Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wayne Henderson and Helen White at Ashland Coffee and Tea on 3/2/13

Wayne Henderson and Helen White
I know I write about shows coming to Ashland Coffee and Tea more than any other venue, but c'mon, it's walking distance from my house, all shows start promptly at 8pm, and it's a listening room where the music comes first. Although AC&T specializes in touring singer-songwriter types, they also frequently have the kind of trad and roots artists that I love to see.

Some memorable performers I've seen there in past include David Lowery and Johnny Hickman of Cracker (acoustic), Tim O'Brien, The Hot Seats (on multiple occasions), Christabel and the Jons, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, The Dust Busters, The Green Boys, Lilt, Gypsy Roots with Dallas Vietty, John Doyle and Liz Carroll, Chatham County Line...the list goes on!  And coming soon they will have Ari and Mia Friedman on March 14 and Foghorn Stringband on March 27th!

Show poster created by artist Rob Shelly
But next up for me is this Saturday, March 2nd when Wayne Henderson and Helen White will be there.  Wayne Henderson is considered one of the world's best luthiers, but he is also a mean finger-style guitar player.  He comes from that deep down part of Southwest Virginia where they don't worry too much about whether it's called bluegrass or oldtime - they just play what they play and whatever comes out comes out.  It's called music.

I had never seen Wayne live until this past October at the Richmond Folk Festival where he did a set with pianist Jeff Little; one of the highlights of the whole weekend.  I was more than impressed with Wayne Henderson's playing abilities at that performance (Jeff Little was also impressive - fiddle tunes on piano)!  The only thing more entertaining than Wayne's music are his hilarious stories about his home town of Rugby, VA, population 7.  I hope Wayne's sense of humor is on display when he comes to Ashland Coffee and Tea!

I'm not that familiar with Helen White, but that's her hound dog Spencer in the show poster.  Helen is described as an old time fiddler, guitar player and folk singer who has won or placed at numerous fiddle contests.  She teaches at music camps and is also the founder and executive director of the Junior Appalachian Musicians Program (JAM), which introduces mountain children to their musical heritage.

This is going to be a good one. Call Ashland Coffee and Tea now if you want to get tickets, 804-798-1702. I think they are almost sold out!

Drawings by Ben Belcher of The Hot Seats

In addition to being a standout 5-string banjo player, musician Ben Belcher of The Hot Seats is also a talented visual artist.  He makes pen and ink drawings. I own one of his originals and a couple prints. Below are some examples of his work. If you're interested in purchasing or commissioning something, contact Ben and Annie directly. 


Fast Food

Dream Dogs


Happy Birthday Jesus


Party Face for the Prophet

Science Fiction commission

TMGB poster

Upon My Return

Gig flyer

Tour poster

Uten Hender

We Reach

Troupe 2


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Playing Music as a form of Contemplative Practice

Music can be a mystical thing, even for a secular bloke like me. Playing tunes is almost an act of meditation.  My musical motivation, whether playing a tune by yourself or in the company of others, is to get in the groove, to surrender to the flow, until you're in that fluid place where the music plays itself.  Growth in music is like the growth of a tree - a natural unfolding of activity rather than consciously planning to achieve a desired goal. It's not about technique or your skills on an instrument - what you can or can't do - it's about an awareness of the present.  The feeling produced by participating in the flow of sounds and being actively aware of your bodily and emotional reaction to the music.
Thought is not needed to "know" traditional music. You don't have to understand the music with your mind. You don't even have try to feel it with your heart. Simply and spontaneously allow the music to reveal to you what it has and what it is without any need for further explanation. A sound is just itself, with nothing added on. Music is something to be experienced rather than analyzed, allowing it to remain simply whatever it has always been.
Playing a tune is like crossing a pond on stepping stones. You can play really simply without concern for literal melodic interpretation if you do so by feel and by sound.  Observe, listen and respond with a relaxed body and a calm mind - avoiding cleverness.  Focus on correct posture and alignment of body and instrument. Don't to force things. Reduce tension by softening the muscles in the hand and fingers.
Traditional music goes back to a very deep communal place.  The tunes go round and round like a big circle, connecting to distant pasts, lineage, and the living, breathing river of inspiration. Play in a way that removes the barrier between playing and non-playing. The groove doesn't stop when the tune ends.

