Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Clifftop 2011

   West Virginia Public Broadcasting made a video about the Appalachian String Music Festival  which is held in Clifftop every year.  For anyone wondering what Old Time music is, this video is the perfect introduction. 
   The video features many musicians from the Morgantown area.  Let's see, there's Keith McManus (fiddle) providing commentary, and I saw cameos from Bob Shank (hammer dulcimer), Rachel Eddy Herner (fiddle) , Scott Phillips (banjo), Scott Radabaugh (fiddle), I.B. Browning (trumpet) and others. 

   Morgantown musicians (mainly from the Brew Pub Jam as well as the Percival Hall Pickers who play on Tuesday nights) are well represented in the world of Old Time string music.  One of our unique features is that we usually have brass instruments from I. B. Browning as well as Robert Shank on trombone.  
  Please let me know if you know the names of others in the video so that their names can be recorded for posterity.  Hey, with any luck our grandchildren will be studying this stuff in the year 2050, so maybe it will be important!
   The next Clifftop experience will be on August 1-5, 2012.  Be there or be square.  Or if you can't wait, be sure and check out the Worley Gardner Winter Music Fest, which will be held in Morgantown the weekend of February 24 -25 at South Middle School in Morgantown. Join us!!!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cajun Fiddle (the song, that is)

   "Cajun Fiddle" (that's the name of the song, not just the genre of fiddle playing) is occasionally played at the Morgantown Jam.   What we call Old Time music is not just music that has its roots in the past. In actuality what we play in Morgantown has its own personality, derived mainly from its roots in Scotch/Irish folk songs.  There are many other regional differences, so that a good listener can often guess where a band comes from based on the style of the music that they play. 
    In the region around Louisiana  in particular, there is a French influence, which results in a much different sound, but one which is easily adapted by West Virginians if they put their minds to it.  The French referred to themselves as Acadians, which is a region in French Canada.  "Cajun" is just a regional (mis) pronunciation of "Acadian." 
     The Cajuns, among other things, like to create a catchy fiddle rhythm in triplets:  dit dit DAH dit dit DAH dit dit DAH dit dit DAH. 
    The song "Cajun Fiddle" was composed by Don Rich, who played in the Buckaroos, which was the backup band for Buck Owens, the co-host of Hee Haw.  So it isn't actually all that old, though you might argue that it is kind of a synthesis of very old Cajun chord progressions from way back, kind of like a Cajun version of the 12 bar blues.  Anyway, this is what it sounds like.  This version comes from some nice folks who call themselves Banjo Phil and Miss Emily.  Phil is playing the guitar with a capo on the second fret. The song is played in A, but I would guess that Banjo Phil's main instrument  is banjo (well what do you expect from someone named Banjo Phil?) and so he likes to play in G.

A      D      A      E
A      D      A-E  A-E-A

E      A      E       A
D      A      E       A

Fiddle music is appended below, from David Moffitt, where I found it posted at . 

   In addition to this song, I can't help but include a rockabilly/Cajun fusion song called "Down at the Twist and Shout."  This isn't the type of song we would normally play at the Brew Pub, but it shows some of the potential ways that the Cajun fiddling style can find its way to other styles of music.  In particular, this song incorporates an electric guitar and electric bass,which kind of disqualifies it as Old Time.  I'll bet it would sound just fine played on more traditional instruments, however. The main reason I wanted to include it is to show that the rhythm is very similar, and Cajun music can be a lot of fun.
   Bring on the crawdads and Jambalaya, and let's have us some Cajun music!

Monday, November 14, 2011

North Carolina Breakdown

    Here's a great jam song, often heard at the Brew Pub Jam, and recently exported to England courtesy of Rachel Eddy, at a short course at Kingham Hill called, appropriately enough, Sore Fingers. This song is called North Carolina Breakdown, and it differs from most of our songs in that (as far as I can tell) it is completely an instrumental with no lyrics.  It was composed in the US rather than inherited from Scotland or Ireland.   It is attributed to Fiddling' Arthur Smith and the Dixieliners.  According to an article in Wikipedia, Arthur was actually born in Tennessee rather than North Carolina, and became a performer with the Grand Ole Opry in 1927.  The Dixieliners were formed a few years later.   He hung around famous old dudes like Uncle Dave Macon (who readers of this blog will recognize as the Patron Saint of clawhammer banjo players), the McKee Brothers and the Delmore Brothers, an early blues group.    Other songs made famous by the Dixieliners include Chittlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County, There's More Pretty Girls Than One, and Beautiful Brown Eyes.  The Dixieliners played well into the 1960's and made an appearance at the famous Newport Festival in 1965.

