Fiddlin’ on Friday – Mississippi Sawyer

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The internet is a truly wonderful place if you want to learn a tune on the fiddle, jam with others, jam in the comfort of your own home, or get advice on improving your technique.

Over at The Fiddle Hangout there’s a new monthly thread called the Virtual Fiddle Festival where everyone agrees to practice the same tune and post a video or audio file to the site. The tune for March is Mississippi Sawyer. Sheet music can be found at Kitchenmusician.net as well as any Old-Time fiddle book and in the thread linked above.

Here it is as performed by Monmouth, Oregon fiddler Truman Price

The melody is believed to have come from the bloody days of the French Revolution, and was later transported to England where it became known as “Downfall of Paris,” and later still to the US where we know it as “Mississippi Sawyer” reflecting its new geography.

From the Ceolas site:

Ford (1940) relates: “This tune seems to have a strong appeal among old-time fiddlers. The writer has heard it at old fiddlers’ concerts from coast to coast. When played by a fiddler who loses himself in the swing of its rhythm, his listeners may hear the faint tinkle of anvils, the clinking of horseshoes, and the wetting of sickles and scythes and cradles. It is lively and exciting, yet soothing. The authorship is credited to an early sawmill owner, who set up his mill somewhere near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The first enterprise of its kind so far West, it created widespread interest among a people whose only means of producing building materials had been the ax, maul, wedge and rive, and the broad ax and adz. Always referred to as ‘The Mississippi Sawyer,’ the millwright became a noted character and people congregated daily at his mill from miles around. It was a tradition among a later generation that the celebration following the test run of the mill was the occasion for a picnic that lasted for days. The picnickers came in covered wagons, well supplied with good things to eat, and pitched camp in the woods near the mill. All hands took part in handling the logs and lumber as the work got under way, and tables and a dance platform were speedily built of the first boards from the saw. After the day’s work an open-air banquet was served by the woman, and when it was learned that the sawyer was also a fiddler he was immediately chosen by acclimation to play the opening tune of the dance. Thus came into being ‘The Mississippi Sawyer’, one of the rare old tunes of American fiddle lore.”

The interwebs deny that the song has any lyrics, but there’s a song of the same name that looks right by Dave Tweedie if you like to have words for your tunes.

So come on over to the Fiddle Hangout and upload your version of Mississippi Sawyer. There are already many video and sound files posted by FH members and rumor has it that Lora from Red Desert Fiddle has plans to submit an entry into the virtual fiddle festival…

Fiddlin’ on Friday – Golden Slippers

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This week’s tune is called Oh, Dem Golden Slippers, an American folk song written by James A. Bland in 1879, some say as a parody of the spiritual Golden Slippers made popular by The Fisk University Jubilee Singers after the civil war. Here’s the original –

Doesn’t sound much like a fiddle tune, does it? Bland composed new lyrics and his version became more popular than the original and is now known as Golden Slippers at any old-time or bluegrass jam. Here it’s played bluegrass style, with each instrument playing the lead, or “taking a break” in turn –

And here it is with Bland’s lyrics –

Bland’s original sheet music can be found at the Library of Congress website, along with a huge collection of American music – do browse the archives!

Golden Slippers also happens to be the first song of Red Desert Fiddle’s Fabulous Fiddle Fundamentals lesson course. Lora teaches many ways to embellish this song as well as ways to play backup and ideas about improvising and change ups. It’s a lot to digest for a first fiddle lesson, and this tune won’t be played at a fiddle contest by me, but I’ve decided to make a little video just to prove that I do indeed scrape away on a fiddle on occasion. As played (imperfectly) on the Six Foot Fiddle

And again (imperfectly) on Brandon’s Amati copy

Which fiddle sounds better on your speakers?

Fiddlers Whenever

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I missed last week’s Fiddlers on Friday due to circumstances beyond my control, so today we’ll catch up with one of my favorite songs played by one of my favorite groups, Bellowhead. The tune is called New York Girls and, like so very  many folk songs, its origins are rather obscure. Here’s Bellowhead’s version –

Jon Boden sings lead vocals and has completed his project A Folk Song a Day where he posted a traditional folk song every day for a year with the recordings available in 12 albums as well as on his website. Great stuff!There are many versions of the lyrics for New York Girls and several sources for the tune’s origins, but I could find only one version of the music –

Here’s a link to a Mudcat.org discussion about the origins of the song that is very interesting. The Mudcat Cafe is a huge resource for traditional tune origins and lots of discussion that everyone should visit. Rag Fair is another song in a related vein – those sailor’s just couldn’t seem to learn 🙂

Yet another tune on my To-Learn list!

Fiddlin’ on Friday – The Happy Farmer

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Last week we took a look at a Traditional fiddle tune called Red Wing and asked who wrote the “original” music that inspired Red Wing, Union Maid and others.

Robert Schumann, a pianist and composer of the Romantic period, wrote The Happy Farmer as part of his Album for the Young (OP 68) in 1848 for his three daughters. The album consists of 43 simple tunes designed for children and beginners to learn the piano. It has since appeared in countless films and been transposed and adapted for many instruments, including Suzuki’s version for his Book 1 violin course


Tell me that isn’t the cutest thing you’ve seen today! Here’s the original piano sheet music –

And Suzuki’s adaptation for violin –

At first glance, they don’t look much like the sheet music for Red Wing. Have a look at this twin fiddle performance and listen for bits of Red Wing and The Happy Farmer passed back and forth –

The faster tempo and addition of grace notes are the main differences in the two tunes – the melody stays pretty much the same.

