Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 1

 

The Journey

Wherever you happen to be reading these words right now, I want you to open up a map of the world before you go any further. Look anywhere your eye catches at first- maybe Brazil, Africa or Europe. Then gaze across the vast oceans and imagine yourself sailing the seas calling into exotic ports of call in Australia,  India, or South America. Next turn your attention towards the vast frozen continent of Antarctica, taking in its enormous size and scale. Now look at the top of the map and scan left from Russia across to Finland, Sweden and Norway moving west to Greenland. Next go in the opposite direction looking towards the  other side of Russia, past Alaska and stop when you are viewing Canada. Look for Hudson Bay, the massive slice seemingly carved out of roughly the middle part of the country. Finally look just slightly north of there and STOP.  Now imagine the year is 1845…

This jagged maze of frozen islands, inlets and rough unforgiving terrain is what in the Age Of Exploration was known as the Northwest Passage. Despite the ice and long winters, numerous expeditions went off to reach the Pole itself but more importantly in purely commercial terms the ubiquitous Northwest Passage as well. The theory of course was that commercial ships could cross from Europe to the lucrative Asian markets by way of a dedicated passage through the north instead of the more lengthy and dangerous trip around Cape Horn. It would be years before the Panama Canal was perhaps more wisely considered as a better and safer option.With 21st century hindsight it is easy to shake one’s head at the somewhat ludicrous nature of this pursuit again and again in the years before 1845. Yet persist various people still did.

Much has been written about these various expeditions to the north by intrepid explorers in search of whatever the Arctic had to offer. Since I was a boy I have always been deeply fascinated by these real life tales of adventure and exploration- be it climbing Mt Everest or the pursuit of reaching the North and South Poles.The stories of hardship and  perseverance always intrigued me and shook me out of my suburban existence. Over the years I have built my own small library of books on these tales.

Just recently another book was added to that stack which served as the impetus for this series-Erebus by Michael Palin. He may forever be known as part of Monty Python, but much as I love all things Python, for the last 30 years I have been even more of a fan of his travel programs along with their charming  companion books. When I heard he was writing about Erebus-a key ship in the annals of both north and south polar exploration  I was instantly curious about what he would come up with. Regardless of author sooner or later every story about both the Arctic as well as the search for the Northwest Passage eventually comes around to what happened to Sir John Franklin, commander of the Erebus.

With so much documented already I wondered what contribution I might add to the narrative that was unique. I have never been to the Arctic after all. I have never faced dangers such as these explorers did. I am a history aficionado, not a historian. But while reading Palin’s book I realized that there was a connection right up my alley that was staring right at me. Digging through my music collection I came across not just one song, but several songs directly related to John Franklin. It was time to immerse myself deeper into the story of Franklin. I pulled out all the books that were directly related or that had even passing references to Franklin and I began sketching out a plan. But the music would be my guiding force. I also had the idea to use my own photographs that were representational of the story of Franklin and the vast Arctic waters. When I had that realization I immediately sensed it growing into something much larger than I anticipated. But I get ahead of myself…

John Franklin

Prior to 1845 Franklin had laid his own claim to finding the Northwest Passage.  Between the years 1818-1827 he made two attempts. The first was disastrous. Desperately short of food and woefully unprepared Franklin’s group was forced to eat their old leather moccasins and other scraps of leather in order to put something…anything in their stomachs. It quickly devolved into an every man for himself situation with murder and the strong likelihood of cannibalism among some of the party.  By the time they were saved from their plight Franklin had lost 11 out of his 20 men. Despite this Franklin was able to chart some 500 miles of new terrain and coastline.

Just a few years later Franklin returned. Better prepared this time and with at least a passing acknowledgement of  learning some Arctic survival tips from the native Inuit, he and his second in command Dr. John Richardson charted almost the entire northern coast and some 1600 miles of new territory. As Fergus Fleming points out in his book Off The Map, as a result it was tentatively surmised that at least in the brief Arctic summer the Northwest Passage was looking like a (very) limited possibility. But the fickle nature of the Arctic had yet to reveal a definitive path, and the pursuit continued. I think I can understand why.

