The song of the week is 'Banks Of The Ohio' in the key of G.
While there are many murder ballads, and other types of songs involving murders, in bluegrass, country, and old-time music, I place 'Banks Of The Ohio' in what I consider to be a special category of murder ballads that also includes, among others, 'Down In A Willow Garden' (played at the last two intermediate jams), 'Pretty Polly', 'Poor Ellen Smith', 'Omie Wise', and 'Knoxville Girl'.
All these songs are either about real murders - in some cases murders that were committed more than 200 years ago - or, failing that, are put together in a way that make them sound as if they were. At least 2 of the 3 following elements are present in all these songs: they dwell on 1) the details of the murder; 2) the preparations made for the murder (or sometimes, more generally, just the premeditated aspect of the murder); 3) the consequences that follow for the murderer.
Most examples of this type of song are sung, at least in part, in the first-person, from the perspective of the murderer. 'Banks Of The Ohio' is entirely in the first person. However, it does not follow from that, that since the song is about a man killing a woman, that it would be odd for a woman to sing the song. Just as one need not be a murderer to sing Banks Of The Ohio, so for precisely the same reasons, one need not be a man to sing the song. 'Knoxville Girl' is also sung entirely in the first person from the perspective of a man who murders a woman, and the same is true of 'Poor Ellen Smith', except for a verse or two here and there narrated in the third person, yet I know that over the last 25 years or so, I have heard women more often than men sing these songs at jams. Some of the first-person verses of 'Pretty Polly' are sung in the person of Willie, while other first person verses in the song are sung in the person of Polly, yet it doesn't take two people to sing the song: most versions of the song are sung solo. (While all the songs I listed are about a man killing a woman, there are, of course, traditional murder ballads in which a woman kills a man: e.g., Willie Duncan, a.k.a., Cruel Willie.)
None of the songs listed here were written by the pioneers of bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Carter and Ralph Stanley, etc.). These are pre-bluegrass songs that were part of the traditional music culture that the pioneers of bluegrass grew up with (one time, when asked about the music he remembered from his childhood, Ralph Stanley mentioned 'Pretty Polly' and 'Omie Wise' as songs that his dad sang). Ralph Stanley introduced 'Pretty Polly' into the bluegrass repertoire, and Bill Monroe introduced our song of the week 'Banks Of The Ohio' into the bluegrass repertoire. Both these songs have become bluegrass standards.
The chord progression for 'Banks Of The Ohio' is V9 on the basic chord progressions handout, which is also used to play 'Love Me Darling Just Tonight', 'Ninety-Nine Years And One Dark Day', 'Take This Hammer', 'Wild Mountain Flowers For Mary', 'Give Me My Flowers While I'm Living', and the chorus of 'In The Sweet By And By':
There are only 8 important melody notes in Banks Of The Ohio: the first note of each odd numbered measure. See how many of these you can catch by ear by listening to the song before looking at the attached melody sheets. All the other melody notes in the song are connector notes: they function to create smooth transitions from one of the 8 main melody notes to the next main melody note. It makes little difference whether one uses transitional notes that ascend into the next main melody note or transitional notes that descend into the next main melody note. Even singers differ among themselves on which set of transitional notes to use to get from one main melody note to the next in this song, so even more so for the instruments, there is a lot of leeway for choosing transitional notes without this resulting in making the song unrecognizable. For instance, in place of the B A G notes in measure 2 that lead to the A note in measure 3, you could use G F# G instead. And, in place of the G A B notes in measure 10 that lead to the C note in measure 11, you could use D E D instead.
Here are a couple of links to listen to:
Tony Rice (key of F)
Notice that the intro break on the mandolin grabs notes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 of the 8 main melody notes, but overshoots main melody note 5 (measure 9) going temporarily into the tenor harmony, and also overshoots main melody note 7 (measure 13) in the process of using a non-melody based 1511 break ending lick that would work for any number of songs played in the key of F (and, for any other key, if one transposes the notes) that have a progression that ends with 1511 Are you able to tell which of the main melody notes are preserved and not preserved in the other 3 breaks on the recording?
In the future, I may sing 'Banks Of The Ohio' in F instead of G. You might find it to be a good exercise to come up with, or learn, a break in F for this song, and then try to transpose it up to G, or vice versa. Or, since the song will be played in G while it goes through the 'song of the week' cycle, you might find it helpful to tune your instrument down a whole step to play along with the recording (playing in F, but using the same fingerings you would normally use for playing in G) to be influenced more by what you are hearing on the recording while still playing with the sets of fingerings that you will have immediate use for, or put the recording through a software program like the Amazing Slowdowner to change the key of the recording from F to G.
Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, and Alison Krauss (key of E)
I like to play this song around the same tempo as on the second link, but with the very pronounced 'swing' or 'bouncy' feel that is on the first link. This 'feel' is created by delaying playing the second of two consecutive eighth notes, whenever the first of the two eighth notes occurs in one of the 4 strongest spots in a measure (but not delaying the note that comes after it that is in a strong spot in the measure). On the recording, this is particularly noticeable on the banjo, since quite often the banjo is playing a steady stream of eighth notes. In cut time, a measure consisting of 8 eighth notes is counted as: 1e&a2e&a. The 4 strongest spots are the '1', the '2' and the 'ands'. (boom-chuck-boom-chuck) To create this 'bounce', the notes occurring in these spots are held about twice as long as the notes occurring in the 4 weaker spots. The resulting pattern of note durations is thus: long-short-long-short-long-short-long-short. On rhythm guitar, this means that any upstrokes that are played (between the 'boom' and the 'chuck' or vice versa) will be delayed.
On most bluegrass recordings, this 'bounce' is ever-present to one degree or another; but on some songs, and as played by certain players, it is more pronounced, (or is just simply more readily noticeable,) than usual. Because playing with 'bounce' is so universal in bluegrass music, one can learn to play with bounce without even realizing that one is doing this.