Fiddling While America Burns – Wellington’s T-Bone Cut A Rug

Gun Rights

Fiddling While America Burns – Wellington’s T-Bone
Cut A Rug

“Noam Chomsky has
described the contemporary Republican Party as ‘the most
dangerous organization in human history’.” – Joseph
O’Neill, ‘Save the Party, Save the World’, New York
Review of Books
, August 20, 2020.

“Why do you think I
have chosen solitude? Commerce with men is a dangerous
business. The only way I have found to avoid being betrayed
is to live alone.”
– Jean-Pierre Melville.

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One week
prior to the most significant US Presidential elections in
decades, local denizens of Lower Hutt’s Moera Hall were
treated to Wellington-based bluegrass band T-Bone’s broad
canvas of musical styles, including tinges of bluegrass,
old-time, country, cajun, and zydeco influences. They
currently comprise a multi-instrumental acoustic quintet who
share an obvious passion for painting with an effervescent
and polychromatic palette. The result is an accomplished
blend of high-octane Americana music with fiery solos on
guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and fiddle, and close vocal
harmonies on their slower, more melancholy tunes.

getting together in 2005, T-Bone have appeared at numerous
Antipodean folk festivals, as well as the 2015 Rainforest
World Music Festival in Sarawak, Borneo. Alongside Aaron
Stewart, Cameron Dusty Barnell is multi-instrumentalist,
singer, and songwriter who has toured extensively with The
Frank Burkitt Band, The Federal String Band, The Hardcore
Troubadours, and as one half of the duo Kim and Dusty. Gerry
Paul is an award-winning songwriter, musician, and producer,
as well as a highly respected session musician who has
performed and recorded with Grammy Award winning bluegrass
icon Tim O’Brien, Irish platinum-selling accordion maestro
Sharon Shannon, and Bansoori player Ravi Kumur, as well as
with his own band Gráda. Largely self-taught fiddler,
Richard “The Pimp” Klein is a connoisseur of fine wines
from New Jersey, best known for his previous collaboration
with Melbourne’s Le Blanc Brothers Cajun Band.

There has
perhaps never been a more polarizing or argument-provoking
genre of music than bluegrass, a development of American
roots music that derives its name from Bill Monroe’s
pioneering band, The Blue Grass Boys, and flowered in the
1940s. Traditionalists insist it has to include a banjo,
mandolin, guitar and bass, with three-part harmonies and
maybe even a bass fiddle thrown in, but certainly no
amplified bass or drums. While some believe the rapid growth
of the jam band scene has hurt bluegrass, others think
musicians like Allison Krauss have converted the genre from
the gutsy, ballad-spewing, breakneck tempo music that it was
into the wispy, AM-gold, elevator music that much of it has
become. Or maybe The Berklee School of Music is to blame,
producing graduates who have gone on to make some of the
most polished and overproduced music on the American music
scene. The real reason why people either love or hate it
remains strangely elusive and difficult to define. Jam bands
have co-opted bluegrass, using it as a platform for extended
bouts of self-indulgent improvisation, only to come around
after hours of psychedelic exploration to zip through
updated versions of such classic standards as How
Mountain Girls Can Love

It is hardly surprising that
Jerry Garcia loved bluegrass and originally aspired to be a
banjo player in Monroe’s band. Had he taken an interest in
klezmer music and played a clarinet, it is arguable that
Deadheads would have come to prefer klezmer over bluegrass.
Monroe himself characterized the genre as “Scottish
bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness
and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome
sound.” Its retrograde racist and misogynistic roots lie
deeply embedded in traditional English, Scottish, and Irish
ballads, dance tunes and reels, originally transported down
the Mississippi by French Canadian traders and Canuck fur
trappers. The style was further developed after WWII by a
number of exceptionally gifted musicians who played with
Monroe, including five-string banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs
and scrupulous finger-picking guitarist Lester

Bluegrass generally features acoustic string
instruments and emphasizes the off-beat. Notes are
anticipated, creating the characteristic, accelerated level
of high octane playing, in contrast to more laid back blues
where they are more often played slightly behind the beat,
or “in the pocket.” As in jazz, instrumentalists take
turns playing the melody and improvising around it, while
the other musicians perform accompaniment, typified by tunes
called ‘breakdowns’ that are characterized by rapid tempos,
unusual instrumental dexterity, and complex chord changes,
as opposed to old-time music, in which all instruments play
the melody together, or one instrument carries the lead
throughout while the others provide accompaniment.

main sub-genres are broadly discernible: in traditional
bluegrass, musicians play folk songs with traditional chord
progression on acoustic instruments; progressive bluegrass
groups like The Punch Brothers, Cadillac Sky, and Bearfoot
tend to employ electric instruments and import songs from
other genres, particularly rock & roll; while bluegrass
gospel employs Christian lyrics, soulful three and four-part
harmonies, and sometimes solo instrumentals. A more recent
development is neo-traditional bluegrass that typically
involves more than one lead singer, as exemplified by bands
such as The Grascals and Mountain Heart.

