Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"America the Beautiful" -- a song for our July 4 slow jam at Clayville Historic Site, with a YouTube video of a moving performance by Willie Nelson

Blast email I sent out today to the mailing list for our Clayville Pioneer Academy of Music jam sessions. We meet next Saturday morning, July 4, and we'll be tackling "America the Beautiful." So I went on line to find chords, dulcimer tab and video clips. And I struck pay dirt! The YouTube video embedded below is from a historic benefit concert, only a few days after 9/11, and it features a haunting version of the song fronted by Willie Nelson.

First, the video:

Willie Nelson and Ensemble - "America the Beautiful" From the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon, a benefit concert to raise money for New York City firefighters, policemen and others who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. It aired live on 35 broadcast and cable networks on Friday, Sept. 21, only 10 days after the 9/11 atrocity. Clint Eastwood introduced the song, and Willie Nelson sang lead, backed by too many performers to mention by name. Watch it a couple of times -- Willie's vocal is, well, you know ... and you'll have fun picking out the performers for yourself!

Here's the blast email, lightly edited for posting on line --

Hi everybody --

A reminder: Our regular July session of the Clayville Pioneer Academy of Music is from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, July 4, at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop on Ill. 125 at Pleasant Plains. Since it's the Fourth of July, Chuck suggested we play "America the Beautiful." So I went looking on line and found chords -- with lyrics -- and a melody line in G.

I also found a wonderful YouTube video of Willie Nelson playing an intro on acoustic guitar and singing it, backed by a whole stage full of first-class performers at a benefit concert 10 days after 9/11. I embedded it on my blog, along with the email message [...]

Be sure to watch it. I can't think of a more appropriate piece of music for the 4th of July!

Here are links to our music for the session at Clayville:

-- To the lyrics and guitar chords -- http://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/s/samuel_ward/america_the_beautiful_crd.htm

-- To the mountain dulcimer tab -- http://www.everythingdulcimer.com/files/tab/america_the_beautiful2.pdf

A word about the dulcimer tab. The melody is in G, so it calls for using a capo on the third fret in the usual DAD tuning. But I could no more play that tab than I could fly to the moon! It starts out on the bass string and jumps around all over the place. You're welcome to try it if you don't want to break away from the DAD lockstep, but I also tabbed it out for a DGD tuning and wrote in fret numbers in red ink below the notes. [If you're reading this on line, please note: You can do this yourself. Print out the tab, and write in the numbers below the notes: G is on the 3rd fret, A on the 4th, B on the 5th and so on up to G' on the 10th fret. You'll find one note, a G# between the 10th and 11th frets that isn't on the dulcimer. I just play that riff as A-A-A instead of A-G#-A.] That way I can play it the way a mountain dulcimer was meant to be played. A copy of my tab, with the frets in red, is attached.

A word about the DGD tuning. It's Ionian, which means the key note -- G in this case -- is on the third fret and you skip the 6-and-a-half fret as you play up the scale from 3 to 10. It's easy to retune from DAD, too. All you have to do is to tune the middle string down a whole step -- from A to G -- and you're ready to go. It takes about the same amount of time as it does to put on a capo. Try it, you'll like it.

DGD has a nice sound, too. Try it, like I said, you'll like it.

Hope to see you Saturday!

-- Pete

Sunday, June 28, 2015

In case you've always wondered! Here are the intervals of the chromatic C major scale and the traditional church modes -- in 19th century Swedish (1 of __)


First of ____ posts on Johan Dillner's explanation of the intervals of the 12-tone chromatic scale, the old church modes (kyrkotonarter) and how to play them on the psalmodikon.

Here's something that's been driving me crazy, and I think I'm beginning -- finally! -- to get it figured out. So I want to post it here while it's still clear in my mind. Well, sorta kinda clear. I've long suspected that a table in Johan Dillner's Melodierna till Swenska Kyrkans Psalmer (1830) contains the keys to the kingdom, i.e. that it will allow me to understand the intervals of a 19th-century Swedish psalm, or hymn, and how they play out on the fretboard of a psalmodikon.

