Friday MOLD columnist Larry Carlin
Friday, May 29th, 2015
Will the circle, be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better, home a waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
The song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” from the album of the same name, Volume III.
Hooked on bluegrass. One of my favorite parts on the CBA website is the Hooked On Bluegrass section, where people tell how they first come to love the music. On weekends, the site features a few postings in the News section above. Of course, you can simply go the office Hooked On link and read the stories any time you want to. And hey, if you have submitted your story, it is easy to do. As for my version, here is what I wrote ten years ago:
“I started playing rock and roll as a kid at age 14 while growing up in a little log cabin in a hollow in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Then one day a few years later a friend from the neighborhood came by to play some music, and instead of bringing his Fender Stratocaster as usual, he brought his Guild D-35 acoustic. He said, ‘I want to show you some cool stuff I learned at the music store where I teach guitar,’ and he proceeded to play ‘Black Mountain Rag.’ Soon after I heard this I got out my acoustic guitar to accompany him, and I’ve been playing mostly unplugged ever since.
“It was around this time that I also started listening to the Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume I triple album. Man, talk about a bluegrass gold mine! I was soon hooked on bluegrass.
“A couple of years later, while attending Penn State University in rural central Pennsylvania in 1974, I saw an ad one day in a music store for a band that was looking for bass player to fill in on gigs when their regular bassist had another commitment. The name of the band at that time was Mason-Dixon, and I soon became their alternate bass player. I played with them for a year or so before they changed names and went on the road. I stayed behind to finish school, and have been playing bluegrass bass since that time.
“Oh, Mason-Dixon went on to become known as Whetstone Run, and some of the members that went through the band after I played with them were Chris Jones, Lynn Morris, and Marshall Wilborn. Man, if I’d only known what was to come...”
Unbroken circle. Speaking of the Circle album, discovering that in 1972 was truly a game-changer for me. The two sequels are great as well. Whenever someone unfamiliar with the music asks me, “What recordings would you recommend to someone that wants to listen to bluegrass?” I simply tell them to get any one of the Circle gems. If you have never seen the video of the recording of the actual song on Circle II it is well worth watching right here, right now, if only to see the singers that are no longer with us, such as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Chet Atkins, Levon Helm, Roy Huskey Jr., and Jimmy Martin. (Make sure that you also scroll down to the bottom of this column to read Randog’s take on why Bill Monroe was not on the original album.) While you are at it, there is also this wonderful live concert video of the songs from Circle III that you can watch. My only lament about the actual “Circle” song is that these days I have been singing and hearing it all too frequently, as friends and relatives keep passing on over to Gloryland at a frightening rate…
Earl Crabb Tribute. Speaking of friends moving on, there will be a memorial tribute this Sunday the 31st at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley for my late friend Earl Crabb, and it will be open to all comers. Some of the featured performers will be Maria Muldaur, Bobby Neuwirth, Geoff Muldaur, Phil Marsh, and Eric & Suzy Thompson. As you tell by the names here, Earl had some might fine friends!
Still dancing after all these years. If you still remember actor/comedian Dick Van Dyke, you are showing your age. Who even knew that he was still alive? At age 89, the man can still cut some rug, and he looks pretty healthy. Check him out dancing in this video by the band Dustbowl Revival.
Bridge over troubled water. Everyone loved the sounds of the folk duo Simon & Garfunkel from back in the day, but few knew that the two were not exactly the best of friends. Hey, Art, tell us how you really feel about your singing partner!
Brian and Sandy. On Saturday night June 6th, at 7 p.m. at the High Street Station in Alameda, Brian Godchaux & Sandy Rothman will be playing some fiddle and banjo duets to celebrate the release of their new CD The Red Fiddle and the Silver Banjo in a shared evening with vocalist/guitarist Pat Nevins and members of Echo Trail.
Turn your radio on. If you are looking for some bluegrass or many other kinds of acoustic music this weekend, just go to KALW (91.7 FM) bluegrass radio show host Peter Thompson’s Bluegrass Signal web site and you will have no trouble filling your social calendar. Be sure to tune in on Saturday the 23rd from 6:30-8 p.m. for a show titled Across the Tracks, which will feature new releases and reissues, with music from, among others, Sally Van Meter, Big Country Bluegrass, Band of Ruhks, The Grass Cats, Sideline, Pharis & Jason Romero, Brian Godchaux & Sandy Rothman, Sue Massek, The Steeldrivers, and Jimmy Martin (recorded live in 1969).
Music calendars. There are a handful of shows listed in this column today, but if you want to find out what kind of music is going on in your area, as stated above, look at Peter Thompson’s calendar or also check out the CBA or the Northern California Bluegrass Society events listings. Also, buy a Sunday SF Chronicle and hold on to the Pink Section all week.
