Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2008

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August 12, 2008
What Do You Say To A Naked Folkie?

Click here for pictures of AvalonFest

Well I'd heard of AvalonFest for a long time. The infamous clothing-optional folk festival. I never would have considered applying to play there. But they came to me. It's obvious they wanted me for my music.

Their representatives saw my showcase at NERFA back in November, and asked me to perform there. And the money was good. So I said, "Well...OK, I guess." Where better to sing "The Dream". ("I've got no trousers on, much to my surprise. /Show my knees to everyone, flash my burly thighs..." It's on Ain't Never Been Plugged.)

The festival is a production of Avalon, a naturist resort in Paw Paw, WV, a couple of hours west of Washington DC. It's a year-round resort with a lodge, pools, spa, on-site condos, and other amenities. And once a year, they hold a weekend folk festival. It's medium small; about 350 - 400 attendees. People camp or rent facilities at the resort. There are music and crafts, much like any other folk festival. It's just that people don't wear clothes there.

Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. They're not required to wear clothes there; and most of the people who go there are the sort that do not find clothing necessary. I'd say about 1/3 to 1/2 of the people wore something, but in most cases, it was more for protection from the sun than for modesty. All the performers were clothed this year, although some have opted to perform au naturel in previous years. In the lineup were two acts with whom I was familiar: Jack Williams, and Small Potatoes.

So what's it like? Well, after the initial shock of driving up to the gate and encountering the naked ticket-taker, I adjusted pretty quickly. In a way, naturists (yes, that's the p.c. accepted term) are like folkies, model airplane builders, gun collectors, Civil War re-enacters, Trekkies, or any other enthusiasts of any other activity that's off the beaten track or below the radar of mass media attention. They run the gamut from cool to dorky, from attractive to repellant, from intelligent to goofy, and up and down the bell curve of any spectrum you can name. Most were age 40 and above, with a couple of kids and a couple of 20-somethings sprinkled in. No teens that I saw. The nakedness was not a sexual thing. There were only two women I saw that attracted me sexually; one was a really beautiful woman in her early 20s, and the other attracted me more in her face and speech than in her body. For the most part, I got used to it.

With one or two exeptions. There were a few particularly obese people there that disturbed me some. (My apologies to them if they are reading this. It's my problem, not yours. You are evidently comfortable with your bodies as they are, as evidenced by your very presence at this event.) And there was one fellow with a pierced penis from which dangled some sort of chromium bauble about an inch and a half long. I'd need a little more time to get used to that.

Did I get naked? Well, not during the festival itself. But after everything was all over, I did jump in the pool and the spa without clothes. (I took off my glasses. If I can't see them, then they can't see me.) After which I felt comfortable enough to wander around a bit in the lounge without trousers. But all in all, I guess I felt more comfortable with my armor than without. It makes me re-examine a bunch of prejudices. We Westerners feel a little sorry for Muslim women who are swaddled in head scarves that cover most of their features. But I suppose if one has lived that way all one's life, going bare-faced might feel naked, rather than liberated. All depends on what one is used to.

I was very well received there. In addition to two concerts, I also organized a late-night singing session. My many years of running the campfire sings at the Philadelphia Folk Festival stood me well. From all reports it was the best participatory music session in memory at the AvalonFest. I also roped in some of the other performers to the session to spice things up. Sold a lot of CDs.

I'd do the AvalonFest again in a flash if they asked me. But I suspect I'd not go to Avalon for my vacation.

March 23, 2008
And Now For Something Completely Different...

So how did I wind up performing with the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey (formery Baroque Orchestra of Boonton)? And particularly on the bill of a concert of baroque and other early music designed to "provide opportunities for some of the area's most talented young musicians to experience performance with the full orchestra"? It's a long, but intersting story.

Those of you who have my first CD, The Modern Folk Musician will note the odd inclusion of the "Bach Double" (Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor) on that disc. It was a piece of music that my High School friend Ramsey Ameen introduced me to. Ramsey played classical violin, and one day over at his house he played me a record of that piece with Jasha Heifitz (I think) playing one of the solo violin parts. Well that piece of music just broke me off at the ankles! I had never heard anything so complex and beautiful in all my 17 or 18 years.

Fast forward to sometime in the early 90s. I had picked up and learned to play English Concertina. I had noticed how readily fiddle music adapted itself to that instrument, not only the Celtic and American dance tunes, but some classical music as well. I was remarking upon this to the renouned English singer and concertina player John Roberts, and mentioned to him my fascination with the Bach Double. I said half in jest, "If you learn one violin part on the concertina, I'll learn the other." He, probably thinking that it was just idle talk, said, "Sure."

