I recently published my newest clawhammer banjo book-Clawhammer Banjo~ Tunes, Tips & Jamming. Among the forty four tunes in the book, I included “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” I always wondered about the origin for the tune, so I took this opportunity to do some research. Here’s what I found.
Chasing down the history of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” is about as easy as finding the Rosetta Stone at a flea market. Thanks to the painstaking research by Andrew Kuntz and Vivian Williams, we can start to get an idea of the origins of this great old tune. There are a number of Celtic fiddle tunes such as “Green Fields of America,” “Great Eastern Reel,” “Bennett’s Favorite” and “Silver Spire” that are suspiciously similar to the A part of “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” It is likely that some variant of this family of tunes migrated to the Maritime provinces of Canada in the late 19th century, where it was known as “Spirits of the Morning.” A story has been told that Canadian fiddler Andy De Jarlis and another fiddler named Houle played tunes all night until they passed out due to over lubrication with strong drink. When De Jarlis awoke, he remembered the last tune they played before passing out and named it “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” In 1957, De Jarlis arranged it and included it in his book, “Canadian Fiddle Tunes from Red River Valley.”
“Whiskey Before Breakfast” was later picked up by fiddler Dick Barrett, who recorded it on a 1972 Voyager recording called “More Fiddle Jam Sessions.” I remember hearing the tune in early 1972 while visiting the Seattle, Washington area, but I don’t recall who was playing it. When I returned to the San Francisco Bay area, I discovered that none of my musician friends knew it, so I helped spread it around. By the mid 1970s, the tune was on everyone’s “top 10” list in many parts of the country.
Here is a version of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” for clawhammer banjo which I reduced down to its bare-bones skeleton. (You can thank me later).
Note: the arrows indicate a downward brush on the bottom strings. I’ve arranged “Whiskey Before Breakfast” in double C tuning (gCGCD). If you plan to play it with other musicians, you’ll need to capo up on the 2nd fret, which will put you in the key of D where this tune is normally played. Remember to raise your 5th string to an A.
Wayne Erbsen has been writing books and articles and teaching stringed instruments since before dinosaurs roamed the earth. For information about his songbooks and instruction books for bluegrass and clawhammer banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, ukulele (including Clawhammer Banjo – Tunes, Tips & Jamming,) please visit www.nativeground.com.