The Street Musician's Guide to Breaking Even:
by David McKnight
"Yesterday's Brahms"- Tuesday, January 7, 2014
DURHAM, N.C.--Pausing for a breakfast biscuit at Sam's Grill on Markham Avenue in Durham, I found myself reflecting on "Yesterday's News," musically speaking. This section of Markham Avenue, also the site of the newly reorganized High Strung Music of Durham, is just around the corner from our city's storied Ninth Street, the scene of many "An Easy Day's Night" of street music sessions, if we maybe so roguish as to indulge in a play on The Beatles' hit song title, "A Hard Day's Night."
We will have many chapters to add later on about our times on Ninth.
In fact, my musings on our views of "Yesterday's News" actually extend for many blocks to the eastern end of Markham Avenue, where five of us once resided in a pleasant house as Duke students back in the late 1960s. Indeed, all five of us have been blessed with many good years of life, and one of these friends, Jack LeSueur, a masterful folk singer and guitarist who spent a career with the North Carolina Arts Council in Raleigh, also became, for me and others, a personal guide to many Beatles songs. We would hear Jack from his upstairs room, slapping his knees in time to Beatles songs he was listening to though headphones while joining in the vocal harmonies of that motley chorale.
So you can imagine our delight, and indeed our occasional surprise, at hearing only Jack's harmony vocals and his rhythmic patterns on Beatles songs--with no lead vocals and no guitar or bass.
For me personally, Jack's singing and guitar-playing presented a rare opportunity to work out individual violin or viola parts to an entire repertoire of folk, rock, country and blues songs from the U.S. and Britain as Jack was working out his vocal renditions with which his friends in this community would ultimately be blessed for decades. Now many of these songs had fine string parts from their original recording sessions--not only Beatles' classics such as "Eleanor Rigby" but also the Rolling Stones' impellingly wistful "As Tears Go By" with its lyrical violin section, and so many other songs from both sides of the Atlantic. I had already begun playing string parts on folk songs from school days in Charlotte before coming to Durham, so it was only a matter of time before I began daydreaming about a possible career as a "string section guy" in pop, rock, jazz, country and blues music.
Well, I am sure that some readers have already sensed my destination in this column pertaining to "Yesterday's Music News" in the lives of our friends here in North Carolina because, no doubt about it, one of the songs I have most enjoyed accompanying on strings through all these years is The Beatles' "Yesterday," and in recent weeks, I have been reviewing a number of videos of Sir Paul McCartney's performances of his great song at stops along his "Long and Winding Road" throughout his own personal journey. I have seen videos in which the string section for "Yesterday" is provided by a keyboard, such as in the extraordinary McCartney concert at the Obama White House in June 2010 upon the occasion of his receiving the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and another appearance in which he had members of a full string quartet on stage for this great "Scrambled Eggs" song as he jokingly dubbed it before filing out its eventual haunting and touching lyrics.
Well, friends of both street music and stage concerts, what I wish to write about in this column is a single note which you hear on the violin in the original recorded version of "Yesterday." This comes after the second chorus in the final verse when the final verse repeats the previous one:
"Yesterday love was such an easy game to play
"Now I need a place to hide away
"Oh I believe in yesterday."
In the original recording of the song, and in many versions I have heard since in which a violin or a string section is included in the arrangement, you will hear, at the start of this last verse frame, a harmony note high on the E string of the violin. It is a B note, but it is not the one which is simply a fifth above the open E of the fiddle's E string. This B note is yet one octave higher than the primary E string B note, and it is as brilliant as the violin solo notes in the high register which you can hear in the last part of the second movement of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1, the Andante Sostenuto,
Those who love both classical and folk rock music may know that Brahms was native of Hamburg, where The Beatles spent an important residency in their early years, so please forgive me for linking Johannes with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Now let's get back to the violin line in the concluding stanza of "Yesterday." We hear this wonderful high B an octave and a half up the E string just as Paul is reprising, "Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play…" The violin's B note continues to sound as the vocal then moves to the line, "Now I need a place to hide away…"
But in this middle section, with new chords for "Now I need a place to hide away," I have always felt the call to move that violin B note one-half step up to C, then concluding the string harmony section as it was completed in the original recording. You will just have to play the song and listen for yourself what the "harmonic field" for the song happens to be between the first and second lines of the final chorus.
Way back in 1969, playing violin or viola for our friend Jack LeSueur's interpretation of the song, I always felt better going from the B note up to a C just where the lead vocal line becomes "Now I need a place to hide away…"
So I hope Sir George Martin, who fashioned such inspiring string sections and other accompanying features for The Beatles, will forgive me for "going astray" all these years by moving from the "harmony third" in the form of the B note in the key of G to a virtual tonic C for that measure or two when the melody lines really seem to ask for it, in a manner of speaking. And all these years, I have been hoping somebody who backs Sir Paul up on strings in performances of "Yesterday" would also see fit to add the half step up to C at just that point in the concluding section of the song, while of course taking care to move back to the rest of the previous figure so as not to "double the C" in the vocal melody in the next bar or so.
