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Welcome to The Traditional Tune Archive
The Semantic Index of North American, British and Irish
traditional instrumental music with annotation, formerly known as
The Fiddler's Companion.

November 18 2018  Featured tune:           BONAPARTE'S RETREAT


BONAPARTE'S RETREAT. A classic old-time quasi-programmatic American fiddle piece that is generally played in a slow march tempo at the beginning and becomes increasingly more quick by the end of the tune, meant to denote a retreating army. Versions very widely from region to region, some binary and some with multiple parts. One folklore anecdote regarding this melody has it that the original "Bonaparte's Retreat" was improvised on the bagpipe by a member of a Scots regiment that fought at Waterloo, in remembrance of the occasion. The American collector Ira Ford (1940) (who seemed to manufacture his notions of tune origins from fancy and supposition, or else elaborately embellished snatches of tune-lore) declared the melody to be an "old American traditional novelty, which had its origin after the Napoleonic Wars." He notes that some fiddlers (whom he presumably witnessed) produced effects in performance by drumming the strings with the back of the bow and "other manipulations simulating musket fire and the general din of combat. Pizzicato represents the boom of the cannon, while the movement beginning with Allegro is played with a continuous bow, to imitate bagpipes or fife." The programmatic associations of many older fiddlers are also wide-spread. Arkansas fiddler Absie Morrison (1876-1964) maintained the melody had French and bagpipe connotations (as told to Judith McCulloh--see "Uncle Absie Morrison's Historical Tunes", Mid-America Folklore 3, Winter 1975, pp. 95-104)..."Now that's bagpipe music on the fiddle...That was when (Bonaparte) had to give back, had to give up the battle...This in what's called minor key, now...It's French music."

In fact, the tune has Irish origins, though Burman-Hall could only find printed variants in sources from that island from 1872 onward. "It has been collected in a variety of functions, including an Irish lullaby and a 'Frog Dance' from the Isle of Man" (Linda Burman-Hall. "Southern American Folk Fiddle Styles," Ethnomusicology, vol. 19, #1, Jan. 1975). Samuel Bayard (1944) concurs with assigning Irish origins for "Bonaparte's Retreat," and notes that it is an ancient Irish march tune with quite a varied traditional history. The 'ancient march' is called "Eagle's Whistle (1) (The)" or "Eagle's Tune (The)," which P.W. Joyce (1909) said was formerly the marching tune of the once powerful O'Donovan family. Still, states Bayard, the evidence of Irish collections indicates that it has long been common property of traditional fiddlers and pipers, and has undergone considerable alteration at various hands. Related American old-time melodies include "Bumble Bee in the Pumpkin Patch", Oklahoma fiddler Earl Collins "Miller Boy" (also in DDad tuning), and the northeast U.S. song "Bony on the Isle of St. Helena."

Another Kentucky fiddler, William H. Stepp (of Leakeville, Magoffin County, whose name, Kerry Blech points out, is sometimes erroneously given as W.M. Stepp, from a misreading of the old abbreviation Wm., for William), appears to be the source (through his 1937 Library of Congress field recording) for many revival fiddlers' versions. Stepp's version of the tune was transcribed by Ruth Crawford Seegar and was included in John and Alan Lomax's volume Our Singing Country (1941). The Crawford/Seegar version has been credited as the source Aaron Copland adapted for a main theme in his orchestral suite "Hoedown." {Lynn "Chirps" Smith says he has even heard people refer to the tune as "Copland's Fancy" in recent times!}. North Georgia fiddler A.A. Gray (1881-1939) won third place honors playing the tune at the 1920 (10th) Annual Georgia Old Time Fiddler's Association state contest in Atlanta, and four years later recorded it as a solo fiddle tune for OKeh Records (the earliest sound recording of the tune). Other early recordings were by Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers (1929) and the Arthur Smith Trio (1936).

BONAPARTE'S RETREAT full Score(s) and Annotations and Past Featured Tunes

X:1 % T:Bonaparte's Retreat M:C L:1/8 Q:"Andante" N:DDAd tuning N:Drone strings throughout. B:Ford - Traditional Music in America (1940) Z:AK/Fiddler's Companion K:D [G,2D2] [G,D]F [D2A2]F2|(ED) (EF) (GF) (EF)|[G,2D2][G,D]F [D2A2]F2|(ED) (EF) [G,3D3]:| "accelerando"(3A/B/c/|d2 d>f d2 (3A/B/c/|(dB) (AG) (FD) (3A/B/c/|d2 d>f d[D2A2]|(FD) (EF) (GF) (EF)| [G,D][G,D]F [D2A2]F2|(ED) (EF) (GF) (EF)|[G,2D2][G,D]F [D2A2]F2|(ED) (EF) [G,3D3]z2|| (3A/B/c/|[G,2D2]d>"poco"f d2 (3A/B/c/|[G,D]>B (AG) (FD) "poco"(3A/B/c/|[G,2D2]|d>f d2A2|(F>D) (EF) (GF) (EF)| [G,2D2][GD]F [D2A2]F2|"Piu moto"(ED) (EF) (GF) (EF)|[G,2D2] {G,D]F [D2A2]F2|(ED) (EF) [G,4D4]|"Coda"[A8e8]||

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Although we are not trained musicologists and make no pretense to the profession, we have tried to apply such professional rigors to this Semantic Abc Web as we have internalized through our own formal and informal education.

This demands the gathering of as much information as possible about folk pieces to attempt to trace tune families, determine origins, influences and patterns of aural/oral transmittal, and to study individual and regional styles of performance.
Many musicians, like ourselves, are simply curious about titles, origins, sources and anecdotes regarding the music they play. Who, for example, can resist the urge to know where the title Blowzabella came from or what it means, or speculating on the motivations for naming a perfectly respectable tune Bloody Oul' Hag, is it Tay Ye Want?
Knowing the history of the melody we play, or at least to have a sense of its historical and social context, makes the tune 'present' in the here and now, and enhances our rendering of it.

Andrew Kuntz & Valerio Pelliccioni

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