Trying to Drive my Blues Away

"liner notes" for a collection called:

The American Standard Sourcebook - John Diebold

When my band, the American Standard Stringband perform, we celebrate the lively sound of the traditional music of what is, in a somewhat large sense, "our" area, the US east coast. To appreciate what we mean by "traditional" requires knowing where we learned these tunes [an often-asked question.] The simple answer is: "from records" and often, from records by men and women of our generation, or by people just a little older than us. Like many other would-be folklorists of our "folk revival" generation, though, it wasn't long until we wanted to trace these sources back -- to find out where the artists from whom we'd learned the songs had learned them. In most cases, the answer was: "from records" And so, we were in luck. Since we're not the only ones working on this problem, and since the digital revolution has incited a whole new re-generation of the existing collections of old shellac records, much of the "original" material is again available on CDs, and in better form than what has been seen since the original records came out.

I was a lucky boy, in that my parents, while in college at Swarthmore during the '30's, had been encouraged by persuasive leftists (eg, Heywood Broun, Jr) to listen to and buy records by "race" performers, including Bukka White, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Leadbelly (family legend has me seated on Leadbelly's knee down in NYC sometime before his death in 1949, when I was 5). As a result, I think I knew that there was something "before" the Kingston Trio, even when they took the teenage country by storm in the late '50's and early '60's. One major source of information was the Lomax's major (and well-timed) publication "Folk Songs of North America" (Doubleday, 1960), with its famous "how to" chord charts in the back. We learned that Folkways, still producing Woodie Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly records, was also recording young folks, only a little older than us, who were making some kind of living flogging the old songs. And so we learned the folk process -- "where the hell do these tunes come from? -- maybe the guy I learned it from didn't really get it right, and I could, if I did a little research." At the same time, those aforementioned other ones were cranking out the reissues, and my good old Dad was buying them and giving them to me as birthday and Christmas presents, and eventually, I learned how to find Sam Goody's original 6th Ave. store, where the really cheap records had no jackets, and holes punched through them, indicated that they were for "airplay only".

Meanwhile, I started to learn how to play the guitar -- at the age of 15, while dancing in front of the record player as it converted Leadbelly's "You Can't Lose-a Me Cholly" for the thousandth time, I had the realization: "if I could play the guitar, I wouldn't be chained to this record player anymore" --. For me, the beginnings of learning how to play the guitar centered on a tattered paperback copy of the "Burl Ives Songbook." My dad had most of Ives' records, and I knew the tunes by heart. Learning consisted of picking a song I knew from the book, and learning the chords from the fingering patterns printed above the music. Naturally, songs with a minimum number of chords (two or three) were favored at first. It turns out that this is a reasonable way to start out -- hang the right hand and picking patterns, learn the chords! And I did.

After surviving Nyack High School (where nobody but me and my girlfriend, Jessica, played) I hit the big time when I went to Cornell in the fall of '61, and subsequently to Greenwich Village, where I was given brief and infrequent, but personal instruction by friends like Richie Wiener, Dannys Kalb and Hamburg, and many others (lenny Schecter - and from John Chernow I even learned "Dallas Rag"). More serious work was done during the nights that we could afford the cover at the Gaslight or wherever, and go see Dave Van Ronk and Doc Watson strut their stuff. The process of rediscovering old blues greats was just getting underway. Due to connections my kid sister, Beatrice, had with the Ontario Street crowd in Washington DC,I got to hang around with and learn a little from Mississippi John Hurt. While still at Cornell, the after-concert parties with people we hired, and an exhausting but unforgettable trek to the Chicago Folk Festival in January, 1962, gave more stylistic input (I jammed with Big Joe Williams and his 9-string guitar!). There was a guitar brotherhood -- friends would pick up (or work out) riffs and pass them on. Richie Wiener learned Dick Rosmini's arrangement of Jellyroll Morton's "Sweet Substitute" (he never said where or how) and face to face with Richie, who played it on his left-handed Gibson Roy Smeck guitar, I learned the chords ca. 1963. Just my luck, I'd already learned the words from a reissue of Jellyroll's hot fives, sevens and solo piano; a 16th birthday present from my father, so I was ready to go with that one, and I've been playing it since. - BTW, if you want to get in touch with Richie, try Yellow Cabs in San Francisco.