Emphasising an
unplugged sound, especially the unnerving twang of banjos
and fiddles, bluegrass performers have aadopted the scornful
sensibility of an ancient musical tradition handed down from
the distant mists of time. In reality, however, the genre is
only ten years older than rock ‘n’ roll. As performed by its
earliest practitioners, it was considered a radical
innovation in its time – much faster and more precise than
any of the old-time mountain music that preceded it. Some
celebrate its birth year around 1940, when Monroe made his
first recordings for RCA, while others prefer 1945, when he
hired Scruggs, whose three-finger banjo roll made the music
much leaner and more virtuosic than before. In any case,
Monroe’s musical modernism proved as revolutionary in
country music as the concurrent phase of bebop pioneers did
in jazz.

The progressive nature of Monroe’s music was
camouflaged by the conservative cast of his lyrics. His
music echoed the power of the radios and telephones that had
reached into isolated Appalachian communities and connected
them to the outside world. It also reflected the increased
velocity of the cars and trains that were liberating young
people from farms and small rural towns into Atlanta and
Northern industrial cities. The lyrics assuaged the
homesickness of people on the move by providing a
sentimental sense of nostalgia for a rapidly vanishing way
of life. Bands such as The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney
Brothers, and The Larry Stephenson Band ably fill this role,
taking classic Monroe recordings as a template to follow,
rather than an inspiration to change.

There are still
plenty of bands doing it Monroe’s way, spitting out
lyrical tales of heartache interspersed with rapid mandolin
and banjo breaks, but when Monroe ‘invented’ the genre, it
was genuinely outsider music compared to the sort of glossy
Bing Crosby/Perry Como/Tony Bennett crooning popular in
post-war America. From the late 1950s and well into the
seventies, many mid-Atlantic areas flourished with bluegrass
bands. It was an aggressive and emotional music mostly heard
mostly in bars where sawdust covered the floors and remained
stubbornly beyond mainstream acceptance, despite the
commercial success of soundtrack albums from The Beverly
to Bonnie and Clyde and

America’s musical heritage remains a
racial minefield, however. Prejudice pops up regularly to
complicate tunes we would prefer simply to enjoy, in the
same way it feels weird these days to watch an old Mel
Gibson movie. Take Big Bend Gal, for instance, a
catchy fiddle-and-vocal number about a female field hand who
is ”the queen of the whole plantation” and includes such
lines as “There’s no use talking about the Big Bend Gal
who lives at the county line / For Betsy Jane from the
prairie plain just leaves them way behind.” Big Bend
was first recorded in 1927 by the Shelor Family of
Virginia, who were white and sang it in a raw hillbilly
style with lines that put nowadays put a damper on the

Jump Jim
is another popular fiddle tune with a dubious
history whose refrain goes “Weel about and turn about and
do jis so / Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.” In
the early 1830s, a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth Rice
adopted the song and its eponymous trickster character for a
comedy act that would catapult him to international fame.
Donning rags and blackface, Rice performed send-ups of black
speech and culture, song and dance. He wrote endless new
verses for his signature ditty – corny slapstick humor with
the occasional social commentary:

And if de blacks should
get free,
I guess dey’ll fee some bigger,
An I
shall concider it,
A bold stroke for de

Rice’s success paved the way for a wave of
mean-spirited blackface performers and the ‘Jim Crow’
moniker soon became synonymous with American apartheid. In
the post-bellum period, black entertainers also did
blackface routines for a time, before moving on to blues or
jazz-based vaudeville acts. “The first one or two
generations of black performers took those stereotypes to a
far deeper degree of racist imagery than even the white
performers did,” said Don Flemons, a black fiddler and
founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who moved on
to a solo career in 2014 and has a passion for black cowboy
songs. Black performers often “subverted these images and
black audiences could tell,” but white minstrelsy evolved
into something “more sinister.”

According to
North Carolina historian David Gilbert, a century ago
blackface was “the only game in town … [black
entertainers] acted, sang, and performed in the few
caricatures available to them: the dandified, urban Zip Coon
and the slow-witted Sambo, to name the two most prominent
types. Often these ‘coon’ caricatures traded in razor
violence, lust, and gastronomical stereotypes like chicken
and watermelon. But these were the stereotypes of their day,
not just in minstrelsy, but in the advertising and consumer
culture.” Given the heavy baggage of all this history,
should white musicians feel conflicted about playing a
haunting instrumental like Mace Bell’s Civil War
, knowing that it was written by a Texan fiddler
who served in the Confederate Army?

