View Full Version : Old Time & Contra Tablatures

Apr-23-2004, 9:41am
Hi all,

Our little group is looking to add OT and Contra tunes to our repertoire.

Since I am the designated tune sleuth ( ie, only one who has time for searching ;) ) I come to the experts for help. I have been reading the posts about the Contra Music and Old Time Cd's with great interest and have a slew of tunes I would like to bring to our group.

If you know of a site that is especially dedicated to tabbing or written notation of these types of music (yes, I know that they are interelated, or at least I think I know, well, ok....it is a guess and I would love to be educated about the differences) Can you point me the way?

Thanks for any and all help


Jim M.
Apr-23-2004, 10:07am
The best site I know of for searching for tunes on the web is:


Really good for Celtic tunes, but you can find a good number of other tunes as well. So many old time tunes have multiple names, so it can help your search if you know other names for the tune.

A good general resource for old time is:


Apr-23-2004, 10:22am
Portland Collection is my current favorite; all the tunes in it are tried and true dance tunes.

Ruffwater Tunebook is good, too, and some of the Kitchen Musician books.


John Flynn
Apr-27-2004, 8:18am
Alltabs has some, mixed in with bluegrass and other stuff:


Hetzler's fakebook has some great stuff, segregated by type of music:


These are great as a reference. But the old-time tradition is to pass tunes on from person to person and to have regional versions of tunes. I think learning them from tab takes the life out of them to some degree. Just MHO. Also, whatever you get off these sites will likely not be the regional version of the tune common in your area.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-27-2004, 8:40am
Jim M.
Thanks so much! I love that you can donwload the tunes in PDF format, and it comes thru as notation! What a joy.

- Benig

Apr-27-2004, 10:23am
Mando Johnny,

I agree with you that the best way to learn would be from those who play in this area. However, I live quite a distance from places to do that right now and with gas prices going up up up, my trips to the big city are fewer and fewer.

Being that as it is, I would like to start in a year or so sponsoring a dance for locals as our community lacks so many of these types of things that larger communities are able to support. I have come to realize that sheet music, tabs, and midi's are a great way to be introduced to unfamiliar music without the cost associated with CD's, but they could never supplant playing and interacting with real live musicians. Yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

I have gotten much material from both Hetzlers and AllTabs already and make use of them frequently.

Thanks Jim for pointing me to Trillian, I had forgotten about it.


Jim M.
Apr-27-2004, 10:43am
I forgot to mention http://www.co-mando.com , which has ABC and Tabledit files. Also, if you want to quickly convert ABC to sheet music, you can do so with the Tune-O-Tron at:


And Benig, I've been meaning to call you about getting together but just haven't had the time. Are those folks in W. Oakland still interested?

Michael H Geimer
Apr-27-2004, 11:04am
A friend once said that asking me if I want to pick, is like asking a Golden Retriever if he wants to chase the stick. So, drop me a line anytime you want.

But, as far the Oaktown folks go, they're practicing on Tuesdays, and that's a standing night with my folk group, so the conflict was a deal breaker. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/sad.gif

- Benig

John Flynn
Apr-27-2004, 11:17am

I hear you. I think it's a good thing you are doing, for sure. I only mentioned the discrepancy because I have had some frustration with OT tunes off the web. Not only do they tend to be arbitratrarily standardized versions, I also find many of them "over-arranged," meaning they include a lot of embellishments. Personally, I would prefer to have tabs be just the most basic tune so I can learn it quickly. Then I can add my embellishments, which, since they are mine, I will like much better than the tab writer's embellishments.

I prefer learning from CDs of good local OT groups and using a program like "Transcrkiber" to slow the music down to pick out the notes. Then I can speed it up to get the "flow."

BTW, I love the quote in your signature line. That will be a keeper for me!

Michael H Geimer
Apr-27-2004, 11:43am
I want to apologize in advance for heading off topic.

I just went back and read Harlan's signature line. What a great sentiment! But, it immediately reminded me of Igor Stravinski's creative portrayal of the puppet Petrushka. Petrushka - as a character in the ballet - is vividly scored through mean, offensive, spite-filled melodies that define his character, and really strengthen the storyline. IMO, Stravinski composed an absolutely brilliant exception to Mr. Erskine's quotation above.

... we will now return to our regularly scheduled broadcast.

John Flynn
Apr-27-2004, 11:56am
How about this saying that I got from The Buckhannon Brother's website, re: OT music:

"If you can be sad playing this music, the devil's got your soul."

