Friday, January 27, 2012

Simple Gifts

“Simple Gifts” is a dance song emanating from the religious Shaker community of Maine in the early 1800s. The first Shaker songs were composed by church leaders circa 1781 when Mother Ann Lee, her brother Father William Lee, and Father James Whittaker emigrated from England to the United States. The Shakers practiced an unusual and highly rhythmic - sometimes even ecstatic - type of dancing during their worshipping. They would often clap their hands, sing, tremble and shake their bodies, ultimately falling to the floor in exhaustion. Sometimes, men and women would form concentric rings surrounding the singers during these rituals.

Although there is no known document that states this, it is believed by some Shaker historians that an elder named Joseph Brackett composed both the melody and the lyrics of “Simple Gifts” in 1848. Generations of oral history passed down through the Shaker community substantiates that the song originated with Brackett and was taught by him to others.

Brackett was born in Cumberland, Maine in 1797 and changed his birth name (Elisha) to Joseph when his entire family converted to Shakerism. He joined the Shaker community in Gorham, Maine, and then became First Minister at the Shaker Community of New Gloucester. Like many Shaker elders, Brackett was not trained formally in music but developed his musical talents through writing music for church rituals.

The thousands of songs and hymns composed by Shaker elders have been perpetuated almost exclusively by oral sharing among Shaker villagers. It is possible that “Simple Gifts,” like other Shaker songs, was performed in public squares as Shakers often recruited new members by singing and dancing to attract attention to their religious beliefs. Recruiting new members from “outside the fold” was paramount because the Shakers practiced strict celibacy and therefore could not replenish their membership without doing so.

“Simple Gifts” (also known as “Tis a Gift to be Simple”) was originally described as a “quick dance.” Its lyrics have an inviting and universal message:

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

It is believed that the singers performed descriptive dance steps as they sang about “turning round right.”

This song could have remained relatively obscure were it not for a collaboration between American composer Aaron Copland and American choreographer Martha Graham. In a visit to a summer music festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, Copland acquired, at Graham’s urging, a book about the Shakers. This book, written by Edward Deming Andrews, contained Shaker songs and among them was “Tis a Gift to be Simple.” Graham, who wanted the new ballet on which she was working to reflect the heritage of her own New England pioneering ancestors, hoped that Copland would find some authentic rural or rustic materials to use as the basis and inspiration for the music she had commissioned him to compose for her project.

The result of this collaboration was the ballet, “Appalachian Spring,” which toured throughout the United States in 1944 and quickly won the hearts of Americans. Even during those first performances, the Shaker theme stood out to audiences and became a tune they could “take away” from the performance. The distinguished symphonist Aaron Copland, unlike his contemporary George Gershwin, was not known for his ability to write especially fine original melodies. He had more success orchestrating traditional folk music, often using note-for-note renditions of already established melodies. Copland’s genius included his ability to recognize great melodies wherever and whenever he heard them. In “Simple Gifts” he recognized and championed a theme that went on to become known as one of the  greatest melodies in American history and without his treatment and scoring, we would probably have never known it. Copland’s powerful orchestration of the ballet music he wrote for Martha Graham (originally scored for 13 instruments) became one of the greatest symphonic concert pieces in American music – “Appalachian Spring.”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Grey Eagle

“Grey Eagle” (“Old Gray Eagle”) is a title given to several different fiddle tunes in several different keys. Some of them are musically connected to each other and some not at all. The version of “Grey Eagle” in the key of A-major that eventually became the Texas fiddle classic in the last half of the 20th century is the version featured in the Method.

A tune called “Grey Eagle” is documented as having been the most loved fiddle tune of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. A violinist from childhood and a composer of string quartets and other music, Jefferson enjoyed playing both the music of Mozart and American fiddle tunes. He even found time during his presidency to play music in the White House.

In 1839, a dozen years after Jefferson died, one of America’s most infamous horse races took place pitting Kentucky’s Gray Eagle against Louisiana’s Wagner. The Kentucky horse lost by a neck and an unprecedented 10,000 spectators demanded the race to be run again the following week. This historic rivalry is thought to have inspired fiddle tunes named “Gray Eagle” and “Wagner” or “Tennessee Wagner.”

The multi-part A-major version of “Grey Eagle” from Texas was developed from a much older two-part A-major tune. In 1927, Dennis W. Taylor’s Kentucky Boys featuring Jim Booker (who also carried his own old-time string band called the Booker Orchestra, and was one of the few African American blues fiddlers allowed to play hoedowns on commercial recordings) chose the two-part A-major tune for the Gennett label and called it “Gray Eagle.” This is one of the earliest recordings of the original A-major tune. North Georgia fiddler Robert Allen Sisson recorded a C-major tune also called “Gray Eagle” a few years earlier in 1921. Cyril Stinnett, a national champion fiddler from Missouri, also recorded the C-major tune a bit later. Both of these versions are vastly different from the A-major tune. History notes that Bob Taylor played “Grey Eagle” while stumping on the campaign trail when he ran for Governor of Tennessee in the late 1800s. It would be difficult to ascertain what version he played.

In the modern era, the great Texas fiddlers began developing the modern “Grey Eagle.” Through the variations created by the dean of the Texas fiddlers Benny Thomasson, what was once a fairly simple two-part tune became one of America’s more complicated masterpieces of folk fiddling. (Only a few of the parts to "Grey Eagle" are printed in Book III, the other parts are included in a later book). It was singled out, becoming one of the standards played by the best fiddlers in contests in every region of the country. The Texas A-major version even circled back to the bluegrass regions of the Southeast when Kentucky’s greatest modern-era fiddler Kenny Baker and mandolinist/songwriter/singer Bill Monroe chose to perform the “Texas” version rather than any of their own local versions of the tune.

As the multi-part version of “Grey Eagle” from the West became well-known, another legend arose for explaining its origin. Many fiddlers told a story about a bobcat sunning himself on top of a tin roof shed at a sheep farm only to have an eagle mistake him for a defenseless lamb. What ensued, and was witnessed by amazed onlookers, was a sensational mid-air fight between the two creatures until the “grey eagle” got the best of it and defeated the bobcat. The extra parts of the “Grey Eagle” version from Texas could have been inspired by this tale.

