Friday, July 15, 2011

Florida Blues

“The blues” is a music style that developed in the late 1800s among African Americans living in areas like the Mississippi Delta plantations in the American South. Black musicians combined their own African traditions with their slave work songs and field hollers, ring shouts (spontaneously singing or praying in a circle while clapping hands) and Negro spirituals to create a new form of musical expression - a new style of music that would become one of the most influential in the world.

There are many different types of African American blues music. The many traditional forms and variants can be grouped, however, into a few general categories: “classic blues” and “rural" or “delta blues” from the turn of the 20th Century and “urban blues” and “rhythm and blues” dating from the 1940s. In the earliest era of blues music, subgenres included: “barrelhouse blues,” “gut-bucket blues,” “hokum blues,” “piedmont blues,” “reels/breakdowns,” “blues rags,” “boogie-woogie blues,” “risque blues” and “up-tempo jump blues” - just to name a few.

The archetypical blues form is defined by a pattern of 12 measures in 4/4 meter divided into three lyric phrases. Many tunes exhibit the blues spirit but deviate from the fundamental 12-bar format. The improvisational tradition that developed with the early playing of the blues allows for self-expression within the context of communal participation - call and response. This spontaneous dialogue of improvisation between players established a brand new musical tradition and is one of the foundations of jazz.

Although other chromatic “passing tones” are often used, the basic sound of the blues centers around a “blues scale” which involves flatting the 3rd and 7th degrees of a major scale. In the language of the blues, these notes are characteristically played by sliding up to the desired pitch. The gliss or portamento from one specified pitch up to another, and down from from one specified pitch to another can also be applied to any note of the blues scale. The technical vocabulary of “bending” notes thereby accentuating microtones (pitches between the semitones of the Western scale) adds a provocative emotional dimension to this music.

“White” Appalachian fiddlers have long admired African American folk music. The intertwining of these musical cultures produced the American “hoedown” among other forms. Much “Black” music - especially ragtime tunes and religious pieces as well as many other vocal and instrumental techniques - was easily absorbed into the “White” repertoire. The blues music was no exception, however the “pure” blues styles had a more difficult time assimilating into “white” music culture. Slow-tempo blues ballads were the result of early cross-pollination, and faster-spirited versions of the blue became an integral part of the old-time fiddling of the early 1900s.

Enter Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith of Tennessee (1898-1971). Smith was an Anglo-American old-time fiddler and an accomplished composer and songwriter. He made his solo debut as a fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Smith was very influential and an inspiration to many fiddlers because of his “long bow” style which electrified radio audiences for years. Even though he had many opportunities to become a full-time professional musician, Fiddlin` Arthur Smith worked as a linesman for a railroad company in Dickson, Tennessee, for most of his life.

Although the evidence is not conclusive, Smith has been credited with composing the famous “Florida Blues.” We do know for certain, however, that he wrote many great fiddle tunes and played up-tempo blues tunes often helping to establish this fiddle blues style.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Stepp Down Hoedown

In 1937, an American folklorist and musicologist named Alan Lomax recorded the music of old-time fiddler William Hamilton Stepp on acetate, an early medium for capturing music for posterity. Little did Lomax know at the time, but he was recording a tune that would become one of America’s most recognized classical music themes.

Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress from 1937 to 1942. In his first year of field recording, he documented Stepp playing solo fiddle in Kentucky. The tune recorded and logged for the Library was “Bonaparte’s Retreat Across the Rocky Mountains” or as Stepp called it and then Lomax wrote down phonetically - “Bonyparte.” Lomax hired the mother of famous folk musicians Pete and Mike Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger, to be music editor and transcriber for a publication entitled Our Singing Country, and it included “Bonaparte.”

In 1941, just after the publication was released, a request from legendary classical composer Aaron Copland was made to the Library of Congress to look at some traditional American folk music. Lomax steered him to “Bonyparte” and Copland transcribed the printed version of Stepp’s performance nearly note-for-note into his score as the “Hoedown” in his soon-to-be American hit, Rodeo.

William Stepp, like many fiddlers of his day, personified the mysterious creativity in American fiddling. He knew his craft and perhaps only his peers (other fiddlers) would know how to fully appreciate his way of handling folk music material. What Stepp had labeled ‘Bonyparte’ on that important recording was perhaps not the tune the archivists had thought, nor was it the traditional tune commonly known as “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” but original music created by Stepp from some of the elements of these tunes and personalized by his own playing and creativity. Stepp’s contraction of each phrase of the “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (something rarely done in fiddling traditions) and his melodic and rhythmic development of these newly created phrases resulted in producing an original idea that was documented in 1937.

