Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 25 Fiddle Tunes You Are Supposed To Know

I saw a young oldtime fiddler play a handful of tunes the other night.  With no sense of irony whatsoever, he played the hell out of a couple standards that are often considered to be cliche or overplayed - Cotton Eyed Joe and Bile 'Em Cabbage Down - and one other tune that's almost in that category - Sail Away Ladies.  I don't think I know how to play any of those, sadly, but I was reminded of the importance of learning these overlooked tunes.
As someone who came to this tradition as an outsider, I've really only learned the tunes that I've been exposed to in the last couple years through local oldtime jams.  The people at those jams are usually more advanced than me, or at least have been doing it longer, so they've sometimes moved past the "popular" tunes in favor of more unique ones. Because of this, some of the obscure tunes seem common to me, and the ones that you're expected to know are ones that I haven't had the opportunity or incentive to learn.

This got me to thinking about assembling a list of the 25 Fiddle Tunes You Are Supposed To Know.  Since people purposely avoid some of these tunes, they aren't as overplayed as you might think. It might be fun to revisit some of these tunes, even if they are on your "do not play list", to see how they fall under your fingers now.

Angeline the Baker
Arkansas Traveler
Bile 'Em Cabbage Down
Bill Cheatam
Billy in the Lowground
Blackberry Blossom
Cluck Old Hen
Cripple Creek
Devil's Dream
Fisher's Hornpipe
Forked Deer
Girl I Left Behind Me
June Apple
Old Joe Clark
Ragtime Annie
Red Haired Boy
Red Wing
Sail Away Ladies
Soldier's Joy
St. Anne's Reel
Temperance Reel
Turkey in the Straw
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Wildwood Flower

Number 26 might be Irish Washerwoman, which is a prime example of a Celtic tune that everyone supposedly knows but never plays. I actually like the sound of that one, so it might be worth adding to the list too.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Traveling Light (With A Banjo)

The Well-Heeled Traveler
I've flown four times now with a banjo (soon to be five) and have yet to encounter any problems.  Mine is a tenor banjo, so it's a little bit smaller than a regular 5-string, but I'm still always a little trepidatious when I get ready to carry it on.  I have a nice padded gig bag, but no way am I going to let it out of my hands when boarding.  I carry it right on with me and have always been able to find a place for it in the overhead bin, despite its oblong shape that is at odds with more conventional forms of carry-on luggage.

I also hate to check any bags, so if my tenor banjo is the "carry-on", then anything else I take has to either fit inside the banjo case or in a small bag that I can stow under the seat.  For this reason, I am obsessed with making sure that my packing is as compact and efficient as possible!  Rick Steves watch out, because I can seriously get by with just a banjo case and a very small sling-bag!

For a warm climate like Jamaica or Puerto Rico it's really easy to pack lightly.  I'll bring what I'm wearing (including a hat) plus a change of clothes and some swim trunks.  And that's it.  I'll wear one pair of shoes or sandals without socks.  I'll bring a book to read, some printed pages with my itinerary and other notes, and a minimal amount of toiletries.  Ready to hop off the plane and go!

For the shirt, I want it to be a cotton/polyester collared shirt - like a golf or polo shirt. This type of shirt is presentable enough to meet the minimum dress code requirements for almost any bar or restaurant that I'd want to go to. I can skip the fine dining restaurants and flashy nightclubs with more strict dress codes.  The cotton/polyester blend makes for easy hand washing in the sink or shower, and fairly quick drying with minimal wrinkling.  I can wear one while the other is drying.

The same goes for shorts and underwear.  For shorts, I prefer nylon shorts with deep front pockets and a zippered or Velcro enclosed back pocket. These kinds of shorts dry quickly and are very comfortable and breezy.  For underwear all you need are a couple good pairs of travel underwear, such as the Ex Officio Give-N-Go brand, or Duluth Trading Company's Buck Naked boxer briefs.  These you just rinse out and hang overnight.  And for footwear, you can't go wrong with all purpose Teva sandals for hiking, wearing in the water or walking around town.

I'll also bring a pair of swim trunks if I anticipate swimming and/or going to the beach.  As far as getting by on just two shirts, if you start to feel grungy or repetitive later in the week, then this can be a nice incentive to buy a T-shirt souvenir from that cool bar you drank in all night.  Top it all off with the most stylish part of your holiday wardrobe - a sharp looking summertime fedora or similar style hat to both keep the sun off and add a bit of edge to your otherwise drab, touristy, American get-up.

