Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Blacksburg Farmers Market Oldtime Jams

"What tunes do you play at those 'old time music' jam sessions?"

I can generally rattle off a dozen tune names, not that I really play all of the tunes that well... but there are dozens.


Woody McKenzie, fiddler-host of this week's Wednesday night old-time string band jam session at the Blacksburg Farmers Market had a request for a more complete tune list.... someone running an old-time jam up in New England wanted to be able to link their Facebook page to an authentic tune list from down here and Southwest Virginia.

So I made this blog page to hold whatever lists I can come up with, then he or anyone else can point newcomers, students, or prospective Jam leaders to this page... without necessarily belonging to any of the proliferating Facebook old time music discussion groups.

There is an annual list compiled by one of the local musicians, tracking the popularity of tunes played at the Blacksburg Farmers Market through the year, under a variety of host fiddlers and bands. I hope the gentleman who compiles it can provide it in a format suitable for posting here. An older version from a few years ago was posted to the Crooked Road website, and I'm going to link to that one, if it is still available.

Meanwhile, one of the several bands that lead the Wednesday jam, Happy Hollow String Band, has a website with an impressive playlist of its own, sometimes with  chord charts or music for the tunes:

A few counties south of us, the Independence Courthouse Jam ( also has an interesting one, sorted by key:

These are all primarily fiddle-centric old-time stringband dance music jams, where everyone plays together, rather than bluegrass jams where participants take turns showing their stuff on lead breaks.

The Independence web page describes its round-robin jam format, where participants take turns either leading or requesting a tune, or sometimes the song.  In Floyd and Blacksburg, old-time jams are a little different, in that the lead fiddler or host band choose all or most of the tunes, maybe with a little group discussion or a newcomer's occasional suggestion.

No matter who leads, I tend to have fun anywhere that I can find a few of the tunes on my mandolin, or strum some rhythm chords on it or a banjo ukulele -- when that seems acceptable to the leaders of the group... especially if I'm pretty sure I'm going to be drowned out by other banjos and fiddles.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

A Leon Redbone story and picture

A musician friend -- singer, guitarist, radio host, and scholar of pre-WorldWar II music -- posted on Facebook that he would like very much to meet Leon Redbone... so I told him my story.

In the 1970s, another friend of mine, Jim Rigby, freelanced music articles for a hip alt-weekly, the Hartford Advocate, and called me up to say he'd gotten an interview with Leon Redbone. I had been at the daily Hartford Courant for years and also knew a little about blues/ragtime guitar, so Jim asked me to come along and help with the interview... backstage at the legendary The Shaboo Inn near Willimantic, Conn.

Two memorable things about the meeting:

1. A musical revelation (to me, anyway): Among his influences, Leon mentioned singer and guitarist Lee Morse, which was the first time I'd heard of her. (Thanks to YouTube, she's much easier to find today.)

2. Style:
From his "Ah yes, the gentlemen of the press..." Leon remained in character, which sounded like he was channeling W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx simultaneously, with a touch of Chaplin. As he said those "..  gentlemen of the press" words, he began rummaging through his pockets -- pants,  suitcoat, vest, shirt -- muttering about how he had too many pockets, "... counted them once..." -- finally producing a business card and giving it to Jim, who glanced at it and put it in his pocket. And off we went with the interview.

At the end, I said (approximately), "Leon, when you were up in Lenox, Mass., last year, I took some pictures of you on stage and I really like the way one of them came out. I'd like to send it to you. Could I have one of your cards?"

He went through the whole pocket-searching shtick again, finally producing the card, which I pocketed, and said goodnight.

Here's the picture I was telling him about, and the card. I never sent him a copy of the photo, for lack of an address...

The front of the card says "How do you do."

 The other side is blank.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Remembering Josh White

Happy birthday to Josh White!
(February 11, 1914 – September 5, 1969)
I saw him on the old ABC Hootenanny TV show, and soon scraped together the price of a couple of his LPs. (Ones whose album covers weren't too risque to bring into the house; it was years before I got "Empty bed blues," and I don't think I ever let my mother see it.)
I also bought a 191-page Josh White Song Book to show my guitar teacher, who had started me on classical lessons because my first guitar had nylon strings. (Nylon was recommended by the Oscar Brand book I had started teaching myself out of a year earlier. I got a new guitar, with steel strings that Christmas after convincing my parents I was going to stick with it more than I had with the accordion a few years earlier. It was a long time before I could afford a Martin OO 21 like the one Josh played on his albums, but I got it eventually.)
Unfortunately, Josh's book wasn't a guitar instruction book. The $2.95 volume (pricey in 1963; my first Dylan songbook was $1.95) featured piano transcriptions of the songs, not his original guitar arrangements. 
I did learn something about music watching my teacher try to work things back to the guitar at my novice level. And I learned other things from the text by Robert Shelton, folk music critic at the New York Times (yes, that was a job then!), who provided song commentaries and a biography of Josh.
It wasn't as thorough as Elijah Wald's "Josh White, Society Blues" several decades later, but it made me feel like a folk blues insider... and, come to think of it, those song book introductory chapters were probably the only biography of a black person that I read in high school, two years before Alex Haley published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings shared a link to a Spotify playlist with a birthday post today, inspiring my reminiscence..
Rather than using Facebook to share a Spotify playlist, why doesn't Smithsonian Folkways just share a link to its own web page that sells a classic Josh White album, and lets you download its 14-page LP size booklet as a free PDF? I hope it's because Folkways makes some money from Spotify. Curiously, when I tried to post that question to the Smithsonian account on Facebook, Facebook marked my comment as spam! That reminded me to put my thoughts out here on the more open web, not just in Facebook's controlled space.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Heavyweight Tiple

A few years after starting to play the tiple, an unusual 10-string ukulele-tuned instrument, I am still curious to learn who played tiples during the 50 or so years that the Martin Guitar Company made them. 

