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Showing posts from 2011

Happy Holidays!

Greetings, banjo enthusiasts. It seems we're on a monthly rotation here at the Glory-Beaming Banjo, but I plan to step it up a bit in 2012. Nothing says "bring on the New Year" like a good old fashioned resolution. With Christmas on our doorstep, I thought I'd share with you a little old-time gift ...

In this video, you have the Striped Pig Stringband of Humboldt County, Calif., playing "Breaking Up Christmas," a lively dance tune from Southern Appalachia. Not only is this a fine rendition of the tune with some fine banjo picking, the fiddler is Colin Vance, a fine banjo maker.

So, have a listen to the video and then click the link to check out some of Vance's great banjos. Happy Holidays, and thanks for reading GBB during this inaugural year.

Old-Time in the Unity Center: John Cohen / Dust Busters Concert in Cleveland Hts.

John Cohen and the Dust Busters delivered a bouquet of old-time gems Sunday night, at an event that was nearly canceled because of a house fire.
Road weary and looking tired from a heavy touring schedule this fall, the Dust Busters arrived at the Unity Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, after a string of concerts starting Nov. 15 from Hiram, Ohio, to Louisville, Ky., to Knoxville, Tenn., to Newport, Ky., and finally back to Ohio on the 20th.

With one last concert before heading home to Brooklyn, N.Y., the band featured Cohen as its special guest at an event that featured a showing of Cohen's recent film "Roscoe Holcomb: From Daisy, Kentucky" and a potluck meal. The concert was sponsored by the non-profit group Roots of American Music (ROAM).

The event started at about 6:45 p.m. with the film, a short documentary about Holcomb and his life in East Kentucky, compiled from the outtakes of Cohen's seminal film "The High Lonesome Sound." After the film, Cohen an…

Banjo Film Airs Nov. 4 on PBS

Give Me the Banjo, an 82-minute TV documentary resulting from The Banjo Project, will air at 9 p.m. eastern, Friday, Nov. 4 on PBS. The program is narrated by Steve Martin and features a musical score by three-finger player Tony Trischka.

Culling its name from the very same Mark Twain passage that this blog takes its title, Give Me the Banjo details the history of America's quintessential musical instrument. The film includes commentary from such banjo luminaries as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Mike Seeger, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ralph Stanley, Abigail Washburn, and many more.

Check out the trailer:

The Banjo Project is producing a DVD that will include many scenes that were omitted from the PBS program. These extra scenes are also available at the project's website. Glory-Beaming Banjo will have its DVR set to record and report back with a review. 
Square Dance Tonight in Euclid, Ohio In other news, Mark Olitsky will be playing for a square dance tonight at the Shore Cultu…

Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Concert in Peninsula, Ohio

Squeezed tightly into the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula, Ohio, on a Thursday evening, a crowd of more than 140 people sang and swayed along to the music of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, backed by their family band of Ruthy Ungar Merenda and Mike Merenda (formerly of the Mammals).

The sold out event on Sept. 29 was billed as "Music of the Civil War and Beyond," and featured a variety of fiddle tunes, stringband music, ballads, marches, folk songs and original music. The quartet kickstarted the evening with a rendition of "Fly Around My Little Miss," with Jay and Ruthy on fiddle, Molly and guitar, and Mike on banjo. The rollicking dance tune got the audience grooving in their seats. If it weren't for all the chairs, an impromptu square dance would have broken out for sure.

After the crowd broke out into song during Stephen Fosters "Hard Times Come Again No More," Jay said, "This a good room for singing. I think we'll keep it going." Next the group…

Kent State Folk Festival

The 45th annual Kent State Folk Festival kicks off tonight with a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and will wrap up Sunday with a concert by Peter Yarrow, of the legendary folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. The real fun will be Friday's Folk Alley 'Round Town, with free performances by a variety of musical acts around downtown Kent, Ohio, and the free community workshops Saturday at the KSU Student Center.

The 'Round Town and workshops will provide a number of opportunities for enthusiasts of old-time music and the banjo to watch, listen, and play.

On Friday, you can participate in the Kent Shindig old-time jam from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Europe Gyro. This is the group your host regularly jams with every first Sunday of the month. They're a welcoming group, so don't be shy. From 7 to 9 p.m., you can swing over to Woodsy's Music to catch Brady's Run, a local string band that includes Lynn Frederick and Sue Goehring. Also of interest are the Mayfields an…

Clearly in Need of Updates

It's been more than three weeks since the last post here at Glory-Beaming Banjo. Clearly, we're in need of some updates. Here's what we've been up to:

As for some local news, the GBB team attended the Raccoon County Music Festival, in Burton, Ohio, for the first time. Master banjo-smith Doug Unger presented a workshop and performance, which was a real treat, as these hands finally got a chance to hold one of his amazing instruments, sealing the desire to one day own one.

