Blind but Now I See

Blind but Now I See is Kent Gustavson’s biorgraphy of the late Doc Watson. When I read about this book I was very much looking forward to it because I’ve been listening to and enjoying Doc Watson’s music for many years. I think my introduction to Doc and his son Merle was on the old Folk Ways and Folk Music radio show on CJRT Radio here in Toronto. That must have been the late 70s or early 80s. Host Joe Lewis introduced me to the music of many performers.

The book starts off with pages of accolades about Doc Watson. I thought it was overkill – I figure if you’re reading this book, you know. There are many photographs, which I appreciated, and also many illustrations, each of which is credited c. Kristina Tosic. This over-crediting was a little much. Having some illustrations was nice – you don’t see that so much these days – but I was more interested in the text.

Doc Watson was playing rock-a-billy on a Les Paul electric guitar when he was “discovered”, and only reluctantly switched over to acoustic guitar. The degree to which his career was steered toward traditional music to take advantage of the “great folk music scare” was fascinating. He was even coached on what tunes New Yorkers might be interested in. Watson was discouraged from playing some of the other more citified music he enjoyed, knew, and wanted to play, and it wasn’t until the Southbound recording with his son Merle that they played some of this other music. The music industry wanted us to think Doc Watson was playing traditional mountain music that was in the air around Deep Gap NC, and while this may have been true to some degree, it turns out that Doc Watson learned a lot of his repertoire by listening to records. Authenticity was an attractive attribute of this music to urban folkies, but even in this genre, audiences were being sold a story line. This doesn’t diminish Watson’s accomplishment. He was a remarkable performer, singer and guitar-picker.

This biography also provided a glimpse into a troubled Merle Watson, who struggled with substance abuse for years. I really knew little about Merle beyond his playing – but really it was just a glimpse we were offered. In fact in general, I learned more facts – the plot line of their lives – than I really learned about the people. I guess that’s the challenge with biography. Often when I read a biography I’m left with a feeling of something missing. It’s really difficult to capture the complexity of someone’s life, their thoughts and emotions and motivations.

If you’re interested in Doc Watson’s music and all that folk music history, this is an enjoyable, informative and readable account.

Hurdy Gurdy time at 27th Street

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any hurdy gurdy music here. Time to change all that. Here’s Matthias Loibner…

If it seems like a confusion and complicated instrument, that’s because it is. Here’s a great demonstration of how these beasts work..

How about a hurdy gurdy duet with a diatonic button accordion? Fantastic!

I seriously considered learning the hurdy gurdy (not to mention the French bagpipes and the garmon) but was saved from that improvisational adventure by the 5 string banjo which came along in the nick of time.

Folk music and originality

In folk music, it’s expected that songs get retreaded in all kinds of ways. Melodies get recycled with different lyrics, and similar bits of lyrics find their way into a host of different tunes. How many tunes share “six white horses in a line” or “dig my grave with a silver spade” and so on? When we own songs together, it’s all good.

Woody Guthrie was a guy who freely applied new lyrics to melodies that have been kicking around for a long time. The first example that comes to mind is Tom Joad. It shares a melody with John Hardy. One song is about the Steinbeck character and the other is about an outlaw. Another example I quite like is Grand Coulee Dam, which shares a melody with Wabash Cannonball. One song is about damming a wild river to provide electricity to the Pacific Northwest and the other is about the legendary train that takes hobos to a better life over yonder (maybe that’s the Big Rock Candy Mountain?). Grand Coulee Dam has some great lyrics – In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray, men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave – though she tore their boats to splinters, she gave men dreams to dream of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasteful stream. Of course, today we see all kinds of problems with damming our wild rivers, but for now let’s keep this in the context of the times.

Here’s Arlo Guthrie singing his dad’s tune…

And here’s Roy Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys

In my mind, both are equally legitimate tunes that share the same melody.

Today, this can’t happen without a lawsuit, and in the pop music world there have been loads of them. You stole my tune! Everybody wants to be original, but at the same time, everybody shares the same two or three or four chords. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain illustrate this beautifully with their piece, Fly Me off the Handel…

More examples? Think about how many tunes you know that are really some version of the shave and a hair-cut – two bits rhythm we usually refer to as the Bo Diddley rhythm?

Just sayin’.

