When we think of the blues, our thoughts often conjure up the scratchy acoustic blues of Mississippi John Hurt or Reverend Gary Davis, the scorching electric lead riffs of Freddie King and screechy leads of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the juicy harp of Sonny Boy Williamson, or the rollicking piano rolls of Otis Spann and Ivory Joe Hunter.
But mandolin? Blues on the mandolin? Isn’t the mandolin the instrument that stands front and center in bluegrass bands, made famous not by bluesmen but by such famous high and lonesome crooners as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush? Or by musicians who started in jug bands—David Grisman—or in bluegrass—Chris Thile—but who’ve created innovative styles that feature the mandolin in jazz (Grisman) or classical (Thile, who has an entire album devoted to playing Bach on mandolin).
Well, Rich DelGrosso joins a long and distinguished line of mandolin blues players, showing us through his own innovative acoustic runs and rippling riffs that the mandolin was born to play the blues. As a matter of fact, he joins a long line of mandolin bluesmen such as Yank Rachell, Howard Armstrong, Johnny Young, and others whose careers he has been instrumental in recovering for us not only by recording his own versions of their songs on his records but also by writing about them as a music journalist and as the author of Mandolin Blues: From Memphis to Maxwell Street (Hal Leonard), where he traces the history and music of American mandolin blues.
Like many young bluesmen, though, DelGrosso first came to the blues through his love of guitar. “My folks really encouraged me to play, and eventually I got together with friends in the neighborhood [in Detroit where he grew up], and we were all into the Amboy Dukes, Cream, the Rolling Stones.” DelGrosso recalls that his journey into the blues really started when he looked at the credits on the Stones albums and saw that their songs were written by people like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. “I really learned how to play guitar listening to Son House, Muddy, and the Wolf,” he says; “their music was far more powerful to me than the Stones, who were trying to copy them.”
“Then I got to see John Hammond live at a folk festival, and, man, I really wanted to do what John Hammond was doing; as a solo performer, Hammond has no equal.”
It wasn’t until David Siglin, the then-manager of the famous Ann Arbor folk club, The Ark, asked DelGrosso if he’d ever heard Johnny Young doing blues mandolin. “He turned me on to a recording of Otis Spann and Young playing this duet on piano and mandolin, and I started looking up people who were playing blues on mandolin.”
Hearing that one recording led DelGrosso on a journey he’s still traveling today. When he started doing some research into the mandolin, he found out that individuals in the land of his ancestry—Italy—firs produced the instrument in the eighteenth century and carried it to American shores in the nineteenth century. “By 1890,” he says, “colleges had mandolin clubs and shop girls even carried empty mandolin cases to convince people that they were society ladies.” The mandolin became huge again in the 1920s. “It was a parlor instrument, and it was a popular instrument in both the black and white community. Gibson produced a whole family of mandolins during those years.”
He calls the 1920s an invention-rich era. “Once records were created,” he points out, “you started to lose the regional aspect of the music; New Yorkers could easily listen to Southern blues.” During that time the resonator guitar—”National Resonator became known as the ‘Jaminator”—became a big instrument. Mandolins had to compete with the loudness and richness of Resonators, but the unique quality about mandolins, DelGrosso points out, is the rich tremolo technique and sound developed especially among Memphis jug bands. “The mandolin stood out because of what the jug bands could do with it to develop a very different tempo and rhythm from the emerging electric sound. Of course, Gibson also added a resonator to its mandolins, and that gave the instrument even more nuance and passionate sound.”
DelGrosso was so hooked on mandolin that he started writing for Mandolin World News, which David Grisman started. “I wrote a regular column for Mandolin Magazine from its beginning and covered folks like Young and Rachell.” One day Grisman called him and asked DelGrosso if he could find Yank Rachell, who was then supposed to be living in Indianapolis. “I found his name in the phone book and called him up; he was very gracious. We started jamming, and he showed me many of his secrets, including various tunings to give my mandolin some richer, stronger sounds. Of all blues mandolin players, Yank has the biggest discography of mandolin blues players that stretches from the 1920s to the 1990s.”
DelGrosso discovered the enduring power of blues mandolin when he saw Howard Armstrong at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Armstrong acquired the name “Louie Bluie,” says DelGrosso, a nod to his exuberant style. In fact, The Armstrongs—which included Armstrong, Carl Martin, Ted Hogan, and Martin Hogan—were billed as the last of the black string bands, according to DelGrosso. “They turned any gig into a party,” he laughs, with songs like “State Street Rag.”
Back then, and even now, acoustic blues bands were the perfect setting for blues mandolin players. “Memphis jug bands were the key. You can hear that mandolin tremolo technique that rises above the sound of the resonator guitar. The Dallas String Band—almost nobody has ever heard of them—and the Mississippi Sheiks—they did the original ‘Sitting on Top of the World,’ which Robert Johnson used as the basis for his own ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ I love introducing those bands to folks because they’re so important to hearing where this music comes from.”
