American music is a famously heterogeneous and polyglot tapestry, and these two pieces suggest how complicated and interesting it can be to sort out its intertwining strands. Lead Belly’s “Poor Howard” is typical of a world of African American music that was already very old at the dawn of recording, and predates anything that came to be called blues. Its structure is somewhat similar to songs like “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” but it’s a looser and presumably older form, and the guitar part (and tuning) is still directly shaped by banjo techniques. (I’ve explored this before in the video to Furry Lewis’s “Kassie Jones,” which is played very similarly.)
The banjo, as I hope most people know by now, came from Africa, though it was modified in the United States, and was common and popular throughout the South, to a great extent because banjos were easy to make. (A blog post by Bradley Laird, whose homemade banjos are pictured at right, suggests just how easy.) Most homemade banjos, like traditional African banjos and fiddles, have no frets, and numerous blues historians have suggested that the microtonal left-hand slides that were basic to fretless banjo playing influenced later slide guitar techniques — though there are endless battles about whether slide guitar existed before black southerners saw Hawaiian players, and plenty of evidence that Hawaiian and banjo techniques overlapped and intertwined in blues slide. (For anyone who wants to explore the Hawaiian guitar story, I recommend a terrific new book, Kīkā Kila, by John Troutman.)
An area that has been much less thoroughly explored is the influence of formal middle class parlor music on rural southern styles. There is a romantic notion, shared by many musicologists and historians (I have not been immune to it myself) that the rural South was a weird, isolated region that created unique folk arts with little influence from what was happening in cities or even in the houses of richer southerners. But as Bill Malone suggests in one of my favorite books, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers, rural southerners eagerly consumed whatever they could get from the cities, and guitars are exhibit A.
African American musicians were playing guitars by the early 19th century — some plantations apparently had formal dance orchestras made up of black musicians who could read music and were expected to play the latest European dance tunes, and one of the most prominent classical guitar instructors was a black player and composer, Justin Holland — and as soon as Sears Roebuck made relatively cheap guitars available by mail order, they became common throughout the southern countryside. It is not clear how many rural guitarists learned to read music or were influenced by the playing of nice young ladies and gentlemen who took formal lessons on the instrument, but the fact of that influence is clearly demonstrated by the ubiquitousness of “Spanish Fandango” among black and white players throughout the rural South.
The full story is laid out nicely in a blog post by Jas Obrecht, but the short version is that a guitarist named Henry Worrall published some very influential guitar instruction books, and his “Spanish Fandango” (from 1860, not 1840 — I’ve got it wrong in the video) was quickly picked up by other guitar instructors, because it was superbly easy to play — you just tuned your guitar to an open G chord, played simple arpeggios with your right hand while moving one finger of your left hand up and down the guitar neck, and you had something that sounded pretty. (In Europe in the 1970s, the comparable piece was a Spanish tune generically titled “Romance,” which was the theme of a French movie, Jeux Interdits, and routinely played by guitarists who could play no other instrumental pieces.)
Hence, everyone who took even a couple of guitar lessons tended to learn “Spanish Fandango,” and showed it to their friends, some of whom also learned it, and by the 1890s the term “Spanish” had become generic for that guitar tuning. (Another of Worrall’s beginner tunes, “Sebastopol,” gave its name to open D tuning.) Those names are sometimes glossed as “blues slang” or something of that sort, but when I started reading through turn-of-the-century magazines for guitar, mandolin, and banjo aficionados — The Cadenza was the most popular — I found both names used by thoroughly respectable middle class players.
Hence the situation I demonstrate in this video: two completely disparate musical strains leading to pieces that sound very different, but look very similar if you turn off the sound and just watch my left hand.