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Harvey Reid's "Troubadour Chronicles"

This is part of an authorized online posting of Harvey Reid's important book, "The Troubadour Chronicles," published in May 2020 and available in paperback from this web site or from Amazon.com.

troubadour book cover

Affectionately and respectfully dedicated to all the Troubadours past, present and future, to those who have listened and enjoyed the music made by individuals, and especially to all of you who never really thought much about any of this. Harvey Reid [York Village, Maine, May 2020)]

Chapter 2: A Whirlwind Tour of the Troubadour Story

Before we spin out our long and tangled ball of troubadour string, it will be helpful to outline the topics and issues, and get a feel for the terrain. Tendrils of our troubadour tale are twisted around a sizable part of the musical history of the entire world, so to avoid getting bogged down early in the quest I will try to sketch out our story here and we’ll return later to dig deeper into most of the topics, since the subject matter is dauntingly large. The leading actor in our drama here is not a person, place or an event, but an idea and an activity that has engaged countless millions of homo sapiens throughout history who have sung songs while they played a musical instrument, particularly one with a fingerboard and strings. It is strictly a human thing; animals navigate and communicate; they have relationships, personalities and emotions, but not even the smartest monkey or Koko the gorilla ever sang a song with a guitar or a piano. Nor do those supposedly intelligent or musical dolphins, whales, elephants, squid and octopuses produce anything resembling this kind of music. Birds and wolves sing, crickets and grasshoppers play their little fiddles, but the cast of this movie is made up entirely of humans. Though it has had to struggle along the way, troubadouring does seem to be holding firmly to its place in the shrinking list of activities that individual people do better than machines.

The Eternal Yet Eternally Hidden Troubadour
I think I join quite a number of my fellow “peasant musicians” in believing that we have nearly always lived under both a shadow of unworthiness and a cloak of invisibility. Well into the 21st century we are still forced to hope that the gatekeepers to the realms of musical validity and value might give even a partially enthusiastic stamp of approval to what we do, and I optimistically imagine younger troubadours enduring far less of this lack of appreciation. Large and well-funded cultural and economic forces have long been turning up the volume and shining bright spotlights on so-called “important music.” Whatever the critics, the awards, the press and radio media have deemed to be most worthy has unquestionably hogged the vast lion’s share of the press, airplay, arts money, awards and attention of the listening public and of the so-called “critics.” During my lifetime, virtually nothing in that list has consisted of solo troubadours or their unadorned, unassisted recordings or performances. Yet vastly more of us are practicing troubadours than anyone realizes or could possibly count. When I fantasize that we might all stand up and take a bow all at once, I realize that many troubadours have been in chains so long that they have learned to ignore big parts of their true selves to fit in a different musical category. A musician named Michael Johnson (1944-2017) sang and played guitar together as skillfully as anyone I ever heard, and even had considerable pop music success, yet on his 1978 number one pop hit song “Bluer Than Blue” he did not play guitar (though he studied with Segovia), and his rich voice was awash in commercial production, completely obscuring the troubadour underneath. His other pop songs and hits on the country and R&B charts showed a taste of his guitar, but nothing of his troubadour brilliance. His impressive solo covers of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” or John Martyn’s “May You Never” from his early solo albums are currently unavailable on streaming platforms or iTunes, though at 18:48 on a YouTube upload of a concert at Orchestra Hall in Minnesota from 1984 there is an in-concert version of him doing “May You Never.” Michael was also not the only recorded musician or celebrity with that name, so be careful. The top streaming platform search result for that name is currently a piano album Impressions, by a different Michael Johnson, but with our Michael’s photo wrongly shown.

Johnson is by no means the only example of a “troubadour in hiding.” John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison all wrote, played and sang songs masterfully on guitar or the piano, with most of their songs being played and sung by one of them alone in its original form. Yet even in the extended list of 305 recordings (including unreleased and bootlegs) of the Beatles, there is only one song that consists of one of them playing and singing alone– it is only 23 seconds long, and was not even listed as a track on the record jacket. The only pure human solo acoustic Beatles track was recorded July 2, 1969, when Paul fingerpicked a nylon-string guitar and sang “Her Majesty” as the final track of their final album, “Abbey Road.” It came after a 14-second gap at the end of the album, and the last chord was cut off in editing. Some have called it the first “hidden track” in rock music. On his June 11, 1968 recording of “Blackbird,” Paul performed alone, but then overdubbed another guitar, some birds and a vocal harmony, though nothing he added to his near-solo masterpiece made it any better. When John Lennon recorded “Julia” for the White Album later that year on October 13, it was the only time he performed solo as a Beatle, though he actually double-tracked his guitar part and then layered three vocals on top of it. Lennon’s strong rhythm guitar and vocal shine on his seemingly solo 1970 hit song “Working Class Hero,” but he also layered them, and reportedly did 100 takes and spliced together parts from more than one of them to make the finished song. He somehow wasn’t comfortable letting people listen to him just play and sing his songs, and never released a song where he didn’t double-track his voice. Singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” was a strong piano player, yet never recorded any self-accompanied songs in her long career. Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, a longtime member of her band and part of the legendary Muscle Shoals recording community, mentioned that his favorite music of hers was when she played and sang by herself at the piano at sound check. Yet virtually none of her millions of fans even knew she was capable of doing that. Near the end of her life, she began performing occasional solo songs in concerts, but never on recordings or during her decades as a pop star.

Those questions keep popping up. Why weren’t there more solo Beatles recordings? Why was Aretha Franklin so reluctant to play a solo song in a concert? Why do pop songs always have a huge sound, with many tracks, voices and instruments? Are there any hit songs that were just recordings of a person performing a song? Do listeners actually dislike simpler recordings such as those made by one person? Do musicians dislike making those intimate recordings? Or do the record companies, retailers or radio stations have some unspoken bias against solo human music, rooted in a fear, traditions, habits or an unspoken industry maxim that it won’t sell or persuade?

Some form of this personal music has been fundamental to a high percentage of all musical styles everywhere, though when you try to track its movements, the mysteries and surprises abound. As an American musician and narrator it’s ultimately best that I stick to the parts of this long tale that are more connected to me, though I wish I could shine more light on what many have been doing in other parts of the world, in cultures I know little about. As interested as I am in the subject, I cannot imagine how I could contribute meaningfully to discussions involving ancient documents, songs or rhyming in Chinese or other eastern languages, for example, though they do relate directly to my large-scale narrative. I can only hope that others who are closer to such things might take up the troubadour torch and tell their part of the story in those other places I cannot reasonably go. There is already too much “Anglo-American hegemony” in music history and scholarship, and I confess to have been formed under its influence, yet much of what I am trying to say transcends those limits, focusing on individuals rather than trends, races, nations, genders or tribal activities.

The Troubadour Art Form
There is seemingly nothing special that happens when a person plays a song. My guess is that we’ve all seen it countless times. It is fundamentally a low-profile, uncelebrated and un-newsworthy activity, yet beneath the surface it might be far deeper than we realize. Perhaps the most unusual thing about it is that it isn’t talked about– the distinction between individual and group music is seldom made, even by fanatical observers and fans of music. Nearly all the high-profile solo performances on popular recordings happened in the 1920s and early 1930s, yet I cannot find a discussion of this in histories of the music business. The near-total disappearance of solo performances and their replacement with bands and groups has been casually and universally accepted as some inevitable form of forward motion, without a suggestion that anything might have changed for the worse or gone missing. After sixty years of genre, stylistic, song vs. instrumental and gender-based categories, the Grammy awards in 2012 finally came up with “Pop Solo Performance,” giving the first such award to English singer-songwriter Adele Atkins, even though she only rarely actually performs a song solo, and has never done it on any of her recordings. Her 2011 mega-hit “Someone Like You” featured less overdubbing and backup accompaniment than on any chart-topping song since Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” reached number one fifty-five years earlier in 1956, when Elvis sang over Vito Mumolo’s barely-audible acoustic guitar and the even less audible Ken Darby Trio. Adele sang with Miles Robertson’s piano, and overdubbed a harmony vocal on the last chorus, though the song gives the impression of someone singing as they play piano. The Grammy voters perceived Adele as a solo artist rather than a band or group, which makes sense, though it is possible that the category was created not to celebrate troubadours but more to avoid the now-touchy gender issues. Those had been embedded in the awards since 1959, with endlessly binary things like Best Male Pop Vocal and Best Female Country Vocal categories. Thus far Adele has received three of the ten Pop Solo Grammy awards, Ed Sheeran two, and the others have gone to Lorde, Pharrell Williams, Lady Gaga, Lizzo and Harry Styles. Only two of those recipients (Sheeran and Gaga) typically perform with an instrument; clearly the kind of solo troubadour performer I am trying to talk about is not quite the same thing the Recording Academy is spotlighting in their awards. Lorde, Lizzo and Pharrell Williams concert videos show them at least publicly to be almost the antithesis of what I am trying to talk about. Lorde does not play any instrument, even for writing songs, Lizzo plays the flute sometimes, and Williams does play guitar and piano and might engage in some form of personal troubadour activity privately or when writing songs. If there were a Best Troubadour Performance Grammy it would be one of the few that was clearly defined, and would help our cause immeasurably.

It does seem reasonable to expect that perhaps some time in recorded history, humanity might have shone that spotlight on or honored the individual self-accompanied singer, or at least discussed the fact that there hasn’t been such a spotlight. I can easily imagine a Grammy category or a popular TV show that was devoted entirely to the craftsmanship and art of individual musicians, who emoted and connected with us while singing their songs and playing their instruments. Yet you barely ever see individual music on television, it is extremely rare to find it on high-profile recordings, and it might as well be a crime to play it on commercial radio. If you go to church, I doubt you can recall seeing it done very often there either, since there are not many organists who play while singing or guitarist-singers who lead congregations in hymn singing or perform them alone. The presence of self-accompanied music in arts supported by public schools, churches, universities, big business or government is somewhere between microscopic and non-existent.

A rare 78rpm record from 1929 (Paramount 2729) of “Crawlin’ Spider Blues” was listed on the paper label as being performed by pianist Will Ezell “(All By Himself),” which shows that at least once, someone noticed and felt compelled to put it in writing that a musician performed solo. This was likely because his syncopations and the rhythmic separation of his two hands and his voice were so good that people might otherwise have wondered if it was one person playing piano while the other sang. Whoever added the words “All By Himself” to the printing on the label knew enough about the piano to know how good Ezell was, though the idea never caught on of labeling records this way. Record companies did not adopt this practice, and unfortunately it has often been tough to determine if the same person was playing the instrument and singing on a recording, or whatever tracks were done without a band. It was not always easy to find out who played on recordings even before the digital era, when liner notes and recording credits were regrettably no longer attached to the music. The recording industry has never considered it important to flag or label troubadour tracks, and is very difficult to sift through the universe of recorded music to find examples of what I am trying to talk about. Imagine instead if “All By Themselves” had turned into a common practice of labeling, and record companies or artists bragged about whatever music they recorded unassisted or without overdubs and multi-tracking.

Those “Vulgar” Guitar Chords
After the stock market crash of 1929, Woody Guthrie’s father Charley brought his seventeen-year old son with him when he went 300 miles west from Okemah, Oklahoma to visit his brother and to find work in the newly-built town of Pampa, Texas. It was about an hour northwest of Amarillo, and the teenager found a job at the soda fountain at Shorty Harris’ Drugstore, across the street from their rooming house. He passed the time in the hot, dry, oil-boom town of about 10,000 by drawing cartoons, reading books at the library, and playing with a guitar he found in a back room at the store. Woody’s father and mother both played some guitar, and his uncle Jeff, who was a deputy sheriff in Pampa and a local square dance fiddler, showed him some chords and they started playing music together occasionally. Together with figuring out how to play the songs he had heard his mother Nora sing before she was institutionalized with Huntington’s chorea, the inherited disease that would kill Woody forty years later, this made up much of Woody’s musical education. He spent a lot of time practicing and singing and playing rhythm behind the fiddle, but there were no lessons, notes, rests, books or music stands involved. Enough guitar playing was going on around him, even in a remote and uncultured place, that Woody was able to infer what to do and develop his music without curriculum-based institutionalized instruction playing any role. Just guitar chords, rhythms and songs, though a black man Woody called “Spider Fingers” who shined shoes next door sometimes came to visit and played blues on the guitar.