Rachel Eddy plays a nice version on as well:

    The chords go kind of like this:

Part A
G   G  C/G   D

G   G  C/G  D-G

Part B
C  C    G     G  

C  C  C/G D-G

.....and I found a mandolin tab from .

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stewed Mulligan Rocks the Met for the Kposowa Foundation

   Last night, Wednesday November 9, Stewed Mulligan (Keith McManus, Bob Shank, Vinnie Farsetta, Pat McIntyre,Theodor "Stumper" Stump and Shane McManus) teamed with the West Virginia University African Drum Ensemble and the WVU Dance Company
for a benefit concert for the Kposowa Foundation, a non-profit institute dedicated to rebuiling a village in Sierra Leone which was almost destroyed in a Civil War.
    The Stews were at their very best.  They began with Tam Lin, an Irish song with an intricate melody.  Tam Lin is a great hammer dulcimer song, and nobody does it better than Bob Shank.  Below is the same tune played last summer with a slightly different cast:  

     As the night went on, the Stews played fiddle sticks (little hammers used on a fiddle by one person while the fiddler bows), accompanied by African drums.  That was totally awesome, dudes!  

     If you've never heard anyone play fiddle sticks, here are Bob and Keith and the Stews demonstrating in a separate venue:

     West Virginia University graduate and Morgantown native Sarah Culberson hosted the event.  Sarah was adopted as an infant, and in 2004 she discovered her biological father was the leader of the Mende tribe in Bumpe, Sierra Leone – making her the princess of the tribe.   Sarah's birth mother passed away some years ago.   Culberson's adoptive father, Jim Culberson, is a neurobiology professor at WVU.  

       Bumpe High School was destroyed in a civil war .  Sarah and her two fathers working together founded the Kposowa Foundation in hopes of rebuilding the school.
      Sometimes, it is hard to know whether charity dollars are going to really go to the right place.  But in this case, I personally had a very positive feeling that Sarah, her two dads and a lot of caring people are really going to make this work.  There is a lot of blood and sweat equity going into this project. 

     The school currently runs without electricity, miles from any electrical grid, so they are hoping to install solar power at the school.  I gave a few bucks and I hope others will also. 

     For more information on the Kposowa Foundation, visit  To read Kelsey Montgomery's excellent article in the Daily Athenaem, check out 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ragtime Annie

     Many of the songs played at the Old Time Music Jam are based on Scotch Irish Fiddle Tunes.  Ragtime Annie, however, may have a quite different origin.
     This song was recorded several times in the 1920's by such luminaries as Eck Robertson from Texas, Dudley Vance from Tennessee and Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers (with Posey Rorer on fiddle) in the early 1920s. In some cases the song was known as Ragtime Annie Lee, or the Ragged Ann Rag. 
      Del Wood, incidentally, had a piano version from circa 1951 which he called Ragtime Melody (Del, by the way, was an early  influence on one Jerry Lee Lewis, who grew up to be a pretty fair piano player himself).   Oddly there seem to be no lyrics to this song.  
        It's another one of those songs that sounds like it might have been used on an early Warner Brothers cartoon, but I haven't been able to identify any cartoon that might have used it.  
     From the title, we can guess that the song may have been composed in the ragtime era of the 1890's to the early 1900's.  If so, it is probably an indigenous American composition, since ragtime was more or less invented in America as a fusion of African rhythms and European melodies, as a precursor to jazz and rock and roll. Many of the songs at the Brew Pub actually have elements of ragtime and jazz. 
       As an American song, it would be less unusual for it to have been composed as a purely instrumental tune.  Almost all Scotch-Irish fiddle songs have lyrics. 
        The version below is from one of our jams from 2010.  Sadly, my cheapie video camera has a directional microphone which causes the percussion to fade in and out.  We don't always have percussion at the Brew Pub, but this particular fellow was pretty good.  He used some unorthodox instruments (i.e., a PVC tube from the hardware store) and was really a very creative fellow.  Unfortunately my video doesn't do it justice.  
     Another video is by emeritus fiddler Elmer Rich, who at 91 years young might actually know who composed Ragtime Annie (I'll ask him next time I see him).  Elmer comes from a musical family, and has been actively performing since the early 1930's. 
      The chord structure is taken from the Pegram Jam Book, 

D   D   D   A  
A   A    A   D :||

D   D   D   G 
A    A   A   D
D   D   D   G 
G   D   A   D

G   C   D   G :||

     In Morgantown, we sometimes sing to the C Part, "Ragtime Annie, Ragtime Annie, Ragtime Annie, Ragtime Annie."  Not terribly original, I'll grant you, but that's what we do. 

