Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Gibson Goes Chapter 11

Elvis Presley and his Gibson J-200.

       How could you guys mess this up?  
     The most famous if not the greatest acoustic American folk instruments ever made were from the Gibson company, which was founded by Orville Gibson founded the company, circa1902 as the "Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Companyk Limited,  in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to make mandolin-family instruments. Gibson brought unprecedented craftmanship in American folk string instruments.   Gibson designed and manufactured high-end but affordable masterpieces.  They weren't just instruments, but industry icons such as  the F-5 Mandolin, Mastertone banjo, and the Les Paul electric guitar.  These are the instruments that everyone else copies.  Gibson also made a terrific acoustic guitars, though I wouldn't say that these guitars have the same iconic status as their other instruments, or at least the C. F. Martin company might want to contest it.  There are thousands of other instruments made by Gibson.
Bill Monroe and his famous Gibson Mandolin.  
The Les Paul, with Les and lefty Paul McCartney demonstrating, is one of the most popular electric guitars of all time, 
The Gibson ES-350 semi-hollow-body is forever associated with Chuck Berry.
Did you stupid accountants really destroy the quality of the B-25 by replacing the wood bridge with a plastic lookalike?  Yes you did.  
    Yet the business side was not as successful as the artistic side, apparently.  Faced with competition from low-cost mass production instruments from the Pacific Rim, American companies began to cut back, and there were noticeable dropoffs in quality from Fender, Martin and especially Gibson.  I worked as a guitar repair person at J.D. LaBash Music in Berea Ohio in the 1970s, and I remember one day taking apart a Gibson B-25 and to my shock and horror, the bridge was made of cosmetically disguised plastic (see the photo if you don't believe me). I absolutely couldn't believe it. This is absolutely impermissible because the bridge is part of the structure of the guitar and must withstand string tension in order to transmit vibrations to the top of the guitar.  Surely this was a forgery or a customer modification?  But no, J. D. explained that this was the modern business practice of Gibson. But that's not all.  I can further testify that almost every Les Paul I ever worked on from this era had a warped neck, which was probably caused by shortcutting the installation of frets on the neck, which results in inadequate stress relief. They also developed a new line of imported guitars using the Epiphone name which they apparently licensed from a rival.  This was really a throwaway instrument beyond belief.  All I can tell you is that the glues they used would pull apart after about a year under stress.  It was pathetic.
     I haven't worked in the field for years, but my impression is that the quality returned to Gibson and the other US manufacturers in the 1980s, after the MBA types were run off.  

     You can get higher quality instruments from very skilled small builders around the country, so professional musicians will always have options.  Gibson's Chapter 11 adventure causes us to ask, whether there there room for high-end mass produced instruments from America?  My heart tells me that there must be, though I confess I can't really evaluate the soundness of the business plan. I just can't believe that a company with this magnificent heritage could slide into bankruptcy.
     Scuttlebutt is that the company got in trouble with their business units having to do with high-priced musical electronics, and this was apparently not sound.  The company says it is going to return to its core competency to emerge from bankruptcy.  That sounds like the right strategy, and I hope it works.  

     As a folk musician, even one with very modest proficiency like me, it's not just a blip on the business page.  It's not just a company, but a major part of America's musical heritage.  It's inconceivable that they can mess this up.    

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Bury Me Beneath the Willow

So, why are these people so happy to be singing about deception, unfaithfulness, suicide, death and burial?  (Hey, isn't that Camilla Neideman and Peter Strömquist from Le Chat Mort, the Swedish fusionist group? I'd recognize that snare drum anywhere.  Well, if you have a jam, you never know who might show up. 😊)

"Bury Me Beneath the Willow" is a strange song.  People seem so happy when they sing it, even though the lyrics are about betrayal, suicide, death, burial and guilt.  But it is definitely a joyous song!

To understand why, the historical background might be helpful.  This song is believed to have been the first country music song ever recorded.  The Carter Family were the first superstars of country music and needless to say they had a huge and passionate fan base.   
This song, then, became a standard of American folk music, and so when it is played, everyone knows the lyrics and they know how to play it.  Hence at a jam, say with some intermediate skills, when this song is played everyone can join in so it's louder and more skillfully played.  We get reminded of the Carter Family, and what they meant to our grandparents and parents, so it's a very sentimental experience.  Plus it's catchy, and has a positive sound and beat to it. 

