woodpecker.comH    
About Harvey Reid     Concert Schedule    BLOG    Contact   Homespace

Call Us Troubadours: The Story of the Most Durable and Personal Type of Musician

fiddler Troubadours like me have been around forever. We went underground about 500 years ago, and are hiding in plain sight even as our numbers and our influence are growing steadily.

This is a preview/overview of a major book I am working on...

It's a pretty safe bet that you have seen someone sing a song while accompanying themselves with a guitar or some other instrument, without any other people assisting or playing along. You might agree with me that this idea of a person delivering a song is probably the oldest and possibly the most common form of human music, with untold millions of people doing it over untold centuries of time. Yet here we are in the Age of Information, and this fundamental human artistic activity doesn't have a name, and there is no designated place, type of school or teacher where you can reliably go in order to learn how to do it yourself. You can't get a college degree in it, even at a place that has the words "School of Music" in its name. In 88 years there also has not been a single song on top of the popular music charts (and barely a handful of songs on top-selling albums) that was just a recording of a person playing a song.

I'm reminded of humorist Dave Barry's observation that people who study weather are called "meteorologists" to distinguish them from people who study meteors, who are known as "people who study meteors." Those of us who without anyone else's help can sing a song while accompanying ourselves with an instrument don't have a name either, and it's high time we had one. I have practiced this un-named art for a living for almost 50 years, and I confess that I have always felt a lot like an Olympic athlete who couldn't tell people the name of their sport.

But as I contemplate myself and what I do, it becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not unique. I am one of those musicians like me, and when I look around at my contemporaries or when I read about musicians from 1000 years ago, I feel an immediate and permanent sense that I am part of a tribe of some sort. Like lost cousins or distant relatives, I have peers in the way I approach music, and we are all similar in vital ways.

Excuse me... what kind of music do you play?

I have struggled for 50 years now to answer the innocent and obvious question: “What kind of music do you play? It seems to be the natural first question to ask, up there with "Where are you from?" or "What do you do for a living?" When I traveled regularly on airplanes with my guitar and my very long hair, people would often ask “What band are you in?,” but the second question inevitably would be about the type of music I play. I would sometimes say “I play my own music,” or “art music” or I became fond of laughing and saying “unpopular music.” Sometimes I would answer “I play whatever I can get away with with just my voice and my guitar,” which would seem to send them off in a nice way, though I could see them trying to understand what I was talking about. I feel like after those 50 years, I am finally understanding how to answer that simple first question. The answer comes from appreciating my place in the very long chain of musical knowledge that connects me to my ancestral counterparts. We’ll look later at how and why it happened, but most people are aware that in the Middle Ages, some people who were labeled “troubadours” wrote and sang songs in a way that isn’t that far from what musicians like me do today. It’s possible that my musical species is a type of modern troubadour, and I might be better called an American Troubadour. If I were a dinosaur I might be Troubadouris Modernis Americanis.

What I really want to tell them is that I play the kind of music that is performed from memory, by a skilled musician who uses an instrument and their voice, without assistance from others. I also want to explain why this kind of music can be so special. The art that comes from combining music with poetry is very old, and one we all know about, but it doesn't seem to be commonly discussed that it is something that is different from either poetry or music alone. I also want to talk about the nearly-shamanic states of consciousness that a musician can enter while creating music or during a good performance, that add another dimension of content and meaning to an art form that already involves a complex mixture of rhythm, tone, melody, harmony combined with all those good things that words can provide. In many important ways, musicians like me are incarnations of something very old, both fleeting and durable, though in many ways we are quite different from our counterparts from even the recent past. Though we have not always been celebrated or encouraged, I have come to realize we modern troubadours are as strong and numerous as ever, and possibly poised to take on a vital new role at the forefront of music. During some eras and in some places we have been honored and revered, but for a large part of this long journey we have been nearly invisible– feared, ignored, overwhelmed by bands and orchestras, even shunned and outright outlawed.

There is nothing bad about a group of musicians, a musician reading from a piece of paper, or a musician that doesn't sing and play at the same time? It's just that it is not well-known or properly appreciated that a single musician skilled in their art, without looking at paper, can deliver the most fundamental, rarified expressions of music in their most pristine and pure form. There are probably analogies in the food world; eating an ear of corn that was just picked, or a fish that was just pulled out of the water. Think of those great iconic photographs– of soldiers putting up the flag in battle, of the sailor kissing the girl at the end of the war, of the Chinese man stopping the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Those moments were captured when they happened. You couldn't make a better photograph by bringing in lights and a director, a make-up crew and some actors. I also don't think you make a human music performance better by adding more musicians or having another person controlling or manipulating the musician. This art form deserves to be more respected and celebrated, and honored in its own right, and even though it is the smallest and quietest of musical forms, it can deliver the most exquisite elements of music in ways that nothing else can.

I’d going to take you on a quick tour down the long, misty, dusty and meandering trail from the troubadours and minstrels of the distant past into the Age of the iPhone and beyond. The journey has its roots in the furthest corners of antiquity, yet the modern incarnation of troubadour music is blossoming and flowering in our fast-paced 21st century world. The story has unfolded through the centuries, involving a multitude of musicians from many cultures and times, and an even larger number of listeners. I don't think it is one that has ever been told properly, with the telescope fully extended, and I can only find piecemeal accounts of the narrative. There are a lot of discussions of what troubadours were in the past, but the idea that there is a modern version and that there is a connecting lineage of troubadour knowledge and identity is not widely known. In many important ways, musicians like me are incarnations of something very old, both fleeting and durable, though in many ways we are quite different from our counterparts from even the recent past. Though we have not always been celebrated or encouraged, I have come to realize we modern troubadours are as strong and numerous as ever, and possibly poised to take on a vital new role at the forefront of music. During some eras and in some places we have been honored and revered, but for a large part of this long journey we have been nearly invisible– feared, ignored, overwhelmed by bands and orchestras, even shunned and outright outlawed.

As I tentatively assign myself and my tribe the moniker of "Modern Troubadours," I admit I'm a bit leery of the word "modern" since what I do is pretty old-fashioned and not particularly hi-tech, and the word "troubadour" isn't properly understood. Not enough other musicians explain themselves this way, and the "troubadour" word is used mostly by music journalists and promoters, usually to describe certain songwriters, or by college poetry people to talk about the Middle Ages. If we modern troubadours aren't carrying our instruments we are nearly impossible to spot, as if we have a comic book super-hero "secret identity." Store clerks sometimes figure out that I am a musician when I reach into my pocket for change and accidentally pull out a capo or some guitar picks. This troubadour awareness has become an archetype identification for me, and even a lens I can view the world through. It's not imaginary, and it's not a romanticized view of anything. There are a lot of us, we have a lot in common, and we are having an increasing impact on our world today after lurking in the shadows for a very long time.

As I approach "tribal elder" status in the modern troubadour world, I realize that I want to inhabit my place as a musician, play a role as an educator of audiences and of other musicians, and perhaps above all be an advocate and cheerleader for the profession I am a proud part of. I see my position in a long chain of musical knowledge that threads through countless musicians, thousands of years and several continents. Unfortunately, even as we are surging in numbers and influence in the music world, we have a long way to go to achieve acceptance and legitimacy on a par with other forms of music. I can't help wanting to encourage not only musicians, but also their friends, families and listeners, to understand and honor their own places in this long and colorful continuum of "the people's music." We troubadours are just regaining our power and respect after nearly five centuries of disrespect and persecution, and I want to see the message spread that it is a worthy and valuable thing to play your own troubadour music, and to encourage others to play theirs. Modern musicians and listeners could all use a better understanding of how this ancient profession has weathered the storms and tides of culture, technology, religion, politics and social change, to become what it is today.

