Tag Archives: old time music

Red Prairie Dawn

Since I started learning to play clawhammer banjo, YouTube has been an incredibly handy tool. When I want to learn a tune, I like to listen to different versions of it, and fortunately there is a ton of Old Time music available.  It’s hard to imagine a time when the only way to learn this music was from other local players. I suppose the exchange is that regional identity gets washed into the mix.

I learned about the late Garry Harrison at the Midwest Banjo Camp in June. Not only was he a gatherer of great Old Time music from Illinois, he also wrote some excellent tunes. I’ve been playing one of them quite a bit lately – a tune called Dull Chisel, and now I want to learn another of his tunes, Red Prairie Dawn. So tonight I checked out some performances online.

Here are Mike Witcher – Dobro and  Grant Gordy – Guitar…

And here’s a really fast version by the Foghorn Stringband…

And one more, with John Jewell and Andrew Lovejoy…


Salt Creek

Here’s your Daily Dose of Old Time music. I came across this video surfing around on YouTube tonight. It’s Spencer Branch playing Salt Creek. I love the driving clawhammer on this one.

This group shows that a trio is plenty big enough to put out a lot of sound. It really inspires me to try to put together a little old time outfit sometime down the road. I suppose the first step in that direction is to find a fiddle player. Any fiddle players out there in the Toronto area, looking for a clawhammer player? Meanwhile, I’ve been playing a lot, trying to build some chops and learn a bunch of the old time standards.



I’ve known the tune Shady Grove for a long time. It’s well known, and has been recorded a zillion times. On the banjo, this is usually played in Sawmill tuning, or “mountain modal” tuning as it is also called. Here’s a fairly typical approach to the tune (and a beautiful one too!), played by Doc Watson and the Kruger Brothers.

More recently I’ve learned about another version of Shady Grove – played in a major rather than minor scale. This version is apparenty based on a version played by the late great NC autoharp player, Kilby Snow. Here is a performance of the major scale version posted by tripharmonica on YouTube.

I’ve recently learned a similar version on clawhammer banjo. It’s a lot of fun to play.

Sunday morning story and song…

I was thinking about the old cowboy song, Diamond Joe so I searched around YouTube and found this performance by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, in which he talks about how he learned it from a cowboy at a rodeo in Brussels of all places. Jack struggles with a malfunctioning capo during this performance but nevertheless still manages to do a fine job on it. Jack Elliott has a way of squeezing all the goodness from a song.

We live in a world in which our popular music is dominated by corporations presenting young adults in their teens or twenties. They have to look the right way and dress the right way and the producers make them sound the right way to hit that mass-market demographic. One of the reasons I’m always listening to folk traditions and music that is perhaps less popular to mass audiences is that there is room for performers who don’t fit that cookie cutter, performers who aren’t so attractive, performers who are older, performers who play music that isn’t the same as most of the material you hear on the radio.

The performance I’m linking to is from 2012, back when Jack Elliott was about 80. He’s been playing music for a very very long time, mostly traveling around playing solo, telling the stories of his adventures along the way.

Here’s Diamond Joe

This tune has been around the block a few times. Here’s a bluegrass-infused version by Sam Bush.

Curiously, it isn’t the only tune called Diamond Joe. There is also an Old Time tune with the same title. Here’s Marc Nerenberg..

It’s not out of reach for a pop performer either. Bob Dylan took a stab at it in his terrible movie Masked and Anonymous…

Chinquapin Hunting

I’ve been familiar with the old time tune Chinquapin Hunting for some time, but I didn’t know what a chinquapin was until I attended Midwest Banjo Camp. I figured it was a critter in the possum family, but no, no, no. A chinquapin tree is a particular North American chestnut variety, so a chinquapin is a chestnut, and if you go chinquapin hunting, you’re in fact going chestnut picking.

I found a wonderful version of the tune on the YouTube machine, featuring Bruce Molsky on fiddle. I love the cello (!) player. This tune has great drive, even with no banjo.

When I was a kid, local chestnuts were a premium item, and not to eat. We played a game with them which involved drilling a hole into a chestnut and running a shoe-lace through it, with a knot on one end to stop the nut from coming off. I think we called the game Conkers. We would challenge one another to chestnut battles. The first thing to do was  make a little depression in the ground – the pit – and the kid doing the challenging would lay his chestnut down in the pit first. The other kid would hold the chestnut in one hand and the end of the string in the other and whack his opponent’s chestnut with his own. We would take turns whacking one another’s chestnut until one of them broke. I recall we would keep track of the number of wins a particularly hard chestnut accumulated before breaking. Some kids had special secret formulas to harden their chestnuts so they would reign as conkers champs.

Not all train songs have lyrics…

….although many recount stories of famous train wrecks and engineers and so on. I found a great version of Railroading through the Rocky Mountains – a wonderful fiddle tune –  on the YouTube machine. Here are Hopping Jenny.

Of course if you’re not into Old Time Music but you still want to take an imaginary trip through the Rocky’s, you can do it by building a model railroad…

Music from Little Egypt

I don’t know anything about Southern Illinois. I drove through it once on the way to or from somewhere else and I did it too fast and I failed to pay attention (not fair I know). Only recently I’ve learned it’s known by the nickname Little Egypt. It isn’t a place I would think to look for Old Time music, and yet I’ve recently learned there is some most excellent music to be heard from that area.

At the Midwest Banjo camp, I was introduced to a bit of this music by Cathy Barton Para. Specifically, she introduced 3 tunes – Bonaparte’s March (Pappy Taylor), Dull Chisel (Garry Harrison), and Cotton-eyed Joe Too (Dave Landreth), and pointed to some musicians to check out – the late Garry Harrison, Lynn “Chirps” Smith, the stringband they played in, the Indian Creek Delta Boys, and Dave Landreth. I’m sure there are also numerous other very interesting players from that area to learn about.

I’ve been playing a lot of clawhammer banjo (thanks Tuffy P for putting up with it!), convinced that if I work at it hard enough and long enough, I might eventually become a decent player. At the same time, I’ve been listening to loads of music, particularly on YouTube which is a fabulous resource for this kind of music – I’m like a kid in a candy store gobbling this stuff up.

I’ve started listening to a CD (a lot of this music isn’t available for download that I know of) this evening called Down in Little Egypt by Lynn “Chirps” Smith. I ordered it online and it arrived in today’s post. It features Chirps Smith on fiddle, Curtis Buckhannon on mandolin, mandola, and madocello, fred Campeau on banjo, guitar, Hawaiian guitar, banjo-uke and fiddle, Dave Landreth on banjo and guitar, Jeff Miller on banjo and Jim Nelson on guitar. I’m looking forward to getting my paws on any other recordings I can find from this area as well.

I searched around on the YouTube machine for some of these guys and sure enough there is some very good material online, including some interesting videos called Listen Up Illinois. Here’s one of those, in which Chirps Smith talks about early days with the Indian Creek Delta Boys, and how they came to find some Indiana old time music, and specifically Pappy Taylor.

There are also some videos of the Indian Creek Delta Boys online. Here they are performing a great stringband tune called Waterbound. This is from 1994…