Part of the fun of traveling for me is seeing how minimal I can pack.  I once went to Scotland for ten days with just a knapsack no bigger than the typical woman's purse.  But now that I'm bringing my banjo along I have extra reason to pack lightly and avoid having to check any bags!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fine Times At Our House: Having Some Tunes with Ari and Mia Friedman and Owen Marshall

The best music that's ever been played in our kitchen happened a couple weeks ago.  After their performance at Ashland Coffee and Tea, musicians Ari and Mia Friedman and Owen Marshall came over and played a few tunes with my wife Laura, our friend Rick, and me!  Between the 3 of us (tenor banjo, bodhran and autoharp) and the 3 of them (cello, fiddle and guitar), we had us a good little session.
Owen Marshall, Mia Friedman and Ari Friedman
3/14/13 at Ashland Coffee and Tea - Photo by Kay Landry
As we started to play, Owen, Mia and Ari seemed to fall back on their Maine Fiddle Camp Instructor experience, able to support whatever us lesser musicians were doing without ever making us feel like we were in over our heads.  I had just seen them play a great show, so I knew what they were capable of, but in this setting they quickly adapted to playing the tunes at a more relaxed pace.  It was instantly comforting, and allowed me to play in a much more confident and flowing manner than I'm used to.

Because I'm not good at picking up new tunes on the spot and/or playing by ear, we mostly stuck to tunes I could already kinda play.  Some that we did included Coleman's March, Out on the Ocean, My Love is in America, Nail the Catfish to the Tree, Twin Sisters and Silver Spear.  Going from style to style and key to key with no restrictions.

We only played for an hour or so, but it was an extremely positive experience that will help push forward this hobby that has now become an obsession.  It was a pleasure meeting these musicians and I would say look out for Ari and Mia Friedman with Owen Marshall if they are playing in your area, and/or Owen's Irish traditional band from Portland, ME called The Press Gang.  (Check back soon for a review of their CD).

You may also want to check them out as potential instructors at Maine Fiddle Camp or elsewhere.  Mia's singing and fiddling was sensational, Ariel's cello seemed to be divine, and Owen Marshall's guitar accompaniment and lead playing puts him in a category with the world's best.  They made Maine Fiddle Camp sound like it was awesome, and I wouldn't mind some more exposure to that New England style of playing!

Shamrocks in the Galax

A few decades ago concertina and clawhammer banjo player Bertram Levy composed a tune called Shamrocks in the Galax.  Leave it to a player of those two instruments, who has spent time in both Ireland and western North Carolina, to write a tune that is a blend of Celtic and oldtime sounds. Half my music time is spent playing Irish tunes and the other half is spent playing oldtime tunes, so I can relate to that "blarney hoedown" blend almost by default.

Since I play tenor banjo at oldtime jams and at Irish sessions, I get to see how each repertoire shakes down independently.  There are aspects of each format that I am drawn to when I play these tunes for my own enjoyment.  For example, I like how in oldtime jams they play a tune many times through - at least 4 or more times - which allows the participant to get into a zen-like groove.  (Irish tunes rarely go beyond three times around before shuffling on to the next).  Still, I do like the medleys of tunes in Irish music, I just don't always like knowing in advance how many times through it's going to be before switching.
Paddy in the Holler
I also find it interesting how oldtime fiddlers and banjo players just play the tune the way it sounds to them.  What I mean by that is words like breakdown, march, hornpipe, stomp and reel are more part of the tune title than anything too literal. (By contrast, in Irish music you might feel compelled to play a tune a specific way because of that hornpipe, barn dance, march, polka distinction).

In Irish sessions I like the fact that you are not tied to a key, but are free to jump from D to G to A-dorian and more from tune to tune.  (In oldtime you might find yourself stuck in A when you can't think of anything in A but can think of a bunch of tunes in other keys that you could do!). I also like how tunes in 6/8 and 9/8 time are part of the Irish tradition. (You'll never get to play jigs, slides or slip jigs if you just stick to oldtime!).

Going back to that oldtime concept of just playing the individual tune the way it sounds, with Irish music I'm not too worried about whether a 6/8 sounding tune was a jig or a slide, or whether a 9/8 sounding tune was a hop jig or a slip jig.  It's kind of like in golf where if you stand on the tee of a 450-yard par 5 it's an "easy" hole, but if you stand on the same tee as a 450-yard par 4 it becomes a "hard" hole.  It's the same hole either way.
The Celtibillies
I also like the variety of instruments in Irish music.  Beyond fiddle, banjo and guitar you see flute, tinwhistle, accordion, pipes, bouzouki, bodhran, concertina and more.  This wasn't always the case in Irish trad, but in recent decades additional instruments have been brought into the fold.  Essentially, any melody instrument can lead a tune.  

