The Story Behind the Music

For the last thirty-five years I have spent my workday teaching undergraduate and graduate students the intricacies of business and marketing. By night, however, I’ve been strumming a guitar and singing folksongs at local coffeehouses and folk venues first in the Boston area, and then in central Pennsylvania. I try to bring more to the stage than just music. I am a storyteller, a folklorist and above all a seasoned teacher. From the ancient ballad, to the newest song that I’ve just composed, my years in front of both classes and audiences have honed my ability to draw the listener in and impart a deeper connection with the music. Now, I’m stepping away from the days in the classroom to fully devote my time to creating and sharing with others the music that I love. As I prepare a song for performance I also prepare the “story” behind that song. Since I sing very few recognizable covers (a personal presentation of a song identified with another), it is clear that the audience will know little, if anything, about the songs that I sing.

This is where all of those years as a teacher and an academic researcher come into play. It only takes a minute or two to properly introduce a song. However, sometimes the preparation of that introduction takes as long or longer than it took to learn the song itself. The sharing of this background research is intended to provide the listener with, hopefully, an enhanced experience. For example, I have recently been developing a series of songs that are thematically linked around the human costs of war and slavery. Several of these songs date from the 1860s, while several others in the series have their roots in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, the various themes found in the lyrics are universal and, unfortunately, continue to be indicative of current human and societal failures. Only through an understanding of events extant with the lyrics can the audience best appreciate the message or concept that I am trying to convey through linking these songs. I spend time discussing just what it is that I am to say through the stories told in and behind the music…

• “I’ll See You in the Morning, Martin” – written in the 1970s and the 2000s – stresses the unfinished work of the civil rights movement and MLK’s non-violent approach to protest

• “Bid Em In” – while written in the 1950s, dramatically brings forth the cruelty toward, and the disregard of, slaves in the 1850s – the treatment of humans as a commodity – the race based sense of superiority and inferiority

• “Brown Baby” – also written in the 1950s – brings out the common bond of love (across all races) for a child and the hope for a better future for a brown baby

• “Two Brothers” – written in the 1960s to highlight the Civil War reality of a family divided between the North and the South

• “Rally Round the Flag” – written in the Civil War era and used in the election campaign of Abraham Lincoln – with slight modification could be used as a current day song of patriots

• “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again / Johnny I hardly Knew Ye” – American song from the Civil War period – The Irish version of about the same time – Two very different visions of war, heroism, sacrifice.

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10,000 Villages Café

The Café @ 10,000 Villages is located within the largest store in the 10,000 Villages Network. Once a week, on Friday evenings, they present regionally known performers at the Café. This is an intimate venue with a small audience (around 50) that listens to the performers. I was pleased to be included in their schedule. Over the years I have been to shows at the Café, and I have always been impressed with the performances there. Thus, I felt it a bit of an honor to be invited to play for them. As a non-profit, they do not pay their performers. However, there is a (usually) overflowing tip basket and a receptive audience for the sale of CDs. If you read the following information on the company, I believe that you will see why I am excited to be part of their programming.

Ten Thousand Villages is an exceptional source for unique handmade gifts, jewelry, home decor, art and sculpture, textiles, serve ware and personal accessories representing the diverse cultures of artisans in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. One of the world’s largest fair trade organizations and a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), the company strives to improve the livelihood of tens of thousands of disadvantaged artisans in 38 countries. Ten Thousand Villages accomplishes this by establishing a sustainable market for handmade products in North America, and building long term buying relationships in places where skilled artisan partners lack opportunities for stable income. Product sales help pay for food, education, and healthcare and housing for artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.

Founded in 1946, the company has grown from the trunk of founder Edna Ruth Byler’s car to a network of more than 390 retail outlets throughout the United States selling Ten Thousand Villages products. The company encourages artisan partners to use environmentally friendly processes, sustainable natural resources and recycled materials to ensure each product offered has been crafted responsibly. Ten Thousand Villages is a partner of Mennonite Central Committee.

Ten Thousand Villages is an independent nonprofit, charitable organization (501(c) 3), with an independent, nine-member board of directors. All sales revenue generated by Ten Thousand Villages and any surplus earned by operations is retained within Ten Thousand Villages. Surpluses are used to increase purchases from artisans and to finance the growth of Ten Thousand Villages retail network.

(The preceding quote was taken from the 10,000 Villages’ web site. tenthousandvillages.com)

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Ned Smith Center Concert

This year was the third time over the past decade that I have had the honor to perform at this annual event in Millersburg, PA. This one-day festival is a true gem. It is a small festival, but is a great festival. This year, my wife and I sampled hickory bark syrup; saw programs on wonderful, majestic birds of prey; enjoyed the “old timey” music of a young married couple; enjoyed wonderful, nature-themed art; and, fought back the very strong temptation to buy tie-dyed clothing for our grand kids.