Copland did not credit Stepp for this music on his score. He no doubt thought he was using purely a traditional tune from the public domain and, in fact, it wasn’t stated otherwise on the original transcription, nor from Stepp’s own words. Within folk traditions, confusions owing to the naming of tunes usually sort themselves out through the generations, but here we have a documented cultural misinterpretation of Stepp’s view of himself. Many fiddlers will call their re-workings (variations) of a tune by the old familiar name for one of several reasons – perhaps bragging rights to fellow fiddlers about how much of a departure he can invent. Another reason could be simply that a well-known name of a tune would often be called for at a dance or show and keeping the original name would give a fiddler an “excuse” to play his own creation. In the case of Stepp “Bonyparte,” unintentional oversights could have been mere blips on the screen if it weren¹t for the fact that Stepp’s variation (or tune) not only became a classical music piece by America’s foremost classical composer, but also became arguably one of the most recognized themes in American classical music history.

While we can’t know for sure that it was Stepp’s creation by himself, or if the tune came out of the environment of folk fiddlers around him, what was perhaps missed ironically was a fantastic example of significant complexity in the fiddling tradition in the case of this tune! Although the two men never met, this most unusual collaboration of Copland and Stepp produced a masterpiece of American music. With Copland arranging and orchestrating the actual composition of his folkmusic counterpart and contemporary, a result came about that no one could have planned or predicted.

Because of the geographic and cultural separation of Stepp’s Kentucky and Copland’s New York City in the 1940s and the fact that Stepp and many older fiddlers did not care to copyright their work, Stepp never knew what had happened to his tune. William Hamilton Stepp died in 1947, five years after the first production of Copland’s Rodeo, never having heard the glorious sound of his music being played by a full symphony orchestra.

As evidenced by the 1937 recording and transcription, Stepp used a less common fiddle cross-tuning DADD to create and play this tune. Transcribing the tune a further time, bringing it note-for-note into the standard tuning for the orchestral violins as Copland did, alters the authenticity of what a folk fiddler would have played without some further adaptation. The variation (and adaptation) in this book honors the Stepp/Copeland version and is better suited to the authentic style of playing - having the left hand remaining in first position as it did on Stepp’s cross-tuned fiddle, but with the string crossing and fingering more natural to the fiddling style.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

From The New World

Antonin Dvorak, the famous 19th century Czech composer, was born near Prague and studied music at an early age in a village school. He later studied violin, viola, piano and organ in Prague eventually playing viola professionally in the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. He soon became one of the most successful composers of his time. In 1892, at the age of 50, the already celebrated composer left his native Czechoslovakia and traveled across the Atlantic to New York City. He had been asked by Jeannette Thurber, the director of the city’s National Conservatory of Music, to come and direct the school and, perhaps more importantly, to help Americans find a pathway to their own classical music.

Dvorak wrote to his friends in Prague about his new post: “The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musicians, they say, why could not they, too, when their country and people are so immense? It is certainly both a great and a splendid task for me and I hope that with God’s help I shall accomplish it. There is more than enough material here – another spirit, other thoughts, another coloring – something Indian – and plenty of talent.”

Knowing nothing like it in his native Bohemia, Dvorak was fascinated by Native American culture. He had read Longfellow’s Hiawatha (in Czech) and was inspired by the “Song of the Hiawatha.” Also, people of African descent were rare in his country and the sounds of the African American melodies and plantation songs (spirituals) caught his attention and were deeply inspiring to him. Harry Burleigh, a pupil of Dvorak’s in New York, an African American, was instrumental in introducing Dvorak to this music.

In 1893, Dvorak told the New York Herald that songs like “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Goin’ Home” were the necessary foundation for “the future of music of this country.” On another occasion he said: “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Knowing of Dvorak’s interest in Hiawatha and his well-known ambition to be a successful opera composer, Ms. Thurber supposedly presented Dvorak with a proposal to compose an opera on this theme. However, evidence suggests that Dvorak decided instead to use the Native American and African American material in his Ninth Symphony, a great expansive work conceived through the prism of a master Czech composer about a new country and its people.

