Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Baritone 12 String Guitar

             What a scary experience.  

     There I was, at the Trolley Stop Old Time Jam in Dayton, playing as best I could with my friends.  In the audience was  Dan Gellert, who is an absolutely terrific and highly respected professional musician, playing  fiddle, banjo and who-knows-how-many other instruments.  

This is Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert, who showed up spontaneously at the Trolley Stop in Dayton to give a concert before the normal jam, just to amuse themselves.  They are so talented that I'm terrified of both of these fellows. Photo credit:  http://twitter.com/katysteinmetz/status/213080359225655299/photo/1

     Well in the middle of a jam  song, up comes Dan on stage and places his ear right on my guitar!   OK Dan, you got me! I was ready to confess, that yeah, I really don't belong up here with the other people that are really good.  Don't call the cops, I'll go quietly...

    But instead Dan says, "Wow, that is really cool.  How do you have your guitar tuned?"

    I breathed a sigh of relief.  I wasn't going to be evicted after all.  "It's a baritone tuning, B E A D F# B .  Some of the Old Time guys used to use this tuning....Pete Seeger got it from Leadbelly..." and we wound up having a nice chat about weird guitar tunings.  Dan even sat in with us a little bit.  That is really something, after he had played with the legendary Ry Cooder, so I guess he doesn't mind playing with real people.   

 Now why would anyone want to tune their guitar so dadburn low? 

    I learned how to play in jams in Morgantown, mainly at the  Morgantown Brew Pub Wednesday Night Jam, and  Percival Pickers .  Often we would have around six or eight guitar players, so I wanted to be able to add something a little bit different than a boom-chuck boom chuck accompaniment. 

     The late Harry Lewman turned me on to the baritone 12 string in this great lecture on Leadbelly's guitar, which I previously linked in an article about Leadbelly elsewhere in this blog.  Others, notably Pete Seeger also picked up on the baritone 12 and adapted it for their own sound.
    Here is a clip of Pete Seeger playing a Martin baritone 12, accompanied by Arlo (Alice's Restaurant) Guthrie:

      You have to restring the instrument with heavier gauge strings, and there are some tricks to it.  Basically what I do is buy the D'Addario light gauge 12 strings,   Then I put the B strings where the E strings should have been at 1-2; the wound G string goes to 3, the .010 string goes to position 4; D strings go to 5-6, A strings go to 7-8, and E strings go to 9-10.  Then you have to buy heavier strings for 11-12, which are ordered online.  The net result is that the strings are B =.014/.014, F# = .023w/.010 D = .030w/.012, A = .039w/.018, E =  .047w/.027w B = .056w/.036w (next time I may bump up the bass B string a tad).  The tension will be about the same as with your "normal" guitar tuning, and your guitar will not implode as long as you buy a halfway decent guitar (Yamaha makes one of the best moderately priced 12 strings, but there are several really good ones out there).    Even though these strings are fatter than the normal strings, they are at lower tension, so the stress on the neck is no higher than the normal strings with the normal tuning.  The main issue is that the grooves in the nut may need to be widened to accommodate larger diameter strings.

     Tuning is a bit problematic because the low B string really wants to be longer.  As a result it plays sharp as you go up the neck. What I do is to press the string to the third fret (D), and use the Snark tuner to get that note right on, such that it plays a little flat in the open position and a little sharp further up the fretboard. You have to compromise, or else have a custom built guitar with a saddle that sits a bit farther back for the bass strings. 

   The chord positions are the same as the usual guitar, but of course you have to transpose 5 half steps in order to come to the  real world tuning.  

     But the real key is the playing style.  In my case, I am usually playing backup for some musicians that are at a much higher level than I am.  So I don't go crazy; i'm just trying to hit the right chord more often than not.  But every once in a while I substitute a Leadbelly progression in place of the standard Old Time or bluegrass  tag.  In the key of G, for example:

Standard:  GAB_BDEDG
Leadbelly:  GGBBDDEEG 

I try to be careful with it, and not overdo it.  In the baritone tuning it's easy to use this tag in the (real world) key of D, so our finger position is G.  For G as well as C,  a bass run can be a full octave lower than the other guitar players because they are starting on the 5th string, while we are on the 6th string. That can be kind of cool sometimes. 

