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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 11/9/12: Maggots in the Sheep Hide

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Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/09/2012:  08:22:32

About forty-five miles east of Pittsburgh, in southwest Pennsylvania, lies the borough of Derry.  Nestled in the foothills of the Laurel Highlands, part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, at the base of Chestnut Ridge, the town has a population today of about 2,700, probably near the same population it had in 1943, when musicologist Samuel Preston Bayard came through the area on a collecting trip, seeking out the fiddle music he remembered hearing as a child visiting relatives.  One of the first musicians he came across was Sarah Armstrong, an elderly woman of Scottish descent, whose father and uncles had all been local musicians of some repute.  It was primarily from them that she had gotten her repertoire of tunes.  Bayard transcribed a total of thirty-seven tunes from Sarah Armstrong, making her the largest contributor to the collection he published the following year, entitled Hill Country Tunes, the Instrumental Folk Music of Southwestern Pennsylvania.  One of those tunes is this week's BHO Tune of the Week, a melodically simple but engaging tune called Maggots in the Sheep Hide. 

Sarah Armstrong

Bayard states that "a notable feature of this dance air is its short three-note prelude, which is never played except at the very start, and is left out of all subsequent repetitions."  Otherwise, he doesn't have anything else to say about it, and I am not sure those who play it today pay much attention to that little prelude, a variation on the standard fiddler's "potatoes."  I first heard this tune a few years ago when Linda Henry and Jerry Dallal played it at the weekly Sunday night old time music jam at the Skellig, in Waltham, Massachusetts.  Linda and Jerry do some of the finest old-time duet singing I have ever heard.  My recording, attached below, comes from the  Clifftop jam I had this past August with Don Couchie and Tim Rowell.  Don is playing the fiddle, Tim is doing that neat low, growly clawhammer picking, and I am doing the three finger picking.  I recorded this on my little hand held Tascam DR-1.  I have a tablature of my arrangement posted on my website.  Another friend of mine calls the tune "charming."


Don Couchie & Tim Rowell


I guess this is still a pretty rare tune, because I couldn't find too many commercially available recorded references.  There are two of note:  Pennsylvania fiddler Todd Clewell put out a CD in 2005 on his own label, Happy Dog Records, with twenty-six of the Armstrong tunes, called, appropriately, Sarah Armstrong's Tunes.   Maggots in the Sheep Hide is the first tune on the CD.  I've heard Todd fiddle at Clifftop, and he is a wonderful player.  

       left click

On his website, Todd also offered a Sarah Armstrong t-shirt; I wonder what Armstrong would have thought of that  ("oh, good Lord," probably, but said very nicely).  I tried to order one, but the link was dead.  sad

Bay Area songwriter and fiddler Carol Denney released a self-produced CD in 2009 called Maggots in the Sheep Hide, with banjo picker Jim Nelson.   Here is the sample from CD Baby:

Carol Denney playing Maggots in the Sheep Hide (sample)

       left click

I could only find one version of Maggots in the BHO Music Archive, from former Tune of the Week coordinator and noted blogger John "J-Walk" Walkenbach, doing a fine clawhammer version.  He appears again in the Fiddle Hangout archive, in a duet with FHO member wormbower:

J-Walk picking Maggots in the Sheep Hide

Wormbower fiddling Maggots in the Sheep Hide

I would strongly recommend reading Bayard's introduction to Hill Country Tunes; it has a good discussion of much traditional fiddling practice common in Appalachia, including the use of drones, variation in how the fiddle is held, non-standard cross tunings, the use of non-chromatic quarter tones, and even "trick" fiddling.  Right click on the image to rotate the PDF clockwise.  A pair of typical Bayard observations:

When a fiddler knows in what key he is playing, it is no sign that he knows anything about reading music; and when he is able (as few are) to read notes, the effect of printed music on his repertoire and playing habits is still likely to be slight, if he has been an ear player at first.

A common practice among country fiddlers is to use the open strings as drones.  Often they shave down the top of the violin bridge until the strings are nearly on the same plane, making continuous double-stop playing easier; and performing in this manner they call "cross-bowing" or "playing the old way."  This feature, combined with the steady rhythm and absence of dynamc change in their playing, produces an effect much like that of bagpipes, of which it may possibly have been an imitation.

Bayard regretted not being able to record his tune sources himself, writing that "circumstances did not permit the use of machinery."  He does report that Sarah Armstrong was recorded by her family, using a home disc recorder, but so far those recordings have not surfaced, so all we have are Bayard's transcriptions.  I wonder if anyone has made a serious effort to track them down.

I'm sure hoping to hear some fine versions coming from you old time pickers!  And if you are quizzical about the odd title, apparently infestation of living sheep by blowfly (lucilia cuprina) maggots is a common agricultural problem.   The disease is called fly strike, and if not immediately treated can cause the animal an agonizing death.  Doesn't seem to fit with the happy tune, but go figure.

