Lately I've been playing some fiddle music with a great singer/songwriter Andy Mullen. The band is bass, drums, banjo, guitar and myself. Andy plays Old Time music and gave me a couple of how-to videos by Brad Leftwich. It's a completely different philosophy of and approach to music. I found the tune Boll Weevil on the videos. Leftwich includes sheet music but this doesn't communicate the subtleties of the style- you really need the video for that. This kind of music really requires aural transmission. He talks a lot about Tommy Jarrell- who is kind of folk hero of Old Time fiddle. He died in 1985. There are a couple of movies made about his life, Sprout Wings and Fly and My Old Fiddle- both by Les Blank. According to Leftwich, Boll Weevil is one of Jarrell's signature tunes. On My Old Fiddle Jarrell plays and sings Boll Weevil., which is told from a cotton farmer's perspective, after the boll weevil has destroyed his cotton crop.
I wanted to write a piece using these gestures from fiddle music. The same gestures are in blues music- and Boll Weevil is an especially bluesy song. According to one website it is originally a blues song. So you have both black and white tradition. I think when people think of fiddlers, Old Time and bluegrass music they may not realize how much influence African-American people had on this music- and there are many African American fiddlers.
My original intent was to write a piece that just used these gestures, which I use a lot when I improvise. But it was much more meaningful to take an actual tune, with all of the history behind it- of white and black people, of the cotton industry etc. I think that by playing this particular tune I am connecting to my own Southern roots (my dad's side of the family is from Tennessee and my mom's side is from Ohio). By tuning my violin in this tuning and taking these few notes and particular articulations I am attempting to channel the past. Right now there isn't much to it- my "assignment" (given to me by my former teacher at Tufts, John McDonald for an upcoming festival) was to write a two minute violin solo. It's an idea I want to explore more. It's nothing new at all. Composers have always used folk music. What might be different is the use of the fiddle timbre and these articulations which I believe I can do fairly authentically. I want to incorporate not just the notes but the way that I play into the composition. And I want to be able to translate these things for other players.
I tried a version of Boll Weevil with my good friends ( and great musicians) fretless guitarist Tom Baker, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and clarinetist Jesse Canterbury for a performance last week at the Fretless Guitar festival. It went very well. My next step is to integrate these things into a more fleshed out, notated composition.