Friday, September 16, 2011

“Betsy Likens”

A happy Banjo Friday!  We’ve got a great tune by one of my favorite banjo players today, so go ahead & pull up a chair!

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may know that I love the banjo playing of Cathy Moore, who occasionally blogs at the fine Banjo Meets World site.  Cathy Moore is not only an excellent player from a technical standpoint, but also someone who evinces real joy & exuberance in her playing, which adds that all important extra dimension to musical performance.  In addition, many of the videos on her blog are designed to teach, & she has a wealth of good ideas to share.

In playing today’s song, “Betsy Likens” (AKA “Betty Likens,” AKA “Betty Liken”), Cathy Moore takes an old fiddle tune standard & completely re-shapes it by playing the tune in an unusual time signature, 7/8.  For thos who are unfamiliar with this sort of musical terminology, 7/8 indicates that there are seven eighth notes in each measure.  In fact, having an odd number of eighth notes is uncommon in western European music (tho fairly common in music from eastern Europe), & fiddle tunes almost without exception are in 2/4 time, with two quarter notes per measure (a quarter note, as you may have guessed, has twice the duration of an eighth note.)  There are a few ways to count 7/8 time—in this case, in Cathy Moore’s words, “7 is counted 3+2+2 or "slow-and-a quick quick.”  By contrast, 2/4 is simply counted 1+2.

Adding to the unusual sound of her version of “Betsy Likens,” Cathy Moore is playing it on an unusual instrument, the cello banjo.  The cello banjo dates back to the early 20th century, when the banjo orchestra fad was in full-force.  At that time the cello banjo was a 4-stringed instrument tuned like a cello (C-G-D-A), typically played with a pick.  Recently, the Gold Tone instrument company has developed a new line of cello banjos that includes both 4-string & 5-string versions.  The 5-string Gold Tone cello banjos are typically tuned either to A or D, an octave lower than a regular 5-string banjo.  Especially when played clawhammer style (as Cathy Moore does), they sound almost Middle Eastern, which of course brings us back to the 7/8 time signature. 

The tune “Betsy Likens” is generally fiddled in A & is in a minor mode—so the banjo is tuned to “Mountain Minor” or “Sawmill Tuning,” either gDGCD & capoed or (as is the case here) to aEADE.  Most contemporary versions of “Betsy Likens” are drawn from the playing of Virginia fiddler Henry Reed.  Reed was born in 1884, & was finally recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1960s—the collection Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier is a seminal work as a record of old-time music.

But for today, here’s some old-time music with a delightful twist.  Hope you enjoy it!


  1. Cool! The cello banjo sounds very much like the Turkish saz, and the song sounds like an old Irish fiddle tune rearranged and played by somebody like Faruk Tekbilek, who did s lot of work with guitarist/producer Brian Keane back in the '90s. It made me think that the guys from 3Mustaphas3 could have had a field day with this!

  2. Hi Roy: That's great! Yes, it does sound a bit like the saz, or almost like the yayli tambur if it were plucked & not bowed. Of course, 7/8 is a much more common time signature in Eastern Europe & the Middle East, so that adds to this feel. Glad you liked it so well--thanks!


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