#SeaShanty TikTok: rhythm for your blues

@jax.in.the.box_

“The Last Shanty” Would love for some fellow thieves and scoundrels to join in!🏴‍☠️☠️ #seashanty #shantytiktok #thelastshanty #theoceanspride #pirate

♬ The Last Shanty – ✨Jax✨

I was today years old when I learned the #SeaShanty TikTok is a thing. Correction: It’s one of the greatest things ever on social media.

Whatever your feels on TikTok, one of the best things about it is its duet function, where you can take another user’s TikTok and accompany it, which is helping drive the trend. The apparent captain of this #SeaShanty movement is Nathan Evans, a Scottish postman whose rendition of the New Zealand shanty “Wellerman” posted in late December has 4.4 million views and — and counting — while launching scores of duets. The most mind-blowing (so far) is a version with several vocalists and three violin parts, which appears below. This collaboration and creativity is really the biggest takeaway from the trend.

Like the field hollers that are among the forerunners of the blues, sea shanties were songs used to keep time for tasks on ships that requires precision. (If you, like me, worked at a RenFaire, you know a few sea shanties; if you’re a Laker hockey fan, you probably sing one in “Heave Away.”) Because pirates are cool, it lent itself to a lot of pirating among the TikTok cosplay community, like the one linked above.

Maybe it’s appropriate that in an age when we feel like we’re thrown out of sync all the time that something that keeps a rhythm can keep us connected and happy.

@miaasanomusic

Added strings to @anipeterson’s version as well because I got so many requests! @nthnevnss @_luke.the.voice_ #fyp #seashanty #wellerman #viral #fiddle

♬ original sound – miaasanomusic

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Playing more, living more.

While not much went to plan in 2020, my resolution to perform more music was one good thing that came to fruition. I even got to play in the best band ever (at least in one young fan’s estimation), so that was pretty cool.

I had resolved to start doing the weekly Old City Hall open mics run by host with the most John McConnell, and on Jan. 7, I cast off my fears with a cover of Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain” (in the wrong key, it turns out) to open a four-song set. The crowd, including some friends who came to support me, responded kindly. I played Old City almost every Tuesday (and occasionally Turtle Cove) until … well, you know. I was working on an Irish-themed set for St. Patrick’s Day when word came down Old City Hall would close indefinitely. In those days, we wondered how temporary these measures would be. More than nine months later, we still wonder.

But starting St. Patrick’s Day, I started doing weekly live performances through late May. They drew modest audiences to match my middling skills, but learning new songs every week was a nice goal and forced me to try to get better.

As things opened up again, I fell in with that best band ever. It was really a regular open jam at Sterling Cidery, loosely run with no setlist and led by Larry Kyle. The core cast of rotating characters included Pat Kane, Mark J. Petrie, Rob Wes Porter, Valerie Porter, Dan Duggan, Peggy Lynn, Monique Hilton Dickerson, and Pat and Gloria Parsnow, among others.

This felt at times like a kind of musical fantasy camp. I could lead a rendition of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” then throw it to Pat Kane for a fiddle solo, Mark with a mandolin solo, then Larry soloing on a steel guitar. Or I could lead “Wagon Wheel” and throw to a banjo solo by Pat Parsnow or occasional guest musician/cidery co-owner Brandon Furber. Musicians in this circle have played professionally, toured (even internationally), recorded and won awards, but they’re just down-to-earth people happy to support us newer players.

I was also able to do some open mics over the summer at Turtle Cove, and now the monthly open mics at the Manor. These are nice things to look forward to. Which has been needed. I went through some difficult times and had the psychological blues, but turning to the musical blues often made me feel better.

As we prepare to welcome whatever 2021 looks like, I ask you, if you haven’t done so already, to consider following up on a passion, whether a musical instrument, singing, making art, crafting, writing or just something — anything — creative that can make you happy. Speaking from personal experience, it can make you feel fulfilled and grateful.

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Field of dreams no more; MLB strikes out for Auburn

“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past …”

It was sad, but hardly surprising to read that the Auburn Doubledays — which I consider my “hometown team” — was among the clubs eliminated as Major League Baseball constricted its minor league farm system. Minor league baseball in Auburn, a constant since 1958, is now a part of our past.

“Field of Dreams” is my favorite movie and the soliloquy from which I pull the lead quote, given by James Earl Jones’ Terence Mann, is my favorite cinematic quote ever. In that magical film, Mann speaks of the timeless nature of the sport. The game that Auburnians first saw in their city more than 60 years ago still resembled the sport they saw when the Doubledays wrapped what nobody knew would be their last season.

