Category Archives: those that tremble as if they were mad

Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 4

So now you’ve got everything you need to enjoy Hanukkah with some “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke”: a recording by the Paint Branch Ramblers, a cheat sheet for singing and playing along, and even the lead sheet if you want to play the melody. What’s next?

Well, for the fourth night of Hanukkah, I’m posting a scratch track that I made very simply (recorded straight into the computer’s built-in mic) for the Ramblers to be able to hear and practice with when we were learning it. This is a slightly older version of the melody with one phrase that turns a different direction in the 7th bar than we do it now (see yesterday’s post for the details).


The instrument you’re hearing is the skin-head banjo ukulele I picked up some years ago at an antique shop in Kewaskum, Wisconsin.

In fact, the song was written not for the mandolin/violin tuning I use on the cümbüş, but for the basic D ukulele tuning (A – D – F# – B) of the 1927 Regal tiple that I used to have. A tiple – at least the early-20th-century American instrument that was called that – is a 10-string ukulele (four courses of 2 – 3 – 3- 2 strings each) that sounds like something halfway between a mandolin and a 12-string guitar. I’d found the instrument on e-bay and arranged to meet the seller in person on his way through Effingham, Illinois, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant (his idea). So, like the banjo ukulele, and like the vast majority of every instrument I’ve ever owned, I bought it without ever playing it first.

I’ve had pretty good luck with that, actually.

The melody of “Heyse Latke” falls very nicely into the ukulele tuning, and I’d written the song for the set I was going to play at my George Washington University Writing Program office holiday party, probably in 2005 or 2006. At that time, it was just an instrumental.

But while I was in another room socializing, I heard the the tiple, which I just had propped up against a wall, falling to the floor with a sickening sound. When I went in, I saw that the headstock – as heavy in relation to the body as you’d imagine a headstock on a 10-string ukulele-sized instrument would have to be – had very cleanly snapped off in just such a way that no one was ever going to be able to fix it.

So “Heyse Latke” had to wait for the Ramblers to come along to get a public hearing. (From the set list notes we keep on our band’s wiki, it looks like the first performance of it may have been on July 31, 2008 at the Riverdale Park farmers market. Nothing like Hanukkah in July.)

Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 3

For the first night of Hanukkah, I posted a recent Paint Branch Ramblers recording of “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke.” And yesterday, I posted the cheat sheet for singing and playing along in accompaniment.

But what if you want to play the melody itself? Well, today’s post offers you a PDF of the handwritten lead sheet that Peter Jensen and I use to make our contribution on the violin and the cümbüş, respectively. Ignore the chord changes, which are hopelessly more complicated the ones we actually use. You can find the ones we use on the cheat sheet from yesterday’s post.

You should also note that we have made two small changes in the way that we actually play it and make those corrections on the music.

  • In measures 4 & 8, you can add a short cadenza to the final f# note, so that it runs down the D major scale (F#, E, D) following the same two-sixteenth one-eighth note figure that you’ll see at the start of measure 7. On this one, it creates a nicely heterophonous effect if NOT all the players do this every time.
  • The more important change is the reversal of the 2nd and 3rd notes in measure 7, so that it goes G, A, Bb rather than G, Bb, A. It’s a really small thing, but it makes a big difference in the way the textured pattern of that part works out.

    We don’t really solo over this, but if you wanted to try, the song basically uses two modes. I don’t know the names of either. For most of it – the parts where the chords is D major – it uses what I think of as the basic klezmer mode (i.e., the one that you’ll hear in “Hava Nagila” or “Misirlou”) of a scale built on D using the notes D, Eb, F#, G, A, Bb, C#, D. For measures 7 & 8, 11 & 12, and 15 & 16 (where the chords go D, C, C, D), it straightens out the scale a bit, so that you’re using D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D. Though, frankly, when I ad lib, I don’t worry about that.

    And we don’t think you should either. Come back tomorrow night for more latkes, served up hot and cold.

    Hanukkah with the Viper, pt. 1

    I’d been thinking that the right and proper thing to do this holiday season would be to upload and post some version of the Hanukkah song that I’d written and have been performing all year with the Paint Branch Ramblers, “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke” (hot latke cold latke). But when I went to track down the file on my hard drive, I discovered that I had at least enough material for 8 days of blog posts.

    A great miracle has happened here!

    So I’ll start below with a live version of the song as recorded at our recent December 6, 2008 show at the Home Grown Coffee House in Accokeek, Maryland. (Here, we pair it with Bill Monroe’s “Jerusalem Ridge,” taking you from diaspora to homeland in just under 3-and-a-half minutes).

    Please wait until sundown to listen. And for the best possible effect, some white noise produced by the sound of latkes frying in the background would be nice. Add a plop of applesauce. Then, for each of the next 7 days, please return to this blog for a little more of the musical gelt, Viper style.

    download the mp3

    NOTE: If you’d like to hear more of the Ramblers, you can find the complete set of recordings from the show on their own blog. To start, you might begin with my hand-chosen “best of” from the show.

    More TonePort experiments with the Ramblers

    Here’s a few more experiments with the Line6 TonePort UX2 hardware / GearBox software, this time at the Paint Branch Ramblers practice for November 20, 2008.

    “Bob Smith Puts the Pedal to the Metal”

    for download

    This is from some fooling around before practice, with Bob Smith revealing some of his heavier chops. I think this was recorded by running a line directly out of his acoustic guitar through the “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” guitar setting on the GearBox.

    “Tear It Down” detail

    for download

    My mind is on my money and my money is on my mind. This is equalized a bit using Audacity’s RCA Victor 1938 setting. The musicians you’re hearing are The musicians are: Susan Johnson (washtub bass), Mike Paul (soprano ukulele), Peter Jensen (violin), Bob Smith (guitar). When I’m not singing, I’m playing jug

    “Jackknife” detail


    Normally we go right into “Down Yonder” after this, but I wanted to hear what just our vocal intro would sound like with an attempt to use Audacity’s noise removal feature to get rid of some of the hum from the fluorescent lights in my apartment. Next time we record, I’m bringing out my nightstand lamps! Equalized using Decca FFRR 78 setting, which gives a little more of a trebly edge than the RCA Victor setting. Singing is Mike Paul, Peter Jensen, and me.