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April 23, 2009

Brand new blog

A brand new Vintage Jazz site has just appeared on the blogosphere!

If you've liked Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, jugbands et all, then check out Birth of Jazz
(and be sure to leave a comment!)

April 19, 2009

Bix Beiderbecke, Vol. 1: Singin' the Blues

i'm really not too great at writing about jazz, so I'll leave the words of this post to others. I was introduced to the music of Bix Beiderbecke when I happened upon a copy of Geoff Muldaur's tribute album 'Private Astronomy: The Futuristic Music of Bix Beiderbecke'. And it was such a fantastic album, with wild, unique, and dazzling music, I went to my library and got this album.

Biography by Scott Yanow

Bix Beiderbecke was one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 1920s. His colorful life, quick rise and fall, and eventual status as a martyr made him a legend even before he died, and he has long stood as proof that not all the innovators in jazz history were black. Possessor of a beautiful, distinctive tone and a strikingly original improvising style, Beiderbecke's only competitor among cornetists in the '20s was Louis Armstrong but (due to their different sounds and styles) one really could not compare them.

Beiderbecke was a bit of a child prodigy, picking out tunes on the piano when he was three. While he had conventional training on the piano, he taught himself the cornet. Influenced by the original Dixieland Jazz Band, Beiderbecke craved the freedom of jazz but his straight-laced parents felt he was being frivolous. He was sent to Lake Forest Military Academy in 1921 but, by coincidence, it was located fairly close to Chicago, the center of jazz at the time. Beiderbecke was eventually expelled he missed so many classes. After a brief period at home he became a full-time musician. In 1923, Beiderbecke became the star cornetist of the Wolverines and a year later this spirited group made some classic recordings.

In late 1924, Beiderbecke left the Wolverines to join Jean Goldkette's orchestra but his inability to read music resulted in him losing the job. In 1925, he spent time in Chicago and worked on his reading abilities. The following year he spent time with Frankie Trumbauer's orchestra in St. Louis. Although already an alcoholic, 1927 would be Beiderbecke's greatest year. He worked with Jean Goldkette's orchestra (most of their records are unfortunately quite commercial), recorded his piano masterpiece "In a Mist" (one of his four Debussy-inspired originals), cut many classic sides with a small group headed by Trumbauer (including his greatest solos: "Singin' the Blues," "I'm Comin' Virginia," and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans"), and then signed up with Paul Whiteman's huge and prosperous orchestra. Although revisionist historians would later claim that Whiteman's wide mixture of repertoire (much of it outside of jazz) drove Beiderbecke to drink, he actually enjoyed the prestige of being with the most popular band of the decade. Beiderbecke's favorite personal solo was his written-out part on George Gershwin's "Concerto in F."

With Whiteman, Beiderbecke's solos tended to be short moments of magic, sometimes in odd settings; his brilliant chorus on "Sweet Sue" is a perfect example. He was productive throughout 1928, but by the following year his drinking really began to catch up with him. Beiderbecke had a breakdown, made a comeback, and then in September 1929 was reluctantly sent back to Davenport to recover. Unfortunately, Beiderbecke made a few sad records in 1930 before his death at age 28. The bad liquor of the Prohibition era did him in.

For the full story, Bix: Man & Legend is a remarkably detailed book. Beiderbecke's recordings (even the obscure ones) are continually in print, for his followers believe that every note he played was special.

Bix Beiderbecke, a Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma
Even those closest to Davenport, Iowa-born Leon Bix Beiderbecke never really knew just who he was, or the source of the musical genius as cornetist, pianist and composer that brought him lasting worldwide fame.

Many have called him "an enigma." After all, how probable was it that a mostly self-taught young man from the mid-sized Iowa town on the Mississippi River would ever play and compose such incomparable music.

Bix was born on March 10, 1903, blazed like a jazz comet through the "Roaring '20's,' and died, worn-out and deathly ill, on Aug. 6, 1931, at the age of only 28.

How likely was it that he would be little more than an asterisk to the Jazz Age, if that, or that in more recent years he would be the subject of three films, at least five books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and conversation wherever jazz fans and musicians gather?

He was a wash-out in school, never properly learned to read music, yet astounded his colleagues wherever he played. In his short life, Bix composed just five pieces, work that bear the stamp of genius and further enhanced his reputation.

Music, including the classics, was the one true love of his life, and when he was playing he was immersed and oblivious to anything else. He went from the Wolverines, to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, and finally to the very "mountain-top" of the Twenties, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. There were many recordings in between.

Still, he could never get his personal life in order, and those who knew him wondered if musically he ever found what he was looking for, perhaps something dreamed of, but unattainable.

In his autobiography, "Sometimes I Wonder," friend and fellow musician Hoagy Carmichael wrote, "He was our golden boy, doomed to an untimely end." Hoagy also said, "In Harlem, in Hollywood, in the Chicago South Side, in Le Jazz Hot joints in Paris where the city folk come to listen to his records, they still talk of Bix Beiderbecke."

Hoagy told of a time after a gig that he and Bix stopped on a cold night along a lonely country road, took out their horns, and began playing: "Bix was off. Clean, wonderful streams of melody filled the dawn, ruffled the countryside, stirred the still night.

"I bolted along to keep up a rhythmic lead while Bix laid it out. A wind drove autumn leaves around us. Bix finished in one amazing blast of pyrotechnic improvisation. He took his horn away from his mouth, as if in a sleepwalker's dream."

One writer wrote of there being "elusive bars that only Bix could hear."

An unknown jazz musician perhaps summed up the essence of Bix: "Once you hear him blow four notes on that horn, your life will never be the same."

- from

What places Bix apart from - and above - most jazz musicians? What is therein Bix's cornet playing that elicits in fans such admiration and devotion? What distinguishes Bix's style from that of so many other cornet or trumpet players? These are difficult questions to answer. Fortunately, many of Bix's contemporaries have described Bix's cornet work and, in particular, music critics and writers have provided insightful analyses that give us an awareness and a good understanding of Bix's unique musical gift and legacy.

* Comments by Fellow Musicians
The following quotes from jazz musicians are taken from "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It", edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Rinehart and C., Inc., New York, 1955.

Jimmy McPartland: "What beautiful tone, sense of melody, great drive, poise, everything." "His style, the cleanliness and feeling, was lovely. His technique was excellent, his intonation was great. So was his harmonic sense."

Hoagy Carmichael: "Bix's breaks were not as wild as Armstrong's, but they were hot and he selected each note with musical care. He showed me that jazz could be musical and beautiful, as well as hot. He showed me that tempo doesn't mean fast."

George Johnson: "Bix was a fountain of ideas that were spontaneous, as unexpected to himself as they were to us."

Russ Morgan: "Bix would fill out his part with some of the most beautiful notes you ever heard."

Pee Wee Russell: "The thing about Bix's music is that he drove a band. If you had any talent at all he made you play better. It had to do for one thing with the way he played lead. It had to do with his whole feeling for ensemble playing." "Bix had a miraculous ear."

Louis Armstrong: "You take a man with a pure tone like Bix's and no matter how loud the other fellows may be blowing, that pure cornet or trumpet tone will cut through it all."

* Analyses by Music Critics and Writers
George Avakian in "The Art of Jazz", edited by Martin T. Williams, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1959. "Before we get into the life story, let's consider the big thing: Bix's horn. It's something that will never quite fade away, as long as there's a record around. Once heard, it's a sound you'll never forget: the warm, mellow cornet tone, sometimes with almost no vibrato at all; the attack that was sure, with every note brought out as clearly as a padded mallet striking a chime; the flow of ideas, sometimes bursting with spontaneous energy and yet always sounding coolly calculated, as neatly arranged as though a composer had carefully organized each phrase and then plotted all the little inflections and dynamics. He was one of the most exciting musicians who ever lived, but he did it by the individuality of his tone and the imaginativeness of his improvisations."

Robert Dupuis in "Bunny Berigan, Elusive Legend of Jazz", Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1993. "Throughout his recorded music, Bix exhibits a fluid, legato style, one that Sudhalter likens to a vocal quality. Much of the difference between Bix and his predecessors lies in his harmonic approach to playing. His ear heard, and his horn played, elegant, graceful lines that danced in and out of the melody. In those instances in which he accompanied another soloist or vocalist, Bix displayed a beautiful, almost baroque complementary counterpoint that, instead of repeating a stated melody, spun a harmonic framework for it. Bix's cornet tone was pure, warm, flannel. It possessed a matte, rather than brass finish. Rarely venturing outside the middle range of the horn, Bix relied on his choice of notes and skillful sense of dynamics, often creating interest within a single measure by varying from loud to soft, or soft to loud. Each solo, however brief, stood on its own as a complete musical statement and offered its own sense of musical logic. Once Bix had played a jazz solo he frequently disowned it, eschewing requests to repeat it as recorded and looking for a new means of expression the next time around. Individual notes were most often attacked in soft, legato manner, rather than percussively. Bix's solo playing is relaxed, laid-back, unhurried, exuding a sense of control."

