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Forty-plus years ago, a few days before Christmas, a nine year old boy sat listening to his grandfather play fiddle.

He asked his grandfather if he could play fiddle too, and his grandfather said "No."

Then the old man went digging around in one of his closets, and gave the boy a banjo.

"Here. Play this. We need more banjo players," the old gentleman said.

The boy was Joe Bethancourt, and he hasn't stopped since. He's learned a little fiddle in the intervening four decades, and sixty three other instruments, too. He's become a noted singer-songwriter, entertainer and Phoenix institution .... a local "Grand Old Man" of traditional acoustic music.

That old "Monkey Wards" banjo led to a love affair with banjos (and a whole mess of other instruments) that has lasted for forty years.

He still has that old banjo, and thirty-plus more besides, ranging from fretless ones from the early 1870's all the way to the latest in electric banjos ... and on December 23rd, 1996 he brought them all in to the Ark Room ( 539 E Glendale Ave, Phoenix, Arizona ) for a Saturday night banjo celebration.

We taped the evening, and these are some of the highlights of that night. Here's Joe, doing what he loves the best: playing banjo, raising cain, and having a good time with several hundred of his friends. We've also included his studio recording (the original "Naked Banjos" tape) so this CD includes the best of both worlds: live and studio.

Joe says:

"I -love- banjos and banjo music. Not the Mach-9 fingerpicking of the bluegrass players (tho that's fun too) but the old-time "clawhammer" style that was developed in the beginning of the 5-string banjo's career in the US of A."

"It's a deceptively simple style of playing ... the viewer sees the hand kind of waving back and forth over the strings, and a whole mess of notes jumps out of the banjo, seemingly from nowhere. You can learn the basics of it in about fifteen minutes ... but to master it takes a lifetime. I've been playing banjo since I was about nine years old, and finally got clawhammer figured out in my senior year of high school. It was a major day in my life. Someday, I might even think I'm as good as ol' Bascom Lunsford was on the banjo. Jim Connor's still the best, tho."

"The early banjos used catgut strings, and had a very soft, plunky sound. That's what you are hearing on "Tom Dula." It's played on a handmade, very crude banjo like you'd hear in the hills of Western North Carolina in the real early days. They didn't put frets on 'em, because that's a very technical operation, and besides "real banjo players don't use frets!" The gut-string (now nylon strung) banjos of the 1880's are some of the sweetest banjos around. "

"The Ome XXX is an example of the modern banjos: sharp, clear and -fast-. Ome makes 'em up in Colorado, and they're the best of all."

"Anyhow, here's a bunch of banjo tunes just for fun. Hope you like 'em!"


SOLDIER'S JOY (Granddad's banjo) (0:55): This is me and my grandfather doing a duet just like we used to. I'm using the old Monkey Wards banjo he gave me when I was a kid. He was 85 when this was recorded, and his "arthur-itis" was bothering him. I miss him.

CINDY CINDY (Granddad's banjo) (5:57): One of the "rowdy" songs of my youth. This version is fairly sedate .... I've heard words on it that could remove paint. Grandad's banjo again.

LONESOME WATER (Roy Helton ca. 1930 ?) (5:40): One of the nicest songs I know. I learned it from a lady banjo player name of Dierdre back about 1965 or thereabouts. It's played on the Whyte Lady banjaurine. We re-mastered it for the "Who Fears The Devil" CD, 'cause it sounded so good with those songs. Interestingly, the original lyrics and mine are not quite the same, Go here for a side-by-side comparison.

UNCLE PETER (1830's Fretless) (5:02) This is one of those classically goofy mountain songs that are just delightful.

TOO LATE TO PRAY (1830's Fretless) (4:45) Some social comment from the early 1800's that sounds too modern for comfort, and some new topical verses thrown in.

ME AND MY 30'06 (GR-1) (3:58) I was watching the evening news one night, listening to a commentator talk about how everyone in the NRA were Evil Killers and Bad People. I got seriously offended, seeing as how a lot of my friends are NRA members, and wrote this as a response. (W.J. Bethancourt III) Sample in RealAudio

POOR WAYFARING STRANGER (1890's Waldo) One of the definitive mountain hymns. I've always loved it for it's lonesome sound. (MP3)

WAGONER'S LAD (Mandoline-Banjo) A nice little traditional song .... I first heard it as a kid, then re-learned it from a Kingston Trio recording. It's full of lonesome.

FLOP EARED MULE (Ome XXX) ((2:08): An old fiddle tune that I tend to have a lot of fun with. The Ome XXX again, and a mouthbow, Gibson A mandolin, Eefing, Mossman guitar and anything else loose in the studio at the time .......

TOM DULA (mountain banjo) (3:53): One of the classic murder ballads. This is the version I learned in North Carolina, and is played on the traditional fretless "mountain-style" banjo. No clawhammer here, but the old-style fingerpicking.

What most people don't realize is that many, if not most, of the murder ballads are about real murders. This one really happened. Here is a picture of Tom's grave, and Laurie Foster's grave, in North Carolina.

