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Author Topic: Kenny Baker  (Read 2241 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Kenny Baker
« on: December 12, 2009, 10:09:10 AM »
Hi all,
Yesterday I picked up a used album on the Puritan Label, dating from 1972, entitled "Kenny Baker & Josh Graves--Something Different".  Kenny Baker is best known as the stellar long-time fiddler with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and Josh was a trail-blazer on the dobro with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys.  On this album, Josh plays dobro as per usual, but Kenny, apart from two tunes on which he fiddles, plays guitar, both finger-picking and flat-picking on different tunes.
I heard this album when it came out, but somehow or other didn't fully take it in.  Re-listening to it for the first time in over thirty years, I found Kenny Baker's finger-picking a revelation, a very distinctive personal sound, and those are hard to come by.

He plays all of his finger-picked tunes out of Spanish tuning.  There's five of the tunes on the album:  "The Sands of Monterey", "Legend of the Whistling Brakeman", "Lonesome Hobo", "High Country" and "The White Rose".  Kenny's picking is extremely clean, he has beautiful tone (no surprise if you're familiar with his fiddling), and his way of getting around in Spanish tuning is not like anyone else I've heard.  The tunes are all excellent, but the stand-out is "Legend of the Whistling Brakeman", a beautiful lonesome tune, the opening of which is reminiscent to Ralph Stanley's "Clinch Mountain Back-Step". The uncredited liner notes' explanation of the source of Kenny's finger-picking style is worth quoting.

   "Kenny Baker and his older brother Carl learned the guitar from Ernest Johnson, an old, blind Negro who sold peanuts in their hometown of Jenkins, Ky.  Johnson would teach various tunes to Carl, who in turn showed them to Kenny.  The instrumentals they learned were light, sprightly pieces enhanced by a delicate four-finger [!] picking pattern. Carl was killed in World War II; Johnson is presumed dead.  Kenny is probably the only remaining musician able to play in this guitar style."

The information from the notes is fascinating for a number of reasons.  It shows yet another instance of a white mountain musician learning from a black neighbor, as Bill Monroe learned from Arnold Schultz and Hobart Smith learned from Bob Campbell.  It would be interesting to know if Ernest Johnson himself used four fingers to pick in his style.  Players who picked with more than thumb and index appear to have been unusual.  It should be noted that the tunes are not conventional blues, if that matters to anyone.  They are great, however. 

I don't know if this recording survived into the CD era, but it's catalog number is listed as Puritan 5001, and the address listed for Puritan Records on the album is box 946 Evanston, Ill. 60204.  I believe Kenny and Josh recorded a follow-up to this album, as well.  They are ably backed by Bob Martin on guitar and Roger Bellow on bass here. You're in for a real treat if you can find this album and hear Kenny's picking and tunes--they're terrific.
All best,
Johnm         
« Last Edit: January 28, 2021, 05:56:11 AM by Johnm »

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #1 on: December 12, 2009, 12:08:47 PM »
Kenny Baker & Josh Graves--The Puritan Sessions is available to download on eMusic. Thanks for the recommendation John.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #2 on: December 12, 2009, 12:29:20 PM »
I don't know if this recording survived into the CD era, but it's catalog number is listed as Puritan 5001...I believe Kenny and Josh recorded a follow-up to this album, as well.

The  second album is "Bucktime" (Puritan 5005). I picked them up when they came out in the early 70's (and still have both LPs right here). They were both reissued on one CD:

http://www.countysales.com/php-bin/ecomm4/products.php?product_id=1135

Great music--highly recommended.

Offline oddenda

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #3 on: December 12, 2009, 06:22:27 PM »
John -

"He played in all the keys with all his fingers"
 ---- Baby Tate on Willie Walker.

"The Art Tatum of blues guitar"
 ---- Josh White on Willie Walker

Peter B.

p.s. - the Baker albums are wonderful.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #4 on: December 13, 2009, 03:27:52 PM »
Thanks, Prof. Scratchy and Stuart for posting the information on the availability of Kenny Baker's playing from the Puritan albums with Josh Graves.  It still doesn't occur to me to do a search most of the time--doh.
I think the comments re Willie Walker reinforce how rarely players in the style used all their digits in the right hand to pick, Peter B.  Of the players that I saw, Sam Chatmon was the only one.  According to him, Bo picked that way as well.  The great majority of the pickers were thumb and index only, including some really technical players like Rev. Davis, Bill Williams, John Jackson and Merle Travis.  Even picking with thumb and two fingers, like John Hurt, was quite rarely encountered.
It's interesting, because if you see film footage of African guitarists or see them in person, the great majority of them pick with thumb and index only, as well.  I once did a guitar workshop at the Vancouver Folk Festival with the Madagascar guitarist, D'Gary, who picked everything thumb and index and went both directions with both of those digits, sometimes at the same time!  I was sitting three feet away from him with a perfect sight line and had no more idea how he was doing what he was doing than I would about figuring out the best way of learning how to fly.
All best,
Johnm

Offline oddenda

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #5 on: December 13, 2009, 05:09:45 PM »
John -

          Don't forget that Brownie McGhee picked with thumb and TWO fingers, unlike most Piedmont artists.

Peter B.

Offline RobBob

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #6 on: December 17, 2009, 02:21:45 PM »
If there ever was a question about white guys playing blues, a couple of the cuts on this project will assuage those thoughts. Buck Graves shows true grit on his part.  Those Lp's knocked my socks off when I first heard them.  They still are a treat to the ears.  This partnership reemerged after Bill Monroe's death.  Buck and Kenny recorded and toured for several years together with Kenny primarily playing fiddle.  He was/is one of the all time best on fiddle or guitar.  IMHO.

RB

Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #7 on: December 18, 2009, 07:45:58 AM »


  This is an interesting example of how music produces different responses from different people.
   I picked up the "Something Different" album, in a used record store, in the early '70's and was so inspired by Josh Graves' playing that I put an extension nut on one of my guitars, bought an instruction book and began playing Dobro.
  I didn't take much notice of Kenny Baker's playing, other than that, it was good guitar playing.
  Graves, on the other hand, really knocked me out.

  Although there have been many subsequent guys, that have done more technically advanced things with the instrument (Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge, et al), I don't think anybody has ever sounded better than Josh Graves.

Offline RobBob

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #8 on: December 18, 2009, 01:07:59 PM »
I grew up hearing Uncle Josh with Lester and Earl.  It was precisely Baker's guitar picking that surprised me and took my imagination by storm.  I am primarily a fiddle player so I had long been a fan.  I was so surprised by his guitar playing.  Uncle Josh was doing what he does, only freer than usual without the band.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Kenny Baker
« Reply #9 on: August 02, 2011, 08:19:11 AM »

 


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