The song of the week is 'Little Willie' in the key of A.
Although 'Little Willie' has much in common with his sister 'Little Maggie', she is much more well-known in the Bluegrass world than what he is. And, 'Little Willie', for some reason that is difficult for me to pinpoint (though I have heard some interesting ideas on this recently that might at least partly account for it) can't, and/or doesn't really want to, keep up to pace with his sister.
Here are two versions of 'Little Willie' to listen to:
Ralph Stanley - with whom the song is quite likely still most closely associated in Bluegrass circles, much as Little Maggie also tends to be (or at least once was): key of B
Note: The melody sheets attached here are based upon how Ralph Stanley sang the song on an earlier recording by the Stanley Brothers. On this recording, which was available on youtube for a brief while in the recent past, but is not currently available there, Ralph sang it in the key of A (a whole step lower than B), and this is the recording that I learned to sing the song from. (I have it only on an old grainy cassette tape.)
However, if my memory serves me right - this was many years ago - the first time I heard 'Little Willie', it was sang by Trisha Gagnon, who is (and has been for many years) the bass player for the great BC-based Bluegrass band 'John Reischman & The Jaybirds'. I knew Trisha before she even played bass, or at least before she played bass in public (I have known her for about 26 years now), and I always loved to hear her sing. When I was a 'rascally kid' - as Trisha well put it when I spoke with her on the phone last week - there was a time when for well over a year, I used to listen to her sing in person usually twice a week, not too far from where I lived (about 15 miles).
At that time, Trisha and her sister Cathy-Anne sang with one of the most aggressively-playing banjo players I have ever heard, Chris Stevens. For reasons that I couldn't explain at the time, but that I think I now have a fairly good understanding of, I found that my best banjo playing tended to occur immediately after I returned home after listening to and watching Chris closely for 2 to 3 hours; so, being the smart boy that I was, I quickly learned to grab my banjo and start playing as soon as I got in the door.
Trisha's voice still sometimes sends shivers down my spine when I listen to her sing: such a haunting sound that I think is so perfectly suited for a song like 'Little Willie'.
For The Jaybirds' version of Little Willie (key of C), with Trisha singing solo, see the attached mp3 file.
I assure you, this is really worth taking the time to listen to more than once.
For more of The Jaybirds' music, with Trisha on bass and vocals, go to:
I placed 'Little Willie' on the 'Songs of the Week for the first half of 2017' list for three reasons:
1. I was (and am) hoping that the song will appeal not only to lead singers at the jam in general (whether male or female) as a song that they would like to learn to lead at the jam, but especially to any female singers we may have at the jam who, for whatever reason, do not feel comfortable singing lead on songs that they consider to be 'men's songs': i.e., songs in which one sings from the first person perspective of a man. (And, many popular Bluegrass jam standards fall into this category.) In 'Little Willie', the first 3 verses are sung in the person of a woman.
2. Lyrical content aside, Little Willie is essentially a slower-tempo Little Maggie. (Little Maggie is a popular Bluegrass jam standard.) So, we can use it at the jam to work towards one of the goals appropriate for the present state of our jam (that has been expressed from time to time, including last night, by people at the jam): namely: to be able to play faster as a group. (This is no easy task when we are such a large group: the length of the physical distance alone between one end of the jam circle and the opposite end of the circle, no matter how close we try to scrunch together, puts us at a disadvantage for this.) Each time that 'Little Willie' is played at the jam, we can kick it off a bit faster, until we get to the point where the speed is no longer appropriate for Little Willie. At that point, we can switch to playing 'Little Maggie', and then keep on trying to gradually push Little Maggie faster and faster each time it gets played at the jam
Little Willie shares either the same, or a very similar, chord progression with Little Maggie (11b7b71511), depending on which version of Little Maggie one has in mind. The two melodies are close enough to each other that any melody-based break that one plays for Little Maggie would not be out of place to play as a break for Little Willie. Though, one might consider altering the first measure (together with any pickups leading into it) of one's Little Maggie break when using it for Little Willie (and perhaps also one's 9th measure), especially for one's intro break, in order for it to be clear which song your break is intended for. (The first long-held melody note in the first and third lines of the verses of Little Willie is a perfect 5th higher than the corresponding melody note in Little Maggie.)
3. To get the group more accustomed to the b7 chord. Despite the general familiarity of the group with the Nashville Number System, and the Nashville Number System charts that I make readily available each week at the jam, there still seems to be a bit of confusion sometimes when I call out 'b7' either in going over the progression for a song before we play it, or during the song when I am hearing wrong chords, and/or seeing wrong chord shapes.
