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.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stacker Lee (Stag O'Lee) Blues

          On Christmas Day 1895, "Stack" Lee Shelton fatally shot William Lyons in Bill Curtis' saloon after an argument in which Shelton first crushed Lyons' hat, after which Lyons retaliated by snatching Shelton's Stetson.   After shooting Lyons, Shelton simply picked up his hat and left.  Later, however, he was arrested, and convicted after a sensational trial which was widely covered in the press.
            From this tragedy, several songs were written, including this version by Mississippi John Hurt.   Mississippi John Hurt was an interesting story in his own right.   He was known to music historians like John and Alan Lomax, who had included  a few of his songs recorded in the 1920s, in their 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music.  No one knew what had happened to old John, but in 1963, a music historian by the name of Tom Hoskins decided to travel to a rural town called Avalon Mississippi, since Mississippi John had recorded the "Avalon Blues."  Perhaps people in Avalon might know something about the enigmatic musician.  
Amazingly, not only did people remember John Hurt, but he was still alive, making a modest living by farming.   Not only that, but John Hurt had a broad repetoire of songs that no one had ever heard before, and to top it off he was a warm, funny "country philosopher" of sorts, and an absolutely terrific performer that crowds of paying customers adored.  In his last years he was finally given some of the acclaim he richly deserved. 
   Mississippi John  tells a fanciful story about Shelton and Lyons, which is recored on youtube (John Hurt's story about Stacker Lee).   In John's account, the confrontation between the two men occurred at a card game after robbing a coal mine, perhaps even inside the coal mine itself.  Initially Lyons did not initially recognize Stacker Lee Shelton, but at some point realized that he was about to be killed and begged for his life.  From the standpoint of historicity, the account of Mississippi John Hurt is further removed from the historical event that the newspaper and trial records, but it makes for a good song.  
    As far as the name is concerned, the song is known under a variety of permutations, includding Stagolee, Stack O'Lee and dozens of others.   But there is little down that Lee Shelton was a historical person, and moreover it was the opinion of the Lomaxes (who were the pre-eminent American folk music historians of the past century) that he took his nickname after a riverboat, the Stack Lee, which was notorious as a house of prostitution.  Doubtless the other permutations occurred later on, especially because the rhythm of the song demands a two syllable first name.    
    He was a bad man, Stack Lee.  

Mister Police Officer, how can it be?
You arrested everybody but you never got Stack O' Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O' Lee, "Please don't take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin' lovin' wife"
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

"What I care about you little babies, your darlin' lovin' wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I'm bound to take your life"
That bad man, cruel Stack O' Lee

Boom Boom. Boom Boom
with the forty-four
When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin' down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O' Lee

"Gentlemen of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stack O' Lee killed Billy de Lyon over a five-dollar Stetson hat"
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

And all they gathered, hands way up high,
at twelve o'clock they killed him, they's all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O' Lee

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dance You Hippies, Dance

   Dance You Hippy (Hippie) Dance is a delightful song concocted by Tim O'Brien and Jesse Lamb, well known to the Morgantown Old Time scene for his other sogs such as "Let's Go Hunting," most famously performed by Keith McManus and crew at the Wednesday Night Jam at the Morgantown Brewing Company.  

    Dance You Hippy Dance is based upon an old fiddle tune known variously  as Brown Eyed Rabbit or Big Eyed Rabbit.   Doubtless it comes to us from Scotland or Ireland as a foot-stomping fiddle melody and probably the lyrics were added in America in the 19th or early 20th century, but I have no direct proof of that process.  

   Tim and Jesse have created a great variant, with a catchy refrain. I can imagine that at a wedding or bar setting, this song might get everyone up and dancing, kind of an Old Time version of the Electric Boogie.         

     The video shows shows both young and old playing music, dancing and having fun.  It's not some kind of fantastic clever dance, just a simple improvised shuffle that virtually anyone can do  
     That really is the way that this music and dance are passed down from one generation to the next.   At our jam there are at least 4 families with multigenerational representation (the Shanks with Bob and Robert;  the Eddy's with papa Richard and daughters Rachel and Libby; the Halls with Mike and Mitch;  and the McManuses with Keith and Shane).  

You see?  The family what plays Old Time together, stays together! Where else do you find kids and parents partying together like this? That is part of the unique appeal of Appalachian music and culture. 

If Tim and Jesse will permit me one editorial suggestion, however, I would sing "Dance you hippies dance" which in other words encourages everyone to dance, just like in the video.  If there is just one "hippie"   we are left to imagine that there may be only one particular guy being asked to dance. But okay.    

     Another thing that I thought was cool about the video is the bagpipes player.  In Old Time music, we usually do not have a bagpipes player, but somehow, musically speaking, we all have Scottish Irish ancestry, and there seems to be some dormant gene that is activated by bringing in a bagpipes.  On rare occasion we have been fortunate enough to have  a bagpipe player in the Morgantown jam.  It brings an audience to its feet, absolutely spectacular if done well.  

A Part:  A A A D   
              D A A E    E A

B Part:  A E E A 
              A E E A 

Dance You Hippy Dance by Tim O’Brien and Jesse Lamb ©2013 No Bad Ham Music / ASCAP / administered by Bluewater Music.

Yonder comes a hippy, how you think I know?
See that long hair hangin’ down, smell patchouli oil
Dance you hippy dance, dance you hippy dance
Dance you hippy dance, dance you hippy dance

Once I was a hippy back when I was young
I still dance the same way, I still dance in tongues

Do you have a hackie sack, are you wearing dreads?
Follow Yonder Mountain? You heard what I said

Do you go to Delfest, Hardly Strictly too?
In between is Telluride, bring your hula-hoop

Dirk is on the fiddle, Michael’s on the flute
Johnny’s on the guitar, but where’s my hula hoop?

I love this little farm girl, she dance the best she can
Through her daddy’s wheat field, I call her “Kansas Jan”

I knew her for a long time, but now she lives with me
In the town of Nashville, call her “Janessee”

(Swing, cha-cha-cha, huckelbuck,
noodle dance, swim to Atlantis now
get up offa that thing, and feel better,

I dress in a special style, flannel derby weird
I call it “Lumbersexual”, grow a big old beard

If you’re up in Glasgow, here’s what they all say
If you like good dancin’, look for Molly Mae

(Dance in your own style)

Yonder comes a hippy, how you think I know?
See that long hair hangin’ down, smell patchouli oil

Recorded Groundhog Day 2015, Gorbel’s Sound, Glasgow Scotland
Jim Neilson engineer
Mixed by David Ferguson at the Butcher Shoppe, Nashville

Dirk Powell – fiddle
Michael McGoldrick – whistle
John Doyle – guitar
Jan Fabricius – mandolin and vocal
Tim O’Brien – banjo, bass and vocal
Dance You Hippy Dance video filmed and edited by Graham Maciver