As so often, my current reflections have been prompted by music that I’ve happened to hear on the television. This time it was a snatch of the song ‘Stay’ which was the first major UK chart success for the Hollies in late 1963. I had always assumed that it was an original composition by the members of the group, and they recorded ‘Stay’ up tempo with a powerful beat – just the thing for the British charts in the mid-60s. But what I heard briefly on the TV last week was a distinctive female voice singing ‘Stay’ in a more relaxed and reflective way. From my search on YouTube, the singer turns out to have been Cyndi Lauper, and her recording has gone straight into my list of “Great new interpretations of old hits”. I’ve also been put right about the origin of ‘Stay’, courtesy of Google and YouTube. The song was written by Maurice Williams, who was the first to record it with his group, the Zodiacs, in 1960, when it was a major US hit. Other performers have also done very well with the song, from The Four Seasons onwards. ‘Stay’ could conceivably be played by a bluegrass band. We already have Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan’s ‘Stay all night, stay a little longer’ in the repertoire of many bands – the Grascals do a fine version on YouTube, and while you’re there check out Melvin Goins leading a session with this song.
Borrowing, rearranging and adapting tunes is common practice in most forms of music. Medieval and renaissance composers often borrowed a melody and used it as the basis for a full length composition of their own. Wikipedia reminds us that in the late Middle Ages the secular song ‘L’Homme Armé’ was the most popular tune used for musical settings of the Mass: over 40 separate compositions entitled ‘Missa L’Homme Armé’ survive from the period. And moving ahead to the twentieth century Vaughan Williams composed his popular ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’.
In bluegrass and old time music it is not uncommon for tunes to be retitled to reflect the names of musicians or to put a new slant on an old favourite. ‘Eddie on the Freeway’ was Eddie Adcock’s banjo version of ‘Paddy on the Turnpike’ when he recorded it with the Country Gentlemen. ‘Daybreak in Dixie’ sometimes masquerades as ‘Banjo In The Hills’, and ‘Train 45’ is another name for ‘Reuben’ or ‘Reuben’s Train’. Bluegrass music commonly borrows from other genres and adapts for its own purpose, as exemplified by the ‘Larry Sparks Sings Hank Williams’ album. From the earliest days of bluegrass, old time country songs have been a staple source of material, beginning with Bill Monroe’s recordings of Jimmie Rodgers songs and Flatt and Scruggs’ up tempo version of Buster Carter and Preston Young’s 1931 recording ‘I’ll Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’.
‘Dallas Rag’ is an interesting case of an old tune which has found its way into a variety of genres of music. I have mentioned it before in these pages but probably not the version arranged by Shaye Cohn who plays cornet with the New Orleans jazz band Tuba Skinny. From what I can gather Shaye learned ‘Dallas Rag’ from the original 1927 recording by the Dallas String Band, which featured the mandolin playing of Coley Jones. She plays it in the same key of F, which works well with brass and woodwind instruments, and has contributed the piece to the repertoire of Tuba Skinny, one of the smartest traditional jazz bands on the scene at present. Listen to their various live performances on YouTube: I particularly enjoy their spirited performance of ‘Dallas Rag’ at the Spotted Cat 4/10/12, which also kicks offtheir 28 minute ‘Dallas Rag Medley’ – for the real Tuba Skinny addict! And Tuba Skinny have adapted another mandolin tune, ‘Jackson Stomp’, first recorded by Charlie McCoy on what sounds like a mandolin banjo with the Mississippi Mud Steppers. McCoy had used the identical tune for ‘That Lonesome Train That Took My Baby Away’ recorded earlier the same day – musical recycling was clearly alive and well on 15 December 1930.
Like many people I was first introduced to ragtime tunes in the 1960s from the recordings of guitar players like David Laibman and Stefan Grossman. It wasn’t till a bit later that I realised that the original tunes had come from composers like Scott Joplin, and that unlike blues and folk music much ragtime music had actually been written down in musical notation. However, I have also learned the importance of being adaptable when arranging pieces for another instrument. Scott Joplin wrote piano rags, and set the first part of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in E flat, modulating to B flat later in the piece. David Laibman sensibly transposed the tune to D /A for the guitar, while Dennis Pash has arranged ‘Maple Leaf’ in G / C for the mandolin-banjo. He also plays Peacherine Rag in D / A / G as opposed to Joplin’s original E flat / B flat / A flat. Stefan Grossman plays ‘Dallas Rag’ in D on the guitar (capo 2 using C fingering). All these variations from the ‘original’ take advantage of the tuning and resonance of the instrument you are playing.
The field is always wide open for arranging songs and tunes for your particular instrumentand for whatever kind of band you are playing in. I have often wondered who was the first person to introduce ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ to the bluegrass repertoire – and who thought of adding harmonics and using Scruggs cam tuners in the banjo breaks. It’s all to play for!