When Elvis Presley got his first guitar for his 11th birthday in 1946, his biographers describe him similarly learning chords from neighbors and singing songs, but never taking any lessons or having any contact with any “formal” music or guitar learning. Presley is another well-researched and prominent pin in our map that has nothing whatsoever to do with written music, classrooms or professional teachers. There are interviews with him from the 1950s where journalists ignorantly ask him “If you can’t read music, how can you write songs?” Since the 1950s or so, the basic chords and exposure to this “other approach” to guitar music have gradually come out into the open, probably boosted significantly by the popularity of Elvis and other “untrained” stars– to become a talked-about, visible and accepted part of home-made peasant music. Maybe television and movies helped, since people could see the music being played without music stands in front of the singers. Elvis played powerful rhythm guitar, and did so on most of his recordings until about 1958, though playing acoustic guitar in a band with poor amplification he broke a lot of strings on stage, and often put the guitar down or didn’t play. Watch him on YouTube perform the song “That’s All Right” on his so-called “1968 Comeback Special” performance on television, where he was sitting with his band playing some songs with a small audience around them in the studio. He’s no slouch on the guitar, and plays like a freight train, while also being impossibly handsome and cool. Like so many who followed him, he was a troubadour before he became a rock star.

Hank Williams (1923-1953) wrote and performed all the songs in his legendary country music career with just the same basic chords Elvis and Woody used; he kept his songs simple and didn’t use extended or jazz chords or play single-note passages. As a boy Hank took some lessons from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a blues musician in Georgiana, Alabama, a town of about 1600 people in the south central part of the state, fifteen miles from Greenville, but a long way from any sizable city. Hank was six feet tall, had very big hands and was able to play an F major chord by hanging his left-hand thumb over the bass side of the fretboard, thus avoiding playing a full barre chord. In the “official” video of “Hey Good Lookin’” he performed on March 26, 1952 on the Kate Smith Hour TV show after bantering with June Carter (16 years before she married Johnny Cash) you can see him play an F at 41 seconds in, as he sings the first line of the chorus “I got a hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill...” with his huge thumb waving hello. From looking at his hand position it appears he might have even sometimes fretted or even muted two or even three bass strings with his thumb, a skill that would let him play all 36 major, minor and seventh chords without using the difficult barre technique. Maybe Rufus Payne also had big hands and showed him that, because no one with a business card that said “guitar lessons” would teach that skill.

Since I mentioned Johnny Cash, another icon of American music and a 20th century troubadour, do you suppose he was reading notes on the E string with his metronome, playing arpeggios and learning Fernando Sor études in his days of learning to play guitar? As you might have guessed, he learned the same mysterious way as Hank, Elvis and Woody. In his thick autobiography “Cash” he describes learning his first chords at age 13 from Pete Barnhill, a polio-stricken neighbor and fellow teenager in cotton country in Dyess, Arkansas, about 45 miles northwest of Memphis. Johnny knew a lot of songs from church and that his family sang, and after he bought his first guitar from the Sears catalog, he spent his evenings glued to the radio with Pete, listening to the powerful clear-channel stations playing country music. (In a 1989 FRETS magazine interview Cash told a less romantic story of learning basic chords at age 20 in the Air Force in Germany in 1952, on a cheap German-made guitar, with some help from a friend named Orville Rigdon.)

We might as well consider Bruce Springsteen, one of the other beloved and staggeringly popular troubadours who has kept the singer-guitarist-songwriter flame burning hot for decades. Can you guess what his early guitar experiences were like? “Twist and Shout” with its three-chord magic on a $60 guitar was his first experience in music, not “notes on the E string” or exercises, scales and arpeggios. Should we feel sorry for Bruce’s lack of proper music training also, or do the 135 million records and countless concert tickets he sold perhaps weigh down some scale somewhere and make whatever he did acceptable? Or does his popular success make his skill set all the more vulgar in the eyes of those “legitimate” music critics, whoever they are and whatever the power is they were given to criticize or belittle music they don’t like or understand?

Mega-star Garth Brooks is thus far the only solo musician in history to have six albums each sell more than ten million copies, and various lists put his total record sales at around 170 million, either in first or second place on the all-time sales list, possibly behind either Elvis Presley or the Beatles or even ahead of them, since record sales are not as easy to determine as you might think. Can you guess if Garth can read notes on the E string or play any 19th century Spanish guitar pieces? Of course not. His musical education sounds a lot like my own– listening to popular rock, folk and country records and radio with friends and family. Garth’s father played recreational guitar, and three of his five siblings played some music around the house, though he never pursued picking, scales and instrumental guitar like I did. Troyal Brooks’ first band (his middle name was Garth) was a bluegrass group he started with his friends in Oklahoma. His biggest early influences were James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, though he loved Don McLean’s “American Pie” and classic country. If you watch his concert videos he’s another textbook in using basic chords, though he is a good strummer and a competent and solid fingerpicking folk guitar player, and sometimes uses more than just the basic 14 major, minor and dominant seventh chords.

It is not just songwriters who are misunderstood. Electric guitar legend James Burton dropped out of school in 1952 at age 16 to become a professional guitarist, and went on to a long and storied career, playing and recording with some of the biggest names in American music, most famously Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, EmmyLou Harris, John Denver, Elvis Costello, Gram Parsons and the Everly Brothers. What did Burton, those artists, or those who appreciate Burton’s brilliance miss out on by his failing to attend a music academy to study guitar? Can someone explain to me how his lack of “proper music education” damaged his development or artistic output? He is only one of another long list of brilliant but “uneducated” musicians who seem to deserve far more musical respect than they have ever received. Does this sort of thing only happen in the guitar world, perhaps just in music, or is there a similar fence or separation between “high” and “low” in pottery, painting, sculpture, cooking and other art forms? That’s a very broad question that is beyond the scope of this book, but well worth investigating. We’ll need to look at how this musical dual reality has evolved and perpetuated itself, to the point where some of us listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter play centuries-old violin music on her multi-million dollar 1710 Stradivarius in a gilded hall, and others of us would be much more moved by going to a rib shack to hear a blues or country band playing songs they wrote or taught themselves to play, on instruments that they paid hundreds of dollars for.

So what is this process that lets even extremely poor children with no teachers or training become musicians and world-famous and revered artists? It’s not because of the complexity of their music, the magnificence of their tone or the difficulty of the notes they play, but because of something else, that involves a kind of energy, a humanity embedded in their music. Like any number of other troubadours, these artists used rhymed, rhythmic poetry, delivered with their own distinctive voices and a fretted stringed instrument. By combining music and language in a unique and personal way they were able to profoundly affect large numbers of people. None of them would proclaim themselves to be master guitarists– Woody Guthrie called himself a “one-cylinder guitar picker.” Their music became famous and valuable because it evoked emotion and connected deeply to listeners, even when it took the form of sound waves encoded into a radio carrier signal or spiral grooves etched into a mass-produced piece of plastic. Can you look me in the eye and say that the musical legacy of Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks is all “vulgar” and insignificant because they didn’t read notation or play instrumental music and couldn’t play a Villa-Lobos étude on the guitar? (Mastery of two of those are currently required for admission to the guitar study program at the hallowed Julliard School of Music.) Clearly there are two different things going on here: the “high” and the “low” music, yet who outside a classical guitar curriculum ever heard of Brazilian guitarist/composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) or listened to his music more than once? And why is the common and popular one called “low”? I mentioned only white men– but you could probably fill Carnegie Hall with celebrated musicians of all genders, colors and nationalities who also learned the “vulgar” way, and also never read a note of guitar music in their lives, but who traffic in the same kind of personal musical power. Even if you don’t care for any of these artists, you could list a similar group of self-accompanied singers who have their own form of musical magic. Shania Twain learned some chords from her Ojibwe stepfather Jerry in rural Ontario when she was eight. EmmyLou Harris borrowed her cousin’s new guitar, also at age eight, after unsuccessfully taking piano lessons and playing clarinet and saxophone in the school band, and got her first guitar from her grandfather. Bonnie Raitt got hers for Christmas in 1957, and learned Odetta songs from a record. Near Reading, Pennsylvania, local musician and computer repairman Ronnie Cremer showed three chords to a ten-year-old girl named Taylor Swift and helped her write her first song. Un-famous troubadours have done similar things, though contemplating the famous ones will better convince you that this art form is special.

Let’s talk more about those chords that peasants play on their guitars as they generate rhythms and sing songs while conspicuously not reading music. You have probably seen a guitar songbook with little rectangular diagrams of chords printed above the words or the musical staff to show when to play them. Mysteriously, those chord diagrams are not found in guitar instruction materials much older than about the 1940s, though the odd and widespread “Guckert’s Chord Book” came close in 1901, and in 1873 C.M. Loomis put some finger numbers onto a grid in his “Guitar Without A Master,” but not the black or white circles we have become used to. Septimus Winner’s 1920 banjo book used the chord diagrams, as did G.L. Lansing’s 1915 “Excelsior Method,” and by 1917 Guckert was using the modern form of chord diagrams in his ukulele book. These are the oldest published uses of this now-common symbology I have been able to find, though other than Guckert they all used musical notation also. In 1760 Francesco Geminiani mentioned chords and included some as part of tablature in his guitar and cittra instruction book, but with numbers on a staff instead of dot diagrams, and not to accompany songs. He did say, “Notes constitute a Chord, and are to be struck alltogether.” The idea that you can make some kind of guitar music or possibly become an all-time legend of music by strumming the right chords at the right time while you sing a song might still not be considered “real music instruction,” and may be at the core of why the guitar was called “vulgar” and is sometimes viewed as the activity of some kind of musical underclass. When I taught these skills in folk guitar classes at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s I certainly felt the lack of respect and understanding from some of the other music department faculty. In 1983 when I wrote “Modern Folk Guitar,” the first college textbook for folk guitar, the publisher (Alfred Knopf, at that time a division of Random House) subjected me and my co-author Dr. Terry Kuhn to the academic peer-review process. It dictated that only full-time faculty members in music departments at accredited colleges could evaluate the book. The reviewers voted they wouldn’t approve the book for publication or use it in their teaching unless it taught sight-reading of notes on guitar. Though it was a book about how to learn guitar without reading music, we were forced to add a chapter on the subject, and remove the chapter about alternate tunings because the book became too lengthy otherwise to fit within the publisher’s approved printing costs.

Some of the answers to these questions lie in the guitar fingerboard itself. Since the mid 1700s the 6-string guitar has most often been tuned in so-called “standard tuning”: EADGBE from bass to treble, with the famous Middle C on the piano landing at the first fret of the B string. Each tuning of a stringed instrument gives us a unique set of scale patterns and chord shapes, generating its own geometry of where notes, scales and chords land on the fretboard. Standard guitar tuning offers us a group of fourteen “open” chords that every player soon learns. It is a certainty that people have played those same basic chord fingerings ever since standard tuning was adopted in the mid 1700s. Their geometry and playability are actually a key part of why that particular tuning exists, and provide a crucial puzzle piece in our troubadour story. The basic fourteen so-called “open” guitar chord shapes consist of the five major chords: A, C, D, E, and G; three minor chords: Am, Dm, Em, and six dominant seventh chords: A7, B7, C7, D7, E7 and G7. They allow music in the five of the twelve major keys, staking out what becomes familiar turf to all players. They can all be played without using the skill known as the “barre” or “bar” chord, where the first finger of the fretting hand clamps across the whole fingerboard like a capo. A partial barre version of the F major chord sometimes joins the “open 14” to make 15 basic chords. Mastering barre chords is one of the big hurdles in guitar playing; it is not a beginner skill, but allows music in all keys. They are made more difficult by the extra tension in steel strings which have become far more common in North America than gut or nylon in the last 150 years. The full F major is the famous “song-stopper,” and a reason why beginners usually don’t play in the key of C, so fundamental on the piano. F and B minor are usually the first barre chords everyone learns.

