Folk music doesn't mean some white dude whining over an acoustic guitar. It means "music of the people," and it is an old tradition - the oldest musical tradition, in fact. There's not a soul on Earth who can claim to know the exact moment "music" started - I'm talking about even before the word "music" existed. I've always defined "music" as "sound with form." It makes things easy for me. Most definitions of "music" are antiquated, unfamiliar with the progression of sound art in the modern era. But at some point in human history, a person made a sound through movement or voice, and then that person curiously, skeptically made the same motion or vocal emission just to hear it, enjoy it, or inspect it again, and that's when music started.
The thing about folk music is that the only difference between it and the previous example is the sharing nature of the thing. If you've got a group of people sharing a musical tradition, whatever sound it is, it's folk music.
Jerry Crisp, a Miami transplant by way of Ohio and most freight train lines, has a repertoire of more than 150 songs, some from more than a century ago. While many artists concern themselves with keeping up on trends, Jerry finds importance in gathering knowledge, be it Varg Vikernes' newest polemic, the Art Deco architecture on Miami Beach, or the trajectory of folk music. Jerry's also a bit of a privileged folky because he's a jaw harp player - jaw harp is one of the oldest instruments still around, meaning that his concept of folk music is older than a lot of other people's. His preternatural memory and love for history gives him an edge where other musicians may have a difficult time.
Jerry plays solo as Baby Bear Lo-Fi and does outlaw country as part of The Revolvers. We got hot dogs and had a chat. Here's how it went down.
Jerry Crisp: So where do you want to start?
Jordan Reyes: Well, let’s start with the first song you learned.
JC: The first folk song I can remember learning was from the Sharon, Lois, and Bram show, which was on Nickelodeon in the 80s. It was a show created for children of 60s folk artists with its group of cheesy folk people. They had this song “Skinnamarinky Dinky Dink/Skinnamarinky Do” and my mom used to play that song with me. Also, “Puff the Magic Dragon.” My mom plays folk music so I remember my whole life with her playing guitar with me. She’s into Joan Baez and folk women of the 60s.
JC: We used to play children's songs of that era and Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train,” if you know that song. She was a nanny and house maid in New York City. She was discovered by Pete Seeger. She learned how to play guitar in like 1898 and didn’t get discovered until 1963 right before her death. She said when they recorded her that she hadn’t played guitar in 40 years. She took a regular guitar, but played it left handed with the bass string on the bottom, so she had a very distinct style.
JR: So how did Pete Seeger know her?
JC: He hired her as his maid and nanny! (Laughs). One day, the story goes, she just picked up the guitar. I don’t remember the specifics, but I know that one day he discovered her after she was working for him.
JR: How do you pick up these stories about people existing before your time?
JC: Well, a lot of it is passed down orally. You get together with people who make folk music, and they tell stories. Everyone has their own way of telling the story, too. Some people will always tell it like it happened to them, even if it’s not a story that actually happened to them, but that’s just their way of storytelling - they inject themselves into the story. Some people are more along the lines of telling fables. I do a little bit of both. Sometimes I’ll tell a story not exactly how it happened - maybe it’ll be a story that happened to someone else and I’ll tell it like it happened to me, just to make the conversation flow a little better. I don’t really have a style as much as just…not being good at public speaking, so it’s sort of done to make sure I don’t stutter the whole time (laughs).
JR: Do you think that has any dishonesty in it or is that besides the question?
JC: I don’t think it has dishonesty unless you’re trying to use it to gain something personally, like if you’re changing stories around to garner support or pity for yourself, but if you’re telling a story and someone is there expecting you to tell stories, then it’s just a story. Stories aren’t truthful or or not truthful to me. There’s a difference if someone asks “Well, what’s the truth behind that story?” But it’s almost like you have a song and prepare it - same way with a story.
JR: So your mom had played guitar for a while, and when did you pick it up? Did you pick up guitar first and then banjo or banjo and then guitar?
JC: Guitar and then banjo. Banjo came much later. I had an acoustic guitar when I was probably six or seven. I would play along with my mom, but then I lost interest when I started playing sports. I wrestled for a long time, played sports, and learned martial arts. I was also in choir so I sang a lot still, but then, when I was around fourteen, I asked my mom for an electric guitar, which is what I learned first. Then banjo just kind of came along. In 2010, I think, someone gave me a banjo in Sarasota. I was living in Key Largo at the time, which is a really interesting place if you live there. It’s very isolated. Being down in the keys and not having much else to do meant that I was playing a lot of banjo, which is when it started becoming my main instrument.
