I finally had the good fortune to sit down with the excellent fiddler, Mary Jane Epps, who in 2015 moved to Staunton, Virginia, from North Carolina where she earned a well-deserved reputation as a fine fiddler, a spirited player, who handles the instrument with confidence, and plays with clarity, consistency and energy. She’s a great playing partner for a banjoist. She made it easy for me to play alongside of her. We tried Red Wing, Soldier’s Joy, Walking in the Parlor, Blackeyed Suzie. We also took a crack at Hop High Ladies, not a new tune for me but one I need to work on largely because I’ve not played it with a fiddler before (and so have probably cut a lot of the interesting edges off the tune). And Mary Jane played Leather Britches for me, a tune I had heard before but never attempted to find on the banjo . I’ve been listening to versions of that tune online, trying to burn it into my brain, assuming the brain is at least marginally relevant to learning banjo tunes.
I try, when playing alongside a fiddler, to balance listening to my own playing and following the fiddler, an intellectual high wire act if there ever was one. The two tasks seem at times to clash, and it generally takes me a while before I can read the fiddler, and discern what the fiddler intends to do with a tune. Until I break the code, I sort of straddle listening to my own playing, and following the contours of what the fiddler is doing with the tune. When I listen to my own playing, I end up trying to stay true to the way I learned the tune instead of serving the interests of the fiddler. Once I’ve at least partially, tentatively figured out how the fiddler goes about getting at a tune, I can focus more closely on doing what I need to do to support the fiddler, to add a rhythmic underpinning to the fiddler’s way of doing tunes. Mary Jane made getting to that point easy, or at least comfortable and genuinely fun.
This time, it took me a while before I managed to have a glimmer of understanding of what I should be doing to work effectively alongside Mary Jane. I suppose I was looking for what it should sound like, feel like, when I finally hit upon the right place where I can play the banjo to the fiddle – the place where I could find an “automatic pilot” and figure out, as we moved a tune along, what I had to do on my banjo to make the fiddling sound more interesting, to complement it gently, and usher the sound in the right direction. What I had to do to play the tune with the fiddler without knocking things out of balance – getting louder than I should be, or playing too assertively and independently of the fiddler’s way with the tune. I had to find the balance so that I wasn’t hijacking the song or pushing things too far away from where the fiddle was doing what it was meant to do, and the banjo was nudging the enterprise along in just the right equation of sound. I found my “fiddler’s ear,” as I called it, after about four or five tunes – the hearing capability that allowed me to know where the banjo should be, and what would be best to do to serve the fiddler.
That’s when we decided to break, to pack up the instruments, and to meet again when life permitted – and I hope it is soon enough that my “fiddler’s ear” is still hearing things right enough to let me do good by the tune, to do good by my fiddler.
I need to do a better job at keeping track of the tunes we run through, and the tunings Mary Jane plays them out of. I know Mary Jane played Walking in the Parlor in G, Soldiers Joy in A, Hop High in G and Redwing in A. We couldn’t quite agree on whether or not we had a common starting point for Waynesboro, so we deferred that tune for another time. It was clear to me that I need to work more carefully on Hop High Ladies. I’ve never really played that with a fiddler, and I seem to have smoothed out, simplified or sanded down the interesting parts that are so integral to this tune as a fiddle tune.
Mary Jane told me that she hasn’t really kept a tune list current for a while, and I don’t really have a comprehensive list of tunes I play confidently enough to try alongside a fiddler. That left Mary Jane and I staring at the ceiling and trying to come up with common ground. I probably need to return to my older practice of keeping track of tunes I know, and keeping an active list of tunes I want to learn.
Leather Britches is on the top of the latter list, since Mary Jane plays such a rousing, fluent version of that tune. I’ll probably post some Youtube and Banjo Hangout “test drives” of the tune over the next few months. If you tune in to listen, please be gentle and grade on a curve.