I have found recordings by jive bands in the 1930s and '40s and an old-time string band from Virginia in the late 1920s.

Today, I stumbled on the biggest surprise yet: this YouTube clip of boxing champ Jack Sharkey singing and playing tiple -- and saxophone -- with Abe Lyman's Orchestra at a 1932 training camp. 

Was the instrument his or something regularly used by one of the band members? 

Now I guess I'll be listening to other Lyman recordings to see whether I can hear that distinctive jangly sound in the band when the boxer isn't around.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fishing Blues

My friend Richard loves to sing this song, and I noticed a while ago that I could pick it out on my Firefly banjo uke in his key... so at least a couple of times a month we inflict it on folks at one or another of the local jam sessions.
Last night someone asked where the song came from, but my voice doesn't carry well enough to give the 1911, 1929 and 1952 answers in a noisy restaurant... 
So my department of compulsive research spent the morning  aggregating some bookmarks about the song to post here and reference on Facebook.
(Most of the links below are to YouTube copies of the recordings by the folks named.)

The "root" source for most of us seems to be Henry Thomas's 1929 78rpm Vocalion record -- reissued decades later as part of the still available Harry Smith "Anthology of American Folk Music" collection on LPs (and later CDs) by Folkways records starting in 1952.
From the Smith album, which I remember taking out of the library when I was in high school, Thomas's version of "Fishing Blues" was learned by the sixties' generation of jug bands and folk singers, including Mike Seeger, the Jim Kweskin band (who inspired me to figure it out on the guitar), the Lovin Spoonful, Taj Mahal (who added more verses and seems to have spread it the farthest), Doc Watson (who also had new lyrics), and many more.
Mike Seeger and Dom Flemons, 21st century American songster, are the only folks I have met who learned to play it like Thomas did, with a rack of pan pipes called "quills."
Elijah Wald, music historian and performer, explains the 1911 Chris Smith song that preceded Thomas's version, and had a somewhat different message, a "feminist ragtime cheating song." Sam Chatmon went back to that 1911 original in the 1970s.
I've also read many discussions of the song over the years at, the Web's venerable "Digital Tradition" folk music forum and lyric archive:

Monday, October 02, 2017

Pipeline's greatest hits

Songwriters have added their voices to the campaign against natural-gas pipeline construction in the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Since they have put copies of their songs on YouTube I've started this page to bookmark them...

This first draft was made with my phone. When I get to a real computer I'll add more text and links.

Carol Denney

Leslie Brooks

Michael Kovick

Douglas Hendren

Non-musical pipeline videos

Appalachian Trail Conservatory

Dominion Energy (maps and "view simulation")

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Alcyone, Dr. Bate' s ukulele-playing daughter

How many biscuits can you eat this morning?

Terrific breakfast music...  making me wonder whether the steel resonator I recently saw on a picture of an old banjo ukulele could be used as a biscuit tin... or vice-versa.

Meanwhile, I have just been reading up on Dr. Humphrey Bate's daughter, Alcyone Bate Beasley, who played the ukulele (and piano) with Dr. Humphrey Bate & The Possum Hunters. I'm going back through YouTube videos made from their old records, trying to find some where I can actually hear her ukulele.

  I don't hear one on this recording, but I'm playing along on my own banjo-uke here at the breakfast table, so maybe I'm drowning her out. For anyone else who wants to play along, the tune is in C, a great key for the uke in clawhammer banjo style!

(This blog post is actually copied from a series of Facebook posts I made this morning, gradually becoming aware that I'm spending a lot of time writing things that get lost in the great Facebook Empire instead of being out here on the open web supported by applications and hosting services like Blogger and WordPress.)

Anyone have any suggestions of records where you can actually hear Alcyone's four-string?

Here's what All music says about Ms. Bate, who was part of the show at the age of 13.

"Bate’s daughter, Alcyone (b. 1912, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, d. 14 October 1982, Nashville, Tennessee, USA), first sang with his band as a four-year-old and by 1926, at the age of 13, she was the regular pianist who could also play ukulele. She is reckoned to be the first woman both to appear on and sing on the Grand Ole Opry."

Maybe my ukulele playing friends Marcy A. Marxer or Terri McMurray or Lightnin Wells will see this on Facebook and know the answer!

Speaking of Dr. Humphrey Bate & The Possum Hunters, I have two questions about this YouTube posting.

First, I think I actually might hear a ukulele in the background, but it's hard to separate out from the banjo.

Second, the picture accompanying this clip includes a gentleman in a cowboy hat holding what looks to be a tiple, my favorite 10 string member of the ukulele family, or perhaps a taropatch, the eight string version.

It's  too nice outside to stay online searching for a higher quality copy of the photo and some written histories of the band, but maybe I will get back to this.