1. Old Time Religion. (Curt Bouterse) As a singer of folksongs and a student of the oral process, I often wonder why some
songs succeed and others don't, why some retain their structure and others adapt to their environment. Everybody knows the
old spiritual; I've sung it all my life. With its simple format and substitutions of "the Hebrew children," "Paul
and Silas," it is easy to sing and can go on forever. But, as a preacher's kid, each different subject evoked the more
complex story, and I wondered what would happen if the allusions were made more evident. One day, as I played the tune on
the banjer, I created a "B" strain and the words "came tumbling down." The Bible-story verses could be
continued indefinitely. The last two, New Testament, verses are pre-existing, floating quatrains from the shape-note tradition.
|Peace Medal gourd banjer, 2003. Nylon, d-G-D-G-A.
2. Two Little Children. (Homer Franklin Morris) This is one of the songs my sister and I grew up singing with my mother. My
parents used to sing it together as did my father's parents, who had a gospel program on a radio station in Orlando all through
the 1930s. It's clearly in the family of sentimental dying-orphan songs so popular in the late Nineteenth, early Twentieth
Century. Only after looking it up on the Web did I realize it had been written by a music publisher from Georgia and recorded
by Kelly Harrell and the Virginia String Band in 1927. Interestingly, though there are two children in the song, we always
sang, "row me over the tide."
3. Handsome Molly. (Traditional) I've sung this for over forty years in the style of a fiddle-accompanied song, with voice
alternating with instrument so, perhaps, I learned it from Mike Seeger. But since I never have been able to stand my fiddling,
I've used my Thai mouth organ instead. Only recently have I begun playing this on the banjer. I was shocked, some ten years
or so ago, to hear Mick Jagger (!) sing a version on the (FM) radio. It was clearly from an old recording but I had never
heard this last verse. While researching the verse on the internet, all the versions seemed rather fragmentary or misunderstood,
so I worked it over. I've always sung the tag at the very end but only recently realized it actually is from a version of
"The House Carpenter," which I don't even sing.
|Notched gourd banjer,2003. Nylon, f-A#-F-A#-A#
4. Temperance Reel, or The Teetotaler's Fancy. (Traditional) This tune is a result of Stu Jamieson's urging me, in the early
1960s, to expand my reportory of (mostly slow) hammered dulcimer tunes. He suggested "Haste to the Wedding," "The
Wind That Shakes the Barley," and several others, of which, only this one I could play. I used to begin my busking sessions
in Balboa Park with this piece: by the end of it I was guaranteed 30 people standing around, asking, "What is it?"
5. I'm Not Ready/Nicolette. (Curt Bouterse) Both these songs are from my book, "Nixon's Farewell." Since they
are both in open C tuning and "Nicolette" only has one verse, I have played them together almost from the beginning.
The opening lines came to me in one thought but it took weeks of wrestling before I came up with a workable rhyme for "married."
This box banjer utilizes the walnut neck of the first instrument I made. For ten years it was on a bird's-eye maple banjo-mandolin
pot, then, for the US bicentennial, I built the octagonal, all wood, box--also bird's-eye maple--to fit inside an old wooden
|Octagonal box banjer,1963/1976.Steel, f#-B-F#-B-D
6. Scoldin' Wife. (Traditional) I learned this song from Holly Tannen, Mistress of Folklore, in the late 1960s, as is. I must
admit to using her Feminist cover as justification for singing it but it is so far "over the top" in its imagery
I don't think many take it seriously. I haven't heard anyone else sing this so don't know her source. Interestingly, it gets
the biggest response from school-age audiences, including college. The verses themselves seem to be floating, occurring in
different songs by Fiddling John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, and others. Curiously, the phrase "If I had a scolding wife,"
appears in conversation, in a play by Mercy Otis Warren, "The Blockheads," 1776. [Thanks to Google.]
