[Callers] Calling to the tune Sheepskin and Beeswax

Dave Casserly david.j.casserly at gmail.com
Tue Jan 7 09:47:26 PST 2014

Beeswax and Sheepskin is one of my favorite tunes to play, and dance to.  I
don't actually really agree with the musician quoted; it's not particularly
rhythmically complex, and I don't think the upbeat emphasis detracts much
from understanding the phrasing of Quebecois tunes.  The problem, in my
view, is more along the lines of what Suzanne identified.  There is very
little difference between the phrases in the A and B sections, which is
compounded by the fact that some people playing the tune go back to the A
phrase over the second part of the last time through the B section.  So the
tune ends up sounding to some like a four-bar phrase repeated five times
followed by a four-bar phrase repeated three times, instead of 4 of the
first, three of the second, then back to one of the first.  It's a strictly
modal tune, based on a six note scale, so can be incredibly monotonous (or
trance-like, if that's how you prefer to see it) if played by bands that
don't change the feeling up at all.

I've noticed this issue with a lot of strictly modal tunes that have little
harmonic complexity and repeated phrases.  My advice would be to ask the
band to do something to differentiate sections, or even to mark the return
to the beginning of the tune.  There are lots of things bands can do for
this; for Beeswax and Sheepskin, for instance, bands could play over a D
major chord instead of an A minor in the B section, or even just over the
last four bars of the second B section.  Or any number of other harmonic
changes.  Bands can also put stops at the end of phrases, hits at the
beginning of the B section, or other rhythmic variations, too.  I think
most creative bands, when told what the problem is, can change to adapt to
it.  But that's not particularly helpful when you don't know the tune ahead
of time and have it sprung on by surprise.  Another alternative, as Don V.
alluded to, is to ask bands to use more strongly phrased tunes with
well-differentiated A and B parts to start off every set.

As a musician, for me personally, the most limiting part of playing for
contra dances is keeping improvisation down.  I sympathize with the caller
in Suzanne's side-story below; it can be very difficult to help dancers
find the phrasing when nobody in the band is playing the tune.  I don't
really have any good ideas for callers faced with a band in this situation,
other than to try to communicate as best as possible that everybody is
there for the dancers, and hearing the tune (or something phrased like the
tune) at least every other time through the dance can be very helpful.


On Tue, Jan 7, 2014 at 12:19 PM, Suzanne Girardot <suzanneg at wolfenet.com>wrote:

>    Delia,
>    Your band member is very observant, and your bands should respect your
>    request to not use tunes that don't work well for the dances. My
>    experience is, if I'm getting messed up by the music as a caller, the
>    dancers are as well, which affects the enjoyment of the dance. When
>    this happens on the fly, I often see if the band can change tunes in
>    midstream, which many good bands can do.
>    There are many French-Canadian and old-time tunes that are either
>    crooked (have extra or missing beats or measures), have extra or short
>    parts, or are highly syncopated. While many of these tunes are really
>    fun to dance to if you don't need a square tune (32 bars), for example
>    for a square dance, they obviously won't work for a contra dance. In
>    addition, I have had some old-time players insist that a tune is 32
>    bars, but it sure doesn't feel that way. I have counted these tunes,
>    and they either have a melody that crosses a phrase, making it
>    syncopated, starts on an upbeat, or just doesn't work, for whatever
>    reason. At least the bands that I ask to not play a particular tune are
>    willing to refrain from doing so. It helps if you can go to their
>    practice and hear what they are planning to play.
>    When I listen to "Sheepskin and Beeswax" (an excellent tune that's fun
>    to play) what I hear is that the 2 A phrases are almost identical, in
>    that they have 4-bar phrases repeated twice for each A part, and the
>    same is true for the B part. Because there is so much repetition in the
>    phrases, I can imagine that it might be difficult to differentiate
>    where you are in the part. Because I am a musician as well as a caller
>    and dancer, I have a fairly innate sense of 4- and 8-bar phrases, but
>    if you are not used to listening to such phrases, it can be a
>    challenge. I don't know your background, but if there is a tune that
>    gives you trouble, perhaps listening to a recording of it until you are
>    familiar with it could help.
>    Just a side story:  I was dancing to a well-known Scottish-style
>    fiddler who had a rock-n-roll style guitarist and a jazz bassist (who
>    had never played for a dance before). Even I was having trouble
>    figuring out where we were in the music and so was having trouble with
>    the dance. I asked the inimitable Warren Argo, who was doing sound, if
>    he had noticed this problem. He said that the band actually mentioned
>    that even they hadn't known where they were in the music. (This was due
>    mostly to a lot of improvisation on the band's part.) Hopefully that
>    never happens to any of us!
>    Suzanne Girardot
>    Seattle, WA
>    -----Original Message-----
>    >From: Delia Clark
>    >Sent: Jan 7, 2014 8:58 AM
>    >To: Callers at sharedweight.net
>    >Subject: [Callers] Calling to the tune Sheepskin and Beeswax
>    >
>    >Hi all,
>    >I call regularly with the same band and I have noticed that there are
>    a couple of sets that they play in which I consistently mess up. In the
>    middle of an evening of everything going well, I suddenly find that I
>    am lost and have a hard time finding my way back, even with extreme
>    focus. This, needless to say, is not good!
>    >
>    >I've been trying to identify these tunes so that I can be prepared to
>    pay really close attention before they start. I have also begun to
>    wonder, though, whether some jigs/reels are just not as good for
>    dancing as others. I have been discussing this with the band, raising
>    the idea that maybe they could save these tunes that challenge me for
>    some of their non-dance gigs (fairs, bandstand, background music, etc).
>    Some of them are receptive, others not.
>    >
>    >I wonder whether any of you have noticed tunes that are particularly
>    difficult to call to, and how you have handled it.
>    >
>    >The one I have noticed most recently is Sheepskin and Beeswax. Here's
>    what one of the band members wrote to me about it: "Rhythmically, it's
>    a challenging tune for the band. There's a lot of syncopation going on
>    between instruments and because it's French Canadian to play it
>    properly means lots of upbeat emphasis. It's a challenging tune to play
>    well. Even if we played it very well and fast enough (and that's been a
>    problem for dancers and caller) I think it would still be challenging
>    to call to and dance to because of how the rhythm and notes don't go
>    well together."
>    >
>    >Thanks,
>    >Delia Clark
>    >
>    ><>:<>:<>:<>:<>:<>:<>:<>:<>
>    >
>    >Delia Clark
>    >PO Box 45
>    >Taftsville, VT 05073
>    >802-457-2075
>    >deliaclark8 at gmail.com
>    >
>    >
>    >
>    >
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David Casserly
(cell) 781 258-2761

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