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NOTE: All content in this weblog, except where indicated, is entirely my own, and not that of WHRB or Harvard University. See the About page for more information. /CL
It’s been a bit of rough week, what with a touch of the CCP Virus on top of dental surgery (preparation for a couple of implants, which has left me with a sore mouth and jaw for a week). And today it’s pouring rain, making a racket in the downspout outside the window of my home studio. But I’ll make up time, not by pouring on the coal but by going back and getting a substitute engine.
Some of you will recall last August 20th, when the Hillbilly broadcast was suddenly interrupted at 9:35 AM by dead air—a malfunction at One Financial Center had taken our transmitter off the air. Turns out the Internet stream continued apace, so stream listeners were able to hear the whole show, but the local FM listeners were left “alone and forsaken” (to quote Hank Williams).
So I’ll re-run that two-hour home-brewed show, which will be mostly new to many of you, and maybe even to Internet listeners who had better things to do on a sunny August Saturday.
And of course you got the reference to ‘The Wreck of Old 97′, and the ironic reference to ’38’, which wrecked just six months before the more celebrated 97, on the same road, near Lynchburg.
By 1989 the Christmas Extravaganza was an established tradition for Hillbilly at Harvard, featuring “four hours of the very best, and the very worst, of country Christmas music,” plus a gathering with friends in the country and bluegrass music communities—artists, DJs, promoters, and others. That year WHRB was taking a two-week vacation—maybe for technical reasons—so December 16th was the last Saturday before Christmas, hence an early Extravaganza.
You may know, or remember, some of the guests you’ll hear: John Lincoln Wright, Jimmy Allen, Ed (The Detective) Muller, Evan Riley, Gordy Brown, Mark Burns, George Hauenstein, Bucky Bear, Larry Flint, and Flo Murdock—and maybe more I didn’t note. Sinc and I of course hosted, and had a lot of fun juggling records, guests, and finally the Hillbilly Chorale with a few live carols and songs from Studio A.
The Christmas Extravaganza was of course four hours by then, but since we’ve got only two hours now, I’ve broken the show into two parts: Part 1 this Saturday (December 17th) and Part 2 next Saturday (December 24th—Christmas Eve). I hope you’ll find time to listen both Saturday mornings. You’ll hear a lot of what became HAH standards over the years, and some songs that may be new to you. New to us was Da Yoopers‘ ‘Rusty Chevrolet’, which the late Mark Burns brought down, and which we’ve played every year since.
I always relied on Ed the Detective to bring down one of my favorites, Bill Boyd’s version of ‘Up on the Housetops’. I liked it so much on December 16th, 1989, that I played it twice! I’ll include it below. /CL
Just Tuesday this week I learned that HAH was going to be preempted for the next three Saturdays, for WHRB’s semi-annual Orgy® Period. However, Orgy® Director Ezra was kindly able to rearrange the schedule so we’ll just lose this one Saturday, and HAH will be back on the 10th.
Not much to add. I hope all of our American listeners had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. We were treated with all three of our kids in the house (with two of their spouses), along with all ten grandkids (ages 6 months to 15 years), and (of course) “All nine kinds of pies that Harold liked best” (see HERE); actually, this year there were ten!
So enjoy a ‘Blues Roadtrip’ in lieu of HAH, and keep listening for two more weeks of entertaining and unusual Orgies®, including the bluegrass phenom Billy Strings (Sunday, Dec 4, 5:30 AM – 9:00 AM), and ‘The Kissing Orgy’ (Monday, Dec 12th, 1:30 AM – 12 noon). Complete schedule HERE.
If there is a better name for an old-timey music town than Paw Paw, West Virginia, I don’t know what it is. And that’s where The Critton Hollow String Band are from.
Their core founders are Joe and Sam Herrmann, husband and wife, joined for many years by Joe Fallon, and in this version of the band, Peter Gordon. We had been playing their second album, Sweet Home (1983), and were delighted to discover they were in the neighborhood and willing to play live on Hillbilly at Harvard.
Actually, while I have tapes of The Down Home Show, which I hosted before HAH, from 1985 and earlier, Old Sinc was recording HAH at home, and his tapes were apparently trashed by his landlord after Sinc’s death. So it was a delightful surprise to discover a tape cassette of The Critton Hollow String Band playing live in Studio A on April 27th, 1985. Old Sinc hosts; I was on the board. The Critton Hollow folks played two sets, one before the Hillbilly News at Noon (yes, a real newscast, read [mostly] straight by me and Sinc), and one for the last half hour, closing out the show. Sinc liked to get a live band to play an instrumental that he could do the Country Calendar over, and TCHSB obliged. You’ll also hear a vintage version of Sinc ‘making the beep’, as I have described in a recent post, ‘The Beep, and How to Make It’.
