Here’s a short but fascinating and I think extremely pertinent article by Wendell Phillips Dabney (1865-1952), who was an African-American string performer, composer and teacher from Richmond, Virginia and Cincinnati, Ohio, and uncle of the pioneering jazz musician and recording artist Ford Dabney. In it he describes saving his pennies to see Horace Weston in concert live and unplugged, offers some choice words of criticism of the Bohee Brothers (African-American banjoists and way-early recording artists who found their fame in Britain; how timely) and, of all things, weighs in on the — I think racially-charged — Sweeney fifth-string question, all in a 1934 article for the December 1st Baltimore Afro-American. I’m also attaching a photo of Dabney from my personal collection in case no one’s ever seen him before.

Both Weston and Dabney strike me as overlooked and important figures in the history of the instrument, and Dabney’s statements here regarding stroke and “guitar” style are a valuable primary source to an understanding of the instrument (since of course he was, well, there.) To say nothing of his noting that African-American players by the 1890s mostly played guitar, not banjo, and white players were the finest “guitar style” (i.e. fingerstyle i.e. classic) banjo players.

But what happened to George Weston? I know of only one other reference to him, in Lynn Abbott’s and Doug Seroff’s incredible book “Out of Sight” (which I can’t more highly recommend; I think Carrie Horgan’s been reading that and their second book "Ragged But Right"; their third and final volume "The Original Blues" will be published by University Press of Mississippi in the fall) — he was performing with Sam T. Jack’s Company in 1891.

Joel — note mention of brass thimble! 

Finally, here's what may be the earliest actual recording of Horace Weston's Celebrated Minor Jig, by an unidentified player noodling around in the background at the May 1958 American Banjo Fraternity Rally: 

HORACE WESTON’S CELEBRATED MINOR JIG (ABF 1958, player unknown)

Horace Weston's Celebrated Minor Jig 1958

Very best to all,


Chris W.

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Good stuff!

Very cool article!

"The one-eyed man is king among blind men". Something for us all to remember.

That describes to a T playing Classic Style in front of players of other banjo styles. Few can play any classic style and it always looks and sounds impressive to the uninitiated ;-)

Thanks Chris that is a very interesting article. I added an audio player to your post for you.

Sweeney and that fifth string again eh?... oh dear, wait for the flames!

Ian

How interesting - and what a great photograph.  That is what is so great about the Abbott and Seroff books; it's like musical archaeology, bringing the past to life through these lost artefacts; old newspaper cuttings and the like.  Made me chuckle when he writes: 'the banjo has fallen on evil days...'  


Yeah!..my wife keeps telling me that!...Steve.
carrie horgan said:

How interesting - and what a great photograph.  That is what is so great about the Abbott and Seroff books; it's like musical archaeology, bringing the past to life through these lost artefacts; old newspaper cuttings and the like.  Made me chuckle when he writes: 'the banjo has fallen on evil days...'  

So Joel Hooks and I have emailed about this and I realized after looking that there's no copy of Horace Weston's "Celebrated (née "Great") Minor Jig" on the site, which has got to be one of the more compelling and strange pieces of music in the late stroke/early fingerstyle banjo repertoire. I'm posting all copies of it I have here as one pdf, including the earliest (1879) and later 1883 Stewart A notation versions, as well as the two Turner versions C notations from, I believe, the 1880s. They all have differences, but the 1879 version is by far the oddest; it’s very, very easy to play incorrectly and almost impossible to play right, which was maybe part of its appeal. There’s something about that kora-like chord and bizarre rhythm in the second measure that I think caught listener’s ears.

Also, if anyone has a midi player, I'm posting a simple file I made of the solo 1879 version.

Very best, C.

HORACE WESTON’S CELEBRATED MINOR JIG (sampled on midi Weaver banjo)

Horace Weston's Celebrated Minor Jig.pdf

Horace Weston's Celebrated Minor Jig.mid

Chris, the rhythm in the second measure does indeed invoke kora music, but kora doesn't usually play chords so I'm not sure what you mean. If the notes in the second measure were played as a chord it would just be a garden variety subdominant minor chord with an added 9th. In A tuning it's DmAdd9 and in C tuning it's FmAdd9.  This is fresh in my mind because although I've been playing "add 9" chords all my life I just heard the term for the first time this morning. A few days ago I composed a feverish mandolin tune I call The Brexit Hornpipe. It's fairly terrifying on mandolin. It might be worse on banjo.  I was lacking the names for two of the chords and an expert theoretician friend of mine told me about "Add 9".  It's not a suspension because it's not lacking the third degree and it's not a minor 9th chord because it doesn't contain a flat 7th. 

