Barnyard Dance (Howard Armstrong)

My proudest musical memory is the five years I played guitar for Howard Armstrong. I’d heard Howard’s old records as Louie Bluie and his later ones with Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong; I’d seen Terry Zwigoff’s film about him; and I’d learned some of Carl Martin‘s songs… but I ended up working with him by pure happenstance. Bruce “Utah” Phillips happened to be staying at my place in Cambridge sometime around 1988, and the “Masters of the Folk Violin” tour was touching down somewhere in the area, with Howard, Michael Doucet, a teenage Alison Krauss, and two or three other players.

Joe Wilson, the tour organizer, invited Bruce to the show and dinner with the crew, I went along, and Bruce wanted to sit next to Howard. So we went over and introduced ourselves, and the lady with Howard got great big eyes and said, “Elijah Wald?! Ruth and George’s son!? I know you!”

She was Barbara Ward, who had worked for many years at the Harvard Biological Laboratories and been married to a young biologist who was a student of my father’s. She also had been involved with my parents in the defense committee for the father of Jhugh Price, a student at my high school who was shot in an ugly racial incident in North Cambridge, where he and his father stood up to a gang of white toughs in front of their house, Jhugh was killed, and his father was charged with the killing… (Yes, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Don’t tell black Bostonians how liberal that area is.)

A few months later I ran into Howard and Barbara in Boston Common and they mentioned he was looking for a local guitarist and bass player. I suggested myself and Washtub Robbie Phillips, and Howard was skeptical about using a one-string bass… but we went over to Barbara’s and he and Robbie hit it off immediately, both musically and socially.

I didn’t know the swing repertoire, but I was willing to take orders — like, when Howard told me to play an augmented chord in the bridge to “Lady Be Good,” I asked him how and he showed me. He was patient, I was eager, and it worked fine. We mostly just backed him on gigs around New England — the money was rarely good enough to take a full group further afield — but we also traveled to the Chicago Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which I’d never have played any other way.

As anyone knows who has seen the two movies about him, Howard was a brilliant, funny, and supremely varied character and a terrific musician. We mostly played pop standards, with the occasional blues, hoedown, or gospel number, his comical reworking of “La Cucaracha,” a self-penned Hawaiian dialect number called “You’ll Never Find Another Kanaka Like Me” (he was in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked), and his ridiculously fast version of  “John Henry,” always introduced with an admonishment to the band: “Watch out now — cause if you can’t keep up, you sure can’t catch up!”

And, of course, we played “Barnyard Dance,” the title song from the first Martin, Bogan and Armstrong album. As far as I know, this was another of Howard’s compositions, as was the album cover — which prompted me to ask him if he would paint a cover for the CD I recorded near the end of my time with him, which he graciously did.

I am still absorbing lessons I learned from Howard, musical and otherwise — far too many to detail here, but I’ll finish by testifying that I could never have written “Escaping the Delta” without the insights I got from those years with him… which is another way of saying I have no idea what I’d be doing today if that string of coincidences hadn’t brought us together.

Gary Davis Medley

I can’t remember when I first heard Rev. Gary Davis, but he was one of my guitar heroes long before I could even think about playing his music. I loved the power and virtuosity of his playing, the soulful  excitement of his singing, the dynamics, the dynamism… So by my high school years I had assiduously hunted down all the extant LPs — as well as taping a library copy of the out-of-print American Street Songs LP from the 1950s that he shared with Pink Anderson, which still may be my all-time favorite.

Of course, as a Dave Van Ronk fan and eventually Dave’s student, I learned Candyman and Cocaine Blues, but mostly I worshipped Davis from afar. Part of the problem was that his greatest performances were of Evangelical Christian music, and much as I loved them, I had no interest in singing those lyrics. The other problem was that even if I’d wanted to sing them, I couldn’t make the guitar parts sound right. After studying with Dave I worked out a couple of Davis’s ragtime instrumentals, and even began performing Cincinnati Flow Rag, but it was only after I got back from Africa that I took serious crack at the gospel arrangements.

That trip had convinced me that if I wanted to understand how someone played I needed to try to replicate their tool kit — which in Davis’s case meant wearing fingerpicks and trying to play with just thumb and index finger. The fingerpicks were a first hurdle, because they always felt clumsy, but they definitely got me closer to his sound. As for that thumb-and-index style, it took ages to get the hang of it, and I never figured out the roll Davis used in his ragtime showpieces until I met Ernie Hawkins — about whom more in a future post — but it fundamentally reshaped my understanding of early blues guitar.

As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of early players used only those two fingers. There were exceptions, including John Hurt, Josh White, and Blind Blake, but they were outliers: from Blind Lemon Jefferson to the Mississippi Delta masters, Gary Davis to Merle Travis, thumb-and-index seems to have been the rule. To some extent, that was just a matter of custom, but it also was a matter of power — those are the two strongest fingers, which mattered in the days before amplification — and an even attack: when you use the index finger for all your treble notes, they all have the same attack. (Charlie Christian got a similar effect by playing only down-strokes with his flatpick.)