So it's not the case that the words don't matter, but the serious dark tone of the song is overcome by the positive memories associated with the song, and thus the bond that most of us feel to the song as well as with other musicians, our families and musical heritage.  Another song like that is "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."  Everybody knows it and loves it, even though the subject matter has to do with transporting a dead body.   

The Lonesome Meadow nails "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow"

OK so back to betrayal, suicide, death and burial, now that we have explained why these experiences make us happy.  Mother Mabel Carter attributed this song to Riley Kincaid, though probably she meant that the Carter Family learned it by hearing Riley's version.  It's possible that Riley actually composed the entire song, but the existence of varying words suggests that many musicians may have had a hand in it.  
     The Carter version (full text below) seems to be an amalgamation of at least two or three variants.  The presumption is that song lyrics make more sense when the song is written, and deviates as it is passed from one musician to the next.  That may not be true, but in any case the premise of the song varies from one verse to another. 
     The first verse lyrics are about a woman who has lost her true love due to death. But she looks forward to a future meeting in heaven where they will be reunited.
     However, the chorus suggests that both the singer and the singer's lover are alive, but the singer is planning to die soon.  Burial wishes are given. The suggestion is that death will make the lover feel sorry for her "perhaps he will weep for me."  The "perhaps" suggests that there is some doubt about the lover's attitude, so the singer may have been jilted by the lover. This theme is strongly confirmed in verses 2 and 3,Verse two seems to be a scathing denunciation of the young man's deceiving character, and verse 3 would suggest that the young man is not even worth getting upset over.  Good riddance!  But in the last verse, she seems to still be in love and hopes her death will cause the young man to feel differently.
    Well, young love is not always sensible, but it is also possible that one variant of the song dealt with the death of a lover, and then another version dealt with the rejection of a deceitful lover. It's a little unclear who rejected who.  These different themes are welded together in the song.  
   That gets us back to the original conclusion.  The lyrics may not make sense, and the rhymes might be a little strained, but the song is precious to American folk musicians, and we love to sing it together.  

My heart is sad, and I'm in sorrow
For the only one I love
When shall I see him, oh, no, never
Till I meet him in heaven above

Oh, bury me under the weeping willow
Yes, under the weeping willow tree
So he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he will weep for me

They told me that he did not love me
I could not believe it was true
Until an angel softly whispered
"He has proven untrue to you"

Tomorrow was our wedding day
But, Oh Lord, where is he?
He's gone to seek him another bride
And he cares no more for me

Oh, bury me under the violets blue
To prove my love to him
Tell him that I would die to save him
For his love I never could win

Monday, March 27, 2017

Guest Column by Tom Vardin, Travels from Guitar to Flugelhorn

Tom Vardin was one of my best friends circa grade 2.  How nice to have reconnected via Facebook! Please check out his amazing musical journey.

Makin' lemonade...

As many of my friends know, I have been living with progressive multiple sclerosis for 15 years and the hardest part has been the partial paralysis in my left hand, preventing me from ever picking up a guitar again...

But no matter. I immediately remembered when my Dad took me to see B.B. King when I was 11, already well on my way into guitar geekdom.  B.B. was great, of course, but the thing I think that impressed me most, as an 11 year old boy, was the fact that his trumpet player didn't have a left arm !
His suit jacket sleeve was tucked neatly into his left waist pocket!  I distinctly remember saying,  "If I ever get my left arm bit off by a shark, I'll just take up trumpet, you don't need a left arm for that!" 

Flash forward 34 years and, sitting in the waiting room after my 1st MRI, I thought, "Here we go, time to blow !"

So, yes, I was told that day, (my 45th birthday !) "You'll never play the guitar again !"

But I was one step ahead...

