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With a Little Help from My Friends

Posted by FretlessinTexas on Saturday, October 24, 2009

I've had my share of rough and tumbles that life throws at you -- heck, that is life. But I still can't but feel blessed (yes, I've found Christ) and lucky to have met a slew of friends that have helped and brought me along into old-time music.

The journey began as a child at home as a listener. My father loved to sing. I remember "The Preacher and the Bear" was one of his favorites. I also remember family singalongs in the car, especially during long trips.

When I was in high school, I picked up some Doc Watson albums. That opened some doors and I started collecting roots music that continues to this day. And then I picked up a guitar and later a banjo.

But my journey into old-time music was through more experienced friends, mentors really, who probably recognized before me what I was searching for. Many were fiddle players in the South where I have lived most of my life. While they couldn't teach me banjo, they could teach me tunes and I am still learning tunes. As a matter of fact, I can't learn enough tunes. If it sounds good to my ears, I want to learn to play it.

With time, I developed my own peculiar banjo clawhammer style. I'm very strong on melody and take chances (and make mistakes) following the melody that  other banjo players might not take. I don't much care for banjo playing where rhythm overrides or dominates the playing of the melody. It's a balancing act of sorts, and I side on melody knowing full well that rhythm (right hand) is really crucial.

I have been told by others -- those who are not banjo players -- that they can learn a melody or a tune from my playing, whereas they cannot from other banjo players. I try to keep my playing relatively simple and straitforward. Generally speaking, I am not a particularly notey player and I try to avoid chasing notes up the neck as I will usually miss them. I can't help but remember Stringbean's admonition, "There's no money past the fifth fret."

In short, I am relaxed in my own style and skin as a banjo player, knowing full well that there are many others more talented than me.  I was jaw-dropping amazed by the virtuosity of some of the young people that I saw and listened to at Clifftop.

Some folks here on the Hangout may have been offended or offput when I said that I rarely listen to other banjo players. Well, it's true and it's not true. I can sit back and enjoy the playing of other fine players like Don Borchelt or Chip Arnold. These are great fellas, great musicians, and they've got wonderful styles that I could no more emulate than spit across the Ohio River. But if I want to learn a melody, specifically a fiddle tune which is what old-time music is dominated by, well, then I seek out fiddle players.

And it has been my fiddle-playing friends from all over this great country that have taught me tunes. Sometimes I record them and play on the field recordings myself. I'll then transfer these precious recordings of tunes onto my computer and then CD. And then, I'll really start learning them, so that I am better prepared when I hear that same obscure tune the next go around. That's been my MO at Breakin' Up Winter, Mount Airy, Mars Hill, the Indiana Fiddlers' Gathering, Clifftop and Sewell-Fest. In a couple of weeks, I drive to Columbus, Ohio, for a three-day private music party with friends, and I betcha I'll come across some new tunes that'll catch my fancy. At least, I hope so.

So there it is. I couldn't have gotten to where I am today without friends leading and showing me the way. It's friends who have introduced me to new tunes. And I hope in some form or fashion that I can reciprocate and share what I have learned with others. I think that will be how old-time music will perpetuate itself -- the sharing of music with others.

Let me give you an example. Today, I will play a fiddle tune called Oscar Overturf's No. 11. I learned the tune from a friend Bob Townsend, of Coalmont, Tenn. who in turn learned it from Oscar Overturf, a fiddle player from Grundy County, Tenn. and who died back in the 1980s. Somehow, someway, Bob was given orginal recordings of Oscar and the 11th tract, unnamed, was this very distinct tune. Apparently, nobody else was playing this unknown tune but Oscar, so hence it became "Oscar Overturf's No. 11."

Now here is the neat thing. Since I have learned the tune, I have shared it with friends here in Indiana. The tune has got legs down in Tennessee, but it will be interesting to see if it takes in Indiana. I'll probably only know after I leave Indiana, and I do intend to leave as home is where the heart is and I belong back down South. (See earlier blog.)

Lately, I have been posting field recordings made at the Indiana Fiddlers' Gathering in Battle Ground from this past June -- Altamount, Betty Baker, Black Snake Bit Me on the Toe. They are tunes that my friends from Tennessee brought with them to share.  I am currently editing recordings from Clifftop and hope to add post them as well. Some folks, no doubt, don't much care for this old-time music and that's fine. But for those of you who do, well, I'm glad. If you hear a tune you like and want to learn, by all means learn it. (But I've got no tab for you.) And then after you learn it, go ahead and share it. By sharing, you are continuing a tradition -- one that goes back, well, probably as long as man has been making music.

I was tempted to list all the names of my friends who have helped me along the way with my quest for old-time music. That list would go on and on, and no doubt, I would miss somebody. But you know who you are. Most important, I give thanks to my Lord for giving me some abilities and this fleeting time on earth to love and share.

Like I said, I am blessed and I am lucky.









4 comments on “With a Little Help from My Friends”

Cottonmouth Says:
Saturday, October 24, 2009 @11:45:43 AM

Join the "blessed crowd", my friend. One happy thing you mentioned about young musicians, and that was how well many of them play. I first noticed that a few years back while I was attending MerleFest. Almost every booth in the huge vendor's tent would sooner or later be visited by a youngster trying out various instruments. I have heard amazing string music provided by some who were not yet teens, but had command of their chosen instrument(s). It is a joy to listen to them and admire what they have accomplished, all the time wishing that I had grown up in a musical family. I have really been trying to catch up the last twenty years, on what I missed out on earlier. I don't imagine that acoustic string music will ever die.

mandolin123 Says:
Saturday, October 24, 2009 @1:22:43 PM

Well said brother.

chip arnold Says:
Sunday, October 25, 2009 @8:22:57 AM

Dean, I love your approach to the melody of a tune and to the banjo itself. I also think your right on about listening to fidders. For me, listening to banjo pickers can be a way to pick up technique but listening to fiddlers is the way to pick up tunes. And I gotta' tell you, I'm floored to be mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of Don Borchelt! Thank you so much. As for young people learning the music....I think it's in good hands.

RatLer Says:
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 @6:44:59 AM

For me, a little fiddle goes along way. But you may right about listening to the fiddle to learn tunes. I think I've got an old LP with old fiddle tunes (done on a fiddle of all things!!) I need to dig it out and maybe play along...

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