Moving is terrible...
This weekend was all packing boxes, transporting boxes, unpacking boxes, repeat. No banjo playing whatsoever and definitely not enough time to write a proper blogpost. Sorry to all reading - hope to be back next week!
Also, definitely looking forward to Clifftop in a few weeks - hit me up using the contact tab if you're going and would like to get together and jam!
After another couple weeks off, I've finally gotten back to recording my "album" (here). This week's tune is one of the first fiddle tunes I ever wrote and its called "Sisyphus' Hill." Interestingly I've slipped this one into an Elderly video alongside some standards (as mentioned before, here) - that clip is below:
Me playing "Sisyphus' Hill" on an Ome Northstar; filmed for my side-gig as a banjo tester for Elderly instruments (still love every Ome I've ever played!). Link for full video: youtu.be/052xPB-Dm5Q
The way I played the tune above is the way I used to play it with my band back in VA...but I decided to give it a few tweaks before recording this time. The biggest change is that I ended both the A and B parts on a C# (both parts originally ended on an A). The song is mostly in A minor, but this change forces both parts to end on an A major chord. Here's the Audio file of my "album" recording:
"Sisyphus' Hill" - an original fiddle tune by Jeff Norman (me). Played twice through by me on my Buckeye tuned to aEADE; guitar accompaniment the 2nd time through using a 12-fret Epiphone Masterbilt in standard tuning without a capo. Tune and recording Copyright 2017 - Jeff Norman.
I think I like the changes but I'm wondering if the major chord is too gimmicky...opinions welcome in the comments!
A bit on the name: my buddy Chris named this tune in reference to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who had to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again every day for eternity. Chris thought this was a good metaphor for fiddle tunes which (when played right!) seem to go on forever : ) We even named our band the "Sisyphus Hill Stringband" for a while but the reference was lost on a lot of people ("Is that hill around here somewhere?"). Best not to have a band name you have to explain so much - eventually we changed to "Happy Hollow Stringband" instead.
As for banjo stuff: Buckeye banjo, no recent alterations (it could use some new strings!), tuned to A modal (aEADE). Amazingly, I've only got 1 more tune to finish up the album...maybe I can actually push through to the end next week!
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!)
Today's post will be a bit brief as I just got back from the Indiana Fiddler's Gathering (www.indianafiddlersgathering.org) and though I had big plans to record another tune for my "album" of original fiddle tunes (here) I'm just too exhausted at the moment. I figured I'd spend this post reliving the weekend's activities instead...you know as if this were a for-real "blog" blog : )
I was told about the Indiana fiddler's gathering (aka "Battle Ground") by a local MI banjo player who described it as "The Clifftop of the Midwest;" following such a ringing endorsement, I made a rather last minute decision to go. Well I'm certainly glad I did - it turned out to be a pretty amazing weekend! On Saturday I found a great group of musicians to pal around with including members of the MI-based Old Time (and more!) duet Red Tail Ring (redtailring.com). Man...those two can play!! I had to bow out at 1 am but my guess is that the jam may have kept going for a few hours (with the tunes trending weirder and weirder!). On Sunday, I went to the festival-organized Old Time Jam run by Brad and Ken Kolodner. Interestingly. while I know Brad and Ken as banjo and dulcimer players, respectively, Brad played bass and Ken played fiddle, both sounding great! When the jam was over I managed to play some banjo duets with Brad including "Five Miles from Town," "Sally in the Garden" and "Home with the Girls in the Morning." I mostly stuck to pretty standard melodies for all the tunes (out of nerves!) while Brad roamed all over the neck around me - it was a heck of a thing! One guy recorded us on his phone but I forgot to ask for his info - maybe I can find that stuff on youtube at some point!