So anyway, I went through an extended Gary Davis period and learned a dozen of his gospel arrangements, though the only one I performed regularly was “Samson and Delilah,” which felt like a story rather than a religious exhortation. As for the rest, I sang them as part of the learning process, but mostly just for my own amusement, and that’s still where they fit in my repertoire. I particularly kept playing instrumental versions of these two, “A Little More Faith” and “I Belong to the Band,” because they work nicely as an instrumental medley — but more for fun than performance, and as an exercise. They’re a great way to practice that thumb-and-index style, to work on relaxing and freeing up the thumb to play brushes and accent some of the melody notes — I particularly like the power it gives to the bend in the F chord on the verse of “I Belong to the Band.” As for using fingerpicks, I eventually decided I preferred the feel of bare fingers, but I doubt I could have got here without them.

Railroad Blues (Sam McGee)

I first learned an instrumental version of this from Perry Lederman. Perry was a good friend and playing with him reshaped my understanding of the guitar. He was particularly noted for his vibrato, which was incredible — he had exceptionally strong hands and could hold a full chord and get a stinging vibrato on top of it using only his little finger. (He could also do crazy numbers of chin-ups on the edge of a door molding, holding on with just his fingertips.) His version of “Railroad Blues” included some of that, but I learned it as a right-hand exercise, and his smooth thumb-and-index-finger bass patterns became a (somewhat less smooth)  basic part of my own playing, as well as preparing me to tackle Rev. Gary Davis.

Perry’s standard repertoire included several Sam McGee tunes — joining a small personal pantheon of great fingerstyle players alongside Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt — and that made me pay added attention to McGee’s work. I first learned a couple of his instrumentals, “Franklin Blues” and “Buck Dancer’s Choice,” and it was probably another dozen years before I got around to this song. I had gotten interested in the playing of some white “hillbilly blues” players like Dick Justice and Clarence Greene, thanks to anthology LPs on the Yazoo and County labels. That subgenre was one of the many retrospective inventions of the folk revival, and it succeeded in drawing the attention of blues revivalists to some terrific white fingerpickers — but like most such inventions it also led us somewhat astray, since most of those players (like their black contemporaries) played a lot more than blues, and also (unlike most of their black contemporaries) recorded a lot more than blues. McGee, for example, was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry and did much of his touring and recording with the Opry’s reigning star, Uncle Dave Macon. He also played regularly with his brother Kirk, and as a trio with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. (Their gigs included the legendary blues workshop at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at which Alan Lomax got in a fistfight with Albert Grossmann over the Butterfield Blues Band.)

Anyway, McGee recorded this in 1934 and I fell in love with it, tackled it assiduously, and eventually worked out a halfway decent simulacrum of what he played. Then Steve James happened to be playing at Johnny D’s in Somerville and I was down in the green room with him and we got to talking about Sam McGee, and I mentioned I’d been working on this and played it for him. Steve wrote the one book on hillbilly blues guitar and spent some time with McGee, so he’s the go-to guy for this stuff, and he was generally ok with what I was playing, but gave me a couple of tips: First, that the bass on the opening riff (and later the “train coming into Nashville” section) is 6-5-5-5 rather than 6-5-6-5, which gives it a nice propulsive feel. And second, he said McGee played the descent to the B7 as a three-finger banjo roll, index-middle-thumb… which is not what McGee plays on the old record, but what the hell — I’m not going to argue with Steve James.

(Actually, we argue all the time, but not about how to play like Sam McGee.)

One Meatball (Josh White)

I got this from Josh White, of course. It was his big hit, and a terrific performance. I’ve written about Josh in a previous post, and before that I wrote a whole book about him. It was my first book, and a true labor of love — it took five years to write, and for most of that time a good agent was trying to find it a good home, and he never found one so we ended up at a UMass Press, which was fine, but we’d hoped for someplace that could have gotten it into a lot more hands. Not because it was such a great book (though I’m happy with it), but because I’d hoped to spark a major Josh White revival.

He sure deserves one, and the most annoying thing is it was songs like this that keep standing in his way. Because it’s a great song and he did it brilliantly, but it’s a New York cabaret number, and when people revive black singer/guitarists of the 1930s or ’40s they seem to always want bluesmen from the deep, dark Delta, or at least street singers from the Carolinas.

As it happens, Josh was from Greenville, South Carolina, and spent his early teens roaming the South as a “lead boy” for blind street singers — which is to say, he was as “authentic” a blues artist as anyone could want. But he was also very smart, hip, and versatile, so when he got a chance to reshape himself as a nightclub singer, he became one of the most popular cabaret artists in New York. His main venue was Cafe Society, and he was the star attraction there for four years straight, as well as appearing in movies and on Broadway, touring across the country and later around the world, becoming the first performer ever featured on all three BBC channels, and all sorts of other triumphs–because he was a terrific musician, a charismatic performer, and handsome, and funny, and charming.