The Equally Vulgar Thumb
The most common thing that guitar beginners learn, if they are not being pushed by a guitar teacher into reading notes on the E string, is to make the D major to A7 chord change. (In 1958 jazz guitarist Mel Bay taught the C and G chords at the beginning of his first folk guitar book, though he soon switched, and since then his instruction books start with G and D7.) People who learn to strum the two basic chords then choose from the roughly twenty familiar simple two-chord songs that can be played with them, wobbling to their troubadour feet once they can change the chords fast enough to keep up while singing those songs, that hopefully are pitched reasonably for their vocal range.

The guitar beginner is immediately brought to a crossroads of having to choose between correct and incorrect, and whether pleasure is right or wrong, concealed in a “dark truth” that is rarely talked about in public. I’ll explain for non-guitarists; readers who play or teach guitar might remember the moment in their past when they learned or decided to break the “rules.” The lowest-pitched guitar string is an E, a note that doesn’t belong in a D major chord, which contains only the notes D, F# and A. “Legitimate” instruction materials tell you to not play that string, and mark it with an “x” in the chord diagram. Strumming the guitar while skipping the lowest-pitched and most resonant string is not a beginner skill, and most either make the sound that every guitar teacher dreads, of a D chord with an E bass note ringing under it, or they learn to “cheat.” By using the left-hand thumb, if your hand is big or agile enough, you can touch the bass string slightly to mute it, or even fret the bass string at the second fret to sound an F#, which does belong in the chord. “Cheating” allows you to freely sound any of the strings without dissonant notes. I have almost an entire bookshelf of guitar instruction books from the last century, and except for an obscure one from 1961 by Gene Leis, every one of them tells you never to do that. (The D and D7 chords are the only ones in the basic 14 that invite the thumb to participate.)

In 1858 in his “Complete Method for the Guitar” Otto Feder gave the thumb the go-ahead on p.52, in a long-winded 19th-century endorsement of muting or fretting the bass E string with the thumb: “It will now be evident to the student that the use of the thumb of the left hand in producing certain bass notes cannot be dispensed with, and he will find that it requires but very little effort to stop the E string effectually with it, for instead of bending the whole fore-joint over the fingerboard, as some are apt to do, it is only necessary that its fleshy part should touch the string obliquely, when a slight contraction of the thumb will secure the desired effect…”

Thirty years later in 1888 Justin Holland’s “Comprehensive Method for the Guitar” said oppositely and presumptuously, “The use of the thumb of the left hand for pressing the sixth string compels the bringing of the hand and arm in such an awkward and unnatural position, and occasions so many inconveniences by displacing the hand and arm from their proper positions, that I never use it for that purpose. Some writers allow its use, others condemn it. I agree with the latter. Many passages are found marked for the thumb which can be played better and easier with the fingers; showing that such fingering was more a habit than a necessity in those cases. Whenever I meet with a bass passage that cannot be played with the fingers, I either change the bass or abandon the piece.”

I wish I had a dollar for every photograph in the front of a guitar book showing proper left-hand position, with the left thumb completely behind the middle of the fingerboard. You do need to use that hand position when reaching around on the fingerboard to play a good deal of music, but using the thumb on the D chord doesn’t mean you have to keep it there. If you “cheat” and do what they say not to do, you can have more fun. If you know what a D chord looks like, pay attention when famous songwriters play one, and notice how many of them have visible thumbs. Big-handed guitarists in Europe in 1790 like former cellist Ferdinando Carulli probably also hung their thumbs over the top of the fingerboard like Hank Williams. It’s not vulgar or illegal– it’s just a common and useful technique, that for baffling reasons others sometimes feel the need to shun or scorn, while depending heavily on the right-hand thumb. The guitar has ancient associations with disreputable people and low-class things, and has only recently been allowed in music conservatories. Yet guitarists who strum chords and sing, and especially those who reach over the fingerboard with their thumbs, bring vulgar to another level, breaking the “rules” to give themselves pleasure. It’s just an old troubadour skill that probably originated the day after standard tuning was invented, but it stubbornly remains as a rogue activity, almost a scarlet letter of musical vulgarity, like dancing the tango used to be– done by millions, scorned by the elite and those seeking “correctness.” We’ll pursue more of the troubadour skill set in Part IV.
A very large percentage of songs created on the guitar, especially by “untrained” peasant songwriters, use just the 14 basic chords or small variations, allowing music in the five common guitar keys. By adding the equally “vulgar” capo, which conservatory guitarists also typically shun, you can perform songs in higher-pitched keys. Learning to play and sing songs with the 14 basic chords is how I first started, and probably hundreds of millions of others have done it (or tried) by now. It is the heart of what is most often called “folk guitar” learning, even though those same chords are part of country, blues, rock, gospel and many other styles of music. Like its fellow 19th-century guitar tutorials, Robert Kelley’s 1855 “Companion for the Guitar” showed only 4-string versions of the two simplest chords in the five guitar keys, with the right-hand thumb sounding a bass string and the three fingers plucking or arpeggiating the three treble strings. He showed them only as notes on the staff, and did not discuss either strumming or how to use the chords other than some “exercises.” Kelley went so far as to illustrate how to play a three-chord 1-4-5 progression that lies at the heart of millions of common songs, but not with more than four strings at a time, and without a word of what it was or why it mattered. Did no one play the basic 14 chords back then? Were Kelley and those other teachers clueless or were they just unwilling to portray guitar music without notes, clefs and rests? Plenty of people were playing those chords anywhere there were guitars, but they weren’t publishing their own guitar instruction materials, and the men (yes, they were all men) who wrote the instruction books presumably would not teach those vulgar skills or deign to commit them to print. In Chapter 6 we’ll talk more deeply about reading music and what I like to call the “ongoing farce of guitar instruction.”
Ever since standard tuning appeared (early rural blues players often called it “natural tuning”), these basic chords have been lurking in the shadows, as the fundamental building blocks of how “untrained,” “illiterate” and “vulgar” guitar playing (and ukulele) works. The way you learn to play basic chords and to sing songs or accompany tunes with them has essentially nothing whatsoever to do with notes, reading music or what “formal,” “classical” or “jazz” guitar learning involves, but it is what Bob Dylan, Garth Brooks, the Beatles and nearly everybody else you have ever seen or heard of has done in the past 75 years. Singer-guitarists are not reading music. Now that so many hit songs with simple chords have been written by guitar strummers instead of pianists, there is no hiding the fact that massively popular and beloved songs can be played and sung “by ear” by sounding those chords and matching them properly to the song without knowing anything about musical notation or theory. Why this practice remains so misunderstood and eternally disparaged remains an eternal mystery. The chord accompaniment skill set has finally emerged publicly, possibly for the first time in centuries, and maybe the long epoch of “chord-shaming” will finally end.

The Struggle for Musical Territory
The smaller and seemingly less important music that individuals make on their own has long been overwhelmed and obscured by larger and louder musical forms, who are the dominant species, or at least the big dinosaurs thrashing the furry little mammals for a while. Most of the one-person music holds forth away from spotlights and stages– it thrives at parties, in kitchens, bedrooms, porches or at campfires, or publicly in smaller nightclubs, restaurants or coffeehouses. Troubadours are common and very effective in wedding ceremonies, where intimacy is vital. Individuals sing to sleepy children, they do it in hospitals and at nursing homes, and there are performers and camp counselor types who entertain or instruct young people using just a musical instrument and their voice as their musical tools. There are an uncountable number of thousands of solo artists who, like me, are making or trying to make a music career out of creating, recording and performing their own personal bodies of solo musical art. We do it quite publicly at festivals, in theaters, clubs, radio stations and in recording studios, though my part of the music business is often “below the radar,” and now thriving invisibly as the age of social media is upending how publicity and performing are done. I don’t think there is a single name any of us could come up with of a high-profile, chart-topping household-name musician who records and performs alone, though things are changing, and pop stars are doing solo cameo performances more these days than I have seen since the 1970s. As I write this, Ed Sheeran is the highest-flying version of the type of musician I want to talk about. In 2019 he completed the top-grossing concert tour in music business history, though to listen to most of his recordings you would never know how good he is by himself. Mega-stars Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, Frank Ocean, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks are not afraid to perform songs alone. Solo music is not in any way a rare or unusual activity, but it often feels as if it is invisible, like a disgraced or banished family member who is not spoken of.
This is one of the biggest mysteries to unravel– how did a once-admired profession fall from grace to become the stepchild, the illegitimate baby of the musical activity family, and so rarely if ever the hot, fashionable, respected and popular thing? In the distant past, this type of musician was welcomed into the homes and courts of the wealthy and powerful, and many of those wealthy and powerful people practiced the art form themselves. A series of cultural forces gradually brought about a great change in the profile and social role of troubadours in Europe, and organized Western music developed its modern forms without them or their troubadour skills. In the hundreds of books I have recently explored on music history and practice, I have found barely a sentence about individual music as either an art form unto itself, or as a musical or cultural phenomenon worth mentioning. It isn’t examined or pointed out; it is not a topic of discussion or a perspective that is even brought up whenever anyone tries to tell the story of music. It remains a folk art that people learn from each other, and retains an air of the subversive and forbidden. Eternally cast in blue jeans or overalls, it is never invited to wear a black tie and tuxedo to the party. “America’s Music, From the Pilgrims to the Present,” Gilbert Chase’s popular 700-page textbook on American music, mentions it in passing for a few sentences on page 463, in association with Southern rural blues music in the 1920s. Yet the same book devoted an entire 31-page chapter to composer Charles Ives. Country music and blues histories are filled with information about musicians who played and sang songs, but I still haven’t found a single historical discussion that even mentions the concept of a solo musician, and certainly not as being an important or valuable form of art or something that has gone missing. Histories of rock and pop music in all their reverie, research and analysis don’t bring up the idea of a solo troubadour artist. There is plenty of worship and recognition of the music that came from individuals like Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, but the idea doesn’t float to the surface that the troubadour art form itself or its unadorned performances might be special or valuable. It’s hard to believe that this seemingly simple subject could fill a whole book, but I wager you’ll be as surprised as I was, once I pried the lid off and began to look at what was inside.

Finding the Musical Yeti- Those Early Recordings
A good place to plunge into our story is the 1920s in the United States, when something significant happened in the world of “the people’s music,” almost as if a meteor fell to Earth containing a new kind of metal or a message from another galaxy. It was analogous to finding a shipwreck like the one some Greek sponge divers found in 1900, that contained the Antikythera mechanism, a previously unimagined and extremely sophisticated astronomical computing device that was on a vessel that sank 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean Sea. When microphones were pointed at rural Americans, a hidden light switch was turned on– musical activities that had been hidden in the dark were suddenly visible, and fortunately captured for posterity. We’ll return to this topic in some depth in Part III, but it’s so important we’ll outline it here.

The 1920s were an era marked by a number of tectonic shifts in American society, including Prohibition, the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginnings of widespread appearance of electricity, telephones, automobiles and radio. So many changes were afoot and so many big wheels were turning as the world became “modernized,” that the ramifications of some of those changes are even now not fully understood. The biggest war the world had ever seen had ended, American populations were shifting from rural to urban and North to South across the lines that led to the bloodiest war in history. Regional and global economies were booming and crumbling; social unrest appeared on a large scale, sweeping new laws were passed, women were finally allowed to vote, infrastructure was built, and massive economic and cultural events of all sorts rolled over America. Large-scale developments were also happening in the world of music, comparable in their scope and importance to the quantum jumps that have come in our current era of the internet and digitized music. The breadth and the cultural and economic impact of those changes that took place just in the twenty-one years between the world wars are still being felt 90 years later.

