The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 4


Where Did Kenny Hall Learn All Those Tunes?

By Vykki Mende Gray

Imagine an afternoon stretching into the evening and maybe into the wee hours of the morning--spent playing along with an enthusiastic and non-exclusive jam session--one tune after another. If you're a beginning fiddler player trying to get your feet wet, no problem. The energetic guy with the mandolin on his knee says, "Well, good! Do you know Soldier's Joy?" If you're a hotshot guitar player with fancy licks at your fingertips: "Hey, big chords now. Bring that E string up a bit. Now take the A string down. Stay off the four chord there-- this ain't Western Swing. Key of D. Let's go!"

Many readers will immediately recognize this as a Kenny Hall session in progress. Will Spires, in describing such a scene, says: "I have very often seen Kenny put down his morning coffee and pick up his mandolin, beginning a round-the-clock session. Early in the hours of the following morning, after uninterrupted flow of music, we'd pack it in without having heard the same tune twice. I do not exaggerate in saying that a span of several days could pass in this manner without a single tune being repeated."

So who is this West Coast old-time music phenomenon known as Kenny Hall? Alan Jabbour explains: "For one thing, he has a phenomenal repertoire. Hang out with him for several days, and you will discover that his memory bank of great fiddle tunes seems well nigh inexhaustible. For another thing, Kenny's musical style is pure distilled passion and energy. He plays the fiddle with a driving vigor that is utterly infectious, and his stories are equally engaging. And finally, Kenny has been a warm and encouraging mentor to all the younger musicians who flocked around."

And many a musician tells the story of his or her conversion to old-time music--often using religious similes. A typical example is a friend of mine who at that time--it must be about 30 years ago now--was a musician in a surf band. One evening he happened to wander into The Heritage, a folk music coffeehouse in San Diego. You guessed it--Kenny Hall was playing that night! This young musician saw the light and was saved for old-time music.

Or another story from a woman who went to California to visit a friend. She was in the bedroom when the doorbell rang. She paid no attention, and a few minutes later her friend put a record on the record player. The visitor rushed in to ask what was that music? Her friend replied that she'd just bought this record from some guy that came to the door. Rushing out the door and down the street to catch up with him, our new convert and fan found herself shaking hands with Kenny Hall for the first time.

Born blind in 1923 in San Jose, California, Kenny Hall began playing music in the fall of 1929 at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. This residential children's school was not unusual in emphasizing music studies. Music was considered vocational training for blind children, so nearly every kid at the California School for the Blind was a musician. And since there weren't many schools for the blind, children came there from many different places, and brought their music with them.

Of course, like any school, just because the teachers wanted him to learn something didn't mean Kenny had to like it. Kenny tells the story:

"It seemed to be the policy of the school that you had to take some kind of music. And I can understand it! Because some of them made very good at it! About a month after I got there they thought I oughta get into music. They forced me to take piano for seven years. And the piano teacher, she was blind too, taught us a lot of old songs as well as standard piano stuff. But I wasn't worth a damn! I didn't want it, didn't like it. So they didn't know what I was good for. I remember some of the songs though. The teacher taught me the bass notes and the chords on the piano, so I would sing along with that and learn the songs. But she never could make a piano player out of me. I just wasn't into it."

Somewhere along the way this reluctant music student has become the musical mentor of several generations of West Coast old-time musicians with a repertoire of over 1,100 pieces. These pieces include journeys into little-traveled areas of old-time music, like the music of Henry Ford's Old- Time Dance Orchestra and the West Coast magic of The Happy Hayseeds with their two-steps, quadrilles and quicksteps. They include Kenny's remarkable accumulation of pieces from other countries. And they capture for posterity charming pieces from the almost forgotten California old-time music world of the '20s, '30s and early '40s--from old-time musicians we might never have heard of again without Kenny's rare talent for remembering every piece of music he ever learned. Where did Kenny learn all those tunes?

Kenny's earliest old-time music memories are from radio shows, long before he began trying to play the music himself. "I don't know when I first started listening to Haywire Mac McClintock's show on the radio, but I know I used to listen regularly by the time I was five years old." Kenny tells about his first exposure to The Happy Hayseeds when they were guest performers on Haywire Mac's show before they had their own radio show. In the same way he was introduced to Prairie Jane and Arkansas when they were guests on The Happy Hayseeds radio show from Stockton, California. And even though he wasn't yet playing music, Kenny remembers many pieces from those radio shows, many from before he was old enough to go to school.

