The song of the week is 'Little Cabin Home On The Hill' in the key of A.
Here is the original recording of Little Cabin Home On The Hill, as performed by the first bluegrass band: Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys:
Bill Monroe - key of A
Pay close attention to the tempo and feel of this original version of the song, and for harmony singers, also the phrasing of the lyrics on the chorus, since this is the version that I model my way of playing and singing the song after when I lead it at jams.
Here is a live version of Little Cabin Home On The Hill performed by Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt several years after they originally recorded the song together:
Here is a live version of the song from the Osborne Brothers in which Bobby Osborne sings the same tenor part that Bill Monroe sang on the old classic recording of the song, and all but drowns out the other parts, which makes it a good source to learn the harmony part from, but not for learning the lead part from.
Osborne Brothers: key of B
Bill Monroe had been recording since 1936, first with his older brother Charlie, under the name 'The Monroe Brothers', and then, from 1940 onward, with his own band 'The Bluegrass Boys', but it wasn't until 1945 that all the essential components that would eventually make it possible to classify Bill Monroe's music as belonging to a genre (now known as Bluegrass) distinct from any other genre of music that preceded it, all came together in his band.
So, within the context of this perspective on the origin of bluegrass, a perspective that is shared by many scholars and fans of bluegrass music, the first bluegrass band was Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in its 1945 - 1948 line-up, consisting of Bill Monroe (Sept. 13, 1911 - Sept. 9, 1996) on mandolin, and tenor harmony (and sometimes solo lead vocal), Lester Flatt (June 19, 1914 - May 11, 1979) on rhythm guitar and lead vocal, Earl Scruggs (Jan. 6, 1924 - Mar. 28, 2012) on 5-string banjo, Chubby Wise (Oct. 2, 1915 - Jan. 6, 1996) on fiddle, and Howard Watts, a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater (Feb. 19, 1913 - Jan. 21, 1970) on upright bass. And the first bluegrass recordings were the 28 songs recorded in 1946 and 1947 by this line-up of The Bluegrass Boys.
These first bluegrass recordings remain to this day an indispensable point of reference for defining the bluegrass genre as a whole. This is true even though not every component that we now take for granted as being a characteristic part of bluegrass music is represented on these records. There are no guitar breaks on these records. There is also no dobro in the band. None of the Gospel songs on these records are sung acappella. All the various ways of stacking three-part harmonies which are now commonplace in bluegrass are not accounted for. These were all later developments in bluegrass music. There are no flashy instrumental banjo-feature tunes. Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Ralph Stanley hadn't composed these yet, (or at least, had not yet recorded them.)
Many of the songs on the first bluegrass recordings feature two-part harmony on the choruses, with Lester singing lead, and Bill singing the tenor harmony part which is higher than the lead part. These are good records to learn bluegrass harmony from, for Bill's voice is easy to distinguish from Lester's and is usually at a high volume in the mix. Be careful, though, when trying to learn the lead part from the records, for Bill's harmony part could be mistaken for the melody at certain points simply because it is so dominant.
If Bill's harmony parts are too high pitched for your vocal range (and this will be the case for many men; many women, on the other hand, will find that Bill sings in a range that is close to their own vocal range) to duplicate while singing along with the records, trying singing the same notes an octave lower. The resulting harmony part is known as the 'low tenor', and is lower than a baritone harmony: that is, it is two parts lower than the lead part.
In the attachments, in addition to the melody sheets for the verse which I provide primarily for the sake of giving people a good starting point for coming up with melody-based breaks for the song, I have also included a sheet that shows the melody and the tenor harmony for the chorus. For each pair of notes, the lower of the two is the melody note, and the higher of the two is the tenor harmony note.
The chord progression for the verses and breaks is:
(V6 on the basic progressions chart)
The progression for the chorus is:
(X6 on the basic progressions chart)
This a common combination of chord progressions in bluegrass songs.
More Classic Recordings
Now back to more 1946 - 1947 classic bluegrass records from the original bluegrass band. These are all well worth listening to closely:
Heavy Traffic Ahead
This was the first song recorded by the original bluegrass band. It is solo vocal number, with a swing feel to it, written and sung by Bill Monroe. It starts with each instrument in the band other than the bass taking a turn playing a. now quite typical and cliche, 1-measure bluegrass fillin-lick.
I'm Goin' Back To Old Kentucky
This song conforms perfectly to what has become one of the most standard types of arrangements for bluegrass songs when played at jams: full-length intro break, chorus, break (on a different instrument than the one that played the intro break), verse, chorus, break, verse, chorus, break, verse, chorus, break, chorus, with a solo vocal on the verses and harmony on the choruses.
This is mandolin-feature break-neck speed bluegrass instrumental composed by Bill Monroe. It is the first of its type, and it blew audiences away when they first heard it. It is also the immediate precursor of Earl Scruggs' famous banjo-feature tune 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown'.
Wicked Path Of Sin
This is a Gospel song that features 4-part harmony with sparse instrumental accompaniment (mandolin and guitar), and only short 'turnaround' breaks on the mandolin. This type of arrangement has been used on countless bluegrass recordings of Gospel songs.
Mother's Only Sleeping
This is a good example of the type of fast 3/4 (or 6/4) time song that The Stanley Brothers would shortly thereafter become especially known for.
Blue Moon Of Kentucky
A slower 3/4 time song that, under the influence of Elvis, Bill Monroe would later record again with a cut time (2/2) section coming after a 3/4 time section.
It's Mighty Dark To Travel
Along the same lines as 'I'm Goin' Back To Old Kentucky'.
Will You Be Loving Another Man
Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong
A moderately slow song with a distinctive feel to it that has been popular at some times at the various incarnations of the Pioneer Building beginner and intermediate jams.
My Rose Of Old Kentucky
Molly And Tenbroooks
A trad. song that Monroe liked to use as a banjo-feature song.
The Old Cross Road
A Gospel song with bluesy/mountain minor note choices.
Blue Yodel No. 4
A solo vocal Jimmie Rodgers yodeling song that has a similar feel to an earlier Bill Monroe song, 'Rocky Road Blues' which is played often at our jam.
When You Are Lonely
The 12 remaining songs recorded by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in 1946 and 1947 are:
Why Did You Wander
Summertime Is Past And Gone
Mansions For Me
How Will I Explain About You
I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling
That Home Above
Remember The Cross
Little Community Church
Along About Daybreak
Shine Hallelujah Shine
I'm Travellin' On And On
Most of these 28 songs are Bill Monroe and/or Lester Flatt originals written with this line up of The Bluegrass Boys in mind, rather than traditional songs that pre-date this first bluegrass band.
If you wish to listen to more recent bluegrass recordings of many of these 28 songs, mixed in with many other slightly later bluegrass classics, in arrangements that sometimes include some of the additional bluegrass components that are absent on the original recordings (e.g., guitar and dobro breaks), an excellent place to start is with 'The Bluegrass Album Band' (a.k.a., California Connection) records, and with 'Ricky Skaggs', esp. with his band 'Kentucky Thunder'.
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