I recently picked up a great CD by the South Memphis String Band (myspace.com/southmemphisstringband). Some great stuff, and they have a tune on there entitled "Old Hen" which has a lot in common with "Cluck Old Hen."
Anyways, that got me thinking about "Cluck Old Hen." I don't really know all that much about the tune. It was one of the first tunes I attempted when I was first starting to clawhammer, and the first recorded version that I probably heard was on Tim O'Brien's "Songs of the Mountain" (fiddle by Dirk Powell and banjo by John Hermann).
Fiddlin' John Carson is credited with being the first to record it back in 1923. I'm guessing that the tune probably derives from the African-American banjo tradition, but have no idea if it is pre-minstrel or not. There's a little bit of info at this link: csufresno.edu/folklore/ballads/Wa120.html
I know that Dan Gellert has a great version of the tune on his "Waiting on the Break of Day" album.
I'm at work right now, so I'll upload my own version and post some various you-tubes tomorrow. I just wanted to get the ball rolling.
Great tune with equally great lyrics. Too many versions (countless) out there for me to pick a favorite, but these days I'd have to say I'm a fan of the late, great Ed Haley's.
As for its origins, the earliest occurrence of anything remotely related to what we know as Cluck Old Hen in print can be found in Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise and Otherwise, compiled by Thomas W. Talley and published in 1922. You can find it on pp. 50-1 (check the last verse): tinyurl.com/ykbwfuc.
The 1923 John Carson version you're talking about is actually not Cluck Old Hen, but is The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow. Same family different tune: tinyurl.com/yexhzgn
The original recording was actually done by Fiddlin' Powers and Family in 1925: tinyurl.com/ygpbna3. Great recording.
As for the melody...I can't even wager to guess how it came into being or where its grandmammy was born. But I think it's pretty safe to say that Cluck Old Hen is one of those "American" tunes that grew out of the mixing of musical cultures in the southern mountains. Maybe others can shed light on this apect...
For the heckuvitt, here'r the search results from the Digital Library of Appalachia: tinyurl.com/yfhhh9d. Some great renderings, all a bit different (with Estill Bingham's version VERY different).
Adam this is one of the first tunes I learned as well. It can be played simply or as Jimbo pointed out "taken to another level. Tim, Dirk, and John's version is still my favorite as is the CD "Songs From The Mountain". I still play this song a lot because it is so easy to sing while playing.
Whatever you do, don't listen to Jim Pankey's version in Double C. I heard him do it in the banjolounge one night and if it weren't for my wife's concern that the smoke from all the burning banjos might piss off the local EPA office, I'd be over on Tiddly-wink-hangout right now.
J-Walk, that is not the first tune that I have found on youtube which Mr. Levy has, um, "enhanced". Must be an aquired taste, one that I am unlikely to aquire! The contrast between his version and the one I posted by Jeff Kramer can be summed up by one word----RHYTHM.
Good choice, Adam. First tune I was taught in my only lesson (by Richie Stearns) almost 10 years ago. Still trying to learn it right. As Joel Mabus says..."takes 10 minutes to learn and a lifetime to play." Here's a 30-second clip from Banjo Monologues that Joel has posted on his website: joelmabus.com/18%20-%20artist%...ogues.mp3
I love the various versions you all have posted (although it might take a little mind expansion, chemical or psychological, to appreciate Mr. Levy.)
My absolute favorite version of COH is by the Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser's band of Berklee musicians plus Tony Trischka, Andy Statman and others. I wish I could post it, but I can't find any copyright free versions anywhere. It begins with about a minute of Statman plating a klezmer meditation on clarinet which dissolves into the COH theme, slowly at first and then ramping up to speed. It goes on through several verses in a sweet modal OT style and pace (Ruth Unger singing), Trischka plays a pretty straight-forward (and excellent) break--comped by trombone!--and the Berklee guys play jazzy modal fiddle, piano and octave mandolin breaks. They then come back with about 12 fiddles overdubbed. The whole thing is over 7 minutes long. I find it truly an experience!