Oldtime, on the other hand, hasn't been as kind to new instruments.  The ubiquitous duo of fiddle with clawhammer banjo seconding remains the defining sound of Southern oldtime music.  In fact, some instruments that may have been used more commonly in the past - such as cello or tenor banjo - do seem to have fallen by the wayside as the concept of what is oldtime narrows.  Here's hoping for impromptu jams with unusual combinations of instruments; maybe accordion, bouzouki, flute and bodhran alongside dulcimer, autoharp, ukulele, mandolin and washboard!

I do enjoy being exposed to each tradition in its own right, and make it a goal to learn about and blend in with either style in its purest form if necessary.  Then, as an individual, I can continue to take away certain aspects of each to help define and inform what it is that I want to play on my own.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Foghorn Stringband - Bringing Oldtime Music To A Stage Near You!

Mike Seeger once said, “Probably five and no more than ten musicians make their full-time living playing oldtime music, depending on your definitions of oldtime and a living.”  I don’t know if Portland, Oregon’s Foghorn Stringband actually makes their full-time living playing oldtime music, but they are one of the few bands I know of playing an authentic version of this pre-bluegrass music on a national and international basis.
Foghorn Stringband - Nadine Landry, Caleb Klauder, Reeb Willms and Sammy Lind.
The four-piece group has become a modern day standard-bearer of vintage stringband music, known for their grass roots interpretations of traditional tunes and songs; able to bring to the stage a style of music that’s often more suited to a late night campout among friends than it is to a performance setting.

Since the first incarnation of the band in 2000, and over the course of 7 albums, Foghorn Stringband has stayed true to that pre-World War II old-timey American sound, winning over audiences the old-fashioned way…by simply playing this music the way it was meant to be played.  Central Virginians can catch Foghorn Stringband this Wednesday evening, March 27, at 8pm at Ashland Coffee and Tea.  Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door.  For the band's full schedule, click here.

Also, it’s looking like there may be an impromptu jam immediately following the performance, so if you play Appalachian oldtime music, then by all means bring along your fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, autoharp, dulcimer, ukulele or other stringed instrument for a little post-show fun.  Or if you're more of a grinner than a picker, then feel free to stick around for a few more tunes as played by some local traditional music enthusiasts.  Who knows, maybe Foghorn will join in and show us how it's really done!?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Puerto Rico: Bio Bays, El Yunque or Pinones?

We are going to be staying four nights in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico coming up soon.  Part of me wants to just hang out in Old San Juan the whole time...visiting the forts, walking along the cobblestone streets, checking out the brewery and some of the restaurants, relaxing in cafes, and maybe visiting the Bacardi Rum distillery or the botanical garden.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
However, there are two attractions in Puerto Rico that people keep telling me to check out - the bioluminescent bays and El Yunque National Forest.  I am also interested in Pinones beach.  Although Puerto Rico's famous Bio Bays sound cool and beautiful, with their tiny bursts of teal-blue light on a moonless night, it's not something I'm personally interested in taking the time to see and we won't be there during a new moon.
More my style is El Yunque National Forest - the only tropical rain forest in the entire U.S. National Forest system.  It's 28,000 acres includes many trails, waterfalls, plants and wildlife, and is host to about a million visitors a year.  It's at least an hour from San Juan and we're not planning on renting a car, so if we were to go it would likely be as part of one of the many adventure groups that take tourists there, often combining a trip to waterfalls with other activities like zip-lining, as part of a package that costs around $50 to $60 per person.
trail in El Yunque
A visit to El Yunque would take up most of one of our four days on the island, and also considering the cost of the tour, I could easily talk myself out of going.  I've been on a jungle hike before, and I've visited National Forests with waterfalls before, so those would not necessarily be new experiences.  Should we spend an active day in El Yunque or just lounge around Old San Juan sipping on coffee and rum?  Will have to play that one by ear.
Pinones food stands
Something I definitely want to do though is visit a rustic area about ten miles east of San Juan called Pinones, which has a long stretch of beach, a 7 mile seaside trail, and dozens of inexpensive food vendors and open-air eateries serving up deep-fried Puerto Rican specialties like mofungo, bacalitos, alcapurrias and pasteles, washed down with fresh coconut water and cold beer.  The codfish, crab, plantains, yucca and more that are used in the food are said to be harvested from local sources.
Pinones beach, Puerto Rico
Pinones would be a relatively short taxi ride away, and a fun place to grab some food and drink, and just chill out on the beach for a while, enjoying the local culture.  It sounds like a mixture of Winnifred Beach and the Boston Jerk Center in Jamaica.  I would not mind spending part of a day here.

