a hand with the circle of fifths

(originally posted on Banjo Hangout)

I’ll give you a hand with this …
a hand, with numbers

Yeah, that’s my right hand. Spare me the tree-frog comments, but note how I’ve carefully numbered the fingers.

You play banjo, so you know stuff in the key of G. So you know three chords: G, C and D7. Musicians are fiddly bunch, with all their sharps and flats and all, but notes go A B C D E F G, then back to A as they go up. If you start with G = 1, you’ll see that C = 4 and D = 5. Let’s not worry about the fact that you (probably) play a D7 chord, but look at the key of G hand:
a hand, in the key of G

For some reason (look up chord theory, or chord progressions) the 1, 4 and 5 chords sound good together. Some people write ’em as I, IV and V if they’re feeling all fancy and classical like.

I hate to break it to you, but not all tunes are in the key of G. I know, it’s hard to take. What if it’s in A? Well, use the hand, with A as the first (or root) chord:
a hand, in the key of A

So to play those nice sounding 1-4-5 chords in A, you need to know A, D and E (or E7, if you’re feeling folky). In this case, the D pretty much has to be the real finger-stretching D chord (hard for us tree-frogs) or it’ll sound naff.

If you’re singing along to your old Pete Seeger 78s, yer traditional folk/gospel/church songs are in C. Hand to the rescue!
a hand, in the key of C

So, for the key of C, you need the chords C, F and G (or G7). F is a nightmare on a guitar, easier on a banjo, easiest of all on an autoharp.

Just in case you ever need a song in D, here’s that hand again:
a hand, in the key of D

You guessed it – D, G and A (or A7).

That’s how Chris Coole taught me it. It’s a bit of a simplification, but it works for me.

best of 2008

Best albums; and yeah, even in order of preference:

  1. Shall Noise Upon — Apollo Sunshine: came to this completely cold, having never even heard of them. Stylistically all over the place: whisky and hellfire on one track giving way to mellow dippiness that I think even McCa would blanch at. Ultimately, it’s Singing To The Earth (To Thank Her For You) that sold it to me.
  2. Funplex — The B-52’s: worth the wait from 1992. Fun dance music with gleefully smutty lyrics. Now my very favourite B-52’s album.
  3. Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes — The Music Tapes: look, it’s got Freeing Song By Reindeer on it. If it doesn’t make you shed tears of joy while you caterwaul Ride the elves’ cloven-hooved horsey … along with Julian, there’s something wrong with you.
  4. Proof of Love — Old Man Luedecke: Chris Luedecke just gets better and better as a songwriter, and his self-deprecating stage persona as Old Man Luedecke is a hoot.
  5. Recapturing the Banjo — Otis Taylor: great banjo work from this bluesman.
  6. Everytime! —Sheesham & Lotus: the high-steppin’, cake-walkin’ fiddle, banjo and harmonica duo release their first official album, recorded in crackly faux-78 “Sepiatone”. Almost as much fun as seeing them live.
  7. Earth Sciences — Laura Barrett: Toronto’s queen of the kalimba‘s second EP wins out over her full length release (Victory Garden), in that the EP has Robot Ponies, and doesn’t have the annoying final track which appears to be all of the other tracks layered on top of one another.
  8. Luna — The Aliens: Piper-era Floyd mixed with the Beach Boys, all fed through a special Fife filter.
  9. Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust — Sigur Rós: I still have no idea what they’re singing about, but I wish they’d keep doing it.
  10. Then We Were Older — Ideal Free Distribution: another slab of catchy psych-pop from Kentucky.

Near Miss: Holler and Stomp — Dressy Bessy: angular bubblegum pop, quite delightful.
Definitely Demented: Live! From CarnEGGy Hall — Orriel Smith: seriously, coloratura chicken impersonations. Beyond weird, and beyond brilliant.
It Came Out Last Year, So Now It’s All Car Ads: Oh, My Darling — Basia Bulat: despite that, it’s great. And she plays autoharp.

2008 contenders

I fear I may have to play by the “best of” rules that everyone else plays by this year. As I have had to rip and encode all of my albums this year, I can’t tell which older releases I bought this year. So here are the 2008 releases:

  • A Sound Legacy: 60 Years of Folkways Records and 20 Years of Smithsonian Folkways
  • Accelerate — R.E.M.
  • April — Sun Kil Moon
  • Bad Case of History — Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
  • Cheap — Seasick Steve
  • Como Now: The Voices of Panola Co., Mississippi
  • Conor Oberst — Conor Oberst
  • Devotion — Beach House
  • Earth Sciences — Laura Barrett
  • Electronic Projects for Musicians — The Apples in Stereo
  • Everytime! — Sheesham and Lotus
  • Funplex — The B-52’s
  • Holler and Stomp — Dressy Bessy
  • In a Cave — Elf Power
  • Live at the Moonshine Café — Steve Payne with Al Lerman
  • Live! From CarnEGGy Hall — Orriel Smith
  • Luna — The Aliens
  • Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust — Sigur Rós
  • Modern Guilt — Beck
  • Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes — The Music Tapes
  • Proof of Love — Old Man Luedecke
  • Recapturing The Banjo — Otis Taylor
  • Sea Lion — The Ruby Suns
  • Shadow Cat — Robyn Hitchcock
  • Shall Noise Upon — Apollo Sunshine
  • Skeletal Lamping — Of Montreal
  • Soft Airplane — Chad Van Gaalen
  • Spectrum 14th century — Final Fantasy
  • That Lucky Old Sun — Brian Wilson
  • The Living and The Dead — Jolie Holland
  • The Singing Saw At Christmastime — Julian Koster
  • Then We Were Older — Ideal Free Distribution
  • Third — Portishead
  • Turn the Water on, Boy! — The Coal Porters
  • Victory Garden — Laura Barrett
  • Volume One — She & Him

