Monday, November 19, 2018

1924 mountain ukulele?

This YouTube clip of a 1924 recording of Ida Red by Fiddlin' Powers and Family is accompanied by a photograph showing a young lady in the band holding a ukulele, so off I went searching for written sources about the group and the ukulele player in particular.

Success! This article by Rene Rodgers at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol answered my question as fast as I could type it into Google. The youngest sister's name was Ada, and there is another picture of her with her ukulele at the Museum website! Alas, the article mentions that she moved on to the Autoharp, and doesn't say much about her ukulele playing, so maybe she only played ukulele during her early days as a musician. That was true for me too, as I moved on to guitar and banjo and mandolin and didn't get back to the ukulele for about 30 years!

 It looks like the young women of the Powers family were progressive in other ways too... those bobbed hairdos look pretty modern. But that's a topic for a different kind of blog.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Blacksburg Farmers Market Oldtime Jams

"What tunes do you play at those 'old time music' jam sessions?"

I can generally rattle off a dozen tune names, not that I really play all of the tunes that well... but there are dozens.


Woody McKenzie, fiddler-host of this week's Wednesday night old-time string band jam session at the Blacksburg Farmers Market had a request for a more complete tune list.... someone running an old-time jam up in New England wanted to be able to link their Facebook page to an authentic tune list from down here and Southwest Virginia.

So I made this blog page to hold whatever lists I can come up with, then he or anyone else can point newcomers, students, or prospective Jam leaders to this page... without necessarily belonging to any of the proliferating Facebook old time music discussion groups.

There is an annual list compiled by one of the local musicians, tracking the popularity of tunes played at the Blacksburg Farmers Market through the year, under a variety of host fiddlers and bands. I hope the gentleman who compiles it can provide it in a format suitable for posting here. An older version from a few years ago was posted to the Crooked Road website, and I'm going to link to that one, if it is still available.

Meanwhile, one of the several bands that lead the Wednesday jam, Happy Hollow String Band, has a website with an impressive playlist of its own, sometimes with  chord charts or music for the tunes:

A few counties south of us, the Independence Courthouse Jam ( also has an interesting one, sorted by key:

These are all primarily fiddle-centric old-time stringband dance music jams, where everyone plays together, rather than bluegrass jams where participants take turns showing their stuff on lead breaks.

The Independence web page describes its round-robin jam format, where participants take turns either leading or requesting a tune, or sometimes the song.  In Floyd and Blacksburg, old-time jams are a little different, in that the lead fiddler or host band choose all or most of the tunes, maybe with a little group discussion or a newcomer's occasional suggestion.

No matter who leads, I tend to have fun anywhere that I can find a few of the tunes on my mandolin, or strum some rhythm chords on it or a banjo ukulele -- when that seems acceptable to the leaders of the group... especially if I'm pretty sure I'm going to be drowned out by other banjos and fiddles.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

A Leon Redbone story and picture

A musician friend -- singer, guitarist, radio host, and scholar of pre-WorldWar II music -- posted on Facebook that he would like very much to meet Leon Redbone... so I told him my story.

In the 1970s, another friend of mine, Jim Rigby, freelanced music articles for a hip alt-weekly, the Hartford Advocate, and called me up to say he'd gotten an interview with Leon Redbone. I had been at the daily Hartford Courant for years and also knew a little about blues/ragtime guitar, so Jim asked me to come along and help with the interview... backstage at the legendary The Shaboo Inn near Willimantic, Conn.

Two memorable things about the meeting:

1. A musical revelation (to me, anyway): Among his influences, Leon mentioned singer and guitarist Lee Morse, which was the first time I'd heard of her. (Thanks to YouTube, she's much easier to find today.)

2. Style:
From his "Ah yes, the gentlemen of the press..." Leon remained in character, which sounded like he was channeling W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx simultaneously, with a touch of Chaplin. As he said those "..  gentlemen of the press" words, he began rummaging through his pockets -- pants,  suitcoat, vest, shirt -- muttering about how he had too many pockets, "... counted them once..." -- finally producing a business card and giving it to Jim, who glanced at it and put it in his pocket. And off we went with the interview.

At the end, I said (approximately), "Leon, when you were up in Lenox, Mass., last year, I took some pictures of you on stage and I really like the way one of them came out. I'd like to send it to you. Could I have one of your cards?"

He went through the whole pocket-searching shtick again, finally producing the card, which I pocketed, and said goodnight.

Here's the picture I was telling him about, and the card. I never sent him a copy of the photo, for lack of an address...

The front of the card says "How do you do."

 The other side is blank.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Remembering Josh White

Happy birthday to Josh White!
(February 11, 1914 – September 5, 1969)
I saw him on the old ABC Hootenanny TV show, and soon scraped together the price of a couple of his LPs. (Ones whose album covers weren't too risque to bring into the house; it was years before I got "Empty bed blues," and I don't think I ever let my mother see it.)
I also bought a 191-page Josh White Song Book to show my guitar teacher, who had started me on classical lessons because my first guitar had nylon strings. (Nylon was recommended by the Oscar Brand book I had started teaching myself out of a year earlier. I got a new guitar, with steel strings that Christmas after convincing my parents I was going to stick with it more than I had with the accordion a few years earlier. It was a long time before I could afford a Martin OO 21 like the one Josh played on his albums, but I got it eventually.)
Unfortunately, Josh's book wasn't a guitar instruction book. The $2.95 volume (pricey in 1963; my first Dylan songbook was $1.95) featured piano transcriptions of the songs, not his original guitar arrangements. 
I did learn something about music watching my teacher try to work things back to the guitar at my novice level. And I learned other things from the text by Robert Shelton, folk music critic at the New York Times (yes, that was a job then!), who provided song commentaries and a biography of Josh.
It wasn't as thorough as Elijah Wald's "Josh White, Society Blues" several decades later, but it made me feel like a folk blues insider... and, come to think of it, those song book introductory chapters were probably the only biography of a black person that I read in high school, two years before Alex Haley published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings shared a link to a Spotify playlist with a birthday post today, inspiring my reminiscence..
Rather than using Facebook to share a Spotify playlist, why doesn't Smithsonian Folkways just share a link to its own web page that sells a classic Josh White album, and lets you download its 14-page LP size booklet as a free PDF? I hope it's because Folkways makes some money from Spotify. Curiously, when I tried to post that question to the Smithsonian account on Facebook, Facebook marked my comment as spam! That reminded me to put my thoughts out here on the more open web, not just in Facebook's controlled space.