Tag Archives: banjo


My experience at the Mid-west Banjo camp kick-started my learning and since I returned home I’ve wanted to play and play and play. With that kind of immersion experience you get exposed to a lot of ideas, but most of them require plenty of practice to make those ideas part of your playing.

I’ve been learning clawhammer in isolation and suddenly I was exposed to jamming. Wow, was that ever fun! It really changed my whole experience of the music. I’d love to play with other people more often. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on adding some new tunes and ideas (to me at least) to my little repertoire.

I love learning new things, and when I take on a new challenge I like to jump into it with a lot of effort and enthusiasm. I started playing music – button accordion – in my early 40s, and now over the past year and a half I’ve jumped into playing clawhammer banjo. I’m encouraged that I can hear my playing improve and the more I improve the more I want to learn.

Old Time vs old time

The musical focus of this blog has shifted somewhat this year. Although it has long reflected my general interest in what I jokingly call folky-dolky music, I had been focusing on the button accordion, because that is the instrument I was playing. Somehow or another I began romancing the banjo, and back around Christmastime, I made my first oil can banjo and started teaching myself to play in the manner known as clawhammer or frailing. Since that time, the music I’ve shared and written about here has had a lot more to do with banjo than button accordion. This isn’t to say that I have lost interest in button accordion music – not at all. It’s simply that my current infatuation with the banjo, particularly the open-backed banjo, is infectious and I can’t help but share it.  It could be simply coincidence that this shift has coincided with a decided drop in interest and comments on this blog (that’s my story folks, and I’m sticking to it).

I realize that I have thrown the term Old Time music around freely in the past several months, and some people may think I mean old time, without the caps. I should be clear that by Old Time, I’m talking about a genre of music, one that was called Old Time, even when it wasn’t so very old. I don’t mean old time in the generic sense, like this is music that old timers enjoyed, although this is sometimes the case. So what is this Old Time music anyway?

If we are to believe Wikipedia, the label dates to 1923, a record company called Okeh and a performer named Fiddlin’ John Carson. It figures that a record company would be involved. To quote the entry in Wikipedia, “Okeh, which had previously coined the terms “hillbilly music” to describe Appalachian and Southern fiddle-based and religious music and “race recording” to describe the music of African American recording artists, began using “old-time music” as a term to describe the music made by artists of Carson’s style.”  Old Time is dominated by rural dance music, music for clogging or buck-dancing or flat-footing, or square dancing. It also includes some ballads and solo or band music not specifically for dancing, but let’s not make things seem even more confusing. Old Time is often played by groups called string bands on instruments including fiddle, banjo (usually open-backed rather than resonator, but not always), mountain dulcimer, acoustic guitar, and sometimes bass.

All that said, it is a loose genre. Is Ottawa Valley fiddle music Old Time? I’d say so. Is Newfoundland button accordion music Old Time? That’s harder, but I’d say no. How about Cajun music? Let’s keep that separate, even though there are plenty of similarities. There are lots of regional styles that have their own characteristics. Some people will tell you that Old Time means Appalachian but it would be hard to exclude New England Contra Dance music or Texas Old Time music and so on. There are folks who will tell you that Old Time music is more strictly Appalachian or that the centre of the Old Time universe is Mount Airy in NC and Galax in Virginia. I love that music, but I choose to stick with a broader definition.

Here’s a fun video featuring some Old Time clogging or flat-footing.

Now here’s April Verch demonstrating Ottawa Valley step-dancing – a little different, but I think we’re talking the same language here.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I go on about Old Time music. I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of the Old Time standards on banjo. There is quite an extensive catalog of tunes that lots of players know and these have become the basis of jams. Within the broader matrix of this music, there are a variety of approaches to playing the banjo. I’d say that some of these are regional, and some are more individual. These styles have to do with how you pluck or strike the strings. I’m learning clawhammer, but there are also two-finger and three-finger approaches.

Clawhammer is a style in which you make your picking hand into the shape of a claw (more or less), and attack the strings by striking them with the nail of your index or middle finger, downward. Clawhammer is played on a 5-string banjo. The fifth, or short string is normally played as a drone, and you use your thumb to pick the drone string.  When I started learning this, I found it to be very awkward and I thought, man I’ll never get this. If you look at teaching videos on YouTube, some teachers will strongly urge students to do nothing but try to sound a single string and the drone string in a simple rhythm (known as bum-ditty) for a week or two until the student gets it right. That is probably a good approach. Once you get used to the basic way of making sounds, it gets a lot easier, but it takes time to get your hand used to the motion.

