Goats. They get stuck sometimes in high mountain tops – but this Billy, well he got stuck in the lowground.
Anyway, bad jokes aside, Billy in the Lowground is a great fiddle tune that I love to play. As with most fiddle tunes, there’s no “standard” that everyone agrees on. Personally, I treat the Tony Rice version as “the standard” and since not many fiddle tunes are in the key of C, this tune can provide a great break from the “standard” fiddle tune keys. That said, there are plenty of great versions of this song worth listening to.
Doc Watson’s versions are great (though in the key of D) and so is the Chris Thile / Michael Daves version (which is in C but has an extra tag at the end of each part). For this tune, you really need to listen to a lot of variations to find the one you like best.
Here’s a basic chart this breakdown – Billy in the Lowground.
- Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings at Greyfox
- Tony Rice from California Autumn album
- Chris Thile & Michael Daves from Sleep with One Eye Open album
- Here Today with David Grisman on mandolin
- Doc Watson from the On Stage album
Scales and Practices
The song is usually played in the key of C, however there are plenty of recordings in D (Doc Watson for example). I find that most often this song is called in the key of C, so we’ll stick with that key for the breakdown – however I would recommend learning this in the key of D as well. Aside from being prepared for if / when it gets called in D, changing keys of a song can be a great way to improve your playing.
Like most fiddle tunes, Billy in the Lowground (let’s just call this BITL from now on) has 2 main parts and is in the AABB format which means the A part is played twice, then the B part is played twice and repeat.
Breaking the A part down (and ignoring the pickup), there are basically two parts. Measures 1 – 4 are one part (or A1) and measures 5 – 8 in another (or A2). The complete form for the A section is A1 / A2 / A1 / A2.
You should notice that the A1 part is just a Major (C here) followed by it’s relative Minor (Am here) while the A2 part is similar but has the classic 5 – 1 turnaround (here that would be G, the 5 of C, back to the 1, or C).
The same process works for the B part. Measures 17 – 20 are one part (or B1), measures 21 – 24 are another (B2). The complete form for the B section is B1 / B2 / B1 / B2.
Different from the A part, the B1 phrase goes from the 1 chord (C Major) to the 4 chord (F major). The B2 part is basically the same as A2 from a chord standpoint though the melody is different.
Knowing the basic chords in multiple positions is a great way to enhance your playing overall. Below are the chords for BITL in 2 different positions. Once you get each down, try mixing them up – like playing the Position 1 chords on even measures and Position 2 chords on odd measures and vice versa. A good goal is to be able to shift between the positions whenever you wanted without thinking about it.
After you’ve gotten these positions down, try writing up some of your own. my Chord Library can help you find new chord voicings if you need help on that.
If you are liking the song breakdowns and want to learn more, check out my personal coaching page.
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