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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Tune of the Week: Mississippi Sawyer

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Tamarack - Posted - 04/13/2012:  04:58:34

Tune of the Week for Friday the 13th is Mississippi Sawyer, a widely-known old tune.  I always thought the tune was named for a citizen of the State of Mississippi who made his living sawing logs into planks; it turns out a "Mississippi sawyer" was a term from riverboat pilots and crew referring to a partially submerged log bobbing up and down in a sawing motion, which could wreak havoc on the hull of a paddleboat.  Another alleged source for the name is a gentleman who built a sawmill near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, who was also a fiddler and hosted an annual picnic.  This appears to be a contrived tale.

The tune is also known as "The Downfall of Paris".   The Fiddler's Companion has this to say:

DOWNFALL OF PARIS, THE (Ceimsios Parais). AKA - "Scrios b-Paris," "Fall of Paris." AKA and see "Hae You Ony More Ado" (Shetland), "Mississippi Sawyer" (USA). Irish, Hornpipe or Set Dance; English, Hornpipe; Old-Time, Breakdown; Scottish, March. G Major (Kerr, O'Neill): D Major (Ashman, Old-Time versions): C Major (Winstock). Standard. AABCC (O'Neill/Krassen): ABCCDD (O'Neill/1915): AABBCCDD (O'Neill/1001): AA'BBCCDD (Sweet): AA'BBCC'DD" (Kerr): ABBCDDEE (O'Neill/1850). Better known in the American South and among modern American fiddlers as "Mississippi Sawyer," the melody was called "The Downfall of Paris" in Europe and this title was at one time retained in parts of Tennessee and the Ozarks. According to Winstock (1970), the tune's popularity may have surpassed that of the famous "The British Grenediers" in its day. It was played early in the 19th century when the allies entered Paris after the battle of Waterloo, but "on that occasion (the British commander) Wellington sharply put a stop to it, and the offending Royal Regiment played instead 'Croppies Lie Down.' Apart from being played by military bands on every conceivable occasion, its 'one tormenting strum, strum, strum' was the delight of amateur pianists throughout Britain" (Winstock, 1970; pg. 105).


The melody, however, had not been new to France in Wellington's time. Famously, it had been the vehicle for the song "Ça Ira," or "Ah ca ira" ('les aristocrates a la lanterne', or, roughly, 'Lets go lynch the aristocrats'} sung by the first and bloodiest French Revolutionaries in the late 1780's. Elson (The National Music of America, 1899) reports: "It was sung to many a scene of massacre and bloodshed; it was warbled and trilled out when the mob carried the head of the beautiful Princess de Lamballe, on a pike, through the streets of Paris, and thrust it up for the unhappy queen to look at." Despite this gruesome association the melody began innocently enough as a light vaudeville piece composed by one M. Bécourt, a side-drum player at the Opéra. It soon proved popular as a contra-dance melody and frequently appeared in the French cotillions prior to its being seeped in blood. Interestingly, especially in view of the tune's later importation to America, the title was suggested by none other than Benjamin Franklin who used the phrase (which translates as "It will succeed") in connection with the prospects of the American Revolution. General Lafayette took Franklin's expression and passed it to a street singer named Ladré as a good refrain for a popular song....

It took some time after this for its dance roots to resurface, but in 1816 the melody was again printed, this time in England in Wilson's Companion to the Ballroom. Vic Gammon, in his 1989 article "The Grand Conversation: Napoleon and British Popular Balladry," says the "La Ira" (sic) was adopted as a military march by the British Army, initially as a means of confusing the enemy on the battlefield. It later developed into the dance tune "Downfall of Paris" and became widespread in Britain, where it appears in collections of Irish music as well as in southern English village musicians' tune books. It us one of the official set dances (for dance competitions) in Ireland.


