Those who know me know I have quite an interest in music and the genre of most interest to me is vintage jazz and swing of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I am not much of a musician, however, I did play the trumpet in my younger years and was a collector of the aforementioned recorded music. This background is enough for me to be able to converse with musicians whenever I can. I often make it a goal to engage a musician, particularly in a setting where they may be playing to a somewhat non-attentive crowd. Thus, my goal becomes to make sure they are not playing a ‘wallpaper job.’ This term was introduced to me by a trumpet player who was heading to a gig and called it a ‘wallpaper job,’ one where the audience is not paying much attention and they can play whatever they want.
Finding opportunities to talk about my true interest in jazz music do not present themselves often. These days, I find I must keep as in tune as I can with a few varieties of music. This can stretch me a bit and that, I suppose, is a good thing. Although I was not necessarily a follower of the popular music of my youth, it was surrounding me and I seem to have soaked some of it up. Actually, relative to the current pop music of today, the music of the 1950s, 60s and 70s seems to have more substance than I ever thought at the time.
I could write a whole blog on music, but, I have to start somewhere. Let me now relate to you my latest encounter with a musician. After curling last week, we went into the lounge to talk. A guitar and sound system was sitting in the corner and I knew it probably belonged to Geoff Gibbons. My wife and I used to go to 25 cent Wing Wednesday when Geoff was playing and I have spent quite a bit of time talking to Geoff. Sure enough, pretty soon he appeared and greeted me warmly. Then he asked, “Any requests?” Well nothing came to mind, so, I blurted out Malaguena. “Malagu… what?” came the response. I described seeing Roy Clark play it on TV many years ago. He agreed that Roy Clark was a really great player. The next thing that came into my mind was something I had seen on the PBS special John Sebastian’s Folk Rewind. It was a black and white clip with Judy Collins and Pete Seeger singing Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn, taken from Ecclesiastes in the Bible. We had still not found a song for Geoff to do, so, I went on to talk about the Glen Campbell Goodtime Music Hour from the late sixties. Glen had appeared on the Smothers Brothers show and took over from them one summer, ending up with his own show. Glen had another musician, John Hartford, on the show to add to the musical segments. The show contained music and skits. There would be a weekly guest and they would perform and then appear in skits that often ended up with the participants loosing it in laughter.
The show was musically unique by todays standards. The stage had a walkway that led to a central circle ( I am pretty sure there is a name for this, but, I can’t think of it at the moment) in the audience where Glen sat and played with his guests and John Hartford. John played guitar, banjo, fiddle and sometimes danced on a sheet of plywood to add extra rhythm to his solos. I always looked forward to the music in the circle because, well, it was great music without the frills. I looked particularly forward to the times when John Hartford played. There was something about him that made me understand that he was the genuine article for his music and a really great talent. A couple of times I heard him do a song called “The Old Washing Machine Song.” During the song he made sounds to imitate the new and old washing machine. Very clever, I thought.
Geoff said, he would do some Glen Campbell and then played Gentile On My Mind. To be honest, I did not remember John Hartford’s name that night, so, I went home and did a bit of research. I found Roy Clark doing Malaguena and other songs. I even found Charo doing it. I couldn’t remember ever knowing Charo played guitar. She sure bent the strings. Next, I found the clip of Judy and Pete doing Turn, Turn, Turn. Then, I turned to John Hartford, who added the ‘t’ in his last name on the advice of Chet Atkins (a really great guitar player who helped many musicians). I always wondered what happened to John.
Evidently, John Hartford wrote Gentile On My Mind which became a standard in the genre of pop music. Geoff just jumped right in and played it without music. It provided Hartford with some income so he could dedicate his life to his music. He spent decades piloting a steamboat up and down the Mississippi river, playing his bluegrass music. In later years he contributed to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and created a new variant of bluegrass music called newgrass.
John Hartford is gone now, but, he truly left his mark on the history of music. The other musicians mentioned here also left their mark. While Geoff plays in a variety of places around the Vancouver area, he also writes music for movies.
This musical encounter with Geoff lead me to learn a lot. I sent Geoff some of what I learned and some links. I like sharing with musicians and if we can both learn something, the encounter becomes even more fruitful.
I guess there is a link here to my interest in jazz. The river boats on the Mississippi, carried early jazz and musicians up the river from New Orleans where they eventually landed in Chicago and their music became the Chicago Style of jazz.
I have met many dozens of musicians over the years, some famous and some who simply remain in the background staying true to their music, some who have done both, like John Hartford. The world is full of truly great musicians who, for by choice of otherwise, never attain fame or fortune, or have turned away from it.
Some of the Mississippi riverboats were quite large and put on shows. They were flashy with Minstrel shows, white entertainers dressed in blackface created from burnt cork. The banjo was an important instrument in these performances. A popular stage musical from the 1920s, Showboat, depicted a showboat that brought entertainment to towns along the river. I found a clip on the Internet with John Hartford steering a riverboat and talking and performing. The wheel was nearly as tall as he was. I got the feeling that he could tell a lot of stories. Anyway, the boat was full of tourists and there was a lady behind John who was playing ‘Ol Man River on an organ, a tune from Showboat. John explained that he never liked the tune and then imitated the low voice of the person who sang the song, a reference to Paul Robson, who originally sang it.
I found many other clips of John Hartford and I am glad I rediscovered him. Encounters with musicians like Geoff are times I value deeply. These musicians are important contributers to the culture of mankind.
When I thought about writing this I considered adding links to each reference, however, then I realized that, while valuable, some readers might click on each of them as they read. This would break up my writing. Thus, I encourage you, the reader, to use copy and paste to discover for yourself what I have learned. Now, go explore music!