Every now and then it is rewarding to learn and play a “new” tune — just “for fun.” We need a lighter side to balance all the troubles of the world. I enjoy arranging tunes and thought I’d look for ideas in a new book which I have recently purchased, Favorite American Hornpipes for Fiddle, by Stacy Phillips and published by Mel Bay. The hornpipe, “Sailor’s Hornpipe,” stood out. You will recognize the tune from the animated television Popeye’s cartoons which date from the 1930s. It was played at the beginning of the opening credits. (And it was still playing when I was growing up.) After “fiddling around,” I managed to make an arrangement for the dulcimer which isn’t too, too difficult. It is in DAD tuning, capo 3. And it is alot of fun to play. I hope you enjoy this old hornpipe which sailors danced to on the tall ship decks.
One resource for making dulcimer arrangements of traditional tunes is by using fiddle books from a variety of sources. If a fiddler can play the tune, why can’t a dulcimer player? Well, this works some of the time. My rendition of “Sailor’s Hornpipe” is inspired by an arrangement from Stacy Phillips. Phillips is a prolific collector of fiddle tunes. He collected the hornpipes for this book directly from old-time fiddlers across the country including recordings, fiddle contests, jam sessions and meetings with individual fiddlers. The book includes over100 hornpipe tunes and all are in the public domain. Phillips has authored many fiddle books including with a five-volume set of America’s Favorite Fiddle Tunes. This is a treasure source of songs and a wonderful reference.
Most traditional fiddle tunes have many variations. I used the Favorite American Hornpipes book as a starting point for my “Sailor’s Hornpipe” arrangement, but actually used a slightly different variation for the final dulcimer arrangement.
About Sailor’s Hornpipe
A hornpipe is an reed instrument dating from antiquity with finger holes and a bell made from a cow horn or other animal horn. Hence, a “hornpipe.” It also refers to a dance dating to the Renaissance period which was danced to tunes played on this instrument. Often the dance was a solo performance, performed with hard or clog shoes — so the dancer could keep the rhythm. At some point, the dance became associated with the steps and tasks that a sailor did in a small space on a ship such as hauling in ropes, climbing rigging and saluting. The “Sailor’s Hornpipe” is one of these tunes. It is said that Captain Cook took a piper on at least one voyage, and had his men dance to the tune to keep them in shape.
This particular tune has been found in printed manuscripts dating to 1770. It is also known as “College Hornpipe,” “Jack’s the Lad” and “Jacky Tar.”
In general, hornpipes are considered to be indigenous musical dances to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. As a dance, the hornpipe has been known in England since the 15th century. The music is written in the 4/4 time signature and is often played with a “dotted” or “swing” rhythm. The tempo can be slower or fast depending on how intricate the steps are in the dance (more complicated steps mean a slower tempo) and the type of dance — solo or set dance. Hornpipes tend to be melodic compared to reels. “Sailor’s Hornpipe” has plenty of chord changes which gives interest to the melody line.
According to the “Irish Tune” website, a non-profit site of traditional Irish music, the five most popular session hornpipes are, in descending order, “Boys of Bluehill.” “Harvest Home,” “Rights of Man,” “Off to California,” and “Red Hair Boy.”
Arranging “Sailor’s Hornpipe” for Mountain Dulcimer
After trying several approaches to arranging this tune for the mountain dulcimer, I found that playing it in the Key of G — while tuned to DAD — worked well. The second half of the song (measure $12) includes a departure from the diatonic fretboard of a dulcimer as the melody goes up to C#. Since most modern dulcimers have a 6-1/2 fret, we now have a way to play this note, the A7 chord, and hence, the tune.
As with many Irish/English tunes, the melody goes over three octaves. On the dulcimer, the melody ranges from the bass string — third fret to the melody string — tenth fret. I arranged the tune so that the melody crosses over to all three strings at various spots in the song. It makes the long runs in this tune quite achievable on the dulcimer. Playing part of the melody on the middle string also makes the runs in measures #7 and 16 simple and alot of fun.
I used a capo for this arrangement. Placing a capo on the dulcimer (in DAD tuning) at the third fret changes the dulcimer to the Key of G and it also makes this tune much easier to play. The “3” fret numbers are now changed to “0” fret numbers to indicate the fret where the capo is placed. An “open” strum across the strings is now a “G” chord and all the strings harmonize with this key.
I have many dulcimer capos — they seem to disappear in my home. Hum. My latest one was build by Terry McCafferty. It is an “industrial strength capo” and is just great to use. I recommend this one or a similar one. To place a capo on the dulcimer, place it just behind the fret. Place your thumb on top of the capo at the bass string, tighten the capo with your other hand, then rock your hand slightly to press down on the melody string. If there is a buzz, tighten the capo further. You won’t break the strings.
To play the tune, flat pick or fingerpick the notes. Adding a strum across the strings at several spots also helps fill in the music, in my opinion. In the second part of the song — measures #12, 13, 14 and 15– I used a barre technique — holding down all 3 strings at the frets shown — sliding my hand up and down the fretboard to play the notes.
You will recognize the tune once you begin playing. It is a nice and “light-hearted” dulcimer arrangement and helps lift a person’s spirit. As you play the tune, remember the tight spaces on the deck of these old tall ships where the sailors danced to the hornpipes. Or, perhaps remember the Popeye’s television cartoons.
Here is a jpeg image of the tune as well as a PDF file to download.
Enjoy the tune!