It is rewarding to play fiddle tunes on the mountain dulcimer but this is not necessarily an easy task. Lively and with a quick tempo, fiddle tunes add appeal and zest to a jam sessions. These tunes, however, often have extensive runs of notes, ornaments and filled in sections of notes which give the tunes their character but make them harder to play on the dulcimer. Although a person can add hammer-on’s and pull-off’s to make things easier, beginners probably don’t yet know these techniques. And so I tried another approach with the fiddle tune, “Old Yeller Dog.” I tried skipping alot of the notes of the tune, while still maintaining the basic course of the melody. While it may seem a little unconventional, it worked! At least our Lagniappe club members liked the results and it is easy for beginning and novice players to achieve.
The “Margaret Wright” approach to playing fiddle tunes for beginning dulcimer players
I adapted my approach from one used by Margaret Wright of Texas. She is an accomplished dulcimer player, teacher, performer, mentor, author and festival coordinator. Our club loves playing Margaret’s very simplified version of “Fisherman’s Hornpipe.” While I was researching the original hornpipe tune, I discovered Margaret’s “secret” to making the tune playable for beginning dulcimer enthusiasts. She simply skipped every other note of the original tune. The original “Fisherman’s Hornpipe” tune is full of eighth notes. On a fiddle, it is easy to play these notes across the strings at a quick tempo. But all these eighth notes make the tune much more difficult to play on a dulcimer. By removing every other note, Margaret was able to maintain the chord structure and melody of the tune. The resulting quarter notes are much easier for a beginning dulcimer player to make. Now we can keep up with fiddles and pennywhistles!
Margaret’s approach doesn’t work with every fiddle tune. However, eliminating extra embellishing notes does make sense alot of the time. The key trick is to figure out which notes to remove while still maintaining the melody yet making the tune playable.
“Old Yeller Dog”
I tried this approach with “Old Yeller Dog” (“Come Trottin’ Through the Meeting House.”) This fiddle tune has a very catchy melody and is a great fit for the dulcimer. The jest of this song is that, years ago in the South in the 1700s and 1800s, it was a common practice to for persons to bring their dogs to church (or the meeting house). This practice seems to have originated in the British Isles long ago. The preacher would sometimes have to settle the dogs down outside the meeting house. It our particular fiddle tune, one of the dogs apparently was not content to remain outside and went trotting through the meeting house. The first part of the song is spritely and upbeat as the dog starts on his journey. In the second half of the tune, you can hear the preacher scolding the poor dog.
This fiddle tune probably has its origins in old minstrel songs of the South. Other variations of the tune are named, “Down in Alabam” and “The Old Grey Mare” (“She Ain’t what She Used to Be”). The first published account of the song was in 1858, published by one of Bryant’s Minstrels, J. Warner as “Down in Albam.” Interestingly, a version was used as a campaign song for Abraham Lincoln (“Old Abe Lincoln Came Tearing Out the Wilderness”). Parodies were common during the Lincoln-Douglas campaign of 1860. It was also played by fiddler, Charlie Acuff, who learned the tune from his grandfather. Do meeting houses still exist? Yes, they do. Here’s an Old Order Mennonite meeting house in the Shenandoah Valley. You also see the mix of autos and a horse and buggy as well as separate entrances for men and women. Wonder how long these customs will be retained.
Simplifying the tune
To simply this fiddle tune, I listened to alot of versions of the “Old Yeller Dog” on You-Tube videos. While listening, I tried to decide which notes made this tune unique and gave it character. Then, I found a transcribed version of the tune on a website to use as a starting point. I eliminated some of the eighth notes, especially at the end of measures (easier to move your hands) but left some eighth notes in to give the tune character. The second part of the tune contains half notes — which are definitely easier to play on a dulcimer (and this is one reason for why I selected this song). The half notes also change the “feeling” of the tune and perk up your attention. Perhaps the preacher has surprisingly discovered the dog in his church and has decided to take action. The tune ends with the same catchy phrase as at the beginning of the song.
Although this tune is commonly played in the Key G (which usually means placing a capo at the third fret on the dulcimer), I arranged the tablature in the Key of D with the DAD tuning. In my observation, very few beginning dulcimer players even know what a dulcimer capo is; the objective of learning this tune is to make a playing fiddle tunes enjoyable for beginners and novice players.
Beginning Dulcimer Player Practice Techniques
For beginning dulcimer players, this tune is a good one to practice several techniques. One is using “back and forth” strums on the eighth notes.
A second practice tip is to use several fingers (not just the index finger) to play the melody. In measures #2, 3, 6 and 7, place your middle finger on the lower fret and hold it down, then reach with your index finger to play the next higher note. Then simply lift up your index finger off the higher note, and the next note (if you have left your middle finger down) is in ready position to play — like a hinge. With this style of playing, you don’t use your thumb at all. Just put your thumb in your back pocket for this tune.
A third practice is learning note values. This tune has quarter notes, eighth notes and the second part of the tune has several half notes. Hold the half notes for two beats (strum only once) to get the “feel” of how the tune changes in character.
The notes with parenthesis are optional notes. They make up chords which turn the song from a drone-style of playing to one which is more melodic.
Once you’ve learned this catchy fiddle tune it is hard to stop playing it. But it is okay to play this fiddle tune over and over as practicing and memorizing the tune is what makes a novice player into a proficient player.
Now that I have simplified this fiddle tune by removing “every other note,” I’m moving on to another challenge for my beginning dulcimer player class. Enjoy this simplified version of “Old Yeller Dog”!