Monday, November 14, 2016

American Akonting

Well, it has taken me years, but I got this record done.  It should be available on cdbaby, Amazon, iTunes, etc. etc. by December 1st.  Bring me to your town, and I will play all this stuff for you!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Well, the audio, anyway... I still have to write all the copy and put together the actual CD.

It was in my first year of graduate school (c.1988) that I took a research methods course at UCSD.  We had to come up with a research project, and I decided to look at what was known about the banjo before the advent of recording.  I quickly discovered that there was quite a lot of documentary evidence, and a handful of great books, but the only music that survived was a bunch of banjo methods and tune books written by minstrel show performers.

I had run into that stuff before.  The first person to resurrect a minstrel show performance was a guy named Robert Winans, and he had made a recording of that effort in the mid 1970s, which I had heard as an undergraduate at Pomona College at that time.  The music seemed sort-of dull to me, to be honest.  I was learning traditional American clawhammer banjo and American and Irish fiddle music, and to me this minstrel show music lacked the rhythmic drive I had come to expect in good banjo and fiddle music.

Robert Winans had followed in the footsteps of another musicologist, Hans Nathan, whose 1962 book Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy is the most important book in this whole banjo field, in my opinion.  I encountered it by chance in a used bookstore in San Francisco in 1980, while moving up to Seattle.  This book lays out how much is known about banjo music before the Civil War, and though others have added to the evidence, really all you need to understand the evolution of the minstrel show banjo tradition is right there. By adapting my clawhammer skills, I was able to play the music that Nathan included, and two of the pieces on my new recording, "The Newton Jig" and "Pompey Ran Away" (which isn't a minstrel show tune) are from this book.  There is playing on my recording that is consistent with this style, but I think it's dumb to sacrifice a good riff for following some intricate melody unless you've got a really good reason, and I am informed on this by the depth of source material we have on early 20th-c. blues guitar players, as well as West African plucked lute playing--these players are incredibly skilled, but where melody is concerned, either it is easily generated by the basic technique, or they don't do it.  Rhythm and a solid danceable groove is always of paramount importance.

But what about African-American banjo music?  One thing Nathan figured out early on was that there was very little actual African-influenced music in the minstrel shows.  There are a few tunes--"Juba," certainly, "Boatman's Dance," and I think "The Newton Jig" (and maybe a handful of others) that have African-American roots--but more striking to me is how little interest the minstrels had in African-American music.  There was no agenda whatsoever in trying to play authentic African-American music--indeed, the minstrels seem to be utterly uninterested in it.  The predominant banjo style, as portrayed by the minstrels, moves away from the pattern-based playing of African musicians almost immediately and into trying to play melodies like a fiddler--something that the banjo is ill-suited to do.  Once you're playing schottisches (the sort of dance tune that becomes more popular in minstrel shows as time goes on), you can pretty much assume that you do not have the funk.  If you hear most modern minstrel banjo recreators playing reels, you'll notice right away how the music often lacks the drive of good fiddling, and that's in those rare occasions where they play fast enough where you could dance a reel to it.  A common view among minstrel banjo enthusiasts is that clawhammer rhythm is later, but it isn't, and there's no doubt that a good clawhammer player has the funk and skills to beautifully accompany fiddle music at whatever speed.  That aspect of it is a bit of a mystery to me, but I assume that what we understand as "clawhammer" was just the way some African-American players played.  Maybe the minstrels just missed it.

We don't know names and music of countless African-American banjo players themselves.  There must have been hundreds of musicians--there are certainly hundreds of guitar-playing blues performers by the early 20th c. and they didn't come out of nowhere.  Even Scott Joplin's parents played banjo and fiddle.  A critic of my research haughtily suggested that I overlooked the most famous African-American banjo player of antebellum America--Picayune Butler.  I didn't.  I looked into him and concluded that he was a myth, a standard minstrel show character like "Jim Crow," a conclusion recently reinforced by Tony Thomas' recent research on Picayune Butler.  The most famous 19th-century African-American banjo player whose story and name we know was fictional.