Lots of old songs
beloved by country and bluegrass audiences have similarly
complicated histories. Among the most notorious is
Dixie’s Land a tune usually credited to Ohio-based
showman Daniel Emmett, who founded one of the first
traveling blackface troupes during the 1840s. Dixie
became an unofficial Confederate anthem, with lyrics that
expressed nostalgia for a lifestyle based on the brutal
oppression of black people: “Oh I wish I were in the land
of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten.” Flemons
does not think the song is racist per se, “but how it’s
applied in the world – that’s a whole different thing.”
This fraught past is the reason why, in 2016, the University
of Mississippi banned its marching band from playing the
song at sporting events. The racist roots of the song was
too troubling even for a school that still styled itself
‘Ole Miss.’

The horrors of slavery and its aftermath are,
to quote the sideview mirror, closer than they appear.
History is the antidote to temporal parochialism, which
makes us think the only time is now, and geographical
parochialism, which makes us think the only place is here.
Prejudice “is still in our blood, it’s still in our
actions, it’s still in our Constitution – little fragments
that are left over and covered up by new laws,” Ben Hunter
said. “In the right context, it’s important to perform
Run, Nigger, Run – another slave song adopted by
white performers – ”because black and white people were
singing that song, but probably for different

“People are trying to find modern
sensibilities in stuff that was not built on modern
sensibilities,” said Flemons who performed an instrumental
version of Stephen Foster’s Ring, Ring de Banjo at
a Foster-themed event with the Cincinnati orchestra in 2015.
Foster’s racist lyrics are “absolutely unacceptable
nowadays,” he acknowledged, “and I would never think to
perform that song outside the context of that specific
show.” But these once-popular songs “are a document of
what happened” and failing to acknowledge that history
would “completely devalue the strength of how far we’ve

Slavery was foundational to British and American
prosperity and rise to global power. Sugar fast became
Britain’s largest import and the craze for it revolutionised
national diets, spending habits, and social life, not least
because of its association with that other newly fashionable
drug, tea. During the C18th, English consumption of of sugar
sky-rocketed from about four pounds per person per year to
almost twenty, roughly ten times as much as the French, who
preferred coffee. All this abundance, luxury, and so-called
domestic progress derived from the brutal exploitation of
huge numbers of enslaved African men, women, and children
across the Atlantic. As its defenders liked to stress,
slavery was hardly a new phenomena. It was taken for granted
in biblical and classical times, practised by virtually
every previous civilisation, and common in Africa itself,
but there had never been anything like the scale of
plantation culture that the British pioneered in the
Americas, where so many slaves were held in proportion to
the population of free people. In Virginia, which had by far
the the most enslaved people of the thirteen mainland
colonies, they made up roughly forty precent of all
pre-revolutionary inhabitants, but whites always remained in
the majority. As atrocious and barbaric as the treatment of
slaves was in North America, it was incomparably worse in
the West Indian sugar estates, which were not only the
largest agricultural businesses in the world, but also the
most destructive of human life.

Throughout the colonies,
speech, song, and music were all central to the culture of
enslavement. For both slave owners and the enslaved, spoken
and sung words simultaneously functioned not only as
representations, but also as performative speech action.
Their utterance was the most ubiquitous way in which the
boundaries between liberty and bondage were constantly
reinforced, negotiated, or contested. During the C18th,
“freedom of speech” (a concept previously associated
only with parliamentary debates) came to be seen as
foundational to all political liberty. Both colonial laws
and politics were transacted through verbal rituals like the
taking of oaths, the giving of evidence, or the making of
public speeches, from which women, slaves, and other lesser
humans (like Jews, Quakers, Native Americans, mulattos, and
free blacks) were to a greater or lesser extent excluded.
The precisely-drawn boundaries of this power to speak, to be
heard, and to silence others were frequently disputed within
the colonial population precisely because they were so
central to the meaning of freedom.

Speech and song were
also pivotal in C18th definitions of what it meant to be
human. Abolitionists claimed that the eloquence of slaves
proved their equal humanity, at a time when most whites took
it for granted that black utterances were inherently
inferior, even bestial. When the Scottish ‘Enlightenment’
philosopher David Hume set out to prove that whites were
intrinsically superior to all other “breeds,” he
confidently discounted “negroe” voices as nothing more
than brutish squawks. It is striking how much effort was put
into physically, as well as legally, silencing enslaved
people. As a young boy recently transported from the Guinea
Coast to a Virginia plantation in the mid-1750’s Olaudah
Equiano was terrified by the appearance of a black house
slave who moved around fixed in an iron muzzle, “which
locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and
could not eat or drink.” Some slaveowners ordered such
equipment from London. Others, like the bookish young
Englishman Thomas Thistlewood, improvised their own horrific
gags. He also recorded in his diary 3,852 acts of rape with
almost 150 enslaved women. Apart from the thoroughness of
his record-keeping, Thistlewood was entirely typical, even
relatively restrained, in his behaviour. Freedom of speech
and the power to silence may have been pre-eminent marker of
white liberty, but at the same time slavery depended on
dialogue and slaves could never be entirely muted. Even in
conditions of extreme violence, stories and songs remained
ubiquitous, ephemeral, and potentially transgressive.
Moreover, African slaves themselves came from societies in
which oaths, orations, and invocations were laden with great
potency, both between people and as a connection to the
spirit world.

