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.

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Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.
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We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)
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After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.

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One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

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We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.

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We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.
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We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.

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After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.