Many fiddle tunes played at dances and sessions go by the title “Don’t know the name of that one” or simply “Unknown.” The Irish-language equivalent is the familiar “Gan Ainm,” meaning “without name.” But many tunes do have names that are known and recognized wherever musicians gather to play. In Part I, let’s look at some familiar tune titles that conjure up visions of past events and historic figures.
The USS Constitution sailed from Boston, Massachusetts, on August 2, 1812, bound for a raiding cruise off Nova Scotia, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Newfoundland. Commanding Officer Isaac Hull’s mission was to find and engage any active Royal Navy frigates. On the afternoon of August 18, some 400 miles southeast of the British base at Halifax, a sail was sighted that turned out to be HMS Guerriere and a battle commenced the next day.
“Guerriere’s captain, James R. Dacres, was also spoiling for a fight. Despite his ship’s disadvantages in number and size of guns, and number of crewmen, the long British tradition of victory in ship-to-ship combat against European enemies provided reasonable grounds for Dacres’ aggressive optimism,” according to an article published online by the Naval Historical Center. The weather was windy and cloudy and the initial exchange of fire produced few hits and little damage, but as the two ships drew alongside, the battle intensified. “A quarter-hour of intense gunnery by Constitution, delivered with much superior accuracy, battered Guerriere in the hull and masts. The British frigate’s mizzenmast fell over the side, crippling her ability to maneuver. Constitution then moved ahead to rake Guerriere, whose bowsprit caught in the American’s mizzen rigging. Firing continued while the two ships were thus tangled, and both sides prepared boarding parties … As the ships separated, Guerriere’s foremast collapsed, pulling down the mainmast with it. She … surrendered at 7 PM. British casualties were more than five times those of the Americans, and Guerriere was beyond saving. Her surviving crewmen were taken off the next day, she was set afire and soon blew up. Constitition then returned to Boston with her prisoners, arriving on 30 August.”
This famous sea battle – a shocking win for the fledgling American Navy – was commemorated by a hornpipe called “Hull’s Victory,” one of the classic old-time New England fiddle tunes with a matching contra dance. The “Constitution Hornpipe” also commemorates Old Ironsides.
“Road to Boston,” the omni-present dance tune, was originally a fifer’s march popular during the Revolutionary War. Extensive research has yet to uncover exactly which route the musician or dancer, while engaged with this tune, is transiting to The Hub. Could it be the Boston Post Road from the north, I-95 from the south, or Route 2, the old Mohawk Trail, from the west?
Another tune from this early period that is still popular today is “The Gobby-O” with Irish roots. The melody was borrowed for Thomas Jefferson’s 1800 presidential campaign song and renamed “Jefferson and Liberty.” According to Andrew Kuntz, writing in his The Fiddler’s Companion website, “The melody also served as a vehicle in England for the topical song ‘Wilkes and Liberty,’ honouring the 18th century politician and journalist John Wilkes (1727-1797), who championed the cause of American independence in England and was jailed for his troubles.” If you know the tune, you can sing this verse to it:
From Georgia up to Lake Champlain
From seas to Mississippi’s shore;
Ye sons of freedom loud proclaim,
The Reign of Terror is no more.
Rejoice, Columbia’s sons, rejoice!
To tyrants never bend the knee;
But join with heart, and soul and voice
For Jefferson and Liberty.
Many contra dance evenings are rounded off with a polka for couples and a popular tune choice has always been the “Jenny Lind Polka.” The tune originated in 1845 as a composition of Anton Wallerstein titled “Jenny Lind’s Lieblings-Polka.” Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was a world-reknown operatic singer born in Sweden. She began singing on stage at the age of ten, and by the age of 17 was a favorite in the Royal Swedish Opera. Soon she became a member of the Swedish Royal Academy and court singer to the King of Sweden and Norway, and later toured throughout Europe, visiting England for the first time in 1847. As a result of her triumphal tour of the United States, Canada, and Cuba in 1850-1852, Lind earned a considerable fortune due to her association with showman P.T. Barnum, who agreed to pay her $1,000 per performance (plus expenses). The 93 concerts she gave for Barnum helped launch Lind’s other career as a philanthropist. Playing the “Jenny Lind Polka” not only provides lively dance music, it also honors the “Swedish Nightingale,” one of the most cherished singers of the 19th century.
Jefferson & Liberty
(Fiddle tunes reprinted from New England Fiddler’s Repertoire, Randy Miller, Jack Perron, Robert Bley-Vroman, eds. Fiddlecase Books, 2007, 3rd edition.)
– http://history.navy.mil/photos/events/war1812/atsea/con-guer.htm (Hull’s Victory)
– http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/ (background information for hundreds of fiddle tunes)
– http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenny_Lind (Jenny Lind)
Randy Miller is a fiddler, pianist, music teacher, and tunebook publisher active in contra dancing since the 1970s. His contradance band, Celticladda, was formed in 2006 and performs nationwide. Randy’s website is www.fiddlecasebooks.com.
Painting by G.T. Margeson, 1906, depicting Constitution sailing past the dismasted Guerriere. Photo # USN-1055208.
Daguerrotype of Jenny Lind at age 29, taken in New York City two weeks after her arrival in America on September 1, 1850. Original Daguerrotype DAG 509X is in the Library of Congress.