Renaissance Liner Notes
Renaissance of the Steel String Guitar
Copyright C & P Thunderation Music 2003.
All rights reserved. ASCAP
A World Without Guitars
It’s hard to imagine a world without guitars. And in fact, from antiquity, the world has had the guitar and its cousins and its predecessors. But by 1952, the acoustic guitar in America, and especially the steel-string guitar, was looking over into the abyss. Fortunately there were, even then, a few heroes who really played the thing and kept it from a worse obscurity. But in those days the only people really playing the steel-string guitar were Hank Snow, sometimes Merle Travis, and a few other rare guitar players whose main instrument was often something else. Of course, the country musicians played rhythm, and the blues players made great music that was bottled up in the Ghetto of the radio “race stations, ” but in general, the steel-string guitar was one of the most deeply obscure instruments in the world.
It was a time when lots of people bought their kids accordions. I used to go with my friend Freddie Gaunce to his accordion band practice, where there would be fifty kids, all shaking their bellows to “Lady of Spain,” and without realizing it, dooming the future of that instrument in America. And nobody bought a kid a guitar, or almost nobody. It was just too irrelevant, too un-chic, too depression-era, too you-can’t-play-real-music-on-that-thing. But there was a change coming, and nobody at the time could imagine it.
Twangs From Antiquity
Something else we couldn’t imagine at the time was that the guitar had been around, in one form or another, for a very long time, played over not just centuries and generations, but for millennia, in an unbroken lineage that disappears into the distant past as you study it. Just how old it might be is a matter of debate by scholars: some versions take the long view, defining the guitar in terms of a family of instruments stretching backwards to the Hittites in the mid-2nd Millennium BCE. Others limit the discussion to a narrower view, such as the emergence of the “classical” guitar beginning in the late Renaissance.
But the real line of succession of the guitar is more complicated than that, because the guitar and its predecessors were not primarily instruments of the academies or governments or the upper ten thousand of society, the people that keep records. Instead, guitars have been, primarily, instruments of ordinary people who didn’t always write things down, who just played and found their influences where they would.
It is widely disputed as to when these influences produced a “real” guitar (ancient Asia Minor, the Romans, the Copts, the Moors, Renaissance France and Spain, and the Baroque Courts of England and France are all beginnings of a sort). But so much of the would-be data on the guitar’s development occurred in taverns and on the road and in back rooms of barbershops and around lonely fires in the wilderness, so much of it is forever off the radar of the formal studies. This much we know: wherever you put the almost mythical emergence of a “real” guitar, by the Renaissance the modern guitar was emerging out of the development of instruments of the small lute family, and began replacing the medieval Gittern, and later, the Renaissance Lute and the Vihuela as the plucked string instrument of choice.
Beer-stains and Bullet-holes
Notwithstanding some moments when it was favored by kings and royal courts, the guitar has always been an instrument of the streets, of the people, and it is known to have had some blood splattered on it, a lot beer spilled over it, and a few bullet holes shot in it. Guitars fought wars, made love in the dark, got out of town in a hurry, herded cattle, made revolution, and generally raised tunes and hell simultaneously. I myself have played the guitar of a friend who inherited it from an uncle who was a sailor lost at Pearl Harbor. The instrument lay at the bottom of the harbor for some years, but was retrieved, dried out, and restored. As a veteran of that awful day, it sings again with a melancholy voice.
Although metal-stringed instruments have been around for a long time (some were found in the Tower of London in the collection of King Henry VIII) it was not until comparatively modern times that the steel-stringed version of the guitar began its long, and very indirect climb to world preeminence. In the 19th C in America luthiers started making steel-stringed instruments that benefited from the improved technology of the strings themselves and advances in the bracing of guitar bodies, and the steel-string acoustic guitar enjoyed some of its first heydays. Victorian-era photographs from the 1890’s show proper ladies in parlors holding (and playing) guitars as, apparently, a dignified thing for them to do. In addition, the steel-string guitar was true to its long lineage and took to the country and the frontier, eventually became the instrument of country music and the blues. And as Joe Wilson at The National Council for the Traditional Arts has observed, the steel-string guitar became the primary instrument in the development and spread of American folk music.
We Almost Lost It
In the early 20th C, an odd thing happened to the guitar in America: the luthiers of the twenties and thirties made the greatest instruments the world had ever seen, and simultaneously, people quit playing them. They took up keyboards, brass, accordions, and banjos more and more, but guitars less and less. Even though Jimmy Rogers, in the twenties and thirties, was a steel-string player and so was Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, their fame was not enough to stop the slow trend away from the guitar. So by 1952, the steel-string guitar was one of the most deeply obscure instruments in America.