Michael H Geimer
Apr-27-2004, 12:26pm
" I prefer learning from CDs of good local OT groups ... "

I have developed a real preference for leaning songs from other players. To my thinking, that's the way it was done for hundereds of years, so if I want to play that type of music I should follow the example of the old players ... who likely did not downlad TAB files off the Internet. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

In that spirit, I try to forgive myself of any alterations I might make to a tune as I work it up. It just seems reasonable that songs passed on through oral tradition will naturally alter themselves to fit the player ... as it should be IMO.

I don't have much trouble learning a tune from notation, as I can read fairly well. The challenge for me is to deconstruct whatever version I have in an effort to uncover the 'real melody' hidden beneath the embelishments and passing tones.

Of course, newbie that I am, I don't totally trust my insticts in that department, but I believe I have adopted a good method nevertheless.

Now I just need to spend a dozen or so years going to jams and festivals and listen, listen, listen. But, I'm rather looking forward to all that. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

John Flynn
Apr-27-2004, 12:47pm

Really down to earth...for a ballet fan! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Of course, I say that as I am waiting for my season opera theatre tickets to arrive in the mail!

Michael H Geimer
Apr-27-2004, 12:52pm
True music appreciation trancends the restrictions of style.

But, I would never call Igor's music - or his fans - "down to earth". Didn't the audience burn down the opera house after The Rite of Spring debuted in Paris?

* * *

Back on topic ... anyone have advice on working up Old-Time tunes that come to us as TAB or notation, etc.? Especially about how to best approach those tunes when a recording or performance is unavailable.

Apr-27-2004, 5:16pm
LOLOLOL......Man am I sorry I missed this conversation.....from ballet to Stravinsky and burning down the opera house as well......I am thoroughly entertained Johnny and Ben.....Gut laugh here. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

As to the quote Ben.....Music may add atmosphere that can intensify characterization, but it still cannot speak meanly nor sarcastically, only human words can do that, but that is my own humble opinion as I am not up on evil puppets at the moment but am feeling that maybe I need to check Petrushka out. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Johnny, My Other Favorites are:

Stuffing birds or playing stringed instruments is an elegant pastime, and a resource to the idle, but it is not education.
(Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University Defined, 1873)

All music's folk music: leastways I never heard of no horse making it. (attrib. to Louis Armstrong and Big Bill Broonzy)

Music is the art of sounds in the movement of time.
(Busoni in The Essence of Music, 1923)


Michael H Geimer
Apr-29-2004, 10:55am
Ok ... I'm here at my desk listening to Stravinski and frightening my co-workers. But a horn player a few cubes away just came over and,"Ahh ... I knew it was Russian!" So we just had a nice discussion of "Classical" music - I'm using that term quite generically right now - and something came up that I hadn't thought about in quite some time.

I've always been a big fan of both the Russian and American composers, as I think they stand apart from many other modes of composition. It has always caught my ear how these composers draw so many themes from their cultural folk musics, rather than just building off the usual heritage of the Three-B's. I'm talking about guys like Rimski, Copeland, Gershwin, Tchaikovski, etc. Great stuff came from these guys, but certainly not your typical concertos and symphonies ... which can often bore me.

It makes me think that perhaps this pull towards traditional folk music has been inside me for a lot longer than I've previously considered. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

... sorry for continuing this off-topic-topic, but I thought some one you might find it interesting.

Apr-29-2004, 4:35pm
So, what you are saying Ben, is that you are being drawn to the dark side http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

A little Stravinski here, a little traditional music there, before you know it, you become Petrushka dancing on the stage of life.

The older I gotten Ben, the more I am pulled in that same direction. Perhaps a result of aging, life looks so different when you are 20 years old and the world is yours to conquer. I find nowadays, that my ears turn more towards the music of yesteryear than ever before and that those melodies and tunes now make sense to me, much more so than when I was full of vim and vigor.

I also think that maturity is a part of it. Simple things satisfy me much more than when my life seemed so more complex. I identify thematically with traditional music much more now that I am a traditional relic also. Tales of from day to day life makes so much more sense to me now than when I was younger. I now live a much simpler life than I did those many years ago and I find that I am touched more deeply by the simple in life as well music.