     If anyone else knows anything about this wonderful song, please post or send me an emai. 

The usual cast of suspects at the Brew Pub, circa 2010. 

Elmer Rich playing at Prickett's Fort. 

Tear It Down

     "Tear It Down" is another ragtime song that dates back to at least the 1920s.  Among the early artists who played this song are Clyde McCoy (from the infamous McCoys that were always feuding with the Hatfields), Samuel Jones, Jack Kelly & the Memphis Jug Band, and  the King David Jug Band  Despite the bright tempo and classic ragtime sound, the lyrics tell the story of an unfaithful wife.  "Another mule kicking in your stall is a metaphor for another man having relationships with the unfaithful Eve, who is apparently "cooking biscuits" for others besides her husband.  Tsk tsk!

      This song is a syncopated rag, like Ragtime Annie.  To me syncopation is kind of like Swing Dance, where you learn steps based on six counts, even the though the song is based on four counts per measure.  So you start over every twelfth beat.  Ragtime riffs often consist of three note patterns, which are overlaid on a four beat pattern, sort of like this:

a  b  c  a  b  c  a  b  c  a  b  c   
1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4   

     Old Crow Medicine Show does a version of this song, in which lyrics talk about the husband actually striking the unfaithful woman.  But good grief, do we really need that?  Don't we have enough violence on TV, never mind singing about it too??   It's still a great song, but face it, sometimes the lyrics really suck.  Nevertheless this tradition dates back to the 1930 version, in which the lyrics indicate that Eve was regularly beaten and called the police.   It's musically a fair arrangement, but I'm not posting it in my blog. In this instance at least, OCMS can go pound sand as far as I'm concerned.  

   The lyrics below are copped from the early King David Jug Band version, with a few tweaks, courtesy of Keith McManus.  The Morgantown version eliminates the unacceptable reference to hitting a woman, and adds some additional verses, some of which might be credited to the Juggernaut Jug Band out Indiana way.  

    Some of the old versions have a stovepipe solo.  Now what in the world is a stovepipe and how was it played?    I'm not exactly sure, but it probably is a large diameter pipe with a small opening and an open back. It was played by buzzing the lips, sort of like a kazoo.  You can hear it in the recording below from 1927:   

  Tear It Down  

(A)I had a girl and her name was Eve
(D)Every time I kissed her she'd holler for police
(A)She cooked them biscuits, she cooked them brown
(D) Started workin' when I turned around
(G) When you catch another mule kicking (D) in your stall
you gotta (A) go and tear it (D) down
Oh (A) tear it down (bed slats and all)
Oh  (D) tear it down (bed slats and all)
Oh (A) tear it down (bed slats and all)
Keep (D) tearin' it down (bed slats and all)
When you (G) catch another mule kicking (D) in your stall
you gotta (A) go and tear it (D) down

Solo (stovepipe)

Me and my gal took a little walk , 

Stood on the corner had a little talk, 
She bent down to tie her shoe, 
And the wind blew up 5th avenue.

Friday, October 14, 2011

High on a Mountain Top

     In the last blog (Cluck Old Hen) I wrote a little about different modes used in Old Time Music, especially when it gets cross-linked with Celtic music or blues. So, although most of our "normal" folksongs use three basic chords (I, IV and V), songs in other modes have different chord progressions.  

     In Morgantown, we play High on a Mountain Top in the key of G. The 7th chord (F) shows up in this song, just as it does in Cluck Old Hen.   Again, we can blame the Celtics for using the Mixolydian Mode (named after the Greek town first associated with that scale).   The pattern of going back and forth between the 1st and 7th chords is often associated with the Mixolydian mode. 

    As far as I am aware, Del McCoury was among the first to record the song, using the title "High on a Mountain" (there's a church hymn called "High on a Mountain Top," so I guess he didn't want to use the same title). Del's version differs from the Morgantown version to some extent.  The video shows his left hand on the guitar neck (thank you very much).  Although it looks like Del may be playing the C-Chord where we play the F chord, it may be that he is actually playing F with a C base.  Also, it sounds to me as though he is actually singing in a minor scale, while the guitar at least is playing major chords. I don't think that they teach you that at the Julliard, but it works well for him. 
     Note that the banjo playing is kind of mimicking the Old Time Clawhammer sound, but it looks like what the banjo player is doing is actually doing is kind of a mandolin cross-picking using mainly the thumb pick.  It's kind of a hybrid style I would say.
     So should High On a Mountain Top be performed as Old Time, or is it something else?   Opinions on this subject vary, of course, but my feeling is that it is important to be able to play songs in the Old Time manner, but it is also okay to venture outside that space and to continue to write songs and find new ways to perform the old songs. Music by its nature evolves, and the fact of the matter is that we never play any song exactly the same way twice. That's why live performance (or just sitting around playing with your friends) is so important.  High on a Mountain Top is a more modern composition, but it works well for Old Time musicians.  So I hope others will continue to create new compositions in the same tradition.