James Lincoln Collier in "The Making of Jazz", Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1978."What was it that thrilled them (his friends) and still calls forth our admiration? To begin with, there was the compelling tone. His attack was sharp-edged and firm, his intonation impeccable, and his tone warm, but possessed a certain metallic resonance that can indeed be described as bell-like. On the strength of sound production alone, Bix would have earned a place in the history of jazz. But he had much more than that. His grasp of melodic principle continued to grow through his life. Long before other jazz players, he understood the critical importance in melody of moving from dissonance to consonance. He was also using higher degrees of the scale - elevens, thirteenths, and even the more dissonant raised fourths and fifths suggested by the whole-tone scale - and he was using these notes not experimentally or for occasional color, but as an integral part of his work. All of these things - rhythmic competence, an expressive tone, rich harmonies - are only part of what it takes to be a great jazz player. A man is a master melodist because of the way he sculpts his musical lines, and at this Beiderbecke had few peers. He used as his theory of composition the correlated chorus he thought he had found in Armstrong's playing: play two measures, play two more related, and follow these four bars with four related, and so on. It was not Armstrong, we should remember, but Beiderbecke who articulated the theory, and in his best work he seems to be following quite explicitly. Bix was, more than any of his contemporaries and indeed most jazz musicians since, a conscious artist. There was no question of his simply standing up and blowing. He knew precisely what he was doing - or attempting, at least. He knew why he was choosing the notes he selected; why he was placing them where he did. His placement of notes was exact and delicate. He is always economical, never playing an unnecessary note; but he is not spare. Less is not more, but enough is just exactly enough. Bix's influence on his contemporaries was both direct and pervasive. But more important than this direct influence on many players was the fact that Bix showed trumpet players of the day that Armstrong's road was not the only way to go. Instead of the bravura operatic performance that Armstrong favored, it was possible, as Bix proved, to play within a narrower physical and emotional compass, paying close attention to detail - calligraphy rather than great, sweeping strokes; the sonnet rather than the epic."

Gunther Schuller in "Early Jazz, Its Roots and Musical Development", Oxford University Press, New York, 1968. "Though his beautiful golden tone was to become even richer in subsequent years, it already stands out as a unique attribute, not equaled even by Armstrong. Bix's tone had a lovely, unhurried quality, perfectly centered, with natural breath support and a relaxed vibrato. Here, in fact, Bix showed his independence from Armstrong. Comparing the two, we note the extra daring in Louis' solos, the almost uncontrollable drive, the rhythmic tension - in short, playing in which all technical maters are subservient to the expansion of an instrumental conception, to the exploration of new musical ideas. By comparison, Bix was a conservative. His ideas and techniques combined into a perfect equation in that the demands of the former never exceeded the potential of the latter. His sense of timing ... was almost flawless. He showed a sure attack and a natural feeling for swing. Thus, each tone, apart from its rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic relationships, was a thing of beauty: an attack perfectly timed and initiated followed by a pure, mellow cornet timbre. Bix had a quality extremely rare in early jazz: lyricism. His crowning achievements were the superbly timed, relaxed, mellifluous solos on Singin' the Blues and I'm Coming Virginia. Here is the essential Bix, unspectacular, poignant, with a touch of reserve and sadness shining through."

Hugues Panassie in "Hot Jazz, The Guide to Swing Music", M. Witmark and Sons, New York, 1936."Bix's personality was filled with subtle nuances which he projected in his playing so sweetly and vehemently. And he projected it by means of his tone, which was strong and exceptionally pure (we may well ask if anyone ever played the cornet with so ravishing a tone); by means of his vibrato, which was restrained but passionate, faster than the usual vibrato but slower than the usual Negro vibrato - a vibrato no one has been able to imitate, so subtle it is; for it seems to come not so much from the lips as from the heart itself; and above all by means of his musical conceptions with the sequence of his full and powerful phrases, so fine as if to be almost transparent, embodied with utmost fidelity. His imagination was extraordinary fertile. He could invent long phrases delicious in line. Among his numerous high qualities, let me note that instinct which taught him how to use the harmonies of a tune as a basis for variations on that tune. Phrases were never thrown together haphazardly; they were organized into a totality as solid as that of the original tune. Bix's improvisations were constructed in such perfect proportions that I would be quite ready to think he had plotted them out in advance, were they not so obviously spontaneous. He threw his entire being into everyone of his choruses. His style was totally different from that of other famous hot musicians - different in power of melodic invention, in the contrast between those of his phrases which soared up brilliantly and those which subsided slowly to soft tones; different, as well, in its delicate intonations."

Wilder Hobson in "American Jazz Music", W. W. Norton and Co. New York, 1939. "Beiderbecke, like Louis Armstrong, dominated the jazz bands with which he played, but with quite different music. Instead of the hot luxuriance of Armstrong's invention, Beiderbecke's playing was usually characterized by a graceful economy, a buoyant, jetting, melodic line, and he had perhaps as bodiless and golden a tone, suffused with veilings and demi-tints, as ever came from a brass instrument."

Otis Ferguson in "Jam Session, An Anthology of Jazz", edited by Ralph J. Gleason, The Jazz Book Club, 1961. "An analysis of his music as a whole would amount to a statement of most of the best elements of jazz. He played a full easy note, no forcing, faking or mute tricks, no glissando to cover unsure attack or vibrato to fuzz over imprecisions of pitch - it all had to be in the music. And the clear line of that music is something to wonder at. You see, this is the sort of thing that is almost wholly improvised, starting from a simple theme, taking off from that into a different and unpredictable melodic line, spontaneous, personal - almost a new tune but still shadowing the old one, anchored in its chord sequence. Obviously, without lyric invention and a perfect instinct for harmony, this is no go for a minute, let alone chorus after chorus, night after night. And yet there is this fantastic chap, skipping out from behind a bank of saxophones for eight measures in the clear and back again, driving up the tension with a three-note phrase as brash and gleeful as a kid with a prank, riding down the whole length of a chorus like a herd of mustangs - everywhere you find him there is always this miracle of constant on-the-spot invention, never faltering or repeating, every phrase as fresh and glistening as creation itself. Just as characteristic was the driving rhythm against which he played, the subtle and incisive timing that could make even a low and lazy figure of syncopation explode like blows in the prize ring. Bix had a rhythmic invention that seemed inexhaustible, variety without straining; and in all his cross-rhythms and flights of phrasing, retarding the beat or flying on ahead of it, there was always the insistent implication of the steady one-two-three-four drive that usually has its base in the rhythm section."

Martin Williams in "The Jazz Tradition", Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983."In its own time, Bix's work came at the right moment. When jazz was irrevocably becoming a soloist's art, he made crucial steps away from simple embellishments and arpeggios toward melodic invention. He gave jazz harmonic and linear enrichments , and showed how lyric it might become. He also affirmed from his own perspective, something that many jazz melodies affirm: that melodic completeness need not obey traditional ideas of form, that a melody can be a continuous linear invention, without the mechanical melodic repeats of popular songs, and still be a satisfying esthetic entity. Bix's personal melodic intervals, his warm tone, his handling of sound, his plaintive bent notes, and his easy phrasing are a part of his contribution too. But they are all only manifestations of the real import of his playing, which was emotional. It suggested that there was a largely neglected kind of lyric feeling which might also find expression in jazz."

Benny Green in "The Reluctant Art", MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1962. "When he played Bix was consciously thinking, as all jazz musicians do, no matter what the psychologists may say, only of the movement of the harmonies from resolution to resolution. Whatever emotional or dramatic effects we may care to observe in the result are the product of the intuitive powers of the soloist, not his reasoning intelligence at work. But examples like this do illustrate Bix's curious individuality as a jazz musician, and his rare ability to evoke in the listener a range of emotions not so common in jazz as one might think. The very nature of the melancholia he conjures is distinctly Bixian, sensitive and reflective, quite devoid of the element of self-pity which obtrudes in so much later jazz aiming consciously at the same effects Bix produced instinctively."