Blogger's Update: I'm not sure this post properly conveys the point I intended to make. The general theme is something I've been developing for a while, but was having trouble expressing. If some of the above text doesn't quite sound like my own words it's likely because I relied on a couple external sources to help formulate the content - primarily a May 2005 interview with John Herrmann from Banjo Newsletter and Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor Volume II. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Source Recordings of Oldtime and Irish Tunes

Within the traditional music world it’s easy to become highly-specialized.  Some folks go to great lengths to be true to (insert fiddler’s name here) version of a particular tune, and work diligently on getting their playing style as pure to the source recording as possible, ensuring that it has all the right characteristics and influences.

I don't see it that way though.  For starters, I'm approaching the tradition from the outside, so I'm primarily exposed to new tunes in the jam or session setting.  Plus I'm playing an instrument - the tenor banjo - for which there aren't many examples of, especially on American fiddle tunes.  Therefore I tend to use the local musicians that I play these tunes with as the sources and try and make my individual versions comply with their settings.

Although I certainly don’t mind listening to individuals and bands who are good enough to make albums, give performances and be considered at the top of their game, I’d just as soon listen to amateurs who play this music for a hobby, as I do.  I can often relate to these more human takes on the tunes in a way that I don’t get from the playing of people who have gotten too advanced.  There's a joy to be found by bringing these tunes to life in a more simplistic, easy going manner.

I suppose in a perfect world my source recordings would be what a combination of Jerry Garcia, Norman Blake, Curt Kirkwood and Bill Frisell would sound like if those guys all played GDAE tuned tenor banjo like I do, and I had recordings of them interpreting all the same Irish and oldtime tunes that I need to know to play with others in my area in the same keys as we play them in.  That ain’t gonna happen so I just use my imagination!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Eamon O’Leary to teach song, guitar and tenor banjo as part of Boxwood’s Williamsburg Traditional Music Weekend

The New York based Irish musician Eamon O’Leary of The Murphy Beds and Live at Mona’s will join Kim Robertson, celtic harp and Chris Norman, traditional flutes and small-pipes, as instructors at Boxwood’s Williamsburg Traditional Music Weekend, March 7-10, 2013 in historic Williamsburg, Virginia.  The weekend will offer classes, sessions, an evening performance, and the opportunity for private lessons.   
Eamon O'Leary (L) and Jefferson Hamer (R) in Reykjavik Iceland, 9/1/11. Photo by Ólafur Ólafsson 
The fact that Eamon O’Leary is teaching Irish tenor banjo is of particular interest to me.  His 2012 recording with Jefferson Hamer titled The Murphy Beds was my favorite album from last year, and O’Leary has also been pegged as the banjo instructor at Augusta Heritage’s Irish Week in July.  I attended Augusta Irish Week last year, but am not sure I will be able to make it this year, so the opportunity for private instruction with Eamon O'Leary closer to home on a more condensed basis is one that I don’t want to pass up!

Some special events during the Traditional Music Weekend include a pennywhistle class on Thursday open to complete beginners, a Friday evening concert at the Williamsburg Library, and a traditional music session on Saturday from 8-10:30pm at the Dog Street Pub, open to all.  For more information and to sign up for classes and/or lessons click here:

About Boxwood:
Boxwood shares and explores the roots and branches of musical traditions in a holistic approach that integrates music, dance, language and crafts in educational outreach programs for adults, kids and professionals.  Boxwood aims to present ideas that encourage musicians to leave the printed page and find their own voice.

Attention tune-catchers:  The annual week-long Boxwood Canada festival, in the lovely town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, looks like it would be a great way to spend a vacation, if total immersion in traditional music is your kind of getaway!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What Happened to Jigs in the South?

There are many fiddling traditions within the United States and Canada, but the style known as oldtime generally refers to the Southern Appalachian region – including parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia.  Nowadays, players of oldtime music live all over the globe, but that Southern Appalachian sound as it appeared on the first source recordings is still the one these musicians are attempting to emulate (with room for evolution).
Jigs, for the purposes of this post, are tunes in 6/8 timeThink “pineapple apricot, pineapple apricot”.  Jigs may have once been part of the Southern repertoire, but by the time the first recordings sprung out of the hills and hollers, 6/8 tunes had all but vanished, except for perhaps a few stalwarts like Irish Washerwoman, Haste to the Wedding and Garry Owen. As a result, today’s oldtime fiddler might know hundreds upon hundreds of 4/4 breakdowns, but only one or two jigs, if any.

