Golden Willow Tree
1. The Last Of June was composed on the last day of June 2003. The banjo is in a slightly unusual tuning. While the melody is in the key of D, the four long strings are in the common "open G" tuning. But the fifth string is tuned down a half step to yield: f#DGBD, or a GM7 chord. To anyone other than another clawhammer banjo player these are fairly abstruse particulars, but there you have it. I'm playing my Bart Reiter custom banjo on this album, and we're using three microphones, but no pickups.
2. Papa Caught A Catfish. I ate my share of catfish when I was a youngster in Southern Illinois. I remember gasping at giant catfish heads on display at the city market in St. Louis. They were pretty scary-looking things - big ugly Mississippi channel cats that had faces the size of pumpkins with fat, warty lips and whiskers as big around as a man's finger. The fishes I caught as a boy were considerably smaller and snagged with white bread for bait. While it was never my routine, nailing a catfish to a tree is a common practice in those parts where the slippery wild fish is skinned on the spot and fried later. I mean no sacrilege with my little song, but I just can't ignore the image of the icthys, the nails, the tree and the partaking of the flesh. In this business of animal life, everybody gets a taste - or gets tasted - sooner or later.
3. Sally Goodin In The Alley With Sugar In The Gourd. Three old-time banjo tunes here that seem to connect. Sally In The Alley is a play-party tune called Shortnin' Bread by some. Sally Goodin - or Goodwin - is a well-known number often tortured to wild excess by bluegrass guitarists and contest fiddlers. I like it as a simple three-part tune, myself. Sugar In The Gourd is a fine old piece with just a hint of naughtiness in the lyric. But storing one's sugar in a gourd is, of course, the old-time way. The tuning here is an open C - gCGCE.
4. Spoon River And You. This song holds no personal remembrance for me - just a dream of a time and place that could have been for someone, once. As a town, Spoon River may be a fiction, but the Spoon is a very real river meandering through Fulton County, Illinois. It winds like a penny-candy ribbon through the flattest part of the prairie. In fact, it is that very flatness that makes the swerves and swoops of the Spoon seem so spectacular - as if someone came along with a giant ice-cream scoop and carved out the layer cake underneath the bean field just for show.
5. Speed The Plow is a very old fiddle tune from across the pond. In Missouri it is sometimes called the Devil's Hornpipe. I took it from the fiddle and put it in the guitar where I think it makes a right jolly romp. By the way, I used my small Martin "double 0" guitar here and on the rest of the guitar tracks on this album. We mixed a bit of pickup with two nice microphones, in case you wondered.
6. Ruben. This song that echoes the coming of the train is as old as the rails themselves. I've known various versions all my life - most of them either celebrating the speed of a locomotive or the romance of the lonesome whistle. But I really perked up my ears when I first heard Wade Mainer sing it about thirty years ago. His version carries the line, "Get me a gun, gonna shoot old Ruben down - start me a graveyard of my own." I thought, "What could this Ruben have done that could be so bad?" In these past years I have witnessed the rise of a new ruling class - wealthy global corporations with ostensible democracies in their back pockets. Waving their flags and spouting the mantra of free-trade, a small cadre of CEOs gleefully degrade the standards of the working class in developed nations, exploit slave labor in the poorest corners of the world, then boast of their bulging bottom lines over cigars and fine brandy. I have come to a new understanding of Ruben's train. The first stanza here is traditional, the rest I wrote in the summer of 2003. Double C tuning - gCGCD.
7. The Golden Willow Tree is a ballad with many names - often called The Golden Vanity. Sometimes shelved as a "Child Ballad," it has been around since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose exploits the earliest versions expound. Aaron Copland once turned it into a fancy high-art piece, but in earthier editions it is still a favorite with traditional balladeers. I made my own version from several I have heard, notably those from Arkansas. But I have stitched in a few verses of my own and let my own language tell the story. Another instance of nothing new under the sun, the duplicitous captain and his venal crew are the very picture of recent Wall Street scoundrels.
8. Banjo ala Turk. Perhaps a lament for the "Turkish Sugaree" sunk in the last song? I am certainly not the first to use the so-called "Gypsy Minor" scale to conjure a bit of foreign mystery. The banjo's percussive pops, clicks and clacks seem to fit with the moody scale notes of what is properly called the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale. Nothing authentically Turkish - or Gypsy - about it. I'm just having a bit of fun with a blend of cultures. The tonic chord in this mode is a dominant seventh, and that is how the banjo is tuned - fDGBD. I should add that all the odd sounds coming from the banjo are all made in real time by my own hand - no electronic wizardry here, just the attack of fingers on the instrument.
9. The Bird's Alphabet. Sung to the tune of the old "Lumberjack's Alphabet" found in northern Michigan, I put my wits to cataloging an alphabet of birds. Thank heavens for the Xantus' Murrelet!
10. Noe's Dove. I wrote this lyric in the sacred harp style, with strict meter and rhyme. It could be sung to any "common meter" hymn tune - I chose New Britain, though I set it in 4/4 time and play it on the non-sacred banjo. The five strings are tuned to a major pentatonic scale, a particularly resonant tuning I devised for this song - I have never heard anyone else use it. A capo is placed at the 5th fret with the 5th string kept open, yielding gBbCEbF for the key of Eb.
11. Ride Away Easy. Using an old songwriter's device, I started by writing a new melody to the old 1800's cowboy song, I Ride An Old Paint. Then to my new melody, I wrote a new set of lyrics. But I kept returning to the original song for the third verse. I couldn't say it better myself.
12. Crossing The Ohio is an elegy for Stephen Foster. The man was arguably the first pop songwriter in America, and his story is as sad as any's. He started as a middle class son of Pittsburgh and died a drunkard in New York City while the Civil War raged. Once famous, he ended a ruined pauper, singing for drinks and tips in seedy grocery stores. He wrote a lot of lyrics perhaps best forgotten, but some marvelous melodies too good to let go. I have woven a few of his themes here on guitar. The tuning for this and for the next song is a sort of banjo tuning - CGCGCD with a capo to raise the key.
13. Study War No More. I don't know when or where we were handed the popular version of Down By The Riverside with its heavy-handed syncopation and brass band razzamatazz. Carl Sandburg writes in his American Songbag of this song as an Alabama work-spiritual sung at a steady gait. He would have heard it in the very early days of the 20th century. My version is closer to his remembrance than the usual arrangement, and I've added just a dash of preaching here too. If there is a more radical concept ever promoted in the history of mankind I have never heard it - "Love Your Enemy." They'll still nail you to a tree like a piteous catfish if you say it out loud - and actually mean it!
JM -- March 2004
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(c) 2004 Joel Mabus