Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas


Here's wishing everyone a happy holiday and a peaceful New Year.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Sun is Gonna Shine (slight return)

A quick follow up to the March 14th 2008 post, "The Sun is Gonna Shine."


The Alabama Blues Project is very happy that Dinah Washington, known as the "Queen of the Blues", will now have a street named for her in her hometown of Tuscaloosa. The Tuscaloosa City Council renamed 30th Avenue between 15th Street and Kaulton Park as Dinah Washington Avenue.


Thursday, December 11, 2008


It's hard for me to pin down exactly what it is that attracts me to "old-time" or "roots" music. It's like a multifaceted gem, place it between your fingers and it will sparkle in different areas depending on how you hold it to the light.

Roots music is history: It's American history, the peoples history, our ancestors history...dig back as far as you like.

One of my favorite tunes to play on the banjo is "Road to Boston," a song popular during the revolutionary war. Another favorite is "If You Miss Me at the Back Of the Bus."

"If you miss me at the back of the bus
And you can't find me nowhere
Come on up to the front of the bus
I'll be riding up there"

Old-time songs keep history alive. They inform us and teach us, and we are the better for it.

And the old songs give me a certain, indescribable feeling, like a connection of sorts, a bond. It feels like the earth, the dirt. It's beautiful and dangerous and very, very real. Listen to "Little Bessie" by Roscoe Holcomb. If that doesn't hit you in the breadbasket nothing will.

I can't imagine what my world would be like without the song collectors, folk scholars and historians who collect, preserve and teach the music and stories of the past. People like Mike Seeger, who not only collects and preserves, but teaches as well, assuring that the music of the people will never be far from view for those who are willing to look for it. People like Alan Lomax, Art Rosenbaum, Joyce Cauthen, Cecil Sharp, John Cohen, Joe Bussard Jr., etc. These people handed us a gift. They are the ones who placed the multifaceted gem in our hands to do with as we please.

So, what do we do with it? Do we coddle it and protect it like a baby?

As Mike Seeger once said, "I feel like we're picking up this music from where it was left off, and we're going to carry it on. Some of us will warp it around a little and mix different elements together. And then some of us will write new tunes and songs based in tradition. That's the way tradition has always worked," and "young people all over the U.S. are picking up this kind of music now, and not only playing it well but...they're expanding on it."*


So, this music, this gift, has been given to us without baggage, to do with as we please. We can keep it to ourselves, preserving the music as one would bones in a museum, or we can let the music live and breath, continuing the tradition of integrating cultures and experiences into the music. We can think of the gem as something to be taken out and played with, not hidden.

That, I believe, is where the jewel will sparkle.

I'll leave with a quote from Alice Gerard: "It's not just a question of keeping the music alive but integrating it into our own lives, and it's having meaning alongside the way we live now."*

This post was inspired by Consumerism and Orthodoxy in old-time written by Cathy Moore on the Banjo Meets World blog.

*from the film Homemade American Music by Yasha Aginsky

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Quiet Mornings & Unheated Workspaces

The winter chill is making it difficult to enjoy the pleasures of woodworking. In the mornings as I wait for the temperature to approach something close to bearable, I have been designing a new instrument, my take on the obsolete mandolin-banjo, sometimes referred to (incorrectly) as a banjolin.

Late mornings and afternoons are spent jigging up, then it's back inside for hot tea.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I Will Bow and Be Simple*

I will bow and be simple,
I will bow and be free,
I will bow and be humble,
Yea, bow like the willow tree.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

*Shaker melody


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Old Friends & New

I was recently asked by the West Alabama Woodworkers Association to demonstrate banjo making.

The presentation was last night. It was a great group and I enjoyed meeting and talking to all of the woodworkers, and I got to see some amazing work as well.

One of my favorite professors at the University of Alabama, Dr. Bing Blewett, is a member of the group. I took an environmental science class under him, and hung out/worked with him in the paleontology lab. That's him standing beside me wearing a baseball cap.

It was nice seeing an old friend and making new ones.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New Mythology

Amy and I were fortunate enough to be invited to do a demonstration of our crafts at Rickard's Mill.

Rickard's Mill is in south Alabama, about 20 miles north of Monroeville.

We stayed in Hybart, Alabama, one of the prettiest places I've ever seen, and the festival was amazing.