*******Post Script**********
After I wrote this blog, Paula wrote a note below pointing out that Ola Belle Reed probably was the original composer.  Unfortunately the discographies available on the web are not detailed enough to give us a date and to verify the identity of the composer, but very likely Ola Belle wrote this song and peformed it on the radio, although Del may have made the first recording of it.  

Mixolydian key of G,  
(G)                   (F)                   (G)
As I look to the valleys down below
                     (F)                                 (G)
they were green just as far as I could see.
       (G)                  (F)       (G)                            (C)
as my memories return, oh how my heart does yearn
    (G)                   (D)                   (G) 
for you and the days that used to be.

 (G)        (F)                       (G)            (C)
High on a mountain top, wind blowin' free
 (G)                 (D)               (G)
thinkin' about the things that used to be
 (G)                (F)               (G)            (C)
high on a mountain top, standing all alone
 (G)                              (D)                            (G)
wondering where the years of my life have gone.

Oh I wonder if you ever think of me
or has time blotted out your memory
as I listen to the breeze whisper gently through the trees
I'll always cherish what you meant to me.

Cotton Eyed Joe

     Many Old Time enthusiasts hate the Rednex version of Cotton Eyed Joe.  Why?  Well, for one thing it incorporates elements of--horrors!  Rock n Roll and even techno-punk.  So, although it was unquestionably born as an Old Time song, it might have lost some of its innocence.  
      Also, it happens to be the unofficial West Virginia University fight song!  You would think that that would endear the song to the local musicians, but maybe it has the opposite effect.   In fact, many of the Old Time musicians that I know are kind of anti-establishment free thinkers.  Why even the Village Elliot has been known to thumb his nose at our elected officials from time to time.  Not to mention the fact that the Rednex version probably made a ton of money, while even the best Old Time musicians don't get paid dirt for their music. 
     Finally, here is one other tidbit.  Did you know the Rednex is not even an American group?  Hurdy gurdy!  They are from Sweden!  Old Time music is not only old, it is regional.  So the songs that we like in West Virginia are substantially different from what they may like in say Texas or Louisiana, even within the same era.  But the Swedes seem to have no problem recognizing fun music and having a good time with it.  Plus, it probably pisses off their parents when the act too much like Americans.  So that may be why the European counter-culture has much in common with the humble people of West Virginia. 
   Here's Jay Jacobs, a well-loved sports personality, carrying on while the fight song is playing at a WVU basketball game.  I like the boxing pantomime, which should definitely be made into a line dance:

 The song itself dates to before the American Civil War, with at least some versions having been carried by African American slaves.  A book entitled "On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs" by Dorothy Scarborough indicates that it was sung by slaves in Louisiana.

     "Cotton-Eyed Joe" would refer to a blind man, with white eyes.  The Wikipedia article suggests that such a condition could result from  blindness from drinking wood alcohol or moonshine, or perhaps cataracts or some other disease or birth defect.  

    There are probably hundreds of variants of verses out there, but mainly they tell a lament of someone's romantic interest falling for the enigmantic Cotton Eyed Joe instead of him.  The Rednex version makes Cotton Eyed Joe seem like some kind of sexual superstar, whereas in the older versions it seems more inexplicable why the woman prefers Cotton Eyed Joe over the songwriter.  

    Musically, this song is played, like many tunes, is only played with five notes of the scale (pentatonic).  It can of course be played as a Bluegrass song, but it clearly has its origins in Old Time.  
     Back in the 70's, my friends from LaBash Music had a band with a guitar, fiddle/mando, banjo and bass.  But they had a set in which they played two and sometimes even three fiddles.  Cotton-Eyed Joe is ideal for the three-fiddle thing because of its simplicity and driving rhythm.  In my humble opinion, one of you bluegrass bands out there should try the three fiddle thing.  I guarantee that the crowd will go nuts if you do it. 

