Writing about World Music

Section X, Fall 2016

Author: scstegall

Improv Jamming-Teachable?

This past Thanksgiving weekend, I had the good fortune to drive down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and attend the South Carolina State Bluegrass Festival. This year marks the third time I have been, and although the festival is relatively small compared to large ones like the International Bluegrass Music Festival and Merlefest, I have always enjoyed the lineup of performers and the musical community present. This year, I spent many hours out of each day at the festival jamming with other musicians. Usually, I would listen to some bands from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or so and jam until 5 p.m. I would then listen to a few more bands and grab a bite to eat. Around 7 p.m. I would continue jamming backstage with several musicians until about midnight, then climb into my bed and wake up the next morning to repeat the cycle.

Although my traditional jamming binge has not been altered much in the three years I have attended the festival, the setting changed in one particular aspect: this year, the festival hosted one of Pete Wernick’s “Jam Camps.” The idea is pretty simple: regional instructors are brought together to teach beginning and intermediate musicians the art of playing with other people in a jam context. While me and several older musicians were jamming in one room, the Jam Camp was taking place in the room adjacent. During our jam, I heard one picker joke about the Jam Camp: “I oughta go over to that Jam Camp and learn the Pete Wernick method! Then I’ll be good enough to play with y’all!” he exclaimed and then jokingly laughed. The other musicians laughed as well. From this encounter, I realized that many of my own criticisms of a Jam Camp were shared by other musicians. Mainly, these older musicians believe Jam Camps are superfluous and unhelpful because jamming is something you learn to do through casual interaction with other musicians. Jam Camps reduce the casual, improvisational nature of jamming by structuring the volume, tone, breaks, and other musical aspects.

Over the weekend, I got to witness several differences between the traditional jammers who I normally played with and the Jam Camp instructors. Late one night, I found myself jamming with a few of the Camp teachers by the bar at the convention center. I noticed that the Camp teachers usually let all musicians play a break during the song. This would sometimes cause the song to last for 6 or 7 minutes as there were about 10 musicians jamming. Camp teachers also played a lot of bluegrass material from the 1960’s and 70’s– songs from counterculture bands like Old and in the Way, the Grateful Dead, and Seldom Scene. Generally, the older, more traditional musicians played material from the founding generation of bluegrass pioneers (1940’s and 50’s) or from the modern, neo-traditional genre. These distinctions revealed that the Jam Camp teachers generally valued musical inclusiveness over quality. Contributing to this difference is the fact that this school of musicians performs newgrass and counterculture bluegrass musics as opposed to the traditional music that musicians like myself jam on.

To signify these distinctions, I’ve included two videos of songs that were performed in the separate jams. The first clip is of a reunion of Old and in the Way almost forty years after their band dissolved. Their music is full of minor chords and vibes that are not present in traditional bluegrass music.

The next video is of a song we played in the more traditional jam. This Russell Moore classic is one that pushed his band to fame in the 1980’s bringing in a new age of traditional bluegrass music.

Open Mic Experience

On Tuesday night, my friends and I got together and jammed a bit. We had picked a couple times before playing mostly folk, gospel, and bluegrass; however, I never really sang many songs during our jams. We played a couple of songs, and the other musicians asked me to sing lead on most of them because I am a tenor, which, in there opinion, was more suited to bluegrass than their lower voices. After we picked several tunes, we decided to head over to the open mic at Nummit and played a brief performance.

We arrived at Nummit around 8:30 and sat through several performances before we got on stage. The other musicians were very good players and singers–there wasn’t an act that was “bad” or lacking in any musical quality. Yet, as the evening progressed, I grew bored with the music. This was a very different and strange perception as I normally am very interested in most musical genres and styles from jazz to classical to rock. As each new performer played, I realized that they were essentially performing similar styles of music. All of the songs played were at a very slow pace. The originals normally had a minor chord and maybe a I, IV, and V (Nashville Numbering System Chords), but besides that they seemed to lack flavor and energy. This is not a negative thing for the most part. In fact, most people at Nummit were studying, and the quiet slow music made for good background noise. Yet, as an active listener, I was not motivated to hear songs and artists that stuck strictly to a prescribed musical formula. Finally, the mold was broken. A jazz combo took the stage, and the combo hammered out some amazing tunes. One of my favorites was “All of Me,” a tune covered by Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, and Ella Fitzgerald. After three songs, the combo moved off the stage, and we started setting up our instruments and gear for our brief performance.

