I’ve been away from ensemble music for a few months now, and dabbling in various musical endeavors - some electric guitar with my friend Pat Conte and old friends from many years ago, some fiddle, some twelve-string… but what I’m hearing most insistently for the last week or so is the call of the banjer…
It started innocently enough with a song called Sea-Line Woman… variously spelled “Sea Lion Woman,” “C-Line Woman” - maybe there are other permutations you’ve noted. It’s a field recording made of the Shipp Sisters from about 1939 by Alan Lomax. I’ve played Sea-Line Woman for a long time and while it was always satisfying playing it as an accompanist, I never could just “take off” on the banjo the way I wanted to, just because it was always damn near impossible to communicate when or where to come back in. The solution to that problem was to just sing it myself.
No, I don’t really have the voice for it, but I love the tune, even if I haven’t the slightest idea what the song means or if it means anything at all. What I found was that singing it myself TOTALLY connected me to the song as a whole and freed me up to take the banjo wherever I wanted - even if I didn’t really know where I was going. I decided to turn the video recorder on and captured what I consider to be a “moment” - I don’t think I could ever quite do it in this way ever again… or as well… maybe I could do it better. Anyway, it was revealing to me on some level that what came out was so undeniably me:
I guess you could say that, as a player and interpreter of this music, I tend to try and recreate a specific performance from the inside, so to speak. That approach demands a certain fidelity to the original source. What I found here was that “fidelity to the original source” was impossible, basically. The source was an a capella vocal duet - instrumentally, there was no particular target to hit. I was on my own.
That was an experience I wanted to build on…
Just by chance, Herman E. Johnson has been playing often in the car. If you’re not familiar with it, the song “She Are Looking For Me” is truly a masterpiece of touch, timing and tone. A small miracle in many ways. Putting something like that - where the accompaniment BARELY exists and consists of so much space - on the banjo can be quite a challenge. I think I arrived, quite by accident, at an approach that was rhythmically consistent enough to be convincing played using a downstroke, but flexible enough to shift the timing of the melodic phrases to suit my singing and need to breathe (!). The net result is quite different from the original recording, but still bears a kinship. While not played perfectly (none of these are - very little rehearsal at all, and the ideas are all still very “germinal”), I’m actually rather proud of it:
After recording this, I felt, somehow, that there was one more in me. What it could be was still a mystery… my friend Mr. O’muck suggested Son House’s “My Black Mama,” which seemed like a possibility. In the end though, listening to an old Yazoo LP suggested the final piece - Crying Sam Collins’ unissued “Lonesome Road Blues.” It’s long been one of my favorite melodies, but one of the hings I love about the original recording is the fact that, in the key of C, Collins starts the melody by harmonizing it with an E chord underneath. An odd choice, for sure, but one that sticks with you as sounding undeniably “right” on repeated listening… as a music buddy of mine once described such examples as being “straight through WRONG into RIGHT.” Thank heavens for musical courage. Anyway, left to my own, I wanted to capture something of that without being dictated to by the original recording itself… again, certainly not perfect… and it could certainly stand to be lived in for a while, but I’m strangely proud of the result… I think in some ways, it’s the first time I actually heard my “self.”
I hope you enjoy my Country Blues Banjo triptych. Play on.