By Bob Hudson
If a band is defined more by its sound than by its songs, then the Nee Ningy Band was in a class by itself. Most old-time or blues bands, while unique in their own way, sound at least a little like every other old-time or blues band. While the musical influences on the Nee Ningy Band are easy to distinguish—blues, Cajun, Celtic, and so on—they just didn’t sound like anyone else. Not then, not since.
That “Nee Ningy sound” could be heard on college campuses, at street fairs, and at music festivals from New England to North Carolina between 1978 and 1981, though the band existed under other aliases and with variable personnel before, during, and after that time. For instance, on “Wild Hog in the Woods,” the last cut of the Field Recorders’ Collective disc of the Nee Ningy Band, three of the core members perform with an extended group and go by the name of the Smiling Dog Band. Since then, individual members have played in various groups with names like 100th Monkey, the Whompers, Big Blow and the Bushwackers, Twang, and others.
But back when they were still the Nee Ningy Band, I saw them perform about a dozen times in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. They played venues like the famed Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill (when it was still in the back alley) and the Apple Chill street festival; at Brother Yusef’s cool and jazzy Salaam Center in Durham and at St. Joseph’s Performance Center, also in Durham. It was a time when the local acoustic scene was dominated by such acts as the Red Clay Ramblers and Mike Cross.
The Nee Ningy Band often played at bars and developed their own unique way of getting and holding an audience’s attention. Seldom would you hear an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Nee Ningy Band.” Instead, the lights would dim and from somewhere outside could be heard the distant whine of bagpipes. It would suddenly dawn on you that something odd was happening. A few moments later, the doors would burst open with a boom, and in would parade the Nee Ningy Band, single file, playing the loudest, noisiest combination of instruments imaginable: bagpipes, bombards, serpentines, drums, and whistles. After winding among the tables, they would march to the stage, and just before launching into their first number, they would scream “Neeeeee NINGEEEE!’ as if it were a Pict war cry. The strategy was effective in putting any rowdy drunks or potential hecklers on notice that they were seriously outgunned.
Nor was the effect simply auditory. The band was a visual delight as well. They could be expected to wear Harlequin pants, striped bell bottoms, brightly colored balloon-sleeved shirts, tuxedo coats, assorted castoffs from some theatre wardrobe department, and odd headwear. In one of their publicity photos, percussionist Mance Grady is wearing a Viking helmet. Ray Alden even remembers seeing the band perform at Galax wearing loincloths.
To add to the visual effect, they always encouraged dancers—whether Southern cloggers, Irish step-dancers, or just plain old hippies—to dance in the aisles or at the edges of the stage. It looked like a cross between a Renassance fair and a love-in.
Their spontaneous style made them the ideal band for street fairs and music festivals. In August of 1979, Timemagazine even cited the Nee Ningy Band as exemplifying the best of American street music.
They recorded one full-length LP, Get Nung!, on the famed Biograph blues label, released in 1981. They also produced three promotional EPs, which they sold at their concerts. Chris Turner also recorded and privately issued a solo harmonica album at that time, which included studio versions of harmonica solos that he performed in concert with the band. Several of those solo tracks are represented on this Field Recorders’ Collective CD.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of the Nee Ningy Band was their ability to communicate the sheer fun in the music they performed. Their performances were energetic, even hair-raising. You kept expecting the intensity to slacken, but it never did. In a sense, they were like musical tightrope walkers, able to fill an audience with an expectation that at any moment they might fall.
Their music was visceral. You heard it in the gut as much as in the ear, and they achieved a level of volume rare for acoustic musicians. They could be loud. And they reveled in it.
But their music appealed to the mind as well. They drew with astonishing authority from a wide variety of traditions, but they did it with an amazing lack of self-consciousness or pretense. The more familiar you were with world music, the more you could appreciate the Nee Ningy Band. Consider the styles represented by the songs on their various discs: Cajun, Irish, Appalachian, African, English, French, calypso, Tex-Mex, classical, pop, and, of course, blues—from Renaissance courts to ’50s R&B. On this disc from the Field Recorders’ Collective, three different languages are represented.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the Nee Ningy sound is this: NO GUITAR! It seems unheard of. Still, with a harmonica player of the caliber of Chris Turner holding the sound together, a guitar would not only have sounded out of place, it would have been overpowered.
