but singing with exactly the suppressed passion of Grace Slick, almost sounding like Slick except for the burr in her voice.

The difference was that, while Slick sounds ambiguous on “White Rabbit,” Tabor sounded angry. Simply by emphasizing “ones,” she made the line, “And the ones that mother gives you” sound angry and contemptuous. In a single word, she seemed to dismiss convention

The contempt continued in the next line. Under Tabor’s phrasing, “go ask Alice” became bitterly sarcastic and so did the very idea that Alice could tell anyone anything “when she’s ten feet tall.” Just by emphasizing “chasing,” she conveyed the idea that “chasing rabbits” was a ludicrous pastime. Listening, I felt she was giving me personally an extensive tongue-lashing, listing my shortcomings one by one, but I was fascinated and could only lean forward to listen more closely.

The men on the chessboard and the white queen were sung about with a voice of someone who had seen them and knew they were inevitable and tiresome. In these verses, her phrasing sounded much like Slick’s. But when Tabor reached what for Slick was the end of the song – the repetition of the Dormouse’s advice to “Feed your head” – Tabor did not invite the listeners to turn on, as Slick did. Instead, she seemed to be advising us to get smart and learn from the experience.

This impression was reinforced by the fact that she didn’t end the song there. Rather, after an instrumental, she returned to the first verse, singing the words in a flat voice and letting the pause at the end of the last line trail off into silence.

I suppose you could interpret Tabor’s treatment of the song as anti-drug. However, it didn’t come across as so specific. Instead, she sounded like someone who had rushed into foolish things of all sorts warning others neither to imitate her nor expect anything help from the orthodox.

But however you interpret Tabor’s phrasing, it struck the audience like a fist to the solar plexus. When it ended, the audience was silence for a beat. Then everyone spontaneously leaped to their feet in one of the few non-calculated standing ovations I have seen, and you couldn’t talk for the applause.

Personally, I was glad to fall back into my seat. After listening to that one song, I felt as though I had run a marathon with a deflated lung. Like many other members of the audience, I lingered, playing with my drink until we felt strong enough to leave. Neither of us could express what we had seen with more than a half-articulate, “Wow!” express what we had seen, but we knew it had been something profound and memorable — something that we felt privileged to witness.

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For the past two years, I’ve been digitalizing my music collection. Considering I still have music I bought in high school, it’s a staggering assortment of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I have at least another year before I finish. Probably the only reason I haven’t abandoned the project is the certain knowledge that, if I do, in the near future I’ll be unable to play some irreplaceable music. But the project has led me to rediscover music that I haven’t listened to in years, and taught me something about my musical tastes.

In particular, among the 7200 tracks I’ve digitalized so far, there are some artists to whom I listen far more than others. Putting aside classical favorites for another blog, most of the ones I keep returning to fall into the category of folk rock. Most, too, either have intelligent lyrics, a strong beat, a sense of showmanship (in the sense of how to build excitement in a show or on an album), or all three. Many are English or Scottish.

My fifteen favorite are:

Battlefield Band

One of the two classic Scottish folk groups (the other is Silly Wizard), Battlefield Band has released dozens of albums, and a constantly changing lineup over several decades. Its music always includes a large number of instrumentals, and original lyrics about contemporary or historical Scotland. My favorite album from the group is Celtic Hotel, whose memorable cuts include “The Roving Dies Hard,”a look at the restlessness of Scots over the centuries and “Seacoalers,” a hard, unsentimental look at the bottom of the mining industry.

The Mollys

A Tex-Mex band whose heyday was the Nineties, The Mollys were the front for song-writer Nancy McCallion, whose persona might be described as a milder, female version of Shane McGowan. They did comical updates of standards like “Mershkin Dirkin” and “All Around My Hat,” but also strikingly original songs like “Don’t Wanna Go to Bed,” “Cash for Gold,” and “Yer Drunk Again / Polka Diablo.” And who else would dare to entitle a live album “Wankin’ Out West”?

Richard Thompson

Whether with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, or solo, Richard Thompson seems unstoppable, putting out album after album of memorable lyrics backed by equally memorable guitar work. I can’t begin to list the number of classic songs he wrote, but they include, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Pharaoh,” “When I Get to the Border,” and others far too numerous to list. Amnesia is his most memorable album.

