As the helpful introduction makes clear, this is no ordinary tune book. It’s likely to spend as much time near your reading chair or laptop as on your music stand. “While we do not envision this book as primarily for fiddlers wanting to learn tunes,” the authors write, “we recognize that fiddlers can sometimes puzzle over what exactly is happening in a particular passage on a recording. We hope our detailed transcriptions will help fiddlers unravel some of these challenging passages.” Like the transcriptions by Liberty Rucker and Alan Jabbour in Jabbour’s Henry Reed collection, Fiddle Tunes Illuminated, the notated tunes in Appalachian Fiddle Music are loaded with information about what’s happening in any given moment in a particular fiddler’s recorded version. If this makes them more suitable for study than for sight reading, that’s in keeping with the central argument of the book, that the fiddlers included here represent a sophisticated and complex tradition of music that includes performances for listening as well as for dancing and intended for an audience appreciative of subtleties of style and interpretation.
One limitation of some tune books is that they put the emphasis on playing notes rather than on discovering what’s actually happening in a tune, and this volume can serve as a corrective as well as a guide, especially for fiddlers new to the tradition who approach it by working through lists of tunes rather than by paying attention to models. The authors are clear in their insistence that no transcription can catch everything that’s happening in a performance, and in their respect for a tradition that has relied on aural learning to pass along not just the notes shaping a tune but the possibilities for elaboration and variation and transformation. (The annotations call attention to similar tunes with different titles and to differing versions of the same tune, as well as to the complications when very different tunes share the same title.) They are also aware of the variety of resources available to a student of the music, from skeletal versions of melodies in online and in printed collections, to scholarly studies and detailed transcriptions, to the historical and field recordings that are easily found on YouTube or in internet archives (so easily that the authors have not included the usual CD of examples). Like the old Whole Earth Catalog, with its promise of “access to tools,” this book allows you to figure out what you’d like to do and then shows you where you’d go to learn about how to do it. And the authors provide plenty of information to get you started, beginning with a historical and theoretical introduction that also explains their procedures.
Lyrics, for example, are included only by way of brief examples; they are, the authors note, available elsewhere. Offensive lyrics or references are “generally avoided” because “We want this book to be an excellent overview for general readers; other scholarly works deal more pointedly with this difficult but important topic.” Transcriptions were prepared by Drew Beisswenger, “with a fresh ear, typically slowing down the tune to 20% speed and writing down exactly what he heard to the best of his ability.” A concise, but detailed history outlines the origins and characteristics and community functions of the music. At the end of the introductory section is a map of the Southern Appalachians with a dot for the location of each fiddler, and this sets up the rest of the book, which is organized by the state in which each musician was most active.
Within the section for the state, each fiddler is represented by a photo and an anecdotal biography, highlighting the musician’s background, musical education (most often from family members or neighbors), playing experience and circumstances, day job, and recording opportunities. These make for good reading as well as demonstrating how varied in their experiences, how integrated into their communities, and how dedicated to their art these musicians were. The biographies are followed by a selection of tunes, each with a headnote summarizing its musical characteristics and a more comprehensive footnote. The annotations to the tunes acknowledge where Beisswenger was unsure about details such as the placement of bar lines or where the other authors heard things differently; they also provide information on the source material, the primary scales or modes at work, the tunings, variations, the history of the tunes (with suggestions about where to find out more), and comparative versions, some included in the book and some not. And, not infrequently, there are good stories about the players or the tune’s origins along with the pleasure of the transcriber’s wit. “It’s hard to know what to say about this tune,” he writes of Ed Haley’s “Old Sledge.” “One almost needs mapmaking skills to sort it out.” Of Norman Edmonds’ “Train on the Island,” he comments, “Played in a syncopated tied-note style, with sometimes-stark fifths, and with no guitar backup, the tune has an unhinged quality.” This good-humored mock-exasperation shifts easily into frank admiration, as in his description of French Carpenter’s “Old Christmas Morning” as “an extraordinary recording, and an excellent example of an open-tuned old-scale crooked tune with mysterious, likely Old World elements.”
This is a thoughtful, well-produced book that will get better and better the more the reader puts into it. Want to learn about one of “the very few women to compete in fiddlers conventions in the 1930s, and one of even fewer to win”? The biography of Emma Lee Dickerson of Kentucky will tell you about her early success, her “fiery and rhythmic approach to dance tunes that belied her reserved nature,” and how she stopped fiddling at eighteen to raise her family, then went back to the instrument after thirty years, and it will point you towards the Berea College archives where her tunes are available online along with an article, “Finding Emma Lee Dickerson,” by Anna Roberts-Gevalt. Then there are transcriptions and annotations for five of her tunes. You could read about her, explore that archive, pick a tune to learn by ear, and check what you’re hearing and playing against what Beisswenger heard and wrote down. Then you could pick up your fiddle and try it again.