May-June 2007

Walking on Bilgewater

Eefing, bilabial fricatation, and the "strum" and "twang" of the Bilgewater Brothers

By Joel Okida

bilgewater hell
Design by David Barlia. Photo by Thomas Hargis

The act of grinning comes naturally when you hear the very tongue-in-cheek tune, Give It to Mary with Love. And when David Barlia resurrects the lost art known as "eefing," the grin becomes a chuckle. For those not in the know, eefing is the vocal ability to nasally impersonate a coronet, oddly named by uke old timer, Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. John chirps in with a melodic whistling solo and you know there's a spectacle of rare entertainment to be had. Over the course of an evening with the Bilgewater Brothers, you get a very lively variety show without having to change channels. Mostly you get uke strummer, David and plectrum banjo and National guitar wiz, John Reynolds, having a good time for your listening and viewing pleasure. They are often supported by other local musicians and surrounded by makeshift props which give a wink and an elbow of embellishment to whatever theme they are imbedded in. No matter how ragged the production may get, the music stays up front and engaging. It's an excuse to have a good time for what is really a madcap romp through vaudeville, burlesque, a backroom speakeasy, a squat in the parlor room and always a Keystone-Kop-run down tin pan alley.

Occasionally seen with another local perpetrator of retro romance, Janet Klein, both David and John change hats and ply their passion and partake in a plethora of other plucky performing posses. David is involved with the Barleycorns, duets with Parlor Boy, Brad Kay and may sit in with the California Navels ( John, in addition to his long resume with many famous bands and Hollywood performers, also joins up with his brother, Ralf, in the Rhythm Rascals (, and sits in with the Colonels of Corn.

Before interviewing David Barlia, I got the lowdown on John Reynolds and the rich musical history he carries with him. As the grandson of silent film star, ZaSu Pitts, there is old fashioned show biz blood that runs through John's veins. John calls the music he plays, "old pop music" or early "Betty Boop." John admits, "I inherited my grandmother's taste for old things." Add to this the family musical heritage (a father and grandfather who both played the "bones") and the time spent in his grandmother's historic 1920s Paul Williams designed house, and what else would a young kid do back in 1964 but pick up the 5-string banjo and get lessons from local stringed instrument guru, David Lindley? In the following years, he switched over to the 4-string version, eventually doing a 5-year stint playing banjo at Disneyland during his college years. Picking up the guitar, he took lessons from the great George M. Smith, guitarist for the Paramount Studio Orchestra. Later, he wound up playing with the local Mood Indigo trio for several years. Along the way, he opened for the Smothers Brothers, learning the ropes of the music and show biz world. Other gigs have been with Dean Mora's Modern Rhythmists dance orchestra ( at the Oviatt Building and a stint with Johnny Crawford's Dance Orchestra (, where his expert whistling also got the spotlight. Look further and you'll see John has performed with such legends as Cab Calloway and Julie Andrews. In addition to his expert banjo and guitar work, and the aforementioned canary-like whistling, you may catch him displaying his talent with "bilabial fricatation." It's your basic ‘fart' sound generated by hand suction, but brought to new "heights" when the technique is flaunted in the Ellington standard, Caravan.

In between all the multiple group sit-ins and session, with his plectrum banjo and National steel guitar in tow, he joins David Barlia to make musical mayhem as the Bilgewater Brothers. They met a few years ago when John saw David in performance with Parlor Boy pianist, Brad Kay, in a local coffee house and thus began the musical partnership. David, the man of many hats, as he proudly calls himself, took some time to let out some serious bilge water for Folkworks.

JOEL: What is it about the early decades of the 20th century that you find so interesting?

DAVID: I've always found the music of the 1910s to the 1930s to be the some of the most fun and inspiring music I've heard. As a kid, I remember immediately being rapt with excitement over the playful complexities of ragtime. But I've always been attracted to that period for some reason-the clothing styles, the movies. On film, we have some of the greatest examples of comedy in all of Western culture-the Marx brothers, Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd. As a filmmaker myself, I love the art of the silent film. I don't really think it was such an "Age of Innocence" but it was certainly a simpler time-and I do like that. I think everybody wants life to be simpler, really.

JOEL: Do you look at the interest in old time music as an aspect of nostalgia for more innocent times or is it just "timeless music" that needs to be played and preserved?

DAVID: Uhm, yes. Both. A lot of it is timeless, and very warm. I think there's a joyful warmth there that's sorely lacking in a lot of today's music.

JOEL: As a relatively recent player in this kind of music, does it seem like there's an endless supply of old songs waiting to be discovered and arranged?

DAVID: You know, I don't listen to much of anything outside of this period anymore. When I say that to people, of course their reaction is, "That's all you listen to??!" We're talking about a period of, let's say 30 years. That's a long time for a lot of amazing artists to have recorded. There's also something fun about being musical, a sort of musical archaeologist, digging for treasure. When I discovered what I might find on old 78 records, antique stores suddenly became a whole lot more exciting.

JOEL: What started your interest in the ukulele and where did you get that cigar box uke? What's been the response to the slide ukulele?

DAVID: Actually, I play one instrument: Ukulele. I have several ukes, naturally, including a banjo-ukulele and a cigar-box uke, which I made myself with a kit (available from I love that I can trade off ukuleles, play with the exact same fingerings and produce several different sounds. My main instrument is a Resonator Ukulele made by Johnson-an excellent instrument. As a bit of a joke, really, I tried out playing that as a slide instrument-which actually worked amazingly well, though I made it sound more funny than musical.

JOEL: What do you think is the future of the uke? Do you listen to any other ukulele players, Hawaiian or other wise?

