Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Beaumont Rag

Smith's Garage Fiddle Band
The origins of the wildly popular Beaumont Rag as we know it today are as interest­ing as they are mysterious. First of all, the tune shares two identical parts with the more obscure White River Stomp. However since neither tune has an acknowledged composer, it is hard to say which came first. An early recording of White River Stomp was made by Jack Cawley’s Oklahoma Ridge Runners in 1930. Cawley was a Texas fiddler who had moved from the border town of Bonham into Oklahoma around 1914. Thousands of miles away, Canadian fiddling television star Don Messer’s cut of the White River Stomp in the 1940s brought the tune solidly into the Canadian fiddle repertoire and subsequently it was included in a Prince Edward Island fiddle tune collection.

Following a different thread, we find that Samuel Peacock – a barbershop owner – recorded Beaumont Rag with his group the Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band as early as 1928. The string band’s repertoire consisted mostly of Texas style fiddle tunes such as Done Gone, Tom and Jerry, Gray Eagle, and Limerock. The East Texas Serenaders, led by their fiddler Huggin D. Williams accompanied by guitar, tenor banjo and Henry Bogan on a 3-string cello, recorded Beaumont Rag several years later in 1937. Texas Western Swing fiddling superstar Bob Wills recorded Beaumont Rag just a few years after that in 1939.

Scott Joplin
It is interesting that two such similar tunes had parallel histories on such different parts of the continent. However, White River Stomp has disappeared into obscurity whereas Beaumont Rag has become a classic that most folk musicians have wanted to learn and play.

It is likely, however, that White River Stomp predated Beaumont Rag explaining why Samuel Peacock never overtly claimed credit for the tune although he was the first to record it. In the Texas fiddle contest tradition, fiddlers would often alter an existing tune creating something new and different enough to warrant a new name but probably not a separate copyright. In the Beaumont adaptation, the 1st part of the Stomp was entirely omitted, the 2nd part is the same and, intriguingly, the Stomp’s 3rd part became the signature 1st part of Beaumont Rag. Peacock himself may have added two great parts to Beaumont Rag – a classic ragtime motif and a “double shuffle.” Both of the new parts represent such engaging music that most players would have had a difficult time leaving any of it out. All of this musical evidence argues for the Stomp having evolved into the Rag and not the reverse.

Johnny Gimble
The similarity of these two tunes also begs the question as to what distinguishes a “stomp” from a “rag.” Ragtime had been a commercial phenomenon since the late 1800s. Although the piano became more associated with ragtime’s commercial success, many believe that ragtime syncopated tunes were bowed on the fiddle long before they were hammered out on the keys. Ragtime pioneer and superstar Scott Joplin said, “There has been ragtime music in America ever since the ‘Negro’ race has been here.” Joplin’s father had been a slave fiddler. According to New Orleans’ iconic Jelly Roll Morton, an African American musician who came to prominence in the piano ragtime era, the first tune with the name “stomp” in it was his tune King Porter Stomp in 1905. “I don’t know what the name stomp means, myself” Jelly Roll said, “…only that people would stamp their feet.” Jelly Roll’s “stomps” certainly had many of the same characteristics as the ragtime music that he composed and performed. Jelly Roll is also credited with the first “jazz” composition penned in 1915 and entitled Jelly Roll Blues. There is no doubt that in this era of American music culture brimming with new styles, fiddlers did not stay on the sidelines but were right in the middle of the explosion that was taking the country and the world by storm.

O'Connor and Benny Thomasson
Being a white old-time fiddler, Samuel Peacock created a ragtime piece specifically for the fiddle in a genre that had been dominated by piano composers for decades. He added a section featuring the 3-note-melody-against-a-4-beat-rhythm-pattern for Beaumont, a classic ragtime motif similar to one in the famous Black and White Rag (New York composer George Botsford, 1908) that contest fiddlers love to play. The version of Beaumont Rag in this book takes advantage of the fact that fiddlers often shifted into 5th position for a repeat of that figure up an octave. The other additional part of Beaumont Rag not included in White River Stomp is the “double shuffling” variation that Texas fiddlers were just beginning to use in the 1920s. They didn’t have much experience with this bowing because most of them considered it “hokum.” To the present day, “hokum” bowing is not allowed at the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest in Idaho. If the “double shuffle” bowing is employed by a fiddler, it could mean automatic disqualification! How could any bowing be literally “outlawed” from fiddling - especially when it is so thrilling to perform?

Jelly Roll Morton
Actually, “double shuffling” is akin to other syncopated musical rhythms such as the three-note patterns common in rag tunes. Ragtime was eventually accepted into fiddle contest repertoire but not the “double shuffle” itself. However, an overview of the fiddle contest repertoire reveals that the fiddle contest scene mostly preferred ragtime compositions by white composers. The term “hokum” may have carried racial overtones referring to the minstrel shows of the 1830s, the black minstrel shows and other post Civil War music including the blues, ragtime and jazz.

There was something about double shuffling though – this exaggerated syncopated bowing utilizing double-stopped chords – that white fiddlers ultimately wanted to emulate. Peacock was perhaps the first to step out of the narrow-minded conventions by using double shuffling in his adaptation of Beaumont Rag. And subsequently, double shuffling was brought back into fiddling by the jazz violin players whom the Texas fiddlers revered. New York jazz violinist pioneer Joe Venuti used double shuffling in some of his recordings on the Okey label in1927 and Goin’ Places, Four String Joe, and Kicking the Cat were widely copied throughout the Texas fiddle scene. A classically trained Texas swing fiddler named Cecil Brower used double shuffling in the new Western swing music of the early 1930s paving the way for many Texas fiddlers to incorporate this technique.

Don Messer's Islanders
One of Brower’s protégés was the legendary Western swing and Nashville session king Johnny Gimble. The double shuffle passages contained in this book’s version of Beaumont Rag are transcribed from his performance. An additional variation is added to the rendition of Beaumont Rag here by way of the dean of the Texas fiddlers, Benny Thomasson, the Texas state fiddle champion for 15 years in a row during the 1940s and 50s. His contribution is the 3rd part, a variation to the 1st part that I learned from him as a student. It employs virtuosic bowing and mul­tiple string jumps that were sure to gain him contest victories even though he had to omit the double shuffling in order to qualify!

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