Well, here’s my blog!
April 12th 2020
Music for Homemade Musical Instruments
From the 1980s through the turn of the century, I spent a great deal of time working in elementary schools. Sometimes I was hired directly by the school, but more often I contracted with either a regional or state art council program. Although I did my share of urban schools, the bulk of my time was in tiny rural communities in Oregon, Alaska and Washington. And when I say rural, I mean that some places were only accessible by boat or float plane!
My classes consisted of helping the kids build musical instruments out of, well, trash, really. For the youngest, we’d make simple percussion instruments like shakers and friction drums. The instruments got more complicated as the kids moved up in grade: bull-roarers, bleach bottle banjos, and Appalachian dulcimers made from scrap wood with a tin can for a resonator!
The point wasn’t just to make noise, the kids — and teachers — learned to play together. At the end of the residency, all the kids gave a performance for the community. For many children this was their first and only experience of playing music. I gotta say it was pretty dang satisfying.
A residency I did in Northern California was filmed by Lark in the Morning and distributed as an instructional video. Sadly, I no longer have a copy.
At some point I decided to record the songs I used in the schools. At the very least I’d be able to give copies to the school’s library.
I overdubbed all of the parts on my trusty 8-track tape machine. As the project grew — or I got more ambitious — I added a couple hokum blues songs that I knew the kids liked. (Yes, I cleaned up the lyrics.) I also cheated a bit and played some guitar and electric bass. My friend Emy Phelps added some much-needed harmony parts.
So now I had a gen-u-wine kid’s album. I made a pile of cassettes under the descriptive title I used for my classes — “Boom Thumpity Twang Twang!” — and shopped them around to various labels. The silence was deafening, as they say.
So I basically forgot about the whole thing until a school teacher friend suggested I do a book instead. I wrote the folks at Mel Bay, who agreed and published “You Can Teach Yourself to Make Music With Home Made Instruments” in 1995. The book could be ordered with a CD and so my little recording project was saved from total oblivion.
Thanks to Bandcamp, you can now hear the album for the first time.
Free Music, Y’all
April 6th, 2020 Update: All of my recordings made between 1980 and 1996 are now on Bandcamp.
April 2nd, 2020
I was hoping to get this done yesterday for April Fish, but hey. I’m using this enforced stay at home time to get some of my back catalog of recordings up on Bandcamp. You can stream them for free, and download them at greatly reduced prices (like, free, in a couple cases). Why? Because I like you.
So set the wayback machine for 1980 and take a listen to “The Rights of Man,” my very first LP.
Stay tuned, more to come. Oh, and stay home, dagnabbit!
November 13, 2019
In honor of this momentous date — well actually just cuz I felt like it — I’ve uploaded my 2009 recording “Uke-A-Rama” to Bandcamp. So head on over there and give it a listen. Free for nuthin’ like we used to say. I guarantee it’ll put a smile on your face. And boy howdy, do we need smiles these dark November days.
August 29, 2019
OK, so I’ve pretty much stopped updating this blog. Why? Well, to tell the truth I just haven’t thought about it much. It isn’t that I haven’t been busy. But frankly I’ve been overwhelmed with simply trying to keep up with, ummmm, events. And I doubt I’m the only one. Ahem.
Musically, I am still nutso about the vielle a roue, or hurdy gurdy. Last June had the amazing good fortune to study with Patrick Bouffard at the wonderful Chants de Vielle in Quebec. I followed that with another Lark Camp, where I pretty much lived at French Camp. I am fortunate to have friends locally who share my interest in getting together for wine, cheese and French Trad music every couple of weeks. Oh, and I have a stunning new guitar-shaped vielle from J.C. Boudet, shown here next to my 1970’s era Kerboeuf. Banjo Bear approves.
In other news, Mighty Mel Bay has picked up three of my previously self-published books. Old Time Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Learn to Play Slack Key Style Ukulele, and Hawaiian and and Polynesian Music for Appalachian Dulcimer represent many years of studying and sharing Hawaiian music & I am stoked to have these newly revised editions available. Follow this link to learn more.
OK, that’s it for now.
October 9, 2018
In preparation for a move to smaller quarters soon, I am selling some of the wonderful musical instruments I’ve acquired over my, ummm, 50 year so-called career. Check back often, as I will be posting new pages as I get the time.
Coming soon: Banjos–tenor, five string & six string–more guitars, basses, a dulcimer or two, and a wonderful 100 year old Gibson mandolin. All dear friends, all in need of new homes. Yes, I will probably kick myself for letting some of these puppies go.
While I’m on the subject: I will also be selling my collection of vintage music and songbooks, as well as a sizable collection of rare Hawaiiana. So stay tuned.