After I left the city again, I fell into the larger music world, which, I'd discovered, was growing in Rockland County. Steve Calt was just starting his career as a delta bluesologist, and his ethereally beautiful sister, Maggie, was the only gal around who could play Charlie Patton tunes better. My main men in the old blues area, however, were the brothers McNichol -- the proficient but unsystematic Dennis, and younger, more methodical and modest Kenneth, who still sits in, upon occasion, with the ASSB. Both boys had trekked down to Queens for personal guitar lessons with Reverend Gary Davis, and I learned a bunch of second-hand Davis stuff from them. I'd been exposed to "the Rev." at [the original] Gerde's Folk City where he was often led by a kid I knew named Stephan Grossman, who later made a career teaching other kids how to play that way. The best progress I ever made, "Rev"-wise, however, was during my last pre-student 3-month cruise aboard the Conrad, when Kenny McN lent me his imitation-Big-Bill-Williams 9-string guitar, and a couple of tapes. I learned "Get Right Church", note by note, and worked a lot on the other one or two "Rev" tunes I can play.

Now, it turned out that the Rev started out as a blind street musician in Durham, North Carolina during the 30's [oddly, I spent several years there as a kid in the early '50's - the Rev was there, but we never met.] During that time, he played and recorded with Blind Boy Fuller, one of the exemplars of the "Piedmont" style I love to [try to ] play. The roster of other influential "Blind-you-name-it" musicians is quite long. To me, the two premier dudes were the dead, black Blind Blake, and the living, white, Doc Watson. I've learned a lot of songs from each -- from Blake's records only, while having the blessed experience of actual interaction with Doc W. [Once in Gerde's basement, he played my old Martin; his judgement: "sounds great, but the action sucks"]

 

I do most of my playing solo (as a WVBR DJ at Cornell, I snuck my guitar playing into my folk show as "Ed Baker", a reference to Etta Baker, whom I very much admired) and I've been involved in only a few bands. I've learned, however, that a dedicated (and hot) group can generate energy much greater than that of the sum of its parts. At the 1961 Nyack High School talent show, "John & Jessica" performed what we were sure was an authentic folk song of the Kentucky coal miners: "Dark as a Dungeon" {copyrighted, it turned out, by Merle Travis only a year or two before.} No matter, in a few years, Merle became my guitar idol (he still is.) In late '61, I met the Goodwin brothers, Jeremiah and Michael, who remain good buddies to the present day [jeez, guys, it's been well over half a lifetime!]. Mike had a fantastic influence on my rapid development of self-confidence, basic knowledge, and material in general. He was president of the Cornell Folksong Club, big cheese at the student radio station, and chief projectionist at the student center. I was deeply interested in all three areas, and once I became his protégé, I mysteriously became treasurer of the CFC, signing checks for Joan Baez, Theo Bikel and Ray Charles, but most importantly, for people like Doc Watson and Jesse Fuller. Like all good folkies of the day, we three [Mike, Jerry and me] formed a band - The Thompkins County Ramblers, with me and Mike on Guitar, Jerry playing banjo, each of us switching to washboard or jug as the occasion required. We practiced a lot, performed a couple of times -- we even got paid once, for a coffeehouse show at Harpur college in Binghamton, NY [1962]. We once copped a photo op in Izzy Young's Folklore Center on McDougal St -- we uncased the instruments and a confederate snapped the shot just before we got kicked out -- Izzy never held it against us. Got our picture in the paper for playing a benefit with that band. Once we all got busted for marijuana conspiracy in 1963, we didn't even think of playing much together. I didn't do any official ensemble playing for a long time after that.

I started working at Lamont Geological Observatory in 1966, and spent most of 1967 and '68 at sea. Sometime during the next year, I worked it out that I had to get a bachelor's degree in *something*. Geology looked easy, and Colorado was far from the sea, so that's where I went. During 4 years there, I accumulated a lot of time playing with some good local buddies, who all seemed to like the conga drums, but there were no public performances. I met a couple of guys who influenced my base of material, notably Mad Jeffrey Richardson and Charlie Archer (Where art, thou, Charlie?) who had good taste, and an outstanding collection.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that (a) geophysics was for me, and (b) graduate school was a necessity [I think I noticed that you never learned much of consequence as an undergraduate] Why this matters in this particular narration is that the imminent threat of one doctoral rite of passage, the oral exam, coupled with my life-long affliction with stage fright, led indirectly to the formation of my current group, the American Standard String Band. Sometime during the fall of 1976 [?] I had reached the point in my studies that I realized I could probably cover the material, but I was still worried about freezing solid as a result of stage fright. One night, out of the blue, I got a phone call from John MacEvoy, I guy I did not at that time know, who claimed to be about to start a coffeehouse in Piermont, and asked if I'd play music. Before letting myself think too much, I said "yes", and so I opened at and with the now sorta-famous Turning Point. I played every night for the first week, and every week for the first few months. "pay" involved the infamous "passing of the jug" and the donations therein [shades of Greenwich Village coffeehouse days!].

