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Monday, May 26, 2014

Memories of Mom

A picture of my mom. One of the few photographs of my mother because she wanted to do all the picture taking herself and refused to have any taken of her! Thankfully my younger sister Michelle talked her into grabbing her camera and turning the lens on mom for this rare occasion. It is the only picture I have to this day in how I remember her. You see, she died just months after this picture was taken, of cancer. She was riddled with it all throughout her small body of 98 pounds at the time this photo was taken. She succumbed to cancer at age 51, after battling it courageously for practically our entire childhood, the final 7 years mostly being bed ridden and not being able to travel with me. This is why people saw me at festivals and fiddle competitions around the country when I was 12, 13, and 14 by myself. She wanted me to go on the airplane, away from our home to find a better life than what our family's fate turned out to be.

I have had this framed picture by the front door of every place I have lived since she passed. I see her as I leave out the door each time. Just look at the incredible spirit in her face, her beauty. She has the spirit of being a mother. And to think she thought she was ugly and not worth her picture being taken.

When I saw NBA Kevin Durant's you're the real MVP acceptance speech, I welled up with tears. I felt every word, because that is what our mom did for us. We had cans of beans for dinner, lawn furniture to sit in, and boxes with a sponge pad on top for my mom's bed so my parents could be up off the ground in what dignity they could find given our poverty. Eventually we had a 400 square foot cinder block house with no insulation and mold on the inside of block bedroom walls, set in a rough neighborhood where I began to practice my first musical instrument in Seattle. Somehow she knew that when I was six years old, that classical guitar lessons at three dollars an hour was somehow worth her going hungry for as well.

Just months after this photo was taken, her hips and ribs had disintegrated and I had to carry her everywhere. The last time she saw me perform was at the World Mandolin Championships in Texas that my sister and I drove her to in our van with a bed in the back in 1982. She couldn't walk and had just a few months to live. The cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph nodes, brain and really everywhere. We thought that music was a good place to go and to give her some final memories that were worthwhile. As I was awarded 1st place, I did not hear my name called because I spotted my mother in the front row sitting there by herself and looking up at me with her smile.

You see, this place was an outside ravine, uneven ground and a good degree of slope down towards the front of the stage. We had gotten permission to park the van at the top of the amphitheater with the back doors open so she could see the stage from her resting position on the van bed. I did not see my sister beside her on the front row, nor any other person to help her, to assist her. I kept mouthing the words, where is Michelle, who carried you down? She just sat there and smiled up at me with the same smile in this photograph. I did not hear my name called for the championship, the one that gave me the trifecta - national champion on fiddle, guitar and now mandolin - the only person ever to do so. I only remember seeing people look at me and clapping their hands - but there was no audio, I could not hear anything.

It was like I wasn't there, I was just trying to figure out my mom's situation. As I ran through the backstage area and past congratulators, my younger sister ran up to me to hug me. My response was how did mom get to the front row? She quickly replied that she is not in the front row, she is in the van where we left her just before they were going to announce the winners. I said, well then I am seeing a ghost. We both ran out the back stage gate and into the seating area to find her. She was actually there in the flesh. She had made it down the ravine, unfathomably on her own strength. One slip, her body would have broken in two. She simply wanted to be closer to her kids she said, close enough so she could really see me win the competition. We both sat there and shook our heads, blown away by the strength of a mom. Happy Mother's Day, mom in Heaven. You are still my MVP.

-Mark O'Connor, your musician son (May, 2014)

Photo: Marty O'Connor 1930 - 1982.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Icons of Breakdown Fiddling Said Mark O'Connor is the Best

The Icons of Breakdown Fiddling Said Mark O'Connor is the Best

By Fiona Zwieb

They stated it often; Benny Thomason, Herman Johnson, Dick Barrett, Vernon Solomon, Texas Shorty, Louis Franklin…They knew first-hand from facing him in major fiddle contests routinely around the country, only to lose to him. And that was when O’Connor was just a teenager.

All of the great Texas fiddlers came up short to O’Connor in head to head matchups, and most of them with a zero in their win column against him.

However, it wasn’t just the great fiddlers in Texas who believed O’Connor was the best breakdown fiddler, but ALL of the fiddle icons from bluegrass and country too, including the long list of Kenny Baker, Howdy Forrester, Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher, Paul Warren, John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Tommy Jarrell, Mike Seeger, Jerry Rivers, Benny Martin and more.  The "King of Country Music" Roy Acuff spoke of O’Connor saying he believed in reincarnation when he heard him play fiddle breakdowns. Acuff loved his own fiddler Howdy Forrester’s waltzes, but when it came to fiddle breakdowns, it was the consensus that O’Connor was untouchable.
Roy Acuff and Mark O'Connor when at age 13, he won the Grand Master Fiddler Contest in Nashville

When O’Connor was a young man, the greats would stand around, circling him just to watch him play breakdowns for hours on end. When you have a head to head record of 6 and 0 against Terry Morris (Texas’ best!), it was a remarkable achievement that a kid from the Northwest was the first to adopt the “Texas Style” breakdowns, and then turned around and played them even better than the originators of the music.

