"Banjos at the Border"

by Steven Harvey

Supplementary Materials for the Banjo Newsletter Column 2003-2006

This page is an archive of supplements to the column called "Banjos at the Border" that I write for Banjo Newletter. It covers the years 2003-2006. In addition to color photos, it includes background information, lyrics, and my versions of some of the tunes discussed in the articles. Just click on a name below or scroll through the page. The music files are, inevitably, big, so I have included short versions for those who find the download time is too long.

Steven Harvey

Diane Jones

Lorraine Hammond

Art Rosenbaum

David Brose

"Two Brides"

"Little Liza Jane"

J. P. Fraley

Sandy River Belle Tuning

Back Porch Banjo


Magic Box

Chip Arnold

Merlefest and Blood Relations

Steven Harvey: "Banjos at the Border" BNL August 2003

Here is a picture of Brasstown Bald, the tallest peak in Georgia, on a cold frosty morning. I pass this scene each day as I head off for work and have grown accustomed to the view, but on mornings like this when it is frosted over I find myself surprised all over again by its beauty. I may work in the everyday world, but the mountains remind me that I live at the border of a land that is ancient and grand.

For my first column of "Banjos at the Border" I tabbed the medley of "Cold Frosty Morning" and "Cold Frosty Evening." "Cold Frosty Morning" is a traditional tune that I learned from Lorraine Hammond, but--in the way of folk tunes-- it created an echo of itself which I named "Cold Frosty Evening." Below are the two tunes together as I play them.

Frosty Morning and Evening

Frosty Morning and Evening (shorter version)

Diane Jones: "The Art of Listening and the Essence of Mountain Music"

BNL October 2003

In addition to being a colorful subject for an interview, Diane is wonderfully photogenic as well. I love this image of her wearing her tie-died blouse and playing her Leonard Glenn banjo with the mountains of Brasstown, North Carolina over her shoulder. Her version of the West Virginia modal tune "Yew Piney Mountain" from her CD "Goin' Back" with the Reed Island Rounders is reproduced below. You can hear my version by going to "Banjo Tunes at the Border" from the homepage.

Yew Piney Mountain

Yew Piney Mountain (shorter version)

Lorraine Hammond: "Young But Daily Growing" BNL December 2003

Lorraine has been a powerful voice in the traditional music scene for many years. She is best known, I suppose, for her innovative work with the mountain dulcimer and the harp. What is less known, though, it that she is a marvelous banjo player as well. In my interview with Lorraine, I focused on the song "Young But Daily Growing" that she learned from Oscar Degreenia, but there was no room in the magazine for the lyrics to the ballad. Here they are:

Young But Daily Growing

Father dearest father you’ve done me much wrong.
You’ve married me to a man much too young,
For I am twice twelve and he’s barely thirteen.
He’s young but he’s daily a-growing.

Daughter, dearest daughter, I’ve done you no wrong.
I’ve married you with a rich lord’s son.
A rich lord’s son, it’s a bride you ought to be.
He’s young but he’s daily a-growing.

Well father, dearest father, if you think it best,
We’ll send him to school for a year or two years.
I’ll tie a blue ribbon all around his hat
To tell all the girls that he’s married.

She made him a shirt of a linen so fine
And stitched it all over with her own hand
And every stitch that she’s put in says
He’s young but he’s so long a-growing.

As she was a-walking by her father’s castle wall
She’s seen those schoolboys tossing at the ball
And her own beanie boy, he’s the fairest of them all,
He’s young but he’s daily a-growing.

At the age of thirteen he was a married man,
At the age of fourteen his first son was born,
At the age of fifteen his grave was growing green
And that put an end to his growing.

Art Rosenbaum: "We Taught Each Other" BNL February 2004

I love this picture of Art Rosenbaum in the den at his house in Athens, Georgia. He is playing the Leonard Glenn banjo he used for "How Come That Blood on Your Shirtsleeve" on Georgia Banjo Blues, his latest CD. Behind him are a few of the banjos in his personal collection and, at the far right of the photo, is a painting by Howard Finster, the other great Georgia painter and banjo player that Art wrote about in his book, Folk Vision and Voices.

We were unable to get all of the lyrics of "How Come That Blood" in the article about Art, so here they are in full below. I've included a recording of Art's version of the tune as well. You can purchase Art's CD from Global Village Music, 245 West 29th Street New York, NY 10001. Call 212 695-6024 or go to the Global Village website.

