Devils, fiddling blacksmiths, admirals, the ubiquitous Sally, mysterious men with swine-like faces, beasts of burden, lines from an old ballad, ancient lands, and battlefield maneuvers can be found in the names of instrumental fiddle tunes. Without lyrics to support them, these tune titles become magical disembodied images that hover over us each time we rest the bow on our violins. Often we can only guess what they mean or how they came to be. The folk process is a multi-faceted and complex state of being. It demands a lot of sleuthing and doesn’t afford us the answers to every inquiry. There are many dead ends. Enter the imagination.
An eternal student of traditional culture and music, I have spent countless hours sitting in my “parlour” and imagining things with my brain. Whether I’m reading the old weird tales of Lord Dunsany, pondering the speculative imagination of Sir James George Frazer, or sonically traveling the world while listening to Pat Conte’s Secret Museum of Mankind collection, I often find myself imagining the real with the unreal. For me, this double fiddle project represents a similar endeavor.
Susan Platz and I have studied the melodies, rhythms and bowing of many great fiddlers both dead and alive. You could call it an obsession. We have also grown fond of the fiddle duets by Dan Gellert & Brad Leftwich, Rafe & Clelia Stefanini, and Tricia Spencer & Howard Rains. And naturally, we love the old Cajun fiddle duets of Dennis McGee & Sady Courville, as well as the duets of modern Cajun fiddlers Joel Savoy & Linzay Young and Michael Doucet & Mitch Reed. However, there is a tremendous dearth of double fiddle recordings from the golden era of “old-time” records. It’s difficult to ascertain how commonplace double fiddling was back in the day. With the handful of double fiddle recordings from Bob Walters, John Summers, Judge Dan White and Jehile Kirkhuff, it’s certainly worth further investigation. This project has allowed us to take inspiration from the aforementioned old-time fiddlers, as well as some of the sounds we love in Cajun, Scandinavian, accordion and bagpipe music. Together we’ve imagined a tapestry of drone and harmony that unites with the old-time tunes and rhythms we love so much. As this is quite possibly the first American old-time fiddle duet album, we hope that we do them justice. Cheers! —David Bragger
This double fiddle collaboration can be traced back to a fateful day in September 2010 when I attended one of David’s workshops at a local festival. Little did I know that he would unlock an undiscovered musical world for me. At that point, I’d played violin all my life and studied voice in school, but had only dabbled in the realm of traditional music. Under David’s mentorship, I was introduced to the haunting, beautiful, driving, and mesmerizing sounds of old-time fiddle music from the likes of Edden Hammons, John Salyer, Ed Haley, Tommy Jarrell, and dozens more. David has passed down these tunes to me aurally, as they have been for hundreds of years. By skillfully distilling the bow patterns used by the old fiddle masters, David educated me on the bowing nuances that create a distinctive old-time energy and drive. He also instilled in me a commitment to preserving these historical capsules by playing them with faithfulness to the source musicians. Double fiddle harmonizing does offer a more newfangled take on traditional old-time music, but it’s not unprecedented. The fiddle duets of old-time Cajun musicians Dennis McGee and Sady Courville stand out as the pinnacle of the fiddle duet art form. Plus, some of the richest and most beautiful harmonies can be found in old-time vocal music. Adding a second “voice” to these fiddle tunes challenged me and allowed me to put a creative stamp on beloved traditional tunes while still honoring the original style. I couldn’t be more thrilled to present this duet album with my musical mentor and collaborator. Special thanks to my parents for their perpetual support and love of music. —Susan Platz
Sources: Ed Haley, WV/KY, and Tom Sauber, CA
I originally learned this “Blind Ed” Haley tune from my mentor Tom Sauber around the year 2000 just before he recorded it with Tom, Brad and Alice on their CD We’ll Die in the Pig Pen Fighting. Brad Leftwich played fiddle on that recording. Since then, I’ve delved deeper into the mysteries of Ed Haley’s recording and grown rather fond of certain Haley-esque variations. The high section of this tune has a beautiful uplifting IV-I-V-I chord progression that we knew would be perfect for fiddle chording. Susan ran with this idea and created a wonderful patchwork of lush chord voicing and tight harmonies.
