From the record collection: Blind Boy Fuller

One of the best parts to a semi-remote location is the need to get in touch with more "old school" mechanics. Since we started living in the Ozarks we've gotten much more in touch the record player which pairs well with our love of old recordings. One of the frequent records we spin is by the late Blind Boy Fuller. The record, "Truckin' my blues away" features a great illustration by R. Crumb which is probably why it ended up in our collection. 

Fuller, real name Fulton Allen, was a talented and often underrated bluesman of the delta blues era. Like many of his contemporaries only a few photographs exist but his recordings are what really matter. Legend has it he lost his sight to "Snow blindness" in his teens to early 20's. He had already learned guitar but started to play more as his sight left him. He played a lot of rags, and walking blues, and often let his low brow humor shine. ("what's that smells like fish" is  great example.) aside from his signatory style he played everything on his National brand duolian guitar which used to make the record execs nervous because it was so loud. During his sessions he would sit in a chair and have a man behind him poke him gently when the "recording" light went on since he couldn't see it himself. What he produced afterwards was some of the the most influential music of it's time. In his lifetime he would play tobacco houses, and taverns, or even on the sidewalks of whatever city he was in oftentimes with a washboard player as you sometimes hear on his recordings.

His playing style is distinct and a perfect mix of complex and simple. Using no finger picks he plucked his guitar in a bouncing Piedmont blues style that many try to emulate today. He used to play slide too, until he learned to finger pick and decided he liked that better. His slide playing can still be heard on a few select recordings and you can tell on some songs he got his licks from his slide days. ("walking my blues away" is a great example)

He spent sometime in jail as well which formulated some of his material. He had a great relationship with Sonny Terry as well as some ties to the Reverend Gary Davis and Booker White. One mystery that I wish would be solved is where his guitar ended up. (Booker White's is in England apparently) He died 1940, due to organ failure, most likely from heavy drinking. He did teach Brownie McGhee quite a bit, and after his death the record execs tried to label poor Mr.  McGhee as "Blind Boy Fuller 2". His influence is very apparent on Brownie McGhee's recordings. 

All in all, I love his music. His song structures often remind me of contemporary music and I really see his influence stretch across the American soundscape. If you're unfamiliar with his material it's worth a listen and he's one of the most "accessible" blues men of his time. 

Thanks for readin'!


The Harmonica

Ah yes, the harmonica! I remember the first time I heard one on a Bob Dylan record; it was consequently the first time in my able memory I recall hearing the sound of someone playing it with the guitar. More importantly I remember the first time I heard Sonny Boy WIlliamson play one. His sound kicked the front door in and marched into my inner psyche and sand-blasted his grit into my soul. The instrument has a deep place in American music, and is, surprisingly to some, a very versatile instrument.

I love the harmonica. It's one of my favorite instruments to jam with and is the most impossible one for me to explain how to play. Regardless of my personal abilities with it and my own impressions it has wonderful utility. It comes from Europe, but has been in America since they started making them. Abraham Lincoln famously played one and carried one around in his pocket. As a matter of fact at one of his bigger presidential debates his rival at the time, Senator Stephen Douglas, was reported to have booked a brass band to fanfare his entry to the debate stage. When asked how he felt about this Lincoln simply said "The harmonica will do it for me" Over a century later the harmonica became the first instrument to be played in space.

There are two main ways to play the harmonica. (and many other ways after that) The way I mostly play it called "cross-harp". You play the harmonica by bending the reeds with your embouchure creating that signature squeal.  This of course changes the key and will put you at a fifth above the standard tuning of the instrument. Because of this harmonica players often end up with countless harmonicas littered around their homes or workspaces. In order to play in any key I end up carrying around 12 different harmonicas, one for each key. There are other types too. If you ever see Stevie Wonder play it he has that little button on his. He tends to favor the chromatic harmonica which has a slightly different tone but allows one to play all the notes they'll ever need on a single harmonica. There are of course, many other styles and strange hybrids as well. Harmonica orchestras used to be quite popular all over the world and the types of designs they demanded to produce the sounds they needed are a thing of manufacturing wonder. Oftentimes when I go to antique shops I see relics of this time in harmonica history collecting dust and rusting away on a  shelf somewhere though I've never had the bravery to try an antique harmonica. Due to it's unique nature as an isntrument you actually breathe through entirely when you play it it's not a shareable instrument and a used harmonica is seldom played, it's kind of like someone else's toothbrush.

Despite it's need to sometimes create a collection to begin playing different keys I would recommend it to anyone; whether a musician or not it's simple to just toot around a few notes and really easy to get to a point where you can just sit down with a friend and play a song or two. The beauty of it is it's ability to be spontaneous, portable, and ready at any moment. When I first started playing with the harmonica holder on my neck I'd just pop the right key in and play into it with no regard to what I was doing and it always worked fine. Nowadays I apply a little more technique but it's still just as curious and mysterious as it ever was. 

Thanks for readin'

Welcome to our blog

Greetings folks!

Thanks for checking out our blog page. We'll be keeping up with all the places we go and the things we see and do along the way here. Also, we get asked a lot of questions about our instruments, songs, the artists we draw from, and the songs we write ourselves. We'll be sure to keep you not only informed about us, but we'll talk about our music and the things we use to make it. If you have a question you'd like to see answered shoot us an email or talk to us at a show and you just might see it pop up here.

As for today, I'd like to talk about the term "Roots music". Namely, what does that mean and imply to us and what do we hope it says to our listeners when we use that term. It gets said a lot that American music has a complex and mixed history when it comes to our musical heritage, it's long considered the birthplace of the blues, jazz, and certain kinds of pop and rock styles as well. It has also given us the banjo, and arguably the autoharp, mountain dulcimer, and others. Suffice it to say, whether we invented the instrument or not, the rich heritages and cultures that crossed paths in our old American cities swapped techniques, songs, rhythms, and stories together that soon made the music we have today. When I think of American roots, I don't think about blues or jazz as they are now, I think about Scott Joplin penning the now famous "Maple Leaf Rag" or Stephen Foster writing "Oh! Susanna" even before that. There were others before them, but many more after them. Their long shadow over American music casts down upon the songs of Woody Guthrie, the trickling notes of Duke Ellington, and in between those men the bouncing and busy guitars of Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, and Robert Johnson to name a few.  When I think roots, I think of these times. To me, the 19th century composers turned songsters are kind of like our musical seeds with the recording artists of the 20's 30's and 40's reaching into the Americana soil and adding to that sound the nutrients of our core values and issues at the time, racial tensions, economic disparity, bank robbers, train hoppers, steam boats, and highways.  It is my wish to not stay firmly planted in this era of music but to let it permeate the fabric of my songs, I know Rocky feels this way too. Preservation is important of course, and I always hope that more people look into our roots and find the common musical heritage that's a part of all of us. Music has changed a lot from the days of peddling songs on staff paper from minstrel show to pub trying to get published but I believe our core values have never changed. Maybe you have a different image in your head wen you hear "roots music" and I'd love to hear it! Whatever the case may be, musicians are often self-defined and that's a large part of our definition. 

Thanks for readin!