While in America, Dvorak spent some time in the Czech-speaking community of Spillville, Iowa, where he composed chamber pieces including the “American” String Quartet. He also traveled to Omaha, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul before returning to New York, the period that produced his famous Cello Concerto. Dvorak was admittedly homesick after spending just three years in America and, in 1895, he returned to his homeland. However, the music he composed in his relatively short time in America remains among his most popular, and some say his best, work. Presented here are two arrangements of excerpts from the 2nd and 4th movements of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony which he himself titled “From the New World.”

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

El Rancho Grande

“El Rancho Grande,” more completely “Alla en el Rancho Grande,” is a traditional Mexican ballad in the style known as Musica Ranchera or “ranch music.” Ranchera is a type of song featuring themes of love, patriotism and nature typically sung on Mexican ranches dating back to the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1800. “Alla en el Rancho Grande,” a Spanishlanguage song, has become one of the best-known cowboy songs in the Southwestern United States largely popularized by the 1936 Mexican film by the same name. It has been sung by well-known recording artists from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley.

People living in the area of today’s Mexico have a rich tradition of musical culture. During the Mayan civilization, ocarinas (flutes) and percussion instruments similar to maracas were used. The Aztec civilizations sang various kinds of hymns. When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs to conquer Mesoamerica (central region of Mexico), they imported a mix of Spanish violin and guitar music and the music of African slaves that traveled with them to Mexico.

When Mexico became independent from Spain at the turn of the 19th Century, Bohemian immigrants from Central Europe began to settle Northern Mexico (today’s Texas) bringing the waltz and polka dances to that area. In the 1830s, German immigrants established the first settlements from the Texas coastal plains into the hill country. This area became known as the German Belt. Bringing with it the accordion along with its waltzes and polkas, this culture mixed with the indigenous, Spanish, African and Cuban musical cultures already there to form the Ranchera style and the Nortenos music (a similar style found in the Northern Mexico).

Before the Mexican revolution, the musical regions of Mexico could be differentiated by what was termed “the nine sons.” Ranchera is an outgrowth of “son jalescenses.” “Son Mariachi” - (dancers on a wooden platform), is the most familiar son in the past. Today, Mariachi is closely tied to the style of Ranchera and has become the best known music of Mexico. Although smaller groups are common, Mariachi music is most authentically played by a band of eight performers consisting of three guitarists (Spanish guitar, vilhuela and guitarron), three violinists and two trumpets.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.


“Shenandoah” belongs to a category of folksongs known as Sea Shanties, derived from the French word “chanter” meaning “to sing” and often heard on Missouri River steamships. This particular shanty features one of the most beautiful melodies in American music. The lyrics tell the story of an American journey westward.

The ancient Native American legend of the Shenandoah Valley - Daughter of the Stars - is attributed to the Senedo tribe, who lived in what is now known as Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley’s local native population was virtually eliminated in 1732 by the Cherokee Nation, their enemies to the South. When the first Europeans began to settle the area around the same time, the Shenandoah Valley was used only as a hunting ground for the neighboring Shawnee, Iroquois, Occoneechee, Monacans and Piscataways. No tribe laid claim to the land.

The lyrics to “Shenandoah” present a mystery: “O Shenandoah I love your daughter (sometimes ‘waters’), Far away you rollin’ river, O Shenandoah, I long to see you, Away, I’m bound away, Cross the wide Missouri.” One interpretation has a man falling in love with the daughter of an Native American chief (Shenandoah) and having his heart torn as he leaves her and travels a thousand miles to the Missouri River and the West. However, since there were no longer native tribes in the valley by the 1730s, and since most sea shanty songs we know today date back only as far as the early 1800s, the lyrics most probably reference longing for the beautiful rivers of the Shenandoah Valley and not for a woman.
In 1803, heading West became an objective for many new Americans living in the Shenandoah Valley when President Jefferson created initiatives encouraging them to seek their fortunes beyond the Missouri. An ancient Native American route (known as Indian Road or Great Wagon Road) was established in the Shenandoah Valley as a main artery for Westward expansion.

“Shenandoah’s” lyrics exhibit quintessential Americana ideals: reverence for the natural beauty of the land, traveling to find a better life with more freedom and the nostalgia of remembering home. In this song the lyrics sing of the sadness of leaving the “rolling” Shenandoah River, the “daughter” of the stars, for the unknown frontier of the Big Muddy or River of the West - the “wide Missouri.”