Though the description "Clifftop of the Midwest" certainly bore out in the caliber of jamming, Battle Ground is a bit more stage-focused than Clifftop and the concerts certainly do not disappoint - I only got to see the Saturday afternoon and evening sets, but there were some pretty great acts in there! Brad Kolodner's band Charm City Junction (www.charmcityjunction.com) played a mix of Irish, Bluegrass, and Old time Tunes (...ever heard "Last Chance" on an accordion??). The Canada-based string quartet, The Fretless (www.thefretless.com) took some traditional tunes to some super weird (in a good way) places; they also brought my new buddies Red Tail Ring on stage during their set to play their song "Fall Away Blues" together, which was just a stunning performance! However, I was perhaps most impressed by Roger Netherton, a young fiddler who just tore up the stage and had the crowd on their feet; I didn't find a website for Roger but check out the recordings on his soundcloud page: soundcloud.com/roger-netherton. The guy can't be more than 20 years old...look for a lot of great music to come from him! (Hunter Walker killed it as the banjo player in Roger's band too : )
Anyways, fiddlers conventions are always a bit draining for me - lots in the way of playing, less in the way of sleep - but its totally worth it to escape the real world every once in a while. Going to sign off and go catch up - hopefully next week I can actually get back to recording!
After another short travel-related hiatus from recording my album (here), I'm back with another original fiddle tune! This one's called "South Kensington Shuffle" - its a D tune with an AAB structure though the B part is twice as long as the A part so it feels like an AABB tune. Here you go:
"South Kensington Shuffle" - an original fiddle tune by Jeff Norman (me). Played twice through by me on my Buckeye tuned to aDADE; guitar accompaniment the second time through using a 12-fret Epiphone Masterbilt in standard guitar tuning capoed on the 2nd fret.
Tune and recording Copyright 2017 - Jeff Norman.
I recorded this playing along with Garage Band's built-in metronome set to 110 bpm, but I think it could be a pretty great barn-burner for the speed freaks out there! The A part starts out pretty close to the C part of "Cumberland Gap" (the 3 part version in D)...but I'm okay with the overlap : ). The B part of "South Kensington Shuffle" starts on a G (IV) chord, which I think sounds nice.
The "South Kensington" part of the name comes from the hyper-posh region of London my parents lived in for a few years; to any Brits who may be reading: yeah, yeah...I know. The "shuffle" part is because I think a near-constant shuffle would be a great way to approach this tune on fiddle (...of course thats how I approach every tune on fiddle...). The Buckeye has been un-edited since the last recording...one tone ring, steel strings, renaissance head. Tuning is aDADE.
Hope you enjoyed the tune - we're on the home stretch of the album so hopefully I can finish soon!
I've been traveling for work and was able to stop by my old stomping grounds of southwest VA on the way back to America's high five. Lots of banjo to be had in these parts - I thought I'd use this week's post to give a bit of a blow-by-blow:
Thursday night I arrived in town just in time to play a duo gig with the fiddler from my old band in Virginia Tech's Moss Arts Center. The (quite fancy!) event was a reception for an exhibition focusing on local woodworkers called "From these woods." (info here). If you click the link you'll be hit with some eye-candy at the top of the page in the form of a GORGEOUS Buckeye banjo (www.buckeyebanjos.com), which was featured at the show! I, of course, got to play most of the tunes on my Buckeye (here), though I kept El Hefe (here) handy and tuned to Old G as well since shifting down to that tuning does take a bit of "settling in" time for any banjo. Greg wasn't the only banjo maker on exhibition: Mac Traynham actually had a banjo there too (mactraynham.com)! The gig went great...even though I always get just a bit nervous about playing through a PA : )
Friday was the first night of the Henry Reed Memorial Fiddlers convention (more info on that here) and I spent some time down there last night at a really great jam session! Amazingly, it can sometimes be hard to find musicians to play with at these things (...I never feel like one of the cool kids...) but yesterday I just decided to force myself to be sociable and I'm glad I did! I started by finding a guitar buddy: I sat down at his campsite and we started playing some tunes. As people walked by I just flagged them down and asked if they played anything. Eventually we expanded to 3 fiddles, 2 banjos, a guitar, and a guy who traded off between mandolin and banjo-uke. Really fun group! The best tunes of the night were definitely "Sandy Boys" and "Benton's Dream"...the latter of which the group definitely took to some interesting territory : )
Today (Saturday) I'm going back to the Henry Reed festival to compete in Banjo (and maybe Banjo-Fiddle duet..super cool that they even have this category!). I'm planning on trying out my "Yew Piney Mountain" for the banjo competition (here). Then, a trio version of the Happy Hollow Stringband (me on banjo + fiddle & guitar) are going to play a local fish fry, and we'll go back to Henry Reed afterwards to compete in the band competition. We're planning on picking a couple of tunes for the contest based on how they went at the fish fry. I've never done the band competition at Henry Reed but I've gotten 3rd and 5th in banjo in past years - I'm always surprised at how nervous I get up there! (I actually kind of train-wrecked at the end of "Newcastle" last year due to jitters). Just something about playing into a microphone I guess...hopefully I can give myself a powerful pep-talk this year!
