Faces of Swallow Hill: Caleb James Hall

Caleb James Hall
Caleb James Hall

Perhaps you know Caleb James Hall as our Café Manager, or as a Swallow Hill Instructor, or maybe you’ve caught him hosting our monthly Old-Time Jam. And this doesn’t even mention the multiple musical groups he plays with in formal, and shall we say, more comfortable settings? 

We are happy to have Caleb for our latest installment of Faces of Swallow Hill. We cover a lot of ground – from the classes he’s teaching, to old-time music, to a special concert he has coming up on March 9. Caleb has a lot to say so let’s get to it!

You wear multiple hats at Swallow Hill, for those who don’t know you as an instructor, how would you describe your teaching style?

I try to be patient and goal oriented as a teacher. The music that I teach comes from an aural tradition so I also like to focus more on using listening skills rather than putting written music in front of a student. I also have a background in music composition, so I like to sneak in as much music theory as students will let me get away with (although sometimes they give me the deer in headlights look and I know it’s more than they care to know haha!)

In Session 2 you are offering Duets for Banjo & Fiddle, what was the inspiration for that particular format? What is it about the sound of those particular instruments together? Why should people take that class?

The inspiration is two-fold: The idea first generated from an ensemble I was in while in college. The jazz department at Metro had an excess of vocalists and guitarists so they created the ensemble Guitar and Vocal combo where they coupled the two groups and focused on performing in a duet setting. 

REGISTER: Duets for Banjo & Fiddle with Caleb James Hall

The second piece of inspiration came from the various duos I was seeing pop up in the old-time music scene: Allison DeGroot & Tattiana Hargreaves; Jake Blount (with Tattiana Hargreaves on his debut EP as well as with Libby Weitnauer with their duo Tui); George Jackson just put out a record of all banjo/fiddle duets with various artists, and my favorite podcast, Get Up In the Cool features a weekly guest (often a fiddler) that plays a few tunes with the host, clawhammer banjo player Cameron DeWhitt. The banjo and fiddle are at the core of what makes the old-time music sound; it’s at times happy and dorky, spooky and moody, fast and driving and everywhere in between.

This class is an excellent opportunity for anyone looking to start making music with other people. Duos are great because they’re a little less exposed than if you were playing solo and a little more focused than playing in a larger group. The idea is that you will learn to create interesting arrangements in a duo setting as well as expand your repertoire and learn how to give/take constructive suggestions to/from your peers.

Sticking with old-time music, it’s a genre of traditional fiddle tunes and folk ballads. What is it about this music that speaks to you?

How much time do you have? Old-time music is SO many things. In addition to the adjectives that I used to describe banjo/fiddle music, old-time music is community and group oriented. It’s less virtuosic than bluegrass and focuses more on the groove and the melody (two of my favorite parts about music in general). It’s also so friendly and inviting. 

While there are plenty of old-time curmudgeons (it’s a thing) I think most of us just want to get lost in a fiddle tune, or sing with our friends, or swing our partners in a square dance!  What is it about this music that speaks to me? I think just about everything involved with it.

You have a cool event coming up on May 4 called Premier of: Exhibitions of a College Music Student. This is an orchestral piece you composed and its debut has been delayed two years because of COVID, can you tell us more about that?

Exhibitions of a College Music Student was my senior project at Metro. It consists of five miniatures I composed for orchestra: I. Clueless Ambition, II. Anxiety, III. Melancolie, IV. Enlightened Inebriation, and V. Exhaustion Level One. The idea was creating a piece that expressed my journey through college as a composition major, and the title is a play on Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This piece was chosen out of several others submitted to be played from my classmates and fellow composers. It’s going to be really cool. One movement has bowed vibraphones in it! and if you have no idea what that means you should look it up. It’s a very cool effect you can get by using an upright bass bow to play a vibraphone.

Finally, how has it been getting physically back into Swallow Hill after the long closure?

It feels SO GOOD to be physically back in Swallow Hill. I have missed so much about this place, from the evening jams, to the weekend concerts, and the wonderful regulars I get to chat with on a weekly basis. I missed my community, but it’s good to be back!

(Finally, for real) Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If anyone is interested in learning more about old-time music, or wanting to stay up-to-date on shows, jams, and dances consider subscribing to my newsletter Denver Old-time Happenings. I send it out usually once a month, a week before my monthly old-time jam in the Swallow Hill Cafe.

Thanks Caleb!