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Dill Pickle Rag

An American music style called Ragtime became popular in 1899 with the publication of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” This music, featuring syncopated (ragged-time) rhythms, evolved from Cakewalks, Jigs, Two-steps and Marches commonly played by African American musicians. “Dill Pickle Rag” (aka “Dill Pickles”) was composed in 1906 by Charles L. Johnson, a successful African American composer from Kansas City, and became the first Ragtime tune to sell more than a million copies of sheet music. It was also one of the first major hits from Tin Pan Alley - the music industry of that time marketing popular songs. The chief device that made “Dill Pickles” so attractive was the 3-note-melody-against-a-4-beat-rhythm pattern that subsequently became a standard motif in Ragtime music.

Many of the early “rags” were in fact Cakewalks, a dance (once called the Chalk-line Walk) that developed on Southern plantations in the 1850s. Fieldhands would hold dances on Sundays and Holidays satirizing the proper Minuets and Quadrilles danced at the fancy balls. The couples or “walkers,” promenading in a dignified manner, would mimic their owners by high-stepping, strutting, bowing low, arching their backs, waving canes, tipping hats and throwing back their heads. Some of the plantation owners found this very entertaining and began to bake special cakes and award them as prizes to the best dancers of the day - coining the phrase: “That takes the cake!”

The popularity of the Cakewalk soon spread to the North and also to Europe. In 1913, legendary classical composer Claude Debussy composed and published “Golliwog¹s Cakewalk,” titled for his daughter's minstrel dolls the likes of which were also becoming popular all over Europe. Early Southern Cakewalk music, often played on the violin, contained both syncopated and Cuban habanera/contradanza rhythms. The music of these Cakewalks and Jubilees are the earliest examples of the use of “swung rhythm,” but it was the evolution into Ragtime that eventually solidified this unique rhythmic sound and feel into an important category of American Musical Art. “Dill Pickle Rag,” like many other Rags, has become a staple in the old-time fiddle tune repertoire.

For this tune and more, check out Mark O'Connor's The Championship Years.
From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Bunker Hill

“Bunker Hill” was written by one of America’s distinguished Colonial musicians, Andrew Law; the lyrics are derived from a poem by Nathaniel Niles entitled “The American Hero.” The ballad commemorates the first battle of the Revolutionary War fought on June 17th, 1775, at Bunker Hill during the Siege of Boston. Law’s melody expresses the intense emotion and tremendous suffering of
the famous battle, and Niles’ words accentuate the urgency of the great cause being fought for at the time: “Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom, is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with.”

When the war began, the British knew the importance of the city of Boston to the American colonists and wanted to gain control of it early on. Across the Charles River, in Boston, stood two hills on the Charlestown Peninsula - Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. 1500 American colonists were sent to establish defensive positions on Bunker Hill. In the space of just two hours, 2500 British soldiers charged the Colonial patriots (rebels) three separate times. Fighting from V-shaped trenches hastily built overnight, the Colonial forces drove back the first two attacks causing heavy losses. On the third attempt, the British commander ordered a bayonet charge to seize Breed’s Hill. Many of the American militias, lacking bayonets on the their muskets and running short of ammunition, were forced to fall back to their fortified position in Cambridge. The British controlled Bunker Hill.

The American Colonists sustained their greatest number of casualties while in retreat on Bunker Hill. The British army suffered even more casualties, though - forty percent of their forces, including officers, were lost. Great Britain had won the first important battle of the war. The American troops, however, had learned that the British army was not invincible in traditional warfare. The Battle of Bunker Hill became a symbol of national pride and a rallying-point of the rebellion against British rule.

Purchase Mark O'Connor's Liberty! for this tune and more!
From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Cielito Lindo

“Cielito Lindo,” a ballad in 3/4 time composed by Mexico’s Quirino Mendoza y Cortés in 1882, is based on the old Spanish rustic-song carol (villancico) and has become one of the best known Spanish-language songs in the world. The words “cielito lindo,” interpreted literally, mean “pretty little sky,” or “lovely sky.” However, in the context of this song, they are used as an affectionate term for a beautiful young girl. The style of this Mexican music is Mariachi: a cross-pollination of the area’s influx of Spanish culture including violins and guitars, and that of the indigenous Mexican Indian and “Mestizo” cultures featuring hand-built instruments with unique shapes resembling their European counterparts.