With only four nights in Old San Juan we'll have to weigh our options.  Maybe once we get there we'll find a guide who can take us to El Yunque for a good price where we can just do a hike and skip all the other group activity stuff. Nature is best experienced in solitude. The model we've adopted in recent years is to just stay in one main area and see what we can on foot or via a short taxi ride. This has made for some relaxing, chilled-out vacations and that is all I am looking for nowadays.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Live Session Recording - 3/16/13 at Midnight Brewery

Trae Cairns, the owner of Midnight Brewery in Rockville, VA, asked Laura and I if we could play some tunes there the day before St. Paddy's Day.  I recruited some excellent players to join us: Kathy Whittle (wooden flute and whistle), Andy Cleveland (violin), Lee Owens (guitar) and Chris Hale (mandolin).  Justin Joplin also joined us on clawhammer banjo for some of the tunes.  Like the other two groups I had assembled for music at Midnight, it was the first time that all of us had played together as an ensemble, but it turned out OK and was a lot of fun.

I recorded the session using my Olympus LS-14 recorder.  Below is an embedded player so that you can listen to the recording as you read this post.  If you'd like to view the whole recording, click here.

We set up around some picnic tables in the newly expanded back room/beer garden of the brewery.  It was just Kathy, Lee, Laura and me at first. The first tune we played was Whiskey Before Breakfast. Andy arrived during the tune and joined in on his fiddle, instantly lifting the mood of the music.

After that warm up tune and a few sips of beer, we next played a set of jigs - Tobin's Favorite, Kesh Jig and Connaughtman's Rambles.  I didn't instantly recognize the first jig or the third jig in the set but I kinda got them eventually.  Laura admits to being nervous, but her bodhran playing was spot on all day long, including on these jigs. It's not always audible though, drowned out by foot tapping, due to where I had the recorder placed.

Next I asked Andy and Kathy if they'd like to do the reels Merry Blacksmith and Sally Gardens.  It's a pairing I've heard done before, but I wasn't as familiar with Sally Gardens as I thought I was. Kathy sounds really good here.

We followed with some more jigs - Tripping Up the Stairs and My Darling Asleep.  I remember thinking that was the best I had ever played Tripping Up the Stairs without looking at the music - the recorder may or may not agree!

I then suggested we try playing My Love is In America, a reel that I learned from Eamon O'Leary from a lesson when he was in Williamsburg recently.  Andy went from My Love is in America into a reel that I was unfamiliar with called the Bank of Ireland.

Chris Hale had definitely arrived by this point in the session, and for the next tunes we tried putting Drowsy Maggie and Cooley's Reel together.  Chris isn't real familiar with Irish music, but is a professional level musician and I've heard his band Scattered, Smothered and Covered do Drowsy Maggie so I figured it was a good tune for him to start moving his fingers on.

The next tune was a quick jig played by Andy.  I think he called it Tommy People's Jig.

By now Justin Joplin had his clawhammer banjo out.  He was tuned to D and called for John Ryan's Polka, which he knows from an oldtime jam we both attend.  At the local Irish sessions, John Ryan's often comes after Britches Full of Stitches and Dennis Murphy's Polka.  So we did all three of those polkas, with Justin able to play on the last two since they are in D.

Staying in D, I requested the fiddle tune Liberty, which I think everybody in our impromptu band somehow knew how to play.

Kathy and Andy then dueted on the six-part jig Strayaway Girl (or Strayaway Child), which I have yet to even attempt to learn!  A six-part jig is almost like learning 3 separate tunes.  Maybe some day I'll work on that one.

After that we did the set of Jerry's Beaver Hat and Mug of Brown Ale, which is a popular pairing of jigs.  I used to have to play the B-part of Mug of Brown Ale in a lower octave because I couldn't finger all those high notes cleanly, but I've re-learned it in the higher register and am getting better at playing it that way.

We followed those jigs with an unusual merger of June Apple and Red Haired Boy.  I had been thinking that those would go well together, and it sounded OK for a first time effort.

Andy then played a slow listening piece which I believe is called Coyle's Field House.  I could have the name wrong.  It's a Scottish tune.  I remember thinking that Lee was doing a great job backing that one up, picking it up on the spot. I have to commend Lee for being a standout player all afternoon long.  He wasn't always familiar with the Irish tunes we were doing, but he hung right in there with some really tasteful accompaniment.  Unfortunately the recorder didn't always capture what he was adding to the music.

