As I am recovering from the late night jamming and fellowship that I had at the annual Grayson County Fiddler's Convention (better known as' Elk Creek') I feel pretty good about our
latest effort to offer basic instruction in the playing styles we dubbed "Elk Creek Warm-up".
One week ago, began the course which focused on clawhammer banjo. Four individuals
signed up and came here on Monday evening to began a 3 day experience aimed at improving
their skill at playing their banjos in a jam or performance setting.
As with our weekend camps, participants are able to get a good start with great meal while getting to
know us and their fellow participants. The great weather allowed us to gather out on our deck
instead of in the house as our previous workshop weekends have been during chilly times of year.
After supper Students were treated to the music and comments of 83 year old Rhoda Kemp, a woman whose been known locally for her great musicianship in the region but has been perhaps overlooked and underrated for her traditional style of banjo playing. She's basically a secret 'treasure' who we hope to help gain more recognition for.
Rhoda, while best known for her banjo playing with the prize-winning Original Orchard Grass band,
is a wonderful autoharp player, bass player, and singer to mention a few of her talents. On Monday
we wanted to offer a "Rhoda' experience since we couldn't offer the Floyd Country Store experience
of playing dance music on stage with Mac and his band for the dance party held every Friday night.
Rhoda was her wonderful self playing her own style of 'knockdown' claw hammer banjo that
she developed as a child living in Roanoke Virginia. As with so many mountain people, her parents
moved from a rural area to a place with steady jobs to raise their family. Rhoda was very
informative about how she searched for a type of 'sound' that she wanted in her music and made
conscious changes and adjustments to her technique until she was happy with her own playing style.
Seeing and hearing her play on her Vega #9 tuba phone was interesting too. Mac accompanied
her on his fiddle. She also played Mac's special comemorative
75th banjo, a birdseye maple 12" Whyte Laydie with an elaborate original inlay pattern that
challenged Mac's engraving skills. Photos can be seen on mactraynham.com
Monday evening was even more special when immediately following Rhoda's playing on it
Mac made a special presentation of #75 to participant Terry Cartensen on behalf of
her husband Hans who was also present having secretly arranged to purchase this banjo and
have it be a surprise 43rd anniversary gift. It was indeed surprising to Terry who couldn't believe
it at first but graciously accepted and vowed to love it and never neglect it. The looks on her face were priceless.
Tuesday began with an intense session of reviewing the fundamentals of basic claw hammer
and the rhythm that the local style is built upon. The simple one part tune 'Skip to my Lou' was quickly shown to help reinforce the point that a banjo in the local style for dancing to should sound full and be played with regular brush thumb intervals. The point was to super-impose the melody over a basic
rhythm template, subtracting certain brushes for melody notes while bringing back the strumming
and lower drone notes especially often to get a full 'stand' alone sound. Such a style was developed
before guitars came to the region in the early 20th century primarily for dance parties. According to local master, Dent Wimmer, dances in Floyd County in the early 20th century were often held with only one banjo or several banjos being played. Guitars have since become standard in dance band music and have taken on the role of rhythm and time keeping that claw hammer banjoist used to only provide. The evolution of string band music along with flatfoot dancing in this region is a fascinating study.
Clawhammer styles of today often have dropped the backbeat emphasis and low drones from the sound as most jamming involves other instruments which also strum, therefore, minimizing the banjo player's role to provide a full sound. A discussion and demo of what 'drive' is was presented with talk of foot tapping with precision and right arm coordination to comparison to driving nails with a 'hammer' on the backbeat.
Another one part local tune 'Hawks & Eagles' was presented with mention of a possible
short hike that all could take later to Buffalo Mountain where buzzards soar like 'Hawks and Eagles'.
Tuesday after lunch time was spent mainly with all practicing in remote locations in and around Mac's banjo/furniture shop where Mac gave individual attention to everyone to reinforce the class presentation. Later Mac took the class on short hike to the top of 'The Buffalo', a local mountain nearly 4,000 ft tall where the breath taking 360 view included the soaring buzzards and distant lightning as the weather quickly deteriorated.
Tuesday supper and fellowship was followed by more playing of the tunes of the day. Mac played fiddle and Jenny joined in on guitar.
Wednesday was similar with a morning banjo intensive learning the technical details of how to
play the tunes Lost Indian and Merry Mountain Hoedown in A/G tuning. Simple foot patting
was encouraged to help keep time and rhythm flowing through the body as one played.
A trip to Floyd for a late lunch and a visit to County Sales for CD's were the highlights of Wednesday
afternoon. Mac even got a long over due haircut.
Wednesday after one of Jenny's fabulous suppers
everyone headed to the shop for more playing and practicing and another simple one-part dance tune in D from the Blue Ridge called 'Going across the Mountain' (with a Banjo on my Knee) or simply 'Saro'.
Thursday AM all met and we began a review of the tunes and their details. The session ended just before noon and all gathered for a fabulous brunch before departing for Elk Creek where the
annual fiddler's convention was about to happen on the weekend. We'll more than likely do it again next year!