5-string banjoist Hank Smith and guitarist Billie Feather worked together to arrange the traditional fiddle tune "Blackberry Blossom" using classical arrangement techniques. This arrangement was originally made for 5-string banjo and classical guitar but here guitarist Billie Feather is using a Deering Solana Six 6-String banjo. The Solana 6 is made for classical guitar players as it has nylon strings, a wider nut, and slotted headstock that classical guitarists are used to.
-How would you describe the style of this arrangement:
Billie: This piece is inspired by J. S. Bach’s contrapuntal techniques and the unfolding of musical ideas in a polyphonic tradition.
-Have y'all done other arrangements of traditional tunes in this style?
Hank: We have not. This is our first exploration into arranging a traditional fiddle & banjo tune for this style of music. However, we’re certainly open to more!
-What are some compositional techniques y'all are using in this arrangement of Blackberry Blossom?:
Billie: Our foundation is the lovely traditional tune “Blackberry Blossom” but we disguise the melody in the beginning - choosing to present it to the listener one piece at a time. The first presentation of the melody highlights the contrapuntal movement of the tune by presenting it just a few notes at a time, in a sort of call and response style. The guitar part begins by highlighting the key notes of the melody, and is immediately answered by a banjo line in contrary motion. The second presentation of the theme explores the counterpoint between the A section and the B section of the tune, where the guitar plays the A section while the banjo plays the B section at the same time. The result obfuscates the melody and forces the listener to instead explore the polyphony of the lines and the resulting harmonies. The fun Easter Egg is that the guitar part is developed from a Tony Rice transcription of “Blackberry Blossom” which we felt was an appropriate homage - Tony expanded the boundaries of bluegrass harmony by adding in a lot of jazz language which I always find super exciting and endearing. It’s almost as if he’s like “Just checking to see if you’re listening!” We thought we’d add our own playful twist by putting Tony’s jazz references into a classical setting. The third presentation is when we finally, at long last, get the Blackberry Blossom we’ve all been waiting for presented on the banjo while the guitar “finger-picks” chords.
-Why did you choose Blackberry Blossom? What is it about this tune that lends itself well to this style of arrangement?
Hank: First and foremost, Blackberry Blossom is a very common tune that has made the rounds in acoustic folk, bluegrass and old time traditions for ages. It also contains even measures with clearly defined A & B parts presented in the traditional AABB form. The A part is a descending G major melody and the B part consists of a rhythmic variation in the relative minor. Structurally, the tune is set up well for this type of arrangement meaning we can deconstruct it and swap the parts. It’s very malleable, yet still very mathematical. And, it’s simple enough and catchy enough that even under some cutting up and rearranging, still holds its musicality.
Billie: First, we both love the song! Hey, if it doesn’t spark joy - why invest in creating an arrangement?! Blackberry Blossom is special in that it has a built in counterpoint (either by accident or design) and we were just exploring the musical opportunities it presented.
-What are some other traditional tunes that would work well in this style?
Hank: I think Temperance Reel would work well.
Billie: Big Sciota
-How does the tone of a bluegrass banjo blend with a nylon stringed 6-string banjo? How does it affect the way you play?
Hank: The bluegrass banjo has a vibrant and crisp sound with a quick decay that compliments the more subdued sound of the nylon string. The nylon string banjo exhibits more qualities of a guitar, giving it a longer decay and more room to fill up the space so that the bluegrass banjo doesn’t have to fill it up with notes. Of course, my Maple Blossom is set up and customized to have a richer, warmer tone with more sustain than most bluegrass banjos, so I feel like I can get more dynamic range from it. The two together form a very consonant symbiosis that paints a complete sonic picture. It’s like four instruments in two!
Billie: The nylon stringed 6-string banjo has a more mellow sound and an extended low range when compared to the traditional five-string banjo. This makes them great companions, since both instruments have such different timbres. We are very careful, however, that we don’t occupy the same sonic space and try to stay out of each other’s way. By doing this, we allow each instrument to shine in its own way. Often, I take the bass role and try to use voices that have more distance between the bass lines and the accompanying harmonies. I think a lot about where the melody is and try to create harmonies that allow the melody to really speak. Hank’s instrument almost feels like a first violin in a string quartet, where mine feels more like the cello or viola voice.
-Do y’all have any duo tunes recorded? If so, where can we find them?
Billie: Keep an eye out on Spotify, Apple Music, and other popular streaming services for Resonator! We’ll be putting up recordings as we make them, since we’re lucky enough to both be college professors with access to some really fantastic performance spaces with wonderful acoustics for recording.
Hank: It was a joy to arrange this piece and take our time developing it. Since the Deering video was made, we’ve tweaked it a bit to make it shine even more and even had occasion to perform it for a group of people sponsored by the Department of Humanities at The University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. It went over really well as both a classical piece and a bluegrass song at the classical concert. We can’t wait for more folks to hear it!