Our Fall 2013 weekend workshops on clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle couldn't have been on
a better weather weekend in October. It was balmy which helped make it possible for participants to enjoy some of the evening activities in downtown Floyd even better. Friday was a beautiful day with temperatures outside in the 70's. It didn't quite seem like Fall weather on this the first weekend of the month. A morning of intensive instruction began with both fiddlers and banjo players learning the nuances of the tune June Apple in our style which stresses timing and rhythm as much or more than melody. We turned a beautiful birdseye maple violin into a beautiful birdseye maple fiddle when we cross tuned it to the Key of A.
Angela Dillard, my high school classmate who has taken up playing in the past few years had never been exposed to such a departure from the rigid classical rules of standard violin tuning.
Galax Virginia fiddler Emmet Lundy who was recorded in 1939 claimed that cross tuning a fiddle AEAE was 'a cheat' but, I suppose that he was likely outnumbered when it came to fiddlers who would tune up to AEAE to make a fuller sound from their instrument. High bass was another name for such a tuning that has made certain tunes much easier to play and variate by playing comfortably on the lower strings for contrast. Of course, we discussed that many A tunes are much better played in standard GDAE tuning. You just need to have a list of the tunes for each tuning in your head and/or in your case.
As for class, we primarily worked on a bowing pattern for the local Virginia version of "June Apple' involving the basic shuffle. Other cross tuned A tunes for dancing include Buffalo Gals, Sailaway Ladies and John Brown's Dream. Bowing is what makes fiddle fun but its quite a challenge. Pulling and pushing with feeling and emphasis is easier said than done though. We listened to samples of fiddling from old-timers like Hick Edmonds and William Marshall to identify shuffles in their
rendition of tunes that could be used in our own rendition of that tunes. In reality one must practice and memorize where a bow shuffle is played in the course of the melody line versus being played just for the sake of rhythm in the tune or for pick-up notes before the beat begins. Saturday and Sunday found fiddlers working on more tunes, jamming with the banjo class, and practicing using the basic 'country' shuffle pattern to match up with the rhythmic style of claw hammer as found locally in listening to samples of Southwest Virginia native players from the 20th century.
Banjo players this weekend found themselves working on their right hand rhythm skills with Jenny for the most part. Our goal is to get students knowing what it takes to get a sound that balances melody sounds with rhythm sounds. We have digital copies of many field recordings showing such an approach to playing banjo was a common element in the playing style of the majority of the old-timers who grew up in the region. We also understand that rather than perform for listening audiences, banjo players from the early 20th were traditionally rhythmic facilitators to a local gatherings of a community in which dancing was the primary activity. Strong rhythmic
right hand action combined with left hand dexterity made for a style that gets dancers up to dance.
Not so easy if one is not naturally rhythmic but we believe it can be learned with enough exposure to a
solid source of rhythm.
The flatfoot dancers that frequented Mabry Mill on Sunday afternoons on the Blue Ridge parkway during the 1970's and 80's had a big influence on our sensitivity to the dance beat. On large dance platforms, groups of dancers would listen and get a sense of a beat and its timing from the musicians's playing and tap out an audible beat while executing patterns of rhythm with their feet.
Everyday, Mac gave the banjo players some tips on playing with more rhythm and feeling. Technical ideas for some cool variations on the melody line of certain tunes were presented as well.
Friday's workshops were balanced by a large spread for lunch. Thanks to Heather Krantz for a great quiche with a cornmeal crust baked in her large deep dish frying pan. Thanks to Jenny for all the other great food and drink choices. Our freestone spring water was a hit as usual.
Friday late afternoon involved a trip to town to take in the activities around the Friday Night Jamboree
at the Floyd Country Store. I got to be the guitar player and harmony singer in a band to back-up local singer Janet Turner on stage for the Gospel set that opens each Friday night's stage and dance floor activities. It was enjoyable to be in that role for a change and help out a fine 'country' singer.
Afterwards, our fiddlers and banjo players gathered with a few members of the Jugbusters band and we had an OT jam outside in the alley drawing a huge crowd of onlookers. The temperatures were still in the 60's. We were joined by floyd resident Phil Woodail's rhythmic Old-time harmonica and Pennsylvania native Judy Pagter of "Country Ham" Stringband fame on autoharp. No guitar player showed up to play but we managed without. We switched bass players midway through the evening as we played until after 10 PM.
Saturday class time was similar to Friday's. Of course we had a great spread of soup and sandwich for lunch. Afterwards some of us went on a ride to visit a couple of the historic 'rock' churches that were built in the area during the time of Presbyterian minister Bob Childress. The ominous Buffalo Mountain was viewed from several locations during the brief trip.
Perhaps, we'll take the next workshop weekend class to the top weather permitting.
Saturday supper featured more of Jenny's fine cooking followed by a trip back to the Floyd Store to take in the monthly 'live' radio show that is very entertaining with local 'live' talent. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. Visit floydcountrystore.com for more info on the radio show and other happenings at the Store.
Sunday AM found us torturing the students once more with shuffle bowing for fiddlers and right-hand rhythm exercises for banjo players. They didn't seem to mind. After more class we punctuated the weekend with a huge brunch around noon featuring a wonderful egg casserole, fruit and grilled country ham.
As we parted I presented samples of some great music in my collection onto a burned CD-R for each participant to take home and have as sample of our influences that we still listen love to listen to for inspiration.
Next music weekend Oct 31 - Nov 3 Rhythm & Repetoire. Visit macandjenny.com