May 012012

I recently read Michael Gray’s biography of Georgia blues musician Blind Willie Mctell. The book is titled hand Me My Traveling Shoes, a line from McTell’s best-known song, “Statesboro Blues.”

Gray’s approach is to dig through primary sources of all kinds to fill in the hazy details of McTell’s life and times. Learning about African Americans in the southeast United States from the early 1900s is often a puzzle that tests the patience of a diligent researcher. Gray did his research well, resulting in a thorough and balanced history. If you are a fan of country blues or early-1900s folk music, this is a great read.

A Great Musician

Gray paints McTell as an energetic, industrious, optimistic soul. Blind from birth or from childhood (the specific details are unknown), Willie McTell was one of Atlanta’s most popular blues performers. McTell played the 12-string guitar with brilliance and skill. During the 1920s and 1930s, the 12-string was a popular instrument in Atlanta for its loud sound and the complex piano-like tone. McTell was one of the top 12-string players of his day. Today the 12-string is usually played with simplistic strums, but McTell played jumping bass lines and syncopated rhythms on it, plus a little slide work too.

McTell’s singing was sweet and high in a tenor range. He defies today’s stereotype of “blues singing” as whiskey-soaked growl and rasp. And his material also defies today’s notion that blues music is about miserable topics. No doubt there are some nasty numbers among the few dozen recorded McTell tracks available today, but most of the songs have a playful or rowdy tone to the lyrics. His “blues” are no bluer than the popular country songs and folk ballads from the same period.

McTell is known as a blues musician, and he was a specialist and innovator in the forms of Piedmont blues. But there is a strong gospel thread through his recordings too, along with some borrowing from popular songs and ragtime numbers. McTell was an entertainer, not a purist.

Turbulent Times

Gray lays out a detailed study of the historical, geographical, and cultural context of McTell’s life. McTell lived from 1903 to 1959, a period in which Georgia went from post-war reconstruction to urbanization and industrialization. McTell lived on the fault lines between country and city, between black and white, between farm and factory.

McTell’s blindness was no more a hindrance to him in his day than it would be today. He booked his own gigs over the telephone. He walked the country roads around the small towns where he grew up. He knew the streets, landmarks, and tram lines throughout Atlanta during a time when the cityscape was changing rapidly. In those days, the streets were redesigned to accommodate the arrival of automobiles, and the population of Atlanta doubled in the first two decades of the twentieth century. McTell is portrayed in this book as someone who kept in step with the changing times.

McTell was savvy and earned his living from his music. Some who don’t get a close look might expect blind musicians from a century ago to live as bumbling, penniless street performers who really didn’t know what was going on around them. On the contrary, McTell was literate, well oriented to Atlanta life, popular, and much admired.

First-Person Biographer

Another unique feature of Gray’s book is the inclusion of first-person anecdotes from the author’s research trips to Georgia. Gray is British and brings a foreigner’s objectivity to the task. He describes how he found census records, birth certificates, death certificates, and funeral home records. He also points out the many unfortunate gaps in the paper records from the early 1900s in the south.

Gray joined forces with an local couple to find the lost grave site of McTell’s second wife, Helen. He gives his impressions and opinions about the interesting and curious personalities that he interviewed. And he describes many of the helpful people behind desks at courthouses, libraries, a funeral home, and the medical institution where McTell died. At one point Gray found himself in the hateful eye of a hard-ass Georgia country cop. Being a guy with a British accent means he got more than the standard helping of humiliation and cruelty, an experience which could help an outsider appreciate what African Americans lived with every day under southern segregation.

It’s a curious thing to me. A writer in the twenty-first century has a terrible and frustrating time finding out about a popular black musician from a major city in the United States from less than a century ago. Does this show us how primitive and indifferent American society really was just a couple generations ago?

This dense book doesn’t read like Wikipedia. It’s for nerds who love the method and the research for its own sake as well as the subject matter being uncovered. Pick up Gray’s book, and you’ll get an appreciation for McTell along with a broader understanding of the times in which he lived.

Sep 282011

If you know the name “John Hartford,” you are probably a fan. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they didn’t enjoy the man’s music, imagination, and wit.

Hartford was a fanatic for traditional fiddling, especially the styles from the western side of Appalachia along the Ohio River and down through Missouri toward the middle parts of the U.S. And for all the research and scrutinous study of traditional fiddling, his fiddle had a voice all its own.

