Sunday, December 30, 2012

Drunken Sailor

    Drunken Sailor is an awesome song for several reasons.  It's one of the few songs that little kids know, because the tune is used on "Spongebob Squarepants" as well as the Backyardigans, where it is known as "Scurvy Pirate."
    It's also a really good song to learn on the mandolin.  It's simple enough to play for beginners, and the modal key sounds great on the mando.  
    In the US, for some reason we usually sing this with a quasi-Irish accent, or specifically "ear-lye in the morn-in'."
      This song is not just silliness, however.  In a way it's very serious.  One of the chronic problems experienced by a seafaring vessel is that the sailors have too much fun when they get shore leave.   After spending all of their money on women and alcohol, they might easily fall asleep.  That could either cause the ship to be delayed, or to leave without them, effectively marooning them in port until such time as they can negotiate a new position in a diffferent crew.  Needless to say, lateness was frowned upon.  One need have not doubt that the punishments described in this song were actually carried out.  Peer pressure as well as threats from managment (i.e., the Captain) were both used.  For example, a scupper is a passage on the ship for water to run off the deck of the ship.  So "put him in the scuppers with hosepipe on him" means that the other sailors are going to spray him with the dirty water runoff from the the deck.   

      By the same token, Keelhauling is a particular grim punishiment, in which a rope is tied around the offender. The other end ot the rope is draped under the ship, so that when the offender is  thrown overboard, the other sailors pull on the rope to drag him under the keel of the ship.  The sharp barnacles on the keel could cause the hapless victim to be literally cut to pieces if he doesn't drown. 

     Better you should simply have your belly shaved with a rusty razor (although in some versions the area to be shaved is a bit further south).

     Hence the song is a reminder to crew members what can happen if a sailor gets too drunk. 

This version comes to us from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  Try not to overdo the accent, but "Ear-lye in the morning" is pretty much standard even on this side of the Atlantic. 

     Drunken Sailor is in the Dorian Mode.  In other words, this is a different scale than normally used.  For that reason, the modal chord progression is I II-minor, V-minor, rather than the normal I-IV-V.  In this case, however, Drunken Sailor only uses two chords, and the minor fifth never shows up.  Hence, in the Dorian Modal key of G, the song looks something like this:

What will we do with a drunken sailor?
What will we do with a drunken sailor?
What will we do with a drunken sailor?
G                Am
Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
Way hay and up she rises,
G               AM
Early in the morning!

Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Early in the morning!

Put him in a long boat till his sober,
Put him in a long boat till his sober,
Put him in a long boat till his sober,
Early in the morning!


Put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him,
Put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him,
Put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him,
Early in the morning!

Put him in the bed with the captains daughter,
Put him in the bed with the captains daughter,
Put him in the bed with the captains daughter,
Early in the morning!


Keel haul him until he's sober
Keel haul him until he's sober
Keel haul him until he's sober
Early in the morning!

That’s what we do with a drunken sailor,
That’s what we do with a drunken sailor,
That’s what we do with a drunken sailor,
Early in the morning!

(10,000 additional verses)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

How Many Songs Does an Old Time Musician Know?

     How many tunes does an Old Time musician have memorized?  Some of us were discussing this after the Wednesday Night Morgantown Brew Pub jam, and some of the people who are relatively knew to Old Time assumed that it must be some huge number of songs.  Hence they were surprised that some of the veterans figured it was not that many, maybe a hundred or so, and that those were usually an accident.

      In classical music, everyone is obliged to play exactly the same way, note to note, and for that reason, the music must be written down.

      But in Old Time, someone (usually the lead fiddler) has to know the basic melody, and the rest is made up on the fly.  There are literally an infinite number of variations possible, based on what the other musicians are doing and the musical sensibilities of each musician.   Different musicians have different ways of approaching music.  Some no doubt just intuitively know what notes sound good together, whereas other musicians have a more technical approach.  But very little of Old Time is transferred via note for note transcription and memorization.   Somehow, Old Time musicians, especially fiddlers, have ESP and can know in advance when the chord is going to change and where the song is going.  

