Biography of a Tune

Written by:

A handful of traditional American fiddle tunes that introduced me to fiddling have histories that go back to at least the 19th century. Research has helped me learn more about the tunes, peo-ple and events that have shaped the music that today we call “traditional.”

I think of tune histories as “biographies.” That is, they follow a tune from its birth (when that’s possible), include consideration of its parents/antecedents, and then follow its life up through contemporary times. Obviously, a tune isn’t a sentient being, with its own feelings and decision-making power. But following the life of a tune can be very much like following that of a person. Those of us who enjoy detective work like to consider the people who wrote, influenced the tune and shaped its path. We study how the tune has interacted with successive generations, and look at how it has found expressions in different times and places. Let’s take an example.

Thoughts and Prayers

Fiddlers know Bob Wills’ classic “Maiden’s Prayer” as a medium tempo shuffle, a two-step played by every country band with a fiddler. Wills recorded it in 1935, in the early days of his ca-reer, as western swing music was becoming a standardized genre that attracted the ears and business minds of Columbia’s recording execs.

But “Maiden’s Prayer” was born 84 years earlier, in the mind and hands of a young Polish piano virtuosa, Tekla Badarzewska. Writing and playing in the piano style of 1850’s Parisian salons, Badarzewska had neither the training nor the compositional talent of Chopin. Consequently, her piece, a simple theme with florid variations, appealed to piano students and amateurs whose tastes were sated by more mundane music than Chopin’s. After modest success in Poland, the piece was picked up by the Parisian weekly “Revue et Gazette Musicale,” on September 26, 1858. The floodgates then opened, and the tune became a favorite of amateur pianists all over Europe, and soon the US. Shortly after its publication in the US by Oliver Ditson, a number of sequels and “imposters” emerged as clearly flattering attempts to take advantage of the Maiden’s fame.

The subject of our tune biography went to the new world and set its heart aflutter.

Justin Time

In 1857, African-American guitar player/instructor/book writer Justin Holland prepared a version of “Maiden’s Prayer,” arranged for guitar and transposed from its original key of Eb to A major.

Unfortunately, little is known about Holland or his life in the nineteenth century. But in Holland’s arrangement, the tune is liberated from the parlor piano, simplified, and placed into a “people’s key” on an instrument that connotes a certain freedom and portability.

The subject of our tune biography has just moved to a new neighborhood and taken an im-portant step towards independence.

A few years later, song writer and music educator John Stowell Adams, working with tune smith T. Bissell, put together a song, “Each hour of Life, or A Maiden’s Prayer,” which Oliver Ditson published in 1860. Bissell whittled Badarzewska’s melody down to a single line that non-profes-sional singers could navigate, and placed the tune in the amateur-friendly key of D, helping to ensure its adoption by an even wider segment of the population. The pair added a bridge in the relative minor, so that the tune, minus Badarzewska’s tedious variations, could offer singer and listener some variety while fitting in with the emerging model for a pop tune.

Our biography’s subject left the sedate world of piano and guitar parlor instrumentals, freed to take part in multi-gender song parties.

Fake Book

Less than a decade later, in 1869, Elias Howe in Boston published the “Quadruple Musician’s Omnibus,” a collection of popular pieces much like today’s fake books that musicians take to gigs. The Omnibus’s version of “Maiden’s Prayer” is a melody in the key of D, clearly the melody from the song that T. Bissell and John S. Adams wrote, “Each Hour of Life.” No harmony is indi-cated, as is the case for much of the music in the “Omnibus.” By 1869, the harmony from the 1860 Ditson publication must have been well-known to many mid-nineteenth-century accompa-nists.

So our subject had become well-known by amateur and professional musicians, and gigging musicians could play requests for it by opening the Musician’s Omnibus.

Nine years after the “Omnibus” publication, Thomas Edison began recording audio. I haven’t found any recordings of “Maiden’s Prayer” from the nineteenth century, but the Neapolitan Trio recorded it for Victor in 1914 in Camden, New Jersey. They actually played the song that John S. Adams and T. Bissell wrote more than fifty years before, keeping to the violin-friendly key of D while performing in a romantic classical salon style on violin, harp and flute. That Victor re-leased the disk shows that sixty years after its initial U.S. publication, the piece was still well-known and would likely generate good sales.

The Maiden had won a recording contract.

A sarcastic bridge

In 1917, Victor recorded a humorous, sarcastic novelty tune that played on the fame of Badar-zewska’s piece. “The Modern Maiden’s Prayer,” by Tin Pan Alley stars James F. Hanley (com-poser) and Ballard MacDonald (lyricist), came from a completely different cultural perspective than the Neapolitan Trio’s stately and romantic “Maiden’s Prayer” of three years earlier. Singer Eddie Cantor pokes fun at the choices made by 20th century maidens, ridiculing their preoccu-pation with worldly possessions and money, and reinforcing the belief that to be happy, a maiden just needs a good (and wealthy) man.

Where Badarzewska’s 1850’s piece strove to elevate the listener to a spiritual plateau, and the Neapolitan Quartet’s 1914 version sought to evoke a reflective calm for the listener, Eddie Can-tor used what by 1917 was a relic of the Victorian past to make fun of both the hold-overs of 19th century culture and the emerging material social values of the early twentieth century.

The Maiden turned around to look at previous generations through the curvy mirror of a penny arcade, showing the rebellious spirit of a teenager.

Bob wills a new tune

Eighteen years later, Bob Wills recorded his instrumental version of “Maiden’s Prayer.” It is a honky-tonk fiddle feature of stunning simplicity and directness. Shorn of Badarzewska’s embel-lishments and bric-a-brac, the melody rests comfortably in the fiddle key of A, where Wills easily exploits the country fiddle ornaments of his day and delivers a straightforward and adroit perfor-mance of a medium tempo honky-tonk dance tune.

Wills re-purposed the tune when he recorded it and played it at dance clubs all over the south-west. Within a decade, other country fiddlers had recognized the opportunities inherent in the simple structures and melody that Wills used in his 1935 recording. Subsequent fiddlers and their bands added newer chord progressions and more virtuosic fiddle licks, while keeping Wills’ basic form and melodic shape, and a 20th-century showpiece emerged from the ashes of Thekla Badarzewska’s “Maiden.”

Other tunes, such as Faded Love, Cattle Call Waltz, and the Westphalia Waltz, also have histo-ries that travel across the Atlantic and span over a century. If you’d like to learn about their re-markable stories in future articles, please send me an email and let me know.

Copyright © 2019 by Joe Weed

Read about: