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Fiddle Lovers Online


Mar 7, 2021 - 5:46:32 AM
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373 posts since 7/31/2018

In honor of Women's History month, this week's tune is Rolling Off a Log from the playing of Sarah "Sadie" Gray Armstrong (18 Mar 1883--2 Aug 1957) of Westmoreland County, PA, and is found in Samuel Bayard's Hill Country Tunes, published in 1944. She was the daughter of Charles H. Gray (1863-1941) and Julia Kuster/Custer (1866-1920). Her gr-gr-gr grandfather on her father's side was John Dixon, born c. 1690 in Scotland, died 1760 in Cumberland County, PA. Sarah married Charles Benjamin Armstrong (born c. 1880) on 23 September 1899. He worked on the railroad as a brakeman. (source for above: Ancestry and public documents)

Bayard prominently featured Ms. Armstrong's tunes in his book, Hill Country Tunes. He noted:

"In the previous generation of the [Gray] family were five brothers: Charley (Mrs. Armstrong's father), Laney, Dan, Joss (Joshua) and Abe, all skillful on some instrument, and accustomed to playing together for dances...All of these men are now gone, and Mrs. Armstrong, who began playing at the age of five, is the sole legatee of their melodic treasure. As a young girl she used to listen by the hour to her uncle Laney – the most expert fiddler of the group, and the one possessing the largest repertory of tunes – absorbing his music and learning to play it herself. She also use to play cello, on which she would help the group out when they were playing in the pavllion at ‘Kist’s Grove’ (a dancing ground on the outskirts of Derry), and elsewhere in the neighborhood.”

Daniel "Dan" D. Gray (1867-1928?) married Sadie Logue. Joshua "Joss" Grant Gray (1865-1925) married Margaret Maria Brant. Abraham "Abe" Lincoln Gray (1861-1940) married Savilla Stump (1860-1930). This is all the information I have about Sarah's uncles, other than the fact that they had six half brothers and one half sister. (all above information from public documents)

Bayard also notes:

"About thirty-five years ago, [1908/1909 ] her {Sarah's] uncle Laney went to live in the Far West. The “Gray Boys” ensemble broke up, although its remaining members continued to play individually for dances; and Mrs. Armstrong, with the assistance of her daughter at the piano and her son on the guitar or banjo, has likewise continued playing the old music, either for dances or an occasional radio or theater program. The children, however, do not pick up her repertory, and she is left its only preserver."

George Laney Gray (b. June 1859, d. 1936 or 1937) relocated to Los Angeles, CA around 1908/09 (Bayard's reference to the "Far West."). Interestingly, Sarah's daughter Mary (1917-2005) relocated to California as well at some point. Neither Mary nor Sarah's other daughter Bertha (1899-1964) married. Bertha lived with brother Charles Robert (1902-1984) until her death. Charles married in 1965 for apparently a brief time. (source: Find-A-Grave and public documents)

Though Sarah's son and daughter accompanied her (on guitar and piano, respectively), neither of them continued her tradition of passing on the family's tunes.

We have featured many tunes from Sarah Armstrong for Old-Time TOTW: #38: Over the Stump and Back Again (3/17/19); #40: "Sarah Armstrong's Tune (3/31/19); #48: Waltzing With the One I Love (5/26/19); Quadrille in A (8/4/19); #100: Laney Tunin' His Fiddle (5/24/20) and #118 Dream Song (9/27/20).

Sarah Armstrong played Rolling Off a Log for Samuel Bayard on 5 November 1943. Of the tune, he says:

"Every fiddler knows tunes of the character of [Rolling Off a Log]; they are good samples of the sort of tunes in our tradition which sound like imported British melodies, yet are difficlult or impossible to trace to British sources...The third strain...is really an imperfectly-remembered alternate ending formula for the second part, and, as it stands here, is fragmentary."

Be that as it may, I view the last four bars of the tune being like a tag that takes use nicely back to the beginning of thte tune. I also find it harmonically interesting, as the A part begins on a I chord; the B part, a V chord, and the "C" part (or tag, or "fragment) on a IV chord. I think it gives the tune a nice flow. The whole tune, however, does appear to be based on the Green Cockade (not related to the Irish jig of the same name). It may be that Sarah was trying to recall that tune, or perhaps this is how she was accustomed to playing it.

Joining me is friend Sean Fen (Wooster, OH) on guitar.

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Old-Time TOTW will be featuring a tribute to Vesta Johnson who passed away on 3/5/21.


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