To My Biggest Critic: Me


Here I am writing, and wanting to be read, but at the same time I’m being an unrelenting critic of myself to the point of censorship. For any project I dream up, the two hardest things for me are starting and ending. This post is an exercise in overcoming those hurdles, where the goal is simply to write, review and post without agonizing over it for hours. So here goes:

Starting at the End
dream-library2My ideas rarely start at the beginning. Whether in art, writing or music, the creative spark is usually a vision of finished product and the joy it might bring to others. So the project is a destination, but where is point A on a blank canvas? For some reason I have been giving the first line more gravitas than it deserves. Now that I think about it, my first lines rarely remain my first lines as they usually get re-written as the project progresses.

In writing, one trick I have picked up from other bloggers is to write the whole article, then take the concluding paragraph and make it the opening paragraph instead. The idea behind this technique is to grab eyeballs amongst the competition for viewer attention, but I find it just makes for good reading. I get a strong beginning rather than a big reveal at the end, and knowing that the first thing I write will not be the first thing that is read makes it easier to just get started.

The Never Ending Story
5_Babe_PIGThe story that never ends never begins – forever unread in Dream’s library of unwritten books. Each interruption of thought threatens the life of these fledgling ideas. The temptation to click “Save Draft” is great, but the button might as well say “Shelve This Idea”, because that is what happens to the majority of drafts. So the most important part of this exercise is that when it’s done and proofed, I will hit “Publish”.

I often put conditions on my works which prevent them from ever being published: needs a better picture, needs another paragraph, needs more citations etc. These are just more self-imposed creative hurdles. Instead, I must remember the words of the farmer in Babe: “That’ll do, pig.”

To me, it’s an admission of job well done despite the awkwardness, like a pig herding sheep. It’s also permission for the idea to live; to go out into the world and mix with other ideas. Not every project needs a grand conclusion, so why force it? Sometimes you just gotta say:

“That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.”

Armor On “A” Street: Veteran’s Park in Brunswick, MD

The WWII era M-5 "Stuart" tank at Veteran's Park in Brunswick, MD.

The WWII era M-5 “Stuart” tank at Veteran’s Park in Brunswick, MD.

Brunswick, MD is a small town that has a long history of support for America’s veterans. From the American flags that hang from dozens of local houses, to the “Welcome Home” billboard that greets returning soldiers at the main circle downtown*, to the annual Veteran’s Day Parade that draws thousands of visitors from near and far, Brunswick is a community that honors their veterans in word and deed.

Starting in 1921, Veteran’s Memorial Park was first built in Brunswick on East A St. by veterans of World War I, originally with a howitzer cannon from that war as a centerpiece. A bed of poppy flowers was planted in 1925 to further honor the veterans of the Great War, then a decorative lamp post was added in 1931 as a solemn memorial for John Steadman, who was killed in the action and for which the local Americam Legion “Steadman-Keenan” Post gets the first part of its name.

In 1943, when America was deeply involved in WWII, Brunswick answered the call for much needed scrap metal by giving up the monumental howitzer. Fulfilling their promise to return a tank to Brunswick as a replacement monument after victory had been achieved, the U.S. Department of Defense delivered the M-5 “J.E.B. Stuart” tank on August 31, 1946. These 14 ton light reconnaissance tanks carried a crew of four: a commander, a gunner and two drivers. The tank got its nickname from the British forces who were some of the first to use this model in combat through the Lend-Lease program. The tanks first saw action under the British against the German and Italian forces in North Africa, and were later used for infantry support and reconnaissance in Europe while heavier tanks engaged the German panzers. The Stuart was also used extensively by the Marines in the Pacific, where its lighter weight, speed and maneuverability was an asset on the rough, compact terrain of the Pacific islands. Here is a short video of a working Stuart still in action.

Over the years, the widening of A Street and lack of up keep took its toll on Veteran’s MemorialPark, and the tank slowly grew brown with rust. In 2009, after a two year community effortinitiated by the local chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the park received a makeover with new landscaping, a new memorial and a repainted tank. The poppy flower bed was replanted and a new lamp post was installed for the Steadman memorial. A large, steel cased book donated by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles was refurbished, and it contains the names of community members who served during WWI or II. The veterans of the Brunswick area are honored through names inscribed in bricks along the walk. At the east side of the park, a granite inscription preserves the park’s history and purpose for future generations: “Dedicated to veterans who served our country in peace and war”.

