New CD; new book!

Steve Cheseborough on Seattle "Blues To Do" TV (photo by Margene)

It’s out! The new CD, Fetch It! See reviews of it here and here.

You can order it through this site or through CD Baby, or pick it up at Music Millennium in Portland or at any of my public appearances (see calendar to find out when those are).

And look for the third edition of Blues Traveling: the Holy Sites of Delta Blues, at your local bookstore, or order a signed copy from me! Here is a recent review of the book.

My webmaster, Jim Cheseborough, and I are always working on this website. The new google calendar should be working fine. Email me for help with anything that isn’t working here — or just to talk about the blues anytime.

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Me on Oregon Art Beat 2008

Me on Oregon Art Beat
Originally published 1/24/2008

Well, it’s exciting to be featured on a TV program anytime but it’s totally thrilling when the program turns out so well:

Check it out! My thanks and praise to Shawn Hutchinson and his crew for boiling down my life and work to a fine eight-minute piece.

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RIP Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

My old pal and collaborator Vertamae Grosvenor has died. I didn’t keep in touch with her after our work on Nyam, but that was a great experience. It was a folk opera she had written about African-American foodways. She had performed it once before with her son-in-law, jazz singer/bassist Oscar Brown III, doing the music. But when she came to Oxford, Miss., in 1999 to perform it at the Southern Foodways Symposium, Brown had died. I had a couple days to work with her and turn it into a blues opera. She narrated, and I sang and played the music — some traditional spirituals and folk songs that she had used in the work before, and some food-related blues that I added. It was a smash hit, the grand finale of the conference. We were invited to perform it again at Copia: the Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa, Calif. There is a tape of it available through Copia, maybe I have a copy.
She had a very interesting cultural life beside that — writing Geechee cookbooks and bringing that term into common use; designing costumes for Sun Ra and commentating about food on NPR, living the bohemian life in Paris and New York and always keeping her Lowcountry South Carolina black culture at the forefront.
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Review of my book from Boston Blues Society

This is a review of the current (third) edition, but I never saw it until now. Very well written review that captures well what my book is all about:

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I won!

A new music store in Southeast Portland, Saint Frank’s Music, held a Guitar Solo Contest yesterday, see the poster below. I entered. Not to try to win, but to expose the audience, judges, other musicians, everyone there, to an alternate style of guitar playing, to show them that there is more to the guitar than electric pyrotechnics, which is what I assumed everyone else would be doing.

And that was a correct assumption. Although they said “all styles welcome” when I asked ahead of time if acoustic solos were OK, still, it was a roomful of rockers. We each had one minute to do our thing. I was the only one playing acoustic guitar, one of only two who sat down. They offered the use of a drummer, and I tested him out briefly but then decided to go without drums.

They miked me and asked everyone to pipe down and listen. I performed a shortened version of a short ragtime piece I learned years ago from The Art of Ragtime Guitar.

The others played various styles of electric rock, most of them extremely loud. (Fortunately the store was selling earplugs for $1.) I was surprised that many of them played bluesy solos. Here I am the dyed-in-the-wool bluesman, and I’m planning to play a ragtime number, while the rockers are playing blues! There was only one woman out of the 12 or 15 contestants, and she was as hard a rocker as any of them. There was one tall, confident 13-year-old boy who blues-rocked it out to start off the show. Most were working musicians playing regularly in bands. There was one older gentleman who played a folky fingerstyle thing that sounded like it should have been on acoustic guitar, but he played electric guitar — in fact he didn’t bring a guitar, just used one they had there, the prize, which now sits in my living room. He also sat down to play. The others all stood and rocked out — blues-rock, Chuck Berryish rock ‘n’ roll, surf rock, and one experimental noise-rock type, which I found quite interesting (although happy I had purchased and installed the earplugs).

