Which old witch
Old Witch Old Witch
Pencil drawing on typing paper

The very first record I ever owned was Under the Lollipop Tree by Burl Ives. Don’t judge me; it was a smash hit for second graders.

I was crazy about all the songs and I can still sing most of them, but the one that I love to sing to make The Fiddler laugh is “Old Witch Old Witch.” I blame Burl Ives (and my father, with his bluegrass and hillbilly music) for tuning my tastes to folk music, a temperament I’ve never outgrown.

Longer Boats Pencil on typing paper
Longer Boats
Pencil on typing paper

In the 1970s I discovered Cat Stevens, enraging my father by dismissing his music and falling in love with scruffy troubadors in tie-dye everything. I used to sing “Longer Boats” at the top of my lungs with my best friend, Emily Boltz, harmony and all. I can still sing all the songs from Tea for the Tillerman, and those old vids of a young Cat still make me weak at the knees.

Those longer boats, whatever the heck they were (he once said the song was about flying saucers), were coming to win us, and the song encompasses my young adulthood. My generation grew up believing in things. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 1001 Arabian Nights. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. The Weekly World News. Aliens were possible. Everything was possible. Music, like the skies, was blue and wide open.

Painting of Fiddler
Watercolor on Arches #140 cold press

These days the sky has gotten a lot smaller and the horizons are empty of flying carpets and saucers. Jinnis and aliens got waylaid by the internets. Burl Ives sounds hopelessly square and Cat—now Yusuf—is a grandpa. But music remains the same.

With age I’ve grown less musically exclusive; I listen to nearly everything. My father’s old time and hillbilly twang is in heavy rotation with traditional Irish music, Billie Holiday, and Glen Miller. I’ve even got a Doris Day album that I love. Choosing a favorite song would be like choosing a favorite child. But I’ll leave you with “Elzic’s Farewell,” played on the claw hammer banjo. You can’t go wrong with that.

Musical conversations

A few weekends ago I attended a music party in the mountains, at the ranch of long time friends who are musicians and dancers. The weekend was filled with music (rather than painting) and dancing (rather than housework or laundry).

I don’t mean we had concerts, where a few people sat on a stage and entertained us, as if they were the experts and we were the consumers. I mean we played music and danced. All of us participated.

This was conversational music. We spoke to each other using the language of jigs, reels, waltzes, and hornpipes. The accent was sometimes Irish, sometimes American, sometimes Swedish, French Canadian, or Blues. But we understood each other, or tried to understand each other, and respond in kind.

On Sunday morning some of us got together and sang old American religious tunes, gospel, and modern American Folk music.

On the long drive home I reflected that it would be very hard to attend a non-music party. I’m not sure I remember how to behave at a party where people don’t pull out fiddles, flutes, accordions, dulcimers, bagpipes, and guitars and speak to each other in the pleasant tones of a tune.

Music is communication, and can be a two-way conversation. When I pick up my flute, I’m not practicing a tune, I’m learning how to speak.

Steampunk music

DancingLadiesAt the Abney Park part of the Seattle SteamCon concert, I had an odd, disconnected moment when three beautifully proper Edwardian ladies threw off their jackets and started boogying across the floor.

My niece loves Abney Park.  The band is edging towards something I’d like to listen to. But I’m put off by the karaoke-style drum track—guess I’m just old fashioned and want a drummer that I can swoon over. Captain Robert whapping on a djembe is not the same as a guy on a kit.

However, their show is  wonderful. I love watching them. The costumes are wonderful, the stage business interesting, and sometimes they have a belly dancer! I’m just not so into listening to them. But that could change. I’ll keep trying.

I’ve been trying hard to like Steampunk music. Honestly, I have. I’ve listened to most of the jukebox at I’ve sampled some of the Steampunk bands at (ok, Circus Contraption’s cut Come to the Circus comes close to being interesting, and  Clare Fader’s throwback Caberet Noir is compelling), but I’m still not sold on the style.

But I’ll keep listening. Isn’t anyone doing Steampunk tinged trad Irish?

The practice of music and art

Pastel pencil on colored paper
Pastel pencil on colored paper

This is a small drawing I made of my friend Cyndy. It’s from a photo taken as she was sitting around a campfire, playing tunes with a group of musicians.