The variety of instruments played was also mind boggling—aside from harmonicas of all kinds, they include mandolin, mandola, fiddle, washtub bass, flute, kazoo, pennywhistle, slide whistle, siren, nose flute, cornetto (a curved Renaissance horn), shahnai (Indian oboe), raita (Moroccan shawm), and accordion.
And that’s just the melody instruments. Among the percussion are various African drums, jaw harp, bodhran, snare drum, chimes, congas, cow bells, maracas, tambourine, and bones. And the Nee Ningy Band may also be the world’s greatest exponent of the one instrument immediately identifiable with their sound: the triangle. It gives their music a high-wire, crystalline kind of sparkle all its own.
Ultimately, they were like a one-man band with five people. Or perhaps they were five one-man bands all playing simultaneously. But their combined noise was pure joy.
Finally, a note about how the band acquired its mysterious name. It seems they were performing some Irish and Appalachian tunes somewhere when an older gentleman approached them. He said something to this effect: “All that fiddle music sounds the same to me,” and holding his arms up as if to play air-fiddle, he continued, “—it all sounds like ‘nee-ningy nee-ningy nee-ningy nee-ningy.’”
The name stuck.
Or as the band itself might say: Neeee NINGEEEEE!!
1. Stranger (Blind Willie Johnson) This is the Nee Ningy Band’s take on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right,” which Johnson recorded in Atlanta, April 20, 1930, for Columbia Records. The Nee Ningy Band not only manages to give it Johnson’s rhythmic drive but also to make it sound as if it could have been written yesterday. They recorded their version in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1979. It was released on both the band’s first EP (1979) and the Just Whop It! compilation CD (1994). Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica and vocal; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandolin and backup vocal; and Rob VanVeld, jaw harp.
2. Annie Had a Baby (Nathan Glover) This mid-1950s hit by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters was risqué for its time. Ballard also scored hits with two other naughty “Annie” songs: “Work with Me, Annie” and “Annie’s Aunt Fanny.” Recorded in the studios of WUNC Radio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1980–81, it was released on the band’s 1981 Biograph LP, Get Nung Musicians: Ted Porter, mandolin and vocal; Chris Turner, harmonica; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Mance Grady, percussion.
3. Endangered Species (Chris Turner) This was the opening track to Chris Turner’s solo Harmonicas album (c. 1981) and was recorded on a single track with one Full Concert Marine Band harmonica. This is one of the most astonishing harmonica solos I know of and fully justifies Turner being referred to on an Internet website as a “harmonica god.”
4. Twilight Waltz (Chris Turner) This Chris Turner original is from the Nee Ningy Band’s first EP (1979) on which the tunes “Gilgamesh” and “Stranger” also appear. Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandolin; and Rob VanVeld, tub bass.
5. Marina (Rocco Grenata) The composer of this Italian pop song from the 1950s was Rocco Grenata, the son of Italian immigrants to Belgium. Rather than work in the mines, as his family had done, Grenata found a career in music, touring and playing accordion. This, his most popular song, has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and has been recorded by more than 1,000 different artists, including Louis Armstrong and Dean Martin. It is, in fact, one of the non-English-speaking world’s most popular and widely recorded songs. This Nee Ningy version was first issued on the band’s third EP (1980) along with three other tunes, “Swallowtail Jig,” “Kilgerry Mountain,” and “Soul Cake,” and was recorded at Viscount Basement Studios, Cranston, Rhode Island. Musicians: Ted Porter, mandolin and vocal; Chris Turner, harmonica and slide whistle; Rachel Maloney, maracas; Rob VanVeld, tub bass; Mance Grady, cow bell; Mike Bresler, flute; Pete Wetzler, accordion; and Laura Fontini, laughing.
