Chapter 10: Just Like Tantalus’ Blues: Verse 4

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In 2001, Laurel and I were loading up the sleigh, preparing to drive down to Seattle to spend Christmas with her family…

Ok, it was a Honda Civic wagon, not a sleigh, but we were indeed trying to cram a planet’s population worth of presents into a space as impossible as Santa’s red velvet sack. By this time, I was a walking, talking stereotype, fervent in my pursuit of musicianship, and when not at work I was rarely seen without my guitar in my hands. I had attained a level of confidence where I was comfortable playing the instrument with people around, and whether or not those people wanted me to play was not a question I put much thought into.

So, there I was, guitar case in hand, staring dejectedly at the hatchback, packed to overflowing, when I heard a voice from the street call out:

Hey, what ya got in that case?!

The voice belonged to a neighbor, Laura Smith, who happened to be walking by our house, a neighbor whom we’d seen around but had never met, a neighbor with whom we quickly became lifelong friends. An elementary school teacher and veteran clawhammer banjo player, Laurel and I would both receive bountiful musical gifts from Laura.

Most of what I knew of American folk music, B.L.E. (Before the Laura Era), I learned via Rock ‘n’ Roll. And, why did I learn what I knew? Remember?

Right! I’m a Devotee! It’s what we do.

If there was a song credit on an album jacket that said Traditional, I needed, no really, I NEEDED to know something, anything about the song’s origin. Similarly, if a song was otherwise not credited to the artist(s) who recorded it, it was a mystery to be solved. Considering that the bulk of my formative sleuthing was done pre-internet, I can tell you it was no easy matter. Often, information was obtained in bits and pieces, reading magazines, listening to interviews on the radio, and of course consulting and comparing notes with my fellow Devotee detectives.

In due time, I was able to easily detect DNA fragments of American roots music in the instrumentation, playing styles, and lyrics of most of the rock music that I listened to: Chet Atkins’ Country Music guitar picking here; Robert Johnson’s bottleneck slide there; a mandolin, banjo, or fiddle from Appalachia; boogie-woogie piano from Blues and Jazz; Woody Guthrie’s influence on Bob Dylan; Willie Dixon songs performed by Led Zeppelin…it was everywhere!

And so, Laura and I talked that Christmas Eve in front of our house and agreed to get together soon to play music. She said she knew two musician neighbors, Chuck, who played bluegrass banjo, and Will, who played guitar, both of whom had expressed an interest in jamming. I wasn’t quite sure that I was ready, skills-wise, but I was definitely ready to find out.

Starting our very first time, I introduced nearly every song I selected to play with some variation of:

This is a song I learned from a [name of Rock ‘N’ Roll artist] record.

…and Laura, using her folk musicology super powers, gently connected the dots for me, back to the source.

Two years later…

It was a warm summer evening, we were jamming on our back deck, and Laura was singing a song, when Laurel stepped out of the house, stood behind Laura, and started singing along, adding a gorgeous harmony line, their voices fitting together like soul mates.

It was magical, and upon completing the song Laura exclaimed:

Where have you been?!

I always knew Laurel was musical. She could play piano — not great she’d say, but, I always felt, with great expressiveness — she knew a bunch of songs on guitar, and she could harmonize, by ear, to nearly anything. That it took so long for her to join in on the jamming was an unfortunate combination of my self-absorption in my musical pursuits and her generosity in supporting my pursuits, partly by holding down the fort, while I was making music. For several years, Laurel would do bedtime rituals with Julian — 3-years old when this all began — to the soundtrack of our little song circle’s guitars, banjo, and eventually mandolin, to which we attributed his eventual development of a deeply intuitive ear for music. Perhaps he has perfect pitch, for he can usually pick out notes that work together on just about any instrument he plays around with, and he whistles, when there’s no instrument at hand, with beautiful clarity and precision.

But, eventually, Laurel did finally join the jam, and thus she and I were both enrolled in the Laura Smith School of Folk Music. We learned a ton about Old-Timey stringband music, the Carter Family, Bluegrass, including the great brother acts, the Monroes, Stanleys, Delmores, and Louvins, as well as some more contemporary folk songwriters. If that wasn’t enough, Laura introduced us to many in her significant community of musical peers, from whom we also learned, and on occasion had the privilege to play with.

Within a year, Julian, after seeing a classmate at school play the violin, asked if he could take lessons, Laurel would get her own violin as well and begin the Suzuki method with him. Her violin eventually became a fiddle, later she’d learn some mandolin, and years later she, Laura and I worked up a repertoire of songs. We informally called ourselves the Good Neighbor Get-Together, named after a 1938 radio show featuring the Carter Family and other musical acts, and we even played one gig, sort of, appearing at our neighborhood association summer picnic.

Laura was the first person I’d met who modeled for me the possibility of having a day job while also being a serious musician. When she was not working, she was jamming for fun, giving lessons, playing gigs around town, playing on studio recordings, and teaching every summer at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop.

I owe her so much, and I’m so grateful.


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