Beijing Pickers

Bluegrass and Old-time in the Northern Capital

Gold Rush

This post marks the return of a tune we used to do fairly often, but was slowly lost as we moved on to other tunes. The Resurrection of Gold Rush is upon us! So say we all!


Let’s give it a listen:



Some Background:

Think about it: you’re a farmer, you’re life is day-to-day, or your a gangster, trying to get by. Or maybe you’re in the Old World, and you hear there’s gold turning to the west and untold riches can be yours, but you have to get there, and get there quick. Once you get there, there’s the euphoric desperation of the search–if only you can find the right spot, your set.

California tends to come to mind when we think of American gold rushes, but Alaska, Ontario, Georgia and South Carolina have all witnessed gold rushes in the last couple hundred years. There have been gold rushes worldwide, in Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, and Australia. And don’t forget that whole El Dorado business.


Our tune this week comes from Bill Monroe, with help from Byron Berline, the only fiddler who can say he’s played with Monroe and the Rolling Stones. It’s in the key of A, with the fiddle tuned to standard tuning.

Byron with his band:


Now, interestingly, it turns out there was a third part that didn’t get recorded, but for you obsessive types out there, here’s Byron himself in his shop:



Lest you think gold rushes are things of the past, there have been recent gold rushes in Mongolia, Brazil, and Peru. Dare you go forth and seek your fortune?

Can you take all this anxious excitement and hope and put it into your tune?

Now for the versions:

Other Links:


The Return of Michael Ismerio

Michael Ismerio is just a guy, but he’s an inspirational guy. He lives a life that subverts and proves that the currents of the mainstream are just for show, and by example, is a mentor for people who wonder. It’s not just that he is enthusiastic, genuine, and a people person committed to his musical projects, but his story has taken him far and wide, and represents his own ongoing discoveries. He is both explorer and custodian.


Beijing’s music scene is unique, and perennially reinventing itself, and it pulled me here hard, as with many others. It is a political center, where cultural representatives from around China and world meet and share. I don’t come from a folk background, but moving to Beijing made me yearn for something old in music, a concentrated version of the culture from which I’ve transplanted. I turned to Chinese folk music, and this, in turn, brought me back even further, full circle right back to the roots of my own culture’s natural manifestation of itself — music. Beijing made me a preserver in extract; Beijing made me a folk musician.

Square dancing is the perfect storm. It’s accessibility, ubiquitous folk syncopation, and it’s permission to touch strangers makes it the great unifier, and an incredible ice breaker. Anyone can learn, any age can have fun, and most importantly for us in Beijing, the intricacies of dance flow transcend any cultural or linguistic boundary. Smiles are without border, and smiles are omnipresent at a square dance. Old Time music is the cultural complement and natural drive of the dance — it’s engine. Where the two go, they bring swarms of activity.

In less than a month, Michael Ismerio will be here in Beijing. Like me, Ismerio didn’t come from a family of folkies, he came to Old Time music and square dancing from punk music. He didn’t even play fiddle, he played Mandolin, and only later joined the ranks of obsessed Old Time fiddlers. But the whole time he wasn’t keeping it to himself. He wasn’t just gigging and building a performance enterprise, he was actively sharing and promoting something greater — an active, social form of entertainment that builds and reinforces community bonds.

May 14 flyer(1)     Community bonds are what we hope to build with his visit in November this year. Michael will be playing and calling non-stop for three weeks, adding an interstellar burst of momentum to an already-burgeoning scene for which he’s partly responsible. This month in the lead up to his arrival there are synergistic folk arts activities happening throughout the Gulou area. The beautifully and newly-renovated Modernista is now open Monday nights with square dance lessons for beginners, accompanied by live music. Every Tuesday for two years the Beijing Pickers have been meeting at local community hubs to learn more about traditional tunes. There will be shows and dances at Malty Dog on the 11th and 25th, as well as CD Blues on the 18th, open to anyone who wants to come learn something new, or work on their dance skills.

