X:1 T:Leather Britches N:From the playing of John Morgan Salyer (1882-1952, Salyersville, Magoffin County, eastern Ky.) M:C| L:1/8 R:Reel D:Berea Sound Archives https://soundarchives.berea.edu/items/show/4265 Z:Transcribed by Andrew Kuntz K:G [G,2G2] AG BGAG|BGAG EFG2|[G,2G2] AG BGAG|D[CD][B,D][[G,D] EFG2| [G,2G2] AG BGAG|BGAG EGAB|AGFD EGDE|1GABG G2[G,2G2]:|2 GABG G2|| Bd-|d3e dBGB|gfga g2[d2g2]|[d3g3][dg] [d2g2][de]f|gedc BGG2| B-d2e dBGB|gfga g2[d2g2]|[d3g3][dg] [d2g2]ef|gedc BG G2|| |:sg2bg agbg|dgbg agef|g2 bg agbg|aged BGG2| g2bg agbg|dgbg agef|bgag bgag|edBG AG G2:|
LEATHER BREECHES/BRITCHES. See "Lord MacDonald (4)" which is thought to be the origin of the American version. AKA and see "Breeches On (The)," "Britches Full of Stitches (The)," "Irish Lad (The)," "Irish Lad's a Jolly Boy (The)," "Old Leather Breeches (2)," "O the Breeches Full of Stitches," "Lord MacDonald (4)," "McDonald's Reel," "Petit Bûcheux (Le)," "Reel McDonnell," "Slanty Gart." Old-Time, Bluegrass; Breakdown. USA, very widely known. G Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Bayard, Silberberg): AABB (Brody, Lowinger): AABCC (Titon): ABCDD (Christeson): AABBCC (Shumway, Thede): AA'BB'CC' (Phillips): AABCCDDC' (Krassen). The title may refer to 'leather breeches', a nickname in some parts of the American South and West for green (snap) beans dried in the pod and later cooked. Sometimes the beans would be pieced with a needle and thread and strung together, then hung to dry where they would last the winter (but would need to be soaked to re-hydrate them prior to cooking).
Alternatively, the title may refer to actual garments made of leather, and it has been pointed out the the playing of the tune on the fiddle involves bowing in a motion that has been likened to the movements in sewing with a needle and thread. Professor Samuel Bayard notes the tune is descended from, or related to, an Irish air called "Breeches On (The)" or "Irish Lad (The)" and a widespread Scottish reel generally called "Lord MacDonald (4)/McDonald's Reel." Generally, the order of the parts is reversed from the 'MacDonald' tune. Paul Gifford believes that the earliest version of "Leather Breeches" in print (under that title) appears in numerical tablature in Music for the Piano Dulcimer by Robert J. Rudisill (born about 1804, a farmer of Ralls County, Missouri.), published by Stedman (New York) & Milton (Kentucky) with a date of 1859, sold by L.S. & H. Wade. The volume, says Paul, was apparently written to accompany the dulcimers manufactured by the Wades in Chautaqua County, New York. Gifford remarks (in Fiddle-L, 2013), that "Leather Breeches," "is in A Tour Through Indiana in 1840: The Diary of John Parsons of Petersburg, Virginia (NY: Robert M. McBRide & Co., 1920, now in University of Pittsburgh Library), p. 227, where, describing a wedding somewhere out of Logansport, Indiana, he wrote:"
When we returned to the first cabin we found the young people already dancing, having induced the old fiddler to take his station in one corner, where he played in a most lugubrious fashion the old tune of "Leather Breeches."
Gifford also notes: "A poem by William Lightfoot Visscher (1842-1924), "Dancing in the Old Time," in Bluegrass Ballads and Other Verse (NY, 1900), says (depicting a black fiddler, no doubt before the Civil War):"
There the fiddler, gray and sable,
Stamps a foot and gaily plays:
Plays his "Hear de Bells a-Ringing,"
Then his "Snowbird at de Do',"
While he calls the figures, singing:
"Swing dem cawnders!" "Forrid fo'!"
