Friday, February 10, 2017

Jerusalem Ridge

Kenny Baker in 1974
Jerusalem Ridge is a bluegrass fiddle tune made popular by legendary fiddler and Kentucky native Kenny Baker. Kenny co-wrote the tune with Bill Monroe in 1970 as a member of Bill’s legendary Blue Grass Boys. As the story goes, the band was staying at the Henry Clay Hotel in Ashland, Kentucky one night in August of that year, when, around 1 or 2 a.m., Bill invited Kenny to his hotel room. He asked Kenny to come up with a bunch of musical ideas on the spot until he heard a few that he liked. Kenny obliged, and the three ideas Bill enjoyed the most were made into the first, second, and fourth parts of a new tune he called Jerusalem Ridge  (Bill had already written the third part). This tune is widely regarded as one of the greatest bluegrass tunes ever written.

Kenny’s journey from the Kentucky hills to bluegrass stardom was an unlikely one. Born on June 26, 1926, Kenny played the guitar as a young man, even though his father, grandmother, and grandfather were all fiddlers. As a teenager, he joined the Navy, and during his 33-month tour of the South Pacific, he joined a “hillbilly act” that played songs by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Roy Acuff. While stationed in Okinawa during World War II, he started fiddling at square dances organized by Red Cross nurses, although he was not very adept at the instrument yet. It wasn’t until he heard Western Swing fiddle legend Bob Wills’ version of Silver Bells on the radio that he developed a more serious interest in it. At the time, he was working on a destroyer repair unit base in Hollandia, New Guinea, so he didn't have much of an opportunity to learn a new instrument; however, to keep his dreams afloat, he did request that the radio station play Silver Bells every day, and they did. (Occasionally, the radio announcer would ask on air if Kenny was listening.)

Kenny returned to Kentucky at age 21 and became devoted to learning the fiddle. He familiarized himself with Bob Wills’ catalog as well as with the fiddling of Nashville star Howdy Forrester, Georgia Wildcats jazz and old-time fiddling pioneer Clayton McMichen, and fiddle virtuoso Arthur Smith (composer of Florida Blues, which appears in Book II). While honing his fiddling, Kenny worked at a coal mine. He didn’t get his first official fiddling gig until 1952.

Five years later, in 1957, Kenny joined the Blue Grass Boys, apparently without ever having heard any bluegrass music before. Clearly, his lack of familiarity with the style didn’t hinder him; he remained in the band for 27 years, and for much of his tenure, Bill introduced him as the “greatest fiddler in bluegrass music”- a title almost no one disputes today.

Kenny Baker and Bill Monroe

I had the great fortune of recording a duet version of Jerusalem Ridge with Kenny himself for my album Heroes (1993). The arrangement of the tune in this book is similar to the one on the album, except I expand the role of the 2nd violin by giving it plenty of chops. I also introduce a section that features a 20- to 30-second canon on two parts of the melody. The result is an exciting, adventurous duet that exhibits some of the energy and rhythm of a full-band rendition of the tune.

I was just a kid when I first saw Bill, Kenny, and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys perform Jerusalem Ridge at a festival in the mid-1970s. Although it is only one of many great bluegrass tunes composed by Kenny and Bill, it certainly stood out in the repertoire, and I was mesmerized by it. Its minor-key setting may have been inspired by earlier modal old-time tunes like Glory in the Meeting House, a tune captured on recording by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress around the time Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys. (Lomax recorded performances of this tune by two other Kentucky fiddlers, Luther Strong and William H. Stepp, the latter of whom is the composer of Stepp Down Hoedown in Book II).

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