The Critton Hollow String Band are still performing and touring as a trio. You can find their schedule on their website.
Tune in at 9 o’clock this Saturday morning (EDT, of course), 22Oct22, for a rare treat: an Archival hour with The Critton Hollow String Band, followed by another Home-Brewed Hour of Hillbilly at Harvard. /CL
Tony Trischa was always nothing if not thorough. He has appeared on Hillbilly at Harvard several times over the decades, always an affable, mild-mannered fellow whose understated mastery was always omnipresent. Is it something about banjo players? Bill Keith was like that. And so of course was Earl Scruggs. Guitarists tend to the flamboyant. Not banjoists.
“During COVID, Trischka did a deep dive into Scruggs’ music, first transcribing every Scruggs solo from a tape he had received from Scruggs’ son,” writes Carol Feingold in the press release below. If that sounds ineffably scholarly, just wait. Banjo players like Tony hide a wellspring of exciting music, and I expect you’ll hear it. Wonderful to learn that Tony Trischka is still out leading the banjo world, still playing bluegrass. Here’s the release:
Banjo legend Tony Trischka to perform at Belleville Stage
Belleville Roots Music presents “the father of modern bluegrass” Tony Trischka and his Deep Dive Earl Scruggs Show at the Belleville Stage, 300 High St., Newburyport, on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m.
“Known as the father of modern bluegrass,” according to the NY Times, Trischka is one of the most influential banjo players in the Roots music world. He has achieved legendary status in his 50 plus years as a consummate artist. He created his Deep Dive Earl Scruggs Show as a tribute to the man who inspired him to take up the banjo, Earl Scruggs.
“Earl is my North Star, a lifetime pathway,” Trischka said. “The depth of his genius becomes ever more apparent when I transcribe his solos, which I’ve been doing my entire musical life and with renewed vigor. Discovering new twists and turns in his playing is pure joy and in fact the inspiration for this tribute show.”
During COVID, Trischka did a deep dive into Scruggs’ music, first transcribing every Scruggs solo from a tape he had received from Scruggs’ son.He then learned them and put together a great band to play the material. On the Belleville Stage Trischka’s Deep Dive Earl Scruggs Show will feature Michael Daves, Maddie Witler, Brittany Haas, and Jared Engel.
A Grammy nominee, Trischka has received multiple awards and was recently inducted into the American Banjo Museum’s Hall of Fame. He has recorded and performed with Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, William S. Burroughs, The Allman Brothers, Alison Kraus, Miley Cyrus, Van Dyke Parks, and many more. He has inspired generations of acoustic musicians with his technical and conceptual advances.
He produced Steve Martin’s Rare Bird Alert, featuring Paul McCartney and The Chicks, and was the musical director and associate producer of PBS’s The Banjo Project. In 2019, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut and celebrated the 10 year anniversary of his Tony Trischka School of Banjo on the ArtistWorks platform, the online banjo home for students around the world. . .
Belleville Roots Music concerts are held at the Belleville Stage, 300 High St., Newburyport, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at door; $10 for ages 18 and under. Current COVID-19 protocols will be followed. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.bellevilleroots.org.
The only Molly Tuttle album I had, When You’re Ready (2019), was lovely but not very country. So I’m delighted to learn (from Ken Irwin, at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival) that she’s returned to bluegrass with an all-star band, Golden Highway, and has a new album, just released, Crooked Tree. They’re going to be at the Belleville Roots series in Newburport, Friday, October 7th.
Here’s the video for the title song of the new album:
I count Molly a veteran of Hillbilly at Harvard, as she appeared live with John Mailander a few years ago. You can get all the information on the Bellevue show HERE: /CL
Come help us celebrate 50 years of the Sour Mash Boys!
Sunday, September 18, 4 PM – 8 PM at Sally O’Brien’s
It’s 50 years this month since John Lincoln Wright began a new chapter in New England Country Music history and founded the Sour Mash Boys. We want to mark this anniversary with a reunion gig, which will feature some of the original band members and some fan-favorites from among Lincoln’s many band line-ups.
Pedal steel player John Macy, fiddler Bill Henderson, drummer Dave Kinsman, and Larry Flint of the early ’70’s band will be performing, as well as Sour Mash Boys & Girls from the last half-century. Peggy McDonald, wife of the late John McDonald, will also be there to represent his contribution to Sour Mash history.
