Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Come From New York City with A Banjo on my Mind

Playing banjo sets one apart, at least nowadays. It's a loud instrument with a distinctive sound, no hiding from the metallic twang, pretending it's just another guitar, or that it doesn't transform any music played upon it. Unlike other folk instruments such as guitar or mandolin, it is not all that easy to play even poorly, and playing well takes dedication, determination, and understanding roommates/spouses/friends. I was once walking down the street on my way to a show, guitar on my back and carrying my banjo case, when I heard two young men behind me joking about "that Hee-Haw shit." No sense not letting them have their fun. The tv show Hee-Haw defined country music for me when I was young and foolish also--corny songs, bad comedy, funny accents and banjos seemed to go together all too well.

I was a long time coming to country music, beyond a few Hank Williams songs and country-rock. It took a former punk rocker, John Carruthers (and his great country-punk band Lancaster County Prison), to get me oriented. John and I were colleagues at a publishing company, and he explained that banjo wasn't just a Nashville adornment to make any song sound unsophisticated enough for rubes. It had a long and varied history, and players as odd and compelling and powerful as any Delta bluesman or bebop virtuoso. "Start with Uncle Dave Macon," he suggested. He had a few tips about playing, but I was years from trying that. I had to hear the instrument first on its own terms, to set my own biases aside as best I could and listen.

I bought a compilation cd, NASHVILLE: The Early String Bands, Vol 2.(County Records CO-CD-3522), because I saw Macon's name among the artists. Macon was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry. Born in 1870, he had deep roots in American music-making and embodied the accumulated traditions of minstrelsy, medicine shows, vaudeville, country dances, back-porch picking. The cd had two of his pieces, "Over the Road I'm Bound To Go" which he sings and plays with Sam McGee backing on "banjo-guitar" according to the notes (that would be a banjo body with a guitar neck and 6 strings), and "Bake That Chicken Pie" performed with his Fruit Jar Guzzlers Sam McGee on guitar/vocals and Kirk McGee and Mazy Todd on fiddles/vocals. The latter song, recorded in 1927, has a familiar country beat, almost a 2/4 rhythm suited to dancing, and a comic vocal about the joys of chicken pie eating. Good fun, but about what I expected to hear.

"Over the Road I'm Bound To Go" from a year later is quite another matter. It sounds like one elaborated banjo lick over and over, Macon spitting out couplets "Judge and jurymen, can't you see/I have murdered in the first degree" and "It may rain, it may snow/Over the road I'm bound to go" and "Every station I pass by/thought I heard a little lady cry" and whooping like a mad rooster every so often. It sounds like he's playing a different variation of the lick nearly every couplet, the notes just keep ricocheting like buckshot with incredible drive, supported by what sounds like spoons or tapping feet now and then (I'd guess feet unless Sam McGee had 4 hands). The song is one root chord with a lick that indicates the five chord without pausing long enough to play it fully. All of Macon's showmanship and musicianship are on aural display. I was hooked.

Yazoo Records has been a huge reservoir of American song for me in my listening--I buy just about every Yazoo compilation I find. The first was MY ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS: Early American Rural Music Vol. 2--Badman Ballads and Hellraising Songs (Yazoo 2040) which has Macon's 1938 "Railroading and Gambling" and another duet with Sam McGee, both men on guitar, from 1926, "Late Last Night When Willie Came Home." "Railroading" is another one-chord banjo frenzy played in classic clawhammer style with it's rolling boom-diddy beat, another series of couplets and a chorus phrase "Railroading and gambling/picking up chips from mad men/lord, lord, lord" all following the same major pentatonic scale, with some wonderful scat singing and banjo flourishes. It swings madly by its own metronome, never pauses to catch its breath. Macon's lyrics draw on white and black folk lyrics and vernacular, just as his banjo playing harkens back to African technique as well as using finger patterns developed in the late 19th century as banjo became a more accepted and formalized instrument.

These older musicians interest me as a way to connect to music before mechanical recording and almost lost to us now. Macon was the son of a Confederate Civil War veteran, born 5 years after the war ended. New Orleans blues guitarist Rabbit Brown was slightly younger, born around 1880. Banjoist Uncle John Scruggs, filmed around 1930 playing an old minstrel tune "Little Old Cabin Down the Lane," looks old enough to have been born in slavery--check out the clip on youtube for shots of his clawhammer playing, the index fingernail picking the notes, the thumb bouncing on the shorter drone and 4th strings for rhythm. Each of these musicians used songs from white and black traditions, instrumental techniques passed back and forth from black to white musicians, and sang in deeply drawled accents reflecting the inextricably twined cultures of Africa and Europe in America. Macon arguably sounds "blacker" than Brown and closer to Scruggs.

In 1992, the Tennessee Banjo Institute sponsored a series of workshops, part of which is also available on Youtube. shows the late Scott Didlake discussing the origins of the instrument with Mike Seeger and others. They have several recreations of primitive banjos, made of gourds that Didlake grew himself, and he posits the gourd banjo as the predecessor of the electric guitar as well as the modern banjo, capable of volumes and vocal nuances that early guitars just could not express. "The well of souls" is his phrase for the gourd banjo, an instrument whose African origins are clear and unmistakeable, whose every part--gourd, wooden neck, skin head, and gut strings--came from living beings, whose music kept cultural memory and identity alive and growing and expanding even in the most dire circumstances.

Every banjo player taps that well of souls the minute they pick up the instrument. Ironically, the composer whose songs most elevated minstrel banjo playing, Stephen Foster, did not himself play banjo--he owned a small guitar, played piano, and apparently flute as well. Blackface minstrel performers were the first white public performers on banjos, imitating the clawhammer or frailing strums of black players. Thomas Jefferson mentions the "banjar" as a slave instrument, and I like to think of him picking one up and giving it a whirl when he tired of his violin or wanted to impress Sally Hemmings and their mulatto offspring. We know banjos were played in the Carribean almost as soon as slaves were first imported in the early 17th century. Banjos may have gotten associated with "hillbilly music" and the white south, due not just to its popularity among rural white southerners but through the marketing of the music industry, but its African origins and role in creating African-American identity (elements of which all Americans of any hue share) cannot be erased.

Gus Cannon might be the best known of the old black banjo players, and his Jug Stompers were well-recorded in the late 1920s. He was born in 1883, or perhaps as early as 1874, and his combo of 3 musicians featured his banjo and jug-blowing, guitarist Ashley Thompson, and Noah Lewis on harmonica. Again, Yazoo has preserved his music on various cds, among them BEFORE THE BLUES: The Early American Black Music Scene Vol. 3 (Yazoo 2017), on which appears the song "Feather Bed." This is the same major pentatonic melody as Macon's "Over the Road and Bound to Go" with the same chorus and many of the same couplets. Cannon's tempo is a bit steadier and has a pronounced rhythmic accent on the 1 and 3 beats that gives the 4/4 time a 2/4 feel. There's a picture of the band, Cannon holding his banjo and wearing a jug in a neck brace similar to a harmonica rack. He seems to be holding a pick in his right hand, and the recording sounds as if he is strumming plectrum-style rather than playing in the more rhythmic clawhammer style. Plectrum playing developed as banjo orchestras gained popularity in the late 19th century, playing popular songs and early ragtime music, then early jazz, where the banjo was a key rhythm instrument loud enough to compete with horns and drums. Cannon's "Feather Bed" sounds a bit more modern and even commercial than Macon's "Railroading and Gambling." The harmonica is the main solo instrumental voice, not the banjo.

Other great old banjo players I've been listening to include Buell Kazee, Clarence Ashely and Dock Boggs, and I've taken songs from all of them into my band repertory. Ashley's classic "The Coo-coo Bird" is on my new cd, but I play tenor guitar on it, not banjo. I've performed Kazee's "The Dying Soldier" often, usually as a clawhammer tune because that is a more fixed right hand technique and easier for me to execute while singing. Boggs, another blues-drenched white banjo player, was like Ashley and Kazee recorded in the 1920s/early 1930s and then forgotten. Ashley kept playing with neighbors, Kazee became a minister, Boggs worked in mills and sold his banjo. Fortunately, all three men survived to be rediscovered in the 1950s and recorded and honored for their seminal work. I've taken to playing Bogg's "False Hearted Lover's Blues" in recent shows, but usually on mandolin or mandola. It's another one chord, pentatonic song imbued with his particularly grim fatalism--"When my earthly stay is over/throw my dead body in the sea/just tell my false hearted lover/the whales will fuss over me."