I then jumped into one of my favorite tunes - Road to Lisdoonvarna - and medleyed it with Star Above the Garter.  Andy added a third slide...either called O'Keeffe's or Denis Murphy's.  It was soon revealed to me that others don't share the same affection for Road to Lisdoonvarna.  I still think it's a great tune though!

I got up to get another beer and while I was gone Lee introduced the theme to Bill Cheatam, and Justin, Chris and Andy all picked up on it, busting into a full-on version of the tune.  I chatted with some folks and listened while they were playing this one.  I knew I recognized it but didn't realize it was Bill Cheatam until they told me.  That would be a good one to learn.

After my brief break, I put down the tenor banjo and got out the tenor guitar, which I would play for the rest of the session.  Since he was now tuned to A, I asked Justin if he could play Road to Malvern on his clawhammer banjo.  It took a few go rounds for us to get in sync on this "new" oldtime number, but the tune was definitely there.

Chris Hale asked if we could play Flowers of Edinburgh.  It had been a long time since I'd played that one, but I was reminded of how good of a tune it is.

That started a string of more Gmajor barndances.  Andy and Kathy played Peach Blossoms, which is one I have got to learn.  Kathy then started into Kilnamona Barndance, which I have been fumbling around on as of late.  I didn't do this one justice, but Kathy played it well. It got going a little faster than the speed she likes to play it at.

I asked Chris if he knew the one called Jimmy in the Swamp and he said yes so we proceeded to play that one, which was a lot of fun.

Next I played the jig The Eavesdropper, which is one that I have recently learned.  I'm hoping others learn it too so that we can play it more.

After that tune, Chris asked if we could play Mooncoin Jig, so we did.  Chris knew it as a two-part tune, but  we play it as a 3-part tune. The three part version prevailed, and it all worked out in the end!  Mooncoin was the only tune for which I looked at the music all day.

Nobody had sung a song yet, and there were starting to be more people in the brewery by this point, so I asked Chris if he wanted to sing one.  He chose the song Roving Gambler and Andy fell right in with some improvised soloing.  It's on songs like this that I become painfully aware of my weaknesses as a player.  I did nothing but just sit there and listen due to my unfamiliarity with hearing chord changes and knowing what to do on a bluegrass song like this.  It should be super easy but it's very difficult for me still.

It was then time to have Andy let loose on a couple of high-energy reels - Boys of Malin and Gravel Walk.  I love these two tunes and they are two that I hope to keep practicing until I can play them well enough to do them justice.

I had brought my new Ten Years of Tunes tunebook, and Andy looked through it and played Lucy Farr's Barndance from the notation in the book.  I had heard Owen Marshall play that tune the week before in a concert with Ari and Mia Friedman, so it's one of those tunes that I know I've got to learn.  In fact the next time that one comes around I'll be ready to play it.

One of my favorite tunes to play is Congress Reel, so I did that one next.  I think it came out OK.

It was getting near the end of the session by this point, but we hadn't yet played the trio of Silver Spear, Maid Behind the Bar and High Reel, so we knocked those out with some enthusiasm and velocity.  I think you can hear Laura's bodhran playing on these!

I had no idea at the time what the next tune was, and kind of played along on auto-pilot. I found out afterward that it was Fisher's Hornpipe, which I supposedly hate, although I recall enjoying it this time.  The act of playing along to a tune you don't know can be very satisfying in some situations, because you are reacting to what you are hearing rather than simply playing rote notes.

The Banshee is a tune Chris had been working on in preparation for this gig, and so he called for that one.  I'm starting to really like that tune again so I'm glad that one came up.

The Banshee was the last tune of the day for the group, although I asked Andy if he knew of any tunes to pair with it, and he quickly played one final tune, which he referred to as "The One That Goes With It".

There you have it.  A tune by tune rundown of our somewhat impromptu session on 3/16/13 at Midnight Brewery.
L to R: Laura Fields, Kathy Whittle, Lanny Fields, Lee Owens, Justin Joplin,
Andy Cleveland (fiddle) and Chris Hale (not pictured)
The above picture is the only one that I know of which was taken that day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dusty Banjos Ten Years of Tunes (book) and Live At The Crane (CD)

When I received my copy of Dusty Banjos Presents Ten Years of Tunes by Mary Lovett and Heather Greer with 400+ Irish session tunes arranged in sets, my first reaction was that this could be the best trad tunebook I've ever come across!  But let me back up for a minute and explain what Dusty Banjos is and what they do.

Dusty Banjos is a series of classes and sessions designed for adult learners (AKA improvers) who want to learn and play traditional Irish music with others.  It's a supportive, non-competitive atmosphere where all players and instruments are welcome to participate, regardless of level of ability (kind of like my Ashland jam/session, I hope).

