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Artifact: Lucky! by the Whammadiddle Dingbats, 1989.
Description: Audio cassette, with various markings on its case and liner notes.
Source: Thrift shop, early 2017. I bought this and forgot I had it until I was cleaning up a couple months ago.
I buy a lot of thrift things because they look goofy. Most of them are terrible. This one wasn’t.
The cover of Lucky! by the Whammadiddle Dingbats is a trio of musicians smiling awkwardly behind a guitar and two hammer dulcimers. Are you a hammer dulcimer fan? You could be. It sounds a bit like a banjo, but with more ring and less twang; two of them together sound like a harpsichord. The trio are Mick Doherty, Lawrence Huntley and Kevin Shay Johnson, and they are the Whammadiddle Dingbats. Lucky! is written above their heads like a thought bubble.
There’s no thesis statement in the packaging; it’s just lyrics, production credits and a P.O. box in Portland you could write to for more info. (“KMUN” is also hand-written in various places. KMUN-FM is – and was in 1989 – an NPR affiliate in Astoria, Oregon.) Digging around online, it seems the band is still together (plus one new member) as the Cascadia Folk Quartet.
A note at the bottom of their webpage remarks that “the hammer dulcimer can be a workout.” Indeed, only one of the tracks on Lucky! has any electric accompaniment. The rest of the time, the Dingbats have to wring the music out of their instruments. Eight of the album’s 12 tracks are instrumentals, mostly of traditional tunes, often in medleys. Here’s a sample:
(None of the tracks from Lucky seem to be online anywhere, so I copied a few to my computer. Unfortunately, it seems my portable tape player only has mono output.)
The instrumentals are nice, but by the end of the second side, they’ve begun to blend together. Maybe that’s fitting, though. The four vocal tracks are more powerful, but melancholy; the liveliness of the instrumentals brightens Lucky! as a whole.
A theme is laid out in “Metal Detector,” the first vocal track. Written by Kevin Shay Johnson (the guitar player), it approaches life with empty pockets:
What’ll I do now that middle age has got me by the hand?
And the careers I discovered in college have faded away.
By the chorus, he’s resolved “to be one of those guys, with a metal detector / Looking for treasure, in the park.” It’s an amusingly pitiable statement, perfectly matched to a cha-cha beat. A long instrumental break near the end is the perfect place to stand up, stretch, and groove sadly while no one’s watching.
“Metal Detector” is also the only song on Lucky that matches what I expected the album to be: a work of bemused comedy. But what humor there is is more wry than that, and “Metal Detector” focuses on the gap between aspiration and acceptance.
“Who Woulda Thunk It,” track 5, is a surprisingly candid acknowledgment of where the folk bandwagon ends and you have to continue on foot. Over a sparse but hard-to-define arrangement (is it bluesy calypso? Fugue ragtime? Just folk rock?) the Dingbats sing wearily of tolerances whose time has long since passed. “We used to say ‘I can eat a horse’ / And we could, and we did”; now they want real food “from the cookbook / That new one with the great graphics.” Jejune pleasures of the past are being abandoned for jejune pleasures of the present; the soul loses a battle with the body, and retrenches.
“Who Woulda Thunk It” was written by non-Dingbat Greg Brown, the only person in the liner notes with his own Wikipedia page. His original version, from 1985, is somber bluegrass; the Dingbats lighten the delivery to focus on the sardonic cast of the lyrics. The 1980s are not remembered as a great decade for folk music, but Brown and the Dingbats deserve credit for turning around and asking the scene what its end-game is.
There are two songs and four instrumentals per side. Side B (which has “KMUN” written on it again) opens with an instrumental, followed by the weakest of the songs. Written by Johnson, “Out on the Highway” matches generic country and western rhythm to so-so lyrics about wanting to go try a new life somewhere else. Still, the song preaches a hard-won optimism that’s hard to dislike:
And don’t listen to your neighbors, they might say that you’re too old
To go out chasin’ rainbows out on the open road.
The album closes with a small masterpiece called “Moonshine in the White Pines.” It gently paints a picture of forgotten labors, and asks us to care.
A column called Thriftstorm was probably always going to be an easy mark for that kind of message, but I think it’s beautiful. Even with tape hiss. Even in mono.
The notes credit the author as Dillon Bustin, and I tracked down his version of “Moonshine in the White Pines.” Even if the bitrate in that sample were higher, I wouldn’t like it as much. It’s too jaunty to be the thoughts of a man imagining the vanished people who built a forgotten home.
As they perked up “Who Woulda Thunk It,” the Dingbats tone “Moonshine in the White Pines” down. In between, and with “Metal Detector” and “Out on the Highway,” they find common ground. The songs of Lucky! are about the quiet search for self that each of us does when we’re not busy with life. There’s no pretension there.
Next Time: Nobody throws out a globe.
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