Dillner said with a little practice, you can learn to play a psalmodikon in a couple of hours. I'm sure he was right. It's a reminder that music theory can get in the way sometimes.

But music theory also helps me understand why major and minor tunes sound the way they do.

It just takes longer. So let's get started.

Here's Dillner's chart (Melodierna xiii). Its headline reads (in translation): "The monochord's classification after Chladni." The psalmodikon, of course, is just a monochord. And Ernst Chaldni was an 18th-century German physicist and musician sometimes known as the "father of acoustics."

It's all right there.

(Trust me on this for a minute or two, while I translate the table with the help of an excellent article on harmonics [Harmonilära] in Swedish Wikipedia and a similarly helpful list in the English-language Wikibooks article on Music Theory and Scales.)

But first, a couple of suffixes we'll need to know: In Swedish, "-iss" after a note means sharp, and "-ess" means flat. So "ciss" (no hyphen between them) is C-sharp, and "cess" is C-flat. And "diss" means D-sharp and "dess" means D-flat ... and so on for the other notes of the scale.

With that in mind, here are the intervals of a C major scale as Dillner explains them. Some will be abundantly clear, especially if you keep in mind that C-sharp is the same as D-flat and so on up the scale. Others may take a while. Still others I'm still not too sure of. But I'm translating all of them, even the ones I don't think I'll ever need to know, because I have a way of coming back to this table as I learn more about music theory and/or 19th-century Swedish hymnody. The intervals are as follows:

1. Unison [also commonly known, in Swedish and English, as Prime]. Since it's the distance between two notes on the same pitch, the interval is C to C.

2. Överstigande Primen, or augmented unison, or prime. The interval is the distance from C to "ciss" or C-sharp.

3. Lilla Secunden, or minor second. The distance from C to D-flat.

4. Stora Secunden, or major second. From C to D. ["Lilla" is the Swedish word for little, and "stora" is the word for big.]

5. Förminskad Terzen, or diminished third. C to E-flat. [And C-sharp to E? I guess it makes sense, but I wasn't a music major and I'm not at all sure about this!]

6. Överstigande Second, or augmented second. C to D-sharp. [My instincts, and Wikibooks, are telling me this is the same as a diminished third. But I'm not sure it matters! Swedish-American pastors and country church choirs out on the Illinois prairie in the 1860s probably weren't too worried about it, in any event.]

7. Lilla Terzen, or minor third. C to E-flat. [This one is important. We'll come back to it when we get to the church modes.]

8. Stora Terzen, major third. C to E.

9. Förminskad Qvarten, diminished fourth. C to F-flat.

10. Rena Qvarten, perfect fourth. C to F.

11. Överstigande Qvarten, augmented fourth. C to F-sharp.

12. Förminskad Qvinten, diminished fifth. C to G-flat. [I'll spare you the joke about the bluegrass band and the diminished fifth of whiskey.]

13. Rena Qvinten, perfect fifth. C to G. [Jack Daniels?]

14. Överstigande Qvinten, augmented fifth. [Y'see, they sent the banjo player out between sets for another bottle, and he came back with an augmented fifth. But I wasn't going to go there!]

15. Lilla Sexten, minor sixth. C to A-flat.

16. Stora Sexten, major sixth. C to A.

17. Förminskad Septiman, diminished seventh. C to B-flat or C-sharp to B.

18. Överstigande Sexten, augmented sixth. C to A-sharp.

19. Lilla Septimen, minor seventh. C to B-flat. [This is an important note -- don't skip over it: In the German notation used in Scandinavia, "B" stands for B-flat and "H" stands for B.

20. Stora Septiman, major seventh. C to H. [See above. In Sweden, "H" stands for B. And "B" stands for B-flat. Don't ask why -- it has something to do with old-fashioned German handwriting, and the story that Bach liked it because he could spell his name on a organ keyboard is just a story.]

21. Förminskad Oktaven, diminished octave. C to C-flat.

22. Rena Octaven, perfect octave. C to C'.

Why does all of this stuff matter? Because the numerical tablature for a psalmodikon -- the sifferskrift -- is written to reflect degrees of the scale: 1 = do, 2 = re, 3 = mi and so on up the diatonic major scale. That's the scale you'd get if you start at middle C and play the white keys on a piano up the octave. But it's not the only scale in Dillner's system -- which is actually the system of modes inherited from the 15th- and 16th-century church.

