Back in the days before radio, recorded music, and DJs for hire, social gatherings such as quilting bees and church functions often featured fun interactive tunes where young people could safely socialize with each other. Dating back to at least the early 1800s, “Jenny Jenkins” is one of these dialogue songs, a vehicle for a boy to ask a girl to dance. The boy would sing the first lines, picking a color, and the girl would have to make up a response that rhymed. If she couldn’t come up with a rhyme, she would dance with the boy.
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“Jenny Jenkins,” which has been covered by the likes of Jerry Garcia (with David Grisman) and Lisa Loeb, is as simple as it is sweet. I’ve arranged it here in the guitar-friendly key of D major using just three chords, including the common open D and G shapes. Instead of a regular open A, I play a more colorful-sounding A7sus4—an A7 chord with the fourth (D) replacing the third (C#). These three voicings share the common note D (string 2, fret 3), which rings throughout for a lovely droning effect.
As for the picking hand, I start the song with a light boom-chuck, playing single bass notes on beats 1 and 3 and upper-string chord strums on beats 2 and 4, like notated here in the song’s four bar intro. As seen in the accompanying video, I use that same pattern throughout.
With the boy-girl dialogue of “Jenny Jenkins” in mind—and through the magic of modern picture-in-picture technology—I had my singer-actor friend Margaret Belton join me to respond to my relentless grilling regarding her wardrobe plans. Roll, Jenny Jenkins, roll!
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.