Friday, April 17, 2009

Fifes and quills

Flutes or pipes are not very common in blues recordings, because in the 1920s they were already part of the past, and had been replaced by the harmonica. In the blues, there are of two sorts :

The quills

Everybody with an interest in music should read Land Where The Blues Began by Alan Lomax.
When Alan Lomax came first to the hill country near Senatobian, in northern Misssissippi, in 1942, he met Sid Hemphill, a multi-instrumentist, born around 1876. Hemphill showed him the quills, "a set of hollow canes of varying lengths, bound together with the tops even". They are the same instrument as the Greek or Romanian panpipes, or the Inca's rondador. The quills were of various sizes, 4-tube to 10-tube for Sid.

In my first post about Indians and the blues, I'd put a recording of Sid Hemphill playing the quills in a fashion that called back to his African and Indian roots.

"Them's the quills...that's old folks' music. Music of olden time. Back yonder almost everybody used to play on quills. Now, ain't hardly common no more."

Henry Thomas : Old Country Stomp (buy) (Chicago, june 1928)

Another great quills player was Henry Thomas, who recorded 25 sides for Columbia in 1928. Being born in the 1870s, like Sid Hemphill, he was one of the oldest blues musicians ever recorded. The song above is an old square dance tune from the 19th century.

Read more about the quills here in this great Web page by a guy named Norm Sohl.
Ed at the great blog The Blue bus made also a great post about the quills.

The fife or fice

In Land Where The Blues Began there is this great description of Napoleon Strickland making his fife :

Majesterially, he draws the red-hot poker out of the coals and, holding up a section of cane, says, " Now this is something you go fishing with, but I'm gonna fix it so it will make music." He puts the cane down on the floor and, holding it steady with his foot, burns the first finger hole into the barrel, then puts the poker into the coals again. " Now I'm gonna show you how I make it sing."
He holds the flute uo to his lips and licks the place where he will blow it. Then he burns in that hole. Next he licks his other fingers and spreads them along the barrel, locating the other finger holes in accordance with his normal way of spreading his hand along the barrel when he plays. These tuning points are marked with spit. He nicks the chosen witted points with his big clasp knife - "See, I takes my knife and I swings each one of them out."
"How far apart do you put the holes ?"
"About half an inch, I think"
Here we witness black magic. No micrometer, not even a ruler or a pattern, has controlled the tuning of his fife. The finger holes are simply set a comfortable and familiar distance apart, where his fingers naturally fall when he's playing. He carefully burns out and enlarges these holes, one after another. He delicately touches the end of the cane. "When the sound come out this end, you got it made." Napoleon opines. "Now I'm gonna burn the jintes out of the cane." So saying, he pushes the red-hot poker up the barrel of the new fife, and as he burns through each joint of the cane, delicate notes of smoke rise in the kitchen air. Withdrawing the poker, he blows the barrel of the fife clear of smoke, shavings, and cinders. He rubs the cane to cool it off. "Now," he says proudly and with his widest grin, "here's the fice, and i'll do it like this."

Of course, fife is often accompanied with drums (and I soon will post about that style).
Ed Young was another fife player that Lomax met on his hill country trips. Here is a improvised version of "Joe Turner" he recorded with white banjo player Hobart Smith.

Ed Young & Hobarth Smith : Joe Turner (buy)

(this photo and the first one were taken by Alan Lomax).


buy generic viagra said...

Dude, those examples are the best thing I have heard in lots of months! blues from the 20's is something really new to me. Thank you so much for sharing it!

generic viagra said...

a true musicians don't care about if it is a flute or a pipe, he just try to produce the best music, thats all.