Before ending this section I wish to quote two cornet players, one contemporaneous with Bix, the other a student of Bix's style.

In "Jazz Masters of the Thirties", McMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1972, Rex Stewart states:

In my book Bix was a once-in-a-million artist. I doubt if what he played will ever be surpassed on the trumpet. He was one of the all-time giants, and I feel that his gifts remain today as unsullied and strikingly refreshing as when he lived. In his foreword to Phil and Linda Evans' "Bix, The Leon Bix Beiderbecke Story", Prelike Press, Bakersfield, California, 1998, Tom Pletcher states:

His tone, vibrato and selection of notes could express passion, joy, sadness or humor depending on his feelings or what he thought the song, phrase or moment should evoke. No jazz musician before or since could capture so much emotion in one note.

- from Bix's Musical Genius

* Final Comments
Finally, I would like to add my own, brief comments. To me, what makes Bix unique among all jazz players is that his instrument was not an end in itself, but rather, it was a means by which he could express his musical ideas. The melody and the underlying harmony, not a display of virtuosity, were the essence of Bix's cornet work. Bix used the cornet to compose and to lead.

Each and every one of his solos were masterpieces of extemporaneous composition. Bix created his melodic variations with an intuitive feeling for the harmonic progressions, and utilized chord tones extraneous to the written arrangements. With deliberation and a powerful creative imagination, Bix chose each particular note, determined how those notes were to be played individually, and judged how they were to be connected to each other. Certainly, all of the characteristics of Bix's cornet work that are usually mentioned - the tone, the sentiment, the attack, the lyricism - are additional manifestations of Bix's amazing gift for music.

Bix had a remarkable ability to lead ensemble performances. When he played with small groups, Bix's cornet work is easily discerned throughout the recording. His sense of rhythm, his dynamism, and his unsurpassed drive inspire the other performers to attain new heights, and add another dimension to each performance. This special quality was unfortunately lost when Bix played with the larger bands where his unique sound was obscured and sometimes cannot be identified, except during those magnificent gems, the solos bursting forth like musical lightning.

Bix Beiderbecke, Vol. 1: Singin' the Blues

Recording Date: Feb 4, 1927-Sep 30, 1927
Release Date: 1990
Label: Columbia
Time: 59:56

Review by Scott Yanow
Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke's greatest recordings were mostly made in 1927. This definitive CD (reissued in 1990) has most of Beiderbecke's best-loved work, including "Singin' the Blues," "I'm Coming Virginia," "Ostrich Walk," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," and his solo piano classic "In a Mist." Most of the recordings were cut with Frankie Trumbauer's Orchestra, although there are also two titles from the Broadway Bellhops, a similar group. The beauty of Beiderbecke's horn outshone virtually every other brassman in the 1920s other than Louis Armstrong, and he never sounded better than on these records. Beiderbecke is joined by such notables as C-melody saxophonist Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang, clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey, trombonist Bill Rank, and clarinetist Don Murray, among others. In addition to the titles mentioned, the renditions of "Clarinet Marmalade," Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle," and "Wringin' and Twistin'" are among the other highlights. Essential music that in one form or another belongs in every serious jazz collection.

1 Trumbology - Trumbauer - 2:59
2 Clarinet Marmalade - Ragas, Shields - 3:13
3 Singin' the Blues (Till My Daddy Comes Home) - Conrad, Lewis, Robinson, Young - 3:00
4 Ostrich Walk - Edwards, LaRocca, Ragas Sbarbaro, Shields - 3:05
5 Riverboat Shuffle - Carmichael, Mills, Parish, Voynow - 3:07
6 I'm Coming Virginia - Cook, Heywood - 3:09
7 Way Down Yonder in New Orlean - Creamer, Layton - 2:50
8 For No Reason at All in C - Lewis, Meyer, Young - 3:02
9 Three Blind Mice - Morehouse, Trumbauer - 3:01
10 Blue River - Bryan, Meyer - 3:16
11 There's a Cradle in Caroline - Ahlert, Young - 3:00
12 In a Mist - Beiderbecke - 2:44
13 Wringin' an' Twistin' - Trumbauer, Waller - 2:53
14 Humpty Dumpty - Livingston - 3:02
15 Krazy Kat - Morehouse, Trumbauer - 3:00
16 The Baltimore - Healy, Kahal, McHugh - 2:59
17 There Ain't No Land Like Dixi - Donaldson - 3:02
18 There's a Cradle in Caroline - Ahlert, Young - 2:54
19 Just an Hour of Love - DeRose, Tilzer, Trent - 2:51
20 I'm Wonderin' Who - DeRose, Tilzer, Trent - 2:49

futuristic music.
mp3 vbr >160kbps | w/ cover (small) | 70mb

continuing the discussion

Continuing the discussion I opened in the introduction to Jody Stecher (on great singer-instrumentalists, Matt said:
i've been pondering this 'great singer-instrumentalists' question a lot lately and then i read your post. just wanted to pitch in a few thoughts and a couple additions to the list:
-aretha franklin is an underrated piano player.
-charley patton
-yes on nina simone
-memphis minnie; some find her voice annoying, i love it. it is also worth appreciating the level to which she could outplay many of her male contemporaries.
-jelly roll morton had a fantastic voice. i'm sure you are familiar with alan lomax's informal recordings of morton singing, accompanied by only his own piano playing. there is even a very moving a capella track, 'tricks ain't walking no more' included. the four volume set is one of my favorite things to listen to of all time.
-i can never decide which i appreciate more: the incomparable banjo and twelve-string guitar playing or the incomparable singing, of karen dalton. if you haven't yet heard the recently issued recordings of her 1962 live performance taped in a denver bar (effectively doubling the amount of karen dalton material available), i highly recommend it. it's just her, no band, and it is unreal.
-gary davis could be a very effective singer at times.
-it is easy to forget that jack bruce is a phenomenal bassist because his playing is so upstaged by clapton's guitar and by his own singing, though he did need the support of a band.
-dave van ronk, as you mentioned, is a shining example of a great stand alone singer-instrumentalist.
-big mama thornton was a surprisingly virtuoso harmonica player. you can see it on youtube.
-little richard? i'd say he accomplished most in his singing and style innovations, but he's a terrific piano player if you listen for it.
-on the flip side, ray charles' abilities on the piano are clear, but is he a good enough singer to qualify? i do remember van ronk, in his autobiography, praised charles for his phrasing.

now, the question i've arrived at next is whether there are any great singer-instrumentalist-

songwriters. with the term songwriter i am talking about the talent for writing lyrics more than for the ability to arrange a composition, make a melody, AND integrate one's own words altogether because good singer-instrumentalists end up doing those other things within the process of interpreting any material. if that makes any sense. maybe i should change it to singer-instrumentalist-lyricist.

anyway, most of the folks on my list and did not write much original material, with the exception of morton, charles, little richard, and some of the blues players.

it is tough to measure the originality of the blues lyric because so much of it is sort of picked and chosen from an existing blues vernacular. i think there is a difference between elaborating on a standard and writing your own new song. after all, the idea of the songwriter is a fairly modern concept. also, in blues many of the lines are throwaway, some totally indiscernible. in my opinion the expressive power and artistry of the blues lies within the sound of the music more than its lyrical content.
morton's words pretty much follow blues and minstrel show formats, but i'd say he is pretty original. many of his songs even start to have topical references (i.e. 'i heard buddy bolden say').
ray charles wrote some good songs, but i hesitate to call them great. for me, he lapses in and out of an overwrought sentimentality and/or preachiness.
we all know that little richard's words are hardly poetic masterpieces. although, considering it, 'a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom' is a pretty awesome construction.

back to blues.. i was saying that the lyrics are sometimes rather indistinct from one artist to the next and fail to match the music in expressiveness. however, there are certain songs where the words alone do send a chill to your toes-- geeshie wiley's 'last kind word blues' come to mind. son house and skip james were both extremely adept with imagery. charley patton stands out to me as someone who did awesomely strange and interesting things with words, which taken with his crazy ass singing, creates one of the most unique marriages of form and content around. so it's a tricky question.

in my opinion, in general, it wasn't the early blues masters who did the best writing, but the later 'new negro' and harlem renaissance poets who used the form to arrive at some truly great works. then, somebody like taj mahal comes along and sets a langston houghes poem to music, bringing it back full circle.

back to the question at hand.. is there anybody who can equal, say, leonard cohen in lyrical content, match the imagination and mastery of the instrument achieved by gary davis, and sing as evocatively as billie holiday? i can't think of anyone, but who knows what the future holds?
i guess it's unrealistic to have an everything-man. afterall, culture is a shared thing.

i'm no scholar, just a young and an enthusiastic listener, and this is my personal take on things. i didn't set out to write such a long and sprawling comment, so excuse my somewhat scatterbrained notes..


also, i just want to say that i really, really like your journal. the actual download links definitely take a backseat to the extensive content and photos you share. keep it up.

