Thursday, January 30, 2014

UK Adventure to kick off 2014

Following a nice holiday with daughter Hanna, home from Portland Oregon for two weeks,
a musical adventure was begun on the 8th of January involving a trip to England.  It was to be  first time  overseas  for this aging American.  The Friends Of American Old Time Music and Dance
FOAOTMAD  decided to invite me  (Mac)  to be a 'tutor' in clawhammer banjo along with fiddler
Mark Campbell to be a 'tutor' in Old-time fiddle.  We were asked to present the 'regional sound' of American Old-time music on our particular instruments which appealed to us since we both have felt called to study the music styles of the old masters from the Southwest Virginia region and beyond.  Through our intense collecting  and listening to the music mainly played and sung by rural people from the Blue Ridge mountains, we both felt we could offer something special to the workshop participants.

Mark Campbell and I met in the 1970's at one of the frequent gatherings of enthusiastic young musicians who had discovered the social power of playing traditional 'mountain' music for fun and for dancing using basic instruments associated with older forms of non-commercialized country music.  The sight and sound of a banjo, fiddle, harmonica and guitar  were very attractive to us.  As new listeners of an 'underground' genre, we both somehow found that the music of the 'older' mountain people who were  native to the southern Appalachians  appealed to us the most.  
We both separately  realized that  'their' sound  was what  we wanted 'our'  sound  to be like before we
would ever consider ourselves  to be truly playing 'Old' - time music.   THANK YOU to all the folklorists/collectors who sought out the native older musicians  before they became unable to play.
 And THANK YOU FOR making their music available to the general public.

 So with experience and enthusiasm for finding the "real thing', our listening and learning turned to more than just the melody as one could write in musical notation.  We also noticed and focused our attention toward the rhythmic sounds coming from the brushing of the strings of the banjo and from the bow hairs shuffling along over the strings in a mixture of patterns with the melody super imposed.  Also,  the drone sounds both high and low seemed to float in and out of the total sound  in the most appealing performances by certain  old-timers.    To us THAT was and is  very COOL.!!  No formal training was necessary. One just needed a desire to play and latch on to an 'older/wiser' person's music to get inspiration from.  That was and still is a very traditional way that this kind of music is passed on.  The development and affordability of the small portable battery powered cassette recorder in the late 1970's  helped speed up the memorizing of tunes and names of tunes.  Just as important it made listening easier and thus facilitated our orientation to a deeper 'sound' that was mysteriously attractive.  Something I wanted to learn and identify with as a young person confused as to my role in life at the time.

Over the years,  Mark and I  have had occasional jams at fiddler's convention like Mt Airy and Clifftop where we would celebrate string band tunes from our Southwest Virginia traditions as represented in our audio libraries of field recordings and '78 rpms  from the Golden Era of Country Music.  The latter  recordings that we both love to listen to regularly feature bands and individuals,  each  with a sound that was as varied as the individuals who came out of their home and communities to record a few tunes for posterity.  We are lucky that they have been made available to us and the world.  We now revere the glimpse that such recordings give us of America's cultural history of homemade mountain music.  We feel both inspired to and called to learn and pass along stylistic elements  in addition to melodies and words from this wonderful treasure of antique tunes and songs.  A chance to do such 'across the pond' for the English people was indeed an honor and a duty to genre of traditional mountain music itself.

I have secretly desired to be asked to do such a workshop for years so that I could get a low-cost  visit the 'Old World'  and get back  to a country near to my Traynham family  roots.   My roots are a bit obscure  but I've  been told by my parents that my heritage was  Scotch Irish, French, English.
So things happened to get set up with a workshop deal for the January 2014 time frame.  During subsequent time since summer of 2013 Mark and I had a few meetings to see what we might perform easily together.  Our repertoire's are both vast and similar yet both different with a lot of overlap.  So with each meeting to jam as a duo we got more and more familiar and worked up some interesting duo arrangements of some band numbers from some Virginia based family groups
such as the Stonemans,  Powers, and Kimbles.

So Mark and I arrived on Thursday Jan 9th in London via Boeing 777 where we were met by Mike Bostock, a FOAOTMAD member and  banjo enthusiast who I had met when he and his partner, Helen,  were in the Floyd/Galax area in 2012.
Mike became our guide and chauffeur for the whole of  our short trip and was an amazing driver considering that  everything about traffic patterns and driving in general seemed so backwards to us Americans .  We headed west towards Bristol taking a side trip to the beautiful city of Bath.  Most buildings  in the city were only 4 stories tall from the  pre-elevator era I figured.