JR: You still consider it your main instrument?
JC: I consider the jaw harp, personally, as my main instrument. I approach all music playing with the mentality of the jaw harp. It took me a long time to know what notes I was playing or the names of chords. I still couldn’t really tell you off hand the names of chords I play. I play everything by ear.
JR: I guess I wouldn’t have expected that. I think you’re the first person I know who plays a jaw harp, but you’re also the only person I know who approaches music like that.
JC: Yeah, the jaw harp’s a weird thing. It’s like a children’s toy, but it’s really old - tens of thousands of years old. It’s one instrument that, because the human body is the actual thing you move to make the notes, you can feel the music you’re making with it. The music you’re making with it is very similar to that of prehistoric times on the same instrument. How much has the human body changed in ten thousand years? (laughs) So the instrument has pretty much stayed the same.
JR: I remember you told me once you have about a 150 song repertoire and how many songs have you written?
JC: I’ve been in bands, playing bass, banjo, or percussion for a while. I enjoy writing songs in a band, but I don’t count those as songs that I’ve written. That said, I’ve played in bands since I was sixteen, so that’s twelve years of writing songs with other people. But as far as songs that I regularly played that are one hundred percent mine is probably ten or less. Then there are another ten that are straight rip offs from traditional songs.
JR: Yeah, but that’s in the tradition of folk music.
JC: Oh, totally. I learned that from Woody Guthrie. That’s all he did.
JR: I got to see Billy Bragg cover Woody Guthrie songs and he gave a lecture, basically, about Guthrie and his life. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
JC: He’s an interesting guy. I don’t always agree with what his idea of folk music is, because I don’t think he takes it back far enough. And maybe that’s my privilege as a jaw harp player is to see that folk music predates all concepts of what “music” is, whereas I feel like Billy Bragg might think that music started when it began to get recorded. He’s like “Americans invented the blues and then the British made them better and then it came back to America,” which is a very British point of view, in my opinion, but his music is great (laughs). Even the stuff he did with that band Wilco was pretty good.
JR: Yeah, I think that was the Woody Guthrie stuff - he somehow got these notes that Woody had written but never ended up recording them so there was no actual music. The thing about folk is that the hard part is usually the lyrics because the music’s already in the tradition. So, this is what he was talking about.
JC: Ah, I didn’t know that about that record Mermaid Avenue.
JR: Yeah I think Woody’s granddaughter had the notes.
JC: What’s her name? Nora? I think it’s Nora Guthrie.
JR: And you’re about to put out a record, right?
JC: Yeah, hopefully. I’ve made plans to go into the studio and record it. I’ve put out lots and lots and lots of recordings, probably a third of my repertoire is recorded at this point, but I did them all on my tablet or cellphone. That’s why I have the band name Baby Bear Lo-Fi. “Baby Bear” is my nickname, but I added “Lo-Fi” to get the one-man-band concept.
JR: Your mom had that name for you, right?
JC: Yeah, well, my name’s Jerry and being born in the 80s had people calling me “Jerr Bear” and so that always existed, but then I had a friend who called me “Bear” in a playful sense, which stuck. Then when I was doing a lot of political work, there’s a tradition of not introducing yourself with your real name for some reason, so I went with Bear, and I just got to introducing myself as that. I still do - it’s a true nickname I’ve had my whole life. “Baby Bear” came from one time I was with Miller, another local musician who I play in bands with. He’s a big, burly guy with a long beard and he introduced himself as Miller and I said “Hi, I’m Bear.” And the person responded “You’re not a bear - you’re a baby bear,” cause I was standing next to this big guy. Being around him on tour is where “Baby Bear” came from. But I’ve had “Bear” my whole life. I’ve even got it tattooed on me [Tattoo reads: If You Must Be A Bear, Be A Grizzly].
JR: You mentioned that you have a ton of stuff coming up for the rest of the year.
JC: Oh yeah, I recorded four full-length albums last year. Three of them in my bedroom and another at a friend’s house, which he uses to record folk punk bands. That was just me on a nylon-string banjo. Last year I did these four full-length records all within six months. It was nice, and felt great to generate it all myself, but it left me wanting to make a studio album, which would have other musicians playing my songs. A lot of the stuff I made last year didn’t have any originals so I want to do a release that has more originals, but also a backing band - drummer, lap steel, upright bass playing. So the goal is to make a country record and it’ll be called “Americana Renaissance.” That’s the concept. Other than that, I’m playing in a local band called The Revolvers, which is outlaw country. We have lots and lots of shows coming up for that.
