Posts Tagged ‘fiddle tune’

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More Fiddling Around with Haas & Friends

26 November 2013

As the song title says, the frost is on the pumpkin. If that nip in the air is getting you down, here’s a two-song medley of old fiddle tunes that should buck you up:

Like an earlier medley, this video comes from a cozy house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a crew of fellow travelers, specifically Lily Henley and Kellen Zakula, who join Haas on fiddle, older sister Natalie Haas on cello and Rene del Fierro (off screen) on guitar.

The recorded history of the two tunes featured here— “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Rebel Raid”— reaches back to two important early figures. The consensus in folklore circles seems to be that “Shove the Pig’s Foot…” was first recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whereas “Rebel Raid” is associated with the great Ed Haley.  Haas tells me that both tunes came to her by way of a more contemporary source: reigning old time fiddling master Bruce Molsky.

Though she has studied and played with Molsky and other current practicioners, Haas is well acquainted with the work of the earlier generations of fiddlers. In addition to Martin and Haley, she cites the work of Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Manco Sneed and Estill Bingham as influences. “There’s just a huge wealth of source recordings floating around through the old-time community,” says Haas, “so it’s always great to hear different fiddlers and older versions of tunes (as well as old tunes that are new to me still!).”

Name That Tune

“Shove the Pig’s Foot Further Into the Fire” has one of the key attributes of a good fiddle tune: a cryptic title. Vi Wickam has a concise summary of what little is known of the tune’s origins and meanings on his website. I buy the argument that the “pig’s foot” in this case refers to a blacksmith tool rather than an animal byproduct.

Fiddle tunes go in and out of vogue. “Shove the Pig’s Foot” has certainly enjoyed an upswing in popularity over the past few years. Traveling in its wake now is another old tune with a title that always gets folks scratching their heads, “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.” Given the success of these tunes, both of which have such long exhortations for titles, I am thinking of writing a contemporary number that I’m calling “Don’t Forget to Buy Milk.”

The redoubtable musician and teacher Mike Holmes once used “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” as an example of a tune that was better known in a particular region. He said that folks in Tennessee have always been keen on it, while it has only recently gained currency elsewhere. Holmes speculated that this pleasant melody might have benefited from a more appealing title. He could be right on that score, but for those who find the concept of nailing a fish to a tree at best surreal and at worst abhorrent, I can at least offer a little clarification. As anyone who has passed a summer afternoon fishing in a farm pond down South can tell you, catfish have skin as tough as Tyvek. One method for skinning one of these slithery critters is to nail it to something solid and then use pliers to pull off the skin. Nailing a catfish to a tree is therefore not so much bizarre as mundane. I’m aware that this explanation doesn’t really get us any closer to answering the more fundamental question of why this phrase got attached to that tune.

Perhaps “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” has a second meaning? Fiddle tune titles sometimes carry such hidden or coded messages. Take the title “Frost on the Pumpkin” I mentioned at the outset. The late, great Kenny Baker penned the fiddle tune bearing that name. You might assume that the title is meant to do no more than summon up a wistful image of rustic beauty, but several sources tell me that “frost on the pumpkin” is an old saying that refers to feeling randy. Whether or not the always grave and dignified Mr. Baker had making whoopee in mind when he wrote the song is beyond my ken. I will say this much: should “Frost on the Pumpkin” lead to “Makin’ Whoopee,” and thence to “A Bun in the Oven,” I heartily encourage you to name yer progeny Edden, Manco or Estill.

Once again, we extend our gratitude to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Jeff Boudreau— notloB mastermind— tells me that he has a trio of concerts featuring Brittany Haas coming up. Check his website for details.

Finally, thanks go out as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his tasteful editing.

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Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

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The Gospel of Bluegrass

5 June 2012

It’s high time we got right with gospel here at Second Cousin Curly. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to feature very different flavors of gospel-tinged bluegrass (or vice-versa). To get us started on the righteous foot, here’s a tune from— what else?— The Bluegrass Gospel Project that I recorded a couple of years back at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival:

How Much Gospel Do You Take With Yer Bluegrass?

