Friday, July 22, 2011

“East Virginia”

Do you find yourself longing for some real old-time high & lonesome music?  Must mean it’s Banjo Friday on Robert Frost’s Banjo

I’m continuing my very impressionistic series of favorite old-time banjo songs today, & I think you’re going to like this selection a lot.  If you’re familiar with old-time banjo playing, you probably know the name Buell Kazee.  If you haven’t encountered this man’s music before, you’re in for a treat.

Buell Kazee was born in the Kentucky mountains in 1900.  He began to play at a very young age—in fact, he was performing on banjo in church at age five!  But Kazee didn’t live an isolated life—he went on to study Classics at Georgetown College, where he also received formal music training.  He was interested in the folk music he’d learned as a child & wanted to be able to transcribe & document this.  Even as Kazee became an ordained minister, he also kept up a musical performing career & recorded over 50 songs for Brunswick Records & Vocalion between 1927 & 1929.  After this, he let his music career lapse & devoted himself full-time to his minister’s work.

Kazee’s singing & banjo playing caught the ear of Harry Smith, however, & Smith included three of Kazee’s songs on his groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music—the three songs were today’s selection, “East Virginia,” as well as “The Butcher’s Boy” & “The Wagonner’s Lad.”  Kazee was “re-discovered & enjoyed a second musical career in the 1960s.

Kazee had remarkable talents both as a singer & a banjoist.  When we speak of old-time “high & lonesome” singing, perhaps only Roscoe Holcomb can compare.  Kazee played banjo in the clawhammer or frailing style, which we’ve discussed in several previous posts.  Kazee’s frailing technique was impressive for its drive & crispness.

“East Virginia” is a song with many relations.  It’s melody & harmonic structure are essentially identical to the old-time tune “Little Maggie,” tho it’s true that bluegrass musicians tend to make the root chord in “Little Maggie” more major than in the old-time versions.  Other relatives of “East Virginia” are Clarence Ashley’s “Dark Holler” & “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which is descended from a song called “East Virginia Blues.”  Kazee plays this song in so-called Mountain Minor tuning (Pete Seeger’s term), which has the banjo tuned from 5th string to 1st as follows: gDGCD.  Clarence Ashley called this “Sawmill” tuning, but it seems the use of that term wasn’t widespread before the folk revival.  This was also called both “Cuckoo” & “Shady Grove” in reference to two other well-known songs played in the tuning.

Hope you enjoy this beautiful & haunting old tune.

Photo shows magnolia blossoms in Charlottesville, Virginia—taken by yours truly in 1987!


  1. Nice! Another great start to my day. Thanks, John.

  2. I was longing for some high and lonesome music. Thanks.

  3. Hi Caroline: You've come to the right place :)

  4. This version is very new to me. I remember Joan Baez's version, have another version in a book of bluegrass songs, and just heard a third take by Pete Seeger, who gave it a ton of testosterone (which felt wrong to me). The variety of lyrics and arrangements on these oldies is just remarkable to me.

    You've got a wealth of info here, John. Thanks again.

  5. Hi Banjo52: I sort of know the Baez version--I've heard it in the past. Any time one of these old modal tunes gets played with a guitar accompaniment (unless the guitar is re-tuned to something like DADGAD or DGDGCD) it tends to make it more "square" because the guitar is much more insistent on chords than the banjo, especially when the banjo is in Sawmill or another "modal" tuning. I don't know Seeger's version off the top of my head, but your description of it makes me think I wouldn't like it!


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