The original lyrics were written by Thomas C. Land.

GRANDPA'S CLOSET

WHO'S GONNA SHOE YOUR PRETTY LITTLE FOOT? (Granddad's banjo) (3:55): Just a nice traditional song. Grandad's banjo again, and a rather unusual melody that shifts from modal to major scales.

RAGTIME ANNIE (A.C. Fairbanks banjo) (2:57) This little fiddle tune is one of those very deceptive melodies that seem easy, until you start to play them .... and then you come to realize you could fool with it for a lifetime, and never get tired of it.

SAND MOUNTAIN HOLLER (Ome XXX) (2:30): Written by Jim Conner, one of the best old time banjo players there is, and a personal friend. I added some traditional verses from another song or two just for fun. This is the Ome XXX banjo talking here. (Jim Connor)

WHYTE LADY / MURDER BALLADS

SILVER DAGGER (Vega Whyte Lady #2) (10:06) If murder ballads are basically TV soap operas, then this is the "Mary Hartman" of the murder ballads ..... scholarly footnotes are included. (new material W.J. Bethancourt III)

MALAGUENA (Ome XXX) ((8:28): Originally written for piano, believe it or not, but it sure is fun on the Ome XXX. This is an example of "classical" banjo playing, which was popular in the 1880's on the old gut-string banjos. I rather like this one best on the Ome, tho.

SOLDIER'S JOY (Ome XXX) ((3:26): Now me and Austin Brooks (fiddle) take off and -fly- a little! Ome XXX banjo (can you tell I like it a lot?), Guild F-50B guitar, and Austin's incomparable fiddling. We could play this one all night.


These are the banjos you hear on this recording:

The 1830's banjo: This is a modern reproduction of the old early banjos, with gut strings, a body made from a gourd, and a fretless fingerboard.

The Henry C. Dobson banjo: this is a fretless from the late 1800's, and is the first real attempt at a tone-ring. I got this one from David Feretta up in Denver, and there's a picture of it in Larry Sandburg's "Complete Banjo Repair" on page 28.

The A.C. Fairbanks, Wm. Cole and S.S. Stewart banjos: These are the gut-strung classic banjos of the 1880 to 1900 period. They're usually tuned down to "E" or thereabouts (as opposed to the modern banjo's "G" tuning) and have a lovely, sweet growly sound.

The Whyte Lady: Vega made this one. It's the first really workable banjo with a metal tone ring between the wooden rim and the head, and is considered the "ne plus ultra" of clawhammer banjo players. Steel strings, and sweet, full and loud!

The Mandoline-Banjo: Augustus Pohlmann came up with this one in the 1890's. It's a banjaurine (short neck five-string, tuned to "C") neck on a mandolin body. It was apparently intended as a practice instrument, so it has a very nice, quiet sound.

The Ome XXX: This is a bluegrass style banjo, with the heavy brass tone ring. Loud, brash and quick. I regard it as the "God Banjo." In my opinion, the Ome banjos are the best there ever are and were.

The Waldo: This Waldo was made by J.B. Shall, and has an amazing neck on it. It's probably the thinnest, fastest neck I've ever played, and with the big pot (12") it gets a very full sound indeed. You can't hit it hard, tho. It needs a gentle touch, and then it just sings!

The Synth: This is a Roland GR-1 guitar synth, set up for a banjo sound. Not too bad, really. I threw this in just for fun.

Granddad's Banjo: Grandad's banjo is from the period of transition between the old gut strings and the more modern steel ones. Nice "old-timey" sound, but not the full, crackling sound of a modern banjo. I think it's a "Monkey Wards" Stewart. My nephew owns it now.



All banjos on this CD are garen-damn-teed naked, but the mandolin insisted on wearing a bodysuit. Austin just painted himself blue. The possum didn't do much of anything except sit there and plot revenge about the lemon curry.


Mastered for CD at: Digital Noise, Scottsdale, AZ
Studio Recording Engineers: John Benson, Juniper Productions, Phoenix, AZ
                                                 Dennis Putscher, Digital Noise, Scottsdale, AZ
Live Recording Engineer: Marc Hirsch, Silver Stag Productions, AZ
Live Recording at: The Ark Room, Phoenix, AZ
Produced By: White Tree Productions and Joe Bethancourt
Cover art by: Brian McCrory & Cher Bethancourt
Webpage: http://www.whitetreeaz.com/

 

You Can Buy It Here Too!