The first Dusty Banjos session took place in Galway, Ireland in 2002, run by Mary Lovett of Community Music Crew.  Over the years additional Dustys sessions have been set up in Clifden, Ennis and other locations in Ireland.  Dusty Banjos also hosts the annual Cleggan Music Weekend each summer in the fishing village of Cleggan in Western Connemara, which looks awesome by the way!

The book Ten Years of Tunes was created to document the Dusty Banjos versions of tunes and sets from the repertoire accumulated over its first decade of existence.  The result is a broad-ranging snapshot of tunes that you're likely to hear in sessions in and around Galway and the rest of the world.  Tunes are organized by type - jigs, slip jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, slides, barndances, strathspeys, mazurkas, waltzes, marches, set dances, flings and airs. From there the tunes are further divided into sets of two or three - with sets grouped together on a single page whenever possible - or as single tunes.
Dusty Banjos session in Oliver's Bar, Cleggan music weekend 2012
The tunes are written in both music notation and ABC.  There's a brief section on how to read the music, as well as a number of photos, posters, articles and other content that I found interesting.  The book is printed on sturdy, glossy paper held together by heavy-duty spiral binding, making it easy to turn to the page you want to look at.  My favorite tune out of the book so far is Lucy Farr's Barndance, although I'm sure there are many more gems to be found in its pages.

Dusty Banjos also does public performances as a band.  One of those performances was recorded in January 2009 to become the CD Live at the Crane.  Officially released live session recordings at a tempo conducive to playing along with are rare, so this recording is a valuable learning tool for student musicians.  These high-energy ceili band style settings are a little percussion heavy (snare drum and bodhran), but that makes it easy to tap your foot to and keep in time with. 

Although Live at the Crane was recorded independently from the tunebook, the CD does contain close to 40 selections from Ten Years of Tunes, in the same sets as the book, so it’s a great learn-by-ear add-on to the written notation.  I’ve immediately taken a liking to two jigs on the CD – The Black Rogue and The Blackthorn Stick – but there’s a whole slew of session standards on the disc.  I don’t know of a better individual practice CD for Irish music.
Dusty Banjos recording session, Crane Bar, Galway Ireland
The book Ten Years of Tunes and the CD Live at the Crane would make great additions to anyone's Celtic music library, but are especially suited to those who are just starting to attend sessions or who have been too shy to do so thus far.  The book can also help provide the framework for starting your own learners session, designed after the Dusty Banjos model!  You can order Ten Years of Tunes here, and Live at the Crane here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Some Broad Generalizations about the keys of G, D, A and C…and E-minor!

After a while the keys that old-time and Irish tunes are commonly played in start to have their own distinct feeling or personality.  I’m not sure of the validity of my subjective observations, but here is how I generally see the following keys:
Key of G
G is a happiest key.  I get sort of a vaudevillian, turn-of-the century vibe from G-tunes.  The melodies feel like they come from sheet music or the stage.  G-tunes are “barndancy” with a sound that’s well suited to an instrument like the concertina.  The tunes Turkey in the Straw, Red Wing, Girl I Left Behind Me, Flowers of Edinburgh, the Keel Row and Kilnamona Barn Dance come to mind when I think of G tunes.  Light and fluffy.
Key of A
I consider A to be the quintessential old-time key.  It’s where a lot of the best overall tunes reside, including the crooked ones.  Tunes in A are often modal, containing a flattened seventh (G-natural) and/or a flattened third (C-natural) note -- built out of the A-minor or A-major chord and the G-major chord.  These modal tunes are found in both Irish and oldtime.  Tunes like Congress Reel, Kitchen Girl, Gravel Walks, Cold Frosty Morning and Santa Anna’s Retreat are good examples.  In some forms of Celtic music the A-tunes can have a “marchy” feel.  This may be derivative of Scottish bagpipe music which is often played in A. 
Key of D
D is the catch-all key.  It’s certainly the most popular key in Irish music, and that carries over into old-time too, where it is also the most common key.  One could assume that some of the D-tunes in old-time are variations of their Irish cousins.  D is the key that a lot of beginners like to play in, and most people know more tunes in D than any other key.  D tunes might also be characterized as using a smaller overall range of notes (not sure about that though).  D-tunes don’t really stand out in the way that the others do though.
Key of C
The key of C is the ragtime key.  Country rags, cake walks, and stringband blues numbers.  It helps to have a group of folks that you jam with who like to play in C, or else you might not get around to learning many C-tunes.  It’s in C that you have tunes with cool titles like Monkey in a Dogcart, Rattlesnake Bit the Baby, Down in Little Egypt, Saturday Night Breakdown and so on.  C might be a bit harder to play than other keys, but the tunes are fun to learn and good finger workouts.  C-tunes in Irish music are rare.
Key of Edorian
There’s another key worth mentioning which shows up in Irish music.  This is E-dorian (Irish players just called it E-minor).  Tunes in this key primarily use the chord E-minor contrasted with a D-major chord.  The E-dorian scale is the same as the notes in a D-major scale, but starts with an E note instead of D.  Some really cool tunes that almost play themselves are in this modal key, including Cooley’s Reel, Swallowtail Jig, Road to Lisdoonvarna, Drowsie Maggie Scollay’s Reel, and more. 