Michael’s been here before, like a Big Bang, spurring local interest in fiddle and square dance that has been waiting for his return, growing, sharing and creating awareness. But this time his tour will culminate by bringing together local swing and bluegrass musicians and dancers in workshops, shows, and swing and square dances at the Beijing Bookworm, Mako Live House and CD Blues on the 17th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively. It’s all local, it’s all open, and it’s for the benefit of all. Old Time music and square dancing are our obsessions, but ultimately they are tools for bringing people together to learn from each other. This is what Michael has done, and what better place and time to bring people together than in Beijing right now?

Check out this Global Times article about it.


Square Dance Mondays @ Modernista!

Regular square dance with live music has come to Beijing! Baochao Hutong staple, Modernista, has renovated and opened their dual-storied doors on Mondays. So, every Monday in October, they have graciously allowed us to use the space to teach square dance moves to anyone who needs an ice breaker, or just wants to spin around and touch people. All are welcome. Pickers who bring instruments and play get free drinks!

Where and When: Modernista Old Cafe and Tapas Bar, 8:30 to 10:00 PM.

Square Dance Mondays at Modernista!

Fortnight Fiddle Tunes 2013: Liberty

Just in time to play for July 4th, we’re learnin’ Liberty in the key of D!

For our example we’ll be turning once again to one of our fiddle heroes, Vi Wickam, along with hammer dulcimerrrer…ist…Steve Eulberg:



Groovy! Can’t get enough of that dulcimer.

Chords (AABB):



Links for various instruments and arrangments:

For additional meditation, from Slippery-Hill:

And here’s a sweet rendition from a young fiddler to take us out.

See you at the Leap!

Fortnight Fiddle Tunes: Greasy Coat

This fortnight we’re gettin’ profilactic with “Greasy Coat,” in the Key of A, in honor of our own Antonio “Mr. October” Marin, who leaves us after an illustrious and all-too-brief year abroad in Beijing.

Let’s start listening before we go any further:



While the chorus call of “Old Greasy Coat” supposedly refers to an old condom (ewww), we prefer to emphasize and endorse of the benefits of practicing safe sex. You can find a more detailed discussions here and here.

Well I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, and I don’t mess with the greasy coat…

Pick your instrument:

While usually in A Dorian, this tune is also played in G. Teacher, fiddler and Banjo-er David Bragger has a nice fiddle lesson in G (Also fast and slow). He also has a bunch of other great videos as well, so by all means peruse his Youtube channel. Plus, he’s also involved with Folkworks.

Many thanks to banjo-ist and caller Antonio for sharing this great tune. One of our members saw him on the subway on his first day in China, unwashed, mustache extra greasy, with a bag and a banjo, and he’s been a regular at our group since, recommending pages like this one, gracing us with his manly chest hair, and making us all wish we had a curly mustache. We’ll miss him, and we wish him the best back in Portland!

Here’s a sweaty Galax jam for inspiration. See you at the Leap!

Fortnight Fiddle Tunes 2013: Bill Cheatham

Greetings and howdy!

This fortnight we’ll be bringing it back to a great A Major square dance tune, called Bill Cheatham. It’s not just for square dances, but what the hell, let’s learn it anyway. Plus, if you keep yer ears to the ground, you might hear the call of the Beijing community square dance train. Choo choo, see saw!

First let’s take a listen to the tune, played real nice by the Laon Family Band:



Though I’m sure he was a fine gentleman, we’re not talking about the roadies/guitarist of the Stooges. To summarize some history from Fiddler’s Companion: “Cheat ‘Em” (Allen Brothers), is damn near ubiquitous, probably originating out of a tobacco leaf or murdered scoundrel in the south somewheres [my speculations]. Eck Robertson plays the earliest sound recording of the tune on his humbly-named, “Brilliancy Medley” (1922), but a Texas contest listed an entire Bill Cheatham category in a bill from 1899.