He was also one of my all-time favorite guitar players, and although I don’t really play this in his style, I do use his unusual F7 chord,* which I learned from his son, Josh Jr. —  who  is also a fine musician and performer, and worthy of more attention.

As for the song, here’s the story roughly as I wrote it up for the liner notes to the Smithsonian/Folkways CD of Josh’s work:

The song was copyrighted by two Tin Pan Alley pros, Lou Singer and Hy Zaret, who had previously given Josh the pseudo-pastoral “The Lass with the Delicate Air.” Singer said they brought it to Josh and first arranged for him to record it as a wartime V-disc. The cover of the original sheet music describes the song as “presented by Barney Josephson,” Josh’s boss at Cafe Society, at both his Uptown and Downtown locations, the Uptown version being done by the singing pantomimist Jimmy Savo. The Andrews Sisters picked it up as well, putting it on the flip side of “Rum and Coca Cola” and taking it to number 15 on the pop charts.

Once the song hit, there was a hot debate about its origins, and PM magazine devoted a full-page article to elucidating the mystery. It traces the song back to a burlesque epic poem, “The Lay of the Lone Fish Ball” apparently written by a Latin professor at Harvard University around 1850. Two other Harvard men, the poet James Russell Lowell and the folklorist Francis James Child, expanded this into an burlesque Italian opera, Il Pescebello. Then, many decades later, Zaret and Singer heard someone sing a partial version of “One Fish Ball” at a party, and were inspired to write a modern song on the same theme, using many of the original lines, but putting them to a new tune and removing the mock-heroic language.

Though the Andrews’ version was the one that made the charts, most people associated the song with Josh. As a New Yorker critic put it: “Listening . . . to Josh White apply his expert talent to ‘One Meat Ball’ (which is getting to be something of a nuisance around town), I was moved to wish that the city would make it a crime for anyone else to attempt it. Come to think of it, it already is.”

*As for that F7, it’s played by wrapping your thumb around the 6th string on the first fret; barring the 1st through 4th strings with your index finger, likewise on the first fret; and holding down the 3rd string on the second fret with your middle finger.

Morning Blues (Uncle Dave Macon)

This was originally recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1926 and issued as “I’ve Got the Mourning Blues.” Folk revivalists have tended to correct that title to “Morning Blues,” and for familiarity’s sake I’ve gone with that… but my guess is it should actually be “Moaning Blues.” That was a common title: Ma Rainey had a “Deep Moaning Blues,” Clara Smith had an “Awful Moaning Blues,”  Crying Sam Collins had a “Moanin’ Blues,” and so on.

In any case, it’s a nice example of an older rural artist refitting his style to suit the new blues craze. Uncle Dave Macon was born in 1870, and his recordings are among the best surviving examples of 19th century rural music. His usual instrument was banjo, and his style was deeply grounded in African American traditions.

There is a story about John Jackson, the great blues singer/guitarist from Virginia, that when an interviewer mentioned DeFord Bailey as the only black star of the Grand Ole Opry, Jackson responded, “What about Uncle Dave Macon?” I once asked Jackson if the story was true, and he cheerfully confirmed it: “The way he sound on the radio, I always thought he was black until I seen him.” It would not just have been the sound; there was also the “Uncle” before his name, which was the standard way southern white people addressed older black men they liked: Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus, Uncle Ben, and of course Aunt Jemima…

Macon grew up around the hotel his father ran in Nashville and learned his music–as well as jokes, stories, and the tricks of an old-time entertainer–from the show people who stayed there. Fortunately for the world, he did not go into show business himself at that point, but instead made his living from farming and hauling goods in a wagon–which meant he didn’t keep changing his style to suit the times and when he finally took to the stage in the 1920s he arrived as an old man playing the music of his youth. Hence the “Uncle” before his name.

This song was in some ways atypical of his repertoire: for once he didn’t play banjo, leaving the lead chores to his guitarist, the great Sam McGee (I’ve played his “Buck Dancer’s Choice” in an earlier post, and there’s more to come), and it is nominally a blues song. Which said, it is only nominally a blues, and both the style and lyrics reach back to earlier minstrel comedy. (I’ve edited the lyrics to omit the more offensive remainders of that tradition.) Honestly, it’s not my favorite Uncle Dave record–that would be something like “Hold the Woodpile Down” or “Down the Old Plank Road”–but it’s the one where his style overlapped mine and I could come up with an interesting arrangement.

As for Macon, he went on to become the first great star of the Grand Ole Opry and continued to be a popular entertainer on stage and radio into his eighties. There’s a lovely clip of him at age 69, singing, dancing, twirling and swinging his banjo, and eventually playing it with his hat: