A book of tunes was published by Mel Bay in 2000, Kenny Hall’s Music Book, which featured a variety of tunes along with anecdotes from Kenny about how and where he learned the tunes, and interesting insights into the community of blind musicians where he served his apprenticeship in the 1940s.
Who is this West Coast old-time music phenomenon known as Kenny Hall? Alan Jabbour explains: “For one thing, he has a phenomenal repertoire. Hang out with him for several days, and you will discover that his memory bank of great fiddle tunes seems well nigh inexhaustible”
Born blind in 1923 in San Jose, California, Kenny Hall began playing music in the fall of 1929 at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. Kenny’s earliest old-time music memories are from radio shows, long before he began trying to play the music himself.
“I don’t know when I first started listening to Haywire Mac McClintock’s show on the radio, but I know I used to listen regularly by the time I was five years old.” Kenny tells about his first exposure to The Happy Hayseeds when they were guest performers on Haywire Mac’s show before they had their own radio show. In the same way he was introduced to Prairie Jane and Arkansas when they were guests on The Happy Hayseeds radio show from Stockton, California. And even though he wasn’t yet playing music, Kenny remembers many pieces from those radio shows, many from before he was old enough to go to school.
“It was about 1937 when I was first tryin’ to figure out how to play the mandolin. Since it was tuned like a fiddle I figured I should hold it that way, you know, under the chin. I was pluckin’ it with my fingernail, which of course I still use, but I was only going one way. And Mr. Sanford says, ‘No, you can’t do it that way.’ So we’d take tunes like “Apricot Stealer’s Waltz” and “Tommy Don’t Go” that I’d already learned on the fiddle, and we’d do jiggles on the notes, y’know, go back and forth instead of just pluckin’ the notes. And I started catchin’ on that I could do it that way. I started puttin’ that mandolin on my knee where it would stay put, y’know. And then I could jiggle the notes good without the mandolin wriggling.”
And then there was the stash of old 78-rpm records that had been donated to the school. Nobody but Kenny seems to have been interested. But the developing tune junkie discovered not only the music on those particular records–including Henry Ford’s Old-Time Dance Orchestra and Sir Harry Lauder–but also the bigger world of music available to him on disc.
He listened to records at his aunt and uncle’s house, at his cousin’s house, and at friends’ houses, learning the tunes he liked. And he began collecting his now famous chest-high stack of 78-rpm records, first on a small scale, ordering through the Sears and Roebuck catalog, then, when he went to work at the broom factory, buying a box- full at a time at the used record store. Here Kenny found a treasure trove of Irish tunes as well as the music of Charlie Poole, Gid Tanner, and Riley Puckett. Kenny reports that he gave the records away after he had learned everything from them, and as best we can tell every one of those tunes was carefully stored away in Kenny’s remarkable memory.
Many years of effort have culminated in the publication by Mel Bay of Kenny Hall’s Music Book, 260 pages of transcriptions of Kenny’s enchanting tunes, songs, and stories in Kenny’s own words–about everything. There are informative stories about where Kenny learned tunes, the characters from whom he learned old-time music and hung out with, and his many adventures. They also tell us a bigger story about this unique community of blind musicians, and provide for us a rare insider’s perspective on growing up and working and playing music in the blind institutional world from the late 1920s through the 1940s.