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"Would you like to play with me?" - Henry Townsend's reply to soundman Warren Argo's query as to whether anyone would be playing with Henry at his concert set at the first Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop

Author Topic: old-time banjo  (Read 8497 times)

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Offline frankie

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old-time banjo
« on: March 05, 2004, 06:43:49 PM »
Relates to my other vice, oldtime banjo.

Hi E. Hadley - I don't want to hijack the Blind Blake thread, so I'm responding here.  I've been playing banjo for about six years.  I love it, but I have a long way to go with it...  Do you play any Dock Boggs?  I mess around with a couple things:  Danville Girl, False-Hearted Lover's Blues.  One of these days I'm going to corner Pat Conte and get him to play Dock's Country Blues until I get it...  there's this whole weird right hand thing going on...

Anyway, welcome to the board!

Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #1 on: March 06, 2004, 09:13:38 AM »
Hi Frank,
Seeing your post talking about Dock Boggs got me to thinking that being in his special tuning works out a lot of the difficulty in what he does.  You probably already know it, but it is (from fifth to first string) f#CGAD.  He used it for Country Blues, Oh Death, Drunkard's Lone Child, and many others.  I find his Folkways-era stuff easier to work with in terms of figuring stuff out by ear than his early recordings.  It's not so fast, for one thing.  I can't think of any Old-Time figure who had a higher percentage of great songs, and what a singer!  He was great.
All best,
John

Offline frankie

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #2 on: March 06, 2004, 09:36:27 AM »
Hi John - The tune I was really thinking of was Down South Blues...  it's in G tuning and it sounds like he picks up with his index finger and strikes down across the strings with his middle finger, but it doesn't have that frailing sound the way a lot of up-picking does.  It sounds like he doesn't really use the fifth string much in this tune, either.

I love the f#CGAD tuning - Pat C. thinks that he also played Danville Girl in this tuning but I don't think so - sounds to me like he raises the low string up to D.  The Folkways recordings are definitely easier to figure out from, athough in some cases, it seems like the earlier recordings have a certain "nyah" that the later recordings don't.  He is a tremendous singer, though, and what a great array of songs.  His Prodigal Son is brilliant (also in Dock's D tuning).

I find some of his tunes difficult to sing & play at the same time - False Hearted Lover, for instance.  I probably need to work on it more (and more & more & more), but it's interesting to me that he doesn't ever really settle in to a chord-vamp or simple groove that's easier to sing over - he's always working!

Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #3 on: March 06, 2004, 02:15:52 PM »
Hi Frank,
I'm with you on "Down South Blues"--I definitely do NOT know how to play it. I have two friends in town, Al Hart and Bill Meyer, who both play it great, and they both do it up-picking as you describe. Likewise, as you describe it, it is not a kind of up-picking that sounds like frailing, as it does when Doc Watson does it. Another thing Dock did that I've never heard anyone else do is tune to G modal, gDGCD to play in the key of D, which he does on Sugar Baby. On Bright Sunny South, which might be my favorite, he uses it to play in G. Then there's his version of Wild Bill Jones, , , he really was a "hit after hit" kind of guy.
All best,
John
« Last Edit: September 28, 2019, 08:41:06 PM by Johnm »

Offline frankie

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #4 on: March 06, 2004, 08:43:52 PM »
Bright Sunny South

That's one of my favorites, too - I worked it out at one point a year or so ago.  I remember being amazed at exactly how far down he was tuned from G - maybe down as far as E-flat!  My poor wimpy strings were like rubber bands.

Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #5 on: September 12, 2004, 10:06:21 AM »
Hi all,
I went to a concert the other night featuring Mike Seeger, and in the course of it he played three different banjos, one of which was a huge (16" diameter rim?) one made by Jere Canote, who made my fretless banjo-guitar.  I was sure impressed by the variety of styles Mike played, and how comfortable he was switching between various right-hand approaches.  He played a couple of tunes that he got from field recordings of a southwest Virginia Black banjo player, Josh Thomas, that were really outstanding.  I actually have the Josh Thomas stuff on cassette--Molly Tenenbaum taped it for me several years ago.  I'm going to have to dig it out and figure out some of those tunes.  They sounded great.
All best,
Johnm

Offline frankie

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #6 on: September 12, 2004, 11:19:48 AM »
I was sure impressed by the variety of styles Mike played, and how comfortable he was switching between various right-hand approaches.

