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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW: Henry Reed's Breakdown in A 8/2/2019

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:

dbrooks - Posted - 08/02/2019:  06:25:48

This week’s tune comes from the well-known fiddler, Henry Reed, thanks to the work of Alan Jabbour and Tommy Thompson during their years in the Hollow Rock String Band. Credit should also be given to BHO’s own Lew Stern (brooklybanjoboy) whose work on a  biography of Tommy Thompson (Tommy Thompson: New-Timey String Band Musician) has yielded other nuggets, such as He Could Surely Make a Banjo Talk: 109 Clawhammer Banjo Tabs by Tommy Thompson, an ebook and paperback on which I had the pleasure to work with Lew.


As many of you know, Henry Reed is the source for many old-time tunes that might otherwise have been lost without the work of Alan Jabbour to record and transcribe them. Tommy Thompson took on the task of figuring out how the banjo might support these old-time tunes. Patrick Couton, a Frenchman who came to the U.S. to learn clawhammer banjo from Tommy, captured Tommy’s early arrangements in handwritten tablatures. Scans of these handwritten tabs are presented in He Could Surely Make a Banjo Talk, along with updated tabs that provide details omitted in the originals, such as keys and tunings, left-hand licks (hammers, pull-offs, etc.) and right-hand drop-thumb licks.


“Henry Reed’s Breakdown in A,” listed as “Reed’s Reel” in the tabs by Thompson and Couton, is a simple modal tune. I view these tabs as artifacts from the early days of the old-time revival. The arrangement itself may not be the path that today’s melodic clawhammerists might take, but it provides insight into how Thompson and Jabbour sought to render the tune faithfully into a stringband setting in the 1970s. Even this short tune reveals that Thompson preferred to play a string of notes to drive the rhythm. No brush strokes appear in this tab.


Perhaps the best place to start is with Jabbour’s field recordings of Henry Reed playing the tune. Here’s the tune with guitar accompaniment:


Jabbour then asks Reed to play the tone alone:


Alan Jabbour playing the tune solo:


Alan Jabbour and Ken Perlman included the tune on their “Southern Summits” CD and in their concerts:

Ken Perlman web site:

In concert:


Sheet music available:

The Session web site:



Finally, here is clawhammer tablature from He Could Surely Make a Banjo Talk: 109 Clawhammer Banjo Tabs by Tommy Thompson:



banjukebox - Posted - 08/03/2019:  09:36:55

Thanks for posting this great tune as TOTW. I first learned this tune from Jimmy Triplett's recording with the Sky Mountain Stringband. He calls the tune "Just Over The Mountain". It was only later that I learned it was also called Henry Reed's Breakdown. Here's a link where you can listen to his version:

Just Over The Mountain

In the liner notes, Jimmy credits Henry Reed as the source. The Library of Congress lists it as "Untitled; Breakdown in A". He goes on to say "But listening to the original recording over and over, I can't help thinking he says 'I believe the name of it is Just Over the Mountain' "

Here's a link to the banjo version I came up with:

Just Over the Mountain - Banjo

And a link to the Tab: 

Just Over the Mountain - Tab

JanetB - Posted - 08/03/2019:  17:00:15

Most grateful to you, David, for including a tune tabbed and played by Tommy Thompson and better yet, passed on to us by Henry Reed. That modal tension seems typical of a West Virginia tune and I enjoyed Pat's video, as well as the new information.

I used Henry Reed's recordings to arrange one and tweeked a note at the end of each part because that's how I heard him playing. I also listened to what Jimmy Triplett heard regarding the title. That's amazing that the iconic Alan Jabbour didn't catch Reed stating the title, but we can still use Just Over the Mountain as being authentic .

I've been reading Lew Stern's book, Tommy Thompson, Old-Timey String Band Musician, and am astounded at how intelligent and talented he was.  If you listen to his one-man play on a fictional character, John Profitt, in conjunction with Lew's book you can develop a real appreciation for the man and his philosophy (the very major he studied for so many of his college years before turning to music fulltime).  You can listen to the hour-long performance The Last Song of John Profitt here.  Tommy was in on the beginnings of the old-time revival and played with Alan Jabbour in the Hollow Rock String Band.  