Essentially the modes were different scales, the ones you get it you start on different white keys of the piano and play up eight tones to the octave. By the 1800s, all but two -- which we know today as the major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) -- had dropped out of common practice, although traditional Irish musicians (and some Appalachian dulcimer players) also know the Mixolydian and Dorian even today.

Here's Dillner's school table (skoltablan) of the church mode scales (Kyrkotonarternas Skalor). The major (Ionisk in Swedish) and minor (Aeolisk) are at the bottom. As you study the table, you will see the intervals of the 12-tone chromatic scale are different in each of the modes. As time permits, I will be posting brief explanations and examples of how to read Swedish sifferskrift in the major and minor modes.


Next: The psalmodikon and intervals of the major (Ionisk) mode.

Friday, June 26, 2015

President Obama, "Amazing Grace" and some thoughts on bending notes, melisma and the roots of American music

This is probably going to be one of the more oddball bits of commentary on President Obama's powerful eulogy today at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney at Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Pinkney and eight members of "Mother Emanuel" were murdered June __ by a self-admitted white supremacist. In the course of his eulogy, Obama dropped his usual professorial manner for a minute or two and sang "Amazing Grace." Not only did he lead the congregation in singing the old Baptist song, but he sang it in the old-fashioned Doctor Watts style of the African American church.

President Obama at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston (C-SPAN)

When I came across the TV coverage of the funeral, I was in the middle of writing a friend about one of my obsessions -- traditional Irish sean nos (old style) singing and the relationship that I believe to exist between Irish and southern Appalachian vocal music. Both have a lot of melisma or ornamentation -- a technical term meaning that the notes are often "bent," so that one word might be stretched out over two or three different notes -- and I was merrily looking up YouTube clips of southern Appalachian singers whose style was highly ornamented.

And then I heard President Obama singing "Amazing Grace" in a highly ornamented style.

So I mentioned it in my email message.

Which is why it starts out with a reference to a post that my friend sent me on the Irish Music Daily website about sean nos, and segues without warning into some of my thoughts about where southern Appalachian music came from and then -- with even less warning -- President Obama's eulogy and the very similar style of ornamentation in old-fashioned African American church singing. I decided to post it to Hogfiddle, not so much because I believe my theorizing has an unusual amount of merit, but because I want to be able to link to the YouTube clips I pulled together for examples of different kind of melisma.

Lightly edited in the interest of coherence, my email message to my friend follows:

Thanks for sharing!

I followed the links from the article you sent me about sean nos and found some really cool YouTube clips by Joe Heaney, Iarla O Lionard and a family group from the North [of Ireland] that I'm not familiar with.


Really good listening!

And it hit a lot of my buttons -- I'm really interested in where our music came from, especially in the southern hill country, and its antecedents in Ireland, Scotland and the North of England. I've got a theory that the way singers bend notes, and work in those swoops and slurs between notes -- melisma is the technical term -- came over to America with the Ulstermen who came to the southern Appalachians in the 1700s.

So I've been happily looking on YouTube for video clips -- they're not all the same, but I think the style of singing is related and I'd be interested to get your take on it. What's the same? What's different?

I promised some YouTube links. Here they are:

Sheila Kay Adams is a traditional singer from western North Carolina, who learned the old ballads from her family (one of them sang for Cecil Sharp in 1915). Her style of singing is as close as we can get today to the old way (which, I believe, is what "sean nos" means in English) ...


