Episode 2: Old Joe Clark
In the inaugural episode (S1:E1 for those counting) of the Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series (CCRS for the acronymically obsessed) we tackled the quintessential D tune, Soldier’s Joy. This week, we’ll be venturing to the key of A for another old-time chesnut, Old Joe Clark.
And we’ll be following the same procedure as we did last month – first we break it down, then we build it back.
This stirring tribute to everyone’s favorite rabble-rousing, moonshining mountain man first entered the canon of folk fiddle tunes somewhere in the mid to late 19th Century, and to this day remains a stalwart in pretty much any folk music setting from old-time to bluegrass to folk music sing-a-longs.
Though originally a fiddle tune, over the years folks have added verses celebrating the exploits of Mr. Clark. So, it’s not uncommon to hear people singing on this one. Since singing always enhances the tune-learning process, I encourage you to learn some words yourself. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Step 1: Know Thy Melody
First, let’s get a firm handle on the melody by listening to a few version courtesy of our friends at the fiddle hangout. Remember, the goal here is to find Old Joe Clark’s basic essence:
Listen to these enough times that you can easily hum the skeleton of the melody to yourself. Now, lucky for you, Old Joe Clark has words you can sing. So, not only can you hum the basic melody, you can sing it, too. And I encourage you to do so. It should sound something like this (note that I’m singing it here in the key of G. Singing it in A has been out of the question since puberty):
Now, before I go any further, I’m gonna clear up a piece of confusion and controversy that sometimes arises when musicians of various stripes congregate to pick this tune together. It all comes down to the 4th measure of the B part of the tune.
In bluegrass circles, the first note of this measure is almost always a G, and it’s harmonized with a G chord. This sounds a bit dissonant and newfangled. Since we’re more interested in sounding oldfangled, we’re gonna play it the other way, which is for the first note of the measure to be an E, harmonized with an E chord. This is how I sang it above, and seems to be the general consensus of how to play it in old-time jam circles.
You can actually hear for yourself the two different ways of playing it in the fiddle versions we listened to earlier. For extra credit, see if you can pick out which does which.
Step 2: Find the Melody Notes
Now let’s find those basic melody notes on the banjo. Since Old Joe Clark is an A tune, let’s put our banjos in aEAC#E tuning (or gDGBD with a capo on the 2nd fret and the 5th string tuned up to an A). The result should sound something like this:
And here’s what that looks like in tablature:
Step 3: Add some clawhammery stuff
Now let’s make it old-timey. Once again, we’ll start with a very simple way of turning this into a clawhammer arrangement. All you have to do next is play the melody notes that occur on the downbeat (printed in bold in the previous tab) and follow each with a “ditty” strum. In tablature, it looks like this:
And should sound something like this:
Already, we’ve got a perfectly good arrangement for accompanying Old Joe Clark on the fiddle. Here’s what is sounds like paired with a straightforward fiddle arrangement:
Step 4: Embellish to fit the situation
At this point, you’re free to take this tune where you please. In my slightly spruced up version, I’ve thrown in some drop thumbs to break up the bum ditties, added a few slides (sliding from the 2nd to the 3rd fret on the 2nd string in place of the open 1st is one technique that works well in this tune) and so forth to make things sound a bit more interesting paired up with the fiddle. Here’s what this version sounds like by itself:
And here it is in tab:
And now here’s how it sounds played alongside the fiddle:
Step 5: Practice smart
Once again, I encourage you to head over to oldtimejam.com as you work with this tune and play alongside the practice backup tracks.
Long live Old Joe!