A year of sheltering in place has encouraged people to pursue everything from baking bread to sorting through the junk of a lifetime to binging on way too much TV. In search of sanity and new skills, I’ve spent a lot of my time learning how to play the mandolin. To that end, I bought Homespun Music tutorials from Chris Thile, host of the covid-cancelled Live From Here radio program, and David Grisman, the virtuoso best known for his work with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
While nothing replaces a hands-on teacher, taking lessons via DVDs (or YouTube) lets a student study with all sorts of gifted musicians. That’s how I learned the elements of fingerstyle guitar from Happy Traum, mainstays of my blues repertoire from Rory Bloch, and the feel of playing in DADGAD tuning with Richard Thompson. At the piano, I’ve studied the basics of playing blues with David Cohen of Country Joe and the Fish, and became all thumbs trying to get my fingers around the funky rhythm & blues of Dr. John.
As any musician knows, countless hours of practice are required to learn to play any instrument, and along the way, one is apt to ask what’s the point? After all, these talented teachers are just the visible tip of a multitude of superior musicians who’ve mastered a cornucopia of styles. For instance, I’ll be working until the next pandemic to acquire the driving thumb that’s essential to replicating the propulsive fingerstyle blues of Big Bill Broonzy.
But while the execution of “Hey Hey” is difficult, it at least employs a recognizable blues pattern and common chord inversions; none of that applies to a haunting song that continues to elude my fingers, Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues.”
Most every fact there is to know about Wiley can be found in this article from the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/13/magazine/blues.html); the song itself was heard in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, in which underground comic artist and vintage music fan Robert Crumb is seen listening to a rare 78 rpm recording of the tune. “If I get killed, if I get killed,” Geeshie sings as Crumb nods with appreciation, “please don’t bury my soul.” My personal quest to play the tune was helped by my discovery of a web site called 52weeksofblues.com, which offers guitar tablatures to dozens of country blues songs. The page devoted to each song also includes a bio of the artist, the song’s lyrics, and sometimes, a link to a contemporary YouTube performance of the song. That’s how I had the pleasure of discovering another great blues woman, Christine Pizzuti.
Be still my heart! With such brilliantly rhythmic picking supporting a lovely, understated vocal, you can understand why her laundry can wait. An internet search revealed that these blues were nurtured in the fertile delta of New York’s Hudson Valley. And the 2012 recording date suggests that the clip was made while Ms. Pizzuti was getting her Master of Science in environmental policy at Bard College, the small liberal arts school that famously gave birth to Steely Dan (“My Old School”). It’s anybody’s guess whether this is a dorm room or an off-campus residence, but those walls sure heard a lot of fine country blues.
More of her music can be found on YouTube, where Ms. Pizutti goes by the somewhat disturbing name “IplayBanjoNow.” (Masterful guitar playing isn’t enough?) Pizutti has recorded a collection of original tunes, Dirty Home, and played her rendition of “Last Kind Word” for American Epic: The Collection, a soundtrack that accompanied a PBS documentary about the early history of recording American roots music. But playing country blues is hardly a promising path to a music career. Consider one of her gigs at a busy restaurant.
Makes that bedroom look awfully cozy. Christine Pizzuti currently does public relations for Camphill Village, a rural community run for adults with developmental disabilities. She’s also the co-founder of Olde Forge Farms, a sustainable operation that raises greens, fish, and poultry. Does she still have the time and inclination to play this intricate music? If I stopped by her farm stand for some good food, could I hear a little guitar? No matter. She already inspires another Hudson Valley picker. The household chores can wait. I’m going to practice.