In imagining yourself in the year 1845 you must remember that the quest for the Northwest Passage not only made sense commercially but also fulfilled a more common desire. That is to seek the new and unexplored on our planet. Something perhaps lost on us in 2019. Changes in shipbuilding, technology, and mapping allowed intrepid explorers like Franklin to venture out into the unknown more easily than ever before. It is important to remember that in 1845 there were still a lot of those unknowns to be discovered. Places that were untouched or unconquered by humans still. The lure of being ‘first’ to anything was appealing indeed and it is safe to say that is what drove men like Franklin on in their explorations. Fame may have been part of the allure, but the reality shows that the exploits were very much fraught with peril. Fortune favors the bold as the saying goes.

So after months of preparation (some would say not enough) in May of 1845 Erebus and the Terror, the second ship of the expedition set out. They were initially assisted by supply ships whose task was to go as far as Greenland by way of the Orkney Islands bringing the vast amount of stores needed for a lengthy journey. By July of 1845 however, Erebus and Terror were on their own to pursue the task at hand.  It might seem disconcerting in now, but at that time it was understood that a large portion of the year would likely be spent trapped completely in the ice. Unable to move, the ships needed to hunker down and be self sustaining throughout a very long Arctic winter. Though fresh meat from polar bears, fish and other sources was hoped for the men on board both ships would have had to resort to some degree of ‘roughing it.’ But undoubtedly as Franklin and the men aboard Erebus and Terror set out from London I feel there must have been a sense of optimism about the impending journey. That is exactly what the first bit of music here is about.

The instrumental group Nightnoise recorded this original composition- ‘Erebus & Terror’ in 1987.  The two halves of the composition reflect both that optimism and perhaps a sense of the real danger the men were about to embark on. The piano-jaunty, celebratory and hopeful. The guitar tune then brings forth a sense of melancholy, foreboding and danger. When I heard this song I knew that it was the perfect song introduction to this story because it captures what all the men on board must have been feeling on the journey themselves.

But it was surely short lived. As Michael Palin points out in his book, other than Inuit sightings (which were frustratingly always discounted seemingly), the last recorded sighting of both ships was by  Captain Martin of HMS Enterprise who claimed seeing the tips of their masts ‘as late as 29 or 31 July’. After this date the remainder of the story of Franklin and the fate of his men is all speculation. But 175 years later tantalizing clues are still being discovered, which only adds to the mystery further. Which is exactly the right place to end this post. Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of the story of  John Franklin.

The Erebus & The Terror-Written By Mícheál Ó Domhnaill

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Lithograph Of John Franklin From The Book-British Polar Explorers (Written By Admiral Sir Edward Evans, Published 1942)

All Other Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

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Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground

About a month ago I treated myself to a new CD box set. I had heard from various sources that it was good, and when I saw it for myself in a store I decided to have a bit of an impulsive splurge. It is called American Epic, the companion music to the PBS series of the same name. At the time I had not seen the series but I quickly put that to right along with diving into the 5 disc set. Altogether the project is a true labor of love exploring the earliest days of recording various roots music from across the American diaspora in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Musically it covers a lot of ground-Delta Blues, old-time fiddle music, Cajun, Native American, jug bands, Hawaiian, Gospel and Latin. Collectively I heard songs I knew from established singers and players such as The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Lydia Mendoza, Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers. There are also some surprises-little snippets or lyrics of songs that I have known for years, but never knew the source of. Others I knew more by name as being seminal figures but was unfamiliar with the music.

