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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 11 March 2016: Black Jack Grove (Texas)

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:

Zischkale - Posted - 03/10/2016:  20:09:23

“There were two hotels in Cumby fifty years ago when the ox wagons kept the dust rising from the long road. It was not Cumby then, however, but Blackjack Grove, and early inhabitants tell of an old couplet, ‘Blackjack Grove, just one street - two hotels and nothing to eat.’”

-- Dallas Morning News, Ap. 13, 1926


Here’s a strange and addictive Lone Star tune that’ll really take you down the rabbithole. It’s no relation to the wonderful A-modal tune from Appalachia (which someone really oughta pick for next week’s TOTW), but instead is traced back to big Falfurrias, TX, way south of my locale and a town I hadn’t actually heard of until coming across this melody (apparently it’s a place known mostly to engineers, geologists, and the dairy section at our local HEB, where one can get some dang good butter with the Falfurrias name on it).


Falfurrias is where Lomax recorded the bowing of one Old West legend Lake Porter back in ‘39. This is a cowpoke who is said to have left home at the age of nine, with nothing but a rifle, to avenge his sheriff father’s death. A year later the kid shows back up at his homestead’s door (presumably with an Eastwood Squint on his face) and mutters, “debt’s been paid.” He rode the Chisholm trail, hypnotizing the herd by bowing his fiddle, or as folks seem to have said back then, “agitating the cat-guts” (this has immediately become my new favorite phrase). You can hear Lake’s stomping take on Blackjack Grove here. The tune blasts to life with an eerie howl, and settles into a deep-voiced drone for the B-part, where one might be inclined to voice the titular “interjections,” as Lomax called ‘em.


Spencer & Rains, newfound old-time heroes of mine, play it beautifully on their fascinating collection of Weird Tunes of Old Texas. Listen to a couple samples here and here -- both give you separate moments from the track. Don’t shy away from buying the whole CD, though, with a title like that you can’t go wrong.


Wonderfully played but the thing is, they built a Jackalope of a tune by taking Lake Porter’s rendition and tossing in a second B part sourced from Jack Gage of Eastland, TX. Two far-flung Texas fiddlers contributing to a tune originally named after a third town in the northeast part of the state, a place that became Cumby, TX way back in 1895.


The odd nature of Spencer & Rains’ tune doesn’t stop at three parts, though -- and here’s where we get technical. It took me getting a guitar out to realize it, but it seems to change keys in each of the three sections! The main part, with the howl, sounds at home in E major with a modal feel, I find myself switching between E, G and D chords when playing along to this. The Lake Porter B part (“Black Jack Grove”) seems to be in G (with that wonderful fiddle drone beneath), and the Jack Gage B part is in D. To bring it all back to banjo, the CD liner notes describe the tuning as gDADE, that is, Double-D without tuning the 5th string up to A. Probably to match that low G drone, but quite honestly I haven’t picked up my ‘jo to test out if this is a reasonable tuning to play the E major part in.


All that said, the original tune is stated as being in G (recording sounds pitched to around F) in its description on Tunearch (great write-up, the musing about “old-fashioned boys” is fantastic too). So Janet and other adventurous tablateurs, you can choose your own adventure here and have a hand at either the original or Spencer & Rains’.


Being a Weird Tune, examples of this one are scarce. Check out David Bragger’s excellent take on it below, playing his gourd fiddle (in this post he describes his tuning and calls the piece a “very archaic, surreal tune”).


David Bragger - Black Jack Grove



Quotes from the 1920’s Dallas Morning News article were found here, a surprisingly enjoyable read about a booming small town. I love the reference to the tune being played over the radio to the enjoyment of partyin’ Cumbians (and I wonder who played it). Also features women of the temperance movement tearing up a couple of “blind tigers” that moved into town (“...both places were sacked and the chocolate loam soil got a good jag from the whisky, gin, and beer which splashed out from breaking bottles”), and one “Miss Texana Trimble.”


Finally, here’s my take on Spencer & Rains’ tune, and my first attempt at posting a fiddle video to BHO (so take it easy on me). Standard tuning, GDAE. A little messy but man is it fun to play.


Zischkale - Black Jack Grove


Thanks y’all, glad to play a part in this TOTW tradition!

Cyndy - Posted - 03/10/2016:  21:46:07

Sometimes "Like" just isn't enough. Banjo Hangout needs to add a "Love" button.

Great choice, great write-up, great tune, great examples, and you've got me wondering what this might like sound like on a banjo ...

I'm a HUGE Spencer & Rains fan, by the way. Can you tell? :)


jack_beuthin - Posted - 03/11/2016:  05:05:51

Spencer and Rains are in the lineup for the 2016 CROMA festival here in Colorado. Now I'm really stoked!!!

