Bruce Molsky is widely considered one of the finest old-time musicians currently performing. His recordings display his mastery of fiddle, banjo, and guitar, as well as his plangent accompanying vocals. Beyond technical virtuosity, Molsky’s recordings and performances express his profound and subtle feeling for the music of the Southern Appalachians. His sympathy for this repertoire represents a feat of imagination since Molsky was born (1955) and raised in the Bronx. Now, after some years “away from the fold,” as they say in the South, Molsky has recently moved back to the New York area, where he performed most recently at Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook.
Although he has always played music outside the strict parameters of Southeastern old-time, in recent years Molsky has increasingly explored the folk traditions of other countries, particularly the fiddle music of the British Isles and Scandinavia, which he often performs in the company of stellar players from those countries.
Molsky is interviewed here for the Rail by Stephen Ellis, an artist and amateur musician who grew up with old-time music in western North Carolina, and David A. Ross, Chair of the MFA Art Practice program at SVA. Ross, also a dedicated amateur musician, is the former director of ICA Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Ellis: So how does a kid from the Bronx get interested in old-time music?
Molsky: I started out as a guitar player. I loved Jimi Hendrix, still do. When I was a kid there were folk concerts at the 23rd Street YMCA and The Newport Folk Festival was really active, so a lot of folk groups would play New York on their way there. Then when I was 12 my sister bought me a book of Beatles covers and a Doc Watson record.
Ellis: You had an epiphany about Doc Watson?
Molsky: Yeah, on a lot of levels. In the very beginning I didn’t know what old-time music was, I just knew Doc Watson. What really got me was the simplicity, accessibility, and virtuosity—although as a kid I wouldn’t have used those three words—of his music. That music was one of the first things that showed me there was a whole rest of the world out there that didn’t look like where I lived. It grabbed me and led me by the nose out of the city to the places where that music came from. It’s always the music that opens the doors and makes me go somewhere else.
Doc Watson led me to Bill Monroe. That was just the next logical step. The bluegrass Bill Monroe played was so stylized—it had great costumes and a whole hype that went with it. I wanted to be a bluegrass guitar player! To my undeveloped mind, bluegrass and old-time were close enough that I could mix them up. Now I’d say they’re so different—but back then it was all just folk music.
Ross: How would you define the basic difference between bluegrass and old-time?
Molsky: Old-time music is what people played in their communities as part of everyday existence. It wasn’t meant to be performance music. But when radio came along in the ’20s that approach wasn’t well–suited to a professional performance medium. For one thing, in old-time music you just start a tune and everybody plays until they’re done. There’s not enough structural diversity to keep it interesting on the radio—that’s my personal theory. But traditional bluegrass is like early jazz. The band plays a theme and then the musicians take turns soloing on the theme or doing some kind of arranged thing.
Ellis: And, like jazz, bluegrass emphasizes virtuosity.
Molsky: Well, there’s virtuosity in old-time music too, but the emphasis on soloing in the band is different.
Ellis: Would you compare the virtuosity of old-time bands to the complex group improvisations of New Orleans jazz?
Molsky: That’s a really good analogy.
Ross: So if you were going to play a recording as a perfect example of the bluegrass concept and another as a perfect example of the old-time concept, what would you choose?
Molsky: [Whistles.] That’s tough. Most anything that The Blue Grass Boys recorded could be an example of traditional bluegrass—the name of the style comes from the name of the band.
Ross: Would you say that’s the beginning of the influence of commercialized show business?
Molsky: No, because there was show business before that. What we call old-time music was the ballads your mother sang in the kitchen. It was what people played for square dances or for their own entertainment. It was just as much about the musician as it was about the listener. Old-time music was community music. That’s why, when it became popular in the early 1950s, the music immediately became associated with left-wing politics, because it wasn’t meant to be owned.
Ellis: After the Grand Ole Opry and the other big radio shows started, there was a pressure to develop styles adapted to fill a quick, punchy spot on a show, but the phonograph was another big factor in the professionalization of country music. People started listening to records a lot, so the whole process of musical evolution was sped up. Suddenly, instead of just listening to the 15 or 20 people around you in the holler, you were listening to hundreds of people from all over the country playing all different kinds of music.
