Studio Insider–June, 2012

Studio Insider #171 June, 2012

I’m offering two workshops at the Grass Valley Father’s Day Festival.
Both are at 12:45 PM (lunch break) in Building F, in the room behind the luthiers’ pavilion.

On Friday, June 15, I’ll show my film “The Waltz to Westphalia,” and welcome questions and discussion. On Saturday, June 16, I’ll give a workshop on recording acoustic instruments. I’ll explain techniques for getting good recordings and answer your questions. Come early to get a good seat, as this workshop is always popular.

Pedal with mettle

I’m writing this column on a plane from Washington, DC, where my wife Marty Kendall and I just completed a month-long bicycle trek that began in Jacksonville, Florida. Savannah, Georgia’s well-preserved historic district with European-style squares was one of the highlights. Other favorites were Charleston, SC, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Richmond and Fredericksburg, VA, and of course, Washington, DC. The East Coast between Virginia and Florida is flat, consisting largely of marshland broken up by many rivers and ocean inlets, so the only roads that head up the coast are fairly large highways that can bridge these constant aquatic intrusions. We were able to use our iPhones, Garmin, and ACA (America Cycling Assn) maps to navigate our way along small back roads where possible, but if we’d wanted to completely avoid the highways, we’d have had to go inland a hundred miles or more.

In South Carolina, we met a German couple who were also cycling up the coast. Enjoying the fraternity of shared experiences and a common interest in our cultural exchanges, we began to travel together. We met up for lodging, dinners and breakfasts, but cycled separately most days, so we felt free to linger or speed along according to our own preferences. We did pedal together along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, enjoying deep blue skies, spectacular views of translucent green Atlantic waters, and ferry rides accompanied by flocks of gulls and terns. The next day we rode over 30 miles in a cold, windy downpour, seemingly on a different planet. The hotel laundry proved a life-saver, and one major rain day in a month-long trip felt like a pretty good deal to us. Most importantly, our fiddles stayed safe, extra protected in their cases by two layers of plastic bags.

Another Polish tune in bluegrass and country music??

I’ve been researching the history of some popular fiddle tunes in bluegrass and country music. Later this month, I’ll be heading back to conferences in Rochester, NY and Nashville, TN to present some of my findings about “Maiden’s Prayer,” a long-time favorite of American and Canadian fiddlers.

An iconic country fiddle dance tune claimed by Bob Wills, “Maiden’s Prayer” began in nineteenth century Poland, the product of Tekla Badarzewska, a twenty-two-year old piano virtuoso and tune smith who died tragically as a young mother.

After its 1858 publication in a popular Paris music magazine, her tune quickly became a massive hit in Europe and the U.S. It was adopted enthusiastically by hordes of players and listeners, as great numbers of common folk sought “high brow” entertainment and cultural enrichment.

Badarzewska’s piece, written for intermediate pianists, is a set of florid variations built on a simple, arpeggio-based melody. Reading the sheet music no doubt stymied many budding pianists who squinted under 19th – century kerosene lamps, trying to decipher its dense splatters of black ink while remembering to play in three flats.

Bob Wills’ original 1935 recording of “Maiden’s Prayer” is a honky-tonk fiddle feature of stunning simplicity and directness. Shorn of Badarzewska’s embellishments and bric-a-brac, and freed from the piano-friendly key of E-flat, the melody rests comfortably in the fiddle key of A, where Wills easily exploits the country fiddle ornaments of his day and delivers a straight-forward, adroit performance of a medium tempo dance number.

But finding the melodic kernel amid Badarzewska’s spaghetti was not solely Wills’ accomplishment. By the Civil War, American publisher Oliver Ditson had released music to “Each Hour of Life to Thee I Turn,” a melody adapted from “Maiden’s Prayer,” and simplified and transposed to the easy fiddle key of D by a song-writer named T. Bissell. Lyricist John S. Adams added words. By the end of the decade, the tune appeared as “The Maiden’s Prayer,” a single-line melody without words or accompaniment, in the “Quadruple Musician’s omnibus” (Boston: Elias Howe, 1869), a collection of instrumental music.

I first began noticing sheet music for “Maiden’s Prayer” during my forays into antique shops and thrift stores during my travels around the United States. I found copies in the Midwest, the South, New England, Texas — in short, all over the country. Clearly, this tune had struck a nerve with American musicians and listeners. I also found an early 1900s Victor 78 of the tune by the Neapolitan Trio, playing T. Bissell’s simplified version in D on violin, piano, harp and celeste. So fiddlers, composers, and other musicians had already been reducing “Maiden’s” black ink well before Wills’ iconic recording. In the process, they were helping to sculpt and define country fiddling in America.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States, the pragmatism of the frontier mentality embraced an attitude of making the New from the Old – of recycling the bits and pieces that could be re-used, and gluing, taping, welding, and re-fitting them to make something fresh and serviceable for another generation. Bluegrass music, which has chosen much of its repertoire from older blues, ragtime, popular, and Tin Pan Alley songs, provides an excellent example of cultural continuity and re-invention in the mid 20th century.

Bob Wills was exemplifying a broader cultural phenomenon when he stuffed the square peg of Badarzewska’s parlor piece into the round hole of his honky-tonk world. The American frontier’s creative spirit encouraged him to grind up the old and re-form it into the new, a process that continues today as youth tear apart the pieces of our culture and remix them into their own mash-ups.

Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. He recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at [email protected], or by visiting