The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Harvey Reid. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Our guest today is Harvey Reid. Harvey is a song writer, multi-instrumentalist, writer, and music educator. Harvey has honed his craft since the 1970s, something on the order of 6,000 live appearance at clubs, festivals, cafes, schools, concert halls across the nations. He has won a bunch of awards and contests including the 1981 National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion. He’s a pretty damn serious musician.
Jim: He’s been called a giant of the steel strings and one of the true treasures of American acoustic music and is considered to be one of the modern masters and innovators of the acoustic guitar, autoharp, and six-string banjo. He’s released 32 albums on the Woodpecker record label, and by my count, has published more than 30 books on various aspects of music and music education. Welcome, Harv!
Harvey: Thanks for having me.
Jim: That’ll be great. This has got a good personal connection, too. Harv and I go way back. We met in Mrs. Mackelane’s 3rd grade elementary school class at Langley Elementary and remained friends ever since. So, it’s really good to reconnect.
Harvey: And they seated us alphabetically by last name back then. I think you might have been sitting behind me for much of that year.
Jim: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Also, I’d just like to call out to Harvey’s mother, Betty Reid, who I hope will be listening to this episode. I spent a lot of time at the Reid house as a kid. In retrospect, she was a wonderful influence on all of us. She was one of those rare adults who seemed to actually remember what it was like to be a kid and to be able to communicate and interact us and take us seriously while not relinquishing the necessary role of mentoring, teaching, and when needed, correcting. Like my own mother, Maryanne, Betty was a truly exemplary adult in the eyes of us kids. So, hi, Betty!
Jim: Today we’re going to talk mostly about Harv’s most recent book, The Troubadour Chronicles: A History, A Celebration, and A Manifesto. So, as usual, we’ll pursue ideas wherever they take us. So, before we jump into the book, why not start with a brief history of your life as a musician?
Harvey: It’s been a pretty gradual descent into the abyss, I’ll confess. Music wasn’t a part of my life when I was young and somehow I stumbled upon a recreational guitar situation when I was about 14 and was somehow hypnotized. I just could not stop noodling on the guitar and it eventually ate me alive. I’ve basically never done anything else in my life. I’ve never really had a job. Although, of course, we know that’s a cliché, but I’ve been populating what I like to refer to as the world of un-pop music. After Michael Jackson died, I kind of anointed myself the un-king of un-pop.
Harvey: I’ve been content and sort of doomed by my nature to live in the world of the under-the-radar independent music world where we’re not allied with multi-national music corporations. That’s a whole book and a whole series of podcasts all by itself as what it’s like to be a truly independent musician. Luckily, I grew up there in Maryland, which was unknown to me or you probably at the time, it was a real hotbed of bluegrass. I was fascinated and I got the bluegrass bug really big in my teens there. At a certain point, decided to not do that anymore and just become me. I moved to northern New England in the late ’70s to work what I like to call the blue collar circuit of small gigs in small towns.
Harvey: If you’re in a band, you have multiple people, and if you’re going to work many nights a week, you’re going to have to live in a populated area, but if you work as a solo person, you can play Tuesday night and Wednesday night and Thursday night, off-night things. Up here where the towns are really close together and people are very provincial, you can play a town 10 miles away and people want to, they’ll wait for you to come back to their town. People who grew up in Utah where it’s 100 miles to the next town had to do 100 times as much driving to drive around to their little gigs.
Harvey: So, I played five to six nights a week for many, many, many years, playing every kind of gig was imaginable or available. Gradually started making recordings and I happened to emerge right at the time when acoustic music was falling apart and the legends of my life, like John Prine and Bonnie Raitt, were being dropped. Even Paul Simon, I think, lost his record contract. So, there wasn’t any real hope of a newcomer like me getting some kind of a major label record deal. So, I learned how to do it below the radar and have been eking out an existence ever since. It’s been quite a ride.
Jim: Yeah, you were one of the first musicians to actually start their own record company, as I understand.
Harvey: Some people have credited me with making the very first Indie CD. I was very early adopted of that and I may have even made the first desktop-published book in that 1980. But I haven’t done anything cutting-edge technological in quite some time, but I accidentally was cutting-edge there. I always thought I was born 20 years too late. But the one wave that I really caught right was the wave of being able to own your own life’s work and not be ripped off by your record company kind of a thing. So, I’ve been a proud carrier of the flag of the Indie musician ever since 1980 really. So, that’s a pretty long time.
Jim: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. My wife and I followed your music from time to time and caught a couple of your shows. We’re also fans of what you might call Americana or roots music, but I think our interests tend to go more towards the Texas singer/songwriter and some of the newer alt-country guys like Chris Knight and folks of that sort. We also like neo-progressive bluegrass, people like Mountain Art.
Jim: We live deep in Appalachia, so we still get exposed to Indigenous mountain music. You know, porch music where people just get together on a Friday night. Three or four of them will pull out their instruments, start playing and singing. Some of it not the most beautiful but it’s soulful. Then our local tavern, every Friday night, just random people show up and play, including one of our neighbors once in a while. Not only is he the biggest and best farmer in the county, but he’s also an astounding fiddle player. When he shows up, it’s a big deal and we all have a good time.
Harvey: Oh great. Well, then I won’t have to explain some of what I call unpopular or peasant music because to me, that’s the stuff that makes America great is the instinctive homemade art of the American people. I’m a big fan of open mics and small gigs and homemade stuff. I’ve never been fascinated with the music industry. In fact, I live about as far from L.A. and Nashville as is possible to be in this United Snakes here. I’ve never been tempted to participate in the, sort of, slimy high-pressure world of the music industry as it has grown to be.
Jim: Cool. That’s probably enough of an intro. Let’s turn to the book now. I think it’s fair to say the central idea in the book is that the concept of the troubadour is a useful category for a distinct class of musicians. I know you go into the luminous history of the concept, et cetera, but in short, what is the troubadour to you in terms of a useful category?
Harvey: Well, first I’ll sort of defend the word. There really isn’t a word in English for what I’m trying to talk about. It’s kind of the thing that started my whole book. All my life, people have been asking me, “What kind of music do you play?” Fundamentally, what I do is the kind of music that a person can do. What I call a troubadour is a very old word that goes back 800 years of so. Until we get a better one, I chose to use it and chapter four of my book is all about that word and how I don’t think that the dictionaries have adapted to the times.
Harvey: But the troubadour is essentially a self-accompanied singer. It has struck me my entire life to be very odd that it’s probably the most common form of music. We all know untold numbers of people who can play a song while accompanying themselves on their guitar or their accordion or their autoharp or their piano, and yet it’s not recognized as a type of music. It doesn’t exist. There’s no Grammy category. It’s not a genre. You can’t go to a music school.
Harvey: In fact, that’s one of the most glaring things that I think if people who are trying to get their teeth into what we’re talking about, it’s really unusual that places like Julliard and Peabody Conservatory and the supposed higher echelons of music absolutely don’t allow anyone to play and sing at the same time. You have to choose to be either a piano major or a voice major. You can get a degree in accompaniment, but that only means that you play piano while other people sing. They have a word for accompanist, but there’s no word for self-accompanist or auto-accompanist.
Harvey: My God, that’s what everyone does. People have been doing this since caves. There’s an elitism thing going on here that we can talk about if you’d like, just the idea that there’s this higher music versus lower music thing. Troubadour is not part of higher music. When I was quitting school in the ’70s to play street music, I remembered looking into whether or not there is some way I could study the music that really interested me, in a higher education setting, and the answer was no. Now, 50 years later, it really hasn’t changed very much.
Harvey: To me, it’s kind of remarkable that during my last 75 years, this singer/song-writer/self-accompanied guitar player has basically taken over the whole music business. The orchestras and the crooners and the ink spots, harmony groups that used to dominate the pop charts, more and more now, we’re seeing the presence of individual artists. People go to see Garth Brooks. They don’t go to see the Garth Brooks Quintet sing five-part harmonies of whatever their hits were.
Harvey: A big part of my book is complaining about how we’ve been kind of left out as a recognized form, even though we’re everywhere. If you want to let me complain a little bit, we’ll go there, but I think everybody understands perfectly well what this type of musician is, but I bet most of them haven’t really thought about how we got to this point and where we might be going in the future.
Jim: Yeah, we’ll talk about all those things. That’s good. Now, one thing I might push back just a little bit and would love to get your response on being the closest thing I’ve found to an early definition in the book, you say things, is when an individual person sings a song passionately and distinctly while accompanying themselves skillfully on a musical instrument without assistance from machines or other humans. Curious, maybe I’m not entirely sold on the distinction of one unassisted human. For instance, my daughter and I went and caught you at Wolf Trap many years ago. It was really a great show and you did a lot of individual numbers, but I’ve got to say, the show really picked up some energy when Brian Silver stepped up on the stage and you guys played three or four songs together. That was really powerful.
