The Artful Mind Interview
THE ARTFUL MIND MARCH 2007
Interview with Scott Ainslie
by Barbara Dean
Barbara Dean: In 1967, while still in high school, you heard Virginia bluesman John Jackson play for the first time. He became your friend and mentor. Can you describe his influence on you?
John Jackson was an unadvertised guest at a Mike Seeger concert for the folk club at Groveton High School in the spring of 1967. At the time, John dug graves for his living, collected Civil War bullets, buttons, belt buckles and things that he found digging graves (later using a metal detector) in the battlefields around his home in Fairfax Station, Virginia. He very quickly made his money playing music. He toured Europe and all over the US.
John was a kind and happy man. He was like a Black Buddha. He tended always to excuse any sort of slight or insult. More than just a coping skill for a Black man growing up in Virginia in the early 20th Century, this was his personal kindness showing through. He loved to laugh and tell stories. And musically, he was a wonderful and spirited player and performer.
I walked into that performance at Groveton High School in Alexandria, VA, curious about folk music; I walked out a guitar player – who had never touched the instrument. John set the hook so deep in my throat that I had to just swallow it and hope I lived. I have met one other acoustic blues guitarist, Dave Essex, who was at that show with me and took up the guitar afterwards. We were pretty surprised to figure this out more than thirty years later.
BD: You are an accomplished musician, with a BA in classical music theory and composition. It is the Blues that has been your musical passion. What is it about the Blues that makes it such a vital musical form?
When I was at Washington & Lee University, studying with Rob Stewart (the chair of the music department and a fine composer and violinist), I spent my weekdays writing atonal chamber music and working out how to play like Mississippi John Hurt.
I spent my weekends playing old-time fiddle and banjo music, and learning traditional music from some of the most revered musicians of the Southern Appalachians: Tommy Jarrell, Albert Hash, Kyle Creed, Fred Cockerham, and The Hammons family of Marlinton, WV. I was very lucky as a kid.
I also grew up with AM radio rock ‘n’ roll, soul music, R&B, and the like. Back then, radio stations weren’t segregated by genre. You could hear Dean Martin, Otis Redding, Aretha, James Brown, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kingston Trio, Odetta, The Beach Boys, Bobby Darin, or The Supremes on the same station–sometimes in the same hour!
Blues–the music that was recorded between the World Wars including but not limited to the music of Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James and Son House–is like rock ‘n’ roll for one. If you read the back of the albums–a great source of information for many of us–you could follow the influences and wander back in time, and back in technology, from the Stones, for instance, or Cream, to Robert Johnson.
Hearing Clapton’s version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues,” one could hardly imagine a solo, acoustic version of it. But then you hear Robert’s recording from 1937 and realize that the power is in the song and was there before electric guitars, before bass guitar, before drums–before all that volume. Suddenly, it seemed approachable. Available. After that realization, there was no turning back.
BD: Can you tell us about your travels into West Virginia, looking for traditional music and musicians? Who were some of the people you met, and how did they affect you?
I turned up as a freshman at Washington & Lee University in the fall of 1970, only marginally less naive than all the other freshman. I was lucky enough to be interested in geology (as well as in avoiding physics and calculus) and wound up in a Geology 101 class taught by Odell McGuire.
Dr. McGuire turned up for class one day looking absolutely like Hell. He was covered with mud from the line on his forehead where a hat had protected him down to the tops of his boots. Mustache, eye brows, shirt, pants: it was unusual attire for a professor, when coats and ties were still the norm in the classroom.
McGuire announced that he’d just gotten out of the car after driving all night back from a fiddler’s convention in Ivydale, WV. My ears pricked up. It had rained and the bottom had flooded, along with the road in. He’d spend much of Sunday pushing other people’s cars up that road. Later, the people behind him pushed him out. He drove all night. Here he was to teach the lab. And then, close as I recall, he said this:
“If I fall asleep mid-sentence, I expect you all to file out quietly….I will flunk the student who wakes me.”
I pestered Odell to play music with me and teach me what he was learning on the banjo. His love for the music and for company ushered me into the presence of the people I mentioned earlier. After a stroke, Odell is relearning old-time banjo and teaching whoever wants to learn.
To look at just one of any number of life changing experiences with the old people I’ve had a chance to work with, I’d probably have to pick Lee Hammons’s eighty-eighth birthday party.
Lee was known to me as a banjo player. His playing was graceful as a bird and solid as granite at the same time. He was born in 1888. He quit playing the banjo when the guy who owned the banjo in his community got fired from the lumber camp where they worked. He didn’t pick a banjo up again to play until the late 1960s, when Dwight Diller badgered and cajoled him into it.
