Frank Metcalf

Profile

My friend Benoit Bourque mentioned my four-beat / four clicking-positions style at some length in Vol. 7, No. 4 2005 p. 6. Beth Lenz’s thesis on the bones and Percy Danforth did a rudimentary and context-free job of describing my style of play, as I didn’t have a chance to speak with her about it. Also it seems that she didn’t see the very long, detailed letter about my style that I wrote to Percy Danforth, who graciously put me up for the night when I visited him in Ann Arbor in 1982. Benoit is more insightful. Mainly I played for fast reels, at dance speed, in the reel rhythm which is duple. But of course I also played for jigs in triple rhythm when jigs were called or in bones demonstrations. I used quick triplet ruffs the way a fiddler uses triplets, as a frequent ornament, but never as a basic lick; the usual bones sound is too cluttered and busy for my personal taste. I started out playing two-handed without difficulty, but an injury to my right wrist made me back off of that hand in order to preserve it for my longtime main teaching and gigging instrument, the frailing (clawhammer) banjo, and also for the spoons and the fiddle. With my now-free right hand I began playing the harmonica together with the bones in my left, but alternatively I played the Quebecois wooden spoons or the moose jaw. With the harp on a rack I could play bones and spoons or jawbone simultaneously. I never had trouble playing two or three things at once.

 

My musical background was the clawhammer banjo playing Southern Appalachian step dance tunes. I corresponded with Pete Seeger, whose family sent me New Years cards while I was in boarding school in Connecticut, so he was my hero. Naturally I became proficient at reading and writing banjo tablature, and then as a Harvard freshman I took an “Introduction to Harmony” course whose first weekly assignment was to “Write a chorale after Bach, and then do a harmonic analysis.” Say whaaat??? No keyboard skill, musically illiterate = up the creek. I spent 40 hours per week on that course alone, never mind Philosophy and Astronomy etc. But I learned to read music, which is basically only a tablature itself, and the point is that I now had analytic tools to use along with Pete Seeger’s “Bum-titty, bump-a-titty” basic banjo rhythms roaring in my head. I taught banjo at a Cambridge music store for a whopping two bucks per lesson, so the banjo was ever-present in my Harvard life, and indeed I posed with my banjo for a soup advertisement shot in my freshman dorm. One of my roommates was Terrence Malick, who became a rather unique and esoteric film director, and I wonder what he made of that very silly scene.

 

I left Greenwich Village and my PhD program in English Literature at NYU in 1976, and moved to Yellowknife’s Old Town, with (no kidding) Ragged-Ass Road running right behind my shack. Incredibly, as a young American scholar of Romantic Poetry I’d been invited by Canada’s National Museum to become a field party leader in Archaeology, doing cultural exploration by canoe in the Barren Lands, the great treeless Arctic tundra of the Far North. In 1978 I suffered a truly frightening but also deeply un-heroic surprise by a charging grizzly bear, which I reported honestly on the radio sked before drinking the Jameson’s and passing out. But when I finally got back to Yellowknife, the expeditor had fluffed it up like crazy and I learned that I was now “Grizzly Frank.” I did everything wrong and ran from that bloody bear, and there’s much more, but anyway, now I had a colourful identity just in time for my harp and bones career to begin.

 

 

The bones stuck in my head, and of course I had to get some wooden ones while visiting in my home state of Minnesota. But my first festival gig, in 1980, was with “Grizzly Frank and the Whitefish,” and I don’t recall what I played beside the banjo. At any rate, I now had some bones to play along with the spoons, banjo, and fiddle, with La Bottine blasting away in my tiny shack beside Great Slave Lake. It was only natural that the traditional clogging / spoons / banjo rhythm would find its way to the bones.