So next time you hear about some mega-pop star suing another for ripping off a lick, consider that there may be dozens of tunes going back decades that use the very same melodies, rhythms, harmonies and so on. As someone who is immersed in various folk music traditions I say don’t sweat it. My Sweet Lord and He’s so Fine may share a melody, but in feel and spirit and content they’re miles apart.

Old Time vs old time

The musical focus of this blog has shifted somewhat this year. Although it has long reflected my general interest in what I jokingly call folky-dolky music, I had been focusing on the button accordion, because that is the instrument I was playing. Somehow or another I began romancing the banjo, and back around Christmastime, I made my first oil can banjo and started teaching myself to play in the manner known as clawhammer or frailing. Since that time, the music I’ve shared and written about here has had a lot more to do with banjo than button accordion. This isn’t to say that I have lost interest in button accordion music – not at all. It’s simply that my current infatuation with the banjo, particularly the open-backed banjo, is infectious and I can’t help but share it.  It could be simply coincidence that this shift has coincided with a decided drop in interest and comments on this blog (that’s my story folks, and I’m sticking to it).

I realize that I have thrown the term Old Time music around freely in the past several months, and some people may think I mean old time, without the caps. I should be clear that by Old Time, I’m talking about a genre of music, one that was called Old Time, even when it wasn’t so very old. I don’t mean old time in the generic sense, like this is music that old timers enjoyed, although this is sometimes the case. So what is this Old Time music anyway?

If we are to believe Wikipedia, the label dates to 1923, a record company called Okeh and a performer named Fiddlin’ John Carson. It figures that a record company would be involved. To quote the entry in Wikipedia, “Okeh, which had previously coined the terms “hillbilly music” to describe Appalachian and Southern fiddle-based and religious music and “race recording” to describe the music of African American recording artists, began using “old-time music” as a term to describe the music made by artists of Carson’s style.”  Old Time is dominated by rural dance music, music for clogging or buck-dancing or flat-footing, or square dancing. It also includes some ballads and solo or band music not specifically for dancing, but let’s not make things seem even more confusing. Old Time is often played by groups called string bands on instruments including fiddle, banjo (usually open-backed rather than resonator, but not always), mountain dulcimer, acoustic guitar, and sometimes bass.

All that said, it is a loose genre. Is Ottawa Valley fiddle music Old Time? I’d say so. Is Newfoundland button accordion music Old Time? That’s harder, but I’d say no. How about Cajun music? Let’s keep that separate, even though there are plenty of similarities. There are lots of regional styles that have their own characteristics. Some people will tell you that Old Time means Appalachian but it would be hard to exclude New England Contra Dance music or Texas Old Time music and so on. There are folks who will tell you that Old Time music is more strictly Appalachian or that the centre of the Old Time universe is Mount Airy in NC and Galax in Virginia. I love that music, but I choose to stick with a broader definition.

Here’s a fun video featuring some Old Time clogging or flat-footing.

Now here’s April Verch demonstrating Ottawa Valley step-dancing – a little different, but I think we’re talking the same language here.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I go on about Old Time music. I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of the Old Time standards on banjo. There is quite an extensive catalog of tunes that lots of players know and these have become the basis of jams. Within the broader matrix of this music, there are a variety of approaches to playing the banjo. I’d say that some of these are regional, and some are more individual. These styles have to do with how you pluck or strike the strings. I’m learning clawhammer, but there are also two-finger and three-finger approaches.

Clawhammer is a style in which you make your picking hand into the shape of a claw (more or less), and attack the strings by striking them with the nail of your index or middle finger, downward. Clawhammer is played on a 5-string banjo. The fifth, or short string is normally played as a drone, and you use your thumb to pick the drone string.  When I started learning this, I found it to be very awkward and I thought, man I’ll never get this. If you look at teaching videos on YouTube, some teachers will strongly urge students to do nothing but try to sound a single string and the drone string in a simple rhythm (known as bum-ditty) for a week or two until the student gets it right. That is probably a good approach. Once you get used to the basic way of making sounds, it gets a lot easier, but it takes time to get your hand used to the motion.

Here’s Kurt Sutphin, a player from North Carolina. In this video, he’s interviewed by David Holt and then plays a tune called Sugar Hill. He’s playing a fretless banjo here. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless.