     Here is a case in point, a fantastic jam with Andy Falco (guitar), Cody Kilby (guitar), Britanny Haas (fiddle), and Jeremy Garrett (fiddle).  I don’t know any of them personally, but my guess is that that the guys have played together before, and have invited the babe to jam with them.  Naturally, they picked a song that they can absolutely destroy, but Britanny is doing this song with them probably for the first time.  From Britanny’s facial expressions, you can tell that she is figuring out how to play the tune the first time through.   Then by her second or third time through, she is dishing it out with the boys, adding complex variations to the basic tune.  Basically the four musicians are each having fun with the tune, adding different sounds and textures each time through.  By the end of the video, smoke is curling from the instruments, the sky is darkening and the camera is shaking as the earth trembles.  Well, okay, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but you get the idea.   All four musicians are playing together but at the same time challenging each other with different sounds and variations on the basic tune.   And no, they would not be able to write down note for note what they played.  Without recording equipment each version would be impossible to recapture. 


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Wreck of the Old 97

The Old 97 wrecked near Danville Virginia in 1903.  It's a true story, not fictional.

     The Wreck of the Old 97 tells the true story of a horrific train wreck which occurred on a Southern Railway train which ran from Washington DC to Atlanta, Georgia. On September 27, 1903 the Old 97 jumped the track near Danville Virginia while en route from Monroe to Spencer, North Carolina.  The engineer, Joe Broady (usually called “Pete” or “Steve” in the song) was killed along with ten others, and another seven injured.  The train was hauling mail for the US Post Office and had the reputation for being always on time.  When the train fell behind by an hour in Monro, Broady increased speed in order  to compensate (probably under company orders).  As a result the train was travelling too fast and jumped the track.

     So why would anyone like a song about a terrible accident which caused so many deaths and injuries?  Especially a song that has such a bright melody?  That's difficult to say, but our tradition is to record events that effect our lives, both happy and sad.  It's a way to create a memorial for the people who suffered and died, and to pass their memory on to future generations. 

     I first heard this song on an LP from the 1960s that my Dad had, which featured Mac Wiseman, a terrific  vocalist.  My Dad and I were lucky enough to hear Mac perform this song and others at festivals in southern Ohio in the early 1980s.  Perhaps Flatt and Scruggs made the most famous version, however, so WOTO97 is known as a bluegrass song. But in reality the song was composed in the 1920s, thus predating the Bluegrass Era, with the authorship being claimed by several persons.  The Wikipedia article identifies Charles Noell as the most likely original author, though the 1924 copyright was assigned to F. Wallace Rega.

    As far as I can determine, the first known recorded version was  in  1923  by Henry Whittier and G. B. Grayson ( ), followed shortly  by Vernon Dalhart in 1924 ( ).  Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers had a version in 1927.  Other versions of note come from the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs,  Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, Pete, Seeger and others.  I’m partial to a version by Norman Blake, which contains two extra introductory verses (I suppose Norman wrote these, as I haven’t heard them on any of the earlier versions).  Below is a really nice version based on Norman's. 

 This is really nice version based on the Norman Blake version.

You might like this Youtube video, which slows down the song a tad, and shows the left hand to play this in the key of C, Norman Blake style (hint:  intermediate guitar players will probably go mad if they try to play exactly like Norman Blake.  A better plan is to pick up some of his basic crosspicks style and evolve from there).  

  Lester and Earl created the Bluegrass version, which is perhaps the most well known. This version was performed on the Beverly Hillbillies, with a vocal break from Miss Hathaway (Nancy Culp), no less. 

Key of G
G - - -  C - - -  G - - -   D - - -
G - - -  C - - -  G - D -  G - - -

Key of C
C - - -  F - - -  C - - -   G - - -
C - - -  F - - -  C - G -  C - - -


    (Norman Blake verses)
    I was standing on a mountain one Sunday morning,
    Watching the smoke below.
    It was coming from a tall thin smokestack,
    Down on the Southern Railroad.

