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.
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.
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.