- Don Borchelt


Edited by - Don Borchelt on 11/12/2012 15:06:42

Maggots in the Sheep Hide from Clifftop 2012

Transcription of Maggots in the Sheep Hide from Hill Country Tunes

vrteach - Posted - 11/09/2012:  08:58:14

ALL RIGHT! This is a current favorite of mine, although I don't do a banjo version yet. I've been trying to introduce it to our local group.

The Clifftop recording is great.

Edited to remove a link which I didn't notice that Don had already included...

Also, LykeK did a few of Sarah Armstrong's tunes for a TOTW in 2010. After that I bought the Tod Crewell cd, and it is a good one.

Edited by - vrteach on 11/09/2012 09:08:18

cmic - Posted - 11/09/2012:  09:50:24

Thanks Don for this lovely tune, the discovery of Sarah Armstrong, the full scores od tunes.

I have not learned the tune (not yet) but a new word, by the way : maggot (Hey, I'm french)


SCclawman - Posted - 11/09/2012:  10:14:56

Terrific write up Don. Thanks for introducing me to a new song and a new fiddler I hadn't heard of. I was excited when I clicked on the forum to see you had done the new TOTW. I knew it would be good and detailed and you didn't let me down.

J-Walk, I really enjoyed your version. It was perfect! Smooth playing John!

Don, your Clifftop version was inspiring to listen to as well.

Great tune. Not so sure about the name though - haha - maggots are just gross. smiley

YorkshireWannabeOldTimer - Posted - 11/09/2012:  11:58:36

Excellent write-up and really good series of versions posted. If I can ever get my banjo properly in tune (I think I've suffered some bridge shift...) then I may have a go at working this out myself.

I was particularly pleased to see the title of this tune, having myself returned home after work equipped with a 'pint of reds' (i.e. a pint's worth of maggots that have been dyed red), bought with a mind to spending a couple of hours tomorrow morning stick-float fishing for Grayling down the river Don! 


Edited by - YorkshireWannabeOldTimer on 11/09/2012 11:58:57

bhniko - Posted - 11/09/2012:  14:43:01

Enjoyed the banjo history lesson and music on Maggots in the Sheep Hide. Thanks

RG - Posted - 11/10/2012:  01:05:13

Great tune Don...real nice!

Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/10/2012:  07:58:53

Well, I worked out an up the neck break for this, posted a video, below.  I see I am going to have to light a fire under you pickers.

VIDEO: Maggots in the Sheep Hide
(click to view)


ScottK - Posted - 11/10/2012:  08:34:35

Great write up and fine picking Don!

Coincidentally, I was just working on Sarah Armstrong's The Snouts and Ears of America last night. I'm heading up to Bellingham, Washington, for a picking party tonight and know that it's one of the tunes the hosts play.


JanetB - Posted - 11/10/2012:  10:38:14

This is a fine right-up, Don, a fun tune to learn, and a lousy title indeed.  dead    Is the link above to Bayard's Hill Country Tunes his only book currently on-line which we can access?  I couldn't find "Squirrel Hunters," the tune John Hartford said he learned from Bayard's transcriptions.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/10/2012:  10:38:17

ScottK wrote: "Coincidentally, I was just working on Sarah Armstrong's The Snouts and Ears of America last night."

Yeah, that's on my short list.

vrteach - Posted - 11/10/2012:  10:42:54

Snouts & Ears is also on my list.

Because I don't have a banjo version that satisfies me, I've scraped out a version of "Maggots" on the fiddle.

Maggots on the Sheep Hide


Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/10/2012:  10:58:30

JanetB wrote: "I couldn't find "Squirrel Hunters," the tune John Hartford said he learned from Bayard's transcriptions."

Janet, Bayard published a much larger collection in 1982, called Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife, Instrumental Folk Music in Pennsylvania, published by the Penn State Press.  It is out of print, but Amazon has links to a number of used copies, starting at $215.  There are 615 tunes in this collection, and I would bet Squirrel Hunters is among them.

The UC Berkeley Library has a copy, here is the link to their on-line catalog entry.  Next time you drive down to the Bay Area, you could check it out and report:  smiley

University of California, Berkeley Library Catalog Entry for Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife

Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/10/2012:  10:59:41

Fine fiddling, Erich.  Now I don't feel so alone!

vrteach - Posted - 11/10/2012:  11:21:14

OK, I hate to see a lonely TOTW host. Here is what I do on the banjo.

Edit: by the way, the other top topic right now has to do with defining "Drive", and I submit this as an example that is lacking drive. And I can't figure out the technique to make it interesting and still match what I think it should sound like.

Edited by - vrteach on 11/10/2012 11:30:25

Maggots on the Sheep Hide (banjo)


Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/10/2012:  13:18:28

Sounds great, Erich, you get a fine tone from that banjo.  I don't know why you say this is lacking in drive, it has a good pulsing rhythm to my ear.  A lot of people start talking about drive when they want to make somebody else feel insecure about their playing.  It's all just wordplay.