Molsky: The first people I thought of when you mentioned the Grand Ole Opry were Uncle Dave Macon (1870 – 1952) and the McGee brothers (Sam 1894 – 1975 and Kirk 1899 – 1983) because they’re the musical links between community music and professional, performance music. Macon took a lot of the minstrel and Tin Pan Alley songs of the era and made them work for radio. He was a stalwart of the Grand Ole Opry, and yet at the same time, at the very beginning, the Opry had musicians like Uncle Jimmy Thompson (1848 – 1931) and DeFord Bailey (1899 – 1982) who were not professionals. Jimmy Thompson would get on stage—I have an archive recording—and ramble on forever, and then he’d play something beautiful. [Laughter.] He was in his 80s by that time. Even Macon didn’t start playing professionally until he was 50. Gives us all hope. [Laughter.]
Ross: When did you start playing professionally?
Molsky: When I was 40.
Ellis: What led you to make the break?
Molsky: Well, I’d always played music passionately but I was saving full-time music for my retirement. Then I turned 35, both my parents were gone, and I thought I’d better get around to some of the stuff I’d been saving for later. I’ve been with my wife, Audrey, for 33 years. She’s always been incredibly supportive. After my Dad died I asked her, “What would you think if I took a year off and played music full-time just to see what it’s like?” I’d only played nights and weekends, house parties and get-togethers and stuff. Her immediate response was, “I can’t believe you didn’t do this 10 years ago.” [Laughter.] And here I was trying to be a responsible Jewish spouse treading the correct path. I’d been working at an engineering company for 10 years and I was ready to move on. So I took a year off. I never went back and that’s the whole story.
I spent a year booking gigs before I even gave my notice, so I’d have something to do. By the time I was ready to make the break, I’d met a lot of people who were well established in the industry. I asked them, “How do I do this?” and they all gave similar answers: “Stay true to the music. Don’t become co-opted trying to be something you’re not.” It was John Hartford that really beat that into me. I’ve always kept that attitude so I’ll continue to like my own work. That’s what people see when you walk up on a stage. If you’re having a good time, so will the audience. If it’s a day at the office for you, they know it.
Ellis: Let’s get back to your musical roots. Before we began the interview you mentioned visiting Tommy Jarrell (1901 – 1985).
Ross: That’s the way the tradition was learned? You would visit?
Molsky: You’d go visit people, yeah. Or people just lived in communities together. I visited Tommy and a lot of the people in his community. There was a guitar player, Paul Sutphin (1918 – 2004), and a fiddler named Albert Hash (1917 – 1983), whose family Audrey was quite close to.
Ellis: What did you learn from Tommy Jarrell?
Molksy: Tommy was my first fiddle hero, and I visited him a few times. I use a lot of his licks and I learned so much from him, but I also learned from Wade Ward’s music, even though I was never able to meet him. Wade lived across the mountain from Jarrell in Grayson County, Virginia. His playing was more metric. Tommy played a fretless banjo, but Wade played a fretted one, an RB-11, a cheap Gibson he made sound incredibly beautiful. You have to have a really light touch to play clawhammer on a bluegrass banjo like that. Wade’s playing was really, really rhythm-based and syncopated. He had all these great ways of keeping time around the skeleton of a melody, and that’s what my banjo playing is about. But, you know, I wasn’t one of these people that went to visit a lot of people in their homes. I was a little shy about that. In retrospect I wish I hadn’t been.
Ellis: Did you feel it was intrusive?
Molsky: Yeah. But back then, everybody was doing it.
Ellis: You also play a bunch of tunes by Edden Hammons (1875 – 1955) that you recast in a wonderful way. Your notes are pretty close to his, but transformed in mysterious ways.
Molsky: We visited the Hammonses. Edden died long before I arrived, but his successors, Burl Hammons (1908 – 1993) and his sister Maggie Hammons Parker (1899 – 1987), were great fiddlers. They lived with a third sister in a really small shack in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
Ellis: So what was it that attracted you to their music?
Molsky: It’s a visual thing. If you’ve ever spent any time in that part of West Virginia, it’s dark, it’s lonesome. The mountains are really high and steep and block out light half the day and the hollers are kind of dank and it’s just got a really strong vibe, and that very lonesome music. That’s the kind of image I see when I’m playing.
The picture I see can evoke people, or a story, or a color, or a time and place, even if it never existed—so much of what initially attracted me to this music was my perception of a simple world that probably never was, but the music pointed to that, you know? Simple life and hard labor with good rewards. Peace in your life and spiritual fulfillment. I liked this kind of music because it had a really simple message. Nothing is simple, I learned later. But that’s what the music has always meant to me. Even though I’m old enough to know better, I still like feeling that feeling I had when I first heard it.
