Celtic Junction Arts Review
Ten Tunes to Rule Them All: Fisher’s Hornpipe from London to Fort Yukon
David J. Rhees, Ph.D. and Suzanne Sutro Rhees
One May morning about ten years ago I (DJR) found myself driving down to Lanesboro, Minnesota with Phil Jamison, the nationally-known dance caller, old-time musician, and flatfoot dancer from Asheville, North Carolina. I had volunteered to drive Phil from the airport to the Bluff Country Gathering, an annual festival of old-time music, where he was on the staff. As a musician who plays both Irish and old-time music, I had recently developed a fascination with crossover tunes – traditional dance melodies that migrated from the isles of the North Atlantic (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England) to the U.S. and Canada beginning in the 18th century. Such tunes didn’t just cross the Atlantic, they crossed – and have continued to cross – between the regions and musical styles of North America, changing titles, meters, notes, and character as they go. I thought, “Here’s my chance to pick the brain of a real expert on Appalachian music and dance and their Celtic roots.” So I asked Phil to name some crossovers, hoping for a nice long list of tunes I could play at both old-time and Irish jams.
The result was disappointing. Phil mentioned reels such as “Miss MacLeod’s” and “Lord MacDonald’s” (which in the U.S. transmuted into “Hop High Ladies” and “Leather Britches,” respectively), but he doubted whether there were many more. A few years later at another Bluff Country Gathering, I popped the same question to Canadian old-time fiddler and ethnomusicologist Erynn Marshall. She quickly mentioned “Twin Sisters,” the American version of the Irish hornpipe “Boys of Blue Hill,” but had trouble coming up with others off the top of her head. Later I found a second-hand report online that another great old-time fiddler, Bruce Molsky, had guessed that there were only a half-dozen true crossovers. And in a book on fiddling on the Virginia-North Carolina border, Kevin Donleavy states, “Specific tunes common to both Ireland and the Blue Ridge are few, whether still played or collected in the past. They number about ten.”
These four authoritative sources seemed to be the end of the road for my crossover quest. In the meantime, I and my wife Suzanne, a flute player known for her extensive Irish repertoire, had become enthralled with French-Canadian dance tunes – the highly-syncopated Acadian tunes of the Maritimes, the vigorous, French-flavored music of Québec, and the wildly idiosyncratic dance tunes of the prairie Métis. And lo and behold, we began to find crossover tunes north of the border, “cousins” of the “Foxhunter’s Jig,” “Paddy on the Turnpike,” “Morpeth Rant,” “Soldier’s Joy,” and many more, some of them barely traceable to British Isles source tunes and different in deliciously unique ways.
Through trips to music camps in Québec and Maine, purchases of dozens of tune books, online Zoom jams and the advice of many performers, we expanded our list of crossovers. Andrew Kuntz’s online Traditional Tune Archive has been essential in this search. Playing tune detective proved to be a fun and rewarding pastime, calling for a high degree of pattern recognition, although admittedly somewhat subjective.
Ten Tunes to Rule Them All
As we accumulated more crossovers on both sides of the Canadian border, we began to notice that a good portion of this group (which now numbers over seventy, depending on how one counts them) seemed to pop up again and again in early recordings, tune books from the 18th and 19th centuries, fiddle contests, journals and published accounts of early settlers and travelers, and even in fiction. It became clear that some of the most popular tunes of North America were crossovers. When we decided to teach a class on this topic for the Celtic Junction Arts Center in 2018, we titled it “Ten Tunes to Rule Them All,” a facetious reference to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the “one ring to rule them all” that Frodo must destroy.
Limiting these most popular tunes to ten is quite arbitrary, of course; one could easily double or triple that number, and ranking them with any precision is neither fruitful nor possible. Moreover, not all of these “alpha” tunes (as we sometimes call them) may prove to be Anglo Celtic in origin. And finally, there is the difficult question of “popular where and when?” As we proceed to work through these questions, we still feel confident in offering the following provisional list of 21 candidates for the perennial crossover favorites of the past two centuries.
- Arkansas Traveler
- Braes of Auchertyre (Billy in the Lowground)
- Chorus Jig
- Devil’s Dream
- Downfall of Paris (Mississippi Sawyer)
- Fairy Reel (Old Molly Hare) Fisher’s Hornpipe
- Flowers of Edinburgh
- Girl I Left Behind Me
- Green Fields of America
- Haste to the Wedding
- Kitty’s Wedding (Belles of Lexington)
- Lord McDonald’s (Leather Britches)
- Miss MacLeod’s (Hop High Ladies)
- Money Musk
- Paddy on the Railroad
- Soldier’s Joy
- Speed the Plough
- St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning
- Turkey in the Straw
Where did they come from?
