Recently, in an effort to escape real life, I've been listening to the "Get Up in the Cool" podcast (www.camerondewhitt.com/getupinthecool/), in which the host, Cameron DeWhitt, interviews (and plays duets with) Old Time Musicians, many of whom I've seen around at festivals (though most of whom I've never spoken with myself). As I mentioned in a previous post (here), one of my favorite episodes that I've heard so far features Brian Slattery (www.bfslattery.com/bfsCMS/), a man of many talents (check out his website...) one of which is that he's a fantastic musician. You can listen to this episode by clicking here. Disclaimer - I don't know Cameron DeWhitt personally, nor do I have any kind of stake in this podcast...I just really really like it.
I loved hearing Brian talk about how he associates certain tunes with certain people - in fact he says that he only learns tunes directly from other people (rather than recordings or sheet music). While I do sometimes supplement my tune learning with sheet music or recordings, I definitely attach tunes to people in the same way. In fact I probably wouldn't learn many new tunes if it weren't for hearing them played for the first time by someone around me. Lately my main new tune source is a local fiddler. Some of the gems she's shown me over the past year or so of weekly jamming include "Rock Andy" (from Snake Chapman), "Five Miles from Town" (from Clyde Davenport), and "Maggie Meade" (from J.P. Fraley). These tunes may come from different sources, but I'll always associate them with her. Really, if you exclude the tunes I learned in my early days of picking random tabs off the internet, pretty much all of my tunes came to me from somebody I've played with over the years - kind of gives them an additional level of meaning.
In the spirit of the Brian Slattery "Get up in the Cool" episode (again, here; the episode is appropriately titled "I learned this tune from..." hence the title of this blog post) I decided to learn a pretty sweet tune called "Lone Prairie" from Brian Slattery's playing. Before I go too much further, here's my recording:
Me playing "Lone Prairie" (or maybe it's "Alone Prairie?"...or perhaps "Lonesome Prairie?") on a nylgut-strung 1880's Buckbee banjo tuned to aEADE.
About the tune
As I've recounted before (here), I first heard Brian Slattery play this tune at Clifftop last year. I was wandering around listening to jams late one night and I found Brian playing fiddle alongside a cellist, a guitarist, and a bass player - the tune was totally mesmerizing and I stayed to listen until they were done (which may have been another 15 minutes or more) trying to hum along and save the tune for later. This was one of the occasions where I really regretted my choice to live my life sans smart phone (with which I could have easily recorded this jam). The tune faded out of my head far too quickly and I figured that I was never going to hear it again. However, months later I got to 34:23 on the aforementioned podcast and there it was!
In the podcast, I believe that Cameron DeWhitt refers to this tune as "Alone Prairie," a title I couldn't find much info about when I looked online. Brian says he associates this tune with the fiddler Jon Bekoff; he's only got one tune with "prairie" in the title on Slippery Hill (www.slippery-hill.com) which is titled "Lonesome Prairie" (and is definitely the correct tune). Whatever is the actual name, what Brian and Jon play is a squirrely/crooked D minor tune with 2 parts. At least I think its crooked...theres definitely some sort of strange phrasing in the A part; Slippery Hill also has a tune called "Lone Prairie" from Wade Ward which is a 1 part A modal tune, though it sounds an awful lot like the A part to "Alone/Lonesome Prairie." Perhaps this was the ultimate source of a tune that took a few turns through the folk process?
About the recording
First, the banjo: I've got my new-to-me/old-to-the-planet Buckbee (more on that banjo here) fixed up an playable; it mostly just needed new strings and a bit of a head tightening. I also swapped out the bridge and tailpiece...its the perfect couch plunker! If I get around to getting a less-substantial bridge (i.e. 2 feet and no ebony top) it'll probably be loud enough to play in a small group too - but for now I'm digging its mellow tone and I bet my wife's thankful to have a muted banjo in my hands : ). As usual, I recorded in Garageband with my Yeti microphone - no effects etc. (just wanted to get an honest picture of the banjos sound).
I made a rather bold decision to move the tune to a different key (Gasp!). To explain: when I play the tune in D minor (using aDADE tuning) I spend a lot of time on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd string; I don't touch the 4th string at all. Like "Dubuque" you would need a 6 string/low bass banjo to play this tune in the "standard octave" (see my post on that here)...unfortunately, out of restlessness I've put El Hefe back in its 5 string configuration for the time being. Using Wade Ward's version as precedent, I tried it out in A modal (aEADE) and it works really great there. For now I'm content to leave the tune in A minor and slip a capo in my case (again, Gasp!) for the unlikely occasion that I ever come across this tune in the wild. It actually sounds kinda cool up high (I'd be capoing at the 5th fret to get to D minor).
Finally some self-criticism: I screw up a bit around 1:40 (note: the cool chord at 1:44 is intentional)...I just didn't have the patience to re-record today so I'm choosing to find it charming. Also, My tone leaves a bit to be desired as I broke my banjo nail (final Gasp!) this week and had to shave it down pretty close as a result. Maybe not quite long enough to get a great strike on those fat nylgut strings without skimming the finger pad; *sigh* the banjo sounded a bit more plunky a few days back.
Thats about it for now - next week I may talk about playing G minor tunes, or jigs, or clucking, or I'll add another track to the album. Havent yet decided : ) Also, I just realized I missed a significant anniversary last week: I've been doing this blog for just over 1 year at this point - thanks to everyone who's been following along! To all of my domestic readers: have a happy 4th of July! (and to any Canadians in the mix - happy 150th!)
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.