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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 7/20/2012 - Little Satchel

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

sugarinthegourd - Posted - 07/20/2012:  08:20:18

This is one of the songs that really made me want to learn to play clawhammer banjo. I think I bought the Rounder CD High Atmosphere from the County Records booth at MerleFest in 1997. In any event I remember subjecting my patient wife to that CD, and in particular Fred Cockerham's wonderful performance of this song, over and over on the way home.

I couldn't find a tab for it anywhere, so a couple years back I spent a bit of time listening to the song slowly and trying to transcribe everything Fred was doing. I never 100% completed that project, but below is a tab that I think gets pretty close to two main themes. Note that the first section contains an intro and ends with a bar of 6/8. The second section can be repeated & played over & over for the verses of the song. It's a rather odd 11 bars long. There are more variants to the tune than what I have tabbed out here. If I have time over the next week, I may try to add a little bit more.

The tuning is g#C#F#BE which is "Cumberland Gap" tuning (f#BEAD) tuned up a whole step, so that the chords come out in the key of E rather than D. This is a fun tuning to play around with, especially if you play guitar, and you may find that rather than trying to get all the weird nuances of Fred's playing you want to start by just chording 3200 0320 and 2002 which are the I IV and V chords in this tuning. You will find that the basics of the song just fall out quite naturally as you play these chords.

link to TablEdit .tef file

link to .pdf file

link to .mid file

If anyone has suggestions to improve this transcription, please let me know.

I have listened to 3 recordings of Fred singing the song, and the words are slightly different in each version. Here is my take on the lyrics, not exactly true to any one recording, but more of a consolidation using the phrases that seem to show up most consistently:

Under my bed you will set your little satchel
On my head you'll lay your hand
If you'll be my little darling
I will be your loving man

Run to the house and ask your mama
Bride of mine may ever be
She says no, come back and tell me
I will wait till you get free

You get free, well then we'll get married
Look how happy then we'll be
Then we'll go to Californy
Settle down and live at home

I wish I were a little sparrow
And I had the wings to fly
I'd fly back to the arms of my darling
Light on a branch and there I will die

As you can see I'm no little sparrow
Neither have I wings to fly
I'll go home all broken hearted
Weep and moan until I die

A few recordings of Fred:

Here is a lo-fi mp3 of Fred's performance from the High Atmosphere album

Here is a lo-fi mp3 of Fred's performance from the Field Recorders' Collective album

Here is a lo-fi mp3 of Fred's performance from the Down to the Cider Mill album

Two other recordings of this song that I highly recommend:

Dirk Powell (vocal by Jim Miller) from Dirk's album If I Go Ten Thousand Miles

Riley Baugus from Riley's album Life of Riley

Here is a nice video of Riley Baugus performing the song live:,0,40,0" data="" height="240" width="320">" />" quality="high" src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="320">

Hope people enjoy this one! Let me know how you make out.



Edited by - sugarinthegourd on 07/21/2012 11:22:10

RG - Posted - 07/20/2012:  11:30:06

John-an outstanding choice...great tune!

R. Blakeslee Gilpin - Posted - 07/20/2012:  11:44:15

One of my top 5 favorite tunes ever - love this post! Thanks John.

J-Walk - Posted - 07/20/2012:  13:35:05

Good choice, and great write-up, John.

The first time I heard Riley Baugus play this (on his "Life or Riley" CD) I was in the car. It just blew me away, and I think I listened to it for 30 minutes over and over. I went home and tried to play it, and soon gave up.

R. Blakeslee Gilpin - Posted - 07/20/2012:  16:19:52

Since I do not have John's ear/transcription skills and my first listen to High Atmosphere had me in much the same mind as J-Walk, I banged together a much simpler version of this tune. Without too many excuses about my playing and singing, I humbly submit my version (recorded back in 2009 before I sold this Bonefaas to J-Walk!):,0,40,0" data="">" />" quality="high" src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash">

mworden - Posted - 07/20/2012:  20:46:12

Really cool tune.  I've got three versions in my collection but never really listened to it before.  Kept reminding me of a Bob Dylan tune for some reason (a completely neutral statement), which is certainly not true of most old-timey stuff I listen to.

