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Old time and Appalachian music retains some of its Celtic roots, but it a unique style relying heavily on double stops (chords) and cross tuning (changing the pitch of the strings to facilitate drones and harmonics) and uniquely rhythmic bowing. Like Irish music, it often uses modal constructs rather than keys.
Not to be confused with Bluegrass, invented by Bill Monroe, a native of Kentucky, and the members of his band: Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise. They developed a hard-driving sound that incorporated anything that they heard that they liked: jazz, gospel, country, rock-n-roll. Together and separately they became national stars; they were sought after for radio, TV, national tours, mustic festivals, and movie soundtracks. The Bluegrass genre remains intensely popular.
"Old Time Music was the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations... [Cecil Sharp, during his 1916-1918 song-collecting field trip] found American variants of many hoary British ballads with impressive pedigrees. Songs scarcely remembered in their land of origin still held a spell over Southern descendants of expatriated yeomen. But the ballad tradition was not static: newer songs of outlaws and train wrecks sprang up alongside old ones of knights and ladies...
"Despite the European background of much of this music and of such instruments as the fiddle, the influence of African-American phrasing and syncopation profoundly affected old time music. (This influence becomes particularly striking when you compare American stringband music to that of Canada, a New World culture which lacked a significant African-American presence.) The banjo is the most obvious legacy of African-Americans in old time music, for the instrument itself is African in origin. It came to white Southerners via the nineteenth century minstrel show... Compared to the banjo, the guitar was both a latecomer and a folk instrument by commercial fiat. It was in the late nineteenth century that such mail order catalogues as Sears & Roebuck made inexpensive mass-produced guitars widely available, and it was by such prosaic means that the guitar and mandolin entered Appalachia." — Mark Humphrey
'Geographical Position of the Southern Appalachians,' from English Folks Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Campbell and Sharp, 1917
Library of Congress
One day I got tired of not knowing why a fiddle tune with two sharps was not automatically in the key of D or A minor, which meant learning about pentatonic, hexatonic and heptatonic scales and the modal variants which form the structural underpinnings of much of the older old-time music. What I learned is explained in Musical Architectures: Modes, Intervals and Scales on this website.
Typical fiddle cross-tunings include GDAG, ADAD, DDAD, AEAE, AEAC#. This helps the fiddle player add the drones that mark so much of old-time sound. Droning involves playing two strings at once, but the secondary string is a drone and does not change often, as compared to double-stopped notes which can change as often as the primary note does. Cross-tunings do have an effect even if no drone on a second string is attempted; a sympathic vibration is created in the secondary string which enhances the sound.
"Scordatura is the fancy name for it; also known as cross tuning, open tuning or out-of-tuning. It involves changing the relationship between the four strings of the violin, so that you no longer have G,D,A,E, but some other combination...Until very recently I avoided it like the plague, for all sorts of reasons. It upsets the instrument, which likes stability and doesn’t take kindly to such unnatural practices...However, there are some styles of traditional music for which cross tuning is essential if you are to achieve an authentic sound. As we will see, the most significant of these are American Old Time, and Norwegian fiddling... In old time jam sessions fiddlers are happy to stay in a single key and a single tuning for up to an hour. At some point a key change will be suggested, and everyone will retune. If an outsider sees fit to criticise this practice, fiddlers will habitually blame it on banjo players, who apparently find it harder to retune. Banjo players of course blame the fiddlers. Bluegrass players, who pride themselves on their ability to play in any key, of course refuse to retune at all, and sneer at the lot of them. —Chris Haigh.
"In oldtime music the tradition has not been lost, it may be resisting change but it has not been displaced, it is not a modern music. I for one celebrate the fact that oldtime music is not bluegrass or dawg music or new grass or even claw grass (which sounds like an agricultural disease or killer weed). Oldtime works from different tonal centers, it uses open tunings and harmonic resonant overtones and incidentals, it mixes non-tempered scales with harmonization or it's completely modal. Compared to bluegrass or country western its largely dance centered and not song centered, many of its songs are verses to dance tunes, and most of its songs were meant for solo and unaccompanied performance in their oldest form. It is often not strictly symmetrical in its rhythms; a-rhythmic fiddle and banjo tunes are common particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky. Drones, bowed or fifth stringed, are central and not incidental to the music." — Allen Feldman
Maura Enright, Musical Architectures: Modes, Intervals and Scales, BabaYagaMusic.com.
Alan Feldman, Why Bluegrass and Old Time are Not The Same. Web, DwightDiller.com.
Wikipedia, Cross Tuning, aka Scordatura.
