Visit the Hillbilly at Harvard Blog for blog archives and more information about the program.
Talkin’ about Trains
The High 48s Bluegrass Band
Back on the May 26th show I rediscovered the 2014 album of train songs, called Great Northern Railroad, from a band called The High 48s, a slim cardboard volume hiding amidst the plastic jewel boxes on the cart I bring in to the studio (if you go to the posts on Jon Chase slide show, or the Cosmo Cavicchio video, you’ll see the cart). I played their song about the ‘Baltimore and Ohio’ (Railroad), a lovely number written by Becky Schlegel. I have fond recollections of going with my parents and brothers to the B&O Station in Silver Spring, Maryland in the early evening, to watch the Capitol Limited (to Chicago) and the National Limited (to Cincinnati) come through about half an hour apart. I’m not sure which came first, but it left explosive caps, called ‘torpedos’ on the track, which banged when the following train hit them, a warning I guess. Afterwards we would go across the street to the Giffords Ice Cream store for desert.
I wondered idly where the name ‘High 48s’ came from. Was it a reference to latitude (turns out the band is from Minneapolis, close at 45º)? The query disappeared from my mind in the press of the next record, and the one after that, but when I got home, there was the answer: listener Ed McMann in Sausolito, California, had looked up the band’s website, and there it was:
The band takes its name from railroad slang for the boxcars originally used to transport troops on the front lines in WWI that could carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses, and were later used in the US on fast-moving “hot shot” freight trains by train-hoppers looking for work during the Great Depression.
Wikipedia has more detail:
Forty-and-eights (French: Quarante et huit, typically written 40/8 or 40&8) were French 4-wheel covered goods wagons designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. Introduced in the 1870s, they were drafted into military service by the French Army in both World Wars. They were also used by the occupying Germans during in World War II, followed by the Allies.
There’s more, the Merci Train!
In 1949, France sent 49 Forty-and-eights to the United States laden with donations from citizens of France in thanks for the U.S.’ role in the liberation of France, one for each of the then forty-eight states and one for Washington, D.C., and Hawaii to share. Called the Merci Train, it was sent in response to the Friendship Train America had created two years earlier to aid France in the dire immediate aftermath of World War II. Over 700 boxcars worth [sic—with?] the donated supplies were collected across the U.S. and shipped across the Atlantic via donated transport.
As it turns out, some 43 of the 49 Merci Train boxcars are still in existence, maintained as historical exhibits in their respective states (no, not here; the Massachusetts one was apparently destroyed). And the mystique of the Quarante et huit led after the First World War to the creation of a veteran’s honor society, called The Forty and Eight (or 40 & 8). Says Wikipedia, the boxcars
were seen by the troops as a miserable way to travel, and the new organization was thus called the 40 & 8 in an attempt to make some light of the common misery they had all shared.
The 40 & 8 still exists, mainly as a charitable organization, and is organized into local units called Voitures (boxcars).
As for ‘High 48’, the band’s website is the only source I’ve seen for that term: “railroad slang for the box cars on Hot Shot freight trains.” ‘Highball’ is the term for a clear track ahead, and latterly a fast train, and we now know the ‘48s’ are boxcars, so maybe it’s strictly railroad lingo; it doesn’t seem to turn up in lists of hobo slang that I’ve found.
I really like The High 48s’s Great Northern Railroad album. But they have others, not just about trains. I contacted them and fiddler Eric Christopher tells me they have a new album out, Daddy was a Bankrobber. I’m looking forward to hearing it.
‘Riding the Blind’
Last week I did a ‘Tear and Compare’ between Charlie Poole’s original ‘Milwaukee Blues’, and the same song on David Davis’s terrific new Rounder album, Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole. The first verse goes like this,
One Tuesday morning and it looked like rain
Around the curve come a passenger train
On the blind sat old Bill Jones
A good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Trying to get home, he’s trying to get home
He’s a good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Whereupon long-time listener Jim Walsh called up to ask, “What’s the ‘blind’?” I had to admit, I didn’t know. I knew what the ‘rods’ were, as in
Old Bill Jones said before he died,
“Fix the roads so the ‘bos can ride
When they ride they will ride the rods
Put all their trust in the hands of God
In the hands of God, in the hands of God
They’ll put all their trust in the hands of God”
They were steel rods under the freight cars, to add structural support for heavy loads. Here’s a picture:
A little research tells me the ‘blind’ was hobo slang for the doorway to the baggage car right behind the locomotive tender. The door would be locked, but either the frame or the portion of the canvas vestibule (if there was one) would afford protection for the train-hopping hobo. The ‘blinds’ could also refer to the vestibules of passenger trains, though there of course you’d risk discovery by the conductor. See here and here, among other places.