7. The Ways of the World. (Traditonal) This tune was learned from the Library of Congress recordings of Luther Strong,
one of my favorite fiddlers. There is a high, third strain which I occasionally play but loses much in translation from the
fiddle. I had long played this on the hammered dulcimer but now prefer the banjer version but in order to play the syncopations
in the ending phrases I have to hammer-on and pick-off quite a bit. This led me to work the whole tune out in a sort of left-hand
pizzicato, which I play here the second and third times through the melody. I haven't heard any traditional banjer players
use this technique but it's not unheard of with other long-neck lutes of the world. This is another of the fiddle tunes which
seem to me to imply the title words in the rhythm of the melody, as in the last three notes of "Sol-dier's Joy."
I imagine I can hear "(and be-ware) the Ways-of the-World."
|Leonard Glenn banjer, 1973. Steel, f-A#-F-A#-C
8. Cold Winter's Night. (Arranged & adapted by Curt Bouterse) In the 1960s I heard (and taped) a selection of songs
of California migrant workers, collected by Sam Eskin, that were played on KPFK in Los Angeles. One of them was called "Cold
Winter's Night." It had various floating verses, a chorus, "So fare ye well, my own true love," and I still sing it. But about
twenty years ago I reworked the verses and set them to one of my favorite melodies from the Sacred Harp, "Tribulation," which
only had one verse, about Death. I used a technique of Almeda Riddle's, of varying the last line of a verse when repeated.
I really liked the idea, and since most of these verses already had varied forms, it seemed inevitable. The spoken last few
words were inspired by Stu Jamieson, who reminded me of this Scotch-Irish tradition.
There is another traditional version of this song, by Mrs. Goldie Hamilton, "Sweet Wine," recorded by the Library of Congress
in Virginia, in 1939, on New World 80549, "On My Journey Home."
I just recently heard Virgil Thompson's Cello
Concerto from 1950 where he uses Tribulation as the theme for the second movement.
9. Yankee Doodle. (Arranged & adapted by Curt Bouterse) Everyone knows this song, or at least the chorus. I've always
been curious why it seemed frozen in time: it appears in the "Revolutionary War" section of folksong collections but I've
never heard any traditional musician sing or play it. Perhaps it's the unabashedly Patriotic, and slightly Literary, verses.
I tried to reinvent it as it might have become if "Colonel Gooding" had become "Sally Goodin." And the chorus seemed to need
to end with its stronger half instead of the weaker. Yankee Doodle rides again!
|Wm. S. Mount (1856) banjer,1983. Nylgut, e-A-E-A-
10. Seneca Square Dance. (Traditional) Around 1970 my friend, Bob Webb, owned a coffee house in Mission Beach, in San Diego,
where a fellow named Tom Waits was the doorman. I didn't hang around just for the waitresses, I played there regularly. I
learned this tune from the Highwoods String Band and ten years later, when Ry Cooder asked me to play on the soundtrack of
"The Long Riders," this was the first tune he suggested.
11. I'm So Glad (My Troubles Don't Last Always). (Traditional) In the early 1960s, "The Sign of the Sun" Bookstore,
near San Diego State College, used to have concerts of traditional musicians, including Son House, Bukka White, Bessie Jones
and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and Mance Lipscomb. I believe it was from Mance that I learned this song. Only recently
have I begun to play it on the banjer.
|Horsehead gourd banjer, 2004. Nylon, d-G-D-G-A
12. Your Long Journey. (Doc and Rosalee Watson) Another coffee house which flourished in the late 1960s and into the 1970s,
was "In the Alley," run by Rich Copeland in Escondido, just north of San Diego. My favorite time there was when
I opened for Doc Watson for four days, two shows a night. I decided I was going to do all different songs, which meant 70
or 80 tunes, so I enlisted the aid of all my friends. In particular, my dear friend Carol McComb and I played guitar and autoharp
on Carter Family songs, and this Doc and Rosalee Watson stunner, which we called, at the time, "Your Lone Journey."
Doc was very complimentary, but at the end said, "You know, it really is Your Long Journey." Either way, it is a
week I will never forget. In this version I return to my roots to sing with my sister.
