How Did You Pick Your Instrument?
by Alex Walsh

Every musician has a story on how they picked their instrument. Some people get their’s handed to them in elementary school and never change. Some have to fight for it.

For me, I received a harmonica as a present. I was thirteen and living in Ocean Springs, MS. Like many families, we probably had one in the house growing up but this was different. I don’t remember asking for it. I remember I was trying to play the recorder on my own which was probably driving my parents crazy. So they gave me a harmonica. I used to jump around the house with my harmonica pretending to be a southern preacher and an old blues guy at the same time. “The South will riiiiiiise a-gain! Words taken from today’s gospel…” was my refrain.

I learned by trying to mimic the intro to the band Blackfoot’s song, Train, Train, from their album Blackfoot Strikes. I don’t know why I had that album. I probably heard it on the radio and bought it through a record club. It has a 30-second harmonica intro that mimics a train slowly starting and picking up speed. Dolly Parton recorded it on her bluegrass album The Grass Is Blue and won a Grammy in 2001.

During my research for this, I saw that the Blackfoot album was recorded in Ann Arbor, MI. Strangely, my family moved there a few years later. I was still interested in harmonica and by that time was also playing guitar and had discovered the blues. A big inspiration was seeing Peter MadCat Ruth playing in Ann Arbor. He was great. He had a pedal board and could make the harmonica sound like a guitar. He blew me away with his whacky Jimi Hendrix-like grande finale.

I kept going with the harmonica and still play it. I have tried to hunker down and study it over the years, which I do for a time. But it’s just more fun to play. I can always pick it up and play something.

Peter Madcat Ruth

In the 2000s I started giving harmonica lessons for money. Being self-taught, it took a while to figure out how to explain what was going on. Most of it is happening in your mouth so it’s kind of difficult. I found the best way was to use a beginning blues harmonica book which provides structure. Also, they come with play-along CDs.

Many people think the harmonica is easy because they had one growing up. I tell people it is and it isn’t. After all these years, I’m still working on that Train, Train intro, and I’m fine with that.

How did you pick your instrument?

 

 

 

Long Tail Blues
by Alex Walsh

photo by Deborah Crooks

When I first started playing gigs in my 20s I did not want to be one of those “50 year old white guys playing the blues in bars.” Well, I turned 50 last month and there I was, onstage in a bar, playing the blues. I have to say I think my younger self was just jealous. Maybe it’s because all those “50 year old white guys playing the blues in bars” always looked like they were having a good time. I was having a blast.

I had been asked to fill in on guitar for my friends Deborah Crooks and Kwame Copeland’s band Bay Station. Bay Station is a West Coast Americana band, but they do play a few bluesy numbers. That night we played a couple bluesy songs that I had co-written with Deborah. And so there I was “a 50 year old white guy…”

***

Later that night during a break, Farrell Williams song “Happy” came on the jukebox. I remember reading a few years ago that it had 43 million spins on Pandora and he was only paid $3,000 in songwriting royalties. That is crazy!

As a songwriter myself, that made me think of my own songwriting royalties from Pandora (insert crickets chirping here).

Doing a little simple math in my head, I realized that I was making more money playing my two co-written songs that night than all the years of streaming my music on Pandora. This did not seem fair.

Luckily, there is legislation floating through congress called the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act. It was first introduced in 2015, and has recently been re-introduced with bipartisan support. Seems like everyone (technology companies especially) is making all this money off music and the songwriters and musicians aren’t getting their fair share. Content creators getting ripped off? Say it isn’t so!

Write to your congressperson here:

Add your voice to the chorus by asking your member of Congress to support the Fair Play Fair Pay Act.

***

There was a popular idea floating around during the turn of the 2000s called The Long Tail. The idea was that with the internet, everything would always be available online and sales would trickle in over time. I remember people theorizing that musicians would all be taken care of because of this Long Tail. But I don’t see that happening now. The Long Tail idea was invented in the 90s when people bought CDs. Now it’s all about music streaming. I think musicians and songwriters got a bad deal.

Then Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall came on the jukebox. In my head I couldn’t help it and I changed the words:

“All in all you’re just a
‘nother niche in the tail.”

