Let’s Play a Few Songs

Let’s use the material from the last two chapters to work out a few songs. For these examples we’re going to look at some tunes from my two favorite singing banjo players, Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole. You can download free copies of the original 78rpm recordings of these and many more great songs from www.honkingduck.com or www.archive.org.

All of these tunes are in 4/4 time so the frailing strum will fit the lyrics. You just have to match everything up.

Hesitation Blues

If the river was whiskey and I was a duck
I'd dive to the bottom and I'd never come up.


 IV                               I
Oh tell me how long do I have to wait
                   V                  I
Oh can I get you now, or must I hesitate?

If the river was whiskey and the branch was wine
you’d see me in bathing just any ole time

I was born in England, raised in France
I bought a suit of clothes and they wouldn’t send the pants

I was born in Alabama, raised in Tennessee
If you don’t like my peaches don’t shake my tree

I looked down the road as far as I can see
A man had my woman and the blues had me

Got the hesitation stockings got the hesitation shoes
Oh my Lord I got the hesitation blues

In our first song, “Hesitation Blues,” we are playing the I chord through the entire verse. As you already know the I chord is the root of the scale so if you want to play this in the key of G your I chord would be G. In the Key of C your I chord would be C.

You can play a frailing strum for the verse, but try it at least once with the chop. The only tricky part is going to be figuring out how many measures to hold each chord, but if you work with the chord progression and the phrasing of the words you’ll get a feel for it.

Go Long Mule

IV            I         IV     I
I've got a mule he's such a fool
   IV            V
he never pays no heed,
IV         I         IV    I
I built a fire right under him,
     V               I
and then I made some speed.


           IV                         I
Oh go long mule, don't you roll those eyes, 
        IV       I          IV      I
You can change a fool but a doggone mule
      V            I
is a mule until he dies.

Oh, Jerry Ache and Dotty Payne
got married on the train,
and now the State of Georgia is
just full of aches and pains.

A man way down in Georgia
pulled his gun on me,
but when he fired that second shot
I passed through Tennessee.

I went down to the graveyard once
to see some friends of mine,
but when a black cat crossed my path
I sure Lord changed my mind!

“Go Long Mule” kicks off with the IV chord. This is going to feel a little strange at first, but once you get into the rhythm of the song it starts to make sense.

The chord changes in the first verse are played in half measures. If might help to phrase the first line as “I’ve got a mule he’s such a fool “.

If I Lose

I can't walk, neither can I talk
Came all the way from
the state of old New York
     V             I
One morning before day


If I lose, let me lose
        V               I
I don't care how much I lose
If I lose a hundred dollars
while I'm tryin' to win a dime
       V                             I
for my baby, she needs money all the time

Flossie, oh Flossie, now what is the matter
Walked all the way from old Cincinatti
One morning before day

The blood was a-runnin’, and I was runnin’ too
Give my feet some exercise,
I had nothing else to do
One morning before day

See them pretty girls standing by the tanks
Waiting on the freight train
they call old Nancy hanks
One morning before day

In “If I lose” the chord progression is pretty standard so you shouldn’t have too much trouble with it. The tricky part of this song is the phrasing of the lyrics. Once you figure out the measures of the tune you have to stick to it. Don’t add a measure to a couple of verses so you can fit the words in.

Way Downtown

IV                     I
Late last night Little Willie came home,
  V                         I
I heard him knocking on the door,
IV                                        I
Slipping and a-sliding with his new shoes on,
    V                         I
Hey Willie don't you knock no more.


IV                  I  V               I
Oh me, and it's oh my, no one to go my bail
IV                 I
Way down town just fooling around,
     V              I
They took me to the jail.

The last time I heard from my momma,
she saw me in that old jail cell
“Quit your rowdy ways my son,
and save your soul from Hell.”

Now, its one old shirt is all that I got
And a dollar is all that I crave
I brought nothing with me into this old world
Ain’t gonna take nothing to my grave

I wish I was over at my sweet Sally’s house
Sittin’ in that big armed chair
One arm around this old guitar

And the other one around my dear

Here we have another song that kicks off on the IV chord, but this time the effect is completely different. Instead of a half measure we are holding the IV for a full measure and running back to it in the chorus.

Start looking around in songbooks for more tunes to work on. It’s a great way to become familiar with the I-IV-V progression and the ways chords sound together.