No word yet on what do do about the shabby old arm chair…
August 11, 2018
Fiddling While Rome Burns, Yet Again
OK, so I haven’t exactly been timely in my posts lately. Chock that up to maintaining an insane writing & recording schedule over the winter & spring. In the end I delivered five manuscripts to Mel Bay. I completely reworked “Learn to Play Slack Key Ukulele,” Old Time Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar,” & “Hawaiian & Polynesian Music for Appalachian Dulcimer;” correcting errors and recording additional tracks so that all of the examples and songs taught now have corresponding audio.
And, in my abundant spare time, I wrote two new books: “The Complete Collection of Old Time Fiddle Tunes for Appalachian Dulcimer” –who comes up with these titles? — and “Mastering Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar.” I’m particularly proud of these two books–they represent many, many years of thinking about, performing and teaching these great musical styles.
What of the summer? Well, first was a quick trip to France to look at old churches, sample absinthe, and attend a most amazing music and dance festival: Le Son Continu.
And then it was off to Lark Camp, where musical mayhem is always a possibility. Here is mandolin wizard Radim Zenkl & yours truly competing to see who can create the loudest drone. Believe it or not, the session got stranger a little later, when the drummers and belly dancers showed up.
I love folk music!
November 25th, 2017
News Flash!! After January 1st, 2018 I will no longer be selling TAB collections or PDF editions of my books. Look for my new ukulele, dulcimer and slack key guitar books to be published by Mel Bay soon.
What new books, you ask? To begin with, Mel Bay is picking up three of my self-published books: “”Ke Kukima Polinahe: Hawaiian and Polynesian Music for Appalachian Dulcimer,” “The Uke Buke: Learn to Play Slack Key Style Ukulele” and “Old Time Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar.” For the new editions I am going through everything, making corrections where needed, rewriting some arrangements to make them easier to play, and recording new audio where appropriate.
The Hawaiian dulcimer book is finished, the slack key uke just needs some final polishing and I expect to get to “Old Time Slack” over the next few weeks.
Mel Bay has also picked up my new “Complete Collection of Old Time Fiddle Tunes for Appalachian Dulcimer” project. I’ve whittled it down a bit from the original, overly optimistic plan of 101 tunes. But the book does feature 80 great arrangements of both common and uncommon tunes, in all of the usual fiddle keys and in a variety of dulcimer styles. I recorded solo dulcimer arrangements of all of the tunes that will be available of download once the book gets published. Everything is done and I’ll be sending it off ASAP.
Lastly, I am finally getting around to writing that new slack key guitar book I started all those years ago. With the title “Mastering Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar,” it will be designed to help you discover your own voice. I will cover a number of topics; from how to find the proper tuning, to improvisation, playing in a group, arranging, and more.
So stay tuned!
August 11th, 1917
Lark Camp 2017 – Fiddling While Rome Burns…
One of my favorite things about Lark is the complete separation from what passes for the modern world these days. For 8 days each summer musicians and dancers — and aspiring musicians and dancers, converge in the Mendocino Woodlands. We play music, hang out, teach, learn, eat, dance, and catch up with old friends.
What we don’t do is obsess over the daily onslaught that is now the news for the simple reason that the Woodlands is just remote enough to have no cell service, wi fi, the internet, the radio & TV — all the distractions that remove us from actual reality.
Good friends, good music, good food and no Parlor Tricks is pretty much my idea of heaven.
I had a ball. After I returned home I realized I played a dance every night but one: two contras, two French dances, and the Larky Tonk & Western Swing dance. And I sat in with the band for the hula & ukulele ho`ike. That doesn’t count the various Balkan, Galician, English & Swing dances I missed!
As I said, its sorta like heaven.
Here we are playing for a sublimely silly French dance called Branle du Rat.
June 13, 2017
“Dynamic Dulcimer” Instructional Video from 1986
Way back in 1986 I recorded a pair of instructional videos for Lark in The Morning. The tapes — yes, they were VHS tapes — enjoyed a ridiculously long a life. They were ported over to DVD at some point, and even licensed by Mel Bay for a while.
Each December for almost 30 years I received my meager royalty check until they finally stopped coming a couple years ago. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.
Imagine my surprise a couple days ago when I discovered a copy of one of the vids posted on YouTube — without permission, I might add.
Well, what’s a boy to do? Pirate his own damn video, you betcha!
“Dynamic Dulcimer” is part advanced dulcimer instruction and part concert video. Besides demonstrating a number of techniques, I walk you through a fair selection of fiddle tunes, touch on some of the finer aspects of tuning, play a number of European cousins of the dulcimer, and generally race through a whole lot of material at breakneck speed. Ah, youth.
I hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane!
