Category Archives: musics

coming to grips with our lack of understanding

I was listening to a recent (July 14 2016) episode of Open Source as I walked yesterday, in which Greil Marcus was interviewed by Max Larkin about three songs (Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown, Geeshie Wiley and LV Thomas’ Last Kind Words Blues, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground) that Marcus has written a book around (Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations). A short segment seemed especially relevant to issues of art and creativity that I’ve been thinking about lately, so I transcribed it when I got home:

To me, works of art, whether they’re songs, whether they’re novels, whether they’re paintings, whether they’re movies, are fictions: they’re imaginative constructs that people create and then they inhabit and then they tell you stories from that position, as if they’re true. But they’re making things up, they’re lying. These things didn’t happen. And so the fact that Geeshie Wiley and LV Thomas were from here as opposed to there, that they lived at this time as opposed to that time, all of that is interesting and will tell you something about how these songs came to be musically as part of a tradition, but will not tell you anything about why the recordings they made, and especially Motherless Child Blues and Last Kind Words Blues, are absolutely unique, why there is nothing like them. That is because they had the tools and they had the will and the desire and the genius to be able to turn that into an artifact that we can listen to and say “who ARE these people?” and when we say “who are these people, we don’t mean “are they really from Houston?” which is where they were from, was LV Thomas really a lesbian, which she was was. That’s not what we mean by “who are these people?”. It’s like, “what is this ABOUT?” How can people DO these kinds of things? It’s our sense of awe in the face of great art. It’s a sense of coming to grips with our lack of understanding of how something so beautiful, so preordained, so unlikely, has come to be.

click to hear:

The sense of the sublime that inhabits the art that moves us (musical, graphic, narrative, photographic, whatever) is hard to pin down or distill into words. We knows it when we sees it, and that sense of knowing may or may not be transitive: others may not feel or apprehend or catch or get it. I’m aware of this feeling with every batch of photographs I process and put into my Flickr photostream—there’s an ineffable something that inhabits some images, often because of some imaginative construct that I’ve put onto them in capturing or processing. Sometimes there’s a story, either manifest or lurking under the surface. Sometimes it’s just a portent, or an allusion that only comes into focus within a set of images. Here’s one that produced that sort of frisson, though I haven’t yet imagined the narrative into which it might fit:



I have a checkered history of experiments with banjo-family instruments, the most recent episode of which features the current New Instrument, a rare bird indeed: a 1923 5-string plectrum Vega, just arrived from Gryphon in Palo Alto. It’s essentially a tenor banjo, but 5-course instead of 4-course, and with a longer scale (27″) than most tenors, and tuned lower. So perhaps a baritone.

I tripped over it on the Gryphon website, which I visit from time to time, usually about the time that a new issue of Fretboard Journal arrives (and of course I stop by Gryphon whenever I’m in Palo Alto).

Larry Chung plays the very instrument in this YouTube video:

(his approach is essentially plectral and tenorish; I tune it differently (GDGCF) and am exploring a fingerpicking style, derived from what I’ve been doing with the Apollonio cittern, which is tuned CGCFBb)

There’s pictorial evidence of former encounters with the family: a brief 5-string flirtation 1973, and the mandobanjo at Deep Gap 1979 (which started my own case of Mando Madness):

Brief Flirtation with the Banjo mandobanjo in Deep Gap NC, 1979

Also in the stable, and played occasionally, are Turkish cümbüş and a long-neck saz/tanbur, and I also have a very funky old friction-peg 5-string that has never been exactly playable (Jake Wildwood may be able to do something about that). And I once had a Silvertone 5-string, totally undistinguished.

At Any Price

Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records comes as close as anything I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot in this vein) to my own feelings and intuitions about musics, and then extends them into new territory.

