I’m just back from the Guitar town, Music City USA, Nashville, Tennessee, where the Englishman and I have been putting the shine on my East Nashville house so that I can offer it as a vintage vacation home. Here I am sorting out my stuff.
Things get messier before they get tidy, don't they?
This was the office supplies and tape moment. In all, I think I found eleven pairs of normal scissors in the house plus pinking shears (3), garden scissors (2), and craft scissors with nifty edging effects (7).
Have I every mentioned “the pen” before? When I was a kid staying with Mawmaw up on Smith Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, I liked to answer the phone for my grandmothers. Later, when I was the student receptionist at Davidson College, this childhood training came in handy. But at Mawmaw’s, if I had to take a message, then I used a pad of paper and “the pen” which sat on the telephone table – paean for the telephone table to be written. Perhaps, I should call “the pen” The Pen because it was the only one in the house. Usually, it came from a bank or a gas station in Richlands. If someone moved The Pen from the telephone table, a crisis ensued. The Pen was usually one of those pens with no cap and the white eraser – an eraser that never worked, but made the paper a mess. Do you remember those? There is a similar story about tape up on Smith Ridge, but I’ll save that one for another time . . .
I tend to think the yearly summertime childhood crisis of losing The Pen and instigating a frantic search through drawers, handbags, and Bibles was the direct cause of my scissor, pen, tape, glue, and general school supplies habit. When I used to be singing on the road all of the time and I started to feel overwhelmed, a visit to any grocery store or general store school supplies or craft section had a calming effect. Sending a letter covered in stamps was also a great balm. I found a lot of stamps in Nashville, too.
Even given our considerable efforts, the Englishman and I did not finish the task of turning my house into an officially rentable space. It’s nearly there, but the finishing touches and AirBnB paperwork will have to wait a few months. For now, my vintage home is providing a cozy retreat for a good friend. Do you need a retreat in Nashville between now and early May? If so, get in touch and lets see what we can do?
I am back in Londontown and getting ready for my second concert of the year on February 26th – a collaboration with External Donut Presents at the Hope and Anchor pub in Islington. The folks at External Donut say we’ll have poetry reading, strummy folk, singing and sewing from me, and folky pop music at the end. I haven’t really done anything quite like this since my high school talent show where I sang the “ba pas” on a Troggs song. If you’d like to come along, I’d be tickled.
I will be playing more concerts this year and I'm putting together my calendar which I will post later this spring. I plan on doing most of my touring in the summer and fall. If you’d like to host a house concert or community concert in Britain, Canada, the USA, or anywhere else for that matter (thank you to my listeners in Israel and Norway!), then please write to me and I will see about arranging my touring schedule to suit us all.
This is what happens to your hair when you re-stuff a futon.
I’ve brought my mountain dulcimer back from Tennessee, so I am excited to start reading Jean Ritchie’s Dulcimer Book and hearing what I can learn. I also got an electric piano for Christmas and if I practice practice practice, I’ve been promised a hulking wooden one, so I’m going to tilt my dulcimer and metronome at this jet-lag and play some music.
Thank you for the notes and messages you’ve been sending in response to my newsletter. I am seeing if I can write one each month, so your encouragement cheers me along.
Your Jewell Ridge Girl,
Variety show in London!
Come along on Tuesday, February 26th, to the Hope and Anchor in Islington (London) for a night of music and poetry. Strummy guitar music, me, pop music at the end, and poetry in the betweens. 5 pound cover. Events begin at 7, I'll probably go on after 8. Hope and Anchor, N1 1RL.
December comes just once a year and seems like a whole other kind of month on the heels of two weeks in India.
Hello, dear friends! Since I last wrote to you, I have been sewing up many many cushions and handbags for a Christmas Art Market – more about that below! In the middle of the sewing, I took myself off to India for two weeks where I joined my friend Robyn Raines, owner of Whitetop Yoga in Abingdon, Virginia, for an experience of a lifetime. How two gals from a tiny corner of southwest Virginia ended up in Rajasthan together is a mystery even to us in some ways, but it seemed like a great place to start our conversation about a musical collaboration involving her great-grandfather, my musical heritage, and our mutual love of our home county of Tazewell, Virginia (more about that next year!).
