Continuing THE TWIST IN THE SPIRAL… The evolutionary point where transformation and change erupt!
THE GUITAR: A brief history of the instrument and its legacy.
Long seen as the cornerstone of Western popular music, the guitar as a composition piece, is now the melting pot for the music of the world and cannot be restricted to genre. From its humble moorings at the beginning of the 20th century, the guitar had risen to become the dominant and most popular musical instrument in the world.
From it’s epic journey, twining across the centuries, winding through its ancient, ancestral roots in Mesopotamia, through Babylon and Egypt, and then to France, Italy and Spain, where it reached classical perfection; then strumming it’s way across the Atlantic into the mainstream of modern life; evolving into jazz, folk, blues, country and rock & roll and beyond. From the vibrations of the one stringed bow, to The Lyre of Orpheus and the pluck of the Troubadours, minstrels and gypsies, (back home again into the hands of black African slaves).
The guitar, sublime, abstract, finely etched with European sophistication – an iconic image of beauty, perfection and art – whose impact erupted, electrified in a collective fusion, a lightning blast of energy as it soared to its zenith in the sixties , and blending with the mystical currents of the east that reverberated in the psychedelic flow of metaphysics, music, magic and madness that exploded in the powerful wave of a sixties Zeitgeist; crossing into lifestyle with the emblem of the dove of peace tattooed on it’s long stringed neck, – the symbol of hope, of freedom and rebellion, revolution and change; heralding the first collective cry of an exploding youth culture, pleading for the planet. For a one world global Earth culture, where a universal consciousness sprouted from the dawn of an endless dream, – the dream that we are all still, perhaps more than ever, striving for.
These were defining moments in the history of the modern world and the little voice of the guitar played a singular part in shaping it. Indeed for many, it would be seen as the single, most potent musical instrument this side of history, dominating popular music for well over half a century and, just to throw a little mix into the octave – up until the millennium advent of the DJ rave scene, where it lost centre stage to the whirling techno – turntables of the 21st Century, and the vibrant acid-house, hip-hop generation. Yet never the less, the guitar still remains the most vital musical instrument in the world today. Indeed, perhaps no other stringed instrument in musical history has had such a broad appeal and impact, such profound social effects?
‘In the early years following World War 11, the guitar became the symbol of a life attitude, particularly amongst young people, which was individualistic, romantic, artistic and mildly unconventional. The man, (occasionally the woman) with the guitar was an habitue’ of parties, cafes, attics, basements and lonely stretches of road. It didn’t matter in the fifties whether he was moaning the blues, singing a folk-song or playing Romance d’Amour – it was all guitar‘. (Opinion Feb 1990).
Blowing in the wind, striking these shores, whipping up a rhythmic gale, rattling and rolling like a demented tin-can, kicked down the bric-a-brack backyards and tic-tac streets of post-war Britain, and announcing the arrival of a revolution in music and mores that swept across Britain and America in the late fifties and sixties.
1956 is generally considered a seminal year, turning on the taps of change, pouring like water on the sprinkling valve of youth, descending like a plunger, disinfecting the dismal kitchen sink of post-war years. From then on a new and original form of music could be heard and the stirring strings of Britain’s first full blown guitar revolution.
The music of the revolution carried a sound that made the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. It began slowly at first, then building up at a break-neck speed, a dynamic rhythmic shuffle, churning with the kindling power of a hard, fast driving, steel strung rhythm guitar and the searing voice of Lonnie Donegan wailing through the air-waves, belting out an incendary skiffle cover of blues legend ‘Huddy’ Ledbetter’s song, ’Rock Island Line’ now thundering like a locomotive up the pop charts and into every teenage classroom across the country, disturbing the lessons in the classroom and driving teachers crazy!
Life in the west was rapidly accelerating and all around the country was changing. Years of austerity were ebbing away as the post-war years came to a close and despite bad news abroad, there was a fresh optimism in the air. Set against a background of growing non-conformity, it was then a land of long side-burned teddy boy-and beehive haired girls. National service was about to be abolished and scratching the turbulent fading face of the times, angry young men and women scrawled their pens across the bleak blackboard jungle of the past, and they, along with outsiders, existentialists, rebels and assorted disaffiliated youth, wanted to wipe the board clean, start a revolution, create a Tabular Rasa.
