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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW for 2/27/15: Luther Strong's Ways of the World

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

Don Borchelt - Posted - 02/27/2015:  12:27:44

"Don't want to start a fight about whether this is the Real "Way of the World," (mine is from Luther Strong) so maybe we should be neutral and differentiate them by their sources: Stepp's "Ways..." and Strong's "Ways...". But they Are entirely different tunes and we should not perpetuate any confusion. Maybe Next week's tune could be Luther's." (emphasis added)

- Post by Curt Bourtese, from ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 6/25/2010 - Ways of the World

Better late than never.  The Tune of the Week for February 27, 2015 is Ways of the World, as played by Perry County, Kentucky fiddler Luther Strong (1892-1963), who was recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax and his wife Elizabeth in a hotel room in Hazard, Kentucky on October 18, 1937.  Strong's Ways of the World, as Curt Bourtise pointed out in 2010, is an entirely different tune than the one with the same name played by William H. Stepp, recorded by the Lomaxes in Salyersville, Kentucky, eight days later.  The Stepp tune is in A Mixolydian, with the fiddle cross tuned in A (AEae), while Strong's tune is in D major, in a variant of standard tuning, but with the 4th string dropped from G down to D, an octave below the 3rd string (DDae).  This is a rare tuning; the Milliner-Koken Collection of Old Time Fiddle Tunes lists only two tunes in this tuning among it's more than 1,400 tune transcriptions, the other being J.P. Fraley's Cluckin' Hen.  It is also a variant of another open D fiddle tuning, DDad, more common but still very unusual.  Listen to Luther Strong's field recording by clicking on the link below, and you will hear his very liberal use of both the 3rd and 4th strings as a low drone, the 3rd when he is playing certain melody notes on the 2nd string, and the 4th when he is hitting the open 3rd as a melody note.  I have included a link to my own transcription of Strong's playing, based on his first time through.  As he repeats, he generally substitutes another phrase at the beginning of the B part, borrowed from later in the strain, and that is how most old-time musicians play the B part today.  Note that Strong varies the structure, sometimes playing each part once (AB), and sometimes repeating the low part (AAB).  Most musicians today use the standard fiddle tune structure of AABB.  Ways of the World was already a well known Kentucky mountain fiddle standard when he played it for the Lomaxes; it was not an uncommon contest tune around the region. 

Ways of the World, played by Luther Strong

Transcription of Strong's Ways of the World


Luther Strong in Austin, Indiana, ca. 1955

Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist, was only 22 when he recorded Luther Strong.  He had just graduated the year before from the University of Texas, with a BA in philosophy.   In February, 1937, he married a fellow UT student, Elizabeth Harold Goodman, in the same month that he was hired by the Library of Congress (LOC) to manage their Archive of Folksong.  He was no stranger to field collecting; in 1933, then 18, he had accompanied and assisted his father, the legendary folklorist John Lomax, on a collecting trip for the LOC through Texas and Louisiana, recording a great many rural singers and musicians, including Huddie Ledbetter, the great "Leadbelly."  On this Kentucky trip, Alan and Elizabeth would spend about two months in the eastern part of the state, recording dozens of traditional musicians, including eleven fiddlers, starting with Jim Howard, in Harlan, Kentucky.  Luther Strong was the second to last, just before Bill Stepp, who was recorded down the road in Salyersville.  The story of the Luther Strong recording session is described in great detail in Stepthen Wade's wonderful book The Beautiful Musical All Around Us, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2012.  Lomax had apparently heard about Strong from other musicians the couple had already recorded earlier in the trip.  Wade speculates that Lomax may have been especially motivated by banjoist Justus Begley, who he had recorded in Hazard on October 17th.   Begley played regularly with Strong, and besides, he was running for sheriff at the time and looking to do favors for anyone who might vote.   When Lomax showed up at Strong's door in Buckhorn, Kentucky the following day, Strong's young daughter was reluctant to tell him the whereabouts of her father, given the large number of revenue officers and bill collectors who often came to the door.  After some prompting, she finally confessed that her father was in jail down in Hazard, arrested the night before for public drunkenness.  Lomax made the 30 mile trip back to Hazard and bailed Strong out of jail, picking up a pint of whiskey at the same time, because, Strong reportedly said, "the only way I can record any tunes is I'm gonna have to have a drink." 

