Friday, May 27, 2011
Happy Friday, & welcome to a brand new Robert Frost’s Banjo series, one that features—not unsurprisingly!—the banjo.
I’ve often said that the banjo in the blog’s title is a bit of a joke, since I’m a better guitarist than a banjo player. But I love the instrument & the music it makes, & I’ve been playing more banjo these days with the Motherland & churchmouse bands; as a result, thinking about the instrument more, or perhaps in new ways. So every other Friday, alternating with the new Platypuss in Boots series, I’ll be posting a favorite banjo song of mine & writing a bit about the song & the performer.
Today’s song, “Little Birdie,” is a standard of old-time banjo music. In fact, there’s even a banjo tuning named after it. Art Rosenbaum, who’s written some wonderful books about old-time banjo, mixing instruction & history, said in his Old-Time Mountain Banjo that Kentucky banjoist Pete Steele told him “Little Birdie” cannot be played in any other tuning, & that no other song can be played in “Little Birdie tuning.” However that may be (& I have seen the song arranged in the better-known “double C” banjo tuning), the “Little Birdie tuning” is an interesting affair. The strings are tuned ECGAD, which gives us is something called a 6/9 chord—a chord I typically associate with jazz songs! The song is in C, so the open strings give the C major chord (C, E & G, or if you will, Do, Mi, Sol), but adds A (or La) & D or (Re.) The open A & D strings are quite important in the song.
Roscoe Holcomb was one of the most renowned old-time banjoists from eastern Kentucky, an area that has been rich in banjo players. Holcomb favored what is called “two-finger picking,” a style of playing that uses only the thumb & the index finger in alternating patterns. Although people nowadays associate clawhammer style, AKA frailing, with old-time banjo playing, in fact there were a number of old styles in which the strings were plucked up as would be done on a guitar rather than struck with a downward motion as in frailing. Two-finger picking was one of the most common of these.
Hope you enjoy “Little Birdie!”