Great Eastern Reel (1)

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GREAT EASTERN REEL. AKA and see "Bennett's Favorite," "Grondeuse (1) (La)," "John Brennan's Reel," "Silver Spire (The)." Irish, Reel. D Major. Standard. AABB (Brody, Cole, Ryan): AA'BB' (Begin). Credited to one Clem. Titus in Ryan's Mammoth Collection/Cole's 1000. While the title may refer to a region of a country, it must be strongly considered that it was associated with The Great Eastern, one of three great transatlantic steamships designed by Isambad Kingdom Brunel (whose father was Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, 1769-1849, a French-born engineer resident in England after the Revolution who constructed the first tunnel under the Thames, still in use today as part of the London Underground).

"The Great Eastern" is a reel that, while not a member of a large tune family, is nontheless important in several traditions, largely on the merits of its strong, flowing and well-crafted melody. It has a few names, but essentially they are the same tune, showing little of the variety and musical distance between versions that sometimes develops when tunes weave in and out of various traditions. It can be found in North American tradition as "Bennett's Favorite" and "The Great Eastern," in Irish tradition as "John Brennan's Reel" and especially "The Silver Spire," and in Québecois tradition as one of the "La Grondeuse" tunes. It has a long recording history, beginning with the duet of Paddy Killoran and Paddy Sweeney in the 1930's and continuing today with versions by Sharon Shannon, Tommy Peoples, John and Phil Cunningham, Natalie MacMaster and the groups Wild Asparagus and La Bottine Souriante, to name a few.

In Québec the title "Grondeuse (1) (La)"-'the grumbling woman'-is the title of many tunes, each fiddler seeming to have his or her own versions based on a variety of melodies in the key of 'D'. What they have in common is that the 'G' string is tuned up to 'A' (ADae, or 'raised bass' tuning), producing ringing overtones and lending itself to dense droned bowing on the low parts. "La Grondeuse" is universally played in the Québec fiddle tradition and it is often employed as a vehicle for step-dancing. One "La Grondeuse" strain is the "Great Eastern"/"Silver Spire" melody and has made the contra dance rounds for many years, beginning with New Hampshire fiddler and caller Dudley Laufman.

Irish fiddlers know the reel by the titles "Silver Spire" and "John Brennan's Reel." It was famously recorded for the first time in 1931 by the duet of fiddlers Paddy Killoran and Paddy Sweeney (who paired it with "Farrell O'Gara"), both from County Sligo and recent members of the New York city Irish immigrant community. Since no earlier record of the name "Silver Spire" occurs prior to the 1931 Killoran/Sweeney recording, I believe the original name had become detached, and that Killoran, Sweeney or the someone at the record company decided to call the unnamed reel after the then-current engineering marvels the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, both newly completed. The buildings dramatically altered the New York City skyline, and the art-deco Chrysler Building even features a silver spire the juts skyward from the top of the building. Through this influential recording the reel quickly became a staple of the Irish dance tradition and was picked up by such groups as the Ballinakill Ceili Band (who recorded it on a 78 RPM disc set as a hornpipe). The melody became associated with County Sligo flute player John Brennan in some Irish circles. He was a regular member of Dublin's Church Street Club, site of a famous long-lasting session that began in the late 1950's, centered around fiddler John Kelly, originally from County Kerry. The Tara Ceili Band and Tommy Peoples/Matt Malloy/Paul Brady have recorded it under the "John Brennan's" title, to name a few. It is still a popular tune that is heard fairly frequently at modern sessions, and because of this, and through Irish recordings, it has re-entered other traditions, creating interesting juxtapositions where it exists simultaneously with other titles.