His favorite, "Old Leather Breeches,"
Rings thro' memory in my ear,
And his singing, "Full er Stitches,"
Blends with rattling "Forked Deer"
Many sources note this tunes popularity in the United States: for example, Marion Thede said it was "among the most frequently heard fiddle tunes in the Southwest," while Arizona fiddler Kenner C. Kartchner stated it was "a great favorite in early Texas cattle country" (Shumway). Bell Wiley listed it among the popular fiddle tunes played by fiddlers in the Confederate army in his book The Life of Johnny Reb. It was in repertory of Alabama fiddler D. Dix Hollis (1861–1927) who considered it one of "the good old tunes of long ago" (as quoted in the Opelika Daily News of April 17th, 1926), and it was commonly played by Rock Ridge Alabama fiddlers around 1920 (Bailey). It was mentioned in the autobiography of fiddler Tom Freeman of Cullman County, Alabama, and was listed in the Tuscaloosa News of March 28th, 1971 as a specialty of "Monkey" Brown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who had a local reputation in the 20's and 30's (Cauthen, 1990). The tune was recorded for the Library of Congress (by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph) from the playing of Ozarks Mountain fiddlers in the early 1940's, and (by Herbert Halpert) from the playing of Mississippi fiddlers John Hatcher, Stephen B. Tucker, and Hardy Sharp in 1939. "Leather Breeches" was played in the non-standard key of 'D' Major by Surry County, North Carolina, fiddler Benton Flippen (b. 1920). Benton told David Holt in a 2002 interview that "Leather Britches" was the first tune he learned on the fiddle, from his Uncle John.
The melody was a standard at fiddlers' contests in many areas of the South and Mid-West. It was a 'category tune' for an 1899 fiddle contest in Gallatin, Tenn., in which each fiddler would play his version; the best rendition won a prize (C. Wolfe, The Devil's Box, vol. 14, No. 4, 12/1/80). Larkin Hicks of Broadhead, Kentucky, played "Leather Breeches" in the 1919 Berea, Kentucky, fiddle contest, as recorded in lists of tunes played at the event (Titon, 2001). It was predicted to "vie with the latest jazz nerve wreckers for first place" at a fiddlers' convention in Chilton County, Alabama, according to the Chilton County News of June 1, 1922 (Cauthen, 1990), and was also predicted by the Northwest Alabamian of August 29th, 1929, that it was likely to be played at an upcoming contest. A.B. Moore, in his 1934 History of Alabama, said it was one of the standard tunes in the square dance fiddler's repertoire, and it was listed as one of the definitive fiddle tunes for a contest in Jackson, Alabama, in the Clarke County Democrat of May 6, 1926 (Cauthen, 1990). It was a tune in the repertoire of fiddler and Confederate veteran Arnold A. Parrish (Willow Springs, Wake County, N.C.), as recorded by the old Raleigh News and Observer. Parrish was a contestant at fiddler's conventions held in Raleigh prior to World War I. In the Franklin/Floyd County area of southwestern Va. the reel is well-known, particularly as "Old Leather Breeches/Britches" (Tom Carter & Blanton Owen, 1976).
The reel has retained popularity to this day as a contest tune. A story has been told of California old-time mandolin player Kenny Hall who played this tune in the 1970's at the 'national' contest at Weiser, Idaho, a hot-bed of Texas-style or 'contest' fiddling that dominated the stage. Hall said he had learned "Leather Britches" from an old Texas fiddler, and that his was what "real" Texas fiddling was all about, which did not endear him to many Texans that weekend. Compounding his faux pas, was his reference to Dick Barrett's Texas version: "That ain't Leather Britches, its Perma Press." The Texans were not amused.
Samuel Bayard suggests the rhyme sung to the melody by old-time musicians is borrowed from an Irish air (song) called "Britches On (The)." Researcher and fiddler Lisa Ornstein, however, says the only association she could find to support this was in Irish novelist and Fenian Charles J. Kickham's novel Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary (1879), in which a jews-harper plays the tune and then sings: "Oh, my breeches full of stitches, Oh, my breeches buckled on, Oh, my breeches full of stitches, Oh my breeches buckled on" to a visitor who has a torn pant-leg (Chapter 19). See also Irish variants under the "McDonald" titles as well as "Glentaun Reel (The)", "Gleanntán Reel (1) (The)" and "Glentown."
"This [i.e. Bayard's 1944 set] is the best set of 'Leather Breeches' yet to turn up in western Pennsylvania." The tune is often accompanied by a rhyme that in Greene County (Pa.) tradition runs:
Leather breeches full of stitches,
Old shoes and stockings on—
My wife she kicked me out of bed
Because I had my breeches on.
Bayard's source Mrs. Armstrong recalled only two lines:
Leather breeches, full of stitches,
Mammy sewed the buttons on.
Ford (1940) prints these words:
Leather Breeches full of stitches,
Leather Breeches, Leather Breeches;
Mammy cut 'em out an'
M'daddy sewed an' sewed the stitches.