In my wanderings, I’ve found a wide spectrum of attitudes in bluegrass circles toward gospel. On one end, I’ve encountered folks who truly only play bluegrass as a vehicle for exploring and enjoying gospel music. On the other end, I’ve met a few pickers whose view of gospel might best be summarized as “Thanks, but no thanks.” I hasten to add that people’s tastes in this regard don’t necessarily align with religious beliefs, though of course a lot of fervent Christians like to celebrate their faith through song.

I am now going to creep out onto a limb and make a glaring generalization: gospel music is more deeply integrated into bluegrass below the Mason-Dixon line. Look into the biographies of Southern bluegrass musicians young and old, and you’ll find that the great majority of them got their first introduction to music singing in the church. With the recent passing of Earl Scruggs, many fans took another look at episodes from Flatt & Scruggs television series and were surprised by how much gospel those shows featured (with Earl picking a mean guitar!). In his autobiography, Ralph Stanley writes extensively about the role that singing in church played in shaping his music. This tradition lives on. In an interview we recently posted here, Sierra Hull spoke in much the same terms about her upbringing. You could say that gospel is in southern pickers DNA.

This fact doesn’t just account for why those folks are more at home with gospel than their northern counterparts; it also helps explain why harmony singing is emphasized more in southern bands than groups from elsewhere. As I say, I’m going out on a limb, but if you’ve ventured this far out onto this rickety branch, let’s see if you’ll follow me one step further: just as harmony singing and gospel music form the backbone of bluegrass down south, fiddle tunes play a more fundamental role in northern bluegrass.

To be sure, these are broad brush characterizations and certainly don’t apply to all performers, northern or southern. Witness the fact that The Bluegrass Gospel Project is a Yankee outfit, drawing its members from Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. Of course, it’s also notable that this group leavens its staple of gospel numbers with tunes like the one featured in this next video postcard from Lake Champlain:

Festival Season Is Upon Us

Incidentally, I hope the glimpses of the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival in the two videos featured here motivate you to dig the lawn chairs out of the garden shed. It’s festival time!

Seemingly perched at the top of the world— the Canadian border is just about walking distance from its gate— the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival is representative of the myriad rustic and family friendly festivals that pop up every weekend from now until Labor Day. As it happens, the LCBF didn’t take place in 2011 and isn’t scheduled to run this year either. Like so many bluegrass events, LCBF depends on dedication and hard work of a very small core team. Here’s hoping they will return (as advertised) in 2013.

Saint Hazel

Anyone could be excused for assuming that “The River of Jordan”— the tune featured in the first video clip— was written by Mr. Anonymous way back when. Turns out the song was penned by Hazel Houser in the middle of the twentieth century. Houser is one of the great unsung songwriters of country and bluegrass. While others were drinking martinis and playing mahjong, this housewife from Modesto, California was turning out timeless compositions, including the country and bluegrass classic “My Baby’s Gone.”

My research has dug up precious little on Houser, beyond the fact that she passed away already many years ago. The music she has left behind offers tantalizing hints of a profound and sophisticated sensibility. Who wouldn’t want to meet the author of the lyric, “Hold back the rushing minutes, make the wind lie still”? That’s a verse that’s closer to Romantic poetry than it is to honky tonk. If anyone has more information on Houser’s life and music, please get in touch.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Joe Val Workshops: Down Home Schoolin’

6 February 2011

A sizable chunk of the nation may be preoccupied with ice dams and rock salt, but that doesn’t mean that the Bluegrass Faithful have stowed their banjos and basses in the garage. It might be counterintuitive, but the biggest bluegrass festival in frosty Boston takes place annually in the dead of winter. Yes sir, like a freightliner that’s blown out its air brakes, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is bearing down on us. February 18th, 19th and 20th, few shall sleep in the mock Tudor splendor of the Framingham Sheraton. Get on board or jump out of the way!