As the place became successful and famous among musicians, the competition grew, and my schedule devolved to a once-a-month kind of thing. About the same time, I was feeling the pressure of the solo act, and solicited the help of banjo and guitar ace John Polinsky, and his old friend, Jon Svibruk, who plays washtub bass and jug (but not, unfortunately, at the same time.) John P. plays several styles of bluegrass banjo, and since we'd been playing together since 1974, I knew most of his songs. Conversely, we shared interests in the Jug band songs popularized during the '60's folk revival, which led to the blues and ragtime stuff I specialized in. We all needed money, and once-a-month wasn't really enough for us, so we started playing at several other venues, including "Lock stock and Barrel" on rte. 303 in Blauvelt, and the Old Fashioned in Nyack, along with weddings, benefits, and whatever else we could get. There were days when we played three jobs, and came home with bleeding fingertips and sore throats. For 3 or 4 years, we played the yearly Memorial day "Bluegrass Fair" in the town of Piermont, and exhausting, all-day gig.

It took some time to arrive at a name for the band We started as "John Diebold and Friends", switching quickly to the relatively obvious "John, John and Jon." The need for a snappy name was apparent, and suggestions were made, including "Major Ozone's Fresh Air Crusade" and "The Casa Jellybean String Band" -- you can tell what we were reading -- but when the "American Standard" idea arose, its porcellainic perfection was immediately recognized and the name unanimously adopted. This would have been in about 1980. Shortly, young Paul Peabody Jr started playing fiddle with us [as he said, "John John Jon and P.P." still fit the "American Standard" theme pretty well.]

With very few additions, we've been playing pretty much the same material for the last 25 years, and I have the playlists to prove it! We do learn new tunes -- usually for their outrageous quality [Dropkick me Jesus, for example] and we brush up on old ones, but it's pretty embarrassing, overall. However, I like to think that we've started and stuck with the best, and that's what this collection is all about.

- Side 1 -

Dave Van Ronk learned "Sweet Substitute" from Dick Rosmini. He and I, apparently, learned it from the Jellyroll Morton recording we start with, but I still play Rosmini's guitar part. Van Ronk also learned "Candyman" from the Rev (Stay tuned for volume II, where we'll collect more of the actual versions we learned as kids. Volume III, of course, is the ASSB playing, if we ever get around to copping the studio time.) I learned "Railroad Blues" from a version Tom Paley did with the New Lost City Ramblers. It was only in 1994 that I finally tracked down a decent copy of the Sam McGhee recording Tom learned it from. Sam does it better. I'm proud to say that I learned the next four songs directly from the artists presented here (or, more correctly, from their recordings). Some of these came out on Sam Charters' "Origin Jazz Library" series, others were presents from Nick Perles and Yazoo Records. What's behind our version of "Rag Mama" really exemplifies the so-called "folk process." John P. and I heard this tune [I recall] played by Kweskin's band. Somewhere along the line, I "wrote" an instrumental version called "Transoceanic Rag" which had the same tune, plus a turnaround that we play, even today. Since I never got around to writing any "Transoceanic" words, and the "Rag Mama" words fit just fine, we've reverted to calling our version "Rag Mama," which, of course, stems from the Blind Boy Fuller side.

Everybody seems to do some version or other of the pistol/caliber song ".32-20" but Skip James recorded it first, as far as I can tell, and it doesn't seem to have changed much, except perhaps during faulty transcription of the words by British collectors during the '70's, and somewhat more disturbingly, by American researchers, who should really know better. Us Americans, with our gun-oriented culture, and closer connection to the US slang of the '20's, avoided some of theSe pitfalls (See Steve LaVere's version, included with the Columbia Robert Johnson boxed set.) Thanks to the oddly time lagged two-LP set of Robert Johnson reissues on Columbia, we've also learned "Dead Shrimp Blues" from the original, and we often substitute the words of the similar "Phonograph Blues" to the same arrangement. One of these days, we'll learn the words to the other two or three musically identical songs Johnson recorded, greatly increasing our efficiency.