And here she is singing a novelty song called "The Farmer's Cursed Wife." I don't want to make too much of this, but the way she closes her eyes reminds me a little of sean nos singers. Cute song, too:


The style of singing survives a little bit in the Primitive Baptist churches down home. Here's a congregation in Kentucky lining out "Amazing Grace" -- where the song leader kind of chants the first line of a verse, and they all join in:


And here, on the isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland, is the Scots Gaelic psalmody it's descended from:


And then this afternoon when I saw the clips of President Obama singing "Amazing Grace," I was reminded there's something very much like it in the African American tradition. I won't link to to Obama -- I'm sure you've already heard it today -- but here's Mahalia Jackson:


I wouldn't exactly call Mahalia Jackson a sean nos singer, but I think there's a relationship there. I don't know what it is, exactly, but I feel it in my bones.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Link to video on Facebook of Din klara sol ... at First Baptist Church Moline, with comments and more links to background

My sister-in-law Marian Edmund-Paulson shot a video Sunday when I demonstrated the Jenny Lind Chapel psalmodikon and taught an old Swedish-American hymn, "Again, Thy glorious sun doth rise" (Din klara sol går åter opp), to the congregation at First Baptist in Moline: https://www.facebook.com/debi.ellertsen/posts/10204315181872073.

It's been shared a couple of times, including by the Nordiska Psalmodikonförbundet (Nordic Psalmodikon Association) in Sweden. The picture above is a screen grab from Marian's FB status. Note words of hymn projected on front wall of the sanctuary at upper right of picture.

Pastor is the Rev. Flint Miller.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

More on Jean Ritchie -- including a moving obituary in the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and a 2008 cover of "Pretty Saro" by Sam Amidon


'Saro' from the Sam Amidon album 'All Is Well' -- released on Bedroom Community 2008. Video by Jeremy Blatter. Uploaded on Jan 14, 2008

More about Sam Amidon below.

Lexington Herald-Leader

By far the best obit of Jean Ritchie that I've read appeared Tuesday in the Lexington Herald-Leader, just a few miles up the road (I-75) from Berea. Tuesday's Herald-Leader also carried an editorial "Jean Ritchie: A Righteous Voice of Kentucky." It noted:

If you could take all the sweetness and pain of Kentucky's hills — the green valleys and lilting streams, the evening cool, the history of struggle, oppression and strength — and distill them into a sound, it would be Ritchie's voice.

Her legacy — the songs she wrote and the old songs she saved — will live forever as new generations follow Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens and many others who have borrowed from the Ritchie songbook.

Some of her originals, such as "Black Waters," "Blue Diamond Mines" and "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," personalize environmental and economic injustices in a plain yet piercing way that few writers have equaled.

But most of all, the editorial said this:

She and her husband, George Pickow, a filmmaker and photographer who died in 2010, were an accomplished team.

They documented not just the folkways and music of Appalachia and the British Isles but also of traditional cultures around the world. Their extensive work is part of the American Folklife Center's collection.

Ritchie led a remarkable life that ended as it began, according to her son, Jon Pickow, surrounded by her family singing.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/06/02/3881455/jean-ritchie-a-righteous-voice.html#storylink=cpy ).

I don't read editorials anymore. Most of them move me to heartburn, if they move me at all. But this one moved me almost to tears.

The Herald-Leader's obituary itself had a prosaic news-obituary headline -- "Jean Ritchie, 92, introduced mountain dulcimer music to the world" -- but it was equally moving. Written by John Cheves of the Herald-Leader, it was lyrical in places.

Here's Cheves's description of the Ritchie family singing in earlier, happier days:

Jean Ruth Ritchie was the last of 14 children born to Balis and Abigail Ritchie in a long-ago place where if you wanted to hear any music, you had better be able to produce it yourself.

The Ritchies, nicknamed "The Singing Family of the Cumberlands," were more than able. Accompanied by Balis on the fiddle or mountain dulcimer, the family joined voices on the front porch in the summer, around the fireplace in the winter, at church, at parties, at festivals. They sang of the hangman and his rope and of Mother getting ready for Heaven when He calls and of Baby Jesus born born O born in Betha-lye-hem. NBC broadcast their Christmas 1955 family reunion to a national audience, live from Viper. There was plenty of music.

More than anything else I've read, Clives' obit in the Herald Leader captures the mixture of high artistry, sophistication and down-home simplicity in Ritchie's music.

Ritchie attended Cumberland College and the University of Kentucky before moving to New York City in 1947 to become a social worker. Her after-hours singing and dulcimer playing in coffeehouses quickly won her a following. In this period following World War II, folk music was a popular curiosity for big-city sophisticates.

