Posts Tagged ‘Steve Earle’

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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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Three Tall Pines Branch Out

22 September 2012

Earlier this summer, the Boston-based group Three Tall Pines posted a video of an infectious ditty called “Going to Grey Fox.” Where better then to catch up with this quartet than at their home-away-from-home, The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJQcYg9SHx0 w=427&h=240]

Like so much of the best stuff that happens at Grey Fox and other fests, this performance took place away from the stages— just a beautiful moment in the early evening captured among tents and trailers.

Songwriting is a particular strong suit of this group. The composition in this video is “Tire Chains,” an original tune that can be found on the band’s 2011 release, All That’s Left. With its evocation of small town and rural life, its loping rhythms and its twangy vocals, “Tire Chains” offers a good introduction to the world of Three Tall Pines. While these guys are very much part of Boston’s burgeoning roots music scene, they don’t seem to share some of their compatriots conflicted relationship with bluegrass. As their Grey Fox anthem suggests, they answered that high and lonesome call long ago. They have been baptized in bluegrass, washed in the blood not just of murder ballads and fiddle tunes but also more contemporary strains of the music. Indeed, overall, their sound seems more a product of soaking up the currents of the last twenty years of bluegrass, country and Americana music than the study of folk traditions. To put it another way, I hear more Steve Earle and David Rawlings in their songs than Dock Boggs and Robert Johnson.

As I mentioned in an earlier post from this year’s Grey Fox Festival, a generational shift seems underway at that sprawling confab of musicians and music fans. With the passing away of so many pioneers of bluegrass, the mantel of elder statesperson has been passed to the generation of Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, leaving room for an army of twenty-somethings to stake their claim to the music. Three Tall Pines are definitely soldiers in that army, but they’re not at war with the generation that came before them.

At the very end of the “Tire Chains” video, you can hear someone say, “Bill Keith,” as if to acknowledge the good vibrations that came from recording in the shadow of Bill Keith’s iconic teepee, the beige structure visible directly behind the band. Keith’s musical approach, which shifted the emphasis away from chord patterns and toward melodic and chromatic runs, transformed banjo playing in the 1960’s. Once a Young Turk, today Keith is a benevolent godfather and guru to the generation of Three Tall Pines, Della Mae, The Get Down Boys and many other acts. His teepee is therefore a fitting symbol of the bluegrass tradition, a culture that at once endures and evolves.

How many members would a group called Three Tall Pines have? It’s a trick question on a couple of counts. For starters, the band consists of four pickers: Dan Bourdeau (guitar and vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin and vocals), Conor Smith (fiddle and harmony vocals) and newcomer Nick DiSebastian (bass and harmony vocals). But the group also draws on a circle of friends and collaborators, most notably Avi Salloway, who has worked with them as both sideman and producer. That’s Salloway you see on slide steel guitar and harmony vocals in the video. Salloway is currently working with Three Tall Pines on a new album, so depending on how you count, expect to hear more from this trio, quartet or quintet soon.

Yer Pal— Curly

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