It would be impossible to overstate how large a part music plays in my relationship to my dad. Growing up, music was woven into almost every part of our family life. My parents performed together as a folk and blues duo (my mom has a killer voice) and almost all of their friends were musicians. Parties or social gatherings were almost always effectively jam sessions. Going with my parents to see live music was a constant, and I'm generally at a loss when my peers start playing the "What was your first concert?" game. Through these first-hand experiences and my dad's large record collection I got an education in traditional American music that I'm still unraveling and benefitting from. When I left home for college I started to realize how special my experience was, and feel more and more lucky all the time.
Although my dad is not ideologically some kind of luddite, his music taste is generally attuned to the period between about fifty and a hundred years ago. He's not a fetishist or nostalgist. I doubt he would contend that those times were "better" than now in any general way. That people "had it right," or whatever. It's just the music that speaks to him.
Clearly, I could write pages and pages on the subject of music, my dad, and me. If you're interested in reading more, I encourage you to check out this lengthy interview I did with him recently in which he talks about how he got started as a musician, how his early musical identity informed his worldview generally, and much more. In the world of instant information, I feel incredibly blessed to have access to so much hardcore oral history and deep cultural knowledge. I can tell you that in his annotation below, he is seriously holding back and barely scraping the surface.
My parents live in Milwaukee, and now that my dad is retired from teaching third grade he spends his time making kids music with his partner Will Branch and falling down some really deep Youtube rabbit holes.
Dave's "Retro" Playlist
I’ve been making music since the 1950’s, when I was a boy soprano in Miss Acevedo’s choir in the East Lansing, Michigan public schools. I sang some solos. I also took violin lessons for a while as a kid. I’ve been making music for pay since the 1960’s, when I played in a jug band as a teenager in Madison, Wisconsin. My guest playlist for Josh has turned out to emphasize singing. I guess I look at good playing as in the service of good singing. My choices are retro, but that’s just who I am.
Skip James – Devil Got My Woman People have tended to turn old blues recordings from the 1920’s and ‘30’s into a fetish. I saw Skip James perform, and he wasn’t at all magical. However, this recording is definitely magic. In fact, it’s one of the most haunting and powerful pieces of American folk music ever recorded.
Bessie Jones – Sometime This is Bessie Jones, who lived in the Georgia Sea Islands. She served as a model for what my playing partner, Will Branch and I try to do. If you put Bessie Jones together with a group of adults or especially kids, she would have everybody singing and dancing. The woman was a bottomless pool of traditional material. She created an instant party with her voice and tambourine.
Fairport Convention – Who Knows Where The Time Goes? Sandy Denny was one of the most amazing singers to come out of the1960’s English folk revival. I’m always moved by this song, which she wrote and performed with Fairport Convention.
Bob Dylan – Corrina, Corrina We copied this Bob Dylan version of the traditional song in our jug band. Then I developed a similar version to do, with my wife Penny singing. Listen to how light and fresh the young Dylan makes the song. I got his first album the year it came out, and this was on his second one.
Bill Monroe – Wheel Hoss I met Bill Monroe when I was a teenager. He was a fierce and proud man. What really stands out to me now is how much he enjoyed playing music. You can hear that on this live recording. Monroe is having a great time. That’s him on the mandolin and yelling. His trademark twin fiddlers are hanging on for dear life. Monroe composed many songs and instrumentals. Of course, he also invented a little thing called bluegrass.
Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong – St. Louis Blues This is a recording of three people. Two were titans of American music – blues singer Bessie Smith and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Fred Longshaw joined in on what sounds to my ears like a pump organ. Whatever it is, the three together were perfection in the year 1925.
George Jones – She Thinks I Still Care When he sang, George Jones could just break your heart. His life was a mess, but when he died this year many country singers lovingly acknowledged how he had helped and encouraged them. This song illustrates what a miraculous artist George Jones was.
Patsy Cline – Crazy Patsy Cline’s great recording is a tribute to Willie Nelson, who wrote the song. It’s a bit jazzy and finely crafted. They never really appreciated Willie in Nashville, and you won’t hear him on country radio, or see him at the ACM awards. Compared to the kind of songs Willie has written, the trash that passes for country these days is pathetic. (I sound like Josh, don’t I?) Oh yes, there are singers who transcend narrow classifications, and Patsy Cline was one of those.
Vusi Mahlasela – Tonkana - Live Vusi Mahlasela’s recent live recording is a revelation to me. I hadn’t heard of him until I heard a review on NPR. On this song, you can hear his fellow South Africans warmly urging him on. Vusi’s singing and guitar playing are simply stunning.
Otis Spann's South Side Piano – Spann's Stomp On this tune blues pianist Otis Spann sounds like a freight train coming down the tracks at full speed. On the other hand, S.P. Leary’s drumming is almost delicate. Many people consider Spann to have been the greatest modern blues pianist. I don’t disagree.
Professor Longhair – Big Chief It doesn’t get any more New Orleans than this. Professor Longhair on piano and vocals recorded live with a fine band. Although I am in love with New Orleans, I don’t understand how she could have let Fess practically die of neglect. Thank goodness he had a surge of success at the end of his life. I absolutely love the joy and originality of his music.
April Verch – Edward in the Treetop, Yellow Jacket, Quit That Tickling Me Young Canadian April Verch is a triple threat. She plays fiddle, step dances and sings. She is also a skilled performer, who knows how to relate to her audience. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert not too long ago. Here is my kind of old time fiddling. It’s straight forward and expressive.
Aretha Franklin – Save Me Aretha Franklin is one of our country’s glorious gifts to the world. Here she is when she was young. Those horns kill me every time. This is soul the way it was meant to be.
Junior Wells – Hoodoo Man Blues As president of the UW Folk Arts Society, I brought quite a few blues musicians to Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960’s. At that time, Bob Koester was putting out many wonderful blues recordings on his Delmark label in Chicago. Hoodoo Man Blues with Junior Wells on vocal and harmonica and Buddy Guy on guitar was one of the best. On this song, Buddy Guy played his guitar through a Leslie speaker to give it that unusual tone. If Junior Wells sounded tough, it’s because he was.
Doc Watson – Sittin on Top of The World Doc Watson was a virtuoso old time folk musician who has had a huge influence on how people play guitar. He recently died at age 89. I was fortunate to see him play several times. I love his finger picking and singing on this old song.
The Ultimate Beatles Cover Band – Strawberry Fields Forever - Originally Performed By the Beatles If you were a creative musician in the 1960’s and 70’s, The Beatles had to have a big influence on your thinking. So many of their recordings have been remixed in terrible ways, but this cover sounds good to me.
Thelonious Monk – Body And Soul If there is such a thing as cubist music, Thelonious Monk played it. He was a beautiful and original jazz pianist who helped to create bebop. I saw him perform at a club in New York City. Monk was a tremendous composer, but he could also totally transform someone else’s tune, which he does here. Always puts a smile on my face!