Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for August, 2009

Mike Seeger on Flatpicking and the Carter Family

[btw,  before I forget: lame-ass tho’ this is, I’ve got an original, never-before-seen pic of Mike Seeger–Elon Feiner took it sometime last Century–and I’ll post it as soon as I find it (if I do find it).  Sorry.]

I can’t honestly say I knew Mike Seeger, the highly regarded musician/folklorist who passed away last week at the age of 75. I’ve been in several rooms, big and small, and had one interesting exchange with him, but to say I knew him would go against even my low standards for name dropping. I’ll recount the exchange for you in a minute. But first it’s time for encomia.

He broadened my musical horizons at a point in my career when Bluegrass alone was no longer able to sustain them. I suspect he did this in some form or another for many, many participants in the folk music renaissance of the 1960‘s. He was a critical contributor to the continental shift American music made in that decade.

My first, and most telling, impression he had on me was as a founding member in the New Lost City Ramblers, an Old Timey music preservation and performance trio that formed in the late ‘Fifties and played well on into the ‘60’s.

It was his and his partners’, John Cohen, Tom Paley, and, later, Tracy Schwarz, faithful but unslavish replication of American roots music that turned me on when Bluegrass seemed to limit my musical options as a roots music perfomer myself.

It was not so much individual performers who might have been lost to archives-only existences, but whole musical forms that hadn’t been in my mental repertoire before Mike and his partners put them there. I’m talking about country blues and songster music, finger picking, jug bands, banjo-fiddle duets, frailing and clawhammer banjo, Cajun, Gospel, and, eventually, my own mentor and hero, yes, Doc Watson, q.v. many posts in this blog.

On the way to doing this for me and, I expect, countless others, Mike and his partners brought me Charley Monroe, Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt, Roscoe Holcombe, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Boggs and many other pickers and singers I would not have heard of but for them.

Over the years in the ‘Sixties, I saw Mike play and sing and talk about American folk music prob. a half dozen times, and always learned something, heard something that took me into roots music side-streets and broadened and strengthened my own stuff. And that he was a skilled instrumentalist on a number of instruments made me want to keep working on my own chops, sometimes madly. He proved that white, urban, middle classers could learn and play the old music competently.

And whatever I say for myself, btw, about Mike and the music he made by himself and with others, is probably true in some measure for many performers from the era, e.g., Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Jerry Kaukkonen, Janis Joplin, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Kweskin Jug Band and, of course, my own one-album wonder of a band, Evergreen Blueshoes.

Now, about this exchange between Mike and myself:

It came at a workshop on Carter Family style accompaniment/ bass-string lead technique he was giving at one of the UCLA folk music festivals they had in the ‘60’s, I don’t remember what year.

My question went something like this: let’s say that Mother Maybelle Carter invented a strumming technique that became the sound of country guitar from that time forward. How come she did it on a pop/jazz-style, arch-top guitar (read: weak bass frequency) with her thumb and index finger, and everyone who copied her did it with a flatpick on a flattop guitar? Everybody. How did that happen?

“To put it a little more concretely,” I droned on, “if she played a 4/4 bar with a thumb-index finger stroke of four thumb-brush-brush units, how did everyone afterward come to do it with a flatpick? It’s not an obvious substitution to make.

“To put it another w

“Ah, I think we get it, uhwhat’d you say your name was? Al?Al,” Mike said, with the “uh huh” of someone who’s been asked this before, “and it’s a good question. I’m guessing you’re a Bluegrass guitarist, right?”

I said I guessed I was.

“Well, the short answer to your question,” he said, “is I don’t know. And I’ve thought about it myself. I think you’re right to credit the Carter Family with at least recording and broadcasting that guitar style from El Paso to Saskatchewan on XERB radio, if they didn’t actually invent it.

“I know of many Southern white guitar players, recording artists and regular front porch pickers, who said they heard that style of playing on their records or on the radio in the late ‘20’s and ‘30’s. If any country music act took a regional music genre and nationalized it, so to speak, it was the Carter Family. So, yeah, there’s a good chance she inspired many guitarists to take up that kind of full rhythm sound we associate with them.

