Clockwise, from top left: Blackfriar's Theater in Staunton, VA, home of the American Shakespeare Center; National Cathedral in Guatemala City; church near Volin, SD; engraved stellae at ruins of Copan, Honduras; folk musicians in La Paz, Bolivia.
September 18, 2016 [LINK / comment]
East by Northeast: Big city scenic travelogue
Being frugal-minded, I try to "kill two birds with one stone" (figuratively speaking!) whenever the opportunity arises. So, as the American Political Science Association annual meeting approached last month, I decided to drive up to Philadelphia rather than take AMTRAK, as I have done in the past when those meetings are held in the East. That gave me more flexibility to go sight-seeing and see baseball games, something I had only done once so far this summer. After Philadelphia, I paid quick visits to New York City, then Providence, and finally Boston. It was an ambitious itinerary that ended up being affected by the weather: Hurricane Hermine. The following travelogue includes some of the best photos (and montages of photos) that I took on my trip; the complete set of photos can be seen on the Chronological (2016) photo gallery page.
TOP LEFT: Boston; TOP RIGHT: Providence; MIDDLE: Manhattan; BOTTOM: Philadelphia
Aug. 31: Baltimore, Philadelphia
The first part of my trip followed the familiar I-81 / I-66 route toward Washington, D.C., which I bypassed on the I-495 Beltway through Montgomery County, Maryland. Soon I was on the I-95 "main drag," and took the Harbor Tunnel bypass through Baltimore, only catching brief glimpses of that city's skyline. Then I passed Ripken Field, where the Aberdeen Ironbirds -- one of the minor league affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles -- play. Then I crossed the very wide Susquehanna River, and entered Delaware for the first time since 2008. (Eight years!?) It took less than an hour to get through Wilmington and cross into Pennsylvania, and before I knew it, I was passing the airport in the southern fringes of Philadelphia. I arrived at Citizens Bank Park at about 6:00, in plenty of time to see the Washington Nationals play the Phillies. (See my September 7 blog post about my baseball adventures.) After the game, I checked into the Days Inn motel in Springfield, located about five miles southwest of the Philadelphia city limits, and about nine miles from downtown. It was comfortable and well-furnished, what you would expect for a medium-priced motel. (A downtown hotel would have been much too expensive for my budget.)
For the next three days, my attention was focused exclusively on the American Political Science Association annual meeting, held at the Philadelphia Convention Center downtown. I had carefully chosen the motel based on its proximity to the commuter rail station. I was under the impression that suburban stations had pay parking available, but at the Morton station which I used, they told me there was a long waiting list to get parking. Fortunately, one of the passengers in the station waiting room told me what the local folks do: use a parking lot at a public park about three blocks away, for free. S-weet! The Southeast Pennsylvania Public Transit Authority (SEPTA) operates commuter trains, subway lines, trolleys, and buses, and works fairly efficiently from what I observed.
The SEPTA Morton station, near Springfield, Pennsylvania.
Sept. 4: Philadelphia, New York
Early on Sunday morning, I packed up and left the Days Inn and drove toward downtown Philadelphia. My original plan was to attend one of the final APSA panels that morning, but I encountered a traffic detour that diverted me onto some back streets. Well, that was interesting. [I saw a few University of Pennsylvania buildings, including some that are part of the hospital system.]Eventually I found a parking place right next to my first target: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the famous scene in the movie Rocky was filmed. [The building was very impressive, as was the view of the Schuylkill River, which passes by the museum.]
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Joan of Ark equestrian statue.
There was a big musical festival going on called "Made in America," sponsored by Budweiser beer, so the entire east side of that museum, and several acres of land on the east side, were closed off. (That's why I couldn't cross the bridge [across the Schuylkill River] into downtown, messing up my plans.) I could have gotten in by paying the admission price, but just didn't have enough time to make it worthwhile. So, I ended up walking a total of at least two miles as I searched for a way to get back to my car without retracing my steps. In the end, the extra effort paid off, as I saw several features I might have missed otherwise, including the Rodin Museum, where the French sculptor's classic "The Thinker" is on display. (It is one of 20-some replicas around the world; see rodinmuseum.org.) Right in front of that sculpture, I saw a family of Common Yellowthroats, mentioned in my September 9 blog post about birds.