Note: When I am playing guitar, my F shape chords look so similar to my C shape chords that, in order to distinguish them from each other, you may find it easier to rely on your ear to hear the difference between when I am playing a b7 chord instead of a 4 chord for the keys of G, A, Bb, B, and C, than to rely on what you (may think you) are seeing on my guitar. The b7 chord sounds distinctively different than the 4 chord (even if not as different as what the b7 sounds like relative to the 1 and the 5). To help familiarize yourself with the specific sound of the b7 chord, you may find it helpful to listen on youtube (or on any records, tapes, CDs, etc.) in your collection, songs that feature this chord in one or more of their parts back to back with songs that have only the 1,4 and 5 chords in them. Besides 'Little Willie' and 'Little Maggie', songs that have been played at least once at our jam in the recent past that use the b7 chord include: Old Joe Clark (B-Part only, and has no 4 chord in either of its parts), Red Haired Boy (in both parts; both parts also have the 4 chord), Cluck Old Hen (in both parts; also has the 4 chord in the A-Part according to how we played it at the intermediate jam), Over The Waterfall (second to last measure of the A-Part; the last measure of the A-Part uses the 4 chord), Rider (also has a b3 chord in it, which makes it not the best example to listen to first, since the b3 can be all too easily mistaken for the b7 until one becomes familiar with enough examples of songs that use these chords.)
Make it a point to remember the following rule:
The b7 chord is always one whole step (= two half steps) lower than the 1 chord.
If you know the 7 letter circular musical alphabet, and know that there is a note between every natural note except between B and C and between E and F, and know what is meant by a whole step (or by two half steps) and what is meant by flat (b) and sharp (#) and natural, then you have all the information you need to know in order to very quickly calculate what the b7 chord is for every key (albeit perhaps not the all the information you need in order to ensure that you are always naming it correctly: e.g., G# - incorrectly named - in place of Ab - correctly named - for the key of Bb, even though G# and Ab are one and the same note/chord).
Although we only use 8 of the 12 Major keys at our jam, here is the b7 chord for all 12 Major keys:
G: b7 = F
Ab: b7 = Gb
A: b7 = G
Bb: b7 = Ab
B: b7 = A
C: b7 = Bb
C#: b7 = B (or Db: b7 = Cb)
D: b7 = C
Eb: b7 = Db
E: b7 = D
F: b7 = Eb
F#: b7 = E (or Gb: b7 = Fb)
Banjo and guitar players who regularly make use of a capo should at the very least memorize the letter name of the b7 chord for the keys of G, C, and D.
Guitar players whose guitars are set up to be capable of the level of volume needed in order to stand a chance of cutting through at a large Bluegrass jam
(medium or heavy gauge strings and high action) will find it helpful to remember that the b7 chord in the key of C is Bb, so that when they know that the song about to be played at the jam has a b7 chord in it, and is going to be played in the key of C, or D, or E, or F, they can choose a option that will not require them to play a Bb chord-shape: for this chord-shape is physically difficult to form and to make sound right on a guitar with high action and medium to heavy gauge strings.
For the sake of comparison and contrast with 'Little Willie', take a listen to the following:
Little Maggie: Ralph Stanley:
and yet faster:
Little Maggie: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
In a previous recent song of the week email ('I Can't Feel At Home In This World Anymore'), I discussed the '2' chord at length - if you would like that email to be sent again to you, just ask me and I will resend it to you - but there is something more that I would like to add to that, and it concerns the use of dominant 7th chords in place of major chords.
Just as one may substitute a dominant 7th chord (usually called just simply a 7th chord) in place of a major chord for a '5' chord (e.g., D7 in place of D when playing in the key of G), so the same is also true for '2' chords (e.g., B7 in place of B when playing in the key of A)
Notice on the Mac Wiseman live performance included here, Mac is playing a B7 instead of a B: and this is common practice for bluegrass rhythm guitar when a B chord shows up when playing in any key without a capo in which the B chord functions as a '5' chord (key of E), a '6' chord (key of D), a '3' chord (key of G), or, in this case, as a '2' chord (key of A).
However, B7 in place of B would not work well if the B chord were functioning as the '1' chord (key of B), except when used as a transitional chord to lead from the '1' to the '4' (in the key of B, one might for instance play the first half of the I'll Fly Away progression as: BBBB7EEBB), and would not always work well for the '4' chord either (key of F#), and would almost never work for the b7 chord (key of C#). Most bluegrass rhythm guitar players need not concern themselves with this since most of them would never consider playing in any of these keys without a capo, and the two latter keys are not among the 8 Major keys that bluegrass songs are commonly played in at jams. But, it is good for all to be aware - regardless of which instruments they play - that there are only certain chords for which it is 'safe' to habitually substitute dominant 7ths in place of a majors.
When playing in the key of G in standard G tuning, banjo players may often automatically play a dominant 7th in place of a major for the 2 chord (in the key of G, an A7 chord in place of an A chord) without being consciously aware that they are doing so, for the 5th string - the short string - on the banjo is tuned - when in G tuning and when not capoed - to a G note (banjo players rarely ever fret this string), and this is the very note that when added to an A chord makes it into an A7 chord. (This same A7 chord will also often show up in place of an A for the '6' chord when banjo players are playing in C without a capo.)
To make any major chord a dominant 7th chord, all that one does is add to the chord the note that is a whole step lower than the note that has the same letter name as the chord: this is the b7 note/scale degree on the Nashville Number System Chart handout.
I think it sounds best if only some of the players at any given time, rather than all at the same time, in a band, or at a jam, use the dominant 7th in place of the major when playing over '2', '3' and '6' chords. On '5' chords, I like to hear the dominant 7th used even more sparingly.