I got a wonderful Christmas present from Stephen Wade in yesterday’s mail – on Christmas eve no less. He sent me a copy of his new CD, “Americana Concert: Alan Jabbour and Stephen Wade at the Library of Congress,” (Patuxent CD-308).
The CD captures a 1998 noontime concert Stephen and Alan played at the Library of Congress, Stephen on banjo and Alan on fiddle – both instruments provide a wonderful centerfold photograph for the CD package, posed together with four of the LOC’s earliest folk music albums.
Alan commented on each tune, providing background history on the evolution of the tune, its origins and its arrival in the U.S., who played the tune. His melodious voice had the same comforting timber as his fiddling, and his total immersion in the old tunes – as an early enthusiastic collector, as the steward of some of the most critical Americal Folklore Center’s old time music projects, as the mentee of the fiddler Henry Reed – wrapped them and handed them to any and all of his audiences in such appealing, readily accessible, tantalizing stories and annecdotes. I always thought those made willing accomplices of all who listened to him, turning those within earshot of his fiddling into interested, attentive students and committed tune archeologists.
Stephen and Alan play together enthusiastically. Alan’s fiddling was always dynamic, strong and penetrating. Stephen’s banjoing works well in an effortless way, the product of both musicians knowing how to make the fiddle and the banjo marry up together.
That pairing of banjo and fiddle can become a note for note competition, where the banjo seeks to duplicate every piece of sound that tumbles from the fiddler’s bow.
Or it can be a carefully orchestrated piece of teamwork where the fiddler and the banjoer make these two diametrically opposed musical machines fit together in a way that brings out the best of them, without the sonic replication of notes. It strikes me that Alan and Stephen found the equation that recognized the unique character of these two instruments, and determined how they need to be gently, carefully paired so that each has a special job that works to the advantage of the music, amplifying both melody and rhythm in a division of labor that pushes a tune forward.
My first “lesson” about playing with a fiddler came from Dwight Diller. Probably about 20 years ago he came to what was then my home in northern Virginia to teach a workshop at my place. He got to us early, a day before the workshop, and we had some “quality time” together.
At one point Dwight arranged two chairs so that we’d be facing each other. He put his banjo down, and took up his fiddle. He had me sit down armed with my banjo, and then pulled in tight so that our knees were just touching. Dwight locked eyes with me, told me to keep facing him, made sure I didn’t drift off to look at my right or left hand, and told me to follow him in some tunes.
He started off with Cluck Old Hen, and played that until I could do so without gazing away from his eyes. He told me that the hardest thing about playing with a fiddler is listening to the fiddler without listening to one’s own banjo.
The next hardest thing is to figure out what to play on the banjo so that one isn’t getting ahead of the fiddler, which to him meant – as he put it – playing so that the banjo player is in effect putting his hand at the small of the fiddler’s back and gently nudging things forward. He called it “playing under the fiddler,” and of course his percussive playing serves precisely that purpose.
I don’t pretend to know how to find the key to finding the magical way of combining fiddle and banjo. I have a sense of when this happens in such a pairing. I’ve been able to put my banjo with a fiddler’s music from time to time in a way that, at least to me, works to find that balance. And I know when such a duet pairing banjo and fiddle has found that sweet and satisfying balance, insofar as my musical tastes are concerned.
Alan and Stephen’s 1998 concert represented the best of that kind of pairing. To say it is “effortless” would underplay the frenetic, fierce, animated way Alan handled his fiddle – it seemed like a toy in his hands that was being wrestled with by a tall, unrelenting man. Stephen, too, has a determined, gripping way of pulling tunes out of his banjo. They played together, at this LOC concert, in a way that – again, for me – creates the sonic illusion that emerges from such a pairing, where one can’t quite tell whether the fiddle is leading the banjo or the banjo is nudging the fiddle along; where one can’t determine whether one instrument is jumping out and in front of the other, or hurrying quickly behind to catch up with its partner. Each instrument asserts itself, yet also seems to receed in a way that pushes the tune out before the sound of either the banjo or the fiddle becomes distinct and dicernable to the ear.
This is a live recording, so it includes the laughter, applause, the shuffling on stage that constitute the business of moving a concert along. I usually try to tune that stuff out so that I can focus on the music, but in this instance I found myself invested in all those live sounds because they pulled me into this performance, and reminded me why any occasion to hear him play, to listen to him talk through the history of an archaic tune and tell stories derived from the life of a musical elder was a wonderful treat.
I suppose this is the point at which a reviewer might single out a tune or two on an album under consideration that just stands out – or fall back on the explanation that each of the recorded tunes are gems in their own way.
I can say I was mezmerized by “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” I listened real closely to Alan’s “Washington’s March” which he learned from the West Virginian Burl Hammons, probably during the LOC family study of the Hammonses in the early 1970s, when he and Carl Fleischhauer, and Dwight Diller, delved into the history, the stories, and the tunes of this unique family deep seated in Pocahontas County. “Paddy’s Turnpike” is one of those tunes that over time has become a “festival favorite,” a tune that has been played and played to the point where the unique ruts these old tunes wore in the minds of people have become muddied and unmoored from the spirit of the tune. Alan and Stephen’s playing restored the tune for me.
Alan played Waltzes, such as the example played on the CD – “”Isom’s Waltz” – in a manner that made me wish the tune would just go on and on. He also had a way of rendering complex musical forms, such as Schottisches, understandable. His story of what these were and where they fit in a musical history made these art forms accessible to me, and far more easy to understand than some of the laborious dissections of note structures, bowing patterns, and timing that are guaranteed to be elusive to my mind. Alan’s “Falls of Richmond” is prefaced by a cogent guess hazarded about how the tune title morphed from the “Fall” - making it a tune about a Union attack against Richmond, Virginia, in April 1865 - to the “Falls” of Richmond – making it a tune about the farthest navigable point on the James River. Either way, it’s a great Hammons family tune that Alan plays in a manner that brings depth to it.
Stephen’s banjo playing, especially on tunes such as “Ragged Bill” and “Shooting Creek” and “Cabin Creek”, has such clarity and precision, and at the same time such a fluid, flowing aspect to it that wound its way around Alan’s fiddling end up in such a neat, tight package. He works both the north and the south end of the banjo’s fingerboard in a way that solves the mystery of why the five string has both an upper and a lower part to the neck, combining musical symmetric with the uniqueness of tunes rendered on the upper and lower registers of the instrument. Their playing on a rousingly syncopated version of “Liza Jane” unfortunately brings us within one tune of the end of this great CD that closes out with a medley of “Red Fox” and “Leather Britches,” prefaced by a sweetly told explanation by Alan of the title of the second half of the medley, and a reminder of the mystery of these old tunes whose names often lead to wondering about what the preferred handle has to do with the music itself.
The liner notes, as I’ve said elsewhere, are evocative. They offer a great remembrance of Alan Jabbour, and will be especially treasured for that. The notes also contain some great photos, including some from the distinguished personal collection of Carl Fleischhauer’s massive photo archive. And the CD itself and the package in which it is wrapped pay homage to the Library of Congress where Alan labored for almost three decades as the founding director of the American Folklife Center.
I can’t say enough about this CD, but I suppose I have. Fine music to wake up to on a Christmas day.