When Reporting Gives Way to Singing
I’ve been a musician longer than I’ve been a journalist, but recording took a back seat to writing, until I had a "lucky" stroke. Then came Covid and my online Sunday Sanity jams.
Just as I did with my recent post about my journey to, and through, journalism, I want to give newcomers to my work a bit of context on why I include the arts when I think of paths to communication impact pursuing a fully thriving human future. Welcome to my musical side.
Do you practice or appreciate some particular art form as part of your quest for a better life for all? Weigh in here!
Through the first 25 years of my professional life, my core occupation was conveying stories about environmental challenges through journalism and books - a process that took me from the burning Amazon to the warming North Pole to the White House to the Vatican. The explosive expansion of the capacity for online connectivity led to my passion for multi-directional interaction with experts and audiences through blogging - first with Dot Earth at the New York Times and currently here. The pandemic lockdown led to my Columbia-hubbed Sustain What webcasts, taking that blogging form to a video format.
But some subjects, situations and feelings just cry out to be sung more than typed or spoken. That fact has led me back to one of my first loves — music. I grew up in a singing household and had been performing and writing songs since the early 1990s, but was only prompted to record my music by my first really close call with mortality - my “lucky” stroke.
Here’s my musical meandering - so far, starting with my YouTube channel here:
Click here to watch dozens of musical Sustain What webcasts I ran on weekends as “Sunday Sanity” gatherings during the pandemic. I’ll be restarting this series this fall and winter. If you’re a musician and want to join us, send a message!
My musical journey began with my parents, who both enjoyed singing informally — mainly folk songs and sea songs they learned through their shared love of sailing and my dad’s time in the Merchant Marine. My father’s baritone rendition of the Banana Boat Song — “Come mister tallyman, tally me bananas…” — echoes in my mind as I type this. A fifth-grade English teacher, Russell F. Thomas, Esq. (he liked to be referred to that way), added to my love of harmony by splitting our class into four groups and teaching us the barbershop quartet parts to “Tell Me Why” — a sweet, simple tune that still resonates in some recess of my brain.
While in high school, my brother and I began learning guitar, at first sharing my mother’s nylon-stringed instrument. I instinctively (if unwisely) played the guitar upside down, creating my own chord fingerings by placing whatever fingertips felt best on the locations indicated by the black dots in a chord book. There are a host of guitarists who play(ed) this way, including Seal, Jimmy Cliff and Elizabeth Cotten. My mother’s sister, Martha, a passionate folkie and talented singer, introduced me to the music of Pete Seeger and Judy Collins and wrote out the lyrics for “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” the stunning anti-war ballad by the Australian songwriter Eric Bogle. (I wrote about him for The Times decades later.)
Another influence was geography. I grew up in Rhode Island, a bastion of folk music and the blues. We were particularly inspired by locals like Paul Geremia, Patrick Sky, Roy Book Binder and Roomful of Blues. But I saw a parade of greats when they came through Newport or nearby college campuses, including fellow left-hander Elisabeth Cotten, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, Bonnie Raitt, Fairport Convention and the legendary bluesman Pink Anderson (who was brought north by Book Binder, so we heard, so that he could make enough money to buy some new false teeth).
And of course there was radio. I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when you could listen to WPRO and hear, in the span of an hour, everything from Dylan and the Beatles to Franki Valli and Herb Alpert. On the FM side there was Dick Pleasants spinning great folk music. My album has traces of all these sounds and styles.
At 17, I bought my first guitar. It was in pieces — an old acoustic that was sitting half mummified in crumbling masking tape in the corner of a music store in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (I was visiting that city as a high school junior traveling with a friend’s family to a youth sailing competition.) The guitar looked like it had been through a bar fight, but I could see it was a Gibson, so I swooped.
At first, the shop owner said it wasn’t for sale. But then, perhaps realizing he had a lot of work ahead of him to restore it, he sold it to me for $35. When I got home, my dad, a practical and thrifty man, didn’t hide his anger. How could I pay $35 for a broken guitar? If I didn’t fix it by summer’s end, he said, he would throw it away.
I buckled down in his wood shop and fixed it, replacing a shredded side with thin mahogany plywood from our family furniture store that I steamed into shape. I still have that beaten, bruised, but booming 1949 sunburst Southern Jumbo (yes, and a few others now).
