Posted by FiddlerPaul71 on Sunday, February 17, 2019
This week I chose to feature a tune from Ernie Carpenter called Granddad's Favorite. The tune is said to be one that was passed down in Carpenter's family for several generations. Apparently, the true name of the tune was forgotten, hence the title given by Carpenter.
Those involved in Old-Time music know that a single tune can have several names. Though not the case here, the reason for that can be the much the same as a tune with a title named after a person. Along the line someone may have forgotten the name of the tune (or perhaps, never even knew the name), and assigned their own title to the tune. Well, that tune might have been played in other areas where the name was known, or..well, where the name was forgotten (or never known) as well. That's just one way to explain the various names for a single tune.
Many Old-Time tunes do have roots in the British Isles, going back hundreds of years. Sometimes the parallels are quite obvious; usually, not so much. We really have to listen and analyze to find a connection. If the names of those tunes remained the same, it might be a lot easier to trace them. That usually isn't the case, so that makes me think that the names of many tunes changed somewhere along the line.
I often wonder how many of the Old-Time breakdowns in duple meter may have sprouted from jigs and other 6/8 tunes in compound duple meter. Certainly 6/8 tunes were brought here and played by the settlers, but they did not seem to endure. Many of those 6/8 tunes were used for Quadrilles and other dances here in America, but along the way people stopped doing those dances. Still, it doesn't seem that those tunes remained in the Old-Time fiddler's repertoire of tunes played merely for enjoyment, with no dancing. This is a whole topic unto itself, and I hope to expound more on it in a future blog.
In Hill Country Tunes (1944) by Samuel Bayard, there are many tunes he took down from the playing of Sarah Armstrong that do not have names. One of them is a rather popular one with modern fiddlers simply titled "Old Reel," but now referred to as "Sarah Armstrong's Tune." There is no evidence that Ms. Armstrong composed the tune herself, but she did play it and is the sole source for it. Many Old-Time tunes have similar titles: "Henry Reed's Favorite," "Uncle Charlie Barnett Lowe's Tune," "John Sharp's Hornpipe," etc. Those tunes were named after the musicians who played them, presumably because the titles were lost or unknown.
Milliner-Koken list many tunes by various fiddlers as "Unknown" in their book. Are those tunes inferior to others that have titles? Certainly not, but I must admit that there is something to be said for a tune having a known title. I cannot tell you how many times I've been in a jam, playing along to a tune that someone has started (they either gave no name, or perhaps I missed it), and I keep saying to myself in the back of my head "this tune seems so familiar...what IS it?" I play along as best as I can, not getting the whole tune. Finally, I voice out loud to the person next to me "What is this?" They name the tune, and I immediately start playing it fluently, merely because I now know the name. I've asked other fiddlers if this happens to them as well, and I've found that it does. So, there is power and meaning to a title, a part of our brains that makes a connection to the sound of the tune with its title.
I'm rather glad for that, because there are so many fun and colorful tune names. Plus, it would get rather confusing (and boring) if every tune we played was called "Unknown."
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