Orange juice and whisky don't mix
An exploration of the history of flatpicking guitar and its British Isles and American routes. . First published as an abridged version in Issue 79 of The Living Tradition Magazine, May/ June 2008.
A number of years ago I saw the veteran Scottish fiddle player Angus Grant mistakenly introduce the fiddle tune 'Orange Blossom Special' as being about the freight trains that carried oranges from Kentucky into Chicago, instead of into New York. "Excuse me", yelled out an American voice from the back of the hall: "The only thing that ever comes into Chicago by railroad is cattle. Definitely no oranges." Angus studied the visitor closely for a split second and quick as a flash replied: "Well, I've seen many Americans put orange juice into their malt whisky and if they can do that, then they can bring oranges into Chicago"!
Now orange juice and whisky definitely don't go together but the links between the musical cultures of the two countries blend more closely than might first appear. Events such as the Transatlantic Sessions tv programmes and the Celtic Connections Festival have highlighted to a wider audience the Scottish roots of much American bluegrass and mountain music.
In the States large flatpicking guitar festivals and competitions are commonplace and have a core repertoire of Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes. Many of the acknowledged pre-eminent acoustic guitarists in the world, such as Tony Rice, have based and developed their style by playing essentially a repertoire of American and Celtic fiddle tunes. Many of these styles have then expanded into bluegrass, jazz, folk and beyond.
The roots of much American music go deep into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains and comprise traditional mountain fiddle tunes, many of which were based on Scottish music brought over in the late 1700's. The very first Scots arrived in Appalachia in the 1550s and the roots go much deeper into the mists of time - the ancient mountains of the two areas were once joined together.
The role of the guitar in bluegrass, as well as in Scottish and Irish music, was very much one of accompanist to fiddles and other instruments until the 1960's when artists such as Clarence White developed a style of playing fiddle tune melodies on the acoustic guitar with a plectrum and punctuated with stunning improvisations. The term flatpicking was coined.
Early Settlers bring the fiddle
The early Scottish and Irish settlers brought with them their instrumental tradition and in particular the jigs, reels and dances. The fiddle entered the Appalachian mountains with the first settlers and was the principle instrument used for many years. Soon many different ethnic styles were adding to this tradition such as Cajun fiddle from Louisiana and Mexican guitar. The strongest influence however was the exchange between black and white musicians which contributed rhythms as well as tunes and songs. The 1920 & 30s saw a mix of delta & country blues blending with a softer more country sound and often using fiddle and this gave rise to the term old time country music. During the 19th century many black musicians played fiddle as well and their repertoire was the common Appalachian Celtic heritage.
One of the first fiddle tunes ever recorded was in the early 1920's - the Arkansas Traveller - and is a very popular tune to this day with fiddlers and guitarists. The guitar by this time was beginning to come more to the fore in the music by this time and blues records were featuring intricate single flatpicked and thumbpicked runs particularly in the ragtime and country blues of Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and Big Bill Broonzy who could also play the fiddle. In jazz in the 1930's, French Gypsy guitar genius Django Reinhardt took the guitar to unpreviously uncharted territory and remains a constant source point for all musicians.
The birth of flatpicking
The real birth of flatpicking however, and a sound that would ring resonance with the likes of a Tony McManus, Arty McGlynn or Dick Gaughan fast flatpicked reel today, was the birth of bluegrass in the 1940's. Mandolinist Bill Monroe effectively invented the term after Kentucky's emblem - the Bluegrass State. Bluegrass took the old mountain music and injected them with two defining features; virtuosity in terms of playing and instrumental improvisation. This was a mixture of the Appalachian celtic tunes but also the black tradition. It was a marriage of the black blues and jazz with traditional songs and tunes.
Bluegrass and roots music took a back seat to tin pan alley country & western in the 1950's and it took a trio of American virtuosos together with a resurgence of interest in folk music in the 1960's to bring the acoustic guitar to the front of the stage and really define the term flatpicking.
