Thursday, March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs - The Father of Bluegrass Music

Bill Monroe, often credited as the Father of Bluegrass music, had led his own bands since 1938, after parting company with his brothers. Briefly called the Kentuckians, he settled on the name The Bluegrass Boys in 1939. Oddly, considering what we think of as the Monroe sound today, the band often featured an accordion and did not feature a banjo player until 1942. Monroe's first banjo player was David Akeman, a musical comedian known as Stringbean. He was a "frailer" playing in the two finger style of his mentor Uncle Dave Macon.

While many of the elements that would characterize Bluegrass music were in place, it wasn't until December of 1945, when Earl Scruggs stepped into the studio to join the Monroe band, that the sound was complete. The tracks that Monroe recorded in 1946 and 1947, like "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Molly and Tenbrooks" and "Bluegrass Breakdown," further defined the genera as we know it today.

Of course, no one person can create a genera but the story of Bluegrass Music is more complex than the idea that Monroe created it single handed leads one to believe. Yes, Bill Monroe was playing great music before Earl's arrival but it was not significantly different from the music played by hundreds of bands all across the south. When Scruggs joined the band with his innovative three finger style of banjo, the band became something truly different.

Perhaps calling Earl Scruggs the Father of Bluegrass Music is over simplifying things as well. What I think we can safely say is that without Earl Scruggs there would not be Bluegrass Music as we know it today.

Earl passed away quietly in a hospital in Nashville yesterday but he lives on in the playing of Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Allison Brown and hundreds of thousands banjo players not just here but around the world. I can think of no better legacy.

~ Dave Palmater

Saturday, March 17, 2012

She Exemplifies International Women’s Month!

The intimate, rapt audience leaned in to hear the wispy-haired woman with the sterling silver voice sing about how she faced a life-threatening disease. They appreciated her bravery and her music. The crowd at state representative Jay Kaufman’s “Open House” last night was peppered with about a dozen of Jay’s fellow Summer Acoustic Music Week campers who came to hear SAMW teacher Penny Nichols perform with Mark Dann and Glen Roethel. As Penny spoke and sang about her battle with breast cancer, I reflected on what that might mean in the context of International Women’s Month. Fighting and winning against a disease that attacks such a distinguishing feature of a woman’s body puts into relief the underpinnings of International Women’s Month... because one day is hardly sufficient to honor the contributions of half the population of the world. The fact that Penny’s music speaks for all of us made me realize how the music of so many women has done just that over history – relating to every aspect of human experience.

Let’s start with the reason for International Women’s Day (March 8, 2012) in the first place. It began in 1909 as an effort to draw attention to women’s rights in the workplace. The 1912 women workers’ strike in Lawrence, Mass., sparked an entire American movement that continues to the tune of the “Bread and Roses” poem set to music by the late Mimi Farina. Activism in song on behalf of women pursuing “men’s work” carried forward. C’mon everyone, can I hear a chorus of Peggy Seeger’s “I Want to Be An Engineer?”

Women, we know, are about much more than work. During International Women’s Month, it behooves us to look back, for example, to the unalloyed courage of the much storied-in-song Sojourner Truth whose speech “Ain’t I a Woman,” has been sung and sung and sung in many versions, most notably in the Rory Block song. Think about all the songs you know that sing of the strength and power of women. One of the oldest I know is the 16th century ballad of “The Death of Queen Jane” in which she pleads for the life of her unborn child. We have sung of strong women in every era and every endeavor: Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Isabella Gunn, Frida Kahlo... too many too list, of course. And the recording artists themselves have made history and sung the songs of women’s rights and accomplishments: Odetta, Ronnie Gilbert, Bernice Reagon Johnson, Holly Near, Ani DiFranco... just to scratch the surface.

All these thoughts ran through my head last night, listening to Penny Nichols sing about “The Sands of Time.” International Women’s Month lasts, officially, 31 days. Listeners to WUMB know that songs of indefatigable women are sung every single day.

-        Marilyn Rea Beyer

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stuck in Traffic

I think one thing we can all agree on is that being stuck in traffic is one of the biggest wastes of time in history.  I find it frustrating because I inevitably start to think of all the things I could be accomplishing instead of staring at the same car in front of me.  My mind tends to drift and I think of the laundry that needs folding at home, how I’d love to run around in my backyard with my four year old, or even how sitting at my desk and going through some emails would be time better served.  With that being said, I was stuck in traffic last week, and I was actually upset when I meandered my way through road construction.  I was listening to Joe Pug’s new album called “The Great Despiser” and time was running out because I was now actually getting to my destination where the car and radio would be turned off.

If you’re not familiar with Joe, some quick background info:  Joe had an epiphany on the day before his senior year started at the University of North Carolina.  Joe was a playwright student and right before his first cup of coffee in the morning, the thought hit him.  The thought was “I am profoundly unhappy here”.  With that, Joe packed his bags, dropped out of school, moved to Chicago and started to pursue music on a full time basis.  (By the way…how great is THAT?!)

He’s been compared to the Dylan’s and the Springsteen’s of the world because he plays guitar and on occasion drops in some great harmonica.  Comparisons aside I can only stress to you that Joe Pug is the real deal.  He speaks from the heart.  He gets it

I will let you decide for yourself.  You’ll be hearing tracks off his new album “The Great Despiser” in the coming weeks, and the full album is out April 24th.  Maybe when you hear it, you’ll be as captivated as I was and will dread reaching your destination quickly and efficiently.