Now, if we may harken back to the beautiful passages played high in the violin register in the second movement of Brahms' First Symphony, you will hear a parallel of sorts in this "journey of the fiddle," as the violin solo begins with the notes corresponding to the major-scale intervals 1-3-4-5, 3-4-1-1-1-1. Here is another "high third" being played on the violin as the second note in this solo line, which in this case is a G# in an E Major scale in which this movement of that Brahms symphony was placed by the composer, the first movement of which was in C Minor with three flats in accordance with the designation of the Symphony No. 2 as being a C Minor. Of course, in the fourth and final movement of the symphony, you will enjoy orchestral development in the key of C Major instead of C Minor.
But since "Yesterday" is keyed in G, then the "third" interval-note we hear on the violin in the form of that high B up on the E string, fulfills its initial harmonic task just as in the E Major slow movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 2, we hear that "three note" being played as a G#, and "zwar" (indeed), Brahms has his solo violinist playing a G# note a full octave higher on the fiddle's E string than the G# note you reach by placing the second finger in the third "full step" on the E string.
Coincidentally, the appealing harmonic progression from G Major to E Major can be enjoyed in the first progression of chords in one of my most favorite country songs, "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson, as Willy provides us with a sturdy and pleasing "chordal structure" for the guitar in the tradition of that early classical master Joseph Haydn, but don't get me started on Willie Nelson and Joseph Haydn, at least not in this chapter.
So we would humble implore Sir Paul McCartney and Sir George Martin to consider the possibility of a B-to-C "half step up" interval in the solo violin harmony part for the final verse of "Yesterday," or at least, a "blanket pardon" for any of us who would rather move from a B to a C for a measure or so precisely at the moment when Paul is telling us for the final time that "I need a place to hide away." So I'm my imaginary view, George Martin was adding a Brahms brush stroke to the violin accompaniment of "Yesterday!"
Whether our street-level request for one C note is ever even considered, let alone acted upon, one thing is for sure: we can all be in unison and harmony on that enduring last line: "Oh I believe in yesterday."
In this photo, the writer and a friend, guitarist Jack LeSueur, celebrate the completion of a Manteo-to-Murphy campaign tour with a sprightly tune at the Cherokee County Courthouse on October 22, 1977.
This was part of the writer's campaign for the U.S. Senate in the 1978 Democratic primary in North Carolina. The hiking tour began in Manteo on April 2, 1977 and was inspired by the example of Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, who walked the length of the Sunshine State in his own successful senatorial campaign in 1970.
Now McKnight's Editorial Essays, a free-lance column on North Carolina politics, is endorsing Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro in her bid for re-election to a second term in the U.S. Senate. Interestingly, Kay Hagan is the niece of the late Sen. and Gov. Lawton Chiles, so I guess we could surmise that one good walk deserves another.
--DAVID P. McKNIGHT
Photo by Theresa Wyler Webb
Editing by Bill Pope and Joseph Swenson
Learning Violin Making and Instrument Repair:
by Joe Swenson
Feb 8, 20124
J. Swenson Violins update: Finishing My #3...
Its been a long time since there was a report of my violin making exploits. I finished Violin #1 in June 2012. I then embarked on desiging a large 16 3/4" viola which I finished in November 2013. At the same time I worked on, in parallel, a Guarneri style violin which is now almost finished. (image on left)
The first violin came out better than I expected. I got to play it in the white for a week and realized I had not brough it to its full potential. It was missing lots of lower frequencies - sounding kind if thin. I assumed that was due to the fact in my plate tuning I only paid attention to the tomnes and not the overall plat thickness and total mass of the top plate.
I decided to take off the top plate again and finish scraping the plate down to its "proper" thickness of about 2.5 mm. Doing that reduces the mass of the top plate from 74 gm down to 66 gm right in the middle of the recommended 61 to 71 gm range. I also cvleaned up the inside of the violin from extra glue from gluing the back. One of the traits of good vilin making is a well built instrument with attention to detail, even in areas you can't see once the violin is assembled. So I also scraped the corner blocks to even up their inside face.
I also did not measure the fianl thickness of the violin plate now that it is scraped fairly well. One of the templates I found recommended the thickness to start at 2.6 mm and gradually increase to 2.9 mm on the edge. I ended up with about 2.4 to 2.6 mm overall. A couple spots were even thinner 1.5 mm in the depression near the top of the C-bout on each side.
The next step is to seal the wood with a "ground" coat of Vernice Bianca - inside and out.
A recipe for “Vernice Bianca” from Sacconi
The following is taken directly from American Lutherie #10 in 1987 when interviewing Jack Batts.
It is also in The Big Red Book vol 1 from Guild of American Luthiers.
25g of gum arabic,
1/2 teaspoon of honey,
1/4 teaspoon of rock candy,
about 100cc of water,
albumen from one egg white.
- Crush the rock candy.
- Warm the water but do not boil.
- Slowly add the gum arabic, stirring constantly until dissolved.
- Add honey and rock candy.
- Strain the mixture through a fine cloth (handkerchief or sheeting) and let cool.
While the mixture is cooling,
- whip an egg white into a meringue and turn the bowl on edge.
- Allow the mixture to settle out and remove the liquid that separates.
(This is the albumin) - Add the albumin to the cooled mixture and stir well.
Use this Vernice Bianca immediately and discard the rest.
Sacconi advocated that after potassium silicate had been put on very sparingly,
you should cover it completely with the vernice bianca before varnishing.