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

11 Comments:

Blogger kjk said...

I think i fall in the "not so good" category ;)

February 25, 2008 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Ed, I am always in awe of the encyclopedic research that you bring to the musical history table ... you DO realize that a lot of this information would normally be found only in Master- or Doctor-level theses? This is but one more reason the riders on the bus consider you such a wise and valuable resource - there's so much more to music than just the notes that are played ...

Since Gib Tanner was in the lead-off slot, I was kinda looking to see if he wouldn't also be joined by Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers on this one ... oh well - maybe next time ...

Thanks for another informative, entertaining, and highly listenable selection of songs - btw, where'd you find the Holy Modal Rounders? Hadn't thought of them since the 'purple haze' days of my yute ...

February 25, 2008 4:34 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Ken, There are plenty of songs that are only recognizable to me when I play them. Those are the ones I play just for my own enjoyment.

February 26, 2008 7:38 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Richard, Thanks for the kind words. I am no expert, but I do enjoy reading and learning from those that are.

I just couldn’t resist a bit of The Holy Modal Rounders unique blend of psychedelic-folk.

February 26, 2008 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Been a while since I heard some good fiddlin'. Thank ya much!

See, I do check-in every so often ;)

February 28, 2008 10:25 AM  
Anonymous dan said...

I really don't know how you're going to fit even a choice few of these historic recordings onto the CD that will accompany your book, Ed. I echo Richard's voice. This is stuff that takes us to a higher level. I've got my fingers and toes crossed, hoping that the ticket price for a ride on the Bus isn't about to go through the roof.

February 28, 2008 6:24 PM  
Anonymous black dog said...

HI Ed, The call of the open road sounds pretty good to me these days. While listening to the Rounders and Muleskinner you can listen and travel at the same time. The view from the front seat is just close enough to make this exercise work. SO thanks for the ride. I'm sure I heard some sort of version of this tune in the irish sessions around here. It might be violins and the repetition but theory travels. And from your description of things I'm sure I've heard this tune.
There's some mean mandolin playin' in this line up of tunes.

Foot forward friend. I think I've got what you've got. It's goin' around.

all thoughts fly... k.

February 29, 2008 6:26 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Dan, Thanks for the kind words once again. These are the posts that I enjoy the most. Recently I have not been able to post as often as I would like. Rather than park the bus, I have decided to post less often and spend a little more time on the subject I post.

A book, eh? I do like the idea. If I ever get to retire, a book would be a fun project. In the mean time the bus will roll on. As always the rides are free.

March 02, 2008 4:20 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi K, You are right about listening and traveling. That is one of the beauties of music. It has the ability to take one away.

Are you getting a case of “itchy feet”? I do miss the traveling, but one thing I have learned on the road is that the grass is not always greener.

March 02, 2008 4:25 PM  
Anonymous bredan said...

i find it very hard to resist the rounders music myself. check out the new Bound To Lose documentary on them and anybody'd be hooked.

very interesting post on this tune, that i always resist for some reason. your study of it changes that for me.

must find this muleskinner record. clarence white plays it on youtube as well... lightspeed!

March 09, 2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Bredan, I have yet to see "Bound To Lose", but it is on my watch list.

The Muleskinner LP is becoming a rarity, but worth the hunt.

March 09, 2008 9:58 PM  

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