Liner Notes for Old Time Guitar
I would like to start out by acknowledging the immeasurable contributions made by Black and Indigenous people to the development of traditional string band music in North America, contributions which have been greatly obscured and undervalued over time as a result of systematic racism. Throughout its history, what we know as ‘old time music’ has benefited from the participation of countless Black and Indigenous musicians, yet the work of these musicians has often gone unrecorded, unattributed and unrecognized, while the music of their white counterparts (in many cases directly influenced by their engagement with uncredited Black and Indigenous musicians) is carefully preserved and celebrated. There is a lot of work to be done by white people in the old time community (myself included) to educate themselves about this history and to honor these contributions - not only in the tunes we choose to play and the musicians we choose to venerate, but also in who we actively support and welcome into old time spaces.
The tunes on this album are traditional in origin, except for:
‘Jonesboro’ by Oscar ‘Red’ Wilson;
‘Boys Them Buzzards Are Flying’ by Garry Harrison;
‘Benton’s Dream’ by Benton Flippen.
All tracks arranged, performed, and recorded by Mark Harris
Pre-production consultation by Matt Brown
Mixing and mastering by Mat Leffler-Schulman
Each track was recorded in a single take with no overdubbing, on a Martin custom 00-15-style acoustic guitar.
A note on tuning:
I play a lot of things in standard tuning. When I do use alternate tunings, I’m usually not tuning to an open chord (at least, not entirely). Typically I’ll tune down some combination of the lower three strings by a whole step (to allow for different open drone notes according to the key of the tune), but won’t alter the tuning of the highest three strings (so as to more easily access the full range of melody notes). Drop-tuning only one bass string in this manner (the 6th) is a common move for guitarists playing in the key of D (here, see ’Roscoe Parish’s Waltz’). Less commonly, I extend this approach by drop-tuning both the 6th and 5th strings for some G tunes (‘High up on Tug’, ’Lost Girl’), or even drop-tuning all three bass strings for some C tunes (‘Grey Eagle’, ‘Rye Straw’). There are a couple of exceptions to this approach on the album: namely, ‘Camp Chase / Big Eyed Rabbit’ (open G tuning) and ‘My Journey Home’ (E A D G B A). I include further information and explanation about these exceptions in the individual track notes.
1 Grub Springs
Notes: A rollicking dance tune in A major, from a 1939 Library of Congress field recording of fiddler Ernest Claunch and guitarist Christeen Haygood made in Guntown, Mississippi. Their performance has a delightfully raucous energy to it, between the exuberant fiddle playing, Haygood’s forceful guitar, and Claunch’s whooping and shouting over it all (early recordists would sometimes encourage fiddlers to call while they played, as they often would when playing for a dance.) Many guitarists play tunes in this key with a capo on the 2nd fret (as if playing a G tune), but I have developed a fondness for playing A tunes without a capo, as I do here. Though not without its difficulties, it has some unexpected advantages - for instance, making it possible to use the open E, A and D strings to outline chord changes underneath the melody. ‘Grub Springs’ was one of a handful of A tunes early on that helped me solidify my approach, the high part in this arrangement making particularly noticeable use of these low open drones.
2 Brown Button Shoes / Jonesboro
Notes: ‘Brown Button Shoes’ is a sweet little Kentucky tune recorded by fiddler Buddy Thomas (1934-1974) for his album Kitty Puss: Old-Time Fiddle Music from Kentucky (with Leona Stamm on guitar). I’m particularly fond of the way the B part seems to playfully flit between the keys of G major and C major, never seeming fully settled in either. ‘Jonesboro’ - alternately ‘Goin’ back to Jonesboro’ - was composed by master fiddler Oscar ‘Red’ Wilson (1920-2005) of western North Carolina (likely sometime in the 1960s, during his long stint with the Toe River Valley Boys). This G modal tune’s uncommonly wide pitch range makes for exciting transitions between the gritty rumble of the low part and the singing, bluesy notes of the high part.
3 Yew Piney Mountain
Notes: A characteristically haunting modal tune in A from West Virginia. I learned this one from a version by Calhoun County fiddler Harvey Sampson (1909-1991), recorded as a fiddle-banjo duet with Larry Rader on the 1987 Augusta Heritage release Flatfoot in the Ashes. The way Sampson phrases the tune is especially crooked, with a lot of long, held notes between its rickety phrases. On Matt Brown’s suggestion, I shifted one of the B parts up an octave, playing it way up on the guitar neck - I like the way this change in register emphasizes the tune’s lonely atmosphere.
