Fiddling While America Burns - Wellington's T-Bone Cut A Rug

Published: Tue 3 Nov 2020 11:03 AM
Fiddling While America Burns - Wellington's T-Bone Cut A Rug
“Noam Chomsky has described the contemporary Republican Party as 'the most dangerous organization in human history'.” - Joseph O'Neill, 'Save the Party, Save the World', New York Review of Books, August 20, 2020.
"Why do you think I have chosen solitude? Commerce with men is a dangerous business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed is to live alone."
- Jean-Pierre Melville.
One week prior to the most significant US Presidential elections in decades, local denizens of Lower Hutt's Moera Hall were treated to Wellington-based bluegrass band T-Bone's broad canvas of musical styles, including tinges of bluegrass, old-time, country, cajun, and zydeco influences. They currently comprise a multi-instrumental acoustic quintet who share an obvious passion for painting with an effervescent and polychromatic palette. The result is an accomplished blend of high-octane Americana music with fiery solos on guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and fiddle, and close vocal harmonies on their slower, more melancholy tunes.
Since getting together in 2005, T-Bone have appeared at numerous Antipodean folk festivals, as well as the 2015 Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Borneo. Alongside Aaron Stewart, Cameron Dusty Barnell is multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter who has toured extensively with The Frank Burkitt Band, The Federal String Band, The Hardcore Troubadours, and as one half of the duo Kim and Dusty. Gerry Paul is an award-winning songwriter, musician, and producer, as well as a highly respected session musician who has performed and recorded with Grammy Award winning bluegrass icon Tim O’Brien, Irish platinum-selling accordion maestro Sharon Shannon, and Bansoori player Ravi Kumur, as well as with his own band Gráda. Largely self-taught fiddler, Richard “The Pimp” Klein is a connoisseur of fine wines from New Jersey, best known for his previous collaboration with Melbourne's Le Blanc Brothers Cajun Band.
There has perhaps never been a more polarizing or argument-provoking genre of music than bluegrass, a development of American roots music that derives its name from Bill Monroe's pioneering band, The Blue Grass Boys, and flowered in the 1940s. Traditionalists insist it has to include a banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass, with three-part harmonies and maybe even a bass fiddle thrown in, but certainly no amplified bass or drums. While some believe the rapid growth of the jam band scene has hurt bluegrass, others think musicians like Allison Krauss have converted the genre from the gutsy, ballad-spewing, breakneck tempo music that it was into the wispy, AM-gold, elevator music that much of it has become. Or maybe The Berklee School of Music is to blame, producing graduates who have gone on to make some of the most polished and overproduced music on the American music scene. The real reason why people either love or hate it remains strangely elusive and difficult to define. Jam bands have co-opted bluegrass, using it as a platform for extended bouts of self-indulgent improvisation, only to come around after hours of psychedelic exploration to zip through updated versions of such classic standards as How Mountain Girls Can Love.
It is hardly surprising that Jerry Garcia loved bluegrass and originally aspired to be a banjo player in Monroe’s band. Had he taken an interest in klezmer music and played a clarinet, it is arguable that Deadheads would have come to prefer klezmer over bluegrass. Monroe himself characterized the genre as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound." Its retrograde racist and misogynistic roots lie deeply embedded in traditional English, Scottish, and Irish ballads, dance tunes and reels, originally transported down the Mississippi by French Canadian traders and Canuck fur trappers. The style was further developed after WWII by a number of exceptionally gifted musicians who played with Monroe, including five-string banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs and scrupulous finger-picking guitarist Lester Flatt.
Bluegrass generally features acoustic string instruments and emphasizes the off-beat. Notes are anticipated, creating the characteristic, accelerated level of high octane playing, in contrast to more laid back blues where they are more often played slightly behind the beat, or “in the pocket.” As in jazz, instrumentalists take turns playing the melody and improvising around it, while the other musicians perform accompaniment, typified by tunes called 'breakdowns' that are characterized by rapid tempos, unusual instrumental dexterity, and complex chord changes, as opposed to old-time music, in which all instruments play the melody together, or one instrument carries the lead throughout while the others provide accompaniment.
Three main sub-genres are broadly discernible: in traditional bluegrass, musicians play folk songs with traditional chord progression on acoustic instruments; progressive bluegrass groups like The Punch Brothers, Cadillac Sky, and Bearfoot tend to employ electric instruments and import songs from other genres, particularly rock & roll; while bluegrass gospel employs Christian lyrics, soulful three and four-part harmonies, and sometimes solo instrumentals. A more recent development is neo-traditional bluegrass that typically involves more than one lead singer, as exemplified by bands such as The Grascals and Mountain Heart.
