Friday, December 20, 2013

Brushy One-String

Brushy One-String
In the US, most people get their music the same way as they get their food; out of a box. Just as processed edibles are packaged and delivered to grocery stores, three major companies produce and distribute the majority of the pre-recorded music in America. Most consumers have no idea how one transforms an agricultural product into something like Honey-nut Cheerios.  They are equally in the dark as to the artistic process that creates the music they listen to.

It is so refreshing to see a live performance in a theater, but what about experiencing music first hand in a living room or on a street corner? How about where you can actually participate? Maybe we could call that "art farming." Certainly when you connect to music in its authentic form it is a horse of an entirely different color.  Granted, like the skin of an organically grown apple there may be a few blemishes and the cabbage leaf may have a couple holes, but cooked right, its way tastier soul food than that pre-processed stuff.

Posted below is a clip of Brushy One-String performing "Chicken in the Corn".  Check out the busted up body of the guitar he is playing.  Street musicians generally carry their instrument on a strap over their back where ever they go. Temperature and humidity changes have a tendency to encourage the strap peg to pull free of the wood or a worn leather strap to slip off the peg.  When this happens, down goes the guitar in a vertical dive, onto the cobbled street or the tile floor of the cafe, the butt end landing with a most sickening crunch.  Repairs are costly, often more than the instrument is worth, and money and time for repairs are always scarce as most professional buskers play every day to pay for their hotel and food. So if the sound isn't affected too badly, the instrument stays in service.
Now consider the owner of an expensive guitar like my Martin D-35, which I hand delivered to the Martin factory in Nazareth PA.  I dropped it off for warranty repairs on the 7th of September then called last week only to find it was still not done. Four months have elapsed and the company representative still couldn't tell me when it would be ready.  If that Martin was my only guitar and I was supporting myself as full time street musician, what choice would I have but to sell the instrument?   Certainly I couldn't afford to take advantage of the free repairs guaranteed by this world renown manufacturer.  So once again, the little guy, the fellow down on the bottom of the food chain, is out of luck.  That is just the way it is.

I imagine the reason Brushy started playing with only one string was because his broken guitar couldn't handle the tension a full set of six.  That handicap, along with a lack or resources for repairs, may have been the catalyst for this brilliant performance. 

A musicologist might trace this man's style of playing back to the Mississippi Delta and on to West Africa, where a simple instrument called the diddley-bow* was invented. It consisted of a single string stretched between two pegs separated by a length of wood.  Plucked with the fingers, pitch was controlled by sliding a piece of bone or glass along the string.  Blues guitar players in America's deep south later adapted this approach to the six string guitar and the style became known "bottleneck".

Could it be that some styles of music develop more spontaneously than that?   The early blues performers were often farm laborers and injuries to the hands in that line of work were common.  If a musician lost a finger to a piece of farm machinery he was forced to approach the instrument differently.  One solution was to tune the strings of his guitar to the intervals of a chord and then use a small glass bottle to fret other combinations of notes up and down the neck.  Such obstacles to the standard performance of a composition can lead to some interesting innovations.  

A musician can spend thousands of dollars on a finely crafted guitar and deliver a performance no better than the one you will see created on the damaged one string beauty featured in the attached video.  Perhaps that is why new styles in art often emerge from the most under-funded and unlikely sources.

Thanks Brushy One-String!  Keep up the good work!


* Bo-Diddley, the stage name of Ellas McDaniel, aka "The Originator" for his style of songwriting that led the stylistic transition from blues to rock guitar, apparently had no connection to the instrument named the diddley-bow. "Bo diddly" was also American slang for "absolutely nothing" which was predated by diddly-squat, also meaning "nothing" (thanks Wikipedia!)