According to music historian Charles Wolfe and noted songwriter/banjoist/fiddler John Hartford, the most likely inspiration for the original “Grey Eagle” fiddle tune performed by most of the southeastern old-time fiddlers was the legendary Kentucky horse race in 1839. The race took place on the outskirts of Louisville and was an event of major proportions, drawing spectators from New York to New Orleans. Kentucky race fans were betting on their own Gray Eagle, a beautiful gray with a flowing mane, sixteen hands high with the “step of a gazelle.” Gray Eagle was ridden by jockey Stephen Welch, and Wagner, the rival stallion from Louisiana, was ridden by an African American jockey named Cato - a slave. The race took place about 20 years before the Civil War began. When Wagner won the race, it became one of the greatest upsets in horse racing history. The jockey Cato won his freedom that day, his owner claiming the staggering $20,000 purse. The race gained notoriety because more money, horses and slaves had been wagered and lost in that race than in any other race in the country. Kentucky fans of Gray Eagle demanded a rematch, believing their horse was still superior. A rematch was organized five days later, drawing even more spectators and creating more interest. A two-horse race this time, and Wagner proved to be the best horse again in the first two heats. On the final heat, the two horses collided near the finish, injuring one of Gray Eagle’s hind legs and ending his racing career.

The question still remains concerning just how old this fiddle tune really is - whether the same tune was in fact the one reported as Jefferson’s favorite tune long before the Kentucky race took place. A Scottish tune named “Miller of Drone,” thought to have been written by legendary fiddle tune composer Neil Gow who lived in Scotland during Jefferson’s life in America, could also play a part in this mystery. Even though Gow’s tune is a different kind of dance - a strathspey - there are similarities in the construction of its melody with the original two-part tune of “Grey Eagle” in A-major.

Modern-era Texas fiddlers completely ignored the other versions of “Grey Eagle” including the fairly popular C-major version played throughout the Southeast. Texans preferred instead the “other horse” in the key of C-major and embraced the tune “Wagner,” which became also known as “Texas Wagner.”

An interesting and highly ironic sidenote to the racehorse thread of this story is that one of the Civil War’s most recognized horses, defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Traveler, was sired by the Kentucky racehorse Gray Eagle.

The mysteries of a fiddle tune named “Grey Eagle” in American history serve to make the old tune a thing of legend. In the modern era, the westerners’ re-workings of the tune, adding to the original and developing its two parts into a larger and more complex form, is a fitting journey for the great fiddle tune named for a horse.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method


Although “Daphne” was written by a Belgian gypsy musician, it found itself in the center of an amazing transcontinental multi-cultural musical cross-pollination involving its author Django Reinhardt, the legendary French violinist Stephane Grappelli and African American jazz violinist par excellence Eddie South. The amazing confluence of genius inspired by this tune resulted in its becoming a pillar of American-style jazz violin.

Django Reinhardt, born in 1910, spent most of his youth in Romani (Gypsy) encampments close to Paris. His first instrument was the violin. He later transferred his music-making to banjo, then to banjo-guitar and finally to guitar developing a technique and style for which he became world famous. Reinhardt was influenced by American music very early in his life as evidenced by his first recordings on banjo in 1928.

In 1934, while freelancing in Paris with a tango group, Reinhardt met violinist Stephane Grappelli who was doubling on saxophone at the time. As a result of their historic meeting, these two musicians began to imitate the recordings of the amazing jazz violin and guitar duets being made in America by Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. In short order, they formed an all-string ensemble called “Quintette du Hot Club de France” and quickly took their place among the greatest string jazz musicians in the world.

During the 1930s in Paris, the French recording label “Swing Records” was hosting recording sessions at the Hot Club of France and inviting American jazz musicians to perform and record together with their own French jazz players. They were hoping to stimulate further interest in jazz among the French. In one particular session, jazz violinist Eddie South (who was just a couple of years older than Grappelli) recorded several tracks with the already famous French duo, including Reinhardt’s jam tune “Daphne.” The result of this session made jazz history.

Eddie South, born in 1904, was a classical violin prodigy and received formal training at the Chicago Music College. Unfortunately, like many other African American violinists in the '20s and '30s, he was forced to abandon classical violin as a career because of the lack of opportunities in the classical music industry for players of his ethnicity. However, unlike many who found themselves in similar circumstances, South did not switch to guitar or another instrument but began to develop jazz violin playing.

After beginning his career performing in vaudeville and jazz orchestras in Chicago, South started his own group called “The Alabamians.” On tour to Europe with this group in 1928, he was influenced by Hungarian folk music and the music of the Romani. Gypsy melodies he heard in Budapest were particularly attractive to South and naturally became woven into his jazz improvisations. The Alabamians did record a couple of tracks on their initial visit to Paris, however it was on their return visit in 1937 that South recorded with the new jazz sensations of Europe – Django Reinhardt and the equally dazzling-swinging-technical master-of-the-violin, and therefore kindred spirit, Stephane Grappelli.

The orphan Frenchman Grappelli was enamored with American jazz. The prodigy South was fascinated by the sound of gypsy violin music. Their musical collaborations together with Django Reinhardt’s authentic gypsy-style guitar playing combined for a history-making, cross-pollinated, interracial-transcontinental musical stew. The importance of their recording of “Daphne” inspired the inclusion of this tune in the Method and their actual playing of it inspired the “hot” solo. Eddie South’s hot jazz violin solos earned him the sobriquet “The Black Angel of the Violin.”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Old Folks at Home

Stephen Foster, the composer of “Old Folks at Home,” was America’s first songwriting professional. This song was written in 1851 and is also well known by its first line, “Way down upon the Swanee River.” “Old Folks at Home,” like many of Foster’s successful songs of the same period, raised political consciousness through endearing melodies and sympathetic lyrics depicting African American slaves as having “real lives” and “real feelings.” “Old Folks” went further than any song before to “humanize” southern slaves in the minds of northern audiences who were attending minstrel shows principally in the Bowery District of New York City beginning in the 1830s.

Some aspects of the minstrelsy, including many of the lyrics, skits, humor and appearances, were racist and degrading to many groups of people and especially to African Americans. However, the instrumental music was not degrading, often drawing dedicated musicians to the troupes having learned the craft of southern music-making. One can also recognize Foster’s subtler and perhaps even subversive use of these theatrical musical shows to introduce aspects of African American music. Northerners fought in the Civil War to free the slaves in the South just ten years after Foster’s songs about African American families and their lives in the South became hugely popular in the North – songs like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) was born and raised in Pittsburgh and performed in amateur minstrelsy himself. The minstrel shows originally developed out of the “Ethiopian Delineators” of the 1820s and the burlesques and entr’actes in the 1830s. In 1842, songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett produced programs in New York City that included singing and dancing in “blackface” with featured instruments known to be favorites of African American musicians: fiddles, banjos, bones, castanets and tambourines. Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels opened in a New York City theatre in 1843. Stephen Foster met Edwin Christy in 1847 and he began to write songs for the Christy Minstrels’ shows incorporating skits and songs performed in an imitation of “plantation dialect.” The shows typically began with a “walkaround” and a “cakewalk.” The white audiences of the northern states loved the cakewalks, probably not fully realizing that they depicted how plantation slaves would mock their masters’ stiff and pretentious formal dancing and “fancy airs.”