Earlier this month, an article about Riley Baugus, written by yours truly, was sent off to Dan Levenson for an upcoming edition of The Old-Time Way in the Banjo Newsletter.

We mentioned Craig "Frailin" Evans' documentary project, Conversations With North American Banjo Builders, back in June. Volume 1, a three-disc set that features builders from east of the Mississippi River (plus one in Texas), is now available for purchase at the project's website. You can also view a free episode …

On Fiddle Tunes

Playing old-time banjo, a lot of the repertoire is fiddle tunes. There's a discussion going on now on the Banjo Hangout about just what's so great about fiddle tunes anyhow? Here is the winning response:
What exactly is a fiddle tune? A fiddle tune is a melody that once you hear it, you can't seem to get it out of your head until you can grab your banjo and learn it yourself. A fiddle tune is a living cord connecting us back to long ago generations, to feel deep in ourselves just a fragment of feeling transmitted from across the ages by some plain common folk, our ancestors otherwise long forgotten. A fiddle tune is a kind of tune that has a lot of music concentrated in just a little bit of space, and in that respect it is to notes what poetry is to words. A good fiddle tune you can play for a very long time and not get tired of it. A good fiddle tune is a tune that you can never quite play the same way twice, even when you want to. A good fiddle tune will bring two or mor…

Benton Flippen (1920-2011)

This morning brought the sad news that Benton Flippen, the legendary fiddler from Mount Airy, N.C., died yesterday. Benton Flippen was a fixture at old-time fiddlers convention and was noted for his distinctive fingering style, which included many slides. In 1990, he won the North Carolina Heritage Award for his musical contributions.

There are many recordings available of Mr. Flippen:
Old Time, New TunesAn Evening at WPAQ, 1984 (with the Smokey Valley Boys)270 Haystack Rd. (with the Smokey Valley Boys)Fiddler's Dream (with the Smokey Valley Boys)Beware of Dog (with the Smokey Valley Boys)
The Banjo Hangout has a nice little tribute to Mr. Flippen in the forums. His obituary is also available. Below, he plays his signature tune, "Benton's Dream."

***UPDATED June 30, 2011:The Mount Airy News pays tribute to Benton Flippen

Frailin's Flix: North American Banjo Builders Documentary

Earlier this summer Craig "Frailin" Evans embarked on a tour of the eastern portion of North America to interview banjo builders as part of a project to document this "golden era" of artisans. He also spoke to a number of musicians and retailers to gain their perspective about our favorite instrument and these craftsmen.

Next year, Evans will tour the western part of the continent. The result will be The North American Banjo Builder Series, which he plans to make available by DVD and as pay-per-view online episodes. He recently established a website for the project at

The seeds of the banjo builder project can be seen in a series of webinars Evans conducted and posted at the Banjo Hangout. To get a glimpse of how the banjo builder series will look, he produced a video about Minnesota mandolin and guitar builder Lloyd LaPlant. You can also check out this introductory video where Frailin explains why he's doing this project:


Getting to Know Bob Smakula

Smakula Fretted Instruments has one of those websites that makes a vintage banjo enthusiast drool from both corners of his mouth. Proprietor Bob Smakula buys, sells and repairs instruments, with a focus on banjos, fiddles, guitars and mandolins. He started his business in 1989, when he moved to Elkins, W.Va., from Cleveland, where he worked with his father, the late Peter Smakula, at Goose Acres. It was his father who introduced him to the banjo and helped spawn his interest in old-time music.

“My father was a respectable banjo player and played both old-time styles and bluegrass,” he says. “After a long day of work for a major corporation, he would come home and play banjo for at least an hour before dinner. Always hearing banjo music while growing up kept my interest. When I was about 10, I had my dad show me basic clawhammer rhythm on the banjo.”

However, a lack of attention span caused a bit of a delay in applying those banjo lessons until the age of 15. That summer, in 1974, Sm…

In Case of Rapture

Some Christians believe the Rapture will come tomorrow, and some people think that's a perfect occasion to bust out the banjos and play some old-time music. John Walkenbach, banjo player and author of The J-Walk Blog, posted this entry about the "Rapture Jam":
"wormpicker came up with the idea of a rapture old-time jam, to be held on Saturday, May 21. That's the day of the scheduled Rapture. It will probably be in a park, so we can watch people float up to heaven while we play music accompanied by an earthquake.
"If you're anywhere near Tucson, and would like to join in, let me know and I'll provide details. That means, you, 12-stringer.
"Please dress appropriately, and wear hipster glasses if you have 'em."It would be spectacular if more of these Rapture Jams took place around the country. However, there's already an opportunity to hear and play some old-time in Northeast Ohio this weekend.