announcing the automatic podcast

Every day, the automatic podcast presents a random selection from my music collection. And I mean random: cartoon incidental music, snatches of folk songs, instrument tuition, and ancient scratchy 78s nestle up against my favourite indie hits. And it’s all introduced by a synthesized compère. I have no idea what’s going to be in it each day, and no records are kept of what was offered yesterday. It’s meant to be a daily snapshot, not an ongoing record.

There are still a few bugs to get out of the RSS feed, but generally I’m happy with how it works. There is some listener discretion required, as I can’t vet what goes into each day’s presentation.

Update, 30 Sep 2008: think I’ve fixed the RSS problems.


Pleasantly surprised that a local store – Scarboro Music, at Vic Park and Kingston has autoharp strings.

It also has a very fine old Dobson banjo for $1500.

best of 2007

I said I’d bend the rules a bit, but here’s the ten best albums I heard this year, in alphabetical order:

  • The Aliens — Astronomy For Dogs: add a Lone Pigeon to a few remaining Betas, and the result is funkiness. This album has more earworms than is safe. They are even better live.
  • Animal Collective — Strawberry Jam: I pretty much have to be alone and sitting down to listen to this. For Reverend Green especially; it’s all involuntary limb movements, sinuses exploding with joy (this probably doesn’t happen to you, I hope), and ullulating Oo oo weeuh yeh … ee yeh yeh etc for me. Other Animals didn’t do so badly either this year: Panda Bear’s Person Pitch was joyful, and even the bafflingly backwards Pullhair Rubeye from Avey and Kría had something.
  • Colleen — The Golden Morning Breaks (2005): very sparse but beautiful notes. I’ll Read You a Story is the sound that angels make.
  • A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble: featuring magyar madness, crafty cimbalom, and the only piece of bagpipe music that won’t make you want to hack your ears off with a meat cleaver. It’s doubly nice that it features Zach Condon actually playing with his heroes, rather than just trying to sound like them.
  • Ideal Free Distribution: lush 60s rhythm and harmonies, with a ton of mellotron laid on top. Poppy enough that no-one I’ve played it to doesn’t like it.
  • Dan Jones and The Squids — Totally Human: Dan has clearly listened to a lot of both Robyn Hitchcock and The Minutemen, and has come up with a noisy but thoughtful album, which we play all the time.
  • Old Man Luedecke — Hinterland (2006): merge sly alt.country lyrics with pretty clawhammer banjo, and you’ve got the Old Man. Bonus points for coupling the words “oracular bent” in a song, and getting away with it, too.
  • Ken Reaume — Four Horses: Ken quite modestly compares himself to Elliott Smith and Nick Drake. He’s easily the equal of both. Beautiful fingerpicking and whispered confessional lyrics.
  • Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter — Like, Love, Lust, & The Open Halls of the Soul: you’ll fall for Jesse’s world-weary lisp and the drawling psych guitar. I did (and unfortunately discovered her other two albums, Reckless Burning and Oh My Girl, are almost identical. Oh well; very good, but very samey).
  • Porter Wagoner — Wagonmaster: if you’re gonna go, go out on a high note. That’s exactly what The Thin Man From West Plains did. It’s very straight country, but the decades of experience polish it brighter than rhinestones.

2007 contenders

I’m going to play the blogger’s best of the year game differently this year, but I need to keep the rules roughly the same so that I am (for once) on the same planet. I’m going to choose ten best albums, but they’re what I discovered in 2007, not just those released in 2007.