This was the first of several "folk revivals" to come, and it launched her career. Dulcimers were uncommon in New York before Ritchie arrived. Afterward, it was — and remains — hard to find a music store without one.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/06/02/3881155_jean-ritchie-who-introduced-mountain.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/06/02/3881155_jean-ritchie-who-introduced-mountain.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Sam Amidon

http://samamidon.bandcamp.com/ http://bedroomcommunity.net/

Here is what the press has to say about the album:

"sky-scrapingly great ... All Is Well is viscerally stunning, comforting, upsetting, entrancing; as long as he can make art like this, Amidon can skip the formality of 'writing songs' forever" -Stylus Magazine

"With All Is Well, Sam Amidon has crafted a precious gem of a record, all in nuances and shades, with delicate overtones and airy harmonies. Sigurðsson's production is light and subtle yet it gives these songs fantastic depth and contrast without ever overshadowing Amidon's delivery. " -The Milk Factory

"A soaring and beautiful butterfly of an album, rich with tuneful wonder and epic song craft." -MusiqueMachine.com

" A veritable classic, a standard for comparisons in this genre from now on. Not to be missed." -Touching Extremes

"a great leap forward... the trio of artists responsible for the record [...] create a very specific space with these arrangements... a very forward-thinking album... Amidon doesn't just update the old world to the new, but finds the roots of the new world in the old. - Pitchfork

"...something of a revelation. Amidon took a collection of traditional songs, wrote new arrangements and [...] turned them into a bedroom rock classic." -Dusted Magazine


Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Jean Ritchie, Dec. 8, 1922-June 1, 2015

An obituary and a reminiscence, followed by a Jean Ritchie song I hope to introduce at Saturday's jam session at Clayville Historic Stagecoach Stop on Ill. 125 in Pleasant Plains.

*Jean Ritchie, with Warren May and Alan Mills at Berea College, 2012

Jean Ritchie of Berea, Ky., who arguably did more to take the Appalachian dulcimer into the mainstream of 20th-century American traditional music than anyone else, died Monday at the age of 92. Others knew her far better than I, so I'll just link to her obits in today's Louisville Courier-Journal, sort of a hometown paper for eastern Kentucky, and the New York Times, also sort of a hometown paper for Ritchie since her career as a musician took off in New York City and she lived on Long Island until her husband George Pickow's death in 2010. Recovering from a stroke she suffered in 2009, she returned to Kentucky and lived near Berea. Reported Margalit Fox of the Times:

The youngest of 14 children in a farming family from Viper, Ky., Ms. Ritchie was a vital link in a chain of oral tradition that stretched back centuries. Her recordings and concerts — she appeared on some of the world’s celebrated stages, including Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London — helped keep the music alive for an international listenership.

Over the years Ms. Ritchie performed jointly with some of the best-known names in folk music, including Pete Seeger and Doc Watson. She was closely associated with the Newport Folk Festival, performing at its inception in 1959 and many times afterward.

Jeffrey Lee Puckett of the Courier-Journal noted, quite correctly, that Jean Ritchie was intimately involved with the folk revival of the 1960s, both in Greenwich Village and the Newport Festival. He added:

Nancy Johnson Barker, a longtime friend and musical compatriot of Ritchie's who organizes the annual Kentucky Music Weekend festival at Iroquois Amphitheater in Louisville, described Ritchie as the "premiere folk singer and traditional folk artist" not only in Kentucky but also nationally — and even internationally.

"She's the reason everybody across the country knows about the dulcimer," Johnson said. The albums she recorded "were shared and played and shared again all across the country."

If it weren't for Jean Ritchie, people like me wouldn't be playing the dulcimer.

I met her two or three times, in receiving lines at dulcimer festivals toward the end of her musical career when she was there to receive lifetime achievement awards. We only spoke briefly -- I recall chuckling with her about the way her fellow Kentuckian Homer Ledford made dulcimers out of scrap wood (my Homer Ledford has a butternut top made of wood from old school desks) -- and I noticed she had a good word for everyone who came up to shake her hand. She was down-to-earth, and completely unaffected.