First, the scoop on the art market! If you've seen me in concert, you will know that I've been traveling with my own miniature craft market on tour for years. Well, this weekend, I'll be showing my work alongside other artists for the first time at Crofts Farmhouse in the tiny village of Leasgill, Cumbria, at the home of maker Jan Huntley-Peace. I wish everyone could come to Cumbria because you would love this corner of England where the hills roll and the trees bend in the wind just like they do back home in Jewell Ridge. We're a thousand feet or so higher up in Jewell Ridge, but that's just to keep the coal from settling on our sheets and hair.
A note if you can come along . . . Jan's house is on the right as you go along the little road from St Peter's church in Heversham to Leasgill. Google maps and your sat nav will put it other places. She has a small sign outside her gate. Mind your step because the stone walkway is slippy from all of this rain. Their house is LOVELY and was built before 1600 with beams from a ship!
If you can't come to the art market, I will be putting all of my unsold items on my bandcamp site early next week in case you'd like to give a one-of-a-kind Jeni-made gift to yourself or someone good this season!
Now, India. When I was about eight, I wrote a school report on Elephants, Indian Elephants, and I have just always wanted to go there in the way that you think "One day I'd like to go to Alaska, or New Zealand, or Southwest Virginia." Well, I've gone and done it, as Mawmaw would say, and I really can't properly express how super, how magical, how provoking my visit was. And, of course, I only saw one small part of one state in India – Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Why Jodhpur? My friend Robyn was going there to design a retreat for 2019 and is collaborating with water conservationists and yoga teachers there. I thought that I may as well start somewhere and I'd always wanted to spend more time with Robyn, so why not in India?
Jodhpur, known as the blue city because of all of the blue painted housed in the old city, turned out to be a perfect place to visit not just because of the 15th century fort or the mountains of textiles, but because the people were completely welcoming and adopted us into their lives like family. I felt it was like Jewell Ridge on the other side of the world, especially because Robyn and I attended all of the family celebrations and rituals of a five-day Indian wedding. So, thank you very much to Robyn for inviting along this blonde-headed gal whose exotic skin and hair meant hundreds of selfies interrupting our progress from one end of town to the other! And thank you to all of the Indian people – the ones that I met briefly, like the former Parlimentarian on the plane, and the ones that I think of as family (Ba!) – for making my childhood dream come true in technicolor.
So, how strange to come back to a very rainy and cold London full of Christmas lights glittering through windows and invitations to carol singing and art markets. All over the world, people are living in patterns and swells so different from our own with their big events of the year coming along when our year rests for a moment. We can easily forget that our calendar is one of many, our rush and excitement peaks at a time of quiet or reflection for someone else. Dad called this the great wheel and he said it can't turn if we're all on one side of it. I will never forget being on the other side for a little while.
1500 Words on the Circus, Cueball's Pool Hall, and Hearing Yourself Sing.
On Friday, the Englishman and I were waiting on the roofer to give forth on the water trickling down our upstairs bedroom wall. While we waited, we played three games of pool – I lost all the games – and listened to the soundtrack for “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” on vinyl. It turned out the roofer liked that soundtrack too, and this gave us confidence in him despite the shocking revelations about our chimney pots and cowls. After he left, I continued to loose at pool and we switched to Bruce Springsteen. I said, “Do we have that record with that circus song?” And the Englishman rustled around in our vinyl collection and put the record on our hi-fi which is not only a hi-fi system, but “a nice piece of furniture,” according to the late sixties brochure which came with it at the auction.
“That circus song.” Do you remember Bruce Springsteen’s circus song? Though I’d been listening to Bruce via my parents since I was a toddler, I’d never heard his circus song until last year. It was then that a long-time fan made a disparaging remark about “The Oxygen Girl” and the “novelty song” – meaning my circus song. I personally don’t have a problem with novelty songs and I know all of the words to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Punky’s Dilemma.”What’s wrong with “Wish I was an English muffin, ‘bout to make the most out of a toaster. I’d ease myself down, coming up brown.” I never would have wondered so much about boysenberries without that song in my childhood and boysenberries seem a tame obsession for a thirteen year old girl given the other options . . . In fact, I may just make buttons that say, "Citizens for Boysenberry Jam" which perfectly defines the political chaos . . . . back to circuses.