[Edit: See Steve Bartlett’s comment on the ‘blind’ end of a car, below, for a more accurate explanation than mine./ CL]
In this photo you can see the vestibule, which would have been the ‘blind’, on an HO model baggage car:
Here’s Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers:
Scroll down to the Joe Val preview post for David Davis playing ‘The Milwaukee Blues’ at a festival.
What’s fun about doing HAH is that it’s never old hat: I learn something every day! /CL
‘Maple Sugar’, Sweetheart!
Last Saturday (5May) on a whim I played an instrumental version of the fiddle tune ‘Maple Sugar’ (sans fiddle) from White Mountain Bluegrass, and mentioned that the first version I recalled was from Doc Williams, “with words.” As it turns out, in one breath I managed not only to get the facts wrong, but garbled my own memory. Fortunately I was set right by a friendly note from veteran Boston broadcaster and folk-music specialist Dave Palmater. Writes Dave,
Doc & Chickie were friends of my late father. He had driven their bus on tours of New York and New England in the thirties. Just the thought of them makes reminds me of Chickie’s version of “Little Joe the Wrangler.” Even the thought of it brings a tear to my eye.
You mentioned Doc in conjunction with “Maple Sugar.” To set the record straight, it was a fiddle tune written by the great Canadian Fiddler and Composer Ward Allen. The song, Maple Sugar Sweetheart, to the tune was written, and first recorded by, Hank LaRiviere who also performed as Hank Rivers. If you’re interested I can provide a copy.
I am interested! I remember now that I did hear ‘Maple Sugar’ first as a fiddle tune, in 1963 in the Cree Indian village of Rupert House, on James Bay. Although they learned country music tunes by listening to clear-channel WWVA in Wheeling, bouncing off the ionosphere, and might have heard Doc Williams sing ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’, Ward Allen’s fiddle tune was first released as the B side of a single in 1956,* and became a radio hit; in a few short years it was practically a national anthem in Canada.
What is it about this melody that conjures up an emotional effect in listeners? It is ostensibly an up-tempo, cheerful number, but I can’t hear it without the pang of sadness, of remembering lives come and gone, like wind in old leaves. It can’t be just me, given the popular appeal. But see for yourself; here’s Ward Allen:
Tom Towle, a fiddler who posted Ward Allen’s recording on YouTube, writes:
. . . a young Ottawa valley couple got married this summer and asked me to play this song for about a hour. Just after they exchanged vows they wanted me to play as they walked down the aisle. A happy newly married couple. The groom said he could listen to that song all day and night.
As Dave Palmater notes, Hank LaRiviere, who was a good friend of Ward Allen and toured with him, wrote lyrics within a year or so after the tune became popular (so he says in a live YouTube performance from much later, unfortunately truncated); Hank called the vocal ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’.
Doc Williams’s version is on YouTube:
* An excellent biographical note on Ward Allen is on a website called ‘Lonesome Lefty’s Scratchy Attic’, accompanied by downloads of three long out-of-print albums of his fiddle tunes on the Sparton label. I don’t know what the legal status of those downloads is, but finding the physical records elsewhere would be a challenge, to be sure. /CL
The 2018 Joe Val Festival
For bluegrass-country fans here in New England, Presidents’ Day weekend means Joe Val Weekend. The substitution is fine with me, as the elevation of the third weekend in February to just another Monday day off meant the nation quickly forgot about celebrating the birthdays of the Father of Our Country, George Washington (February 22nd), and the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln (February 12th). What we should do is make it Bluegrass Weekend all over the country, and start honoring our two greatest Presidents again on their actual birthdays. Hey, we could start next year by ‘broadcasting’ the Joe Val Festival over the Internet on Concert Window!
Fortunately for me and Dr Janie, the Joe Val Festival is practically next door at the Sheraton (‘The Castle’, as it’s known in our family) in Framingham, which also means I don’t have to take a Saturday off from the radio show to attend. I got to hear a fair number of the Main Stage bands, and take a lot of pictures. So here are a few of them, and minimal comments as well (I didn’t take notes, so no long reviews):
Friday I caught just a bit of the Berklee Bluegrass Amalgamation, all clearly accomplished successors to the first crops of Berklee bluegrass graduates now making waves in the Boston bluegrass scene, sounding like they knew how to play together, not just a mere ‘amalgamation’. Though I do wish the the instructors at Berklee would just put a single mic in front of a group, and let them figure out how to ‘work’ it. That’s how bluegrass got its original sound, making the individuals fit their vocals and instruments into that cohesive puzzle that makes a band.
I know the current fad is to line everybody up on stage, facing the audience, barely looking at each other. To my old-fashioned eyes and ears, it’s regrettable. One of the great joys of watching a band work a single mic is the the choreography and interplay that meld the virtuoso parts into a whole.
But enough pontificating. The Berklee picking was refreshing, and I was impressed with the singing of fiddler Josie Toney. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters are long New England fixtures, based in Connecticut. Amy’s ‘life partner’ (as they bill each other) is Roger Williams, the terrific Dobro® player who has shared the stage with Amy for many years, and before that with White Mountain Bluegrass and many other bands. Roger appeared on Hillbilly at Harvard back in the ‘70s, I think he said, with some of the younger Lillys. He really is the pre-eminent ‘resophonic guitar’ player in the region, a huge influence on generations of players, and was so honored at the Festival by the Boston Bluegrass Union, receiving their 2018 Heritage Award. Congratulations!
Amy Gallatin has a foot in the folk-music community, but I think it’s safe to say that Roger has moved her more in the country direction. Amy, Roger, and Stillwaters are equally at home with traditional country and bluegrass, still with some folk influences, and with Roger’s son J.D. Williams on mandolin and Eric Levinson on bass, put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. Always great to hear ‘Flame in My Heart’, a George Jones duet standard, at a bluegrass festival! [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For high-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
It really isn’t fair to do 55-year comparison photos. As my mother used to say, “You’re no spring chicken, either.” But Eddie Adcock has a new album out, Vintage Banjo Jam, released just last year, on Patuxent Music—new, but recorded in 1963! It was a group of banjo instrumentals, either Eddie originals or unique arrangements of others, recorded in Pete Kuykendall’s studio back when Eddie was playing with the Country Gentlemen. Eddie was already chafing at the bluegrass bit. By 1963, says his wife and subsequent musical partner Martha Adcock in the liner note,
[Eddie’s] uncontainable ethos tempted him to a wider market than bluegrass, and this project was cut in order to dangle it before Nashville producer/musician Chet Atkins’ nose. But when even that master marketer of pop and country was left scratching his head at the problems of the how-to, Eddie left that behind to entertain other dreams.
Interestingly, Eddie’s innovative 1963 style sounds almost traditional, compared with the later adventures of Bill Keith or Bela Fleck; it’s not ‘progressive’, nor ‘chromatic’, nor ‘newgrass’; it’s maybe closer to Don Reno (who before Red Smiley cut his musical teeth with Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith instead of Lester Flatt); it’s certainly ‘jazzy’, in a way that those of us who dig western swing will appreciate. The master tapes, rescued and carefully laid on shiny digital aluminum, sound fresh and original. I wanted to talk to Eddie about it, but I didn’t catch him between acts, and then he disappeared. As you can see from the photos, Eddie is on oxygen (for emphysema) and far from his younger self (the album cover was taken at a festival in 1966). But he could still banter, and sing, and play the banjo, and there were echos of his old almost rascally self, as I remember when I saw him with the Gents back in Berryville, VA in the early ‘60s.
