In 1996 I set about recording the classic folk tune ‘Shenandoah’ in a special, new, expressive way with something of a sense of the epic in its flow. So I chose to devise a pattern in which each verse would be in a different key and each new key would be either a major or minor third away from the previous one --- a somewhat startling and unconventional kind of key change!
On top of that, I wanted to jump to each new key immediately at the end of each verse without playing the verse’s last note --- at least till the very end of the whole piece.
And, since I was playing all the instruments myself, I chose to have a new instrument play the lead on each verse, and I aimed at never playing the melody completely normally, but would rather inject improvisational elements in varying degrees, even to the point of virtually leaving the melody altogether in a few sections, but always maintaining a lyrical and personal sense as well as the basic chord structure and flow.
So (simplistically put) I laid out chord charts for the guitar and recorded it first as a basic structure to work from, then added hammered dulcimer and other instruments from there in spontaneous bursts!
It worked to my satisfaction, and I included the recording as the second track of the album done in collaboration with Shenandoah National Park called Here on this Ridge in 1997.
In 2001 I collaborated with the Virginia State Parks to make a collection of tracks from my existing CDs (Common Wealth) that would be appropriate for sale in the State Park gift shops; I wanted to use ‘Shenandoah’, but I wished to have all the tracks drawn from original digital sources (rather than analog tape), so I redid the piece very similarly, but retained the improvisational nature --- so the new version was a sort of variant of the first. You can listen to samples of it from the albums here and here.
Often people have requested ‘Shenandoah’ as a dulcimer solo when I’m out playing live, and I was always frustrated that the recording couldn’t be reconstructed successfully enough on a solo hammered dulcimer, so I wouldn’t play it live…. Well, finally I took on the task anyway recently, and it’s been worth trying!
I start in the key of A, using a rubato-laden Romantic approach with many details of chording and dynamics, then for the second verse I shift up to the key of G in a full, rhythmic, pianistic separated-hand arrangement (still refusing to insist on the same chords or melody adaptations each time).
For the third verse I randomly choose a different key in a different part of the dulcimer, but make sure the separated hands are doing a more syncopated two-note separated-hand motion.
The fourth and fifth verses are up for grabs: I make decisions ‘on the fly’ as to keys and chord choices and arrangement techniques and moods, for the sake of keeping the daring spontaneity alive! I don’t stay very close to the melody in this region of the arrangement --- it would feel too monotonous to me if I did --- and just hold the overall pattern in my head, ticking away the measures as I try to expressively explore new areas.
When the time seems to near that the piece should be finishing up --- there’s a sense of dimension that one has to keep in mind as the overall arch of the piece progresses --- for a last verse (fifth verse? sixth? seventh?) I choose a key and go back to the first verse, maybe in the original key and maybe not.
I ran across a little coda idea for this long ago (and actually recorded it as an interlude in my epic version of ‘The Water Is Wide’ on the album Jamestown: On the Edge of a Vast Continent) which I like to insert with no warning at the end of this piece too. Why not? It's sort of playful and adventurous for an ending! Whatever the key of the last verse is, determines what odd key the coda will be in. What fun!
I’ve purposely made two videos of ‘Shenandoah’ here, so you can compare the ways I make spontaneous decisions as I go. I hope you find them interesting and instructive!
If you’re a musician, and especially if you play solo hammered dulcimer, I hope these ideas can be inspirational for your own explorations with any tune of your choice. Try fresh new things!