It’s the Melody, Stupid!

In 1992, Bill Clinton grabbed headlines with the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” and used it to unseat George Bush as President. I’m not trying to stir up old political feuds or throw a hissy fit, but my point here should be as plain as the nose on your face. In playing traditional bluegrass, the melody should be considered almost sacred.

Bluegrass music is the delicate balance between tradition and innovation. In order to maintain the traditional side of bluegrass music, the melodies as well as the lyrics must be kept more or less intact. The hot licks we all aspire to are fine in their place, but let’s not stray too far away from the melodic roots of our music.  If we do, we stand to lose the very foundation of traditional bluegrass music.

To  illustrate the importance of honoring the melodies of the bedrock traditional bluegrass songs, here is a list of some of the older songs that were at the heart of the repertoire of the first generations of bluegrass musicians. Along with the song titles, I’ve included the first performers to record them. If you’re new to bluegrass, these are the traditional songs to learn.

Black-Eyed Susie – Gid Tanner & Riley Puckett (1924)
Blue Ridge Mountain Blues – George Reneau & Gene Austin (1924)
Bury Me Beneath the Willow – Henry Whitter (1923)
Down in the Willow Gardens – G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter (1927)
East Tennessee Blues – Al Hopkins & His Buckle Busters (1926)
Feast Here Tonight – The Prairie Ramblers (1933)
Handsome Molly – G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter (1928)
If I Lose – Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers (1927)
In the Pines – Dock Walsh (1926)
Jimmy Brown the Newsboy – The Carter Family (1929)
John Hardy -Eva Davis (1924)
John Henry – Fiddlin’ John Carson (1924)
Katie Kline – Ernest V. Stoneman (1926)
Knoxville Girl – Riley Puckett (1924)
Little Bessie – Buell Kazee (1928)
Little Rosewood Casket – Ernest Thompson (1924)
Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane – Fiddlin’ John Carson (1923)
Little Maggie – G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter (1928)
Little Whitewashed Chimney – Jess Hillard (1933)
Maple on the Hill – Vernon Dalhart (1926)
Midnight on the Stormy Deep – Lester McFarland & Robert A. Gardner (1928)
My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains – Kelly Harrell (1925)
Nine Pound Hammer – Al Hopkins & His Buckle Busters (1927)
Old Joe Clark – Fiddlin’ John Carson (1923)
Poor Ellen Smith -Henry Whitter (1924)
Pretty Polly – John Hammond (1925)
Roll on Buddy – Al Hopkins & His Buckle Busters (1927)
Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms – Buster Carter & Preston Young (1931)
Sally Gooden – Eck Robertson (1922)
Short Life of Trouble – Burnett & Rutherford (1926)
Sweet Sunny South – Da Costa Waltz’s Southern Broadcasters (1927)
The Girl I Left In Sunny Tennessee – Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers (1925)
White House Blues – Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers (1926)
Wildwood Flower – the Carter Family (1929)

Even though I’ve put my foot down hard in favor of maintaining the integrity of the melodies of traditional bluegrass songs, I can’t leave this subject without admitting that a certain amount of improvision is often a good thing. A good rule of thumb is to play the melody “straight” the first time through. On the next pass, go uptown with it, and come back down to earth on the final run through. You want to give the melody your own unique twist, while still letting your listeners know where the real heart of the tune lies. As my late friend Jack Link once said, “make the tune so that it suits your own way of playing and your own soul.”


Wayne Erbsen is an musician, teacher, author, publisher and radio host. He is president of Native Ground Books & Music, which publishes his instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Wayne has edited ten songbooks of bluegrass songs, as well as songs of railroads, cowboys, pioneers and the Civil War. For those wanting to learn traditional bluegrass songs, check out his Rural Roots of Bluegrass or The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook. Write or call for a free catalog Native Ground Books & Music, 109 Bell Road, Asheville, NC 28805 (828) 299-7031.

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