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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles

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Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 04/04/2014:  02:13:27

“Round the Horn,” our TOTW subject for 4 April 2014, is a G major reel, in 4/4 time written by Jay Ungar and copyrighted 1978 by Swinging Door Music.  The tune can be found on Ungar’s album Catskill Mountain Goose Chase released on February 22, 1994 on the label Philo. 


Jay Unger performed and recorded with mid-60s rock band, Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, and played with the Putnam String County Band, Fiddle Fever, The David Bromberg Band.  He is the founder of the Fiddle & Dance Workshop at Ashokan. 


He is of course best known for "Ashokan Farewell," the Grammy-winning and Emmy-nominated theme song of Ken Burns' PBS documentary series, The Civil War.  There’s a great video of Ungar and family playing the tune on Youtube, at:



Here’s a brief article from 1995 on Ungar’s musical career and interests:


And there’s a wealth of information on Ungar at his website:


“Round the Horn” has an old time vibe to it, in much the same way that "Ashokan Farewell" has an archaic, mournful way that makes it seem a lot older than the 20th century tune it is.


It’s possible that “Round the Horn” came into being the same way “Ashoken Farewell” did, through the fertile musical mind that Ungar brings to the Scottish laments and other Celtic-like music he creates. 


In a PBS interview,, Ungar stated:


"Ashokan Farewell" is a tune that I wrote unintentionally, really. It was a moment of deep emotion after the summer camps at Ashokan had ended. It was the third summer, and it was an experiment every summer, you know, pulling this together. And it had been such a deeply moving experience and the community of people and the feeling of unity that we had had through music, and being away from the regular world was so important to me that when I’d gotten home, I had a sense of loss and longing; and I was looking for a Scottish lament, you know, that would express how I felt. And I couldn’t think of one, so I just started playing, and this tune came out. And it brought me to tears. And every time I played the beginning of it, for months afterward, I was brought to tears.”


“Round the Horn” is not necessarily going to bring tears to our eyes, but it is evocative and it does have the emotional tension that derives some additional intensity from the way the second part pushes through to a B minor chord that nudges things back to the tune’s first part – creating a perfect Old Time loop that one can play over and again (at least until the fiddler declares an authoritative end to the thing).


Standard notation and chords can be found at:


or, alternatively, here:


Mike Iverson has a nice tab here:


At the 1:38 minute point in this video, Dave Reiner and David Surrette play Round the Horn.  Surrette’s left hand guitar work is accessible for much of the video, providing several useful hints regarding banjo possibilities:




James Galway joined Ungar and Molly Mason in a nice version of the tune, wrapped in with a bunch of other reels, on the record Song of Home: An American Musical Journey CD.




I liked this version, too, featuring Robin Bullock on guitar, Chris Norman on flute/penny whistle/smallpipes, Ken Kolodner on hammered dulcimer/fiddle:



Here’s Third Tyme Out playing a bluegrassy version that’s worth a listen, featuring Russell Moore and Tony Wray on banjos:



I found a clawhammer version on Youtube dating from July 2013 by a fellow who goes by the handle of Idaho Rambler, and I’m posting it here just so I don’t get hit with accusations of blasphemy for including that bluegrass version in a TOTW essay:



I learned the tune from Bill Wellington, a local Staunton, VA musician steeped in old time music. He is a fiddler, banjoer, and guitarer of note, was “present at creation” for some of the earliest jams and OT groups in the northeast during the seventies, and did his fair share of field recordings of fiddlers, banjo players, and ballad singers in West Virginia University (see, for example: Bill toured with Caledonia, and in recent years has focused on building an elementary school residency program that brings folklore alive for the school community, in partnership with the Virginia Commission for the Arts.


I absolve Bill of any responsibility for my banjo version of this, but credit him for getting me started on this fine tune. When I first heard him play the tune at a house jam about four years ago, when we first moved to this great place in the Shenandoah Valley, Bill was playing with another Staunton, VA, old time fiddler, Walter Hojka, and an exceptional guitar player, Sue Reed. They went through the tune a couple of times, and then Bill stopped, reminded the players of the need to get that B minor chord in, and resumed with that in mind. The minor chord is just a passing sound, but it does make a difference in the flavor of the tune.


Here's my crack at the tune:



And here's a relatively slow take with more focus on the left hand:



Have a great banjo-centric day.

