I apologize as the character limit didn't allow enough room for "Darling" in the subject heading.
Back in 1980, I wrote a column for the Banjo NewsLetter (BNL) entitled "A Guitar Player's Easy Path to Clawhammer". With the 1st to 4th strings of the banjo tuned similarly to the four bass strings on the guitar, it would allow one to use guitar chord positions while learning clawhammer and singing songs that they already know. Different keys could be used by adjusting the pitch of the 5th string. As explained in the article, the analogous guitar chord positions will be in another key as the pitches of the banjo strings are different from the guitar strings.
A pdf copy of my article, with tabs (in the old BNL format, i.e. numbers in the spaces) is on BHO.
My history in old time music, and music in general, has strongly influenced my approach when I began playing banjo in early 1973. I have a classical music and folk song background starting very early in my life. I taught myself guitar when I was 15 and this has probably resulted in my combination of melody with chords when I started playing banjo 15 years later. This background resulted in the creation of my chord charts, for some different banjo tunings, that can be found among my pictures on my BHO home page.
Now, almost 40 years since the BNL article, I don't play exactly what's written in the tabs, but have recorded both, only singing one verse (it's the banjo playing that's more important for this presentation). There's not much drop thumb as I play it now and there's none in the tab. The purpose is to use something you know, to learn something new, which in this case is the right hand motion for clawhammer. I apologize in that it's probably not the best singing key for me. Also, I keep my banjo tuned up, so the pitch of the strings 1st to 4th are EBF#C# (one tone higher than that given in the BNL article, DAEB). In Pastures of Plenty, the 5th string is tuned to the 4th fret of the 1st string, which in my case comes out as G# and in Darling Nelly Gray, it's tuned to the 5th fret of the 1st string which in my case comes out as A.
While this might not appeal to established players, it does offer a different approach to getting that right hand relaxed without having to worry so much about the left hand. In addition, one can also tune the strings to the four highest pitch strings on the guitar and use guitar chord positions, adjusting the 5th string depending on the key.
Pastures of Plenty
"Pastures of Plenty" is a 1941 composition by Woody Guthrie. Describing the travails and dignity of migrant workers in North America, it is evocative of the world described in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The tune is based on the ballad "Pretty Polly", a traditional English-language folk song from the British Isles that was also well known in the Appalachian region of North America.
In playing this now, I, pretty much hold my left hand fingers in the same position for the entire song. The C chord position is played with the ring finger and the middle fingers on the third fret of both the 3rd and 4th strings and the index finger on the 2nd fret of the second string. For the A minor position, I just lift the ring and middle fingers slightly and lean the index finger over so it frets both the 1st and 2nd strings.
"My Darling Nelly Gray" [correct spelling]
"Darling Nelly Gray" is a 19th-century popular song written and composed by Benjamin Hanby. It is written as from the point of view of an African-American male slave in Kentucky whose sweetheart has been taken away by slave-owners. The man mourns his beloved, who has been sold South to Georgia (where the slave’s life was conventionally regarded as harsher). He eventually dies and joins her in heaven.
I found it fascinating, Carl, that the f#BEAD tuning was equivalent to the lowest four strings of a guitar and that chordal knowledge would be an aid. So I tuned my cello banjo like a guitar and tuned the 5th string to a C note so I could play Darling Nelly Gray in the key of C. As you said, the 5th string could be tuned differently depending on what key we'd want to play in. An amazing discovery was that the basic chord was movable, on the second and third frets. I could play a C, F, and G chord with two fingers and just move them vertically. You can see it in this video.
We have some similar backgrounds -- folk guitar and classical music and banjo in the 70's. Wish I knew about BNL way back when....I enjoyed learning more about Darling Nelly Gray here. The lyrics make it special. I listened to our Pastures of Plenty CD and will work on the title song this week.
Thanks for introducing this tuning (and the tunes).
I have sometimes tried f#BEAD or aBEAD on Cumberland Gap but I have considered it just as a weird D tuning. But the analogy to the guitar tuning shows that the a(f#)BEAD tuning has a lot of possibilities. Most guitar players should be able to play the three basic chords on the guitar in the keys of C, D, E, G and A without using the capo. This means that the banjoist can use this tuning to play in G, A, B, D and E without capo and only retune the fifth string. The tuning should be useful at jams where you else have to spend a lot of time retuning the banjo or changing to another banjo.
However, I have seen a disadvantage. I have light strings on one of the banjo I tried the tuning on, and the fourth and third strings gave very loose sound. The fourth and third strings should be medium or heavy gauge to give the right sound, I think.
Larry Unger does a great tune in f#BEAD tuning called Two Rivers, in waltz time. it is worth checking out and fun to play. I saw the tab in a BNL magazine, I happened across a good sized box of them a few years back, 1974-1993!