Tune of the Week for June 11, 2012

We all need a hero like John Henry.

Howard Armstrong
Howard Armstrong
(click here for another view)

Recorded at a Lark Productions concert in Bears Back Room in Bloomington, Indiana in the Spring of 1982. The concert was a double bill of Bogan & Armstrong along with Yank Rachell. Howard took the lead on this number and Ted Bogan played guitar. Yank Rachell may be playing along on mandolin. Yanks accompanist, Peter Roller, was on dobro.

John Henry

Click here for lyrics.

T:John Henry
S:Howard Armstrong with Ted Bogan
ef | “verse”aa2a- a2f2 | e2=c^c A4 |aa3 =gfec | e6 ef | aa2a- a2f2 | e2=c^c A4 |
“refrain”fe=c^c A2FA | c2c2 A4 | fe=c^c A2FA | A3A- A4 |
fe=c^c A2FA | fe=c^c A2FA |fe=c^c E2F2 | A3A- A2ef |
“verse”aa2a- a2=c’a | c’a2a- a3=c’ | c’=c’^c’a =c’a=f^f | e2e4 =c’2 |
(3c’2=c’2a2 (3f2e2=f2 | (3^f2=c2B2 A4 |
“refrain”fe=c^c A2FA | c2c2 A4 | fe=c^c A2FA | A3A- A2FA |
f8 | f2{=c}^c2 A4 | f2e2 c2d=c | A6 ||

Note: the triplets in the third line from the bottom should be quarter note triplets. Some Abc readers render them as eighth note triplets.

Tune of the Week for April 16, 2012

It’s a long story. Actually, two stories, for this Tune of the Week entry is in fact two separate tunes from two opposite sides of globe, two completely different peoples, and two separate, but intertwined, histories.

In 1981–while living in Bloomington, Indiana–I was invited to a friend’s house for an intimate session of tunes and folklorist chat with Bobby Fulcher, a banjo-player and park ranger (actually, a cultural conservation officer) for Tennessee State Parks. Bobby had spent years researching the rich old-time music tradition of the Cumberland Plateau that stretched back to the pioneering 1920s recordings of the banjo and fiddle team of Richard Burnett and Leonard Rutherford. That duo from Monticello, Kentucky had a huge impact on music of players from the region, such as Clyde Davenport and the Troxell brothers, Ralph and Clyde. But many locals held that the best fiddler around had been Cuje Bertram, an African-American who had long since moved North.

Burnett & Rutherford
Burnett & Rutherford
Dan Emmett
Daniel Decatur Emmett

After much searching, Bobby had finally located the Bertram family in Indianapolis. That was the reason for Bobby’s visit to Bloomington. It was a stopover the night before his long anticipated meeting with Cuje Bertram. The next day Bobby had an extensive interview with Mr. Bertram about his life and music. Sadly, the octogenarian could no longer play. But the family allowed Bobby to duplicate a home recording from 1970 that contained a couple dozen tunes.

That tape was not intended for commercial consumption, but a European record company issued it anyway, without permission from the Bertram Family or Bobby Fulcher. This, of course, is just another sad chapter in an old story of the commercial co-opting of minority cultural for the gain or advancement of others. I came into possession of a copy of those home recordings, but until I can obtain permission from Bobby Fulcher or the descendents of Cuje Bertram, I will not post the recording here. However, one of the traditional songs that Mr. Bertram played and sang is of continuing interest. His Big Cat, Little Cat is a version of a song recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1927.

The Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm Uncle Dave Macon & his Fruit Jar Drinkers

The melodies of the two settings are very similar, though Mr. Bertram is set a step higher in the key of E, an usual key for an old-time fiddler.

T:Big Cat, Little Cat
S:Cuje Bertram
z2 | B2cd e2ef | gefg efec | B2cd efeB | GEFG E2 ::
GA |B2BE G2E2 | GEFE G2GA | B2BE G2E2 | GEFG E2 :|

The lyrics of the two performances are also similar in theme, but they differ in actual wording. A transcription of Mr. Bertram’s lyrics are here.

