Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop Class Descriptions


We’re hard at work assembling faculty for the 2018 gathering. We’ll update this page as we confirm faculty and work out the 2018 sessions. Here are the classes that were presented in 2017…


Aaron Gunn

Advanced Class: Am I a jazz musician that plays blues? Or the other opposite thing? Does my mentality change my playing and to what end? This concern will be the focus of our “advanced” class this season! We will be learning some of the great “blues/jazz” tunes, courtesy of Clifford Hayes, Joe Venuti, and some great fiddlers of the Western Swing tradition. This class is going to demystify the 1-6-2-5 vs. 1-4-5 chord structure, tackle the different turn arounds (“up” or “down”) and give players a grounded approach in blues improvisation, in and out of the scale. Please familiarize yourself with the circle of 5ths and give a listen to Clifford Hayes and Joe Venuti’s styles. If you have any questions or tune requests, please e-mail me at: sybotica@gmail.com.

Blues in String Band Music: The blues is one of many “standard” chordal forms that exist in American vernacular music. But there were many that existed alongside the blues (think: Alberta, Alberta, Salty Dog, etc.). We are going to explore some of the other standard and some non-standard forms by way of some great tunes from the repertoire of Andrew Baxter, The Mississippi Sheiks, and others. In this we will concentrate on how to keep the “ethic” of the blues over unfamiliar chord changes. Think of this as the poor boys version of the other class.

Adam Tanner – Blues and rag mandolin

Hayes and Prater – Nothin’ Doin, Easy Winner: Little is known about Matthew Prater (guitar) and Napoleon Hayes (mandolin) other than the fact that they were from Vicksburg Mississippi. The pair recorded Nothin Doin’, Easy Winner and Prater’s Blues in Memphis TN on February 6, 1928. The performances, while comprising only a small body of recorded work, reveal a unique and carefully stylized repertoire, fusing elements of string band, ragtime, and blues forms. Nothin doin’ is not only a great tune, it is packed with licks and interesting timing ideas that could come in handy in a variety of acoustic blues settings. Easy Winner has some cool connections with Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and makes a great addition to a ragtime mandolinists repertoire.

The Dallas Stringband – The Dallas Rag Hokum Blues: Coley Jones was born sometime in the late-1880s, in Texas, and was associated with music at an early age, first with a family ensemble then as a solo artist and finally as a member of the Dallas String Band. Alongside Marco Washington on double bass, Sam Harris on guitar and several sidemen, the band produced ten sides during their existence recorded between 1927 through 1929, with each one displaying the group’s complex instrumental abilities. Both of these Dallas Stringband tunes involve a multitude of techniques such as sliding double stops, tremolo, and the rendering parts of the melody with chords. We will also examine how the mandolin can imitate a piano.

Charlie McCoy – Vicksburg Stomp, Jackson Stomp: As A member of The Mississippi Mudsteppers, The Mississippi Hotfooters, and alongside his brother Joe McCoy in The Harlem Hamfats and other projects, Charlie spent the late 1920’s and 30’s recording some of most visceral blues mandolin performances of all time. Vicksburg stomp is a stinging blues in the key of “E”, we will get inside some incredible down stroke and tremolo licks. Jackson Stomp was recorded in B flat and is a fantastic example of how a tune that is primarily made up of chords playing highly syncopated rhythms, can be as powerful as any blues featuring single note lead work.

The Scottdale String Band – Aunt Hagar’s Blues, The Carbolic Rag: In the first golden age of country music, from the mid-1920s until the early ’30s, the Scottdale String Band held one of the leading names in OKeh Records’ catalog of Old Time Tunes. The band took its name from the cotton mill village of Scottdale, located between Decatur and Clarkston in DeKalb County, Georgia. String bands without fiddles, groups of mandolins, banjos, and guitars, in varying combinations, were quite well represented on records in those years. But the Scottdale String Band’s extensive and diverse legacy of sparkling performances ranging from ragtime tunes and popular songs to waltzes, breakdowns, and blues, sets them apart from their contemporaries.

