“Herman’s Hornpipe” (also called “Uncle Herman’s Hornpipe”) is a fiddle tune exemplifying a category of tunes based on a very old Celtic dance form called the hornpipe. This dance was originally a solo dance for men and characterized by folded arms and fancy foot and leg movements. The dance originated as a form of exercise for sailors on English ships. It is said that Royal Navy Captain James Cook (1728-1779) thought dancing was most useful to keep his men in good health during long voyages. When it was calm and the sailors consequently had very little to do, Captain Cook required his men to dance claiming that the notable freedom from illness on his ships could largely be attributed to this physical regimen. Since there was almost always a fiddle and a fiddler or two on board any ship, this type of dancing and the accompanying fiddle music was of course closely intertwined.
A few hundred years later, “Herman’s Hornpipe” became primarily associated with the Texas-Style fiddlers and was often heard at the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho. Benny Thomasson, one of this contest’s most notable champions, was closely associated with the origins of the most common modern version of “Herman’s Hornpipe.” After relocating to Washington State in the late 1960s, Benny Thomasson learned many Canadian fiddle tunes from local fiddlers who were influenced by the style just to the north of his new home. Thomasson arranged many of these tunes combining his own style of fiddle playing with these new melodies.
It is likely that during this time Thomasson encountered a Canadian tune called “Miss Supertest’s Victory Reel,” one of hundreds of tunes composed by John Durocher. The “A” part of “Herman’s Hornpipe” can be considered the same as the “A” part to this Canadian tune. John Durocher came to fiddling when he found a broken fiddle in the trash. A little repair work and he had his first instrument. A few lessons from a local teacher and he was hooked! Durocher went on to become a prolific composer of fiddle tunes. His music was picked up by Canadian fiddle star Don Messer who included many of his tunes in his broadcasts and printed collections, helping Durocher to become quite influential.
However, the 2nd and 3rd parts of “Herman’s Hornpipe” are difficult to trace. Durocher’s tune does modulate to the key of A major for its “B” part in much the same way as “Herman’s Hornpipe” does, thereby substantiating a general connection. The “C” part of “Herman’s Hornpipe” can be seen as a development of the first two parts.
Some members of the Thomasson family recall Benny having heard “Herman’s Hornpipe” played on the 1950’s television show Town & Country Time with Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats featuring “Fiddlin' Buck Ryan." Perhaps, but Benny most likely learned the basic tune from a local northwest fiddler who in turn learned it from Don Messer’s radio shows or recordings. As he did with many other two-part fiddle tunes, Benny probably began to work with “Supertest’s Reel” crafting his own variations and development. The arpeggios in the current most common version of “Herman’s Hornpipe” are certainly reminiscent of other Thomasson arrangements.
Thomasson is known mostly as an arranger of traditional fiddle tunes. However, in many instances, his creative process of fiddle tune development produced entirely new sections of simple tunes often lengthening their forms with these additional parts. The majority of what is known today as “Herman’s Hornpipe” is most likely an example of this creative process. Although on the matter of exactly who was “Uncle Herman,” no one seems to remember him and his identity remains a mystery!
Benny Thomasson (1909-1984) was born “fourth or so” in line of 13 children in Winters, Texas, just south of Abilene. Both his grandfather and father were contest fiddlers in the 1800s. When Benny was five years old, his father Luke let him “pull his good fiddle out” and rest the scroll on the edge of the bed while he figured out how to play it. At 19, thinking he was playing the fiddle pretty darn well, Benny entered a big contest competing against hundreds of other Texas fiddlers. He was perplexed when he came in somewhere near 60th place. He felt that his playing had been fairly accurate technically and decided that the old tunes themselves needed to be “rounded out and smoothed up” for better success.
As a result, Benny began taking old, simplistic fiddle tunes with two parts (“sectional binary forms”) and reconstructing them into musical masterpieces. Being almost completely self-taught, his creativity was wholly individual. Benny composed variations of traditional tunes often adding additional parts utilizing virtuosic displays of technique and sophisticated bowing and phrasing. At the same time, he greatly enhanced the intellectual content of the music. As Benny’s highly-developed fiddle tunes became more and more well-known, they began to be referred to as a whole new style of fiddling – “Texas Style.”
With his new style, Thomasson began winning state championships taking home the top prize at least 15 times. In 1955-57 he became the “World Champion” by winning three years in a row in Crocket, Texas. As news of Thomasson’s immense talent spread, the famous western swing bandleaders Bob Wills and Spade Cooley each offered him permanent positions in their bands. Columbia Records wanted to record Benny’s unique fiddle playing and Hollywood wanted him to appear in the movies
with Gene Autry. Thomasson, however, turned it all down choosing fiddle contests as his musical outlet instead. He continued to win championships in Athens, Gilmer, Hale Center and Burnet. 300 silver dollars was the prize the last time he won in Burnet. Benny competed against some very fine fiddlers, his toughest competitors being Vernon and Norman Solomon, Eck Robertson, Bryant Houston and Major Franklin. Benny claimed his father knew a thousand fiddle tunes by memory and people say Benny knew more than that.
In 1969, while working at Houston Kenworth, Benny injured his back, opted for a disability pension and retired. On a trip to visit his son Dale in the Northwest, Benny found that he liked the fishing there and decided to stay. It is there that “Herman’s Hornpipe” was crafted and became well-known. He longed for his native Texas, however, and a few years later Thomasson returned to be among his old friends who loved and admired him from earlier days. While playing on stage one evening, Benny lost his balance and fell backwards. His son Jerry, who was accompanying him on guitar, gracefully caught him and eased the fall. Making music was the last experience Benny remembered as he lost consciousness, dying just a few days later.
Many thousands of fiddle players have been directly or indirectly influenced by the talents of Benny Thomasson. His highly creative development and restructuring of an entire American fiddle tune repertoire resulted in the evolution of a pre-existing musical form into a new and distinct style, assuring that Benny Thomasson’s musical legacy will remain as significant as that of any other fiddle player in American history.
From Book III of the O'Connor Method.