Highlights of McConnel Library’s Appalachian Music Collection- John Balch

Earworm.  The definition of that word from dictionary.com is “a tune or part of a song that repeats in one’s mind”.  I did not need to look that word up actually but I did anyway just to see if there was any reference to clawhammer musician John Balch in there because every time I listen to his music I get earworms in a big way.

The thing I like most about John Balch’s music is his very strong sense of melody.   I love instrumental music and listen to it a lot and I admit that after a while with some CDs, the melodies of many of the songs run together for me.  That is definitely not the case with John’s music.  At times, days after I have listened to it, I find myself humming the song Capshaw (from the CD Carry on John) and wondering just what about it makes it so prevalent in my memory.

(If you click on John’s photo there, you will be able to see and hear him play Capshaw so that you too can experience this wonderful earworm!)

The tune is beautiful and a little bit haunting and when I dissect it in my mind to try and figure out what it is that I like so much about the is song, I always settle on the way that John plays it as if he is both playing lead and accompanying it at the same time by almost strumming a chord at the same time he is playing a melody note.  I think the reason for this is because John told me (via email) that a lot of his songs were written when he used to travel a lot.  He would bring a banjo along to entertain himself and I can’t help but think that has something to do with the style of his songs.

Besides being a wonderful composer and player, John is and has been for over twenty years an Old-Time Banjo judge and a director for the annual Uncle Dave Macon Days Festival in Murfreesboro, TN.  This festival honors the life and music of Uncle Dave Macon (hence the name of the festival!) and is the home of three national music championships- Old-Time Banjo, Old-Time Clogging, and Old-Time Buck Dancing (you may remember this from my write-up about Bascom Lamar Lunsford), but also includes competitions for various other instruments and dance styles.  Uncle Dave Macon was a businessman and then a professional entertainer.  He was a long time member of the Grand Ole Opry and also is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and delighted audiences with his music and his antics!  One of his crowd pleasing antics was that he would rest his banjo on the floor and play it with his hat while he walked around it! This year marks the 35th year for the festival.

In terms of playing style, John plays drop thumb clawhammer and he told me that he learned the basics of it from Clarke Buehling (I knew of Clarke from listening to his “classic” playing in his band The Skirtlifters) at the Tennessee Banjo Institute.  My brief understanding of clawhammer playing tells me that in regular clawhammer playing the thumb only plays the fifth string of the banjo but in drop-thumb playing the thumb plays on most any string.  When he told me he played drop thumb clawhammer style, I basically understood what he meant, but it was not until I noticed the tablature section of his website  that I actually understood it.  For those who don’t know, tablature is a way that some musicians write out the music for certain instruments that is different from the standard notation that you probalby think of when you think of written music.

In banjo tablature, there are five horizontal lines and they represent the five strings of the banjo.  Each time you are to play a string, there will be a number on that line ranging from 0 to 21 or so.  This number represents the fret that you are to play that string on.  Often there will also be an indication of which finger you are to use to play that string too, and it was because of that aspect of the tablature John so generously provides on his website that I was able to understand exactly what drop-thumb clawhammer is all about.  Before that I knew that I liked it, but I didn’t know how it worked!

So without further ado, I would like to recommend the following two CDs by John Balch and list a few of my favorite tracks from them:

Carry On John

Recordings-CDs – Level 4 M1630.18.B35 C37 2002

Capshaw– As I already mentioned, this song gets in my head and stays there.  It’s almost haunting melody is both beautiful and interesting.  I really like this song.

Walter Hill–  (I am going to use the word haunting here again…) John’s beautiful melody accompanied by a cello is beautiful and haunting.  I love this song and the almost nostalgic feeling it gives me.

Carry on John–  I believe this song was originally written after the death of another banjoist- John Hartford, but before it was released on CD, it took on an additional meaning.  Out of the blue one day, John Balch discovered that he had multiple sclerosis.  Rather than giving up, he looked to his stubborn side and to his musical heroes and “carried on” himself.  Today John is in almost fully recovered.  In contrast to my other two picks from this CD, Carry on John is not haunting at all, it is exuberant and full of life- it’s a good one.


Hot Biscuit Jam

Recordings-CDs – Level 4   M1630.18.B35 H68 2004

Wesley–  I love this song.  I love the way the song starts with the fiddle and banjo playing in unison.  I love the way the song sounds carefree and I love the wonderful musicianship involved in it.

Muscadine– To my ear, this song could well a David Grisman number (and I love David Grisman!) due to it’s jazziness and interesting turns.  This song in many ways is different from most of the others on these two CDs and I LIKE IT!

Hot Biscuit Jam–  I find this song to be very interesting and each time I listen to it I find something new to like about it.  This song really moves if you know what i mean.  It’s fun and has a lot of substance and like Muscadine, it’s a little jazzy and I like jazzy.

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