The song of the week is 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' in the key of A.
'Clinch Mountain Backstep' is a bluegrass banjo tune composed by Ralph Stanley (Feb. 25, 1927 - June 23, 2016), who until his recent passing, was the last surviving of the great first-generation pioneers of bluegrass banjo playing.
(Ralph Stanley is the only first-generation bluegrass artist that I have met in person; I met him twice: once at a concert in a school gymnasium in Sedro Woolley, Washington when I was about 15 or 16 - after his concert, I played our current song of the week in his presence on a banjo he had with him for sale - and then again he spoke with me in 2004, during breakfast at the hotel that both of us were staying at for the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Our conversation started by way of Ralph asking me questions about some of the other bands and artists playing at the Festival.)
There is a good documentary on Ralph Stanley available on youtube that is well-worth watching:
Ralph says that he came up with 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' by combining 'Cluck Old Hen' with 'Liza Jane'.
Here is my favorite of Ralph's studio recordings of Clinch Mountain Backstep:
Ralph Stanley - key of A
...and, when he was a bit younger, when his older brother Carter was still alive, here is Ralph playing Clinch Mountain Backstep on a live TV show:
The Stanley Brothers - key of A (no breaks on any other instruments, all banjo).
There are no mandolin, guitar, or dobro breaks in the preceding renditions of the tune. Here is one which has all three:
Blue Highway - key of A: live performance
The chord progression for the A-Part is:
The chord progression for the B-Part is the same, except that there is an extra 'half-measure' of the '1' before the first '5'. If one is counting the beats in the first line of the B-Part in cut common time (2/2), one would count it as: 1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1,2.
(On the sheet music attached here, I have written the first line of the B-Part as 3 measures in 2/2, followed by a measure in which the time signature changes to 1/2, followed by a measure that returns to 2/2.)
Melody & Key
Although the melody of Clinch Mountain Backstep consists only of the notes of the Am pentatonic scale, it is called at jams in A (Major) rather than Am because the '1' chord that is used in the chord progression for the song is an A Major Chord rather than an Am Chord ('1m'). To call Clinch Mountain Backstep in A Minor instead of in A (Major) at a jam would imply that 1m Chords are to be played in place of 1 Chords.
In the attached melody sheet for Clinch Mountain Backstep, I have used the key signature for Am (no sharps or flats, same as the key signature for C Major, the Relative Major of Am) instead of the key signature for A Major (3 sharps) to avoid the need to write natural signs in nearly every measure. I hope that my doing this makes the sheet music easier to read than if I had used the key signature for A Major.
The notes that make up the Minor Pentatonic Scale, or as I like to call it sometimes 'The Clinch Mountain Scale', are: 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7. Remember these notes, for these will be useful to know not only for playing 'Mountain Minor' tunes like 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' and 'Cluck Old Hen'. Any time when you wish to add a 'bluesy' element into a break or backup part for a Major key song, just remember to play your 'Clinch Mountain notes'.
To see what these notes are for A (or for any other key for that matter: G is an especially practical place to start for this if you are a banjo or guitar player who usually plays in A by way of capoing the 2nd fret of your instrument), refer to the Nashville Number System Chart in the attachments.
For more on the Am and Gm pentatonic scales, refer back to the song of the week write-up for 'Cluck Old Hen'. The first five paragraphs under the section 'Melody & Breaks' may be read as though written about Clinch Mountain Backstep instead of Cluck Old Hen.
Relative Majors & Minors
If you have ever played the melody for Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Amazing Grace, My Home's Across The Blue Ridge Mountains, Shortnin' Bread, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, or Camptown Races, or any other melody that uses only 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 notes (Major Pentatonic Scale), then you are already familiar to a certain extent with the combination of notes that make up the 'Clinch Mountain Scale', although those melodies sound very different than the melodies for Clinch Mountain Backstep and Cluck Old Hen.
Notice, for instance, that 1, b3, 4, 5, b7 for E (E,G,A,B,D) are the very same notes as 6, 1, 2, 3, 5 for G. G is the Relative Major of Em.
Every Minor has a Relative Major. To find the Relative Major of a Minor, treat the b3 of the Minor as the 1 for the Major. (Thus, C is the Relative Major of Am - one uses the same notes for playing the melody of Will The Circle Be Unbroken in C as one does for playing the melody of Clinch Mountain Backstep in A; Bb is the Relative Major of Gm, etc.)
Going in the opposite direction, that is, to find the Relative Minor of a Major, treat the 6 of the Major as the 1 for the Minor. (So, Am is the Relative Minor of C, Em is the Relative Minor of G.)
The song of the week is 'Sweetheart, You Done Me Wrong' in the key of C.
This song was written by Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, and was recorded in 1947 by the original bluegrass band, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, which at that time consisted of: Bill Monroe on mandolin. Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass. On this song, as on most of the songs that Bill Monroe recorded with this lineup, Lester sings lead, and Bill sings the tenor harmony, i.e., the harmony part that is pitched directly above the lead part.
Here is a link to the 1947 recording: key of D
Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys - Sweetheart, You Done Me Wrong
Recorded and released in 1947 (Columbia 20423). Written by Bill Monroe & Lester Flatt. Lead vocals: Lester Flatt ----- Tenor: Bill Monroe.
The chord progression and the melody for this song are both very simple. It is the same chord progression that is used for 'Blue Ridge Cabin Home', which is regularly played at the jam, and for many other standard bluegrass songs.
played through twice for a complete verse, or a complete chorus.