6. Fiddler a Dram (trad. Appalachian) This song, one of the most laid-back pieces recorded by the Nee Ningy Band, features one of the few cornetto solos your ever likely to hear. A cornetto is a relatively loud Renaissance instrument, basically a trumpet shaped like a cow’s horn, from which it was probably fabricated at some point in its history. The song, sometimes called “Dance All Night (with a Bottle in Your Hand),” is an Appalachian fiddle tune that is usually performed up-tempo and was one of Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith’s signature tunes. The Nee Ningy band does a nice job of moodily reinterpreting it here. This was recorded live at Cable Car Cinema, Providence, Rhode Island, in 1981, and first appeared on the band’s Get Nung! LP (1981). Musicians: Ted Porter, mandolin and vocal; Chris Turner, harmonica and cornetto; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Mance Grady, percussion.
7. J’ai Passé Ta Porte (trad. Cajun) This is based on one of the most popular of all Cajun songs, “J’ai Passé Devant Ta Porte,” but the Ningy Band changes the words a bit. I doubt, for instance, that the second verse of the original really says (in translation) “All the terrible and naughty children dance to the Nee Ningy Band”! This is from the Get Nung! LP (1981) and was recorded in the studios of WUNC Radio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica and vocal; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandolin; Rob VanVeld, triangle; and Robbie Phillips, tub bass.
8. Ted Evans Shuffle (trad.) Another track from Chris Turner’s solo Harmonicas LP. Recorded on two tracks with two Marine Band harmonicas. The “shuffle” of the title, of course, refers to dancing, but it also refers to the fact that the album’s production manager, Ted Evans (for whom the track is named) kept flipping the controls so that the notes bounce between the left and right channels. Try it with headphones.
9. Soulcake (trad. English) This song is a reminder of how much the Nee Ningy Band enjoyed singing a cappella harmony in the tradition of such English choral groups of the 1960s and ’70s as the Watersons. While the Nee Ningy Band was most likely familiar with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version this elemental four-note song, as well as the Watersons’ own rendition, the band’s version here has little in common with either. They manage to find a new approach to one of the most primitive of all English ceremonial songs. This was released on Nee Ningy’s third EP (1980) alongside “Swallowtail Jig,” “Marina,” and “Kilgerry Mountain.” It was recorded at Viscount Basement Studios, Cranston, Rhode Island. Vocals: Chris Turner, Rachel Maloney, Ted Porter, and Rob VanVeld.
10. Yellow Rose of Texas (trad. U.S.) This was the opening track on the Nee Ningy Band’s Get Nung! LP (1981), with their trademark “Neee Ningeee” battle cry. Though the song is attributed to an anonymous composer known only as “H.B.C.,” the actual “Yellow Rose” of the title is well known. She was a woman of mixed race who proved herself a Texas heroine at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, during the war for Texas independence. This was recorded in the studios of WUNC Radio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandola; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Mance Grady, percussion.
11. Groundhog Blues (trad.) Both Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker recorded popular versions of this tune, both of which the Nee Ningy Band was probably familiar with. Surely, Chris Turner would have studied Williamson’s harp licks for this one, which was recorded live at New England Repertory Theater, Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1981, and released on the band’s Get Nung! LP (1981). Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica and vocal; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandolin; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Mance Grady, percussion.
12. Bosco Stomp (trad. Cajun) Another fine traditional Cajun number with a great vocal by Ted Porter. This was recorded at the Lucerne Inn, East Holden, Maine, in 1980. This song has been done by nearly every Cajun band in existence. This is from the Just Whop It! compilation CD (1994). Musicians: Ted Porter, mandolin and vocal; Chris Turner, harmonica; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Rob VanVeld, tub bass; and Mike Bresler, triangle.