Our first evening in UK involved a wonderful gig in 500+ year old refurbished structure known as the Nailsea Tithe Barn which is used for many local events.  We shared the evening with an experienced Bristol area clogging team of folks our age known as the AppleJack Cloggers.  We were impressed by their routines and likeness to American clogging groups like the Green Grass Cloggers.   The audience was enthusiastic and participated both in dancing and singing along to our music.  We met many nice members of the audience and of the FOAOTMAD organization as well.  Since we were lacking a lot of sleep and I managed to get in 11 hours  at Mike's place which helped tremendously to make up for what we had lost by heading east from the US to UK in the middle of the night many hours earlier.

Friday brunch was in small cafe in a small village on the Bristol Channel called Clevedon.  We caught a view of Wales across the water while viewing a relatively new Victorian era pier.  Only 120 or so years old.  We then headed off to see Stonehenge via the beautiful city of Bath;  a place founded by the Romans ages ago and valued for the warm springs  nearby.   The weather was sometimes sunny and sometimes cloudy and rainy as we made our way cross-country it seemed to the region where Stonehenge.  We worked hard to  get there having to detour due to closed roads and high water  flooding.  When we did get there  the Stonehenge visitor's center was closed and we weren't allowed to go past a guard.   Instead, we had to settle for a view from a highway across a couple hundred yards  opposite a huge pig farm.   Somehow I could feel something ancient about the area as Mike pointed out the occasional grassy mounds in several open fields indicating  a fortification built and lived in by a group of ancient people and destroyed in some tribal conquest thousands of years ago. Awesome!

We finally got to Cheddar where the workshops were to be held just before dark.  Being so far north the daylight seems to linger in the winter
late afternoon.  We found ourselves at the Youth Hostel where FOAOTMAD has held workshops with other American players as guest 'Tutors' in the past.  This was our big gig.  About 26 -28 people had signed up to have a weekend of workshops sharing experiences, food and  jamming on some good ol American Old-time music.  After a fine meal,  We met our respective classes, shared names and gave the whole group a small concert featuring of some of our tunes that we intended to teach to both banjo and fiddle players so that the tunes might be jammed on in a banjo/fiddle duet way as well as with a guitar back-up.  A mega jam followed with a OT music party atmosphere as one would expect on a Friday night.  Some fine English ale and cider was available to fuel the fire.   All that was missing was some flatfoot dancing.

Mornings began with a bowl of porridge and  a cup of tea as well as link sausage and eggs along with fruit and other choices.  On Saturday Jan 11 the sun was out and flooded the space where my banjo class was meeting.  I was a silhouette to many   I began with some rhythm exercises and
proceded to assess the student's individual skill levels as we  played small segments of a couple of tunes
in  standard G tuning gDGBD.  Sourwood Mountain became our tune to warm -up on.  I did a demo of the fundamental right hand claw with the hammer motion to get on the track to get that old-time 'mountain' sound going.  ' Did you Ever See a Devil Uncle Joe'  is an old Virginia tune/song from the repertoire of Fiddlin Powers and family that  focuses on the lower pitched notes on the banjo. We also worked on Hop Light Ladies a fiddling standard in G as well.

       A long lunch break  gave Mark and me the freedom to go at Mike's suggestion to the nearby community of Wells to view the Wells Cathedral,  a 15th century monument to  architecture,  feudalism and the power of the church at that time in history.  The sun shine had brought out many towns-people  to enjoy a sunny January day in the small downtown area adjacent to the cathedral.  Wedding bells rang constantly as a wedding party of  finely dressed 'Lords and Ladies'  emerged from the cathedral.  We took a few photos inside and outside  to document our visit there and to think about later before heading back for the afternoon workshops sessions.

 For the afternoon session we tuned our bass string D down to C  to get gCGBD or   'classic' C tuning.  After a warm up with the classic Skip to my Lou, we proceeded with learning the basic Southwest Virginia tune,  Old Jimmy Sutton.   A fiddle tune from Galax fiddler Emmet Lundy, Sheep Shell Corn by the Rattling of His Horn was  caught on to fairly easily by most players in the class. It was one of several that Mark was showing fiddlers especially so that banjos could jam as equal partners with the fiddlers later in the evening. Both tunes  have a different key for the Aand  B  parts which makes for an interesting back-up for guitar and bass players.   I was pleasantly surprised that no one seemed to be faltering and that everyone was able to keep up with the medium pace I set.