With a few notable exceptions, blues music was rowdy and social, and its creators led brash, lustful lives. They drank and roamed and had reckless sex and occasionally stabbed each other in the throat. There was something incongruous about sitting in a dimly lit room, meticulously wiping dust and mold off a blues 78 and noting the serial number in an antique log book. Why not dance or sob or get wasted and kick something over? Some collectors, I knew, did exactly that, but for others, the experience of a rare blues record involved a kind of isolated studiousness, which of course was fine — there’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual or biographical details could help crystallize a bigger, richer picture of a song. But I continued to believe that the pathway that allowed human beings to appreciate and require music probably begins in a more instinctual place (the heart, the stomach, the nether regions). Context was important, but it was never as essential — or as compelling — to me as the way my entire central nervous system involuntarily convulsed
whenever Skip James opened his mouth. (pg 62)

Petrusich interviews a broad array of collectors for their perspectives and personal histories, and has a gimlet-eared instinct for the trenchant quote. Here’s Ian Nagoski on collectors, and more generally on dudes:

It’s dudes hanging out, relating to each other through objects. It’s such a manifestation of dude culture, where guys tend to gather and not talk about their actual lives, if they can avoid it, but instead refer to the engine of their car, or whatever third thing they can talk about. And then through the aesthetics of that, they’ll relate to one another and get a sense of whether somebody is trustworthy or not and if they can actually open up to them. It’s a compensation for all kinds of male skills that are supposed to be present in adolescence that may not be present, so you compensate with other things — the superiority of specialization in some arcane field Science-fiction nerds and baseball-card guys, motorheads. Wanting to talk about your sound system first and your marriage months later. But literally having a shared aesthetic experience of a particular style of speaker could be the foundation of a lifelong, very, very deep male friendship. (pp 184-185)

Rembetika again

Anthropologists are prone to connoisseurship of subcultures, appreciating niceties of identity and keeping weather eyes peeled for boundary-defining shibboleths. Lowlifes and marginal folk seem especially attractive, perhaps because they offer exciting alternatives to the bourgeois stolidity of the Buena Gente. In this realm I have more than 30 years of fascination with the Greek underworld of the re[m]betes and the musical genres grouped under the ‘re[m]betika/o’ rubric. Basic source materials include Gail Holst’s Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek sub-culture songs love, sorrow & hashish (1975) and Elias Petropoulos’ Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition (2000).

To assist your exploration if this is unfamiliar territory, there’s a BBC documentary:

and Music of the Outsiders

and Kostas Feris’ feature film Rembetiko (1983)
and literally hundreds of CD reissues of classic music from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Rembetika: Greek Music From the Underworld … or search ‘rembetika’ and ‘rebetika’ and ‘rebetiko’ and ‘rembetiko’ in Spotify or other streaming services.

Today I came across a really delicious vein of text in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, replete with the trademarked style for which he is celebrated. He’s describing two dance forms, hasapikos and zembekiko:

They are, in fact, the quintessence of fatalism and morose solitude, a consolation and an anodyne in individual calamity, and with the songs that accompany them create a hard metrical and choreographic counterspell. They have another black mark against them: they are linked with low life in refugee quarters, with drunken cellars and hashish-smoking dens and waterfront bars, with idle hours spent over the nargileh, and with a dandified trick of flicking those tasseled and time-killing amber beads. Traditionally they are accompanied by a sartorial style, now largely obsolete: pointed shoes, peg-top trousers held up by a red sash, the jacket worn loose on the shoulders with sleeves hanging ‚ and by twisted moustaches, a quiff falling over the forehead, and the cap aslant on the back of the head. With this goes a relaxed gait, a languid syncopated flick of the beads round the index finger held in the small of the back, a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, a faintly derisive smile, a poker face, an unflurriable deliberation of gesture and a dangerous ironic light in the veiled eyes. (pp 244-245)

Downright ethnographic, isn’t it? You really should just get the book and read it…

Musical Heroes continued: Sandy Bull

I don’t remember where or exactly when, but sometime in 1964 the needle dropped on Side A of Sandy Bull’s Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, the 21-minute “Blend”, and my musical world changed fundamentally and forever.

That profound lurch has happened a number of times (probably dozens), and I’m pleased to say it still visits from time to time. The phenomenon is an index of my immersion in music, and especially reflects my engagement with plucked strings. Generally it’s a matter of hearing some stylistic or technical nuance that is at the same time a mystery and a revelation: how do they do that dissolving into that’s what I want to do. I can grok the former without ever fully realizing the latter; the epiphany is almost enough, but often has driven my own musical experimentation.

