Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Most Popular Fiddle Tune

"Every fiddler plays this. Some not so good" ~ Kenner C. Kartchner, Arizona fiddler

Fiddle music has played an important role in American music and is a favorite topic here on the Bus. The fiddle, being small and easy to transport, was perhaps the most popular of musical instruments for generations before the first ships of European settlers arrived on these shores. As the descendants of those settlers moved westward into the hills and hollows of the Appalachians the fiddle was the primary means of entertainment.

If “Soldier’s Joy” is not the most popular of all fiddle tunes, and I believe it is, then it is the most widespread. The origin of the tune has never been traced as there are variants dating from the 18th century to be found in Scotland, Ireland, England, Scandinavia, and the French Alps. One early version of the melody was known as “The King’s Hornpipe”, a popular dance tune from Northumberland, England and was just as popular played on the fife as it was a fiddle. Also known as “The King’s Head” in London, the song went by this name in most of the northern U.S., especially in Pennsylvania.

I had always assumed that the origin of the tune, and many other popular American fiddle tunes, could be traced back to Scotland or Ireland. There is evidence of the song’s popularity in both countries in the later 1700s. Scots national poet Robert Burns wrote verses for the tune and published them in his Merry Muses of Caledonia. But it appears that even the Scots had borrowed the melody.

Earlier versions of the tune have been documented in the French Alps, but even these may have been borrowed from abroad. Although some of the earliest versions of the song have been traced to the folk dances of Finland and Sweden, the names of the Scandinavian versions, “Fein Engelska” and “Kokar Engelska”, suggest that the songs were of English origin.

Whatever the origin, the tune best known today as “Soldier’s Joy” is just as popular in North America as it was in Europe. As mentioned earlier, the tune is known as “The King’s Head” in Pennsylvania and points north and just as the tune was a popular Morris dance in England it is still a popular contra-dance tune in New England. I’m not sure if it was the French or Scottish version that brought the tune to the Canadian Maritimes, but the tune has long been in fiddler’s repertoires there as well.

In the Southeast the tune has gone by several names, “I Am My Mother’s Darlin’ Child”, “Payday In The Army”, “I Love Somebody”, and ”Rock The Cradle Lucy”, to name a few. As it did at every stop it has made on its long journey here, “Soldier’s Joy” quickly became a popular dance tune and a staple in every fiddler’s playbook.

Let’s start with a classic old-time version from the Skillet Lickers and a really nice bluegrass version by the Cumberlands.

Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers - Soldier's Joy.mp3 1929 version

The Cumberlands - Soldier's Joy.mp3

In the days before radio and TV every rural community had a fiddler to provide entertainment and to play for dances on Saturday Night. Many fiddle tunes were adapted to be played on other instruments for family entertainment at home. Here are a couple of fine examples played on banjo and dulcimer. Notice that Fred Cockerham titles the tune as “I Love Somebody”, as it was known around Mt. Airy, North Carolina. Tommy Jarrell also recorded the song by this name.

Fred Cockerham - I Love Somebody.mp3

Paul Clayton - Soldier's Joy.mp3

Lastly, a couple of modern renditions. Notice that the Holy Modal Rounders make reference to one of the songs other titles, “Rock The Cradle Lucy” in their lyrics. The Muleskinner version is a fine example of a fiddle tune adapted for guitar. In fact every instrument has a go at it, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle. The Muleskinner album is an early album by David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Clarence White, Richard Greene, Bill Keith, John Kahn, and John Guerin. Thanks to our good friend Walt for the loan of this wonderful album.

The Holy Modal Rounders - Soldier's Joy.mp3

Muleskiner - Soldier's Joy.mp3

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Call of the Open Road

Thoughts of a return to the road have brought mixed feelings. On one hand I have always enjoyed the freedom that is part of having no ties to the land. I also miss the days of working long hard days for a year and then taking off for three or four months to enjoy what is really important in this life.

Now that I have been settled in one place for over a decade, I am beginning to see some of the advantages of setting roots. Why, just last month we were looking at farmland in the county just south of here.

It’s a tough decision. Fortunately, we are not forced to make that decision any time soon. This little exercise has lifted my spirits just by showing that we have other options available to us. That knowledge is like having a safety net when discontent sets in again.

Whether we pack in all up and hit the road for good or just blow off work for a week-long road trip, the road still calls.

