Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fiddling with the Banjo, 26 February 2014

My fiddle buddy LJ came over again today.  Prior to our second meeting today we agreed via email to focus in on two tunes of his choosing, Cripple Creek and Buffalo Gals, though in the end he added Wildwood Flower to the mix. 

I also got LJ to agree to leave behind his music stand, his sheet music, and his other paraphernalia and just haul the fiddle with him.  I thought he’d be reluctant to step away from the stuff he uses to learn the tunes, but he agreed that in the end laboring over the notes keeps us from hearing what we’re each playing so he bit the bullet. 

LJ wanted to press on beyond these three core tunes, but I preferred playing each of them over repeatedly, in a formula of AABB x3 just so we’d have a starting point because each of us seemed to vary the way we’d go through tunes, sometimes selecting an ABAB approach, and sometimes stopping after AB, frequently bringing things up short and at other times just running on and on with the tune.  So we came to an agreement on that, and stuck with it, just so we’d have a ground rule in this start-up phase.

LJ goes in more for bluegrass versions, and derives a lot of his musical motivation from country western and Texas swing type tunes.   I tend to stick to the old time way of playing tunes.  We had to work hard to come up with mid-way points that allowed us to bridge the gaps between our approaches.  

Between attempts to get at these three core tunes, we’d drift off into conversation, or let our fingers do the walking up and down our respective instruments – and other tunes would irrepressibly pop out.  We’d each grab at snatches of stuff we recognized.  I heard him doodling around with Red River Valley, a tune I haven’t really thought of for 40 years.  I sort of last remember taking a crack at it because of something Pete Seeger played.  We got close on that one.   And we found some common ground on Amazing Grace

He whipped out Angeline the Baker, but to my ears we were worlds apart on that.  His Angeline sounds like this: and mine sounds more like this:  In fact, Dwight taught me that tune during one of his visits to our northern Virginia home some years back. 

There’s got to be a halfway point, and our mutually assigned homework is to find a middle ground between each.  I suppose a middle ground would have less to do with the speed of the tune than with other things – tempo, spirit, and so forth.  I don’t think our differences in approach particular tunes are just that he likes the speedier bluegrass versions and I tend to stay with the archaic versions.  So, figuring out how to kluge these approaches together is our challenge. 

As we were breaking camp, LJ wondered whether I knew a tune he had been spending some time on – I think the name of the tune slipped his mind for a moment.  He cracked out a nice, distinctive version of Soldier’s Joy.  I dropped into Double C and we went at that tune for about ten minutes, surprised to have found another tune we could play together without struggling to find a compromise version that would allow us to put our two instruments together. 

We played for about 90 minutes before other business intervened and we had to pack it in. 

Now usually my two hounds, Maggie and Roxie, go nuts during basement jams.  They like to dance and run around while the banjos are going.  But with the fiddle they grew calm, took to their bed, and lay their dreamily listening to the music – no matter whether we were playing up tempo or having a crack at slower tunes.  I may have to keep a CD with fiddle music running all the time as a form of hound-focused crowd control. 

I’ll probably continue to blog about our progress.  This is turning out to be a lot less work and a lot more fun than either of us anticipated. 

Play hard,


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