Strong would record a total of 29 tunes for the Lomaxes that day, including The Hog-Eyed Man, Sally Goodin, Last of Callhan, Lost Girl, Give the Fiddler a Dram, The Old Hen Cackled, and Glory in the Meeting House.  Luther Strong was 45 years old and in his prime as a fiddler, even if his personal life was dissolute.  Bruce Greene, in a Fiddler's Magazine article from June, 1997, sites another source as saying that Strong had to borrow a fiddle, because he did not own one himself at the time.  Perhaps it came from his mentor, fiddler Bev Baker, who also recorded six tunes in that October 18th session.  However, it was apparent to all, including Baker, that the student had long since surpassed the teacher.  Writing to Strong the following year, Lomax tells him, "I still can say with assurance that I like your fiddling better than anyone I have heard."

     Alan Lomax, as a young folk music collector, and in 1986

When Alan and Elizabeth Lomax made their trip through Eastern Kentucky in 1937, they had to bring their recording studio with them.  On his earlier collecting trips with his father, they had used an Edison cylinder recording machine, but the LOC had supplied Lomax with a state of the art Presto disk recorder, which used 10 inch aluminum disks coated with a lacquer finish that would take the incision.  According to another source, the PBS documentary Lomax the Songhunter, he also had to bring along a transformer to attach to his car battery, and an amplifier- in case he needed to record where there was no electricity- along with microphones, spare disks, and other paraphenalia.  All of this apparently required removing the rear seat of his car, in order to have sufficient room for all of the gear.  One must presume, thankfully, that there was electricity in the hotel in Hazard.  When recording, Lomax had to brush away the spirals of aluminum and lacquer as they were cut by the needle.  According to a website called The 78 Project,  his Presto recording machine "did not always operate at the correct speed and the original Circle records, which were first issued beginning in the fall of 1947, in limited edition albums of 45 twelve-inch records, need to be played back at around 85 r.p.m to enable them to be pitch corrected. "  This may explain why the pitch is significantly off of standard on the Strong recording.

      The Presto Disc Recording Machine

Most old-time musicians I know (including my clawhammer picking pal Ed Britt) first learned Ways of the World not from the Luther Strong Library of Congress recording, but from a recording made in 1972 by The Highwoods String Band, released by Rounder Records on an album called Fire on the Mountain.   This young, energetic band from Syracuse, New York included Doug Dorschug on guitar, Mac Benford on banjo, Bob Potts an Walt Koken on fiddles, and Jenny Cleland on bass.  They played with an enthusiasm and showmanship that was deliberately designed to bring to mind the Skillet Lickers, and their album was enormously influential in setting the direction of the old time music revival.   The abum is still available on CD.  You can hear their Ways of the World by clicking the link below.

Ways of the World, played by the Highwoods String Band

There are three wonderful recordings of Ways of the World posted here on the Banjo Hangout, all different.  I encourage you to give them a listen, and leave a nice word or two:  

Ways of the World, played by Malcolm Smith (Malcolm), Duham, North Carolina, uploaded 4/9/2010

Ways of the World, played by Lyle Konigsberg (Lyle K), Champaign, Illinois, uploaded 6/28/2010

Ways of the World, played by Dave Linder (dandclinder), Charleston, South Carolina, uploaded  11/1/2013

The only video is by the incomparable fellow Bostonian Tim Rowell (clawhammertim):