I find Tommy's style rather notey for my own tastes, but he's rock solid on melody and rhythm.  Fascinating history, and you, David, helped Lew bring it to life.  Thank you both!

Edited by - JanetB on 08/03/2019 17:07:38

northernbelle - Posted - 08/03/2019:  22:45:03

Wow, thank you Janet for that link. I just read Tommy's bio. and I agree it was fascinating
and I had no idea about his adjunct Philosophy professorship, etc. Highly recommended.
I did a recent search for the Proffit play on youtube and found nothing so grateful for your link.

dbrooks - Posted - 08/04/2019:  11:19:08

This TOTW has not generated the usual discussion, but I appreciate the additions by Banjojukebox and JanetB. As Janet states, Tommy Thompson was figuring out fiddle tunes on the banjo early on in the old-time revival, and his arrangement may not suit everyone. The video and tab from Banjojukebox might be the path that many, if not most, of today's clawhammer players would take. Janet suggested that I look at Tommy's tabs for a suitable TOTW candidate. Most of the tunes had already been featured as a TOTW. "Reed's Reel" was one of the exceptions and was attractive both for its simplicity and its modal flavor. I loved learning that there was yet another title for this tune as well.


Clawdan - Posted - 08/05/2019:  11:08:20

Here is a recording of Henry playing it on fiddle from the old field recordings of him. They were done by Alan Jabour and passed around by us back in the day. There were 3 90 minute cassettes and a LOT of tunes!


Edited by - Clawdan on 08/05/2019 11:09:18

Winged Words - Posted - 08/08/2019:  08:03:59

dbrooks Thanks for this TOTW. I don’t often contribute to the discussion, but enjoy reading and listening nevertheless. I’ve really enjoyed learning this simple and hypnotic tune.

dbrooks - Posted - 08/08/2019:  08:22:24

Winged Words , thank you for the comment. The hope is that the TOTW will help us grow our skills and enjoyment.


atleson - Posted - 08/08/2019:  08:22:29

David, this is a wonderful tune, and your listing, I believe, will generate a lot of interest. I have Jimmy Triplett's cd, and always wanted to work on this tune. I love WV model tunes, and this one is not hard to at least line out. It really is hypnotic.

JanetB - Posted - 08/08/2019:  09:22:20

David makes a good point when he mentions the discussion (or lack of) that is generated from TOTW. To those of you who read but seldom comment, it is good to know that what the rest of us are doing is appreciated and useful, plus your comments are interesting and can be edifying.

As I continue to read the biography of Tommy Thompson, my musical experience is being enhanced as well. He is an offshoot of Henry Reed’s contribution to old-time music via Alan Jabbour and ventured into a creative musical journey that many musicians take, one we can identify with.

So thank you to those of you who help keep TOTW alive!

Tamarack - Posted - 08/10/2019:  06:44:17

A terrific tune drawn from a deep well of tradition. I am familiar with it because Southern Summits is in regular rotation for my Driving Around on Saturday music. It has a characteristic West Virginia modal sound, but to my ears it sounds lighter than most modal tunes.

I gotta check out the Tommy Thompson biography. Tommy and the Red Clay Ramblers were a great influence when I first became addicted to old-time music.

G Mac - Posted - 08/10/2019:  10:10:12

Thanks for a great TOTW. I have enjoyed listing to all the recordings multiple times and this tune is now stuck firmly in my head. Also, I am, and I suspect others are too, grateful for the Tab. Still a beginner, Tab helps me a lot. Clearly, I’m not a frequent poster but I felt compelled to add to this discussion.

banjo bill-e - Posted - 08/10/2019:  10:19:47

I've enjoyed this one. Janet, on this tune I preferred your mellow version over the lively original, it felt meditative. Your tabs are easy to understand, too. Thanks to all who keep this going. More participation is beyond me at this point but retirement is very close now, so maybe that will change soon.

m06 - Posted - 09/11/2019:  14:18:44

Giles Mountain String Band include this breakdown on their cd ‘Goin’ To Get Some Corn’.

They call it ‘East River Mountain Blues’.

BrooksMT - Posted - 09/14/2019:  17:16:40

Thanks to all for this TOTW. I like it a lot, and am having fun playing the different variations posted. I appreciate TOTW, but have not always thanked the posters, sorry. I'll try to be better about that.

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