I know Cyndy’s present teacher. He’s told me that she’s the kind of student a teacher loves to have. She really thinks about the music she plays, and she makes him think about it too. And she practices!

She’s passionate about her fiddle in the way most of us are passionate about a new romantic partner. But, come to think about it, I know a lot of musicians who are married to their instrument, and playing music is simply part of their everyday experience. I also know artists who feel the same way about their art. (I’m torn between the two. Do I play tunes, or do I draw? Tough question, that.)

Sometimes playing music or making art becomes a stale thing, or a stressful thing, fraught with needs and cravings that block the joy of our passions. But if we really think about what we’re doing, and lose ourselves in the process, suddenly the work becomes play, and we amaze ourselves at our success.

Shannon Heaton, one of my favorite Irish flute players, has a terrific blog at Whistle and Drum called The Inner Game of Irish Music about practicing the music. She’s talking about Irish music, but she could be talking about drawing, painting, old time music, classical music, dancing, or even just plain-old, everyday work.

Erhus and dulcimers


While walking around in our down town area last Saturday night, we happened on two girls playing Chinese music on the erhu and hammered dulcimer. They were seated outside the Asian market and they were playing some pretty fierce tunes, fast and complicated, and with all the energy two kids can bring to their music. Two older women (I assume the mamas, because if I were a mother of either of those girls, I’d be watching them like a hawk) sat nearby, barking at them if they spoke too long to passersby.

I was still pumped up from drawing at the contradance earlier that day, so I sat down and sketched the girls as they played. They enjoyed seeing the sketches afterwards—and thanked me for drawing them!


A fiddle is only as good as it plays


This  fiddle I saw at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival. The lady bought it in the 1970s. She thought it was a Vuillaume. Maybe.


The name Vuillaume could mean anything. It’s like finding a fiddle in your grandmother’s attic, peering through the f-hole and seeing a  Stradivarius label. Probably not a real Strad. Lots of people have made lots of money selling instruments with phony labels. And musicians tend to give their instruments distinguished pedigrees.


But whatever this fiddle’s ancestry, it is a lovely piece of work, with a beautifully carved scroll, and cunning carved corners on the back, and Celtic-looking purfling. The scroll does place it sometime during the 19th or early 20th century—a time when ornamentation was popular on all things, and ornamented scrolls decked out many fiddles.

I’m not a violin connoisseur, so I didn’t know enough then to look closely at the painting on the back to see if it is inlay, painting, or both.

The most important things about a fiddle are how it feels when you play it, and how it sounds. An instrument can have the beauty of Grace Kelly, but if it shrieks like a toothless angry old witch, then it’s of no use.

The owner of this fiddle treated it with the casual attention you’d give a favored pet. It sat next to her as she sat listening to the music. She carried it around, cradled in her arms. She loved it. She said it had a great sound.

That’s all that’s important.

Good old fashioned sketchbooking

Guitar playerWell, whattaya know! The Great Bluegrass Festival Drawing Expedition was a blast. Despite my fears at venturing into public drawing, I sketched unscathed at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival. Musicians didn’t take offense at my sketching: bass players didn’t mow me down with their gigantic instruments; fiddlers didn’t skewer me on their bows, nor did banjo players strangle me with their twangy metal strings. And the people who looked at me (yes, they did. They actually looked at me with my little journal and bag of pencils) while I drew, why, they were delighted! One woman saw me drawing, grinned widely and said, “what fun is that!”

And darn it, it is fun. Normally I dislike listening to music while I work. I find it distracting—one of the uncomfortable things about being a musician is that there is no background music. My musical brain always stands at attention for anything resembling music, and disallows any action by the other thinking parts of my brain. I am not a good multi-tasker when music is playing.

The Barefoot Nellies singing harmony
The Barefoot Nellies singing harmony

But this was different. For one thing, I was prepared for music.  I knew there would be lots of it. Besides, I wanted to sketch musicians while they played.

One thing I learned. Bluegrass really sets your toes tapping and makes your drawing arm swing.

It was really hard to sketch people as they played. Those musicians are moving all the time, and each drawing was an exercise in fast gesture poses—good practice for me. You can see that the drawings weren’t entirely successful, especially around the hands. And even less successful around the instruments.

