Meet Tom Feldmann, an obscure musician who does not tour due to family reasons, is not likely to appear at the major national blues festivals, is not hardly heard on the national blues radio, and is not a household name in the blues – yet he is one of the important contributors to the country blues genre. He is a blues preservationist, one of the teachers on Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop roster, who has the uncanny ability to perfectly replicate a song note-for-note by first deconstructing the song, then reconstruct it piece by piece, chord by chord, string by string. He will show you exactly how to recreate each sound faithfully to the original. Once he gets an assignment from Stefan, he sits in his home in Montrose, Minnesota, and intently listens to a song and figures our every note and nuance. He takes all the old country blues greats, like Fred McDowell, Son House or Blind Willie Johnson and gets it down pat. Then, he goes in the film studio and puts down the instructional videos with astonishing accuracy. Impressive stuff!
In the blues we have sheet music of songs going back to the 1920s.
Yet, most blues players are not trained musicians. Most can’t read sheet music. Many guitar players, even the really great superstars like Jimi Hendrix, mostly learn by emulating. Robert Johnson, according to Robert “Jr.” Lockwood, was said to have such a fine auditory sense that he could listen to a song playing in the background while in full conversation, and be able to instantly replicate exactly what he had just heard. Not many regular Joe’s can do that. He’s one in a million. Most need someone to show them how to play it.
So what do you do if you are a fairly good intermediary guitarist who loves the old blues, and who can’t read sheet music or make sense of tablature and you want to learn on your own to play Charley, Son House, Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Bukka White, or any other of the originals? Now you are sitting there with your Skip James record trying to decipher exactly what he is doing. First you have the unusual Betonia tuning, cross note tuning with the 1st and 3rd string played together…no alternating bass…and what is he doing with the right hand…wow…figuring that strumming patterns and timing…on and on. It’s a daunting task to even figure out the set-up before you can figure the music out; and, frankly, not many are up to it. How does he snap down on the 6th string? How does he strum down? How does he do that slide progression? Where is the capo? Try that for Charlie Patton or Frank Stokes. No wonder people can use some help.
That’s where Tom Feldmann comes in, a genius in his own way, with remarkable aural sensitivity and auditory focus. Detractors might gripe that it’s just mimicking, a mere facsimile of the original, but therein lies the beauty. While it is important to develop new music to keep the acoustic blues alive in the 21st Century, it is equally important to carry on the folk music of the golden era. The only way for songs to stay alive is for new generations to find and play them. Having old records is good and fine, but that’s not preservation, that’s filing it away on a shelf.
Songs only carry through generations as long a people actively hear them and decide to play them. Feldmann shows you how. There are very few in the country who can do what he can do. Not to say that there are not some very good instructors, because there are many; but few, other than Stefan Grossman himself, can take on the most difficult pieces and render such a perfect copy of the song, so true to the original, to bring the song back to life virtually identically to the way it was played by the old masters. It’s simply awesome.
However, the objective here is not necessarily that musicians now need to simply mimic or that songs have to be played one way and one way only. Says Feldmann, “I try to get the foundation, enough so that people can learn the song as it was, and then I hope that they will take it and give it life of their own.”
Feldmann is unafraid of the most difficult players…those with idiosyncratic style, like Son House, with his unusual flailing slide and rhythm and right hand strumming. “I can’t teach someone’s rhythm exactly, but I can get it in the ballpark.” The hardest challenge, according to Feldmann was Charlie Patton, and mostly because of the poor original recording quality.
He’s been at this for 17 years, and he is still going strong on his Collins guitars and Grand Concert Stella copy by Hauver. To do all that, you have to be a superb player, and that he is, with two self-produced CDs available Tribute from 2009 and Lone Wolf Blues from 2012. He has a promising one on the way called Delta Blues and Spirituals expected sometime in 2014, confronting the perpetual struggle of the sacred and the profane. This guy can play!
While Feldmann is doing important preservationist work, he does not espouse a hard “it has to be played this way and this way only” like some self-appointed hardcore purists.
He gets it right when he says, “Many people have a view with a very clear hard line that the original musicians probably did not hold. Just because they recorded these songs one way, does not mean that they always played it the same way, or that these were the only types of music they played. Most of these musicians in the 1920s and 30s played all types of genres and styles. Most did not themselves draw a hard line. Many opinions that people today hold are simply based on fallacy.”
Tom Feldmann, country blues preservationist and player, a man worth knowing!