Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Stranger Blues" Homage to Mark Spoelstra

My version of "Stranger Blues" was learned originally from the singing of Mark Spoelstra. This song opens with one of the finest blues lines of all time, "Ain't it hard to stumble when you ain't got no place to fall?" which was even appropriated by Bob Dylan for his "Outlaw Blues." Dylan may well have gotten this line from Spoelstra since they hung around and played the same New York venues, occasionally as a duet, when Dylan first came to New York.

One of the most striking things about Mark Spoelstra was his 12-string guitar playing. He didn't play like Leadbelly, nor like Pete Seeger who helped to poplularize Leadbelly's style, nor Erik Darling who had that great riff to open "Walk Right In" with the Rooftop singers, nor Jim (Roger) McGuinn in his folk nor his Byrd days, or Reverend Gary Davis's rockin' ragtime. There was a little bit of Blind Willie McTell, a little bit of Jessie Fuller, with quite a bit of Mississippi John Hurt thrown in, but Mark's drop-thumb blues and folk stylings were really not derivative; they were unique. It's important to note that although his style may have been similar to some of the old blues pickers, he developed his style and began his recording career before these old blues men had their revival at Newport and elsewhere.

To emphasize Spoelstra's acknowledged virtuosity as a guitar player, think about the other folk, blues, or topical singers of the era: Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, Sainte Marie, Tom Rush, Joan Baez. Mark Spoelstra included several instrumentals on each of his first four albums. This was relatively unheard of. Either you were a singer/songwriter (the aforementioned folkies) who could play, or you were an instrumentalist who occasionally sang (Danny Kalb, John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Leo Kottke, and a generation later, Michael Hedges). Only the great Canadian singer/songwriter, topical songwriter, and instrumentalist, Bruce Cockburn, a decade later, would approximate Spoelstra's mix of strikingly individualistic instrumentals and powerful songwriting.

My rendition is not a copy of Mark's version. I have never been disciplined enough, nor have I found it interesting enough, to try to learn someone else's songs verbatim. Heck, I don't even learn my own songs carefully enough to replicate them repeatedly. I know this may sound weird, but pretty much every performance for me is an improvisation. When I do someone else's song, I get the feel of the song, try to get a reasonable approximation of the chords, and then I arrange the song to suit me. In fact, this one was worked up as part of a classroom lecture that I gave to my American Studies High School Honors class—The entire 1993 performance can be found on my YouTube site.

I found the lyrics in one of the many folk song collections that I have accumulated over the years. Since I don't read music, I collected the books just because I had an avid interest in music and because I have the collector's disease (you can check with my wife about our house and our storage unit filled with the 6000 vinyl records; the 4000 CD's; the 2000 DVD's; the many thousands of reel to reel, cassette, beta, VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, Hi-8, SVHS, SVHS-C, Digital 8, and mini-DV tapes, and mp3's; not to mention the five thousand books, hundreds of pieces of art glass, novelty cartoon glasses, etc....).

So this arrangement was really just created by me reading the lyrics and vaguely recalling Mark's great version of the song. I had already performed this piece for several years before I went back and actually listened to his version.

The great thing about this new digital age is that so much that would have been lost can reemerge. Mark Spoelstra's first four albums, two on Folkways and two on Elektra, are available on Amazon, as is his final recording, Out of My Hands. I enjoy them all, but if you are interested enough to see what a truly committed conscientious objector who was also an extremely talented songwriter sounds like, I would encourage you to listen to Five and Twenty Questions, his first album for Elektra. It has his most fervent anti-war songs as well as one of his most compelling story songs, an epic tale of racism and poverty culled from his two years of alternative service as a conscientious objector. Another historical point, he refused induction and served alternative service in 1965 and 1966, several years before David Harris (Baez's husband) introduced "the resistance movement" encouraging people to turn in or burn their draft cards (I'll share my own resistance story some day).

But this post and this performance are dedicated to Mark Spoelstra, who deserves to be remembered for his musical and moral contributions to America and the world.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Passing of Mark Spoelstra

Originally posted April 29, 2007 - Sunday

Although he died over two months ago, I only found out yesterday. This is the letter that I wrote to his family. I include it as an homage to a great folksinger.