According to this interview and demonstration with fiddler and folklorist Alan Jabbour, jigs in the South got converted into 4/4 breakdowns after the Civil War.  During the Civil War jigs were used by local militias as marching tunes. The fifers in these militias were often also fiddlers who carried the fife repertoire over to the fiddle.  After the South lost the war, these former 6/8 rallying tunes became associated with defeat.  So jigs like Bonny Blue Flag and Chapel Hill Serenade were converted into the 4/4 tunes Coleman’s March and Green Willis. 
Another theory is that jigs faded out due to the rising popularity of the frailing or clawhammer banjo as an instrument used to second the fiddle. The 6/8 rhythm is not that easy on clawhammer banjo.  With no one to play these jigs with, fiddlers may have dropped them over time.  These tunes are also used for dances, so if people were no longer dancing in a way that required a 6/8 rhythm, that could also explain the extinction of jigs in the South.

Modern day players of traditional music cannot help but be exposed to lots of different tunes and styles.  I know I've heard many jigs at Irish sessions and have enjoyed customizing a personal repertoire that includes both 6/8 tunes and oldtime breakdowns.  I hope that other players of oldtime music will take it upon themselves to re-introduce a few 6/8 tunes into their local circles.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Richmond VA's The Green Boys to Play Ashland on Friday

The Green Boys at Ashland Coffee and Tea 
Friday, February 15, 2013
Doors 7pm, Showtime 8pm sharp
Tickets $10 at the door

When I describe The Green Boys to folks I find myself comparing them to The Avett Brothers, The Felice Brothers, and Nashville Skyline or Basement Tapes era Dylan.  This isn't exactly accurate though, because although they share some of the song-writing characteristics and charisma of those aforementioned artists, The Green Boys also bring a level of musical chops to the table that is more commonly found in bluegrass bands -- not blue collar Americana groups.

Siblings Sean and Ryan Green share the bulk of the songwriting and vocal duties.  Each has a unique, appealing voice; Ryan with his barrel-aged, aching tenor, while Sean rounds that out with a smooth, soothing tone.  Mandolin maestro Zack Miller channels a rock n' roll energy alongside a strong melodic sense, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Emmons adds subtlety and nuance to The Green Boys' well-written songs.  Mike also possesses a stage banter A-game.

To give you an idea, here's a streamable live recording of The Green Boys from the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, West Virginia from just last week!
The Green Boys - Zack Miller, Sean Green, Ryan Green and Mike  Emmons (L to R)
The Green Boys have been hard at work on a new album containing a whole slew of new songs to be released some time this spring, and they are ready to perform this material for the AC&T audience.  This will be their 2nd time playing this excellent venue.  Their debut show there last year made a fan out of me, and I expect this upcoming performance to be even better!

Irish Music Holidays in West County Clare

The OnlineAcademy of Irish Music (OAIM) is now offering music holidays where participants will learn from acclaimed musicians in County Clare, Ireland – an area renowned for its traditional music and culture.

These OAIM Irish Music retreats take place in the small village of Liscannor on the West coast of Ireland and consist of daily group workshops, masterclasses, sessions and concerts.  Time is also set aside for relaxation, sightseeing and other activities.

The dates for the three summer retreats are:
Flute Retreat: June 30th - July 4th, with tutors Kevin Crawford, Niall Keegan and Kirsten Allstaff.
Fiddle Retreat: July 14th - 18th, with tutors Tola Custy, Katie Boyle and Yvonne Casey.
Concertina Retreat: August 4th - 8th, with tutors Ernestine Healy, Tim Collins and Edel Fox.

There’s a maximum of 14 people per retreat, so booking early is recommended.  More details of tuition, pricing and itineraries can be found at  OAIM also offers ongoing video tutorials for a wide variety of Irish traditional instruments, available online to those who sign up and pay a monthly fee.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Is Irish Traditional Music?

There's a disconnect between the way Irish music is traditionally played in sessions and the way I currently choose to envision Irish tunes when playing for my own enjoyment.  There's also a fine line between understanding and respecting the music, but opting to play it a little differently, as opposed to being blissfully unaware of your own ignorance.  When I play and practice tunes at home I find it to be a very relaxing, rewarding experience.  I love the jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, slides, slip jigs and more that makes up the common repertoire.  However, I sometimes leave a public session feeling frustrated and temporarily de-motivated about the way I play these tunes compared to the way that others do.

