|This is quite a long article, you might like to download the Acrobat Version by clicking on the button below|
BANJOISTS ON RECORDS
By J. McNaghten
BMG March 1941
Most of the famous players of the banjo whose names are known to the present generation of banjoists have, in the course of their careers, recorded their favourite solos. It is proposed to discuss some of them briefly to assist the enthusiast to derive added benefit and increased pleasure from the solos under discussion by comparing the recording with the published copy.
It is not my intention to acclaim the supremacy of any of the soloists. The reader has, no doubt, his own opinion so these articles will be helpful—not controversial.
Let us begin with that accomplished player of the zither-banjo Ernest Jones, whose fine work on Columbia records (although limited to six issues) was of outstanding merit and attracted much attention in the banjo world.
Here is a list of the records which we will now survey :-
It was in 1928 (if memory serves me right) that "Pompadour" and "Swanee Echoes" was released after securing Ernest Jones' services through the medium of a talent contest. Jones' version of Morley's delightful gavotte -one of the composer's biggest hits on the concert platform - does not differ substantially from the printed copy but at least two points in the recording are worthy of special mention, apart from the high standard of the rendition.
Point one. The effective and deliberate use of an additional E on the third string, adding a touch of individuality to the phrasing of the lead-in. Listen to the record and the effect is self-explanatory.
Point two. The use of the glissando on the first string at the end of the second movement before the repeat. It is a slide from A to E. This idea can be varied by using an artificial harmonic E - obtained at the fifth fret on the second string. As the left hand is already at this position (holding the chord of A minor) all that is necessary is to produce the harmonic (at the seventeenth fret) with the thumb and first finger of the right hand. Incidentally Ernest Jones ends the coda with an arpeggio on the chord of G, evidently preferring it to the bass-string note used and indicated by the composer.
"Swanee Echoes" gives much food for thought; it is a fine solo wonderfully played. In the third movement the player wisely makes use of the gut string for melody notes written above the banjo's low G. This effective idea (also occurring in his record of "Return of the Regiment") is most useful for providing the balance of tone colour so essential in such movements. To reproduce this effect, play the notes not written for the fourth string on the third string and the correct accompanying chords will be found to fall under the fingers.
The main difference in the fourth movement is the use of elaboration: i.e., spreading out the staccato chords. This effect, too, is obvious and easy to emulate. There is a change in the chording of the coda but it would require the ear of a Geoff. Sisley or a Herb. Sargent (how many readers remember his excellent article on "Taking Down a Solo from a Gramophone Record"?) to identify the actual chords used.
Both melody and harmony display a minor form and the effect is particularly enhanced by the clever modulations introduced at this stage by Jack Venables on piano. The reader may find it necessary to hear this part of the record several times to follow the theme correctly. Perhaps Mr. Jones may care to assist here?
"Mississippi Bubble" and "Nigger-town" followed the above and contained some arresting points—not the least of which was the masterly accompaniments provided, once more, by Venables who seems to eclipse all others in this special sphere.
In changing the time of "Mississippi Bubble" our artist secured a result which, when combined with the ripple of the pianist's dexterous accompaniment (so suggestive of flowing water) was novel and highly successful. Without using musical examples the precise difference he brought about is difficult to explain. However, as it was confined to the second and fourth movements we will endeavour to indicate how it was done. In the first bar of the second movement we have the crotchet B followed by two quavers A# and B, the latter being tied to the crotchet A which completes the bar. Now, if we play the first B as a quaver, followed by another quaver (A#) then add the stolen value to the tied note B and then play the crochet A we have a fair copy of the solo as recorded; provided all similar bars in these movements are treated exactly the same.
In "Niggertown" the only deviation from the copy occurs in the first movement (fourth bar). Instead of playing the spread-out chord of C, F# and A (3,3, 1) at the fifth position, Jones uses the chord F#, A and D (4, I, 2). The reader may play only the melody note D at the twelfth fret (repeated thrice) if preferred. This change, although slight, brightens the movement considerably.
"Joy Dance" contains only two "additions". They are both fret glides on the fourth string. One is used at the end of the first movement before the repeat "bridging" the last bar to the first. The player may find it easier to substitute a slide here, in which case he should proceed as follows:
play the open C, then immediately commence a slide from the first fret to the fifth whilst the string is still vibrating. Care must be taken not to strike the string more than once with the right hand. The second of these fret glides on the fourth string leads in to the third movement. Stop the string at D, and slide to F, whilst using alternate right-hand fingering. The sforzandos which Jones employs in the final repeat of the first movement (together with his gradual accellarando) can easily be copied. It is important to keep the attack clear-cut.