Hessler Street Fair
Saturday and Sunday will…

Folk Festivals in Oberlin and Kirtland, Ohio, This Weekend

Festival season is upon us, and Northeast Ohio hosts two events this weekend for fans of traditional music.

The 13th annual Oberlin Folk Festival kicks off tomorrow, May 6, at Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse on the campus of Oberlin College and Conservatory. A highlight of the Friday concert is a performance by the Dust Busters, an old-time string band based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Capping off the evening will be a contra dance sponsored by the Oberlin Contra Dance Club. The festival continues Saturday, May 7, with more performances by local and student acts. You can view the full schedule here. Admission is free.

From the far, far west side of Cleveland, we go to the far, far east side for the inaugural Blue Sky Folk Festival, at the East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, in Kirtland, Ohio, on Saturday, May 7. Performers include Hal Walker, Hu$hmoney, Dale Rodgers, and the Workmen's Circle Klezmer Orchestra, with storytelling by Robin Echols Cooper and clog dancing by Laura Lewis Kovac…

Lo Gordon and a Peek at Cedar Mountain Banjos

When Lo Gordon decided he wanted to learn how to play the banjo, he didn’t stop in at his local music shop and pick one off the rack. Instead, he relied on his longtime passion for woodworking and built one from a kit. Now, he builds them for a living, and he and his wife, Mary Gordon, operate their own music store in Brevard, N.C.

The Gordons moved to Brevard in 1993 after selling their wooden garage door business to start Cedar Mountain Banjos and open Celestial Mountain Music. Lo had been playing banjo for a number of years and had already built several banjos of his own.

“I knew that I'd build at least several for my own excursion into banjodom, and a kit would be a good way to start,” Gordon says of his first banjo. “In short order, I built a scratch-built fretless and one with a ‘White Layde’ tone ring. These were the instruments I learned to play on.”

Gordon had always been inclined to build things on his own. If he wanted to go kayaking, he built a kayak. If he wanted to…

Dust Busters Sweeping Though

Starting April 29, the Brooklyn-based old-time string band the Dust Busters will launch a short tour through the Midwest and South Atlantic states for their "Mud Season Tour."

Northeast Ohioans should pay close attention to the Dust Busters' May 6 stop, which will be at the Cat in the Cream coffee shop for the Oberlin Folk Festival.

The Dust Busters sound like the incarnation of old 78s from the 1930s. Their most recent album, "Prohibition Is a Failure," was produced by legendary New Lost City Rambler John Cohen. You can check out videos of the band on YouTube, specifically the pages of band members Craig Judelman and Eli Smith.

Hot Off the Press
The Dust Busters are also featured in an article from the Spring 2011 edition of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine. The article focuses on former Oberlin students who have gone on to careers in old-time and bluegrass. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are also included in the writeup.

New Carolina Chocolate Drops Lineup Plays on PBS Video

Shortly before winning a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, the Carolina Chocolate Drops announced a new lineup and the departure of fiddler Justin Robinson. The Drops added multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and human beatboxer Adam Matta to replace Robinson, who provided much of the group's old-time vibe with his bowing and singing.

Ever since, I'd been wondering how the new makeup of the Carolina Chocolate Drops would sound. Now, I no longer have to guess, as the group was featured on the 30-Minute Music Hour on Wisconsin Public Television.

Watch the full episode. See more 30-Minute Music Hour.
As you can see from the video, it appears Matta has taken over playing the jug--albeit without the jug--from Dom Flemons, who in the video concentrates on four-string banjo and sings. Rhiannon Giddens handles the fiddle duties and adds her solid vocals. Jenkins plays bones, guitar and mandolin and sings a song.

On the program, the Drops' sound leans more toward early jazz a…

Was a Fiddle What Done it

After college, my oldest friend moved to Charlotte, N.C., for a job, while I stayed in Northeast Ohio to start my career. In 2007, my company put on a small trade show in Charlotte and sent me down to help staff the event, providing me the perfect excuse to extend my stay and visit my friend.

During that time, I had not yet begun playing banjo, but I was getting close, as I was in what I call my "anything with banjo" music listening phase. That trip proved to be my first experience listening to a live old-time string band.

