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Fiddle Lovers Online


Oct 21, 2020 - 9:23:47 AM
363 posts since 12/14/2010

Just wondering if any fiddle tunes historians have speculated on the reasons there are so many tunes that have very different or sometimes similar versions but with the same names, e.g., tunes and versions such as Liza Jane, Sally Ann, Billy in the Lowground, 9!!! versions of Lady of the Lake, etc. How did the use of the same tune names but with so many different versions come about?

Edited by - hayesdt on 10/21/2020 12:15:45

Oct 21, 2020 - 12:20:26 PM
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RichJ

USA

366 posts since 8/6/2013

I'd say not surprising since before electricity, radio or other types of recording a fiddler might hear a tune at a dance, try to keep it in his head till' he got home with his fiddle (probably the next day), then did the best he could from memory. More times than not it was close at best, completely different at the worst. This could also explain tunes with similar melodies and different names.

Oct 21, 2020 - 1:57:35 PM
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235 posts since 3/1/2020

I think the simplest answer is that fiddle tunes are typically passed down from fiddler to fiddler without being transcribed. People forget how to play the tunes exactly and what the names are, which gives rise to variations.

Recording equipment has made it possible for fiddlers who can’t read music to learn and pass on tunes with greater accuracy. Even when fiddlers learn by mimicking recordings, there’s still a good chance the tune will morph. That's just a part of the identity of fiddling. 

Some tunes are renamed when they’re borrowed from other settings.

Edited by - The Violin Beautiful on 10/21/2020 13:59:24

Oct 21, 2020 - 2:16:52 PM
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DougD

USA

9828 posts since 12/2/2007

I think there might be different reasons in different cases - Both Rich's explanations might be more general ones.
For your examples: "Liza Jane" or "Miss Liza" was a stock character in minstrel shows, and I'll bet most of those tunes have their origins there.
I only know a couple versions of "Sally Ann," in D and G or A, and I think they're both similar (I guess there's a Western Swing tune too, that may be different).
All the versions I know of "Billy in the Lowground" are similar - I play the one from Lowe Stokes with an extra phrase, but its otherwise the same. Henry Reed played a tune in G he called "Billy in the Lowland," but even it has some similarities to my ear (minor chord, high B part). Henry Reed had a remarkable memory for tunes, but was not always so good with titles, although I think there are antecedents for this one.
I don't know much about "Lady of the Lake," but she was a famous character in Arthurian legend, and may have inspired many titles or even tunes. Apparently Sir Walter Scott's poem was well known over here, and there was an opera by Rossini, whose operas were also popular, judging from an 1830's guitar tutor I have. Its hard to imagine now what music was popular here before the minstrel show.
Also, some fiddlers, especially contest fiddlers, put a little "twist" on a tune to set themselves apart, but I wouldn't consider them separate "versions," in most cases.

Edited by - DougD on 10/21/2020 14:20:21

Oct 22, 2020 - 6:57:35 AM
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202 posts since 1/3/2019

Learning instrumental tunes by ear in social situations means no name is attached. I learned Soldier's Joy from some people in the mountains who had no name for it. They just heard it so much at dances or gatherings when they were younger that they knew the tune. Sometimes tunes had calls and those phrases became a source for the name. I know more than one mountain musician who call fiddle tunes "this one".

Thinking about this, it seems I never ran into huge importance of names for fiddle tunes until I got around the urban "old time" scene.

Oct 22, 2020 - 2:52:38 PM

3059 posts since 6/21/2007

THREAD DRIFT:
Doug, I'm intrigued by your "1830's guitar tutor." Is it available on-line somewhere as a down-load? You can PM me if you don't want the thread to keep drifting.

Oct 22, 2020 - 4:38:25 PM
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2643 posts since 9/13/2009

quote:
Originally posted by ShawnCraver

Learning instrumental tunes by ear in social situations means no name is attached. I learned Soldier's Joy from some people in the mountains who had no name for it. They just heard it so much at dances or gatherings when they were younger that they knew the tune. Sometimes tunes had calls and those phrases became a source for the name. I know more than one mountain musician who call fiddle tunes "this one".

Thinking about this, it seems I never ran into huge importance of names for fiddle tunes until I got around the urban "old time" scene.


Still exists today where a name isn't attached, or simply don't clearly state the names of tunes, they just play them. Leading to many who are not even sure what the name is. This can lead to folks misinterpreting, missing context or part of the conversation; that folks were casually talking about another tune than the specific one played. Sometimes confusion comes with medleys (dances or Irish sessions); or just playing a series of bunch of tunes without much discussion between; even if asking what was that one back 3 or 4?  Much of this unknown name (or mixup) is fairly common, noticeable in Irish sessions sets, where they just play. 