From author and biographer of iconic musicians, David McGee:
“’Mark O'Connor is arguably the greatest fiddle champion in American history. Combined, he has racked up more 1st place finishes, more state, regional championships and national titles in every region of the United States than any other fiddler. Mr. O’Connor entered more than 200 contests nationwide with nearly a 50% winning record, finishing below third place only once. He has the best-combined record in the two major fiddle competitions, National Old-Time Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, ID, and the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships in Nashville, TN. At age 13, he was the youngest person ever to win the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships competing against all ages, amateur and professional. Thirty-eight years later, his record still stands. As a teenager, Mr. O’Connor won a Canadian national title (Calgary, Alberta) and is still the only artist ever to win national titles (open to all ages) on fiddle, bluegrass guitar and mandolin (Weiser, ID; Winfield, Kansas; Kerrville, TX). Mr. O’Connor won an unprecedented six consecutive Country Music Association Musician Of The Year Awards as voted on by his peers.’
The above statement, from Mark O’Connor’s publicity representative at Shore Fire Media, summarizes a portion of this towering musician’s astounding achievements in a career now marking its 40th anniversary. There is, however, much more to say about the journey that brought him from child prodigy (a term that really does not do justice to the artistry he exhibited at an early age) to single handedly daring the world with the fiddle in a way it had not been heard before--as a lead instrument, as a relevant solo voice in contemporary country music after the country music establishment had written it off as old-fashioned, in the forefront of a new iteration of American classical music that incorporates this country’s various strains of roots music and does nothing less than make O’Connor our foremost nationalistic composer.
Concerning that opening statement, however impressive its litany of Mark O’Connor’s triumphs, it only scratches the real story’s surface.” -David McGee

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Mark O’Connor and discuss his performance of the infamous breakdown, “Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle” at the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in Tulsa, OK in 2013. After viewing archival footage from the Porter Wagoner show, where Wagoner states that O’Connor was the best in the world at age 13, reading many articles, various writings, fiddle contest records & first hand stories from O’Connor’s fiddle camps, this was a much-anticipated interview.

O’Connor claimed that he had not played the piece “Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle” or even worked on it for about 15-20 years leading up to this particular performance.

“I just brushed up on it, quickly”, said O’Connor.

But what is so astonishing about this performance is that without playing the tune for all of those years, his rendition that evening was completely brand new! He was not recalling the tune from how he played it last, but rather reinventing the tune right before our very eyes.

What he is doing in the performance is very much grounded in the style of Texas Fiddling’, but at the same time absolutely innovative. On top of not playing the music for many years, his mind must have been processing the music’s structure and ideas to put in that performance.

O’Connor said, “I wrote and developed variations of “Say Old Man”, and for this performance I was improvising on those variations.”

He was doing so as if he had never quit playing in fiddle competitions, but amazingly has not participated in a competition in nearly 30 years – not even so much as a Texas fiddle jam session to get into the swing of things again! It is as if he had been working on “Say Old Man” all of these years with no interruption.

“It was the first time I had played with Texas Style guitar accompaniment in about 15 years,” said O’Connor.

Guitarists in the video are Jake Duncan and Evan Alexander, both Oklahoma Champion fiddlers in their own right who O’Connor had an influence on. He met them both for the first time just minutes before the performance.

"Jake came by this week…we were visiting and I mentioned the video [of Say Old Man and Mark O’Connor]...I asked him what it was like to get to play with you...he paused a few seconds looked up and said was like playing with God. I looked at him and asked what do you mean? He said and I quote…I've never heard anything so perfect...the tone...perfect intonation and lock solid was like playing with God...he said I've never experienced that before..." says John Duncan (Jake's father).

One could say O’Connor is better now than he ever was before, better than when he was the dominant fiddle champion in history. Mind you, as a young man in the 1970s and 1980s, he was competing against the best competition fiddle players of all time: Texans Norman Solomon, Louis Franklin, Texas Shorty, Terry Morris, Canadians Rudy Meeks, Graham Townsend, and Southeastern players J.T. Perkins, Randy Howard to name just a few.

Another highly unusual aspect regarding this performance is that O’Connor plays this breakdown for over 4 minutes in length but never repeats a single variation the same way. It is long for a breakdown, but still played in a way that completely engages the listener in every phrase. Four minutes is the entire length of a contest round at the National Old-time Fiddler’s Contest in Idaho for three tunes in three various styles and tempos! Could modern fiddlers even know how to play a breakdown half that long before extensive repeating?

O’Connor spins off phrase after phrase with intense rhythmic energy and a bowing arm that is the finest of any fiddler in history, with a left hand strength and articulation second to none.

Whole sections of the tune are completely new to any lover of “Say Old Man, Can You Play The Fiddle.” Yet, it all fits perfectly and played seamlessly – no interruption of a thought or idea, no episodic improvisation that departs from the core intent of the tune. But at the very same time, nearly everything is new – new to O’Connor and new to the fiddle enthusiast! He essentially created another rendition of a classic, just as his late teacher Benny Thomason did with “Say Old Man” 60 years before. O’Connor rewrote the tune like he owned it; as if he and his mentor Thomason owned every part of the tune forwards and backwards.

Mark O'Connor performs "Say Old Man, Can You Play the Fiddle" at the National Fiddler Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2012.

