Old-Time Appalachian Fiddle Tunes

In the early days of European settlement in North America and the United States, the violin was the most commonly played musical instrument. The instrument is small and portable, so people easily carried it along as they migrated into the Appalachian Mountains and to the West. It is versatile enough to play classical art music as well as lively dance music. Fiddling remains one of the most vital folk music traditions throughout the United States. This post focuses on old-time fiddle tune traditions in Appalachia.

Fiddle tunes are primarily instrumental melodies, though some have words that can be sung optionally. Most originated as tunes for dancing, but people often play them today in social settings and performance that do not include dancing. Most fiddle tunes consist of two melodic parts, often referred to as the A and B part. Frequently the tunes are played in A A B B form, that is, playing the A part twice, then the B part twice. This form is repeated for as long as the musicians, or the dancers, care to continue.

Violin or Fiddle

What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music, a fiddle is “a generic term for any chordophone played with a bow.” This includes a variety of exotic stringed instruments played throughout the world. In popular usage in the United States, the word “violin” is used to describe the instrument when it plays classical and art music, and the word “fiddle” is used to describe a violin (and sometimes other bowed stringed instruments, such as viola or cello) when it plays dance, folk, country, and bluegrass music.

There can be also be differences in the way the instrument is physically adjusted (or set up) to play in one style or another, but it’s essentially the same instrument. Violinists hold the instrument between the chin and shoulder. Many fiddle players hold it this way, but some hold the instrument against their chest, which makes it easier to sing while playing.

There is one more important distinction. When you are buying one, it’s a fiddle. When you are selling one, it’s a violin.

Fiddle Tunes from the British Isles

Most ethnic groups in the United States have fiddle traditions. The majority of people who settled in the American colonies were from the British Isles. Immigrants from the British Isles played a stock of dance tunes and other melodies from England, Ireland, and Scotland. These tunes persisted in North America, and they became the basis for variations and new tunes that emerged in the United States. Irish and Scottish tunes and playing styles became the dominant influence on Southern American fiddle tunes.

Fiddle tune from England – “Jacob”

Fiddle tune from Ireland – “Swallowtail Jig”

Fiddle tune from Scotland – “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay”

Fiddle Tunes in Appalachia

During the 1700s, more than 200,000 people emigrated from the Irish province of Ulster to the British colonies in the New World. The origins of the Scots-Irish, as they are called, lie primarily in the Lowlands of Scotland and in northern England. They had been relocated to Ireland’s northern province of Ulster starting in 1606, primarily to strengthen royal control over the North of Ireland. Most of the Scots-Irish emigrants settled initially in Pennsylvania. From there, many followed the Great Wagon Road to make their homes in the Appalachia Mountains – Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Carolinas.

Much of the work there on the American frontier, including barn raising, molasses making, corn husking, and apple peeling, was done communally. At the end of the work day, people danced the old Scottish and Irish reels and jigs, with the music provided by a fiddle or fiddles. (See A Brief History of Southern Square Dance for more on dancing in Appalachia.)

Fiddle and Banjo

Initially, fiddle tunes were played with no other instrumental accompaniment. Both black and white fiddlers played to accompany dances.

Fiddle solo – “Sallie Gooden”

In the mid-19th century, the pairing of fiddle and banjo became common. The banjo developed in the Caribbean from African roots. In the United States, the instrument was played almost exclusively by African Americans until the 1830s when touring minstrel banjoists began popularizing it among whites. (See Banjo Roots and Branches for more about the banjo.)

In Southern Appalachia, where white and black people often lived in close proximity, musicians adopted music from each other. Many common fiddle tunes originated with African American fiddlers. The fiddle and banjo combination melded European American and African American musical traditions.

Ben and Lew Snowden
Bano and fiddle – Ben and Lew Snowden
Fiddle and banjo duet – “Old Bunch of Keys”

Old-Time String Bands

In the late 19th and early 20th century, other stringed instruments were added to the fiddle and banjo duos. These might include guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and either double bass or washtub bass. In the 1920s and 1930s, many string bands recorded fiddle tunes for record companies. These early recordings are common source material for contemporary fiddle players and string bands to learn tunes. The string bands are also the forerunners of the bluegrass bands that came about in the 1940s.

Old-time string band – “Rock That Cradle Lucy”

Types of Fiddle Tunes

The Appalachian old-time fiddle repertoire began with reels and jigs that originated in the British Isles. Because tunes were generally played and passed on by ear, not printed music, variations of those tunes appeared. Sometimes the variations became so different from the original that they were essentially new tunes.

