Posts Tagged ‘fiddle tunes’

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The Late, Late Show at Grey Fox

15 July 2013

The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival takes place this week. Here’s a Zen koan I made up for this key event on the musical calendar: If it is 3:00 AM, is it early or late? While you ponder that, have a look and a listen to this campsite jam that was recorded in the wee hours at last year’s fest:

I have held forth in the past on the tune played here, “Cherokee Shuffle.” See my earlier post for an inventory of what is known and not known about that old chestnut.

The fine fiddler anchoring this jam is Elise Laflamme, a performer who is by now a fixture on the New England bluegrass scene. Elise has played with a few different outfits over the past several years, including the New Hampshire-based band Monadnock. Laflamme is also a member of The Boom Chicks, a super group made up of prominent female bluegrassers.

More than any other festival I know of, Grey Fox is a nocturnal event. No doubt this is partly dictated by the weather. It can be hard to catch yer cue to solo when streams of sweat are pouring into yer eyes. Therefore, most of the picking occurs when things cool down a bit after sundown.

Anyone who has engaged in a late-night (or early morning) Grey Fox jam will recognize this exquisite dilemma: a goodly chunk of yer brain has already gone to off to bed, but somebody just called a tune that you love. Next thing you know, you’re at it again, telling yerself, “I’ll go lie down after this one last number.”

In an attempt to replicate the full Grey Fox experience, we are therefore tempting you with another tune. That’s right, don’t go to sleep just yet, because we have a special treat:  a singer with a voice and a personality as big and inviting as Grey Fox itself…

That would be the one, the only Joe Singleton singing “Cry, Cry Darlin’,” a tearjerker that’s closely associated with Bill Monroe. In New England bluegrass circles, Singleton is a talent who needs no amplification— I mean introduction. Seriously, though he is known for his uncanny abilities to replicate the late Joe Val’s searing tenor, Singleton has a voice that is all his own. As the performance in this video demonstrates, although Singleton may be a Yankee by birth, his voice is well suited to songs steeped in the old country music of the South and West.

I said “the one, the only Joe Singleton,” but that might not be accurate. At Grey Fox, it’s not uncommon to have several Singleton sightings in one day. You might see him picking with some neighbors in the evening, then catch him jamming with the Grillbilly gang as the sun peeks over the horizon. You’ll catch a few hours of sleep and then be awakened by a parade passing by, and lo, there is Singleton in the lead, acting as Grand Marshall. Such ubiquity has led to speculation that there are surrogate Singletons out there, or perhaps even Singleton clones.  Whether singular or plural, I look forward to hearing more from Singleton at this year’s event. I’m also going to take plenty of naps so that I can pick a few more with the one, the only (truly!) Elise Laflamme, as well as Sandy, Sam, Bob, Geoff, Scott, Mary, Stephen, Eric, Hans, Andrew, Amy, and a whole bunch of folks whose names I don’t even know.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Bobby Britt & Town Mountain: Four Miles

10 May 2013

Fiddle tunes are musical DNA. Like our genetic code, they recombine the same twelve notes in nearly endless permutations and they’re passed down to us through the ages, weaving together far-flung ancestral strands. While they are potent vessels for conveying our heritage, fiddle tunes are by no means an historical or archaic musical form. Great fiddle tunes are still being written all the time. To kick off our new video series, Curly’s Wide Word of Fiddle Tunes, here’s a prime example of a contemporary composition that extends the tradition:

Catchy as all get out, isn’t it? That’s the exciting young band, Town Mountain, featuring an original fiddle tune penned by their fiddler, Bobby Britt. The performance is from this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

Bluegrass was built on a foundation of fiddle tunes. The father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, always said as much. Monroe could be parsimonious when it came to sharing credit, but he was always fulsome in acknowledging the debt his music owed to two fiddling forbearers, his uncle Pen Vandiver and Arnold Schultz. Vandiver was a relative and a neighbor of Monroe’s; Schultz was an itinerant African-American musician. Each in his turn helped introduce young Bill to the vast canon of fiddle tunes. These traditional melodies, some locally produced, many imported from the British Isles and Europe, were the popular dance music of the day in Appalachia. Many of the songs that Monroe subsequently wrote borrowed phrases from these tunes, and of course Monroe always interspersed vocal numbers with plenty of original and traditional fiddle tunes. Town Mountain and most contemporary bluegrass acts carry on this practice of leavening their set lists with fiddle tunes.

Britt relayed a poignant story behind the writing of “Four Miles.” About three years ago, he was recovering from surgery and had a couple of weeks of time on his hands, so he decided to make use of it by writing his first-ever fiddle tune. The title is a play on the phrase “For Miles.” Britt’s girlfriend had a brother named Miles who passed away. Miles loved bluegrass, so Britt penned the tune in his honor.

As Britt’s composition demonstrates, fiddle tunes have an elemental quality that makes them timeless. “Four Miles” fits right into the tradition, taking its place on the shelf between “Fire on the Mountain” and “Frosty Morning.” *

Britt hails from North Carolina, but he is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he works with master fiddler/teacher/arranger Darol Anger, among others. Britt recently received The Fletcher Bright Award at Berklee, the largest award in the school’s American Roots Music Program. “I am extremely honored and grateful for this award,” reports Britt, adding that it “will help make it possible for me to finish my degree at Berklee.” This is a neat detail, because while Bright made his money in real estate development, he is known in musical circles for his unfathomable repertoire of…fiddle tunes! By supporting Britt’s studies, Bright is insuring that the wellspring of good tunes will never run dry.

“Four Miles” is on Town Mountain’s latest release on Pinecastle Records, “Leave The Bottle.” We’ll be offering up some further selections from Town Mountain in the weeks ahead, as well as many more fiddle tunes from far and wide.

