Updated 1 June 2016
The internationally acclaimed concert pianist, Percy Grainer
Down Under this week, I visited Melbourne University’s Percy Grainger Museum. You’ve probably never heard of Percy Grainger, an Australian, but he was one of the more interesting composers that ever lived.
Born in Melbourne in 1882, Grainger was an internationally-famous concert pianist, musical maverick and one of the world’s first hippies. He was also, briefly, a U.S. Army bandsman during World War One, and had a lifelong obsession with sado-masochism and pornography.
A leather-clad Marianne Faithfull, from her 1968
movie, Girl On A Motor Cycle
While we’re on the subject of sado-masochism, here’s some trivia you may or may not know. It was English chanteuse Marianne Faithfull’s great great uncle, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to the second half of the term sado-masochism following his erotic nineteenth century tome, Venus In Furs. This title turned out uncannily prophetic when great great niece, Marianne, was arrested naked except for a fur rug, by UK drug police rug, at Keith Richards’ famous bust in Surrey in 1967. Venus in furs, indeed. And like the Marquis de Sade, who gave his name to sadism, Marianne’s great great uncle also ended up insane in an asylum.
But back to Percy Grainger. Apparently, his mother liked nothing better than controlling his drunken, philandering father with a horse whip, obviously leaving quite an impression on young Percy. Today, his many whips and riding crops are all displayed at The Percy Grainger Museum in Melbourne, along with some of his collection of 1930s soft porn (with the harder stuff probably kept under lock and key) and, of course, masses of Percy Grainger musical memorabilia.
But what is Percy Grainger’s relevance to blues you might ask.  Well, he was probably the first classical composer to believe jazz and blues bands were no less noteworthy than symphony orchestras, or that an accordion could be as expressive as a grand piano.  And he practiced what he
preached, recording, in 1921, that old American folk classic ‘Turkey in the Straw’ and incorporating it into his concerts.
Zip Coon, one of the early stepping-stones to blues, was made popular by George Washington Dixon around 1835


Turkey in the Straw was the basis for that 1835 American song, Zip Coon, one of the most significant of all early blackface Ethiopian delineator songs. It preceded minstrelsy which, in turn, was one of the roots of the blues. Zip Coon is sometimes described as the world’s first syncopated pop song.
While many claimed authorship of Zip Coon’s lyrics, its tune is the old U.S. violin melody, ‘Natchez under the Hill’, once the wildest old river port on the Mississippi. Killings, stabbings, knife fights and drunkenness were routine in Natchez, until the 1820s, while the original Natchez melody was believed to have come from Scotland or Ireland. You can find all this in my book ‘America’s Gift’ should you want to instigate further.
A friend of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, such was Percy  Grainger’s fame, he married at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 20,000 people. He designed his own hippy-like clothing made of towelling and collected and arranged English folk songs. “These folk singers are the kings and queens of song”, he once said. “No concert singer I ever heard, dull dogs that they are, approached these rural warblers in variety of
tone quality, range of dynamics, rhythmic resourcefulness and individuality of style.” It is Percy Grainger’s 1918 arrangement of the traditional UK folk air ‘In an English Country Garden’ that everyone knows today. Even the Muppets and Jimmy Rogers have performed it. 1918 was also the year Percy Grainger took out American citizenship.
More than anything, though, Percy was an early proponent of what he termed “Free Music”, pre-dating what John Cage called ‘Chance Music’ by 40 years. Grainger’s 1907 composition ‘Sea Song’ was an early attempt to write ‘beatless’ music and a forerunner to his free music experiments of the 1930s. He spent the 1950s building experimental music apparatus including wind bands and music machines that generated synthetic sounds: amongst the earliest attempts known to construct a syntheser.
Percy Grainger, who lived much of his Life in London and White Plains, New York, died in 1961 in America. He rated Bach as the best composer of all because, “If he were living today, I feel Bach would include ragtime, Schonbergism (the Viennese composer Arnold Schonberg – John Cage was once his student), musical comedy, Strauss and all the grades in between.”
UK blues legend John Mayall receiving his OBE at Buckingham Palace in 2005. He’s still touring at 83.
Blues legend John Mayall followed in Percy’s footsteps
Coincidentally, there was a Discovering Percy Grainger Event on at the Melbourne Recital Centre in May 2015. Amazingly, at the same venue,  British blues pioneer, John Mayall, performance just a few weeks later, aged 82. Also still touring at astounding ages are Leonard Cohen at 82 and Chuck Berry, 90 this October (2016).
Isn’t it fantastic to see such creative flames are still burning bright?