Pentatonic key of A.
If it had not been for Cotton-Eyed Joe
                                 E             A
I'ld been married long time ago
Where did you come from where did you go 
A                                                E                A
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe 
He came to town like a midwinter storm
He rode through the fields so hansome and strong
His eyes was his tools and his smile was his gun
 E                                               A
But all he had come for was having some fun 
He brought disaster wherever he went 

The hearts of the girls was to hell broken sent
They all ran away so nobody would know
and left only men cause of Cotton-Eye Joe 

Reuben's Train

Reuben's train is another staple at your humble Brewpub. It's actually a blues song, and tells the story of someone who owned and operated a train and eventually had a wreck. 

Vinnie Farsetta usually sings lead on this one.  You can check him out on the video down below, which was made at the Blue Moose (thanks for filming this, Rich McGervey!).  I think the Jam moved down there when the Brew Pub was temporarily closed some years ago. 

Reuben's Train is played in a pentatonic scale.  All that means is that the scale has only five notes in it, and in particular, the minor note is used.

This song can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. If you want to have your mind blown, check out the licks played by a top banjo player like Vinnie or Bob Shank.  These fellows are all up and down the neck of the instrument, and to tell the truth, I can scarcely follow what they are doing.

However, not to be intimidated, even relative beginners like yours truly can play along with the song if you can focus on the melody.   

Here is a very simple riff that you can play along with.  A "riff" is a short musical melody that you play over and over that fits in with the song.

On your instrument (doesn't matter if it's a guitar, mando or banjo), find the "G" string, and play this, starting on the 7th fret:

7   7  5  7      7  5  3  0

or if you prefer,
d  d  c  d     d  c  b-  g 

(the lower case letters mean that notes are being played rather than the entire chord and the minus sign signifies b-flat). 

In the minor pentatonic key you can play the exact same pattern on the D string and it will harmonize.  In my case, I play mandolin with a mountain-style cross tuning (GDGD), so it's very hard to screw up.   

The critical thing is the timing. When Mr. Farsetta is belting this out, you need to hit the rhythm exactly or it will sound bad.  On the other hand, even if you play the "wrong" note, it will still sound ok as long as you are on the minor pentatonic scale. 

Some folks know this song as "900 miles."  The melody is about the same, but the  lyrics are quite different.  900 miles talks about someone who is simply riding a train (possibly a metaphor for living).  I've appended a version below by Bethany and Rufus.  This is quite different from the way we play it.  I kind of like this version because cello is one of only two instruments used to make this song, and our group often has  a cello or two in the mix.  And let's face it, Bethany is way better looking than Vinnie.

This song is also related to the folky "500 miles"  and probably a few others.  Even though the melodies are similar, the sounds are totally different because of tempo and rhythm.


Old Reuben had a train, and the train had a track.
And he run it to the Lord knows where.
Oh me, oh Lordy my! He run it to the Lord knows where.

Old Reuben had a wreck and it broke his fireman's neck,
And he cannot read a letter on his own. 

Oh me, oh Lordy my!  He cannot read a letter on his own. 
I got myself a blade, laid Reuben in the shade,
I'm startin' me a graveyard of my own.
Oh, me, oh Lordy my, startin' me a graveyard of my own.
Old Reuben had a train, and the train had a track. 
And he run it to the Lord knows where.
Oh me, oh Lordy my! He run it to the Lord knows where.
Should been in town when Reuben's train went down
You could hear that whistle blow 100 miles
Oh me, oh Lordy my you could hear the whistle blow 100 miles

 Last night I lay in jail had no money to go my bail
 Lord how it sleeted & it snowed
 Oh me, oh my Lord how it sleeted & it snowed

 I've been to the East, I've been to the West
 I'm going where the chilly winds don't blow
 Oh me, oh my I'm going where the chilly winds don't blow

 Oh the train that I ride is 100 coaches long
 You can hear the whistle blow 100 miles
 Oh me, oh my you can hear the whistle blow 100 miles

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cluck Old Hen

    Even Superman had trouble comprehending the Mixolydian Mode.  Glug, glug!

     Cluck Old Hen has a  sound which many people might describe as bluesy or jazzy. 
     This song was sometimes known as "Chick in the Barnyard, Cluckin' Hen and Old Hen Cackle.   A version of Cluck Old Hen appeared in a publication entitled "South Texas Work Songs" as far back as 1886.    To tell the truth, however,  I'm not real sure how this could be a work song, other than the mention of the "railroad men" in the first verse.  Usually a work song has the leader call out, followed by a group response, which is the cue to hammer on a railroad tie or something like that ("Take this hammmer--WHOP, Take it to the Canyon---WHOP" being an obvious example).  Cluck Old Hen does not follow that pattern.   
     More likely, this song is derived at least in part from African rhythms and melodies, and so "work songs" may be kind of a euphemism for "African songs."
     It is often played using the Mixolydian Mode.
     Although I am far from an expert in musical theory (in fact I'm just a hair above ignorant, to be honest), I have some simple notions about the different scales.  It begins with  realizing that the scale we were taught in kindergarden consists of seven notes (the Ionian Mode), even though if you look at any fretted instrument there are 12 half steps to make an octave.  There's nothing magic about "our" scale, it's just seven tones, with five tones skipped.  The Mixolydian mode is almost the same as the "normal" mode, with six of the seven tones the same as our scale, and one tone different.  Specifically, the 7th note is a half step flat compared to the normal do-re-mi scale.   The Mixolydian scale looks like this in the key of C: 

