Saturday, September 6, 2014

Banjo Style, and the Wade Ward Approach to Playing

An early September 2014 Banjo Hangout (BHO) thread on Wade Ward-style banjo playing generated a serious discussion of several things, particularly (A) elements of Ward’s playing approach and how to get closer to that style, and (B) the wisdom of allowing the banjo approaches of other players, including the Founding Fathers, to impact on one’s own development of a “style.” 

I’ve been party to the question about how to get at Ward’s style.  I just added a BHO Blog note to the mix.

And an “expanded” version on my own blog:

I’ve allowed the question of whether or not one should dabble in classic clawhammer approaches to the possible detriment of one’s own banjo style to unfold without offering a comment of my own. 

Until now.

Dan Levenson wrote in the BHO forum thread on Old Joe Clark:


So, Lew, using the books (mine and others), recordings and tunetorials all will help add to the development of your style, but "your" style won't really develop until you start just playing the notes and rhythms you feel and hear. When it does happen (and it always continues to develop) it will be a product of all you have listened to and played and will continue to change as you listen to and play more. When it does happen, you willl hear the influences of Wade as well as others since you are working on their pieces as your workshop for banjo. […] Perhaps we can say, "Style Happens".


I see and understand, and even agree with this.

But I’m not exactly talking about the emergence of style. 

I am talking about trying to break the Wade Ward code.  Real musicians concern themselves with shaping a style.  I’m just a guy with a banjo.

And an interest in seeing whether I can learn this other language, this “Wade Ward dialect,” after speaking/playing Diller/Hammons language for some many years.

Maybe that’s just idle curiosity born of the leisure that derives from retirement.

Or maybe it is simply the way I look to understand things systematically.

I tend to look at music, especially old time music, as a language.

And that’s my frame of reference.  My professional tools for 40 years were languages: Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai. 

And when I learned each of these I searched for levels of compatibility, familiar terrain, similar sound structures, overlapping grammatical practices, and so forth.

Now, some could argue (persuasively) that whatever these three languages have in common, the amount of overlap is insignificant – certainly not sufficient to enable the speaker of one language to immerse in another language with a sure footing. 

In a (slightly?) similar way, I’m finding that my familiarity with what Dwight Diller and Bates Littlehales taught me can’t help me (perhaps me in particular) understand what Wade Ward is doing.

So, I’m trying to get at Ward’s “language.”

Dwight never misses an opportunity to tell me how I’ve drifted from some of the hallmarks of his West Virginia style.  Maybe I’ve grown sloppy, or maybe I’m not sticking to some of the orthodoxies, or maybe I’m just not as percussive as I once was. 

And so, (again, maybe) I’m drifting toward an approach or a style of my own.

I’m not worried about that, nor do I see that as a goal.  I’m not a musician, just a guy with a banjo.

But I am at least intellectually curious enough about what Makes Ward’s playing so unique, and I haven’t been able to break that code by studying Bob Carlin’s transcriptions, and by taking a second close look at Miles Krassen’s book.

Importantly, Dan Levenson reiterated his key points in a response to a version of this excursion into my thin king about music and language, as follows:

Ø  Anyone who wanted to learn to "speak" Wade's "language" would have to learn his notes, syntax and inflection to make it sound like Wade.

Ø  Even still it would take many years to do that and I would propose that most would still "speak" with an accent - so to speak.

Ø  In working on his book and this particular tune, Dan listened over and over to the 5 different recordings of Wade playing this tune. Each is different in some way and he, like so many, almost never plays it the same way twice.

Ø  Dan did not aspire to "speak his language" so much as incorporate some of his words and phrases into Dan’s musical expression.

Ø  SO, when he said "inspired" or in the style of, that is all he meant to accomplish.

I should make clear that I did not, from the beginning of this BHO thread in question, see a need for an elaborate defense of Dan’s approach.  Borrowing parts and pieces of Wade’s approach and combining them with other banjo inspirations seemed a perfectly defensible approach to making music, and playing specific tunes. 

However, I wanted to make clear that this approach had not produced the results I had hoped for – at least in Stephen Wade’s estimate – though it is not clear to me whether this is because I selected the wrong idioms to mimic or simply lacked sufficient inspiration on which to draw in cobbling together my versions.

Finally, I don’t think language is anything other than art.  I see language, or spoken communication, as being distinct from rule-guided and highly grammatical written language.  In the best of circumstances, language is oil paint, or a pristine slab of marble awaiting the sculptor’s touch.  And while the written form can be guided by strictures intended to systematize use, and therefore can be (or become) much more of a technical skill than an inspired art, I still see room enough for creative forces to work their magic in a fashion that allows them to co-exist with technique, grammar, structure and legislated practices of expression. 