But there I was, last year, confronted with a fan who regarded “The Oxygen Girl” as a frivolous and annoying novelty song. What did circuses have to do with Jewell Ridge anyway? So, I was feeling a bit raw when the Englishman said, “All the great songwriters have circus songs. Do you know this one?” And then he queued up Bruce Springsteen singing “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” which begins, “The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave.” Since that night, this has become my favorite Bruce Springsteen song. This is not only because this song was played for me in a gesture of romantic heroism, but also because there’s a tuba and an accordion in the arrangement – two of my favorite instruments. And it’s about the circus.
When I was a kid I loved the circus. Even though Mom and Dad were broke, they somehow got tickets through their offices or cereal box tops or radio contests, I don’t know. And there we were, eating cotton candy, watching women in sequined dresses spin from ropes of silk between their teeth. All of the animal stuff has changed at circuses now and that’s how the world spins, but that’s where we saw elephants and tigers and bears. The trapeze. The trapeze. The trapeze. Women with feathers in their hair, balancing on the backs of horses. The knife-thrower. The fire-eaters.
My great-great grandmother’s sister ran away with the circus. I’ve been trying to write a song about her for years. I woke up at 4:30 last night with some new version of that song about her in my head again.
Maybe it’s a thing with us performing songwriters – that yen for the big-top moment. Isn’t that what we want our audiences to feel – the way that I did at the circus when I was ten – transfixed, transformed, jubilant, and defiantly hopeful?
When I started performing professionally, I had been singing all of my life, but suddenly I worried that I was meant to have some kind of distinctive voice – some kind of tone. This resulted in some odd unreleased recordings of me sounding like Ralph Stanley. But little by little, I let go of this worry and just sang – sang like I was sitting next to Mawmaw at the Friendly Chapel Church or next to my Dad when he got out his harmonica and guitar at Christmas. But even after making eight records, I couldn’t say what my personal distinctive Jeni “sound” was. You all have kindly described my voice to me in terrific comments and questions after concerts, but I couldn’t quite hear “the Jeni voice” in my own head.
That changed the other night when I sang “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” The Englishman, being a longtime Bruce Springsteen fanatic knew the melody far better than I did, so he began teaching it to me. After singing along with him, and the both of us singing along with Bruce, I said, “Let me see if I can do this first verse on my own.” So, I started singing and maybe because Bruce’s voice is so different than mine, maybe because it’s normally a rock song, maybe because I’ve been doing more sewing than singing over the last few weeks, my voice announced itself distinctively as my own – a little folk, a little mountain country, certain words that slide here and there, notes between notes, and a wrapping of words around lines.
The Englishman laughed with astonishment to hear one of his longtime favorite songs sung in an entirely un-Springsteen voice. He loved it. I surprised myself. We sang it again and again until our stomachs reminded us that some supper would be nice.
Dad always heard my voice. He made a study of it which wasn’t difficult for him since my voice is part his voice. The last time he saw me perform – at Merlefestin North Carolina – which was the first place I felt being a singer-songwriter was the life for me, he mouthed all of the words to the songs AND the stories in exactly my rhythm. He knew what I was going to say before I did.
I think a lot of you heard my voice before I did and so many of you have encouraged and galvanized me over the last ten years of my professional touring career. You’ve done this through coming to shows, buying CDs, hosting shows, sending me cards, letters, emails, Facebook messages, calling on the telephone, and being a group of a few thousand people who together make an audience, a fan club, a family, and a congregation of sorts.
I used to talk with my Dad nearly every day. When I called him, our conversation would go like this:
How are you?
I’m so good I can hardly stand myself.
That was Dad.
Other times he would pretend that he was a guy named Cueball who ran a pool hall and then he would pretend that he would have to go look for my father.