Along with those key figures, American Epic covered some unsung people across the spectrum of recorded American music such as Charley Patton, Dick Justice, Geeshie Wiley, Elder J.E. Burch,  and many more. The producers of the series utilized new restoration techniques to really bring a new dynamic to the  music recorded in some cases nearly 100 years ago. It is a staggering realization knowing that we have reached a point in history where the recorded music you hear so easily streaming on your phone or the radio had its origins in these early recordings. Without these pioneers of recording technology crossing the country bringing back these gems, popular music in America may have never gone past Tin Pan Alley and the popular tunes of the day. As the show points out, once the radio became popular and affordable, the early markets for  records were drying up. The labels took this as a chance to expand their musical offerings to wider audiences.

These past few weeks I have been listening to all of the music, mesmerized by the diversity of sounds. I have also been reading along with the book, looking at the photos and reading the lyrics and words of so many long ago and in many cases  forgotten singers and musicians. Beyond that I could hear the influence many of these unsung singers had on names much more well known. I heard the cold lonesome whippoorwill of Hank Williams in the voice of Emmett Miller. I heard the testament of every gospel singer I have ever listened to in the songs of Reverend F.W. McGee. I hear the Rolling Stones attitude in the growls of  Howlin’ Wolf.

But before I go on describing American Epic in more detail, I’m going to stop myself. The series is currently streaming on Amazon for you to watch and enjoy yourself. I’m also stopping myself because I am thinking of spending some time making it a semi-regular feature here on Soundtrack Of A Photograph. I have learned my lesson from other false starts however, so for the time being I’ll refrain from putting it as a menu option at the top of this page!

What I do want to talk about in this post is a song that quickly rose to the top for me among the 100 songs in the set-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground by Blind Willie Johnson.  He was one of the artists I knew more by name than by his music, but I am sure glad this song made its way onto the set. The title was borrowed from a hymn popular around the time Johnson recorded it.  In some ways it is impossible to describe a song like this one. It is something you just feel. If you allow it to creep inside you after the first few notes, it goes to an even deeper place. One could almost be dismissive at first-a humming ‘vocal’ and a series of runs up and down the guitar neck with the slide (for which Johnson allegedly used a penknife for) doesn’t sound so impressive on paper. But it bores down deep inside your soul however. It speaks volumes without uttering a single legible word.

I find it equally dark and mysterious. I personally think that maybe that is the reason for the title. Maybe Blind Willie Johnson’s guitar symbolizes the dark night. Maybe his vocals symbolize the cold ground. Maybe they are interchangeable. However you want to interpret it is valid. I just know that those words-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground come from a place of pain. Neither one is an ideal situation if you really think about it-

Dark was the night. Loneliness, Silence. Fear. Maybe those feelings came from his own blindness. Maybe it just came from the feeling of night down some deep, dark country lane in Texas in the 1920’s. Maybe it symbolizes death, pain or suffering.

Cold was the ground. Winter. Misery. Sadness. Poverty. Maybe those feelings came from the actual bleakness of winter. Body aching from the cold. That feeling of sorrow and quiet that pervades. Maybe it too symbolizes death-burying the body in the cold earth.

Regardless of interpretation, I find the song unforgettable. I have caught myself replaying  its haunting sound in my head several times over the past few weeks. It is one of those influential songs that has been heard in movies and documentaries alike. In 1968 Fairport Convention even put out a clear homage to Blind Willie Johnson with their song ‘The Lord Is In This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place. And musicians such as Jack White (a key contributor to American Epic) proclaimed it to be the greatest example of slide guitar ever. In 1977 the astronomer Carl Sagan selected it to be among a selection of sounds to send out in space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Take a few minutes now and take it in for yourself without distractions. Imagine Blind Willie Johnson sitting in a recording studio in Dallas on December 3, 1927. The recording starts…Willie’s hands clutch the guitar. He runs his ‘slide’ across the strings. He leans into the microphone and lets out this plaintive wail of pain. Unlike anything that had ever been laid down in a studio before. Epic. American Epic.

