Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Saturday Soundtrack
Comments 3

Happy 100th birthday, my friend

The year 1921 was an important one in world history. The pandemic that began in 1918 had weakened, but it was still causing sickness and death. The Irish War for Independence ended, leading to the creation of the Republic of Ireland. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre saw a white mob burn down the community of Greenwood — known as the Black Wall Street — destroying lives, property, wealth, and dreams. Babe Ruth hit his 138th home run, taking over as career leader in that baseball category until his eventual record of 714 was broken by Hank Aaron in 1974. Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio at age 39. Coco Chanel introduced “Chanel No. 5”.

Gibson factory: This is the interior of the factory that was in use in 1920, although this photo is from 1936 (credit: Kalamazoo Public Library)

And at the Gibson instrument factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, workers are building a number of A-style mandolins.

At last Monday’s Celtic Christmas concert sponsored by the Institute of Musical Traditions, Robin Bullock picked up his Gibson A-style mandolin and announced that he wanted to make sure to play it because the instrument was celebrating its 100th birthday. *

Robin Bullock, Elke Baker, and Ken Kolodner (l to r) at the 2021 IMT Celtic Christmas concert with Robin’s 100-year-old A-style mandolin.

As he proceeded to join bandmates Ken Kolodner and Elke Baker in an old-time medley, I had a thought. In that batch of mandolins being brought to life in Kalamazoo in 1921 was one A-4 model with a red sunburst finish and a fleur-de-lis inlay in the headstock. One with the serial number 65905.

My Gibson A-4 mandolin headstock with the fleur-de-lis inlay, serial number 65905

Yes, my Gibson A-4 mandolin also dates from 1921, so it is also celebrating a 100th birthday this year! And anything that reaches 100 deserves to be honored, as we’ll do in this Saturday Soundtrack.

Because there are several great musicians playing A-style mandolins online, they’ll take the lead in showcasing what this versatile old chestnut can do. To begin, here’s a video featuring the three musicians who originally put the thought into my head. This particular IMT performance is from 2015 — when Robin’s mandolin was still a spry 94-years young — but he puts the youngster through its paces on Richmond, Greasy Coat, and the frightfully named Starvation at Hell Creek.

After that appetizer, let’s turn back to when these instruments were first introduced. Mandolins have been around for a long time, and some classical composers — including Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Mozart — wrote specifically for them. When Gibson began making mandolins in Kalamazoo, the company was building off the second wave of mandolin popularity — which began with the Paris Exposition of 1878. The company helped fuel this new interest in the instrument as well as the related members of the mandolin family: the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello, and mandobass.

Instruments of the mandolin family, all made by Gibson (credit: By Larry Jacobsen – Flickr: The Gibson Collection, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25470719)

Mandolin orchestras are still popular in some parts of the music world, as shown in this video of the Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto in C Major performed at the 8th Osaka International Mandolin Festival in 2013. (You have time to work on your skills before the 12th festival in October of 2022!)

Tone Poems: The Sounds of the Great Vintage Guitars and Mandolins is an album of duets by mandolinist David Grisman and the late guitarist Tony Rice using vintage instruments. Turn of the Century, which opens the album, features instruments that were available when the song was written, and that’s not the 21st century they are referencing. Rice plays an 1891 Martin 1-21 guitar while Grisman takes the lead on a 1905 Gibson A-4 mandolin.

Norman Blake is the first musician I saw play an A-style mandolin in person, and he probably was the key influence that led me to step into Gruhn Guitars in 1979 and check out their inventory of vintage instruments.

The invoice of my $636 purchase of A-4 #65905 in September of 1979

The story I recall from when I bought my mandolin is that it once was owned by none other than Norman Blake himself, although that very well may be a story I invented over time and in my mind! In any event, give a listen to a still-active Blake put his A-style mandolin through the paces on the T.A.G. Railroad Rag.