Memorial to the fallen at Veteran's Park in Brunswick, MD.

Memorial to the fallen at Veteran’s Park in Brunswick, MD.

Finally, new bronze sculpture depicting the fallen soldier’s battle cross was installed tribute to those of Brunswick area who gave their all. Clustered around the lonely helmet, rifle and boots of are the names of 46 local citizens who fell in battle, including the most recent: pioneering female pilot CPT Jennifer Shafer Odom, a Brunswick High School and West Point graduate who was killed in action in July of 1999 during controversial anti-narcotic intelligence gathering mission over the mountains of Columbia, South America.

While Veteran’s Memorial Park in Brunswick may not be the most grandiose monument to those who have served our country, the little-known park with it’s well designed landscaping, repainted tank and memorial to the fallen make it a serious statement of this community’s respect for veterans of all wars. The park is just a couple of blocks walk from the main part of old-town Brunswick and is easily accessible for bike tourists along the C&O Canal.

Originally published 12/24/11 on Want2Dish Frederick.

Ghost of Stone: Reconstructing the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct

Bikers cross on the restored Catoctin Creek Aqueduct.

Bikers cross on the restored Catoctin Creek Aqueduct.

Under a clear sky on October 15, 2011, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held to officially reopen the Catoctin Creek aqueduct on the C&O Canal in southern Frederick County, MD.* For the first time in nearly forty years, pedestrians and cyclists were able to cross the wide rural creek in style on the stone aqueduct that was once a jewel among the many structures built to service the 184 mile canal in its heyday. A lone mule was led across the aqueduct as a tribute to a past that would have been lost to the ravages of nature and time were it not for the passion and dedication of local history enthusiasts.

Following the course of the river, the builders of the C&O canal needed to cross many of the streams and rivers that feed the Potomac. A small creek could be fed through a stone tunnel, or culvert, under the canal, but a wide span such as at the Monocacy River and Catoctin Creek required an aqueduct to bridge the gully. The aqueduct at Catoctin carried canal boats across a creek that trickles into the Potomac for most of the year, but can become a raging torrent in the spring rains. Construction of the original aqueduct began in 1832 amid competition for workers from the railroad and a cholera outbreak that further limited the available workforce. Despite the obstacles, the three arched stone waterway was completed the following year in an era without powered machinery. Foreshadowing the future demise of the canal as a profitable transportation method, much of the Patapsco granite used to build the aqueduct was carried in by train on the B&O railroad that parallels the canal through this section. During the Civil War, the canal was a vital link between the fleet of steam ships in Washington and the coal coming down from the mountains, and thus was the target of numerous Confederate raids. Numerous floods along the Potomac and its tributaries took a toll on the canal, and when an immense flood in 1924 caused the canal to close, the costly repairs needed for the money losing transportation made the closure permanent.

The aqueduct was unique for its ovoid center arch.

The aqueduct was unusual for its ovoid center arch.

The Catoctin Creek aqueduct’s design was a beauty to behold, with a large, oval center arch that was flanked by two smaller round arches. The boatmen of the canal also called the the “crooked” aqueduct because of the sharp turn in the canal on the north side of the creek that had to be navigated in order to enter it. Unfortunately, the aqueduct’s unique construction that made it so beautiful was also its undoing, and after years of deterioration and sagging in the center arch, it collapsed in October 1973. A steel truss “Baily” bridge was then installed to serve hikers and bikers for the next thirty eight years until the aqueduct was reopened  again in September of this year.

