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TOTW 2-7-2020: Rickett's Hornpipe - Molehill Highlanders

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Feb 7, 2020 - 6:10:34 AM
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3748 posts since 3/11/2004

NOTE from David Brooks: I have assisted Lew Stern on several articles for Banjo Newsletter and we co-authored a book devoted to 109 tabs by Tommy Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band and Red Clay Ramblers. Lew and I collaborated on this TOTW based Lew’s recent work about Jim Scancarelli.


Today's TOTW features the banjo playing of Jim Scancarelli, a prizewinning bluegrass fiddler and a banjo player adept at up- and down-picking who played banjo for the Molehill Highlanders, a North Carolinian string band, in the 1970s. He was also the founder of another band, The Kilocycle Kowboys, at around the same time.    

This TOTW zeros in on "Ricketts’ Hornpipe," a tune on the Molehill Highlander's second LP that was, in recent years, remastered from the original analog tapes to digital. 

Of the two Molehill Highlander LPs that were produced by Old Oblivion, Scancarelli's own label, he remarked:  "When remastering [. . .] we discovered things on them that were previously inaudible years ago. A thought struck that if we put the tapes back on the shelf another 20 years, with the inevitable future technological electronic advances, perhaps we would discover things that were never on them to begin with."

Clyde Williams, the fiddler for the Molehill Highlanders, was the band's leader, and a respected elder fiddler.  Mark Wingate played harmony fiddle.  Chuck Dunlop played guitar.  Jim Whitley manned the bass, and occasionally chimed in on the jaws harp.  Jim Scancarelli played banjo, sticking close to Clyde Williams' fiddling - an experience that eventually helped him when he started learning the fiddle.

Scancarelli learned the banjo before he tackled fiddle.  "I kind of didn’t really know what I was doing," he explained.  He tried three finger up picking, but "I couldn’t get the roll down."  In his words: 

I first saw Earl Scruggs playing and thought 'Boy, that’s incredible.”  At that time, 1963, right when I got out of the Navy, all of this hootenanny and folk craze came along.  You couldn’t find any banjos in a pawn shop.  Everybody had bought them.  I ordered a banjo from Sears.  For 75 dollars.  And it turned out it was a long necked one like Pete Seeger banjo, and the strings were so high it was like a dobro.  Holy cow, it hurt your fingers. 

He always had a brush stroke approach to banjo playing, and he took a crack at "the clawhammering the thing," but he never could bring his thumb over to get that percussive clawhammer pattern.  He had his own kind of a "plunky plunky sound," as he put it. 

From Scancarelli's perspective, this worked out for him because by the early 1970s, Clyde Williams, the fiddle player for the Mole Hill Highlanders, wanted Scancarelli to play the banjo in a way that was far more percussive than melodic.  As Scancarelli put it, "That got old, just kind of chording it instead of giving it some drive, but I wanted to do more melody so I started learning how to fiddle a little bit." 

Scancarelli played the Sears long neck banjo from 1963 until 1965, by which point he was working at WBTV, the CBS affiliated television station in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he designed sets and props, and drew images on weather maps.  In that context, after hearing Guitar Boogie Arthur Smith - not the same guy as fiddling Arthur Smith - Scancarelli decided he wanted to get a better banjo.  He ordered a cheap Fender model from a music store, but they sent him a gold plated Concertone model.  When he protested that he could not afford the $1,000 banjo, the store let him have the banjo at cost.  He still had that banjo through the second decade of the 2000s. 

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Scancarelli recorded the Union Grove band contests for the Van Hoy family and produced a recording that captured some of the music, and some interviews with performers.  In 2002, the North Carolina Folklore Society honored Scancarelli with its annual Brown-Hudson Award, highlighting Scancarelli's field recording work. 

In the 1970s, Scancarelli did the artwork, engineering and design work for seven LPs recorded on a label named "Old Oblivion," "headquartered" at 1320 South Church Street in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Sometime in 1989, Scancarelli started a little band called Sanitary Café.  The band was short-lived, but it was, Scancarelli mused, a good band that stayed together from 1989 to 1991 and cut an album sometime around 1991. 