It was in this context that I decided to look closely at Gottschalk's famous 1854 piano piece "The Banjo" that I had first tried to play on the piano in high school, and I came to a stunning realization.  No one had looked at it.  Certainly hundreds of pianists had played it, and musicians and audiences alike were thrilled by its imitations of familiar banjo textures.  Sometimes a comment might be made about the interesting way the piece appears to anticipate ragtime piano music.  Here's the problem--most of those textures were not otherwise documented for another half century after Gottschalk wrote the piece.  Scholars of the banjo claimed, based on the minstrel banjo methods, that these characteristic banjo textures were 20th-century developments, but there they are in fully-developed form in Gottschalk's piece, and none of them had thought to study the piece.  "The Banjo" is not based on the standard two-part European dance tune form that dominates minstrel show music--in fact, the piece takes its architecture from West African music--the repeating riff (kumbengo (Mande), fodet (Wolof), etc...) that forms the basis of a music performance.  Just like the blues, of course.  With all the variations and textures, I recognized that I was looking at the Rosetta Stone of African-American banjo music.  Here were demonstrations of many aspects of a style, enough to build a banjo performance practice, something that could transform our understanding of early American music.

And so, I sat down with the music to see if it could be played on the banjo.  As I discussed in my article, it was not difficult to tease out the banjo tune lurking right there.  Then I turned to a piece he wrote as a 15-year-old, "Bamboula."  The form was not as subtle or daring, but here again he captured banjo music on three distinct pieces that he assembled as one composition.  Take away the piano tricks and a teenager's taste for flash and flourish, and I had another rich source.  At about this time (c.1990), I became aware that in fact I was not the first person to look at Gottschalk's appropriation of African-American music.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks had at that point recently (1988) written "Gottschalk and the Grand Tarantelle," which rails at Gottschalk elegantly for his role in the great American music tradition of stealing music from African-Americans and making money with it.  When I wanted the poem to be included in my article (she had generously granted me permission to use it), the editors scoffed at its angry tone.  I insisted.  Especially in "The Banjo," Gottschalk's writing was so close to what a banjo could do that it was entirely reasonable to conclude that he had sat down with a banjo player and copied exactly what he heard.  Brooks was right, and I had proved it.

But it was just writing and notes on a page.  Because I wasn't interested in a career in musicology, I never went to conferences or anything like that.  I'm a musician, and I knew that to make the case, I had to record the music.  Then you could hear my ideas.  Especially when you hear the techniques and textures in the Gottschalk music applied to minstrel show tunes, traditional American fiddle tunes--it is definitely more Caribbean than Appalachian.  The bottom line is that the music is a blast to play and it feels as though I've discovered a musical treasure.  I'm not sure musicology has ever been done where the argument is made in the music, but that is what I have done here.  I don't want to say that the minstrel banjo playing these days isn't authentic, because I think it is, but I think this Gottschalk resource opens up an entirely different tradition, a pathway between the Jola in the Senegambia, Son House, and Dr. John.

Maybe the minstrels heard stuff like this and their music is what they made of it; maybe they didn't even pay attention to it.  When banjoist and pedagogue Frank Converse publishes a little tune in 1901 that he claims he learned fifty years before from an African-American banjo player (who of course is unnamed, and mostly condescendingly dismissed by Mr. Converse), it differs little from simple minstrel show tunes.  It might be authentic, but it is nothing like what Gottschalk shows us, which could be just the difference between the playing going on at that time in New York and New Orleans, as will be the case throughout the history of American music.  One interesting detail Converse mentions, however, is that the player tuned his second string up a half step (he reports this as the guy saying he put it "out of tune" which the guy never would have said!), so the standard clawhammer "double-C," tuned down to A.  That stuck with me somehow, and so I have performed all of this music with that tuning, except for "Leyenda" which I figured out thirty years ago on a conventional banjo tuned gCGbd.  That, and "Les Barricades Mysterieuses, " which I also still perform, are pieces I just love and they're extremely difficult--so I've got to use that tuning for those two.  One thing that has appealed to me with the alternate tuning (eAEab), besides the richer resonance it gives the banjo--I think it is an entirely superior tuning--is that I had to work out my own versions of things and not just reproduce what is in period banjo methods.   

I made my first gourd banjo in 1991, and it was a pretty thing (you can see it on my YouTube video of my performance of "The Banjo") but it was very quiet, and I had put too much relief in the neck, so the action was unnecessarily high.  It was enough to show me how wonderful a fretless gourd banjo tuned low was, and at that point I quit playing my conventional banjos to work on this, but I couldn't really perform with this instrument.  Still, I worked on playing it off and on over the next 18 (!!) years.  After I recorded "Cluck Old Hen" (July 2009) I recognized that I was going to have to make a new banjo to make this project work--a post here from back in 2009 describes the convoluted microphone setup I used to make that recording.  That's when I made my "#2," the design and construction which is also covered in an earlier series of posts (Oct-Dec 2011).  Even then, after I made it and was pleased with it, I continued to make modifications to it.  Really, until late 2015, I didn't have it in its final form--I then re-recorded most of my CD because it was a whole new instrument after its last round of modifications.  I kept the old "Cluck Old Hen" though.

