Friday, July 29, 2011

“Cumberland Gap”

A happy Banjo Friday to you, one & all.  I just know you’re going to love today’s song!

Two weeks ago, I posted a video of Cathy Moore playing a medley of “Star of Munster” & “Greasy Coat.”  In addition to the fact that Ms. Moore’s playing is a joy to hear, I thought the video also served to illustrate the right hand technique of clawhammer style playing.  I’m returning to that idea with today’s video of Cathy Fink playing the old-time standard, “Cumberland Gap.” 

Now perhaps you’re not familiar with Cathy Fink, a musician who deserves to be much better known.  She has performed for over 20 years with her musical partner, Marcy Marxer, & this duo has won two Grammy awards, in 2004 & 2005, & also received two additional nominations in 2003.  Fink & Marxer describe what they play as “folk music”—a term that’s a bit passé these days, but which I believe describes their music well; they play everything from children’s songs to old-time music, & are also politically active in the best folkie tradition.

Cathy Fink is an extremely accomplished banjo player who typically plays in the clawhammer style.  If you watch her right hand during the song, you’ll notice how the clawhammer motion has essentially two parts—the sweep down in which the lead fingernail (I believe she’s using her index finger) comes into contact with a string or strings, & then the stopping of that motion when the thumb comes in contact with a string.  You’ll notice that the majority of the time the thumb lands on the 5th string (which is sometimes referred to as the “thumb string”—now you see why!), but sometimes the thumb continues down to the 4th, 3rd or even 2nd strings.  This latter motion is called “drop thumb,” & in this case the thumb is joining the lead finger in playing melody.  Obviously, having two points of contact can make for a more smooth flow of notes.  I should note that when the thumb comes in contact with the 5th string in clawhammer playing, it doesn’t always actually play the note—sometimes it simply rests against the string as a completion of the motion.  When it does strike the note, it tends to play the 5th string as a drone against the melody, & not so much as a melody note per se.

“Cumberland Gap” is an old folk tune (or “old-time” song in current parlance) that refers to a mountain pass in the Appalachian Mountains near the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky & Virginia.  The song was first recorded in 1924, as a solo fiddle piece by Ambrose G. "Uncle Am" Stuart; it was recorded soon after by country music pioneers Gid Tanner & Riley Puckett, & a number of recorded versions exist, from folk song (Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger, for example) to bluegrass (Flatt & Scruggs) to skiffle (Lonnie Donnegan) to indie rock (Xiu Xiu).  There are a number of “old-time” versions as well, including recordings by Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith & Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

There is are two banjo tuning named for this song, & these tuning goes as follows (5th string to first): fDGCD or f#BEAD.  To be honest, I'm not sure which tuning Cathy Fink is using; someone on YouTube suggested she's using the fDGCD tuning, but with each string tuned up a half tone.  Since I haven't had a chance to really play along & test this theory out, I'll just have to say it may well be right.  It's true that the fDGCD tuning is currently more widely used for "Cumberland Gap."  The f#BEAD tuning is more associated with old-time players such as Dock Boggs & Hobart Smith.  With the exception of the D on the 1st string, this old-time tuning involves all "slackened" strings
—strings tuned lower than standard pitch.

In any case, I think there’s a lot to like in Cathy Fink’s playing, & I hope you enjoy it, too!

The pic leading off the post has nothing to do with the Cumberland Gap—it’s a little outbuilding in Indian Valley, Idaho.  I just like the picture!


  1. Ah! Another great start to my morning. Believe it or not, the first version of "Cumberland Gap" I ever heard was by Grandpa Jones. People tend to look at him as one of The Grand Ol' Opry's premier comedians and forget that he was a great clawhammer banjo player.

  2. Hi Roy: Thanks! That's a great point--Grandpa Jones was an excellent clawhammer style player, & he also wrote an instruction book, which I think is still available thru Mel Bay. I've never looked at it, but I know Pete Seeger recommended it in his "How to Play the 5-String Banjo."

  3. Thanks John, I did enjoy Cathy's rendition of "Cumberland Gap". Interesting post as always. :-)

  4. Hi Lizzy: Thanks! I suspect that Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer will be appearing more on upcoming Banjo Fridays.

  5. Once again, interesting and enjoyable. Your explanations are really clear. And your guest artist is smooth indeed. The things some hands can do . . . . Thanks!

  6. Hi Banjo52: Thanks! It's good to know that the musical explanations come across as clear. Glad you enjoyed it!


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