Now for some learnin’!

Structure: AABB


A Part – A / / / D / / /

A / / / D / E A   (2x)

B Part – A D E A / A D A E

AD E A / A D E A

Vi Wickam has some interested variations to throw in here.

Now how about we close out with a sweet version by champion fiddler Travis Wetzel:



See you at the Leap!



Fortnight Fiddle Tunes 2013: Sugar Hill

Greetings and saccharine salutations!

After painting and moving into a new apartment, we’ve taken a bit of an hiatus, but we return this fortnight to take on Sugar Hill, a fun, Tommy Jarrell Old Time tune in “sawmill” (AEAE) cross-tuning. We learned this from Brad Leftwich‘s Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle DVD series. According to the Fiddler’s Companion, the tune is AKA “Sailing on the Ocean, and “Sugar Hill” refers to the looser parts of town.



And more slowly on banjo:



Here’s one more video, so you can dance at home:



Check here a an alternate fretless Banjo version in D. And Banjo Ben Shirley.

See you at the Leap!

Fortnight Fiddle Tunes 2013: Cripple Creek

Howdy Folks,

It’s time for our next tune!

Cripple Creek is a nice common one that not to difficult to start out with, it fact, it’s usually one of the first tunes one learns in bluegrass. It’s a pretty simple tune (usually) and quick to learn. Here’s what it sounds like:



Slow Fiddle:



Vi Wickam has a more complex fiddle version:



And for the 3-finger banjah:






Clawhammer Ukulele:



NOW, fer all y’all cowboys out there with nothing better to do than build your calluses, this fortnight we’re simultaneously learning Crazy Creek. No, not the fantastically comfy camping chair, this tune was written by Tommy Jackson, and is a big step up from Cripple Creek. Between its timing changes during the first part of the song, and a bridge with an odd number of measures, it’s name is highly appropriate.

Here’s a full band playing it to get it in your ear:



Slow Fiddle:









See you at Great Leap!


UPDATE: March 9, 2013

We got a message from Beijing Picker, Steven, informing us that Crazy Creek was actually written by studio musician Tommy Jackson,

Jackson was a major (possibly the busiest) session player in Nashville in the 50s/60s. He played with Hank Williams and Monroe and just about everyone in country music. He died a long time ago and is less well remembered today. Being a friend and disciple of Bill K. I learned Bill’s version which is a challenging piece because of some finger busting passages.  The only other recording I know of besides the ones by Keith and Jackson is one by Candian fiddler Byron Berline. He recorded a version on an instrumental album with the Dillards featuring fiddle tunes.
Thanks Steven!

Big Sciota

Big Sciota (pronounced Sky-oh-tee) is named after a river up in Ohio now called The Scioto.  The name for this river is thought to come from an Indian word meaning deer.  As a heads up, you might find this tune spelled other ways, Big Scioty, for example.

This tune is a super fun one to play at jams and the B Part sounds totally bad ass!  The melody sounds a lot more complex than it really is, so it’s easy to impress your friends and yourself! We’ll be learning this in the key of G.

Here’s a jam to get the tune in your ear:

Love that intro!!!

Now for the chords to the song…

Part A:

G | G | G | G

G | C | D | G

x 2

Part B*:

G | D |  D | Em

Em | C | D | G

*The video above has this chord progression:

G | D |  D | C

C | Em | D | G

Here are a few instructionals:


Fiddle (notation):


Mandolin (tab)

Devil Ate a Varmint: Look Ma, We Helped!


We had a great turnout last week at Great Leap, almost a reunion! It was great to see old friends return to meet our new ones, and somehow the stars aligned to bring my recorder and our group together on this fortuitous Tuesday.

Listen to us play Devil Eat the Groundhog at last week’s Pickers meet.

Thanks to all those who came out, and we hope we’ll get to see y’all again this Tuesday!