Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Speaking the old-time language

Heather Rousseau, a new photo journalist at the Roanoke Times, dove right into local culture with a photo and video story from the
Sunday afternoon old-time jam at the Floyd Country Store

It was the first Sunday that I'd made it to the jam in weeks of bad weather and/or bad timing. 

Surprises: Session leader Mac Traynham playing rhythm guitar instead of his usual fiddle or banjo, and my arriving in time to catch a seat between Mac and Radford neighbors Linda Frank & Chip Arnold.

I will send the photographer a note asking permission to "reprint" her close-up of the guy in the NPR cap playing a not-so-traditional banjo ukulele... But since it is property of the Roanoke Times, you might as well just go there and enjoy the whole presentation... if you haven't already been there via the flurry of posts on Facebook. 

(note: this is my first attempt to use an Android phone app to post to blogger. I may have to come back and fix the link, edit embarrassing autocomplete errors, or something.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

In search of the mountain ukulele

The announcement of a new Blacksburg and New River Valley ukulele get together reminds me to tell ukulele playing friends that they will not necessarily be met with scorn and derision if they show up at other jam sessions in the area, as long as they learn some traditional old time string band tunes. 

In fact, ukes have been infiltrating old time  music since John Hopkins' loud and clear in the original "Hill Billies," 1926:

Blue Ridge Mountain Blues - The Hill Billies 1926!

Background from...

"Al Hopkins ... was the leader of his own band called the Hill Billies (also known as the Buckle Busters). The band members consisted of Al Hopkins (piano), John Hopkins (ukulele), Joe Hopkins (guitar), John Rector (banjo), and Tony Alderman (fiddle).
"The Hill Billies had been discovered by Ralph Peer a year earlier and had made some records for Okeh (a forerunner of Columbia). When Ralph Peer asked Al Hopkins the name of his band, Al responded “We ain’t nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia. You can just call us anything.” Mr. Peer appropriately named them the “Hill Billies”.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Accidental Ukulele

I have been going to the wonderful twice-a-year Lake Eden Arts Festival ( for almost 20 years, off and on, and have several ancient T-shirts to show for it. (This commemorative-T-shirt thing may prove embarrassing at a contra dance when one's partner notices a year on a shirt, does the math, and realizes this guy is wearing underwear older than she is.)

This fall I decided to pass up the T-shirt stand and contribute to the support of LEAF by buying some raffle tickets instead. The decision was a very lucky one...
Jay Lichty of Tryon, N.C., ( built this one-of-a-kind ukulele and donated it to LEAF for the benefit raffle. He used all-recycled woods... a North Carolina mountain cabin's floor for the back and sides, a retired mahogany bedpost for the neck, and "sunken cedar" for the top.  Because of the instrument's North Carolina roots -- and the underwater cedar -- Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues" seemed an appropriate first tune to play. I gave it a try in the LEAF office when I showed up to claim the prize, and then played it again at home to make this rough little video.

Don't worry, I didn't think my singing would add anything to the ukulele demo. (Incidentally, this is my first experience with a "low-G" tenor ukulele, which seemed especially well suited to a slight adaptation of the guitar arrangement of this tune.) If you'd like to sing along, I found the "Deep River Blues" lyrics over at the Digital Tradition collection at the Mudcat Cafe, a great resource for folksong fans.

Jay himself recorded a few tunes with the uke and put them on his website. They give a much better indication of the range of this lovely instrument. They also may have been recorded with a much better microphone -- or the uke's built-in pickup, which I didn't even notice until I'd owned it for a few days. (Since that page of his was for the raffle -- which is now over -- I don't know how long he'll keep it around.)

Unfortunately, all I had handy was my MacBook with its built-in camera and microphone, which I figured would be fine a test drive at the uploading process. YouTube didn't want to accept the original file, so I uploaded it directly with Blogger -- which may only have a "Flash" player for videos, making the clip invisible to iPads and other discerning devices. Since then, I've tried some file-conversion software, which appeared to solve YouTube's problem with accepting the original file. Using Blogger's "insert from YouTube" setting still produces a rather small display window on this page and still seems to only offer a Flash video player, but the quality of the video itself seems better than the original. I've linked the still image above to YouTube for a larger-format display.
For any Web production students curious about my video problems, I've included both versions below. After years of mostly using WordPress blogs, I clearly have to refresh my knowledge of the current version of Blogger! But playing the ukulele is much more fun. If your device won't play the video in this window, just follow this link to launch the video in YouTube itself:

Earlier upload (Google/Blogger video player):


Saturday, March 08, 2014

Yes, it's a ukulele -- and a banjo

My "Firefly" banjo-uke raises a few eyebrows around old-time Appalachian music sessions, so I thought I'd put some links here... And maybe a YouTube video of myself when I get around to it. (This is also my first attempt at posting to this old blogger blog from an iPad, so some editing and correction of  links and players for other folks' YouTube videos may be necessary.)

It has four nylon strings (like a uke) and a drum-head (like a banjo). It also tunes uke style, g-C-E-a, with the two outside strings being the highest pitches. The high "g" is the string closest to the thumb, which is also true of the five-string banjo. That coincidence has inspired me to experiment with playing in a "claw hammer" oldtime banjo style, as well as more traditional uke strumming and picking styles.