What do you think about classical pieces being “adapted” for fiddle? Yea or Nay?

Fiddlin’ on Friday – Red Wing

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Red Wing is another popular Traditional fiddle tune that beginning fiddlers (and banjo, guitar and mandolin players) learn and often the first tune they “jam” to, as it’s well-known at musical gatherings and most everyone who attends jam sessions has learned a version, or two, or more.

The tune was written in 1907 by Kerrie Mills with lyrics by Thurland Chattaway and became a hit in an America that was crazy about all things “Indian.” It tells the story of Red Wing, an Indian maiden whose love is killed on a far-off battlefield. Red Wing has since been performed by many musicians and was even sung by John Wayne and Lee Marvin in the 1961 film The Comancheros. Here’s one version –

Just to add some confusion, like most fiddle tunes, the melody of Red Wing was used by Woody Guthrie in 1940 to create a new tune called Union Maid, a pro-union song written from the female perspective. The lyrics were later changed to reflect the times and the increased number of women in unions. Here’s one of my favorite versions of the song, performed by Old Crow Medicine Show

Over at Fiddlerman.com there’s a project underway that will combine video footage (or audio only if you wish to remain anonymous) from people all over the world playing their version of Red Wing, Jam Style, which Fiddlerman will combine in the same manner as the Christmas project –

The only constraint is that everyone will be playing at the same tempo using a click track provided by Fiddlerman. Fiddlers of all ages and abilities will be involved and it will be a blast! Sheet music is posted at the Red Wing link above if you would like to join in.

Who can tell me who wrote the original tune that inspired Red Wing, Union Maid and others? The answer next week…

Fiddlin’ on Friday – Boil Them Cabbage Down*

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Many beginning violinists learn Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star as a first tune. Beginning fiddlers often learn Boil Them Cabbage Down. Also known as Bile em Cabbage Down, this tune is well known and defies dating. There are many versions of the lyrics and many recordings will turn up in a Google search.

Like most every fiddle tune, there are approximately 723 versions of Bile dem Cabbage. One version of the sheet music can be found at Fiddle Studio, which also has many other easy tunes to learn. If you prefer TAB, FiddleGuru has you covered. Note: even though both versions contain only the melody and are written for beginners, they are slightly different.

Although there are many other verses, perhaps Woodie Guthrie’s lyrics are the most well known –

Went up on the mountain                                             
Just to give my horn a blow
Thought I heard my true love say
Yonder comes my beau

[Chorus:]
Bile them Cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round
The only song that I can sing
Is bile them cabbage down


Took my gal to the blacksmith shop
To have her mouth made small
She turned around a time or two
And swallowd shop and all

[Chorus]

Possum in a Simmon tree
Raccoon on the ground
Raccoon says you son-of-a-gun
Shake some Simmon’s down

[Chorus]

Someone stole my old ‘coon dog
Wish they’d bring him back
He chased the big hogs through the fence
And the little ones through the crack

[Chorus]

Met a possum in the road
Blind as he could be
Jumped the fence and whipped my dog
And bristled up at me

[Chorus]

Once I had an old gray mule
His name was Simon Slick
He’d roll his eyes and back his ears
And how that mule would kick

[Chorus]

How that mule would kick
He kicked with his dying breath
He shoved his hind feet down his throat
And kicked himself to death

[Chorus]

So, where do you start if you want to learn this tune? Lora at Red Desert Fiddle has posted a three part tutorial (and other great fiddle tips and tunes) on her YouTube channel. Here’s Part One –
Do check out Lora’s other tutorials and fiddle course at Red Desert Fiddle – I took her Fabulous Fundamentals course at Red Desert Violin and couldn’t be happier with my progress.

Here’s a classic version that you may  have watched on some lazy Summer afternoon –

And here’s another version –

Is it even the same tune? Listen carefully and you’ll hear the melody line way down there…

Fiddlers are encouraged to improvise a tune and “make it theirs” which sure adds to the difficulty of learning a tune for a beginner when it’s played differently by everyone you meet – there are variations by region, time period and player as well as those that are specifically “geared up” for fiddle competitions. Gaaahhhh!

How do you learn fiddle tunes – by ear or by sheet music or TAB?

* Yes, it is Sunday. Whatever.

Fiddlers on Friday – Apocalyptica

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Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a small mill town in Oregon, there lived an angry teenager who developed a love for Heavy Metal music. It was the 80’s, MTV was the latest craze (remember when they played music videos all day and all night?) and head-bangers with long hair and tight pants ruled the airwaves. Try as she might, she just couldn’t learn to like Metallica and her Heavy Metal Education was fated to be incomplete.

And then one day she picked up the fiddle. A whole new world spread before her as late night YouTube explorations led down some very interesting roads. Crossover Classical. Classical Classical 🙂 Old Time string band. Fado. Ukuleles. Guitar. And most recently cello. Not just any cello music, but Metallica covers played by classically trained musicians. You have to see it to believe it –

Apocalyptica was formed by four students of the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki in 1993 as a creative outlet and soon led to an album of Metallica covers. Six albums later, their sound and line-up has changed the group has matured and they have a huge worldwide following. Even if you don’t care for heavy metal, you have to appreciate musicians who can make thrash metal sound so lovely.

Do you have a favorite instrumental “cover” group? Please share in the comments…