Of death, Hawaii and roots music…where your mind takes you.
Last Sunday morning after I poured a cup of coffee for myself, I sat down to read the obituaries. It was a slow day for death I guess, because the notice that I had written the day before was just one of only a half-dozen that were printed on the page of our local newspaper. I’m not a professional writer and never have earned a dime from my words, but my wife’s family asked that I write it for my mother-in-law, and so I did.
It’s an interesting experience…acknowledging someone’s sixty-six years of life with about five hundred words that took me only twenty minutes to put together. You’re born here, and die there. You’re the child of your parents, the wife of your husband and the mother of your children. After high school you work at a job, you retire and you like to read, travel, walk the dogs and go to church. That’s pretty much it.
I was also asked to put together a video montage of pictures and sound, to be played at lunch after the funeral. The only request was to somehow use one of her favorite songs….the “Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” medley by Israel “Iz” Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole. You’ve heard the song I’m sure, as it’s featured in countless home videos, films, TV and commercials to celebrate life and death, birth and weddings, new and old products to sell, and whatever else people think of. The You Tube clip of it (which I don’t think I’ll bother to post today because it makes me cry) has been viewed over 9,250,000 times.
So it was during this particular task of searching for music that led me to stray for a few moments. Hearing Iz reminded me of slack key…a type of guitar playing that I love to listen to and often attempt to play. It’s a style that takes your standard guitar tuning and loosens the strings (hence: slack) to produce various combinations of open chord tunings that are then played with your fingers.
This style of playing has it’s origins in the late nineteen hundreds from the Mexican cowboys who came to work on the islands and then left it in the hands of the Hawaiians to develop. I first encountered this music in the early seventies with an album released by Gabby Pahinui that featured Ry Cooder. While the tunings and techniques are often guarded by the players on the islands, in the past several years George Winston (he of New Age piano-noodling and Windham Hill stalwart) has worked hard to bring this music to the rest of the world. Click here for a wonderful website for his Dancing Cat Records that will tell you all you need to know.
When you land on the home page for the No Depression community it says you’ve arrived at “The Roots Music Authority”. I was thinking the other day that in the year or so since this site was turned over to the end users, we have talked often about what’s considered roots or Americana, and what’s not. You may recall the questions and discussions about Wilco and the inclusion of Radiohead in the “best of ” lists.
Americana, as defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA), is “American roots music based on the traditions of country.” And country is sometimes defined as “a blend of popular musical forms originally found in the Southern United States and the Appalachian Mountains. Immigrants to the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North America brought the music and instruments of the Old World along with them for nearly 300 years. The Irish fiddle, the German derived dulcimer, the Italian mandolin, the Spanish guitar, and the West African banjo were the most common musical instruments.” (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
So the point Ed…whats the point? Nothing really, I guess. It’s just that I’ve grown weary of endings or the pronouncement of finality. Be it a person, place or thing…it never seems to be completely over. It just evolves. And I’m tired of boxes…putting things in their place. Slack key…I think it’s roots music. I think it’s Americana. I think I may write some more about it a little later.