When Alan Lomax completed his two month trip through Eastern Kentucky, he was still three years away from perhaps his single most significant achievement- his March, 1940 interview and recording of then 27 year old folksinger Woody Guthrie, sessions which introduced the young performer to the music world.  (I learned the Lost Train Blues on the harmonica from that recording, back around 1967.)  By the end of 1942, Lomax had left his Library of Congress job, after a highly vexed Congress had unceremoniously eliminated the budget of the Archive of Folksong.  He and Elizabeth would divorce in 1949.  In 1950, Lomax would find himself on the blacklist, and in September of that year he would move to Europe, to pursue the life of an expatriot, recording musicians in the Alps instead of the Appalachians.  He did not return to the states until 1959.  He passed away in 2002, at the age of 87.

A few years after the Lomax recording session, the Strong family would leave their Buckhorn home, moving on to a series of other homes  in Eastern Kentucky and Ohio, following Luther Strong's wanderlust and need for employment, before finally settling in the town of Austin, in Southern Indiana.  Strong would pass away there in 1963, at the age of 71.  In Greene's 1997 article, he describes an interview he had with Donald Goodman, of Booneville Kentucky, who had known the Strong family quite well.  Greene relates:

He (Goodman) said Strong had an extra long bow “and used every bit of it.” Rumor had it that he put pennies under the feet of his bridge to get a keener sound, but Donald said he was there when Strong began that practice. He said they were at some local fiddlers’ contest, and Strong said he couldn’t compete because the bridge was too low on his fiddle and the strings rubbed on the fingerboard. So Donald suggested placing pennies under the bridge to raise it up. It worked well, Strong went on to play “Sally Goodin’” and win the contest, and he liked the pennies so much, that he just kept them there, saying, “It’s just like Baby Bear, it’s just right.”

So which is the "real" Ways of the World, the tune in the Stepp recording, or the tune in the Strong recording?  According to Bruce Greene, he was told by several local fiddlers around Eastern Kentucky that the Stepp tune was misnamed, that it's real name was "Who's Been Here Since I've Been Gone."  So I assume that settles it.

I have attached a version of Ways of the World of my own making, recorded at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, back in August, 2012.  The fiddler is my good friend and fellow BHO member Don Couchie.  I have a tab of my three-finger version posted on my website. I am looking forward to hearing a lot of new versions from my fellow BHO members, those with time on their hands and an itch in their fingers.

           Don Couchie

Before I end, I have one more story to tell.  A few years ago, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia that put me in the hospital for nearly a week.  Before I was admitted, my temperature had climbed to over 105 degrees.  As soon as I was admitted to the hospital, the doctors put me on a massive dose of antibiotics and what not, which brought the fever down, but for days it would still move up and down until they got it under complete control.  Anyway, oddly, whenever my fever would cross 102.5- exaclty 102.5- I would start getting delirious, exclusively manifested by a non-stop banjo playing in my head.  I had no control over what tune was played, or how long it was played, or at what speed, but I remember that the tune that got played the most in my head was Luther Strong's Ways of the World.  When the fever would drop below 102.5, the playing would instantly go away.  One day a young physicians assistant came in to take my temperature,  I told him, don't bother, it's 102.5.  He said, oh, did you take it already? No, I told him, but I just started hearing banjo picking.  And I was right.

- Don Borchelt


Edited by - Don Borchelt on 03/01/2015 18:54:25

Ways of the World from Clifftop 2012


ramjo - Posted - 02/27/2015:  15:03:22

As always, Don, a most enjoyable post. Great playing and great story telling regarding the tune, Luther Strong, Alan Lomax and yourself.

Off-topic a bit, but related to your medical tale: I received my copy of Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project yesterday, which includes a rendition of Luther Strong’s" Hog Went Through the Fence Yoke and All," recorded during that same 1937 trip. In the liner notes, Jayme refers to the same passage in Stephen Wade’s book that you do about Lomax bailing Strong out of jail. But he adds the factoid that Lomax persevered through that trip while dealing with a case of flu. So it looks like you hearing Luther Strong under the influence of a fever is in the tradition!

