Banjos, kittens and happy endings

Stockings, before receiving treatment

Stockings, before receiving treatment

Stockings, after undergoing corrective surgery

Stockings, after undergoing corrective surgery

Just want to say hi Patrick. I find you to be very inspirational and I can tell you’re a wonderful person. I’m a 60 year old special education teacher from suburban Chicago and have been plating the banjo for a year now and you’re videos have been tremendously helpful. I saw in todays Daily Frail that you have a cat. Well I have an inspirational story for you. My son is a veterinary surgeon in Chicago and he did a pro bono surgery for the Tree House Animal Shelter in Chicago. A kitten was brought in that was born with it’s rear legs facing backwards. My son (Steven Neihaus) did this experimental surgery and actually turned the legs around. The kitten now runs around like any other cat. When this occurred (last January) Tree House sent a press release to the media and the story went around the world. I’ll include some links but if you Google “Stockings the kitten” you’ll get the idea. The Chicago TV news just did and update on the kitten a couple of weeks ago and I’ll include that link too. Just want to share a nice inspirational story with you because your Youtube’s are an inspiration to me. Thanks again.

Norm Neihaus
Skokie, Ill

The Daily Frail’s New Format

The new, literally daily, format for The Daily Frail has generated a lot of questions. People view the Internet as a sort of permanent archive – a library where the books are never overdue – so the idea of material being online for just a day seems a little crazy.

Here is a story that might help you understand why I am changing the format of The Daily Frail:

Harmonica Joe
From The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar by Patrick Costello.

“Hey kid, you want to make a couple of dollars?”

I wasn’t so naïve that I didn’t know the usual course of action a kid was supposed to take when an old man in a raincoat asks a question like that. But this guy looked pretty harmless, and I was curious about the huge chromatic harmonica he had pulled out of his pocket, so I didn’t run like hell.

He was waving the harmonica around like a wand as he started talking again. “You break out that guitar and we can make a few bucks. Maybe get us some lunch. Maybe make enough to get some burgers to take home with me. Come on kid. Play a tune with Harmonica Joe.”

I was on the boardwalk in Atlantic City looking for something to do while my grandfather trolled the slot machine pits in one of the casinos. He wasn’t really interested in gambling. Oh, he might toss a few bucks into the slots but he was really interested in talking to the little old lady bingo queens. These trips were more about a technically free bus ride (they would charge you ten bucks for the trip and then give you a roll of quarters at the door) and a chance to bird­dog down by the ocean. I only came along because mom thought somebody needed to keep an eye on him.

I was in the habit of taking my guitar with me everywhere I went back then. It made things like taking a bus trip kind of rough because the case was so big and heavy, but I figured you never know when you might run into a chance to play so I kept it with me. We would make this trip every once in a while and sometimes I could sneak in and play some slots. That wasn’t too much fun because whenever I managed to hit a jackpot grandpop would claim my winnings. It was funny. He didn’t have a problem with me gambling, but he did have a problem with letting me keep what I won. On this particular trip one of the security guards stopped me at the door. I guess the sight of a kid dragging this huge guitar case around while ogling the cocktail waitresses was kind of hard to miss.

I tried to con my way through by giving the security guard a big grin and saying “I’m with the band.”

It didn’t work. If anything, it made everything worse.

Grandpop wasn’t much help. He just hollered “Ah, it serves you right for being a wise guy!” as they threw me out. He even kept my free roll of quarters. So I had the boardwalk to myself on a cool day. I had no money and nothing to do. I started wandering around looking at the tourists and the wannabe gangster types until I saw the old guy covered with birds.

He was trying to eat a hotdog in this arthritic kind of slouch. He looked like his back was too messed up to stand up straight. The pigeons and seagulls were lined up on his back and shoulders trying to reach around his head and swipe a piece of his lunch. There were so many birds piled on him that I couldn’t really see his face. As I walked over to get a better look he noticed me and brought his head up to look me in the eye, well, he tried to but a seagull hopped up on his hat.

“Hey old timer. That’s a pretty good trick with the birds.”

“Help me out here kid. Get these damn birds off of me!”

I cracked up. I dropped my guitar case and started swatting at his passengers. They were pretty fearless and it took a little bit of work to get rid of them all.

“Hell of a thing when a man can’t eat his lunch.” He said. Then my guitar case caught his attention and he asked me if I knew how to play.