This might not be a valid way of learning music, and it might end up taking me on a detour that detracts from some of the musical goals you’ve spelled out, but that’s OK because I’ve become intrigued enough with Ward to want to know more about the way he played banjo.  And though this might not be a course of action that will lead me to play better, or to understand this music more effectively, it will help me get at this “unknown” – Ward’s complex banjoing approach.  For now, that might be sufficient for me especially since I am still looking at this as a language acquisition exercise, so to speak.

Perhaps I’m looking for a “grammar,” or linguistic rules of the road where none exist, but I have understood enough of the “elements of style” that characterize Diller’s playing to get at a certain portion of that Diller language.  On that basis, I assumed that figuring out the elements of the Wade Ward language might make at least some of his banjoing accessible to me.

Actually, Thai speakers are essentially literate in Lao because of very similar sound systems and writing systems, but it takes the hard work of acquiring a language to become fluent and capable in Lao – memorizing an alphabet, learning the distinctions between the two languages, etc.  We’d often say that we speak enough Lao to get our faces slapped in any bar in Vientiane.  So I understand, or at least accept, that “speaking” on banjo language doesn’t necessarily shed light on another.  And I also acknowledge that grasping the elements of one style doesn’t necessarily equip one to use those same capabilities to understand or learn another linguistic variant of the music. 

But that’s the way I’m trying to make sense of this Wade Ward sense.  I look for the “grammar,” or I seek to figure out some of the “idioms,” or language patterns.

And I’m not having much luck wading into this Wade Ward language. 

Thai speakers who have mastered colloquial Thai find that Royal Thai, the language of the court and King, are totally inaccessible in terms of grammar and vocabulary, to the point that these are two mutually exclusive linguistic forms. 

That’s how I’m beginning to feel about what Wade Ward does.

But it is intriguing enough to me to continue hammering at it.

I was especially surprised that one contributor to the BHO thread made the case that Stephan Wade -- whose observations encouraged me to continue to hammer at Old Joe Clark if only because it was so elusive – was playing Old Joe Clark in a way that evoked some of the sense of Ward’s music without coming close to playing in this style. 

To be precise:


“Stephen Wade plays something rather nice, influenced by some of the timing of Wade Ward's version, but ultimately rather distant from what Wade Ward actually plays. It does give a general idea of how Wade Ward's version differed from the most common version of today, without actually playing a close rendition of Ward's playing. One might say that it "invokes" Ward's playing without "imitating" it.”


And this just makes the challenge even more complex, and more attractive as an intellectual puzzle.

Play hard,


1 comment:

rcg said...

It is interesting that you would see the similarities to language and music as a code. I was going to respond to some of your earlier posts by pointing that out. Saved me some time!

I think you may have gone one or two levels too deep in your analysis and risk losing the music in the grammar. The music of Wade Wade and many of the folks in that part of the world and at that point in time is an informal dialect. The speech patterns in daily communication are not only different from much of Standard English, they are significantly different from each other and easily distinguishable to the familiar ear. Dialects of the same language, English in this case, can vary tremendously over small distances in England and it happened in the US, especially the Appalachian South. This may have been because of the difficult terrain and the waves of settlers from different places, even if they had a common language root.

The First Instrument is the human voice. The pronunciation of the words defines the music and can change it if it is modified to fit the person singing. Also, many tunes were adopted as accompaniment for dance. This would have a significant effect on the music.

So when Wade Ward uses the fifth string to sound a note on a beat, as he did in 'Sourwood Mountain' in my ear it is not just an efficient use of the string, but a way to pull together the words and the tune.

For example, there are sublingual sounds and vocal muscle positions that are not actively spoken in those dialects, but are the starting point for another word. "I lived in Fort Worth" can be "Well, I lived in Fort Worth" to soften it socially so as not to sound abrupt. It can be further elated into, '' 'ell I lived in Old Forth Worth". The fifth string, then, acts as an emphasis for the following statement and the space that surrounds it when sounded helps it in that action.

None of this is scientific but my life observations of the language from that part of the world. I noticed it when people would misinterpret either written or spoken word from those folks. It is a very 'live' language that participates in music and drives the communication by inflection, tonals, as well as the often rare or obscure use of a phrase. That is why they like public speakers, plays, and poetry as well as singing.