Rocky's roots: 20th century women

Life was desolate and cold out on the eastern Montana prairie where I spent the first six years of my life. I was very sick as a young child with respiratory problems induced by a collapsed lung at birth and was frequently hospitalized. Because of my ill health, much of my time was spent indoors doing less physical activities. My preliminary introduction to using my voice came from singing songs with my father who grew up on a farm in Montana. He had learned a handful of cowboy songs from his mother's cattle ranching side of the family alongside his girl cousins (The Holsti Sisters) who performed at fairs and other events in the community. When my dad wasn't around to sing and play with me, I would spend countless hours at home singing along to various Disney movies and the The Wizard of Oz (Judy Garland's voice has influenced me from the first time I heard her sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I listened to that song over and over until I had it memorized. It was one of the first songs that I learned how to sing on my own and perform.

My family moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota a few months before my 6th birthday to a community with more opportunities for children to be immersed in the arts. Still, there weren't a whole lot of singing opportunities for children outside of school, church, and singing along to the radio. If learning songs from contemporary country radio stations and the two pop/rock radio stations we received in the area didn't satisfy you, as a kid the only other option you really had to learn music and sing with other children (without paying for music lessons or seeking out “special” opportunities) was to participate in children's musicals and other theatrical performances at the one historic community theater in town called the Matthew's Opera House located in Spearfish, SD. Having the opportunity to participate in this theatre community sparked my interest in learning more about the vocal styles of cabaret and vaudeville. In junior high I was introduced to the booming voices of Broadway pioneered by singers such as Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters. I knew that if I ever wanted to have a singing career that I needed to get to work fast. Enough about me and where I've come from. Let's take a look at some of the women who are the reasons why I am the way I am today.

Leontyne Price- My high school choir director introduced me to this soprano when I chose to sing Handel's aria Bel Piacere for the annual Solo and Ensemble Contest that year. I listened to a recording of her singing the aria and instantly felt a connection with her voice as she sang passionately in Italian. Price was born in Mississippi in 1927. After intense vocal training at the Juilliard School in New York City, Price rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera. Her rich, warm, undertones support her bell-like upper register and her delivery of words is immaculate. She has been my favorite voice in classical music for years.

Joni Mitchell- Mitchell was one of my biggest influences when I began writing lyrics as a late teen and young adult. Mitchell was born on the Canadian prairie in 1943. This multi-instrumentalist songwriter has been called “one of the greatest songwriters ever” by Rolling Stone. She began her career by performing in Saskatchewan's nightclubs and frequently busked the streets of Toronto. In 1965 she moved to the United States where she began an active career touring with her remarkable songs. She instantly found success with her clean yet raspy wide range and captivating songs filled with poetic imagery. Mitchell's 1971 hit album, Blue, was rated the 30th best album ever made in “Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. This album is definitely worth a listen if you haven't heard it already.

Edith Piaf – Piaf was born in 1915. This French Cabaret singer, songwriter, and actress has long been regarded as one of France's greatest international stars. Piaf most notably performed songs of love, loss, and sorrow weaving in autobiographical mentions throughout her lyrics. One of her most well known songs is “La Vie En Rose” (1946) which has touched the hearts of many people throughout the decades. I truly believe “La Vie En Rose” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Considered as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Piaf's voice and music spirit lives on globally.

Bessie Smith- Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894 and was the most popular female blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s. It's no surprise that she was given the nickname, Empress of the Blues. One notable song of hers is “Nobody knows you when you're down and out.” She is very important to American history given the era of her performance career and being an African American woman singer. She used her bluesy pipes to sing her way through the depression and also found work performing on Broadway. The recordings I've listened to are, of course, old and a bit fuzzy but I enjoy listening to them nonetheless. She has a smooth lower register that packs a punch with her swoopy, seductive styling and she'll grab your attention with a wicked belt during the climax of her songs. There's a heavy charm to her vocal performance and she'll leave you humming the blues all day.

Ella Fitzgerald- Fitzgreald is a legendary American Jazz singer. She was born in 1917 in Virginia and has a beautiful wide sweeping voice that she immersed in swing, bibop, jazz, blues, and traditional pop. She is known for collaborating with Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington who recorded several notable songs like “Cheek to Cheek” and “It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Aint got that Swing)”. Fitzgerald's voice always puts a smile on my face. She sings with strong animation and has phenomenal pitch over her challenging scat solos. There's nothing like listening to an Ella on a rainy day.

Maybelle Carter – Born in the mountainous region of Virginia in 1909, Carter grew up learning to play the autoharp, guitar, and banjo. She is a notable American country musician and singer who was an original member of the Carter Family. Mother Maybelle, a nickname given to her, would use her thumb to play melody lines on the guitar while keeping rhythm with her other fingers on the high strings. Her voice is one of my favorites to hear and sing along to. She has a deep and soothing vocal tone, like a lazy river in the sumer, that fits perfectly with her driving guitar style. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family's vocal lines were very influential in helping me learn how to sing classic country vocal harmonies.

Consuelo Velazquez- Consuelo was born in Mexico in 1916. She is a notable concert pianist, songwriter, and recording artist. In 1941, She wrote the song “Bessame Mucho” and it became an international hit. The way she sings and performs touches my senses in a way that only a woman who sings love songs in Spanish can do.

Astrud Gilberto – Gilberto is the female singer on the hit bossa nova jazz song “The Girl from Ipanema” which was recorded in 1964. She was born in Brazil and emigrated to the United States in 1963. She was given the Latin Jazz USA Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992 and was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

~R

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'!

-J

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'
-Jeff

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!

-Jeff