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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 1 April 2016: Who'll Cut the Britches?

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mojo_monk - Posted - 04/01/2016:  11:43:17

This week’s installment of TOTW is “Who’ll Cut the Britches?” from Henry Soper of Mt. Vernon, IL. Mr. Soper was recorded back in the early 1950’s by David S. McIntosh, who at the time was an associate professor in the Music Department at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. As part of his courses, McIntosh encouraged his students to document and catalogue local music and musicians. McIntosh recorded dozens of musicians with his wife and produced a few books with song transcriptions. The late Garry Harrison was able to gain access to the McIntosh collection and included a great many transcriptions from the collection in his song/tune book entitled “Dear Old Illinois” – or as some of us call it: THE BOOK. This tune is included as tune #277 in THE BOOK.  The full title of the piece as given on the field recording of Mr. Soper is:

“Oh boy, Who’ll Cut the Britches;

Daddy Cut ‘em, Mammy Sewed the Stitches”

As might be recognized by a few of you, this is a fragment of a set of lyrics associated with “Leather Britches” (a perennial favorite worthy of its own TOTW!!).  I have listened to as many versions of “Leather Britches” as I can find and have yet to locate one which is similar to Mr. Soper’s piece. If anyone out there has something in mind, then by all means share!

I first learned this tune from members of the Airtight Oldtime String Band back around 2007 while I was living in Charleston, IL. The fellas in the band were members of the defunct Indian Creek Delta Boys (at CD Baby) and, along with the late, great Garry Harrison, collected hundreds of unique tunes from senior fiddlers around E. Central and Southern Illinois. The majority of my repertoire comes from those small weekly sessions and “Britches” has always been one of my favorites to play on the fiddle. I’ve included the field recording, a workshop recording of Garry Harrison from Fiddle Tunes (1998), as well as two banjo arrangements: one clawhammer, the other two-finger (thumb lead).

Not a whole lot else to say other than sorry that the recordings sound like they were made on a drugstore calculator. I slapped them together in the basement storage room late last night while the little ones were sleeping. This also accounts for the brevity of the sound files.

One other thing: watch for the fretted 5th string in the 5th measure of the clawhammer arrangement. It’s a vestige of my melodic banjo playing days, I guess. You can easily substitute the 7th fret, 1st string for the fretted 5th.

To the recordings!

FIELD RECORDING (Henry Soper, fiddle)

WORKSHOP RECORDING (Garry Harrison, fiddle; John “Bish” Bishop, guitar)












Cyndy - Posted - 04/01/2016:  13:18:21

Oh--nice choice!

I learned this tune from a recording that Genevieve did for Fiddle Club back in Chicago and it's always been a favorite.


You know how there are those tunes that just come out without thinking whenever you pick up the fiddle or banjo? For a long time, this was one of them for me.

I've never played it on banjo. I will have to do that soon!



Zischkale - Posted - 04/01/2016:  16:44:34

Great post, Sean, thanks for including arrangements, too (good to see another 2ftl tab!). Really cool tune, and nowhere to be found on the Fiddler's Companion? It's real enjoyable with that melodic tag it returns to on both parts, sounds like fun to play on fiddle.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 04/02/2016:  03:33:43

I "hear" a bit of a kinship between this TOTW and "Come Back Boys, Let's Feed the Horses."

Nice write up.  Thanks for sharing,



mojo_monk - Posted - 04/02/2016:  04:41:43

Thanks for chiming in, folks.

Cyndy - that's great that Gena has been teaching this tune! I'm with you: there's something about this tune that demands to be played. It's consistently the first tune to come out of my fiddle when the bow hits the strings. Glad to hear of someone out there who enjoys it as much as I do smiley

Aaron- Picking a tune for TOTW is always a challenge for me. Do I post an obscure tune that 8 people play or do an old chestnut that's bound to reel in different sound files and videos from BHO members? In this case I couldn't resist. Glad you like the 2ftl tab. One of these days I'll get busy on the Thumb Lead Banjer site and get some more tabs out there.

