Banjo Recordings by Rob MacKillop
I hope you enjoy listening to these free recordings.
Recital: The Art Of The Banjo 1910 – 1930
On this recording I explore the early Plectrum and Tenor works for the steel-strung banjo.
The Art Of The Banjo
c.1910 – c.1930
Alfred Cammeyer – Ballad No.1; Albumblatt; Blue Eyes [all Plectrum]
Bert Bassett – Lazy Rhythm [Plectrum]
Walter E. Miles – Sparklets [Plectrum]
Budd L. Cross – Flirtation [Plectrum]
Emile Grimshaw – Banjo Blues [Fingerstyle]
Alfred Cammeyer – A Fireside Idyll; An April Blossom [both plectrum]; Cantabile and Valse; The Banjo Polka [both Fingerstyle]
Edmund Caselli – Languid Blues [Fingerstyle]
Joe Morley – Rose Leaves Gavotte [Fingerstyle]
Frédéric Chopin – Nocturne in Eb, arranged by Emile Grimshaw [Plectrum]
Arthur J. Weidt – El Dorado – Tango Fox Trot; Blue Stocking Caprice; Monday Morning Blues; Sparkling Crystals Novelette; Tangled – A Syncopated Mixup; My Lady Jazz; The Dixie Rube [All Tenor]
One need only look at the first three lines of the score for Budd Cross’s Flirtation:
Gracefully; rallentando, a tempo, poco a poco accelerando, ritenuto, a tempo, poco accelerando, rallentando, ritenuto, a tempo, poco a poco accelerando, ritenuto, etc, etc.
These contrasting tempo indications are found alongside almost as many dynamic indications, fermatas and staccato marks. The music for the banjo in the early part of the 20th century was, like the instrument itself, in a state of flux.
Frank B. Converse (1837-1903) promoted a new way of playing the banjo, what he called ‘guitar’ style (and what we might call fingerstyle) as early as 1865, and he was not the first to do so. He was, however, the most talented composer for the banjo in the post-bellum period. His advanced non-dance based works moved far from the minstrel-style roots of his youth, and showed those who would listen, that the banjo was capable of playing the Romantic classical repertoire already popular in Europe for the guitar. But by the dawn of the 20th century, Converse represented the old school…
The new century brought new music and new instruments. The music explored new harmonies, new forms and structures, and new ways of phrasing a melody. The instrument itself also explored new forms and structures, a greater dynamic range, and new colours. New techniques were introduced, especially the use of the pick or plectrum, as the newly developed Plectrum and Tenor banjos sought to be heard in the new raucous ‘jass’ bands.
Most of the music on this recording dates from the period circa 1910 to circa 1930, and as far as I can tell, has mostly never been recorded before. It is a largely forgotten heritage, yet a rich and surprising one. It is my hope that this recording will help this repertoire find a new audience, curious about the banjo’s voice outside the familiar worlds of Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Dixieland.
The technique used on the majority of tracks is with a pick or plectrum. When first introduced, many fingerstyle solos were reset for plectrum technique, either by the composers themselves, or by arrangers, plectrum banjoists in search of a repertoire of solo works. Flirtation, Sparklets and Lazy Rhythm, were all originally conceived for fingerstyle technique, and brilliantly arranged for Plectrum banjo by a young American, Frank Bradbury (Flirtationand Sparklets) and by the English banjo virtuoso, Emile Grimshaw (Lazy Rhythm).
At the same time as the new techniques and instruments were being explored, many players adopted the use of steel strings as opposed to gut. Steel strings had been sold to banjoists for decades, yet it was the use of the plectrum, and the desire for greater volume, that led many to play exclusively with steel. And steel strings have a unique singing quality, one found attractive by the great Anglo-American composer (American by birth, domiciled in England), Alfred Cammeyer (1862-1949).