"Ten minutes to learn, and a life time to play" is about right. I played a simple version in sawmill tuning for years, but later favored Wade Ward's recorded version, which I now use in plain ol' gDGBD, as in this recording... banjohangout.org/myhangout/mus...?id=35201
Hey Jane, That Version i did is pretty much Trad. It sticks to the Chords, and its a nice singin pace. Next time we can play it a while. (hey i am talkin all trad like. Must have been the Cumberland Highlanders show rubbed off on me dawn ! )
As is true of several other posters in this thread, "Cluck Old Hen" was one of the first tunes I learned - indeed, it was probably the first tune I could play without "thinking". It was also the first tune I learned multiple versions of, as part of an effort to learn to hear the "corners" of tune, allowing me to then come up with my own interpretation. COH was ideal for that, since as has been noted, it is on the surface a simple tune, but one with enough depth to allow for lots of experimentation.
And the Horse Flies. Music through a strobe light. Another acquired taste...one that I'm glad to have (and have given my daughters too). Richie didn't teach it that way. It was straight old G tuning. After a year or two of practicing, I started doing it in sawmill and haven't gone back.
The Spark Gap Wonder Boys... I thought I was the only one who remembered that LP
As a matter of fact I've been loading albums into the computer of late and that one didn't come up from Gracenote. I'd have to type in the titles myself, so I simply put it back on the shelf. I've gotten really lazy about entering stuff since I started using realplayer - With so many albums coming right up without entering anything, it seems unfair to have to type in any of them.
The only time I ever came in contact with an LP by the Spark Gaps was at the Arcadia, California public library in 1980, who just happened to have a copy. I think they were from MIT, or some Ivy league college.
I learned this version from the Augusta recording of Harvey Sampson and the Big Possum String Band and it is in cross tuning on the fiddle. I'm tuned to gDGBD and am playing it on my torque converter banjo. This is probably my favorite version to play. Unfortunately I find very few people play Harvey Sampson's version.
here's a cool video of randy wilson playing a version of "cluck old hen" on an akonting. youtube.com/watch?v=G9dT7OoafCE he's on faculty at cowan creek mountain music school and last year he brought all sorts of cool banjos and banjo related instruments. anyway, i think this is a cool version that's a bit different due to the choice of instrument.
Great tune. Like many great tunes, one that can be explored for a lifetime. The version stuck in my head is from Dan Gellert, c. 1980. "Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometime enough for the whole damn crew..."
I rarely play Cluck Old Hen out in public, but it's one of those tunes that I'll play ad nauseum at home when I should be doing other things. It's a lot of fun to mess around with by trying out different rhythms and whatnot.
It's astonishing how this tune goes into banjo aficianatos and comes out in so many wonderful variations. It's been a great joy to hear all those you posters have pointed us to. As Elwood and others have noted, a simple, traditional melody doesn't have to be bound in any tradition; great players from all corners can make great music if they can find the soul of the material. (Although I'm having a hard time imagining a hip hop COH, I assume it can be--or has been--done.) A shout out here Mark Johnson, whose skill and innovation I find to be on the top shelf of everything having to do with banjo playing. (Thanks, Jimbo, for directing us to Mark's music page.)
It's a shame that the Mike Levey recording drew all the attention in J-Walk's post; the first part of the post is the most interesting. He and I were sitting around one morning, and I think we played Cluck Old Hen for about an hour. If I remember right, I had a banjo tuned to Double D, and J-Walk had his Bowlin, tuned to a low D modal. We tried all sorts of variations, trading banjos, trading tunings, all of which were interesting, and eventually hit on his suggestion of one playing the high part while the other played the low part...what a Blast! I highly recommend it. I wish we had recorded it, but we were just noodling around with the banjos, and didn't think of it.
Another one that didn't get recorded happened around a year ago. I was goofing around with a friends Strat-clone, tuned it DADGAD, cranked up the volume and the distortion, and scared the neighbors. No old hens were harmed in the playing of the tune.
OK, J-Walk and Bisboinian, please clarify what you mean. Does one of you play the A part and then sit out while the other plays the B part, or do you mean that WHILE one is playing the A part, the other is playing the B part? If so, I would really like to hear that!
maybe it qualifies as a completely different song, but I've always been partial to Taj Mahal's banjo version of "Cluck Old Hen" from "De Old Folks at Home". does anyone know where Taj got this version? did he make it up himself? anyone know what tuning it's in?
At last night's Bela Fleck "Africa Project" tour show in Athen, Ohio, Bela and fiddler Casey Driessen played a distinctly non-old-time but quite enjoyable (to me at least) version of "Cluck Old Hen", backed by two traditional percussionists from the Malian band Ngoni Ba. It was a bit startling to hear the first few notes and suddenly recognize the tune, after an hour or so of mostly African music.