So I took him up on it. I bought the "Music Minus One" recording of the piece, which contains the sheet music and a recording of the full orchestral version of the piece without the solo parts. A sort of early version of karaoke, I guess. And then in several months of painstaking work, I beat the first movement into my muscle-memory, thereby forcing John to learn the other part. We performed it together at the Old Songs Festival along with a classical guitarist who pissed me off no end by looking at the sheet music of the harpsichord part once or twice and then sight-read it on stage, transcribing it to guitar on the fly.

I then spent another couple of months learning John's part, and double-tracked both parts on my first CD, along with my friend Liz Cabrera playing cello and a hired harpsichordist. For a while, I used to perform the piece live in concert, playing the 1st violin part live against my own music-minus-one recording of me playing the 2nd part plus cello and harpsichord made from the other tracks from the CD. It was a lifelong dream come true, actually playing this piece of music that so captivated me in my youth.

Trouble was that I never had the piece cold. It was a crap-shoot that I might flub the live part. And once I lost it, I couldn't pick it up in the middle. The muscle-memory is sequential. So I would ocassionally end up sitting there on stage totally flustered, while the accompanying tape played on. It was very embarrassing, and I stopped trying to perform it, dropping the piece from my repertoire entirely.

Fast forward again to last July. I had met and come to admire the Dugan family, Nancy and George, along with their teenaged children Connor and Sharlys. They played mostly Irish music as the family band, Dugan's Hooligans. The real stars of the band were the kids; Connor on fiddle and Sharlys on harp and whistle. Connor in particular was quite remarkable, playing with a skill and sensitivity far beyond his years. They had joined the Folk Project, and were going to take part in the Minstrel Coffeehouse's Birthday Show. This is a show where various member musicians are teamed up in randomly selected duos and trios, and then work out one piece of music per group for the show. Connor expressed the desire to be teamed up with me so we could do the Bach Double together. I didn't even know he played anything other than Irish fiddle music. (He plays everything! He'd worked with the Baroque Orchestra of NJ in the past.)

Well, we weren't picked together, but the idea tickled me. So I suggested that we do it together at my CD Release Concert for Ain't Never Been Plugged! He said "Sure!", thereby forcing me to re-learn this piece of music I hadn't played in 10 years, and which had been pretty shakey even back then. Well, I did relearn it, and we did play it to a standing ovation at the concert. Connor's mother Nancy played harpsichord, and I got Liz Cabrera to reprise her role as cellist. And wonder of wonders, the piece became much more solid upon 2nd learning. I'm much more confident in playing it, and have resurrected my party trick of playing it in performance opposite the recording of me doing the other part.

So when Bob Butts, the conductor and music director of the Baroque Orchestra of NJ asked the Dugans to take part in his Family Concert again this year, Connor suggested that he and I do the "Double" with the whole orchestra. And I said, "Sure!" So that's the story. It's going to be a real new experience for me. I've never played in a formal orchestra, and never played with a conductor, not even in school. The concert is Sunday afternoon, April 6, and my first rehearsal with the orchestra is this Wednesday. It's gonna be fun.

February 22, 2008
More on the Legacy of Beebe Bourne

Those of you familiar with my performance of Pat Donohue's Would You Like To Play the Guitar might get a kick out of this.

(For those of you not familiar with it, it is a parody of the '1940's hit song, Swing on a Star written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. It was to be the title song of my last CD, ...Or Would You Rather Get a Job? But I was refused permission to record it by the publisher of the original, Beebe Bourne. Read the words to the parody and the strange story of my adventures in trying to record it, follow this link. )

In case anyone thought my story was an exaggeration, read the following email I received today from someone who prefers to remain anonymous.

Dear Mike,

I just stumbled upon your hilarious article about the beloved Beebe Bourne. I had to write you to let you know that I have been in that very same position. In my job, I am asked by Producers to get rights to use songs on Television, and when I started working here about six years ago, one of the first negotiations I ever had to perform was with Ms. Bourne.

She scared the crap out of me!

Your description of how she reached down your throat and pulled out your intestines was exactly how I felt!!! After the most gruelling five minute phone call of my life, where she snapped at me, ridiculed the offer I made her, and beat any sense of confidence I had in my knowledge of copyright our of me...she mercifully agreed to our use of the song, but only under the very strict condition that we would not be altering it in any way, shape or form.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones...A colleague of mine wasn't so lucky. After a conversation with Beebe, she locked herself into the ladies room and didn't come out for half an hour - only to emerge red eyed, and shaking like leaf!

Although Beebe has passed on, it's still scary calling the Bourne Company...I still feel that familiar tightening in my stomach as I dial the numbers - praying that I'll get the answering machine...dreading the angry voice on the other side...

Anyway - thanks for the article - it was a great read - I hope that one day you get to record your version of the song! Cheers!

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