"Buddy Bolden's Blues" and "Windin' Boy Blues," whose vocals I learned from the Jellyroll Morton originals, were also picked up by Dave Van Ronk, and certainly the arrangements used by the ASSB owe more to Van Ronk (and Dick Rosmini) than to Morton. Both these songs have historical content. Buddy Bolden, who is said to have recorded (no recordings have ever surfaced) led what is commonly regarded as the first jazz band, in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Guitar player Frankie Dusen (mentioned in the lyrics) was famous for composing suggestive and scatalogical lyrics, and may have written the original version of this song. The expression "funky butt" became permanently attached to Bolden, his band and their music somewhere along the line, and is immortalized in "Buddy Bolden's Blues." When it comes to Mississippi John Hurt's "light and swinging" style, I did contact the master directly, as mentioned above, so I can claim some kind of authenticity for the way we play "Creole Belle" and its earthier [and lengthier] counterpart, "Richland Women Blues," having learned them more or less at his knee. Next, we come to another of my true idols, Blind Blake, perhaps the most technically advanced of the "East Coast style" fingerpickers (others include Blind Boy Fuller, Buddyboy Hawkins, Reverend Gary Davis...). Blake seems to get rediscovered every five years or so. His songs have been re-done by Leon Redbone and Ry Cooder, among others. As soon as I heard reissues of his sides, I knew he was my kind of guitar player, and I've managed to learn a few of his easier numbers, including his most famous hit, "Diddie Wa Diddie", included here.

 

The next two numbers represent a step backward in our chronological development. A rediscovery of jug band music was an essential part of the transition from the smoothed-out, homogenized reworkings of "folk" music, a la Kingston Trio and the Limelighters to the kind of feelgood music we tend to play today. The '60's brought Dave Van Ronk and a plethora of young, white jug bands, playing their versions of the uptempo, raggy songs they learned from old 78's in their friends' record collections. A lot of those disks were recorded by the Memphis Jug Band, a loose confederation of players centered around the trio of Will Shade, Charlie Burse, and Jab Jones. Ben Ramey sings and plays kazoo on both sides included here.

-- Side 2 --

Robert Johnson upgraded Son House's pistol to a larger and more commonly available caliber - .32-20. He also made this classic (it's been recorded dozens of times since) 12-bar blues jump. This is the version I heard first, included in Columbia record's classic "King of the Delta Blues Singers" Robert Johnson reissue (early '60's [or late '50's?]), A collection that influenced a lot of players, including Eric Clapton. Another influential East Coast picker was Blind Willie McTell (The Dead's version of his "Statesboro Blues" was a big hit). McTell's rag in A, "Kill it Kid" has always been one of my favorites (so easy to play! -- and the words are cool, and you can understand what he's saying...).

"...Big River Blues" gets us into the country/bluegrass section of this collection. All of us fell in love with Doc Watson's version of this classic (which he usually calls "Deep River Blues"), but Doc was always scrupulous about relating his sources, and in this case, it was a record by the Delmore brothers, an amazingly popular duo who recorded from the '30's into the '50's. This is a fairly early number of theirs, but the characteristic tight vocal and instrumental harmonies are there. They got their big, big hit in 1946, with "Freight Train Boogie,", whose success triggered an avalanche of other boogies (Hillbilly Boogie, Steamboat Boogie, Mobile Boogie,...) that set the Delmores into an uptempo rut to oblivion.

"Nine Pound Hammer" was an early entry in the Diebold/Polinsly repertoire - we discovered that we both knew it the first or second time we played together. I don't know where JP got the tune - maybe from this classic recording, made by the group that more or less invented bluegrass as we know it today - but I learned it from what now seems a really horrible record, Billy Faer's "Travelin' Man" on Riverside, a collection of smoothed-out treacly versions of classics given me by my father sometime in the late '50's or early '60's. For all its failings, this album did attempt to do for the yet-poorly discovered phenomenon of bluegrass what the Kingston Trio had done for folk, and I did learn a couple of tunes from it (including "Roll on Buddy", another A.S. String Band favorite). I even picked up the ascending run of chords that J.P. loves so well from Mr. Faer.

Back in the '60's, when bluegrass did catch on in a big way, there was a trend among the smug city players to collect quaint and funny songs (eg, A Whole Lot More of Jesus, Willie Roy the Cripple Boy,...) and some of the quaintest came from the once-popular Bolick brothers, Earl and Ray, who appeared under the name "The Blue Sky Boys." The ASSB has also performed their "S-A-V-E-D" (one of the "funny" ones) and even "Turn Your Radio On," but "Are You From Dixie" is real bluegrass, and a big hit with our southern clientele.

I learned "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" (as I did so many songs) from Doc Watson, but this is the Ur-version, by the early and very influential Charlie Poole. I picked this one up early on, since although it was bluegrass, it had that familiar ragtime-style circle-of-fifths progression I find so easy. I think I was also in love with the play on words in the bragging verse: "I've played cards with the king and the queen.... The ace, the deuce and the trey."

