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Pepper's Ghost
& other banjo visitations

Augmented liner notes, as published only on this website
by Joel Mabus

additional comments on the album, recording process,
& the songs & tunes, plus banjo tips and tunings

Complete notes on
Pepper’s Ghost & other banjo visitations:

[All the notes printed on the 6 panel folder are included here. But, wait, there’s more! Space is precious real estate on a CD folder. So here, following the printed liner notes, are some extra things you might want to know about this project – or at least some things I’d like to add: general elucidations, a little more background on each piece of music, how the banjo is tuned for each track and some other tidbits.]

This is a VERY long page. Here are some handy navigations tools:

The album notes as printed in the CD folder
The additional album notes published here 
Track listings, with original notes, further notes, and banjo notes 
Notes on the recording process and the banjo setup 
Recording Credits

The Album Notes as printed:  

Let’s do the numbers: I started on the five-string banjo when I was in fifth grade. It’s been my haunt now for 50 years. (Maybe that makes me the ghost – or poltergeist – in the machine?) In 35 years of recording, and over 20 albums, this is my third project wholly devoted to banjo. So here with 13 banjo numbers – “a devil’s dozen” – is my latest visitation. Sometimes, during an especially “spirited” jam session, playing some snaky old fiddle tune over and over for the umpteenth time, I get the uncanny feeling that long-dead musicians who once rendered the tune are catching a ride on my fingers. Now, I don’t believe in ghosts – especially not the Banquo or Jacob Marley kind. But sometimes the departed do insist on visiting. Often the mere fragrance of pipe tobacco or fresh-baked pie can conjure an old uncle or grandmother. Rational people might chalk that up to “sense memory” or vivid imagination. Philosophers would toss in Zeitgeist or Weltanschauung, or some other big German word. I say tap out the ashes, slice up the pie and play another tune. And if somebody on the other side wants to listen in, by Jinx, let ‘em listen!

 -- Joel Mabus

Further album notes:

Pepper’s Ghost and how it got that way…

You might ask, “What’s up with all the ghosts, Joel?”  To reiterate, I don’t believe in ghosts. That is to say, I am not one of those who go to séances and call up late night radio hosts to talk about the “shadow people.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So what was my inspiration?

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in words.  As a songwriter, I choose words carefully.  I try look beyond the everyday meaning & connotation to find where each word comes from – to the trail each has traveled.  The subtext that rides just below the surface of the everyday word comes from the history of the word itself.

And so I know, as I hope you do, that “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, and is of a family of words associated with wind and breath. “Inspiration” can mean breathing in, or being filled with a spirit – or life force.  “Ghost” seems to come to us from the Nordic lands via Germanic languages – rage being an early meaning.  It soon attached itself to Odin, or Woden, and his “wild hunt” of spectral riders, a tale told for thousands of years before “Ghost Riders in the Sky” played on country radio.

And as a songwriter, I believe in image and metaphor. Surest way to get your point across is to paint a picture with words. Surest way to express your belief is to construct a parable – just ask the founder of your nearest major religion.  So I don’t hesitate to conjure ghosts to tell a worthy tale.  Or to invoke a sprite to spin a good yarn. 

So what’s up with ghosts and banjo?  As you should know by now, banjo has been part of my musical life for 50 years. A big part. My most recent all-banjo project was The Banjo Monologues in 2007.  That combined stories with banjo playing, telling tales of family, friends, and pride in the instrument – with lots of great old tunes and songs along the way.

Six years later, I hear the cosmic clock ticking away and think it is time I should be recording more banjo tunes. Having set aside the idea of “Joel’s big ol’ bucket of banjo tunes” as the theme for my next project, I set out to survey what I might best offer.

You can read below in the track notes how the opening tune got its name:  a cruise to the Isle of Serendip that introduced me to Pepper’s Ghost.  Once there, it was easy to consider that new tune as a title track – and lynchpin – for the project.  Then came the idea of adding “& other banjo ___ ” – a blank for which there was a long list of words vying to fill: spirits, sprites, specters, genii, revenants – you get the idea.  I was well into choosing tunes before “visitations” cemented in place.