And something else besides, something momentous pounding the streets and dance halls – a new crop of youth had just arrived at the platform of modern life and gathered at the junction of a widening generation gap – for the first time, teenagers, wielding guitars and rattling the cans of tin pan alley, striking near terror in the older half of the population as the new music rapidly became public enemy number one, and causing a momentous shudder of ecstacy to flair up in the bodies and libidos of the other younger half – almost all over the country, every teenager wanted a guitar.
3. SKIFFLE: 3 CHORD WONDER!
Skiffle took the country by storm by its sheer vitality and utter simplicity. Home grown with a rough hewn passion; raw and rasping like a buzz saw in the brain –Skiffle was a uniquely British honed phenomenon – ‘a folk song with a jazz beat’, said the movements first chronicler, Brian Bird. ‘The first indigenous music of the first indigenous teenagers’ said veteran folk singer Billy Bragg, – bellowing out and banging dustbin lids and broom-sticks in the backyards of post-war Britain.
Washboard, tea chest, guitar and the optional kazoo, or comb and paper make-do – it was as simple as that for people to make music together and dance all night long. What was revolutionary was that it could be easily played by your average post-war British teenager. Three chords and you were there, – it was the belting rhythm and sound that mattered.
A blend of folk, country, blue-grass and blues, closely related to jug bang band music, it was a grass roots, amateur, three chord DIY movement that grew out of the post-war Jazz scene, which saw a move away from ‘swing and brass’ music. It drew heavily from the repertoire of Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly
The word Skiffle, itself can be roughly traced back to 1926, when it was used as a term for rent parties run by poor black people in North America, where music was played on low cost makeshift and cheap instruments like the lowly guitar, which was then mainly used as a parlour instrument.*
One story has it that in 1948, a Harlem news editor named Dan Burley formed a group to record some of the rent party music; calling themselves the Dan Burley Skiffle group. Their members included one called Brownie Mc Gee on Guitar. McGee would later on become part of the famous country blues duo known together as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee; early trailblazers from the other side of the pond who, along with people like Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, stood at the forefront of that first wave of authentic guitar playing Folk and Blues singers reaching these shores.
Although Lonnie Donegan is deservedly credited as the man who popularized Skiffle, introducing it to nation and widely regarded as ‘First King of Brit Pop’ taking it to the top of the hit parade, Donegan was not the true originator. There were several mid-wives in the birth of skiffle, amongst them the man widely known as ‘The Guv’ and dubbed the Godfather of British skiffle, Ken Colyer, who appeared out of the Jazz revival.
Within the small but growing jazz fraternity, there was an even smaller group of blues lovers. His Crane river jazz band were augmenting their performances with Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson songs that they would play on acoustic guitars as far back as 1949, employing an embryonic skiffle sound.
Colyer was a keen jazz and blues enthusiast and a colourful character captured by the sounds he heard coming from America, especially the jazz music of Bunk Johnson. He went on a far seeing expedition determined to go to the source of the music and did just that. He set off, joining the merchant navy and jumping ship at New Orleans. There he met several musicians, hanging out with them and bringing back home some of the sounds and records he heard and tales of the people he met. In particular he had a penchant for the songs of Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, soon adding them to his repertoire of jazz and blues.
Simultaneously, other emerging figures of the period were beginning to gather around this new music. Outstanding jazz pioneers like Chris Barber who was a well loved and respected man, with a good reputation in the music business and who, to his ever lasting credit, bankrolled a whole generation of musicians for over a decade, including Big Bill Broonzy’s early visits to Britain. He pioneered alongside other musicians like Alexis Korner , Chas McDevot and the brothers Ken and Bill Colyer, who formed bands together, performing in the clubs and bars and soon gathering a loyal following and establishing a firm jazz thumping outpost and the springboard for the guitar driven strings to come.
Some historians have suggested that it was the Skiffle clubs springing up in the late fifties that led to the development of the folk revival and blues clubs that nourished bohemian outlooks and spawned the beginnings of a counter culture, where people like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly acquired hero status as singers of anti – establishment songs.