Those first seven years of piano classes at school, though not inspiring to Kenny's musicianship, did introduce a few pieces that were to stick with Kenny--such as "Espa–a" and "Old Folks at Home." And his piano teacher deserves the credit for Kenny's background in music theory and perhaps his taste in chord accompaniment. But the real formative point came in 1935 when luck brought Kenny Hall together with his first mentor, W. D. Sanford, a blind musician from Texas. Home in Campbell, California for a school break and tagging along with his brother's gang, Kenny must have expressed, some interest in music. One of the other lads, Red Sanford, told Kenny about his father who played fiddle music, and he wondered if Kenny was interested in that sort of thing. "So he brought me in and introduced me to him. And Red didn't mention to him that I was handicapped too, y'know, so he didn't realize it at first. But anyway, meeting Mr. Sanford is what encouraged me to learn fiddle." It took some convincing to get the violin teacher at school to help Kenny learn fiddle tunes instead of classical violin, but Miss Natalie Bigelow confided to Kenny, "Just between you and me, I like this stuff, too." She eventually purchased two books of fiddle tunes with her own money and taught Kenny about 20 pieces. Soon, summer break found Kenny Hall hanging out with W. D. Sanford learning more fiddle tunes, on the mandolin as well as the fiddle.

"It was about 1937 when I was first tryin' to figure out how to play the mandolin. Since it was tuned like a fiddle I figured I should hold it that way, you know, under the chin. I was pluckin' it with my fingernail, which of course I still use, but I was only going one way. And Mr. Sanford says, 'No, you can't do it that way.' So we'd take tunes like "Apricot Stealer's Waltz" and "Tommy Don't Go" that I'd already learned on the fiddle, and we'd do jiggles on the notes, y'know, go back and forth instead of just pluckin' the notes. And I started catchin' on that I could do it that way. I started puttin' that mandolin on my knee where it would stay put, y'know. And then I could jiggle the notes good without the mandolin wriggling."

Meanwhile, in successive waves of migration with the economic boom of the 1920s, the depression in the 1930s, and again for the wartime industries expansion in the 1940s, California was becoming home to large numbers of persons from the southeastern United States, Oklahoma, Texas, and the Midwest who brought with them their music and their instruments. W. D. Sanford began exposing young Kenny Hall to musicians in that community. He introduced him to Jeff George, a banjo player from Missouri, as well as to other old-time musicians coming through town. Jeff George, in turn, told Kenny about Mr. Dorsett, a fiddle player from Missouri. These adult musicians all had distinctive tunes to teach, and under their guidance Kenny Hall's repertoire began to grow.

The radio still had much old-time musical inspiration for Kenny including a variety of old-time and ethnic music programming, like the Voice of Portugal broadcast from Oakland, as well as Canadian radio shows featuring fiddle-band music. In particular The Happy Hayseeds had a regular morning show, and Kenny learned much of their repertoire. In fact, not only did he listen to the show--eventually his cousin took him down to the radio station and Kenny sat in with The Happy Hayseeds on the air a couple of times. The Laam brothers were supportive of the young man and appreciated his music. Fred Laam, the banjo player with The Happy Hayseeds, took a particular interest in mentoring Kenny and the two became good friends.

And then there was the stash of old 78-rpm records that had been donated to the school. Nobody but Kenny seems to have been interested. But the developing tune junkie discovered not only the music on those particular records--including Henry Ford's Old-Time Dance Orchestra and Sir Harry Lauder--but also the bigger world of music available to him on disc. He listened to records at his aunt and uncle's house, at his cousin's house, and at friends' houses, learning the tunes he liked. And he began collecting his now famous chest-high stack of 78-rpm records, first on a small scale, ordering through the Sears and Roebuck catalog, then, when he went to work at the broom factory, buying a box- full at a time at the used record store. Here Kenny found a treasure trove of Irish tunes as well as the music of Charlie Poole, Gid Tanner, and Riley Puckett. Kenny reports that he gave the records away after he had learned everything from them, and as best we can tell every one of those tunes was carefully stored away in Kenny's remarkable memory.

Even though most kids at the California School for the Blind were interested in jazz or classical music rather than old-time music, Kenny learned a great many pieces from fellow students who had brought their traditional music with them: Warren Raley from Oklahoma, Francis Riley from Ireland, Pat Burns from Nebraska, Louis Sparks from Colorado, Amil Pifairo from Italy, and Mexican tunes from Lupe Torres of Los Angeles. And Kenny found yet another mentor in Earl Sparks, a harmonica player from Colorado, and father of a fellow student. Kenny even managed to generate enough interest at the school to form a four-person band to play this old music.

During this same period Kenny began developing another of his continuing passions--hiking in the woods. "See, they used to take us on hikes the first two years I was there [at the California School for the Blind]. We'd go on 14-mile hikes--the whole school--all the boys in the school. I liked it. None of the others did, but I did. The third year, they didn't take us on hikes anymore, 'cause nobody but me wanted to go! So, I kind of gave up on that idea for a while. Then I come about 13 years old, I said, 'I wanna go in the woods.' So I started learnin' to follow trails and learn my way in the hills. Pretty much by myself." Terry Barrett of Fresno gives us some insight on what it's like to go hiking with Kenny: "He just about killed me on these hikes! And I thought I was in good shape. Start at seven or eight in the evening on a hot day, and walking until three or four in the morning--in the dark! Didn't bother him at all. The hikes we went on were long!" Kenny credits his love of the outdoors with helping him make the adjustment to residential school: "My life saver was the outdoors. In fact, other kids would get homesick at school. I got so I wasn't, though. For me the school was my home. I liked it better'n my folks' home. Because, see, my folks wouldn't let me go anywhere--because I was handicapped they thought I couldn't. But I was used to the woods and the outdoors and like that at the school, and I liked it better up there."