Some people like Syracuse Chiefs games, which is nice, but it’s a minor-leauge team that charges major-league prices. Auburn’s team has always essentially said, “hey, we’re a low-level minor-league team, and we’ll do cheesy things and embrace it!” It made going to a game a glorious family-friendly community experience, and while I learned to avoid dollar-beer night, it’s the first and only baseball club I’ve taken Arius to. It’s a slow game for a little guy, but he generally enjoyed the experience, and the last game we attended, a gent caught a foul ball and gave it to him.

One time I went by myself and bought a box seat. An elderly gentleman sat next to me who apparently was one of the club’s owners or executives. We watched a pitcher with a 9+ ERA (which is not good) struggle, and as I looked in the program, he leaned over and said to me: “He is the brother of who you think he is” — the pitcher shared the last name of the Nationals’ biggest star at the time — “his brother insisted they sign him and here we are.”

But winning or losing was always secondary to the fan experience. Most fans who attended the game seemed to know each other. They would say hello, ask how their loved ones are, share a laugh, and you could just feel something special. Something special that, now, will not return.

Baseball marked the time in Auburn for more than six decades. But alas, that steamroller has now come to flatten a team and a city who welcomed green prospects, hoping to make the big leagues some day, on a field of dreams.

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Something borrowed, something blues

This is about something old, something new, something borrowed and something blues — but mainly the borrowed part.

To listen to early blues recordings is to realize that they were seen less as commercial productions than they were an extension of a shared storytelling tradition.

For example, here’s the chorus of one of Robert Johnson’s most popular songs, Come On In My Kitchen.

“You better come on in my kitchen

Cuz it’s gonna be raining outdoors”

It’s a memorable chorus, but Johnson essentially lifted it from a popular song at the time, which is also the best-known and most-covered song by the Mississippi Sheiks, Sitting On Top of the World.

“Now she’s gone, I don’t worry

Cuz I’m sitting on top of the world”

That song has similarities to earlier recordings, and Charlie Patton also recorded a version with a different name. Similar lyrics and references appear in songs by everybody from Irving Berlin and Blind Lemon Jefferson to Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald.

Similarly, you’ll find Robert Johnson lyrics also appear in other contemporary songs, to the point that you don’t know who lifted lyrics from whom! But note that this was actually commonplace because the origins of the blues are in oral storytelling tradition.

To many early blues artists, just like folk musicians, this was no different than retelling a story or parts of a story they heard, just rearranging phrases, lifting words and adapting traditional instrumental structures.

An underrated figure in the early history of the blues contributed to this tradition and to the body of songs as a whole. A class of musicians called songsters would go from town to town, playing songs picked up along the way, which musicians would then incorporate into their repertoires. It’s how the blues came to grow throughout the South in small cities and in villages. Songsters generally didn’t reap more than tips and meals for their work, but each was a kind of Johnny Appleseed of the blues, planting seeds that would grow beyond their lifetime.

Even after the blues became a recorded medium, tropes and themes continued to appear repeated in songs by a variety of artists. Consider “going to Louisiana/gonna get me a mojo hand.” I first encountered it in the bridge of “Anna Lou Blues” by Tampa Red.

“I’m going to Louisiana, gonna get me a mojo hand

And I won’t stop Anna, til I get you under my command”

That same phrase or something very similar appeared in songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Red Foster and many others. Tampa Red’s context is a common one that gives cultural insight: Getting some kind of magic hoodoo talisman to make the object of your affection fall in love with you. It’s not very romantic, but hoodoo phrases and rituals inform many blues songs, and also tie into the storytelling tradition.

The blues, perhaps more than any other genre, is about developing a template within which to tell a tale — one that you’ve invented or a story that you heard around a fire or from a traveling musician. The origin is less important than the song itself or the feeling the performer wants to convey. And because many of these elements are shared freely, we are all richer for it.

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Ghosts in the machine

“Daddy, can you tell me a ghost story?”

The request comes from the back seat any time Arius and I are on a long-distance car ride. After the first couple of rides, I had exhausted the ones I knew from family and friends, or local lore via Tales From The Haunted Harbor. I quickly had to start making these things up, sometimes improvising from things we passed.

I realized that this became an opportunity to pass along lessons, almost like morality plays (with ghosts). Like the story of Tommy the bluesman. I told how, decades ago, Tommy was invited to play in a club in a small southern town. Tommy was a great trumpeter, but some of the racist locals weren’t happy to see the crowd show admiration for a black man. So they chased Tommy out of town, shouting some of the cruelest things at him, laughing as they returned home.

