Eskin and “Shule Aroo”
Neil Rosenberg, March 2009
Friday, March 6, 2009, Mayne Smith wrote from
Berkeley with a request:
signed on to help with a Freight & Salvage
show on May 27 that will benefit two veterans-assistance
organizations (one of which is my ex-employer
Swords to Plowshares). The songs will range
through wars in American history, always
trying to focus on the experiences of those
who have had to fight them.
would like to use the song you sing that
I believe is called “Shurley Manaroo.” It’s
a version of what Alan Lomax called “Johnny
Has Gone for a Soldier” (Folk Songs
of North America, Dolphin Books edition,
1975, p. 47), but I’m more familiar
with your melody and chords. Could you please
send me the words you have for that song?
immediately wrote out the words to the song,
which I still sing. I usually call it "Shule
wish I was on Buttermilk Hill
There I'd sit and cry my fill
Till every tear would turn to milk
Come dibble a la boo sal dory
surely surely man aroo
Salamana ralaback salabarba coo
Then I'd sigh for a salabobalink
Come dibble a la boo sal dory
sweetheart he has gone to France
To seek his fortune in advance
And when he comes back we'll do a little dance
Come dibble a la boo sal dory
sell my rod I'd sell my reel
Likewise I'd sell my spinning wheel
To buy my love a sword of steel
Come dibble a la boo sal dory
dye my petticoat dye it red
Around this world I'd beg my bread
To find my true live alive or dead
Come dibble a la boo sal dory
song means a lot to me. Writing it out for
Mayne got me thinking about how it came to
me, what I'd done with it, and the other
people I'd taught it to. Hence this note.
learned "Shule Aroo" at my Berkeley
home when I was sixteen. It came from a recording
by Sam Eskin that my folk guitar teacher,
Laurie Campbell, gave me in 1955. At the
time, I thought of Campbell as "an older
woman." Indeed, she was about twice
my age and had a daughter who was about half
my age. A number of my Berkeley peers, like
Scott Hambly and Tony Kay, also studied with
her. My parents had steered me to her after
hearing her praised by their friend Sam Kagel,
who'd taken some lessons with her. She had
a children's music show on KPFA. She taught
in her home, which was just off La Loma St.,
not far from Northgate on Euclid. Besides
the guitar, her lessons included training
for voice, improvisation, and composition.
I remember her as a great teacher.
song was in an album containing four ten-inch
78-rpm discs. Titled Sam Eskin—Songs
and Ballads, it was on the Sierra label.
This is not the Sierra label started in southern
California during the seventies by John Delgatto,
but an earlier record label published, according
to authoritative print on the bottom of the
front inside liner of the album, by "Staff
Music Corporation, Berkeley, California." Laurie
told me that she and a group of her friends
had invested in this production around 1950.
In 1955 she still had a lot of them sitting
unsold in her basement. She was giving them
on the album's inside front liner is a picture
of Eskin seated on a doorstep singing and
playing a guitar, a classical or flamenco
type, which he's holding on his left knee.
There's a fuller and better copy of this
photo on his website, at the "Chronology" page
It's dated at 1925, when, the chronology
arrived in San Francisco found [a] radical
bohemian crowd of artists, writers, intellectuals
and hangers-on in Telegraph Hill; was their
mascot and then became part of them. He took
up photography, sandal-making, practiced
and learned banjo, guitar, mandolin, thought
of himself as a writer. Met Montana dancer-poet,
Pearl/Ann (b. 1901), who attended University
of California at Berkeley.
description connects with my own experience.
During the 1930s my aunt Ted lived in the
same neighborhood, was involved with the
same crowd, and attended Cal. She was still
in Berkeley when we moved there in 1951.
I heard my first folk music on records, 78s
of the Almanac Singers, at her apartment
on Hillegass Street, not far from the campus.
In the late fifties I began going from Berkeley
to hang out in North Beach, just East of
Telegraph Hill, much as my contemporaries
went from Brooklyn and the Bronx to Greenwich
Village. Eskin was an early figure in the
world that nurtured the beat movement.
around the photo of Eskin on the inside front
liner of the album is a six paragraph biography
of him by "Dr. Desmond Powell, University
full text of this bio belongs with the other
interesting narratives on the Eskin website,
but it isn't there so I abstract it here.
Powell, writing around 1950, opens: "Perhaps
it doesn't matter what town Sam Eskin was
born in," and then argues that what's
more important is "the part of town
where he grew up" — by the railroad
follows is a narrative of romantic travel
inspired by Jack London. Rambles in the American
West acquaint Sam with folksong in the raw.
After traveling the world he discovers "Cecil
Sharp's great collection" from which
he learns many songs. He finally takes a "land
job." After fifteen years he retires,
buying "a trailer, a recording device,
and a guitar" so he can "devote
his whole time to getting songs and singing
liner note closes saying people have asked
Sam "if they could get his songs on
records." This album, answering the
requests, is "the first selection from
an incredibly rich repertoire. Others will
did. The first album his website chronology
lists is a ten-inch LP Folkways album released
in 1951. Eskin's recordings are now part
of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and
Collections at the Smithsonian Institution's
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
the Eskin website ("Sam Eskin, Folksinger-Collector,
we learn that Eskin was born in Washington
D.C. and raised in Baltimore. He traveled
widely, spending much time in California.
The site mentions his "background with
the Wobblies and as a merchant seaman." In
1930 he began his "land job" in
New York City as a "systems man" with
the United Parcel Service. Upon retirement
in 1945 he moved to Woodstock, New York.
That was home for the rest of his life, although
he traveled widely collecting and concertizing.
connection with the Bay Area folk scene is
reflected in reminiscences on his website
by Barry Olivier and Faith Petric. Archie
Green, another long-time Bay Area folk music
scholar, knew him, too.
the album's liner Eskin calls the song "Shule,
Shule," and says of it:
is an American version of an Irish love song, "Shule,
Shule Agra." Charles W. Delver, age
77 years, sang this song to me in Colorado
Springs in 1947. He said his wife's people
were Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants to Kentucky
in 1875, and they often sang this song."
still have the album but somewhere along
the line the disc with this song on it got
broken. Eskin's notes to the songs (there
are twelve in the album) portray diverse
sources. Only one source appears more than
once, and that is "Des Powell" of
the University of Arizona at Tucson. Powell
(1899-1964), after whom a poetry prize awarded
annually at the U of A is named, was himself
a singer. The Archive of Folk Culture at
the Library of Congress lists recordings
of six songs (including the two Eskin recorded
for this album) as sung by Powell to Peter
Robinson at Tucson in 1949. And I found a
photo of Powell with guitar in hand at: www.tucsonweekly.com/gbase/Currents/
Content?oid=oid%3A43776. I don't know who Peter Robinson
is, and wonder why he recorded Powell. That's a mystery for
haven't heard Sam Eskin's recording of "Shule,
Shule" in many years. When I learned
it back in 1955 I re-arranged the accompaniment,
adding or changing chords, and developing
an instrumental break. I only changed one
word, I think. The text on the back liner
of the album gives the first line of the
third verse as:
sell my rock I'd sell my reel"
don't know if "rock" is a typo
or how Eskin sang it on the recording. [Note
from Mayne, “reel” is the name
of an article of spinning equipment, but
a quick Web search discloses no spinning
item called “rock.”] In any case
it doesn't make sense to me, so I sing:
sell my rod I'd sell my reel"
also changed the title, from Eskin's "Shule,
Shule" — words that aren't in
the song, only in its history — to "Shule
Aroo." That way half of the title is
from the song's history and the other half
is from the song text. I've never spoken
of this, and only noticed it now.
began playing it at parties and concerts,
and on KPFA's "The Midnight Special." Mayne
recalls it from the year we roomed together
as freshmen at Oberlin College, where I often
played it in hoots.
former Blue Grass Boy and Monroe biographer
Tom Ewing told me he'd heard his folk guitar
hero, Franklin Miller, performing it at the
Sacred Mushroom coffee house in Columbus
Ohio in the early sixties. Franklin learned
it from me at Oberlin in the late 1950s and
added some nifty finger picking to the break,
which I learned from him and still use.
proud of the fact that friends in the folk
music business twice recorded my version
of the song. In 1961 Guy Carawan, whom I
met first at Antioch College included it
on The Best of Guy Carawan, (Prestige
International 13013). In 1964 [Mayne’s
sister] Janet Smith, Oberlin classmate and
longtime Berkeley friend, included it on Berkeley
Folk Music (Arhoolie 4001, 1964). It's
one of the few songs from my old repertoire
I still perform. I enjoy playing my guitar
arrangement for its lovely melody. I don't
sing very many songs that speak from a woman's
point of view. I like the way this one explores
separation, commitment and support.
PIECE LAST REVIEWED BY MAYNE 4/23/09
Shuffle in Charlie:
Among Improvising Musicians
By Mayne Smith, April 2010
This paper originally
appeared in a collection of essays honoring Neil Rosenberg on the occasion
of his retirement
from the Department of Folklore at Memorial
University in Newfoundland (see the appended list of references under Smith
2005). Revised and published as “A Shuffle in Charlie” on MayneSmith.com
in October of 2009, the essay attracted comments from quite a few people. The
present revision incorporates suggestions from Peter Wernick, Mitch Greenhill,
Julian Smedley, Markie Sanders, and Herb Steiner — plus encouragement
from others I’m too modest to name.
Based on my personal experience, I have tried to cover musical practices
common among North American musicians who play without using written musical
(I myself can’t sight-read for instruments.) There are technical and
jargon words involved, and trying to define them in the essay itself would
make it hard to follow. For this reason technical terms are italicized, referring
you to a Glossary of definitions attached at the end. The
glossary covers some tricky issues and includes words that don’t appear in the essay. Finally,
there’s a list of written references cited.
with other people without written scores or memorized arrangements has
all its own. To a large extent you’re all depending on
careful attention to what the others are playing, and you need to share a
sizeable body of knowledge in order to do your part. It involves
kind of intimacy. Some say it’s the most fun you can have with your
clothes on, and the effect is amplified when you’re sharing it with
an attentive audience.
Improvising musicians in North
America inevitably need to exchange technical information, often while they
are actually playing together. For instance, with a group of jamming country or
rock players onstage somewhere, you might hear one call to the others, "A
blues shuffle in Charlie. Start with a turn-around. One,
two, three, AND . . . ." They may be strangers to each other, but if
the musicians are competent, the music will start in a properly organized
manner and the
may continue with alternating vocal and instrumental sections, climaxed with
a strong ending, as if it had been rehearsed.