***
When the night was over I packed up my gear. I was tired and glad. Glad to be alive and able to play music, and glad that I had spent my 40s searching for the smallest and lightest amp I could find.

The next morning I was excited because the SGI Golden Gate Chorus was going to sing one of my songs at a Buddhist meeting. I was able to bring a couple of my songwriter friends as guests, which was very cool. The audience loved it and they even applauded me for writing it! The tail is indeed long.

***

Go ahead:

Add your voice to the chorus by asking your member of Congress to support the Fair Play Fair Pay Act.

My Life As A Digital Immigrant

by Alex Walsh

Someone told me recently that I am a digital immigrant. Young people are digital natives.

This made total sense to me.

I’ve always felt like I’ve been playing catch-up with the latest technology. I eventually do catch up but then things change again and I fall behind. The changes were much easier to ignore before the internet.

I think my digital immigration started with video games. My first experience with anything digital was playing Pong after a soccor game in a Pizza Parlor in the early 1970s. Then it was Space Invaders and other games at the arcade and Atari at friend’s houses.

When I graduated from high school in 1985 my parents gave me a typewriter. In college I discovered the computer room, which they called a computer lab. I could type my papers there surrounded by other students. I stopped going because I had no idea what I was doing and the lab assistant got really frustrated with me.

A few years later I was in San Francisco where you could rent a room and live on minimum wage. I started performing at open mics and doing gigs. Record stores sold CDs. People I knew bought digital tape machines. They helped me make demo recordings. A roommate of mine worked at a software company and hogged the phone line to send messages to his friend in Germany on this thing called the Well.

I bought my first computer in 1999 and signed up for AOL. Ten years later I had an iphone, broadband, and wifi.

I always went to the next digital thing when it became unbearable to not do it. Does that make me a digital immigrant or a digital refuge?

The digital immigrant vs digital native idea came about in 2001. The argument made sense. It’s based on age and how old you were when you got online. Asking a young person today when they “got online” is the defining question because they’ve always been online. If you remember when you got online, you’re a digital immigrant.

I was talking to a singer/songwriter friend of mine, Francesca Lee, about how things have changed for her since social media started. She said her last CD release was in 2010 and she didn’t use social media very much then. With her latest CD she’s going to take a completely different approach. She’ll release each track of her album as a single online. It might take a year to get them all out. Why? Because with social media the idea is we’re in constant communication with our network of online friends and we need to always be posting something new.

This is a lot of pressure if you take the old school approach of perfecting everything before you release it. As a digital immigrant this is my natural tendency. If I want the outtakes I’ll buy the box set! But there is something freeing about the reality TV approach too. Just put everything online and try not to worry about it.

Technology is changing so fast I think we’re all going to be digital immigrants!

My Step-Mom, My Hero by Alex Walsh

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at San Francisco City Hall honoring my Step-mother, Conny Ford, for Women’s History Month. She was nominated by District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim for her work spearheading the campaign for Free City College in San Francisco. Now I can go back to college for free and take all those math classes I blew off!

But seriously, Conny is a great lady. At the party afterwords in Jane Kim’s office many toasts were made to her from her colleagues, neighbors, and young labor activists whom she has mentored. Conny is working hard to make sure the next generation has a chance, and from the looks of it, I think she is succeeding!

Congratulations Conny!

SF Labor Council Blog: Honoring Labor Leader Women on International Women’s Day in San Francisco

Conny on the steps of City Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Would I Be Without Sesame Street? By Alex Walsh

Who would I be without Sesame Street? Mr. Rogers? The Electric Company? Zoom?

I was a kid in the seventies. Those were my shows. Mr. Rogers was my guy. Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, The Count, Oscar The Grouch (and all the humans) were my heroes. I lived for watching the Sesame Street Baker fall down the stairs carrying all those cakes!

And the music for those shows? Incredible! I interviewed Denny Zeitlin in 2015 and was completely surprised to learn that he wrote some of the music for those Sesame Street shorts. Remember 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9…10? That was him!

In the early 90s I used to cover the Sesame Street theme song with my group the Young Blue Bucks. When we played it people thought it was cute but it also brought out their innocence.

