|FIDDLE TUNES OF THE OLD FRONTIER
|Joseph Schick Lecture delivered by Alan Jabbour, Indiana State University, Terre Haute,
essay was delivered as the Joseph Schick Lecture at
is a pleasure being at
original quest was to document the fiddling of the American Upper South, and in
my comparative studies I sought to uncover the history and derivation of the
Upper South tradition I had encountered.
The region of my work stretched from the North Carolina Piedmont
westward and northwestward into the Blue Ridge Mountains of
my mental model to explain the history of the fiddling I encountered was much
like most people’s model. I assumed that
fiddling originated in the British Isles and was brought to what is now the
In time, as I documented the fiddling from the Upper South more broadly and immersed myself extensively in early publications and manuscripts of fiddle tunes, my mental model changed. The ideas with which I had begun my quest no longer seemed adequate to explain the evidence, and a new cultural model began to emerge in my mind that better explained what I had encountered. This paper is an account of that new model. Perhaps I can get at it best by listing a series of points where the original model and the evidence were at odds with each other.
#1. I had imagined that the instrumental
music tradition I was exploring dated back at least to the 17th
century in the
[PLAY “SOLDIER’S JOY” IN PUBLISHED FORM, THEN IN UPPER SOUTH STYLE]
The later 18th century turned out to be a revolutionary period for instrumental folk music, as it was revolutionary for so many other elements in our civilization. The new style of instrumental music that emerged included 6/8-time jigs and 4/4-time reels that accompanied group dances, and also a new class of 4/4-time tunes called “hornpipes” that accompanied solo fancy dances. A typical tune had two parts, each of which was repeated.
favored instrument for this instrumental music revolution was the modern
Italian-style violin, which had spread northward through
#2. I had originally imagined that
fiddle music was developed in the British Isles, then exported to the
each region came up with its own version of the revolution, containing its own
special repertory and its own performance style. In effect, the revolution was pan-regional,
but at the same time it was regionally branded.
The Scottish version of the revolution invented what we now think of as
the classic Scottish instrumental repertory and style. The Irish repertory likewise had its own
tunes and style—or family of styles. The
tradition of the Upper South, which had been the original object of my focus,
seemed at first to present a slightly different case. In the North there were always some fiddlers
who could read music, but fiddlers in the Southern states were never
music-readers. Thus the print and
manuscript record was absent for most of the 19th century, except
for publications from the minstrel stage, which contained a hard-to-sort-out
mixture of Southern folk music and new popular compositions. But then I discovered a collection of tunes
entitled Virginia Reels, published in
“GEORGE BOOKER” AND “FORKED DEER” AS EXAMPLES OF OLD WORLD AND
POINT #3. I had supposed that the repertory and style in the Upper South were originally British, and then by new composition and gradual stylistic evolution became more regionally distinctive. But as the other elements of my original model were eroded, I began to contemplate the possibility that the Southern fiddling style I was documenting in the 20th century took shape much earlier than I had originally imagined. In particular, I reflected on the bowing patterns I had been laboriously transcribing from my fiddling mentors. Many of them used bowing patterns in which were imbedded elaborate forms of syncopation. Now it should be stipulated that syncopation has many forms. Any performance that establishes one rhythmic pattern, then superimposes a different pattern in contradistinction to the original pattern, is using syncopation. But the syncopated bowing patterns of my fiddling mentors were precisely what we all think of as “American syncopation,” appearing in jazz and popular music and commonly presumed to be an African American contribution to our musical heritage.
[PLAY “FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN” TO ILLUSTRATE THE COMMON SYNCOPATED PATTERN]
This syncopated pattern – the grouping of eight notes into subgroups of 3-3-2 – is the classic syncopation of American popular music. Most people assume it came from jazz, or perhaps from blues or even ragtime. But these forms are all products of the earlier 20th century. When did the fiddlers of the Upper South begin doing these syncopated patterns? And where did they get the idea? Is it an African American contribution?
can begin answering this puzzle by noting that the bowing pattern I just
demonstrated occurs widely throughout the American South. What is more, it occurs in the oldest field
recordings from widely separated areas of the South. My mentor Henry Reed was born in 1884 in
beyond the region to compare with the bowing patterns of other regional
cousins, we find that Northern American fiddling styles do not use this bowing
pattern—though in places such as
our net even wider, we may encounter the same precise syncopated pattern from
Africa and the Mediterranean to musical styles as far away as
we know that Whites and Blacks were all playing the fiddle in the Upper South
Once it had become a regional hallmark, shared by Black and White fiddlers, it spread in three ways. First, it spread directly through western migration – to a degree by Blacks but, more importantly, by Whites who had incorporated the syncopated bowing patterns into their own playing and cultural values. Second, it spread into wider popular consciousness through the minstrel stage of the 19th century. And third, African American musicians transferred the same patterns to other instruments, like guitar and piano, thus reintroducing the patterns in all the successive waves of folk-rooted popular music, including ragtime, blues, and jazz in the 20th century. By the mid-20th century it had become a general American pattern of syncopation, and by later part of the 20th century all the world would recognize the pattern as a stylistic hallmark of American music.
POINT #4. The African American contribution is a profound part of the regional culture of the Upper South. But there is a hint of another cultural contribution that warrants our attention as well. To explain this point I will need to return to a description of the features of a typical fiddle tune in the English-speaking world.
A typical fiddle tune has two sections – let’s call them “strains.” Each strain typically has sixteen beats – or steps, if one is dancing. The typical tune performance calls for the fiddler to repeat each strain once before going on to the other strain. I hope this audience will forgive my repeated cautionary use of the word “typical.” Fiddling tradition, especially in the Upper South, allows for considerable latitude in these matters, so some tunes may contain three or four parts, and some of the strains are shortened or elongated from the norm. But to summarize, a performance of a tune all the way through from beginning to end will typically consume sixty-four beats. Many dance figures in square, longways, and solo fancy dances are timed in multiples to coincide with the tune’s progress from part to part.
