Friday Morning Street Banjo Music

When I am in DC, on weekdays I go to my office near the US Capitol. It is on the Senate side, so for those who know the city I take the train to Union Station and walk a few blocks. Like many train stations, Union Station attracts street musicians.

While we all have heard the stories of undiscovered diamonds busking in the streets, the truth is many of the musicians are just okay. A lot of it is singing performed over karaoke loops. But it’s all great — as someone who has tried it himself, I admire anyone who has the courage to get up in front of people and perform. And I love music.

The unwritten deal of street music is, if you stop and listen you are honor-bound to drop a dollar (or more) in the hat. Sometimes, to be honest, I just walk on by because even though I want to support, I am in a hurry, feel stressed, the music doesn’t grab me, or I don’t have any cash on me and don’t want to break the deal.

This morning, a clear, crisp, bright Fall day, I was stopped short by this:



That’s Brian Williams, playing the banjo. I was not only moved to stop and listen, but to talk to him a while. The figure he cut, and his sound, just entered my spirit. I asked if I could video him and he agreed.

Brian is a multi instrumentalist (guitar, cello, bass, banjo) who has been playing since 1968. Recently his guitar was stolen and he was without instrument. He says he met “an Irish man in Georgetown” who was having trouble finishing a song. Brian finished it for him, and in return the man gave him this banjo. He was going to sell it, but the music store told him it was a vintage 1930’s banjo, so he kept it.

I hope you enjoy his music.

A Song About A Bridge

BridgeEarlier today a friend of mine was talking about a difficult time in his life and it reminded me of a song I wrote some time ago that used his experience as a starting point. My friend spent time living under a bridge after going through some difficult times. Thing was, he didn’t see his situation as particularly bad — he had a roof, after all, and others he knew did not. It took him some time to change his life, but now that bridge is a distant memory.

That bridge and my friend’s attitude toward it stuck with me, and I eventually wrote a song. There’s a song by Nickel Creek that is from the standpoint of a lighthouse that I was into at the time, and I tried to imagine a relationship between my friend and the bridge — from the bridge’s point of view.

I never recorded this song with any of the bands I have been in, but I did create a demo of the song in 2012, as I was collecting songs for a project I have in the back of my mind called “Exile’s Hymnal.”

This song is called “Nowhere Else At All.” I hope you like it.

Nowhere Else At All
By Brad Rourke

They roll
Across my back
Soul after soul after soul
To work
Back again
It makes no sense or difference where they go

If I could choose my day
And only do what spoke to me
I would crumble into rubble
And I’d leave the road alone
To make its noise

Only thing
I got no choice
So here I’ll stand
Alone for one and all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all

Above they drive
Below they walk
A backpack and a gun to call their home
No one sees
Beneath their feet
The city stretches out take its own

In the rain
That never stops
There’s shelter underneath my steady back
For a man
Who’s lost his luck
Who don’t suppose it’s ever coming back

I’ll be the walls and roof
All for this man to give him proof
That something he relied on
Listened to him when he thought
He’d lost his voice

Only thing
I got no choice
So here I’ll stand
And shelter one and all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all

Photo credit: Shaun Bell (Flickr)

Work, Art, and Leisure Collide: Remembering Two Songs By The West End

Today I happened to play an old playlist while I took a run. In the mix, a song came on that took me back and sent me on a reverie. I thought I’d share it.

Some years ago I was in a band called The West End along with my good friends and neighbors Monique DeFrees (drums), Mike Shawn (keys and vox), and Matthew Taylor (bass). I played guitar and sang. Later, another good friend, Kate Gordon joined and improved our vocals immensely. We played about 2/3 covers and 1/3 originals — it was the originals that kept me in the game because I loved writing and performing new songs. I saw them as similar to blog posts or essays.

(Most people don’t go out to see original live music except by established bands so we had to also play covers that people recognized. We made them our own, but it still was never as fun as for me playing our own music.)

Eventually, we saved enough money by playing gigs to pay for recording studio time, a producer, and CD duplication — and we had ourselves an album! It was called This Ride Could Be My Last.

The song that came on my playlist was from that album. I hadn’t listened in a while. You know what? It holds up.

But I wanted to share a bit about where the song came from. There are two songs on the album that relate directly to a professional project I had been working on. The songs are “Father Lou” and “They Go.”