My buddy picked me up from my hotel, and we started driving west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. We both like to hike, and then we planned to stay in Ashville for a little nightlife and local beer. A park area near where my grandparents used to live provided the hiking; Jack of the Wood would provide evening entertainment.

When we got to the bar, we had no idea that there was live music that night, and there wasn't much hint of what was to come when we ar…

Old Sledge Announces Midwest Tour

This week, the Floyd, Va.-based old-time group Old Sledge embarks on a Midwest tour to promote its new CD. Throughout April, the band will play shows in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, with a short detour to North Carolina for the Shakori Hills festival.

This blogger is hoping to lure Chance McCoy and Sabra Guzman, the primary members of Old Sledge, to play a little farther north in Ohio, but so far the band is only slated to play in Cincinnati and nowhere within an hour's drive of Glory-Beaming Banjo headquarters.

Old Sledge just released its new album, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," this week. For the time being, the CD is only available at their shows, but three tracks from the album are available for free download at the band's store website, where you can also buy the self-titled EP with Anna Roberts-Gevalt on banjo.

Here's Old Sledge (with Jake Hopping on banjo) playing "Boats up the River" at the WTJU radio station i…

The Looks and Sounds of Deep Creek Strings Banjos

There are many great banjo builders today creating magnificent instruments, but some of the neatest innovations and most interesting wood choices come from Bryson City, N.C., where Jeff Delfield creates his Deep Creek Strings banjos.

Delfield is a local librarian in Bryson City by day, but he has been building banjos for the past few years. However, his interest in building folk instruments started with Cigar Box Guitars, or CBGs, as he refers to them.

“I was always a fan of the banjo and banjo playing,” he says. “But, honestly, six years ago, when I moved to Bryson City, I didn't know the difference between clawhammer and three-finger, bluegrass banjo. I was much more interested in the blues — especially country blues.”

The music of Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, and others led Delfield to wanting a CBG, which in turn led him to wanting to build the instrument himself, he says, “Because I’m cheap.” One CBG led to another. Within a year, he had built…

Mike Seeger's Final Recording

Due out tomorrow is the final recording of founding New Lost City Rambler Mike Seeger, who died from cancer in late summer 2009. "Fly Down Little Bird" was recorded with Seeger's sister, Peggy Seeger, and features 14 tracks of songs they learned as children from field recordings.

From the Mike Seeger website:
Not "children's songs," these have a wide range in sound and subject: the quirky fun of Fod, the Poor Little Turtle Dove's lovesick plaint, a ballad in unaccompanied octaves, social commentary in The Farmer Is The Man, the spooky religiosity of Blood-Stained Banders. The two singers play various combinations of banjo, guitar, fiddle, harmonica, mandolin, lap dulcimer, and piano. Included in the booklet are Peggy's vivid evocation of their early listening experience and several early photos.Track Listing:

Old BangumThe Dodger SongCindyBlood-Stained BandersBig Bee Suck the Pumpkin StemWhere Have You Been, My Good Old Man?Little Willie's My Darl…

Frailing on a Blackfork

By the summer of 2009, my itch to replace my Recording King Songster reached the tipping point. My desire was for a banjo that had a deep, warm tone and had a more old-timey look. Bill Van Horn delivered exactly that.

I shot an e-mail to Van Horn inquiring about his B&P Banjos after seeing his posts on the Banjo Hangout. By Christmas, I was playing my new Blackfork model, a short scale banjo with a thin 12-inch pot and a Dobson-style tone ring.

Van Horn prides himself on being the first banjo builder to use the combination of a Dobson tone ring on a Keller drum shell. “This is the sound that I’m looking for and I got lucky with this combination of parts,” he says.

Inspiration to use the Dobson “doughnut” tone ring came after Van Horn heard the sound of an original Dobson with an 1881 H.C. Dobson “Silver Bell” patent tone ring.

“I was hoping to get just a little deeper, fuller tone and remember that Roger Siminoff said the more mass in a banjo the higher the pitch,” he says. “So…

Jamming Without Friends

One of the most important aspects of playing old-time music is the communal participation of playing the music with other people. However, sometimes that option doesn't exist. Thankfully, there's an "app for that" -- or at least there's a good website anyway.

Last December, Josh Turknett, a member of the Banjo Hangout wrote about a new webpage he had created, called The Old Time Jam, which features a music players with backup music tracks (with guitar, fiddle and banjo) to many traditional fiddle tunes.

When you go to the site, you see at the bottom a music player, called The Old-Time Machine, which gives you the option of playing with two different speeds of a guitar track or a combination of guitar-fiddle, guitar-banjo, or fiddle-banjo. It also shows the chord changes to help you learn a tune by ear.