I was basically a stranger to Irish traditional music when I first started to play it.  To this day, I still haven't listened to much music by many of the bands I hear people name checking: Altan, Dervish, Solas, Lunasa, De Dannan, Planxty and so on.  In fact, the concept of an Irish music "band" that tours around with spruced up arrangements of the music designed to appeal to foot-stomping and hand-clapping spectators is not of much interest to me.

The recorded trad music that's caught my ear over the last few years are simply players of instruments such as fiddle, accordion, concertina, banjo or so on doing session tunes.  Sparse recordings of two or three instruments playing in unison, bringing the music to life in a more subdued, dare I say, authentic fashion.  Honestly though, the majority of "Irish" music that I listen to at the moment are simply versions of tunes that I know are in the local session repertoire, so I can increase my participation level next time around.

Living in Virginia I am also exposed to a similar but distinct genre of traditional music called oldtime, which I more narrowly define as "festival jam oldtime".  Everyone still plays in unison like an Irish session, but instead of playing sets or medleys of tunes, one tune is played many times through until - in the best of situations - an almost hypnotic state is reached.  It is this model of focusing on one tune at a time and really digging into it that I enjoy applying to the Irish tunes that I know, even though it's contrary to the way others usually play them.  I mix n' match tunes from Irish sessions and tunes from oldtime jams using this format and see it as one overall genre rather than two.

Another thing that I've noticed about some Irish sessions is that the speed folks tend to play at is a little too fast for my comfort level. Of course familiarity and skill level does play a factor, but all that aside I would enjoy taking some jigs or reels down a notch or two and playing them at a slightly more relaxed pace some time, with some swing to the rhythm.  Sessions can sometimes feel like a competition to see who can play tunes the fastest.  At the same time, I don't mind speeding up a barndance or march if it suits the way I want to interpret it.  So, in that respect as well, I choose to take liberties with the parameters of the music.

As I go forward, one thing that I think will help with making my interpretations sound more Irish is learning a tune with less influence from written notation.  To date, virtually every tune I learn has some influence from tab or notation.  I'm always listening and playing along with a tune as I learn it, but have relied on the dots to figure it out or at least get me started.  It's not in my nature to fly blind - I enjoy having access to instructions and behind-the-scenes bonus features - but I might try to go cold turkey from notation for an entire week or more and see how it feels.

I continue to play and practice at least an hour every day, and try to maintain my focus - balancing learning new tunes with new techniques and other further study.  Writing a post like this is therapeutic for fleshing out some frustrations and concerns I've been having and pointing me in a new direction going forward.  I still would be just as fine with sounding like Jerry Garcia or Norman Blake playing an Irish tune he picked up somewhere along the way, compared to sounding like I was from Donegal or something.  I just do it for fun, and if a muddled, diluted sound ends up coming out it's no big deal.  This is Six Water Grog after all.  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Orkney Folktale: The Giant, The Princess, and Peerie-fool

There were once a king and queen in Rousay who had three daughters. The king died, and the queen was living in a small house with her daughters. They had a cow and a kale yard, but found their kale was disappearing by night. The eldest daughter said she would take a blanket about her and would sit and watch to see what was going away with the kale. So when night came she went out to watch. In a little time a very big giant came into the yard. He began to cut the kale and to throw it into a big creel of straw. So he cut till be had it well filled.

The princess asked him why he was taking her mother's kale.  He said to her, 'if she was not quiet he would take her too'. As soon as he had filled his cubby he took her by a leg and an arm and threw her on the top of the cubby of kale, and away home he went with her. When he got home he told her what work she had to do: she had to milk the cow and put her up to the hill, and then she had to take wool and wash and tease it, and comb and card and spin, and make claith.

When the giant went out she milked the cow and put her to the hill. Then she put on the pot and made porridge to herself. As she was supping it a great many peerie yellow-heided folk came running, crying out to give them some. She said:

'Little for one and less for two,
And never a grain have I for you.'

But when she came to work the wool, none of that work could she do at all.  The giant came home at night and found she had not done her work.  He took her and began at her head and pulled the skin off all down her back and over her feet. Then he threw her on the rafters among the hens.

The next night the second daughter sat out for the giant, and was carried off also. She got the same orders as her sister, but if her sister could do little with the wool, she could do less. When the giant came home at night and found that her work not done he began at the crown of her head and peeled a strip of skin all down her back and over her feet, and threw her on the rafters besides her sister. There she lay and could neither speak nor come down.