Trot myself down to Hermie's (3rd- rate music store,) plunk down a couple hundred bucks for a school band-quality trumpet..Now I already knew about "embouchure"(how to purse the lips and blow) as I played trombone in elementary school band, and of course, I knew theory from playing guitar 40 years, and, I must mention, the incredible Mr. Geitz - (high school theory teacher/Actual Saint - think "Mr. Holland's Opus") 

I "blew through" the beginner book and started accumulating what I called "little ditties," song fragments, passages, scale exercises, etc. And then I committed to learning​ a whole piece, something special. 

I selected an old song from the 20's (?) Called "She's me pal"
I transcribed it off a YouTube video from a movie called "Ironweed" (filmed here in Albany NY, featuring Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Tom Waits, written by Pulitzer prize winning Albany author, William Kennedy).  There's an amazing scene in the movie with Meryl Streep, as Helen Archer, a broken down homeless schizophrenic, and an old friend of the Nicholson character, gets up a tiny nightclub and sings, "He's Me Pal," and midway into her performance, her delusions give her the feeling she's a great star ! A stunning piece of acting by our first lady of cinema, and an outstanding directorial achievement by Hector Babenco...

It took a few weeks to nail it down, but soon I had my ditties, and a complete, reinvented "She's me Pal."

Just a few weeks later, I was invited over to a friend's place for dinner. He was a guitar enthusiast (of course) and I fumbled with a few of his nicer axes. He felt bad for me and gave me an decent acoustic he thought might be easier to play, although I explained​ it actually hurt a bit to even hold the neck.  Then, I saw that he had what looked like a trumpet case, and I inquired...

"Oh, that's my Flugelhorn...It's a really good one." I asked to try it. He asked that I be careful, but said okay.

I warmed up with a few ditties and then launched into my rendition of "She's Me Pal" which ends on a dramatic, very high note, indeed !

He seemed to prick up his ears, and declined my request that he blow a little in return...Just a few weeks later, my friend stopped by unannounced.  I inquired as to the nature of his visit, but I could see he had brought me the flugelhorn as a gift !

Epic win !

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Who is Colin David, and Where is He?

Back in 2011, some amazing videos appeared with a fellow named Colin David who played some really cool Leadbelly-esque songs.   I mean, Holy Cow, these are not easy songs. I'm very impressed by  what he was able to do. 

    Check out the Midnight Special:

The Midnight Special

     I also like this variant of House In New Orleans.  Leadbelly did the familiar version which has been recorded by many others, but also this variant version which has a different melody and some different lyrics:

Way Down in New Orleans

.     I've tried to track him down, without success.  All I know from his videos is that he used to play at McCleary's Pub in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.   I even called McCleary's but no one could identify him.  I kind of doubt whether Colin David is his real name, or at least I've not been able to find him via Google or the other usual search methods.  

    I wonder if it might have been tough to find an audience that appreciates Leadbelly songs in Lancaster County, but I would think the video medium is a perfect way to reach people all over the world.  
    I certainly hope that Mr. David will return to recording videos.  I think he's very talented and hope that the rest of the world will have the opportunity to listen. 
   Somewhere out there, I feel certain that one of you folks knows Mr. David, and I hope you'll let me know more about him and whether he's still out there playing Leadbelly songs someplace.   If you can shed light on this mystery, I hope you'll post a comment to this blog or get in touch with me some other way.    

Monday, February 27, 2017

Wintergrass 2017 a True Classic

Jam groups are the core of the Wintergrass experience. 

     Wintergrass 2017 was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue Washington, part of Greater Seatlle.  Ostensibly a bluegrass festival, this year's festival had a classical music undercurrent as exemplified by Mike Marshall & Caterina Lichtenberg peforming under the title, "Bach to Bluegrass." To make a long story short,  it worked marvelously well.  

There has always been a natural tension between classical music, which was developed with no small measure of assistance from the royal courts of Europe, and folk music, which was usually performed by commoners.  Hence classical music tends to be much more dignified and formal, while folk music tends to express what people really feel.  As an amateur musical scholar I was a been concerned about trying to mix the two genres.   Let us say, however, that these fears proved to be groundless, as they overwhelmingly approved of the Classical/Bluegrass fusion.   

