The Banjo Years - Pt 4
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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

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Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

Jerry Garcia's Musical Roots:
The Banjo Years - Part 4 
by Sandy Rothman©  

People sometimes ask why Jerry decided to make the switch from bluegrass banjo to rock and roll guitar after the summer of 1964. One possibility is that he was a person who was always moving forward, not content to repeat what he'd already done; another is that when he came back to the Bay Area, there weren't enough capable bluegrass musicians around to form a band. There are many speculations. In the end, as Robert Hunter pointed out, Garcia "excelled at a music [rock and roll] that was culturally more true to his actual roots than to those of someone from Kentucky…Adopting a regional music as your own is like learning a foreign tongue when you're no longer a child: you're always going to have an accent which distinguishes you from a native." Whether an awareness of that inevitable "accent" in part prevented Garcia from pursuing the banjo and bluegrass as more than a hobby, I don't know.

Perhaps this anecdote will serve to illustrate one aspect of bluegrass culture that Jerry, who was sensitive about ethnic stereotyping when we were traveling in the South, found uncomfortable. Long after Garcia's established fame and recognition with the Grateful Dead, I ran into a California fan of bluegrass who used to hire some of us for house parties in the early '60s. Reminiscing about the old days and refreshingly unaware of Jerry's celebrity status he asked: "Say, whatever happened to that Mexican boy you brought over who played the banjo?" He liked Jerry and liked his banjo picking, so everything was well-intentioned, but he was culturally programmed to mention ethnicityin this case inaccurately (Jerry's father José Ramon Garcia was from Spain, and his mother Ruth Clifford was a Californian of Swedish-Irish descent)and that was just the kind of benign racism Jerry didn't miss at all when he "left" bluegrass.

By the end of the '60s, Jerry was playing the banjo only occasionally. I wasn't in the Bay Area then, but listening to a 1969 tape recording of Garcia playing with mandolinist Butch Waller and guitarists David Nelson and Rich Wilbur at a San Francisco club called the Matrix, I hear a banjo player much more solid and straight-ahead than he was in 1964. It was still Jerry, but now he was a real journeyman and, to my surprise, considerably more southern-sounding. He seemed to have shifted towards Scruggs while retaining some of the Keith touches woven in tastefully among his own inventions. In retrospect I think Jerry was at the vanguard of a national or international trend back towards traditional banjo in the wake of Bill Keith's widespread influence, a trend which continues at the time of this writing in the late 1990s.

When I returned to California in the early '70s and heard Jerry's playing with the band Old And In The Way, I felt he'd finally settled into his truly personal and most effective banjo style. It was solidity plus. It was also the first time he'd had a chance to work with a fiddle player as masterful as Vassar Clements, and fiddle and banjo go together like beans and cornbreadthere's nothing better for helping a banjo player develop a strong sense of timing and rapport. And now when Jerry sang lead vocals, the backup he could provide behind his singing was original and emphatic. His way of doing this was unique in bluegrass banjo. Years of singing while accompanying himself on electric guitar, drawing from the well-imprinted encyclopedia of rhythm and blues guitar models mentioned earlier, had given Jerry the inclination to transfer a similar technique to bluegrass and the banjo. "The thing that makes his playing in the Old and in the Way period so neat to me," said Neil Rosenberg, "is the way in which he emphasizes rhythm. It seems to me something he must have brought to the banjo from his guitar work with the Dead." (I would add: from the Dead, and from all the other guitar playing in him.) Rosenberg maintains, and it would be hard to disagree, that Old and in the Way was Garcia's definitive statement as a banjo player.

Also in this period Jerry had a chance to show his great appetite for and skill in accompanying others. He often said that he'd never had the opportunity to do this to his heart's content because he was so relied upon as a lead singer in the Grateful Dead. He told Jones and Pickard, as he'd said many times before, "I would rather play in a bluegrass band as a banjo player...and let somebody else front it. I don't think of myself as a lead singer...I think of myself as an accompanist. That's my field."

The next (and last) time I heard Jerry play any significant amount of banjo was Thanksgiving of 1986, after his diabetic collapse that summer and subsequent diminution of musical facility. Jerry said that he needed to learn how to play all over again after coming out of his coma. Encouraged by Mountain Girl (Carolyn Adams Garcia, Jerry's second wife and longtime partner) and her daughter Sunshine Kesey, both fans of string band music who thought it would do him good to get back in touch with his musical origins and some old friends, David Nelson and I decided to pay him a visit with our guitar and mandolin. Jerry began picking banjo again. Rusty and intensely self-critical ("My fingers don't know each other"), he surprised everyone by coming up to speed really quickly. He'd already embarked on his successful guitar rehabilitation regime, which added almost ten good solid years of playing to his life. I'm sure that Jerry had more banjo picking to do, too...if there had been enough time.

Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman

It's interesting to know that the incomparable Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt started his illustrious career as a banjo player. He was accompanying an accordion player at the age of twelve, the same age Jerry Garcia was when his mother was sending him for accordion lessons (until Jerry finally got the guitar he really wanted all along). Young Django won talent contests and impressed older musicians with his banjo, which indicates that his musical genius was evident even before he arrived at the guitar (through a route that's said to have included double bass and violin). This isn't a precise parallel to Garcia, who journeyed from guitar to banjo and back again before settling on the guitar, but the connection is intriguing. Like Jerry, although at a much younger age, Django was forced to reinvent his guitar playing out of physical necessity. Tragically, his left hand had been partially paralyzed in a caravan fire.

A word on Jerry's famous missing finger on his right hand, lost in a childhood woodcutting accident: Three-finger banjo involves the right thumb, index finger, and middle finger (T-I-M) moving in a continuous rolling pattern. Jerry, the only banjo picker I can think of who was missing the right middle finger, had to use the relatively weaker ring finger to replace it. This left only the pinkie available as a bracing finger anchored on the banjo head, an alternative that a minority of banjo players would voluntarily choose. Thus in banjo or guitar finger-picking, more than in his electric guitar work, most of which was done with a flatpick held between the right thumb and forefinger, Jerry had a considerable physical disadvantage to surmount. It was said jokingly many times that Garcia was the best four-finger banjo player in the business. At the same time, he turned this into a strength; using the ring finger instead of the middle in his picking gave Jerry's roll a different and distinctive sound. His "go-to" roll was the forward-backward pattern, also known as a split roll: half forward and half backward. While most banjo pickers use the split roll at times, Jerry really accentuated that third note in the pattern (T-I-M-T-M-I in his case) and made quite a style of it. The ring finger is generally considered "lazy," but Jerry's was fast.

As mentioned earlier, Jerry himself and some writers have drawn a line from his bluegrass banjo to his later electric guitar playing. The word banjoistic has been used to describe some aspects of his sound. Bluegrass banjo is played with a heavy plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks on the right hand, so that you get a very brassy and percussive sound when armored fingers meet steel strings. Jerry used a heavy flatpick for guitar, so his tone sometimes came out sinewy, metallic, and percussive, perhaps adding to the description of banjoistic.

A string player's characteristic tone (other than what may come from electronic amplification) is produced by the left as well as the right hand; in my opinion, the importance of the left hand in tone production has been generally underestimated and under appreciated. I think some of the similarity of Jerry's sound on the two instruments derives from the parts of tone production that originate in the left hand. The weight and placement of his fretting fingers, the warm, expressive vibrato he used, his way of moving from one position to anotherthese were all more or less the same in his approach to banjo and guitar. "I've somehow trained myself to come straight down on top of the [guitar] string…mostly on the tips of my fingers," he told Jon Sievert, adding that this left-hand approach came from his early banjo training.

When banjo tone, his or anyone else's, was pleasing to Jerry's ear, the longtime cartoon aficionado liked to exclaim that it was "quacking" just right. We always got a laugh out of that. Taken more as a soundquack, like thwackit seemed as apt as anything in trying to verbalize the elusive "right" banjo sound, a certain peculiarly satisfying resonance that also tends to conjure food metaphors like crunchy or juicy.

I don't consider myself well versed in the Grateful Dead's music (I'm a little better acquainted with the repertoire of the Jerry Garcia Band); my impressions of Jerry's rock guitar journeys have largely been peripheral, but one of his guitar characteristics does bring his banjo playing clearly to mind: those long, flowing, ascending passages that build intricately and sensuously towards exciting plateaus (leading to others). Sometimes when I was lost in reverie backstage at a Dead show, when the drift of his musical storytelling would just flow into me, I could hear him test some risky daredevil jump echoing those old fiddle-style banjo arpeggios. He would suggest it, meander around it, go somewhere else for awhile to rest and think about it, then come back…pounce!and go for it.

Sometimes he'd miss. But once launched, Garcia was great at the musical "save." He wasn't afraid to take risks and had the ability to transform any potential mistake into something musically interesting. He was probably better at this on the essentially European guitar than the essentially African banjo, the guitar seeming somehow more native to his soul. I might even suggest that Jerry's save was an important part of his unique improvisational genius that, along with his inspired songwriting in partnership with Robert Hunter, vitally informed the fabric of the Grateful Dead's incomparably woven musical and cultural identity.

[Main] Author ] The Banjo Years - Pt 1 ] The Banjo Years - Pt 2 ] The Banjo Years - Pt 3 ] [ The Banjo Years - Pt 4 ]


Tape collectors should be able to locate all of the noted Garcia bluegrass incarnations discussed in the article.
Jerry Garcia - The Bluegrass Years - by Sandy Rothman
Grateful Dead '84 Credit unknown  

 

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