I also am old enough to have memories of how things used to be, as opposed to how I think they will be. I have lived much of what that music expresses. Simple joys of dancing, tragic endings, local events, celebrations of spring plantings and autumn harvests, loves found as well as lost, a hard days work, working for the man, living from paycheck to paycheck, etc. In essence, as I have reached this age, I have accepted that I am a common man with a common life with common concerns.

And also, mayhaps, it is the timeworn timlessness of tunes and melodies traveling through the centuries, tested and accepted and passed on. Think of all the music that must have failed that test of time because it was not evocative enough, or failed whatever the test is that allows such tunes to survive over such great lengths of time. Just as the sands of the beach become perfectly white from the ceaseless movement of the ocean waves, so too these precious remnants call to us from our distant past.

So that is what moves me towards traditional music, does that answer in kind, some of what you are thinking or feeling?

Do ya think I went further off topic than you even?

Michael H Geimer
Apr-29-2004, 5:15pm
Well said, Harlan.

I used to think that complexity was a mark of skill, and it is to an extent it is. But, now I understand that skill itself is not really the goal ... it is just a tool. Simplcity on the other hand, I think is a mark of maturity ... and is often more challenging as there is far less to hide behind.

The Dark Side? That's the place I left before arriving here. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Apr-30-2004, 11:05am
I know that I have read somewhere quotes from famous composers or musicians, that allude to the beauty of music as the simplification of melody and harmony.

I am reminded though of a band, that I knew the members of, oh so many years ago. They were an incredible assortment of musicians with skills that were supernormal. Their leader was a fanatic about precision. However, that is what their music was like!!!! Technically brilliant, but essentially souless, they were never able to get a following beyond a small group of other musicians.

One of the best performers and most fascinating performances I have ever attended, was given by a life long grave digger. John Jackson, with whom I became good friends, never gave up his day job digging graves, but went on to become a national treasure. His voice, his personality, and his music were riveting yet never virtuosic.

Just kidding about the dark side Ben!!!!


Apr-30-2004, 12:09pm
When the comando guest of the week was Peter Otroushko, he stated something that really resonated with me:

Something to the effect of a musician should be able to present a whole gambit of emotions through their playing, and alot of hot pickers sound like the only emotion they have is that of an axe murderer.

As I get older, I find that the most profound emotions a human can experience are the simple ones, and I find that I am more and more drawn to simple melodic music, and improvisational hot-lickin, both listening to it and playing it, becomes less and less fulfilling over time.

Which is what draws me to playing old time music. I am no longer very interested in trying to impress folks with fancy phrases, but rather more enjoy playing beautiful melodic music with people...I kind of relate it to a conversation. I don't really care to spend all the time talking about some crazy, abstract subject...I'd rather have a conversation about the simple things in life.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-30-2004, 12:40pm
" Technically brilliant, but essentially souless, they were never able to get a following beyond a small group of other musicians. "

... an almost perfect description of my old band! Sooooooo glad I finally woke up and got out.

Even these days, I hear many players my age and even older who seem only to express themselves with youth angst and blues-licks ... i.e. emotions that are 'cool' and or 'sexy' ... expressions with a low risk of embarassment. That worked when I was an akward teenager, but I'm over thirty now. I figure I should have more to say.

Wear your heart on your sleeve, and sing it like you mean it!

- Michael

... 'cause you just can't write that, and sign it off with a psuedonymn.

Apr-30-2004, 12:59pm
My, don't we sound like a buncha old #####, LOL, but it's true! Seems the more mature one gets, the more they are attracted to the more refined, minimalistic approach of saying more with fewer notes.

IMWO, most of my favorite tunes are remembered not due to the notes involved, but rather how they are played and presented in order to evoke the emotion the player was going after. And when they can get that feeling across with just a few well-placed chords/notes, it can really touch your soul. Less is more.

May-01-2004, 11:53am
http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif Age does have it's benefits!!!!!!!

As well as does limitied musicianship ;) I have all the enthusiam in the world, but have never directed it towards music until this past year.

30 is about the perfect time Ben. All of those chops that you have, can now ripen and mellow, allowing you the ability to stop and feel the music. I have found throughout my life, that true joy comes when you stop looking for it. When you are seeking so passionately to master a skill it is too easy to forget the reason you began in the first place, thereby losing the joy and spontanteity of the first song you ever played.

Each of your compositions that you have posted here certainly show you in touch with feeling music and not just playing it. I am always envious of your deft phrasings and smooth licks that always seem to fit in just right. You are definitely on the right track and maturity is settling in fine in MHO.

