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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Establishing the Euphemism OR Blues III: From the Bars to th Folk Clubs

Seems like the Blues class rolled around again quickly this week. The folk/Blues nexus was on the menu, and the enigmatic Mark Dvorak was the featured speaker.

Why enigmatic? Well, put it this way: Aieeee! Indigenous Banjo!, and last week. Also, as M put it: He's kind of like Mr. Rogers---he speaks calmly and soothingly. It seems unlikely that Mark Dvorak ever wonders if he's going to have to choke a bitch. If your skin is crawling, either because of the banjo or because of the comparison to Everybody's Neighbor, you're way off base.

Mark's personal website indicates that his core competency is bringing music to groups that are diverse in age and/or experience (muscial and otherwise) and turning it into something both musical and social (in particular, click on the "Old Songs & New People" link on his site). Although I find some of the quotes from reviews on his personal website amusingly sedate, the comment that he accomplishes this "without silliness" leapt out at me. Ok, actually, as I read further, the person being quoted talks about treating the music with the "dignity in which they were conceived," so perhaps the ambiguously indicated commentor and I are not on the same page.

At Old Town, Mark teaches a few of the core guitar classes (right now, he's teaching higher level classes, but I don't know if that's usual or if he's just been moving along with a single class) and the spontaneous folk ensemble. He's also the "historian" for the Old Town School's Song Book, tracking down information on the songs included in the book as well as the folks who wrote and/or made them famous. I'm not overly familiar with him, because he isn't one of the regular Thursday night teachers, but I have heard people rave about the spontaneous folk ensemble. It's a voice and stringed-instrument group and one of the few that has no specified skill level required for either.

Having before read the description at the Old Town School website, I had been scared away by the emphasis on paperlessness (had a bad bad bad experience early on in my guitar "career" with a different Old Town School "old timer" who worked this way), but even more so regaring working well with others (remember, my stage manager bio was: Runs with scissors and does not play well with others, which is why she spends performances locked in the booth). Having now seen Mark in action, though, I wouldn't have any fear about walking into that situation, knowing he was at the helm.

As for getting a taste of his m@d 5k1llz today: People were filing in a bit later than usual, it seemed, because of some torrential downpour just before 10. Mark was sitting at the front, plucking away at Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" as people found their seats, and although Skip did give a brief introduction, that kind of informality set the tone. Through much of the next hour and a half or so, he would talk and play softly at the same time. If you're me, this kept you in constant anticipation of him saying: "'round about now, those Duke boys had made ol' Roscoe madder than a centipede with bunyons." Fortunately for most of you, you're not me, and you probably were able to enjoy the effectiveness of the technique unimpeded.

As has been typical of the sessions so far, Mark was able to cover a lot of ground and interesting material within a session that superficially seemed unstructured. (He himself kept referring to his "rambling." I am a rambler from way back. You, sir, are no rambler.) If opening with a pre-1900, non-Blues song seemed odd, he explained right away that his approach was very much to explore the form of music to see the connections in different genres. To illustrate, he then played "Careless Love," a song that Bessie Smith made famous in a 1925 recording. "Careless love" is quite pointedly not Blues: It's on the OTSFM song book, for cripe's sake!

More seriously, it's the requisite folk 16-bar format and the first line repeats three times, rather than the Blues standard of two repetitions. But then there's the content, which is undeniably Blues ("I used to wear my apron low" vs. "Now those apron strings don't pin"). Is it Blues? Is it Folk? It was a great demonstration of what would be one of his overarching points, namely that genre distinctions are largely a marketing problem that became more complicated as music became more commercial. Bluesmen and folk singers, who are most often blissfully free from fear of commercial success, have traditionally been able to skip worrying about such distinctions.

Having laid bare the formal relationships between Folk and the Blues, he went on to talk about the typical musical experience and exposure of early Blues musicians as they moved out of the heart of the South. Obviously there was a physical meeting of cultures, but music was also becoming available on a larger scale with the maturation of the recording industry and the birth of radio. In contrast to our current experience of 50 stations' worth of crap, Mark pointed out (ok, he is a very nice man, so he said nothing about crap), people would have been exposed to cowboy songs, bing crosby, old time folk, and so on, in the same place. Thus, no one was readily able to choose hunkering down at a spot on the dial and ignoring the bulk of musical genres.