Consciously or not, when they improvise together all musicians rely on unspoken
knowledge far beyond that needed to perform alone, or even to follow a conductor
while reading from a musical score.
This essay focuses on vernacular music situations where written
music is not supplied and is not commonly used in the learning process. Keep
that the use of music notation does not preclude interpretation and improvisation.
The jazz world frequently uses head arrangements where specific
notes are learned in rehearsal, based sometimes on lead sheets that
consist of melody
lines with chord-names added. In the sphere of art music, conductors and
performers rely on written musical scores to determine which notes will be
when. However musical notation’s symbols are used and interpreted differently
in different musical-cultural contexts. Written notes function in art music,
theatrical, and jazz spheres in disparate ways.
In the country and rock worlds, various types of chord charts are often used
as the infrastructure for improvising in recording sessions, in live performances,
and sometimes in jam sessions. One type is just a step away from lead sheets,
with chord names written on or above a musical staff marked with bar lines,
sometimes with slashes showing the number of beats devoted to each chord. A
second approach involves writing the chord names on plain paper, with vertical
lines or boxes indicating separate measures.
A third type of chord chart is commonly referred to as the Nashville number
system. This employs Arabic numerals to represent the scale notes on which
the chords are based, and various other symbols to indicate rests, note durations,
etc. The exclusive use of chord numbers rather than names makes it easy to
transpose a complex arrangement from one key to another — very convenient
when there’s a modulation or when a singer needs to change to a more
suitable key. The number system is very compact, so it can be written on
note cards or scrap paper. A simple spoken language is derived from the system:
musicians can be told that a song will begin with a “fifty-five eleven
turn-around,” meaning that there will be two bars of the dominant (5)
chord followed by two bars of the tonic (1). On paper these four bars are
represented by the numbers 5511. A 130-page book by Chas Williams covering
on this system is available on the Internet (Williams 2005). (The Nashville
system doesn’t work so well when there are multiple chords per measure,
which is typical in swing and jazz.)
There are conventional formats that allow strangers to play coherent arrangements
together without discussion. In most styles where improvised jamming occurs,
lead players will trade solo breaks or rides backed
up by the rest of the ensemble. (But the term “break” isn’t
universal, and could be interpreted to mean that the musician should stop
Instrumental solos are allocated
to individuals on some basis, perhaps alternating with leads by one or more
vocalists. In pre-set arrangements performed in public, solo breaks are not
necessarily given to all lead players, especially in a group numbering more
than five. The more informal the jamming situation, the more likely it is
that solo breaks will simply be sequenced in clockwise or counter-clockwise
among all musicians. In a non-public context, it’s likely to be assumed
that every player will get a solo break — including drummers and bassists
in the jazz world, not necessarily in others. In some styles or contexts
considered appropriate to improvise backup (contrasting responses
to the lead) but not always. Another example: in the country scene, solo
are commonly traded off every eight bars (two lines of a verse or chorus).
In bluegrass or jazz, where instrumental virtuosity is especially
valued, instrumentalists are more likely to trade off every sixteen or even
bars. The musicians have to know or deduce such varying and unspoken rules
in order to participate fully.
There’s also the question of how tunes are chosen in a jam. I frequently
participate in jam sessions where the choice of songs or tunes passes among
all the musicians around a circle as in a poker session, and the dealer calls
the game. But in less familial contexts there will be a limited number of
preeminent singers or players who feel free to suggest songs or tunes as
jamming. Musicians need to be careful in unfamiliar jam scenes and watch
for cues that they are committing socio-musical errors.
In many contexts there are standard canonical pieces that journeyman musicians
are expected to know, often including exact solos and hooks from famous recordings.
In the bluegrass world, players are expected to be able to play (and maybe
sing harmony with) almost everything Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and
Flatt & Scruggs recorded before 1960. In the jazz world, the list of canonical
pieces may cover Louis Armstrong’s hits or Duke Ellington’s or
Miles Davis’, depending on the sub-style involved. But Julian Smedley
(www.facebook.com/julian.smedley) reports that the trans-Atlantic acoustic
Gypsy jazz scene has its own canon (based in Django Reinhardt’s repertoire
of course) and different signaling conventions.
Tuning and Calling the Key
When people are getting ready to play together, they need to tune with one
another. This used to be a time-consuming challenge with a large or diverse
group, although most seasoned string musicians made a point of using tuning
forks to stay at concert pitch. (The problem is not so great with horns and
keyboards.) When electronic tuners first became available everybody had to
be quiet and take turns with the machine. But nowadays small, inexpensive
electronic tuners are very common, and they can be used regardless of background
Thus, everybody has their own tuner constantly ready, and getting dozens
of strings in pitch has ceased to be a chore. We make jokes about how much
playing time there is in a three-hour session now that we don’t have
to wait around for everyone to tune.
In a jamming situation, another necessary preliminary is selecting what key
the next piece will be in. Although there are usually standard keys for canonical
pieces, whenever singers are involved the standard keys may need to be changed
to suit their vocal ranges. Jazz musicians can call the next song’s
key, or signal key changes for modulating, with fingers held up or down
the number of flats or sharps in the key signature (MacLeod 1993:74). This
system would be lost on country and blues musicians, who (like me) are typically
not used to musical notation and key signatures. Yet in both musical worlds,
experienced musicians expect a modulation to occur by way of the dominant
chord of the new key.
Among country musicians, especially when there’s enough audience noise
to make conversation difficult, the leader for a given tune will vocally call
the next key out loud, but will use whole words to avoid confusion between
B, C, D, E, and G, which share the same vowel sound. Onstage, I've heard words
like Boy, Charlie, Dog, Echo, and George used to call the next key. There are
also joking key-designators in use among folkies in informal settings: the
Canadian key (A), the Mexican key (C), the key of love (F), and the people’s
key or God’s key (G). I’ve proposed the Buddhist key (B).
A unique, simple, and subtle way of signaling the key was used by bluegrass bandleader
Bill Monroe. He would lightly play a chopped chord on his mandolin in the
desired key, enabling the guitar and banjo players to position their
capos while he was speaking to the audience.
Incidentally, non-musicians may not be aware that the keys used in different
musical styles are generally divided into two groups. Wind instruments are
designed to play most comfortably in the “flat keys” (those with
flats in their key signatures), so jazz and swing musicians are used to playing
in the keys of F, Bb, Eb, and Ab major. For whatever reason, the way guitars
are tuned makes the “sharp keys” most available; thus, folk, country,
blues, and rock pieces are commonly played in G, D, A, and E major. The key
of C major is used about equally in both worlds. (The pattern is more difficult
with minor keys, which are less common in North American music anyhow, so let’s
Establishing the Rhythm
In the art music world, a conductor typically raises his baton to prepare
the ensemble and then makes an upward stroke in-tempo before bringing it
down on the first beat to be played.
Starting an improvised ensemble performance in a jazz session is not very
different. The leader will call the name of a tune and begin it by stomping off
a bar or two of the tempo; for standard tunes the musicians are
assumed to know
the meter, the key, and any conventionalized melodic head that may be expected. Jazz players have used the stomp-off for something
years — no
count, just four hammers of a heel on the floor. In public performances — particularly
while the band was returning to the stand after an intermission, Duke Ellington
would often improvise introductory material on the piano, ending up with
a lead-in that set the tempo and cued the beginning of the next piece (Hasse
In a loud, rock-oriented context the drummer may click his crossed sticks
together in front of his face, effectively providing both visual and audible
In public performances, he may be fed a “click track” through
Studio musicians and most pop-music performers must know how to count
off, verbally establishing a beat so everybody can come in together.
Increasingly since the 1970s, bluegrass and country players have also learned
to use an
audible count-off — and it does take some practice to do this properly.
One humorous but effective way of giving a verbal count for a moderate shuffle
beat — I can't recall where I heard it first — went: "a-ONE
and a-TWO (pause), YOU know what to DO." This is used mostly in non-public
situations. (Note: Julian Smedley says that musicians in the Django Reinhardt–Stephane
Grappelli jazz tradition mysteriously use no visible or audible count-off.)
Before the 1970s, blues, bluegrass, and country players seldom counted off;
instead, an instrument had to play a few notes to kick off a tune.
Often a piece would be started by the fiddle playing two bars of a simple
pattern on the tonic chord to kick off dance tunes. This is still
a common fiddle device, and it is often used by other instruments. After
e-mail discussion with four participants, I’m convinced that Pete Wernick
(www.DrBanjo.com) deliberately invented the use of the word “potato” for
a two-bar pattern sometime between 1968 and 1970, and in string-band circles
it spread from the East to the West Coast as common usage within a few years.
The common fiddle potato pattern can be represented as “ONE ‘tater,
TWO ‘tater, THREE ‘tater, FOUR ‘tater . . . .”
Tempo equals speed, and it's easy to communicate a desired tempo by simply making
a measure’s worth of percussive beats with a foot or instrument. But
in many contexts a count or stomp-off isn’t enough to tell the musicians
what the groove is supposed to be. Leaving aside the great variety of rhythms
found in musical forms that originated elsewhere, a count-off in 4/4 time
tell the drummer what he needs to know unless he has heard the piece before.
In the American country, blues, and rock scenes, there is another critical
distinction to be made: Is the meter going to be in shuffle or straight
Before the 1960s, this problem did not arise in country music. Then, as now,
you could simply count off the major beats of a waltz or a peppy, two-beat
rhythm (as in “Coming ‘Round the Mountain”). If the meter
was a medium or slow 4/4, the count-off would give four beats with the expectation
that each beat would be subdivided into triplets, which theoretically should
be transcribed as three linked eighth-notes with a 3 written above them.
Presumably because it’s easier, what is commonly notated on paper as
two eighth-notes or a dotted eighth plus a sixteenth is actually played as
two-thirds of a beat
followed by a shorter pulse lasting one-third of a beat. That's essentially
what a shuffle or swing beat is — in jazz, blues, and the
rest of American pop music as well as country and Western
Swing — four
main beats to the bar, with a triplet rhythm underlying each beat. (The classic
song “Kansas City” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller fits the
pattern.) Jazz and blues bands habitually play with an ever-present tension
underlying triplet-based rhythm and lead parts played the way the music is
actually notated. I had been playing shuffles for years before I ever heard
the term or recognized its distinction from a straight beat.
