Sourwood Mountain (1)

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X:2 T:Sourwood Mountain [1] M:C| L:1/8 Q:"Quick" R:Reel N:AEae tuning (fiddle) S:Edden Hammons (1875-1955, Pocahontas County, W.Va.) D:The Edden Hammons Collection vol. 2 N:From a 1947 field recording F: Z:Andrew Kuntz K:A V:1 clef=treble name="2." [V:1] [A,2E2](A/B/ce2)ee -|egfg e2(c+slide+[ee])-|[e2e2][e2e]- [ee]gfc|ecBG A2A2| [A,2E2](A/B/ce2)ee -|egfg e2(c2|+slide+[e2e2])[e2e]- [ee]gfc|ecBc A2A2|| +slide+c2 Bc A2A2-|AcBA FEFG|[A3A3]A- ABc2|ecBc A2AB| c2 Bc A2A2-|AcBA FEFG|[A3A3]A- ABcc|edBG A2AA| +slide+c2 B2c2B2|AcBA FEFG|[A3A3]A- ABcc|edBc A2A2||

SOURWOOD MOUNTAIN [1]. American, Reel (cut time). USA; Arkansas, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama. D Major (Thede): A Major (most versions). Standard (Wine) or AEae (John Salyer, Edden Hammons) tunings (fiddle). AABB (Thede): AABB' (Phillips). The tune (and attached song) has been widely collected in the South, especially in banjo settings, although like many a folk-song its origins are obscure. It has long been used as a play-party melody. Sourwood Mountain is a place-name in the state of Massachusetts, and the ballad is said by some to have originated in that state. Mrs. Betty Jane Dodrill writes to say that family lore has it that the song was composed by her ancestor William Francis (Blue Bill) Combs (1840-1924), a fiddler and farmer who lived on Breezers Branch, North of Finney in Russell County, Virginia. Blue Bill served with the Confederate forces in the Civil War and was with General Lee at the surrender at Appomattox in 1865[1]. Madison County, western North Carolina, fiddler Bill Hensley (1873-1960) attributed "Sourwood Mountain" to a Virginia fiddler named "Blind Wiley Laws, whom he described as a "terrible" fiddler (using the old meaning of the word as a synonym for 'awesome'). [2].

Whatever its origins (and despite the fact that melodic material was undoubtedly imported from the British Isles), it is one of the first truly American ballads, and the tragic tale of a young man fatally bit by a snake made its way into folk traditions throughout the United States. Sourwood is the name for chestnut or other bark used in tanning leather, and a fairly common commodity on the frontier. English folksong and folk dance collector Cecil Sharp obtained a version of "Sourwood Mountain" on his collecting trip through the Appalachians, from the singing of Will Biggers at Rome, Georgia, in August 1913, recording the tune with the lyric:

Chickens a-crowing in Sourwood Mountain,
Hay diddy ump, diddy iddy um day,
Get your dogs and we'll all go a-hunting,
Hay diddy ump, diddy iddy um day.

Raccoon canter and 'possum trot,
Black cur wrestle with a hickory knot.

Bring your old dog, get your gun
Kill some game and have a little fun.

Jaybird sitting on a hickory limb,
My six-foot rifle will sure get him.

Gather that game and at home I'll rack,
Got as much good meat as I can carry.

I got a gal in the head of the hollow,
She won't come and I won't follow.

She sits up with old Si Hall,
Me and Jeff can't go there at all.

Some of these days before very long,
I'll get that girl and a-home I'll run.