The man played banjo with such soul, sweetness, and tone. Among banjo nerds there are all kinds of ideas about Scruggs style versus Keith style versus Fleck and Trischka. The hard-driving classic bluegrass’s and the funky sweetness of jazz and newgrass pickers. Hartford’s banjo sound had its own voice, almost a granfather’s chuckling narrative.

His singing, his lyrics, his stories, his constant dancing and musicality are all over tons of great records. Get out to Amazon or iTunes or a good used CD shop and pick up a couple things by Hartford if you’re unfamiliar. It’s funky, fun,, acoustic, purely American music that defies genre.

Marcy Cochran and Sheila Nichols are two fabulous filmmakers and fiddlers working on a John Hartford documentary. They have piles of primary source material from family, friends, and legendary musicians such as Glenn Campbell and Earl Scruggs. Check out their Kick Starter campaign here and consider lending your support. And check out the trailer here on Youtube. This is great stuff for your ears and your heart.

Aug 182011

As a huge fan of Warren Zevon’s early records from the late 1970s, I was eager to get into the oral history written by his ex-wife a couple years ago. I knew little about the man, just his melodies, arrangements, and lyrics were sometimes just perfect. I want to use the word “brilliant” here, but that word isn’t strong enough for his Warren Zevon and Excitable Boyalbums.

I hit the intro section of the book, and I put it down. I just didn’t want to read another book about another terrible person who did great art. Zevon was violent toward others, a lousy dad, and someone who probably Squandered a lot of his musical abilities and artistic opportunities. I just didn’t have it in me to go through a book like this. I’ve read enough about Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and so on over the years, and stories like this can really bring you down.

I had an audio version of this book lying around in my pile of stuff to read, and I just went back to it a few days ago. It is a great compilation of oral history, diary entries, interviews, little notes around the house, all kinds of primary-source and first-person stuff. And I took on the fascinating and disgusting story of an insane genius. Mental health is a messy and overwhelming problem to read about, and addictions and financial problems and a fickle music industry go all through this book.

I never met the man, so I don’t have any like or dislike for him as a person. I find the terrible parts terrible, the sad parts sad, and the joyful parts joyful. If you’re not familiar with Zevon, check out the albums I mentioned above. If you are a fan and haven’t grabbed this book, well it’s pretty good writing and a huge dose of real insane life in America that a lot of us know something about.

Jul 302011

Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’s music is very smart and very spirited. His trio’s recordings are free, beautiful, fun, and brilliant. I particularly recommend their “Time And Circumstance” CD where all three members of the trio stretch out, really showing some personality and imagination. All the Marcus Roberts CDs I’ve heard have been fabulous, so I’d recommend any of them.

I recently read the Q and A section of Roberts’s website. Very thoughtful stuff. When people say “just play scales, just practice the mechanics,” it’s great to know that people like Roberts are out there putting all their mind, imagination, and determination into the music.

A few highlights from the Q and A page:

  • Roberts sees practicing as “solving problems.” This is one of my favorite phrases when practicing or teaching. You got to listen to the sound you’re making. Then you got to figure out what the problems are. Then you know what to solve. Practicing is a lot more than just going through some motions.
  • Roberts talks about how the notion of innovation is overrated. If everyone creates a new genre, a new subgenera, a totally unique approach, then we don’t have much connection and community. Roberts seems to be saying, put your personality and unique voice into the music, but you’re still best off standing on the shoulders of those who have made this music in past generations.
  • Roberts speaks about how musicians should listen to great recordings and figure out what all the instruments are doing, not just yours. This has come up a good bit recently, as I mentioned in a post about how Del Ray gets a lot of her guitar bass lines from boogie piano. Listening is a huge part of being an evolving musician.

Jul 262011

In Moving To Higher Ground, Wynton Marsalis gives a concise, broad survey of jazz music and it history. The subtitle of the book is How Jazz Can Change Your Life, because he writes about his struggles to mature as an American through his experiences as a musician. It’s an interesting combination. Everything you need to know about jazz, plus one musician’s take on why jazz music matters.

On the jazz instruction side, Marsalis cuts through a lot of vague slippery stuff to explain the building blocks. Jazz is about freedom, and its musicians must explore and present their individual uniqueness to make the music come alive. Jazz is about swing, which means that the music thrives when performers and audience all feel a common pulse of rhythm. Swing is about community, and the musician who can’t or won’t play in time sticks out like a child having a tantrum. Marsalis also writes about blues as the emotional content and story of jazz. Anyone who takes a sober look at American history understands why blues is the central melody running through all American music.