After completing my "marathon" circuit walk around the museum and festival area, I drove to the east side of downtown Philadelphia, near the Delaware River. Parking was scarce, even on a Sunday morning, but I found a place that charged $4 per half hour. I quickly walked over to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and then to the building where the Liberty Bell is housed. (Unfortunately, I didn't have time for the nearby Independence Visitor Center or the National Constitution Center.) I was taken aback by two things: several members of the Falun Gong (a.k.a. Falun Dafa) religious sect who were protesting persecution in China, and a display about the history of U.S. slavery outside the entrance to the Liberty Bell building. I suppose it is meant to call attention to the fact that not all Americans shared in the new-found freedoms of 1776, but to me it seemed out of place -- an unnecessary sour note. I timed my hasty visit almost perfectly, but couldn't quite get out of the parking garage before the 30 minutes had elapsed, and had to pay $8 total.
Independence Hall, in the historic district on the east side of Philadelphia.
Next I drove toward the north side of Philadelphia, in search of the sites of two former baseball stadiums, and quite unexpectedly ended up attending a church service, at the invitation of one of the local people. (He wondered what I was doing taking pictures of his church, which stands on land formerly occupied by Shibe Park / Connie Mack Stadium.) Deliverance Evangelistic Church was quite an experience, and I was happy to be so warmly welcomed. There were at least a thousand people in the congregation, with about 30 people in the choir, along with an organ, electric bass guitar, and drums. Quite a joyful noise! But with no set liturgical sequence, I couldn't tell whether the service was about to end or not, so after about two hours I discreetly got up and left. I noticed that other people were doing likewise, which made me feel better. I then drove toward the east through some very blighted neighborhoods, stopped briefly at a park along the Delaware River, and then got on I-95 northbound.
After a half hour or so I crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, not far from where General George Washington did the same thing prior to the Battle of Trenton on December 25, 1776. I decided not to take the New Jersey Turnpike, but stayed on Route 1 for the next 30 or so miles, and it worked out pretty well. Crossing the toll bridge into Staten Island was a bit of a shock, as it cost me $15, but fortunately the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn was free. This was the first time I had visited New York without going into Manhattan. (My previous visits were in 1987, 1989, 1994, 2004, and 2008.) [I had my first glimpse of the new Freedom Tower, which was built on the site of the former World Trade Center Twin Towers.] For a list of all the skyscrapers in New York, including the newest ones, see amny.com, an affiliate of Newsday. It was quite a struggle driving through the extremely congested streets of Brooklyn as I searched for the site of Ebbets Field, and likewise as I drove from there into Queens, trying to find Citi Field, where the Nationals were playing the New York Mets. I had to pay a toll one more time while in New York, crossing the Whitestone Bridge into The Bronx [from Queens after the game was over].
Arthur Ashe Stadium, at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open tennis tournament was just getting underway. It is located about a quarter mile from Citi Field, from whence this photo was taken. Note the brand-new retractable roof which was built this year.
Sept. 5: Providence, Boston
Originally, I had planned to see the New York Yankees play a home game on Monday afternoon, but Hurricane Hermine was approaching, and I feared that I would miss a rare opportunity to get daylight photos in Fenway Park. So I changed plans and headed directly toward Boston. I stopped briefly at the historic port town of Mystic, Connecticut, made famous by the movie Mystic Pizza. Then I entered Rhode Island, and my first impression of the smallest state was not a good one, I'm sorry to say. The rest stop building was closed for repairs, and the porta-potties outside were disgusting beyond description. Budget cuts? But my first-ever visit to the city of Providence was more pleasant, and I stopped to take photos of the State House and other buildings of note.
The Rhode Island state house (capitol building), on the north side of downtown Providence.
[After Providence,] I passed through the suburb of Pawtucket, home of the Pawtucket Red Sox, a minor league affiliate of the Boston MLB franchise. Then I entered Massachusetts and took the first exit to Foxboro, where Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, is located. By fortunate coincidence, right next door I came across a combined wetland nature area / cranberry bog which is owned by the Ocean Spray company.