The Project: End of Life Decisions

At the time I wrote these songs, I was embroiled in research for an issue guide I was working on for a client, the Kettering Foundation. The topic of the issue guide (a report designed to support public deliberation on a difficult topics) was the end of life. Who decides what happens at the end of life? How do we as a society want to think about the notion of assisted suicide? Euthanasia? How do we balance personal freedom with sound and fair policy? More than perhaps many such pieces of work, the topic was quite wrenching.

(In case you are interested, the issue guide is available here.)

Building a Song From an Observation: “Father Lou”

The first song that comes out of this period is a quick little number called “Father Lou.” It started out (in my mind) as a very slow, dirge-like tune — but my bandmates wisely told me to speed it up. Click the player below to listen:

This song came to me sort of fully-formed, and it unfolded in my mind all while I was on a run (like today’s) through a sketchy area in Memphis, Tennessee.

Part of the work we do in developing issue guides like the one I was working on is hold focus groups with ordinary people to talk about the issue at hand. We want to see how real people talk about the issue, what their chief concerns are, and how they start out thinking about the issue. Focus group houses are in all kinds of neighborhoods, some fancy and some marginal. I find myself fairly often in marginal areas because we want to get “truly ordinary” folks in our groups, not the professional types that are more easily recruited to take part in focus groups in fancy facilities (these usually cater to corporate clients).

Anyway, there I was in Memphis, and the group was later that night but it was mid-day. So I went for a run through the neighborhood. I came upon a set of city blocks where it seemed like every other driveway had a car on blocks. The other driveways also had cars in them, and it took me a while to figure out why this might seem out of place to me: It was midday and in many other neighborhoods these cars would all be at work. But here they were.

So the lines that would become the third verse popped into my head. And then the song sort of built itself as I ran.

It’s not about end of life questions, it is actually about a character I had in my head at the time — a priest who goes to a Skid Row area thinking he is going to rescue everyone there. Little does he know that people see him as a figure of fun and ridicule, and eventually they turn on him.

(At the end of this post you can read the full lyrics.)

Song as Issue Guide: “They Go.”

Another song on the album is more directly related to this end of life issue guide. The stories I heard as I listened to focus groups while working on this guide got deep into my head and rattled around. One day, while taking a stroll outside a Dayton hotel, this scenario of someone stuck alone in a hospital with a terminal illness came into my head. Somehow this mixed with an image I had of a family member who had recently had heart surgery — he complained to me in a conversation about how the nurses come and go all through the night while he tried to rest and recuperate.

These two ideas mixed together and I wrote a song about this person alone in a hospital, with a terminal illness, writing a letter to a friend. The two friends had promised one another on some drunken night to “take care of it” if either was hospitalized and incapacitated, destined for a lingering death.

So this song popped out: The chorus is based on the “coming and going” all night, while the overall theme comes directly from the thoughts running through my head as I developed a framework for public deliberation on the topic of end of life decisions.

I hope you like them.

The Lyrics

In case you are interested (I usually want to know them), here are the lyrics for each song:

By Brad Rourke

There’s a certain part of town
Where the fire trucks never run
There’s nothing there to burn
That would be missed by anyone
There’s a sidewalk over there
Behind the sheriff’s impound lot
Where bedrooms are reserved
By spreading cardboard out

Into this place comes a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent there on a mission from the lord
Save these lost sheep from the sword

He walks these crooked streets
Spreading handouts all around
Like everyone’s a mark
And the carnival’s in town
They all stick out their hands
And gladly take his grace
Some laugh behind his back
And others in his face

How many times before he learns
Watch your back or get your fingers burned
Saving souls is no work for the weak
You’ll catch your death just standing on the street

There’s a certain part of town
Where cars stay home all day
Some on blocks and others got no place
To go to anyway
Remember Father Lou
He used to hang around down here
Until we jacked him for his wallet
And his body disappeared

Into this place came a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent here on a mission from the lord
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword

And, finally:

By Brad Rourke

Come and see me where I’m at
I wish I could pay for that
You’ll have to make your own way
I might not last another day

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

There’s nothing private in this room
The lights always seem to go out too soon
Right when I’m just settling down
Nothing left for me but the night sounds

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

Hope this message reaches you
And if it does you’ll know what to do
Remember that night of promises
Do what you said if it comes to this