Thanks for reading these broad and greatly flawed generalizations about the most common keys found in Irish and old-time music.  What do you think about these tonal center stereotypes?

First Impressions of the Olympus LS-14 digital audio recorder

Olympus LS-14 Linear PCM Recorder 
I've been using my smart phone or iPad to do some recording at the Irish sessions and old-time jams that I attend, but I don't like zapping my phone's battery to record a long session, and I don't really like carting around an iPad for this purpose and risk having beer spilled on it.  Plus, the sound quality isn't quite there on recordings made with my phone or iPad unless I use an external mic, and then it becomes less discreet and much more cumbersome.

So I decided to get a portable recording device - something digital that's designed for music and not voice, able to record for up to 3+ hours at a time, with good microphones, ability to record as MP3 or .wav, with lots of memory (either built-in or with an SDHC card), long battery life, easy navigation and easy to get files off of, be able to screw into a tripod stand, be relatively small but sturdy and be $200 or less.  Basically I just wanted something I could place on a table in front of the fiddler, press record, and then not have to worry about for the rest of the night.

I came across at least 6 possible audio recorders in my search: the Philips LFH0655, the Sony PCM-M10, the Tascam DR-40, the Zoom H2N, and the Olympus LS-14 or LS-12. I liked how the Philips had 4GB of built-in memory and a rechargeable battery.  Plus, at $80, the price was right.  However, it's more of a voice recorder and I wasn't sure if the recording quality would be good enough.  As far as the Tascam DR-40, I didn't need the ability to record using external XLR mics and I feared that the navigation would be too complicated, so I quickly ruled that one out also.

The Sony PCM-M10 was more expensive than the Zoom and Olympus models, but didn't seem to be any better, and it was older than those, having been out for a few years from what I could tell. So I let the Sony one go too.  That left the Zoom H2N and the two new Olympus recorders - the LS-14 and the LS-12.  My research told me that the Olympus recorders beat out the Zoom when it came to battery life, ease of use, and built-in memory, with the added benefit of being able to overdub.  It then came down to the Olympus LS-14 or LS-12.  

I chose the more expensive LS-14 on the basis that it is supposed to have better mics, and had 4GB of built-in memory, compared to the LS-12's 2 gigs of memory.  In actuality, I probably would have been fine with the LS-12 because I ended up getting a 32GB SDHC card anyway, and have been using that to increase the amount of music I can store on the recorder. Both have a chromatic tuner and metronome functions, which are nice conveniences, but weren't a big factor in my decision.

Here are my first impressions of the Olympus LS-14 Linear PCM Recorder.  I like it!  It's very easy to figure out, even for someone with an aversion to technical stuff like me. As soon as I put the batteries in I was recording with very little confusion.  Then I listened back and was very pleased with the quality.  It was easy to switch the settings to record in MP3 320 kbps mode, which is what I think I'll use most of the time.  (If you want to overdub with a recording, you have to record everything in PCM 44.1 khz mode).

The LS-14 has 3 main recording settings - Smart, Quick and Manual.  Smart allows the device to do a 30 second analysis of the sounds it will be recording and then it automatically chooses the recording level.  Quick is just like you might think - you press record and it quickly begins recording at a pre-set level.  Manual allows you to set and adjust the recording level yourself.  Manual is the one I'll use the most, especially once I learn what the best settings are for the different environments I'll be recording in.  However, I can see situations where Smart or Quick might be useful.

The LS-14's 4GB of built-in memory might be enough for some users.  Office Max had a 32GB HDSC card on sale for $25 last week, so I went ahead and got one of those so I wouldn't have to worry about maxing out for a while.  The battery life is said to be 48 hours.  I've been using the two AA batteries it came with, and after several hours of use it still seems to be on a full charge.  The socket for mounting to a tripod or stand is great, and I've been using the CL2 stand clamp which was included.