I’ve already held forth here on the weird and wonderful mix of performances and jams that define the Joe Val Fest.  As, uh, exhaustive as my previous portrait was, I don’t think I gave enough emphasis to the Joe Val Fest’s major asset, which are its workshops.

Of course, many bluegrass festivals host workshops. Often there’s a tent devoted to such sessions where you can mingle with your heroes. What makes Joe Val’s workshops special? Simple: they’re indoors. It will probably always feel a bit odd to play “Foggy Mountain Top” while standing in a carpeted corridor, and the words, “the banjo licks workshop is about to begin in Conference Room C” may never sound quite right, but staging the festival in a large hotel has its consolations. Chief among these is the fact that, when you go to a workshop you can hear and be heard with a clarity that’s just not possible outdoors.

Check out this performance by Skip Gorman and Richard Starkey (a duo that sometimes performs under the name Rabbit in a Log) from a workshop at last year’s Joe Val Fest. The tune is Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin.”

Nice, no? You can hear every note of those brushed chords that Gorman plays towards the end. That’s how it is a Joe Val: you can sit inches away from legends like Bobby Osborne or Frank Wakefield as they tell tales from their early years, or you can discuss the arcana of microphone and plectrums with hotshots like Mike Guggino or Jesse Brock (can you tell I play mandolin?). In these sessions, more than just about anywhere on the circuit, you feel the intimate bond between performer and audience that’s such a key part of bluegrass culture.

“Kentucky Mandolin” has become a standard (at least among mando players) even though in human terms it’s still only middle-aged. According to the discography compiled by Neil Rosenberg, inveterate chronicler of Monrovia, this instrumental was written by Bill Monroe for a recording date on November 9th, 1967. To my ears, the minor key makes it of a piece with a number of plaintive tunes from the latter part of Monroe’s career, such as “Crossing the Cumberlands” and “My Last Days on Earth.”

To hear more from Gorman and Starkey’s workshop, click here. To check out a couple more Joe Val workshop sessions (these featuring Joe Walsh and friends), click here and here.

Finally, to learn more about the 2011 festival line-up, check out Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass Blog or tune into Jeff Boudreau’s radio show, “In the Tradition,” on WCUW in Worcester, MA on the next two Tuesdays (February  8th and 15th) from 7:00 to 8:00 PM. Jeff will be interviewing a number of the performers who will be playing at this year’s festival. The line-up is a strong one, featuring representatives of the old guard like J.D. Crowe, Robin & Linda Williams and The Whites, newer acts like Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and interesting New England groups like Hot Mustard and Della Mae. Cool, you say? Are you kidding? Freezing!

Thanks to Gerry Katz and Evan Reilly for their guidance on this post.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Cherryholmes and Bluegrass Power Chords

18 October 2010

Autumn may be the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but here at Second Cousin Curly, it’s also “Season of Cherryholmes.” I’ve already expounded on the Cherryholmes juggernaut (click here for that entry), but I’ve got lots more music to share from this talented group’s appearance at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival.

Here’s a brand new tune from the ensemble’s latest album, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. The composition— co-written by BJ Cherryholmes and his younger sister Molly— is called “Tattoo of a Smudge.” The title refers to the permanent ink that collects on the sides of musicians’ hands after they have been signing a lot of merchandise at shows. Doesn’t that clear things up? I’ll let the music speak for itself—

Listening to  Cherryholmes going to town on this tune got me to thinking about a musical trope that has become a fixture in contemporary bluegrass, something that I call the “bluegrass power chord.”

Before we go any further, let me anticipate a question that might come up with regard to the following clip, namely, “Was I drunk when I made it?” Friends, in truth, I was stone cold sober, but this doesn’t exactly get me off the hook, since I’ll be the first to admit that the video makes very little sense. After gassing on this summer about the pernicious influence of percussion in bluegrass and other burning issues, I had decided that my proper place was behind the camera. I know I should have staid the course in this regard, but the current topic required a fair number of examples, and once I had settled upon a musical show-and-tell format, I didn’t see how I could avoid putting my ugly mug— Oh, just have a look and see what you think…

I’m less concerned about looking like a lunatic* here than I am about failing to make my point. You see, having committed to treading the boards once more, I was determined at least to get through the whole exercise as quickly as possible. As a result, I raced through the various musical excerpts, making it very hard for even the attentive listener to grasp my point.