DelGrosso teaches both through his records and through classes and workshops all around the country. In February he taught in the camp program at the annual Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, as well as entertaining one evening in an official showcase among five other acts. “I love to teach mandolin blues not only because I get paid well but because I get to meet other mandolin players, and I’m keeping the mandolin blues alive. I teach different approaches to the music, so I get to teach classes on Rachell, Armstrong, and Johnny Young.”
DelGrosso also offers lessons online through his website, and he offers a variety of instructional books through his website that include CDs and that can be used to master mandolin. His Mandolin Method: Book 1 (Hal Leonard) has introduced new players to the instrument for over thirty years now. “At gigs, people still come up and tell me that they learned how to play using my book,” he laughs.
On his newest album, The Ragpicker String Band (Yellow Dog), DelGrosso, Mary Flower, and Martin Grosswendt return to that model of acoustic string bands of which DelGrosso has grown so fond. “I decided to record an acoustic record and the other albums were a bit more electric and band oriented. I’ve got to get back to my roots. I had been working at the Centrum in Port Townsend with Mary Flower and Martin Grosswendt. We only had a short time together, so we went over to Austin to record with some of my favorite people.”
Featured on the album are tunes by the great blues mandolin player Sleepy John Estes—”Clean Up at Home,” “Black Mattie,” and “Milk Cow Blues”—the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Lonely One in the Town,” and the traditional tune, often attributed to the Reverend Gary Davis, “Trimmed and Burning.” The album’s rootsy flavor has earned it a nomination for a 2016 Blues Music Award as Acoustic Album of the Year.
DelGrosso pens two songs on the new album—”By Your Side” and “Street Doctor Blues”—and Mary Flower pens a pair, too—”Bruno’s Dream” and Baby Where You Been.” “I don’t think of myself as a very good songwriter,” DelGrosso says, “though I do want to get better at it.” As a songwriter, DelGrosso does write on mandolin. He starts with a groove and often asks himself what kind of groove he can do solo, since he’s often playing on my own. Then a lyric might emerge and give more to the groove.
“You know, the key to the success of country music today is that those songs tell stories; the blues tells the same old story, and I look for certain ideas that come up over and over again in that story: ‘Hard to Live With, Easy to Love’, ‘A Gig is a Gig’.” When John Del Toro Richardson and I were making Time Slips By, we wrote our own songs because getting royalties is one of the driving forces for writing and performing your own songs. We also realized that women buy records, so when I am writing I often think about what a woman would want to hear,” he laughs.
These days DelGrosso spends more time in the folk world than in the blues world, even though neither of the worlds understands the other very well. “Folk people don’t know about the blues world, and the blues world doesn’t know about the folk world. What’s different about the folk scene now is that there’s a huge percentage of singer-songwriters; that’s different from the 1970s when there was more emphasis on diversity—blues people, fiddlers, you name it. Now the folk clubs aren’t interested in blues artists and blues festivals seldom hire acoustic acts and are notorious for not hiring women acts. If John Hammond were starting out today, there would be very few opportunities for him to do what he did.”
When he reflect on the current state of the blues, DelGrosso expresses some bewilderment about today’s sounds and about the future of the music. “Seems like we’re losing a definition of what the blues is,” he says, “and I’m disappointed that there is a blurring of the lines between blues and rock and roll.”
He says that he has no idea where the blues is going. “You know, Elijah Wald said that the blues is alive today in the music of kids banging on their trash cans and doing hip hop. People don’t know what it is any more. I’m not hearing what I think of as the blues; for example, I don’t think blues radio is playing Brad Vickers anymore,” DelGrosso declares.
In spite of his uncertainty about the future of the blues, DelGrosso plans to stay busy. “I have thought about some other writing projects,” he says; “I should probably do some more method books.” DelGrosso has a big dream: “it would be the highlight of my life if I could be in that stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival in front of which I first sat to see John Hammond and where this all started.” DelGrosso “would love to get together contemporary blues mandolin players like Gerry Hundt and Billy Flynn to do another mandolin blues album,” and more and more he “wants to write a lot of songs and do an album of my own again like the one that John Del Toro Richardson and I did together, Time Slips By.”
Yet, for DelGrosso, there’s something about those jug bands and string bands, and the acoustic blues of Rachell, Young, Armstrong, and others that calls him more and more to the roots world. “I’m a roots person. I’m lost in the roots and I don’t want to leave it. I’m a 1920s blues mandolin player who got caught in the wrong time.”
We’re wise to accompany DelGrosso on his journey back down to his roots.
Visit Rich’s website at: www.mandolinblues.com