Well, first of all, thanks for your well-thought thoughts, Matt!
I agree with pretty much everything you say. Some of them had even entered my list a year ago when I started thinking about the subject, but I forgot about them at the time of writing the article. Karen Dalton was stunning; Memphis Minnie was top-knotch; Charley Patton was insane, and his greatness was obscured by the overwhelming amount of surface noise on the recordings; you're right about Little Richard, and Ray Charles was part of my original list. I hadn't really considered Aretha's piano playing, nor Big Mama Thornton's harmonicizing, but I trust your judgement. Odetta was a fantastic singer who could definitely hold her own on guitar, but though distinctive, I never thought it was something to write home about. Likewise with Jelly Roll's singing. Gary Davis could be effective, that's a good word - not great, I'd say, but could be quite moving. Contrawise, Bob Brozman gets an 'A' for effort, but he always sings with affectation, and it just isn't natural. On the other hand, while Robbie Basho's singing didn't sound natural, it was actually quite amazing - even more so than his guitar work, in the opinion of John Fahey, who had great taste in singers even though he sang like crap. Jack Bruce was indeed a great bassist - a jazz bass player I know has nothing but respect for the man. That same player pointed out what a great bass player Paul McCartney is, and I'd have to concede that he's a great singer as well, even if he lapsed into oversentimentality when not balanced by Lennon.

Which brings us back to the subject of singer-instrumentalist-songwriters. McCartney was a great songwriter in tandem with Lennon, like Fats Waller was great in tandem with Andy Razaf. Dave Van Ronk wrote a couple of great songs like 'Sunday Street', but a couple does not a great songwriter make. Son House could turn the simplest, most clichéed lyrics and drive them into the center of your heart (or gut), but that still doesn't really enter into the songwriter category. Peter Rowan has written some absolutely timeless songs (Land of the Navajo would probably be enough to secure his place in immortality), and he's a one-of-a-kind singer, and he's at least a very good guitarist, if not a great one. Of course, he's usually surrounded by other, even better instrumentalists (Clarence White, Tony Rice, Bill Monroe...), so his playing usually serves as 'great rhythm guitar'. Check out the Muleskinner posts in the archives if you're interested.

But now that I'm thinking about this subject again, it strikes me why these people are so rare. You see, the concept of singer/songwriter/instrumentalist is mostly a 20th Century invention. Most of the traditional musics of the world are divided into two broad categories: ballads and dance music (with a few others, such as devotional music, trance music, and classical music). Music for dancing generally didn't have singing, and the ballads, while sometimes instrumentally accompanied, was rarely of great musical value or danceability. Original songwriters or composers of distinction were quite rare; and it was not necessary that they be great at singing or playing, since it would be mostly others who played their works. It was really the early blues musicians who brought the separate disciplines of singing/playing/composing/songwriting together with great skill for the first time in western music. And as it happened, this coincided with the birth of recording, and so the age of the virtuoso was born. It wasn't until the Weavers, the Beatles, Kweskin Jug Band, Planxty, etc, that you started seeing groups who wrote & arranged their own material, played with great skill, and sang really well.

Anywho, those are my thoughts at the moment. I invite you all to add to the discussion!

April 17, 2009

Red Clay Ramblers - Twisted Laurel

Joe from Dublin recently left a comment on the Mike Auldridge post:

Thank you very much for this. I have Dobro on vinyl, but no way of playing it any more (familiar story!) I also have the Mike Auldridge album on Flying Fish records from 1976 - does anyone have this album? In fact, thinking about it, wouldn't it be ideal if all the great but unavailable music on the Flying Fish label (Don Lange, The Red Clay Ramblers, Peter Rowan, Bryan Bowers, Mary McCaslin, Lorraine Duisit, Guy Carawan, Peter Alsop, Steve Lyon, Si Khan, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Anne Romaine, Norman Blake, Freeman and Lange, all in my own collection) was available somewhere as good quality downloads.

Well, as it happens, you're in luck Joe! IncaRoads, another blogreader who has been diligently keeping us stocked with Flying Fish titles uploaded a Red Clay Ramblers album a while back, but I never got around to posting it. And I've already posted his contribution of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Most of the other names I haven't heard of there (excepting Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, & Si Khan). So any other blog readers are more than welcome to educate me!

Personally, I'm kind of ambivalent about what I've heard of the Red Clay Ramblers. They're not bad at all, just not completely to my taste. Sometimes I listen and enjoy it, sometimes it grates on my ears, I suppose it depends on my mood. I just re-listened and actually liked it quite a bit, so maybe it's growing on me. Kind of a Kweskin-style treatment of hillbilly music. The review below pretty much sums it up, both my ambivalence and all the good points to their music.

"I've often found it puzzling why so many folks who consider themselves bluegrass fans tend to hold the ever-versatile Red Clay Ramblers at arm's length. True, the Ramblers, with that confounded piano and occasional kazoo, don't stick strictly to the banjo-fiddle-mandolin template of Bill Monroe and his acolytes, but their mastery of Antebellum and Gilded Age pop places them squarely in the same sentimentalist traditions as the truegrass forefathers. But where many 'grass fans see the Carter Family, say, as the wellspring of the style, on the Ramblers timeline, they are just one more great band in a legacy that spans back well before the 20th Century. Twisted Laurel ably showcases their diverse strengths: they pick and plunk along with the best of them, veer into vaudevillian vocal ditties, traditional tunes with a Stephen Foster lilt, as well as goofy original novelty tunes like "The Ace," which have a distinct air of Cheap Suit Seranaders zaniness. And, of course, a Carter Family tune or two, along with Jimmie Rodgers' "Mississippi Delta Blues," which is completely in line with their old-timely leanings. Fun stuff, though certainly not your standard-issue stringband material."

A review of the album Twisted Laurel from 1976 in The Unicorn Times
By Terence Winch
The Red Clay Ramblers’ last album, Stolen Love, was one of the best recordings in years by a string band. Their versions of “Kingdom Coming,” “Staten Island Hornpipe,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning” are a joy to listen to. But their newest LP Twisted Laurel, on Flying Fish, one of the best independent labels in the country, outdoes any of their previous work. The Ramblers are more and more becoming a band in a class by itself, setting a standard of excellence that is inspirational.

They are a “traditional” group insofar as the instrumentation and material for their music follows in the tradition of such performers as Charlie Pool, The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers. But this is not to say that they are not an innovative band. Their arrangements are complex and tight without being pretentious. The blend of sound, vocal and instrumental, that the Ramblers can produce is distinctive. It does what the best music must do: it delights the ear. On this recording they’ve expanded the range and variety of their sound to include trumpet, trombone, tenor guitar, kazoo and organ along with their usual combination of fiddle, banjo, bass, piano and mandolin. They make a kind of music that’s been around for a long time sound newly exciting by stretching its form in experimental ways.

There’s a sense of humor in the spirit of their work that is one of the many pleasures of listening to this band. But the quality most appealing in their music is its intelligence. This is music that sounds bright, not just sonically, but in the attitude the musicians take to their repertoire; they never condescend to the sources of their music.

The Ramblers are from North Carolina, but this new LP was recorded in the D.C. area at Bias Studios by Bill McElroy, one of the most respected engineers in this part of the world. And he deserves his share of credit for the impressive precision and quality of this recording. It takes a gifted pair of ears and some very solid techinical skill for a sound engineer to come up with a recording that is as exact and sensitive as this. All the elements of this band’s music are there, just right. Nothing is mangled or missed.

The original music on the LP is an index to the Ramblers’ range of talent. “Twisted Laurel” by Tommy Thompson, one of the most genial men in the South, may make him the Wordsworth of old-time music. The song is not so much a narrative as an “atmosphere song.” Without sentimentality, it evokes a melancholy place and mood. The language is tight, the images sharp, the melody beautiful. “The Ace” (co-authored by Mike Craver) and “The Corrugated Lady” (written with Johnny Black), also Thompson songs, reveal the comic side of his music. The Ace's hard-luck romantic adventures make him more of a deuce, sometimes even a joker. The music sounds funny too—plenty of kazoo, trumpet and trombone. Jack Herrick, the newest Red Clay Rambler, is the man who blows the horns on this record, providing the band with new musical possibilities that it exploits skillfully. “The Corrugated Lady,” another song in the ridiculous-romance genre, features a countermelody of The Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” produced by McElroy with the metallic sound of an antique recording.