It was a time when the number of mainstream popular artists who regularly used the steel-string guitar for lead playing was just one: Hank Snow, period. If you wanted to hear anybody else play the acoustic steel-string guitar, you had to resort to elaborate strategies. I myself used to stay up very late, and on nights when there was an ocean of moonlight out over North America and a weak, off-center “clear channel” AM signal in my old console radio, I tuned in on a station like XERF, out of Del Rio Texas, where they played the Carter Family, some soul and blues music, and all that stuff I wasn’t supposed to listen to. But I did, because some of it had the magic ingredient, the steel string guitar. Today I have the CD re-releases of the same music, but they don’t sound right without the AM night static from XERF and WSM, static that always accompanied those rare, beautiful moments of the guitar in the deep of a Kansas winter night.
The Big Bang
It was all to change: Flatt and Scruggs recorded “Jimmie Brown The Newsboy,” Hank Snow made guitar instrumental albums, Merle Travis appeared in “From Here To Eternity” playing the acoustic steel-string guitar, The Stanley Brothers hired George Shuffler and Bill Napier, and Reno and Smiley cut “Country Boy Rock n’ Roll.” Waiting in the wings were Clarence White and Doc Watson, and…. But I get ahead of myself. The real big bang of the acoustic guitar was a series of appearances on the mid-fifties’ Ed Sullivan Show by a kid named Elvis. It is not an accident that the careers of guitarists of all kinds took off after Elvis. The sudden spurt in interest in the classical guitar of Segovia and the flamenco soloing of the incomparable Sabicas, the rise of the guitar driven pop-folk music trend, the hard-left turn in 50’s and 60’s country music, and of course, the coming of guitar-washed 60’s rock-n-roll, all these and more were a partial, but direct result of the Elvis cataclysm that changed everything musical and pop-cultural in America, in part, by putting guitars in it. John Lennon famously said: “Before Elvis there was nothing.” He could have made that statement specifically about the guitar itself: by the late fifties it had danced on the hips of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it was an instrument that was beginning to sweep the world.
The Golden Era
The result is that today, we live in what is by far the greatest golden age, the greatest Renaissance the guitar has ever seen, acoustic and electric. The acoustic guitar is ubiquitous in most of the popular music of the world. It has been a vehicle by which much of American music has been taken up and listened to and spread all over the globe. The answer to the question, “When were the greatest guitars made?” is this: the greatest steel-string guitars ever made are being made now, and they will appear in ordinary retailers’ shops soon. Information about how to play is everywhere, and miraculously, at this writing, many of the great steel-string guitar players of the late 20th C, the people who fueled the Renaissance of the Steel-String Guitar are still around, playing concerts and making recordings.
In this present golden era of the guitar, it has become more than just an instrument, more like an institution and a sociological phenomenon. In the Spanish Civil War people carried guitars around because of the unwritten rule, “don’t shoot the guitar player.” In Czechoslovakia, before the Wall fell, the first unauthorized mass gathering not to be put down by the communists was advertised as a boy scout meeting, but in fact it was a music festival with guitars and banjos and fiddles. More than a hundred thousand Czech people showed up to hear American traditional music on that day; those who were there told me the police tried to stop it, but they couldn’t shoot so many people with musical instruments, and “suddenly we were free.”
In the rural South of the early 20th C races were segregated, but musicians of different races hung out, traded guitar licks and enjoyed each other’s company, and influenced the music of future generations. In 1972 at a festival in Missouri, during the height of Viet Nam, I saw a perfectly costumed, stereotypically precise hippy with a guitar, sitting on a log with an equally perfect, stereotypical farm lad in overalls, blue work shirt, short blond hair and work boots playing a banjo. I realized it was maybe the only spot in America where two people who looked like that were not yelling at each other over politics and ideology; instead, they were having the prettiest little guitar-banjo jam session you ever did see. Bill Monroe (who stood there too) said, “Oh I love to see that.”
The Instrument of the World
World politics and American foreign policy sometimes makes us controversial in the world, but our number two export is American music, and the guitar is the centerpiece instrument thereof. Today, no joke, this old conflict-riven, deeply divided world is held together in significant part by a few rusty old Black Diamond git-tar strings woven together into a tune called the “Wildwood Flower,” plus a few thousand others. Some of those old strings and tunes and players are getting long of tooth and frail, but the fabric they have woven reaches across oceans, and by god, it still holds.