Now I hear that Trump wants to eliminate funding for the Public Broadcasting Corporation, NEA (National Endowment for the Arts, and NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities).

Can you imagine life without public funding for the ARTS?

Where would Morgan Freeman be today without the Electric Company? I remember when I started to see him in movies in the 80s. “Hey, isn’t that the guy from Electric Company? It is? Cool!”

I have no idea what kids are watching today, but I do know there is a 24/7 kids channel on PBS and you can watch Sesame Street reruns at midnight if you want to. Is this progress? I think so!

Why would anyone want to cut funding for these important public services?

Oh yeah, the Arts and Media are always the first to go in the twisted minds and diabolical budgets of Totalitarian Dictators and the Conservatives who serve them. How could I forget?

Watch Mr. Rogers Persuade Congress to Stop Cutting PBS Budget in 1969: Would It Stop Trump from Defending PBS & NEA Today?

What can we do?

Sign this petition on the AFM website

Sign this petition from Change.org

Fight The Power (With All Your Power) Part II of II by Alex Walsh

here’s part I

I wrote this song in early December 2016, the week after Trump was elected. The world was in shock! And so was I.

A couple weeks later an EDM (electronic dance music) producer friend of mine said he wanted to do a version. I said, “Awesome!” I recorded some acoustic guitar and vocal tracks and sent them to him and he went to work. We went back and forth with ideas. It was the first time I’d heard my voice autotuned.

By now Trump was President. We got the track back from the mastering studio and were ready to release it. Then Trump did his travel ban.

My friend, who will remain anonymous, is here on a work visa. He decided he didn’t want to have his name attached to the recording because it was too risky given the current circumstances.

Is art imitating life? Life imitating art? I was very disappointed, but he said I could release it anyway, so in his honor here is the link:

Fight The Power (With All Your Power) – Electronic

***

Here is a stripped down acoustic version:

Fight The Power (With All Your Power) – Acoustic

And here are the lyrics:

Fight The Power (With All Your Power)

Boots are marching, hear them pounding
Bashing in doors in the middle of the night with the sirens sounding
Your indecision, an apocalyptic vision
Another strong man rules the world with historical precision

You only had to vote
You didn’t even try
You just stood idly by

Oh, now that you know
How it can go
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power
Oh now that you see
How it can be
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power now

The wind is turning, the fire’s churning
History books are jumping off the shelf ready for burning
False allegations, ethnic registration
Innocent people dying in camps under mass migration

You didn’t hear the cries
Screaming all along
How could you be so wrong?

Oh, now that you know
How it can go
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power
Oh now that you see
How it can be
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power

You don’t have to feel like you’re fighting on your own
If we all stand together you’ll never fight alone

Oh, now that we know
How it can go
We’ve got to fight the power with all our power
Oh, now that we see
How it can be
We’ve got to fight the power with all our power now

Fight The Power (With All Your Power) Part I of II
by Alex Walsh

I didn’t think Trump would be elected, but then he was. Ughh.

So, what does a songwriter do? Write a song? A protest song?

I hadn’t tried to write a protest song in many years. My previous attempts had been…unsuccessful (that’s being charitable). I figured other people could do a better job of it so I just left them alone.

But things are different now.

Trump to me is a direct descendant of Adolf Hitler. How could I not write something?

Shortly after his election in November 2016 I wrote this:


Fight The Power (With All Your Power) by Alex Walsh

Boots are marching, hear them pounding
Bashing in doors in the middle of the night with the sirens sounding
Your indecision, an apocalyptic vision
Another strong man rules the world with historical precision

You only had to vote
You didn’t even try
You just stood idly by

Oh, now that you know
How it can go
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power
Oh now that you see
How it can be
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power now

The wind is turning, the fire’s churning
History books are jumping off the shelf ready for burning
False allegations, ethnic registration
Innocent people dying in camps under mass migration

You didn’t hear the cries
Screaming all along
How could you be so wrong?