Sometimes, it just takes a very long time to complete a project.  More soon...

Friday, August 12, 2016


It does get dry here, but even in late summer there is green foliage in the native plants.  My pathetic photography skills don't really catch the pink glow of the Epilobium (and somehow the tan wheat fields about to be harvested in the background look white with snow...), but looking southeast across this expanse of prairie I was reminded that this view was choked with weeds when I started this blog and at this point it looks pretty good to me.  In my November 2009 post, showing a view from the fence on the east side of the property towards the northwest, this area is on the left of that image, after a couple of years of, um, chemical control and just before I had seeded it for the first time.  For the last few weeks I have been walking through this area, digging out a few prickly lettuce plants (very persistent, and they can even sprout this late), but most of the area is free of invasive weeds.   I think I'll always get a few, because properties near me have amazing noxious weed situations, and seeds ride the wind...but, it is not a bad summer toning program to go out and dig a bucket of weeds for an hour.

In previous years there would have been a lovely drift of red on the right side, but in 2014 (because they are biennial and bloom in their second year) the scarlet gilia must not have seeded for whatever reason.  I have noticed similar cycles in other populations in this area, on Kamiak Butte and elsewhere.  There are only 7-8 plants blooming in various spots around the property, though there are numerous little first-year sprouts all over, so the red drifts will return next summer.  And probably the summer of '18 will be a bit sparse (though I've got a collection plan in place for those seven sets of seed pods).  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bonaparte's Retreat with camas seed

Tonight, the perfect shaker sound was my envelope of locally-collected camas seed.  Perfect for a Caribbean gourd banjo version of "Bonaparte's Retreat."  Based on the 1937 Lomax recording of William Stepp that inspired Aaron Copland, it is 'way more joyous than the usual maybe-Irish version.  Of course, I assume this must celebrate Napoleon's forces' retreat from Haiti in 1804.  I'm having a blast with these last few tunes for the CD.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Grand Collomia

Grand collomia (Collomia grandiflora) blooming today... with clarkia and yarrow in the background.

A lot of the green visible here is Epilobium brachycarpum.  It really is thick in places this year and I want to get other species established in those areas, so when this Grand collomia goes to seed, the epilobium ought to be flowering, so I will actually be mowing this area, hopefully seeding all the plants you see here, while diminishing the epilobium.

Monday, June 6, 2016


Clarkia, yarrow, allium, and Wyeth buckwheat blooming this evening.  Some of the clarkia patches out there are insane!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Rake vs. Divot, part two

Rocky Mountain Little Sunflower (Helianthella uniflora), sprouting from one of my divots.

Back last November I made a post comparing two methods for planting native seeds, whether you scratch the surface of the dirt and rake the seeds into the top 1/4 inch or so, or dig a little divot, fluff up the soil, and put the seeds in that.  I think most/many native plants around here prefer the former method, but since I adopted it (from the advice of more knowledgeable native plant folks), there are some plants that just don't seem to sprout that way.  One is this perennial, Rocky Mountain Little Sunflower, which I haven't gotten to sprout for years, so I thought I'd go back to the divot method.  And now I have a bunch of little seedlings.  I think Gaillardia and Scarlet gilia also prefer this method...Next fall I will try planting those in divots as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Gourd banjo puppy whispering

He's been with us five days, a little eight-week-old border collie puppy named Paddy, born the day before St. Paddy's Day.  He's really a great little guy, but he has been pretty intense, too.  This is to be expected with border collies, and it's what's wonderful about them, in fact.  So, I thought I would introduce the musical components of our world gradually.  He heard the violin a few days ago and didn't freak out, then today I was playing the gourd banjo on the couch when he came in room and heard it for the first time.  He got all giddy for a few minutes...I was worried...but then he came over and curled up at my feet and dozed for a half hour while I played.  The last few tunes going on this CD are approved by Paddy.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

April, part two

 Shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) in bloom

Grassland saxifrage (Saxifraga integrifolia), also in bloom

I transplanted several clumps of these two plants from a threatened spot last year.  I wasn't sure if they would survive, but I put them in exactly the same sort of habitat they were in, and I was happy to see that not only were they blooming this year, but they had spread.