The minstrel show genre was clearly “racy” entertainment, but for Foster, it alternately acted as a forum to introduce African American culture - and especially its music - in a non-threatening way being surrounded by tasteless and degrading humor. Foster’s “Oh Susanna” was one of his earliest successes during this time. This song followed the same pattern of the Virginia Minstrels’ songs having a dance tune melody with African American syncopated rhythms accompanied by non-narrative, irrational lyrics: “The sun so hot, I froze to death, Susanna don’t you cry.” Through the prism of exaggerated and racist dialects and antics, the northern white audiences were subtly swept into this new syncopated and jazzy music they would have otherwise ignored.

After realizing he had access to the biggest stage in the country for his songs, and an upper-class white audience that seemed to embrace whatever he offered them, Foster began to write music that contained deeper subject matter, musically elevating African American slaves to equality as human beings with emotions common to all - love for family, pride in hard work, sorrow from hard luck and indignity at injustice. Foster’s conscience began to elevate to a broader social agenda. The success of the songs was crucial for any political movement contained within them, but the “agenda” was cleverly disguised in order to ensure the success of the music itself. Foster’s musical gift for creating melody was his greatest weapon to change hearts, and his tunes got his audiences singing and whistling, thereby easily recalling Foster’s subjects in a sympathetic light.

With “Old Folks at Home,” Foster saved perhaps his most deeply moving melody to match his great message. The music itself was ahead of its time. Its harmonic movement through “jazz” chords many years before there was “jazz music” per se foreshadows every jazz musical harmony to come for the next 100 years. With complex underpinning harmony propelling nearly every beat, the melody itself remained at once breathtakingly sophisticated and immediately accessible. In creating the lyrics to this tune, Foster leaves the “irrational racist lyric” style of the common minstrel show behind. The lyrics are both specific and universal, painting a vivid picture of life in the South and evoking the universal human emotion of yearning for home – a home of one’s own.

Exactly 30 years after Foster’s death, Antonín Dvorˇ ák came to America to head up the American Music School in New York City. With a keen ear for the musical culture of his new home, the great composer of the New World Symphony sought to guide Americans toward a musical heritage of their own. Dvorˇ ák, one of the greatest composers of his time, perhaps had the perspective to rise above all of the racial politics that plagued most Americans in post Civil War era. He described the African American “plantation songs” of the minstrel shows as the “beauties that surround us” and as material fitting for the basis of a great American classical music. He singled out “Old Folks at Home” by Stephen Foster and, in fact, transcribed and composed an arrangement of it premiering it, while he lived in New York City in the 1890s. He sought to elevate the music of Foster to a level worthy of serious attention by his academic colleagues at the universities he visited.

Stephen Foster died at the tragically young age of 37 in New York City on January 13, 1864, one year before the conclusion of the Civil War. He did not live to see freedom for the African American slaves - the very people to whom he had given a heart and a voice in his songs. He is said to have died penniless, but he had kept writing songs, though, through good times and bad. Today he is not only remembered as America’s first professional songwriter, but as one of the greatest ever.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method. Click here to listen to "Old Folks at Home".

We Shall Overcome

“We Shall Overcome” is a gospel hymn based on lyrics from African Methodist Episcopal Church minister Charles Albert Tindley, a composer of numerous gospel hymns in the early 1900s. In 1901, “I’ll Overcome Someday” appeared in print and was published in Philadelphia by Tindley. This hymn could have been influenced by “I’ll be All Right,” a southern spiritual pre-dating emancipation. The lyrics to Tindley’s hymn were subsequently embellished and the hymn as a whole grew to include more verses with additions by gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris (c. 1945). Twigg and Morris most likely used the melody of “I’ll Be All Right” as well.

The melody known today as “We Shall Overcome” could also have been arranged by Twigg and Morris. The first two melodic phrases of the song borrow from the older African American spiritual, “No More Auction Block for Me,” published in 1867 in a collection of “negro” spirituals. However, those same phrases are similar to the opening of the Latin hymn “O Sanctissima,” a traditional Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn that became popular in Baptist and Methodist churches in the South. Interestingly, the entire first half and final phrase of the melody now known as “We Shall Overcome” are nearly identical to parts of the German Christmas carol “O du Frohliche, O du Selige.” The German carol was first recorded on a cylinder recording in the Berlin Edison Studios in 1906 as performed by the Nebe-Quartett. The origin of the second half of the “We Shall Overcome” melody can only be speculated upon. It could very well be original to the gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris or, equally likely, traced to a group of white folk singers in Tennessee.

“We Shall Overcome” has become one of the most well known songs in America largely because of what happened at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a school that trained union organizers. Zilphia Horton, the school’s music director from 1935 to 1956, published a book of songs entitled “People’s Songs.” This book included a hymn titled “We Will Overcome.” Horton had first heard the song in 1945 from Lucille Simmons who led a mostly African American female workforce on a strike against the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina. Simmons ended each day of picketing during a 5-month strike with the song “We Will Overcome” changing Tindley’s “I” to “We.” Other lyrics were improvised over the melody during the strike producing phrases such as “We will organize,” “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight” and demonstrating the great versatility of the song.

Friend of the Highlander School, director of People’s Songs Publications and soon-to-be-famous folk musician Pete Seeger adapted and added words to this song – most notably changing “will” to “shall.” When Guy Carawan replaced Horton as song leader at Highlander, the school had become a national focus of student non-violent activism. The striking workers song that Horton had originally heard in Charleston in 1945 quickly became the Civil Rights Movement’s unofficial anthem with Carawan working to teach and promote the song wherever he could. Carawan’s friend Frank Hamilton of the folk group “The Weavers” learned the famous melody and lyrics from Seeger.