His ability to do that is nothing short of amazing.  And then to do all of them so well...  jeez.  As someone who plays a few different banjo styles (badly), he has my enduring respect!  I've always found the two-finger index lead style the hardest to master.

He played a couple of tunes that he got from field recordings of a southwest Virginia Black banjo player, Josh Thomas, that were really outstanding.

The only one of these I can recall at the moment is Roustabout, which he did tuned to (I think) g-C-G-Bflat-D, but tuned way down.  A very fine tune.

Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #7 on: May 03, 2006, 11:35:05 PM »
Hi all,
In the course of looking for something completely different I discovered recently that the old Tradition LP, "Instrumental Music of The Southern Appalachians", that offered many people an introduction to the music of Etta Baker, also includes some fascinating banjo performances.  Two are by Etta Baker's father, Boone Reid, who was 79 years old at the time the recordings were made in 1956.  Mr. Reid plays an excellent version of "Sourwood Mountain" with some great greasy blue notes in the B part.  His other number is "Johnson Boys", and it bears a marked similarity to the version recorded by Glen Smith on the old Folkways "Traditional Music From Grayson And Carroll Counties" LP.  Mr. Reid's son-in-law (and I guess Etta's brother-in-law), Lacey Phillips, plays "Marching Jaybird", which bears similarities to "Flop-Eared Mule" and "Spanish Fandango" as played by John Hurt, in C, employing what sounds like a two-finger picking style, and also weighs in with a nice version of "Soldier's Joy".  Last and certainly not least, Hobart Smith plays a screaming version of "Pateroller's Song" on a fretless banjo.  It is a treat to hear how the banjo lived in Black and White American traditions at that time and how much of the musical language was shared.  I believe this album has been re-released in the CD format.  It is definitely worth finding.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #8 on: May 04, 2006, 08:27:49 AM »
Hi John,

Thanks for the recommendation. The record is now available as part of the "Best of the Bluegrass Tradition" box set from Rykodisc that lists for $19.98 and includes another banjo disc, "Banjo Jamboree", plus a disc of the Kossoy Sisters' "Bowling Green", which pretty much makes this a no brainer. I want it.

http://www.rykodisc.com/rykoindex/rykointernal/features/bluegrass/info.html

Offline outfidel

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #9 on: May 06, 2006, 02:25:14 AM »
Another favorite of mine is Hobart Smith. His banjo & guitar playing on Blue Ridge Legacy is just spectacular -- highlights for me are "Buckdance" (on banjo) and "Railroad Bill" (on guitar). What a musician!
« Last Edit: May 06, 2006, 02:35:03 AM by outfidel »
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Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #10 on: May 08, 2006, 07:08:21 PM »
Hi Michael,
You are dead on about Hobart Smith--what a powerful musician he was!  It is great, too, how much of his music has become available in the past couple of years, first the Lomax recordings on Rounder and more recently the Fleming Brown-recorded stuff on Smithsonian/Folkways.  Everything he played, he played so strong.  He was one of the best mountain blues players on guitar, too.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: May 09, 2006, 02:36:44 PM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #11 on: May 08, 2006, 07:47:09 PM »
Hi all,
One of the high points of the Yazoo set, "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" is Wade Ward's "Married Man's Blues", taken from a test recording, that was evidently recovered along with a treasure trove of other very rare recordings from the home of Fields Ward. 
"Married Man's Blues" is played clawhammer style, and has an unforgettable melody, using the notes of an A major pentatonic scale, but ranging it from the VI note below the tonic to the VI note an octave above, like so:
   F#-A-B-C#-E-F#
Just looking at the span of the melody, it would appear to be in the pentatonic version of the VI, or Aeolian mode, but the melody always resolves back to the tonic A, so I guess you could say it was major with a strong minor component, much like Dock Boggs's version of "Wild Bill Jones".  One interesting aspect of the sound of Wade Ward's playing on "Married Man's Blues" is that he maintains a strong interior drone, in addition to the high A on the fifth string, with the low F# note at the bottom of the melody.  This F# note is so insistent that it seems very likely that he used a customized tuning designed to suit this song in particular (from fifth string to first string):  a-F#-A-C#-E.  This tuning is made even more plausible by the fact that he never plays a note lower in pitch than that low F# throughout the course of the song.  Standard tuning for playing in A would be a-E-A-C#-E; were he in standard tuning, it seems like he would have at least hammered on to the F# note on the fourth string at some point.  As it is, standard tuning would require him to have held down the second fret of the fourth string for virtually the entire tune.
"Married Man's Blues" alternates verses with an answering instrumental interlude.  The timing of the interlude is consistent throughout the performance--12 bars, with no chord changes, and with a "dwell" in the last bar to accommodate the vocal pick-up for the next verse.  Timing of the verses is considerably less regular.  Wade's singing employs a host of dwells, pick-up note add-ons at the conclusion of measures and other such devices.  These have the effect of making transcription tough, but never compromise the tremendous driving rhythm Wade is playing even a little bit.  Moreover, the vocal phrasing sounds irregular and perfectly natural, simultaneously. 
This performance is a real treat.  I was lucky enough to see Wade Ward play on a few occasions, and never knew him to sing at all.  Based on how he sang here, I wish there had been more recordings of him singing because he sounds great.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: May 09, 2006, 02:35:53 PM by Johnm »

