Thursday, December 2, 2010

Of Bad Girls And Banjos: "Little Maggie"

If there is a sort of folk Valhalla somewhere - a place where, say, Burl Ives is still taking the Rock Island Line to the Big Rock Candy Mountain and the Weavers are on top of Old Smokey wishing Irene yet another goodnight - then I'm sure that first cousins Darlin' Corey and Little Maggie are still up in some misty mountain hollows pursuing their conniving and very independent paths through (after)life. Thinking of the two as cousins is a neat little trope because a) their respective songs are certainly closely related mountain banjo classics, and b) both young ladies show quite a bit of the same kind of moxie that Ellen Smith et al. regrettably seemed to have lacked. Corey and Maggie dance only to their own tunes, and ain't no man gonna get the better of either of them.

The songs seem to be part of a family of "banjo blues" that are derived in part from genuine African-American blues in the wonderful melange of styles and sources that American folk music is. But the accompaniment structure - just two chords, typically a G to an F and then back again - is Euro all the way, closely resembling the rather mournful sounding mixolydian mode. That means essentially just that the songs use fewer notes than tunes written in our "normal" twelve note scale. And that's really easy to hear - both songs are even more repetitive than most other folk songs, eight bars repeated over and over, verse and chorus both.

Wherever it was that Corey and Maggie went their separate ways as songs, their recording histories continue to parallel each other. As noted in my "Corey" article linked above, that song was first waxed by Clarence Gill and later Buel Kazee in 1927 - the same year that Grayson and Whitter (of "Tom Dooley"fame) on October 1 laid down the initial "Little Maggie" recording, to be followed in 1937 by Wade Mainer, still with us at the age of 103. In the late 1940s, the Stanley Brothers covered the song, for the first time in the new bluegrass genre of which Ralph Stanley was one of the originators (more on this below).

Grayson and Whitter were a fiddle-guitar group, but "Maggie" has always been a favorite of banjo players because the very simplicity of its chord structure allows for a some genuine tour-de-force instrumental innovation. Classic Kentucky mountain banjoist Lee Sexton here plays the tune in a kind of pre-bluegrass picking mode:

Sexton seems to be playing here in some kind of modal tuning - again, a variation from what we normally hear. It's a kind of minor sound, and that changes the melody as well as the accompaniment.

Ralph Stanley plays the song in a straightforward bluegrass style - here he is interviewed by the late Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers:

Stanley's arrangement has become the template from which most subsequent recordings have been derived. I find it interesting in this video that Stanley is quietly trying to establish an independent origin for his banjo style, since by 1946 Earl Scruggs had established himself as the putative godfather of three-fingered banjo picking while he was a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. But the "forward roll" that Stanley demonstrates in the video is in fact markedly different from the standard Scruggs style of picking.

Now Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio was certainly no Stanley or Scruggs during the first week of February in 1958 when the KT recorded its first album and decided to close it with "Little Maggie" (last song on the B side for those who remember LPs) - and he knew it. Guard had been bitten by the banjo bug in 1956 while a graduate student at Stanford after he attended a concert by Pete Seeger (at which a fifteen-year-old Joan Baez was also in attendance). Prior to that, Guard was a guitarist all the way, quietly evolving his own style after having been taught the rudiments of the instrument by his high school pal and eventual KT partner Bob Shane. According to third Trio member Nick Reynolds, Shane and Guard searched the music stores of San Francisco in vain looking for a 5 string banjo - all they could find were 4 string tenor banjos used more commonly in Dixieland jazz and Big Bands rather than in folk-styled music. In stepped Reynolds' father, a captain in the U.S. Navy and a lover of all kinds of music, including old time mountain songs, and he gave Guard his own 1920s-era S.S. Stewart standard neck 5 string. Guard reportedly bought Seeger's How To Play The Five String Banjo and taught himself Seeger's primary style - the more traditional "frailing" or "clawhammer" approach to the instrument in which the strings are brushed in rhythmic combinations of different fingers rather than plucked as they are in bluegrass style. Here's what Davey came up with:

It's not a bad effort at all for a guy who's been playing the instrument for less than two years (if you can get past the gentle mockery of the "hilbilly" origins of the song that the group also employed that same year in their "Shady Grove" recording and blessedly omitted in subsequent arrangements of Appalachian tunes). The positively plunky sound of Guard's/Capt. Reynolds' banjo almost certainly comes from its having a calfskin head, a delightfully traditional sound when the air is dry but murder when it's humid, because the pressure from the strings forces the pliant calfskin to sink and consequently dulls the vibration and sound of the strings. I'm guessing there was rain in Los Angeles on that February day when the KT recorded this one at Capitol Records.

Ricky Skaggs has been outspoken in his dislike of the "commercial" turn that country music has taken, and he has built the second half of his career around both preservation and innovation of older mountain and country styles of music. Here he is performing "Maggie" in 1999 with Kentucky Thunder:

According to the album credits, the blazing banjo solo is by Marc Pruett - and the instrumentation overall is a good indication of why many country and bluegrass artists expressed such disdain for the (by comparison) primitive playing of most of the pop folk groups.

Contemporary bluegrass favorites The Grascals give us something in the same mode, though with a bit more emphasis on the instrumentals, if not at quite as breakneck a pace:

Maggie and Corey are clearly pursuing different paths. Corey is, after all, a moonshining entrepreneur, decidedly unromantic and apparently interested in men only for their money:

Don't care if you are living, don't care if you are dead
If you want a taste of my product, then I'm gonna take your bread.

We can assume the product is moonshine only, though you never know. But Maggie is clearly a good time girl, fun to be around but deadly to lose your heart over. In this regard, she has a lot in common with Woody Guthrie's nameless beloved in "Hard, Ain't It Hard, who continually

...sits down upon another's knee,
And tells him what she never will tell me.

Another cousin, perhaps? Little Maggie is, after all, continually "fooling another man" as well. In any event, all three ladies are clearly and in their separate ways thumbing their noses at convention and turning the tables on the menfolk. They all seem also to have a talent for self-preservation, and it's positively refreshing to have some folk songs where young ladies who refuse to conform to boys' rules don't end up shot through the heart lying dead on the ground. Maybe there is justice in the world after all.

1 comment:

greenhawk46 said...

I love the KT's version for it's banjo sound-but I'd say the Grascals really balanced well between instrumentation and allowing the words prominence-Skaggs' version is too frenetic for my taste-