The Highlander School in Tennessee brought blacks and whites together as Civil Rights workers to share experiences and to learn from one another at a time when southern laws kept blacks and whites segregated. In July of 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School. On December 1st of that year, her arrest sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott that was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote: “Music supplied the cohesiveness to the masses of people of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Rosa Parks remarked in her 1973 honorary doctorate acceptance speech that Highlander was the first place where she had been in the company of whites who treated her as an equal human being.

On September 2, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the featured speech at the Highlander Folk School’s 25th anniversary celebration. Pete Seeger performed at that same event as Dr. King listened and joined with the Highlander students and faculty in singing the now-famous “We Shall Overcome.”

Later that day, Dr. King found himself humming the tune while riding in a car and commented to one of his companions, “There’s something about that song that haunts you.” Obviously, thousands of others agreed. Seeger himself and other famous folksingers sang this song countless times at Civil Rights rallies and folk festivals helping to bring attention to the work of Dr. King. Joan Baez led a crowd of over 300,000 people singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. in 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon on March 31st, 1968, just a few days before he was slain. The text of this oration includes references to the “haunting” song he had first heard from Pete Seeger and the Highlanders a decade before and which had become such a hallmark of his work:

And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—“No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—“Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

The Entertainer

“The Entertainer” is a classic piano “rag” written in 1902 by African American composer Scott Joplin. Ragtime music, much like the hoedown that preceded it, is a unique blend of European styles and African American harmonies and rhythms. Joplin - The King of Ragtime - developed his “rags” while working in minstrel shows, vaudeville and dance halls in Texarkana, Sedalia and St. Louis where he lived, worked and honed his craft. He spent his final years in New York City attempting to have his music accepted by the classical music establishment.

Ragtime music developed among the slave fiddlers on the southern plantations in the mid-1800s. This new “ragged time” syncopated rhythm first manifested itself as a satirical musical expression mocking the “straight-laced” European music styles that were characterized by a heavy emphasis on down beats. The “swung” notes of the syncopated rhythm are the “and” beats of the count or the “up-bows” in the case of fiddle playing. The up-bows can be used as a means of expression when “swinging” the rhythm and the degree of how syncopated the music becomes - or how “hard” it swings - is determined by each individual player’s creativity and sense of self expression.

Within the rhythmic structure of a swung phrase, a slave musician could manifest his concept of relationships between whites and blacks. The downbeats can be seen as representing white culture – heavy, conservative, parochial, staid and relentlessly present – whereas the upbeats represent freedom, individual expression and an improvisatory spirit with a healthy dose of sass and satire directed at Europeanism and the resulting oppression. Hence, yet another style of music that could have happened only in  America was born.

This new expressive up beat - or “up bow” - eventually led to the creation of the basic rhythmic nature of jazz, rock & roll and hip-hop music. The subtle mocking of the white masters went largely undetected at the time and the white musicians and audiences were not at all offended by this new musical style. Quite the contrary, white listeners were very attracted to the new rhythmic quality of this music. White plantation owners even started a new tradition - a friendly competition called a “Cakewalk” - that featured dancing to this new syncopated music. Freshly baked cakes from the masters’ houses were awarded to slave dancers and slave musicians in lighthearted competitions usually taking place after church on Sundays. The “blackface” minstrel troupes in New York City quickly adapted the Cakewalk into their shows and, once again, unsuspecting white audiences did not fully realize that they were witnessing very cleverly disguised satire - slaves mocking the European music and dance styles of their white owners. The Cakewalk became a favorite part of minstrelsy and ragtime music itself rapidly grew in popularity, becoming beloved by all Americans, regardless of ethnicity. Scott Joplin was born in Texas in 1868. His father, who had been a slave, played the violin and his mother played the banjo. Young Joplin’s first instrument was the banjo and he later learned to play the violin and cornet as well as the piano. After the Joplin family moved from their family farm to Texarkana, young Scott began music lessons with a German-born teacher who instilled in him a love for opera and classical music. This early influence had a major effect on the direction of Joplin’s future compositions.

In his early 20s, Joplin joined a minstrel troupe in Texarkana. Within a few years he made his home in Sedalia, Missouri. A town notorious for vices and brothels, Sedalia also had social clubs for African American men in which Joplin could work as a pianist when not touring with his band. One of those clubs was The Maple Leaf, a name immortalized in Joplin’s first hit ragtime composition. “Maple Leaf Rag,” written in 1898, sold a million copies of sheet music during his lifetime. The next stop for Joplin was St. Louis where he spent the bulk of his time pursuing his aspirations to become a recognized classical music composer. During this time, Joplin removed much of the “swing” from his compositions, even indicating specifically in his scores to “not swing” the notes. Most of his music at this point was composed for John Stark’s publishing firm, The House of Classic Rags. Over the next several years, Stark published many Joplin rags including 1902’s masterpiece, “The Entertainer.”

After writing an opera about African American leader Booker T. Washington’s dinner at President Roosevelt’s White House in 1901 (a work that was never staged and was ultimately lost), Joplin headed to New York City to find financial backing for his new opera "Treemonisha." This work had been inspired largely by Joplin’s mother and the lifestyle they had experienced together in Texarkana. Several attempts to stage the opera in New York failed and, at the same time, interest in ragtime music in general was giving way to the rising popularity of early jazz. The classical approach of Joplin’s work did not find an audience. At the time of his death in 1917, Scott Joplin was almost forgotten as a composer - the one exception being the continued popularity of his first ragtime piece “Maple Leaf Rag.”

In the 1940s, a ragtime revival led by jazz musicians eventually made inroads into the classical music world, a world that had eluded Joplin during his lifetime. Classical labels released recordings of classical musicians performing ragtime music resulting in extraordinarily successful sales. Joplin’s opera was successfully staged, finally  reaching Broadway. This renewed interest in his music presented a great opportunity for the spread of Joplin’s fame. George Roy Hill, the director of the hit movie The Sting (starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford), decided to use Joplin’s music throughout the film. Consequently, Joplin’s “The Entertainer” was introduced to the mass public 70 years after it was composed and became much more well-known than it had been even during the height of ragtime popularity many decades before. Posthumously, Scott Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for "Treemonisha", the first successful opera composed by an African American.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method

Jessie Polka

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was the historical backdrop for the composition and rising popularity of “Jessie Polka.” In 1911, the regime of Mexico’s president Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by Don Francisco I. Madero. A wealthy man with a big heart and a University of California education, Madero opposed the dictatorship because of Díaz’s harsh treatment of three-fifths of the country’s people who were poor and mostly native. Madero aligned himself with the notorious Mexican bandit, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who was inspired by Madero’s political stance and writings. Together they formed a rebel army in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua on the U.S. border.