4 Buck Mountain
Notes: I picked up this excellent D major tune at old time jam sessions and by listening to recordings of modern players. According to Pete Vigour, it can be traced back to the 1930s (at least), to a fiddler in Albemarle County, Virginia by the incredible name of Napoleon Bonaparte ‘Uncle Nip’ Chisholm. ‘Driving’ feels like an especially apt term here - emerging from the notey A part into the expansive B part feels like rounding the last of a series of racetrack corners and heading out onto a long straight.
5 Grey Eagle
Tuning: D G C G B E
Notes: This tune comes from legendary North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin (1881-1974), as recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax and Joseph Liss for the Library of Congress. One of many distinct tunes going by this name, Martin evidently learned this C major version from an older fiddler by the name of J. Dedrick Harris, though he also put his own idiosyncratic spin on the melody. I’m particularly fond of the way Martin drops several beats from the end of the high section, making the resolution come sooner than expected. I’ve always liked playing this tune at a fairly relaxed tempo - it takes on a meditative quality yet never seems to lose its momentum, due to a restless, lyrical A part and a B part full of bouncing string crossings.
6 Boys Them Buzzards Are Flying
Notes: A modern A major tune written by the great Illinois fiddler, composer and tune collector, Garry Harrison (1954-2012). It’s a truly beguiling tune, its relatively direct A part giving way to a tantalizingly crooked B part that seems to cycle back in on itself. When I first learned ‘Boys Them Buzzards Are Flying’, I would (as per usual for the guitar) exclusively play it an octave lower than the fiddle, but some experiments with sliding chord shapes and left-hand muting yielded an interesting (and unexpectedly fun!) way to play it up in fiddle register.
7 My Journey Home
Tuning: E A D G B A
Notes: This tune comes from a set of 1942 recordings of Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, a Black banjo-fiddle duo from central Tennessee. The duo was recorded in Nashville by noted folklorist John Work III, and reportedly had no extensive experience playing together (which you would not guess from their astonishing performances). Their cut of ‘My Journey Home’ is one of my very favorite old time source documents, full of raw energy and spontaneity, with masterful interplay between Frazier’s banjo and Patterson’s fiddle. Notably for an E minor/G major tune, Frazier hits a recurrent A drone throughout, giving the tune a subtly mysterious atmosphere. To capture this latter feature of Frazier and Patterson’s version, I use a pretty unusual tuning, with the guitar’s high E string tuned down a full fifth, to A. Thankfully the melody itself doesn’t require the use of the high E, making room for its use as an open drone string - and as a side benefit, the resulting looseness of the string lends a certain jangly charm.
8 Roscoe Parish’s Waltz
Tuning: D A D G B E
Notes: A pretty waltz in D major from Roscoe Parish (1897-1984) of Coal Creek, Virginia, who was recorded by Alice Gerrard and Andy Cahan in the early 1980s. While a great many old time tunes can be traced back to Irish and Scottish antecedents, the connection in the case of ‘Roscoe Parish’s Waltz’ is especially direct, its tune being almost identical to that of the Scottish jig ‘Muckin’ o’ Georgie’s Byre’ (except in 3/4 time instead of 6/8). One additional element we do find in Parish’s playing is an uneven, lengthened phrase in the A part, which delicately postpones the melody’s resolution to great effect.
9 Camp Chase / Big Eyed Rabbit
Tuning: D G D G B D
Notes: The first of these, ‘Camp Chase’, is a popular West Virginia tune associated with the musical Carpenter family of Clay County. It is named for a Civil War-era prison in Ohio - according to local legend, Carpenter family member and fiddler Solly ‘Devil Sol’ Carpenter was once incarcerated there, and won his freedom by playing this very tune in a fiddle contest. I learned it from recordings of fiddlers French Carpenter (1905-1965), who was Solly’s grandson, and Wilson Douglas (1922-1999), who studied under French for many years. ‘Camp Chase’ has a unique personality that I enjoy - I especially like the way the momentum of its sprightly high part pulls you along before suddenly dissipating as the tune opens out into the sparse, suspended low part. The second tune, ’Big Eyed Rabbit’, comes from the playing of Matokie Slaughter (1919-1999), innovative banjo player from Pulaski, Virginia. It is an entirely different tune to the more well-known ‘Big Eyed Rabbit’ associated with the Round Peak tradition, and showcases Slaughter’s formidable technique. While in general there are clawhammer influences all over my playing style, here is probably the place on the album where I try to emulate clawhammer banjo playing most closely and directly (so far as I can using a flatpick). As for tuning: I play both of these in G major, splitting the difference between the original keys of the tunes (A and F, respectively). In this key, both tunes require alternating between unison high G notes, fretted on neighboring strings - to be able to comfortably reach this, I tune the 1st string down a step, which (in addition to drop tuning the 6th and 5th strings for reasons described above) results in an open G tuning.