Ed Haley was born in Logan County, West Virginia, in 1885. After losing his sight to childhood measles, his uncle gave him a fiddle and he became one of the most revered fiddlers in old-time music. He traveled extensively to perform but never made commercial recordings. Later on, he recorded for his family on a Wilcox-Gay disc-cutting machine. It is these recordings that have inspired so many modern old-time fiddlers. Although many of these recordings still have not seen the light of day, an enormous Ed Haley reissue project is currently underway from Spring Fed Records.
Paddy on the Turnpike
Source: Lee Hammons, WV, and Jimmy Triplett, NC
A common title associated with many melodies, this version comes from Lee Hammons. I first heard this track on the masterful album Natural History by Jimmy Triplett. That led me to the field recording of Lee Hammons and I’ve been playing and teaching it ever since. I met Susan Platz while teaching a fiddle workshop for the California Traditional Music Society. This was one of the tunes I taught that day. She was instantly smitten by old-time fiddle because of this tune. Naturally, it had to be on our album!
Source: Mel Durham, IL/CA, and Tom Sauber, CA
The “King” refers to fiddling blacksmith George King from Johnsonville, IL. Sadly, the reason for his lamentation is lost forever in the missing pages of time. I originally picked this tune up from both Tom Sauber and Mel Durham. Tom’s method for breaking down tunes and bowing really helped me understand the intricacies of Mel’s playing when I was getting started. It would later influence my own teaching method.
Mel Durham (1914-2008) was an Illinois-born fiddler/bass player who played in Los Angeles frequently when I began studying old-time fiddle. I was in total awe over his repertoire. He turned me onto the tunes of ex-slave Alonzo Janes and many other tunes from the Durham family canon. Incidentally, two of his tunes, “Going to the Free State” and “Jingle at the Window, Tidy-O,” were recorded by Susan and myself on my solo album, Big Fancy. We’ve always had a very special place in our heart for “Mel” tunes. I even named a bow pattern after him.
A very similar melody is known as “Dickey’s Discovery,” played by southern Indiana fiddler Lotus Dickey. However, Mel insisted that he played it first!
Source: Andrew Burnside, WV
This tune, not to be confused with other melodies named “Hell Up Coal Holler,” comes from West Virginia fiddler Andrew Burnside. There is a beautiful photograph taken at the Glenville Folk Festival in WV (circa 1956) of Burnside playing with accompanist Gilbert Massey. The one-legged Massey is “beating the strings” of Burnside’s fiddle in this exquisite photo. The technique of percussively playing sticks against a fiddle is often referred to as “fiddlesticks.” The field recording of the duo showcases that “fiddlesticks” arrangement. For our recording, Susan and I are playing two fiddles and taking advantage of the drones and strange harmonies that arise out of Burnside’s peculiar sense of scale. At times, our recording sounds reminiscent of Scandinavian fiddling.
The Forked Deer of Fannin
Source: Glen Fannin, KY, and Bruce Greene, NC
I first heard this tune from Bruce Greene at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in 2015. It knocked me over like a ton of bricks! After returning home from Washington, I located the field recording of “Forked Deer” that Bruce collected from Kentucky fiddler Glen Fannin. Fannin was originally from Magoffin County, Kentucky, the land of John Salyer, but later moved to North Fairfield, Ohio. Although one can hear the relationship to the common version of “Forked Deer,” this tune sounds extremely different and otherworldly. It’s a thing of modal, crooked beauty. During an attempt at recording a solo version for Big Fancy I realized that my version needed something else. I hinted to Susan that it might be a candidate for our project if she could come up with something that would create the sound of a “sinister accordion.” She invented some dark harmonic passages along with a magical drone. For the high strain of the tune, she turned her fiddle into a squeeze box. It’s one of our favorite duets now.
Source: K.C. Kartchner, AZ, and Tom Sauber, CA
This tune comes from Kenner Casteel Kartchner (1886-1970), an Arizona-born Mormon pioneer fiddler. K.C. Kartchner was in high demand as a dance fiddler in Arizona and New Mexico. In addition to being known as the “fiddlin’ forest ranger,” Kartchner had a variety of other occupations: cowpuncher, store clerk, sheep shearer, game warden, and federal Fish and Wildlife Service official. Through the presence and teaching of Tom Sauber, several of Kartchner’s tunes have spread beyond the confines of California and into the far reaches of the old-time world. Many of his tunes are played regularly in these parts, including “Rattlesnake,” “Black Hills Waltz” and “Walk Along John to Kansas.”
