Friday, May 25, 2007

My 1981-1982 Folk and Blues Recordings (Guitar + Harmonica, Blues Harp, "Electric" Guitar and Slide Guitar)

Dave Armstrong: August 1988 (age 30)

Delta blues and folk recordings by a Catholic apologist??!! I know it's weird, but hey, music and history were my first loves (and I'm still in love with 'em today), so it stands to reason that I would also be interested in the history of music. I like blues and folk that go back to the 1920s. This period (in my humble opinion) was the roots of the best music in those genres even today.

I did these recordings in my room in Allen Park, Michigan between November 1981 and August 1982. I had only learned guitar in the Fall of 1980 (or was it Fall 1981?), so I was a relative rookie. But I could pick up new instruments fast, having previously played piano, trombone, baritone, and some violin in school bands and orchestras, and tin whistle (I still would like to learn the bagpipes -- especially the Irish Uilleann Pipes -- and the French horn). Yeah, I'm told I can sing, too, but I've never sung a solo in front of anyone. So I was far too shy to record my voice on these.

I recorded almost all of them, as I recall, in one take or just a few at the most. It's pure spontaneity. The music here ain't "professional" of course, but it has plenty of feeling and passion and love of the music. Whether people will like them or not, I have no idea. If some don't, I think it won't even bother me (because you can never please everyone). This is a part of my life that I would simply like to share with others beside my immediate family, for the first time. I had a great time recording them. Hopefully, the listening experience will provide some enjoyment for a few people too.

I favored the Hohner "Special 20" blues harps with the nice black plastic as the mouthpiece (eventually buying them in five different keys). I had been inspired also by hearing the legendary Peter "Madcat" Ruth (possibly the best harp player in the world; I've never heard anyone come close) at the Ann Arbor Art Fair (where I did street evangelism every year from 1981 to 1990 and once or twice after I became a Catholic, too). It took me about a week, I think, to learn how to bend notes, and then it was a breeze after that. I basically learned guitar by listening to early Bob Dylan folk / acoustic albums.

Typically, I showed a great interest, but a short-lived one in retrospect. In those days I was 23 years old, still single, in my last year of college (just a few classes though), attending a "Jesus Freak" sort of non-denominational church and meeting many new friends there, playing softball on the church team (I hit fourth even though I weighed 150 pounds at the time!). I had developed a great interest in apologetics starting in 1981, and started to figure out that it was what I was supposed to do with my life, vocation-wise (though how exactly I would do that was anyone's guess). I hadn't met my wife Judy yet. That was in October 1982 at a singles group at an Assembly of God church I started attending in May 1982. Descriptions of each selection follow:

When the Ship Comes In
(12-24-81 / "stereo": guitar: left and harp: right / 4:01)

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A classic Dylan folk song from 1963 (hear a sample). I loved how his harmonica and guitar blend together, and the chord progressions and driving rhythm (the lyrics are excellent, too, as always with Dylan). I was able to concentrate on doing better in the harmonica part (an almost slavish imitation of Dylan, as was the guitar) by recording it on a separate track. It's one of my very favorites of my own 24 total recordings (I've selected eight to make available online).

(4-27-82 / guitar and harp, possibly played together with a Dylan-like harmonica holder/ 1:56)

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This piece and the next one below are my own folk "compositions" and both have a sort of reflective, melancholic, nostalgic feeling that I love (as a died-in-the-wool Romantic and autumn "fanatic"). This one (as I conceive of it, anyway) has a very "rustic" feel, conjuring up images of the Oregon Trail or something: the "old west" thing (where they played harmonica around the campfire, etc.). I don't remember how this came to me. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of some music by The Band. Possibly some influence there . . .

(1-4-82 / "stereo": guitar: left and harp: right / 2:53)

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What I remember most about recording this was that the harmonica was in the "wrong key" (one usually plays a harp in the same key as the guitar or four tones apart for blues: e.g., an A harp for the key of E). Somehow I was fooling around and just wandered into this little harmonica improvisation (the guitar part appears to have been in D; I was probably playing my A harp, then; my best guess). I also recall the bouncing guitar rhythm having somewhat of a resemblance (probably it's initial inspiration) to Dylan's 1961 (non-original) song, Baby let me follow you down (sample of that song). One or two other Dylan songs may have influenced it. But mine is different enough to be considered my own song. Nothing in music (as in theology and apologetics) is ever totally original. Even George Harrison was convicted of (surely unintentional) plagiarism for My Sweet Lord (The Chiffons' He's so fine).