Villa was victorious against Díaz’s troops, forcing the dictator to exile to France. The rebels in Chihuahua successfully defended attacks by Bernardo Reyes, a former general under Díaz, and Pascual Orozco, a former ally of Villa’s. With these sensational victories and with the backing of the Mexican population wishing for a revolution led by their new war hero, Pancho Villa’s reputation grew quickly into legend. Villa’s criminal past as a warlord, murderer, bank robber and just about any other disreputable occupation you could think of, was overlooked by some (and probably thought to enhance his stature by others) as he emerged as a successful Mexican Revolutionary General and eventually as a folk hero. Adding to Pancho’s colorful reputation was his notoriety for romantic conquests - legend has it that he had no less than 26 wives!

In 1916, about the mid-point of the revolution, Mexican composer Quirino Mendoza y Cortez wrote “Jesusita en Chihuahua.” Cortez was already a well-known composer having penned the classic Cielito Lindo several years earlier. The muse for his new “polka” was most likely a beautiful woman who fought alongside the revolutionary soldiers – a “soldadera” - and tended to their needs and treated their wounds. This “Jesusita” was also said to be a romantic, known to roam and even referred to as a “man eater.” She was quite possibly a woman who gave Pancho Villa all that he could handle! Even though stories of this sort are often exaggerated, it is clear that Jesusita was a real woman, involved with the Mexican revolution and worthy as a muse for Cortez’s music.

“Jesusita en Chihuahua” - also known as “Chihuahua Polka” - quickly became a favorite in Chihuahua and, indeed, throughout Mexico. Because the United States government backed the Mexican Revolution by sending arms to supply Villa’s army and also because the revolution lasted into the 1920s, it is not surprising that this music became known and loved across the border into Texas as well. Texan Cliff Bruner learned this tune as a child from Mexican farm laborers in the Beaumont area of Texas. At the age of 12, Bruner took up the fiddle after deciding that he no longer wanted to pick cotton. His big break came in 1935, when, at age 20, he was asked to join the Musical Brownies led by Texas great Milton Brown. After Brown died the following year in a tragic car accident, Bruner assembled his own band - The Texas Wanderers – and became one of the pioneers of western swing.

Bruner changed the name of “Jesusita en Chihuahua” he had loved hearing in the cotton fields of his boyhood. The tune, under its English translation “Jessie Polka,” was recorded in 1938 and became a sensation with Texas audiences. Bruner and his Texas Wanderers had moved to Port Arthur and their radio programs were quickly picked up and aired throughout southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. Concurrently, the band worked dance halls, playing the hottest western swing music anyone had ever heard or could even imagine. One of Bruner’s 78rpm hits for Decca Records featured “Jessie Polka,” which had become his radio theme song. A distinguishing characteristic of the original Mexican version used for the recording is that some of the melody on the first part of the tune was played “pizzicato” – plucking the strings rather than bowing them.

Some years later, Dolph Hofner, a Czech-German who grew up listening to Hawaiian music, was inspired by the western swing dance band craze which was sweeping the southwest U.S. Hired by a chain of dance halls in Los Angeles, Dolph Hofner and His San Antonians began to play the Los Angeles circuit, establishing “Jessie Polka” as a big hit for his band. Under yet another name “Cactus Polka” - famous accordion players Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren recorded this tune several years later.

“Jessie Polka” - also spelled “Jesse Polka” - became a favorite among Texas style fiddlers and was often played as a “tune of choice” in fiddle contests all over the West. The once popular pizzicato in the first part of the tune was dropped by many fiddlers because plucking the strings was against the rules in fiddle competitions during the last half of the 20th century.

Occasionally, “Jesusita en Chihuahua” will be heard on an amusement park’s merrygo- round. However, this Mexican polka undoubtedly owes most of its great legacy to the Texas and western fiddlers of the U. S. who consider it one of the best polkas ever written and love to play it still.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.


“Liberty,” the tune with many names, traveled the world and back before becoming a staple in American music when Fiddlin’ John Carson made his historic recording of it in 1925. Soon to come were recordings of “Liberty” by Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers and Herschel Brown. Popular recordings of the tune soon came from Nashville fiddle great Tommy Jackson, as well as the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

The tune’s history is as varied as the titles it has adopted. According to popular belief, “Liberty” was originally a French Canadian tune that could date back to the 1800s and perhaps earlier. Quebec fiddlers used the title of “Reel de Ti’ Jean.” Then in a highly unusual fashion for the time period, the tune could have traveled across to Europe ending up in the British Isles using a derivative of the original title, “Little John’s Reel.” Other versions had the tune named “The Tipsy Parson,” meaning a slightly drunk member of the clergy. It is not clear if “The Tipsy Parson” dates earlier than the Quebec version as it was never published in the British Isles at that time. To make matters even more complicated, the Contra Dance fiddlers in the Northeast also played a tune called Tipsy Parson that was in another key and a different tune altogether! So it begins to be more and more difficult to trace.

Next in its global journey, “Little John’s Reel” or “The Tipsy Parson” found its way back across the pond to achieve its greatest success in the hands of the American fiddlers. From one corner of the country to the other, Americans played “Liberty” in their various regional styles. The Contra Dance fiddlers in the Northeast added it to their repertoire while the Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana played it as a Two Step. Fiddlers played it up and down the West Coast and in Canada, while Missouri named it as one of that state’s essential fiddle tunes. Fiddlers in the Deep South renamed it again with classic old-time titles like “The Raccoon and the Parson” or even the more Appalachian folksy “The Possum, Raccoon and the Preacher!”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Deep River

“Deep River” is a classic example of an African American “spiritual” – an immensely important genre of music born from the “plantation” and “sorrow” songs of the African American slaves in the Deep South in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. Like all spirituals, “Deep River” is a song of hope and longing, expressing a desire for peace and freedom both in the present and in the afterlife. Through these melodies, slaves held on to the hope of survival. The songs were created vocally by groups of slaves working in the fields and gathering at camp meetings, the more popular melodies then being passed from one plantation to the next. Over time, slaves also developed songs that carried coded messages containing plans for escape - especially during the time when the Underground Railroad seemed like the only hope for  freedom.