Lew- WOW! That certainly has more than a few elements in common with "Who'll Cut the Britches?" I don't have enough background info on Henry Soper to know if his people came from around West Virginia. Mt. Vernon, IL sits right on I-64 which, from Illinois, cuts east through parts of Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia before reaching the ocean. I figure if more was known about the man, more could be known about the tune...



olbap - Posted - 04/02/2016:  06:24:25

Hum. sounds great. I'm on it. Thaaank you

Cyndy - Posted - 04/02/2016:  07:45:36

Originally posted by mojo_monk: "I figure if more was known about the man, more could be known about the tune..."


Here's what I've learned since reading your post. smiley

In 1940, there was a Henry Soper, age 76, living in Mt. Vernon, Jefferson County, Illinois with wife, Katie B. Soper, age 74. He was a farmer, born in Illinois. [1] I suspect he is the source of the tune, but it might have been his son. (See below.)

The census pages for Henry for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 are easy to find, if anyone wants to learn more about his family.

Then there's a Find A Grave page which provides unsourced birth and death dates (10 May 1863 - 30 Aug 1950), two photos of Henry, and the text of an obituary listing survivors, one of which is a son, “Harry B. Soper.” [2]

Henry Soper appears on a number of family trees on Ancestry including one (of quite a few) which suggests that his father was Benjamin, born in Tennessee, and that his grandfather was Andrew, was born in Maryland. [3] It would take some work to figure out if there are any family ties to West Virginia.

I wonder if family members taught him to play the fiddle or if he learned from local Illinois fiddlers? If it was the latter, then his tunes could have connections to areas his ancestors never lived. It's fascinating to think about, isn't it? I messaged the tree owner to see if she has any stories to share.

If the field recording was made in 1950, then it was done just prior to Henry’s death. If it was made in the 1950s, then it might have been done by his son Harry. Is it possible that it was made earlier than 1950? I was hoping there might be a short biography of Mr. Soper in Dear Old Illinois but the one reference I see is an index entry pointing to this one tune. [4]


[1] 1940 U.S. census, Jefferson County, Illinois, population schedule, Mt. Vernon, ED 41-28, Sheet 2B, Lines 47-48, Henry Soper and Katie B. Soper; digital image, ( : accessed 2 April 2016); citing NARA microfilm publication T627, roll 816.

[2] Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed 2 April 2016), memorial page for Henry Soper (1863–1950), Find A Grave Memorial no. 17158774, citing Hopewell Cemetery, Idlewood, Jefferson County, Illinois.

[3] “Public Member Trees,” database, ( : accessed 2 April 2016), “Patricia Tinker Family Tree” family tree by Patricia Tinker, profiles for Benjamin Soper (1828-1901, b. Tennessee, d. Illinois) and Andrew Soper (1797-1850, b. Maryland, d. Illinois).

[4] Garry Harrison and Jo Burgess, Dear Old Illinois: Traditional Muic of Downstate Illinois (Bloomington, Indiana: Pick Away Press, 2007), p. 505.


Edited by - Cyndy on 04/02/2016 07:49:46

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 04/03/2016:  07:00:04

I figured that in a few days I'll be moving to a new city, maybe even changing my name and altering my identity, so it couldn't hurt to put up a Youtube video of my crack at the tune as COME BACK BOYS, LET'S FEED THE HORSES for this TOTW.

olbap - Posted - 04/03/2016:  09:00:42

Give a try today :

WHo'll cut the britches. Clawhammer.

Edited by - olbap on 04/03/2016 09:05:42

JanetB - Posted - 04/03/2016:  17:36:42

A lot of fun, Sean, with great contributions already posted.  I thought I'd try it in open G tuning, capoed 2, while using an F chordal position for some of the notes.  I noticed a slight melodic difference between the original recording and the Harrisons' recordings.  Yours stays true to the original Henry Soper recording.  Thanks for providing so much background and support, and many thanks to Cyndy for her helpful posts above.

VIDEO: Who'll Cut the Britches? (TOTW)
(click to view)


mworden - Posted - 04/06/2016:  10:19:22

Nice tune and nice write up.  I hear a few echoes of Elzik's Farewell in the B part.  I like your two finger version a lot.

mojo_monk - Posted - 04/06/2016:  11:48:47

Hey great contributions all! I wasn't expecting this tune to generate ANY responses so to come back a few days later and find this makes me feel great.

@Lew- great picking. That tune is definitely in the same family as "Britches." I need to learn it. Thanks for sharing the vid.

@Pablo- Nice no frills, driving version. I really dig the fretless banjo. 