I quickly learned basic mandolin and banjo, as well. I made my first “serious” money as a musician (up to $100 a day!) busking in Newport during the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 with my friend Mike Bonaiuto, who had an attention-grabbing hammered dulcimer. I pretty much wore out my copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s pioneering album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I sang John Prine and Ry Cooder tunes in the coffeehouse at Brown University with a roommate, Aron Wolf, who went on to a great career at NASA helping design interplanetary spacecraft missions and sadly died of cancer this year - too soon gone.
After college, I spent nearly two years, by lucky happenstance, as first mate on a circumnavigating sailboat, the Wanderlust, playing for beer money in bars as we cruised from Auckland to Dubrovnik. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, the skipper of a stunning black yawl, Serena, gave me a worn cassette tape of Guy Clark’s “Texas Cookin’.” I’ve been playing the title song and “The Last Gunfighter” ever since.
Then journalism took over for the most part. Amid hundreds of stories on pollution, wildlife, climate change and the occasional disaster, I fit in some music reporting, including a piece contrasting bluegrass and newgrass festivals, a profile of the Dave Matthews Band, a feature on a tribute band singer who became the lead voice in Judas Priest (the article was the basis for the 2001 feature film “Rock Star”), stories on Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s zen songwriting retreats, Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk movement and many more.
In the background behind my reporting, I began writing and performing songs from the early 1990s on — about everything from piles of bills to an epic fight with a bigmouth bass, and of course love and loss.
To me, there’s a natural relationship between singing and journalism given that broadsides and ballads have an intertwined history.
And there are similarities between structuring a story and song. The lede on a story has to engage. The same goes for the opening lines of a tune. Here are a few of my openers from my small songbook:
When I’m feeling so low that roadkill looks lucky…. (Between the River and the Rails)
In eighteen hundred sixty four the burying began… (Arlington)
Spent all my life a doubter, a skeptic through and through, ‘til I found myself in heaven one fine day. (Skeptic in Heaven)
I even ventured to Nashville a couple of times, playing twice at the Bluebird Cafe - a mecca for songwriters. Here’s a fuzzy cassette recording from the WPLN broadcast of my song “Western Sky.”
Another regular hangout was the monthly Celtic sessions at Guinan’s, an unlicensed bar operated by a wonderful Irish family from 1955 through 2009. The sessions there, always on the first Thursday after the full moon, ranged from ragged to remarkable, but were always profoundly musical and heartfelt.
They were mostly led by Jack McAndrew, an accountant by day but an earnest and passionate lover of Irish tunes on those Thursday evenings. His inconsistent tempos were more than compensated for by his spirit and smile. Like Jim and John Guinan, the father and son who were the cornerstones of the place, Jack has passed on. My song “Between the River and the Rails” is dedicated to these three fine souls.
Life is a Band
As with tough sustainability challenges, music works best as a collaboration knitting varied skill sets. I resisted that idea for a long time. Boy was that a mistake.
I was mainly a solo performer from high school on beyond college, but shifted increasingly to playing with other musicians, particularly after moving from Brooklyn to the Hudson Highlands north of New York City in 1991. It’d be hard to live in this region and not play with others, given that the others included Pete Seeger and the galaxy of talented singers and players for whom he has been a lodestone.n the early 2000’s, when I was commuting to The New York Times regularly on the Hudson line, I got to know several musicians frequenting the Garrison train platform. Peter Rundquist, a great guitarist and blues singer, was a jingle composer. Jerry Krenach, who’d drummed with the likes of Lou Reed and Chris Whitley, was a music arranger, producer and supervisor. Art Labriola, a piano virtuoso, was scoring films. We all craved twangy delta blues and country tunes and began regularly jamming and then performing what we ended up calling “simple music for complicated times.”
The rule of thumb was that we’d each mainly play the instrument we were least good at. For me that was mandolin and scratchy fiddle. Soon we were joined by Al Hemberger, a bass player, songwriter and owner of a fabled Bronxville studio, The Loft. Our favorite gig was playing each June on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater during the Clearwater Festival. You can see and hear us here and here. Click here for video of a show we did in the cozy back room of Philipstown.info, a homegrown newspaper. Uncle Wade is no more, but the mixes of “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Arlington” on the album are built around a couple of Uncle Wade recording sessions. “Black Bird,” my song about a coal miner’s foreshadowed death, was inspired by the true story of the untimely death of Jerry Krenach’s great grandfather in a Pennsylvania coal mine.
A reminder that dexterity is transitory
I was prompted finally to record my music by a close call.
Midlife jolts come in many shapes. Mine came in the form of an out-of-the-blue stroke — the kind that sometimes hits people who are not the usual suspects. There’s more on that below and in an article I wrote for The New York Times in May, 2013. Losing the use of your right hand for a few weeks gets your attention. Click here to see the finger therapy that helped me heal. It’s a very fine line between dexterity and incapacity.
