John Herrmann and the Zen of Old-Time Music
Most years, I always have one great session each Clifftop with the ubiquitous John Herrmann, a great banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass, uke and anything-else-he-gets-his-hands-on player who has also spent a lot of time studying Buddhist philosophy. Each year I’d trot out my latest carefully studied old tune, such as something from John Salyer (a great Kentucky fiddler whose home recordings were released some years ago). I’d play the tune and then start noodling away on my endless clever improvisations. We’d finish up, and John would sit there a minute, then say: “Yeah—that’s all right. You can play it that way. And then there’s the other option—you could just grab the tune by the throat and play it straight through…”
As a fiddler I have always loved to improvise. Until those conversations I had never really thought of “choosing not to vary” as a form of variation—but once I made that discovery a great doorway opened for me. I realized that the compulsion to endlessly “think about” what I was playing—to be clever, to play around and with and alongside and under and surrounding the tune but never, or rarely, actually just playing the tune—was just that, a compulsion, a lack of freedom masquerading as an apparently unlimited freedom.
And so my years playing with the Cliffhangers and other inspirational musicians in the campground have tempered my wanderings and helped me lean further in toward what I think Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. meant when he said: “I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” - Mark Simos