Oh, now that you know
How it can go
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power
Oh now that you see
How it can be
You’ve got to fight the power with all your power

You don’t have to feel like you’re fighting on your own
If we all stand together you’ll never fight alone

Oh, now that we know
How it can go
We’ve got to fight the power with all our power
Oh, now that we see
How it can be
We’ve got to fight the power with all our power now

 

Here’s a recording: Fight The Power (With All Your Power)

 

How Do You Unwind After Your Gigs? By Alex Walsh

I played a gig last night and it was awesome! Amazing! Inspiring! A dream come true! The kind we all live for!

And then it was over and I went home. I didn’t realize how jacked up I was until I was in my living room and had put all my stuff down. I was tired but wide awake. Sleep was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t know what to do.

The gig was a songwriter’s in the round at the Bazaar Café. The Bazaar Café is in the Outer Richmond District of San Francisco and a mainstay of the singer/songwriter scene. It’s an all-acoustic listening room (no p.a.), and it sounds great. My last few shows there have been reasonably well attended, but last night was off the hook crazy. The place was so packed we had to start 45 minutes late because the café staff was so backed up. This was a very happy problem! Wow!

There were two other songwriters onstage with me, Liz Riley and Tom Gewecke. A songwriter’s in the Round is a show where we each take turns playing our songs, and improvise playing and singing on each other’s songs. I had met Liz at a Peter Case songwriting class last spring at the Blue Bear School of Music in SF. We hit it off and decided we would do a show together at some point. Liz knew Tom and suggested he play with us. Songwriters in the round are fantastic when the other musicians have some chops. I had never played with either of them before, and I had just met Tom that night, so I didn’t know what was going to happen.

I had an inkling it was going to be a good audience when I saw the response from Liz’s friends on our Facebook Events Page. 21 people said they were going. Impressive! But I didn’t want to get too excited because you never know.

When the show finally started the room was electric. With a crowd that size, everything is magnified—at least from my prospective as a performer. Jokes are funnier (because laughter is infectious), dramatic moments at ends of songs where you can hear a pin drop are more profound (a room full of people focused on silence is very powerful!) and grooves are a little funkier (maybe that’s just me). I opened the show and got the crowds attention and then we went around four times and finished our first set. I was very entertained—these guys were “better than I thought”, to quote Eddie Alley.

At the break a lot of people wanted to know if we had rehearsed for this. They were amazed when I explained that this was our first time playing together. And I was surprised that they were amazed! Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what we do as musicians is not something everyone can do (maybe that’s the next blog). That’s something I need to work on—putting value on the skills I’ve developed from my talents.

The second set was even better. By that time a few people had to leave (it was a Sunday night after all), and the room was comfortably packed. The laughs kept coming and the music took on a life of its own. We were asked to play an encore which is always heartening, and we each walked away with some good tips. It really was a magical night!

And then it was over and I went home.

Home?

It was only 10 o’clock! And I was starving.

But it was too late to go out again. So I made some popcorn and tried to unwind by watching TV. I thought about doing some work but my mind was racing and I couldn’t concentrate. I replayed moments from the gig in my head, even talking to myself out loud as I went over what I said to the audience, or what I could have improved. When the popcorn was gone I made more. Then a sandwich. Pretty soon it was 1 am. I had to get up and go to work so I forced myself to crawl into bed.

Next time I’ll plan my after gig experience a little better.

So, how do you unwind after your gigs?

With Alex Walsh, Liz Riley, Tom Gewecke

Wednesday, December 21, 2016, 7pm
Deborah Crooks
Alex Walsh
Steve Waters
Briget Boyle
Songwriters in the Round at 
The Octopus Literary Salon
2101 Webster Street
Oakland, CA
The Octopus is close to 19th St BART.
$5-10 suggested, all ages.

“Now, more than ever, I’m feeling its that much more important to gather to listen and to share. If we artists are doing our job right, our work will tap into, reflect and express all that it means to be human. Hopefully we’ll build a bit more connection and understanding between all, and transcend some of our differences. Toward that lofty goal, I’m hosting another round of songwriters at the Octopus Literary Salon this month. I’ll hope you’ll join me, along with Alex Walsh, Briget Boyle and Steve Waters, for an evening of song sharing.”  — Deborah Crooks