Country Ragtime Mandolin – Mandolin Rag, Tanner’s Rag: Fiddling’ Doc Roberts (Dock Philipine Roberts) was born and raised on a farm in Madison County, Kentucky and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin at an early age with some help from his older brother Liebert. Doc’s and Liebert’s musical mentor was the African-American fiddler Owen Walker. Although most of Roberts recording’s feature his fiddling, Mandolin Rag showcases his fantastic mandolin style which, like all of his music, fits loosely into the Blues, Ragtime and parlor categories and are some of finest examples of pre-war mandolin in existence.  Tanner’s Rag – The popular Georgia string band The Skillet Lickers made their final recordings in 1934 in San Antonio, TX.by that time the band consisted of guitarist Riley Puckett, fiddler Gid Tanner and the then new addition mandolinist Ted Hawkins. Hawkins spent most of his life in his home town, Atlanta, Georgia. As a member of The Skillet Lickers and on recordings that featured him accompanying Riley Puckett, Hawkins made some of the first lead mandolin performances in country music. Tanner’s Rag is a wonderful sub variant of ragtime featuring his beautiful chord/lead style of mandolin.

Early Country String Band Ragtime – Going to Jail, Knoxville Rag: During the 1920’s and early 30’s scouts from several record companies made trips to the state of Kentucky looking for rural musicians to record and represent for the emerging recording industry. A few very tasty rural ragtime fiddle tunes were recorded during these session’s including Going to Jail from the Ted Gossets Band and Knoxville Rag from Burnett and Foster. In the 1970’s a researcher named Gus Meade compiled 78’s for the Morningstar label’s compilation LP’s 45003, 45004 45005, (released again in the late 1990’s as a 7 CD box set entitled Mountain Music of KY on Yahoo records) Old Time Fiddle Band Music from Kentucky.

Hillbilly Blues – Southern Blues, Leake County Blues: Another great tune from The Scottdale String Band that sounds like an instrumental version of a Jimmy Rodgers song and my mandolin arrangement of the Leake County Revelers fiddle classic Leake County Blues in C which will take some players into second position for the first time!

Blues Improv – Keys of G, A, C, D: This class is designed for folks who are able change chords smoothly but may have never ventured into the wonderful world of improvisation. We will take a couple of classic songs and we will learn how to hear the melody, utilize phrasing dynamics and some essential licks that sound particularly good in each of these keys.

Blues Improv – Keys of E flat, F, B flat: This class is for players who already improvise a bit in the keys of G, A, C, D and are ready to learn the cool dissonances and unique harmonic choices available when you have fewer open strings to rely on as you improvise. I will take a couple of classic songs and we will explore every part of the fingerboard finding the “sweet spot” in each key

Blues Waltz’s from The Mississippi Mudsteppers – Sunset Waltz, Alma Waltz: The Sunset Waltz and Alma Waltz are from a recording session featuring Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon of The Mississippi Sheiks along with Charlie McCoy under the name, “The Mississippi Mud Steppers”. Both are beautiful and thoroughly bluesy waltz. The Alma Waltz is in F and has some great twists and turns. Sunset Waltz is a tremolo tour de force in B flat.

Alex Andrews

Finger Style Guitar, Taught by Alex Andrews: Alex will lead an open discussion, introducing several key concepts of playing blues guitar throughout the week. The group will focus on the utility and importance of pattern recognition, strengthening right hand attack as well as incorporating articulated melody lines. The group also will examine many important source recordings and discuss elements of: tone, tempo, syncopation, melody and chord positioning, as well as other ideas fundamental to developing a strong, unique guitar style.

Ben Fox

Practical basics for the bassists: how to make bass lines, and how to not hurt yourself playing the bass.

Ear Training for Bassists and Anyone Else: hearing the root, and other notes.

Ben Payton

History of the Blues

#1. A bird eyes view of how the blues developed along beside of the history of the negro people with some of the stories that go along with them.
#2. Louisiana 1841 – Solomon Northup
#3. Virginia and the Carolina’s – The work camps meltdowns
#4. Early 1900 Delta Blues – Mississippi and the south

Developing the art of singing

#1. Rehearsal
#2. Exploring the meaning of the song
#3. Expressing the words as you see them
#4. Finding the best key for your voice
#5. Learning to play the basic music on some instrument

Darren Loucas

Five songs and a slide: We’ll learn a song a day focusing on the most commonly used tunings and techniques. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James. Class level – Intermediate but beginners are welcome as all songs can be easily simplified.

Eleanor Ellis

Acoustic fingerstyle blues repertoire,
Songs in dropped D tuning,
Exploring open G tuning without a slide,
and Chording patterns up the neck.