I have a 5-string banjo and a 4-string tenor banjo. I'm not very good on the 5-string, so I perform with it cautiously. I understand the open-G tuning because I use it on dobro, but the thumb and fingers do very different things on guitar than on banjo. Clawhammer is a more steady rhythm for my purposes; the later style developed by Snuffy Jenkins, Earl Scruggs and other bluegrass banjo players is really a pursuit of virtuosity. There are simpler two- and three-finger picking patterns players also used. At least I'm told they are simpler. I remain in awe of those who master them. There are numerous banjo players around New York City who are quite proficient; we are in a bit of a folk revival these days akin to that of the 1950s, plenty of jug bands, bluegrass bands, old-timey groups playing in clubs and bars and colleges and busking in good weather. I want to mention two banjo players in particular who have impressed me on numerous occasions.

Cousin Eli Smith teaches various banjo styles and performs around NYC, and he hosts an internet radio show and a live music showcase in the East Village. He's the best young clawhammer player I've heard, and sings in a high rough tenor whine with remarkable phrasing--nothing showy or false to his roots in the concrete hollows of lower Manhattan, just plain American singing at its best on songs he lives and breathes. He also plays two- and three-finger banjo on some songs, and his knowledge of banjo music is both deep and practical. I don't think of him as scholarly, like Mike Seeger, or utterly virtuosic like Bela Flek. He just plays the skin off that banjo every time with personal modesty and devotion to the cause of music. You can catch a brief sample of his work at playing the old time tune Ruben's Train. Eli is about the song, not his own chops, and honoring his musical ancestors as well as building a community of musical souls. You can see some of the fruits of his labors here, but if you are in New York, find out where he plays next and make it your business to see him live.

The other young banjo player I've most enjoyed is Hilary Hawke and her band Hogzilla. Hilary studied with Tony Trishka and plays in the post-Earl Scruggs bluegrass style. She is a fluent and swinging player, keeps the 8th and 16th notes rolling right along, knows the classic banjo tunes and licks. She's good enough that she could just keep doing that if she so chose, get plenty of work, be "the girl banjo player" on an instrument dominated by men. It's exciting to hear her play the traditional banjo music, and I've jammed with her a few times in hectic settings where her calm command and good taste always shine through the country-tinged chaos. Her band Hogzilla has some other fine musicians, and she generously shares singing, songwriting and instrumental duties with them. Hilary's own voice is not "pretty" in the ordinary sense--it's hard-edged. She has a natural feel for blues values, the flatted thirds and fifths and sevenths so useful on the banjo itself, and uses them well while rarely playing a standard blues form. I admire this tremendously not simply because it shows some understanding of music, but because it expresses a feel for life itself. Her song writing is deep in a similar way--she fronts a group on banjo, but there are no obvious banjo flag wavers or barn burners. Some are built around banjo licks, but none are mere vehicle for flashy display. The songs demand listening--and reward it. You can get a taste of her playing here where she performs with some of the luminaries of the NYC country scene, and her own music can be sampled on her myspace site. My personal favorite of the moment is her song "God" but they're all swell.

Something unique happens when you put a banjo on your knee and let it ring. I truly believe you connect to the past through music, as well as determine the present and affect the future. Music is a way of measuring motion, to paraphrase jazzman Marion Brown, and defining how time passes. If the measures are clear, the definitions insightful, then the music means something to others and may live beyond the maker. I have an ancient tenor banjo I love playing in the park (it's a bit unpredicatble for stage use, although I do try now and then). My favorite tuning is DGDG, a modal tuning that allows a lot of improvisational options and relatively simple chords, great for the pentatonic tunes like "Pretty Polly" and "The Coo-coo Bird" and "Feather Bed." It's nearly trance-inducing and meditative at times. In the standard CGDA tuning, I love playing "O, Susannah" and "Camptown Races" and "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Beautiful Dreamer." Someday I'll try to get banjo lessons from either or both of my colleagues Eli and Hilary. For now I just watch them closely whenever I can and hope my eyes connect to my fingers at some point.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Zing Went the Strings of Their Hearts: a Stardust Reverie

Music in colonial America began with the human voice, and string instruments followed closely. I had to think a moment before writing that, as I know little of Native American music. What I’ve heard is indeed vocal music, and the technology available to the varied pre-Columbian cultures would indicate that percussion, woodwinds, and perhaps string music may have graced North America. Drums, gourds, clapping and stomping seem likely. Primitive flutes may have been brought to the continent by Asian hunter-gatherers in the first wave of migration. And hunting and fire bows have their musical uses. So all the necessary elements of a blues or rock band would have been present in North America from about 13,000 years ago, except perhaps the African affinity for the pentatonic scale.

Still, I like to think of vocal music as the natural antecedent of all other musics, indeed of all literature and even the basis of the common and consciously shared memories we term “culture.” Melody and rhythm are aids to memory, whether the issue is which kind of stone makes the best spear-point, where the herds go in the dry season, or how grandfather got his scar. Supplication, appeasement and pleas for favorable intercession of divine or natural forces would also figure into musical evolution. All these activities become markers of identity--we are the people who our songs describe, entertain and instruct.

The early English settlers brought their own songs and voices, mostly hymns and psalms for the Sabbath. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Anglicans and Congregationalist who followed them came singing to the New World, and playing as well. Gilbert Chase’s magisterial survey AMERICA’S MUSIC: From Pilgrims to the Present notes that among the most popular instruments was the cittern, an ancestor of the modern guitar with a fretted neck, flat body and metal wire strings which stayed in tune better than the gut-strung lute. Violins and viols of various sizes also made the voyage from the Old World.

By the early years of the 18th Century, the violin and the fiddle were distinguished from one another by the moral character of the owner and audience. Samuel Kendall is among the earliest known American fiddlers of dubious morality, charged in 1705 by Boston’s select men as being “not a suitable person to be admitted to keep a Tavern in this Town.” One might respectably keep a violin in one’s parlor for uplifting music-making; making merry in the tavern with a fiddle tune was the devil’s past-time.

Accounts of African musics in the New World are as old as Kendall’s indictment, and often as morality-tinged. Africans made music for dancing, and early accounts always note the participatory nature of slave music. The praise and narrative responsibilities of the griot in West Africa were observed, as was the use of various harp- and lute-like instruments, including the “bangelo” and “bangeon” in Sierra Leone, clearly the ancestor of the banjo, by the 1740s. While few observers bothered to pay close attention to the details of emerging African-American culture, slaves were permitted their musics in some areas, partly to encourage their survival in an otherwise harsh circumstance, even during the Middle Passage. Dena Epstein’s SINFUL TUNES AND SPIRITUALS: Black Folk Music to the Civil War cites numerous primary source accounts of early African-American musics, including one from a slaver in 1693 describing the ship-board music of “bagpipes, harp and fiddle” (presumably played by the white crew) to which slaves were made to “jump and dance for an hour or two…to preserve them in health.” And as early as the 1690s, Virginia slaves were fiddling for white dancers, sometimes even earning a little money for their labor.

Music seems to unite the Aristotelean and Platonic modes of thought: a collection of empirical phenomena with objectively measurable details, and a collection of ideal forms that we only know through imperfectly realized shadow performances. Songs rise from earth to heaven. They give voice to our expressions of faith and our carnal desires. They inspire and seduce, sometimes in the same song. I learned to sing in church choir as a boy soprano, singing hymns and high mass in Latin, but also from my father’s love of singing and his records of Peggy Lee and Helen O’Connell singing pop standards and Burl Ives singing folk songs. My dad loved to sing lullabies to his children, and I learned “Sidewalks of New York” and “Streets of Laredo” lying in bed in the dark while he crooned from the hallway so all seven children in all three bedrooms could hear.

I was just a little too young to experience directly Elvis Presley and the great synthesis of black and white musics that birthed rock and roll; I remember Elvis going in the army and his return to music two years later, and I remember some of the big hits of 1958-59 when I was 4-5 years old: 1958’s “Purple People Eater” is the first song I recall hearing and wanting to hear again on the radio, but every other hit from that year I know only retrospectively. But 1959 is a different story--somehow at five years old I crossed the great divide and began absorbing pop music firsthand from a radio I knew how to tune away from the AM “easy listening” stations my dad favored to the far right of the dial, WMEX 1410-AM and its top 40 format. The Kingston Trio’s “Charlie of the MTA” was a huge hit, and the Boston radio stations near where I grew up seemed to play it hourly. Lloyd Price’s “Staggerlee” is the first r&b song and the first folk song I can recall hearing on the radio and loving even without really understanding what all the noise was about. Marty Robbin’s “El Paso” was another favorite, with his soaring tenor and the guitars and violins in ¾ time. These were my “scenes of primal instruction” I suppose, in Harold Bloom’s post-Freudian literary scheme of poetic development. I sang along to the radio, and I kept singing whenever I could.