The real sucky chord is F, which obliges us to use the finger position for b-flat.  However, one of the compensating advantages of the 12 string is that you can play two strings and it sounds okay because of the octave strings.  So I usually play 1st fret on the  5th string, and open on the 4th string.  So with this cheat, you can play the b-flat position (real-world F) with only one finger.  

Now that isn't so hard is it? 

To get an idea how the baritone 12 string can play off the "normal" 6 string, check out this clip from this movie about Leadbelly:   


      Be advised that the music is not authentic Leadbelly at all, and it's actually two white guys supplying the music.  In the movie, the young Leadbelly is played by Roger Mosely, but the guitar playing is from the very white Artie Traum.  As a young man, Leadbelly plays the 6 string guitar, but one day he meets an old master who teaches him a few things about the baritone 12 string.  The old guy, believe it or not, is Dick Rosmini, a white 12-string guitarist that they made up to look like an African American (sort of.  At least he's better than Al Jolson).   But if it's not the Leadbelly sound (other than the tuning)  it is very, very good music.  Dick Rosmini played an incredibly clean 12 string, as further evidenced by the following:


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Elmer Rich and His Old Time Music Time Machine

    In Morgantown West Virginia, Elmer Rich is a legend.  Elmer comes from a musical family you now.  Elmer's Uncle Sanford Rich wrote a popular song called Colored Aristocracy, which was famously played when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to Arthurdale WV circa 1936. Arthurdale was a resettlement community for persons displaced during the Great  Depression, a project that the First Lady promoted.  Musicologist Charles Seeger (father of Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger) recorded the Rich Family for the Library of Congress (AFS 3306 B2).    I had heard this story several times,and in fact you can here old Elmer tell this story himself, at the 2008 Fiddler's Contest in Morgantown....

          Other comments are from Tom O'Brien. 

Amazingly enough, the event was caught on an old newsreel, and you can see Elmer and his fmaily playing the same song for the First Lady. According to notes from Centrum.org ( http://centrum.org/2012/06/elmer-rich-plays-for-eleanor-roosevelt/),  Elmer is playing the mandolin rather than the fiddle.  Elmer's Dad Harry is fiddling, and Elmer's brothers are on banjo and guitar. 

Elmer told me that the title Colored Aristocracy is a tribute to the old Ragtimers that inspired and influenced the tune.  It derives from a book, The Colored Aristocracy of St Louis, by Cyprian Clamorgan.  Also, the term "colored" is perhaps derogatory today, but 100 years ago or so, it was the most polite term possible to refer to African Americans.  

In a way, this song underscores the Ragtime influence on Old Time music and Appalachia.  You will definitely hear echoes of this in the Brew Pub Jam, with songs like "Ragtime Annie," "Tear it Down" or "Raise a Rough House Tonight." 

When you stop and think about it, it's really incredible.  Elmer's musical family reaches way back into the 19th century in terms of their repetoire, and Elmer is still going strong.  He really does represent a time machine.  If I want to find out how West Viriginia fiddlers treated a particular song in the 1930's, I am not limited to library references.  I can just ask Elmer, because he's still doing it!  Elmer's friends, like Tom O'Brien and Mark Crabtree and others, also know an incredible amount about the songs in general and about local West Virginia music history.

And you can play with Elmer, also.  Since I've moved away from Morgantown, I no longer see Elmer and his friends very often, but he hosts a jam at the Senior Center in Westover, across the river from Morgantown. I believe that it's only 3 Fridays per month, so call to make sure the jam is on before you go. Like most Old Time musicians, Elmer is just as relaxed and friendly as he could be, not stuck up in any way, and you would never guess that he is a world renowned fiddler.  Some of the other regulars are also very talented peformers, but newcomers are very welcome as well. You really can sit down and play with a legend if you want.  And no, you do not have to be a senior to attend. 

