Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The role of cello in Serenaders

So what sort of parts did Henry Bogan play in the Serenaders? Bass notes. The standard one-and-five. Sometimes arco, sometimes pizz.

This was a time when fiddle was king. Out of 14 tracks, the fiddle is the only one that plays any sort of melody at all on 22 of them. The tenor banjo plays a short bit of melody on one track, and only tenor banjo (no fiddle at all) plays melody on one track: Before I Grew To Love You (I didn't detect any cello at all on Before I Grew to Love You, only tenor banjo and guitar).

The bass played, as played on the cello, does add an element that is distinctive. Bogan "propelled" the band by starting the arco notes just a smidgen ahead of the beat, yielding a "vRrruump vRrruump" sound that resembles tuba. Because tuba is slow to respond in the lower register, tubists need to stay on top of the beat. Bogan also stays on top of the beat, in keeping with the '20s style.

Another noteworthy item for me in listening to this recording is how the cello, guitar, and tenor banjo function together as a section. This ensemble knew their place, as accompaniment, and played tightly together. This style, of course, would become more emphasized in the Big Bands, where tightness as a section and as a full band became crucial in the quest for the driving but tightly-together rhythmic precision of Swing. It seems to me a contrasting style that would come a couple decades later is Bluegrass, where each individual plays a different and soloistic part, even when playing accompaniment.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Texas String Band with Cello?

When we think of depression-era string bands, we typically don’t think of cello. However, one influential band, the East Texas Serenaders, did indeed include a cellist. The Serenders are considered by some as a prototype Western Swing band, setting off a departure from standard “old-time” fiddle repertoire with a smoother, more syncopated, and more modern style.

So I recently purchased a CD of their recorded works, from 1927 – 1937, off the Internet and have been trying to learn what I can about them.

The Serenaders lived and worked in and around Lindale and originally featured left-handed, long-bow style fiddler Daniel Huggins Williams with Cloet Hamman on guitar, John Munnerlyn on tenor banjo, and Henry Bogan on cello. Later, Shorty Lester replaced Munnerlyn, who had moved to Houston, and his brother Henry Lester was added to the group.

Bogan originally played bass fiddle, but switched to cello; the bass didn't travel well on top of the car in bad weather. Like most bassists prior to the 1920’s, Bogan played with just three strings on the instrument. Naturally, Bogan and the other band members were not full-time musicians. Bogan worked for a time on a ranch near Happy, Texas, in the Panhandle, served in the Navy during World War I, worked for Wells Fargo, and worked for the post office in Mineola.

The recorded pieces consist of waltzes and rags, or rag-like melodies; mostly composed by Williams, but some by Hamman. The influence of rag-time, jazz, and pop music is strong and clear. Some of the tunes can be found today in David Brody’s Fiddler Fake Book: The Three in One Two-Step, Ozark Rag, Mineola Rag, and Beaumont Rag. Their Shannon Waltz can be found in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music, annotated by Bill C. Malone (Washington, 1981).

The Serenaders' last recordings were made in 1937. By then, the era of Western Swing Big Bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Milton Brown and the Light Crust Doughboys was well underway. These highly poplar radio swing bands would go on to attract larger crowds in many parts of the country than the convential swing bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey brothers.

I'll have more on what the Serenader's sound like, including an opinion of the role of cello in the group, in a few days.