Choosing tunes?  Well, it’s a long process to decide an album’s set list.  I am still “old school” in making an album that flows from one track to the next – not just a collection of “singles.” Given the theme of “spirits and visitations,” I began vetting songs, and came to the four here. Two of those – Panhandle Prairie & Two Little Sisters – are outright ghost stories. “Golden Bells” has the obvious link to the hereafter.  And there is “Leather Wing Bat” which deals with the very real shadow creatures of the night.

Then the tunes: Two of the instrumentals have spirits floating about them – “Minnetonka” from the Sioux tale of the lovers’ ghosts, and Billy in the Low Ground with a “grave” interpretation of its title.  In a bigger sense, all the instrumentals here – whether traditional or composed – are links to generations of un-named musicians who came before.  Whenever we play an old tune we resurrect the spirit, if not always the outright memory, of the composers and countless anonymous performers who crafted, arranged and polished the music before passing it along to the next. 

Here is a little mind game I like to play.  Let’s say you are listening to a portable radio with head phones. It is tuned to a classical music station, and they are playing a recording of Glenn Gould performing Bach.

 I ask you, “What are you listening to?” 

The answers could be many:  “The Radio.”  “NPR.” “Music.”  “My new Sony ear buds.” My favorite response is Spock-like: “I am listening to my battery disperse its stored electrons into small electromagnetic devices – actuated by the frequency modulation of radio waves generated by great power at some distance, analog to a sound recording made previously using similar principles of electromagnetism – now vibrating the air near my ear drums sympathetically.”

Or you could say, “I am listening to the soul of a shy dead man, who played beautiful music into tape recorders.”  Or you could say, “I am listening to the mind of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Maybe I do believe in ghosts after all?

So here in my new album, you listen to a stream of digits which re-create me singing and making music for a few days of August, 2013 – one particular week, playing one particular banjo.  You listen to songs and tunes I have learned – or made up – from a half-century of dedication to my craft.  You listen to stories repeated over thousands of years using a language evolved from a million years of primal utterings. You listen to a musical instrument – half drum, half lute – invented in Africa, refined in the mills of 19th century America , built in this century by practiced hands.  You listen to melodies crafted of gossamer from strains as old as the human tongue.

For one guy with a banjo, there’s a lot going on here.

  [back to top of this page]  

The Tracks:

[For each track, the first paragraph contains the “official” liner notes, as printed on the CD folder. After comes “further notes” only published here, along with “banjo notes” that explain the tuning used and other tips for the banjo player.]

1.  Pepper’s Ghost  (2:32) is a new tune named for an old-time stage illusion still used today. With a hidden room and an angled pane of glass, things appear or disappear as lighting is manipulated.  “Professor” John Pepper of London first used the trick in 1862, to create a ghost in a Dickens Christmas play.  It seemed a good title for this reflective tune. 
Music by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
I had just finished writing this tune when I stumbled on the term, “Pepper’s Ghost.”   It is an old theatrical special effect that requires no electronics or photographic projections. It is hard to describe using only words, so I won’t try here –  you can do a quick internet search, and find illustrations of Pepper’s Ghost with lengthy explanations.  Let’s just say it uses a pane of glass as both a transparent and a reflective surface – one or the other, or both at the same time, depending on where a light shines.  As a theatrical device, an actor in a hidden room can have his image reflected on the glass to appear suddenly on the set and walk through furniture and converse with other actors in real time – in 3 dimensions. Pretty cool stuff for 1862. 

The ghost effect still scares folks in the 21st century at Disneyland and other theme parks with haunted houses.  It has been used by magicians and spiritualists, as you might expect.  (The same optics principal is used for new “heads-up” computer displays and in Teleprompters.) 

My two-part banjo tune has a phrase – a motif, if you will – in the first part that sort of pokes its head into part 2 where you wouldn’t expect it.  When I learned of Pepper’s Ghost I knew I had a title for my tune. And that led to the idea for the album…

Banjo notes: The tuning is gCGCD, usually called “double C” tuning.  But it is in the key of D Dorian, a variety of D minor.  It is a common misunderstanding to assume that a particular banjo tuning is “good” for only one key.  In this case the C tuning is good for D minor.

