Columnist Anthony Tidd considers how the guitar has fallen out of favor with young Black musicians.
One of the most troubling obstacles that music educators face nowadays is the gradual disappearance of instruments. With each passing decade in the U.S., there are fewer and fewer people who can play an instrument, or in many cases, who have ever held one.
Though I’m originally from London, before moving to Harlem, I spent 20 years in Philadelphia. For 11 of those years, I was the director of the Creative Music Program, a free program for teens that I created at the Kimmel Center. In this position, I observed the continued decline of school music programs and, more importantly, instruments. Due to overall government divestment in the arts, access to musical instruments has been in decline for quite a while. But for me, one of the most worrying aspects of this trend is the virtual disappearance of the Black guitarist.
From the kora to the banjo to, in more modern times, the guitar, plucked string instruments have always played a central role within African American music. At the dawn of the 19th century, almost every band, large or small, had at least one member who played the banjo, guitar, or both. The blues rose to cultural prominence through singers who accompanied themselves on guitar. The guitar’s role in gospel, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, Motown, funk, disco, and more, was central. Figures such as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, George Benson, Stanley Jordan, Jimmy Nolen, Nile Rodgers, Phil Upchurch, Prince, and Jef Lee Johnson weren’t anomalies. They were the norm—innovators within a vast sea of Black guitarists that stretched all the way back to the times of slavery and before.
Nowadays, my colleagues and I lament our collective struggle to name more than a handful of Black guitarists playing jazz in our tristate area. We have no such struggles when it comes to bass, drums, or even saxophone. Considering the long history of the guitar within jazz, one should really ask why and what the broader implications of this are. Over 11 years as an educator in Philadelphia, I only ever encountered one Black student who played guitar—out of thousands of students.
Is this generational? It’s no secret that all music has become more and more electronic. Despite what some may think, this trend is only partially due to the advent of new technologies. The synthesizer has been around since the ’60s, with early drum machines arriving soon after. Hip-hop spent much of its first decade-and-a-half virtually instrument free, and the fact that its sound was dominated by DJing, sampling, and drum machines was certainly linked to the decline of available music education during that period. The rise of specialized programs led by those like Wynton Marsalis in the ’90s helped to slow this trend somewhat, but not really for guitar.
There was also a cultural aspect at play, which in many ways echoed what we saw happen with the banjo 100 years earlier. The banjo originated with enslaved Africans during the 17th century, as a form of cultural retention, mirroring similar instruments found in West Africa, like the akonting. In the antebellum South, the banjo was a communal and recreational instrument that slaves played during gatherings and celebrations to accompany folk songs, dances, and storytelling. This sound eventually became part of bodies of music identified with the life, aspirations, and hardships of the enslaved.
“As high-level Black guitar-centric artists, who were themselves a continuation of artists like Chuck Berry, have aged or passed on, the guitar has become disassociated with cutting-edge Black music.”
Joel Walker Sweeney, a white musician and performer, is credited with further developing the banjo and popularizing it with white audiences in the mid 1800s. That aside, Sweeney’s popularization took place on white stages through the extremely problematic medium of blackface minstrelsy, which perpetuated a long tradition of dehumanizing and mocking African American culture via negative tropes and stereotypes around intelligence, physical appearance, sexual promiscuity, etc. Although the banjo continued to be utilized by Black musicians for a time, one cannot help but wonder if its new widespread association with racists like Sweeney and minstrelsy helped to send it to an early grave.
Despite its long history as a favored instrument, as high-level Black guitar-centric artists, who were themselves a continuation of artists like Chuck Berry, have aged or passed on, the guitar has become disassociated with cutting-edge Black music. The instrument is now more often found in rock, metal, folk, country, and bluegrass settings, and the person playing it will most often be white.
This is certainly the perception among young Black musicians starting out and deciding which instrument to play. Sadly, this trend is self-reciprocating, as less Black guitar innovators also means less artists, role models, and teachers to catch a future Jimi Hendrix’s attention. Due to a whole lot of cultural shifts, which actually have very little to do with music, the guitar may just not be as cool to them as it once was.
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Visitors to the Library’s website will get a rare glimpse of music’s biggest stars in unguarded moments.