Harvey: I don’t mean to put down… I play music with people and always have. I mean, you’re absolutely right. Yes, it’s very entertaining that way, but it’s my belief that the solo art form, and what it amounts to, I concluded that it involved the interplay of words, rhythm and music. Purely instrumental music is a little different animal than when there’s language involved. There’s something about self-accompanied rhythmic rhyming words that has become the center of most Western music. That’s a very, very interesting part of the troubadour story is the fact that rhyme itself is really a pretty new idea. Rhyme, as far as I can tell, you can’t really measure these things, but I worked as hard as anyone could to try to get a sense.
Harvey: But it’s possible that the reason rhyming is so ubiquitous in songs, especially songs, goes back to the Qur’an, or what we call end-rhyme, was not really a part of European poetry and songs. The idea that when a person picks up a musical instrument now and wants to create a song or perform a song, it very often involves rhythm and rhyming and words that connect to that person’s emotions. That’s actually a new idea, too. The idea of the romantic thing or the lyric poetry. Those things, as far as people can tell, Beowulf, and old Norse things, and Odysseus, and the ancient Greek stuff, most of the language in the poetry was narrative and it told stories and the exploits of warriors and kings and travelers.
Harvey: This idea of singing about how heartbroken you are may have been an Islamic thing that came over through Spain and worked its way into Europe and then when it came over to the United States, the idea that this troubadour stuff got wildly energized by the African-American musical energy, to me, that stuff created in the American song writer something very new and very big. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but I believe that the solo art form might be the closest that a listener or a musician can get to the fundamental, to the muses to where a person and music interact within a person who is building the scaffolding of the rhythm and generating the cordal accompaniment and singing and phrasing and syncopating and punctuating and all those different dimensions in the music.
Harvey: To me, that is so hypnotic. When I hear a good solo performer go deep, deep, deep into themselves and do a performance like that, it moves me like nothing else. That’s something that just isn’t talked about. Of course, when two people sing together, it’s awesome, you’re right. Brian Silver is a marvelous fiddle player and we played music together for many, many years. My wife is a marvelous fiddle player and we did our first gig in 16 months, two days ago. It was marvelous. We played solo and we played together. Neither was better.
Harvey: But I’m not trying to, I was too scared to define anything and I think I quoted Robert Pirsig there a few times, the zen and motorcycle maintenance guy, who I kicked myself. I had no idea that he lived in the next town over from me here in Maine. For 40 years, no one ever told me. I could have met the guy. He did a really interesting discussion in his book about the word quality, if you remember.
Jim: I’ll do a call-out there to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it’s in my top 11 all-time best books.
Harvey: Oh no kidding. Yeah, well, the idea that concepts are useful even when you can’t rigorously define them, but we sort of all know what they mean. I’m just kind of assuming that people out there listening might be able to picture the difference between Bob Dylan on stage there by himself with his guitar or Bob Dylan with the band on stage. That’s a pretty stark way to look at it. In fact, Dylan would be a really good person to talk about because he’s, what I think, one of the more primary troubadours of our time. His receiving the Nobel Prize there, that’s kind of what started my whole book, actually, was I wrote a blog piece about how I felt like that was the beginning of the end of 500 years of prejudice against troubadours. There was finally some serious large-scale healing going on and people were really realizing the power of someone like him.
Jim: Of course it’s also true Dylan famously became an apostate to the acoustic tradition when he, where was it, at one of the famous Newport music festivals or something. He came out with the electric backed by a band and mostly didn’t look back.
Harvey: Since then, he’s done at least two or three albums of completely solo self-accompanied absolute pure troubadour music. I wish I knew him. It would have been fun to get his take on a lot of this, but he’s a great example for people to picture. I don’t know if any of you… John Prine was a big influence on me in my early days. I saw him a number of times when it was just him on stage with his guitar. I found it just unbelievably hypnotic and interesting. When I saw him years later with his rather loud band drowning out all his words, I wasn’t as happy.
Jim: Yeah, funny you should mention that. John Prine is the musician that my wife and I have seen the most times, like 10 probably. In fact, on our second date, this would have been like 1976, ’76 probably, we saw John Prine sitting on a stool at Carter Barron and it was fucking awesome. As you say, he’s at his best in a church in Cambridge, Mass. We saw him one time. Seen him lots of different places, but one time I saw him with this obnoxious band. This would have been about 1979, probably, in Richmond, Kentucky. He looked like he was coked up and probably half-drunk. As you say, John Prine and an obnoxious band behind him was not a good fit at all. Fortunately, he seemed to have kicked that habit in his old age. We saw him again at the Lensic in Santa Fe, New Mexico, no too long ago after he kind of tore himself up with a bunch of jaw surgery, what have you. But his show was still pretty damn good. Just John Prine sitting on a stool.
Harvey: Well yeah, and it’s that personal energy of his words and his voice. That’s the art form that I really am trying to focus on here. I’m lucky enough to have seen quite a number of the really legendary troubadours of our time and gotten to know a lot of them. If you’ve seen Rambling Jack Elliot by himself and if you’ve seen Tom Rush and Ani DiFranco, John Gorka, there’s some really powerful people out there. Willy Porter is one of the very best, but he plays with a band, also. That’s one of the things that if we were a music business discussion here, we could talk about that, of why you can’t really, there’s never been a hit song that I can find since 1928 that consisted of a person playing a solo unaccompanied troubadour performance.
Harvey: So, when John Prine got signed to a record deal, they made a record with a band and he was expected to get commercial air play. It’s possible that the radio formatting and the record company executives have been as responsible as anyone for keeping the public from hearing very much unaccompanied solo acoustic music. Dillon’s first three albums were completely unaccompanied. A lot of people think that was some of his very best work, but then he started using the drums and the electric instruments there pretty heavily, as you pointed out.
Jim: Now, there’s one, I would call him pure troubadour, would love to get your sense, had a platinum album, which was Bruce Springsteen with his Nebraska album. That was right at the height of his career between the River and the true monster, Born in the U.S.A. I did some research yesterday on the history of that album and it seems that he recorded these on a four-track recorder in his basement or his backyard or something and intended them as demos for his band. Some of them actually did go on to be used in Born in the U.S.A., but he decided that there was a sufficient body of essentially just him playing on his guitar and his harmonica to release it as an album. It went platinum.
Harvey: Although, one of the things I did in my book was I took advantage of the information revolution that basically was the thing that kind of killed my career. When people stopped buying music recordings, I took quite a hit, but that same technology allows you to get access to information, as we all understand now. But I studied the Nebraska album very closely and I’ve tried to put together a list in my book of the very high-profile troubadour performances. I’ve made a Spotify playlist of all the ones I can find. None of them have been number one hits. Some of them came really close like the Adele song, Someone Like You, was actually her singing while Miles Robertson played the piano and then she sang harmony with herself on the final verse. When Elvis did Love Me Tender back in 1956, he wasn’t playing the acoustic guitar behind himself, that was Vito Mumolo and the Ken Darby trio behind him. Actually, Springsteen did not do any tracks on Nebraska where he played and sang at the same time.
Harvey: He did the rhythm guitar first and then he over-dubbed the harmonica and he multi-tracked, but didn’t actually do them simultaneously. So, I didn’t consider that. Although, I gave the gray area of performance that I gave the nod to was when Christina McVey sang Songbird on the Fleetwood Mac Rumors album, she played the piano and sang at the same time. That’s a really stunning example of what I’m talking about. Everybody agrees that that song is just hypnotic. Although Lindsay Buckingham was sitting six feet away playing a really, really, really quite rhythm guitar behind her to cheer her on or something. So, technically she didn’t do it all by herself.
Harvey: But I think I found 11 songs, maybe it’s 12, out of 1,108 tracks on the 87, I think the number is, of what they call diamond-selling multi-platinum albums that have sold 10 million or more copies. There’s only been a tiny handful of songs there that have permeated American musical culture that really were a person just playing a song. One of those was Bob Marley singing Redemption Song that was a demo and it wasn’t released during his lifetime. They put it on the greatest hits album and then it became one of the best-selling records-
Harvey: It is Ted’s album. And then it became one of the best selling records in history. And so people were exposed to that track, but you guys, this is going to be tough because that’s a very, very good observation about Nebraska. I watched his new Broadway show. Springsteen, back to him. Appeared to be a magnificent troubadour performance, although he used a teleprompter for the whole thing and was kind of reading everything, and it wasn’t as living, breathing spontaneous as we wanted it to be. Although when he sang the songs they certainly were, but the poetry and the lovely speeches he gave were not memorized. That’s worth seeing, if you want to see something that’s almost a troubadour, and I wish I could call up Bruce and cheer him on. He’s a mighty troubadour, and he’s not afraid to go on stage with just his guitar.