In the key of C: 1=C, 4=F, 5=G.
In the key of D: 1=D, 4=G, 5=A
The melody consists of only 5 notes. In the key of C, these notes are, from lowest to highest, G, A, B, C, and D. In the key of D, these notes are: A, B, C#, D, and E. Many of the melody notes are lingered on for a good length of time, so this song could make a good place to start for learning to pick up melodies by ear, and/or to make a first attempt at singing harmony.
Feel and Tempo
As you listen to the recording, pay close attention to the feel of the song, before making an attempt to play along with it. Because the song has a different feel to it than most of the songs we play at the jam, I strongly recommend playing along with the recording after having listened to it a few times through. It is a slow song (about 84 beats per minute on the recording), and, at the jam, I may choose to play it even slower than the speed it is at on the recording.
Be careful not to push the beat on this song - be mindful of this when practicing along with the record: otherwise it will tend to end up gravitating too much towards the tempo ranges that we play a lot of other songs at the jam, and, at the same time, will lose its distinctive feel. If you are a guitar or a bass player, it may help you to maintain the right feel on this song if you dig in a bit more deliberately than usual into the first bass note you play in each measure while playing rhythm. Breaks (on all instruments) will also tend to work better for this song if one accents a little heavier than usual your first note at the beginning of every odd numbered measure, and additionally, also if one accents a little more than usual the last note of a fill-in lick coinciding with the beginning of an even numbered measure.
On the record, the breaks within the body of the song are only half the length of a verse, and the intro break is even shorter than that. At the jam, however, we will play full-length breaks (i.e., breaks that last the same length of time as one verse, in this case, as in most other songs sung at the jam, this is 16 measures).
Note to Mandolin Players
If you are a mandolin player, and you have found yourself copying the non-melody based break that Bill Monroe plays after the 2nd chorus of the song, and you wish to use it as part of a full length break for the song at the jam, something you might try doing is to play the first half of your break in a melody-based manner, and then, for the second half of your break, play along the lines of how Bill plays it on the record. Transposing from D (the key that the song is played in on the recording) down to the key of C involves lowering the notes a whole step, which is the equivalent of 2 frets.
Note to Banjo Players
While many banjo players will tend to capo to the 5th fret when a song is called in the key of C, I suggest trying to play this song without a capo. If you are a banjo player who has little or no experience playing in C without a capo, this song, because of its slow tempo, simple chord progression and melody, can make for a good place to start to learn to play in C without a capo. After having worked out the song in C, then, if you wish to play along with the recording in D, all you need to do is the same thing that you would ordinarily do for playing in the key of A, namely, capo to the 2nd fret and spike, capo, or tune up your fifth string to an A note.
The song of the week will be 'In The Sweet By And By' in the key of G.
Sacred songs, in many cases taken directly from old Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian hymnals, occupy a prominent place in the Bluegrass music tradition. They make up one of the largest single categories of songs in the genre.
It is common for Bluegrass bands at all levels (ranging all the way from hobby bands to top-notch professional touring bands) to record entire albums consisting of nothing but sacred songs, and many of the biggest names in Bluegrass have recorded several of these. There are even some Bluegrass bands that specialize in 'Bluegrass Gospel' to the total, or almost total, exclusion of other categories of songs. (The very first hobby Bluegrass band that I was part of when I was in my early teens was one of those types of bands.) Most of the bands that I played with during my teen years, in doing the Summer Bluegrass festival circuit in BC, needed to have at least 45 minutes worth of this type of material in their repertoire, so that they would be able to play a Bluegrass Gospel set when scheduled to perform on a Sunday morning at a festival.
Many of the first-generation Bluegrass pioneers learned the fundamentals of music, including how to sing, in church. It was therefore quite natural that they would adapt some of the songs they knew from church to the new genre of music they were creating.
I associate 'In The Sweet By And By' with weekend afternoon jams with friends, late night jams around campfires at Bluegrass festivals, and impromptu live performances much more so than with any particular studio recording of the song by a well-known Bluegrass artist. For that reason, the first youtube link I present below is that of such an impromptu live performance of the song.
Slope Valley and Palmetto Blue: Key of G:
Notice that on the last 2 choruses the lead singer drops down to the baritone harmony part. This part is quite audible and straightforward (no unusual note choices) and therefore a good place to learn the baritone harmony from.
I have also included in the attachments ('03 Track 3') a recording (from 2006) of 'In The Sweet By And By' (key of D) that I played banjo on, in which the band consisted of people that I used to jam with at Bluegrass festivals. In accord with the wishes of the leader of the band 'String Lizzy' (who kicks off the song on the mandolin at a somewhat faster tempo than what the song is customarily played at - but the tempo choice is well-suited to her straightforward playing and singing style - and sings lead on the song, and mostly in German), we recorded the album by standing in a circle around a few mics in the middle of the circle, to make it feel as much like a jam as what is possible in a recording studio session. Many of the songs that ended up on the album were done in just one take.
