Notes 60.1 (2003) 138-140
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Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes. By Jeff Todd Titon. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001. [xviii, 245 p. ISBN 0-8131-2200-7. $45.] Music examples, illustrations, map, bibliography, index, compact disc.
Although fiddling is a vital folk music tradition in America, there are far fewer scholarly books on fiddling than one would expect. There are hundreds of tunebooks available from popular music presses, but generally they are written for players wanting to learn new tunes and provide little in the way of documentation. It is rare to find a tunebook that gives good scholarly descriptions of the tunes and their origins. One example is Samuel P. Bayard's Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982). Bayard transcribed the tunes of living players in western Pennsylvania and documented the history of each tune. Titon follows a similar pattern in documenting the tunes of fiddlers from Kentucky.
Titon's book is written for two audiences: for old-time players who want to learn new tunes, and also for scholars who want to learn more about the tradition. It is primarily a tunebook, with 170 tunes (nearly two hundred transcriptions with the variants) transcribed from recordings of Kentucky fiddlers. Many of the transcriptions were made from field and home recordings found only in archival and private collections. They represent rare regional tunes and variant forms of familiar tunes not found elsewhere.
According to Titon the term "old time" has a special meaning in this book. That is music "largely from the nineteenth century, with important sources in the dance music of Britain and Ireland, the music of the minstrel stage, the marches and military music of the Civil War, and the unmistakable, though not well documented, transformations and influences wrought by African and Native Americans" (p. xv). It is "old time" music before the influences of ragtime, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. The term "fiddle tune" also has a special meaning, referring to music primarily for dancing, but also for listening, contests, and public and ceremonial gatherings.
Titon has limited this collection to Kentucky because of the diversity and high quality of tunes in that state and also to bring to light rare local tunes that have not been published elsewhere. He chose fiddlers who had lived long enough in Kentucky to absorb the local and regional traditions. Some of these fiddlers were known outside Kentucky, such as Doc Roberts, Leonard Rutherford, and Ed Haley, but most were previously known only in their local areas. Many were born in the nineteenth century and all but five have died. In the last section of the book, Titon gives "Capsule Biographies" for each of the thirty-five fiddlers whose tunes he transcribed. This adds a great deal of value and context to the collection.
Titon begins with a twenty-seven page introduction that offers one of the best scholarly discussions of old-time fiddling. Using personal stories of the fiddlers, he creates a feeling for the context in which the tradition lives. Particularly engaging are the stories of Clyde Davenport, whom Titon studied personally, and those of the Salyer family. Because record companies gave so little of their profits back to the actual performers, John Salyer declined to be recorded commercially in the 1930s. Luckily, he did make a number of home recordings in the 1940s, which have since become a valuable resource for learning about his music.
Although the current generation of fiddlers can learn about any style in the world from recordings, there is no substitute for actually hearing and studying living musicians, either in their homes or, more typically today, at festivals, music camps, and fiddlers' contests and conventions. Such fiddle events offer many opportunities to participate in small jam sessions, the best places to hear, play, and learn old-time music. These jam sessions have their own social rules and etiquette. Respect is required for elder fiddlers who have mastered a style and repertory of tunes. The most skilled fiddlers usually start the tunes, but as Titon notes, "...skill isn...