The reconstruction of the Catoctin Creek aqueduct was spearheaded in 2006 by local history enthusiasts George Lewis and Pepper Scotto, who raised awareness of the aqueduct and coordinated efforts by local preservation societies such as the Catoctin Aqueduct Restoration Fund, Inc., the C&O Canal Trust and The Community Foundation of Frederick County. A hefty 3.9 million grant from the Department of the Interior through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was the keystone that the reconstruction needed to proceed. Many volunteers lent a hand in recovering the fallen stones, and a Maryland business, Corman Construction of Annapolis Junction, was contracted to undertake the major rebuilding work. This video of slides records the progress of the rebuilding effort, from recovering the stones out of the creek through reconstruction of the arches and the placement of the last stone.

Getting There
The walk to the aqueduct from the Lock 29 parking lot at Lander Rd. This is a fairly easy 1/2 mile stroll along the towpath that the whole family can enjoy.

Originally published on 11/22/2011 at Want2Dish Frederick.

Moonshine & Murder in Maryland: The Catoctin Mountain Blue Blazes Trail

Moonshine is in the spotlight once again after the latest Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” recently aired on PBS. The era has been immortalized in film and literature, but here in Frederick County you can experience it yourself at Catoctin State Park’s Blue Blazes Trail. 

The Tale

At its height of production, The Blue Blazes Still had thirteen giant vats that could each hold up to 2000 gallons of mash. A police raid in 1927 only briefly halted production at the site which soon came back on line. Then on July, 31 1930 Deputy Clyde L. Hauver was killed in another raid on the still, shot to the head as he led a posse up the windy path and into an ambush. Rumors of double crossed moonshiners and a love triangle have never been completely resolved, but after a manhunt and long trial, moonshiners Charles Lewis and Leslie “Tootie” Clark were found guilty of the murder. Yet another distillery was destroyed at the same site the following year.

The Tradition 

Before Prohibition made home distilling a crime, the farmers of the Catoctin Mountain region had been known for their distilling skills since before the Revolutionary times. In the days before the railroad and automobile, the toils of horse drawn transportation drew farmers towards high yield goods such as whiskey on their trips to the town markets. However the first Excise Tax in 1791 and a second in 1862 took much of the profit away from the legal stills, and started a tradition of illegal production run mostly at night, which is why we call it moonshine. National Prohibition in 1919 made running any still illegal, closing the last of the family farm stills and forcing the moonshiners into the hills and hard to find places. Instead of modest amounts of whiskey for personal consumption, they turned to larger scale production to sell for top dollar in Baltimore and Washington D.C.The Catoctin Mountains contain two vital resources needed to make large quantities of whiskey: cool, clean water and abundance of wood for fueling the fire. 

The Trail

Catoctin State Park was founded in 1936 as one of thirty five Recreational Demonstration Area Program sites, with the goal of making the logged and eroded mountain land productive again. Among the many trails is half mile round trip Blue Blazes trail contains a actual working model of an old time still built by the late Frank Mentzer, a Frederick county citizen who not only spearheaded the campaign to install the still, but also used to run distilling demonstrations on site for many years. The rustic 50 gallon still pays homage to the family farm stills of old, rather than the industrial capacity of the later Blue Blazes still for which the trail is named. Signs along the trail guide you through the site of the shootout to the now barren site of the operation.

The short trail through the beautiful Catoctin hills makes for a hike that the whole family can enjoy. The trail is .6 miles round trip takes approximately 1/2 hour to complete. With only 60 ft change in elevation and an “easy” rating, this is a walk in the woods that almost anyone can experience. To get there, drive to the Catoctin State Park visitors center at 14707 Park Central Road, Thurmont, MD and follow the signs to the trail head.

Beyond the Battlefields: Non-Combat Civil War Sites in Frederick County, MD

Landon House mansion, Urbana MD.

Landon House, Urbana MD.