So I was ready for rock and roll, for the Beach Boys, then the Beatles, for Dylan acoustic and Dylan electric, for the Rolling Stones and Them and the Yardbirds. Guitars were the thing, first via folk music, then rock and roll. And like any young fan/devotee/obsessive-in-training, I got picky, even snobby. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet were hopelessly square, with their draggy tempos and string-laden arrangements. Music was about guitars, piano maybe, and drums. Violins held music back, made it too commercial, too acceptable to the old folks. The banjo was okay for folk music. I had no idea what a mandolin was. I saw Alvino Rey play a pedal-steel guitar on tv, which sounded odd in the context of the pop standards he performed. If an album said, “String arrangements by…” I skipped it. Even worse would be “string and horn arrangements by…” I was making Puritanical judgements according to my own gospel, and missing a lot of music thereby. Still, I heard a lot as well, and musicians who knew better started to open up my ears--George Martin and the Beatles on “A Day In the Life“, and Lew Merenstein and Van Morrison on ASTRAL WEEKS most memorably.

Another of my dad’s favorite singers was Nat King Cole, and though I rejected Sinatra and Bennet (a necessary rebellion I later corrected), I always loved Cole. He had hits with “Rambling Rose” and “Cat Ballou” and other pop songs, and I remember watching his television variety show and loving his Christmas carols, but Cole was an accomplished, even important, jazz piano player and singer before becoming a pop icon. His early hits were with the King Cole Trio--piano, bass and guitar plus his swinging vocals--and he never lost his touch even as he broadened his approach with more commercial sounds. His work with Gordon Jenkins produced some of the greatest recordings of American standards, fully on par with Sinatra, Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Among their best is “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael, one of the most beautiful songs any American has composed. The song has a long verse preamble before the main lyric, so long it is sometimes skipped. Jenkins cushions the romantic reverie in Cole’s voice with harp, violins, violas, cellos, a haunting evocation of “the music of the years gone by” that the lyric summons. “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights/dreaming of a song/the melody haunts my reverie/and I am once again with you,” begins the main lyric, and I do not know a finer example of music about music itself than this song in this version.

There are many great versions of this song; I’ve been using the Benny Goodman version with its classic Charlie Christian chordal guitar solo to practice my guitar playing for years (I wish I could report great progress, but no). I have a rare recording from a Harlem nightclub jam session with Helen Humes singing and tenor saxophonist Don Byas playing his own signature solo c. 1941, and another instrumental version from Byas’ own small group in the same era. Sinatra and arranger Don Costa included it on his 1961 SINATRA & STRINGS album. Carmichael originally wrote the song as an instrumental in the 1920s, titled it “Stardust” and recording it as an up-tempo pop song with Emil Seidel’s Orchestra in 1927. Seidel had a “society” band playing pop songs with jazzy touches; an early photo shows a nonette with alto and tenor saxes, two trumpets, piano, trombone, drums and violin. In 1929, Isham Jones, a very popular white dance band leader/violinist, recorded another instrumental version. Carmichael was a staff songwriter for Mills Music, a major music publisher, and his colleague Mitchell Parish was a lyricist at the firm. Someone needed a song to sing in 1929, and Carmichael showed Parish his music as a possible score. “I had a job to do,” Parish told George T. Simon for his THE BIG BANDS SONGBOOK, “and, as a professional, I did it.”

The song was a huge hit in 1940 for innovative big band leader Artie Shaw, who had brought in a string section to augment his horns/reeds/rhythm section band. Strings were common to the society bands and early white “jazz” bands of the 1920s such as Paul Whiteman’s group where Bix Biederbeck and Bing Crosby cut their teeth, but the true “swing era” bands, white or black, such as Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie Orchestra, Duck Ellington, Charlie Barnet, Cab Calloway, shied away from strings other than the occasional violin soloist (early Basie broadcast recordings have guitarist Claude Williams playing a bluesy violin on some numbers). Shaw was among the most ambitious of swing band leaders, a clarinetist of enormous facility (like Goodman) who could play both gutbucket blues and classical music, and his writing for strings supporting trumpet and trombone solos was the song’s breakthrough moment in popular music. The tempo is slow and steady, Billy Butterfield’s Armstrong-influenced trumpet leading the way before yielding to the strings, coming back with piercing high notes to end the opening chorus. Reeds then introduce Shaw’s solo, supported by the strings, until a trombone takes the bridge, and the whole unit swings it lightly to the clarinet finale, a string cadenza and coda. An audio clip here gives you a listen, and note they do not use the verse preamble.

Cole’s complete version, with Jenkin’s haunting strings, can be seen and heard here which is a clip from Cole’s variety show. The arrangement is strings and woodwinds and light percussion--listen for the arco bass just before the ending. There’s not a blue note in evidence, yet this is one of the “bluest” of pop songs, full of longing for a past love and of the isolation erotic reverie brings, when “my only consolation/is in the stardust of a song.” 12,000 years of making music in North America has produced a practically infinite variety of sounds, but the means--strings/percussion/winds/voice--sometimes show startling consistencies across centuries and ethnicities and performing cirumcstances.

Sometimes I really do wonder why I spend what can sometimes be lonely hours dreaming of songs heard, songs imagined but yet composed, songs I mess up every time I try to play them yet keep trying. I’m lucky enough to play with some swell fiddlers, violinists, viola players, in my own groups and working with others. In the right hands, the violin casts such as strong musical spell on me that I have to concentrate to keep playing my own guitar or mandolin part. Hearing a violin solo improvised on a song of mine is more than I ever dared dreamed possible for my life. I can’t prove music has a life of its own, but I suspect it does, that the music “of the years gone by” still lives in the music of today, that somewhere someone is always singing and playing something not entirely of their own invention but drawn from ancestral tones and voices, sustained by shared experience, then notations, then wax cylinders and shellac discs and now digital codes and youtube, but still seeking its own being and telling us something essential about our hearts and souls in the process.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Evans & McClain: Music, Memory and Mystery

Joe Evans and Arthur McClain recorded 17 songs in 20 takes during 3 recording sessions between 1927 and 1931, billed as Two Poor Boys. Their complete recordings are available on THE TWO POOR BOYS on Document Records DOCD-5044 issued in 1991. According to Chris Smith's liner notes, the two hailed from Fairmont, Tennessee, in the east of the state where blacks comprised only about 8% of the populace. That is the sum of our biographical data on the two musicians; we must listen carefully for any other insights into who they were, what instruments each man played, or how they might have developed their charming and unusual sound. Smith credits their community origins for the clear "hillbilly" influence on their singing, playing and song choices; they seem to embody the 19th century "songster" or "musicianeer" approach to music, collecting material from various folk sources and traditions as well as contemporary pop and blues styles, performing them with enough authority to entertain in juke joints, square dances, picnics, vaudeville stages and medicine shows. Whether they did so is pure guesswork, but there are plenty of indicators of the duos versatility; they feature mandolins, guitars, kazoos, piano, violin and two voices adaptable to blues, hokum, Victorian parlor song, jazzy pop, fiddle tunes and banjo tunes.

We don't know who played what, but Joe Evans seems to be the lead singer on many songs. One man's voice has a higher tenor range--this may be Evans--suitable to blues in a fairly commercial style common in the late 1920s. There is none of the gruff, declamatory approach to singing in the Delta style of Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, or Son House common in the deep South. Blind Lemon Jefferson, a far more popular recording artist, is certainly an influence on their sound, and their "Two White Horses In A Line" is his "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" minus Jefferson's title verse. Arthur McClain may be the deeper voice, a relaxed baritone that is comfortable on sentimental ballads and slow blues. The two voices blend easily but never precisely--at times more polyphony than harmony, two voices wandering around the same lyric together in a style that hints at the minstrel show roots of some of the songs as well as anticipating certain r&b and rap styles.