Rhythmic Modes"[I]n in the United States, most often 'fiddle' means the violin as used in Irish-Scottish-French traditional music and all the descendant American styles: Appalachian, bluegrass, Cajun, etc. On the surface, this kind of fiddle music is technically less complex than classical violin (though sometimes very fast!). Many fiddle players never leave first position. But fiddling calls for great skill in producing the rhythmic and melodic lift originally intended to get people dancing and keep them that way. Even when we're just listening to a well-played fiddle tune, chances are we're moving our bodies somehow – tapping our feet or fingers, or nodding our heads. The emphasis tends to be on rhythmic drive and a steady flow of melody through basic forms, often AABB. This structural simplicity opens up room for variations and impromptu embellishments; the fiddler's artistry lies in the nuanced bowing and subtle variety with which these deceptively simple tunes are spun out." — Gordon Swift
"99% of fiddle novices think it's about the notes when it's really about the bowing. When a fiddler develops the ability to accent and syncopate around the musical beat while borrowing from an arsenal of traditional bow patterns, the fiddler is born. It is a rhythm instrument with notes included." - David Bragger
Michael Ismerio recommends learning a song's bowing first, then melody!
Clogging while fiddling: Using feet as a percussion instrument is fun for audience and performer. The simplest steps are little more than a shift of weight from left to right in a shuffle rhythm, with the short-short as a pickup to the long (1st and 3rd beat)step: short-short long, short-short long, step-back step, step-back step.
A lot of the older versions of old-time music (such as those in Cecil Sharp's collections) are composed of varied rhythms; individual measures of 4/4 interleaved with 3/2, for instance. The net effect supplies a certain kinetic energy to songs which are simple and composed of many verses, avoiding listener fatigue. Not an easy thing to pull off at a fiddle jam, but worth the effort for your own repetoire.
Time SignaturesIgnore the following if you do not read music or if you read music but have developed your own dance-music style.
2/2, 2/4, and 4/4 (AKA Duple Time)In Old Time music, these boil down to two strong pulses per measure. It is important to remember that these tunes were usually not composed on paper and then performed; rather, it was more the other way around, sometimes with a gap of decades between the performance and the transcription. In addition, I believe that a 4/4 is sometimes chosen in order to represent the tune using quarter and eighth notes instead of the more dense and scary eighth and sixteenth notes.
I have, in my sheet music collection, many transcriptions for Arkansaw Traveller; some in 2/2, some in 2/4, and some in 4/4. The moral of the story is: let the music, not the time signature, be your guide.
The syncopated duple meters, which I shall call hornpipes for lack of a better word, are less popular than reel time because more difficult to play, but the ability to syncopate a tune comes in handy when trying to match up with a banjo or when playing modal tunes. The same tunes often function as both reel and hornpipe, depending on the fiddler.
"The duple-time hornpipe... was at the height of its popularity on both sides of the Atlantic in the period roughly between 1780 and 1850. The dance was executed at a slower pace than reel time and frequently featured fancy footwork. Similar dances – probably descendants – are the clogs that flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the tap dances of [the twentieth] century. Hornpipe tunes, besides being properly rendered at a slower pace than reels, usually employ a rhythmic pattern. The melodic lines often rely heavily upon arpeggios... Since the demise of the hornpipe as a dance, American hornpipe tunes have tended to be drawn into the general reel repertory, which calls for a faster tempo. But the hornpipe tunes are often showpieces with rather complicated left-hand fingerings; executing them at a reel tempo can easily lead to the sense of harried effort ... Although a few fiddlers such as Leizime Brusoe have cultivated their left-hand technique to the extent that they can execute complicated hornpipes at a dazzling pace, most fiddlers are more at home with the ordinary reels, where the left hand has fairly simple fingering patterns.' — Alan Jabbour.
The Old Time Fiddler's Repertory contains a number of songs named as hornpipes, including the B-flat Hornpipe as played by one-armed Luther Caldwell.
Breakdown, Reel, HoedownAll these are duple time. The difference between a breakdown and a reel MAY be: back beat emphasis in a breakdown, and a lot of running notes.
3/4 (AKA Waltz time)Three beats per measure, with the pulse on the first beat. This time signature is less common than the 2/2, 2/4, and 4/4, but if you play a dance, you will need a waltz or two. Warning; the general public will always ask for 'Ashokan Farewell', no matter how incongruous the context. Be prepared.
