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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles

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Jami108 - Posted - 12/11/2009:  06:28:40

Boy do I love "Flop Eared Mule"! It's one of the those "play it forever" tunes, because the B section doesn't resolve to the tonic chord. The first time I started playing it, I played it for a solid hour because there was no place to stop. Played in a group, it has all kinds of places where you can have walking runs that move counter to each other, which is really fun. And the turnaround from the B section back to the A section somehow provides this great sense of expectation. To my ear, it's the payoff to the tune.

It all started when I saw this video of the Holy Modal Rounders (sans Steve Weber), the ragged but right band:

Of course, I went immediately to The Fiddler's Companion (God bless the Fiddler's Companion). One school of thought holds that it's derived from a polka of Eastern European derivation. Another thinks it's based on "Detroit Schottische" from 1854. Apparently it was used as a vehicle for the quadrille before the turn of the century. I also am quite fond of the fact that the tune is also sometimes called "Monkey in the Barbershop."

There are some wonderful versions available on the internet. An early version by Judge Sturdy Orchestra, a St. Louis area quadrille band recorded in 1925, is available here:
It's listed as "Old Dan Tucker," but it's definitely "Flop Eared Mule."

Probably my favorite version is the one by Charlie Poole and the Alleghany Highlanders. This one is notable for its use of piano. I know I'm in the minority, but I really like Old Time bands that include piano (Fiddlin' Bob Larkan and His Music Makers, for example). It gives the music a certain bounce:

Here's another really fun one by the Blue Ridge Highballers:

Here's a video version by Benton Flippen:

Finally, here's a really clean fiddle-only version that's nice to play along with:

mojo_monk - Posted - 12/11/2009:  07:16:01

Good call!!!...always liked it, but never learned it.

jazz-phil - Posted - 12/11/2009:  07:19:19

Just to pick up on where the tune might come from. Check out Bluebell Polka, a popular Scottish tune. I was recently asked to play this at a ceilidh, and, having worked through the music, realised I could easily substitute Flop Eared Mule with a Polka rhythm.

Scanbran - Posted - 12/11/2009:  07:49:39

Originally posted by jazz-phil

Just to pick up on where the tune might come from. Check out Bluebell Polka, a popular Scottish tune. I was recently asked to play this at a ceilidh, and, having worked through the music, realised I could easily substitute Flop Eared Mule with a Polka rhythm.

Absolutely - it is very similar to Jimmy Shand's famous tune.

This was one of the first clawhammer tunes I learned, and I still love to play it.

Interestingly, I have an old album by Billy Connolly where he plays what sounds like the exact same tune, except he calls it 'Leather Britches'

J-Walk - Posted - 12/11/2009:  08:00:11

Good choice, Jami. The first time I tried to play along with that tune, I was very confused. Then I realized that each part is in a different key.

Most of the recording I have are in G/D,. but a few are in D/A (Dan Levenson, in his Festival Tunes book, has in in D/A). And Mike Seeger plays a solo banjo version in in C/G.

Any preferences for favorite key and tuning? Playing in G/D works pretty well in either G or Double D tuning.

Jami108 - Posted - 12/11/2009:  08:29:41

I had been playing it in Double C. I was concerned about the dissonance in the B section between the drone G and that A chord. But, a couple of days ago, as I was getting this post together, I started playing along with the fiddler in G and realized it was SO much easier. And the A chord is so brief, the dissonance doesn't really matter. However, I taught the song to the band I'm in, The Finsters, in C, including the fiddler(!), so we'll probably keep playing it that way.

janolov - Posted - 12/11/2009:  09:56:58

I like Mike Seeger's version in drop C tuning based on Kirk McGee up picking. Both the A part and the B parts are played in up the neck and down the neck versions.

ramjo - Posted - 12/11/2009:  14:39:21

I learned this in G from Eric Muller's book long ago, and oddly(?) never ran into anyone playing it in a different key. It hadn't occurred to me to try to learn it in D till this post. I think I will. So thank you Jami and thank you BHO!

oldwoodchuckb - Posted - 12/11/2009:  21:22:56

I play it in Double C now, but originally got it from an Eric Weissberg recording that was in A/E (or possibly G/D - I no longer had the record when I took up the banjo). At any rate, I'm willing to play it wherever I'm tuned. I'm not sure if it is in my book, Rocket Science Banjo, but my version of the Weissberg recording is in my "Giant Tab Bonanza". Like most Quadrille tunes it does (sort of) change key, but it really lays out quite nicely on the banjo neck if the drone note works for both keys.

The quadrille is a dance that features a lot of galloping from one side of the room to the other and the constant key changes keep the energy very high. The lack of endings to the tunes means the bands tend to play them until the dancers are ready to fall. The tempo has a tendency to creep up too. Some tunes sound as if they just hang on the V chord for 16 measures while others have full cadences in the alternate key

I have a set of Library of Congress rarities - one of those 15 lp sets issued during the US bicentennial. One of the tunes on it is definitely Flop Eared Mule, but the band was an immigrant group from the Ukraine, and they were recorded in NYC on the Brunswick label circa 1928. I forget the title but it was not about a mule. The rhythm while still a strong 2 beat was quite different. I'm certain the group had never heard any American old time music, but while they could have learned the tune off some Irish immigrants while crossing the Atlantic, I suspect the tune was known in both Western and Eastern Europe long before it came to America, and that it was imported several times in the 19th century and possibly a couple times in the late 18th century.

Flop Eared Mule could well be the great great grandfather to an entire genre (compare it to "Richmond Cotillion" or "Grasshopper Sitting on a Sweet Potato Vine" etc.

argybarg - Posted - 12/12/2009:  09:25:20

I love the Holy Modal Rounders' reverential approach to old-time music [sarcasm alert]. Museum pieces they ain't.

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