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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 3/4/16 - Walk Chalk Chicken

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:

Tobus - Posted - 03/04/2016:  04:30:05

As my first TOTW contribution, I'd like to post one of my favorite tunes, Walk Chalk Chicken.  Also known as Walk Chalk Chicken With a Necktie On.

Many of you probably already know this tune, but I think it's time to get it official in the TOTW list.

The source recording seems to be the late great West Virginia fiddler Melvin Wine (1909-2003).  He claimed to have learned it from his father, but never heard anyone else play it.  This tune appears in the Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle tunes, and was on Melvin Wine's 1976 album Cold Frosty Morning.

The title of the tune, and thus its origin, seems to be a regular source of debate.  The name is thought by some to be a reference to the Chalk Line Walk or Cake Walk, which has a storied history in the antebellum South (allegedly spreading from Florida from about 1850).  Apologies for the sensitivity of the subject, but this was a dance performed by slaves to parody the high-society mannerisms of their masters, and ended up being the subject of later minstrel shows as a reverse parody.  However, there has been no actual documented connection between the Chalk Line Walk and this tune.  Other suggested origins include folk poems and more minstrel show material.

Claims of these connections tend to be based on the name of the tune alone, and it is certainly understandable.  The title is so unique, it would be difficult to imagine any other origin unrelated to these possibilities.  Any additional information or input would be appreciated, if anyone has it.  I wonder if more background could be gleaned from the book on Melvin's life?

So, on to the tune...

Melvin Wine's recording is a solo fiddle tune in the key of A (the fiddle being tuned to sawmill AEAE).  It is a delightfully crooked, twisty tune with unique turnarounds.  It takes a while just to listen and get used to its crookedness.  This is why I like the tune so much; I'm a sucker for crooked tunes.  Melvin played it in an AAB format.

While it was originally a solo fiddle tune, it lends itself well to banjo/fiddle pairing, or just solo banjo.

There are plenty of recordings of it by others.  My top favorite is from the Back Up and Push album by Jason and Pharis Romero and Friends, featuring Karen Celia Heil on the fiddle.  I'm sure Jason Romero needs no introduction on this forum, as he has been bringing banjo goodness to the world for some time now.  I don't know how to embed videos on this forum, so here's just the link:

There is only one version of it here on the BHO video library, but it doesn't seem to be clawhammer style.

Here's a full YouTube of Melvin Wine playing it solo on a re-release of his original:


I play it on the fiddle pretty much like the original, but I make a couple of slight changes when playing it solo on clawhammer banjo.  And since I don't have a fiddle player to play along with when I'm on banjo, I can do that with no repercussions.  Below is the tab for the way I generally play it, as a starting point.  Note the half-measures throughout the tune.  I tried to place them where it made the most sense for phrasing, but there's no easy way of notating this tune.  Sorry, I don't have decent recording equipment to post my playing.  But I'd look forward to anyone else's rendition of it!

Walk Chalk Chicken


carlb - Posted - 03/04/2016:  06:25:26

Melvin recorded it again on the cassette "Vintage Wine" with Kate Brett on banjo and Gerry Milnes on guitar.

Edited by - carlb on 03/04/2016 06:32:24

bhniko - Posted - 03/04/2016:  12:11:44

Here is Don Borchlet playing it on YouTube. Hope I do not offend him by posting his tune from YouTub e

Tobus - Posted - 03/04/2016:  14:13:05


Originally posted by bhniko


Here is Don Borchlet playing it on YouTube. Hope I do not offend him by posting his tune from YouTub e

That's the same version that's posted here at the BHO video library which I referenced earlier.  But since it wasn't clawhammer style playing, I didn't link to it.  It's a nice version - just not clawhammer.

Zischkale - Posted - 03/04/2016:  14:22:11

Definitely one that warps your ear a bit -- I'm not so great yet at picking up crooked tunes on the fly but I really like playing them. Great write-up, like the history and title -- man you couldn't do much better than the title. It's as old-time as it gets, chicken and all. 