There are three general categories of spirituals, two of them being up-tempo. Today, “Deep River” belongs to the third group: slow, haunting melodies filled with emotion and faith and embodying the soul crying out in the universal longing for freedom. Through the melodies and lyrics of their spirituals the slaves expressed not only their own personal weariness and sorrow but also their hope and determination to overcome and live on. These songs of hope were partially engendered by the slaves’ newfound belief in the teachings of the Christian Bible. Differing from African cultures they knew, the Christian doctrine of a Heaven promising a glorious afterlife for suffering people was new to them and provided much-needed hope. It was not unusual for slaves and their masters or owners to attend daily or weekly church services together. In time, the slave populations embraced Christianity and believed that the religion of their European American captors would provide “deliverance” for them as well.

Most of the lyrics contained in the now-documented over 6,000 traditional spirituals echo the language of the Old Testament. The creators of spirituals quoted the Bible often in the lyrics, perhaps identifying with the Israelites in Africa whose enslavement and persecution was vividly portrayed in the Old Testament. The lyrics of this song - “deep river….my home is over Jordan….deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground” - imply that the Jordan River in the Bible symbolizes the Ohio River, a dividing line between the slave states and the free states. “Campground” implies a place for camp meetings, a type of gathering that, even though illegal in some areas, served as a vehicle for slaves to commune and share their sorrows and hopes. These camp meetings were among the rare occasions during which slaves could actually experience feeling free for at least a little while through singing, playing instruments and sharing stories. Some of the lyrics most likely have a double meaning as well suggesting that the camp meeting they looked for was in Heaven, the place where they would truly be set free.

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and the official emancipation of slaves in the South, the singing of spirituals died out for a short period. Soon, though, Fisk University in Nashville sent its all-African American choir on a world tour raising funds for educating newly freed slaves in Tennessee and surrounding States. The Fisk Jubilee Singers carried spirituals including “Deep River” to parts of the U.S. that had never before heard this type of music. They also performed for various European royalty – quite a novelty in the 1870s – and their success encouraged other African American colleges and professional singers to form touring groups. Published collections of “plantation songs” began to appear to meet a growing public demand for this music.

The person most responsible for bringing this deeply felt music to the attention of the country as a whole was Henry Thacker Burleigh. “Harry” Burleigh (b. 1866) was a classically trained singer and composer and became the trusted assistant of the great European composer Antonín Dvorˇ ák when Dvorˇ ák lived in America in the 1890s. Burleigh helped Dvorˇ ák with the copy work on his newly written masterpiece , “The New World Symphony.” At Dvorˇ ák’s request, Burleigh also sang spirituals for him – songs he had learned from his father, a blind man who had been a slave. Dvorˇ ák singled out “Deep River” as an important piece of music that he felt should be used in the creation of a new American Classical music.

It was Burleigh who altered the course of “Deep River” by arranging it for classical recitals. He also slowed the tempo from the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ version that was probably closer to how it was sung by field hands at work. Arrangements first in 1913 for a cappella mixed chorus with influences from Dvorak’s composing, and then in 1916 for solo singer and piano, had a monumental effect. “Deep River” was included in the collection of “Twenty-Four Negro Melodies” transcribed for piano by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and published by Oliver Ditson in 1905. The astounding popularity of “Deep River” that followed could not have been predicted. In 1910, a popular violinist of that time, Maud Powell, was inspired to transcribe “Deep River” based on Coleridge-Taylor’s work. When she performed “Deep River” during her New York recital in October 1911, it was the first time a white solo concert artist trained in the European classical music tradition had performed an African American spiritual in concert. Powell recorded “Deep River” for the Victor Company on June 15, 1911 - the first version ever recorded.

After “Deep River” was sung in several films in the 1920s, and the melody adapted into another popular song “Dear Old Southland” in 1921, its popularity continued into the next generation. World-renowned virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz recorded his arrangement of the melody for violin solo in the 1940s. Johnny Mathis and many other singers recorded the song from the '50s on. Gospel groups today often include “Deep River” in their programming.

Of the many performances of this spiritual, it is the one by African American soprano Marian Anderson that perhaps created the most memorable rendition of “Deep River.” In the early 1900s, this talented young student applied to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy (now the University of the Arts) but was turned away because of her ethnicity. Her high school then stepped in and arranged an audition for private study with Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder, two very highly respected voice coaches of the time. At the audition, Anderson’s singing of “Deep River” brought Boghetti to tears. Years later, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to grant permission for Anderson to sing in an all-white public high school auditorium and also refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall. The DAR membership numbered in the thousands and it included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. There was outrage by many, but most notably by Mrs. Roosevelt herself who resigned from the organization over the issue. Later that year, and with President Roosevelt’s help, the First Lady created a recital performance for Ms. Anderson at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people attended the recital and millions listened on radio throughout the country as Marian Anderson sang “Deep River.”

Marian Anderson’s soulful rendition of this old slave song touched the hearts of millions of Americans and demonstrated the tremendous power of music to convey suffering, hope and history. Fifteen years later, in 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to be invited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method. Click here to listen to "Deep River".

Lazy River

“Up a Lazy River” – a lazy jazzy tune that has become beloved around the world – was first recorded by Hoagy Carmichael in 1930 and is credited to have been written by him and Sidney Arodin. Phil Harris and Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra followed shortly with recordings in 1931 and ’32 respectively. Woody Herman, Les Paul, Nat King Cole, Chet Atkins, Glenn Miller, The Platters and Hank Thompson are among the many famous artists representing most every genre of American music who have recorded “Lazy River.”

As it previously had for many others, “Lazy River” became a big hit for the Mills Brothers in 1952. The tune also became a favorite among American fiddlers. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded it in 1947. Almost forty years later, Danish jazz violin legend Svend Asmussen recorded his version in 1983. Asmussen and western swing fiddle pioneer Johnny Gimble performed it together on the popular television show Hee Haw. Texas fiddle great and world-champion fiddler Terry Morris often played this tune in the 1970s and ‘80s. World famous clarinetists Benny Goodman and Pete Fountain loved it too and both made significant recordings of it. It is interesting that Goodman’s and Bob Wills’ recordings were released in the same year -1947.

