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Old Jimmy Sutton

Posted by Phoeniceus on Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I've been working my way through Brad Leftwich's videos, Learn To Play Old Time Fiddle Vol 1 and 2. I've discovered that whenever I ask anyone about Mr. Leftwich, they either really love or really hate his playing - which is understandable given that he has a unique style - but they universally think he is a great teacher. The videos are an iconic sample of a "How To" series, and Mr. Leftwich does a great job at taking a tune and breaking it down into small, bite-size pieces, digestible by the meanest understanding. I am breezing through the lessons, already halfway through Volume 2, and though he almost lost me when I got to "Tommy's lick" and "Breaking Up Christmas", perservance and repetition paid off.

And then, this morning, I decided to go back and dust off Old Jimmy Sutton from Volume 1. It didn't take very long, because the bowing and the melody are pretty simple. In fact, it seemed a bit too simple. This was one of my favorite tunes from my days playing guitar with the My Home Upholstery String Ensemble in Anchorage, Alaska. Those gals and pals could really kick up some dust with this tune, and the version I had learned didn't have the same oomph.  Perhaps this was because I had sinced moved onto bigger and more complicated tunes.  Here's how it sounds from the Leftwich video:

Old Jimmy Sutton - Brad Leftwich

OK, admittedly Mr. Leftwich plays it much better than me, but still, is that all there is to it? And then I remembered. I had a recording of my Alaska group doing the same tune. I dug it up, blew dust off the MP3 bits, and played it. Here's a sample:

Old Jimmy Sutton - My Home Upholstery String Band

Not quite the same, innit? I tried to play along with this version and soon realized I wasn't doing anything as I had been taught in the video. Without thinking, I had thrown out all those nice clean bow licks and replaced them with ... something else. I had to, because the melody was similar, but not the same, and the bow licks didn't fit.

I developed two theories about this. Either Mr. Leftwich "dumbed down", if you'll excuse the expression, the tune in order to make it accessible to a beginning fiddler. Alrighty. This didn't bother me because I stil learned the bow lick that I wanted to learn. But in fairness, there were at least four fiddles playing in the Alaska recording, and I was hearing a melange of different versions. Who knows what version was "correct," if you'll excuse the expression.

I decided to seek out another version, something more authentic, with a single fiddle, and bingo, I found an early twentieth century recording by Grayson and Whittier. Here it is:

Old Jimmy Sutton - Grayson and Whittier

Whoa! Did you recognize that? That's OLD Jimmy Sutton. He's so old, he's playing in the key G instead of A because his strings have all stretched out. And listen to that guitar - it's more like a drum. They must have only invented one chord back then. (Side note: I like to tell my six-year-old daughter that, in my day, M&M's only came in black and white).

I sat down and learned this version, and you know what? It is the best version of them all hands down. Don't let the scratchy recording fool you. This version is the most fun to play and the most interesting to hear. It's also the most flexible in terms of improvising, and it has the best rhythm. Those old timers knew what they were doing.

I will still finish the video lessons, because I am learning a lot from them. But once I'm done, I'm going to keep the licks and throw out the tunes. I will go back and relearn them from other recordings, as old as I can find.

So many tunes, so little time.


5 comments on “Old Jimmy Sutton”

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @12:54:27 PM

Well, most of the difference you hear between the three recordings
is a matter of SPEED and phrasing-
I hear the same Nashville Shuffle pattern in all three (long-short-short, long-short-short).
I suggest you go back to Brad Leftwich's version, and then as you can get it up to speed, PHRASE it like the Grayson and Whitter version.

One of the challenges in doing this is that the Nashville Shuffle is easy
to describe, teach, and learn, but is hard to execute with much fluidity-
I meet people all the time whose wrist only allows them to do Nashville Shuffle ONE particular way. Improving the bow hold can
help make the wrist more flexible and allow for more phrasing variation.

Okay... I gave them a second listen-
Brad's version uses Nashville ALL THE WAY THROUGH,
but the Grayson and Whitter version and the "Home Upholstery S B"
seem to use another bowing in the B part that I THINK
is the 3-3-1-1 bowing I call Smoothshuffle,
and that Brad Leftwich considers to be a variation of "Melvin's Lick"
It works fine either way, but two different patterns in a tune helps break the monotony. I recently figured out from a tape of myself from the '70s that my fiddling was mostly Nashville plus "Smoothshuffle" on the long notes, and I find those two patterns go well together.

Still, I would NOT call what I heard from Brad Leftwich "dumbed down"-
(I think his method is less "dumbed down" than any out there,
since he does cover bowings besides Nashville)
it's just that it's good teaching practice to only introduce one bowing at a time.
I likewise have tunes I could play with one shuffle all the way through,
and I would very likely teach them that way- but when I play it to PLAY it, it might have 3 or 4 different bowings in it.

Phoeniceus Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @1:24:11 PM

Um, I'm gonna have to read that again, real slowly, with a fiddle in my hand. But first, you'll have to translate those numbers for me. I've not seen that notation before. Is it the relative number of beats per bow stroke? That would sense to me.

The bow pattern that he teaches for the song is 2-1-1-2-1-1 2-2 1-1-1-1. That is, a down-shuffle, an up-shuffle, a long saw stroke, and two short saw strokes. Is that the same as what you wrote?

Good point about the "dumbed down" bit. I only meant it in reference to the version of the song and certainly not in reference to his method over all which has been quite helpful.

I'll try that bit with Grayson and Whitter (Whittier? Whatevier?). My rational, disbelieving, adult mind says it won't work, but my child mind wants to be delighted with success, and clearly my child mind gets its way most of them time or I wouldn't be playing the fiddle.

bj Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @2:58:20 PM

Leave it to me to skip to the scratchy one . . . but you stopped it right in the good part!

OTJunky Says:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 @5:21:29 PM

Here's my favorite version of it - and it's video so you can watch the bowing..

I've only listened to a few cuts on the "teaching" tapes by both Leftwich and Molskey. I do think they play simpler versions - because it's practically impossible to teach something at the level of playing achieved by most OT fiddlers who've been at it 50 years...


fiddlepogo Says:
Thursday, November 13, 2008 @10:07:00 AM

2-1-1-2-1-1 2-2 1-1-1-1 for Brad Leftwiches Jimmy Sutton?
Well, I was wrong then, but not by much-
I thought he was doing just Nashville throughout,
but the second half is different, but similar to the Nashville section
in the first half because it starts on a 2 note slur and ends on sawstrokes. Because the whole thing consists of two note slurs and sawstrokes of some kind, it's somewhat homogenous.

3-3-1-1 for the second part is what I hear in Grayson and Whitter's version, not Leftwiches.
Since it includes 3 note slurs, it contrasts quite a bit with the Nashville Shuffles in the first part. That's harder to do, but sounds good if you can do it.

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