6/8 (AKA Jig time)Two pulses per measure, which means that, technically, they are an example of duple time, but musically, they are far different than the other Duples. Jigs are common in New England contra dance, but not in Southern Appalachian music. Explanations that I have seen on the Interwebs include the difficulty of rendering a jig on a banjo; jig rhythms not used in church music, so less exposure; the difficulty of clogging to jigs. I cannot defend any of these reasons, I merely submit them for your consideration.
Bow Strokes"Dr Jimmy Grey told me 'One Stroke, One Note, and that's the scientific way to play the fiddle." —John Hartford.
Saw Stroke: this would be the One Stroke One Note technique cited above.
Son Filé and Portato: the classical techniques that play several distinct notes on one bow has been adapted by fiddle players. Nathan Cole put out a training video on the one-minute-bow (see references) , which is overkill for fiddle players but still useful.
Syncopated 2/4 or 4/4; this can be a good way to kick a somewhat boring reel down the road. Maybe not a hornpipe in the Irish sense of the word, but the syncopated pulse produced by many mandoline and banjo players means the fiddle needs to pulse along too. Dwight Diller describes it as 'I Think I Can I Think I Can.' or the 'Boomalaka': BOOM-ah-LAK-ah.
Circular (or oval) bow pattern: It softens the bite and results in a nice swing at speed. Down-bow is the lower half of the oval; upbow is the top. A flat bridge helps.
Figure-8: on one or two strings. or on two strings, using one string as a base and touching down to another string on the off-beat. The bow moves in a circular or figure-eight pattern (depending on your point of view) (I see it as a figure-8 but I use a very flexible wrist when bowing). The on-beat note is often emphasized with double-stopping.
Slurring into the first beat: a bowing pattern that slurs into the first beat of a measure will soften the texture of the song and make it roll. If your music is written as 4/4 instead of 2/4, you are probably playing it as a 2/4 if you are playing to tempo, so count the pulses rather than the quarter notes.
Double-Stopping: Playing two strings at once is an important part of much old-time music. It results in the violin equivalent of a chord. The technique is often used to emphasize the rhythm. Much double-stopping is actually done by playing a drone (an open string) along with the melody note. Hence the prevalence of fiddle music in G, D, A and E: those are the open strings at our disposal.
Bow PatternsLet us make this easy on me. Three types of shuffles covered here.
Alan Jabbour on Henry Reed's bowing style:
When using the chart below, be mindful that strokes are not static. Surges in volume and tone are common within one bow stroke, short or long.
* AKA Double or Hokum. The unaccented beats are played on a lower string and then the accented stroke is played on next string up. It is common to change the high note, but not the lower one, as the fiddler goes through the phrase.
**John Hartford described this as playing three notes per stroke against a 2/4 rhythm. He called it 'the Paganini' because somewhile after John incorporated it into his fiddle playing technique he saw Paganini doing the same thing.
Eric Christopher: Shuffle Bowing on EricChristopher.net.
Dwight Diller, Dialoging With The Pulse Part One, DwightDiller.com.
Titiana Hargreaves, Sally Ann fiddle duet using the Oom-Pah shuffle.
Geoffrey Perry of FiddleJamInstitute
Simon Streuff at Violin-Education.com
Henry Tucker, Clog Dancing Made Easy, Library of Congress.
"May all that has been reduced to Noise in you become Music again."
Learning, performing and improvising by ear (without sheet music) is an important skill set. The music is expected to come from the heart and in synergy with other performers. Printed music is often provides the initial information about the song for people who have learned to read sheet music, but as the musician works towards performance quality the sheet music will be left behind.
28th of January
Abe's Retreat, A Modal
Angelina Baker (aka Angeline the Baker)
Betty Liken, A Mixolydian
Billy in the Lowground
Blackest Crow Waltz
Boating up Sandy
Bonaparte's RetreatTwo tunes called Bonaparte's Retreat have considerable currency in American instrumental folk tradition. One of them, a minor tune related to a widespread British-American tune family, is current primarily in the Northeast. The other, well known throughout the South, may derive ultimately from an Irish air called The Eagle's Whistle. Most Southern fiddlers retune their fiddle, lowering the G-string to a drone D and dropping the E-string a whole step to D...Most traditional renditions of this tune preserve a stately pace in the manner of the old 4/ 4 marches.
Cluck Old Hen (A Dorian)(Cross tune AEAE)
Cold Frosty Morning A Dorian
Cookoo is a pretty Bird
Cuckoo is a Pretty BirdSee Cookoo Is a Pretty Bird.