Over the birthday cake with something less than 88 candles on it, someone handed Lee a fiddle–and he took it! He tucked it under his chin and proceeded to play some of the worst sounding fiddle music I’d ever heard. At the same time, oddly, it was the most tangible music I had ever heard. There was nothing objectively “right” about the sounds Lee was making on that fiddle: the pitches weren’t where they ought to be, the rhythm was sketchy, the tone was –well–indescribable. But as it was hanging there in the air between us, you would have to walk around it. It was solid.
Lee didn’t let the fact that he had almost no ‘technique’ on the fiddle stop him. He wasn’t trying to play the fiddle. He was playing it–using the means at hand to say something. I was stunned by the absence of technique and the presence of what I can only call, “Lee.”
Years later while reading an interview with Jerry Garcia in Rolling Stone, I came across a section where Jerry was asked about the level of technique of young players of the day. The interviewer wondered if Jerry was jealous, since when he was their age he had Elmore James and T-Bone Walker out in front of him as lead guitarists, and they had transcriptions of Garcia, Steve Vai, Hendrix…. Jerry said, as one might expect, that he thought it was great! And then observed something to the effect that at the same time he’d just as soon hear John Lee Hooker play three notes his life depended on as hear some kid run up and down the fingerboard four or five times.
That’s what Lee’s playing was for me: notes his life depended on. We all want more technique. Lee’s banjo playing was flawless and hypnotically beautiful. I just try not to lose sight of what Lee and his fiddling taught me that afternoon. One doesn’t want to gain the world and lose your soul.
BD: You have literally written the book on Robert Johnson. When did you first hear his music, and what made you decide to undertake the arduous task of transcribing it?
I have an former brother-in-law (there has to be a simpler way to designate him, something with fewer hyphens) – who brought a record over to the house in 1975. He said, “You like guitar music. Listen to this.” Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers.
And here it came. I sat down on the floor and the world stopped until the side was over. I flipped the record and the same thing happened again. For a long time, I had to be careful when I put on a Johnson record. If I had something I needed to go do, I’d be late.
I ran out an bought the only book I could find, and it was totally inaccurate. Songs in the wrong keys, melody, some of the lyrics, but also lots of mistakes. It was a labor more of love than diligence. By 1986, I had figured a lot of the work out and had just enough hubris to think I should do a book, since one didn’t exist and his work was so influential. I just started into it.
Six years later–and over $10,000 in legal fees, I had a book. I don’t believe that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads. But he definitely sold his copyrights.
BD: Among other things, you have worked off-Broadway, including the Bluegrass musical, Cotton Patch Gospel. How did this come about, and what did you learn from it?
A guitar playing friend from high school, Bill Swiggard–now a medical doctor and researcher aiming to help cure cancer (and he damn well might!), got wind of the musical from Tom Chapin and called me. He said they were looking for someone who could play fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro, guitar: a good singer, too. Could he give my name to the director?
I flew down to New York for the audition from Boston and played for the authors, Russ Treyz and Tom Key, for Harry and Tom Chapin (composer and musical director, respectively), and for Phil Getter, the show’s producer. The cast was assembled: four on-stage musicians and one actor. I played dobro, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and claw-hammer banjo in the show.
We worked out all the arrangements to take advantage of the strengths of the musicians. As these were considerable, the show was thereafter really difficult to cast. Harry was killed in between a short out of town run in Boston and the opening in New York. We sang a song from the show at his memorial service. The show ran for almost eight months in the Lamb’s Theater in the Broadway district.
What did I learn? Tons. But, principally, I think, I learned how to sing loud. The theater was just under 500 seats. We had a four piece bluegrass band roaring through all the songs. And no microphones or sound reinforcement. The gig was simply: be heard at the back wall or be replaced. It was a forgiving hall, acoustically, but still at eight shows a week for eight months, it increased my vocal power.
When the show came down and I was wondering about what to do with this voice I had built, I ventured to try singing some blues, which I had always loved, but never really had the confidence to tackle vocally. That was the beginning of my long apprenticeship to African-based singing styles and the wide vocal palette of black, and now white, singers. It is a very emotional sound. Being able to shout and not get hurt is part of it.
BD: A few questions about your instruments: how did you acquire your beautiful 1931 National Steel Guitar?