My point is that it’s been a really crazy year in the world. Things seem very hard and confusing and downright mean sometimes. I rarely comment on any of this in these newsletters or on social media because what can I say but that the world seems to be falling apart a lot of the time. On the other hand, I have felt tremendously loved this year. I’ve made some extremely talented and some truly good friends. I’ve traveled and returned home safely. I can still hear the voice of my grandmother in Jewell Ridge on the other end of the phone. My sister is making theater. My Mom sent me a photo of our family cat talking on FaceTime with me.
Sometimes, I just feel like making politicians learn the banjo to distract them from messing up the world, and other times, at the end of the day, I feel so good I can hardly stand myself.
I hope that you will give yourself a chance to hear your own voice, to sing a new song, to laugh in the face of chaos, to show kindness, to dare to write a circus song, and to pretend you are in Cueball’s pool hall with Dad, eating peanuts and drinking Rolling Rock Beer. I’m going to head over there now, order a tonic water and some salt & vinegar crisps, and put “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” on the jukebox. I hope in 2019 you will feel transfixed, transformed, jubilant, and defiantly hopeful – like I felt at the circus when I was ten.
Next year, 2019, will mark my second decade as a touring artist! If you’d like to see me in concert next year, please write to me with your house concert or local venue or festival ideas!
First Concert of 2019
I'll be in the states for the first part of 2019 and I'm tickled that the folks from the Huntsville Assistance Program (HAP) in Huntsville, Alabama, have asked me along to play a benefit concert. Saturday, January 26, at 3pm in the afternoon at United Church of Huntsville. Tickets are $20 at the venue on the day of the show. HAP is supported by 60 churches and provides vital assistance to family through food banks and utilities.
Second Show of the Year
I'll play my second show of the year at the Hope and Anchor Pub on Upper Street, Islington, London. This promises to be a terrific evening of variety for the performers and audiences alike with poets Kevin Reinhardt and Cathy Flower, strummy folkie Adrian R Shaw, electro pop band Parenthesis Dot Dot, and yours truly. It's all put together by master of ceremonies, comedian and songwriter, Hank Osasuna! I'll be playing somewhere in the middle of the evening. Tuesday, February 26, Doors at 7:30 pm.
1000 Words on the Pleasure and Pain of Instructions
“I was up there in my room, reading some directions. That’s something I find I like to do when I have a few minutes to myself – I don’t know about you. How to put on furniture polish, transfer patterns with a hot iron, take off corns, I don’t care what it is. I don’t have to do it. Sometimes I’d rather sit still a minute and read a good quiet set of directions through than any story you’d try to wish off on me.”
– Edna Earle from Eudora Welty’s ThePonder Heart
Yesterday, I needed a nap. I’d been down to the charity shops in Sydenham, near where I live in London, and I came across a good book on Paper Mache. So, I snuggled under the duvet (what we call a comforter back in Virginia) and began to read directions. There were lists of supplies, there were cautions about inferior materials, there was encouragement about improvisation. Then, there were directions for specific projects, and I fell asleep in the middle of the instructions for a flower in a pot made out of a cottage cheese tub, a drinking straw, and some cardboard.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep because I’m too hot or too cold, or I am thinking up too many ideas, I settle my mind on pretending that I’m making something. I go through every step of the project very slowly and then I drop off to sleep. If that doesn’t work, I try saying the alphabet or I just get up and write a song or bend to some Yoga with Adriene (do you know Adriene? I’ve done so much yoga with her, sometimes I turn around to tell her something and remember that she is in Austin, Texas).
So, I was tickled when I recently read Eudora Welty’s excellent book, The Ponder Heart, and came across narrator Edna Earle who also loves reading “directions.” I am reluctantly coming to the realization that I might not live long enough to make all of the things I have it in my mind to make. But I am going to die trying. And I can supplement the making with reading about making.
This brings me to this year. Recently, I have been wading through a morass of red tape and bureaucracy to do with my life and work visa here in the UK. The directions are very poor. The fact that bureaucracy is so difficult to spell, nearly makes it onomatopoeic. Bureaucracy is where directions are stuffed, in no sensible order, into a sad brown chest of drawers where some of the drawers are locked, others are falling apart, others are boobytrapped, some smell bad, and where dealing with them conjures very crass words in the head of someone who worshipped Pollyanna as a child. “Bureau-crassy.”