Audience members, many of whom were contestants’ friends, milled around drinking beer they had brought with them. A few kids crawled around on the floor or danced.  The four judges were musicians and music-industry types. They sat in front and studiously took notes, avoiding talking with one another until their closed-door meeting after all the contestants had finished.

The contestants finished, the judges met, and they came out and — announced me as winner! I won the guitar. At first I expected this to be a Miss-Universe-pageant-style mistake, and someone would come take the guitar out of my hands and give it to the rightful winner. But that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s been 24 hours. Actually I had a choice of three guitars, all made by G&L: a Strat-ish red one, a Tele-ish semihollowbody and a sleek black one. (I thought they were Fender knockoffs but it turns out G&L is a company Leo Fender himself started after he left Fender, so the designs were associated with him all along.) I plugged in two of them (not the Strat, I already have a real one of those that I’ve been trying to sell) and rocked out with the drummer backing me. Sounded good! I chose the semihollow with warmer tones. I asked for a bag to carry it home in and they gave me a soft case. They also found the warranty card.  I went out for a beer with some friends who had come to watch.

Not sure if I’ll sell or keep the guitar. I looked it up — the G&L Classic Bluesboy. I was amazed to see it selling for $1,500. But then I noticed other stores selling it for $600, and realized those are two different guitars, and I have the cheaper one. The more expensive one is U.S.-made, and the “tribute” model, which is what mine is, is made overseas and with some corners cut to make it more affordable. I was disappointed to find out it was worth quite a bit less than I thought at first. But as my friend Dave commented, “Still a very cool. very versatile guitar! And, really, the guitar is just a token that proves you out-solo’d 14 others!”



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Now on Twitter

OK, I guess Twitter must be about obsolete, since I’m finally on it. (I usually am the very last person to adopt new technologies.)

Follow my tweets @SCheseborough

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Furry Lewis in Hollywood movie

I had known for years that Furry Lewis, one of my musical heroes, had a part in W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, a 1975 movie starring Burt Reynolds, but had never seen it, because it has not been released on DVD, so it’s not on Netflix or at video stores or anywhere. Well, now it is available for watching, in its entirety, on YouTube:
I wish it were hi-def, but at least we can watch it.
Of course you can skip to the Furry Lewis scenes (about two-thirds of the way in). But I recommend you watch the whole movie. It’s an interesting and entertaining Southern story, with a country-Western band at its center. Kind of an earlier, Southern-C&W-based Blues Brothers. The band’s lead guitarist is Jerry Reed, and you get to see a lot of his playing if you’re into that sort of thing. There are a lot of stereotypes in the story of course. But when Furry Lewis (as “Uncle Furry”) enters the movie, he is depicted as a kind of embodiment of music and culture, almost a holy man — which of course is what he was. In the scene where Lewis and Reed jam, it’s Lewis who takes the lead (on bottleneck) while Reed comps behind. The movie is surprisingly and satisfyingly respectful to Lewis.
And there’s that great story, don’t remember where I read it, from the filming of this movie: it seems Lewis was nipping at a half-pint of whiskey, and an assistant director of some other functionary told him that wasn’t allowed on the set, and took the bottle away. Star Burt Reynolds heard about that, and the next day called a meeting of all cast and crew and told them something like, “In case y’all haven’t met this gentleman, this is Mister Furry Lewis. And Mr. Lewis will do anything he damn well pleases while he’s on this movie set.” And then Reynolds presented Lewis with a half-gallon of whiskey. Keep that story in mind as you watch the movie, it makes Reynolds and the whole movie more enjoyable.