I finally arrived in Boston just after 1:00, and despite my best efforts to plan an efficient route, I managed to take at least two wrong turns that wasted at least a half an hour. I found Boston University's Nickerson Field, which is what is left of the former Braves Field, but being pressed for time, I stayed only about ten minutes there. I arrived at Fenway Park just in time for the 2:00 guided tour, joining a group of about 25 visitors. I was enthralled to enter these ancient hallowed grounds, and snapped photos furiously throughout the hour-long tour. [Afterwards,] I wanted to drive past Boston Common and get some photos of downtown landmarks such as Old North Church, but the traffic was too heavy for me to bother with. [Also, the skies were becoming overcast.]
Boston Symphony Hall.
Just as I was leaving Boston, the winds picked up and rain started to fall. I timed my visit perfectly! That evening in Connecticut, the remnants of the tropical storm Hermine really blasted the area, but the rain wasn't as heavy as I had feared. I spent the night in a suburb east of New Haven, and my usually-keen sense of direction failed me, as I took a couple wrong turns on dark country roads.
Sept. 6: New Jersey
After deciding to go to Boston rather than see a Yankees game on Monday, my backup plan was to take a tour of Yankee Stadium. I was utterly exhausted from three straight days of intensive driving through heavily-congested big cities, however, so I decided not to. Instead, I took the I-287 bypass around the north side of New City, crossing the Hudson River on the Tappan Zee Bridge, where I saw a big replacement bridge being constructed. [The very hilly terrain of that part of New Jersey surprised me, but it flattened out as I drove south.] I then stopped at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Jacqueline and I were looking for it when we visited New York City in 2004, but never could find it. This time, I followed road signs to the destination, with very little trouble.
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
After leaving the Great Swamp, I drove through a couple quaint suburban towns in New Jersey (making me think of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' song "Arroyo"), and then headed straight west on I-78, passing the old steel towns of Bethlehem and Allentown, Pennsylvania. (I kept thinking of Billy Joel's song "Allentown.") I had thought about stopping, but didn't see any obvious scenic spot, so I kept going west until I reached the state capital, Harrisburg. From there it was only about an hour back to Maryland, then briefly crossing the eastern "arm" of West Virginia, and finally passing Winchester, Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley. I got home as the sun was about to set, and slept very soundly that night. It was quite a trip, and I was quite tired! As mentioned in the first paragraph, those who are curious can view many more photos, including some large panoramic views of city skylines and sports stadiums, on the Chronological (2016) photo gallery page.
NOTE: I made a few corrections and additions (marked with [brackets]) subsequent to the original post.
August 26, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Two more "open mic" gigs
I made another appearance with the Staunton Music Guild at Queen City Brewery on Wednesday night. It was a smallish crowd at first and gradually grew to 25 or so, almost as many people as last week. It was a casual, laid-back atmosphere. I played:
- "Wicked Game" -- Chris Isaac
- "Crazy Love" -- Poco
- "It'll Shine When It Shines" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Rhythm of Love" -- Plain White T's
For "Wicked Game," I use the harmonica to play the lead guitar parts. I can sing the low notes on that one pretty well, but it's a challenge for me to reach the high falsetto notes, since I have a limited vocal range. This time I pulled it off well enough. The next two songs went pretty well. On the last one ("Rhythm of Love"), I missed a few notes on the intro riff, to my annoyance. (Jacqueline noticed.) Since there were fewer performers, each of us got to do an extra song, and I hadn't prepared well enough for this one. Practice, practice, practice... I mentioned to the audience that Jacqueline and I had seen the Plain White T's do that song in a post-game concert at Nationals Park two years ago.
