Kenny Hall knew so much about folk and old-time music he was a living library.
By rough estimates, the blind fiddle and mandolin player knew upwards of 1,100 tunes. In his younger days, he was known to host round-the-clock jam sessions where no one song was played twice.
Hall died Wednesday of natural causes. He was 89.
Born in San Jose in 1923, Hall learned to play the fiddle and mandolin while a student at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. He specialized in folk and old-time music, especially from the south-eastern United States. He formed his first band, the Sweet's Mill String Band, in Fresno in the mid-1960s during a period when there was a resurgence of interest in folk music.
He became an icon in the local folk-music scene and a mentor and teacher to many players in the area. He could often be found at a weekly jam session at the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant in Fresno.
"He was one of the finest folk musicians in the Central Valley, bar none," says Steve Ono, a local folk musician and concert master for the Fresno Folklore Society.
Ono remembers being 15 years old and growing a mustache so he could sneak into a bar just see Hall play. Hall was remarkable not only for the vast repertoire of songs he knew, but because he understood how the tunes are supposed to be played, Ono says.
"A lot of us have to shed our rock and roll expectations to sound authentic. This guy just sounded that way."
Hall's death is loss for the folk-music community, says Mike Mueller, president of the Folklore Society and one of Hall's close friends. "He's been a mainstay of the Fresno folk music sound for well over 50 years. It's sort of an end of an era."
It is unfortunate that many young folk musicians weren't aware of Hall, or his influence on the genre, Ono says.
"They missed an opportunity to learn with one of the grand masters."
Born: Oct. 14, 1923
Died: Sept. 18, 2013
Survivors: wife, Marta Hall
Services: Funeral services pending
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