That time period marked the advent of the recording and broadcasting industries, who were the sponge divers that found the submerged shipwreck. When early commercial recording companies first began recording “the people” in the 1920s, after nearly forty years of capturing spoken language, opera, popular and classical music, they found a dizzying and disorganized array of musicians of all ages and backgrounds, playing almost every conceivable instrument, and singing a widely diverse repertoire of songs. Early record companies felt pressure from the emergence and early success of radio, and had gone looking for new markets, and especially something to sell to the exploding number of new phonograph owners. They quickly turned up much more than just the descendants of the lute, cittern and guitar-playing Europeans; a cornucopia of American people were singing all manner of new kinds of songs, and not merely preserving European ballads and dance tunes. The handful of folklorists that were active in this period were busily tracing the legacy of British-Isles folk material, but the new companies in their zeal to sell records were just interested in finding out what music people would buy. It is generally recognized now that by far the best window we have into American music from the first four decades of the 20th century is from commercial recordings that were made at that time, though that period didn’t last long and could have been vastly more valuable had some things been done differently. After the mid 1930s most of the important troubadour recording was conducted by private and government collectors or enthusiasts rather than commercial companies. Their efforts yielded impressive numbers of field recordings, but records were not manufactured and distributed, so their impact on other musicians and listeners was limited to what was curated and later put into books or compilation recordings. This ultimately was negligible at best as compared to commercial recordings. Record collectors feel that libraries are where music goes to get dusty and die, and instead it was those often hastily-made commercial recordings that gave the people a brand-new look at their own enormous and important body of music. This in turn fueled the fires of musical influence and evolution, catapulting immense numbers of new musical ideas into public consciousness. Only a tiny handful of people realized the magnitude of this archive or of the significance of the capturing of those sound recordings of a few thousand Americans playing music, and musical histories generally only discuss how it led to the development of the industry and to certain artists becoming extremely popular. There were of course immediate consequences, but the full picture of the value of what they captured and how it has impacted society and culture only gradually emerged, mostly long after that early era ended and seemed to be gone forever. The story of how musical ideas spread around is unfortunately very similar to that of the music business itself, where the top-selling and iconic artists get so much of the historical attention, but were not the only ones who affected the body of knowledge or the spread of musical ideas and skills.

Luckily for us who are now observing from the future, the record companies cast their nets surprisingly wide in their zeal to make money selling records, and they found an astonishing richness of music that previously hadn’t had any way to take a physical form. Various kinds of “peasant music” had birthed themselves inside all these people, but it wasn’t on paper anywhere, and to this day we have no clear idea where it came from or how it evolved. That’s huge mystery number two: where did all those new kinds of music and playing techniques come from? Suddenly we had irrefutable proof that this music was indeed there, simmering away in the American musical soup pot. As Robert Crumb and his co-authors said nicely in his book “Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country,” “The single most fascinating aspect of traditional American music is the endless variety of styles rural musicians could generate.” Instead of adhering to a standard, this trove of peasant music featured an almost infinite number of ways to play and sing, celebrating the opposite of the conformity and regularity that music pedagogy has long sought to establish. The way Alfred Karnes strummed his guitar and sang was utterly unique and distinctive, as were the trademark sounds of Son House, Henry Thomas, Henry Spaulding, Jimmie Rodgers, Memphis Minnie or any number of others you could pull out of the huge pile.

The men in charge of finding artists were not trained in music any more than most of the musicians were; it’s almost comical what their backgrounds were before they began signing thousands of people to record contracts. The legendary Ralph Peer was a 28-year-old working-class kid from Kansas City with no musical background, who sold records for a few years before he was put in charge of finding talent. The man who brought us some of the most enduringly valuable of the early blues recordings was a Brown University football star and Army veteran from Pine Bluff, Arkansas named J. Mayo Williams. After being one of the first African-Americans to play in the NFL, he quit football at age 30 to become a talent scout for Paramount Records, a relatively new participant in the record game that had begun to record African-Americans in 1922. Without a grand vision or any particular musical knowledge or background, Paramount and the other record companies nonetheless recorded singers, bands, fiddlers, preachers, choirs, guitarists, gospel singers, piano players and whatever else they came across or heard about. They weren’t following any maps, they had no Utopian dreams, they failed to record a lot, and they filled up plenty of those wax masters with mundane and un-magical things. But they also did capture a great number of historical treasures, and fortunately for the future, thousands of those fragile recordings managed to survive in attics and closets. Fortunately a significant percentage of those are now readily accessible in digital form.

Those recordings were markers, and a historical ledger that offered permanent proof of the existence of whatever was on them. Quirky, heroic and dedicated people have devoted their lives to finding and preserving them, and the story of how they were made, lost and re-discovered is itself spellbinding. The totality of songs put on 78rpm records comprises a staggering archive that one source claims to contain between 3 and 4 million different titles released between 1898 and 1958. This number includes popular as well as obscure music and non-musical content such as canary training or sermons. Libraries, notably Yale University, and private groups of enthusiasts and collectors (such as the Great 78 Project and the 78rpm Community) are still laboring to assemble a full and organized catalog of what was known to have been captured just in the first few decades of recording. The University of California Santa Barbara’s “Discography of American Historical Recordings” (DAHR) database currently displays searchable information on their web site “on more than 262,000 master recordings (matrixes) made by Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Berliner, Edison, Zonophone Leeds & Catlin, and Decca.” They don’t archive the recordings, just what is known about who played and sang, and what the authors, record company and catalog numbers were.

Collectively these recordings paint an incredible and overwhelming portrait of the diverse landscape of musical sounds that an impressive variety of Americans were making nearly a century ago, though they were mostly men. None of us who now sift through it can fully comprehend the enormity of what it is, but whatever it truly is, it remains one of the most compelling repositories of musical performances that anyone has ever had access to, and it is thrilling to explore. With the new power of digital technology and the wisdom of hindsight, many of us are now seeing fresh images and patterns in it, and no one has to merely take anyone’s word for what the music sounds like on those old records. If you have access to the internet, especially with a streaming music service, most of you will be able to listen for yourselves to most of what I might describe here, and easily find things I have never heard of.

Home-Made Music Gets Monetized
The arrival of communications markets also marked a massive and significant expansion in the monetization of music, that had massive consequences in getting American music to where it is today. It was this new source of money that allowed and propelled humanity to capture the music, since only a much smaller amount of what we now have was brought to us by cultural visionaries or academic efforts. Until the arrival of the new music technologies, the only ways musicians could make money were to teach, to be hired for a music job, paid for a performance, or if they were lucky, fairly compensated by a publisher for sales of sheet music. Musicians were given a flat fee for each song in the early days of recording, though the idea of a royalty system based on how many copies were sold followed shortly after. (This was of course very quickly followed by the idea of short-changing the artists by not paying proper royalties, or of taking improper or illegal ownership of the copyrights or publishing rights of the music, but that’s not our story.)

The history of the early music business musical milestones and breakthroughs has been well-documented and reflected upon by generations of writers and cultural historians. What isn’t well understood is that this was the first time that any documenting was done of what were some kind of “renegade musicians,” who were not “trained,” and whose music had never existed on a piece of paper or any other tangible form. Almost none of them could read or write music, and they weren’t what we could call “composers” or professional musicians with titles like “music director,” though many had been supplementing their menial incomes or even earning a living performing on streetcorners, in taverns, and at private dances and house parties. Some other kind of wild musical creature had been caught by the trappers. They weren’t in the new musicians’ unions that began forming in 1893, nor likely on the payrolls of schools, orchestras or even churches. Paul Oliver reports that the 1910 census figures showed a half million Blacks in Mississippi employed in agriculture, 1000 black clergymen and 6000 barbers, yet barely 100 African-American men and women there who called themselves musicians or music teachers. This was a time when common people in Mississippi were known to be playing a great deal of music, and the numbers are similarly proportional for other states, which says that neither these people themselves nor society in general viewed these uneducated lower-class African-Americans as actual musicians. Virtually no one was trying to capture peasant art for posterity, and there is little evidence that the companies who made those early records were making an effort to preserve, catalog or enlighten anything. Once it gradually became clear how culturally valuable some of this music was, those attributes were applied retroactively. Even highly-successful money-maker and opportunist extraordinaire Ralph Peer, who signed many hugely important early musicians to record contracts, got his own historical repackaging as a pioneer in the discovery of “roots music” and not just a savvy businessman in pursuit of opportunity and financial gain. (If he was truly interested in supporting the music, he might have shared more of the money he made.) There was a noticeable “gold rush” once the word got out that illiterate, untrained musicians could get paid to make recordings, and there were sometimes long lines of people waiting for auditions with the record company men. Peer’s legendary recording sessions in July 1927 in Bristol, Virginia, sometimes called the “big bang of country music,” happened when he signed the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to Victor record contracts the same week. What motivated a 36-year old Virginia farmer and odd-job laborer named Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter to borrow his brother’s Essex automobile, pack his best Sunday clothes on a hot summer day and load up his wife Sarah, two of their three young children (young Joe was still nursing…) and his brother’s 18-year-old wife Maybelle, who was 8-months pregnant, to try to audition? What was Carter thinking about as those five people, their Stella guitar and Sears catalog Zimmerman autoharp endured the heat, the bumps and several flat tires as they spent nearly an entire day driving the tortuous 26 miles of dirt mountain roads and forded a small river from microscopic Maces Springs, Virginia to the makeshift recording studio Peer had set up in the former Taylor-Christian Hat Company building at 408 State Street in downtown Bristol?


The new record industry had instantly monetized home-made music, and agricultural or factory workers could suddenly make more money recording a single song than they could in a month of hard work picking cotton, dirty and dangerous millwork, or hauling logs off a mountain with a mule. A.P. Carter had been doing that, plus some carpentry, working sporadically in a local sawmill, selling fruit trees door to door from a catalog, and even breaking rocks with a sledgehammer to try to make whatever money he could. The average wage in America in the 1920s was barely a dollar for a full day’s labor, and many people who became recording artists had worked as sharecroppers who sometimes made no cash money at all even after a year’s hard work. John Lee Hooker’s stepfather recalled that in 1930 he made a yearly profit of $28 from his sharecropping, which apparently was not abnormal, and was part of the reason that the younger Hooker moved to Detroit in search of work as a musician. Paul Oliver [p.18] found a figure of a yearly average income of $525 among 3300 sharecroppers who contracted with the Delta and Pine Land Company, a British-owned syndicate that was a large landowner in the Mississippi delta in the “glory days” of the birth of the blues. To be paid 20 or 50 dollars to record a single song was unthinkable to a rural farm worker or laborer, though in the light of history the artists whose records sold well were often cheated out of even their modest royalty money, but hardly noticed because they felt instantly rich and lucky. Fortunately for history’s sake, a large and varied talent pool appeared for many of the auditions, which is itself a part of our story.

A newspaper article had appeared in the local Bristol, Virginia News Bulletin that told how much local musician Ernest “Pop” Stoneman had been paid for the records he made earlier that year. Two hundred dollars a day for recording, plus another $3600 in royalties from tens of thousands of records that were subsequently sold. That was an astonishing amount of money to an uneducated rural working person at that time. And why was that information available to the local newspaper editor to tell his readers about? Money. Because music business pioneer Ralph Peer was in town, and had “leaked” that story to try to encourage local musicians to come try out for his recording auditions. Peer had struck it rich when he discovered that rural white Southerners wanted to buy records of “their music,” as was also the case for the rural blacks. Stoneman was a 31-year-old carpenter who lived in the area, and while in a furniture store he had heard a record playing by his friend, singer-guitarist-miner-millworker Henry Whitter, who had barged into the record company office in New York in 1923, claiming to be the world’s greatest harmonica player. Stoneman wrote letters to the Victor company in New York saying he could do much better, and was invited to come there to record. Stoneman’s records indeed sold surprisingly well, and Peer wanted to see if he could find any other “hillbillies” he could record. He had the idea of setting up auditions in Bristol, the nearest town to Stoneman’s area that had good rail service. Peer needed a way to get the word out to attract local musicians, so he went to the newspaper.