   97 was the fastest train that
   The South had ever seen,
   But it ran so fast that Sunday morning,
   The death toll numbered fourteen.

    (Everybody else's verses) 
    Well they gave him his orders at Monroe Virginia
    Sayin' Steve you're way behind time
    This is not 38, but it's old 97
    You must put her into Spencer on time

    Then he turned and said to his black greasy fireman
    Just shovel in a little more coal
    And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
    You will see old 97 roll

    Well it's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
    On a line with a three mile grade
    It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes
    See what a jump he made

    He was goin' down the grade makin' 90 miles an hour
    When his whistle began to scream
    He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
    And scalded to death by the steam

    Then the telegram came to Washington station
    and this is what it said,
    Oh that brave engineer that ran old 97
    Is laying in Danville dead.

    So now all you ladies fair, please heed my warning
    from this time live and learn
    Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband
    He may leave you and never return.


Wikipedia, The Wreck of the Old 97,, downloaded Oct 27 2012. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mississippi Sawyer

  What in the world is a Mississippi Sawyer?  There are a few different theories.  Literally, it is a person who saws wood for a living.  Another possbility is that it is a partially uprooted tree that posed a hazard to barges going up and down the Mississippi River.  It's also possible that it is simply a fiddler, or someone who "saws" away at the fiddle. 
    In a book called Southern Mountain Dulcimer, Wayne Erbson cites Ira Ford, in Traditional Music of America (1940), with the story that the name comes from a saw mill operator who was also a fiddle player.  He played the tune at a giant four-day long celebration of the opening of the saw mill.  The original name of the tune was The Downfall of Paris, but ever since that party, the tune was known as "Mississippi Sawyer"  after the owner of the sawmill.  ( / ).  

     This makes about as much sense as anything else I've seen on this song, so I'm going with that as the best explanation.   

      The Downfall of Paris was published in England in 1816.  In some cases, the song was still known by that name even in the US in the 20th Century, although the title  "Mississippi Sawyer" was also well known in the 19th Century, consistent with the story about the party at the sawmill. 

   There were lyrics in French (Ca Ira) which celebrated the French Revolution, but these apparently have nothing at all to do with Mississippi or sawyers.  Likewise there have been a few attempts to create English language lyrics for the song over the years, but none of them have stuck.  Mississippi Sawyer is an instrumental tune. 

   Here is a version from my friends Rachel Eddy and Kristian Herner from Sweden, with Bill Fahy. This version is kind of laid back, and It's perfect for playing along with.

I also like this version by Annie and Mac, which is played at a nice even tempo, with a perfect view of the left hand technique for banjo and guitar,  This is really helpful for those of us trying to learn the song....but Annie and Mac are playing in the key of C rather D. I think that most of the known world plays this song in D, so if you learn via Annie and Mac, you will want to capo on 2 in order to coexist with the rest of the world.  
   At the Trolley Stop, we are always in D, and we generally kick it up a notch or two. 


D---   D---   G---   G--- 
D---   D---   A7--- D---


D---   D---  A7--- A7--- 
D---   D---  A7--- D---

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Arkansas Traveler

    Arkansas Traveler is another of those songs that everyone is supposed to know, and I decided to blog on it so that I would for sure learn to play it!  Although Old Time musicians are pretty good at playing songs that they don't actually know, this particular song has a lot of rapid chord changes, and so you really have to know it in order to play it well. 
      I remember learning this song in music class in about the 5th grade.  It has also been used several times in cartoons from Warner Brothers, so if that doesn't qualify it as an American institution, I don't know what is. 
     Arkansas Traveler was written in the 1800s by  Colonel Sanford C. "Sandy" Faulkner.  

    Rick Good, Sharon Leahy, Ben Cooper (all regulars at the Trolley Stop) play in this version along with Janden Gladstone on the fiddle and Nick Dauphinais on guitar.  (thanks Yaffstone, whoever you are, for uploading  this on youtube).  