13. Pretty Polly. (Traditional) Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the
haunting sounds of Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Hobart Smith, and Roscoe Holcomb. I have no idea how many versions I've heard
of this song but I was particularly attracted to the strange contrast of the first-person opening verses and the rest of the
|Cherry Shaker box banjer, 1984. Gut, d-A-D-G-A
14. Shortnin' Bread. (Arranged & adapted by Curt Bouterse) Another song I've sung since childhood morphed (back) into
a banjer tune. I shaped up a few more verses and produced more of a narrative. Playing this melody on a four-string (3+1)
banjer creates syncopations, often on the chanterelle, that show up better with fewer pitches. The vocal refrain seemed redundant
in this version. Edit
|Hawk head gourd banjer,2004. Nylgut, c-C-G-C
15. Turkish Enemy. (Traditional) This version of the ancient ballad is from Stu Jamieson. The story plunges right into
the action with no preliminaries. Stu always played it on fretless banjo with the striking double upward slides after "in
the lowdown," suggesting the line "lowland low" of other versions. He learned it from Jimmy Dalton of Big Stone Gap, Kentucky,
the first man in his Army unit killed after they went into Normandy. The song itself, and its stinging anti-war sentiments,
still has the power to move me, but our family's personal history makes it even more powerful. My father's first ship after
he became a chaplain at the beginning of the war was the USS Astoria, a heavy cruiser, which was sunk in the Battle of Savo
Island in 1942, the worst American naval defeat of the war. Three other cruisers, two American, one Australian, were destroyed
in that same night off Guadalcanal, ending up on what became known as Iron Bottom Sound. If my father had been among the half
of the crew which did not survive, my sister (born two months later) and I would have had a very different life. My father,
though only slightly wounded, was never very far from that day for the rest of his life and I can't sing this song very often.
is another, almost identical, version by Blaine Stubblefield, recorded in 1939, for the Library of Congress, in "Our Singing
Country," p. 210.]
16. Down the Road I'll Go. (Curt Bouterse) Uncle Dave Macon has always been one of my favorite performers and I like many
of his songs, though most don't fit my style. I've always been fond of the line, "I'll rise when the rooster crows," so I
worked it into a banjer tune I came up with. The verses also came out being rather rooster-ish, though the title ended up
|Singer gourd banjer, 2003. Nylgut, d#-D#-A#-C#
17. Parting Friends. (Traditional) This fine old hymn is from the "Southern Harmony" by William Walker, first published
in 1835. It is clearly related to, or perhaps the source of, "Wayfaring Stranger," which was collected as a fragment
by John Jacob Niles, in Kentucky. I also play the melody, along with "The Promised Land," as a medley on the mountain
dulcimer. I worked out this duet years ago so Lee and I could sing it by ourselves, though she sang it as a solo (then Lee
Berg) on the classic "Mud Acres" recording. Here she takes the melody while I sing a reduction of the two other
harmony parts. No one had a dry eye when we sang this five years ago at our mother's funeral.
18. Angelina Baker/Sally Goodin. (Traditional.) This is my tribute to Eck Robertson, the great Texas fiddler, who made
one of the first recordings of folk music back in 1922. His version of "Sally Goodin" is an all-time classic and
my rejoinder when classical violinist friends condescended over "fiddlers." One hearing shuts them up. His endless
variations have been an inspiration for both my hammered dulcimer and banjer playing. They are without peer but, as Browning
said, "Man's reach should exceed his grasp."
When I was stationed in Amarillo in the mid-1960s I used to go by Eck's house and listen to him talk. Once I brought my
little fretless banjer and he began to pick "Rovin' Gambler." He said the banjer was his first instrument but his
brother wanted to play so he switched to fiddle.
I learned "Angelina Baker" from a West coast band who used the Kenny Hall words: i.e., the title repeated four
times. I am amused by that anarchic quality but have pulled up 2 traditional verses here.
I play a small pentatonic mouth organ (G-A-c-d-e-g) which my friend, Noel Montrucchio, brought back for me from R&R
in Thailand, in the 1960s. I have several other, larger versions, but this is the only one I can keep working. I often joke
this instrument is from the southern mountains, just not Our southern mountains. And this is the sort of music we would play
on it if we had the chance.