“The Hobo’s Last Letter,” written by fiddler Bill Hicks, is the only non-Thompson original on the album. It’s a frame song—a song within a song—put together with real know-how by Hicks and sung in two parts: a slow opener in Mike Craver’s fragile tenor, followed by Watson’s hard-nosed vocals. Their voices, so completely different, balance perfectly. The Ramblers know precisely how to use their voices. Craver’s solo interpretation of “Will You Miss Me?” and his lead vocal on “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” are a tribute to The Carter Family that comes close to surpassing Mother Maybelle herself. And Watson’s lead vocal on a classic Charlie Poole tune, “The Beale Street Blues” (written by W. C. Handy), is right on target.

Besides fiddling with the speedy clarity of an American Jean Carrignan, Hicks’ sings in a voice so authentic it sounds like it belongs to some 63 year-old moonshiner hiding out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His double-fiddling on “Ryestraw” is one of the many touches that make this LP so successful. Hicks kicks off “Flying Cloud Cotillion,” a tune that displays the band’s instrumental talents and its ability to play complex traditional music without getting tangled up in it. Herrick’s trumpet and trombone and Craver’s piano give this recording a jazz punctuation that only one other country-music-based band—a new York group called “The Central Park Sheiks” (who have also just released an album on Flying Fish)—uses as effectively. The rest of the material on this record—a medley of “Blue Jay” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me;” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mississippi Delta Blues;” “Rockingham Cindy;” “The Telephone Girl;” and “I Was Only Teasing You”—is all terrific.

Unless the Ramblers are only teasing us, this album was not recorded, as the credits claim, in June of 1967.

Raymond Simone, who designed and illustrated the jacket, has put together a product that is on the same level of quality as the music it contains.

The Ramblers are accomplished entertainers. Tommy Thompson, for example, is one of the best on-stage storytellers around. They’re a working band that frequently plays jobs in this area: at The Red Fox in Bethesda, The Cellar Door, Charlie’s West Side (in Annapolis). But if you can’t get to see them, enjoy their music in the privacy of your own home by buying a copy of Twisted Laurel.

The Red Clay Ramblers - Twisted Laurel

Year: 1976
Label: Flying Fish

Review by Eugene Chadbourne

Standing at a crossroads of old-timey music and the kind of progressive thought patterns and creativity that emerge in college towns such as the band's home base of Chapel Hill, the Red Clay Ramblers created a discography that is as much about making records as it is making music. The two biggest influences on this project seem to be the culturally rich results of pioneer recording efforts in American music in the '20s and '30s and the much later explosion of musical creativity in the '60s, when every garage band got to make a big artistic statement. As much as Twisted Laurel would never have been possible without old-time hillbilly music, it also could not exist without the example of albums such as the Band's Music From Big Pink or the refined album efforts of John Prine. It is a meticulously crafted piece of work which, if anything, could use a bit more looseness and edge in its occasional stuffy moments. Sometimes the good-timey numbers will prompt a listener to turn the volume down; it can be just too much hyper energy, despite the brilliance of the recorded sound. Yet the band seems to know when to pull back, following up the overdone pseudo-swing of "The Corrugated Lady" with a marvelous solo vocal and fiddle tour de force by Bill Hicks. The instrumental numbers such as "Flying Cloud Cotillon" are masterful, the piano playing of Mike Craver an absolute delight. The recording date is listed as 1967 on some copies of the album; however, be assured that even the nervous Flying Fish label wouldn't have waited nearly a decade to release this.

1 Blue Jay/The Girl I Left Behi - Traditional - 1:55
2 Twisted Laurel - Thompson - 2:55
3 The Hobo's Last Letter - Hicks - 3:10
4 Rockingham Cindy - Traditional - 2:15
5 Mississippi Delta Blues - Rodgers - 3:20
6 The Telephone Girl - Reed - 2:35
7 Will You Miss Me - Carter Family - 2:15
8 The Ace - Craver, Thompson - 3:10
9 The Corrugated Lady - Black, Thompson - 2:55
10 When Bacon Was Scarce/Ryestra - Parker, Summers - 2:15
11 I Was Only Teasing You - Traditional - 2:45
12 Fifty Miles of Elbow Room - Carter - 3:00
13 Flying Cloud Cotillion - Traditional - 2:30
14 Beale Street Blues - Handy - 2:40

ramble on.
mp3 320kbps | w/o cover | 72mb

thanks again, IncaRoads!

April 9, 2009

Jody Stecher - An Introduction

"Jody Stecher is one of the very great singers alive today."
- Martin Carthy

There are many great instrumentalists in the world, and as many great singers. But rarely do they come together in the same person. There are plenty of great singers who can hold their own on guitar, and guitarists whose technique is so breathtaking that you can ignore the faltering faults in their singing. Maybe they even have a good voice. And there are even some who are good, or really good at both. And notable singer-arrangers (Geoff Muldaur, Sam Cooke), instrumentalist-composers (Fahey, Mingus), singer-songwriters, etc. People who could deliver an a capella song that would raise your hairs, and pick an instrumental that would set them on fire. But very few GREAT singer-instrumentalists.

In the field of blues you have Blind Willie Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson and a handful of others. Bluegrass has Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Ron Thomason, Peter Rowan, and others who are equally great but less distinctive. Anglo- and Celtic music has Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine, and Nic Jones (and almost Martin Simpson). In the world of Folk music you have Dave Van Ronk (yes, he was a great singer, despite a raggedy voice), Leadbelly, Jazz has Chet Baker and, um, probably others (I haven't heard enough of Nina Simone's piano-playing or Fats Waller's singing to judge). Leon Redbone sits comfortably in-between the genres, and underplays his greatness considerably. Rock and Pop music have had a handful, probably beginning with Fats Domino (though I don't know that I'd call him really GREAT), and Jeff Buckley probably would qualify if he'd lived long enough to develop his guitar prowess just a bit more. Indian Classical music has Z.M. Dagar. And there are others from Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere that I'm not familiar with. (Feel free to inform me of others you think should be on the list!)

There are two who are great singers and multi-instrumentalists who also span most of the genres listed above. One is Tim O'Brien, and he'll get a post later. The other is my favorite musician of all time.

What can I say about Jody Stecher? Superlatives come up short. It would not be enough to describe his instrumental capacity, though he can make every instrument he plays sing like morning birds. He sings with such emotional authority, restrained power, subtlety, and unassuming humanity, that every song he covers becomes indelibly associated with him. You don't need to hear any other versions once you hear Jody's. But descriptions really do no good. Even professional reviewers find themselves at a loss of words:

Biography by Don Stevens
Jody is one of the finest musicians in the world. He has recorded with Alasdair Fraser from Scotland, Krishna Bhatt from India, and with many of Americas best traditional musicians. Kate has played with many west coast groups. Jody plays mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo. Kate plays banjo and guitar. Both are terrific vocalists, and as a duet are unbeatable. When Ron Thomason is at a loss of words to describe the beauty of their playing and singing, how can a mere mortal attempt to describe it. Buy Blue Lightning. Listen to it, and read Ron's liner notes. There is nothing I can say to add to that! You won't quit until you find all their recordings.

Yes, I too have the feeling that when Jody gets up in the morning, he has Music for breakfast. I've never met him, but from everything I've read he seems like an amazing human being as well. And I think I know how he approaches music, and why his approach is so much deeper than everyone else's. You see, in the late 50s and early 60s city people began to discover 'folk music', and latched on to it because it was so much more vital and exciting than the schlock that had become their musical diet. But for the most part, they just butchered it, because they cleaned it up, set it to straight, bouncy tempos, and they never noticed all the small notes hiding in between the big notes. The instruments were mostly used to provide pitch-reference and rhythm. And you never got the sense that any of these people actually understood a word of what they were singing about.

