Monday, March 30, 2009

Black is the color...

Here is a ballad that likely has a different melody than the melody you are familiar with. Black Is The Color (of my true love's hair) is a very old American ballad- Cecil Sharp notated it in North Carolina in 1915. It was passed along in the same area until ballad singer Evelyn Ramsey was recorded singing it. Current N.C. ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams learned it from Evelyn, though Sheila's version is slightly evolved and is 'her own'...

It should be noted that John Jacob Niles wrote a newer melody for this ballad long ago- a very pretty one, and it's the popular melody that most of us grew up hearing associated with this song. However, his is a modern composed melody and the one I'm tabbing here is much more spare and quite distinct from Niles' prettied version. I personally don't much care for Niles' version of this ballad, but if you like it I'm sure you can locate dulcimer tabs of his version a'plenty elsewhere on the web. This one I put together for you is decidedly less "folky"...but that's why I like it! It has that older lonesome mountain sound to it.

I mostly used Evelyn Ramsey's version to create a dulcimer part, but you can hear an MP3 of Sheila Adams' breathtaking unaccompanied singing recorded here: on the Digital Library of Appalachia website - just click on the button that says "Access this item" and hopefully the MP3 will take a couple of minutes to load and begin playing for you with one of your computer's music listening programs. Sheila is a wonderful ballad singer, story teller, and banjo player, and I've had the privilege of taking several workshops under her in both ballad singing and clawhammer banjo. Evelyn Ramsey's recording of this ballad can be found on the CD that comes with this outstanding book: Sodom Laurel Album - the book includes a marvelous traditional music CD of the Madison County NC region.

I must tell you that it is virtually impossible to translate all the subtle rhythm and phrasing variations used by either Sheila or Evelyn into dulcimer tab. What I'd really suggest is to listen to recordings of the song you want to play from tab and listen again and again, until you are able to 'get' some of the beautiful little variations these ballad singers use when they sing every verse ever so slightly differently- a pause here, a little roll of notes there, an extra beat here, etc. I have just laid out a basic structure of the ballad that is fairly easy to follow. As Sheila tells how her "Grannie" Dellie Norton used to say- First learn the ballad as you hear it, and then go out and make it your own. So I say to you as always, don't be afraid to make traditional tunes and songs your own...put your own personal style into them and play them as you like them! Notice I threw in an extra verse that I found from another old version of this ballad, because I liked it. After all, that's what all these traditional music makers have done over the generations- they have each made the music their own. But also don't be afraid to seek out older recordings and play them that way too, if that's how you like them.

I tabbed this ballad in Aeolian mode (you might think of aeolian tuning as DAC, which is indeed aeolian "D" tuning- but that was way too high for me to sing it, so I re-tuned my strings to DGF, which is "reverse aeolian" G tuning. (See my previous post on the concept of reverse tuning) It's rather like tuning to regular G aeolian GDF, except that it's way easier on the bass and middle strings to go from DAC to DGF, as opposed to going from DAC to GDF. Remember, when you tune your melody string(s) from D or C to F- you must tune them DOWN to F, not up, because anything higher than that high E might break your strings. Don't be afraid to try new tunings, especially if it enables you to be able to sing along with your playing!
As with all these dulcimer tabs, if you tune your dulcimer higher or lower but remain in the same mode, you can still play it the very same way as in the tab- same fret numbers and all. Thus, you could tune your dulcimer here to DAC ('regular' D aeolian) and play it too, with or without singing along.

P.S. Just for fun- here is a link to a clip of a lady from Arkansas singing this ballad in 1958 which absolutely makes me want to HURL! (gee, I hope her relatives are not reading this)


  1. Just FYI, the link to that lady's singing is no longer valid.

  2. Anonymous,
    I fixed it. thanks for letting me know. Enjoy! ;D

  3. Sheila Adams' version is really shivery. I poke around at DLA a lot, but I don't think I've heard it.

    And wow, that last version is hideous! It sounds a lot like Joan Baez's version in several ways. I mean, the tune, emphasis points and swoopy rubato.

    I've been looking through your tab collection today. You're really industrious!