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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW Feb 11, 2011 Rocky Road to Jordan

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vrteach - Posted - 02/11/2011:  12:12:16

Well, for this issue of tune of the week I'm going with a fairly obscure tune called Rocky Road to Jordan. Obscure, and yet it has been popping up on my tune horizon from a number of connected sources over the past year, and I like it. Also, this being very close to Abraham Lincoln's birthday (I have the day off of work because of this), it is nice that this tune has a Lincoln connection, although with something of a stretch.

I first heard this tune on Chirp Smith's cd collection of his home recordings, although it didn't really come to my attention above all the other offerings on that set. It first came to my attention in June at the 2010 Indiana Fiddlers Gathering (Battleground) when BHO member jojo25 shouted across the camp ground to Chirps “HEY! PLAY ROCKY ROAD TO JORDAN!” Chirps came over and did so; I played along and enjoyed it, but mainly the title was firmly set in my memory, not the tune.

In early September my dulcimer-playing, shape-note-singing friend Pete Ellertsen told me about an interesting account in a book called The Sangamon by Edgar Lee Masters. I had become more acquainted with Masters this summer because a play with which I was involved incorporated some of the poems from Spoon River Anthology, notably a poem from a character named “Fiddler Jones”. In The Sangamon, Masters relates a time in 1914 when he and Theodore Dreiser took the train from Chicago to the town of Oakford, Illinois to visit John Armstrong. John Armstrong was one of the two sons of Jack and Hannah Armstrong, and “Fiddler Jones” was a relation of Hannah Armstrong. John Armstrong was also a well-known fiddler, and among the long list of tunes in Masters' account is Rocky Road to Jordan. I'll go more into this farther down in this posting.

Also in September, I met up with some friends at a music weekend party in Gilman, IL, and one (Laura) said she had been working on this tune. It turned out that Paul Tyler had included it in one of his “Fiddle Club of the World, Chicago Chapter” workshops, and had transcribed Chirps' playing! Well, all the forces of the world were obviously conspiring against me, so I went ahead and worked out a version:

My Version

The obligatory search of the fiddlers companions results in:


ROCKY ROAD TO JORDAN. Old-Time, Breakdown. D Major. From the playing of Dwight “Red” Lamb. “Rocky Road to Jordon” is one of ‘100 essential Missouri tunes’ listed by Missouri fiddler Charlie Walden.

If Charlie Walden lists it as essential, it must have been somewhat well-known! And yet it does not show up much.

I believe that there is one single commercial recording of Rocky Road to Jordan, on the Rounder album by Dwight Lamb titled Joseph Won a Coated Fiddle and other Fiddle and Accordion Tunes from the Great Plains. Great CD. You can hear excerpts at:

and it is also on emusic. You learn much more about Dwight Lamb at:


Edit: as you see below in the comments, I've been pointed to a couple of other commercial recordings. Rafe Stefanini has Rocky Road to Jordan on his "Ladies Fancy" album, and Hammer & String has one on their "The Girl Who Broke My Heart" album:

As I mentioned above, Paul Tyler had Chirps Smith for a meeting of the “Fiddle Club of the World, Chicago Chapter” and you can hear fiddle version of the tune on this page:

That page also has links to a page with Chirps' version from his home recordings, and also Tyler's transcriptions (musical notation) of four of Chirps's tunes. There is a note on Rocky Road to Jordan that says the tune was “from Casey Jones (1910-87), who played on the radio in Shenandoah, Iowa”, so I suppose that is where Dwight Lamb learned it.

Doing a search on YouTube gave me two hits. Not a real common tune.

Both of these have the same person, I'm sorry that I don't know who she is, and I expect that I should.

Edit: Chris Berry below lets us know that this melody "is listed as Untitled at #107 in Vol. 1 of R.P. Christeson's tune book. Played by Bob Walters, which is I'm sure where Dwight Lamb got his version from. There is also a recording of Casey Jones playing this on one of the old Missouri fiddle association tapes." Thanks Chris. Also, LyleK has provided a tablature of the tune on one of the comments below.