I think it would be really interesting to study all the different styles and tunes that fall under the broad Old Time umbrella, but I bet it would a mind-bending life’s work. I’m learning as I go, and I’m having a great time listening to many players and approaches.

Some thoughts on music, learning and busking

It’s important to me to not stop learning. Music is one activity I started really flirting with after I turned 40 and I started playing the button accordion. How hard could it be, I reasoned. There are only 31 buttons on the right side of a triple-row button accordion. Never mind that different notes sound when you push or pull air through the reeds using the bellows. Never mind that there are two sides and you need to get your hands operating independently. Never mind that feeling somehow emerges through the bellows-work.

My learning on the button accordion really started to accelerate when I started busking. What a fascinating experience. The people around you are going about their business and there you are, busking, trying to capture the attention of passers-by. There are a few things going on. Among the first thing I learned was that the performance was as important as the chops. In other words, the most skilled musicians aren’t necessarily going to be great buskers. I learned to choose my audience and make eye contact, smile, nod and play for people as if they were the most important people on earth. Kids especially love buskers. When kids came around, I liked to squat down to their height and play something lively and danceable. I don’t know how many times kids would approach and want to press the buttons of my squeezebox and catch a second of the magic of making sounds come out. Parents would usually discourage this, but I never did. What a privilege to share the magic!

The most popular buskers were those who strummed a guitar and sang recognizable pop hits. In particular, I noticed that buskers who played “classic rock” always did exceptionally well. One of the reasons I took up the button accordion though was that I was tired of that material. I’m not being critical of it. I just wanted to learn about and play something different. I had a couple tunes in my busking repertoire that did get recognized. One was a squeezebox version of the old folk tune from the Bahamas, Sloop John B. Most everybody thought it was a Beach Boys tune because they recorded a popular version of it in the 60s (much like how many people think House of the Rising Sun is a pop tune by the British group The Animals). I was familiar with the tune from some field recording I had on CD of a group of spongers singing a capella.

Here are Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster performing House of the Rising Sun from 1933

The other tune I liked to play busking that was recognized a surprising number of times was a Newfoundland waltz called the Star of Logy Bay. People would come up to me and thank me for playing it and tell me it reminded them of back home. Here’s a video I’ve shared before – Candy Minx shot this footage of me playing Star of Logy Bay in front of Tom’s Place in Kensington Market.

A played a crazy assortment of material, including traditional Portuguese folk tunes, a Cajun tune or two, a Finnish polka, some Newfoundland tunes and even a Swedish schottische. One day I was playing at St. Lawrence Market and some fellow approached me and asked me if that was a Swedish tune I was playing. That was the only time that tune was recognized.

When you’re busking, many musical sins may be forgiven. Most people are walking past, not sticking around like at a concert. I learned to keep the rhythm at all costs. No matter what else happens, if your left hand is solid rock and the rhythm rolls along like the evening train, you’re fine. Mess up the rhythm and it’s a disaster. Sometimes I would be playing and something would distract my attention. Believe me, busking in a busy market there are many distractions. Something would catch my attention and suddenly the thought would percolate through my little brain that I don’t even remember what song I was playing. The experience is like those Roadrunner cartoons when the coyote finds himself running over the edge of a cliff. He doesn’t fall until he realizes there’s a problem here. I’m heavier than air. So what do you do? Play a chord that sounds like an ending and immediately start in on another song, just as if you planned the segue. I was amazed that when some disaster like this occurred and I simply carried on with all the confidence I could muster up, it appeared that nobody noticed my blunder.

I should have been satisfied to have developed some level of proficiency at the button accordion. I didn’t plan to take up another instrument. I blame banjos on my brother Salvelinas Fontinalis, who started quietly learning a few clawhammer banjo tunes (is it possible to quietly learn banjo tunes?) some time ago. How fascinating. I’ve long been a fan of old time music but it hadn’t occurred to me to try to play it until my brother started plunking away. Not that anyone has actually heard him play and made it out alive to tell about it. Then I thought, well hell, it only has 5 strings, how difficult can it be? And so, at 52 I’ve taken up the banjo.