2. Panhandle Prairie  (5:08) paints a spectral encounter in the midst of the great dust bowl.  I borrowed some traditional elements here, but my unfortunate rake is a little more ghastly than most.  
Music & lyrics by Joel Mabus ©2013, Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
Folklorists like to categorize songs according to theme. They would toss Panhandle Prairie in the box usually labeled “The Unfortunate Rake” which is the name of an early broadside ballad.  Other songs in the catalog would include: St. James Infirmary (or Hospital), The Dying Crapshooter’s Last Request, Streets of Laredo, The Dying Cowboy, and any number of other songs or lyric poems about a rake, roué, or prostitute at death’s door expressing last wishes and general regrets.  I started with that idea, but took it to the other side of death’s door.  And I set it in a particular time and place – the Texas/Oklahoma panhandle during the 1930’s dust bowl.  I tap a few particular images and phrases you might find in those other songs – white linen, gray haired mother, the nailing of the coffin etc.  But I claim it as a new song, and rightly so, I think. 

Banjo notes: I tune the banjo in an open B minor chord: f#BF#BD and the song is in B Dorian – mostly.  The vocal melody is bluesy, slipping from minor to major chords at points.  “Mountain minor” is a useful catch-all term for such a scale that falls between the cracks in music theory.

3.  Dogs on the Davenport (2:02) is a rambunctious thing I made up on the banjo – a lot like a dozen similar “mountain minor” tunes.  But still there’s a difference: in mine you hear the dogs bark. 
by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:
When you know a lot of old tunes – and I mean A LOT OF TUNES – you can’t help but see the many similarities from one to another.  I can’t tell you how many times a fiddler will tell a guitar player something like, “This is just like Arkansas Traveller, except it’s in the key of A, and the B part goes modal, and it has a third part in the key of D that’s a lot like Sally Goodin.”  And the guitar player gives a knowing nod.

Well, this one is a little like a lot of tunes, including Clinch Mountain Backstep, except there is no backstep and the melody is different.  Or Pretty Little Dog, except that it’s a lot faster – and the melody is different.  A fiddler would understand that.   It is said that Lee Triplett came up with Pretty Little Dog while he was trying to learn a different tune, but it kept coming out wrong. So he gave what he had a new title.  (I’ve been told a lot of Triplett’s tunes were named “Pretty Little” something or other.)   And so my new tune needed a new title.

We have an Australian shepherd that is pretty laid back and a quiet, gentle girl – except when someone knocks at the door. Then she is up on the couch, back & forth and down, over and again, nosing the window, barking to wake the dead.  It is nothing we taught her to do.  It’s as if fifteen thousand ancestral wolf-dog spirits inhabit her being – must bark, must warn, must bark!  Our one meek shepherd becomes an entire pack of she-wolves up on the davenport. That’s where my title and the manner of the tune comes from.

Banjo notes: Another “Mountain Minor” tune. Tuning is “G modal” –  gDGCD.  Then capoed at the 2nd fret and the fifth string raised to A, to throw the tune into the key of A Dorian with some flatted fifths… or maybe A minor pentatonic with a few accidentals? Dogs always have a few little accidentals.

4.  By the Waters of Minnetonka  (3:05) is by Thurlow Lieurance, a classical composer in the romantic “Indianist” movement. In 1911 he took an Edison cylinder device to the Crow reservation in Montana to record Sitting Eagle, who sang this song of star-crossed lovers.  Lieurance arranged the primeval tune applying principles of Western music; his 1913 setting was hugely popular in its day, a gem beside the many faux “Indian Maid” songs from Tin Pan Alley.
Public domain, arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
I have never heard anyone else play this on the banjo.  I don’t know why not – it seems to lay out so well.  Maybe someone else has – but that would be news to me. 

I came to this tune in the most serendipitous way.  As you may know, I am also a guitar player. A few years back I recorded a project called “Parlor Guitar” – a collection of fingerstyle guitar pieces, all compositions prior to 1922: the golden age of parlor music.   As it happened a friend of mine, who is both a talented musician and on-air host for Kalamazoo ’s fine arts public radio station, became a fan of that particular record.  She mentioned in passing that if I should ever record more parlor guitar pieces I might try “ Minnetonka ” as it was written by her great-grandfather.   Her name is Cara Lieurance, and the composer, her great grandpapa, was Thurlow Weed Lieurance.

