Banjo Confessions

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Month: June, 2010

How to end a relationship…learn the banjo

Teaching yourself an instrument can be tricky, especially if you have no experience in playing any instrument, and not being around those that do.  On top of that, learning to correctly play a style like clawhammer by oneself from a book is even more insane. When I first started teaching myself the banjo I found some tab books, but soon found out that if I never heard the tune before how was I gonna play it correctly.  So I started looking for records that included tunes I wanted to learn, which in 1971 wasn’t that easy. Nowadays there are plenty of teachers, videos, youtube, etc where you can actually get the concept.

Framus Banjo circa 1971

In 1970/71 I traveled the “Hippy Trail” from Europe to Kathmandu, by bus and train, a year long trip, where I carried an inexpensive Framus banjo that I bought in Berlin, and Pete Seeger’s book. I depended on the kindness of strangers (fellow travelers) to help me tune it, but during that whole trip I never met anyone who knew anything about banjos, especially the clawhammer, or frailing style. Plus Pete’s book had examples of many styles and diverse tunes, like “Ode to Joy” which kinda kept me unfocused on any one style.

I had some encounters at various borders where they were concerned that I was going to sell the banjo in their country and if I was then I should pay some sort of duty, when they wanted proof that it was my personal instrument I had to pull it out of my case and play it, well, since I couldn’t really tune it myself, or even play the durn thing it was kind interesting to see their expression when I tried.

In Afghanistan the people loved it, the chrome parts especially, and I was offered semi precious gems, like Lapis Lazuli  and Turquoise, as well as globs of Opium, all which I declined. But in India the land of the Sitar, they just acted surprised at how much I payed for this 5 string instrument, ($30.00) as compared to what a Sitar cost. Read the rest of this entry »

My First Banjo

My First banjo…built in 3dsMax from my memory

Here is my take on Frank Proffitt‘s Sourwood Mountain:

It was in Cleveland, 1970, my first wife, Diane, and I were cruising the junk shops, when I came across an interesting old instrument in pieces, with what looked liked a porthole from a ship holding a skin head.
I bought it for, what I think was $20.00, but it could have been a bit cheaper.  My dad worked at a tool and die company and asked one of the machinist there if they could fabricate some of the missing brackets, they were a brass tube that acted as the nut to a brass bolt, with a thick wall that was machined down so that it created a head that helped to press the top and bottem pieces together, tightening the head.

I replaced the torn head with a new skin one, and added strings, I used steel strings, but gut or nylon probably would have sounded better. The tuners were old style geared ones that fitted into the slotted head, the 5th string also was slotted. And the worked fine.

It was pretty nice looking but the actual rim that the head rested on was a thin piece of brass sheeting that was rolled, looking like a tin can. The tone was pretty crappy. But I loved it nonetheless.

Mine did not have the hindge

So now I had a banjo, but I knew nothing about the banjo or the music, yes I had seen Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs (on the Beverly Hillbillies) and watched the Hootenanny shows, but I never really noticed the banjo, or was drawn to it until I found this odd looking one. I was also not musically educated, so I found Pete Seeger‘s book on How to Play the 5 String Banjo and went to the library and picked up old LPs of players like Frank ProffittHobart Smith other esoteric and wonderful players, and the simpicity of their playing really touched something inside me.

Flat Foot in the Ashes

I first heard this tune, about 10 or so years ago,  from my friend Kenny’s daughter Corrina, who had learned it from her teacher.

I really enjoyed the tune and did some searching on the web and found that there was a cassette put out by the Augusta Heritage Center of a Harvey Sampson and his band the Big Possum String Band, which I then ordered the cassette from the Augusta Heritage Web Site.  (Elkins, W. Va. : Augusta Heritage Records, [1986?]  AHR-004 Augusta Heritage Records)

Unfortunately they do not seem to carry it anymore, but there are some other good Old Time Music recordings and videos that can be found there.

Here is some info I found on the Fiddler’s Companion:

Old-Time. USA, central West Virginia. DGDG tuning. The tune appears to have been common in Braxton County and other areas of central West Virginia. It was mentioned by William Byrne who described a chance encounter with West Virginia fiddler ‘Old Sol’ Nelson during a fishing trip on the Elk River. The year was around 1880, and Sol, whom Byrne said was famous for his playing “throughout the Elk Valley from Clay Courthouse to Sutton as…the Fiddler of the Wilderness,” had brought out his fiddle after supper to entertain (Milnes, 1999). Augusta Heritage Records AHR 004C, Harvey Sampson & Big Possum String Band – “Flat Foot in the Ashes” (1986/1994. Learned from Noah Cottrell, Calhoun County, W.Va.).