Increasingly, I see eras of my life
becoming chapters in a book
to be read backwards from the present moment
illuminating who I have come to be.
Nature Connection, Mentoring, and Culture Building
In 2007 as I was preparing to move from Portland, I met a man named Jon Young who was speaking at an event. I didn’t know anything about him, but as he told his stories he tugged on deep strings in my soul that I didn’t even realize I was yearning for. He spoke of the importance of understanding our role in the natural world, and the role of elders in a healthy society, and rites of passage, and mentoring, and culture, and on, and on. I was transfixed, and I knew that he was speaking truth.
I have devoted most of the last ten years of my life to helping others connect to these same passions. Upon moving to Asheville, NC I joined forces with Forest Floor Wilderness Programs which has become my main platform for exploring my passions and manifesting my work in the world. As of June 2018 I am now the Co-Director of Forest Floor.
Community Organizing & Liberty Hall
One theme that runs through everything I do is community building. I am almost always thinking of ways to get people together. One of my loftier attempts was the Liberty Hall Collective. Liberty Hall was an old church in Portland that got turned into a radical community center by a disparate group of activists. Attrition brought the management down to one man who was on the verge of an anxiety attack from trying to work full time and manage an active community center.
Despite the obvious potential outcomes, I stepped in and took over the day-to-day operations of the hall and formed a new all-volunteer collective to oversee the whole project. For the next year, I lived and breathed Liberty Hall. I even lived in the hall for brief, unpleasant periods. Unpleasant due both to the size of the rats who also occupied the building, as well as the horrible feeling that comes with waking up at your work place. I was intent on convincing Portland that the hall was a valuable resource and needed to be supported, so I organized a myriad of music shows, puppet shows, square dances, sewing circles, classes, cabarets, potlucks and dinner shows, and worked my ass off to make the building available to others to do the same. I spent three years involved with project until finally handing the building off to the Portland IWW. Liberty Hall served our community for eight long years.
Government Issue Orchestra
In 2001 I was thoroughly immersed in the fiddle and needing an outlet for that obsession. Along with banjo player Ben Masterson, I started the Government Issue Orchestra, a twin fiddle string band. The first incarnation was Ben, Jason Noice, Bill “Bubba” Martin, Chris “Donnie Evil” Donahue, and myself. We set up a weekly gig at the Red and Black Cafe that became home base for our first year while we jumped on board the train that was Portland’s growing love for old time music and square dancing. One by one, members left and were replaced until the GIO solidified into it’s main line up of Sophie Vitells, Maggie Brunjes, Patrick Lind, Caroline Oakley and myself.
We recorded one self-titled, self-released CD before disbanding in fall of 2006.
Bubbaville and the Portland Old Time Music Gathering
Shortly after joining the Dickel Brothers, Brian Bagdonas and I both made our way out to Weiser, Idaho for the national old time fiddle contest. We landed in a dusty campground called Stickerville. It was my first fiddle festival. It was heaven; a community of people I didn’t know existed playing droning repetitive music in little groups for the sheer pleasure of it; with no audience whatsoever. Those people became my family.
At the end of the week, I was loaded down with hugs and a universal “see you next year.” Next year? I just found heaven and I’m expected to wait a year to return? Unacceptable. So I ran the idea by Brian of throwing a party in Portland in January; a “Halfway to Weiser” Party that would support and promote our growing community of Portland musicians. That January the party happened with a Friday night bar concert and a party at my house all day that Saturday. We peaked out at five simultaneous jam sessions, which was a huge success for Portland at the time.
Ten years later, it’s still a party to celebrate our Portland community, only now it’s five days long and draws over a thousand people from around the country. We fill a three story hall so full with musicians that even the broom closets and bathrooms become fair game for jam sessions while the main rooms are filled with concerts, clogging workshops, singing workshops, and family dances. The party peaks out Saturday night with two floors of square dancing, seven bands, seven callers, and every age range and social sphere represented. But now the gathering has grown so far past it’s humble roots that people ask “what’s a Wesier?”
In the winter of 1996, I made my first trip into Mexico. With no maps or guidebooks, I stumbled my way around the country until arriving in the southern state of Veracruz. I fell in love with the southern region and their traditional music, Son Jarocho, an incredibly rhythmic mix of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and native American musics played on traditional string and percussion instruments. I returned to Veracruz every winter for the next ten years to study their music and dance, visit rural musicians, make field recordings, travel, and of course, to escape Portland winters. Sadly, upon returning home I had no one to play this music with. Son Jarocho is an extremely social musical form and the pockets of musicians in the US are few and far from me.
The Dickel Brothers
In 1997, I met a musical duo called The Dickel Brothers, which at the time was Matt (guitar) and Clancy (fiddle) who dressed up in suits and played old time songs they had learned off of old 78 rpm records. I had never heard of old time music and had no idea what I was stepping into but I played a little bit of washboard so I jumped at the chance when they invited me to join their band.
Within a year, I was also playing the mandolin and The Dickels had solidified into a five piece old time string band adding Marcus on banjo and Brian on bass.
Something both drunken and magical happened when we put on our suits and stepped on stage. We quickly realized how hard it was to keep people’s attention playing acoustic music in noisy bars. We were background music. So we took drastic measures. Suddenly, all five of us would saunter though the crowd, mid song, and climb up onto the bar hovering over the crowd while the bartender stands there trying to decide whether to yell at us or not. By now the crowd has noticed us and is clapping along and cheering us on. Brian and his bass would lower themselves back to the ground and Clancy would climb onto his shoulders and continue fiddling while Brian walked around the bar with the end pin of his bass resting on his foot as the whole band moved through the crowd. I remember one night in the Shanghai Tunnel bar in Portland after the audience had bought us our fifth round of whiskey shots. Clancy spied the flimsy water pipes that were hanging just above our heads in the basement bar. He handed his fiddle to someone, flipped himself upside down, hooked his knees on the pipes, grabbed his fiddle back, and lead the band through a tune while he played upside down. Shows would always end with us hopping off stage and playing right in the middle of the audience. And if the energy was right we would lead the audience, pied piper style, right out of the bar into the street for a late night impromptu dance party.
The Dickel Brothers didn’t care so much if people liked us or not, we just didn’t want people to ignore us. We didn’t want to be background music.
The Dickel Brothers were my highly influential entry point into the world of Old Time music and even music in general. I haven’t been able to sustain that energy but I will always have it to look back upon.
Q is for Choir (“no, we don’t sell choir music, we are a record store!”)
At 18 years old growing up in Chico, CA, I dreamed of owning a record store. It couldn’t be in Chico though. Don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up there but I wasn’t going to STAY there. It was the early 90s, so I decided Seattle was the place. But then I went to Seattle. Nope, too big. So I went to Portland. Nobody I knew seemed to work there. They just hung around drinking coffee and playing music. Perfect.
I spent a year searching for a store front before opening as Q is for Choir at 2510 SE Clinton St. I had no clue what I was doing. I eventually learned a lot. Mainly, that an anti-capitalist businessman whose record store is a friendly neighborhood hangout will spend the next ten years in poverty. Lesson learned.
After 6 years, I was burning out and decided both that I needed help and, that I wanted to do something inspiring with the shop, so I decided to go Co-op. Within a year we were up and running as a worker-owned and operated record store and I was spending less and less time there. The Co-op lasted three years until reaching three person simultaneous burn-out. We sold the shop. It’s still there after 22 years. You can go say hello.