But there were a few good ones, and when they were broadcast on the radio it woke up young Jody to the wonders of folk and bluegrass and cajun music, and made the world a better place. Of course, Jody didn't stop there. Like Fahey a decade before, he went to the source. He discovered the real roots, the depth and breadth of American music. And not content to stop at that, he went on to discover Indian classical music, Celtic music, Cajun music, and a host of traditional musics around the world. He learned as he listened, starting on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and banjo pretty much simultaneously at the age of 11. Later he learned Oud, studied the Sarod under Ali Akbar Khan, and finally mastered the Sursingar (a cross between a sarod and a veena) under the tutelage of the late master of Dhrupad, Z.M. Dagar. And he studied the old singers in depth, until he could hear and sing all the microtones that you'd hear in a Texas Gladden ballad or a Hindustani vocal raga. And he always learned the tradition of what he was doing, so that he could approach it in a holistic and respectful manner rather than an exploitative, touristy one. And he played all the styles and all the instruments, and mixed things here and there but always made it sound natural, rather than exotic.

His tone is universally sweet, no matter what instrument he's on, and I have the sneaking feeling that he intentionally plays a hair behind the tempo to help you hear his work without making it flashy (the opposite of the Earl Scruggs style, which pushes in front of the tempo). He has pioneered a number of techniques such as Clawhammer Guitar and Flatpicking Celtic guitar, but perhaps more astounding is the way he'll slip an Indian rhythmic pattern into a bit of guitar or banjo accompaniment without anybody noticing. He (together with his musical partner Kate Brislin or his various bands like Perfect Strangers) rehearses tirelessly, trying every arrangement until he finds the right one and it becomes integrated into his subconscious and his body memory. And then, then he drops it completely and just improvises! So the arrangement always sounds just perfect, impossible to improve upon, and yet it lives and breathes, and never gets stuck in the uninspiring dead stasis of so much technical perfection. His playing is proof that tone and timing are ultimately more important to music than speed and flash.

And then there's his approach to the songs themselves. Like Ron Thommason, Jody never sings a ditty. Whether its joyful or mournful, every song is a testament to the depth of human experience. That's part of why most of the songs he sings are old, traditional songs: all the extraneous elements have fallen away, only the essential and universal (though never generic) remains. And like Martin Carthy, Jody does his research. Sometimes he physically goes out and makes field recordings (the fantastic set The Real Bahamas, featuring Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family, was his work - learn more here). He listens to as many versions of the song as he can, particularly the old versions, and then - and this is what makes his approach so special - and then he inhabits the song, until he is living in it and singing from the point of view of the protagonist or songwriter. And this is what gives his singing such humanity. It's not just that can make his voice quiver as it slides up, or make his voice draw inward while projecting out like an opera singer, but he knows WHEN to do it, so that each vocal inflection corresponds to an emotional state. And then of course, having immersed himself in tradition and story, he forgets all of it, just sings from his heart and above all has fun! In this way, all the facets of life come through Jody's songs, and you have the rarest of rares, a complete art.

Even though you've likely not heard about him, you can bet that other musicians have. David Bromberg once said, "Jody Stecher was basically my teacher. He opened my ears to more beautiful music than anyone else ever did... more than I ever knew existed. He is also one of my favorite musicians on Earth to play with. I have never known anyone so intensely and completely enveloped in music. It's my suspicion that if you drained all the music out of Jody, you could carry what was left around in an eye dropper." His recordings have served as a primer for a large and diverse group of musicians, including Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Martin Simpson, Seldom Scene, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, and the group, Hot Rize. In other words, they listen to him and say "Holy Shit! What an amazing song Jody's unearthed!" and then they make a version of it, which usually doesn't quite hold water compared to Jody's version, but they spread it to many more people, so I suppose it's good.

Of course, Jody would probably feel a little bit queasy with me lumping so many praises on him. Because another quality that emerges from his music is humility. He gets so into the songs and the music, his ego almost totally disappears. There's no separation between him and the music, and he never draws attention to his considerable skills. And when you listen, you undergo a similar transformation (especially if you sing along, which you'll almost certainly want to do). [after writing this I found out that he is in fact a very nice guy and a practicing Buddhist. So my theory of music-to-remove-ego holds true! See what you can learn by listening closely?]

And I haven't said much about his wife and musical partner Kate Brislin, but let me just say that she has a voice like an angel and a musical grace to match (do angels play banjo?). Her high, crystalline voice is the perfect foil for Jody's robust tone. Together they make music that will last for centuries to come as a high watermark of American traditional music.

Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin - bio by John Lupton
"Our favorite music is from the time when old-time music was becoming bluegrass." When he wrote those words for the liner notes of A Song That Will Linger, the 1989 debut Rounder release by him and his wife and duet partner, Kate Brislin, Jody Stecher probably didn't expect that the next decade would see four more albums that would establish them as the preeminent old-time country duet singers on the scene, but that's pretty much how it turned out. Although both Stecher and Brislin would likely disagree with that assessment, preferring to point in the direction of friends and colleagues like Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, or Kay Justice and Ginny Hawker, the '90s saw them carrying the beauty and simplicity of vintage old country music to a wider variety of folk music stages and audiences than probably anyone else. To some, it seemed as if they appeared on the scene out of nowhere, but both had been involved in folk music for several years prior to their meeting in the mid '70s. To paraphrase the old one-liner, if there's a dictionary with the term "music junkie" in it, look it up and you'll find Jody Stecher's picture next to it. Like many of his fellow New Yorkers born in the '40s and raised in the '50s, Brooklyn native Stecher was caught up as a teenager in the so-called Great Folk Music Scare of the '50s and '60s. After getting his first guitar at age 11, and a banjo at 12 (after hearing Dock Boggs on record), he signed on with his first bluegrass band, the New York Ramblers, in 1963, while still in his teenage years. (That band also included Winnie Winston and David Grisman). From bluegrass, he progressed to blues, Irish, Bahamian music and whatever else caught his fancy -- even an ongoing fascination with Indian sitar music under the tutelage of Krishna Bhatt. Along the way he made a number of albums, both solo and with others, and in 1974 he found himself playing in a Seattle-area band called Houseboat Music, while working in the Folklife department of the World's Fair in Tacoma. Also employed at the fair was California native Kate Brislin, who was familiar with Stecher's recently recorded first album of old-time music, and trying out a few songs together off-stage one evening, they found they clicked right away, beginning a musical association and friendship that eventually led to their marriage but not right away. As Stecher would later write, "We circled each other for years." During those years, Stecher continued to tour as a solo act, as well as with people like Bhatt and fiddler Hank Bradley. Brislin joined the Any Old Time String Band, moving on later to join the Blue Flame String Band. Stecher did ask Brislin to sing on his next two albums, along with notables such as Peter Rowan, Mary Black, Jerry Garcia and the Watersons. In 1985, they began getting serious about singing old-time duets of the classic songs that were the bedrock of bluegrass and country music -- "Lover's Return," by the Carter Family, for example, and Stephen Foster's "Hard Times." As one album led to another during the Rounder years, they also delved into interpretations of material that wasn't quite so old, such as Jean Ritchie's "Blue Diamond Mine," or the title track of their third Rounder release, Iris DeMent's "Our Town." Instrumentally, both Stecher and Brislin were classic examples of the advantages of timing and tone over sheer speed. Whether on guitar, banjo or mandolin, both were always tasteful and careful to never allow the instruments to overshadow or diminish the fragile beauty of a mountain ballad. It was a trick they were also able to pull off nicely with the vocals. The delicate and direct quality of Brislin's voice was a near-perfect match to the plaintive yearning of Stecher's. It has been said by some that the old country and mountain music of the American south (and points beyond) is as worthy of the description "soul music" as anything that's come out of Motown over the decades, and there's precious little better evidence of that than the music of Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin.

there's a few interviews on the web, all very revealing.
Read Michael Parrish's interview for Dirty Linen, 1991

and an interview on Jody's take on Indian music from 2006

And read Jody's memoir for Z.M. Dagar

[and this account of his trip to China as an ambassador of American music. awesome photos]

This is a music for all ages; those who are young and excited by life will enjoy it no less than those who are old and weary of it. Perhaps the cynical will dismiss his music because of the apparent romantic, nostalgic or devotional aspects inherent to the traditional songs he sings. But even cynics may find, if they allow themselves to listen openly and without prejudice, sympathetic strings resonating within themselves, responding to the encompassing love and deep, holy solitude that carries those romantic, nostalgic, and devotional lyrics. Their album of Utah Phillips' music made me cry on 4 out of 10 tracks. And I'm a Pirate! Like Gadaya, "every time i listen to [Leela, Leela], it makes me want to sing and dance and go live in an ashram". And I'm a PIRATE!