The use of the “Sierra Morena” lyric in the opening verse describes where the beautiful young girl is from. The line “two dark eyes like robbers” describes her as a “gypsy thief” from Sierre Morena, Andalucia Spain, a notorious area that became a center for deported Romani/Gypsies hundreds
of years earlier. Because Roma endured ongoing persecution, they often had little choice but to come down from the mountain occasionally to steal food to survive. In writing this song, Cortés either could have visited Spain, or simply remembered stories told through old Andalucian folk songs dealing with these topics. Only this time, the young girl comes down from the chestnut mountain to steal the man’s heart.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Over The Hills and Far Away

“Over the Hills and Far Away” is a traditional English song, dating back to the early 1700s. There is reason to believe it could be related to even earlier Scottish airs - “Jockey’s Lamentation” and “The Wind Has Blawn My Plaid Away.” Some of the lyrics associated with the tune involve romance as in Thomas D’Urfey’s adaptation and in John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” Army recruitment is the subject in a version used in George Farquhar’s play “The Recruiting Officer” from 1706. This version became a very popular song for British troops to sing while leaving their encampments and going into battle with Spain and France initially in Europe and then in colonial America.

Between the years of 1754 and 1763, Britain and France were at war on American soil. Each nation wanted supremacy over the American colonies. The French and the British recruited American Indians to join their ranks, although a greater number allied with France relishing the chance to fight against the British colonists. This conflict became known as the French and Indian War. Among the young colonial officers fighting on behalf of the British effort was George Washington, a Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia militia. In command of 200 troops in 1755, Washington, at age 23, was not just a fiddler and a lover of fiddle music, but was the most experienced military officer in Virginia.

As Washington’s militia of citizen troops joined with the British regular army, they began to march to the song “Over the Hills and Far Away.” A lyric from this version reads: “Over the rocks and over the steep, over the waters, wide and deep. We’ll drive the French without delay, over the hills and far away.”

Washington helped win the American colonies for the British with this rally cry. However, in a most unusual and ironic twist of fate, just a few years later would find Washington fighting for American independence against the greatest army in the world and his former British comrades with the French now at his side. As the British army fell to the American rebels commanded by Washington and laid down their arms at Saratoga, they saw for the first time the face of their conquerors. Row upon row of plainly dressed citizen soldiers. Old men and young boys. People of all colors. Ordinary Americans. A British officer would write that he felt he was “looking at a new race of men.” “Over the Hills and Far Away” was played and sung as a victory song in early American life everywhere.

Purchase this tune and more from Mark O'Connor's album, Liberty!

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Off She Goes

“Off She Goes” is one of the most recorded jigs in history.
The author is unknown but the tune could date from more than 250 years ago in the British Isles. Although the Jig dance most likely originated in England-Ireland-Scotland, the word ‘jig’ is derived from the French word ‘giguer’ which means ‘to dance.’ The 1600s found dances known as Gigues becoming popular in France and faster-tempo Gigas being played in Italy.

The association of this dance form with the violin was established at the very beginning. Johann Sebastian Bach composed many pieces, usually Suite movements, for solo violin, solo cello and string orchestra in the form of the Gigue. When “Off She Goes” found its way to Canada, it became very popular and both the French and English-speaking parts of Canada knew the tune and fiddled it often. Canada, like the United States, has fiddling traditions going back at least 400 years. By the 19th century, many distinct regional styles had developed in the Eastern parts of Canada. The French- Canadian style, from Quebec and Acadia, reflects the French influence and can be found in many of the Eastern Atlantic areas of Canada and down the coast into Maine. Cape Breton fiddling and the related styles from Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island have closer ties to the Scottish tradition.

Métis fiddling, which is a mixture of native Plains Ojibwa, French and Scottish traditions, can be heard in the Northern areas of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. ‘Down East’ fiddling is common in the English Maritime region, New Brunswick and the Ottowa Valley of Ontario, as well as in the Prairies - Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Peek-A-Boo Waltz

Developed from a French folk dance, the Minuet originated in France in the 17th century. In Austria and Bavaria, the Minuet evolved into the Waltz, a dance also in 3/4-time with a heavy accent on the 1st beat. As this new dance spread through Europe, it faced strong disapproval by the older generation because of how close the dancers would hold each other throughout the form.

