Yank Rachell

by Rich DelGrosso

Photo by Ernie Thompson
courtesy of Univ of Miss Blues Archive

In the U.S., the late Twenties and early Thirties marked a meteoric rise of the blues. A market for the music developed in a very short time as a variety of record companies,Okeh to Victor, scoured the southeastern U.S. in search of performers; Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Ma Rainey, to name only a few. Countless performances were captured and later issued on 78's, mostly for sale in the African American communities. It wasn't until the Sixties that these records, often referred to as "race" recordings, were discovered by embryonic rock and rollers, and a new audience for the blues blossomed and grew. As Muddy Waters liked to say " The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll". Only a few of the original Twenties generation are still with us today. James "Yank" Rachell is one.

Rachell was born in rural Tennnessee, outside of Brownsville, on March 16, 1910, where he grew up working with his family in managing their farm. He was surrounded by music, and like most children, he yearned to make music of his own. Even today he loves to tell the story of how he bartered for his first mandolin. He was walking down the road when he heard a neighbor playing mandolin, and when he asked if he could have the instrument, the neighbor asked him for five dollars. Rachell offerred his pig instead, and his mother scolded him when he returned home, telling him that when he was hungry in the fall, he could eat the mandolin!

It was in Brownsville, Tennessee, that Rachell met Hambone Willie Newbern (who penned Rollin' and Tumblin' in 1929). Newbern took him under his wing, mentoring him in the music and in the business. The Brownsville scene was teeming with geat musicians, and in time, Rachell met Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, and the trio worked the area as a jug band. Later, Rachell migrated to Memphis to work in the Beale Street scene, where he joined company with Estes and Jab Jones as the Three J's Jug Band. They recorded for Victor, cutting the famous blues standard Diving Duck Blues.

As the Depression engulfed the country, the record industry went broke, especially the "race" record industry (the records made of African American artists). The Three J's broke up; Estes moved to Chicago and Rachell went back to the farm in Brownsville. In nearby Jackson he met harmonica player John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, with whom his partnership reshaped his music and they moved to Chicago in 1938 to record with Bluebird Records. Ten years later Williamson passed away, and Rachell moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.

Rachell's carreer was revived when he was teamed again with Estes in tours of the growing folk club and festival scene of the sixties. The duo recorded for Blue Goose, and toured the States and Europe. When Estes passed away in 1977, Rachell settled again, performing and recording occassionally as a solo performer, often backed by local musicians at clubs and festivals.

Without the benefit of a teacher or mentor, Rachell learned to play on his own. He did have knowledge of the special tuning of the instrument ( starting with the fourth string,each successive string is tuned to the fifth of the string before it ) . But he didn't tie himself to convention, and his tuning and his picking styles developed to meet his own needs. I still remember the first time I sat down with a Rachell recording, one where he was playing with Sleepy John Estes. I picked up my mandolin and found that he was playing in the key of E. For mandolin players E is not an easy key to play in! What further amazed me were the sounds he was getting in this key; sixth chords with open strings! Bass doublestops with open strings! In E?

My great fortune is that I lived in Detroit and Rachell lived in Indianapolis. When I found him and contacted him he was extremely amenable to my visiting him, and it was with several visits and a few gigs together that I learned from this great player and gracious man. Needless to say he changed my musical life.

The mystery of the tuning was immediately solved. Rachell, who grew up tuning the instrument by ear, followed the convention of tuning to fifths, but he often tuned his fourth string to his voice; his range for singing. Thus, the fourth string, which classical violin and mandolin players tune to G (below middle C), Rachell often tuned to E (below middle C), or F or F#. This tuning would place the instrument, if tuned to E, one and one half steps below pitch, and the G chord would sound in E. This tuning accounts for the great bass riffs you hear in Shotgun Blues, where the riff is supported by a droning open fourth string. It also explains the chiming C# above the full chord as he often emphasized the E chord with an open first string (C#).

With this tuning, the key of E is played in the G position, and A is played in the C position, both keys commonly used in the blues, especially among guitar players. Rachell had learned the proper naming of notes and keys, but he ingored the unique tuning and addressed it in a conventional manner. As a result, when he played in the G position, he called it G, even thought his instrument sounded E! It made jamming really challenging. I remember distinctly a jam session we had at the Soup Kitchen in Detroit where I played guitar and acted as chord interpreter for the band. But what a great sound! I had never heard a mandolin hold its own against a guitar in the blues before. The lower pitch really brought the mandolin down into the voice of the guitar and the two blended really well. The mandolin's doubled strings gave it a trill that the guitar lacked, but the two together on the bass really rocked!

Before you are tempted to try this technique, be aware that the strings tuned a step and one half below will really lack tension and they may vibrate against the fretboard, producing a scratchy sound. I have found that heavier gauge strings work best, in fact, I started playing with different combinations of mandolin and mandola strings to get the heavier gauge combinations. But don't try to tune and retune, and don't try mandola strings on a mandolin and then tune them to concert pitch; the tension will be too great!

I also noted that Rachell used a different picking style than was the convention. He picked primarily with upstrokes, even on triplet runs! The force gained by the upstroking made the strings ring out loud, but it also changed the order of the sounded strings, making the first and second dominant over the third and fourth. Another great sound!

Without thinking I found myself playing with these techniques and my blues was changed forever. Over the years I have written several arrangements that highlight Rachell's style, two of which you may use: Blues For Yank I prepared specifically for Mandozine, and New Minglewood Blues can be found in my collection called Jug Band Mandolin.


Photos by Rich DelGrosso and Robert Barclay

Selected Discography:
James "Yank" Rachell Vol.1 (1934-38) - Wolf Records - WSE 106
James "Yank" Rachell Vol.2 (1938-41) - Wolf Records - WSE 107
Yank Rachell - Blue Goose - 2010
Yank Rachell- Chicago Style - DelMark DS-649
Sleepy John Estes w/Yank Rachell - 1929-30 Sessions - Roots RSE-4
Sleepy John Estes: Broke and Hungry - w/ Rachell, Nixon and Bloomfield - Delmark DS-608
Mandolin Blues - Delmark 606