Getting the files from the LS-14 to the computer is simple.  My computer recognizes it when I plug it into the USB, and I just copy and paste the files over.  (Backing up the files in a cloud service such as Dropbox is not a bad idea).  I haven't really used any of the editing features yet, such as File Divide, File Trimming and Partial Erase.  This is partly because I downloaded something called mp3DirectCut, so I just do that kind of track trimming on my computer after I've gotten the file off the recorder.  (I wonder if the LS-14 has a way to normalize the tracks - to increase the volume levels without distorting the recording???)

I've had the LS-14 for less than a week as of this writing, but I've already used it to record a banjo lesson/workshop, a live show by a local band, and an Irish Session I played in last night.  Below is a recording from the Irish session.  We were seated around a table and the recorder was laying in front of me on the table, pointed toward the fiddler, flute player, and Irish tenor banjoist. It also picked up the bodhran and guitar backup players - who were kind of on either side. Listen for yourself and let me know what you think!

I'd like to use my new recorder whenever appropriate to capture the tunes I hope to learn and practice playing along with.  If you have similar needs then it could be just what you were looking for.  The 32GB of memory with an SDHC card, which allows you to record up to 1000 hours of MP3 audio or 45+ hours of .wav audio, and the 40+ hour AA battery-life, should make it great for taking to campout festivals like Clifftop or Rockbridge.  I can even see someone recording a My Morning Jacket rock concert with it!  Let me know if you have any questions about this product or would like more information.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Say old man, is that a tenor guitar or a baritone ukulele?

Tenor Guitar (L), Baritone Ukulele (R)
I have a tenor guitar.  My wife has a baritone ukulele.  Both instruments look very similar.  When we’re playing them, like at an oldtime jam or something, people often ask, “Are those the same instrument?”  Despite the similarities (scale length, body size/shape, number of strings) there are some key differences.

My tenor guitar is strung GDAE, from low to high.  This is the same as standard tuning on a violin or mandolin, just one octave lower.  So, my tenor guitar is not really a “guitar” at all, but more like an octave mandolin. When I pick a melody it I'm pretty much playing mandolin.

On the other hand, Laura’s baritone uke is strung DGBE, from low to high.  This is the same as a regular 6-string guitar, minus the 2 lowest strings.  So, her baritone ukulele is not really a “ukulele” at all, but more like a guitar with only 4 strings.  When she strums chords she's pretty much playing guitar.

By that logic, the instrument that should have the word guitar in the title is the baritone ukulele.  To the contrary, my experience playing tenor guitar tuned GDAE does not help me play a regular guitar, if at all, but I can pick up a left-handed mandolin and know what to do.  Go figure.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Boston-based sisters Ari and Mia Friedman at Ashland Coffee and Tea, Thursday, March 14

Ariel Friedman (L), Mia Friedman (R)
Kay Landry, the sound guru for the listening room Ashland Coffee and Tea, often plays CDs by artists who will soon be coming there as the house music before and between sets.  The other night as a crowd gathered for a well-attended concert, Kay was playing the CD Unruly Heart by Ari and Mia Friedman, who will be performing on Thursday, March 14th at 8pm.  I watched as 3 people asked her what this music was.  I would have asked too if Kay hadn’t told me as I walked in that this was Ari and Mia.  Hearing that album for the first time as it played to the crowded room was a pleasant surprise.

I have since listened to Unruly Heart multiple times through, and I can say that Ari and Mia make the kind of pure music that I like to hear – Ari on cello and lead/harmony vocals, and Mia on violin and lead/harmony vocals (maybe some banjo too!).  I would describe their style as a refined take on traditional music, reminiscent of such contemporary bands as The Sparrow Quartet, Furnace Mountain Band, and The Stray Birds. 

There’s a bit of a new acoustic, progressive edge to Ari and Mia’s sound – a possible product of their classical and Conservatory training – which they overlay with sweet-sounding vocals that show an American roots and early jazz influence.  The bulk of the album is original songs, so I get the sense that songwriting and composing is a big part of their musical inspiration.  However, they also do a nice interpretation of the fiddle tunes Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire and Grubb Springs on the album.  Those tunes clean up surprisingly well!

Ari and Mia have a new album ready to come out soon, so I suspect they will be featuring new material this Thursday, but based on what I heard off the 2010 album Unruly Heart, I am now really looking forward to their performance, which will feature Owen Marshall on guitar.  Highly recommended!

What: Ari and Mia Friedman, with Owen Marshall
Where: Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave., Ashland, VA 23005, (804) 798-1702
When: Thursday, March 14th 8pm (doors 7pm)
Cost: $10 advance, $12 at the door
Synopsis: jazzy/rootsy, new acoustic Americana – great singing and musical dexterity