Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 16, 2019 at 8:53

Banjo music wasn't always played with paint-stripping volumes and tones. Here we have typical parlour banjo music - sweet and sentimental. As Henry C. Dobson once said, he "went to bed nights, and found it almost impossible to sleep, for the MELLOW notes of the banjo were continually ringing" in his ears.

I love the sound of those old recordings of Vess Ossman and others from not long after this music was published, but I'm absolutely sure not everyone played like that, especially in the Victorian parlour. I hope you like it, whether it is or is not your view of what a banjo "should" sound like. 

Comment by Trapdoor2 on April 16, 2019 at 23:44

A delight, Rob. This is how I often play at home (when I get it right). Sometimes it is difficult to tell how the tune wants to be played, esp. when we are trained to think "fast and loud". 

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 17, 2019 at 6:32

Thanks, Marc. I'm minded of Vess Ossman's complaint that when making his recordings he had to play as loud as possible, and never vary his dynamics. People then copied that, thinking it the "true" banjo sound. Converse and Stewart were at pains to develop sensitivity in their students, vary dynamics, vary tone production by moving the right hand along the string towards the rim or bridge. Compared to Ossman (whose playing I love) they seem to be putting forward a more 3D quality, more chiaroscuro, and judging by Ossman's comment re recording, he too would prefer to play that way.

There is another element to consider. Vess was a star, and had to play to big crowds without the help of amplification. Whether recording or performing, the poor guy had to play at fortissimo ALL the time. By contrast, the parlour player (which I am happy to say I am) only has to play to himself/herself. You can use any dynamic you want, and also bend and shape the music as you please, play slow or fast. Scottish traditional players of Nathaniel Gow's generation (19th century) were encouraged to play tunes "Slow, unless danced to". 

None of the above is criticism of Vess Ossman, of course. What an incredible player he was! And it's of no surprise at all that many players would want to emulate his playing. I would if I could, but I'm both fully aware that I don't have anything close to his technique, and that what we are hearing is not the full story of how he played when not recording or performing. It's an odd situation. I just want to give a shout out for those in the past who played in a very different way to what we hear on those recordings. There has always been more than one way to play any instrument, including the banjo. 

PS I vaguely recall you, Marc, saying you once recorded a glass cylinder, and you came out sounding like those old recordings. Am I imagining you said that? It seems to be a revealing comment on how much the recording technology of the time influenced what people heard...and emulated. 

Comment by Jody Stecher on April 17, 2019 at 13:15

Rob, re your PS:  yes!  the various stages of recording technology did have an effect on how people played. In our own times and living memory this was evident when digital recording first came in and was not yet perfected. All around me I started  hearing musicians playing more cleanly, with annoying clinical precision!  As digital recording technology improved this tendency in musicians receded.  Songwriter Mark Simos pointed out this to me many years ago, giving examples of each stage of recording technology and how people began to sound like Recordings of music even when not recording.  He told me a story about a man who is working on building a machine that will talk and sound exactly like  himself. Eventually he believes he has succeeded but actually his own speaking voice has changed and become more like the machine. The machine exults, saying "at last I have succeeded in transforming this human into my likeness".  I was so taken with the story that I wrote a song. I called it "Henry and The True Machine".  Each night Henry asks his wife if the machine sounds like him yet? The final verse goes something like this:

Then he started getting closer; the two voices nearly fit

But poor Henry didn't know it: he was sounding more like it

And when he got it perfect he asked her "was it right?"

She said "You both sound nearly human" and she left him that night.

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 17, 2019 at 13:27

Haha. I  like that. Also your phrase "annoying clinical precision!" :-) Thankfully no one has ever accused me of that! 

Comment by Trapdoor2 on April 18, 2019 at 14:06

Not glass, wax cylinder, standard Edison machine. I recorded a horrific version of "Berkeley March" about 20 yrs ago. I had terrible "horn fright" and just before I started, a group of real musicians (Alan Jabbour, etc.) walked in to make their recordings. My hands were shaking so hard that I couldn't put my fingers on the frets. I introduced the record (just like on an Edison recording) and got thru the Intro and first few bars before I fell apart. We listened to it anyway and we all thought it sounded just like an original. I got compliments for my vocal introduction...sounded very much like an original: "Banjo Solo, Berkeley March, played by Mr. Marc Smith, Edison Records!"

That was on my Flesher, with Nylgut a 1" tall bridge and a fiberskyn head. Honestly, it sounded just like a banjo.

I also recorded a Anglo Concertina solo later that weekend. It turned out pretty good. The good thing is that the wax cylinders can be re-used. You just scrape them clean and make another recording.

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 18, 2019 at 14:30

Poor you! I can only sympathise. But at least you learned you sound like a real banjo player :-)

Comment by Trapdoor2 on April 18, 2019 at 14:49

LOL. Now I can claim to be a sentimentalist and play too quietly for the mic to pick it up! ;-)

Comment by Rob MacKillop on April 18, 2019 at 14:52

Well, there's progress :-)

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