JC: The biggest thing I’m doing I think is called the Fringe Art Fair or Fringe Art Fest - I’m not exactly sure - but it’s part of the greater Art Basil event. I’m going to be doing a show a day at it of different things. One will be just me doing my typical folk music stuff, then I’ll do one with my friend from New York who does banjo and I’ll do jaw harp on top of that, and then I’ll do one that’s more along the lines of folk punk with an electric guitar and a band. Then I want to do a set that’s primitive, with no instruments - vocals only. I have a lot of songs that are a capella, I guess. They’re like work songs. One of the favorite things I’ve done was in the New York City subways - just singing and holding my hat out - no instrumentation. That’s my preferred method of performance. The guitar is burdensome. You have to carry it around and it needs six strings. I’m very much a simple artist. I think that’s my strong suit. If a song had one word and two tones, I’m all about it. It’s like Shepherds’ music if you know the tradition. I think some of my best performances were me on a mountain alone.
JR: In a shower?
JC: Exactly. And I do other stuff, both for myself and for the performance aspect, but I prefer the simplistic, almost, and I’m not a spiritual person, but it fulfills my spiritual needs. I do Buddhist chants at home.
JR: I’ve done crystal bowl meditations where people in this class start joining in with their voices and that was one of the coolest auditory experiences I’ve had. And it’s very simple. There’s someone who’s making a bowl sing and everyone else has their eyes closed and everyone’s making tones even though there’s no scale to go off of - nothing can be in conflict with anything else.
JC: It’s really interesting when those moments of Western Music, like what makes Western Music, can be stripped away. Everything you can discover about music outside of twelve notes. I think that’s why American Folk Music and country music is easy for me to understand and play. It’s also why my repertoire keeps growing and growing - cause there’s only twelve notes! I’m used to infinite notes and that’s how I like to make my music, drawing from infinite amounts of sounds. Then all of a sudden you only have twelve? But there’s beauty in simplicity, too. Even in twelve notes you can find great beauty.
JC: Is that the fretless instrument?
JC: It’s considered in the same family as the banjo.
JC: Yeah, well it’s a drum with a number of strings attached to it. It’s like a banjo. Early banjos didn’t have five strings either - they had however many the person put on there. Then someone put the fifth string on. I think they started with three strings and a shorter fourth string. In Mongolia they have the Horse-head fiddle, which is a banjo you play with a bow. They have snakeskin heads. In China they have the Xiqin, which has three strings, and fulfills the same thing. The tenor banjo from Ireland has four strings. A banjo is just a drum with strings.
JR: You prefer the banjo to the guitar at this point?
JC: Yeah, well I’ve done guitar for so long at this point that I have the benefit of not really having to think to play it. A lot of things come naturally. Banjo I’ve only been playing for four or five years so I’m very much still learning on it. It was definitely the first instrument I felt able to get in the zone or let loose on. In a lot of ways it helped my guitar playing reach the level it’s at now by learning to relax while playing. Even playing bass guitar for years and years in bands still never got me to the point of relaxation like I did when I first learned old time clawhammer banjo.
JR: You recently started double thumbing too, right? This year?
JC: Yeah. I always listen to other banjo players and try to imitate the techniques and sounds that I hear. The technique of double thumbing has always been difficult, but now I’ve got that down. Basically there are two ways of doing clawhammer - drop thumb and frailing and I’m trying to do this technique where you do both at the same time. It’s really challenging, but it’s what I’ve been working on lately. I’ve been doing double thumbing for a little over a year now, so it’s a move I have, whereas I can either drop thumb or frail - I can’t do both in the same song. Even though banjo is having a resurgence in popularity, people are playing it with a pick or strumming it like a guitar. Some people will say “Never play your banjo with a pick!” But I’m not one of those people. Play your banjo however you want to play your banjo. If you’re a musician and you’re playing a banjo, you’re a banjo player. I started off playing four strings, tenor style, before getting into clawhammer so I’m not one to tell anyone else how to play the banjo. I definitely have a soft spot for the old time clawhammer style. I’m happy to see banjo making such a resurgence. The five-string banjo is truly an American instrument and sound. It has related instruments all over the world, but that five string banjo are ours. It’s as ours as the hot dogs we just ate.