The photograph was taken last week early on a snowy morning in Central Park. Though not actually taken at night, something about the scene seemed so bleak and sad. When I was reviewing the photos I took that morning Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground appeared in my head once again and I had the idea to not only write this piece about the song, but some of the other great material from American Epic as well.  Stay tuned for more.

Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground-Written By Blind Willie Johnson

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Photograph Of Blind Willie Johnson-Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

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Two Rivers

This is a story of two rivers. One of my existence and my own history. One in my dreams. One preserved as a photograph in my own archives. One as a place I dream of seeing someday. One with a story I can  tell with my photos and words.  One with a story that comes out of songs and music from a far off land.

This is a story of two instruments. One popular and played throughout the world by millions on a diverse range of styles. One tied to a cultural and historical heritage of a small group of nations in West Africa and played by a much smaller number of people.

This is a story of two men. One older and seasoned player forging his own deep rooted sound out of six strings. One much younger player coaxing intricate patterns from an ancient 21 string instrument.

This is a story of two directions-north and south. Two places within the boundaries of the same nation with dramatically different languages, culture, traditions and music.

This is the story of In The Heart Of The Moon, a groundbreaking album released in 2005 by the late Ali Farka Toure on guitar, and Toumani Diabate on the kora.

For some reason or another, I have been thinking about rivers a lot recently. About everything they represent-movement, calm, strength, division. Actually this isn’t the first time I have had these thoughts. In an earlier post I wrote about how Jimmy Cliff’s classic song Many Rivers To Cross seemed apt for this time of year as people go through lists of resolutions and aspirations. One river at a time we try to cross over only to be confronted by another obstacle on the other side.

But I was also thinking about rivers in an even more personal context over this past weekend while listening to In The Heart Of The Moon. Rarely a month goes by without me playing it at least once. It was recorded in a portable studio alongside the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, Mali. Astonishingly it was recorded unrehearsed by the two men who come from vastly different musical and cultural differences within the country of Mali.

Ali Farka Toure, came from the northern part of Mali and ethnically was Songhai. Ali’s bluesy guitar style won him many fans in the West. It was not a stretch to  recognize his guitar playing as being the origins of the earliest Delta blues recordings made in the U.S. So much so that over the years you will see his name on blues compilations right next to guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. His songs and guitar go deep to the soul. It isn’t flashy playing like so many rock guitarists but comes from the soul itself.

Toumani Diabate on the other hand comes from the southern part of Mali and by heritage is a griot-renowned story tellers and preservers of tradition. Toumani’s own line of griots goes back over 70 generations and the kora, a harp instrument the typical (though not exclusive) accompaniment. Despite his traditional background Toumani was well versed in American rock and soul at the same time he was developing his skills on the kora. He has showcased this on a range of projects both contemporary and traditional, all the while putting the kora in the forefront with his astounding skills.

What is astonishing about In The Heart Of The Moon is that it has the movement of a river itself throughout the entire album with the gorgeous interplay between the kora and the guitar. You feel the movement and stillness of the river. You feel the gentle cooling breeze and the stifling heat. You hear the gentle sound of water crashing against rocks or the squawking of birds. You sense the calming rays of sunrise and sunset, you feel the movement of people and boats on the water. You feel life.

As the years have gone by since first hearing the album I have tried to transport myself along with the music to the banks of the Niger, imagining that same sort of ebb and flow. The beauty of music, much like the beauty of photography is that it can transport you anywhere you want. It invokes emotion, memories from the past or even dreams. In The Heart Of The Moon may have been recorded along the Niger River but the music is of any river where you have ever experienced this type of feeling. I think about the distance rivers go from the mountains to the sea. The people along the way. The fish and birds that run its course. Times when the river floods and causes devastation and times when a moment in time can be frozen perfectly in its beauty, be it a photograph, a painting, or even a song.