The first time I played Ned Smith I was on the main stage, which actually was the main “field”. I performed between a locally well-known television naturalist who was presenting a program on “Snakes of Pennsylvania” and a local dance team. We were all took our turn on a platform located at second base on a baseball diamond. The audience sat in the stands. Several years later I did a totally acoustic set (no electricity available) on the deck of a small ferryboat that powered out to the middle of the Juniata River where they anchored. It was an absolutely peaceful setting in the middle of that river. The ferryboat audience was ticketed, limited to 50, and sold out. They all sat around me on the deck. By the way, I sat on the deck as well. This year I was back on the main stage again. This time, however, we were in a tent with the audience fanned out in front of the stage on temporary benches.

Now for the bad news… Most performers, at one time or another, have had an off day. This day was mine. The term used by my father to describe these shows, when he had one, was “I bombed”. My fingers could not cleanly find the chords. My mind could not always remember the verses (at least in the proper order). As is often the case, the audience was not all that aware of these difficulties. You can cover your mistakes, especially when the audience is hearing a song for the first time. However, it was a very long 45 minutes for me. There were several people present who have seen me sing before, including my wife, and I am sure that they could judge that I was not at my best.

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Open Mic

There is not an amateur or professional singer around who has not “done”, at some point in time, an open mic. First let’s take a look at what that “reference” source favored by so many, Wikipedia, has to offer on the topic (Note: For whatever reason, this search led me to the UK site for the following comments). To quote:

“An open mic is a live show where audience members may perform at the microphone. Usually, the performers sign up in advance for a time slot with the host or master of ceremonies. These events are typically focused on performance arts like poetry and the spoken word, music, and comedy…”

“These shows provide an opportunity for musicians to gain experience performing to a live audience without having to go through the process of getting normal music gigs, which is very difficult to do without experience of live performance…”

“Open mic events are most commonly held in the middle of the week or at the very end of the weekend. They rarely occur on the hallowed Friday and Saturday night time slots when venues are busy with weekend revelers and any live performance is usually specifically booked, professional artists…” (1)

The UK does differ slightly in that they have established folk clubs where traditional folk music is the focus, and the singer songwriter performing their own songs, or those offering covers of contemporary music, are often not that welcome. In a similar vein the US has “song writing associations” and they suggest that only original music be presented at their open mics (for example: The Maine Songwriters Association or MSA).

There are several types of organizations and venues that present open mics. Many bars and restaurants offer open mics. These tend to be frequented, much like the bars themselves, by regulars who, week after week, present themselves, sign up on the list, and sing their three songs or fifteen minutes (the norm allowed). The regulars are comfortable with each other and very supportive of each other’s efforts. These open mics generate business (food and drink) on nights when the bar might otherwise have fewer customers. Typically, these open mics are such that the participants do their bit accompanied by a good amount of noise generated by the bar patrons who are there to drink and socialize.

Another type of open mic is that offered by performance venues that, on other nights, are presenting touring professional singer/songwriters. Here the open mic participants might harbor the hope that the particular venue will see then perform and offer a future gig. While the typical open mic offers the 3 songs or 15 minutes opportunity. I know of some of these venues that are so popular that the limit you to two, or perhaps only one, song.

Finally, yet another type of open mic, and the reason that I decided to address this topic this week. It is all because of a recent experience I had in Auburn Maine at an open mic sponsored by the local Unitarian-Universalist Church (at their Pleasant Note Coffee House). First, a bit of background is in order. This coffee house had for many years offered to the local community a series of concerts by touring professionals. The guiding force behind the coffee house left at least six or seven years ago, and two individuals shortly thereafter began a monthly open mic. The church web site had a comment that led me to think that they might, once again, in the near future, offer a gig opportunity. I went to the open mic in the hopes that this was the case, and that I might open a channel of communication with the people there. While this appears to not be the case, what I did find, was a perfect example of another type of open mic, a church-sponsored, community-centered outreach. At one point the host spoke with me about how some of the “regulars at their open mic were “developmentally challenged”. Perhaps she was feeling self-
conscious about this. What I was part of that evening was a wonderful, regularly scheduled, gathering of friends and acquaintances who came together to enjoy each other’s company and encourage the group’s creative talents. The range of talent was significant. It was a delightful and extremely welcoming community in that church basement, and perhaps one of the most enjoyable open mics I have ever encountered. They invited me back, and I look forward to joining them again.

Open mics – many things to many people.

