This is the first part of a series of articles based on the interview that I had with Mr. Stefan Grossman on August 16, 2017. I tried to ask as much questions that I received from our community, as possible. The rest of the interview articles will be published very soon.
In my opinion Mr. Stefan Grossman needs no further introduction but if you want to know more about his background check this link.
Hi Stefan, you are in the UK right now, I know you stayed quite some periods here in Europe as well as in the USA. Can you tell us more about going back and forth?
Well, I left America in 1967 when there was the war in Vietnam. I got out of the draft and I was able to leave ‘legally’. In America it was “love it or leave it” during these times – and I left and I didn’t come back in about twenty years. During these times I still visited the US sometimes but basically we were living in either England or Italy (Rome). Then in 1987 we went back and since then we went backwards and forwards all the time: spending about half a year in Europe (UK) and half a year in the USA.
Do you remember what was the biggest difference between European and American blues pickers back in those days (if there were any)?
YES, because when I came over in ’67 I had been with Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis for several years and having many many friends who were involved in that music in America. When I came over to the UK I noticed that there were some great singers like Jo Ann Kelly, who was a great singer of blues. But basically the English had their own way of playing the blues which seemed to be more from the angle of classical music guitar techniques. You had players like John Renbourn. They started to develop their own style of playing blues and back in the days I thought it was ‘not so cool’ (laughs).
I didn’t think it really had the drive, the dirtiness, the funkiness of the guitar players that I had studied with. It was too clean and had too many notes and one of the big differences that I noticed was when you’re in America and you were teaching someone how to play the blues guitar, you usually wouldn’t have to talk about the right hand. But here in Europe you would have to because most people came into the guitar via classical guitar so they were playing with their right hand just like a classical guitar player would play. Which is of course is very useful for playing classical guitar music, but in general it’s not adaptable for playing American dance music where you have a very heavy beat on the 2 and the 4.
The bass is not a balanced sound and that bass is really what drives everything in (country) blues music. Above that you have either if you think about it, the great players of the country blues guitar both black and white in the 20’s and 30’s, they only used their thumb and index finger. While a classical guitar player would come in with thumb, index, middle and ring finger and that makes a big big difference. Also in America you wouldn’t really have to talk about resting your hand on the face of the guitar, everyone did that naturally while here in Europe in general that was an issue.
Alright, do you think that there were any influences of classical guitar on the early blues styles?
Well that opens up what we call a ‘Pandora’s Box’. Because in the early 1800’s you had something what we call ‘Parlor Guitar Music’ which was sort of a pseudo-classical way of playing the guitar. One of the first pieces that was written was a tune called ‘the Spanish Fandango’ and what’s strange about this, is that this music was being played mostly by women with their (small) parlor guitars in their parlors.
Spanish Fandango was written in open G tuning but the music was written out as if you were going to play it in regular tuning. So you would tune your guitar to open G, but you would read to music as if you were in regular tuning. So that piece amazingly from 1833 got to be very very popular during the 1850’s and 1860’s when America was going west.
Back in these days you had the equivalents of Amazon like Sears and Roebuck and different companies selling through mail order. They were selling cheap guitars and usually there was a little music book inside, or a little pamphlet in the case of these guitars. In a lot of these pamphlets the tune Spanish Fandango was being taught or was written out. So somehow that tune, which was originally in 3 / 4 or waltz time, gets played by Furry Lewis, Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb and a host of early white guitar players. Some of them played it in 3 / 4 and some of them played it in 4 / 4.
Also in 1854 there was another tune written called Sebastopol, to celebrate the battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean war and that was also a part of the parlor guitar repertoire. Sebastopol was written in open D tuning and it got sorta bastardized over the years instead of being called ‘Sebastopol’ people called it ‘Vestapol’.
So you have this direct connection: you have open G tuning and we spoke blues players about it and they called it Spanish tuning. If they spoke about open D tuning, they called it Vestapol.
It’s a very interesting influence and crossover between what was happening in the 1830’s to the 1860’s and to what we know as country blues guitar styles.
The problem is that as far as I know there are no real recordings of this type of parlor guitar music. That would’ve helped a lot with this research on parlor music and its influence on country blues.