Washington, DC (November 28, 2012) -- The Library of Congress announced today that it would make interviews recorded with music icons available for the first time. The interviews are from the archives of Joe Smith and were recorded over his 40-year career in the music industry. Here's the details and some selected quotes from the Library of Congress press release:
In 1988, John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono gave a candid interview to record-label president Joe Smith about the Beatles’ split: “For John, it was a divorce. I think he was feeling very good about it, as if a big weight was off him.” Ono was among more than 200 celebrated performers, producers and industry leaders whose words Smith captured on audiotape more than 25 years ago in an effort to document the oral history of popular music.
In June 2012, Smith donated the collection of recordings to the Library of Congress—a tremendous assembly of primary-source oral histories covering perhaps the most important 50 years of popular music, nationally and internationally. On Wednesday, Nov. 28, the Library will make a series of these revealing, unedited recordings available for listening free to the public on its website at www.loc.gov/rr/record/joesmith/. The first group of recordings posted on the site will consist of 25 interviews. These include interviews with Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ray Charles, B. B. King, Bo Diddley and Linda Rondstadt. More recordings in the Smith collection will be added to the site over time.
Also coming soon is Smith’s own reflective interview, in which he shares rare and intimate details about his decades-long career. He candidly talks about the famous people in his life, including a titillating accusation against him and his business partner, Frank Sinatra.
All types of popular music are represented in the collection—from rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, rhythm & blues and pop to big-band, heavy metal, folk and country-western. The list of noted artists and executives is a veritable who’s who in the music industry. Among them are Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Little Richard, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Elton John, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Sting, Tony Bennett, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Dick Clark, Tina Turner, Tom Jones, B. B. King, Quincy Jones, David Geffen, Mickey Hart, Harry Belafonte and many others.
Smith’s 40-year career in the industry gave him unique entrée and for about a two-year period, he interviewed the biggest names in music. In 1988, he published excerpts from his interviews in the groundbreaking book “Off the Record” (Warner Books).
“One of the great things about the interviews is how relaxed many of them are,” said Matt Barton, the Library’s recorded sound curator. “They’re not on camera and they’re talking to someone who’s very much a colleague and a peer, if not a musical artist. The tone is very different and the camera isn’t on them.”
Visitors to the Library’s website will get a rare glimpse of music’s biggest stars in unguarded moments. Smith records them joking, eating, drinking and candidly discussing their lives, careers and contemporaries. While chain-smoking, Ono talks about the breakup of The Beatles; Mick Jagger consumes toast and tea while discussing the Stones’ outlaw reputation; Paul McCartney also speaks frankly about The Beatles’ walk on the wild side; and Tony Bennett talks about the legacy of two music greats over dinner.
B. B. King on the blues:
“I feel it’s dying as we’ve known it. But there will continuously be blues as long as there are people on the planet, because people gonna continuously have problems.”
Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ outlaw image:
“I think there was a lot of time wasted with this band with all that image stuff. And eventually, of course, I think it contributed to Brian (Jones) cracking up completely and to a certain extent Keith (Richards) becoming a junkie.”
Mick Jagger on The Beatles’ early influence:
“Both Keith and Brian were very much influenced by The Beatles – everyone was at that point. I must say I don’t think I was as much as they were. One envied their success, but I never really liked their music as much.”
Yoko Ono on the breakup of The Beatles:
“Paul was the only one trying to hold The Beatles together. But, then again, the other three felt that Paul was trying to hold The Beatles together as HIS band. They were getting to be like Paul’s band, which they didn’t like….There was an incredible period of unpleasantness for John, so he was in fact delighted that he was out of it.”
Yoko Ono on the possibility of a Beatles reunion:
“John’s feeling was that there was such a myth about The Beatles, and if they did get back together again it wouldn’t have been the same.”
Bo Diddley on Elvis:
“Elvis Presley copied me and Jackie Wilson – he combined the two acts together. At the time, he had a good thing going. I thank God that he did. I take my hat off to him. The name of the game is make money, and that’s what he did. He was a lucky man. I haven’t seen anybody else come behind him and do that same thing except Michael Jackson and Prince. I still don’t think they’ve stepped in Elvis’s shoes.”
Paul McCartney on drugs:
“That was one hell of a period – completely different, like another lifetime. We were like different people by then because of the drugs thing. … We’d just become introduced to it. Sgt. Pepper owes a lot to drugs, to pot. That was us getting into that. It was rather innocent compared to what you talk about these days. It was very innocent. It was never seriously heavy stuff. Things got heavy later with one or two of us. Then, it was quite mild. It was like a drink. It was nothing. It was never lethal. It was never that crazy. We were never sort of out on the floor like you’d hear about Stones sessions where you couldn’t wake the guitarist up. … Possibilities started to come in like mad. So that was a very rich period.”