The waltz craze made its way to the Americas by the 1830s. In the mid-1800s, Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss created a Waltz sensation in European classical music, while at the same time, the folk-fiddlers of the Americas had already started what would become and remain a tradition in American music. The American Waltz had already become popular in Boston, the Spanish Waltz was growing in California and the new Canadian Waltzes were becoming a hallmark. “Peek-a-Boo Waltz” (composer unknown) was published in 1881 by William J. Scanlon, a vaudeville singer. The tune became a staple in the repertories of many Canadian fiddlers during the last century.

Download this tune and more, at Mark O'Connor's Digital Audio Store.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Arkansas Traveler

“Arkansas Traveler” was created by American fiddlers in the early 1800s and quickly became one of the most popular fiddle tunes in history. One of the popular fiddlers of that time was Davy Crockett, an American folk hero, widely known as “the King of the Wild Frontier.” He was a skilled fiddler and buck dancer and in the late 1700s he became well known as a music star and politician in Fort Nashborough. In 1784, the name of the town was changed to Nashville - with the French “ville” replacing the British “borough” - probably as a gesture of thanks to the French for their help in winning the Revolutionary War just a few years earlier.

In 1836, Crockett traveled through the Arkansas Territory to San Antonio to join a few hundred Texan forces garrisoned at the Alamo Mission. Legend has it that Davy Crockett and John McGregor (a bagpiper) jammed and played hoedowns to keep up the spirit of the defenders during the Mexican army’s 13-day siege of the small mission. Knowingly facing almost certain death, the musicians played upbeat tunes like “Arkansas Traveler” even on the tops of the mission walls in a bold exhibition of the American never-give-up spirit. Crockett and most of the other new Americans perished when the Alamo fell to Santa Anna’s army on March 6th, 1836. Davy Crockett’s fiddle was recovered and is pictured here.

For "Arkansas Traveler" and more tunes, listen to Mark O'Connor's Championship Years album.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Fiddler's Dream

“Fiddler’s Dream,” derived from an old fiddle tune originally from Scotland and Ireland, began to be played in America as early as the 1700s. Early titles from Scotland include: “The De’il Among the Tailors,” “Devil’s Tailor” and “Devil’s Dream.”

In America, Devil’s Dream was known primarily as a Northern tune although it became popular throughout the country.

Early fiddlers in America could name among their ranks the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, learned to write down his favorite fiddle tunes as a part of his early musical education and regularly practiced his violin three hours a day! Jefferson continued to collect American music, both folk songs and works of emerging composers, throughout his life. In his journal, Jefferson wrote that one of his favorite fiddle tunes to play was “Devil’s Dream.”

Before their historic feud, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson often played violin duets together. According to Jefferson’s farmservant, Isaac, the “Old Master…kept three fiddles; played in the afternoons and sometimes after supper.” Jefferson’s brother Randolph also took violin lessons as a youth and played his fiddle at Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation – reportedly both brothers and servants at times playing and dancing half the night!

Purchase this piece performed by Mark O'Connor, titled "Devil's Dream" off of his album, Liberty!

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

Red Wing

“Red Wing” is a popular American song written in 1907 by Kerry Mills and lyricist Thurland Chattaway. The “A” part is adapted from Robert A. Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer.” Because of the success of “Hiawatha” five years earlier in 1902, Native American, or Indian-themed, compositions became fashionable with American audiences during the early 1900s. “Red Wing” achieved a folk song-like popularity, was embraced by Native American fiddlers as well as most fiddlers in all regions and was performed widely throughout the continent.

A 24-year-old girl from the Winnebago Reservation who, in the very same year “Red Wing” was written, became the first Native American film star, was probably the inspiration for the Indian maiden portrayed in the lyrics. Her name was Princess Redwing (1883-1974) aka Lillian St. Cyr. By 1915, Miss St. Cyr became Hollywood’s first critically acclaimed feature film actress. She sang “Red Wing” herself as early as 1914 in New York, and performed it as late as 1964 during an inter-tribal powwow held at Wyalusing Rocks, Pennsylvania.

There is also the town of Red Wing, Minnesota, named for its Mdewakanton Dakota Chief Red Wing which could have influenced the spelling Red Wing as two separate words.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

The World Turned Upside Down

“The World Turned Upside Down” is an English Ballad also known by the title “When the King Enjoys His Own Again.” It was first published in 1643 as a protest against Oliver Cromwell’s attempt to ban Christmas celebrations.