So these are my contenders:

  • A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble — A Hawk And A Hacksaw And The Hun Hangár Ensemble
  • Air — Pocket Symphony
  • Akron/Family — Love Is Simple
  • Akron/Family — Meek Warrior (2006)
  • Animal Collective — Strawberry Jam
  • Architecture In Helsinki — Places Like This
  • Avey Tare & Kría Brekkan — Pullhair Rubeye
  • Bees — Octopus
  • Beirut — The Flying Club Cup
  • Black Lips — Good Bad Not Evil
  • Bonnie Russell and the Russell Family — Mountain Dulcimer Galax Style (1995)
  • Bright Eyes — Cassadaga
  • Caribou — Andorra
  • Cathy Fink — Banjo Talkin’
  • Colleen — The Golden Morning Breaks (2005)
  • Dan Jones and The Squids — Totally Human
  • Devendra Banhart — Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
  • Dock Boggs — His Folkways Years (1963-1968) (1998)
  • Donovan — Barabajagal (1969)
  • Donovan — Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968)
  • Donovan — Mellow Yellow (1967)
  • Donovan — Sunshine Superman (1966)
  • Enoch Kent — I’m a Rover (2006)
  • Erynn Marshall & Chris Coole — Meet Me In The Music
  • Feist — The Reminder
  • Fountains of Wayne — Traffic and Weather
  • Fred Spek’s Camp Combo — Rock Paper Scissors (2006)
  • Grinderman — Grinderman
  • Hamish Imlach — Cod Liver Oil & Orange Juice (2006)
  • Howe Gelb — ‘Sno Angel Like You (2006)
  • Ideal Free Distribution — Ideal Free Distribution
  • Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones — The Resurrection of Spiders in the Moonlight
  • Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter — Like Love, Lust, & The Open Halls of the Soul
  • Joanna Newsom — Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP
  • John Fahey — The Best Of John Fahey Vol. 2 1964-1983 (2004)
  • Johnny Cash — American I & II
  • Judee Sill — Judee Sill (2006)
  • Ken Reaume — Four Horses
  • Kevin Drew — Spirit If…
  • Kilby Snow — Kilby Snow: Country Songs and Tunes with Autoharp
  • Kimberley Rew — Ridgeway (2006)
  • Marissa Nadler — Songs III: Bird On The Water
  • Michael Hurley — First Songs (1964)
  • Mimi & Richard Fariña — Vanguard Visionaries – Mimi & Richard Fariña
  • Monica Grabin — Continental Village
  • Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
  • Of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
  • Okkervil River — The Stage Names
  • Old Man Luedecke — Hinterland (2006)
  • Otha Turner — Everybody Hollerin’ Goat (1998)
  • Panda Bear — Person Pitch
  • Po’ Girl — Home to You
  • Porter Wagoner — Wagonmaster
  • Radiohead — In Rainbows
  • Ragged But Right — Down Harmony Road
  • Robert Force & Albert d’Ossché — Tiger Dreams
  • Sons of the Never Wrong — Nuthatch Suite (2005)
  • Stew — Guest Host (2000)
  • The Aliens — Astronomy For Dogs
  • The Apples in Stereo — New Magnetic Wonder
  • The Arcade Fire — Neon Bible
  • The Besnard Lakes — The Besnard Lakes Are The Dark Horse
  • The Carter Family — The Carter Family 1927-1934 (2001)
  • The Foggy Hogtown Boys — Pigtown Fling
  • The Harvey Girls — The Wild Farewell (2005)
  • The High Water Marks — Polar
  • The Houseplants — Livingroom
  • The Hylozoists — La Fin du Monde (2006)
  • The Icicles — Arrivals & Departures
  • The Ladybug Transistor — Can’t Wait Another Day
  • The Negro Problem — Post Minstrel Syndrome (2002)
  • The Polyphonic Spree — The Fragile Army
  • The Soft Machine — The Soft Machine (1968)
  • The Unicorns — Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? (2003)
  • They Might Be Giants — The Else
  • Tiger Lillies (with Kronos Quartet) — The Gorey End (2003)
  • Uncle Dave Macon — Classic Sides
  • Various Artists — Skiffle – The Best Of (2006)
  • Various Artists — The Old Time Banjo Festival
  • Vashti Bunyan — Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind
  • Wendy Arrowsmith — Now Then…?
  • Wilco — Sky Blue Sky
  • Willie Nelson — Red Headed Stranger (1975)

(Before you freak out at the number of CDs I bought, I do subscribe to emusic, so a bunch of these were MP3 only.)

my guitar teacher can climb through a tennis racquet, yours can’t

I went to The Friendly Rich Show for the first time last night, and my mind capsized completely. I’d seen Friendly Rich & The Lollipop People before, but never as their full-on, prank-calling, burlesque-puppeting avant-cabaret show.

The Lollipop People are incredibly tight as a band, which must be hard when you’ve got a harpsichord, a bassoon, a full concert harp, and a banjo (binga-banga in Rich-speak) in the mix. I put it down to skilled musicians having fun, and Rich’s excellent direction.

The show is run by Soot, the almost wordless but entirely malicious stage manager. He grumbles his way from musical number, to animal trick show, to song, to prank call. Last night’s call was to order pizza from Pizza Pizza, and they didn’t take it too well. Nichol S. Robertson did indeed climb through a tennis racquet.

Last night’s  show was a little different, in that they performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (complete with Hammond and turntables). What was a lot more different was, while they were playing, a naked man in a wild man mask set fire to his, um, self. That’s gotta smart.

They’re playing again at the Tranzac on the last Friday of June. You should be there. It’s exactly like nothing else!

Pullhair Rubeye

I really like Avey Tare & Kria Brekkan’s album, but I’m not sure if I’m playing it forwards or backwards.