The title appears in a list of traditional Ozark Mountain fiddle tunes compiled by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph, published by 1954. Some 'crooked' versions are extent in the United States (see Charlie Acuff's version which has 15 beats in the 'A' part). See note for "Mississippi Sawyer" for more on the American variant. Source for notated version: a c. 1837-1840 MS by Shropshire musician John Moore [Ashman]. Ashman (The Ironbridge Hornpipe), 1991; No. 28, pg. 8. Kerr (Merry Melodies), Vol. 4, No. 372, pg. 40. O'Neill (1915 ed.), 1987; No. 395, pg. 189. O'Neill (Krassen), 1976; pg. 165. O'Neill (1850), 1979; No. 1562, pg. 289. O'Neill (1001 Gems), 1986; No. 957, pg. 164 (set dance version). Sweet (Fifer's Delight), 1964/1981; pg. 44. Thomas and Leeder (The Singin' Gatherin'), 1939; pg. 59. Winstock (Music of the Redcoats), 1970; pg. 106. Island ILPS9432, The Chieftains - "Bonaparte's Retreat" (1976). Charlie Acuff. Rounder Records, Darley Fulks - "Traditional Fiddle Music of Kentucky, Vol. 2: Along the Kentucky River" (1997. An unusual version set in waltz time)


[Fiddler's Companion excerpt is edited slightly here -- the complete version is longer and dwells on the French Revolution]

Despite its origins in bloody revolution and riverboat disasters, it's a fun tune.  There are a zillion versions on YouTube.  A few examples:     (our own FretlessFury)   (Zepp)

There are 18 old-time versions in the BHO Jukebox.  I particularly like the version by the Sedentary Ramblers: 

The B part of the tune is often varied between major and modal.  Cathy Moore (BanjoMeetsWorld) has a mini-lesson entitled "Messing with People With Mississippi Sawyer" demonstrating the major-modal switch and then switching to play the entire tune in a minor key (which would certainly mess with a room full of contradancers): 

My head was messed with from an early age -- I have always played a simple modal version of the B part.   Lately I've been working on a major version and major/modal switch.

Enjoy the tune.  I often refer to it as "Mississippi Surveyor" in honor of my on-line and occasional jamming friends Alan and Jerry, Registered Land Surveyors in Picayune, Mississippi.




Don Borchelt - Posted - 04/13/2012:  05:46:26

I am sitting here waiting for Ed Britt to show up so we can go into Harvard Square and do some busking on this fine, sunny spring day.  Some years ago, Ed showed me a different way to play it, with the natural VII chord in the B part (actually an A minor the way we play it). I have attached a video that we made near the end of last season.  Ed is playing clawhammer style in double C tuning, capoed on the 2nd fret; I am three-finger picking in open D tuning.

VIDEO: Mississippi Sawyer
(click to view)


BANJOJUDY - Posted - 04/13/2012:  07:26:22

The Cathy Moore YouTube video is fantastic and fun to watch. I love the concept of switching form major to minor and back to major. C#or C makes a huge difference!

Thanks for doing this for TOTW.

whyteman - Posted - 04/13/2012:  07:31:47

Great backround on the name and origins of this fine old tune, Don

I "snagged" a little more reasearch from the book "Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild" by Illinois based historian Lee Sandlin. Mr. Sandlin notes that river snags were so common that an entire vocabulary was developed by rivermen to catagorize them.

Planter...a tree standing on the river bottom with it's branches barely submerged.
Sleeper...a tree struck sideways into a bank or bar that stretched out full length just under water.
Preacher...a bobbing tree plunging in and out of the water as if performing a river baptism.
...and our favorite...
Sawyer...a tree that waved back and forth in the river current with a sawing motion.

When I first began playing, I thought this tune had something to do with Tom, Huck, and Hannibal, Mo. Maybe that's why we all play this common tune slightly different from each other. The original way we approached this tune may be slightly determined by our mind's image of what the the tune signified. My version is a bright, happy version evoking a carefree 19th century childhhood on the river, not about deadly snags.



vrteach - Posted - 04/13/2012:  07:39:53

A classic tune, easy to pair with Soldiers Joy.

I looked around for some video of a river sawyer, but only found this one from the flooding Grand River in Michigan:

Kind of a slow sawyer, that one! I've seen faster up-and-down motion when canoeing on the Illinois River during flood times.

I also looked for videos of vertical water powered sawmills and found this detaild one of a reconstructed 14th century mill in Norway:


The marks left on the lumber by such saws are used by architectural historians to help figure out dates of construction. Here's a quote from the book Houses and Homes: Exploring Their History.

