Berkeley Daily Planet (www.berkeleydailyplanet.com)
Commentary

Campbell Coe: Not a Myth to Many
By SANDY ROTHMAN

Tuesday January 17, 2006

Thanks for publishing a lengthy obituary on Campbell Coe, one of Telegraph Avenue’s colorful characters and an important person in the local music scene. Scott Hambly’s writing evokes the wide-ranging talents of a true “Renaissance man” and observes his conversational style thoughtfully. His description of the “incredible” tales that turned out to be true was as well put as it’s ever been. I have a few corrections and comments:

The accompanying photo is erroneously credited to Carl Fleischhauer (correct spelling), according to Carl.

Hambly writes (perhaps assumes) that Campbell died in his sleep. That is not true. According to the Seattle hospice owner, who was with him at his passing, Campbell was fully awake and conscious right up to the moment of death. (The hospice is not called “Honeydew House,” as reported in this piece. Its correct name is “Honeydew Adult Family Home.”) The manner of his death convinced the owner, not that she hadn’t already discovered (even knowing nothing of his broad interests and skills), that this patient was a most remarkable person.

The obituary says Campbell was in the UC Berkeley graduating class of 1955. According to the university, he would’ve been in that graduating class if he’d completed his studies, but he did not, so he wasn’t. His major was biophysics, not biochemisty.

Aschow’s wasn’t the East Bay’s only violin shop back then, as stated, but it was likely the best. Respected luthier Hideo Kamimoto apprenticed with the Aschow family after learning from Campbell at Campus Music Shop or, as he says, learning patience by waiting for Campbell to show up at the shop.

I believe it was Barry Olivier, not Campbell, who originally helped Jon and Deirdre Lundberg start their Berkeley guitar shop, although at an early point Campbell was in partnership with the Lundbergs. Later the two shops existed not far from each other. Lundberg’s was well known for collectible acoustic instruments and a coolly rarefied “folk atmosphere.” Campbell’s shop had affordable instruments, sometimes electric guitars and country LP records, and people remember it, and him, as “warm and friendly.” When he was there.

During the ‘70s, Hambly writes, the music store’s “transactions diminished incrementally.” In fact, Campbell (whose abundant energy and flowing rap caused Jerry Garcia to dub him “the straight Neal Cassady”) continued sharing his wealth of musical knowledge with pickers far and wide, pursuing his passion for marine and other photography, and continuing whatever playing and repairing gigs came his way. Also in this period Campbell, an expert carpenter/woodworker like his father and brother, presaged the recycling movement by working with his pals in what he liked to call the “deconstruction trade”: salvaging useful parts from old houses slated for demolition. While in the ‘60s you might’ve gone to his shop to look through dusty boxes of old banjo or mandolin parts, which he would often sell for next to nothing, in the ‘70s you’d find boxes of interesting old door locks and face-plates rescued from houses.

A gifted musician, Campbell’s major guitar inspiration was Chet Atkins. Hank Snow is cited, but he really wasn’t a special exponent of that flatpick style. Able enough with a flatpick (though he usually used a thumbpick as a flatpick, even on mandolin), Campbell was without question mainly a fingerstyle guitarist. He was also a spirited singer, notably from the western swing songbook.

Hambly says Campbell occasionally tested the “his own limits, and those of others, as well.” I’d say it plainer: he might take six years to finish your banjo repair job, a delay best appreciated by your upstairs neighbor.

But “blandishments”? I don’t think so. Flattery and cajoling seem to be at the core meaning of this five-dollar word, and I didn’t see that. Yes, we’ll remember his “confidence, optimism, and irrepressible spirit,” and something even greater: his humanity and continuous advocacy. Not to those who “he thought needed his support,” a strange and incorrect spin. To know Campbell as a friend was to be encouraged by him.

Decades ago somebody, I still don’t know who, produced a run of Day-Glo bumperstickers reading “Campbell Coe Is A Myth.” It was hard to know what effect this might’ve had on Campbell, but it was entertaining when one of them was spotted on a Berkeley police car. After Campbell’s Oct. 2 passing, a mutual friend’s e-mail was titled: “Campbell Coe: not a myth to me.”

