Lee Hammons: Complete Banjo Recordings
Maggie Hammons Parker: Complete Banjo Recordings
A Sampler from The Hammons Legacy
(from Yew Pine Cultural Editions)
by Scott Prouty (http://www.mustrad.org.uk)
These three recordings represent the first in a new series of releases (known as The Hammons Legacy) containing the combined field recordings of Dwight Diller and Wayne Howard, who both began the documentation of the music of the Hammons Family and their circle starting in the late 1960s. More than just documenting the family, both men lived locally (Diller was born in Pocahontas County, West Virginia and still lives there) and became friends to the older people and their ways.
The Hammons were among the last generation born into a culture with its roots in frontier life, and imparted much about that culture along with their music to the young men. The best known recordings of the family were first released in 1973 by the Library of Congress and Rounder Records: The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions (AFS L65-66) and Shaking Down the Acorns: Traditional Music and Stories from Pocahontas and Greenbrier Counties, West Virginia (Rounder Records 0018). These were later combined on a two CD set released in 1998 (Rounder CD 1504/05).
However, Diller was the first person to make audio recordings of the family and introduced them to the outside world, including Carl Fleischhauer and Alan Jabbour, both then with the Library of Congress. Since these releases, much has been written about the family (including here on the Musical Traditions site, see: Edden Hammons: Portrait of a West Virginia Fiddler / The Hammons Family: The Traditions of a West Virginia Family and their Friends / The Edden Hammons Collection, Volume 1 – review / The Edden Hammons Collection, Volume 2 – review), and their music (particularly the fiddle tunes) has been disseminated widely in the old-time music revival.
However, previous releases (including a couple of selections from Diller’s recordings released by the Augusta Heritage Center) did not (and perhaps could not) give a full picture of their abilities and this series appears aimed at redressing that. This current set of releases is being produced under the umbrella of a non-profit, the Yew Pine Cultural Traditions by a team headed by Russ Hatton and including Kerry Blech, Todd Denton, Dwight Diller, Gail Hatton, Wayne Howard, Dave Nemec, Jerry Northington and, in the interests of full disclosure, myself.
The purpose of these releases has been to make more of this family’s music available, particularly with an aim at the many banjo and fiddle students Diller has taught for almost four decades. This is true of the first two releases, the complete banjo recordings of Lee Hammons and Maggie Hammons Parker. It should not reflect poorly on either musician that the entire recorded output of their banjo music is contained on one CD each. Rather, the sparse recorded repertoire reflects the likelihood that both time and long breaks away from music making had whittled a once larger number of pieces down to a smaller number of favorites in their old age.
In addition, Maggie’s musical memory may have been more devoted to her considerable song repertoire (which is due to be released separately). A symptom of this is the fact that she did not own her own banjo. Similarly, Lee Hammons did not own a banjo or fiddle after he stopped playing in 1923 until just before Dwight Diller met him around 1968-1969. Whatever the case may be, each brought a dynamic and focused approach to the banjo, well worth repeated listening.
As previously mentioned, the banjo CDs were geared specifically towards Dwight Diller’s banjo students, and this is most obvious in the fact that every rendition of every piece is included in alphabetical order. This means that listening from beginning to end may not be the preferred method of experiencing these CDs, although that is a viable option for the obsessive-minded. Ideally, by including multiple renditions of each tune, the aspiring student will be able to listen for the details in the differences of interpretation from track to track.
This is not necessarily for the student to then replicate these performances by rote; but rather because such an exercise demonstrates how traditional music is created in the moment according to the ability, mood and inspiration of the player. This is particularly the case in regards to this circle of West Virginia musicians, where the solo performance practice which dominates allows each musician to elongate, trim off, and otherwise manipulate phrasing and expression according to their will.
For an example of this, listen to tracks 10 through 17 of the Lee Hammons CD. Each contains a version of Dead Man’s Piece, but they can be quite different. Track 10 is a bit slower than the others, while track 11 is higher pitched. In none of these tracks is the banjo pitched identically, perhaps due to a tendency to pitch the instrument wherever it happens to be upon retuning as well as no need to tune to another instrument when playing solo. Additionally, the sound quality can vary from track to track; as is mentioned in the notes, Diller at least had no recording experience and no help available at the time.
It’s also worth noting that these recordings were made over a number of years. All of Diller’s recordings were made from roughly July 1969 to the Spring of 1971 while Howard’s were made between December 1971 and September 1980. This means that the ability of each musician may have varied depending on their age, how in practice they were, how they were feeling on a given day. By including all performances, a few of less than stellar performance are heard, but even in these a spark of the musician’s spirit is present.
As far as the tunes themselves go, it is interesting to wonder whether those tunes recorded most often represent those that were the favorite of each musician. If this is the case, then Lee’s wonderful Walking in the Parlor is the only oft-recorded piece of these two musicians that was included in the earlier noted Fleischhauer and Jabbour releases. In fact, none of Maggie’s banjo playing was included on those releases. This theme will crop up again in regards to the Sampler.
