One Baby Boomer’s Musical Journey

by Susan Harris on February 2, 2012

by Bob Oakes

My blogger friend Susan Harris asked me to write a piece on the role of music in my life. I knew Susan in the midst of my formative musical decade: 1963-1973. She and I attended college in Ohio and we backpacked around Europe in the summer of ’69. We were on the other side of the Atlantic when Woodstock shook the American consciousness. I was running from the draft.

1972: Bob (back right) in a rock band in Connecticut with friend Richard Fichman (left). Good music, good times.

A baby boomer born in 1949, I was introduced to folk music via my siblings in the early sixties. My sister taught me some chords on ukulele so I could play “Tom Dooley” and “Scarlet Ribbons”. Soon I was playing guitar and strumming Peter, Paul & Mary tunes. I even played “The Times They are a-Changin’” at a hootenanny. But it was the British invasion – The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, The Kinks – that truly reached my teenage core. It took two Canadians – Joni Mitchell and Neil Young – to bring my attention back to music happening on this side of the pond– along with The Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. I went back and caught up with Bob Dylan’s music after seeing his Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and being completely blown away. There was Dylan playing it “Ain’t Me Babe”, then he was singing duets with Joan Baez and hey, here was Roger McGuinn just walking out on stage to play some tunes!

I made some good music back in my teens and twenties. After a few high school bands, some of my buddies and I spent a couple years writing songs and playing venues in Southern New England. We really didn’t get too far, but no matter. It was just so exciting to be part of the Sixties culture, contributing to the perpetual soundtrack of the civil rights movement, the peace movement and the women’s movement. Cultural changes were coming fast and my basic world view was solidifying. It’s there in my heart right now, forever intertwined with “All You Need is Love”, “Ohio”, “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I Shall Be Released”.

Of course there were many other musicians whose music touched me throughout the years: The Band, James Taylor, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, the Roches, Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris, the Grateful Dead and U2. But what do I listen to now from today’s music? Steve Earle has a heartfelt folk-rock repertoire. Donna the Buffalo has a cool Cajun/retro sound. Ben Harper has great vocals and guitar licks. Gillian Welch is the queen of folk revival. Did you hear her this year enriching the Decemberists’ “The King is Dead” with killer harmonies? There’s still a world of great music out there, but admittedly, I now only stay marginally current with new songs and artists.

1995: With his wife Ann & friend Lynn Siegel (left), Bob played for several years in a folk trio comprised of members of their UU church. Two others often joined in to form as a quintet and they made some recordings.

In recent years, I’ve cranked out a handful of original songs about issues close to me. My wife and I wrote songs that celebrate adoption and recorded them with friends from church. I work at a school, so I wrote our school song. I wrote a good song just last year, inspired by my daughter’s struggle with religious intolerance (performed in the video below). My favorite music in the past five years has come from playing with family and friends in living rooms or gatherings around a campfire. I ushered in my 60th birthday singing and dancing with friends and family around a bonfire out in the woods. What a kick! You should hear us jam on “Summertime”, “Shady Grove” or “Stop Draggin My Heart Around”. My colleagues and I also spread our love of music at the charter school where we work, leading weekly song circles with our students. Several school staff meet weekly for “guitar group” in the guidance counselor’s office (dubbed the Zen Den) where I teach guitar skills and we share songs. We visit Creedence and Dylan regularly. I also give some private guitar lessons.

2010: Music buddies at Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, NC. Left to right, Charlie Keller, Jeff Japp, Bob, Eben Heasley, Terry Deal.

Ready for some lists? Here are some of my all-time favorites in no particular order …..

10 Albums I Never Get Tired of

Rubber Soul – The Beatles

Out of Our Heads – The Stones

Blue – Joni Mitchell

After the Goldrush – Neil Young

Greatest Vols. 1&2 – Bob Dylan

Spy Boy – Emmylou Harris with Buddy Miller

We Three Kings – The Roches

Europe ’72 – The Grateful Dead

Rosanne Cash – The List

10 (okay, 11) Songs that Touch my Soul at Each and Every Listening (links to Youtube)

“Beeswing” - Richard Thompson

“I Can’t Make You Love Me” – Bonnie Raitt with Bruce Hornsby

“John Walker’s Blues” – Steve Earle

Black Peter” and “Attics of My Life” – The Grateful Dead

Bell Bottom Blues” – Derek and the Dominoes

The Wind Cries Mary” – Jimi Hendrix

Somebody to Love” – Jefferson Airplane

Where The Streets Have No Name” – U2

Dreamland” – Mary Chapin Carpenter

This is Us” – Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler

Here’s Bob and Ann Oakes singing a song that Bob wrote. Videography by Jade Oakes.