     Most of our "normal mode" songs are played with three chords:  the I, IV and V chords.  In the key of A, this would be A, D and E.  
    In the Mixolydian Mode, however, our ears seem to like to hear different chords, and in particular the VII chord, so Mixolydian A favors A, D and G.  The Celtics, by the way, seemed to like the Mixolydian mode, so that's why a lot of Irish and Scotch tunes are played in these modes. The Mixolydian Mode is related to the Dorian mode (which basically uses A minor instead of A), and the Blues scale, which is a six note scale that comes from Africa.  More about that in some future note.  
   For the moment, it may be enough to know that the chord structure is different from the expected (I, IV, V) structure of most folk songs, and the reason is that it uses a different scale than the one we are accustomed to. 
     Now, what about these lyrics?  Well, it could be that this is just a song about some hungry folks thinking about eating chicken.  But there are definitely some sexual overtones in the song that make you think that the hen might really be a prostitute who services the railroad men (see, for example, the discussion of this song in  ).
     Fiddlin' John Carson recorded an early version in the 1920's, followed soon after by Al Hopkins and the Hillbillies.  Both of these are posted on  But if you would like to play a version similar to what might be found in Morgantown, please check out this version from Clifftop, with Rachel Eddy hosting.  Scott Phillips is on banjo, with Bob Shank on hammer dulcimer and I. B. Browning on trumpet, among others: 


For good measure, here is a video of the same songs from the Hillbilly Gypsies.  Though they are known as a bluegrass group, they can play an entire set of Old Time with Trae Buckner on clawhammer style banjo and Dave Asti taking a turn on guitar.  

A Part (Mixylodian):
AG   AD   AG   EA

B Part:
AC   AG   AC   EA

My old hen's a good old hen,
She lays eggs for the railroad men;
Sometimes one, sometimes two,
Sometimes enough for the whole damn crew.

First time she cackled, she cackled in the lot,
Next time she cackled she cackled in the pot;
Cluck Old Hen, cluck and squall,
Ain't laid an egg since late last fall.

Cluck old hen, cackle and sing,
You ain't laid an egg since way last spring.
Cluck old hen, cackle and squall,
You ain't laid an egg since late last fall. (Johnson)

My old hen's a good old hen,
She lays eggs for the railroad men;
Sometimes one, sometimes two,
Sometimes three and sometimes four.
Sometimes five, sometimes six,
Sometimes seven and sometimes eight;
Sometimes nine, sometimes ten,
And thats enough for the railroad men.

My old hen's a good old hen,
She lays eggs for the railroad men;
Sometimes one, sometimes two,
Sometimes enough for the whole damn crew.
First time she cackled she cackled in the lot,
Next time she cackled she cackled in the pot;
Cluck Old Hen, cluck and sing,
Ain't laid and egg since late last spring.

My old hen, she won't do,
She lays eggs and 'taters too; (Frank Proffitt)

The old hen she cackled,
She cackled in the morn;
She cackled for the rooster
To come get his pecker warm. (Tom P. Smith, W.Va.)

Cluck old hen, cluck for your corn,
Cluck old hen, your winter's all gone.

Cluck old hen, cluck in a lot,
The next time you cluck, you'll cook in a pot.

I had a little hen, she had a wooden leg,
The best danged hen that ever laid eggs.

Laid more eggs than the hens around the barn,
Another little drink wouldn't do me no harm. (Tommy Jarrell)

Cluck Old Hen, cluck I tell you,
Don't lay an egg, I'm a-gonna sell you. (Joel Shimberg)

My old hen died, what'll I do,
Guess I'll have some chicken stew. (Neal Walters)

Cluck old hen, you'd better cluck,
Hawk's gonna eat your chickens up. (Ed Weaver)

Cluck old hen, cluck all night,
Soon you will be Chicken Delight

Probable, possible. my fat hen.
She lays eggs in the relative when.
She might lay eggs in the positive now,
If only she could postulate how.