Tommy disappeared, but every night at midnight, all the people who chased him out of town heard his trumpet playing. Nobody else could hear it. The two men in charge of chasing him out of town couldn’t take it any more; one went completely insane and the other killed himself. Others wrestled with their fate. But one, who went along despite knowing better, finally fell to his knees and begged forgiveness and for a chance to make it right. That night, he heard Tommy playing “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and then it stopped.

Five years later, Tommy came back mysteriously, and was received like a returning hero. The crowd at the club gave him raucous cheers and asked for encores. The man who had spent the years since making amends and working for justice, met him and received forgiveness.

Sometimes the stories are more whimsical but still more about kindness than fright. Like the one about the lighthouse keeper who died on his shift one foggy night. A small boat crashed into the jetty, its passengers coming ashore. They found the keeper dead and his relief still two days away. That night, they heard the sound of whistling and saw strange lights. The next day, they decided they needed to fix the light, although none of them knew how. As they tried, a ghost guided the right tools into their hands and helped them fix it. They were rescued and expressed gratitude. And every time a new keeper started their shift, their first night they would hear the whistling and see the strange lights, but the legend was that they could know they’d have help if they need it.

I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I do believe in supporting children’s imaginations. If you read this far and have any ghost stories to share, I would welcome it.

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We are all wrecks.

I’m a wreck. You might be a wreck. We’re probably all wrecks.

Today I sent the draft of a story I wrote to a colleague to fact-check. She found two typos in it. Two stupid typos. Two troubling typos from a terminally typo-finding typo-hunter. If you know me at all, you’ll know this is sub-Tim performance.

A benefit of working from home is being able to do laundry when you can take a breather. I threw clothes in the washer right around when my workday starts (7:30). I went into the kitchen for more coffee (a common trip) to notice the washer was done before my two — yes, TWO simultaneous — 9 a.m. meetings (I could only make one). Some time after 1 p.m. I finally moved them to the dryer. I’m just remembering they’re still in the dryer now.

I have three days of Palladium-Times newspapers sitting on my dining room table. Maybe I’ll get to read them today. Maybe not.

Does this sound like your life? Maybe it does. If not, that’s great. If it is, that’s OK too.

I get the feeling that more and more of us are doing more and more, and the blurred line of working from home — and, in the case of parents, also doing some variant of home-schooling — is making our whole lives a blur.

If you feel like a wreck, please know that you’re not alone. We’re a tribe of wrecks. A nation of wrecks. A world of wrecks. Embrace your wreck and your attempts at fixing things as well as you can. We can get through this together.

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Of ‘There There’ and Heather in second grade

I am reading “There There” by Tommy Orange and thinking about a girl named Heather I knew in second grade.

“There There” is our Oswego Reading Initiative selection and it’s an engrossing book on the perilous and haunted plight of a dozen Native Americans whose lives are intersecting. It’s a reminder that we have been, putting it bluntly, awful to the first inhabitants of this continent. I’ve seen it personally: One day in class Heather talked of her Native American heritage and, in a sphere of ignorance and cruelty, kids started picking on her. I stood up for her, and I got picked on too.

Heather and her family moved away. I don’t know if that was related. As much as I got bullied, I still lived in white privilege, even not knowing what it was at the time. I could go places and not be judged or scorned by the simple calculus of looking like everybody else. 

Those same natives that Americans have been so horrible to for centuries have been very good to my child. Amy is an accountant for the Oneida Nation, so in a country where we displaced so many natives from their homes, the Oneida tribe contributes to the roof over my son’s head. 

One summer, he went to the Oneida Indian Nation Early Learning Center, where he learned the Oneida language and sang wonderful songs in it at their graduation ceremony. Arius has friends who are Oneida, but he wouldn’t think of picking on them because they’re all just kids in his eyes. Our children are better than us.

I’m reading “There There” because I’m serving as the interviewer when Orange does a virtual talk with the campus community on Sept. 30, so I need to ask questions that sound intelligent. It’s not an easy or feel-good topic, which means I can ask questions about his characters and what inspires him, but we also need to talk about Native Americans and all that has happened to them, and where we can go as a nation to be truly inclusive.

And I’ll be thinking of Heather. Wherever you are, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help you, and I hope you’re doing well. We all have to do a lot better, but reading and the kind of dialogue we’ll try to have on Sept. 30 will at least point us to a better “there” in our respective journeys.

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So long, sweet summer

View at dusk of a front porch
I sat on the porch swing last night as a cool breeze drifted across the dusky evening. It felt like an apt elegy for what sometimes seemed to be The Summer That Never Was.
 
Today begins New Faculty and Staff Orientation. First-year students have moved on campus. Classes start in a week, which is when I have to start producing a daily e-newsletter again. In a few weeks, my son begins something resembling third grade. I may or may not have finished a syllabus.
 