The mandolin work is particularly delightful, regardless of whose hands were responsible. They may both have played it. The playing is swinging and fluent on the instrumental "Sourwood Mountain" which is a traditional fiddle tune they adapt to guitar and mandolin. We call this "old timey" music today, and I imagine they did as well--it sounds old, inherited, played with such clear authority that it was not released as a "race record" but as part of the Perfect record label's hillbilly catalogue. "Old Hen Cackle" is another fiddle tune adapted to mandolin and guitar. Mandolin is tuned like a violin, so the notes are relatively easy to move from one instrument to the other, but the rapid tremelo picking and quick melodic lines on the fretted mandolin are quite different from the sustain, fretless slides and bowed tremeloes available to a fiddler. One of my current challenges as a mandolin player is to become more comfortable playing fiddle tunes, and Evans and McClain's cleanly picked tunes are my personal tutorial of the moment. Mandolin is also a marvelous blues instrument--facility with the pentatonic scale and blue notes was essential to Bill Monroe's innovative mandolin work, and bluesmen Yank Rachel and Johnny Young both played mandolin, Rachel in country blues, Young in Chicago. It's interesting that The Two Poor Boys chose to adapt the fiddle tunes this way, as one of them was no slouch on fiddle which appears on numerous other songs, most prominently on "Sitting On Top Of The World."

Mandolins come from the Italian branch of the lute family, and moved from folk to classical music in the late 18th/early 19th century; Beethoven composed for mandolin and piano. Italian mandolins have a rounded back and angled top with a round sound hole and are sometimes called "'tater bugs" in this country. They gained prominence in America with the influx of Italian immigrants, and mandolin orchestras toured the country in the late 19th century. Mandolins, mandolas and mandocellos sometimes show up in ragtime orchestras alongside tenor banjos, harp guitars and violins. Italianate playing emphasizes melody with tremelo embellishments. As the instrument fell into African-American/Scots-Irish-Appalachian hands, playing styles adapted to complement the banjos and fiddles already in use, with new emphasis on American folk dance rhythms and the modal and folk harmonies of the songs played. Rolling arpeggios, straight 4/4 strums, the sharp attack of the chordal "chop" and the increasing use of the pentatonic scale all brought the voice of the mandolin forward in American music, as did the design innovations leading to the flat-backed A model (teardrop body with either a round sound hole or f-holes) and the Gibson F-model series with its distinctive curves, points and scroll (the carved curled appendage on the bass string side of the body). The instrument is portable and loud, easy to start playing--it took me about 30 minutes to learn to strum through 3 chord songs on my first mandolin, a weathered A-model from Poland I bought at a fleamarket for $30.

The Mississippi Sheiks first big hit "Sitting on Top of the World" in 1930 featured guitar and violin. Evans and McClain's version the following year is faithful to the original. The song itself is a great example of music as process as much as artifact. Walter Vinson of the Sheiks is credited with writing the lyrics, but the tune is one of those melodies whose origin can't quite be determined; Vinson's record label Okeh was sued by Victor whose artist Tommy Johnson had recorded his classic "Big Road Blues" in 1928, claiming Vinson stole Johnson's melody. The suit was settle out of court. Were I Okeh's lawyer, I would have gone to trial--the earlier song is a 12-bar blues, the latter an 8 bar blues, and the melodies are difficult to match up. I just tried singing the Sheiks lyric while listening to Johnson's recording, and it wasn't anywhere near the kind of plagiarism George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" committed against Phil Spector's "Be My Baby." Vinson's melody has a vague echo of "Banks of the Ohio" but really seems based on Leroy Carr's 1928 piano blues hit "How Long, How Long" which is also an 8 bar chord progression. Carr's label Vocalion should have been the litagator. Charlie Patton recorded "Some Summer Day" to the same melody in 1930, but Patton had been playing for almost 25 years by that time and may have been using the melody a long while. My personal favorite use of it is in Robert Johnson's mournful "Come On In My Kitchen" from 1938.

Al Jolson had a hit in 1926 with "I'm Sitting On Top of the World" which was a pop song, not a blues, and good working musicians of the era would naturally be covering popular hits, so it seems likely Vinson picked the key phrase from Jolson (just as black musicians often had borrowed from blackface minstrel songs in the 19th/early 20th centuries). Here's Vinson's lyric (which you can listen to here):

Was all the summer, and all the fall,
Just trying to find my little all-in-all
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

Was in the spring, one summer day
Just when she left me, she's gone to stay
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

An' you come here runnin', holdin' up your hand
Can't get me a woman, quick as you get a man
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

It have been days, I didn't know your name
Why should I worry and prayer in vain
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

Goin' to the station, down in the yard
Gone get me a freight train, work's done got hard
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

The lonesome days, they have gone by
Why should you beg me and say goodbye?
But now she's gone, I don't worry
I'm sitting on top of the world

By 1935, the white hillbilly group The Shelton Brothers had recorded a version with varied lyrics and a livelier tempo more suited to dancing, including the verse about "If you don't like my peaches, stay out of my tree" which appears in a Bessie Smith blues a decade earlier as well as other blues lyrics. Bill Monroe's 1958 recording seems based on the Shelton Brothers. You can hear Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys playing their version here and check out the left-handed guitarist playing his axe upside down.

I first knew the song from Cream's final album, GOODBYE, a bone-crunching live performance that lurches along propelled by Ginger Baker's huge drum sound and Eric Clapton's electric guitar. Jack Bruce sings it well, one of his better blues performances. (A 2005 reunion performance is here.) I soon sought out Howling Wolf's late 1950s electric Chicago blues version on which Cream based theirs, and while it doesn't have the heavy rock sound Cream pioneered, it is a frighteningly intense recording (as many of Wolf's are). Wolf had a long career, learned his blues directly from Charlie Patton (and had an even rougher, deeper voice than Patton). It's fascinating to travel back in time and hear this song in its many versions--it's as if it belongs to everyone, can be sung by anyone whether a black man from the hills of Tennessee, a white Kentuckian, a black Mississippian in Chicago by way of Memphis, a classically trained Scots bassist, everyone finding some new shading of emotion in the song's triumphant fatalism. One of my poet/musician friends once remarked that the three chord blues is like America's musical DNA, endlessly recombining and mutating as songs leap from ear to ear and throat to throat. You hear enough songs and enough musicians, you learn to play, make your own mistakes, come up with your own way of delivering a lyric, and one day the divisions of time and space, of locale and "race" and genre, just melt away--you're hardly yourself anymore, just another empty vessel filled with the sound of what may be eternal grace.

It took me a long time to come to perform music, as if I had to let the desire ferment with all the music I absorbed over 40 plus years of obsessive listening. When I did form a band and start to play shows, one of my main priorities, true to my alienated surburban white boy youth in the 1960s, was to sing the blues. By the time I gave it a shot, I'd heard a lot more than the Rolling Stones and Cream and Bob Dylan and other innovators of blues-rock. I wasn't going to do the semi-minstrel vocal posturing of blues-rock's lesser exponents. I couldn't pretend I came to it naturally as a white southerner like Elvis Presley or Greg Allman, and I wasn't able to learn directly from John Lee Hooker or Fred McDowell like Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. I wanted to honor the blues and the singers and songs I loved.

The Poor Boys Evans and McClain gave me more than one clue about an approach to this ambition of mine. The first time I heard their "Two White Horses In A Line," I knew I had to perform it somehow. It's their version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1928 hit "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" as I noted above, with some interesting differences. I knew the song well, initially from Bob Dylan's remarkable version on his debut album. The song is a 16-bar blues, which seems to be a slightly older blues form than the standard 12-bar progression common to most modern blues. Dylan and Jefferson both play it solo on guitar; Jefferson was the Jimi Hendrix of his day, one of the biggest names in the race records market and an innovative guitar player who would take on all comers in jams, excite audiences by playing the guitar behind his head or between his legs according to guitarist T-Bone Walker who as a boy used to lead him around Dallas streets and collect money for him as he played. In his recording, his singing is downcast as if muted by overwhelming grief at approaching death, the tempo is moderate, the guitar going from alternating bass patterns to melodic fills to "boom-chick" chording, interrupted only on the final verse where he sings, "Have you ever heard that church bell toll" and he hits an open low E string and lets it ring for a moment. His rhythm has a distinct 2/4 feel of older New Orleans blues rather than the more swinging 4/4 blues players developed as the genre matured. It was originally a B-side that earned its status at a landmark of blues singing and playing. Not the sort of tune I could imagine me playing to anyone other than my cats.

