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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles

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JanetB - Posted - 05/16/2014:  06:26:01

This week’s tune is Cabin Creek.  I first heard an Ed Haley version by Mac Benford, who devoted an entire, excellent clawhammer CD to his fiddling, entitled “Half Past Four.”   I learned it by listening to both Ed Haley's 4-part Cabin Creek and Mac Benford playing Ed Haley's Cabin Creek.  You can learn more about Mac on his website.  Chances are there are several Hangout members who have attended his classes and workshops:


Two other source WV fiddlers recorded the tune:  Ernie Carpenter's Cabin Creek and  Henry Reed's Cabin Creek (as recorded by Alan Jabbour in 1966).  Ed’s has four parts, Ernie’s has two and Henry’s has three.  You can hear similarity in the second part of Ed’s and third part of Henry’s; in the second of Henry’s and the first parts of Ed and Ernie's; and finally in the fourth and second parts of Ed and Ernie.  If you can keep all that straight you’re doing well!

Henry Reed’s Cabin Creek resembles Barlow Knife-- something Mac Benford noticed—but Henry called it Cabin Creek.  In the Fiddler’s Companion of the website there is very little information on Cabin Creek, other than to equate Henry Reed’s with Barlow Knife.  Henry (1884 – 1968) was a contemporary of Ed Haley (1885 – 1951). Ernie Carpenter lived later, from 1907 – 1997 (probably best known for the tune Shelvin Rock which is associated with his great-grandfather’s birth).   I’d tentatively conclude that Ed’s Cabin Creek was Ernie’s source, since Ernie’s only overlaps Henry with one part, but overlaps Ed’s in both parts.  

Another difference to be noted is that only Mac Benford begins with the high part.  He’s accessible via email, so I asked him why.  He responded,  “I just figured that was how it was supposed to go - maybe I was subconsciously thinking of Barlow Knife, which it's obviously related to - in any case, I can't imagine any other order of the parts which would be as satisfying…”   

In my Skype lessons with Adam Hurt we’ve worked on several Ed Haley tunes.  Adam explains that Ed’s incredible skill on fiddle manifested itself in having several variations in each tune.  (One lesson from Adam involved learning 8 versions of a two-part tune by Ed Haley!)  This may explain why there are four parts to Cabin Creek.  Adam plays it here with Mike Compton (my husband’s mandolin Skype teacher for several years):  Ed Haley's Cabin Creek

The region of West Virginia called Cabin Creek is noted as the location of an intense coal mine controversy involving the miners’ union and a violent strike (see West Virginia article and video on Paint Creek/Coal Creek coal mine strike of 1912 and mine war, 1912-1913).  All three source fiddlers came from West Virginia so I’m led to believe the tune may have been associated with the incident.  In Oklahoma there were also Cabin Creek wars during the Civil War:  Oklahoma Cabin Creek Civil War battles, but I have no way to know if that relates to the tune.   

Other recordings of Cabin Creek on-line are all Ed Haley’s version:

     Mike Sawyer, Minnesota clawhammerist

     Molly Tenenbaum with Rich Hartness

     Katie Henderson on fiddle

Below are my two MP3s with all four parts in SRB, aka Cumberland Gap tuning, (fDGCD) (something Adam highly recommends to try with any tune in the key of G)—one on a Whyte Laydie openback and the other on a Gold Tone cello banjo played an octave lower with my husband on mandolin.

One tab I’ve arranged (in PDF files below) is for Ernie Carpenter’s version, which is easiest to learn and is in open G tuning—the same in which Mac plays it.  One is Henry Reed’s Cabin Creek, sounding like Barlow Knife, but having an additional third part.  The third tab follows my MP3 and is my SRB tuning arrangement combining Ed Haley and Mac Benford.

If you’re interested in listening to Ed Haley’s original recordings (something John Hartford became obsessed with towards the end of his life), I was able to locate them on  in a series of Fiddlers of Country Music, Volumes 5, 6, and 7.  Cabin Creek is the first tune on Volume 5:  Fiddlers of Country Music series, Ed Haley, Vol. 5  It’s a shame that the book John began about Ed Haley’s life hasn’t been published.  This blind fiddler, originally from West Virginia, led an extraordinary music-filled life with his blind musical wife.  Hartford contacted their son, Laurence Haley, in the 90’s and recorded fiddle tunes learned from the father.  Interesting reading may be found here: Biographical information on Ed Haley from liner notes of Forked Deer.

Hope you give Cabin Creek a try and add to the tune discussion.

Edited by - JanetB on 05/16/2014 22:09:43

Cabin Creek

Cabin Creek duet

Cabin Creek tab (Ed Haley via Mac Benford)

Cabin Creek tab (Henry Reed)

Cabin Creek tab (Ernie Carpenter)


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/16/2014:  13:59:23


What a generous use of your time, tabbing those three versions out for us.  An abundance of banjo challenges here.  Thanks for your great, hard work on this TOTW.

And thanks for some impressive playing.  Adam does charming things with some of those eccentric tunings.  Both of your four-part versions are models of light hearted, crisp, lyrical playing.   Thanks for sharing.



BANJOJUDY - Posted - 05/16/2014:  17:52:45

Thanks for bringing this tune to our attention.  Although I am familiar with it, I would have never been able to identify it by name - now, maybe.

Cello banjo sounds awesome, Janet.  If I were not so lazy, I might take mine out of its closet, dust if off, and play Cabin Creek on it.  How did you tune the cello banjo?