Mtngoat - Posted - 02/27/2015:  16:00:24

Curt Bouterse has a nice and interesting version on his Down the Road I'll Go CD.

Edited by - Mtngoat on 02/27/2015 16:00:45

banjo_brad - Posted - 02/27/2015:  17:40:21

I just finished the chapter on Luther Strong in Steven Wade's The Beautiful Music All Around Us, so this is a very timely post, Don, thanks!

There is some mention of Luther's playing a lot of his stuff in between notes, especially Glory In The Meeting House.  

Don Borchelt - Posted - 02/27/2015:  18:28:49

Fred Bradbury (banjo brad) wrote: "There is some mention of Luther's playing a lot of his stuff in between notes, especially Glory In The Meeting House.

Yes, Fred, and I thought Wade did a great job of discussing that.  I think that is a very important thing to understand about a lot of the Appalachian tunes that seem to hang between Dorian and Mixolydian in their execution in the hands of musicians, they are really ambiguous, in between the modal scales.  That is the main reason I pick on a semi-fretless banjo, to be able to get that sound more readily.  But I decided not to bring that discussion up here, because I don't think Strong really applies it in his fiddling on this tune.


RG - Posted - 02/27/2015:  18:41:14

Great tune choice Don...Luther Strong is one of my favorite fiddlers...this is a great tune!

jimh269b - Posted - 02/27/2015:  18:55:56

im amazed don how do you do it

Clawdan - Posted - 02/28/2015:  07:02:12

Not to be confused with Wm. Stepp's "Ways of the World".

Don Borchelt - Posted - 02/28/2015:  07:42:18

Uhm, right.

LyleK - Posted - 02/28/2015:  13:18:39

Great tune, and I really should learn it.  Wait a second, I guess I already did!.. In one ear, slight pause, out the other.

This is one of the main reasons why I write tabs - for those "momentary" lapses of memory.  Incidentally, tabs of both Stepp's and Strong's "Ways of the World" are at my tab site:

Don Borchelt - Posted - 02/28/2015:  13:40:39

That was why I starting writing out tab, Kyle, I was forgetting stuff all the time. It is humbling to have to slow down a recording of your own playing to figure out how you did it.

JanetB - Posted - 02/28/2015:  15:53:15

You and Don C. play together most joyfully.  I'm going to check out more of the links you included above.  Your writing is always informative and interesting, Don. 

I'm re-reading Stephen Wade's chapter called "Luther Strong, Man Behind His Times" to see what inspired me to learn Glory in the Meeting House the first time I read it.  My take on the Ways of the World comes from Luther Strong's version with lots of syncopated notes.  It's really a happy tune and reflects the side of him that was kind and adored (the other side relates to his drunken behaviors).

Thanks for pointing out the fact there are two tunes with the same name.  I almost thought I was going to get away without having to work out a tune this weekend.  Oh well, there's still time for my real homework....

Ways of the World (Luther Strong)

Ways of the World (Luther Strong) tab

UncleClawhammer - Posted - 03/01/2015:  06:41:00

Beautiful tune.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/01/2015:  07:09:26

Janet wrote in the intro to her MP3 recording of Ways of the World: " Having read Stephen Wade's book The Beautiful Music Around Us, I got to read a chapter about Luther Strong. He was crass when drunk, but oh, what a fiddler! His family adored him when he was sober, but left him when he drank. Then they returned, time after time. When I play the tune I think of the part of him that was kind when life is good and everyone's happy."

And above: "It's really a happy tune and reflects the side of him that was kind and adored (the other side relates to his drunken behaviors)."