The Two Poor Boys recorded and released "Two White Horses In A Line" in 1927, a year earlier than Jefferson, and it could be that Jefferson's "There's one kind favor I ask of you" verse is his only original lyric contribution to the song. The song lyrics seem composed of those turns of phrase--floating lines as musicologists term them--common to many folk songs in various forms and genres, as if there were some verbal automatic teller and every American gets issued a card at birth so we can all withdraw whatever we need to put a song over. Their performance is in two voices in that country polyphony, guitar and mandolin at a moderate but more swinging 4/4 tempo than Jefferson's, the mandolin always playing melody, single note riffs and tremelo accents notes as the guitar defines the rhythm. The duo also hit a chiming note when that church bell tolls, but their bell tolls midway through the song. In the last verse, when they sing, "Did you ever hear that coffin sound?" whoever is playing guitar raps the body six times on quater note beats while all else pauses before the song resumes. "That means that poor boy's in the ground." I'm never quite sure if this means the coffin is being nailed shut or that poor boy may have been buried prematurely and is knocking from the inside.

Whatever the case, this is the arrangement I adapted to my band, which generally has more than one singer available. I play mandolin and sing lead, but others join in on every verse. We all hit a big G (our key for the tune) for the tolling bell on whatever instruments are on stage; we all rap on our instruments to nail the finale. It is our set opener or our encore song; my bandmates love playing it (the most important test of a song in my view), and we swing it faster and harder than the Poor Boys, not as searing as Dylan's version. Bob sounds like he's singing into the abyss of his own impending doom. Our version is more like a choir reminding the congregation of the way of all flesh and souls as they leave Sunday service for trials and temptations awaiting on Monday.

I'm tempted to describe every such delight Evans and McClain offer--the jazzy scat singing and kazoo duets, the weepy spoken monologues and sly blues double-entendres--but you'd do better to seek them out yourselves. We don't have minstrel or medicine shows any longer, and vaudeville, while in a mini-revival at least in bohemian New York, is mostly gone, so cd-reissues of scratchy old 78 rpm shellac discs (thankfully cleaned up digitally but not so clean as to sound false) of artists such as Evans and McClain are our time machine to a world almost lost and voices nearly stilled by time and changing tastes and artistic growth and evolution. Joe Evans and Arthur McClain may have been billed as The Two Poor Boys, but their music holds inexhaustible treasure for your ears and hearts.

Monday, May 19, 2008

American Folk Amalgam: Darby and Tarlton

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, or at least a cd. I recently bought Darby and Tarlton's ON THE BANKS OF A LONELY RIVER (County Records CD-3503) based on the sepia photo on the front of two dapper gents with guitars, one seated playing Hawaiian style, and a back cover with 17 song titles, four of which had the word "lonesome" or "lonely" but none of which I recognized, although "New Birmingham Jail" and "After The Sinking Of The Titanic" had a familiar ring. Also promising were "Down In Florida On A Hog" and "Captain Won't You Let Me Go Home." I plunked down my $8.99 plus tax for a used copy. It's the best folk music I've heard in quite some time, and the duo seem to embody something critical in understanding the folk process of American music.

Musicologists have long noted the blending of African and European traditions in American music. This blending extends to speech itself; some 18th Century white Southerners wrote of their alarm at their children were picking up vernacular speech from slave children, and what we think of as the "Southern accent" in American speech inevitably contains the influence of African-American speakers whether slave or free. The blues influence on Bill Monroe and Hank Williams is profound, as both men absorbed early lessons from black musicians and recordings. The black influence on rock and roll is by now a commonplace observation, but the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s was just a continuation of this long twining of strands in the complex tapestry of American music. It's sometimes assumed this influence runs in one direction only, but African-American traditions are after all deeply American, and in music the use and adaptation of European instruments, song forms, the English language itself, and European harmony all lend African-American music its distinct identity--it is not merely an offshoot of African music, but a compelling and original synthesis that plays an essential role in American identity and culture.

In the music of Darby and Tarlton, this synthesis of cultural riches is abundantly evident. There are other groups I've heard with a similar sonic character, most often the so-called "black hillbilly" groups such as Evans and McLain who didn't restrict their recorded music to 12-bar blues but played folk songs from the Southern and Appalachian traditions, often with banjo, fiddle and mandolin as well as guitar. Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarlton, recording in the late 1920s and early 1930s, played back to back with Evans and McLain or Leadbelly or Blind Blake or Rabbit Brown, would not stand out as the white men on the set list. This isn't because they sing in blackface or strain to sound "bluesy." They sound utterly original, with distinctive singing, evocative guitar playing, and a masterful approach to folk material.

Tom Darby was born around 1884 near Columbus, Georgia in a family from the mountains to the north. Jimmy Tarlton was born in a log cabin in 1892 in South Carolina. Both men grew up farming; Tarlton's father was a sharecropper who migrated to whatever plantation had work, season by season. Both men took up music early as part of their family traditions. Darby wrote what would later be their first hit, "Columbus Stockade Blues," before World War I, and he cultivated a personal guitar style of fingerpicking in open tunings with a prominent thumb rhythm closer to the Delta blues players and Georgia Piedmont bluesmen than say the Carter style in which the thumb plays melodic patterns. Tarlton learned music at home, accompanying his mother's ballad singing (which she learned from her mother and grandmother) on guitar, getting tips from a banjo-playing uncle and his father Joel Tarlton who played fretless banjo (the sort invented by slaves in the 18th century) at local dances. Jimmy himself started on a banjo he made, but moved to guitar, first in regular tuning but soon in open tunings which were more useful for bottleneck or slide guitar. This style had two simultaneous sources, Hawaii and the proto-blues players of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Hawaiian guitar had its own "craze" just as blues did as recorded music became available and affordable. Hawaii had become a US territory, and the exotic sound of this guitar style quickly found an audience in the US--the first electric guitars in the early 1930s were designed for Hawaiian style playing but quickly found their way into country and jazz bands. For the blues players, the slide style allowed them to play the blue notes, the flatted thirds and sevenths and those "in-between" tones common to West African and African-American musics, giving their guitar playing a vocal nuance to become a second voice to the singer. Thus, a solo performer could employ a "call and response" approach to song that is deeply African, though it most often had been used in Africa and America as a purely vocal technique between solo voice and chorus voices in hymns, work songs, laments and eventually white and black minstrelsy.

Tarlton must have heard both sorts of slide guitar music; he played the guitar on his lap, in the Hawaiian pose (learned from a star of the style, Frank Ferara, during a stint working as a laborer in California) but he'd heard black musicians playing bottleneck blues since his family's early years as migrant laborers. His playing is applied to music common to black and white musicians of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Darby and Tarlton met in the late 20s, and by 1927 they were recording together. Tarlton is credited as pioneering the use of slide guitar in white country music. They recorded 60 songs between 1927 and 1930, including several hits that have become standards of country music. There's a sample of the supple slide guitar work and extraordinary singing here complete with some yodeling.

But this duo isn't merely for guitar fans. Tom Darby's singing is strong, sure and plaintive, a rich tenor with an easy drawl more akin to Leadbelly than Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff. Tarlton adds a second voice on some songs, and their harmonies have more in common with black Georgia duos like Pink Anderson and Simmie Dooley or Macon Ed and Tampa Joe than the Monroe Brothers or Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. Like many early 20th Century musicians, Darby and Tarlton offer a hint of what music must have been like in the late 19th century before the advent of recording, and its commercial divisions between "race" music and "hillbilly" music. Their material is also fascinating for the individual stamp they put on each song. Many songs share melodies and lyric lines with well-known public domain folk songs. "Lonesome Railroad" from 1928 follows the melody of "In the Pines" and uses some of the phrases but follows its own lyric path:

Look up, look down that railroad line, and bow your head and cry.
The longest train I ever saw was eighty coaches long.
The engine past at eight o'clock and the cab passed by at nine.
Look up, look down that railroad line, hang down your head and cry.
Hmmmm, Hmmmm (humming the melodic line).

Little girl, little girl, don't you tell me no lies, tell me where did you stay last night?
I stayed in jail ninety nine days with my face turned to the wall.
Hmmmm, Hmmm

Little girl little girl, what have I done, you to turn your back on me?
Take all my clothes, throw them all outdoors, farewell you love, I'm gone.

Here's a bit of Leadbelly's use of this material on his "Black Gal (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?) recorded in 1944:

My girl, my girl don't you lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night?
In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines, and you shiver the whole night through.