 

First I trained my hand to completely relax and eliminate the triplet beat, and to start and stop anywhere in the three-beat roll. I called it “stop control” and the “Deadhand Roll.” I developed a bones tablature to record what I was doing, and to help work out what more could be done. I had a “bum-titty” shuffle down quickly, simply by choking off the three-beat cycle for an added silent beat (a rest) between 1 and 2-3. Then came the Revelation: I was crisp with the 1 but sloppy on the choke, and an extra, bounced beat sounded where the rest should be. “Bum-titty” became “Bump-a-titty” . . . a four-beat roll . . . and the rest is history.

 

It is so ridiculously easy to play the Grizzly Shuffle and the Grizzly Roll. The bones just play themselves, so long as your wrist has that loose and casual fast-twitch whip to it and your coordination is happening. You can do some pretty cool basic bone stuff–shuffles, rolls, taps, and ruffs–while also doing anything with your other hand, like play harmonica, spoons, moose jaw, cow jaw, nose flute, or more bones. Benoit remarks about my hand going down and back up, and that’s what makes it easy. Gravity lends velocity until the wrist has to snap back up and the bones do their bouncing thing. Timing and fluidity have to happen, but it’s just a hell of a lot easier than playing almost any other instrument. It also sounds totally cool as you run through your repertoire of moves in an artistic, nuanced, and relatively uncluttered way. The Deadhand Roll works in very well, with its almost-even, but slightly “breathing,” stream of beats mingling with the innate syncopation of the four-beat Grizzly Roll which can be given a back-beat goose, or be squeezed to a shuffle as you wish.

 

Very quickly I settled on moose ribs as the ideal bones. My first bone bones were honey-garlic beef ribs that I cooked up, ate, cleaned off, and rushed out to play at an Old Town party. But cow ribs are heavy and clunky, whereas moose ribs are thin, light, responsive, whippy, and they sound great. I’ve found that the third or fourth ribs of a middle-aged female moose are the best, and my concert ribs plus a second excellent pair are cherished. I had plentiful access to moose through the subsistence-hunting White and Dene friends that I lived with. I experimented with oven-curing times, fine sandpaper grit size, how much cancellous tissue to include on the top end, and the sublime use of the rubber band around the anvil bone, which preserves both your hearing and your intimate relationship during your many hours of practice at full bore while cooped up in a tiny space for an endless Arctic winter. It also lets you feel though scarcely hear what you’re doing. This on its own was another Revelation. It occurred to me that a pickup could be stuck on the anvil bone, and then held a bit slack by a simple rubber wrist band, with the cord then going off to a small amp. It’s easy to play bone on rubber or bone on bone at will, and I wondered what either would sound like in an amp, since the bone on rubber band had a strong vibration but almost no audible sound. Wow! It was like the centre and rim of a very responsive conga drum: deep on rubber, sharp on bone, and you can do either at will with a bit of practice. Thus the Electric Moose Ribs were born.

 

I was a working musician and bones-player. I did lots of radio and some TV work, including a “What’s My Line?” kind of TV show called “Claim to Fame” in Ottawa. That’s where the wardrobe people whipped up the velcro and leather wristlet for the Electric Bones. An NBC show called “Real People” came up at great expense to do a feature. As a helpful Northern Canadian I naturally met them at the airport to help haul their mountain of gear. They seemed frightened of this big stranger and they tried to shoo me away, but I persisted in the Northern way and they were nervous. Finally I realized these good but strange folks were paranoid Yankees, so I introduced myself, and oh my, how quickly their tune did change. I was on the Alan Thicke show when it was based in Vancouver; I taught the late John Mann of Spirit of the West how to play the bones. I played Canada’s formerly iconic “Front Page Challenge” CBC TV show on and off the air at the Wildcat Cafe, which my friends and I in the Old Stope Association had brought back to vibrant life from a pile of abandoned logs. I used to play banjo for 25 cents a tune to help raise money for the Wildcat. The Mounties busted us for playing penny-stakes crap-out to raise money, because it was, gasp, gambling. Later the Wildcat took off, and it predictably became the darling of the Yellowknife yuppies. I was stunned to learn that a full-sized replica of the Wildcat Cafe was recently a major exhibit in the Canadian Museum of History.

