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---