Harvey: I talk about him a lot in the book, but none of his hit songs ever were just, other than, you know, like you said, Nebraska. And again, I might be nitpicking about whether or not you overdubbed the vocal on top of the rhythm guitar. But, you know, since I wrote the book and I published it, I’m allowed to draw lines where I want to draw lines and new people out there can decide that that’s nonsense. And when Paul McCartney sang Blackbird in 1968, I believe he finger picked the guitar and sang that thing, and he should have left it just like it was, but he overdubbed another vocal and some birds. And then when John Lennon did, I think it was Julia, that was the closest he ever came to doing a purely solo performance.
Jim: Yeah, it was interesting. You pointed out that in one of my favorite John Lennon numbers, Working Class Hero, even though it more or less sounds like a troubadour presentation it actually isn’t.
Harvey: Yeah. There’s something that’s made musicians feel sheepish about playing solo. One of the things I’m trying to do is cheer people on. It can be very moving and the ones that do it often do it because they just can’t afford to tour with a band. So you get to see them, when people are at the peak of their career, they often have a band with them, and then as they’re dwindling more they tend to perform all by themselves. And sometimes that’s the very best stuff.
Harvey: Dan Fogelberg did some really phenomenal things before he died where he was just out there by himself. I think that’s the only place you can hear any John Denver all by himself is on some live things that came out after his death. I saw him when I was a teenager and he was a mighty, mighty troubadour who then became a kind of a schlocky pop artist and I was never a big fan of his string sections. And I rag on his producers quite a bit for burying him when he was a pretty darn good guitar player and a good singer and a pretty good harmonica player.
Jim: Yeah, that was one of the things I learned out of the book, that John was actually a real, you know, solid rootsy musician, but he was captured by his producers and it became, you know, just classic pop music with a slight country flavor to it.
Jim: You know, talk about these production values. You know, one of our favorite musicians here at the Rudd household is Merle Haggard, particularly the late Merle. But if you listen to some of his stuff from the ’70s, oh my God, is it horrible! Right? they tried to turn Merle Haggard into just sort of a country crooner with heavy violins and all this sort of shit. God damn it! Why would someone do that?
Harvey: Yeah, I have no answers. It would have to be somebody higher up in the music business who was in the back, you know, the smoky room discussions of trying to figure out what to do with these musicians. And I mentioned in the book, there’s an interesting album that didn’t come out till 1990 that was Hank Williams. I think it was called Alone With a Guitar or something, and Hank Williams first showed up in Nashville and they called them demos. So there’s versions of a lot of his songs that are just him playing guitar and singing without any band that never saw the light of day for 50 years, that were just sitting in a vault somewhere, that weren’t considered to be worth releasing are worth listening to. If you like a modern country music, I just discovered that I added to my list of great solo troubadour albums. In fact, I should probably rattle off some of the ones on that list. But I just discovered that Travis Tritt did a truly impressive record about five years ago where he was all by himself. I think it’s called A Man and His Guitar.
Jim: I’ll have to check that out. I always liked Travis Tritt. Even in his commercial country phase he was a little bit more rootsy and gutsy than most.
Harvey: He was astoundingly good on rhythm and lead guitar. I never had any idea that he was that good. There aren’t very many albums that are just where the whole album is just one person doing the whole thing. One of the other really great ones that I recommend people go find is called Soul of a City Boy by Jesse Colin Young. And he made it in one afternoon in 1960 with just his guitar. It’s really powerful. It proceeded all of his work with, you know, The Youngbloods, and come on people now, smile on your brother.
Jim: Sounds like a good one. I’ll definitely pick up the Travis Tritt one, because he’s certainly someone I’ve always liked, and seeing him doing it by himself would be great.
Jim: Now you mentioned in the book, and then we’ll get into it more later when we talk about the evolution of information in music that, you know, YouTube has opened up a new frontier. And I was plunking around yesterday looking for interesting things on YouTube in the troubadour genre and I came up with Townes van Zandt. Somebody caught him just sitting around in a room with some dudes who were just listening, and he played a complete unaccompanied version of Pancho and Lefty that was fucking brilliant, and it had 7 million views. And I sat back and thought about that and I said, you know, I bet 7 million views is a shitload more than Townes ever had listen to him live.
Harvey: Funny you should mention him. Yeah, I saw him when I lived in Nashville in the ’70s. He was about the drunkest person I’ve ever seen play.
Jim: I love Townes. I’ve never saw him, but I’ve, you know, seen the documentary movie about him, I’ve read a fair amount about him in people like Guy Clark’s memoirs and stuff. I’m a true Townes fan. But yeah, he was supposedly one crazy motherfucker.
Harvey: But his solo troubador album was a live album called Live at the Old Quarter.
Jim: Yeah, I’ve got that.
Harvey: 1973, that’s just him on stage. That’s a real gem. In fact, I’ve found my list here. It’s woodpecker.com/troubadours. I got to put a link there of troubadour albums.
Jim: Yeah, don’t worry about it. We’ll have it on the episode page at [jimranchero.com 00:32:04], yeah.
Harvey: There’s some Dave Van Ronk and Steve Gillette and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Paul, Jeremiah and Kelly. Kelly Joe Phelps is one of the great troubadours of our time. Also a magnificent guitar player and singer and songwriter. There’s a long list, although all the people that I really follow and that just thrill me to my bone marrow, they’re all living in the netherworld of the music business along with me. And I don’t know why, but it could happen. Post Malone started out as a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar and now he’s on the top of the pop music world, and I don’t think he does much acoustic singer songwriter stuff.
Jim: Could it be that part of this is the singer songwriter, unaccompanied just doesn’t come across that well in recorded music? Can you talk some about some of the technology? To get a sense for myself I went and did a compare and contrast of one of my favorite troubadour songs, Richard Shindell doing The Courier. And I pulled it up on YouTube unaccompanied, and then I pulled it up on my favorite recording of his, which is a produced album called Sparrow’s Point.
Harvey: Oh, I love that album.
Jim: And we got to say the version on the Sparrow’s Point was way more moving. I listened very carefully to how it was structured. The accompaniment was somewhat disciplined. There were drums, there were violins, there was a second guitar, but the end result was a more moving piece of music than him doing it himself on a YouTube.
Harvey: Well, it might not have been a very good performance that you were watching too. I don’t think it’s necessarily the art form. And he’s not a virtuoso guitar player. The virtuoso troubadours is what I’m personally most interested in, is when the person can really play the bejesus out of their instrument also, and we don’t see much of that. Mark Knopfler could have done it, but he hasn’t. Elton john’s a really good piano player, but he really doesn’t see fit except in his unplugged TV thing that he did. That was the only time I was ever able to find him playing all by himself.
Harvey: Yeah, there’s something that’s kept people from doing that, and either they’re scared or they’re … It’s also my belief, and one of the pillars of my book is that I really think as we’re entering deep into the 21st century and possibly approaching the informational singularity, the most valuable people might become the ones who are the most human. And yeah, the computers can beat us at chess and checkers, so don’t do that. Do something that computers can’t do, like, you know, make up songs.
Harvey: I don’t think anyone’s going to going to be paying money anytime soon to see a Japanese robot do a performance at a coffee house. And I think humans by themselves playing music is a really higher form of humanity that could be inspiring. And people’s lives are being degraded by technology in a lot of ways. People are feeling like cogs in a wheel like never before, and I think art and spontaneity and creativity and emotion and music, these are things that can free us from a lot of that stuff.
Harvey: I’m sort of optimistically predicting that more and more it’s going to be musical individuals who lead us. You know, it’s been interesting to watch Lady Gaga, for example, start out as being this wildly produced, danceable, whatever you call her music at the beginning when she broke loose. But more and more and more, she’s turning into one of those singing piano players, and that stuff she was doing with Bradley Cooper and the movie, And when she gets on stage at the Superbowl and sings, it’s pretty powerful stuff. And I think I’m not the only one that feels that. I think we all feel the humanity there.
Jim: Yeah. I wonder if you knew that Lady Gaga was a math prodigy.
Jim: Yeah. She scored in the top 10,000th of young people in mathematical ability in some screening tests that’s done for smart math nerds. So she was literally Harvard math department, PhD level math ability, but decided not to go that road at all.
Harvey: I had no idea.
Jim: You can look it up.
Harvey: Here’s my list of the top, the only songs in the diamond, 10 million or more copies, the 10 songs that I can find. On Abbey Road, the very last track on the very last album the Beatles did, was the track they ever did that was, it was Paul McCartney singing for 23 seconds doing Her Majesty.
