Thursday, May 2, 2013

Do Fiddlers Have It Easy?

I was wondering if it was easier or harder to play one of the quintessential instruments in a traditional music genre, such as fiddle or clawhammer banjo in oldtime Appalachian mountain music, and fiddle or flute in Irish traditional music?

It’s gotta be easier, right?  I mean, you’re always going to be around other people playing the same instrument as you, using the same tuning and/or playing in a similar style.  Plus there are lots of source recordings featuring your instrument that you can listen to.  You learn by osmosis as part of the tradition.

Or is it harder in some ways?  Because of the high benchmark set by the legendary players of that instrument, can the search for “authenticity” become overwhelming?  Are you constantly reminded that you are playing it wrong or that you’ll never be as good as the masters?

I encounter a bit of both with tenor banjo.  Since the glory days of 'Banjo' Barney McKenna, all the way up to the Howley brothers in We Banjo 3, the tenor banjo has become one of the standard instruments in Irish traditional music; Angelina Carberry being my favorite.  If I was to pursue playing my tenor banjo in this style, there’s already an informal blueprint laid out for me by simply listening to and emulating others that use the same instrument to play that style of music.

Barney McKenna
On the other hand, when I play tenor banjo at an oldtime jam I’m always the only one there doing so.  There is no precedent.  There are no recordings of people playing Indian Ate the Woodchuck, Little Billy Wilson or Possum On A Rail with a GDAE tuned tenor banjo, that I know of.  To make that connection with the tradition requires a bit more stretch on my part.  Although this can be kind of liberating – the way you do it is the “correct” way by default because there is nothing to compare yourself to.

The whole reason I chose tenor banjo in the first place was to have a unique instrument that was “right for me”.  I didn’t want to be just another mandolin or guitar player, knowing that I could never be as good as my heroes on those instruments.  With tenor banjo I had no pre-conceived notions other than I figured it would be more fun because I would be the only one doing it.  What I’ve learned though is that it helps to have someone else to learn off of who plays the same instrument.  If I’m at an Irish session and there’s another tenor banjo player there it makes it much easier to find the notes.

Oddly, oldtime music is no more foreign to me as a tenor banjo player than Irish traditional music is.  As an outsider and relative newcomer to both genres, each is a mysterious world that I have yet to fully learn.  Because I started playing both styles simultaneously – literally learning the jig Lilting Banshee right alongside the hoedown June Apple – I don’t see it as two distinct styles but as one complete "whole" that gets funneled or channeled through my instrument of choice, which just so happens to be the 4-string tenor banjo. 

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