Elmer and Tom Gibson lead Hanging On to Glory at the Senior Center Jam.  Check out other videos from YewPiney as well. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why You (Probably) Can't Sound Like Leadbelly

Why can't you sound like Leadbelly? Or at least play the guitar the way he did? I learned to play the guitar, sort of, in High School, and really got into it when I attended Cuyahoga Community College and worked at a music store (LaBash Music in Berea), where I hung out with some truly awesome musicians. Anyway I made some clumsy attempts to play old transcriptions of music from guys like Leadbelly (famous for the boogie woogie walking bass line), Missississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy. But Leadbelly was the most mysterious. Very few recordings even existed of this man, who everyone from the Beatles and Bob Dylan credited with being a link between blues and modern rock 'n roll.

On the one hand, one reason why modern musicians may have difficulty duplicating the Leadbelly sound, or more importantly, his FEEL, is simply that YOU ain't Leadbelly. Leadbelly lived in a very different world than we do. Leadbelly, let it not be forgot, was a killer who was sent to prison twice for killing people. He himself was left for dead at least once, and if you look at some of his pictures you can see the horrific scar which goes from ear to ear. Part of Leadbelly's experience comes from the violent world of night life in the segregated South, and it just isn't going to translate for most of us. His performing got him sprung from the joint twice.  In other words, most of us lack authenticity if we try to sing his songs, or even copy his playing style. 

Imagine trying to sing the lyrics of Black Snake Moan for a modern audience:

Oh, I ain't got no mammy now.

I ain't got no mammy now.

Ya told me late last night,

ya didn't need no mammy no how!

Leadbelly is singing about being rejected by his lover. It is actually a very painful song, punctuated by Leadbelly's incredible bass runs. But, oh gosh if you are a white person and get invited to perform at the Apollo theater I hope you will consider carefully what you are gong to perform and be sensitive to your audience before attempting to perform lyrics such as these for a modern audience. They might laugh you off the stage.

It may not come out right  if you try too hard to tell someone else's story. Music is kind of the same way. And one of the rules of the blues (if there are any rules) is that you need to put some of yourself into it. If you will search on youtube, you will find that there are an amazing number of muscians, many of them young, who are interested in Leadbelly songs and trying to bring them forward. The best ones, in my opinions, are the ones who don't try to imitate him, but maybe incorporate a few licks into their own sound.

There is also a secret to the Leadbelly sound, however. The best lecture on Leadbelly's guitar that I have ever heard is from the late Harry Lewman. What you need to know is that Leadbelly's guitar was constructed differently than the conventional style.  Among his guitars was an old Stella that did not use the cross-bracing system of industry standards from Gibson and Martin.   Leadbelly used very heavy gauge strings, and here's the kicker: the rascal actually tuned his guitar five half-steps lower than a conventional guitar. In other words, his guitar is tuned B-E-A-D-F#-B.  Sometimes this is referred to as a "baritone" tuning or a BEAD tuning.  Although many people have never heard of such a thing, Martin and other manufacturers actually make guitars designed for this tuning, with a little bit longer scale length.  Stella used to make a 12 string jumbo designed for baritone tuning, and that was one of the guitars that Leadbelly played.  So you play the same chord forms, but they are lower than a standard guitar. Harry does the best job of anyone in getting the Leadbelly sound from the instrument: check this out:

It's also very hard to sing when you're playing these bass runs, by the way.   It sounds easy, but it is not, at least not for me.  You just have to just practice 10,000 times until you get the knack for singing one melody while playing another on the guitar.  

I have been keeping my own 12 string at Leadbelly tuning for about  years now. I don't sound much like Leadbelly and mostly I play Old Time which is far different from Leadbelly's music. But every once in a while I work in a bass run that might sound just a little bit like him.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Greasy Coat

           Perhaps I spend too much time pondering the social significance of Old Time lyrics.  Nevertheless, from time to time I have wondered about the meaning of “Greasy Coat,” which is an Old Time tune popular in Morgantown, among other places.  I first heard this at the Brew Pub Jam, and you can hear a  polished version from the Stewed Mulligan band's Liv and Howl album, with Keith McManus, Bob Shank, Pat McIntyre and Theodor Stump.....


  It’s actually almost an instrumental, but there are some short verses that are sort of  thrown in:

             I don’t drink and I don’t smoke,
            and I don’t wear no greasy coat.  

