Blackberry Blossom

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Blackberry Blossom is one of the classic fiddle tunes, up there in the Top Ten of instrumentals to have ready for those festival jam sessions. In the 1920s and 30s it was popularised by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, who recorded Blackberry Blossom with his Dixieliners in 1935. The Dixieliners at the time were Alton and Rabon Delmore, well known in their own right as the Delmore Brothers. Arthur Smith was a superb fiddler, and his recording of Blackberry Blossom has pace and verve, played in a style that foreshadowed the bluegrass music that Bill Monroe would create and refine in the succeeding decades.

The adoption of Blackberry Blossom by bluegrass musicians goes back to the early 1960s, when Bill Keith had discovered how to play fiddle tunes in melodic style on the 5-string banjo and had joined the band of that other famous Bill, Bill Monroe. By 1963 Blackberry Blossom was part of the bandís repertoire. You can, for example, hear Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys playing it on 18th August 1963 at Culpepper, Virginia in a sound recording currently on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clFHOJpViuM Blackberry Blossom is right near the end of the recording ñ drag the slider along to just before 1 hour 14 minutes to catch it. Bill calls on his fiddler Benny Williams to lead off, Keith gets the second break, Monroe the fourth and Williams the third and the fifth (final) break.

It seems probable that Bill Keith learned to play Blackberry Blossom at the behest of Bill Monroe. It quickly became an essential part of every banjo playerís repertoire, and mandolin players have followed suit. For instruction how to play the straight tune on the mandolin you canít do better than watch Baron Collins-Hillís lesson on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5WTn-XEq7M This guy does a superb job not only with Blackberry Blossom but with a whole range of mandolin pieces on his MandoLessons website at http://www.mandolessons.com/ – and all for free. What a wonderful gift to the mandolin community! Bill Monroeís mandolin break with the Blue Grass Boys features the essential elements of the melody played in Bill’s own distinctive style. Monroe demonstrated Blackberry Blossom in his mandolin workshop at the first ever bluegrass festival at Fincastle, near Roanoke, Virginia in 1965. Iíve tried to get close to what he was playing in my tablature at http://www.mandolin.myzen.co.uk/tabgif/bberrymn/bberrymn.html

Do have a listen to the complete recording of the 1963 appearance of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys at Culpepper VA. This was a classic lineup, indeed one of Billís hottest bands, which included Del McCoury as lead singer and guitarist, Benny Williams and Charlie Smith on fiddles, Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass and a guest appearance by one of Billís early singers from the 1940s, Clyde Moody.

Bill Monroe never got round to recording Blackberry Blossom in the studio, though the tune has appeared on many records by other musicians including Bill Keith himself, Norman Blake and, particularly notably, by Tony Rice on his Manzanita LP, with the bonus of a mandolin break by David Grisman. And YouTube should provide a wealth of examples of this classic tune for you to learn if by chance you don’t play Blackberry Blossom already!

John Baldry
July 2018

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