Thanks, Bob~! See you in Asheville soon (for the next Gardenblogger Fling).

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Robert Egger with DC Central Kitchen staffers Joelle Johnson (L) and Karli Hurlebaus (R)

Robert Egger didn’t start off trying to feed the poor; his big goal was creating the coolest nightclub in D.C. – or anywhere. Right out of high school he landed a job at a small D.C. nightclub (the late, and much-missed Childe Harold), where no less than Bruce Springsteen played his first gig in DC.  He spent 10 years in the music biz – editing a local music magazine, managing clubs, booking bands – having a great time and planning to use the power of music to take over the world.  Then he and his fiance went looking for a church to marry them and found Grace Church – the cheapest and “least snooty” of the bunch.

Somehow the couple got “cornered” into volunteering for the church’s feed-the-homeless program and after one rainy night handing out food to people wondered, “Where were the social workers, the homeless shelter partners, the drug counselors, the incentives to help these people get out of their situation, or at least out of the friggin’ rain?” “And why were they buying food from the Safeway, distributing it to people standing in the rain, anyway?

From his years in the club business Egger knew that restaurants throw food away all the time – and hate doing that!  So he got the notion to collect extra restaurant food centrally somewhere, then serve it to people indoors somewhere.  Also part of the vision was to go beyond just feeding the poor to reducing the numbers of people people by providing job training, too.

By 1988 Robert had managed to get a $25,000 grant for a refrigerator truck, and with the inauguration of George H. W. Bush coming up soon, he called the new administration, asked if he could take the left-over food from the Inauguration, got a big yes, and the D.C. Central Kitchen launched that very day, going on to provide 40,000 pounds of food in that first year.

Going National

Egger and his team have spread the  word and now 60 other cities have similar programs, and it’s even spread to campuses with its Campus Kitchens Project.  (Yes, there ARE poor people around colleges, he discovered, starting with people struggling to pay for that education.)

Beyond promoting better food services for the poor, Egger tackles the much bigger topic of how to manage nonprofits more efficiently ( – one part of that message being that lots of them need to just shut down and stop ciphering off precious resources.   On Youtube I heard him talk about the importance of transparency, and give a terrific defense of people who work for nonprofits against a high-profile attack on them (as “idiots”).  He also wrote Begging for Change about how to manage nonprofits better, and there’s more about all this on his blog “Piece of Mind”.

Turning down the Big Bucks

I’ll share my favorite Egger story, first told to me by a mutual friend and big admirer of his.  When the DC branch of United Way was racked with financial scandal at the top, Egger agreed to take the helm for a year, using his his reputation and organizational savvy to save funding for hundreds of local nonprofits.  But rather than taking the same $225,000 yearly salary earned by the ousted executive, he agreed to take no more than $85,000 (up from his Central Kitchen pay of $60,000).  That, despite being urged by United Way insiders to take “at least $125,000″  so as not to unduly threaten the whole pay scale!

About Boomers

I met Egger at a dinner and screening of the documentary Truck Farm to benefit the Neighborhood Farm Initiative and asked him what changes he was seeing – lots more young people interested in growing food?  Well yeah, he says, but as he sees it, even more popular than growing food is community.   He’s witnessing armies of youth coming to the cause because they’ve grown up in a culture of service, and  armies of Boomers looking for redemption and a return to the garden.”  Encouraging to hear.

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Are these jokes about Boomers funny?

by Susan Harris on August 18, 2011

Oh, dear.  I’m at the age when I can no longer ignore old-people jokes because suddenly, they seem to be directed to ME.   Yes, “Boomer” is being used as a synonym for “old”!  Sometimes even in publications that I admire – ouch!

The latest insult is a ditty here on the New Yorker called “Text Slang for Baby Boomers”, and I guess the good news is that it assumes we know how to text and use actual smart phones.  And these examples I actually like:

  • Ahhh = Memorable smoke smell wafting from my kids’ rooms.
  • SEXTING? = We sure as hell didn’t need smartphones to get laid.