One week earlier (August 17) they had the biggest crowd that I had yet seen at Queen City's Open Mic night. Master of Ceremonies Fritz Horisk opened with a hilarious song by blues guitarist Keb Mo, "You Can Love Yourself." Jacqueline was once again present to show support. I played:
- "You Made It Right" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Interstate Love Song" -- Stone Temple Pilots
- "Never Goin' Back" -- Fleetwood Mac
I used the harmonica on the first two songs, and my rendition of "Interstate Love Song" with it truly rocks, if I may say so. I try to play at least one relatively recent song (in this case "only" 22 years old) at each appearance to offset my heavy concentration in 1970s-era acoustic/country rock. I took a risk playing "Never Goin' Back," which involves some tricky guitar picking techniques, but it turned out OK. I talked about the Fleetwood Mac concert that that Jacqueline and I had seen last year, paying tribute to Lindsey Buckingham's guitar virtuosity. The audience applauded enthusiastically for all three of my songs, as they did for the several performers after me. Top-notch entertainment, and I was proud to be part of it. It seemed to me that the audience was especially attentive to the music that night, which is not always the case.
August 23, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Day trip to eastern Virginia / Chesapeake Bay
On Saturday, Jacqueline and I went for a day trip to the eastern part of Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay, one of those destinations we had planning for a long time. It was a combination of interest in the history of the Old Dominion, wanting to see some different scenery, enjoying fresh seafood, and (in my case) watching birds in the wetlands along the Chesapeake Bay; see the separate wild birds blog post. We accomplished most of our objectives.
We began the morning by heading east on I-64 past Charlottesville, and taking the I-295 bypass around the north side of Richmond. But on the east side of the city, where I-295 rejoins I-64, we encountered a traffic delay of 15-20 minutes, which was quite annoying. So, at the first opportunity, we got off the congested I-64 and took the back roads through New Kent County. We stopped in the town of New Kent to see the historic court house and other features. A local gentleman greeted us, and explained the history of the "ordinary" across the street, a kind of tavern in which there is a set price for all meals. msummerfieldimages.com
New Kent monument to fallen soldiers from the Civil War, and the historic "ordinary" across the street. "Lest we forget: Pamunkey Rifles, Barhamsville Grays, New Kent Cavalry."
We continued east, passing the two Indian communities in that part of the state: Pamunkey and Mattaponi. Soon we were passing over a high bridge into the town of West Point, and then crossing another high bridge. I learned that that town is a small port for commercial transport vessels, and a terminal point for a railroad line. After a few miles I decided to turn right, toward the southeast, and we arrived in the town of Gloucester about 15 minutes later. That was a very good decision, as the town was full of charming shops, restaurants, and historical sites. I was busy with my camera. Of particular note is Court Circle, around which the main street traverses, with several ancient brick buildings and a Civil War monument in the middle. After a very satisfying lunch at Olivia's Restaurant, we headed northeast, crossing the Rappahannock River along the very high and wide (two miles) Robert O. Norris bridge, named for a legislator who eventually became President pro tempore of the state Senate. (wikipedia.org)
The Robert O. Norris Bridge, over the Rappahannock River.
I did not realize it at the time, but there are apparently serious concerns over the structural integrity of that bridge, which was built in 1957; see nbc12.com. Anyway, that took us from Lancaster County into Middlesex County, into the part of the state known as the "Northern Neck," between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. We stopped for ice cream in the town of Kilmarnock, and I briefly explored a nature trail along a lily-covered pond on the north side of town.
After a few more miles, we left the main highway (Route 200) and ventured east toward the Chesapeake Bay shoreline, arriving at Hughlet Point Natural Area after a while. I went exploring while Jacqueline rested, and she had a good reason for not joining me: Biting flies were everywhere! A boardwalk trail led through a dense wooded area, which opened up as the soil turned to sand. I could hear the waves, and rushed over to the beach, the first time I have been to the sea [or in this case, an appendage thereof] in nearly two years. That was nice. Then I trotted southward along a trail parallel to the beach, arriving at one of the observation platforms after five minutes or so. I was swatting away flies the whole miserable time along the trail. I was using insect repellant, but obviously not enough.
Next we headed north to the Dameron Marsh Natural Area, about ten miles to the north. It was a little trickier to get to, with a gravel road as the only access. The observation platform there was closer to the parking area than at Hughlet Point, so that saved some time, but the biting flies were just as bad. With lush marsh grasses everywhere around, this was a somewhat more photogenic spot than Hughlet Point. In the distance, I could see the port town of Reedville. But it was getting late in the afternoon, so I had to leave in a hurry.