Legend has it that when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, signaling the end of the American Revolution, the British band played this tune. Aedanus Burke vividly describes the atmosphere created by the music at Yorktown: 'They marched thro' both Armies at a slow pace, and to the sound of music, not military marches, but of certain airs, which had in them so peculiar a strain of melancholy.”

Download this piece and more from Mark O'Connor's album, Liberty!

Soldier's Joy

One of the most popular fiddle tune in history,  “Soldier’s Joy” can be traced to collections published in London and Scandinavia in the middle 1700s. Early versions can be traced to Scotland, and variants found in the French Alps and Newfoundland. The tune was also well known in Ireland.

As is the case with many fiddle tunes, lyrics were added later. In America, “Soldier’s Joy” eventually came to be known as the morphine used by Civil War soldiers when they were injured in battle. A popular lyric for the tune was: “Twenty-five cents for the old morphine, now carry me away from here.”

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.
Purchase this piece off of Mark O'Connor's album, Liberty!

Sweet Betsy from Pike

“Sweet Betsy from Pike” is a song about two young “forty-niners” traveling
from Pike County, Missouri, to the gold fields of California. In 1849, word traveled across the country that there was a fortune to be found in California's Sierra Mountains. Thousands of people left their homes and endured tremendous hardships journeying west to look for gold. The lyrics to this song describe many of the troubles typically encountered by the “forty-niners.” The song's author is unknown, but the lyrics may have been written by John A. Stone. Stone, also known as “Old Put,” was a San Francisco entertainer who wrote, adapted and collected songs about the gold miners of that time.

The melody is most likely a variation of a tune originally from Ireland. The hard times described in the song become especially poignant when, after all of their trials and tribulations during their journey west, Betsy and Ike do not end up together as a couple.

Read more about what there is to learn about "Sweet Besty from Pike" here!

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

“Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” is an American folk song that was popular during the American Revolutionary War. The lyrics speak of the sacrifices many a young woman made during that time: selling her spinning wheel to buy her “love a sword of steel.” The melody is thought to have been an older Irish tune.

The American Revolution was bravely fought by many Americans, young and old, seeking independence from the King of England. Music written during this time has become important traditional music that continues to be embraced today. This observation was made by an American military leader about the American Militias who helped win the war: “What can you not achieve with such small bands who have learned to fight dispersed, who know how to use every molehill for their defense, and who retreat as quickly when attacked as they advance again.”

Listen to "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier" performed by James Taylor and Mark O'Connor

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Golden Slippers

 “Golden Slippers” was written in 1879 by African- American composer James A. Bland. The song’s original title and lyric “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” was originally popularized by traveling troupes of African American minstrels also known as “Georgia Minstrels.” The composer, Bland, experienced slavery first-hand and also lived to see it outlawed after the Civil War. He wrote the song and lyrics during the post-War “reconstruction” period of American history.

The lyrics speak of a man’s prized possessions: a long-tailed coat, a white robe, a banjo and, most importantly, golden slippers. The lyrics also present the image of going to heaven in a chariot, a conventional metaphor for escaping slavery.

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Old Joe Clark

Joe Clark lived as a shiftless mountaineer in Virginia in the 1800s. He had many enemies and is reported to have met
his end at the hand of one of them in 1885. Although the identity of the writer of this old American song is technically unknown, legend has it that a rejected beau of Joe Clark’s daughter wrote it after Clark’s death. The lyrics are silly and poke fun at Old Joe.

They also suggest that the writer did have some personal knowledge of, and perhaps some interest in, the Clark family home: “Eighteen miles of mountain road, and fifteen miles of sand. If I ever travel this road again, I’ll be a married man.”

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Bonaparte's Retreat

The melody of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” was originally a Scotch/Irish tune played on bagpipes. In 1815, the tune was named for the military defeat of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. It is commonly thought that this battle, fought at Waterloo, Russia, was
the turning point for Bonaparte and prevented him from achieving his ambition of conquering the world.

When Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States, Bonaparte acquired the Territory of Louisiana and owned a home in New Orleans. It is assumed that he had his sights set on acquiring much more of the American West to add to his Empire. The defeat of Bonaparte’s army at Waterloo was cause for celebration around the world, and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” has been a favorite tune for Americans to play ever since. In 1946, country music stars Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart wrote a hit song using the melody of this fiddle tune. The song was recorded by Kay Star.