This performance was all consuming for O’Connor. Notice the expression on his face as he played his final note -he looks as if he had just seen the ghost of Benny Thomasson, his beloved teacher he was there to tribute. At once, startled by what he had accomplished in the performance, but relieved that he was able to play for “my teacher Benny” as he likes to say. It could be observed that he recognizes his musical gifts.

There is no documented performance of a Texas Fiddle breakdown performed for over four minutes that consists of uninterrupted variations without repeating sections of the tune note for note that we know of. O’Connor obviously wrote variations of the tune, but each time he played them, they were crafted uniquely as well as improvised in a way that you couldn’t tell which were improvised notes or the composed notes. It is quite simply an historic performance, the likes of which had never been done in Texas fiddling on this level perhaps.

This was quite a special performance and the audience was excited by it. As one can see in the video, fiddle enthusiasts spontaneously stood up during the lingering applause at the formal roundtable dinner. And it was just his first tune! (He played a swing tune for his second tune). This performance by O’Connor was not only important because he was accepting the Hall of Fame award on behalf of his beloved teacher, the iconic Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, but because of what O’Connor played in tribute to his memory and legacy that evening.

Benny Thomasson living in the Northwest told a young Seattle Mark O’Connor, as well as several others around him including family members, that O’Connor would become the best Texas fiddler in history. He didn’t have to be from Texas or live in Texas in order to accomplish this. The geographical and culture question was a singular and unique achievement to overcome at that time in the 1970s certainly – it was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Thomasson, Dean of Texas fiddlers was quoted as saying in 1975: “There is a boy in Texas now, Terry Morris is his name. He is as good a fiddler as anyone who has ever come along in Texas there, the best since we were playing. He is great Mark - but you are better." I invite you to enjoy another recent YouTube from 2013 of his student on “Say Old Man” by O’Connor. 

Mark O'Connor plays "Say Old Man" on the sidewalk after his matinee concert in San Diego backed up by 5-time national fiddle champion Tony Ludiker.

Mark O'Connor's tells us some of his history as a breakdown contest fiddler?

"But with all of that said, I am playing at the very top of today's fiddling on this video. You could see toward the end I started smiling and laughing even, I kind of couldn't believe it that it was all so easy, so spontaneous. That performance there could win Weiser, Hallettsville or the Grand Masters today just like it was 30 years ago for me. And just imagine if I even warmed up or practiced it! It was as natural to me now, as it was when I was a kid. Benny Thomasson taught me the breakdowns for sometimes 12 hours at a time when I was a boy, overnight lessons lasting a day and a half every other weekend for years. He taught me everything about the breakdowns - the art of the breakdown. He showed me how to create my own variations immediately, he wouldn't let me play it like him. He wouldn't allow me to copy him even though I was his student. Once he tried to take me fishing when I was 12 and I sat there on the riverbank with the pole and the line cast out back of his place on the Kalamath. He looked at me, and said, ‘You want to get back to breakdowns, don't ya son?’ I said, ‘Yes Benny.’ You could say that I came along exactly at the right time. A time when he taught me all of this that was so fundamental to my education. You can't get it out of your system even if you don't even play it for a long time! It became a constant source of inspiration because I was so inside it so long ago.”
Norman Solomon and Mark O'Connor (age 16) in Jam Session as Benny Thomasson (in hat) looks on

Louis Franklin, Mark and Benny Thomasson

Contest Strategy from 1970s Fiddle Contests

O'Connor shares his strategies against his fiercest rival in fiddle competitions.

“Here is how I beat the great virtuoso Texas fiddler Terry Morris every time, even though he was the best competition out there, I was able to win. Terry was five years older than me. Since we knew we were each others greatest competition, we stayed close - sometimes we would ride together, eat together, jam together, one time we even bunked together! We each watched each other warm up, and most of the time we watched each other compete in the rounds. We often used the same guitar players as accompanists - exactly the same guitar players. We had a quite a psyche out deal going...With Terry, even though he was a genius, he had tunes he played that were great, and tunes he played that were frankly more on the average side. I also had my best tunes too... My worst tunes I felt were not as average sounding as Terry's average though, and that is where at least some of the "game" was played out. Who could stretch their repertoire the most. Terry's best tunes were basically unbeatable in my opinion. Those mostly included some key breakdowns and a couple of ragtime tunes. For instance his best breakdowns were 'Sally Johnson,' 'Billy In the Low Ground' and 'Dusty Miller.' My best breakdowns were 'Sally Goodin,' 'Grey Eagle,' 'Say Old Man' and 'Tom and Jerry.' If we went head to head on these seven tunes, it was likely a draw to a lot of judges. The waltzes it was no contest though, I had Terry on those every time.