Peer’s plan worked like a charm. After the article, Peer reported that he was deluged with phone calls, and musicians who had never gone to Bristol in their lives showed up in droves. Why did they show up? Money. This was a raw illustration of one of the primary forces that led to the discovery and preservation of the priceless musical heritage of rural Americans a century ago. Why did Peer choose the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as his artists? Money. He had quietly and shrewdly worked out a deal with the Victor company that set the stage for the creation of the multi-billion dollar music publishing business as we know it. Instead of paying Peer as an employee, or compensating him per song, per hour or per record released, they agreed to give him recording equipment and engineers, plus ownership of the intellectual property copyrights, what we now call “publishing rights,” in exchange for whatever songs he recorded for them. The Copyright Act of 1909 had newly monetized music in some novel ways, and Peer was one of the smartest and first to figure out how to take advantage of it. He had neglected to tell the newspaper editor how much he had personally made, and historians now report a figure from that time period of $250,000 in Peer’s pocket for a single fiscal quarter as his share of this new monetary pie that was so tempting to the rural musicians. So Peer made the difficult trip from New York with his wife, two engineers and a carful of equipment, and cheerfully endured stifling Tennessee summer heat in hopes of finding more music he could own and make an easy profit from. Songs weren’t just money– they were oil wells that kept pumping. Peer famously struck pay dirt there that summer; anyone who performed already-published or copyrighted music for him was sent home, and the first week of August he found what he wanted in these two artists who wrote some of their own songs and reworked old hymns and folk songs in ways that they could be registered as original creations. Many of the songs recorded that week are legendary, yet they are still owned by the descendants of the Peer-Southern publishing empire. You will need to pay royalties to that company’s modern incarnation if you want to record those songs yourself or use them in any of the other types of ways specified in the publishing contract’s fine print from 1927, that still has very sharp legal teeth for a few more years. Ownership of a big chunk of that early music is set to finally possibly expire, after eleven extensions by Congress to the copyright law, that were leveraged into place by copyright owners and their lobbyists.
This influx of money was the thing that led the hunters to the fields, and the money was what flushed the game-birds out of the brush. Like any good business deal, both sides thought they were making a killing– through the lens of history, they each benefited in different ways. Few people know or care who Ralph Peer was, but he made by far the most money. Millions of people loved the Carter Family records, and millions more know the artist’s names and their songs to this day; the rip-off deals they signed made them household words and beloved icons, while giving them a trickle of money that seemed like great success compared to the other options they had for making money. Patrick Carr says in the “Illustrated History of Country Music” (p.50) that the three Carters split a royalty of 1/4 of a percent of retail, which came to a paltry $6.25 apiece for every 10,000 records sold, assuming they went for the premium price of 75 cents. An NPR.org web article by Jessica Wilkerson says they got 1.5%, which would have been $37.25 each, though the Carter Family biography says they split half a cent per record, yielding each singer about $17 for 10,000 records. Whatever the amount was, Peer was rolling in money, the music industry was getting launched and the record companies were doing well, though the Carters still worked at day jobs even after they became well-known.

Here in posterity, we got something else from the money dance those artists and record companies did– a legacy, and a massive archive of something that closely resembled the actual sound of the music that common people were playing back then. Photography had first showed up in 1838, some five decades earlier than sound recording, and humanity suddenly knew what things looked like, but there was never a comparable monetizing of the photography art form that paralleled what happened in music, and the cultural impact of those recordings is unfathomable. We finally knew what this “people’s music” sounded like, and music everywhere has never been the same. There was a veritable explosion. An earthquake and a tsunami struck. Pandora opened her box, though what was inside was not diseases or bad things. It was mostly good, and we have all enjoyed and learned from what was there.

The American Troubadour Surfaces
Hugely significant to our narrative is that many of these feral American musicians were playing guitars, a few of them played extremely well, and even more significant was that many were found to be singing and playing instruments at the same time. Recording itself was not brand-new; Edison cylinders and their flat replacements had been around for nearly forty years by then, but something different began to happen in that decade, when new types of music presented themselves to the world, like hobos knocking on the door or wild animals prowling outside in the yard at night. Because this new set of sounds were fixed onto shellac discs that were tangible physical objects, what they revealed was hard to brush aside, and remains powerful evidence. Whatever it was, it was not being taught in music schools anywhere at that time, and still isn’t. A significant number of singing, instrument-playing American troubadours were captured like the coelacanth by those early record company fishermen, and solo artists were well-represented in those early recordings. Among the first crop of recording artists were both men and women, who primarily played guitars, banjo, piano, fiddle, and occasionally autoharp to accompany their songs. The new recording technology and that of radio broadcasting gave solo artists a power to be heard as well as a band for the first time anywhere.

It seemed at first that the talent scouts and the record-buying public were drawn to the intimate and personal music that came from a single musician, and at least for a few years solo artists were respected and featured by many of the record companies. The sparse music of Jimmie Rodgers, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Nick Lucas, Bradley Kincaid, Riley Puckett and Kelly Harrell sold surprisingly well to mostly white audiences, and puzzlingly, Texas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson’s raw-sounding and quirky recordings were also popular with whites. Record companies quickly went in search of similar artists, launching the “race” record divisions of their catalogs to appeal to black record-buyers. Gayle Dean Wardlow described learning the explanation from Henry Speir; since there was no black radio or television in the first half of the 20th century, the only way African-Americans had to participate in the new music technology revolution was to buy records and play them on Victrolas. Records cost what was a lot of money for a poor Southerner, but Speir set up his record shop in the black section of Jackson to take advantage of the market, which at that time was 90% black. The new record business jumped from sales of 4 million records in 1909 to 100 million by 1920. The arrival in 1925 of the Victor “electrical recording” process allowed a quantum jump in sound quality and ease of recording, and between 1925 and 1930 a large number of what we now classify as important recordings were made.
Forty years later the microphone connected to a PA or “public address” system would also give another huge technology-based boost to solo troubadours, as would the subsequent arrival of television and the internet. Another very noticeable mystery in our story is how it came to be that solo artists dominated for a short time in the record company catalogs in those early years, only to disappear nearly completely from the musical output of successful record companies. No one seems to have noticed the significance then or now, but in the first inning of the new record industry game, American troubadours loaded the bases with their music. This era marked the only time in the history of American recorded music that this has happened; since Jimmie Rodgers’ #1 hit “Blue Yodel #1 (T For Texas)” released in February 1928 with him playing guitar and singing, nothing we would call a “hit record” has consisted of a purely solo musical performance. We’ll take a closer look at the pop charts in Chapter 21, and at the tiny handful of widely-distributed individual performances the recording industry has exposed us to during those nine long decades.

A series of events unfolded that caused solo artists to falter or be pushed off the playing field, and the sound of bands, groups, ensembles and orchestras rapidly and permanently took over both the radio airwaves and the grooves of the records being pressed. Solo troubadours haven’t been on the pop charts since then, though many pop stars are practitioners of the art form. The stock market crash of 1929 came at a very inopportune time, just when the young record companies had gotten their procedures of recording and marketing worked out. Quite a number of now-legendary recording artists connected to our story were then at the peak of their powers, and doing the best work of their careers at the precise time that the industry experienced a near complete collapse. As the Great Depression took hold, the bottom quickly fell out of the record business. Sales of records plunged 94%, and Paramount Records, who recorded some of the most important American troubadour music ever captured, was an early casualty that record collectors endlessly lament. They stopped recording in 1932, and closed their doors for good in 1935.

The founding of the recording and broadcast industries has been thoroughly documented, and so has the negative impact of these technologies on older oral tradition and folklore processes. Yet a third great change that came about in the 1920s seems to be unnamed and little-discussed: This was the first time in history that large amounts of music based on sounds, emotion, tone, groove and rhythm was captured alive and disseminated widely. These recordings revealed immediately and to history the rich palette of musical sounds that made up this new music. They also fixed in stone (actually in shellac) a set of truths concerning the skills of the musicians of that day. All those years of travelers and observers trying to describe the singing, instrument playing and dancing of the “peasants” or of the “Negroes” were suddenly irrelevant, because anyone with a record player could hear the recordings. How could you describe Sol Hoopii’s Hawaiian guitar playing in words? You can’t. But the records he made starting in 1925 mark him as perhaps the greatest lap steel guitarist who ever lived. Also of vital importance was that these recordings being made weren’t just put in a museum collection or a library somewhere. Records were manufactured, shipped all over the country, and sold by the millions, at least for a few years before the depression gutted the record business and other economic forces changed it. This body of recorded music immediately had a significant impact on history and on living American music, and wasn’t merely future sport for record collectors, or a charming time capsule waiting to enchant listeners decades later. Music was finished being just stark and sterile notes, lined up on staves on paper, being played or not being played. We know there must have been banjo players and fiddlers in 1870 in the American South that had uncanny rhythmic grooves going as they drove dancers to their feet. There are written accounts of how good contest fiddlers were in the 1830s, but we have no idea if they played the way fiddlers do now. We can only imagine what slaves really sounded like as they sang in the fields or at home after sundown. There were undoubtedly piano players in taverns in New Orleans in 1900 pounding out dance beats with astounding syncopations, backbeats, triplets and swinging rhythms, but we have no proof. It’s actually painful to read historical accounts of amazing music that predates recording, knowing that we can’t possibly know what was actually happening. But starting in the 1920s we were allowed to know. The people’s music had been let out of some kind of prison, and the barrelhouse belters, the cajun accordion players, the mountain fiddlers, the ballad singers, the dancing banjo players were suddenly three-dimensional, breathing their musical fire everywhere and forever. And troubadours were a crucial part of this wave of newly-empowered musicians.

What Was This Music?
It is very significant that so much of this new recorded music was the creation of rural, uneducated and unheralded people. For centuries the lower-classes of European countries lost untold ground to the juggernaut of organized classical music, as Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, pipe organs, operas, symphonies, string quartets, fugues and composers proliferated. Their collective cultural impact was overwhelming– shoving the simple, rough and unorganized “peasant music” aside and into the shadows. Except for a few notable exceptions when the intellectual, class-conscious and generally bigoted and elitist music world professed its admiration for the timeless beauty of Scottish or Irish melodies, the music of untrained common people had long been ignored, trivialized and even reviled throughout Europe. It was significant to find “peasant music” exploding with energy and complexity in America in the 1920s, though few at the time had even an inkling of what they uncovered and preserved. Not everyone welcomed this new, unwashed, sometimes very primal-sounding fare, and the comments made by some music critics and scholars were anything but complimentary. Music critic Henry Osgood wrote in 1926, “The blues…, to speak frankly, are pretty poor stuff. As a rule they are improvisations out of the mouths of musical illiterates– and they sound like it.” Even folklorist and advocate for African-American culture Dorothy Scarborough in 1925 wrote that “the colored mind is not essentially logical, and the folk-song shows considerable lack of coherence in thought.” Harvard-educated composer Charles Seeger, Pete’s father, who came to be an important player in exposing American society at large to its own folk music, admitted in his memoir that before 1938 he knew nothing about even the existence of rural black or white folk music, beyond the idea that British Isles ballads existed in oral tradition in some places in the Southern mountains, possibly better preserved than they were in Europe. Even Ralph Peer, who made a good profit selling Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recordings “The Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane / The Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster’s Going To Crow” in 1923 to signal the beginning of what has come to be called “country music,” famously pronounced Carson’s music to be “pluperfect awful.” In 1926 a writer for Variety magazine described hillbilly entertainers as having “the intelligence of morons” as they engaged in their “sing-song, nasal-twanging vocalizing.”
Somehow led by poor, unheralded, uneducated and independent musicians of all sorts, especially new types of American troubadours, the metamorphosis and recasting of what had been ignored by the educated and powerful as “primitive” or “vulgar” music would crawl out of the fields, swamps and hollers of rural America, ultimately swarming over the ivory towers and hallowed conservatories, and reverberating worldwide for an entire century. This body of music nourished the formation of the modern recording industry, generated billions of dollars and completely reshaped the popular and commercial music of nearly the entire world. Not a bad resumé for an uneducated child from a poor family.

These “recording artists” were something new, yet what many of them were doing was also very old. There was no way to fake a recording back then, and even now, nearly a century later, when we listen to digitized versions of the old records, there is a depth to what we experience and learn about the music that dwarfs whatever comparable musical truth we can obtain from notes and symbols written on old pieces of music manuscript. Scientific and rationalist thinking loves evidence and proof, and doesn’t like stories, rumors and folktales. The aggregation of recordings made in the early 20th century, whatever they do or don’t tell us about where the music came from, who exactly it was who played it, or how typical it was of what people did in those days, does retain one absolute and unassailable property– it exists. I sound like a broken record, but I really want to belabor this point, especially before you get dazzled by the riches, idolatry, stardom and glories of the music business that grew out of this rumpled pile of old music. Like those old photographs that can captivate us, the old music was captured from real things done by real humans who actually did whatever you hear on those recordings. That reality that became etched in the grooves of shellac ultimately marked one of the most important landmarks in the entire history of humans playing music, by virtue of being first. The recording of this music was a big victory for the music of “the people,” though engineers have pointed out that the technologies of the spinning lathe, wax and cutting needles used to make those early recordings had existed for centuries, and the recording era theoretically could have begun much sooner.

