Classical Banjo?

Several weeks ago, a good friend asked if I could help with a special music project in her part of NYS.  Chemung County was preparing a month-long Festival of Women in the Arts, which included a great deal of music.  DC was hostessing an all-women jam at the end of the month and our trio was already slated to host, so the request was ‘above and beyond’ what westward traveling I’d anticipated.

It happened that local composer/conductor WW had secured the rights to perform a “bluegrass mass” — The World Beloved — which has only been performed by the original musicians until now.  As part of the Women in the Arts festival, women musicians were preferred, and the score included parts for banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and bass.  I own all of those instruments, and I happen to be the right gender — the question was whether I could dredge up any dim memories of how to read a musical score.  And, I had to do it in four weeks…

I thought I was going to play guitar for the show, but a far better guitarist (male!) was secured; no other banjo players were available or willing (either or both?) to tackle such a complicated piece on short notice, and I only agreed when a pianist was added to the mix.  Her electronic keyboard was configured so her right hand would make banjo noises and play all those notey leads I couldn’t decipher.  All I had to do was plink out the chords.

How did it go?  Rather well.  After listening to the cantata for weeks, over and over, I learned a lot of it by ear, which spared me counting along with a score that went 2/2 to 3/4 to 5/4 and back to 2/2 with wild abandon.  I photocopied and sliced-up the score to make the page-turns possible, and decided that, for better or for worse, it would be over in a mere 45 minutes once we got going.  I heard a few fumbles in the performance, but the audience would never have known the difference, and they were too amused by the odd assortment of instruments accompanying the choir to really care too much.

When it was all over, I took a moment to shake the conductor’s hand, saying, “Congratulations!  You managed to paper-train a bluegrass band!”  No small accomplishment.

Sweet Baby James in the Snow

From the living room boom box, I hear James Taylor singing his greatest hits. I purchased the CD to replace the LP I could no longer play, and I enjoyed it as long as I could. However, along with “borrowed” equipment that remains on-loan to this day, the resident teens would toss the nearest CD out of its case if they couldn’t find the one they needed, leaving the ousted disc to be damaged in various ways. JT’s Greatest Hits was one such victim, eventually found covered with scratches and dust. An apologetic offer to clean and polish the disc resulted in further damage – it turns out that you have to go from start to finish with the polishing process to get good results.

But, miracles happen, and the CD is playing through now, as I type. I have been to Carolina in my mind, saved my goodbyes for the morning light, and seen fire and rain. More than that, I have traveled backwards in time …

I found myself at Star Lake, in the Adirondacks, site of a cross-country skiing phys. ed. class. We were taught how to wax our skis, attach our shoes to the bindings, and “kick off” with our feet while doing something with our arms – I was flailing around, but that wasn’t it. Already suffering from the usual monthly discomforts, I was faced with further agonies: my long hair caught in the ski wax, my natural clumsiness made balancing on the skis impossible, and my thermal long johns were no match for the amount of soggy snow and ice that accumulated with every landing I made in the snow. And that was just the first night.

Saturday morning, we headed out on the trails for an eight-mile loop through the forest. The snow averaged 3-feet deep, but there was a crust of ice over the surface that made things interesting. Once we got moving, we could hit some impressive speeds, but if we fell, we dropped below the level of our skis and climbing back up was difficult no matter how often we practiced the maneuver. By late in the trip, our class had sorted itself into clusters by expertise, with a few showoffs already back at the cabin guzzling hot cocoa, several people actually taking their time to enjoy the scenery and exercise, and a handful of struggling newbies doing as much travel vertically from ground to skis as we did horizontally along the trail.

I didn’t learn how to ski that weekend. Instead, in the quiet evening hours, I hauled out my guitar and learned how to play Sweet Baby James.

This afternoon, through the miracle of music, I traveled back in time, finding far more pleasure in remembering the weekend than I had enduring it. I wonder if James Taylor remembered the snow-covered Turnpike that way, far more beautiful in retrospect from a warm cottage, having safely completed his trip.

Red-Haired Boys

One of the “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks” challenges was to learn to embed videos in our blogs. The truth of the matter is, I had an easier time figuring out the mechanics of that process than I did coming up with a reason for embedding a video in my blog. I finally decided that the best I could do was use this as an opportunity to explore regional variations and stylistic interpretations on fiddle tunes, and I randomly selected the Celtic tune Red-Haired Boy.

As a fiddle student, I have always had the option of reacquainting myself with sheet music, which I learned to read more than 30 years ago, in high school, when I played flute. Unfortunately, I stopped playing my flute by the time I left college, and now when I look at a score, I can easily finger my flute keys for the right note, but not translate that same knowledge to the fingerboard of my fiddle. It’s not impossible to overcome this, but considering the difficulty in reading sheet music now that I’ve reached the Age of Bifocals, it’s no longer the easiest route for learning to play the fiddle.

Instead, as I report to my lessons, the first question my teacher, Hope, asks is “What have you been working on?” This is because I sit in on a fiddle jam every week, and whatever song sticks in my head is the one I am most likely to have struggled with afterwards. Hope has taught me a few songs from scratch — such as Bus Stop, which we never play on Tuesdays — but the vast majority of tunes I work on are those I hear often enough to have them memorized. Hope helps me find the missing notes and refines my bowing techniques, but every so-often, we run into the issue of “that’s not how I learned that song.” Hope is quick to agree that there is no “right” way to play the old songs — it’s the regional variations that keep the songs alive. With that in mind, here are three videos I found of fiddlers playing Red-Haired Boy.