April 16, 2017
Dive into a three-day exploration of guitar styles, as six virtuoso teachers lead students in techniques of flamenco, Hawaiian slack key, finger style, classical, jazz, blues and rock. Each day will have three 2-hour sessions, each focusing on one genre, and jam sessions to explore what you learned with your fellow participants. Other activities include: Meet & Greet your fellow participants, a 30-minute Guitar Refresher session, a 2-hour Ukulele session with yers truly, a gear demonstration by Harmony Central, a special class on basic instrument maintenance and repairs by Hilltop Music Shop, and a full faculty panel discussion.
November 20, 2016
In light of recent events, I am reconsidering my involvement with social media in general and Facebook in particular. We have again witnessed the incredible power of, for want of a better word, propaganda. So called fake news, chat-bots, algorithms that promoted lies over verifiable news stories, shared tweets and memes certainly made a difference in this recent election, as they have in numerous other countries around the world.
My Facebook presence is minuscule — much like that of this website, truth be told. Even so, I can no longer justify supporting them with what few ad dollars I generate for them.
I have removed all of the Facebook links from my website and my e-mail signatures, and I will be disabling my Facebook account soon. That may be difficult, as one gives up all rights once you set up a page. Fortunately, mine is a commercial page, so I may have better luck. At the very least I can delete all of the posts and photos so all that is left is a shell taking up space on a server somewhere.
I have a Twitter account, which I have never used. That is going, too.
I may keep the YouTube account going, as I have heard from many people that the free lessons are helpful. But you can be sure that I will never include ads on my videos.
I doubt my little attack of conscience will have much of an effect. But even one small match still gives off light.
September 16, 2016
A few months back I ruminated on my band, Southern Light and the experience of getting damn close to a chance at a major label record contract. Read about it here. Now here’s the rest of the story, to quote Paul Harvey.
Even though I have always played a number of different musical instruments and styles – I started playing bass in a surf band when I was 14 – my first two LPs focused on the dulcimer and traditional Irish and American music. Why? Well, because Edd Denson of Kicking Mule Records thought that is what would sell. No problem there, both “Fiddle Tunes for Dulcimer: The Rights of Man” and “After The Morning” did sell well, helped in no small part by my almost constant touring. But while I was billed as an instrumental dulcimer player, I continued to play other instruments and sing both original songs and weird old stuff in my live shows.
When it was time to return to the studio in the mid 80’s I wanted to do something that was closer to who I was as a musician. I wanted to record with a band that would be able to hang with a wide variety of musical idioms, including the Brazilian and Caribbean-tinged music I’d been writing lately. I’d also been teaching regularly at the Lark in the Morning world music camp, where amazing Franco-Greek-Celtic-Arabic musical mashups were a regular feature. In short, I wanted a record that spoke to the music I loved.
I called my buddy and sometime partner in musical mayhem Danny Carnahan (Caswell-Carnahan, Carnahan & Petrie, Wake the Dead) to see if he’d like to produce. He assembled a stellar cast of supporting musicians: steel drummer Andy Narell, violinist Dave Balakrishnan (Turtle Island String Quartette), string bassist Pat Klobas (Turtle Island) and hammered dulcimer virtuoso Robin Petrie (Pangea, Party of Seven).
I played several instruments from the dulcimer family – hummel, citera & Appalachian dulcimer – as well as lead and rhythm guitar, mandolin, melodeon, and electric bass. I wrote most of the songs – Danny and I collaborated on one – & we rounded things out with a few traditional tunes.
We recorded at a sweet studio in San Francisco and had an absolute ball. Andy Narell’s first LP had recently been released and I was in awe of the man. Hearing him interpret my song “Drizzle” – and then trading fours on “Chimpanzee Bounce” – remains a musical highlight for me. Ditto listening to Dave Balakrishnan play take after take of exquisite solos on “Bahia (Southern Light)” – Danny finally had to ask him to stop because we ran out of tracks! The first take was the one we used, but every one was a winner. Danny, Robin and I had played together for years and we fell right back into the groove. As one reviewer said, “Instrumental camaraderie never sounded so good.”
The record was picked up by Flying Fish Records, a major player in the emerging new acoustic folk scene, and was released in 1986 to outstanding reviews:
“. . . will have you dancing around the room with a planter’s punch in one hand and your ticket to Jamaica in the other.” –Fairfield County Advocate
“Nelson has found that elusive point at which the traditional and the new age meet.
In his hands the dulcimer becomes a lyrical and melodious tool of enchanting dimension.” –St. Paul Press Dispatch
I immediately went back on the road to support it – though much of this new music did not lend itself to solo performance. I personally sold a ton of LPs and cassettes and I was hearing the songs of the radio everywhere I went. So I imagined sales were at least as good as my previous two LPs. Not that I ever saw a monthly statement, but I was used to that. The Mule wasn’t exactly straight up, either.
