Edgar Cayce said that if you eat three almonds a day your health will be better. Earl Scruggs popularized the banjo with a three finger picking style. And the Golden Biscuit Hour is hosted by three music purveyors. The list could go on. But I want to write about something I heard and observed on the Golden Biscuit Hour (GBH) in January.
I have a small segment, the Country Side of Folk, on the GBH but I also edit and mix the show. That means I probably listen to the show more than anybody. And I listen to the songs repeatedly. In January there was a segment about Saro songs. And two particularly caught my attention because of their juxtaposition – something that Jeni and Greg had decided on. Jeni and Greg are Jeni Hankins, my true love, and her Dad, Greg Hankins, and they are the main hosts of the GBH.
The songs featured were My Saro Jane by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Rock About My Saro Jane by Uncle Dave Macon. They were played in that order and when the Uncle Dave song came on, I immediately heard something in the recording that reminded me of Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Breakdown.
I don’t have to explain to many of you who know the importance of that instrumental tune, but for those of you who don’t know here’s an explanation. Earl was a banjo player from North Carolina who played with Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, and later left Monroe’s band to form a new band – Flatt & Scruggs. These two bands were playing the music before it was even called Bluegrass. They collectively informed the genre more than just about anyone.
Flatt and Scruggs recorded the tune, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, first for Mercury records in 1949 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fast forward a few years to around 1957 and in a high school classroom in Northern Virginia Pete Kuykendall gave a presentation about music for his classmates. http://www.bluegrassmuseum.org/pete-kuykendall/
One of his classmates was the actor Warren Beatty. Pete played that original 1949 recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown as part of his presentation. Fast forward ten years to 1967 when Warren Beatty is starring in the film Bonnie and Clyde and they are looking for music to support the score for the film. There are car chase scenes in the film that are wild, fast, and dangerous. Warren remembered the banjo music from Pete’s music presentation and believed it just might support those scenes. He gave Pete a call to find out where he could get a copy of that recording. And the rest of that story is a good one for everyone who loves film and music.
The soundtrack to Bonnie and Clyde was award winning and it was a game changer for lots of folks including yours truly. I had a paper route in 1967 and being independently wealthy from my earnings, I went and saw the film Bonnie and Clyde fourteen times at the Westway movie theater in West Baltimore. And the reason for the fourteen viewings? Because of that 1949 recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I went out and bought a banjo – I was playing guitar at the time – and I taught my little brother, Dougie, the chords to Foggy Mountain Breakdown on the guitar. From there we played at a couple of coffee houses in the local churches and the Catonsville library. I loved the sound of the banjo and played it for a couple of years but then put it down to spend more time with the guitar. And then I met Jeni in 2005, and after a thirty-five year sabbatical picked it up again and now I play it almost everyday. It’s been really fun to write tunes and songs on the banjo.
Fast forward to January 2016 to the Golden Biscuit Hour. I hear the Uncle Dave recording, Rock About My Saro Jane.
I hear a sound in the Uncle Dave recording which was recorded in 1927. Now I’ll try and keep this short, which isn’t an easy thing to do for me when it comes to explaining musical sound. Here’s another reference to three. In Western music, some say there are three sounds in music: Major, Minor, and Dominant. The letters of the musical alphabet, A,B,C,D,E,F,G can also be referred to as the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Those three musical sounds are defined by the letters/numbers.
Major and Minor sound are defined by the number three. This is a huge thing we’re talking about here. If the number three or the third in musical sound is not flatted or lowered the sound is Major. If the third is flatted or lowered the sound is minor. So the number three is probably one of the most important numbers in music. It’s that simple. Lower the third the sound is minor.
In Uncle Dave’s 1927 recording of Rock About My Saro Jane, it sounds like he is playing in the key of G#/Ab. I don’t know if they were using capos back then, but if they weren’t, then his banjo was just tuned up to the pitch of G#/Ab. He was probably playing with open chords. I don’t know if he was tuned to a “G” chord like they do in a lot of Bluegrass music, but he could have been. So Uncle Dave is playing Rock About My Saro Jane in G#/Ab. Throughout the song, every time he plays the 6 chord, it sounds like a major chord. If you are playing in the key of G then the 6 chord would be an E major, if you are playing a major sound. I’m calling it the key of G rather than G#/Ab for familiarity. Here is a link to the Uncle Dave recording: http://youtu.be/NqpP6zNuAXE.
Now let’s go to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The 1949 recording by Flatt and Scruggs has the 6 chord in the progression and it also sounds major. Here’s a link for a listen: http://youtu.be/z_Y3mnj-8lA Here is a link to same recording with images from the film Bonnie and Clyde: http://youtu.be/3YXCjPgktQM
I’ve heard musicians, particularly banjo players, speak about whether to play the 6 chord with a major or minor sound in Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Here is a quote from an article I found about the tonality of the chord in the recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown written by Thomas Goldsmith for the Library of Congress.
“And in a musical oddity that marked the dying days of older tonalities in modern string bands, Flatt often plays an E major chord, creating a weird dys-tonality with the banjo’s confident E minor. In later years, Scruggs said that he had tried to get Flatt to play a consistent E minor during “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” only to become used to the unusual sound and even partial to it.”
Here is a link to the full article where that quote comes from: http://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/FoggyMtBreakdown.pdf
So it sounds like Earl Scruggs was playing an E minor riff on the banjo while Lester Flatt was playing an E major chord on the guitar. What a sound! A Major-Minor tonality. I think the dissonance works perfectly for the film Bonnie and Clyde and the tempo of the tune matches the speed of a get-away car racing to find the next state line. And the sound they get has to do with the number three. Earl plays a major third while Lester plays a minor third.
So a big thanks goes out to Lester Flatt for holding on to the old ways and to Earl Scruggs for being forgiving about Lester’s persistence. And a thank you also goes out to Uncle Dave Macon for his 1927 recording that uses the major third on a six chord.
I would love to know if Lester Flatt listened to Uncle Dave and if his recording had anything to do with Lester playing the six major chord.
One contemporary song that uses the change 1 to 6 major in the hook intro is Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And that is also a song about a river boat like Uncle Dave’s Rock About My Pretty Saro.
I’ll end with a quiz. How many blind mice are there written about in song? How many bears did Goldilocks stumble into? And finally how many times does it take to be a charm?