This morning I was idly perusing Facebook posts from my many “friends”. This can be a time-sink, but occasionally I’ll see something interesting. In this case I saw a notice on Charlie Walden’s “wall”; Charlie is one of the best fiddlers in this part of the country. The notice was news to me — Kenny Baker died last month.
Kenny Baker was a master fiddler. He’s usually categorized as a bluegrass player, with some justification; after all, he played for years with Bill Monroe, the singer and mandolinist who was known as “the father of bluegrass”. Baker, though, was as much an old-time fiddler as a bluegrasser. He played with sensitivity and finesse, slightly varying a tune each time around in a manner derived from swing-era jazz — but he always kept to the melody out of respect for the tunes, I imagine. Most bluegrass fiddlers have adopted a chordal rather than melodic approach.
I’m reminded of the Irish fiddling of John Carty, another master improviser who plays without straying too far from the tune.
A couple of examples of Kenny Baker delving deep into the heart of a tune:
Kenny was quoted saying this about the above tune, Denver Belle:
“I’ll tell you what, I never heard nobody play that, but my people. My daddy played it, my grandpa played it. I even had an aunt who played it. I never heard nobody else play it.”
Another tune, which he called “Lost Indian”; I play a similar tune which I learned as “Cherokee Shuffle:
He’ll be missed!