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Review of Old-Time Favorites for Clawhammer Banjo by Dan Levenson

Friday, October 3, 2014

There are plenty of options for clawhammer tune books. Some focus on a particular style or tradition (Brad Leftwich’s Round Peak Style Clawhammer Banjo comes to mind). Others intersperse instruction with tablature, like Ken Perlman’s Clawhammer Style Banjo. But for a stand-by resource, I find Dan Levenson’s latest project one of the most helpful and handy, for reasons I’ll explain.

First, some basics: Old-Time Favorites for Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay) presents more than 60 tunes, most well-known and beloved (as the title suggests), plus a few on the obscure (and interesting) side. That means fewer tunes than the hefty “prequel,” Old-Time Festival Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo, which had more than 100. But with as many as that book/CD set contained, there were necessarily omissions, which this new resource addresses. So now we have Levenson’s solid takes on “Briar Picker Brown,” “Forked Deer,” and “Waiting for the Federals” (aka “Seneca Square Dance”). Old-Time Favorites includes a few repeats from some of his earlier book/CD sets, but they are enhanced or varied for this edition. All of them range from easy to difficult and cover an array of techniques.

And the format is brilliant. Each tune presented includes:

  • standard notation, useful for reference and stabbing out a melody, also paralleling nicely the Levenson’s companion Old-Time Favorites for Fiddle and Mandolin.
  • a basic tablature line—a simple but not baby version, giving a version that minimizes reliance on drop-thumb  or other more difficult techniques.
  • an advanced tab line. As Levenson writes in his introduction, this version “will require more time and finesse as it is usually more ornamental (more than just melodic) and may include some less intuitive ways of playing a passage.” Here we see more hammer-ons, pull-offs, double and drop thumbs, to say nothing of the occasional counter-melody, blue note, and Galax lick (the latter well-described in the text of the book.)
  • a chord line, offered by Levenson even while knowing that such attempts may court controversy as old-time is notoriously imprecise when it comes to normal chords.

What I think especially makes this project stand out is the inclusion not just of recorded banjo versions of the tunes, but a second CD with all of the tunes played by Levenson on fiddle. That makes this a great resource for not just getting the notes in place but actually playing alongside another instrument, simulating what happens in a duo or jam. So after working on the tune itself on my banjo, I like to play it alongside the recorded fiddle version.  It’s hard to imagine a better way to prepare to jam with others. That makes this tune book especially important, and indispensable.

The Tunes: And the Cat Came Back, Angelina Baker, Arkansas Traveler, Bitter Creek, Black Hills Waltz, Bob Tailed Mule, Bonapart’s Retreat - Wm. H. Stepp version, Booth Shot Lincoln, Briar Picker Brown, Cluck Old Hen, Cold Frosty Morning - modal - Henry Reed; Mel Durham version, Cold Frosty Morning - major - Melvin Wine version, The Cuckoo, Cumberland Gap, Doctor Doctor, Duck River, Ducks on the Millpond, Ebenezer, (Mr.) Fishar’s Hornpipe - 3 part version, Folding Down the Sheets, Forked Deer, Fortune, Great Big Taters in A Sandy Land, Grey Eagle, Johnson Boys, Katy Hill, Little Dutch Girl, The Merry Blacksmith, Mississippi Sawyer, (Wooliver’s) Money Musk, Needlecase, Old Belle Cow, Opera Reel, Over the Waterfall, Policeman, Polly Put the Kettle On, Push the Pig’s Foot a Little Further Into the Fire, The Rattlesnake, Rock the Cradle Joe, Sal’s Got Mud Between Her Toes, Salt Creek - aka Salt River, Salty River Reel, Shady Grove - modal version, (Doc Robert’s) Shortnin’ Bread, Snowbird, Soldier’s Joy, Spotted Pony, Step Around Johnny, Sugar Hill, Three Thin Dimes, Three Way Hornpipe, Waiting For the Federals - aka Seneca Square, Dance, Walk Along John to Kansas, Walking in the Parlor, West Fork Gals, Whitesburg, (There is a) Wild Hog in the Woods, Wild Horses at Stony Point, Wooden Nickel, The Year of Jubilo aka Lincoln’s Gunboats, Yellow Barber, Y. Z. Hamilton’s Special Breakdown.

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CD Review: Tell the Ones I Love

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Playing Since: 2010
Experience Level: Purty Good

[Jamming] [Socializing]

Occupation: Pastor

Gender: Male
Age: 64

My Instruments:
Bart Reiter Round Peak (12") with John Balch skin head
Orpheum # 3 tenor pot with 5-string conversion neck by Bill Rickard
Cedar Mountain Phen-Ply (student banjo)

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Adam Hurt, Frank Lee, Freight Hoppers, Jason & Pharis Romero, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Dan Levenson, Dan Gellert, Bashful Mountain Broadcasters

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Created 12/29/2012
Last Visit 2/8/2020

I've written for the Old-Time Way Section of the Banjo Newsletter and for Bluegrass Now (no longer in print). I serve a church in downtown Columbia, SC, as a minister.

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