Darby also has a tendency to hold notes on key vowel sounds not unlike Leadbelly and other blues singers, and he sings the word girl as "guul" that sounds a bit like Mississippi Fred McDowell (who was in fact from Tennessee).

Darby and Tarlton's 1930 "Frankie Dean" is a recasting of the song "Frankie and Albert" or "Frankie and Johnny" which Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928 as simply "Frankie." The song has an interesting and somewhat tangled history. It first appears as "He Done Me Wrong" published and copyrighted in 1903 by Hughie Cannon, composer of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey." Many folklorists claim the song dates to at least 1830, with scant evidence for their claims. Whatever the case, copyright did not halt the folk process, and the song was adapted, rewritten, re-copyrighted even as quickly as 1908. The names of the ill-fated lovers changes version to version (Bill Bailey himself was the victim in the 1903 original), but the story of a woman named Frankie killing her man is more or less the same in most versions. The two guitars of Darby and Tarlton take a slower, jauntier pace than Hurt's solo version, but Darby on rhythm and Tarlton on slide approximate Hurt's fluid fingerpicking with his alternating bass lines and treble melody figures. Frankie's rival is "Alice" in both songs.

The aforementioned "Down in Florida on a Hog" is an original lyric to the melody of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" and its related folk songs. It's taken at a lively tempo with great slides up the bass strings during the vocal and what sounds like simultaneous solos by both guitarists on the break. The lyric was apparently inspired by Darby's time in Florida from 1920-24 during the land boom there, one of the few times he ventured out of Georgia. "Roy Dixon" is a jailhouse lament to the tune of "Great Speckled Bird" and "I'm Dreaming Tonight of My Blue Eyes" and numerous other American classics.

"Lowe Bonnie" is one of the most affecting vocal performances, Darby using a falsetto leap on the final line with complete ease. The song is in 3/4 time and was one of the songs Tarlton's mother learned from her grandmother, so it would date to at least the early ante-bellum period. It's a variant of "Love Henry" in melody and certain lyric turns of phrase, a song recorded by Bob Dylan on his 1993 WORLD GONE WRONG album, and by Dick Justice in the 1930s as "Henry Lee" (also in 3/4 time) which appeared on the Anthology of American Folk Music. The song has many variants in Scottish and even Scandavian folk traditions predating its American iterations. In most versions, a man is killed by his jealous lover, and a bird witnesses the act and either refuses to aid the dying man or refuses to come near the murderous mistress for "a girl who would murder her own true love/would kill a little bird like me." It's a cold-hearted story in every version I've heard. This "Lowe Bonnie" tells a slightly different tale, one a bit tough to decipher due to Darby's thick drawl (again similar to Fred McDowell). Bonnie is still the man who has two loves, a new one he prefers, an old one who stabs him with a pen knife in a jealous fit when he rejects her entreaty to sit with her a while. The girl immediately regrets her action and appeals for a doctor to heal her lover's wounds. Their version is filled with poignant regret, ending with a delicate slide guitar solo following the falsetto leap.

Hearing this album is like finding a lost branch of your family--everyone kind of looks like all your known siblings, cousins and children, but they have their own way of talking, their own version of your family history. You hear tunes like "Red River Valley" and "Aloha Hui" but you get "The Rainbow Division" and "Little Ola" (their most overtly Hawaiian-influenced number). There are Victorian pieties about letters from "dear old mother" and criminal confessions on the order of "On Monday I was arrested, on Tuesday I was tried, on Wednesday I made a guilty confess' and I hung my little head and cried." Each song seems inextricably linked to folk song tradition but the sound is all Darby and Tarlton. Robert Nobley's liner notes are most helpful (I certainly leaned on them for this little essay, as well as drawing on some information from Barry McCloud's DEFINITIVE COUNTRY: The Ultimate Encylcopedia of Country Music and its Performers). Some day I'll figure out which of these songs I love best and try to play them with my own band. Right now I'm just marvelling at these two men and their music.

And, yes, it is plenty lonesome as those song titles imply, not the "high lonesome" sound of bluegrass--that was a decade in the future--but more the feeling of men who see the world itself as a lonesome expanse offering little comfort except in song, a world of modest means and perpetual labor and struggle and inevitable loss, but men capable of delight, empathy, and fond nostalgia for home however mean it may have been. I'm not a nostalgic person with regard to my own experiences, but I'm happy to enjoy the nostalgic reveries of Darby and Tarlton. This is one of the primary purposes of folk music--to break our isolation and let us know our feelings, while personal, are also common, and that our tragedies and trials, while intense, have been known by others and will be known again. That's worth singing about, to whatever tune is available.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Busker's Set List

I've been playing music in Madison Park and Central Park for a number of years. Madison Park is a small and lovely park near my home, with a playground, fountain, many flowers, a central lawn with sculptures, a snack bar at one end, and a memorial to some naval hero at the other. It was the site of one of the first professional baseball games. Electric instruments and commerce are not allowed, so I do not accept money even when it is offered. The park is like my backyard, a place to get outside, giving my wife and cats a little relief from my constant musical mayhem. I usually take at least two instruments with me, my National Resorocket dobro and a mandolin or maybe tenor guitar or banjo, sometimes a 12-string guitar. The Resorocket is a spectacular instrument and always draws attention as soon as I take it out of the case: a nickel alloy body with a single cutaway and Art Deco-ish details based on guitars of the 1920s and 1930s. It has a huge, ringing sound (by design--resonators were invented as pre-electric amplified guitars to compete with mandolins, banjos and violins). I love playing it. Here are the songs I often play:

Big Road Blues by Tommy Johnson
Big Fat Mama by the same
Canned Heat Blues by the same
Banty Rooster Blues by Charley Patton
Peavine Special Blues by the same
Pony Blues by Son House
My Black Mama by the same
Prodigal Son by Rev. Gary Davis
Jesus on the Mainline by Fred McDowell
Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning by the same
Someday, Baby by the same
Come on in my Kitchen by Robert Johnson
Dust My Broom by the same
If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day by the same
Traveling Riverside Blues by the same
Kindhearted Woman by the same
Me and the Devil Blues by the same
Hellhound on my Trail by the same
How Do You Want Your Rolling Done by Louis Laskey
Pick Poor Robin Clean by Luke Jordan
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams
May the Circle Be Unbroken by A. P. Carter

Most of these songs I play with a slide in either open D or open G tunings. Some are drop-D songs I fingerpick. A few are in standard tuning, which I flat-pick or fingerpick depending on my mood. I sit down on a bench, tune up, and start working my way through the songs. It's not an easy thing to play 20 or so country blues songs in a row and keep anyone interested, myself included, so my challenge is to make each song somehow unique and keep the tempos lively but varied. Some of the songs have similar structures; Pony Blues and Banty Rooster Blues can be played with identical accompaniments, but I treat the former as a real 3 chord blues song in a 12-bar structure, the latter as more of a one-chord blues of indeterminate length with notes that indicat the IV and V chords without quite articulating a full triad.

These songs came to me first through recordings--the Columbia Records lps King of the Delta Blues Singers volumes one and two were the first real country blues records I bought when I was still in high school and interested to hear Robert Johnson himself after hearing his songs done by Cream, The Rolling Stones and Paul Butterfield Blues Band. It was not an easy aural adjustment. I was used to stereo recordings, electric guitars, big beat blues-rock drums. I'd noticed certain names kept appearing on records by my favorite bands: Muddy Waters, McKinley Morganfield, Chester Burnett, Howling Wolf, Robert Johnson, Skip James. It took me some time to realize Waters and Morganfield were the same person, as were Burnett and Wolf. I read some interviews in Rollling Stone with my guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, and they often mentioned older blues players they admired. It got me curious enough to seek out their records.

The first real blues lp I bought was Muddy Waters Live At Mr. Kelly's in Chicago. It is a classic of live Chicago Blues with one of Muddy's sharpest bands--Calvin Samuels on bass, Willie Smith on drums, Pinetop Perkins on piano, guitarists Pee Wee Madison and Sam Lawhorn, Paul Oscher on harmonica, and Muddy on electric slide guitar and vocals. It was easy to enjoy; the band format had become fairly standard in rock music since Dylan went electric and Butterfield recorded his first two albums and the Rolling Stones landed in America. Muddy made sense to ears trained on Highway 61 Revisited, East-West, Fresh Cream, Electric Ladyland. I had not yet tried my hand on guitar, but Madison and Lawhorn both fascinated me with their easy rolling swing and tart blues solos. No wild noise from burning guitars, no 20 minute versions of songs, no surreal lyrical poetry.

