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Tune of the Month: Cluck Old Hen

Cluck Old Hen

Scordatura is what the classical players call it, dischord if you’re from Missouri – most of us just refer to alternative tunings on the fiddle as “cross tuning.” Many of our fiddlers like to play Black Mountain Rag in AEAC#, so much so that the tuning is called, get this, “Black Mountain Rag” tuning. Another favorite of mine is “dead man’s tuning.” Drop your G string down to a low D and your E string down to D as well. The various Bonapartes Retreated in this tuning quite nicely. (Check out William Stepp’s version. This is the one that Aaron Copland made famous as a main theme in his ballet, “Rodeo.”) Benny Thomasson brought us the gorgeous tune, “Midnight on the Water,” composed, so we think, by his father Luke, and greatly enhanced by the resonance of the D tuning.

A G string tuned as low as low D is a little wimpy and hard to keep tuned well so I replaced my G string with a low C string (made for viola tuning on the violin) on my spare fiddle and tuned it up to D to serenade the dead men. After running through the usual suspects I was on a search for what to play next when I ran across this gem on Voyager Records’ “Weiser Jam Session” as played by Bill Long. There’s another Cluck Old Hen, in sort of A modalish that is quite popular, as well as one in G and yet another A tune played by Ora Spivey on that same Voyager Recording.

Bill Long recorded a couple of LPs on the American Heritage label. The company is now defunct but the records turn up on e-Bay occasionally. He was a powerful old time dance fiddler originally from Texas and who later lived in Montana. Born in Byers, Texas in 1929, he was inspired by his grandfather, Kid Deweese’s fiddling as well as that of his uncle, George Deweese. Other notables he heard early on included Eck Robertson and Major Franklin. In Montana as a teenager he continued to pick up tunes from locals such as Shorty Phelps and Grant Rader forging a blend of Texas and Montana influences.

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Stuart Williams, Music Editor

Updated October 2, 2013

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