13. Have Mercy (Walter Horton) This sublime blues instrumental was written by the legendary Big Walter (“Shakey”) Horton—Chris Turner’s harmonica mentor. Horton recorded it on his Big Walter Horton with Carrie Bell album (Alligator 4702), on which Horton also does his hit version of Willie Dixon’s “Have a Good Time.” This Nee Ningy version was recorded at the Lucerne Inn, East Holden, Maine, in 1979, and was included on their Just Whop It! CD (1994). Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandolin; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Mance Grady, percussion.
14. Elevator Woman (Sonny Boy Williamson) This blues number, which the band no doubt learned from an old Sonny Boy Williamson disc, was recorded at Cable Car Cinema, Providence, Rhode Island, in 1981. It was released on theJust Whop It! CD (1994). Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica and vocal; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Ted Porter, mandolin; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Mance Grady, percussion.
15. Boogie in A Flat (Chris Turner) This track and the next one are from Chris Turner’s solo Harmonicas LP. This one was recorded on three tracks, using a rhythm harmonica, a bass harmonica, and a chromatic.
16. Blues in a Glass (Chris Turner) This slow and somewhat experimental blues number was recorded on one track with a regular Marine Band harmonica.
17. La Porte en Arrière (D. L. Menard) Cajun songwriter and guitarist D. L. Menard wrote this song, the title of which means “The Back Door,” in the early 1950s at the encouragement of Hank Williams. Menard loosely based it on Williams’ own “Honky Tonk Blues.” It has become one of the standards of Cajun music. It appeared on their Get Nung!LP (1981). Musicians: Ted Porter, mandolin and vocal; Chris Turner, harmonica; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Robbie Phillips, tub bass; and Rob VanVeld, triangle.
18. Dancers in the Bulrushes (Chris Turner) This tune and “Robosinian Hobo” are again from Chris Turner’s soloHarmonicas album. On this track you can hear what might be described as Chris’s classic “throat percussion,” a common effect that Turner often used in his live Nee Ningy performances. It was recorded on one track with an Orchestra Minor harmonica.
19. The Robosinian Hobo (Chris Turner) Recorded on four tracks, using two rhythm harmonicas, a bass harmonica, and a chromatic. I have checked every possible reference and have yet to uncover the meaning of “Robosinian” or who the hobo referred to here might be.
20. Wild Hog in the Woods (trad.) Also known as “Bangum,” or “Old Bangum,” this primitive tune’s roots go back centuries. A version of it, under the title “Sir Lionel,” was included in Francis Child’s collection English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published 1882-98), as Child Ballad no. 18. There were a number of recorded versions available at the time the Nee Ningy Band recorded this (around 1981). They may have been familiar with the version by the Fuzzy Mountain String Band on their debut album (1971). The Fuzzy Mountain folks, in turn, may have learned their version personally from Taylor Kimble (whose version of the song is available on Field Recorders’ Collective disc The Kimble and Wagoner Families, FRC106, 2006)—the folk process in action. The musicians involved in this session—under the name of the Smiling Dog Band—remember this as one of the more amazing live jams they ever committed to tape, which was done, I believe, in the studios of WUNC Radio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Musicians: Chris Turner, harmonica and vocal; Rachel Maloney, fiddle; Rob VanVeld, bodhran; Doug Kent, cello; Simon Shepherd, steel guitar; Steve Joba, viola; Curt Stager, banjo; Leo Lorenzoni, guitar; Jim Coffman, mandolin; and Bob Burtman, kazoo.
Chris Turner: As a Honer All-Europe Harmonica Champion (1975), Chris plays every manner of harmonica, as well as flutes, whistles, horns, reeds, and pipes. He studied harmonica with blues great Big Walter (“Shakey”) Horton (1917–81), is in demand as a composer, and still performs regularly with Ningy fiddler, Rachel Maloney, as the Whompers, and with Rachel and Ningy percussionist Mance Grady as 100th Monkey. He was recently music director at the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, Rhode Island, and has guested on an array of other musician’s CDs and with symphony orchestras.
Ted Porter: A multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist, Ted is an energetic, percussive-style mandolin player, who learned his chops while busking the streets and subways of Europe in the 1970s. It is astonishing to hear how he adapts to nearly every style of music—including blues mandolin. He is a song-writer as well as a performer and still performs with the trio Big Blow and the Bushwackers, who have recorded six albums on the Wedgie label and have a considerable following on the East Coast.