In the middle 1950s came a change, when the music of Mississippi bluesmen
like Muddy Waters and early rockers like Chuck Berry popularized another
4/4 rhythm in which each major (quarter note) beat was divisible by two eighth
notes of equal duration (for instance Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode" and
later John Fogarty’s "Proud Mary"). This is what’s
conventionally called a rock beat.
When I started playing mainstream country music in the early 1960s, you could
count off a medium-tempo song without comment unless it was a rock beat — in
which case you might have to warn the other players it was a rocker. But
a significant change was brought about by Merle Haggard's early country hits
like "The Fugitive" and "Sing Me Back Home." Now there
were not only rock songs but gentler, medium-tempo songs played with the
major beats divided by two, producing something like a Latin feeling. Since
happened, country players have often had to make the meter clear to the drummer
before counting off slower straight eight (or easy eight) tunes.
In the commercial country world there is also the double shuffle (or “Texas
shuffle”) beat, which was made popular by Ray Price in the late 1950s
and used extensively by other honky-tonk stylists like George Jones and Buck
Owens. In standard country shuffles, for instance Hank Williams’ “Your
Cheating Heart,” the bass plays on the one and three beats and the
off-beats come evenly on the two and four. In a double shuffle (as
in Price’s “Heartaches
by the Number”) the bass plays all four major beats in the bar — a
walking bass — but the beats are still subdivided as triplets and
the off-beats now come on the third pulse of each triplet. Herb Steiner points
out that a double shuffle beat works best when there’s a piano playing
the doubled off-beats. Jazz-pop artists like Cab Calaway and Louis Jordan
used shuffles like this on some of their very popular 1940s recordings.
But the distinction between a shuffle groove and a straight beat is not always
a black-or-white matter. Julian Smedley cites Elvis Presley’s recording
of “Jailhouse Rock” (another Leiber and Stoller song) as a striking
instance where the drums are playing a fast shuffle but the lead guitar plays
straight eighth notes. Markie Sanders, a broadly experienced bassist, points
out that a relaxed straight beat or even a fast two-beat can have shuffle
(triplet) elements. That kind of subtlety happens either by sheer luck — or
through lots of woodshedding by a band.
The only other meter that is likely to occur in jam sessions is waltz time,
with three beats to the bar (3/4). This meter occurs at various tempos, mostly
in country and bluegrass, but the major stress is consistently on the one
beat, sometimes with secondary emphasis on the third beat. However, Herb
(www.herbsteiner.com) reports that in Texas, country bands play a “walking
waltz” with the bass giving equal stress to every major beat in the
bar, and I’ve heard something similar from Cajun bands.
No discussion of rhythms in North American music should conclude without
mentioning the fascinating mixture of metrical elements in New Orleans R&B music,
with strong Caribbean and Latin flavors added to the basic straight-eight rhythm.
Bo Diddley’s famous “hambone” beat had similar stresses.
And, of course, many musical styles from other continents and islands contribute
a wealth of rhythms in different parts of North America.
Signaling in Midstream
Signals between musicians while they are actively playing together can be
fairly subtle, given that the instrumentalists usually have both hands (if
their feet) committed to their instruments. Duke Ellington directed his band
while playing the piano, using his body position and facial expressions to
raise and reduce the volume and pace of the music. He thus approached the
kind of control over his musicians that orchestral conductors exercise, although
the people in his band (frequently over a dozen) were brilliant improvisers.
This strikes me as a rare blend of art-music and jazz conditions, where improvisation
was expected only in very specific situations but there were often no written
parts although the head arrangements played were elaborate compositions
shifting and diverse textures, allowing little room for error. Surprisingly,
it was only in the late 1930s that Ellington’s band began using written
arrangements (Hasse 1993:159-160).
In more informal, relatively intimate situations, where musicians are more
likely to be trying out tunes that are unfamiliar to some of the players, technical
communications can be critical. If all the musicians can see and hear each
other plainly, as in a studio or a small club, a simple nod or a look with
raised eyebrows is sufficient to cue the next person to take a solo break.
In the song-based genres (blues, country, bluegrass, folk) the lead singer
will usually be the person calling the shots, and can simply start singing
at the appropriate points between breaks. If microphones are in use, moving
into singing position before the mic is a very effective way of signaling the
intention to start or resume singing. A look or a motion of the head can call
any additional singers into action for harmonized vocals.
Positioned in a circle or semi-circle, country and blues musicians frequently
read the chord changes a rhythm guitarist plays simply by watching
left hand. The ability to “read” guitar chords is a widely-held
skill in the guitar-based genres. Correspondingly, the guitarist may make
a point of keeping his or her left-hand positions as simple as possible until
it’s clear everybody has caught on to the changes. Frequently even
a simple nod to indicate that a chord change is coming up can be helpful.
approach will not work in situations (common in jazz and swing) where guitarists
play strings of complex passing chords, changing too often for most others
In such contexts, where the improvisers may be hearing the tune for the first
time, there are auditory musical tactics that can help prevent errors. Most
experienced lead musicians know how to play licks that will fit any of several
logical chord changes at key points. They also know musical cues, both harmonic
and rhythmic, that will help their fellow players anticipate the chord changes
and other aspects of song or tune structure. Runs played on the guitar or
bass frequently signal an impending chord change. Reliably, except in the
blues, adding a flatted seventh tone to a chord will usually signal that
chord will be based on the fourth note in the scale starting on the first
root tone. This cue is used most frequently with the change from the tonic
chord to the subdominant (IV) chord of a piece. It is also integral to use
of the famous cycle-of-fifths principle, which, for example, declares that
when you are in the key of C and an A7 occurs, you are almost certainly going
to continue with D7 and G7 before returning to the tonic chord. This sequence
is called “Sears and Roebuck changes” in some circles.
Occasionally, where there are only a few chords but a tricky melody, people
will hold up fingers to indicate changes among the I, II (or ii), III (or
iii), IV, and V chords. However, one hand isn’t enough if the VI (or
vi) chord is needed, or if the chord is based on the flatted seventh of the
tonic scale — Bb
in the key of C. (This chord is sometimes called the drop chord around
Nashville.) In most cases, holding up even one hand’s fingers will
make it impossible for the signaler to play, so it isn’t very practical
to use before an audience, except by singers.
Jazz musicians use very different hand signals in jamming situations. Extended
fingers can indicate not only a new key signature, but alternatively musicians
can show that they want to trade two- or four-bar solos among band members
by flashing two or four fingers.
In a public performance, hands or body may also indicate a desired change in
loudness. For instance, after a climactic instrumental solo, the singer might
want the band to quiet down for dramatic affect and to leave some auditory
space for a later climax; he can signal this by briefly holding his hand out,
palm down and parallel to the floor. You will often see similar signals with
hands or fingers between a performer and the person who is controlling the
volume level of the microphones.
Cueing the end of a tune is easy in an informal country jam situation. You
can lift a leg (a convention that apparently goes back at least to the
1930s), make a motion with your instrument or a hand, or play an indicative
Furthermore, in country music, songs often end with a turn-around (repetition
of the last line); this is signaled with a circular motion of a finger
or instrument. In a bluegrass jam, on the final note of the melody I will
the peghead of my guitar, cueing the now-ubiquitous seven-beat pattern
that ends so many pieces in North American music. (Has anybody studied the
and meaning of this sort of ending, which coincides with the SHAVE-and-a-HAIRCUT — SIX
BITS motif and also approximates the classic Bo Diddley beat?)
Players in old-timey fiddle bands didn’t always end simultaneously,
much less use the seven-beat ending, but on some records you can hear someone
call “goodbye” to get everybody to stop at the end of the section
that’s currently being played.
A jazz player can indicate it’s time to reprise the head of the piece
by pointing to his own head; this will lead automatically to ending. And
as the closing bars come up, somebody might call “Ellington” or “Basie” so
everybody can use one or the other characteristic pattern.
A context calling for broad gestures can
be illustrated with an example based on
my own experiences as part of a band
in a very large club every Saturday and Sunday morning from 2 a.m.
to 5 a.m. Musicians from all over the
area would come to join us, and
the jammers frequently numbered eight or more. Not every musician could
see everyone else, and there was often so much noise that we couldn’t hear
each other at a normal conversation level. In addition, the musicians’ backgrounds
were diverse, so some of us would frequently be ill-acquainted with the
chosen tunes or common arrangements. Under these conditions, the subtle
cues were often insufficient to get the job done. When I was singing and
leading, my guitar chords could not be audible or visible to every musician.
On the other hand, we could shout to each other, and it was perfectly appropriate
to use big body motions for communication. This is the situation in which
my opening example occurred.
At the Riverside Inn in Tukwila near Seattle, in the fall of 1975,
it is about four o’clock on a Sunday morning. There are seven of us on
the bandstand and maybe a hundred people still waiting to dance. The after-hours
jam has mellowed out, and we have a strong rhythm section (bass, drums,
a good lead guitar player, a fiddler, and a cool tenor sax guy. It is my
turn to lead some tunes to keep the jam going, and I feel like singing
the blues, knowing that the twelve-bar structure will be familiar and comfortable
Standing at the main vocal mic, front-and-center on the large bandstand,
I turn to face the rest of the musicians. "A blues shuffle in Charlie.
Start with a turn-around. One, two, three, AND ...." (Alternatively,
I could have said “Off the five chord.”) The drummer whacks the
snare and a tom on the four-beat and everybody hits the following one-beat
with a G7 chord. We all understand we’re playing a turn-around, the
last four-bar line of the blues structure in the key of C, but immediately
there’s a question: Is the second bar going to be a V or a IV chord?
Still with my back to the audience and dancers, with exaggerated motions
I play an F# chord on the final beat of the first bar; this gets all the
jammers to watch me and listen to my guitar. The F# chord creates a momentary
dissonance, but it tells everyone that we’re going to a IV chord
(F) in the second bar; this also informs them how we will play this part
blues structure throughout the rest of the song.
While the put-together band is playing the last two bars of the turn-around
(I and V, C and G7), I turn around to face the crowd and get close
to the main vocal mic. I hadn’t been sure which set of blues lyrics I would
sing to this groove we’ve started, but at the last second I decide
to go with a sure thing, a song we’re all certain to have played many
times before and one that the crowds generally enjoy. So I lean in toward
the mic and start, “I’m going to — Kansas City, Kansas
City here I come.”
