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In Electricity We Trust

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
September 28, 2008 - 4:45 pm

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

Mandolin builder Will Kimble posted a troubled message on the Cafe recently.

"Just a note to say that I don't have any electricity at the house or shop, sorry if I have been hard to get in contact with.," Kimble wrote. "They are saying it could be a week before we are up and running."

This caught my eye because I've pondered lately my longtime denial about how dependent my music world is on modern technology powered by man made electricity.

I like to think of myself as natural sort, someone cut out for heading west from Virginia in the 1790s and rambling the shifting frontiers long enough to grow elderly and ride the railroads from coast to coast for a last look at wilderness.

Playing old tunes on wooden mandolins, guitars and fiddles always felt to me like a way back out of these modern times that I'm trapped in. It's a musical world I've woven deeper around myself as years passed.

But it's an illusion.

My music is influenced by and dependent upon the flow of electrons between atoms in a manner manipulated by humans and carried over manufactured wires and circuits. Electricity makes my old-time music scene go around, and it has for a long time.

You and I wouldn't be having this mutual communication without the juice.

Perhaps we also wouldn't have this huge body of string music to enjoy, or a new golden era of instrument building at out fingertips.

I was listening to the "Custer's Last Band" CD sold by the National Music Museum in South Dakota. The horns are jaunty and loud as they play the scores used by George Armstrong Custer's field band before his demise at the Little Big Horn in 1876. People could hear them. Tubas vibrated their guts, trumpets lifted their hearts. The music carried reflections of the excitement created by the birth of the machine age.

Horns didn't need electricity to be heard a long ways. That's why they're still in street parades today.

Our string instruments and their music styles might not have changed very much from Yellow Hair's time, and remained parlor pleasures only, were it not for electricity.

But, the news about the blundering bloody end of Custer's genocide against Native Americans flashed east on telegraph wires powered by electricity. A system devised in the 1840s.

By 1887, Thomas Edison had a patent for a recording system that used batteries. Various recording devices powered by springs or electricity of some sort, perhaps made in factories powered with electricity, were being developed and sold as Italian mandolin players took the United States by storm in the early 1900s and helped launch the era of the mandolin orchestra.

Radios roared in living rooms and bars by the 1920s, powered of course by electricity. The juice was used to make records sold in stores. And recordings could be played over the radio.

Uninhibited musical recording, marketing and performing followed. The technology got better, as did the mastery of electricity. The string instruments could be as loud as the horns if the knobs were turned right. Everybody influenced everybody among the musicians and singers.

My early country music heroes could often use a microphone and loudspeaker in a school house performance so everyone could hear.

It wasn't long before you could see them on television, thanks to the juice.

Our mandolin patron saint, Lloyd Loar, feverishly promoted and designed electrified wooden instruments in the latter stages of his career. His personal F5 was rediscovered with knobs and pickups attached.

Electricity made folk and bluegrass festivals possible and popular. They fueled the sound system, the lights, the ice machine and the telephones.

Boomers like me, hugged and loved and fed by grandparents who grew up farming with horses and reading with kerosene lamps before electricity reached the country, were influenced by that old time feeling. Even after frame houses had thin wiring tacked up the walls to a few light bulbs after the REA arrived in the 1950s (or later), something ancient remained.

Saturday night baths in galvanized tubs with water drawn from a well made me feel like the pioneers I was always reading about in books at the school library. Adventure beats routine when you're young.

And man how I loved those rare childhood times when I got to hear a banjo or fiddle to really bring that feeling to life.

Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I began to make my grownup way in the world, I discovered old records, re-issues, modern bluegrass and folk rock.

I've been musically, and simultaneously, journeying backward and forward ever since.

But that journey is highly dependent on listening to old records made with electrical contraptions and played back on electrical stereo systems. Computers threaten to simplify things to a more direct channel between artist and listener. But that's electrically dependent.

There are organic moments for me when only musicians and their instruments are present. The music hangs in the air a moment and then is gone. I can remember the sound with my brain and replay it with my arms and fingers. No amplification or recording is involved. Just the emotions of human beings expressed with energy applied to wood and steel strings.

But of course, those physical musician motions wouldn't happen without the electrical charges racing from the brain through the central nervous system to the muscles, to be monitored by the ear and the brain, in a miraculous loop inhabited by electricity, mind and spirit.

Positive and negative atomic charge. Tone highness and lowness. Emotion rise and fall.

All flowing through a spirit made of I know not what. But I am certain, on electricity I do depend.

© Mandolin Cafe

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