For a bluegrass purist, Punch Brothers must be a frustrating band. While most of PB's songs don't fit within a traditional bluegrass style, whenever they do decide to play a straight-up bluegrass folk tune, they totally knock it out of the park. This is the case with "Boll Weevil", the one truly bluegrass track from their album "The Phosphorescent Blues". The track adds to the eclecticism of an album that also includes transcriptions of Debussy and Scriabin and gives bluegrass traditionalists the opportunity to shake their fists and yell, "Why can't they just make an album that sounds like this and stop wasting their talent with that artsy-fartsy stuff."
A little background: Songs about the boll weevil have been written since the early 20th century when the boll weevil began decimating cotton crops all along the American south. The music usually followed a basic blues form with the lyric describing a dialogue between a farmer and a boll weevil. The general theme of these songs describe a weevil taking up residence on the farm ("I'm looking for a home" is a refrain found in the most well-known boll weevil song) and the farmer unable to do anything about it. The threat of the boll weevil to the cotton industry was so great that it was even spoken about in apocalyptic terms and would eventually lead to the US government creating the Boll Weevil Eradication Program to address the problem. While the liner notes credit the song as "traditional", I was unable to find (after researching on the internet for an hour) an older version that closely resembled musically the Punch Brothers' version. There are some lyrical similarities to older versions, such as the one recorded by Blind Willie McTell in 1940 (video below), but it appears that the music, while traditional-sounding, is newly composed.
Even with a traditional-sounding tune with a much more fixed form, Punch Brothers still find ways to add musical interest. The most interesting observation comes when looking at the meter and phrasing.
"Boll Weevil" is comprised of just two alternating parts: the instrumental hook and the verse. The chart below shows the overall form. The A sections refer to each time the instrumental hook is played while the four B sections stand for each of the four verses. The chart also shows the terraced entrances of the five instruments and who harmonizes Thile's vocal line in verses three and four.
Investigating the instrumental hook: While similar in melodic contour, the primary difference between the verse and the hook is the hook's use of mixed meter. As can be seen by the example below, PB displace the downbeat by adding a 5/4 bar on the third measure of the hook. The 2/4 bar at the end of the phrase immediately followed by the syncopated entrance of the hook (on the "and of one") ensures that the downbeat remains elusive for those who aren't actively counting along. The end of the phrase is also a good example of an elided cadence - when the new phrase begins simultaneously with the cadence of the previous phrase. The "slipperiness" of the downbeat, even when the bass is playing straight quarter notes, is my favorite thing about this track because until you figure out the metric pattern, the hook's arrival, while inevitable, never feels predictable - just like the pesky boll weevil.
While siting squarely in 4/4, the verse still employs a bit of mixed meter by ending each phrase with a 2/4 bar instrumental tag (creating another elided cadence). The shortening of the phrase provides a jump-start to the syncopated entrance of the instrumental hook that follows.
One last thing - The verse's melody sits within a minor pentatonic scale (D-F-G-A-C) though Chris Thile also slides between a number of blues notes that fall between the cracks of strict minor pentatonic. Interestingly, when the verse is harmonized (as seen in the example above), Chris Eldridge sings a bluesy F# that gives the verse a major key feel.
A note about the transcription: This is not intended to be a tablature transcription or a "how-to" for playing the exact Thile lick (I'm not a mandolin player or have the time or patience to notate every fine detail) but it is intended to show the tune in a basic and communicable way, enjoy! Boll Weevil Transcription