The lead guitar player inserts some tasty fills between my
words, and the sax and keyboard players are consulting each other about
something — doubtless
developing a riff pattern they can play together as the texture
of the performance builds. My first sung verse is ending and I need
cue a soloist for the
upcoming break. I want to save the sax for later, and the guitarist
has already been busy behind my vocal, so I elect to point at the keyboard
man as the
soloist — and because it’s late and we have plenty of time
to fill and some enthusiastic dancers, and also because he’s
a strong player, I call out “Keep it up” several times
and he takes two choruses. Then I point to the fiddler and say her
name into the mic.
takes two choruses, with the sax and piano beginning to riff quietly
behind her; their riffing will continue to build through the rest of
and the fiddle will join them.
I sing another verse and give the next solo to the guitar player — two
choruses as before. Then comes the part of the song where the whole band
stops on the next three one-beats to let the singer’s words (“I
MIGHT take a train …”) fill in the rest of the bars before the
instruments resume the normal rhythm pattern. I raise my right arm into the
air, make a fist, and pump it down to cue the stops. The fat texture and
the drummer’s style make this section sound great and give me an idea
for the sax solo. When I’ve finished singing another complete verse,
I turn and point to the sax man, at the same time raising my right fist again.
Fortunately all the players are watching me so my gambit works fine; the
sax player’s break starts from the dramatic base of three stopped
chords before launching into a gliding orbit. After the second sax chorus,
in the guitarist for his climactic break with the sax, fiddle, and keyboard
riffing strongly behind him. Then I return to the mic and sing a final
Now it’s time to end, and I have a choice of several signals here.
If we were all country-based musicians and presenting ourselves in the typical
laid-back C&W manner (remember this is 1975) I would bend my right knee
and lift the heel. But since all are in boogie mode, as the final chorus
ends I raise my right fist and bring it down to stop the band and sing “I’m
going to get me one” over the resonant silence. As I sing the final
word the entire band (without having to think about it) plays the conventional
seven-beat ending pattern at full volume, closing with a sustained chord
under which the drummer bashes his cymbals and tom-toms until I once again
use my arm to cue the final dead stop and the applause swells.
This fabricated example, close to many actual performances I have experienced,
could occur in most parts of North America. Yet, like most aspects
of culture, musical improvisation depends on knowledge and communication
that look more
complex the closer we examine them. I hope this paper has answered
many questions about musical behavior as it has exposed for future
Included in this
list are terms and usages that are not to be found in standard dictionaries
of music. My sources of information include fifty years as a performing musician
and a fair amount discussion and reading. The definitions are intended to give
a good idea of common usage, not to satisfy academic standards.
Accidentals — In addition to the essential notes
in a common triadic chord, other intervals called “accidentals” are
often used, especially in jazz. Chords with altered or added notes, with
names like “diminished” or “augmented” or “major
seventh,” are used to add harmonic complexity. Markie Sanders says
such chords are called “off chords” around Nashville. See passing
Arrangement — The way a given musical performance
is structured, as well as the instrumentation and the style of playing.
See also head arrangement.
Art music — Music that is self-consciously created
and presented as art, rather than as an economic commodity or a community
The category is commonly called “classical” or “serious” music,
but I don’t like either term. “Art music” logically fits
a lot of jazz, but I don’t use it that way. Pete Wernick suggests “formal
music,” and I could live with that but “art music” is
already in common use. The tricky part is that Pete and I and lots of other
vernacular musicians take their music very seriously as art, whether or
not we try sell it; and many art musicians have to sell their music in
order to live.
Backup — An instrumental part, generally improvised,
that complements the main lead part (whether vocal or instrumental) without
dominance. Usually consists of a mixture of fills and rhythmic elements.
Baritone — In country singing, the second
part (after tenor) added to the melody line. The baritone part typically
the song below
the lead on the fifth note of the scale, but is sometimes sung
above the tenor (“high baritone”). See also tenor.
Blues — Most people know the blues as a song tradition
developed among African-Americans that has permeated nearly all other vernacular styles. A typical blues verse has three four-bar segments to make a total
of twelve bars with a standardized chord structure and a distinctive, haunting
tonality. But most people don’t recognize that the blues didn’t
emerge into public consciousness until after 1910. Despite the great variety
of blues styles, something that could be called a blues tradition does
exist. The Wikipedia article on W.C. Handy is recommended (www.wikipedia.com).
Bluegrass — Music derived ultimately from the style of Bill Monroe’s
Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s. In the 1960s the variant bluegrass styles
proliferated and music festivals devoted entirely to bluegrass gradually
gave rise to a broad movement that has established a niche in mainstream
Break — The portion of a musical piece in which
an instrumentalist plays lead, supported by the rest of the ensemble. A
musician is invited
to play a break, or take a break, or he may be asked “Do you want
some?” Different players will be expected to take breaks during the
playing of a piece. The alternation of sung verses with instrumental breaks
is the basic structural principle of most vernacular music styles. See
also ride and solo.
Bridge — Most properly the B section, as in
the 32-bar (AABA) song structure that is standard in pop music. Sometimes
used in folk and country
circles as a synonym for chorus (which is more properly designated as
C&W — Stands for “country and western,” the
common term for the mainstream Nashville–Austin–Bakersfield–Hollywood
music that dominated AM radio stations and record stores in the South and
Southwest for decades after World War Two. See country music.
Changes — The sequence of chords used to accompany a given tune,
as in “Run through the changes for me before we start to play.”
Chopping — Chords played on the mandolin, banjo,
or guitar and immediately damped by either hand for percussive effect;
usually used to emphasize
off-beats (like a snare drum in rock or jazz).
Chart — Used by itself, “chart” can
mean either a complete musical score, a lead sheet, or a “chord chart” that
diagrammatically represents the chord changes of a music piece and (usually)
occur in relation to the bar lines. There are at least three basic formats
for chord charts: chord names written on or above a musical staff, chord
names arranged on plain paper in rows or boxes, and the Nashville number
Chorus — Used in jazz and pop to
mean a complete iteration of the melody being played. As a striking example,
Newport Jazz Festival,
tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves improvised twenty-seven choruses of “Diminuendo
and Crescendo in Blue” egged on by bandleader Duke Ellington (Hasse
1993:320-321). (I happened to discover that this usage has also been used
among French musicians [Bouchaux 1992:58].) In the world of folk and
country music, the chorus is synonymous with what scholars call
that part of a song that is repeated after every verse (or two) of the
lyrics and is most likely to be sung by more than one voice. See also bridge.
Counting off — Using a numerical count to establish the tempo of
a tune and enable all players to start playing a piece at the same time.
Country music — Among musicians this term refers
to music that is based in Euro-American traditions from the South and Southwest,
Nashville, Austin, Bakersfield, and Hollywood, even though the connection
with fiddle bands and ballad singing may be hard to detect. It is sometimes
contrasted with bluegrass, Cajun, Western Swing, Old
but in many contexts such styles are meant to be included.
Diamond — A hollow diamond shape is used in Nashville-style chord
charts to indicate when a note or chord is to be played and allowed to
ring through the rest of the bar or phrase. It’s a very convenient
symbol, roughly equivalent to a whole note, but it can be used the same
way regardless of the meter.
Double shuffle — A shuffle beat with a
walking bass (played on every major beat) and off-beats played
on the third pulse
of each eighth-note
triplet. Also called the Texas shuffle.
Double time — When the meter is changed to twice the number of major
beats per bar; typically the bass, bass drum, and snare shift from two
beats per bar to four beats.
Drop chord — The major triad based on the note two semitones below
the tonic pitch, which is the flatted seventh step in the major scale.
Easy eight — See straight beat.
Faking — Improvising without the use of a musical score. Similarly, “Fake
books,” containing only the melodies and chords for songs, are common
in the pop and jazz worlds. This terminology is not used much among musicians
who rarely play from written music.
Fills — Melodic elements played to fill in the gaps
between lead phrases. Fills often begin on the last beat played by the
lead voice and
end on the beat where the lead part resumes.
Flat keys — See keys.
Folk music — Used here very broadly to mean musical styles that include
everybody who applies the label to themselves, plus those to whom most
folklorists would apply the term. The song or performing style, often mistakenly,
is supposed to be derived from non-written, oral/aural musical traditions.
Genuine folk music includes lullabies and songs sung at family gatherings
or in the kitchen, which learned by being heard over and over and are largely
taken for granted by the actual tradition bearers.
Groove — As a noun, this word refers to the set
of rhythmic traits that are appropriate to a given piece of music. It includes
meter, but also refers to how the beats in the bar are to be stressed
and subdivided. Some grooves are more complex than others and harder to
achieve without rehearsal or past experience.
Half time — When the meter is changed to half the
number of major beats; typically the bass, bass drum, and snare shift from
beats per bar to playing two beats per bar. See also double time.
Head — The first chorus or two of a jazz performance, played simply
in unison or harmony to establish the melody before the freer improvisation
begins. The head is likely to be repeated at the end of the piece, and
may be signaled by pointing to one’s own head.
Head arrangement — A setting previously agreed upon for musical piece,
repeated by memory rather than a written score.
Hook — A short musical motif that is used to lend
a unique identity to a given song; hooks are commonly created in the recording
are carefully incorporated in live performance. A hook is more distinctive
than a tag, and may consist of just two or three notes played distinctively.
Ink — Mitch Greenhill introduced me to the phrase “play the
ink,” meaning to play the melody or arrangement the way it is notated
Intro — An instrumental passage, generally less
than eight bars in length, that is used to begin a musical piece. It may
consist of nothing
more than a set of chords, but frequently has specific melodic content,
in which case it may equate to a tag and contain a song’s
hook. An outro is a similar closing passage that may
be identical to the intro;
and both may consist of nothing more than a turn-around.
Jazz — Any of the performing styles that stem from the improvised
music that began in nineteenth-century New Orleans brass bands, traveled
upstream through Kansas City to Chicago, and then became centered in New
York City. Most contemporary jazz musicians are highly trained and make
use of written scores routinely, although improvisation is still a defining
Keys — Except in the most abstract kinds of music,
every musical piece is played or sung in a key (sometimes several in sequence).
is named for the root note in the scale on which the melody and chords
are based. “Key signatures” tell the number of sharps or flats
(the black keys on a piano keyboard) that occur in the scale. Thus, a key
can be indicated by holding up (or down) a number of fingers that correspond
to the number of sharps (or flats) in a specific key signature. Even some
musicians who don’t read music know, for instance, that one finger
pointed up can refer to the key of G major (or E minor), which has one
sharp in its key signature. And one finger pointed down can refer to the
key of F (or D minor), which has one flat. Guitar-based styles commonly
use “sharp keys,” whereas styles centered on horns are mostly
played in “flat keys.” The keys of C and Am, which entail no
sharps or flats, are common in both worlds.
