Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Blackberry Quadrille Transcription

Not too long ago I got a used copy of a book from 1987 called Old-Time Music Makers of New York State, by Simon J. Bronner.  The book examines the fiddling and old-time music of rural upstate New York during the 19th and 20th centuries.  Old-time music is usually associated with the Southern Appalachians, so it's interesting to find a book that addresses its role and meaning to the people of this region, whose fiddlers had just as much of an impact on their communities as their counterparts in Kentucky or Tennessee.

I would like to sit down and read the whole book, but so far I've just been perusing it and looking at the photographs and transcriptions of old fiddle and dance tunes.  It contains many great tunes that were part of the Yorker tradition, including Haste to the Wedding, Money Musk, Durang’s Hornpipe, Rickett’s Hornpipe, Irish Washerwoman, Rakes of Mallow, Miss McCleod’s Reel, Devil’s Dream, Turkey in the Straw, and more.  

I thought I'd share a tune in it called Blackberry Quadrille.  I wasn't familiar with the title and until I looked it up I don't think I had ever heard anyone play it.  Blackberry Quadrille was recorded on July 14, 1941 in New York City by Woodhull's Old Tyme Masters, an old-time square dance band from New York State.   Click here to listen to that recording of Blackberry Quadrille.  Woodhull's also recorded versions of Soldier's Joy, Girl I Left Behind Me and Capt. Jinks during the same recording session that day.  

Below is the book's transcription of Blackberry Quadrille.  As you can see it is in 6/8 time, making it a fun, Northern sounding tune that you could probably toss into a set of jigs or slides at an Irish session without raising too many eyebrows.  It would also make a great contra dance tune, obviously.

Blackberry Quadrille sheet music transcription
I found this YouTube video of Blackberry Quadrille.

According to this video's description, "Quadrilles, or dances in square formation of four couples facing each other, evolved in France and became popular in Britain, Ireland and America in the 19th century. It was first danced publicly in Dublin in 1816. It is possible that quadrilles were brought back to Ireland by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. The Irish dancing masters increased the speed to that of Irish dances of the time and modified the dance with native Irish dance steps".

I hope you enjoy learning this tune!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Watermelon Park Fest Re-cap and Pictures

Laura and I are just back from our first ever Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA!  I don't know why we waited so long to attend this fantastic event in an idyllic, riverside setting.  Instead of a long re-cap, I think I'll just briefly summarize a few personal highlights and then feature some splendid photos by Richele E. Cole, and one by Jim Stewart.

  • We lucked out by camping next to the band The Green Boys from Richmond, VA.  I enjoyed getting to know these guys a little bit, hearing their music, and playing some old-time fiddle tunes with Zack Miller, their mandolin player.  Couldn't have asked for better neighbors!  The Green Boys won 1st place in the band contest!  Congratulations!
  • Getting better acquainted with the music of ballad singer, mountain banjoist, artist and  crankie enthusiast Elizabeth Laprelle.  I could listen to her sing all day!
  • The two sets on Friday by The Hot Seats, especially their epic Dance Tent performance that evening.  That was the most frenetic, intense, chaotic, energetic, you name it set I have ever seen The Hot Seats do!
  • An impromptu late, late Friday night campfire jam at the campsite with Elizabeth Laprelle (!!!), Zack Miller, Mark Davis of The Brokedown Boys, and the bass and guitar playing Nobile brothers.  When they started Angeline the Baker I got out my tenor banjo and joined in.  I continued to play along whenever something I kinda knew like Cluck Old Hen, June Apple or Greasy Coat would come up. What a thrill!  I didn't want this jam to end.  If you haven't heard of Elizabeth Laprelle you need to check her out.  She is great music!
  • The Saturday band contest that was won by our new friends The Green Boys!  Well deserved.  The Green Boys' original sound really made them stand out.  As winners, they got to do an additional 3 song mini-set on the main stage that was well received.  Look for The Green Boys at a town near you soon!
  • The releasing of each kids' watermelon boat floats into the Shenandoah River on Saturday afternoon.  For some reason this was really cool and fun.
  • The Two Man Gentlemen Band on Saturday at 5pm, who gave the best performance I think I have ever seen them do, along with some hilarious stage banter.  How do they keep getting better?  I'm glad Andy Bean is featuring the 4-string plectrum jazz banjo more these days.
  • Furnace Mountain Band.  Although I had seen some of their members in various incarnations over the years, I had never officially seen Furnace Mountain proper until Saturday.  One word sums up their set: sublime.  The cover of Bob Dylan's Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather that they did was perhaps the single best moment of music that I saw on any stage all weekend.  I also liked the the hidden beauty and subtle Celtic flair they bring to fiddle tunes.  I can't wait to listen to Furnace Mountain's newest CD Road to Berryville.
  • And finally, getting to hear some bluegrass in its purest, most appealing form, thanks to the legendary Del McCoury Band.  The world's preeminent bluegrass band gave everyone what they were hoping for and more in a Saturday night performance deserving of the many awards and accolades they have received over the years.  I was very entertained, to say the least.  It brought back memories I didn't even have.