Mention Frederick county’s link to the Civil War and it will likely be in relation to the Battle of Monocacy that saved Washington, or the epic Battle of Antietam, which marks its 150th anniversary next year.* Just to the west of Frederick, The Battle of South Mountain, where the Confederate forces made a hard fought stand against a relentless Union army pressing over the hill, will also mark is 150th anniversary. Plans are already underway for special tours and a battle reenactment to commemorate events, which are bound to bring many curious family and tourists to the area. Off the beaten path and into the local scene, the Frederick area has several Civil War attractions away from the battlefields. Here are some non-combat points of local Civil War interest and locations in the Frederick area:

  • General Lee counted on southern sympathizers in the border state of Maryland to rally to his aid with new recruits and supplies,  but received a cold reception in Frederick, as epitomized by the legend of Barbara Fritchie, who antagonized (some say halted) the southern army, waving her U.S. flag as they passed by her house.
  • Among the local aid that the Confederates did receive was a gray mare given to General Stonewall Jackson, though the first time he rode it bucked and threw him, stunning the general for over an hour and confining him to a carriage for a day.
  • Despite the large union sentiment among the citizens, famed southern cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart held a “Sabres & Roses” ball for the local gentry at Landon House in Urbana.
  • Lee’s Order 191, or the “lost” order was discovered by Union troops in a field near Middletown, MD. The orders contained critical details about splitting his army into three smaller forces and were a key factor in the Union pursuit that led to the battles at South Mountain and Antietam.
  • A rare photograph of Confederate soldiers on the march was taken from a Frederick balcony as they passed through, and a copy of it resides in town at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
  • Years later in the war, the city of Frederick was spared from destruction by Confederate General Jubal A. Early on his raid towards Washington, D.C., when local banks paid $200,000 in ransom.
  • An old cavalry barracks that also served as a hospital during the Civil War became the start of the Maryland School for the Deaf in 1868.
  • Turner’s Gap at South Mountain battlefield contains the War Correspondent’s Memorial, built in 1896 and dedicated to writers, artists and photographers who chronicled the Civil War.

Battlefields will always be the main attraction of Civil War history fans and educators, but these other sites in Frederick county can add great local interlude to any battlefield tour, and several are close to restaurants and shopping nearby. When your family, friends and customers ask about the Frederick county connections to the Civil War, don’t forget the sites next door.

Originally published 8/19/2011 on Want2Dish Frederick

Merlefest: Bitten By The Bluegrass Bug


Chris Thile joins James Leva and John Doyle at the Merlefest Creek stage.

It’s been a little over a week since the end of the 25th annual Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, and the blogs and photos of this year’s festival are now being posted online. Since I was not there, this is not one of them, but it made me realize that this marks ten years since my first music festival at Merlefest 2002. I was completely absorbed by the cascade of music from the stages, but it was the community that I saw around the campfire jams that made me want to learn the music at a deeper level. With ten years hindsight, here’s what I remember from those fateful days when American roots music became a driving force in my life.

Memories of Merlefest 15

One of the first bands I came across that Merlefest was the Krüger Brothers, Jens on banjo, Uwe on guitar and vocals, and their bassist Joel Landsberg. I remember being right up close to the stage and hearing the power of the banjo as it rattled off notes like a machine. Their medley of classic television theme songs was hilarious, but they didn’t rely on gimmicks and gave serious treatment to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” among other songs. Tim O’Brien was a highlight performance on the first night of the festival. He was one of the few performers I was a little familiar with, and his band The Crossing included John Doyle, Karan Casey and John Williams, who I knew form their work with the Irish band Solas.

I got to see John Doyle again at the Creek Stage, as he played rhythm behind fiddler James Leva, who I have since met several times. Nickel Creek was still together then, and Chris Thile stopped by to jam a few on stage with Leva and Doyle. Although I was a bluegrass newbie, the name Tony Rice was known to me, and was often mentioned with reverence by others at the festival. My first chance to see the legend in action was when he sat in with the Nickel Creek on their set. Another great memory was walking near the main stage when I got hit by “The Voice” of John Cowan. It’s a special gift to be able to stop someone in their tracks by the power of your singing, and Cowan has it.


My friend Resophonic Rael at the “Sewerfest” campground.

In Doc Watson‘s main stage sets I saw a line of musicians eager to join the revered guitar master. Then there was a double dose of Gillian Welch, which along with “O’Brother Where Art Thou” had been my gateway into American string music. One of my favorite moments was the first time I heard Sam Bush back at camp, listening to the live broadcast of the main stage on the local radio. By the time he sang “Howlin’ At The Moon” and hoots erupted across the campsite, my conversion to a bluegrass fan was complete.