Here’s Kurt Sutphin, a player from North Carolina. In this video, he’s interviewed by David Holt and then plays a tune called Sugar Hill. He’s playing a fretless banjo here. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless.

I think it would be really interesting to study all the different styles and tunes that fall under the broad Old Time umbrella, but I bet it would a mind-bending life’s work. I’m learning as I go, and I’m having a great time listening to many players and approaches.

Cotton-eye Joe

This is an old tune, going back at least to the 1880s in America. What does cotton-eyed mean? One story is that bad moonshine cause a drinker’s eyes to turn milky white. Another story says someone is cotton-eyed if his eyes turned milky from any number of diseases, including syphilis. There are lots of different verses for this one, as with many old time tunes. According to Wikipedia, these lyrics were published in 1882…

Cotton-eyed Joe, Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so,
Fur ter take my gal erway fum me,
An’ cyar her plum ter Tennessee?
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

“His eyes wuz crossed, an’ his nose wuz flat,
An’ his teef wuz out, but wat uv dat?
Fur he wuz tall, an’ he wuz slim,
An’ so my gal she follered him.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d er been married long ergo.

“No gal so hansum could be foun’,
Not in all dis country roun’,
Wid her kinky head, an’ her eyes so bright,
Wid her lips so red an’ her teef so white.
Ef it hadn’t ben fur Cotton-eyed Joe,
I’d been married long ergo.

“An* I loved dat gal wid all my heart,
An’ she swo’ fum me she’d never part;
But den wid Joe she runned away,
An’ lef’ me hyear fur ter weep all day.

O Cotton-eyed Joe, O Cotton-eyed Joe,
What did make you sarve me so?
O Joe, ef it hadn’t er ben fur you,
I’d er married dat gal fur true.

Here’s a Western Swing version by Asleep at the Wheel. Very nice pedal steel work in this one and a fiddle break that sounds like Shortenin’ Bread.

Now here’s more of a hard-core Old Time version by Jorsh123

Finally, here are the Skillet Lickers

Sourwood Mountain

Chickens a-crowin on Sourwood Mountain -
Oh diddle di di diddle di do
(or Hi ho diddle I day…take your pick)

So many pretty girls I can’t count-em -
Oh di diddle dee Diddle di do

Climbing up old Sourwood Mountain -
Oh diddle di di diddle di do

Find me a pretty gal and I’ll go courtin -
Oh diddle di di diddle di do

As with so many “Old Time” tunes, there are countless versions and verses. I’m learning a clawhammer version now, so I’ve been studying up different approaches to the tune. Here are some I really like…

Here are Carolina Chocolate Drops. We saw this group a few years ago at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. They’re great fun to watch and listen to. This is from a show down in Florida.

This next video is a fellow named Andy Sayers playing the tune on a fretless banjo. Once upon a time all banjos were fretless and then everything went to hell.

Now check out American honey with an excellent buckdancer! A lot of groups play this tune at lightning speed. I like the lazy pace of this version.

Hell Amongst the Yearlings

Of all the tunes in the Old Time songbook, Hell Amongst the Yearlings has to have the best title. I hadn’t known it as an Old Time tune until recently. It is also the name of a Gillian Welch album, her second from 1998. The Old Time tune isn’t on it. The tune is sometimes called Rounding up the Cattle. It’s been well recorded by Old Time outfits and some bluegrass bands as well.

Here are Allison Williams and the Hot Ash Stringband…

Some thoughts on music, learning and busking

It’s important to me to not stop learning. Music is one activity I started really flirting with after I turned 40 and I started playing the button accordion. How hard could it be, I reasoned. There are only 31 buttons on the right side of a triple-row button accordion. Never mind that different notes sound when you push or pull air through the reeds using the bellows. Never mind that there are two sides and you need to get your hands operating independently. Never mind that feeling somehow emerges through the bellows-work.

