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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW - The Chicken Reel 5/3/13

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:

Don Borchelt - Posted - 05/03/2013:  09:30:22

You can keep your fancy jazz licks, your record setting banjo duels, your oddly crooked tunes in mixo-frumpian mode, what really sets the men apart from the boys (so to speak), is the ability to make your banjo sound like a chicken.  Old time music is full of good chicken tunes, of course, but the grand-daddy of them all, in my humble opinion, is the Chicken Reel.  I consider its omission- until now- from the Tune of the Week honor roll to be a travesty for which I feel great personal guilt.  But it is never too late to make restitution, as long as we have breath and strength left in our old fingers.  So here we go...

Writer's credit for Chicken Reel belongs to a young Boston ragtime composer and publisher named Joseph M. Daly, who wrote the tune in 1910.  However, according to the Fiddler's Companion, Samuel Bayard among others believed the tune may have had earlier, perhaps Irish origins.  I'm skeptical.  If you click on the image below, you will hear a player piano performing Hall's original composition.

One of the first commercial recordings of Chicken Reel came from Fiddlin' Doc Roberts, who recorded the tune for Gennett in 1930.  This recording is included on the Slippery Hill website.  By this time, the tune was known by fiddlers all over the country, and was used to accompany New England contra dancers, Appalachian flatfooters, and Western-Country square dancers alike. 

Fiddlin' Doc Roberts playing Chicken Reel

Fiddlin' Doc Roberts (1897-1978)

In 1951, Chicken Reel was recorded by country/jazz guitar great Les Paul, who knows, perhaps the first example of country guitar "chicken pickin'".

Les Paul playing Chicken Reel

In 1964, folk label Elektra Records included a performance of Chicken Reel by fiddler Allan Block on their landmark LP entitled Old Time Banjo Project.  This influential album helped kick off the New York old time music revival that started during the folk boom. At that time, Block still owned his famous sandal shop in Greenwich Village in New York City, a legendary gathering place for the City's old time musicians.   Block was accompanied by Walter Gundy on harmonica, Bill Vanaver on five string, and Eric Thompson on bass.  Bill Vanaver now runs a dance company with his wife Livia in New Paltz, New York, called The Vanaver Caravan.  You can hear their Chicken Reel from the now out of print record by clicking on the link below:

Allan Block playing Chicken Reel

Allan Block circa 1965

Ralph Stanley recorded the Chicken Reel on the first album he recorded after the death of his brother Carter, called Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys: Old Time Music, released by Jalyn Records in 1967.  The fiddler is Curly Ray Cline.  I have uploaded a tablature of Doctor Ralph's version to the BHO archive.  You can hear a brief sample of Ralph's banjo picking by clicking the link below:

Ralph Stanley playing Chicken Reel (sample)

Three years after Ralph, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded a fine version of Chicken Reel  on their 1970 Liberty Records album entitled Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy. (This was two years before the recording of their landmark collaboration, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.)  Banjo wizard John McEuen is doing the three-finger picking, and Byron Berline is providing the fiddle work.  This cut has been uploaded to YouTube:

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band playing Chicken Reel

Chicken Reel, as far as I can tell, was not among J.E. Mainer's classic recordings from the 1930s, done for Montgomery Ward, but he fiddled the tune in 1970 for Rural Rhythm Records, included as the last cut on an out of print album, The Legendary J.E. Mainer, Vol. 13.   Mainer was 72 at the time, and he would pass away the following year.  The banjo picker on this album was Morris Herbert.  Mainer's recording shows that Chicken Reel brings out the hidden chicken in all of us. 

J.E. Mainer playing Chicken Reel

J. E. Mainer (1898-1971)

The great bluegrass/western swing fiddler Chubby Wise recorded a leisurely Chicken Reel for Stoneway Records in 1972.  This was reissued  on a CMH compilation CD in 1989 called  The World's Greatest Country Fiddlers.  Like many fiddlers and pickers, he takes liberties with the high part of the tune.  I thought that gave me permission!