Jim: Which was kind of a joke item at the end of the album.
Harvey: Yes, it was the first hidden track in rock music, but the only time. And then I mentioned Songbird by Fleetwood Mac. Redemption Song, Bob Marley. Only one song on Eric Clapton’s unplugged album, which was his best-selling record, at least 26 million. He did a Robert Johnson song, Walking Blues, by himself with his guitar, but all the other tracks, he had a band or at least one other person playing with him. And one Simon and Garfunkel cut, Kathy’s Song. And two cuts from Jewel’s first record were 15 million. One Billy Joel cut, She’s Got A Way from his greatest hits record. One Garth Brooks cut from his live album that’s unfindable and the digital world right now called Unanswered Prayers. And then one from Nora Jones, from her breakthrough opening album that sold something like 11 million. She did a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Nearness of You that was just her on the piano singing.
Harvey: But I don’t think that’s enough. I think it’s been greatly underrepresented and maybe you’re completely right that, and boy, I love to hear electric guitars. I love harmonies. I love bands don’t get me wrong. But I just wish we could hear a little more. We shouldn’t have to go all the way back to 1928 to when Jimmy Rogers sang T for Texas, T for Tennessee, that that was the last time there was a mega selling hit record that was just to get a person playing a song.
Harvey: I just think it’s something people probably haven’t thought about that there really is this important, old thing that has great musical power that’s been treated as if it’s an afterthought or something incomplete or not good enough or not salable, or can’t keep the audience’s attention. And I take that personally.
Harvey: I think all of us have seen individual performers be fabulous, and I think there’s going to be plenty more of them before the human race obliterates itself. I think that’s a reasonable thesis to have, that this kind of music has been overlooked. And especially during the period between about 1500 and 1920. Boy, they would cut your ear off and nail it to a tree there in public if they caught you playing the fiddle in a tavern somewhere in Great Britain. The persecution and punishment of a peasant musicians in the past is something I can still feel here in Northern New England. When those Puritans came over here and started persecuting whoever they could find as they supposedly fled persecution. That was the days of Cromwell, you know?
Jim: Oh, yeah. The good old days, right?
Harvey: They outlawed leaping and archery, and you know, not just dancing and music. But it’s almost comedy, the stuff I was able to dig up in the history part of my book about how much they not only punished, but just the scorn with the things that the haughty educated white men said about those riff raff musicians. It’s pretty shocking.
Jim: Yeah, that was really quite interesting. I had no idea. We’ll get to that a little bit in the history section. All right. So let’s wrap up the section on establishing the concept of the troubador with this exit quote.
Jim: “Aren’t we glad that Van Gogh didn’t get a friend to add something to all of his paintings? When I hear a great troubadour recording covered up by studio overdubs I feel the same way.”
Jim: I think that sums up Harv’s view on the inherent goodness of the single troubadour as good as anything I can find in the book.
Harvey: Good call.
Jim: Yeah. So now we’re going to move on to the next section, which you rant about several times at various places. I decided we just pull it together in one place and talk about issues around music education. And you have lots of views about how music education is not in sync at all with the troubadour approach to music.
Harvey: Boy, you can carve that in stone. When I was young, and not much has changed, as far as I can tell whatever institutional music is going on in the public schools and the higher education system just doesn’t even address the issue of people playing songs by themselves.
Harvey: The school band and the choir are just completely dominant and always have been, and I’ve got a 13 year old and a 15 year old kid right now and they’ve been in the school band program. I’m not just speaking from the outside, and I’ve sat in the auditoriums there with all the other parents, listening to all the kids in the school singing in the choir and playing in the band together. It’s just, you know, it’s not the kind of music that I normally go to see, and I get a feeling there’s a lot of elephants in that room of all the parents thinking, what the hell is this? You know, why can’t we hear some Willie Nelson or sing something we know and like?
Harvey: And somehow they’ve managed to still build it all around the sight reading of music, which I’m one of the few people who will arm wrestle anyone on the validity of putting that much emphasis on that. It means nothing to troubadours. You do not read the words and the guitar part at the same time. That’s not a part of our world at all, and if you were removed … In fact, it’s not part of anything.
Harvey: If you went to a music festival that wasn’t orchestras, I mean if it was anything other than classical or church music, there’s only a few places where they have music stands in front of them and they’re reading their little parts. But if you went to a Zydeco festival or a country thing or a bluegrass festival, there wouldn’t be a single person anywhere other than maybe a bass player who was sitting in and had never played with the band before was reading a chart for some of the songs he didn’t know. But those would just be chord symbols, just letters, you know, just a G and an A, or B7 or something that’s not actual note reading.
Harvey: I just have met people all my life who have been thrown under the bus and made to feel as if they’re not musical because they don’t sight read. And it’s my belief that sight reading is this highly specialized kind of a skill and not something that we should expect everyone to do.
Jim: And you did actually a remarkably eloquent job in the book describing how it would be essentially impossible for somebody doing the troubadour art form of very intricate guitar work and singing to try to extract that from staff and cleft style musical notation.
Harvey: When I went to 2nd or 3rd grade for one of my kids I was just slack jawed to see a music teacher who’d been teaching for almost 40 years sitting at the piano leading a bunch of second graders in singing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and was not only reading the music to the piano part, but had to have someone turning the pages for them. And I just thought, wow. You know, there’s a lot of people that could jam out on that song without much trouble, without having to search around for their sheet music. And I just realized that there was just a whole different mindset at work there, and I certainly don’t see children today flocking to do that kind of the music they’re teaching them in schools, and the ones that do become musicians do it in secret and do it at night with their guitars and their synthesizers or whatever we’ve all been doing in the peasant music world.
Harvey: So essentially we all do it the way blind people have always done it. You don’t need to look at anything to deliver your music. And you certainly can’t fault Doc Watson and Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder for being somehow musically deficient. You know, they couldn’t enroll in Julliard as music students. But thank God they didn’t.
Jim: Yeah, I got to say, my own experience with music was on the other side. I played in the junior high school orchestra and I turned out I did have a facility for sight reading. I still recall the very first piece we played on the violin, which was the real masterpiece, Three Blind Mice. And it immediately clicked in my head at that point, how the notes on the page converted to the motions and the sounds. And I ended up being a not too terrible violinist. I think I was 2nd seat, first violin in the 9th grade orchestra. Couldn’t beat out Skip Lusby. He was better than I was, but I was better than everybody else.
Harvey: I’ve heard from him a few times recently. He’s out in San Diego. He’s a dentist.
Jim: That makes sense. But anyway, I found it interesting and understandable and doable, though on the other hand, probably if I try it again I could probably read music, but you pick the point that maybe that’s a specialized skill. It seemed to me if you started from the very beginning with Three Blind Mice. We even get pizzicato, ding ding ding.
Harvey: Yeah, but there’s two things different there. Only certain people have that, it’s called buffered memory and you might be one of the ones with that gift to do what it takes to translate that. But the other point is that I’m talking about rhythmic and chordal accompaniments, and things that are not just one note. Yeah. It’s no big deal to sight read Three Blind Mice, but sight reading Classical Gas or Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning or something, that’s not sight reading stuff. You don’t learn it that way. They don’t perform it that way. It has no part. The printed page is only tangentially involved in the world of Troubadour music, barely at all. And I think that has deep roots, but it’s a stigma and it rankles me.
Harvey: In fact, as I’m learning about critical race theory now where they’re talking about how some people believe that racism is so entrenched in our system you don’t even know how to begin to change things, and that’s kind of how I feel about the teaching of music. I wouldn’t even have the faintest idea how to go to the school system in my town and explain to them how to get people playing music that would have more of a place in our society. How do you actually do that? And, you know, they’ve got a working system that’s been going on since Martin Luther, and I feel like it’s just going to go on forever.
Jim: And as I said, I was totally convinced by your description of all that goes into the playing of chordal, rhythmic music with all the bends and changes and singing, and the fact that in the singing you typically don’t hit exactly on the notes. You’re either before the notes or after the notes intentionally and for artistic purpose. As I read that I go, fuck, I could never do that. I mean, that’s like, wait, not kind of thing I could even imagine being able to do. In comparison, even playing, you know, I got to be able to play pretty fancy Mozart and shit like that. That was much simpler in some sense than the way you described your art form.
Harvey: Yeah, you were playing stuff that was designed to be sight read in that kind of a situation where it was designed to be simple enough for a person to, and then put together in an ensemble to make something that sounded good. And that’s one of the things that bugs me now in guitar education, is they’re doing that with the guitar orchestra and they’re giving 25 kids a guitar and having them each do just one note at a time and play these simplistic things. And it makes a big sound, but that’s not what guitar players actually do. It’s phony.