In this version, I’ve chosen to incorporate some of the subtle rhythmic nuances that Tom Sauber demonstrated when he originally taught me the tune, along with the original features of Kartchner’s rendition. In the original recording, Kartchner’s daughter Merle accompanies him on piano and announces the tunes. She also refers to this “cross” fiddle tuning as the “Italian key.”
Sally in the Garden
Source: Estill Bingham, KY, and One-Eyed Dog
One of my favorite “modern” old-time cassettes is One-Eyed Dog (Yodel-Ay-Hee – 008) with Dirk Powell, Tom Sauber and John Hermann. This was a hugely influential album for me. They played tunes from Earl and Max Collins, Uncle Dick Hutchinson, Edden Hammons, John Salyer, Snake Chapman, Arthur Smith, Uncle Dave and many others. All of the playing is extremely powerful. Although it deviates a bit from the archaic tonality of Estill Bingham’s original rendition, we have always loved Powell’s version of the tune and knew that its driving cross-tuned crookedness would speak beautifully with a harmony fiddle. It’s one of the first tunes we ever started playing together as a duo. It’s also the first one we recorded for this project.
Source: John Salyer, KY
“Sallie Cooper” is a driving GDAD tune. John Salyer’s recording is brilliant, as are other modern takes on his tune. Both Bruce Greene and Bruce Molsky play delectable versions. We delighted in experimenting with different scale approaches for this number. The piece transforms into something very different with two fiddles. Think drone and trance.
John Salyer (1882-1952) was a farmer from Salyersville in Magoffin County, Kentucky. He represented a local tradition of music that he inherited from his father as well as other relatives and neighbors. Salyer was another musician who refused to record commercially. We are extremely fortunate that he made home recordings for his sons Grover and Glen. We’re also very lucky that Bruce Greene’s persistence and love for this music brought them to the light of day.
Devil in Georgia
Source: Dock Roberts, KY
This tune is not to be mistaken for the Charlie Daniels country disco song from the 1970s. This piece is entirely different in nature. Its chordal structure was begging for some fiddle seconding. The low strain of the tune contains a beautiful descending line from Susan that is one of the most infectious harmonic fiddle lines that I’ve ever heard. I never thought a fiddle harmony would prove to be such an ear worm.
Dock Roberts (1897-1978) was a farmer and fiddler from Madison County, Kentucky. He was also an exceptional mandolinist. Dock learned many tunes from African-American fiddler Owen Walker. Dock’s fiddling is instantly recognizable to most old-time fiddlers. Elegant, precise, sweet and very controlled. He had a “modern” flare to his old-time fiddling that was superbly complemented on this tune by the guitar playing of Asa Martin, one of our favorite guitar players from the golden era.
Sources: Dave Bing, WV, and Maggie Hammons, WV
I learned this tune from West Virginia fiddle maestro Dave Bing about 12 years ago when he visited Los Angeles. After a week of workshops, Dave and I headed over to a vintage Hollywood tavern and I listened to his stories about the Hammons family. He spent years visiting with members of this great West Virginia old-time dynasty. Of particular note were the racy “toasts” that he learned from Sherman Hammons! This tune will always remind me of that wonderful week. Although this particular tune resembles the Henry Reed rendition, Dave learned it from the singing of Maggie Hammons.
Sources: Stafford Harris, TX, and Spencer and Rains, KS/TX
This has got to be one of the catchiest tunes we’ve heard in the last few years. It comes from Stafford Harris (1927-2010), a fiddler from Nacogdoches, Texas. Howard Rains learned it from Harris and recently recorded a beautiful string band version on Old Texas Fiddle Vol. 2. Stafford learned this tune from his grandfather and named it after his own father, Porter, since he never knew the tune’s name. It’s in the key of D with a bouncy, rolling, almost Cajun feel to it. It also has gorgeous chord changes with an amazing E chord! Howard has stated that if he were known for passing on only one tune to the world of old-time fiddle, it would have to be this one. This track is as much a tribute to the playing and endeavors of Spencer and Rains as it is a tribute to an amazing Texas tune.
