Wednesday, February 25, 2009

an interview with zhenya senyak!

I want you all to meet Zhenya Senyak, the author of the recently published book Banjo Camp! Zhenya hails from Asheville, a town I love and used to frequent when I lived in Tennessee. Banjo Camp! is a gem folks. It's a beginner's instruction book for teaching yourself the basics, but it's much more than that. This colorful and friendly book is a tour on the backroads of America's roots music. You'll see photos, hear stories, and learn about all the ruckus happening in camps and shindigs all around the country. It makes you want to sling your banjo over your shoulder and start waling to the nearest campfire jam.

Zhenya has been kind enough to stop by the farm for an interview. We'll be having a friendly conversation about old-time music, his love of openback banjos, and some advice for all of us new pickers out there. If you are even mildly interested in making the banjo part of your life, pick up his book. It comes with a CD too, so you can listen to what you should be playing as you frail along at home ( a must-have for all us self-taught folks.) Okay enough yakking from me, everyone pull up a chair and gather round.

Zhenya, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the farm.
Hi, Jenna, appreciate the invitation. Love the farm… and thanks for the mug of coffee. If Jazz and Annie are willing to move over a little, I can put down my banjo case.

So you've been playing banjo for how long now?
That’s hard to pinpoint. Six years ago I started Blue Mountain Schoolhouse, a teachers cooperative that offered all kinds of classes around Asheville, North Carolina. And in the course of interviewing teachers I got turned on to old-time music. I found a little hand-made banjo at a garage sale, , cracks filled in with bondo, strings high off the fretboard and some assorted tuning pegs screwed into the peghead. The guy said it would look good hanging on my wall but that was my first banjo. I paid $12 for it, about what the Pete Seeger banjo book cost me.

That part of my banjo career lasted about two weeks, maybe less. But I did hear some banjo sounds before I got discouraged. It was three years ago, when I was about to start a newspaper job, that one of the Blue Mountain teachers traded an open-back banjo for one of my acoustic guitars. And there was something magical about that banjo. I played it first thing in the morning, lots during the day and last thing at night. I’d wake up hearing that jingle jamming plunking sound in my head and couldn’t wait to start picking. So I’d say, yeah, I’ve been playing about three years now.

I gather you started as an adult. Was that intimidating?
I don’t know about being an adult, but I know I was surely getting on. I finished that newspaper job two years ago when I turned 70 and figured it’s now or never. I just leaped full bore into banjo and mountain roots music, spending an intensive year studying, visiting banjo camps, jamming. Yeah there were some intimidating parts. I got started playing bluegrass where, beyond learning the rolls and repertoire, there’s a whole routine of lead breaks and backup that you have to know before feeling reasonably comfortable in a jam. Plus bluegrass is a lot more of a performance.

Old time music is mostly people sitting in a circle, putting their heads down and playing together. When I found my way to old-time music banjo playing kicked into a whole new gear for me, more soulful, rhythmic, communal. I’m lucky, living in the heartland of old time music, to be surrounded by great old time musicians. For now, that usually keeps me at the edge of the circle at fiddle conventions and the many old-time jams around town, but I can play along and get into the groove and be part of the music.

Do you think making your own music can be considered a form of self-reliance?
That’s a good question. The flip side of picking with friends – and strangers – is your relationship to your instrument and to music. What I love about the banjo is its transformative power, the way it can jack me up or calm me down, keep me company on the road.

With my banjo, I don’t have to depend on MP3 players or CDs, on an electrical hook-up or batteries and ear buds. I love music, all kinds of music and, play lots of instruments… somewhat. Most any instrument, for that matter, most any way of producing music or rhythm gives us the ability to create an environment. The open back banjo, to me is alone in its range as a solo instrument. It can be mellow or insistent, ring out or just sing along softly on a single string. It’s a drum on a stick with stringed intervals that encompass all musical forms.

Why do you think old-time and bluegrass music feel so kindred to living close to the land?
Old-time music, country music whatever its form, is really folk music, music people make when they come together. Sometimes the music is about current events but often it’s a variant on old tunes passed along in families and communities. This is music that sustained people working long hours on the farm, when maybe the only refreshment was picking up a banjo at the end of the day or coming together with others for a fiddle and banjo dance.

Handmade music as the accompaniment to rural life is the natural way it has been for many centuries, long before cities and concert halls arose All that living history of folk music only started being collected in recordings and published and passed along recently. It’s great that that work has been done because now we have some historic record of folks who are gone, music we might never have

Returning to the roots or roots music is not a big leap. We may take our Blackberries and other electronic gear for granted, but the World War One was less than a century ago and at that time radio didn’t exist. Television, in any form, has only been around for 60 years or so and personal computers only go back a little more than 25 years.