Mike, you are so correct in describing the music that I find myself absorbed by, whether attemting to play or listening. One day, I hope to be advanced enough to be mimimilistic on purpose rather than out of necessity due to lack of skills. And I also hope to one day, feel rather than have to think and learn, where or how to chord in a way that evokes a feeling.

There are some great examples of some of that in the beginners Mandolin project. Not only in the Miscellaneous Musings section, but also in both Sally Good'n and Cherokee Shuffle. It always amazes me how even the most basic beginner can bring feeling into a simple melody line and not even be aware that is what they are doing.

I am enjoying this discussion, so don't let it die just yet.


May-04-2004, 6:50am
Gee, I can't get as flowery as you guys, but I agree with your view. When I played music in my late teens and early 20's I wanted to a) impress the girls and, b) become rich and famous. As I played music in my mid and late 30's I wanted to a) impress other musicians, b) show how cool and hip I was, and c) impress the women. Now that I am in my 50's I want to a) have fun, b) help others to see the joy and wonder in the simple music of bygone times, and, c) impress my woman.

Okay so there is some common theme there.

It's funny how hard it is to get gigs doing my old-time/good-time music. A local coffeeshop features music on Saturday nights. I have been in there twice; once to drop off a CD and once to hear a friend perform. Both times Carol and I were the only ones who came just to hear the music and both times there were maybe 5 other people in the place at a time with a lot of coming and going. I finally got to talk with the owner about performing - he said he didn't think there'd be an audience for what I do. #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif Yet, when I do perform I get good feedback from the people who are there. I just draw the wrong demographics, I guess. #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Nice to #know that I am not the only one mellowing with age. It's also nice to be in such distiguished company.

May-04-2004, 4:13pm
Gary......lolol....let me see....common theme.....ahhhhh...gee. that wouldn't have anything to do with the female species would it? http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

I cannot remember if it was here that I read, or if it was an article about live music and audiences. The gist of what I remember and I am in full agreement with it BTW, is that our lives are lived with the constantcy of music in the background. It has become the white noise in our lives, whether we are driving on daily commutes, shopping in almost any store, in our homes and nowadays, in every room of our home.

Gone are the days when music was something special that the whole family dressed up for, or put aside and evening for. Gone are the days when we listened to silence, or natural sounds 90 % of the time, and music was on Sundays at church and maybe once a month or every other month at the local dancehall. Gone are the days, when you would find a smoky little bar and know you had found the greatest band playing the greatest music.

Music is everywhere, it is all pervasive, invasive and become purely background noise that is not meant to be heard at the concious level.

Kids and young adults today, have so much more access so much sooner with so much more freedom to have music in their rooms,in the car even when traveling as a family( individual cd/mp3 players), in their pockets, anywhere they go.

This affects audiences. In the past, IMHO, for the people in the audience live music was a treat, something very special, just as Christmas comes once a year and is a very special time because of it's rarity, so too was the specialness of live music and the audiences behaved as if it were important and special to them. This has changed so much as we have become so saturated with media(as I sit here listening to NPR on my computer and typing away), that it is easy to forget civilty and respect.

Televisions, radios, cd's mp3s, computers, wifi, bring everything to us at our convenience and we do not have to save, nor struggle to have what we want, and therefor value those experiences less. At least that is my opinion. And this becomes reflected by the members of audiences because it is something they can have at any time with little or no effort.

Would I give those new technological things up....No! Do I want the past to return....No! But, I do remember the specialness of those things that were rare and I do cherish those memories.

I do remember, the quiet(being a country boy living in rural counties)and the sounds of cattle lowing, roosters crowing, bees buzzing, whipporwills calling when night falls, cicada's cacophony in full orchestration, coon dogs braying in the night chase, wrens and other small songbirds calling out in the morning light, and in the evenings gathering in the living room to listen to the only radio in the house for one hour.

I also remember, going to community functions, where the adults gathered in easy talk or dancing, and the boys and girls ran in the evenings chasing lightening bugs to the sounds of live music, laughing, screaming, and carefree.

Ahhh..the good ole days.


Michael H Geimer
May-04-2004, 4:58pm
Well said Harlan!

Those sounds that come out of magnetic coils and cones are not music, in the same sense that those images you see off your cathode ray tube are not really people.

It takes people to make music. Machines can only offer us lifeless reflections of things already done and gone.

- Benig