With Eddie were Martha and the seemingly ageless Tom Gray, who treated us to some trademark melodic bass breaks, as well as Bluegrass 45 veteran mandolinist Akira Otsuka sitting in. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
David Davis said it had been ten years since he was at the Joe Val Festival. I thought it was more like five, but I remembered him fondly, and time just flies. The Warrior River Boys is a grown-up band playing traditional bluegrass-style country music, and they do it really well. David is a soft-spoken gentleman, a fine singer, and a solid, Monroe-style mandolin player. His bass player and duet partner Marty Hays has been with him for more than two decades. David is about to release an album featuring the music of Charlie Poole this spring on Rounder, and played several tunes from it in his Friday evening set. Not sure if all the audience knew who Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were, but HAH listeners do. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Saturday afternoon I got over to the Festival in time for Phil Leadbetter and the All-Stars of Bluegrass. I got to hear them rehearsing in the Green Room, and then on-stage. The All-Stars for this concert were the sweet-voiced Claire Lynch, Steve Gulley (playing bass guitar), Alan Bibey (mandolin), Jason Burleson on banjo, and Phil Leadbetter of course on Dobro. With Claire doing the majority of leads, it looked like an All-Star recreation of the Claire Lynch Band, though to my ear it lacked some of the focus of her own groups: the All Stars were pleasant, but not enthralling. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
I have been a Town Mountain fan ever since I saw them at a hotel-room showcase at the 2014 IBMA World of Bluegrass, so I was glad to see Robert Greer and company back for a second Joe Val Festival appearance. Town Mountain is a hot honky-tonk bluegrass band with plenty of edgy original songs and sharp pickin’. Boston-area resident Bobby Britt fiddles in the traditional style (he gave me a copy of his fine new album, called, mysteriously, alaya); another Berklee alumnus Jesse Langlais plays innovative, clever, punchy banjo; Zach Smith plays bass; and hard-drivin’ Monroe-style mandolinist Phil Barker also sings a mean, bluesy tenor. My only complaint is that Robert Greer’s fast-moving lyrics are hard to follow; left me thinking his mic wasn’t right for his voice. Many bands bring their own, possibly for that reason. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
One honky-tonk bluegrass band deserves another. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are circuit veterans (all worked with James King) who have forged a hot new act, working a single vocal mic in the old-fashioned way which, as I said earlier, highlights the band instead of the individuals, and also gets the crowd roaring. C. J. Lewandowski is a talented, lively mandolin player (with an album of his mentor Jim Orchard’s and his own tunes, called Ozark Mandolin) and a fine singer; he’s part of a rotating vocal trio with guitarist Josh ‘Jug’ Rinkel and banjoist Jerome Brown, along with manic head-bobbin’ bass player Jasper Lorentzen. They play originals in the three-chord country tradition (their Back to the Mountains CD features both bluegrass and country versions of Dallas Frazier’s “The Honky Tonk Downstairs”), and they have great fun doing it. Check out this set of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys (from another festival):
On the Joe Val stage, the foursome were joined by our excellent local fiddler and rising star Laura Orshaw:
Despite the parade of national touring acts through the Main Stage at the Joe Val Festival, there are many attendees who prefer to spend their stay in the lobbies, alcoves, and hallways jamming with fellow pickers. You can wander around hearing all combinations of instruments, and all levels of performance, with all ages represented. No sooner do you leave one group than you catch the refrains of a familiar tune from another. I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I’d have liked taking it all in (as well as the regional-band Showcase Stage downstairs), because I wanted to hear the big names. But I did catch a little in the hallways, e.g.: [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
So I missed most of the Italian band Red Wine, but I did get a few quick shots:
I got back in time for old friend Greg Cahill and his always on-the-money (The) Special Consensus. Greg and company (Rick Faris, guitar; Nick Dumas, mandolin; Dan Eubanks, bass) can always be counted on to entertain, and even surprise. But it was the singing that got me this time; the current Special C band reminds me not a little of Doyle Lawson’s seamless Quicksilver recordings—they are that good. Greg keeps promising to come back to HAH, as he used to in the days when Chris Jones was in the band, and they played frequently at the Kinvara Pub in Allston. When was that—30 years ago? [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
It was getting late Saturday night, but I had to stay for IIIrd Tyme Out. I hadn’t seen Russell Moore for some time, when he and then banjo player Steve Dilling came down to HAH to plug an evening BBU show. Steve is no longer with IIIrd Tyme Out, but ace mandolinist Wayne Benson is (an essential part of their signature ‘John and Mary’, now an inevitable encore), joined by Justen Haynes, fiddle; Keith McKinnon, banjo; and Jerry Cole, bass. Russell, of course, one of bluegrass-country’s finest male singers for many years, was in good voice, and their show was worth the wait. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Sunday morning dawned bright and snowy, after an overnight Nor’easter that coated every limb and branch with frosting. We got to the festival, with grandkids in tow, in time for The Gibson Brothers. We had seen them just the year before, at a BBU show in Lexington, so I didn’t expect much new. But Eric and Leigh always manage to surpass expectations. Sitting on the floor by the first row of seats (to take pictures) helped to draw me and the kids into the gentle on-stage rivalry that leavens the stunning musicianship of these two brothers from northern New York (where Dr Janie is from). Besides Eric on banjo and Leigh on guitar, we were treated to long-time bandmates Clayton Campbell, fiddle; Mike Barber, bass; and the more recent member, Jesse Brock, mandolin (who despite his lofty ranking among mandolinists, fits right in the Gibson Brothers Band with the clarity and musicality of his playing). [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
