northern banjo cover

Ken Perlman: Northern Banjo


Northern Banjo is something of a new sound for clawhammer and represents in many ways a significant departure from Ken’s previous recordings. The repertoire on the CD is composed primarily of Celtic and Canadian fiddle tunes, most of which Ken collected on Prince Edward Island. The idea behind the project is a banjo-centered ensemble. The banjo powerfully performs these melodies note for note in authentic traditional style, effectively capturing the fiddle’s drive and phrasing. The backup and ensemble arrangements for most cuts, on the other hand, feature “modern” syncopated rhythms, sophisticated harmony lines or counter-melodies performed by a coterie of accomplished musicians.

Some cuts feature guitar and bass back up with fiddle counter melody, others feature elaborate arrangements where the banjo is supported by a full panoply of Irish session instruments in a style reminiscent of such well-known ensembles as the Chieftains and Planxty. There is an original selection called Road to Mexico where the banjo played clawhammer-style steps out as a full-fledged member of a bluegrass band, and three guitar solos where Ken displays his patented fingerstyle versions of Scottish, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island fiddle tunes.


SAMPLE TUNE: Robert Cormack Aberdeen/Complements to Buddy MacMaster/Fisher’s Hornpipe

SAMPLE TUNE: Lord MacDonald’s Reel/The Princess Reel/The Honeymoon

SAMPLE TUNE: Road to Mexico (by Ken Perlman)

  1. The Poppy Leaf/Stack of Barley/The East Newk of Bear River. 3:58
  2. Rock Valley Jig/Light & Airy/The Munster Lass. 3:15
  3. The Banks Hornpipe/The Democratic Rage/Miss Johnson of Pittworth. 4:14
  4. Robert Cormack Aberdeen/Complements to Buddy MacMaster/Fisher’s Hornpipe. 3:51
  5. Kenmure’s Awa’/Wilfred’s Fiddle/Jackson’s Jig. 3:09
  6. Road to Mexico (by Ken Perlman). 3:48
  7. Guitar Solo: Niel Gow’s Lament for His Second Wife. 3:15
  8. Lord MacDonald’s Reel/The Princess Reel/The Honeymoon. 3:17
  9. The Braes of Auchtertyre/Caber Feidh. 3:31
  10. Guitar Solo: Lament for James Moray, Abercarney/Dunie Mains/The Chaisson Reel. 4:18
  11. Shandon Bells/The Orange and Blue /Chorus Jig. 3:13
  12. Stella’s Trip to Kamloops/The Iron Man/Angus Campbell/Dillon Brown/Big John MacNeil. 5:49
  13. Guitar Solo: The Sweetness of Mary/Mason’s Apron. 3:30

From the CD Booklet

The process that led to the birth of this recording got underway in the winter of ‘97 when Canadian guitarist Ken Brown lured me to his home in Guelph, Ontario with promises of some good tunes and an opportunity to sample the fare at a terrific local Chinese Restaurant called Wok’s Taste. We had met at the Celtic Roots Festival in nearby Goderich a year or two earlier, and we were both intrigued by the idea of blending the fiddle tunes I was working on, many of which I had learned from traditional fiddle players on Prince Edward Island in Eastern Canada, with the kind of “modern” syncopated rhythms and sophisticated harmony lines that Ken and a number of other Ontario accompanists had been perfecting over the last couple of decades.

Brown and I explored this idea over the course of several visits, we did a few gigs together, and ultimately we decided to create a CD. As the project took shape, we moved from a duo focus to what amounts to a banjo- centered band. To this end, we enlisted the aid of some of the best musicians of the Ontario acoustic music scene: bassist David Woodhead, fiddlers Sandy MacIntyre, James Stephens and Oliver Schoerer, winds player Loretto Reed, piper Pat O’Gorman, strings player Brian Taheny, percussionist Ben Grossman and guitarist Jason Fowler.

In addition, bluegrass guitarist and mandolinist John Rossbach of Syracuse, New York sat in on a few cuts, bringing his expertise in particular to Road to Mexico.

It has been so commonplace — in the US at least — to associate old-time fiddle music with the Southern Appalachians, that the equally vibrant old-time fiddling traditions of the Northern states and Eastern Canadian provinces have often been overlooked. The truth of the matter is that many Eastern Canadian old-time fiddling traditions (such as those of Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Ottawa Valley of Ontario and Quebec) have outlasted their Southern counterparts by generations. It is to these, and to all the other great Northern traditions that this album is dedicated.

My own style of banjo playing has long been referred to as melodic clawhammer to distinguish it from the minimalist style of banjo-playing that has grown up over the last few decades as an offshoot of the folk revival, and which is misleadingly known as “traditional” clawhammer. It was a remark by fiddler George Wilson of the Albany, New York area that led me to the idea that my style — which focused so strongly on the tunes and approach favored by musicians from the Northern half of North America – should more properly be known as Northern clawhammer. Another consideration is that the melodic style is the true heir of the mid-19th century minstrel-banjo tradition. This style, which was itself as much a Northern as a Southern phenomenon, had a published repertoire that focused heavily on faithful reproductions of Celtic and Northern fiddle tunes.

Hope you enjoy the recording!


  • Ken Perlman – clawhammer banjo and fingerstyle guitar
  • Ken Brown – guitar accompaniment (tuning – DADGAD) on all but cut 6
  • David Woodhead – basses
  • James Stephens – fiddle and/or viola on cuts 1, 2, 3, and 12
  • Oliver Schoerer – 5-string fiddle on cuts 4 and 6
  • Sandy MacIntyre – fiddle on cuts 9 and 14
  • Loretto Reed – flute and whistle
  • Pat O’Gorman – uillean pipes
  • John Rossbach – mandolin and (on cut 6) guitar accompaniment
  • Brian Taheny – Irish bazouki, resophonic guitar and (on cut 8) fiddle
  • Ben Grossman – percussion
  • Jason Fowler – guitar (standard tuning) on cut 9

Other Credits

  • Arrangements for “bed tracks”: Ken Perlman and Ken Brown
  • Ensemble arrangements: Ken Perlman
  • Sound engineering, editing, and mixing: Paul Benedict
  • Producer: Ken Perlman
  • Production assistance: Ken Brown, Paul Benedict and David Woodhead.
  • Audio consultants: John Garrett, James Stephens, Ken Whitely, John Rossbach and Ed Britt.
  • Mastering: Airshow Studios, Springfield Virginia
  • Mastering Engineer: Charlie Pilzer
  • Cover painting: John Gould
  • Photo of Ken Perlman: David Bagnall
  • Design and layout: Rebecca Pittard and Ken Perlman
  • Recorded at: Benedict Studios – Stratford, Ontario, Canada
  • Mixed at: Cyberaudio – Kitchener, Ontario