Mike Seeger sings two folk songs about animals in traditional Southern style to maintain their distinct flavor. Both feature the banjo, a traditional gourd banjo on “Cluck Old Hen” and today’s steel-string banjo on “I Had a Rooster.” Seeger talks about the gourd banjo’s origins in Africa, discusses how it is made, and compares it to the modern steel banjo. He also discusses the importance of music to our ancestors and the role music played in their lives. He invites students to join in as he sings “I Had a Rooster.”
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“Cluck Old Hen” and “I Had a Rooster” are Appalachian folk songs. Both of these songs concern animals. Animals were a source of food, motivation, power, and wonderment for preindustrial rural people, and people often had personal relationships with their animals. In their songs, rural people imitated animal sounds, bragged about animals, endowed them with human characteristics, hunted them, and talked with them.
No one knows who composed these traditional songs. Some singers sing them exactly as they learned them, while others change the melody a little and add or subtract verses. Folksinger Mike Seeger plays them in traditional Southern style to maintain as much of their distinct flavor as possible.
These two songs also feature two different banjos, the traditional gourd banjo and today’s steel-string banjo. Today’s five-string banjo began in the early 19th century as a largely commercial adaptation of a West African instrument, the gourd banjo, which was brought to America by slaves from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. Exclusively African Americans played this instrument, a gourd with a skin head and a long stick with four strings attached, until the early 1800s. After 1879, the banjo as we know it became increasingly used as a parlor instrument for performing popular music. In the 1920s, the tenor banjo became popular among urban musicians. The five-string banjo regained popularity after World War II when Pete Seeger recorded traditional rural styles and Earl Scruggs developed the “bluegrass” style of banjo playing.
“Cluck Old Hen” probably evolved in the late 19th century. The earliest recording is attributed to Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1923. Rural people had many songs about this domesticated bird, which produced much of their food and made sounds that could be imitated by both voice and instruments. “Cluck Old Hen” is a banjo/fiddle tune with many different verses.
“I Had a Rooster” can be sung about any animal. This lyrical song challenges the singer to remember the animals in the right order and imitate the characteristic sound of the animals. This is probably an early 20th century version of a very old type of song. In this segment, Mike Seeger plays the banjo accompaniment the way he learned it from his brother in the early 1950s.
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