The Corries

The Corries were Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne. Starting in the mid-1960s, The Corries showed a new generation that folk music didn’t have to be stiff and boring. For many people, especially in The Society for Creative Anachronism, they were the first introduction to Scottish standards like “Johnny Cope” and “PrestonPans.” In-between such set pieces, they were also known to write parodies of Top 40 favorites. Ronnie Browne also wrote “Flower of Scotland,” which many people believe should be Scotland’s national anthem.

Maddy Prior

Best-known for her work with Steeleye Span, Prior is one of England’s leading folk singers, writing and performing modern songs and even reviving ballads and hymns from the eighteen century, as well as medieval religious ballads. Her original compositions include “The Sovereign Prince,” which compares Elizabeth I to jet-setting modern young women, “Commit the Crime,” “After the Death” and countless others. The Momento retrospective is probably the best sampling of her range, although her Silly Sisters albums with June Tabor are also worth tracking down.

Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked was introduced as a naif singer with The Texas Campfire Tapes. Then, shortly after her third album, she disappeared in a decade-long struggle to gain control of her own recordings. Recently, however, she has re-emerged, in control of her own music, releasing it the way she always wanted it to be heard, and proving herself as versatile, sly, and politically engaged as ever. Her best-known song is “Anchorage,” which was a minor hit, but almost anything she does is worth listening to. In one of her more recent songs, “I Think We Should See Other People,” she likens her relationship to the United States to that of a woman with an abusive husband. Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and her most recent album, Soul of My Soul, are among her most memorable albums.

Garnet Rogers

The younger brother of the better-known Stan Rogers (see below), in the years since his brother’s death, Garnet Rogers has carved out his own niche as a singer-songwriter. Although self-described as a Hulk Hogan lookalike, Rogers is known for intelligent, often heart-wrenching songs like “The Beauty Game,” “Small Victory,” “Frankie and Johnny,”and “Sleeping Buffalo,” many of which are chunks of life reminiscent of his brother’s best work without being in any way derivative. Unfortunately, none of his albums capture his on-stage banter, but Summer Lightning and Night Drive are good places to start.

Steeleye Span

Someone once compared Steeleye Span to a bus that people are constantly getting on and off. But whichever of its half dozen incarnations you happen across, it’s worth hearing – especially if Maddy Prior happens to be with them. Years ago, Steeleye Span showed that traditional songs were compatible with modern pop with songs like “Thomas the Rhymer,” and, if recent versions of the band are less well-known, they are equally worth listening to. You can start anywhere, but Live at Last and Storm Force Ten are typical of the group’s early days, while The Journey is a capsule history.

June Tabor

Nobody can compress a sense of suppressed melancholy and anger into a song like June Tabor. Now she is in her sixties, she has lost some of the range you can hear on the early Airs and Graces, but her ability to put across a song is stronger than ever on Ragged Kingdom, her newly-released collaboration with Oysterband. Listening to her, you get a sense of someone who has suffered emotionally and emerged stronger from the ordeal, leaving an undefinable sense of sadness and anger. Tabor doesn’t write her own material, but shows her exquisite taste in such pieces as “The King of Rome,” a song about a racing pigeon; “Aqaba,” which concerns the last moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and “Hard Love,” a love song about not expressing what you are feeling. Tabor isn’t always easy to listen to, but she’s always unforgettable. “Aqaba” and “Angel Tiger” are two of her strongest albums.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard is best-known as a Country and Western outlaw, due mainly to his early song, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” The fact is, he is considerably more complex, mixing rock, the blues, and country into something strikingly unique. Who else would do a song like “Stolen Horses” about reincarnation and horse-stealing? Or a Southern Gothic like “This River Runs Red”? His other songs include slices of life like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Mississippi Flush.” Some of his most complex work was produced by Gurf Morlix, including the albums Growl and Eternal and Lowdown.

The Pogues

This is as close I get to popular music. The Pogues are Irish folk gone punk, with dozens of original songs, ranging from the upbeat “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain” to the surprisingly sentimental “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Much of their magic was due to the song-writing genius of Shane McGowan, but, sadly, his lapse into incoherence on stage also spelled the end of the group as a creative force; these days, they tour, but reocrd nothing new. Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God are among their standout albums.

Stan Rogers

Frequently considered the greatest of Canadian folk singers, Stan Rogers became an instant legend when he died prematurely in a plane crash, apparently while trying to help other passengers. His songs are slices of Canadian life, explored region by region, boomed out in his strong baritone and – thanks largely to his brother Garnet – wonderfully arranged. His “Northwest Passage” is almost an unofficial Canadian anthem, while his “Barrett’s Privateers” is believed by many to be traditional. “Live in Halifax” gives a sense of what his concerts were like, while some of his best work can be found on From Fresh Water, Northwest Passage, and Fogarty’s Cove.

