One of the joys of early summer is the bushes out back, heavy with ripe blueberries and blackberries. This morning we gathered baskets full of succulent berries, sampling the sweet, pump berries as we picked. Soon the kitchen will be filled with the sugary sweet aroma of blueberry pies fresh from the oven and blackberry preserves simmering in the pot.
I don’t know if our good friend and long-time Bus rider, Dan, had been picking berries in Ontario this weekend, or if something else had inspired him to write with an inquiry about the origins of the song “Blackberry Blossom.” Whatever the impetus for the question, the answer would depend on which “Blackberry Blossom” one has in mind.
Named for the delicate white blossoms that precede the delicious fruits, “Blackberry Blossom,” is an oft played favorite of Old Time, Bluegrass, and Celtic musicians, but like the bushes that yield the tender, sweet berries, the song is found in a variety of species.
At least three distinct tunes, and possibly five, go by the title “Blackberry Blossom.” Which one comes to mind first depends on one’s preferred listening habits. To followers of bluegrass music “Blackberry Blossom” is a standard played, some would say ‘overplayed’, by just about every musician with even the slightest ties to bluegrass music. This “Blackberry Blossom” was written by Tennessee fiddler Arthur Smith (not to be confused with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith) and first recorded by the Arthur Smith Trio in 1929. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith was one of the most influential of master fiddlers from the Tennessee Valley. Legend has it that Smith first played the then untitled tune on a WSM broadcast and asked listeners to provide a title. The station received bushels of mail and from the stacks of letters the title “Blackberry Blossom” was selected, submitted by a woman from Arkansas.
Old Time musicians also consider “Blackberry Blossom” a standard fiddle tune, but this favorite fiddle tune has no connection to Arthur Smith’s later song. This “Blackberry Blossom” is a favorite dance tune from northeastern Kentucky. First recorded in 1930 by Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett and guitarist Oscar Ruttledge this tune was the signature fiddle tune of legendary fiddler Ed Haley (1883-1951) from Ashland, Kentucky. On the West Virginia side of the border the tune often goes by the title “Yew Piney Mountain.” Perhaps to distinguish this tune from Arthur Smith’s John Hartford recorded the song under the title “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” a title often used today. According to Jean Thomas's Ballad Makin' in the Mountains of Kentucky, the Garfield title comes from a story about General Garfield inquiring about the title of the song he heard a soldier play on his harmonica during the Civil War. The soldier claimed he could not remember the title, whereupon he spat a stream of tobacco juice onto a white blackberry bush blossom. As unlikely as this story sounds, fiddler Ed Morrison claims to have learnt the song from his harmonica-playing father who often heard General Garfield whistling the tune.
The “Blackberry Blossom” that I am least familiar with is a traditional Irish reel from at least 1850, if not earlier. This “Blackberry Blossom”,” according to Alan Ng’s Irishtune.info, is also known as “Blat Na Smeur,” “Bargy,” or “Strawberry Beds” and was first recorded by accordion player John J. Kimmel in 1916. This “Blackberry Blossom” is quite popular with Celtic performers on this side of the Atlantic as well as the Emerald Isle, being popular from Prince Edward Island to Pennsylvania. Most likely played on the pipes or accordion originally, this song probably made the trip to North America as many songs from the British Isles did, via the fiddle. This Celtic “Blackberry Blossom” has been recorded by master Cape Breton fiddler Buddy McMaster as well as his equally talented daughter Natalie.
A quick search through my references turned up at least three more songs with the title “Blackberry Blossom,” but none that could match the longevity of the three distinctly different tunes mentioned above. I am not surprised that the dainty white blossoms that herald the juicy, black clusters that my family and I look forward to each summer could have been the inspiration for three songs from three noticeably different cultures that have each become traditional favorites in their own right.
Blackberry Blossom (Old Time)
Courtesy of Digital Library of Appalachia
Blackberry Blossom (Celtic)
Blackberry Blossom (Arthur Smith)
From his 1977 LP Blackberry Blossom on Flying Fish Records, re-released in 2000 and available from Rounder Records.
A delightful version from Indiana based multi-instrumentalist Kara Barnard. Hear more at KaraBarnard.com.