Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Dan Berggren, Adirondack folk musician and songwriter, as I more formally began my research into the instruments and music of the Adirondacks. We met at his home in Ballston Spa, NY, and it was a pleasure to sit down with such a talented and thoughtful musician.
Dan gave me some great insights on the guitar and five-string banjo, and how he typically plays these instruments in the context of folk music. While I am not looking to write a piece of folk music with this project, I do find it crucial that I understand the most common uses of these instruments in the context of Adirondack folk styles. My aim is to write a set of pieces that not only make use of the instruments of Adirondack traditional music, but also honor that heritage, even within the genre of concert music.
Dan was able to demonstrate for me some of the guitar techniques he typically employs when performing or writing. For example, he does not typically use a flat pick, but uses a softer strumming style with his right hand, employing the thumb in a downward stroke to delineate the bass line, often on the root and fifth of the chord, and his other fingers in an upward stroke to fill out the rest of the accompaniment. This is mostly done with the fleshy part of the fingers, and not necessarily with the nails, as a classical guitarist might play. He also demonstrated to me the frequent use of bass “runs” when accompanying traditional songs, all done with the thumb, although sometimes paralleled at the third with the other fingers. He then showed me “drop D” tuning, something I am familiar with, but then demonstrated some of the harmonies often employed by folk musicians with this tuning. As someone who does not play the guitar, it is very useful to understand these nuances before crafting a piece that draws on folk uses of the instrument, especially those that grow out of an oral tradition.
We then moved on to talking about the banjo, an instrument that has always fascinated me, though I know little about its use in the Adirondack region. Dan typically employs a “claw hammer” style of playing the banjo, wherein, like the guitar, the right hand thumb is employed in a downward stroke to sound the bass (and, in the case of the banjo, the drone). Two other fingers, however, also move in a downward stroke, in order to pluck the strings with the back of the fingernail. This technique produces a sort of rough-hewn, idiomatic banjo sound, exactly the kind of thing I am looking for as I delve into this project! Also very idiomatic to the banjo is the concept of “hammering on” and “pulling off” with the left hand. Dan provided some other insights in terms of “C” and “G” tunings of the instrument and the role played by the fifth-string drone.
While all of this technical information will prove useful to the composition of Adirondack Sketches, there was a “big picture” concept that emerged for me, upon further reflection. Dan talked to me about how various songs and melodies made their way to the Adirondacks from other places and experiences, and also talked about his own songwriting and inspiration. Historically, there is, of course, the Scotch-Irish influence that was passed down through immigrant families, but also Canadian songs, songs about serving in the Civil War, World War II, and many other influences from the personal experiences of musicians and songwriters in the area. For Dan, much of his own earlier writing came from a place of longing to be in the mountains while away, and his current songs reflect his recent experience of the mountains, family, etc. When talking to my wife, a historian, about this and reflecting further, the overarching pattern that emerged was that the music for the Adirondacks always comes from a deeply personal place. An Adirondack musician builds a repertoire that reflects his or her personal experience, be it through traditional music or original composition. I am coming to believe that my pieces, in order to properly honor the musical heritage of the region (and not just make use of its instruments), must be as deeply personal for me as possible.
I will post more about my picking the brains of other musicians, but will certainly touch base with Dan as I “hike onward.” Understanding the best modes of notation for these instruments and their techniques will, no doubt, become increasingly important as the project moves forward, so I will be seeking advice on this front. I am very grateful to Dan for all of his insights, and also for sending me off with a couple of his CD’s to listen to. You can learn more about Dan and what he's up to here. Thanks, Dan!
Saratoga Arts made this project possible with an Artist Grant funded by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.