Utah Phillips

If you are interested in labor history as expressed through songs, you don’t need to look any further than Utah Phillips. Without him, songs like “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years” and “Where the Fraser River Flows” would be all but lost. His own songs, like “All Used Up,” “Eddy’s Song,” and “Enola Gay” are equally powerful. A strong voice in telling the forgotten labor history of North America, Phillips was also an unparalleled story-teller, as collections like The Moscow Hold and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, his collaboration with Ani DiFranco, clearly show. The four CD collection, Starlight on the Rails is the perfect place to become acquainted with his work.

Leon Rosselson

Imagine Flanders and Swan with leftist political beliefs, and you have a dim idea of what Leon Rosselson is like. With anti-monarchist songs like “On Her Silver Jublilee” and the anti-Christian “Standup for Judas,” Rosselson constantly expressed views that were far from mainstream, attacking hypocrisy with comic exaggeration and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Songs of his like “That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be” and “The World Turned Upside Down” have become activist anthems (in fact, you can hear them being sung by the Occupy supporters). Much of his best work was done with Roy Bailey, and can be found on his just-released retrospective, The World Turned Upside Down.

OysterBand

Originally a dance band, Oysterband are known today for their consummate live performances and strong song-writing abilities. Their sensibility is definitely left wing, but their music comes first. Having recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary together, Oysterband has over thirty albums to their credit, ranging from the hard rock sound of The Shouting Edge of Life to the acoustic sound of Deep Dark Ocean. Their collaborations with June Tabor, Freedom and Rain and Ragged Kingdom, are memorable as collaborations that are more than the sum of their extraordinary parts.

If I expanded this group to thirty, I could include many other artists to whom I frequently listen – to name a few, Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Pete Morton, Kirsty MacColl, Lorenna McKennitt, Sileas, and Tommy Sands.

But the fifteen I mention here are the ones I return to most often. Over the years, they have relaxed and sustained me, relaxed and entertained and moved me. Without them I wouldn’t be who I was, and, looking at them, you can get a sense of exactly who I am, should you happen to care.

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Forget Mick Jagger and Super Heavy. If you’re interested in British folk rock — or even aging musicians who still have their creativity intact — then the team-up of the year isn’t Jagger and associates. It’s Ragged Kingdom, the first collaborative album between diva June Tabor and Oysterband since Freedom and Rain in 1990.

That 1990 album remains a cult item, one of those rare collaborations in which the result is something that none of the participants could have managed on their own. You could hear Tabor and Oysterband lead singer John Jones inspiring one another, while the rest of Oysterband transcended their usual versatile excellence to allow Tabor to do arrangements she could never have done by herself, or even with her usual arrangement of a single supporting musician.

Freedom and Rain was also responsible for one of my most memorable concert experiences ever. It was 1991 at the night club at what was then Vancouver’s Plaza of Nations. There, Trish and I listened to two memorable sets that kept cranking the excitement higher and higher. By the encore – a deliberately campy “White Rabbit” complete with dry ice and Tabor in a leather mini-skirt – the only people that weren’t blissfully sated were the waiters, who were sulky about a crowd that had come to listen instead of drink.

Since then, Tabor and Oysterband had played together informally, most notably at Oysterband’s Big Session festivals, and done several covers of rock classics on Tabor’s On Air album. But a studio album was something else altogether, and I have to admit that I first played Ragged Kingdom expecting to be disappointed. After twenty years, how could the magic possibly be repeated?

Well, it can’t be, not in exactly the same way, even though both albums are a similar mix of contemporary and traditional pieces. However, a dozen bars into the first cut, a hard driving version of “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” I knew that I was experiencing something just as extraordinary in its own way. Ragged Kingdom has a harder sound than “Freedom and Rain” – possibly, I would say after listening to his solo album, due to Ray “Chopper” Cooper’s growing involvement in Oysterband’s arrangements – but I haven’t heard a sound with such authority since I first heard Stan Rogers at sunset at the Vancouver Folk Festival or heard Steeleye Span’s “Thomas the Rhymer” coming out of my portable radio when I was in high school.

Or in case you have different touchstones, let me put it this way: right away, I knew I was listening to something original and compelling – something that I had to sit down and listen to, not just have playing in the background as I went about my day.