The next night the youngest sister said she would take a blanket about her and go to watch what had gone off with her sisters.  Before long in came the giant with his cubby and began to cut the kale.  The third daughter was carried off as her sisters had been, and next morning given the same work to do.

When the giant was gone out she milked the cow and put her to the high hills. Then she put on the pot and made porridge to herself. When the peerie yellow-heided folk came asking for some, she told them to get something to sup with. Some got some rough stems of heather and some got broken earthenware, some got one thing, some got another, and they all got some porridge.

After they were all gone, a peerie yellow-heided boy came in and asked her if she had any work to do - that he could do any work with wool. She said she had plenty, but would never be able to pay him for it.  He said all he was asking for it was that she should tell him his name. She thought that would be easy to do, and gave him the wool.  

When it was getting dark an old beggar woman came in and asked for lodging.  The princess said she could not giver her that, but asked her if she had any news. But the old woman had none, and went away to lie out. There was a high mound near the place, and the beggar woman lay under it for shelter.  She found it was very warm.  She kept climbing up, and when she came to the top she heard someone inside saying, 'Tease, teasers, tease; card, carders, card; spin, spinners, spin, for Peerie-fool, Peerie-fool is my name.'  There  was a crack in the mound and light coming out. She looked in and saw a great many peerie folks working, and a peerie yellow-heided boy running round them crying out that.

The old woman thought she would get lodging if she brought this news, so back she went and told the princess the whole of it.  The princess kept on saying ' Peerie-fool, Peene-fool' till the yellow-heided boy came with all the wool made into claith. He asked what was his name, and she guessed names and he jumped about and said ' No'. At last she said ' Peerie-fool', and be threw down the claith and ran off very angry.

As the giant was coming home he met a great many peerie yellow-heided folk, some with their eyes hanging on their cheeks and some with their tongues hanging on their breasts. He asked them what was the matter. They told him it was working so hard pulling wool so fine. He said he had a good wife at home, and if she was safe never would he allow her to do any work again. When he came home and found her safe and with a great many webs all ready, he was very kind to her.

Next day when he went out she found her sisters, and took them down from the rafters. She put the skin on their backs again, and she put her eldest sister in a creel and put all the fine things she could find in with her, and grass on top of it all. When the giant came back home she asked him to take the creel to her mother with some grass for the cow.  He was so pleased with her he would do anything for her, and he took it away.  

Next day she did the same with her second sister.  She told the giant next morning she would have the last of the food for her mother's cow ready that night, that she was going a bit from home, and would leave it ready for him.  She got into the creel with all the  fine things she could find, and covered herself with grass. He took the creel and carried it to the queen's house. She and her daughters had a big boiler of boiling water ready. They couped it about him when he was under the window, and that was the end of the giant.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Jason Romero Tenor Banjo Images

Musicians and instrument makers Pharis and Jason Romero have an excellent new folk album out called Long Gone Out West Blues.  You can read more about the album here.  This post, however, is focused on the hand-crafted J. Romero Banjos that Jason builds in Horsefly, British Columbia.  Pharis does the inlay.  Jason and Pharis of course do 5-string banjos - openback or bluegrass models - but also make custom banjo ukes, tenor banjos, banjo mandolins and resophonic guitars.  The tenor banjo making caught my attention!  Check out these images of three tenor banjos that Jason has crafted.

This first tenor features an 11" figured maple rim and neck, a Romero Belle Rose tonering, ebony fingerboard, cast bronze Romero 4-string tailpiece, cast bronze fan L-shoes, nickel-plated hardware, a  mother-of-pearl inlay, and a Renaissance head.

This next 4-string banjo has a curly maple tenor neck, an 11" curly maple rim, a Whyte Ladie tonering, ebony fingerboard, Romero cast bronze large double-pointed L-shoes and a hard oil finish.

This 3rd tenor banjo picture below features a 12" black walnut rim with Honduran rosewood integral tone ring, a black walnut neck,ebony fingerboard, inlay design of white mother-of-pearl, cast bronze round L-shoes, and a hard oil finish.

As a bonus here are some pics of a J. Romero banjo-mandolin, with a Claro walnut neck with snakehead-style peghead, 10” ebonized cherry rim, Honduran rosewood tonering, hand-cut brass tailpiece, cast bronze square L-shoes, lightly aged raw brass and bronze hardware, custom inlay and a Fyberskin head.

These instruments are certainly works of art and I hope to become the owner of one in the not-too-distant future.