JeremyS - Posted - 07/21/2012:  04:07:53

Does anyone know much about the Dirk Powell version? Is it in the same tuning?

R. Blakeslee Gilpin - Posted - 07/21/2012:  12:02:26

Dirk breaks this song down in a long article from BNL...It's sort of a 'here's a step by step of how to learn a tune from a recording you like.' I'll dig up the exact info. As I recall, it's the same as Riley's version, or 'Tumblin' Gap' tuning...

sugarinthegourd - Posted - 07/21/2012:  13:36:52

Thanks for the feedback all.

Note, I have made a couple of small edits to the tab and to the post above, including more audio links.

I am working on putting together a couple of short video lessons, to review some real fundamentals about playing in this tuning, including an ├╝ber-simple, stripped-down version of this song, and a more detailed lesson on playing the actual tab, or at least the main theme. (The intro is very cool but a little odd, and really only shows up on the High Atmosphere recording.)

Check back soon if you're interested.


Edited by - sugarinthegourd on 07/21/2012 13:38:54

ramjo - Posted - 07/21/2012:  14:53:15


Originally posted by sugarinthegourd


Note, I have made a couple of small edits to the tab and to the post above, including more audio links.....


John, did you edit the verse about the guy wishing he could fly over the prison walls to get to his little girl, or was I dreaming that was there yesterday? I understand that Fred didn't sing it that way, but I was always struck by the sadness of the concrete image explaining why the wish couldn't be fulfilled. Maybe you had copped this from the internet?

I wish I was a little angel
And over these prison walls I would fly
Fly on back to the arms of my darling
Stay at home and there I will die

As you can see I'm no little angel
Neither have I wings to fly
I'll go back all broken hearted
Weep and moan until I die

Anyway, not a problem. If Fred did it wishing the guy was a sparrow who could fly from anywhere, that's the right way. approve Thanks for choosing this one!

sugarinthegourd - Posted - 07/21/2012:  15:20:38


I linked to someone else's transcription yesterday, and they included those lyrics from "The Prisoner's Song" which is closely related. But I don't think Fred actually song those words about the angel or the prison.


sugarinthegourd - Posted - 07/22/2012:  04:57:27

I confirmed that those earlier lyrics (angel/prison) are from the Dirk Powell recording. I don't think Fred sang those words.


JanetB - Posted - 07/22/2012:  11:17:31

Thanks, John, for introducing me to a new song and teaching me something about Fred Cockerham (especially Riley Baugus' tales).  I like all the versions here.  Dirk Powell's is simple and mellow.  Here is a link to a short Banjo Hangout discussion about Dirk's version, which states that he doesn't provide tab in Banjo Newsletter, but that the tuning is f#BEAD.  It's rare when an old-time song mentions California, though the 49er gold rush certainly was a factor in many lives. 

XXXris - Posted - 08/02/2012:  20:23:54

Thanks for posting this! I'm fooling around with Cumberland Gap, and was looking for other things in that tuning....

I didn't realize this was in the same tuning; Cockerham's version really is one of my favorite recordings too.

If you have the inclination to post more on this song/tuning, I'd be pleased to see it....


QQQQQ - Posted - 08/03/2012:  05:57:24

I am trying to learn this wonderful tune from the sugarinthegourd's tab, but having trouble with the tuning.

My banjo, an old Vega with friction pegs, will hold a tuning just fine if I keep it tuned south of A440. It won't stay tuned high.
Can't get that high E to stay in tune.

Also, I am not musically smart enough to change this tuning to one I can use in a lower register.
The tab shows G#C#F#BE.
What would that be dropped one or two tones down? Where the high string stays at D?

Thanks for this great thread,


Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 08/03/2012:  06:28:51

G#C#F#BE tuned down by one tone= F#BEAD

sugarinthegourd - Posted - 08/03/2012:  07:02:56

I'm at Clifftop right now but I do plan to make and post a couple videos on this song...not that I play it expertly, but to show some of the basics of the tuning and the song. Hope to do that soon, probably in a week or two.


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