Wood building components can be prepared in a variety of ways. The wood used in house framing may have been sawn by hand, by sash saws of water-powered mills, by circular saws, or by band saws. Each method leaves a distinctive mark, which will aid house historians in dating a structure. Planks sawn by hand out of larg logs have rather widely space vertical saw marks. Unless the house predates the nineteenth century, any vertical marks are probably the result of a sash saw. The circular saw, invented in England in 1814 but not used in North America until the 1840s, left distinctive crescent-shaped marks on the wood. By the 1880s, giant band saws similar to those still used in modern lumber mills, were in operation. Band saws made closely space vertical saw marks on lumber. These vertical marks are quite different from those left by the early sash saws.

JanetB - Posted - 04/13/2012:  11:00:56

That's an interesting story about the song, Don.  Thanks.  Here's a version on a cello banjo, squeaky with string sound, played out of open G tuning with the 5th string tuned to A.

VIDEO: Mississippi Sawyer
(click to view)


Jay K - Posted - 04/13/2012:  11:23:53

Holy cow, can't believe this is tune of the week. My banjo teacher just showed it to me on Tuesday evening. That's wild! Thrilled with all this background.

trapdoor2 - Posted - 04/13/2012:  11:34:36

Having played "MS" for about a hunnert years, now I gotta re-learn it per Cathy Moore's video. What a cool version...and yes, I want to mess with dancer's heads.

I also want to add busking with Ed and Don on Harvard Sq. to my bucket list. I wouldn't know a busk if it hit me on the head and last time I was in Boston they laughed at my "Tennessee tuxedo"...but I'd go in a Boston minute (which is a tad longer than a NY minute).

Enjoyed the history too...

whyteman - Posted - 04/13/2012:  11:39:43

I love the Grand River "Sawyer" video 'Teach. The first tune seems to be "Salt River". The second tune sounds familiar, but I cannot place it. Thanks for posting the example of what a sawyer is.


...and I like Janet's rendition too! A lot.

banjoike - Posted - 04/13/2012:  13:42:39

Here is my two Cents. I haven't played this for a while. A pretty traditonal version with a little guitar.

Edited by - banjoike on 04/13/2012 13:46:27

Mississippi Sawyer


Bob_C - Posted - 04/13/2012:  14:00:46

And this one...

blockader - Posted - 04/13/2012:  14:02:33

man, what a great tune, and some great versions! i wish i had a recording of my band doing it as its one of our best. we played it for the last dance we did and it really got em flying around.

heres the recording i did of it for the Virtual Fiddle Festival last month.



Mississippi Sawyer


vrteach - Posted - 04/13/2012:  14:11:48

I don't think I've recorded a version in D, and probably won't bother. But almost 6 years ago I met up with a BHO member who was hesitant to learn any non-G tunings. But he had a very accommodating fiddler friend--she was willing to play everything in G. So I put together a quick version in gDGBD to show him that Mississippi Sawyer could be done in G.

On the DVD "Legends of Old-Time Music," Sam McGee does an imitation of Uncle Dave Macon playing Mississippi Sawyer. I had to look at the notes to figure out what the tune was; not much melody but lots of rhythm and facial contortion. It's a good DVD.

Edited by - vrteach on 04/13/2012 14:19:49

majikgator - Posted - 04/13/2012:  14:34:41

Great choice for the TOTW. Some really nice renditions from all.

derwood400 - Posted - 04/13/2012:  14:40:37

Excellent!  One of my favourite fiddle tunes.  This the best TOTW thread in a long time.  Definitely going to be spending a bit of time with that Cathy Moore video.  Also, really love the videos of the water powered sawmills.  That is some really cool stuff, even though I know the general consensus is that the tune isn't about a wood sawyer.  I'll have to get to work on a video or recording this weekend.

SCclawman - Posted - 04/13/2012:  14:45:09


Originally posted by banjoike

Here is my two Cents. I haven't played this for a while. A pretty traditonal version with a little guitar.

 Oh man. That's the best "two Cents" I've ever heard. That's really really nice.