Be that as it may, I still believe there is a case to be made here. Watch Sandy Cherryholmes hitting those chords in the first video clip, or turn the dial to the Bluegrass Channel on satellite radio or some other outlet for contemporary bluegrass, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Whereas bluegrass up until around 1970 was marked by a steady backbeat punctuated by the occasional lick or fill from the rhythm guitar, today’s music features surging rhythms that are often quite tightly arranged. That caesura that you hear in Ricky Skagg’s version of “Walls of Time”— the little hiccup where the whole band seems to take a collective breath— is a common stylistic device for contemporary groups like The Steeldrivers and Blue Highway.

As the carol goes, “Do you hear what I hear?” If so, when exactly did bluegrass get that extra rhythmic punch? Where did it come from? Send me your thoughts, and should you try to make one, let me know how that “bluegrass turntable” works out. A word of caution, however: try it out first on your old Bay City Rollers LPs and keep those bluegrass heirlooms on the shelf.

Yer Pal— Curly

*Self-flagellating postscript: Precisely why I was drawn like a moth to immolate myself on the flame of exhibitionism is a matter I’ll be taking up shortly with my bluegrass therapist, Dr. George Dickel.

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What’s in a Tune?

10 May 2010

Fear not:  Cousin Curly’s got lots more sights and sounds to share from his recent southern trip, but right now, we’re going to take a brief detour— a slight step back in time, in fact.  Check out this tasty jam from a workshop with the inimitable Joe Walsh (mandolinist with the Gibson Brothers) at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival

Walsh is accompanied first by Courtney Hartman on guitar and later by Kimber Ludiker on fiddle.  Ludiker and her fiddle literally arrive half-way through the song (you can hear her unpacking her instrument in the background).  This tune represents the first time these three musicians had played together.

The composition featured here, “Saint Anne’s Reel,” started out as a French Canadian fiddle tune and has since spread far and wide.  I used to think people knew it in New England because it’s a staple of contra dancing, but I’ve since run into it all over the place.

At Merlefest, I heard a band play a version of the tune with electric guitar and drums.  Not to beat a dead horse (see my previous post on drums and string bands), but that amped up version, while a lot of fun, was as good an illustration as any of how drumming can “straighten out” a tune.  Lay a “boom-chuck-a” rhythm behind “Saint Anne’s Reel” and it suddenly sounds an awful lot like a polka.  In contrast, in the version I’ve posted here, you can see how Walsh & Co. minutely push and pull the rhythms to give the tune a real bounce.

While I’m sucking all the life out of a fine performance, let me take the opportunity to note a good example of how expert musicians can trade licks to form a kind of musical conversation.  Just about half way into this jam (the 2:15 mark), Hartman plays a little C#-D-E-C#-A phrase:

This phrase isn’t in the original melody, and in playing it, perhaps Hartman was simply transitioning from one chord pattern to another.  Whatever the case, you can hear how Walsh almost immediately seizes upon the phrase, as if to say, “Hey, that’s interesting…” Hartman in turn plays just a fragment of the phrase— now dropped down an octave— just before Ludiker joins in and takes the conversation in new directions.

Last point:  check out how fluently Walsh throws in fistfuls of “passing chords” as he backs Hartman’s solo.  The role these transitional chords have in defining Walsh’s sound can’t be overstated. They lend his playing a sweet and melancholy flavor or color that’s absolutely his own.  Hartman also employs passing chords to nice effect, particularly in the last run-throughs of the tune.

If you like what you heard, Ludiker and Della Mae are playing several shows in the Boston area over the next week or two.

Yer Pal— Curly

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