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On the Trail of the Lost Cherokee

21 November 2012

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”— United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002

Do you know this tune?

Yes, that’s “Cherokee Shuffle” as performed by Darol Anger (fiddle), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin) and Emy Phelps (guitar) at a recent concert in Boston’s historic Loring-Greenough House.

I would count “Cherokee Shuffle” among two dozen canonical bluegrass fiddle tunes. It seems to have only gained in popularity with the passing of the years. I can still recall the first time I heard it played. I came upon a jam session in the back room of a bar where a bunch of pickers were already in medias shuffle. When the tune had finally run its course, I asked the mandolin player what it was called. Instead of answering straight up, he got this puzzled look and asked his fellow fellers, “Now, was that ‘Cherokee Shuffle’ or ‘Lost Indian?’” I was stunned. Though a bluegrass tenderfoot, I had already experienced the common affliction of struggling to recall a tune based on its title. “Leather Britches,” “Sally Goodin,” “Fire On The Mountain” and “Cumberland Gap” often blurred into a sonic haze in my memory. Even so, it had never occurred to me that the obverse could occur: that you could be unable to name a tune even though you had just played the Hazel Dickens out of it.

But of course— the tune being new to me— I knew not of what the mandolin player spoke. In the fullness of time, I came to understand his confusion, for the more I looked into the past of “Cherokee Shuffle” and/or “Lost Indian,” the deeper my own mystification grew. Were these one, two or three tunes? What was or were the “home” key or keys? Who wrote it/them?

Many a folklorist has attempted to untangle the histories of “Cherokee Shuffle” and “Lost Indian” with only partial success. A wiser man therefore wouldn’t venture into this treacherous corner of bluegrass scholarship. Be that as it may, heedless of caution and thirsty for fame, I’m going to attempt to sort out this whole Shuffle/Indian morass once and for all.

Tommy Magness, who played fiddle with Bill Monroe, established a tune he called “Lost Indian” in the bluegrass fiddling repertoire. You can hear a version that is probably close to Magness’ here. This performance is from Kenny Baker, Monroe’s longest serving fiddling companion.

Tommy Jackson is generally credited with transforming Magness’ “Lost Indian” into “Cherokee Shuffle.” The salient changes between the tunes are a key shift from D to A and the addition of a more varied B part that has a distinctive brief descending chromatic figure.

Just to throw kerosene on the fire, I’m going to say that Jackson’s adaptation of Magness’ “Lost Indian” is just that, an adaptation or arrangement and not an original composition. In the same vein, Steve Earle’s “Dixieland” is also fundamentally an ingenious arrangement of “Cherokee Shuffle” and not a distinct tune, notwithstanding its wonderful lyrics.

So far, so good, but we ain’t out of the woods just yet. There are in fact two old-time fiddle tunes, both called variously “Lost Indian” or “Lonesome Indian,” one being the composition Magness adopted, the other being a horse of an entirely different color. This alternate tune gets widely credited to Ed Haley, the blind Appalachian fiddler who either wrote or popularized many classic fiddle tunes. You can hear Mark Campbell’s take on Haley’s “Lost Indian” using a clever non-standard tuning here.

To my ears, there really is no connection between Haley and Magness’ tunes, but at this point I have taken the narrative as far as I can. Did these two tunes spring from a common source, and what does any of this have to do with errant or solitary Native Americans, Cherokee or otherwise? Here, gentle reader, I fear we have arrived at the frontier of the “known unknowns.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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The Great Banjo Awakening

29 December 2011

‘Tis the season for eating crow. Just a few months ago, yer Cousin Curly was issuing jeremiads regarding Vanishing Banjo Syndrome. Turns out that even as I was writing that screed, the banjo wasn’t just having its moment; it was having its season, its year, its epoch. Verily, signs that The Great Banjo Awakening is upon us are everywhere. Don’t believe me? Read on…

Exihibit A: The New Yorker is running banjo cartoons:

Banjo cartoon from a recent copy of The New Yorker

"I'm trapped in an elevator— wait, it gets worse."

Exhibit B: PBS airs Give Me The Banjo, a feature-length documentary about the banjo in prime time. If you missed the initial airing of Marc Field’s fine production last fall, you can watch the whole thing online by clicking here.