Doc Watson, the Blind American guitarist was discoverd in the early 60s and showed exactly how the acoustic guitar could be played in the right hands with superb medleys of flatpicked fiddle tunes. Still playing today his compositions and interpretations of the mountain tradition have ensured his living legend status in traditional music. He was a recent inductee in to the RSMDA Hall of Fame.
Bluegrass took the old mountain songs and tunes and injected them with two defining features; virtuosity in terms of playing and instrumental improvisation. This was a mixture of the Appalachian celtic tunes and aslo the black tradition. Monroe had absorbed both and was now attempting to marry the black blues and jazz with traditional songs and tunes.
The Guitar Tradition
Dan Crary, the trailblazing guitarist once said that 'the very name flatpicker did not inspire the world at large to go out and purchase your record, make you a bank loan or even buy you a cup of coffee! Further, if a dignified name for what you do is any asset, "flatpickers" got no help here either. The term had none of the snap and verve of jazz; or the dignity of baroque or the intrigue of reggae!'
The early exponents of the technique however were quickly lauded within folk music circles. Blind American guitarist Doc Watson was discovered in 1961 and his arrangement of Black Mountain Rag in 1963 was the first fiddle tune to appear in the flatpicking repertoire. His second album featured a superb medley of flatpicked fiddle tunes and showed exactly how the acoustic guitar could be in the right hands. By this time he was selling out folk festivals on both sides of the Atlantic and becoming a major influence on blues rock guitar heroes of the day. Still playing today, Doc Watson's Celtic flatpicking, gentle fingerpicking and interpretations of hundreds of traditional American folk and blues songs have ensured his living legend status in traditional music.
A young Clarence White heard Doc Watson play and in 1964 a seminal bluegrass instrumental album was recorded; Appalachian Swing by the Kentucky Colonels which featured 12 flatpicked fiddle tunes. White's flatpicking made it the definitive guitar record of its time and White joined the Byrds from 1968 -73.
White's early death passed the mantle to Tony Rice whose debut album Guitar in the mid 1970's is a definitive bluegrass guitar showcase. A comsumate musician, Rice considered the foremost acoustic guitarist in the world and also one of the finest bluegrass singers. His playing quickly began to feature jazz scales, unusual syncopation and exceptional speed and accuracy -as well as playing up the neck where most flatpickers didn't normally venture! Rice can take any Scottish or American reel and turn it inside out and in the same moment change tempo to play a slow Appalachian waltz with traditional feeling and accuracy. His key advice to aspiring Tony Rice style guitarists, as understated as ever ; "Concentrate on pinpoint accuracy in your rhythm playing "
Norman Blake is an example of a player with his music rooted in an older simpler style. Considered one of the flatpicking pioneers, his only venture to Britain found him in Bob Dylan's band at the first Isle of White Music Festival in 1969. Blake sates that he got most of his fiddle tunes from old fiddle books and he has recorded many Scottish/ Irish tunes such as Da Slockit Light, Far From Home, Balmoral House, The Red Haired Boy and the Rights of Man hornpipe. Still playing and singing prodigiously today his recorded work constitutes one of the most varied collections of traditional American music extant.
Another picker who particularly majors in fiddle tunes is David Grier. He is considered the best flatpicker of his generation. When still in his early twenties in 1980 he was 2nd in the National Flatpicking championships with a mix of traditional Celtic fiddle tunes. Since then he has been described as ' the worlds best player of fiddle tunes or fiddle music on guitar.' A master improviser as well, at a recent Shetland Folk Festival the story has it that he played note for note every tune thrown at him - day or night.
The British and Irish Tradition
In the British Isles the guitar had a similar background to the States and was seen primarily as a backing for the melody instruments or folksongs. Even the Chieftans, arguably the first serious traditional instrumental group to come out of Ireland (or Scotland for that matter) did not include guitar in its lineup. This puritanical attitude has not prevented them however recording with the likes of the Rolling Stones and U2.
The lack of a guitar tradition in Ireland and Scotland meant that the role of American guitar had a major influence. It wasn't until Davey Graham produced his first record , Folk, Blues and Beyond, in 1964 that the guitar was taken seriously as an instrument to play traditional tunes on. The album would go on to influence a generation of British and Irish folk, blues and rock guitarists. Graham invented the DADGAD guitar tuning which is now used extensively.