Chubby Wise playing Chicken Reel

Fiddlin' Chubby Wise (1915-1996)

There are quite a few other versions of Chicken Reel on YouTube; I've selected three that I found particularly interesting.  The first is a video of the Lantana Drifters, with Uncle Charlie Acuff and Willis Fields on fiddle, recorded in the early 1990's at the home of Edd & Audine Webb in Crossville, Tennessee.  The second features the duo Annie & Mac, with Patrick "Mac" McCauley playing the tune on harmonica, backed by Barbara "Annie" Stevens on guitar, recorded in 2008.  I realize that country harmonica is an acquired taste, but I love it, and I'm not embarrassed to admit it!  The last video is by one of our own, the late Dave Hum, who passed away last November.  Dave uploaded a tab of his arrangement to the BHO archive.  He'll always be one of my favorite pickers.

The Lantana Drifters playing Chicken Reel

Annie & Mac playing Chicken Reel

Dave Hum playing Chicken Reel

Dave Hum (1965-2012)

The Digital Library of Appalachia has over 30 recordings of Chicken Reel in their vast collection.  I have linked to the search results, below:

List of Chicken Reel recordings on the DLA

Out of the entire bunch, I haver selected six that I think are particularly noteworthy.  Of special interest are Shorty McCruiston, playing clawhammer style, Chub Parham, two finger up-picking, and  Clayton Hurt picking old-time three finger style.

Shorty McCruiston, banjo, Calloway County, KY, 1965

Abe Horton, fiddle with Blanton Owen, banjo, Carroll County, VA, April, 1972

Clayton Hurt, three finger banjo, Wise, VA, March, 1974

Chub Parham, two finger banjo, Swannanoa, NC, September, 1977

Walter McNew, fiddle, with Bruce Greene on banjo, Rockcastle County, KY, October 1990

Melvin Wine, fiddle, Braxton County, WV, October 1995

There are only two MP3s uploaded to the BHO archive, both three finger, and five videos, two of which are from Ed Britt & myself.  Two more are from "olbap," from Sommieres, France.  I think I'll let the other folks post their own versions.  So get busy people, you ain't so hen-pecked you don't have time for a little chicken pickin' of your own.  I've attached a video of Chicken Reel taken by a passer-by when Ed Britt and I were busking in Harvard Square earlier this week. An auspicious start to the 2013 busking season.  I am three-finger picking my Ode banjo in open D tuning (aDF#AD), Ed is playing clawhammer style on his Ome, in double C tuning (gCGCD), capoed on the 2nd fret.  I have a tablature of my three-finger version posted on my webpage, and I have added a fairly simple clawhammer version to that tab, to get the shy ones among you started.  It's not what Ed plays; like another banjo picking friend of mine, Jim Reed, Ed doesn't do tab.

- Don Borchelt

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 05/07/2013 04:52:36

VIDEO: Chicken Reel
(click to view)

Chicken Reel Fiddle Notation

J-Walk - Posted - 05/03/2013:  10:22:53

I think the most laid-back clawhammer version ever recorded is by Dwight Diller on his "Jericho Road" album.

Mike Iverson has a recording and clawhammer tab is available. 

MrManners - Posted - 05/03/2013:  11:00:06

3 finger---tom

21st century henhouse

Edited by - MrManners on 05/03/2013 11:01:38

MrManners - Posted - 05/03/2013:  11:20:20

1914 edison wax cylinder

ScottK - Posted - 05/03/2013:  16:10:21

Great write up Don! Man, I love everything you and Ed play together, too!


Marc Nerenberg - Posted - 05/03/2013:  16:44:39

Superb presentation, Don. Really thorough - and really interesting all through!

Couchie - Posted - 05/03/2013:  17:33:51

Once again, Mr Borchelt has done a ton of research to enlighten us about an old fiddle tune.  I've never heard the ragtime version, it certainly raises the bar.  All the other versions are great too.

Thanks Don.

Couchie - Posted - 05/03/2013:  17:39:29

Once again, Mr Borchelt has done a ton of research to enlighten us about an old fiddle tune.  I've never heard the ragtime version, it certainly raises the bar.  All the other versions are great too.

Thanks Don.

camcumberland - Posted - 05/04/2013:  07:09:13

A quick attempt at releasing my banjo's inner chicken this fine morning.

VIDEO: The Chicken Reel
(click to view)


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/04/2013:  07:18:19

Nicely done.

Looks like a beautiful day in your part of Canada today.

Play hard,


JanetB - Posted - 05/04/2013:  09:57:40

Here's one more for the henhouse.