Skiffle also produced the first pantheon of British home grown Rock and Rollers from Tommy Steele to Lennon and McCartney, Pete Townsend and many another rockabilly wailer; just to name a few who began their illustrious careers in Skiffle and it trickles on, down to this day Skiffle has its adherents, its fans, its clubs, its duck-tailed, long side-burned affictionados, including the film critic Mark Kermode.
Oh, and The Punks you could say, are the direct descendents of those three chord washboard wonders, pulsing with raw energy and invention ,with the spirit of anarchy and revolt and closer in time to the DJ Rave generation of the eighties and nineties which saw a return to the source invention and change producing the in-door home grown DIY acid – house music of smiley Rave culture .
Perhaps most important of all, Skiffle inspired a first generation of guitar plucker’s to pick up their guitars and learn the rudiments of Anglo – American folk and blues songs. It was around that time, with the eruption of Skiffle and rock and roll that the guitar, its strings no longer fettered and confined to the sidelines, began to surface in Britain as a potent, front line instrument.
Skiffle was soon to subside into that combustable element rock and roll, as did almost everything else coming afterwards, but together they lit the fuse that uncorked a generations wildest dreams and the awakening call for the overwhelming explosion of music and youth culture to come. Not bad for a down home, three chord DIY, backyard British sprout – but the Island was frothing over with innovation, invention and change.
3. TRAVELLING STRINGS: THE BUSCAR.
The practice of Buscing is an ancient one and a term applied to wandering minstrels in the middle ages. Called minstrelsy in Europe from the renaisence on and the English speaking lands before that Itinerant musicians were known by the French name Troubadour. The French word Jongleur was also used to describe Buscars.
According to some historians, it was the beleaguered Gypsies, also known as the Romany people who first brought busking to Britain. They were also news reporters and message bearers, performing in public arenas for gratitude’s or tips and existed in almost every major culture in the world dating back to antiquity.
The term ‘sing for your supper‘ could have originated from when it was common practice for inns and stall holders to pay the busker with a meal or bed for the night and busking was the most widely used method of employment for entertainers before the introduction of recording and personal electronics in the early part of the century.
One man bands are buscars who perform a variety of instruments simultaneously and first appeared in the 1800’s and 1900’s cap in hand and battered top hat and lending a Dickensian twist down the ages. The recently deceased one man band Don Partrige busced all the way up the British pop charts in the mid-sixties with his busking song ‘Rosie’
The term ‘busc’ is also used in music when a musician has to play something quickly from scratch, by ear or at sight, eg, ‘I’ll just busc it’. And a new phrase is lent from this improvisation technique.
Folk music in particular has always been a dominant presence in the buscing scene and many of the great and famous started there. Woody Guthrie busked across America, as did many an early bluesman; Django Reinehirt , Eric Clapton, Joan Baez , Hank Williams , Irving Berlin, Donovan, Marcel Marcou and more recently, actor Pierce Brosnan, can be added to this venerable and much maligned tradition.
With the folk revival of the fifties and sixties, busking was a phenomenon, increasingly seen and accepted around the country , freewheeling on the streets of Britain through-out the late fifties and sixties, with people like Whiz Jones, Alex Campbell, Donovan, Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Ralph McTell and Davy Graham and many others, plying their guitars and songs.
The spirited Laurie Lee, ( 1914 – 19 97) in his lyrical, inspiring book, ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, captures the free spirit of busking on his epic journey at the turn of century – an extraordinary tale of adventure while walking and busking all the way to Spain, with just the clothes on his back, playing his violin on the way and telling of the people he met and the network of musicians and wandering souls that he encountered on the journey; finding himself trapped there for over a year in the middle of the Spanish civil war and the fighting going on between the fascists and anti-fascists.
On that harrowing subject, one very extraordinary and moving fact I uncovered – and a harsh and harrowing, historical marker, that goes back to the earliest recorded moment of a world where a song, a poem, a word invites death. Cropping up at various intervals down the ages since, the same old battered and persecuted song –the first ever recorded street bust:
‘In ancient Rome some rebellious minstrels performed poems and songs that contained negative lyrics and criticised rulers, consequently the first recorded street performance (bust) in western history was the result of legislation passed in 451 BC known as the laws of the twelve tables. This law prohibited against the singing about or making parodies of the government or its officials in public places a crime with the penalty being death‘.