I could mention more but I'd rather just share a few pictures from this incredible weekend.  Except for the last pic of The Green Boys by Jim Stewart, the photos below were all taken by Richele E. Cole of

Acoustic Burgoo.  Sorry to have missed this band. Photo by R.E. Cole.
Ben Belcher of The Hot Seats. Photo by R.E. Cole.
Jake Sellers of The Hot Seats. Photo by R.E. Cole.
Graham DeZarn of The Hot Seats. Photo by R.E. Cole.
Ed Brogan of The Hot Seats. Photo by R.E. Cole.
Josh Bearman of The Hot Seats. Photo by R.E. Cole.
The Hot Seats - "You Don't Need to Worry about the 47%". Photo by R.E. Cole.
Alison Self singing with The Hot Seats. Shave 'Em Dry - a VERY dirty song. Photo by R.E. Cole.
Danny Knicely of Furnace Mountain.  Photo by R.E. Cole.
Morgan Morrison of Furnace Mountain on Bouzouki.  Photo by R.E. Cole.
Del McCoury.  Photo by R.E. Cole.
Rob McCoury.  Photo by R.E. Cole.
Jason Carter and Ronnie McCoury.  Photo by R.E. Cole.
The Green Boys - winners of the Watermelon Park Band Contest!  Photo by Jim Stewart.
I hope to return next year!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Baritone Uke: The Baa Baa Black Sheep of the Ukulele Family

With uke fests and ukulele clubs popping up all across the nation, there's no doubt that the "jumping flea" is seeing a resurgence.  Or, at least the three smallest size ukuleles - soprano, concert and tenor - are making another comeback.  But what about the the biggest of all ukes - the baritone?

About the size of a small body tenor guitar, the baritone is sort of the black sheep of the ukulele family.  Unlike the three smaller sizes, which are tuned gCEA, the baritone uke is DGBE.  This means a C chord on a regular uke is a G chord on a baritone.  For beginners just starting to go to group ukulele jams, the extra thinking and transposing required to play along with the others can make one's brain hurt.  It's easier to just use what everyone else is using.

On the flipside, the baritone is often the ukulele of choice for guitar players, because the DGBE tuning (sometimes called Chicago tuning) is the same as the 4 highest strings of a guitar.  I've seen guitar players light up when they discover this about the baritone uke.  Its large size probably feels more guitar like to them too.  But then again, guitar lovers can have a habit of seeing the ukulele as an inferior, novelty instrument, thinking why would I play uke when I can already play guitar?

About 5 weeks ago a guy brought a baritone uke to our Ashland jam session.  My wife Laura, a novice/intermediate bodhrán player with very little experience on stringed instruments, picked it up.  After someone showed her the chords G, C and D she was strumming right along to a G tune.  Surprised by its tone - deeper and more mournful than the sound she associated with ukulele - she instantly fell in love with the baritone.

When we got home from the jam we got in touch with a contact we had made at Augusta Irish Week who works at an instrument repair store in Pennsylvania.  As luck would have it, he had just gotten in a no name but otherwise playable baritone uke and sold it to us for super cheap. I happened to already have an extra set of Grover geared ukulele tuners, so when it arrived I took the bari to a local guy who has done some work on my banjo and he replaced the old friction tuners.  With these new geared tuners and a new set of Aquila strings, this generic instrument is sounding pretty good!