You might not want your child to grow up to be a singing guitar player, perhaps for fear that they will never be able to feed themselves, but in the bigger picture there have been much worse times and places to pursue this kind of thing. If you lived in England in 1572 and you were not licensed or did not belong to “an honourable person of great degree” it was decreed by the government that you were "to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about." I'll tell you more about the exciting history of the people's musical knowledge, but first we need some terminology and a little more background.

We troubadours have skills and a purpose, and new recruits are quietly joining our mysterious ranks all the time, sometimes without even realizing it. Parents often don't even recognize when their children start turning into troubadours. Standard music training usually involves a completely different skillset than what modern troubadours typically possess, and it is unfortunate that modern parents can't yet go looking for "troubadour lessons" for their children. There are millions of us doing this old thing that has been going on since the beginnings of humanity, yet we don't have a name for it and you can't be sure of finding a proper teacher, if indeed the art form can be taught. What we think of as "guitar lessons" might mean several other things, and you might find a local teacher who is a modern troubadour, but you might not. There is no established terminology in use on bulletin boards or on Craigslist to steer us towards the right things. There are no troubadour societies, secret meetings or handshakes, or Harry Potter-style characters at the Hogwarts Troubadour Academy busily training the next generation. After several cups of strong coffee, I sometimes imagine myself starting the first Troubadour School in 1200 years, but I think I'll leave that for younger entrepreneurs.

I also want to shine some light on the skillsets of the troubadours, since in my 50 years of troubadouring I have never seen an explanation of how and why troubadour music skills differ from church organist, choir singer or other common musicians. It's not just some vague undefined mass of knowledge that mysteriously appears in our heads– there are things we practice long and hard. There are also concepts, rules, conventions, terminologies and notations we use, though they aren't the same ones the school music teachers use.

Music is now quickly diminishing in economic value as a commodity, but that doesn't mean it is suddenly powerless. Neural connections to music are almost hard-wired into human brains, and its powers and birthright mark it to be something important and valuable to us now, just as it has been to all who came before us. The artists who are the most human and the most independent might prove to be the most valuable in human dignity's coming struggles against automation and technology.

"What kind of musician are you not?"

It might have been easier for me if some wise person had slyly asked me that question in an airport long ago. Sometimes we can best figure out what ice cream flavor to order by working backwards from what we don't like.

I create much of the music I play and record, but not all, so just calling myself a composer or arranger isn’t accurate. There has been a category for a while called "song stylist," though I never have thought that's a good way to describe me. I play slide guitar, I use a flatpick and I also am known as a fingerpicker or fingerstyle player, but the fact that I don't stick to one of those keeps me out of those convenient sub-categories. I don’t exclusively play American music, or even music from one genre or even one instrument, which rules out a few other common descriptions like “American composer” or “American guitarist” or something simple like "blues musician." I usually perform with an acoustic guitar and an autoharp, often with something from the mandolin or banjo family, so it’s not ideal to call me a guitarist or an autoharp player. “Multi-instrumentalist” is a pretty awkward term I often encounter. It implies someone who doesn’t sing, and also someone who does more than I do. I can’t play anything on a keyboard, horn, violin, or drum set, and I just stick to plucked strings. "Songs & Plucked Strings" is awful but descriptive, and I cringe to think of being labeled as a singer, poet & string plucker, though I am one. I divide what I do about equally between songs and instrumentals, though I never like being called either an “instrumentalist” or a “songwriter.” Admittedly my best-selling recordings are probably my instrumental work, but lots of people like my songs and my versions of other people's songs. I’m also not just a musician who sticks to a genre or style, like bluegrass, country or blues, though one of my albums was voted in the Top 10 Folk Albums of All Time by Acoustic Guitar Magazine.

harv

The word “acoustic” has been used a lot in the last few decades in my corner of the music world, but it has a maddeningly fuzzy Tinker-Belle definition that gets further away the more you try to pin it down. I don't have time to go into it here, but the "folk" word has been a somewhat annoying catchall, and plagued by its connections to "folklore" and the romanticized idea of learning only from neighbors and relatives. I do sometimes play electric instruments, and most of us who perform with so-called “acoustic” instruments use some kind of pickups and amplification. If you think about it, all music is acoustic, and most music is somewhat electrified these days. Drums, the instrument least associated with acoustic music, are often the only instrument that isn’t plugged in or amplified, so technically drums are the most “acoustic” instrument, and horns probably would be next on the list, though anyone who uses the term “acoustic music” would never include drummers or horn players in that category. I get called a “folk musician” pretty often, and that’s a pretty catch-all category, though the fact that I have recorded Rolling Stones songs, Bach pieces, Joplin rags and some other rather “unfolk” music means that it’s also a garment that never fit very well.

Musicians like me have been called guitarists, guitar players, singer-guitarists, folksingers, folk artists, acoustic musicians, singer-songwriters, singer-songwriter-guitarists, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalists and minstrels, but none of those has ever felt right. I don’t think that what I do musically is that odd, and if you saw me perform you wouldn’t think “Wow this guy needs to figure out what he is.” There are lots of musicians in the past and present that I consider to be my peers and colleagues, who are similarly without a proper title, though none of my models or heroes is very well-known or ever had anything resembling a hit record. I don't know if Nic Jones, Leo Kottke, Chris Smither, Norman Blake or Michael Jerome Browne has ever been in the habit of calling themselves a modern troubadour, but I doubt it. The public just hasn't been able to handle that word, but there doesn't seem to be a better one out there.

As I look back, I didn't start out playing music with a group of other kids, and never once thought about starting a band. Right from the beginning, guitar was a solitary and meditative activity for me. I immediately wanted to play guitar and sing songs at the same time, which would have been a key insight into my future musical direction, had there been someone there to see it. I was not at all interested in playing in the school band or orchestra, and the idea of me taking music lessons or joining the school marching band was not on the table in my childhood. I often wish that I would have encountered something called "troubadour education" that was understood and respected as a career path, or even as a class in a summer camp or adult education curriculum somewhere.

700 years ago, I might have been able to become an apprentice of a master minstrel, but I had to find my own way in 20th century America, learning what I could wherever I could. I didn't have the luxury of learning from family members or neighbors, but instead I absorbed music from people I met, from TV and radio, from magazines and books, and especially from listening to recordings. I have come to understand that I was part of a large contingent of musicians, mostly in the 20th century, who learned primarily from audio recordings. In the more distant past, musicians learned either orally or by using paper, and as we roar into the 21st century, it seems clear that video is becoming the primary medium for passing the knowledge along. Earlier methods still have value, but the richness of what video offers is unparalleled. It may well be that YouTube just usurps all other forms of musical learning, though it is unfortunate that there is so much bad information mixed in with the good.

So what is "modern troubadour music?"

There has never been a proper Grammy category for modern troubadours, and we have often popped up under different labels. As I write this, the highest-flying member of our ranks is a 27-year-old Englishman named Ed Sheeran. He won the 2018 "Pop Solo Performance" Grammy, which is an odd category that does at least point out that solo artists are not the same as groups. It's interesting that they also have the category for "duo/group" vocals, which first started in 1980, to distinguish non-solo singing from solo. Sheeran has also been nominated for "Pop Vocal" and "Song of the Year." Why they need the word "Pop" in so many Grammy categories is an eternal mystery, though I can't help feeling like it's an excuse to ignore music not made by famous pop artists. (Privately, I refer to the Grammies as the "Financial Achievement Awards" which does explain things.) Like many other modern troubadours, Ed Sheeran is also good at rock and rap, though he can sing a love ballad or an Irish pub song, or handle a crowd in the subway with his acoustic guitar and voice. Anybody who gets hired to sing in a tavern these days has to have this kind of skillset, but the Grammy awards rules committees don't seem to understand how this works, or be able to come up with a clear category title. I don't think I could comfortably answer the question on the airplane by saying that "I play Pop Solo music," and I doubt that Ed Sheeran ever answered the airplane question that way either. Maybe there should be a Grammy category for "Pop Troubadour" and one for "Un-Pop Troubadour."