     Here is a version by Tommy Jarrell, a superstar fiddler from way back when who was still a tremendous fiddler into his 80s,  with Aly Bain, from a 1980's TV series called Down Home. There are a few high quality youtube videos out there that feature Tommy, so I would encourage any fan of Old Time fiddling to check them out.  It's the closest thing you can get to having a time machine. 

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

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

Oh, once upon a time in Arkansas, 
An old man sat in his little cabin door 
And fiddled at a tune that he liked to hear, 
A jolly old tune that he played by ear. 
It was raining hard, but the fiddler didn't care, 
He sawed away at the popular air, 
Tho' his rooftree leaked like a waterfall, 
That didn't seem to bother the man at all. 

A traveler was riding by that day, 
And stopped to hear him a-practicing away; 
The cabin was a-float and his feet were wet, 
But still the old man didn't seem to fret. 
So the stranger said "Now the way it seems to me," 
You'd better mend your roof," said he. 
But the old man said as he played away, 
"I couldn't mend it now, it's a rainy day." 

The traveler replied, "That's all quite true, 
But this, I think, is the thing to do; 
Get busy on a day that is fair and bright, 
Then patch the old roof till it's good and tight." 
But the old man kept on a-playing at his reel, 
And tapped the ground with his leathery heel. 
"Get along," said he, "for you give me a pain; 
 cabin never leaks when it doesn't rain." 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kentucky Girl

     Bluegrass Music Shop in Columbus Ohio hosts a jam which incredibly lasts all day long every Saturday staring at 8:00 AM. I can't believe that anyone gets up that early to play bluegrass, but they do. 

    I attended that jam for the first time last week and met a lot of nice folks and tried to learn some new songs. One such song is Kentucky Girl, which the banjo player introduced thusly:

"This here song has only two chords, G and D. So if you try one and it don't sound right, play the other." 

     Well, with that compelling logic, how can you miss?

     To make a long story short, two chords never sounded so good.  This is a really good song!

     So, I did some research on the net, and found out that it was composed and played in about 1972 by a fellow named Charlie Moore.  Travers Chandler tells the story of Charlie's short but brilliant life here: , Kentucky Girl has also been recorded by the likes of Thunder Mountain Bluegrass, Big Country Bluegrass, and Larry Sparks. Youtube has some versions from the Crosspickers, the Carolina Bluegrass,  Carolina Rebels, the New Connection Bluegrass Band, and a few others.

     Here's a version from a group called the Rhoda Creek Boys. I was going to not even bother with it, figuring it was just some kids. But kids or not they can really play and the vocal harmonies are excellent.

I also like this version by John Cogdill, which is evidently from a parking lot jam (that, by the way, is where the best music is played, definitely not in a recording studio!) ...

....and finally , one more from the Flint Hill Ramblers:

In order to play along with the first and second video, you can capo on 2nd and play in the key of G, or else you can be a little more daring and play in the key of A. 

The third video is in the God-given key of G, which is the same key we played in at the jam.  

G(A)                           D(E)
Kentucky girl are you lonesome tonight, 
Kentucky girl, do you miss me? 
Does that old moon shine on the bluegrass as bright
As it did on the night you first kissed me?  

      G(A)                       D(E)
In a valley, 'neath the mountain so high,
                                  G (A)
the  sweetest place in all the world  
In a cabin with vines on the door 
is where I  met my Kentucky girl


       G (A)                      D (E)
I'm far away from old Kentucky tonight,
                                         G (A)
and the blue-eyed girl that I love so. 
                                          D (E)
But Im heading home in the silvery moon light 
                                G (A)
with open arms she waits i know.  


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hey Hey! Four cent cotton!

       Four cent cotton is a song about moonshine, which can have a cottony whitish appearance.  Lowe Stokes from Georgia cut a version in 1930 with the Skillet Lickers.  The song was also listed in the Fayettte Northwest Alabamian in 1929. 

       Some commentators have suggested that the tune is similar to Sally Gooden.   

