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Graham McDonald Interview

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
August 14, 2013 - 10:00 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

I'd appreciate Graham McDonald even without the Lanky Long Legs Mazurka. He's one of those people who enrich the musical world now and into the future without fanfare. But listening to McDonald play Lanky Long Legs on a mandolin that he built does add spice to a summer night's discussion about eight-string obsession.

McDonald, from Australia, paid a visit to Kansas City recently for a convention of professional musical archivists. Not everybody gets to hear Charlie Parker's very first saxophone recording on an archive-preserved disc made before his jazz fame.

But McDonald took a break from those conference proceedings to meet with Bob Jenkins, a Harwood instrument expert. Bob is a descendant of the Jenkins Musical Instrument Co. family that built mandolins, guitars and related string instruments in the late 1800s and early 1900s. McDonald is researching and writing a book on the history of mandolin construction. He's been traveling the world to meet people and see mandolin birthplaces, and he wanted to hold a Harwood in his hands.

But all work and no play is no fun. So, we uncased instruments in the parlor and played tunes. A musicologist from Australia mingled with two Midwestern blokes. The usual fiddle tunes and sing songs were covered. Then, McDonald played Lanky Long Legs Mazurka, a lilting, polka-like tune in three parts.

Graham McDonald with one of his A model mandolins Graham McDonald with one of his A model mandolins

Years of music running through our ears and brains in mass quantities deadens many of us to where it takes something special to bring on the chills. The Lanky tune is not a dynamic new musical composition that will sweep the world. It's simple. But I got the chills.

There's something about a melody fresh to the ears, played with heart by a person sitting in the same room with you that is powerful. He leans into the song because it ties to what he does and his roots.

"The tune was collected by our most famous folklore collector John Meredith back in the early 1980s," McDonald said. "John got the tune in my home town, Gilgandra, New South Wales, from on old bloke who I think went to school with my mother."

You'll find a sheet music version along with other Australian dance music on his website.

McDonald has tossed far more than that tune into the air. He's a musical cultivator.

For starters, peek at McDonald's website and you'll see that he builds mandolins, bouzoukis, citterns, mandolas and wombat fiddles, the latter a variation on violins with extra sympathetic strings. The A-style, round-hole mandolin he built and brought on his journey was nice with high quality fit and finish. Best of all, it sounded good. The woods alone are a change of pace.

"The mandolin has King William pine soundboard, Huon pine back and sides, blackheart sassafras neck, and some kind of rosewood for the fingerboard and peg head overlay," McDonald said. "The bridge is some kind of Australian desert acacia."

He's authored a couple of books on how to build mandolins, bouzoukis and their string kin. His current book project in development, Double Strung, aims to be a comprehensive history of mandolins.

But instrument building is merely one of his musical sides. Like many of us, he drifted into a music scene as a youth. All parts of that scene became a major part of his life.

Graham McDonald inspecting a Harwood bowl back mandolin

Left: Graham McDonald. Right: Bob Jenkins.

Graham McDonald and Bob Jenkins

"I knew of the folk boom in the early 60s, but it didn't really appeal all that much," McDonald said. "It was the English folk rock bands, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Pentangle in the early 70s that captured me with those wonderful old folk songs. Then I listened to the new Irish bands a few years later like Planxty and the Bothy Band, which got me interested in Irish music. It was the inventive way those groups arranged the music which I found most inspiring. There is an honesty about folk music which is appealing and the fact that it is participatory at lots of skill levels. I know I can go to an Irish session anywhere in the world and find people with a similar interest. I don't play all that much these days, and realize that I should do more, but other stuff seems to get in the way."

McDonald ran a national folk music organization in the early 1990s that turned into the governing body of an Australian National Folk Festival. From 2001 to 2005 he booked acts for the festival, which included filling 16 venues for four days.

After that, McDonald landed a job at his country's National Film and Sound Archive.

"I had been doing programs on community radio since the mid 1970s," he said, "and I'd recorded or produced various LPs and CDs over the years. That industry background suited what the Archive was looking for. I had also fallen into writing for our daily paper and ended up doing reviews and feature articles on musical things for almost 15 years."

I'm glad there are people who will find, sort and organize musical things. You never know when something offbeat means the world to someone else. In the Marr Sound Archives in Kansas City I found a country music history that otherwise would have been lost to time. That included a photo of a hillbilly singer who I believe owned a vintage guitar now in my hands. Without people like McDonald, I never would have found those links.

"Archiving stuff is about as good a job as I could hope for," he said. "They let me research obscure aspects of Australian music and do pages for the website and conferences and such as well as chasing down newly released material and talking to people who want to give us their collections of older recordings. The latest webpage I have done is on Hawaiian music in Australia.

Graham McDonald, J.W. Jenkins IV and Bob Jenkins

J.W. Jenkins IV is the last Jenkins family member to own the Jenkins Music Co. before it sold in the 1970s.

Graham McDonald, J.W. Jenkins IV and Bob Jenkins

The Internet is nice and has linked us all here in the Cafe. But there is more music stored away to be uploaded or perhaps be carried halfway around the world by a musician with instrument in hand.

"Sound archives are important because they keep recordings that no one else might bother with," McDonald said. "Those recording can hopefully be available in the future as technologies change. The archive has a priority for preserving the material and making sure it can still be listened to. People will always be able to read a printed book, but how many people these days can listen to an LP, let alone older analog discs and cylinders? There is still a lot of really interesting recordings on LP which will never make it to CD, let alone all the open reel tapes in archives around the world."

That's a delightful thought. Most of us are insatiable for fresh sound from the time the harmonic chills first strike us to the grave.

Some of the best musicians also are good archivists. When David Grisman uncases his mandolins, his musicianship touches us all. But we've also been given great gifts by Grisman's ability to collect, promote and provide music buried by time or a recording industry focused only on profits.

The labors of love do indeed involve labor, hassles, extra effort and the will to keep going when most of the modern world doesn't care. Folk music and mandolins are culturally like an island, but a big one like Australia.

McDonald makes the island richer and more fun. So everyone lift a pint toward the Down Under.


Additional information

Graham McDonald mandolin

Graham McDonald mandolin

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Reader Comments

Pete Jenner
August 16, 2013 04:17 AM
The work of researchers, archivists and musicians like Graham is what the folk music movement is all about. It's good to see him getting the recognition he deserves. We need more Graham McDonalds. Well done and keep up the great work Graham.

Vive le pudding magique!
Avi Ziv
August 16, 2013 07:05 AM
Great to read and learn more about Graham! Love the diversity of his involvement in music. I'm currently building a mandolin based on a a design in his Mandolin Project book.
Richard Singleton
August 17, 2013 04:43 PM
Great interview! I can't wait to purchase that upcoming mandolin book. Mr. McDonald mentions the same musical influences that I've also been inspired by over the years.
Cary Fagan
August 19, 2013 05:44 PM
That's just the sort of book many of us wish we could have. Thanks for the interview.
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