As Old Time musicians, we are pulled in 2 directions at once: First, we have a duty to the past; most of the tunes we play have been handed down to us over generations and we should treat them with respect they deserve. However, like all musicians, we also have a desire to express ourselves through our instruments; the simple melodies (and harmonies!) of some tunes lend themselves to transcendent exploration.
I think that I fall pretty squarely in the middle of these two extremes on the "tradition/innovation" spectrum; my goal in playing (and my favorite type of music to listen to) is "innovation that respects the Old Time tradition." I realize this approach isn't for everyone. For example, strict traditionalists would likely not appreciate me altering the melody of "Cold Frosty Morning" just to allow for an interesting chord (here) or dragging "Coleman's March" through all the diatonic modes (here) but I hope that its clear that I'm coming from a starting point of love for this music (also, I would likely never carry some of these experiments to a jam).
Where people fall on the "tradition/innovation" spectrum also likely determines their willingness to accept newly-written fiddle tunes into the Old-Time canon. While extreme traditionalists turn up their noses at "new" tunes, I feel that adding new tunes to the tradition is part of what keeps it alive. Also, past generations of Old Time musicians definitely had no qualms about writing new tunes: after all somebody wrote every tune we play at some point, then passed it around until it morphed into something that ended up on a field recording. While these recordings are incredibly priceless resources, the idea that the advent of recording should coincide with the end of tune writing in Old Time music never really made sense to me...
Many "new" Old Time tunes blend in great at Old Time jams: "Nail that Catfish to a Tree" was written by Steve Rosen of the Volo Bogtrotters, and he even maintains a website about the tune that includes a bunch of resources for playing it. "Road to Malvern" was written by VA fiddler Jim Childress, who included it on his album of original fiddle tunes called Turkey Sag (which is just fantastic!) "Sadie at the Back door" was written by Jere Canote of the Canote Brothers; according to their website, one reviewer said of them "Their songs have all the ring of cock-eyed classics." (to me, this is high praise...)
There are a ton of other "new" Old Time fiddle tunes out there in addition to those I've listed above, but the ones that are likely to last are those that can sit alongside "old" Old Time tunes (e.g. "Soldier's Joy") in a jam without sticking out too much; the writers of these tunes are all great old time musicians who respect the tradition and simply want to add to it - the tunes they've written borrow from Old Time tropes: "Nail that Catfish" is a fairly straightforward tune with a B part that starts boldly on the IV chord just like "Julie Ann Johnson." Similarly "Road to Malvern" is slightly crooked and "Sadie at the Backdoor" is a Mixolydian tune.
In their short lives, these tunes have already burrowed their way into Old Time to the point where you can actually hear plenty of variation in how they're played. For example, I arrived on my version of "Nail that Catfish..." by playing in VA and MI jams - I was surprised to hear the original version on the aforementioned website, which is quite different from how I've heard the tune played! Also, "Road to Malvern" was recorded by Jim Childress in 2004 (though I understand the tunes were "out in the world" beforehand) but the version that appeared on the Light and Hitch album, which I think came out in 2008, already had a few melodic tweaks!
As the title of this post suggests, I've written several fiddle tunes over the years, a couple of which I'll share below. Though I won't go so far as to say that these tunes are anywhere near as good as the "new classics" I've already mentioned, my friends have had fun playing them with me, and I believe that they'd fit in to an average Old Time jam without too much fuss. My ultimate dream would be to have the experience that Steve Rosen, Jim Childress, and Jere Canote have likely had several times: to walk around a festival and hear a tune you wrote being played at a jam in the distance, perhaps being tweaked in a way you'd never thought of : ) I wrote both of these tunes sometime around 2010-2011, while living in southwest VA.
Cheese and Krackers
This is a 2 part Crooked D tune and is probably the most popular tune I've written amongst my friends and former bandmates. Its named after two people I know who used to hang out together all the time, and who's last names sounded kinda like the words "Cheese" and "Crackers"....only the second person's last name started with a "K," hence the funny spelling : ) Also, I just like Cheese and Crackers (mostly Cheese).
The recording below is me on banjo with two VA folks on fiddle and guitar. It was recorded before the wedding ceremony of two other VA old time musicians as part of the tune list they'd requested (crazy, crazy, crazy flattered to have this one included in someone's wedding!!). I am playing my buddy's spunover 12" Brooks Masten banjo with a thick skin head - its still one of the best sounding banjos I've ever played, and its hpyer-plunky tone is especially great for small group playing.
"Cheese and Krackers" played with a couple of friends at the wedding of another couple of friends.
(thats me on a Brooks Masten banjo)
This is a 2 part modal tune (in that it's played in A modal tuning, though its actually solidly in A minor/aeolian). Like many Old Time Tunes, the A and B parts only differ by the opening phrase. I asked my buddy for a tune name and he reached for the Greek Myth of Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the repetitiveness of Old Time music in general. In fact, the precursor name for the Happy Hollow String Band (the band I played with in VA) was actually the Sisyphus Hill String Band, but "Happy Hollow" prompted less explanation was just a little easier to say in the end : )
This tune made it into an Elderly video - I was playing on an OME Northstar....just a great sounding banjo!
Me playing my original tune "Sisyphus Hill" on an OME Northstar.
Link to full video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=052xPB-Dm5Q
I even got an email once where someone was asking for the source of this tune after watching this video, which kinda made my day : ) Hope you enjoyed those tunes - I've definitely got a few more originals up my sleeve and I may try to get some tabs up for all of them in the future!
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.