“A little,” I said. “But I’m not really that good.”

He thought about it for a second and asked me if I wanted to make a few bucks as he waved his harmonica.

So there I was wandering down the boardwalk following this little old man with a crooked back. He was talking a mile a minute and I had a hard time understanding everything he was saying. Part of it was the way he talked, but I was also trying as hard as I could not to break out laughing. He still had his slightly used and pigeon-­pecked hot dog in one hand and his harmonica in the other and as he talked he swung them around like batons.

“Now the first thing we have to do is find ourselves a spot. You’ve got to have a good spot. In front of the casinos is no good because everybody going in or out is either broke or saving up to go broke. You know the house always wins? Don’t gamble son, it’ll ruin you as quick as a showgirl. I should know. Now we want a spot where we can hit the couples. Couples aregood because if you sing to the girl her boyfriend has to throw you a tip or she’ll think he’s a heel.”

“So we sing to the girl and we find a good spot.”

“That’s right! You’re getting the idea. I might get myself some lunch today! I told you my name was Harmonica Joe? I used to be on the radio.” He started to sing, “Hello and what do you know? It’s Harmonica Joe on the ra-­di-­oh! ”

We wandered around until Joe found a spot he liked. We were close to a couple of tourist trap shops with cheesy t­-shirts and salt water taffy baskets on display.

“Now here’s what we’ll do. I’ll call the songs. You know any jazz tunes?”

“No.”

“Good. Then that’s what we’ll play. You get to a chord you don’t know just move your hand up and down across the strings and smile at the people. Out here they can’t hear you so if they see you moving around like you’re playing they will think the ocean is just drowning you out.”

He went over some more things like how to casually draw attention to my guitar case so people would think to toss in some money and how you have to play standing up so people won’t think you’re lazy.

It was pretty cool because Joe really had this system down. We worked the people passing by just as easy as you please while we played. When a couple stopped to listen he would fuss over the girl and take her by the hand to do a couple of dance steps. When a family stopped he would stoop down and fuss over the kids, which was my cue to look at the dad and give a little cough as I lightly kicked my guitar case to rattle the change.

The whole time this was going on Harmonica Joe talked to me about performing. He talked some about the places he had been, but most of the time he talked about how the game works. He said that entertaining people wasn’t just about playing well, you also had to be able make them feel good about listening to you.

I’m not sure how long we played that afternoon. Time just sort of flew by because I was having so much fun playing and watching Joe work his audience. It all came to a halt when Joe all of a sudden kicked my guitar case closed and shoved it under a bench in one sweeping motion of his foot. The next thing I knew Joe had stashed his harmonica in his pocket and just sort of stood there like he was asking me the time or something. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until the cop walked over.

“Nice try, Joe. But I’ve been watching you two for a while now.”

“Why hello officer. It’s a lovely day isn’t it?”

“Joe, how many times have I told you that I don’t want you out panhandling on my boardwalk?”

“Panhandling? You’re acting like every musician out on the street is some kind of bum!”

“Joe, you are a bum.” Before Joe could say anything the cop turned to me. “Who are you?”

I gave him a big grin and said, “It’s ok. I’m with the band.”

He didn’t seem to think that was any funnier than the security guard did.

“So you’re out here learning to be a bum?”

“I thought I’d give it a shot. If things don’t work out I could always be a co. . .” Joe cut me off right in the middle of the punch line.

“He’s just a kid playing a little bit of guitar for old Joe. Nothing wrong with that is there, officer?”

The cop gave me the hairy eyeball for a moment. I gave him by best grin again and he finally relaxed and started to laugh. “Well, you guys didn’t sound too bad. Matter of fact you sound better than the guys further down the boardwalk, but they ain’t breaking the law because they have a license.”

I started to say something but Joe kicked me and gave me the signal to keep my mouth shut.

The cop looked at us again, gave a deep sigh as he shook his head and said, “I’m going to take a walk. When I come back I want both of you gone. I’m sick of telling you this Joe. I don’t want to see you again today.”

So that was that. Time to hit the bricks. I was sad that it was over but I had a great time and, whether he knew it or not, Joe had taught me a lot about performing. It also hit me right about then that I was dead tired. This had been a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work.

