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African-American Old Time Banjo Tunes

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An interesting question came up on the Clawhammer/OT forum recently: What OT songs are considered to be African or African-American in origin? I recently found two resources that help to answer that question.
The Digital Library of Appalachia is a wonderful online resource for OT and other Appalachian music. The search function is really useful. In this case the search terms “banjo minorities” brings up about 160 recordings. Not all of the records are music, but many are of vintage African-American banjo players. Here are few names to search for:
  • John Lawson Tyree
  • Clarence Tross
  • Big Sweet Lewis Hairston
  • Rufus Kasey
  • John Calloway
  • Leonard Bowles
Another interesting source is “The The BLACK BANJO-PLAYING TRADITION IN in Virginia and West Virginia” by Robert B. Winans (Journal of the Virginia Folklore Society, Vol. 1, 1979 pp. 7-30) which is available here:  In that article Winans lists 90 common tunes in the African-American banjo players’ repertoires. I’ve reproduced that list here:
John Henry
Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad (Lonesome Road Blues)
Fox Chase
Old Joe Clark
Soldier's Joy
Cuckoo (Bird)
Cluck Old Hen
Sally Ann
Shake Your Little Foot Sally Ann
Pretty Little Girl Get Your Foot Out Of The Sand
Mississippi Sawyer
Shortnin' Bread
Cripple Creek
Hallie Come To The Window
Turkey In The Straw
Red Wing
Boil Them Cabbage Down
Oh Susanna
Comin' Round The Mountain Charming Betsey
Hop Light Lou (=Roustabout)
I'll See You When Your Troubles Get Like Mine
Jesse James
Sally Goodin
Roundtown (Buffalo) Gals
Cotton Eyed Joe
Dance Around Little Molly (=Molly & Tenbrooks)
Going Across The Ocean
Ida Red
Mountain Dew
Poor Boy Long Way From Home
Sitting On Top Of The World
Hard Luck Blues
Billy In The Low Ground
Grandpa's Old Muley Cow (=Here Rattler Here)
Mckinley (=White House Blues)
Black Annie
Left Me This Morning Blues
When You And I Were Young Maggie
Hattie Wanna Lou
I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground
Ground Hog
Leather Britches
It's Going To Be Rain Or Snow When You Hear That Cockadoodle Crow
My Mother Told Me If I Be Good She Buy Me A Rubber Dolly
If You Have Trouble, Save Your Soul
Eat When I'm Hungry
Take This Ring I Give You
The Man Who Rode The Mule Around The World
Momma, Momma, Look At Sis
Rabbit On A Log
John Crossed The Island On His Knees
Wish To The Lord I'd Never Been Born
Old Rooster Crowed In Pine Tree Top
Here Comes A Redbird Through The Window
Old Blue
You Are My Sunshine
Carry Me Back To Old Virginny
Miss Lucy Neal Down In The Cotton Fields
Going Back To Baltimore
Sorry I Left My Father's Home (Tune Like Georgie Buck)
Goin' On Down To Town
Farewell To Angeline
Cold Drink Of Water, Cold Drink Of Wine
Low And Lonely
Darling Write To Me
Baby, Lord, I Do Love You
See You When You're All Out And Down
Old Aunt Dinah
Oh, Lord Momma Look At Sam
Will The Circle Be Unbroken
Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time
Rocking Chair Blues
Sugar Hill
Brighter Day A-Coming
Steal Away
Uncloudy Day
If You Don't Like The Way I Do, Move On Down The Line
Worried Blues
Dance All Night
John Hardy
Liza Jane
Whoa Mule
Roll On Buddy
My Blue Heaven
Fisher's Hornpipe
John Brown's Dream
Notes on “The Black Banjo-Playing Tradition in Virginia and West Virginia” by Robert B. Winans
“The most common tuning is the G-tuning, gDGBD, also called "high bass" by some. The next most frequently used tuning, sometimes called "low bass," is the C-tuning, gCGBD. An open D-tuning, aDF#AD, is used for "Reuben" and a few other pieces, and the "Cuckoo" tuning, a modal tuning, gDGCD, is used for "Cuckoo Bird" and several other pieces. The "Fox Chase" tuning, gDGAD, is used only for that piece. Nearly all of the informants tuned their instruments somewhat below standard pitch, and a few tuned them quite far below” (Winans 1979: 17).
Reconstruction of right hand styles indicates that frailing with liberal use of drop thumbing was predominant in the past (circa mid 19th Cent.). “As yet I have found no evidence of anything but frailing among black players two generations ago, back into the 1860s. A slight amount of documentary evidence lends support to the thesis that the earliest black playing style in Virginia was probably a kind of frailing, not finger picking” p. 18.
“The playing of the contemporary Virginia and West Virginia black players discussed here, taken as a group, is marked by a general tendency toward more syncopation than the playing of whites” (p. 19).
“A number of observations can be made about the preceding list. First, most of the informants sing words to most of their pieces; strictly instrumental renditions are in the minority, although this varies with the individual. Some, like Lewis Hairston or Uncle Homer Walker, sing words to nearly all of their pieces, while other[s], like Rufus Kasey or John Lawson Tyree, know some words to most of their songs but rarely sing unless pressured to do so, claiming they are not good singers. Second, the repertoire includes extremely few ballads; songs with anything like a full and coherent narrative are rare. The lyrical folksong is the rule. Third, a genre of song that one might particularly look for from black musicians, the blues song, is well represented in the repertoire; but while most of the informants played a few blues pieces on the banjo (some were picked and some, less expectedly, were frailed), such pieces are definitely a minor portion of any individual's repertoire. Fourth, although a few of the songs are more popular than traditional ("When You and I Were Young, Maggie," My Blue Heaven"), the vast majority seem to be traditional, even if quite local ("Hallie Come to the Window")” (p.23).
“However, the real point here is that little about the repertoire of black banjo players in Virginia is exclusively or uniquely "black"; the majority of it is shared with whites” (p. 24). There was a range of interaction between black and white musicians on an individual by individual basis – enough for a substantial common “stock” (repertoire) to be developed and maintained p. 26.

Tangent about floating verses

Sunday, December 2, 2007 1 comment

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I started playing clawhammer banjo in 1980 in Memphis when I was about 14. I went to Dwigth Diller's Augusta workshop when I was 15 where Dwight gave me the nickname RedZinger there, inspired by a tea bag. I have broad musical tastes: I like all kinds of folk music, rock, blues, jazz and world music.

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