To Mark Spoelstra's family—

It was with greatest sorrow that I just read on his website about Mark's passing (http://www.markspoelstra.net). I was checking to see if he had gotten around to setting up a MySpace site in the hopes of "befriending him" MySpace style; instead, I found your notice of his untimely demise.

He was one of the true greats, though perhaps the most unsung, of the 60's folk boom. I had the opportunity to see him in the 60's at the Ash Grove. Then, in the late 60's/early 70's he played a gig at the Rosewood forest in Santa Rosa. The club was owned by Bob Ward of "Bob Ward and the Cigar Band," and my brother, Tucker McMullen, was the Cigar Band (lead guitar, harmonica and harmony vocal). My then-wife and I drove over from Chico to see Mark, who had been one of our idols since '63-'64. I had been performing "White Wing Dove," "My Love is Like a Dewdrop," and "Stranger Blues" for years, and my wife and I had a duet version of Mark's take on "Mobile Line." He was very gracious at the concert. We spent an hour or so with him backstage, including his encouraging us to play a couple of original songs to which he listened and gave honest feedback. He struck me as a genuinely sincere and humble person.

His stand as a conscientious objector was also a true inspiration to me, and my own handing in of my draft card and refusing induction into the military was in significant measure owing to his example.

By 1971, we had moved back down to LA, and I had begun to play the local clubs: The Golden Bear, The Troubadour, McCabe's, The Ice House, etc. Suddenly, when disco hit, nearly all the LA folk clubs either turned disco or rock or closed down, so, not being particularly ambitious, and having quit teaching to take a turn at music, I gave up the quest and returned to teaching. Mark, like his contemporary, Patrick Sky, seemed also to have hung it up; that is, there was no sign of him on the music scene for a great long while. Dylan remained a reclusive superstar, Phil Ochs killed himself, Buffy St. Marie went on Sesame Street, and Tom Paxton was about the only old folkie that kept plugging away.

Then, a few years ago, since I continued to run google searches fairly regularly to see if anything was going on with Mark, I found a site that listed a couple of "gospel" type cassettes, but they were not actually available, just mentioned. A couple of years later, I found "Out of My Hands." Here he was after twenty years, the same gentle flowing voice and the same bluesy, drop thumb guitar: A style, by the way, that had a huge influence on my own playing. It was a great pleasure to find him back on the scene.

Then, last year, a friend phoned to say that Mark Spoelstra was playing in Southern California in Claremont. I jumped at the chance to see him again. He was great that night; still totally unassuming and laid back in his delivery, yet masterful. It was clear that he was really up and enjoying himself. He even read some poetry. As a creative writing teacher for the last twenty-five years, I enjoyed seeing one of my idols hit on the idea of combining songwriting and poetry (which I also do with my creative writing and honors English students). After the concert we spoke for twenty or thirty minutes. He seemed very happy to be back performing music, and he seemed to be excited about plans for pursuing his muse. He actually gave me his card and asked me to get in touch. I, of course, never did. Now my belated praise and admiration comes in the form of a eulogy of sorts. I am pleased that I was able to tell him, both in 1970 and 2006 how much his music meant to me. I am pleased to now tell you the same. You have a great deal of which to be proud.

Mark Spoelstra's professional greatness and his personal goodness will soon convert grief to joy in remembrance of the meaningful but fleeting encounters that I had with him, I trust the same is true a hundred-fold for his family and friends who knew him well.

Deepest regards,
Tim McMullen

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Burning Bush (A Song of Praise for Unrepentant Arrogance)

The Burning Bush
by Tim McMullen

Started 2003, revised 2007

I have seen the burning Bush
Reflecting the light of God
He blazed away in the light of day
But the words seemed rather odd

('Cuz he said) "If I suspect in days to come
That you might wish me ill,
From my fear alone God does condone
My authority to kill…
You and anyone who looks like you
And your children's children's children if I could
Unto the tenth generation of them that hate me!"
And the Bush saw it was good,
Then he put on his white hood….

"Why, they deserve elimination
They are an abomination…
Abombination here, Abombination there,
Ah (I) bomb a nation everywhere.
Here a nation, there a nation,
Everywhere I bomb a nation!"