As is the case with many classic American tunes, it is not entirely clear who actually composed the famous melody. “Up a Lazy River” is the only known collaboration between Carmichael and Arodin – a very unlikely musical pair. Carmichael, a former lawyer, became one of America’s most well-known songwriters with “Star Dust” and “Georgia On My Mind” to his credit. He circulated in the top music circles in New York City and Hollywood, hobnobbing with George Gershwin and other music-industry notables. By contrast, clarinetist Sidney Arodin was largely unknown, scrambled for a living working on the riverboats out of New Orleans and reportedly sold or traded his tunes for whatever they would bring at the moment. In Carmichael’s other musical collaborations, he was known for composing the music with others contributing the lyrics. It was assumed, therefore, that this was the case with “Lazy River” – that Carmichael had written the melody and the unknown Arodin had supplied the lyrics. Using the music itself as evidence, however, it is more likely that something entirely different occurred.

The original melody line is filled with awkward leaps from a vocal perspective, but which work very well on the clarinet – and, indeed, on the violin. The melody possesses the quality of a clarinet solo and it is not surprising that it caught the attention of two clarinet greats who recorded it early on. Furthermore, it has been noted that some fiddlers have tried to imitate clarinet tone and phrasing when playing this tune. All of this does raise the question as to whether Carmichael actually wrote either the tune or the lyrics. Given Carmichael’s law degree, a simple signature could have added his name to the credits to help promote a musical gem produced by an unknown musician.

Sidney Arnandan (or Arnondrin) - better known as Sidney Arodin - was born in Louisiana in 1901. He began playing clarinet at age 15 and started making his living playing on New Orleans riverboats heading “up the lazy river” to New York City by the mid 1920s. Once there, he worked for Johnny Stein and Jimmy Durante. Carmichael moved to the City around 1929 when he was still polishing his songwriting skills. In the '30s, after the first recordings of “Lazy River” were released, Arodin was back in New Orleans on the Mississippi playing with Wingy Manone, Sharkey Bonano, Louis Prima and The New Orleans Rhythm Kings where he remained until his death in 1948. One hopes that he was able to hear Benny Goodman’s recording of “Lazy River” from the previous year.

Sidney Arodin must have loved rivers and river life. The river themes in his music date all the way back to his earliest days of working on the riverboats and nearly all the songs he wrote contain “River” in their titles. “Up a Lazy River” is, of course, the most famous of them. Another well-known song that can possibly be attributed to him is “Drifting on a River” which, interestingly, is based on the same chord progression as “Lazy River.” It is also reported by contemporaries that this particular chord progression is one that Arodin liked to play as a warm-up on his clarinet. Those who knew Arodin have reported that “Lazy River” perfectly matches his mood and character and the “style of his playing and personal expression.”

Given that Arodin played in several recording sessions, it is odd that he never recorded “Lazy River.” It is also curious that, on many cover versions by other artists, Arodin’s name was not included as a co-composer. Furthermore, because Arodin is reported to have “sold” many songs that he claimed to have written sometimes for as little as a bottle of wine, there is acknowledged speculation that Arodin might have sold “Lazy River” and all the recording rights to Carmichael for a pittance out of desperation to break into the music scene in New York City. Another source reports that Carmichael may have changed just one word in the title to claim “collaboration” and that all the rest – melody and lyrics - was really the work of Sidney Arodin.

A strange but perhaps not uncommon story: a spark of genius from a hard-working, relatively unknown musician traveling from New Orleans to New York City, catching the attention of a more well-known and wellconnected musician and becoming one of the great American hit songs of the 20th Century!

From Book III of the O'Connor Method

Herman's Hornpipe

“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.

Hava Nagila

“Hava Nagila” is a Jewish song that became popular throughout the United States during the 1950s when African American popular singer Harry Belafonte incorporated it into his live shows. “Hava Nagila” was also included in Belafonte’s “Live in Concert at the Carnegie Hall” album in 1959. The song’s attractive melody and uplifting lyrics as sung by Belafonte became a nationwide hit and "Hava Nagila" began to be played and sung widely by many diverse musical and ethnic groups.

The tune originated from the area of Europe that is Ukraine today. "Hava Nagila" began as a wordless Sadigorer Hasidim melody (nigun) and traveled with Hasidic immigrants to Jerusalem in the early 1900s. Avraham Zvi Idelsohn - an immigrant to Jerusalem from the area of Russia that is present-day Latvia and an expert in Jewish musicology - wrote the lyrics soon after the melody arrived in Jerusalem.

Idelsohn arranged and composed many “new” Hebrew-language songs based on traditional melodies. While serving as a bandmaster in the Ottoman Army during World War I, he selected the tune for a celebration concert performance in Jerusalem after the British army had defeated the Turks in Palestine. General Edmund Allenby, leader of the British forces, entered the Holy City on foot issuing a proclamation that promised to respect the rights of all three religions for whom Jerusalem has a special significance: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The fall of Jerusalem came just one month after the November 2nd British “Balfour Declaration” in 1917. This document included the language: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

These events inspired Idelsohn to write the words to "Hava Nagila" – words that would eventually be sung throughout the Americas:

English Translation:
Let us rejoice, let us rejoice; Let us rejoice and be glad
Let us sing, let us sing; Let us sing and be glad
Awake, awake brothers; Awake brothers with a joyful heart

Idelsohn first published the “new” song in a Hebrew song collection in 1922. It later appeared in Jewish children’s songbooks and Jewish folk singers began to release recordings of "Hava Nagila." By the 1940s, the song had become a staple of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs around the world usually being sung and danced as an Israeli-style Hora folk dance.

Only in America though, a place where cultures and music are so intertwined and cross-pollinated, could a Jewish American named "Erving Berlin" compose the most popular Christmas song of all time - “White Christmas” (1942) - and just a few years later, a non-Jew create a national hit from a traditional Jewish song. Harry Belafonte sang "Hava Nagila" on numerous national television appearances and on several recordings making the melody familiar to most every adult and child in the U.S.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Rippling Water Jig

“Rippling Water Jig” is a tune popularized by Canada’s most famous fiddler – Don Messer. Messer and his band The Islanders (named for residing in Prince Edward Island in the Maritimes) recorded the tune in 1947. It soon became a hit all over Canada.

Donald Charles Frederick Messer (1909-1973) was born in New Brunswick and began learning Irish and Scottish tunes on the violin when he was five years old. After studying music formally for a few years in Boston, Messer returned to Canada and lived in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Ontario for the remainder of his life. He became a radio star in the 1920s and by the ‘30s he was broadcast regularly throughout Canada on the CBC. While in Halifax, Messer gained widespread fame through the success of his hit television show “Don Messer’s Jubilee.” Millions of viewers tuned in to watch and listen to Messer’s fiddling in the 1950s and ‘60s, often hearing the lively “Rippling Water Jig.”

