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Music

I'll take a one way ticket out of this town. (Trains and how they shaped American music)

We can all agree and disagree on most everything. But I have a hunch that most of us have at least thought about what it would be like to buy a one way ticket to a destination never to return again. Some of us have manifested that exact thought into reality and we find ourselves living many miles away from the places we once called home. Luckily, or maybe not so luckily, we have social media to keep up with old friends and family from the past. It's becoming increasingly more difficult to permanently "loose touch" with the people you don't have an interest in out of the sake of being polite. But imagine yourself during a time before computers and cell phones; before airplanes and greyhounds were a common mode of mass transportation for the middle class and before car ownership was only possible for a select few types of people. If you needed to get somewhere far away in a hurry, you'd most likely board a train. Jeff and I have been listening to a lot of old records over the years (mostly old blues, Carter Family, various folk Anthologies, and Bob Dylan). We've observed the different ways these roots and folk musicians sing about trains and how important the train is to the origins of American folk music. We've listened to these records countless times and have had many discussions about how music has traveled and transformed since the dawn of American train culture. Of course these train songs originated with the makers of the train tracks themselves (songs known as chain gang songs invented by slaves and later prisoners who pounded their picks into the ground, chanted, and sang with the voices and rhythms passed down to them from their ancestors). 

It's almost as if you can feel the construction of the train tracks in the music of their children and grandchildren recorded later on. Today we commonly refer to these musicians as "the old blues men and women" such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Elizabeth Cotten, and Bessie Smith who all sing about riding trains, leaving, or returning home.

Jeff and I talk about what it must've been like to be African American upon the end of the Civil War and how the train must've been quite the symbol of freedom to these newly freed people. Many of these people who were once enslaved were able to flee to other destinations by train hoping that a better life was waiting at the track's end; and they took their voices with them and passed their train music down to their kin. We are incredibly lucky that their children and grandchildren preserved and recorded these original train songs while inventing a whole new style of music. Since then you have other genres of music, such as bluegrass, old time, folk, and country music that talk about trains but the origin of American train music in the United States was invented by the people who built the tracks and it traveled with their children from coast to coast, north to south, which is why we've been able to learn so many songs even in the most remote locations of the country.

Growing up out on the western prairie and the Great Plains was as desolate as you can imagine it to be. The first time I saw Urban style graffiti was when I'd see it painted on the sides of trains that passed through my childhood stomping grounds. I thought it was beautiful and wondered what it would be like to hop on a train and end up in a big city just to observe it all. I would think about how much more interesting life, art, and music must be in a big city. But what I didn't know is that the music I had learned as a child in small-town America was also being taught in cities. It wasn't until I moved to Minneapolis and met my husband, who spent the majority of his life in the Twin Cities, that I learned we had grown up learning the same songs. This is why we love roots music. It's amazing when you can sit down with a complete stranger and sing and play the same songs. The train made it possible for this music to travel up, down, and all across the country. I can only imagine that many songs written about trains were written on trains (I wish that I could write and drive at the same time because cross-country imagery and travel sure does stir up the songwriting senses.) Jeff and I are committed to a life of music and the road and we couldn't be more at peace to be out driving on the highways next to the train tracks that made it possible for music to travel back in the old days. 

-R

How I learned to love the banjo

Just yesterday afternoon I was struggling with a metal ring. It was a large metal ring the exact diameter of my banjo. This was intentionally done back in the 1890's or so when the ring was made. It was one of the many, many parts that would eventually come together in the course of the day to make a complete playable banjo. After much swearing, and self bargaining I finally got it slipped over my goat skin drum head and slipped around the tone ring. Then I had to meticulously attach all the little hooks and nuts on the side to bring the tension to that perfect spot. Once I finally did that, I had to set the tailpiece, then find the perfect spot for the bridge in accordance with the fret board. Finally I set new my nylon strings on this antique beauty and strummed.

It was horribly out of tune.

The banjo is a horrendously unforgiving instrument. I have owned 3 in my lifetime and all of them have been complete with their quirks and trials. They often can be difficult to tune, sometimes the bridge collapses and needs to be reset. (Often right before a gig too!) and some of them are very very heavy. This was particularly true with my first banjo. It was a Jida brand banjo I got at a music shop. I knew nothing about banjos other than "I wanted to learn it" and this made in Korea banjo seemed fitting for me. I remember bringing it home, tuning it and sitting alone on the 3 season porch on a rainy spring Minnesota night plucking it horribly in the solitude of an empty house. (perhaps my banjo playing had driven all my housemates away)

I would learn a lot on that banjo, and eventually take it with me to a dozen or so states and into Canada. I never recorded with it, though a friend of mine did on our trek through Nashville. The five-string banjo has 2 distinct styles that a player will generally choose from. There's the "Scruggs style" or "3 finger" which is the bluegrass oriented picking style I was most familiar with. (Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, etc.) Then there's "clawhammer" style which is the style I mostly stick to these days. (Buell Kazee, Bruce Molsky, etc) This is the more "old-time" style often played on old records and usually associated with mountain music.  I tried both out quite a bit but never really got the hang of the 3 finger style. I was never motivated enough to actually practice the style, often finding it tedious and boring to practice after a few minutes. 

The clawhammer style was the most suited for me, it tends to accompany a solo singer better and have a great rhythmic quality to it that I find mesmerizing. Once I figured this out I traded my Jida bluegrass banjo for a fiddle that I never learned to play and got myself an open back banjo. The banjo I got was  Gibson RB-175LN and is my current primary banjo. It was built in 1964 and carries a very unique part of the folk legacy with it.

The Gibson banjo I have is a longneck banjo that was popularized by Pete Seeger. Seeger who liked to do sing a-longs with his crowds and found the key of E suited his voice best. Banjo players can likely attest the key of E can often be tricky on banjo since it's tuned to open G. His solution? Add 3 more frets to the banjo allowing it to go lower. The result is a longer banjo neck and an instrument that's a touch longer than your average bass guitar.  These banjos were popular in the 60's often seen in Seeger's hands as well as the Kingston trio. (George Grove fancied the key of F on his). It's rich deep tone paved the way to allow the banjo into more ears and spaces and brought it down from the mountain and into the general public. 

My final banjo, and my current project is my Buckbee banjo. It's an antique banjo built around the 1890's and was the source of my frustration just yesterday afternoon. I finally fixed it up yesterday and it's playing better than ever. It was one of the first mass produced banjos and therefore isn't particularly valuable but it sure is fun to play an instrument that old. Banjos have a rich and often dark history tied to American history. It's one of the only truly American instruments after all. It evolved from African gourd instruments brought during the slave trade, its sound maturing through minstrel shows, and finally resting on the tops of hills and mountains in the countryside where their design and sound became more refined. This is why I love them. They're not easy to work with, and sometimes they aren't exactly pretty. They get made fun of a lot, and still carry a stigma about them as a low-brow instrument, but they are what they are: simple, built to work, and played to pass the time. They're as simple as you want them to be and complex as your imagination will allow. They're highly evolved and just plain fun to play. It's complex issues are of no mind to me, I will always forgive their shortcomings of being hard to tune some days, and being a bit too echoing on a humid day. After all, nothing beats the sound of a banjo on the porch on a hot summer day in Arkansas!


Thanks for readin'
-J