Ellis: For me, old-time music has two contradictory aspects that are both really strong. At first, it can be delightful and open-hearted. But the more you listen, the more the contradictions of the world it came from reveal themselves, and the less a simple nostalgia for that world seems tenable. But that makes the music interesting on another level, as a kind of agon of American history—of racism and cultural synthesis, of class struggle—all of that is in the music. Greil Marcus writes beautifully about this in his book about Basement Tapes, Invisible Republic [later republished as The Old, Weird America]. But somehow those contradictions never completely blot out the open-heartedness.
Ross: Old-time is primarily white music, isn’t it?
Molsky: That’s a really hard question.
Ellis: Yes, it’s complicated. The old-time musicians chosen by the recording companies were primarily white, but a lot of African-Americans played that kind of music too. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know precisely how many because the record companies based on their own preconceptions marketed fiddle music primarily to whites as “Hillbilly” music and blues primarily to blacks as so-called “Race” records. The evidence we have is from the relatively few African-American stringband recordings and from eyewitness accounts.
Ross: Well, the banjo was a black instrument, right?
Molsky: The banjo was an African instrument, probably West African. It was introduced to a white audience in the 1840s through minstrel music. There’s a classic academic treatise on the subject: Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy about how the banjo got to this country, the early days of minstrelsy, and Joel Sweeney (Joel Walker Sweeney 1810 – 1860), who popularized the five-string banjo and Minstrel shows.
Ellis: Recently there’s been a flurry of interest in minstrel music by contemporary African-American bands who play old-time, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Ross: Let me just stop you for a second. When I asked this question about music and race, you both had the same response: “That’s a really hard question to answer.” Why is it hard?
Molsky: Because there’s so much overlap.
Ross: Is it hard because of the history of American racism, the suppression and appropriation of black culture, or because of segregated communities where musicians of different races couldn’t play together?
Ellis: It’s hard because of all those things, well, except maybe the last. In fact, black and white musicians did play together quite a bit.
Molsky: I’m with you. Musicians were the ones who cared the least about those boundaries—that’s why you hear Jimmie Rodgers singing music that he obviously learned from black people.
Ellis: And inviting Louis Armstrong to record with him.
Molsky: And why Mississippi John Hurt filled in for Sheldon Smith, guitarist for a white Mississippi fiddle band in the ’20s, when Smith couldn’t make it to dances.
Ellis: And there’s Jim Booker, an African-American who played fiddle with Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, a white band.
Molsky: The Georgia Yellow Hammers were another integrated band.
Ross: So there were integrated bands in the teens and 20s?
Ellis: Yeah, probably from the 1600s! But publicly it was a problem in terms of marketing, and because of racist concert venues and audiences, especially after Jim Crow. A couple of people sitting around playing informally didn’t have those problems. But, really, the music itself is like a gigantic river delta with all these musical currents always flowing back and forth across different channels.
Molsky: Another reason that ultra-conservative, racist people hate folk music—because it moves so freely between black and white. [Laughter.]
Ross: Could you play an example of that kind of dialogue between black and white culture?
Molsky: I can’t think of an example of it; it just kind of exists everywhere in there. Think about the things that make American music unique among traditional music all over the world: rhythmic values that combine West African cyclical rhythms and West European meter. Think about blue notes—flatted thirds and flatted sevenths and how they also exist, though used differently, in Irish or Scottish pipe music. If you’re hip to those styles, then you start to hear how musical ideas cross over.
[Plays recording, “Fourth of July at the County Fair.”]
Molsky: This is the Georgia Yellow Hammers. It’s bluesy, it’s Anglo, it’s Tin Pan Alley, it’s everything!
Ellis: Then there’s Blind Willie Johnson’s total transformation of the 18th-century Anglo hymn “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” into a bottleneck guitar tour de force.
Ross: Well I guess there’s something essentially American about all that. Despite the persistence of racism in America there’s also this cultural synthesis that’s the best part of American cultural tradition.
Ellis: Can we get back to some of your musicological investigations? I’ve got another question about the music of the Hammons family: Is the irregular meter of some of their tunes—old-time players call them “crooked”—what interests you about them? The way they don’t stick to standard musical structures?