Elora Jane

Finding Your Sound: In this class we will explore ways to find you’re own unique voice, singing the classics. We will explore different the ways different people sing the same standards we know and love. Everyone will get to put their own spin on classic blues standards and find your own voice  Along with finding your own sound, we will talk about certain vocal techniques, proper breathing and dynamics.

Happy Traum

Blues and Country Fingerpicking 101 – Conquering the Challenge of the Steady Thumb: This session is open to any players, from early intermediates to experienced guitarists, who want to unravel the mysteries of the steady-bass thumb-and-finger styles used by blues and country pickers. The necessary coordination of maintaining a rock-steady rhythmic bass while picking syncopated melody notes stymies even some advanced players, but Happy Traum has had fifty years of guitar teaching experience and, if anyone can get you picking this way, he can.

The Piedmont Blues Guitar of Brownie McGhee: Brownie McGhee’s rhythmic fingerpicking style, rich accompaniments, intricate lead playing and wide-ranging repertoire influenced generations of guitarists around the world. Happy Traum learned to play directly from this master bluesman, and he knows how to make Brownie’s songs and techniques accessible to all aspiring acoustic blues players. Happy starts with the basics so that even novice blues players will be able to get off to a solid start. Concentrating on the keys of E and A, his detailed lesson covers all the musical components that made Brownie’s playing distinctive. Happy provides numerous playing tips and advice along with first-hand insights into Brownie’s life and music. You’ll learn to play classic songs from Brownie’s repertoire, such as I’m Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me, Move to Kansas City, Betty and Dupree, Me and My Dog, Sporting Life, Living with the Blues, Key to the Highway, Blood Red River, Careless Love and Pawnshop Blues.

Passing on the Tradition: This class could be called “making the best with what you’ve got.” Happy shows intermediate players how even a simple song can be arranged and played in a way that makes it interesting and compelling for the listener. Happy will teach material from his vast repertoire of traditional folk, blues and country songs, with even one or two contemporary ones thrown in. These will incorporate alternate-bass fingerpicking, bass runs, chord substitutions, double-stop harmonies, dropped D tuning, blues improvisation and other essential musical devices. Prerequisites: You should be adept at basic chord changes and be generally comfortable with your instrument. Some fingerpicking experience would also be helpful.

John Maxwell

Beginning to intermediate slide: starting with intonation and moving toward rhythmic tools for song arrangement in the Delta style. Early in the week we will examine how to jam in any key while in Spanish (open G) tuning, eliminating the need for a capo in many circumstances.

Judy LaPrade

Beginning Blues Piano: In this class we blend use of the ears, voice, body, and hands to build a foundation in the Blues form that magically supports melody and improvisation. The beginning blues piano class is designed for true beginners to piano and music, piano players who read music and want to learn to play blues piano by ear, and musicians who play other instruments and want to start piano. You learn blues piano completely by ear in this course. You start with the basic 8- and 12-bar blues forms of three simple chords in the keys of C and G to build left- and right-hand skills note by note. We put both hands together from the start. Each student progresses at their own pace, from single notes with each hand to simple blues chords and patterns. With the right hand, you will pick out melodies by ear and riff on the blues scale and chords. The left hand is all about playing bass lines, from single notes to simple versions of walking bass, rumbas, shuffles and others. We progress beyond basic 12 bar to old tunes with unique chord patterns. This develops the ear further and is a great skill to play with when you return home. We use our voices and bodies to guide our natural sense of tone and rhythm as we sing, clap and stomp each song like we own it, because we do! Bring a recorder, so together with the many handouts of songs and accessible theory, you are ready to continue on your own. We play many different blues tunes and some gospel, which is similar in form. Our aim is to feel the music, laugh a lot to take the fear out of starting something new, and learn to play joyfully with others.

Kit Stymee Stovepipe

Washboard 101: In this workshop, we’ll be “building” our washboard, experimenting with different sounding materials to attach, and going over the basics of playing. We’ll be exploring:
-Common rhythms and syncopations
-tricks and techniques
-learning to not over play
-how to avoid sounding like a dog slipping around on a waxed tiled floor
-different rhythms you can apply to a jam or band setting.
You will need a brass or zinc washboard. No stainless steel or glass please. (A few workshop washboards are available )

Washtub Bass 101 with Professor Stovepipe: Washtub bass can be heard in a variety of genres, more commonly in blues and jazz. As used in groups like the Memphis Jug Band, the Mobile Strugglers, and Big Joe and his Washboard Band. I’ll show you how to build a washtub bass from scratch, a few different ways to go about construction, and the basics of playing that can fit within these styles. You’ll be surprised how much great sound you can get out of this thing. You’ll learn:
-bass construction
-the importance of rhythm and tone
-basics of playing in a jam and jug band setting
-how to hit correct notes within a limited scale spectrum.