Marshall and Lichtenburg played Bach on mandolin and mandocello, much to the delight of the audience.  They also showed the ability to incorporate blues and bluegrass into their playing, but their forte is certainly classical music.   This was maybe not what a hard core bluegrass fan would expect to hear, but this audience loved it.  

Marshall and Lichtenburg presaged the finale which was played by a youth orchestra playing alongside famous Bluegrass musicans like Tim O'Brien.   Truthfully, I thought Rocky Top played in an orchestral arrangement was way too tame and lacked the energy of the bluegrass version.    But, I was in a distinct minority, as the audience was completely delighted to hear some of their old favorites played by a talented orchestra.    Definitely talent and love overcame whatever musical inconsistencies may have existed.  

Nevertheless, I'll issue the following challenge to the youth orchestra leaders.  If you REALLY want to let the kids experience the folk style, you have to let them play without written music and without a conductor. Just play by ear and improvise.  I dare you to invite jam-meister Keith McManus to be the alpha fiddler for a jam with a classical orchestra.  They need at least one workshop to understand what a jam is and how it works (i.e., the AA/BB pattern; when to tone down to allow the vocalist to be heard; where the instrumental breaks come in and so on).   In fact, I double dog dare you.  I think it would be incredible to let the kids actually experience a jam on stage. It would definitely work, and will be a big success.  I triple dog dare you!

Wheeling's Tim O'Brien was one of the featured performers and definitely a highlight. Tim is a bit of a throwback in that he uses the Old Timey full voiced style but combined with original lyrics and fresh music ideas.  Not very many people could realize that soul artist James Brown can be played on a clawhammer banjo, but it's true.   Tim took turns on fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo (clawhammer style on a bluegrass instrument no less).   He's not only a brilliant musician, but also a wonderful commentator and story teller.  That was the best part about seeing him live, because he helps his audience to feel the song and the lyrics.  

Sierra Hull wowed the auidence with her powerful vocals and insane talent on the mandolin. Her set was backed up only by a double bass.  I'm not sure if that is simply the way she chooses to perform or whether she might have been short a band member or two.  I did think that I would prefer to hear other instruments in addition to the mando, though I must admit I haven't heard anyone play the mandolin like that in a long time, if ever.  

In addition to the featured performers, festival attendeeds bring their instruments and play in ad-hoc jams all up and down the hallways.  This music tended to be very standard fare; a lot of Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe.   Let's just say that the musicians in Bellevue are extremely talented and love bluegrass.  They are well worth listening to even if you don't go to the featured performances at all.  

Now some words about the venue are also important.  Most of the festivals I have been too are held in campgrounds, and cost very little money to attend.   I've been involved in organizing a few festivals, and the organizers have tended to be very concerned about meeting the needs of very poor folk musicians.  For example, the Worley Gardner Music Fest is held in Morgantown WV in a junior high school building every year, and there is no admission charge for musicians.  This causes the organizers to struggle to get volunteer labor and make money on concessions as a way of paying expenses.  I would rather just charge 5 or 10 bucks for admission which would cover expenses much more simply, but so far the organizers have succeeded in keeping free admission for musicians.    

That is an entire universe away from Winterfest, which is held at a five star hotel venue at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency.  Admission is going to run you over $150 dollars if you're a local, and if you're staying at the hotel, you're investing several hundred dollars.  But on the other hand, if you're a bluegrass fan, there are not a lot of opportunities to attend festivals in February.  This is a way for thousands of people to become rejuvenated musically the heart of winter.   It's also a perfect climate controlled venue for  instrument vendors turn out in force with instruments that can cost thousands of dollars. They might not be anxious to bring a $5000 hand made guitar to an outdoor festival and have it get rained on. I thought it was a major plus just to see the instruments even if you don't buy anything.  In particular, I struck up a conversation with Matt Thibeaux of Rayco, which specializes in resonator guitars and--get this---resonator banjos.  I was also shown a Hawaiian guitar which is played like a slide guitar.  To me that was a clear positive.