Kick off — In bluegrass and country, a verb or noun referring to
the use of an instrumental passage to start performance of a piece. Kick-offs
are assigned to specific players.
Lead — As a noun, the lead voice(s) or instrument(s)
is the one that is articulating the melody or predominant voice at any
given time, supported
by the other members of an ensemble playing backup and rhythm.
In roots-music harmony singing, the lead sings melody with the tenor above
and the baritone typically below.
Lead sheet — A simple score that contains only the melody and lyrics
of a tune or song, along with the names of the chords used in accompaniment.
Lick — A short musical pattern played usually by
one instrument and based on distinctive elements in the player’s
style or the characteristics of the instrument. A lick becomes a riff if
it’s used repeatedly
in a piece and played by more than one person.
Medley — A medley is a set of several songs or tunes performed as
one continuous musical piece. Fiddle bands often use medleys, and some
famous singers will sing medleys of their biggest hit songs.
Meter — The number of beats in a measure (bar) and the pattern of
duration and stress given to each beat.
Modulation — Changing keys in the middle
of a musical piece. Sometimes the players will modulate to a new key because
going to play another tune or song as part of a medley. Modulation can
also be used
as an intensifier within a single song.
Off-beats — Between the major beats in a given meter come
the off-beats, or back-beats, which receive different emphasis. In a standard
shuffle, the emphasis comes on the first and third beats
in each measure and the off-beats come on two and four. In a double
shuffle, the major beats are
one, two, three, and four, each divided into triplets; the off-beats come
on the third eighth note of each triplet. In a waltz, the major beat is
usually on the one and the off-beats come on two and three.
Off chords — See accidentals.
Old Time or old-timey music — Refers to the styles
captured by the earliest recordings of country music up through
the 1930s. The original
recordings were made by musicians, professional or amateur, who had grown
up hearing mostly local folk music and traveling medicine shows. The two
primary styles were fiddle bands like those of Charley Pool or Gid Tanner,
and duet acts like the Monroe Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys.
Outro — See intro.
Passing chord — In jazz, swing, and some pop styles,
chords containing accidental notes are used to transition between
the pivotal triadic chords
in a piece of music. Augmented and diminished chords are used in this way,
but so are many other chord forms.
Pop or popular music — Broadly speaking this can
refer to anything that doesn’t belong in the folk or art
music categories. More narrowly it applies to Euro-American “Tin
Pan Alley” songs
and Broadway musicals that dominated urban white radio stations until Bill
Elvis Presley seemed to change everything.
Potatoes or ‘taters — Simple rhythmic patterns
used by an instrumentalist (commonly fiddle or banjo) to establish the
tempo and starting point of
a piece in string band music, where counting off was not practiced. This
term was coined in the New York bluegrass scene in the late 1960s by Pete
Wernick. “Potatoes” and “’taters” are both
in common usage now in the old-timey and bluegrass worlds.
Push — This very useful verb applies where a given beat is played
a half-beat early for emphasis. It’s a potent device used frequently
in country and rock music. A common usage would be “push the first
beat in the last bar.” There are symbols that can be used in chord
charts to indicate pushed beats.
R&B — “Rhythm and blues” is the
phrase applied to the music of black musicians beginning in the 1940s who
built on the straight-ahead
electrified blues of people like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. R&B
incorporated jazz, country, and pop ideas to reach increasingly urban (and
youthful and white) audiences. Examples are the Spiders, Coasters, and
Drifters, Bo Diddley, and Ray Charles. Chuck Berry is in this category
too, but drew more heavily on country music.
Ride — Used in some country circles as a synonym
to break, as in “Take
a ride, Don.” See also solo.
Riff — A short musical pattern played by one or
more instruments and used repetitiously through a piece, often in support
of soloists. See
Rock beat — See straight beat.
Rock music — This term is most commonly used to
identify music made by white musicians whose styles are based on electrified
blues, R&B, and rockabilly.
Rockabilly music — This is the current term applied to the kind of
thing that Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash
started doing in Memphis in the middle 1950s — white guys paying
sincere homage to African-American blues, R&B musicians, and country.
Roots music — Refers to folk songs and other styles
that rely heavily on vernacular sources. To my mind, the term includes
blues, R&B, rock (mostly), Old Time, bluegrass, honky-tonk, Western
Swing, Cajun, Zydeco, TexMex, white and black gospel. Visit Down Home Music
in El Cerrito, California (www.downhomemusic.com) and you’ll get
an idea what a long list of styles qualify.
Run — A short series of notes typically leading from one chord into
another, used especially by rhythm guitarists and bassists.
Scale — The different pitches in any melody can
be arranged in an ascending sequence that constitutes a scale. There are
to describe the number of notes in a scale and the intervals between them,
as in “major,” “minor,” “pentatonic,” etc.
The pitch on which a scale begins determines its key.
Semitone — The pitch interval between keys on a
piano or frets on a guitar. Also called a “half step.”
Sharp keys — See key.
Shuffle beat — The most common 4/4 meter in jazz,
swing, blues, country, and general pop music. Each beat of the measure
is subdivided into triplets.
When played slowly, this rhythm can be notated in 12/8. See also straight
beat and double shuffle.
Solo — The portion of a song performance in which
attention is focused on a single player or singer. (Not used, as sometimes
in art music, to
indicate an unaccompanied performance.) See also break.
Stomping off — Using the heel of a foot to establish
a tempo and set the beginning of a performed piece; used mostly in jazz.
Straight beat — Distinguished from a shuffle in
that the major beats of the measure are subdivided into two eighth notes
instead of the shuffle’s
eighth-note triplets. Also called a straight eight, easy eight, or rock
beat depending on the speed and intensity of the rhythm. Most music from
outside North America is based on straight beats.
Swing — This category of music began as a successor
to the New Orleans and Chicago jazz styles in the 1920s. In the 1930s it
in mainstream pop music as well as southwestern bands that included
fiddles and steel guitars, as well as horns, piano, and drums. Western
enjoying a renaissance today, whereas jazz swing is a dwindling category.
Tag — A special riff or melodic and rhythmic motif
used as an intro or outro, often based on the turn-around. See also hook.
Taters — See potatoes.
Tempo — Quite simply, tempo is the speed at which the beats move.
The tempo of a song is measured by a metronome and expressed as the number
of quarter-note beats that occur per minute.
Tenor — In country singing, the first harmony
part added to the melody, typically staying just above the lead and
finishing on the third
above the tonic note. See also baritone. In mainstream harmony singing,
the top part is called soprano and below it come (in order) the alto, tenor,
and bass parts; baritones are basses who can reach up into the tenor range.
Time — Can refer to any rhythmic feature of music
(as in, “He
keeps good time”) but usually pertains to tempo.
Tonic note, tonic chord — The tonic note is the
first note in the scale on which the melody is based, and it gives
the key its name; in
North American vernacular music, most melodies end on the tonic
note. The tonic chord is a triad based on this note.
Trading twos (or fours) — This refers to a practice
especially common in jazz whereby the improvised lead moves from one instrument
to another every two or four bars. It’s often signaled by holding
up two or four fingers.
Triad — A triad or triadic chord is made up of three
notes: the root note that gives the chord its name, plus the third (major
or minor), and
the fifth above the root. A great deal of North American roots music can
be played with just two or three triadic chords.
Turn-around — The last line of the song’s
melody, played as an intro or concluding pattern and sometimes
between verses as a minimal
structure for breaks.
Vamp — A rhythm pattern repeated ad lib as the basis for improvisation.
Vernacular music — Musical styles that are familiar
to ordinary members of some cultural group and require little formal training
Vernacular music is mostly roots music, but may also include popular styles
like military marches or songs from movies and stage shows that are not
easy for ordinary people to play.
Walking bass — Usually a shuffle rhythm with the
bass playing all major beats in arpeggio patterns. But there is also a
walking waltz groove.
Waltz — A meter with three beats to a bar, usually with primary stress
on the one beat, or on the one and three. Herb Steiner reports that Texas
country bands use the term “walking waltz” when the bass plays
three beats to the bar with equal stress, and I’ve heard something
similar from Cajun bands. Waltzes are much more common in country and bluegrass
than in blues and rock.
Western Swing — See swing.
Woodshedding — This refers to the era when diligent
musicians would practice in the woodshed out behind the main house to avoid
the other people they were living with. (Pianists were just out of luck,
Bouchaux, Alain, Madeleine Juteau, and Didier Roussin. 1992. L’Argot
des Musiciens. (Illustrations de R. Crumb.) Paris: Editions Climats.
Hasse, John Edward. 1993. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke
Ellington. New York: Da Capo Press.
MacLeod, Bruce A. 1993. Club Date Musicians: Playing the New York Party
Circuit. Music in American Life Series. Urbana: University of Illinois
Smith, Mayne. 2005. "Technical Communications Among Improvising Musicians," in From
Bean Blossom to Bannerman, Odyssey of a Folklorist: A Festschrift for Neil
V. Rosenberg (ed. Martin Lovelace, Peter Narvaez, Diane Tye). St. John's:
Memorial University of Newfoundland, 415-426.
Williams, Chas. 2005. The Nashville Number System, 7th edition. Nashville: www.nashvillenumbersystem.com;
no publisher listed.
THIS ESSAY WAS LAST REVISED BY MAYNE ON 21 APRIL 2010
International Attists and Manny Greenhill
It is July 4, 1976, and America is in a self-congratulatory
mood. To celebrate two hundred optimistic years,
brass bands march, fireworks explode, and news
anchors pontificate. I celebrate by breaking
down on Route 66. Stranded in Kingman, Arizona,
my wife and I sit vigil for our Dodge van.
Even in the first light of day, when we roll
to the shoulder and contemplate our fate, the
temperature is more suitable for lizards than
for a displaced couple and all their worldly
belongings. Still, we manage to find a tow truck
and a motel, and from that vantage point watch
the festivities flicker by. It will be several
more days before we can resume our journey to
Santa Monica, where I am to join my father in
the music business.
was a move that I would not have contemplated
a few years earlier. In my twenties I viewed
the business world as full of compromises
and less pure than a musician’s life. But now,
in my thirties, my gigs involve playing five
sets a night at Louie’s Lounge in East
Boston, where we assiduously cover the Top 40
hits, careful to play every hook note-for-note,
like the record. Now it is the artistic life
that seems compromised, and I am moved to readjust.
