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.

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