Come join us to hear some great music and raise a glass to John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys.
Sunday, September 18th, starting at 4 pm, at Sally O’Brien’s, 335 Somerville Ave., Union Square, Somerville. $10 cover.
Long-time listeners to Hillbilly at Harvard (HAH) will know how we have preserved older styles of music broadcasting, especially ‘top 40’ radio, with breaks after every song, and also our custom to begin and end the program on time, to ‘make the beep’ by banging on an old hubcap. Newer listeners might think these are just parodies of old-time radio, or just one of our ‘inane traditions’, as Ol’ Sinc called them, like playing Terry Allen’s ’Truckload of Art’ at the end of the show on the day of the Harvard-Yale game. But they have deeper roots, in the history of the program, which dates back to a time when 78-rpm records were the main fare, and only slightly more recently, when station members made a deliberate attempt to emulate professional broadcasters.
In radio and TV the clock rules, though in the modern era, it may seem different. Local and non-commercial radio often operate on flexible schedules, where one program may meld into another with little notice or fanfare, and only a rough approximation of the actual hour. But in the ‘real world’ of commercial radio and television, especially where networked stations may share programing, commercials, IDs, break-aways, and other elements, the clock reigns supreme.
A local station with no network programming, e.g. college or community stations, need pay little attention to the niceties of timing, especially when programs are staffed by one or two members attempting to manage equipment, programming, and announcements. Still, back when I was an undergraduate at WHRB, Harvard’s quasi-independent radio station, there was an unspoken but obvious effort to emulate professional broadcasting. In those days studio engineers and announcers had separate roles, in separate rooms. At WHRB the engineers were called ‘controlmen’, and had large floor-mounted turntables and rack-mounted tape recorders to manage, in addition to the broadcast board with inputs for all the audio devices and the microphones in the adjacent studio. The controlmen worked on their feet, and communicated with the announcers, usually seated behind the glass, with a ‘talk-back’ microphone, or with hand signals.
If an announcer wished to talk to the controlman, he made an audition signal with thumbs and forefingers, thus:
To start a record or tape, the announcer pointed with his forefinger. To open his mic, he pointed to the microphone. To kill the mic, he used the throat-cutting gesture. There were other signals, e.g. for ‘time left’, or ‘go to tape’. The programs were generally run by the announcers.
We had Western Union clocks in the studios and control rooms, and these clocks were tied to Naval Observatory time by a Western Union line. On the hour, the Observatory would send a signal, lighting a red bulb on the clock and sending a brief tone (a ‘beep’) down the wire. We were expected to ‘time out’ to the hour, i.e. to ‘make the beep’, which would go over the air. If it wasn’t necessary to time out, e.g. when a program continued past the hour, we would pull a two-pronged jumper from the ‘matrix’ (a circuit board with rows of 1/4” phone-plug sockets). If the announcer wanted to avoid the beep coming over the air, he would make a rude signal (an open, grasping hand) to the controlman to pull the jumper and ’castrate the beep’.
On HAH we preserved the tradition of ‘Making the Beep’ long after the Western Union clocks disappeared from our studio walls. We also preserved the AM-radio ‘top 40’ style of popular-music programming, with breaks between every record. I think it was in the mid ’60s, about the time when WBCN-FM abandoned its classical format and Pete Wolf began playing rock-’n’-roll overnight, that music shows began playing ‘sets’, segueing songs together without breaks—yes, before then, it was unusual enough to play songs back-to-back that we had the term ’segue’ for it, and an announcer signal, as well (two fingers together) to request one. Today, ‘sets’ are standard practice. They make life easier when one person is responsible for the whole program and not following a strict playlist. But at HAH we’ve always thought it made a lot more sense to let listeners know what they heard and what was next. Also, it was a lot more fun to talk about the music, the artists, and keep listeners apprised of all the concerts, shows, and festivals going on.
We even used to break and take a few minutes for the Hillbilly News at Noon—back when we had an AP ticker to pull news from. Of course we would ‘make the beep’ before the HAH News at Noon, as well as at the beginning and end of every show. By then there was no Western Union clock, and its hourly beep. So we made our own: for a while I used a resonant lid from an electric frying pan, which I brought from home. Then it was a great-sounding Oldsmobile hubcap. Actually, we had two of them, which we stashed behind a curtain in Studio B at our old digs at 45 Quincy Street, in the basement of Sanders Theater. But sadly the Olds hubcaps disappeared after an overzealous comper cleaned up the studio (‘compers’ are undergraduates trying out for WHRB membership, and were expected to participate in ‘monster’ clean-ups). The standard became a vintage Rambler hubcap, which I hope is still in the HAH library.
