Hoedown con risotto? Breakdown à la parmesano? His name makes him sound like one of those blues musicians who used to stand on street corners in what really must have been the good old days, but Blind Joe Mangrum was actually a sweet old Italian American fellow from Kentucky whose fiddle repertoire included melodies from mama mia country mingling with brave new world breakdowns. A classic American success story, Mangrum's fiddling talents took him to Nashville and the Grand Old Opry in 1926, where he became part of a generation of old-time and early country artists feeling what must have been an incredibly new form of excitement as performers: the notion and eventual reality of a national audience. For fiddlers, it would mean an enormous change in the way the traditions of the music would be handed down. The popularity of a broadcast by 77-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson made it clear that the old-time fiddle repertoire was just as welcome coming into homes via radio and a set of speakers as it was when old wanderin' Fiddlin' John dropped by. Mangrum was among the first American fiddlers who experienced the music's repertoire's developing on a national rather than regional scale. He had friends in high places, too: Tennessee governors Alf and Bob Taylor, both of whom dabbled in fiddle. Mangrum's touring schedule was attractive, too, based on this description from his obituary: A concert "in one of the towns of West Tennessee was always followed by a week's visit as the guest of some of the town's most prominent families." Mangrum's most frequent playing partner was a keyboardist who has been credited as both Fred Schreiber and Fred Shriver. He covered both piano and accordion, establishing an instrumental relationship with the fiddle that definitely fit with much of the instrument's European musical wardrobe, from both classical and folk traditions. The accordion was an asset with the Italian music, but it was in conjunction with the piano where the fiddler really stood apart from many of his Opry peers on a topic that is practically a lifestyle with some musicians. In terms of intonation, Mangrum was hardly blind. He was considered technically the finest fiddler in Nashville, from the point of view of both tone and precision of pitch. There was talk about him having had classical training, but in reality he had never taken a music lesson. Playing the violin had come to him almost naturally. He lost his sight at six weeks old but by the age of 12, he was already an accomplished musician. And the following anecdote could inspire a bitter reaction from many listeners: Opry radio übermensch "Judge" George D. Hay recalled that he had to repeatedly deny Mangrum's requests to let him play a classical or semi-classical piece, according to the liner notes to the County compilation entitled Nashville: The Early String Bands, Vol. 2. Hay was the same man responsible for giving many old-time bands of the period outrageously corny names and his decision regarding repertoire with Mangrum is the kind of thing that has a tremendous impact on the development of a musical genre; of course, decades later the equally virtuoso fiddler Mark O'Connor would wow the public with the same concept, the classical/country connection. Mangrum himself performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a few years before his death and was said to have memorized 5,000 compositions for the violin. Mangrum painted a big canvas musically; the duo's recording of "Bill Cheatam" sounds like nothing else in the American old-time music repertoire, and makes use of the accordion, this time with a sound like something out of the Cajun tradition. Should that be a surprise? Not really. There were plenty of Italians in Louisiana as well, including the Sicilians who came up with the garlic-laced mufalleta sandwich.
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