Banjo Friday is here again, & we have a great version of one of the best known old-time fiddle tunes around for your listening pleasure.
“Old Joe Clark” is presumed to be an old song, tho song collectors have apparently had some difficulty unearthing actual 19th century versions. However, there are very early recordings of this tune: one by Fiddlin’ Joe Carson for Okeh in 1924 & one by Riley Puckett for Columbia in 1925. It has since been covered by many well-known professionals in the old-time & bluegrass fields, & played by thousands of us regular musicians. It’s a lot of fun, whether played as an instrumental or as a song with its multitude of wild verses—for instance:
Old Joe Clark had a house
Fifteen stories high
And every story in that house
Was filled with chicken pie
& so on! The song is usually fiddled in A, which means the banjo player either plays in open G & capos up to the key of A, or else gets brave & tunes all the way up to open A. The song is in what’s called the “Mixolydian mode”—pretty common in old-time music—which is a 50 cent word that tells us in the key of A, the two chords harmonizing the melody will be A & G.
It appears that Joe Clark was a historical figure, & the best guess at his identity makes him the Joe Clark who was born in 1839 in Clay County, Kentucky. Besides being a Civil War veteran, he appears to have been a bit of a libertine—his wife Betty left him in 1864, as he was spending time with several local women, & also apparently fathered a number of children. He also was a moonshiner.
In this version of the story, the song dates from Joe Clark’s lifetime when some of his friends began making up lyrics about him to go with a current fiddle tune that hadn’t any words. In any case, while there are several versions of how Joe Clark met his end, most involve some form of violence. You can read more about the Old Joe Clark story here.
The version I’m sharing with you is by Cathy Fink, whose playing I love. She’s playing clawhammer style, as you may recognize.
Hope you enjoy it!