Over the next three weeks, I’m going to explore the fascinating topic of fiddle tune variations, of course in the context of Texas-style fiddling. The three topics I’ll cover are: Origins of the Melody, How to Learn Variations, and How to Build Variations. So, keep following my blog posts here….
As cool as variations are, I personally do not look at variations as superior to the traditional melody. In fact, as much as I love playing variations, there are hundreds of tunes that I choose not to vary at all. And there are lots of recordings that have zero variations and totally rock. Here are a few of my favorites: The Tommy Jackson Compendium Volume 1, 2, & 3 (with Red Recktor on mandolin), Kenny Baker’s Master Fiddler, Georgia Slim’s Raw Fiddle, Eck Robertson’s Old Time Texas Fiddler: Vintage Recordings 1922-29. (Full disclosure, Eck does play in those recordings an incredible “Sally Goodin” with several seminal variations that I’ll talk about in future blogs.)
Now, let’s look at the origins of the melody of a fiddle tune. The evolution of a fiddle tune is akin to playing telephone. As the tune gets passed down by ear from generation to generation and from fiddler to fiddler, little changes naturally occur. Variations are then added, and the tune grows over time. The melody of any fiddle tune can also vary from fiddler to fiddler, especially as certain variations become commonplace enough that they get considered to be part of the tune. Still, because respect for the melody of a fiddle tune is a central aspect of an unspoken code among fiddlers, even the oldest melodies remain recognizable.
If you take one part of a fiddle tune, you can break it down and find the “points of the part.” These points make up the undeniably important notes (and rhythms) in the melody that give a tune its musical skeleton, or you might even say, its musical identity. This can include something as small as a single note, a common phrase, or a signature accent on a specific note. These points remain in their traditional places even as variations are built around them. And the presence of these points keep the tune recognizable.
When I first sit down to learn a breakdown, my starting point is always to figure out where the points of the part are. To find the true melody, I will search back as far as I can in recorded history for the oldest recording I can find. Then, getting as close as possible to the original tune, I begin to see its evolution: how variations gradually became accepted as parts and by looking at these now integrated variations, I begin to decipher where the actual points of the parts are. All tunes have their history, their lineage. It’s our work to dig into that and appreciate how they come to us in the present day. Now, this process of discovery is not always as black and white as I just described it, but all in all, I find the exploration worth the blood, sweat and tears. And it is always educational. You might notice how fiddlers who do this work wind up internalizing the melody so deeply that they venture into variations only after a long period of integrating the concept of the tune into their musical being.
After you’ve learned the melody, sought out the oldest documented version you can find, and deciphered all the points of the part, then you might well have some clarity on how variations developed over time. And once you do, you also might well be ready to learn them from a deeper place than just reading notes on a score. I know this can feel a little heady when all you want to do is learn some fun variations, but bear with me here, I promise it’s worth the effort. Why not start out by creating a playlist with all of your favorite fiddlers playing the tune that you’d like to have a variation for. Because therein lie the keys to the kingdom. All you have to do is take the time to listen – to really listen – and lo and behold, you’ll find yourself developing an instinct for not only how to put variations together but also to create them yourself! I don’t need to tell you how thrilling that can be, how rich it is to go that deep into the music you love. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I’ll talk about How to Learn Variations.
Written by Katie Glassman with Adam Kulakow