Funny thing about Golden Ages: sometimes they go by and the people who were there didn’t notice. Oh, they got into the hustle and bustle, but very often it didn’t occur to them that it would all change, go away, become something else. As you read biographies of pop stars of the “age of Aquarius” or musicians from some golden time, or writers from the bohemian salons of Bloomsbury, or personalities from the European Renaissance itself, you wonder if they ever stopped to think that they were in the middle of something special and important, something that future generations would admire and envy, something whose passing left only the fantasy of what it must have been like to be there.
It’s A Gift
Well, then, my friends: here we are, right in the middle of the Renaissance of the Steel-String Guitar. Our earthy-beautiful, sweet-singing, history-begrimed instrument has somehow survived its ups and downs and made it here to us, dressed up in steel strings, and still going strong after a long and difficult journey from very distant antiquity. And just as those thousands of generations of players did before us, we’ve found the guitar to be a connection we make with other people, other times, other possibilities, and with our other selves. If you long for something, your guitar will make it real in a song. Grieve for someone and it grieves with you in a minor key. Laugh at the absurdity of it all and it will get the joke and play you a dance tune. Feel alone and lonely and it will find you somebody to jam with. Get depressed and despair of having any effect on your world and your guitar will help you hit one fine chord, and remember that some musical sounds reverberate out into space forever, until they reach the ears of God.
Make no mistake about it, living in this era of the guitar is a great gift; about all one can do about it is enjoy, participate, be grateful, and not least, strive to be worthy. This recording is intended to celebrate the Renaissance of the Steel-String Guitar as experienced by the kid who loved that instrument before its Renaissance and then had the great good fortune both to play it and watch it rise during my lifetime. I have intended to include a little of all the influences I was able to soak up from the beautiful music around me: the classical, the blues, country, folk, celtic, bits of rock n’ roll, and goodness-knows-what-else.
And I have intended this album as an act of loyalty to the guitar. I’ve tried a lot of different things to make a living: guitar player (50 years), university professor (30 years) commercial radio DJ (15 years), theology student (13 years), preacher (off and on), stock boy and grocery manager (four months), ice cream truck driver (three weeks), railroad switchman (11 days), and tow truck driver (30 minutes). Taught a lot of classes, spun a lot of records on the air, sold some ice cream, almost derailed a Santa Fe switch engine, and rather enjoyed all of it. But so help me, the only thing I ever earnestly craved to do was play the guitar. So I did, I still get to, and these pieces are the result of living through and being grateful for The Renaissance of the Steel-String Guitar.
Depoe Bay, Oregon
*All titles by Dan Crary, unless indicated.
1. Senso Unico 3:46
2. In Flagrante 3:45
3. An Druimfhionn Donn Dilis/Toss The Feathers (Trad.) 4:04
4. Lobelia Blue 3:35
5. Hot Pursuit 3:49
6. Cape Foulweather 4:11
7. Reedie’s Blues 3:33
8. The Fermoy Lasses/The Man of the House (trad.) 2:48
9. The Jig is Up (Bob Leon) 4:08
10. E Lucevan Le Stella 3:30
11. On the Fritz (Based on Liebesleid by Kreisler,
and Hungarian Dance by Brahms) 3:47
Total Time 53:21
Compositions: All By Dan Crary (ASCAP), unless noted
Production and Arrangements: Billy Oskay and Dan Crary
Instrumentation: Taylor Guitars, Model DCSM (Dan Crary Signature Model)
Recording & Mixing: Billy Oskay Big Red Studio, Corbett OR (www.bigredstudio.com)
Microphones: Customized, vintage microphones By Klaus Heyne.
Additional Recording: Jim Emrich, Cedar House Studio, Franklin, TN
Mastering: John Eberle, Americana Mastering
Art Direction & Design: Barik Banzi
Photography: Cohen & Park, Newport, Oregon
“Rusticity” (Crary & Oskay) appears under license from BMG Special Products, 1999 BMG Music, courtesy of Arista Associated Labels, a unit of BMG Music (ISRC: USWH19800919).
Steel String Guitar: Beppe Gambetta (13) & John Cephas (9)
Resophonic Guitar: Brian Tahaney (3,10) Pennywhistle: oretto Reid (3,10)
Mandolins: Sam Bush (3, 10) & Carlo Aonzo (13) Harmonicas: Phil Wiggins (9) & Grant Dermody (8) Percussion: (Djembe, Udu) Tarik Banzi (2, 11)
Violin, Viola: Billy Oskay (5, 8, 11, 12) Piano: Bob Leon (11,12)
Awe and Gratitude:
To Don Sullivan, Kansas City country singer and guitar man in whose music I first heard the voice of God. To Ernest Caudill, who couldn’t get me to practice, but got me started, and taught me to respect the guitar and musicians. To Fritz Kreisler, who played the unforgettable concert in the Music Hall of Kansas City in 1945, when fire came down.