If I could define a broader context for this very personal and idiosyncratic involvement, I would say that it is located in the Problem of Style and Innovation, and that I have a lifelong engagement with the outer fringes of styles and genres, where innovations are most likely to manifest themselves. To put it another way, the question of where {Sandy Bull} fits (substitute any innovator in the curly brackets) is often contentious for those most interested in the core values of a Style. Innovators seem often to be lone wolves, and sometimes they’re pretty lonely too, or at least more or less content to remain on the margins. My own pantheon of innovators includes misanthropes like John Fahey and Skip James, lost sheep like Sandy Bull, Nick Drake and Davey Graham, sheer originals like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Reverend Gary Davis, and monomaniac virtuosos like Bill Monroe, Clarence White, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Andy Statman… The point is not to make exhaustive lists, but to explore where the unique outcroppings of genius come from, and how they link up with (influence/are influenced by) existing Styles. Each of those dozen-odd colossi needs his own discussion/analysis/exposition, and I may eventually get to that…

But back to Sandy Bull. It’s always handy to begin with Wikipedia’s summary; a 2001 memorial piece by Derk Richardson No Bull / Remembering the father of multicultural fusion, guitarist Sandy Bull and John Robinson’s 2012 article Sandy Bull: the Sixties folk pioneer who burnt out too soon provide useful background information. And ‘burnt out’ is part of the tale: I only saw him once live myself, in 1971, and on that occasion he struggled for about 20 minutes to tune an instrument before essentially giving up. The 1976 “Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace” is a live concert recording after he’d been in rehab: he’s playing brilliantly, but it’s easy to discern that he’s shy and very uncomfortable with an audience.

His reasons for continuing to play alone, when all or most of his contemporaries have found their superstar niche in a band of some kind, are very simple. “You know I love to play with other people at some time or another, because that feeling of sharing the music is something you don’t get anywhere else; but as far as concerts and gigs go, if I can make a living alone I prefer to spare myself all those ego trips that usually go down within a band.” (John Coleman article, 1970)

Sandy Bull had a 4-record contract with Vanguard, and such things often go awry as real life intrudes upon a performer’s career trajectory. The five cuts on 1963’s Fantasias were pretty much unprecedented and the very definition of ‘eclectic’: Side A’s Blend (see above) was a 20-minute modal exploration on an open-tuned guitar (BADGBB), in collaboration with Billy Higgins (Ornette Coleman’s drummer at the time). Side B had a banjo rendering of tunes from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana:

an arrangement of William Byrd’s Non Nobis Domine, an excursion based in the Appalachian tune Little Maggie:

and a Gospel Tune using a Staples Family-style electric guitar:

YouTube has the whole 2nd and 3rd Vanguard records, and some of the 4th. By one reading, you can hear Sandy Bull’s deterioration; but by another (just as legit) reading, what you’re hearing in the 3rd and 4th is a collapsing 60s Zeitgeist, turning into the jarring social and cultural confusion of the early 1970s. Those who lived through it will probably know just what I mean…

The 2nd, Inventions (1964) really seems a continuation and evolution of Fantasias, a collection of bold experiments with various instruments (the oud was a rarity at the time, and Sandy Bull’s use of the instrument is very clearly influenced by Hamza el Din). [See a review of the 2009 CD reissue]:

Blend II

Gavotte No. 2 take 1:

Gavotte No. 2 take 2

Manha de Carnival:

Triple Ballade:

Memphis Tennessee:

The 3rd, E Pluribus Unum (1969) consisted of two side-long improvisations (before such ballsy excesses were common), probably most fully appreciated in an altered state of consciousness.

No Deposit No Return Blues:

Electric Blend:

The 1969 Live Improv for Oud is a gauge of what Sandy Bull sounded like outside of the studio setting:

Some of Demolition Derby (1972) is flat-out scary. The first 3 records had [to modern sensibilities, rather pretentious] liner notes by Nat Hentoff, but DD just lists the tracks by name, and the last cut is the 0:02 “Cheeseburger” (“…the name given by our ordnance boys for the largest non-nuclear bomb in Vietnam. One shot will clear a village the size of a football field.”) [ try if you really want to hear it]. The Wikipedia entry for the record is also worth a look, and it’s perhaps significant that only a few of the tracks are to be found on YouTube.

