1strum \ˈstrəm\ noun : an act, instance, or sound of strumming
2strum \ˈstrəm\ verb strummed strum·ming
transitive verb 1. a : to brush the fingers over the strings of (a musical instrument) in playing <strum a guitar>; b: to play (music) on a stringed instrument <strum a tune> 2. : to cause to sound vibrantly <winds strummed the rigging — H. A. Chippendale>
1: to strum a stringed instrument 2: to sound vibrantly
— strum·mer noun
(definitions this week taken from merriam-webster.com)
I took piano lessons for eight years. I started when I was six. I don’t remember if I asked for lessons or whether my parents just signed me up. In any case, the decision would have been a logical one as I adored music. From an early age, I loved to sing and did so pretty much all the time to anyone who would listen. My dad remembers me sitting fixated in front of the television as a young child, watching ballet and opera. As a toddler, I carried around my Fisher Price tape recorder with attached microphone everywhere I went.
I was always very moved by music, but as memory serves, I never really enjoyed playing or practicing the piano. I appreciated the delicacy of the movements of fingers over the keys and the sort of sweetness that emerged when a classical piece was played by someone who understood the instrument. It’s just that I always had the feeling that that someone was not me.
My father played the guitar in the evenings when I was small. If he knew more than two songs, I don’t know them. My memories are of dancing around in my Annie nightgown and accompanying him with my toy tambourine to the sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “I’m in Love with a Big Blue Frog” and Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat Love.”
When I was in seventh grade and a guitar class was being offered at my new school, I decided to take it. I packed up my dad’s old Takamine in a soft case and toted it with me to school. The first week we learned “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (This was a logical choice for the instructor: All of us attended a Catholic school and the entire song is two chords: G and D). We also learned to pick the riff to “Can’t Touch This”: neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer-neer (And by now, you should be able to pretty accurately assess my exact age). I scanned the room that first day, and I noticed quickly that I was the only girl there. I didn’t know hardly any women who played guitar. I had vaguely heard of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, but I hadn’t heard of Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan. Instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I didn’t belong, and I quit.
In college, I met my friends Julie and Sarah, who both played guitar, and I became curious again. I was also exposed to a world of music I hadn’t heard before. I found a home in contemporary folk music and here there were women playing guitars all over the place: Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, Erin McKeown, Lucy Kaplansky, And yes, some of my early attempts at finger picking were to songs from Jewel’s first album.
I got a guitar for Christmas my freshman year of college and I began to play. And immediately, there was something different here than with piano. From that first strum, I felt a current in my body. It sounded like a heart beat. It sounded like a footstep. It sounded like the hitting of a boot on a plank of wood, like the hollow clang of a metal, like a voice echoing in a tower.
Also, I was really, really bad. It took me three hours to make chord changes, and initially, I couldn’t sing when I played unless I phrased my singing in time with chord changes. But I didn’t care. There was something about the sound that kept me coming back. There was something about the sound that was satisfying, even if I wasn’t good. There was something about the sound that made me want to be better at making it.
The music I am most attracted to is music that over all else feels sincere. I love music that is sung on porches or in living rooms. I love music that has imperfections, where voices crack or one note is picked a lot louder than the rest. It gathers its beauty not from its proficiency but from its earnestness. It is beautiful because I can tell that the person making it needed to make it. This music is made to fill a void or to celebrate a milestone. This music is made because in the making, life becomes a little easier. Or suffering is shared. Or something needs to be said and this is the way to say it.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
One of the definitions of strum is: “to cause to sound vibrantly.” I guess this is what drew me to the guitar and what draws me to folk music, to the blues, to old country. There is a vibrancy in these songs that ultimately reminds me of what it means to be alive—in all its loveliness and heartbreak, in its seamlessness and messiness.
A few years ago, a very talented singer/songwriter friend of mine and I recorded some songs together. We had sung together in college and after years apart, we reconnected and we sang again. The first time we attempted to record one song, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” we did it in parts. I played the guitar. Then I sang. Then she did. But it felt mechanical. It didn’t work. We decided to do it the way we actually performed it. And when we sang, I played guitar and we harmonized, singing together with eyes closed because we didn’t need to look at each other to know when to begin or when to end. And that creation of sound is one of my favorite moments.
Just a few songs that come to mind in relation to strum:
Disclaimer: Some of these don’t have “strumming” at all, the first one is acapella, actually. Many of them are finger-picked. But I mean strum as in “to sound vibrantly.”
Hazel Dickens “Little Pretty Bird” (even though there is no strumming involved in this one; it’s acapella)
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings “Time (the Revelator)”
Stephen Foster “Hard Times (Come Again No More)”
Elizabeth Cotton “Freight Train”
Woody Guthrie “Do Re Mi”
Dar Williams “If I Wrote You”
Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice”
Mark Erelli “The Only Way”
Lucinda Williams “World Without Tears”
Joni Mitchell “A Case of You”
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee “A Better Day”
Doc Watson “The Coo Coo Bird”
Patty Griffin “Sweet Lorraine”
Po’Girl “Old Mountain Line”
Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”
*It’s funny that this word is assigned this week as I’m playing a gig with an old bandmate Mark at The Neutral Ground in my hometown New Orleans.