It is in American tradition, however, that the reel can be traced farthest; to 1883 and Ryan's Mammoth Collection. Therein it appears twice, first as "Bennett's Favorite" then again as "Great Eastern Reel," the latter being the only tune credited to Clem. Titus (a name from classical Rome). The "Great Eastern" title is the one that the tune is usually known by, although some fiddlers picked up the "Bennett's" version by perusing the Ryan collection or its successor, Cole's 1001 Fiddle Tunes. Missouri fiddler Cyril Stinnett's version is given below. Stinnett probably had his version from Burt County, Nebraska, fiddler Uncle Bob Walters, remarks Bill Shull, and although Stinnett did not read music, Walters often picked up tunes from Ryan's/Coles. Natalie MacMaster has also recorded "Bennett's Favorite." It is doubtful, especially given the tune's appearance in the same publication under the "Bennett" title, that it was authored by Titus. There is very little information about Titus, but he and another Howe contributor, Zeke Backus, are mentioned in Col. Thomas Allston Brown's articles in the New York Clipper (22 June 1889) and his volume A History of the New York Stage, vol. 1 (1903, pp. 361-362), in an entry detailing "White's Melodeon", "the first cheap theater" in New York. It opened in 1846 at 53 Bowery, burned om 1847, was rebuilt, and burned a second time in 1849, after which a five story house was erected on the site.

Negro minstrelsy by White's Serenaders was its principal attraction...Among those who became famous in the minstrel world afterwards, and who appeared here, were Master Juba, Neil Hall, tambourine, Bill Smith, bones (Smigh was noted for his large mouth); Fran Stanton, banjo; Clem Titus, violin jig player, and Zeke Backus, violin ad reel accompanist.

Titus died in Apalachacola (presumably Apalachicola, Florida, near Tallahassee) sometime before September, 1862, when his name appears in a list of deceased minstrel performs in the New York Clipper (6 September 1862). See also Dan Emmett's "Clem Titus Jig."

If there is little information about Titus, however, his title is certainly not obscure, for it was the name of one of the most famous ships of the mid-19th century and instantly recognizable to anyone living at the time, albeit almost forgotten nowadays. The Great Eastern was one of three great transatlantic steamships designed by Isambad Kingdom Brunel (whose father was an expatriate French-born engineer resident in England after the Revolution, who constructed the first tunnel under the Thames, still in use today as part of the London Underground). The ship was an astounding engineering feat. It was the largest vessel of its age-originally called The Leviathan due to its huge size-and six times larger than any ship ever then built. Instead of the usual wood, the Great Eastern was made of iron, weighed 19,000 tons and measured 689 feet. In fact, it was so huge it had to be launched sideways, and at that she only managed to shift three feet before stopping. It would be three months before she was finally pushed into water. Unfortunately, her luck did not improve. During her sea trials a terrible explosion occurred caused by a stuffed ventilator, and the foremost funnel was launched like a rocket. Members of the crew, scalded by blast, emerged and one threw himself over the side, only to be mangled to death by the blade wheels. Brunel had a stroke when he heard the news, and died soon afterwards.

The Great Eastern was built so large to be able to run from Europe to Australia with only one stop for fuel, but she was never employed in that task. Instead she was assigned the run to New York, and she never was able to attract the number of passengers needed to become profitable. For one reason, she was famous for her rolling in the great waves of the Atlantic, producing monumental sea-sickness. Her port visits were mismanaged, alienating potential passengers. More ominously, during her fourth voyage a storm tore away her rudder, causing eight months of repairs, and on a subsequent passage she struck a rock tearing a gash in her side 75 feet long (she was saved by her unique double-hull, which kept her afloat). After a few years of mounting losses the great ship was taken out of service.

A few years later she was resurrected for a task that finally befit her, for the Great Eastern became the steamship that laid the first permanent transatlantic cable. Only a ship of her size could carry the enormous amount of cable necessary to span the Atlantic, and she was finally a success. By the mid-1870's, however, her time was passed, and she languished in harbor for twelve more years, more-or-less as a floating billboard. Finally, in 1888 she was sold for a pittance for scrap, although it took the better part of two years to dismantle her. During this process a skeleton was found between her double hulls, one of the workmen who was on the original building crew from the 1850's and perished unknown.

