More Canadian fiddle

I like to celebrate Canadian fiddle music from time to time here at 27th Street. Most people automatically associate “Old Time” music with Appalachia, but up here in Canada, we have a very well developed fiddle tradition. Calvin Vollrath is as good a fiddle player as you’re going to find anywhere. He lives in Alberta and plays in the Métis style.

Here is Mr. Vollrath playing a tune he wrote for another of our great fiddle players, Natalie MacMaster – and as a bonus, Ms MacMaster joined him on stage to play it with him. Here is Natalie MacMaster’s…

Here’s Mr. Vollrath playing with Al Cherney, another western Canadian fiddle player, who was well known for appearances on the Tommy Hunter television show.

Calvin Vollrath has been an excellent and prolific tune writer. This next video features yet another great western Canadian fiddler, Patty Kustorok/Lamoureux playing the the tune Mr. Vollrath wrote for her. He is supporting this performance on guitar.

I want to make a note about YouTube here. For the old time music enthusiast, banjo freak, etc, it is just the greatest resource. Everything is at our fingertips, a few keystrokes away. It was not too many years ago this musical museum was not available. As regular readers know, I’ve been learning clawhammer banjo and I can’t imagine trying to learn it without videos at my fingertips showing me all the regional styles and all the great and not-so-great performances.

Steel Driving Man

John Henry has to be one of the most recorded songs ever. The story is basically an American tall tale.  Like so many of these folk tales, I can’t remember not knowing it. I think I knew it before I understood the story. John Henry was a steel-driving man on the railroad. So many folk tales and songs come out of the building of the rail lines across the continent. He worked with a partner called a shaker, who held a steel bit while John Henry whacked it with a 9 pound hammer. I wouldn’t want to be the shaker, I can tell you that.

Most of you know the story. Along comes the modern world – and with it the steam drill, or steam-powered hammer – designed to blast through rock much faster than any mere human could. But John Henry was exceptional and he challenged the steam drill to a race through the mountain. As the story goes, John Henry won, but keeled over and died in victory. There are countless variations and version of the story and countless musical variations as well.

Here are a few interesting musical treatments John Henry. Let’s start in a blues setting with a powerful version by Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Here’s Furry Lewis, the great Memphis bluesman, from 1971. Furry, Like Mississippi Fred, plays slide in this performance, but his approach is far different.

John Henry is well known as a banjo tune as well in Old Time circles, and is usually played as an instrumental. Here is Glenn Godsey playing a version inspired by some of the players who developed a distinctive style in the Round Peak area of North Carolina.

Here’s another performed by Chuck Levy and Rafe Stefanini. I had an opportunity to meet Chuck Levy in June of 2014 when I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp. Chuck was leading a “slow jam”, for players like me who had not had much experience playing with others. This jam really helped build my confidence and I was able to move on to a faster “intermediate” jam, and more or less hold my own in a more challenging environment. Chuck was super-patient with a group of people of different skill levels all trying to figure out how to play with others. He is an excellent banjo player and a fine fiddle player as well as a really nice fellow.

Here’s one more banjo performance of the tune, this one by Dwight Diller. Diller is from West Virginia. He apparently lived with the Hammons family and is known as an inheritor of their musical tradition. This looks like a cell-phone video and it isn’t the best, but it gives a good idea of Diller’s approach to the music, which puts the rhythm first and emphasizes developing a groove. I find his playing to be very hypnotic.

Chaos on Twenty Seventh Street

As you know I’ve been limping around the house, and Memphis has recently had surgery so she’s limping around the house. Was that enough chaos for one spring? We decided to have a few rooms of the house painted, to freshen everything up for spring. This included our bookshelves. We have a lot of bookshelves – and that means we have books all over the house.


One thing we had not considered is the natural law that says Newfoundland dogs have a magnetic attraction to wet paint, especially Newfoundland dogs named George.



We hired Mike the Painter to do the painting. Mike does a great job at fair prices. He can also handle just about any other wacky job that comes along.