Janet, you never, ever disappoint, another fine, sweet job of picking, for sure.  The two Strong children that Wade spoke with, daughter Faye and son Jim, I think had somewhat different feeling towards their afflicted father.  Wade writes, "Just as Jim regarded him as 'no man I loved more or hated more, "Faye said, 'To me he was always an angel.' "  Perhaps, even likely, the son felt the father's bouts of drunken anger more than the daughter, and thus confronted the painful part of their existence less apologetically.  For a number of years I worked for community-based organizations in several very poor neighborhoods in the Boston area, and I came away from the experience of those years with the firm belief that there is no nobility in poverty, and nothing humorous about alcoholism and addiction.  For one thing, people who struggle with alcoholism learn quickly how to lie well to cover their drinking- it becomes second nature- and that aspect of their habit doesn't automatically leave them, even if and when they have managed to recover from the addiction itself.  The "happy drunk" is a myth.  I have come over many years to the conclusion that alcoholism is indeed a disease, one that requires perhaps not tolerance, but certainly empathy.  But I guess that is not an easy thing to ask of a child who has suffered at the hand of an abusive, alcoholic parent.

Interestingly, according to Wade, son Jim Strong also took up the fiddle.  "After high school, a hitch in the air force, and a career as a barber, he became a professional country music fiddler, working with Jimmy Skinner and Carl and Pearl Butler."  Thus, Jim was able to provide for Wade a number of details regarding Luther Strong's fiddling technique and overall musical approach.  And though the demands of country and bluegrass fiddling required Jim Strong to depart significantly from the techniques of his father, in at least in one regard, he copied his father precisely.  Despite having been a barber, he always refused to play "a shave and a haircut" at the end of a tune, insisting instead in ending "on the note," as his father always did. 

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 03/01/2015 07:12:08

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/01/2015:  07:15:51

Lyle, what a vast, superior collection of tabs.  Just to encourage our clawhammer pickers to take a look, I have provided direct links to your Ways of the World tabs below:

LyleK's Tab of Ways of the World- Tabledit Format

LyleK's Tab of Ways of the World- PDF Format

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 03/01/2015 07:16:09

cbcarlisle - Posted - 03/01/2015:  10:21:27

To me, at least, The Ways of the World is another example of the family of tunes which end on a rhythm that suggests the name of the tune - like "(whistle up a tune called) Sol-dier's-Joy!" [I've always heard, "(and be-ware) The Ways-of the-World."]

JanetB - Posted - 03/01/2015:  14:12:16

Thanks for the kind words, Don.  I empathize with your past work situation, similar to mine in those ways. 

As Joe so astutely comments, one ought to be wary of the ways of the world.   It gives the tune a deeper meaning. The coarse part finishes the tune with the lowest notes, as if indeed singing, "beware the ways of the world."  The fine part could be a description of life when one acts in accordance with principals and good character.  Joe, I'm looking forward to gleaning from your talent and wisdom at music camp in Grass Valley!

ohswallow - Posted - 03/01/2015:  16:38:21

This tune must be in the ether. I have been trying to learn it the last couple months. Just couldn't' quite figure out the crooked bits. I found Guy Wolff's banjo only version on you tube. He's member here. I asked him if he'd post a slower version so I could see/ hear what the heck he was up to. He very generously obliged and just posted a slower version of his interpretation of Paul Brown's recording with Bruce Molsky. He swears he's not a teacher but he sure did a fine job of explaining to me his approach. Here's a link to his, and thanks all of you for this TOTW Just love it!

chip arnold - Posted - 03/01/2015:  17:24:18

Live link ...

chip arnold - Posted - 03/01/2015:  17:36:36

What am I missing? This doesn't sound like the same tune. Is it?

JanetB - Posted - 03/01/2015:  18:47:46

It's William Stepp's version, beautifully played, but different, yes, just like Don tried to say in the first paragraph above.  Here's a link to that archived TOTW:  You can hear Don's beautiful version, too, if you scroll down a bit.  It's the one that has a crookedness to it. 

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/01/2015:  18:55:56

Thank you, Janet.

