Gurrumul: The Upside-down Lefty, Lonely but Listening
I just became aware this week of Gurrumul, a blind aboriginal singer from Australia who is touring the US in June and July.
Growing up on a remote island, isolated from the larger society, Gurrumul learned to play on a right-handed guitar without turning the strings around. While this way of playing is rare, it is not unheard of, though less frequently today, with the ready availability of guitars worldwide. Gurrumul's playing style is a gentle finger-pick, though with a less regimented pattern than American folk finger-picking.
I can only think of two guitarists who I've seen that play 'upside-down,' lefty - Elizabeth Cotten and Albert King. Albert King is best known as a sixties/seventies urban bluesman, playing highly expressive, bent-string-laden blues licks, but pulling down the thin strings, which are at the top of the neck.
There's a close up of King's hands at 1:07, and I have to say that it's strange to watch, as someone who's been intently watching people play guitar in the traditional way for 28 years. Even odder to watch, for me, is Elizabeth Cotten, who played a version of Travis picking upside-down, with the thumb playing the melody and the fingers playing alternating bass notes.
I'm not sure why Albert King played the way he did, but Elizabeth Cotten learned to play on a guitar borrowed from her brother, and she was not allowed to rearrange the strings. I would guess that Gurrumul was borrowing the guitar from a family member, or perhaps the guitar was just around and nobody knew to 'correct' the strings. Cultural isolation cuts off this kind of information, which can sometimes fuel innovation. Jeff Healey, another blind guitarist who played in an unusual way, said that nobody corrected him when he began to play the guitar overhand on his lap as a child.
Was upside-down left-handed playing more prevalent in the past, when communities were more isolated and guitars were less common? I really don't know, though I'd like to. I can't say that I've personally known anyone who played that way. I, like Jeff, started playing guitar lap-style, because it was easier to see what I was doing. My first guitar lesson took care of that. Did guitar lessons kill this particular mutation of guitar culture?Continued on the next page