 

Lots of other fun media gigs happened, but the howler for me was a Vancouver gig with a band of scruffy-looking blokes who called themselves the Rovers. I drove to their ramshackle home in a thunderstorm, became lost and very late, but the drink was flowing and nobody cared about anything. We had a discussion, and on my way out I noticed a couple of odd-looking framed somethings on the walls, circular but of different colours. When we met a while later in a small local studio, they said it was a 25th anniversary project, and I was squeezed into a cubicle with headphones on while viewing and hearing the proceedings in the control room. One of them was drunk and was pulling his fly down while loudly singing words which I can’t write here. I got to see much more of this fat fellow than I wanted to, I’ll put it that way, but at length, so to speak, he and the others sang whatever I was paid to play bones on, and I collected 300 easy bucks and went home. My wife, a psychiatrist but also a Sudbury Irish girl, asked about the gig and who were they? I told the full story, and said they called themselves the Rovers. She blurted “The Irish Rovers!!!???” I said no, no, just the Rovers. Then she asked “Did they sing about a Unicorn?” Well, yeah, but . . . Suddenly the penny dropped about those framed coloured discs. Man, I thought I’d never hear the end of it from Mary

 

But what I really loved were the folk festivals. My Old Town friends and I started that Pan-Arctic folk festival, Greenland included, in 1980, which still carries on today. As one of the few local musicians I was on the Folk On the Rocks booking committee, and they flew me to Frobisher Bay / Iqaluit on Baffin Island to scout Inuit talent. Besides the travel, it was cool to rub shoulders with faraway talent, and that’s how I met Ken Bloom and first heard of the bones and Percy Danforth, as mentioned earlier. It also made it easier to get festival gigs for myself as Grizzly Frank. The summer of 1984 I played six folk festivals all over Canada on six successive weekends, then went way up north on the Mackenzie River to do an archaeology dig for a month at a tiny Dene settlement named Willowlake River. (I had canoed the 1200-mile length of the Mackenzie, from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean, in 1960 at age 18.) In 1985 I toured international folk festivals in Europe with Les Danseurs du Pacifique, playing bones, wooden spoons, harmonica and bodhran for a wonderful group of French folkloric dancers. That’s where I was weirdly lucky enough to shake hands twice with Pope John Paul II on a day off at the Vatican. My father was a veteran of Omaha Beach, and later he became General George Patton’s personal chaplain in the Ardennes, so France has always had a special place in my heart, with frequent visits, but none so memorable as in 1985 with Les Danseurs. Excepting perhaps in 2004, when Mary and I walked across France on the Chemin de St-Jacques de Compostelle while stoned on languages, red wine, and oxygen.

 

The bones took me to many places on many adventures, but they really do have their limits. The harmonica was made obviously necessary onstage in Dawson City at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s when I was demonstrating jig triplets but the borrowed fiddler kept speeding up while I was talking. I realized that I had to supply the music as well as the bones percussion for solo gigs. I got drunk in the Dawson mud after that, but the point was made, and I became, in the end, a fiddle tune harmonica player for contra and square dances with several West Coast groups such as the Headbenders, Tempus Fugit, Good Company, the Wonder Chickens, and the Elephants of Style. The bones were not appropriate nor wanted in serious contra dance bands, and I had enough to do to play all night at 120 bpm or faster as a kind of second fiddle with a very precise but rhythmic back-beat style while always switching harps at the key changes, and switching between straight and cross-harp depending on the musical mode. I got what I wanted: ensemble playing with good friends at all sorts of high-energy venues, with happy people in an orderly chaos, and lovely dancers to watch, because with the harps it’s all in your head and you might as well enjoy the view.

