Tallulah Gorge

Composed by Amy Colburn.    …”I wrote this tune a couple winters ago after a hike through Tallulah Gorge in northern Georgia. Tallulah falls used to be called the Niagra of the South, until 1912 when the Georgia Railway and Power Company built a dam there. The gorge is the setting for several legends and many epic adventures. What is left is a deep gorge that gave me a real sense of being a guest of nature. The namesake of the gorge, Tallulah, was a Cherokee maiden, the daughter of Chief Grey Eagle. She fell in love with a white hunter. Her father ordered the stranger thrown off the cliff, now called Lover’s Leap, and into the gorge. Much to the chief’s dismay, Tallulah leaped in after him.

In the evening, after the hike, I didn’t sit down to write a tune. I sat down to learn Sally in the Garden. Though I like the tune, I was having trouble and so I let it go and just started to play whatever came out of my banjo in that same tuning. What the banjo and I came out with was this tune. The low A part of the tune represents the deep shadows that the tall cliffs cast over the canyon most of the day. The high B part represents the rushing cold whitewater that winds through the gorge. I play the tune in double C tuning, which puts it in C minor. I like the low bass of C as opposed to capoed up to D. Guitar players seem to prefer C as well.”

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….

Silver Belle

contributed by Amy Colburn

Silver Bell, also called Silver Belle, was composed in 1910 by Percy Wenrich, and was published with words by Edward Madden. Wenrich was from Joplin, Missouri but went to music school in Chicago and then on to New York. His biggest hit was probably “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet” in 1909, though he composed many tunes and scored stage productions as well. You can read more about Percy and see the cover of the sheet music for this tune, featuring a beautiful Native American maiden and her suitor, in the article found here:
Here is the chorus:
“Your voice is ringing,
My Silver Bell.
Under its spell,
I’ve come to tell
You of the love I am bringing,
O’er hill and dell.
Happy we’ll dwell,
My Silver Bell.”
I first became acquainted with this tune by hearing Chip Arnold play the Will Keys two- finger index-lead version of the tune in double D tuning. I learned the three finger version in this video from Pete Peterson of the Orpheus Supertones. I like both versions very much. Bluegrass people also play this tune, and change keys somewhere along the line. I’m playing this one in the key of D with the banjo tuned in Drop D (aDAC#E).
Many thanks to Tim Rowell for his supportive guitar playing!

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.

How and Why the Banjo


Ome headstock

author: Amy Colburn

As far as I know, the first time I saw a banjo was on the television show Hee Haw. I visually remember Grandpa Jones and Roy Clark, but I have no memory of the tunes they played. At home, we used to listen to bluegrass on the radio during family dinner at noon on Sundays. I’m pretty sure that was so we didn’t have to talk to each other, but I liked the music and I didn’t want to talk anyway. Other than that, we had a record player, and an album that I used to play frequently called “Music of the Ozarks”. It was put out by National Geographic Society in 1972 (LP 703). There was some banjo playing on it, by a fellow named Walter Gosser, but mostly I remember Jimmy Driftwood’s singing.

The first time I played a banjo was in Chatham County, North Carolina. I had rented a small house on a dirt road to nowhere from an old farmer who always showed up riding his tractor. I was working  for another farmer getting up hay and doing farm chores. The banjo belonged to my friend Lyman, who also played a Guild 12-string guitar. Though he is talented, he couldn’t play both at once. His brother, my dear friend Loryn, played the fiddle or sometimes the mandolin. I wanted very much to play music with them. The guitar made no sense to me, and this particular guitar ‘drove like a truck’. I liked the sound of the banjo, and so I became acquainted with a longneck Vega. We tuned it in D, a lower version of standard G tuning, to blend easily with the Drop D tuning on the 12-string. I still play longneck banjo tuned this way. Loryn showed me a few tunes on the banjo. He didn’t normally play it, but he was one of those rare people who can play any stringed instrument. He taught me the only tunes I knew for many years: Worried Man, Banks of the Ohio, and later Soldiers Joy and Fishers Hornpipe. I remember sitting on the porch trying to play these crazy things called hammer-ons and pull-offs that were required in the version of Soldiers Joy that he taught me. I found it hard to believe that anyone could do that consistently. Sometimes I missed the string entirely. I’ve learned a bit since then, but continue to be amazed by the many layers of complexity and the subtleties that can be explored while playing the banjo.


I first played this tune with Canadian fiddler Glenn Patterson.  It was two in the morning and we were at Black Creek Fiddlers Reunion in Altamont New York.  I think I’d been playing for a dozen hours in the key of G.  I think the tune source was Kentucky fiddler Buddy Thomas.  Glenn said he learned it from a recording by Roger Cooper.

Every once in a while in the whirlwind of late night festival jams, a particular jam stands out.  For me this one was really memorable and still remains a favorite.  Glenn played a bunch of tunes that I didn’t really know but somehow they all seemed to work for me.  Over the next two hours we played about twenty-five tunes- I recorded most of them on my phone.  Some fiddlers present melodies in a way that just make sense to me.  I’ve been working on this one for a while and have quite a ways to go before I can play it smoothly.