Sally Ann Forrester, Bluegrass Accordionist

As a follow-up to my previous post, here’s a great 1947 short film of Ramblin’ Tommy Scott and his Merry Mountaineers, featuring bluegrass/old-time accordion pioneer Sally Ann Forrester:

Forrester got her professional start in 1939, singing and playing guitar on a radio “barn dance” program in Oklahoma. She married one of her bandmates, fiddler Howdy Forrester, and the two of them went anywhere available gigs would take them. After stints at radio stations all over Texas and Illinois, they wound up in Nashville, finding work with a traveling “tent show” of various Grand Ole Opry stars that eventually included Bill Monroe.

As Murphy H. Henry tells it in her book “Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass”:

The outrageous financial success of [the show] inspired Bill Monroe to take out his own tent show in the spring of 1943. [...] Monroe knew that Sally Ann was a seasoned performer who could pull her own weight with the show. And having a woman on the show was considered an asset.

At some point–and it’s a mystery exactly when this happened, or why–Sally Ann began playing accordion rather than guitar with the Monroe’s (now inaccurately-named) Bluegrass Boys. If you listen closely, her accordion playing can be heard on the handful of tunes the group recorded for Columbia in 1945, including one of my favorites…

After Monroe’s band, Forrester and her husband (along with their newborn son) found their way back to Oklahoma, then to Texas, and finally back to Tennessee. In 1951, Howdy began playing fiddle for Roy Acuff and would continue to do so for most of the rest of Acuff’s career. But Sally Ann had apparently had enough of the music business by then and took a “day job” with the government. She died in 1999 from Alzheimer’s disease, with few today remembering her role as arguably the first woman in bluegrass.

Henry wraps up her chapter on Forrester with this:

For many years Sally Ann’s playing and her accomplishments were generally disregarded. After all, it was only an accordion. And she was only a woman. But the fact is, she was there at the beginning, showing us that women have always been a part of bluegrass. Others would follow.

 

Kiddin’ Around at Nashville’s Musician’s Corner

Kidsville Marquee

One of the great things about Nashville is how the city really embraces its “Music City” identity. Case in point is Centennial Park’s “Musician’s Corner”.

Inspired by London’s Speaker’s Corner, it’s an free event occurring each week in the spring and fall that presents a diverse bill of music to the community. Add in food trucks, a beer garden, local artisans selling their wares, activities for kids (and even for dogs!), and you’ve got yourself a great way for the whole family to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to appear at their “Kidsville” tent to play and demonstrate the accordion. I even brought one of my old, broken accordions, so I should show everyone what the “guts” of an accordion looked like, and how everything worked inside.

Kidsville Table

Accordion Demo

Safe Parking

Three cop cars nearby? Yeah, I think it’s safe to leave my accordions in the car this time…

Afterward I got to sit back in the shade and enjoy a couple of hours of great music on the main stage from the likes of Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, The Brothers Comatose, and Over the Rhine.

All in all, not a bad way to spend the weekend!

 

Update: Here are some more pix from the day, courtesy of photographer Jon Karr.

 

 

New MOOC: “Developing Your Musicianship”

coursera_musicianshipIf you’ve always wanted to beef up your knowledge of the basic nuts and bolts of music, you might want to check out the latest MOOC (“massive open online course”) from Berklee College of Music:  Developing Your Musicianship.

The course starts on April 1st (no foolin’!), but registration is open now. It’s totally free, suitable for all instruments, and you can drop the class at any time if you decide it’s not up your alley.

Review: Berklee’s Free Improv Class on Coursera

Berklee College of Music is once again teaching a five-week, online class on jazz improvisation, starting July 19th. Is it worth your time and effort to enroll? I completed the course the first time it was offered, back in the spring. Read on for my review…

Assuming the format remains the same as last time, here’s how the class works:  Each week covers one broad topic and features several short video lectures in which the instructor (multiple Grammy award winner Gary Burton) explains and demonstrates the material. There’s usually a quiz, which you can retake multiple times before the due date.

