Otherlands, 614 S. Cooper, Memphis, Tennessee
November 18 & 19th from 8 PM to 11:30 or thereabouts
$10 @ the door, $15 for both nights
Donations gratefully accepted

Over the course of two evenings, a bunch of diehard Memphis musicians
will be playing their hearts out for some kids who live as best they
can in the small city of Jinja, Uganda. Once a thriving industrial
city, it has been much reduced in recent years, leaving orphaned
youngsters to the mercies of the mean streets of Jinja. A young social
worker named Wanda Moses took it upon himself to create a space for
some of them, to feed them and give them a bed, and to enroll them in
school, as best he could without much local help. He organized the
MONIC Children’s Center www.monic-youth.simplesite.com a few years ago
and has been struggling to maintain it ever since.

Enter our local heroes, just the ones you might suspect: Nancy Apple,
Steve Selvidge, Eric Hughes, Zeke Johnson, the duo of Don McGregor and
Steve Lockwood, Andy Cohen (accompanied by the fabulous Martha Kelly),
special guest out-of-towner Shelton Powe, and Moses Crouch’s band
Memphissippi Medicine. Over the course of two nights these
indefatigable stalwarts will groove and holler, pick and sing the
blues and the twangy country songs, and songs of their own, that have
made Memphis and the South in general legendary as the fountainhead of
this beautiful music.

Pulled an all night drive a couple days ago, from Asheville up I-26 to just below Bristol, then backtracking back to 23 on 421, up through eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky to Portsmouth, Ohio, to Circleville and ending in Fredericktown. As I drove, I kept passing the birthplaces and homes of my musical heroes, one after another. Fiddlers and bluesmen, singers of the old love songs, all lived along this road, and still do. I felt as though I was recapitulating some core history, bouncing through the dark, guested by ghosts.

I left Asheville around seven. Asheville is home to the Asheville Folk and Dance Contest, which the native folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford created out of a flower show in 1928. In the ensuing ninety years, fiddle tunes have become one of Asheville’s main exports. I was headed here, to Kim and John Walsh’s place. They are supporters of old time music, their community and its traditions, and of me. I am a perpetual student of this music, and through the whole drive I felt surrounded by it.

North of Asheville is Madison County, where Sheila Kay Adams lives. She is a living example of  continuity in tradition, descended from half a dozen of Cecil Sharpe’s and Maude Karpeles’ World War I era informants, cousin to many locally well-thought-of musicians living and dead, and a key teacher and singer of those ballads her own self.

A few miles north brings you Johnson City, Tennessee, which fiddler Clarence Horton Greene immortalized in his ‘Johnson City Blues’ back in 1928, not long after Cecil and Maude went home to England to write up their findings. The Down Home Pickin’ Parlor is there, owned and run by Ed Snodderly, himself the nephew of one of North Carolina’s best ‘hornpipe’ fiddlers, Mack Snodderly. It was also the home of Bud’s Gyp Joint, but that’s  a whole ‘nuther story for another time.

John called me just as I was crossing the Tennessee-Virginia border to redirect me away from I-81, as up-and-down a road as exists in this country, back west to US 23, the Hillbilly Highway. Good move. A lot shorter, and a lot flatter. I pulled onto 421 and headed west toward Kingsport, where Leslie Riddle had lived. Mr. Riddle, a black guitar player of some local note, was friends with the Carter Family and also with Brownie McGhee. Brownie had wanted to go on the road together with him; their guitar styles were nearly identical. Leslie opted to stay home, to go collecting instead with A. P. Carter. Living at the Carter Fold for months at a time, I think it is likely he had something to do with Mother Maybelle’s famous ‘Carter Scratch’ style. But who knows? Nevertheless, his knowledge of blues flowed into the Carter style, and his help with A.P.’s collecting likely helped prepare the Carters for their ensuing career on radio and in shows.

I wound my way west to US 23 — 421 is pretty snaky — and headed north. About twenty miles from where 421 and 23 split lies Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The Martin Family lived and played music there. Carl Martin, late of the group Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, learned to play guitar, mandolin and fiddle from his blind older brother in their family band. Later, out on his own, he took up with Bogan and Armstrong as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. He recorded some 78s, the best of which is his twelve bar version of Crow Jane (most versions are eight bars). Not only was the picking as good as it gets, but his gimmick of snapping his fingers into the mic at propitious moments in the song made him one of the elite guitarists of the day.

Onward and northward to Salyerville, off 23 on 114 a bit to the west of my route. This isolated area was home to a concentration of highly regarded fiddlers and banjo players. John Salyer — farmer, soldier, fiddler of crooked tunes, teacher, judge — lived near that town. Following a three year stint in the Philippines that ended in 1904, he took the long way home by ship. After developing a hefty reputation as both a hoedown and a solo fiddler, Salyer was approached by a local recording rep whom he famously turned down flat. Luckily some ninety of his fiddle tunes, solo and otherwise, were preserved on home recorded 78s. The area was also home to Snake Chapman, Paul David Smith, and scores of other musicians.

Eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio are thick with fiddlers. Portsmouth, at the pointed southern tip of Ohio on the Ohio River, was home to any number of them, but among the best was Buddy Thomas. He died in his sleep at the age of thirty nine, from the cumulative effects of the poverty he was born into. His Rounder recording, ‘Kitty Puss,’ full of crooked Kentucky fiddle tunes done long-bow style, stands tall, maybe by itself,  in that literature.