In case anyone was interested in arguing this point, he pulled out the big guns and told a story about Muddy Waters (anyone feel like stepping up and questioning Muddy's Blues street cred? [In the interests of full disclosure, I now find that I am not 100% sure whether this was about Muddy or about Leadbelly, but the street-cred challenge and my chuckling stand either way, and I'm about 98% sure it was Muddy]) that still has me chuckling. I don't know when Mark began his historian duties for the OTSFM, but I'm guessing it was after Muddy's death in 1983; however, the way he told this made me think he had it first hand from a musician who played with Muddy. Apparently, one night, shortly before a show, a woman came to the stage door and was enthusiastically welcomed by Muddy who took her into his dressing room and shut the door. The band was nervous because they were just a few minutes from a sound check, but no one wanted to be the one who interrupted what they assumed was a little "Careless Love" going on (see what I mean about the Euphemism?). Finally, someone steeled himself to do it. He pressed his ear to do the door and heard the unmistakable sounds of Muddy and this woman singing Gene Autry songs.

To bring things back around to folk, specifically, again, he talked about Alan Lomax's "discovery" of a young man named McKinley Morganfield. (It's funny, Alan Lomax goes down to find Robert Johnson [who'd been dead for a while by the time he thought to look] and instead stumbles across Muddy freakin' Waters. And people still say it was Robert [or Tommy] who sold his soul.) He didn't dwell on the point too much, but certainly the breadth of styles in which Muddy was encouraged to record early on is partly an accident of the fate the decreed he be popularized by a musical historian, interested in absolutely every nook and cranny of Muddy's musical influences, rather than a label that wanted to pay him as little as possible to record marketable sides.

This prompted a return to the loaded question of the week, which turned out to be exactly the same loaded question as last week, namely our white guilt reminder that no Blues musician ever made any money, and no Blues musican ever played for white people until the 50s. I've voiced (electronified?) before that this is a two-edged sword for me: I want to hear more about the economics of early Blues, but I'm irritated the manner in which it's been brought up each week. In the last two sessions, both Chris and Eric demurred from commenting much, not because of any desire to sweep it under the carpet (at least not in my opinion).

Mark had a few data points to add, though, again drawn from his work on the song book. He talked about the so-called two-way picnics at which Black musicians played, serially, for segregated groups of picnickers (oooh, the fakelore etymology for picnic rears its head, once again paging to the white courtesy phone). The topic came up again with regard to Brownie McGhee (whom Mark got to interview over two days in 1994). Contextually, this seemed related to the assumption that only someone in dire straits indeed would live in Oakland. For the record, Mark described the house Brownie owned as "modest" (which totally tweaked my delicate Midwestern "We do NOT talk about how much a person's house cost!" sensibilities but good) and noted that the car parked in the driveway had the plates "Walk On," because "Find My Way Home" was the song that was his big moneymaker.

Backing up a bit, though, Leadbelly was a major topic of conversation, which brought us to our shiny new instrument of the week, namely the Stella (!) 12-string by Ralph Bown. For Leadbelly-demonstration purposes, he was in standard Spanish guitar tuning (E B G D A E from high to low), with the E, B, and G string pairs tuned to identical notes, D and A tuned an octave a part, and the low E string and its partner tuned two octaves apart. As usual, the initial appeal of the 12-string for Blues musicians was the desire for the instruments to be heard over the crowd. However, as is evident in the persnicketty and highly personal approach to tuning, the 12-string also gives ample room to create a personal sound.

If you're going to talk about Leadbelly, "Midnight Special" is the natural demonstration piece to use and Mark got to it eventually. First, though, he talked about "Fannin Street (Mr. Tom Hughes') Town," which is autobiographical. The street constituted Shreveport's Red Light district, where young Huddie Ledbetter visited his uncle, a piano player in a brothel who told him "look straight ahead, boy." (I think we have a Sportin' House hat trick going so far, although I can't remember in what context Eric brought it up, but my sense of symmetry demands that he did.) Mark referenced Leadbelly's own story about the song and how when he was "wearin' long pants," he just couldn't stay away from Fannin Street and everything it implied (both music and sex, of course, in good Hokum style), and told of his own experience of looking for the street and the district and accidentally heading the wrong way down the hill from the Church at Fannin and Douglas, only to wind up in the very white part of town.

When Mark did make his way around to "Midnight Special," he talked a bit about the metaphors of the song, including the "Special" itself: Although the midnight train itself brought prisoners into Sugar Land prison, its head lamp was thought to bring luck to a prison if it shone its ever-lovin' light on him. As has been typical of these sessions, I knew about the bit of folklore, but for the first time I thought about the role the Lomax brothers played in getting the perennially-in-trouble Leadbelly out of prison, I wonder if the Special really did shine on him. Second, he talked about "jumpin' Judy," the guard's bullwhip, which woke up the prisoners and signaled the beginning of the work day. (And he was gracious enough to admit that he'd taken "Judy" to be a woman, too, until he got into the research.)