Bonus pic: During the Gibson Brothers set I found myself on the floor taking photos next to Tara Linhardt, who I discovered was freelancing for Bluegrass Today. She, it turns out, is a mandolin player, and back in the Green Room, who do I see her chatting with, but Jesse Brock:
The house remained full for nominal headliners Hot Rize, reunited after retiring (sans the late Charles Sawtelle, replaced by ace guitarist Bryan Sutton): always youthful-looking Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle), Nick Forster (bass), and Pete Wernick (‘Dr Banjo’), joined mid-set of course by Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers (Wendell Mercantile, Waldo Otto, and Swade). Wendell plays the only guitar with a fringe I’ve ever seen; they are actually a pretty good country band, and belie their comic intentions by occasionally playing a serious honky-tonk song (I forget now; might have been ‘The Window Up Above’). Tim gave me a copy of his lovely new album of West Virginia music, Where the River Meets the Road, written or played by WV folks, including Tim himself, originally from Wheeling, which I’ve been playing on HAH. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
We hung around after Hot Rize left the stage, grabbed something to eat, and headed downstairs for the aptly-named Joe Val Wind-up Hoe-Down, featuring no bluegrass at all! The delightful Foghorn Stringband (Caleb Klauder, Reeb Willms, Nadine Landry, Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind) held forth for a good hour and a half, playing old-time string-band and country tunes (with a little Cajun thrown in), followed by the Beantown Buckaroos, led by Art Schatz on fiddle, playing western swing and honky-tonk country. We couldn’t stay for more than a few minutes of the BBs, but granddaughter Aviva had a fine time dancing to the Foghorns. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group. For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]
All told, another sterling event from the Boston Bluegrass Union, who by now accomplish this takeover of the Sheraton every February with such aplomb that we mere attendees cannot imagine how much behind-the-scenes work go into it. Congratulations once again! /CL
WHRB Updates Web Streaming
Here’s new information about the streaming Web addresses for the WHRB Internet stream. If you just go to WHRB.org, and click on the Listen button, you won’t need to do anything else. But if you are using an application like iTunes, and you used to go to StreamGuys’ URLs, you’ll need to use the new ones that take you directly to WHRB:
We have recently upgraded our web streaming URLs. This change gives WHRB more flexibility in stream quality and capacity. For our web site listeners there are no changes required. However, if you listen using a separate application (iTunes, VLC, etc.) you will need to update to one of our new URLs.
View our Advanced Stream Player page for downloadable links to these streams.
2018 Joe Val Festival: IIIrd Tyme Out, David Davis, and more!
Just a few miles west on Route 9 from our home on the river in Saxonville, at the junction with the Mass Pike, is the hotel our kids used to call ‘The Castle’, the Sheraton in Framingham. And fortunately for me, every Presidents’ Day Weekend in February, the Castle is taken over by hordes of pickers and singers from all over the country, drawn by the music and camaraderie of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.
The rooms at the hotel are in such demand that when they go on sale in early November, they sell out in three minutes. But there are other hotels nearby, and of course it’s easy to get to from anywhere in the region. This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the Festival, sponsored by the Boston Bluegrass Union, in honor of Joe Val and his all-too-brief celebrity as the most exciting singer of bluegrass-style country music ever to come out of New England. From the BBU:
Some of the bands that will be coming for Joe Val in 2018 include Hot Rize, The Gibson Brothers, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Special Consensus, David Davis & the Warrior River Boys, Terry Baucom & The Dukes of Drive, Eddie & Martha Adcock, Town Mountain, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Too Blue, Foghorn String Band, Red Wine, Mile Twelve, and The Reunion Band!
Join the Boston Bluegrass Union and celebrate the legacy of the late Joe Val with three big days of indoor bluegrass at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel.
We have a great lineup of national and regional talent, expanded workshops, Kid’s Academy, music vendors, and round-the-clock jamming. Our 2006 event won the coveted “Event of the Year” award from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
I’m especially looking forward to seeing some favorites that I’ve missed in the last few years, like Russell Moore and IIIrd Time Out, and David Davis and the Warrior River Boys. Here’s David Davis and the WRB with “The Milwaukee Blues”:
See you there too! /CL
[Edited 1Feb18 for better wording.]