Please suggest some tunes for me to learn to play
July 18, 2009 2:45 PM   Subscribe

What 5-25 songs should I learn that will be most likely to come in handy at bluegrass/old-time music jams?

I'm learning to play mandolin and can read sheet music moderately well based on my past life as a violinist. I'm looking for stuff that will help me improve and also make it more likely to be able to play with others. As a bonus, links to resources (free is good, but if there is an excellent book you'd reccomend purchasing I'd love to know about it) with sheet music arrangements, or even better, with mandolin-specific transcriptions, that would be great!
posted by mzurer to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Without knowing how much music research you've done already, what I'd immediately suggest is listening to the following bands: Bill Monroe, Doyle Lawson, Flatt & Scruggs, The Carter Family, Roscoe Holcomb, Ralph Stanley, Allison Krauss, the Cox Family, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, etc.

Some of the songs you should know:

Pretty Polly, Banks of the Ohio, In The Pines, Angel Band, The Old Account, Uncle Pen, When God Dips His Pen of Love In My Heart, Poor Ellen Smith, Barbara Ellen, Seven Nights Drunk, Get Right Church, Down in the Willow Garden, etc.

All of these songs have parts for mandolin/can be played on mandolins. They're fairly simple as well, old-timey is usually a bit easier to learn at first then the chops and fills of hardcore bluegrass music.

Try this: It's a music store that caters to folks who play this kind of music and they have excellent customer service. Worth it alone just to drool over their online demos of the Weber mandolins.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 3:12 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: From my memory of being a kid at many bluegrass festivals, you can't go too far wrong just playing straight chords on the offbeat. The only tune I remember the name of is the ubiquitous cripple creek.
posted by ook at 3:56 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: Turkey in the Straw seems to be a standby- one of those tunes folk and bluegrass musicians learn early on. You'll recognize the tune:

Slow version on YouTube
Some sheet music info
posted by Piscean at 5:12 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: When I was 8 or 9, my dad had a bluegrass band. I played (sort of) fiddle, and since it's tuned the same as a mandolin these songs would work for you: Wildwood Flower, Man of Constant Sorrow, Boil That Cabbage, Catfish John, Cotton Eyed Joe, Long Black Veil, the aforementioned Cripple Creek, Salty Dog Blues.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:33 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: D'oh, missed the part where you said you were a violinist. At any rate, if you buy beginning songbooks for mandolin, you'll be good to go as far as jamming at festivals.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:35 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: I can't speak as much to bluegrass jam repertoire, but here are some tunes that get played all the time at old-time jams:

Key of D:
Soldier's Joy
Arkansas Traveler
Mississippi Sawyer
Fisher's Hornpipe
Year of Jubilo (sometimes called Kingdom Coming)
Angeline the Baker

Key of A:
June Apple
Old Joe Clark
Red Haired Boy
Bill Cheatham
Cluck Old Hen
Shady Grove

And of course there's Cripple Creek in G, but people are usually so sick of Cripple Creek that it gets pulled out if nobody can think of anything else to play. I'm drawing a blank for other G or C tunes.

I'm terrible at lists like these, because I can never remember which tunes I like to play all the time, and which ones tend to be common- but I think these are fairly representative of the common repertoire.
posted by usonian at 5:38 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: Forgot: Wabash Cannon Ball, Black Eyed Susie, Rocky Top.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:40 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: Oh, and although mandolin isn't as common in old-time music, Ron McCoury does some fine playing on John Hartford's Wild Hog in the Red Brush, which is one of my favorite old-time albums.
posted by usonian at 5:44 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: Having just come from a bluegrass concert in my local park, I'd add "Orange Blossom Special" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 5:55 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: Any song that has the word "Kentucky" in the title.

Blue Moon of Kentucky
Rose of old Kentucky
Kentucky Girl
Kentucky Mandolin
Kentucky Borderline
posted by beccyjoe at 9:23 PM on July 18, 2009

Best answer: Yeah, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, absolutely and positively.
posted by holgate at 9:41 PM on July 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks all! Perfect for getting started!
posted by mzurer at 10:38 AM on July 19, 2009

You're probably aware that "songs" and "tunes" are not quite synonyms, but I can't actually tell from your question which one you're interested in. ("what songs should I learn" vs "please suggest some tunes")
usonian suggested some classic tunes leaning toward the old-time tradition. Basically an instrumental, the point is the tune/melody, and while there can be some words that get sung sometimes, it's not a story, the verses don't really hang together, it's one step up form nonsense. (Old Joe Clark, Cluck old Hen, etc). Lipstick Thespian took you at your word and suggested some songs - ballads, love stories, gospel - that are all about the singing, and the lyrics, but which you can play along with on a mandolin if you or somebody else is singing them. I'm not sure what you're after, but those two lists are pretty good.

I'd focus on some of those classics from usonian for specifically learning, but every group of people is different - what one session plays every week might get played once a year by some other bunch of people. Go, take a recorder, and then just listen to it. One thing you want to cultivate is your playing-by-ear ability. Listen to a track over and over again, until there is no question in your head how that melody goes. Then, can you pick up your mandolin and play it? If you can do that, it makes playing in groups much much easier. If somebody plays something you like, put it on your ipod, and you'll be able to play it the next meetup. Listen, hum along, hum it to yourself, then play it. Learn a few tunes, as suggested above, then get out and go meet the people you'll be playing with and figure out what they like.
posted by aimedwander at 11:00 AM on July 19, 2009

Jeez, I forgot another amazing resource: YouTube! Go search for any of the tunes mentioned in this thread, or search generically for "old-tme fiddle tune" "bluegrass jam", et cetera, and you'll find a ton of stuff... concert footage, recordings of jams, or people just recording themselves. It's a great way to pick up tunes you're not familiar with, or track them down after you hear them once at a session... and in true folk fashion no two renditions will be exactly alike, and you can pick up a lot of neat variations from other people.
posted by usonian at 2:15 PM on July 19, 2009

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