Guitar – How To Rock: Know a little bit about finger picking but want some tips to get that heavy sound you’re after? In this class we’ll be going over some basically structured songs in the ragtime country blues idiom with an emphasis on style and technique.

I Used To Think That Song Just Sucked Until I Heard Them Do It: This course is geared towards people who already have the basics of fingerpicking down, and would like to explore incorporating music from non blues sources into the country blues stylings of Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, and Frank Stokes. We’ll be looking at things with a different eye. Approaching music from country blues and treating it as a dance band might arrange it, or take an old tin pan ally pop song and adapt it for finger style guitar. We’ll be listening to original recordings and breaking down how to adapt it to guitar. I’ll be showing you techniques I use that can be applied to many things.

Leroy Etienne

Teaching the drum kit: blues licks, swing, funk and zydeco licks as well as rub board and will link some classes with Sunpie to help you get the sense of where and how to put it all together in ensemble.

Lightnin’ Wells

Mainland Ukulele Songs and Techniques: Lightnin’ Wells will teach vintage tunes in the mainland style for the standard (soprano) ukulele. Vintage tunes from the 1920s, when the uke reigned supreme in America, will be explored. During the past year I have learned many new (old) uke tunes and have worked hard to prepare 50+ old uke tunes which I am ready to teach using the vintage sheet music copies with chord diagram method. I also had a musical break-through which has opened up many new possibilities, nearly mastering a new triplet strumming technique which I am also prepared to teach. All songs will be presented in the now widely accepted C tuning for the ukulele G-C-E-A which is possible on a soprano, concert or tenor sized uke (Baritone ukulele is tuned D-G-B-E and uses different chord positions so it will not work in this case).  Class level will be in the beginner/intermediate level. It would help to be familiar with the ukulele and know your basic chords. My new book of choice for uke chords is Treasury Of Ukulele Chords by Roy Sakuma which I got turned on to last year and can’t recommend highly enough. Some ukulele musical history will be presented featuring original American recordings from the 1920s era and hopefully some filmed presentation of past heroes of the uke from the same time period. Don’t forget to pack your ukes and let’s have some fun!

Marcus Cartwright

Delta Blues Vocal Repertoire: In this course I will be demonstrating delta blues songs vocally and instructing students on different ways of singing traditional blues songs. We will be focusing more on the vocals of the songs and different ways of singing them.

Delta Blues Guitar Repertoire: Demonstrating and instructing students on how to play different styles of the delta blues on guitar. We will also be exemplifying slide guitar playing techniques and different ways of chording while getting along well with other players and/or voices. I will be sharing secrets that I’ve learned over the years from some of the local masters of the music from the Arkansas and Mississippi delta while demonstrating different ways of playing traditional blues songs.

Meredith Axelrod

Basic Harmony Singing: how to find and sing in 2 to 4 part harmonies by identifying the chords of the song and choosing notes within the chords, we’ll demonstrate how it sounds by having the group sing a song and choose parts that fit the singers’ individual vocal ranges. With advanced students we will expound upon this by employing syncopated rhythms and slightly obscure note-choices using blues repertoire to illustrate.

Blues Guitar Duets: we’ll take a slow blues and show how rich it sounds with two guitars when you employ a few tricks including:
1. tune them differently from one another
2. play different rhythms on them to complement each other

Non-standard Blues Progressions: we’ll explore playing songs that are still considered “blues” but aren’t the normal 12-bar progression. WE’ll include some common progressions like “The Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and the 6-2-5-1 progression, among others. We’ll take one of the progressions, play a couple of examples of songs that follow the progression, then we’d learn and play one to two songs (whatever we have time for) that follow that progression.

Oddball blues: we’ll explore anomaly records that have weird chords and are considered blues but aren’t really standard blues progressions like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLHWOPqg-iU

Embellishments on the 12 bar blues: so they are still 12 bar blues, with extra passing chords.