Exhibit C: Banjo players are becoming celebrities and vice-versa. Yep, it’s a big deal that Steve Martin is preaching the five-string gospel far and wide, but people would pay attention had he suddenly taken to promoting, say, tiddlywinks. What’s more notable is that he’s not alone. Ed Helms, star of The Office and The Hangover, has also come out of the banjo closet. It’s not just that the banjo has become the accoutrement du jour in Hollywood; it’s more accurate to say that banjo culture itself has become (gulp) cool. Admittedly, this is one of those phenomena that makes you think that yer new snuff is treating you wrong, but for evidence of its validity we need look no further than that fount of online mirth, Funny or Die:

That’s right, friends. We now live in a world in which movie stars line up to perform in a promotional short for a young banjo wiz’s latest album, a world in which said banjo wiz appears on Late Night with David Letterman, a world in which a hot banjo picker can dream of winning a $50,000 prize. In some ways, that New Yorker cartoon encapsulates the weird intersection of banjo culture and celebrity, for it’s obvious that the guy in the drawing isn’t some anonymous Deliverance-era hillbilly; he’s very distinctly and recognizably Noam Pikelny, the aforementioned banjo wiz and winner of the inaugural $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Banjo and Bluegrass.

Noam Pikelny: celebrity banjo ace or ace banjo celebrity?           (Photo: Compass Records)

Not to take anything away from the majesty of the banjo, but it’s always possible that The Great Banjo Awakening will have all the permanence of a collagen injection. If that’s the case, it’s fair to ask: what’s next? The Age of the Dobro? I can see it now: Angelina “The Baker” Jolie stars in and directs It Don’t Mean a Thang If It Ain’t Got That Twang: The Cindy Cashdollar Story.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Tongue Tied: Bill Monroe at 100

13 September 2011

I’ve been thinking about the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth for over a year, and now that the date— September 13, 2011— is upon us, I find myself undone by the challenge of summarizing Monroe’s significance. It occurred to me that I should let the music do the talking, so I dug back through my cache of videos. I found several recent performances of Monroe tunes— or tunes associated with Monroe— both by up-and-coming and established musicians that I had yet to share, but none of the clips could encompass the breadth of the Father of Bluegrass’s achievement. If I picked an instrumental, I overlooked the high and lonesome harmonies; if I picked an original composition, I overlooked the old mountain tunes that Monroe revived. In the end, I felt it best not to offer the work of musical acolytes and offspring and instead to go back to the source…

The compositions that Monroe called “true songs” are among my favorites. They manage to sound as old as the hills, even as they tell tales drawn directly from Big Mon’s outsized biography. The number featured here, “My Little Georgia Rose,” is said to be one of these “true songs,” and now is perhaps not the occasion to spell out its presumed meaning in full. Let’s just say that a painful revelation may lie beneath its cheerful veneer. By most accounts, Monroe was complex and often difficult, yet however we may judge him as a man, surely a large part of his genius as an artist was his fearlessness in putting the whole sprawling mess of his life out there in his music.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to work my way through all the Monroe tunes I have in my collection. I’ve been struck both by how many of the tunes that he wrote or popularized have become standards, and how many more are still lying fallow, waiting to be rediscovered by another generation of pickers. Finally, I’ve been amazed all over again at how he used the vehicle of bluegrass to synthesize, adapt and reinvent the sounds of everything from the delta blues to the traditional music of the British Isles. He was a geyser of musical ideas, and we continue to be washed in that fountain a hundred years after his birth.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. A quick note on the Bluegrass Boys featured in the clip above: The banjo player is a very young Bobby Hicks, who is taking a break from his usual fiddling duties and playing Monroe’s own Vega banjo. Jackie Phelps— normally the banjo player at the time— is on guitar, and Ernie Newton is playing bass with a “brush bass” attachment that he invented. For the truly obsessive viewers who are dying to know, the announcer at the beginning is Faron Young.

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Cousin Curly in the Temple of Twang

12 April 2011

Before I get all distracted, let me show you this edition’s video, which comes from my travels to Nashville last spring…

From a certain point of view, the Ryman Auditorium could be seen as a microcosm of Nashville. Like the Music City as a whole, the Ryman is a really nice place that seems to hide its deep connection to bluegrass. While the back of the building is lined with display cases, you have to go to the third floor to find any significant bluegrass-related material. In some respects this isn’t a surprise, in that the Ryman hosts all manner of performances today, from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top. But while I’m sure that ticket sales for bluegrass acts aren’t keeping the auditorium’s pews polished to a fare thee well, I reckon that the streams of pilgrims who are paying close to twenty bucks for the backstage tour are primarily drawn by the venue’s storied past. No doubt many grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman home for several decades. If I’m correct about all that, it would follow that a good number of these are folks interested in an era when bluegrass was an integral part of the operation. So what gives?