So, that's the tune. Now I want to get back into the Masters' visit to John Armstrong. First, about John Armstrong. When Abraham Lincoln came to Illinois he settled in the then-hopeful village of New Salem. Early on his time there there was a fairly “rough” group from over at Clary's Grove. Here is a little quote:


"There was a big fellow named Jack Armstrong, strong as a Russian bear, that I could not put down; nor could he get me on the ground," Mr. Lincoln once recalled. "I suppose you have heard of Lincoln's wrestling match with Jack Armstrong. I saw part of that. [Jack] Armstrong was one of the Clary Grove gang and it was their habit to initiate newcomers into town. Lincoln was tall, ungainly, awkward, and was bantered by this crowd," recalled New Salem resident Daniel Green Burner. "These fellows would come into New Salem, get drunk, and would handle a novice roughly. Lincoln finally wagered Armstrong $10 that he could find a man who could throw him. The challenge was accepted and the next Saturday was set for the time. When the Armstrong gang arrived Lincoln told them that his man had not yet come. They waited around and became impatient and finally Armstrong demanded of Lincoln the $10. Lincoln replied:
'Look here, Jack, my man isn't here yet, but rather than lose that $10 I will wrestle with you myself.'

Burner continued: "They went at it, and Lincoln just fooled with Armstrong until he had tired him completely out. Then he swung his long leg over Armstrong's neck and made Armstrong run around holding him up in that position. Jack finally begged off, admitting he was beaten and offered Lincoln the $10, which Lincoln refused to take. The two were ever afterwards warm friends. I saw all the last part of this match, and it was highly amusing.

Lincoln later became friends with Jack Armstrong and his family. Later he successfully defended one of the sons, “Duff,” in a murder case. The other son of Jack and Hannah Armstrong was John Armstrong.

More about the Lincoln-Armstrong story at:


So, to move on the Edgar Lee Masters' The Sangamon (isbn: 0252060385). Chapter 6 is (from my standpoint) primarily about the visit to John Armstrong in Oakford in 1914. Armstrong had been a childhood friend of E.L. Masters' father and had been the subject of many family stories. Theodore Dreiser was gathering information of a novel, and was interested in meeting Armstrong based on Masters' stories, so they took the train down to Oakford. After they got to Oakford they identified Armstrong at the station and introduced themselves:


So we stood momentarily on the platform, where Dreiser's great height contrasted with John's low stature. Jack, the wrestler, stood about five feet six inches, and John was about the same height. John broke the silence at last by saying to Dreiser, “They say you're a writin' feller.” And when Dreiser laughed and admitted that he was, John remarked, “Wal, by God that was what I was told.” John's profanity was continuous and emphatic. He went on, “Come on now, boys, we'll go to the house. Aunt Caroline has dinner about ready, and I've got some fine whiskey for you. A feller give it to me over at the 'Burg.”

They go back to the house, talking about the town's past as they walk. On arrival the whiskey shows up right away, and the following dinner is enormous, including; chicken, ham, beef, potatoes, cabbage, rutabagas, biscuits, corn bread, honey; pickles made from tomatoes, watermelon, and cucumbers; blackberry pie, cake, and coffee.

They talked about Lincoln, quarter horses, camp meetings, dances, fiddler contests, and more widely than that. Then they asked to hear him fiddle:


He made no excuses, he just got up and took his fiddle, and called to his daughter to play the organ for him, and give him the key. The daughter arose without a word, with no expression on her face, just arose like a wraith, and sat down at the organ and gave John the key. Then John tuned his fiddle and sat back and began to preface the playing of each piece with some story concerning its origin, and where and how it got its name, and where he heard it first. For years he had attended the dances, the county fairs, the camp meetings, the festivals. These were the continuation of the New Salem events, and I felt that he was re-creating the past of the deserted village for me. I could image myself in the Rutledge Tavern, listening to John Armstrong tell stories of the Sangamon River, of Bowling Green, of Mentor Graham whom he knew, of William G. Green, at the time not so many years gone from earth.