As exciting as it is, this story of the capturing of a large body of wild and untamed music in the early 20th century is only a part of our bigger story here, though we will return to it more than once. The real story is that we got our first high-definition look at the huge, shadowy, formless thing behind those recordings. Who were those people who played that music? Where did they learn to play? What were those songs? What else did those recordings tell us about this music of the people that wasn’t registering on any other measuring devices? In retrospect, there are some clues prior to 1920 that legions of uneducated Americans were playing a lot of interesting music, but it was far from obvious. The people making and selling guitars for the early Sears catalogs knew that something was going on, but had there been radar back then, there would have been few blips on it to show that a hidden musical tsunami was about to hit.

It is helpful to look at an analogous scenario. Before 1847 the gorilla was considered in Europe to be a myth. When Paul Du Chaillu appeared before Professor Owen and his colleagues at the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1861 to present a paper, he struggled to convince the skeptical English scientists that there really was such a thing as a gorilla, that he had seen them, and that the bones, skins and even a pen and ink sketch of a skull that others had earlier brought from Africa were real. Du Chaillu had spent 6 years exploring Africa, and had come face to face with untold novelties, and though he was the most convincing Caucasian gorilla advocate yet, he still struggled to convince them that he was right. Reverend Thomas Savage had tried to do the same thing in 1847 when he came back from Africa with a gorilla skull. It wasn’t until 1902 that mountain gorillas were said to be “known to science,” when German Captain Robert von Beringe was said to have “discovered” them. Ask almost anyone from Gabon or Congo and they maybe could have told you a lot about gorillas, and they might have personally seen, killed or even eaten one. But groups of people sometimes have trouble when they try to control and supervise knowledge, and situations analogous to this are common. People have also been telling us about the Yeti and about Bigfoot, but they don’t have a skull or any skins, just a few alleged footprints and some supposed eyewitness accounts. It’s no different with music prior to about 1923. The recordings that were made in the 1920s were as if someone had brought a living gorilla or yeti back to London or New York who could bite the skeptical scientists. Suddenly a lot more people knew a lot about some wild music that had been living in the mountains like gorillas. The needles and wax recordings provided tangible proof that could even convince closed-minded white men wearing powdered wigs.

We can debate forever about who knew or understood what concerning this music that was being recorded, or who realized its significance. Quite likely none of the participants had any idea how big a pile of music it was that was captured, or what its value might be in the future. We do know, via the usual narrative about roots music, that at least a few influential white men like Alan Lomax, Carl Sandburg, Samuel Charters and John Hammond Sr. were sufficiently impressed by what they heard that they said and did things that contributed greatly to what we could call a widespread understanding that unschooled “folk” musicians had made and were continuing to make valuable and interesting music. But there are too many tentacles and too many octopuses. No one will never be able to wrap their mind around or document the effect that hundreds of millions of discs containing millions of different performances by huge numbers of musicians, of a massive range of music, had on musicians and listeners once they were pressed and distributed around. The reverberations of that wave of recorded music, sloshing around in the pond of American culture, were like a ball of flubber bouncing around in a squash court. Like airborne germs, the rhythms, lyrics, riffs, voices, words, rhymes, tones and all the contents of those shellac discs found their way into an uncountable and unknowable number of locations, ears and hearts, and fed upon themselves to nurture a giant living yogurt culture of musical life forms and ideas. As soon as recordings and radio broadcasts began, musical ideas instantly began using these new pathways to propagate. After a record was released, copycat recordings and derivative artists often quickly showed up in new and unrelated places, completely confusing any attempts to freeze the action long enough to figure out who created what, or who learned what from whom.

Blues legend Riley “B.B.” King is a prominent example. He was born in 1925 in Itta Bena, Mississippi, raised in Kilmichael, just a few miles from the epicenter of the region thought to be the origin of Delta blues, yet he learned almost all of his music from recordings, and never learned to play in the Delta blues style. Delta blues hero Robert Johnson, born 14 years earlier than King, and 130 miles to the South, was physically in the thick of that same culture, and personally heard other great players at dances, parties and on local streetcorners. Johnson was also known to have listened to records a great deal, and may have learned nearly as much from recordings as he did from other players. It is clear that he borrowed guitar licks from Kokomo Arnold, Willie Newbern and others, and took stylized falsetto vocalisms from Peetie Wheatstraw records. Wheatstraw, whose real name was William Bunch, was nine years older, and his first record in 1930 predated Johnson by only six years, yet plenty of time to have influenced the teenage Johnson. The famous (but greatly discredited) legend that floats around Robert Johnson about how he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his musical skills is thought to have come from an offhand remark that Son House made about how quickly Johnson had learned to play. Maybe “The Devil” that Johnson learned from was really the phonograph, since interviews with his relatives told us that he had access to one. The other Delta blues legends he now keeps historical company with were older, and perhaps had to learn the slow way, from other people.
The appearance of these new recordings in the 1920s also coincided with the arrival of radio, and musicians also began performing on live broadcasts on hundreds of stations scattered across the country. This further amplified the changes that were afoot, and stirred the musical pot considerably, though little of it was documented, and we can only guess at its impact. Performers of the day normally built relationships with regional radio stations that had little to do with the recording industry at all, though that seems to have happened mostly for white musicians. On-air radio performances built and reinforced the audience that the musician then traveled to perform for. Surprisingly, it took quite a while for the technology to develop to play records on the radio, though more surprising was how long it took for anyone to realize that playing records on the radio was the best way to sell them. There were even lawsuits filed and efforts in Pennsylvania and New York by popular bandleaders Fred Waring and Paul Whiteman in the 1930s to lobby the state legislatures for laws to actually outlaw it. A handful of such laws passed, including the Radio Act of 1912. Now that record companies basically pay radio stations to play their records, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when many were worried about protecting working musicians from the competition of their records being played on radio.

American Feral Music and Folklore
The field of “folklore” was new and just solidifying as an academic discipline in the early 20th century, though the term had been coined by Englishman William Thoms in 1846. Spurred by the success of Francis Child’s “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” the idea of “archaic survival” caught on; that common people were unwittingly preserving music from the past in their off-grid oral traditions of learning from their families and neighbors. This idea hit a pretty large nerve in the late 19th century, and a number of academic and amateur folklorists and “songcatchers” began scouring rural areas like mushroom hunters, looking for these musical remnants. Collectors became worried that the new media was disrupting the music they had just begun to identify and study. Greatly concerned that people had begun to learn from the radio and from records, they perceived it as ruining the time-honored information pathways of folk learning they had just begun studying. A musician learning from recordings was considered to be “tainted,” harkening back to Francis Child’s earlier work, where he tried to avoid ballads that had been “damaged” by the printing press or learned from paper.

I’m going to address this a few times, but this is as good a time as any to bring up a sore-thumb subject– namely the injection of the practice and principles of folklore into the troubadour storyline. Songs are created and live inside the memories of individuals, and not in families, tribes, communities or entire ethnic groups like some kind of hive mind. The way each person knows or performs any given song is at the heart of the idea of troubadour music, and academics bent on classifying and explaining the feral music around them have overwhelmed that landscape with their concerns and theories about the supposed processes by which people have learned their inherited music. It probably doesn’t matter as much as they would have us believe whether someone learned a song from their parents or from a book or recording, and from my perspective they have exaggerated the importance of and romanticized the transmission of musical knowledge between generations. Though most of my complaints are about the past, public opinion about oral-tradition music has been significantly shaped, without anyone even bringing to the table the idea that people might not always want to learn a written piece of music by rote, preferring to modify and experiment with music around them. Folklorists were too quick to categorize, and put things into boxes with labels. Defining folk music, folk musicians or the folk process is pointless, though it has been stuck in an infinite loop, as are discussions of musical authenticity. Not everyone in a village knows or likes the same songs, and it is pure racism or fantasy to extrapolate from a handful of examples what black preachers, gypsy fiddlers, Virginia farmers, Polish polka bands or anybody else is or does musically. Philip Bohlman did as well as any folklore insider to call attention to the folly of trying to classify folk musicians, methods of transmission or songs in his sober 1988 book “The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World,” but the myths endure and are reinforced each time a new “authentic” but largely theatrical folk performer shows up to feed them again.

Early 20th century folklorists were frustrated by the intrusion of recordings and radio that they felt was gumming up the transmission processes and narratives, but listeners, record companies and especially musicians did not generally share this sense that something important was being lost. The complexity of musical information contained in a recording was unprecedented, and multi-dimensional in a completely new way. Musicians could be exposed to and to learn music, make money and quickly build and maintain audiences like never before. The dissemination of music via recordings and broadcasting coincided exactly with the appearance and growth of all sorts of exciting music that suddenly found new pathways, and that spread like wildfire between players and listeners, and between masters and students. The rural people who drove much of this change were newly able to listen to the radio in their remote locations, and they were able to buy records and record players and enjoy electrically-transmitted music in their homes. They did all of this in great numbers, and the world has been all the richer as a result.

Historians who have curated and picked through the huge body of early recorded music may have been excessively focused on “stardom,” on trying to uncover biographical details and taxonomy of the musicians, and on defining and categorizing the music– as being either hokum or perhaps Piedmont, Texas, Kansas City or Delta blues or some other species. Collectors, historians and fans have pursued new discoveries within a particular class of music, whether it be old-time, klezmer, blues, cajun, Hawaiian or polka, and also deified and anointed certain artists as “stars” or “legends.” A wider-angle perspective at the panoply of vivid, living music that recording technology allowed us to know about should remind us to savor more wonderment of what the recording era taught us about the music of the many, rather than just the music of the few who have been widely celebrated.

Aesthetically, it may not matter what style someone fits into, and it is not always helpful to compare so quantitatively that one kind of music, one artist or a song was more popular or sold better than another. Interestingly, record collectors have long seemed to shun the more popular and thus influential music, and made a sport of trying to find rare records. Those records are rare because few were made and they sold very poorly, which meant that fewer people at the time liked them or had a chance to be exposed to them. Mississippi John Hurt, for example, whose guitar style had an unimaginably large impact on guitar music the world over, was a platypus duckbill to some of those classifiers because he wasn’t willing or able to become anyone’s idea of a typical bluesman. His music couldn’t fit neatly into one of their categories, and did not sell when it was first released in 1928. Only three records, with six songs, were pressed, and the other seven tracks from the 1928 sessions didn’t surface until 1972 when they were put on a 38-minute compilation on the tiny Spokane and Biograph labels, and again in 1979 by Yazoo. Like B.B. King, Hurt was an African-American who lived just a few miles from “ground zero” of the Mississippi Delta region, but his voice and his guitar playing contained few of the elements that came to define Delta blues. Texas singer and zither player Washington Phillips (1880-1954) was even more baffling to the classifiers, and his case points out how unfair to him and to us that classifying can be. Trying to put him into a category with Texas musicians, zither players, gospel or blues singers, street preachers or medicine show performers distracts from the glorious emotional, uniquely personal and utterly musical content of his work.

