This past Monday, I played a square dance with the recently-formed "Sigogglin' Stringband" and I thought I'd take this opportunity to give a bit of an overview of that experience with the hopes that it may be useful for those who have not played one before. Rather than stringing together random musings from the experience, I got a bit of inspiration from my day job as a scientist: I actually gathered data and even did a few summary stats to add to the story.
I'll say right here that I thought about going full on nerd with these data (graphs, statistical tests, transformations if necessary) and even considered writing this post in scientific paper format.....but though it would be fun for me to write a methods section about playing a gig (in passive voice no less: Banjos were tuned as follows....), it also sounded like a lot of work and probably wouldn't be a ton of fun for most people to read. Now that you know what you've avoided, lets get started : )
For those not up on their obscure Appalachian slang, "sigogglin'" means "crooked," so we were essentially billed as "the Crooked Stringband." I'll admit this is a bit of a funny name for a square dance band since actual "sigogglin" tunes would presumably be discouraged at such an event, but I love the name nonetheless. Also, about half the promotional info for the event listed us as the "Sigooglin Stringband" potentially due to some michevious auto-correcting when our name was being relayed to the organizers via text message....hilarious!
The band was a quartet: 2 fiddles, one guitar, and myself on banjo; one fiddler played harmonica (really, I should say he "absolutely shredded on harmonica") on a few tunes for variety. This seems like a reasonable lineup for a square dance band, though many bands may come with a bass to drive the beat home as well. I actually kinda liked that we didn't have a bass because it put a little more pressure on the rest of us to play solid rhythm and I got to share the bass zone with the guitarist. Last time I played a square dance, I believe we had 7 people onstage (1 fiddle, 2 guitars, 2 banjos, 1 washboard, 1 bass); this sounds excessive but it sure was a lot of fun : ) I guess the point here is that there are a variety of lineup choices out there - as long as you can play fiddle tunes at a steady pace for long periods of time, any combination of instruments could play a dance. I've heard of dance bands that include drummers, brass instruments, tin whistles, ukuleles, pianos...the list goes on!
It turns out we needed 10 breakdowns and 3 waltzes (Table 1). Some of our band members have played a lot of Contra dances as well where medleys (often with tunes of varying keys) are more the norm; these would work for square dances too but we ended up not playing any. Due to my reliance on open tunings, the key-switching part of this would be difficult from my standpoint. I could have re-learned a couple simple tunes in the "wrong" tuning to make this work, or we could have strung together medleys of tunes in the same key, but in the end we just picked 13 great tunes and knocked them out of the park....or at least thats what I hope it sounded like : )
Table 1: General overview of the Kalamazoo square dance played by the Sigogglin Stringband in October 2016.
When choosing tunes, its nice to have some variety in sound. While the common joke is that "all fiddle tunes sound the same" there is obviously plenty of variation to choose from in reality. However you are limited to choosing non-crooked breakdowns that sound good fast and waltzes as necessary. As an aside: I'm using a pretty loose definition of "breakdown" to mean any danceable tune in 4/4, and a definition of "waltz" that simply means any tune in 3/4. To get max variation in tunes you can vary keys/modes (make sure to throw some mixolydian and/or minor pentatonic tunes in there), notey-ness ("Red Haired Boy" is really notey, whereas "Angeline the Baker" is less-so), and tune length ("Cripple Creek" is half as long as "Soldier's Joy").
We certainly varied by key/mode a great deal: we had Mixolydian and minor pentatonic tunes....and "Benton's Dream," which we'll just call "bluesy" b/c its mostly Mixolydian, but hits both C natural and C# in the A part in quick succession (...at least the way I play it...). Also, we veered from the commonly used tonal centers of G,C,D, and A by adding F major tunes, for which I had to use what I'll call "Old F" tuning (a full step down from "Old G") as indicated above.
As you can see in table 1, I was playing in 6 different tunings: aEAC#E, aEADE, aDADE, gDGDE, gCGCE, and (gasp!) fCFCD. Rather than trying to constantly retune, or make the band group tunes by tuning for my benefit, I just brought 3 banjos: my Buckeye (post on that here), the "Pisgah-esque" banjo nick-named "El Hefe" I built in a workshop in January (post on El Hefe coming soon...), and a 12" Ramsey Student that I borrowed from one of the fiddlers. The Buckeye handled open A, A modal, and double D; El Hefe handled Old G and open C; the Ramsey stayed in F.