A somewhat similar modern phenomenon happened with cassette tapes... (esp mix tapes), mislabeling, or in that had to keep track of how many from beginning... and sometimes counted wrong. Led to some folks referring to the wrong one (usually that gets embarrassingly corrected). But this does apply to commercial recording labels, and even ethnomusicologists and collectors errors that have gotten passed along in music books. Where some folks learned tunes.

They just heard it so much at dances or gatherings when they were younger that they knew the tune. Sometimes tunes had calls and those phrases became a source for the name.

Besides calls, many dances have names. One is "Lady of the Lake". In some places, use the same tune for the named dance; but other tunes could be used (if musicians didn't know the tune); as well sometimes musicians play medleys. This could lead to folks to maybe call the tune by the dance name.

Other possible similar reasons for different melodies:

Songs, lyrics. Same lyrics, could be sung to similar but different melodies; (or entirely different melodies). As well might use floating verses. By superimpose old lyrics on different tune... eventually call the tune from the lyrics; thus different melodies with same name. (can apply words of Liza Jane to a lot of different melodies). Without recording, verse lines are also a useful way to remember melodies.

Related is that sometimes folks learned song lyrics from print. Ballads, narrative, storytelling, topical, or popular songs; perhaps as broadsides or published in newspaper. They perhaps couldn't read or interpret the music... or sometimes the music wasn't printed with it, just mentioned "to the tune of". But without a recorded to refer to, limited exposure... they might not recall or know exactly how that "to tune of" went, might recall some melodic phrase contour snippet; or not at all, and simply apply some other melodic idea to the words. But in singing, would refer to the song/lyrics as the name.

Oct 22, 2020 - 5:40:33 PM
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2643 posts since 9/13/2009

quote:
Originally posted by The Violin Beautiful

I think the simplest answer is that fiddle tunes are typically passed down from fiddler to fiddler without being transcribed. People forget how to play the tunes exactly and what the names are, which gives rise to variations.

Recording equipment has made it possible for fiddlers who can’t read music to learn and pass on tunes with greater accuracy. Even when fiddlers learn by mimicking recordings, there’s still a good chance the tune will morph. That's just a part of the identity of fiddling. 

Some tunes are renamed when they’re borrowed from other settings.


I somewhat cringe a bit at the memory failure or errors theory (or comparison to telephone game), while might account for some aspect... I think that often misses the mark a bit on folk music (makes it seem random, haphazard).

Tunes and songs also morph due to bit more deliberate decisions of adaptation, making subjective edits, modification; creative changes; what they might think as improvements; or what makes musical sense to them. The goal is to still have something that works musically, make musical sense to them (not just random memory error).

This is in part due to folk musicians had/have a different view of the music... rather than fixed detailed composition and goal of great accuracy and execution (as in classical model); that was not the goal. In folk view the tune/song is simply more of thematic raw materiel, musical ideas (melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, mode, contour, phrasing...); but can be adapted, modified, shaped in similar, but different ways... retaining some aspects, changing other aspects.

Perhaps similar to how many classical composers might start with a simple melodic theme (or perhaps harmonic, rhythmic)... and then develop it in different ways.

In the folk process, the musician gets to play proactive a bit as role in the composition... each one on the path. But, esp by ear transmission; modifications are done on top of modifications (often unaware of original, or unimportant). Some refer to this process a bit as communal composition; lot's of little ideas and changes along the way. Sometimes multiple branches and paths. Eventually some tunes/songs might be difficult to recognize that connection to much older or others (often still there). But all along still might retain the name of the tune/song.

Oct 22, 2020 - 7:42:46 PM
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235 posts since 3/1/2020

I agree that folk music is much less dogmatic when it comes to passing tunes along, and that some of the changes in interpretation are intentional.

However, I do still think that a lot of the change in style comes from difficulty in remembering. The telephone game analogy is not a bad one at all, and it applies well to language.

It seems to me that there is a desire among some people to treat folk music as an elevated art form. To my mind, treating the folk musician as an artiste goes against the nature of folk music, which is intended as a shared expression of a culture. The focus is more on the sharing of music than on an individual performer. The music is pared down to an almost skeletal form that makes it accessible to a wider range of people.

The players who pass the music along are certainly fascinating and worthy of admiration, but I think sometimes there’s an effort to remake these musicians into philosopher kings who make every stylistic decision with the greatest care. I don’t believe those players would want to be put onto pedestals. What I like about folk music is its raw and unvarnished nature, something that appeals on an elemental level.