Notice the similarities in the vocal arrangement on the first youtube link with the following non-bluegrass arrangement ('call and response' arrangement for the chorus, for instance) that is along the lines of the type of church singing that most of the first-generation Bluegrass artists were familiar with from their childhood:
Primitive Baptist accapella arrangement:
In addition to my own handwritten melody sheets for the song in the attachments, here is a link to sheet music from a hymnal that shows three harmony parts together with the melody. The melody is the higher of the pairs of notes that are on the top staff (written with the treble clef); what we call the baritone harmony in Bluegrass is the lower of the pairs of notes on that staff. (If you have a really high voice for Bluegrass, you may raise each of these lower notes an octave higher to create what is called the 'high baritone' part.) The higher part on the bottom staff (written with the bass clef) is what we call the tenor, or the low tenor in Bluegrass depending on whether one sings it in the octave that makes it higher or lower than the melody; and the lower part on that same staff is the bass harmony part. If you are not familiar with reading music written with the bass clef, move each note the equivalent of one line/space higher on the staff so that it can be read as if written with the treble clef, and then, if desired, drop each note an octave lower.
Although we will only play breaks over the verse progression, I have written out both the verse and the chorus melodies in the attachments. The song has such a strong melody and I find it quite satisfying to play as an instrumental banjo, mandolin, or guitar tune in which my playing stays very close to the melody, embellished by little more than slides and hammer-ons into the most important melody notes, rolls ( on banjo) or crosspicking (on guitar) around the melody, or double stops (on mandolin and guitar) to harmonize certain parts of the melody. I thought that perhaps some of you would like to have the chorus melody included on the melody sheets for the same reason.
Finally, here is a good professional bluegrass studio recording of 'In The Sweet By And By':
Bluegrass Martins: key of C
The song of the week is 'Angeline The Baker', a key of D fiddle tune.
Alison Krauss (starts at about the 4 minute mark)
Form & Progression
Angeline The Baker is a standard length AABB fiddle tune. By that, I mean that each part of the tune is 8 measures long, and that there are two parts to the tune, called the A-Part and the B-Part respectively. Each part is played twice before going on to the next part. So this means that each break for the tune is 32 measures long. (8x4) Other tunes on the current song lists for the beginner jam that have this same form are: Liberty, Old Joe Clark, Soldier's Joy, Boil The Cabbage Down, and Buffalo Gals.
The chord progression is the same for both parts of Angeline The Baker:
In the key of D: 1=D, and 4=G
There is no standardized order in which the two parts of the tune are played.
When asking the person leading the tune which part they intend to start with, it does no good to ask: Do you start with the A-Part or the B-Part?, because whichever part is played first is, by definition, the A-Part, and whichever part is played second is, by definition, the B-Part. However, the two parts can be distinguished from one another by calling them the low part and the high part. Like most AABB fiddle tunes, one part of Angeline The Baker starts on a higher note than the other part, and is overall higher in pitch than the other part.
When I call Angeline The Baker at a jam, I almost always start the tune with the high part. For this reason, in the melody sheets attached here, the high part is written as the A Part and the low part is written as the B Part.
Since the chord progression is the same for both parts of 'Angeline', and since, in Bluegrass jam arrangements of this tune (as distinguished from Old Time arrangements), it is usually only one person who plays the lead at a time, the need will rarely arise at a bluegrass jam to know in advance which part the leader intends on starting with. This is just as much the case at our beginner jam: for even though we do collective breaks in which all instruments of the same kind play their breaks at once, the person who starts the tune off gets to play through the form once (AABB) with no one else playing a break along with him. (During the first pass through the tune, everyone else besides the person who kicked off the tune should be playing backup.)
Nevertheless, it is important to pay attention to which part the tune starts with, the lower part or the higher part, for each person who does a break on the tune will be expected to play the parts in the same order as the person who kicked off the song. This is standard practice in bluegrass jams, and this procedure helps to minimize confusion.
The chord progression is unusual for bluegrass in that it does not have a 5 chord. In the key of D, this means that there is no A chord.
Concerning the attached melody sheets
Some guitar players prefer to play 'Angeline The Baker' without a capo, whereas others prefer to play it with the capo on the 2nd fret and then play it as if in the key of C (In the key of C: 1=C, and 4=F) The same is true of 3 finger-style banjo players, except that they will usually have their 5th string tuned up to an A note (spiked or capoed at the 7th fret) regardless of whether they have a capo on the 2nd fret of their four long strings. I have included in the attachments, guitar and banjo tabs of the melody of the tune written in both the key of D and in the key of C. You might wish to try it playing it both ways, and see which way you like best.
You might notice that there are fewer notes on the banjo tabs than on the rest of the melody sheets. The reason for this is because most Scruggs-style banjo players tend to choose to play other notes in place of the melody notes in these spots that are more convenient to grab in the context of one of the standard picking patterns (rolls) that characterize Scruggs-style playing, but the exact choice of notes in these spots differs from player to player. A similar thing tends to be true also of Clawhammer banjo arrangements of Angeline The Baker.
The basic melody for Angeline The Baker is pentatonic. That is, it consists of 5 notes: major scale degrees 1,2,3,5, and 6. In the key of D, that means it consists of the notes D, E, F#, A, and B. (In the key of C, the five notes of the major pentatonic scale are: C, D, E, G, and A.)
The range of 'Angeline' is relatively narrow for a fiddle tune. The range spans exactly one octave. The lowest note is the 5th scale degree (A), and the highest note is the 5th scale degree an octave higher (A). So, in ascending order of pitch, the notes are 5,6,1,2,3,5: A,B,D,E,F#,A. (In 'C', those notes would be instead: G,A,C,D,E,G.) The range of the low part is even narrower than that. Its highest note is the 3rd scale degree (F#).