Source: David Bragger, CA
Although this tune was originally ascribed to the elusive “Matthew Woodlake of LA,” we’ll let the truth be known. Matthew Woodlake does not exist. I composed the tune in honor of the “Admiral,” a nickname given to my daughter Leela Saraswati by her older sister, Maya Scheherazade. Dreamed up completely on their own, the girls had crafted a wacky to-do list including such items as “fight dance” and “songspell practice.” Apparently Maya had granted her younger sister some autonomy with the allowance of “Admiral’s choice.”
I composed the tune with two things in mind. First, I wanted to play with the notion of opposites. (Choices, as it were.) Each section is in a different key with two strikingly different moods. The dark, brooding A section is in a minor mode and contains far fewer notes than its spritely counterpart. The B section makes use of extra beats, happy arpeggios and meandering step-wise motion. Secondly, while under the musical spell of African-American fiddler Will Adam, I infused the composition with subtle elements of Adam’s unique repertoire. Susan’s fiddle seconding cradles the melody with a blend of heavy rhythmic chording and strange harmony.
Old Christmas Morning
Source: French Carpenter, WV, and Dan Gellert, OH
One of the most beautiful modal tunes ever, says we! There are many lovely versions of this tune out there from fiddlers including Wilson Douglas, Lee Hammons, Doc White, Dave Bing and Jimmy Triplett. I’ve always loved the French Carpenter version, which is quite up-tempo and action packed. In 2004, I heard a new take on French’s version. It was from Dan Gellert. From that point on, I had a new favorite version and a new favorite fiddler. Dan’s ability to transform old-time tunes with his personal spice and swagger has changed the way I approach fiddle, period. My obsession with Dan’s playing led to the founding of Tiki Parlour Recordings and our first DVD and CD set. In addition to incorporating Gellert’s take on the Carpenter version, we added Fiddle #2, shifted a few beats around, and came up with this.
The Old Reel
Source: Sarah Armstrong, PA
“The Old Reel,” aka “Sarah Armstrong’s Reel,” is a popular fiddle tune that has made the rounds throughout the country and beyond. Its implied chord progression is lush and uplifting. When Susan heard it, she knew it had to appear on the album. She worked out some beautiful seconding and now we can’t stop playing it. The tune comes from southwestern Pennsylvania fiddler Sarah Armstrong. Her tunes were collected by Samuel Bayard in his 1944 book, Hill Country Tunes. She is also the source for some other popular tunes with tender poetic titles like “Maggots in the Sheep Hide” and “The Snouts and Ears of America.”
Banks of the Arkansas
Source: Bruce Greene, KY, and Hiram Stamper, KY
Our favorite GDAD tune of all time. We can play this together for hours on end. Susan won first place at the 45th Annual Santa Barbara Fiddlers’ Convention in 2016 with this extraordinary piece. Our double fiddle version certainly takes it into a new realm. The tune is related to the popular Kentucky tune “Indian Squaw.” Hiram Stamper (1893-1992) is Bruce Greene’s source, although Hiram picked it up from an older fiddler named Shade Slone.
Bruce’s field recordings of Stamper take the listener to a faraway place and time. According to Bruce, Hiram would sing “Way down yonder in the Arkansas, two little Indians and one old squaw, Sitting on the banks of the Arkansas…” and then whistle the remaining verses. Bruce’s own rendition on his classic album Five Miles of Ellum Wood elevates the tune to one of the highest points of fiddle art in our opinion. Susan’s obsession with it can only rival my own. It is our signature tune and a perfect way to end the album.
Instruments: Mid-20th-century French fiddle and a 1960 Roth fiddle
Produced, recorded and mixed by David Bragger
Recorded at The Old-Time Tiki Parlour, Los Angeles
Mastered by Joseph Dejarnette
Artwork by Nick Bachman and Howard Rains
Layout by Howard Rains
Photographs by David Bragger and Susan Platz