Well, the title was vaguely familiar to me, but I needed to hear the tune again.  I found no shortage of versions online – from Slim Whitman to a memorable episode of “I Love Lucy.”  It has been recorded countless times, by opera singers, big bands, ragtime pianists, you-name-it.  Sometimes in call-and-response, sometimes not. Best version of all, though, was a video of a player piano running a piano roll cut by Thurlow himself playing “By the Waters.”  He played it in F#, using the five black keys of the piano – like a lot of Indian melodies it is pentatonic at its core – with a highly arpeggiated rippling effect on the keys. When the camera zoomed in on the piano keyboard, keys fluttering, it was as though the piano were being played by a ghost.  In a sense, it was.

The original song was sung by Sitting Eagle, who may have been the same person known as Mortimer Dreamer. He was living on the Crow reservation, but Lieurance noted he was of the Sioux tribe. He recorded Sitting Eagle on a hand-cranked portable Edison cylinder recorder in 1911, the iPod of its day.  Lieurance made many native recordings this way, and devoted his career to the “Indianist Movement” which was a romantic endeavor to preserve native folk melodies within a classical setting.

The story behind the song, as told by Sitting Eagle, was that a young Sioux couple wanted to marry – Moon Deer was she, Sun Deer was he.  But Sun clan and Moon clan were forbidden to inter-marry. Still, they were in love, and so ran far away from home. They came to a big round lake (“ Minnetonka ” in Sioux), but there was a war party of Chippewa, their sworn enemies, camped on the far shore.  Rather than risk capture they drowned themselves. Much later, Sioux warriors drove off the Chippewa, and heard the dead lovers’ song on the water and in the trees. 

Is the Minnetonka of fable the same body of water as the modern recreational Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota ?  Maybe, but I have my doubts.

Thanks to Cara’s suggestion, I did arrange “The Waters” for guitar, or tried my best.  I got something passable, but not satisfying.  Then one day I tried the tune on the banjo.  The clawhammer rhythms seemed to echo Indian drumming.  And the call-response worked with harmonics on the open strings. There was no turning back.  It’s a banjo tune now, at least for me.

Banjo notes: I use “open G” tuning for this – gDGBD – which most bluegrass players consider standard tuning. It is a lot less standard to me, but for G major tunes like this it comes in handy. The bridge of the tune, though, is in the key of C, and starts on an A9 chord.  A very clever and satisfying harmonization from Mr. Lieurance.

5.  Leather Wing Bat  (3:15) is the folksong we’ve known forever.  Except here, only the first verse is traditional.  I wrote the rest for other “children of the night.” 
Traditional, w/ new lyrics & arrangement by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
I say the first verse of my Leather Wing Bat is traditional. That is almost true. The last line is usually “Because I’ve lost my heart’s delight” but I prefer my own line, “Because my love has taken flight.”  It is less flowery, more to the point and rolls better off the tongue.  No apologies. I also thought the song needed better additional verses.  Instead of a catalogue of birds, the way the song usually goes, I wanted to hear from some other denizens of the night.  Where I grew up that would include June bugs, ‘possums and raccoons.  And so here they are in the Mabus version, if nowhere else.

The “nonsense” syllable chorus in this version is also adapted & adjusted to my voice and sensibilities, as is the melody itself. Most singers in the real world do this, of course – a “dum-diddle” becomes “fum-fiddle” as the song gets passed along.  It is only those who read their folksongs from a book, or copy a Peter, Paul & Mary record that know the “standard version.”

Banjo notes: The tuning is fDGCD sometimes called “F tuning” – similar to “G modal,” but with a different 5th string and different tonal center.  I first explored that back in 1989 when I wrote my tune, Firelake.  As with that piece, the key here is D minor. 

6. Billy in the Low Ground (2:32) was a favorite of my great uncle, Oliver Wendell Lee – farmer, fiddler, and prairie sage.  (I can remember him fiddling this tune with a pen knife wrapped around the bridge for a mute!)  Some say the title refers to the lowlands’ King Billy – or just some poor hillbilly laid low. 
Traditional, arranged by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:
“Billy” is a fairly well known tune in the American south.  A simple internet search will yield about 40 other titles it is known by.  A Scottish tune originally, by most scholars’ accounts.

