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Uncommonly Strong Clawhammer Tunes #10: The Mason's Apron

Posted by tfaux on Friday, May 30, 2014

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There has been plenty of warm BHO Forum discussion over the years about Irish clawhammer. Opinions about whether it is socially appropriate to whip out a five-string banjo at an Irish seisiún, whether the instrument is truly traditional, whether clawhammer technique is suited to squirrelly Celtic melodies, whether “melodic” Irish clawhammer is a new-age abomination lacking in drive and guts, whether clawhammer players as a species are capable of learning such complex tunes, etc. pop up periodically and draw great passion and many sage opinions. In my view, most tradition is invented anyway including both the Irish string band tradition (bouzouki??) and modern “old-time” banjo, and musical purists are generally living in a world of the imagined. Celtic and claw are as eminently suited to each other as corned beef and grits, and melodic banjo playing doesn’t have to be—as Spiro Agnew would have said—effete and intellekshul. Doubters should check out this video of Bruce Molsky and Fred Morrison.

This month’s Curiously Strong tune is a well-known session number, usually played in A, sometimes in G or E under the title "The Braes of Glenorchy." Other titles for the tune include “Lady Carbury’s” and “The Pig That Stole The Shirt.” Like all the best tune titles, the story behind the "Mason's Apron" has been lost in time: does it refer to a builder's tool pouch? does it refer to a ritual item from a Masonic rite? Who can say?

The great accordionist John Kimmel recorded this tune back in 1915, and it has been recorded by dozens, if not hundreds of Irish and Quebecois musicians since. It is #1343 in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (the best collection of Irish dance numbers since its inception in 1903.) A true old chestnut of a tune.

I present it here in Double D, with a capo.  Note: if you tune to DD without the capo you’ll have to adjust the 5th string fingering slightly. The B section is an open invitation to improvise over D / Em. I’ve transcribed a standard melodic line, but many things are possible. Also of note, the tune requires a bit of 5th string melody fingering, hence the “intermediate” designation in the BHO tune archive.


The Tab is HERE>

My banjo version is HERE> Many thanks to Robin Kearton (viola) and Michael Shapiro (guitar.)



8 comments on “Uncommonly Strong Clawhammer Tunes #10: The Mason's Apron”

jmabus Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @2:46:53 PM

Why key of D? It is an "A" tune 90 percent of the time and a G tune the other 10%. I understand that as a solo tune, any key that works is fine. But if you ever want to play with a fiddler, learn it in G tuning and carry a capo. IMHO.
BTW, there is a Texas tune, "Jack of Diamonds" in the key of A that uses Mason Apron A part, and then something a little less Celtic in the B.

tfaux Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @3:50:20 PM

jmabus, thanks for the opinion, and for mentioning "Jack of Diamonds."

"Why key of D"? Because it sounds nice and it rolls under the fingers in a satisfying way. I could have transcribed it in A, but then it wouldn't have been uncommon.
So note: it is now an "A" tune 89% of the time, a "G" tune 10% of the time, and a "D" tune 1% of the time.

Naturally if your fiddler insists on playing it in A, you should do the polite thing.


longneckpat Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @4:09:39 PM

Here is my 5 part version that continues to evolve..see what you think!

tfaux Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @4:29:44 PM

I will be stealing that third section Pat!
You guys sound like you've played together a few times.

jmabus Says:
Monday, June 2, 2014 @4:30:23 PM

The first time I heard the tune was in 1974 at a Boys of the Lough Concert. Cathal McConnell played it in G on the whistle, and Aly Bain in A on the fiddle. The joke Cathal told was that the Irish do it in G, and the Scots do it in A... because their alphabet doesn't go up that high.

Oh, here's Benny Thomasson doing his exquisite "Jack of Diamonds" with the Masons Apron A part --

Joel Mabus

fevercreek Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @4:03:19 AM

Lovely tune, thanks for posting, I had not heard it before. It seems the version you play is slightly different from the version that's tabbed. I had a go at tabbing something between the tabbed version and the played version, but in A for the 89%.

Not sure how to insert a link to this post but the url is:


tfaux Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @1:08:31 PM

Thanks Craig!

tfaux Says:
Tuesday, June 3, 2014 @5:41:23 PM

@Joel, thanks for that Benny Thomasson Texafied version!

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