“Hey Mike, we need a temporary ramp where the deck stairs are.”
“A ramp?”
“Yes, for Memphis, while she’s recovering so she doesn’t have to do stairs. It has to be long enough to lessen the angle, sturdy enough to support dogs and humans, covered with outdoor carpet so she doesn’t slip, and of course inexpensive enough that we can afford to do it.”
“OK, no problem.”
Now it’s easy for Memphis to get out to the back yard without the difficulty of stairs. She can handle the ramp no problem at all.

Speaking of ramps, pretty soon my little ramps crop in the forested area of the back yard will be appearing. For those who have never had them, ramps are also known as wild leeks. They look like smallish tulips and smell strongly of onion – and they have a strong delicious flavour. I used to gather ramps in a forest not far from the city that has been seriously encroached by a housing development. When they started the development in motion I brought home a shopping bag full of ramps along with the soil they grew in and planted them out back. I’ve just been ignoring them since, letting them slowly spread. Let me say they spread very slowly. This is why, if you have a ramps spot in a forest you should only take a little each season, enough for a couple meals. It doesn’t take long for a ramps patch to get depleted when they are dug out faster than they can spread.

I know some other forests where I can find some ramps, and most years I bring some home while I’m out after morels. This year with my broken ankle there will be no spring foraging for me, so I plan to harvest the first meal of ramps from the back garden. My brother has suggested I fertilize my little ramps patch to encourage them to spread. I hadn’t thought of that because of course nobody fertilizes the forests where I usually find them. However, it ought to work so I think I’ll try it this spring.

Meanwhile, Memphis is recovering well. When we can’t watch her, she has to wear an Elizabethan collar so she doesn’t pick at the staples in her incision, and that is clumsy for a large dog, but she is tolerating it. She hates (HATES) taking her medication. For a while I was successful burying pills in toast but now she’s hip to that and she’s very suspicious. We’re managing but pill time is a trial around here. She has another several days of antibiotics and a few more pain pills as well. On the positive front, she’s limping around with confidence and she seems to be comfortable. I’m hoping that later in the summer both Memphis and I will be able to wander about in a forest looking for summer mushrooms (I look, she wanders). George of course loves that too!

The Four String Polka

Here’s some fantastic Canadian fiddle music featuring Graham and Eleanor Townsend…The Four String Polka

Enemies: A Love Story

One good (but unfortunate) way of accumulating a pile of books to read is to break your ankle. In no time after my injury I found myself awash in reading material, all kinds of reading material. This was welcome, because when your mobility is seriously compromised, reading is an excellent option.

My friend Vox brought over an eclectic pile of books. This included a curious history book called The Meaning of Everything, all about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. I confess I liked the idea of this book better than the actual book, and I abandoned this one after being thoroughly convinced of just how huge a task it was to create this dictionary.

The next one I picked up from the Vox stack was Enemies: A Love Story, the 1972 novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This novel revolves around Herman Broder, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and refugee, living in New York.

During the war, Herman escaped the Nazis by hiding in a hayloft, with the help of a peasant girl named Yadwiga, who had been a servant to Herman’s wealthy family. Herman, believing his wife Tamara and their two children had been shot and killed by the Nazis, married Yadwiga and brought her to America, where they settled in Coney Island. When we meet Herman, he has a mistress as well, a woman living in The Bronx named Masha, who he fell in love with back in Europe. Herman tells Yadwiga he is an encyclopedia salesman who has to go on book-selling trips – which are in fact visits to Masha. Herman is not a book-seller, but actually a ghost-writer of religious material for an entrepreneurial rabbi, this even though Herman has abandoned his faith. Along the way we find out that while Herman’s children were indeed killed by the Nazis, Tamara was shot but survived. Inevitably, she shows up in America and finds Herman. Herman’s life is a tangled knot.

