To Swing or Not to Swing

To Swing the Eights or Not

I was confronted by the issue of swing the eighths or not when I attended the first Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp. In a session led by Liz Carroll, I started playing Ships Are Sailing with a pronounced swing, just as I had many times before. Liz stopped me and said, “Oh, Elan, you don’t swing the eighths on a reel.”

When she said that I could feel several pieces of furniture being moved in my subconscious. And I’ve been intensely aware of to swing or not to swing ever since.

Swing band featuring swing fiddler
Swing band featuring swing fiddler

The simplest way to express the swing or don’t swing issue is this: Do you swing the eighth notes on a particular tune or play straight eighths? Swung eighths go Daa-duh. Daa-duh. Straight eighths go Duh-duh, Duh-duh. Or, chika, chika.

An example of swung eighths is the appropriately named song, “Would You Rather Swing on a Star?” An example of straight eighths is “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

In music notation you have to know whether to swing the notes or not, most often. swung eighths are notated the same as straight eighths. Eclipse Hornpipe in 1000 Fiddle Tunes is an example.

When It’s Time to Swing the Eighths

In the Richey Community Orchestra we often have a note at the top of the sheet of music that says “Swing”, or “Swing the eighths”. We know what that means and we do it.

Now, getting back to Liz Carroll’s comment, if you don’t swing the eighths when you play a reel, when do you swing the eighths? For me that would be hornpipes and certain other dance tunes like Kilnamona Barn Dance, not to mention many swing tunes and blues pieces.

Sailors dancing the hornpipe on board a ship.
Sailors dancing the hornpipe on board a ship.

In the case of hornpipes there is a divide between how Celtic players swing them and how most American players do not. In Texas contest style you will hear any hornpipe played with straight eighths, just like a breakdown. At least, I don’t hear any difference. 

You’ll hear lots of variation and triplet ornaments, but no swing. And played very quickly with a pace that is about equal to the breakdowns. If they played hornpipes with a swing it would slow them down. Maybe that’s why that part has been left behind.

Best of Both Worlds: Swing and not Swing

I asked Hanneke Cassel about this at the Mike Block String Camp. She has played Texas style and now specializes in Scottish fiddling. She said she likes to swing the eighths on a hornpipe. The exception is when she is playing for dancers who want the speed to go faster. then she irons out the swing and uses straight eighths.

Some fiddlers will swing the eighths in a waltz. I’ve heard Ashokan Farewell played that way, and I have been so bold as to counsel against it. Usually I like straight eighths in a waltz. (But not always.) Tennessee Waltz and Allegheny Moon are both infected with swung eighths. And that’s the way it should be.

Waltzes have a built in swing, anyway, having a 3-4 time signature. With the strong beat on the one, and the next two beats weaker, the rhythm is good for a swing feel if speeded up enough. When it’s slow, as in Southern country waltzes, you don’t get that swing. 

Sailor playing the hornpipe on a concertina as a photo op frame.
Sailor playing the hornpipe on a concertina as a photo op frame.

Faster, especially when accelerated to the degree of a Viennese waltz, you definitely feel a swinging lift to the rhythm.

I favor straight eighths in waltzes most often, but for hornpipes I favor swung eighths, even for such chestnuts as Sailor’s Hornpipe, which is often made into a race. I’ve heard it said that a hornpipe should have a swagger to it. Even American fiddlers usually play Harvest Home Hornpipe with a swing. But, Fisher’s Hornpipe is often played like a reel.

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