Tunes with such a narrow range can easily be played in two different octaves on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar (this is not so much the case with banjo). For, these three instruments each have 'A' notes in three different octaves that can be found on the instruments within the first five frets (or, on fiddle, in 'first position'). Most guitar, mandolin, and fiddle players who learn to play Angeline The Baker learn to play it in the higher of the two readily accessible octaves. For those of you who already play the tune, you might try working out a break an octave lower than how you usually play it, as a variation to have up your sleeve when, at a jam, you get called on to play more than one break during the tune. Or, since we do collective breaks at the beginner jam, where all the fiddle players play their breaks at the same time, all the mandolin players play their breaks at the same time, etc., if you have worked out a break in the lower octave, it can be effective to play this while someone else is playing their break in the higher octave. For this reason, I have included in the attachments melody sheets in both octaves for fiddle, mandolin and guitar.
One final point about the tune. Unlike most tunes, the last note of the melody does not have the same letter name as the key the tune is played in. Instead of ending on a 'D' note (the 1st scale degree), each part of Angeline ends on an 'A' note (the 5th scale degree), the lowest note of its range.
Angeline The Baker - banjo tab in C
Angeline The Baker - banjo tab in D
Angeline The B. - guitar tab, C, high octave
Angeline The Baker - guitar tab, C, low octave
Angeline The B. - guitar tab, D, high octave
Angeline The Baker - guitar tab, D, low octave
Angeline The B. - Mandolin tab, high octave
Angeline The B. - mandolin tab, low octave
Angeline The Baker - melody in D, high octave
Angeline The Baker - melody in D, low octave
The song of the week is 'We'll Meet Again Sweetheart' in the key of Bb.
Flatt & Scruggs - key of B (instruments tuned up a half step higher than standard)
This was the first song that Flatt and Scruggs recorded together after leaving Bill Monroe's band. (Lester Flatt on guitar and lead vocal, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Jim Shumate on fiddle, Howard Watts, a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater on upright bass, and Mac Wiseman on guitar and tenor harmony vocal.) It is one of 28 songs that Flatt & Scruggs recorded together on Mercury Records between 1948 and 1950. To listen to the complete collection of 'the Mercury Sessions' refer back to the intermediate jam song of the week write up for 'Why Don't You Tell Me So': https://www.idahobluegrassassociation.org/intermediate-jam/category/why-dont-you-tell-me-so
Parmley & McCoury - key of B
This is the first version of 'We'll Meet Again Sweetheart' I heard when I was just beginning to get into Bluegrass. This record (in the form of a cassette tape I bought at a Bluegrass Cardinals concert) has been in my collection since 1992, and was a big influence on my playing. From the same album, check out the following songs. This is really high quality Bluegrass well worth taking the time to listen to (over and over) and absorb.
Roll On Buddy - key of B
I'm Going Back To Old Kentucky - key of A
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot - key of B
Down The Road - key of B
I'll Drink No More Wine - key of G
Smoke Along The Track - key of A
I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling - key of E
We'll Meet Again Sweetheart uses the same progression that is used to play 'Blue Ridge Cabin Home' and 'Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong':
(Prog. W8 on the Basic Chord Progressions chart.)
Key of Bb Review
In the key of Bb: 1=Bb, 4=Eb, 5=F
The notes that make up the Bb chord are Bb, D, and F.
The notes that make up the Eb chord are Eb, G, and Bb
The notes that make up the F chord are F, A, and C.
Together, these notes form the Bb Major Scale: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, and A.
If you are fiddler or a mandolin player, and you already play songs or licks in the key of F, then, provided that these songs or licks do not require using the 4th string, you can take your same fingerings for F and move them all one string lower in pitch, and you will thereby be playing in Bb.
For playing chop chords on the mandolin that use no open strings, if you move the chords shapes you use for playing in the key of A up by one fret, this will put you in the key of Bb.
For playing in the key of Bb, bluegrass banjo and guitar players almost always capo to the 3rd fret, so that they can use the same fingerings that they would use for playing in the key of G. (In the key of G: 1=G; 4= C; 5=D.)
Here are the corresponding notes of the G and Bb Major Scales:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
Bb,C,D,Eb,F, G, A
Banjo players will need to raise the pitch of the fifth string to a Bb note (registers as A# on most tuners). This is done by capoing (with a 5th string capo, or 8th fret spike) the 5th string at the 8th fret. For banjo players who do not have a fifth string capo or an 8th fret spike (that includes myself), spike the 5th string at the 7th fret, and then tune it up a half step to a Bb (A#) note. This is best done by ear by playing the 5th string with the thumb while playing the 3rd string with the index finger, turning the 5th string tuning peg slowly until the 5th string sounds harmonious with the 3rd string.
When playing up the neck on banjo in the key of Bb (capo 3, playing as if in G), you may find it helpful to use your 10th and 15th fret markers as your primary points of reference.
The melody of We'll Meet Again Sweetheart uses all 7 notes of the Major Scale, with the lowest note being, in Nashville Numbers, the '5' below the '1' (F note in the key of Bb; D note in the key of G). and the highest note being the '4' above the '1' (Eb note in the key of Bb; C note in the key of G).
One characteristic feature of the melody of this song is how often and how long the melody lingers on the 3rd of each chord (i.e., in the key of Bb: D notes during Bb chord measures, G notes during Eb chord measures, and A notes during F chord measures. In the key of G, the corresponding notes and chords are: B notes for G chord measures, E notes for C chord measures, and F# notes for D chord measures).
