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.

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 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.