 

My beat was from Portland to Juneau, but mainly in Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham, and the islands of the Salish Sea. In 1986 Vancouver hosted Expo ‘86 which got the ball rolling with perhaps 30 dance gigs. Then in 1988 my duo partner and I scored a gig for the entire Calgary Winter Olympics, freezing our butts off high in the mountains, playing while riding the chair lifts, or in front of the nervous long lineups at the Porta-Potties, where we innocently claimed that we “just wanted to keep things moving.” One non-Olympic year I had 40 dance or entertainment gigs, which was my personal record. For the duo gigs the bones were prominent, often played together with the Quebec wooden spoons in my right hand while I was rolling around on the ground but not missing a beat. During this very social period I hung up the banjo for 15 years, never even holding it in my lap. I had enough to do. I quit the Headbenders when I finally decided to focus on the banjo, knowing I had, as usual, a personal style and touch that wanted to be expressed. So now I was focussing more on jamming festivals like Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, or Stickerville at Weiser, Idaho, or Centralia in Washington, or the Portland Gathering, or Folklife in Seattle. Banjo and the harps were my calling cards. I made a sweet excursion into ragtime blues guitar, which seemed to come easily, but what was really on my mind was the fiddle, because I had totally dropped it for almost two decades.

 

It was now or never. I dropped the banjo again, forgot how even to play the bones, seldom used my harps, and dove headlong into the fiddle. That’s where I still am today. It worked out. I became the fiddler I knew I could be, but only with a serious, sustained effort. I put the fiddle down to walk across Spain in 2002 for my 60th, and across France in 2004, but it’s carried me where I wanted to go musically and socially. It’s the lead instrument, not a fringe or support. You possess and profess the music when you play the fiddle with intention, which is what I wanted. I’m into old Southern country rags, Midwestern tunes, and my staple Southern Appalachian tunes. I play the flat keys as well as the standard G, D, C and A. I started too late to be among the fiddlers of record, but I’m happy and confident in any setting, and that was my dream. I’m now 80 and I’ve had a good romp through all sorts of things, musical and otherwise. I travelled the world as a wildlife photographer, but then Covid shut travel down and forced me to become an Abstract photographer, a totally opposite direction far away from wildlife in the world’s jungles and savannahs. But to my amazement, the Abstract work has become even more popular and widely followed than my wildlife work, as a perusal of my Flickr site will show. My name + Flickr brings it up, or https://www.flickr.com/photos/153484287@N06/ for the Photostream. Or https://www.flickr.com/people/153484287@N06/ for bio and most popular images. Closing in on three million views. Between photo art and the fiddle, it’s enough.

 

Here’s a sample of my harp work on an extra stark, hard-driving mantra tune called Candy Girl, with great fiddler friends Earl White and Erynn Marshall in Portland in 2010 and Jere Canote playing guitar. I’m the intense person, far right, pounding the harp: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi1cljO0wYc

 

So the bones are now gone from my music, but oh my god, they were a mighty adventure. They took me onto a hundred stages, took me to the harmonica and all that rowdy fun with my bands and festivals, dates just appearing for the guy in the footlights, a sense of using my talents to the full, and in the end the bones literally led me to Mary. She picked up my concert ribs at a Beltane party, banged them together, I freaked and snapped, knowing how brittle their edges are, she snapped back, and we were off to the races. We met again in Ireland after my tour with Les Danseurs ended. We fell in love at the fleadh that year in Kerry, but mainly in a borrowed manor house in the Burren of Clare. She witnessed my pilgrimage to Carolan’s grave in Leitrim where I played Carolan’s Concerto on the harmonica over his bones, then stood on Finn McCool’s grave looking down at the manor house where Carolan was first employed, playing She Beg She Mor which he composed there memorializing the wars of the fairies between the big hill where we stood and the smaller hill farther on down the lake. Yes this was all with the harmonica, but the bones made me learn how to play it well enough so that even the bullocks grazing elsewhere, in the Bloody Hollow at the site of the terrible Battle of Aughrim, walked slowly toward me and stood in a V-shaped herd at attention while I played the mournful strains of a tune about that bloody battle as the daylight waned and the misty twilight circled round us all.

 

Frank Metcalf
frank.moosebones@gmail.com