So far, so good.  But these examples are SO not making me laugh:

  • NSR = Need some roughage (Generic old-person joke.)
  • WWIS = What was I saying? (Ditto.)
  • TXT L8R = Can’t find reading glasses  (Okay, got me there.)
  • JDTV? = Which channel has a Judi Dench movie tonight?  (Judi Dench was born in 1934, for crissakes.  The oldest Boomers were born in ’46.  Not even close.)
  • WILMA! = Lost my keys (Mistaken generic old-person joke; been losing mine since I was in my 30s.)
  • RxV–>BW = Got Viagra prescription, just need Barry White cassettes.  (Okay, that’s probably right-on.)
  • GOTMG = Going out to mulch garden.  (Making fun of us for gardening?  Now they’ve gone TOO FAR!)
  • TN2WMP = Trying not to wet my pants (No comment.)
  • PNP = Peeing in pants  (Ditto.)
  • [------] = Another funeral, can’t play poker/bridge/Scrabble  (No way are we dying off THAT fast.  Boomers are going to be here to piss everyone off for YEARS. )

Wonder how old this Sorensen guy is.  Anybody know?

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    Boomers who can’t resist African dance

    by Susan Harris on August 12, 2011

    Thanks to this story in the Washington Post, I’m a loyal fan of People’s District, a blog that profiles interesting people who happen to live in D.C.   And I can’t resist passing along the stories of two very musical guys in my generational cohort because they don’t just dance; they show us how dance can change lives.

    Thomas on Having it Bad for Drums and Dancing is about a guy who loves West African dancing.  He’s been dancing and teaching dance on Sundays at a popular drum circle in downtown D.C. for 20 years now.  Here’s why:

    I guess I just transform into someone different when I dance. It is like a spirit takes over me. One time, I was driving by the U.S. Capitol and they had the Zulu dancers performing. I was in the car with my wife and son. The drums captured me and I jumped out of the car while it was still moving to get to the music. My wife had to jump in the driver’s seat and take control of the car. I guess I just have it real bad for drums and dancing. My wish in life is to go to Africa and dance my heart out in Senegal and Guinea.

    Melvin on Filling Nothingness with Hope is one of the few profiles that uses a last name and that’s because Melvin Deal here is well known -  as a dancer, musician, choreographer, cultural anthropologist, administrator and teacher. He runs the African Heritage Dance Center and here’s why he does what he does:

    When I started in ballet and modern dance in 1958, my ballet teacher at the Northeast Academy of Dance told me that I would never be a successful dancer because I was dark skinned black. That led me to start doing research on the kinds of dance and cultures my people had before they came to America.  From there, I went to Howard and studied dance and then went off to Africa eight times to travel the villages and meet dance people, musicians and even, cannibals. The whole time, I kept my finger and foot in the community. I did all of this research and travel to help reclaim our culture and bring it to the at-risk youth in D.C. I have committed the last 54 years of my life to that.

    My attempt at African dancing
    I’ve attended many a performance of African dance over the years – I’ll be seeing some tonight, in fact – and find it utterly irresistible.  So naturally I had to give it a try – there’s a class practically in my neighborhood, and all ages are welcome.  Promising, right?

    And sure enough, there were lots of middle-aged ladies there, and the music was provided by not some boom box but six live drummers!  The joint was jumping!

    Um, too  jumping for my eardrums, it turned out.  And speaking of jumping, the dance we learned involved lots of it, too much for my aging feet landing on a hard surface.

    Oh, man, I hate it when the body’s not as willing as the spirit.  That ever happen to anyone else?

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    Great photography tips from David Perry

    by Susan Harris on August 4, 2011

    Mary Ann Newcomer and David Perry demonstrate a wide stance.

    Recently, 65 garden bloggers gathered in Seattle to see gardens and party, continuing a tradition that started three years ago in Austin and followed in subsequent years in Chicago and  Buffalo.  But new this time was a free photography seminar by noted Seattle photographer David Perry – noted not just for the quality of his shots but for his winning ways on the speaking circuit and in the hearts of middle-aged women everywhere.  David garden-blogs here and lists his speaking topics here.