Although it is unclear as to who actually composed this popular jig, it is widely known that Messer was the first to be commonly associated with it. The Islanders did perform many original tunes that were certainly written by Messer as well as those of other fiddler/composers such as Al Cherny, Andy DeJarlis, Jim Magill and Graham Townsend.

An American fiddle legend, Joe Pancerzewski, lived in Washington State and helped spread this tune in the northwestern United States by teaching it to young fiddlers. Pancerzewski originally homesteaded in North Dakota in 1909 and spent much of his early musical life in Saskatchewan becoming known for his Western Canadian fiddle style. In 1924, he moved to Bellingham, Washington, where he played popular dance band music on the fiddle. He also performed with the theater orchestra at the Pantages, a concert hall that still presents concerts to this day, and was known to perform occasionally a novelty solo act called the “Yankee Fiddler.”

Most great Canadian fiddlers – including Ed Gyurki - incorporated “Rippling Water Jig” into their regular performing repertoires. However, it was the superstar personality Don Messer’s playing of it on one of the most popular TV shows in Canada that introduced it to fiddlers all over Canada and America.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Over the Waves

“Over the Waves” by violinist/bandleader Juventino Rosas Cadenas – an Otomi Native American from Mexico – is one of the most popular waltzes in North America. This piece was published by Rosas in 1884 while he was in New Orleans performing with The Eighth Cavalry Mexican Band at the World Cotton Centennial World’s Fair. “Over the Waves” soon became a favorite in New Orleans and quickly found its way into the common jazz repertoire there. Rosas went on to become a well-known composer of Mexican salon music releasing a large number of sound recordings beginning as early as 1898.

This waltz was adapted to most every musical genre from Tejano to Italian accordion music. It became a popular ballroom dance tune and, in 1927, was recorded in St. Paul Minnesota as “The Moonshiner’s Dance.” Further incarnations of “Over the Waves” made this waltz tune even more well-known across the United States reaching millions of listeners. An arrangement by Kennedy & Finn with the title “Merry-Go-Round Waltz” and a cultural association with funfairs and trapeze artists added to its fame in the 1940s. It was also one of the featured tunes on the Wurlitzer line of fairground organs (calliopes). An MGM film from 1951 – “The Great Caruso” – featured actress Ann Blyth singing new lyrics to the melody as “It’s the Loveliest Night of the Year.” Television star Lawrence Welk featured the song for his national variety show.

Perhaps the waltz’s most substantial and long-lasting value, however, was established through the fiddling of southern and southwestern musicians such as Clark Kessinger (West Virginia) and Benny Thomasson (Texas). At the National Old Time Fiddler’s Contest in the 1970s, “Over the Waves” was heard as frequently as any other waltz in the competitions. It has been the fiddlers who have kept the tune alive to the present day.

Sadly, at the age of 26, while touring Cuba with an Italian-Mexican ensemble, Rosas contracted a serious illness and died there. This poor Native American-Mexican boy who had taught himself music, had fiddled for a living in the streets from age 7, who reportedly sold his waltzes for shoes and who died at such a tragically young age, nevertheless made a significant contribution to American violin music. The city where he was born in Mexico has been renamed in his honor: Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Rubber Dolly Rag

 “Rubber Dolly Rag” is an American tune that has touched nearly every corner of the American music scene since the melody first appeared in 1900. Danish-born American violinist/composer Jens Bodewalt Lampe, after becoming the first-chair violinist for the Minneapolis Symphony at age 16, moved to Buffalo NY in the 1890s and began to lead dance band of his own. Almost immediately after becoming aware of Scott Joplin’s new “Maple Leaf Rag,” Lampe composed his own syncopated piece entitled “Creole Belles.” This brand new type of music, which later came to be called “ragtime,” was variously described as “cakewalk,” “march” and “two-step” music during its early history. “Creole Belles” was performed widely by pianists, ragtime bands, brass bands and military bands. John Phillip Sousa championed this piece and by 1902, the Danish American had become one of the most well known ragtime composers – perhaps second only to Joplin.

Early in the 1900s, the second strain of “Creole Belles” began to be picked up by fiddlers all across America and the catchy melody began to adopt alternative names including “Back Up and Push” and “Rubber Dolly.” The tune was so popular that most Appalachian string bands who were recording in the 1920s & 1930s released some version of it. Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Uncle Bud Landress made recordings of this tune in the early '30s. Perry Bechtel and His Boys, known for their recordings on the “Race” and “Hillbilly” series popularized in that era by the record companies, recorded this tune in Atlanta. Some of the most often quoted lyrics are from the Light Crust Dough Boys, a band that featured one of the greatest Texas swing fiddlers of the time – Cecil Brower.

This tune represents one of the most amazing of the many cultural cross-pollinations in our American musical history. After Western Swing bands and Texas Style fiddlers adopted and popularized the tune with its characteristic swing and ragtime rhythms, the great African American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded it using the white string-band lyrics. Fitzgerald’s “Wubba Dolly” was recorded in 1939. Famed African American blues guitarist and singer Mississippi John Hurt, who often collaborated with Anglo American fiddler Willie Narmour in the early 1920s, brought the original title of this tune to the forefront again by adapting the lyrics of “My Creole Belle” to the new tune and rhythm. Hurt was known for playing square dance and ragtime music during the same period that he was recording early blues music for Okey Records. His interest in different styles of American music resulted in this tune being introduced to a much wider audience. The lyrics of “My Creole Belle” are often sung to the tune of “Rubber Dolly Rag.”

My Creole Belle, I love her well
My darling baby, my Creole Belle
When the stars shine, I’ll call her mine
My darling baby, my Creole Belle.

 And the cross-pollination doesn’t end there! Whereas the original “Rubber Dolly” lyrics probably derive from Anglo American children’s games of the late 1800s, they made their way into a Top-10 record in 1965. In that year, African American soul singer Shirley Ellis recorded the Rubber Dolly lyrics used by the Light Crust Dough Boys and other Appalachian string bands as “The Clapping Song.” Folk music pioneer Woody Guthrie, as well as many others, recorded the Creole Belle version also adding to the popularity of the tune among the newer generations.

The appearance of alternate versions of lyrics in American songs, especially originating from different racial groups, is a long-standing American music tradition. However, in this case, having both versions of the lyrics covered by both black and white singers for over a century is particularly interesting. From its very beginning, fiddlers continued to play this tune from coast to coast and generation to generation, establishing it as one of the truly classic examples of the American Music System.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.