Molsky: It is. It’s a characteristic of the music of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky because it’s solo-style playing, not taking a solo in a band context, as in bluegrass or jazz, but playing alone. Old-time originated as dance music, which would have been played in a more even meter, but when you take the dance away and the accompanying musicians away, the fiddler’s free to express any length of phrase. I love that stuff! It’s a different way of improvising. When I play solo, I drop parts out, add beats. Why not? I teach old-time fiddle as spoken language where a phrase of music is like a sentence with rises and falls in pitch and punctuation marks and accents.
Ross: Can you play an example?
[Plays “Green River.”]
Ross: What part of the country would the kind of phrasing in that tune be associated with?
Molsky: That’s a western North Carolina tune. It’s typical because of certain things about the gait, the groove of it, the lope, and also because of how major thirds are intermingled with slightly flatted thirds, so the real bluesy thing is expressed a certain way.
Ellis: That’s another example of how the flatted third, an element adopted from musical traditions brought by African slaves, is woven into the fabric of all these things.
Molsky: Right. Check these tunes out as an example of that. I’ll tell you the story first so you know what to listen for. The fiddler Will Adams was one of the first people Mike Seeger, Pete’s half-brother and a very important musician and archivist in old-time, ever recorded. Adams was an old African-American guy who lived in Ken-Gar, a community right next to Kensington, Maryland. Adams played American tunes and Irish jigs for Seeger. If you listen to the recordings, it all sounds so African because of the flatted thirds and other adaptations he made. You were asking about how I create a different interpretation—this tune, I think it’s called “Sally Gal,” is an example of that. I accentuate the polyrhythmic aspect of the music even more than Adams did. That’s where we modern musicians have choices to make. Because as soon as we start to isolate those elements, we’re stepping away from tradition a little bit. It’s fine with me, but it’s not okay with everybody.
[plays “Hold Your Dog, Sally Gal.”]
[plays Will Adams’s 1951 recording of “Hold Your Dog, Sally Gal.”]
Molsky: The three-against-four isn’t as strong in Adams’s recording, but it’s there. [Claps time.]
Ellis: Back to the ethics of transforming the old material: If you don’t transform it, doesn’t the style just become frozen and dusty? There are musical ideas implicit in the tunes, like the three-against- four you were talking about. When you find those ideas in the formal structure of the music, you find a way to play the tune to highlight them.
Molsky: That’s how I see it.
Ellis: The authenticity arguments in old-time music have interesting parallels to the controversy around using period instruments in Early, Baroque, and Classical music. For the last fifty years, people have been playing that music differently, more as a way of hearing it new than as a way of returning to some lost original. That’s kind of analogous to your practice: an open-minded, revisionist musician playing Bach is also reimagining the music significantly without completely dissolving the borders of the idiom.
Molsky: Well, I have one advantage that a Bach player doesn’t have—I actually got to hear the sources! People who play Bach and Mozart can only guess what it sounded like—
Ellis: That can be liberating too, not knowing, right?
Molsky: Yeah, but it’s also the source of a lot of arguments. I’ve worked with some performers of Early music and they fight about how certain things might’ve been expressed. I said, “You can fight about it all you want, you’re never going to know!”
Ross: But unless you’re an academic, or an ethnomusicologist, or a music historian, what does it matter? You bring people pleasure with your music today. Music is always new; it only exists in the present, right?
Ellis: Well, it matters to the extent that it’s possible to use historical material in a creative way or in an academic way, to renew the music or to petrify it.
Molsky: There are people in my scene who do it both ways. There are the recreationists, who put the old performances on a pedestal—they think that that’s how it goes. That’s not me. That’s not what I do.
Ross: Is one form more soulful than the other?
Molsky: It’s not as soulful for me to try and play just like Tommy Jarrell, ’cause I’m not him. But it is soulful for me to be able to capture whatever I can of the essence of what was beautiful about his playing and express it in my own voice. If I can do that, man, I’ve succeeded.
Ross: Yet, here you are a Jew from the Bronx playing the music of a lot of guys who did not grow up knowing Jews from the Bronx.