After prepping our instruments, we lit into a very fast song called “Lonesome Road Blues.” The song was in a very high key challenging my vocal abilities. However, this gave the song more of an edge and drive which contributed to our performance. After this song, the guitarist sang a folk ballad called “Roll on Buddy,” and we rounded the set off with a gospel song called “Angel Band.” After our performance, we got several compliments. The audience seemed to enjoy our set and Live Thursday organizers talked to us about performing in the future. Reflecting on this, I don’t believe it was necessarily the quality of our music that garnered a positive response. I believe that several of the audience members were like myself: slightly bored with the musical monotony. The diversity of a bluegrass group and a jazz group helped to spice up the musical setting and livened up the atmosphere.

The Pedal Steel

Most country songs employ a pedal steel to achieve what has been characterized as a “high lonesome sound”; however, most people have no idea what this instrument is or how it’s played. A pedal steel typically has ten strings and features several pedals (hence the name) which typically tune strings a step or half step higher. When played in the context of major chords, a pedal steel is generally used to raise a second a whole note up to a third, resolving the chord. Because the pedal steel relies on a steel to play the notes it can be compared to a fiddle. The instrument doesn’t distinctly move from one note to another it slides from note to note.

The following video explains the mechanics of a pedal steel.

I have been a fan of pedal steel artists for about two years now. I discovered the instrument studying banjo in fact–the great Sonny Osborne often utilized steel licks in his banjo playing. One of my favorite steel players is Sarah Jory. She has been a very minor musician in the main scope of things. In fact she has not played with overly successful mainstream country bands; however, it’s her improvisational talent and body language that draws me most to her playing. The following video was captured many years ago and demonstrates her crazy style!

She is definitely in the zone! Her humorous faces and concentrated expressions reveal a connection between body, mind, and music. Her performance is especially convincing of genuineness.

One of the great advantages of the pedal steel is that its licks can be used on so any different instruments. Country guitarists often mimic the pedal steel. Foremost of these guitarists is Jimmy Olander of Diamond Rio. Olander plays Glaser guitars which have a built in pedal mechanism that mimics the sound of a pedal steel. The following video demonstrates the string benders.

Django Reinhardt’s Disability and His Musical Legacy

For some reason, I’ve been drawn to instrumental acoustic guitar music this week. From blues to bluegrass to jazz, my playlists have played about every genre of instrumental music! In particular, I’ve been listening to the fantastic solos of Django Reinhardt, a Belgian gypsy guitarist. Reinhardt started touring as a young musician while in his teens; however, an accident changed his life, and musical style forever. After returning from a show one night, Reinhardt’s caravan caught fire. He and his wife managed to escape but in the rush, Reinhardt badly burned his left hand and his right leg. For eighteen months thereafter he was confined to a hospital bed. Ever the dedicated musician, Reinhardt practiced every day while bedridden, and developed a new technique using only the two fingers of his left hand as fretting fingers. His other fingers were permanently curled by the fire. Despite such a tragedy, Reinhardt returned to the stages of Europe with a new technique and style which elevated his family out of poverty and made him a star. I’ve included a few of his pieces to demonstrate Reinhardt’s technicality and style.

What amazes me about Reinhardt is his ability to adapt and persevere musically despite his physical deficiencies. Many other disabled musicians have overcome their physical handicaps, like blindness, to master particular instruments. These include such greats like Doc Watson, Blind John Davis, Stevie Wonder, Gary Davis, Ray Charles, and Ronnie Milsap. Violinist great Itzhak Perlman has fought polio since the age of four, Ludwig Beethoven battled deafness, and Jerry Garcia played with only four intact fingers. Such artists are inspirations to all of us learning instruments. Just for fun, I’ve included some videos of amazing musicians with disabilities demonstrating their proficiency.

The first video is of renowned blind fiddler Michael Cleveland. He is one of the best fiddlers you will ever hear!

Here is the fabulous Jerry Garcia.

And of course I have to post a video of Doc Watson jamming out! Blind from a young age, Doc revolutionized the guitar’s role in folk music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soq56uC963A

Now back to Django! As I said earlier Django Reinhardt’s style influenced so many musicians across genres. His influence can be heard in various styles of music across traditions. In particular, I’m reminded of several recordings made by Arthur Smith and Don Reno which featured many of Reinhardt’s pieces in different musical contexts. Since I posted Limehouse Blues earlier, here’s a video of Don Reno playing Limehouse Blues with his own spin!