For a  banjo solo tune to pass on,  I chose the classic Hammons family banjo tune  'Sugar Babe"  in the ultra cool tuning  g#EABD.  With a bit of concentration I finally memorized the tuning  a few years ago.  Its mournful simplicity is unmatched in my opinion.  I hope that the players who I introduced this tune to will learn to love it as much as I do.  Anita Kermode, of the 1990's banjo tunings website fame,   liked  it especially.  She is an expert on banjo tunings and American OT sources in general  was glad to revisit this tune whose source is the famous Hammons Family of West Virginia.

The evening meal was impressive as the cooks seemed to have been trained in Southern style flavors including meat and potatoes w/gravy and American cornbread .  Afterwards,  Mark and I played a short concert of  old songs and tunes like we had done at the Tithe Barn a couple of nights earlier.  It was an honor for us to play music from America that had deep roots back in the British Isles.  To play for students who may have been descendants of the   people who came up with the melodies and words in the first place  was  very special.  Another party ensued as everyone  played Southwest Virginia  D  and G tunes from the  day's workshop's  and more.   I got to play Andrew Henley's nice Gibson LG-3 for both the concert and the jam and enjoy more fine  English brew.  We managed to turn in at a reasonable hour  to rest up for the final worship  session on Sunday AM.

Following breakfast  we tuned all banjos to A to get ready for some hard core tunes from the Carroll
County Virginia old tune tradition. Carroll County which is next door to my home of Floyd County has the one of the most documented traditions of claw hammer banjo and fiddle music in the region.  The first tune  that I demonstrated and taught was Old Bunch of Keys whose source is Sidna and Fulton Meyers.
Next was a version of Callahan from the playing of Norm Edmonds and Rufus Quesenberry.  Everyone seemed to get these tunes quickly.  Last tune was Train on the Island also from Norm Edmonds.   Everyone did a bit of  group practicing  while I came around to make sure each individual was understanding the nuances of each tune.   We then descended on the fiddle class to have another final jam on the A tunes which were the same as those that the fiddle class had just learned.  Everyone  played/practices as a large group  until lunchtime.   Mark and I both felt that he potential  for some fine duet playing was definitely in all the students  if they would practice regularly.

To top off my experience in Cheddar,  I was able to find a good home for my birdseye maple banjo
that I had made last summer.  Steve Robinson is now the proud owner of #82.   I was of course glad to make a sale while on the trip and was also glad to get one of my banjos in the UK finally.  I know Steve will  play it often and really appreciate both the special wood and special sound it has.   I set it up to be a player's banjo and work as easily as possible to make good music on.  Please check out a few of my banjos at

The last leg of our trip was to go to London on Sunday evening and play a show at the Harrison Bar in downtown London then stay over and catch a flight back to the US by noon.  Mike drove us into the maze of London after a brief stop at his place near Bristol to pick up a banjo for me to borrow for the show.
I was to borrow a guitar from Joe Buirski, the organizer of the concert who was a wonderful young man who had promoted our show on the Harrison Bar website and sold several advance tickets.
We somehow found the Harrison Bar in the dark of January in time to get set up in a downstairs
space with chairs and tables away from the main bar.  After a wonderful meal,  we  arranged ourselves
on a tiny stage in a house concert situation with folks in the from row only a few feet away.   We played our tunes and songs for a very appreciative audience some of whom had know Mark from living in the US in the past.  At one point, we noticed a young woman flatfooting in the back and asked her to come show the audience what she was doing.  She looked very familiar to me somehow.   As it turns out,  I had noticed her  last summer dancing at a jam that I lead at the Floyd Country Store on Sunday
afternoons.  She remembered me as well.  Alice had been in the US on a bike tour of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in August had won 2nd place in a dancing contest at the prestigious festival in West Virginia known as Clifftop.  So our last night was a success had gotten  to play for  a  great audience in a fine place with a prize-winning flatfooter/clogger  from the UK.  And for icing on the cake, we sold out of our CD's.

Our Monday flight  back to the US was uneventful as we seemed to go back in time.  With many fond memories and a desire to return to UK someday,  we are  now somehow back in our routine of work, music lessons,  and life , yet, we know that we both  had  adventure that will be hard to top.  I just hope  that the music we shared means something  to somebody and that we may return someday to share more if we are able.  I heard several express interest in coming to the US and to visit the Blue Ridge someday.  It's deemed a 'pilgrimage'  by some that I spoke to.  I encourage anyone to check us out to see if any of our workshops at Jenny's and my home in Floyd County interest you.  Perhaps one of them will  correspond with your plans to visit the Crooked Road region. For more info please check out   Comments and feedback are very welcome.