In addition to playing it in Radford, Blacksburg and Floyd, I've inflicted it on that old gang of mine in Connecticut in December, strumming along on sea chanteys and drinking songs in the pub:

The Firefly is a modern design from a Massachusetts company called -- I bought mine from in Floyd, Va., so that I could try it first. I like it because it is incredibly light and, with an extra-long neck, can be adapted to play in more keys, using a capo for some tunes in the keys of A and D.

The first time I saw the banjo uke merging with oldtime tunes was 30-some years ago, in the hands of Jeff Claus of the Horseflies, providing a driving rhythm for the band's neo-primitive bug music. More recent example:

 There's no Firefly-Horseflies connection, as far as I know, but stranger things have happened. TheFirefly's  lightness I mentioned is the result of MagicFluke's buying the "drum" shell and its synthetic head already molded or cemented together. There are no metal mounting brackets (originally needed to adjust the tension of  humidity-sensitive natural skin banjoheads) and no wood and metal resonator like some 1920s models. As a result I can head for a jam session carrying a guitar, a mandolin, and the Firefly without needing a cart or pack animal, or feeling like one. And it is so much fun that I often wind up leaving the guitar at home.

Curiously, the razzmatazz strumming style banjo-uke (a.k.a. banjolele) has quite a following in the U.K. (No U.K./uke pun intended) because of a 1930s-40s comedian, singer, actor and pop star named George Formby, who never quite caught on in the States. The George Formby Society ( keeps his legend alive and active over there (

For a frighteningly modern development, explore the phenomenon called "chap-hop."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Appalachian Awareness at Radford U

Radford University Appalachian Awareness Day is Friday February 21, 2014... And I've had my awareness raised enough at previous years' versions to want to help get the word out with a plain-text barebones version of the schedule.

A day of 50-minute sessions, starting at 10 a.m. Free and open to the public, in the Bonnie Hurlburt  Student Center Auditorium (“The Bonnie”), on Jefferson Street between Fairfax and Clement Streets.

I'm especially looking forward to the two history-minded 5-string virtuosos speaking -- and, I suspect, picking a bit -- at 3p.m. 

Feel free to send this page to anyone else who can't easily read the colorful PDF flyer the sponsors have been sending around. I just wanted this here to link to my calendar... And I hope the school paper will dig up a little more about each event.

For more information, see the Facebook group for the Appalachian Events Committee:!/groups/104447406262763/
It should be listed here too...

Appalachian Innovation is the day's theme...

 10am: Putting Education In Its Place
     Roots with Wings: Floyd County Place-based Oral History Project
     The Floyd Story Center at the Old Church Gallery

 11am: Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards
      Dawn Hooper & Barbara Williamson

 Noon: Good People Good Food
     Tenley Weaver, Christie Pugh, & Dennis Dove

 1pm: Education Innovation: The Contemplative & Progressive Way
      Dr. Kristan Morrison of the Blue Mountain School

 2pm: The Crooked Road
       Jack Hinshelwood

 3pm: Banjo-Nation Innovation
    Stylistic & Structural Evolution of the 5-String Banjo
       David Wooldridge & Bud Bennett

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mapping the Crooked Road online

Click the image (or slow-loading Flash box) above for Music and fun on the Streets and in the Friday Night Jamboree/ from Doug Thompson via Vimeo. (It's Doug's production from Sept.7, 2013, including a mild-mannered mandolin player -- recognizable in a yellow cap I acquired at a New England Fiddle Contest many years ago. The soundtrack, however, is the band playing across the street.)

I've been playing in old-time and bluegrass sessions several nights a week for the past six months, including the jam on Mondays, a smaller (less old-time) Radford Pizza House session on Tuesdays, the Blacksburg old-time gathering at the Farmers Market on Wednesdays, the street sessions that spread out from the always-packed Friday Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store, and the Sunday afternoon jam, also at the Floyd Country Store.

Most of these venues have some status on Virginia's Crooked Road, a tourism-oriented attempt to map locations for old-time music in the state that really seems to work: I've met musicians from Holland, Germany, the U.K., Ireland and Australia at one or more of these events, and most mentioned that "Crooked Road" venues were on their touring agenda, along with summer music festivals in West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

This page will make a good parking space for links to longer articles about the Crooked Road:

New York Times 2011
Roanoke Times (multimedia, uses Flash)
Roanoke Times stories by Ralph Berrier
Virginia is for lovers tourism site
Roanoke Times on a campaign to name the Crooked Road a National Heritage Area, and a group fighting the idea. (August, 2012), with a follow-up about abandoning the idea in 2013 when some communities expressed fear of "federal strings" connected to federal grant funds.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

David Mallett's Song to St. Anne's Reel

I've been telling folks about this song for a couple of years -- usually after they play the tune "St. Anne's Reel" bluegrass style, faster than I can make my fingers move on the mandolin, probably faster than would be comfortable to dance to... and certainly faster than most folks could sing David Mallett's sweet song inspired by the old dance tune.

Today I finally decided to go looking, and found a video of the author singing "The Ballad of St. Anne's Reel" himself -- complete with symphony orchestra.

In case the embedded video doesn't work here, you'll find the original on David Mallett's own page. You may see some other tunes that John Denver and others helped popularize.

The Mudcat Cafe's Digital Tradition collection has the lyrics here: Ballad of St. Anne's Reel

Meanwhile, for the tune itself, here's a lovely ensemble from both sides of the pond playing it on fiddle, dobro and guitar (Aly Bain, Jerry Douglas and Russ Barenberg, respectively):