Thanks for posting this tune.

greenhorn - Posted - 03/11/2016:  07:26:42

Great choice! We just added this one to our old time jam in Mancos, CO. 


Jack - I hope to see you at CROMA!

Zischkale - Posted - 03/11/2016:  07:42:52


Originally posted by greenhorn


Great choice! We just added this one to our old time jam in Mancos, CO. 


Jack - I hope to see you at CROMA!

Curious -- what key do y'all play it in, and is it the three-part Spencer & Rains version? 

Jealous of both y'all Coloradoans, it's my favorite vacation spot and I've been wanting to check out CROMA since I saw the flyers a few years back. Not happening this year, but hoping to catch it before too long.


Thanks for the good words, Cyndy! I'm really getting into them too, if I really luck out maybe I might see 'em at a jam?? I like the new avatar, by the way!

mjt0229 - Posted - 03/11/2016:  08:46:28

Adam Hurt plays a nice rendition of this tune as part of this course put together by Josh Turknett: There's also tab available there, but you have to buy the course to get access to it all. I'm not affiliated with either of them, although I've taken some lessons from Adam (he's a great instructor), just thought people might be interested to know.

greenhorn - Posted - 03/11/2016:  14:40:19

Aaron - I play it in A. I tune aEADE. I'm not sure about a 3 part version, I only play 2.

JanetB - Posted - 03/11/2016:  21:00:03

An interesting topic, Aaron, and the comparison of the two versions has been interesting for me, as Adam had me exploring the "Appalachian" version of this tune in a Skype lesson last summer.

I'm always curious as to what the Lomax family accomplished.  Being from Texas, they began their recording saga there.  

Good for you for venturing to share your fiddling here and even singing the lyrics, which must be the simplest ones on record!

My recording is a medley of the two versions, helping me hear the differences.  Both are in open G tuning, which made it easy to link together.

Black Jack Grove (Texas & Kentucky)

Black Jack Grove (Texas) CH tab

Black Jack Grove (Kentucky) CH tab

richmberman - Posted - 03/11/2016:  22:15:13

Thank you Janet. I learned the version of the tune from the Adam Hurt lessons and was wanting to
expand it. Your versions have pointed the way. You've made my day. Merci beaucoup.

VancePants - Posted - 03/12/2016:  09:21:38

Just enjoyed Janet's fine post... here's a couple i done, one clawhammer and the other 2-finget thumb-lead, after Mac Benford.

VIDEO: BlackJack Grove (clawhammer)
(click to view)

VIDEO: Black Jack Grove (banjo - TFTL)
(click to view)

bhniko - Posted - 03/12/2016:  11:13:52

Sitting here in Miami looking out at the oaks and palms and Janet playing for you...the joys of life.

And to Ken who just prolonged a joy of life with his version.


Edited by - bhniko on 03/12/2016 11:16:57

BrendanD - Posted - 03/12/2016:  16:20:56

Nice writeup, Aaron! I'm the banjo player on the Spencer & Rains CD, and I set the tune in gDADE because it fit well for me and allowed me to find the melodic lines in all the parts in a comfortable way, along with a kind of spooky, dissonant drone in places. I'd never heard anyone else play it on the banjo, so I didn't model my version on anyone's playing but Howard and Tricia's and the Lake Porter and Jack Gage source recordings they sent me.

I'm glad to see other folks pick up this tune! I've been thinking its placement so late on the CD might have led to it not standing out, and it's such a great tune.

By the way, Like Aaron, I don't consider this tune to be related to the Kentucky "Black Jack Grove" from Walter McNew, which I've played for many years.

Edited by - BrendanD on 03/12/2016 16:31:16

Zischkale - Posted - 03/13/2016:  23:05:17

Brendan - thank you much for posting! And great work on that album, you got a great tone on it - now and again I'll switch the fader in my car stereo to one channel so I can isolate the banjo track! I haven't studied your playing on Black Jack too closely, but I do like the sound of the drone - did you arrive at the tuning choice pretty quickly, or do you recall trying a few out before choosing it?

It's definitely a great tune (though not sure what to tell people at jams yet regarding key), and I never figured there'd be such interesting details from the life (and legend) of Lake Porter, Would love to hear the original recording of Jack Gage but it doesn't seem to be readily available online. Thanks again for taking time to post!

Janet - you rise to the challenge as usual - thanks for bringing the tunes together (though I'd still love to see a dedicated Kentucky Black Jack Grove post, with some history)!

Kenneth - thanks for posting, great sound there, really like the opening bit in that clawhammer video, cool rhythmic stuff.

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