       The song has a similar title to 11 Cent Cotton, 90 cent meat, but that song seems to be a farmer's lament about low market prices.  It also doesn't have much if any connection musically to Four Cent Cotton.  It's clear enough from Four Cent Cotton that several verses are about moonshine whiskey or some other alcoholic beverage.  
    This is a fantastic song for beginners to learn with because you can play nothing but C and make it work!  On the other hand fiddle players really have to earn their pay as it is a very fast song and there is some major league bowing needed (oh that's right---there ain't no pay for Old Time fiddle players.  Sorry).  

    At the Trolley Stop, we tend to stick in a G bass to use as a turnaround chord.  

      C     C     C   G/C
      C     C     C   G/C

    Fiddler Ben Cooper usually sings lead on this, and more often than not, the audience joins in on the "Hey Heys."  For that reason alone it is a great tune to play in front of an audience.   

 There is a Lowe Stokes version on Youtube: 

I also like this version from a group called the Georgia Crackers.  The video was made circa 2009: 

Fours cent Cotton, by Lowe Stokes (see the Bluegrass Messengers,

Old John Davy is dead and rottin’
He got drunk on four-cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton  


Sleep all night with a hole in your stockin’
Get no more of the four cent cotton’
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton


All year runnin’ in cotton
I went broke on four cent cotton.
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton


Billie goat a-runnin’ in the holler
We gonna sell some four cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton


Four cent cotton sure as you’re born
I’m gonna drink some Georgia corn,
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton
Hey,  hey four-cent cotton


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

This House is Not For Sale!

    Rick Good has really done it this time.  Channelling the likes of  Woody Guthrie, Uncle Dave Macon and Pete Seeger, he has written and performed a song called This House is Not for Sale.

    We played it last week at the Trolley Stop and got a terrific reception from it.  Everyone wanted to know where to get a copy of the lyrics (answer:  check out the website of Rick and his missus Sharon Leahy, , or I've appended the lyrics to this song below). 

     Rick's political sympathies are evident from the lyrics, but as I see it, it really is not a matter of left nor right, but a matter of supporting  the traditional American value of equality, and opposing influence buying.  

   I hope that no matter who we elect, that person will turn out to be someone who will not sell out their values.  Do you suppose that is naive?  

   Well, maybe, but I believe in America, and in my friends and neighbors, and in common sense and that the people are not going to be pushed around as easily as the special interests think.  

    And I also believe in the husband and wife team of Rick Good and Sharon Leahy, and I hope this video goes absolutely viral! 

The video itself is absolutely priceless, what with some really cool drawings from the grandkids (aided and abetted by Sharon),  but there is also a version with a full band, which is available from  You may download your own copy here:


On Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.
There is a house, a monument, as fine as it can be.
If you are the President it’s where you do reside.
If you are a billionaire it’s one thing you can’t buy.
It’s not for sale, not the White House, this house is not for sale;
Though you are spending millions just to make this Union fail.
If you weren’t filthy rich you’d be in jail.

1. You get one vote, that’s all she wrote,
2. So Koch and Rove go stuff you trove,
3. Like Paradise it has no price,
4. You can change the rules but we’re no fools,
5. You get one vote, that’s all she wrote,
This house is not for sale.

You can buy a congressman. You can buy a judge.
You can back a super-pac and give your lies a nudge.
But we the people know the truth and we still have the right
To take a stand and build a land where money is not might.
You live for gold, you sold your soul, you take more than you need.
You push and pull till you’re so full someday you’ll die of greed.
The Bible calls it Avarice, this sickness in your mind,
And the Devil’s waiting for you underneath your bottom line.
Just a dozen years ago democracy went down.
The highest court threw out your vote & gave King George his crown.
Now we’re still cleaning up the mess from W’s devastation,
While plutocrats and old fat cats are out to buy our nation.
Our founding fathers wrote the Constitution for us all,
But even then they did amend to clarify the law.
So, if you doubt what I’m about then tell me if you can,
How does a corporation have the legal rights of man?
© Rick Good, 2012
New Standards Music, BMI


Saturday, June 16, 2012

My LIttle Georgia Rose

     One thing you can do to create controversy is to start a conversation about whether Old Time musicians ought to play Bluegrass or not. This is a bit like Hatfields fraternizing with McCoys, so watch out or you might get hit!