John played such pieces as “Rocky road to Jordan,” “Way up Tar Creek,” “Foggy Mountain top,” “Hell Amongst the Yearlings,” “Little Drops of Brandy,” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” “Good Mornin', Uncle Johnny, I've Fetched Your Wagon Home.” He played a piece which he called “Toor-a-Loor,” and another which he called “Chaw Roast Beef.” He played and sang “The Missouri Harmony”:

When in death I shall calm recline
O bear my heart to my mistress dear.
Tell her it lived on smiles and win
Of brightest hue while it lingered here.

Bid her not shed one tear of sorrow
To sully a hear so brilliant and light,
But balmy drops of the red grape borrow
To bathe the relict from morn till night.

He played the familiar tunes like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Zip Coon” and “Miss McCall's Reel;,” and a played a tune and sang words to it part of which were these:

There was a woman in our town,
In our town did dwell,
Se loved her husband dear-i-lee,
But another man twicet as well.

John played a piece which he called “Pete McCue's Straw Stack,” and he told us before playing it, “This here is called 'Pete McCue's Straw Stack,' named after old Peter McCue who lived down by Tar Creek. They had a dance thar one time an the boys tied their hosses close to a straw stack, and when they came out the hosses had et all the straw. They had been playing this piece that night, but after that they called it 'Pete McCue's Straw Stack.' I forget what they called it before this.”

And it goes on for several more pages. If you are interested, it's worth getting out of the library. In my case I found it used via It's a pretty good read, although a bit frustrating. You end up knowing more about Edgar Lee Masters' world view than you do actually learning about the world. And I really REALLY wish that Masters had had a digital recorder.

Masters visited Armstrong once more in 1924, and John Armstrong died in 1926. He's buried in the Oakford cemetery. I've included a page from the 1910 census where he is listed as household 32. He is age 60 and is a Retail Merchant of Agricultural Implements, his wife Caroline is aged 58. His son and daughter live in the house hold; he is a rail-road agent and she a telegraph operator.

Edit: fixed some typos.

Edited by - vrteach on 02/17/2011 09:55:00

Rocky Road to Jordan

Oakford Cemetery

Portion of 1920 atlas

1910 Census page with John Armstrong household (32)

LyleK - Posted - 02/11/2011:  12:57:29

This is what happens when we let a museum curator loose on the TOTW. Sheesh. But seriously, excellent job. I'm assuming the "Laura" at Gilman is Laura S.? If so, I think she played it once at the jam here, but hasn't returned to it. I'll have to ask for it by name next week.

And darn, forgot to mention how much I like your *.mp3. Five stars, no wait, we don't have those anymore. Well, a hearty thumb up.

WGE - Posted - 02/11/2011:  13:54:56

A very nice tune played with wonderful lilt. Being from the Sho-Me State, I believe I should learn this one.

vrteach - Posted - 02/11/2011:  14:20:39

I forgot to mention that these days Oakford Illinois has a winery in the area which hosts musical events, including the bluegrass group "The River Ramblers". The banjo player for the Ramblers is Mike Smith, who makes the Katzeyes bridges and capoes that you see advertised here on the hangout. So, musical life continues in this little village.

ramjo - Posted - 02/11/2011:  14:37:34

Thanks for entertaining both sides of my brain with the music and the scholarship! Excellent TOTW.

vrteach - Posted - 02/11/2011:  15:01:28

Thanks guys.

I just found that Rafe Stefanini has Rocky Road to Jordan on his "Ladies Fancy" album.

Also, I forgot to mention that my dulcimer-playing friend Pete has a personal blog called "hogfiddle" where he has included some extensive notes on the tunes mentioned in the Masters' book, as well as another book by Vachel Lindsay (Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty).

The heading image on his blog is from one of the musical events at the New Salem historic site.

Edited by - vrteach on 02/11/2011 15:04:22

LyleK - Posted - 02/12/2011:  06:05:01

To complicate matters slightly, I checked the transcription for one of the Rocky Road to Dublin variants in The Phillips Collection of Traditional American Fiddle Tunes. The one played by Casey Jones (not the engineer, but the Missouri fiddler) is identical to that transcription of Chirps for one part, and pretty darn close for the other. Jones did a lot of fiddling on the radio, so Rocky Road to Dublin may be an alternate title for Rocky Road to Jordan in some corners of the Midwest. Back east, Rocky Road to Dublin is going to be the tune that Burl Hammons played, so totally different from Rocky Road to Jordan.