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Playing Little Hat Jones songs

OK, I guess I’m a late enrollee in the Little Hat Jones fan club. Been digging, playing and teaching “Kentucky Blues” and “Bye Bye Baby Blues” lately and thought I’d chime in about them on here.
What beautiful, unusual and different-from-each-other songs those two are! In “Kentucky,” the singer is an expert at escaping from the law, which is always on his trail. Even a legendary lawman with a team of bloodhounds is no match for our hero, who gets away “like a submarine.” What a great image, disappearing like a submarine, gone without a trace. In “Bye Bye Baby,” sung in a different part of his range, straining to hit the high notes which makes it sound even achier, he is a rejected lover who still has hopes even as he says farewell forever. That verse where he says “can’t carry you” but then in the next line rethinks it and asks “don’t you want to go?” is just too much.
As for the guitar parts, they are not what they seem at first. On “Kentucky” there seem to be some extra notes sounding during the main I and IV chords. He might be doing the same descending pattern on the third string as on the first string, but not striking that string much, so you get a suggestion of those notes. Try it and see what you think.
The “Kentucky” intro, which returns in each verse, I think is single-note lead-in on fifth string to three-finger B7 shape at fourth fret (ignoring the capo), then slide down and back up a fret, then 3200 on the four high strings, then a full B7, with high string open and then closed, then E7, which moves around for the turnaround,
“Bye Bye Baby” — the turnaround I think is fancier than it seems at first. Instead of just descending from third fret to 0 on the fourth string, try 3003, 2013, 1303, 0003 on the four high strings. Sounds old-fashioned and ragtime-y, and he seems to do that.
The other strangeness on “Bye Bye Baby” is during the second line, coming back from the IV chord to the I, he adds some strange and wonderful thing on the third string, putting a finger on and off the second fret about three times. Listen and you’ll hear it. It is quite tricky to fit it in.
Oh, and back to the “dozens” verse of “Kentucky” — I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the “mother” (or “mothers”), not the “money” that your father had. Maybe the oilmen on the other side of town talk about your father’s money when they play the dozens, but in Little Hat’s community I doubt it, even if it sounds like that.
Have fun with these songs!

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Dad, the Giants and the blues

My dad, Doug Cheseborough (1921-1997), was a Giants fan. He grew up in New York City and used to go see the Giants play when they were still based in that city. I don’t think he ever forgave them for moving to San Francisco, but he remained a fan.
When I was a kid, Dad would listen to Giants games on a tube radio. He penciled in marks to find the stations that broadcast the games in the various National League cities. Hard to believe he could pick up AM radio broadcasts, from our home in Rochester, coming from Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, etc., but he did. Of course those faraway stations didn’t come in real clearly. There was a lot of crackling and static, and the announcer’s voice would go in and out. To a casual listener, like any of us family members who happened by, it sounded like a bunch of noise.
But to dad it was a baseball game. He listened carefully and followed the whole game, play by play, reconstructing it in his head from those fuzzy bits of sonic information. And he’d be happy — or, more often, upset, since the Giants usually weren’t faring well in those years — for days, at least until the next game, based on the results!
I never learned to appreciate baseball, not by crackly radio broadcast or by high-def color TV or by live game. But one of my main obsessions in life is the blues of the 1920s-30s, which I study by listening to crackly old 78 records. (I don’t collect the original records, but even when you listen to CDs or online versions of those songs, they are just transferred from the original 78s, scratches and all.) The recordings might not be that clear to begin with, plus there are all those scratches, and the performers sing in archaic regional dialects and use strange expressions and play in odd tunings. When I dig in and listen hard, spending hours trying to figure out what the heck they are doing so I can re-create it with my voice and guitar, I think I’m continuing a tradition I learned by seeing my dad concentrating on those radio broadcasts.