The personal stuff in this book is just as precious as the conceptual material. Marsalis has so many great stories about how older musicians taught and humbled him. Dizzy asked him to play something for him when they first met, and the teen Marsalis gave it a try. Dizzy leaned close and whispered, “Practice, motherf’er!” Great stories like that all over the place.

Here’s the deal: If you’re a musician or jazz fan, you’ll get something out of this book. It’s instructive, entertaining, and it’s also a great reminder that you better stop trying to be the next Charlie Parker or whoever. Grow, be humble, play your music, play good music. That’s a pretty good approach to things, don’t you think?

Jul 222011

There’s a danger in getting personally involved when reading memoirs of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. These books can distort your perspective on your own times and leave you in unrealistic comparisons with others. Admire your heroes, though you can never follow exactly in their footsteps.

Take as an example the first generation of rock musicians, from the middle 1950s through the 1960s. Those were very tough and unique times in America and Britain. The end of the second world war, the introduction of television, multi-track recording, electric guitars. The civil rights movement, Kinsey reports and Masters and Johnson, the Vietnam war, the killing of America’s progressive leaders. Those were troubled decades, and looking back one sees more differences than similarities when comparing today with the lives of the first rockers.

As I’m reading Patti Smiths memoir, Just Kids, for the second time this summer, I’m experiencing a stronger connection to her words than I usually feel for a memoir. I’ve read memoirs by U2, Clarence Clemons, Keith Richards, and Pat Benatar recently. Digging into their creative process and business struggles fascinates me and inspires me. But I keep a safe distance, knowing that I have to make my own life in my own times. Patti Smith’s book is different, because I feel the emotional power in her honest and intimate words.

Smith’s memoir focuses particularly on her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe from the late 1960s through his death twenty years later. She tells their stories in clear, emotional insights, how they met, fell in love, and struggled day by day to create artistic lives in New York City. It’s rare to find such self-aware description of the inner thoughts, dreams, and feelings of young creative hearts. Smith describes her first attempts in poetry, art, theater, and eventually her poetic punk music that broke open new directions for rock. She also describes Mapplethorpe’s early installations and fashions and how he eventually found his voice through photography.

There’s a lot of mundane detail in this book–so many outfits, names, and references. Smith is brilliantly literate and tells her story in her own terms, and I honestly can’t keep up with many of the artists she mentions. But the mundane details go hand in hand with the very personal telling of the two young artists in New York City’s artistic cauldron. There are some great stories about celebrities of the time, such as Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Harry Smith, and Johnny Winter.

If you feel a connection to Patti Smith’s music or Robert Mapplethorpe’s art, you’ll find this book a stirring experience.

Jul 142011

Most of us guitar pickers have a uke lying around somewhere. The Beatles played ukes, easy to take along when you jump into your car or the back of a cab to go jam. The uke is just kind of easy and fun to play.

Listening to it might be another story. Little tinkling strums on “Five Foot Two” and such is kind of corny. But there are some powerful good ukers out there.

Del Ray is one of those pickers. She has performed a few times in the northern VA area in recent years. She has devoured old Piedmont, country, and delta blues all her life (as she tells it), and she has taken her blues and boogie guitar stuff over to the uke.

Here are two videos from a blues uke workshop she taught in Reston a few days ago. (Unfortunately she isn’t playing her awesome resonator uke in these.)

(Thanks to Julie Mangin for recording these videos, and to Ann Granger and the whole Reston Uke Festival crew for making these workshops happen.)

I also mentioned that Del’s guitar playing is heavily influenced by blues and boogie piano in a .

Nothing like getting to swap brainwaves with other musicians who love to dig deeper into the wells of music.

Jul 112011

I was in a guitar workshop yesterday afternoon taught by

Del Ray,

a tremendous blues and boogie guitarist. Del mentioned

a Youtube video by pianist Dick Hyman

where he demonstrates many styles of piano boogie and blues feels. Hyman goes through various examples in just a few minutes, naming players and describing the cultural background and source of each style.

Give this beautiful thing a watch. You’ll get a great taste of American music with charming and insightful commentary throughout.

When you’re done with that one, just start searching for more Dick Hyman videos, because the man’s music is brilliant.