Offline frankie

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #12 on: February 21, 2007, 10:55:23 PM »
One interesting aspect of the sound of Wade Ward's playing on "Married Man's Blues" is that he maintains a strong interior drone, in addition to the high A on the fifth string, with the low F# note at the bottom of the melody.  This F# note is so insistent that it seems very likely that he used a customized tuning designed to suit this song in particular (from fifth string to first string):  a-F#-A-C#-E.

Hi John - was just listening to this song over the last few days and I think you've got the low string right, but I think Wade Ward is using a "Cumberland Gap" tuning for this song, just tuned higher than normal:

a-F#-B-E-F#

it looks more humane if you drop it down a whole step:

g-E-A-D-E

it sits perfectly in this tuning.  Your assessment of WW's singing is right on the money, though - too bad he didn't sing more often.  He's got a great, expressive sound.

Muddyroads

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #13 on: February 22, 2007, 05:46:07 AM »
Frankie,

I have played old time banjo for nearly 40 years.  Doc Boggs is one of the greats.  He plays in his own three finger style and called himself a blues banjo player.  His was on of the greats.  Wade Ward was an early influence and knocked my socks off with his playing.  Mike Seeger is perhaps THE greatest old time banjo player alive.  He knows more about banjo styles than any one other person.  He has a set of DVD's on Southern banjo styles that is truly amazing.  It that is not enough, he is also formidable on mandolin, guitar and fiddle, not to mention autoharp and harmonica.  He was the first other person I ever heard play Rolled and Tumbled on the banjo.  While I have always played blues on a banjo it is rare to hear others do it.  Frank Proffitt did it as well.

Last weekend I played a gig at a blues event.  The headliner talked about how corporations in their rush to market music divided it along race lines. He said, and I have long maintained that the music had no racial lines before they marketed it.  Yeah the African American experience was different, but there was also a community of musicians that shared much.  Monday night a mandolin student was telling me about his uncle and  his uncle's Black picking buddy whom he used to hear as a kid in the 1950's in Sally, SC.  They played a wide range of music from hoedowns to blues.  Black and White.

Many a myth has been passed off as truth.  History is written by the victors.  Play those banjo blues.  There is a truth in it that is undeniable.

All the best,

Mud

Offline Johnm

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Re: old-time banjo
« Reply #14 on: February 25, 2007, 12:27:02 AM »
Hi Frankie,
I'm sorry to be slow responding to your post on the tuning Wade Ward used for "Married Man's Blues".  I was away from the recording and couldn't listen to it for a while, but finally got a chance today.
I assume from your post that you have played it through in the tuning you described.  If so, am I correct in thinking that he never frets the first two strings in the course of playing the tune and only hits them open?  It does give them a very striking ring, if that is how he achieved that effect.  Otherwise, it seems like he could play the entire tune using his index finger to slide to the second fret of the third string, and his second (middle) finger to fret the third fret of the fourth string and pull it off to the open fourth.  That pull-off had me completely foxed.  He does it so emphatically that I thought he was getting the second note with a dropped thumb.  I still haven't had a chance to try it on my banjo yet, but it sure seems like it would work.
It took me a little while to wrap my mind around your description of the "Cumberland Gap" tuning, because I play that tuned f-F-G-C-D out of the B flat position.  After thinking about it a while, though, I can see how the tuning you cited would fit "Cumberland Gap" perfectly.  I will have to try both tunes when I get back to my banjo.  Thanks for the good steer.
All best,
Johnm

 


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