For over 20 years I played guitar in the Hoover Uprights, with Bill Schmidt (fiddle), Dave Rice (harmonica), Kate Brett (banjo), and Kevin Enoch (bass, ukulele, or 2nd guitar). Since Kevin and I both played chord instruments, communication was essential. What chords are we going to play? Where should we change? So consider the following scenario….

The Hoover Uprights are playing a dance, and Bill decides on “Jaybird Died with the Whooping Cough” for the next dance. Bill has quite a big repertoire, so even though I know that “Jaybird…” is one that we play, it seems like years since we last played it. How the heck do we chord it?? Kevin and I look at one another and shrug our shoulders. We’ll figure it out on the fly. Bill plays four potatoes and launches in. Happily, after the first phrase it’s all coming back to me, so I look over at Kevin and say, “Missouri.” Now we’re on the same page, and off we go! Here’s how we’ll play it:


But…. “Jaybird…” isn’t a Missouri tune. We learned it from Virginia fiddler John Ashby, and he got it from the Crook Brothers (who were from Tennessee). Interestingly, here’s how Ashby and his band (the Free State Ramblers) played the A-part:


So why’d I say “Missouri”??

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“Missouri” is shorthand for “Missouri Rules of Harmony,” a concept that refers to a particular chord pattern that is overwhelmingly common among Missouri traditional musicians — past and present — for backing up a surprisingly large number of fiddle tunes (other than waltzes).

For those who’d like me to cut to the chase, the abbreviated version of the “Missouri Rules” chord pattern (for an 8-bar part) is:

I – V (first 4 measures)
I – IV – V – I (last 4 measures)

Now, here’s the back-story.

I first learned about the “Missouri Rules” through listening to a wonderful, two-record set entitled “Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory,” which came out in 1976. This set, compiled and edited by fiddler and self-trained folklorist R.P. Christeson, includes about 50 tracks from field recordings that he made between 1948 and 1961. Christeson also compiled and edited two volumes of a book with the same title, with notation for about 500(!) tunes collected mostly from Midwestern fiddlers.

Essentially all of the tracks on the OTFR set begin with a brief (and typically dorky) introduction narrated by Christeson. “Old Melinda” (by Bob Walters) is no exception:

“This tune, “Old Melinda,” is played by a trio, including a fiddle, an electric guitar, and a cello. It might be worthy of mention that the accompaniment here follows the old-time pattern or routine, in the use of three chord changes instead of only two. The third change is the use of the subdominant chord in the sixth measure. Much of the modern accompaniment today involves only the tonic and the dominant chords, used something in a back and forth and often in a sing-song fashion.”

Since “Old Melinda” is in the key of C, “the subdominant chord in the sixth measure” is F; the tonic is C; and the dominant is G. It’s a three-part tune, and here are the chords for all three parts as played both by Mr. Walters and his string trio and (in a recording where the chords are a bit easier to hear) by the Hoover Uprights.


When Ben asked me to write up something about the Missouri Rules for Oldtime Central, knew I’d have to do a bit of homework. I grew up in the St. Louis area but moved away right after high school, before I knew anything about the rich musical traditions in my own backyard. So I wrote to Jim Nelson, Geoff Seitz, and Charlie Walden, and they all shared some helpful insights. Geoff and Charlie are Midwestern fiddlers of the first order, and Jim is the go-to backup guitar player in St. Louis and far beyond.

Charlie sent me a portion of an article that he wrote, published in the Fall 1996 issue of Fiddler Magazine, which he believes to be the first use of the term “Missouri Rules” in print.

“…The “Missouri Rules of Harmony” require a certain chord progression for most hoedowns. Consider the [low] part of “Soldier’s Joy.” I’ve heard many folks back East accompany [it] as follows:


Missourians want it this way:


The melody of the tune in no way suggests this pattern of chords. However, the insertion of the IV chord (or G) in the 6th bar serves a couple of purposes. The structure of most fiddle tunes is such that on any given eight bar part there isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between the first four bars and the second four bars. The presence of this chord gives a clear signal as to where you are in the tune. Also, this harmonic progression from I to IV to V chord provides a forward momentum to the music which is lacking if such a progression is not used. Frankly, I can’t get right with my playing if I don’t hear the accompaniment in this way. This pattern is also widely used in Canadian old-time and Texas fiddling.”

The most important points here are (1) differentiation between the first and second phrases of the eight-bar part; and (2) forward momentum. Charlie added the following comments in an accompanying email:

“I asked my buddy John Stewart in Columbia about the origin of the term, and I think he came up with it in the early 1990s. It was a useful device when a guitarist was wandering about fishing for chords; you could just yell “Rules!” and then they could settle in and play the tune. It’s also interesting to note that this pattern was often “forced” into play, irrespective of what the melody was doing. In other words, the accompaniment doesn’t have to react to every melodic movement in the tune.”

Here are some great examples of the “forced” used of the “Missouri Rules” pattern:

Lantern in the Ditch,” “Jimmy in the Swamp,” and “Stoney Point,” all by Bob Walters. Also, “Scott Number Two,” by Bill Driver and “Little White Lies,” by Casey Jones. To me, the “forced” use of this chord pattern produces musical tension, which gets resolved at the end of the phrase. That’s “forward momentum”!

But if the “Missouri Rules” pattern can sound “forced,” then certainly there must be alternative chord arrangements that would work. Which is true! Therefore, it’s up to the guitar player and the fiddler to agree on what works best for a given tune. In the Midwest, the “Missouri Rules” usually win out, because that’s so much a part of the regional backup style. But even outside of the Midwest, the “Missouri Rules” have their place. Over the years I’ve played quite a bit with fiddler/banjo player Paul Brown, and when we played for dances he was quite partial to “Missouri Rules” chording, especially for contra dances. Why? Because the distinct phrasing of the tune tends to work hand-in-hand with the phrasing of the dance figures. The bottom line is that there isn’t necessarily one “right” way to chord a fiddle tune. Try using “Missouri Rules” for backing up “Hawks & Eagles” or “Durang’s Hornpipe.” Or one of my favorites, the B-part of “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” It works! And a new harmonic context may open up new ways of thinking about an old tune!

Finally, consider this…. Bob Walters was from Decatur, Nebraska. And listen to Vernon Spencer, of Big Springs, Kansas, playing “Coming Down From Denver.” Or Uncle Dick Hutchison (Disney, Oklahoma) playing “Forked Horn Deer” or “Minnie Put Your Kettle On.” So why’s it called “Missouri Rules”?? That’s a question that’s being asked these days by Lawrence, Kansas fiddle player Tricia Spencer (Vernon’s granddaughter), who favors Christeson’s term, “old-time accompaniment pattern,” or “OTAP.” There’s an element of logic, since obviously this chord pattern is used commonly all over the Midwest and not just in the state of Missouri. But “old-time accompaniment pattern” may be a little too broad, since there’s plenty of “old-time accompaniment” happening in regions of the country where there’s no particular tendency toward “the subdominant in the 6th measure.” In any case, neither “old-time accompaniment” nor “OTAP” seems quite as catchy as “Missouri Rules,” so this may be an uphill battle on behalf of the marginalized regions of the Midwest.

Cover photo: Nebraska, 1956: (l-r) Henry Schroeder, Bob Walters, R.P. Christeson, and William “Banjo Bill” Lohridge. From the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Robert P. Christeson Collection.


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