Here is another example of Reinhardt’s musical legacy. The following video is the David Grisman Sextet playing Minor Swing.

http://www.redhotjazz.com/django.html

 

Piedmont Blues

Last night I went to a gig one of my friends played at a local coffee shop. Most of the set was filled with folk songs–some Bob Dylan, some John Prine, and a couple of tunes from the Southern Appalachians. One song in particular sparked my interest. The tune was “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,”  a song I have generally heard played in bluegrass styles; however, the musicians played a bluesy version of the song popularized by Mississippi John Hurt. When I got back to my dorm after the show that night, I got out my guitar, fingerpicks, found some John Hurt tunes, and played along for several hours, trying to hammer out the distinctive rhythm of his style. I did some more research into Mississippi John Hurt and found that he popularized a style of blues commonly referred to as the “Piedmont Blues.” This style is a very complicated and technical style which makes use of the thumb finger in adding bass lines and at least two other fingers to pick treble notes. The general vibe is similar to ragtime piano. I’ve included a couple videos of “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” recorded in different styles to demonstrate the variance in musical styles.

The above version has an amazing bluesy banjo break by banjo great Eddie Adcock!

Here is the blues version by Mississippi John Hurt.

I did some more digging into this particular style. One guitarist of particular interest is the late Blind Blake. While he used a similar style as Mississippi John Hurt did, he played mostly ragtime tunes and instrumentals as opposed to the slower, vocal tunes that Hurt popularized. The following video is one of his most famous songs called the Southern Rag.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf6OjxYPzoo

What really captivates me about this particular style is not just the technicality of the picking patterns themselves, but the great emotion employed in the bends, mutes, and other techniques which constitute the hallmark of blues styles. In addition, these early black guitarists provided a lot of musical material and technique which were borrowed by younger white musicians later on. Doc Watson and Wayne Henderson are two such guitar players who play similar styles as Piedmont Blues players. However, they use this technique in different contexts. I’ve included a couple videos to demonstrate these musicians’ unique styles and blues influence.

 

One of the advantages of this style is that it allows a solo performer to play instrumental breaks while maintaining a bass line reducing the need for backup instruments or the presence of another guitarist. As such, this technique has great value in the blues tradition but it is also useful in many styles of music.

My Random Instrument Find

As a rather strange human being, I partake in antique “picking” and collecting various items from salt shakers to tobacco pipes to RC Cola signs and military memorabilia. On a recent excursion to an antique store in Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina, I came across an odd instrument that I’ve seen a few time: a mandolin banjo. Basically, the instrument features a mandolin body with a resonator or open back chamber (indicative of a banjo) and an animal hide or fiberskin head. I’ve included a picture of a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin that I was privileged to play at Lowe Vintage Instruments in Burlington, NC (it’s an awesome shop for all vintage instrument enthusiasts)! This is the holy grail of mandolins!

mandolin

And here is a picture of a Gibson TB-11 banjo for reference.
banjo

And the following is the hybridized mandolin banjo. Notice this instrument is the same scale as a mandolin but features several components of a banjo.

banjolin

I did a bit of research on the instrument and found it was extremely popular during the late 19th century. Mandolin orchestras were extremely popular during this time period and remained so until the 1920’s when the tenor banjo became increasingly popular in jazz and string orchestras. Here is an example of a mandolin orchestra:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snG-F7A6AUQ

 

Now back to my “mantique” quest. I could find no company name, no serial number, or any identification stamp anywhere on the mandolin banjo. I tentatively dated the instrument around 1890-1920. I understand that such a vast period is a rather vague; however, with such limited information that’s the best I could do. I deduced this from the rubber covered tuners which did not become popular till around the turn of the 20th century. In addition, most instrument makers used more metal components and moved away from dowel stick construction on banjos and banjo related instruments during the 1920’s and 30’s.

Even though the instrument had no head, I decided to purchase it for a meager $50, as I have always wanted to restore and own a banjo mandolin. I have restored a couple of banjos, the most difficult being a late 1800’s Gatcomb banjo that was in very rough shape!

After bringing the banjo mandolin to my dorm, I removed the brackets located on the rim that hold the head in place. I disassembled the instrument completely and hope to start working on the restoration shortly! Here are some pictures of the instrument in its current disassembled state.

banjolin-1 banjolin-2

 

The Scottish Fiddle of Dr. John Turner

Each year, my family goes on vacation to beautiful Colonial Williamsburg located in Eastern Virginia. Typically we will spend three days in the old colonial capital, a day visiting Jamestown and Yorktown, and a couple of days touring Charlottesville, Richmond, or some Civil War battlefields. On a recent trip, we dined at a period tavern in Williamsburg and experienced a cultural representation of 18th century America. In the middle of our meal, a tall, shabby man dressed in traditional garb walked through our dining room and played a few period pieces on the fiddle. However, this was no ordinary fiddle; it was a pochette fiddle, otherwise known as a kit fiddle. These instruments were miniatures of our modern day fiddle and were extensively used throughout the 17th and early 18th century. Of note, Thomas Jefferson was rumored to own two of these minuscule instruments. The tavern musician played a few Scottish tunes on the pochette fiddle and I was fascinated!

