Author: Daniel, Bert

Who Is This Guy, Kenny Hall?

I really love Old Time music. I love to play it, I love to sing it and I love to learn about it. One thing I love to do on the CBA website is to check out the Old Time Rambler. Geff Crawford does an excellent job profiling the legends of old time fiddle and banjo music and I love reading each new issue. Geff's column is in the Bluegrass Breakdown as well (my favorite newspaper). Most of the old time music legends Geff writes about in the Rambler are from western North Carolina, West Virginia or "East" Virginia. But we have someone right here in California I think of as an Old Time legend, so I'd better write about him before Geff beats me to it (and does a better job).

Does a better job because I know next to nothing about this guy. You may have seen his picture at the top of this web site on occasion and wondered who is this guy, "Kenny Hall, lifetime CBA member"? I first heard the name a couple of years ago when I attended an old time music workshop hosted by Carl Pagter at Grass Valley. Carl gave a nice presentation about old time music and played a few fiddle and banjo tunes for us. He mentioned lots of people whom I had heard of like Henry Reed, for example, but there was one guy he went on and on about whom I had never heard of. I was fascinated. This guy was a blind California musician who knew over a thousand tunes by heart and could play seemingly almost any tune on his fiddle or mandolin.

I decided I had to know more about this guy, Kenny Hall, so I looked him up on the internet and found out that he had a book available on Mel Bay. I'm a sucker for new tune books (I wrote a whole welcome column about my "problem" some time back). So I got the book (Kenny Hall's Music Book: Old-Time Music for Fiddle and/or Mandolin). What a great book! You never saw such an eclectic collection of tunes. I think of old time music in relation to American music, mostly from the southeast and Appalachia. Kenny's old time music includes all of that plus ethnic old time tunes from Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Sweden, etc. Playing through the tunes is an interesting experience. There's lots of material that sounds familiar just because the tunes have become ingrained in our culture for so long. Kenny absorbed these tunes mostly by listening to the radio from the 1930's onward. As a blind musician, his interpretation of a tune is by definition in the aural tradition that I think helps give this music its edge.

How was Kenny Hall able to remember so many tunes I wonder? One explanation is that he matched up a lot of the tunes with words. If a tune didn't have words he'd make up his own nonsense lyrics. Most of his songs and tunes seem to be before the Bluegrass era. There are plenty of tunes played by Bill Monroe but the treatment is more like music from bands like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or the Happy Hayseeds. One example of a tune which Monroe played that is in Kenny's book is the Smoky Mountain Schottische. Kenny's version seems much more old time. He puts in a bunch of triplets for example and Kenny's version doesn't include the third part of the tune, which modulates to the key of G from D. It turns out that Kenny heard the tune on the radio from a band called the Prairie Ramblers. The Prairie Ramblers didn't include the third part on the record, maybe because you only had a limited amount of time on an old 78 recording. Well one of the musicians in the Prairie Ramblers was Tex Atchison, who was actually a neighbor of Bill Monroe in Rosine, Kentucky. They were born around the same time and may have heard the tune from the same source, perhaps Bill's mother Melissa.

If you haven't checked out Kenny Hall's music yet you should. Kenny's will be pushing 90 in a few years and in my opinion he's a real California treasure. There's actually a DVD out now about him. I haven't seen it yet, but one of my son's fiddle teachers is Morgan Cochneuer, who helped make the film. Morgan is a real expert on Kenny's music and every week I'm treated to new tunes from Kenny's repertoire. I even get the typos corrected in my book! So many great tunes; so little time. Maybe some day I can rattle off a thousand or so like Kenny!

Posted:  2/13/2011

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