The tunes of choice were the wild cards. Terry had an incredible 'Black and White Rag' and '12th Street Rag,' really unbeatable. I had 'Herman's Rag' and 'Wild Fiddler's Rag' both were really unbeatable as well. So here was the strategy. We watched each other closely and we matched tunes. If he did not play his strongest breakdown or tune of choice then I could "wander" a bit, and get him with tunes like 'College Hornpipe,' even two part tunes like 'Hell Among the Yearlings.' The reason why this was a good strategy for me is that the judges got tired of us playing the same old warhorses all the time. So if Terry “wandered,” then I needed to as well, and vice versa. It would appear bad for me if say Terry played 'Tugboat' while I went with one of my warhorses like 'Grey Eagle' in the same round because it could be thought of as over compensating and it would seem that I did not have as large of repertoire and range of fiddle tunes to pull out of the hat – just the "practiced ones." So it was a little bit of a cat and mouse game and we watched each other closely through all of the rounds, even the first round which most of the time sets the tone for the entire contest. By the percentages, if you win the first round, you usually win the contest because you set the stage to do so. Somebody would have to knock you off the hill, or you would have to really lose it. It is never good to start slow when it comes to fiddling… it is not a foot race where you can pace yourself in the qualifying heats. It is mostly about how you are playing that entire contest weekend, even in the jams and warming up back stage matters to the environment that you create.
Benny Thomasson, James "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, Terry Morris and Mark O'Connor (1976) Mark is age 14 in this picture.

Here is where some of Terry's weak points were concerning tunes of choice. While his 'Black and White Rag' was mind-boggling good, he would do other tunes like 'Dill Pickle Rag' or some little swing tunes that would not be that great oddly... Some of his tunes of choice did not resonate as well and like I said sounded uncharacteristically more normal. So basically when Terry wandered into his other material, then I would do the same. But when he brought out 'Black and White,' I would come with 'Wild Fiddler's' and dazzle the judges at that as well in the same round and it would be a wash again. The thing about the breakdowns is that we each had a slight edge on each other with our best breakdowns. For instance I never played ‘Sally Johnson’ first in a round for fear that Terry would follow me with it and show me up a bit. I would only play ‘Sally Johnson’ after Terry played something else in that round. Conversely he would never follow me playing ‘Sally Goodin’ or ‘Grey Eagle.’ So those big breakdowns won me a lot of contests.

If Terry went off his greatest stuff, I could usually get him on some of that. For example, he liked to play some tunes in Bb and F, but his intonation was a little suspect on those, usually going sharp often. While they were still very good, he was never quite as smooth with the bow on them like he was with his big breakdowns. I was generally smooth on everything I played really. If he played a tune in a flat key to show his "range," I could come with 'College Hornpipe' in Bb, which I had better than any other fiddler living at that time. No one could play that in Bb with the strength in the left hand I had and not get pitchy. It was not the  incredible Texas tune that the warhorses were, but as soon as Terry deviated to a flat key for a breakdown, it allowed me to play something like 'College Hornpipe' and just floor the judges because no one else could play it that good! If Terry got nervous and he played just his standards against me, then the judges could sense that Terry was nervous of me too and didn’t want to take any chances. Those were some of my strategies that really worked with Terry!

It was an amazing rivalry, but I sure knew how to get Terry in the contests. 6 and 0 record for contests we competed against each other in New Mexico, Louisiana, North Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma."

O'Connor shares his thoughts with another chief contest rival.

"It was different for each one actually, because each rival had different strengths. While Terry’s waltzes were his weakest card, ol’ Herman Johnson could charm you write off a cliff with his waltzes! Herman Johnson was a major champion and a veteran. He was about 35 years older than me. But Herman was an enigma when it came to his competition reputation. There were more than a few times where he pulled out of contests when he knew I was coming to compete in them. I used to poach in his backyard some, loved to compete in Oklahoma. I loved competing in all of the border states to Texas because in the 1970s (during my contest days), they would not allow me to compete in Texas except for a very few! The two that I did compete in Texas, I won. (Grand Champion in El Paso and the winner of the age 40 and under category at Crockett). But for the most part, “no foreigners” is how we used to describe getting blocked out in Texas. It was the only state competition in the south that would not allow out of state players a chance at the title. Whereas I had state titles not just in my home state of Washington, but in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, California etc…

So I used to compete in Herman's backyard, and won a few Oklahoma State contests, which he did not enter but could have. I remember him pulling out of an invitational in Oklahoma actually when he checked the registration list I was told. He drove all the way up to a North Dakota international competition, saw me there, we talked for a few minutes and then turned right around and drove back home! I am a bit unclear as to what contests he pulled out of and which ones I beat him in and around the mid south and Midwest. But when I got 2nd to him at the Nationals in Weiser when I was 16, that pretty much made him not want to compete again. There were no other fiddle competitors that I ever knew who would do that. It is a strange story.

One thing that really rattled him was the fact that he taught me some tunes when I was 12 and 13 like his own tune ‘Herman’s Rag,’ and that tune in particular became one of my signature tunes in contests ironically. I won with it at the Grand Masters when I was 13 even, following Herman’s win there. Herman had gotten 3rd place the first year of the contest. But he didn’t like to lose. Eventually it became possible for me to outpoint Herman on his own tune because I added a few things to it and got it a little more exciting than his own rendition for contests. One of my strategies in going up against Herman was that I sometimes waited for the round that he played his own ‘Herman’s Rag’ in and if I was to follow him, I would have the nerve and play “Herman’s Rag” after him! I got his attention like no other competitor doing that stuff. It shook him and that was tough to do, since he was “Mr. ice,” “Mr. cool.” Yes, Herman pulled out of some major contests and would refuse to defend his Oklahoma State titles, Grand Masters and National Championship titles at Weiser titles when the going got tougher and I started winning everything in sight! But he continued to enter selected contests. By contrast, I never pulled out of a single contest because of who showed. I got kicked out of several though including Galax and Smithville!

