Kenny Hall

(October 14, 1923 - Sept. 18, 2013)

Jamming with the Angels!

By Vykki Mende Gray

Kenny Hall"Imagine an afternoon stretching into the evening and maybe into the wee hours of the morning – spent playing along with an enthusiastic and non-exclusive jam session – one tune after another. If you’re a beginning fiddler player trying to get your feet wet, no problem. The energetic guy with the mandolin on his knee says, ‘Well, good! Do you know Soldier’s Joy?’ If you’re a hotshot guitar player with fancy licks at your fingertips: ‘Hey, BIG chords now. Bring that E string up a bit. Now take the A string down. Stay off the four chord there – this ain’t Western Swing. Key of D. Let’s go!’ Many readers will immediately recognize this as a Kenny Hall session in progress.”1

The last several years have seen Kenny and friends jamming together regularly on Wednesday evenings at the Santa Fe Basque restaurant in Fresno. But on Wednesday, September 18, 2013, Kenny missed this jam session. But he had a good excuse – because that’s the day Kenny went to join the jam session we all hope to see some day. And I have it on good authority that he was heard haranguing the angel with the harp: “Hey, BIG chords now. Bring that E string up a bit. Now take the A string down. Stay off the four chord there – this ain’t Western Swing. Key of D. Let’s go!”

Born blind on October 14, 1923, Kenny Hall was just about to celebrate his 90th birthday. His legacy includes introducing many west coast musicians to Old Time Music. It includes practically inventing the predominant mandolin sound for Old Time mandolin. And it includes the preservation and dissemination of a vast repertoire of unique tunes (over 1100), many learned from the otherwise unsung and seldom recognized musicians of the previous generation, such as W. D. Sanford, Clara Desmond and the Desmond Family, The Happy Hayseeds, and Mellie Dunham.

Kenny began learning music at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley in 1929. But his unique method of playing the mandolin was his own invention:

“It was about 1937 when I was first tryin’ to figure out how to play the mandolin. Since it was tuned like a fiddle I figured I should hold it that way, you know, under the chin. I was pluckin’ it with my fingernail, which of course I still use, but I was only going one way. And Mr. Sanford says, “No, you can’t do it that way.” So we’d take tunes like Apricot Stealer’s Waltz and Tommy Don’t Go that I’d already learned on the fiddle, and we’d do jiggles on the notes, yuh know, go back and forth instead of just pluckin’ the notes. And I started catchin’ on that I could do it that way. I started puttin’ that mandolin on my knee where it would stay put, yuh know. And then I could jiggle the notes good without the mandolin wiggling.”2

After World War II, Kenny had stopped playing much music. As he described it, there wasn’t anyone to play with. “And that’s what’s really fun is to play with people.” 3

Kenny Hall and the Sweets Mill String BandAnd then the Old Time Music revival “discovered” Kenny Hall. Kenny discovered that his unique and distinctive music was greatly appreciated, and there were lots of people to play music with. And through recordings, some still available, with The Sweet’s Mill String Band in 1972, a recording on Philo Records in 1974, and with the Long Haul String Band starting in 1980, Kenny reached an even larger enthusiastic audience.

And in 1999, Kenny Hall’s Music Book was published by Mel Bay. Now some might suggest that writing out music notation for Old Time Music is something of a contradiction. But Kenny wanted to be sure that his tunes were remembered Kenny Hall Music Bookaccurately. And there’s more!! While Kenny Hall’s Music Book really is a music book, buying it solely for the music would be rather like buying Like Water for Chocolate just for the recipes. The most important part of this book is the story Kenny has to tell – a story every bit as rambling as a Raymond Chandler novel, to be sure, with some loose ends and unfinished divergences. And, like Raymond Chandler, the telling isn’t just a means to the end – the telling is itself the end. And it’s told as you would have heard it from Kenny himself: alongside the tunes as he introduced them to you.

Not all of Kenny’s story is pretty and inspiring, but all of it is true. And Kenny’s stories don’t only tell about “the man and his music.” They also tell us a bigger story about this unique community of blind musicians, and provide for us a rare insider’s perspective on growing up and working and playing music in the schools and workshops for the blind from the late 1920s through the 1940s. It is a rare opportunity to not see the world through the eyes of a blind person. And a rare opportunity to play Kenny Hall’s music as he envisioned it. So even if you’ve never had any intention of learning to read standardly notated music, don’t let that deter you from the rest of the music in Kenny Hall’s Music Book.

And in honor of Kenny Hall’s memory, may I recommend a big communal open jam session. “Your A string is low there. Bring it up. A little more. There you go. BIG chords now. Hey, key of A! Let’s go!”

1. The Old-Time Herald Volume 7, Number 4, Where Did Kenny Hall Learn All Those Tunes?, By Vykki Mende Gray

2. Kenny Hall, Kenny Hall’s Music Book, page 121, Vykki Mende Gray and Kenny Hall, Mel Bay, 1999.

3. Kenny Hall in interviews with the author.

Victoria Mende Gray has played violin since 1963 and been active in the San Diego old-time music community since 1975.  She plays and sings many types of historic Mexican music, and is the author of Kenny Hall's Music Book: Old-Time Music for Fiddle and Mandolin (Mel Bay Publications)