The Foghorn Stringband - Lonesome Road Blues.mp3

Billy Gray and His Western Okies - Further On Down The Road.mp3

Roy Hogsed - Ain't A Bump In The Road.mp3

Doc Watson-Call of the Road.mp3

Chuck Brodsky - Goddamned Blessed Road.mp3

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - Deliverance Road.mp3

Adrienne Young - River and a Dirt Road.mp3

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Home, Home On The Road

Thanks to all the riders on the Bus who have left such supportive comments. This time away from the driver’s seat has been a mixed blessing for me. It has been nice to come home from the plant each day with nothing more to do than relax a bit. I’ve even had time to tune up an Autoharp and make a little music. On the other hand, I have missed my friends on the Bus and the good music and conversation that have come to be such an important part of my life.

During the past week I have updated my resume and put a few feelers out to test the job market. Fortunately, there appears to be an abundance of work in my field and I already have several standing offers. My wife has convinced me that, if we are going to make a move, we should go somewhere we haven’t been before. That’s a tall order considering our past gypsy lifestyle. The thought of leaving our home in Virginia is both exciting and at the same time a bit anxious. We have never been in one place as long as we have been at home here in Virginia.

One’s home can evoke strong emotions, whether it is the home one has left behind or an yet unseen new home in some distant land. Such strong emotions are the perfect fodder for song. Let’s get this old Bus back on the road with a few songs of home.

Fred Holstein - Goin' Home.mp3

J. E. Mainer - Home Sweet Home.mp3

The Swingbillies - Leavin' Home.mp3

Bill Clifton - Old Cottage Home.Mp3

Carter Family - Lonesome Homesick Blues.mp3

Reno & Harrell - Long Journey Home.mp3

Reno & Smiley - Old Home Place.mp3

The Country Gentlemen - Green Green Grass Of Home.mp3

Cheryl Wheeler - His Hometown.mp3
As one who has never spent much time in one place, I have always been fascinated by those whom have spent their entire lives in the same place as their forefathers. This song from Cheryl Wheeler (who moved from her home in Baltimore to live in New England) captures that fascination perfectly.
Learn more about Cheryl Wheeler, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and buy her CDs at

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Gone Fishin'

Lately, I have not been able to devote enough time to these daily ramblings as I would like to. Between work and family concerns I have had little time left to prepare coherent posts.

As many of you know, for most of last year I was working mandatory overtime at the industrial wasteland where I make a living and was denied the much needed vacation that I had planned. For the past two months I have had it easy, only working a standard 40 hour work week. I tried to leave my bitterness with the job behind. That came to an end last week with my assignment to a large project and the return of mandatory overtime. I was forewarned that an even bigger project was on the horizon.

This annual exploitation has taken a toll. After a 10-12 hour day at the plant I have little energy for much else. With the return of mandatory overtime and the thought of another year of missed time with my family, my only option is to pursue other employment opportunities.

As much as I enjoy these daily posts and the conversations that ensue, these daily posts are an additional item on my already full plate. I will be taking a little time to take stock of my options and to just relax a bit. Until the dust settles I will only be posting as time and inspiration allow.

Henry Thomas - Fishin' Blues.mp3

Monday, February 04, 2008

"Hey Mister, Throw Me Somethin'!"

Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Chris Graythen

It’s Fat Tuesday, folks! Mardi Gras!

For several years the Old Blue Bus was parked on a small lot of land in Boutte (Boo-Tee), Louisiana, just off Hwy 90 west of New Orleans. Your humble driver managed to survive the annual 'round-the-clock party that is Carnival Week in New Orleans for three years in a row. I was fortunate enough to share the good times with some fellow gypsies and very good friends such as this happy reveler, our good friend Joey.

It's been more than twenty-five years since I've been able to make it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I have celebrated every year no matter where the Bus was parked. For the past few years, the company that I work for has helped to make the celebration more complete. The company is based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While the home office is closed today for the holiday, those of us working on sites far from the party will receive a fresh King Cake sent overnight from New Orleans.

In these times when it’s difficult to tell one city from another, with a Wal-Mart in each suburb and a Starbucks on every corner, New Orleans is a unique American city. It’s a shame that our government has compounded the mess made by Katrina. I hope that New Orleans will rise from the mud to take its place once again as one of the truly amazing cities in the world.

Professor Longhair - Go to the Mardi Gras.mp3

Food Stamp Blues - Treme Brass Band.mp3
Large file (12.7 MB)

Beau Jocque - Git It, Beau Jocque!.mp3

To learn more about Mardi Gras in New Orleans and watch live cams of the parades and celebrations visit

Laissez les bons temps rouler!