Death! It seems absurd! Must have been devastating and soul destroying, families shattered, hounded and torn, beaten indoors, silence or else face execution. All around, the world changing fast, fascists everywhere dictating, tyrants spreading…outlawed, ripped up scrolls, burning papyrus papers and prayers; breaking lyres and lyrics, to the accompanying tears of rage.
Ancient voices screaming: Burn Rome, burn! – play that lyre! Light my fire! O’ Earth Shakers and Quakers, and loud Mischief Makers. Shake, rattle and roll the tables, cut the coils and cables, and heap your scorn and pour your wrath down on their miserable shrunken little heads; and away with idiotic laws that bind the tounge, when the truth is sung!
But even then, lost voices: long ago the shrinking had began, the faint connection to the ancient world, to antiquity, fading, even then, a diminishing, a harsh twilight of worlds. Like a fading nocturnal note, a howling dark-l rustling in times whimpering gallery, parchment particles burning in the dry dusty drapes of history, carrying the soulful sorrowful sounds of the ever murmuring, ever recurring, clotted chords of loss.
5. THE TROUBADOUR.
The Troubadour folk club was situated at 265 Old Brompton Road, near Earl’s Court and has been going since around 1954. Part coffee bar and club, in the late fifties and sixties it was a hotbed of emerging talents from its early incarnation as a folk venue and an underground den of enlightenment for many a key player in London’s bohemian life and a primary venue in the British based Folk Revival*
By the mid-sixties THE CLUB’S FAME had spread to Europe, America and Russia as a cultural cauldron. Still going strong to-day, it stands as one of London’s last remaining coffee houses and clubs of that period.
It acquired its resilient name and status from that from that long lost romantic tradition of wandering minstrels, gypsy scholars and story-telling balladeers carrying songs, stories, legends and myths from the 11th century on, and collectively known as The Troubadour.
The troubadours carried along with them, the unique, long burning and bruising candle of passionate, romantic love; Catharist ideals and Albigensian heresies. Heresies that proclaimed the glory of romantic, individual love as a self-sacrificing, passionate, higher form of love than the then hide – bound status quo of marriage, Church and state.
Indeed, a rebellious, mystical love that broke with tradition and spawned one of the most romantic and novel ideals of the middle ages: True love, the piercing wound, the poisoned potency out of which developed a uniquely western blend (Though it drew heavily from Persian – Sufi mystical poetry and lore and Manichean philosophy) of verse and music, ballad and song, and in whose beginnings can be traced the origins of the romantic, individual love song we know to-day. More than that, perhaps indeed, the very ideal of romantic, individual love itself? And a heresy that was widely condemned, persecuted, punished and wiped out by the Catholic Church.
Passion and danger, loyalty and betrayal , lust and longing and a quest for something higher. Like the unhealed wounds of time transforming down the ages, it lingers, and entering into the breast-bone of every romantic poet, musician and folk singing Troubadour armed with verse and strings since.
As if in some mysterious way, it lives on. The myth continues to capture and pole-vault the imagination of later generations back to something primal, potent and elemental continuing to pulse, unresolved, between men and woman to-day, informing and warning us still, about the hidden dangers and silent secrets of perilous love.
Significantly, it was also around the time of the first Troubadours, travelling out from Provence, that the guitar first entered the European blood-stream, and they were in part, responsible for its spread through Europe and Britain. Troubadours travelled widely, within and outside of Provence, as far as Northern Europe, Italy, England and Spain. They travelled singly, in groups, on their own or part of a nobleman entourage. It was customary for Troubadours to sing their songs to instrumental accompaniment, one of which was the guitar. This was favoured not only for its musical attributes but also for its portability, an important consideration for itinerant performers.
Considering the fact that the Troubadours covered a vast area in their travels and had a wide audience ranging from the masses to the nobility and they took their guitars with them, and it can be seen that the role they played in disseminating their culture and the guitar in particular. The popularity of the instrument can be attributed to the nomadic nature of the Troubadours.
(c) goldnmonkee. 2016