Jim: You know, maybe the problem is it’s not very scalable, right? At least not in the teacher in front of a classroom, you know. A band, you know, a school band, you can have 80 kids in the high school band and one teacher.
Harvey: Yeah. That’s why it’s the way it is, but there’s just no reasonable way to deal with. One teacher’s going to teach guitar. You couldn’t even tune. Even tuning two guitars, let alone a whole classroom full of them. And I’ve done that a few times and no, I don’t have answers yet, but I just, I’d like to point out that I really think our musical education system needs some serious uberizing and don’t know, I’d love to cheer people on or advise them or do something to participate. That’s one of the things I hope to do in the future is maybe help create a little bit more of something resembling a curriculum. Although as you pointed out, I think YouTube is doing it for us. That’s the old way of learning is you sit next to grandpa and watch him play the banjo. And now you just get a-
Harvey: … Watch him play the banjo and now you just get a video of Grandpa playing the banjo and you can slow it down and back it up and watch it 10 times in a row. And I see the people’s music exploding right now. And I have no fears right now that somehow good music is not going to get passed on to younger people. I think it’s a very healthy environment, except for the institutional stuff. They make kids feel like they’re not musical, or they make them do things.
Harvey: My son, I had to actually go to my elementary school and look the principal in the eye. My son was singing Three Little Birds by Bob Marley and he was singing inch by inch, row by row. I taught him to play rhythm guitar when he was seven and he was a beautiful singer. He came home and he said he refused to go to school on music day. He said, those are the stupidest songs. I will not sing whatever it is, I am a piece of broccoli. And I had to go in and say, I’m sorry. You know, you probably had parents come in and say, we’re religious people and we’re not going to allow our son to go and be taught about evolution, or we’re gun people and we’re not going to take you to the mat about some gun issue. I had to take him to the mat and say, I’m sorry, but my son is a very good musician. And we had to bring him in and he performed for the school and played a Beatles song. And he played up and they said, oh, okay, you win that one.
Harvey: So I homeschooled him at one day a week during music class. I’d drive him to the school and pick him up, bring him home so he didn’t have to participate in what he felt was just painful and demeaning music class. He’s 13 now, so that would have been six years ago before I started my book. But that was one of the things that got me worked up and realizing that maybe I should do some ranting.
Jim: Interesting. I’ll give you one example of perhaps a theme that’s popped up in a place that you might find unexpectedly, and that’s in our little city of Stanton, Virginia, where I am today, we have a condo over here that when we want big city life, we come over to the metropolis 25,000. We’re also the home of the Heifetz Institute, which is a summer program for very, very advanced young classical players of strings, mostly violins, but also some cello and bass, et cetera.
Jim: And they’re kind of interesting in that Danny Heifetz, who’s the founder of it, what he teaches is not technical skills, but performance skills. And during the summer, they have a concert every single night, seven nights a week. It’s like four bucks. You get some amazing music. And one of the things that they mandate is all music played at the Heifetz Institute is by heart, no sheet music. It could be a soloist up there, sawing away with her fiddle, or it could be a trio or a small ensemble. And all of them, it’s absolutely mandated before they can perform, they’ve got to be able to do it heart. And the difference that makes-
Harvey: You can notice that even as an information guy. That’s great. That’s great.
Jim: Oh yeah, absolutely. We have another music festival here in the summer, Stanton Music Festival, just very good, professional, but they all play from sheet music, and I can tell the difference. Right? I can tell the difference between these young kids playing by heart and with soul and from professional musicians. They’re damn good, don’t get me wrong, but playing from sheet music. Quite interesting.
Jim: Two other things before we move on to our next section, I think perhaps our most interesting one, at least the one that you and I will have the most shared overlap of perspective on. It’s two things, one you disrespected Heitor Villa-Lobos in the books that no one would ever listen to that fucker twice. He’s right on our Pandora playlist. I checked the other day when I saw that in the book, as he’s a number eight, which means that we listen to him a fair amount.
Harvey: I purposely played them for a bunch of people during that era, and everyone told me to turn it off. He wrote some guitar pieces that have become standard, so they don’t have to play Fernando Sor pieces from 1700. So now they can play them from 1950 instead. They can be 70 years out of date instead of 370. But I think it’s really weird that it’s mandatory to play Villa-Lobos pieces to become a guitar major at a major music school in New York state. I think it’s Eastman is where they require that. I think that’s bogus. I think they should be able to play a Leo Kottke piece if they wanted to or a Doc Watson tune or a Blind Blake, for God’s sake.
Harvey: There’s so much great guitar music and why they’ve singled out Villa-Lobos, And I’m sorry that you like… I like a lot of South American guitar music, although I do greatly prefer the steel string guitar and it would be fun somewhere in my life to have a lengthy discussion about why there’s two kinds of guitar. It’s kind of like… I was trying to think of an analogy between the nylon or what some of us call plastic string guitars versus the steel string, sort of like softball versus baseball or a clay court tennis and-
Jim: Here’s a sharper one. You can say a dildo versus the real thing.
Harvey: No, I mean, I love… I listened to a lot of classical guitar. I always have. I have a big collection of records and boy, that just doesn’t get me in the soul, and when somebody with a strong hand on a steel string guitar rips a note out of that guitar, that sound of the metal and the wood there gets me. And I’m sorry that the plastic and the wood does not get me as much. And maybe if someone played Villa-Lobos on a steel string guitar, I’d like it more.
Jim: Anyway, we’ll move on, different strokes for different folks just to show that people have different tastes. Final thing before we end with the segment, sort of on education, something closely related, as you do talk a fair amount about written supporting materials for the Troubadour type performer, tablature, lyrics sheets, et cetera. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what those things are and how they differ from clefs and staffs style notation.
Harvey: The oldest kind of notation for stringed instruments is a form of that stuff that we now call tablature or tab. And some of it goes back even to beyond ancient Islam. The oud players would learn from tablature. Some people think it even goes back to the Sumerians, and the clef and the notes, that stuff dates back only about a thousand years. And the tablature is really just where the lines on the tablature show you the strings of the instrument and there’s numbers or symbols on there that show you what position on the string. So you would have, if you’re playing the seventh fret of the first string, there would be a seven on that line.
Harvey: The tablature is something that people are using heavily now, especially because it worked well as ASCII notation. In the early days of email and internet, you could email someone guitar tablature in currier font, and they could see the guitar part without you having to send pictures. And the huge advantage of tablature is that it’s independent of what tuning you’re in. And that’s one of my biggest complaints about the reliance on written music is that standard notation with the clefs and staffs and all that only works in one tuning. And so all classical guitars play in the same tuning. And right now that’s pretty small percentage of popular guitar players use standard tuning. I mean, probably not since the 1400s has there been so much diversity in the way people tune their instruments.
Jim: Explain what these tunings are, what they mean and how the standard tuning is actually somewhat peculiar.
Harvey: Standard tuning just was something… It’s an arbitrary agreement everybody makes. I’ll tune the strings to E A D G B E and so will you. And then when I do my fingerings of this song, it comes out the same as when you do it. But if you tune the strings to different notes, you can still produce the same result, it’s just the notes land in different places. The geometry of the fingerboard is different, number one. And then you also have different resonances as it were. And a big, big part of peasant guitar music actually involves the droning strings. And that’s not big part of written music and classical guitar that the rhythmic drone stuff that’s at the heart of banjo music and dulcimer music and even sitar and oud stuff and now, I mean, Celtic and blues and most roots music involves the rhythmic drone and that stuff is where the tunings really matter.
Harvey: That’s what the banjo is all about, is the rhythmic drone. The melody notes are put over top of a rhythmic framework there that also has these resonances going on. And when you change the tuning, those resonances completely change. And so you can’t play Earl Scruggs’ banjo music on the classical guitar and standard guitar tuning. It’s just the notes aren’t lined up the right way. The fingers don’t let… You only have four fingers on your left hand to fret, and you only have so many to pluck them with.
Harvey: And you know, maybe that’s what robots could do. You could build a machine that could play any piece on any tuning and do inhuman reaches. And it’s a big, big part of the way people play music these days. And so many popular songs are not in standard guitar tuning. So, if you were to try to… If you were a student at a music school trying to learn them, I don’t know what the heck you would do because the sheet music doesn’t exist, and if it did, you couldn’t read it other than by cheating and pretending. I suppose you could write it as if you were… And they do that, which to me is bogus. I don’t know what the analogy there would be to pretending you’re not in a different tuning when you really are.
