A few months ago, a friend of mine said, “hey Eugene, you just like music that is outside the mainstream just because it’s outside the mainstream.” I protested. “No I don’t think so, I just like what I like.” After some consideration though, I wonder if there isn’t just a little bit of truth to what he suggested. After all, by the mid-70s, I found most of the music coming out of the star-maker machine pretty hard to take. I recall taking refuge by listening to Joe Louis hosting Folk Music and Folk Ways on “Ryerson Radio” every Saturday. That’s where I first heard Doc and Merle Watson. That was an eye-opener. And U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. That was a mind-bender.
Like many others looking for something else, I listened to my share of punk and so-called New Wave, and I enjoyed a lot of that, though I obviously didn’t fit into that scene. Sorry sir, no nice sweaters allowed in here. Even today – I listen to a lot of hardcore old time music – I can’t help but think it’s not a big jump from there to punk, kind of like The Pogues and Irish folk music. I recall seeing Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille on one bill back in 1978 at Massey Hall. I was beginning to think pop music had a future. To this day I still love Nick Lowe’s music and all his recordings get a lot of play around this joint.
By university, I was a confirmed blues freak. I loved all the older obscure stuff (and I was sure it wasn’t just because it was old and obscure) and I wasn’t so crazy about “blues rock” and all the guitar hero blues guys. Toronto was a hotbed of the blues in those days. I got to see live performances by Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Bo Diddley, Eddy Clearwater, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Honeyboy Edwards, Son Seals, Mighty Joe Young, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and more.
And there was Zydeco too, Fernest Arceneaux and the Thunders at the Horseshoe, Queen Ida, Terence Simien and the Mallet Playboys. And R&B. Hank Ballard and The Midnighters came to town, with horn section and matching outfits and choreography and The Twist. And then in the 80s there was Handsome Ned playing Lefty Frizzell tunes for Queen Streeters.
At some point in the early 2000s, i fell hard for accordion music, especially all things button accordion. I bought one, a vintage Hohner Corona II, which I still have today and vowed to learn to play. How hard could it be with only 31 buttons on the right side. Piece of cake. Then I discovered it was bi-sonoric, meaning each button had two notes, depending on the direction of the air. Still I persevered and learned to play pretty well. It opened up a whole world for me, from the driving polka of Scrubby and the Dynatones to Portuguese corridinhos to the music of Uruguayan gauchos to Basque Trikitixas.
It was a whirlwind world tour of free-reed ethnic folk music and I was loving it. Sun Ra was right. There are other worlds they have not told you of.
And speaking of Sun Ra, who I saw live in NYC in 1983, I found a little room in there for jazz.
I blame my brother the trout, Salvelinas Fontinalis for re-sparking in me a deep interest in hardcore oldtime music and particularly clawhammer banjo. Since I started playing banjo less than two years ago, I’ve immersed myself in old time music and I’ve been playing constantly. I’ve even fooled a few people into thinking I’m doing OK at it.
The fact is I came by my eclectic musical tastes honestly. The first record I owned was a copy of Ernest Tubb’s Walking the Floor over You. I knew all the lyrics to The Wreck of the Old 97 by age 8. I was the only kid on the block who, from exposure to Dad’s Dixieland, knew my Kid Ory from my Wingy Manone. I don’t think I set out to stray from the mainstream as a strategy. Still, I’m very conscous that culture or some version of culture is marketed to us extremely heavily. Just consider that there are now game shows for becoming a pop star, and strangely, they are very very successful.
I suppose anytime you ignore all the mass market stuff and choose your music or your art or your literature on your own, regardless of how it happened, it’s a little bit revolutionary, don’t you think? The thing about folk music is that we own it together, and I like that. How many pop stars sue one another about a riff or a melody? Considering most western music, at least in a popular vein, is pretty simple with 2 or 3 or 4 chords, it’s reasonable to expect similar themes to appear time and again. In folk music, adding to the the pool of music we own together by changing around an existing melody is perfectly reasonable. I’m glad Woody Guthrie borrowed the melody of Wabash Cannonball and wrote Grand Coolie Dam with it:
In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave
she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
of the day the Coulee Dam would cross the wild and wasted stream.
Wabash Cannonball was a hobo song, about the train that would take the hobo from the Traveling Nation to a better place, to the other side, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Grand Coolie Dam, of course is a whole different trip, yet they share a melody, and that’s OK by me. In Old Time music too, we see similar melodic ideas, and lyrical ideas as well, show up over and over again.