 

After Mitch and I formed our duo partnership in 1976, not long after Mitch had become an integral part of his father’s company, it occurred to me that Folklore Productions might be able to help untangle a legal mess concerning the publishing rights to the product of my first few years of songwriting. Very fortunately for me they were willing and able to help me out, and I discovered the peace of mind that comes from doing business with people whose values control their dealings with absolutely everyone. This piece of writing is excerpted from a larger work that was published in a paperbound booklet to mark the fiftieth year in the company’s history, and can be found as well at the Folklore Productions website <www.folkloreproductions.com
/Folklorefifty.html
>. In both of those instances, illustrative photographs accompany the words.  
—Mayne     
Campbell Coe
Photo made probably in the 1970s. Scott says there was no credit with the photo. It came directly from a file cabinet in Campbell’s apartment, courtesy of Annie Johnston (of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band and Down Home Music) who borrowed it for copying years before he moved to Seattle in 1981. “It’s possible Campbell set up a camera and then mugged for his own shoot!”
—Mayne     
 
Peter Feldmann is an excellent bluegrass vocalist, mandolinist, and producer of records and concerts, who has been centered in Santa Barbara, California for over forty years. As Peter states on his website <www.bluegrasswest.com/ideas
/bigbang_2005.htm
>, this slightly tongue-in-cheek essay is the text for a "talk given . . . at the first International Bluegrass Symposium, University of Western Kentucky, Bowling Green, KY, in September, 2005." Actually, it was a full-bore Power Point presentation accompanied by twenty-two "slides," and you won't have to read very far to recognize that Peter knew what he was talking about. Like all the other attendees I was fascinated by the provocative analogy between the origins of the universe and the origins of bluegrass music, but his account offers much more than that. Peter plans to upload the slides to his website soon, so I warmly recommend that you visit Bluegrass West.
—Mayne     
   

Mayne Smith, “A Shuffle in Charlie”
Neil Rosenberg on Sam Eskin
Mitch Greenhill on Folklore Productions
Scott Hambly on Campbell Coe
Sandy Rothman, Campbell Coe: Not a Myth
Peter Feldmann on bluegrass cosmology

My friends and I have occasionally written articles and essays about interesting music-related topics that have not been available to the general public. It occurs to me that it would be a favor to both the authors and the public if I publish them right here. I expect to continue adding new writings as time and opportunity allow.
You can print any of these essays as a PDF file if you have any version of Adbobe Reader software installed on your computer. If you don't have Adobe Reader, click here to download it free from the Adobe website.

—Mayne     

Sam Eskin and “Shule Aroo”
By Neil Rosenberg, March 2009
www.mun.ca/folklore/people/Rosenberg.php

On Friday, March 6, 2009, Mayne Smith wrote from Berkeley with a request:

I’ve 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.

I 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?

I immediately wrote out the words to the song, which I still sing. I usually call it "Shule Aroo."

I 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 surely man aroo
Salamana ralaback salabarba coo
Then I'd sigh for a salabobalink
Come dibble a la boo sal dory

My 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

I'd 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

I'd 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

This 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.

I 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.

This 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 to students.

Also 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 (http://www.casa-chia.org/Sam/samchron.html). It's dated at 1925, when, the chronology states:

Sam 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.

This 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.

Wrapped 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 of Arizona."

The 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 tracks.

What 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 them."

Powell's 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 follow."

They 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 (www.folkways.si.edu/about_folkways/archive.aspx)

From the Eskin website ("Sam Eskin, Folksinger-Collector, 1898-1974" www.casa-chia.org/Sam/eskin00.html), 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.

Eskin's 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.

On the album's liner Eskin calls the song "Shule, Shule," and says of it:

This 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."

I 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 another time.

I 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:

"I'd sell my rock I'd sell my reel"

I 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:

"I'd sell my rod I'd sell my reel"

I 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.

I 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.

Recently, 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.

I'm 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.

THIS PIECE LAST REVIEWED BY MAYNE 4/23/09

 

A Shuffle in Charlie:
Technical Communications
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 notation. (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.


Playing music with other people without written scores or memorized arrangements has an excitement 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 a unique 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 performance may continue with alternating vocal and instrumental sections, climaxed with a strong ending, as if it had been rehearsed.

Fundamentals
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 in mind, though, 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 played and 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 many variations 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 playing.) 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 order 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 it’s considered appropriate to improvise backup (contrasting responses to the lead) but not always. Another example: in the country scene, solo and backup roles 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 thirty-two 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 vehicles for 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 sound. 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 more 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 to indicate 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 stop here.)

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 like a hundred 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 1993:315).

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 information. In public performances, he may be fed a “click track” through ear phones.

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 rhythmic 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 a considerable 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 doesn’t 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 time?

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 1950s pop-blues song “Kansas City” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller fits the pattern.) Jazz and blues bands habitually play with an ever-present tension between the 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 kind of 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 this 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 (“Caldonia”) 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 Steiner (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 not also 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 with 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 that player’s 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. This 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 to follow.

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 the next chord will be based on the fourth note in the scale starting on the first chord’s 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.

Ending
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 lick. 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 lift 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 origin 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 that hosted after-hours jam sessions in a very large club every Saturday and Sunday morning from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Musicians from all over the Seattle area would come to join us, and onstage 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 improvisational 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, keyboard), 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 for all.