Meanwhile, some folks on the Ukulele Underground discussion forum had directed me to a new Pono MB Mahogany Baritone uke on eBay for the (low for it) price of $259.  They said the Pono - with its all solid mahogany body and truss rod - was one of the best ukes available short of a LoPrinzi, which can cost more than twice as much.  So, I made an impulse buy and snatched up the Pono at the last minute.  Long story short, Laura now has two baritone ukes within 5 weeks of playing the one for the first time at the Ashland jam!  Too much too fast?  See picture below.
"No Name" bari uke on left, Pono MB Baritone on right
The baritone uke gives Laura a nice, unobtrusive rhythm option for the types of Irish and old-time tunes we like to play.  These tunes reside primarily in the keys of D, G and A - all three of which are very accessible to the baritone uke player in the DGBE tuning because of the chord shapes required.  The key of G is especially comfortable, since it's like playing in the key of C on a regular uke (the easiest key).  Because of its longer scale, the baritone uke is capo-friendly, so if you were feeling lazy you could capo at the 2nd fret to play in A while making the same chord shapes for G.

The baritone uke is also good for strumming and singing those good old John Prine, Grateful Dead and other campfire folk songs we've been ignoring due to my obsession with instrumental tunes.  I suppose it's good to have a balanced musical diet!  I'm a lefty, and one of the bad things about being a left-handed musician is you don't have the luxury of playing and trying out other people's right handed instruments.  But, since Laura now has two baritone ukes, maybe she'll let me string up one of them as a lefty?!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bummer. The perfect chair for jamming is not for sale!

Could the Locker Room Stool be the perfect Clifftop jamming chair?  If so, why is nobody willing to sell one (or two)?

I started going to campout music festivals this summer.  Not the type of festivals like All Good or High Sierra with lots of jambands that I used to go to in the 90’s, but the kind of festivals where musicians of all ages and abilities gather together to sit in circles and play old-timey fiddle tunes.  Like Mt. Airy, Clifftop, Rockbridge, Hoppin’ John’s and so on. 

One thing I noticed was the type of chairs people have at these things.  The last thing most musicians want to sit in is the ubiquitous reclining camp chair with arms and cup holders.  You sink down in the chair and the arms just get in the way.  For a jamming chair you want something armless, upright, compact, sturdy and portable.  You need to be able to take it with you as you roam the festival grounds in search of jams to get into.  It also needs to fold down and easily fit in your vehicle or storage area.

A standard armless metal folding chair like the kind you can get at an Office Max or Home Depot is fine, if a little clunky.  However, what you really want is a smaller folding stool with a back.  When I got home from the most recent festival I tried to look these up online.  After a bit of poking around I happened upon the term “locker room stool”.  Type that into a Google search and it’ll bring up these mini folding team seats designed for locker rooms and basketball sidelines, available in a variety of color options.  When folded these chairs don't take up much space:  25" high, 14.75" wide and 2.75" deep.  Plus, if these chairs are strong enough to hold a 250+ pound athlete, they can surely hold the old-time fiddler who has had one too many Indian Tacos and Jalapeno Hushpuppies!   . 
Locker Room Stool/Jamming Seat!
Locker Room Stool dimensions
The only problem is, I can't find any merchants willing to sell these stools in quantities less than 5!  In fact, many sellers insist upon orders of 12 or more.  I only need one or two at most.  Because these are designed for sports teams, I suppose the manufacturer allows bulk orders only.  At around $38 a pop, that cost can quickly add up.  Unfortunately I've had to settle for a cheaper, lower quality option.  I found a simple folding stool for $8.95 from Hold N Storage.  Picture below.
Cheaper $8.95 stool

This stool will certainly meet basic needs,  but is nowhere near as cool as the Locker Room Stool would have been with its allure of having your own customized frame and cushion colors.  Even a logo!  Who wants to go in on a bulk order?!

String Gauges for Irish Tenor Banjo

One topic that seems to come up frequently in online forums like and Banjo Hangout, are what string gauges to use for Irish tenor banjo?  First off, the term Irish tenor banjo is somewhat misleading.  It doesn't necessarily mean you play Irish music, it just means you tune your tenor banjo GDAE - one octave lower than a mandolin or violin.  This tuning is preferred by melody players who flat-pick fiddle tunes because of how it suits this type of music.  It works great for old-time or any mandolin-related music actually.

Problem is, most tenor banjo string sets that you can buy are still intended for the classic jazz tuning of CGDA.  These strings will be too light and floppy for GDAE.  You will need heavier/thicker strings for the Irish tuning.  So, what I do is buy single loop end strings in specific gauges from, a retailer in Milford, NH USA that - you guessed it - specializes in strings.

