The Old-Time Camaraderie of Sandy’s Fancy
I’ve been hearing about Sandy Bradley since I first moved to Seattle about 13 years ago. She’s considered one of the prime architects of Seattle’s folk scene, a legendary dance caller, a beloved radio host (of Sandy Bradley’s Potluck on Seattle’s KUOW for 13 years), an impresario of the infamous Northwest Folklife Festival Instrument Auction (that’s actually the first time I saw her on stage, trying to wrangle a better price for an accordion made of authentic “mother-of-toilet-seat”), and generally a font of knowledge about what brought so many young bearded men and long-haired women into the world of square dancing and contra dancing in Seattle. These days, Sandy stays closer to home in rural Washington State, and though her presence looms large, she’s more than content to work on her other projects like organic farming, ceramic tile-making, oyster farming, and community building in the tiny town of Raymond, Washington, near the Pacific Ocean.
Having heard all this, when I saw Sandy Bradley’s cheerful face staring up at me in the record bins at Half-Price Books in Seattle (a favorite cheap record buying haunt), I knew I had to snap up her album. Sandy’s Fancy, a 1981 LP on Flying Fish Records, featured Sandy Bradley on guitar and piano, Alan Jabbour on fiddle, and Tommy Thompson on banjo. Being familiar with Alan Jabbour from his lifetime of work in Appalachian old-time fiddling, not least his work with seminal Appalachian fiddler and killer tune source Henry Reed, I had to have this album. And it’s a blast! The trio blows through a whole mess of old-time fiddle and banjo tunes, playing hell-for-leather, whether it’s a rolling reel or a rollicking schottische. Many of the tunes were pulled from Henry Reed’s repertoire; he was a fiddler known not only for his many rare and compelling tunes, but also for the “note-iness” of the tunes. Appalachian old-time music is commonly pigeonholed into the Blue Ridge styles of folks like Tommy Jarrell or Fred Cockerham, in which the tunes had far fewer notes than their Celtic antecedents and the emphasis went more to the wickedly devious and complex bowing patterns. Reed was West Virginia born and his tunes sound closer at times to the Irish or Celtic roots of the music, certainly employing more cascades of notes and ornaments than people commonly expect of old-time music. Jabbour studied this music closely and brought forth Reed’s spirit for the album.
On Sandy’s Fancy, Sandy Bradley plays guitar and piano, with the piano being an unusual choice for Appalachian old-time music at the time. Her guitar playing is robust and virtuosic, which is interesting since this style of guitar accompaniment is often denigrated for its seeming simplicity. But Sandy races through with an incredible precision, and slips in counterpoint runs whenever possible. Her piano playing has the kind of heft that only a dance pianist can create and that constantly eludes pianists of classical background. Ringing out above everything throughout the recording is Tommy Thompson’s amazing banjo playing. Excelling at three-finger bluegrass style banjo and old-time clawhammer, Thompson plays like a man with something to prove, tearing into the tunes and loping along beside Jabbour’s fiddling. On the Henry Reed tune “Ebenezer,” the trio start pushing harder and harder, surging forward so hard at the end that you almost wonder if something’s gone wrong with your turntable and the volume button is turning itself up.
Thompson and Jabbour had played together as well in the Hollow Rock Stringband, and it’s appropriate that when Jabbour went to re-release Sandy’s Fancy, he included it with a re-release of the LP of Hollow Rock Stringband. Hollow Rock was another outlet for playing the music of Henry Reed, and involved banjo player Bertram Levy on banjo as well. Bertram’s an interesting character, now a man wholly devoted to the impossible craft of Argentinean bandoneon playing. At the time of these recordings, though, he was living in Port Townsend, Washington, and, I believe, overseeing the festival he helped create, The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes. In fact, it was at this festival that Bradley and Jabbour and Thompson met as a trio and started up the idea to record this album for Flying Fish Records.
As Sandy Bradley explains:
“I first met Alan when he showed up at a Gypsy Gyppo gig at the Inside Passage Tavern [in Seattle… Inside Passage was the key focal point of square dancing in Seattle]. He asked [local fiddler] Jack Link if he could play one, though we had no idea who he was. He took Jack’s spot on stage and launched into ‘Ebenezer’! I looked at him and said ‘You’re too young to play like that!’
Then he and Tommy and I played together at Fiddle Tunes, and decided if we were ever in the same town we’d record. It happened in Kearney Barton’s studio [in Seattle] over the course of a day and a half and a good measure of whisky. I sent the tape to Flying Fish, and they were ready to go. Since Alan was the head folk archivist of the Library of Congress, I was chagrined that there is a wrong title on one tune, and another is not listed. Alas. I was glad that it gave piano some credence in the idiom.”
Released in 1981 on Flying Fish Records, the home to many great folk revival bands in the ’70s and ’80s, and a label subsequently purchased by Rounder Records, Sandy’s Fancy showcased a trio unusual for old-time, and not just for Sandy’s prominent piano accompaniment. For one thing, Thompson had become well known for his work with seminal American roots band the Red Clay Ramblers, but was known more as an accompanist in this group.
Alan Jabbour explains more about what makes this album special:
“Sandy’s Fancy was an album full of great energy and high spirits. That was reason enough for me to get the album over the digital divide in its original form – as opposed to re-recording the tracks today with whatever current instrumentation could be mustered. But Sandy gave you another reason: we loved the sound of Sandy’s piano with Southern old-time music and really wanted to put to rest once and for all the idea that piano doesn’t belong in Southern old-time music. Of course, Sandy also sounds great on guitar, but the piano tracks were a distinctive contribution, I think, to the evolution of standards and attitudes about piano and oldtime music.
I had another motivation for doing the double-CD reissue. Tommy was gone by the time of the double-CD release. Of course he has lots of LPs to his credit, but his banjo-playing with the Red Clay Ramblers is mostly accompaniment for songs. I was very conscious, as I worked on the reissue package, that the reissue project would preserve for other musicians and music lovers Tommy’s banjo legacy as an instrumentalist. These two LPs plus the original Hollow Rock album from 1968 are really where you can hear Tommy’s instrumental legacy as a great clawhammer banjo player.”
Thompson passed away in 2003 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. But his irrepressible nature and wildly powerful banjo playing lives on in this great recording, as does the friendship of these three great old-time musicians.
Thanks to Alan and Sandy for sending over their thoughts on this album and granting permission to stream a song from the album here. You can purchase the double CD of Sandy’s Fancy and The Hollow Rock Stringband, titled Hollow Rock Legacy, at Alan Jabbour’s website.
Postscript: A seminal moment in my life comes from conversations I had with Bertram Levy at a Lark in the Morning Camp some years ago that I attended in California with my father. Between tunes, Bertram talked about the importance of sharing the music we find with everyone who might enjoy it. As a young artist going out to find elder artists to learn music from, I was struggling with what to do with some of the amazing old tunes I’d been learning. Bertram talked about how he and Alan learned the gorgeous tune “Over the Waterfall” from Henry Reed. Reed was likely the last person who played this tune, which has now become a staple of any folk instrumentalist worldwide. Rather than keeping the music to themselves, they shared this tune endlessly, and so it was that “Over the Waterfall” came to define a generation of old-time musicians. Blessings to those field recorders, academics, and fiddle aficianados who selflessly share the music they find with everyone as selflessly as the person who taught it to them shared it. On that note, you can find out much, much more about Henry Reed via Alan Jabbour’s online catalog of field recordings and notes.