Emphasising an unplugged sound, especially the unnerving twang of banjos and fiddles, bluegrass performers have aadopted the scornful sensibility of an ancient musical tradition handed down from the distant mists of time. In reality, however, the genre is only ten years older than rock 'n' roll. As performed by its earliest practitioners, it was considered a radical innovation in its time - much faster and more precise than any of the old-time mountain music that preceded it. Some celebrate its birth year around 1940, when Monroe made his first recordings for RCA, while others prefer 1945, when he hired Scruggs, whose three-finger banjo roll made the music much leaner and more virtuosic than before. In any case, Monroe’s musical modernism proved as revolutionary in country music as the concurrent phase of bebop pioneers did in jazz.
The progressive nature of Monroe’s music was camouflaged by the conservative cast of his lyrics. His music echoed the power of the radios and telephones that had reached into isolated Appalachian communities and connected them to the outside world. It also reflected the increased velocity of the cars and trains that were liberating young people from farms and small rural towns into Atlanta and Northern industrial cities. The lyrics assuaged the homesickness of people on the move by providing a sentimental sense of nostalgia for a rapidly vanishing way of life. Bands such as The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers, and The Larry Stephenson Band ably fill this role, taking classic Monroe recordings as a template to follow, rather than an inspiration to change.
There are still plenty of bands doing it Monroe’s way, spitting out lyrical tales of heartache interspersed with rapid mandolin and banjo breaks, but when Monroe 'invented' the genre, it was genuinely outsider music compared to the sort of glossy Bing Crosby/Perry Como/Tony Bennett crooning popular in post-war America. From the late 1950s and well into the seventies, many mid-Atlantic areas flourished with bluegrass bands. It was an aggressive and emotional music mostly heard mostly in bars where sawdust covered the floors and remained stubbornly beyond mainstream acceptance, despite the commercial success of soundtrack albums from The Beverly Hillbillies to Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance.
America's musical heritage remains a racial minefield, however. Prejudice pops up regularly to complicate tunes we would prefer simply to enjoy, in the same way it feels weird these days to watch an old Mel Gibson movie. Take Big Bend Gal, for instance, a catchy fiddle-and-vocal number about a female field hand who is ”the queen of the whole plantation” and includes such lines as “There’s no use talking about the Big Bend Gal who lives at the county line / For Betsy Jane from the prairie plain just leaves them way behind.” Big Bend Gal was first recorded in 1927 by the Shelor Family of Virginia, who were white and sang it in a raw hillbilly style with lines that put nowadays put a damper on the festivities.
Jump Jim Crow is another popular fiddle tune with a dubious history whose refrain goes “Weel about and turn about and do jis so / Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.” In the early 1830s, a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth Rice adopted the song and its eponymous trickster character for a comedy act that would catapult him to international fame. Donning rags and blackface, Rice performed send-ups of black speech and culture, song and dance. He wrote endless new verses for his signature ditty - corny slapstick humor with the occasional social commentary:
And if de blacks should get free,
I guess dey’ll fee some bigger,
An I shall concider it,
A bold stroke for de niggar.
Rice’s success paved the way for a wave of mean-spirited blackface performers and the 'Jim Crow' moniker soon became synonymous with American apartheid. In the post-bellum period, black entertainers also did blackface routines for a time, before moving on to blues or jazz-based vaudeville acts. “The first one or two generations of black performers took those stereotypes to a far deeper degree of racist imagery than even the white performers did,” said Don Flemons, a black fiddler and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who moved on to a solo career in 2014 and has a passion for black cowboy songs. Black performers often “subverted these images and black audiences could tell,” but white minstrelsy evolved into something “more sinister.”
According to North Carolina historian David Gilbert, a century ago blackface was “the only game in town … [black entertainers] acted, sang, and performed in the few caricatures available to them: the dandified, urban Zip Coon and the slow-witted Sambo, to name the two most prominent types. Often these ‘coon’ caricatures traded in razor violence, lust, and gastronomical stereotypes like chicken and watermelon. But these were the stereotypes of their day, not just in minstrelsy, but in the advertising and consumer culture.” Given the heavy baggage of all this history, should white musicians feel conflicted about playing a haunting instrumental like Mace Bell's Civil War March, knowing that it was written by a Texan fiddler who served in the Confederate Army?