The National I travel with was made in 1931. It originally sold for around $82, I believe. You could get a good Stella from Sears for $11, so $82 was a considerable sum. There were versions of the guitar–minus the palm trees on the back and the nickel silver plating– on carbon steel bodies with crystalline paint on them that sold for $35. I had two of those from the 1930s when I found this one.
I was working as an artist-in-residence in the Federal schools on Ft. Benning in Columbus, GA. I’d done a few public concerts and someone told me that they had a metal guitar down at Jack’s Pawn Shop on Broadway in Columbus that I might want to go see. Word was they wanted $2000 bucks for it.
I didn’t have $2000, and I had two other Nationals so I didn’t rush down there. But about three weeks into the six weeks I was going to be there, working furiously on finishing up the Robert Johnson book on my time off, I found myself parking in front of Jack’s Pawn and I went in.
It turns out, after a long afternoon, they only wanted seven hundred for it. I know I’ll spend time in Hell for this, but I asked them if they’d take six. We settled on $682.50. It didn’t have a tail-piece on it. I couldn’t hear it. But I bought it anyway and then put about fifteen hundred into it, bringing it back to life. It’s been under my arm ever since. I was lucky, as a kid.
BD: Besides the guitar, you play the Diddley Bow. It only has one string, but you manage to get complex rhythmic and melodic patterns from it. Can you talk about this instrument?
These were called ‘cigarbox guitars’ in North Carolina where I first heard of them. Asking older Black musicians what their first instruments were, I expected to hear guitar, harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, banjo. But nine out of ten fellows said they played a ‘cigarbox guitar.’ One-string, slide instruments. Homemade. I got bored just thinking about them.
But these men all spoke of them with affection and one afternoon, I decided that I needed to have one to see what it was that was fun about them. I owed my teachers and friends that much. So, never having seen one, never having heard one, I did what they did: I built one and learned to play it.
It turns out that these instruments are built and played all over sub-Saharan central West Africa. They go by lots of names across the South: a jitterbug, pick-tar, one-string, cigarbox guitar…but in Georgia they go by a special name that they think comes from African origins, though I don’t know.
They’re called a ‘diddley bow.’ It’s fun to say: ‘diddley bow.’ But when you turn those two words around, you get Bo Diddly, who took his rock ‘n’ roll stage name and the shape of his custom made electric guitar from these instruments. The rhythms he played also are very well-suited to the one-string. So, did rock ‘n’ roll begin on one string? Maybe.
BD: You have also recently started to play the gourd banjo. Where did you encounter this instrument – was it in West Virginia? What drew you to it?
When I was at Washington & Lee, I convinced (read: fast-talked) the art department into letting make a functional sculpture for a sculpture class. I built a five-string banjo from scratch. Got an A. The other students were pissed. But, I learned to play banjo on borrowed instruments and then played that one for years. Still do. It’s on the Fly By Night String Band album.
When I heard the sound of the gourd banjo, I fell in love: fretless, gut strings, throaty-earthy, African. And carrying a metal-stringed banjo around is like toting a box of bricks. These gourd banjos are light as a feather.
Presenting programs as I do on the African roots of American music, the gourd banjo–part kora, part banjo–seemed like a natural addition. I also felt a responsibility to let people who want to get into the banjo and fiddle tradition that I have that music from the hands of the masters of Southern Appalachian old-time.
It would be unfair to break the chain of transfer. I know something about that music from sitting with the old men and women who carried the tradition up into the late twentieth century. Playing the banjo again in public is a way of letting people know I am in that chain. I owe my teachers at least that.
BD: You are a thoughtful, well-read, caring person, and a musical historian. How does the Blues help you to express those aspects of yourself?
I’ve always played to non-blues audiences; I don’t get to play for the Blues faithful very often. Working in an artist-in-residence program in North Carolina in the late 1980s for four years, I found myself in racially divided communities: a White man playing Black music. I needed to find a way to make this music come in under the racial radar; a way to flesh out the meaning of the songs.
For me, this meant finding a story, a historical anecdote, a detail to open the hearts of my listeners. Appealing to our common humanity, irrespective of color, I trust allows songs from across the color line to hit a bit harder, come in a bit closer to home. As for how to speak to an audience, you know, they say the truth will set you free. Not jokes. Not fiction. Not how hard it was getting to the gig.
Reading widely, studying African traditions, religions, and African-American history, writings, and sociology is how I prepare to bring the songs I love to audiences who may or may not care about them at all. Traditional music becomes traditional because it is useful to human beings.
The Blues, musical and emotional, are going to be with us forever. That’s just how it is.