Others knew her far better than I, like I said, but a couple of Jean Ritchie stories have stayed with me. Once at the Swananoa Gathering, I noticed she was using a big floppy pick on fiddle tunes like "Shady Grove" and "Swing and Turn Jubilee." So between sets I went up front where she'd laid her dulcimer across a chair so I could take a look. She'd cut a rectangular pick out of the lid to a Philadelphia Cream Cheese tub. Ever since I've cut up an assortment of cream cheese, Prairie Farms, Jewel and Anderson Erickson Dairy lids for when I play with a pick and noter. Drives other players crazy, but it's my little tribute to her.

My other memory is from Lois Hornbostel's mountain dulcimer week at Appalachian State or Western Carolina about 14 or 15 years ago. It was toward the end of Jean Ritchie's farewell concert, and she set the instrument aside and started singing "Amazing Grace" the way she had learned it growing up in the Old Regular Baptist church. She sang a cappella, and we -- the entire audience of several hundred people -- joined in call-and-response style as she started each verse, "Through many dangers, toils and snares ...," and so on, and we sang it back to her. It was one of the most powerful experiences of pure, simple, unadorned music -- singing from the heart as country Baptists down home would say -- that I've ever been a part of.

"Pretty Saro"

According to Wikipedia (which I am coming to regard as the best repository of all human knowledge), "Pretty Saro" is an "English folk ballad" that "was rediscovered in North America" a hundred years ago by Cecil Sharp and other songcatchers in southern Appalachia. That's about as close to its origins as we'll ever get. Several versions have been collected over the years, mostly in North Carolina.

Jean Ritchie has a distinctive version. In a thread on Mudcat Cafe, she said she learned it from her "older sisters who went to Berea College in Kentucky" and they learned it from Gladys Jamison, director of the college's Glee Club. "I think she was the one who brought 'our' [Ritchie family] version of 'Pretty Saro' to the Glee Club, and from there the girls began singing it at home. This would be about 1925-26, with Kitty and Patty who were older and were at Berea first. And I was born at the end of 1922, so you see have known this song ALL my singing life. I guess that's why people think of it as a Ritchie song. I wish Miss Jamison had shared more on her song sources, but she never did, as I know."

Jean Ritchie sang it during the 1960s with Doc Watson (a North Carolinian who had another version of the song) in concert at the Folk City club in New York. It's still available on the Smithsonian Folkways label, and it is monument of the real American folk music.

Listen to Ritchie's accompaniment on the dulcimer. She isn't playing chords -- she's improvising harmonies and countermelodies, the same way she and her family did at home.

"We never sang "Saro" without harmony -- just made-up, natural harmonies," she said of their singing on the Mudcat thread. "It's gorgeous, to use a modern adjective! It's one of those tunes calls for harmony, and almost everything one sings sounds great. I used to sing what we called a 'low tenor,'...made a lovely bottom for the song."

There is dulcimer tab available on line at


... and it looks like it's pretty close to Jean Ritchie's version of the traditional song. (I'm not 100 percent sure -- I haven't played it -- but it looks OK on paper. If you play the dulcimer you might want to retune to DAA, though, since the melody is tabbed out on the A string.) The very best way to learn it -- and get a feel for her lovely, simple harmonies -- is to pick up a copy of Jean Ritchie's "Dulcimer Book" (1963).

"The Dulcimer Book" is the book most of us learned to play from back in the day, and it's still in print. Look for it online at Amazon.com, Folkcraft, McSpadden and other outlets. Her tab has fret numbers -- no chords, the dulcimer wasn't (and IMO still isn't) a chordal instrument -- and standard notation. It's in C instead of D, but if you tune the dulcimer to CGG or DAA, you can follow the fret numbers till you know it by ear and the instrument will transpose to whichever key you tune it to.


* Jean Ritchie was the guest of honor at a gallery reception for industrial arts professor Allan Mills' exhibition of antique Kentucky dulcimers at Berea College in the fall of 2012. From left, in picture above: A caretaker whose name I didn't get, Jean Ritchie, luthier Warren May of Berea and Mills.