Gotta Be Juicy (Or It Ain’t Love):

Carnival Jump:

Sweet Baby Jumper:

For 15 years Sandy Bull released no new material, and seemed to be largely forgotten –but the same might be said for many acoustic musicians who came to prominence in the 1960s. He reappeared in the late 1980s with

Jukebox School of Music (1987), and Truth and Continuum for Guitar and Serious City

are evidence that he continued to evolve.

Of course there’s much more to the Saga, including his mother’s remarkable (even somewhat bizarre) career, and someday there may be a film or perhaps a biography to fill in more missing pieces. See Piero Scaruffi for another summary take.

‘Cept Old Bill

My collection of musics sprawls and continues to grow, and I’ve played around with all sorts of ideas for what to do with the riches, how to distribute them to audiences via radio shows I might do, books I might spawn, other media I might invade. Ten years ago, when I last started to assemble materials for an ethnomusicological farrago, YouTube didn’t exist; now practically anything you can imagine has a relevant video, so I’m thinking to combine that treasure trove with stuff I know (or, better yet, stuff I continue to be curious about).

The first project that occurred to me, in the form of a named collection, is a mandolin-centered compendium with the name ‘Cept Old Bill. I thought it would be interesting to begin with a tune written by Jethro Burns, which both honors and pokes a bit of fun at Bill Monroe, who is generally named as the Father of Bluegrass Music. The verses name a series of legendary mandolin players, basically saying for each “nobody does it better… ‘cept Old Bill”. So when I did a YouTube search for ‘Cept Old Bill one of the first results was this remarkable document. Not only do you see and hear Jethro Burns (who died in 1989), at the very end Bill Monroe himself puts in an appearance. :

There’s so much implied here, so many threads to follow. We might ask to see/hear each of the named mandolinists (YouTube is happy to comply), we might explore the Bluegrass genre (its origins, its evolution), we might wonder about the mandolins themselves. Each of these paths leads to further delights and questions, of course.

Let’s begin with Bill Monroe (1911-1996) himself. His Blue Grass Boys include many who are now famous in their own right, and serving as a Monroe sideman was a rite de passage for a couple of generations of banjo-, guitar-, and fiddle-players.

Steve Gebhardt’s 1993 film is a wonderful introduction to Bill’s world, though it emphasizes the mellow old dude rather than the famously irascible and demanding bandleader.

For some people, the lore of Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin is as fascinating as the music itself, and nobody tells it better, ‘cept Old Bill:

Pictures and stories abound.

As for Bill Monroe’s music, ‘Rawhide’ is probably the tune most familiar from the Monroe repertoire:

but Monroe’s innovations with the mandolin are even more interesting once one gets beyond the sheer drive of Rawhide. It’s been argued that Bill Monroe is one of the main links between Blues and Country/Old Timey genres:

[as a teenager] Bill also played with Arnold Schultz, a black blues musician, who became another major influence on his future music. He was given the chance to play guitar in Schultz’s band, thus incorporating something new into his awareness: the blues. “[Arnold] was a real musician,” reminisced Monroe, “and I thought it was an honor to get to play with him. There’s no colored man could play the blues with him, nobody in the world could play blues with that man.” (from, and see Keith Lawrence for more detail).

An example of the Monroe treatment of Blues, and a touch of the High Lonesome Sound too:

Get Up John is my candidate for the Most Rousing:

The mandolin is tuned to a cross-note Open D chord: F#A DD AA AD (where GDAE is standard mandolin tuning).

So it’s important to see Bill Monroe as an innovator with the mandolin, in the context of Country string bands, the ensemble groups in Southern/Appalachian traditions. It would be interesting to explore pre-Monroe mandolin, which is generally more melodic/less inclined to driving rhythm, but that’s a whole other project.