I don’t have any illusions of becoming a great player, but on the other hand, I’m going about learning the instrument with vigour and lots of practice time, and I can hear my playing getting better all the time. As I’m learning more and more tunes (they are very slowly sticking to my brain….keeping a load of songs in my memory was a challenge on the button accordion too).  I’ve mentioned before that lately I’m starting to think that I need to find a fiddle player, and I can’t seem to shake that idea. I think I need to find either a fiddle player who, like me, is learning – or a player with plenty of patience for a guy who doesn’t have the entire old time songbook at the tip of his clawhammer fingers.

I like to try new things, and as many of my friends will tell you, when I start learning something, I tend to jump in with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. For me it’s a great joy to keep learning. I can tell you that learning clawhammer is easier for me than learning button accordion was. Maybe it’s because now I have some musical background and I’m simply learning a new machine. I hope that’s the case, because there are other instruments I’d like to learn too, such as the hurdy-gurdy or the clarinet. For now though, I’m concentrating on clawhammer banjo and I’m having the time of my life learning it. It’s easy to put in the practice time when playing brings you truckloads of joy.

Happy Canada Day

Let’s celebrate Canada Day by listening to a selection of Canadian folk music.

I’d like to start with a tune I’ve posted before (not this again, I’m sure you’re thinking). It’s Ward Allen from the Ottawa Valley performing his masterpiece, Maple Sugar.

Don’t worry, just because I’ve been playing banjo a lot, it doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the squeezebox. I stumbled into this gem – Tony Blanchard playing French Newfoundland music.

Now here’s Calvin Vollrath – who lives in Alberta and plays Metis style fiddle – playing a tune he composed called Natalie MacMaster’s. He’s joined on-stage here by Natalie MacMaster herself. What a delightful performance!

If you ever get a chance to see Yves Lambert perform, don’t miss it! Here’s Ti Get-Up Charlie

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a classic piece by the late Stompin’ Tom, who we sadly lost this year. Here’s Bud the Spud.

Needle Case

I thought I knew a lot of old time fiddle tunes. After all, I’ve been listening to folk music for a very long time. Lately though, I’ve been listening to the music in a different way, since I’m trying to learn to bash out a few tunes on the oil can banjo.

Needle Case is a song I only recently came across, although it’s clearly a common one in banjo circles. I don’t know anything about the history of the song or how it came to have such a peculiar title. It’s a lovely tune though.

Here are Larry Toto and Gail

The Can

I’ve started messing about with my home-made oil can banjo, which here-to-for I will simply refer to as The Can. Although I’m convinced it will be easier when I’ve grown my nails out a bit more, I’m starting (and I mean just starting) to be able to strike the string I want to strike. When I hear how clearly some players can enunciate their notes with the clawhammer approach, I realize I have a lot of practice ahead of me. The can has a short-scale neck which really means it likes to be tuned in an open A instead of G, and that’s fine by me. I see there are other tunings some people use in general and on specific tunes, like sawmill tuning (whatever the hell that is) and double C tuning. I’ll just ignore that for now and start with an open A tuning and work on building some skills. I’ve been looking at a bunch of tabs (it seems regular notes aren’t good enough for banjo pickers so they use tabs) and listening to accompanying clips and trying to play bits and pieces. As I familiarize myself with the fretboard and begin to get used to the various pull-offs and hammer-ons and slides that characterize old-time banjo music, I’ll try to focus on a song or two. One of the things I want to do eventually is incorporate slide into the whole business and to that end I have an 11/16th socket that fits nicely on my chunky baby finger.

On YouTube, there must be hundreds of guys out there all hustling lessons and tabs and dvds and whatnot, including all kinds of free stuff. Even with my limited exposure to this material, it’s clear that some is much much better or at least more useful than others. Imagine, people learned to play music for thousands of years without YouTube. In the longer run, its biggest value to me will be the opportunity to see scads of players in action.

I will try to avoid growing a bushy white beard and developing a taste for corn liquor along the way, but anything can happen.




Music from Azerbaijan

I don’t know very much at all about this music, but I’ve been listening to quite a few videos on the YouTube machine featuring the garmon, and I’m fascinated by the sounds.

How to play the Hurdy Gurdy

Here’s Melissa the Loud also giving a demonstration

She has a website too. I really appreciate her love of the less loved instruments and I think you’ll enjoy visiting her site.  If you’re a folk music freak like me, be sure to check out her links page while you’re there.

Ms. Loud mentioned Nigel Eton….here he is