Another feature of the melody (at least the way I sing it, as reflected in the attached melody sheets) is the unusually wide intervals between some of these 3rds of each chord and the note that immediately precedes them. This occurs, for instance, at the end of measure 2 going into measure 3, where the melody abruptly descends from the 3rd of the 1 chord to the 3rd of the 4 chord, and in measure 6, where the melody abruptly ascends from the root of the 5 chord to 3rd of the 1 chord in anticipation of the upcoming chord change from the 5 back to the 1. This feature of the melody severely limits the range of keys in which I can feel comfortable singing the song in.
The song of the week is the 'Long Journey Home' (a.k.a. 'Two Dollar Bill' and 'Lost All My Money') in the key of A.
Flatt & Scruggs - key of A (song starts at 2:07)
Rhonda Vincent - key of B
Bill Monroe & Doc Watson - key of G
For reasons of historical interest, I include the following version of Long Journey Home by the Monroe Brothers (Bill Monroe and his older brother Charlie). From 1936, this was one of the first songs that Bill Monroe recorded, and it is played wickedly fast:
The chord progression is:
While this is a fairly basic chord progression, there are relatively few bluegrass standards that use this progression. I like to think of this progression as being closely related to the more common progression:
(Will The Circle Be Unbroken, I'll Fly Away, Mountain Dew, Cryin' Holy, etc.)
The first, third, and fourth lines are identical in both progressions. The second line of both progressions is made up of 1 and 4 chords, but they differ from each other as to where the 4 chord occurs within the line and how long one stays on the 4 chord before changing back to the 1.
The main challenge that the Long Journey Home progression presents is that with so many 1s in the in the progression, it can sometimes be all too easy to lose one's place within the progression. But, if one thinks/feels the song in terms of distinct lines consisting of 4 measures each, then this is less likely to happen. However, if you do lose track of the progression, then the safest chord to play is the 1. Just keep on playing the 1 while you are trying to figure out where in the progression the song is at. Use the vocal as a guide to help you to feel where each line of the progression begins.
When I lead the song at the beginner jam for the next two jams, we will play it in the key of A. However, it is also a good idea to be prepared for the future to play it in G and in C, since these are the keys that others have chosen to sing it in at the jam in the recent past.
(In the key of A: 1=A; 4=D; 5=E. In the key of G: 1=G; 4=C; 5=D. In the key of C: 1=C; 4=F; 5=G.)
Long Journey Home is quite often played at a fast tempo. While this song would not work very well at a slow tempo, it is not necessary to play it as fast as it has often been played on recordings in order for it to sound right. So, at the beginner jam, I do not intend on playing it as fast as it is played on some of the recordings provided here, but it will still be one of the faster songs, relative to the speeds that we tend to play songs at at the jam.
One of the things that makes Long Journey Home a jam friendly song is the repetitive nature of the lyrics. There is not much that needs to be memorized in order to be able to sing harmony on the choruses, and the last line of the chorus is identical to the last line of each verse:
Lost all my money but a two dollar bill,
Two dollar bill, boys, two dollar bill.
Lost all my money but a two dollar bill:
I'm on my long journey home.
The repetitive nature of the lyrics also makes Long Journey Home a good song choice for those who wish to lead a song at the jam, but do not have much experience yet singing at a jam, or who have difficulty memorizing lyrics.
The song of the week is 'Reuben' in the key of D.
Reuben is known also by many other names. Some of the most common of these (in Bluegrass circles) are: 'Reuben's Train', 'Old Reuben', 'Lonesome Reuben' and 'Train 45'. This was the first tune that Earl Scruggs, when he was about 10 years old, played with 3 fingers (up to that time he had been a 2 finger style picker) Over the years, Earl recorded Reuben many times, and each time he always managed to find some new and interesting way to play it.
There are numerous different versions of Reuben, - and even whole other songs that are based on Reuben (e.g., 'Ruby' by the Osborne Brothers) - but they are all based on what is essentially the same simple repetitive melody (8 measures. Only 4 melody notes in many interpretations of the melody. See the attached melody sheets.)
Key & Banjo Tuning
In Bluegrass circles, Reuben is almost always played in the key of D, with the banjo tuned to an open D major chord ('D tuning': F#DF#AD, or ADF#AD).
Flatt and Scruggs (banjo, fiddle, and dobro breaks)
Earl Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Mark O'Connor (banjo, fiddle, dobro, and guitar breaks: very improv. oriented)
The Dillards (Vocal, banjo breaks, and a simple mandolin break)
The chord progression is:
which is the second half of Progressions V1, V3, V5, and X1 on the basic chord progressions handout.
In the key of D: 1=D and 5=A.
Note: Most interpretations of the melody do not imply any chord change at all: so it can be difficult at first trying to hear where the A chord fits into the progression. If you are uncertain about when to change to the A, then just stay on the D. It is better to play a D over the measure of A, instead of playing an A in the wrong spot.
To capo or not to capo
The tune has a strong drony character to it. To help contribute to this feel of the song, I recommend that guitar and banjo players avoid using a capo for this tune. Some guitar players like to lower their low E string to a D, so as to further enhance the drony feel of the song.