Accessing the Trove
It might be another quirk of the information age that it is only now in the second decade of the 21st century that the vast majority of us can finally gain a mountain-top perspective on American music that we could never have had when the music was new, or at any point along the way. For almost 50 years, before LP reissues, only people with access to actual copies of the very breakable old 78rpm records and working record players were able to listen to what was on those records. If they had the wrong kind of needle or a bad record player they risked doing irreparable damage to the disc. Very few DJs were playing 78rpm records on the air after the 1940s, since the 12-inch vinyl “long-playing” LP, with almost 20 minutes of music possible per side arrived in 1948, and the 7-inch 45rpm single that showed up the following year quickly replaced the brittle, three-minute, 10-inch 78rpm dinosaurs. The 45s were smaller, better-sounding, lighter and much less breakable, though the first stereo records did not appear until 1958. Magnetic tape didn’t arrive until about 1950, so reissues of old 78s had to be made from an actual shellac record if the original wax master could not be located. If you didn’t work in a record store, library or radio station or spend significant amounts of time and money you’d have no reasonable way to sample the American archive of music, learn about artists of the past, or even be influenced by them if you were trying to learn to play music yourself. You may have seen the home of a record collector; they have spent untold thousands of dollars and hours finding and accumulating their collections, and their living spaces and lives tend to be overwhelmed.

For roughly eighty years you could only hear music by listening to a live performance, a recording, or a radio or television broadcast. To do any of those in the 20th century you had to actually be in the audience, or in front of a radio or television set within the signal radius of the station when the broadcast was happening. Even if you spent months inside a well-stocked music library, and were hungry to learn as much as you could about the music in it, you would be hard-pressed to open each record or CD, read the liner notes, listen to the tracks and then put it back on shelf where it belonged, or even to remember what you heard or liked best. Now with a broadband internet connection, a computer, an ipod or smartphone and an account with iTunes, Amazon, Pandora or Spotify, almost anyone can gorge on a mind-bending amount of music, find out what thousands of artists sounded like, instantly look at pictures of them and learn a great deal of what is known about them. I know this because I’ve been doing just that, and as I read book after web page after article about music– I can immediately listen to, bookmark or purchase almost anything I want, without driving, spending time or filling up my house.

The body of “unschooled” American music I am interested in is staggeringly large, too much for a single person to digest, though I wonder if everyone who similarly digs into it will share my feeling of wishing I had been able to experience its riches many years sooner. To listen to “B.B. King Sings Spirituals” album, released in 1960 and out of print, unavailable and highly-collectible for decades, was easy in 2018. The music was free on YouTube if I was willing to watch some ads, and I could listen to it with my Amazon Music subscription or a Spotify account, or preview and buy it on iTunes. Vinyl and CD copies of it are now inexpensive. Finding Jesse Colin Young’s 1964 solo troubadour masterpiece “Soul of a City Boy” a few years ago was tough– I had to buy a used LP on eBay. Now it is finally digitally available, though used CDs are selling for $50-100. There was almost no chance that when I was learning to play guitar 50 years ago that I would have been able to listen to records by Robert Petway, William Harris, Ishmon Bracey, Bob Campbell, Casey Bill Weldon, King Solomon Hill or Tommy McLennan, though this week I am feasting on their scratchy old Delta blues sounds because I read about them in a history book and I can afford to have an internet connection to my aging computer.

“Boogie Chillen’”
I have known about John Lee Hooker since I was a teenager, but now I can find out what a tangled mess his recorded legacy became, with all sorts of contracts with different labels, re-recordings of the classic songs, and his terrible penchant for making moonlight recordings for quick cash under fake names, with many bootleg live albums of many of his signature songs. I had never heard the incendiary original 1948 version of “Boogie Chillen” that came blasting across my windshield like a mortar round a full year after I started trying to assemble a list of important and influential recordings in American music that were made by a solo musician. It was just him at age 31, playing guitar, singing and stomping his foot. I learned that it was a #1 R&B hit, launched Hooker’s career, and galvanized an untold number of musicians who were to become legends themselves, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Pete Townsend, Albert Collins, Bo Diddley, and even Keith Richards. That song was part of a sizable body of nearly twenty completely solo songs that Hooker recorded for a makeshift Detroit record label (Sensation) founded by store owner Bernard Besman, a Ukrainian immigrant with no ties to the music industry. The other lost sides from those sessions weren’t reissued until 1995 on a compilation, “The Legendary Modern Recordings,” which meant that some of the most powerful recordings ever made by a solo American troubadour sat unavailable and almost lost for 47 years. I couldn’t have known that much less-compelling versions of many of those songs were available on several different record labels, often with a rhythm section that couldn’t quite follow him. Without insider information you couldn’t know that the earlier versions existed. I had heard that Hooker was good, I saw his cameo in the Blues Brothers movie when he was 62 years old, and I had heard a number of his records. But the songs that make my hair stand up I am first hearing in 2018, and I can only wonder what might have happened to me 50 years earlier if my parents had owned one of those records or if I had chanced to hear it on the radio. A radio deejay on the powerful “clear-channel” 50,000 watt radio station WLAC in Nashville played “Boogie Chillen” 10 times in a row in 1948 when it first came into the station, and their phone reportedly rang off the hook with people wanting to hear it again. Makes you wish you were one of them.

The “Anthology”
In 1952, also before I was born, the Harry Smith-curated “Anthology of American Folk Music” appeared as a 6-album set, sporting reissues of 84 old 78rpm records. The diverse source material for the Anthology was drawn entirely from commercial recordings made in the narrow period between 1926 and 1933, and marked the first time that significant numbers of fresh ears first heard some of this lost-and-found music of “the people.” That recording galvanized and inspired a generation of young people to explore what is now called American roots music, and it was what sparked interest in John Hurt’s guitar playing. The Anthology is credited with being a major force in the birth of the “Folk Revival” of the 1950s and 1960s, and in kindling awareness of roots music in Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, Peter Stampfel, Dave van Ronk and legions of others who would become important musicians and carriers of the music. The New York Times called it, “a folk album that awakened a generation.” Thousands of people from far outside the cultures that brought us the music drew on its riches and felt the power of an exciting energy lurking in this obscure “peasant music.” It was released on the tiny Folkways label, and never came close to being on any music charts, being widely available, or impacting the population in general. It was not reissued on CD until 1997, though many of the songs and artists it featured had measurable impact on the styles and repertoires of younger musicians. Now we know, with the benefit of hindsight, that those 84 songs were just a fraction of a drop in a very big bucket of what was actually out there, that had been captured twenty-five years earlier with the young recording technology. The Anthology was a kaleidoscopic glimpse into a huge hidden world, presented by a very eccentric tour guide. No one knows exactly what caused the bohemian Smith to curate his collection the way he did, but neither Blind Blake nor blues hero Robert Johnson, two of the most virtuosic troubadours of their time, were included. The tracks were Smith’s personal favorites, pulled from his own record collection, based on choices made by the quirky 28-year-old experimental filmmaker who claimed to be celebrating what he called “old, weird America.” (Smith also donated the world’s largest paper airplane collection to the Smithsonian, and was a fanatical student of string figures and collector of Ukrainian Easter eggs.) Smith was a populist, so the focus of his collection was more on showing us a diversity of music and an overall sonic and stylistic variety than it was on leading truth-seekers to the geniuses and virtuosos, or to the most important or vital music from that era.
Fortunately for the troubadour cause, the collection included a wealth of tracks by both black and white troubadours, including Frank Hutchison, Henry Thomas, John Hurt, Buell Kazee, Kelly Harrell, Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson and Dock Boggs. About half of the 84 tracks were either pure or nearly-pure troubadour performances, of black and white artists, male and female, playing mostly guitar and banjo to accompany their vocals. That album triggered large-scale interest in acoustic blues and country music from the 1920s, and led to a number of the artists being located, honored, re-recorded, and older recordings reissued. It also may have sparked the spread of the idea that a self-accompanied person playing an instrument and singing, creating both the rhythm and the song, had artistic and commercial value, even if they had a strange or untrained voice. It was not insignificant that Smith’s collection celebrated illiterate musicians, and didn’t contain the faintest trace of anything operatic, show-biz or classical. It is extremely likely that the Anthology gave a vitally important boost and considerably shaped the development of the modern troubadour art form.

About Those Recordings
You might think I am making too much of a fuss about old recordings, but their impact on the landscape of music was incalculable. When Thomas Edison created his first “talking machine” it took him quite a while before he even thought about recording music. For all his insights into many things, he guessed wrong on almost every decision regarding music. He envisioned the phonograph as an office machine and a tool for secretaries, to assist with dictation, and he was much more involved in developing his light bulbs and other inventions. It didn’t even occur to him that people might want to buy pre-recorded music to play on their Edison phonographs. Once companies began recording music, it took a surprising amount of time before any of them began to point the horns and microphones at the music that many of us in the future now most want to hear– essentially the “invisible music” in American society. Opera singers, marching bands, poets, speakers and vaudeville performers that made up the bulk of the recordings made in the 1890s and first decades of the 20th century reflected what kind of music and performances were popular and visible. Those recordings are not highly sought-after by either scholars or collectors today. You might think that the oldest Edison cylinders might be the most prized, especially once you realize that they are unique. Until they figured out how to mass produce them in 1912 when molded, reproducible cylinders were developed, each one was made by a cutting needle that was in the same room as the performer, who played into a recording horn. For popular releases, they had to manufacture a lot of copies, so the companies developed a system of loading multiple blank cylinders into an array of machines positioned in front of the performer, who then played the song again, emptied the machines and reloaded for the next batch. A number of artists and composers got their first music jobs making cylinders for famous artists, learning the songs and imitating them in the recording studios. The flat, readily-manufactured shellac 78rpm records introduced by Emile Berliner’s Gramophone Company in 1894 won the first of history’s numerous music format wars by defeating the Edison cylinder and the “phonograph” machines. The Victor Talking Machine Company, founded in 1901, became the biggest of the early record companies, but it would not be until 1914 that they recorded the Victor Military Band playing the first recorded blues instrumental, “The Memphis Blues.” Three years later in 1917 Victor released what is now considered to be the first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues,” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It would be another six to ten years before the floodgates of recording opened to the more diverse and home-made music, driven by the willingness of Americans to buy machines that played recordings in their homes. I have a 78rpm novelty record from 1920 by Ethel Olson (Brunswick #40052), put out by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender billiard products company of Dubuque, Iowa, titled “A Norwegian Woman At the Telephone.” It must have been funny to some people when she made the recording; she also did a version of the skit for Victor, and the B side is just her laughing. Apparently someone was sure that records like that would sell like crazy, and maybe they did in Wisconsin or Minnesota farm communities that had just gotten their first telephone lines. It is unlikely that anyone believes it is a valuable cultural artifact comparable to a Tommy Johnson blues record.

Back to Our Story...
The tiny number of solo performances on the highest-profile multi-platinum selling albums or on widely-watched television have unfortunately not represented the work of the most skilled troubadours, and no indie filmmaker has yet made a riveting public television documentary about how they came to be. The Empire, with its huge machinery and resources has nearly crushed the little band of freedom fighters. Legendary music business executive Tommy Mottola told his story in 2013 in his book “Hitmaker,” proudly and vividly describing his life of high-stakes talent management, dealmaking, scheming and international marketing that led to Sony selling 8 billion units (CDs, albums or tapes) of music during his 15-year tenure as CEO of their music division. Cut the camera to me, a 65-year-old acoustic guitar troubadour sitting in his rickety leather chair in his rickety 1888 house in Maine, hungrily scouring Mottola’s 278 pages for even the faintest glimmer of an understanding or appreciation of the kind of experiences and human magic I am trying to describe here, centered on my belief in the importance and value of solo troubadour music. I try to imagine the strained or pained look on his face if he had somehow happened to be in the front row and caught my eye as I was tuning my guitar between songs at a church basement coffeehouse concert in a suburb of Boston, playing my miniscule music and peddling my CDs and soliciting sign-ups at intermission for my email list. I try to imagine what Tommy would say to one of his fellow uber-successful music executives at the golf course if he read this book on one of his yachts at one of his beachfront homes, and tried to reconcile my world view with his massive and shiny universe of mega-hits, private jets, pop superstars, gigantic musical productions and Brobdingnagian business operations on steroids, where artists get offered that famous drink from the “poison chalice of money and power.”
Individual music might be a very ancient, easily accessible and almost innate type of shamanism, possibly a form of self-hypnosis, meditation or prayer. A prominent definition of shamanism says that it, “involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with what they believe to be a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.” When we perform multi-dimensional troubadour music, it occupies so much of us that we don’t have the spare brainpower to observe or be aware of what it is doing to us. When we make, and especially when we share this kind personal music, we are possibly more alive, more in the moment, and more engaged simultaneously on physical, emotional, spiritual, linguistic, and communal levels than in almost any other human activity. It allows us to “go” to some inner place when we play our music, yet it is also inherently inviting and meaningful to observers, with social and community value in addition to the internal and spiritual elements. It is possible that the musical hyperspace of a song can make it a vital vehicle of human expression, that deserves to be celebrated for its own sake, and recognized as perhaps one of the purest and most exquisite forms of art. Part of our story here is how valuable and important this kind of music is, though another surprising aspect is how overlooked, feared and even vilified it has also been in Western civilization for centuries, even as it has survived and evolved. We’ll explore both of these ideas in later chapters.