When I have to choose a genre in iTunes or on a music business web site I scroll through a sea of names like ska, post-punk, reggae, world music, house, jungle, alternative, low-fi, industrial, ethnic, Cajun, cabaret, and I sort of get dizzy. “Country & Folk” is where I find some of my friends’ music, though I notice that some of them label their albums as “pop” or “world music,” probably to get a wider audience, since many people shop and scroll by genre. With all those sub-categories of rock and punk it's odd that "Folk & Country" get lumped together, as if Joan Baez and Jason Aldean could be mistaken for each other. I found one called “General Unclassifiable” that my inner anarchist wants to use, but it’s not very descriptive or helpful. I do a lot of music that could not reasonably be called "Country & Folk."

harv

One of the highest-profile musicians I feel a kinship with is Willie Nelson. I don't really sound like him or play his songs or use the same techniques, but we are different forms of something. He is usually called "country," or his home-made moniker of "outlaw country," but he plays folk, gospel, jazz, blues, swing and other kinds of music. He takes ambitious and frequent guitar solos, but is also of course a master singer and songwriter. He doesn't seem to perform alone, but it's obvious he's good at it. But Willie plays a nylon-string guitar and I play a steel-string, and he doesn’t do fancy fingerpicking or play autoharp, slide guitar, mandolin or banjo like I do. Yet I feel like we could be seen to be in the same category. We all accept him as a respected and normal musician, not a weird, unfocused genre-defying hybrid. I have come to realize that musicians like Willie and I are a type of musician that has always been around, though over the last few centuries it appears that our art form has not been well delineated or well-named. There are actually millions of us, maybe more than any other type. We're people who play songs according to our own notions of how we do it.

harv

When I saw 12-year-old Grace Vanderwaal win the 2016 “America’s Got Talent” million-dollar prize, singing her songs on her ukulele, I thought to myself that we suddenly had a bright new star in our troubadour tribe. This musical archetype that includes me, Willie and Grace has endured, evolved and flourished for centuries in the shadow of classical music, orchestras, bands and other ensemble music that has been bigger, more complex and louder than musicians like us. So what is it that puts Willie Nelson and Grace Vanderwaal in the same category with me? What are we? Do we really have something essential in common?

What is a troubadour?

I have noticed that many people have been led to immediately think of the Middle Ages when they encounter the word "troubadour." I'm not sure there is any diret lineage between those old troubadours and us modern ones, but it is helpful to see the patterns and archetypes. The term seems to have originated in France in the 1100's, and it first meant “creators,” though many traveling musicians in those days were called by the French word “trouvères,” which means "searchers" or “finders.” The German word "Minnesingers" for this kind of musician fortunately didn't survive. I enjoy learning about those times, observing how we modern troubadours are similar to our Middle Ages counterparts, and I am quite fascinated by stories of what my musical counterparts did long ago. But in no way are we modern troubadours just trying to re-create the past, as if we are part of a Renaissance Faire. I enjoy my smartphone and my refrigerator, and have few fantasies that life was better 1000 years ago. It must have been amazing, though, to play music for people when there was no other way to get any except from human musicians, and to be surrounded by listeners who were hungry for music rather than modern people who too often seem overrun with it. I actually think that a new era of troubadours was able to emerge and flourish once the recording and broadcasting era began in the 1920's. We modern troubadours are fundamentally the same thing as all troubadours everywhere, and it's not like there was a secret treasure chest from the Middle Ags that held the secrets. Give people instruments and time and they'll come up with things. They'll use language, they'll sing and they'll play their instruments.

We troubadours visited your campfire long ago in some form; some of us probably passed through your village in centuries past. We have entertained armies, kings and beggars since the beginnings of civilization, and probably long before written history began. We possibly had our time of greatest respect in Europe about a thousand years ago when we were sought after by the rich and powerful, and we possibly hit our low point about 500 years ago when many countries in Western Europe actually outlawed us. A series of laws imposing severe punishments on musicians, fiddlers, minstrels and entertainers have left their mark to this day on our community. But I now believe strongly that instead of being just a relic of the past or a curiosity of the present, musicians like me are poised to actually be at the forefront of music going into the future. We troubadours have been playing our music since the beginnings of humanity, and we will likely be around until the end. As machines and software take over more and more territory and activities from humans, those of us who are the most human might stand the tallest. We may have been on a streetcorner singing when civilization built its huge buildings, and we might also be there singing when those buildings come crashing down.

Strip away the music business, modern society and electronic media, and imagine Grace Vanderwaal, Willie Nelson and I transported back in time a hundred or even a thousand years, and you can see a shape emerging from the fog. There are no bands, stages, conductors, or music stands. It might be at a campfire, a party, a family gathering, or at the request of a rich or powerful person. We don't have to wait for the conductor to show up, and we don't need our sheet music, back-up band, karaoke machine or drummer. We can jam with a band, but unassisted we can deliver something complete. Our music is typically shaped by our bodies, our hearts, souls and personalities. We typically don't give "recitals' or "execute" our music. We construct the music with our hands on our instruments, and we use our voices, but what we do is more personal and fundamental than someone in a choir or an orchestra. We aren’t reading notes. We might be playing from memory, or we might be making things up as we go, but above all we are human, making and delivering music in its most fundamental form. One of us can play for one of you. We also aren’t just hiding somewhere, privately creating our music. The way we share our art, while conveying something personal and "alive" to our listeners is a key part of what troubadour music is.

You can't create a rigid definition any more than you can define classical music or blues, but a “troubadour” to me is basically a person who can create the magic alone, and who prefers to perform that way. We can walk into any size gathering of people and perform something in such a way that the audience is captivated and entertained. This is a fuzzy and broad definition, but it does specify that it is a human and not a jukebox or machine, and that there is no orchestra or troupe of entertainers. There is something special and complete about solo human performers. Musicians, poets, storytellers, dancers, acrobats, comedians, magicians all qualify as either ancient or modern troubadours, especially when they emanate that spark of human essence that connects them and their listeners to something deeper and more divine than just groups of notes being played at mostly the correct moment. Groups of musicians or jugglers are also entertaining and useful, but I am trying to call attention to something musical that is more focused, more personal and perhaps more human than a group of singers, an acrobat or a magician.

It's also not just about earning a living with art; through all history, plenty of troubadours have had day jobs, careers and families. Not all of us have been wandering minstrels either. Amateurs have done just as much to carry on the traditions and skills as have the professionals. Let's try to get a better sense of who troubadours are, what we do, and look at who we were and what we did in the past.

Aren't all performers troubadours?

At the ancient campfire where the wooly mammoth was cooking, there may have been warriors or tribal chiefs making speeches or rallying people, and there may have been shamans or religious people doing rituals. There would also have been comedians, storytellers, jugglers or musicians performing. A wandering warrior or religious person would likely have difficulty or even be forbidden from showing up and performing at someone else’s mammoth feast. But all of us can picture the scene where the traveling musician or storyteller mesmerizes the audience and connects them, not with another God or political idea, but with something more universal, more abstract and possibly even more sacred. A thousand years ago the traveling minstrels were sometimes welcomed by both armies the night before the big battles. Musicians learned then as we learn now not to take sides, and to get out of the way the next day before the battle started. I wouldn't be surprised if every working musician reading this would likely have been in a modern version of that situation. We have always plied our trade amid conflict as well as harmony.