Play hard,


Edited by - Brooklynbanjoboy on 04/04/2014 02:18:33

banjered - Posted - 04/04/2014:  07:11:28

This is one of my "top 10" CH tunes to play. I sort of lean towards Iverson's approach. One banjo player said at a session that he did not think ATH made a very good CH tune. I think that was because the way HE played it wasn't all that good as there are some good creative ways to approach this tune. I still don't have the resources or know how to either post the tab I have or a video/audio, but I am glad some others do. A great tune! Banjered

ajisai - Posted - 04/04/2014:  15:24:29

It looks like this tune is played with "Off to California" and "Road to California" as a medley called "Bound for California" on a James Galway, Jay Unger, Molly Mason CD which seems to confirm (not that it was ever in question) that the title refers to making the trip around South America. Unfortunately the preview snippet doesn't include "Round the Horn." (

I learned the tune when Walter tossed it out at a jam here in Chicago--I was really taken with the melody--and I played it a lot a couple of years ago. In fact, it was one of the tunes that I chose the first (and only) time I was the lone fiddler (with great backup support) for a dance.

If anyone, inspired by TOTW, happens to be looking for a wonderful read-aloud related to the journey smiley By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman is a delight. (

Thanks for a nice reminder to pull the tune out and try it on the banjo!

Edited by - ajisai on 04/04/2014 15:26:30

J-Walk - Posted - 04/04/2014:  17:17:24

That tunes comes up occasionally at our Tucson jams. It usually ends just about the time I figure it out. Maybe this is a sign that I should actually learn it.

Good post, Lew.

banjered - Posted - 04/04/2014:  17:58:12

The only version above that sounds like the way I play it is the CH version just above yours. Mine is based on the version
in the Portland Collection #1 and is titled Round the Horn. Mine's a little simpler than Iverson's but similar, using the
triplets, bars, and that Em cord at the end. Fun tune! Banjered

JanetB - Posted - 04/05/2014:  11:43:01

Thanks, Brooklynbanjoboy, for sharing a beautiful tune this week.   Your many links were helpful.  I appreciate the title, too, being from California and interested in its history.  My favorite book to learn about coming around Cape Horn is Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast.  He came before the gold rush as a sailor and again after the gold rush when he'd achieved fame as a United States Senator.  It was a scary voyage due to winds, waves, rocks and narrow passages , so the tune must reflect either the feelings before entering the stormy region, or after--certainly not in the midst of it.  I read about rogue waves which could attain heights of 100 feet!

Here's my attempt, using the tuning I've been working with lately--gEAC#E, called Sandy River Belle, or Cumberland Gap, tuning.  Since the tune is in the key of G, I thought it would be fun to give this tuning a try, using the capo on the 2nd fret.

The Maritime Heritage Project

Round the Horn--TOTW

Round the Horn tab

banjered - Posted - 04/05/2014:  12:49:04

That was wonderful Janet! And a gorgeous tone on that banjo - which one was that? Your version sounds very similar to mine except that I play it in plain old G. Banjered

LyleK - Posted - 04/05/2014:  13:00:59


Originally posted by JanetB

 using the tuning I've been working with lately--gEAC#E, called Sandy River Belle, or Cumberland Gap, tuning.

Nice as always, but you meant gEADE, not gEAC#E.

JanetB - Posted - 04/05/2014:  13:20:52


Originally posted by LyleK


Originally posted by JanetB

 using the tuning I've been working with lately--gEAC#E, called Sandy River Belle, or Cumberland Gap, tuning. meant gEADE, not gEAC#E.

Thanks, Lyle!  I hardly ever use a capo and I'm glad you caught that.

I'm playing this on my Mac Traynham Whyte Laydie and using a plastic Alaska pick.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 04/06/2014:  02:18:19

JanetB's is an award winner.  Nice work JB.

I see Tom Clunie's point, so here's another crack at it, attempting to get closer to the Iverson chart:






BANJOJUDY - Posted - 05/03/2014:  08:02:52

i enjoy playing Round The Horn in gDADE tuning. Anyone playing it in SRB tuning want to tune the Third string to A and see which you prefer? Personally easier for me that way.
I like to hear and play the not too fast versions of this lovely tune.

JanetB - Posted - 05/03/2014:  12:38:01

Glad to see this discussion thread again.  I'd love to hear what you're playing, BanjoJudy.  This is one of the most beautiful tunes I've heard and rates with Ashokan Farewell. 

I was trying to post a painting above and will try another.  There's many good stories about going round the horn and being from California, they're all interesting to me.  What an awful way to travel...

One other thing, I mistakenly bought Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy's vinyl LP, thinking I was getting a CD, called Catskill Mountain Goose Chase (1977).  It includes Round the Horn and states on the back cover that it's a "unique and vaguely Peruvian fiddle tune."  I'd gladly send it to someone who would use and appreciate it if you'd let me know (I don't mind at all to pay for the shipping).  I no longer have a record player.


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