On Thursday and Friday school children were bussed in from all over south Alabama. Thursday was reserved for elementary school children, Friday was reserved for high school and home school children. Each day brought around 600 children. I took the kids through the different elements of banjo making, the tools involved and how they worked. Then I explained different styles of playing. I even lead a sing-a-long for the smaller children. All of the kids were very interested, engaged and well behaved.

Saturday was open to the public. I mainly worked on building a banjo and people stopped to watch, talk and ask questions. Rikard's Mill festival is one of the best festivals I've been to, and I would strongly recommend stopping by next year. I met a lot of very nice people over the weekend. You can read more about the mill here.

Tuesday I voted, then built a workbench that would be sturdy, but one that I could break down for portability. Essentially I had to pack a majority of my tools and a bench, along with Amy's spinning wheel and spinning paraphernalia into a mid-sized car. Tuesday night Amy and I packed and listened to election returns. The next day we loaded up the car and headed down to Hybart. We just got back Sunday night.

It was exciting traveling down to Rikard's Mill on Wednesday. As we listened to NPR, the landscape mingled with the news...the changing leaves reflecting the changing country. We have a new president elect, and the hope in the air is like electricity.

I thought of something Joseph Campbell said in a lecture entitled Experiencing the Divine where he spoke about the moon landing:

"[A] point that strikes one when one sees the earth this way (from the moon) is how small (the earth) is. It's really a space vehicle, flying at a prodigious speed and revolving. How perilous our position. Still, another point about it, how beautiful."

"When those astronauts came down, the first group from the moon, they said it was like earth was an oasis in the desert of space. And this feeling of love for the earth, and a sense of reaffirmation of our relevance to the earth was a beautiful thing, I thought."

"After all, we have come out of the earth. We are not delivered into it. That was an old theory that no longer can stand. Man has come out of the earth, as plants do. And man is thus an organ of the earth. And man's eyes are the organs of sight of the earth, and man's mind is the thinking of the earth."

"This is a new mythology, a quite new mythology. And furthermore, it's whole earth, and we are its citizens, so that those old, tribal mythologies which said, 'we keep love for our village compound, or for our tribe, or for our nation, and we project our hate outward, that won't work anymore. There has been [an] elimination of racial and of tribal and even national differences.

These remain, certainly, and are to be honored in a certain way, but they can no longer be dealt with as they have traditionally been dealt with."

Joseph Campbell

Monday, November 3, 2008

Seeds of Change

I plan to plant a vegetable garden in the spring. The above photo shows the spot that I have picked to plant. Since the land has been damaged over the years, I will have to build a raised bed structure to plant in. Because I have to gather the soil and enrich it by composting throughout the winter, now is the time to lay the foundation and framework of the garden.

It is, in fact, the same location as my grandfather's garden.

Since the rich soil has been covered with gravel, I will have to approach the garden in a different manner than my grandfather, but I have faith that with time and work, I can plant seeds and grow nourishing vegetables. I can transform the land, which has been so damaged, into a healthy land where I can plant, grow and harvest.

And because my grandfather loved and worked this land, so do I love and work this land. And even when it has been damaged through neglect, I know that, with heart and hands and mind, I can repair it and make it better.

I want to encourage everyone to vote tomorrow. With heart and hands and mind, it is time to sow the seeds of change.


Friday, October 31, 2008

The Art of Joinery

I Just finished reading The Art of Joinery, originally published as a series of instructional pamphlets in 1678 by Joseph Moxon.

The complete series of pamphlets, titled Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works, served as an introduction as well as instruction for various professions, such as blacksmithing, house carpentry and bricklaying. The Art of Joinery deals specifically with the craft of woodworking.

This edition of The Art of Joinery was recently published by Lost Art Press and updated by Chris Schwarz. Each chapter ends with an analysis by Chris Schwarz which summarizes the text. New photos were added alongside the original engravings to provide a clear understanding.

It is surprising just how little woodworking with handtools has changed. From the introduction:

"Joseph Moxon's 'Mechanick Exercises' is more than just a curiosity for historians of the craft of woodworking. The woodworking tools that Moxon describes and the processes he explains have remained remarkably unchanged during the last 330 years. To be sure, we might use fancier materials for some of our tools-investment-cast bronze, ductile iron, A2 steel. But a fore plane is still a fore plane, and it is still used in the same manner to make rough boards into smooth ones.
In fact, I consider Moxon to be an excellent introduction to most hand-tool aspects of woodworking."

