Into the Breach
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
April 17, 2008 - 7:15 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
I wonder when and where the next breach in the wall will open?
The wall being our standard way of thinking about music, melodies and picking styles we pursue on the mandolin and all stringed instruments.
I've been time traveling lately via an interest in mandolins, guitars, fiddles and banjos from the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s.
Both the music and instrument construction from those times are interwoven with technology of the day and the moment's cultural temperament.
But there's another powerful element that recurs—genius.
The wall encompasses what is thought possible and what is known to be popular.
But along comes a musical genius and punches a hole in that wall, and other musicians race in behind and make the hole bigger. And they spread out into a new field, until common thinking rebuilds the wall just beyond their reach.
Those in the crowd are musicians, listeners and luthiers.
Sometimes luthier genius gives the musician new ideas or inspiration that allows a hole to be punched in the wall.
The holes come in different sizes, and they appear at different places along the wall.
Tools and energies to break through come from mixing what came before with fresh sound.
Always, no new hole is punched unless it is made with sound that touches people deeply in their souls, creating desire for a repeat visit.
I'm haunted by an image from the online video now circulating for mandolinist/singer Sierra Hull, and the upcoming release of her new "Secrets" album.
The moment is photographs with Hull and Chris Thile sitting together at a festival somewhere, apparently jamming. Thile looks like the old mandolin veteran as a man in his 20s. Hull is the young one, a budding musical genius just beginning her late teens.
Thile has already punched a few small holes in the wall. Will Hull be next? Or is someone else on fire out there in the musical ferment that is about to surprise us?
Thile is following in the steps of Sam Bush and David Grisman. They both knocked a hole in the wall and others followed.
But of course, their musical desires were initially forged in the furnace created by Bill Monroe, a lifelong rebel with bluegrass as his cause.
Lloyd Loar's lutherie genius at the Gibson company in the 1920s coupled with music made by Monroe and his disciples, in partnership with jazz and blues cats, begat a creative mandolin music outpouring that has yet to run its course.
But at Monroe's restored childhood homeplace on Jerusalem Ridge near Rosine, Ky., there's an inexpensive little flatback mandolin similar to one he first played as a boy, laying on an old steel-frame bed the master once slept on.
Store-bought mandolins circulated through the cities and the countryside in Monroe's parents' day because virtuosos on the instrument toured the country and built a market for eight-stringer sales. Such as Giuseppe Pettine, Samuel Adelstein, Valentine Abt and African American player Seth Weeks, according to history compiled by Cafe contributor Daniel Coolik.
They punched a hole in the wall and the working musicians from Vaudeville, blues and old-time country followed, as did the masses.
Mandolinists were late as a major player at the American roots-music, string instrument party.
The banjo arose in the early 1800s as various unknown and known musical pioneers punched big holes in the wall and created a style. A finer sophistication of the banjo's build, special songs for it and traveling musician traditions were entrenched in our culture before the 1800s were over.
Fiddlers go farther back, so far I can't see all the first holes punched in Europe. New openings and enlargements began sometime after 1492 and continue to this day.
So what is next in the mandolin world?
Monroe had the blues. Grisman keeps sampling the hair of the Dawg. Bush plugged in and unplugged and then did it all.
Thile represents the new edge but he is a mix of all those, and Bach and Debussy and his own crystal sharp excursions which are too new to easily define.
Now and then I think to myself that all the possibilities must surely be exhausted for a musical genre or a certain instrument style.
But surely some of Lloyd Loar's contemporaries must have thought the same about the F5 and all mandolins along about 1925.
No, there must be more.
Genius, surprise us.
We await the chance to follow, recreate and celebrate—part of creativity's circle.