All the musicians sound like they are enjoying themselves on Ragged Kingdom too much to care much about billing. However, so far as selection is concerned, the album is more June Tabor’s than Oysterband’s. None of their original songs are included. Instead, as on most of Tabor’s releases, the album has an eclectic mix of traditional and new.

Among the traditional pieces, standouts include “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” and “Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man),” two songs I believe that I have heard mentioned in passing, but whose lyrics I’ve never read, and that I have never before heard performed. Both suggest how much potential remains untapped in traditional song, “Bonny Bunch of Roses” being a dialog between Napoleon’s son and his mother about the British Empire, and “Judas” slipping in pious Christianity with decidedly pagan elements and popular tradition. Another piece, “Son David,” belongs to a well-known tradition of a dialog between a fleeing murderer and his mother, but with enough of a new slant in the arrangement to make it interesting.

The contemporary selections are equally varied, ranging from Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses” to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is especially transformed, being transmuted from Joy Divison’s quick and monotonic delivery to a slow, heart-wrenching duet between Tabor and Jones.

Ragged Kingdom has only two minor faults. First, the hard rhythm of most of the cuts could do with a little more variation. Second, “The Dark Side of the Street” seems a slightly weak ending to the album. However, I expect that these faults would disappear in live performance, and I only hope that Tabor and the Oysterband do a tour for the album in North America in the coming months. I suspect that the experience would be as memorable as the Freedom and Rain concert whose memory I still value.

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Do you get the sense of history repeating,
Have you made the same mistakes again?
Can’t you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
It’s a greeting from the beast within.
– Oysterband, “Walking Down the Road with You”

Over the years, Oysterband has provided some of my more memorable concert experiences. A few days after hearing their rocked-up version of an old Morris song, I heard them in a pack-to-the-limits concert at the Savoy. I’ve heard them shake the mirrors at the Commodore, and, on one especially memorable occasion with June Tabor at the Plaza of Nations, where they ended by covering the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” complete with dry ice. Having missed them last year when they were in town, I wasn’t about to miss them this year.

Saints are drawn to the desert,
Moths to the candle flame,
You know there’s going to be trouble,
But you go there just the same.
– Oysterband, “Meet you there”

Rock (so far as the term has any meaning any more) is supposed to be a young person’s music, but you wouldn’t know that by the band or the crowd. Bass player Chopper (who I persist in thinking of as the new member of the band although he has been playing in it for decades) is solidly into middle-age, and drummer Dil Davies, the real newcomer, is hardly into middle-age at all, but the three originals band members must each be hovering a year or two on either side of sixty. Guitar player Alan Prosser looks leaner than in earlier years, violinist Ian Telfer more like a bearded Scottish sailor than the Presbyterian elder or aging punk of previous visits, while John Jones looked like he dyes his hair, but all of them looked immensely fit and focused. As for the crowd, it varied from ten to seventy year olds, with the median age somewhere in the mid-fifties.

The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you,
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you.
-Oysterband, “Over the Water”

The first half of the night was dedicated to recent albums. In fact, the first three or four songs songs were the opening tracks of Meet You There, the band’s latest album of new material, which is some of the strongest twenty minutes of folk rock I’ve heard in years. Starting with “Over the Water,” the band quickly moved on to “Meet You There,” “Walking Down the Road with You,” and “Here Comes the Flood,” which I’ve always thought was an apt summary of the band members’ generation of Brits, as well as their free-thinking leftist politics.

I haven’t prayed since God knows when,
My teeth are unAmerican,
Socialism’s orphan child,
Unimpressed, unreconciled,
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m not:
Here comes the Flood.

– Oysterband, “Here Comes The Flood”

The rest of the fifty minutes was filled out with material from other recent albums, as well as John Jones’ signature song, “Native Son.”

For I was born to tell the truth and run,
Remember me, remember me,
It was all for love, the crazy things I’ve done,
Remember me, I’m still your native son.
-Oysterband, “Native Son”

People were dancing by the third song, and nine out of ten bands (if not ninety-nine of one hundred) would have counted the first set as a success. Oysterband never seems to have forgot that it started thirty years ago as a dance band, because it never fails to orchestrate its playlist, building the energy and alternating fast numbers with just the right number of slow ones, while encouraging the audience to sing the choruses (although, with last night’s partisan crowd, I suspect that the audience could have song all the songs with the band if given the chance).

