Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cluck Old Hen

Cluck Old Hen is one of the most enduring and endearing old-time songs around. Everyone loves it and everyone wants to play it. It has a wonderful quirky bluesy sound to it, and it has great lyrics.

But because of its bluesy notes, Cluck Old Hen simply cannot be played on the melody string only (noter style) on a typical diatonically fretted dulcimer in the modes of mixolydian, ionian, or even in lonesome sounding aeolian mode. You just won't have all the notes you need on the fingerboard.
Here is where the DORIAN mode comes to the rescue!
Now, before you FREAK OUT and go back to aimlessly twittering on your computer lest you might have to {{{shudder}}} go into some scary tuning Devil's Triangle of No Return, just listen for second and give me a chance!...
Does DAG sound like an 'impossible' tuning to you? I thought's not that alien from DAD or DAA. DAG is Dorian tuning, where the song ends and is centered around the fourth fret. You can quickly review my easy beginner helper notes for Dorian mode tuning here in my previous post: "Little Sadie and the Dorian mode"

Now... I tried playing and singing Cluck Old Hen in dorian DAG, which would be the key of D, and it was a bit too low for me to sing the low B part chorus. So I simply raised everything up one step to make it the key of E instead of D, and found I could sing it better. BUT- you can try D first (DAG) and see if D suits you before going up to E (EBA). I tabbed it in EBA (dorian tuning key of E). The tab numbers would all be the SAME in DAG since you are in the same dorian mode.

Here is how you can easily tune to DAG from DAA:
Tune your melody string(s) DOWN one step from A to G. That's it!

Here is how you can easily tune to DAG from DAD:
Tune your melody string(s) DOWN to G (not UP, or you'll break your string). That's it!

Wasn't that scary?? ha ha ha

Now that you are in DAG, you can try playing and singing Cluck Old Hen in DAG dorian mode key of D. If you have trouble singing the low B part, try tuning all your strings UP more more whole step from DAG to EBA. Try singing it there in the key of E. You'll notice the B chorus part is sung much lower than the verses. For my voice, singing it in EBA key of E makes the high part not too high to sing and the low part not too low to sing.

Here is a short MP3 clip of Cluck Old Hen just to give you an idea of how it goes: Cluck Old Hen. I usually like mine a bit slower and more relaxed and bluesy, but this clip just gives you a quicky example to hear.

And here is a wonderful Youtube clip made by Terry, he actually learned it from my TAB right here in this post, and sent me a link to show me how his version came out. Click here to see it: Cluck Old Hen played by Terry. This is a great sample because he plays it just like the tab here. I love how he uses a quill for his pick too, and the charming box dulcimer- what a great traditional sound Terry has going!

Remember to not tune any string higher than an E on a typical 28" scale dulcimer or you might break a string ...but E should be perfectly do-able on most dulcimers, which usually fall between 26"-28 1/2" scale lengths. Scale length is the length in inches between the nut and the bridge.

I think if Cluck Old Hen were the only song in Dorian mode, it would still be worth going in and out of Dorian mode just to play that one single fabulous old-time song.
See if you can make up your very own new funny verse for Cluck Old Hen- it's not too hard if you let yourself be silly!


  1. Great Dorian tune. And you know I love Dorian Mode!

    Here's an Old Rooster for your clucky Old Hen:

    Classic Costa Rican/Nicaraguan breakfast food!

    1 medium Onion, minced
    2 cloves Garlic, minced
    1/4 cup Olive oil
    2-1/2 cups White Rice, cooked
    2-1/2 cups Black Beans, cooked
    1 tsp Cumin, or to taste
    Salt & Pepper to taste
    Salsa Lizano or other seasoning, to taste.

    Heat the oil medium hot in a heavy frying pan, and cook onion and garlic until soft. Add the beans and let them fry for 10 minutes, adding more oil if needed. Add the rice, stir well and cook for five more minutes.

    Season with the hot sauce and serve. Can’t find Lizano in your local Latin market? It’s a very Costa Rican/Nicaraguan thing. Substitute a creamy balsamic salad dressing kicked up a bit with some Tabasco and a splash or Worchestershire sauce.

  2. Thank you Ken- how very lovely of you to post this recipe. :)

  3. Hi Strumelia, i discovered your blog not so long ago and i love it. I'm french but i'm crazy about traditionnal american music and i try to play it on many string instruments (guitar, banjo,ukulele, mandolin, autoharp...)I started to play the mountain dulcimer two months ago and loved and felt at ease with the instrument almost immediately. I posted my version of "Cluck old hen" on Youtube (here's the link: I play it in DAD with the noter but add one note on the low part with my finger at the 7th for the C on the low string... i couldn't sang it and play at the same time but i'm working on it now. I'll give a try on your arrangement in DAG. Thanks, Gadaya

  4. gadaya, I enjoyed hearing you play and sing "Cluck Old Hen"-- thank you for posting the URL!
    Robin T

  5. Hi Gadaya,
    Thank you, I also enjoyed some of your other Youtube clips! I especially liked The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn, which I used to sing a capella.

    I think the fact that you are French brings a certain freshness to the old-time American stuff you are playing. I like it very much!

  6. Thanks, Strumelia, it sure brings a certain "frenchness" to this songs ;).
    By the way, it would be great if you'd post an audio clip of your playing along with the tabs (or maybe better, a youtube video) so we can really hear what it sounds like on the dulcimer...

  7. greetings friom Scandinavia!
    I found your blog by coincidence and it's so... well what can I say? Such a sweet spirit flowing through it!
    Listened to the YouTube-Video below, blackest crow, it was just so unbelieveby beautiful!!!
    Thanks for posting this link and I hope many links like that may follow!

  8. Gadaya has a great idea, Lisa - YOU sing and play each selection so we can hear it!

  9. Hi gadaya (and Strumelia !!!),

    I really enjoyed your DAD version of the song on YouTube. I think that not playing while you are singing adds greatly to the power of the song and I'm going to use that style of arrangement for a "campfire" session version.

    Incidently, you do not need to finger the C# at the 7th on the low string (though there is nothing wrong in doing that at all). You can use your noter on the middle string at the 2nd fret (above the capo). If you angle your noter so it is clear of the first string you can hit the note cleanly - and give the 2nd string a 1/8 tone pull bend towards yourself with the noter. This gives a dischord of a slightly sharp C# against the open E notes - the note really stands out and helps to give that blues feel. I think it was Muddy Waters who said when talking about the blues "Most of the notes I play don't actually have names!" It is a bit like the whole noter/drone thing. A lot of the notes we play don't actually "fit" together but because we are passing through the musical phrase heading somewhere else our minds string it all together. It's like watching a movie - the reality is that a movie is made up of lots of single pictures - but when it is rolling at 32 frames per second we see fluid movement. The blues is full of dischord held together by rhythm and phrases that take you to a resolution. I love the raw nature of your version of the song on YouTube - I think that play - stop - sing works really well for this old song.