“As far as how or why it migrated from thumb and finger to flatpick, I can’t say. There’s nothing inevitable about that; both styles, to me, are counter-intuitive, compared to, say, bossa nova or flamenco.

“Maybe they thought using a flatpick was more uptown than your fingers. They saw pictures of Nick Lucas or Lonnie Johnson, saw they were using picks, or saw a Nick Lucas pick, and decided that’s what they needed to get them out of the hills and into the cities. And onto records.

“They weren’t trying to preserve the old ways like we are, you know. They wanted to make a living; if they got famous doing it, all the better. I mean, Jimmy Rogers made everybody think they could play guitar and sing.

“And I wonder if that had anything to do with Mother Maybelle playing an arch-top guitar with no bass to speak of but lots of carrying powerpercussivenesslike they needed in big bands in those days. Maybe that was her idea of uptown. How the hell should I know, Al? Just kidding.

”Obviously, I don’t know. It’s sort of like why is it called Madison Square Garden? It’s not on Madison, it’s not square and it’s not a garden. (You like that? I just came up with that). End of the day, it just is. Like the anomaly of Carter Family finger-style strumming turning into flatpicking.

“One more thing, Al, and the rest of you. I’ve always found it interesting that even though we’ve come to associate Bluegrass, or, let’s say, aggressive-style guitar picking with the flatpick, two of the founding fathers of Bluegrass, Lester Flatt and Carter Stanley, made their livings and their marks on music playing a kind of relaxed Carter Family style, I think with thumb picks and fingers. I don’t know, I’m just saying.

“And here there’s also the obvious name connection, too. Lester Flatt… flat pick? Carter Stanley…Carter Family? Coincidence? I don’t think so.”

Me: “But, don’t you

Mike: “Next question, please.”

So, for me, I got on the air at a Q&A with Mike Seeger at a UCLA folk festival, that’s gotta be worth 20 points on a Bluegrass score-sheet. Plus, I got some feedback that my roots music ruminations were not entirely irrelevant and that I hadn’t yet abused enough substances to qualify for wet-braindom.

Net-net, I had a fairly meaty moment with someone in my field I deeply respected, and, in fact, was more than a little intimidated by. Mike Seeger was the best of the best in the performance and caretaking of American roots music.


I saw the White family home movie that’s been making the rounds lately on YouTube, the one with Clarence and his brothers at a picnic in 1958. It doesn’t have much to do with music, since it was shot MOS (“mit out sound”). That part was disappointing to me.

But what it did do was tickle my memory about the third brother, Eric, Jr., who makes his Power Pickers© debut here, for the first time. It also allows me to talk about the middle brother, Clarence, the young genius I knew fairly well for the four years I knew him. (These would be the same four years I knew the first bother, Roland. Are you getting all this? You are?! Awesome!)

Eric White,Jr., the bass fiddle player in the aforementioned home movie, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6×4lArNXRF0, was the least gifted of the three brothers, which is not necessarily dissing him, since Roland and Clarence set the bar high for families making music together.

So, one night I am playing backup guitar with Roland, Clarence, Eric and banjo player Billy Ray—believe it!—at the Ash Grove, LA’s premier folk and roots nightclu——whoa, hold it there, Sparky. Some back-story, first.

Picture a shabby, nightclub dressing room (when it isn’t the chef’s bed-sitter), crowded, smelly and poorly lit. Sitting on chairs and a frowzy sofa-bed are musicians Dave Cohen, Dave Lindley (as I remember) and Clarence White.

It is probably 1965; none of us is yet playing electric guitar (it is a folk music club). Leaning in thru the doorway is Roland White, leader of the Country Boys, LA’s only authentic (i.e., not a study group) Bluegrass band.

“Hey, Al, how ‘bout playin’ this next set with us?” he says.

