Chimney Sweep

One-man bands: solely the lonely?

Dick Van Dyke – there is so much to answer for.

If the one-man band is the ultimate form of do-it-yourself punk rock, as portrayed in a new documentary screening tonight in Toronto, what does the actor's squeaky-clean look in “Mary Poppins” look like, with small cymbals between his knees, a harmonica in his mouth, blowing a horn with his chin, a squeezebox in his hands, a drum and cymbals on his back and strapped to his legs?

This scene seems like the first Ramones album, leading countless cross-eyed children to chase an alternative future.

At least that's what two Canadian participants say in Let Me Be Your Band, by novice filmmaker couple Derek and Heather Emerson of Mississauga, Ontario, which screens tonight at 11 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema as part of the current Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival. One is Mayor McCa, a guitar, kazoo and foot drum act who serves the lonelier side of indie-rock tracks; another is Washboard Hank, longtime percussionist for alt-country hero Fred Eaglesmith and now a solo artist for adults and children, who drums with bells and bits of metal all over his body (including a helmet) to accompany melodies on instruments like the hubcap guitar and the kitchen sink tuba.

To be precise, Hank says in the film, “Dick Van Dyke ruined my life!” That's just stage talk, but you feel subconsciously, seeing this handsome man without his show gear, noticing how all of his former partners resent his role as Washboard Hank: “If you ever have all your instruments in the room at once,” he laments, “goodbye, woman.”

Of course, the chimney sweep can't take all the blame. The documentary's main character, veteran rockabilly singer Hasil Adkins from Boone County, West Virginia, had never seen a one-man band on stage or on TV when he developed his “wild” style of guitar, drums and harmonica. He only heard Hank Williams hits on the radio and didn't know that the band sound was made by more than one person. By the time he found that out, he had gone too far down the one-man band path to turn back. Adkins has been a one-man band (or 1MB, as I'll call them from now on) for 40 years, inspiring tributes from garage punks like the Cramps in the 1980s.

Others were too stubborn, musically inept or antisocial to do otherwise, from blues rockers King Louie and Bob Log III (who pounds his feet on drums, plays a mean slide guitar and wears a motorcycle helmet with a telephone receiver attached as a microphone) to Boston's guitar-drums-dobro-banjo-etc. bluegrass band Eric Royer, who is appearing at today's screening with Mayor McCa on his “guitar machine” (both also have appearances at Healey's on Bathurst Street this week, Royer on Saturday and McCa on Wednesday).

And some, like Chicago keyboard-drum-guitar multitasker Lonesome Organist (aka Jeremy Jacobsen), are simply self-confessed show-offs.

The history of 1MB goes back a long way, as the film briefly explains: Medieval troubadours played drums and bagpipes simultaneously, and from there came a line of Elizabethan clowns, vaudeville comedians, buskers, patchwork inventors, and blues and hillbilly musicians who, despite their unruly tempers or scarce resources, found ingenious means to fill out their solos. Sun Records, home of Elvis, Johnny Cash, BB King, and other 1950s stars, had three different black 1MBs under contract. Folk-blues 1MB record producer Jesse Fuller rose to fame with his “Footdella” (a foot-pedal-operated double bass) and classic tunes like San Francisco Bay Blues.

(Unfortunately left unmentioned are artists such as the 1960s jazz innovator Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who played drums and three saxophones simultaneously, less for novelty reasons, but rather as a symbolic connection to these blues musicians and to make sonic discoveries.)

Today, hundreds of street musicians, circus performers, instrument technicians, and oddballs carry on the legacy. In October 2002 (too late to be captured on film), there was a 1MB festival in Chicago, tied in with the “One Man Band Encyclopedia” issue of the fanzine Roctober, and it featured dozens of artists, in addition to the few celebrated in this endearingly amateur documentary.

The film's profiles gradually become more forgiving; and there's not much digging. For example, “one-man band” is not a misnomer. One-woman bands are rare – the only one in the film, from Peterborough, Ontario, performs as a duo with her 1MB boyfriend and says she'd hate to do it alone. Solo female singers are not uncommon, so why 1MBs? The film largely fails to ask, other than to mutter, “Goodbye, woman.”

Lurking nearby is the question of 1MB's ties to the problematic category of “outsider music,” often attended as a fairground sideshow for supposedly primitive, socially outcast, mentally ill, or otherwise crazy artists. There's a lot to explore there, but the film ignores it and revels in Adkins's backwoods roots, often romanticizing lonely “weirdos” as punky rebels against consumer culture. (Well, maybe, but should they be drafted by hipster decree?)

And finally, who, what and why is a 1MB in an age of sound effects, multitracking and digital sampling? The question is raised by the inclusion of Tokyo busker Jason Degroot (aka 6955) – whose axe is a suitcase full of effects pedals plugged into a Nintendo Gameboy – but never addressed. Were studio wizards like Brian Wilson or Todd Rundgren 1MBs? I just got a great carnival jazz album by Ralph Carney, Tom Waits' clarinet player who plays every part on it, sometimes a dozen instruments per song – is he a 1MB? What about bedroom four-track artists in every genre, or the Casio-playing singers who coax symphonies out of a crappy synth? Hell, what about Aphex Twin, Moby or Dr. Dre?

Asking such questions might have provided a clue as to why almost all new 1MBs seem to be old-style white, and few seem to write meaningful songs: Are they hobbyists, less concerned with music than with gimmicks or gear?

Do they arouse curiosity because they are still trying to solve an outdated problem or because they preserve the noble secrets of handcraft?

Despite all the gaps, “Let Me Be Your Band” may be a shaky signpost to a higher path – or just some pretty flowers on an empty grave.

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