In recent years my musical horizons have broadened. At first I put this down to simple nostalgia. Now well into my seventies, I have certainly found myself remembering how –much earlier in my life – I first discovered bluegrass, old time, jazz and blues music. The challenge of playing bluegrass quickly took over, primarily because that was what was in demand at the time, and for the best part of forty years it kept me busy trying to play faster and fancier. I made some progress, on a strictly amateur level, but I now recognise that I have slowed down with age and can’t play like I once could. The real discovery has been that I no longer want to play only bluegrass. Of course I still love listening to everyone from Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Lester and Earl, right through to my more recent discovery of Chris Thile and Michael Daves – check out their YouTube videos of songs like “Little Girl of Mine In Tennessee” for a demonstration of how they bring classic bluegrass into the 21stcentury.
But nowadays I also listen to a wider range of music, and I’m intrigued by where it has all come from. The history and development of blues, jazz and country music (in the broadest sense) is now well known, and so much is available to listen to on line as well as via the records you buy. It’s never been easier to find the music. Recordings made in the 1920s and 30s are available in a multitude of re-releases, many of which can be downloaded directly at very reasonable prices. My most recent purchase was of a set of 22 blues tracks by Peg Leg Howell & Eddie Anthony recorded in 1926 – 1928 and downloaded from Document Records. And it has been a revelation to discover that so many field recordings are now available to listen to on line at the Library of Congress, like Alan Jabbour’s recordings of the fiddle player Henry Reed.
I’m also encouraged that jug band music (which doesn’t always have a jug up front) has quite a following. I was initially drawn in by a double CD of the Memphis Jug Band. Their recordings like ‘Stealin’, Stealin’’, ‘KC Moan’ and ‘You May Leave But This Will Bring You Back’ are classics, and you may also recognise ‘Cocaine Habit Blues’ as being the precursor of Charlie Poole’s ‘Take A Drink On Me’ and the Greenbriar Boys’ ‘Take A Whiff On Me’. All this music has its roots.
It’s even more encouraging that younger people are discovering the old music and playing itfor themselves. Meredith Axelrod in San Francisco has a large collection of recordings of old songs, many of which she has learned to sing and play in the style of the period they originate from. Her live CD with Jim Kweskin (of Jim Kweskin Jug Band fame) ‘Come On In’ is a fine example of her approach to the music. Like Jim on the recording, I learned that Mississippi John Hurt’s song ‘My Creole Belle’ is in fact the third part of a longer song called ‘Creole Belles’. Meredith knows and sings (beautifully) the whole song. She and her partner Craig Ventresco (fantastic guitarist!) have also been entertaining the world for two hours every evening (!) during lockdown by performing live on line from their apartment. Check YouTube and meredithaxelrod.com for lots of their videos. This is revivalist music and they perform it with great skill and enthusiasm.
Mention of Jim Kweskin reminds me that Maria Muldaur, a member of the classic Jim Kweskin Jug Band, has recently recorded a jazz album with Tuba Skinny, ‘Let’s Get Happy Together’. This is a lovely collection of songs, some of them not too well known, with Maria doing the vocals and impeccably supported by my favourite New Orleans band. Definitely one of my top albums of the year.
Whatever music you play and listen to I hope you all have a most enjoyable and rewarding musical journey as we travel onwards through the fall and winter.