Sunday, July 06, 2008

Blackberry Blossom

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, 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)
Burnett And Ruttledge - Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (1930)

Clyde Davenport - Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (Berea College - 1984)
Courtesy of Digital Library of Appalachia

Blackberry Blossom (Celtic)
Leo Rowsome & His Irish Pipers Band – Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (1937)

Blackberry Blossom (Arthur Smith)
Arthur Smith & the Delmore Brothers - Blackberry Blossom.mp3

Norman Blake - Blackberry Blossom.mp3 (1977)
From his 1977 LP Blackberry Blossom on Flying Fish Records, re-released in 2000 and available from Rounder Records.

Kara Barnard - Blackberry Blossom.mp3
A delightful version from Indiana based multi-instrumentalist Kara Barnard. Hear more at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great history lesson. These are all good tunes. But, as usual, I drift toward the older ones. Also as usual, I'll add something not pertinent to the music. It's a little saying that deals with the time between the blossom and the berry that goes like this: "A blackberry is red when it's green." Think about it.

July 07, 2008 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Great toe-tappin' versions, particularely the celtic, Blake's, & Barnard's.

Emily noticed Sunday that my hands were scratched up and ran to the frig hollering "blackberries!"

July 08, 2008 12:06 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Anonymous, So true - "red when it's green"

July 08, 2008 9:20 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Lucy, We got tired of having to pay for our berries with blood. A few years ago we planted thornless bushes We've found we had to share more with the birds though, hence the bird netting in the photo.

July 08, 2008 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!

I already had the Leo Rowsome tune, along with three others recorded with it. But I did not have the Arthur Smith tune, my GOD that is good! Thank you very much. :)

I grew up in western Washington state, so I found the remarks about blackberries to be fun. I have picked a hell of a lot of blackberries. They actually start off green, then turn red (lol, and are still "green"), then finally ripen at purple-black. So an accurate saying would be that a red blackberry is still a "green" one.

Keep up the great posts!
Edward Dawson

July 09, 2008 10:05 AM  
Anonymous black dog said...

Hello ED,

Hey for once I'm keeping up with the berries. Some of my friends here are Donnegal fiddlers and yes, I've actually danced to this tune.

Good looking plate of berries there. It's too early here but they'll be along.

Good article Ed. Just checking in; it's pretty busy around here and so nice to sit back and listen to good tunes when I get the chance.

all thoughts fly... k.

July 09, 2008 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Hi Ed,
I had no idea that I'd send you on a research project when I asked about this title! I've returned to live radio (Bluegrass radio) and, even though a million artists have attempted this song with varying degrees of success, it occurred to me that I've never known the history of this melody. To be honest, the only time I've been near a blueberry patch was by accident. Like most folk, I buy mine from local farmers, or at the supermarket. I've always loved this tune. Thanks for the leg work!

July 10, 2008 6:46 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Edward, Thanks for the kind words. Summer just wouldn't be the same without blackberries.

July 10, 2008 9:01 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

k, The Bus has slowed down a bit making it much easier to keep up with. I'm glad you got a chance to catch up. Don't work too hard.

July 10, 2008 9:05 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Hi Dan, Thanks for the inspiration and encouragement.

I'm glad to hear you have returned to radio. When you return from feeding the fish up north you'll have to write and tell me all about it.

July 10, 2008 9:08 PM  
Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Blackberries without thorns. What kind of Frankenstein food you eating down there Ed?

July 10, 2008 9:38 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

No Frankenfood here, Beer. These thornless bushes are just easier on the hands and just as tasty.

July 10, 2008 9:47 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

I have to agree with Mr. BNH; thornless blackberry bushes just seem wrong. I can hear my grandfather now... "You kids now-a-days have it so easy. Back in my day we had thorns to deal with and it made us tough!" Then he'd have another drink and start singing old Irish song... I miss him

July 15, 2008 11:55 AM  
Blogger 田园树 said...

GREAT! In fact I hadn't seen blackberries before I come to USA.

July 18, 2008 9:21 PM  

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