® Power Pickers is the property of Allan Ross, Waccabuc, 2009

I look around for someone else named Al: “Wh—who—me?” I say. “Are you talking to me?”

Clarence says, “Yeah, he’s talkin’ to you, numbnutz. This could be your big night, Country Al.” He zetzes the word “Country.” That means he likes me.

Dave Cohen, my then-bf, says, “Do it, Country. What can you lose?”

“My aura,” I say.

Dave says, “Come on, Al, no one ever gets to hear you play.”

Me: “That’s a big part of my aura.” To Roland, “You already have the best bluegrass guitarist in the world [Clarence]. Why do you need to humiliate me, too?”

Roland says, “Eric hasn’t showed up yet, and sometimes he doesn’t at all. You want to do it or not?”

Me: “Do what?”

“Of course he’ll do it,” bf Dave Cohen says, “as long as he hasn’t dropped any acid tonite.” To me, “You haven’t, have you?

Me: “Whoa, paisley dragons coming out of your—”

Dave: “He’s doin’ it.”

Roland shows me the set list he’s made up, and of course I’m familiar with every song on it, including “Pritty Poly.” The Bluegrass canon is no secret.

We do not rehearse. It’s a Bluegrass-macho thing. Instead, we talk about cars. Billy Ray, the Country Boys’ banjo player, straight out of “Deliverance,” says something like “We remmit the overhead dual-manifold camshaft,” and so forth. Cars are not my strong suit.

Nevertheless, and riven with nervousness, I am happy as a clam. I am finally playing Bluegrass with real Bluegrass players, sitting in a crummy dressing room smoking cigarettes, making armpit noises and imitating queers (Clarence: “Don’t thay that again or I’ll hit you with my purth”). And that is exactly what we are doing when Eric rushes into the room saying something about his intake valve shorting out the Finortin rod, I couldn’t quite get it. “When do we go on?” he asks.

Eric doesn’t look anything like Roland and Clarence, whom someone once described as forest creatures. They are short and slight, dark-eyed-and-complected. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out they were Gypsies. And they don’t talk much.

Eric, on the other hand, is stocky, with pomaded blond hair. He is also kind of loud. He looks like a friend of Reggie’s, from Archie comic books.

My first reaction to Eric’s showing up is, of course, relief. Another personal Country Al-music-biz trauma averted, my aura still intact.

“Where’s my bass?” Eric says, looking around the room.

“On stage,” Clarence says.

“Shit, Clarence, I gotta tune it.

“I tuned it, Eric. It’s in tune.”

“You sure?” says Eric.

“No, Eric. I want us to sound bad on stage.

“Jeez, Clarence, soften up.”

“It’s lighten up Eric.”

“Oh, excuse me, Mister Hippie, sir. Sorry I’m not as groovy as you are,” says Eric. Then, “So whuddya think about my new machine heads (tuning gears for the bass)?”

“They’re just great, Eric,” Clarence says. “Whuddya think about my new flatpick?”

“Fuck you, Clarence,” and so forth. “When do we go on?” he persists.

“Now,” says Clarence.

Meanwhile, with Eric on the case I am putting my D-28 away and making myself as invisible as I can. But I am not successful, because Clarence says, “What are doing, man?”

“Huh?” I say.

“Don’t put your guitar away, man,” he says. “Play with us.”

“Why would you want me to do that?” I whine. “Oh, I know: it’s because of my singing.” My singing sucks. If there were a scouting report on me it would be “good play, no sing.”

But Roland says, “Yeah, c’mon up, Al. Then Clarence can take some of his famous solos.” I still feel like a charity case, but I don’t have time to think about it because Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove’s owner, is announcing us over the PA system:

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, as well as you folk music fans, the Ash Grove is proud to bring you Hollywood’s answer to Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Bros. all rolled into one, the Country Boys!”