Dirty Mistreater
(3-31-82 / "stereo": "electric" guitar: right and harp: left / 3:35)

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A song from the legendary folk blues duo Sonny Terry (harp) and Brownie McGhee (guitar). The guitar, however, looks a bit forward to rock styles and riffing (particularly 50s rockabilly, which is one of my very favorite kinds of music). I love how the guitar "rings". I utilized (I believe; I'm not positive) a primitive "electric guitar" set-up (see more on that under Dust My Broom below). I was lucky to achieve a halfway decent sound, given the primitive equipment I was using. A fade-out at the end was the height of my mastery of "studio technique". :-) I see that the song made it onto the Sonny & Brownie album, Absolutely the Best (hear a sample of it). This also is a bit reminiscent of certain old-timey type songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival (I absolutely love that group), where John Fogerty would play the harmonica. You can hear that influence on my guitar part too.

Delta Shuffle
(8-19-82 / "stereo": guitar: left and harp: right / 4:10)

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This is the last recording I made: an original country blues improvisation (not someone else's song, copied), and also one of my own favorites. I played a decent harp, I think. Good blues harp playing depends very much on spontaneous feeling and mood and musical inspiration, and is difficult to capture in a studio recording (let alone an amateur one like this). I seem to have had the "feel" that day. I have no idea of direct song influences, but the general drift of it is a sort of very old country style of folk blues (hard to imagine this on electric guitar). I love simple but catchy syncopated blues "shuffles." They may not be danceable but they sure get the head nodding and feet tapping. To me it is (like so many early blues variations, and like the spirituals) a timeless style. Back in the 20s and earlier, black and white rural folk music had a lot in common (you can hear this, in, e.g., early 1940s recordings of Muddy Waters or in Charley Patton). Country music owed a lot to primitive blues, just as blues drew from European folk song traditions. Good music has no color or ethnic barrier.

Dust my Broom
(11-13-81 / "electric" guitar, "electric" slide guitar, and foot tap / 3:28)

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The very famous Elmore James blues song (originally, however, from the king of the Delta blues: Robert Johnson) . The fun I had with this was coming up with a primitive "electric guitar" sound. I put a little microphone into my acoustic guitar, which I then amplified through my stereo system and recorded onto a separate tape recorder. The result was a surprising, interesting sound with reverberation, that resembled a dobro. For this recording I played rhythm guitar in the usual fashion, but slide guitar for the lead, using a test tube. All of this amateurish "fooling around" lends itself to the "roots" feel of the music, I think. The original went on for another two-three minutes, but I thought it was too repetitious for public consumption (especially without singing), and so cut it off abruptly.

Death Comes A-Creepin' In My Room
(11-13-81 / "electric" guitar, "electric" slide guitar, and foot tap /2:24)

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An eerie, "spooky" kind of blues that well reflects its title (it's also known as Soon one mornin'). This is an ancient folk blues style as well, and the song was from Mississippi Fred McDowell, who originally "played slide guitar using a pocket knife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone, later switching to a glass slide for its clearer sound. " This song is listed as part of a collection called Roots of the Blues, in McDowell's discography. My playing technique was the same as Dust my broom: primitive "electric" guitar + primitive "electric" slide guitar with the foot tap so beloved of Delta bluesmen and great postwar figures like John Lee Hooker, who carried on the tradition of Delta blues for several more generations (all the way to his death in 2001). Oddly enough, this song made it onto the 2000 box set, Ken Burns's Jazz: The Story of American Music (hear a sample): Disc One, selection 2. I knew it was a cool song back in 1981!

Barnyard Blues

(1-23-82 / "stereo": guitar: right and harp: left and foot tap / 1:14)

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This was really fun. The idea in my head was to do a sort of barndance / hayride / bluegrass style (yet still with a blues feel). The harmonica part is playing what would normally be a fiddle part in such a setting. It could also surely be a Sonny and Brownie song. The style again probably goes back to the 1920s if not earlier and would fit right in with a 1930s western movie or Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, complete with square dance.

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