The Johnson lps were even more austere, and my aural shock was akin to the first time I heard Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' album in late 1963 after coming to know his songs through my older sister's Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez records. I was 9 years old and had a hard time understanding Dylan's vocals as singing or even music; I thought he was talking funny, maybe because he couldn't really sing? I got used to him, more than used to him in fact. He became my first artistic obsession. His lyrics opened up my imagination and made me want to become a writer, which I eventually did.

By 1971 I was a moody teenager, rock and roll devotee, living a safe suburban life but longing for something else, anything else as long as it got me away from home. I'd be going to college soon enough. I knew my life would change, that I'd more fully enter my times which had been a-changing for quite a few years. One day at my favorite record store I saw King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume II, a white album jacket with illustrations on the front and back, a list of songs (some of the titles I knew from my rock albums), and not much else to give me a clue as to the sound. The cover showed a black man with a guitar leaning into a microphone with white sound engineers standing by, but the singer's back was mostly turned, so the illustration didn't really signify a personality as such, more a moment of engagement in song, an escape from personality. I paid $1.99 plus tax. In hindsight, I cannot imagine a better bargain. When I got home and played the album, I wasn't so sure at first.

These were recordings from the 1930s, cleaned up a little with modern technology such as it was c. 1971, but still a very rough sound compared to what my ears had known. The solo acoustic guitar was played in what sounded like a sketchy, halting style bearing little resemblance to the folky strums of Joan Baez and early Bob Dylan. There were no guitar solos as such. I could recognize the use of slide guitar, but up to that point I'd only heard Mike Bloomfield, Brian Jones and a few other players using slide on electric guitar, plus Muddy Water's distinctive electric Telecaster slide. I was a little confused--this was the genius Clapton went on and on about? But I'm the kind of guy who doesn't mind a little confusion, even prefers it to perfect clarity that has nowhere else to go. It seemed I had something to learn, and I liked that.

The singing was even more of a learning experience. Johnson had a fairly high voice and a plastic one--he'd croon, use a falsetto, interject spoken bits, hum, almost whisper, sing in a nasal whine. Dylan's singing had prepared me to accept some of this, but it was still rough listening. Muddy Waters had a robust baritone, full of aggression, sex, celebration, warning, grief on occasion, and he was the only other black blues singer I'd heard at that point. Muddy sounded modern (the Mr. Kelly's lp was recorded in 1969). Johnson sounded like he was singing in another century on another planet. By my third listen or so, I wanted to go there.

Johnson lived and died by his guitar. Born and raised in rural Mississippi among the men and women who had distilled the blues from the blended musics of the late 19th century--hymns, ballads, banjo and fiddle tunes, work songs, outlaw songs--, he left his past behind as soon as he had the chance, left the graves of his wife and child, his work on plantations, even his mentor Son House and models Charley Patton and Willie Brown, all of whom had recorded and achieved at least local reknown as blues men. Johnson's music bridged the divide, not first but for him, between pure folk music made by ordinary folks for social purposes and professional musicians writing and recording music to sell via personal appearances, broadcasts and general stores. Johnson traveled around the country playing and singing, recording his music in two sessions. He played on the street for change; he played at house parties, in juke joints and barrelhouses for dancers and drinkers and fighters; he apparently played some radio shows, may have even played some in New York City, Detroit, Toronto if all the stories told of his travels are true. He often played solo, but he had a few musicians with whom he was willing to share stages and freight trains--Johnny Shines seems to have been his most frequent playing/traveling companion. Shines was no mere second fiddle, although he found himself both awed by Johnson's facility and somewhat baffled by his reserve and impulsive wanderlust.

As Shines emphasized in interviews, musicians such as himself and Johnson needed an audience to sustain them, so they made their music lively and engaging, suitable for dancing. They played more than just blues--hits from the radio, cowboy songs, spirituals, whatever held an audience and kept money and whiskey flowing. Shines had been a protege of Chester Burnett and through him Charley Patton, but hearing Johnson changed his approach to playing and singing. He saw Johnson trying new chords, taking rhythms from piano players, writing lyrics of uncommon originality, and he began to do likewise, absorbing the inspiration into his own style and voice. Shines survived Johnson by 60 years, so we have marvelous recordings of him both as a solo performer and with bands. His voice--bigger that Johnson's, with a quavering vibrato to break hearts--was soulful and exuberant; his guitar playing preserved some of Johnson's technique as both men drew on traditional blues melodies, rhythms and accompaniments. Shines even preserved some of Johnson's unrecorded songs which Shines later put to record.

Johnson played for dancers. This can be a startling realization for listeners used to disco dance rhythms, electronic dance music, hip-hop, turntablists, and the 4/4 with Afro-Latin embellishment that seems to have become the norm for social dancing. When I was young, shy and afraid to ask a girl to dance, the music at proms, weddings and school dances tended to be rock and roll and rhythm and blues, your shuffle and boogie beats, Mustang Sally, Satisfaction, Land of 1000 Dances, Respect, Carol, Maybelline. Behind those beats, you could almost hear the sound of the swing music of my parents' generation. Drums, horn riffs, guitar riffs, a sound big enough to feel in your gut. You had to move or be moved.

All Johnson had was his tapping foot, his Gibson guitar, and his superhuman fingers (which seem half again as long as normal fingers in his two sole photos). He almost certainly would have played with piano players, harmonica players, a second guitarist, perhaps a drummer and/or bassist; he may have even played an electric guitar before his murder in a Mississippi juke joint. His recordings, however, are solo performances, and one of the great projects (and most rewarding inquiries) of my life has been listening, studying, learning, playing and singing his songs on solo guitar. I've read everything I can find, followed detailed transcriptions of his playing, listened to his peers and models. I even saw Johnny Shines play a solo show in a small bar in Cambridge in the early 70s, in a physical setting similar to what Johnson himself must have known, albeit with a mostly young, white audience intent on listening rather than dancing.

Johnson's thumb hit the bass strings of his guitar for a bewildering variety of rhythms and accents without losing the tempo and momentum of the song at hand. He took the left-hand rhythms of boogie and barrelhouse piano players and figured out how to articulate them on guitar--Shines credits him with doing so first. The regular thumb rhythm underlies the melodic use of slide on the treble strings picked with his fingers (or the articulated chords when not using a slide). Patton and House had done similar things on their guitars, and Patton seems to be the originator or at least first known player of some of the seminal blues motifs--the descending pentatonic melody (Banty Rooster and Stone Pony Blues, which Johnson used for his Walking Blues), the "rolling and tumbling" chord progression in which the IV chord initiates the 12-bar cycle (Peavine Special Blues, which Johnson adapts to his Traveling Riverside Blues), the 16-bar gospel blues melody played by the slide over a full octave on the high E string (You Gonna Need Somebody When You Die, which Johnson used on Last Fair Deal Goin' Down). Patton was an extroverted showman, a rhythmic genius of guitar. House was simpler, and in some ways more brutal a player, with a heavy regular style supporting his intense singing. Johnson synthesized the two approaches, with a touch lighter than House and a more consistent rhythm than Patton.

Unfortunately for me, I taught myself slide guitar backwards, concentrating on slide melody, neglecting the thumb rhythms which are the heartbeat of the music. Some years ago I took some lessons with the great Preacher Boy Watkins, who made me start over and work on my thumb and bass string rhythms first, before he helped me begin to play the sounds I'd been hearing for decades. I'm forever grateful for his patience and support as a teacher and fellow musician. In many ways, my busking in parks is my homework from his lessons, as I continue to work on my technique through some of my favorite Delta blues songs.

And by doing so, I've re-connected with the dancing rhythm of this essential American music. I overcame my shyness as a young man enough to dance with girls, and at that time, blues was a fairly popular music. The bars where I saw Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Luther Allison, and other modern blues bands always had room for dancing, and people packed them when Muddy played Nine Below Zero or Cotton wailed on a harmonica instrumental. So I know blues as a dance music, at least Chicago electric blues.

