Friday, August 12, 2011

“Year of Jubilo”

A happy Banjo Friday to you, friends!  I have a fun tune for you, so kick back & enjoy some old-time music.

On previous banjo Fridays I’ve written about players like Roscoe Holcomb & Bascom Lamar Lunsford who played “two-finger style.”  This manner of playing was pretty common in the real “old-time” days, both among African American & European American musicians—I’ve read that this was called the “complementing” style in the African American community, especially the two-finger style in which the thumb plays all or the majority of the melody notes (as in Roscoe Holcomb’s playing.)  This was to contrast it with the frailing style.

These days, thumb-lead two-finger picking is pretty uncommon.  Frailing or clawhammer is pretty much the default playing style among banjoists who play “old-time,” & I’ve featured a few videos that have given you an idea not only what this style sounds like, but also what frailing right-hand mechanics look like.  I thought I’d like to do the same for two-finger playing.

As I suspected, my YouTube options for illustrating two-finger thumb lead playing were much more limited, but I did run across a player by the name of Richard Hood who I like quite well.  In addition to playing solo banjo in the two-finger style, Mr Hood also plays in a band called The Bristol Brothers, & is an accomplished guitarist as well, especially as a fingerstyle player.

Of course the trick was to find a video in which you could see Mr. Hood’s right hand clearly so you can see the general playing motion; & after watching several of his videos, I decided his version of “Year of Jubilo” (AKA “Lincoln’s Gunboats,” AKA “Kingdom Coming”) was the best all-around for this purpose, despite a slight stumble at the end of the song.  Hood’s playing throughout tho is really excellent.

“The Year of Jubilo” was originally written in the 1860s by one Henry C. Work.  Tho the song originally had lyrics, these are rife with dialect, & to put it mildly, are dated.  The song’s intention, however, celebrates the idea of the slaves’ emancipation.  The tune itself has passed very much into the old-time repertoire, however, & is usually played as an up-tempo fiddle tune in the key of D.  I’ve seen banjo tab for “The Year of Jubilo” in both the double C & the open C tunings—of course these are either capoed or tuned up a whole tone so that the banjo is playing in D. 

You’ll notice that the index finger plays more of a drone part in this style, which is exactly the reverse of most banjo playing styles, in which the thumb acts as a drone on the fifth string.  In thumb-lead two-finger style, the index finger generally drones on the first string—remember, “two-finger” in banjo & guitar terms means just index finger & thumb.  It’s a beautiful manner of playing, & as Hood proves here, is not only useful for accompanying singing, but in the hands of an accomplished player can provide plenty of drive on an instrumental fiddle tune.  Those who are interested in such things can find a number of two-finger banjo tabs, mostly in the thumb lead style on the excellent “Thumb-Lead Banjer” blog here.

In the meantime, please enjoy “Year of Jubilo.”


  1. Very interesting; it's like a tumbling waterfall of notes. Thanks!

  2. Hi Roy: Thanks for stopping by! Yes, that's a good description--glad you liked it.

  3. This is a delight! The unusual picking reversal gives the piece a quirky character all of its own.

  4. Hi Dick: Yes, that's well said about the reverse picking pattern--glad you liked it!


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