Monday, November 25, 2013

Leftovers (Fiddles and Violins): Blues Rock Edition

Sugarcane Harris: Where’s My Sunshine


Papa John Creach: Bumble Bee Blues


As the unofficial keeper of Star Maker traditions, I would like to set the record straight on this week‘s theme. Leftovers week is not simply the time to revisit themes from the past year. Any theme we have ever run is fair game. So some of us may choose to revisit themes from the past year, and I may be one of them as the theme continues. But for my first Leftover, I have chosen one of our older themes, from 2010 in this case: Fiddles and Violins.

I am amused whenever I hear the term “jam band“. I grew up in the 1960‘s, and all bands I knew of jammed. It was a badge of honor, and bands that couldn‘t jam well were laughed at. The San Francisco rock bands of the time were famous for it, but so were the British blues rock groups. I can‘t think of Jerry Garcia without thinking of jamming, but Eric Clapton was just as good. It is natural to think of electric guitar players in this context, but there were jammers on other instruments too. The two musicians featured in this post both began their performing careers before jamming was common in popular music. One usually thinks of jam bands as being white, but both of these musicians were black. And both played an instrument that is not usually associated with either jam bands or, especially, with the blues. I’m talking about two fiddlers who achieved fame with rock bands of the 60s and 70s: Don “Sugarcane“ Harris and Papa John Creach.

Sugarcane Harris began his recording career in the mid 1950s as half of the duo Don and Dewey. After the duo broke up, Harris recorded with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, and Johnny Otis. By the 60‘s, Harris had come to the notice of Frank Zappa. Harris recorded two albums with the Mothers of Invention, and several more with Zappa. This was followed by a mid-70s gig with a late edition of John Mayall‘s Bluesbreakers. Where‘s My Sunshine comes from a solo gig during the transition from Zappa to Mayall. It is more of an excuse for a jam than a song. But the quality of the jam makes up for that. Harris‘ solos are brief, as this is more of a full band effort, but his playing still shows the adventurousness that would have appealed to Zappa. At the same time, a solid blues foundation, which would have been what attracted Mayall, is also evident.

Papa John Creach began performing in Chicago bars in 1935. Blues as we know it now was still taking shape at that time, and Creach was most likely influenced by the black string bands of the day. Blues fiddlers were far more common in those days. Creach managed to stay in music for the next thirty years, but he never recorded until he met drummer Jon Covington, and became a member of Hot Tuna. Creach would go on to record with Jefferson Starship as well, before finally starting his solo career. Bumble Bee Blues hasan intro that recalls the early roots of Creach’s playing, but it soon turns into a fully plugged in electric blues number. Not surprisingly, Creach’s playing is much closer to traditional blues than Harris’. Together, they offer fine examples of the range of music that “jam bands” were making, long before anyone felt the need for the term.

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