I don't want to get bogged down in definitions here, and there is no way I will try to invent a set of rules to decide who should be labeled as a modern troubadour and who should not. If you did feel a need to create some kind of a working definition, you would likely want to exclude from your troubadour category all those politicians, salesmen and hustlers who use skills similar to troubadours to engage with other people for less lofty purposes than demonstrating their art and sharing magic. The fact that all of us need to eat and pay bills means that the line between a storyteller and a salesperson might be very very thin, blurry or non-existent. I can still hear in my head the weird, piercing pseudo-musical carnival barker voice of Washington, D.C.'s iconic "Balloon Man" in the 1970's as he hawked his balloons on the streets of Georgetown saying "Make the children happy, make the ladies happy..." Was he a salesman or a performer?

Writers who give talks draw good crowds, and entertain and engage them and always have. When they hold forth at the lecture hall, the good ones share quite a bit of common ground with troubadours. With just their voices, facial expressions, body language and personalities, orators of all types can rally people to an idea or even to war, and their rhetoric can be as strong as any cultural force in the world. Like musicians, they are humans using ideas, emotion and language. So are preachers and priests and pastors and other religious leaders. They also use many of the same skillsets as comedians, writers and the other talkers, but to my ear these other human language-users are missing something or doing something fundamentally different from what musicians commonly do.

Possibly paramount in this discussion is something abstract and hard to either talk about or debate. When I see a good poet at a poetry slam or a stand-up comedian in action, my immediate instinct is to feel like they are a part of my community of performers, since they are usually so human and artful. Musical troubadours often work with the power and nuance of lyrics and language, but we also involve ourselves deeply with rhythm, harmony, melody, resonance and musical tone. When we are doing our best work, we musicians often go inward to inhabit or explore various emotional, spiritual, hypnotic and meditative states. I'm not sure if acrobats, poets, magicians, comedians and other familar performers and artists are generally doing these same things, and there might be a distinction here that is significant.

It's a great topic for discussion somewhere. Part of your homework assignment here is to think hard about whether or not the connection that a good musical troubadour has with an audience is in the service of something different and perhaps even deeper than the politician, poet, preacher, comedian or salesman.

It would be possible to offer some opposite and equally unprovable counter-arguments that musicians are too distracted with all their artistic complexities to properly explore those other states of consciousness. The legendary wire-walker Philippe Petit tried to explain in his amazing book "On the High Wire" about how deep you have to go inward to be able to reliably do dangerous and complex acrobatics or fear-defying stunts. He's the best we have of that type of artist/performer, and he says that it takes an unimaginable amount of mental power and other mysterious intangible currencies to bypass our fear mechanisms and walk around on a wire that is stretched between two skyscrapers. Music shouldn't necessarily be granted an eternal, unquestioning permanent status as a desirable and admirable thing. Some music is widely regarded as wonderful, and other music drives people away. There are good and bad musicians, and we can't reasonably lock up the bad ones. Good musicians have bad days, depression and addictions, and have to perform when they are ill or tired. More than one religion has been very mistrustful of music's ability to appear to be divine, and many a religious leader has banned music or warned people to beware of its ability to mislead and distract by seeming to be holy.

Troubadours past

The mental image that many modern people have of the medieval troubadours has its roots in academia. Wikipedia’s first entry if you look up “troubadour” talks about poetic noblemen in Southern France around the year 1100. College classes in poetry have been teaching for a long time that troubadours were a specific kind of European nobleman who wrote songs about romantic love, wooing their girlfriends while spewing out their poetry and playing the lute. This use of the terminology is itself a type of folklore, within academia, and I confess to find it annoying that the best term for referring to a peasant musician like me has been hijacked, and now the millions of traveling musicians throughout the ages have no name. I’ve recently learned that the early European troubadours got their inspiration and tools from Arab musicians and poets, who first brought guitar-like instruments and lyrics with rhyming into Europe around the time of the Crusades and a few centuries after the Moorish occupation of Spain.

Percy book Percy book

One of my most cherished possessions is a book, printed in Edinbugh, that I bought in an antiquarian bookstore in the 1980s. It’s Volume I of the 1858 edition of Thomas Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient Poetry.” Percy was Lord Bishop of Dromore, an Englishman of letters, who came into the possession of what he refers to as “an ancient folio,” dating to the mid 1600’s, of nearly 200 hand-written “Poems, Songs and Metrical Romances.” (The original folio now seems to be in the British Museum.) Percy was quite taken by the contents, and did a great deal of research, organizing, footnoting. He provides the lyrics and considerable historical context and commentary for 45 ballads and poems that he put into his 3-volume Reliques compilation that was first published in 1765. My favorite part by far is the 90-page “Essay on Ancient Minstrels” at the beginning of Volume I.

I was pretty impressed to see that 350 years ago a literate and perceptive man wrote: "It is well known that on the Continent, whence our Norman nobles came, the Bard who composed, the Harper who played and sang, and even the Dancer and the Mimic, were all considered as of one community, and were even all included under the common name of Minstrels."

Percy’s book remained in print for a long time, and the 1876 edition I downloaded as a free PDF from Google Books mentions that it had already been through 30 editions by that time. It was reportedly a beloved and oft-read treasure of Sir Walter Scott himself. Percy mentions in his preface that he also located some other old minstrel manuscripts in the Ashmole Library at Oxford, in the Bodleian Library, the Antiquarian Society at London, and the British Museum. He borrowed some content from these in order to broaden and augment what he found in the original folio.

I’m not going to weigh in on Percy’s two central purposes, which were:

1) to try to make the old anonymous poetry available and palatable to other literate English people of his time. It was what we might call “peasant lyrics and poetry,” and Percy himself said that he hoped to “soften the roughness of a martial and unlettered people” and perhaps obtain some respect and honor for their “artless graces.” Percy was clearly moved by the peasant lyrics, and wanted to share them with his highbrow contemporaries, in the same way that a modern highly educated person might be fascinated and moved by “primitive art” or perhaps bluegrass or blues music.

2) to show that a great deal of the language, plots and characters in the works of William Shakespeare were borrowed or stolen from this body of inherited “ancient poetry.” Percy mentions this repeatedly, and any of you who are Shakespeare scholars might be greatly interested if you don’t know of Percy’s work.

I have long been transfixed by Percy’s collected anecdotes and descriptions of the lives of the old troubadours. He apparently got curious about who created and performed this music, and dug up a lot of sources and information about traveling musicians and poets variously known as Bards, Scalds, Rimers, Jongleurs, Gleemen, Trouvéres and Troubadours. Percy settled on the word Minstrel as the generic term for what he defined at the beginning of his book as “…an order of men in the middle ages, who subsisted by the arts of poetry and music, and sang to the harp verses composed by themselves or others. They also appear to have accompanied their songs with mimicry and action; and to have practised such various means of diverting as were much admired in those rude times, and supplied the want of more refined entertainment. These arts rendered them extremely popular and acceptable in this and all the neighbouring countries; where no high scene of festivity was esteemed complete, that was not set off with the exercise of their talents.