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Blues and poker

As some of you know, I’m almost as avid about poker as I am about playing the blues. Is there any crossover between the skills required in each of those pursuits? Or, do bluesmen make good poker players?
I’ve heard, in TV interviews, people claim that their professional backgrounds help them in poker. Everything from cage fighter to auctioneer, they say that because they’ve learned some set of professional skills, that makes them good poker players. Some of those claims might be true. Heck, all of them might be true to some extent. There are many skills needed in poker, and you might learn those skills through other businesses or occupations. However, most poker players overestimate their own abilities. So saying, “I’m a good poker player because I’m a good manicurist” (or whatever) might just be part of that same overestimation.
So what about my principal occupation, musician, does that help me in poker?
Well, I actually think being a musician can harm your poker game to some extent. Because music is all about the rhythm. And poker is not. That is, you win a hand, that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the next one. Or you raised and then waited one street, doesn’t mean it’s time to raise again. There usually isn’t a rhythm to a poker game, at least not one you can recognize as it’s happening, and if it there is a rhythm, it’s a much slower one than any song! So don’t try getting into the groove.
Being a performer (of any type, not just a musician) might benefit you at the poker table, because you are used to being watched. For some poker players that is a tough thing to get used to, having people watch you carefully. Performers love that attention of course. But be careful not to go into an act, unless you really know what you’re doing. You could give away information that you don’t want to while you’re entertaining the “audience” who are really your opponents.
Maybe blues, specifically, helps prepare you for the ups and downs of poker, through its lyrics. Blues is all about winning and losing at love and relationships, how even good times turn bad and bad times don’t last forever. That’s a good attitude to have when gambling! Good luck.

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Mowing the lawn acoustically

I housesat for a friend for about a month this summer, and he had a grassy lawn and a push mower. (Grassy lawns are out of style in Portland, where the trend is to kill the grass and replace it with native, mostly edible, landscape, but my friend hasn’t quite got there yet. He does have a nice garden with a lot of berries, though!)
Friend advised me that I could borrow a power mower from neighbor if I didn’t feel like using the push mower. I vacillated…push mower is quieter, healthier for me and for the earth, simpler to use…but power mower gets it done quick and without so much effort. And as I vacillated days went by and grass grew longer, and the prospect of doing it by push mower seemed more daunting. Then it hit me: do it a little at a time! Mow for 20 minutes a day, a small patch. If it takes 10 days to get through the whole lawn, that’s fine. Start over at the beginning on the 11th day.
Sure enough, that system worked great. I got 20 minutes of exercise every day without totally exhausting myself trying to do the whole lawn. I didn’t use fossil fuels or annoy the neighbors with noise. And the grass got cut — acoustically!
Yes, when you play an acoustic instrument, you use your own muscle power, usually through hands, feet or breath, to make something vibrate — a piece of wood, metal or skin, usually. And it is such a powerful thing to do. You might think the opposite, that real power involves plugging your guitar into a big amp and playing really loud. Trouble is, then you’re just flipping a switch. Playing electric music is like catching a football in a video game. Playing acoustic music is catching a real football.
Mew York-based jazz musician Taylor Ho Bynum is on an “Acoustic Bicycle Tour” of the West Coast, playing concerts from Vancouver to Tijuana, solo or with local ensembles, traveling by bicycle (he flew to Vancouver to start, and will fly back to New York at the end, but the West Coast tour is by bicycle). I caught his show in Portland last night,with the Portland Creative Music Guild, and it was wonderful — the music and the tour concept. Bynum plays acoustic music, and he is traveling acoustically. “I see the entire trip as a kind of composition,” he says. He also noted that this way he gets to actually see the cities he plays in, and the spaces between them, instead of just seeing airports and hotel rooms.
So, whether you play music, mow lawns, grind coffee (the hand mills are fun and easy to use and leave the coffee oils undisturbed and more flavorful) or whatever, try doing it acoustically, of your own power. You will get exercise, conserve fossil fuels, reduce global warming, and have a better experience.