One of the Winton boys playing dobro and a small sketch of the dad playing guitar.
One of the Winton boys playing dobro and a small sketch of the dad playing guitar.

I point out the unsuccessful parts because drawing at this festival really made me see the areas in which I have smaller knowledge, the parts of the world that I need to really look at and understand. That means concentrated study.

To draw a form rapidly, and draw it well, I think you need study it. It needs to be in your head already. You have to study forms so hard that you can trot out a hand, a foot, a face, a fiddle, and draw it perfectly from memory. Once you’ve internalized it, then I think you can really accomplish something.

Again, it’s the analogy of musical scales. You’ve got to get those major and minor keys down so you can shift between them at any turn of the tune. Then you can really start to have fun when you play with other people.

Fear and sketching in Tres Pinos

RichardThis sketch is of my friend Richard. Richard is a versatile musician. He plays Irish music, old time music, jazz. I’ve known him over a decade now, and he has taught me numerous tunes.  I drew  this picture in a Kunst & Papier watercolor journal I won from  a contest held by one of my favorite bloggers, Roz Stendahl. The paper’s not great for watercolor; it doesn’t hold a lot of  watercolor pigment and it buckles. But it’s a nice feeling book to work in, and the paper will take very light washes of color. I like the way the Tombow goes down, and I like the way pencil slides across the paper. The book is sturdy, and fun to carry around.

I love drawing musicians while they play music. Trouble is, I’m shy about sketching in front of people I don’t know. Or even those I do know, unless I trust them—as I do Richard. I’m still working on my chops in the portrait department, and I still feel inadequate. Criticism isn’t helpful.

I am trying to get over this. I’m trying to get over the feeling that people who look at me while I’m painting are grading me or rejecting me. I think it goes back to an old boyfriend who once said, “You’re not going to be one of those artists who draws in public all the time, are you? People will look at you!”

And people do look. They crane their necks to look at you, stand over you and breath on you, make comments. It’s disconcerting. But of course they look at you.  David Hardy, at the Atelier, tells me that people “are fascinated and consider you special. You have added to the excitement in their life.”  What?! Little old me?

I know that other artists aren’t shy. Roz Stendahl goes to places like the state fair specifically to sketch. She writes about these jaunts as if they were an expedition, packing what she’ll need as if she were going to discover and sketch the headwaters of the Nile. I’ve decided to emulate her.

This weekend we’re going to the Good Old Fashioned  Bluegrass Festival in Tres Pinos.I’ve never been, and I don’t play bluegrass music, although I’ve listened to a fair amount of it. My husband will be appearing in his band, Harmon’s Peak. I’m going on a mission: to draw people. I’m going to have to force myself to do it, as the thought of sketching in public like that makes me weak in the knees. What a wuss I am!

I’m planning it like it’s an expedition. I’ve got to choose what medium to work in, and which sketch book I’ll take. Then I have to remember my glasses. And to take deep breaths. And to have fun.

Reynard’s accordion

Reynard's accordion 2009 Margaret Sloan Watercolor
Reynard’s accordion
© 2009 Margaret Sloan Watercolor

The accordion has gotten a bad rap in this country, thanks to cheesy lounge lizard music and guys in glittery suits. But there are other sides to this instrument, facets that do not include champagne bubbles and Lady of Spain. Accordions have morphed into something new whenever a culture touched them.

I like accordion music, particularly music played on the button box. Particularly Irish music played on the button box (no surprise there), although I’ll take a good French Canadian reel too. English country music on the button box sounds great. And don’t forget accordion is a staple in  Cajun music.

It makes sense to me that a fox should play the accordion. And the fellow in this painting reminds me of a fox.

Raynard the fox was, in European folklore, a trickster, a shape-shifter, a magical animal. May Day seems like a day he is in top form.

I like to think of my Raynard  attracting fluffy white rabbits with his accordion, wooing them with a rockin’ reel or a seductive waltz on dry-tuned reeds and then…well, what he does with the bunnies when he catches them is best left to your imagination. I can assure you that my Reynard doesn’t bite their little heads off, and that they’re pretty happy to have been caught.