Here’s music for an old-time fiddle tune which I stumbled upon while cleaning up stacks of dulcimer tablature scattered around my house. The title of the tune, “Devil Ate the Groundhog,” was intriguing and I decided to learn more about it. With Halloween approaching, this fiddle tune’s title fits right in with this holiday (although it actually has nothing to do with Halloween). The tune is attributed to a Kentucky fiddler, Owen “Snake” Chapman (1919 – 2002), who learned it from his father, Gary Owen, born in 1850. The tune and its story are well-documented including several recordings played by “Snake” Chapman and banjo picker, Paul David Smith. One is a field recording found in Berea College’s archives of the two playing this tune. As with many fiddle tunes, several variations have evolved over time. I listened to the field recordings, looked at printed versions and arranged a combination that is fairly easy for dulcimer players to flat pick, strum and play. This is a very short tune; it is melodic and one which you can play over and over. The tune is nice and relaxing and fun to play.
There is a wealth of fiddle tunes from these traditional old Kentucky and southern Appalachian fiddlers. We can give thanks to many folks who collected and documented these tunes in a variety of sources. In addition to Berea College’s archives, the fiddler, Owen “Snake” Chapman, banjo player, Paul Smith, and guitar player, Bert Hatfield, made a recording and titled the C.D. “Up in Chapman’s Hollow.” This track was uploaded to You-Tube and so you can listen to the fiddler playing his tune.
A story goes along with this tune. The “devil” is the name of a dog belonging to an old fiddler. The man went hunting, shot and dressed a groundhog, However, the hunter became distracted, turning his back and left it on the table. The dog or “devil” quickly devoured the dressed game. Hence, the words “God almighty damned dog (x3), The Devil’s eat the groundhog.”
Here’s my “hound dog.” Although Buddy is small, weighing just 11 pounds, he doesn’t miss anything. He will sit patiently while we eat boiled crawfish on the deck and wait for a crawfish tail to drop on the ground. Then he will run and get it before we can stop him. His other hunting trophies include a mole, rat, bird and unfortunately two kittens.
Playing the Tune on the Dulcimer
There are several variations to this tune. I actually combined two of the printed variations which I found in the internet site, “Traditional Tune Archives.” My goal was to closely match the playing of Owens “Snake” Chapman and his banjo picking companion. They are fiddling at a spritely pace, and it is not easy to catch all the inflections of their playing. However, I have it approximated it closely.
This the tune is most often played in the Key of G. My original printed music used the DAD tuning with a capo at the 3rd fret to change to the Key of G. However, in my opinion, using a capo resulted in a version that sounded a little “tinny.” You lose use of lower frets on the bass string with a capo at the 3rd fret. So, I wrote a variation to play in the Key of G while tuned to DAD without using a capo. It is easy enough to play this way.
If addition, I wrote a variation for a ginger or baritone dulcimer tuned to GDG. This places the tune in the Key of G.
For traditional dulcimer players tuned to DAD, you can also play this tune in the Key of D. It uses the same fret numbers as the ginger and baritone dulcimer tab. As with many fiddle tunes, this one covers several octaves. I tabbed out with both a “lower octave” variation which starts on the “zero” fret of the bass string and is played across the strings as well as an “higher octave” variation which is played up on the melody string and includes higher frets on the fretboard.
So, this gives several ways to play the tune — Key of G (without a capo) and Key of D, both lower octave and higher octave. Plus, use a ginger or baritone dulcimer to easily play in the Key of G.
The tune actually is very short; it is only 16 measures long. The melody on the second and fourth lines repeat the preceding lines. So it is good to have several ways to play this tune to change things up. Even though the tune is short, it is a melodic tune and sort of mesmerizing. You can play it over and over.
Since this is a fiddle tune, it can be played at a spritely pace. You can pick or strum this fiddle tune. Hammer-on’s work well at several places.
The second part of the tune (measures #9 and #13) include triplets. The triplets are very pronounced in the fiddle playing; use hammer-on’s to quickly play these three notes. Make sure to emphasize these notes. It makes the tune sort of unique.
I am a “pack-rat” and never throw away a piece of dulcimer tab. In this case, I have no idea where I got the original music. But this is a fun little tune to play, I’m glad I saved the tab.
Here are images of the tune, followed by PDF files which you can download.
With cooler weather arriving, I’m ready to sit on my backyard deck and play my dulcimer.