Meanwhile, in the north part of the prairie, Nine-leaf lomatiums (Lomatium triternatum) that have taken 4-5 years to get mature are at last putting out some nice blooms this year.  Many camas are coming up in this area, so I'm hoping that I really get to see a camas bloom this year...

Friday, April 15, 2016


Today is my wife Dona's birthday, and on every birthday since we've been married, I've gone out and cut a Grass widow (see a couple of posts before this one) for her.  Over the last few years, they have finished blooming earlier and earlier, and this year they were done blooming a week ago, so today I went out to see what flower would become the new Dona birthday flower.  Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) won the contest.   It came from this patch, which took nearly 20 years to produce a flower (there was a post from...last year? which I told the tale of this patch...)--

Yes, there is a disturbing climate-change angle here...Is this just a few warm Springs or is this the new reality?  One beautiful summer flower here is the biennial Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), but an area that has had them in profusion for, I don't know, eight years or something, suddenly has none of them.  They are showing up elsewhere and hopefully all the seeds that were dropped last fall there will bring some back, but you've got to wonder...

Still there are many exciting things to see in this next phase of Spring.  Here a Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) showed up where I had planted nothing.  It's mature, so it appears as though it must have been there for a year or two, but I never saw it before...

Also, another favorite, Prairie star (Lithophragma glabrum) is blooming in the prairie for the first time.  I have planted probably ten clumps of these, a couple from the same drainage ditch I got the larkspur from last week, and these from a clump that showed up by a tree in the front yard years ago--I divide it every year, leave half of it by the tree and plant the other half in the prairie.  They do pretty well, but this is the first year they've bloomed...

Another tiny flower that is doing spectacularly well is Blue-eyed mary (Collinsia parviflora).  There had been quite a bit of it here, but it bloomed at almost the exact same time as a very aggressive weed called storksbill, and in eradicating the latter, I took out a lot of the former, but I've collected seed and re-establishing it has been surprisingly easy here.  It is very small, but the bloom is beautiful.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Drainage Ditch Free Nursery

Nothing for months, and then two posts in a week, but it's Spring!

I was checking on how things were coming back to life in the prairie and discovered the results of an experiment over the last two years.  I had noticed that beside a gravel road near here there were a few large drifts of Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) that had apparently shed their seeds into the gravel and created a blanket of larkspur seedlings.  They are the 5- to 7-bladed gray-green leaves you see here.

Every year around May 1, the county comes through and sprays the drainage ditch with herbicide, so these will be toast, thus justifying my effort to rescue them, but I wasn't sure it would even work.  Some plants do very well, but a lot of natives hate to be moved, so it really only makes sense to do it if they're gong to be killed anyway.  So, two years ago, and again last year, I showed up with a trowel and bucket and dug 2-3 small clumps, transplanted them to similar habitat in my prairie.  The discovery this year was that I had healthy larkspur coming back in 2 out of 3 plantings.  That makes it worth the effort.  So this year I moved twelve shovel-sized clumps out of the free nursery in the drainage ditch.   We shall see...

Monday, April 4, 2016

Spring on the Palouse

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) in bloom.

I fell into a lot of playing music over the last few months, and have felt less inclined to write.  I have several ongoing projects that have demanded a lot of disciplined practice, and there isn't much to say except that I'm working hard and doing my best.  I actually have more to say than that, but I want to save it until I finally finish one of these projects.

But it's Spring on the prairie, and that catches your attention.  Above and below are images showing the third year of growth in this part of the property.  Clumps of delphinium, prairie star, and buttercups that I moved in the last couple of years from gravelly drainage ditches by the side of the gravel roads around here (where they would be sprayed if I didn't move them) have survived.  I have not found other sources for these plants, although I have been successful with delphinium seed that I've collected around here.  I wish I could get a ton of buttercup seed though.  What is especially pleasing for me to see in the image below is all the little annual plants that are vigorously filling in here, along with these grass widows spreading everywhere.  These are all descendants from the few clumps I rescued years ago from a spot down the road, where a new house was being built and they dumped soil on a bit of pristine prairie.  Every year, I select a few large clumps here and divide them into 3-4 bits and replant.  Now they're taking mostly care of the project themselves.  In this image, if you look below the furthest-left grass widow flower in the clump in the foreground, you can see a wider-blade leaf of a plant.  I think that's a Yellow bell (fritillaria pudica), a descendant from an earlier population that was entirely eaten up years ago by a plague of voles here (I did a post on this years ago when it happened).  When that kind of stuff comes back, you know you're doing something right...