Herman lives impossible layers of lies, and though he is constantly worried he will be found out, he continues to concoct new ones. Of course all three women learn the score along the way.

There is a strange tension in this novel between the absurd love quadrangle and the haunting shadow of past horrors that cannot be separated from the lives of the characters involved, as they adapt to life in America. What an engaging and unusual read. Recommended.

Banjo Practice

Head for the hills, it’s banjo practice time. Here’s me attempting to play a fiddle tune known as The Forky Deer, or Forked Deer (say fork-kid).

Shady Grove

Shady Grove is a tune that has had a lot of play over the years. I always associate this one with Doc Watson. I learned to play a version of this tune when I started learning clawhammer, but stopped playing it for no real reason and it drifted out of my memory. I’ve recently started playing it again, so I’ve been listening to various versions. The following video featuring Doc with the Kruger Brothers is a great example of his signature approach to the tune, and it features Jens Krugers wonderful banjo picking.

Bruce Molsky is one of my favourite old time musicians. If you’re just getting into this kind of music and you’re thinking of adding some old time tunes to your collection, you can’t go wrong with Molsky, whose recorded output is excellent. He plays banjo, fiddle and guitar – but here he is on banjo playing Shady Grove.

We usually think of Shady Grove as a “modal” tune (Dorian mode), but it has been done as a major tune as well. Kilby Snow, the autoharp player, recorded a great version of this. You can hear a sample of that here. Also, enjoy Zepp’s major version on banjo….

Homework: check out a tune called The Death of Sis Draper by Guy Clark. I couldn’t find it on YouTube. It’s on his recent (tremendously good) recording, My Favorite Picture of You. The Death of Sis Draper is done to the tune of Shady Grove. It is a followup to his much earlier tune Sis Draper. Not only does it use the melody from Shady Grove, it also references Shady Grove in the lyrics. We love this whole album around 27th Street – you will too.

Memphis Update

Memphis is doing well. She can get up and walk around some and she seems comfortable. This morning her bandage came off – and that means it’s time for the Elizabethan collar for a while so she doesn’t lick the incision. Memphis is not impressed but is tolerating it.


She is not happy about taking medication either. We can get a pill or two down with treats but then she twigs to the pill and refuses the treats. Last evening I was pilling her directly. She’s demonstrated an excellent ability to avoid swallowing so she can spit the pill out later. This morning I resorted to a secret weapon – buttered toast. She’ll eat anything if it comes with buttered toast.

She appreciated a little brushing this morning, especially under her chin and on her neck, her favourite spots.

Memphis is home!!!

Memphis returns home
Memphis returns home

After surgery yesterday, Memphis has returned home. She can walk, but she does require an assist with a sling to easily get up at this point. In two weeks she will get her staples out, and she is on restricted activity for some time (just like me!).

Cook a little Shortnin’ Bread

The tune Shortnin’ Bread must be embedded deep in the genetic code of Canadians and Americans. I can’t remember not knowing that melody. Some people might call it a kid’s tune, but there are versions whose lyrics are a little more adult oriented. The melody lends itself to interpretation, and so Shortnin’ Bread has been done up many different ways.

As you know I like all kinds of folk music….so let’s start out with a Psychobilly version by none other than The Cramps…

Here’s a really hot version I found on YouTube (I might have even shared this one before). It’s from a jam at Clifftop back in 2012.  Here are the notes from YouTube on this one: Asheville, N.C.-based Chicken Train was performing at Clifftop 2012 last week over a box of their CDs. Sales were brisk because their music making was topnotch. That’s John Hermann on banjo and John Engle on fiddle. Meredith McIntosh is on guitar. Not sure who was on bass, but she was solid. I didn’t hear a better band in my opinion.

Want it in a jazz setting? Here’s a short clip featuring Mr. Charles Mingus. Mama’s little baby likes all the fine things in life. It gets cut off but what is there is pretty fine. There is some language on this clip not for the kiddies…

Let’s go out with some Bluegrass. Here’s Earl….