“Hop High Ladies” is an Appalachian version of the Scottish reel “Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay,” aka “Miss McCloud’s Reel” or “Mrs. McCloud’s Reel.” Compare the “Hop High Ladies” recording below by the Zinc Kings to the “Mrs. Macleod of Rassay” recording above by Patrick Doyle from the Whisky Galore! soundtrack.

The terms reel and jig refer both to the type of dance and to the type of tune played to accompany the dance. Reels originated in Scotland and were introduced to Ireland in the late 18th century. Jigs, which are played in 6|8 time, are not very prominent in old-time Appalachian traditions today. The recording of “Swallowtail Jig” above is an example of a jig.

The reel “Soldier’s Joy” is probably the most widely-known fiddle tune in North America. It most likely originated in Scotland in the 18th century.

Reel – “Soldier’s Joy”

Other European dance styles that became popular in the United States during the 19th century provided new tunes and additional fodder for original tunes. These included the quadrille, polka, schottische, two-step, and waltz. New types of fiddle tunes emerged in the United States, including breakdowns, blues, and rags.

A breakdown is a general term used primarily in the American South to refer to a wide range of up-tempo old-time and bluegrass tunes in duple 2|4 or quadruple 4|4 meter. They are often played for fast dancing, such as clogging and flat-footing. The playing style frequently includes the bowing of two adjacent strings simultaneously.

Breakdown – “Sally Ann”

Carrying on the Traditions

Old-time Appalachian fiddle tunes now reach far beyond Appalachia. The string band records of the 1920s and 1930s started the process. These recordings gained new life in the 1950s and 1960s with a segment of the folk music revival. A generation of young urban musicians became interested in fiddle tunes and other forms of old-time music and learned to play the instruments and tunes themselves.

Many revivalists and folklorists sought out the living masters in Appalachia. They learned the tunes and traditions directly from musicians like Tommy Jarrell, Henry Reed, and the Hammons Family. They also made invaluable recordings of these musicians that have served as source material for others to learn the tunes. These recordings are still available from sources like The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, The Field Recorders’ Collective, and Digital Library of Appalachia.

Tommy Jarrell (right), 1982, Courtesy Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution

Today, Appalachian fiddle tunes are played at weekly or monthly old-time music jams in communities across the United States and elsewhere in the world. Musicians can learn to play the tunes from videos at Homespun Music Instruction, YouTube, and other sites. Students can learn in person from masters at music camps, including Old-Time Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering (North Carolina), Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College’s Old-Time Week (West Virginia), and Mars Hill University’s Blue Ridge Old-Time Music Week (North Carolina). There are also old-time music festivals held around the world. Oldtime Central offers the Oldtime Central Festival Guide, which lists more than 200 old-time music festivals, for free on their website.

Spotify Playlist

Banjo Roots and Branches (3 of 4): Into North America – Early Banjo Sightings

This post 3 of 4 in the series Banjo Roots and Branches.

The banjo in 18th century North America was an instrument of African American culture, but the fiddle was far more commonly-played by black musicians. There are a total of eighty-five documented banjo sightings between 1736 and 1840. All but four of these were in reference to African American musicians. Unlike the fiddle, the banjo was primarily a southern instrument. More than half of the banjo sightings were in the Chesapeake Bay states of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The rest were widely scattered with small clumps around New York City and New Orleans.

This is the third of four posts that mine the latest scholarship on banjo history from the book Banjo Roots and Branches (University of Illinois Press, 2018). The first post explored the African roots of the banjo. The second post discussed developments that took place in the Caribbean in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. This post examines and contextualizes the earliest references to the banjo on the North American continent.

Banjo Roots and Branches

The Earliest Banjo Reference in North America

The earliest known reference to a banjo in North America comes from a letter published on March 7, 1736 in John Peter Zenger’s The New York Weekly Journal: Containing the freshest Advices, Foreign, and Domestick. The letter is attributed to someone identified only as “The SPY.” The SPY’s letter describes a fair that took place in “the Field, little Way out a Town.” Historians have determined that this location was likely “the Common” of early New York City. The Common was an open civic space used as a common grazing land and for public gatherings. Previous historians believed that The SPY’s account of an African American fair that took place in lower Manhattan described a Pinkster frolic. In Banjo Roots and Branches, banjo historian Greg Adams finds evidence to suggest that the celebration described is actually a Paas (Easter) Monday fair, and he determines that April 10, 1730 is the likely date of the event.

The SPY mentions the “banger” being played three times throughout the letter. There is no description of the banger, so it may be assumed that the instrument was sufficiently well-known as to not warrant further explanation. The SPY account also references dancing while drums and percussion instruments are played.