Dameron Marsh Natural Area, an Osprey, and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.
We headed north again, and stopped for gas in the town of Wicomico Church, where I took some photos. The church itself (as opposed to the surrounding town) is an Episcopal Church, which is typical in that very Anglo-Saxon, very established part of the Old Dominion. After crossing the Wicomico River, we came upon U.S. Route 360, which terminates just a few miles east of that corner in the town of Reedville. That is where the ferry boat to the island community of Tangier docks. (Maybe we'll go there next time.) Instead, we turned left, toward the west.
We were looking for steamed crabs to take home with us, and finally spotted a van with "Mr. Crab" in big letters. BINGO! The vendor (an African-American) was very nice, giving us a special price since all the big-sized crabs had been sold, and added a few extras to the dozen that we paid for. We had a great meal the next day! When I lived in Northern Virginia back in the 1980s, we used to eat at Ernie's Crab House in Arlington, and it has been years since I have eaten whole steamed crabs like that. Yum!!! Anyway, we passed through the town of Heathsville and then Callao, where I took a bunch of photos of various stores. Why? Because Callao is the name of the port district of Lima, Peru, where Jacqueline grew up.
From there we passed through the town of Warsaw (!), after which the highway turned toward the southwest, re-crossing the Rappahannock River into the town of Tappahannock. There is a nature preserve on the north side of the river, which might be worth visiting again some time. Eventually we reached the I-295 bypass outside of Richmond, and from there retraced our path back to Staunton. Quite exhausted, we had a good night's sleep. After looking at the state map the next day, I determined that we visited nine (9) counties for the very first time:
- King and Queen
- King William
It was in Northumberland County that we saw most of the birds that day. Other photos from our trip can be seen on the new Chronological photo gallery (2016) page, which will eventually encompass all years back to 2003. (It is part of a general website reorganization project of mine.) That page also includes several more photos that I took at Swannanoa Palace one week earlier.
August 19, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Mountain hiking on a hot day
Rather than suffer in the scorching heat afflicting the Valley lowlands, Jacqueline and I drove up to Shenandoah National Park last Sunday and went hiking in the mountains. The temperatures were probably 5-10 degrees lower, but it was still very warm in the sun. Fortunately, the Appalachian Trail was well shaded for most of the way. If I had paid closer attention to the topographical map, I would have realized that we had to climb about 700 feet from the parking area at Blackrock Gap to Blackrock itself. Well, we needed the exercise. One of the trail signs was misleading, causing us to waste a few minutes. After resting and snacking, we headed back along an old track which parallels the AT for a ways. (I made a separate blog post about the birds we saw that day.)
The trail at Blackrock, with a view of the Shenandoah Valley.
Even more mushrooms!
Last week (August 8) I added a montage of mushroom photos that I had originally taken on July 1, 2015. There's probably many more in my collection that I haven't identified yet... Anyway, Jacqueline and I saw quite a few mushrooms along the Appalachian Trail during our Sunday hike, of which the most impressive was a small, frilly purple mushroom which I identified as Ramaria Fennica. So, for the third time this month, I have updated the Mushrooms photo gallery page.
Mushroom montage, North Mountain, July 1, 2015. Roll your mouse over the image to see an enlarged view of the Ramaria Fennica. Other species yet to be identified...
Visit to Swannanoa
After hiking in the Shenandoah National Park, Jacqueline and I visited Swannanoa Palace for the first time. It is located about a half mile south of Rockfish Gap, where the hawk watch is now getting underway. The Dulaney family, which owns the historic property (as well as the Afton Inn, at Rockfish Gap), holds occasional visiting days, and August 14 was the last opportunity until early September. It was every bit as impressive inside as I had imagined, and the marble and woodwork were simply exquisite. I plan to post several more photos from the interior and exterior in the next few days...
The front side (east) of Swannanoa Palace.