Cluck old hen, cluck I say,
The Dow-Jones average is down today.
Cluck old hen, cluck six-ten,
The Dow-Jones average is down again. (Neil Rossi)

Possible, probable my black hen
She lays eggs in the relative when
She can't lay eggs in the positive now
For she's unable to postulate how. (Spark Gap Wonder Boys)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Carter Family: Wildwood Flower and Keep on the Sunny Side

    Everyone who is a fan of old time music knows about the Carter Family.  The Carter Family started recording folk songs in the late 1920s, and they continued to record their entire lives.  The basic Carter lick (alternating bass and down/up strum) is used by virtually all guitar players.  Mother Maybelle also developed the technique of interspersing the melody with runs on the bass strings of the guitar.  But in my humble opinion, what really set them apart was their breadth.  There were other groups back then that knew a few good songs, but the Carter Family repetoire was nearly endless.  They were one of the first to record, and they kept on recording hundreds if not thousands of songs. 
   In my family, the Carter Family nearly caused World War III.  My Korean mom thinks that classical music is about the only truly acceptable form of music, but my American dad thinks that there is no other kind of music besides American folk music, with the Carter family having achieved the pinnacle.
   My Dad has every Carter family album that ever existed.  His faves are probably Wildwood Flower and Keep on the Sunny Side.  My Mom could actually tolerate that one because of its positive message (but she never could tolerate the blues. "If you think you will lose, then you will lose!" she says about songs like Born to Lose).

    Wildwood flower provides some insight to how songs can mutate.  The lyrics as sung by the Carter Family are something like this:

[C] Oh, I'll twine with my mingles and [G7] waving black [C] hair
With the roses so red and the [G7] lilies so [C] fair
And the myrtle so [C7] bright with the [F] emerald [C] hue
The pale amanita and [G7] eyes look like [C] blue.

Oh I'll dance, I will sing and my laugh shall be gay
I will charm every heart, in his crown I will sway
When I woke from my dreaming, my idol was clay
All portion of love had all flown away.

Oh he taught me to love him and promised to love
And to cherish me over all others above
How my heart is now wond'ring no mis'ry can tell
He's left me no warning, no words of farewell.

Oh, he taught me to love him and called me his flower
That was blooming to cheer him through life's dreary hour
Oh, I long to see him and regret the dark hour
He's gone and neglected this pale wildwood flower.

The original lyrics probably had more references to flowers.  Versions of the 19th century might have gone something like this (check out the wikipedia article for a discussion of the different possible variants, ) 

I'll twine 'mid the ringlets of my raven black hair, 
The lilies so pale and the roses so fair, 
The myrtle so bright with an emerald hue, 
And the pale oleander and violets so blue.

Actually I wonder if "iris" might have been the originial blue flower, since violets are, well, violet and not blue.  

OK, that brings us to the next great Carter Family song, Keep on the Sunny Side.  It really is very poetic despite its simplicity.  

When I hear the second verse, coming from a farming family, I think about the storm not so much as a abstract metaphor, but a very real event.  To a farmer, a storm can mean the destruction of an entire season's crops.  Sometimes it might seem as though it is the end of life itself.  But somehow American farming families managed to stick it out and survived the storms and other difficulties, and here we are in 2011. 

Well there's a dark and a troubled side of life.
There's a bright and a sunny side too.
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we keep on the sunny side of life.

Oh, the storm and its fury broke today,
Crushing hopes that we cherish so dear.
Clouds and storms will in time pass away.
The sun again will shine bright and clear.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we'll keep on the sunny side of life.

Let us greet with a song of hope each day.
Though the moments be cloudy or fair.
Let us trust in our Saviour always,
To keep us, every one, in His care.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we'll keep on the sunny side of life.

If we'll keep on the sunny side of life

Here's a video with June Carter Cash (the autoharp player in the first video) with hubby Johnny Cash and daughter Carlene Carter.  Their version has been "modernized" with 1970's style, but the underlying Carter Family tune is very recognizable.

Did John Henry Really Exist?

John Henry is an American Folk Song that has at least a million verses.  It tells the story of a contest between man and machine. Evidently there was a contest between a steam drill and a man with a hammer.  The man won the contest, but died from the effort.
    His story has been sung by thousands of Old Time, Bluegrass and Blues musicians over the years.  
   The Rockridge Brothers from Sweden (who of course come to Morgantown to play with us in the summers) play a great version.  Kristian (Mr. Rachel, that is) Herner plays banjo, Pontus Juth (bass), Peter Frovik (guitar), and Ralf Fredblad (fiddle).   