The great thing about directions for sewing, for making gingerbread, for cutting linoleum, or for playing the mountain dulcimer, is that the authors of these directions have your best interests at heart and they would like you to think of them as worthy guides who will have you making dresses and portraits of your friends in no time. If their directions are poor, misleading, infuriating, or just plain wrong, you won’t be inclined to buy their patterns or books again. I can hear the voice of my mother ringing in my head, “I won’t be buying a Voguepattern again because they just make skirts more difficult than they should be.” But rarely have tears been shed over a Butterick sewing pattern in the Hankins household.
Applying for my visa here in the UK has been much like working with a dress pattern that when put together looks like a horse wearing a potato. I am very patient with forms, applications, and questionnaires . My accountant (back when I had one) once asked me if I was really a performer because she’d never seen such organization from her other clients. When my sister needs someone to organize her stationery and toiletries, she knows I’m her girl. But this visa stuff has been much more complicated than separating Q-tips from cotton balls or rationalizing a Quickbooks report.
Because I am working through this visa process, my ability to work in the UK is on hold, and my ability to work in the USA is limited because I need to physically be in the UK to meet the UK residency requirements. This all means that when you look at my touring schedule for 2019, for the first time in eleven years, the page is blank. I can’t in good conscience commit to a slate of concerts for 2019 when my whereabouts and work permits are entirely up to the Home Office, and I may have to cancel or rearrange plans at short notice.
If my future was in the capable hands of the cast of Spooks (fantastic British spy series not to be missed by my American friends), I would have my work permit in hand, my residency sorted, and I would merely be a subplot as they foiled a dastardly plan by some criminal to achieve world domination. But, my future is in the hands of an office where, in my last meeting, I came up with the work around for a defective QR code and called technical support while they poked around on their keyboards like chickens. Lawsee-Beesee, as Mawmaw Margie would have said whilst adjusting her pink hair-net.
Why do I mention all of this? Dear reader, I would very much like to play a concert for you and, contrary to conjecture, I have not decided to become anyone else other than who I am – your sewing, singing, songwriting Jewell Ridge Girl. But I do need to have patience with the bureaucracy and I simply have to wait. I wish we could be together in some cozy house concert or eating chips at a bluegrass festival.
So, in the meantime, I am writing, singing, strumming, and making things. I am dreaming up a show for my 2020 tour. Depending on this and that, I may make a few appearances on stage here and there in 2019. It is very odd for me not to be traveling around singing for you for the first time in a decade. But, I shall keep in touch and I would be glad if you will, too. Speaking of which, thank youfor all of the kind messages about my being especially ill ten days ago. All better here.
Here’s to a “good quiet set of directions” which is harder to find than one might think – all you have to do is look at world politics and little ole household ones, too, and see what a muddle we humans have made of it all. Luckily, the sun is still coming up and so is the moon, so we could do our part, too. I’m going to go work on a song and then try some more linocutting.
I wish you well in all of your directions – from the IKEA chair you’re assembling to the yoga tree pose that has you jumping like a pogo stick.
Good for you! Keep going! I’m right with you!
How terrific to visit the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern and meet this little girl who was teaching all of the crocheted dachshunds how to read. In the end, she said only one of them could really read. I'm so crazy about Bonnard's use of magenta and purple that I've been to the show twice. Head over to Tate Modern to see a door that can be yellow on one day and pink on another. Only in the world of Pierre Bonnard. Photo by Graham Frear.
I've been working on a Jeni rag doll made from tea-stained muslin.
Celia Pym and Visible Mending
I really love this interview with world famous mender, Celia Pym. She talks a lot about repair. Repair is happening all of the time, isn't it? Repair makes me think of my favorite British emergency road sign which says:
You can now purchase the last Jeni & Billy album, the epic history of the Smiths in Appalachia, Heart of the Mountain, on CDBaby. With 27 tracks including songs, spoken word, and instrumentals plus two deluxe paper inserts, this record harkens back to the concept albums of the 1970s where an album told you a story. The story is fragmented and impressionistic and there are mysteries everywhere, but every song is about a real person. Plus, you can make Aunt Erma's gingerbread to eat while you listen. The directions are good.