Swannanoa Palace was built in 1912 or so by Major James Dooley, who had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But he and his wife Sally May passed away during the 1920s, and the property was bought and the adjoining land was made into Swannanoa Country Club. In 1944, A.T. Dulaney led a group which purchased Swannanoa, and in 1948 the palace was leased to Walter and Lao Russell, the founders of the University of Science and Philosophy, a kind of New Age movement before its time. See philosophy.org. Their lease expired in 1997, and since then the palace has been in a state of limbo, in desperate need of repair and renovation.
August 12, 2016 [LINK / comment]
Rock star? Playing guitar in public
Inspired in part by friends from church who often play at parties or music festivals (see the photo below), I have been starting to play guitar in public over the last few months. "You're never to old to start!" Every Wednesday, Queen City Brewing hosts Open Mic Night, cosponsored by the Staunton Music Guild, which I "joined" a few years ago. (The SMG is very informal as an organization, but they do sponsor young musicians and hold occasional public events.) Fritz Horisk is the master of ceremonies, and plays guitar as well. I played there once in March, twice last month, and last Wednesday.
The "Harvest Band"* performs for Peace Day 2014, September 21, at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton. We were playing Bob Dylan's "Blowing In the Wind," a popular protest song from the 1960s. It was the first time I played harmonica in public. On the left is Randy Hamblett (banjo), in back is Colin Hester (bass), and on the right is Matthew Poteat (mandolin). Thanks to Jacqueline for taking the photo.
* The "Harvest Band" is what we folk musicians call ourselves whenever we perform at Emmanuel Episcopal Church services. It's been over a year since the last time we did that, however.
My first Open Mic Night was back in March, during spring break. Otherwise, my class schedule conflicted with Wednesday nights. My first time didn't go so well, as my brain somehow froze and I forgot chords on two of the songs ("Colorado Song" and "Bitter Creek"), despite the fact that I knew those very well. I guess that's what they call stage fright. I also had a hard time changing the tuning on two of the strings after the first song. Part of the reason for being flustered was that I forgot to bring my harmonicas, forcing me to change my set list at the last minute. I at least managed a decent job on "Tequila Sunrise."
- "Colorado Song" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Tequila Sunrise" -- The Eagles
- "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" -- Eric Clapton
- "Bitter Creek" -- The Eagles
I planned to resume playing in late May or June, but I didn't do a second appearance until July 13. This time I had my harmonicas with me, and was accompanied by my loyal and supportive wife Jacqueline. There weren't many people there, however, probably just 10-12, including the musical performers. The second and third songs ("Standing On the Rock" and "Follow You Down") went pretty well, but I had problems with the other two, hitting the right harmonica notes on "Country Girl" and having a hard time reaching high notes singing on "Doolin' Dalton."
- "Country Girl" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Standing On the Rock" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Follow You Down" -- The Gin Blossoms
- "Doolin' Dalton" -- The Eagles
My third appearance was on July 20, and Jacqueline was there along with a friend and another guy. A whole entourage! There was a big crowd there that night, and we had good food from one of the mobile kitchen startup businesses that are becoming popular nowadays. Plus the great-tasting beer and ale brewed on the premises by the Queen City folks. I just about nailed all three songs, although I didn't quite get all the harmonica notes on "Long Train Running." (That one sounds awesome, if I do say so myself.)
- "Train Leaves Here This Morning" -- The Eagles
- "Long Train Running" -- Doobie Brothers
- "Like a Rolling Stone" -- Bob Dylan
My [fourth]* appearance was on August 10, two nights ago, and Jacqueline was there once again. The harmonica on "Ring of Fire" takes the place of the brass quartet which Johnny Cash used on the original recording, and it yields a pretty good effect. (I have learned to play harmonica instead of the "original" instruments on many other songs, some of which might surprise you.) Sad to say, I missed a few notes on "Harvest Moon," which is a shame, since it's a beautiful song. But the last two songs by one of my favorite groups came across pretty well, even though they were not familiar to folks in the audience.
- "Ring of Fire" -- Johnny Cash
- "Harvest Moon" -- Neil Young
- "Beauty In the River" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- "Homemade Wine" -- Ozark Mountain Daredevils
I look forward to playing at Open Mic Night in the weeks to come, time permitting, and perhaps at some other public venues. From that Nickelback song: "Hey, hey, I wanna be a rock star!"