Rachel Maloney: As a fiddler, vocalist, performer, and composer, Rachel excels in many musical styles: blues, country, Cajun, Celtic, and old-time. She has performed and composed music for the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, where she also served as musical director. She still plays with Chris Turner and Mance Grady in the group, 100th Monkey, and she performs at a wide variety of venues and is a popular fiddle teacher at music camps, festivals, and workshops.
Mance Grady: Mance is a master percussionist and continues to be in constant demand as a bodhran player and an instrument maker. One can purchase his highly-prized instruments, including an innovative “tunable” bodhran, over the Internet. He officially joined the Nee Ningy Band a year or so after they formed, and since then he has continued to perform with many of the greats of modern Irish music.
Rob VanVeld (aka Rob Fanbelt): This double-tub (washtub) bass player and sometimes percussionist for the Nee Ningy Band now works for the Independent Weekly newspaper in Durham, N.C. and plays guest spots for artists like Jon Shane and Big Blow and the Bushwackers. Later, bassist and percussionist Robbie Phillips joined the Nee Ningy Band. He now plays in a band called Twang and has appeared as a tub player on albums by such well-known artists as Spider John Koerner.
Other occasional band members include Pete Wetzler on accordion (a classically trained musician who has composed harmonica/piano duets for Chris Turner and performs with Chris and Rachel as the Repeatos), Mike Bresler (guesting on triangle and who now plays with a group called the Lost Melody Ramblers), and, finally, a flute player and percussionist mysteriously referred to as “Professor Ersatz.”
1. Nee Ningy Band, the, “Gilgamesh.” 7-inch, 33? rpm vinyl promo EP (78 Records NNB 781, 1979). Recording venue not known. Tracks: “Gilgamesh,” “Stranger,” and “Twilight Waltz.”
2. –––––––. “(Put a Dime in the) Busker’s Cup.” 7-inch, 45 rpm vinyl promo disc (78 Records NNB 782, 1979). Recorded at Viscount Basement Studios, Cranston, Rhode Island. Tracks: “(Put a Dime in the) Busker’s Cup” and “Cajun Ninger.”
3. –––––––. “Swallowtail Jig.” 7-inch, 33? rpm vinyl promo EP (78 Records NNB 783, c. 1980). Recorded at Viscount Basement Studios, Cranston, Rhode Island. Tracks: “Swallowtail Jig,” “Marina,” “Kilgerry Mountain,” and “Soulcake.”
4. –––––––. Get Nung! LP (Biograph BLP-RC-6011, 1981). Except for five live cuts, this album were recorded in the studios of WUNC Radio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1980–81. Tracks: “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Have a Good Time,” “The Pace-Egging Song,” “Battle Cry of Munster,” “J’ai Passé Ta Porte,” “Annie Had a Baby,” “Parade,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Fiddler a Dram,” “Bamako Bop,” “La Porte en Arrière,” “Groundhog Blues,” and “Danse Royale.”
5. –––––––. Just Whop It! CD (Wedgie Records WRCD005). A compilation of rare Ningy tracks, released in 1994. Tracks: “Have a Good Time,” “Stranger,” “Have Mercy,” “Holy Cow,” “Elevator Woman,” “Grog,” “The Beautiful Colleen/Kerry Slide,” “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” “Bamako Bop,” “Bosco Stomp,” “Landlord,” and “Wheel.”
6. Chris Turner, Harmonicas LP (Bent Reeds CSRV 2635, c. 1981). Tracks: “Endangered Species,” “Boogie in A Flat,” “Monsters,” “Zen Harp,” “Dusk,” “Ted Evans Shuffle,” “Blues in a Glass,” “Dancers in the Bullrushes,” “Friends Who’ve Gone (for Le Brégent),” “The Robosinian Hobo,” “Where You Gonna Run?” and “Song for the Celtic New Year.”