10 Rocky Road to Jordan
Notes: This D major tune is one of my favorites in the Midwest fiddling repertoire. My take here combines elements from a couple of versions: one is Dwight Lamb’s (b. 1934), appearing on his 1999 record Joseph Won a Coated Fiddle… (with Lynn Holsclaw on guitar); the other is Casey Jones’ (1910-1987), as featured alongside banjo player Lena Hughes on the 1992 Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers Association release, Rocky Road to Jordan. I’m really fond of how the nimble, ranging melody of this tune finishes with one of the simplest four note phrases you can imagine - the baldness of it feels somehow mischievous.
11 Rye Straw
Tuning: D G C G B E
Notes: I learned this version from the fiddle playing of Sid Hemphill (1876-1961), Black multi-instrumentalist and bandleader from the hill country of northern Mississippi. He and his regular band - which featured Lucius Smith on banjo, Alec Askew on guitar, and Will Head on percussion - were recorded playing this tune (among others) in 1942, by Alan Lomax and Lewis Jones. ‘Rye Straw’ - alternately ‘Joke on the Puppy’ - is a widespread tune that exists in numerous versions; Hemphill’s way of playing it has a strong droning groove, and the usually discrete key change between sections becomes more fluid and enigmatic. When Hemphill and co. first attempt to end the tune, an unidentified voice implores them to continue (at which point they start up again). I can identify with the owner of that voice - it’s the kind of tune you want to hear (or play) over and over.
12 High up on Tug
Tuning: D G D G B E
Notes: This G major tune is due to fiddler Edden Hammons (1875-1955), who belonged to the well-known Hammons Family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. It appears as one of a set of solo fiddle recordings of Hammons made in 1947 by the folklorist Louis Chappell. ‘High up on Tug’ feels ruminative and meandering in the best possible way, and this is further heightened by the lopsidedness of the low part, with its odd numbered repetitions and added beats. The odd title is apparently a reference to Tug Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River in West Virginia.
13 Benton’s Dream
Notes: Composed by legendary North Carolina fiddler Benton Flippen (1920-2011), this A modal tune can be heard on Flippen’s 1993 record, Old Time New Times. ‘Benton’s Dream’ is assertively direct, perhaps most evidently when a full half of the B section is spent chugging away at a single, unbroken G chord. (This feels anything but static - somehow it instead serves to drive the tune harder.) I learned a lot trying to emulate the sliding, bluesy phrasing of Flippen’s playing on this one.
14 Ducks on the Millpond
Notes: A sweet D major tune from Virginia, with a rolling, gently insistent rhythm. ’Ducks on the Millpond’ is from the playing of Grayson County fiddler Emmett Lundy (1864-1953), who was recorded in 1941 by Elizabeth and Alan Lomax. I find this tune kind of mesmerizing, with its short, repetitive sections flowing smoothly and invitingly into one another. On the guitar, I’m constantly crossing strings in unusual ways (especially in the A part) in order to emulate Lundy’s fine rocking bow work.
15 Lost Girl
Tuning: D G D G B E
Notes: John Morgan Salyer (1882-1952) was an acclaimed and highly influential fiddler from Magoffin County in eastern Kentucky; my rendition of ‘Lost Girl’ is based upon his oft-played version, which comes from a 1941 home recording made by his sons Grover and Glen Salyer. This tune is wonderfully infectious, the high part in particular having a jubilant, singing quality that I adore. The tuning I use here (with the 5th string lowered to a G) not only allows for a low tonic drone in parts, but also makes it possible in the B section for me to outline the full chord progression below the melody, making the arrival into that section feel especially impactful.
Firstly, I am greatly indebted to Matt Brown for the extensive work he put into to the making and release of this record - his generous and expert assistance was invaluable, and his relentless enthusiasm for the project meant a lot to me.
I’d also like to thank Cameron DeWhitt, who has been a firm advocate of my playing and was a key force in convincing me to make a solo guitar album.
I am grateful to Mat Leffler-Schulman for his excellent mixing and mastering work, without which this album (recorded in a modest home studio during a pandemic) would not sound nearly as good.
Thanks also to the wonderful people who make up the northern Colorado old time community, who were so welcoming to me when I moved to the area two years ago, and have been enormously supportive in the time since.
Finally, all the love and gratitude in the world to my partner Domenica Romagni, who lent her intelligence and careful ear to every stage of the project, and whose steadfast support made everything possible. The record could not have been made without her.
This album is dedicated to Leanne Harris (1977-2018) - dear sister, friend and role model.