Jim: How the hell do you do that? Do you have to have another transform in your brain that goes from what you’re seeing to what your fingers are doing? It’s got to sort of have an extra step of converting one to the other. You’re writing that in the book. I couldn’t quite visualize it. I go, what the fuck? Right?
Harvey: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that is the heady things that we finger style guitar people do is a lot of us will use multiple tunings. I play a number of stringed instruments in a number of tunings. And I also play around. I’m sort of the pioneer, the headwaters of what’s called the partial capo, which is a different way of changing all the resonances and fingerings, couldn’t be any further than playing a Villa-Lobos piece from sheet music, the kinds of things that we do in our brains when we’re juggling when you’re playing a tune in a tuning, where maybe you haven’t played that song in that tuning before. And it’s a whole different musical brain involved there. And I don’t know how to let non-musicians into that world, but it’s a really strong argument for why we shouldn’t rely too heavily on written notation in music.
Jim: All right, well, that’s a good place to wrap up the section on education and notation. In the interest of time, we’re going to skip to the interesting chapters, one on the history of the western troubadour and the roots back to the south of France romantic poets and all that stuff. I found it interesting.
Harvey: Oh, I thought that was going to be the most boring part for most people.
Jim: No, I thought it was interesting how it came up from the Arabs to the Spanish. But anyway, if people are interested in the history thereof, he does a great job of it. And then a quick and dirty, but still informative history of the guitar from its various roots in the ord I believe it was and then to the loot and then from the loot to various Prado guitars and then finally the various guitars that came after, interested in that stuff, a pretty good, concise history of the guitar. I will give you one entry into this history section, because you hinted about it earlier, give us a bit of a quick and dirty on the chapter that’s titled Aspersion, Scorn, and Persecution, if only because it’s so good and gory.
Harvey: Yeah, that was one of the more startling things for me was to discover that my people, the troubadours, which incidentally is one of the other key points in my book that I should have said in the first five minutes is that I really believe that the idea of a person with an instrument playing a song as an art form is fundamentally the same all throughout the world and all throughout history, whether it’s a guy in Cambodia singing with his chhap or whether it’s a Chilean revolutionary singing something or whether it was someone in Spain 800 years ago, to me, I see that as all the same, like the donut and the coffee cup thing. They’re just isomorphic to each other, just okay, the person playing music.
Harvey: And that idea is impossible to trace because all history involves around printed page, and the printed page music, it’s a shadow of what the actual music was. So there’s a lot of guessing going on in that history section about where it all came from and why it was so outlawed and vilified so many places. It’s anybody’s guess. It may have been rooted in the fact that it probably came over from North Africa through the Islamic thing, the idea of a fingerboard with strings on it was not really known in Europe. And that probably almost certainly came from Islamic world. And so the people singing with their ouds and with their fretboards playing their… Whatever they were doing, you know, these were dark skinned people that were the wrong religion, so they were immediately off to a bad start with the Westerners.
Harvey: And the other issues of whether or not they were doing carnal things and singing about love and romance and cheating or whatever, who knows whether the subjects of the songs were… This guy, Ted Gioia, who’s a major guy I quote a lot in my book who’s a really great music researcher, historian person, he took that position that he thought it was the non-Christianity and the carnality of a peasant music that caused the church and European society to reject it so much. I have a theory that I don’t bring up until later in the book that it’s possible that the solar troubadours were accessing a kind of individual divinity or a personal, a shamanism of some sort that was too much like witchcraft for the Western Europeans.
Harvey: Something caused the wandering minstrels who were in the early days, they seemed to be welcomed into the courts of the rich and famous, and it was come in and come in, let me of your music let me hear, the old ballads would go. And then starting around in the 1500s, they started arresting them and torturing them and outlawing them and whipping. I had a lot of fun digging up the laws and quoting exactly what was forbidden and whether or not King Edward the first really did burn 500 bards at the stake there in Wales back in the 1200s. It’s heavy metal stuff.
Harvey: And it’s possible that those solar troubadours where smart mouth comedians kind of people that were pissing off the rich and powerful and being punished for their insolence and their disobedience more than their actual guitars, whatever the heck they were playing. It’s anybody’s guess. And it lingered. They didn’t even allow you to stand on a street corner in the United States until 1972. When finally the Supreme Court… I was shocked to find out that that was the year when vagrancy laws were struck down and God knows how many musicians were locked up or put on chain gangs for playing music on a street corner somewhere.
Jim: You were known to do that on occasion as I recall.
Harvey: Yeah. And as I mentioned in the book, the year I started doing it was the very first year it was legal. And even now I remembered this weird feeling of like, wow, some of the old hobos and street people there were seeing us hippies playing bluegrass on the streets and going, wow, you guys are going to get in trouble because the cops have been hassling anybody that was out on a street corner all throughout the history of cops. And we feel it here in Puritan New England. I swear when we sing a song in church, it’s just like, wait a second. That ain’t the way Martin Luther… Well, that’s not the way Luther done it, if you stayed in Maine.
Harvey: But they still like their pipe organs and their choirs and their handbooks up here in the churches. And our troubadour music doesn’t feel wicked welcome with the fiddler and the troubadour here. So we always feel like we’re ruffians.
Jim: Devil’s children, right?
Harvey: Yeah. Yeah. And I think a lot of musicians might confess that they felt that way when they told their parents they wanted to be a songwriter and not a professor.
Jim: Yeah. I imagine your dad was none too pleased with that disclosure.
Jim: We’ll leave it at that. Okay. Well, let’s move on to our next section, which as I said, it was a great interest of mine because it happens to overlap with some of my own thoughts and even some of my own work. And that is another major theme in the book is how technical revolutions drive musical evolution. And you give a couple of examples. One that you talk about relatively briefly, even though it was important to the commercialization of music in the United States, which was the combination of the piano plus the printing press, had a first mass market in sheet music, which was something we don’t think about too much. Sheet music, God damn, they still make that? I guess they do, but it’s certainly not a big industry today, though I’m sure it still exists. Although I think my wife mostly just downloads her sheet music from the internet and prints it out, as I recall, or does it on her iPad when she plays the piano.
Jim: But the next ones is where it gets really interesting. And you go into some great detail on how a revolution occurred in peasant music, in particular, in the 1920s and early ’30s with the dual combination of finally reasonably high fidelity mass market recordings and broadcast radio. So tell us about how those two technologies did something important and powerful to the music evolution of America that we’re still feeling today.
Harvey: Boy, I couldn’t have said it any better than that. It’s my firm belief that there was a real explosion like a meteor fall to earth or something, and it took them a little while. The first cylinder recordings were the 1890s, but it just didn’t occur to anybody to point one of those horns at the peasant musicians for almost 40 years. And it was by accident. And those stories are pretty famous of when the fiddle and John Carson made his first record, they just thought it was… The record company guy wouldn’t even put a number on it and called it pluperfect awful, but they… He did it as a favor for a friend and the thing sold out in 24 hours, and they’re, oh my God, people want to hear this crap.
Harvey: And the Edison cylinders got replaced by the flat 78. Edison lost that format war. And it was fortunate because you could mass produce the flat ones better than you could the cylinders. And so all of a sudden huge numbers of these recordings able to be made rather easily and they spread around, and it is still reverberating today, the effect of what happened. They were only trying… As far as I can tell, people were just trying to make a little money. It was a quick and dirty way. You stick a microphone in front of somebody and make a few records and you can print money. And the reason that we have so many of those old records was just that people wanted to buy them, because they wanted to hear them in their house. And it was the new fangled hot… It was like the iPod, and you get a Victrola and people would listen to records with their neighbors.
Harvey: And that came at the same time that radio showed up. It took them quite a while to learn how to play records on the radio. So for the early part of radio, all the musicians were all live. So all performing musicians were associated with a radio station and they were broadcasting all over the country, mostly locally, but the musical ideas exploded and the rhythms and the tones and suddenly these things that can’t be written in sheet music. And what is a Cajun Waltz sound like? Well, you can’t write that down. You can’t hand somebody and say, play this. Tell the orchestra this is Cajun style. You have to know what Cajun music sounds like.
Harvey: And so those things, it coincides exactly with the appearance of those recording technologies is the spread of those ideas. And that’s what led to blues and jazz and all the exciting music that America produced that ended up kind of overwhelming the world. Rock and roll was a pretty global thing. The roots of that, even they made race records where they were just trying to sell records to Black people because Black people couldn’t go to the theater and they didn’t have radio stations playing Black records until the 1940s. And they found out that Black people, especially in rural areas, bought something like 10 times more records than white people did. So people set up record stores in Jackson, Mississippi, and they’d sell five or 600 records on a Saturday afternoon and make sizable amounts of money.