Besides, my dad’s most illustrious
client, Joan Baez, has left for another manager,
he needs me.
At least that is how it seems to me and that
is what I tell myself. Later I can see that Manny
might have been just as happy to run the company
on a smaller scale and ease into semi-retirement.
Or perhaps that is how it seems to him and that
is what he tells himself. As the years go on,
he never shows all that much interest in retirement,
and is in the office up until the day before
leukemia sends him to UCLA Medical Center, shortly
after his eightieth birthday.
perhaps each of us needs to reassure himself
that he is acting selflessly — father helping
son, son helping father –- so that
we can maneuver into unacknowledged symmetry.
we belong together at Folklore International Artists,
where we guide the careers of those who are
into the power of music, but who nonetheless
need our skills. Perhaps we are also keeping
the structure sound for those who will follow,
like my own son Matthew, who joins years later.
July 4, 1976, Folklore International Artists was nineteen
years old, although there is a certain amount
of guesswork involved in dating its birth
— Manny had already presented some small,
informal concerts and had been involved with
the Folksong Society of Greater Boston. Then,
in the fall of 1957, he presented a series
of more ambitious concerts, featuring his old
teacher Josh White in one, and in another
the artist he most respected, Pete Seeger.
were major events at important venues, Jordan
Hall and Symphony Hall. They put Manny on
the city’s cultural map and marked a
change in his life’s direction. For me,
at thirteen, they meant a new home life, a
house filled with
traveling guitar players like Seeger and
Reverend Gary Davis and Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller.
Guy Carawan, just defying the Red Scare with
an illegal visit to China that had cost him
his passport, taught me the basics of finger
Rolf Cahn stayed with us for several months,
working off his board by introducing me to
the blues and drilling me in the guitar solos
Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
had known a number of these musicians, including
Pete Seeger, from his days as a labor
activist in New York. They both had been
at Peekskill, New York, a few years earlier,
vigilantes had beaten and stoned a crowd
gathered to hear a concert by Paul Robeson.
summer of 1957 our family traveled a hundred
to Lenox, Massachusetts, to hear a concert
by Pete and the rest of the Weavers. After
Manny and Pete had a long and serious conversation,
sitting in the barn auditorium of Tanglewood,
open to the steamy Berkshire summer that
hovered just beyond their words. Pete had
— the blacklist was causing local presenters
cancel confirmed bookings — and he expressed
a wish to find a local New England presenter
who would follow through. Manny said, “I’m
your man,” and agreed to present
his next Boston appearance.
Pete’s concerns were well founded. Some
months later, with the concert booked and advertised,
an FBI agent stopped Manny at the trolley stop,
on his way to work. After identifying himself,
the agent asked why Folklore International Artists was
presenting Pete Seeger, a known Communist sympathizer,
in concert. “He sells tickets,” Manny
shrugged, and, feigning nonchalance, returned
to his crossword puzzle.
few weeks later, with the concert just hours
away, Pete and my sister Deborah and I went
ice skating. He was our houseguest then, along
blues harmonica virtuoso Sonny Terry, who
would visit frequently in the years to follow,
Sonny’s nephew J.C. Burris, who started
out as their driver, but wound up playing bones
in the concert. “What color is your coat?” asked
my mother Leona, as we prepared to leave the
house. Sonny, blind since childhood, helped her
get over her embarrassment by reassuring, “It’s
the biggest one.”
was more excitement than our little corner
of Dorchester was used to. Pete’s banjo
rang through the rooms, and one afternoon a University
of Massachusetts student, who called himself
Taj Mahal, took a break from his studies in Animal
Husbandry to stop by and pay his respects. (At
least that’s the way Pete remembers it.
Taj recollects that they met later, when Pete
brought Jesse Fuller for a guest set at a concert
in Amherst. “Fuller showed me a way in
to the music. So I bogarted my way backstage
to meet him.”)
The concert was wonderful, and a big success.
It was thrilling to sing labor songs with Pete,
to watch him chop a log while he sang a work
song, and to hear the big sound of his twelve-string
guitar and the high sparkling sound of his long-neck
staid Jordan Hall was sold out. “The
blacklist gave me a lot of free publicity,” Seeger
said in later years. “If a concert did
not sell out, [manager] Harold [Leventhal] and
I used to joke that next time we would need to
make sure that the John Birch Society would picket.” Looking
back now, from the twenty-first century, I remember
the scene as more informal in those days. My
mom would make up the spare room and cook a big
pot roast for the musicians. Some, like Sonny
Terry and Cisco Houston and Reverend Davis, would
become her favorites, and we could expect to
see them several times a year, concert or no.
On the other hand, Lightnin’ Hopkins once
indicated his displeasure with his morning eggs
by spitting them over the kitchen wall, and became
less welcome. (Not to me. I loved using my new
driving skills to ferry Lightnin’ around
to his New England gigs, including the deliciously
hallowed ivy of Yale. On the ride home, Professor
Hopkins gave a seminar in how to drink gin
from the bottle.)
Folklore International Artists reaches its fiftieth year,
it is [my son] Matt and his wife Janna
who best maintain the tradition of hospitality
to its performing artists. His home, in a
northern California forest of redwoods, regularly
artists who find themselves far from their
own. While recording their album Redwood, the
group Lúnasa slept in the loft and ate
abalone that Matt harvested while snorkeling.
British guitarist John Renbourn became godfather
to my granddaughter Ina, and Irish musicians
Karan Casey and Niall Vallely became godparents
to Ina’s younger sister, Freija.
for the most part, things are more businesslike
and professional these days, meaning that
artists stay in hotels and our conversations
often in restaurants. They still get a kick
out of our main office’s location, tucked
in among some beach shacks and hotels near
Monica Pier. A few can remember our first
west coast office, above the merry-go-round
pier. And the leggy joggers and roller-skaters
still impress those from paler, more northern,
and colder climes.
The story of Folklore International Artists is in large
part the story of family. The guy who thought
it up and brought it into existence was my father,
Mendel from the Ghetto
Greer paused and looked over the group of Manny
Greenhill’s friends and associates,
gathered to mourn his passing on April 14, 1996.
Outside, sounds of a spring breeze battled the
traffic on Mount Auburn Street. David, recently
retired as head of Brown University School of
Medicine, was struggling to convey a sense of
early twentieth-century New York, a world of
impenetrable ethnic enclaves and their old-world
authority figures. Like Manny, all of David Greer’s
childhood friends had been Jewish, and on the
basis of their forefathers’ experience,
saw a world comprised of two main components: “abused
Jews and abusive Christians. … We were
taught that it was therefore important for
Jews to stick together and it was not wise
too far into the inhospitable surrounding society.”
What then to make of his strange Uncle Mendy,
whose very name had changed? “Mendy
had become Manny. He was living among the
Christian avant-garde in Greenwich Village;
some, like his guitar teacher Josh White,
were even black (!). He had assimilated
identified with the problems of the wider,
secular society to such an extent that
he had become a ‘left-winger,’ which
in those days might be indistinguishable
a — dreaded word — Communist!”
This world view was radical. It opened a door
out of the ghetto and into a world of empathy
and connection, where the problems and obstacles
of one group were part of a wider narrative in
which all had a stake. It sent Manny into the
arts and politics, while David ventured into
the hitherto restricted areas of medicine and
Greer sensed that it was time to wind up his
part of the memorial proceedings. Others
were waiting to follow: producer Joe Boyd
would reflect on the time that Manny turned
an adversary to an ally, by inviting Joe to
accompany Reverend Gary Davis to Europe, where
would most of his life; Doc Watson would
recall the time that Manny lent him money to
garage, and didn’t ask for interest; Joan
Baez had sent a message of farewell to her first
manager; and the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers would
make a joyful noise in appreciation of the days
when Manny “opened a door, and we walked
through it.” Dave Van Ronk, Jim Rooney,
Jack Landrón would also recall their
friend and mentor. But, of them all, only
had the connection to the world from which
Manny Greenhill had emerged.
He gathered himself, and tried to sum up
his thoughts. “An apostate, Manny nevertheless
followed the Talmudic injunction, ‘Who
can protest an injustice, and does not, is
an accomplice.’ Young Manny was a
non-conformist, a reformer, a romantic,
an adventurer, perhaps
even a revolutionary. In his later years,
he was a gentle man and a peaceful man,
a staunch advocate for social justice.”
THIS PIECE FORMATTED BY MAYNE 4/23/09
By Scott Hambly, November
Coe, legendary resident of Berkeley and Seattle,
Washington, died in his sleep at 4 p.m. on
October 2, 2005. Campbell’s six-year
battle with prostate cancer ended in Honeydew
Home, a hospice, in Renton, Wash. He was
was born Jan. 15, 1924 to Herbert E. Coe,
the pioneer pediatric surgeon in the Northwest,
and Lucy Coe of Seattle.
appears to have started his working career
in broadcast journalism during the 1940s,
specializing in reading the news on the radio.
About 1951 he enrolled as an undergraduate
student at UC Berkeley, graduating with the
class in 1955. He then became a graduate
student in biochemistry at UC Berkeley.
exceptionally skilled craftsman, he spent
several years in the mid-1950s engineering
and manufacturing custom-cast and -machined
models of live-steam locomotives. He also
began performing country and western music
by playing guitar, singing, and learning
the patois of masters of ceremonies. During
this same period Campbell taught himself
stringed musical instrument repair, and was
in business by May 1956, on a part-time basis.
folk music revival bloomed in the mid-to-late
1950s, and the value of old musical instruments
was being rediscovered. Before Campbell’s
entry into instrument sales and repair, the
sole East Bay craftsman was a violin repair
expert, John Aschow of Oakland. Campbell’s
repair skills filled an important niche for
myriad banjo, mandolin, and guitar owners.
He initially repaired fretted instruments
out of his third-floor apartment at 2419
Haste Street. Then he also became a supplier
of fretted instrument accouterments (picks,
strings, capos, cases, etc.) to individuals
and some regional music merchants.
Jon and Deirdre Lundberg came to Berkeley
in 1960 to open a music store, Campbell helped
them found Jon and Deirdre Lundberg Fretted
Instruments. Lundberg’s developed into
the preeminent acoustic repair and sales
store on the West Coast in the 1960s and
1970s, specializing in instruments constructed
before World War II.
business success soon outgrew his apartment,
which prompted him in 1961 to open the Campus
Music Shop at 2506 Haste Street near Telegraph
Avenue. Business at the Campus Music Shop
began to wane in the early 1970s. As the
1970s wore on, transactions diminished incrementally
until Campbell finally sold or packed his
equipment prior to returning to Seattle.