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 of the 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 to 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. She takes two choruses, with the sax and piano beginning to riff quietly behind her; their riffing will continue to build through the rest of the song, 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, I call 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 verse.

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 as many questions about musical behavior as it has exposed for future study.



Glossary


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 chord.

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 tradition. 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 contesting its 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 finishes 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 consciousness.

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 a refrain).

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) where they 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 system.

Chorus — Used in jazz and pop to mean a complete iteration of the melody being played. As a striking example, at the 1956 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 a “refrain”: 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, including 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 Time, etc., 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 tempo and 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 playing four 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 studio and 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 on paper.

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 characteristic.

Keys — Except in the most abstract kinds of music, every musical piece is played or sung in a key (sometimes several in sequence). A key 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 they’re 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 Haley and 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 also lick.

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 traditional jazz, 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 different terms 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 developed branches in mainstream pop music as well as southwestern bands that included fiddles and steel guitars, as well as horns, piano, and drums. Western Swing is 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 or voice 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 to appreciate. 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. (See below.)

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 disturbing the other people they were living with. (Pianists were just out of luck, I guess.)


References Cited

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 Press.

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

 

Folklore Productions and Manny Greenhill
By Mitch 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.

It 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, and 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.

Or 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. Perhaps we belong together at Folklore Productions, where we guide the careers of those who are truly plugged 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.

On July 4, 1976, Folklore Productions was nineteen years old, although there is a certain amount of guesswork involved in dating its birth — Manny had already presented some small, somewhat 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 guitar teacher Josh White in one, and in another the artist he most respected, Pete Seeger. These 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 picking. 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 of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Manny 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, when right-wing vigilantes had beaten and stoned a crowd gathered to hear a concert by Paul Robeson. In that summer of 1957 our family traveled a hundred miles west, to Lenox, Massachusetts, to hear a concert by Pete and the rest of the Weavers. After the concert 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 a problem — the blacklist was causing local presenters to 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 Productions was presenting Pete Seeger, a known Communist sympathizer, in concert. “He sells tickets,” Manny shrugged, and, feigning nonchalance, returned to his crossword puzzle.

A 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 with blues harmonica virtuoso Sonny Terry, who would visit frequently in the years to follow, and 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.”

It 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 banjo.

And 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.)

As Folklore Productions 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 hosts artists who find themselves far from their own. While recording their album Redwood, the Irish 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.

But, for the most part, things are more businesslike and professional these days, meaning that artists stay in hotels and our conversations are more often in restaurants. They still get a kick out of our main office’s location, tucked in among some beach shacks and hotels near the Santa Monica Pier. A few can remember our first west coast office, above the merry-go-round on the pier. And the leggy joggers and roller-skaters still impress those from paler, more northern, and colder climes.

The story of Folklore Productions is in large part the story of family. The guy who thought it up and brought it into existence was my father, Manny Greenhill.

Mendel from the Ghetto

Dr. 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 to venture 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 largely Christian avant-garde in Greenwich Village; some, like his guitar teacher Josh White, were even black (!). He had assimilated and had 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 from 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 academia.

Dr. 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 from an adversary to an ally, by inviting Joe to accompany Reverend Gary Davis to Europe, where Joe spend would most of his life; Doc Watson would recall the time that Manny lent him money to build a 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 David Greer 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, but nevertheless a staunch advocate for social justice.”

THIS PIECE FORMATTED BY MAYNE 4/23/09

 

Campbell Coe, 1924–2005
By Scott Hambly, November 2005

Campbell 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 81.

Campbell was born Jan. 15, 1924 to Herbert E. Coe, the pioneer pediatric surgeon in the Northwest, and Lucy Coe of Seattle.

Campbell 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.

An 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.

The 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.

When 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.

Campbell’s 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.

Because 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.

Campbell 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.

In 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 Lost Weekend.

Further, 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.

Campbell 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.

Campbell 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 Campbell’s blandishments.

He 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 his support.

His 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 spirit.

On 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.

Campbell’s 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.

COPY-EDITED 4/23/09 BY MAYNE

 

The Big Bang of Bluegrass
By Peter Feldmann

Theoretical 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.

My 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 to bluegrass.

Theoretical 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.

[slide five]

There 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 astounding.

Bill 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 order discs.

[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.

The 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 gravitational fields.

At 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 other.

Charlie 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.

Victor's 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 ]

The 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 ]

We 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.

Moving 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 Brothers.

Bill 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 Mountaineers".

Mainer's 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. . . .)

[slide eighteen] At any rate, Bill engaged Akeman as his banjo player/comic/baseball pitcher. And 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 instrument?

Let's 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.

So 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.

Looking 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 sound?

[ Slide twenty ]

No 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 twenty-one]

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


 
       
 

 

 
 
 

   
     
     
       
         
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