Category Archives: those that have just broken a flower vase

Come all ye rambling boys of pleasure…

PART 1 OF 3 – Two days ago, Famous Orchestra bassist Riley Broach went on YouTube looking for video footage that people might have uploaded from our shows this past weekend in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. What he found instead was a cover of our song “Ich Bin Berlin (The Sundown Song)” from a seemingly unlikely source: a band called the Rambling Boys of Pleasure who make their home in Ghent, Belgium. The song appeared on our CD Everything for Everyone.

Here’s the video, from

The information they provided with the video says the following:

I’m puttin’ on my sunday best! I’m puttin’ it to the test! Een cover van The Viper and His Famous Orchestra. Stijn op ukulele, Clo doet percussie, David op bas en Godfried op gitaar. Nu nog een beetje oefenen op onze stage presence. 🙂

Which, using a Dutch-English online translator (Dutch being the closest thing I could find to Flemish as far as online translators go), I can render thusly:

I’m puttin’ on my sunday best! I’m puttin’ it to the test! A cover of The Viper and His Famous Orchestra. Stijn on ukulele, Clo doing percussion, David on bass and Godfried on guitar. Now we just need to work on our stage presence. 🙂

As Riley wrote in posting a link to the video to his Facebook profile: “Woah! Stop the phones, halt the advance, turn down the lights!” Trombonist Rob Henn’s comment was representative: “Holy crap. Where did you find this? WTF????”

Rob then himself posted a link to his profile, noting:

This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. I may even mean that literally. I believe it to be the first cover of a song by The Viper and His Famous Orchestra — and it’s by a group in Belgium. I assume they found our CD online somehow, …randomly, and then covered it. I s*** you not. A group in Belgium covered a song by an obscure niche band from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. We live in an internet world.

And the song itself is a pretty niche song even within the Viper repertoire: a late 1990s period piece about semi-urban sprawl and the increasingly far-flung commercial/entertainment districts of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. How these Belgian ramblers found and then figured out the song is something I’ll take up in a later post, along with my subsequent communication with at least one of the Rambling boys. For now, I’ll just confirm that they did find our CD online “somehow”; and that I know how, and that it is indeed an internet world.

And learn all about the IRL bonus track (part 4 of 3) here.

My seafaring lassie will smile on the Bard of Armagh

"Bard of Armagh" ballad sheet

In putting together 5 shows for the summer that will require two complete sets, and doing it with an Orchestra that resides, Famously, in 6 different cities in 3 different states, I’m spending a lot of quality archive time digging through old file folders (manila and electronic) and old hard hard drives to dredge up or create reference material — lyric sheets, chord sheets, lead sheets, arrangement notes, scratch recordings, etc. — that I can pass on to everyone else via email and, now, via the wiki I’ve started putting together for the summer for just this purpose.

Thankfully, the rest of the Famous Orchestra appears to suffer from the same archive fever that I do. And now all kinds of great material is starting to show up on the wiki: lyrics to Tre-P’s “Drunk Bus” contributed by Ed Burch, chord changes for “Winnebago Bay” and other songs contributed by Riley Broach. And this: a page of sprawling handwritten notes for “My Seafaring Lassie,” developed in situe as we were pulling together this then very fresh piece of hardtack for a couple of shows during the summer of 2002 (I’d finished writing the song on the treadmill on the cargo ship on which my wife and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean on our move back from Turkey just weeks before).

Here’s the notes:


And, just for reference, here’s a recording of “My Seafaring Lassie” from a solo show I did in December 2008 at the Home Grown Coffee House in Accokeek, Maryland:
(click here to download the mp3)

The contributor of the notes is Rob Henn, as will be apparent from what he calls the “admittedly trombone-centric (but still helpful!)” transcription of this arrangement. What I really like is the economy of these notes — there’s a lot being recorded here, and it’s a little bit of a fly thing all on one page: everything from the basic structure of the song, to snatches of lyrics, notes on vocal harmonies and punctuation, built-in contingencies for live playing (all those question marks!), bits of melody transcription, and references to inside jokes (such as our use of the “Picardy 3rd” to end the song).

At the tail end of the piece, you’ll also see:

Assorted phrases, Irish brogue talkin’, whatever…
— On my signal, I sing, “And she’ll smile on the bard of Armeagh! (Armeagh!)”
All, very lock-step in rhythm, “And she’ll smile on the bard of Armeagh!”

This was about as inside as jokes get. It could be excused only by the vaguely Irish (though, truthfully, English West Country) feel of the song. And the joke was basically this: Rob Henn had once had a dream in which, I think, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra were playing; and we either had to sing, or were watching, some Irish music performance in which the “bard of Armeagh” line cited in the “Seafarin’ Lassie” notes were sung. Rob had vividly remembered the lyrics, the melody, and the end-of-chorus turnaround from his dream, and so was sufficiently astounded some weeks later, while at the Hideout in Chicago, to discover a flyer for an upcoming performance BY the Bard of Armagh, which turned out to be the moniker sometimes applied to the late and great, hearty and hellish Tommy Makem — though I can’t believe it was actually Tommy Makem who was coming to the Hideout.*

So — to rip off Peter Stampfel here — we put it in the song! And sang it! And closed the song with it! Hurrah for The Viper and His Famous Orchestra! Hurrah for Rob Henn! Hurrah for Isaac the Bartender! And Hurrah for the Bard of Armeagh!