Darling, You Can' Love But One (New River Train)
Dollar Down and a Dollar a Week
Dry and Dusty
Ducks on the Millpond
Ducks on the Pond, A Mixolydian (Henry Reed)
Eighth of January
False Sir John (May Colvin)
Fisher's HornpipeBy the year 1800 the tune was already in widespread circulation, usually called Fisher's Hornpipe. Popular collections of the nineteenth century printed it regularly, and by the twentieth century it had survived to become one of the most popular hornpipe tunes in Great Britain and America." — Alan Jabbour
Five Miles from Town (Clyde Davenport version
Flop Eared Mule
Granny Will Your Dog Bite
Greasy Coat, A Modal
The Gypsy Laddies (Raggle Taggle Gypsies, Black Jack Davie)In this Scottish variation, sung by Jeannie Robertson, the Lord hangs the gypsies after the Lady declares that she will not return to the castle.
Haste to the Wedding"Haste to the Wedding is one of the most famous 6/ 8 tunes in British and American tradition. Chappell (National English Airs, No. 163) traced the tune to a version used in a pantomime in 1767; beyond that date its history is shrouded. Modern traditional sets have been recorded in Great Britain and in nearly every area of the United States...In the South it is more common to play6/ 8 tunes with a lengthening of the first and third eighth of each three-note group at the expense of the second." — Alan Jabbour
Hawks and Eagles
Hell Among the Yearlings
House Carpenter (Daemon Lover)
Indian Ate a Woodchuck
Jenny Get Around
Jenny [Mule] in the Cotton Patch (clyde Davenport version)
June Apple: A MixolydianA B C# D E F# G
Kitchen Girl (Henry Reed)(Swap between A Mixolydian and A Dorian?)
Little Girl with her Hair Hanging Down
Little Pink(Pretty Little Miss?)
Liza Jane in A
Liza Jane in D
Long Journey Home (Two Dollar Bills)
Midnight on the Water Waltz
Money Musk"Money Musk is one of the most famous reels in British-American tradition. According to Glen, it was composed by Daniel Dow and published in one of his collections (ca. 1775) under the title "Sir Archibald Grant of Monemusk's Reel," becoming a favorite in Scotland and spreading into Irish, English, and North American tradition. Printed sets are legion and have served to stabilize the tune in some areas. It has turned up regularly in twentieth-century American tradition except in the South, where evidence indicates that it was once current but passed out of circulation. One fine traditional version has been recorded along the Virginia-West Virginia border, however." — Alan Jabbour
Music for a Found Harmonium
New River Train
Old Joe Clark, Mixolydian (A, E)
Obama's March to the White House
Old Joe Clark
Possum's Tail is Bare in D
Pretty Little Girl with a Red Dress On
Pretty Little Dog
Pretty Little Indian A Modal
Quail is a Pretty Bird (A Mixolydian)(derived from Sandy Boys?)
Queen of Earth and Child of the Skies (D Major)AKA Wounded Hoosier.
Rain and Snow (A Modal)
Rat's Gone to Rest
Red Haired Boy
Rock Andy (A modal)
Rock the Cradle Joe
Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms
Sadie at the Back Door
Saint Anne's Reel
Sail Away Ladies
Sally Ann in D
Salt River/ Salt Creek
Sandy Boys (A mixolydian)
Sandy River Belle
Sitting on Top of the World
Soldier's Joy"If one were to select the fiddle tune most widely known and played in Great Britain and North America, the choice would probably be Soldier's Joy... It appears in nearly every sizable collection of fiddle tunes from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, usually classed as a reel or country dance, and it has passed into circulation on continental Europe. The three eighth notes at the end of many of the phrases in printed sets suggest that the tune may originally have been conceived as a hornpipe, but in America, at least, it is generally used for reels, square dances, and other group dances..." — Folk Music of the United States.
Tater Patch (A Mixolydian)
Turkey in the Straw in G
Walking in the Parlor
Ways of the World
What Will I Do With the Baby-O
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Wolves a Howling
Wreck of the Dandenong
Yew Piney Mountain (French Carpenter)(AAB, no second B part)
Public Domain Information Project. "Music and lyrics published before 1923 are now in the public domain in the US [as of Jan 2019]."
Abba Moses, The Way of the Fiddle, 58 transcriptions of old-time fiddle tunes.
Bayard, Samuel, Hill Country Tunes, Instrumental FOlk Music of Southwestern Pennsylvania, originally published by the American Folklore Society.
David Bragger, Olde-Time Oracle, Sept-October 2008.
David Brody, Fiddler Fakebook, Oak Publications, 1992.
Campbell and Sharp, English Folks Songs from the Southern Appalachians, Archive.org.
