The Longest Form: Brian Godchaux and Sandy Rothman’s Grateful Folkways
Jesse Jarnow, Relix magazine, June 2015.
The Red Fiddle & The Silver Banjo, Brian Godchaux and Sandy Rothman’s duo debut on ToneBar, draws from two American musical energies, only one immediately audible. The 13 banjo and fiddle instrumentals performed by the veteran musicians are so traditional that the album’s credits don’t even have to use the word. But the second lineage runs perhaps equally deep—hinted at vaguely in the album’s subtitle The Long Form and not mentioned in the liner notes either—and that is the Grateful Dead.
Fiddler Brian Godchaux’s last name, at least, should be familiar to most Deadheads, as younger brother to ’70s Dead keyboardist Keith, co-writer on Keith & Donna, and latter-day member of the Heart of Gold Band. Sandy Rothman goes back even further, having traveled cross-country with Jerry Garcia in 1964 in search of bluegrass, live and on tape. When Garcia returned to California, Rothman spent the remainder of the summer playing guitar and banjo behind father of bluegrass Bill Monroe. Later on, he played in Garcia’s short-lived late ’80s acoustic band.
“It’s a little bit influenced by the world of the Dead,” says Rothman of The Red Fiddle. “Probably without that jam sense we’d still be playing fiddle and banjo tunes in their usual length, two-and-a-half to maybe three-and-a-half minutes.” While not self-indulgent (or even far-out) by jam standards, Godchaux and Rothman’s five- or six-minute conversational threads weave rich shapes from old melodies. The album plays like a relaxed Sunday afternoon, any season of the year, portable and ready for deployment.
The two have been making music together since the early 1990s, including on Rothman’s 1992 The Old Road to Home. But as history would have it, they’d actually met nearly 30 years before that, before there was even a Grateful Dead to connect them. Not long after Rothman’s return from his adventures as a Blue Grass Boy in 1964, he found himself wanting to expand his musical palette. Musicians everywhere were going electric, so the 18-year-old guitarist thought he might too.
While working at Campus Music in Berkeley, Rothman volunteered for a newly-formed R&B band practicing in nearby Concord in the garage belonging to the family of the bassist, a 16-year-old named Keith Godchaux. Like Rothman and their mutual friend Ray Scott, Godchaux was experimenting for the sake of rock and roll. He couldn’t get the family piano into the garage. “We’d just try to play Stones stuff, kind of, and standard blues stuff,” recalls Rothman.
In its brief lifespan the group neither acquired a name nor played out, but served to introduce Sandy Rothman to Brian Godchaux, three years younger than Keith and occasionally hanging out. Sandy moved deeper into the bluegrass world and, “maybe a year or so after Sandy played, Keith got me a pickup for my violin,” Brian recalls, which marked the younger Godchaux’s first tentative steps away from the classical music of his youth. Though their father was Jewish, he was choir director at the local Methodist church. The Godchaux boys both received solid postwar upper-middlebrow musical educations.
“He gets up every morning and practices his Bach, which sets him apart from lots of people who play old-time fiddle,” remarks Rothman. Pulling from Texas swing and Appalachian bowing in a way that dances between fiddle and violin, “He doesn’t sound like a classical player trying to force himself into the frame of a bluegrass fiddler.”
It was Keith who pushed Brian towards bluegrass, too, depositing a bundle of LPs with his younger brother not long after joining the Dead, including titles by Bill Monroe, and fiddlers Joe Greene and Kenny Baker. “Garcia heard I was going after the bluegrass fiddle thing and said I should come over and listen to some tapes of hard-to-find old bluegrass he had. Well, I regret to say, I never did go over to his place and do that. I was much too shy, I guess. But in an odd bit of serendipity, when I started hanging out with Sandy some twenty years later, he had copies of the same music they’d been passing around and I got a hold of it then.”
By the time the two reconnected during the waning days of Paul’s Saloon, a San Francisco bluegrass institution, Godchaux and Rothman were unconsciously bred in the two lineages expressed on The Red Fiddle. Besides jamming, another deeply inbred trait of the Grateful Dead musical tradition is synchronicity. It is perhaps for this reason that, in Sandy Rothman’s recollection, he never discussed his previous Godchaux connection with Jerry Garcia (or ran into Keith) after moving back to the Bay Area in the early ’70s. He does wish now they had thought to draft Brian into the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band in 1987 when they needed a fiddler.
Playing sometimes with the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s David Nelson, Rothman and Godchaux found themselves working together more and more often. Recording at Brian’s San Francisco home, “we would just get into these tunes and play them for a long time,” says Godchaux, who is also writing a book about his brother. “We would just play and play until we got tired.”
Both acknowledge that the fiddle/banjo songbook is larger still. And, if the new old duo is to stay true to their old new roots, there’s always room for even longer forms.