When a tune consists of two strains, there is a sort of musical calculus dictating that one of the strains be in a lower-pitched range, and the other in a higher-pitched range. For most of the musical regions of the English-speaking world, the first strain typically is the low strain, and the second strain is the high strain. Furthermore, though ideally one might imagine that both parts of a tune are equally distinctive, in practice the lower strain tends to be the more distinctive strain, while the high strain is more likely to be “filler.”
[PLAY “GEORGE BOOKER” AS AN EXAMPLE.]
is not unknown in
This tune contour seems to date from the same period as the syncopation pattern discussed above. Several tunes in Knauff’s 1839 Virginia Reels collection follow this contour, so it was clearly well established before the explosion of the minstrel stage in the 1840s. The pattern drifted from the fiddle to the banjo, and thence into many Upland South folksongs of a lively or playful nature. By the 20th century it was firmly established in the musical ethos of the South, appearing even in new instrumental genres like rags and blues. It did not crowd out the low-to-high pattern that predominates in all other regions, but simply coexisted with the other pattern as a vigorous alternative. But most new tunes in the Upper South during the 19th century followed this new native pattern for the tune contour.
where did this high-to-low preference in the tune contour come from? One is
faced with the following logical choice: Either they made it up, or they got it
from somewhere. But though people on rare
occasion do radically new things never before encountered, more often they get
their inspiration somewhere. So we must
begin by considering the options for inspiring this musical idea. It exists in British and Northern European
tradition – but only as an occasional alternative to the customary
pattern. So it is hard to account for
its sudden popularity in the 19th-century Upper South by referring
to a few vagrant British originals. Nor
There remains one other major cultural tradition that had an influence on the Upper South in the late 18th and early 19th century. We tend to picture American Indian traditions as isolated from the new emerging society of the Upper South in the 18th and early 19th century. But the evidence suggests much more sustained cultural interaction in the early South than in the West later in the 19th century. There was extensive intermarriage in the South between American Indians and both Whites and Blacks. And although we are not used to thinking about American Indian influence in the musical realm, there are many examples of American Indian cultural influence on Southern life in other realms, such as foodways and material culture.
The fact is that American Indian music of the Eastern Woodlands and Plains favors a descending tune contour. Today’s American Indian powwows are an excellent contemporary window into the same musical tradition, and one can hear thousands of tunes that follow the same overall melodic contour as the Upper South fiddle tunes. It is worth reminding ourselves that powwow tunes are dance music, and they are often sung using vocables instead of words. In effect, they are tunes of a class and function comparable to the fiddle tunes of British-American tradition. We cannot prove this cultural influence on fiddling from the world of American Indian culture, and the evidence is more tenuous than in the case of syncopation and African American influence. But no other cultural influence is in sight that can account for those thousands of fiddle tunes of the Upper South that, in contradistinction to all other regions of the English-speaking world, start at the top of the tune and cascade down.
The concept of syncretism is useful to invoke at this point. When two cultures come into close contact, or one is superimposed on the other, syncretism is the cultural sorting process whereby cultural traits found in both cultures are selected for survival or heightened emphasis. We should remind ourselves that the trait of a descending musical contour exists in British tradition, though it is infrequent and recessive. So one may imagine this to be a case of a syncretic marriage between a recessive musical trait in a dominant culture and a dominant musical trait in a recessive culture. If so, the marriage was fruitful, and the progeny number in the thousands today.
But our flights into the realm of genetic metaphor are still flights of fancy. It seems to me that such questions of cultural history, drawn from close interpretation of the folk art itself, should be the stock in trade of folklorists. But we have done far too little to pursue large cultural questions such as this. It is astonishing that cultural traits of such prominence and distinctiveness as these traits in the fiddle tunes of the Upper South have been utterly ignored by folklorists and ethnomusicologists. I will confess to oscillating – with both the syncopation story and the descending contour story—between the triumphal sense of having identified features of great cultural importance, and the anxious sense of being the only one in the world who thinks these traits are of any consequence.
that as it may, it’s now time to summarize.
The evidence I encountered in the oldtime fiddle tunes of the Upper
South, both through fieldwork and through comparative study of the extant
manuscript and print record, led me gradually to modify my original
assumptions. I now believe that the
fiddle-tune repertory and styles of the modern English-speaking world arose in
the latter half of the 18th century.
They constituted a revolution in instrumental folk music, and in the
dances that instrumental folk music accompanied. The advent and democratization of the modern
violin spurred the revolution, but the revolution also occurred during and was
probably stimulated by a period of more widespread social and political
revolution in both the British Isles and
revolution occurred roughly simultaneously in all regions of the
English-speaking world, so that the modern repertories and styles might better
be considered cultural cousins than ancestors and descendants of each other,
even if some of the cousins are from
close this Schick lecture by invoking Emerson.
His 1837 Phi Beta Kappa lecture, entitled “The American Scholar,” called
for a new revolutionary style and trumpeted: “We have listened too long to the
courtly muses of
“The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. . . . What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat . . . show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking. . . in these suburbs and extremities of nature . . . .”
As he spoke, the fiddle tunes of the old frontier were forging a new style and a new meaning on the anvil of grassroots creativity. And although more time elapsed before folklore organized itself as a discipline, the pursuit of meaning through folklore answers well Emerson’s challenge to the American scholar to find “the highest spiritual cause” in the art of ordinary people.
[END WITH “DUCKS ON THE POND”]