If you've never been to a jam or want to improve your skills of playing with others, The Old Time Jam site is a great tool. It's also just a fun way to pla…

Away in Brevard

Thus outfitted, they went on ahead of their things, traveling first to the little town of Brevard, where there was no hotel, only a boardinghouse. They left from there in the blue light of the hour before dawn. It was a fine spring morning, and as they passed through the town Monroe had said, I am told we should be to Cold Mountain by suppertime.
--Charles Frazier,
Cold Mountain * * *  When I read the above passage from Charles Frazier's National Book Award winning novel, Cold Mountain, an immense feeling of nostalgia overtook me. I only read the novel a couple years ago, which happened to be when I was getting into old-time music. The book found me at the perfect time.

Frazier's 1997 novel about western North Carolinians during the Civil War is set primarily in the Appalachian Mountains and features a fiddler and banjo player as important supporting characters. References to old-time music are dappled throughout the storyline. But the reference to Brevard, N.C., struck a more…

The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes

On Feb. 25, a new resource for old-time enthusiasts was released. The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes, transcribed and annotated by Clare Milliner and Walt Koken, is an 888-page book that contains 1,404 tunes in musical engravings, arranged alphabetically.

The book also includes a main index of the tunes arranged by title, with references to source recordings and cross references to similar tunes and title; a tuning index arranged by fiddle tunings; a key index; and an artist index arranged by fiddler, showing the tunes included by that artist.

Additionally, the book features an artist profiles section with brief biographies of the 347 fiddlers and bands represented in the collection. A majority of the fiddlers were born before 1900. Finally, a comments section contains further information about the tunes and fiddlers.

The Milliner-Koken Collection is oversize format and cloth hardbound, which lies flat for easy reading. The book is $90 and available at www.mkfiddlet…

Who Kidnapped Cathy Moore?

When I was first getting into clawhammer there was one resource that really inspired me to experiment with the banjo. Cathy Moore's blog, Banjo Meets World, provides a wealth of information about playing the banjo in old-time music, as well as other folk traditions. Sadly, the website has been dormant since November 2009.

Last I knew, Moore was based in Bloomington, Ind., which I hear has a decent old-time scene. I know that she didn't disappear into the Australian Outback because she has recent posts at her professional blog about e-learning tools.

Despite Moore's absence from the site in more than a year, Banjo Meets World is still worth a visit to review the already existent content. I keep a link to her blog on the "Fellow Fogies" list to the right in hopes that she might post something new.

Two series on Banjo Meets World have been particularly influential to my own playing: "Beyond bum-ditty" and "Getting drive with Liza Jane." Both post…

My First Banjo

My decision was made during the winter, when all good thinking gets done in Northeast Ohio. I wanted something to take up the slack in my life, and the banjo was my choice.

After the IRS sent me my tax refund in March 2008, I bought a Recoding King Songster from Cliff Fitch, a luthier from Texas who also was a Recording King dealer. He promised a professional set-up before shipping the instrument and included a hardshell case for $500. Seemed like a good deal to me.

The Songster was a "bluegrass" banjo, which just means it had a resonator -- never mind that plenty of old-time musicians have used resonated banjos. The neck was thin and easy to play, but the finish was a bit tacky, which caused my palm to stick to it occasionally. Regardless, the Songster was a solid instrument and Fitch's adjustments (most notably, a good bridge) made it sound good to my ears.

I started to learn Scruggs' three-finger style and was pretty dedicated for the next six months. However, I ne…

Setting Up the Sound: Mark Olitsky, Part 2

Read part 1, "The Banjo Wizard of Cleveland"

* * *
A small part of Mark Olitsky’s distinct sound comes from how he sets up his banjos. He says he likes a deep, bassy sound from a banjo, and he uses heavier strings, a relatively loose head, a low tension tailpiece, and “things to keep as much towards the low end as possible.” You might notice some duct tape if you look at his banjos closely.
Olitsky usually plays one of two banjos. His “jamming” banjo is a Vega Little Wonder with an 11 13/16-inch diameter pot, Fiberskyn head, and a partially fretless neck he says was made at Goose Acres by Bob Smakula and Kevin Enoch.
“At the time that I was buying this banjo, I couldn't afford to buy two banjos and I wanted to try playing a fretless,” Olitsky says. “A fretless plate was put over the fret slots already put in the new neck. My plan was to try my new banjo out as a fretless for a month or two, and then when I was ready, have the plate removed and frets put in. Well, that wa…