& 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
[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
The additional album notes published here
Track listings, with original notes, further notes, and
Notes on the recording process and the banjo
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
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.
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.
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
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
, built in this century by practiced hands.
You listen to melodies crafted of gossamer from strains as old as the
For one guy with a banjo, there’s
a lot going on here.
[back to top of this page]
[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.]
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
first used the trick in 1862, to create a ghost in a Dickens Christmas play.
It seemed a good title for this reflective tune.
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
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
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
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.
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.
Fingerboard Music, BMI
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
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
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
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
’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 “
” 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
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 (“
” 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.
of fable the same body of water as the modern recreational
? 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.
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.”
w/ new lyrics & arrangement by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard
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.
arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
“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
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.
arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
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.
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.
& lyrics by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
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
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
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
arranged by Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
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.
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,
Traditional, arranged by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
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!
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
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.
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
for 3 years, age 30. Mustered Aug
20, 1861. Discharged on Surgeon’s
certificate of disability at
March 30, 1862
Looks like he maybe lied about his age – if they actually asked. That muster took place in
– 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
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,
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
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.
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
Public domain, arranged by
Joel Mabus ©2013 Fingerboard Music, BMI
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
– 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.
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
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
’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
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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THE REST OF THE STORY…
Some notes on the
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
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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performed & produced by Joel Mabus for Fossil Records
Recorded, mixed & mastered by John Stites for
Banjo built by Bart Reiter: his
©(p) 2013 Joel Mabus – All Rights Reserved
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