Opinions vary on exactly what gauges to use.  One benefit of assembling a custom set is it allows you to zero in on the best fit for your instrument.  The biggest string-related debate among tenor banjoists might be over how heavy do you need to go for the "G" string?  For my short scale 17-fret openback tenor banjo, I like to start with a fairly heavy G string, at either .044" or even .046", and go from there.  I don't mind the thickness of the string as much as I like the tension it provides.

Here are the gauges I use:
G - .044" or .046" - Nickel Wound or Phosphor Bronze
D - .032" - Nickel Wound or  Phosphor Bronze
A - .022" - Nickel Wound or Phosphor Bronze
E - .013" or .014" - Plain Steel

I don't recommend mixing and matching Nickel Wound and Phosphor Bronze - but use one or the other and see which sound you prefer.  Nickel Wound is probably the most popular and durable.  Phosphor Bronze can sound funny at first, but develops an interesting tone after the initial brightness wears off.  For Nickel I usually get D'Addario brand and for Bronze I've been using GHS.

What gauges, string types and brands do you use?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The All-in-One Old Time Jam Book and Celestial Slow Jam

As someone who learns new tunes through a combination of notation and audio, I’m a sucker for a good fiddle tune book, especially one that comes with a CD or mp3 download.  When I saw the list of tunes in Celestial Mountain Music’s All-in-One Old Time Jam Book and Celestial Slow Jam book I figured that these would be good additions to my collection. 

While a total of 57 tunes between both volumes is not an exhaustive number of selections, the ones chosen do seem to be pertinent old favorites - common enough to be played in most jam circles, but not so common as to be complete duplicates of other fake books.  Because these compendiums were put together by currently active old-time musicians for use in group jam situations, there’s a good chance the arrangements are going to sound very similar to the way musicians in your area play them.

The simplified way these tunes are presented makes it easy for me to learn and retain them with a solid understanding of the tune’s basic melody, shape and chord structure.  I’ve only had the books for a few weeks, but I’ve already learned enough about Chinquapin Hunting, Rock the Cradle Joe, Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, Little Billy Wilson, Cuffy, Barlow Knife, Fortune and Yellow Rose of Texas to play along proficiently at the various jams I attend.  Never before have I been able to pick up so many tunes in such a short amount of time with such little effort.  What fun!

The books are authored by old-time fiddler and guitarist Mary Gordon, co-owner of Celestial Mountain Music in Brevard, North Carolina, and old-time banjo player Hilary Dirlam.  Each tune is offered in standard notation plus clawhammer banjo tab.  Playing tips, chord diagrams and slow-play CDs are also included.  Click here for page samples and information on how to order.  See below for each book's tune list.

       All-in-One Old Time Jam Book
1.       Arkansas Traveler
2.       Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine
3.       Cindy
4.       Country Waltz
5.       Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss
6.       Julianne Johnson
7.       Liberty
8.       Mississippi Sawyer
9.       Needlecase
10.    Over the Waterfall
11.    Rock the Cradle, Joe
12.    St. Anne’s Reel
13.    Spotted Pony
14.    West Fork Gals
15.    Whiskey Before Breakfast
16.    Yellow Rose of Texas
17.    Barlow Knife
18.    Colored Aristocracy
19.    Girl I Left Behind Me
20.    Golden Slippers
21.    Redwing
22.    Sail Away Ladies
23.    Tombigbee Waltz
24.    Boatman
25.    John Hardy
26.    June Apple
27.    My Own House
28.    Poor Liza Jane
29.    Waterbound
30.    Cold Frosty Morning
31.    Kitchen Girl
32.    Red Haired Boy
33.    Altamont
34.    Billy in the Lowground
35.    High Yellow
36.    Saturday Night Breakdown
Celestial Slow Jam
1.       Martha Campbell
2.       Chinquapin Hunting
3.       John Brown’s March
4.       Chinese Breakdown
5.       West Virginia Rag
6.       Jaybird
7.       Bull at the Wagon
8.       Briarpicker Brown
9.       Little Dutch Girl
10.    Waiting for the Boatman
11.    Elk River Blues
12.    Cowboy’s Dream
13.    Big-Eyed Rabbit
14.    Waynesboro
15.    Little Billy Wilson
16.    Jenny Lind Polka
17.    Durang’s Hornpipe
18.    Train on the Island
19.    Cuffy
20.    Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire
21.    Fortune