All steel-string guitarists should have at least one fiddle tune in their repertoire, so if you happen to be lacking one, then learning “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a good place to start.
The arrangement here is straightforward, and is appropriate for players of all levels. It’s based not on the Stanley Brothers’ famous bluegrass version of this traditional American folk song, but on Kentuckian fiddler Ed Haley’s instrumental interpretation. Haley, who died in 1951, never recorded in a professional context, but home recordings his son made in the mid-1940s give a sense of his musical greatness.
As its title suggests, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is a lugubrious number—the first lyrics are, “I am a man of constant sorrow; I’ve seen trouble all my days”—so keep that in mind when working through the tune. This arrangement is situated mostly in open position; where possible, let the open strings ring into the fretted notes, for a rich sound. Also, be sure to observe the legato slides, from D to E on string 2, which are important, as they lend a vocal quality to the melody. Play these slides with your third finger.
In terms of accompaniment, the arrangement will work well with the boom-chuck approach, as bass runs could conflict with the melody here. As shown in the notation that precedes the tune, keep things simple: play roots and fifths on the odd beats and chordal accents on the evens, all in downstrokes. Continue the pattern using basic open chords—or re-harmonize it to your liking.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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