Percy’s book steered me toward an understanding of my own roots that might even qualify as an epiphany. It’s not uncommon for people to be fascinated and galvanized when they learn about their personal geneology, but the ancestral feeling I get when I learn about the lives of traveling musicians of the past isn’t something that I can connect with any of my direct ancestors or actual genetic lineage. My DNA might carry traces of Neanderthals or gypsies, but it can’t tell me if my 10th great grandfather was a wandering fiddler or what songs he knew and liked.

fiddlerThe comments, observations and even the footnotes in Percy’s essay are more interesting to me than the poems in the book. He describes Charlemagne listening to a minstrel in Lombardy in 774, and King Alfred pretending to be a musician to infiltrate the camp and defeat the invading Danes in 878. In the 4th year of King Richard II, there was a court of Minstrels, and an annual gathering held on the 16th of August. Edward IV granted to his chief minstrel, Walter Haliday, and seven others, a charter to create a Fraternity or Perpetual Gild of Minstrels, referred to as “the brothers and sisters of the Fraternity of Minstrels.” That’s really amazing and refreshing that over 600 years ago the troubadour arts community made a point of including men and women as equals.

All my life as a modern troubadour I have felt marginalized by classical and “high-brow” music, and steamrollered by the giant multi-national entertainment corporations who have force-fed the public their commercialized, homogenized pop music. It has always amazed me that it has come to the point that in the farthest corners of society, most people expect a musician with a guitar to parrot back to them their favorite pop songs, rather than to hear what we might be inclined to play for them, or perhaps something we have created. Now it’s been a revelation to me to find out that “my people” were once greatly honored, respected by government, and invited into the homes of the wealthy and powerful to play our music.

By the mid-1700’s in England, traveling minstrels had for the most part disappeared, and the peasant music & poetry had been essentially banished for two centuries from public life. So when Percy discovered this old folio of lyrics, it really was a lost treasure. He says in his essay: “Towards the end of the sixteenth century… in the 39th year of Elizabeth, a statute was passed by which 'Minstrels, wandering abroad,' were included among 'rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars,' and were adjudged to be punished as such. This act seems to have put an end to the profession.

I had never before heard that traveling musicians were outlawed, and the more I have learned about this the more amazed I have been. I've explored this in more depth in my post about about Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize. Percy talked a great deal about how honored and respected musicians and poets were in the distant past, and conveys that he had not been conditioned to think wandering musicians were to be taken seriously. Discovering something honorable, eloquent and ancient concealed in the culture of the peasantry was obviously an idea that Bishop Percy found fascinating, and the success and longevity of his book indicates that he found a receptive audience among the upper class and the educated for his ideas and the ancient poetry he liked so much.

It just occured to me that my 1858 edition of Reliques of Ancient Poetry may well have been a response to the publishing in 1857 of the first volume of Harvard professor Francis J. Child’s now legendary “English and Scottish Ballads.” Child’s book essentially sparked the creation the whole field of what we now call “folklore,” and made quite a splash when it came out. My hunch is that somebody in Edinburgh wanted to show the upstart Americans that the British Isles people had been paying attention to the old ballads all along. Child himself later led an effort, in the 1860’s, to locate and re-publish the original “folio” of ballads that Percy drew upon for his inspiration and material. Percy’s work thus got a shot in the arm and a new academic legitimacy, though the focus of all this renewed interest seems to have been mostly the idea that folk ballads were worthy of scholarly attention, and the bulk of the energy was expended trying to show that the old British Isles ballads were better preserved in rural American culture than they were closer to home. Early ballad collectors weren't concerned about the tunes, just the lyrics, and there was little discussion in their books about the lives of the troubadours or minstrels who created or performed the ballads.

It was a radical new idea in the late 1800's that folk music contained a kind of “true voice of the people,” preserved and modified as songs passed orally through the generations. Scholars eagerly tracked the plots, language and characters of the ballads through the centuries, and expended a lot of energy collecting and comparing the versions from different times and locations. The success of Child’s work spawned new generations of song finders and folklorists who tried to penetrate into the farthest reaches of rural America to find remnants of the British Isles ballads. The results of their work has had pretty big consequences on the lives of modern American folk musicians, and what we collectively know of our own musical heritage. The work of all the folklorists has helped to shape the image that modern American musicians and audiences have of their own musical history, though the fact that most of them were white men meant that they overlooked and misinterpreted quite a bit. The folklorists working in early 20th century America also had their ballad-seeking noses so close to the ground that for the most part they didn't even notice the living, breathing, sweating "people's music" that we now know was everywhere. I'm now convinced that they were chasing after unicorns to a large extent, and might have missed the bigger story, that illiterate and "untrained" people were inventing and developing some amazing music that finally found a way to be heard and appreciated.

The parts of Percy’s book that interested me so much, about the lives and life struggles of the musicians who created and performed the old ballads, do not seem to have been on the radar of Child or his followers in folklore, nor do any of the song-catchers and folklorists seem to have paid much attention in their investigations into the world of the American troubadour to chronicling or trying to understand the lives or performing experiences of my musical predecessors.


I'd rather you not call me a "modern minstrel…"

Out of respect for the long suffering of African-American people, and also to try to honor their staggeringly important contributions to American music, I no longer feel comfortable using the word “minstrel” to describe myself and my contemporaries. I used the word for a while, I guess because Thomas Percy did. Minstrel used to be a good word, better than "troubadour," and easier to pronounce and spell. Due to the unfortunate adoption in the 1800's of the term minstrel in American culture to describe entertainers who primarily impersonated, appropriated and most often degraded African-American music and culture. For over a century the concept of the “Minstrel Show” was huge and widely popular, and remained even into my childhood in the 1950’s in the legacy of Al Jolson, Amos & Andy and the ubiquity of Stephen Foster songs. I recently learned that our local old theater hosted its last "blackface minstrel show" as late as 1960. Various remnants of the minstrel shows and blackface era have ruined the word “minstrel” for too many people, so I have reluctantly stopped using that word to describe myself or my colleagues, though maybe in the future it may become usable again. The painfully racist era of “coon songs” and “darkies” that peaked around 1900 makes you recoil in horror as you learn about what people back then did and sang about. Even the titles of many songs from that era are so demeaning and racist I am not comfortable repeating them here.

Happily, I learned recently that this painful minstrel-show era had some genuine historical and cultural value. It marked the beginning of the dissemination of the glorious and fruitful mixing of European and African musics that ultimately brought us things like gospel, blues, jazz, ragtime, rock & roll and rap. The musical soup that America cooked up also infused folk, country, bluegrass and most other American musics with magical ingredients that would ultimately reverberate around the entire world. Black and white cultures had been intermingling within and nearby the slave populations for a long time, but it wasn’t until the minstrel show era that black entertainers (and imitation black performers) hit the road in significant numbers, dispersing African-American music, humor and language far and wide. It wasn’t a bad thing that the traveling entertainers planted the cultural seeds of African musical influences everywhere they went. It as a bigger deal 80 years later when recording and broadcasting gave real life to the hidden music the Americans were making.


Being heard... troubadours and technology

Since the beginnings of human existence, troubadour power was always been strongest in small gatherings. Our ability to deliver our art to people was limited by how many people could hear it at once. Orchestras and bands have crowded us off stage by their sheer numbers, and drowned us out with their larger volume. Until the advent of electronic amplification technology in the late 20th century, the loudest voices and instruments always dominated in every performance situation. William Chappell reported that Charles I had a band in 1625, consisting of "eight hautboys (oboes) and sackbuts, six flutes, six recorders, eleven violins, six lutes, four viols, and a harp (exclusive of drummers, trumpeters, and fifers); and in 1641 it numbered fifty-eight musicians, of whom fourteen were violins." Not exactly ideal for a solo troubadour to compete with.

My own success as a modern troubadour has been directly connected to the emergence and development of amplification technologies. Throughout all history, every person's ability to affect people with their ideas or their music has always been inextricably bound to the acoustical issues of being heard. The guy in the cave with the biggest voice could overwhelm quieter cavemen. The written word and the printing press gave language a form of amplification that music wouldn't match until microphones, amplifiiers, speakers and recordings revolutionized everything. It was an unbelievably big breakthrough when a single musician could make a record or be on the radio and be as loud as a band.