BD: Your first three CDs consist mainly of traditional Blues, with a sprinkling of your own songs. Your most recent recording, The Feral Crow, is entirely your own compositions. Many of them reflect your personal beliefs about the state of the country and the world. Please talk about how you combine your passion, your philosophy, and your music.
By the time I was nine, we were living outside of Washington, DC in Alexandria, VA. I watched the Civil Rights Movement develop. I went to the demonstrations against Vietnam. I went to the Poor People’s March on Washington. I read Gandhi’s Autobiography when I was fourteen: Dr. King was marching around our country with very well-dressed Black folk who were being attacked with fire hoses and police dogs. I wanted to know what made this a good idea.
Peace and justice issues have always figured prominently in my personal, political and social awareness. I have been blessed with many deep friendships that cross the so-called color line.
One of the great blessings of being a musician is that music is one of the places where the color barrier simply didn’t work: our first allegiance has to do with music, not skin color. Musicians have always lunged after the sound.The music industry has had plenty of racism in it. But the language of music only knows color as an aspect, like timbre, of the quality of the sound.
The musician’s question always seems to be “How did you do that?” not “What color are you?” It is one of the obvious–and yet sometimes unacknowledged– truths about music and a life in music.
My latest CD,The Feral Crow, is a very personal, and at the same time, universal collection of works. These are songs that have been piling up outside the genre of Blues and found their way onto disc now because of what is happening now, both in my life personally, and in our life as a community, a nation, and a world community.
These are vivid, dense works that conjure emotions. They are very personal, as I said, and I think rewarding to the people who take time with them. No one’s musical life seems to lie entirely within one genre. Most every professional musician I know is known for something and interested and pursuing three or four other aspects of this language of music.
Three of the songs: Rice Grows Again in Vietnam, Confession, and Don’t Obey have been invited into the Political Song Archive at Caledonian University in Glasgow, Scotland, where I performed in January, as part of the international Celtic Connections Festival.
As noted earlier in the interview, I grew up at a time when two things were true: our labels were inside our clothes, and music was not so segregated by genre.
It seems perfectly natural to me to do an album like The Feral Crow. I have been blessed with many listeners who are willing to go down that road with me, as well. The CD has had a lot of airplay in Europe, Israel, Serbia, Australia and Hong Kong, as well as some here in the US.
BD: As well as giving concerts, you are a highly respected teacher at music camps for adults, and schools. You give what you call “Teaching Concerts”. Please comment on the importance of the educational work you do.
I live the life I live in large part because forty years ago this Spring (2007), I was in a high school auditorium and saw and heard a remarkable musician do something absolutely death defying with his two hands, six strings and his voice. That was John Jackson. John was younger when I saw him than I am now. I’ve been doing educational and community-based work for more than twenty years.
In my estimation, when a tradition moves– when it is picked up by a new generation or another individual artist – it is always personal. You see someone in your presence, being themselves and doing something that reaches deep inside you, plucks a little chord, and that little voice inside you says, “I wanna do that.”
So many people look for a jobs, for an employer. Few are looking for a profession. But there are kids in every school, in every community, in every state and every nation who are longing to lay their own pathways and then walk on them as far as they can.
These kids are artists.
I consider my educational performances a tithe back to the ground, like pouring a little whisky over the grave of a beloved or respected father.
As a nation, right now, we are cut off from our roots and from each other. Partisanship, infighting, jealousy, inequity are eating away at our community. We each need to find a way to water our roots; we need to find a place for our hands on the wheel. This is how we will move forward. I’m a musician, historian, author, performer. The educational concerts and presentations are my way of giving that wheel a push and nourishing the roots of our shared community and culture.
BD: What are your plans for the future? Is there another recording project in the works?
I’ve just updated my studio here in the house and plan to bring another CD project into being sometime this Spring. I have a few new songs that want to be recorded and a variety of traditional pieces that I’ve been enjoying performing and would like to document and release. I’m hoping to have another CD ready by the end of the summer, but there are too many variables now to make a firm date for that.
I am also beginning preliminary work on a book that would combine some of the scholarship on Blues and African retentions in American music with personal stories from my fieldwork, profiling the older and largely unknown musicians with whom I have had the honor of working.
This project will take a number of years, but my hope is to begin developing discrete pieces for this larger work instead of watching television in hotel rooms. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes. Exhaustion and television seem to be made for each other; but television can also simply exhaust you and your creativity and lull you from spunk to apathy pretty quickly.
As Robert Johnson sang, “Watch your close friends baby, then your enemies can’t do you no harm.”
Not particularly cheery, but you know – he’s right.
– Artful Mind Interview with Barbara Dean