But as I say, I found Nashville puzzling in the same way. A quick rundown of musicians based in Nashville reads like a directory of present-day bluegrass:

Alison Brown, Roland White, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Buchanan, Josh Williams, Valerie Smith, The Steeldrivers, Ron Block, Blake Williams,  Ricky Skaggs, Mark Schatz, Jerry Salley, Keith Tew, Gail Davies, The Infamous String Dusters, Melonie Canon, Casey Driessen, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch,  Daily & Vincent, John Weisberger, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Chiavola, Mike Bub, Larry Sparks, Tim Carter, Paul Brewster, Ronnie Reno, Tim O’Brien, Billy & Terry Smith, Fred Carpenter, Doug Dillard,  Tim May, Wayne Southards, Brad Davis, Barry & Holly Tashian, David Crow, Kevin Williamson, John Cowan, Mike Compton, Tim Hensley, Larry Cordle, Marty Raybon, Sharon Cort, Keith Sewell, The Chigger Hill Boys, Stuart Duncan, David Talbot, Ed Dye, The Grascals, Pat Enright, Scott Vestal, Donna Ulisse, The Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, Rickie Simpkins, Pat Flynn, Kim Fox, Pam Gadd, J.T. Gray, Tom T. Hall, Aubrey Haynie, Casey Henry, Tom Saffell, Randy Howard, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Eddie Stubbs, Vic Jordan, Cody Kilby, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, David Grier, Keith Little, Ned Luberecki, Del McCoury, James & Angela McKinney, Larry McNeely, Luke McNight, Ken Mellons, Patty Mitchell, Alan O’Bryant, Bobby Osborne, Heartstrings, The Overall Brothers, Continental Divide, David Peterson, Missy Raines, Lee & Elaine Roy, Carl Jackson, Darrell Scott, Jimmy Campbell, Ronnie McCoury, Larry Perkins, Larry Stephenson, Jim Van Cleve, Terry Eldridge, Andrea Zonn.

Whew. That’s just a start; I’ll bet there are literally hundreds more worth noting.  Even so, the music itself doesn’t even register as background noise. During my visit, I would regularly spin the radio dial from one end to the other. I never heard so much as a note that sounded like bluegrass. I know there is a vibrant house party scene in the Nashville bluegrass community, but that doesn’t explain why bluegrass isn’t a more visible— or, more the point, audible— part of the landscape.

But don’t get me wrong: I really like Nashville. As long as the Cumberland River behaves itself, it’s an elegant metropolis that also manages to be comfortable and friendly. Can’t wait for my next visit, by which time I hope I will have been granted the secret password and welcomed into Nashville’s occult (in every sense of the word) bluegrass scene.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Bill Monroe: Ninety-Nine and Counting…

13 September 2010

William Smith Monroe was born on September 13th, 1911. Yep, while we were busy playing the countless tunes that Uncle Bill contributed to the canon, the centennial of the “Father of Bluegrass” has been creeping up on us.

Monroe died in 1996, and while we no longer have him around to share his music and glare at his sidemen, there is a veritable army of masters of “Monroe Style Mandolin.” Among the upper ranks of this faithful cohort is Skip Gorman. Gorman has played a variety of traditional music. For many years, he performed with guitarist Richard Starkey as the duo Rabbit in a Log. As the name suggests, they favored repertoire from the dawn of Bluegrass. Gorman and Starkey still play together when they can. Here they are performing a classic Monroe fiddle tune in a workshop at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

That composition— “Get Up John”— uses a highly unorthodox tuning for the mandolin. Working from the lowest to highest strings, the tuning is AF#-DD-AA-AD!* Gorman tells the story of Monroe borrowing his mandolin to play “Get Up John” at a show in the late sixties. Gorman was just a lad at the time, and it was of course an honor to have the Great Man play his instrument. In truth, however, Monroe probably made the gesture so as not to risk busting a string on his own mandolin.** That tale, some version of which I’ve heard from more than one picker, seems emblematic of Monroe in many ways, in that it shows him at once engaging with the audience and operating from some squirrelly personal motive.