I dragged my guitar case out from under the bench and was kind of shocked at how much money the marks had thrown in. There was a lot of change but there were quite a few ones and fives.

Joe took a peek at the money and his face brightened up. “Not a bad take for a little bit of work. Fifty­-fifty sound good to you?”

I thought about it for a second and decided that I could go one better than that. I scooped up the money and handed it to Joe.

“Here. You take it and get yourself those burgers.”

Joe tried to argue with me but I wouldn’t hear about it. I told him that it was the least I could do in return for some of the tricks he had shared with me (and in the years afterward knowing how to rustle up a few bucks on the street has gotten me out of more than one bad scrape) and that the only thing I would probably do with my half was give my grandfather another shot at the slots. We said our goodbyes and Joe gave me a quick hug before he disappeared into the crowd.

I was squaring away my guitar case when my grandfather came running over shouting, “What the hell have you been up to?” Apparently he had seen me handing Joe a fistful of money because he started yelling at me about hanging out with bums and giving money away.

We took a walk up and down the boardwalk to kill some time before the bus came back to take us home. Grandpop carried on the whole time that Joe was just going to go get drunk with the money and that I was a total jackass for thinking otherwise.

“Ah, I don’t care grandpop. I liked the old guy and I think you’re wrong about him. You don’t know the guy. He’s just going to buy some cheeseburgers.”

“If you believe that you must be stupid. Don’t you know anything?”

We were walking past the McDonalds on the boardwalk when Joe stepped out lugging this big bag of cheeseburgers and a large cup of coffee. He spotted me and started waving the bag shouting, “God bless you boy! I got my lunch and I got some to take home! Goodbye, and don’t forget old Harmonica Joe!”

I shouted back, “Hello and what do you know? It’s Harmonica Joe on the ra-­di-­oh!” He did a couple of quick dance steps and shuffled off into the crowd.

For the first time in my life my grandfather didn’t have anything to say.


This was how I learned my craft. I spent my teenage years and beyond wandering the countryside with a banjo or guitar slung over my shoulder (sometimes both) being open to learn from anybody I chanced to meet. When I did run across a musician willing to share with me I knew that each encounter was a once in a lifetime moment. There was no record button or bookmark to save the hours I spent with Harmonica Joe. I had to take in and absorb as much as I could before the moment was lost.

A good example of this sort of folk moment in action is The Subway Shuffle.

I know nothing about the guy who taught me what I went on to call The Subway Shuffle. We only spent a tiny bit of time together, but almost thirty years later I am still building on the technique he taught me. If I had not been paying attention – treating the moment as something precious, something to remember -I would not be the guitar player I am today.

By keeping The Daily Frail up for just a day I am hoping to bring some of that immediacy into play.

Now, I have built a few compromises into the system. We make the past week’s episodes available on weekends, and you always have the option of downloading the episode from Vimeo, and we will be releasing DVD’s from time to time.

We may change things in one way or another down the road, but for right now The Daily Frail truly is daily.

Not twice this day
Inch time foot gem.
This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.
~Takuan Soho

Old Foggy Mountains

Peter writes:

Hi Patrick! So happy to hear that you will be starting up the daily frail again.
Anyway, just wanted to thank you again for all of your instructional videos. I have been practicing and learning alot (especially now that I’m on summer break). I made this video of a tune that i’m working on writing and wanted to share! Thanks so much for all of your great teaching and passion. You’re an awesome teacher! Hope you’re doing well.

Red River Valley

Ian writes:

Hi Patrick and Pat,
I am really happy to hear that the daily frail is to return shortly :)
I thought I would let you know about my first play with a friend on fiddle. He is normally a classical violinist and didn’t really know the tune until the previous day. This video was taken on about the 5th take so Andrew is doing really well . We have not cracked the ending yet as you will see :)
The recording was done on the Scottish island of Tanera Mor in the Summer Isles. A place that has no roads or vehicles at all. We were probably the noisiest thing to happen to the island for years! Thanks to you both for your continued enthusiasm for frailing and music. It is due to you that I have got this far after about 18 months.

First Steps . . .

My brother in Spain writes:

Hi my brother,
Las sunday Maribel (our sister) come home to have coffe and her son (Carlos) pick up the banjo. I recorded this little clip and she took this picture.
Carlos and Carlos
http://youtu.be/uNv8iH5XqHs

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