“On Top of Old Smoky” (sometimes spelled Smokey) is a traditional folk song with roots extending back to England, perhaps as far as the 16th century. It’s a mournful, lonesome waltz with a sweet, lilting melody and a lyric full of regret and bitterness. Passed from generation to generation for centuries, “Old Smoky” has been recorded in a wide variety of styles by all sorts of artists—to name just a handful, Libby Holman, Pete Seeger, the Weavers (whose version reached the pop charts in 1951), Connie Francis, and Bruce Springsteen.
The song is customarily played with a simple three-chord progression, containing just the I, IV, and V chords, or C, F, and G, respectively, in the key of G major. That certainly gets the job done, but I like to do some harmonic embellishments. For instance, instead of just sticking with the C chord for the duration of bars 2–5, I add the relative minor chord, Am, in measure 4. I do the same thing with G and Em in bars 6–9. And in measure 10, instead of playing a regular open D chord, I add the third, F#, in the bass, followed by a D7, also with a low note of F#.
In terms of the picking hand, I use a classic waltz pattern: a bass note on beat 1 (either the root or the fifth of the chord), followed by downstroke strums on 2 and 3, sometimes with an upward strum added on the “and” of the beat. Little details like these help bring fresh color and anticipation to this old waltz.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.