BrendanD - Posted - 03/04/2016:  15:01:04

This tune is an old favorite of mine, which (like Carl Baron, I'm sure) I learned in person from Melvin Wine. In fact, I just had the pleasure of playing it just the other night with Erynn Marshall and Carl Jones when they came through on their "A Celtic Appalachian Celebration" mini-tour here in the S. F. Bay Area (they're playing in San Francisco tonight, in fact). Erynn also spent a lot of time visiting with and learning from Melvin over the years, and she plays this tune beautifully.

The tune had always seemed oddly familiar to me from the time I first learned it, and at some point I realized that it's a version of the Irish tune "Farewell to Whiskey"! I'd love to know the path it took to get from Ireland to Braxton County, WV, and into the Wine family's repertoire. I have not heard it from any other source than Melvin.

Oh, and another connection: I recorded the track of "Walk Chalk Chicken" that's on Pharis and Jason's Back Up and Push CD. :-)  Karen Celia Heil is a dear friend and musical companion, and we play this tune together often. So I guess all in all it's not surprising that I'm delighted to see this tune as TOTW!

JanetB - Posted - 03/06/2016:  14:50:41

Welcome to TOTW, Tobus!  Your choice of tunes is wonderful, as is your presentation.  I'm always happy to learn more from the fiddling of Melvin Wine.   In the book Fiddling Way Out Yonder, the Life and Music of Melvin Wine by Drew Beisswenger there is almost a page of information on the tune, as well as a transcription of his fiddling.  It discusses the musicality of Walk Chalk Chicken, confirms that he learned it from his father, and compares it to related tunes.  Here's a quote from the book:  "The term 'walk chalk' is found in the song 'Ginger Blue,' described by White (ANFS, p. 380-81) as a pre-minstrel song, but the song's connection to 'Walk Chalk Chicken' is unclear."

Walk Chalk Chicken was a bit challenging to arrange, but fun to play.   The timing needs some getting used to.

Walk Chalk Chicken (TOTW)

Walk Chalk Chicken (CH) tab

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 03/06/2016:  15:12:31

Janet!  Great playing.  You really captured the tune.


trapdoor2 - Posted - 03/07/2016:  07:12:25

Great tune choice. I got to see Walt Koken and Clare Milliner play it this weekend at Breaking Up Winter. Beautifully played and works great on the banjo (esp. if you're Walt, naturally).

Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/07/2016:  21:02:59

Wow, I didn't realize the TOTW was for clawhammer only, no wonder everyone has been so weird all these years!  Guess I'll head back over to Facebook now.

Tobus - Posted - 03/08/2016:  04:42:51


Originally posted by Don Borchelt


Wow, I didn't realize the TOTW was for clawhammer only, no wonder everyone has been so weird all these years!  Guess I'll head back over to Facebook now.


Don, I hope I didn't cause any offense.  As I'm rather new here, I'm just trying to stick with what I've observed, and I couldn't say what the "rules" are, if any.  All I know is that this is the Old-Time TOTW series, posted in the "Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles" forum.  Since Scruggs-style playing appears to be the focus of a separate forum, I didn't know if it was appropriate to include that version.  It is nice playing, though!

CamC - Posted - 03/08/2016:  05:35:57

Don is one of my favourite old time pickers, I hope he continues to contribute to the totw. I've learned a lot from his videos and his website.

JanetB - Posted - 03/08/2016:  06:21:32

Tobin, you made an honest mistake.  After studying bluegrass banjo I came to realize that my own style of 3-finger picking was not bluegrass.  BHO acknowledges that old-time style includes clawhammer, 3-finger and 2-finger picking, thus the title of this forum "Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles."  Don does this as good as the very best.

Don, don't go away!  surprise     And, Tobin, stick around!   blush

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