Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fiddling with LJ Again

Third session with my Fiddling Friend LJ today.  He’s breaking in a new fiddle, and managed to pair it with a bow that started breaking partway through our two-hour session.  His bowing was more confident, a fact he attributed to the new fiddle.  I’m not convinced that was it.  I think it was that he spends a lot, I mean a lot of time going at it, and the progress is just simply the result of hard work.  But there is a level of surefootedness in his playing now that he ties to this new fiddle; he’s even dispensed with the colored fingerboard markings that he pasted to the first fiddle to help guide him.  I’m not going to disabuse him of this notion, especially if – subliminally – it is intended to fuel his desire to acquire progressively better instruments over time.  Who am I to quibble with the instincts that send musicians to Bernunzio’s in the hunt for an “upgrade”?

We finally figured out that we could rearrange our modest tune list so that I don’t have to keep toggling back and forth between the banjo I keep tuned to G standard and my short necked A scale banjo.  Not terribly long ago I might have tried to make the argument for keeping one banjo for each tuning in which I played, and then worked to increase my range of alternative tunings.  And I appear to be getting ever so slightly better at figuring out the keys in which LJ is playing, and the tuning I need to be in to play with him effectively. 

Here’s our tune list so far, divided according to the banjo I reach for to play with LJ:


soldiers joy
old joe clark
cripple creek
buffalo gal
amazing grace
shortening bread


turkey in the straw
will the circle be unbroken
wildwood flower
angeline the baker
shortening bread

LJ spent some time since we last met learning fiddle “potatoes” and the “shave and a haircut” type tune endings.  He’s a little rough on those, especially on the first few notes fiddlers saw on to set the pace for the tune.  I have never seen or heard a banjo player jump in at that point of the tune, so I’m assuming that I don’t need to start banging on the strings until he gets to the tune.  LJ has also learned some fiddle vamping, and that comes in handy when we’re trying to dope out a tune, to figure out the right trajectory and the division of labor between banjo and fiddle.  I did ask him how come he’s made such admirable progress on the fiddle, always an elusive instrument for me.  While he chalks it up to concentrated practice over long periods of time, I think he’s got some musical genetic code that’s cut in.  His Dad played guitar and harmonica and even appeared on a local North Carolina radio show 40 some odd years ago.  LJ remembers jamming with his Dad to old country and gospel type tunes.  I think that helped imprint the path that got him to do some good fiddling. 

We came together on Angeline The Baker, a tune that I had learned in an eccentric regional version and LJ had learned from a bluegrass songbook.  We spent about two weeks trying to decipher our differences.  LJ was reluctant to learn “another version” of the tune, while I thought I heard the basis for commonality in our divergent approaches to the tune.  Today, he shifted and played the tune in G, and I was able to find a firmer clawhammer footing.  Interestingly, we started looking for a meeting place on this tune with LJ consulting his music book for guidance.  That just got us further and further apart. 

Finally, I did what Dwight Diller did to me years ago.  With fiddle in hand, he pulled his chair up taut to mine, and sat forward looking closely into my eyes.  Locked in like that, I couldn’t drift away from his glare, and I ended up looking at him as closely as he was watching me, which prevented me from diverting my gaze to my banjo fingerboard.  That’s what we wanted, and that’s how Dwight launched into Cluck Old Hen.   

So today I drew down on LJ, pulled my chair close in to his, and we both leaned into the tune.  LJ left his book behind.  I left my way of doing the tune and we found a place to meet.  We just played the first part of the tune over and over again, and then shifted our attention to the second part, and found the equation for pushing ourselves beyond our experience with any particular tune so that we might match up with one another and make music apart from our sense of how something ought to be played.  That was a good moment. 

I know LJ would kill me if he knew I was putting this little video out here on my blog, especially since he was hoping I’d erase it before it saw the light of day, but he’s even more IT challenged than I am so I doubt he will be able to hunt it down and find out that it is still preserved in the electronic ether, memorializing this first taping venture. 

Here it is.  We sought of fell of the way we cue one another into finishing a tune, what with the added variable of the video running – like having a prying, critical pair of eyes in the room as we muddle our way through a tune.  But I thought I’d put it out here anyway in the hope that someone, somewhere might have some good advice and guidance – even something as simple as tune your banjo better…

I labeled it “Soldiers (Or Sailor’s) Joy because LJ wore a USN uniform during his service, which included an all expenses paid trip to southern Vietnam in 1967:

We’re going to try to add Irish Washerwoman and Red Haired Boy to the mix next time.

Play hard,


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