(1) – Source cited: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_mic

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Political Relevance – “Hey Zhankoye”

This song is an example of how a piece of music can lead you into a search of history. The Zhankoye memorialized in this song was a Jewish collective farm established during the Stalin era in the Crimean region of the Ukraine. There are a few, rather dated, recordings of this Yiddish song with lyrics translated by Pete Seeger. Among others, the Limeliters recorded it in the early 1960s. My version reflects their translation (Alex Hassilev?), that differs slightly from the one by Pete Seeger. The liner notes to the Limeliters’ recording describe the song as, “a farm song from Jewish settlements in the Crimea in the middle “20’s”. In addition to the Limeliters’ version, there is an early recording by Pete Seeger, and one by Theodore Bikel, both who provided a different translation/version.

The political relevance is, of course, the recent events in the region that have resulted in Russia resuming a claim on this territory.

I do not yet attempt the Yiddish lyrics in my performance of this song. Perhaps I will make the effort to learn them and do so. The Limeliters’ version of original Yiddish lyrics are:

As men fort kine Sevastopol
Iz nit veit fun Simferopol
Dortin iz a stantzi faran
Ver darf zuchen niye glikken
S’iz a stanziye an antikel
In Zhankoye, Dzhan, dzan, dzhan

Chorus:
Hey Zhan hey Zhankoye
Hey Zhanvili, hey Zhankoye
Hey Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzhan
Hey Zhan hey Zhankoye
Hey Zhanvili, hey Zhankoye
Hey Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzhan

Enfert Yidden af mine Kashe
Vi’z mine brider, v’iz Abrashe
S’gayt ba im der traktor vi a bahn
Di mime Layre ba der kosilke
Bayle ba der molotilke
In Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzhan

Repeat Chorus

Ver zogt az Yidden kene nit handlen
Essen fette yoich mit mandlen
Nor nit zine kine arbitsman?
Doss kenen zogen nor di sonim
Yidden shpite zay on in ponim
Tit a kik af Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzhan

Repeat Chorus


Hey Zhankoye (translated – as sung by Pat McCaskey)
Traditional w/lyric adapted by: Pete Seeger & Alex Hassilev

If you go to Sevastopol
On the way to Sinferopol
Just you go a little further down
There we have a railroad station
Known quite well throughout the nation
As Zhankoye, Dzhan

Chorus:
Hey Zhan, hey Zhankoye
Hey Zhanvili, hey Zhankoye
Hey Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzhan

Now if you look for Paradise
You’ll see it there before your eyes
Stop your search and go no further on
There we had a collective farm
All run by husky Jewish arms
In Zhankoye, Dzhan

Chorus

Aunt Natasha drives the tractor
Grandma runs the cream extractor
Work together hand in hand
Help to build a better land
In Zhankoye, Dzhan

Chorus

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“My Beloved” – A Love Lost Song

Written in early 1975 this song came out of a six-year infatuation with a woman named Emily. This was an on again – off again relationship that finally came to an end. It began when she was 16 and I was 23. The song was written sometime between the last two attempts at saving the relationship, and was actually sung for her at one point in time. I still cannot listen to the Steely Dan song “Reelin in the Years”, that has the words, “the weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned”, without a bad flash back to a significant Emily event. I did run into her several years ago. It was in a supermarket in town near where she had grown up, and where my wife and I now reside. She didn’t know or remember me. In the Fall of 1975, I learned much about the events in her life just prior to, and just after, she left town. There is a lot to this story that could lengthen this blog, but nothing would be gained by doing so. There are two good endings to this story. First, time has led me to know that this particular relationship was not to be one of those life-long things. Second, I later met my wife, noticing her at first because she and Emily had the same hair color (a strawberry blond shade of red). We have been married since 1986. I prefer to remember all of the good parts of this earlier relationship with Emily… And, I also got a good song out of the deal as well!

A bit more about the song and its presentation to an audience… I have two ways that I can perform this song – by varying the tempo. The version on my CD is yet a third, with the tempo somewhere in the middle. Singing the song, at a relatively slow tempo, fits quite nicely with the lyrics and the mood suggested by them. However, I often speed up the song, using something akin to a “rag” style melody. I actually prefer this up-tempo version because of the contrast presented by the sad lyrics and a happy melody.


My Beloved
By: Patrick H. McCaskey

Pardon me, dear, but I forgot
That I don’t love you any anymore

And the joy. Dear, and the fantasy
And the pain, dear
Came rushing in again
Because, just because
I forgot that I don’t love you anymore
Anymore
I forgot that I don’t love you anymore

And a tear, dear, etched a line
Across the life reflected in my mirror
Because, just because
I forgot that I don’t love you anymore
Anymore
I forgot that I don’t love you anymore

But I want you
And I need you
And I love you
Forever evermore
Evermore
Yes I want you
Need you
Love you
Evermore

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