Molsky: There’s a great story about Tommy Jarrell. Some Jewish kids from the city came to visit him. He was a really welcoming, nice guy who didn’t have any problem with that. One day Tommy’s sitting around with three or four guys from New York (I wasn’t one of them) and he’s showing them all the tunes—they’re all having a great time. Suddenly Tommy looks around and realizes who he’s sitting with and says, “Don’t any of you people have your own music?” [Laughter.] As a result of that, Hank Sapoznik, whose grandfather was a rabbi and who grew up in a culturally very strong Jewish household, went back and got involved in Klezmer music. He now runs a huge Klezmer archive in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s a preeminent guy in the field!
Ellis: Andy Statman, a Brooklyn boy, as well as a virtuoso mandolinist and clarinetist, has also moved from old-time and bluegrass to Klezmer. Do you think some similar perception played a role in his evolution? If this folk music is so great, what about looking at folk music a little closer to home?
Molsky: I don’t know how Andy got religion, but he’s really open-minded. It’s unbelievable how he can get inside the middle of any style instantly. Some people have that gift. Andy and Ricky Skaggs recorded a gospel song on Andy’s Old Brooklyn CD where Andy’s playing Klezmer clarinet. But that speaks to what a lot of people are doing with music right now. All these things we’re talking about are separate traditions that existed before radio. After radio and TV everything became the same to everybody, and everything became available to everybody. And then World War II made everybody want to see the rest of the world and know what was there. Now all these students at Berklee College of Music where I teach really dig deep into individual traditions but have no compunction about combining them and presenting them however they like.
Ross: Do you consider yourself somebody making your own stuff?
Molsky: Oh, I totally consider it my own stuff. You can imitate somebody when you’re first learning to do something—especially in folk music where it isn’t written down. When I was learning to play the fiddle I was Tommy Jarrell for two years and I was Ernest East for a year, then I was Benton Flippen for a couple of years. But you do come to a point where you realize that you have your own voice, and that’s a liberating place to arrive. I’ve been playing this music most of my life at this point—at what point can I declare ownership of some aspect of it? It’s my expression, you know?
Ellis: I’m thinking about some of your ventures away from straight old-time. You’re friends with Darol Anger, who’s an important first generation Newgrass player. When he was in David Grisman’s band in the late ’70s and early ’80s that direction was especially strong, and now, with players like Chris Thile, it seems to be having a resurgence. Anger also has a classical string quartet, doesn’t he?
Molsky: The Turtle Island String Quartet, which was a really groundbreaking group that brought other styles into classical music.
Ellis: Sort of like the Kronos Quartet.
Molsky: Exactly. Darol’s like my brother. We’ve known each other for many years and we teach together at Berklee. We had a band together called Fiddlers Four, which got a Grammy nomination in 2003. It all started when Darol came to a music camp in California where I was teaching and we stayed up all night playing music together. Then he invited me to do a track on his CD, Diary of a Fiddler, an album of duets with different fiddlers. He and I play a fucking Jimi Hendrix tune! [Laughs.] “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” We’re totally in each other’s musical lives.
Ellis: Given your work with progressive musicians like Anger and with world musicians in the band Mozaik, do you see your musical future in old-time, or do you have different projects you want to pursue?
Molsky: Oh, I’ve got all kinds of stuff underway. I’m in the middle of editing a CD with Ale Möller and Aly Bain. Möller is Swedish, but his mother is Norwegian and his father was Danish, so he’s got all of Scandinavia covered. He plays a mandola of his own invention, which is very cool. Aly Bain is probably the most famous Shetland fiddler, played with the original Boys of the Lough. And I’m in another trio called Nyckelharpa, which is a Swedish key fiddle, with Mikael Marin, who plays five-string viola, the nyckelharpa, and guitar, and Roger Tallroth, a great guitar player. They’re also Swedish. They’re also really tall. [Laughter.] Then I have a trio with Darol and a cellist named Rushad Eggleston, who’s completely reinvented the cello. And a finally there’s my quartet, Jumpsteady Boys, which is straight old-time. Mike Compton, the go-to Bill Monroe mandolin guy is in it, and so is Rafe Stefanini, and Joe Newbury, a great banjo player, singer, and songwriter.
Ellis: And do you play fiddle in all these groups?
Molsky: Fiddle, some banjo, and I sing. Whatever needs to be done. I never would have called myself a project person 10 years ago, but that’s really what’s happened since I’ve discovered that all these things I do in old-time music can be used as nuts and bolts in other styles!
STEPHEN ELLIS is an artist in New York who writes about visual art and music.David Ross