Friday, May 2, 2014

"April Showers Bring May Flowers"

April rains are upon us.  Once again, thanks to global warming, the April rains come in May. 

I’ve been out between downpours churning up the earth so the grass and other green stuff will spread about the property around our little log cabin here in Staunton, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley.  It’s that time of the year or growth, and that means not only for the trees, shrubs and ground cover but for me too.

These days I’ve found myself turning my attention more fully to playing banjo, organizing properly for banjo lessons, and focusing on some banjo projects I have on my woodworking agenda in my little basement shop. 

I’ve been putting a lot on my Youtube library, including multiple “takes” of various tunes.  Hopefully each “take” represents an incremental advance in style and capability. 

I’ve been doing a good bit of banjo writing and blogging for a variety of platforms. 

Ø  That includes my own blog,

Ø  and the one I maintain on Banjo Hangout,

I try to pick about one writing project that focuses on profiling a local banjo player, and I’ve stuck to a pace of one per year which I work on for Banjo Newsletter.   My last project was “Interview with Cutch Tuttle,” Banjo Newsletter, August 2013, pp. 16 – 20.  Now I’m preparing to write about Paul Bock, who has played banjo in and around northern Virginia since the early 1950s, in the company of a bunch of other distinguished players including Bill Rouse in Maryland, the legendary Bill Emerson, Delbert Purkey, and Johnnie Whisnant, the cantankerous old-timer who had begun playing in the 1930s. 

I’ve also been participating in the Banjo Hangout Tune of the Week drill, and I’ve taken the lead on several of these including:

Ø  “Walking Up Georgia Row,” Tune of the Week, 6 September 2013, Banjo Hangout, Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles,

Ø  “Over the Waterfall,” co-authored with Stefan Curl, Tune of the Week, 3 January 2014, Banjo Hangout, Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles,

Ø  “ ‘Round the Horn,” Tune of the Week, 4 April 2014, Banjo Hangout, Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles,

Ø  “Come Back Boys and Let’s Feed the Horses, Tune of the Week, 9 May 2014, Banjo Hangout, Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles, forthcoming.

I’m contemplating doing a Tune of the Week essay on two other tunes, Molly Put the Kettle On, and Ragtime Annie.  It’s a challenge that let’s me see how quickly I can pick up a tune, what kinds of tunes are complex and difficult for me, and how various learning approaches work relative to one another and to various different types of tunes.  It has made me think a lot more about teaching banjo, not to mention learning music.

And it has connected me to a slice of the population on Banjo Hangout active in promoting old time music.  We’re only connected by this slim, ephemeral tether of electrons that constitute the Hangout but the friendships that blossom through these links to BHO have great depth and meaning.  I’ve been able to put my tunes in front of several of these people, these new “electronic” friends, and get interesting comments, advice and guidance on how to get better sound from the banjo, and how to produce better music. 

I’ve done some gigging out and about town, and I’m “booked” to do a bunch more – simple antique store type vendor settings, really just background noise for such events – between now and October.  I found another fiddler friend and we’re supposed to be focusing on some duet work.  I’m contemplating setting up a running weekday jam here in our now refinished basement – with such improved acoustics. 

I’ve played with an Irish session musician during the last week of April at two “Bridge Day” gigs here in Staunton -- commemorating the re-opening of the Sears Hill Bridge.

Part of the growing is sloughing off elements of the old.  I just boxed up the last of my personal papers for the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.  I sent them the bulk of those boxes (about 6 big boxes in my memory) about two years ago but “spring cleaning” revealed some caches of photos and files and other memorabilia I wanted to put in the hands of the Center.  I sent about 30 boxes of Vietnamese language books I collected during a long government career to the Southeast Asia Library at the University of Seattle, a career focused entirely on Southeast Asia, and specifically on Vietnam. 

During that long 30 year run, I served ten years in the Central Intelligence Agency, including a tour in Bangkok, Thailand, attached to the Indochina Operations Group.  I served for 20 years as a Southeast Asian specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  From September 2002 to August 2008 I was the Director for Southeast Asia, Office of the Secretary of Defense, managing a team of civilian defense professionals and military officers responsible for security and defense relations for mainland and maritime Southeast Asia.  I wrote four books on contemporary Vietnam including Defense Relations Between The United States And Vietnam: The Process Of Normalization, 1977-2003, (North Carolina, McFarland, 2005). 

After my retirement in October 2010, I served as an Adjunct Professor in the Asian Studies Program, Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, VA.  I was an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University for 2010.  In 2012 I taught a course on contemporary Vietnam as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA.  And I have been a Senior Advisor on Southeast Asian Affairs for Avascent International, a global advisory and consulting firm working in partnership with the Avascent Group and a Senior Advisor on Southeast Asia for the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA).

In the first few months of 2014 I continued some contract writing work.  I’ve written two or three recent pieces on Vietnam politics, Vietnam security and US-Vietnam relations, but apart from those I’m not aiming at doing anything more.  I have lined out a project aimed at recounting my years in government, more for my two children than for any public consumption, so they have a better sense of why I did what I did.  

I’ve been asked to read a Vietnamese language dissertation prepared for the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam on U.S.-Viet defense relations, possibly the first such Ph.D. thesis written by a Vietnamese MFA type seeking higher education credentials.  Flatteringly, it features a positive focus on my last book on this subject.  Interestingly, it assumes the format of a typical American university dissertation – ponderous dissection of the topic, long and laborious assessment of existing scholarly literature, and a torturous attempt to fit events and reality into a theoretical framework.  Aside from that, I’m glad to say that Vietnamese scholarship, both "official" and academic, is blossoming, with more younger scholars or aspiring PhDs beginning to turn their attention to defense related topics.

My growth now, so to speak, is focused on doing other thing, things connected with banjo music, teaching banjo, repairing old instruments, and coaxing others on their first steps toward playing music on the banjo.   

I am doing well and enjoying April/May showers .  We’re really getting rain here.  The hounds aren’t happy about the wet morning walks, but they are much shorter walks than our normal 5-6 milers, so they are grateful for the way Mother Nature is enforcing a rest period during the rains.  And I’m happy to see, in the first light of dawn, exactly how much is really growing out there under all this rain.

Take care. 

Play hard.


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