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Collection Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection

The Historical and Cultural Significance of Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier

Henry Reed's fiddle music provides an excellent example of the historical dynamics of folk culture in the Upper South. Born in 1884 along the Virginia-West Virginia border in the Appalachian Mountains, Henry Reed learned fiddle and banjo before the turn of the century and showed an amazing ability to absorb and remember music wherever and whenever he encountered it. His repertory thus presents a sort of aural encyclopedia of the history and cultural life of one of America's most important and influential cultural regions.

The fiddle — that is, the modern European violin — arrived in North America in the seventeenth century. In the later eighteenth century, European manufacturers made the violin cheap and readily accessible. As it became the new instrument of choice, its democratization fostered a revolution in dance music in the English-speaking world. One regional flowering that grew out of this cultural revolution occurred in the Piedmont and the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.  The fiddle tunes and the fiddle style of the old frontier were carried westward as settlement expanded into the trans-Allegheny West. At the same time, with the rise of the minstrel stage, the fiddle tunes of the old frontier carried their energy and creative musical ferment — including a synthesis of not only British but African and perhaps Native-American cultural elements — from the rural Upper South into American popular music.

Many of Henry Reed's instrumental tunes have precedents in British tradition dating back to the late eighteenth century — tunes such as "Leather Britches," which began life as a Scottish reel, or "George Booker," which can be traced to a Scottish strathspey. Other tunes seem to have circulated primarily in America in the same period, like "Ricketts' Hornpipe," named after the late eighteenth-century circus entrepreneur John Bill Ricketts. A large number of Henry Reed's tunes are redolent of the cultural experience of the early frontier. Such tunes as "Ducks in the Pond," "Cabin Creek," "Folding Down the Sheets," "Over the Waterfall," or "Frosty Morning" are perhaps the quintessential fiddle tunes of the old frontier.

Yet though the old frontier is often imagined as an isolated place, the evidence of the music suggests a region in the midst of the crosscurrents of a still-evolving nation. In addition to the old dance tunes, the collection contains marches such as "British Field March" and "Santa Anna's Retreat," learned from Quince Dillion, a fifer in the Mexican War and an old man when Henry Reed was a boy. There are waltzes, schottisches, clogs, and other dance tunes reflecting both ballroom fashions and ethnic immigration to America in the middle and later nineteenth century, and there are also popular songs from the mid-nineteenth century on, such as Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"). A clutch of turn-of-the-century tunes reflects the arrival of ragtime in both folk and popular music, and some twentieth century tunes bring Reed's tradition closer to the present with influences garnered from radio, records, and modern styles such as bluegrass and country-and-western music.

The titles of many of the tunes add a colorful and evocative dimension to the collection, conjuring up people and places, incidents and functions, stuff and nonsense that is part of the texture of the culture of the Appalachian frontier. Many of the titles are resonant fragments of rhymes and jingles associated with the tunes. Others serve as a point of entry for interesting stories, a few of which are narrated by Henry Reed himself in the recordings. Where Henry Reed did not supply a title himself, the compilers have assigned a title in brackets, usually a name by which the tune is commonly known, to make the collection more conveniently searchable. Notes and musical analyses help the student of the tunes in this collection to learn more about the history, diffusion, musical features, and performance. The collection includes a number of tune transcriptions, which indicate Henry Reed's complex bowing patterns. A glossary and a guide to related published resources are included to facilitate comparative historical and cultural research.

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