I was in Albany, NY visiting friends in January, and wanted to record some videos for Old-Time TOTW. I met up
with my Old-Time family there for their weekly jam. We had a great time playing tunes in cross G for a few hours. The next day I met up with Janet, Paul, and Ernie to do some recording. There was a big snow storm expected the next day, so I'm glad we were able to meet. Janet treated me to a lovely lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, and we had a nice time catching up. Afterward, the gents met us at Janet's house and we recorded several tunes, Garfield being one.
I had played the tune with the Albany folks a few other times, but it wasn't one that became part of my own playing back home in Cleveland, OH. I knew a bit about the tune from its appearance on friend Larry Warren's Slippery Hill site (https://www.slippery-hill.com/recording/garfield
), and through the printed transcription in The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes. The tune comes from fiddler Stanley Bailey, from Berrien County, GA. Bailey's tune is square, and he starts on the fine strain. I had wondered how the Albany folks started playing it with a slightly crooked coarse strain, and Janet told me she was inspired by a recording of the Georgia Crackers on their Hillbilly Wobble CD. By reading the liner notes, it seems like that was an addition by them. It works very nicely that way. Janet also puts a little bluesy twist at the very end of the fine strain (her "B part"), only on the repeat. These little details are nice to hear and are encountered now and then, especially at festivals. They don't alter the tune in a way that makes it unrecognizable, but
they do show that this music is a living, breathing, approachable thing, and can adapt itself to individual styles and preferences, yet still maintain its inherent character. Some may disagree with my assessment, but it's wise to remember there are varying degrees and intents. Are we changing things just to be different and put our mark on the music with no regard for anything but ourselves? Do our additions alter the music so much that it changes the character and style of the music? Do the changes fit in and compliment the music, or do they detract from it?
The last points are subjective, indeed, but intent can be concrete, when known. Each fiddler has their own style, and this is one way in which tunes may become slightly altered. They may knowingly play a figure slightly different from the source merely because that fits into their style and technique. The thought process is not necessarily to "improve" the tune, it is just how that fiddler approaches certain figures within a tune.
Through playing a tune more, and becoming more familiar with it, a tune often grows and develops in a fiddler's hands. We really get to feel the personality of the tune. We may not even be aware that we've changed anything in it, until we hear a recording of ourselves playing the tune when we first learned it. We can compare this to how we communicate with a person when we first meet them as opposed to having grown close and knowing them more intimately. Word choices, tone, and other means of speech are different, but we are still speaking the same language with the same person. We may be saying the same things, only expressed in a different way.
Tunes can also become altered through memory and recollection. Nearly all fiddlers can relate to moments of trying to recall a tune they have not played for a long time. We scratch it out a bit, and the more we play it, the more it comes back to us. But, are we playing it exactly as we played it when we first learned it? Are we playing it exactly the same way as the person from whom we learned the tune played it? This is a very important
thing to consider with source recordings. We must keep in mind that the source recordings capture a frozen moment in time. We are hearing how a particular tune was played at that one point in time by a given fiddler (this also applies to chord choices when a guitar is included). Many fiddlers were not recorded until they were well up in years, but had learned the tunes decades early, some learned in childhood, even. Not all fiddlers played those tunes on a regular basis and they may have had a bit of trouble recalling tunes. Many of the source recordings bear this out. Isham Monday was recorded in 1959 and played many tunes. One of them was a unique version of Fire on the Mountain. He starts off very well, but on the repeat he falters a bit, then starts the strain over again.
I don't think it is reasonable to expect that every fiddler played each tune exactly as they had learned it. So, why should we aim to play the tunes exactly as they are in the source recordings? Historic accuracy is very important for presentations, dissertations, and the like. It is also something to strive for when documenting things from other branches of the arts, such as applied arts and decorative arts. One can be influenced by Impressionism and paint in that style, but aspiring to paint exactly as Monet did is not only impossible, but would serve very little purpose other than to replicate his art.
It is good to know the context of tunes and know about the fiddlers who passed the tunes down to us. This added background brings the music to life, and can give a greater appreciation for them and the music. Being true to history is one thing, but trying to precisely replicate it is another. Attempting to play something just as a fiddler did in a source recording is trying to be someone we are not. Source recordings can serve as an inspiration, but I don't feel they represent the only way to play a tune.
on “Old-Time TOTW #32: Garfield (2/3/19)”
Monday, February 4, 2019 @4:23:35 AM
Like two fiddlers in a band who don't play exactly the same notes, if you can play along with the source recording, then that's a good thing. The tune then evolves in your hands.
Monday, February 4, 2019 @7:59:23 AM
Exactly, carlb. Our personalities are part of the music we make. Thank for reading and commenting.
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