Campbell inspired younger men to enter the
field, the legacy of his craftsmanship endures.
Examples are Hideo Kamimoto, for three years
his part-time apprentice and sales representative,
who in 1967 founded H. Kamimoto String Instruments
in Oakland (now in San Jose); Mike Stevens,
of Alpine, Texas; Richard Johnston, of Gryphon
Music, Palo Alto; and Larry Blom of Oregon.
was a stellar guitarist, exceptionally versatile
and extemporaneous, who played country music
(e.g., country swing and Hank Snow lead guitar
styles), blues, and Django Rinehardt acoustic
jazz stylings, using both right-hand plectrum
and finger methods. He was the bandleader
of the Country Cousins.
his role as a musical mentor and supporter
of developing musicians in the East Bay,
he inspired such musicians as Sandy Rothman,
Betty Montana (later a.k.a. Betty Mann),
and Rick Shubb. Campbell also influenced
select members of local bands, for example,
the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, Country Joe & The
Fish, the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle
Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Commander Cody
and the Lost Planet Airmen, and Don Burnham’s
Campbell was proprietor of Aeromarine Photography,
specializing in photographing ships and related
maritime subjects in San Francisco Bay. He
also performed freelance photography of crime
scenes and events of civil disobedience in
Berkeley. An avid collector of disc recordings,
especially 78 r.p.m. singles, he was also
a recording engineer, for example taping
a private session at his apartment with Roland
and Clarence White in 1964.
was exceptionally articulate and a consummate
conversationalist — occasionally to
a fault. His diction and eloquence were precise,
doubtless polished by his days in radio,
and his manner of speech was irresistibly
engaging. He was widely known as a raconteur
who could speak knowledgeably about a kaleidoscope
of subjects, not limited to his acknowledged
specialties. Frequently his stories were
so elaborate and far-fetched that they seemed
at the moment of telling to be incredible,
only later to be confirmed as accurate.
enjoyed attention and confidently excelled
in communications in the context of small
groups. Despite his self-confidence, he paradoxically
did not seem especially comfortable in front
of large groups. His conversational arts
thrived among friends. The smaller the group,
the closer the friend, the more focused his
conversation became. It was here his command
of rhetoric, verbal nuances, and paralinguistics
came to the fore. It was difficult to resist
was well known to many as an iconoclastic,
eccentric character, enjoying an improvised
life of intellectual individualism in a town
well known as a haven for liberals and individualists.
He personified the adventurous, ad hoc spirit
of Berkeley and seldom took life seriously.
At times his free-wheeling spirit became
irreverent, critically cynical, even impish
as he perfected puns and performed as a learned
jester among his coterie of friends, occasionally
testing his own limits — and those
of others, as well. His gregariousness and
enthusiasm generously embraced those who
knew him well or those whom he thought needed
many friends held Campbell in high regard
and were spellbound by his mellifluous voice,
loquaciousness, and bonhomie. We all learned
a lot about life, music, performing arts,
and musical instruments from him. We will
remember his confidence, optimism, and irrepressible
June 30, 1981, Campbell left Berkeley to
return to Seattle in order to be closer to
his mother. In Seattle he completed the marine
diesel engineering class at Seattle Community
College. He became well versed in wooden
boat restoration, culminating in wooden tug
boat refitting. He also helped to refurbish
Hidden Valley Ranch, the family spread outside
Cle Elum, Washington, that became the premier
dude ranch in the state by 2003.
surviving kin include his brother and sister-in-law,
Bob and Bobby Coe of Mercer Island, Washington;
nephews Bruce Coe of Cle Elum, Washington;
Matt Coe; and niece Virginia Coe Garland
of San Francisco.
4/23/09 BY MAYNE
The Big Bang of Bluegrass
By Peter Feldmann
physicists use the term "Big
Bang" to describe the process of the creation
of the universe.
We cannot really picture such an event, but
I can show you a recently-declassified photograph
which shows the first quarter of a millionth
of a second of an early nuclear test in the desert
near Alamogordo, New Mexico. [ slide two ] The
nascent fireball, some eight meters across, is
just beginning to vaporize the metal tower that
housed it. Notice its irregularity. It is not
a perfect sphere as we might expect, but already
shows differing textures and surfaces. I'll get
back to that point later.
talk today is about beginnings, the beginnings
of a music we know and love, and the application
of different viewpoints to its history. [slide
three ] In a short film by Raye and Charles Eames: "Powers
Of Ten," a wonderful exposition of the concepts
of space and time, it is suggested that one can
often achieve a better understanding of a subject
by examining it at differing levels of scale
— by stepping back to look at it from a distant
viewpoint and alternatively, by coming up very
close to examine it in minute detail. I have
found it worthwhile to apply certain scientific
paradigms, borrowed from the fields of physics,
biology, and mathematics, to use as filters for
fresh glimpses or views of the music, and perhaps,
new ways to better understand our own reactions
physicists maintain that our universe began
with a "big bang", a monumental
explosion which released all matter, space, and
time in an ever-growing and expanding body we
now call the universe. I find it quite appropriate
to apply the Big Bang concept to bluegrass music,
since before our "Big Bang", there
was no such music, at least anywhere in our known
universe. The "Big Bang I am referring to
is, of course, the split-up of a musical group
billed as The Monroe Brothers, [slide four ]
formed in 1932 and who broke up in early-1938.
The 1930s were a great time for brother acts,
mostly duets, and mostly featuring close harmony
singing with guitars or guitar and mandolin.
These duos tended to supplant the larger string
bands from the 1920s - traveling was easier,
and there were less ways that gig money had to
be split up during those hard depression days.
were the "great ABCDs" of the
brother acts: The Allens, The Bolicks, The Callahans,
and the Delmores (I should include the Dixons),
all fine duets, with a great range of musicality
and singing styles. Perhaps the smoothest-sounding,
vocally, were Bill and Earl Bolick, "The
Blue Sky Boys," with harmony arrangements
like sorghum molasses dripping from a gourd spoon.
Instrumentally, the Allen Brothers were the most
raucous, while the Callahans and the Delmores
were pushing the virtuoso flatpick style with
lots of verve. But there was something new and
special about the sound of Bill and Charlie Monroe.
Many have mentioned the blazing speed they brought
to the music - to me the most distinguishing
aspect of their sound was the drive they gave
to the songs, a feeling of ever-leaning-forward,
while still keeping one's balance — like a runner
approaching a finish-line tape. Despite their
speed and drive, their songs never sounded rushed
— there was that ever-present element of control
which resulted in such a polished performance.
Record log sheets from the Victor company confirm
this aspect, and show that they were able to
cut ten "sides" or songs in the space
of half a day, all apparently, on the first take.
To anyone familiar with the recording regimen
pertaining today, this fact alone would be considered
and Charlie's approach can best be glimpsed
by listening to a sample song, "I'm Rollin'
On," which they apparently learned from
the Prairie Ramblers, [slide six ] a dynamic
performing group on WLS's "National Barn
Dance", broadcasting out of Chicago in the
30s. Compare this to Bill and Charlie's version,
recorded five years later. [slide seven]
So, we have our proto-universe: Charlie Monroe
singing lead and playing his thumbpick-driven,
booming guitar runs against the plaintive tenor
and pulsing, mandolin melody lines of his younger
brother, Bill. Their unique sound attracted thousands
of radio listeners, filled school and church
auditoriums with hundreds of fans, and despite
the ravages of the depression, sold hundreds
of thousands of records on the familiar buff
Bluebird label and via Montgomery Ward's mail
[slide eight ]
Then it happened. The gravitational forces serving
to contain that creative drive in the proto-universe
were simply too weak to keep it together, and
yhe Monroe Brothers as a performing unit were
no more, but bluegrass music was about to emerge
and expand out into the universe.
conditions immediately following the Monroe
Brothers' Big Bang are worthy of a quick survey
here. When physicists speak of the state of matter
following the Big Bang, they mention slight irregularities
in the original, expanding mass that led to the
eventual formation of galactic clusters, as well
as relatively empty areas, rather than a uniform
distribution of matter throughout the available
space. (Remember the photo of the atomic fireball
at the start of my talk.) The tendency of Bill
and Charlie was at first to follow their original
momentum and form two units almost identical
to the original group. Bill searched for a guitar
player / lead singer, while Charlie wanted a
mandolin player and tenor singer. Note that neither
brother considered joining an already-established
band as a sideman - they were both determined
to be band leaders, having no interest in having
a "boss". Following our cosmological
framework, we can consider both Bill and Charlie
as centers of mass, which soon attracted other
performers, falling, so to speak, into their
this point, it becomes useful to borrow a concept
from the field of evolution biology to
use as an additional overlay in considering what
happened next. It is a long-held concept that
on the young planet Earth, there developed an
assortment of amino acids and other building-block
molecules through the interaction of solar radiation,
lightning strikes, and other forces acting on
the primordial soil, cooling rocks, warm seas,
and the young, methane-filled atmosphere. This
has been referred to as the famous "Cosmic
Soup" from which early, relatively simple
strands of RNA and DNA could form, given proper
conditions. [slide nine ] In the mid and late
1930s, we can see an emerging "Cosmic Soup" of
professional country musicians throughout the "High
South" (The Carolinas, Virginia, W. Virginia,
Kentucky, and Tennessee). These young performers,
vitalized by the energy they received from the
new media of radio and records, and facilitated
by the growing availability of easy travel via
the automobile and improved highways, formed
a growing, eager pool of talent from which band
leaders could draw competent musical help. By
the time of the Monroe's breakup, the "High
South" contained quite a soup pot of singers
and pickers that had moved into the professional
entertainer camp — and the new electronic media,
radio especially, made them well aware of each
Monroe's first choice of sideman, Zeke Morris
— from Old Fort, North Carolina was especially
fascinating. [ slide ten ] Zeke had already recorded
for the Victor company with his brother Wiley,
and perhaps Victor's A&R man, Eli Oberstein,
suggested the young mandolin player and singer
to Charlie. Charlie brought Zeke Morris and tenor
vocalist Bill Calhoun to a temporary Victor recording
studio in Rock Hill, South Carolina in late September
of 1938. This has sometimes been called the "mystery
session", as several of the titles cut that
day sounded so eerily similar to the Monroe Brothers'
records. This mystery session caused great confusion
among Monroe Brothers fans, and even led to rumors
that Bill had actually stopped by Rock Hill to
play on the sessions. Certainly it demonstrates
the appeal of Bill and Charlie's musicianship,
as very obviously, Zeke Morris had gotten Bill's
mandolin "licks" down just about perfectly … he'd
certainly been listening to Bill's playing. So
by 1938, Bill Monroe was already seen as someone
to lead the way as an innovative musician.
act of releasing the songs as by "Monroe's
Boys" did not help mitigate the confusion
— it lasted and was reinforced 26 years later
when an Lp reissue on Victor's budget Camden
label mixed Monroe Brothers' songs with Monroe's
Boys' tracks, and billed several of Charlie's
cuts as by "The Monroe Brothers". [slide
eleven ] The liner notes claimed the recordings
were by Bill and Charlie Monroe. Bill was credited
by liner writer Roy Horton (incorrectly) as playing
a "tater bug" mandolin, while Charlie
was given (incorrectly) a "houn' dog" guitar.