As someone who is incorporating handtools more often in daily practice, and as someone who is interested in the history of woodworking, I found this book useful and educational. Hats off to Chris Schwarz for bringing this book back in print, and making it clear to the modern reader.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Reclaiming Lost Space

As I write this in my notebook it is early morning, just before sunrise. The wind is blowing powerfully, and with each gust I hear pecans being shaken from the tree, hitting the tin roof of the shop as they fall.

I don't know what it is, the perfect weather, the changing leaves encouraging me to follow suit, or the oncoming of winter, but I have been fostering an uncontrollable urge to work. The kind of work where muscles are stiff and sore at the end of the day. The kind of work that you can look back and say that you have achieved something positive and long lasting.

With the exception of a brief trip to New Orleans to witness the marriage of our good friends Pen and Adam, I have been in the shop, gutting a back room and rebuilding it.

My hope is that this new room will serve as an assembly room of sorts. Where I can work without as much sawdust, on the finish, assembly, gluing, etc.

Here's a photo of the room. It was added to the shop by my Grandfather, and was used for garden equipment. After my grandfather passed away it was used only for storage of things long forgotten.

The floor was rotten and had fallen in.

First I gutted the room and then removed the floor.

Then started rebuilding. I didn't take many photos of the process, simply because I didn't want to stop.

And here is the new space. Much more needs to be done, but this will get me started. Now I can happily listen to pecans fall on the roof as I whittle away on a new banjo.

John Brown, the self proclaimed "anarchist woodworker," passed away last month. I've been reading some of his writing recently and thought that I would share this, it seemed appropriate.

"When I had completed the chair I sat down and looked at it. I always have a notepad nearby, and I felt that I had to capture the moment. Here, for what it's worth, is what I wrote.

'This big chair was completed on December 9th, a Friday. It is as good as I can do. Perhaps if I live a while longer and work, I will develop greater skills. My mystic self tells me that everything is just right, the angles, and lengths of the parts seem to be in harmony.

This chair marks the recovery of my powers. I have no pain of discomfort, my mind is active my *lighted candle and the flooded fields around me seem to balance my mind and spirit. I know I can work and make a good chair, nothing else matters and I am stress free'"

John Brown. Good Woodworking March 2001

Amy and I enjoying the New Orleans weather.

*"...noticed a candle burning on my bench from the photographs of my workshop, even in broad daylight. The candle reminds me to concentrate, like tying a knot in your handkerchief as a 'remembrancer.' If I don't concentrate, sawcuts go awry, gage marks appear in the wrong place, in fact, lack of concentration lets the gremlins out of the cage."

John Brown. Good Woodworking September 1997

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Make Nothing But Music

The weather is slowly changing here in Alabama. The leaves are just beginning to turn and the nights seem to be made for sitting on the front porch swing.

And there is the pull of winter. Every once in awhile I feel it when I least expect it, that ambiguous comfortable feeling that winter is on it's way. It's nice to feel the simple pleasure of the tug of winter in your soul. It is time to hunker down, enjoy life, and make nothing but music.

Amy and I traveled to Scottsboro, Alabama to the Hardwood Center, where I get most of the wood for the banjos. They have the most beautiful selection of wood. I spent the day Friday thumbing through every piece of of maple they had in order to find the perfect piece. The photo above is what I brought home.

The darker wood on the left is Walnut, next to that is some nice curly maple. Beside the maple lay the most beautiful piece of Honduras Rosewood that I've ever seen. I thought that the Rosewood would make nice fingerboards. Next to that is a big chunk of ebony that I'll also use for fingerboards. On the end is a stack of maple that has already been cut down and ready to steambend into pots.

I've got the shop cleaned up and organized, and enough wood to last me through the winter.

I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Have you ever had that strange feeling that someone was watching you as you worked?

I had an email request to show how I create the curvature of the neck to match the pot.

I create the curvature of the neck with a sanding drum mounted to a drill press. The bottom of the sanding drum has a guide attached to follow a pattern.

The neck is set on a 3 degree angle, this assures proper string tension.

I created a guide for the sanding drum to follow. I transferred the curvature of the pot to the guide.

The form is the length of the neck.

On the guide I have marked a center line. I match the center line of the guide with the center line of the neck.

Clamp the neck at the center...

and sand away the waste...

to create the correct curvature.

I use a router to create the curvature for the tension hoop.

This jig replaces the router fence. It is the same curvature as the bracket band. By adjusting the fence, I can control the depth of the cut.

I clamp waste blocks to the neck to control tear out.

And a photo of the completed neck.

I still have to do some cleanup with sandpaper, and sometimes with chisels, but for the most part this system works pretty well.