Sure, we had hot summer weather. But I didn’t get much resembling vacation. No visit to the Adirondacks. No random road trips. Didn’t see a lot of sunsets. Didn’t spend nearly enough time at the lake. On a quick accounting, it seems like the weirdest summer of my life drifted through like a ghost.
 
But that’s not true. Good things happened too. I’ve never spent a summer playing so much music. I played the Turtle Cove open mic many weeks, and had some wonderful jams (including today) at the Sterling Cidery. Made some new friends, deepened some existing relationships.
 
While we didn’t travel much, my son and I still had a lot of small adventures, most of them stories written in his head. It’s true that imagination can take you anywhere, and it’s so wonderful to see how clever and creative he can be.
 
So long sweet summer, as Dashboard Confessional once sang. I stumbled upon you and gratefully basked in your ways/So long sweet slumber/I fell into you now you’re gracefully falling away/Hey thanks, thanks for that summer.
 
It is a reminder that we should be grateful for anything we got resembling summer or joy or peace, and for anybody we shared it with. And hey, I’ve always loved autumn anyway.

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I have strange comfort food, but for decent reasons

Chinese food -- pork fried rice, pork

To me, this is comfort food.

Growing up in a small town, we pretty much never had Chinese food (unless one counts LaChoy, and one shouldn’t), so I didn’t really start eating it until after college. When my brother Colin and I moved to Oswego, we didn’t have a lot of money to spare after the princely sum of $269 per month for our apartment over the since-departed Paura’s Liquor and a steady stream of cheap beer in one of the half-dozen bars in our neighborhood, so the also-since-departed Main Moon Chinese takeout was an early favorite.

For about $4, you could get a quart of pork lo mein, a decent amount of rice and maybe an egg roll or wonton soup. This, to us, was a lot of food — at least a couple of meals’ worth — and much better than the likes of generic mac & cheese, ramen and cereal that were our staples. So it was a fairly regular treat, as it were, until Main Moon closed one day with the owners saying they would return in spring (but like Charlie on the MTA, they never returned and their fate is yet unlearned).

With money being tight, we hadn’t dined out much as kids (and Weedsport more recently did finally get a Chinese takeout place), to the point that even eating at McDonald’s seemed like a big deal. You can scoff at this if you want, but many people are still in this kind of situation. Eating food made by somebody else was a mini-festival, so to discover Chinese takeout that I could afford and enjoy really made me happy.

My local takeout of choice is now KQ on Oswego’s east side. Their $7.25 lunch special allowed me to get the not-unfamiliar combo of pork lo mein, pork fried rice and wonton soup. Delicious and a good value. And it takes me back to a time when such a meal felt like a celebration.

In a way, it still does.

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The real virus threatening humanity

Back in college, I was blessed to have a friend named Molefe, who fled apartheid, the oppressive segregation of South Africa. He was a better and braver man than I’ll ever be. He was the first person to puncture my bubble of white ignorance. While I knew South Africa from songs like “Sun City” and U2’s “Silver and Gold,” he made a national policy of racism concrete to me. He also taught me about some shameful ways my own country treated people of color, stuff not in history textbooks. Most remarkably, through sheer determination, he established a scholarship for South African students, with the Rev. Mpho Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, coming to campus to launch it.

A selfless and tireless man, Molefe had no designs on profiting from his profound deeds. He drove a cab in Rochester to make ends meet. One night he was murdered, an unsolved incident that still leaves a hole in my heart.

Molefe is often on my mind, especially this weekend. We have failed his vision of America. We have failed George Floyd. We have failed Breonna Taylor. We have failed Ahmaud Arbery. We have failed more people of color than I can ever list. For generations and generations, we have failed to cure our national DNA of the cancer that is racism.

COVID-19 sucks, but it’s a virus that does not discriminate. Racism is intentional and insidious, a different kind of virus carried intentionally and unintentionally that has harmed millions, perhaps billions, over the millenia, with a cost that we can’t easily calculate. I trust science will find a way to defeat COVID-19. We’re going to need more than even the world’s most brilliant scientists to defeat racism.

I’m angry, frustrated and sad. I’m part of the problem struggling to become part of the solution. Because even with Molefe’s example, I still carried bigotry in my heart and have had to work to expunge it.

It’s on all of us to make racism a relic of the ashbin of history. It won’t be easy because it’s entrenched. But love is also entrenched. So is kindness. So is generosity.

We have a lot of reading, listening and learning ahead of us. We need to not jump to conclusions but instead understand deeper meanings and challenges we face. As a person and a parent, I know it’s work we need to do to make America the land Molefe thought it could become.

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