Blackbird (4) (The)

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BLACKBIRD [4], THE. American, "Piece" or Air (2/4 time). G Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). One part, ABA (O'Flannagan): AABB (Hopkins). Originally an Irish air, preserved by Pennsylvania fiddlers ("to their credit", says Bayard {1981}, who seems quite taken by the tune). "In this region it is not played as a dance, although dance versions have been recorded elsewhere, but as a 'piece' (i.e. a folk instrumental tune with no function beyond that of entertainment), or a 'dead march', which is what the players of both versions (see also 'Napoleon Crossing the Rhine' [2]) given here understand it to be. Joyce, notes that the air 'was played everywhere by pipers and fiddlers' (Joyce, 1909, p. 181); and in the course of tradition it has split into several rather sharply differentiated versions, of which our A represents the one seemingly best known. Our B version gives the air its usual American title of 'The Blackbird'. It is under this name that most country musicians in western Pennsylvania known the tune. To judge from collected and printed versions, 'The Blackbird' has undergone more extensive re-creation by some of its players in American than in the old country. It would appear that old-country players generally keep the main outlines of the air in tact, even though they may alter mode, tempo and rhythm. In western Pennsylvania the editor has recovered more than one version in which variation has involved truncation, reversal of the order of parts, displacement of some phrases as to relative location or pitch, and even the introduction of new turns to replace the old, familiar ones. Such changes may be observed in 'The Blackbird' (Martin version). Sometimes they cause the fine qualities of a tune to evaporate. But apparently the majestic movement of this tune has not been impaired by the alterations which (this) version has undergone. The extent to which popular re-creation may transform a tune without producing an entirely different melody could hardly be better exemplified than by these two sets. What has fixed the name of 'The Blackbird' upon the tune in this country, and made it a frequent name in Ireland, is the fact that, although it is primarily an instrumental tune here, it is also a vocal melody there, and is often set to a song of loyalty to the Young Pretender. In 1651 the royalist ballad-printer Richard Burton issued a broadside entitled 'The Ladies Lamentation. For the losse of her Land-lord', a song in two parts and eight stanzas lamenting the misfortunes and exile of Charles II. This ballad refers to Charles in the first stanza as the 'Black-bird (most Royal)' {Zimmerman, in his "Songs of the Irish Rebellion," printes sex verses of a song entitled "The Royal Blackbird."} In Ireland at a later period, the song-makers loyal to the house of Stuart seized on the piece with its symbolism so convenient to their necessities, and remade it--cutting it down to five stanzas, deleting all specific reference to the career of Charles II, giving prominence to the Blackbird symbol, modernizing the language, and introducing other variations. Thus remade, the song was understood to refer to Charles Edward Stuart, the famous 'Prince Charlie'--and in this guise it has persisted in tradition until the present day. It was also in Ireland, apparently, that this revision of the old Caroline ballad became attached to the tune represented by our version 'A' --a tune which Padraic Colum finds hard to associate with defeat, because of its beauty and pride. Along with this air, the song traveled to America, and the editor has recovered a fragment in Greene County. But the many instrumental versions of the tune in Pennsylvania doubtless reflect a tradition quite independent of the actual song, although its name has impressed itself upon the melody everywhere.

'The Blackbird' has had recent local tragedy associated with it as well as 'old, unhappy, far-off things'. A persistent tradition in southwestern Pennsylvania asserts that in Washington County a man once shot his son for singing this tune. The shooting actually occurred; but whether this tune is the one which occasioned it is not so certain. In 1822 a man named William Crawford was living at Horseshoe Bottom in Fallowfield Township, Washington County. He had been in the British army during the War of 1812, and was so ardently pro-English that he proudly styled himself 'Old Britannia.' He did not get along well with the rest of his family, and his son Henry used to snatch at every opportunity maddened the old man, and Henry sang it in his presence continually--despite threats of murder, to which no one paid much attention. On July 30, 1822, Crawford had a 'manure-hauling frolic' at his home. Henry appeared, and disregarding warnings, commenced 'The Blackbird,' when his father got his gun, took deliberate aim, and shot his son, killing him almost instantly. Crawford was hanged February 21, 1823. At his trial and thereafter he displayed an indifferent and contemptuous attitude toward the proceedings, and acted with what was taken for blasphemous levity and defiance. A full account of the tragedy--from which the above abstract was made--may be seen in Earle R. Forrest, History of Washington County Pennsylvania (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Co., 1926), I 370, 374-6. The source just cited acconts for the father's reaction by stating that 'The Blackbird' was 'a popular patriotic American song of the day' (p. 374). If so, it could hardly have been the Jacobite piece associated with our tune; but it is not impossible that there was a patriotic native song set to this air at one time. At any rate, tradition has definitely associated the tune with this tragedy, which is frequently mentioned when the air is played in southwestern Pennsylvania. Other Pennsylvania instrumental versions of the air are Bayard Coll., Nos. 38, 90, 278...An unusual vocal set appears in Walker, The Southern Harmony, No. 43, to 'Hark! don't you hear the turtle dove, The token of redeeming love'; and the same is in the James edition of The Original Sacred Harp (1911), No. 208, with a note stating that the air appeared also in the Sacred Harp of 1844, and was taken from Dover's Selection, p. 154" (Bayard, 1944). A 3/4 time version appears in the John Carroll Manuscript compiled between 1804 and 1812 at Fort Niagra in New York. Musicologist Paul Tyler says Carroll was evidently a military fifer who was an aspiring fiddler. Paul Wells cites George Pullen Jackson (in his book Another Sheaf of White Spirituals) who finds the "Blackbird" melody used for American hymns prior to the Civil War, such as a piece called "Melody" from the Knoxville Harmony of 1838 and a more distanced variant for "Turtle Dove" from Southern Harmony (1835).

Sources for notated versions: Emery Martin, (near) Dunbar, Pennsylvania, October 14, 1943, learned from his father" [Bayard, 1944]: Numerous southwestern Pa. fiddlers [Bayard, 1981].

Printed sources: Bayard (Hill Country Tunes), 1944; No. 88. Bayard (Dance to the Fiddle), 1981; No. 177A-H, pp. 131-134. Hopkins (American Veteran Fifer), 1905; No. 91. O'Flannagan (The Hibernia Collection), 1860; p. 22.

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