Another gem by Joe Morley. This time we are on our camels as we follow the trade routes through the desert, swinging from side to side as we go. At this pace, they would have to be lively camels!

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Comment by Joel Hooks on August 5, 2020 at 18:34

Hmm... Now that I listen to it again with a "different ear"  I can hear that sort of "Native American" early movie soundtrack sounding thing going on.

I had just presumed it was "Oriental"... but now?  

Those two measures at the end of the intro and A part do sound like the "Indian" hand drum.

Comment by Joel Hooks on August 5, 2020 at 18:39

Does anyone have the original title sheet for this piece?  Sometimes they are themed. 

An example of this is Grimshaw's "Fretwork" that has fretwork shown on the cover (fretwork being fancy cutouts using a "fretsaw" and not frets on the banjo-- though it makes for a great pun).

Comment by TONY BRYAN on August 5, 2020 at 20:24
Sorry about the previous flippant answer. It was a serious question and deserves a serious answer.
I don’t find any banjo solos actually easy - they all take work to make them sound OK. A simple tune will probably end up being difficult to get it to sound right and one that is otherwise fully of twiddly bits is probably easier to perform once you have mastered those twiddly bits.
Desert Trail is not fundamentally difficult, but it does involve working on those triplets so that they sound even and don’t dominate the tune. For me, the hardest part is to get right the two sections that are played on the 4th string. You are supposed to hold the note down while you do the triplets, and that’s hard to achieve without buzzing the adjacent strings. It becomes quite a stretch to get all the strings to sound loud and clear, and even now I don’t manage it all the time. I am playing here on a 12 inch Weaver, not because of its musical properties but because it is the only banjo I have that combines fingerboard width with string action that allows me to clear the strings properly. It also brings out the tune on the bass string, but for recording purposes the best way of getting that is to use a new string each time.
Anyway, don’t be put off by how difficult it looks - it was written by a banjo player and can be played by other banjo players. It works perfectly as a much slower tune - say 80 beats per min - so I would set that as the first goal. Work on triplets and work on finger stretches over the strings and make sure they are all ringing out.
Hope this helps.
Comment by carrie horgan on August 6, 2020 at 6:52

Thank you, Tony.  Yes, they do take work and I think you are right about focusing on the hard sections.  I guess when you see a performance, you don't see the many hours of practice behind it.  Well done, though - it is a great performance of a difficult piece (complete with hat) or should I say, 'hats off'!

Comment by Steve Harrison on August 6, 2020 at 7:20

Another event that happened at this time was the release in 1921 of the Rudolf Valentino film 'The Sheik' followed a few years later by 'The son of the Sheik' both featuring the Arabian desert...Steve.

Comment by TONY BRYAN on August 6, 2020 at 12:47

Quite so, Steve, but that was 12 years before Morley published Desert Trail.  If that was what he was expecting his public to think of when they bought the sheet music, he had left it a bit late. Was Egyptian Princess closer to that date? 

On the other hand, in 1932 - the year before Desert Trail was published - the movie The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff was screened.  Could this have been a mirror up to that movie?  I think I could make a case for Desert Trail being a piece of suspense music - it depends on how you play it, which I suppose is the point of all this analysis. 

Tracing back the origins of popular music is always difficult because we have so little written evidence to go on.  It's always possible that Morley had a different title in mind, but was discouraged from using it by John Alvey Turner in favour of something more in keeping with whatever was in fashion and would therefore sell.  Then the title could be totally at odds with the intention of the music.  (Going right back to the start of this chain, Ravel was going to call his piece Fandango, but was persuaded by his friends to call it Bolero.)

One thing I have not looked at is who won the Derby in 1932 or 1933.  Was there ever a horse of this name that won at the races?  Although I don't have any examples I could swear to, I understand that Morley did name more than one of his pieces after a winner.  (Was one of them Nuts and Wine?  If not, there is not much reason for putting the Camptown Races refrain into it.  After all, I have a fondness for nuts and wine myself, but I can't see myself being moved to compose a banjo piece in their honour.) 

So, to summarise where we are at the moment, the propositions are that Morley's 1933 piece Desert Trail was:

1. A piece of popular orientalism provoked by the rage for Egyptomania after the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in 1921, or

2. The 'trail' is a Western reference and the tune could be a stereotyped invocation of an Apache war dance, or

3. A piece of 'horror' music, reflecting the prevalent taste for mummies and vampires in the cinema, or

4. A tribute to a horse (or dog?) that brought Morley some luck at the races, or

5. The music and the title are totally unrelated. 

Anyone else like to propose another option or develop any of these further?



Comment by Trapdoor2 on August 6, 2020 at 14:10

I would say that colonialism, exoticism, the "grand tour", popular archaeology and war have all driven this bus. Morley lived in a period where exotic travel was considered "required"...both if you had the money (leisure) or not (military service). The UK spent quite a bit of newsprint on the "Arab situation" during his lifetime. The treaty of Darin (1915) established Saudi Arabia as a UK protectorate and during WWI, many troops fought there (like, oh, that Lawrence guy).

The romanticization of "the orient" on both sides of the pond was rampant well into the 50s, so it seems to me that Old Joe was just playing along with popular trends. If you listen to TPA's (tin pan alley) output for the era, you get hundreds of very similar "oriental" themed tunes...many of which use the same rhythmic and melodic devices that appear like oriental rabbits pulled from a turban. Russians got into it too..."Cui's Orientale" (Orientale op. 50, No. 9,1894) was extraordinarily popular, contains all the motifs you'd expect...and it influenced scads of hack (and otherwise) composers.

So, I vote #1.

#2 is unlikely, considering his pieces of 'Americana' are obviously titled...and I doubt he was listening to The Light Crust Doughboys. 

#3 is just an extension of #1.

#4 is indeed possible...but I feel the music speaks Arabic, not something else.

#5 I think they're directly related. See #1.

Comment by Joel Hooks on August 6, 2020 at 14:56

Well, all I hear now is #2 complete with the BOOM boom boom boom drum effect used in movies.

As an earlier example I offer up "Could Chief" by J. Ernest Philie notice the intro and similar theme.

This was published for banjo by Walter Jacobs (Jacobs collection #4).  Somewhere there is a great recording of an orchestra that has "war whoops" all through it.. I can't find that.

What is funny is that these stereotypes are so mashed up that they can go either way.

I personally like the American Western idea.

Comment by Trapdoor2 on August 7, 2020 at 1:59

Ah, THERE's your problem. You're hearing straight four. BOOM boom boom boom. You should be hearing 2s Boom bum Boom bum. Native Americans always play straight fours in the movies. Arabs don't.

Problem solved! ;-)

Comment by Trapdoor2 on August 7, 2020 at 2:01

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