My family and I were requested to leave the grounds at the big Galax Fiddler's Convention in Virginia when I was 14 because they heard that I had won the Grand Masters and at that time, fiddle contests were always won by old men who were veterans. The contest director told us that if I won their contest, it could cause a riot. For public safety and security, I was forced to leave the grounds! We had driven a thousand miles to go there. In Smithville, it was the very last contest I entered at age 25. Because I was so far ahead in the first round, the judging staff determined that no one had a chance to catch up to me in the 2nd and final round. They kicked me out of the contest for unfair advantage and for being a professional. Even though many in the contest made money for performers. Literally, they had a policeman escort me to my car in the parking lot and made sure that I drove off and left the grounds before the 2nd round began!
Herman Johnson winning 1st place at the National Old-Time Fiddler's Contest in Weiser Idaho. Mark O'Connor gets 2nd place (at age 16, Mark was the youngest allowed to compete in the grand champion division, and Dick Barrett is awarded 3rd place.

In this photograph from 1978, I was 16 and just lost the national championship at Weiser, ID to the iconic contest fiddler Herman Johnson who played so smooth he could hypnotize you right into deep water! The other iconic contest fiddler in the photo is Dick Barrett mostly of Native American descent and originally from the Texas/Oklahoma border came in 3rd place that year (he had won the championship four times). The photo is quite something as it captures such a moment in time. I had learned from both musicians in private lessons, and you could see I was comforting Herman having my hand placed on his shoulder, even though he won! He was so nervous that I would upset his undefeated record being just a kid... He retired from the competition that night.”
O'Connor becomes National Champion in Weiser for the 4th time in 1984, flanked by Texans Ricky Boen and Ricky Turpin

O'Connor's thoughts about today’s fiddle contests and contest winners?

“At one time in the past (my era) two things were taken for granted in the world of fiddling and fiddle contests. 1. The top fiddlers vying for all major contest finals, brought their own materials, their own style, renditions of tunes, improvisation, creativity, regional accent, individuality etc. The last time a contest champion copied someone’s version of a tune in my era, was when they themselves were students learning how to play. 2. It was assumed that all fiddlers were authentic; otherwise they would not be fiddling folk music. So the judging was skewed for more technical considerations in order to separate the top players for placement: ie tone, intonation and rhythm.

Today, the fiddlers pretty much sound alike, and they are for the most part not creative, performing rote renditions they copied off of some select jam tapes, usually the same ones that have been passed around. Since the scene has drastically changed, then the judging criterion has to change. There should be some accepted criteria to help the culture of fiddling in general. It is obvious to me, that originality and creativity must enter back into the judging picture in order to force the copiers into finishing lower in the standings until they get the picture that they either need to work on their style, individuality, creativity, variations and improvisation, or not enter major fiddle competitions. Fiddling must represent personal expression, not Memorex expression. Tex-Memorex is what I call a lot of this new stuff. And a lot of it was influenced by the Suzuki era and Suzuki style teaching that some of these fiddlers started with. It promotes repetition, mimicking, learning and playing by rote, with little or no creativity. In the days that I entered fiddle contests, the top 10 at the Grand Masters in the 1970s each had individual styles and renditions of tunes, immediately recognizable to even the most passive fiddle fans. The top 10 when I was winning was who’s who in fiddling, each with their own variations, sound and approach – Benny Thomasson, Louis Franklin, Norman Solomon, Herman Johnson, Terry Morris, Vernon Solomon, Larry Franklin, Sam Bush, Rudy Meeks, J.T. Perkins, Texas Shorty, Dale Morris, Randy Elmore, the list was long!

If I was advising fiddle contests today, I would adjust the categories to have more points for "ability - creativity- originality...," and lower the “intonation” and “tone” categories by about 10 or 20 points. Let the best "fiddler" win, not just the best "executor." Timing or rhythm can stay where it is I think, move originality up by 20 points, move both intonation and tone down 10 points each out of a 100 total score. I think this would begin to correct the issues. But even better than that, I would change the modern day fiddle contest to include improvisation categories and tune writing - best original tune. Add those scores into the breakdown and waltz categories and you have your best fiddler as the champion. Fiddlers historically have always been the creative players, improvisers, bandleaders and writers of new tunes. The best fiddlers were responsible for adding to and replenishing the repertoire.

Today, the creative player is getting less points compared to another fiddler who copies someone from a tape and plays in tune with good tone. I believe that needs to change for there to be continuing credibility in fiddle contests of this new era. That is also what is wrong with orchestra auditions today as well, where they reward the person who plays with no mistakes and perfectly in tune like a robot from memory, not accounting for artistry, or even sight reading and overlooking soulful and individual players who really have something musically to offer. Very similar situation!”

