Saturday, September 17, 2016

After a One Year Break from "Traditional" Music

Mountain Thistle at Grelen Trails - Somerset, VA.  By Laura Fields.
Around this time last year I began to quickly lose interest in the traditional Irish and Appalachian tunes that had mostly been the foundation of my repertoire to that point.  Granted, I wasn't that good or anything near authentic, but I had been spending many hours per week (over 150+ consecutive weeks) on this obsession that involved familiarizing myself with dozens of tunes so that I could sit in at Irish sessions and old-time jams without feeling like too much of a poseur.

When my focus shifted, I think it was due to a realization that traditional music is like a big wheel that is already spinning and continues to spin.  As an outsider, if you want to join in that hobby, you have to jump on that wheel and hang on for dear life until it becomes natural.  For me it was a constant struggle, like I was trying to steer a ship that couldn't be controlled.  You either conform to its predetermined structure or jump off.  I jumped off.

After years of grappling with frustration and disappointment I finally realized that there's a different amateur musical track that could be a lot more fulfilling based on my personal interests and goals as an introvert who treats the playing of his instrument as the equivalent of watching TV, gardening, or doing a crossword puzzle.  When the road forked I took an alternate one that that is severely crooked, but not in the Southwest Virginia type of way.

I needed music that I could play my own way, at my own pace, free from over-the-shoulder judgment (real or imagined); without regard for which key you're supposed to play it in, what instrument you choose to play it on, what speed you're supposed to play it at, how many times through you're supposed to play it, what type of tune or music it's supposed to be, how you're supposed to play it, where it comes from, what fingerboard position to play it in, what fingering to use, to what degree you can safely improvise, and so on.  I cleared all that away and then searched out for a personal repertoire that allowed me to play freely without any hindrances beyond ones that I choose to impose.  That list, as it stands today, is below.

Amarillo Barbados - A Caribbean sounding tune by Bill Frisell, learned out of his An Anthology book.

A Moda da tal Anquinha - From Neym Rosauro's Seven Brazilian Children's Songs for Solo Marimba.  I only play 2 of the 3 parts.

Aurore Bradaire - A Creole song from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Back Down to the Tropics - From the 1944 booklet Calypso Rhythm Songs: Authentic Tropical Novelty Melodies by Lionel Belasco and Leighla Whipper.

Bad Woman - From the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.  Written by Venezuelan/Trinidadian composer Lionel Belasco.

Balalaika Gap - From the Camper Van Beethoven album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

Bananas and Blow (intro) - By Ween.  Learned this by ear(!) by listening to Ween's Long Beach Island Tapes where a demo version of Bananas and Blow features an intro melody with an extra little B-part which makes all the difference.  The fact that I learned it by ear means that I'll never be sure if I'm playing the "correct" notes but it sounds OK for what I'm looking to get from it.

Belle Layotte - A Creole song from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Billy Gray - By Norman Blake.  I just play it as an instrumental single-note melody, as I do for all of these that might otherwise have words.

Bonne Humeur - By Haitian composer Arthur Duroseau.  From the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Brasilia - From the Baja Marimba Band Rides Again album.

Bruca Manigua - A Cuban song that I got from Irish fiddler Yvonne Casey's CD.

Calinda - A Louisiana Creole song from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Carnaval En Margarita - By Lionel Belasco.  From the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Cha Bai - A tune from Cape Verde that was was included in John Philip Sousa’s 1890 book National Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands, but I got it from The Rhythmia.

Chinita - By Lionel Belasco.  From the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Dessan Mouillage - A Martinique folk melody from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Dupree's Diamond Blues - By the Grateful Dead (Garcia/Hunter).  Even though I love the Grateful Dead, this is currently the only song of theirs that I am trying to play as a single-note melody line.  A work in progress for sure.

Dodo Li Pitite - Haitian folk tune.  From the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Friday - By Phish.  I have seen Phish live more than any other band (57 times as of this writing), but there are only a couple Phish songs that I enjoy trying to play portions of.  This song, from Round Room, is one of them.  I just play the main vocal melody line, "I crashed, I burned, but then I learned to keep my eye on you...".

Gandzia Polka - This fantastic 3-part Eastern European sounding tune came to me by way of the Irish CD Barr Trá by Mary Custy and Quentin Cooper where they mistakenly titled it Costumi Siciliani (track 2).  Special Ed and the Shortbus used to play this one.

Gordjieff's - This is purported to be a Russian tune, but it also comes from that same Barr Trá CD by Mary Custy & Quentin Cooper.

Guyute - I don't even begin to do this Phish song justice, but the vocal melody line "Guyute was the ugly pig..." passes for an excellent folk tune and actually could be a jig, in the Irish sense.  The rest of the composition...forget about it!  I'll leave that to Holly Bowling.

Haiti Cherie - A Haitian popular song written by Othello Bayard.  I, of course, got it from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD where they called it Souvenir d' Haiti.

I Am Not A Farmer - An ambiguously homespun piece that is the signature recurring theme on Bill Frisell's Disfarmer project.

I Dream A Highway - This is arguably Gillian Welch's greatest song and the album version on Time (The Revelator) is a prime example of how a simple melodic idea can be stretched out over 14 minutes without getting old.  It didn't occur to me to try playing it until I heard Sarah Manning's brilliant exploratory jazz version of I Dream A Highway on her album Harmonious Creature.