“I’m more of a sucker. I’m more of a fan. If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose and he plays a guitar upside down, I’ll go look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.”
The recordings in the Joe Smith Collection are housed in the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., a state-of-the-art facility. The Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division’s collections include nearly 3 million sound recordings.
For more information:
Library of Congress
Solo Sessions: Chet Atkins; Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon; Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With Bob Seger; Red Hot Chili Peppers: Me and My Friends; B.B. King: Live at Montreux 1993 Blu-ray; The Moody Blues: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970
Solo Sessions: Chet Atkins
Three things you need to know: Chet Atkins, solo guitar, and clean, readable transcriptions.
This book contains a simple, easy-to-digest collection of some of Chet’s most popular solo guitar tunes, transcribed by John McClellan and Deyan Bratic, and interspersed with some charming drawings of Chet by BriAnn Wassman. The introduction is blessedly short and to the point; less chat, more Chet. Disc information is included for most of the songs, which means you can head to the Chet section of your CD collection to listen to the songs before leaping in and attempting to play them. The CD included also contains one piece of music, the “Courante” from Bach’s French Suite No. 1 in C minor. Chet never released the recording, which makes this a world premiere. The playing is lovely, and the idea of Bach being played by Chet on electric guitar makes me chuckle.
Most of the tunes are traditional, either old folk tunes or classical pieces, with a couple of old standards thrown in for fun. What other player in history could get away with “Arkansas Traveler” and “Maleguenas” in the same collection? There are a couple of Joplin pieces (Scott, not Janis), and even a little Dvorák. You have to respect somebody that can take that much musical territory and put his own stamp on it. This book is a must for Chetophiles. Its a splendid way to show just what the original “Certified Guitar Player” was capable of with two hands and a gittar. —GDP
Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon
This is a huge, heavy book that’s loaded with photos relating to the musical history of a California nexuspoint where music thrived and the party didn’t end for the better part of three decades. Laurel Canyon native Harvey Kubernik tells the story lovingly through his memories and interviews with still-living denizens of the Canyon’s glory days. Unabashed about the whole sex, drugs and rock and roll theme, it manages to avoid becoming tawdry while acknowledging it as a fact of life.
It is an engaging and comprehensive tome, yet at times the stories cut off rather abruptly and you’re left shifting gears before you’re ready. The writing style is also a little rough, and at times the author uses devices that don’t quite work. He usually gets the point across, but sometimes you have to read things over a couple times to get it. But being treated to such an intimate look at the workings of the patch of real estate that brought us the likes of Jackie Deshannon, Frank Zappa, The Monkees, Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, the LA Wrecking Crew, Jackson Browne, Sonny and Cher, Glen Campbell and the Doors (to name a tiny fraction), is a pleasure you don’t have to feel guilty about. —GDP
Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With Bob Seger
Bob Seger was all over the radio when I was growing up; he’s the biggest rock star that was never in your face—but he was always in your ears.
Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes with Bob Seger is a photo-rich tribute by photographer Tom Weschler and music journalist Gary Graff, who traveled and worked closely with Seger during the late ’60s and through the ’70s. It chronicles Seger’s career from the very earliest babyfaced incarnation—The Bob Seger System— through what ultimately evolved into The Silver Bullet Band, including his brief time as a solo singer-songwriter, which Seger describes as, “like Simon and Garfunkel without Garfunkel.” The story is told with many photos and few words; there are short little memories of moments and events, but not lengthy stories or gig-by-gig reflections. The captions are a bit sparse, and sometimes it’s not too clear who the people in the photos are, but then you remind yourself that this is about Bob Seger in the ’70s, and it all makes perfect sense. The booze, drugs and women stories are kept to a minimum, seemingly because that’s the sort of stuff that “goes without saying,” and as a result of that, Weschler and Graff end up telling a far more compelling story by allowing the reader to craft up their own descriptive captions.
The forward and afterward are written by John Mellencamp and Kid Rock respectively, and there’s a very complete discography at the end. —GDP
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Me and My Friends
Every family has one. You know, that inconspicuous lens-snapper who never stops taking pictures even during the most obvious of inappropriate times. But with all these ill-timed and obnoxiously private photos, you’re able to capture real people and real emotions. And that’s just what rock photographer Tony Woolliscroft does in Red Hot Chili Peppers: Me and My Friends.