    So under a tent at the Bloedel Reserve (which is ridiculously beautiful – here’s just a taste), David gave us some great tips:

    • Carry an umbrella for rainy days AND bright, sunny ones.  He loves the Popabrella,  just 20 bucks from Amazon.
    • Another way to block overly bright sun is with a thin plastic cutting board.
    • For shooting close-ups, the first tip is to not use your zoom.  Next, use a tripod if you have one with you but if you don’t, use the wide stance David and his lovely assistant are demonstrating above.  He chose her because he knew an Idahoan like Mary Ann would be an expert in wide stances. (Remember a few sex scandals back?)
    • To highlight a subject in the foreground it’s helpful to throw the background out of focus, an effect that’s called Bokeh (news to me!).   That can be accomplished in-camera by using a wide aperture, or in the editing stage by using a feature in Photoshop or other software (though not with the Picasa program I use).  I see that PC World likes the free GIMP program, which includes a Bokeh effect feature.
    • Another thing that brings attention to the object in the foreground is to place it (if possible) at a greater distance from the objects in the background.
    • Finally, sometimes having a blurred object in the extreme foreground, like a few leaves, brings more attention to the subject.
    • Backlit beer by Katie Elzer-Peters

    • Hate the effect that flash has on your photos, but there isn’t enough light to turn it off completely? Solutions include using the camera’s menu to switch to fill flash (which I’ve never used – doh!),and putting a Kleenex or a piece of plastic over the flash. A piece of colored paper could also be used – in a color like orange that would warm up the photo if that’s the effect you’re looking for.
    • David’s favorite point-and-shoot is the Canon G12 10MP.  Takes great stills and HD video, too.
    • Finally, in a counter-intuitive move, shooting toward the light can create some really nice backlighting.  And sure enough, one astute listener demonstrated that very thing in this photo, taken while refueling after a hard day of garden-touring.

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    Kevin Kelly was cutting-edge in his youth and with the passage of years he seems to just get sharper.  Highlights of his bio include editing and publishing the Whole Earth Catalog which, to refresh my your memory, is a compendium of the best tools for self-education.  He later co-founded and edited Wired magazine.

    Lesser known (to me) products of his free-thinking mind include the All Species Foundation, dedicated to identifying all living species, and the Long Now Foundation, which “fosters long-term responsibility as an antidote to the extremely short-term horizon of most contemporary organizations.”  (Ya think we might need some of that?)  And he’s edited and written a bunch of books, one of which is available for free right here.

    Look, Ma, no college!
    Kevin freely – nay, proudly – admits that “My educational background is minimal. I am a college drop-out. Instead of going to university, I went to Asia. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.” Elsewhere I found this, written in the third person.  “He is married and has three wonderful children. He was born in 1952. He has no college or university degrees.”  See what I mean?

    Then when he returned to the U.S. he traveled a lot more before starting a mail order company called Nomadic Books, selling budget travel guides.  Which ultimately led to those other publishing successes.

    To me it’s no surprise that a smart, inquisitive person probably learned much more as an world-traveling auto-didact than he ever could have sitting in classrooms.  (I was too meek to drop out of college myself but at least spent some of it bumming around Europe and picking up enough college credits there to satisfy the parents.)

    The story of Kevin’s religious conversion
    I was surprised to find this intriguing note tucked away in his long bio:  “On an even more personal note, I told my story of a religious conversion many years ago to Ira Glass, host of This American Life, a public radio series that features long narrative stories…You can find an audio file on the ‘This American Life’ web site. It is the second story on the program called ‘Shoulda Been Dead‘”.  I’ve downloaded it to my iPod already.

    Kevin’s Cool Tools and a lot more

    Upon entering Kevin’s home page the reader discovers:

    • Two blogs about technology trends (as best I can tell) – Lifestream and The Technium.
    • True Films, which carries short reviews of his favorite “documentaries, educational films, instructional how-to’s, and what the British call factuals – a non-fiction visual account.”  (Hope Netflix has ‘em!)
    • Screen publishing, most of which is beyond me but I DO understand this link to 7 quick rules for e-publishing.
    • Quantified Self, which is “a place for people interested in self-tracking to gather, share knowledge and experiences, and discover resources.”  Honestly, even with that definition I’m left at “Huh?”
    • Street Use, which features “the ways in which people modify and re-create technology.”  I’ll be exploring that one.
    • And finally, Cool Tools remind me of turn-ons, though tool contributors are multi-generational.  Here’s how Kevin explains them:  “As my children began to leave home I wanted to give them each a box of tools and a book containing ideas of tools and possibilities that they might not encounter otherwise. I started to keep a list of tools plus my comments. Some of those reviews appeared in issues of Whole Earth Review a magazine I used to edit.”   The tools cover 41 different categories, everything from crafts to workplace to something called “consumptivity”, most of which I’m unqualified to judge, but gardening tools I know a bit about and you know what?  They ARE cool.  So worth a lot more browsing – or even contributing to.

    Hat tip to Steve Brown for turning me on to Kevin’s world.