Coming attractions. The Huck Finn Jubilee has an all-star lineup of acts set for Ontario, CA, on June 12th-14th. Everyone is going to the 40th Annual CBA Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley on June 18th-21st. The Kate Wolf Festival in Laytonville, CA, will be happening June 25-28th. At the Lassen County Fairgrounds on on June 26th-28th the 6th Annual Susanville Festival will feature Karl Shifflet, Ron Spears, Red Dog Ash, and more. The Bowers Mansion Festival in Reno, NV, with Blue Highway as the headliner, will be celebrating 30 years on August 14th-16th. Go to all of the links for complete info listings.
Man in the know from Music Row. Raconteur and music maven Randy Pitts of Nashville is this column’s frequent and knowledgeable commentator and CD reviewer. Here are three commentaries and one recording review.
Randog on Will the Circle Be Unbroken I:
Why did Bill Monroe not appear on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark album Will the Circle Be Unbroken I? Naturally enough, the band sought out The Father of Bluegrass' participation in what would turn out to be a pioneering and important album in the history of "his" music. And many of his contemporaries – some might even consider three or four of them Big Mon's peers – eagerly accepted the opportunity to participate. Mr. Monroe, however, was more circumspect. "Nitty Gritty?" he reportedly said. "What's that? Nits is like lice, ain't they? Why would I want to make a record with a bunch of boys with head lice?" This might not be a true story, but it was related to me by a once and future Blue Grass Boy as being the factual reason why Bill is not on that particular recording...
Randog on Robbie Fulks:
I recently watched two videos in quick succession of Robbie Fulks, one in which he is accompanied by Red Meat, in which Smelly Kelly introduces the song, and another in which Missy Raines plays bass. If asked, I would have said that the odds of more than one person in the world knowing both Smelly and Missy were pretty long; therein lies the greatness of Robbie Fulks – he not only knows 'em both, he can make credible music with both of 'em.
Randog on the song “He Was a Friend of Mine”:
There was a great story in The Oxford American’s “Music Issue” in December of 2013 (alas, it is not available on the web) about the origins of one of my favorite songs from the folkadoke era, usually called "He Was a Friend of Mine." I know it as performed by Dave Van Ronk, and evidently ol' Bob Dylan liked it too ( so much so that he “wrote” it), but he also said that he learned it from Blind Arvella Grey, a habitue of Chicago's famed Maxwell Street, which seems highly unlikely, but what're you gonna do? And anyway, how can you both compose and learn a song from Blind Arvella Grey? It is another of those prison songs collected for The Library of Congress by the estimable John A. Lomax. It was called “Shorty George” on The Library of Congress recording, and was performed by Inmate # 82157, at Clemens State Farm in Brazoria, TX. The guy was doing time for murder and eventually gained a pardon through his singing, but died shortly thereafter. Incorrectly identified on the Library of Congress recording as Smith Cason, his actual name was Smith Casey. I've never heard the original recording, but sure would like to. There's lots of other good stuff in Oxford music issue as well, and a recording of a whole bunch of diverse Texas music. Oh, and Dylan probably learned the song from Eric Von Schmidt and Rolf Cahn, which is probably where Van Ronk learned it, too. He sang it at Phil Ochs' funeral. Don't know why Dylan felt the need to drag poor Arvella Grey into it, especially if he wasn't gonna split the royalties with him or something...
Randog's Daily Pick May 28, 2105
The Cooke Duet Early Cooke Duet
Freeland CD FRC-CD-647
KPFA radio host Tom Diamant was playing one of the songs from this recording on his radio show one day, and about a verse in, I had to call him – "What is THIS?" I'm sure I gasped. As I recall, he said he'd been turned onto this stuff by an article in The Old Time Herald by Alice Gerrard – at the time, these recordings were only available on cassette, and were only regionally distributed. Hubert Cooke and his wife Jeanette, both from Wise County, VA, were married in 1951 and began recording gospel music in 1962. Their earliest recordings, from which this CD was taken, are some of the rawest, emotion packed music of any kind I've ever heard. Jeanette's voice in particular is extremely powerful and expressive. They accompany themselves on their Gibson Hummingbird guitars in a percussive strum – to say their technique is rudimentary would be kind, but it works perfectly with the material. The Cookes later incorporated other family members into the act, and their shows have been a force in southern gospel for over half a century, but this CD, and perhaps the next two reissued by Dick Freeland, are the ones to have for lovers of the old style. Hubert Cooke was the late bluegrass great Jack Cooke’s brother, with whom he and a third brother had a bluegrass band for a while. I wonder if any recordings of any kind exist of that group? Outstanding cuts here are “It's Me Again Lord,” “Banks of Jordan,” “I Can Call Jesus,” “Ain't No Grave” (The Brother Claude Ely classic), “Is My Lord Satisfied With Me,” and “I'm So Happy.” The most intriguing cut is “There Must Be a Power,” a Hubert Cooke composition, which is melodically identical to Wynn Stewart's hit “Waltz of the Angels.” I wonder which one came first? There is more to be done here; stay tuned.
Comments, questions, quips and tips? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info than you need to know about Friday MOLD columnist Larry Carlin, go to his Carltone web site. Missed a Friday MOLD? Don’t fret, just click here or here to read past columns.