Mark at age 13 performing his own rendition and variations of "Tom and Jerry" that won him the Grand Master Fiddle Championships in 1975

One of the last times that Roy Acuff saw Mark O'Connor in a breakdown jam session (Acuff can be seen towards the end of the clip); 1987 at John Harford's home in Nashville.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The HISTORY of BLUEGRASS Music by Mark O'Connor

Bluegrass is the latest to emerge of the traditional American music styles. Informed by hundreds of years of culture from many part of the world, its musical language is exceptionally diverse.   The creation of bluegrass as a recognized style is mostly credited to Bill Monroe of Kentucky.  Born in 1911, Monroe was inspired by his “Uncle Pen” who played the Kentucky fiddle style in the family’s Scottish tradition.  Young Bill wanted to fiddle but, being the youngest sibling, the instrument was already taken and the mandolin was the household instrument that remained.  Monroe was intent on making the most of the situation however, and created a new way of playing the mandolin that emulated fiddle playing, even creating some of the most famous American fiddle tunes from the instrument.
Bill Monroe on the Grand Ol' Opry

The Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie)
Monroe began his career in the early 1930s with a duo singing an uncharacteristically high tenor harmony above his brother Charlie and refining his mandolin skills while touring extensively in the southeast and Midwest. In 1938, Bill wanted to expand to a full band sound and left the duo traveling to Little Rock, Atlanta and then into North Carolina joining up with Cleo Davis (guitar & vocals), Tommy Millard (spoons) and, arguably Bluegrass music’s first fiddler, Art Wooten.  The music they played was still known as hillbilly music however, although the seeds of change were being planted.

At this same time hillbilly music in South Carolina was also being revolutionized by fiddlers Joseph Emmet Mainer and his brother-in-law Roscoe Banks working under the group name J. E. Mariner’s Mountaineers.  It was when they added Snuffy Jenkins to the group, performing his 3-finger banjo rolls on his 5-string banjo influenced by the 3-finger style blues and ragtime guitar music from his native Piedmont region of North Carolina, that the characteristics of the modern bluegrass band were first heard. 

In 1936 the Mountaineers teamed up for an RCA recording of a music style that would become known as the bluegrass sound – a full two years before Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys made their first appearance.  After a short run on the Mountain Music Time radio show for Ashville, North Carolina’s WWNC (’38-’39), the original Bluegrass Boys (Monroe, Davis, Wooten and Millard) moved to Greenville where Millard was replaced by bassist/singer/comedian Amos Garen.  It was this quartet featuring Monroe’s innovative mandolin playing and the distinctive 4-part singing rehearsed extensively at Monroe’s direction for months  - but still no banjo - that took the Grand Ol’ Opry by storm in 1939 with Monroe’s virtuosic hillbilly singing on his own Mule Skinner Blues.

William, Prince of Orange
The term “hillbilly” has come to have negative connotations despite its noble origin.  The early Ulster-Scottish settlers in the hill-country of Appalachia sang songs about William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 Ireland.  Supporters of King William were known as Orangemen and Billy Boys and their North American counterparts were referred to as hill-billies.  Monroe despised the stereotype of “backward mountain people” and insisted that The Bluegrass Boys wear suits and ties every time they performed.  They certainly were the best-dressed musicians at the Grand ‘Ol Opry in 1939!

Although he grew up with traditional Appalachian string-band music and the hymn-based music of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers, Monroe was inspired by the blues and ragtime music being played by both blacks and whites in and around his native Rosine, KY – music that was influencing all of the string players at the time.  Monroe learned music from a local black musician Arnold Schultz (a coal miner who played guitar)
Arnold Schultz - African American Blues Guitarist
and by the African American Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet from Virginia with whom he and his brother Charlie had shared the stage often in the Carolinas.
Golden Gate Quartet
The back-beat rhythmic emphasis, likely inspired by black musicians became an essential part of Monroe’s approach. Even more than a lead player, Monroe was considered a great rhythm player placing a huge emphasis on hard driving back-beat “chops,” a rhythmic stroke that was the precursor for the modern-day country and rock and roll snare drum. Another significant influence on Monroe was the playing of the legendary Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith who first joined the Opry in 1929 and who incorporated blues into his fiddle playing as well as developing a new hot “longbow” fiddle style used more for breakdowns than dance hoedowns. In an early studio pairing with Monroe, Smith recorded a few of his original fiddle tunes including Bill Cheatham, Smith’s Rag and Crazy Blues backed by the Bluegrass Boys. This was essentially the beginning of bluegrass fiddling.
Fiddlin' Arthur Smith
It is clear that if Bill Monroe was the “father” of bluegrass,” there were certainly many “uncles.”

The musical influences on Bill Monroe and others during the 1930s and early 40s were crucial for the development of bluegrass music, however it wasn’t until 1945 that a seminal lineup of band members took place in Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, a lineup that cast an indelible mark on the music’s future.  During WWII, a jazz fiddler from Florida named Chubby Wise heard that Monroe’s great fiddler Howdy Forrester was leaving the band for the service.  Wise was accepted into the band on a trial basis and although he was not familiar playing Monroe’s hillbilly style, he was talented and a fast learner.  Together Monroe and Wise worked at creating a whole new role for the fiddle in a string band.  Fiddles had traditionally played lead most of the time.  Because Monroe wanted to feature trio and quartet singing and his own mandolin playing, Wise developed a rhythmic role for the fiddle taking on a “chop” function when the mandolin dropped its strong back-beats for a solo break.  He also learned to back up the vocals with complimentary lines, double-stops and fills.
Chubby Wise

