Bonaparte's Retreat (1)

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BONAPARTE'S RETREAT [1]. AKA - "Napoleon's Retreat." Old-Time, Texas Style; March, Reel. USA; Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Kentucky, northeast Alabama, Mississippi, southwestern Va., West Virginia, Pennsylvania. D Major (most versions, though one version in A Major was collected from Mississippi fiddler John Hatcher in 1939). DDad (W.H. Stepp, Absie Morrison), EBee (Henry Reed), or DDae tunings (fiddle). ABB: ABB'CC'BB' (Beisswenger & McCann). 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."

Bayard's primary scope of collecting was in western Pennsylvania in the mid-20th century, where he found the tune still current in fiddle repertoire, though he remarked on its popularity in various parts of the South. His Pennsylvania version has a somewhat simpler melodic outline than most of the other recorded American sets, and, although he notes that these sets vary considerably--even in the number of parts which a version may contain--he finds they are clearly cognate, and all show resemblance's and common traits indicating derivation from the "The Eagle's Whistle." In Southwestern Pennsylvania the march origins were lost and instead "sets of the tune have been recast into the form--and given title-- of 'Old Man and Old Woman a-Quarrelin' (Scoldin', Fightin'),' and thus present an alternation of slow and quick parts. Other Pennsylvania sets are Bayard Coll., Nos. 81, 84, 252; and see notes to ('Old Man and Old Woman Scoldin'). These refashioned 'Old Man and Woman' sets differ somewhat among themselves, indicating that they have been traditional in their altered form for some time; but whether they assumed this form before their importation into America, or whether the alteration took place here, with an older tune of the type of 'Old Man and Old Woman Scoldin as model, is uncertain. F.P. Provance stated that the fifer from whom he learned this tune played it as a retreat in Civil War days" (Bayard, 1944).

According to Blue Ridge Mountain local history the tune was known in the Civil War era. Geoffrey Cantrell, writing in the Asheville Citizen-Times of Feb., 23, 2000 relates the story of the execution of three men by the Confederate Home Guard on April 10th, 1865, the day after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Courthouse. That news would not have been known to them, given the difficulty with communications at that time. It is documented that Henry Grooms, his brother George and his brother-in-law Mitchell Caldwell, all of north Haywood County, North Carolina, were taken prisoner by the Guard under the command of one Captain Albert Teague-no one knows why, but the area had been ravaged by scalawags and bushwackers, and the populace had suffered numerous raids of family farms by Union troops hunting provisions. One theory is that the men were accused of being Confederate deserters who, perhaps knowing the war was nearly over, had aided the Union cause in some way. There was much back-and-forth guerilla warfare, however, and the village of Waynesville had been burned two months earlier (by Unionists), and the citizenry was beleaguered and anxious. Caldwell and the Grooms brothers were captured in the Big Creek section of Haywood County, close to the Tennessee border. Cantrell writes: "The group traveled toward Cataloochee Valley and Henry Grooms, clutching his fiddle and bow, was asked by his captors to play a tune. Realizing he was performing for his own firing squad Grooms struck up Bonaparte's Retreat," his favorite tune. When he finished the three men were lined up against an oak tree and shot, the bodies left where they fell. Henry's wife gathered the bodies and buried them in a single grave in the family plot at Sutton Cemetery No. 1 in the Mount Sterling community, the plain headstone reading only "Murdered." The original source for the story is George A. Miller, in his book Cemeteries and Family Graveyards in Haywood County, N.C.

The Kentucky Encyclopedia gives another story which mentions "Bonaparte's Retreat" in connection with an execution. It seems that a Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, a former attorney general of Kentucky, was murdered in the middle of a September night in 1825 by an unidentified assailant who stabbed him in his chest. Sharp had political enemies, all of whom had alibis, but who had circulated rumors that he had seduced one Ann Cook of Bowling Green, fathering her illegitimate child in 1820. Suspicion soon shifted to Ann's husband, Jereboam Beauchamp, who married her after the birth of the supposed love-child but who was infuriated at the circulating handbills containing the rumor. Beauchamp was dully arrested, tried in Frankfort in May, 1826, found guilty and was sentenced to death by hanging. Ann could not bear to be parted from him and somehow gained permission from the jailer to stay with him in his jail cell. The couple tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum, but were still permitted to share the cell. Another suicide attempt with a smuggled knife was made on the day of the execution, with somewhat better results. Ann, mortally wounded, was taken to the jailers house for treatment, but Beauchamp was hustled to the gallows lest he die from his wounds before the sentence was carried out. He proved too weak from his wounds to stand and had to be supported, but he was presumably able to hear the strains of "Bonaparte's Retreat" played before he made the leap, as he had previously requested. Ann and Jereboam were buried in a joint grave in Bloomfield, Kenctucky, graced by a tombstone engraved with an eight-stanza poem written by Ann.