Scancarelli's "day job" is worth noting.  Since 1986 he has been the cartoonist writing and drawing the syndicated comic strip Gasoline Alley for Tribune Media Services.  In the 1970s, Scancarelli found employment as a freelance magazine artist and began his professional association with Gasoline Alley as an assistant to Dick Moores in 1979.  He succeeded Moores in 1986 and continues to write and illustrate that comic strip today; in 2018 he achieved the status of ushering Gasoline Alley to its 100th anniversary.

Scancarelli is approaching his 78th birthday.  He does not play much music anymore.  He is focused on a rigorous schedule of writing and drawing the "Gasoline Alley" strip - which, notably, features old time bluegrass and southern mountain music characters from time to time.  A long thread in 1991 featured John Hartford, a friend of Scancarelli's from the early 1970s, focused on a paddlewheel type riverboat that finds itself (in the comic) in the same circumstance as the steamer Virginia that was run aground in January 1910 in a cornfield on the Ohio River, recounted in John Hartford's book, Steamboat in a Cornfield.  The Molehill Highlanders have had a string of walk on parts in "Gasoline Alley" over the years. 

About the Tune and the Tab

“Ricketts’ Hornpipe” was named after Samuel Ricketts, a dancer and head of a traveling circus in America. There has been a lot of discussion about the proper tempo for hornpipes. Some prefer a relatively slow tempo to allow the dancers to display some fancier footwork. Others say a tempo just slower than a reel is about right. It seems most American musicians prefer the faster tempo while slower tempos are preferred in the United Kingdom. Also, some play the high part first while others play the low part first. You can get a taste of this conversation on the Session website:

Here are some links to some representative versions of the tune:

Vi Wickam on fiddle:

Dave Hum using 3-finger style:

Three variations are played by Assassin’s Creed. Here a slower tempo is played and they play dotted eight notes rather than straight eighth notes to give the dance more bounce.

The Molehill Highlanders seemed to play every tune at a breakneck tempo, including this hornpipe. They also play the high part (fine) first, followed by the low part (coarse). There are two tabs below. One tab is based on the fiddle lead by the Molehill Highlanders. The other is based on what the banjo seems to play where there are fewer notes and an occasional counter melody.

* * *

Lew is working on a writing project about Jim Scancarelli, and the two of us are contemplating the possibility of a banjo tab book that revolves around the music of the Molehill Highlanders. 

Just what the world needs: A Molehill Highlander string band revival!

Play hard,

Lew Stern and David Brooks

Feb 7, 2020 - 1:58:19 PM
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2054 posts since 12/16/2007

My favorite solo banjo version is from Franklin George on "Traditional Music for Banjo, Fiddle and Bagpipes" (Kanawah307). There is a free download but you have to register
Now I have a digital version, but I don't remember if I did it or got it from some site that's no longer around (I searched extensively). If moderators think it OK, I could upload my mp3 version of Frank George playing Rickett's Hornpipe. I'll stand by for opinions.

Feb 8, 2020 - 1:10 PM
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6416 posts since 6/27/2009

The Molehill Highlanders is new for me. They were active when I was just learning banjo, playing with fiddlers who craved Irish music. Ricketts Hornpipe was one we played and I found your link to Assassin's Creed was closest. I simplified it a bit to be more clawhammer friendly.

John Hartford being Jim Scancarelli's friend and an influence is a neat fact. I assume you're in contact with Jim and when your book is finished, Lew, we'll be privileged to learn lots more. Jim's banjo playing reminds me a bit of Tommy Thompson in that he provided rhythm to a vigorous string band as he projected melody, too. The idea of adding counter melody may have been spontaneous. The banjo didn't have to portray the melody here -- that was the fiddler's job.  Your job of tabbing his banjo, David, will be most challenging!

Speaking of speed, I keep envisioning sailors dancing a hornpipe not too fast.  We won't ever know how John Bill Ricketts danced at his circus (learn more here, where John Durang, born in 1768, became a dancing trouper and had a hornpipe named for him, too -- Durang's Hornpipe TOTW).  Francis O'Neill, who compiled O'Neill's Music of Ireland, 1800 Selections, didn't include the tune, but mentioned elsewhere that it was one of two most-requested dance tunes when he collected music in Chicago in the early 1900's.  I like Franklin George's fiddling of Ricketts Hornpipe, but find it fast for my own playing comfort.  Dwight Lamb and Brad Leftwich (Round Peak style) also played faster than me.

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