Lyrics or no lyrics
Although Reuben is often played as an instrumental - which is how I intend it to be played as it goes through its song of the week cycle at the jam - it does have lyrics. (Actually, there are several different sets of lyrics for Reuben.) But even when lyrics are used, the tune often still remains mostly instrumental. The singing can be thought of as a kind of 'vocal break'.
Because the melody is simple and repetitive, and mostly stays on one chord, jamming Reuben makes for a good opportunity to develop one's improvisational skills. (When improvising over Reuben, one can often get away with ignoring the A chord altogether.) Reuben is the kind of tune that, when played without variation, can become monotonous quite quickly. Yet, when one adds just enough variation into the mix, Reuben is the kind of tune that can be jammed on for 10 minutes or more without it getting monotonous.
One can take one's first steps towards improvisation (making up a break on the fly) by creating variations on the melody. There are many ways to do this. Examples include adding in extra notes between melody notes, taking out notes, altering the rhythm of the melody, and taking a measure or two of the melody and simply repeating it over and over again. If you wish to get a little bit more adventurous, you can try creating variations that drift in and out of the melody. For getting started with doing this, I would like to point out that one can get a lot of mileage out of including C notes in your variations. Lingering on C notes works quite well for improvisation on this tune if you find yourself out on a limb while your hands are trying to find where to go to next on the fretboard. And, if you are new to improvising, there will be many, many times when you will suddenly find yourself 'out on a limb'. In order to become a good improv player (or even to do any kind of improv at all), one must be willing to take risks.
The song of the week is 'Blue Ridge Cabin Home' in the key of A.
The chord progression for Blue Ridge Cabin Home is:
(Progression W8 on the Basic Chord Progressions chart. In the key of A: 1=A, 4=D, 5=E. In the key of Bb: 1=Bb, 4=Eb, 5=F. In the key of G: 1=G, 4=C, 5=D.)
Notice that both halves of the progression are identical with each other.
Two other old Bluegrass classics on the current main song list for the beginner jam that use the same progression are Flatt & Scruggs' 'We'll Meet Again Sweetheart', and Bill Monroe's 'Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong'. Other songs that make use of the same chord progression include: 'We Can't Be Darlings Anymore', 'Is It Too Late Now', 'The Prisoner's Song', 'I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes', 'A Few More Seasons', 'Nobody's Business', the verses (but not the choruses) of 'I Wonder Where You Are Tonight', 'Are You Tired Of Me My Darling', 'Sunny Tennessee', 'I'm Using My Bible For A Roadmap', 'I'd Rather Be Alone', and 'Thinking About You', the A-Parts of 'Randy Lynn Rag', 'Orange Blossom Special', and 'Durham's Reel', and the B-Part of 'Mastertone March'.
Flatt and Scruggs - key of Bb. This is the original recording of 'Blue Ridge Cabin Home'. It is in the key of Bb instead of A only because all the instruments were tuned a half-step higher than standard.
Here is a link to the same recording, but which the person who posted it on youtube has taken it upon himself to slow it down a bit so that it is lowered to the key of A. You may wish to try playing along with this:
For a more recent recording of Blue Ridge Cabin Home, here is one of my favorites:
The Bluegrass Album Band - key of Bb
In many Bluegrass circles, the Bluegrass Album Band (Tony Rice - guitar, vocals; J.D. Crowe - banjo, vocals; Doyle Lawson - mandolin, vocals; Bobby Hicks - fiddle; Todd Phillips - bass) version of Blue Ridge Cabin Home, released in 1981, has replaced the 1950s Flatt & Scruggs version as the primary point of reference for the song.
Listening over and over again to the set of records recorded by Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, etc., under the name 'The Bluegrass Album Band' was a big help to me when I was first learning to play bluegrass about 25 years ago.
Here are my other favorites, besides Blue Ridge Cabin Home, on the first of the Bluegrass Album Band records:
Molly & Tenbrooks
We Can't Be Darlings Anymore
On My Way Back To The Old Home
Gonna Settle Down
..and my favorites from the second record:
Your Love Is Like A Flower
Take Me In The Lifeboat
Back To The Cross
Just When I Needed You
Is It Too Late Now
I'll Never Shed Another Tear
Other Bluegrass artists and bands besides Flatt & Scruggs and the Bluegrass Album Band that I especially recommend listening to in high doses for those who are new to Bluegrass include Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. But, beyond these, there are many other great bluegrass artists and bands that are well-worthwhile checking out. The following is only a very short list of such artists:
The Osborne Brothers
Jim & Jesse
J.D. Crowe & The New South
Reno & Smiley
Alison Krauss & Union Station
The Lynn Morris Band
The Seldom Scene
The song of the week is 'I Can't Feel At Home In This World Anymore' (a.k.a. 'This World Is Not My Home') in the key of G. This song was recorded by the Carter Family in 1931, and since that time has been recorded by numerous old-time, bluegrass, and country artists: some of the bigger names including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim Reeves, Merle Haggard, and Ricky Skaggs.
Progression & Recordings
The chord progression I use for I Can't Feel At Home In This World Anymore is:
In the key of G: 1=G, 2=A, 4=C, and 5=D.
Jim & Jesse - key of F
(In the key of F: 1=F, 2=G, 4=Bb, and 5=C.)
Martina McBride (with Ricky Skaggs) - key of D: not exactly a bluegrass version of the song, but it has good mandolin breaks in it, and is played at a tempo that I prefer.
(In the key of D: 1=D, 2=E, 4=G, 5=A.)