JanetB - Posted - 05/16/2014:  19:15:51

The cello banjo is tuned to gEADE.  Since recording this I re-strung it with nylon strings and it's higher now, but still lower than a regular banjo tuning. 

aeroweenie - Posted - 05/17/2014:  13:22:07

Janet - interesting tune, excellent write up, and great selection of various versions of the tune.  It will go on my list of tunes to learn.

Jay K - Posted - 05/17/2014:  18:30:26

Mine too! Great TOTW, thanks!

J-Walk - Posted - 05/17/2014:  19:11:35

Good one, Janet.

I've probably heard that tune, but I confuse it with Bear Creek's Up, Shootin' Creek, Willow Creek, Spring Creek, Cripple Creek, At the Head of Every Creek, Barker's Creek, Battle of Cedar Creek, Bear Creek Blues, Bitter Creek, Buck Creek Girls, Brushy Fork of John's Creek, Dirty Creek, Coal Creek March, Coburn Fork of Big Creek, Coconut Creek, Crazy Creek, JanetB Creek, Creek Nation, Crow Creek, Dry Run Creek, Elk Creek Blues, Fancy Creek, Fishin' Creek Blues, Grassy Creek, Head of the Creek, Indian Creek, Muddy Creek, Last Payday at Coal Creek, Love Creek Muddy Creek, Peach Bottom Creek, Polecat Creek, Bend, Creek, Quiet Creek.Spring Creek Gal, Shuffle Creek, Willow Creek, Wolf Creek, and Down By the Creek.

Too many creek tunes.

Edited by - J-Walk on 05/17/2014 19:21:04

JanetB - Posted - 05/17/2014:  20:15:51

I understand, J-Walk.  If it's any consolation, of the 303 tunes in the TOTW since you helped its inception in 2008, only four of them have the word "creek" in their title.  One of those threads was written by you--Shootin' Creek.  blush

I'm fascinated with tune titles.  They conjure images of places, people, events, feelings...Water being one of the essential elements for live would naturally find its place in titles. Creeks were extremely common in the mountainous areas where much of this music was propagated.   Just how many creek tunes there are would be an interesting study...

Jimmy Sutton - Posted - 05/18/2014:  02:29:00

Hey J-Walk if it's any help just sing the words to Barlow Knife.

Beachbum Scott - Posted - 05/18/2014:  05:39:09

Great job on this Janet!

I've been playing the version from the "String Band Favorites" book for a while, and now I am learning it on the Fiddle too.


JanetB - Posted - 05/18/2014:  08:12:09

Thanks for a reference, Scott.  I haven't heard of that book and 3-CD set before.  I wonder which version it uses.  Here's a link, including a list of over-200 tunes in the set:

Edited by - JanetB on 05/18/2014 08:14:27

Beachbum Scott - Posted - 05/18/2014:  15:04:49

The arrangement is by Steve Parker, he lists the source as "Bruce Molsky, fiddle (from Ed Haley)".

I got the book right after I started playing and boy was it over my head...

For anyone wanting to learn tunes with drop thumb, slides, hammers, pull offs and aspo this is should be the go to book!!!

All the songs are on a single cd and are played slow enough that if you are not a tab reader you could learn by ear but not so slowly as to be unenjoyable to just listen to. It has been in my cars cd player forma while now.

JanetB - Posted - 05/18/2014:  19:06:58

Oh, I see, Scott, there is only one CD with Steve Parker's book.  That's the same one I linked above.  I found Bruce Molsky's Cabin Creek on his CD "Poor Man's Troubles."  Bruce is one of my favorite fiddlers and I'm glad you pointed out this recording.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/19/2014:  08:49:12

Here's my attempt to get close to the tune. 



Nice choice, JB. Thanks for sharing.


Play hard,



JanetB - Posted - 05/19/2014:  17:58:12

Thanks for posting your video, Lew.  I enjoyed the 4-part Cabin Creek all the way home.  It reminded me, as you always do, of your Dwight Diller influence, and got me wondering exactly where is West Virginia's Kanawha County--location of Cabin Creek--compared to Pocahantas County.  They're not adjacent, but neither is Monroe County where Henry Reed was born (and he moved south to Virginia) nor Braxton County where Ernie Carpenter was born.  Ed Haley moved west to Kentucky, so I get the feeling that Cabin Creek was a tune played in a fairly extensive area.

JanetB - Posted - 05/21/2014:  06:26:41

Coincidentally I was working on an Ernie Carpenter tune, Elk River Blues, with an interesting but sad history of its own.  A good resource to learn about him is in Mountains of Music, West Virginia Traditional Music from Goldenseal, edited by John Lilly.  Ernie is on the cover, fiddling Shelvin' Rock for Gerry Milnes at the site of his great-grandfather's birth (an interesting and compelling story).  And here's a medley of Ernie Carpenter's Cabin Creek (from my tab) with Elk River Blues.  For some reason he played the 4-measure A part three times.



Cabin Creek/Elk River Blues medley


Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 05/21/2014:  11:36:51

I thought I had heard Elk River Blues somewhere before.  As soon as I heard you play it -- well, to be honest, about the third time I heard you play it -- I summoned up a recollection of an old VHS video, Dwight Diller with Jimmy Triplett, "The Old Drake: traditional music from the mountains of east central West Virginia played on banjo and fiddle."  I believe Helen Triplett plays the banjo to Jimmy’s fiddle in an early tune on this video.   


Nicely done, Janet.



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