Wednesday, February 15, 2017

College Hornpipe

Benny Thomasson, 1982
The earliest known version of College Hornpipe can be found in a collection of 120 hornpipes published in the British Isles during the mid-1700s. The tune became a mainstay in the Texas-style old-time fiddle genre, which developed during the mid-20th century and was one of the first genres I delved into once I started playing fiddle.

Texas fiddling fascinated me at a young age because it seemed to be the most advanced, comprehensive, creative, and virtuosic of all the traditional fiddling genres. Much of that can be attributed to Benny Thomasson – widely regarded the “dean” of Texas fiddlers – whose variations on traditional tunes were complex, mesmerizing, and groundbreaking. Benny was aging when I was a young fiddler, but luckily for me, he opted to spend his retirement years on a river not too far from where I lived in Washington state.

Needless to say, I took advantage of the proximity. After hearing me play, Benny took me under his wing and invited me to take lessons from him in his cabin by the river. Over a period of about four years, I’d stay at Benny’s house every other weekend and learn Texas-style breakdowns, ragtime tunes, and hornpipes, including College Hornpipe  During our marathon lessons (some of them lasted over 12 hours!), Benny would show me many of his variations of traditional repertoire. He would challenge me to create my own, so every time I would return to his house for another lesson, I would play him my own variations, and he would help me refine them.

The version of College Hornpipe presented in this book features a combination of Benny’s and my variations. In fact, this transcription is not much different from the one I memorized as a 13 year-old. Generally speaking, the first half of each part is a variation developed by Benny, and the second half of each is a variation I developed. This basic structure (Benny’s first half, my second half) is characteristic of many versions of Texas fiddle tunes played today.

I have recorded College Hornpipe several times, perhaps the most notable being the string trio version with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer on my album Appalachia Waltz. That version features counterpoint for cello and double bass written by Edgar. In the duet version in this book, the 1st violin line is very similar to the tune as I learned and developed it with Benny, while the 2nd violin line is inspired by Edgar’s counterpoint.

Benny Thomasson at the Library of Congress in 1976
I had the great fortune of performing College Hornpipe with Yo-Yo and Edgar for the President of the United States in the mid-1990s. It is amazing to think how that tune traveled from a little shack on the banks of the Kalama River in Washington to a stage in our nation’s capital in front of the leaders of our country. Even today, Yo-Yo continues to play it, in particular as a warm-up etude before performances of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Texas fiddling and classical music may seem starkly different, but as the Appalachia Waltz project (and especially College Hornpipe  shows, the two genres are more alike than they might seem at first listen.

Mark O'Connor, Benny Thomasson, Jerry Thomasson at the Smithsonian, 1977

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