Join me in the Jaffrey kitchen as I break out the home made old time fretless banjo to share a traditional song. Time for a little iced tea and a breath of fresh New Hampshire air.
It is finally summer! In the extended Smith household, that means it is time for the Back Yard Olympics. Life is good.
Click on the image above to view the Sprinkler Vault Champions.
This Month’s Music
A traditional folksong played on an old time fretless banjo that I made during the blizzard of 1978.
Click the image above to play the video.
I just spent the July 4th weekend at our cabin in the woods of Jaffrey, NH. For the benefit of my English friends, July 4th is the holiday when we Americans celebrate our declaration of independence from imperialist England in 1776. Spending a patriotic holiday in Jaffrey will give you a genuine Norman Rockwell experience. At noon on the fourth, we listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence in the Old Meeting House. The timber frames of this meeting house were erected in 1775 on the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill. It is said that when the workmen stopped for lunch, they could hear the cannon fire in the distance. I guess that legends don’t have to obey the laws of physics, with Bunker Hill being about 60 miles away as the crow flies. Of course, the children tolerate the reading because it is followed by the promise of an ice cream social under the tent at the Melville Academy museum. (Kimball’s Ice Cream… nothing but the best.) Later in the evening the Keene American Legion Band plays John Philip Sousa marches at the gazebo in the center of town, and all of the local armed forces veterans squeeze into their old uniforms or battle fatigues.
On July 3rd, I took advantage of the peace and quiet of our little cabin in the woods to record this video of “Angelina Baker”. We budding old-time banjo players played this song on the Cambridge Common every Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1975. Our tune frequency was designed to help novices like me to learn the old standards. In a three hour session, we played about a dozen tunes. By the end of 15 minutes playing the same tune, it was pretty much welded to our inner “permanent” brains and memorized by our fingers. While I loved the banjo (and still do) it became apparent by watching the reactions of passers by that banjos are a lot more fun to play than to listen to. It occurred to me that this would be the perfect secret test for my girlfriend Margo. If she could survive a summer of these weekly sessions without going banjo crazy, then she would have the stamina to be a worthy life partner for a folkie like me. That fall I asked her if she would marry me, and she said “yes” without a single banjo clause in the prenuptial agreement. I am a lucky man.
During the winter of 1977-78, Margo and I lived in Belmont, MA at the end of the bus line out of Harvard Square. That was the winter of the great blizzard. Governor Michael Dukakis declared a state of emergency and said that all non-essential personnel had to stay home from work. The first few days were a great teacher’s holiday, but as it extended to the tenth day we were both suffering from a little cabin fever. That previous Christmas, my brother had given me the Foxfire Book 3 so I decided to give it a read. I was fascinated by the various home recipes and descriptions of how the old timers in the Appalachian south would make whatever they needed. My forced self-sufficiency gave me an appreciation for the resiliency of these old timers. I was especially intrigued by the description of how Stanley Hicks made his fretless banjos in Beech Mountain, NC. Here is a video of a Stanley Hicks banjo. With so much extra time on my hands, I decided that I would make a Stanley Hicks style banjo too! I couldn’t go out and buy the materials since I was house bound. Even if I wasn’t house bound, where would I find a raccoon to skin for the banjo head, or the gut for strings? So I used an old mahogany plank that I was saving for a dulcimer I was planning to build, and a #10 bean can for the rim. I miscalculated the length of the neck, which turned out much longer than suggested by Stanley Hicks. When used with a set of old nylon guitar strings (the same strings have been on that banjo since 1978), that long neck makes for a rather floppy sound, pitched lower than a normal banjo. That gives this banjo a rather rich and unusual sound that I have come to like. The poorly made friction pegs make tuning this banjo quite the chore, however. At best, I can wrestle it into a reasonably tolerable relative tuning, but I usually have to apologize to those blessed (cursed?) with perfect pitch when I play this banjo in my shows.
I love old traditional folk songs and tunes. They are my musical foundation, even for my original songs. This fall (Sept 30 – Oct 2), I have the honor to be on the music staff at the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston’s Fall Getaway Weekend at Prindle Pond Conference Center in Charlton, MA. I will share this musical honor with my good friend Kate Chadbourne. Together we run the musical gamut from rustic to refined. Kate contributes the refinement part. As a Harvard Celtic scholar, she combines a deep knowledge of Irish language, history and culture with outstanding musicianship on harp, Irish flute, whistle, piano and voice – all of this in a graceful package that will charm you out of your boots. If you would like to spend a weekend at a beautiful conference center with folks who love to sing traditional folksongs, please consider joining us! Click here for all of the details.
(If so inclined, I invite you to leave a comment by scrolling to the end of this page.)
July 24, Sunday, 8:00 – 10:00 pm, Someville, MA I return to The Burren Sunday Songwriter Series with my good friends and talented singer/songwriters Dan Cloutier and Tim Riordan. The Burren is a great Irish style pub in Davis Square, the heart of Bohemian Somerville.
August 6, Saturday, 8:00 – 10:00 pm, Jaffrey, NH Mindful Books and Ephemera is a funky little book shop (plus ephemera) in my “home town away from home”. Pot luck supper at 7:00 pm. Seating is limited.
Click to view all upcoming shows.
Featured Non-Profit: Ample Harvest
Are you a gardener? Here in New England gardens are producing a welcome harvest of fresh produce for many kitchen tables? But there usually comes a time when our gardens produce more produce than we can use.
“AmpleHarvest.org diminishes hunger in America by educating and enabling gardeners to donate their excess harvest to the needy in their community instead of allowing it to rot in the garden. One out of six Americans (including a quarter of all kids under six ) does not have access to healthy fresh food at their food pantry. The AmpleHarvest.org Campaign is a national effort utilizing the Internet that enables 40+ million Americans who grow food in home gardens to easily donate their excess harvest to one of 3,936 registered local food pantries spread across all 50 states.”
Click Using Nature’s Bounty to Feed the Hungry to view a video clip from CNN Heroes that describes the good work of AmpleHarvest.org.
If you have a non-profit to suggest for an upcoming issue of The Kitchen Musician please send me an e-mail.