The music was enthralling, but my lasting memory of my first festival was the community around the campfire jam. Being so close that you could almost touch the music, seeing how the musicians who may have only just met each other seemed to draw from a common pool of music with ease, seeing the faces of the crowd while they enjoyed the music and outdoors together. That is what really compelled me to learn an instrument and become a part of this community of traditions.

How about you? Is there a moment that you can pinpoint when music or art had altered the course of your life? Was it momentary inspiration or a life-defining moment? I’d love to hear your “eureka” stories in the comments.

The Local Time Traveller: 8 Historical Sites in Frederick County, Maryland

Display of a wounded solider being tended to from the Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Display of a wounded solider being tended to from the Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Spring is a time for growth and revival, so what better time to pull the South Mountain Media blog out of its recent doldrums. Although it’s been quiet here, I have been writing monthly “heirloom” articles for hyper-local news site Want2Dish Frederick, covering historical sites and stories of Frederick County, MD. I’ve always been a student of history, and enjoy learning about the past of the places I live and visit.

Writing for Want2Dish has been rewarding on several levels:

  • Getting my first job as a writer.
  • Meeting other writers who cover a diverse set of subjects.
  • Writing on a regular schedule.
  • Using my history degree for the research I was trained for.
  • Honing my photo and video skills.

To catch you up on where I’ve been, here is a summary of my posts for Want2Dish up to now:


Frederick County is rich in civil war history, but for my debut article I wanted to set a greater challenge for myself than the well known battlefields of Monocacy River and South Mountain. These included sites like Barbara Fritchie house, Landon House and War Correspondents Memorial, and trivia like Lee’s Order 191 and Stonewall Jackson being bucked off a horse given to him by a local Confederate sympathizer.


My first article was a light survey, but for my second post I wanted to get into more detail about my subject, and turned to this blog’s namesake for inspiration. But the Battle of South Mountain is already well documented, and I wanted to go beyond another account of the battle that preceded Antietam and connect it to the present world.  I thought about what information might be


Soon after I moved to Frederick County, my wife and I went for a hike in Catoctin State Park, and I was captivated by this interpretive walking trail telling history of distillery in the region, including the true story of a large-scale, prohibition era moonshine production at this site, that ended with the killing of a local deputy during the raid to shut it down.


Another popular local hiking and biking trail is the tow-path of the C&O Canal, which was once the main source of coal transportation along the Potomac from Cumberland, MD to Alexandria, VA. The canal required the use of several aqueducts to cross wide rivers and streams, and one of the most interesting of these stone waterways was one that crosses Catoctin Creek, between Brunswick and Point of Rocks. But its beauty was its undoing, as the oval center arch succumbed to the test of time and collapsed in 1973. A grass roots movement to restore the aqueduct and a grant from the Department of the Interior led to its reconstruction  in October, 2011.


Brunswick, MD is known for its annual Veteran’s Day parade, but the respect for veterans in this old railroad town goes back all the way to WWI, when an old howitzer stop at Veteran’s Park. The old artillery was needed again as scrap metal in WWII, but the Department of Defense came through on its promise to deliver a tank to replace it when the war was over.


A must-see attraction for any student of Civil War history. The museum comprises two levels of exhibits depicting life and death of the civil war soldiers, the challenges faced by the doctors and innovations they made in facing them. The museum gift shop contains a wealth of local Civil War history books. This piece also marked my first attempt at a companion video, where I mixed still images and Ken Burns effects with video motion action and panning. The soundtrack is me playing “Lorena”, a song of the era that was popular on both sides of the lines.


It being winter at the time, I stayed with the museum theme to give folks ideas of things they could see indoors. Among train enthusiasts and kids, one of the most thrilling is the giant HO scale train layout on the third floor of the Brunswick Railroad Museum. The model railroad depicts the tracks along the Potomac River from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to Brunswick (with an extension to Harper’s Ferry under construction). The second floor of the museum houses exhibits made from the donated railroad memorabilia from members of the community. I made another video of this trip, this time getting an interview with the curator that I played over the images.


