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.)
Jason's Beginner Jam Blog 2017 - 2018
Songs regularly called at the Beginner Bluegrass Jam and links from Jason's "Song of the Week" emails. (from Renee)
in alphabetical order