The design of theaters, amphitheaters and bandshells could only reflect, absorb or direct the sound waves, and never provided enough purely acoustical sonic boost to a solo guitarist or a ballad singer who wasn't singing like Pavarotti. As you would imagine, the louder troubadour skills, like blues guitar played on a metal resonator guitar or banjo playing, have had some of the largest impacts. In a resonant and quiet theater, for example, a pianist, blues guitarist or a bluegrass or Irish fiddle band is not acoustically helpless to project their sound to the listeners. Quieter forms of music are unable to compete without more sophisticated amplification technology than a microphone, and in a noisy environment like a tavern a solo troubadour has only recently been able to be really effective. It's not that different from the history of warfare, where strength, endurance and combat skills defined successful soldiers for thousands of years, until gunpowder and bullets leveled the field to where a small or weak person with a gun could defeat the greatest warrior by pulling a trigger. The sweet sound of a dulcimer or harp, or of a mother gently singing a lullaby to a child have been part of human life forever, but it's only been in my lifetime that those kinds of sounds have been able to fill a large performance space and be effectively communicated. It's part of the job of a modern troubadour to learn how to use amplification technology effectively.

At the 1870 performance of the African-American vocal group Fisk Jubilee Singers at the World Peace Jubilee, the group of nine singers, seven of whom were former slaves, sang the Battle Hymn of the Repubic at the Boston Coliseum over an orchestra of 1094 instruments and a chorus of 10,371 singers, plus a battery of cannon. Trying to picture an event like that underscores why it's no wonder that troubadours, other than possibly bagpipers, were unable to participate in large events until the advent of rock concerts in the late 1960's brought sound systems into the picture. When the Beatles played in stadiums in 1964 and 1965, the amplication was abysmal, and the musicians and audiences were unhappy. Even the sound of a band playing electric guitars and drums wasn't able to effectively reach the listeners. Around 1966 and 1967 things began to change rapidly, with the introduction of the Shure SM57 microphone, the Altec-Lansing loudspeaker and the Crown power amplifier. The Grateful Dead pioneered a number of innovations in large sound systems at their concerts, and the Shure Vocal Master portable sound system that appeared in 1968 signaled a new era in helping amplify music in small venues.

In The Art and Times of the Guitar, Frederic Grunfeld presciently observed in 1969 that “Traditionally the sound of plucked instruments was a one-man sound, ideally scaled to small rooms and small audiences, so that the rubberoid microtones of finger striking string are not lost in the shuffle. (Guitars were never collectivized, in the interests of a bigger sound, like the violins, massed twangs, as in the balalaika orchestra, simple cancel each other.) But the microphone and the loudspeaker have changed all that. As electronic media have taken over from the concert hall, audiences have grown accustomed to the sound of the virtuoso guitar close up, as though they were sitting at the player’s elbow.”

Troubadours in Pop Music

It's not hard to believe that there were solo musicians playing and singing all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments in all cultures all through history. When the recording of music began in earnest in the early 1900's, it didn't take long for fiddlers, singing guitar players, accordion players and piano players to show up in recordings doing their early 20th century troubadour music. John Carson, Eck Robertson, Riley Puckett, Sylvester Weaver, Charlie Patton, Kelly Harrell, Pop Stoneman, Peg Leg Howell, Willie McTell, Uncle Dave Macon, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Henry Whitter–– the list goes on and on of interesting and influential troubadours at the dawn of the American recording industry. There were also odd and delightful musicians like Washington Phillips playing unusual instruments (he apparently played a modified zither) and Christopher Allen Bouchillon who recorded the first so-called "talking blues" in 1926. The treasured early blues guitar recordings show that there were a large number of highly skilled musicians in many parts of the country playing things that players today still struggle to emulate.

None of this surprises me. But what baffles me is why solo musicians quickly and completely disappeared from the popular music charts in the 1930's, and why they still haven't returned. Jimmie Rodgers was on top of his corner of the music world until his untimely death in 1933, and his best-known recordings were at first just him singing with his guitar. His 1928 hit "T For Texas" might be the last time there was a hit song that was just a singer accompanying themselves with an instrument. John Lee Hooker's 1949 record Boogie Chillen' was a #1 R&B hit, where he played guitar, stomped his foot and sang, but it never reached a wider white audience. The closest thing I can find was Adele's 2011 blockbuster song "Someone Like You," that would have been just her singing to a piano if they hadn't overdubbed a harmony vocal track on the later choruses. (She didn't play the piano either.) The Singing Nun almost broke through in 1963, but I can't find a track where there wasn't a chorus of voices, even though she drove her songs with a sparse solo nylon-string guitar accompaniment. In the peak of the pop-folk era in the late 60's and early 70's, all the hit songs from artists like Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie and John Denver featured considerable studio production.

Mathematician/comedy songwriter Tom Lehrer caused a stir around 1960 with a few albums of parodies and novelty songs that mostly featured him on solo piano and vocals. His live album "That Was the Year That Was" peaked at #18 on the Billboard charts, and I remember his songs going viral among elementary school kids in my childhood. I can still sing a few lines of his "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The New Math" or "Werner von Braun." He was deemed too incendiary for any appearances on Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk's mainstream TV shows, and he retired early without ever having much mass exposure. Lehrer may have marked a high-water mark of 20th century solo troubadour visibility, soon followed in 1962 by fellow parodist non-troubadour Alan Sherman, though both of their musical genre and performing styles were rooted in the Broadway show tune tradition rather than the folksinger, blues, or singing cowboy. Comedy material has always been bare-bones and unproduced, since everyone seems to understand how fragile and personal the performances are. Too bad the modern music business has mostly failed to understand that music can be the same. In the year 633, two of the most prominent "singing girls" of their time, Thabja al-Hadramiyya and Hind bint Yamin, were horribly punished (their hands were cut off and their tongues cut out) for parodying political leaders in some of their songs. The roots of modern troubadouring may go back directly to this very old tradition in the Arabic world that even pre-dated Islam itself, whereby most music in society was provided by women, and most often by slaves. Mohammed himself greatly enjoying the "singing girls" of his time, which is partly why he was more lenient than some later Islamists about the allowing of music in their strict religious society.

Bob Dylan is possibly the quintessential well-known modern American troubadour, and he gave us all those songs and many great solo recordings, especially on his first 3 albums. But his handful of hits and best-known songs all featured a full band. Gordon Lightfoot or Johnny Cash could have led the troubadour troops, but always had at least a trio backing them up; their commercially successful songs all had bands and sometimes a full orchestral backup. Popular folk groups of the late 50's and 60's, like the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters were somewhat "un-commercial" sounding and musically "organic," but they were groups and not solo artists, and the number of hit songs without drums and electric instruments remains quite small. (Peter, Paul & Mary's 1963 #1 hit with their version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" is one of the few I can find; it was just 2 guitars and a string bass behind the 3 vocals.) There were a number of pretty high-profile duos, including Simon & Garfunkel, Ian & Sylvia, Richard & Mimi Farina, and The Smothers Brothers and Bud & Travis, who to my ears were among the highest-skilled troubadours of that era, but none had any commercial hit songs with sparse acoustic instrumentation. Pete Seeger's troubadour personality shone in concert, and in the couple times they let him on TV. The short-lived (30 episodes) Hootenanny TV show sometimes featured solo artists like Bob Gibson and Bonnie Dobson, but the high-profile folk troubadour acts of that time like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Jack Elliott and Tom Paxton all boycotted the show because it refused to let Seeger on the air for political reasons. For a little while Joan Baez was on folk music's center stage, mostly with just her guitar, and Richie Havens rode the success of his Woodstock festival debut, but neither ever had significant pop chart success. (Baez's only chart hits were "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" [1971- #3] and "Diamonds and Rust" [1975- #35] that both featured full studio production). That was the era when I got going musically, and now I see that there were plenty of honored, respected, and widely-visible musicians of that era performing songs alone, even if there were no solo troubadour hits on Top 40 radio.