    On the other hand, many of the casual listeners are not even aware of the difference.  If the band has a banjo, that usually signals "Bluegrass" to many casual fans. 

    So what is the difference?  Well, you get different answers from different people, but to me the main difference is that bluegrass is characterized by a fingerpicked banjo (a style invented by Earl Scruggs, imho, with later styles emerging thereafter).    Bluegrass became stylized around 1945 when Earl and guitar player Lester Flatt joined mandolin player Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.   Hence Bluegrass often has a guitar lead.  By contrast,  Old Time  has a rhythmic "clawhammer" style banjo, and usually a fiddle lead.  This music existed before bluegrass.  Not everyone agrees, but I believe Old Time is more conducive to jams than other styles, because it is easier to blend several clawhammer banjos, whereas the Scruggs style is so overpowering that it is hard to have more than one banjo player in the group.

So that brings us to the next point.  Is it kosher for Old Time jams to jam to songs from Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass? 

At the Trolley stop, we've started to do My Little Georgia Rose, with Ryan playing lead vocals and guitar.  However, we still play it with an Old Time sound, usually with two or three guitars and a couple of clawhammer banjos.  I'm by no means an authority, as probably the weakest musician in our group, but in my humble opinion it works very well and the fan response has been great.

However, I do have a few observations to share about the great Bill Monroe.  One thing about his songs is that often the sentiment doesn't match the song.  For example, Little Georgia Rose tells about a sweet young woman that the singer has a big crush on. It is a very sweet and sentimental lyric.

But the melody is completely different.  It's a very powerful melody, almost like a hymn.  Let's just say that you could play it for the Heavyweight Champion of the World as easily as some little sweetheart in George!   In particular, the chorus is sung by a lot of power, both by Bill Monroe back in the day, and by the Trolley Stoppers today.  We really boom "She's MY LITTLE GEORGIA ROSE!"   This is actually not that unusual in Bill Monroe's songs. Check out his version of Shady Grove (Ray Hicks has two great version on his new album Shady Grove 2 is the more traditional version, while Shady Grove 1 is based on the Monroe version).  The line "I'm going back to Harlan!" makes it sound llike something dramatic is about to happen.  

      Once you get your mind around that little quirk, the rest of it starts to hang together.  The fact is, Monroe may be considered the Father of Bluegrass to many (though in my humble opinion Earl Scruggs was the single most influential individual, albeit in Monroe's band), but his songs are certainly amenable to the Old Time style. 

     At the Trolley Stop, we play this in the key of C. The Bill Monroe video, which comes to us courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry circa 1957, is in the key of B-flat, meaning the guitar needs to be capo'ed at the fourth fret to play along. 
     So for what it's worth, my take is, heck yeah we can do Bill Monroe songs in an Old Time jam.  It works great with a fiddle lead and a couple of clawhammer banjos playing along side. Just don't use no Moog synthesizers or nothin', y'hear?


My Little Georgia Rose
Written and recorded by Bill Monroe

                     G(C)      C(F)            G(C)
Now come and listen to my story
   G(C)                         D(G)
A  story that I know is true
                 G(C)         C(F)          G(C)  
About a Rose that blooms in Georgia
        G(C)        D(G)                      G(C)
With a hair of gold and a heart so true
        C(F)                                          G(C)
Way down past the Blue Ridge Mountains 
 G(C)                                  D(G)
Way down where tall pines grow
G(C)                                       C(F)
Lives my sweetheart of the mountains
G(C)             D(G)                  G(C)
She's my little Georgia Rose 
Her mother left her with another
A care free life she had planned
The baby now is a lady
The one her mother could not stand


We'd often sing those songs together
I watch her do her little part
She'd smile at me when I would tell her
That she was my own sweetheart