Katyusha - A Russian tune I learned directly out of the 2016 book International Mandolin Method by Philip John Berthoud.  I wish he included details on the history of and sources for the tunes included in that book.

Korobochka - Another Russian tune from Philip John Berthoud's International Mandolin Method book.  It pairs well with Katyusha.

La Douceur - By Haitian composer Arthur L. Duroseau, who also wrote Bonne Humeur (see above). As with about a dozen other numbers on this list, I got it from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD. More recently, it was recorded by BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet on From Bamako to Carencro.

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream - An anti-war folk song written by Ed McCurdy in 1950.  I was inspired to try and learn the melody after hearing this song on Charles Lloyd and the Marvels' new release I Long to See You with Willie Nelson singing it.

Lisette - By Haitian composer and pianist Ludovic Lamothe.  From the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China - From the Camper Van Beethoven album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

Mosaico Tradicional - A tricky melody from Venezuela that I got from Philip John Berthoud's International Mandolin Method book. 

My Little Suede Shoes - This is attributed to Charlie Parker but it may actually be a French-Caribbean tune called "Mes Souliers De Daim" that Bird picked up in Paris during the early 1950's.  Instead of the AA/B/A > improv structure common to jazz, I instead like to play this as a repeated AA/BB head melody in the key of E-minor.

Opening Theme - The first track on Camper Van Beethoven's Key Lime Pie CD.  One of the weirdest tunes I am trying to play.  It sort of reminds me of Frisell's Amarillo Barbados.

Opi Rides Again - This is the instrumental portion of the Opi Rides Again / Club Med Sucks medley from the Camper Van Beethoven album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.  It almost sounds like cartoon music when they play it.

Paloma Blanca - This comes from the repertoire of Southwestern fiddler Cleoffes Ortiz, but I heard it on Little River Stomp by The Buckhannon Brothers.

Payed Vacation: Greece - From the Camper Van Beethoven album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.

Pirulito que Bate Bate - From Neym Rosauro's Seven Brazilian Children's Songs for Solo Marimba.  I only play 2 of the 3 parts and I modified the mallet arrangement of a few bars to work better on tenor banjo.

Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine - A verdant miniature bluegrass composition found on Bill Frisell's Blues Dream CD.  To add interest I alternate between playing this in major and minor, and also add a snippet from its sister piece "Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming" at the end.

Sam Polo - A piece from the Virgin Islands that was played by the U.S. Navy Band of St. Thomas.  I got it from the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur CD.

Skinhead Stomp - From the Camper Van Beethoven album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.  

Song for Sidiki - By Jenny Scheinman from her album Crossing the Field.

Soulful I - A perfect example of exactly the type of tune I am looking for and would have loved to have written myself.  Oddly, it is by Lee "Scratch" Perry and comes from his classic 1969 The Upsetters Return of Django album, although I first heard it on Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin's album Boss Reggae (also recorded in 1969) which has recently resurfaced.  Having now heard both, I prefer the original Upsetters version.

South of the Border - Somehow I don't think I was familiar with this well known song until I heard Greg Cohen and Bill Frisell play it on the Greg Cohen record Golden State. The entire Golden State CD is worth checking out, as it features Cohen on acoustic upright bass and Frisell playing an unusually clean, non-distorted electric guitar.  No other musicians, instruments, overdubbing or production - just stripped down, straight-ahead tunes recorded in one studio session on December 3, 2012 in Brooklyn, NY.

Uele - An African (Congolese) children's song. The full title might be Uele Moliba Makasi. There's a video of a Bill Frisell concert from the Barbican Theater in London 2/29/2004 featuring Djelimady Tounkara, Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman and Sidiki Camara where they play this tune. That's where I heard it. I don't think it's on any officially released Frisell recordings. I treat this as a loose, evolving interpretation that comes out different every time.

We All Love Neil Young - Probably my favorite Bill Frisell composition.  So basic and yet so beautiful.  It's from Frisell's Big Sur project where it shows up in multiple incarnations ("Song for Lana Weeks").  Check it out.

Yanqui Go Home - From the Camper Van Beethoven album Telephone Free Landslide Victory

Mountain Thistle at Grelen Trails - Somerset, VA.  By Laura Fields.
Even though I didn't write any of these they very much feel like my tunes.  I continue to add a tune or two per month to this list, and some occasionally drop off, but I try to play through at least 5 or 6 each evening and also try to get to all of them within every two weeks or so.  I also use these as launching pads toward exercises in improvisation, transposition, scale theory, and more.  Even if I stopped here and never added a new melody to the list, I would probably have enough for an endless pursuit of music. 

I'm sad to report that I have tried to play the occasional one-off Irish tune over the last 6 months and each time it feels increasingly ill-fitted, like a pair of shoes or jacket that is not for me.  I'm very fickle and prone to phases and stages, so it would not be surprising if all of that changed at some point in the future.  For now I'm riding this wave.


  1. Great post. I am on a similar path - I lost my enthusiasm for bluegrass a few years ago and decided to stop 'preparing' for jam sessions and just concentrate on my own thing. Since then I have been much happier.