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive
They come, they go
I’m alone most of the time
They come, they go
If you hurry you’ll make it here in plenty of time

New Song Demo: "It Is What It Is"

Here is a demo of a new song I have been working on. This video is just to document the tune. I plan to do a full recording of it sometime later this month:

And here are the lyrics:

It Is What It Is
By Brad Rourke

It is what it is they say
But it doesn’t have to be that way
You can still call me on the telephone
Go ahead and take the car
I’ll walk cause I don’t have far
Can’t promise I’ll wait cause you know I hate to be alone

You could never tell me tell me if it’s really something
Following the signal till it fades into nothing
We go our separate ways
Every other Saturday
Never asking why we’re crawling back

Meet me in the park
Some time before it’s dark
I can never say where I’m going to be at night
We’ll make the handoff there
At the statue by the stairs
I can’t say for sure but I’m sure you’re right

Keeping it together for the sake of keeping it together
Running out the clock on every time we said never never
Never get the lesson but by now you’d think we both know better
Contingencies in place but even so you can’t escape the weather

(Note in the video I do not play the last two lines of the bridge, my mistake.)

How To Change Strings On An Electric Guitar

The other day my friend, Dennis Ellington, asked just out of curiosity how I string my guitar. It was hard to explain in writing, but when I was done he said my method is unusual. So I thought it would be easier to demonstrate on video:

Here is what I originally wrote:

If you are looking down at the head, I turn the tuning posts so the holes are all pointing up-and-down. I thread each string through the post, and give it a slight tug. Keeping tension on it, I wrap the string clockwise and down, and pass it under the string that is coming into the post. Again keeping tension, I then wrap the string up towards me and bend it over the string I just went under. So I have just gone 1/2 way around the post, and made a little hook around the string. I then tighten the strung using the tuner. The tension I was putting on the string by hand is negligible, so I usually turn the tuning post about 3/4 way around or a bit more. Then I cut off the end of the string.

I know that many say you need to wrap the string fully around the post multiple times, for a “better connection,” but I cannot see how this actually helps. It may even make the connection with headstock worse, as the wrapping multiple times can be uneven. My method the string is in direct contact with the post ONLY.

The partial wrap and hook around the string are enough to fully seat the string. No slippage. Stays in tune once strings are stretched through use. To see what this looks like (it is more complicated in writing than in reality), see 6:40 in the video.



Song: Tomorrow's Gonna Come

To go along with my post yesterday of a new song, here is another one!

This is just a demo so my bandmates can see what the song sounds like . . . which means it sounds quite lo-fi on purpose!

Tomorrow’s Gonna Come
By Brad Rourke

Who knows how I’ll feel when I wake up?
The way it looks now I won’t even nearly have enough
Tonight I’m going to try my best to fly
Rise or fall, no matter, but a man he’s got to try

Tomorrow’s gonna come
And kick in your front door
So stay awake tonight
We’ll get to run some more

Tomorrow’s gonna come

Hey I lost my car and need a ride
I’ll pay you back for gas if I can make my way inside
you know I’ve got some business yet to do
Careful, you don’t know who’d ever want to follow you

Tomorrow’s gonna come
But I can’t wait around
Don’t you follow me
I don’t want to be found

Tomorrow’s gonna come

Song: Wouldn't Have Let You Run

As many of my colleagues and friends know, I play in a band. One of the things I love about it is that I get the chance to write songs — something I have come to enjoy.

Here’s a new song I have been working on. I typically do a quick video demo of new songs, as that is the easiest way to audition them for the band.

Here you go:

Wouldn’t Have Let You Run
By Brad Rourke

If I were a different man
I would roll all my own smokes
I would only drink blue Johnny
You wouldn’t get the joke
I’d pine for No Depression
I’d love Fortunate Son
No need for the black Mariah
I wouldn’t have let you run

I wouldn’t have let you run
I wouldn’t have let you run
I’d tie you down and keep you here
I wouldn’t have let you run

I lay awake at night
Wonder what to do
How to let you know I’m here
Waiting here for you
Working day to day
I watch you in my mind
The nerve it always fails me
When it’s talking time

No I’ll never change
Or turn the other cheek
Won’t find no Rosetta Stone
For the language that you speak
But if I should find you
My heart will open wide
I’ll confess my darkest fantasies
To keep you at my side

I shouldn’t have let you run
No, I shouldn’t have let you run
I left you all alone one time
I shouldn’t have let you run

The West End At The Uncorked Wine Festival

Friends and colleagues may know I am in a band called The West End.