The tune was mentioned by William Byrne who described a chance encounter with West Virginia fiddler ‘Old Sol’ Nelson during a fishing trip on the Elk River. The year was around 1880, and Sol, whom Byrne said was famous for his playing “throughout the Eld Valley from Clay Courthouse to Sutton as…the Fiddler of the Wilderness,” had brought out his fiddle after supper to entertain (Milnes, 1999). Popular as a folksong, as a tune it had a place in traditional fiddle repertoire. It was, for example, popular enough to have been mentioned in a 1931 newspaper account as having been played at a LaFollette, northeast Tennessee, fiddlers' contest. It was also among the tunes listed as a standard in a square dance fiddler's repertoire, as asserted by A.B. Moore in his History of Alabama (1934)[3]. It was in the repertoire of fiddler Albert Hash of Rugby, Virginia, who thought it originated in the British Isles. Musicologist Charles Wolfe (1982) states it was popular with older Kentucky fiddlers (Doc Roberts recorded the tune, duetting with African-American fiddler Jim Booker {b. 1872}). Jeff Titon (2001) reports that “Sourwood Mountain” was mentioned in several of the 1915 Berea, Kentucky, lists of tunes played by fiddlers at a gathering that year, and was played at the 1919 and 1920 Berea fiddle contests. West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons and Kentucky fiddler John Salyer (1882-1952) both had crosstuned versions. The title appears in a list of traditional Ozarks Mountains fiddle tunes compiled by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph, published in 1954. Many comic rhymes were sung with the tune, which usually begins something like:

I got a gal on Sourwood Mountain,
Da da da da da da da da da;
Pretty girls there 'til you can't count 'em,
Da da da da da da da da da.

Additional notes
Source for notated version : - Clyde Ward (Bates, Arkansas) [Thede]; W. Franklin George (W.Va.) [Phillips]; John M. Salyer (Salyersville, Magoffin County, Ky., 1941-42) [Milliner & Koken, Titon]; Bill Hensley [Milliner & Koken]; Edden Hammons [Milliner & Koken].

Printed sources : - Clare Milliner & Walt Koken (Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes), 2011; pp. 622-623 (3 versions). Phillips (Traditional American Fiddle Tunes, vol. 1), 1994; p. 229. Thede (The Fiddle Book), 1967; p. 102. Titon (Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes), 2001; No. 155, p. 180.

Recorded sources : - Anachronistic 001, John Hilt – “Swopes Knobs” (1977). Copper Creek CCCD 0199, James Leva – “Memory Theatre.” County 778, Tommy Jarrell "Pickin' On Tommy's Porch" (1984. Learned from his father, North Carolina fiddler Ben Jarrell and his Uncle Charlie Lowe). County 2730, Rafe Stefanini – “Glory on the Big String.” Document 5659, The Booker Brothers. Document 8040, “The Hill Billies/Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vol. 2” (reissue). Gennett Records (78 RPM), Taylor's Kentucky Boys {with Doc Roberts} (1927). Heritage XXIV, Tommy Jarrell "Music of North Carolina" (Brandywine, 1978). Library of Congress AFS 00841 B02, Marion Rees [sic] (1936). Rounder Records, Hobart Smith – “Southern Journey, Vol. 2: Ballads and Breakdowns” (a reissue of Alan Lomax recordings). Rounder 1008, “Ernest V. Stoneman and the North Carolina Corn Shuckers” (c. 1978). Tradition TLP 1007, Boone Reid "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" (1978). Yazoo 2017, The Booker Brothers. Yodel-Ay-Hee 003, “Dirk Powell and John Hermann” (1992). Edden Hammons Collection, Disc 2. Recorded for the Library of Congress (2740-A-3 and 2744-A-1/2), 1939, by Herbert Halpert from the playing of both H.L. Maxey and J.W. "Peg" Thatcher (Franklin County, Va.). Recorded for Edison in 1925 and Victor in 1924 by Fiddlin' Cowan Powers (b. 1877, southwest Va.), and for Vocalion in 1924 by Uncle Am Stuart (b. 1856, Morristown, Tenn.).

See also listing at :
Jane Keefer's Folk Song Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [1]
Hear John Salyer's 1941/42 home recording at Berea Sound Archives [2]
Hear Marion Reece's 1936 LOC field recording at Slippery Hill [3]
See/hear a video clip of Melvin Wine playing the tune (accompanied by Gerry Milnes) at a 1989 Berea College concert [4]

Back to Sourwood Mountain (1)

(one vote)

  1. The Heritage of Russell County Virginia, 1786-1988, vol. II, pp. 203-204.
  2. See David Parker Bennett's 1940 dissertation "A Study in Fiddle Tunes from Western North Carolina", UNC, Chapel Hill, p. 21 [5]. North Carolina fiddler Manco Sneed recorded a tune for the LOC entitled "Wylie Laws," presumably the same person as Hensley's 'Blind Wiley Laws'.
  3. Cited by Cauthen, With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow, 1990