Odyssey for Violin
Photo courtesy the artist.
The sign stands like a beacon on the edge of Red Hook, squat red letters set against a canary-yellow background: BAR. Sunny’s is perched on a far western corner of this still-quiet neighborhood, where the breeze rolls in from New York Bay over cobblestone streets. This beloved spot is thought by many (myself included) to be the finest bar in Brooklyn because it has that indefinable dive bar feng shui known as vibe. The interconnected series of rooms comes across as an easy jumble, with the middle section opening onto a beckoning internal courtyard in the warmer months.
Paintings hang throughout the place, harking back to the calling of the long-time owner, the late Sunny Balzano. His widow Tone Banzano Johansen helped rescue and has sustained the bar for years, keeping it loose in all the right ways. It doesn’t hurt that the music programming has the same lived-in feel as the rest of the place. Bands play in the den-like back room, orange lights surrounding the stage; the wide-plank wooden floors and peaked roof in the center of the space reinforce the sense of someplace equal parts rec room and chapel.
For well over a decade, Smokey’s Round-Up has played a Wednesday night residency that is usually packed. It started because of a love for Bob Wills-style Western swing shared by two extraordinary musicians, guitarist Smokey Hormel and fiddle player Charlie Burnham. (They’ve both been known to sing a bit, as well.) Hormel has gained renown playing with Tom Waits, Beck, and lots of others, as well as for passion projects like the Round-Up and Smokey’s Secret Family, a fantastic homage to 1950’s rhumba-driven African dance music. Burnham has also had a diverse range of collaborators, ranging from James Blood Ulmer to alternative bands like Hem.
On the last Wednesday of 2022, the Round-Up took a holiday break, which gave the Charlie Burnham Band a chance to perform. Burnham filled his performance with his customary charm and deeply informed playing. A straight, even underplayed version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was followed by an inside-out take on “Everbody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” certainly one of the less-covered Beatles tracks. For “Ain’t Misbehavin’” he didn’t stint on showing outrage at what he was giving up (“I’m home by eight, just me and the goddamn radio”); on “Jealous Guy,” he copped to his possessive behavior behind a funky, loose, get-me-out-of-this groove. He closed with a blues’d-out take on Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby,” punctuating the delivery of the suspicious lyrics with strangled yelps. The band, which included guitarist Marvin Sewell and bassist Fred Cash, Jr., let loose—three superb musicians filling the cozy room with blazing sound. A Christmas tree gleamed next to the band, as a spate of revelers gravitated toward the miniscule dance floor.
Burnham has been a key player in a wide range of recordings over the decades, starting his career with a loud bang as part of the trio that free jazz/deep blues guitarist James Blood Ulmer assembled to record the landmark Odyssey album in 1983. This record hit the scene hard, blasting through distinctions of genre with a fine disregard for any perceived boundaries. Ulmer’s own journey started in soul-jazz organ trios, moved through stints with Joe Henderson and Larry Young, among others, then wound through a period with some of Ornette Coleman’s seminal electric bands of the seventies. By the time he assembled this trio, he had developed different ideas about the role he saw for the guitar. He put its often open-tuned strings in the service of a ragged, jagged, snarling sound that was briefly (and aptly) labeled “avant-gutbucket.” Along with drummer Warren Benbow, Burnham was brought into this trio, and developed his own signature style: a plaintive drawl filtered through a wah-wah, the king of effects pedals. The collective result was a new kind of Americana sound, informed both by past and future.
So Burnham started out with a set of forward-looking-music bonafides. But he branched out, playing in a variety of settings. He took Billy Bang’s place in the String Trio of New York, making a record with latter-day vocalese singer Jay Clayton, then worked as a featured player on vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s critically beloved and very successful Blue Note album Blue Light Til Dawn. Wilson had hit on her own folk-jazz amalgam, with acoustic and steel guitars front and center; Burnham’s fiddle helped give the record bite. On the album’s first track, that low, slightly flat sound comes through in his solo on the standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” adding an emotional undertow to Wilson’s cool alto. I wasn’t always such a fan of Wilson’s landmark record—it seemed to be self-consciously reaching for a new style—but it has grown on me. From there, Burnham returned for recordings with two more incarnations of what was now called the Odyssey Band and with other Ulmer projects.
Rolling into this century, he added his tart sound to the twanging blues bender of a band called the Kropotkins (named after the early Russian anarchist, naturally). The drummer Jonathan Kane and multi-instrumentalist Dave Soldier started the group, adding vocalist Lorette Velvette and Moe Tucker of the Velvets thumping on the bass drum.
On tracks like “Truckstop Girls,” their style brings the sound of the Memphis roots-punk scene to teeming life. Burnham adds some of the freedom from his Ulmer years to the mix, and what start out as straightforward countrified nuggets get subtly weirded out. “This is reality music, man, and we should have more of it,” commented one critic at the time, and I don’t disagree. With the band Hem, fronted by vocalist Sally Ellyson, Burnham took still another path: a gentle variety of indie rock that shares a sensibility with English folk ballads. On cuts like “Half Acre,” his fiddle glides elegantly through the swirling sound.
Burnham draws on a tradition of Black violinists playing American music that stretches back to Joe Thompson, a pioneer whose playing was rediscovered in the seventies, and to others like Lonnie Johnson and the Mississippi Sheiks. Their role in folk, blues, and other styles was often obscured by the efforts of music executives to rebrand this as hillbilly (read: white) music. Starting in the 1920s, record producer Ralph Peer actually bragged about stealing Black music and selling it to white audiences as country, drawing on a nostalgia for sounds from “the good old days.”
Multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddons has been important in reframing the narrative, and through her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops and her solo efforts, she has shown the primacy of Black musicians in developing and playing this music. From its origins, rooted in spike fiddle playing from West Africa, Black violin music in this country has been performed at rural dances and on Congo Square in New Orleans, as well as in racist minstrel shows. What Burnham does not only honors this history but shows the different roads this tradition can travel. The great French critic Edmond de Goncourt once wrote, “A poet is a man who puts up a ladder to a star and climbs it while playing a violin.” Charlie Burnham is that kind of man.