This video features the Sierra Swing Conspiracy at the Auburn Bluegrass Fest II; here we have a couple of young men taking some serious detours away from the standard version:

This video has Red-Haired Boy as the second tune in the medley they perform. The fiddler is Qristina Bachand, and the video is from Victoria, B.C. at the 2006 Saanich Fair:

And, for yet another variation, we have the Urban Ramblers on the Bruin Walk at UCLA:

No two versions alike, and none of them the same as the version Hope taught me or the way we play Red-Haired Boy downtown on Tuesdays. A few years ago, I traveled with several other musicians from Binghamton up to the NYS Fiddlers Hall of Fame in Redfield, NY (near Watertown, if you need a larger spot on the map) where we heard fiddlers from the Syracuse area play wildly different versions of familiar tunes, and the same thing happened when I sat in at a jam in Watkins Glen last summer.

The variations never leave the song unrecognizable: the chord pattern the guitar plays to back up the fiddler remains constant, and the gifted fiddlers are free to take flight like kites while the guitar holds the string that ties them to the structure of the song. Other than that, Red-Haired Boy is a lively tune kept alive the best way possible, not by being frozen in place on a piece of sheet music but by springing to life from fiddles, banjos, and guitars everywhere Celtic music is played.

Songs I Wish Everyone Could Hear

I spend almost no time at all with recorded music.  With the exception of the songs I have uploaded from CDs to my computer at work, I have no electronic means of listening to anything — but, I’m not complaining.  The music I hear is all produced “live” — either I play it for myself, or I am in the audience somewhere enjoying what musicians are playing on stage.  My CD collection is almost entirely purchased directly from the musicians who wrote the music and made the recordings.

While reading the lists my friends have created, containing the songs they love and why they love them, it occurred to me that this was a perfect format for promoting the music and musicians I have come to love and admire.  With that, I present here a quick list of some favorite artists, with links to places where I found sound samples whenever possible.

Paul Kaplan.  Paul is based in Massachusetts, home of Click & Clack, the Tappit Brothers, and he actually got his song This Old Car included on their radio program!  If the link I am inserting works, you will be able to hear samples of songs off Paul’s After the Fire CD, one of my favorites — when was the last time you heard The Leaving of Liverpool?  I recommend Give My Bones to Greyhound if you want travelin’ music, and there is no sweeter song I have ever heard than So I Could Get to You for a declaration of love.  Look for Paul on YouTube, also.

Zoe Mulford.  I cannot praise this musician highly enough. She comes second on this list only because she lives in Manchester, England, now and as such her US appearances are limited.  Please visit her website and see if she’ll be in your area, because live music is best, but otherwise buy one or both of her CDs.  They are worth twice the price.  The link in her name should also bring up audio samples.  It’s hard to choose a favorite, but  Songs of Love and Distance off her Traveling Moon CD is a beautiful example of her crystalline voice and her wise lyrics all at once.  From Roadside Saints, I recommend Gonna Wear Red (an anthem for discarding rules) or American Wake (a true Irish wink of a song.)

Cosy Sheridan. The first time I heard Cosy, she was recording the song Hannibal Crossed the Alps for a Folk DJ’s radio show.  I was enchanted: a perfect and accurate history lesson in song.  Since then, I’ve read about Cosy’s work in teaching young women about the traps of false standards of beauty, so while I am a devoted fan of her music, I am even more in awe of the woman herself.  For a second song, I recommend How Will the Center Hold for those who want power and The Land of 10,000 Mothers for something sweet.  I’ve been teaching myself Walk On:

You are warned: any road is long / You are warned: any road is hard / There’s a boatload of “good advice” / It’s better just to disregard

John Flynn. A powerful young man writing the songs of social conscience for a new generation, he writes of international and inter-personal politics — just go and check out his lyrics.  There are song samples on John’s website, but most are of his children’s songs.  (Parents: he’s got some great songs for the kids!)  I love all the tracks on John’s CDs, but if I had to pick just two for you to hear I’d go with Put Your Freedom Where Your Mouth Is off his Two Wolves CD and Minnie Lou off his Dragon CD.

Kim & Reggie Harris.  Each and every time I have heard Kim & Reggie, it was a transporting musical experience — live and powerful, it felt like I’d been to an opera with a full pit orchestra, but up on stage it is only Reggie with his magic guitar and Kim’s dynamic vocals: check out music samples from all their CDs here.  (I’d also like to brag here that Reggie once borrowed my guitar.)  You have never heard Follow the Drinking Gourd better than Reggie plays it on their CD Steal Away, and the song Too Many Martyrs (The Ballad of Medgar Evans) on the CD Rock of Ages is a personal favorite.  Their website also offers an exclusive audio file they recorded with Peter Yarrow and his daughter Bethany.  Kim and Reggie sing the title track on What’s That I Hear: The Songs of Phil Ochs — a CD guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Johnsmith.  All one word for the name but he uses a lot more of them in his songs, and the pictures he paints with his words, the stories he tells, are just right for someone whose children are grown and off on their own life travels.  This age, sometimes called the “empty nest,” is a time for reflection, remembrance, and renewals, and I hear all of that in John’s songs.  Personal favorite songs are Survivors — a meditation on trees — and Kickin’ This Stone, the title track of my favorite Johnsmith CD.

If you follow even one of the links here, I hope it has helped you discover a new musician, a new song, or the inspiration to write about your own favorite music.  I feel as though this is only the first installment in a series…