How Come that Blood

How Come that Blood (shorter version)

How Come That Blood on Your Shirt Sleeve?

How come that blood on your shirt sleeve?
Oh dear love tell me.
It is the blood of my old gray mare
That plowed the field for me, me, me.
That plowed the field for me.
It looks too pale for the old gray mare
That plowed the field for thee, thee, thee,
That plowed the field for thee.

How come that blood on your shirt sleeve?
Oh dear love tell me.
It is the blood of my old gray hound
That chased the fox for me, me, me,
That chased the fox for me.
It looks too pale for the old gray hound
That chased the fox for thee, thee, thee,
That chased the fox for thee.

How come that blood on your shirt sleeve?
Oh dear love tell me.
It is the blood of my brother-in-law
Who went away with me, me, me,
Who went away with me.

And it’s what did you fall out about?
Oh dear love tell me.
He cut down yonder bit of a bush
That once might’ve made a tree, tree, tree,
Once might’ve made a tree.

And it’s where will you go now my love?
Oh dear love tell me.
I’ll set my foot in yonder ship
And sail across the sea, sea, sea,
Sail across the sea.

And it’s when will you come back my love?
Oh dear love tell me.
When sun sets yonder in a sycamore tree
And that will never be, be, be,
And that will never be.

David Brose: "The Big Scioty" BNL April 2004

I blame all of this on David, really. Some time maybe fifteen years ago I saw him play banjo and said to myself, "I want to do that!" Ever since, I have been hooked. Here he is in his study at the John C. Campbell Folk School with the lovely vega tu-ba-phone that he plays. He is the folklorist at the Folk School and through the concert series and his own playing and teaching there does a great deal to promote the banjo. Through his field recordings, he has also helped preserve the work of old timers such as Ward Jarvis who taught him this version of "The Big Scioty." If you would like to order his CD "Temporality" you can reach him at david@folkschool.org.

The Big Scioty

The Big Scioty (shorter version)

"Two Brides": A Hungarian Folk Song BNL June 2004

This little tune is a combination of two Hungarian folk songs into a medley I call "Two Brides." It comes from Transylvania, but a quick comparison of this photo of the area and the photo of my homeplace in the Appalachian mountains reveals that the places look much alike. Perhaps that is why the tune sounds so right for the clawhammer banjo.

Two Brides

Two Brides (shorter version)

"Little Liza Jane": Gutsy Banjo BNL October 2004

I restrung my tubaphone with nylon strings and recorded this version of "Little Liza Jane," loosely adapted from the fiddle playing of J. P. Fraley. The first banjo that I ever saw strung with nylon strings was the Leonard Glenn fretless that Diane Jones played. Here is a closeup of the head of her banjo.

Little Liza Jane

Little Liza Jane (shorter version)

"Gatherin' around J. P. Fraley: BNL December 2004

J. P. Fraley plays the sweetest fiddle I know. I took this shot on his front porch in the summer of 2003. During our conversation he talked about his boyhood in eastern Kentucky, the time he used the fiddle as an excuse to sneak away from work and go swimming, the contest when his fiddle exploded, the day he met his wife Annadeene, and his career as a fiddler. It was a delightful morning brought to a sweet close when J. P. agreed to play "Margaret's Waltz" for me. Here is my rendition of that tune, as well as another J. P. favorite, "Maysville" played on an Arthur Smith banjo strung with nylon strings.

Margaret's Waltz


"Sandy River Belle Tuning"

BNL February 2005

The Sandy River Belle tuning (gDGDE)—or “Old G” as it is sometimes called—fits a family of old-time melodies such as “Sandy River,” “Rambling Hobo,” “Mulberry Gap,” and, of course, “Sandy River Belle.” All of these tunes ride an obsessive melody line over a few notes, and at times sound like finger exercises, but finger exercises that are, like the cello concertos of Bach, mesmerizingly beautiful. I have been able to apply the Sandy River Belle tuning successfully to songs outside of the traditional Old-G family. Few mixolydian melodies are in this family of tunes, probably because the “f’ note of the Mixolydian scale is discordant against the “e” in the G6 chord, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying to make them work. “Old Joe Clark” takes on a beautiful character in Old G. When I play it I realize anew the power of tunings to shape our responses to a tune. The versions below are played on the Arthur Smith banjo with nylon strings pictured here.

