I’ve never really been attracted to most of what was popular rock music in the 1950s. During the seventies when the whole 50s nostalgia thing was happening I never understood why people were so turned on by the music. Most of it seemed like really lame imitations of black music from the time, and the rest of it, Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons for example, just didn’t make any sense at all.
One of the few white acts I liked from that time period was Jerry Lee Lewis, or the “Killer” as he was known. There was something about him that gave him that spark of danger that none of the other packaged acts seemed to have. He had a connection to the music that verged on the spiritual and he played like he was almost possessed.
But it was his style that really enthralled me, not just his playing with his elbows or feet either, but the heavy bottom end that pounded out the beat while his right hand rang out the melody. I’ve heard a lot of other rock keyboard players of various styles since I first heard Jerry Lee and although some of them have been good, not a one has had the same feel for the music that the “Killer” did.
It wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I heard someone whose playing was similar enough that it reminded me of the way Lewis would attack a song. The thing is, Barrelhouse Buck McFarland died in 1962 just eight months after he recorded the tracks that Delmark Records has released under the title Alton Blues
Buck McFarland was born in Alton Illinois in 1903 and was part of a group of Blues musicians from the twenties and thirties who were referred to as the Alton school. This was in reference to the similarities they all had in their piano playing and the fact they all came from Alton. (A later graduate of Alton, Illinois was this guy called Miles Davis who was supposed to have been a half decent trumpet player)
In the years between World Wars One and Two Buck and other Alton natives, plus some others, made up the core of a thriving Blues scene in St. Louis. Somehow or other, St. Louis never achieved the fame as a Blues centre that Chicago or Harlem obtained but in between the wars and in the immediate aftermath of World War two it was just as potent.
The barrelhouse style that gave Buck his name came about due to the types of places they would play. Barrelhouse bars were usually at the low end of the social scale with the bar consisting of some planks laid down over some barrels. They were crowded rooms with people talking at the top of their lungs and in order for the piano player to be heard he needed to keep it simple and loud; heavy on the left hand and sharp and clean on the right.
According to one player from that time, “you could just mash your hands or elbows on the keys” (sounds a lot like the way Jerry Lee used to play doesn’t it?) But in reality it was also more refined than that as you can tell by just listening to Buck’s playing on Alton Blues
This was the second of two recordings that Buck made on being “rediscovered”, the first one was recorded in early 61 and the sound quality supposedly wasn’t that great. But this second effort, recorded in the home of St Louis Jazz Club members Bob and Vivian Oswald with better equipment, sounds amazing. You can hear every note he plays from the most delicate trills with the right hand, to the pounding bass of the left.
What’s really wonderful, and caught me by surprise not knowing what to expect, was his voice. It sounds like what beautifully aged wood would sound like if it could sing – rich and deep with no cracks or dryness. As a complement and a counter point to his piano music, whether in full tilt barrelhouse mode like on “Barrelhouse Buck” or the more melodious “Goodbye Blues”, it fills in the spaces left by the notes played by the piano.
But the piano playing is really what it’s all about when you listen to a guy named Barrelhouse, just as it should be. I’ve never heard anything like his playing, ever. Many is the time I’ve been told so and so is great piano player and been really disappointed because he or she just sounds like every other rock or blues keyboardist.
They might be technically more proficient and able to play any style under the sun, but they still couldn’t hold a candle to this guy pounding out the rhythm with his left hand like he’s keeping time with the pulse of the universe and letting his right pick its way through any melody that strikes it’s fancy. Okay so maybe that’s a bit poetic and over the top but when I listened to Barrelhouse Buck McFarland it felt like I was finally hearing Blues piano played like it was supposed to be played.
Nobody, not even my old buddy Jerry Lee, approaches the way Buck could play barrelhouse Blues piano. There is something effortless in the way he moves through all his material that makes everybody else look like they are just trying too hard to be “Blues” piano players. There is a genuine artistry to simplicity and directness that only comes from years of experience and a willingness to let the music dictate what happens and not try and discipline it into a nice neat space.
People probably wonder why I write about old time music and musicians so much. Well first of all I don’t consider them old time, it doesn’t matter when music was written or recorded, and it doesn’t matter if a musician is twenty, eighty, or dead. What matters is what they put into the music they make. Listening to Barrelhouse Buck McFarland’s Alton Blues is listening to someone who put his all into every note he played and every word he sang and that makes it timeless and priceless.
Oh, and one more thing, track twelve on this disc is simply called “Talk”, it’s a wonderful conversation between Buck and the folks doing the recording about the people Buck used to play with and some of things they got up to. It’s a great little bit of story telling, and even better for probably being true, and the icing on a really wonderful cake.