The Troubadour Timeline
Not only is it surprising how complex and valuable individual music can be, it is also interesting, helpful and sometimes even startling to examine the long path of how this idea has emerged in human society and traveled through history to become what it is today. Understanding what it has been in the past can help us understand its role and importance in today’s world. Language itself has been around longer than we can possibly determine, but the passionate, rhythmic, and rhyming language that is embedded in so much music is a much newer thing, and we actually can trace some of its mysterious path from China to the Middle East and into Europe and the Americas. Like the story of how human DNA has traveled around the world, certain musical and poetic practices have migrated across continents and centuries to our 21st century shores. Now that information has exploded, and massive amounts of cultural knowledge are instantly available to anyone anywhere with internet access, it may not be possible anymore to trace information pathways, but it is enlightening and empowering to peer backwards into the misty past and learn what we can about how it got to us here.

Twisted together with our story of the people who play their own music are a host of other narratives, intertwined like a double-helix molecule. Our prism reveals the other components– the history of Western music, the evolution and spread of rhyming, the relationship between music and religion, the unmeasurable impact of the printing press, digital and electronic information and communication technologies on humanity, the turbulent world of the business and monetizing of music, and also of the evolution of the guitar, the most-used instrument for modern versions of a type of musician that was often called a “troubadour,” “jongleur,” or “trouvère” in Europe 800 years ago when this sort of music last flourished openly. Most of these stories have been told separately, but the ways they combine in the context of personal music creates a new and a much more unified and compelling narrative. The troubadours of Europe who played their lutes and sang their songs of courtly love were essentially engaging in the same activity as the Mississippi bluesmen, the cowboys, hoboes, herdsmen or gypsies singing around their campfires, and also as today’s singer-songwriters. The connecting thread between these people who have all done their versions of this same activity seems to be something that forms inside human beings themselves. Bluesmen who played their guitars after working in the cotton fields all day likely had no understanding of why the guitar had those 6 strings, or why it was tuned or constructed the way it was. They couldn’t have been aware that musicians in Arabia and Africa 1500 years earlier had also set up hypnotic rhythms on their ouds and koras, and similarly sang about what was on their minds or hearts. Across the family of humanity, across the centuries, different versions of this same basic human musical activity have come and gone, spawning a mosaic of variations within musical styles and different cultures– and more are yet to come.

It seems reasonably certain that the troubadour idea migrated from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe, where it spread and took new forms, evolving and merging into new types of music and instruments while also encountering new obstacles. The Renaissance, when Europe awoke from the strange sleep of ignorant and barbaric centuries, brought Europeans all sorts of exotic and wonderful things and ideas, and many of the most valuable ones had Arabic roots. The word “alcohol” is pure Arabic language (al-kuhul or al-kohl) as are words like “algorithm,” “cipher,” “elixir,” “coffee,” “lemon” and “alchemist.” The flood of mathematical, cultural, scientific, architectural and other kinds of ideas and principles that entered Europe were part of what is often called the “enlightenment.” Interestingly, many of those ideas originated in classical Greek society or earlier, though there is no evidence that the ancient Greeks commonly sang rhymed songs about romantic love on guitar-like instruments. Like the Celts and the earlier Norse or Teutonic people, their epic ballads were historical rather than romantic in nature, and were performed with percussion, lyre or harp. Somehow troubadours never were put into that long list of ideas brought into Europe during the Renaissance. Science, painting, chemistry, astronomy, craftsmanship, rug-weaving, architecture, philosophy– all those are celebrated and studied, and are understood to have come into Europe and blossomed. Yet if you browse the internet and read anywhere about “Renaissance Music” and you’ll find what looks like a recipe book for what we think of as classical music. It is all based on sight-reading and training people to be interchangeable parts in orchestras, choirs and ensembles, not self-expressing, creative individuals who play music they have internalized or invented. Nevertheless, all through history, people have kept on with their ballad singing and guitar playing, and even those white men who systematically left the troubadour arts out of the schools, dictionaries and lists of cultural achievements likely all knew about troubadours, but did not feel comfortable including them in their books, music schools and concerts. It’s a reasonable bet that nearly all of them had relatives or neighbors who sang and played some forms of troubadour music.

After a steady erosion of respect and status, in the 1500s whatever respect that troubadours still possessed in Western Europe took a nosedive, and the profession of traveling musician began to be outlawed in many places, often fueled by strict religious ideas and class warfare. In this era it was pushed underground, and the singing lute and guitar players of Europe became difficult to track as the music moved out of the upper classes and away from literacy. We are certain that there were prominent, skilled and respected singing lute players in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, though we have no idea what they sounded like, if they had any sophisticated rhythms, or how they might compare to modern singer-songwriters. A sizable body of written music has survived from that era, including songs, ballads, chants and carols, but it has spent the last 400 years living mostly on the printed page. How were the skills invented, modified, and passed on to each generation between 1500 and 1900? Somehow the common people kept playing and singing their music, even though it was often outlawed, ignored, disrespected, and not taught in schools or part of popular music. Before sound recordings, amplification and video came along, troubadour skills were pushed aside, partly by bigger and louder ensembles, and because they did not adapt well to the printed page. The full troubadour art form combines words, rhythm and music, and no one sight-reads lyrics, melodies and complex guitar parts all at once. Printed music has dominated Western institutional learning since the early 1700s, when it took over in church and classical music. This was closely followed by its complete dominion in all musical corners of academia. Information on paper has had an immeasurable impact on nearly all human interaction from the late 1400s when the printing press appeared, until the 20th century with the arrival of electronic communications. In Chapter 6 we’ll look more closely at how 2-dimensional musical notation doesn’t adapt well to the already 2-dimensional guitar fretboard, especially when more than one tuning of the instrument is involved. The proliferation of YouTube and video-based learning is now very rapidly and thoroughly changing the way we learn music, and may quickly replace the others. Internet video may well be the best thing that has ever happened to the transmission of troubadour musical knowledge. People are learning and sharing troubadour skills like never before, and the art form is surging forward in spite of how few people realize that it exists or what it is. Musical information is spreading point-to-point, like it always has, without the printed page and without schools, churches, corporations, governments and other institutions fueling it, controlling it or interfering with its workings. Plenty of musicians are totally capable of performing their most compelling music without any assistance from anyone else, and huge numbers of profoundly meaningful and high quality solo performances happen all over the world every day at parties, small clubs, churches and anywhere else people gather. It remains a grass-roots marvel that is showing no signs of slowing down or giving back the territory it has claimed.

Somehow, with almost no help from the rich, the powerful or the institutions of music or society, the guitar has emerged from a historical jumble of stringed instruments with fretboards to conquer the musical instrument world of today. After that 450-year gap, when European troubadours were a mythic memory and their colonial descendants were completing their settling of the American wilderness, a significant number of troubadours showed up in early American recordings. The ways people had learned and performed music in the past were almost instantly upended by music technology, and the depth of what changed in that era rivals or exceeds what is happening now in the digital age. The ancient idea of entertaining ourselves with musical skills learned from our families or neighbors was an early victim of change, and the pathways of musical information were fundamentally transformed 90 years ago. People quickly began to learn from the radio and recordings, and were exposed to a wider range of musical ideas than ever before. The arrival of those new technologies immediately altered forever in unmeasurable and nearly untraceable ways how people both learned and performed their music. Those trying to study traditional ballad singing in rural America were amazed at how fast the all-powerful influence of radio and record players permeated even very remote communities. When American troubadour music emerged and took a public and permanent shape in the form of sound recordings, there was a wide cultural diversity of performers playing all sorts of instruments, especially the banjo, piano and guitar, though the first recordings of what we call “country music” often featured solo fiddle players singing and playing simultaneously. It may not be a coincidence that the centuries when the troubadour arts were the most unfashionable and disrespected were almost exactly the period when the printed page ruled supreme as the dominant form of information transmission technology. It also may not be a coincidence that music with stylistic ornaments, nuance, improvisation and rhythmic complexity exploded in popularity and spread widely at precisely the same point in history that sound recordings and radio broadcasts arrived.

Another unanswered question stares us in the face when we contemplate the early recordings of American acoustic guitarists, beginning in 1923 with Sylvester Weaver’s first guitar blues recordings and Nick Lucas’ city-slicker jazzy guitar work. How did people learn to play the guitar the way they were doing in the American South around that time? Somehow the guitar spread around the country, among illiterate, self-educated people who were struggling for survival after the Civil War. It now appears likely that they didn’t get their hands on guitars even as soon as we thought, which makes their accomplishment even more amazing. By the early 1920s, after barely a generation or two with guitars in their hands, they were revealed to have developed an incredible new body of troubadour music and guitar skills. All recordings of blues guitar were not simple or primitive, and 90 years later guitar students still marvel at what the early recording machines captured. If someone had merely listened to Blind Blake or Willie McTell and described them in writing, we would have a different situation, especially if the observer were a prejudiced, nationalistic white man who had been indoctrinated with very different notions of what music was supposed to be.

Troubadours on Top?
The final segment of our troubadour tale tells how their skills have navigated the birth and development of the recording and broadcast industries, through those 90 years to reach the 21st century. Complex but often hidden cultural forces have inspired and guided new troubadours as we’ve learned our trade, and those forces may be leading your neighbor or relative to teach themselves to play guitar in the basement or on the back porch. There seems to be someone on every block and in every family who is playing the guitar, mostly to sing and write songs, and rarely to enroll in a music academy as a guitar student. Troubadour knowledge has taken a circuitous route; it has not been a simple, obvious or happy story, though now as we roar into the future, I have no fears of this kind of music weakening or vanishing. It may be time, however, to unfurl the flag, develop a common language, terminology, and perhaps make a declaration of a set of musical truths that we know to be self-evident. The music typically taught in American public schools during my lifetime is about as far from troubadour skills as you can get. The elementary school choir and the high school band and orchestra involve something completely different from solo troubadour music in nearly every way. The personal nature of the troubadour art form and the need for individualized learning and performing mean that it is understandably not something that twenty children can learn at once in a classroom. If the music teacher were a skilled troubadour it might work, but they haven’t systematically trained school music teachers that way yet. It’s beginning to happen, though more so in the field of music therapy where students are now being taught to play songs from the 1950s and 1960s on guitar so they can relate to the new generation of people now appearing in retirement homes. If you only know popular songs from the 1930s and 1940s on the piano, your years of being effective in connecting with octogenarians are about over.

Settle in and stick with me, and we’ll traverse the tangled but endlessly fascinating story of how these shape-shifting and beautiful things that I call the troubadour arts have flowed and flourished in their part of the cultural river of humanity since the beginning of time. They are likely poised to have their biggest impact ever on music, in spite of being overlooked and unheralded– and as I write this our troubadour future looks brighter than it has been since about 1975, when a number of troubadours were also flying high in the public eye. The most valuable art objects on Earth are oil paintings that were created by a single person, and individual music performances and recordings can channel personal human artistic energy on a comparable level of artistic merit when they are captured for posterity. (Though admittedly the formats and embodiments of modern music are in the thick of the digital revolution, and deep questions remain about how to best preserve and share them.) Perhaps in the future we’ll see more instances of the wealthy and powerful who purchase expensive art also paying attention and perhaps honoring, nurturing or funding modern troubadours. Career counselors say it’s a good idea to say out loud what it is you want to happen in your life, so I’m trying to do that.

Read Chapter 1

Read Chapter 3

I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... I want people to find this in web searches and to read it.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,