The Plain partly covered with Booths, and well crouded with Whites, the Negroes divided into Companies, I suppose according to their different Nations, some dancing to the hollow Sound of a Drum, made of the Trunk of a hollow Tree, othersome to the grating rattling Noise of Pebles or Shells in a small Basket, others plied the Banger, and some knew how to joyn the Voice (to) it.

African-style drums and rattles similar those described were widely reported throughout the Caribbean. The 1737 census shows that “Negroes” made up approximately 20% of the population of New York City. They were almost all enslaved. Most had been acclimated to slavery, the English language, and Afro-Creole culture (“seasoned”) in the Caribbean where the early gourd banjo took shape. Runaway slave advertisements corroborate the fact that the early gourd banjo could be found in the New York metropolitan area during the 18th century.

The Depiction of the African American Early Gourd Banjo in The Old Plantation, South Carolina, 1780s

The painting The Old Plantation (see photo at the top of this post) provides the earliest depiction of a banjo in North America. It was painted by slave-holding planter John Rose in South Carolina’s Low Country during the 1780s.  The painting is a richly-detailed portrayal of African American music and dance in the 18th century. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Shlomo Pestcoe examines various features of the banjo pictured, determining which of these features are shared with other early gourd banjos, West African predecessors, and later European-American built minstrel banjos. He also shows the West African precedents and influence of the depicted dance.

The Old Plantation banjo includes features that define it as an early gourd banjo and differentiate it from known instruments in West Africa including a flat, fretless fingerboard and wooden tuning pegs. It is a  4-string full spike lute, meaning the neck passes over or through the entire body of the instrument. Features that it shares with West African spike lutes include decorative sound holes in the body and a short thumb string which provides a musical drone – a defining feature of banjos to this day.

The following table summarizes the physical features of various early gourd banjos. It indicates whether or not each feature was present on:

  • Subsequent early wood-rimmed minstrel banjos of the 1840s
  • West African ancestors to the banjo
  • European plucked and bowed lutes, including guitars and violins, which probably inspired some design features

There are images of most of these instruments at the bottom of this blog post and more information in post 1 and post 2 of this series.

The dance depicted in The Old Plantation is reminiscent of communal social dances throughout West Africa. The ring formation is a feature of social dances found throughout the African diaspora. The male dancer holds a stick or wooden staff, which is a common prop in some West African dance traditions. Pestcoe suggests that the stick might indicate a connection to stickfighting. Stickfighting was a martial art in the Caribbean in the 18th century, and it was also documented in The SPY’s 1736 letter to The New York Weekly Journal.

Historian/writer Kristina Gaddy and researcher/banjo builder Pete Ross (a contributor to the book Banjo Roots and Branches) have done more recent research into the meaning of the dance depicted in The Old Plantation. The scene in The Old Plantation is almost identical to the Slavendons papier-mache dioramas created by Gerrit Schouten between 1810 and 1839 depicting scenes in Suriname. The people in the dioramas are participating in a role-playing religious ceremony that includes a dance known as the banya prei. The key elements of the King, the Queen, the hut, the vessel, dancing, singing, and the banjo are found in The Old Plantation, the Slavendons, and historical documents describing other ceremonies witnessed in the Americas and the Caribbean. In some historical records, “playing banya” or “playing banjo” may have referred to the dance ritual, not the musical instrument.

The video below shows me playing “Pompey Ran Away” on a banjo built by Pete Ross. The banjo is patterned after detail from The Old Plantation. “Pompey Ran Away” appears in the book A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, published by James Aird in 1782. The book indicates that the tune is a “Negroe Jig,” [sic] but Aird’s source for the tune not known.

Evidence from Runaway Slave Advertisements

Runaway slave advertisements included details about the missing individuals that might have helped people identify them. Often this included mention of musical instruments that they played. Robert B. Winans, editor of the Banjo Roots and Branches book, read more than 12,000 runaway slave advertisements from 20,000 issues of 300 newspapers from the 18th century. He found references to a total of 761 black musicians. In Banjo Roots and Branches Winans organizes the data into tables and analyzes it.

Perhaps most strikingly is the overwhelming majority of musicians who played the violin or fiddle. A total of 627 of the 761 musicians (88.4%) played the instrument. Approximately 66% of the advertisements referred to the instrument as a fiddle and 33% as a violin. The remaining instruments mentioned, in descending order of popularity, are fife (50), drum (21), flute (18), banjo (18), French horn (8), pipes (3), and guitar (1).