Oct 24, 2020 - 9:12:41 AM
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202 posts since 1/3/2019

"It seems to me that there is a desire among some people to treat folk music as an elevated art form. To my mind, treating the folk musician as an artiste goes against the nature of folk music, which is intended as a shared expression of a culture. "

I think this is a complete misunderstanding and redefinition of traditional fiddling. In my experience, especially urban musicians want to make traditional fiddling into something folksy, conspicuous, communal and accessible to the point that i becomes something it isn't. Appalachian fiddlers were/are super-conscious of their art and how it is/was "displayed". They were/are aware of the "price" that is paid for fiddling and spending any amount of time with a traditional fiddler or listening to their views makes this obvious. The individualistic nature of mountain fiddlers is evident in the many ensembles lead by one lone fiddler. Sometimes fiddling is practical and utilitarian, or social, as for a dance, certainly. But there is always "more" to the art, just in classical music. In the classical master class, technique and standardization, or accurate display of "culture" become less important than reaching an elevated state of emotion, meaning, or even spirituality. Traditional fiddling is the same. And this is what I teach in the times I teach fiddling. It's not what people always want though.   

"And the way I feel about music, I think these musicians - I do it myself - each one is expressing his past, his present, what he should have been, and what he hopes to be. And he’s expressing all of his sorrows, all of his happiness. - if you study him close you can almost read his life. And I think when they’re all playing good, clean, honest music - banjo-picking, guitar-playing, fiddling, what have you - I think you’re just as close to heaven on this earth as you’ll ever be. If you’ve got the music in you. You know what I mean? I believe that. I don’t mean I put that above a hereafter or above an eternal life. But in this world, that’s my Paradise. In this world." -Wilson Douglas

Edited by - ShawnCraver on 10/24/2020 09:21:33

Oct 24, 2020 - 8:20:11 PM
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235 posts since 3/1/2020

I think we’re in agreement for the most part. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say that it’s entirely an urban mindset that distorts the understanding of the music, though. When I speak of the shared cultural expression, my focus is on the sharing, in a way similar to that in which we share our culture through storytelling and idiomatic language. When we start labeling it as art, it loses meaning.

What has always struck me when playing with or listening to true old time fiddlers is that they aren’t all that conspicuous when they play, in tone or in attitude.

I went to a dance last year because I heard Bruce Molsky would be playing there. The room was completely packed (I’d guess there were at least 250-300 in attendance). I was very excited to see Molsky in person, but I didn’t meet a single person that night that came for the fiddler. A couple people had heard his name because he’d played before, but most had no idea who he was. The crowd came for the dancing and didn’t pay much attention to the musicians. The playing was excellent, but it wasn’t the focus.

Oct 25, 2020 - 8:20:30 AM
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202 posts since 1/3/2019

That sounds like a fun time at the dance! My last dance was pre-covid and it was incredible to see so many people "into" the music. Or was I into them? Both. I had the goods in my art and they had the goods in theirs. Music and dance are art. That interaction between dance and fiddle is magical to me. Does art drive culture? Does culture drive art ? Even at bluegrass festivals where the band on stage is quite different than an old time ensemble, most everyone I know goes for the parking lot more so than the stage. So we can all be in it for different reasons and emphasis and focus, but taking up the fiddle and handling a dance is quite a thing. Where would either scene be without the people who dedicate their life to their art? So I agree with some of the points like the practical element of music and its role in social functions, I still don't follow removing art from it at all.

Fresh out of the Appalachian mountains at 18 /19 years old, I I happened to be living in South Dakota and Molsky and his L7 band played the folk fest. My band was paying as well. At that age I was working out how to present my music. I wanted nothing to do with the aw shucks, folksy stuff because I had been around some old timers in the mountains and viewed them as classy gents... artists really. Molsky was my experience of seeing mountain music on a professional festival stage. Polished arrangements, didnt hick it up, fun, serious, genuine. I was a punky teenage Appalachian art major/musician, and really respected Molsky. Still do. 

In Molsky's own words, "Molsky: Oh, I totally consider it my own stuff. You can imitate somebody when you’re first learning to do something—especially in folk music where it isn’t written down. When I was learning to play the fiddle I was Tommy Jarrell for two years and I was Ernest East for a year, then I was Benton Flippen for a couple of years. But you do come to a point where you realize that you have your own voice, and that’s a liberating place to arrive. I’ve been playing this music most of my life at this point—at what point can I declare ownership of some aspect of it? It’s my expression, you know?"

Edited by - ShawnCraver on 10/25/2020 08:25:26

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