March was Women’s History Month, and an obvious subject was Frederick’s most famous woman, Barbara Fritchie. This patriotic Union woman waved her flag at passing Confederate soldiers as they passed by her house, and her story quickly rose to legendary status, culminating in the poem “Barbara Frietchie” by John Greenleaf Whittier. The popularity of the story and poem obscures the actual facts around the incident for which no primary sources exist.

Frederick County has much more history to offer, and for my upcoming April article I will look at a piece of modern history – the President’s retreat at Camp David, in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont. Mystery and history will collide as I look at the sites origin and historical significance as it prepares to host the 2012 G8 Summit next month.

Every Meal A Feast

Having just completed the Christmas holiday and feast, I got to thinking about the ritual aspects of the holiday beyond the presents and sweets, even beyond Santa and Jesus. The philosopher Joseph Campbell described the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree as that of a sacrifice, and our ritual of adorning it with lights and ornaments and other pretty or personal tokens is similar to how many religions of the world bestow honors on their sacrifices.

In preparing the holiday feast and delivering two beautifully roasted chickens to the table, I realized that the act of cooking was also part of the ritual, and a ritual unto itself. Every meal represents a sacrifice of some form or other, and we honor that sacrifice by the way we prepare, cook and serve the food. When we cook, we try to transform the raw ingredients into something new and beautiful beyond the utility of fuel, and by doing so we respect the food with our labor, care and creativity.

Certainly not all food preparation is done as part of a ritual, and cooking is required simply to make foods some edible. But in cooking a decent meal, we often go beyond the basic heating needed to digest the food. Why do we go that extra step of preparation needed to add special flavors or change the texture? Why choose ingredients based on non-nutritional characteristics like color and appearance? Why do we present the food on a platter garnished with things that we may not even eat?

We go that extra mile enhancing and arranging the meal because as with the Christmas tree, we recognize it as a sacrifice that has been made for us in the circle of life. We also honor the food by using as much of it as we can: the drippings and giblets for gravy; the carcass for chicken stock; the celery and fennel leaves for flavoring; the stale bread that becomes pudding.

Of course not every meal receives the elaborate presentation of the holidays, but when we take time and care in preparing and cooking our food, we are not only enhancing our own enjoyment, but are participating in a scaled down version of the ritual feast.

The Christmas Twist: Some Alternative Holiday Songs

According to this XKCD chart, Christmas is music has been stagnating since the late 1940’s and early 50’s. Although I love to sing along with the classics, for the last couple of years I have tried to seek out some modern and alternative holiday music. This year I augmented my holiday playlist with some non-holiday songs that still fit the Christmas spirit, at least for me. My Christmas gift to you, music friends, is to share this list of modern holiday and non-holiday songs that you might enjoy as a respite from “Rudolph” and “Frosty”, and yet still be in the spirit of the season. I’ve tried to link to decent videos where possible, as well as noting what versions I listen to at home.

What would you add to this list? What would be in your personal list?

Modern Holiday
Sarah Siskind‘s 2010 EP “All Come Together Now” is among my favorite new holiday music, with original songwriting band Sarah’s beautiful voice. For example: “May Love Fall Like Snow“. Grace Potter also has a pair of freshly rockin’ holiday songs.

Nerdy Christmas
Among the songs on John Aneallo’s holiday EP, two stand out for the kid in me: “Batman Smells – A Rebuttal” and “The Millennium Falcon for Christmas”, a song with which I can truly identify since I never got one. Johnathan Coulton‘s Christmas card from the Anderson family is a favorite at our house: “Merry Christmas from Chiron Beta Prime“. “Christmas At Ground Zero” by Werid Al Yankovic is a must have for all Dr. Strangelove fans. One more for the geek’s Christmas is Space Zombie Christmas” by Hecktor Zick Zack and Death Ray.