Although several Monroe tunes feature alternate tunings, in and of itself, that doesn’t define Monroe Style Mandolin. What does? Well, here’s a very partial list:

  • A percussive use of the right hand. In addition to inventing the classic “bluegrass chop,” Monroe’s playing was characterized by what mandolin ace Ben Pearce calls a “really aggressive and often rhythmic tremolo.”
  • Building lots of “open” intervals into his harmonies
  • Allowing open strings to ring while playing notes on a neighboring string

Monroe liked to talk about the “ancient tones” that he built into bluegrass, and those big harmonic intervals and chiming open strings did indeed forge a connection with music from bygone eras such as shape note singing and other still more archaic traditions.

But bluegrass— the genre Monroe helped invent— has never been purely a retrograde musical style, and Monroe was always equal parts throwback and pioneer. Ricky Skaggs, among others, likes to draw the connection between Monroe’s propulsive playing method and the early rock n’ rollers. Skaggs points out that Monroe’s boogie-woogie riffs on certain breakdowns prefigure rockabilly by a decade or so.

So, Happy 99th, Mr. Monroe. Cousin Curly predicts a Global Bluegrass Awakening this time next year, so let’s all keep practicing.

Yer Pal— Curly

* PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #1: There is some discussion out there as to the order in which the G string should be tuned on “Get Up John”— AF# or F#A— with the consensus leaning toward, “It don’t make no differ’nce!”

** PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #2: The risk of busting a string is mostly in returning to normal tuning, when you crank the top strings back up to E.

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Play Me “Liberty,” or Play Me “O Death”!

28 June 2010

Went for a run along the Esplanade in Our Fair City yesterday and saw that the scaffolding for this year’s July 4th festivities was already in place by the band shell. Yikes! As the old song goes, “Who knows where the time goes?” All of which is to say that it’s time for Cousin Curly to get his Independence Day video polished up and posted. Without further ado…

For those keeping score at home, that is Yours Truly’s fifth-rate uke and banjo uke strummin’ accompanying my own fourth-rate mandolin pickin’ in a third-rate attempt at homegrown multi-tracking cleaned up with some second-rate editing and first-rate software.

And yep, we had a heck of a view of the fireworks.  Thanks to some friends in high places, we were perched on a penthouse balcony, overlooking the Esplanade, virtually level with the fireworks. Highly recommended, but bring yer earplugs!

However those of you in these United States plan to celebrate our nation’s birth, its love of pyrotechnics and its advances in brewing, be safe and have fun.

Yer Pal— Curly

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New Wave New Grass?

28 May 2010

Time for some more souvenirs from Merlefest.  Here’s a video entry about Elvis Costello’s main stage set with his roots supergroup, The Sugarcanes:

Say, is it just my imagination, or is it actually the case that you can’t do these just-one-man’s-opinion video entries without sounding like Andy Rooney?  In my Excellent Online Adventure, I’ve been throwing all manner of stuff against the virtual wall to see what sticks, and so far it seems like the opinion pieces not only don’t stick; they just hang there for a second and then come crashing to the floor.  Just one man’s opinion— dang, there I go again.

In any event, hope my ugly mug didn’t get in the way of your appreciation of Elvis & Co.  The two performance clips I’ve stitched together here actually show his band cutting loose a bit more than was the case during the show as a whole, and even so, they’re pretty battened down.

While it seems odd that Costello would go through the trouble to assemble so much instrumental firepower, only to have the musicians keep their powder dry, this approach is very much in keeping with his formation as an artist.  Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, but younger or older readers might need to be reminded that the punk and new wave scene from which Costello emerged in the mid-1970’s largely defined itself as a reaction to the excesses of the “album rock” of that era.  Back in the day, jamming was anathema to Costello and his fellow Young Turks.  If a song didn’t fit into three minutes, they just played it faster.  Although Costello shed his punk veneer long ago (that’s a very natty suit he was wearing at Merlefest), my guess is that he’s still resistant to any extended improvisation.  It doesn’t seem to jibe with his whole sense of songwriting craft.

Yer Bloviatin’ Pal— Curly

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