William Chappell, active 19th century. Many of his tunebooks can be found on Archive.org.
Chris Haigh, FiddlingAroundUK.com.
EducationScotland.gov.uk, Songs for Primary Schools
Fiddle-L Anthology 1999, sound files from members of the mailing-list Fiddle-L in 1999, located on Slippery-hill.com.
Fiddler's Companion References.
Andy FitzGibbon's YouTube page with some of his excellent fiddling.
Edward Hetzler, Hetzler's Fakebook, online repository of midi transcriptions of old time, Celtic and English songs.
Lamancusa, John, Old Time Fiddle Tunes; transcriptions and audio files. A wonderful collection of tunes transcribed from records, festivals, jams and workshops. Old Time, New England, Celtic, Southwestern and Waltz catagories.
Library of Congress, Alan Jabbour's field recordings at the Archive of Folk Song (US) at the Library of Congress.
Alan Lomax was famous for his many field recordings of folk music. He began his work in the 1930s, assisting his father with audio recordings for the Library of Congress. In the late 1970s and early 80s, he shot hundreds of hours of performances and interviews in several genres for a PBS series on American folk music.
Abba Moses, One Fiddler's collection of Old-Time Tunes. Transcriptions of 58 songs.
Old Time Ozark Traditions website includes many basic tunes with both violin tab as well as traditional transcriptions.
Old Town School online list of sound files for many fiddle tunes.
Henry Reed collection at the Library of Congress. "Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection presents traditional fiddle tunes performed by Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia. Recorded by folklorist Alan Jabbour in 1966-67, when Reed was over eighty years old, the tunes represent the music and evoke the history and spirit of Virginia's Appalachian frontier. Many of the tunes have passed back into circulation during the fiddling revival of the later twentieth century."
Austin Rogers, Dr Fiddle Old Time Fiddle Tunes lists of sound files and transcriptions.
Ryan, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 1050 fiddle tunes published in 1883, on ITMA.ie.
Cecil Sharp: One Hundred English Folksongs, published 1916, at Archive.org.
Pete Showman, Tunes Page, is the gateway to his sheet music collection of over 200 tunes, plus links to midi files. In addition: the Tunes Lists page link at the top leads to a collection of Starter snips of tunes: the key and rhythm signatures and the first few measures for a lot of tunes.
Tater Joe's Old Time Musical Mercantile, hundreds of tunes for fiddle and banjo by name, by key, and some with chords.
Wyman, Loraine, Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs on IMSLP.
Traditional Tune Archive of N American, British and Irish tunes, formerly known as The Fiddler's Companion. This site includes publishing info for public domain music search.
Jim Miller' list of tunes that are in the public domain and therefore not subject to ASCII, BMI et al licensing fees IF you can find transcripts of versions printed before 1927 (as of 2019).
ANGELINE THE BAKER
BONAPARTE CROSSING THE RHINE
BOOTH SHOT LINCOLN
BREAKING UP CHRISTMAS
CAMBELL'S FAREWELL TO REDGAP
CAMP MEETING ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
CLUCK OLD HEN (Am)
COLD FROSTY MORNING (Am)
COTTEN EYED JOE
DRY AND DUSTY
EIGHTH OF JANUARY
FLOWERS OF EDINBURG
FLY AROUND (SUZANNAH GAL)
GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME
GOING TO BOSTON
GRASSHOPPER ON A SWEET POTATO VINE
HOP HIGH LADIES
LITTLE BILLY WILSON
LITTLE DUTCH GIRL
LITTLE LIZE JANE
MIDNIGHT ON THE WATER (Waltz)
NEW FIVE CENTS
OLD MOLLY HARE
OVER THE WATERFALL
ROAD TO BOSTON
ROCK THE CRADLE JOE
ROSIN THE BEAU (Waltz)
SAIL AWAY LADIES
SAINT ANNE'S REEL
SAM AND ELZIE
SANDY RIVER BELLE
SENECA SQUARE DANCE
SHEPHARDS WIFE (Waltz)
SHOES AND STOCKINGS
SHOVE THAT PIG'S FOOT
SNAKE RIVER REEL
STAR OF COUNTY DOWN (Am, waltz)
STATEN ISLAND HORNPIPE
SUGAR IN THE GOURD
TOO YOUNG TO MARRY
TURKEY IN THE STRAW
WEST FORK GALS
WHISKEY BEFORE BREAKFAST
YEAR OF JUBILO
YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS
"May all that has been reduced to Noise in you become Music again."
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Author: Maura Enright
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Last updated: March 2020
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