"La Vivandiere" is a superb record but one cannot help feeling that the digressions it contains are not happy ones; in fact, a stricter adherence to the printed copy would, it seems, have brought about a more successful result. The interpolation of a melody from Liszt's "Second Rhapsody" (in the piano accompaniment to the second movement) though interesting is irrelevant. The sostenuto scale passage followed by the fortissimo chord tremolo of the coda is an object lesson on how to make right-hand fingernails reproduce the effect of a plectrum.
For those interested in the changes made to the third movement here is a brief resumé of the work involved. The first nine bars are treated in the "triplet form" of spread-out chords, then the score is followed for three bars. After this the whole theme is played in chord tremolo without deviation from the written melody until the last four bars are reached. A glance at the printed page shows the accented notes of F, B, E, D, and C. The first of these (with its accompanying chord) is played as written but all the others are played an octave higher.
Now we come to the final alteration. The reader should go from the D.S. sign and keep to the copy until he reaches the twenty-eighth bar. It is here that Jones inserts his own version of a coda to this grand solo. He commences his scale-wise progression after playing the C which is the last note in this bar, following with D, then E, F#, G, G#, A and B. All this appears to be played on the first string as the notes are played tremolo but the passage could be played on the second string à la Parke Hunter. Ernest Jones finishes the melody on G using a powerful tremolo on the chord of C major; making a terrific and forceful ending.
"The Kilties" and "Return of the Regiment" are next to be considered. In the former, there are two changes; the use of chord tremolo in the third movement and the substitution of three-note chords for the air "Annie Laurie". All the chords in the third movement are played with the clear, strong tremolo characterising so many of Ernest Jones' recordings. (The best example of this technique is to be found in his recorded arrangement of "Mighty America" which forms part of the suite "Yankiana" by T. W. Thurban.)
The effect of using chords for the theme of the old Scottish song, which places the melody an octave higher than indicated in the printed copy, is heightened by the addition of pleasing slides on the bass string (open C to Bь). Particular mention might here be made of the manner in which the melody notes "sing" on the first string; a result largely dependent on the use of right-hand finger-nails.
The changes in the reverse side of this disc are fortunately simpler to follow. They occur in the third movement. Play all melody notes not written for the fourth string on the third string and it will be found that all accompanying chords "come out" an octave higher on the first and second strings. The slight effort required to invert these chords correctly is well repaid by the vastly improved results. Notice that Mr. Jones repeats (or "doubles") the accompanying chords to the melody in the bass without loss of tempo, tone or volume thus providing yet another instance of his fine technique. Although the ritard introduced in the last few bars does not seem to be quite in keeping with the spirit of this solo it does not prevent this record from rating high as a unique example of originality and ingenuity applied to a composition which had already been recorded previously at least twice. This version is definitely the best and most interesting "on wax".
We now come to "Darktown Dandies" and "A Ragtime Episode", both of which contain some praiseworthy achievements. In the first movement of "Darktown Dandies" a slide of one octave on the fourth string (from the third fret to the fifteenth) is introduced, leading in to the melody at the fifteenth position. Once again the use of this device is self-evident. Another bass-string slide, commencing with open C and ending on Aь (eighth fret), occurs at the end of the eleventh bar in the second movement between the last chord at the sixth position and the first chord at the eighth position in the next bar. This effect is used in the same way as the slide referred to in the review of "Joy Dance", being a slide "bridging" one bar to another.
There is one change in "A Ragtime Episode" which, although an old and well-worn "ending phrase" (in C minor) certainly adds a new touch to this "old timer". The phrase takes the following form : octave G, Aь octave G, F, Eь, open D and G. This occurs in the eighth bar. The really remarkable feature of "A Ragtime Episode" is the "golden" quality of the tone embodied in it.
It is a pity that neither "Carry On" nor "Mighty America" (Columbia DB. 137) are published banjo solos. A whole article could be devoted to "Mighty America" alone for it is a masterly piece of work and a triumph of finger-style banjo playing at its best.
ALL HOMAGE TO THE PLAYER!
Please check back regularly!