Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection


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Henry Reed: His Life, Influence, and Art

Cultural Threads in Henry Reed's Fiddling Style

Gripping the bow at the frog facilitates the use of long bowstrokes and "slurs" (as concert violinists call them)--bowstrokes that incorporate more than one musical note on the same stroke. A hallmark of Henry Reed's playing is what he and other fiddlers called a "longbow style" of playing the fiddle. This style makes use of multiple slurs that join together two, three, or four notes on the same bowstroke. The slurs are not random, but are executed in complex patterns that mix separate and slurred bowstrokes in an elaborate syncopation. The syncopation consists primarily of groupings of slurred and separate strokes into threes as well as twos and fours, causing an offbeat pattern to emerge as a rhythmic counterpoint to the basic duple beat. Henry Reed and other fiddlers, incidentally, marked the beat by patting or tapping their foot — typically, in Henry Reed's case, the heel, not the toe.

This complex syncopated bowing style is not unique to Henry Reed, though he is a splendid exemplar of it. The style is documented among older fiddlers from Virginia to Texas in twentieth-century recordings, and it represents an important feature of American culture. It appears to have evolved in the early nineteenth century in the Upper South and to have been diffused with westward migration to those areas of the trans-Allegheny West that received migration from the Upper South in the nineteenth century. The syncopated patterns seem to be an African-American influence that first appeared in fiddling during the Early Republic, when perhaps half the fiddlers in the Upper South were African American. These patterns have influenced the shape of American music ever since, from the minstrel stage of the 1840s through ragtime, blues, jazz, country music, and rock-and-roll in the twentieth century. They suggest that the early fiddlers of the Upper South, both black and white, achieved a dramatic cultural synthesis of European and African musical forms and concepts, helping to launch and shape the character of what all the world by the twentieth century would regard as one of America's great cultural contributions to the world — American music.

Another stylistic feature worth noting in Henry Reed's tunes is not rhythmic but melodic. The typical fiddle tune of the past two centuries in the English-speaking world is composed of two strains, each strain being usually a complete melodic idea of four phrases. The rendition typically begins with the low strain (that is, the strain that is lower in pitch), which is repeated, then moves on to the high strain, which is repeated. This constitutes the entire tune, and the musician returns to the beginning of the low strain to repeat the entire tune as many times as are called for by his taste or the dancers' need.

Tunes fitting this overall pattern abound in the repertory of Henry Reed, including virtually all the tunes known to be of British origin and others that are American creations. But there is also a large class of tunes in his repertory that have the opposite shape. They begin with the high strain, not the low strain. What is more, the high strain is often the more important strain of the tune, and the low strain may be closer to what might be described as filler, reversing the typical emphasis of British-American fiddle tunes on the lower strain. There may be some slender European (or African) precedents for this high-to-low pattern, but it so happens that American-Indian music of the Eastern woodlands and plains abounds in tunes beginning at the top of the melodic contour and cascading downward. It would be easier to account for the melodic contour of "Kitchen Girl," "Ducks in the Pond," "Forked Deer," and dozens of other Henry Reed tunes that seem to be the cultural progeny of the Upper South by supposing that the creative ferment that produced them included not only European and African influences, but a touch of American-Indian influence as well.


Henry Reed and Bobbie Thompson playing their instruments
enlarge image icon  Henry Reed playing the fiddle, accompanied by Bobbie Thompson of the Hollow Rock String Band on guitar, at the Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. Photograph by Kit Olson, from the collection of Jessica Thompson Eustice. Reproduced with permission.