The Old 78's and the Cello Banjo - Interview by Paul Roberts 11/24/08
The Old 78’s: Old Time Fiddle Rags, Classic and Minstrel Banjo is a CD featuring the musical artistry of Carole Anne Rose, Curly Miller and Clarke Buehling.
A collection of rare vintage banjos, together with old-time fiddle, ring forth with musical relics of a bygone era
- classic banjo orchestra music, ragtime and minstrel banjo tunes. According to renowned musician Marcy Marxer, The Old 78’s “are experts in a field in which there are very few people who know even a fraction of what they know.”
Set up with skin heads, nylon and gut strings, their banjos have a pleasing, mellow sound. And, listening to the group romp through their delightful melodies, we hear something very spunky happening in the lower portion of the sonic spectrum. “Perhaps most surprising among the hardware armada is a cello banjo, the equivalent of a contrabass, tuba, or bassoon,” writes Mark S. Tucker in his review of Old Time Fiddle Rags, Classic and Minstrel Banjo.
It was a shared interest in the Cello Banjo, in particular, that brought yours truly into contact with Carole Anne, Curly and Clarke. I wanted to find out about the musical interests of these inspired musicians, how they got together and especially their use of the Cello Banjo.
Tell me something about your music.
Curly: We like to delve into the Classic Banjo Era of mostly unrecorded pieces that only exist on sheet music today. Our objective is to recreate the actual sound of First, Second and Cello Banjo. We also like to play popular piano and orchestra pieces of the time and arrange them for our particular banjo orchestra setting. Clarke: We're interested in some of the Northern, urban, pre-blues, pre-bluegrass sounds along with Southern and Appalachian music. I have collected sheet music for a good many pieces scored for one and two banjos, two mandolins (or more), and guitar. Some of the music is familiar - like Sousa marches - but much is obscure but excellent pieces. You refer to Classic and Minstrel banjo styles. Many of us are familiar with Clawhammer, Scruggs and Keith styles, but don’t know much about the styles you’re playing. Where did this start for you? Carole Anne: Clarke has the longest history with this type of music and is well known for his contributions in both Classic and Minstrel Banjo styles. As a longtime member of the American Banjo Fraternity, Clarke has been one of the major proponents of the style. Curly met Clarke and became a member of his band, The Skirtlifters, in about 1986, and toured nationally with them until the early 1990’s. Clarke was our introduction to Classic and Minstrel banjo and great Old Time fiddle tunes. In about 2001, I began taking Minstrel Banjo lessons from Clarke and in about 2004, at a local house concert, someone commented on how coincidental (or odd!) that all three of us Classic Banjo players were right here in Fayetteville, Arkansas! Clarke suggested that we get together to play some tunes ‘if only to show that we can share.’ Since then, we have been exploring our musical interests, arranging parts, rehearsing, performing - and now we’ve completed our first CD together!
How do you find this music?
Carole Anne: Clarke has an extensive sheet music collection; he and Curly arrange various parts specifically for us and for the instrumentation we use, including the Cello Banjo. The Classic Banjo pieces, Minstrel tunes and Ragtime Fiddle Band repertoire on our CD is music we’ve developed over the past 4 years.
Who produced the album?
Carole Anne: We recorded it ourselves in our own state-of-the-art recording studio. Curly is getting to be well known for his skill in capturing the ‘live’ sound of this genre of acoustic music.
OK, getting to my personal preoccupation, how do you use the Cello Banjo?
Curly: We use it at every opportunity! Primarily, we use it as a bass instrument for our Classic banjo arrangements, which includes melody and countermelody lines as exemplified in our recording of the piece, ‘Entry of the Gladiators,’ on the CD. In classical music, there is a tradition of marches and anthems that are melodically dominated by the low brass instruments. This is a perfect application for the 5-string Cello banjo, since it can be played in various ways to sound like a low horn, tuba or stringed bass, depending on the needs of the piece. We also use it as a combination bass and chording instrument for Minstrel tunes, and as a funky gitjo-like (guitar-banjo), backup instrument, as can be heard on ‘Cat Rag’ and ‘Plowboy Hop.’ I’ll play it on some of our jigs, 3-finger style, with Carole Anne playing the Second, just to give audiences an idea of how the cello sounds as a melody instrument.