            I don’t cuss and I don’t chew,
            and I don’t go out with the girls that do.
            I don't kiss and I don't tell
            And all you sinners gonna go to hell

Check out this jam, with fiddler Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Rebekah Weiler and Hilarie Burhans (banjo), Rory Mullennex (guitar), and dancers Becky Hill and Lou Maiuri.

            The verse about not going out with women who cuss and chew is intended  to be humorous, of course.   A young woman who chewed tobacco would be considered quire a catch, especially back in the day.  But what is to be made about the reference to a “greasy coat?”

            Some commentators have suggested that “greasy coat” refers to a condom.  Andrew Kuntz mentions this possibility in The Traditional Tune Archive (http://www.tunearch.org/wiki/TTA ), previously known as Fiddler’s Companion (http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/).  However, although this seems logical enough, I simply can’t find any pre-internet attestation to this possible link.  I don't think this is true at all.  

      This  possbility was debated in the Banjo Hangout forum, where some banjo players were concerned that this song might be inappropriate for children due to this possible link.  

http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/184458 .  
 I shouldn't laugh, but I actually thought some of the discussion was pretty entertaining. 

            In any case, I was able to locate what I believe is a definitive early source for  the metaphor “greasy coat.”   A book with the annotated title “The Life and Adventures of Henry Smith, the Celebrated Razor Strop Man, (Embracing a Complete Collection of his Original Songs, Queer Speeches, Humorous Letters and Odd, Droll Strange and Whimisical Sayings, Now Published for the First Time, with an Accurate Portrait to which is added).  The book was published by White & Potter Printers in Boston in 1849, and contains a humorous poem, entitled Soap Ditty No. 1.  It tells the story of a handsome and virtuous fellow who is unable to find a wife because of his bad hygiene and failure to use soap.     

     Hence, his coat really is a greasy coat, and it is not until the end of the ditty that he discovers soap and is able to wash his coat and finally marry the lady of his dreams.

Come gentlemen and list to me,
     While a story I relate--
‘Tis all about a fine young man
     That lived in the old Bay State.
His eyes were brown his cheeks were red
     And free from tan or bloat--
His heart was brave and bold and true,
     But he wore a greasy coat.
          Oh unhappy, unhappy man was he,
          He knew not how to clean his coat
          For he’d never heard of me.  

Now this young man he loved a maid
     And tried her heart to win
But though he was a handsome man
     He could not quite come in.
 ‘Tis true he wore a black moustache
     With whiskers round his throat
And dark and curling hair to match.
     But he wore a greasy coat
          Oh unhappy, unhappy man was he,
          He knew not how to clean his coat
          For he’d never heard of me.  

“Oh lovely maid,” this young man said
     “If you will marry me,
Myself and all that I possess
     I’1l freely give to thee.
I’ve houses lands and money too
I’ll give thee every groat--
I ll give thee all, I can no more,
Myself and greasy coat.”
          Oh unhappy, unhappy man was he,
          He knew not how to clean his coat
          For he’d never heard of me.  

The maiden heard his plaintive tale,
     Then laughed right in his face,
And said:  “to marry such a man
Would bring me to disgrace.
‘Tis true you are good looking, sir,
     And are called a man of note--
But you’ll never do to marry me
     For you wear a greasy coat
          Oh unhappy, unhappy man was he,
          He knew not how to clean his coat
          For he’d never heard of me.  

“Oh cruel maid” the young man said,
     “The words that you have spoken,
Like thunderbolts have pierced my soul--
     My heart of hearts is broken.
Henceforth. I’ll live in some lone cave,
     From busy life remote;”
He heaved a sigh, then wiped his eye
     Upon his greasy coat.
          Oh unhappy, unhappy man was he,
          He knew not how to clean his coat
          For he’d never heard of me.  

Now it chanced as I was journeying
     One pleasant summer day,
I met this young man in the woods
     Of Penn-syl-va-ni-a
His eyes were sunk his cheeks were pate
     He seemed bereft of hope;
I took him by the button hole,
And sold him a cake of soap
          Oh he was happy a happy man was he
          For he could clean his greasy coat
          With the soap he bought of me.