Over the summer, we were fortunate enough to play an awesome gig at the City of Rockville’s annual “Uncorked Wine Festival.” When we play City gigs, they always provide pro sound (usually through the very awesome RCI Sound). Since we knew there’s be a good sound engineer, we brought along a recorder to grab the performance.

We recorded through two mics set up at the back of the audience. The results were pretty good, I think, and they give a good document of our performance. (The only thing is the keys are not as loud as they usually sound in the mix, and the guitar is a bit louder than usual.)

These are all originals (Brad Rourke or Mike Shawn) except where indicated. Just click on the links to listen:

Summertime Summertime (Gershwin)

Sorry Somehow Sorry Somehow (Grant Hart)

Free To Choose Free To Choose (Rourke)

Persephone Persephone (Shawn)

Halah Halah (Mazzy Star)

Give You My Loving Give You My Lovin’ (Mazzy Star)

One Last Time One Last Time (Rourke)

Hard To Sleep Hard To Sleep (Rourke)

By The Mark By The Mark (Gillian Welch)

Mary, Don’t You Weep Mary, Don’t You Weep (Trad.)

Angel From Montgomery Angel From Montgomery (John Prine)

Snitch Snitch (Rourke)

Long Black Veil Long Black Veil (Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin)

Wishing Well Wishing Well (Rourke)

Anatomy Of A Rock Show

Many of my colleagues and readers know that I am in a local rock band called The West End. We’re not going to be rich anytime soon, but people say we’re not too shabby. We’ve got a fair sized local fan base and we play out regularly. We’ve recorded and released two CD’s (the latest is here or use this iTunes link).

We had a show last Friday and I thought that some of my readers might be interested in how it went. I give a full recap at my blog about being in a band called amusingly enough In The Band.

Here’s a brief excerpt (full piece here):

Photo by Cindy Cotte Griffiths
Photo by Cindy Cotte Griffiths

WOW, I was tired on the morning after our last show! It seemed like we really poured out more energy than usual, and as usual we played three sets starting late so by the end there we were all pretty wiped. . . . All in all, it was very cool. We had a large crowd, and they mostly stuck around for the whole evening. In those later songs, it is always way more fun when there is a crowd than when there are just a few barflys hanging around. So I really enjoyed that.

We changed the set list on the fly this time around, which we rarely do, and I thought it might be interesting to know how that went and what our thinking was.

There’s lots more at the original article, including our thinking about our three set lists and how they changed. A number of my friends and colleagues have expressed interest in the band, so I thought I would provide this pointer to it for those who are curious.

A Lesson In Collaboration

"Molly," my Carvin CT3M in all mahogany
"Molly," my Carvin CT3M in all mahogany

I recently spent an evening with two friends, working on a soundtrack for a DVD. My friend Ed Corr’s company, OPX, is creating a video presentation about what the office of the future might look like, if you ask the twenty-somethings who are going to have to work in them and design them. To its great credit, OPX did not want to just slap some royalty-free ambient noises on the presentation, nor were they comfortable pirating commercial music. So Ed asked me and Mike Shawn to help out. (Mike and I are band mates in The West End; Ed is a member of the band City Farm.)

I did not realize it at the time, but I would gain a number of insights into collaboration from that evening. A couple of days after our session, Ed dropped off a thank you card. On it was a Xeroxed passage from a book (which turned out to be Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo):

When your collaborator has a strong vision of where to go and you do not, follow the vision.

When you have a strong vision of where to go and your collaborators do not, invite them along and help them see it.

If no one in the project has a strong vision of where to go, develop a common vision before you start working, or at a minimum find one before you finish. A project with no vision yields mediocre results at best, and usually wastes everyone’s time.

Terrific advice to keep in mind the next time your organization collaborates with another. There’s got to be a vision that controls things. It does not have to be a consensus (one party may dominate). But all must submit to it.

Here is a sample of what we (performing as “West Farm”) recorded:

[wpaudio url=”″ text=”West Farm – ‘Cubicle'”]


(Personnel: Ed Corr, acoustic guitar; Brad Rourke, electric guitar; Mike Shawn, keyboards; engineered by Brad Rourke)