Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"100 Greats" #070: Martin Grosswendt, Call and Response

A few weeks ago, while I was working on other projects, Martin Grosswendt’s version of Blind Blake’s hilarious “Police Dog Blues” came up in the iTunes headphones. It had been months since I’d heard the tune, and years since I had tried to learn to play it—in fact, the last time I tried might have been in the 1970s, when, listening to and watching Grosswendt play live at little coffeehouses on the North Shore of Massachusetts, it was just purely beyond my ken to figure how a piece of music like that worked.

I am sometimes astonished by aspects of my own musical good fortune. Not the “talent” sweepstakes—if “talent” means having musicianship come to you easily, then I must have been behind the barn when they handed it out: when I started playing guitar I couldn’t even tell when two notes matched in pitch (Dharmonia has hilarious—to others—stories about the anguish I would evidence when I got an incorrect answer in her Guitar Workshop ear-training class, where we met).

Years later, though, this led me to an awareness that talent is like a dry day in Ireland: it’s a wonderful surprise that makes life much more pleasant for anybody lucky enough to hit the jackpot that day, but it damned sure it isn’t something you can count on. Years after that, when I went off to a righteous conservatory and met a population of people with the sense of entitlement that always results from having things (even “talent”) handed to you, and started teaching and seeking to motivate others who didn’t have that natural luck, I formulated the aphorism (which I mostly only used when confronted by that sense of entitlement) “Talent ain’t shit; what matters is effort.” Because talent is based upon the luck of the genetic draw, you can’t count on it—and it can be damned difficult, for those to whom musical things have come easily, to develop the self-discipline and the just-plain mental guts that result from facing up to doing things that are hard. And boring. But you can count on effort, if you can learn to count on yourself.

No, I didn’t catch any breaks in the “talent” sweepstakes. But I’m happy to have traded very bit of any of that kind of luck for the astonishing good fortune I did receive—of hearing absolutely peerless music very early, very often, and (seemingly) always when I needed to. I have heard more absolutely transformative music, at more felicitous moments in time, than just about anybody I know. That’s actually, now that I think about it, why I’m a teacher of music: because I am so deeply conscious of the atypicality of my good fortune that I feel a cosmic obligation to try to spread that good fortune. I can’t make somebody talented—but I can damned sure give them the tools and the self-discipline they need to overcome any “defects” of “talent”, because if I could do it then anybody can do it. And I can make damned sure that my students, formal or informal, have a better shot at encountering just how much magnificent music there is in the world.

I first heard both the country blues and Irish traditional music around the same time: around summer 1973, first at the old Me & Thee Coffeehouse, a satellite holdover from the early ‘60s Boston/Cambridge Great Folk Boom. Those experiences absolutely changed my life: growing up in the boring middle-class suburbs (or almost middle-class: my parents had bought a home in a working-class neighborhood, and I and my brothers got the shit kicked out of us by junior-high-school thugs regularly until we each, individually, learned to turn and attack—a major rite of passage for each of us, after which it didn’t happen anymore), I had almost no opportunity to hear any music—there was no music in my immediate family—and certainly hardly any live music, with the exception of the folk and pop acts booked by the Arts Festival my father ran.

Hearing those incredibly visceral, idiosyncratic, and powerful musics, live in a room, eight feet away, changed my life. At the age for 13 or 14, especially if you’re an adolescent male, and most especially if you’re an adolescent male growing up in the boring-ass middle-class white suburbs, you may not know what the hell it is, but you know that you want to make that noise. The first times I heard Bob Franke, or Geoff Bartley, or Paul Rishell, or Paul Geremia play, it was the same—I thought, “I want to be able to make a noise that cool, and I want to be a person that cool.” I knew, as I’ve said before, that the music could provide an avenue to whole realms of experience and expression, and even more profoundly whole communities of people, whose existence I hadn’t even previously glimpsed. I even thought these musicians might provide me vision of a different, better life than the ones I could imagine.

But the king of them all, for me, was Martin Grosswendt, a tall spindly guy with lank blond hair who looked like the post-60s prep-school escapee he probably was. He had none of the affectations of some of us white boys playing the blues: didn’t wear the porkpie hat, or the sunglasses, or the all-black clothes, or affect the mannerisms or accent of a Deep-South bluesman. He was just a funny, articulate, obviously erudite guy, toting a battered National Duolian and a Stella 12-string, who played the country blues with more fire, passion, fluidity, and wit than anybody else. I loved that he had such command of the guitar style, but without the sort of studied (or mannered) self-conscious precision of some others—with Martin, you got the sense that he was playing the parts a certain way, every bit as complex, contrapuntal, and beautiful as Blind Blake or Bill Broonzy, but that he could equally well have played them six other ways. There’s a confidence that comes from having such total command of an instrumental style that you don’t have to trouble yourself with replicating the models exactly, because you trust your own grasp of the idiom, and your ability to get around on the instrument, that you can diverge from the marked trail and strike out cross-country. You don’t have to “play it just like the record”—you can be confident of your ability to say something new with this old music. This is tremendously liberating, both to be able to do and to be able to hear; it’s something that my old friend and musical mentor Dean Magraw, another hugely influential discovery from a few years later, equally had in spades. At the time, I couldn’t do that—I understood that this music was both technically and conceptually incredibly sophisticated, but I didn’t (at age 15) have the skills to hear or replicate what they were doing.

