Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How To Build a Banjo

1. Plant a tree. I prefer black walnut.

2. When the tree has grown to just the right height and circumference (approximately 80 years), it is time to begin.

3. Look at the tree. Try to visualize the banjo within the tree.

4. With a chisel, remove the parts of the tree that are not a part of the banjo. For your safety, you may consider laying the tree on it's side before carving.

And that's all there is to building your very own banjo. Enjoy.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

White House Blues 1932

For some reason I awoke this morning humming the 1932 version of White House Blues :

"Got up this morning, all I could see

Was cornbread and gravy just a-waitin' for me

And now he's gone, I'm glad he's gone"

Friday, January 2, 2009

Christmas Tree / Last leaves of the New Year

It is December 27th. It is 75 degrees outside. The sun is shining brightly, but dark gray clouds are moving in from the east. The wind is up and even though it is almost the end of December, it feels like early spring.

I am at my day job at the moment. As I write this in my notebook (I usually keep a notebook handy, even when I'm away from the shop), I notice a crow take flight from one corner of the building where I work, to land on the roof of the bank building across the street. The sun throws an elongated shadow of the crow across the pitch of the bank building roof as the bird walks back and forth across the roofs length.

Christmas was especially nice this year. The rotten economy has effected us all, so gifts were thinner this year, but it seemed like we got closer to the core of what Christmas is about. To amend a popular saying, 'it's the thoughtfulness that counts,' and it's family that counts.

And now, as a new year approaches, so does a new life. My workplace will be closing permanently in a couple of weeks, and I will be without a steady job.

And that has given me an opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a luthier full time. You only have one life, might as well try to do something rewarding with it, right? An old friend once told me that all major life choices were decided by either faith or fear, so let's hear it for faith. Lou Reed said that you've got to have a busload of faith to get by. Lou never did have the cheeriest outlook on life, though.

So, if all goes well, I will be spending my time in the shop building banjos, maybe book arts tools. I'm also open to other projects if anybody needs anything...but the wood is calling, and I must follow.

The one thing about my workplace that I will miss is a small maple tree planted on the sidewalk just outside the front window. Beautiful, caged in cement. It is unnatural that such a thing be caged like that. The tree's lifespan is the lifespan of the building. Depressing.

Nevertheless, I spent many pleasant moments gazing out of the window at that maple. I've watched that Maple since it was four years old, I believe. We've marked ten seasons together. Ten years of flaming red autumns and bright green springs.

About three years ago I planted a maple tree of my own in a wooded area on the family property. I cleaned out an area that was overgrown with nambina bushes covered with a soft blanket of kudzu. The tree is planted in a valley just across the street from our house, and is not visible without peering down into the valley from the road. As time moves on, I expect to see the top of the tree peer from the valley as it slowly but surely makes its way toward the sun. Even in its youth it is a majestic tree.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, then you know that I am a man who loves symbols and ritual, so it would be no surprise to discover that the olive tree is one of my favorite trees. Beautiful, varied, and arguably the most significant tree in history. Mentioned in the Odyssey by Homer, written about numerous times in the bible and the Koran, painted by Vincent Van Gogh. Brought to America in the 17th century, the olive tree is a symbol of abundance, glory, peace and purification. Thomas Jefferson once said that "the olive tree is...the richest gift of heaven." And it was an olive branch that the dove brought to Noah as a sign that the flood waters were receding.

For Christmas I received three gifts from Amy based on new beginnings for 2009. The first a *black walnut tree, that I may live long enough to cut it down and use the lumber. The second, seeds for our vegetable garden from Seeds of Change, and finally, a Lucca olive tree, a symbol of hope, prosperity and purity for my new venture. I hope that, like Noah's dove, this simple olive tree is a sign that I will soon gain solid footing on dry land.

Just recently I painted the shop. I only got the base coat on before it turned too cold to paint, and then too wet, but it's a start. And now that the shop has a fresh coat of white paint, it resembles a little country church, to me anyway. And that is just as it should be; there are ghosts in there.

So, I planted my Lucca in front of the shop window. The tree is only 4 feet tall, so, from inside the shop, I have to consciously peer over the window sill to see the tree, and even then I can only see the top.

But, like the maple caged by sidewalk, I hope to spend many peaceful moments watching the Lucca tree grow, and I hope to grow with it.

And I hope to take care of my olive tree just as I build banjos. The Lucca tree will be a reminder to concentrate carefully, listen thoughtfully, and work peacefully and diligently.

And as the olive tree instills hope in me, it is a reminder to instill hope in others. I guess if I had a New Years resolution, that's what it would be, to try to be a vehicle of hope.

So...wish me luck, and think good thoughts, they will be felt and appreciated. I am fortunate to have someone in my life who has enough faith in me to entrust me with an olive tree. It is a big responsibility.

If I can find my copy, I hope to start posting The Man who Planted Trees by Jean Giono soon. One of my favorite short stories.

*this gift was based on something I wrote for Amy several months ago entitled "how to build a banjo." I never intended to post it, but since it came up, I'll try to include it in a post within the week.