I mention in the liner notes my great-uncle, Oliver Wendell Lee.  Known to our family as Ollie, Uncle Ollie, or just “Unkie,” he was one of our clan’s best-loved elders when I was a kid.  He was a man among men. A doughboy in WWI, he came back home to care for his father is his declining years, while farming the homestead.  He remained a bachelor well into his 40’s, when he married his brother’s young widow (Aunt Bunnie) and helped to raise her baby girl.  He lived near Highland Illinois, in Helvetia Township in the original Lee pioneer farmhouse, which was at its core a log cabin – my mother was born in that house in 1913.  His closest brother was my grandpa, Oscar Ishmael Lee, who worked a nearby tenant farm with his family.  (Oscar had married Minnie Meinkoth – Bunnie’s sister.)  Mom could remember in the 1920’s, when Unkie in his bachelor days, would hike down the road on Sundays, lean & weathered with his fiddle in a flour sack.  Come to visit and play tunes while all enjoyed popcorn and milk.  Life was hard back then, but it had its moments of grace.

Ollie was the only one in our family to smoke a pipe, and is the only person I’ve ever known to use the expression “by Jinx” on a regular basis. And, indeed, Unkie would use a pen knife to mute his fiddle.  Its two blades akimbo hugged the strings right behind the bridge. Hard to describe, but I can see it in my mind’s eye as clear as day.  I remember playing Billy in the Low Ground with him – he on the fiddle and I on guitar – on October 8, 1967.   I was 14 years old, and our family went to visit Bunnie & Unk at their little house in town where they lived after they sold the farm.  I can name the date because it was a Sunday and my beloved Cardinals were walloping the Red Sox in the World Series as we visited – Unkie had his TV on with the sound down.  I can’t claim I learned the tune that day.  I fumbled my way through it; I guess my mind was elsewhere. Bob Gibson pitched.    

Banjo notes: I play it on the banjo in the key of C, which is where fiddlers play it too.  “Double C” tuning – gCGCD

7.  Joke on the Puppy  (2:28) a.k.a. Rye Straw.  Also cousin to Forked Deer and other titles. I’ve heard lots of vague and crooked versions of this 3-part tune, but I prefer mine firmly squared. 
Traditional, arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:
A tune of many titles, and many versions.  I first knew it as Rye Straw, I guess. But I came to like the Puppy title better.  Clayton McMichen, storied fiddler of the golden era of hillbilly 78’s, said it was also called Lady’s Fancy, but I know that title as a different tune.  McMichen’s famous recording of Rye Straw is backed by Riley Puckett (his fellow alum from Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers).   Puckett plays his guitar loudly and with enthusiasm, but unfortunately in the wrong key.  Clayton fiddles away obliviously.  Did they plan it that way?  Perhaps, but I think not.  Maybe the nerves of a recording session – or the liquor to calm those nerves – got the better of them.  Anyway, I play the tune on the banjo a lot like McMichen played it on the fiddle, but without Riley Puckett’s chord choices.  

I know a lot of folks prefer the way Tommy Jerrell played it in his old age.  I am not so fond of his version, as heretical as that may seem to Tommy’s followers.  To each his own I guess.

Now, there is a rude verse sung to this tune that I have known for half my life, which comprises the supposed “joke” of the title.  It involves a catfish, a minnow and a length of rye straw, “longer than a fiddle bow,” – and the unfortunate dog that tries to digest them all.   But it just isn’t funny, isn’t clever, and I refuse to sing it except on rare occasion as an academic example of utter tastelessness. 

Banjo notes: It is a 3 part tune.  The first and third parts are in the key of G, and the second part is in the key of C.  The tuning I use is gCGBD – the so-called “standard C” tuning.  Not a standard for me, as it is one of the tunings I use least.  But it works like a charm for this tune.

8.  Two Little Sisters  (5:44) is my retelling of an ancient folk tale known world-wide, sometimes as The Singing Bone, or as The Two Sisters – the definitive musical ghost story.  
Music & lyrics by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
The Singing Bone” is the Grimm brothers’ name for their version, and what many folklorists use as a category name for this old ghost tale.  It shows up in nearly every old-world herding culture.  It goes like this: a shepherd (or goatherd) is somehow waylaid and murdered.  Someone – usually not the killer, but a passerby – makes a flute, or a horn-pipe, from a bone in the shepherd’s body.  But that bone will only sing one tune – a song that names his killer. 

Or something along those lines. 