You did mention to me you recently picked up a fiddle. Are you saying mountain music has some inevitable side-effects
When I was researching Banjo Camp! I interviewed many old-time banjo players who also played the fiddle. Maybe it’s not right to say “also,” since you’re talking about some of the best old time fiddlers in the world, like Brad Leftwich. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham are good old-time examples of the nexus between fiddle and banjo. When the fiddle bug bit me, I understood immediately why these instruments are so bonded together. Of course they’re both light and portable, but their voices just naturally blend. When played together, fiddle takes the lead and banjo provides the beat, but it’s more complex than that since rhythm is an important part of fiddling just as dropping melodic and harmonic licks into a solid frail is part of banjo. It’s a conversation and now that I’m past that first squealing sour note stage of fiddling, it’s a conversation that’s fun to listen to . Bob Carlin and John Hartford made a fiddle/banjo CD called just that, “Conversations” that’s worth listening to if you get a chance. An old-time musician, playing fiddle and banjo is a little bit like Pinetop Perkins playing boogie woogie on the piano, the parts just come together.

What has been the biggest reward since you played your first tune on your banjo?
Hard to say. There have definitely been some highlights, long sessions with David Holt showing me the clawhammer ropes, conversations with Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka, listening to Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at an Obama fund-raiser, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Joe Thompson on fiddle at the Swannanoa Gathering, weekly Shindig on the Green events in Asheville or the Wednesday night jams at the Jack of the Wood Tavern. For all that, I’m pretty much a loner. The biggest rewards for me have been the break-throughs, the empowerment, feeling close enough to my banjo to make the music I hear in my head, or maybe even close enough to let the banjo lead into the music.

What advice do you have for the timid-wannabe-banjo players out there?
It’s called playing the banjo…and that’s the attitude to take. If you just sit down and mess around for awhile, get some good old-time banjo music in your head and learn a few basic chord positions, it will all come together. You’ve got to just do it, knowing it’s about the music and playing and having a good time. You can work hard at it because it’s fun but if you start getting all grim about it, might as well take up insurance sales or something.

Think you'll ever stop picking?
That’s my epitaph: “Finally stopped pickin’”

Thanks Zhenya, 'preciateya.
So… you ready to break out your banjo and pick a couple of tunes?

two lives and the big why

This morning I had an interview on Martha Stewart's radio show Whole Living. It was a fine, polite interview. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the host asked me something that gave me pause. She asked me what I get out of working so hard at Cold Antler? She wanted to know why any sane person would work a 40-hour office week and then come home to churn butter, feed chickens, and sew clothing? This is not an unreasonable question. I get it a lot.

I tried to give her a quick answer about wanting to transition my life into one supported by full-time farming and writing, and that seemed to appease her—but it didn't stop my wheels from turning. The real answer to why I live the way I do is much more complicated than that because it's so ridiculously simple. And I'll explain that more in a minute.

It's never easy to explain to people why sustainable farming has such a hold on me. But ever since it first dug those raven claws into my brain - my life as a regular person has been split in two. One half is a world of high-brow design and corporate culture and the other world is one of potting soil, bee hives, and turkey feathers. Together these two lives collide and make up the everyday goings-on of Jenna Woginrich. I'm okay with splitting my life in half. Things are never boring around here, that's for damn sure.

Now, as to explain why I dance this dance—here's something I wrote for Mother Earth News. This is just an excerpt but you can click the link at the bottom for the whole story. I think it explains the addiction just fine.

From the article Why Homestead
Why would a perfectly normal middle class gal, who had a nice city job, and a pleasant apartment pick up her life and shake it till trowels and feed sacks fell out? Why spend a year learning to raise chickens and keep bees and nearly pass out of heat stroke in the garden when eggs, honey, and broccoli are all for sale at the grocery store for less than the cost of that hoe in your blistered hands?

There are a lot of canned answers to this and you know them already. As fellow homesteaders (or friends there of) you get the whole “homegrown-satisfaction-quality-of-life-green-living” bit. All those reasons ring true for me too, but there’s something else writhing below those surface answers. Something deeper that makes me smile in the garden or laugh from my belly in the bird yard.

It’s the honesty of knowing what I do everyday directly helps keep me alive.

It’s that simple.

