OTR-59 The Mailbag

This month, the Old-Time Rambler would like to take time to answer some of the voluminous mail that floods in occasionally if the skylight is open.

Dear Mr. Rambler,

I would like to learn to play old-time banjo. I have heard it referred to as frailing, clawhammer, rapping, knocking, down-picking, up-picking, brushing, walloping, flicking, assaulting, carpet-bombing, gandydancing, chopping, dicing, mincing, grating, two-finger, three-finger, four-finger, five-finger, six-finger, wrist-and-all, jump-starting, sand-wedging, skeet-shooting, and perforating. Do you know if these are all legitimate banjo styles, and do you know how to describe each one?

A. Yes

Dear Old-Time Rambler Sir,

Do old-time players need to know a lot about chords? I hear bluegrass players calling out chords by number sometimes.

A. Old-time fiddle and banjo are primarily melodic, and chords bring up several issues. Chords are not as important in old-time music as in bluegrass, especially if it’s just fiddle and banjo. There can also be strong differences of opinion as to what chords are called for in an old-time fiddle tune. A dispute over a chord that seems suggested by a melody line or an interval played can trigger urges in the musicians that, shall we say, depart from mellow and veer toward cranky.

You are right, it is common for bluegrass players to call out chords numerically, ranging over the scale: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII. This knowledge of Roman numerals is impressive to many old-time players, some of whom are completely lost when confronted with the number of the latest Super Bowl.

Old-time players commonly learn the corresponding names for the chords instead, as follows (you could look it up): I–tonic, II–supertonic, III–mediant, IV–subdominant, V–dominant, VI–submediant, and VII–subtonic. We call these out to each other only sparingly, and only when we’re with our own. So a bluegrass player may never have heard this being done, stealth and a good disguise being necessary to catch us out.

Dear O (forgive the familiarity),

I’ve heard old-time players refer to crooked tunes, but I don’t know what they are. Can you enlighten me?

A. Sorry, I don’t smoke, but I’ll try to explain. Most old-time dance tunes (waltzes excluded, of course), have phrases of 8 beats, or 16, or 32, depending on your resting heart rate and whether you’re counting quarter notes or eighth notes or repeated sections. Anyway, once you figure that out, a crooked tune is one that deviates from this structure. Usually, it means that extra beats show up, sometimes just in one part of the tune, sometimes in all parts of the tune, sometimes showing up the first time through the tune but not the second or vice versa, and all kinds of similar combinations. There are also some tunes that leave out beats so that the expected multiple of 8 beats comes up short. In playing old-time music, we must embrace flexibility, but please don’t squeeze too hard.

Dear Professor R,

Can you give some examples of crooked tunes?

A. Yes, if you’re in the mood to do a little clicking below and to the right. “Hell Among The Yearlings” is a truly wonderful version by the late Ralph Blizard And The New Southern Ramblers, from their album, “Blizard Train”. It’s listed on the County Sales website (http://www.countysales.com/) in CD format, and on the Appalshop website (http://appalshop.org/store/) in cassette form. Hopefully, one or both of these are still available and in print. You want crooked? You got crooked. Plus Ralph’s amazing and inspiring bow magic, and the support of a great band. “John Cole” is from from Bruce Molsky’s 2000 album, “Poor Man’s Troubles”, available from brucemolsky.com or Amazon and other places too. Bruce got this tune from a recording of the Kentucky fiddler, John Salyer. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear why Bruce’s notes for this tune say, “No, your CD is not defective.” Get ready for some real arrhythmic fun.

Hell Among The Yearlings
John Cole
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