* Corrected on August 27; originally I wrote "third."
Learning to play the harmonica
About three years ago I started learning how to play the harmonica, and I'm gradually getting better at it. Given the fact that I have been a big fan of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils since the very beginning (I saw them in concert in Vermillion, South Dakota in the fall of 1974), it is odd that it took me so long, since the harmonica is one of their "signature" instruments. So, I finally bought myself a harmonica, a cheapo Hohner model in the key of C. Many songs I play have a harmonica part in them, including ones by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, and it sounds much better playing the guitar simultaneously with a harmonica. Within a few months, I was ready for better-quality models, which cost about $15 to $18. Within a year, I was proficient enough to play in public. (See photo above.) Now I am sufficiently particular to want high-quality harmonicas, which cost about $40. I already have two Hohner Marine Band models ("D" and "E"), and two Lee Oscar models ("A" and "G"). I need to get a high-quality "C" harmonica, and eventually a "Bb" and "F" as well.
One big step forward for me was getting a suitable harmonica case, enabling me to switch between different harmonicas quickly when needed. Since I couldn't find one that was suitable for my needs (a full set of seven harmonicas plus the holder), I decided to "do it myself":
The custom-designed harmonica case which I built in March 2014, using a cigar box purchased at an antique store, plus materials purchased from Michaels craft store in Waynesboro and the Tru Valu hardware store in downtown Staunton.
Almost all harmonicas are in a major scale, and here are the common keys:
- A (E) [Gbm]
- Bb (F) [Gm]
- C (G) [Am]
- D (A) [Bm]
- E (B) [C#m]
- F (C) [Dm]
- G (D) [Em]
Cross-harp / second position keys (where the root note of the scale is drawn rather than blown) are in parentheses, and corresponding minor keys are in brackets.
Standard harmonicas have ten holes, each of which plays a different note when drawn rather than blown. When blowing, the major triad of the chord occur in succession. For example, in a "C" harmonica, the blow notes are C - E - G repeated three times at successively higher octaves, plus a high C. Since each adjacent pair of notes is by definition part of the same chord, you can slide up and down while blowing, and it will sound OK.
Drawing notes is a different matter, however. Because there needs to be at least one complete octave scale in order to play most songs, there are some irregularities and "gaps" between some of the holes. As the table below shows, most adjacent note pairs are part of a chordal harmony, with one big exception: #6 and #7! They are only one note apart (A and B, in a "C" key harmonica), and there are no chords with adjacent notes, other than 7th chords and other chords with a fourth note. Usually, it doesn't matter if you are trying to play a particular note but also get an adjacent note, since they are generally in harmony. You have to learn to avoid drawing on #6 and #7 simultaneously, because it will sound terrible!
Notes in a "C" harmonica
The bottom line shows the difference between blown notes vs. drawn notes. ("1" = a full note, or two half steps on a fretboard.) As you will notice, the six holes on the left (#1 - #6) produce higher notes when drawn (compared to when blown), while the four holes on the right (#7 - #10) produce lower notes when drawn.
I knew I was making progress when I learned how to "bend" notes. That's the effect where the note drops down a half step or so and then returns, and it's achieved by carefully adjusting the pressure while you are drawing. Your tongue and lips need to be pursed, and it's tricky at first, but eventually it becomes easy. The opening harmonica part in "Follow You Down" is a perfect example. Other songs among my set lists above that feature "bent" notes are "Country Girl" and "Doolin' Dalton." (Bending while blowing is too hard to do without great skill, I have learned.)
Blues Travelers concert
A further inspiration for my harmonica playing was seeing the Blues Travelers postgame concert at Nationals Park on June 8, 2014. The group's leader, John Popper, is a phenomenal harmonica player. I'd love to learn how to play some of that group's songs (such as "The Runaround"), but the problem is that he changes notes much more quickly than I can.
John Popper, leader of the Blues Travelers at Nationals Park, June 8, 2014.
To see previous blog entries, go to the Culture & Travel archives page.