Perhaps the most bizarre incident in the ship the Great Eastern's career occurred in New York City in 1860. One night, months before the great vessel entered port, a feared thug named Albert E. Hicks, commonly called Hicksey, fell asleep in the lodgings of a Cherry street crimp after a night of drinking. He was given a nightcap laced with opium by the owner, robbed and knocked unconscious with a slung-shot, and awoke to find himself shanghied on an oyster sloop, the E.A. Johnson. The sloop had rounded Staten Island and was headed out to sea by the time the hoodlum regained enough of his senses to protest, and as his rage gained momentum he bloodily slew the boat's captain and two young brothers who were crew members. The E.A. Johnson was found abandoned and adrift a few days later and the slaughter revealed in all its horror. Hicks meanwhile had taken the sloop's small boat and made his escape back to his haunts in lower Manhattan, but not before robbing his victims of their valuables and carrying off anything of worth he could find. Unfortunately for him, Hicks had been observed being taken to the boat, and after a quick investigation he was arrested and a search of his belongings revealed loot that was identified as his victims'.

After a quick trial Hicks was condemned, but the sensational case garnered much fanfare, and as the date for his execution neared he became something of a celebrity. P.T. Barnum visited him in his cell and arranged to purchase a plaster cast of his head and bust for his museum, and later also acquired his clothes. On the appointed date, a Thursday in July, Hicks said his farewells, and, accompanied by a priest, a Sheriff, and a chief and deputy United States Marshall dressed in their finest, he was escorted to a carriage. It joined a procession led by a fife and drum corps playing by a dirge and was followed by a string of black draped carriages, through cheering crowds from the Tombs down to Canal Street. Since the place of execution was designated to be Bedloe's Island (where the Statue of Liberty is now located), Hicks was then transferred to a steamboat that was to convey the official party there. By this time the harbour was filled with boats, all jockeying to witness the hanging, however, things had moved faster than the Marshall had anticipated and he found he had plenty of time by the time the steamship entered mid-stream. Believing it undignified to land on the island too early, the Marshall determined to take the party for a sight-seeing sail up the Hudson. The Great Eastern was anchored in the river above them, recently arrived from Europe on her maiden voyage, and when the smaller vessel approached, Hicks was brought to the rail. The Marshall stationed himself on the bridge, sword in one hand and speaking-trumpet in the other, and explained to the surprised Great Eastern passengers the meaning of the cruise while pointed out Hicks's shackles and chains.

The smaller steamship then descended the river and arrived at the island, where a detachment of soldiers and the scaffold awaited them. Since the scaffold had been erected not thirty feet from the water, the throngs of sightseers in their excursion boats had a good view of the proceedings. It was estimated that some 10,000 witnessed Hicks go to his maker that day. The murderer's body was returned to Manhattan for burial in Calvary Cemetery, although he did not repose in peace long, for his grave was soon robbed and his corpse sold to medical school students for dissection. (This story appears in The Gangs of New York, 1928, by Herbert Asbury).

Source for notated version: fiddler Dawson Girdwood (Perth, Ottawa Valley, Ontario) [Begin]. Begin (Fiddle Music in the Ottawa Valley: Dawson Girdwood), 1985; No. 72, p. 82.

Printed sources: Brody (Fiddler's Fakebook), 1983, p. 256 (appears as "The Silver Spire"). Cole (1000 Fiddle Tunes), 1940; p. 46. Ryan's Mammoth Collection, 1883; p. 73.

Recorded sources: Apex AL 1600, Don Messer & His Islanders - "Down East Dancin', Vol. 1." Front Hall FHR 020, Alistair Anderson - "Dookin' for Apples" (1979). Rounder 7010, Tom Doucet - "Tommy Doucet" (1979). Solid ROCD 8, "Sharon Shannon" (1991).

See also listing at:
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [1]
Hear the tune played by Don Messer at Ted McGraw's site [2] (followed by the jig "Honest John").




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