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

When the Saints Go Marching In

“When the Saints Go Marching In” is an African American spiritual originally played by jazz musicians and brass bands in New Orleans, Louisiana. The tradition of playing this tune at a slow hymn-like tempo while accompanying a coffin to the graveyard and then jazzing it up in a “hot” or “Dixieland” style on the way back home
is still practiced today.

The lyrics express a wish of the deceased to join the Saints marching through the “Pearly Gates” into heaven. Many New Orleans musicians in the early 1900s made a practice of turning church songs into brass band and dance tunes. “The Saints” became well known as jazz music as well as early rock music.

Purchase this tune and more here!
From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is a hymn. The lyrics were written by John Newton, slave ship captain (B. 1725, London). On one voyage, a violent storm swept a crewman overboard from the place where Newton had been standing just minutes before. As he continued steering the ship through the storm, he realized his ultimate helplessness and concluded that only the grace of God could save him and the ship.

Many years later, Newton turned to the ministry and repented his role in slavery. The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” are his reflections on a Biblical text and describe his own conversion while on his ship in 1748.

Listen to Mark O'Connor's beautiful rendition below

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.
Purchase this piece from Mark O'Connor's Double Violin Concerto Album or Midnight on the Water.

Buffalo Gals

“Buffalo Gals” is a traditional American song from almost 200 years ago. In 1844, it was published by a minstrel performer named John Hodges. Originally, the song was about Buffalo, NY, during the construction of the Erie Canal ending in 1825. At that time, before steam engines were commonly used, barges carrying cargo for trade and distribution were pulled by mules through the Canal.

The title of the song, “Buffalo Gals,” refers to the pretty girls on Canal Street in Buffalo. Because of the song’s popularity, minstrel performers began to alter the lyrics to appeal to the local audiences where they were performing - “New York Gals,” “Boston Gals,” “Charleston Gals” and “Round Town Gals” to name a few.

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Oh! Susanna

“Oh! Susanna” was written in the 1840s by America’s first great songwriter, Stephen Foster. The Virginia Minstrels and The Christy’s Minstrels (two of New York’s first performing troupes) encouraged the young Foster to write minstrel show music. “Oh! Susanna” fits this category and eventually enjoyed great popularity. The lyrics describe a man from Alabama traveling to Louisiana to court his lover.

From Book I of the O'Connor Method.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Boil 'em Cabbage Down

“Boil `em Cabbage Down” is an African American hoedown. The tune has roots reaching all the way to the African slaves that were brought to the southern part of the United States almost 400 hundred years ago. Africans played “bowed” string instruments that resembled the fiddle, so they found the violin to be a familiar instrument. African American fiddlers played with percussive effects and rhythmic bowings derived from their music culture. Early African American and European American fiddlers created the “hoedown” by combining African string playing and Scotch/Irish “reels.”

The title “Boil `em Cabbage Down” speaks of cooking cabbage by boiling it. “Cabbage” could have meant any leafy green vegetable such as collards, kale etc. The Southern style of cooking “greens” that have been cooked down into a gravy came with the arrival of the African slaves to the southern colonies. They boiled these greens down until they were soft, smoothing out their bitter flavor, and created the famous “southern greens.” The chorus of the tune also contains the term “hoe-cake.” This refers to a bread that African American field workers cooked in a round skillet or on the blade of a shovel (hoe) held over a fire like a griddle.

Hear Mark O'Connor play Boil 'Em Cabbage Down with Wynton Marsalis, below:

Hear Mr. O'Connor's version in Book I of the O'Connor Method.

The plantation “Juba” dance was brought from West Africa and is thought to be the predecessor of modern tap dancing. “Pattin’ the Juba” and “Hambone” (involving patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks) mixed with clogging and buck dancing were popular with fiddle tunes like “Boil `em Cabbage Down.”
Plantation owners and servants would often dance together. As the musicians became more and more intoxicated with the spirit of the dancing, they played faster and wilder, until finally no one could keep up any longer. Playing music and dancing was about the only good time to be had in early plantation life.

“Alas! Had it not been formy beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured ...”
- Solomon Northup

Variations of Boil 'em Cabbage Down in Books I, II and III.