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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 6/8/12: Little Birdie

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stigandr5 - Posted - 06/08/2012:  16:13:21

Every once in a while, a Tune of the Week pops up that makes me think, "Wow! How has no one done this yet?" That was my goal this week--to make you say, "Wow!"

According to the Fiddler's Companion, "Little Birdie" can be characterized as such:


Old‑Time, Song and Breakdown. Despite the similarity in names, the song “Little Birdie” has nothing to do with the West Virginia fiddler tune called “Birdie,” a ‘ragtime’ influenced piece.


Little birdie, little birdie,

Come sing to me your song.

Have a short time to be with you,

And a long time to be gone.


"Little Birdie" is a fairly well-known banjo song. It even has a number of tunings that are uniquely associated with it:

(​Taken from 5-String Banjo Tunings. Ignore the Roman numerals; it's my own indexing system laid on the database.)

XVII. “Little Birdie” C Tunings

XVII.1            eCGAD

"Little Birdie" C-tuning

"There ain't no tune played in this tuning except Little Birdie" said Pete Steele. For the C-chord, fret 1st string at 2nd fret, 2nd string at 3rd fret. The equivalent tuning for the key of D is f#DABE.

Pete Steele, Little Birdie ("Pete Steele: Banjo Songs & Tunes"). Gaither Carlton, Little Birdie ("Clawhammer Banjo"). Willie Chapman, Little Birdie ("Mountain Music of Kentucky"). Roscoe Holcomb, Little Birdie ("The Music of Roscoe Holcomb & Wade Ward"). Art Rosenbaum, Little Birdie ("Art of the Mountain Banjo" and tab). Burl Hammons, Singing Birds ("Shaking Down the Acorns"; "Visits"). Morgan Sexton, Little Birdie; Omie Wise (Dm) "Rock Dust").

XVII.2            gCGAD

"Little Birdie" variant

Lily Mae Ledford, Little Birdie ("Coon Creek Girls"). (Sounds like Lily Mae plays it in this tuning.)

XVII.3            f#DABD

"Little Birdie" alternate tuning

If you change the "Little Birdie" eCGAD tuning up one whole step, except for the 1st string, this is what you get. George Gibson says he learned this tuning from Clay Engle of Knott County, who in turned had learned it from an old black man. Here, "Little Birdie" is played out of the D-chord made by holding the 1st string down at the 4th fret and the 2nd string down at the 3rd fret. G. Gibson comments that "Little Sparrow" also sounds great in this tuning. 

There are many good versions of this song. Allow me to share with you some of my favorites:

  1. Dr. Ralph Stanley

  2. Pete Seeger

  3. Roscoe Holcomb

  4. I also have a record of Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead) playing this song in the early '60s with a band called the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers.

  5. Abigail Washburn (Translated into Chinese)

  6. Pete Steele's is the earliest recording I can find of the song.

The lyrics of the song tend to vary according to the version, but I find it's general mood to be consistently bittersweet. Gotta love the old gems like this one.

Finally, here's a version I recorded on my first, handmade banjo--a monstrosity of pine and sympathetic strings:




Looking forward to hearing/watching your own versions. This song never gets old for me.



Edited by - stigandr5 on 06/08/2012 16:17:46

UncleClawhammer - Posted - 06/08/2012:  16:23:08

It sounds really neat on that banjo. I like this tune but never got around to playing it myself. Maybe I'll work it up.

J-Walk - Posted - 06/08/2012:  16:33:42

It's definitely a popular one. I have 20 different versions of it.

If you don't have it, snag a copy of Chance McCoy's "Debut" album and listen to Adam Hurt (I assume) play it on banjo. It's in the key of B. If you missed the other thread about this album, go to his web site, sign up for his email list, and you can download the album:


ramjo - Posted - 06/08/2012:  16:57:30

J-walk, I'm pretty sure that's Chance himself. What a great version that is. I enjoy playing it that way. Great choice for totw, btw.

Edited by - ramjo on 06/08/2012 16:59:44

J-Walk - Posted - 06/08/2012:  17:15:20

It doesn't sound like Adam, but I don't have the liner notes. Are there liner notes? I'm not at all surprised that Chance is a great banjo player.

ramjo - Posted - 06/08/2012:  17:30:11

No, I don't have liner notes either. I just ventured an educated guess based on this video, and that he offers skype banjo lessons on his website. And also, as you say, it doesn't sound like Adam Hurt.

Not to hijack the thread. Sorry Stigandr5--really enjoyed your version too.

Edited by - ramjo on 06/08/2012 17:33:47

KANINJACK - Posted - 06/08/2012:  19:58:41

Great song to play around with. My 7 yr old loves singing this one.

Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 06/08/2012:  20:30:56

Wow! How come nobody's done this one before?

Great choice - terrific examples! I first heard this on a Pete Seeger children's album, and it's one of the songs that stood out to me as one I would want to play from before I ever took up the banjo. I play it a variety of different ways, in different tunings on different banjos.

Here's a version on a six string banjo with re-entrant tuning, to play like a five string, using two capos to alter not only the pitch, but also the tuning. The higher capo only covers 5 of the six strings - effectively lowering the high pitched 6th string relative to the others. The tuning (open) is dDGDGD, all capoed at the second fret to eEAEAE, then partially capoed again at the 5th fret to result in eGCGCG, played in the key of C.

It's a pretty simple arrangement - I think I play the whole thing using just one finger on my left hand. I like to think that I really like simplicity in music, (but sometimes I wonder if it's really just because I'm too lazy to work out complicated stuff).


stigandr5 - Posted - 06/08/2012:  20:59:13

Ah... If that's simplicity in music, then let me no longer envy complexity.

Wonderful version, Marc. Thanks.

banjoghost - Posted - 06/08/2012:  22:22:19

here's mines:" target="_blank">

Bisbonian - Posted - 06/09/2012:  06:48:58

Hard to believe this hasn't been done's one of my favorites.  Roscoe Holcomb and Curt Bouterse play two of my favorite versions.  I can't seem to figure it out in eCGAD, and tend to play it in either G modal or double C.

stigandr5 - Posted - 06/09/2012:  06:58:01


I've often tried working up an instrumental version of this song, but I'm never satisfied with the results. This, on the other hand, comes across as a full and complete arrangement. Well done!


banjered - Posted - 06/09/2012:  07:02:49

I really love this song, how it sounds on the banjo and its timeless lyrics. I probably play it everytime I pick up a banjo. Wish I knew how to post sound samples but I've never seen instructions anywhere how to post audios, kinda dumb that way. Anyway, I play it in standard G tuning and then somewhere in the song modulate it to "C" out of G tuning and then modulate it back down to G tuning. I like to play it pretty slow myself but enjoy listening to all the different versions/approaches above...."and a long time to be gone...." Banjered

riverstein - Posted - 06/09/2012:  08:25:38

Mike Seeger has a touching version on his "Southern Banjo Styles" - played in eCGAC, tuned down a whole step to B-flat.

The use of the word "Birdie" used to irritate me (Birdie?? What are we, three years old?).  But if you are going to converse with birds, I guess baby-talk is as good a mode as any.  And then that line "Such a short time to be here, such a long time to be gone" is a great, profound thought ...makes the piece much more than a children's song.  Better make the most of our short time...  

Bisbonian - Posted - 06/09/2012:  09:05:08

Nathan, your version sounds fantastic.  What tuning are you using?  Love the sympathetic strings, too.


Oh, and another favorite is Clifton Hicks:

stigandr5 - Posted - 06/09/2012:  11:14:52

My tuning is Double C tuned down a whole step (B-flat). I'm in the process of writing up a TAB of my version. Should be up today or tomorrow.

stigandr5 - Posted - 06/09/2012:  12:19:31

And here it is!

Little Birdie TAB


JanetB - Posted - 06/09/2012:  12:46:38

My favorites:  All of them, especially Marc and Nathan's.  A simple song, yet intricate and emotional.

tonehead - Posted - 06/09/2012:  18:26:34

The Prairie Acre

majikgator - Posted - 06/10/2012:  05:19:04

Yet another tune that i figured had already been a TOTW. Thanks for noticing the omission A great tune.

KANINJACK - Posted - 06/10/2012:  05:25:24

The Hillbilly Gypsies recorded a good version of this as well.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 06/10/2012:  08:17:07

It is always a joy to watch one of Nathan Wendt's performances with the canjo.   Further proof that it's not all about tone rings and head tension after all.  He's picked one of the great old time songs this week, and reminds us that we shoud focus on the heartwood and not the veneer.  Of course, Marc always surprises with his fertile genius; he stirs the unorthodox brew of re-entrant tuning and six string banjo to call up the shadow of Roscoe Holcomb.  Banjoghost's">instrumental version just plain sparkles, well-rooted yet free-spirited.  Tonehead, I really enjoyed the Prairie Acre performance, too.  I'd like to add my three finger version, which started out after listening to Roscoe on one of those translucent red vinyl Library of Congress LP, but then wandered off in its own very different direction.  This recording was made in my living room in 1998.  The guitar player was Brian Clancey, who now plays in a duet with fiddler Robin Warren as Spirit Fiddle.  We experimented a lot with the mixing together of finger picked banjo and finger picked guitar, a sound I really like.  