(This cavalier attitude of the major record labels
towards musical history and basic facts makes
album liner scholarship almost as hazardous as
agent 007's job description.)
[slide twelve ]
elder brother Charlie went on to build a successful
career as a band leader with an array
of fine talent from our cosmic soup pot, to be
shared in some cases with his brother Bill. Charlie's
good looks and outgoing personality made him
a natural as a band leader and pitchman — a
perfect fit for the musical work of the time,
of radio programs and schoolhouse concerts. Charlie's
outgoing personality also made him suitable as
a band front man, while his business sense led
him to initiate his own brand of laxative products, "Man-O-Ree," which
sold by boxcar loads.
[slide thirteen ]
turn our attention now to the younger brother
Bill, brimming with musical ideas but at the
same time shy almost to the point of being a
recluse — brought on in part by his problems
with being cross-eyed, with a chip on his shoulder
against being bossed by his big brother, but
with a passion to make music that no one else
had ever made before.
through the high south and setting up camp
in a trailer, Bill went from one town to
the next in search of a radio station in need
of a band. Radio work didn't pay much in cash,
but instead provided energy in the form of publicity
for their live appearances (and song book sales)
for the artists on their rosters. Finding that
tastes had again swung from brother duets to
larger ensembles, Bill advertised in local papers
for musicians — at first looking for Charlie
Monroe doubles, a fiddle player, and a bass player
— even hiring someone who played jug. Stage
dress was important for the live shows, and Bill
kept to the formula of Kentucky planters outfits:
Stetson hats, shirts and ties, boots and Jodhpur
riding pants, that had worked for the Monroe
had one handicap that his brother Charlie didn't
— his shyness and general inward nature,
due in large part to his vision difficulties.
This made fronting a band a real problem — enough
so that he at first relegated this task to his
guitar player, at least in part. Searching for
a way out of this difficulty, Bill also found
comics [slide fourteen] (at first, bass players),
even working in blackface, [slide fifteen] to
help break the ice and give the live shows the
same drive as his recordings. It was in looking
for comic characters that Bill may have considered
a banjo player. The banjo comic concept had long
been around, at least since minstrel show days,
and one of the most loved entertainers on the
ubiquitous Grand Ol' Opry was Uncle Dave Macon.
Akeman claimed to be an Uncle Dave protégé,
though it is unclear to me what type of relationship
they actually maintained. The picture is complicated
by the fact that "String" was also
a semipro baseball player, [slide sixteen] and
Monroe was constantly looking for players to
fill out the two baseball teams he maintained
in the 1940s. Bill also approached Wade Mainer
[slide seventeen] as a potential banjo player
but Wade, four years Bill's senior and recently
split from his brother J.E.'s band, was, like
Bill, not interested in being a sideman and wanted
to stay with his group the "Sons Of The
home grounds, the Carolinas, was a real boiling
pot in our Cosmic Soup of musicians
- and as mentioned earlier, everyone seemed to
know everyone else in this area — at least via
recorded and broadcast performances. I've briefly
mentioned Zeke Morris, who with his brother Wiley
had already established themselves as Victor
recording artists. J.E. and Wade Mainer also
made records for Victor, and when Wade split
from his elder brother, he was replaced in J.E.'s
band by another Carolina banjo picker, Snuffy
Jenkins - one of the reputed banjo teachers for
the youngster Earl Scruggs. (Perhaps instead
of a cosmic soup, we need to speak of a thick
porridge, as the plot thickens. . . .)
eighteen] At any rate, Bill engaged Akeman
as his banjo player/comic/baseball pitcher.
here we have another mystery: what manner of
banjo-picking did "String" play on
his recordings with Bill? A two-finger thumb-lead
banjo style, more similar to Wade Mainer's index-lead
playing (though not nearly as smooth) that seems
to stumble through the solos on early Blue Grass
Boy recordings - completely different than any
of his subsequent solo banjo recordings - all
done in downpicking or "clawhammer" style.
Was this banjo style Bill's suggestion, in trying
to fit the banjo into the role of a bluegrass
go back now to our Big Bang model, and take
a step back to view the two entities resulting
from our exploding universe: Charlie Monroe's "Kentucky
Partners" and Bill Monroe's "Blue Grass
Boys" (both band names evoking their home
state as a reference). As the two bands developed,
they diverged in their musical style, even though
sharing some elements in common. While Charlie
kept a mandolin player, he also added fiddle
and bass, and even a banjo player (as a comic).
But the orbit of his band was swayed towards
the more mainstream country sound of the time,
especially with the addition of electric guitarist
Tex Isley. Bill added both fiddle and bass to
his guitar-playing band member and eventually,
banjo, as mentioned above. Then, perhaps with
an eye toward the success of the cowboy-western
bands of the time, he tried adding an accordion
to his sound. It's my conjecture that the fullness
of the accordion's chords clashed with Bill's
sparse approach to the music. It was more to
Bill's taste that a chord be suggested by two
or three notes, rather than be rounded out by
adding 6th, 7th, or other intervals. The Blue
Grass Boys moved more and more into their own
separate orbit, eschewing the electric instruments
and drums that began to drive the dance-band
oriented groups of the day, and developing the
beginnings of the bluegrass style, which took
ideas from old time fiddle tunes, jazz, and the
blues to forge its own strong musical alloys.
we're now at a point where the musical universe
is expanding, and Bill's bluegrass nucleus is
beginning to make gravitational waves which in
turn will influence musicians and listeners,
first locally, then throughout cosmic space.
It is not within the scope of this treatise to
look too far from the origins of the big bang,
but before closing, let us examine these early
days using one more principle or "filter" from
the laws and theories of physics, namely Heisenberg's
Uncertainty Principle. [slide nineteen] Rather
than looking at the universe from a huge scale,
galactic clusters, etc., this viewpoint goes
to the other extreme: the world of quantum mechanics,
the world dealing with infinitely small bits
of matter, the world of atomic particles. Heisenberg
postulated that, in such a small world, an observer
can never be certain that an electron is in one
particular orbit around a nucleus, or whether
it is in another such orbit. Furthermore, he
determined that there are places where orbits
cannot exist: one has to look closer, or further
from a nucleus to find a probability of encountering
such an electron. Indeed, as we continue to slice
time itself into ever-smaller units, we begin
to encounter quanta of time, i.e., areas where
time is and areas where time is not. To us, of
course, time seems to flow in only one direction.
Yet in the world of quantum mechanics, there
is no particular reason to expect that time cannot
flow backwards or forwards interchangeably. Thus,
physicists can look at matter, energy, and the
universe from differing aspects, even to the
point of conjuring up parallel universes which
could exist right next to us, even though we
cannot see or experience them.
at a musical group, the smallest quantum we
can view is the individual musician, with
his instrument. Having half a fiddle in a band
is simply an impossible situation - at least
in this universe. But let's use this filter to
examine the seemingly-unending argument about
bluegrass music and banjos. Did the music exist
as bluegrass before Monroe hired Earl Scruggs?
Did "Scruggs-style" banjo define the
[ Slide twenty ]
one can know what was in Bill Monroe's head
in the 1940s concerning the bluegrass sound.
We know he was stubborn, we know he was reclusive,
we know he was secretive about his music. We
also know he liked to experiment, and considered
himself as "a sort of inventor, like Henry
Ford-1.". So here we have Bill Monroe, rummaging
around in this cosmic soup of musicians like
an inventor in a junkyard, picking up scraps
of material or musical ideas here and there,
trying to fit it together, to make something "original" from
it. As we have seen, Bill approached Wade Mainer,
and did hire David Akeman, thus adding a banjo
to his band. But the results were not that encouraging
from a musical point of view. In fact, when Bill
was approached to audition Earl Scruggs, his
guitarist and lead singer of the time, Lester
Flatt, remarked that, "As far as I was concerned,
he could just leave it in the case." [slide
Of course, Earl's playing integrated the banjo
into the bluegrass sound so well that, forever
afterward, Monroe featured the instrument in
his band. But let's go backwards just a moment
and reverse time re. the banjo. By the early
1940s, the banjo was a dying instrument. Yes,
it had been featured prominently as a solo and
string band instrument in the 1920s and before.
Loosing it's constraining fifth string (which
prohibited urban-style modulations and key changes),
it had even escaped into urban music in jazz
and dance orchestras, mainly as a rhythm instrument.
But the advent of electric guitars in the 1930s,
with their added volume and sustain, quickly
spelled the end of the banjo in that role. Electric
guitars also helped force the banjo out of mainstream
country music, even as the lap and pedal steel
guitars later ended the dominance of the fiddle
in those groups.
Looking at the situation from this viewpoint,
there was little space left, even for a virtuoso
three finger style banjo picker, to ply his trade.
Could Earl have worked with Hank Williams or
Patsy Cline? Could he have crossed over into
urban music and played with Glenn Miller . .
. the Dorsey Brothers . . . Bing Crosby? Had
Monroe not created his new musical launching
platform with his high-intensity, all-acoustic
band, Earl would probably have done what many
other banjo players since then have done, switch
to the electric pedal steel guitar in a mainstream
country band, along with electric guitars and
drums. In fact, Earl is now working with a drummer
in his public appearances.
So yes, the banjo is a defining sound in bluegrass,
but without bluegrass, there would be no place
for the banjo in the musical universe as we know
it today. [slide twenty-two]
LIGHTLY COPY-EDITED BY MAYNE 4/26/09