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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 8/2/13 - Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine

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:

SCclawman - Posted - 08/02/2013:  07:45:22

Today I introduce to you a song you probably already know, but it's at the top of the list on my favorite old time songs. It's also one of the first songs that I really learned. There are a handful of tunes out there that speak about old Bonaparte doing something, i.e retreating, crossing the rockies, marching, etc. This would be my favorite out of the bunch though without question!

There are some really good discussions, and history related to this song out on the web already. Instead of copying and pasting here (and clogging things up), I figured I would direct you to a couple of links:

Here is a good discussion on the BHO from 2009 that is worth reading

Here is a long discussion on the Session that is enlightening as well.

I have a question about this song that I hope you guys can answer. Everywhere you look (including fiddler's companion, etc), it says that this tune also goes by the name of Bonaparte's Retreat. To me, these are completely different songs that are unrelated. Do you guys agree? Are there times when the melody we know as BCTR is also called Bonaparte's Retreat? If you've got any insight to the history and background of this tune, please share!

Here are my 3 favorite mp3's and videos out there on the hangout and youtube.


Zepp - if this ain't the definitive version of BCTR, then I don't know what is!

Mark Johnson - easily one of my favorite pickers on the hangout

Blockader - if you haven't clicked "like" on this one yet, you should. Sounds so perfect and effortless


Dan Levenson -

Donald Zepp -

Don Borchelt -

I've attached my version as well at the bottom. I had hoped to get a fresh recording done for the TOTW, but with a 7 week old baby at home, I haven't been playing any banjo other than recording a video of Boatman so I can hopefully (doubtfully) double my number of banjos to 2. :)

Feel free to post your own version! I'd love to see some more videos and mp3's on the hangout of this wonderful song.

Finally, if you haven't voted on the clawhammer challenge yet, go check out some videos and give some ratings. There are some amazing versions out there and it's going to be hard for anyone to pick a winner.

Bonaparte Crossing The Rhine


GSCarson - Posted - 08/02/2013:  08:35:26

I always liked this tune as well.  Those are great examples you've provided. The only thing better than Zepp's and Mark Johnson's versions is hearing them play it together as a duo, which I did at Clifftop late one night a few years ago, pretty darn cool.   I have two versions on my page, same banjo, tuned in double D and again an octave down in D.

Low tuned version

Glenn C

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 08/02/2013:  08:40:24

Good choice.

Here's a piece of the tune I know as Bonaparte's Retreat, from John Hartford's THE SPEED OF THE LONG B OW:

Stephen Wade spends a whole chapter in his recent book, BEAUTIFUL MUSIC ALL AROUND US on Bonaparte's Retreat:

Play hard.


blockader - Posted - 08/02/2013:  08:57:06

good one Travis! heres mine...


Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine


SCclawman - Posted - 08/02/2013:  09:04:46


Originally posted by blockader


good one Travis! heres mine...


 Yeah man, I love it! I added it in the original post this morning. Great playing as always!

SCclawman - Posted - 08/02/2013:  09:23:07


Originally posted by GSCarson


I always liked this tune as well.  Those are great examples you've provided. The only thing better than Zepp's and Mark Johnson's versions is hearing them play it together as a duo, which I did at Clifftop late one night a few years ago, pretty darn cool.   I have two versions on my page, same banjo, tuned in double D and again an octave down in D.

 Glenn, that sounds incredible. I wish I could've witnessed that.

I just listened to both of your versions, and really enjoyed them. That low one sure has some growl. Hard to believe that they are the same banjo. That's pretty cool. You've got a nice touch! Really enjoyed listening to you play. Nice work up high on the neck!

maryzcox - Posted - 08/02/2013:  09:35:39


Here's a fun version that has Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, one of the more less known versions of Bonaparte's retreat and Little Cairo. :)


Best wishes,

Mary Z Cox

Edited by - maryzcox on 08/02/2013 09:37:39

vrteach - Posted - 08/02/2013:  09:41:03

As others say, "one of my favorites!" The only problems I have with the tune are: deciding how many times to play the A & B parts, remembering the decision that I made as to repetitions, and remembering what part I'm currently playing.

I had recorded a version some years ago but never moved it over to the BHO:

A couple of years ago an older guy came up to me at the "Old-Tyme Fiddlers" monthly gathering in Shelbyville, IL. He said that he had a tune, but did not know the name. He had played it for Garry Harrison who told him it was "Brake and Shoot the Buffalo." He played it for me and it was (to my ears) "B crossing the R". Brake and Shoot the Buffalo is in Dear Old Illinois, and my fiddle-playing and music-reading friend Steve says that he knows that melody as "Star of Bethlehem." I've learned "S of B" from him, and to me it is somewhat like "B crossing the R" in the first little phrase. The fiddler's companion lists Star of Bethlehem as an AKA for Bonaparte crossing the Rhine.  I'll attach my version of "Star" , although I think they are distinct tunes--at least as I play it.

Star of Bethlehem


JanetB - Posted - 08/04/2013:  06:32:57

Good pick, Travis.  This adds to my understanding of history, too.  I'm playing a bit fast, as if perhaps Napoleon was on his way to battle, not yet retreating. 

