Saturday, April 4, 2009

Froggy Went a' Courtin'

Here is a very fun song that is especially liked by children. I love envisioning all the little animals coming to wedding! There are many versions of Froggy, and I chose one that did not have the long nonsense rhyme in the verse, since we already have the dulcimer playing along too. Sometimes it's best to keeps things from getting too complicated.
Here is a link to a lovely sound clip where you can get an idea of how this version might sound as it's sung: Froggy...
I found I could sing it pretty well in G, but it was still just a bit low for me, so I tabbed it in the key of A, ionian mode, tuning EAE. (incidentally, those two E's are about as high as you'd want to tune your dulcimer strings if you have a scale length of 28" or more- tuning up to F or high G might well break you a string.)
If you prefer singing it a little lower in G, just tune DGD instead and follow the same tab. It's simply ionian mode tuning, so you could even tune it back to D ionian as well (DAA) if you find you can sing it well in the key of D. Remember, once we get the mode, we can change tuning to go up or down to suit our voice yet still follow the same tab numbers, as long as we stay in the same this case ionian, with the tonic key note being on the third fret of the melody string.

Don't be afraid to play around with the timing a bit, especially as you listen to that clip and get a feel for the song. You may like to add an extra beat or two of additional 'resting' space after each "uh-huh", just like the unaccompanied ballad singer typically does. That actually makes it sound more natural and interesting. It becomes a slight logistical problem to write extra beats into TAB, and the extra beats can vary from verse to verse, so I tabbed it 'straight' for basic learning purposes. Tab is just a basic blueprint for learning a song anyway, and tab shouldn't be followed religiously. So after you get the song basics down, you should make the song your own!

Incidentally, this song is very very old, having been already referred to in 1549 and was published again in the 1600's and 1700's...From Andrew Kuntz's Fiddlers Companion:
FROG AND THE MOUSE. English, Country Dance Tune (2/4 time). G Major. Standard tuning. AABB. Kidson's tune is from Thompson's Pocket Companion for the German Flute (1797), and is the same as that used for the old song "Amo Amas I love a lass" (from the "Agreeable Surprise," 1781). He points out the nursery song "A frog he would a wooing go" is quite ancient and is mentioned in the 1549 work Complaint of Scotland under the title "The frog cam to the myl dur {mill-door}." A ballad "Of a most strange wedding of a frog and mouse" was entered at Stationer's Hall in 1584, according to Chappell. It can be found in Melismata (1611) and in Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719) as a political song. American versions go under the title “Froggie went a-courtin’” while in Ireland it can be found as “Cousin frog went out to ride (fa lee linkin’ laddy oh).” Kidson (Old English Country Dances), 1890; pg. 3.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fun with Feathers

People often ask about the old tradition of using feather quills in playing mountain dulcimers, so I thought I'd do a post about it. I also thought it would be helpful to consolidate into one place some of the useful quill pick information that is currently scattered about in various places online.

Feather quills can be used in several ways, and it's a wonderful old tradition to try out.
You need large heavy feathers, such as flight feathers or tail feathers from a turkey or a goose or eagle.
There are two very different ways of using a feather quill for a pick...

One way is using the long thin flexible end in a 'scrambling eggs' motion, parallel to the strings.
See Kimberly Burnett-Dean demonstrate it here in playing: "Galax style"
Here also is Don Graves demonstrating this same method, and showing how to prepare a quill for this kind of playing: Don Graves preparing a quill. This whisking strumming technique is often associated with the playing style from Galax, Virginia.

The other method is to use the thicker end of the quill and cut the tip at an angle like a quill pen (the thinner you whittle it the more flexible it becomes), and hold it more upright- no scrambling/whipping eggs motion at all, but striking the strings straight across vertically in a very strong way with the stiff part of the quill.
Here: Jean Ritchie demonstrates the technique in playing the ballad Shady Grove, recorded about 50 years ago on the Pete Seeger tv show.

Incidentally, some 50 years later, Jean would play Shady Grove with a very similar strum stroke, but this time using a flexible piece of plastic instead of a feather- in this particular case a plastic hotel key card. Jean has said that she now sometimes uses a large triangular pick cut from the lid of a Cool-Whip container instead of a quill because it it easier to hold due to arthritis. Adventurous experimentation in using various materials at hand to make picks from is a very traditional practice!
Jean recently wrote:

"On the frontier (of my Youth) we didn't have plastic containers yet,nor any other materials mentioned here, so that's why my Dad used goose or turkey wingfeathers, whittled down as explained in my old, THE DULCIMER BOOK (published in 1952 and still going strong). They still work, but I'm often explaining to audiences as to why I'm using a coffee-can-lid pick, "Well, they don't make turkey-wings like they used to."

For myself, I tend to use a strum motion that is similar to Jean Ritchie's strum technique but with a touch of Galax side-whipping motion thrown in, and I use a medium-long narrow very flexible plastic pick, not a stiff pick.
In this article, Jim Baldwin gives some more helpful information about using feather quills in traditional Appalachian dulcimer playing.

An additional use for heavy feather quills is to cut off the heavy end and use it not for strumming or picking, but as a noter. I hear it slides up and down the strings quite nicely.
Turkey and goose quills can also be utilized in making old fashioned quill pens, arrow shafts, and even fashion apparel!

...Don't miss reading the post
"Fun With Feathers- Part 2!"

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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)

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