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George Bensmiller (Armstrong, BC, Canada)

GEORGE: There are certain progressions or changes in western music or the old standards which you can tell by the way the melody is going just where that chord is going to go to. In the folk music, there is nothing that gives you a clue. All it is is a matter of memorization. And so they had a dickens of a time to try to find someone to back them up and if they did find someone they all came off sounding like a bunch of amateurs. They’d say “take a lead” and how can you possible take a lead when there’s no rhyme nor reason to the chord structure.


QUESTION: How did that work with Bob Nolan’s songs? They are always going up or down the chromatic scale.


GEORGE: Well, you know, Bob was really a kind of unusual writer, I guess. I don’t like to say that you can tell it’s Bob’s music, but there are certain signature things about what he does that, even though you hear a song that may not have been written by Bob, you think that could have been written by Bob. Bob had a real gift at – the ability to do more with less than anybody I’ve ever heard when he was writing music.    

    He’ll take just basic chords because that’s all he really knew - he knew your major, 7th, minor, diminished. He didn’t know anything about all these altered chords like minor 7 flat 5 or 6 or that type of thing. He just took straight ahead fret chords but he would do some of the most interesting things with them, like he would go from a – say he was playing a song in G – he’ll go up to a G sharp or drop a half a tone. But he’s just going up half a tone. It’s just a major chord.    

    So, in a song like Tumbleweed Trail – the way the chords change around in there is absolutely remarkable. And yet they’re all simple, simple chords. And you wouldn’t even want to mess with the chords. You wouldn’t want to put any altered chords in there, you’d just want to keep it that same way. And I’ve heard other people say the Pioneers could have used more lush chords but I don’t agree. They used chords in keeping with the integrity of western music. If you let it, it could become too complex. It should stay a bit on the side of simplicity.

 Moonlight on the Trail - it sounds like Bob was involved in that one, too.