There were myriad troubadour-like artists on the country charts after Jimmie Rodgers, but Eddie Arnold, Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, Dolly Parton, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash and all the rest never did a solo troubadour track that I can find anywhere. Ernest Tubb called himself the "Texas Troubadour" but always had an electric band with a drummer. It's almost like there was a curse, or some shame involved that no one wanted there to be a commercial recording that was just a person performing a song. Chet Atkins himself played a big part in creating the overproduced modern country song, and as a highly influential producer, he was the one who piled those horrible syrupy strings on top of the down-home music to make it sell better and be more "respectable." But it seemed to be some kind of rule in Nashville even before Chet's era of dominance in the 60's & 70's that if there wasn't a band and significant studio production it wasn't a real song. When I got to Nashville in 1979 to see if I could find a place for myself there they pretty much told me that a solo recording was a "demo" (which was short for "demonstration record") which was how they would pitch the song to singers, and how someone learned the song so they could play along with the artist who made the "real recording" of the song. I have a very interesting Hank Williams CD that I like very much, called Alone With His Guitar, that wasn't released until 2000. The recordings were made in the 1950's, and were considered "demos" since all of his hits used his band The Drifting Cowboys. I have found a number of live television performances on YouTube from that time where they sometimes let someone (like Jim Stafford) sing a song with a guitar, but there usually was a band playing along that you couldn't see. The biggest country artist of the 1970's was Kenny Rogers, and his hit version of the troubadour classic "The Gambler" had massive studio production, though it seemed to be a song that someone would play with just their guitar.

The pop and R&B charts had even less troubadour activity. From the 1930's onward commercial songs that had a singer also had an orchestra or big band. Pop singers almost never played an instrument until Elvis came along, and he didn't play much guitar. Louis Armstrong certainly played and sang, but I doubt anyone would call him a troubadour, though I bet he could have walked into the court of any king or queen and laid down some worthy cornet and vocals. I scrolled through the pop charts until my eyes glazed over, and never really found anything even close to a hit record that was just a person performing a song.

How many pop artists were there in the 1940‘s, 1950‘s or 1960‘s who wrote and sang their repertoire of songs alone on stage while accompanying themselves on guitar or piano? Not Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis or any of the big-name crooners. Nick Lucas went further than anyone down that road between 1927 and 1932, the "Crooning Troubadour" singing with his guitar, but his cheesy sound might have turned more people off than on. Nat King Cole played good piano, and started out pretty bare-bones, with just a guitar and a bass backing him up, but was quickly surrounded by orchestras and strings. There wasn't measurable troubadour output, even on album out-takes, from popular groups of the day, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Byrds, Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin. "Blackbird" by the Beatles, written and performed on solo fingerpicked guitar on November 22, 1968 by Paul McCartney, was, along with the 23 second long "Her Majesty" from the 1969 Abbey Road album, the only solo troubadour recordings they ever released in their catalog of nearly 300 recorded tracks. Interestingly, McCartney recorded "I Will" on the same day, which was just him on guitar & vocal and overdubbed percussion. John Lennon recorded Julia solo, but overdubbed a doubled vocal, some humming and a second guitar. 3 of the 4 Beatles had troubadour skills (think of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun") but they essentially never performed or recorded solo. Three other unreleased nearly-solo McCartney tracks, with percussion added, were released much later on anthologies and compilations, including "Junk" [May 1968] and "Los Paranoias" [9/16/68]. February to April 1968 was when they visited their guru The Maharishi in India. Maybe he encouraged or somehow empowered them to perform solo, since the timelines of their visit to India and their solo troubadour recordings match up. (Some people say it was the fact that Donovan was there, and that he taught the Beatles how to fingerpick and be troubadours.)

You can easily peruse the Billboard charts yourself and observe the scarcity of solo troubadour artists. If we skim the #1 hits by decade, there was nothing but orchestras in 1944, almost entirely crooners in 1954, with the first vocal groups like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots showing up in that decade. By 1964 the Beatles had arrived to dominate the charts, along with other bands like the Animals, Herman's Hermits and the soul bands like the Four Tops, Temptations and the Supremes. The solo soul artists like James Brown, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye weren't even close to being troubadour-like. In June of that year we see the arrival of Peter & Gordon, the first duo artists I can find in the #1 spot, and in October the presence of Roy Orbison, our first modern troubadour in this sampling.

The early pioneers of rock n’ roll were commonly highly-skilled players, and names like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Cark Perkins, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis come to mind, who were popular and influential as well as brilliant players. But none of them played solo or did the troubadour thing either. The Everly Brothers were almost a troubadour duo, and scattered quasi-troubadours like Ricky Nelson, Dion, Bobby Darin, Dion and Bobby Vee had an increasing presence in pop music in the late 50's and early 60's. Marty Robbins crossed over in January 1960 with El Paso, a troubadour classic, though of course the hit record featured a band and Grady Martin's cool Spanish guitar. Elvis sort of played guitar and piano, and was sort of a troubadour, but it could be convincingly argued that he was a revved-up crooner. He never seemed to have ever learned barre chords on his guitar, and may have never performed solo after his original demo recordings for Sam Phillips, though in his movies he pretends to. His solo performance scenes in the movie Kid Creole are impressive.

A big event in modern troubadour recording history came in 1967, when Arlo Guthrie's 18-minute "Alice's Restaurant" appeared on his debut album. "Alice's Restaurant" was shortened and released as a single that reached #93, and the album peaked at #63 in 1969 on the Billboard album charts. The song certainly made the rounds as a rare and shining example of a human with a guitar delivering a highly-effective troubadour-style performance.

I have mostly been looking at #1 singles, which has always included novelty hits (like Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini) and occasional oddball entries to pop music that were not indicative of large-scale trends. I’d like to see a thorough researching of this topic in somebody’s thesis. Certainly John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel and a scattered number of troubadour-type artists have become iconic and influential pop artists, and by the 1970’s the singer-songwriter was getting entrenched. In the 1974 charts we find Jim Croce, Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot, all now-legendary acoustic guitar troubadours mixed in with pop demi-troubadours like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. By 1984 the only troubadour-like artists on the charts were highly-amplified and dancing singers like Prince, Cindy Lauper, Phil Collins and Tina Turner.

The Emergence of the Modern Troubadour

The seminal 1967 Monterey Pop Festival has been called the centerpiece of the "Summer of Love," and it helped establish the commercial success and popularity of rock music. Simon & Garfunkel and sitar master Ravi Shankar were the only troubadour acts on the bill that weekend, and presumably for business reasons Simon & Garfunkel's exquisite Friday night headliner performance was not included in the very famous film from the festival. So Shankar's Sunday afternoon performance of Indian sitar instrumentals was the only vehicle from that event to possibly carry forward the troubadour idea that a single person could communicate meaningful music to a large crowd. (The unreleased footage of Simon & Garfunkel's part of the concert is now available on streaming or DVD. It's really good.)