Lots of old songs beloved by country and bluegrass audiences have similarly complicated histories. Among the most notorious is Dixie’s Land a tune usually credited to Ohio-based showman Daniel Emmett, who founded one of the first traveling blackface troupes during the 1840s. Dixie became an unofficial Confederate anthem, with lyrics that expressed nostalgia for a lifestyle based on the brutal oppression of black people: “Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten.” Flemons does not think the song is racist per se, “but how it’s applied in the world - that’s a whole different thing.” This fraught past is the reason why, in 2016, the University of Mississippi banned its marching band from playing the song at sporting events. The racist roots of the song was too troubling even for a school that still styled itself 'Ole Miss.'
The horrors of slavery and its aftermath are, to quote the sideview mirror, closer than they appear. History is the antidote to temporal parochialism, which makes us think the only time is now, and geographical parochialism, which makes us think the only place is here. Prejudice “is still in our blood, it’s still in our actions, it’s still in our Constitution - little fragments that are left over and covered up by new laws,” Ben Hunter said. “In the right context, it’s important to perform Run, Nigger, Run - another slave song adopted by white performers - ”because black and white people were singing that song, but probably for different reasons.”
“People are trying to find modern sensibilities in stuff that was not built on modern sensibilities,” said Flemons who performed an instrumental version of Stephen Foster’s Ring, Ring de Banjo at a Foster-themed event with the Cincinnati orchestra in 2015. Foster’s racist lyrics are “absolutely unacceptable nowadays,” he acknowledged, “and I would never think to perform that song outside the context of that specific show.” But these once-popular songs “are a document of what happened” and failing to acknowledge that history would “completely devalue the strength of how far we’ve come.”
Slavery was foundational to British and American prosperity and rise to global power. Sugar fast became Britain's largest import and the craze for it revolutionised national diets, spending habits, and social life, not least because of its association with that other newly fashionable drug, tea. During the C18th, English consumption of of sugar sky-rocketed from about four pounds per person per year to almost twenty, roughly ten times as much as the French, who preferred coffee. All this abundance, luxury, and so-called domestic progress derived from the brutal exploitation of huge numbers of enslaved African men, women, and children across the Atlantic. As its defenders liked to stress, slavery was hardly a new phenomena. It was taken for granted in biblical and classical times, practised by virtually every previous civilisation, and common in Africa itself, but there had never been anything like the scale of plantation culture that the British pioneered in the Americas, where so many slaves were held in proportion to the population of free people. In Virginia, which had by far the the most enslaved people of the thirteen mainland colonies, they made up roughly forty precent of all pre-revolutionary inhabitants, but whites always remained in the majority. As atrocious and barbaric as the treatment of slaves was in North America, it was incomparably worse in the West Indian sugar estates, which were not only the largest agricultural businesses in the world, but also the most destructive of human life.
Throughout the colonies, speech, song, and music were all central to the culture of enslavement. For both slave owners and the enslaved, spoken and sung words simultaneously functioned not only as representations, but also as performative speech action. Their utterance was the most ubiquitous way in which the boundaries between liberty and bondage were constantly reinforced, negotiated, or contested. During the C18th, “freedom of speech” (a concept previously associated only with parliamentary debates) came to be seen as foundational to all political liberty. Both colonial laws and politics were transacted through verbal rituals like the taking of oaths, the giving of evidence, or the making of public speeches, from which women, slaves, and other lesser humans (like Jews, Quakers, Native Americans, mulattos, and free blacks) were to a greater or lesser extent excluded. The precisely-drawn boundaries of this power to speak, to be heard, and to silence others were frequently disputed within the colonial population precisely because they were so central to the meaning of freedom.
Speech and song were also pivotal in C18th definitions of what it meant to be human. Abolitionists claimed that the eloquence of slaves proved their equal humanity, at a time when most whites took it for granted that black utterances were inherently inferior, even bestial. When the Scottish 'Enlightenment' philosopher David Hume set out to prove that whites were intrinsically superior to all other “breeds,” he confidently discounted “negroe” voices as nothing more than brutish squawks. It is striking how much effort was put into physically, as well as legally, silencing enslaved people. As a young boy recently transported from the Guinea Coast to a Virginia plantation in the mid-1750's Olaudah Equiano was terrified by the appearance of a black house slave who moved around fixed in an iron muzzle, “which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat or drink.” Some slaveowners ordered such equipment from London. Others, like the bookish young Englishman Thomas Thistlewood, improvised their own horrific gags. He also recorded in his diary 3,852 acts of rape with almost 150 enslaved women. Apart from the thoroughness of his record-keeping, Thistlewood was entirely typical, even relatively restrained, in his behaviour. Freedom of speech and the power to silence may have been pre-eminent marker of white liberty, but at the same time slavery depended on dialogue and slaves could never be entirely muted. Even in conditions of extreme violence, stories and songs remained ubiquitous, ephemeral, and potentially transgressive. Moreover, African slaves themselves came from societies in which oaths, orations, and invocations were laden with great potency, both between people and as a connection to the spirit world.