Chicken Reel


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/04/2013:  13:27:51

Good evening BHO'ers,

Here's my crack at Chicken Reel, in Avian Mode.


Play hard,


rendesvous1840 - Posted - 05/04/2013:  18:55:59

Somehow this ended up in Hawai`i, and got named "Glass Ball Slack Key." The glass ball refers to glass floats once used on fishing nets.;  Alas, not a banjo or fiddle in sight!


Edited by - rendesvous1840 on 05/04/2013 18:56:47

BANJOJUDY - Posted - 05/05/2013:  08:01:00


Originally posted by MrManners

1914 edison wax cylinder

Sounds like it was a cakewalk in 1914.  

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/05/2013:  08:11:28

Live link for the Hawaiian version:

MrManners - Posted - 05/05/2013:  08:21:56

the cylinder version is pretty much what is inside Don's sheet music cover,as is the case a lot of times the general public ends up gleaning and adopting only the most ear friendly part--my 2 cents Tom

aeroweenie - Posted - 05/05/2013:  10:43:38

Excellent write up Don.  I especially appreciate the posting of the original version (on the player piano), I had no idea it was from the ragtime era!  I really like the version you did with Ed Britt, it is difficult to do twin banjos well.

tsander - Posted - 05/05/2013:  11:52:01

Lew, I really liked your version.  Great rhythm. 

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/05/2013:  13:12:07

Thank you, Tim.

jojo25 - Posted - 05/06/2013:  06:13:04

I am most enthralled, in this tune, by the opportunies to play with the therefore only makes sense that this tune comes to us from the world of ragtime...syncopation...irregular movement from bar to bar

Don Borchelt - Posted - 05/06/2013:  08:54:11

All really great versions posted here, good job folks; it's important work, helping to save the chicken tune from extinction.  I discovered another classic recording of  Chicken Reel that I forgot I had, from the 1964 Elektra album Old Time Banjo Project, with Allan Block on fiddle, accompanied by Walter Gundy on harmonica, Bill Vanaver on five string, and Eric Thompson on bass.  I have added it to the opening post, above.  Ed Britt and I had a chance to jam with Allan a few years ago at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, New York, a real treat.

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 05/06/2013 08:55:51

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/06/2013:  09:28:06

We owe our inspiration to you, Don. 

You took us under your wing, so to speak. 

We all felt that banjo players of a feather should stick together.

We we've heard you say time and time again, a banjo in the hand is worth two in the bush.




J-Walk - Posted - 05/06/2013:  17:50:35


Originally posted by Brooklynbanjoboy

We owe our inspiration to you, Don. You took us under your wing, so to speak. 


Thigh will be done.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 05/07/2013:  04:55:44

Well, I discovered two more versions of Chicken Reel that I didn't realize I had, one by J. E. Mainer and the other by Chubby Wise.  I have included them i my original post.  Mainer's recording shows that Chicken Reel brings out the hidden chicken in all of us. 

I don't hear no chicken cluckin' coming out of Arizona.  They must all be musical vegans down there.

whyteman - Posted - 05/07/2013:  06:46:09

The Don and Ed duets are great. Such a fine example of two banjo players playing together off of each other instead of against each other. I also love the two different playing styles and two types of banjos. These are banjo duets that actually are wonderful. The opposite of being at a jam session where the banjos are competing and annoying.


vrteach - Posted - 05/07/2013:  13:03:54

This was a great write-up. Who would of thought that there would be any history to this tune.

I don't play it often, but what the heck. Here's my version.

Edited by - vrteach on 05/07/2013 13:04:46

Chicken Reel


Don Borchelt - Posted - 05/07/2013:  13:20:34

Cluckin' yeah; now, that's what I'm talkin' about!

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 05/07/2013 13:20:55

Paul Roberts - Posted - 05/08/2013:  17:15:06

It was worth going through the graduate school program just to get to the piece de resistance: Don and Ed back in Harvard Square. I'd been looking forward to the new season. Thanks for helping reshape the energy in my old home town.

Paul Roberts - Posted - 05/09/2013:  07:12:48

Don, you really have a great writing style, humorous and informative. This is a masterful multimedia presentation. In it you beautifully demonstrate a powerfully creative model for furthering the knowledge and appreciation of American traditional music and any other. More. 

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