You can read the rest of that story here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

saro sits

If you walk into my birds' coop right now this is the rump you'll most likely see. Little Saro brooding near the feed bin, living on a prayer. She rarely leaves her post, not even getting up to eat or drink. I worry about her, and hand feed her grain and water to make sure she takes care of herself while on duty. Cyrus (her mate) guards her and egg like a proud father, hissing whenever anything gets too close. I have no idea if the home team will pull it off, but there's a slight chance a gray gosling will honk in this spring melt. For now, our girl sits and waits and we do to. Stay tuned.

right proud

John from Washington sent me this photo, and I had to share it. Look at this triple threat! An antique coffee grinder, a Fire King Jadeite mug,* and a stove-top percolator. Readers of this blog know I am a firm believer in the power of green mugs and strong bean water. It is understood by all of us here that this trifecta has the combined power to help the timid take on anything that comes their way.

I love coffee. It's responsible for slaying four states in four years with all my limbs intact. Every morning I look forward to that first mug. It gets me started in the world. It's also what makes feeding sheep in a blizzard at 5:30 AM a conceivable reality for someone who used to think not having a blow dryer was roughing it... Anyway, John also wrote that while his Montana dreams are a ways off, he can have a good cup of coffee while he plans his great escape. Made me right proud, that. Glad to be of service John. If you're ever in Vermont, I'll buy you a drink. Thanks for the picture.

*Greatest coffee mug on the planet. This is indisputable. Sorry potters.

books for a better life awards...

I won!

Monday, February 23, 2009

everyday antiques

award shows, banjos, and guests

So right now while I'm writing barefoot in my cabin, adorned in a blue hoodie and brown bandana... somewhere in New York City Made From Scratch is nominated for an award at a place where people are far better dressed than I am. The Books for a Better Life Awards are going on tonight, hosted by Meredith Vieira. I'm up for the Green category, and if I win it'll be the first award I received as an author. If I don't win, it's still the first award I was ever considered for. That alone makes me feel a little fancy, even if my entourage consists of a pair of sled dogs, chickens, rabbits and some bitchy sheep.

Yesterday's storm blew in ten inches of fresh powder. I woke up to a world covered in white. Every tree branch, every fence post, every sheep had its own pearl coating to greet the day with. This morning I took this photo near the cabin looking down the hill at my outhouse. Yes, I have an outhouse. Don't worry, the cabin has plumbing, but I kind of like that I have a functioning old-school option. I think it looks kind of pretty out there in the snow.

I spent the blizzard in front of the fireplace, plucking the banjo and reading between regular trips outside to take care of the animals. I dig my Morhan Monro Hobo, and our happy progress together. I have moved onto my second tuning (sawmill), and am learning a new mess of songs. I am not as quick a student in clawhammer as I was with the fiddle, but I am getting it. I really don't take my backwoods education too seriously. Mostly I learn at my pace as I go, taking what I can and not letting myself worry too much about nailing it in one sitting. Unlike the fiddle, this isn't about love and passion - this banjo stuff is more like adopting a really great goofy dog. I enjoy its company, it makes me smile - but it's not going to make it into my wedding vows. But damn folks, learning a new tune is a fine reward.

And hey, when you can't grow anything in your garden - cultivating music is a perfect substitute. I highly suggest this banjo business for any frustrated/impatient gardeners out there. You'll be glad you learned a few licks when your tired and happy on the back porch after those first few days of planting. A cold beer, something on the grill sizzling, and a happy banjo frailing at sunset makes all that dirt and tilled rows seem so worth it. I look forward to that night so much it hurts. Snow melts, right?

And speaking of banjos... I have some interesting news for you pickers (and future pickers) out there. On a lark I emailed Zhenya Senyak, the author of Banjo Camp. I told him how much I loved his book, and that it was the perfect introduction to the instrument, the community, history and modern goings-on of us banjo-folk. I asked if he'd grace this blog with an interview about learning the banjo as an adult, and mountain music's role in simpler living. Shucks guys, he agreed! So this week the blog will have it's first ever bonefide guest interview! If you're new to the farm, you can click here to read my post about his book. I'm really excited to have him join us for a day. He'll be a hoot.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


People who assume sheep lack personality, dignity, or character have never met my Sal. He is my favorite of the flock, and I say that without apology. Sal's a lion of a sheep, and every time I look at him I wonder what he has already figured out about me. I was outside feeding them this morning and he hung beside my waist to get scratched on the head. In the wind his dreadlocks blew around his face as the storm picked up. I scratched his head and noticed a small cut. I thought about the bag balm inside, and made a note to bring it out at evening check in. There was probably a haiku in there somewhere, but instead I took a photograph.

before the storm

Took this photo right when the wind was picking up. A storm is coming in today, with a minimun of eight inches in the forecast. I was supposed to drive an hour south down the mountains into Williamstown for that event, but I had to call and cancel. I just don't feel safe driving back in the dark in a snowstorm. Not in Sandgate. The roads here won't be taken care of till the school buses have to drive on them tomorrow. So I'm holing up, and feel like a schmuck. I am sorry guys.