Yer Pal— Curly

* Before the Fiddle Police write, I know that I’m cheating with my alphabetization: the full title is “Cold Frosty Morning.”

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On the Trail of the Lost Cherokee

21 November 2012

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”— United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002

Do you know this tune?

Yes, that’s “Cherokee Shuffle” as performed by Darol Anger (fiddle), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin) and Emy Phelps (guitar) at a recent concert in Boston’s historic Loring-Greenough House.

I would count “Cherokee Shuffle” among two dozen canonical bluegrass fiddle tunes. It seems to have only gained in popularity with the passing of the years. I can still recall the first time I heard it played. I came upon a jam session in the back room of a bar where a bunch of pickers were already in medias shuffle. When the tune had finally run its course, I asked the mandolin player what it was called. Instead of answering straight up, he got this puzzled look and asked his fellow fellers, “Now, was that ‘Cherokee Shuffle’ or ‘Lost Indian?’” I was stunned. Though a bluegrass tenderfoot, I had already experienced the common affliction of struggling to recall a tune based on its title. “Leather Britches,” “Sally Goodin,” “Fire On The Mountain” and “Cumberland Gap” often blurred into a sonic haze in my memory. Even so, it had never occurred to me that the obverse could occur: that you could be unable to name a tune even though you had just played the Hazel Dickens out of it.

But of course— the tune being new to me— I knew not of what the mandolin player spoke. In the fullness of time, I came to understand his confusion, for the more I looked into the past of “Cherokee Shuffle” and/or “Lost Indian,” the deeper my own mystification grew. Were these one, two or three tunes? What was or were the “home” key or keys? Who wrote it/them?

Many a folklorist has attempted to untangle the histories of “Cherokee Shuffle” and “Lost Indian” with only partial success. A wiser man therefore wouldn’t venture into this treacherous corner of bluegrass scholarship. Be that as it may, heedless of caution and thirsty for fame, I’m going to attempt to sort out this whole Shuffle/Indian morass once and for all.

Tommy Magness, who played fiddle with Bill Monroe, established a tune he called “Lost Indian” in the bluegrass fiddling repertoire. You can hear a version that is probably close to Magness’ here. This performance is from Kenny Baker, Monroe’s longest serving fiddling companion.

Tommy Jackson is generally credited with transforming Magness’ “Lost Indian” into “Cherokee Shuffle.” The salient changes between the tunes are a key shift from D to A and the addition of a more varied B part that has a distinctive brief descending chromatic figure.

Just to throw kerosene on the fire, I’m going to say that Jackson’s adaptation of Magness’ “Lost Indian” is just that, an adaptation or arrangement and not an original composition. In the same vein, Steve Earle’s “Dixieland” is also fundamentally an ingenious arrangement of “Cherokee Shuffle” and not a distinct tune, notwithstanding its wonderful lyrics.

So far, so good, but we ain’t out of the woods just yet. There are in fact two old-time fiddle tunes, both called variously “Lost Indian” or “Lonesome Indian,” one being the composition Magness adopted, the other being a horse of an entirely different color. This alternate tune gets widely credited to Ed Haley, the blind Appalachian fiddler who either wrote or popularized many classic fiddle tunes. You can hear Mark Campbell’s take on Haley’s “Lost Indian” using a clever non-standard tuning here.

To my ears, there really is no connection between Haley and Magness’ tunes, but at this point I have taken the narrative as far as I can. Did these two tunes spring from a common source, and what does any of this have to do with errant or solitary Native Americans, Cherokee or otherwise? Here, gentle reader, I fear we have arrived at the frontier of the “known unknowns.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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Thile & Daves Bring It All Back Home

30 May 2011

Once upon a time, yer Cousin Curly set out to make a website that would be the Playboy Magazine of Bluegrass— you read it for the pictures.* On more than one occasion, however, I have lost sight of this goal and waxed on too fulsomely, creating something closer to The Times Bluegrass Supplement or The New York Review of Bluegrass.

Enough!

In an effort to wean myself of my prolixity, I hereby offer a veritable torrent of clips from a recent show at Boston’s Brighton Music Hall by Chris Thile and Michael Daves. For starters, we’re gonna jump right into the deep end with the longest video of the bunch. Stay with this fine medley of fiddle tune requests, though, and you’ll get a good feel for the show:

As noted in a previous post, it’s touching to hear a couple of virtuoso performers at the peak of their powers going back to the well of traditional material. The fiddle tunes liberally scattered through the duo’s two sets underscore the back-to-basics concept. The vocal tunes were also largely drawn from the bedrock of the bluegrass canon:

There were classic breakdowns and reels—

But there were also gorgeous slower tunes like Frank Rodgers’ “Ookpik Waltz”

The tune is sometimes called “Utpick Waltz.” While the spelling varies, everybody seems to agree that the title refers to an arctic owl.

Okay, before you drift off into some snowy dream, check out this take on “Loneliness & Desperation:”

That song was written by Michael Garris but I believe it’s most closely associated with Del McCoury, who recorded it in the 1980’s. Thile & Daves’ version does justice to Daves’ stated aim of using bluegrass to explore “basic, raw stuff.” This is also one of the strongest tracks on the duo’s fine new album, Sleep With One Eye Open.

In crafting the second fiddle tune medley based on audience requests, Thile & Daves decided to play with fire. They started with “Arkansas Traveler” in A, switched to Frank Wakefield’s “New Camp Town Races” in B flat and then finished up with Herschel Sizemore’s “Rebecca” in B. Don’t try this at home…

Very nice indeed, but as Thile put it himself, he failed to “stick the landing” into B on “Rebecca.” Undaunted, the duo attempted the transition one more time…

Nuff said!

Yer pal— Curly

*  Not to be confused with The Sporting News, which you read for the pitchers.

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