On top of that, I loved Martin’s singing—not just the way he shaped and inflected the songs, with all the bends and whines and microtonal inflections that the style called for, but how naturally it came out of him, and how much it didn’t seem that he was trying to “sound like” Charlie Patton or Son House or Blind Willie Johnson. Partly this was because he had something of a bent for the Memphis and Piedmont blues of Blake, Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, a much more raggy and hokum-oriented approach than the tortured (and thus difficult to imitate) intensity of Patton or House or Robert Johnson.

But it was also that Martin just didn’t try to imitate: his vocal timbre was still that of a white guy with a decent education, his accent still that of a Rhode Island native. Somehow, by letting go of the mimetic/phonographic attempt to “sound just like” the Delta players, he was enabled to access the intensity with which they sang. He still sounded like a white boy—but he sounded like a white boy who was playing and singing just as hard as anybody on the old 78s. That was a great lesson for me—that what made the blues real was not your age, or your accent, or the percentage of melanin in your skin; what made it real was the quality of your experience, your effort and your commitment. Nature and nurture, talent and effort, genetics and aptitude—every individual brings different combinations of experience and resources to the table. I learned that lesson, and it saved me, years later, when various academic types who couldn’t look past skin color were deeply offended by the fact that I played, and knew, black music better than they did. Because I had worked at it longer than they—and because I had the extraordinary good fortune to hear these musicians at the right time.

And, at the same time, he had all the stage-tricks of a Booker White or a Charlie Patton: tossing the guitar in the air, spinning it on its axis or around his neck without missing a lick—I’m not sure he didn’t dance on its top, the way Patton did.

I carried an analog cassette of a Martin Grosswendt concert, circa 1974, at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in Marblehead coffeehouse, for at least eight years after that, playing it in dorm rooms and job-site boom-boxes, on bookstore sound-systems and in restaurant kitchens. I have it still—a beatup, grease-stained Audiofidelity cassette which I’m afraid to play for fear of totaling it into spaghetti.

Then for years I went away from that music—got my jazz degree, wrote my dissertation, made my medieval CDs, beat my brains out playing catchup in the world of classical music. It was only after my degrees were done—even after I had rediscovered and began to recover my Irish trad music chops—that I began to think about revisiting the blues, about which I’ve blogged before. I knew that there had been one Martin solo LP—a nice effort now long out of print called Dog on a Dance Floor—but I hadn’t heard anything from him in years, although I never forgot his music. But that new-fangled thing called “the Internets” made it possible for me to find Martin Grosswendt again—he’s not on the ‘Net himself, but the Google had actually heard of him, and led me to this record. He plays a lot of Cajun fiddle and double-bass these days, but this record features tunes I remember from the ‘70s—meaning he’s been playing some of them 30 years. And it shows.

Perfectly titled Call and Response—after both the fundamental music texture that is a thumbprint of African music in the Americas: the preacher and the congregation, the singer and the choir, the soloist and the horn section, and also the fundamental way in which any modern player has to deal with a tradition that’s essentially 60 years “out of date” (whatever that means)—this record captures most of what I love about Martin’s music: the chops, the great slide and fingerpicking, the wit, the groove, the intensity, the impeccable (and hilarious) song selection, the great singing:

“Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues”: Charlie Patton’s ferocious, and seminal, take on open-G tuning, from which both Son House, and later Robert Johnson, got their greatest licks;

There’s “Floating Bridge”, the hilarious, mandolin-driven Sleepy John Estes tune detailing a misadventure John’s jug band had, coming back in a Model-T drunk one night from a juke-joint gig and not realizing that the 1937 floods had taken out their bridge home—until they were considerably more than halfway over; best line “Five gallons of muddy water/I had drank”; and whose long shaggy-dog introduction I stole from Martin in 1975 and still use;

“Savannah Mama,” one of the only representations here of his wonderful take on the 12-string Piedmont blues of Blind Willie McTell;

“Going to Move to Alabama,” the mordant Patton/Lemon Jefferson party-piece in which, on this record, the “call and response” is between Martin’s own voice,and guitar, and the wonderful fiddle of Karl Dennis (about whom Martin himself says "He is a bluegrass fiddler, for which I forgive him").