Turning back to the folk scene again, Mark brought us a bit further forward in time by bringing up the Newport Folk Festival and what I assume most people (myself included) would have thought of as being the "real" Blues/Folk collision in the '60s. Specifically, he talked about Mississippi John Hurt whose original "discovery" was fairly traditional. A traveling representative of Vocalion came to Mississippi in 1928 and he auditioned. His trip later trips to Memphis and later New York to record for Okeh had left him burned out on the recording experience, and the Depression conspired with this to bring his early career to an abrupt end.

In the 1960s, Tom Hoskins showed up on his doorstep having headed down to Avalon, Mississippi, with nothing but a lead from the song and a directory listing. According to Hoskins, Hurt opened the door and he could just see his guitar leaning in the corner, as if he'd just put it down. Mark played "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" to demonstrate Hurt's self-taught style. Hurt prided himself that he learned on his own and played guitar the way he thought it ought to be played (and recordings I've just hunted down certainly bear out the fact that he was a shit hot player with an unmistakable sound), but it's interesting that even though he came to Blues in comparative isolation, it's all there---the folk, country, jazz and native Blues all come together, which is convenient for the theme of this session.

And speaking of distinctive styles, my addled brain is now recalling that, throughout, Mark inserted brief demonstrations of the different Blues styles: "Memphis, Delta, Piedmont, Texas, and the Reverend Gary Davis," as he said. Although he wasn't as didactic in his demonstrations (I have the feeling he doesn't think of the guitar as "his" instrument, despite the fact that he, too, needs killing), he once again mentioned the connection between guitar style and piano. This point being emphasized by everyone makes me unsure whether I should congratulate myself on my choice of instruments to play or shoot myself for sucking at both.

The last portion of the session was well spent in recounting Mark's first-hand accounts of interviewing Brownie McGhee (For those of you who don't click links, shame on you! But also: "I didn't make too many records with Leadbelly. The truth about it, Lead had his 12-string guitar, and I was playin' a steel National. My guitar was loud as hell, and I had no sympathy for anybody else." Gotta love it) in 1994. He sheepishly admitted that he'd brought his guitar in the hopes of getting to play with Brownie, but found himself too shy to bring it up himself. After spending the first day and much of the second sitting with Brownie in his front driveway as he minded he grandkids, one of the kids finally asked why he'd brought his guitar. Mark told him he'd been afraid that it would get stolen at the hotel, to which the kid replied, "Nuh uh, you want Uncle Brownie to play it!" The shame of being busted by an 8-year-old appears to have been well worth it, though, because Brownie took him into the house (which was lined with plates he'd bought for his wife, one in each country he'd visited in his career with Blind Sonny Terry).

Brownie apparently had a piano and much of his career memorabilia in a converted pantry. After playing a bit of "Find My Way Home," he demanded that Mark play him something on the guitar. Being human, Mark was apparently a bit nervous, but had the presence of mind to break into a bit of the simple dissected chord style that he'd learned from books that were supposedly put out by Brownie. Given this, Mark was understandably nonplussed when Brownie asked where he'd learned to play like that. When Mark said, "Your books!" Brownie smiled and said, "I never wrote no books."

Mark's fearlessness gave us another interesting Brownie tidbit. Mark said he'd been warned not to ask about Sonny Terry, because the scuttlebutt was the two had not gotten along. (Brownie is rumored to have said that he lived in Oakland because Sonny lived in New York: "I'd live in Guam if I knew the language.") Presumably on some kind of natural high after playing with and for him, Mark asked anyway and was pleased that Brownie spoke affectionately and said they'd been friends for 40 years, even if they hadn't always gotten along.

Mark then played his own "One Couldn't Run, One Couldn't See," (about Brownie [crippled by polio] and Blind Sonny Terry [literally, not metaphorically blind]) then, which would probably have been the last song if the crowd hadn't demanded that he play the sorely neglected banjo. He obliged us with the "Worried Man Blues," which got people singing softly and nervously and brought the postsession talk back around to racism and exploitation. During the course of the session, he'd remarked that the history of American music is really a history of racism. I know the idea isn't his alone, but his as the overall shape and content of the session revealed.

In writing this, it sounds as if Mark rambled more than he did. On the one hand, it's usually safe to blame me for rambling. On the other, he did ramble in the most positive sense of the word. I feel like I was on a long, relaxing walk on a pleasant day with a great storyteller. I'd say Old Town and Oakton are three for three. Go SCHOOL!

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