Harvey: And those records have defined… Still, that’s another information story is how they’ve been digitized. And now in your pajamas in the middle of the night with an electronic device, you can hear those things that happened in some rented hotel room in 1930 in Atlanta somewhere. They nailed some mattresses on the wall and made a record. And some of those people wailed when they sang their songs.
Jim: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s preparing for the show based on reading the book, I pulled up the collected works, not very many them that they are, Robert Johnson and just played through them all.
Harvey: Yeah. Well, that’s about as good an example of solar troubadour music as America has ever produced. It’s pretty powerful stuff, isn’t it?
Jim: Yeah, it was low-fidelity, but, man, the intricacy and the way he used his voice. If I were to rank him, I’d say his voice was maybe even more interesting than his picking, and his picking was pretty damn good. But the two together were quite interesting. And you know, it’s up there on Amazon Music, the complete collected work. But it was well worth listening to. And if you want to get a sense of what Harv’s talking about, I’d suggest check Robert Johnson out. Of course, Robert Johnson also is deep American mythology. And you do talk about this in the book. But allegedly he sold his soul at the crossroads somewhere in Mississippi. In fact, he’s even a bit character in one of my favorite movies.
Harvey: Oh, O Brother.
Jim: O Brother, Where Art Thou, one of my very favorite movies, probably seen it 10 times. They pick up Robert Johnson while he’s hitchhiking and drop him off at the crossroads and then just kind of move on, et cetera.
Jim: But anyway, to get a little bit more formal, get back to kind of information talk, I was thinking about it and putting it in my language, I would say the pre-record and pre-radio epoch and particularly for that kind of music, which could not be represented in a written form and sheet music as you describe why that’s the case, the way it was transmitted from-
Jim: … music, if you describe why that’s the case. The way it was transmitted from person to person, you called oral, I would call mimesis is basically by personal copying. People would sit with somebody and they would show them the moves and they’d reproduce it or they’d watch somebody play on a porch someplace in Mississippi and then they’d try to do it.
Jim: When we got to the record and the radio, we could talk about memetic propagation, where the instantiation of the object itself becomes a meme that floats free in the world, disconnected from the people. And obviously, if you think about it from a network diagram, the number of people who could actually watch some famous or not famous. That’s the whole point. They weren’t famous. Some blues dude in rural Mississippi, it’s going to be small. And so the propagation that works is going to be small and sparse, and it’s not going to spread very fast or very far.
Jim: But you take that same brilliant musician, a Robert Johnson and you sell with seven or 8,000 records. It wasn’t a lot, but for those days, not bad. A whole bunch of people suddenly got exposed to how Robert Johnson played and I can recall reading some of the memoirs of some of the later musicians, particularly ones that stand out were Keith Richard’s memoirs and Bruce Springsteen’s. And they both talk about how many countless hours they spent playing the same track over and over and over again, and trying to master what it was these people on the radio were doing. In that sense, in this mimetic propagation, the numbers go way up and the network diagram becomes much bigger, much more tangled and becomes much bigger, much faster.
Harvey: And we’re now entering the fourth great revolution in musical information. The first one was brought on by the printing press in the late 1400’s and the second one as you pointed out was brought on by the audio revolution in the 1920s is when it affected the world of peasant music. People could hear Caruso and [inaudible 01:17:01] marches and things before that, and Al Jolson doing whatever he did.
Harvey: But then now with YouTube and the video revolution, not only can you hear the music, but you can see it played. And I think this is one of the things that’s really going to help the Troubadour cause. Nobody really wants to watch The Beatles put together their album and painstakingly overdub things for a week straight, but there’s more and more and more emphasis on seeing it done live and I think that’s really healthy for music in general and the pandemic made it even more poignant.
Harvey: I released my book during the pandemic there because I was afraid I was going to die and I didn’t want to leave my family an unfinished monstrous book. But seeing all those pop stars who didn’t have all their roadies and all their sound techs, and they were just sitting on their couch with their guitar, trying to deliver their song and it was a great leveling of the playing field. And I think a lot of people, a lot of observers felt that the pop stars kind of showed a whole lot enough there. And a lot of some of the strongest music that went down during the live streaming homemade pandemic stuff were indy lesser known artists we’re rocking I think the internet a lot more than the super famous people where anybody can see what’s going on when there’s one camera not moving. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and you can’t scratch your nose without anyone noticing.
Harvey: And that put an honesty back in music that hasn’t been there since overdubbing was invented and you’re absolutely right to call attention. I think just seeing musical information as just that as information and it spreads the way all information does and to a certain degree, the way germs and pathogens do. It’s hard to know who’s learning what from whom, but boy it happened.
Jim: Maybe you could give us a brief history of both the blues, which you go into in considerable detail and maybe a little more briefly on the hillbilly music and how those things both exploded during that period and went from being regional curiosities to suddenly becoming a much more mass phenomenon.
Harvey: When they pointed their recording horns in the twenties at the peasants because we were a segregated country, they rather quickly decided that they would market one group of music to the one race and one group to the other. And now historically of course it would have been better if they hadn’t of done that because there was actually a lot of mixing going on. Back then most of the white country musicians admitted quite publicly that they learned from their Black neighbors, Hank Williams, and learned from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne there. And we even know the names of who people learned to play guitar from.
Harvey: The recordings, I think they greatly made it much easier, for example, for a white person to learn Black music because you didn’t have to go to the Black part of town and go into a speakeasy somewhere and listen to the band. You could just listen to the record in your home. And I think information found its way around by whatever pathways. It’s kind of like water going downhill. But people were hearing things that they couldn’t possibly have heard in their normal lives.
Harvey: And one of the things that I kind of pulled from that study was there was a lot of solo troubadours in the 1920s and thirties on the records. And then all of a sudden it ended. After that it was only bands and groups and orchestras and whatever. And of the early solo Troubadour recordings by far the most proficient ones were the African-Americans. And those people like [Willie Mattel 01:21:01] and Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake and Tampa Red, the 1920s. And some of the women too. [Geisha Wildly 01:21:09], although she wasn’t well-known and Memphis Many was quite a solid musician.
Harvey: But I think it was partly just because their culture, so many things were forbidden to them and they were able to get their hands on cheap guitars through the Sears catalog and the hardware stores. It was a lucky coincidence of manufacturing and of the postal service and the Sears catalog. There was a whole lot of other factors that allowed the musical instruments themselves to get in the hands of people all over the country. And they made their own music, their own soundtracks to their lives and the ideas. The guitar get completely revolutionized. And it only took about 50 years. Slavery was officially outlawed in 1863. And even through all the reconstruction and Jim Crow days, somehow by 1900, basically 50 years, a couple of generations, the Black people seem to have stopped playing the banjo and they’ve completely reinvented horns and guitars and the contribution of the African Americans to American music is something that I think is pretty well known.
Harvey: But in my field of singer songwriter where it’s mostly white people in my lifetime, it was really startling for me to realize how much of a debt all guitar players owe to uneducated, illiterate, mistreated Black people from rural south who were somehow managed to create and keep this music alive to make their lives more tolerable. The people that were there recording them, I don’t think they were that interested in their life story. And gee, where’d you learn that tuning from?
Jim: They were in it for the money as you point out a few times. Some dude that ran a general store also had a sideline of scouting musicians because he got paid, right?
Harvey: Yeah. And Robert Johnson, who is the most hallowed of all that early group of musicians and rightfully so, just astoundingly, talented young man. And the guy who was responsible for producing and who was standing there when he recorded every single one of those tracks, Don Law, never said anything. He lived until about 1980 something and you think he might’ve liked said, “Yeah, wow. It was really something to be in the room with that guy, when he was doing hellhounds on my trail, I got chill bumps,” quoted whatever it is he said. They found something recently, a letter he wrote …
Jim: He had long fingers or something, right?
Harvey: Yeah, he had beautiful hands. It sound like a child molesters comment or something. But you’d think it’s like most of us would feel like that would be a bucket list thing of all time to travel in time and be in that hotel room in Dallas, watching Robert Johnson sing, Preaching Blues, and go, “Okay, it’s a take.”
Jim: That would be fucking outrageous, wouldn’t it?
Harvey: Oh, yeah. And this guy couldn’t say anything. It almost feels to me like it’s only now that the stuff is being digitized and even that has a complex. I just learned there’s legal reasons why they’ve put a lot of those early recordings up on the Spotify and the digital MP3 stuff. And it wasn’t all just pure altruism. It was also money. But there’s tens of thousands of old recordings now that have been made available to anyone who cares, who’s willing to spend a pittance for a subscription to one of the streaming services. It’s like an unbelievable gift to humanity. It’s like building the interstate highways or putting an airport in every city. Young people today, if they had ever put their phones down and actually dig into their instruments …
Jim: Get off my lawn, god damn it. That sounds like an old boomer ranting in the neighborhood.