I was incredibly lucky, in all kinds of ways, given that stroke is the leading source of disability in America. My instinct to chug half a dozen baby aspirin before heading to the hospital could have killed me if it had been a bleeding stroke (not that I knew this at the time), but probably helped me avoid lasting damage.
As the title song of this album goes, “Most of your life you spend walking a very fine line.” After I healed, I didn’t want to waste any more time.
I recorded “A Very Fine Line,” a collection of 10 of my songs, from February through September, 2013, in the Beacon, New York, studio of Joe Johnson, with contributions from a batch of brilliantly musical friends, including the songwriter Dar Williams, mandolin wizard Mike Marshall and virtuoso fiddler Bruce Molsky. You can learn about all of the contributing musicians below.
Here’s my video version of “A Very Fine Line”:
From 2016 through early 2022, I founded and co-ran Breakneck Ridge Revue - which was an event as much as a band, with musicians coming and going depending on the gig and date. Our events at the legendary Towne Crier Cafe in Beacon had the vibe of Prairie Home Companion with none of the controversy.
While I’m developing new musical friends and circles in Maine, one of my deepest regrets on moving here this year from the Hudson Valley is leaving that wonderful ensemble of players and poets behind.
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Album “liner notes”
A Very Fine Line (hear/download), a song about life’s close calls, features Joe Johnson, who’s much more than a mix master, on electric guitar (the whimsical slide licks were recorded on George Harrison’s birthday). Joe has a great ear for the right note at the right time, whether tweaking tracks or playing his own guitar lines. Al Hemberger played bass and Eric Starr is on drums. Harmonies are by my friends from Motherlode Trio — Stacy Labriola, Patti Pelican and Terry Textor Platz (with me in the montage above). I play guitar.
This song and three others derive their energy in large part from the keyboard tracks contributed by Joel Diamond, a composer and longtime session player who was introduced to me by Joe Johnson. There’s a fun short film about him by Anne Trauben.
Arlington (hear/download), my ballad about the fabled past and uncertain future of the national cemetery, features Dar Williams as guest vocalist, Ben Neill on trumpet and Motherlode Trio on harmonies. The song grew out of a chance observation on a reporting visit to Washington, D.C., during the buildup of troops in Iraq. At the Arlington Metro stop, a family dressed mainly in black boarded the train. I heard them chatting about the funeral they’d attended (of a Vietnam vet) and someone mentioned that the preacher noted Arlington was slowly running out of room. Fascinated, I did some sifting, sensing a story. But John Woestendiek of the Baltimore Sun had already done an amazing feature exploring this issue. The cemetery was hosting two dozen funerals a day (“gray veterans and fresh fallen side by side…”).
I began noodling in my favorite guitar tuning (dadgad) around the core question: “Where will they go when there’s no more room in Arlington?”
I did more homework on the history of the cemetery, which is remarkable. “To spite that rebel Robert Lee, we took away his land.” The song percolated for awhile as I settled on chords and melody lines. Pete Seeger scribbled some ideas for shifts in lyrics in 2005, which I recently posted online.
The recording includes Art Labriola on piano and organ, Mark Murphy on upright bass, Jerry Krenach on drums and Peter Rundquist on guitar. I play guitar and banjo.
Blame it On Biology (hear/download) became something of a tribute to Herb Alpert after Ben Neill started experimenting with some fun trumpet lines. Also playing: Joel Diamond on keyboards, Joe Johnson guitar, Eric Starr on drums, Mark Murphy on upright bass. Motherlode Trio and Al Hemberger sing harmonies. I play guitar. Ben, best known for his pioneering digital “mutantrumpet” compositions, can play with simple grace, too. Listen closely to Arlington when I sing “bugles blow.” Thanks to Ben, it feels like you’re standing in the misty hills there.
Breakneck Ridge (hear/download) is my ode to the Hudson Highlands, describing the magical steep-sided and sinuous stretch of the Hudson between the Bear Mountain Bridge and Breakneck Ridge — the ridge being, by some counts, the most popular hiking destination in America. The song features master pipe maker (and player) Seth Gallagher on uilleann pipes, Steve Kent on bansuri flute, Al Hemberger on bass, Joe Johnson on guitar and synthesizer, Eric Starr on drums and Al Hemberger and Motherlode on harmonies. I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. There are a couple of magical notes in the “breakdown” section that, to me, have all the growl and bend of a great rock guitar riff.