...but, alternatives for the 2nd line of the progression that I have heard on records and at jams include
Blue Highway - key of G
And, in some versions, line 2 is played one of these ways for the verses of the song, and in a different way for the choruses, with breaks in some versions following the verse progression and in other versions following the chorus progression.
Compare these progressions with Prog. V6 on the Basic Chord Progressions Chart:
...and with the 3 most common chord progressions used for playing 'Leaning On The Everlasting Arms':
1144 1144 1144
1115 11155 1115
1144 1144 1144
11511 11511 1151
The 2 Chord
Notice in the versions of 'I Can't Feel At Home...' provided here how the harmony parts are affected by the presence or absence of the '2' chord in line 2 of the progression. For, unlike the 1,4, and 5 chords, the 2 chord has one note in it that is not part of the major scale. In the key of G, this note is a C#. (The notes of the G major scale are: G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#.) Relative to the G major scale, the number name for the C# note is #4.
If you find it doesn't come naturally to you to go to the C# note on the 2 chord measure when singing a tenor harmony part for this song in the key of G, try playing the following scale on your instrument: G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G until your ear becomes accustomed to hearing the 4th note of this scale in the context of the whole scale. (This is known as the 'G Lydian Scale': in place of the '4' in the major scale, it has a '#4'. The G Lydian Scale has the same notes as the D Major Scale, i.e., it has one more sharp in it than what the G Major Scale has.) The notes of the G Lydian Scale are the safest notes to play on your instrument during '2' chord measures that come up in a song that is in the key of G.
An informal name for chords other than the 1,4,and 5 that you will sometimes hear in bluegrass circles is 'off-chords'. The '2' chord is one of the two most commonly used major 'off-chords' in traditional bluegrass. The other one is the 'b7' (flat-seven) chord. I suggest making it a point to memorize the '2' and 'b7' chords for each of the keys that come up at the jam. Observe that '2' is a whole-step higher than '1', and that 'b7' is a whole-step lower than '1':
b7 1 2
Key of G: F G A (A = A,C#,E.)
Key of A G A B (B = B,D#,F#.)
Key of Bb Ab Bb C (C = C,E,G.)
Key of B A B C# (C# = C#,E#,G#)
Key of C Bb C D (D = D,F#,A)
Key of D C D E (E = E,G#,B)
Key of E D E F# (F# = F#,A#,C#)
Key of F Eb F G (G = G,B,D)
In each case, the middle note of the three notes that make up the '2' chord is the #4 note, which when substituted in place of the 4th note of the Major Scale results in the Lydian Scale.
'2' & 'b7' Contrasted
Just as through experience with playing songs that have 1,4,and 5 chords in them, one learns to readily distinguish the sound of the progression 1-4-1 from the sound of the progression 1-5-1, and to detect when a chord is being played that is other than the 1, the 4, or the 5, so also, through experience with playing songs that have various 'off-chords' in them, one learns to be able to just as readily distinguish which 'off-chord' is being played. For starters, I suggest observing that songs that have only the '2' as an 'off-chord' in them tend to have a very different sounding type of melody than songs that have only the 'b7' as an off-chord in them.
In the New Year, when the current beginner jam is relabeled as intermediate, I intend on introducing two more songs into the jam that use a '2' chord:
Homestead On The Farm' (a.k.a. 'I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home')
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82_0ui4taWI (Mac Wiseman - key of A),
Cry Cry Darlin'
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5ss64M_Z_E (Bill Monroe - key of A).
I will lower this one down to the key of G to make it easier for me to sing it.)
Compare and contrast the overall sound of the three songs provided here that have '2' chords in them with the overall sound of the following songs that have 'b7' chords in them instead:
Old Joe Clark
Love, Please Come Home
Old Joe Clark has been played regularly at the jam since the beginning of the year. I intend on introducing the two other songs into the jam shortly after graduating the jam to intermediate.
A final point worthwhile taking notice of is that while the 'b7' chord is more often than not sandwiched between '1' chords, just like the '4' and '5' chords most often are, the '2' chord is almost always followed immediately by the '5' chord.
The song of the week is 'Mama Don't Allow' in the key of A.
Be prepared also to play Mama Don't Allow in the key of G, since that is the key the song has most often been played in at the jam when others have sang it.
In the attachments, I have included melody sheets for the song in both A and G.
The two recorded versions of Mama Don't Allow given below are very different from each other. The first, from Flatt and Scruggs (in the key of G), is a straightforward Bluegrass studio recording arrangement of the song, featuring only three lead instruments (banjo, fiddle, and dobro), while the second, from Doc Watson (in the key of A), has more of a jam feel to it, and, in addition to featuring traditional Bluegrass instruments (mandolin, banjo, guitar, etc.) it also includes and features some instruments that are not among the first instruments that usually come to mind when one thinks of Bluegrass (drums, piano).
Flatt and Scruggs (in the key of G),
Doc Watson (in the key of A)
Use of Fill-ins in Backup Playing
While listening to the youtube links provided here, observe that the instruments not only take turns doing breaks, as determined by the lyrics, but also take turns being featured as the dominant backup instrument behind the vocals. As soon as the name of the instrument is mentioned in the first line of the verse, this is an opportunity for that instrument to play a fill-in lick during the two measures of 'dead space' that occur in the vocal between the last syllable of the first line of the verse and the first syllable of the second line of the verse. Two measure length 'dead' spaces' occur also after the last syllable of the second line and after the last syllable of the fourth line; so, in each verse there are three different spots where the appropriate instrument can announce its presence by playing a fill-in lick in anticipation of its upcoming break.