VIDEO: Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine
(click to view)


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 08/04/2013:  09:19:28

Wow, you really made that fretless echo chamber work.  Nice playing.  Thanks for sharing.


g3zdm - Posted - 08/04/2013:  14:33:21

To me Bonaparte's Retreat and Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine are definitely 2 totally separate tunes.

We occasionally play 1 or other of them (sometimes both)  at local Irish music sessions by way of a change from the usual diddle-dee-dee stuff.

Taking Mary's video as an example, the 1st tune is Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine then she plays Bonaparte's retreat afterwards - I thought she was going to omit the so-called "little Egypt" part but it got played at the end

(kept me on my toes).

There are interesting swing versions of Boney's Retreat on Youtube from Kay Starr :  and  Tanya Falan


Chris Muriel, Manchester, UK

strokestyle - Posted - 08/05/2013:  12:07:25

Short clip of Billy Mathews and Colin Blair playing the tune. Colin had never played this tune at the time this was recorded, but he is such an amazing banjo player,  well listen for yourself. Billy also calls this tune Caledonian March.

Caledonian March or Bonapart Crossing Rhine


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 08/05/2013:  12:21:17

That was extraordinary.  I looked him up and found a bunch of Youtube flicks worth watching.  He’s got long fingers, a right hand that personifies economy of motion, a nice way of popping those strings and stroking that banjo head, and a very valuable sense of timing – informed by some bluesy type twists and turns.  A real concentration of talent.


Thanks for sharing.


Play hard,



strokestyle - Posted - 08/05/2013:  12:31:25

Lew thanks for going the extra on this banjo player. Colin was mentored by Billy Mathews. Colin has something very special and I ditto everything you said there and more! Colin now plays in and around St. Louis where he lives. Colin's formed a band this past year band The Root Diggers.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 08/05/2013:  14:00:54

Impressive playing on this TOTW by all the contributors.
Really great examples from our Banjo Elders, The Three D's: Dan and Donald and Don.
Here's my crack at the tune:


whyteman - Posted - 08/05/2013:  14:08:25

I might add that Colin plays clawhammer WITHOUT much, if any fingernail. The fleshy part of his fingertip is so calloused that he get a fine, percussive sound! Yet another take on the fingernail vs. thimble discusion.

I'm in awe of Blockader's rendition. He somehow gets a remarkable amount of embellishing notes in without sounding...well, "notey".


YorkshireWannabeOldTimer - Posted - 08/06/2013:  04:14:00

Fab choice: another person who loves this tune right here. All great versions posted, too. Here's another attempt - with some unplanned variations in the numbers of repetitions of the parts, and rather roughly recorded  using an iPad - leading straight into the tune that I've learned as Bonaparte's Retreat.


Edited by - YorkshireWannabeOldTimer on 08/06/2013 04:16:18

Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine/Bonaparte's Retreat


kingfisher500 - Posted - 08/06/2013:  05:07:23

In response to this tune also being known as Bonaparte's Retreat, the reference is to the tune listed in Fiddler's companion as Bonaparte's Retreat [5]. Here is part of that entry:

BONAPARTE'S RETREAT [5]. AKA and see "Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine [1]," "Bonaparte Crossing the Rocky Mountains," etc. Old‑Time, March. A Minor. Standard tuning. AABB. "This very widespread march and dance melody is generally known in western Pennsylvania by the name given it here, when it has a name at all. Versions may likewise bear the title "Bonaparte (Napoleon) Crossing the Rhine (Alps)," or some similar name.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 08/06/2013:  06:05:49

Hey Yorkshire.  GREAT version.  Nice segue into the other Bonaparte tune.  Really fine timing and great use of the bass strings.  Love to know what banjo you were playing.

Thanks for sharing,


jojo25 - Posted - 08/06/2013:  06:27:48

Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine...and...Bonaparte's Retreat are definitely two different tunes.  Folks get so easily confused it seems.  Methinks that some of the confusion on this score may arise from the fact that there are so many different versions of Bonapartes Retreat.

In some circles in Madtown BCTR is known as "Gary's not here".  Got that name cause we played BCTR at an outdoor wedding fest...they asked us to play a march whilst they carried the bride around...for a loooooooooooooooong time...after that Gary swore he would never play that tune when Gary's not here...we play it:)

and I concur that it can be easy to get confused about the parts...I have tried to settle on one A and one B...but one can still get confused ya know.


YorkshireWannabeOldTimer - Posted - 08/06/2013:  06:35:25

Hi Lew,


Many thanks: I'm very flattered, as your own version is very fine! The banjo is a 12" brass spunovered slot-headed Dobson A-scale made for me fairly recently by Jason Burns - it's the only left-handed JB to date, and I love it.

Edited by - YorkshireWannabeOldTimer on 08/06/2013 06:35:41

banjoike - Posted - 08/09/2013:  19:09:09

Here is my attempt. Pardon the funky strings!

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 09/08/2013:  13:06:19

This just in.

Dwight Diller posted a bunch of tunes on Youtube on 7 September 2013, including Bonapart Crossing the Rhine.

Worth watching.


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