Around the same time Bert Jansch and John Renbourne started writing guitar instrumentals and formed the highly influential Pentangle. The other major inovator was Martin Carthy who developed a finger picked style with a solid thumb attack. It was Carthy who taught Bob Dylan many of the British Isles folk songs, that he had previously only heard as Appalachian versions, and which went on to form the melodic canvas to his groundbreaking second album.
Dick Gaughan, from Scotland is amongst the finest interpreters of Irish and Scottish tunes with a flatpick as well as being a powerful singer. On the all instrumental Coppers and Brass in 1977 ( a first for Scottish & Irish guitar) he trailblazed this form of flatpicking. He commented at the time that he thought that some of J Scott Skinner's fiddle tunes were so hard to play 'that he must have composed them on a slide rule!' Gaughan went on to form the electric "Five Hand Reel", Scotland's response to Fairport Convention and the playing here was fast flatpicked guitar in unison with the fiddle. Gaughan has continued solo as one of the major guitarists and singers on the traditional scene.
In Ireland, Paul Brady shone as a guitarist who flatpicked fiddle tunes, first as a member of the seminal Planxty and then solo or in partnership with other musicians. He is a fine songwriter too and his songs have been recorded by some of America's most popular artists.
Another Irish player is Arty McGlynn and his first solo record in 1980 was the first major guitar album of traditional tunes to come out on this side of the Atlantic apart from with Gaughan's Coppers and Brass in what is generally a dearth of flatpicked or even guitar instrumental albums. This album was a revelation and showcased jigs and reels in a variety of dynamic styles. Flatpicked fiddle reels such as the Star of Munster, Jenny's Welcome to Charlie and the Flags of Dublin reached new heights for guitarists playing fiddle tunes. His follow up album with his wife, Irish fiddler Nollaig Casey, was equally stuning before he went on to become a mainstay of Patrick Street.
The wide influences
Taking and tackling the mantle of both McGlyn and Gaughan has been Scottish guitarist Tony McManus who has recorded several recent albums - both flatpicked and fingerstyle. His style, tone and accuracy are stunning and like the aforementioned is a master of playing triplets and is gaining a well deserved international reputation. He cites Tony Rice as a major influence. There are many other fabulous players: Dave MacIsaac in Cape Breton and many players in Shetland a particular hothouse of flatpicking guitar from the islands which also gave us Peerie Willie Johnson, the inventor of the Shetland jazz style backing guitar for folk music. Anna Massie from Scotland and Donal Clancy from Irelnd have also produced great recent cds.
Guitar techniques have moved a long way over the years, but the basic spirit and feel of the early flatpickers are still evident and the overall style hasn't changed much since the days of Clarence White or even the flatpicking blues runs of Blind Blake. What has changed is the popularity of roots music and even more so the mixing of musical styles from different countries and musical genres.
Without doubt, Scottish and Irish fiddle music has shaped bluegrass music and the influence it has had on celtic flatpicking guitar. But in general flatpicking is not as developed on this side of the Atlantic as in the USA. For guitarist in the States, fiddle tunes have become more than a mere technical exercise. For many, they have become an obsession that is guaranteed to keep their technique honed and sharpened. The tunes have also opened up a wealth of traditional celtic music to guitarists, whose primary sources have traditionally been blues and rock music.
In the States the acoustic guitar has taken forward older tunes through bluegrass workouts and what began as a technique to play fiddle tunes in old time and bluegrass music on the guitar has now blossomed into a style of wide and varied musical proportions. The tunes are tricky to play and the guitar does not render easily to such fiddle tunes. Why then persevere? At the end of the day the acoustic flat top steel strung guitar sounds beautiful in a unique way - and played in combination with the fiddle makes a powerful and resonant partnership.
Orange juice and whisky certainly don't go together but as many guitarists and fiddlers such as Angus Grant will testify, there is indeed a very potent mix of musical styles between the cultures of the British Isles and the USA. I'll drink to that!
Copyright John Carnie 2008-2022.