Of course we could ‘make the beep’ at whatever time we chose, though we endeavored to announce “The time at the tone” right on the hour, unless we were running late for one reason or another. We always asked permission of the following DJ to run over, which was always granted—except when we had to end on time for the football pregame show, or (in more recent years), the Metropolitan Opera. That is called a ‘hard break’ in radio today. I remember one time when we thought the Met was going to start at the usual time, but it was earlier, and David Elliott came running in, frantically yelling “Stop!” We were innocently yapping away, so of course we stopped, real hard.
Usually we were better at keeping time. There are easy ways to end the show on time. If you listen to news or talk radio, you’ll hear music fading in, and announcers, anchors, hosts winding up their current gab fests in time for a logged commercial or program break. That’s called ‘bumper music’, and if you’re good, like the late Rush Limbaugh, it’ll time out and end with a bang right when it should. If you’re not as finessed, it’ll just fade or disappear when the new signal appears.
In my undergraduate days, most programs had themes—musical themes, to open and close. They served two purposes: to identify the program, and to separate it from others, to serve as bookends. Usually we talked over the themes, to introduce the program or say goodbye (“You’ve been listening to. . .”). Are many DJs using headphones these days? If you want to talk over music, you need headphones. We have two themes on HAH, both from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s classic album, Foggy Mountain Jamboree (1957): ‘Foggy Mountain Special’, to open, and ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ to close. Ol’ Sinc was famous for his breathless recitation of the Country Calendar over the closing theme (hat tip to Harvard Gazette writer Beth Potier for ‘breathless’).
Closing themes serve another purpose: to time out and make the beep. The easy way to do this is just to end your last song a couple of minutes before your scheduled close, play the theme, and if it’s too long, just fade it down. The more elegant way is to ‘dead-roll’ the theme during your last selection, then fade it up and have it end right on time. That’s the way we’ve always done it on HAH. ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ is 2:00 minutes long. So if you want to end at 12:59:50 PM, leaving 10 seconds for the station ID and the beep at 1:00 PM, then you start the theme at 12:57:50, dead-rolling if your last song is still playing. If you didn’t plan right and your last song is too long, then you might be reduced to ‘cross-fading’, fading down the song as you fade up the theme. You end on time.
In the old days it was fairly rare to combine the roles of announcer and controlman; in the late ‘50s in the Dudley Gulch basement location (under Dudley Hall, where Holyoke Center stands now), there was a small control room overlooking the large Studio B, called BC (B Control) and that was set up for ‘one-manning’, used mainly during Orgy® Period. My first time on the air was a nervous half-hour in BC by myself, called ‘Old Timey Music Time’ that eventually became a two-hour bluegrass and old-time show called ’Saturday Morning Jamboree’, which I hosted with Cousin Mike Eisenstadt; being two-man it moved to Studio A with a controlman in Central Control (CC).
Commercial music radio quickly favored single disk jockeys who became ‘personalities’, a development made easier with ‘carts’ (tape cartridges with individual songs and commercials, which were quick to insert and self-cueing) and strict playlists. WHRB through all its moves (to Claverly Hall, then Memorial Hall, then the current Pennypacker Hall) maintained the two-room studio-control-room architecture, even though ‘one-manning’ became the rule (and the term disappeared). We never had cart machines. Our main on-air studios at Memorial Hall and even our current Pennypacker location were laid out for a controlman standing, or on a stool, not for a DJ in a comfortable chair. That actually worked well for HAH, as Sinc and I worked together on two mics, in and out of the studio, and had frequent guests.
In these latter days, when HAH is reduced to two hours, and I’m recording them at home, I’m not ‘making the beep’. I can’t be certain when the show will begin and end. But I’m still maintaining ‘top 40’ programming, and some semblance of the old days. If you’ve heard any of the Archival shows I produced last year, you will have gotten a feel for the way it was when both Sinc and I were hosting, and we had a steady stream of guests contributing music and comaraderie. HAH may have originated when we strived to emulate professional radio, but continued for decades as a vital part of the grown-up country music community in the Boston area. We made it fun at the same time, as our hubcap beeps demonstrated. They were a tradition, but not an inane one.
Here’s Ol’ Sinc squeezing in the Country Calendar over the closing theme, picked at random from November 11th, 1987, ending on time for Harvard Football:
PS You can still buy those ‘self-winding’ Western Union clocks from a company called Surplus Sales of Nebraska. No time signal from the Naval Observatory, though. /CL