Edited by - LyleK on 02/12/2011 06:09:07

vrteach - Posted - 02/12/2011:  06:38:52

Cool, thanks for the detective work. That does complicate it, but not surprisingly so. One thing that Masters revels in as part of his description of his visit with Armstrong is the fluid, changing names of the tunes. Armstrong had a similar story about "Hell Among the Yearlings," quoted in the Fiddlers Companion entry on that tune. It makes it sound as though Armstrong, or someone in his acquaintance had named the tune, which was formerly called something else. I have my doubts about that.

Another thing that I had meant to mention. I think a related melody is on Nile Wilson's CD (Tie Hacker Hoedown), but just titled "Tie Hacker Tune #2". At least sometimes I think it is related.



Nile Wilson biography by Howard Marshal in Old Time Herald

Edited by - vrteach on 02/12/2011 06:45:25

fuzzyacg - Posted - 02/12/2011:  07:14:36

Anybody have a tab for this? Very pretty song

LyleK - Posted - 02/12/2011:  10:34:14

Originally posted by fuzzyacg
Anybody have a tab for this? Very pretty song

Here's a *.pdf

Edited by - LyleK on 02/12/2011 10:44:27

Rocky Road to Jordan


Chris Berry - Posted - 02/12/2011:  11:14:29

Also, this tune is listed as Untitled at #107 in Vol. 1 of R.P. Christeson's tune book. Played by Bob Walters, which is I'm sure where Dwight Lamb got his version from. There is also a recording of Casey Jones playing this on one of the old Missouri fiddle association tapes.

BANJOJUDY - Posted - 02/12/2011:  16:55:22

On the Chance McCoy and the Appalachian String band, there is a version of Rocky Road to Dublin that sounds just like the versions I have of Rocky Road to Jordan.

Chirps Smith on Home Recordings Volume 4
Hammer and String on the Girl Who Broke My Heart album
Rafe Stefannini - not sure what album

I love this tune though. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.


PS - still looking for volunteers for more TOTW entries. Email me ( if you can do a tune. I have openings from April onward.

vrteach - Posted - 02/16/2011:  07:45:08

Thanks to you all for the extra identifications of notation sources for this tune. Thanks, Lyle, for the tablature, I bet that is the first 5-string banjo tab for this melody. I would have tried it, but I still don't "get" tabledit.

That album by Hammer and String is really nice. You can hear excerpts at cdbaby (and buy a download):

They also do a great version of "Mississippi Palisades".

I'm going to edit the first post to include the additional information.

Edited by - vrteach on 02/16/2011 07:58:31

ChuckJo - Posted - 03/23/2011:  19:24:36

Late post-script: I had asked Adam Hurt if would join me in the Suwannee Banjo Camp Faculty concert a month or two prior to the event. I had a fairly nice version of Rachel that I thought might work, and sent it to him, and he agreed to give it a try. However, on the morning of the concert, we were in a banjo workshop together where he heard me play "Rocky Road to Jordan", and suggested that instead.


Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 03/24/2011:  07:08:36

Originally posted by Yigal Zan

Originally posted by ChuckJo

... we were in a banjo workshop together where he heard me play "Rocky Road to Jordan", and suggested that instead.


I clicked the link expecting to get to a page where one can hear you play
Rocky Road to Jordan.... what happened?

You gotta look for it among the videos on the right. It's there, but not so easy to find. I guess it's a bit of a treasure hunt!

Yigal Zan - Posted - 03/24/2011:  07:16:54

Thanks Marc. I found the video and immediately jumped back to BHO and deleted my post. It was too late, you already saw it. I simply forgot that in youtube one should click the "See All" (or such) button... below the few sample videos

vrteach - Posted - 03/24/2011:  07:23:16

Here is a link directly to it, very nice!

Chuck Levy and Adam Hurt: Rocky Road to Jordan 3.18.11

slabounty - Posted - 03/24/2011:  07:54:19

vrteach, Nicely done!
Lyle, Thanks for the tab. It's now on my "next to learn" list.


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