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.

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