 

I started doing some research (thanks Google!) and discovered that the musician performing was Dr. John Turner. Dr. Turner won the Scottish National Fiddling Championship ten times and is an active teacher as he organizes a Scottish fiddling school in the mountains of North Carolina once a year. In addition, I found an interview Dr. Turner did with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The link to that interview is included below.

 

http://www.history.org/media/podcasts_transcripts/FiddlingAroundCW.cfm

 

In particular, I was interested with Turner’s notion of “authentic” Scottish music. As a historian, Turner asserts that his role is to perform authentic, period music, rather than the typical Celtic style which has been mislabeled as “Scottish.” Another intriguing aspect of Turner’s presentation of Scottish music, is his articulation of the “bagpipe” style of fiddle playing which became prominent in the 1740s. As the bagpipe, and other hallmarks of the Scottish tradition were banned by Parliament in that same decade, many Scottish musicians transferred bagpipe tunes to the fiddle. Such a devotion to musical stylings exemplifies the strong cultural identity and resilience that the Scottish imbibed. In the context of our World Music class, the continuance of performing bagpipe tunes exemplifies Bohlman’s concept of “aesthetic embeddedness.” The Scottish fiddle became an instrument of protest against autocratic rule and an image of cultural solidarity. The following video demonstrates a Scottish fiddle and bagpipe duet.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C26nuIRTzh8

 

Turner’s musical research is quite extensive and surprising as well! For instance, Turner asserts that while Thomas Jefferson was a violin player, he was certainly no “fiddle” player; however, Turner’s research has led him to believe that the hot blooded, red-haired Virginian Patrick Henry was most certainly a Scottish fiddler. The main difference between such styles is the notion that Jefferson’s violin style was classical, while Henry’s was rooted in the folk style of the Scotch.

In addition to the fiddle, Turner plays the bagpipes, flute, and other instruments exceptionally well. I’ve included a couple more videos to demonstrate Dr. Turner’s unparalleled musical ability.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp13CFZtATY

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpaPikvtEaE

 

Here is a video of John Turner playing a pochette fiddle. Skip to 1:30 to hear his performance.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hgk9CnJzFQ

 

The Music of Surry County

As I’ve studied Old Time Music, I’ve become particularly interested with a musical style known as the “Round Peak” style. Forged in Surry County, North Carolina, Round Peak music features an Appalachian fiddle played in a traditional style, while a banjo player plays a unique clawhammer rhythm. The clawhammer style is one in which artists like Pete Seeger, Ralph Stanley, and Wade Ward used quite frequently. A hybrid of the minstrel style of the 19th century, clawhammer form dictates that the right hand be clenched to resemble a claw. The hand strikes down on one of the four lower strings of the banjo, while the thumb strikes down on the fifth string of the banjo. This makes what Pete Seeger called a “bum-ditty” sound. A video is included of the late Pete Seeger below to demonstrate this style.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RU3uJqPNQBM

While the banjo players of Round Peak certainly used this style as the basis for their music, they incorporated their own elements. These included the drop thumb style and double thumbing. Drop thumb involves dropping the thumb from the high fifth string to strike a lower string, while double thumbing involves striking the fifth string with the thumb twice as often as the bum-ditty style. A video is included below to show the different styles. Although it is very low quality, it demonstrates the different styles very well!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-lk5q-z0vc

This unique style really complimented the fiddlers of Surry County. Of course, one can not talk about the Round Peak fiddlers without talking about Tommy Jarrell. Jarrell is probably the most famous old time fiddle player in Appalachian history. Jarrell’s bow work is complicated, difficult, and powerful. For his accomplishments he received the National Heritage Award. Jarrell was also an expert banjo player in the Round Peak style. The following video is an excerpt from the movie “Sprout Wings and Fly.” It’s a great testament to one of America’s greatest folk musicians!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDJPnG3RDxU

This video is from the Alan Lomax collection.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS_ODsA5gkI

The Round Peak style demonstrates several things about folk music. First of all, this music was an integral part of Surry County culture. Musicians were constantly at Jarrell’s residence and neighbors and family would attend the nightly jams. In addition, the Round Peak style demonstrates how ingenuity and individual innovation can shape collective music. Though the style was inaugurated by Charlie Lowe, Tommy Jarrell made the fast and hard-driving style famous.

