Author: Daniel, Bert

Six Degrees of Kenny Baker

As most of you know already, this month we lost one of the finest bluegrass musicians of all time. Kenny Baker, who fiddled for Bill Monroe on and off for a quarter century, died of a stroke at age 85. One could argue forever about who is the best bluegrass fiddler of all time. There have been many great ones including Kenny. But if you had to pick the most influential bluegrass fiddler of all time, that would be Kenny Baker hands down. Listen long enough to any jazz saxophonist today and you'll hear something that came from John Coltrane. Listen to any good bluegrass fiddler and you'll hear a lot of Kenny Baker.

So, to honor a bluegrass legend who will be missed, and at the same time celebrated, for many years to come, I'm going to do something I've never done before. I'm going to repeat a welcome column, my fifth, which I wrote a couple of years ago. It revolved around the great Kenny Baker. Here it is again, in case you missed it:

OK, so there's this new game and it's really fun. You can play at home or even better at your next festival jam session. I sort of made up this new game but not exactly. It just goes to show you that your intrepid welcome columnists will go to any lengths to dream up new ways to amuse you. Either that or some of us have way too much time on our hands.

It all started a few weeks ago. I noticed something on the internet about a new experiment which used social networking, so popular now in our computer world, to expand upon the "small world experiment". The small world experiment was an experiment done by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1967. Milgram is the same guy who did the famous obedience to authority experiment in which "volunteers" obeyed instructions from researchers to deliver electric shocks to strangers. The "volunteers" were the actual research subjects but they believed that they were helping the researchers study how electric shocks might prod "learners" with memory tasks. The extent to which these volunteers went to deliver electric shocks to their fellow human beings made a sensation. The Nazi trials in Nurnberg were still fresh in people's memory at the time. As a result of this experiment, everyone had to search their own heart. Could I have really been so cruel? Could I have been so unfeeling in my obedience to authority?

The small world experiment was not so provocative but was no less creative. In it, Milgram mailed packages to 160 randomly selected people in Omaha, Nebraska. The packages needed to go eventually to a certain stock broker in New York City. Milgram asked each package recipient to forward their package to someone whom they knew personally. Someone who would be most likely to know another individual who could eventually get the package to its intended recipient in a series of forwardings. The idea of Milgram's experiment was that the average number of steps would give a good measure for the connectedness of our society.

A very popular movie trivia game evolved directly out of the Milgram small world experiment. Most of us have heard about the six degrees of Kevin Bacon game. Kevin Bacon is one of the best connected stars in Hollywood because he has acted in such a wide variety of films. The object of the game is to start with any actor or actress and connect that person to Kevin Bacon by a series of steps (i.e. movies that each of two people have acted in together). So for example, if actor A was never in a movie with Kevin Bacon, but did act in a movie with actress B, who WAS in a movie with Kevin Bacon, then actor A is connected to Kevin Bacon by two moves. Aficionados of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game would assign a "Bacon number" of 2 to actor A. In theory almost any actor or actress can be connected to Kevin Bacon in six moves or less. Six degrees, thus the name. Numerous sitcoms and TV commercials have grown out of this trivia game. There are web sites devoted to calculating the shortest path to Kevin Bacon, all at the touch of a mouse, for any star you might be interested in.

After pursuing all these tangents via the internet one day, I decided to rip off the small world concept for the benefit of bluegrass lovers everywhere. Why not create a game that would allow the average jammer to connect to a bluegrass legend? Could it be done by the average jammer in six moves? And which bluegrass master should be the counterpart for Kevin Bacon?

Immediately, I thought of Kenny Baker. He has the same initials as Kevin Bacon AND he's connected intimately to the source of all bluegrass music by virtue of the fact that he played as one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys for about twenty five years. Kenny Baker's influence on bluegrass music has been huge. He was Bill Monroe's other Uncle Pen in a sense, and he cowrote many of Bill Monroe's best tunes. In Kenny Baker, I felt I had my man.

So back to the question: is it possible to connect the average bluegrass jammer to Kenny Baker in six moves or less? I decided to start with a less than average jammer, namely me. If I can connect to Kenny Baker in a reasonable number of moves, anybody can. The CBA sponsors some jams in my area that are open to anybody with an interest in playing bluegrass. Some of the players who attend the CBA jams are really talented. I resolved to ask some of them about possible jamming connections the next time I got up the nerve to go play with them. Maybe one of those folks could connect me to Kenny Baker.

But I was so obsessed with the six degree concept that I longed for a more immediate answer. I zipped an e mail to my new friend George Ireton. I'm sure many of you CBA members know George. His silky voice and tasteful guitar runs are the envy of any would be jammer. I had been fortunate enough to make George's acquaintance at a fall Campout, and he kindly asked me to play with him and his friends for a while. (My son had befriended his grandson, so even though outclassed by much better musicians, I had my ticket to some really good jamming). At the campout, I had heard George say hello to JD Rhynes, so I figured those two must have played together at some point and I asked George about that possible connection in my quest to connect to Kenny Baker.

George e mailed me back the next day. "I did play with JD at Grass Valley. He was on bass during the Sunday morning gospel service with me and Leroy McNeese (Leroy Mack, famous Dobro master who was one of the original Kentucky Colonels)."

Eureka, that's it! I knew that Leroy Mack had played with Roland White, who was in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys with Kenny Baker! I was so psyched that a jamming palooka like me could be connected to the great Kenny Baker in just four moves. The six degree concept is valid. Now my obsession is over and I can go on to more important things.

Or so I thought. A few weeks later I got an e mail from my son's fiddle teacher, Gus Garelick, about setting up a time for Ethan's next fiddle lesson. Suddenly my eyes caught fire and the six degree obsession was upon me again. Gus is an expert fiddler and has interviewed some of the legends of fiddling for his biweekly radio show on KRCB. I took mandolin lessons from Gus and played with him at one of the CBA jams. Maybe he could connect me even closer to Kenny Baker than George had. I got the following response from Gus:

"I jammed with Kenny Baker at the Bean Blossom Festival way back in 1975. We played into the wee hours and Kenny was just great. I had some Coors beer in my cooler, which was a big hit. They didn't sell Coors in Indiana, and Kenny was a big fan. So I guess that got me into the jam. I saw him a few times after that and he always remembered that cooler of Coors! I think the last time I saw him was in 1990 here in Santa Rosa, when he toured as part of the Masters of the Folk Violin Series that played at the Luther Burbank Center. I talked to him and he still remembered that jam at Bean Blossom. What a guy!"

How about that? Gus sliced my KB connection in half! Now my KB number is two! Needless to say I've been living on cloud nine ever since because, if my new game ever catches on, I'll have much more confidence walking up to any jam. "Hey, my KB number is two. What's your's?" And if you see Kenny Baker himself at one of the festivals, tell him I'm looking for him. I've got a cooler full of Coors beer and it's nice and cold.

Alas, now that Kenny is gone, my Kenny Baker number will never diminish. But I don't care, I'm happy just having all that great music the guy left behind. Maybe I'm not obsessed with the Six Degrees of Kenny Baker game any more. On the other hand, maybe there really is a place called heaven and I can someday play with Kenny after all. Oh well, if there truly is such a place wouldn't he have all the Coors beer he can drink? I guess I'll just have to get lucky.

Thanks for all the great music Kenny. We'll all miss you!

Posted:  7/31/2011

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