UncleClawhammer - Posted - 03/01/2015:  19:17:14

I think this tune is a little beyond my skill but it's been buzzing around my head all day. Look for an attempt sometime tomorrow, unless I chicken out.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/01/2015:  19:21:16

Matthew wrote: "'s been buzzing around my head all day."

I know how that feels.


chip arnold - Posted - 03/01/2015:  19:41:53

Beautifully played, Guy. And well taught, too.


Don Huber - Posted - 03/02/2015:  12:15:51

It just came to me that this Ways of the World was also played in E. KY by James Crase. In the notes of Cohen's Mountain Music of Ky, Crase mentions that he played against Strong in many contests. They both employ the similar use of drones, do they not?

Edited by - Don Huber on 03/02/2015 12:21:12

Don Huber - Posted - 03/02/2015:  12:24:47

Isham Monday, also of KY, played a similar piece that he referred to as New Money.

Edited by - Don Huber on 03/02/2015 12:25:17

bhniko - Posted - 03/02/2015:  14:22:39

Thank you all...history and music most appreciated.

RG - Posted - 03/02/2015:  14:40:52

Love that Isham Monday tune reminded me I want to learn that one on fiddle...

Don Huber - Posted - 03/02/2015:  16:35:22

...back when I was trying to play the fiddle, I'd tune that base string up to A to get that nice droney sound!

cbcarlisle - Posted - 03/03/2015:  09:15:47

In the final analysis a good tune is a good tune but I'm disappointed that so many have lost what, to me, seems the life's blood of "The Ways of the World." Perhaps it's the modern fixation on tab as opposed to listening, or the tendency to think more notes are better than fewer, but I miss the syncopation of Luther's playing. [I almost said "the original" but I know better.]  Syncopation is displaced accent and depends on silence as much as sound; if Every sixteenth note is filled in there is no sense of shifting emphasis.

There is, of course, a perfectly acceptable tradition of playing the version of "x," who learned from "y," who learned from "z." But, in this case, I like to go to the earliest version we know to see if he knew something which we have lost. I suppose I am approaching curmugeondom but I see a trend, reflected in pop, rock, even "country" music, of smoothing off the ragged edges and eliminating the unfamiliar to produce a more acceptable, or accessible product. Unfortunately, if more and more tunes start sounding alike, we'll get more and more lawsuits over who wrote what.

End of sermon. [No collection will be taken.]

Edited by - cbcarlisle on 03/03/2015 09:17:27

chip arnold - Posted - 03/03/2015:  10:04:13

I just play them like I wanna. If my playing isn't true to the oldest version, so be it. Someone else can hold that end up :-) 

Not disagreeing with Curt, just on a different road.

Edited by - chip arnold on 03/03/2015 10:08:12

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/03/2015:  13:45:21

Thank you, Chip. Wisely stated.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/04/2015:  07:37:57

Curt Bouterse wrote: "I'm disappointed that so many have lost what, to me, seems the life's blood of "The Ways of the World." Perhaps it's the modern fixation on tab as opposed to listening, or the tendency to think more notes are better than fewer, but I miss the syncopation of Luther's playing. [I almost said "the original" but I know better.]  Syncopation is displaced accent and depends on silence as much as sound; if Every sixteenth note is filled in there is no sense of shifting emphasis."

Sometimes syncopation uses silence, and sometimes it merely uses the emphasis of one note among many.  Look at any of the rags by Scott Joplin, the composer and musician who taught everyone else how to do it.  Sometimes he uses silence, and sometimes he doesn't.  It is called dynamics, and it takes a lot of practice, but filling in with extra sixteenth notes inserted in the spaces in and of itself does not preclude syncopation.  Three finger style banjo, based as it is on the right hand roll and a rapidly decaying note, is manifestly suited for that latter type of syncopation, hence the often generous use of extra notes.  The fiddle bow, far more linear it its approach, continuously agitates the string after the initial noting, so what may appear like silence written on the score is not silence in the air, even moreso if the fiddler has the ability, as Strong did, to "put more than one note on the bow."  Clawhammer banjo, with its reliance on the stroke, is somewhere in between.  In my opinion, it is the contrast between these very different instrumental sounds and styles, pattern picking versus linear phrasing, that makes the fiddle and banjo duet so spectacularly exciting.  Or for that matter, the clawhammer/three finger style duet, with their two very different styles of pattern picking.  