The fun of any ghost story is in the telling. Sometimes the wind simply whistles through a bone hung in a tree.  Sometimes the bone flute is passed from one player to another, causing all sorts of mischief.  And in later Celtic traditions, the boney instrument is likely a harp, or more recently a fiddle.   And it is not always a shepherd – often one sibling kills another. Sometimes it is twins.  It is often a troll, or gnome-like  miller who is the grisly luthier.  And so forth.

Well, in my song I tell the story as I prefer to tell it.  I came up with a new melody, and wrote out these couplets to pay out the story with the details and plot I like best.  I’ll take the blame or credit for the nuts and bolts of this song.  But the gist of the tale itself is very, very old.

Banjo notes: Once again the key that fits my voice is D minor (Aeolian mode). But this time the banjo is tuned to “double C” (gCGCD) and then capoed at the 2nd fret, and the fifth string tuned up, yielding aDADE.

9.  The Bunch of Roses  (3:24) This march is one of the lesser known tunes that some call Bonaparte’s Retreat.  In ballad form it’s sung as The Bonny Bunch of Roses – wherein young Napoleon II and his mother bemoan his father’s failure to pluck for them “the bonny bunch of roses” (i.e. the British Isles ). 
Traditional, arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI 

Further notes:
No pun intended, this one is from the Napoleonic cannon.  I begin with the opening strains of the ballad, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, at a slow pace, then march off into the related tune.  As is so often the case in traditional music, titles and tunes clash.  It can be quite frustrating to sort out.  What I play here is sometimes called The Bunch of Rushes.  And The Bonny Bunch of Roses – or possibly Rushes – is sometimes called Bonaparte’s Retreat, not to be confused with all those other tunes called Bonaparte’s Retreat. On top of that, the lyric of “Bonny Bunch” is often sung to three or more different tunes, including The Rose Tree, which is also called The Lea Rig in Scotland or Port Láirge in Ireland…  and down the rabbit hole we go once more. 

Banjo notes: I like this march, whatever the title, on the banjo – it has a nice clip-clop to it.  The tuning is “double C” – gCGCD and the key is C mixolydian.

10.  Three Thin Dimes  (2:15) A bunch of us pickers learned “dimes” about 40 years ago from The Hutchison Brothers, a hot bluegrass band from Barnesville, Ohio.  “Lost” John told me they got this roaring 3-part fiddle tune from their daddy, “Seed” Hutchison. 
Traditional, arranged by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:
The Hutchison Brothers Band was a formidable presence on the bluegrass scene in the mid 1970’s.  “Lost” John Hutchison fronted the band, and was – and still is – a remarkable singer, songwriter and guitar player.  Last I saw him he was playing old-time banjo, too.  His brother “Zeke” was the band’s nimble and innovative 3-finger banjo player.  Greg Dearth played fiddle, and had an excellent touch on this tune, though now he is best known for his long career in the graphic arts.   

Banjo notes: Three Thin Dimes is a 3-part fiddle tune normally in the key of A (the third part goes slightly modal).  Except I play it in the key of G on solo banjo.   It is devilishly hard to clawhammer at the proper speed in open G tuning, with all those fast notes that run down and up the scale.  So here’s how I do it:  I tune the banjo to gDGCD and play it in the key of F – it fingers better there.  To turn that into the key of G, I capo at the 2nd fret.  BUT, I only capo the first three strings, leaving the 4th string and 5th strings un-capoed.   Most open-jawed banjo capos, such as the Shubb, can accomplish this partial capo trick.

This yields the tuning – gDADE.  But the partial capo makes a big difference when playing the melody on the 4th string.  Clear as mud?  Welcome to the banjo!

11.  When They Ring the Golden Bells  (7:19) was in our church hymnal when I was young, but we never sang it there.  Perhaps because the lyrics didn’t mention Jesus? Written in 1887 by the remarkable Dion De Marbelle. Public domain, arranged w/ additional material by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
I tell the story of Dan De Marbelle in the course of singing the song – another of my “banjo monologues” I guess.  There are 4 verses to the song, proper – I only sing the first one and the chorus.  It has been discovered by various female pop stars in recent years, so there are plenty of opportunities to hear the full song – and a lot of traditional hymnals still include it.  Unusual for a hymn, in that it never mentions Jesus, or God, or Heaven – at least by name.  You can find a couple of De Marbelle’s secular songs in old sheet music collections on the internet.  He likes to wax romantic about rivers and sunsets and such.