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    I’m collecting happy-making, mood-elevating music from my own memory bank and taking recommendations from friends, too.  You  never know when you need some of that action, right?  The taking of actual drugs gets complicated with the passage of the decades but mood-altering music is safe and still legal!

    So I’ll start with a tune that always gets me up and dancing – and not JUST because it’s by the wonderful Mary Chapin Carpenter and features the awesome Cajun sounds of BeauSoleil. But guess what!  I remember the Twist and Shout nightclub right here in the Maryland ‘burbs of DC (until it was shuttered in the late ’90s).  And the video for the song was filmed in the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, where I’ve danced a few hundred times!   And the dancers in the video?  Recognize ‘em!  Absolutely everything about this video makes it a mood elevator for us locals, but I bet it’ll do the job wherever you live.

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    How to blog – a beginner’s guide

    by Susan Harris on July 12, 2011

    I’ve been blogging since 2005 and helping others with blogs for almost that long, and I’m frequently asked to talk to groups about it.   Based on my own experiences and researching the experts, I’ve compiled this summary of blogging basics, intended to not only answer the questions I hear over and over again about blogging, but to offer answers to questions that nonbloggers don’t know to ask.  Lots to cover, so let’s get going.

    What IS a blog?
    It’s a type of website that uses a blogging program to:

    • Display articles (called “posts”) in reverse chronological order, so the newest is always at the top of the home page.
    • Allow readers to leave comments on the articles, though individual bloggers sometimes disable that feature (and find themselves being boo-hissed for doing so).
    • Archive older articles by date.
    • Display all sorts of things in the sidebars, usually a “blogroll” of links to other sites and blogs, but also graphics and lots of other features.
    • Allow readers to subscribe to new articles on the blog either using email sign-up or an RSS feed, both of which are explained in this article.

    Why blog and what to blog about

    There are blogs about every topic under the sun and increasingly, the most interesting conversations about any subject are found on blogs – because they’re updated more frequently than other types of websites and because thanks to comments, real conversations can take place on them.  Academics increasingly blog on their topic, and for writers it’s become de rigueur (on pain of not getting a publisher – that’s how important blogs and other social media are now to selling books.)  And millions of people just blog for their own enjoyment and that of a few friends and family members.  Many gardenblogs are used as journals or records of the garden, with no intention of attracting thousands of readers.

    So if you want to blog as a personal journal for people who already know you, just go for it.  But if you’re considering blogging about a specific topic, start by reviewing the prominent blogs on that topic.  That’ll help you decide not only if you want a blog but what features you might want to include in your own blog – or not.  You can find these blogs by putting “music blogs” into Google, substituting your topic for “music”. [click to continue…]

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    DC Hand Dancing on the National Mall

    by Susan Harris on July 7, 2011

    The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is happening in DC this week and last for the 44th year in a row, this time highlighting the Peace Corps, Colombia, and as you see here, Rhythm and Blues – good times!  (And by the way, the Folklife Festival has a shockingly good website – it’s a government agency, after all.  It even has a blog.)

    Each of the three themes are chockful of music, dance, storytelling, crafts – terrific stuff – but the event I timed my trip around was the demonstration of DC Hand Dancing, which I’d heard about for decades but never actually seen.  According to the D.C. Hand Dance Club, the dance is a “regional and time-period specific version of the swing/jitterbug” developed in the Washington, D.C. metro area in the 1950s.  It’s known for “smooth footwork and movements, and close-in and intricate hand-turns, all danced to a 6-beat, 6 to 8 count dance rhythm.”

    The dancers performing here are from the National Hand Dance Association, and we were told that they typically go dancing six nights a week in this area!   Some of these dancers, especially the couple in the photo above who’ve been married for 50 years, are probably older than Boomers but God love ‘em, I could watch them all day.  They have great style and they’re moving at a tempo that’s more relaxed and sensual than the frenetic jitterbug this dance descended form.  Great for any age but perfect for us.

    Some of the same dancers appear in this 25-minute documentary.

    In the short video below, the sole man is dancing with a whole line-up of women just waiting to be his partner, and the comments tell us what’s up with that.  It’s his birthday, and it’s just what this club does for birthdays – what a fun tradition!  I wish I’d known and been dancing with these folks since I moved here in the early ’70s.  I bet I’d still be at it, like they are.

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    Celebrating Independence

    by Susan Harris on July 4, 2011

    And still singing “Give Peace a Chance.”  Now which makes my patriotism more suspect – the flag or the turfgrass-free yard?

    Here’s a 16-second video of the mosaic of groundcovers growing where the lawn used to be, inside this fence.

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