Tune of the Day: Old Joe Clark
This well-known ballad is included in the repertoires of both Bluegrass and Old-Time players in many different places. Researchers have found a variety of origins of the song, all of which are based on the lives of some real Joe Clarks in Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland. Reportedly, the ballad became very popular among US soldiers during World War I. An early version appeared in print in 1918, as sung in Virginia at that time.
“Old Joe Clark” is one of the most famous traditional tunes in Mixolydian mode. This means that it uses the same notes of the usual major scale, with the difference that the seventh note is lowered a semitone; for instance, in the key of A, the seventh note is G-sharp in major mode, but G-natural in Mixolydian mode. When this happens, the seventh note is no more called “leading tone”, because it no more leads to the tonic; instead, it should be called “subtonic”.
This tune, a favorite of fiddle and mandolin players, is usually played very fast; some would say, “so fast, only dogs can hear it!”