I did a lot of digging to find out what little I know about Dan, or Dion.  His last name is spelled in various ways, too.  I found him in a very old book about minstrel shows that performed in New York City – but just in a list of names of the “well known” minstrel musicians.  His tombstone reads “D.A. DeMarbelle” But army records of Michigan 6th infantry published in 1900 spell his last name De Marbell:

De Marbell, Daniel W.  Enlisted in Band, Sixth Infantry as Principal Musician, June 19, 1861 at Fort Wayne for 3 years, age 30.  Mustered Aug 20, 1861.  Discharged on Surgeon’s certificate of disability at Ships Island , Miss. March 30, 1862

Looks like he maybe lied about his age – if they actually asked. That muster took place in Kalamazoo , Michigan – just a couple miles from where I live now.  The sixth infantry sailed down the eastern seaboard and across the Gulf of Mexico to capture New Orleans for the Union in 1862.  Dan was discharged for “disability” before that siege took place. Most of the many Yankee soldiers who died on that campaign were taken by disease, not battle wounds.

Most facts of his life are just this sketchy.  Many accounts say he was born in 1818 in “Seville, France.”  Huh?  Marbella is the famous Spanish seaport, which leads me to ponder his name and his post-Napoleonic “Frenchness.”  Maybe he switched from being Spanish to French while drumming for the American Navy in the Mexican War?

The story I relate of Buffalo Bill and Dan is from contemporary Elgin accounts.  For years I would see “Dion De Marbelle” in the hymnal and wonder what kind of person would have a name like that.  I still do. Thanks to 21st century internet searches, I at least have a few narratives to mull over.

That he must have played the banjo is my firm surmise, drawn from several facts.  He was a professional musician living in America from the 1840’s to the end of the 19th century. It was a time which saw the banjo rise from humble handmade slave instrument to the ubiquitous factory-made item of gilded-age finery that no proper American parlor could do without.  Dan performed in minstrel shows of the post-Civil War era, where the banjo was typically played en masse by nearly all on stage.  And banjo by then was also a standard part of bands in circuses and popular theater – the very type of groups he organized and led.  By all accounts De Marbelle had the knack to pick up play any instrument.  So not to play the banjo seems inconceivable, given the world he in which he lived and worked. 

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  

Banjo notes: I sing the song in key of C major, and I use “double C” tuning – gCGCD.

12.  American Patrol (3:34) was an instant hit for F.W. Meacham in 1885.  A “patrol” was a popular fad back then for piano recitals – an ordered medley of marches imitating a brass band on parade.  Adopted early on by actual marching bands, it was a standard long before Glen Miller’s 1942 foxtrot version. 
Public domain, arranged by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
I have heard this played on the plectrum or tenor banjo, but never on a five string.  Though I would bet when it was new in the 1880’s – when banjo was king and had five strings – a working banjoist would have surely favored the request of such a popular number.  As I mention in the liner notes, “patrol” was not a raiding party – it was a form of piano music.  A medley of marches, that would start with quiet “drum rolls” or bugle notes, then get louder as the virtual parade passed by, only to fade out quietly again at the end.   The first tune in Meacham’s medley is the one he wrote himself.  The second is Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean (written in 1843 by Thomas á Becket, Senior, as a work for hire), often touted as “The Red White and Blue” for its sing-along chorus.  After those two tunes, various others are usually included.  I play The Girl I Left Behind Me next before returning to the first strain.  Some like to include Dixie  which, for me on the banjo, is a bridge too far.

Banjo notes: My version starts in the key of G. But “Columbia” is in the key of C before modulating back to G to pick up that girl I left behind.   I use “open G” tuning throughout the endeavor – gDGBD.

