Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Songs of the Wilderness Road - New Salem, Feb 5 - Jean Ritchie and playing with a noter

If you want to learn to use a noter to play the dulcimer, a very good way to get started is to study Jean Ritchie's playing. See photo at left (credits and links in note No. 1 below). More than any other one person, she is responsible for the popularity of the dulcimer today, and she is arguably the finest traditional player alive.

Notice how Ritchie holds the noter in the photo, which is from her "Dulcimer Book" (1963). See how she places her thumb on top and uses her index finger to brace the noter? You can put your thumb on top, like she does, or you can rest your finger on top of the noter. It doesn't matter. But what does matter is that you hold it firmly (but not too firmly, close to the dulcimer, sort like you hold a pencil. You brace your index finger against the side of the fretboard as you move the noter up and down. (To play Virginia style, I just rotate my left hand so the index finger is on top and the thumb below; I use my thumb to brace against the side of the fretboard.) Once you get the hang of it, you'll find it's easier to just do than it is to describe what you're doing.

_____th of _____ blog posts for a workshop on major-scale (Ionian) tunes for my workshops "Songs of the Wilderness Road in D Modal Tunings" at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, Route 1, Petersburg. Older posts in connection with the Feb. 5 session are:

Originally from Viper, Ky., Ritchie moved to New York City in the 1940s to take a job as a social worker and began singing traditional Appalachian songs at the little clubs in Greenwich Village. (Another claim to fame - she and Doc Watson introduced an old Primitive Baptist song from the southern Appalachians to audiences in New York in the 1950s and 60s. The song was "Amazing Grace," Arlo Guthrie included it in "Alice's Restaurant" soundrack in 1969 and Judy Collins hit the charts with it in 1976. The rest was history, and it is now one of our most beloved hymns nationwide.) Ritchie also introduced the dulcimer to folk musicians including Ralph Lee Smith, Paul Clayton and Richard Farina in the Village. And the rest of that, too, is history.

Here's how she describes her playing style: "In your left hand is the noter, usually a finger-length of bamboo. ... Cradle the noter along the fingers and hold it so that the thumb may press from above, and the side of the finger may glide along the side of the fingerboard to keep the end of the noter from touching the middle string. That's because melody changes are all made on one string; the other two are always drones" (18). She’d slide the noter up and down the fretboard while strumming her thumb or a pick across all the strings, for “a constant harmonizing chord which gives the delightful and characteristic drone, or ‘bagpipes’ sound.”

In the YouTube clip below, Ritchie sings a modal song called "The Cuckoo" and accompanies herself on the dulcimer. Note especially the closeup of her hands at the beginning. I've quoted her elsewhere (see note No. 2 below) on how she harmonizes when she accompanies herself:

Ritchie gets a repeated musical phrase or ostinato ... from a finger-picking pattern by strumming the melody string and “rolling the thumb outward across the two drones, sounding them individually for two accompanying beats at the ends of lines, and such likely places” (24). While the old-timers often sounded the open melody string or the key note and drone strings throughout a song, or played in unison with the melody, Ritchie likes to play harmonies that complement her voice.
Her method is more difficult than backing a song with its chord progression. I can't get the hang of it myself. But it's much truer to the modal nature of traditional Appalachian songs. Listen for her harmonies, and watch her hands.

Jean Ritchie sings "The Cuckoo"
California State University Fresno, Folk Artist in Residence 1980, courtesy of Jean Ritchie, The Bluestein Family and the UNC, Chapel Hill Folk Archives. [YouTube bayface1]

We also have a clip of Jean Ritchie playing an old modal fiddle tune. (It's "Shady Grove," and it's in our book Songs and Tales of the Wilderness Road ... we'll get to it. In addition to her technique, notice her pick. It's cut out of the top of a plastic tub. When I saw her play at the Swannanoa Gathering 10 years ago, she was using the top of a Philadelphia Cream Cheese tub. I have a lot of those home-made picks at home (I lose things, and they're easily replaced), but I also like to use a Dunlop .038 guitar pick on fiddle tunes. Herdims and other heavier picks aren't flexible enough. Jean Ritchie's home-made picks are.

Jean Ritchie at Appalachian Family Folk Week 2007
Singing "Shady Grove" during Family Folk Week, an annual event at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Ky.: June 14, 2007. [YouTube sarapennington]

The next clip I've thrown in as an extra, in honor of today's blizzard (at the very least a blizzard of excited TV reporters talking about snow, snow, snow and salt trucks and such) and also just because it's a lovely song. It's called "Wintergrace" (one word), and Ritchie wrote it herself in honor of the solstice and the Christmas season. It's on her Christmas in Kentucky CD, if you can find it.

Jean Ritchie sings WINTERGRACE
Jean's song for the winter solistice with a setting in her Kentucky Mountain home. Cornshuck dolls made by the Ritchie sisters, carved animals from her cabin, and real snow from Heaven. Video montage by George Pickow. [YouTube georgepickow]

Lyrics at Mudcat Cafe. PLEASE NOTE: This song is under copyright. Beautiful poetry. Here's the chorus, with Jean Ritchie's suggestions on phrasing:

For the time...(tune pauses a bit here)
When the corn is all into the barn,
The old cow's breath's a frosty wine
And the morn along the fallow field
Doth silver shine.
[I've taken out her correction of a transcription in the Mudcat thread.]

1. Photo of Jean Ritchie above is from the cover art to her "Dulcimer Book" (1963). I got it on on Dave Tabler's post "Old time musician Jean Ritchie recently suffered a stroke, and is in the hospital" on his Appalachian History blog, where it illustrates a story on her philosophy of life, which is very much worth reading.

2. These excerpts from "The Dulcimer Book" are from my article "Drones, Picks and Popsicle Sticks" on the EverythingDulcimer.com website. The article discusses several different traditional ways of playing the dulcimer before the folk revival, from the German composer Praetorius to Greenwich Village days.

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