Frank Wakefield-Mandolinist Extraodinaire-Part One

Previous columns including the last one about the Greenbriar Boys have mentioned Frank Wakefield, one of my all time favorite mandolin players. Frank’s achievements merit more discussion than fits in one column. Here is Part One.

David Grisman, who is to some extent a Wakefield mandolin protégé, has said that Frank “split the mandolin atom.” He means that Frank was one of the very first mandolin players in bluegrass to explore mandolin music that was dramatically different from the Monroe style, which had largely defined bluegrass mandolin up to that point. Monroe exercised a very powerful gravitational pull on bluegrass mandolin players in the first two decades of the music, including on Wakefield himself. As a teenager, Frank taught himself to replicate Bill’s style down to the smallest detail. Frank may be the mandolin picker who has come the closest to Bill’s sound; opinions differ on this question but apart from Mike Compton and maybe one or two more there aren’t many other contenders for the title. Impressive as this was, Frank with his prodigious technique took his music a long way from his Monroe roots. Frank is also renowned for his quirky sense of humor and his “backing talkwards” manner of speech, but these columns will focus on his music.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Wakefield was born in 1934 in east Tennessee. Part of a large musical family, Frank took up harmonica and guitar as a child and began performing at an early age. In 1950, the family moved to Dayton, part of the musical migration to southwestern Ohio documented in the book “Industrial Strength Bluegrass,” which was the subject of an earlier column. Frank began playing mandolin around this time in order to stand out from what he perceived to be a large herd of guitar players. Also in 1950, when Frank was 16, he met Red Allen. Frank was picking mandolin on the porch as Red came walking by with a guitar. Red liked what he heard and from this chance meeting sprang one of the classic bluegrass partnerships.

The exact course of Frank’s career in the 1950s is a little hard to follow. He was playing with Allen and other Dayton musicians early in the decade. Frank recalls writing the mandolin instrumental “New Camptown Races,” in 1953, when he was 19 and had been playing mandolin for all of three years. It appears that Frank recorded the tune for the first time in 1957 with Marvin Cobb and the Chain Mountain Boys, a band in Detroit, where Frank was then living. Frank also recorded a song he had written, “Leave Well Enough Alone,” while in Detroit. At that time, he also worked briefly with a somewhat touchy Jimmy Martin, who told Frank he could go back to Red Allen if he didn’t like the way Jimmy sang a number.

“New Camptown Races” is a bluegrass mandolin classic, and ranks with Monroe’s “Rawhide” and Bill Napier’s “Daybreak in Dixie” (recorded with the Stanley Brothers) as one of the great mandolin tunes of the 1950s and 1960s. (In 1964 Frank recorded a better known version of the tune for Folkways with Red and banjoist Bill Keith, containing Keith’s classic banjo solos). The tune, played at a fast tempo, is in the key of B flat, with a modulation to G minor (how it’s most often played now) on the bridge, unusual keys for bluegrass mandolin at the time. Although the overall groove and feel of “New Camptown Races” are bluegrassy, in keys, melody, and chord structure it was innovative. It was all the more impressive work from a teenager with only three years on the instrument.

Around 1960 Frank and Red teamed up with Red Spurlock and recorded as the Red Heads (two Reds and Frank, although Frank’s hair was somewhat red). This was a hot band, as shown by “You’ll Always Be Untrue,” which Frank kicks off with a blazing mandolin solo in the crosspicking style of mandolin virtuoso Jesse McReynolds. Around this time, Frank received some career-changing advice from Bill Monroe, who told him, “You can play like me as good, or near as good, as I can. Now you’ve got to go out and find your own style.” It was also about this time that Frank bought the Gibson F5 Lloyd Loar-signed mandolin that he has played ever since. Frank says he offered the owner $150 “and he practically threw it at me.” Loar-signed mandolins now sell for well over $100,000.

In the early 1960s Frank moved to the Baltimore/DC area and worked for a time with the Franklin County Boys before teaming up with Allen yet again. Red and Frank played shows and had a radio program on WDON in Wheaton, Maryland, from which came recordings such as “Don’t Laugh,” featuring Frank’s lead vocal, banjoist Pete Kuykendall, and Tom Morgan on bass. By this time David Grisman, then a budding mandolin virtuoso, and Peter Seigel had recorded Red and Frank as a duet at Red’s home. Grisman issued the recordings in 1994, and they document the extent to which Frank had already taken Monroe’s advice to heart. Frank’s kickoff to “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail,” echoes Monroe’s style but goes places that Bill had usually avoided to that time.

Grisman and Siegel also produced Red and Frank’s next recording, Folkways FA 2408, Red Allen Frank Wakefield And The Kentuckians Bluegrass, which became an iconic bluegrass recording right up there with J.D. Crowe’s Rounder 0044. In addition to the new recording of “New Camptown Races,” with Bill Keith on banjo, the band recorded a new tune by Frank, “Catnip” (also with Keith), an A modal reworking of the old time number “Paddy on the Turnpike.” Monroe had been playing minor pentatonic and modal passages before “Catnip” was released, but most of Bill’s iconic modal instrumentals, like “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Old Ebenezer Scrooge,” then lay in the future. Frank’s singing (joined by Red on the chorus) is showcased on “Somebody Loves You Darling,” and there is another example of his evolving mandolin style on “Little Maggie.”

Frank was just getting started-Part Two will discuss his later mandolin innovations.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

2 Responses

  • Andy; you are a national treasure……….well, maybe a NY treasure…..well, maybe hudson valley treasure. But regardless, your articles are a joy to read, not sure if that comes from writing appeals for the state, but nicely dense and informative.

    I’m still working, but wondering about life after work?

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