* Though a quick search turns up that Tommy Makem was, in fact, scheduled to play in Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Festival in July of 2002. And, in fact, “The Bard of Armagh” turns out to be an actual Irish ballad about a travelling 17th-century harper named  Phelim Brady, recorded at least once by Tommy Makem, and — the resonances start to pile up pretty thick here — set to the tune used by a song occasionally performed by The Viper, “The Streets of Laredo,” though there is no “smiling upon” going on in either song)

Alone again, naturally

Last month, I relocated to Milwaukee from the Washington, D.C. area. Surprisingly, given the rare gift of unemployment I’ve been enjoying, this is my first post-move post.

Or not so surprising, since I’m not yet making music with anyone here. That’s not untypical for me. It took me two years in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to first play out as the Viper act. And four years in Maryland to luck into the Paint Branch Ramblers. I never really got anything together during my two years in Turkey, apart from one two-song set at the Faculty Club Christmas talent show (I played “The Lawson Family Murder,” and “Daddy’s Drinking Up Our Christmas”), and one faculty party at which I played/sang “Too Much Heaven On Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar on a borrowed saz.

In any case, it’s always a good opportunity to let the barrel fill itself back up. So to celebrate my refound love of self, here’s a solo recording of the Viper playing “Pennies from Heaven,” taken from the Everything for Everyone CD.

download “Pennies from Heaven” as an mp3

As far as I can remember, this was recorded in a single take using just the room mic we’d set up to get “coverage” sound of the whole band. Jay Bennett is doing the engineering/producing.

That stuff you don’t recognize at the beginning is the verse of this 1936 Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston standard. You don’t hear the verse much. But Vernel Bagneris lip synchs to the 1937 Arthur Tracy recording of it in the great 1981 film of Pennies from Heaven. And Steve Martin actually sings it at the end of the movie, just before he’s hung. I learned it — since I’d never heard it anyhere else — by rewinding these two scenes over and over.

It’s a nice little piece, and here’s the lyrics if you want to sing along:

A long time ago, a million years B.C.
The best things in life were absolutely free
But no one appreciated a sky that was always blue
And no one congratulated a moon that was always new
So it was planned that they would vanish now and then
And you must pay before you get them back again
That’s what storms were made for
And you shouldn’t be afraid, for…

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven
Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven
You’ll find your fortune falling all over town
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down
Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers
If you want the things you love, you must have showers
So when you hear it raining, don’t run under a tree
There’ll be pennies from heaven for you…
Pennies from heaven for me…
Pennies from heaven for you and me

Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 4

So now you’ve got everything you need to enjoy Hanukkah with some “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke”: a recording by the Paint Branch Ramblers, a cheat sheet for singing and playing along, and even the lead sheet if you want to play the melody. What’s next?

Well, for the fourth night of Hanukkah, I’m posting a scratch track that I made very simply (recorded straight into the computer’s built-in mic) for the Ramblers to be able to hear and practice with when we were learning it. This is a slightly older version of the melody with one phrase that turns a different direction in the 7th bar than we do it now (see yesterday’s post for the details).


The instrument you’re hearing is the skin-head banjo ukulele I picked up some years ago at an antique shop in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

In fact, the song was written not for the mandolin/violin tuning I use on the cümbüş, but for the basic D ukulele tuning (A – D – F# – B) of the 1927 Regal tiple that I used to have. A tiple – at least the early-20th-century American instrument that was called that – is a 10-string ukulele (four courses of 2 – 3 – 3- 2 strings each) that sounds like something halfway between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar. I’d found the instrument on e-bay and arranged to meet the seller in person on his way through Effingham, Illinois, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (his idea). So, like the banjo ukulele, and like the vast majority of every instrument I’ve ever owned, I bought it without ever playing it first.

I’ve had pretty good luck with that, actually.

The melody of “Heyse Latke” falls very nicely into the ukulele tuning, and I’d written the song for the set I was going to play at my George Washington University Writing Program office holiday party, probably in 2005 or 2006. At that time, it was just an instrumental.

But while I was in another room socializing, I heard the the tiple, which I just had propped up against a wall, falling to the floor with a sickening sound. When I went in, I saw that the headstock – as heavy in relation to the body as you’d imagine a headstock on a 10-string ukulele-sized instrument would have to be – had very cleanly snapped off in just such a way that no one was ever going to be able to fix it.

So “Heyse Latke” had to wait for the Ramblers to come along to get a public hearing. (From the set list notes we keep on our band’s wiki, it looks like the first performance of it may have been on July 31, 2008 at the Riverdale Park farmers market. Nothing like Hanukkah in July.)