But even I didn't 'get' his music at first. I downloaded the 'Going up the Mountain' cd as part of a bluegrass torrent. I'd never heard of him before and the music didn't seem too distinctive at first. But I was hooked on his version of Turtle Dove, the song introduced by the Georgia Sea Island Singers, which my dad sang on many occasions. So gradually I listened to the cd more, and it really grew on me. I discovered Heart Songs: the Old-Time Country Music of Utah Phillips at my local library, and got it despite the too-sweet-looking cover (his dumb grin and balding head are the antithesis of the 99% of musicians who try to look 'cool' on their albums). Then I couldn't stop listening. And I went and bought and sought every other recording of his that I could find (see, piracy can be good for the music business), and he basically singlehandedly made me start learning how to sing. And hopefully, the same will happen to you. But if it doesn't grab you at first listen, give it a few more spins in the weeks to come. Something will awaken, I promise.

Snake Baked a Hoecake - An Introduction to Jody Stecher

Year: 2009
Label: Irate Piratunes

This is a little compilation I put together to give you a taste of his work. It took me months to narrow it down to 80 minutes… every song was too good, I hated to leave any of them out. I intentionally left off the songs from Rasa, his collaboration with Krishna Bhatt, which you can find at Times Ain't Like They Used To Be. Gadaya has more recently posted Jody's first album, also called Snake Baked a Hoecake, which I wasn't aware of when I compiled and named this cd.
If you like what you hear you can check out related projects such as Fred Sokolow's Bluegrass Banjo Inventions and The Delta Sisters.

Anyways, it's a labor of love. Enjoy!

1. Turtle Dove
2. Oh the Wind and Rain (version 1)
3. Red Rocking Chair
4. The Bramble and the Rose
5. Blue Diamond Mines
6. The Freize Britches
7. Henry and the Machine (composed by Jody!)
8. Country Blues
9. Rhinordine
10. The Hills of Isle au Haut
11. Queen of the Earth and Child of the Stars / Roving Gambler
12. Love Farewell
13. Paul and Silas
14. Miner's Lullaby
15. Snake Baked a Hoecake
16. Leela
17. Golden Mansion
18. Oh the Wind and Rain (version 2)

[oh. right. the download link.]
part 1 | part 2
mp3 | >192kbps vbr | w/ cover | 67 + 58mb

Now I want you to understand something as you download and listen to this beautiful music.
Jody Stecher is tragically under-recorded. Because his music isn't flashy or exotic, and because it's too eclectic to be pigeon-holed. He had some success in the 90s playing old-time bluegrass with Kate Brislin, but there are so many other facets of his music that he hasn't recorded because it's too hard to market. This sampler will give you a glimpse into some of those facets; others you can hear in Gadaya's posts. Now, like Max Ochs, Jody will be playing music for the enjoyment of it, for his dog, whathaveyou, probably till the day he dies. But if you want him to shell out for the recording expenses so that you and the rest of the world can enjoy and grow from this music, then we'd better shell out and find some way to support him. I don't think you could find a musician more deserving. If you know music promoters, record shops, libraries, collectors, or just plain open-minded people, spread the word. I've noticed there's hardly anything on him on the internet. You folks can blog, twitter, e-review, etc. Spread this post around. Or if you want to support him the old-fashioned way, you can buy his records from CD Baby, Acoustic Disc, and Rounder.

[Or, as Gadaya points out, "You could add maybe a word about his instuctionnal videos he made for Stefan Grossman's guitar workshop, really some great things to learn for guitar players... "]
check them out here
Or preview on youtube

April 8, 2009

some thoughts & Max Ochs

I recently came across this interview with Max Ochs (brother of Phil Ochs, and featured in that American Primitive Guitar comp). He says a lot of cool things, including this perspective on the contemporary state of music accessibility:

Touching on the access that recorded music allowed to the other genres that influenced you back in the ’50s, what do you think of the current state of digital music, and the unprecedented access that the Internet has allowed?

I think it’s wonderful, and I think it should be free. I have lots of cassettes of myself playing at a coffee house, of me playing at somebody’s house or at a gig, or at bar, or just sitting in the living room with a bunch of guys and somebody turns on the tape recorder and made a copy for me. And I have a ton of homemade music that I would love to post to a Web site and be like Radiohead, you know, what they did with their last album where they said to download and pay us whatever you think it’s worth. If you wanna take it for free, if you wanna give me a dollar, fifty cents, whatever, it’s fine. And I would really be quite content to do that.

As far as musicians making a living off of selling a record is concerned, do you think that particular model of digital distribution is a good direction for music to be taking?

People are going to get their music one way or another — they have a hunger, an appetite for it. They’re gonna find music and there’s so much of it now. I mean, the Beatles are never gonna disappear — Beethoven, Bach, Blind Willie Johnson, John Fahey — they’re never gonna disappear, they’re here for the rest of civilization’s existence. So it’s a cumulative thing, new musicians will come up and find ways to get their stuff on iTunes that can be downloaded.

But people say, “Don’t you wanna get money for your CD’s?” Well actually, I would be happy if people were listening to my music, at least to the extent that people would invite me to come play at a concert. But even when I wasn’t playing at gigs or at venues, I was still sitting in my kitchen playing for my dog, or on my back steps — I just love to play. I’m not worried about the music industry, it will find a way, it will sort itself out. There will be ways for musicians to make money, you’ll get played for playing when you go to a gig, and the musicians will sell their records at the gigs, and maybe musicians will adopt that Radiohead mode where they put it on the internet and if people want their music, they can download it and pay what they think is fair to pay, what they think it’s worth.

But here’s the other thing: You’re talking to a non-typical musician. Most of the time when you interview a musician, they’re doing it for a living, they’ve committed themselves full-time and they’re really brave leaping into that experience where they’re going to try to see if they can make it as a musician. I never had that much faith in myself, that I could be that competitive in the market. I play just because it brings me great joy, and I’m just grateful that people like to listen. I worked in the anti-poverty agency at a steady job and when I could find the time I would practice my music and write a song, and if I was lucky, I would get a gig. That’s how I bumbled through decades, and all this that’s going on now is wonderful and interesting. It’s like now I’ve been validated to the extent that it seems people enjoy listening to me, and it’s amazing, and great, and I’m so happy that they do.


which pretty much sums up how I relate to it, as a musician as well.

Max has a new album out. It's called Hooray for Another Day. The guitar pieces are very unique. And there's some poetry, somewhat in the vein of The Microphones. I'm not nuts about his singing, and you're not going to be blown away by his technique, but the album's definitely worth hearing for the individuality and humanity in the guitar-playing. And in that spirit, you can either buy it from Tompkins Square or pinch it here.

and read this interview with Max at Tompkins Square

cool beans!

April 5, 2009

VA - American Primitive Guitar

Shawn David McMillan

". . . The New Age people call it Folk; the Folk people call it New Age, but it is really neither. It's transitional. The style is derived from the country blues and string band music of the 20's and 30's, however much of the music is contemporary. Fahey referred to it as 'American Primitive' after the 'French Primitive' painters, meaning untutored." - Peter Lang

I'm sure most everybody here is fairly familiar with John Fahey and the musical form he begat: American Primitive Guitar. But if you're not, here's a couple mini-essays collected about the web and an introductory album for you:

American Primitive Guitar is grounded in our complex melting-pot American musical traditions. Hymns, rags, folk songs, jazz, classical, opera, eastern rhythms, contemporary tunes, and a galaxy of other musical sources contribute to this diverse form.

Technique is based on using the multiple strings of the guitar to present the melody or theme supported by harmony and bass tones played simultaneously. Alternating bass is a regular feature, used in many forms to create a synchopation to support or contrast with other elements of the pieces. Varied tunings of the guitar enhance the instrument's tone, the playing of open strings reinforcing root tones and making multi-string techniques more accessible.

John Fahey's music has been a major influence on the creation of my own style and technique. It's combination of historic references in many styles and tunes, unusual syncopations and application of "primitive" techniques create stark and beautiful textures for the guitar. I highly recommend his many early recordings on Takoma as a unique source for inspiration in this form.

GUITAR DISCOVERY The following passage is quoted from a John Fahey essay on guitar composition and arranging:

"During practice sessions - I usually would sit from four to six hours, and I still do - strange things would happen, and suddenly I would have an entire song or a significant fragment.... If you make yourself play the guitar except for breaks - cigarette, bathroom, whatever - for four to six hours, I can guarantee that you will come out of these sessions with something new: a composition, an arrangement, a fragment. This is the way the mind works. In order to conquer boredom and chaos, you cannot avoid coming up with something new."