My learning on the button accordion really started to accelerate when I started busking. What a fascinating experience. The people around you are going about their business and there you are, busking, trying to capture the attention of passers-by. There are a few things going on. Among the first thing I learned was that the performance was as important as the chops. In other words, the most skilled musicians aren’t necessarily going to be great buskers. I learned to choose my audience and make eye contact, smile, nod and play for people as if they were the most important people on earth. Kids especially love buskers. When kids came around, I liked to squat down to their height and play something lively and danceable. I don’t know how many times kids would approach and want to press the buttons of my squeezebox and catch a second of the magic of making sounds come out. Parents would usually discourage this, but I never did. What a privilege to share the magic!

The most popular buskers were those who strummed a guitar and sang recognizable pop hits. In particular, I noticed that buskers who played “classic rock” always did exceptionally well. One of the reasons I took up the button accordion though was that I was tired of that material. I’m not being critical of it. I just wanted to learn about and play something different. I had a couple tunes in my busking repertoire that did get recognized. One was a squeezebox version of the old folk tune from the Bahamas, Sloop John B. Most everybody thought it was a Beach Boys tune because they recorded a popular version of it in the 60s (much like how many people think House of the Rising Sun is a pop tune by the British group The Animals). I was familiar with the tune from some field recording I had on CD of a group of spongers singing a capella.

Here are Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster performing House of the Rising Sun from 1933

The other tune I liked to play busking that was recognized a surprising number of times was a Newfoundland waltz called the Star of Logy Bay. People would come up to me and thank me for playing it and tell me it reminded them of back home. Here’s a video I’ve shared before – Candy Minx shot this footage of me playing Star of Logy Bay in front of Tom’s Place in Kensington Market.

A played a crazy assortment of material, including traditional Portuguese folk tunes, a Cajun tune or two, a Finnish polka, some Newfoundland tunes and even a Swedish schottische. One day I was playing at St. Lawrence Market and some fellow approached me and asked me if that was a Swedish tune I was playing. That was the only time that tune was recognized.

When you’re busking, many musical sins may be forgiven. Most people are walking past, not sticking around like at a concert. I learned to keep the rhythm at all costs. No matter what else happens, if your left hand is solid rock and the rhythm rolls along like the evening train, you’re fine. Mess up the rhythm and it’s a disaster. Sometimes I would be playing and something would distract my attention. Believe me, busking in a busy market there are many distractions. Something would catch my attention and suddenly the thought would percolate through my little brain that I don’t even remember what song I was playing. The experience is like those Roadrunner cartoons when the coyote finds himself running over the edge of a cliff. He doesn’t fall until he realizes there’s a problem here. I’m heavier than air. So what do you do? Play a chord that sounds like an ending and immediately start in on another song, just as if you planned the segue. I was amazed that when some disaster like this occurred and I simply carried on with all the confidence I could muster up, it appeared that nobody noticed my blunder.

I should have been satisfied to have developed some level of proficiency at the button accordion. I didn’t plan to take up another instrument. I blame banjos on my brother Salvelinas Fontinalis, who started quietly learning a few clawhammer banjo tunes (is it possible to quietly learn banjo tunes?) some time ago. How fascinating. I’ve long been a fan of old time music but it hadn’t occurred to me to try to play it until my brother started plunking away. Not that anyone has actually heard him play and made it out alive to tell about it. Then I thought, well hell, it only has 5 strings, how difficult can it be? And so, at 52 I’ve taken up the banjo.

I don’t have any illusions of becoming a great player, but on the other hand, I’m going about learning the instrument with vigour and lots of practice time, and I can hear my playing getting better all the time. As I’m learning more and more tunes (they are very slowly sticking to my brain….keeping a load of songs in my memory was a challenge on the button accordion too).  I’ve mentioned before that lately I’m starting to think that I need to find a fiddle player, and I can’t seem to shake that idea. I think I need to find either a fiddle player who, like me, is learning – or a player with plenty of patience for a guy who doesn’t have the entire old time songbook at the tip of his clawhammer fingers.

I like to try new things, and as many of my friends will tell you, when I start learning something, I tend to jump in with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. For me it’s a great joy to keep learning. I can tell you that learning clawhammer is easier for me than learning button accordion was. Maybe it’s because now I have some musical background and I’m simply learning a new machine. I hope that’s the case, because there are other instruments I’d like to learn too, such as the hurdy-gurdy or the clarinet. For now though, I’m concentrating on clawhammer banjo and I’m having the time of my life learning it. It’s easy to put in the practice time when playing brings you truckloads of joy.