Tuesday, November 13, 2007

can you still rock out if you can't see?

I've been watching videos of blind guys singing songs and playing guitars for quite a while now (probably a lot longer than I'd like). But, despite how nerdy this is, I've found some pretty interesting things going on. (trends, if you will). It's fascinating to watch a blind man play guitar, or maybe just these blind men, but the way they play guitar seems to be almost fundamentally different from a lot of guitar players who can see. They have a very unpretentious aura to them. I mean, as much as they might be showing off (ahem, all of them, actually), none of them really do all of the trendy things that you typically see an eleven year old kid do whenhe's rocking out on an electric guitar.

Take the blind Reverend Gary Davis, for instance. Here he is playing his super smash hit, "If I Had My Way"

Now aside from how much he's showing off while making sweet, sweet lovin' to that gorgeous guild guitar, you should pay attention to his body language. He hardly moves most of his body. He keeps his head in a pretty steady position and he hardly moves his torso (watch his shoulders for this, he hardly does any swaying). Of course the first time I ever saw this recording I was standing on the dance floor at the House of Blues at Disneyland waiting for Bo Diddley to come on stage, and I clearly remember being struck by the way Davis moves his hand up and down the neck. He seems to have extreme familiarity with the guitar and an innate knowledge of just where his fingers need to go. Now this seems to be particularly impressive, because the good reverend went through a whole slew of guitars in his day. He used to play for money in the streets of New York City until one day he fell asleep on the sidewalk and when he woke up "pretty miss gibson" was gone. So apparently his virtuosic abilities are applicable to any guitar (including twelve string) which makes his abilities even more impressive.

Then we've got good old Arthel "Doc" Watson. Here he is playing "Southbound" at the 1988 Philadelphia Folk Festival with Jack Lawrence (although, for the life of me I don't know why this guy is there, you can hardly hear him playing and he doesn't contribute any special talent or anything of the sort). Anyway you don't need to watch all six and a half minutes of it, just wait through the introduction and listen to the song.

Now to be honest, and believe you me, I'm ashamed to admit this, but the first time I ever heard a recording of him doing this song, I really honestly thought that there was no way a blind man could be doing that. I mean, really, the guy went blind when he was one. Anyhow, what to note in this video: The standards of the blind performer. He's got a pretty serious face the whole time, he doesn't really move his head at all, he doesn't wave his shoulders, or slide around in his seat. These blind guys are, apparently, strictly in it for the love of the game. Something special to note (and I'm not sure if you can really see this in the video) is that Doc is playing the guitar with two fingers, two little old fingers, yep, you heard me. In fact, there's a really great exercise you might want to try: You could count them. Here, I'll help you through this. hold up your right hand and ball it into a fist. Now raise your thumb and index finger. There! You've got it! two fingers. Now try playing this song. with your eyes closed. Interestingly this method (only two fingers) was used by Merle Travis (granddaddy and namesake of Travis picking) who of course is the reason Doc named his one and only son, Merle, Merle. Whatshisface from Dire Straits also played that way, I hear. Anyway what Watson is doing on this song is next to impossible for pretty much anybody. Aside from getting all those chords right in the breakdown, picking a guitar (especially with all of those notes) at that speed for the entire song without messing up requires a loooot of stamina, or at least a few good forearm muscles.

Comparison anyone?
Let's take a look at this here video. I was going to show you a Chet Atkins video, but then I thought, maybe Leo Kottke, but I finally realized that I would just most like to dump on Michael Hedges (the other guy is Kottke, they're playing the themesong to Doodles)

I mean... for real?? who does this guy think he is?! The guy is moving his head more than a pigeon that's been half run over by a steamroller. What a total weiner. Anyway, in his defense, Hedges was really bitter about being labeled "new age" and often referred to his music as "Heavy Mental" and "Thrash Acoustic" (I can see why). Of course who wouldn't label some dude with hair down to his lower back playing electric harp guitar "new age". The man is basically a parody of himself. But maybe he's being sarcastic about what he's doing. So what? Look at how much he moves around. The man is moving his entire body, he's rocking and rolling left to right, front to back, he's bobbing his head (in at least two different manners, aside from watching his hand move up and down the neck, a weakness of many guitar players), and he's doing lots of fancy handwork with his picking hand. Doc Watson hardly moves his picking hand away from the guitar. Hedges is totally dramatic with how he's picking, he can clearly just feel it. It must be coming from within and he must let this room full of people know about it and hear his wonders! But I digress. You might want to note his outfit and how well groomed his fingers are (Watson and Davis both have big fat fingers). Also be sure to catch that thing he does with his left hand when the song is over. Thank you conductor Hedges.

Well, apparently if you want your prodigy guitar playing child to be good as well as unpretentious you need to blind them at birth. This way they'll sit stock still and play music for you, minus the theatrics that society will teach him are the privilege of the performer. But wait! Who's this? Why, it's Jose Feliciano playing "Flight of the Bumble Bee"

Turns out that I'm not actually as right as I wanted to be. Apparently, if you're a little bit younger you can still absorb theatrics into your routine. Just not as much. (As a sidenote, dig on his seeing eye dog resting behind the stool). As much as Feliciano rocks out, this is the only way he ever rocks out. He bobs his head back and forth pretty vigourously, but that's it. He bobs his head the same way every time, and he is still much less aware of himself as a physical performer.

Of course I'm just talking about guitar players here. I have no clue what I think about other instruments. Stevie Wonder moves around a good deal, but he's still kind of awkward. Maybe he just smiles a lot more than these dudes.

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