Brian Clancey


Edited by - Don Borchelt on 06/10/2012 08:26:24

Little Birdie with Wry Whiskey


JanetB - Posted - 06/10/2012:  08:49:53

Don, your duet with Brian is sooooo sweet--it just doesn't get any better.

ramjo - Posted - 06/10/2012:  11:23:59

Whenever I hear Don Borchelt's playing I resolve to do one of two things: take a six-month leave from my job and practice 8 hours a day every day, or, because even with all that practicing I still probably won't play as smoothly and tastefully as Mr. B., fill up my instruments with cement and throw them in the lake. Today, I just let his beautiful version motivate me to record one of my own.

The banjo was in last chance tuning, so my version is in F (fCFCD). The lyrics are from Mike Seeger's version. The first time I heard this tune was at a Peggy Seeger concert when I was just getting interested in OT banjo. She played it pretty much as it is on Mike's album (as I remember). I was always struck by the notion that the bird flies up high because it's dissatisfied with what's happening on earth--which causes the bird to "grieve over you," i.e., the singer stuck there.

Very nice playing one and all. I am enjoying this totw so very much.

Little Birdie


Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 06/10/2012:  11:52:40

Just listened to all of the versions posted here by BHO members. They're all terrific - and all so nicely different from each other. A diversity of approaches to a common goal. I love it.

Gadaya - Posted - 06/10/2012:  12:57:21

I also play the Carter Family's "Single girl, married girl" with the "Little Birdie" tuning as the melody is almost the same.

rickhayes - Posted - 06/10/2012:  16:46:50

Great pick Nathan, and terrific playing by all.

carlb - Posted - 06/11/2012:  06:59:27

My version of Burl Hammon's "Singing Birds" in "Little Birdie" tuning (f#DAbe).

Singing Birds


bordertownbrown - Posted - 06/11/2012:  08:08:31

John Hammond recorded his version of this song on April 8, 1925. I first heard this on a 78 in about 1970 and it remains my favorite.

JanetB - Posted - 06/12/2012:  06:45:26


Originally posted by carlb

My version of Burl Hammon's "Singing Birds" in "Little Birdie" tuning (f#DAbe).

 Nice one, Carl.  It's got the long-ago sound, so mellow and mountainous.

agent369 - Posted - 06/12/2012:  10:03:30

I really like the job Chance McCoy does on this song on his Debut CD...J-Walk mentioned it's done in the key of B... How does one get to tuning?

ramjo - Posted - 06/12/2012:  10:11:35


Originally posted by agent369

I really like the job Chance McCoy does on this song on his Debut CD...J-Walk mentioned it's done in the key of B... How does one get to tuning?


An easy way to think of it is that it's double C but with the fifth string tuned down to e--and then all strings tuned down another half step. So: d#BF#BC#

ELWOOD - Posted - 06/12/2012:  11:37:22

Hi, All . This is my take on Lil Birdy. No clue what the tuning is......but put up the harmonic open strings should you like to try it out.

Lil Birdy

paulsonlearning - Posted - 06/20/2012:  18:43:33

Hello. My wife posts on Mandolin Cafe's Song-of-the-Week, and she's been having fun with that. So, I thought I'd give this a try. Here's a first post: Little Birdie.

My wife, Marcy, is singing tonight. 

I've enjoyed the posts so far and the different takes on the tune.

Little Birdie


Don Borchelt - Posted - 06/20/2012:  19:30:57

A very nice performance, Jeff, from both of you.  A fine debut!

vanNood - Posted - 06/20/2012:  20:33:46

Don, your version of little birdie has been a favorite of mine since I found it on your website a little while ago.  Can you help me figure out how you play it?  That's a really sweet tune.




Don Borchelt - Posted - 06/21/2012:  06:49:17

Ryan, I'll work up the tab as soon as I get a chance, sometime in the next few days.  I played it in double C tuning, and worked the heck out of that open 2nd string.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 06/21/2012:  15:40:11

Turns out I already had the tab all written out.  You can find it at the link below, in Tabledit, PDF, and MIDI format:

paulsonlearning - Posted - 06/21/2012:  18:59:15

What a fun tune. I am enjoying the range of variations in banjos and interpretations. N.A.'s homemade banjo is intriguing; I'd like to know more about it.

Thank you all for the warm welcome in the forum and the encouragement. I see that The Hog Got Through the Fence with the Whole Yoke On is the current tune. I shall start working on it.

vanNood - Posted - 06/21/2012:  19:24:19

Wow thanks Don! I'll get right to work on that!

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