While most crossover tunes can be traced to Ireland, Scotland, and England, their actual origins are more diverse and eclectic than commonly supposed. As Celia Pendlebury has shown, a common misconception is that they come from folk or “village” sources, but a surprising number have their origins in the popular theater of the 18th century, including ballad operas such as The Beggar’s Opera. Many were composed by dancing masters to the upper classes, and gradually trickled down to lower socio-economic classes. Published tune books became increasingly common as early as the 17th century, and musicians frequently copied tunes by hand into their own manuscript books.
Where did they go?
It is certainly possible to identify some of the paths that crossover tunes took as they migrated. Orkney and Shetland fiddlers on ships brought their tunes to fur-trading posts on Hudson’s Bay and other parts of North America where they eventually became part of the Indigenous repertoire. North American rivers were major conduits for many tunes of Irish and Scottish origin, often altered by the rhythmic and melodic influences of enslaved African Americans. Tunes were passed along by military fife and drum bands (like those stationed at Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory) and dancing masters (most of whom played the fiddle) in cities and even on the frontier. As tunes were transmitted, of course, they changed – you could pick up a tune at a dance and try to remember it the next day or, in later years, hear it on the radio and try to recreate it.
What makes them memorable and transmutable?
What is it about a tune itself that makes it intrinsically memorable, or “sticky”? Musician and composer Mark Simos points to a combination of repetition and subtle variations between the phrases of a tune and the underlying chord progressions that combine to make a tune “able to travel across regional and stylistic boundaries” while remaining “universally compelling and also amenable to endless variations.” While one can delve far deeper into his analysis, it seems to boil down to a balance of regularity and mutability.
Rewards and a Challenge
Finally, what is the value of this small and select group of tunes? New England flute player and humorist Newt Tolman identified many of them as “tunes I would be happy never to have to play or to hear again” because he found them too simple, repetitive, or just over-played as part of the square-dance repertoire of the 1950s and 60s. Have these tunes simply become worn-out clichés?
From our perspective, these tunes do offer significant rewards – and a challenge:
- They offer beginning players a way to learn the core repertory or common repertoire of multiple North American fiddle tune traditions.
- They foster an understanding of the characteristics of the particular musical tradition in which a tune is played, whether Scottish, Irish, Québécois, Acadian, or old-time.
- They challenge us as musicians to make them interesting to play and hear. That’s where some degree of freedom and experimentation is called for. By working through the multiple variants of a tune like “Flowers of Edinborough” or “Paddy on the Turnpike” (a tune family with innumerable descendants), the player can gain perspective on how to craft their own approach and revitalize what may appear a tired tune.
Fishing for “Fisher’s Hornpipe”
To illustrate how our proposed alpha tunes spread across the continent, maintaining their essential identity while evolving in fascinating ways, we will focus on one hit – “Fisher’s Hornpipe.” After a brief summary of its origins, its diffusion through the British Isles, and its rapid leap to the United States, we offer historical vignettes from the Midwest, Manitoba, and Alaska that provide a representative (though far from comprehensive) portrait of “Fisher’s” in North America. Documenting this melody on its epic journey from Britain to the Arctic Circle will highlight themes and questions that may be applied to other tunes in our cohort as we continue our research. Ultimately, we hope to be able to identify the primary factors – musical, ethnic, socioeconomic, national, institutional, technological, etc. – that shaped the emergence and persistence of Anglo-Celtic-American dance-tune hits over the past few centuries.
British Isles to the U.S.
“Fisher’s Hornpipe” is described by the Traditional Tune Archive as “one of the most popular, widespread and frequently published fiddle tunes in the world.” Given its remarkable success, it is not very surprising that it was almost certainly born on the London stage at the hands of a professional musician and dance master. Though accounts vary, “Fisher’s” likely was composed by James A. Fishar, a professional violinist and ballet master at Covent Garden, London, who had it published in 1778. Hornpipes were extremely popular on the stages of London, Dublin, and elsewhere as a showcase for fancy step-dancing. Step-dancing virtuosos, perhaps Fishar himself, sometimes placed eggs on the stage and danced around them, blindfolded, without breaking any to highlight their skill. One title used for “Fisher’s” was “The Egg Hornpipe.”
