‘I Am a Pilgrim’ and the Magic Numbers

By Wayne Erbsen

Merle-TravisOne of my favorite gospel songs of all time is I Am a Pilgrim. I first heard it back in the early 60s when I was listening closely to Doc Watson, who sang it and picked it on the guitar. Doc freely admitted that he learned it from the great Merle Travis, so I always assumed Travis composed it. Digging a little deeper, I found that it was recorded by 14 African-American singers before it was even a gleam in Travis’ eye.

I’m not surprised that I Am a Pilgrim has roots in African-American music. The structure of the song is a dead giveaway. In my experience, songs that contain gaps or pauses can always be traced back to African-American singers. That’s because African singing was frequently done in groups which used the technique of call-and-response. The lead singer would sing a phrase and the other singers would respond. In contrast, I’ve found that this technique is never used in Celtic music. Instead, the reels, jigs, and hornpipes tend to be very note-y, and contain few, if any, gaps or pauses.

Because of its call-and-response structure, I Am a Pilgrim is a perfect tune to learn to play back-up. The gaps between the phrases almost cry out for musicians to throw in a lick or a fill. The question then becomes, “how do you do that?” Stick with me here and I’ll show you.

Here are the lyrics to the chorus of I Am a Pilgrim

I am a pilgrim and a stranger,

Traveling through this wearisome land.

I’ve got a home in that yonder city,

And it’s not, not made by hand.

Here are some possible licks to use.

Echo licks: First, remember that what we’re dealing with here is call-and-response. The beginning of the chorus starts with “I Am a Pil…” That’s the “call.” The pause after “Pil…” is where you throw in a “response.” The easiest response lick is an exact copy or echo of the “call” lick. So the singer would sing “I Am a Pil…” and you would play those same notes as a “response.” This echo lick idea works well the first few times you use it, but it quickly becomes annoying if you overuse it.

What then? You make up a lick based on a major scale. What??? Hold the phone and let me explain.

Let’s say we’re in the key of G. The G scale would be G, A, B, C, D, E, F# G. Don’t know where to find these notes on your instrument? OK. I’ll help.

On a banjo in G tuning: G=3rd string open or unfretted. A=3rd string at the second fret. B=2nd string open. C=2nd string first fret. D=1st string open. E=1st string second fret. F#=1st string fourth fret, G=1st string fifth fret.

On a mandolin: G=D string fifth fret, A=A string open, B=A string second fret, C=A string third fret, D=A string fifth fret, E=E string open, F#=E string second fret, G=first string third fret.

On a fiddle: G=D string with ring finger, A=A string open, B=A string index finger, C=A string middle finger, D=A string ring finger, E=E string open, F#=E string index finger, G=E string middle finger.

On a guitar: G=third string open, A=third string second fret, B=second string open, C=second string first fret, D=second string third fret, E=first string open, F#=first string second fret, G=first string third fret.

Now that you can play a G scale on your instrument, let’s assign what I like to call “magic numbers” to the notes of the scale. G=1, A=2, B=3, C=4, D=5, E=6, F#=7 and G=8. Practice your scale while you say the numbers out loud.

When you sing or think of the chorus of “I Am a Pilgrim,” you quickly see that the first gap or “hole” comes immediately after the first phrase, “I Am a Pil…” Let’s put in a 1-2-3 lick there. If we’re in the key of G on the word “Pil,” it goes to a D chord. That means you’ll need to know a D scale: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. If we assign numbers, it’s D=1, E=2, F#=3, G=4, A=5, B=6, C#7, D=8. So a 1-2-3 lick would be D, E, F#. Right? You can start your 1-2-3 lick right as you say “Pil…” Each note of the lick would get one beat or one foot tap.

Now we’ll do a 1-2-3 lick on the next phrase of the song, which is “and a strange…” Since the song goes to a G chord on the word “stranger,” we’ll use a 1-2-3 lick of a G scale: 1=G, 2=A, 3=B. Again, you would start your lick on the word “strange,” and each note would get one beat, or one foot tap.

On the next phrase, “Traveling through,” it goes to a C chord. Again, we’ll use the 1-2-3 lick, but with a C scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, G. So 1=C, 2=D, 3=E. Just like before, each note gets one beat or one foot tap, and you start on the word “through.”

The 1, 2, 3 back-up licks wear well, and you can use them numerous times before your fans start to wonder if you know any other licks. Then you’ll either have to find new licks, or new fans!

I’ve tried to make this lesson using the magic numbers as easy as possible, but I realize it may be difficult to grasp without hearing what it sounds like. I have a solution to this problem! “I Am a Pilgrim” can be found in three of my books: Bluegrass Jamming on Mandolin, Bluegrass Jamming on Fiddle, and Bluegrass Jamming on Banjo. Each book comes with a CD containing almost 200 tracks, which illustrate the echo licks as well as the 1, 2, and 3 back-up licks using the magic numbers.

Good luck with learning to play back-up on your instrument. It’s one of the most fun things to do in this life, right up there with eating pie!

Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

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