A surprisingly jaunty melody, for a tune named after the 19th century Ozark Mountains foundry that produced iron for American Civil War canonballs.
Before teaching a fascinating fiddle masterclass, legendary Missouri musician and steamboat pilot John Hartford regales us with tales of Missouri fiddler Roy Wooliver (1896-1964), with whom the tune is identified.
Want to cut straight to the tune? John begins playing at 2.40.
Get your contra dancing shoes on for this deceptively simple ear-worm of a tune from the playing of Kentucky fiddler Everett Kays.
Here are three versions.
Take 1: Everett Kays lays the tune out at dance speed with a stringband for the original 1973 field recording (now in the Berea College Southern Appalachian Archives*).
Takes 2 and 3: Seattle-based fiddler Greg Canote plays two slow teaching versions – first a music camp video; second, a slightly more uptempo audio track from the Canote Brothers’ Seattle stringband class.
Key of G, standard tuning on all three recordings. Choose whichever speed suits you best for tunecatching, and for playing along with once you’ve got it down.
Everett Kays (fiddle), accompanied by unnamed musicians
The Hornpipe, by John Durang, watercolor from his Memoir, Courtesy of the York County History Center
Meet John Durang (1768-1822), dancer, acrobat, actor and performer with Ricketts’s Circus across the northeastern United States and into Canada. Born in Pennsylvania of German and French parents, he was George Washington’s favourite dancer.
The tune was composed for Durang in new York in 1785 by Mr. Hoffmaster, his German violin teacher.
Here are several different versions from North American musical cultures: two teaching videos (American and Canadian); a performance video (traditional African-American string band); and archive reel-to-reel audio of a West Virginia fiddler.
Choose your favourite to learn!
Katie Henderson (fiddle)
America: teaching video from Katie’s encyclopaedic New Tune A Day Youtube site.
West Virginia fiddler Rachel Eddy retitled her ‘favourite C tune’ – commonly known as Fourteen (or Sixteen, or Eighteen) Days in Georgia. There are many variations on the tune, so here’s just this one wonderful rendering from a 2016 concert in Peninsula, Ohio.
Andy Fitzgibbon teaches a lively 3-part, crooked Kentucky tune as played by fiddler William Hamilton Stepp in 1937. The fiddle is cross-tuned AEAE, giving that characteristic Old Time ring from the sympathetic drone strings. (More on Bill Stepp and cross-tuning below.)
Andy Fitzgibbon (fiddle)
Teaching video for the 2014 Cowan Creek Mountain Music School advanced fiddle class.
‘Fiddler Bill’ Stepp (1845–1947), of Magoffin County, Kentucky, was the last fiddler to be captured on disc machine by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax during their Kentucky song-collecting expedition. He was a close friend of fiddler John Salyer (see ‘Last of Harris’).
This week, I’m beginning with a story: acclaimed West Virginia fiddler Ernie Carpenter talking about his fiddling heritage handed down by his father and grandfather, a maker of dugout canoes on Elk River, West Virginia.
In this fascinating 1987 reel-to-reel audio recording, Ernie tells his tale, and goes on to play one of his grandfather’s tunes – the jauntily crooked Granddad’s Favorite.
Ernie’s father, Shelt Carpenter, photographed around 1932.
The audio recording is followed by the video of the musical part of the same performance at the October 1987 Celebration of Traditional Music, Berea College.
And, last but by no means least, this week’s post is topped off by a wonderfully clear teaching video: Andy Fitzgibbon’s rendition of Granddad’s Favorite, as played by Ernie Carpenter.
You’ll notice that Granddad’s Favorite is a crooked tune, with extra bars when you least expect them. It also comes with two warnings for fiddlers:
In the recordings below, the fiddles are cross-tuned: Ernie Carpenter in GDGD, Andy Fitzgibbon in AEAE. If you’d like to try cross-tuning, you’re less likely to break a string tuning your two lower strings up to AEAE, than tuning your top two down a tone for GDGD, and then having to crank them back up again to standard/GDAE. (I speak from sad experience.)