-        - Jay Moberg

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Carrying the Tradition Forward

Joe Thompson passed away last month. He was one of the last traditional practitioners of African-American String Band Music. This is music that has more in common with that of fellow North Carolinians Fred Cockerham and Kyle Creed than it does with Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell. This is music that dates back to before the record companies discovered that "rural" music would sell and then put everything into categories based on black and white. All white rural musicians were "country" while all African-American musicians played "blues" or worse yet, "race music." The reality, especially in the Piedmont, was more complicated and more interesting than that. Much like his white counterparts, Joe played for square dances and other community functions through out his life and was awarded both a North Carolina Heritage Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. You might have even seen him perform in Lowell during the three years the National Folk Festival took place there. Joe was also a mentor to three younger players, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

This North Carolina String Band style is just one of the elements that fuse to form the music of the Chocolate Drops. Their music joyfully blurs not just genera but racial lines, incorporating Jug Band and Hokum music, African American Fife & Drum music, and yes, even blues. As you might expect they are not strict traditionalist and have applied their talents to everything from "Hit'em Up Style" to Dylan's "Political World" and they make an appearance on The Chieftains latest album.

If pressed to describe their music they tell you that more than being a part of any genera, it has more to do with other musics from the Piedmont Region, namely North Carolina. And in fact, the two remaining founder members of the band, Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are both from there. They are joined in the band by the New York based mulch-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and, on the current tour, New Orleans based cellist Leyla McCall.
Yes, I said cellist, and you can bet I'm going to be asking them about that. I also expect we'll be remembering the gentle man who taught them so much, Joe Thompson, when the Carolina Chocolate Drops join me in the studio Live at Noon this Friday. I hope you will too.

-Dave Palmater

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Townes turns 69

We’ve all lacked foresight at one time or another, especially when it comes to musical tastes, mostly early on in life when it’s a healthy combination of immaturity and/or impatience. I vividly remember the day I first purchased Townes Van Zandt’s self-titled LP (his 3rd; 1969) on the legendary Poppy label. I had read reviews of his work to date as well as testimonials from peers I admired. And how could I resist that sleeve? Townes looking as if he was deep in thought at an old kitchen table centered in an antique, ornate kitchen, also recorded at the legendary Bradley’s Barn in Nashville.
But you know what? I dropped the needle and was…disappointed. His music didn’t jump up and down; it didn’t wear fancy clothes, it was concise and didn’t beat around the bush. I simply at my young age didn’t have the patience for music this subtle.
I actually think I sold that album (stupid!), probably to obtain something I haven’t and won’t listen to ever again in my life. We’ve all been there.
Cut to about 8-9 years ago. Heartworn Highways, the documentary about the rebirth of country music around Austin & Nashville in the 70’s is released. Townes is part of that stellar crew. I devour it. A year or two later Be Here to Love Me, the biopic of Mr. Van Zandt is released. I’m floored. I purchase the box set that includes his first seven releases from ’68 to ’78. I can’t listen to anything else. I even read his biography from 2005 To Live’s to Fly: compassionate, truthful, contradictory.
The point being…if you haven’t been knocked sideways by the man’s music yet, prepare to be wholly caught off guard…if you’re already a fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Especially now that we’re all ‘older’.
And be sure and join us as we celebrate what would have been Townes’ 68th this Wednesday the 7th, all day, on WUMB.

-        Albert O

Monday, March 5, 2012

Doc Watson at 89!

-My youngest brother is a worldly type; born and raised in the Midwest, schooled in the deep south, and found his calling here in New England which led to work in such exotic places as London, England and Luxemburg. Which, in turn, has opened many a door for him both travel-wise (he regularly drives from country to country) as well as land him, shall we say, many friends and girlfriends from afar.
-Long story short: my dear Mom was celebrating her 80th in Kentucky a few years back, and my aforementioned brother wanted to show off his (then) girlfriend from Yugoslavia. Pleasant and unassuming, I couldn’t help but notice that she insisted on parading around with a beat-up old boombox, listening to nothing but…Doc Watson! On cassette no less!
-Obvious point being…the man’s music is and always has been…universal! Knows no boundaries!
-You’ve no doubt heard the story…Folkways records his family & friends in 1960 after having played in various incarnations for 20 or so years, he debuts at Gerde’s in NY in late ’62, then on to Newport, his crowning achievement being his flatpicking contributions to the groundbreaking Will the Circle Be Unbroken in the early 70’s. Despite being middle age when he was ‘discovered’, Doc continues to be active to this day, hosting the annual MerleFest music festival in honor of his late (also very talented) son Merle.
-Doc turned 89 years young last Saturday the 3rd, and all day Friday (the 2nd) WUMB we honored this singular American guitar player, songwriter and singer of bluegrass, folk, country, blues and gospel music. Undoubtedly, there’s that one Doc Watson track that you’re especially fond of; for the next time we play his music -- lend us your suggestions, won’t you please? 

-Do you have a favorite Doc Watson story you'd like to share?
- Albert O