With amazing rapidity, “Fisher’s” spread throughout the British Isles via numerous printings and – a sure sign of popularity — appearances in numerous English manuscript copybooks. Its reach extended west to Wales as a harp tune called “Y Dynwr” (“The Thresher”), and across the Irish Sea, north to Scotland (where it was performed by Robert Aldridge, a famous stage dancer, and pantomimist), and off the coast to the Shetland Isles, where it was played for Shetland Reel dances, and south again to Oxfordshire, where it was reworked as a Morris dance melody, “The First of May.”
“Fisher’s” quickly crossed the Atlantic to New England, where it appeared in the circa 1780 copybook of fife-major John Greenwood, who served in the 15th Massachusetts Regiment, suggesting that the tune was used for a fife-and-drum march. In 1788 it was used as the music for a new country dance by that name in Rhode Island, appearing in dancing master John Griffith’s A Collection of the Newest and Most Fashionable Country Dances. It then appeared in Philadelphia, where it was printed in An Evening Amusement for German Flute and Violin in 1796.
In that very year, “Fisher’s” popped up on the midwestern U.S. frontier. When the surveying party led by Moses Cleaveland arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River overlooking Lake Erie, where the city of Cleveland, Ohio would arise, a fiddler in the group reportedly struck up “Fisher’s Hornpipe” for an impromptu celebration on July 22, 1796. Five years later, near the same spot, a Fourth of July Ball (famous as the city’s first) was held in the log house of Lorenzo Carter, Cleveland’s first permanent settler:
“Major Samuel Jones was chief musician and master of ceremonies. About a dozen ladies and twenty gentlemen constituted the company. Notwithstanding the floors were of rough puncheons, and their best beverages was made of maple sugar, hot water and whisky, probably no celebration of American independence in this city was ever more joyous than this.”
Seventeen-year-old Gilman Bryant escorted 14-year old Miss Doan to this very dance. As he recalled years later, “I had a good wool hat, and a pair of brogans that would help to play “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” or “High Bettie Martin,” when I danced…. I had a fine time!”
Traveling further west, “Fisher’s” was undoubtedly played by the fife-and-drum bands at Fort Snelling, established in 1819 near St. Paul in the Minnesota Territory. Musicians from Fort Snelling also performed for the frequent civilian balls held at Mazourka Hall, local hotels, steamboat excursions, and in private homes, along with fiddlers such as barber William Taylor and French-Canadian Denis Cherrier. During the winter of 1849-50 these dance parties, which were held two or three times a week, were attended by fun-loving French Canadians (the majority) and Americans (rivaling them in numbers). However, noted Col. John H. Stevens, “no one joined in these dances with more zest than the mixed-bloods of the time. The social equality of those in whose veins the Indian and the Caucasian blood were blended was generally recognized.” “Fisher’s Hornpipe” was doubtless on the program for many of these surprisingly integrated balls: it was included in a list of eight favorite dances of the 1850s remembered by “Old Settlers.”
The Métis (which means “mixed”) were often seen and heard on the streets of St. Paul at mid-century with the squeaky-wheeled oxcarts that they drove up and down the Red River Trail to Manitoba for trading purposes. The Métis are largely descended from Scottish and French-Canadian fur traders and Indigenous women. One of the areas where this hybrid culture emerged was around fur-trading posts established by the Hudson’s Bay Company on the west side of Lake Manitoba beginning in 1798. As Anne Lederman has documented, their music is a unique blend of Scottish, French-Canadian, and Indigenous styles.
Lederman’s 1980s fieldwork in and around the Ebb and Flow reservation revealed that “Fisher’s” was considered one of the oldest tunes in the area and was played by all fiddlers. It was known as the melody for “La Double Jig,” so-named because it was a jigging (step) dance for two couples. It was recorded by Grandy Fagnan, an outstanding fiddler of French-Cree parentage from Camperville who was described by a colleague as “the daddy of them all.” He recorded several very asymmetric versions of “Fisher’s” that verge on the unrecognizable in his soaring flights of artistic fancy. As Fagnan said (with reference to a different tune), he could play a tune “five different ways.” Indeed, one of his versions of “Fisher’s” was so distant that Lederman dubbed it “Fisher’s Brother.” Here on the Canadian Prairie, within a genuinely creole culture, we perhaps reach the outer creative limits of “Fisher’s Hornpipe”!