Next to join the band was a young singer/rhythm guitar player from Tennessee named Lester Flatt. Flatt was a good fit for the Bluegrass Boys gladly taking over the lead vocals after singing high tenor with Bill’s brother for a few years. With Monroe able to get his “high lonesome” tenor above Flatt’s high baritone, the group’s singing was indeed striking. They sounded like they were singing an octave higher than J. E. Mariner’s Mountaineers.  In the quartets, Flatt was a 2nd tenor to Monroe’s impossibly high 1st tenor, often at falsetto. The configuration of 1st tenor - 2nd tenor - baritone and at times adding a bass voice became a prerequisite for bluegrass bands. The guitar provided a primarily rhythmic function in hillbilly music of the time.  Flatt may have opened the door, however, to the solo flat-picking that became an integral part of bluegrass music with his famous “G-run” – an exciting musical phrase using 8th notes, chromatics and exaggerated accents: G-A-Bb-B-D-E-D-G.  Two years later in 1948, Jimmy Martin would replace Lester Flatt in The Bluegrass Boys carrying on the tradition of punctuating the music with Flatt’s famous “G-run” featured on songs like “Unlce Pen” written by Monroe and fiddler Merle “Red” Taylor. Bluegrass was hard driving string music reaching tempos that were faster than country or rock music could ever achieve and was quickly becoming a genre that was more suited to listening than to dancing.
Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs

In December of 1945, the “band to be listened to” put cash on the barrel head when a 21-year old 3-finger style, 5-string banjo virtuoso named Earl Scruggs came into the lineup - a young man who in the coming two decades would become the greatest bluegrass banjo player-composer to ever come along. The banjo had long been a key component of authentic American music tradition introduced by slaves in the 1600s and had become a common feature in Vaudeville and Minstrel shows in New York City – the forerunners of Broadway and “variety shows” on early television.  Joe Walker Sweeney of the Virginia Minstrels – the first white man to play banjo on stage (1830s) – is credited with developing the five-string banjo for those shows. 
Joe Walker Sweeney and the Virginia Minstrels
After the Civil War, black musicians formed minstrel shows of their own performing banjo and reclaiming their traditional instrument for a new music industry that included African Americans for the first time.  But it was Earl Scruggs’ distinctive playing of essentially this same instrument 100 years later using metal finger picks, a capo allowing him to play in most keys, a resonator, creative use of tuning pegs while playing and the most electrifying right-hand technique anyone had ever seen or heard, that elevated the banjo to new heights of artistry.  Scruggs’ banjo music was unprecedented and aided in establishing the banjo solidly as a necessary ingredient in the new bluegrass sound.

Howard Watts rounded out this 1945 super-star configuration of The Bluegrass Boys playing upright bass and providing an element common to musical show business at the time – clowning.  His onstage persona as “Cedric Rainwater” provided a dimension to their performances that was expected by audiences familiar with Vaudeville and Minstrel shows.  Indeed, clowns were even known to appear sometimes between movements of Beethoven’s symphonies in Vienna!
Monroe, Wise, Flatt and Scruggs

A new kind of country hillbilly music continued to develop into the 1960s without an official name.  The distinguishing characteristics of this new genre were vocals featuring extremely high harmony parts, short improvised solos or “breaks” between verses by each instrument, a hard driving rhythmic groove and incredibly fast tempos.  Even though much of the repertoire included old country songs, fiddle tunes, banjo breakdowns, gospel hymns, swing and boogie woogie, Monroe and other band members wrote many new songs and instrumentals to show off their incredible technique and new sound.  Orange Blossom Special – written by Chubby Wise and Irving T. Rouse – is perhaps the most famous fiddle breakdown associated with this new style. 

The 1945 Bluegrass Boys was truly a dream team of musical talent.  However, life on the road as a musician proved to be very difficult. Earl Scruggs decided to leave the band after two years to return to “an easier life” of working in the mills and caring for his ailing mother back home in North Carolina.  The Bluegrass Boys would continue to perform with different personnel. Some of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers - Vassar Clements, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks - drifted in and out of Monroe’s bands.  Many former “bluegrass boys” formed other groups or went on to solo careers.  Fairly quickly Scruggs teamed up with Lester Flatt and Paul Warren to become The Foggy Mountain Boys gaining national fame with a Martha White Flour sponsorship on the Grand Ol’ Opry, a national television theme song and appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies and the soundtrack for the Hollywood blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde. 
Flatt and Scruggs

The Foggy Mountain Boys became the most famous bluegrass band in the world but, wanting to avoid any reference to Monroe, they did not call their music “bluegrass.”  They were marketed as folk music taking advantage of the folk boom of the ‘60s.  They even downplayed the role of the mandolin in the band and introduced “Uncle” Josh Graves as the music’s first dobro player.  Monroe claimed that the dobro was not a bluegrass instrument and therefore disqualified Flatt & Scruggs from being a bluegrass band.  In one artistic response, Flatt & Scruggs changed the chord structure of the1946 tune Bluegrass Breakdown, kept the original melody and renamed it Foggy Mountain Breakdown for Warren Beatty’s Bonnie & Clyde.  Flatt & Scruggs remained together until the late 1960s when Scruggs wanted to follow Bob Dylan’s lead by “going electric” and perform with his three sons. Flatt was disenchanted by  the “folk scene” and wanted to remain a traditionalist playing country music with his Nashville Grass.