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Some folks who helped me along the road were: Dan and Barb Glenn, Dolan Ellis, Larry Niven, Mischa the Hairy Football, The Sisters of Mercy: Paula and Lily, "Don't Squeeze The" Charmaine, Llyan, Mary K. Care, Clint and everyone at Boogie Music here in Phoenix, the Ice House, Bad News Travels, Terry Buyers, Aleta Jackson, Chaton Recordings, Pete and Mike Seeger, Celia, Tom Holt, Al Martell, Brent the fix-it guy at Boogie Music, Jim Conner, The Baboquivari, Bob Coward, Big Jim Griffith, John McEuen, Beautiful Margaret and Kristoph Klover, Charlie Atwood, Scott Merritt, the folks on CAS-L, damn near everybody in the Dark Horde, Anne Owens, John and Mary Creasey, Don Cook, the Inner Ear, Carl Raymond, Michi & Vash & Nikki & Teal & Byron, The Original Accept No Substitutes Freya the Cat, Mike Reynolds, "Sleepy" Vic, Tandy and Mike Winstead and the girls, Martin Guitars, everybody on alt.banjo, everybody on Banjo-L, Mrs. Gumby's Lemon Curry, Phil Whitehawk, Don Pogrant, Scott Sweebe, "Legs McGurk" (you know who you are!), Kim Kruglick, Eric Gerds, Randall Garrett, Dick Wodrich, the Minus ONE, Phillip Dorn, John Parziale, Mike Roca, Sandy Ross, Steve and Louise Perrin, John Denver, Rick Felix, Clyde Thomas, the Arizona Irish Music Society, Funny Fellows Sandwich Joynt, Rowan Moonstone, Bjo and John Trimble, Seanna the Wonder Wolfhound, David Ferretta, Carl Johnoff, Emilie "Rainbow" Touraine, Garry Siler, John W. Campbell, Linda "Liz Taylor" Scott, Toad Hall, Dick "the Nose" Charland, Mike Morris, Lissa "Winks" Barbour, Gary Kieft and his family, John Harvey, Rodrick the Evil Pirate, Mike and Susan Farrell, Eileen Phillips, the Tucson and Prescott (Arizona) Folk Shops, Diana Wheelock, Mitch Rae, Diana Paxton, Ziggie's Music, Chuck Cellino, Yannis Bouzouki, Kihe Blackeagle, Alys Paule, Kay and Ike Dewey, Trude and Sam Duckworth, Garland Green, John McEwen, Jose Ortega, Jack Seyffer, Chris Gillman, Dragon, V. David Smith, Ted Myrick, Ceilidh the Goofy Greyhound, Ann Perez, Robert Heinlein, Falach the Wonder Whippet, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Euthanasia, Preston the Wierdest Man In The World, John Harvey, Kay Shapero, Tammy Klein, Hillary and Tuck, The Irish Rovers, Gruhn Guitars, Erica "The Filk Goddess" Neeley, Wallace and Ladmo and Pat, Todd Hallowell, Doug Haywood, Pat Cucurello, Bill McCurtis, Little Dickie Dover, Mary McCarthy, The Troubador, "Sunshine Girl", Sebastian the Exploding Cat, Sam Lowe, Brooks Thomas, Svea Wartooth, Little John, Joyce the Vet, Cip, Todric, That Girl With The Beautiful Eyes, Don and Arlene Davis, Coleen Parker, Jack Davis, Doug Dillard, Cat Faber, Terry Seago, Mike Longworth, Steve Panetti, Ian MacPherson, Mike Pindar, everybody at NorWesCon, Bob Duncan, Jim Pipkin, The Blue Goat Pub, "Big Ed" Douglas, Bob and Ellen Watters, C.J., Suki Morrow, Bill Leverton, Bedlam Bells Morris, The Single Action Shooting Society, J.D. "Tiny" Richards, KCAC/KDKB, Travis Edmundson, Phil Lucas, Jamie Howard, John Cook, Ozzie, Marc and Janet Hart, Sandy Lovejoy, "Sleepy" John Davis, Tom Smith, Believe it or not Jimi Hendrix, CC the Christmas Cat, OC the Orange Cat, Ronna Hodges, Brandi Gonzales, Tom and Marie Teven, Rowanhold, the Lumber Mill, Carole Cannon, Miguel Bernal, Kent Florian, Carole Ann Baekey, Rumble who is THAT kind of Cat, Manly Wade Wellman, Gwyddion Penderwyn, the National Rifle Association, Rick Cook, The Mews, the Zorn brothers, Leslie Fish, the Simon Sisters, Emily the Brontosaurus, Bill Compton, Sandy Redlingshafer wherever you are, Don Lynch, Ruby Dominguez, Bob Asprin, everyone at Elderly Instruments, Mickey at Lark In The Morning, the 9th Memorial Cavalry, Gary Lowe and the folks at NoteWorks Music here in Phoenix, Kirby and Laurie Wise, everybody at Fiddler's Dream Coffeehouse, Faithful Roadies "Dusty" Rhoades and Andra Barrow, and most of all to my Sweet Long-Suffering Wife Cher, and The Kids: Sharon, Jeremy, Phillip and Jerry, who have put up with me and the stupid banjos for so long .... and many, many others too numerous to list .... and to Bill W.

And thanks to Col. and Mrs. W. J. Bethancourt Jr., who made it all possible.

Too many of these people (and too many of these places) are no longer with us, but they touched my life in many ways.

Special thanks to the nice folks who ran the Ark Room .......

"The Circle is Not Broken!"