Dysfunctional Family Christmas
The Pogues great duet from Shane McGowana and Kirsty MacColl “Fairytale Of New York“. “Christmas In Prison” by John Prine – a great song for which I could not find a good YouTube of Prine singing it himself, but judging by the number of home videos I am not the only one who loves this one. “Merry Christmas From The Family”  – Robert Earl Keen. Mom got drunk and dad got drunk at the Christmas party…

Old Time
Breaking Up Christmas” performed here by one of several great fiddle players we lost in 2011: Benton Flippen of Mount Airy, NC.  Another is West Virginian fiddler French Carpenter’s “Old Christmas Morning“. A great version of “Hard Times Come Again No More” was sung by Mavis Staples on the “Songs of Stephen Foster” compilation,  but I love the Emmylou Harris version as well.

Folk Rock
The Simon & Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is quite at home in a holiday mix, though I like Johnny Cash’s version from American IV. Another from that album is The Beatles song “In My Life”, which bring out memories of family. Jethro Tull’s “A Christmas Song” is a personal favorite. Hey, Santa, pass us that bottle, will ya?
Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah” fits right in, but I prefer Rufus Wainwright’s singing or  Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele instrumental. “Ring Them Bells“, a Bob Dylan song performed beautifully by Sarah Jarosz, whose first two albums are always in high rotation at my place.

Other Spirituals
Several Gillian Welch songs fit in this section: “By The Mark“, “Red Clay Halo” and “Rock Of Ages” are in the mix, as well as her duet with Allison Krauss on “I’ll Fly Away”, though I also love this fresh version by Del McCoury & The Preservation Hall Jazz Band from “American Legacies”. “Amazing Grace” was an obvious choice. My favorite versions are an instrumental by guitarist Andy Falco, and Ani DiFranco jamming on it with a full orchestra backing. Hank Williams’ song “House Of Gold” is also in tune with the season of giving and receiving. I like both the Willie Nelson version from his recent album “Country Music”, as well as Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien’s duet on “Real Time”. I could not find a YouTube of either of those, however, so enjoy this one from the Secret Sisters. Another Hank Williams classic spiritual is “I Saw The Light“, with my favorite version by banjo innovator Earl Scruggs. Last but not least, the haunting vocals of Blue Highway singing “Wondrous Love“. Highly recommended.

For the Non-Believers
A trio of tunes for the agnostics, humanists and all-of-the-aboves in your life: “Let The Mystery Be” by Iris Dement, the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” by Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Grateful Dead acoustic classic “Ripple“.

Movie Themes
With so many TV specials and movies that come out for the holiday season, there are bound to be some that strike a chord of nostalgia. For me there is “Linus & Lucy”, the theme from the Peanuts. Probably because they both came out around Christmas, “May It Be” by Enya, from the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings soundtrack and “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter soundtrack. It would not be Christmas at our house without a little Jack Skellington. We love the whole soundtrack by Danny Elfman, but the “Christmas Eve Montage” I find fits best in the playlist.

How about you? What are your alternative holiday songs? What are your favorite obscure ones?

7 Reasons To Pick Your Own Fruit


Blueberries from Frog Eye Farm in Knoxville, MD.

Gathering your own food is a very basic human survival function that many people never experience in this day and age, but spending some time to pick your own fruit can have other benefits besides the ripe, delicious fruit you can eat straight from the vine. I recently wrote about blueberry and blackberry picking, and April Finnen has compiled a great list of pick-your-own orchards in the Frederick, MD area.

Why sacrifice some of your limited time to get something you can get at the store? Here are seven reasons why I think you should get outside and gather:

  1. It’s a great deal – pick your own berries are much cheaper than in stores, and it’s easy to wash and freeze them for later use so you can impress your guests with a local berry dessert in winter.
  2. It’s a great way to get natural, low stress exercise that will help offset the cobbler and ice cream you will have when you get home.
  3. You get to meet the farmer who grows your food.
  4. You will gain a lot of respect for folks who work the fields for a living.
  5. It puts money directly into your local economy and helps that green space continue to thrive.
  6. You will learn something about the growing seasons, the land and local ecology.
  7. It’s fun for families, groups and dates.

Fresh blackberries from Crooked Run Orchard in Purcellville, VA.

    With a mountain of fresh, local fruit at your disposal, who knows what recipes you might try? Let me know about your favorite places to pick fruit in the comments below.