Our fishing expedition for “Fisher’s” ends far from the British Isles but is linked by the imperial reach of the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1847 the company established a fur trading post at Fort Yukon, located north of today’s Fairbanks, Alaska. Fort Yukon was staffed with men from the Orkney Islands who brought fiddles, tunes, and dances. As the Scottish and French-Canadian fur traders intermarried with Indigenous women, a creole culture like that of the Prairie Métis emerged, with somewhat similar musical results. The first dance recorded in that area was a Christmas ball held in 1862 at a trading post run by Orcadian James Flett. A visiting explorer condescendingly observed that he found the dancers less than graceful, the dances limited to a few jigs [step dances] and Scotch reels of four, and “the music consisted of one vile, unvarying tune upon a worse old fiddle, accompanied by a brilliant accompaniment on a large tin pan.” Tunes were a scarce commodity on the frontier, and the ones remembered by fiddlers tended to be the best-known ones such as “Fisher’s.”
A century later a much higher quality of fiddling was noted by ethnomusicologist Craig Mishler, who in 1972 recorded Gwich’in fiddler Charlie Peter, the oldest and most skilled fiddler then living. Charlie Peter performed a driving and very irregular version of “Fisher’s” which rivals that of Grandy Fagnan in creativity. Like Fagnan he called it a double jig and was not aware of the “Fisher’s” title. He believed it to be composed by an Indian, a telltale sign that the tune had become thoroughly naturalized. Moreover, Charlie Peter’s comments on the recording suggest that the tune and dance were much cherished by the oldest members of the community:
“This is favorite song of the old man Charlie Crow. He live in Fort Yukon for many year, and he’s over hundred year old, an old man, that’s his favorite dance music. Every time I play this tune, he go out there on the floor dancing away.”
Although many other examples could be given (see the longer version of this article with references at bundleandgo.com), it should be apparent that “Fisher’s Hornpipe” was an intercontinental dance-tune favorite. From its birthplace on a London stage in 1778, its popularity spread rapidly in the British Isles and quickly leaped across the ocean to the Atlantic seaboard. By the middle of the 19th century, it had traveled north to the Maritimes and Québec, south to Appalachia, and across the U.S. and the Canadian prairies to the northwestern corner of North America. Writing in 1971, Alan Jabbour summarized: “By the year 1800 the tune was already in widespread circulation…. Popular collections of the 19th century printed it regularly, and by the 20th century it had survived to become one of the most popular hornpipe tunes in Great Britain and America.” To which we add that in the 21st century it appears that “Fisher’s” still maintains a fairly strong presence.
“Fisher’s Hornpipe” may not be typical of all dance-tune hits, but its journey across nine time zones, 145 degrees of longitude and more than 6,000 miles as the crow flies offers some hints as to what transforms a dance melody into one of the “good old tunes.” Based on this case study (as well as material not presented here), we offer the following preliminary recipe for an Anglo-Celtic-American hit:
- Composed by a professional musician or dance master
- Reached a wider audience due to performance in theatrical venues
- Musically attractive due to:
- engaging and memorable motifs
- appropriate use of internal repetition
- a structure that lends itself to interesting variations and added parts
- being amenable to being played in different keys on different instruments
- Linked with a popular dance or dance form
- Published in major tune-book collections
- Adopted by the military for use in fife and drum bands
- Selected as a “category” tune for fiddle contests
- Adopted by Indigenous and creole fiddlers, often resulting in dramatically different variations and interpretations
- Associated with nostalgia, ethnic pride, or nationalism
No doubt there are other contributing factors to tune popularity that will be identified in the future, but this list offers a good start.
This brief history of the peregrinations of “Fisher’s Hornpipe” from London to Fort Yukon offers insights into the creation and persistence of the North American dance-tune canon. But the search continues! We hope to flesh out complete tune histories for “Fisher’s” and for other alpha tunes and more precisely define the indicators and sources of their popularity. So until proven otherwise, our working hypothesis is that a select group of Anglo-Celtic dance tunes has punched above their weight and has been disproportionally influential in defining the playlist of North American traditional dance music from the 18th century to the present. Our initial search for Celtic crossover tunes has taken us further than we ever imagined. We invite others to join us in the fun!
Note: A “Fisher’s Hornpipe Sampler” has been placed on YouTube for those who wish to hear some of the tunes.
Many thanks to Laura MacKenzie for encouraging and informing this project from the beginning, Anne Lederman for sharing her deep knowledge of Métis and other musical traditions, Celia Pendlebury for her paradigm-shifting ideas, Mark Simos for revealing the deep structure of tunes, and from the Celtic Junction Arts Center: Brian Miller at the McKiernan Library for research leads, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Irish College of Minnesota for his encouragement and patience.