In other news, the banjo that starred in last week's post (here) has shown up back in MI and my buddy says its pretty cool - can't wait to try it out! Next week, I plan on getting back to recording - until then!
I'm traveling for a week and, in all the past week's hubbub, I didn't have time to record prior to leaving town. Therefore, the next track on my album (here) will have to wait. However, I did manage to find time to purchase another banjo : )
Several weeks back, I thought it would be a fun to convert the Buckeye over to nylgut strings (recording of me playing "Banging Breakdown" on that banjo here). While I liked the sound, I really missed its steel string voice, and it didn't take me long to switch back. However, I've got the nylgut bug - its just kind of nice to have a banjo with such a different sound and its a bonus that nylgut leaves my banjo nail unscathed. So, I've been keeping my eyes peeled for a full-time nylgut couch-plunker in the Banjohangout classifieds. A few days ago I pulled the trigger on a fretted Buckbee! Below are a few photos:
Known specs are as follows:
- Shorter than normal scale length (maybe 24ish?)
- Spunover pot (I think...)
- Super cool looking skin head
- 40(!!) hooks
- Dates from the 1880s (probably)
- nylgut strings
Also - theres an interesting bridge on there as well. Because I'm leaving town, I've had to have it mailed to a friend's house and he'll get to play it before I do. However, I'll get my hands on it next week and, based on the specs, I'm expecting super-plunkiness - I'll try to get a recording up here in the near future!
After taking a break from recording last week, I'm back to finishing up my album (here). This week's track is one of my favorite originals called "How's Your Courage?" The title refers to the question the priest asked me the day before my wedding - luckily, all was well and the courage department : ). Here's the tune:
"How's Your Courage?" - an original fiddle tune by Jeff Norman (me). Played twice through by me on my Buckeye tuned to aDADE; guitar accompaniment the second time through using a 12-fret Epiphone Masterbilt in standard guitar tuning capoed on the 2nd fret.
Tune and recording Copyright 2017 - Jeff Norman.
A bit more about the tune:
A quick listen should tell you that the tune's a bit crooked - in fact, its kind of hard for me to figure out whether or not the first phrase is a lead-in or the first note is the 1 beat....doesn't really matter all that much I guess. Assuming the first note is the 1 beat, the chords look like this:
Chords for "How's Your Courage?"
D G G D G G
D G G A A Bm F#m
D G G D G G
D G G A A Bm F#m
D G G A A
D D Bm F#m
D G G A A
D D Bm F#m
D G G
The tune could be thought of as AABB with a little extra tag at the end of the 2nd B part (the last line) but I just kind of wrote all the chords out in a row for simplicity.
Tuning for this one is double D (aDADE). As has become the pattern for this adventure, I couldn't resist tinkering with the Buckeye again: while nylgut strings and a fiberskyn head were a fun diversion, I got a hankering to go back to the standard Steel/Renaissance setup. I'm also back to a single tone ring and a no-knot tailpiece. While its been kinda fun to find the edges of the Buckeye's tonal capabilities, I always end up back at this setup and I plan on keeping it that way until a gig I'm playing in a couple weeks.