So yes, there was an influence from this parlor guitar movement which originally was all white into the guitar playing in the black and white (let’s call them) folk musicians.
Maybe it’s something for a future video lesson on parlor guitar music…
Unfortunately that parlor guitar music is pretty boring. Spanish Fandango is cool. But when you play Sebastopol or Vestapol straight from the music it really is boring since it really tries to imitate the battle of Sebastopol.
Jim Revkin asks: What do you think it was that attracted so many young New Yorkers, in the 60s to master the country blues, which had its roots in a completely different world?
In NYC there is Washington Square Park and when I was growing up on Sundays you were allowed to play there from noon till sundown. Even if you weren’t interested in learning guitar, if you would go down there you would hear guitar players. But if you were interested in playing the guitar, what would be more interesting than hearing someone fingerpick? I heard many different fingerpickers and then one moment I went up to a guy and said “well that’s a fantastic tune, where does that come from?” he said “Reverend Gary Davis”. The next thing I knew I was going up to Reverend Gary Davis to learn guitar. So the music (acoustic blues) had a real natural attraction to me.
If you were a beginning guitar player you could go to learning bluegrass with a lot of notes. Tony Rice and David Grier have taken that style to really interesting places. If you would start listening to the records that were more available, they were mostly white. Who were they: Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. My own personal opinion about them: Merle Travis was really funky, it really drives, it’s great. Chet Atkins: very interesting and a lot of fingerpicking going on. But always with that ‘boom-chick-boom-chick’-thing and as you started to get involved in that, you realised that they learned from black musicians. At least Merle Travis did. Merle Travis in Kentucky with a group of other guys met this black musician who passed through and taught them how to pick.
And so if you are interested in guitar playing the attraction of guitar is very magnetic. Once you start to play it yourself it feels good. And you realise how amazing it is to make music and when you start to fingerpick…. Wow! The whole guitar is orchestrated, you don’t need to play with anybody else, it’s always in your own hands. It’s very exciting!
So when you start to discover and go into the past and start to find out where the music is coming from- the great players and where they came from and what they were playing – well for me I just wanted to know everything and wanted to play all that stuff.
So some of us focussed on how to play these different styles. Other friends started record companies, some friends went down and rediscovered Son House, John Hurt and all these guys. All of a sudden when these rediscovered legendary musicians popped up, it was even more incredible. In NYC we had Brownie McGhee and Reverend Gary Davis and they were teaching and were regularly available. Reverend Gary Davis would on stage even say “Here’s my telephone number if you want to learn the guitar. It’s 5 dollars a lesson. Bring your money honey”.
But when you had John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and all these name who were all on record from the 20’s and 30’s and you could actually sit with them, hang out and learn from them… it was just explosive.
Looking back these times were absolutely incredible. A very vibrant period with a lot of music.
Steve Whitely asks: What did the likes of Rev Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt think about young white men wanting to learn their music?
The group of people who were interested in this acoustic blues style were mostly white middle-class kids. But the legendary figures who came up like Son House, John Hurt and Skip James… these were very poor people. Especially Reverend Gary Davis was very very poor. But yet they were incredibly generous with being able to show how to play tunes. Whoever was interested in their music: they shared it. We never really thought about it how strange it must have been for them to get all this adoration from a bunch of crazy white kids. We were just so ‘ga-ga’ about all this. We just wanted to treat them as royalties. In retrospect we were quite stupid: no one asked how they actually felt. It must have been the weirdest and strangest sensation for them. Especially if you have a look at where they came from.
I was very close to Mississippi John Hurt and he was playing at the Gaslight Cafe in NYC. Suddenly a redneck from down south (we call them rednecks *laughs) was talking with John Hurt but really not in a very nice fashion. We were ready to lift up our arms and bump this guy in the head… then he left and we apologized to John, we said “Oh John, we’re so sorry that there are these idiots in this world” and he just looked at us and said “When in Rome, do Rome”. He just knew how to absorb that crap. It was very sad but you know they learned how to live on the Jim Crow.
But imagine the opposite. All of a sudden these guys had thousands of (mostly white) people adoring them.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in