Ironically, Monroe did not fare as well commercially as many who had played with him for a short while.  The so-called bluegrass music itself was spreading slowly and in a very disorganized fashion.  The internal squabbles of the most prominent players did not go unnoticed and some felt the whole movement might come crashing down.  In 1965, a huge admirer of Monroe, Carlton Haney had an idea to put “bluegrass music” on the map for good.  Patterning his concept after the many folk festivals that had sprung up around the country and had included acts like Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and the successful and prolific Stanley Brothers (featuring a banjo player in Ralph Stanley that rivaled Scruggs), Haney produced the very first weekend-long bluegrass festival in Fincastle (Roanoke), Virginia.
First Bluegrass Festival in Virginia, 1965
 This “first” festival featured all of the first generation patriarchs of bluegrass: The Stanley Brothers, The Osborne Brothers, Don Reno, Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wisemen, Clyde Moody and Doc Watson.  Notably absent, however, were Flatt & Scruggs.  Naming the festival - and hence the music - “bluegrass” with its obvious connection to Bill Monroe’s band was a matter of some controversy.  However, all agreed that for the purpose of distinguishing it from the country music of Nashville and the folk music festivals with Dylan, Baez and Seeger, it was a good idea.  Given marketing and bottom line considerations, the various acts were concerned about the future of the music they all loved. 

Ironically, Monroe himself was not 100% behind the broader use of the term “bluegrass.” Monroe’s stubbornness was a trademark.  He felt that this music was his alone and wanted to maintain control of the term and of his music.  Haney and Monroe’s manager Ralph Rinzler convinced Monroe to let it go, arguing that the whole genre may not survive rock and roll, Nashville and the Folk music boom.

The Stanley Brothers were Melungeons
Mac Wiseman was a Melungeon
Jimmy Martin was a Melungeon
It has come to light recently that the vast majority of the people on that “first” festival’s roster who had worked with Monroe - in addition to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs themselves – were Melungeons,  a mulatto or mixed race people with part European, part Native American, part African American and perhaps Turkish and Mediterranean lineage. 
These Melungeons all came from a geographical area within a hundred mile radius bordering Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia – the center of that area being Bristol, TN where the Carter Family (also Melungeon) lived. 

Flatt and Scruggs took their band name from a famous Carter Family tune called Foggy Mountain Top.  Through their own DNA and cultural heritage, most all of the patriarchs of bluegrass represented all of the places in the world from which the roots of bluegrass music can be traced.  Bill Monroe’s hometown of Rosine, KY is not included in that geographical area however.  His 100% Scottish heritage, his geographical home, his drive and skill as a bandleader and his strong personality all contributed to Bill Monroe’s being seen as a task master, the boss man and “wheel hoss.”  Monroe provided opportunities for many musicians who would not otherwise have been able to play because of the racist atmosphere in the Jim Crow Era.  Further, no one disputed Monroe’s genius as a musician, songwriter, bandleader and entrepreneur.  His seniority and long-standing history with The Grand ‘Ol Opry counted for much among the musicians who had worked with him.  It is not surprising that Monroe felt that this music was “his.”

The 1965 Fincastle festival had the atmosphere of gathering “competing” bluegrass bands together on a single stage for a weekend. Yielding to Monroe as the headliner and joining him on stage in sequence of each player’s stint with The Bluegrass Boys, for a finale was something they could all live with if it secured the future of bluegrass music.  Nashville’s country music industry had kept all of them at arm’s length for the past two decades considering their music not commercially viable.   With the exception of the Grand ‘Ol Opry, bluegrass players and singers had been blacklisted from working in country music circles in Nashville.

It was also in 1965 than a fantastic young fiddler named Byron Berline first met Monroe at the Newport Folk Festival, the occasion where Bob Dylan infamously “went electric.”  Berline had played with The Dillards who were regulars on The Andy Griffith Show and had won the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest.  Berline was The Bluegrass Boys’ fiddler in 1967 when Monroe announced from the Grand ‘Ol Opry stage that from this point forward this music was to be known as “bluegrass music.”  That same year Monroe established his own bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom.  Berline played with Monroe for a scant 7 months before being drafted to serve in Vietnam.  During those few months, however, the young fiddle great and Monroe penned one of the classic bluegrass fiddle tunes of all time – Gold Rush. 
Byron Berline, Bill Monroe and Mark O'Connor

The discovery of gold in northern California in 1848 and the subsequent California Gold Rush brought over 300,000 people to the San Francisco area within just a few years.  People all over the world left their homes in search of riches and a better life – one of the versions of the American dream.  It is noteworthy that one of the signature tunes of the bluegrass music genre should be entitled Gold Rush.  The American characteristics of rugged individualism, aspiration, optimism and drive are all exhibited in these very separate human endeavors – the California Gold Rush and the invention of Bluegrass Music. One could add that all of these folks were moving just a couple of clicks faster than most too! 

-Mark O'Connor (2014)