And if you prefer to keep your fiddle in standard tuning, don’t try to copy the fingering in the video!
And now for our story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then Ernie will begin.
A delightfully almost-danceable crooked Kentucky tune that repeats across the whole fiddle range.
William Hamilton Stepp (1845-1947) recorded the tune in 1937 for the Library of Congress – the last of the Kentucky fiddlers to be captured on disc machine by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax during their Kentucky song-collecting expedition. ‘Fiddler Bill’ Stepp was a close friend of fiddler John Salyer (see ‘Last of Harris’, 22 May 2015).
Andy’s teaching video for the 2014 Cowan Creek Mountain Music School. Standard tuning GDAE.
Andy notes: ‘As played by William Hamilton Stepp for the Library of Congress in 1937.’
A lovely variation on an old-time/bluegrass sessions favourite. I’ll be posting up the standard version later in the year – but in the meantime, caveat musicus: DANGER – this is the OTHER version!
Annie Staninec (fiddle), Luke Abbott (viola)
Annie is a major west-coast bluegrass and old-time fiddler, solo and with a number of bands. Luke sings and plays old-time and bluegrass on ‘a bunch of stringed instruments’ and is part of the brilliant Toneway Project that teaches music by ear online.
A few passes through Google turned up nothing about Last of Harris’s intriguing title. The tune’s origins seemed pretty obvious though. In my mind’s eye I could see it all: the ship’s stern, the gulls above the silver wake, the mountains of the Isle of Harris misting away over the horizon as a Hebridean fiddler sets sail for the New World.
A poignant theme that deserved to be illustrated, I thought, and contacted Harris-based photographer Stefan Davies, explaining that the tune ‘presumably relates to the experience of emigrating to the US from the Isle of Harris’. He kindly sent me a wonderful photograph to upload.
Sorted – a great post for this week!
And then, last night, quite out of the blue, Google sweetly offered me a search result I really didn’t want to see: ‘Last of Sizemore’. ‘Don’t click!’ whispered my sinking heart. ‘Don’t go there!’ But I did. And read. And oh, abbamoses.com – how could you be so cruel…
‘There are a number of musically unrelated ‘Last of’ tunes: Last of Callahan, Harris, etc. Usually they go along with a story of the last tune played by a fiddler on his deathbed or at the gallows.’
I fall on my sword. Blushing. But truth has come too late to press memory’s delete. For me, Last of Harris will always evoke, not poor Mr Harris about to meet his Maker, but Stefan’s image of the Isle of Harris – quite simply too beautiful to be left out.
For this very first post in my new fiddle tunes blog, I thought I’d treat you to something unusual that I came across while hunting out old-time versions of this week’s featured tune, Billy in the Lowground. And so we begin with a story, a riddle, a rhyme – and dance away into a tune played fit to charm Old Nick himself…
Anna and Elizabeth (Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle), accompanied by Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary (The Murphy Beds)
The Devil’s Nine Questions was learnt from the 1920s-40s singing of Texas Gladden and Mrs. Rill Martin, Virginia. Comment on Irish music forum The Session has Billy in the Lowground originating in centuries-old Scottish and Irish reels.
Anna and Elizabeth illustrate some of their songs with story-scrolls turned on frames known in the States as ‘crankies’. The duo is touring the UK and Ireland in May, in London on 8th (Musical Traditions/sold out) and 19th (Green Note, Camden). Check out their full itinerary on their website: http://www.annaandelizabeth.com. The Murphy Beds are at: http://www.murphybedsmusic.com
Every couple of weeks or so I feature a tune that's caught my fancy – audio/video clips of brilliant musicians playing great, perhaps uncommon tunes to learn by ear. Most are from the English and American Old-time traditions; some hail from other musical worlds ‒ Scandi, perhaps, or French. But whatever you play ‒ fiddles or frets, free-reeds or fipples ‒ I hope you enjoy catching these wonderful tunes!