Couchie - Posted - 11/10/2012:  17:01:30


Originally posted by vrteach

 I submit this as an example that is lacking drive.

 Well, I think it has plenty of good drive.  Very good playing.

YorkshireWannabeOldTimer - Posted - 11/11/2012:  07:40:01

Further excellent versions above - Erich, your playing on the recording does not lack drive! I've roughed out a version of this tune; thanks again Don for introducing me to it.  

Maggots in the Sheep Hide


blanham - Posted - 11/11/2012:  07:40:10

Thanks for introducing this great tune to us!  That Clifftop recording really turned out nice.

ALpal - Posted - 11/11/2012:  08:05:54

It's a cool song thanks for introducing me to it. Here's what I put together. Not sure why it's recorded so low. I'm new with this recording stuff.

maggots in the sheep hide


Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/11/2012:  09:07:09

A man with the courage to go up the neck!  A fine job of picking, and a great arrangement, RYW Old Timer.  A nice sparkling version, Al, well played as well.  Thanks for jumping in, guys.

JanetB - Posted - 11/11/2012:  18:20:41

Here's my recording, Don, and a theory to ponder.  The song is a happy one with a meandering kind of movement, so picture sheep ranchers dipping their maggot-infested sheep with sheep dip.  We used to be able to get this stuff in California and it worked well on hounds and horses alike, and then it was outlawed.  But it gave me this image of working with sheep and I found one on wickipedia:


Maggots in the Sheep Hide


JanetB - Posted - 11/12/2012:  06:51:39

Upon thinking more about the sheep dip theory (above), the title is about the sheep hide. It would have to be treated after slaughtering the sheep, right? I do think these things are worth thinking about because the title is often a link to the heart and soul of a tune. Don, your video of the tune with its mournful slides may fit the mood better...Thanks for giving us another way of hearing the melody. 

cbcarlisle - Posted - 11/12/2012:  08:33:13

"The Squirrel Hunters" rates five pages in "Dance to the Fiddle...", with nine variants and typical meaty comments (no pun) from Bayard. He lists a number of other titles and says, "...we have several mutually inseparable versions of one of the most widespread and ramifying of our British Isles melodic families; a highly characteristic type of family, in fact, such as occurs repeatedly in our folk music. // What with the obvious variant sets, the apparent derivatives, and the affiliated melodies that look and sound like modified versions, the forms of this tune are nearly innumerable. There are instrumental and vocal (marching, dancing, and singing) forms; quick and slow forms; forms in 2/4, 4/4, 6/8, and 3/4 time; forms in major, Mixolydian, Dorian, and mixed modes - and all showing such a maze of crisscrossing resemblances that none of the differentiating features just mentioned can possibly be used to separate the versions and seeming derivatives into any clear-cut groups or unmixed classes. Whatever its prehistory, this tune must be a very old one....I have somewhat arbitrarily entitled this whole melodic complex the "Welcome Home" tune-family: see Bayard HCT, Nos. 44-48 and No. 89, with accompanying notes: these airs are also members of the family."

This section is so important and relevant to all kinds of musical styles that I had underlined it when I first read the book years ago. Bayard is a little-recognized master and well worth the investment in time and money.

bhniko - Posted - 11/12/2012:  08:50:56

Janet...lovely picking...every note more beautiful then next.

cmic - Posted - 11/12/2012:  10:56:53

I am always surprised how different players "interpret" one tune. I mean there are many

differences (mood, speed, ..) between, Don and Janet for example. And suddenly it

seems to be another tune. Though it's not.  This time, Janet B playing is full of happiness.

Maybe woman-spirit-influence ? Anyway. It a real pleasure to hear her playing.


Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/12/2012:  13:53:00

Very fine picking Janet, a great arrangement, well done.  Last year, my daughter and son-in-law gave me a bottle of whiskey as a present, it was called Sheep Dip, and despite the name, was a very fine whiskey.

vrteach - Posted - 11/13/2012:  07:52:02

I'm finally back at a fast connection so I could listen to the versions. Outstanding! I feel inspired to revisit the Maggots on the banjo.

Edited by - vrteach on 11/13/2012 07:54:03

wtalley - Posted - 11/14/2012:  16:08:58

This thread caught my eye earlier this week, it's a tune I've been meaning to learn for a while - so this has been my motivation.  So here's my version (I know - it's fast, but just about everything I play comes out at "square dance" tempo):

Maggots in the Sheep Hide


Don Borchelt - Posted - 11/15/2012:  04:21:43

Well played, Bill, very smooth.

R Buck - Posted - 11/16/2012:  19:51:08

I recorded this tune with Todd Clewell on his Sara Armstrong CD.  It is a great tune and it makes a great banjo duet tune for two banjos.

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