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Review by Lyle Lofgren
OLD-TIME HERALD - Volume 7, Number 4 Summer 2000


 Arkansas Traveler/Big Creek's Up/Big John Henry/Blue Goose/Butcher Boy/Chilly Winds/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/Katy Cruel/Let Me Fly/Locks and Bolts/Lonesome Dove/Pretty Polly/Sail Away Ladies/Sailor on The Deep Blue Sea/Soldier's Joy/The Water is Wide/Weavley Wheat/When I Can Read My Titles Clear/Willie Moore

Hank Schwartz, in brief but revealing notes to this CD, confesses to being (a) an obsessed collector of old-time banjos; (b) influenced by old-time music greats, such as Woody Wachtel, Mike Seeger, and Rufus Crisp; (c) shy and unsocialized as a teenager; (d) an extroverted performer during the first coffeehouse era; (e) a former-performer after the first coffeehouse era, but given to excessively fast banjo playing in private; and (f) a publisher of this banjo CD in the modern roll-your-own-CD computer era.

   That's an impressive resumÄ, considering that he looks a lot younger than I in the photo included with this record.

    On this Cd, he uses six different tunings on at least five different banjos, including a six-string Dobson (not a banjo-guitar, but a five-string with an extra bass string).  He has tried to fight his "speed demon" by adding drop-thumbing to his excellent clawhammer style, and varying it with some thumb-lead double-thumbing.  Because he's consciously playing slower than his ability, his fingers find the right place at the right time.  You can tell he's practiced a lot, and it wasn't just sterile scale practice.  He makes very good use of his skills.

    If this offering consisted of 25 banjo tunes, I'd be pretty bored by the end of it.  Fortunately, Hank likes to sing, also, on about 80 percent of the pieces included here, so "incidental vocal accompaniment" is an understatement.  His pleasant voice is reminiscent of both John Cohen and John McCutcheon.  On some of the songs, such as "Blue Goose" (which I think of as "Sally Ann"), his voice is pitched quite low - I believe he was trying for the best banjo sound rather than the best vocal sound.  He does include some excellent, if familiar, ballads:  "Butcher Boy" (with mountain modal banjo tuning), "Hawkins County Jail", "Locks and bolts", "Pretty Polly" (with fretless banjo), and "Willie Moore".  Other lyric songs I enjoyed were "Big Creek's Up" (a.k.a. "Waterbound"), and "Big John Henry" (Rufus Crisp's version of "I've Been All Around this World").

    During "Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel", the banjo sounds like Uncle Dave Macon in his prime, when "I used to pick the banjo, I picked it good and stout...."  True to certain Southern traditions, such as Ernest Stoneman's "Stoney's Waltz", the "Pateroller's Waltz" is played in 4/4 time.

    A quote from the notes:  "To the new player I would like to say watch and listen as much as you can to the music that grabs you.  The best thing is to sit right next to a player and absorb what you like from their playing.  Later on, it will percolate back out of your subconscious and into your fingers."  That last sentence is a succint and eloquent summary of the entire music learning process.

    This CD was recorded at home, using good microphones and a computer.  It doesn't sound over-produced or gimmicked, but it is clear that Hank was recording and playing this all by himself, without anyone but the microphone listening.  That presents a dilemma:  it's front porch music, but it's not being played on a porch.

    Some old-time musicians are able to sound like they're on the porch, even when they're in the studio.  This illusion, to me, is as important as CD-quality sound.  Now that almost anyone can afford digital computerization, I hope that you home-recorded musicians will pay attention to the daunting challenge of achieving a realistic porch sound.

Lyle Lofgren
To Order:  Hank Schwartz Design, 620 Fremont st., Menlo Park, CA 94025

 
 

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