Black Bird (hear/download), inspired by a true mining tragedy, was initially recorded by Joe Johnson as a solo live performance by me at a Cold Spring songwriters’ circle, with Ken Veltz providing light percussion on cajón.
I invited the great fiddler Bruce Molsky and bassist Mark Murphy to enrich this recording in the studio. I hope you don’t mind having a live performance with studio tracks added after the fact. I pledge we’ll do this tune live together soon!
Grandpa’s Cadillac, (hear/download) a celebration of my maternal grandfather’s glorious 1959 Cadillac sedan, features Joe Johnson on electric guitar, Art Labriola on pedal steel guitar and Joel Diamond on keyboards. Also playing are Al Hemberger on bass and the versatile Eric Starr on drums. You can check out Eric’s jazz side here. I play guitar.
Bills Bills Bills (hear/download) features Art Labriola on dobro, with Peter Rundquist on guitar, Mark Murphy on bass and Jerry Krenach on drums. Al Hemberger and Peter Rundquist sing harmonies. I play mandolin and guitar. This was a standard tune from our days in Uncle Wade and was in part recorded in a kitchen session by Joe Johnson several years before this full recording was completed. Every time I hear it, I miss that band.
Liberated Carbon (hear/download), a three-minute history of humanity’s energy choices, features Joe Johnson on electric guitar and Joel Diamond on keyboards. Also playing are Al Hemberger on bass and Ted Hemberger on drums. Al Hemberger and Motherlode provide harmonies. I play guitar. Terry, Patti and Stacy really brought this song, and five others, to life.
Between the River and the Rails (hear/download), recalling the splendors of Guinan’s, a bygone Irish-American pub, features Steve Kent on penny whistle, Bruce Molsky on fiddle, Seth Gallagher on uilleann pipes and the climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert on accordion. Joe Johnson added guitar and keyboards. Al Hemberger played bass and Eric Starr drums. The grand chorus is Motherlode Trio along with Al Hemberger, Russ Cusick and the singer-songwriter Derek A. Dempsey. I play guitar, mandolin and banjo. That green neon shamrock still glows in a lot of people’s memories.
Song for Lisa (hear/download) features the amazing Mike Marshall on mandolin and Mark Murphy on upright bass, with yours truly on guitar and Eric Starr on drums. I met Mike in 2008, when we both attended a meeting in Woods Hole, Mass., on the role of the Internet in fostering global progress. I brought my guitar of course and he ended up joining me, with hardly a warm-up, on this instrumental.
I explored various options for mastering the album, considering engineers from Los Angeles to Nashville, but kept things local in the end after I found Matthew Agoglia, a talented émigré to Beacon from New York City and alum of the major-league mastering outfit Masterdisk.
Gratitude: This album owes much to Joe Johnson, who worked with me from February through September on every sonic detail, and also to each of the musicians above. Many gentle listeners helped me refine these songs and productions, including Pete Seeger, David Bernz, David Bayer, Dean Friedman, Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen, Vince Bell, Susan Werner and Leo Sacks — and my patient wife, Lisa Mechaley. Any remaining warts and glitches are my doing. I snapped this picture when Joe and I wrapped the final tweak on the last song. That’s a wrap — for now.
The Cover Art
I found the cover art while searching images on the Web related to walking a tightrope (the “very fine line,” of course). The image, dating from 1574, is from the Symbolicarum quaestionum, a catalog of Italian emblems by Achille Bocchi. Thanks to the Special Collections section of the University of Glasgow Library, you can explore this remarkable work online here.
I had trouble at first tracking down its origins, but — through the magic of Twitter — quickly got help from Tracey Evans and John Fleck. After I received permission to use the art, I was eager to translate the Latin title and Greek phrases being held by the acrobat. I went to my nephew, Ben Revkin, who teaches Latin at East Greenwich High School (my alma mater). It turned out the art was a better fit for me than I’d imagined.
After consulting with friends who are Greek scholars, he decrypted the placards for me: “ἀνέχου / ἀπέχου translates to ‘hold on’ versus ‘give up.’ In Stoic context, maybe ‘indulge’ versus ‘abstain.’” Ben provided a helpful link at which the translation is “bear and forbear.”
The title above the illustration — Tenere medium semper est prudentiae — translates to “To hold the middle is always of prudence.” This is particularly apt given that my style of blogging and commentary is to seek points of agreement rather than accentuate differences — a rare trait, perhaps, but possibly an unavoidable result of my being a middle child.