Two years later, the August 1969 Woodstock Festival may have marked a significant turning point in modern troubadour exposure and cultural momentum. The reverberations of previous, now-legendary 20th century troubadours like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Josh White or Riley Puckett were miniscule compared to the emerging boomer-generation pop culture phenomenon that began unfolding in the mid 1960's. As we'll look at later, troubadour-style recording artists, led by Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins and other folk and folk-rock stars were showing up on the pop music landscape for the first time since the 1920's when the recording industry began, when there wasn't yet the dividing line between "pop" and "un-pop." Woodstock opening act Richie Havens came out of the gate with an epic, career-defining solo acoustic set, and passed the troubadour baton over the weekend to Tim Hardin, Bert Sommer, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. They were all featured performers, with music built around acoustic guitars, without electric instruments or drums. (Melanie, Sommer, Hardin and Ravi Shankar were not included in the Oscar-winning popular documentary film of the concert.) Undoubtedly only the people near the front were able to hear much, since acoustic guitars were amplified with only microphones in those days, but the film became a cultural touchstone, and the acoustic guitars sounded fine in the movie. I just started playing guitar the year before, and I remember that the songs like Guthrie's "Coming into Los Angeles" and McDonalds "Fish Cheer" from the movie were standard fare for campfire guitarists of that era.

Ultimately, the biggest winners in publicity and career-boost from those two festivals ended up being Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, and Joe Cocker, though it could be argued that Hendrix was an electric guitar troubadour as much as he was a rock musician or band member. A powerful new generation had been exposed to the idea that a single musician with a guitar and something to communicate could have a real impact on the world, both musically and otherwise. The microphones still weren't able to make the troubadours louder when they actually sang, but a type of cultural amplification machinery had been set in motion, involving concerts, press, movies, record companies and radio airplay, that would propel the modern troubadour into a new era of visibility and influence.

The troubadour tide would quickly recede, but the genie was out of the bottle. Troubadour standard-bearers Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Simon soon plugged in and began performing with electric bands, while 60's counter-culture poet-soothsayers like Jim Croce, Neil Young, Cat Stevens and Donovan moved down the conveyor belt, replaced by watered-down, shiny and commercialized Vegas-ready artists like John Denver and Kenny Rogers. The onset of disco in 1979 and Michael Jackson in 1982 pushed the troubadour sound off the pop charts, out of the limelight, and into an underground scene, but the seeds had been blown far and wide and were sprouting an all sorts of new forms and locations, to resurface a generation later. Artists like Jackson Browne, David Bromberg, John Prine, Cris Williamson, Willy Porter, Roy Bookbinder, Bryan Bowers, Garth Brooks, John Hiatt, Jewel, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Ani DiFranco emerged over the next 20 years under folk, rock, blues, country and political banners, carrying the ancient but radical idea that an individual singer with a guitar could perform, prosper, be respected, be heard above the din, and even reach to at least the lower rungs of the higher echelons of the music business.

By 1994, there was really nothing resembling a troubadour anywhere to be found on the #1 pop hits charts, though if we jump to 2004, we run into a new music phenomenon. I mentioned that it is not possible to define rigorously what is a modern troubadour, and if there were a modern society of troubadours, it would be interesting to attend a meeting of the board of directors of the Modern Troubadour Institute as they struggled to decide if rap and hiphop music should be considered as troubadour music. A rapper working two turntables and rhyming would certainly seem to me to be a fine example of a new form of this ancient art. It is even arguable that rap music might be the thing that brought the troubadour back to popularity after a long absence, and artists like Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Usher, Snoop Dogg and 50 cent were highly visible at the top of the charts during the past 25 years, with a new art form that seemed all about the very human uses of language and the personality of the artist, though none of the hiphop artists could be found with a guitar strung around their necks, or playing anything but machines like turntables or laptops.

The list of best-selling albums of all time is a fuzzy one, and I find all sorts of lists that disagree. But in general they are not laced with artists who are troubadours, and the qualifying entries in the upper end of album sales are Billy Joel (1985), Elton John (2002), Shania Twain (1997), Kenny Rogers (1980), Bon Jovi (1986), Bruce Springsteen (1984) Simon & Garfunkel (1970) and Garth Brooks (1998). Our “panel of judges” might have to make a tough decisions about whether some artists are troubadours, like Alanis Morissette (1995) who only played a bit of harmonica on her platinum-selling album, but is a multi-instrumentalist, or whether Jon Bon Jovi (1986) is one, since he plays some rhythm guitar but almost never does. Is reggae legend Bob Marley (2001) a troubadour? I say yes, since he played guitar and undoubtedly could deliver a song unassisted. His solo acoustic live version of "Redemption Song" certainly shows his ability to deliver a song unassisted, and might be the single highest-profile completely-solo troubadour performance of the 20th century. The fact that he always performed and recorded with a band might not allow him to be officially classified as a modern troubadour, if we wanted to do something like that.

A lot of people undoubtedly scratched their heads when Taylor Swift switched from being a “country” artist to being a “pop” musician in 2009, but to me it is clear that she is a modern troubadour underneath her pop diva persona, and didn’t become a different type of artist when she switched genres. That was all marketing and packaging. If you strip away the glitter and dancing back-up singers from a lot of modern artists like Katy Perry, Adele, Lorde, Lady Gaga, Charlie Puth, Frank Ocean, John Legend and many others revels that they are quite skilled at performing songs by themselves, but seem to be the latest generation of "victims" of the "never let a solo artist make a hit record" dictum in the recording industry rulebook.

Troubadour Awareness & Pride

I'd like to do more than just declare myself to be a modern troubadour; I’d like to help spark some troubadour awareness, and I’d like to experience more understanding and respect for our genre or type of art. I’d like people to better understand what a modern troubadour is when they see or hear one, and especially I’d like to help propagate the issues and methods of troubadour education. The American public school systems don’t teach troubadour skills in their music curriculum, though via private teaching and internet videos the skills are being passed on. I’d sure like to see some more formal recognition of the kind of music I play. A hallmark and fundamental feature of what musicians like me do is that we typically play an instrument and sing at the same time. If you think about it, that doesn’t happen at Julliard School of Music or any other music schools. It doesn't happen at a symphony concert and never has, even though many of the most beloved, successful and influential musicians in the world accompany themselves singing with an instrument.

It’s not enough that people in general or at specific concerts might like or appreciate what we musicians do, but I must confess to having something between a chip on my shoulder and a pea under my mattress on this subject. I have long felt that my fellow peasant musicians and I have lived under a kind of shadow of unworthiness, where we have always had to hope that critics and gatekeepers to mysterious realms of validity and importance might give their stamp of approval to what we do. Large cultural and economic forces have been turning up the volume and shining the spotlights on so-called “important music” for most of my lifetime, and whatever the critics and the Grammy awards and radio DJ’s have deemed to be most worthy has hogged the lion’s share of the press, airplay, money and attention of the listening public and of the so-called “critics.” My songs or those of my friends might as well be that almost-lost folio from the 1600’s of “the people’s music” that so fascinated Bishop Percy, for all the attention that “men of letters” or Grammy awards have given to us.

Now that I see myself as a modern embodiment of the old-fashioned troubadours, who were the self-employed independent musicians of the distant past, it's easier to understand and accept my modern life as a musician. By not being part of orchestras or choirs and not being aligned with churches, schools, corporations, my fellow modern troubadours and I have flourished in modern times and kept our musical fires burning while feeding ourselves and paying our bills without being cogs in a big wheel. I am drawn to try to see my place in the chain of knowledge, and as a keeper of a flame of some kind of “music of the people” that isn’t a commodity bought, sold, created or directed by the rich and powerful. It is eternally interesting and comforting to me to see how similar my struggle is to what other contemporary troubadours are doing, and also to what I can infer that musicians like me were doing long ago.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,

HARVEY REID

 ©2018