"You need to get a pickup, girl"

Were the words said to me yesterday morning as the proprietor of D&D Feed walked inside to meet me, pulling off his hat and mittens as he made his way into the main office. He had just noticed the current state of my transportation and did not approve. Outside the Subaru was in its usual train-wreck state. All the seats in the back were folded down to make room for the five bales of hay I just picked up in Hebron over at Nelson Green's farm. The back hatch couldn't shut so it was lashed down with dirty baling wire. The front passenger-side seat was already loaded with 75 pounds of Scratch grains and rabbit pellets. I had been waiting near the front desk, having just called the number on the door in case anyone showed up to pay for their stuff. I nodded when he made the truck comment. I'll get there eventually. We all know this.

After some conversation about tomorrow's snow report and a signed check, I left the feed store. I was a few short miles from home and trying to juggle a very loaded station wagon with the ice-covered back roads. At one point in my life an open back hatch might have made me cold, bothered me even, but I rarely flinch at anything over -4 degrees anymore. And to be honest, I was too wound up to consider the wind chill inside the car. I was still reeling from Nelson's place.

Earlier that monring when I pulled up to Nelson's giant post-dairy farm no one was there. So I walked up to the house to see if anyone was home. I was confused because I called and made an appointment, but was told by his wife he ran to town, and if I could, would I please load the hay myself?

Well, of course I would. I was just anxious about how to go about it. I turned and faced the giant hay storage barn across the dirt road. It was about seven times the size of my cabin. The only way to get in (that I knew about) was a small loft hatch one of Nelson's farm hands would crawl into to throw bales out of.

Okay. I was going in.

Now I've been buying hay from Nelson for months. The day I drove home with the flock in the back seat, he was outside this very farm as I drove past. He was loading bales into the back of someone's truck when I pulled over to ask him (then a complete strange) "Do you have any hay?" and he laughed out load at my sheep taxi and said "Sure! You have any sheep?" That same day I that I welcomed the first hoofstock ever to Cold Antler Farm, I went back to Nelson's and together we loaded the car with eleven bales. A partnership had been made.

But now I was left to my own devices. I parked the car near the hay barn, turned on my hazards, and walked to the hatch door. I crawled up into the loft, and for a few holy moments I stood there and took it all in. I was standing in the soft, dusty, beams of winter light in a giant wooden barn. All around me forty-foot walls of second cut hay towered over my head. It was beautiful. Moments like this are like farm pornography. For me they're blantant moments of self-indulged pleasure. A bit of fantasy come true. Someday I'll have my own barn loaded with hay like this. I stood in awe, ridiculously happy at the sight of it.

Sometimes I worry if it's normal to gain inspiration from piles of dead grass...

I recently saw a magazine at Wayside that made me do a double take. The cover actually had a headline "What to do with an old barn!" which instantly made my heart drop into my lungs. The idea that some people have perfectly good barns and have to look to their coffee tables for ideas on what to do with them, breaks my heart. An unused barn being converted into lofts or gallery space makes me livid. I can't stand the gluttony of unused farms. Not when I'm at a place in my life where I would do anything to work that hard on my own land. My problems would be fitting in all the animals, figuring out lambing jugs and creep feeders, not if I should hire a historical society to restore it for the state's collective rural nostaglia... Christ, why don't you start eating caviar around some Victorian-novel orphans?

But a barn is a long way off, and I shouldn't be so bothered by what other people do with their land. After all, it is theirs, and none of my business what they do with their land. Right now I need to focus on what is going on in my current farmlife. Things like a pregnant Angora doe, and a goose-in-waiting. I have fences to mend, bills to pay, feed to stack, mouths to fill, and hay to put up. A pickup, a border collie, a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep, and a million other dreams will all have to wait for now.

It's good to want things, but dangerous to need them.

roll uphill

If you ever get the chance to drive alone under cold stars while listening to Bon Iver's Blood Bank, please do it. Make sure it's in the middle of a New England winter while your dog hangs her head out the frigid window, the heaters blasting in your face. Listen as you roll uphill past ghosts of birches and sugar maples and the places you once lived. These are the small moments without consequence that infect a whole lifetime.

It was a great ride home.