I spent time the past few days really thinking about ‘my’ river-the mighty Hudson River here in New York. From its humble origins up north, winding its way down the beautiful Hudson Valley past towns and cities all the way to the mouth of the ocean in New York Harbor it has its stories, and I have my stories that go along with it. I have seen it up close by boat. I have hiked alongside it. I have kicked back with a glass of wine alongside its banks basking in the sunlight.  I have witnessed sunrise and sunset, ice and snow. It is never too far away from both  my mind or geographically. When I listen to In The Heart Of The Moon I am reminded how lucky I am to have this sort of inspiration in my life. Especially for my art of photography.

The photo I used in that earlier post about Jimmy Cliff was taken alongside the Hudson several years ago on a rainy, foggy June day. This photo comes from that same day. The album cover for In The Heart Of The Moon has a faded image of an old sailboat on the Niger. I did not take this photo as an homage to that album cover. It was merely something I thought looked interesting at the time. As I have been thinking these thoughts about rivers the last few days, I thought this photo  seemed a perfect match to present this music. A way of expressing the river of my story, and the river of this music. A river that flows from far away bearing beautiful music to the world.  A river where my photos can drift and be seen in the same way. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate’s river of music. My river of photography. What more do we need?

Below is a short promo film about the making of In The Heart Of The Moon as well as my own favorite song on the album. I urge you to listen to them both and feel the river drifting towards you as well.

Kadi Kadi-Music By Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate

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50 Things@50-#5

#5-Learn a whole song on the guitar

One of the things I really wanted to do with this list was to try new things and have new experiences. But I also wanted to challenge myself to complete some long overdue goals. This is one that was 10 years in the making but I’m excited to cross it off the list and share it with all of you.

10 years ago I got an acoustic guitar for my 40th birthday. I’m ashamed to admit that being such a music lover that I don’t play any instruments. I figured I would try my hand at guitar finally. When I started off I was excited, but I realized that either I was not putting the effort and practice in…or that it just wasn’t coming natural to me. Honestly it was both.

Sure, I learned some notes, some chord changes and snippets of songs and all of that but that was not the hard part. It was seamlessly shifting between chords where I felt my short stubby fingers were always fumbling. And that frustrated me and led me to letting the guitar sit there for weeks at a time.

But I wanted to give it one more serious try when I put the list together. A few weeks ago I thought wait….a Christmas song might be just the thing. So I went through some of the well known songs trying to pick one before settling on Silent Night. At first I was fumbling with the changes, but I watched some tutorials and practiced every day for a bit. I worked on a strumming pattern that made sense for me. I think I channeled some of John Fahey’s wonderful solo Guitar Christmas albums and added a few subtle touches of my own. I was learning a song!

So here it is…a little rough perhaps, and I was a little freaked out by filming myself but here for you all is me playing Silent Night.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Silent Night-Written By Franz Gruber & Joseph Mohr

2018 In Photos-Part 2

As promised, following on from last weeks post of my favorite photos I have taken this year, here are some more. These were taken in many of the same places. One thing I tried focusing on this year is stepping outside of my comfort zone and experimenting with my photography more. Case in point is the taxi cab light streak photo. I actually stood on that corner for awhile, making subtle changes to the settings until I found one that I was happy with. I can’t wait to have some time (and good weather) in 2019 to get started taking more photos for all of you again. For now, enjoy these. Make sure you click on them to see them large as they are supposed to be seen. And as always, any likes and shares are always appreciated.

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2018 In Photos-Part 1

As part of my year end roundup last week I shared my favorite posts of 2018.This week I give you Part 1 of my favorite photographs I have taken this year. Some of them have worked their way into posts, but some might be new to you. Remember to give me a follow on my Facebook page and Instagram (links below) to see even more photos. This year is probably more focused on NY area locations, but there are a few taken in Paris as well. As every year goes by I feel more comfortable with the photography choices I make. There are less that I delete, less that I edit, more that I am comfortable with the second my eye looks into the viewer and my finger finds the shutter release. Which makes me feel good about where I am with my photos. Make sure you click on the photos to see them full size the way they are meant to be seen!

