I got to thinking about some of my favorite musicians the other day.. I do have a lot of them. The guy that inadvertently showed a lot about the basic clawhammer stroke was Ray Alden. I can remember following him around from campsite to campsite at Lake Genero, probably the second year I went. He was fascinating to watch and listen to, regardless of the musical context, and would certainly would be on this list were he still with us today. His passing saddened everyone that I know in old-time music, and his warmth humor will be missed for a long time to come. Thank you, Ray.
This kind of thing always comes in threes for me. All 3 of the musicians I’m going to mention are very unique, masterful, and deep. If each of their artistry is a mile long, then I am about 100 yards into each of them! If any of this is interesting to you, then you are well advised to seek out their music if you are not already familiar with them.
I’ve posted about Walt Koken before. His style is unique in old-time music. You can often hear people talk about his use of chords and I agree, that’s a key element of his playing. Let me go a bit further with it. Walt’s knowledge of chords manifests itself in a couple of ways. The most obvious is in his affection for the harmonic vocabulary of early jazz pieces and ragtime, both as interpretations of specific songs like Bluebird Rag or Doctor Jazz, and in his own compositions like The Valentine. Less obvious although perhaps more pervasive in his playing is his use of what I like to think of as “chordlets.” These might be more properly described “double-stops” or “partial chords.” In my observation of his playing, they appear as two fretted notes, usually on adjacent strings, and played in combination with one or more open strings. Some examples in G tuning:
G G G6 or C G6 or C D
D -9-- D -12- D --0- D --5- D --0-
B -8-- B -12- B --8- B --5- B -10-
G -0-- G --0- G --9- G --0- G -11-
D -0-- D --0- D --x- D --x- D --0-
g ---- g ---- g ---- g ---- g ----
These “chordlets” are often used in combination with another important component of Walt’s style: the pull-off. Of course, left hand techniques like the hammer-on and pull-off are integral to just about ANY style on the 5-string banjo. The reason I’m highlighting the pull-off in Walt’s style is that he seems to prefer them to any kind of hammer-on, even if one were arguably *technically* easier to execute. In particular, he’ll use an alternate-string pull-off to get the same effect as a hammer-on executed on two notes on the same string. Contrast the following hammer-on:
With the same lick using an alternate string pull-off:
You’ll get both a stronger melody note AND a stronger rhythmic “pop” if you use the alternate string pull-off. It does require that you finger the G chordlet kinda strategically, with your middle and ring fingers, so that the index finger can fret the 7th fret of the 1st string and the ring finger can execute the alternate string pull-off before the concluding brush.
And that brings me to the last thing I’d like to highlight about Walt’s playing: his right hand. While the regular old “bump-DIT-ty” may have fallen out of favor with the current crop of old-time banjo players, Walt clearly didn’t get the memo. The brush (the DIT in the bump-DIT-ty) is an integral part of his sound, and the rhythm comes first. His commitment to making that strum happen is so deep that it can have the same effect as two instruments - one playing backup and the other playing the melody. Even if he omits it, you still FEEL it, and his rhythmic sense is beyond question. The whole banjo TALKS when Walt plays. Listening to Walt opened my eyes to some of my favorite old-time players of the past, Wade Ward in particular, and revealed to me the degree to which the brush is an integral part of his playing as well. It should also be noted that Walt also plays great three-finger style as well.
With that being said, here’s my take on Walt’s “Banjonique.” You can think of the tune as having 3 parts - the first two consisting of just a G and D chord and the third shifting gears to the relative minor - E minor and B7, resolving back to G. The rhythm ties the whole thing together and is just about as pure as an expression of what Walt likes in his music as you can get with just those few ingredients. I do my best with it:
Dan Gellert. All you have to do is say the name to invoke awe. He was already legendary more than 30 years ago with his funky, restless playing and now represents a whole way of looking at the music. He has what seems to be an endless capacity to turn the smaller internal phrases of old-time music around and around, nudging them rhythmically and embellishing them melodically. We’re not talking about jazz, here… the individual moves aren’t particularly revolutionary… harmony is not re-invented… the melody is never completely abandoned.. but the overall effect is damned amazing. Anyone looking to do a “tight duet” with Dan is going to be disappointed. He’s NOT going to stand still, period. No it’s not jazz.
If you look at his banjo playing from a technical perspective, you’ll find a couple of things to note. In his clawhammer playing, Dan’s music is notably “chordless.” This gives his music a stark, linear quality. In terms of note quality, he also likes the notes ‘between the frets,’ and has a way of generating that feeling even on a fretted banjo, although he really flies on fretless banjos of all kinds. You’ll also note that, eschewing chords in general, he doesn’t fill up rhythmic space with a bunch of clutter. Every note matters… and when I say that, the spaces BETWEEN the notes matter, too. The basic ingredients of the right (picking) hand are also pretty traditional: basic stroke, drop-thumb, occasional double thumb, galax lick - it’s the service to which these things are put. Any one of these can be employed at any point in the tune to nudge the rhythm along or to inject syncopation. Dan likes to surprise himself - he’s not attached to perfection.. just the fun of being in the moment.
I’ve admired his playing for a long time, but only recently dredged up the nerve to try playing something of his. “Black-Eyed Suzie” was the natural place to start. I’ve never heard Dan sing it, but I gave it a go, anyway:
Pat Conte has been a friend and playing partner for many years. He is one of the deepest musicians that I know and if I were to compare him to someone, it would be the late Mike Seeger, particularly in his ability to assimilate a number of traditional styles and to play them all with remarkable facility. Taking it beyond that, Pat is also one of the most emotional musicians I’ve ever known and, while his playing is technically impressive, it’s his connectedness to what he’s playing that drew me to his music from the outset. A lot of guys can wow you with their dazzling chops, but Pat can dredge up a line like:
Delia’s mother weeped
Delia’s father mourned
Wouldn’t have felt so bad if that child had died at home
It’s all I got is gone
and he can make you feel the accumulated regret of every person who ever let those words pass their lips.