The tune was cited (by Mattie Stanfield in her book Sourwood Tonic and Sassafras Tea) as having been played by Etowah County, Alabama, fiddler George Cole at the turn of the century (Cauthen, 1990). Musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph recorded the tune from Ozark Mountain fiddlers for the Library of Congress in the early 1940's. Ed Haley (1883-1951) of Ashland, eastern Ky., played the tune so skillfully that "one old-timer, after hearing Haley play ("Bonaparte's Retreat") declared that 'if two armies could come together and hear him play that tune, they'd kill themselves in piles" (Wolfe, 1982). Haley toured regionally in Kentucky and West Virginia It was "Bonaparte's Retreat" that was the first tune Braxton County fiddler Melvin Wine (1909-1999) learned at the age of nine. His father, Bob, played the fiddle and young Melvin practiced when the elder Wine was out cutting timber or working as a farmhand for neighbors. He finally worked up the nerve to play for his father, and it proved a successful entrée, for afterwards which Bob taught him tunes he had learned from his own father, Nels, and Grandfather "Smithy" (Mountains of Music, John Lilly ed., 1999, p. 8).

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).

Sources for notated versions: J.S. Price (Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma) [Thede]: F.P. Provance, Point Marion, Pennsylvania, September 19, 1943, who learned it from Sam Waggle, fifer, of Dunbar [Bayard, 1944]: Marion Yoders (Greene County, Pa., 1962) [Bayard, 1981]; Absie Morrison (1876-1964, Searcy County, Arkansas) [Beisswenger & McCann].

Printed sources: Bayard (Hill Country Tunes), 1944; No. 87. Bayard (Dance to the Fiddle), 1981; No. 238, p. 199. Beisswenger & McCann (Ozark Fiddle Music), 2008; p. 101. Brody (Fiddler's Fakebook), 1983; p. 52. Ford (Traditional Music in America), 1940; p. 129. Lomax (Our Singing Country), 1941; pp. 54-55 (appears as "Bonyparte"). Thede (The Fiddle Book), 1967; p. 36-37.

Recorded sources: A-L 001, Lisa Ornstein & André Marchand - "One Fine Summer's Day/Par un beau Samedi d' été" (2009). Caney Mountain Records CLP 228, Lonnie Robertson (Mo.), c. 1971-72. County 202, "Eck Robertson: Famous Cowboy Fiddler." County 546, "Arthur Smith and His Dixieliners, vol. I." County 703, Benny Thomasson- "Texas Hoedown." County 756, Tommy Jarrell- "Sail Away Ladies" (1976). County 790, Leftwich & Higginbotham - "No One to Bring Home Tonight" (1984). Folkways FA 2325, Mike Seeger- "Old Time Country Music." Folkways FA 2366, The Watson Family (N.C.) - "The Watson Family Album." Folk Legacy Records FSA-17, Hobart Smith - "America's Greatest Folk Instrumentalist." Heritage XXXIII, Jay Ungar & Neil Rossi - "Visits" (1981. Learned from a 1937 Library of Congress recording of Lakeville, Ky., fiddler W.M.Stepp). Library of Congress (AFS 13037a12), Henry Reed. Okeh 40110 (78 RPM), A.A. Gray (1924). PearlMae Muisc 004-2, Jim Taylor - "The Civil War Collection" (1996). Philo 1023, Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy- "Songs Ballads and Fiddle Tunes" (1975. Learned from Kentucky fiddler W.M. Stepp via Library of Congress recording). Rounder 0010, "The Fuzzy Mountain String Band" (1972. Learned from Alan Jabbour). Rounder 0057, Sherman Wimmer (Franklin County, Va.) - "Old Originals, vol. 1" (1978. Learned from Will Willit, nephew and protege of influential Franklin County fiddler Fount Kinrea). Rounder 18964-1518-2, Various Artists (Bill Stepp) - "American Fiddle Tunes" (a reissue of the 1971 Library of Congress LP of field recordings). Rounder CD1518, Various Performers - "American Fiddle Tunes" (1971. Played by Bill Stepp). String 802, Emmett Lundy (Galax, Va.) - Library of Congress Recording. Transatlantic 341, Dave Swarbrick- "Swarbrick 2." Voyager VRCD 344, Howard Marshall & John Williams - "Fiddling Missouri" (1999. Learned from Audrain County, Missouri, fiddler Warren Elliot in 1967). Wildwood WILD CD 19804, New Deal String Band. Yazoo Records, W.M. (William) Stepp - "Music of Kentucky, vol. 1" (reissue of the 1937 Stepp recording by Alan Lomax. Stepp can be heard on the recording saying in the midst of fiddling: "This is the bony part....That was the bony part").

See also listing at:
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [1]
Hear West Virginia fiddler Melvin Wine's "Bonaparte's Retreat" at Berea Digital Archive [2]
Hear William H. "Bill" Stepp's 1937 field recording at Berea Digital Archive [3]
Hear Kentucky fiddler Alva Greene's version at Berea Digital Archive [4]
Hear Kentucky fiddler Santford Kelly's version at Berea Digital Archvie [5]




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