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The Three Ps

Practice, play, perform.
Those are pretty much the three ways to make music. And the words create different feelings in musicians or music students.
“Practicing” sounds like drudgery, delayed gratification. Doing something dull now so that you can do the exciting stuff later.
“Playing” sounds like fun, of course! Kids play all the time; grownups have to work much of the time but look forward to chances to play.
“Performing” sounds even more exciting — that’s what got you interested in music in the first place, hearing others perform. That’s what the big-name artists do, perform all the time. Performing might involve pay, applause, admiration and all that good stuff. But it also might sound scary: am I ready to perform? What if I screw up in front of all those people? What if they just don’t like me?
So let’s look more closely at these three Ps and see how they work together. A student was complaining about not finding time to practice, and another student suggested that the first book a gig or at least schedule a jam session or some kind of public show. “I only practice when I have a gig coming up,” the second student noted. That idea has some truth to it. That’s why I like to bring my students to an open mic every few months, so that they have something to practice for, a reason and a deadline to polish up a few songs for.
The trouble with that idea, though, is that you have to reach a certain level of competence — and you do that by practicing! — before you’ll be ready for any kind of public performance, even a jam session. And if you just start practicing a lot, lo and behold, you probably will start getting invited to more jams, you’ll develop the confidence to go to more open mics, you might even get asked to perform in other settings as people notice how good you are. So it’s really a better idea to just practice regularly whether you have an imminent gig or not.
Also, practice should be a meditation-like experience, a daily soul-nourishing and solitary activity that you look forward to and enjoy deeply. I am not joking! Meditation is a great analogy. You don’t meditate to prepare for anything, really, even though it might help you prepare for stressful life experiences. You do it for its own sake. Same with the runner. He might have a race coming up, and knows that today’s run is helping him get in shape for that. But he still enjoys today’s run. Practice with that kind of attitude and you will get to love practice, and by the way, you will become good (or better)! And just like the meditator or the runner, some days you will have to push yourself, even force yourself to practice. But after the first five or ten minutes you’ll be into it and enjoying that special time, just you and your instrument and the music flowing between you.
“Do you really think Hendrix practiced? Or Coltrane?” a musician who admits he doesn’t practice asked. Yes, I am sure they practiced constantly, morning and night. Such genius instrumentalists weren’t born that way. And didn’t just jump onto the stage. I’ve read that Hendrix even took his guitar into the bathroom when he had to go, because he liked the acoustics of that room. Coltrane reportedly had an oral fixation, and had his sax in mouth almost all the time. Earl Hooker was a dazzlingly inventive guitarist with a wonderful tone, a musician’s musician, generally considered the best Chicago blues guitarist. He was on the road touring most of the year, and the other musicians in his band watched TV or played cards in their free time. But Hooker did not watch TV or play cards, at all. All he did was practice. Is there any wonder that he is a legend and the other musicians are not?
I think the musician who said Hendrix and Coltrane didn’t practice meant they “played” instead of practicing. I’ve heard other musicians say, “Just play every day.” The idea is, if the word “practice” bothers you, just call it “play” and then you’ll do it. Well, sure, you can call it whatever you want. But you do have to practice! And it’s not the same thing as playing. If you ask me, “Play me a song,” I’ll play you something I know, and I’ll play it in a way I’ve mastered (through practice!). I could even ask myself to play a song, and do the same thing. And enjoy the playing and the sound. And sure, just playing the song I already know is enhancing my musical ability to some tiny extent — doing more for my music than, say, watching TV or playing cards. But it’s not going to lead to real improvement, any more than our marathon runner will improve by taking a walk around the block. No, if I want to improve — and I do! And I hope you do too! — then I have to isolate the parts that I have trouble with, and play them slowly and repeatedly until they become easy to me. Or break a new piece down, perhaps with the help of a teacher, into component parts and work on each one and then fit them together. (This is a very brief description of how to practice — there are books on the subject, and if you’re my student I can help you with it, but this is the basic idea, break it down and work slowly on the parts and then fit them together.) This is very different from “playing” or “performing.” But it works. Very well. And it can be enjoyable, very enjoyable, deeply satisfying even. Digging soil and planting seeds also are enjoyable and satisfying to a gardener. You probably don’t tell your gardener friend “Don’t garden. Just eat the food.” So don’t tell your musician friend, or your musician self to “just play” instead of practicing!

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