Then Kenny got kicked out of school for holding hands with the girl who played accordion in his little band ("That's all it was! We was going to get married."). When he went to work in the broom factory, a residential work environment for the blind, he began meeting and playing music with even more musicians: Orville Miller from Idaho, Glen Miksell from Iowa, Hubert Keon and Jack Doyle from Ireland, Joe Machado from Portugal, and Clarence Gonzalez from South America. As his musicianship developed, Kenny began also to find his niche in the world of blind musicians. And his ability to just take off walking and go places by himself helped him find even more music. He tells the story of how he met an Italian friend:

"I remember one time I was walkin' home. I'd been on a drunk with old blind Clarence--getting drunker than 700 bucks, and comin' home doin' the sidewalk waltzes. Ha, ha, ha. 'Ey,' this guy hollered out the window. 'Ey, come eere.' 'Yeah, yeah.' 'Ey, wanna drink of wine?' 'Yeah, yeah, okay.' His name was Tony Brumero. 'Come on.' I go upstairs. We had a few drinks and played a few tunes and passed around a few more drinks--he taught me some more Italian tunes."

With the end of World War II Kenny and his friends found that there was less interest in old-time music and more competition from people playing more modern styles of music. Kenny mostly stopped playing American old-time music in public, and he figures it was nearly 20 years before he was finally convinced to play that music regularly again. Which is not to say that he didn't play music at all or learn new tunes. In fact, this was when Kenny was introduced, through friends from school, to Clara Desmond and the Desmond Family of Texas. "She [Clara Desmond] was the piano player. She kept that steady rhythm. She made that band keep a steady rhythm, too. Not too fast, not too slow. She was kind of the rhythm base of the family. Oh, she was a lot of fun. She didn't like drinking, but she would allow it as long as you went outdoors to do it." Clara Desmond taught Kenny Texas tunes like "Hobb Dye," "Sandy," and "Peeler Creek Waltz"--tunes that are now widely known because of Kenny's influence [see transcriptions on page 34].

"But then I really didn't play music any more to speak of. I'd grown up and I was working and hanging out with the guys. And times and circumstances changed. Western Swing was popular. Then I got married and had kids, quit the broom factory and started selling brooms door-to-door, got divorced, and all such, you know. I guess I'd stopped thinking about music as important to my life in the way that it had been. I mean I really liked it and all, but there wasn't anyone to play with. And that's what's really fun, is to play with people.

"But then I met these people that would get me playing music again. People like Big John and Lorraine Halcomb, Pete Everwine, Frank Hicks, Ron Hughey, and Will Spires. And they liked that old-time stuff. They did things like give me LP records of all those old 78-rpm records I used to buy. And then there I was playin' music again after all those years. And learnin' tunes again, too."

And this is where many of us came in--when we got introduced to Kenny Hall and found a music world that previously seemed to have escaped notice. The "rediscovered" Kenny Hall found that his unique collection of distinctive tunes was indeed widely appreciated. Through his recordings with the Sweet's Mill String Band in 1972, a recording on Philo Records in 1974, and with the Long Haul String Band starting in 1980, Kenny's music reached a wide and enthusiastic audience, and gave inspiration to many a fiddler and mandolinist.

Now at 76 years of age, Kenny Hall has a new project to inspire his fans. Many years of effort have culminated in the publication by Mel Bay of Kenny Hall's Music Book, 260 pages of transcriptions of Kenny's enchanting tunes, songs, and stories in Kenny's own words--about everything [see review on page 53] . There are informative stories about where Kenny learned tunes, the characters from whom he learned old-time music and hung out with, and his many adventures. They also tell us a bigger story about this unique community of blind musicians, and provide for us a rare insider's perspective on growing up and working and playing music in the blind institutional world from the late 1920s through the 1940s.

Kenny tells his stories in the characteristic manner of that world--describing what people say rather than what they do. And he doesn't necessarily tell the whole story at once--sometimes it takes hearing about an event several times before Kenny lets us figure out that it wasn't as innocent as he led us to believe at first, or before aspects of the story that appear perfectly clearly to the blind story teller suddenly are revealed to the sighted listener!

And Kenny warns those of us who would like to follow in his footsteps and learn 1,100 pieces of music: "I never pushed myself to learn all those tunes. I learned 'em slowly--havin' fun at learning. It took me 40 years, I guess, to learn them 1,100 tunes. But I know more now, I don't know how many, 'cause, of course, I didn't stop learning tunes back then when he [Terry Barrett] counted 'em."

"Your D string is low there. Bring it up. A little more. There you go. Big chords now. Hey, key of A! Let's go!"

Victoria Mende Gray has played violin since 1963 and been active in the San Diego old-time music community since 1975.  She plays and sings many types of historic Mexican music, and is the author of Kenny Hall's Music Book: Old-Time Music for Fiddle and Mandolin (Mel Bay Publications)

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