Pat is not bound by any particular rules in his banjo playing - he’s responsive to situations and uses a several picking techniques depending on what sounds right in context. He plays clawhammer, three-finger and a few different two-finger styles. He is also restless in his playing - freely nudging phrases around, both rhythmically and melodically. It’s not uncommon in his solo banjo pieces, to have a tune develop over the course of the performance. Ideas are expressed, embellished, simplified.. often in combination with and in response to his singing, forming a complete musical and emotional experience. Nobody has the same affection and affinity for this music that Pat does, nor expresses it so deeply and completely.
I first heard “Busted Trunk” years ago on a CD that Pat made for me and it’s stayed with me ever since, like Talos… towering over me. I don’t do it justice, but there’s still time, if not a whole lot of hope:
So - there they are. Thanks for indulging me.
on the past Mother’s Day:
Speaks for itself. Thank you, Mr. Charters.
I’ve been mulling a post over for a few weeks now… that’s still in the works, but in the mean time, I was hanging out with my buddy Mike this past Saturday and we played a little music. Maybe these will grease the skids on your day:
a little local action for frankie-boy, flying solo:
small world coffee
14 Witherspoon St.
Princeton, NJ 08540
8 - 9:30pm - FREE
a little guitar, a little banjo… a little whatever. After dinner and before bedtime for you domestic types.
This is my kinda old-time music:
I’ve been away from ensemble music for a few months now, and dabbling in various musical endeavors - some electric guitar with my friend Pat Conte and old friends from many years ago, some fiddle, some twelve-string… but what I’m hearing most insistently for the last week or so is the call of the banjer…
It started innocently enough with a song called Sea-Line Woman… variously spelled “Sea Lion Woman,” “C-Line Woman” - maybe there are other permutations you’ve noted. It’s a field recording made of the Shipp Sisters from about 1939 by Alan Lomax. I’ve played Sea-Line Woman for a long time and while it was always satisfying playing it as an accompanist, I never could just “take off” on the banjo the way I wanted to, just because it was always damn near impossible to communicate when or where to come back in. The solution to that problem was to just sing it myself.
No, I don’t really have the voice for it, but I love the tune, even if I haven’t the slightest idea what the song means or if it means anything at all. What I found was that singing it myself TOTALLY connected me to the song as a whole and freed me up to take the banjo wherever I wanted - even if I didn’t really know where I was going. I decided to turn the video recorder on and captured what I consider to be a “moment” - I don’t think I could ever quite do it in this way ever again… or as well… maybe I could do it better. Anyway, it was revealing to me on some level that what came out was so undeniably me:
I guess you could say that, as a player and interpreter of this music, I tend to try and recreate a specific performance from the inside, so to speak. That approach demands a certain fidelity to the original source. What I found here was that “fidelity to the original source” was impossible, basically. The source was an a capella vocal duet - instrumentally, there was no particular target to hit. I was on my own.
That was an experience I wanted to build on…
Just by chance, Herman E. Johnson has been playing often in the car. If you’re not familiar with it, the song “She Are Looking For Me” is truly a masterpiece of touch, timing and tone. A small miracle in many ways. Putting something like that - where the accompaniment BARELY exists and consists of so much space - on the banjo can be quite a challenge. I think I arrived, quite by accident, at an approach that was rhythmically consistent enough to be convincing played using a downstroke, but flexible enough to shift the timing of the melodic phrases to suit my singing and need to breathe (!). The net result is quite different from the original recording, but still bears a kinship. While not played perfectly (none of these are - very little rehearsal at all, and the ideas are all still very “germinal”), I’m actually rather proud of it:
After recording this, I felt, somehow, that there was one more in me. What it could be was still a mystery… my friend Mr. O’muck suggested Son House’s “My Black Mama,” which seemed like a possibility. In the end though, listening to an old Yazoo LP suggested the final piece - Crying Sam Collins’ unissued “Lonesome Road Blues.” It’s long been one of my favorite melodies, but one of the hings I love about the original recording is the fact that, in the key of C, Collins starts the melody by harmonizing it with an E chord underneath. An odd choice, for sure, but one that sticks with you as sounding undeniably “right” on repeated listening… as a music buddy of mine once described such examples as being “straight through WRONG into RIGHT.” Thank heavens for musical courage. Anyway, left to my own, I wanted to capture something of that without being dictated to by the original recording itself… again, certainly not perfect… and it could certainly stand to be lived in for a while, but I’m strangely proud of the result… I think in some ways, it’s the first time I actually heard my “self.”
I hope you enjoy my Country Blues Banjo triptych. Play on.
A little more Reverend Gary Davis… this one has been on and off my radar for a couple of years and I just got serious about trying to work out the chorus in December last year. Tougher to get right than it seemed, at first… and I definitely don’t quite have it right. I guess that’s why we have a lifetime over which to work it out.
Little Brothers and Poor Riders gigs in March - I’ll post ‘em soon… in the meantime, enjoy!
A new year… time to get projects moving in earnest. This song has been playing in my head on an endless repeat since before the holidays, so I just had to take a crack at it… never really heard anybody else try and play it. Maybe I’m the only person that likes it enough to try!