How long have you been playing Cello Banjo?
Clarke: I've used the Cello Banjo on almost all of the recordings I have done since 1978: Banjo Gems, Buehling Banjos, Somewhere in Dixie, Fire Alarm!, Wait for the Wagon, A Ragtime Episode, The Old 78’s. My cello banjo is an original S.S. Stewart 5-string as pictured in the SSS reprinted catalog and on the cover of our CD. We use one or two in the American Banjo Fraternity banjo orchestra (4 and 5-string cellos) along with a piccolo banjo and several banjeaurines.
What was your first exposure to the instrument?
Clarke: I first heard one in the recordings by Charles Mansell of England in 1972. I obtained one that had been used in the Aston Banjo Club in 1978. When I asked Mr. Mansell about how to use it he told me to just play the second banjo published parts on it. I found the chords in first position muddy, however, and went to using bass notes only. Later I began experimenting with chords in the middle of the neck, which were more sonorous. I arranged a few pieces for banjo and Cello Banjo as a duet but I have never recorded them. With The Old 78s, Curly and I have experimented with its use in the trio combination.
I understand you recorded Old Time Fiddle Rags, Classic and Minstrel Banjo before the Gold Tones came out.
Curly: On our CD, we used Clarke's 5-string S.S. Stewart Cello Banjo - one of only 12 known to exist today. Now we are using the Gold Tone 5-string cello for all performances and recording projects. The Gold Tone Cello Banjo has far surpassed our hopes for a modern replacement for Clarke’s antique S.S. Stewart Cello Banjo.
How would you compare the two?
Curly: The Gold Tone is significantly easier to play. It is beautifully designed, well made, and has an unbelievably wonderful sound! Its deep, rich, somewhat slack sound adds a foundation that supports the First and Second banjo parts; it also has enough clarity to clearly project melody passages, counterpoints and bass lines.
How did you come by your Gold Tone Cello Banjo?
Curly: We had been on the lookout for a Cello Banjo for many years, since none of us liked the responsibility of traveling with Clarke’s very precious antique. During one of our Clifftop jams, Bob Carlin told us that Wayne Rogers, president of Gold Tone, was going to make a Gold Tone 4-string Cello Banjo for Marcy Marxer, and that we should talk to him about making a 5-string for us. Carole Anne: Bob introduced us to Wayne and we played our Classic Banjo pieces for him. Later, we sent him pictures and measurements of Clarke’s cello along with recordings of our in-progress CD so he could hear how we were incorporating the 5-string cello into the banjo orchestra setting and fiddle band rags of the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Wayne urged us to post some videos on YouTube, which we did. We now have our own awesome Gold Tone (gold-plated) 5-string Cello Banjo!
What do you think about the reemergence of these ancient instruments?
Carole Anne: We’ve noticed that 5-string players are quickly able to transfer their playing skills to the Gold Tone CEB-5, which makes it immediately accessible to a huge number of banjo players! Of course, the pitch, tone and dynamics of the instrument are all incredibly attractive so there are even more compelling reasons to own one than just the fact that it can be easily played. We have also been able to play our Classic Banjo pieces with Marcy Marxer, playing her CEB-4, which is as much fun as having Curly or Clarke playing the CEB-5! Folks will have a great time experimenting with these exciting instruments, both playing in the “old” way and finding new ways to play them. Clarke: I've felt for a long time that the instrument had great potential, but since there are so few originals, I am very glad to see it being manufactured again so that more musicians will have an opportunity to work on its development.
The Old 78's Recordings
The Old 78's Videos
|“Old 78’s and Shiitakes: Carole Anne Rose and Curly Miller” By Steve Green
All the music on The Old 78’s: Old Time Fiddle Rags, Classic and Minstrel Banjo can be previewed at http://cdbaby.com/cd/old78s and purchased there or from The Old 78’s website : http://www.theold78s.com
From Kingston, Arkansas
Visit their website at http://www.theold78s.com