All of the instrumentalists described in the advertisements were adult males. Some women and men were identified as singers, but Winans’ study focused only on musicians who played instruments. Curiously, the data shows that the ratio of musicians to the total number of adult male runaways was highest in the North (1:10 in New England) and decreased steadily moving towards the South (1:63 in the Deep South). The majority of the musicians were house servants or craftsmen, with occupations that included carpenter, cobbler, wheelwright, distiller, weaver, boatman, and butcher. Some were identified as farmers.

A few of the fiddlers made money playing music. Dan from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is described as “fond of playing the fiddle, and has a good deal of money with him which he acquired that way.” Evidence indicates that these musicians made money playing for tips on the streets, at dances, and in brothels. Others made money by teaching people how to play the instrument or providing music for dancing masters who gave dance instructions.

Approximately 83% of the banjo players were from the South, with 66% from Maryland or Virginia. The three players from the North were from New York City, New York; Hanover, Pennsylvania; and Elizabeth, New Jersey. Among the eighteen references to black musicians who played the banjo, there were eight different spellings of the instrument: bonja, banjo, banger, bangeo, banjoe, bongo, banjeau, and banjeo.

Winans concludes that the banjo was probably not widely played in 18th century North America. There were approximately thirty-six fiddlers for every banjo player advertised. Data collected in the 1840s through 1860s show that by this time the banjo was much more common among black musicians, with half as many banjo players as fiddlers.

Part 4 of this 4 part series considers various aspects of white and black banjo playing in 19th and 20th century America.

Boucher Banjo
Early Wood-Rimmed Minstrel Banjo built by William Boucher, Jr. in Baltimore Maryland in 1845

Close-Up of Banjo in The Old Plantation
“The Old Plantation” Banjo

Afro-Surinamese Panja
Afro-Surinamese Panja

Haitian Banza
Haitian Banza

Afro-Surinamese Creole Bania

Afro-Jamaican Strum-Strump
Afro-Jamaican Strum-Strump

Anthology of American Folk Music (4 of 5): Volume Two – Social Music

This is post 4 of 5 in the series Anthology of American Folk Music.

Anthology of American Folk Music has inspired countless musicians and songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Jerry Garcia, John Sebastian, and The Fugs. Folkways Records released the Anthology on six long-playing records in 1952, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings re-released it on compact disc in 1997.  It consists of three volumes, each containing two discs: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs. This post explores Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music.

Social Music focuses on music as a part of community events, specifically dance and worship. The first fourteen tracks include various forms of dance music, and the remaining fifteen songs are church and religious music.

Dance Music

The first track on Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music is a 1926 unaccompanied violin recording of “Sail Away Lady” by “Uncle Bunt” Stephens. Harry Smith, editor of the Anthology,  notes that the style of this performance is probably typical of American dance music between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Early European settlers generally used unaccompanied violin for dancing.

The African-derived banjo became a common accompaniment to the violin during the mid-19th century. The Spanish-derived guitar came into the mix in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. String bands consisting of fiddle, guitar, banjo, and sometimes mandolin and double bass, were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, laying the foundation for bluegrass and country music. “Brilliancy Medley,” recorded by Eck Robertson and Family in 1930, features violin with banjo and two guitars. Smith notes that this “medley of traditional tunes is more suited to the popular dance steps of the 1920s than for the square dance.”

Social Music also includes a few Acadian dance tunes, a jug band song, and a jazzy song that is “one of the musical ancestors of Spike Jones.”

Religious Music

The religious set of songs on Social Music begins with two “lining hymns” from Rev. J.M. Gates. In a lining hymn, the leader chants a phrase which is then sung by the congregation or choir. Smith identifies this style of  song as “one of the earliest modes of Christian religious singing in this country.”

The lining hymns are followed two shape note songs from The Sacred Harp song book, first published in 1844. Shape note singing originated in New England and was perpetuated in the American South. Shape note songbooks represent the notes of the melody with different shapes to identify the appropriate pitch. The method was devised so people who don’t read standard musical notation can join the singing. In the first part of the song, instead of the lyrics, singers sing the name of the scale position – fa, sol, la, or mi.

Other unaccompanied vocal performances follow in addition to some with instrumental accompaniment. Blind Willie Johnson recorded “John the Revelator” in 1930. Johnson made some of the most popular African American religious song recordings of the time.

Social Music concludes with Rev. D.C. Rice and His Sanctified Congregation’s notably contemporary, jazz-inflected performance of “I’m in the Battle Field for My Lord” from 1929.

Spotify Playlist

The following Spotify playlist is a close approximation of Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Two – Social Music. The actual Anthology is not on Spotify. Most of the tracks on this playlist are the same recordings in the same order but from different sources. You should purchase the real deal on compact disc or record to get all the essays and annotations.