Gee’s Bend for electric guitar and orchestra | Michael Daugherty, composer

Gee’s Bend
for electric guitar and orchestra (2009)

I. Housetop
II. Grandmother’s Dream
III. Washboard
IV. Chicken Pickin’

Instrumentation: Solo electric guitar; Picc, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, Bass Clarinet, 2 bassoons, Contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani,  3 percussion; strings

Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)

Duration: 20 minutes

World Premiere: April 16, 2009 / Jemison Hall, Birmingham, Alabama / D.J. Sparr, electric guitar / Alabama Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Hege

Program Note:

Located on the Alabama River in one of the poorest areas of the South, Gee’s Bend, Alabama (also know as Boyken) is a small, isolated town inhabited primarily by African-Americans who are descendants of Civil War slaves. Living in isolation forced the residents of Gee’s Bend to develop their own traditions and find ways to survive. This included creating unique quilts that incorporated bold colors, abstract patterns and leftover fabrics. In recent years, the quilts of Gee’s Bend have gained significant national attention. They have been shown in museums and heralded as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art in America” which “blur the boundaries between folk and contemporary art.”

My composition is a patchwork of various crosscurrents: I intertwine American guitar rock and southern folk music with contemporary classical music to create a colorful and unique tapestry of sound.

The first movement, “Housetop,” takes its name from a popular quilting pattern often used as a point of departure by the Gee’s Bend quilters. In my “Housetop,” winding melodies are framed by striped syncopated grooves, patterned triadic chords and Jimi Hendrix-like psychedelic guitar riffs colored with fuzz box and distortion.

“Grandmother’s Dream” is a slow blues which expresses the memories and feelings of generations of Gee’s Bend quilters who have endured poverty and hardship, but hope for a better life to come through their creation of inspired quilts. I utilize lush string chords, bowed cymbal and vibraphone and ringing crotales to produce a vision of quilts made of faded remnants and scraps of clothing worn by loved ones. To remind us of the hard labor endured by generations of Afro-American workers in the fields of Gee’s Bend, the guitar’s dream-like, soaring melodic lines, colored with delay, phaser and compression, evoke a painful cry for hope and salvation.

“Washboard” is my homage to the quilting bees of Gee’s Bend. Using quilting methods passed on from generation to generation, the unique quilts by the Afro-American women of Gee’s Bend are often created collaboratively in quilting bees. Washboard is another kind of quilting bee for singing, soulful woodwinds, scrappy washboard and guitar playing “southern blues” licks.

The final movement is a blazing virtuosic ‘tour de force’ entitled “Chicken Pickin.” The title refers to a southern style of plucking the guitar strings made famous by guitarists such as Bo Diddley, Chet Atkins, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Duane Allman. The title also alludes to the fact that most of the residents of Gee’s Bend continue to inhabit small, modest farms where their ancestors were once slaves. For most Gee’s Bend quilters, the singing of African-American spirituals and an active church life are important parts of the gospel of inspired quilt making. To honor this tradition, I have threaded spirituals, such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” into the orchestral fabric of my musical quilt which is dedicated to the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

–Michael Daugherty