Woolliscroft has been documenting the band through his still lens all over the world for nearly 20 years, capturing them at their most vulnerable times. For instance, when the Peppers reunited with long-time guitarist John Frusciante in 1998, he shot the band in a pre-show huddle that was later used on the Californication sleeve. And of course, we can’t forget the band’s legendary get-ups, or lack thereof, which includes the tube sock incident at the Nassau Coliseum, flaming hats at Lollapalooza ’92 and the light bulb outfits at muddy Woodstock ’94.
The book is chronologically laid out with sections dedicated to the Peppers’ albums— Mother’s Milk through Stadium Arcadium— and the resulting tours. Mixed in between the collection of photos, Woolliscroft adds some personally intimate anecdotes that add another layer to the visually-driven book. Some of the stories weaved between photos include having to crash on the Peppers hotel floor, By the Way recording sessions with Rick Rubin and the record-breaking three consecutive sold-out shows at London’s Hyde Park.
With over 300 photos on 225 pages, Me and My Friends provides a confidential look at a group of exuberant characters. With his nearobtrusive clearance inside the Peppers’ lives, Woolliscroft tears down the rock star fantasy and exposes four friends who’ve been on a musical journey for over 20 years. —CK
B.B. King: Live at Montreux 1993 Blu-ray
Anybody that’s seen B.B. King in concert knows the man can play the blues. After all, the “King of the Blues” was practically born with a Gibson ES-345 in his hands. Add the fact that he’s been performing live for the better part of the last 60 years and you get the makings of a timeless performer that knows how to work his way around a stage.
Unfortunately, working his way around a stage has become somewhat of a problem for the 84-year-old legend, as he now takes a seat for most of his performances. He still, however, maintains a rigorous touring schedule that rivals many of today’s much younger musicians. And of course, he continues to deliver the same awe-inspiring blues guitar playing that made Englishmen the likes of Page, Clapton, Beck and Richards first pick up a guitar.
All of this makes us appreciate B.B. King Live at Montreux 1993 that much more. No one knows for sure how many times King has played the renowned Swiss festival, but suffice to say the number is more than 20. Fortunately, B.B. King Live at Montreux 1993 captures one of the best ever. His band revs it up like an old-time blues revue, warming up the crowd with three standards before the King—dazzling in his beautiful blue and pink paisley tuxedo jacket—takes the stage to a thunderous reception. His band is as tight as it gets, but the show is all King and his flawless, amazing guitar playing. From the stirring “Let The Good Times Roll” to the classic “Caledonia” to the incomparable “The Thrill is Gone,” King delivers a vibrant and eclectic mix of classic blues that only he can deliver.
So grab yourself a cold one, pop this into your Blu-ray player and watch the King do his thing. For this is certainly the teacher’s finest hour. —GH
The Moody Blues: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970
Whether you’re a fan of the rock fusion symphonic group that so proudly incorporated the flute or not, you have to acknowledge the role they played influencing musical styles by meshing rock and classical music in a way that has sold over 50 million albums worldwide. And in 1970, The Moody Blues were in the midst of a creative and commercial high point riding on the success of A Question of Balance.
This DVD features the renowned 1970 Moody Blues performance in front of more than a half million people at the Isle of Wight Festival, which was previously only available on CD. However, unlike the CD, the DVD only features 10 tracks from the set because some of the video footage has been lost. That said, the existing tracks include “Ride My See Saw,” “Tuesday Afternoon” and the epic “Nights in White Satin.” While the audio and video are raw—guitarist Justin Heyward admits this—they provide a true nostalgic representation of the historic festival, and the Moody’s wide spectrum of tones can still be fully appreciated. Also, the band does delineate from some of the traditional recordings and song structures for improvisation, but they still crank out their hits note for note. It’s a pleasant mix for avid and new fans alike.
After the concert, the DVD includes 20 minutes of contemporary interviews from four band members—excluding flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas—who fondly reflect on their Isle of Wight performance. The best part is when pianist and technical contributor Michael Pinder describes and walks through the mellotron featured all over Moody records and performances. All and all, this is a great offering that accurately captures an early incarnation of the Moodies at a pinnacle. —CK