Hope you enjoyed this one - I'll be back with another installment next week!
Over the past few weeks, I've slowly been recording an album of (mostly) original tunes (more on that here). This weekend I spent my banjo time playing a couple gigs with the pretty shaky string band (www.prettyshakystringband.org) and didn't really have a lot of effort left for recording : ) Therefore, I thought I'd take a week off from the album and take this opportunity to point any readers towards a couple really cool web resources that they may not have come across before.
First off, there are a lot of sites out there that you're likely to have come across before including:
Banjohangout (banjohangout.org) - source for all things banjo
Mike Iverson's site (www.bluesageband.com/Tabs.html) - where I (and many others) learned my first bums-ditty
Slippery Hill (www.slippery-hill.com) - the ultimate searchable database of fiddle tune source recordings
clawhammerbanjo.net (clawhammerbanjo.net) - home of the "brainjo" banjo lessons taught by Josh Turknett
Probably no surprises there - but hopefully you'll find something new if you keep reading.
Note: I don't really know any people who run these sites (though I did see Bob Browder at a couple jams in VA) and I certainly don't have a financial interest in any of these websites - I just kind of dig them and thought I'd share : )
Banjo meets world (https://banjomeetsworld.wordpress.com)
This is a banjo blog (complete with lessons, demos, recordings, etc.) that is, unfortunately, no longer being updated. The blog ran from 2008-2011 and has been left up as an archive - I'm not sure I quite realized it when I was starting this blog, but Banjo Meets World definitely provided some inspiration. In the FAQ section, Cathy Moore (the blog's author) points out that there is plenty of material out there for beginners, and she doesn't add to that pile - the stuff she posted certainly qualifies as "next level" banjo. Really love her eclectic tune choices, her focus on strange rhythms, and her posts about volume concerns with nylgut strings (its all in the bridge!)
"Get up in the cool" podcast (http://www.camerondewhitt.com/getupinthecool/)
As someone obsessed with podcasts, I was thrilled to finally find one that revolved around Old Time Music (and its pretty banjo heavy to boot)! Cameron DeWhitt, who is himself a pretty great banjo player, converses and jams with a variety of Old Time musicians - plenty you've heard of and some you likely haven't. The podcast started in 2016 and, while I've yet to listen to every back episode, I've definitely heard some great ones so far. I started by listening to interviews with people most readers would recognize (Adam Hurt, Brad Kolodner, Bertram Levy) but some of my favorite episodes have been those with people that may be less familiar, including some I saw around Clifftop last year: Brian Slattery, Bach Bui, Ludvig Drevfjall.
As an aside: Late one night at Clifftop, I listened to a jam where Brian Slattery was playing this indescribably squirrely minor tune with a cello, a bass and a guitarist...it must have lasted a half hour. One of my big Clifftop regrets is that I didn't ask for the tune name - kind of thought I'd never hear it again. But, it was one of the jam tunes on the Brian Slattery episode!! Its called "Lonesome Prairie" (do yourself a favor and go find Jon Bekoff's version on Slippery Hill on top of listening to the one that Brian and Cameron do)...and its just as amazing as I remember!
This is Bob Browder's site about banjo building in which he relates a lot of the wisdom he learned by apprenticing for Mac Traynham (who also taught Greg Galbreath how to build banjos and is therefore my banjo's grandad). The page is both thorough and beginner friendly - really a great resource for any level player or builder (as is the companion book you can buy at the site). If you've got a woodworking bug, or if you just want to understand your own banjo a bit better, this is a great place to start.
Well thats about it - obviously this list is not exhaustive (can any list of 3 things be exhaustive?). If you've got other suggestions for interesting sites people ought to check out - feel free to leave them in the comments. Next week I hope to get back "into the studio" (HA! - its a couple of chairs in my living room, upon one of which rests a microphone).
