By Orville Johnson
I first heard this spiritual number on an album called Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, released in the late 1960s on the Folkways label. Ashley was a banjo player, singer, and entertainer who had played medicine shows, frolics, concerts, and dances throughout North Carolina. That collection of tunes featured old-time ballads, hoedowns, and spirituals. A band of local musicians accompanied Ashley and the record is famous for containing the first major appearance on record of Doc Watson, who plays guitar throughout and sings a couple of songs.
When I was thinking about arranging this tune, I knew I wanted a minor tonality, something dark and haunting. I started twisting the pegs on my guitar and ended up in a tuning that some refer to as the Skip James tuning. That bluesman used this tuning on many of his most well-known songs. It is a D-minor chord, DADFAD, from bottom to top.
I used a few different approaches to the rhythm, sometimes keeping an alternating bass, sometimes picking a bass note with my thumb and strumming with my index finger, and occasionally playing a melodic line on the first string while strumming across the top three strings, creating a dulcimer like sound.
I wanted to keep a certain amount of bleak tension in the music, so I added a couple of passages in which I played a melodic line on the first string that moved along the D minor scale while harmonizing with a lower note that was very dissonant.
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