Manco Sneed’s “Old-Time Grey Eagle”: polishing up a hidden gem
“Old-Time Grey Eagle” is a fun C tune with a crooked, but glorious, third part that always gets people’s attention. I’ve probably been asked about it at sessions more often than any other tune I play. Here’s how I played it in 2005 with my old band Uncle Wiggily, featuring Bill Martin on cello, Martha Thompson on guitar, Maggie Lind on banjo, and Charlie Hartness on ukelele (from An Old-Time Portland Potluck, now out of print). I’m really fond of this recording, because it reminds me of all the fun I had with those wonderful people. But my version there isn’t really very accurate. So if you want to learn it “right,” use the video.
The problem with the tune is that the source recording is very poor quality, so until now I’ve always felt like my version was just a shot in the dark. Joseph Decosimo puts it perfectly in the video I link to below: he says it requires “reconstructive surgery.” That’s what this post is about. I’ll start with this strange little video where I try to interpret the source. It’s a first attempt at something I’ve been puzzling over how to do ever since I started the blog—to actually show the process of working with a source recording. Hope you like it!
If you want to compare some other modern versions of the tune with mine, check these out:
- My Portland pals The Macrae Sisters on their gorgeous album Old Sledge, which you can preview and buy here. OTGE is track number 4. Marian on fiddle and Gabrielle on banjo.
- A video of Joseph Decosimo talking about the tune and playing a killer version, with stellar backup by John Schwab and Steve Arkin. You can hear more of him and buy his records here.
And here’s the source recording I use in the video, at the original pitch and speed, in all of its screeching glory, in case you want to try doing your own reconstruction. There’s some silence at the beginning. And he starts with what I’m calling the B part in my video. Recorded by Glen Massey in 1964.
Manco Sneed, of Cherokee, NC, lived from 1885-1995. I’ve always loved his playing because it seems to put me in touch with something very old. His versions of tunes tend to be elaborate, crooked, and notey, with very few double-stops and lots of archaic ornamentation. He learned from the legendary J.D. Harris, who influenced many of the greats, including Marcus Martin, but only made a few recordings. So Sneed’s recordings, while great in their own right, are also a window back into a misty era when giants of old-time fiddle walked the earth.
Sneed was recorded a few different times. Some of the sessions have terrible recording quality, and often he’s clearly having a hard time playing. Field Recorders’ Collective has some of the better recordings, made by Peter Hoover, on the CD pictured here, Byard Ray, Manco Sneed, and Mike Rogers (FRC505). That page has articles about Sneed, if you’re interested. And by the way, if you haven’t been to the FRC site recently, check it out. They have some great new offerings, including one I intend to order right after I finish writing this, North Missouri Dance Fiddling with Vesta Johnson.
Unfortunately, the FRC recording doesn’t have “Old-Time Grey Eagle,” which is in some ways my favorite tune of his. I like that it’s completely idiosyncratic. Other standouts of his like “Georgia Belles” and “Lady Hamilton” were recorded by other fiddlers, but I’ve never heard another “Old-Time Grey Eagle.” The lower two parts have similarities to some standard Grey Eagles, but the high part is sort of an Indian-War-Whoop affair with a crazy tail on it. I’ve never heard another Grey Eagle with a part remotely like it.
The tune gets overlooked, I think, because the only recording where all three parts of are somewhat intelligible—the one I use, above—is from Glen Massey’s sessions in 1965. The sound is heavily distorted, Sneed’s playing is erratic, and part of the track is missing because Massey breaks in with a microphone shrieking with feedback and gives a helpful little footnote, recorded right over the middle of the tune. It’s maddening, although of course I’m grateful to Massey for making the recording.
But in spite of those difficulties, going back to it now, after having played it for years, I think I can finally hear what’s really going on, and what it might have sounded like when Sneed was more in his prime. In fact, I heard something new this time in the high C part that I had completely missed before: the rhythm he’s attempting to do is actually way more syncopated than any of us play it in the modern versions. I demonstrate it in the video.
For an interesting discussion of the tune name, and the horse pictured above, see this post on the Old-Time Party blog, by the late John Bekoff.
One final thing about this tune: it always reminds me of Dan Lockshon, who died way too young, of a stroke, in 2013. He played guitar in the great Seattle band The Queen City Bulldogs, with Armin Barnett, David Cahn, and Molly Tenenbaum. In his Martin guitar case, he used to keep a list of tunes he liked to play with different fiddlers, and every time I’d see him at a festival, this was the one he wanted to play with me. I wish we’d been able to play it a few more times.