To mark the halfway point of my out-of-order 10 track album (more on that here), I decided to record the one non-original tune on my list, what I'm calling "Hobart's Breakdown." A bit of explanation: this tune is essentially the Hobart Smith tune "Banging Breakdown," which is so named because Hobart bangs on the banjo head during the tune. While the "banging" sounds great when Hobart does it, I always felt silly trying to emulate this part of the tune and took it out of my version long ago. However, calling a tune "banging breakdown" without the eponymous "banging" seems silly as well, hence the name change. I give you "Hobart's Breakdown:"
"Hobart's Breakdown," which is what I call Hobart Smith's "Banging Breakdown" with the "banging" removed. Played in aDAC#E on my Buckeye freshly restrung with light gauge nylgut strings and fitted with a fiberskyn head. Played AABB; Solo banjo first time through followed by a second time with guitar accompaniment (Epiphone Masterbilt 12 fret) - both instruments played by me (Jeff Norman).
I thought this tune would be fun to record this for a couple of reasons. First off, while you'll definitely hear Hobart Smith's "Last Chance" and sometimes "Pateroller" out in the wild, I never hear this tune outside of the two recordings of Hobart playing it (and a few youtube videos, including the one I shot for Elderly, below).
Me Playing "Hobart's Breakdown" on a Deering Goodtime Americana for Elderly Instruments.
Full video available here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Veb70cJ-eo4
Secondly, in addition to removing the "banging," I've made a few other tweaks to the tune as well: Most notably, I've moved it up from C tuning to D tuning (I just don't have that many C tunes in my life) and I've squared it off a bit by playing a fairly constant AABB pattern (Hobart gets a bit loosey-goosey with the number of repeats). Finally, I've added what I think are some pretty cool chords:
Banging Breakdown Chords (both A and B parts):
Bm G D A
Bm G D A
Bm G D A
D A D
I used to play this with a guitarist for Duo gigs back in VA...which were a ton of fun (as usual I wish he was around to record the guitar parts - my guitar playing is imprecise and I don't let chords ring enough). If you look closely above, you'll notice the tune is just a bit crooked in that the last line is "missing a chord." This type of crookedness makes you feel like you're rushing to the next part - brings a bit of excitement to the tune!
Banjo stuff for Hobart's Breakdown
Maybe you've noticed that I'm getting a bit restless with the Buckeye's setup - during this recording process, I've gone from 2 tone rings to 1, switched tailpieces, and switched string gauges. This time I made a huge jump: from steel strings to nylgut; I also switched from a renaissance head to a fiberskyn.
The impetus for the drastic setup change was as follows: this past week I played banjo outdoors at lunch with a fiddler and brought my goofy little fretless along for the ride (sound file of that banjo at the bottom of this post). Amazingly, that thing was actually loud enough to hold its own in a duo (though a lone guitar would surely have overtaken it) and I played it the whole session with that banjo alone. Rather than its "fretlessness," what I really found myself digging was the ease of play of the nylgut strings and the plunkiness of the fiberskyn head. For funsies I spent a chunk of my weekend converting the Buckeye to a similar setup. I actually had all of the requisite parts in house: I've got loads of extra strings for the fretless, a spare fiberskyn head, and the Buckeye even came with an extra nut with slots wide enough for nylgut strings (random, I know). I'm not sure how long I'll keep it this way, but I've got a weekly duo engagement while the weather stays nice and theres plenty of couch plunking to be had in between - kinda nice to play a banjo that wont wear out your fingers (or nails...). While the volume leaves a bit to be desired, I've got Hefe for jams.
The tuning for "Hobart's Breakdown" is a bit unusual from my perspective: aDAC#E. The bluegrass guys use this for a variety of D tunes, (without a capo its often referred to as just "C tuning") and Pete Seeger relied on it heavily in his book as well. I play the Fred Cockerham tune "Roustabout" in this tuning; in "Roustabout" its useful for providing an open A chord if one avoids the 4th string, while giving a low D that comes in handy in the B part. From what I've read, Hobart played "Banging Breakdown" in C using gCGBE (rather than gCGBD) but I don't spend a lot of time on the 1st string so my tuning works just fine.
See you next week for another installment...