Both Maggie and Lee used an up-picking style as well as a downstroke style known locally as “thumping”. It’s possible to characterize the playing of each as fairly delicate at times (as compared to Sherman, who, as we will see on the Sampler, epitomized a harder-driving style), although this is more true of Maggie than Lee. Wayne Howard notes of Maggie’s banjo playing, ‘I would say her style was plain, dropping her thumb a lot less than Lee or Sherman did, and her touch was light and delicate. What she had in abundance was that fabulous ear, or what I call ‘sense of tune,’ that the others in her family had.’ Likewise about those difficult to define qualities, Dwight Diller comments, ‘both Maggie and Lee had the delicate yet strong impeccable sense of timing that so eludes most musicians.’
It’s illustrative to compare versions of pieces played by each, such as Drunken Hiccups (called Jack of Diamonds by Lee – sound clip right). Both play the tune in an up-picking style: Lee’s one recorded rendition is somewhat quick and terse while Maggie’s is more ethereal and fleshed out melodically, using both thumb and index finger (sound clip left). Likewise, compare versions of Walking in the Parlor, a piece given a treatment of monumental elegance quite far from its minstrel show origins, both of which are played in a downstroke style. Lee’s justly famous version is skeletal in melody but rich in subtle and restrained ornamentation, giving the tune a haunting atmosphere. Maggie’s is again slightly more melodically fleshed out and just as rich in decoration, yet imparts an entirely different feel.
There are many charming and human moments captured on these recordings. For example, at the beginning of track 12 on the Sampler:
Lee: “Well Sherman, sing us a good long song, a good one.”
Sherman: “I’ll swear to God, Lee, I’ll bedanged if I ain’t got so shortwinded I can’t … I never could sing, but I can’t sing a bit.”
Lee: “Ah, you can sing, you can sing.”
Sherman then proceeds to lay down an incredibly lovely and long rendition of Three Little Babes [The Wife of Usher’s Well, Child 79] (sound clip). This type of self-effacing interaction was a common occurrence that repeats on these recordings, particularly with Maggie Hammons, who always claimed that her voice wasn’t as good as it once was. While we’ll never know whether that is true, she is nonetheless still able to impart a beguiling energy to her performances that draws the listener into the imagery and story of her songs.
Though they preserved much of their own family or community music in their playing, not all of the repertoire was from these sources. For instance, Maggie comments that she learned Across the Rocky Mountains (sound clip) “from a record”; Wayne Howard suggests the strong possibility that this could have been Buell Kazee’s The Roving Cowboy, originally released as a 78rpm on the Brunswick label (and more recently to be heard on Yazoo CD 2200, Kentucky Mountain Music). The text and tune match very well although comparing the renditions shows quite a difference in style between them. Similarly, Lee Hammons was known to play a few contemporary tunes such Merle Travis’ Dark as a Dungeon on the fiddle, though these pieces were an extremely small part of his repertoire. Diller comments, “I always felt that Lee enjoyed reaching back for the mountain music of east central West Virginia from around the mid-1880s up to 1920. They always seemed a comfort to Lee.”
Though the Hammons Legacy project is not aiming to give comprehensive written documentation on the family, it has certainly fleshed out the aural record greatly. Unlike the ‘complete’ CDs, the Sampler may be easily listened to from end to end for pleasure as well as for study. In making more of the tunes, stories, and song available, a more full accounting of the abilities of this extraordinary family is provided for those unable to have met them while they were still alive. As an example, one of the great benefits of the Sampler is the ability to hear more of Sherman and Lee Hammons, whose music was not fully represented on the earlier Library of Congress recordings.
In that line of thought, the fiddling of neither Sherman nor Lee Hammons was heard on the earlier recordings but is now available on the Sampler CD, and they are revealed to be players of deep ability and expression. Other new sounds include: Edn’s son James Hammons playing fiddle (wonderfully) on two cuts, Burl playing harmonica, Burl fiddling with guitar back-up from Paul Haggart (unusual since most of their music tended to be solo), and more of Burl’s three-finger banjo playing is here.
Of everyone, Burl tended to be the most drawn to current (20th century) music, being a devoted fan of Roy Acuff and the Grand Old Opry, perhaps explaining his ability and willingness to play with other musicians. The tunes he played most often on the fiddle included Tennessee Wagoner and Billy in the Lowground, staples of fiddlers almost everywhere, and his favorite tune was Red Apple Rag (sound clip), with none of these coming from his local repertoire (which he did play often enough as well).
These CDs were produced for an extremely limited audience, due to factors such as possibly dwindling interest in field recording projects highlighting older and deceased traditional musicians, CD sales being down overall and more and more music being made available online (eMusic carries labels such as County, Document, and Yazoo – Shanachie Records). There are exceptions to all of this, of course, such as the recent reissue of the music of Hobart Smith on Smithsonian Folkways which has been launched with a considerable amount of publicity and subsequent coverage in outlets such as National Public Radio. However, I doubt that even this ultimately sold very much more than the Hammons Legacy projects or the Field Recorders Collective (FRC) are likely to. Nevertheless, there is a demonstrated but small market of fans devoted to the music of the Hammons.
The focus of the series is on the music, yet the CDs are well packaged with covers featuring elegant pencil drawings of the Hammons by team member Gail Hatton. The cover of the Sampler is, appropriately, a sampler-style quilt made by Gail’s grandmother. The notes are precise and give full information when available about recording set-up, dates, backgrounds of the recordists, and instruments used. As these are field recordings, the recording quality is variable and unobtrusive sound editing been used; for the majority of readers this will not be a problem. If you were a fan in any way of the earlier releases, you will not want to miss these recordings.
Tags: Hammons Family