The song of the week is 'Cluck Old Hen' in the key of A.
Cluck Old Hen is an old-time tune that has made its way into some Bluegrass circles. Although there are lyrics for Cluck Old Hen, it will be played as an instrumental when I call it at the jam as the song of the week.
Here are three recordings of the song to take a listen to. The first one has a bit of singing in it, while in the second and third ones, Cluck Old Hen is played entirely as an instrumental. The first two versions preserve more traces of the old-time roots of the song than what the third version does. I recommend listening to at least one of the first two versions given here before taking a listen to Ralph Stanley's version, since it is easier to discern the basic underlying melody of the tune from the first two versions.
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby - key of A
Fletcher Bright & Bill Evans - key of A
Ralph Stanley - key of A
Form & Progression
Like Shortnin' Bread and Cripple Creek, Cluck Old Hen follows the form AABB (i.e., there are two parts, each of which is repeated before the next part is played), with each A Part and each B Part being 4 measures long.
To keep it simple for now, the chord progression we'll use at the jam for the next two weeks for Cluck Old Hen is the same as that for Shortnin' Bread and for the B Part of Cripple Creek:
1 1 1 5/1
(played 4x for each complete round through the AABB form)
In the key of A: 1 = A; 5 = E. In the key of G: 1 = G; 5 = D.
In the future, we may explore adding more chord changes into the song.
1 1/4 1 5/1
1 1/b7 1 5/1
In the key of A: 4 = D; b7 = G. In the key of G: 4 = C; b7 = F.
Melody & Breaks
While the chord progression for Cluck Old Hen uses only major chords, the melody is not major, but minor.
There are 7 melody notes in the version of the melody given in the attachments for Cluck Old Hen. In ascending order of pitch, these are: G, A, C, D, E, G, A.
A,C,D,E,G are the notes that make up the A Minor Pentatonic Scale. (By contrast, the A Major Pentatonic Scale consists of the notes: A,B,C#,E,F#). Even if one is not playing the melody per se in one's break, sticking to the notes of the A minor pentatonic scale, and playing no other notes in one's break will make the break sound like it 'belongs' in the tune.
For those with instruments usually capoed to the second fret for playing in the key of A (guitar, banjo, dobro), you will need to lower each note in the preceding explanation by a whole step in order for the information to correspond with what you see on the melody sheets in the attachments written in guitar and banjo tab.
So, for instance, in place of "A,C,D,E,G are the notes that make up the A Minor Pentatonic Scale. (By contrast. the A Major Pentatonic Scale consists of the notes: A,B,C#,E,F#)", think: "G,Bb,C,D,F are the notes that make up the G Minor Pentatonic Scale. (By contrast, the G Major Pentatonic Scale consists of the notes: G,A,B,D,E).
This does not mean that one should never include notes from the A Major Scale that are not in the A Minor Pentatonic in one's breaks for Cluck Old Hen (Ralph Stanley, for instance, includes several C# notes and a few F# notes in his breaks on the recording given here), but only that one needs to be careful about using those notes.
It is common in Bluegrass for breaks to contain notes from both the Major Scale and the Minor Pentatonic Scale, even when the melody of the song is either entirely major or entirely minor, so long as the chord progression is major (i.e., the progression uses 1 chords rather than 1m chords).
On the other hand, if you are playing 'Cluck Old Hen' in the context of an Old-time jam you may find that you have less freedom to make use of notes outside the Minor Pentatonic Scale than what you do when playing the tune in the context of a Bluegrass jam.
In connection with this, one may observe that, for playing Cluck Old Hen, most Old-time (clawhammer) banjo players tune their 2nd string up a half step from where it would normally be tuned when in G tuning (capo 2 for A) precisely to avoid the resonance of the distinctively major scale note that is on the open 2nd string when in G tuning, whereas Bluegrass banjo players (at least when playing in a Bluegrass context) tend not to do this. If tuned this way (G modal tuning: GDGCD capo 2 for A = AEADE), then, in reading the banjo tab melody sheet in the attachments, just simply substitute 0's in place of the 1's that are written on the line representing the 2nd string.
Although the melody of Cluck Old Hen consists only of the notes of the Am pentatonic scale, it is called at jams in A (Major) rather than A Minor 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 Cluck Old Hen 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 standard notation melody sheet for Cluck Old Hen, 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 chord progression for Shady Grove is:
Here is an excellent recording of Shady Grove to take a listen to:
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
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