When I first started playing fiddle tunes on the banjo, some 45 years ago, I would try to follow the fiddle melody note for note, as closely as possible.  After decades of going out a couple of nights a week to jam with my old-timey friends, I have moved 180 degrees from that way of thinking.  Now, I tend to distill the fiddle melody down to its bare essentials, and deliberately turn it instead into a banjo tune.  That doesn't mean I abandon all of the interesting fiddle idiosyncrasies.  As my close fiddling friends here in Boston will tell you, when I learn a tune today, I take the original source recording and slow it down, and make as close a note for note transcription as I can (see the transcription I made for Ways of the World posted in the OP).  I have learned not to trust the transcriptions you find on-line, or in some of the more popular fiddle tune collections- they are great and extremely helpful, but, at least to my ear, they are not always 100 percent accurate where it counts, where the original recording is not clear.  I do want to understand what the fiddler is doing, and make sure I keep as much as possible the essential phrasing that characterizes the tune.  In Ways of the World, for example, I have maintained the anticipation that Strong uses in the A part, starting the melody ahead of the beat at the beginning of each strain.  However, the little syncopation he puts in the cadence at the end of each part, a very common old-time fiddle maneuver, does not fall naturally into the open D tuning and right hand technique that I have come to use, at least not in a way that sounded good to me, so that phrasing I straightened out, without a trace of guilt.  Counter-intuitively, I believe whatever I play has to stand alone as a good banjo tune to sound best with the fiddle.  Old time music is similar to most folk music from around the world in that it is heterophony, basically multiple musicians playing together employing slightly different versions of the same melody.  The subtle variations in melody, ornamentation and even rhythm provide the contrast that makes the music exciting.  This is at the heart of what Ed Britt and I have been trying to accomplish with our three finger/clawhammer duet playing over the last fifteen years or so, and I am very happy with the result that we have been getting, even though Alan Lomax never recorded anything like it.  (Ed and I had been talking about whether we should write Curt to ask permission to put our version of Waiting for Nancy on our next busking CD; I think I can safely junk that idea.)

Not everyone is retired with a nice government pension, allowing them the time to spend hours a day on their banjo arrangements.  There is nothing wrong with learning from tab, if that is what you have the time and inclination to do.  It is the occasional player who just picks for the simple love of it all who is most important to the preservation of old-time music, not the old-timey royalty who sniff that you are playing the "festival version," and not the "authentic" version.  Like any endangered species, we need a minimum viable population to survive, and we do not want to set an unachievable bar for admission to the ranks!  Besides, a lot of the great old time tunes that we love today have come down to us from fiddlers and banjo pickers who were not nearly as masterful as Luther Strong, John Salyer, or Edden Hammons, but their contribution to the tradition is very important, none the less.  

My favorite quote from Erynn Marshall's wonderful book about West Virginia fiddling, Music in the Air, Somewhere, comes from Calhoun County fiddler Lester McCumbers, who just passed away at the end of January.  From Lester came this anaphorical response worthy of Yogi Berra, "I don't like to play it like he did. I try to play it the way I play it."  I have that quote on the homepage of my banjo website.  Over the years, I have often seen this sentiment repeated in interviews of Lester's contemporaries, and it helps underline what I believe are the two essentials for the survival of old time music, we must both respect and add to the tradition.  If we do but one- either one- without the other, we  eventually will have nothing.

- Don Borchelt

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 03/04/2015 07:48:44

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