Harvey: The tools that they have available now to learn from the pile of what other humans have done musically is just overwhelming and inspiring. It’s such a beautiful thing to pick through that pile of old recordings and hear all the different ways people express themselves. I mean, I listened to, could have been easily five or 10,000. I just couldn’t stop. It was almost like, “Hi, I’m Harvey Reed and I have a problem.” It was like musicalaholics anonymous. It’d be three in the morning and I’d just be listening to more and more. Oh my God, listen to this, listen to this kind of stuff. It’s very, very exciting. And any of you that haven’t done that, haven’t dug through some of the peasant music pile, I urge you to give it a try or there’s some record companies now that are putting together wonderful anthologies of some of that old stuff to help guide young people and newcomers. You don’t have to be a record collector freak anymore.
Jim: Let’s also talk a little bit about how music is now information and it evolves and it can take somewhat unexpected pathways and unexpected turns. For instance, you point out that very few Black musicians now play anything like the blues. That’s basically a white boy thing. And one can point to the giant impact that the old country blues had on British invasion rock and roll. I mean, the Led Zeppelin’s, The Beatles even, The Stones, I mean, Jagger and Richards I think met at a record store, because they were both obsessed with buying old blues records. Right?
Harvey: Yeah. It’s interesting stuff.
Jim: It flows. It’s not linked anymore to the person, to person. And at the same time, blues also through the other route, went into R&B and commercial rock and roll, which you could then say spawned hip hop and some of the more modern Black music. It’s so interesting how musical ideas flow and mutate and evolve and nobody can put them in a box anymore. Not that they ever really could, but in the age of digital everything and anybody able to learn anything, we live in this extremely fruitful time of musical intercourse if we might want to call it that.
Harvey: It is. It’s a very exciting time musically. And even though there’s not much real diversity in the big money part of the popular music world. There’s fewer songs in the top 40 went to the top 30 to the top 20 or whatever. I mean, but man, is it ever a feast out there for anyone who’s really interested in exploring. And you’re right, the influences are flying everywhere and I don’t think there’s any hope of anything ever doing anything but continuing this kind of process of …
Harvey: And my own wife, I give an example in something, one of my writings. She grew up in New Hampshire playing Suzuki violin and her favorite musicians … She was born in 1968. Her very favorite singers that she points out, one of them is Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass singer, and the other is Billie Holiday. She likes Tina Turner and she likes Big Mama Thornton, but she loves Dolores Keane singing Irish ballads. I mean, I think it’s really healthy to just let go of the idea of genres and let people just like what they like and I see more of that going on. There’s more cross pollination of musical information. It might almost be bewildering and I guess that’s what genre’s are good for. It’s fun to go see a country band when you know they’re not going to do a Duke Ellington tune and just let them play.
Harvey: In fact, I have a country band. We play hardcore George Jones and Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard stuff with a great pedal steel player. And it’s freeing to just do that and not play any sly guitar blues, and not do any autoharp stuff. But I wouldn’t want to time travel backwards and go live in a previous era in spite of all the scary things that are supposedly happening now. That’s one of the great, great things about the information revolution is how much fun I’ve had learning about not just music, but man, within you hear someone’s name. Peaty Wheatstraw, you see that name and within 15 seconds you can have his bio up there. You can find out when he was born, when he died, what record company put out what songs. And you can go to [Stefan Wirtz 01:29:48] German music freak website and see every single record he ever did. That’s just marvelous how much information has been given to us. And I salute all those who have been part of doing that because I certainly took advantage of a lot of that technology to research my book.
Jim: Yeah and I will say, we’re going to wrap it here. I think that’s a good place to wrap it about the wonderful future for the mixing and matching of music is information. But man, even though we had a longer than usual episode today, a whole bunch of things we didn’t get to including an amazingly interesting single chapter about one song by Blind Blake’s 1929 recording of Police Dog Blues. Absolutely fascinating. One that was a little less fascinating, I suppose, unless you’re a musician is a whole chapter on the history of Travis picking. Holy fuck. But if you’re into that kind of shit, you’ll find this extremely interesting and various other really interesting things. I looked over Harv’s bibliography, hundreds of books he’s read. And this is a really serious work of illumination of what Harv is trying to say. If this podcast at all tickles your fancy, I’d say pick up the Troubadour Chronicles. I think it’s only available on Amazon, right?
Harvey: It is. I chose to go that route. You can get an autographed copy from me if you can track me down at woodpecker.com. But it’s hard work to put it in an envelope and slower to get to you, but it’s something I’m very proud of and I’m really thrilled, Jim, that you’re interested enough and that you’re brave enough to read the whole thing.
Jim: Yeah, I enjoyed it. It was fun. We unfortunately didn’t get to the one I really wanted to get to, but that’s all right and that was the Troubadour as [Shamin 01:31:32].
Harvey: Yeah. That’s the deep stuff. That’s the deep stuff.
Jim: That’s where we probably disagree the most, as listeners of the podcast now I’m sort of famously skeptical about non-physical phenomenon.
Harvey: Oh yeah. There never could have been anything such as a musical performance that wasn’t purely involving rational things. Maybe we’ll have to have an arm wrestling have to come down to McDowell there some time and …
Jim: Get a bottle [inaudible 01:32:01] and have at it.
Harvey: Yeah, I’d love to hear even off mic, even though I have a thin skin, I’m hoping to create a little bit of some blowback and a little discussion here because in my book I do call out a few things that I don’t think anyone’s ever criticized before. And I think it’s healthy and I’m very careful to be sort of like a Fox News commentator where it’s, these are my opinions and I’m not trying to claim anything as ultimate truth. And I try to support my beliefs the best I can.
Harvey: And the other thing that I somewhere say in the book is that when I realized that I was going to have to make a whole book, I wondered if I had the proper credentials in my field to write a book like this. If indeed it is a field and if indeed there are credentials. And I really concluded, was I the guy to write the book? And I continue to believe, yes and someone’s welcome to write a better book about the subject if they want. But it’s something I’ve done my whole life and I’m not an outsider looking in and I’m not doing it to chase a market or prove a point. It’s something that I feel deeply about and I wanted to talk about, and I’m really honored that you’re interested.
Jim: Yeah, I was going to say it came through. The level of work that you did, the care of the tracking of references and obscure histories, fucking amazing. People are interested, Troubadour Chronicles, Harvey Reed.
Harvey: And my single footnote on page 114 that says, I’ve worked very hard to tell this story carefully and accurately though, this intermittently scholarly book only has a single self-explanatory footnote. There’s a little one there and then you go to the bottom and it says, “This was not a hasty decision, but it’s too late to turn back now.”
Jim: I like it.
Harvey: In an era of disinformation and polarization about the credibility of information, footnotes have become elitist, a fish fork, French porcelain, or perfectly folded napkin, a symbol of an academia that has forced students to do things in certain awkward ways according to a set of rules. Anyone who dismisses what is here because of a lack of proper footnotes would probably also dismiss it if it had footnotes. And I would have prostrated myself before the footnote thrown in vain. To my mind, at least this is linked to the ways that musical elitists have shunned my kind of music for centuries and impose their rules, ideas, and protocols for proper education. My rebellious core wants to present this lone footnote as a competing symbol of populous defiance to the lingering rejection and disrespect I felt all my life from a place that claims a higher ground it might not deserve.
Harvey: And it’s not just academia. The music industry has its own machinery of commerce and publicity that has rejected or exploited peasant troubadours as much or more than the scholarly world. I learned and sold my music improperly and I’m proud of that, so I will proudly present my contribution of improper scholarship about my world of improper music. It’s easier to read and understand information without footnotes, though it takes up a little more paper. Think of the lack of footnotes here as a fist or even a middle finger in the air, perhaps some canine teeth showing or a ragged battle flag waving.
Jim: There it is. It’s all summed up. I will say Harv hadn’t changed much since he was at least in sixth grade.
Harvey: Was I defiant back then? I thought I was a goody-goody.
Jim: Oh, fuck no. You were defiant. In fact, we had a little joke. We used to bark and the reason was we would say, “Because Harv was [inaudible 01:36:09].”
Harvey: I didn’t know I was defiant. I thought I played by the rules until later in life and I thought you were the defiant one.
Jim: Well, I was always a bit on the defiant side, but yeah, I wouldn’t say so much defiant as hard-headed and sure of your opinions.
Harvey: Really? I didn’t know I had opinions back then, but I feel like I’ve got some now and it’s been fun to thrust some of them upon you. And it’s really great to hear your voice and know you’re doing well these days and let’s not wait so long to see each other again.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at modernspacemusic.com.