Paddle Faster: My Five String Obsession…

Hello all!

My name is Scott Stegall. I’m from Monroe, North Carolina, which is a small town about an hour south of Davidson near the borderline of the Carolinas. As a child, I was a fan of various seemingly unconnected musical genres. Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson, and Nicki Minaj formed the basis of my extensive album collection. Six years ago, however, I expressed interest in an instrument that has gotten a comical (albeit negative) rap in the past few years—the five string banjo. I distinctly remember listening to a Grand Ole Opry DVD featuring Earl Scruggs at my late grandfather’s house, and from that point on, I was hooked. As soon as I heard the speed, power, and tone of Scruggs’ unique playing style, I knew that banjo would be the piece de resistance to my relatively crude instrument collection which consisted of a Hohner guitar, and a student grade Bach trumpet. I have included the link below to a video of the original Foggy Mountain Breakdown recording. (It an interesting recording as the band Flatt and Scruggs tuned all their instruments to G# rather than G producing a higher, crisper sound for this recording alone).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_Y3mnj-8lA

Earl Scruggs was instrumental in the development of the banjo, and he has remained a constant inspiration for me as he played the banjo in bluegrass, country, folk, and folk rock contexts. His versatility ensured the banjo’s survival as a valuable instrument in the “American” tradition.

Using the “Scruggs’ Style” as a canvas, I soon explored other banjo styles as well. Players of particular interest for me are J.D. Crowe, Don Reno, and Raymond Fairchild. The following link is a snippet of Raymond Fairchild playing a fast and engaging piece, “Woah Mule Woah.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsfy6I9Ds8Y Note that he is simply muting the strings of his banjo with his palm and sliding up and down the neck to make most of his strange sounds.

Studying many of these performers has enabled me to become a better player in turn. At the age of 14, I started playing in my first band called Stonewashed Bluegrass. For the past four years, I have performed with Stonewashed at various fiddler conventions, churches, community events, fundraisers, and concerts. My biggest challenge as an instrumentalist, in such contexts, has been to blend my banjo with the other instruments and to compliment (through back up and lead playing) the other soloists and instrumentation.

My love of the banjo and history often pairs well; it has led me to discover the instrument’s past. As a Civil War buff, I started researching about the origins of the banjo during the antebellum period. Eventually, I found copies of the infamous, antiquated “Brigg’s Banjo Instructor” from the mid-19th century. https://archive.org/details/briggsbanjoinstr00brig From subsequent videos and recordings I listened to, I became captivated by the minstrel banjo; so, I purchased a copy of a Boucher banjo made by George Wunderlich one year ago, and started dedicating my time to the study of this comparatively slower and more graceful style of playing. The following link is a video of Bill Evans performing a few minstrel tunes on a Wunderlich banjo as well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znirKZGotzw This style of banjo playing is very pleasing to me as it highlights the lower, slower, and more subtle elements of Appalachian and Scotch Irish fiddle tunes.

From the modern bluegrass banjo to the minstrel banjo of the mid-19th century, I study and love many types of banjo playing. I recently started learning a new style from a music instructor at Davidson College. The clawhammer style of banjo playing surfaced around the early 20th century and is generally used in an Appalachian context to complement the lead playing of the fiddle. I have included two videos as examples and an article for a reference point.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVidNrSf3Gs

It’s Steve Martin! (Below)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l31MSpojWTA

http://nativeground.com/what-is-clawhammer-banjo/

 

So that should rap up most of my musical interests. In addition to the banjo styles mentioned above, I love to play mandolin, bluegrass guitar, doghouse bass, and electric guitar in the style of Albert Lee! In case any of y’all have nothing to do with your time and want to see another video, here is one of Albert Lee tearing up his telecaster. He is the reason I try to play guitar!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-T6Dp2UAZo

Anyway, I’ve included some references below in order to give you some more information. I hope to continue to pursue many different music genres, interests, and instruments in the future!

The following link provides a plethora of information on the late Earl Scruggs.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/arts/music/earl-scruggs-bluegrass-banjo-player-dies-at-88.html?_r=0

The following video provides a sneak peek into the Earl Scruggs Center, a museum located in Shelby North Carolina.

http://earlscruggscenter.org/the-earl-scruggs-story-on-unc-tv/