All We Are Saying Is Give Banjos A Chance25 September 2011
Over the past few months, there has been some interesting to and fro in the letters section of Bluegrass Unlimited about the rising number of bluegrass bands without a fiddler (see postscript below). To be honest, up here in the Frozen North, where many folks come to bluegrass from Celtic music (an even more fiddle-based tradition) or classical training (ditto), I have not detected VFS (Vanishing Fiddler Syndrome) in our area. Banjos, on the other hand, seem to be on the endangered list. That’s right: banjos— for many the bedrock of bluegrass— appear to be an increasingly scarce commodity. We may well be in the midst of a Vanishing Banjo Syndrome outbreak and nobody seems to notice but Yers Truly. Somebody sound the alarm! Make some noise!! Wait a sec: how do you make a racket without banjos?
Not playing the banjo myself, the next best thing I can do to address the banjo shortage is to use this platform to champion five-string masters. I have done this over the past months with posts celebrating the work of Jens Kruger and Tony Trischka. Even so, judging by recent jams I’ve sampled, my efforts have done little to forestall the advance of VBS. Clearly, it’s time to up the ante. Suppose we lived in an alternate universe, one in which all bluegrass bands were required to be composed of no less than fifty percent banjos. What would that sound like? Have a listen…
That is Hot Mustard, the New England bluegrass outfit whose motto is “Two banjos, no waiting!” As I recounted in my previous showcase entry on the group, I heard Hot Mustard before I set eyes on them, and so natural and integrated was their sound that it was only after watching them perform for a while that I noticed the unusual line-up: two banjos, guitar and bass. As they ably demonstrate, given the right degree of taste and control, you can’t have too much of a good thing. And for those of you concerned about VFS, Bill Jubett occasionally puts down his banjo and plays some fiddle, too.
This video features one of the greatest banjo tunes, “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” The quirk that sets it apart from a gazillion other instrumental numbers is the extra beat that gets thrown in halfway through the B part, a feature that makes it what is sometimes called a “crooked” tune. The song was recorded as an instrumental by the Stanley Brothers way back in 1959, but as with much of the Stanley Brothers’ material, the melody sounds much older than that. Alan Jabbour, in his notes on the magisterial collection of fiddle tunes he collected from old time master Henry Reed, posits that “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is an adaptation of a nameless breakdown that Reed said was “old as the mountains.”
You can listen to Reed’s breakdown here and decide if you agree that it’s an antecedent to the Stanley Brothers’ tune. Whatever your verdict, I suspect you’ll agree that it’s the Stanleys’ version that has entered the bluegrass canon. Interestingly, Hot Mustard’s take on “Clinch Mountain Backstep” owes at least as much to Earl Scruggs banjo style as it does to that of Ralph Stanley. There was a time when Scruggs and Stanley defined two distinct approaches to the banjo, the former pioneering a hard-driving three-fingered technique while the latter held onto a sound anchored in the clawhammer tradition. In bringing a style derived more from Scruggs to “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” Hot Mustard’s dual banjoists, Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, emphasize how much common ground there is in these various techniques.
For anyone familiar with the dozens of recorded versions of “Clinch Mountain,” the slow and spare vocal intro, written and sung by April Jubett, will come as a surprise. Those moody a cappella verses at the outset make the first salvo from Bill’s banjo sound like a clarion call. The tune gets even more of an adrenaline charge when Bill passes off to his mentor Bruce.
It all sounds great, which leads us back to the problem I raised at the outset: whither the banjers? Did somebody finally tell one too many banjo jokes? Folks, we didn’t mean it— come on back!
Yer Pal— Curly
P.S.— My favorite contribution to the VFS conversation in Bluegrass Unlimited so far was from John Mahoney of Strasburg, VA. In the September issue, Mahoney— who himself laments the disappearance of fiddlers from the scene— says that one explanation for the phenomenon given to him by bandleaders was that “fiddle players are idiots and hard to get along with.” I would beseech any of my fiddling brethren with anger management issues to keep in mind that these are not the views of Mr. Mahoney or Yers Truly.
P.P.S.— The traditional music site Mudcat Café has an old thread regarding the meaning of “backstep” as it applies to music or dance. The many clever thread participants are unable to verify that any maneuver from square dancing or other American folk dance idioms has an explicit connection to the Stanley Brothers’ famously “crooked” tune. I have also been unable to dig up any evidence that “backstep” applies to a particular type of tune, à la jig or reel. If anybody knows different, let us know!