Ida Red with Jamie Ferguson

One of the great things about playing old-time music is developing musical relationship with people from all over the country.  I think I first met Jamie in Pennsylvania at the Lake Genero Fiddling’ Bear festival.  Had an absolutely great late-night jam with her and a few other folks.  We played together at Clifftop in West Virginia a few years later as well.  This week she was traveling in the area and stopped by the school.  She’s a very talented fiddler- very musical and easy to follow.  We had never played this tune together before today.  The tune is Ida Red and was inspired by the fiddling of Ed Haley. Here’s some great info from the excellent musician Craig Edwards: “Started as an African American cargo loading song on the Ohio/Misssissippi Rivers. See Mary Wheeler’s “Steamboatin’ Days”, one of the great underutilized collections of American music. Long out of print, but you can find copies on Amazon for practically nothing. You’ll find a lot of old time and blues lyrics in their original forms- very cool material.”


I learned this tune after hearing and playing it a bunch down at Clifftop. Every year it seems as if a tune that was never on my radar pops up.  I go somewhere and it seems as if everyone is playing and what’s more, the say they’ve always known it.

A few years back on the Saturday before the “official” start of Clifftop it was raining and I ducked under the awning of Andy and Toni Williams.  We got to playing and this tune came up and Andy was ripping it on the fiddle and Toni was playing bass.  I made them play it twice.  The next day I stumbled into the camp of Marynell and Gene Young from Texas and then they started playing it, and yes, I made them play it twice.

A year or so later I awoke with it playing in my head so I finally did a little research, listened to a bunch of recordings then tabbed out a version myself.  This comes from Missouri fiddler Pete McMahan. He learned it from his uncle (the Sheriff) who learned it from an itinerant fiddler at a railroad station. Here’s a great link to the story:

Thank you Amy for playing guitar and thank you Chad for recording us at your excellent studio Juniper Sound.

Snake River Reel

I first heard this tune after being in an old-time music desert for about twenty years.  I’d lived in Los Angeles for thirteen years where the only place that even sold banjos was McCabes guitar shop. Cut to 1995 Western Massachusetts- I visited  the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst.  They had about twenty spectacular banjos on the wall.  I played them all.  Lyn Hardy was very patient- she even pulled down a guitar and played a few tunes with me.  Before I left she directed me to a wall racked filled with old-time music on cassette tapes- I think I said “Sell my clothes I’m going to heaven!”

I bought two cassettes- one by Mac Benford I think called “First Half Century” and the other by the Ill-Mo Boys called “Fine As Frogs Hair”.  Mac’s tape has the best rendition of Hangman’s Reel I’ve ever heard.  The Ill-Mo boys recording has a ton of great songs.

I listened to these two cassettes till they wore out.  I was so caught up in the Frogs Hair that it was about six months before I realized that there was no banjo on the recording.  One of my favorite tunes Snake River Reel by Peter Lippincott….

Stumptailed Dolly

Certain sights, sounds and smells trigger memories.  When I play this tune, I remember clearly when and where I played it for the first time: The Lake Genero Old Time Musicians’ Gathering in Pennsylvania.  Cathy Mason invited me to sit and play tunes with her and Jim Stanko and Paul Sidlick.  Listening to Paul’s gorgeous and tasteful banjo playing I felt hesitant to try and add anything to the mix.  He was gracious and inviting.  It might well have been the highlight of that weekend for me.

I like Kentucky fiddler John Morgan Salyer’s home recording of this tune from the early 1940’s.  Most people play this square both sides. On Salyer’s recording he adds an extra beat in measure 7 of the B part. Recordings of Salyer are available from Berea College.

Bluegrass Band Scramble Review written by Rich Stillman

Last Sunday’s BBU-sponsored band scramble at the Real School of Music in Burlington brought out about thirty people who discovered talents many never knew they had. If you’ve never been to a band scramble, the idea is a cross between pickup baseball and the Hogwarts sorting hats: take a bunch of strangers who play bluegrass instruments, throw their names into paper bags. Draw names at random to create bands. Send each band away to rehearse for an hour and a half with a simple mission: create a 5-7 minute set of music on stage. Call everyone back, and put on a show.

The five bands that competed in Sunday’s scramble showed a range of talents. Every band had some people who had never played bluegrass onstage before. At least two people made their singing debut as well.

I can tell you from touring the rehearsal rooms during those 90 minutes that the energy level and enthusiasm was high. Everyone was involved in picking band names, repertoire and arranging. The atmosphere in every room felt like a really good band rehearsal. That spirit made it onto the stage, where all the bands, who were competing for an opening act slot at a local coffeehouse and a set of tuners, put on enjoyable performances and cheered each other on from the audience.

The comments were unanimously positive from everyone involved, and I really enjoyed the simultaneous spirits of cooperation and competition that extended from the selection of the bands through the concert itself. I think the first scramble was a complete success, and I’m looking forward to many more. Thanks to everyone who came out to participate, help out, or just watch!