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Versions of tunes

Recent BHO - 7 hours 6 min ago

I got an interesting note yesterday from someone regarding the different versions of tunes among my playing and tabbing of Cumberland Gap. The comment was as follows:

"I own the book "Old Time Favorites for Clawhammer Banjo" and am enjoying learning the tunes. One struggle I have is that when learning a song I find that in both the MP3s you can get from Mel Bay's site or your YouTube page & you play the song differently from the tab. It's usually 80% the same song but with some notes excluded or added. This is confusing when trying to pick out the melody for some parts. It would be helpful if you were to play the song note for note (either basic or advanced versions) first & then explain the extra flourishes you can add or alternate versions second."

I thought I would try to address this here as it is an important observation and one that could lead to "tab dependence" if you don't quite understand WHY the versions are different.

I invite you to read the information in my books. We all want to go right to the tunes but often the introductory info can help tell you why (in this case) some of versions are not identical (even 80%) and why there are so many variants of a tune. Not all tunes are played the same way by all folks and by giving you various options and varying the playing it will be more lifelike and help you learn in the ongoing live jam environment. Tab will get you headed in the right direction but not give you "THE" tune. For that it is listen, listen, listen then listen some more.

Here is the quote from my books. (This is going to be long! Also it references CD's in the book but not all sound files are downloaded - I may have a few with discs left.):

"About the CDs

There are 2 CDs accompanying this volume. I decided that what would serve you best is a single interpretive composite version of each tune played on banjo and another on fiddle all at a moderate speed so you can hear the tunes as well as read them. These are NOT an exact playing of what has been written but a more real life representation of the tunes and essentially 4th and 5th versions of each tune for you to work on by ear. Playing by ear is an important skill in traditional music.

The recorded banjo version will sound more full than the single note version as the tunes are written. That is to say, there is more fill or what some call the crash and noise that is often heard in one’s playing but not written out. That is because while the written music is literal, played and heard music is less intentional. Also, having the recorded fiddle version will give you a more literal base to work from and be like what you hear in local jam sessions.

About the Tunes
Each tune presented here has the following characteristics:

A chord line - The chord names are printed above the standard notation line at each chord
change or at the beginning of each part. Chords are not so intuitive or fixed as most folks would believe and are therefore often in dispute. I use the don’t encourage bad music rule. Just because the old timers might not have known a better chord than they used doesn’t mean theirs was the best choice or that it sounded good. Use your judgment here as in all music. Use what you like, like what you use. I like mine but fully acknowledge there are other, perhaps better options.

Standard notation - Folks wanted a melody line that would be playable by those who don’t play or need banjo tab. It is indicative of the tab version but is only a point of reference and beginning, not a master that is slavishly reproduced by the tab. It’s a good starting point and is used as the reference for this book and for its fiddle and mandolin companion titled, oddly enough, Old Time Favorites for Fiddle and Mandolin (MB 30225).

Basic tablature line - This line should be playable by all but the most beginning players. While it is intended to be basic it is not a baby version of the tune. These versions of the tunes usually follow at least the basic melody. I strive to minimize drop thumb moves and unusual playing techniques in
this tab line. Even so, there will be times when the basic version just isn’t so easy and perhaps even more difficult for some of you than the advanced version below it.

Advanced tablature line - This line should provide some challenges to most everyone. It
will require more time and finesse as it is usually more ornamental (more than just melodic) and may include some less than intuitive ways of playing some passages. It even surprised me to see some of my fingering written out in tab. It is pretty much the most intricate version of the tune. This version contains more hammers-ons, pull-offs, double and drop thumbs. This line may or may NOT agree with the basic and standard notation lines. That is partly because of other techniques used including counter melody, blue notes and syncopation. You can also expect to find hammer-ons and pull-offs to
un-played strings and what is commonly referred to as the Galax lick, which is indicated by one full beat drawn out finger stroke followed by a full beat long thumbed note.

About Written Music

Please remember that written music has many limits when it comes to accurately representing true music. There are many subtleties and inflections that cannot really be represented by the limited palette that written music provides. Also, in one written pass through any tune, there are countless variations of notes and techniques that likely would not ALL be played in one playing of the tune.

This is done so you have as many options as possible to choose from when you play the tune. Learn the written music, but listen to the CD versions, too. Find older (I often look for the oldest) sources whenever you can. If you listen long enough, you will find that you can sing the tune before you ever try to play it. Which brings me to:

Creativity - Beyond The Right (Write) way - My version will not be the only version you come upon as you journey through the old time music world. These versions of the tunes come from how I hear and play music that has been handed down for generations and CHANGED for many reasons by each player that has handled and played each tune. Mine are not supposed to be the only one you always want to play or hear. You get to put your own variations in as well. A and B parts may be one way here, and reversed in your jam session. Some folks may play only one A and others.

Tune titles may vary. You may want to make a crooked tune come out even for a dance.
These transcriptions are intended to be a starting point, not an ending. In reality, there is no one right way to play any of these tunes. Everything is open to your interpretation. If there is a right way it is the way you like it. HOWEVER, if you are going to play with others - a goal of most but not all folks - then the right way will be the one you agree on in your group no matter how large or small. With more licks in your bag of tricks, you will be most able to adapt to the music of the day and time."

Please take your time and read the books. It may answer many many questions. I am glad to answer questions and in fact invite them here and by email.

Play Nice,
Dan Levenson
author of Clawhammer Banjo From Scratch (an 13 other Mel Bay publications).

TOTW April 20, 2018 - Happy Hollow

Recent BHO - Fri, 2018-04-20 08:52

Happy Hollow sources to the western North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin (1881-1974). Mr. Martin is also known for a host of well known tunes such as Booth, Shove that Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire, and Sugar in the Gourd.  Most of his musical legacy is preserved by the Library of Congress recordings of Alan Lomax made in 1941.  There are also some recordings in the Digital Library of Appalachia, which I believe are not from the LOC collection.


Here are a couple sources of information on Mr. Martin:





I don’t know anything about the tune history.  I just like it, and the title fits the tune well.  It is a fairly popular tune, as suggested by the number of recordings listed below.  Happy Hollow is mostly played in the key of A, but some folks play it in G.  Marcus Martin recorded in G#, and he was known to tune his fiddle low.  So I’ll call it an A tune (and this is also how it is presented in the Milliner-Koken book).




LOC recording of Martin Marcus



Some of my favorite videos (in no particular order):


Joe Decosimo, Steve Arkin, and John Schwab



New Hot Times (Jon Anderson and Tom Collins)



Roger Netherton



Don Borchelt



banjojukebox (Pat Lyons)



Jerry Correll and Susan Sterngold



And an mp3 here on BHO of Brendan Doyle, Mark Simos, and Tina Jones



I recorded myself playing Happy Hollow, but hit a self-induced technical glitch with it this morning.  I will post my recording when I get it straightened out.


Hope you enjoy Happy Hollow this week, and explore more of the wonderful music from Marcus Martin.