Guest Column – This Musical American Life by Arcade Fire's Will Butler

Guest Column – This Musical American Life by Arcade Fire's Will Butler

willbutlerAs Arcade Fire man Will Butler releases his solo album Policy on Monday (9 March), he traces the branches his his musical family tree in a exclusive guest column for Q.

Some of this is apocryphal, but I think it's true. It's about Hawaiian music and Afro-cuban music and Mormons and the electric guitar and other things in America in the 20th century.

My grandfather was born Alvin McBurney, but he Latin-ified his name to Alvino Rey in 1929. He was a guitar player. He changed his name partly to associate himself Segovia, who'd swept in to New York with his Spanish guitar the year before, and partly to associate himself with the "Spanish" music that was starting to bubble into the New York dance clubs: the Argentine tango, the Cuban son (which us Americans called rumba, which it wasn't).

Alvin was in Phil Spitalny's orchestra. Phil Spitalny was born in a town called Tetiev, in what was then the Russian Empire but is now Ukraine (and is far enough west that it will probably stay Ukraine). He studied at the conservatory in Odessa and then came to America in 1915--hoping to lead a band and thus through mildly sophisticated popular music to lead people on to the true classics. Shortly after he came to America, three quarters of his Jewish hometown was slaughtered by a Cossack regiment of the Russian Army. Spitalny is buried in Cleveland, in the Tetiever section of a Jewish graveyard with his Hebrew name listed – Rafael bar Yakov. In the 40s and 50s he was mildly famous for leading an all-female orchestra. He married the first violin.

By the time Don Azpiazu and his Havana Casino Orchestra came to New York, Alvin was already Alvino. In 1930, Don Azpiazu had the first Latin smash hit record – The Peanut Vendor. You'd recognize it if you heard it. Alvino was living in a New York hotel. In the evenings he'd play dances. In the afternoons he'd drink a martini on the roof of his hotel and watch the Empire State Building get built.

Alvin McBurney was a banjo player who grew up in Cleveland. His grandfather had been an engineer on the B&O Railroad – 40 years driving an engine through coal country in West Virginia. Alvin spent his childhood building radios and taking apart phonographs. He wanted to go to MIT and become an electrical engineer, but he was too good at music. So he moved to New York and joined a big band.

We were having a Fourth Of July picnic when Alvino was in his 90s. Alvino was sitting at the picnic table, tuning his banjo. He stood up, undid his belt and dropped his pants, revealing an American flag swimsuit. He proceeded to play, solo on banjo, The Stars And Stripes Forever.

When Alvino was in his 80s, he went in for gall bladder surgery – the first surgery in his life. The doctors found a surprising amount of scar tissue in his abdomen. He explained that he had had appedicitis as a kid, but that as his family was Christian Scientist they didn't take him to the doctor, and his appendix had burst. He always attributed his great health to a daily reading of Psalm 91: "There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. He will pick you up and carry you lest you dash your foot against a stone."

Alvino married my grandmother in 1937. She was born Louise Driggs, but when she and her sisters formed a singing group they changed their last name to King. They changed the spelling of their first names – Louise became Luise; Alice became Alyce; Donna refused to change her name to Dawnna. They were part of giant Mormon family, descended from the Western pioneers of the 1850s.

Alvino played banjo, classical guitar, steel guitar, electric guitar. He helped invent the electric guitar – built Gibson's first prototype electric. He took the Hawaiian steel guitar, amplified it, and added pedals so you could change notes, developing the pedal steel. But he hated rock and roll, Hawaiian music, folk music, country music. Well, hate is a strong word. There's a scene in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewen Davis where a jazz-bo played by John Goodman derisively refers to folk music as full of "cowboy chords". I never heard Alvino use that term himself, but I've heard secondhand from many people Alvino's disdain for "cowboy chords". In his 80s, Alvino recorded an album of Hawaiian music called Song Of The Islands – it wasn't his favorite music but he was good at it, and he liked giving people what they wanted.

Charles Mingus, the great bassist and composer, played in my grandfather's band for a bit in the 1940s. He liked that my grandpa picked songs in lots of different keys. Mingus always wore a Hawaiian shirt, and everybody had to pretend he was Hawaiian, or else he wouldn't have been able to stay with the rest of the band at the segregated hotels.

Alvino and Luise are buried in one of the big San Francisco cemeteries. Space is hard to find. In the same plot but underneath are Alvino's parents. Underneath his parents are strangers. Will Butler @butlerwills

For more head to Butlerwills.com.