Over-played Tunes

Can a Fiddle Tune Be Too Popular?

“The Rights of Man is one of those tunes nobody plays anymore because it’s too popular.” Todd Denman and Dale Russ, Reeds and Rosin.

A flter for a contest held in my area, the Old Time Music Championship, cautions contestants against playing tunes that are “overplayed.”

This month’s newsletter comes to grips with the notion that a tune can lose its appeal by being too popular.

Some tunes may get “overplayed”–the quote marks just won’t go away from this word–because the public demand gets them played more than other tunes. Orange Blossom Special is the biggest contender for this title right now. If The Devil Went Down in Georgia had become a stand alone fiddle tune, it could have this distinction also.

What we are really talking about is a tune that is “too popular” with fiddlers. (Darn those quote marks. They’re back.)

At the top of this list would be Soldier’s Joy, the most popular fiddle tune on planet Earth. I suppose we should just put that one out of its misery.

And don’t you dare play that tune at a fiddle contest. No one wants to hear a tune that’s been “played to death.”

If I haven’t really made a good case for abandoning these favorite tunes, let me confess my bias. I’ve taught these tunes for years in my studio. If I didn’t think they should be played, I wouldn’t teach them.

To sharpen the point, I do not teach Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Not anymore, I got twinkled out years ago. And Twinkle ain’t comin’ back, okay?

Back then, I used to ask a new student, usually a child, but not always, to sing Twinkle with me. If they couldn’t sing in tune, I’d ask the parent to sing along. Usually the parent could not sing in tune either. How much of that is a teacher suppose to take? (Is this a sensitive issue with me?)

I teach the tunes I like to play. Everyone likes to play them. They are popular. Get over it, you arbiters of acceptably correct fiddle tunes.

How about a fiddle contest where only popular tunes are allowed. “Okay, fiddle slinger, you gonna play Old Joe Clark, or just stand there. Let’s hear what you got.”

In such a contest, the usual criteria of tone, intonation, rhythm and danceability would add creative variety consistent with the original.

Texas contest style fiddling is the one that has extended the limits on this. In many cases, a variation that has become standard bears little relation to the original tune.

I’m ambivalent about this. On one hand, I love improv and creativity. On the other I’m sympathetic to traditionalists who say the tune is the tune.

In the world of fiddling one fiddler’s “too far out” is another’s not far enough.

It may all come down to intention.

Last night I played a new tune 100 times to get it secure in my repertory. I’ll have to keep playing it several times a day for a while, or it will fade.

I only used a few simple ornamental variations in my repetition. Even now, I’m not sure what the core tune has to be. It’s an infrequently played Irish reel. I’ve changed the title for the purpose of my Money Tunes project. Now I call it Starting the Jars.

Anyway, my intention was to play the tune and master it. Since it is obscure, there is no etheric template to access. (This is woo-woo, hundredth monkey, quantum energy stuff. Skip it if it bothers you.)

In this situation, I just play it down, play it over, trying small changes to hear the logic. I’ll have to live with it a while to get its secret.

Compare that intention with the playing of swing tunes, or Vassar tunes. In that case the melody is the head, as they say in jazz. Then you play over the changes.

Which is not the only approach to improv, but is the one I use. (Keep It Simple, Swinger.)

When is it appropriate to take a traditional fiddle tune and destroy it by playing over the changes? Vassar does that. So does Eileen Ivers in the way she plays Rights of Man. Maybe it’s just a question of genius. If you got it, do it.

Back in the day when I had a string band, Lia Fal, we used to do that. It was fun for me, and my audiences seemed to like it.