Maybe we don’t know right from wrong,
Maybe we don’t know what we’re here for,
Maybe it’s time to sing along:
This is an uncommercial song.
-Oysterband, “Uncommercial Song”

However, the first set didn’t quite reach the highest level of energy that the Oysters are capable of, and I suspect that the band was aware of it and spent the interval overhauling its playlist. When the band took over the stage for the second set, its members had plainly come prepared to do battle with their own expectations of themselves. Without waiting to be announced, they launched into Meet You There’s “Dancing as Fast as I Can.”

You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Then, barely leaving room for applause between songs, it dove into a history of its own career – one inspired, I suspect, by the recent re-recordings of some of its past songs to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Much of the material was political and social commentary, and all of it hard-driving musically. Audience participation, already high, rose even higher, orchestrated by a grinning John Jones.

In the middle of a good time,
Truth gave me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
All that way for this?
-Oysterband, “All That Way for This”

I seem to remember the energy at previous Oysterband concerts rising even higher than it did last night. But if the first set was more than most groups could aspire to, the second set was one that most couldn’t imagine. By the time the band returned for an acoustic version of “Put Out the Lights,” both the musicians and the crowd were happily exhausted, and more than content to call it a night.

Everywhere that I have been,
Leaves its message on my skin,
So many prophecies and signs,
So little time, so little time.
– Oysterband, “Put Out the Lights”

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“I’d like to write more often for your organization,” a some-time contributor to Linux.com wrote to the editors the other day. “However, I was hoping you’d have some advice for someone like me that suffers from writer’s block. Sometimes I’ll come up with a topic, other times I struggle for ideas, then I read other articles on Linux.com and think to myself, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”

By the time I logged on in the morning, Lisa Hoover had already given a comprehensive answer, to which I could only add a few points (I’m on Pacific time, so I log in long after everyone else in North America, although I sometimes get there before the Indian editors). Lisa posted her reply in the Linux.com forums, and I urge anyone interested to read it.

Meanwhile, here’s my suggestions, which includes my rewriting of Lisa’s as well. I’m talking about free and open source software. but I think that with a few changes of context most of the points would apply equally to any kind of journalism:

  • Know the field you’re writing about. In this case, that means keeping up to date on the other basic news sites, such as Linux Today, LWN, and FS Daily. It also means checking out information on new software from FreshMeat, and keeping track of what’s happening with major organizations in the field, such as the Free Software Foundation or The Linux Foundation. Often, these sites just give the bare bones announcement of events, so there is almost always room to go deeper. Moreover, once you have extensive knowledge, you’ll be able to see connections – and, therefore, possible stories – as you make connections between different pieces of information.
  • Subscribe to mail forums in areas that you’d like to write about, and join local meetups of people with similar interests. Their problems and interests will provide endless stories, and, occasionally, a piece of breaking news.
  • When you read a how-to, try it out. What information does it leave out? What information is now outdated in it? Could the information be presented more coherently? Is there a related topic that is left out? Could your personal experience add anything to the instructions? Answering any of these questions can lead to an article.
  • Question what you read. If someone makes a claim about a particular piece of software, go see for yourself. If someone is quoted, contact them to expand on their comments. The more you know about the field, the more you are likely to question. For instance, a few months ago, I got a story when a software project’s members were being quoted as having an opinion which I knew was likely to be wrong.
  • Read bloggers and columnists in the field. Note their opinion, and see if you can come up with a counter-argument (For the record, I write a lot of blog entries using this technique, especially when the subject is career advice).
  • As you get to know your chosen field, you will become familiar with the truisms that everyone knows. Play the contrarian, and see if you can come up with a valid argument that qualifies or over-turns conventional wisdom. An example is my article for Datamation, “It’s time to get over Microsoft,” which suggested that free software was now strong enough to have no need to fear its traditional nemesis. Of course, I received plenty of negative criticism, but I still feel that the point needed to be made.
  • Everyone has a story, and so does every group. I’ve never yet met someone who was boring when talking about what matters to them, so get in touch and tell those stories.
  • Watch for common problems that people have, either in online forum or in your everyday life. Lists of resources or steps to overcome these problems are articles that editors will love, because they’ll continue to be read for months after they’re published.
  • Make lists. For instance, in the last 3 years, I’ve written “11 tips for moving to OpenOffice.org,” “9 characteristics of free software users,” and at least a dozen more. Lists are an excellent way to make use of random observations and thoughts.
  • Think of what’s appropriate to the season. For instance, last Christmas, Linux.com carried articles about gifts for geeks, and non-profits to which people might want to donate before the end of the year to get a tax break. For Valentine’s Day, the site carried suggestions of how to mark the day using free software. In the past, other articles were published to mark the university of the OpenOffice.org and Debian projects.
  • Think about your own experience in the field, whether with your home computers or at the office. Often, what you’re doing with your computer will make a good how-to article, especially for beginners. For instance, I got at least half a dozen stories from my customization of my new laptop last summer.
  • Contact companies and experts, asking for more information about new software or new policies. If you see something interesting in the way of hardware, ask about getting a review unit.
  • Network like crazy, not only with movers and shakers, but also PR experts and ordinary developers. This advice is always sound no matter what you’re doing, but, in journalism, it pays greater and greater dividends as you continue to write, because people will contact you when they think they have a possible story. I don’t know how it works for other journalists, but I now get 2-3 stories and another 2-3 possible leads per month – a substantial reduction of my need to generate ideas. Three years ago, when I started, I got none. And, increasingly, those stories are scoops, given to me because people feel that I’ve written about them or their colleagues with some fairness or insight in the past. Of course, many of these contacts have their own agenda, but generally that agenda is only to get publicity, so you generally don’t have to worry about preserving your independence.