In the recorded versions, most of the fill-in licks used are not among the simpler ones to learn to play. In addition to the melody sheets for Mama Don't Allow, I have included in the attachments some easier fill-in licks for fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and banjo to help you get started with using fill-in licks in your playing if you do not already do so. The licks are intended to start at the beginning of the 3rd measure of lines 1, 2, and 4 of the verse: the A licks for lines 1 and 4 when playing in the key of A (G licks when playing in the key of G), and the E licks for line 2 when playing in the key of A (D licks when playing in the key of G).
Each lick ends at the beginning of measure 4 of the line, at which point you can simply go back to doing whatever kind of thing you were doing before you started the fillin, whether that be simple rhythm playing on the guitar or mandolin, roll backup on the banjo, or something else. On the attached chart of fill-in licks, notes in parentheses are not really part of the fill-in lick proper and may be omitted if they are inconvenient to get into from what you were doing immediately before the fill-in measure begins. For instance, if you are playing chop chords on the fiddle or mandolin right up to the point where the fill-in measure starts, you may wish to substitute a quarter note rest in place of the quarter note in parentheses that occurs at the beginning of the fill-in lick measure.
Bluegrass songs typically contain at least 2 'dead spaces' in each 16-measure-length verse and in each 16-measure-length chorus that are long enough for a fill-in lick to be used during them. Depending on whether there are pickup notes leading into the next line of the song, these 'dead spaces' will last anywhere from one measure to two measures. These are always opportunities for fill-in licks to be played by a lead instrument. On bluegrass recordings, you may notice that the lead instruments usually take turns being featured as the dominant backup instrument. This same thing occurs also at jams. Mama Don't Allow is a good song to use to start to get the hang of doing this, for the lyrics of song draw attention directly to the fact that that is what is going in the backup, and so there need never be any doubt in this song as to which lead instrument should be featured at any given time.
Singing and leading the song at the jam
The lyrics of Mama Don't Allow are among the easiest to learn of all the songs on the two songs lists provided for the Beginner Jam, and once learned, the lyrics are not easily forgotten.
However, the one thing that can sometimes be challenging about remembering the lyrics to this song is that one needs to keep track of which instruments one has mentioned in each verse so far, so as to not leave any instrument out that is represented at the jam, and so as to not over-feature any of the instruments.
It helps to keep track though if one makes it a point to call each instrument type in the order in which one first encounters each type of instrument, going clockwise around the circle starting from the person who played the intro break for the song until one runs out of other instruments to call and one finally calls the name of the instrument on which the intro break was played. This is the system that I use for calling breaks on most songs at the jam.
As traditionally played at jams, the bass player is given a break on Mama Don't Allow,whereas for most other songs this is not done. (Bass breaks for this song are not usually melody-based, so I have not included a melody sheet for bass in the attachments.)
For this song, I don't usually call the breaks as each verse is ending. The person singing the verses is calling the breaks simply by virtue of singing the name of an instrument in any given verse. The only times when I have felt a real need to call a break on this song when someone else was singing it, is when either: a) I had failed to mention before the song started that the verse 'Mama don't 'low no bluegrass music round here' (or something similar to this) is - at least in the context of how our jam operates - a way of calling a collective 'everybody' break, and it seemed doubtful to me that enough people had caught on to this in time before the collective break was about to begin; or b) it was obvious that people were not catching on to which instrument was named by the person singing.
This latter scenario occurs almost any time, for instance, when a singer abbreviates mandolin as 'mando': many people mistake this for 'banjo'. So, even though it is not as easy to squeeze a three-syllable instrument name into the verses as it is to sing a two-syllable instrument name, it is best to always sing 'mandolin' instead of 'mando' for the mandolin verse.
The chord progression for Mama Don't Allow is:
In the key of A: 1=A; 4=D; 5=E
In the key of G: 1=G; 4=C; 5=D.
This is a very useful progression to know by heart, for it is very common. (It is the one that is labelled as V2 on the Basic Chord Progressions handout.) It is the same progression that is used to play the well-known folk songs 'When The Saints Go Marching In', 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain', 'Froggy Went A Courting', and some versions of 'Red River Valley'. Three other songs that I believe are especially well worth familiarizing oneself with that also use the same progression are: 'The Crawdad Song' (a folk song adapted to Bluegrass that has tended to be popular at previous incarnations of Beginner jam in some of their phases), 'Will You Be Loving Another Man' (a classic Bluegrass song from Bill Monroe, very well-known in Bluegrass circles), the verses and breaks, but not the choruses, of 'Why Don't You Tell Me So' (a classic Bluegrass song from Flatt & Scruggs, also very well-known in Bluegrass circles).
I highly recommend making it a point to associate a particular song (or a small group of songs) with each progression on the basic chord progressions handout, that you are really familiar with whenever this is possible. Songs that you have known and, better yet, sung since childhood, and/or songs that were the first song example(s) of a particular progression that you learned to play on your instrument(s) tend to work best for this purpose.
For a progression on the chart that you do not yet have a direct useful point of reference for, you might find it helpful to think of the progression in terms of its relation to a progression that is similar to it that you are able to easily associate with a particular song or group of songs.