@Janet- Another great version. I'll have to try it in that tuning. Looks like it lays out pretty well. I'm glad you like the tune.

@Mike- Thanks for the compliment on the two-finger version. I like it better as well. I figured that not too many people play two-finger so I'd include the clawhammer version. Glad I did as it seems to be the one that caught on - even though I think the 2-finger version is easier. I'll give a listen to Elzick's and see what I comes out. Any version in particular?

Thanks again to everyone for your interest in this tune smiley



mojo_monk - Posted - 04/06/2016:  11:51:20


Originally posted by Cyndy


I messaged the tree owner to see if she has any stories to share.


Great Cyndy! Any response yet? My notes say that the recording comes from 1952. Not how that's possible, unless Prof. McIntosh had a party line to the afterlife...



Cyndy - Posted - 04/06/2016:  14:27:51


Originally posted by mojo_monk


Originally posted by Cyndy


Any response yet? My notes say that the recording comes from 1952. Not how that's possible, unless Prof. McIntosh had a party line to the afterlife...

The tree owner said she wasn't "close kin." Mr. Soper appears on other trees, though, so it isn't the end of the road.

Something's up. I either have the right person with the wrong death date or the wrong person with the right death date or the recording date is off or ??? I wonder which?

mworden - Posted - 04/06/2016:  19:10:42


Originally posted by mojo_monk


@Mike- Thanks for the compliment on the two-finger version. I like it better as well. I figured that not too many people play two-finger so I'd include the clawhammer version. Glad I did as it seems to be the one that caught on - even though I think the 2-finger version is easier. I'll give a listen to Elzick's and see what I comes out. Any version in particular?

Re Elzic's: Lot's of different versions out there but I like Wilson Douglas's that I think came from French Carpenter

Someday I'd Iike to learn to play 2-finger...


YorkshireWannabeOldTimer - Posted - 04/12/2016:  11:25:41

I'm not sure if there's a statute of limitations with respect to posting to past TsOTW, but I liked this tune a lot and I reminded myself of it this evening, so I recorded a version, captured in my iPad's characteristically lo-fi manner - very late to the party, but hey ho! Greatly enjoyed all the previous versions, and many thanks to Mr mojo_monk for introducing me to an excellent tune.


Who'll cut the britches?


Tuco - Posted - 04/19/2016:  21:43:22

GREAT job of it, Sean. "Britches" is still one of my faves, too. As to background info on the tune I'd offer just a couple of thoughts.

Despite the mention of "britches," I don't detect any real kinship between the melody of Who'll Cut The Britches and Leather Britches. My fambly used to string Leather Britches -- green beans. Good way to preserve them for ham 'n beans in the winter. But there wasn't any cutting of those leather britches to speak of. And yet, there's some references to Leather Britches that incorporate the "Little Boy" verse. Might be one of those plug-n-play verses that gets passed around and shows up in several pieces.

Then on the other hand, I do recall an old English bawdy song that involved a young swain crawling in the window of a welcoming lass and finding that his britches were fastened too tight and he couldn't get them off. The darlin' lass sang the verse: "There's a knife on the window sill, love, take it to 'em and roll your leg over me, over me do." The closest version to the song I remember that I could find is on Youtube as "Pretty Polly," which bears no apparent kinship to the popular Bluegrass murder ballad by that same name. The britches cuttin' Pretty Polly is here:

Then there's the song that goes by several monikers that embodies the verse: "Little boy, little boy, where'd you get your britches? Daddy cut 'em out and Momma sewed the stitches." For the life of me, I think we played a tune/song that had that line in it, but I can't put a name to it. Not that it has anything to do with Who'll Cut The Britches, but just another close call as far as titles go. Life just a mystery to Mongo. smiley

Don Huber - Posted - 04/20/2016:  02:05:49

A lot of people who are not from this part of the country are surprised to know that southern Illinois has a long tradition of coal mining. Every so often a tune such as this one that Sean presented or one such as Devil in the Haystack turns up in the repertoire of southern Illinios fiddlers and they really catch your ear because do not sound typically mid-western, but more Southern Appalachian. So perhaps "Britches" was brought to Illinois coal country from one of the mining areas in the east. For me the tune feels a bit like Paddy on the Turnpike. The rural culture of "downstate" Illinois is distinctly Southern, I might add.

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