Carl Miner of the band The Greencards plays a beautiful rendition of Jay Unger’s Ashokan Farewell on an A-4 in impeccable condition.

Sad to say, my A-4 did not come into my possession in such good condition. The pickguard has always been missing, with the resulting wear showing on the body. There are other nicks and minor flaws, but hey, it is 100 years old and sounds great.

The only modification I made to the instrument was to add a strap button on the heel (I can hear the purists now). The only repair, by a Gibson-certified technician, was to address a small separation issue at the tailpiece.

Other A-4 models have seen more significant modifications. Multi-instrumentalist Flynn Cohen of Low Lily joins Mandolin Monday for an original microtonal fiddle tune called The Last of Biff played on his modified vintage Gibson mandolin that has two partial-frets and one micro-tuned course. See if you can hear the difference.

In the 1980s, I was listening to a good bit of Tom Espinola and Lorraine Duisit. Their album Feather River featured both musicians playing an A-style mandolin on lovely tunes like Chimes.

Yes, the case is pretty darn old as well!

A-4 number 65905 has now been in my life for 42 years. I don’t play it as much as I should, but since the old box is now 100 I suspect I’ll give it some more TLC and attention. As with all my musical instruments, I see them as living things and I see myself as just a steward. This one was here before me, and it should — with any care at all — outlast me. I hope it gives someone else great pleasure in the future.

For while other companies still produce A-style mandolins, they are no longer a part of the Gibson lineup. I get it, F-style mandolins look stunning! “An F-style mandolin is as much a work of art as it is a functional instrument.” And in the hands of Chris Thile or Sam Bush, an F-style looks as cool as any electric guitar in the hands of a rock star. No one would think of using John Starling’s description of John Duffey (i.e., “the big man with the little instrument”) on one of those two guys, with their hip looks and their stylin’ F-5s. And then there is Sierra Hull. I rest my case.

But if I was worried about stunning looks, then I wouldn’t have bought an A-4, and perhaps would have changed a few other things in my life.

Let’s end the celebration where it began with two pieces by Robin Bullock. First up, Robin plays a medley of two old time fiddle tunes on a 1920 A-style, and he’s added the following comment about the tuning:

This is a pair of old-time Appalachian fiddle tunes, “Coleman’s March” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, played on my 1920 Gibson A (affectionately nicknamed The Feral Cat because its previous owner claims it only purrs when it’s in my lap). These tunes are traditionally played with the fiddle retuned to the “Dead Man’s Tuning,” DDAD low to high, so I retuned the mandolin the same way and discovered that the tuning yields some amazing sounds on mandolin. This arrangement continues to evolve over time.”

We’ll end with some J.S. Bach on the mandolin…in this case, Bach’s Allemande from Cello Suite No. 4.

Happy birthday, dear friend.

Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB

*He also said he owned a number of mandolins, and this one was the “youngest.”

Image of #65905 by DJB

3 Comments

  1. David, FIrst of all – I hope this email finds you and your family well ! Tricia and I ( as I’m sure she has mentioned) miss working with you a LOT at the Trust !

    I thought you might be interested in knowing about an exhibit out here in Denver at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science focused on the guitar. Your blog post today made me think of it for you. Although you probably aren’t headed this way any time soon – it might be of interest accessing on line to see what remote information is available.

    https://www.dmns.org/

    Happy Holidays to you and your family !

    Barb Gibson

    • Dear Barb,

      How wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for your kind remarks…I miss you and so many of my former colleagues, although I’m very much enjoying the semi-retired life! And thanks for thinking about me in terms of the guitar exhibit. I will definitely check it out online. I love vintage instruments – especially ones that are still played regularly. As you can tell from today’s post, I really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into these old instruments. There are a lot of very good new guitars and mandolins being made today, but the aging process usually makes an excellent instrument even better.

      Take care, and Happy Holidays!
      DJB

  2. Pingback: Seeing through times that try our souls | More to Come...

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