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It’s interesting how so many works of art and music seem to change in meaning as we get older. New layers, once hidden from us, suddenly leap out through the filters of age and experience.
In my early life, this week’s selection – the “Blue Tail Fly” (aka “Jimmy Crack Corn”) – was a song with a pleasing melody and some silly lyrics about Jimmy cracking corn and not caring about it, whatever the heck that was supposed to mean. And something about a fly with a blue tail.
The words were just a vehicle for the melody, nothing more.
Of course, as some of you may know, there actually is more to it than that.
The song originates in the Minstrel era, a breakout hit of Dan Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels, later to be repurposed in the folk revival era by Pete Seeger, as a children’s song. As with much of the material from this period in American musical history, it covers some delicate territory.
On the surface, it appears to be a slave’s telling of his master’s death in a horse-riding accident.
Closer inspection reveals that, not surprisingly, our narrator isn’t too broken up about his master’s demise. Moreover, he may have even had a hand in it, if by nothing more than deliberate negligence.
Though the blame, after investigation, is ultimately placed on the aforementioned fly with the blue tail.
And so while its words may tell of a tragic accident, they should be delivered with at least a hint of celebratory fervor.
It’s said that the song became popular amongst slaves, and was a favorite of one Abraham Lincoln.
As I said, it’s a song with several layers of meaning and interpretation (including the meaning of the phrase “jim crack corn” – for a thorough run down of the many hypotheses, check out this entry in Wikipedia).
Blue Tail Fly
gDGBD (dADF#A) tuning, Brainjo level 3-4
Notes on the Tab
In this arrangement, I’ve tabbed out the part I play in the banjo “solo,” as well as the vocal backup I play on the banjo while singing.
Notes in parentheses are “skip” notes – to learn more about skips and syncopated skips, check out my video lesson on the subject.
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.
PRIOR SONG OF THE WEEK EPISODES
- Episode 1: “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow”
- Episode 2: “Gumtree Canoe”
- Episode 3: “Crawdad Hole”
- Episode 4: “Oh Susanna”
- Episode 5: “Freight Train”
- Episode 6: “Grandfather’s Clock”
- Episode 7: “Hop High Lulu”
- Episode 8: “Been All Around This World”
- Episode 9: “I’ll Fly Away”
- Episode 10: “Leaving Home”
- Episode 11: “Poor Orphan Child”
- Episode 12: “Mr. Tambourine Man”
- Episode 13: “Swanee River”
- Episode 14: “Big Sciota”
- Episode 15: “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”
- Episode 16: “Darling Corey”
- Episode 17: “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
- Episode 18: “America the Beautiful”
- Episode 19: “Bury Me Beneath the Willow”
- Episode 20: “Way Out There”
- Episode 21: “New Slang”
- Episode 22: “I Saw the Light”
- Episode 23: “Amazing Grace”
- Episode 24: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
- Episode 25: “Yankee Doodle”
- Episode 26: “Budapest”
- Episode 27: “Wildwood Flower”
- Episode 28: “Paradise”
- Episode 29: “Mountain Dew”
Level 2 arrangements and video demos for the Tune (and Song!) of the Week tunes are now available as part of the Breakthrough Banjo course.