Rockridge Brothers John Henry

   Another of my favorite versions on is from a professional street musician from Germany, GeeGee Kettel.

John Henry Gee Gee Kettel

    I have always liked that song, maybe because I keep figuring that somewhere among those million verses is one in which John Henry wins the contest and lives instead of dying at the end.  Plus, it is a song about the American working man and woman (John Henry's wife, by the way, "could drive steel like a man, Lord, Lord."  So it was one of the earliest Woman's Liberation songs!).  In my heart of hearts I will always have faith in the workers of this great country. I am sometimes less than thrilled with the leadership of our country.   I may be old fashioned, but I still believe that Americans are supposed to build railroads, and make steel and be an industrialized nation.  

   OK, well, back to John Henry.  I always thought that the whole thing was made up, but listen to this clip from famed American blues singer and guitarist Leadbelly (Leadbelly, by the way, is the person who turned me on to the extra low tuning for the 12 String guitar, B-E-A-D-F#-B). 

   There is an interview recorded for the first 1:30 or so, in which Leadbelly claims that John Henry was a real person, born in Newport News, Virginia.  Moreover, he says that he and John Lomax (the greatest historian of American folk music in that period) had identified the house John Henry was born in.  
   Leadbelly sings about

...that Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road,
It is gonna be the death of me, Lord Lord...

     Now the C & O is a real railroad which runs from Newport News, Rhode Island all the way to Cincinnati Ohio.  The Bend Tunnel is located in Talcott, West Virginia (see illustration).  In order to blast through the mountain, someone needed to drive a hollow shaft into the rock with a hammer, so that a charge of dynamite could be used to blow a hole in the surrounding rock. This should not be confused with the process of laying down track and pounding spikes to hold the rails to the wooden ties.  It's pretty clear that the John Henry story has to do with pounding holes for dynamiting through the mountain, rather than laying down track. 

   Leadbelly himself was emphatic that John Henry was born in Newport News, Virginia, and that he and his sponsor John Lomax had toured the place where John Henry was born.  There is some tendency to discount what Leadbelly says since he was not a scholar, but the man was certainly not an idiot, and he worked for the greatest American folk music historian of that generation.  So, very likely Lomax was convinced that John Henry was from Newport News, but I can not say what evidence he had.  

    Incidentally, Leadbelly also was friends with Woody Guthrie, one of the most famous American folksingers of the day, who also had a version of the song. 

Woodie Guthrie and Leadbelly.

  The  historicity of John Henry was first described by in Guy B. Johnson's of the University of North Caroline in  John Henry:  Tracking Down a Negro Legend (1929), and later by others including Louis Chappell of West Virginia University  John Henry:  A Folklore Study (1933) and Paul Garon.  Scott R. Nelson, a historian from William and Mary College found that there was in fact a John Henry who was a Union solider imprisoned at the Virginia State Penitentiary and assigned to work for the C & O railroad as part of his sentence.  Nelson thinks that the Lewis tunnel might be more likely than the Big Bend, and moreover suspects that John Henry might have been buried in a nearby graveyard with a number of other prisoners near the prison.  I'm not wild about the second part of the theory (just because they found a graveyard doesn't mean that that everybody was buried there).  Paul Garon has recapitulated the major positions online, which you can access here:

Ultimately none of this is for certain, given that the records were not well kept.  But the story is an important one.  As Leadbelly says, "Now, "John Henry", you know, it's made up about a hard-workin' man, folks, don't forget it."

D---    D---    D-CG    A---
D---    G---    D---       A-D-
D---    A-D-

When John Henry was a little baby,
Sittin' on his mama's knee,
said That Big Bend Tunnel on the C and  O Road
It is gonna be the death of me, Lord Lord
It is gonna be the death of me.

Well the captain said to John Henry,
Gonna bring my steam drill round,
Gonna bring a steam drill out on the job,
Gonna whop that steel on down, Lord, Lord,
Gonna whop that steel on down.

Well John Henry said to the Captain,
A man ain't nothing but a man
But before I let that steel drill beat me down,
Gonna die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
Gonna die with a hammer in my hand.

Well John Henry hammered in the mountain,
His hammer was catching fire,
You could hear John Henry a mile or more,
You could hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord Lord
You could hear John Henry's hammer ring.

John Henry was hammerin' fifteen feet,
The steam drill only made nine.
But he hammered so hard he broke his poor heart
And he laid down his hammer and he died Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer and he died

Well they took John Henry to the white house,
and they buried him in the sand.
Now every locomotive that goes round the bend
says yonder lies a steel driving man, Lord Lord
Yonder lies a steel driving man.

(approximately 1,000,000 additional optional verses)