If you look at Table 1 closely, you can see the advantages of bringing 3 banjos: though I had to switch banjos (i.e. pick a new one off the stand next to me) fairly often, I only had to actually retune a banjo 4 times during the set. Furthermore, the tuning variations used on a single banjo weren't all that rough from a "tuning stability" standpoint:
Re-tuned the Buckeye between the following tunes:
"Swannanoah Waltz" (aDADE) and "Greasy Coat" (aEADE)
"Greasy Coat" (aEADE) and "Bile them Cabbage" (aEAC#E)
"Bentons Dream" (aEAC#E)and "Blackest Crow" (aDADE)
Re-tuned El Hefe between the following tunes:
"I've Got No Honeybabe now" (gDGDE) and "Old Joe" (gCGCE)
Had I brought only 1 banjo, I would have had to retune nine times, and many of the jumps indicated above - for example, the jump between "Lovers first quarrel" (fCFCD) and "Benton's Dream" (aEAC#E) - would have been pretty rough on the neck (meaning that the banjo would take a while to hold tuning). Those that use Capos, play in more standard tunings (e.g. open G and double C rather than Old G and Open C), and avoid the key of F (!), may have had an easier time with one banjo. However, I should point out that people are quite impressed when you roll 3 banjos deep : )
If you find yourself playing a dance in the future, keep in mind that the dance caller is in charge: don't be afraid to ask them their opinions about how you should play, particularly when it comes to tune speed; we went so far as to ask our caller to tap their foot to set a suggested speed a couple of times. Also, many callers have opinions about tune choice that are helpful to know beforehand. For instance, many callers don't like modal tunes (not sure why...) and they may not want tunes with odd numbers of parts even if they're technically "square" overall.
(a little elaboration on this last point): The version of "The Boatman" that most people play is a 3 part tune: the first 2 parts are short (like "Cripple Creek") and the last part is long (like "Soldier's Joy"). At a given speed it takes exactly as long to play through one round of "The Boatman" (AABBCC structure) as it does "Soldier's Joy" (AABB structure), which is unarguably a dance-acceptable tune. However, I've heard that some callers wouldn't want you to play an oddly-structured tune like "The Boatman" anyways - you may want to check if tunes like this are okay to play before practicing them in preparation for the dance. Our caller was super laid back about tune choice and was just fantastic all around in my opinion : )
Square Dance Stats
Looking at Table 1, you can seen the general structure of the dance: it was divided into 3 sets, with 3 called tunes in each set, followed by a waltz. We ended the night on a breakdown, during which no dance was called (we got some flat-footers on the floor). The square dance tunes are summarized in Table 2.
Table 2. Square dance tunes (those during which a dance was called) and associated stats.
As is typical of square dances, a dance is taught by the caller before each tune is played - the amount of time taken on dance instructions prior to each tune is listed above. Interestingly, dancers spend almost as much time learning dances (54 min 5 sec) as dancing them (1 hr 5 min 43 sec). However, this doesn't include dancing during waltzes and flatfooting during the final breakdown number, which brings the total "dancing time" up to 1 hr 21 min 21 sec - quite a workout for the dancers in a ~3 hr period. Since we're playing this whole time, the musicians get quite a workout too: I was exhausted by the end of the night - I can't imagine moving a fiddle bow for that long!
Average tune length for the square dance tunes was 7 min 18 sec with a standard deviation of + 1 min 22 sec, indicating a decent amount of variance: indeed, the longest tune ("Snake River Reel") was a full 4 min 11 sec longer than the shortest tune ("Roscoe). In terms of speed, we averaged right around 120 bpm with a standard deviation of ~3.6 BPM. Most of this variance was likely due to the slow speed of "Big Scioty." The caller actually tapped out the speed of this tune and we followed his lead (I guess he wanted to "ease into the night" with a slower tune). Our fastest tune only clocked in at 124 BPM and I never really felt like we were lagging too much (nor did the dancers look too bored...); sometimes people forget that Old time music doesn't have to be crazy fast to be danceable : )
Though the recordings didn't come out too stellar quality-wise, I figured I should include at least one example file and I chose "Lover's First Quarrel" (below).
"Lover's First Quarrel" as played by the Sigogglin Stringband at a square dance in Kalamazoo Michigan in October 2016.
"Lover's First Quarrel" is a pretty nifty tune in F that I had to learn just for this dance; the band declared this their favorite tune of the night on the ride home. I chose to use "Old F" tuning (i.e. old G down a whole step) to play this tune along with "Julia Waltz." Both tunes are pretty great and I guess I should learn a few more F tunes to make this tuning worthwhile; our fiddler is a huge fan of "Acorn Stomp" so that may be next on my F list.
As I mentioned, I played a Ramsey student banjo for this recording, which pumped out a ton of bass possibly due to the fiberskyn head. This actually inspired me to try one on my Buckeye this week....but so far I'm leaning towards going back to the Renaissance (not every head works well on every banjo). The sound guy had my volume dialed waaaay up on this tune so there should be no prob picking the banjo out on the recording! This volume boost happened before the 3rd set and lasted until the end of the night (at which point I realized that I wished I knew "Washington's March," our big ender, a little better....).
Final thoughts on Waltzes
Many other square dances require far fewer waltzes that this one did - in VA the guideline was a single waltz to end the night. I've been picking up more waltzes in recent years and though I initially found clawhammer in 6/8 to be a little clunky, I've definitely come around to it and really enjoy playing them now! Some people revert to 2-finger or 3-finger for waltzes, generally picking out roll patterns from the chords rather than trying to find the melody. This sounds fine as well but I'd encourage everyone to try playing waltz melodies clawhammer style (hint, you can find some great clawhammer waltz examples in Mike Iverson's playing).
Perhaps I'll do a future blogpost on waltzes as well : )
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.