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Dave "Stringbean" Akeman's Footprints In The Snow: Monroe's first and only Two Finger Banjo Picker

Posted by musekatcher on Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I agree with the others via a BHO thread, the banjo picker on Bill Monroe's 1945 recording of Footprints In The Snow is Dave Akeman, also known as Stringbean.  Now I'm curious why this piece does sound a bit different than his other two-finger work.

I went back and looked at some video of Akeman.  Most is from the 60's, and some as early as the 50's.  He liked G tuning, gDGBD a lot, I think he was using gCGBD on one or two, and gDGCD such as on Suicide Blues.  He plays up the neck with some wide range chord shapes on Suicide Blues, which has enough evidence to establish his comfort up the neck.  I also noticed when in the key of D, he had no capo, but was still using shapes in the first positions, suggesting he tuned up a whole step.  Evidence that he probably didn't use capos.

Bill Monroe's 1945 recording of Footprints in the Snow has been interesting to study.   Musicians listed for this Chicago session included Bill Monroe, Tex Willis guitar, David Akeman banjo, Howard Watts bass, Chubby Wise fiddle, and Wilene Forester accordion.   Its set in the key of E, with changes to the 4th and 5th chords, A and B respectively.  In listening to the piece, several items are noteworthy.  Notice there's a pinch/brush at :54, and again at 1:04.  Stringbean did more brushes, and I didn't see a lot of pinches in the video, nor other listenings.  Listen at 1:53.  There's clearly a rare descending 5-3-1 backward roll!  Probably done with two fingers, but very interesting.  A few times, you can hear a high C# ornament like at :34, easily reached on the 1st string by the 4th finger, when holding the E chord.  Nice little things for a banjo picker in the 1940's.

In trying to emulate Ackerman on this tune, I got closest with a gDGCD tuning he was known to use, and an E chord at the 9th fret.  I hear a high B a lot in the tune, possibly the 1st string at the 9th fret.  But the 5th string didn't sound right as a g#, or a#, or open E.  So I spiked my 5th string at the 9th to get a high B and that sounded close, but the 5th string rang too much.  I kinda doubt Stringbean had a 9th fret spike, but he might have wrapped his thumb around which lands naturally on the 9th fret.  This would allow easy access to two high B's, on the 1st and 5th strings.   I didn't see him do this in any video, but again I think he was probably most innovative during this time, his last sessions with Monroe, and had no need to carry these skills forward as he pursued his career as an entertainer.

When changing to the A and B chords, the 5th string should be easily recognized if its a g#, or a#, but its not in the recording.  So he must have avoided it all together, further suggesting he may have used his thumb to stop the 5th string.  On the A and B chords, I used my 3rd finger on the 5th string at the 7th and 9th fret to get a full chord, but I don't think I hear him doing that in the recording.

His primary roll is an even eighth note sequence, with rests on the 2nd and 8th eighth notes.  Not as much swingyness as on others like Goodbye Old Pal.  He varies the sequence somewhat adding interest.  He moves between chord positions to voice the same chord, or to reinforce an ascending melody line.  At one point, he's almost emulating the melody with moving chords, yet maintaining a nice roll. 

As far as the crisp tenor-like tone, it may be a result of the missing open 5th string we normally hear.  If he was stopping the 5th string with his thumb or finger, it would deaden it quickly, and make it sound less like a 5-string, and more like a tenor.  Avoiding the 5th string on A and B chords, produces a similar effect.  I experimented with both techniques, with limited success.  Also, it may be the skin heads they were using.  Listening to Heavy Traffic Ahead, Earl's skin head sounds similar.  Not much sustain even on the 5th string, but more than Stringbean's Vega, across all strings.  Unfortunately, I don't have a fretted banjo setup with a skin head at the moment, leaving work for future research.

With an admittedly minimal amount of amateur analysis, I'm curious if Stringbean was indeed using gDGCD tuning, and stopping the 5th string with his thumb at the 9th fret?  These and other items demostrate his work on this piece is fascinating for the period, and revealing of talent and innovation, that may have been abandoned in favor of a different career angle in the business, which served him well.  Showmen make more than sidemen as they say.  He went on to do what many cannot do - make us laugh while subtly demonstrating mastery on a difficult but much loved instrument. 

2 comments on “Dave "Stringbean" Akeman's Footprints In The Snow: Monroe's first and only Two Finger Banjo Picker”

bd Says:
Friday, March 30, 2012 @7:25:42 AM

Nice analysis, though, some of the technical stuff about rolls was a little beyond me (as a clawhammer guy). I think your idea of him fretting the fifth string pretty likely, if difficult to verify. It certainly would have been easy for someone with huge mitts like his.

tarheel Says:
Monday, October 2, 2023 @7:13:43 AM

String was from Kentucky, right? not uncommon at all to drop the 5th string down to wherever it fit in. Or not play it at all and syncopate a roll in the inside strings.
string often changed styles several times in a tune, to whatever fit best, or for some showing off tricks like Uncle Dave and the old minstrel players.

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