As for the rhythm in this measure, it begins with a modified version of a standard figure which is called "The Galax Lick" in revival old time music circles (don't get me started on the inappropriateness of this name). It's the stroke equivalent of the classic (guitar style) Thingy sometimes onomatopoeically  called "twiddly bits". In this case "Twiddly" is two syllables instead of three (twiddle y) and this triplet is conjoined with another. It's a quintuplet in which the last note can be played with the thumb of the right hand on the second string. I think it's easier to get right done "guitar style" and even easier with a hybrid technique.  I would play the first two notes of the quintuplet  with a downstroke of the thimble finger  that begins on string 2 and continues to string 1, then sound the fifth string with the thumb. Instead of striking the first string with a downstroke of the thimble finger as I drop my thumb to the second string, to be sounded after the first string, I would strike the first string with an *up* stroke of the thimble finger and drag that finger to the second string and sound that string with the same stroke. A new downstroke of the thimble finger would then sound the third string. I suppose this is heresy in Stroke Style circles but I'd rather use technique than be used by it.

The midi does reflect the 1879 version but it plays in C minor, not A minor.  I am not sure that the grace note of the open bass string at the start of measure 2 was intended by Weston to be given as much time value as the midi file gives it.  I have a similar doubt about the grace note at the start of the third measure. I don't know that it is wrong, I just don't know if it's right.

Ha! Well, a more thorough, detailed and historical dissection of that measure I could not imagine; thank you, Jody. I had never thought of those few little shreds of rhythm to be possibly related to something passed down within the old-time circles, and it’s compelling to think that the so-called “Galax lick” might be descended from a popular mid-century jig or even from Horace Weston, since some of the pieces that are thought of as folk melodies were published on the east coast to make a buck, but my making that assumption would probably be about as logically sound as my saying that the piece sounds kora-like; it just, uh, reminds me of some of the odd cram-it-in rhythms and harmonies that I think of when I think of kora music, that’s all. Mostly, though, now I want to hear the Brexit Hornpipe.

I’m going to try out your tutelage — thank you for the playing advice. And yes, the midi is in C, since even though it was notated in A, wasn’t the banjo generally tuned in C by 1880, more or less? (And thank you, Ian, for redoing it with your sampled Weaver tones; it’s so much better now.) The grace notes are indeed midi approximations, completely missing that honking slide at the beginning of the second measure, but there are a couple of great recordings of the piece by Clarke Buehling and Greg Adams on YouTube.

Very best, C.

It is impossible to say (at least for me to say) whether the Galax Lick derives from printed music or whether the printed music derives from traditional old-time playing. Stroke players and Classic players (not necessarily *you* personally) often forget that all the technique came from somewhere. That somewhere was "folk tradition".  It's equally true that "the folk" had no interest in being ideologically pure and copied anything they heard that appealed to them. "Diddly bum" on the banjo is a typical five-string banjoi-ism. I didn't meant to suggest that the publication of Weston's Minor Jig was  the origin of this banjo move or in any way a significant event in propagating it. 

The youtube renderings are all in guitar-style /up-picking/ classic style.  I don't think that's how Weston played it. Am I mistaken in thinking he would have played it using stroke technique?

I can send you a midi of the Brexit Hornpipe. It's too horrible to post here, via youtube, especially because all I have at the moment is is midi version that sounds like a calliope gone berserk.  I can't make a recording of me playing it on the mandolin until such time that my wife is not in the house and I am.  She has been very patient hearing me compose it but she will scream if she has to hear it one more time. And when you receive the sound file do not listen to it while eating or driving. I don't want to cause any accidents.


F. Chris Ware said:

Ha! Well, a more thorough, detailed and historical dissection of that measure I could not imagine; thank you, Jody. I had never thought of those few little shreds of rhythm to be possibly related to something passed down within the old-time circles, and it’s compelling to think that the so-called “Galax lick” might be descended from a popular mid-century jig or even from Horace Weston, since some of the pieces that are thought of as folk melodies were published on the east coast to make a buck, but my making that assumption would probably be about as logically sound as my saying that the piece sounds kora-like; it just, uh, reminds me of some of the odd cram-it-in rhythms and harmonies that I think of when I think of kora music, that’s all. Mostly, though, now I want to hear the Brexit Hornpipe.

I’m going to try out your tutelage — thank you for the playing advice. And yes, the midi is in C, since even though it was notated in A, wasn’t the banjo generally tuned in C by 1880, more or less? (And thank you, Ian, for redoing it with your sampled Weaver tones; it’s so much better now.) The grace notes are indeed midi approximations, completely missing that honking slide at the beginning of the second measure, but there are a couple of great recordings of the piece by Clarke Buehling and Greg Adams on YouTube.

Very best, C.

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