On the other hand, Bluegrass has always had a bit of a working person's edge to it.  To me, it's “three chords and the truth,” part of the social fabric of the commnity  Back before there was TV and air conditioning, neighbors would just come together after work with whatever instruments they had and make music for each other.  It was coal miners, ranchers, steelworkers and farmers rather than trained court musicians.  It may not have been great music, but there was a lot of love there.   I worry that perhaps a little might be at risk of being lost when it gets a little too monified.  For example, in Morgantown I'm used to the musicians sometimes randomly handing out musical instruments to people in the bar just so that they can get the feel of the instrument, and take an impromptu lesson even if they have never played in their life.  We just do that as a way of introducing people to the music.   By contrast a while back I went to a jam in Seattle which is held in a restaurant. But rather than perforrming for the people in the restaurant, they get a private room in the back to preserve their privacy.   Nevertheless, it was a terrifically talented jam.  I was very excited by that, and some months later got in touch with the jam leaders to see if someone could arrange for me to borrow some kind of guitar.  I was told very pointedly that I should go to a music store and rent an instrument and even though I was flying 2000 miles to attend their jam with my 90 year old father, they would not help me participate.  That's fine, it's their jam and I'm the visitor, so they don't have to share anything or even open it to the public, but that's when I finally realized it was a much different culture than I was used to.  And I never went back.  

But with that cautionary note, Wintergrass is definitely a rich musical experience, and it's a great musical mini-vacation. It's also a joy to see young people involved in it, and discovering a rich musical tradition.  In some ways, it's a bit unorthodox, but somehow a magical formula seems to have been discovered, and it works.  

Tim O'Brien was his usual spectacular self, with powerful vocals and an authoritative guitar backup

Monday, December 21, 2015

Leadbelly: Children Get So Happy on a Christmas Day

Thanks to Alan and John Lomax thoughtfully recording Leadbelly's introduction to his songs, we are given his comments about Childen Get So Happy on a Christmas Day.

Leadbelly tells about being a little boy and being visited by another boy, and hearing his mother say that "Christmas is a coming!"  The young Leadbelly became very excited by this news.  Perhaps he wasn't quite sure what it meant, but he wanted very much to know.  In Leadbelly's words,   

"So I grabbed the little boy by the hand and we went to the highest hill in my poppa's field...and I said, "I don't see no YOU?

He says, 'No, I don't see no Christmas!'

We come back to the house and we went to my Momma and said, 'Momma, we don't see no Christmas!'

She said, 'Well, it's a comin'!"

It makes me laugh to think about two little boys searching the horizon for a clue as to what this Christmas was all about.  The simple song is about being visited by a very special person and sharing the amazing event with family and friends.  It's not about having material goods at all.  

Incidentally the chicken crows at midnight, signifying the holiness of the day.  This tradition is also attested to by William Shakespeare in Hamlet Act 1 scene 1.  (see

Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,

Think I heard my momma said it's Christmas Day,
Think I heard my momma said  it's Christmas Day,

Think I heard my poppa said it's Christmas Day, 
Think I heard my poppa said it's Christmas Day, 

Old Santa Claus is movin' in on a Christmas Day
Old Santa Claus is movin' in on a Christmas Day

Chicken Crows at Midnight on a Christmas Day,
Chicken Crows at Midnight on a Christmas Day,

Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,

Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.
Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.
Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.
Children get out in the yard and swing on Christmas Day.

Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Children all get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Everybody get so happy on a Christmas Day,
Everybody get so happy on a Christmas Day,

....1000 additional verses.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bill Keith

     Bill Keith passed away, too soon. I remember back in the 70's he created a sensation in bluegrass circles by using the fifth string in a way that had never been done before. It used to be that the fifth string was almost never fretted and used mainly as a drone string to keep the rhythm going. But Bill decided to play way up on the neck of the banjo and use the fifth string to carry the melody as well as chromatic runs up and down the scales. Eventually the "chromatic" or "melodic" style (or "Keith" style) came to recognized as its own style, different from the Old Time that we play in West Virginia or the Scruggs style played in Kentucky Bluegrass. The first time I heard Keith style banjo played was at Jd LaBash's music store in Berea Ohio. I was awed by Devils Dream and other songs and I even learned to play a few songs.

     Bill influenced an entire generation of banjo players. I never met him, but from all I have heard he was modest and unassuming despite the fact that he was idolized as a folk icon.