The real fun is with the weekly assignments. Most weeks Prof. Burton gives you one or two tunes to work on. For each tune, you download a lead sheet and an mp3 of backing tracks (similar to the Jamey Aebersold play-alongs). Record yourself jamming along to the music, upload it to SoundCloud, and submit your link to the Coursera website.

Obviously, it’s not possible for Gary Burton to personally listen to and grade each of the tens of thousands of submissions, so he doesn’t…  you do. Well, you grade and comment on five (or more) of your fellow students, who are randomly and anonymously selected for you. Meanwhile, other random students are grading you. Your score is the median of all the grades, so you wind up with a sort of “wisdom of the crowd” effect.

This “peer review” process of grading sounds like it shouldn’t work. But, in its own weird way, it does. I loved listening to how others approached each tune, and I found the comments they left on my work to be (mostly) helpful.

Incidentally, the course is open to players of any instrument. I wound up reviewing bassists, vocalists, violinists, and even a steel drum player. Naturally, I took the course with my accordion–and I wasn’t the only one!

But a warning:  This class ain’t for sissies. When originally given, it was titled “Introduction to Improvisation” despite being anything but. They’ve since retitled it “Jazz Improvisation”. A bit vague, but better.

You really need to know your instrument (at minimum, be able to play minor and major scales in all 12 keys) and have a basic knowledge of intervals and chord theory. You should be able to recognize musical notation, but you don’t have to be a strong sight-reader. This being a jazz-based course, classically-trained players should be prepared from some differences in notation, not all of which will be explained.

Like any new class, there were several glitches during the first run. There was a much weaker instructor and TA presence on this course that in others I’ve taken. As a result, the powers-that-be were often frustratingly slow to respond to problems. Let’s hope that the changing of the course title is an indication that they’ve listened to feedback and have ironed out a lot of these issues.

 

 

Kareem on Music Lessons

Esquire.com recently featured a wonderful article by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabaar:  20 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was 30.

Among the 20 tidbits of wisdom is this: Play the piano.

I took lessons as a kid but, like a lot of kids, didn’t stick with them. Maybe I felt too much pressure. After all, my father had gone to the Julliard School of Music and regularly jammed with some great jazz musicians. Looking back, I think playing piano would have given me a closer connection with my dad as well as given me another artistic outlet to better express myself.

PianoHow many people do you know who have the same regret?

Maybe you’re one of them?

I run into it all the time. People who, upon finding out I’m a musician, tell me that they “used to” take lessons on some instrument or another. Most of the time, they’ll go on to tell me that they wish they had kept up with it.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping anyone from picking it back up, at any age. Kareem was in his mid-fifties when he figured that out:

In 2002, I finally started to play and got pretty good at it. Not good enough that at parties people would chant for me to play “Piano Man,” but good enough that I could read music and feel closer to my dad.

And that, folks, is how a champion handles regret:  By doing something about it.

Berklee’s “Introduction to Improvisation” Starts Soon

I’m a huge fan of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses). So I’m especially excited about the handful of classes being offered for free on Coursera by one of my alma maters, Berklee College of Music.

Gary BurtonThe Introduction to Improvisation course, taught by legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton, looks particularly interesting. Improvisation is a valuable and rewarding skill, regardless of what style of music you typically play. If you’re a musician who currently doesn’t do much of it, this course should be right up your alley. Of course, there’s always something more to learn in the world of music, so I’d expect that those of you who are already experienced improvisers will still pick up a thing or two. (I’m also curious to see Burton’s approach to presenting a subject that isn’t always easy to teach.)

The course opens Monday, April 22nd. I’m enrolled… maybe I’ll see you there!

Did I mention that it’s free?

UPDATE:  The launch of the course has been delayed one week to Monday, April 29th.