Not half an hour from Portsmouth is Circleville. Tony Ellis lives there. He is Steve Martin’s favorite banjo player, lyrical and intelligent. Both his playing and his conversation are articulate. Tony played banjo for Bill Monroe back in the early fifties and, when he got off the road, married and raised a family in Ohio. His son Bill, my best buddy, was named for Bill Monroe. Bill now teaches music at St. Michael’s in Vermont, but his basal musical education came from backing up Tony. When Bill and I became buds, it was over the music of Reverend Gary Davis, the blind genius who taught half the rock and rollers of the sixties how to get around on their instruments. Bill’s dissertation on Davis is the best such work to date.

US 23 bumps into I- 270,  Ohio’s belly button. It contains, among other things, a high concentration of  old time musicians my age and younger who are continuing the old repertoires and creating new music on their own. Ohio is the recipient of streams of musicians from all directions; you can dance there every night of the year if you’re plugged in enough. Another forty-five minutes brought the dawn and my arrival to a needed bed. I fell into a short and exhausted sleep thinking about how I was linked to history, fiddle tunes, blues numbers, all the different forms of Southern music that form the bedrock of most of the world’s music now. These are the people that made it what it is in all its glorious rhythm, intensity and eccentricity.

These musicians are like distant family to me and all of my own kin and contemporaries. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the matrix in which I find myself. I’ve futzed with the fiddle for more than four decades now, and at seventy I find I’m just about getting the hang of it. I am truly blessed to be thus embedded.


Andy recently wrote a piece for the online publication The Whole Story. Here it is.

My Story with the Blues

I’ll be seventy soon, and with the acceleration of culture change, I’m my own history. I was born into a world where my father wrote legal documents in pencil on lined paper and my aunt typed them. The mail chute was right outside the office door.

I learned to type by ear. My dad bought an electric typewriter for the office and brought the acoustic one home. I listened first to 78s of the Weavers and Woody Guthrie, then to vinyls of the Firehouse Five +Two and Tom Lehrer. I first heard Tom Lehrer on a ten-inch LP in 1952; I was six.

When I was about fifteen, my high school librarian gave me a Folkways record of Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee being interviewed late at night on WFMT by Studs Terkel. That was it. They all first recorded in the late twenties, early thirties. That’s my music.

In 1943, a ban on recording was instituted by James Petrillo, the head of local 212 in New York City, that lasted for sixteen months, almost to D-Day. He was afraid his member musicians would be replaced by those evil nickelodeon record players known up North as juke boxes, and down South as “Pick-A-Lows”. During that interval, styles changed drastically. When it was lifted, solo guitar and piano players were pretty much gone, replaced by combos with electric instruments that could penetrate larger dance halls, and also, create new sounds. The old country blues of the twenties had intermixed with Gospel and Jazz. It was still dance music, but the dances were different. This is the mix out of which Rock and Roll emerged.

Those old blues didn’t entirely go away. There were some younger players among them. Though many of those have now passed, some very old ones like John Dee Holeman, a few ‘younger’ ones like Larry Johnson (about 75), and Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes (68, younger than me) hang on. Most hearteningly there is a significant clutch of native speaking 20-30-40-somethings who have taken up the study of pre-blues and early blues.

In my lifespan, styles of music have come and gone. Some, for whatever reason, retain their adherents and inspire new ones. I watched as something like five hundred 78 collectors who would gladly murder one another over a Robert Johnson in decent condition, cooperatively helped an Austrian guy reissue every extant blues and gospel 78 from 1890-1943. That’s the entire recorded history of an entire people for more than half a century, sampling every region, every medium, every available instrument combination, every secular, social and religious circumstance, the poetry of farmhands for the most part, something like 25,000 songs. A Canadian brokered the deal and a German immigrant financed it for the North American rights. A large chunk of the collectors were secular Jewish lefties, like me. There are some huge personal collections and some very old and wobbly collectors who would nevertheless still murder you over that Robert Johnson 78.

I’m stubborn. I don’t put pickups on my old guitars. I want to sound like the pre-war guys as much as possible. They’re all dead, and I watched and counted as they went, until the last one, Honeyboy Edwards, the last human to speak to Robert Johnson, passed away in 2011. I was in the last generation of outside observers, able to watch this process over half a century, so I feel a need to keep a line-of-sight clarity between the old guys, me , my generation, and a younger generation of players who are nothing if not diverse. I am heartened that this is what’s happening.

Some things, of course are changed. Nowadays, any fool with a computer and a microphone can make a CD, and many do. But the studied ones, the ones that identify with their own 78s acquired from junk stores as though flung to an unlikely future, I’ve got my money on these guys. We have YouTube, the Document series, the Blues and Gospel Discographies, and the errata and addenda for those, there are tons of books, the whole Blues Trail, magazines, the Blues Foundation, a whole little industry. That ain’t the world, but it’s not nothing either. What makes it real is the people who see it for itself and follow it, regardless of background.

What there aren’t, are the pre-war blues people who started it all just by being themselves, and a whole lotta people like them who didn’t get recorded. To me, that’s a restricted fraternity to which you can’t belong anyway because all the members are dead.

Just a couple of passing thoughts: first, I’m a white guy. I can’t be a bluesman anyway, and I would be ineffective if I tried to be. I can’t be an Eskimo either. But I can learn from them. Second, I don’t have any illusions about the romance of a life that brings about the blues. I wouldn’t want to live one. Dave van Ronk, a notable commentator on such subjects, once told me he would trade every great song ever written, if all those people didn’t have to suffer and die.

There is still wisdom in studying them — I’m interested in what the old guys did when they weren’t playing, what they did for work. And if I knew all their medical histories, I’d also know a lot about their communities at the time. And then there’s the music.

Just like people still learn Latin even though it’s not spoken much conversationally, people still learn blues because it’s pretty basic, and so many later forms, from hillbilly to bop, are based on it. Like anything else, when you start examining it closely, it differentiates into individual statements. I figure, if I can swim around in it for the rest of my life, I might get somewhere with it, and that’s okay.