It’s useful to think of musicians in generational terms: younger players start as fans and emulators of older and established players, go on to make innovations in technique and repertoire, and in turn are followed by still younger players. Bill Monroe remains as a Gold Standard… but the problem with being the Father is that the Children are never content merely to emulate: they are pretty much driven to differentiate themselves by innovation. Exactly that process has happened with bluegrass mandolin: great honor is (still) paid to Bill Monroe as the Founder, but nobody aspires just to play exactly as he did.

Still, Bluegrass is essentially a classical form, the rules pretty clear about what is and isn’t Bluegrass, and while Bill Monroe was alive he wasn’t hesitant to express his opinion if he considered that somebody was deviating from the model and wasn’t playing Bluegrass. That ain’t no part of nothin’, he’d say. Shain Shapiro’s Bluegrass: A Theoretical Study provides more context, via interviews with a number of the Inheritors of the Monroe tradition.

Each of the instruments in the Bluegrass band (including the vocal –that ‘High Lonesome Sound’) has its own fascinating history of evolution and innovation, and players who began as straight-ahead Bluegrass players in or near the Monroe tradition have by now built their own legacies –but that too is a whole other project.

Here’s the Bill Monroe lineup when it included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise:

Here’s a version of ‘Cept Old Bill by Del McCoury and Sam Bush:

Sam Bush honors Jethro Burns

Mandolinists named in ‘Cept Old Bill: David Grisman, Sam Bush, John Duffy, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall, Norman Blake, Jesse McReynolds… each deserves an analytical page of his own, and there are a number of worthy Successors who would surely have been added if Jethro was still playing the tune: Frank Wakefield, Andy Statman, Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz…

Something of the wealth of possibilities (which I may reorganize and narrate more fully anon):

Mark O’Connor

Chris Thile

Chris Thile and Tim O’Brien play a Bill Monroe tune:

“The Greatest Improv Mandolin Solo Ever”: Chris Thile w. Mark O’Connor
at 1:40 Chris starts to improvise (through 4:15)

and here’s where it gets you in the band context, a long way from Monroe with Flatt and Scruggs:

Andy Statman

John Duffy

EMD with Grisman

DGQ 1980

EMD 2003 Quintet Reunion

EMD 1980s

DGQ 2006 first set

crosspicking demo

Jesse McReynolds

The basic organology of the mandolin turns out to be pretty complicated, and probably won’t fascinate all that many readers. The voice is exactly in the range of the violin: GDAE. Mandolin Café’s history covers the ground pretty well, but add Daniel Coolik’s piece, a page on A-model Gibson mandolins,’s lovely photos, Graham McDonald’s Mandolin Project, and finally listen to Dixie Michelle:

from the depths of memory

I’ve been reading in Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, most recently “The Moslem Wife”, and no doubt that brought this lyric to mind first thing this morning –a song I know from a 1952 Dunster Dunces record that I wish I could find again:

We never mention Aunt Clara
Her picture is turned to the wall
For she lives on the French Riviera
Mother says she is dead to us all

She used to sing hymns in the old village choir
She used to teach Sunday School class
At playing the organ she never would tire
But those dear days are gone now and past

With presents he tempted and lured her to sin
Her innocent virtue to smirch
But Aunt Clara was strong and she never gave in
'Til he gave her the keys to the church

They said that Hell Fire would punish her sin
She'd burn for her carryings-on
But just at this moment she's toasting her skin
In a villa near Old Avignon

We never mention Aunt Clara
But I think that when I grow up tall
I shall go to the French Riviera
And let Mother turn me to the wall

A bit of Googly diligence turns up other versions, which it’s probably just as well I didn’t encounter as a precocious 10-year old. One such, well worth your time if you are so inclined, boasts this explanatory verse:

So then on the organ she'd practice and play;
The preacher would pump up and down.
His wife caught him pumping her organ one day
And that's why Aunt Clara left town. 

Honeymonstercxix, channeling Hamish Imlach, bless him, knows that one:

…and there are others that may be of interest is Honeymonster’s oeuvre too.

And there’s more backstory, assigning the original to Ruth and Eugene Willis ca. 1936, further elaborated and perhaps inspired by Irene Adler, of Sherlock Holmes fame. Or not. Perhaps Library of Congress has the last word. Or not.