Review by Dan Levenson
Banjo NewsLetter of January 2000 (Volume XXVII No. 3)
|Hank Schwartz, "Notes
Way", Old Time and New Time renditions of 5-String banjo tunes
with incidental vocal accompaniment - HSD 001 CD. Hank Schwartz,
banjo and vocals.
Hank Schwartz has been playing banjo since the folk revival of the 60s but has just finally put out an album of his own. This is an album made up of many "standards" of the old time world. Too many times, these tunes are arranged in an attempt to make them "interesting" so that it's hard to hear the basic tune. This is especially a problem for a person just starting out playing, since to hear the tune is to learn the tune and eventually play the tune. Hank has chosen to give us his collection in a simple straightforward manner. This album is all solo banjo with "incidental" vocals added in to many of the tunes.
Hank's banjo playing is pretty clean with just the barest of ornamentation to add interest without hiding the tune. He comes across as a most competent player. I would describe his playing as primitive but not unskilled. There are a few tuning problems and one or two rhythm and speed battles but they don't detract from the playing or hurt the listenability of the album.
Hank describes his singing as "...untutored, to put it kindly," and he is correct, that he is "generally in key". Hank's voice is typical of old time recordings. To some, this is an acquired taste, to others it's the way it should be. I find it tolerable in all but the most extreme cases of his reaching for notes out of his range. This happens pretty early on Big John Henry which sounds to me to be his version of Been All 'Round This World (tabbed here by Hank) which I remember as beginning, "Hang me, hang me, I'll be dead and gone".
Of the 24 songs here, it is hard to talk about all of them or to pick a favorite. With five different banjos being represented and several different tunings (all noted by each tune) the tunes hardly sound the same! The low G tuning referred to in Big John Henry and Blue Goose is actually a G tuning dropped down close to F for depth and it sure adds an old feel to these tunes. Butcher Boy in G-Sawmill tuning is a dark and minor sounding ballad. Chilly Winds, a variant of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad, is played here in double C so it has a lighter feel than you might have expected. Katy Cruel (G minor) is well done and most illustrative of the style Hank plays. It is reminiscent of old Rufus Crisp and Mike Seeger, to name a couple. In fact, the notes explain that Rufus was a teacher of Woody Wachtel who was Hank's most memorable teacher, mentor and inspiration for taking up the banjo in the first place. Sail Away Ladies is done in that low G tuning and sounds so old, only the cleanness of the recording gives you any hint that Hank is playing in 1999 as opposed to 1899.
Here is a prime example of old time banjo that some might call "folk style" after the playing of the mentors of those famous players in the 1950s and 60s. That is when those players could still go seek out the old folks in the hills who played it. Here it is just into the year 2000, and Hank is recorded just as those old fellows were. Sitting around playing banjo, singing a tune or two and entertaining us the old time way. Unpretentious, basic, good banjo music for the love of the music itself.
Additional tunes: Arkansas Traveler; Big Creek's Up; Pateroller's Waltz; Cluck Old Hen/Little Beggarman; Hawkins County Jail; I Once Loved a Lass; I'm On My Way to Zion; Jordan is A Hard Road To Travel; Let Me Fly; Locks and Bolts; Lonesome Dove; Pretty Polly; Sailor on The Deep Blue Sea; Soldier's Joy; The Water is Wide; Weavley Wheat; When I Can Read My Titles Clear; Willie Moore.
Contact info: Hank Schwartz Design; 620 Fremont St.; Menlo Park, CA 94025 or check out his web page at www.hschwartz.com or http://www.HSDMusic.com
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