Maria Muldaur

Repertoire Class: We will be introduced to a variety of “classic”, “landmark” blues songs, with live and recorded versions by various artists. We’ve created a CD with 10 classic Blues tunes all performed by the original artists as well as newer interpretations of each song, as well as a separate CD of much loved classic Jug Band tune. These are invaluable examples of how different approaches create unique performance styles.

Finding and Developing Your Inner Blues Voice: We will give attention to the many techniques for making a song your own while also staying true to the original piece, its meaning and sound.
Breathing/ Posture: Correct posture is important! Your voice is supported by your whole body.
Song Selection: Picking a song that really resonates with you and your own personal experience is important.
Key Selection: Choosing the right key is paramount for optimum expressive delivery.
Tempo: Finding a tempo that fits the genre/ style and fits your personality too.
Personal Imagery: Bring energy, sincerity, and dynamics to the song/“body English”.
Phrasing: Change the effect of the lyrics and the story they tell through phrasing.
Improvisation: Different ways of creating different moods and effects in a song.
Listening: Listen to as many versions of a song as you can!
Vocal Warm up Exercises: Warming up is incredibly important and makes a huge difference in performance!

Sean Divine

Harmonica tunes for tone, rhythm, and melodic pattern enhancement: This class will focus on blues harmonica tunes. As one example, we’ll take a Reverend Gary Davis song, convert it to a fiddle tune, subtract the fiddle, add a harmonica, then a few more. Magic. We will also discuss why the Nashville number system is such a useful tool for harmonica players and provide strategies for playing over blues songs that foray beyond the I-IV-V. But the lion’s share of our time will be focused on forging melodies and harmonies collectively. Participants can expect to spend the class engaged with their instrument. All levels will benefit although some of the tunes will require intermediate to advanced skills. It is recommended that participants come with harps in the keys of G, A, and C.

Sean will also teach one ‘wild card’ class on “3rd position blues”

Steve James

Blues String Band Lab: Suzy Thompson and Steve James look forward to conducting another of these combination workshop/band rehearsal/party sessions; this year joined by Carolina string wizard Adam Tanner. Players of any level or type of experience with stringed instruments are invited to participate (and attendance often runs into the dozens!). Fiddles? Yes! Mandolins and guitars? Of course! Uke, banjo, bass, cello, tiple, ngoni, rebetika? Bring ‘em on. We’ll also do some singing. It might get loud.

Slide Guitar Basics and Classics: Steve reprises one of his first musical loves-the sound of bottleneck slide guitar-for these sessions. Included will be detailed review of the basic picking techniques and tunings commonly used, along with economical chord shapes and ways to get the most sound out of your slide. Using song motifs from past masters and Steve’s own stash as a model we’ll find ways to make it sound like a train blown’ through, or a racehorse comin’ in…or a hot sun goin’ down in the middle of nowhere. Some handouts supplied and you can bring your device, but this is gonna be about playin’ guitar.

Sunpie Barnes

Piano accordion: with a emphasis on bass button techniques that will accompany melodies to Créole Waltzs, Zydeco Two-Step, Cajun Two-Step, Boogie Woogie, Blues and Caribbean Rhythms. Participants will also learn lyrics in Créole French and English.

Suzy Thompson, Steve James, Adam Tanner

String Band Lab: Suzy Thompson and Steve James look forward to conducting another of these combination workshop/band rehearsal/party sessions; this year joined by Carolina string wizard Adam Tanner. Players of any level or type of experience with stringed instruments are invited to participate (and attendance often runs into the dozens!). Fiddles? Yes! Mandolins and guitars? Of course! Uke, banjo, bass, cello, tiple, ngoni, rebetika? Bring ‘em on. We’ll also do some singing. It might get loud.

Suzy Thompson

Easy Blues Accompaniment: Love to sing the blues and want to beef up your accompaniment skills while also learning some great songs? In this class, we’ll work on songs by some of the country blues greats of the 1920s and 30s (Memphis Minnie, Henry Thomas, etc.) with a focus on steady rolling groove and building up simple but effective accompaniments. You’ll have the chance to try out some different ways of fingerpicking (not the elaborate kind). Many of the songs will have minimal chord changes, giving us the opportunity to learn how to change chords more fluidly and learn some different ways of shaping chords. And, you’ll learn to recognize basic chord changes. You should be able to play guitar at a beginning-intermediate level – know basic chords (okay if you haven’t tackled the F chord yet), be able to get from one chord to another, be open to singing and playing at the same time.