With coat brushed up as good as new,
      He hied him home again;
Again he sought his lady love,
     Nor did he sigh in vain.
He asked her if she’d marry him,
     Then exposed his coat to view--
She looked and blushing gently sighed
     “I don t care if I do.”
          Oh he was happy a happy man was he
          For he could clean his greasy coat
          With the soap he bought of me.

            The meaning here is clear.  The young fellow is a laughing stock because of his bad hygiene, and saves his romance when he learns how to use soap for the very first time to wash his greasy coat.  The “greasy coat” is to be taken literally, and thus in our Old Time song, the term no doubt would have reminded audiences of the late 19th or early 20th Century  of a humorous buffoon that does not know how to wash himself or his clothing with soap.  
            For me, that’s it, case closed, end of story.  The Greasy Coat is just a reference from 19th century vaudeville, and not a reference to a condom at all.  So you moralists can go ahead and teach this  song to youngsters without fear of corrupting them (just make sure that they wash up afterwards!).
            One of the oldest recorded versions that I could find is from Edden Hammons of Webster County, West Virginia from 1947.  You can find that one on youtube.com.  Other versions that I like are from a 2008 Augusta jam at the top of this article, as well as a cu from Rachel Eddy's cd, Hand on the Plow:


There is also a really fine version as an extra cut on her cd, Track 13, which is from the Morgantown jam or perhaps Clifftop.  In any case, there is an incredible blending between Bob Shank on Hammer Dulcimer and I. B. Browning on trumpet.  

    I was also impressed by this very unorthodox but very good arrangement performed on clawhammeer ukelele by Aaron Keim:


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Gospel Plow

            My new favorite song is by Rachel Eddy, the Gospel Plow.  I've been trying to get a copy of her CD album for a while, and finally snagged a few copies from Rachel herself at a New Year's party in Morgantown WV (no doubt, I am hanging out with a fast crowd these days!).  Rachel was born and raised in Morgantown, but a few years ago she was kidnapped by Vikings and now lives in Stockholm Sweden, with her husband, Kristian Herner.  You can hear it from her myspace.com link here: 

You can also check out the other songs on the album (in abbreviated fashion) from Amazon.com:


            Although Rachel is known as an Old Time musician, her repertoire also encompasses folk and blues and much more.  Gospel plow is  a blues gospel song once performed by Mahalia Jackson (under the title Keep Your Hand to the Plow).  Bob Dylan, amazingly enough, recorded a much different version with a totally different sound.  Frankly, Dylan’s version doesn’t do much for me, yet Dylan’s version may have inspired the Old Crow Medicine Show, who cut a version a while back.  The Woodticks (with Rachel on fiddle, Keith McManus on banjo, Bob Shank on hammer dulcimer and Karen Wade on guitar) also have a version on youtube.  I didn’t know there was such a thing as hammer dulcimer blues, but I guess there is now.  

            If you want to play along, I’ve transcribed the lyrics and included some chords that kind of fit, although I’m by no means sure that they are the same ones used by Rachel.  


E                      A                       E

Mary wore three links of chain

E              A                      E
Every link was Jesus name

                 b7                 A                    E
Had her hand on that plow, hold right on

A                       G

Hold right on, hold right on

                   A                G                       E

Put your hand on the plow hold right on.

Mathew, Mark, Luke and John
All my  prophets holdin’ on
Got their  hand on the plow, hold right on

Hold right on, hold right on

Put your hand on the plow hold right on.

Hold right on, hold right on

Put your hand on the plow hold right on.

All the streets are paved with in gold,

In heaven I am told

Put your hand on the plow hold right on.

Hold right on, hold right on

Put your hand on the plow hold right on.

Cause there’s no gamblers  jokers, thieves

No liars and no cheats

Got their hands on the plow hold right on

Hold right on, hold right on

Put your hand on the plow hold right on.

When I get to the glory land,

I’m going to play in their band

Got my hand on the plow, hold right on

I’ve got my hand on the gospel plow,

and I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey  now.

Got my hand on the plow hold right on.

Hold right on, hold right on

Got my hand on the plow hold right on.

Hold right on, hold right on