You see the common thread? Consistently generating ideas to write about means that a part of you is always hunting for stories. As you go about your business, a part of you needs to be always analyzing the story potential of what you encounter.

If my experience is anything to go by, once you have this habit, your problem won’t be coming up with ideas. It will be choosing which stories you want to write in the limited time that you have in the day.

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Inspirational poems and songs are pieces that reaffirm our core values and beliefs. This is not a great age for belief of any sort, so inspirational works are often equated with religious ones. However, even an agnostic like me can find inspirational poems and songs.

In my case, the situation is complicated by a temperament that requires that a piece has to have artistic merit as well as reaffirm in order to move me. I don’t expect inspirational works to necessarily demonstrate the same talent as poems or songs that I value as art, but, because many works that try to inspire wind up being insipid, they leave me massively unmoved. When I’m looking for inspiration, a Hallmark greeting card just won’t cut it. Still, over the years, I have found a few that satisfied me on both accounts.

For instance, earlier this year, I decided to write an email that might be hostilely received. As I psyched myself up to press the Send button, my mind flitted to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Looking Glass.” The poem is perhaps sexist in its assumption that aging is a distress to all women, but what I remember best is its insistence that sometimes you have to face up to what makes you afraid, even if the result is unpleasant.

The poem concerns Elizabeth I in late middle-age, stealing herself to look in the mirror:

Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking glass.

She is haunted, if only in her mind, by Mary Tudor and Robert Dudley, and, in the end she tells herself:

Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter, and I am England’s queen!

Then she draws herself up in front of the mirror, and sees what she must have known all along: That she is aging, and no longer beautiful. I always like to think that I’m the sort of person to face up to unpleasant truths, so the poem is apt to come back to me whenever I’m dealing with something whose results I may not like.

Another inspirational piece for me is Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The song is about a group of sailors – fisherman, most likely – whose ship goes down. They decide to salvage the ship, despite being mocked. The chorus apparently kept at least one man alive while trying to survive a shipwreck. It certainly kept me going in the worst period of my life:

Rise again! Rise again!
Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men,
All those who loved her best and were with her till the end,
Will make the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again.

The song is sung when all the work is done, and the sailors plan to raise the ship tomorrow:

And the drunken lying rats
That left her to a sorry grave,
They won’t be laughing in another day.

There, Rogers leaves them to deliver the moral – the only moral, incidentally, that I have been able to tolerate:

And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again! Rise again!
Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again!

Endurance, success being the best revenge, never giving in – yeah, I can get behind all of that.

More recently, OysterBand, another of my favorite musical groups, came up with a song that has always seemed a deliberate echo of “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Advising listeners to “lift your head up /gonna rise above,” they launch into the chorus:

And we’ll rise where shadows fall,
And we’ll fly where money crawls,
Looking out for a higher love,
Not gonna fall, gonna rise above.

And we’ll fly where shadows fall,
Till the pain can’t touch you at all,
Crazy things you were thinking of,
Rise above, rise above!

The independence and determination of this song also speaks to me.

Technically speaking, these aren’t the best works by any of these artists. Yet we all need some reinforcement of our core values from time to time, if only to get up on Monday morning. For better or worse, these are the works that keep me moving most often, although from time to time others join the play list: A stray line or two from Shakespeare, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and a satire by Robert Graves among them. I’m sure they all speak volumes about the kind of person I am.

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