The reality is that music, like sport, is never politically neutral. Both its form and content can demand progressive and revolutionary change or remain profoundly conservative, supporting the social status quo ante. Just ask the (now mercifully defunct) Black and White Christy Minstrels, or the Springboks, or soccer fans in Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool who choose to support one of two soccer teams along largely ideological lines, one predominantly supported by the Catholic community, the other resolutely Protestant. Or, better yet, ask the NBA, which recently concluded its season not only with the Lakers' successful championship run, but also the full endorsement of a mass political movement by teams, players, and fans alike.
As it is with sport, so it is with music, the most immediately moving and affective of all artistic modalities. The sort of music we like to listen to and support has political ramifications and ideological implications. In these days of 'Black Lives Matter,' when black folks are still getting shot in the back at point blank range and synagogues across the Southern states are routinely defaced by swastikas, they reflection of moral values. Country music harks back to the ultra-conformist Eisenhower era, a simpler time when coloured folks knew their place and red-necked, 'good ol' boys' drove around sporting gun-racks in their pick-up trucks and looking for suitably sturdy trees from which to hang their “strange fruit.”
It is crucial that Americans decisively reject this caudillo model of one-man rule in the upcoming election, if they are to restore some of the liberal democratic norms that this huckleberry clown has so wantonly and consistently trashed. A landslide would certainly provide a cautionary tale, but making the election solely about 'wokeness' is to ignore many other issues that also need to be taken into account, such as climate change and access to affordable universal healthcare, let alone Trump's mental and emotional instability in the White House, where thoughts seem to drift randomly around like tumbleweed on Main Street. Comparisons with previous Republican presidents are salient. Like Reagan, Trump is an authoritarian and callous poseur who hasn't hesitated to send in armed police and the National Guard to break up civil protests. While more than 89,000 people died of Aids over seven years under Reagan's administration, however, Covid deaths in the US over seven months under Trump are 225,000 and rising fast. Even a radical, bipartisan, and cross-party realignment of government institutions would at best move towards a restoration of pre-Trump America.
The US desperately needs to address systemic structural inequalities, if it is to survive what is inevitably coming next. In January, a gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, attracted thousands of militia members and extremists carrying semi-automatic assault rifles, NRA members, and armed Trump supporters from across the country - all mixing together in large crowds.
What are these people so afraid of? Against whom are they trying to protect themselves?
The answer is all too apparent - not only such well-known victims of gun violence as Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, but also Walter Wallace, a mentally disturbed young man who was shot more than ten times by a Philadelphia police officer only last week. Such repeated and despicable patterns of behaviour are based on deeply ingrained fears and prejudices with several hundred years of back story.
Sporting a fedora and grizzled love patch, Klein is well positioned to undercut the music's more questionable aspects, peppering the playlist with Northern Union, Italian revolutionary, and Bob Marley protest songs. He carved a crisp and clean path through the sort of gut-bucket hoe-downs more typically associated with the unfortunate inhabitants of trailer parks - poor, white, and predominantly found in the most impoverished regions of the US that have experienced the ravages of coal-mine closures, the collapse of public education and consequent mass illiteracy, and the devastating effects of prescription opiate addiction. These Southern and Midwestern states are the rabid heartland of Bible-bashing and heavily-weaponised Trump supporters.
Without any effort at explanation or historical contextualisation, such enthusiasm for a musical genre steeped in racial and misogynistic stereotypes runs the risk of being seen as just another a patronising affectation, like the Tom Waits hat and strange facial hair. Fortunately Klein's solid and well-informed performance was pitch perfect and provided exactly the right equilibrium. The audience - which ranged from toddlers to grannies - certainly appreciated the band's toe-tapping antics, which were neatly balanced out by some soulful harmony singing on the slower numbers. A little fiddle can go a long way, but mercifully there were no klezmers or accordions in evidence.
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
Contact Howard Davis

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