The Empowering Secret of the String Band
The String Band: what is it and what is its secret? We associate string bands with old-time music, also called old-timey music. But there is a little more to the genre than imitation of what has gone before.
If you do a minimum of research, like I did, by going to Wikipedia and searching “string band,” you find the results are minimal. You might guess that it’s not an important topic, (generally speaking), and you would be right. If you persisted in using the outbound links to more information, you would be disappointed about that, too.
There were four links for further information. Only one, StringBand.com had anything remotely useful. And that site is in great need of an update, having links to bands that no longer have a web presence.
Wikipedia did tell me one thing I did not know which was worth learning. String Band used to refer to
jazz bands that were mainly string instruments. Back in the 1920’s recordings were made featuring jazz string bands. This history foreshadows the Secret, by the way.
We can guess what happened to them. In the constant quest for a more powerful sound, (louder), the string jazz band was just pushed to the back of the line. It’s still at the back of the line today, even though loudness can be achieved even by string band instruments.
Present Day String Bands
Jumping to the present, let it be noted that any bluegrass player or old-time player knows the difference between bluegrass music and old-time music. And which of these is the string band? The older -time string band. Most audiences cannot unless they are strong fans of bluegrass music or old-time string band music.
One clear difference is the way the banjo is played. In bluegrass it’s the Scruggs roll and in old-time it’s the frailing, clawhammer style. Easy to hear and see the differences. Also there is the difference in soloing. In old-time string bands, often there is no soloing as the band is a dance band. Period. For bluegrass there are important times when the banjo, the fiddle, the mandolin or another instrument takes the lead and the other instruments play back-up.
I have had some experience with string bands. My original bluegrass band, called Green Grass Revival, (go ahead and cringe), became a string band when we lost our banjo player, Wes Lassiter, to North Carolina. He was replaced by Rick Abrams who played clawhammer banjo with a machine gun delivery. We became an old-time music band and played many a gig around the Tampa Bay area. The band ended when the leader, Pete Gallagher, moved to the Ft. Lauderdale area.
The band continues as a legacy band at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs over the Memorial Day weekend. (That means no audition is required.) Pete rounds up former members, and there seem to be many. The band is featured at several stages at the festival.
Another band that appeared at White Springs was one that still practices. That’s the Crystal Beach String Band, which originally practiced in Crystal Beach, Florida, a very small residential community that has a post office, but no real beach. I don’t feel bad for them because I live in Palm Harbor, which has lots of palms, but no harbor.
Why Players Like String Bands
String bands have a tenuous existence. The players have to be motivated by the music and the band relationships. There’s no money in it, far as I can tell.
But, the music! that’s another thing. And now we’re getting to the Secret mentioned earlier. String bands can, and often do, choose from material that is swing or jazz. The repertory choices for string band are very wide. Since the genre of music has almost no standing at all, we can play anything we want to without offending audiences.
Here’s an example: I brought in Road to Columbus, a Bill Monroe tune, to play as a medley with Crossing the Catskills, a Vassar tune. At the practice I suggested an alternate chord back up to the B part. This would not go over well at a bluegrass festival.
I asked Kimber Ludiker about it and she, along with the other bluegrass players in her group at the Mike Block String Camp had a very suspicious eye on the idea. She suggested doing the standard chord changes through all but the last time and spring my substitutes as a surprise. I can see the reasoning behind that. But we may just keep on what we already do. After all, we’re only a string band.
Speaking of the Mike Block String Camp, it seems to me they are doing as much as anyone to evolve the string band sound to the next level. In many YouTube videos that feature new sounds from fiddles, mandolins, guitars, etc., many of the players are closely associated with the string camp.
One of the members of the band suggested we try an extended quote from a classical violin piece and go Full Fiddle Jacket from there. Not a bad idea, but I need to select something appropriate for the hit. This is also something a bluegrass band might avoid.
String band is associated with old-time music and old-time jazz string band in Wikipedia. I would say the definition is even broader now. Maybe, since “folk and acoustic” did not really catch on as a category, string band may now have a place in the family of musical styles.