Friday, May 27, 2011

"Little Birdie"

Happy Friday, & welcome to a brand new Robert Frost’s Banjo series, one that features—not unsurprisingly!—the banjo.

I’ve often said that the banjo in the blog’s title is a bit of a joke, since I’m a better guitarist than a banjo player.  But I love the instrument & the music it makes, & I’ve been playing more banjo these days with the Motherland & churchmouse bands; as a result, thinking about the instrument more, or perhaps in new ways.  So every other Friday, alternating with the new Platypuss in Boots series, I’ll be posting a favorite banjo song of mine & writing a bit about the song & the performer.

Today’s song, “Little Birdie,” is a standard of old-time banjo music.  In fact, there’s even a banjo tuning named after it.  Art Rosenbaum, who’s written some wonderful books about old-time banjo, mixing instruction & history, said in his Old-Time Mountain Banjo that Kentucky banjoist Pete Steele told him “Little Birdie” cannot be played in any other tuning, & that no other song can be played in “Little Birdie tuning.”  However that may be (& I have seen the song arranged in the better-known “double C” banjo tuning), the “Little Birdie tuning” is an interesting affair.  The strings are tuned ECGAD, which gives us is something called a 6/9 chord—a chord I typically associate with jazz songs!  The song is in C, so the open strings give the C major chord (C, E & G, or if you will, Do, Mi, Sol), but adds A (or La) & D or (Re.)  The open A & D strings are quite important in the song.

Roscoe Holcomb was one of the most renowned old-time banjoists from eastern Kentucky, an area that has been rich in banjo players.  Holcomb favored what is called “two-finger picking,” a style of playing that uses only the thumb & the index finger in alternating patterns.  Although people nowadays associate clawhammer style, AKA frailing, with old-time banjo playing, in fact there were a number of old styles in which the strings were plucked up as would be done on a guitar rather than struck with a downward motion as in frailing.  Two-finger picking was one of the most common of these.

Hope you enjoy “Little Birdie!”


  1. Am I forcing it if I wonder about a connection to "Come all ye tender ladies [or maidens]" with its verse, "I wish I was a little sparrow"?

    That seems like some mighty weird tuning, but all I know is G tuning, which probably makes me some kind of philistine. Or just a Yankee moron?

    I wonder if that part of KY has been tamed yet. Or was it never as fierce as legend would have it?

    Every time I revisit you, the site seems more packed with good stuff. Thanks.

  2. Hi Banjo52: These days open G is pretty much the standard banjo tuning, & I notice in your profile that you like bluegrass--open G definitely rules the roost there. In old time banjo music there were a lot of different tunings. The ones that are still prominent are "double C," which from the 5th-1st string is gCGCD, & what's variously called G-modal, Sawmill, or Mountain Minor, & that's gDGCD, which is very atmospheric. The "old" standard tuning, before open G was as follows: gCGBD--that's become pretty obscure at this point. & then there are a few variants on D tuning that come up, too: f#DF#AD & aDF#AD are the most common, but there are a bunch of others.

    There is a bit of a melodic similarity to "Come All Ye Tender Ladies." Good ear!

  3. Hey there!

    What Roscoe played on this wasn't standard two finger back-and-forth; it's called by some 'Kentucky sling finger'. He tapped on the head with his middle/ring/pinky fingers, while he stuck down(and out) with the index nail on the downbeat(with the head strike), then plucked with the thumb, THEN plucked up with the index. That got the "bum-ditty". My grandpa came from Kentucky and he did the same thing. Hardly anybody does this these days, which is sad.

  4. Hi C.K. Walter: Thanks so much for the information! Much appreciated; & really appreciate your stopping by. Yes there are a number of variations on right-hand techniques that just aren't used very much. Even standard thumb-lead 2-finger playing isn't done very much anymore.

  5. It makes me sad; that style should be done more. The combo of down/up picking with the constant thump on the skin with the flesh of the fingertips is so incredibly driving, and so fast! :)


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