Hooked on Bluegrass

Geff Crawford

Let's see -- how DID I get hooked on old-time music? It sort of happened in stages.

First, come back with me to 1969. I had graduated from UC Berkeley the year before, and the folk scare was in full swing, so I needed an instrument to play. There was a music store on University Avenue with an inexpensive banjo, a Harmony, with a plastic "pot", open-backed, just what I wanted. I bought it, along with the Art Rosenbaum "Old-Time Mountain Banjo" book. (See the Old-Time Rambler #10 on this very same CBA website for more information about that wonderful book.) I took it back to my apartment, stuffed a hand towel in the back, and started learning the basic strum. Not nearly enough volume. (Banjo players will sympathize.) So I'd either sit in my car in the apartment house parking lot or go up to Tilden Park by the side of the road and play un-toweled. All right, you know what I mean. [Incidentally, about ten years later, Mike Seeger at the Blackpoint Music Camp near Novato remarked that those old Harmony banjos were fitted with mass-produced skin heads, and he thought they had a great, plunky old-time sound.]

I didn't really have anyone that I jammed with at that point, but solo frailing is an art of its own, so I pushed on. I did start to listen to more old-time records and get to the occasional concert for inspiration. A group who had only been playing about ten years together called the New Lost City Ramblers came to the newly opened Freight And Salvage Coffee House, and I was definitely inspired.

Moving on to 1975, and feeling the need to be even more annoying musically, I decided to take up fiddle playing. (Two proverbs I've heard: "God save you from a bad neighbor and a beginner on the fiddle" and "The best revenge is to give someone a fiddle and three lessons".) I borrowed a violin from my mother and started going to the California Old-Time Fiddler's Jamboree once a month in Roseville. They were incredibly encouraging, and I picked up "Liberty" and "Ragtime Annie", their theme tunes that they started the Jamboree with (all players on stage playing together), and signed up to play on stage each time I went, usually just by myself on fiddle. Oak Gibson was one of the old-timers then, and he was beginning to make fiddles, so I bought his first one. He recommended "Odd" Cox as a source for bows, so I drove over to Odd's trailer and got a Nurnberger bow for about $150, a price which I now think was a definite bargain, but at the time seemed astronomical. While I was getting acquainted with Odd, his wife said their cat could talk, at least words starting with "m", and had the cat demonstrate "meat" and "milk" for me. Ooookay. Over the years, I traded up both fiddle and bow, and was now officially an old-time fiddler.

In 1978 I went to the aforementioned Blackpoint Music Camp, and the instructor lineup was impressive, to say the least: the New Lost City Ramblers, The Boys Of The Lough, Elizabeth Cotten, The Balfa Brothers, John Jackson, Frank George, and early versions of the present-day Bay Area stalwarts as assistants. Irene Herrmann was one whose suggestions in a fiddle workshop stuck with me and helped me improve my bowing a lot.

I was an exchange teacher to England in 1983-84, met Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl, and Tom Paley and got the chance to play for and with them all. I'm probably glad there are no recordings of me then, but that pretty much solidified the inspiration component of my addiction.

I've since then made old-time music festivals and camps part of my steady diet, with Lark In The Morning in Mendocino, Fiddle Tunes in Washington State, and especially Clifftop in West Virginia places where I've been able to score a lot of the good stuff. We're talking about tunes, right?

So, I can stop anytime, I just don't want to.

(posted 1/11/2010)

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