In my own sessions I've often found this wondrous miracle occurring, where following the known paths in extended repetition finds something completely new and unforseen, snatches of serendipity which can often be manipulated into something completely new and rewarding. Recording of these extended sessions helps keep the wily phrases from escaping back to the ether and allows you to bask in the glow of discovery as you continue to flow with the musical spirit.

Brad Barr

Again in the words of Mr. Fahey:

"While technique is important, it is only part of the story. Music is a language - a language of emotions. The worst possible way to play these songs - and I am not only talking about my own compositions - is in metronome time at a uniform volume. Another terrible thing would be to play any composition the same way every time, or to feel that you have to play it exactly the way someone else, such as myself, played it or said to play it. A good technician must also be creative. Even if a person is not a composer, he can interpret and and arrange, and these skills are as important as technique in making a performance interesting. I rely heavily on both technique and interpretation, and I think of myself as a very good composer, arranger, and plagiarest for the solo acoustic guitar"

The great challenge in playing the guitar is the creation of flowing and ethereal entities from the complex mechanics of the instrument. As our guru notes above, our goal should be to make each piece of music our own personal moment, shaping it with our own unique abilities and experiences. A unique path to enlightenment and harmony evolves from our strong emotional involvement in the performance of music as the mysterious connection between our ear and mind stimulates primeval and exotic vistas while the strings vibrate beneath our fingers and the soundbox resonates against our ribs.

by Les Weller for American Primitive Guitar

and this delightfully irreverent, grapewrath-style (though with greater profanity) piece:

On the term "American Primitive Guitar":

"American," because what it boils down to is that you're in America listening to American music and so the first thing you rip off is American music, and because America is really a smorgasborg of influences, a melting pile of mushrot, you're really ripping off everybody somehow in the process, one way or another. Common practice is to plagarize obscure sources - no art evolves from a vacuum.

"Primitive," because by any stretch of the imagination you don't really know how to play. Once you overcome this you and The Ear become your own teachers, and you might sit down and watch other people play, but nobody tells you where to put your thumb, nobody shows you sheet music, your knowledge of theory is broken and you piece together how this shit works bit by bit. No books, perhaps, but the big no no is No Teachers. They'll just fuck your head up trying to convince you that you shouldn't do certain things which by all primitive means you should try doing anyway. What matters for the primitive is the expression of the primitive. If you want to call it emotion I don't care, go ahead, nothing stops people from talking about the emotional content of Will Ackerman Yanni John Tesh Kenny G Mozart, why should you think twice about it. To quote Becket on this matter, "If we can't keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lay down." Go home and lay down with your guitar.

Fahey used the term primitive for a few reasons. One was to separate himself from those he considered volkists, primarily the Seeger family, but also other operators in the "Folk Revival", something he mistrusted and possibly despised. Fahey's roots were in white western music, not the blues or folk forms that he would work within during his acoustic career. He considered it a lie or at least a great misrepresentation to call music made by white middle class suburbanites "folk".

The term primitive was also brought in to draw the distiction between his folk and classical sources, because he was drawing from blues, classical and folk musics, as well as any other viable soundhole (the experimental, le avante guarde). Designated American because he used above all else American musical references in his compositions. He was not classical, he played variants of traditional fingerstyle on a steel string guitar, but he was not folk or blues, they were mearly part of his diet. He borrowed melodies and progressions from Vaughner and Gershwin, he covered rock ballads, he recorded sound collages, and he wrote/played/didhisthing occasionally in atonal and serial structures. The practice of his music was primitive in comparison to classical music, it existed on the same plane as folk and blues but did not evolve from a distinct enclosed culture. It had traditional ties but not traditional boundaries. It was primitive - because it was new, it was unruly, and it was uncivilized.

"Guitar," get a box, get a stick, tie string(s) from the base of the box to the end of the stick. Make music.

Jack Rose

Composition. I personally advocate Fahey's method of composition, which consists of 4 to 8 hour stretches in a dark room with some intoxicating substance at hand, and an instrument. Remember a melody, find the melody on the instrument, procede until boredom forces your mind to break out of the box or break the box. If you break your guitar, go find a day job, otherwise go purchase either a rusty recording instrument or some paper. Invent notation, write down what you're doing. If you have a tuner it's your own funeral, you might as well call it quits, because the only crap you'll produce is western music, presuming you bought a western tuner, which is good as far as it goes, but you're no longer composing primitive, you're composing western. An A in the west is not neccessarily an A elsewhere, and really there's no reason for you to even know what the fuck an A is in the first place: ignorance is a telltale sign of clear thinking.

Performance. One of two things generally fuck the musician up. They become obsessed with technical issues, or they become obsessed with the audience. In primitive exposition, 1) Ignore and play through mistakes. Better yet, play with mistakes. There are no mistakes. There is only the Primitive. It may be benificial to come to an understanding that there are only "mistakes" when mistakes are accepted. Mistakes are the monsters under your bed, the bogey man in your closet. Somewhere along the line you were taught to believe that the word had meaning, and that lesson was a lie. Mistakes are the boogie man, and he has his dancing shoes on. 2) Ignore the audience, if rapport will come it will come through the primitive which is delivered through the music, if they don't enjoy it, well fuck them, everybody is not for the primitive, and your primitive is not for everybody.

The primitive as genre: This is total cocksmut. It's thrown out at parties by pricks getting their jollies off in public spaces. Assholes. Primitive is a congenital directive, it is a compositional hypothesis. "American Primitive" is a genre, or genreless because it depends on the American idioms the individual composer borrows from, as well as being strictly limited by the locality of the artist - what culture and folk music he has come into contact with, and the degree of the artist's separation from those cultures. And essentially, single cultures and folk are properly considered constructs, avenues towards art. They are helpful but not necessary. It is necessarily possible to reach the primitive, a stripped down and barren primitive, through pure grunt force, or how else would the primitive exist in the folk. The primitive is a choice. The primitive draws sounds from the native and finds the patterns and in the patterns finds the emotive, and in the emotive the primitive finds the music. Yadda yadda yadda. The urban is just as native to some as the sticks and grass are native to some, the primitive is not geographically prejudiced, though geographies may be prejudiced.

Sandy Bull

Stop theorizing. Stop reading this, stop listening to me. The only thing primitive about me is my cockwhoring on the weekends. But for when I'm out of my head delirious with booze or drugs do I hear the cojoling insubordination occuring at the pit of my brainstem. Because I spend too much time debating cultural semantics rather than feeling around for my primitive, because I spend too much time thinking my bass runs are too stale, or my progression too parallel. The one time I came close I found out that it was a sunshine five year old running on the green and yellow dead lawn in the nude.

Recording. The recording is the feedback loop. It is the worst kind of critic because it misrepresents the truth with the facts.

Forgetting. You must learn all this, then you must forget it. This is what they will tell you when you major in performance or composition at the University. This is what Chet Atkins will tell you. Listen to Chet. The primitive must start by forgetting. Avoid the crutches of scales, standard tunings, chord progressions. These were designed to stop you from composing, they're shortcuts to music. If you take that path it will be years before you are able to compose music. If you follow the primitive you will compose now, and it will be years before you will make music. What determines success is more a matter of luck and effort than personal genius. Buck up, life is going to suck anyway.

--Josh Buermann

VA - American Primitive Guitar

This release seemed fairly straightforward when I got it through the high seas... but further inspection revealed nothing but a mystery. Since no information on this collection can be found anywhere on the web, I'm betting it's someone's personal compilation. All the tunes are available elsewhere, many from the excellent Imaginational Anthem series released by Tomkins Square, which is the label doing the most for this kind of music right now.

But apart from discographical curiosity, the music's really good. So enjoy, beloved audiomoochers!

1. Max Ochs - Imaginational Anthem
2. Jack Rose - Cross the North Fork
3. Sean Smith - What Once Was Will Be
4. Harry Taussig - Blues for Zone VII
5. Brad Barr - Bouba's Bounce
6. Peter Walker - Celebration
7. Shawn David McMillen - The Lawn
8. Robbie Basho - Kowaka D'Amour (live)
9. Matt Baldwin - She Was a Girl, She Was in Love
10. Sandy Bull - Untitled

a melting pile of mushrot
(note: 2 distinct links: 'melting pile' and 'mushrot'. i do this from time to time; keep your eyes sharp!)
mp3 vbr | w/ cover | 2 parts | 55 + 9 mb
(this is in 2 parts because i forgot to upload the 2 of the tracks at first)

oh, and though he hasn't posted much recently, ejg's blog grown so ugly has a wealth of related material, and he's put on an exploratory guitar festival for two years running.