Barbecue Bob’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” which recounts his loss to floods of house and wife with the same matter-of-fact bleakness;

“Pony Blues”; Son House's version of Patton’s 1929 slide masterpiece which became the cutting-contest litmus test for every guitarist in the Delta, like House, after him—and they all came after him;

And then there were also tunes I hadn’t heard him play, like the funky, three-finger banjo version of Dock Boggs’s dark “Prodigal Son”—which just goes to confirm that, in the ‘20s, while there might have been the most hateful divisions between black and white people in the South, there was really no difference between black and white musics (a point that the Coen Brothers’ fabulist masterpiece O Brother Where Art Thou makes even more subtly and eloquently).

And then there’s the tune that made me want to play this music in the first place, Martin’s transcendent take on Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues,” a masterpiece of musical and textual composition: funny, rueful, blindingly contrapuntal, and absolutely hilarious. Best line (about the dog): “His name is Rambler, and when he gets the chance/He leaves his mark on everybody’s pants”. As I said, it was my favorite of all the tunes he played, virtually perfect in every way, but completely impenetrable to me as a 14-year-old from the suburbs. But just recently, when it came up in the iTunes rotation, I happened to have a guitar handy (the revved-up National knock-off which I’d wanted for 30 years but had never, until I was a tenured college professor, been able to afford). And, astonishingly, the tune just fell out of the guitar and into my lap: tuning, percussive syncopations, form, distinctive contrapuntal licks. I even found myself singing it, from memory and with his phrasing, intact after 30 years. That’s how much I had imprinted on his music.

There are a few more I’d still love to hear Martin play live: his titanic 12-string-driven version of Lead Belly’s raging “Mr Tom Hughes’ Town”, the hilarious “Don’t Sell It, Don’t Give It Away” (by the perfectly-monickered “Oscar ‘Buddy’ Woods and his Shreveport Home Wreckers”), and the remarkable two-handed percussion part he’d play on guitar for “Booker’s Jitterbug Swing”—when he wasn’t flipping it up in the air—and catching it—between verses;

But hell, this is enough: it’s been a privilege to reconnect with this music, these songs, and this musician, which made such a profound positive impact in my life, so many years later.

Finally, there was the unexpected bonus—that the intervening decades of working so hard at other musics had actually given me the ability to play this one. It was a great blessing to be able to finally learn the Bill Broonzy and Blind Blake songs I’d heard from Martin in the ‘70s—the songs that made me want to play the country blues in the first place, but which, as a 14-year-old I hadn’t the skills (not the “talent”) to learn—and this time find them falling out of the record and into my hands. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a wonderful, unexpected, twilight-years reward to return to a music you loved as a kid and realize, all those years and many musics later, that it really was as brilliant as you thought it was—a tremendous validation not only of the music but of your own self, and of what mattered to you so much, so many years before.

This is the music that made me want to play the blues. That he’s a wonderful man is a bonus.

Or maybe that’s the point.

[NB: One of the nicest things about rediscovering this music through the medium of this record was to make contact with Martin himself, who—remarkably—remembered me 22 years later.Though he’s a brilliant, well-educated guy (degrees in semiotics and law, that kind of thing), and incredibly active as a musician, Martin is seriously old-school when it comes to self-”promotion: no website, barely an email presence. If you want this disc—which is probably my favorite CD of country blues ever, as I’ve only been waiting for it 30 years—here’s his snail address; tell him I sent you!]


Bob Franke said...

I have the honor of sharing a stage with Martin in Somerville, MA on March 28, 2009. He's quite active in the area (as one has to be, to survive) as a string band musician on fiddle and bass, and he brings the same qualities you've described to those instruments as he does to the country blues. He's got a few videos up on YouTube at this point--check 'em out.

Jeff Horton said...

Great to read about Martin. Just tonight I "googled" him to see what I could find, and found this blog. The blog entry is July 08 and I'm writing this in Dec 09. Bob Franke has known Martin longer than I, but I do have the great fortune to play tunes regularly for over 7 years with Martin in The Pegheads, along with Karl Dennis, Mike Kropp, and Ben Pearce. A good friend of mine, the late Jerry Balchunas, years ago called Martin, "My favorite guitar player". But Martin not only plays guitar and fiddle, but also mandolin, banjo, and dobro (have I forgotten any, Martin?), each of them equally well. 2 things: I think he grew up in southeastern MA, not RI, and with Magnolia he plays electric, not upright, bass. He's a great bass player.

coyotebanjo said...


Thanks for your note. Yes, I was able to reconnect with Martin a couple of years ago, and have been delighted, as the blog post says, to be reminded that his music is every bit as brilliant now as I thought it was when I was 16.

Thanks again.