Cammeyer had an important role in developing the largely steel-strung zither banjo, an instrument which became quite popular in England (cf http://www.zither-banjo.org). His music for zither banjo (itself apparently developed in the 1880s) exploited the intimate quality of the light steel strings, but the instrument’s lack of volume led to it not being regarded an altogether successful concert instrument. My own experience with a fine zither banjo by the great English luthier, Abbott, was not an entirely happy one, I must admit. The thin steel strings were like cheese cutters to touch, and the sound was thin and with little projection. Yet the compositions by Cammeyer are among the finest ever written for the banjo.
When I came to augmenting the early repertoire for Plectrum banjo with new arrangements, Cammeyer’s music seemed the most obvious place to start. I was delighted to learn that much of his work fits the Plectrum banjo beautifully, with hardly a note being left out. And I believe that Cammeyer’s music on the Deering Eagle II banjo is a match made in Heaven. The sparkling treble of the zither banjo is there, but there is also a warm bass register, entirely absent from the zither banjo, but a warmth perfectly suited to Cammeyer’s contemplative and soothing music.
Long before English guitarists, Eric Clapton and Peter Green, explored the blues genre, English banjoists, Emile Grimshaw and Edmund Caselli discovered how well the early jazz-blues style could transfer to the solo banjo. The big interpretive question is whether to perform these pieces in the early swing style, or with a straighter, more ragtime feel. As Emile Grimshaw was very particular that his works should be performed exactly as written, especially in respect to time values, I have taken him at his word; whereas I play Caselli’s blues with a light swing feel. I perform these solos, Banjo Blues and Languid Blues, fingerstyle; likewise two solos by Cammeyer, Cantabile and Valse, and The Banjo Polka, both of which are better suited to a fingerstyle technique.
Joe Morley (1867 – 1937) is the most celebrated of all English banjo player-composers, and rightly so. I am happy to include his Rose Leaves Gavotte in this selection. Emile Grimshaw’s arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb is inspired and beautiful. Both Grimshaw and Morley did their part in elevating the musical art of the banjo.
The tenor banjo first became popular in the 1920s, and has since become associated with both traditional jazz and Irish styles. Arthur J. Weidt (1866-1945) wrote engaging music for both the 5- and 4-string banjos, and his 1920s tenor pieces reveal a variety of influences, from ragtime to classical, popular music and jazz. His works deserve to be studied and treasured by all students of the banjo. El Dorado – Tango Fox Trot, is a respectful nod in the direction of the development of the early tenor banjo through the popularity of the fashionable Tango bands; Tangled – A Syncopated Mixup, has the performer darting about the fretboard, grabbing chords and scale fragments in wonderfully syncopated rhythms; Monday Morning Blues, sounds to this performer to have more in common with ragtime than swing jazz; while Blue Stocking Caprice, and Sparkling Crystals Novelette, are among his finest compositions.
With this recording I have tried to recover a largely neglected banjo repertoire, and show how well it can sound on modern steel-strung banjos, played with either a fingerstyle of plectrum technique. We banjo players are lucky to have such a beautiful musical heritage.
Thanks to all the geniuses at Deering Banjos – there is no such thing as a solo artist: Deering were with me on every note; Nick Cliffe for art work; everyone at Banjo Hangout; Penny Evans; and to the Manhattan Minstrel, the great Eddy Davis for inspiration, and to whom this recording is dedicated.
The Early American Parlor Banjo – Rob MacKillop, gut-strung banjo
This recording is available as a Download ONLY from CD Baby and iTunes, and in CD format from Mel Bay Publications’ book, with tab and standard notation of all the scores. So, if you don’t want the book, head to CD Baby, Amazon MP3 or iTunes and download the mp3 files. Here is the book.
This recording contains works written by James Buckley, Albert Baur and Frank B. Converse, three of the most import early fingerstyle banjo composers. It covers folk music, popular dances such as the mazurka, and Romantic-period pieces which stretch the banjo of the day to its limits. I play the Luke Mercier Early-Fairbanks banjo with a Dobson tone ring, with gut strings tuned to the old American tuning of eAEG#B, for a warm and mellow sound.