I have heard the Burning Bush
Pronouncing impending doom
For birds and bees and the forests for the trees
The earth one blooming tomb.
And science? It's an affront to God
Whose glory runs on gasoline.
"My buddy, God, he gives the nod
To scourge the land and pick it clean

"For they deserve elimination
They are an abomination…
Abombination here, Abombination there
Global domination everywhere
With "shocks and awes" on Nature's flaws
We lie and deny the polar thaws!"
Such hypocrisy must give us pause…

Yea, I have seen the burning Bush
Rejecting the light of God
He blazed away in the light of day
But the words were disturbingly odd
Destroying "Thy staff and Thy rod"
With reasoning fatally flawed
New blasphemies yet untrod
Such effronteries to God
While patriot preachers applaud
The apocalypse here and abroad
The result of slack-jawed fraud

Yeah, I have seen the burning Bush

©2007 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved

Music in a Time of War?

Originally posted March 2, 2007 - Friday
Where to begin? This thread prompted a great number of varying responses and varying tones; many were amusing, thoughtful, and/or provocative; nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond to some of the more glib and cynical posts. The '67 hit list is very telling; however, if you look at any hit list, then or now, as musicians or fans of music, you will realize that most of the best written and most moving songs are not the biggest hits. The music business is designed to discourage originality or complex thought. If you want to have a hit, you'll never write a topical song. You'll write some derivative, imitation of ten other pop songs. Occasionally, someone writes a strikingly original song that has some modest success. But, if your goal is commercial success, avoid topical songs like the plague. If, on the other hand, you write because you have to, because you have a story to tell, or because you have an idea to convey, or a feeling to share, then the real question is, "Do songs affect people?" The obvious answer is, "Yes, they can." Thankfully, the internet has given writers a way to circumvent the limitations of the "record business."

Some of the analysis of the '60's is accurate. The draft was a significant motivator for opposition to the war; furthermore, the earlier civil rights and free speech movements lent legitimacy to political action used for social change. As for writing the songs off as "preaching to the choir," this is a gross overstatement and misperception. Of all the most significant topical songwriters of the Vietnam era—Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Mark Spoelstra, Buffy Sainte Marie—their topical songs on all topics—environment, race, labor, war—were always a small minority of their full repertoire. This is also true of later topical writers like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, or Loudon Wainwright.
The point about songs with meaning, whether a love song or a protest song, is that they are always a communication between the writer and the individual listener. The suggestion that "your song didn't stop the war" is actually a silly one. What your song can do is make someone think, feel, respond. If, after hearing your song, a seed of doubt has been planted, or a new perspective has been recognized, or an empathy has been felt, that is a real impact. Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton didn't stop the war, but their inspiration, their example, their witnessing, their arguments, their stories moved and motivated many thousands of people, who, in turn, moved and motivated many thousands of others. Make no mistake, the protest, despite all the effort to stifle it, did alter the course of the war, did directly affect both Johnson and Nixon, and did leave a legacy, no matter how much the revisionist Reaganizing of an alternative historical reality has attempted to lay waste to that legacy.
The most ironic thing about topical songs is that their relevancy should instantly fade; the most tragic thing about the human condition is that the topical song becomes relevant again and again. My song, "Blood Red," which was originally written during Reagan's incursions into Nicaragua, is as relevant to Iraq and Afghanistan as it was to our Latin American invasions or the first "gulf war" (with the exception of the reference to "patriotic yachting crews" which explicitly ties it to Dennis Connor and the America's cup). A performance of the song is included below. Many people today tell me that they are especially moved by that song, and it is a song of open anger and angst, as opposed to what I consider to be even more moving songs like Paxton's tragic, character-driven vignettes like "Jimmy Newman" or "My Son John."

The suggestion that, in the end, Sha Na Na is more significant than Country Joe because the rock and roll pastiche makes you feel better than the song that makes you think, seems to offer some fairly skewed values, or at best, an explanation as to why the general masses have not called for impeachment of a proven liar whose failed policies have killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. In the end, music can communicate on many levels: both butt music and brain music, gut music and pain music; all have their place. But few uses of music, or literature of any kind, are more valid than those which challenge, provoke, or change us.

The Greatest threat to Democracy is Hypocrisy! Seek Truth! Speak Truth!