Shortnin’ Bread: Fiddle lesson with Craig Judelman

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In this lesson Craig Judelman teaches the classic American folk song “Shortnin’ Bread”. In some versions of the song, shortnin’ bread is fed to sick children on the plantation in an effort to provide them with extra sustenance as they recover. In others, the sweet bread is used to tempt them out of bed and uncover their feigned illness. We’ve chosen the lyrics below to avoid the racist sentiment some versions support.

The fiddle lesson demonstrates how a simple tune such as Shortnin’ Bread can be given a new lease on life through variations in rhythm, melody, and bowing. Craig teaches a basic version first and then shows how shuffles, anticipations, accents, slides, and drone strings can provide a toolbox of variations to keep the tune interesting. These variation ideas can be applied to a wide variety of tunes beyond the one taught here.

Chords – Key of D

D / / /

D / A D

Lyrics

Three little children, lyin’ in bed
Two were sick and the other ‘most dead
Sent for the doctor and the doctor said,
“Give those children some short’nin’ bread.”

Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread.

Put on the skillet, slip on the lid,
Mama’s gonna make a little short’nin’ bread,
That ain’t all she’s gonna do,
Mama’s gonna make a little coffee, too.

Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread.

When these children, sick in bed,
Heard that talk about short’nin’ bread,
Popped up well to dance and sing,
Skipped around and cut the pigeon wing.

Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’, short’nin’,
Mama’s little baby loves short’nin’ bread.

Other versions

Just for fun, here’s the great John Engle playing Tommy Jarrell’s version of the tune in cross A, joined by John Herrmann, Meredith McIntosh, and Amy Hobbs.

And here are the Iron Leg Boys, with Andy Fitzgibbon on fiddle, doing a version similar to that of Uncle Charlie Osborne.

** There is some disagreement about what shortnin’ bread refers to. One possibility is that it is a form of the English and Scottish shortbread, which is made with just flour, sugar, butter and sugar, perhaps made with brown sugar instead of white. Here the ingredients are mixed together and baked in a Dutch oven. The other contends that shortnin’ bread is a fried bread made on plantations that included cornmeal, flour, salt, egg, baking powder, shortening (pig fat), molasses, sugar, and water. The ingredients are mixed together to form a batter which is fried in a skillet and served.

Because there is a variety of lyrics that have been sung to this song, it’s not easy to determine which is more likely. Those that refer to a skillet would suggest a fried bread, whereas those that talk about raking out the coals would suggest the use of a Dutch oven to bake the shortbread version.

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