Then, just this week, I was introduced to a new You Tube video of an Australian band playing an old dance tune The Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat’s Eye (in a medley following the Jenny Lind Polka). The video contains a graphic that reads: “This lively Australian Bush tune was popularised from the version performed by minstrel favorite, Dan Emmett.” Daniel Decatur Emmett, a native of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, was a founding member of the Virginia Minstrels, a four-piece string band that took the theater world of New York and beyond by storm in 1843. The four minstrels were all white men who performed in black face, pretending to be African-American while co-opting Black folk expression for their own financial gain.

The history of Blackface Minstrelsy is fascinating and difficult. Much of America’s old-time music tradition passed through the maelstrom of minstrelsy and was distinctively transformed. Sufficient for our consideration is that both our Tunes of the Week have a theme of confrontation, difference, and power struggle. I’ll leave it to you for further contemplation and consideration. You may want to start with this fascinating discussion about the two songs on the Mudcat Cafe. Most contributors to that thread were not aware they were discussing two completely different melodies. If there is any common ground between the two, it resides in the life and career of Dan Emmett.

Here is notation for The Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat’s Eye. It was collected on Cape Barren Island in the Australian state of Tasmania by folklorist Rob Willis. He learned the tune from local musician Les Brown.

The Black Cat Piddled in the White Cat’s Eye by Warren Fahey’s Australian Bush Orchestra

T:The Black Cat Piddled in the Little Cat’s Eye
S:Rob Willis from Les Brown of Cape Barren Island
D2 | G2BB BBBB | G2BB B4 | G2BB BBBB | d2A2 A2AB |
c2cc c2A2 | F2AA A2AB | c2cc B2A2 | B2G2 G2 ::
ef| g2(3fgf e2dd | g2f2 e3f | g2f2 e2d2 | c2A2 A3d |
f2e2 ddde | g2e2 dddd | A2Bc B2A2 | B2G2 G2 :|

-Paul Tyler, convener
Chicago Chapter

From Joe Thompson: Tune of the Week for February 20, 2012

Joseph Aquilla Thompson
December 9, 1918 – February 20, 2012

Joe & Odell Thompson
From Mebane, North Carolina, Joe Thompson was a gentleman, a family man, a fiddler and a saint. He started playing for house dances with his brother before his legs were long enough to reach the floor from the chair in which he sat while he fiddled. In the late 1970s, he was convinced to start performing again, teaming up with his cousin Odell on banjo.

Twenty years ago, I got to see him perform in Philadelphia, many cultural miles away from his home district of small tobacco farmers. A dozen years ago I got to dance as he called an old-time frolic (ie, square dance) from the family and community tradition he grew up with. In 2005, I attended the Black Banjo Then and Now conference in Boone, North Carolina, where Joe was received as an honored elder (and where the Carolina Chocolate Drops got their start). A couple of times in the following years, I got to see him play in Chicago, once at the Old Town School in an afternoon program sponsored by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. Afterwards, I sat beside him at a jam session in the back room of the Grafton as he tried to teach us to play Georgia Buck.

Georgia Buck, Joe & Odell Thompson, 1987

The notes are simple. The rhythm and ornaments are complex. The form and variations are fluid. The tune has two parts (what we normally call ‘A’ and ‘B’), but they are played with a logic different from the regular progression of repeated alterations. The transcription that follows is roughly taken from the last three times through the performance recorded above. It is meant to give you an idea of some of the variations use. The slides are more important that the actual starting pitches indicated by the grace notes. The Bb is more bluesy and not a tempered Bb. Listen to the recording a lot, as you learn to play the tune.

T:Georgia Buck
S:Joe & Odell Thompson
“A” ^A-| B2dd G2AA | BAGG E2GG |”slide” {^A}B2dd G2B=A | G2GG E2GG |
“slide” {^A}B2dd G2B=A | D2EE DEGD | G2G4 G2 | G2DD E2G2 ||
“B slide” {^A}B2dd d2ee | =f2fA G2GG | “slide” {^A}B2dd d2B=A | G2GG E2G2 |
“slide” {^A}B2d4 e2 | =f2GG EGGE | G2G4 G2 | G2AG E2GA ||
“A” _B2dd B2AA | _BAAG E2GG | “slide” {A}_B2dd d2=BA | G2GG E2GG |
“slide” {A}_B2dd d2eA | G2AG EGGE | G2G4 G2 | G4 G2z ||