I generally don't use a thumbpick or fingerpicks, so my fingers are callused, and when I don't play enough, I lose the calluses, so I play a lot. I thump those bass strings and tap my foot and work that Resorocket. It's a kind of dance just to play the songs with enough feeling and pulse. And people dance. Mostly very short and young people, but it's still dancing. In fact, it's dance at its most pure and ecstatic and musical level. Children have a natural ability to dance, just as they do to sing. Some days I'm like a Delta Pied Piper in the park. Children not old enough to talk, barely old enough to walk, stand before me and bounce up and down. If they can talk, they want to know what I'm playing--many have guitars at home, but few have a steel-body Dobro. One little boy in Madison Park carries a guitar pick with him to show me--"I have a 'lectric guitar," was the first thing he said to me when we met last summer. He was 3 years old. Yesterday a 4 year old and his 6 year old sister came up to me as I was playing How Do You Want Your Rolling Done. She informed me she could ride her scooter to my music and proceeded to do so. He grabbed two leafy twigs from the ground, waved them around and danced like no one was watching. "I should have brought my maracas!" he said. When I finished, he said, "That was a good song!" I quickly agreed and gave credit to Louis Laskey. The great Bukka White inspires some dancing here in a clip from a 1965 film.

Sometimes I don't make much money in the park, but having children dance to my playing and singing is more meaningful to me than money. It reminds me how music is life, how we share it with one another and send it along to the next generation who will keep the song going when ours is gone. While the song is playing, the kids seem enchanted, joyful, excited, free. They glow with life. It's a great reminder for a middle-aged white guy with an obsession for sad songs, tragic figures, elegaic poetry: the blues isn't about being sad or down or lonesome. It's about being alive, fully human, open to revelation, aware of suffering but determined to sing anyway, to keep dancing until the joint closes.

Time to rehearse. Next up will be some thoughts on Darby & Tarlton, a great country duo from the 1930s.

Friday, May 16, 2008

American String Conspiracies--my new blog

Someone with too much time, too many records, tapes, and cds, and guitars, banjos and mandolins up the wazoo (it's pretty crowded in there) should really try to justify his or her existence in some way beneficial to humanity or at least not harmful. So I've decided to enter the blogosphere with a series of meditations on music that means something to me. As a musician, composer and band leader, my experiences have been fascinating and challenging and rewarding, and I have a website for my band American String Conspiracy you can easily find via googling, but I'm not interested in writing about my music which I hope speaks for itself. Rather, I'd like to write about songs, musicians, and musical instruments I love, things that inspire, fascinate and even annoy me in the process of experiencing music. I'm very new to this sort of forum for writing, and I imagine I'll learn as I go.

I spend as many hours a day as possible listening to and making music. Sometimes this is ultra-functional--I may have an upcoming show (mine or as sideman) and songs to learn, or I might be working on new material. I play numerous string instruments and I need to practice them daily (or as often as I can) to keep up my chops and work on my technical facility. But all of this I experience as pleasure, even when I hit the wrong notes or can't get my fingers to switch from guitar technique to banjo technique. Music is one of the deep pleasures of life. We were born to make a joyful noise and a mournful one.

With the rise of broadcast and recording technology, people have the opportunity to listen to more music than they could possibly make themselves or hear live, and this can get a little overwhelming. People have a tendency to listen passively, to allow music to be something other people do for an audience desiring entertainment. I propose another sort of listening altogether, an active listening in which sounds absorbed become sounds released. This makes the experience of music more of a conversation, less of a shopping spree. By sounds released I don't just mean music. Words are sounds, too, and so are tapping feet, typing, singing along with the radio or humming some melody on the subway that you can't quite remember but can't get out of your head either.

I like details, like to explore places and artifacts and sounds to understand better human possibilities. America has long represented a possible world, a place where new beginnings are made, where a vastness might be known river by river, valley by valley, mountain by mountain--not simply known, but transformed in the knowing and in turn transforming the knowledge seeker. American song contains some of this transformative knowledge in myriad voices, some nearly incomprehensible to one another but all of them American. Listening to these voices closely can be startling, inspiring, even terrifying. "Me and the devil, walking side by side/I'm going to beat my woman 'til I get satisfied," as sung by Robert Johnson in Me and the Devil Blues is one of the scariest moments in music or any art I've ever encountered. We don't know a lot about Johnson's life, but we have some contemporaries still alive, some eyewitness accounts of his life and way of living, and there is no evidence Johnson himself ever beat a woman, let alone walked with the devil.

In fact, what we know about Johnson suggests almost the opposite, at least with women; he was seductively shy, courteous, and drawn to women who were willing to care for him for a time and then let him go to his next town and gig knowing he might be back and might not. He married young, still a teenage farm hand, but his wife died in childbirth (as did the infant), and this may have been the most significant event in his short life. Soon thereafter he began pursuing music in earnest, playing harmonica and singing, pestering older players for guitar tips, and avoiding farm labor whenever possible. Son House, an older bluesman who was one of his mentors, recalled him being far more enthusiastic than talented, especially when he tried playing guitar. House, his associates Charley Patton and Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson were all founding fathers of the Delta blues style, with big, rough voices. Johnson's voice was relatively high-pitched, even thin by their standards. These men preferred playing music to sharecropping; some, like House, tried preaching--"I'm gonna get religion, join the Baptist church/I'll be a Baptist preacher so I don't have to work," House sings in his Preaching the Blues. But most of them were born and lived on plantations, and when times got hard they would return to farming. Some never really left the farm, making music on weekends or occasional trips to Dallas or Memphis or Chicago to record if their music caught a talent scout's attention.

The blues boom of the 1920s had established a market for African-American musical recording and broadcasting (simultaneously with the opening of the country, jazz, pop and dance music markets), but the Depression seriously disrupted the recording of black music, and by the time Johnson recorded, in 1936 and 1938, Son House was back to farming (soon to become a railroad porter), Charley Patton was dead, and Delta blues was slipping out of popularity. Nevertheless, Johnson's small body of work contains some of the greatest American songs ever recorded--Crossroad Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Stones in My Passway, If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day and other masterworks represent one of our most influential and compelling American voices. Johnson went from a young tag-along apprentice c. 1928 to a master and innovator of country blues styles by 1936. My interest is in how this happened.

We know some facts and too many legends and myths. The bit about him selling his soul to the devil for his guitar skills was firmly debunked by researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow (see his book CHASING THE DEVIL'S MUSIC for details). Johnson's contemporary Johnny Shines, a compelling guitarist and singer himself, says Johnson had an uncanny ability to hear a song once and play it. Son House recalled Johnson disappearing for about a year, and upon his return being able to play better than his mentor; this likely corresponds to the period Johnson spent studying with one Ike Zinneman, who never recorded but was a local guitarist of some reputation around Robinsonville in Mississippi. Still, a year is not a long time, long enough to establish some command of the guitar for most people, but it takes a fairly obsessive and devoted type to become a compelling solo player and singer in a year or two.

Johnson's music holds hints of his own obsessions and devotions, and while his songs concern women, good times, hard times and other traditional blues themes, his main obsession seems to be music itself, the palpable joy of making it. This is even more evident now with the digital remastering of his recordings. His songs often combine lyric and musical motifs from other sources, songs he may have learned from Son House or from the recordings of Skip James and Lonnie Johnson; his recombinant method anticipates something of Post-modernism, but he is much more than a copycat or cut-and-paste artist. His songs influenced by Lonnie Johnson are generally regarded as weaker, while his songs similar to James' are among his greatest and most haunting efforts. Johnson was a very sophisticated guitarist, with many recordings in his own name and with other artists. James was a local talent, a difficult personality who left music in the 30s, but whose songs have an eerie tragic cast that must have appealed to some deep part of Robert Johnson's psyche. Listening to James' recordings seems to have been crucial for establishing his own voice.

Finding and knowing one's own voice isn't easy, in art or life. Some people live their whole lifetimes struggling for one moment of clarity and purpose. Before I made music, I made poetry, and I passed through various stages of imitation (Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost) before figuring out what I wanted and needed to say. When I turned to music, I had a certain advantage from decades of writing poetry, but reading poetry aloud was also helpful--I knew what I sounded like when I sounded good. Now I'm entering another form of expression, the prose blog, a bit ambivalent but still interested in seeing how I sound and how I might change. This initial entry took two hours to write. This time I did it all from memory, drawing on my own listening experience but also my reading of Wardlow mentioned above, Peter Guralnick's SEARCHING FOR ROBERT JOHNSON, and other texts on blues and American music. Next time I'll put a cd on and start typing. That will be my method until a better one occurs to me.

Now it's time to practice mandolin.