Sandy River Belle

Old Joe Clark

Back Porch Banjo: BNL June 2005

You don’t need a back porch (but it helps): All you need to do is get away—and out of earshot of those who might have an opinion or be easily offended. I do some of my best playing at a gazebo in a little park near where I work. I pack a lunch and in the semi-privacy of the gazebo’s enclosure play away knowing that the folks picnicking or jumping off of swings generally enjoy the sound and will not notice if I hit a sour note or two. I also like a fireplace in winter and a little spot I know by the creek. But nothing beats a back porch. There, just beyond the privacy of my home, I can make all the racket I want, with a loyal canine fan base draped in positions of repose at my feet.

I spent a good deal of my time this winter clawing out simple, solo arrangements of old mountain songs rarely heard these days on the banjo, searching out unusual tunings that brought out the most haunting qualities of the melody. Two of the songs, “Pretty Saro” and “Bachelor’s Hall” come from a collection of tunes I first learned from recordings by Jean Ritchie. They are in ¾ time and have a sad, lonesome sound perfectly suited to the solo banjo. As I worked on them, I felt a kinship with banjo players who went before me creating banjo tunes out of the music around them. Now that summer is here, I can play them on the porch to my heart’s content, though I doubt if anyone at a jam would want to join me.

Pretty Saro

Bachelor's Hall

The Banjo Lute BNL August 2005

I think we need a repertoire that draws on the unique qualities of the banjo-lute. Of course, it is still possible to play modal tunes and fiddle tunes from the mountain repertoire, but I have found that the banjo-lute is particularly good at creating moving versions of waltzes, parlor tunes, Renaissance songs, and love ballads—the kind of songs rarely heard on the banjo. In an attempt to get started on this repertoire, I have recorded two arrangements below. “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” published by Thomas Moore in 1807, was the tune that set in motion the parlor-ballad movement in the nineteenth century. “Un Canadien Errant” is a French-Canadian folk song. Of course, these arrangements sound fine on any banjo, but when they are played on a banjo-lute the beauties of the instrument become apparent.

Un Canadien Errant

Endearing Young Charms

The Magic Box BNL November 2005

“Coleman’s March” is one of those fiddle tunes, like “MacPherson’s Farewell” and “Calloway,” that comes with a condemned fiddler story. In this case, a shoe maker, named Joe Coleman, was convicted on circumstantial evidence of stabbing his wife in Adair County, Kentucky. According the tale, he composed the tune while being hauled in an ox cart to his hanging. Many have noticed that the tune is “Bonny Blue Flag” played in common time. The image is from one of Chuck Lee's handcrafted banjos. You can visit his wonderful web site at www.LeeBanjos.com.

Coleman's March

Chip Arnold BNL February 2006

Most musicians when they play in jams look at each other. They may glance at their fingerboard—especially during a tough part—but they draw on the body language of people in the group for cues about tempo and dynamics. Not Chip Arnold. He cocks an ear to the other players, because it is the ear that is his guide as he works through the thicket of a song, but he looks off wistfully in an abstract and thoughtful way, as if he were remembering a poem or working out a math problem. All the while, of course, he wears the smile of someone completely at home, at ease with himself and the music. For Chip, the happy song rests at the balance point between intricacy and fun—and he smiles pretty hard to keep it there. Here is a version of "Midnight on the Water" by Chip. His wife Tish accompanies him on the guitar.

Midnight on the Water

Merlefest and Blood Relations BNL August 2006

The blues guitar and banjo may have gone separate ways, but the family resemblance is uncanny. What I saw as I crossed the border to watch blues guitarists at Merlefest this spring was myself with a banjo in my hand. So, in honor of my blues bother, who is pictured here and goes by the blues handle Sleepy Rallo when he doesn't go by his real name, Ron, I have tabbed out a clawhammer version of “I Am a Pilgrim” which Ron and I saw Doc Watson play at the festival. There is no way, of course, to produce the sound of Piedmont blues guitar on the five-string. For starters, the banjo cannot create those alternating base notes upon which these blues artists build the melody. But we can play the melody against a syncopated version of the bum-ditty backdrop reminiscent of that blue backbeat, and, in the spirit of family resemblances, find just enough of the blues there to feel at home.

I Am a Pilgrim