No matter what fiddling tradition you’re familiar with, the odds are good that you’ve heard the tune “Paddy on the Turnpike”—or at least one of its relatives. “Paddy on the Turnpike” and its sister tunes are Irish reels (breakdowns) with eight bars per part. You’ll hear “Paddy on the Turnpike” played in both the key of A and the key of G, depending on what region you’re in and what style is being played. In Fiddle School, it’s taught in the Texas-style tradition in the key of G.
The tune and its related variants go by countless names and trace back to the 18th century at least. Some scholars think it may be even older due to how widely the tune is played, the sheer number of names it has, and the many variations that exist. Today, “Paddy on the Turnpike” is popular in Britain, Ireland, and North America, with some version of the tune appearing in almost every North American fiddle tradition.
One unique feature of “Paddy on the Turnpike” is its modal quality. While some folks play the tune in a simple major key, most variants are modal and many include more than one mode (that’s true for the version taught in Fiddle School, which switches between multiple modes throughout the tune). String crossing is a prominent feature in the B part of the tune, a call back to its Irish roots.
The Texas-style version of “Paddy on the Turnpike” features a distinct chord progression that moves from a G Major chord to an F Major chord and back again. In the Texas-style repertoire alone, there are multiple tunes closely related to “Paddy on the Turnpike” with similar chord progressions, syncopation, and melodic structures, including “Snowbird in the Ashbank” and “Salt River.”
Want to take a listen to a couple versions of “Paddy on the Turnpike” that we love? Check out Howdy Forrester playing the tune here.
Hear Benny and Jerry Thomasson’s medley of “Paddy on the Turnpike” and “Snowbird in the Ashes” here. Notice the cool extra measures that Benny includes at the end of some of his parts in this recording.