I learned "Hot Corn Cold Corn" entirely from Mr. Polinsky, who never told me where he got it. It's a great tune, and the words, inclusive of the drinking and eating aspects of corn, are deep. While putting this collection together, I found a Flatt & Scruggs CD with "Hot Corn Cold Corn" on it, and bought it without a second thought.

I learned this classic bluegrass ballad "Footprints in The Snow" as a Cornell student in 1961, probably at a folksong club meeting or maybe even at the radio station. Jerry Goodwin was, at the time, my major bluegrass connection, and he may well have played this one for me for the first time. Naturally, John Polinsky had been playing it for years by the time we got together. He may well have learned it from this Flatt & Scruggs recording.

Introducing a small selection of the subset of bluegrass that the ASSB seem to like so much - truck driving music- is Dick Curless' "A Tombstone Every Mile". For some reason this one is a favorite of Luisa M. Svibruk. I've never figured out why, but I don't care - I've always enjoyed singing the low notes in "..It's a .. stretch of road, up north in Maine, that's never, ever, ever seen a smile..." I heard the song for the first time and learned it from a tape that Tapeworks maestro and ex-co-musician Mike Goodwin made sometime during the early '70's.

"Widow Maker," and a taste for Jimmy Martin's syncopated mandolin playing and tight arrangements, came from Jerry Goodwin during the Cornell days. This one also scores under the "quaint and funny" category, especially with Wanda Ann and the Truckdriver's Code. We often sang this song in a capella harmony in the car during road trips (as a harmony treat, it's right up there with "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and the Fiesta's "So Fine.") Naturally, I was gratified when it turned out that John P. liked it as much as I did. We've been performing it since the beginning.

Another in the group of "quaint and funny" songs that John P. and I both picked up independently before we met is "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight ," which I learned from this Greenbriar Boys recording. I'm working on the source from which they picked it up - one of those things I would have asked Johnny Herald next time we met but now, it's too late. Johnny took his own life in 2005, perhaps suffering from the knowlege that old folkies don't necessarily have medical and retirement plans. It's too late, also, to ask Ralph Rinzler - he died in '94. Anyhow, the tune is a familiar retread, and the words are great in a Tin Pan-Alley-maudlin kind of way.

"Sitting On Top Of The World " is one of the crossover hits of all time. First recorded by the Memphis Jug Band, it was covered by bluesmen, black and white, bluegrass bands, and even in the western swing style of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Although the original version is available, I include this rendition by Doc Watson instead. Fingerpicked in open D tuning, (Doc has been flatpicking it for about 20 years now), I find it lyrically beautiful, and I try to play it this way myself.

Although I learned the pseudo-hymn "I Am a Pilgrim" from hearing Doc Watson play it, he was always so true to Merle Travis' original recording (often including the spoken introduction) that hearing the original offered no surprises. Travis was always fairly reserved in his claim on authorship of this song - he may well have remembered it from his youth in the mountains of Kentucky.

There isn't really any existing "original" recording of "Yellow Dog Blues." Fragments of a similar melody were recorded by author W.C Handy, without a vocal. Bessie Smith's recording is available, but I learned it from this rendition by Louis Armstrong, which I first heard while in high school. I loved the words, and sang it for years before working out the chords.

Nobody Knows You (when you're down and out), while "bluesy" is certainly more the urban than the rural variety. Furthermore, it sounds more like Tin Pan Alley than any real alley. When I heard Josh White perform this number at the playhouse in Nyack, I had no idea that this smooth, sexy, cafe society darling was once Joshua White, child prodigy and progenitor of the funky blues. The chords were so complex to my 16-year-old brain that I didn't figure out how to play it until I got Jerry Silver's blues collection.

"Tequila Blue" is another "composed" blues, but at least in this case, we can include the original. Written by part time actor, singer-songwriter and all around madcap George Gerdes, this tune is my favorite of the hundred or so he's recorded. Plus, it falls into the ever-popular "drinking" category of songs.

Reissues of Blind Lemon Jefferson's recordings have been available since the '50's, and I was exposed to them fairly early on. There was always a problem of finding a tune you liked that you could also figure out how to play. The ASSB plays two Blind Lemon songs, "Blind Lemon's Bad Luck Blues," which I managed to learn directly from the record, and "Rabbit Foot Blues." In this case, I had a little help from Richie Weiner, and later, Kenneth McNichol. There is some interesting historical stuff buried in the lyrics here - talk about the "meatless and the wheatless days" of WWI rationing, and the wonderful imagery of the rabbit who "cried like a natural child," which is an accurate description of this eerie sound.