We walk thru a curtain behind the audience, but Clarence hangs back, takes my arm and says, “Listen, Al, Eric’s time isn’t really that great. Also plus I think he’s hammered. I don’t know, I’m just saying. But it won’t hurt to have you to be up there playing rhythm, too. Y’know, like kind of to steady the beat. It’ll be fun, you’ll see.” How can you argue with that?

A half-minute later we are on stage and deep into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” I am actually playing with Clarence and Roland White, the Country Boys. There goes my aura, but I am thrilled. They are one of the best bands in Bluegrass.

The set’s going pretty smoothly, except maybe for Eric having trouble keeping his bass, the one with the new tuners, on pitch. He’s tweaking it between almost every song, making Roland, who is no Johnny Carson, have to temporize a lot. But it’s an appreciative audience, they could care less. They loudly applaud “Footprints in the Snow“ and “Way Downtown” (btw, is Roland an awesome singer, or what?) and a couple more fast instrumentals.

We get a stanza or two into “I’m Just a Used-to-be to You,” when Clarence sidles up next to me during a banjo break to say, “Al, don’t play your bass runs off the beat, ‘cause it throws Eric off, and he’s having enough trouble as it is.”

Careful, Country, I warn myself, the boat’s rocking

[I interrupt myself here to play you Clarence playing the same song at another time so you can hear what he’s talking about. Listen for what I call upside-downbeats. Don’t worry, you’ll hear them. I hope. Eric did.]

So I 86 the syncopated lines immediately; the last thing I need is a rhythm train-wreck caused by me

But even as Clarence crosses back to the other side of the stage the train tilts and teeters, teeters and tilts, finally veers off the track and splits. Roland and the bass go one way, the rest of us the other. We have just entered 4/4 never-never-land.

We have turned the beat around.

While everyone else is playing ump-chuck, ump-chucka, Eric is playing slappa-unk, slappa-unk, etc.

Roland and Billy Ray, neither of whom has seen it coming, look like they’ve been pole-axed. But Clarence is already in Eric’s face with exaggerated arm and body movements, trying to teach him the Carter Family strum (ump-chucka, etc.) toot sweet, but Eric can’t hear it.

So, Clarence does the only thing he can do: un-tune the bass, of course.

He reaches over Eric’s shoulder and starts turning the machines the wrong way. Eric is stunned. At first, he keeps on plucking and fingering the strings, looking back and forth from brother to bass, bass to brother. It seems to take him forever to get it. Finally, he does.

He starts turning the pegs, or machines or whatever you want to call them, but Clarence is too quick for him. Soon Eric’s slappas and unks disappear into an undifferentiated gumbo of plops and splats as the strings go slack. He tries to slap Clarence’s hands away, but he doesn’t have enough hands to do that and retune at the same time.

The crowd titters nervously. They are not sure what’s going on, here—until the two brothers start pawing each other, at which point they come alive, because, remember, Roland, Billy Ray and I haven’t stopped playing while all this is going on.

So there we are, we five, three of us trying hard to play music at the front of the stage, the other two behind us, slapping each other and torturing a bass fiddle. Remind you of anything? Can we say “Keystone Kops?” “Marx Brothers?” You do the math. By the time Eric gives up and stomps off the stage the audience has gone into full lol mode. They never heard the rest of the song.

I’ll never find out if Clarence knew what he was doing, showmanship-wise, or just took a wild, desperate shot. I do know that when the set is over the audience won’t let us off the stage until we do two encores and counting.

(We do not see Eric again that night. He’s apparently left the club without the bass, which he picks up the next day, as it turns out. I can’t help but notice he isn’t playing bass with his brothers these days, but that could also be because Roger Bush, a real good singer, is playing it with them right now.)

After the set, in the green room (which is the dressing room before acts, green after), I fall all over myself apologizing to Roland and Clarence. But they are still laughing and tell me not to worry, it really worked out fine, the audience loved the act, isn’t that what it’s all about, and so forth.

So I ask them if maybe they want to work me into the act, work with them on a regular basis. That’s when Roland actually slugs me. It didn’t really hurt, but Jeez, you play three wrong notes… y’know?