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Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes.

By Jeff Todd Titon. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001. [xviii, 245 p. ISBN 0-8131-2200-7. $45.] Music examples, illustrations, map, bibliography, index, compact disc.

Although fiddling is a vital folk music tradition in America, there are far fewer scholarly books on fiddling than one would expect. There are hundreds of tunebooks available from popular music presses, but generally they are written for players wanting to learn new tunes mad provide little in the way of documentation. It is rare to find a tunebook that gives good scholarly descriptions of the tunes and their origins. One example is Samuel P. Bayard's Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982). Bayard transcribed the nines of living players in western Pennsylvania and documented the history of each tune. Titon follows a similar pattern in documenting the tunes of fiddlers from Kentucky.

Titon's book is written for two audiences: for old-time players who want to learn new tunes, and also for scholars who want to learn more about the tradition. It is primarily a tunebook, with 170 tunes (nearly two hundred transcriptions with the variants) transcribed from recordings of Kentucky fiddlers. Many of the transcriptions were made from field and home recordings found only in archival and private collections. They represent rare regional tunes and variant forms of familiar tunes not found elsewhere.

According to Titon the term "old time" has a special meaning in this book. That is music "largely from the nineteenth century, with important sources in the dance music of Britain and Ireland, the music of the minstrel stage, the marches and military music of the Civil War, and the unmistakable, though not well documented, transformations and influences wrought by African and Native Americans" (p. xv). It is "old time" music before the influences of ragtime, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. The term "fiddle tune" also has a special meaning, referring to music primarily for dancing, but also for listening, contests, and public and ceremonial gatherings.

Titon has limited this collection to Kentucky because of the diversity and high quality of tunes in that state and also to bring to light rare local tunes that have not been published elsewhere. He chose fiddlers who had lived long enough in Kentucky to absorb the local and regional traditions. Some of these fiddlers were known outside Kentucky, such as Doc Roberts, Leonard Rutherford, and Ed Haley, but most were previously known only in their local areas. Many were born in the nineteenth century and all but five have died. In the last section of the book, Titon gives "Capsule Biographies" for each of the thirty-hive fiddlers whose tunes he transcribed. This adds a great deal of value and context to the collection.

Titon begins with a twenty-seven page introduction that offers one of the best scholarly discussions of old-time fiddling. Using personal stories of the fiddlers, he creates a feeling for the context in which the tradition lives. Particularly engaging are the stories of Clyde Davenport, whom Titon studied personally, and those of the Salyer family. Because record companies gave so little of their profits back to the actual performers, John Salyer declined to be recorded commercially in the 1930s. Luckily, he did make a number of home recordings ill the 1940s, which have since become a valuable resource for learning about his music.

Although the current generation of fiddlers can learn about any style in the world from recordings, there is no substitute for actually hearing and studying living musicians, either in their homes or, more typically today, at festivals, music camps, and fiddlers' contests and conventions. Such fiddle events offer many opportunities to participate in small jam sessions, the best places to hear, play, and learn old-time music. These jam sessions have their own social rules and etiquette. Respect is required for elder fiddlers who have mastered a style and repertory of tunes. The most skilled fiddlers usually start the tunes, but as Titon notes, "... skill isn't a matter of virtuosity. It involves steadiness, subtleties, rhythm, feel, groove, energy, all applied to freshly bringing out a tune that has been played thousands of times before over the generations, with due respect for the tune and for the people who are all part of this community" (p. 11).

In just a few pages Titon points out the great complexity of tracing the origins and history of American fiddle tunes. We gain a limited understanding of a tune's history from the folklore surrounding it, such as "The Brushy Fork of John's Creek," which commemorates a Civil War battle at Brushy Fork. Some tunes were of British or Scots-Irish origin, but through changes in performance contexts, African American influences, and variation brought about by aural transmission, they were transformed into the tunes we now know. Also, since many tunes from the upland South have no obvious counterparts in the British Isles, Titon argues that most of these tunes were created here, producing a uniquely American repertory.

Kentucky fiddle tunes have significant regional variation. The anthology contains tunes from three regions: northeast, southeast, and south-central; it does not cover the northern and western parts of the state. Tunes from the northeast region are more closely related to northern tune traditions that spread down the Ohio River by travelers, including the Norwegian virtuoso Ole Bull. Tunes from the southeast were influenced more by the Scots-Irish, English, and German settlers of the Appalachians, and tunes from the south-central region by African Americans. A map on the inside front cover shows the regions covered and names the fiddlers coming from each.

In addition to the three regions, Titon describes three different melody types, giving the details for each in a chart (p. 20): (1) "Long melodic phrases with a major-minor tonality ..., mostly from the northeast region"; (2) "Variable length phrases, pentatonic or gapped scales ..., mostly from the southeastern region"; and (3) "Short phrases with pentatonic or major tonality ..., mostly from the south-central region." Unfortunately, the melody types are not mentioned with the transcriptions and it is not always obvious which melody type applies. They may be determined by locating on the map the region from which the fiddler has come.

The repertory of this anthology includes unique settings of well-known tunes, such as "Turkey in the Straw," "Arkansas Traveler," and "Soldier's Joy," as well as lesser-known regional tunes and a few obscure local ones. The popularity of an old-time tune in Kentucky can be judged from the records of the Berea College Fiddle Contests from 1919 to 1928 and from a database of tune titles made from a Berea College class assignment in 1915. Titon explains, "I don't intend for this anthology to be an objective or representative sample; rather, it may be regarded as an attempt to record and preserve what I consider the best settings and rarest tunes from the source musicians" (p. 22). He includes a fine general discussion on fingering, bowing, and how to use the transcriptions to learn the tunes.

The two hundred transcriptions with their annotations comprise the bulk of this work. Titon has tried to include as many stylistic characteristics of the tunes as possible, without cluttering the notation beyond the note-reading ability of an amateur fiddler. Following Bayard, he has marked variations in a tune with lowercase letters. The notation is at normal pitch even if the fiddle in the recordings may have been in some variant tuning.

The book comes with a compact disc containing twenty-six of the recordings from which the transcriptions were made. It is essential that a person trying to learn these tunes hear the actual sounds of Kentucky fiddlers. Some of these original recordings have so much surface noise that we may wonder how Titon was ever able to transcribe them. Titon's own recordings of Clyde Davenport are particularly clear and feature some truly outstanding playing. I was especially impressed with the tune "Five Miles from Town" (no. 42, p. 74), which demonstrated the complexity and elegance of a simple tune that stays primarily around the open D string. The annotations, while not exhaustive, are more than sufficiently detailed to identify and document each tune. For example, "Five Miles from Town" is not the same tune as "Five Miles to Town" or "Five Miles out of Town," which come from other traditions. It was interesting and enjoyable to study a transcription while listening to its sound, making me wish to have heard more of the tunes on the compact disc.

As Titon says, "... as yet there is no satisfying, book-length treatment of fiddling in North America that would portray its complex historical development overall" (p. 12). Until there is such a book, we will have to learn about American fiddling one state at a time. Written by one of our nation's leading ethnomusicologists, Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes is an exemplary work that should be found in every music library.


Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Rahkonen, Carl
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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