Fish eventually put out a CD version, with a slightly different track listing – eliminating the sole vocal & the short “Bye, Bye, Benny” in favor of another Latin tinged instrumental and a longer dulcimer solo.
When Flying Fish folded in the mid 90’s, I attempted to regain the rights to his masters but was ignored. I never did see a single penny in royalties — or even see a single sales report for the 8 or 9 years the recording was distributed by Fish!
BTW: All though my songs are listed as being published by Flying Fish Music on the LP, I never signed a publishing contract with them and so I retain all the rights.
In spite of never agreeing to digital distribution – an unknown concept in the early 80s, I recently discovered that the album is currently distributed as a digital download by a label who shall remain nameless.
“Southern Light” has been continuously distributed for 30 years & I still haven’t seen a penny…. Or even a freaking statement! It is a far too common story, I’m afraid. The whole sordid story made me so sad that I’ve ignored the record for years. But I recently listened to the original LP, and ya know what? It made me smile. I still think it’s just about the best thing I’ve ever done.
So if I ain’t gonna make any money from my own damn record, I might as well give it away! And I’m doing exactly that. Head on over to my Bandcamp page and take a listen. I think you will be happy that you did.
Once again, if you know of anyway we can both make some money from these songs, get in touch.
Summer Solstice 2016
Ah, the great wheel turns again. I suppose the first day of summer will not be celebrated in some parts of the world, where our new climate normal makes it possible to not only fry and egg on the sidewalk, but to burn the bacon, too.
But here in Southern Oregon it is delightful. The tunes are “Si Bhean Locha Lein & Samhradh, Samradh.” Perfect for a lazy summer day, eh?
April 6, 2015
Of Haggis, Roman Ruins and the Elusive Northumberland Dulcimer
Although my touring schedule has been, well, virtually nonexistent of late, I was thrilled to be invited to teach dulcimer for the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club’s “Spring Fling” at Deneholme, Alandale, Northumberland a couple of weeks ago. I had a large group of enthusiastic mountain dulcimer students of all levels, and proceeded to introduce them to the ins and outs of playing old time American fiddle tunes using a variety of techniques and tunings.
To say that the weekend was fun would be an understatement, these folks know how to have a good time. Saturday night we all trundled down to a local pub for one of the best sessions I’ve experienced — great, unfamiliar local songs and tunes, terrific camaraderie, and, oh yes, some exceptional local ale.
We also got some time to explore the wonderful medieval town of Hexham and stand on Hadrian’s Wall and shake my fists at the interlopers. Annie liked the lovely sheep, too.
Annie and I did a quick tour of Scotland, starting with a wonderful visit to Edinburgh with our new best friends Gordy & Kathy and a quick circumnavigation of the Central Highlands. Too quick, yes, but we managed to pack in a world of experience. Need I mention the amazing scenery? Or the delicious fresh seafood? Haggis, neeps and taties? Whisky? Well, yes, indeed…
February 22, 2016
“The 22nd of February”
Last year I posted a tune called “The 28th of January,” which has a somewhat usual history. Nothing of importance happened on that date, the title was the result of a mixing up the “8th of January” — the Battle of New Orleans — and the date for Washington’s birthday.
I’ve long known that there was a fiddle tune in honor of George, but it has eluded me for decades. A couple of days ago, I found this reference on The Fiddler’s Companion:
TWENTY SECOND OF FEBRUARY. AKA and see “Miller’s Reel,” “Twenty-Eighth of January.” American, Reel. The melody, whose title commemorates George Washington’s birthday, appears under this title in George P. Knauff’s publication Virginia Reels, volume II (Baltimore, 1839)
I also found a lovely recording of the tune by the hammered dulcimer player Jim Taylor on his “Civil War Collection Vol 2” That had been hiding in plain sight.
I took bits and pieces from Jim’s version, adding in a few fiddly bits from other settings of “Millier’s Reel” and slammed something out just in time. Like Gid usta say, it’s ragged, but right.
For you dulcimer players, I’m tuned AAE. I’ll include the tab in my huge new book project “101 Old Time Fiddle Tunes for Dulcimer.” Watch this space!
Groundhog Day, 2016
“Indian Ate the Woodchuck”
Well, the great wheel in the sky has once again swung ’round to my favorite holiday. Here in the Applegate, the day dawned overcast, with a fresh layer of snow. We don’t have groundhogs, never mind woodchucks, but Ozzie didn’t see his shadow, and that is good enough for me.
To celebrate, a great fiddle tune from Kentucky’s John Morgan Salyer. The dulcimer is tuned C-G-C and you can download the TAB here: “Indian Ate the Woodchuck.”