Monday, November 10, 2014

"Cat Hair on the Fretboard" -- a Knoxville-area dulcimer novelty song to the tune of "I Been a Swede from North Dakota"

This year's Smoky Mountain Dulcimer Retreat in Townsend, Tenn., featured a variety of good music, ranging from a haunting a cappella folk hymn sung by Anne Lough and her husband Rob, to a soprano saxophone solo by Guy George and a demonstration of bottleneck-style blues on a diddley bow by Seane Crews, who also led a workshop on how to make a diddley bow out of a cigar box and a length of broom handle. The retreat is sponsored by the Knoxville Area Dulcimer Club, and there were more dulcimers there, both mountain and hammered, than you could shake a diddley bow at.

Meals were prepared by the Townsend Church of God, which provides the venue for the KADC's fall retreat, and the food was all that an expatriate Southerner could wish for. Saturday night I was able to choose ham, green beans and a bowl of ham and soup beans. The whole weekend was small-town East Tennessee as I remember it at its best.

But of all the good times we had and all the good tunes I heard, my favorite was a novelty song by T.N.T., a mountain dulcimer trio from Knoxville, called "Cat Hair on the Fretboard."

We have longhaired cats at home in Illinois, and let's say I could relate.

Picture at right shows Champaign, a rescue cat named for the city in Illinois, demonstrating how to make a fur-lined dulcimer case. He also sheds cat hair on our instruments.

If you want a fur-lined dulcimer case all your very own, consider adopting from your local animal shelter.

T.N.T. is made up of KADC members Ginny Cliett, Linda Smith and Deby Libby. They have been writing and playing ensemble arrangements for mountain dulcimer since 2006, according to their website at, and their repertory ranges from meditative finger-picking arrangements of ballads like "Shenandoah" and "The Water is Wide" to up-tempo fiddle tunes like "Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase."

And then there's "Cat Hair on the Fretboard."

I noticed the title when I was browsing through CDs, and I was intrigued. So I bought it and took it out to the car where I could put it on the CD changer. And I loved it. (There's a 30-second sound clip on T.N.T.'s website.) So I asked Deby Libby about it.

Like so many ensemble arrangements, "Cat Hair" grew out of an off-hand remark and took on a life of its own as members of T.N.T. riffed on the remark and by bits and pieces it grew into a song. It was well received when they played it at a local festival -- acted out with great abandon -- and it's been part of their repertory ever since.

The verses are kind of a talking blues about "dust balls big as tumbleweeds" and other challenges of a musician who lets the housework go while she's playing the dulcimer. And the chorus, to the tune of "Reuben, Reuben I've been thinking," ends like this:

I've got cat hair on my fretboard, and a mess in this old place,
Got those cat hairs on my fretboard, and a big smile on my face.
It was another one of those moments that sometimes come to an expat, when things from very different parts of your life fit together in unexpected ways.

While the melody has been around for years as a children's song, I know it best as a novelty number about Swedish-Americans in the Midwest where I live now and spend a lot of time these days researching the music of Scandinavian immigrants (click here, here and here). Mudcat Cafe has several versions:

I bin a Swede from Nort' Dakota
Work on farmstead 'bout two year
Tink I go to Minnesota
Yust to look at the big state fair.

One version has the Swede turn down an opportunity to "work for Yesus" when he learns the Salvation Army doesn't pay its volunteers. In others, he gets drunk and spends 10 days in jail.

The tune is best known today as the children's song "Reuben and Rachel," also known by its first line, "Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking …" It's a composed song, published in Boston in 1871, with words by Harry Birch and music by William Gooch. It went into the oral tradition at least a hundred years ago, and it's been parodied frequently. (Seems like I remember singing, "Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking / Why your feet are always stinking" when I was in junior high, but I don't remember the rest. Which is probably a good thing.) Mudcat Cafe also has several versions of "Reuben and Rachel," including those of the original sheet music in the Levy collection at Johns Hopkins.

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