Freddie Green's Influence on the Music of Shetland, Scotland
By Dave Jackson / Scotland 2009
The influence of Freddie Green's rhythm guitar style can be found in the most unexpected musical circles. I first heard the name Freddie Green during a conversation with guitarist Willie Johnson of Shetland, Scotland. Willie mentioned Freddie with affection and reverence; it was obvious that Willie thought highly of him. Willie died at the age of 85 in 2007, and with his passing went much of the musical vocabulary he employed for his jazz inspired accompaniment of traditional fiddle music. His death generated numerous articles describing his origins, his unique character, and the fact that he is credited with creating a new concept of traditional music accompaniment.
Willie, universally known by his nick name of "Peerie Willie," (meaning small in stature) was certainly not small in musical ability or reputation. He was a major force in adding swing into Shetland Music and his influence is still felt strongly today. It is inaccurate to suggest that Willie created a new way of playing rather he applied jazz elements to a different musical genre.
His first love was the jazz of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's. He borrowed idioms of that era, applying them to accompany the traditional fiddle music of his native islands. It would be easy to describe this blend as crossover or fusion if both musical genres had an effect on each other, ending up with a hybrid outcome. The reality is that Willie's contribution was to play a pure jazz style, consisting of different stylistic elements, tastefully applied, and with a strong natural sense of rhythm and harmony. Good music crosses boundaries and Willie would have been the first to acknowledge from where his inspiration came. There was a strong common purpose with Freddie Green's approach where harmonic interest is provided via chords or a single-note bass run in conjunction with a driving, damped down stroke to define the rhythm groove.
Even before Willie played a note, his playing position betrayed a jazz provenance. The guitar was held at approximately 45 degrees to his knee and the left hand positioned to allow the thumb to fret the low E string. I have read many views on why the guitar was held in that way. I have always assumed from my own experience that the prime consideration was to allow the guitarist to have a good view of the fret board and to ensure the chosen chord inversion was played in the correct position.
He used a medium or heavy plastic flat pick and established a steady quarter note beat. The quarter note pulses were not solely chords, instead each consisted of a single bass note followed instantly by a damped chord down stroke. The damping was achieved by releasing the left hand pressure on the strings. This created the effect known in Shetland as dum/chink with the dum being the bass note and the chink being the damped chord. The bass line provided harmonic interest and the damped driving chord created a strong percussive effect. Willie was very particular about the way this style should be played: the guitar was held "a la Freddie;" the bass note was dug deeply with the right hand stroke; the bass note followed immediately by the damped chord. This single movement was all downwards with the bass note sustaining over the damped chord.
Once the rhythm had been established, Willie's left hand would begin to weave a mesmerizing path over the fret board. As he traversed the frets, ascending and descending the fingerboard, he would often adjust the angle of the guitar to obtain a better view of the fingerboard while planning his next route. The basic concept of dum/chink would be augmented with single-note bass runs, still quarter notes, and chord passages, all dove-tailed together. Then back to the dum/chink that would underpin the accompaniment that was shaped by a walking bass line filled with leading/passing notes indicating the harmonic destination.
At their simplest, chords would begin with conventional voicings but invariably Willie used his left thumb to play the bass notes on the sixth string. As the tune began to swing he would move into three-note voicings (played on the 6th, 4th, and 3rd strings) and chord passages of related harmony. He also played linking passages of tenths, passing diminished chords, and chromatic passages to produce a full and varied timbre. What was so appealing about Willie's playing was that he did not appear to play pre-arranged sequences. When least expected he would head off in a different harmonic direction which meant his playing always sounded fresh. The bass lines were not complex in the sense of a jazz bassist but were exquisitely chosen and just in the right place. Willie's sister, Evelyn, said of her brother's playing, "Willie always took the scenic route."
Both guitarists, Willie and Freddie, had exceptional musical taste and an original poetic response within their playing. From the above description it is clear that the two styles converge and diverge. This is due to the different nature of music being performed and to the different role each guitarist played within the ensemble. Freddie was one fourth of the rhythm section and distilled his style to "make room" for the bass, drums, and piano. Willie provided solo accompaniment and had to be a complete rhythm section. He made difficult choices to achieve this aim and his style was not as pure in purpose as Freddie's. Willie demonstrated his greatness in his selection of what to play and what to leave out, as did Freddie. When Willie played there was a continual flow of musical ideas articulated by bass runs or chord passages. Although Willie's guitar part was not delivered in the same fashion as Freddie, its musical function was identical: to underpin a melodic line and create a groove, or zone, for the soloist to launch forth.
Freddie and Willie used single note sonorities in their playing. Freddie often employed one-note "chords" to create a melodic tenor line, adding harmonic interest and counterpoint within the Basie rhythm section. Willie, as a self-contained rhythm section, would create a bass line that would articulate the shape of the accompaniment. He employed single-note bass runs, often descending on the D string. These runs were a well-defined part of his musical vocabulary.
Willie was also indebted to the playing of guitarist Eddie Lang. The violin/guitar duo of Lang and Joe Venuti must have been a role model for Willie whose primary role was to accompanying fiddle players in his native islands. It is impossible to pinpoint the precise amount of influence from Freddie Green and Eddie Lang but it is indisputable that Willie listened to these great players and that his style was essentially jazz-based. Through his love of jazz, Willie Johnson brought a more sophisticated form of accompaniment, in terms of rhythm and harmony, than had previously been applied to Shetland fiddle music. His approach to guitar had a strong defining influence on the identity of Shetland music.