The reality is that music, like sport, is
never politically neutral. Both its form and content can
demand progressive and revolutionary change or remain
profoundly conservative, supporting the social status quo
ante. Just ask the (now mercifully defunct) Black and White
Christy Minstrels, or the Springboks, or soccer fans in
Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool who choose to support one
of two soccer teams along largely ideological lines, one
predominantly supported by the Catholic community, the other
resolutely Protestant. Or, better yet, ask the NBA, which
recently concluded its season not only with the Lakers’
successful championship run, but also the full endorsement
of a mass political movement by teams, players, and fans

As it is with sport, so it is with music, the most
immediately moving and affective of all artistic modalities.
The sort of music we like to listen to and support has
political ramifications and ideological implications. In
these days of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ when black folks are
still getting shot in the back at point blank range and
synagogues across the Southern states are routinely defaced
by swastikas, they reflection of moral values. Country music
harks back to the ultra-conformist Eisenhower era, a simpler
time when coloured folks knew their place and red-necked,
‘good ol’ boys’ drove around sporting gun-racks in their
pick-up trucks and looking for suitably sturdy trees from
which to hang their “strange fruit.”

It is crucial
that Americans decisively reject this caudillo model of
one-man rule in the upcoming election, if they are to
restore some of the liberal democratic norms that this
huckleberry clown has so wantonly and consistently trashed.
A landslide would certainly provide a cautionary tale, but
making the election solely about ‘wokeness’ is to ignore
many other issues that also need to be taken into account,
such as climate change and access to affordable universal
healthcare, let alone Trump’s mental and emotional
instability in the White House, where thoughts seem to drift
randomly around like tumbleweed on Main Street. Comparisons
with previous Republican presidents are salient. Like
Reagan, Trump is an authoritarian and callous poseur who
hasn’t hesitated to send in armed police and the National
Guard to break up civil protests. While more than 89,000
people died of Aids over seven years under Reagan’s
administration, however, Covid deaths in the US over seven
months under Trump are 225,000 and rising fast. Even
a radical, bipartisan, and cross-party realignment of
government institutions would at best move towards a
restoration of pre-Trump America.

The US desperately needs
to address systemic structural inequalities, if it is to
survive what is inevitably coming next. In January, a gun
rally in Richmond, Virginia, attracted thousands of militia
members and extremists carrying semi-automatic assault
rifles, NRA members, and armed Trump supporters from across
the country – all mixing together in large crowds.

are these people so afraid of? Against whom are they trying
to protect themselves?

The answer is all too apparent –
not only such well-known victims of gun violence as Trayvon
Martin, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, but also Walter
Wallace, a mentally disturbed young man who was shot more
than ten times by a Philadelphia police officer only last
week. Such repeated and despicable patterns of behaviour are
based on deeply ingrained fears and prejudices with several
hundred years of back story.

Sporting a fedora and
grizzled love patch, Klein is well positioned to undercut
the music’s more questionable aspects, peppering the
playlist with Northern Union, Italian revolutionary, and Bob
Marley protest songs. He carved a crisp and clean path
through the sort of gut-bucket hoe-downs more typically
associated with the unfortunate inhabitants of trailer parks
– poor, white, and predominantly found in the most
impoverished regions of the US that have experienced the
ravages of coal-mine closures, the collapse of public
education and consequent mass illiteracy, and the
devastating effects of prescription opiate addiction. These
Southern and Midwestern states are the rabid heartland of
Bible-bashing and heavily-weaponised Trump supporters.

Without any effort at explanation or historical
contextualisation, such enthusiasm for a musical genre
steeped in racial and misogynistic stereotypes runs the risk
of being seen as just another a patronising affectation,
like the Tom Waits hat and strange facial hair. Fortunately
Klein’s solid and well-informed performance was pitch
perfect and provided exactly the right equilibrium. The
audience – which ranged from toddlers to grannies –
certainly appreciated the band’s toe-tapping antics, which
were neatly balanced out by some soulful harmony singing on
the slower numbers. A little fiddle can go a long way, but
mercifully there were no klezmers or accordions in

© Scoop Media

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