Part 2 next week!

Top Posts Of 2018

Not only do I love this time of year as a season, since beginning this blog 5 years ago I also love that it allows me a chance to sum up some of my favorite posts written the past 12 months. This year has been challenging personally, but as we are in the home stretch for 2018, I feel it is a good idea to see where I have been as a writer/photographer as well. So whether you saw these the first time around, or it is  your first time reading them, join me as I look back at some of my favorites of 2018. In no particular order I give you-

For The Music In My Head I wanted to answer a few questions that I have been asked many times. Namely, how do you know so much music, and how do you bounce around from one style to another so quickly? I wanted to describe how playing one song can lead to an exploration of an entire genre, or one particular artist for days on end. This post also is about meeting some very special people I came to know as a result of this blog.

Art Deco In The Sky. Looking back, if you had asked me if I would be writing about or referencing Duke Ellington twice within the same year I would have thought it highly unlikely. This post is about my love of skyscrapers, and especially one in particular. Its also about a love for art deco…and a tune by Duke Ellington

Storms came about from the photograph used in the post and a conversation with a friend and fellow blogger. This is a rarity on this blog in some ways in that it is an instrumental track. I love instrumentals of course but have found it difficult to express the emotions of my photos without the aid of song lyrics. This is an exception by Bruce Cockburn I found especially fitting.

To me the discovery of new music is always exciting no matter when or how you hear it the first time. But when you hear that music live and in person, it hits you deep. In Where Do We Go From Here? I relate such an experience with a band I came across over the summer. I urge you to listen to the music of Jules & The Jinks. My jaw dropped the first time I heard lead singer Julissa Lopez sing, and I know yours will too.

Retro ‘things’ are in now it seems. Actually I feel that most of them never truly go away. Along with vinyl records and film photography, one of my personal favorite retro obsessions has long been old Signs painted on buildings. It used to be a common sight but seemed to fall out of favor. But like those vinyl records and typewriters, they are making a resurgence. Musically I needed a song that incorporated some retro elements. So a song by BR549 about a punk rocker going country and trading her Doc Martens in for cowboy boots seemed perfect!

When you get right down to it, music is quite often about The Right Time. I have long observed people who proclaim to loathe an artist or a song, only to surreptitiously tap their foot or fingers to a song by said artist when it comes on. But it can also be about when a song you know takes on a new meaning. A song by Scissor Sisters did precisely that when I added it to my running playlist.

It is no exaggeration to say that I struggled with creativity here this year. So much so that I took a break for about 6 weeks in the spring to recharge. That it coincided with Spring was probably not a coincidence. It also coincided with me getting out and trying some different approaches to photography, and I hope it came through in the photo I used.

Stepping away from music briefly, when I turned 50 in July, I decided I wanted to create a 50 Things @ 50 bucket list. I chose one of the more difficult and terrifying ones on the list first. I was genuinely surprised at the reaction. I decided to write about one of my favorite subject matters. Here is my first attempt at writing a Poem

When I started to write this blog I suppose in some ways I wanted to expand on the lyrics of a song and relating them to my own experiences and ideas. When the song is written by the fantastic Ralph McTell that is a tough place to start. He has been one of my favorite songwriters for years now, and his classic song Michael In The Garden has an awful lot to think about.

Finally, last month I celebrated five years of Soundtrack Of A Photograph. Despite the ups and downs, highs and lows, I still think about ideas constantly. And for a fifth anniversary I thought about ways to celebrate. And having Stevie Wonder’s song (there’s that Duke Ellington again!) Sir Duke, there is no better way of celebrating. Because with Stevie, You Can Feel It All Over.

Join me next week for a look back at some of my favorite photographs I have taken in 2018. Thank you all once again for your support of this site. I appreciate you all!

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