13.  Fire on the Mountain  (1:32) Most fiddlers like to burn this one down, lickety-split from top to bottom.  I prefer to let it smolder first. 
Traditional, arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI

Further notes:  
My first hearing of this essential old time breakdown was on a Bill Monroe LP that my brother Wayne brought home sometime around 1963 – I was nine years old.  We both had the bluegrass “bug” and liked everything fast and faster.  My first instrument was the mandolin – in a hillbilly music household it is the tradition to let the youngest build his calluses and discover the ways & means of music on the mandolin kept under the bed.  So as a budding mandolinist, I was intrigued by Monroe ’s wild and powerful way of playing.  A couple years later, I read in some album liner notes that Bill’s birthday was the same as mine!  Then I knew I was on the right track!  Some years later I learned it is also the birthday of Mel Tormé.  Hmmm…

I spoke with Bill Monroe just once, face to face. It was June of 1974 at his festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana.  I was 20 years old, and tenting on the festival grounds.  The great man took a tour of the campground where I happened to be playing my A-model Gibson mandolin. I mustered the nerve to speak up, and told Mr. Monroe that I was born on September 13, just like him.  We were about the same height, so we looked eye-to-eye. My hair was long and his was short – though he later wore it just as long as mine was then.  He asked where I was from.  I said, “Southern Illinois.”  He nodded sternly, as though in reluctant approval. 

And that was it.  I never did meet Mel Tormé.

Banjo notes: It’s an odd little tune, really.  A short thing in 2 keys and 3 parts:  AABBC (the C part acts a tag at the end, and is just like the last phrase of the A part).  Each part is harder than the next – as they say.  Typically, a fiddler would play the A part in A, the B part in D, and the C part in A.   Still with me?

To switch between the 2 different keys, I use “G modal” tuning – gDGCD – but I put a capo at the second fret and tune up the fifth string to A.  Yielding aEADE.  That is just fine for the key of A major – even if an open A chord is unavailable.  When playing the second part in the key of D, I wrap the thumb of my left hand around the neck to hold down the fourth string at the low F# note.  Now, that’s just our little secret.  

To help you understand the order of parts – I start my arrangement in the middle.  I sing a few languid lines to the B part as an intro, and then play the C part (tag) at an easy tempo, which sets the pace for the tune to properly commence on the first A part.   My twist on the tune is to speed up the thing by degrees –  playing the tag a little faster each time it comes around, upping the ante until all blazes.  Hot Dog!

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Some notes on the recording process: 

I leave the studio wizardry to John Stites, my long time recording engineer and friend with the golden ears. John specializes in recording jazz and classical musicians.  There, capturing what is really coming from the musician is the goal – not creating a new sonic voice in the studio using a lot of effects.  That attitude suits me just fine.

We used three microphones at once on this recording.  One small dynamic mic mounted inside the banjo’s drum, one condenser mic pointed at the banjo head from a foot or two away, and then one fine large-diaphragm side-address mic pointed at the human head for my vocals (and which also picked up significant signal from the banjo on all tracks).  Blending them all together, with the vocal mic panned center, the other two hard right and left – that is the basic sound design.

There were no overdubs or punch-ins.  These were mostly first and second takes, with only a bit of digital editing – no razor blades were harmed in the making of this recording.  In fact no tape was used – the path is all digital, though there are some analog filters along the way.  Beyond that info, you need to talk to John.

And about the banjo I used:

The banjo on this recording was built by Bart Reiter, an old friend of mine and renowned banjo builder.  This one is his “Round Peak” model, which has a 12 inch head on a wood rim with a simple brass hoop for a tone ring – a very different voicing from the brighter Vega/Fairbanks-like 11 inch custom Reiter I have used on many other recordings. 

I prep the banjo a bit.  There is a felt mute I use under the strings down by the no-knot tailpiece to quiet the unruly overtones the short end of the strings like to make.  And I have a wad of foam rubber wrapped in a bandana that is wedged between the underside of the head and the dowel stick.  You can see that placement in the photos on the cover. 

That padding tames the volume & shapes the tone and also wraps around the internal dynamic mic mentioned above, which I use in my stage shows as well – a Shure SM11-CN that resides in the banjo.   I use GHS brand medium strings with a bronze 4th  And a natural fingernail – middle finger right hand – is the claw that does all the hammering.

If you are interested in tablature for any of these tunes, contact me by email – I might just be able to help you out!

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Production Credits:

Conceived, performed & produced by Joel Mabus for Fossil Records
Recorded, mixed & mastered by John Stites for Arcadia Recording
Banjo built by Bart Reiter: his Round Peak model.
©(p) 2013 Joel Mabus – All Rights Reserved

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 ©2013 Joel Mabus

All rights reserved