DAVID: New ukulele-based bands seem to be popping up everywhere like crazy. If you do a search on MySpace for "ukulele" you will find a tremendous number of players at all levels. One of my all-time favorite players was a Hawaiian musician by the name of "King" Benny Nawahi-whose primary instrument was the steel slide guitar. Unfortunately, there's only about four recordings in existence of him actually playing the uke! But they're the best.

JOEL: Is the talented John Reynolds a mentor, collaborator/partner in crime or someone who owes you a lot of money?

DAVID: Ha ha! Let's not talk about money, shall we? If anybody owes, it's me! ...I'm very grateful to be working with John. He's the most amazing guitar player I've ever seen. And the flair of his plectrum-banjo playing is only surpassed by one of his heroes, Eddie Peabody. He's great fun to work with, really wacky. But he's somebody who'd been away from the front of the stage for a while-you know, playing sideman to other bands, with quiet professionalism. But anybody who knew what he was capable of was wishing he'd come to the foreground more. I saw an opportunity to form a partnership with two front-men.

JOEL: Do you see a resurgence in interest in the music and musical instruments from the early part of the last century? There seems to be some cross-pollination of influence from the swing, vaudeville, and early jazz eras as many of today's musical groups (be they country, rock, or folk) will often throw in a banjo lick, accordion run, or uke strum into their mix of songs.

DAVID: Like I say, ukes are popping up in new bands everywhere-and many of them are not at all retro. There's a lot of people playing modern original compositions with uke accompaniment. I've seen several banjos around as well-again in modern groups. John swears that Hell is full of Banjo players, for some reason.

JOEL: Do you think the future of music will be space age minimalist drone or an amalgamation of sound produced by every American Idol winner, or a tape loop of profane hip hop curses, or a return to a banjo, a melody and witty lyricism?

DAVID: You know, I think things have a tendency to go round in circles just as much as they evolve in new directions. I think these older sounds will continue to influence musicians for a long time to come.

JOEL: You seem to be working in thematic performances of late. Do you see this as a way to keep the music fresh or is the vaudevillian approach a resurrection of those happy days of yesteryear?

DAVID: Yeah, I think it adds a fun element to the show. I've got an urge to be a little theatrical in a very Vaudevillian way. Our first show had a circus side-show flavor to it, complete with knife-thrower and juggler guest acts. We had a lot of fun with that-John and I like to be big kids. Our next show, at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood, was The Bilgewater Brothers' Swamp Jamboree-where the stage was done up to look like a swamp, with fog, old lanterns and the sounds of crickets. Musically, we got into a jug and washboard band sound, which felt so appropriate. Then we did The Bilgewater Brothers on the Moon, for which we gathered up lots of tunes about the moon-of which there is a staggering number to choose from. We had a rocket ship and a robot and invited the audience to come dressed as aliens. That was also the first show that introduced Claudia Rose, who's become an integral part of the show. She really adds heat to our newest show, The Bilgewater Brothers Go To HELL! Her wonderful singing and dancing is really the icing on the cake-or the treacle on the brimstone? Hmm...

JOEL: Do you foresee a larger stage for the Bilgewater Brothers in Los Angeles or is it more enjoyable flying below the radar with a cult following? Have you investigated the interest level of the music in other parts of the country?

DAVID: I would like very much to take our Moon Show to the west side, somewhere in the Santa Monica area. I'm just looking for the right place. We really need to get a CD put together-which will certainly help sell us to places further from home. We have got lots of friends on MySpace all over the world! Heh-heh, well, who doesn't?

JOEL: Does this kind of music need an "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" to bring in a new audience as that film did for bluegrass?

DAVID: Well, it wouldn't hurt! I've certainly got ideas as a filmmaker leading me in that direction. That film was such a sensation, and it was heavily fueled by the wonderful soundtrack, but well-paired with the Coen Brothers, whose work I also love.

JOEL: Other than the Parlor Boys, California Navels, the Barleycorns, the Rhythm Rascals, who else do you like in the present old time music world?

DAVID: There are a lot of great bands out there, more than I can keep up with, that's for sure. I came across an excellent group in the UK, called The Gramophone Party. They have an excellent slide guitar player, who also plays ukulele-and gets nearly the same sound as Benny Nawahi, since like Nawahi, he's still got those finger picks on as he plays the uke. In Japan, there are The Sweet Hollywaiians, with whom I had the pleasure of meeting and playing a guest appearance with when they visited a few months ago. Superb group, again with a great slide guitar player. I think at some point, acoustic slide guitar is going to have to be my next instrument... Or maybe I should work up that slide uke! Heh-heh.

You can see David and John, frequently at the Steve Allen Theatre ( in Hollywood, and at other venues around the town. They are their own variety show bringing you charm, wit, and a few wicked licks on the musical lollipop that slyly sweetens the LA music scene.

The Bilgewater Brothers are:

JOHN REYNOLDS - Plectrum Banjo (, National Guitar, National 12-String, Whistling, Bilabial-Fricatation, Bass Kazoo.

DAVID BARLIA - Resonator Ukulele, Banjolele, Cigar Box Uke, Whistling, Kazoo, Vocal Coronet, Jaw's Harp, Nose Flute.

The Bilgewater Brothers influences are:

- Eddie Peabody, Cliff Edwards (a.k.a. "Ukulele Ike"), Nick Lucas, Harry Reser, Benny Nawahi- Dixie Jug Blowers, Philips' Louisville Jug Band, Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, Whispering Jack Smith

See where the Bilgewater Brothers are playing at which has links to their MySpace home and other related sites.