Thanks for sharing that. 

ramjo - Posted - 04/13/2012:  15:09:01

Nice choice, Tam. Great renditions one and all. I had posted this tune a couple of years ago on my page and added a note that said it was "the fourth billionth version on the BHO." Imagine my surprise when someone actually looked at the evidence and found that there were only 18. Well, now there are a bunch more and that's pretty cool.

And here's yet another one of mine. I stole Cathy Moore's idea a while back, and, thinking until today, that the sawyer was the worker in the saw mill, titled it "Mississippi Sawyer-Mississippi Miner" to play on concept of "minor." Even though it's wrong it's too late to change it. So, like a politician, I claim not to be stating facts.

By the way, I originally stole the way I play this from Fred Coon's youtube:

Edited by - ramjo on 04/13/2012 15:15:12

Mississippi Sawyer-Mississippi Miner


banjoike - Posted - 04/13/2012:  19:51:14

Thanks Clawman for the liking.  Nice thread.  I really liked hearing this in the Key of G.  A nice sound vrteach!!  BHO has a great bunch of guys who play well and are really knowledgeable about life!!  It's great to part of this!!



hum - Posted - 04/14/2012:  06:30:22

One of my faves to play - smiley

VIDEO: Dave Hum - Mississippi Sawyer
(click to view)


Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 04/14/2012:  08:07:06

Here's a version I recorded in 1985, for my long out of print children's album, with the words of a skipping rope rhyme added as lyrics.

I'm particularly fond of my high harmony part, that also works as an independent tune. I play it in open c tuning (possibly capoed in a different key, I don't remember).

The fiddle is played by Michael Jerome Browne.

Zaida's Fancy Pants


atleson - Posted - 04/14/2012:  09:26:07

Marc:   probably every Zaida should have a tune, but i would have been far too timid to mention her "fancy pants," and especially the size.



Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 04/14/2012:  12:00:06


Originally posted by atleson

Marc:   probably every Zaida should have a tune, but i would have been far too timid to mention her "fancy pants," and especially the size.



Actually, the original is "underpants", and the name is whoever is skipping. The rhyme would be chanted by those turning the skipping rope. Being from Montreal, I couldn't resist using a traditional rhyme with "Montreal" in it.

mralston - Posted - 04/14/2012:  17:13:37

Here it is again on a fretless that I keep tuned about 5 frets low.


Mississippi Sawyer


rickhayes - Posted - 04/14/2012:  17:34:17

Thought I’d take a shot at this one in my almost clawhammer.  Playing it in key of D but in G tuning, starting up the neck, head down, then finish back up.  It can’t compare to the other versions already submitted, or probably those that will be, but what the heck. 

Hey Marc, why don’t you try having a little fun when you play something? smiley

Mississippi Sawyer


cmic - Posted - 04/15/2012:  11:38:36

my 2 cents (of euros). There is also Art Rosenbaum version from the old LP

"Art Of The Mountain Banjo". He plays this tune in aDADE and offers many

variations of both part A and part B.

I like this one too.



Tamarack - Posted - 04/16/2012:  05:25:59

A side effect of posting the TOTW is that the tune, and all its variations, gets firmly stuck in your head.

A pleasant change from the usual horrid pop music that gets stuck in my head.

KnarfEK - Posted - 04/20/2012:  10:06:57

This tune finally got me to make the leap out of my G comfort zone and into Double C! (or capo'd to D)
Damn, lots of tunes in that tuning! Though quite a few of them sound alike I assume that's mostly my inexperience with hearing their nuances.

maryzcox - Posted - 04/20/2012:  10:28:15

Here's a fun version of Mississippi Sawyer on clawhammer banjo, cello banjo & dulcimer cool

Its on my music page at BHO :)

Best wishes,

Mary Z Cox

stigandr5 - Posted - 04/20/2012:  10:32:33

Wanted to get this up before the next TOTW shows up. Again, I think I have the distinction of being the only canjoist to post a version. I'm honored!

This rendition is entirely modal (no C#, only C on the 3rd string).



VIDEO: "Mississippi Sawyer" N.A. Wendte
(click to view)


RWJones1970 - Posted - 04/20/2012:  21:53:05

....and here is another version of this great tune played on my Reiter.

mtmncobb - Posted - 04/21/2012:  08:03:59

Good job on the canjo!

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