Sunday, January 01, 2012

Prairieland Dulcimers - "Bonaparte's Retreat" -- ** UPDATED ** and lightly edited for our sessions in January 2015

Thursday night, Jan. 5 Next week, we'll take up "Bonaparte's Retreat" at our Clayville Academy of Music jam (Jan. 3) and our first 2015 session of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings (Jan. 6). It's one of the grand old fiddle tunes, and it turns up everywhere. You can recognize it in a old gutbucket country-and-western song, a classical orchestra piece and - most important of all for our purposes - a good, rowdy dulcimer jam tune.

But unlike most of the old fiddle tunes, it's not basically a dance tune. Old-time fiddlers would use it to show off their skills - kind of like "Orange Blossom Special" today - and they'd adapt it freely. It's become more standardized in recent years (hasn't everything), and the festival version we usually hear sounds a lot like the country song.

But there are still a lot of variations.

"Bonaparte's Retreat" began as a march. Here, to set the mood, is a version featuring Scottish fiddler Aly Bain, Nashville dobro player Jerry Douglas and several equally talented musicians from the U.K., Ireland and North America.

The YouTube clip isn't identified, but judging by the personnel and production quality, I'd guess it came from a BBC television series called the "Transatlantic Sessions." Personnel:
  • Aly Bain - Fiddle
  • Jerry Douglas - Dobro
  • Danny Thompson - Bass
  • Tommy Hayes - Percussion
  • Michael Doucet - Fiddle
  • Russ barenberg - Guitar
  • Donald Shaw - piano
More inspiration. Dulcimer and vocal artists Richard and Mimi Farina included "Bonaparte's Retreat" on a medley they titled "Celebration for a Grey Day" that was kind of an anthem for dulcimer players when the instrument was coming down out of the mountains in the 1960s and '70s. I've identified "Frere Jaques," "Old Joe Clark," "Spin and Turn, Jubilee," "Good King Wenceslas," "Yonder Comes Little Maggie" and "Boil 'Em Cabbage Down." The quotations from "Bonaparte's Retreat" begin around 1:08.

What we're used to hearing is actually an old country-and-western song about an even older fiddle tune. Here's a 1953 version featuring Archie Campbell, probably broadcast on WROL-TV in Knoxville, Tenn. It's in three parts, corresponding to the A, B and C parts of the fiddle tune.

The lyrics are by Pee Wee King, who recorded it in the 1940s. They're available - with chords in D, no less! - on the website. The first verse, beginning "Met the girl I love / In a town 'way down in Dixie ...," corresponds to the A part of the fiddle tune. The chorus, beginning, "So I took her in my arms ...," corresponds to the B part. And the second verse, beginning "All the world was bright ...," corresponds to the C part.

As we'll see, the C&W song simplifies the old fiddle tune considerably. But it's reflected in the way most of us have played it ever since the 1940s. And the way it's gotten into the dulcimer world, too.

Another dulcimer version on YouTube. YouTube user dustyturtle says, "It is based mainly on the guitar/slide guitar rendition by Doc and Merle Watson (which is why the 'B' part is central) and an older rendition by [traditional old-time artist] Johnny Gimble on the fiddle."

Well, the B part is central for another reason, too.

"Bonaparte's Retreat" was one of those tunes that traditional fiddle players would try to dazzle the judges at old-time music competitions. It's a type of program music, like the 19th-century crowd-pleasers that mimicked a fire or a shipwreck or - best of all! - both a fire and a shipwreck. It mimicks, well, the Napoleonic wars. The way I've heard it explained, the high course or A part - the part that begins with "Met the girl I love," - is a battle and the low course or B part - "So I took her in my arms" and so on - is the long, long route march of a Napoleonic army in between battles.

At least that's the story. Apparently, the old-timers would lay on all kinds of fancy ornamentation and pizzicato effects during the battle. Then they go back to a soulful, mellow, hard-driving drone during the B part. (Yep, soulful and hard-driving at the same time. That's the artistry of old-time Appalachian music.)

They'd play the whole thing in an open D tuning, too, and double-stop it - play two strings at once - to bring out the drones and give them that rich, mellow, lonesome sound that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

"Bonaparte's Retreat" is an old Irish march, and there's lots more to know about it. Andrew Kuntz' Fiddler's Companion has too much information to copy all of it here, and it's too good to ignore. So go to and scroll down for the rest of the story. I'll just bring out a couple of things here that might be helpful to dulcimer players who want to earn the song. Kuntz has this:
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. 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, pgs. 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.”
And this story from Kentucky (following a story of a Civil War execution of bushwhackers by Confederate Home Guard in the mountains of western North Carolina). The Kentucky story, along with the tune's widespread in Irish oral tradition, puts it squarely in our period at New Salem, by the way. Here are the details:
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.
Even before Pee Wee King and Archie Campbell got ahold of it, "Bonaparte's Retreat" turned up in a classical composition by Aaron Copland in an orchestral suite called Rodeo. Says Kuntz:
[A traditional] 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).
There's also a very, very informative post by blogger "horus kemwer" on his blog Against the Modern Grain that embeds sound clips of different versions of the song from traditional fiddlers collected by the Library of Congress to 1970s rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer. His discussion of the fiddle tune is intertwined with the Copland, but it is worth reading:

"As with all fiddle tunes, the essence of the piece is a loose melodic and rhythmic structure, in this case built around a central narrative metaphor," says horusa kemwer. The metaphor, he adds, is "a monotonous march punctuated by bursts of cannon, a trek, hastened and desperate, but also dignified and glorious."

OK, I'd only add monotonous is in the ear of the beholder.

At the top of his post, horus kemwer quotes a passage from Jeff Todd Titon, ethnomusicologist and author of Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes (2001):
"Bonaparte's Retreat" is not a dance tune. Rather, it represents another fiddle tune genre, more poular on the concert stage than anywhere else: a programmatic piece meant to depict an event imitating the action in its sound. . . . Bayard (1944) traces the tune to an Irish march, "The Eagle's Charge," (also known as "The Eagle's Tune") and gives references to printed versions in Irish collections.
horus kemwer's discussion of "Bonaparte's Retreat" picks up where Titon leaves off:
"Bonaparte's Retreat" is an instance of a genre which has largely died out at its origin, but which has remained trapped in Appalachia for a century. As with all fiddle tunes, the essence of the piece is a loose melodic and rhythmic structure, in this case built around a central narrative metaphor.
(I'm going to take a deep breath and pass over that "trapped in Appalachia" stereotype.) The narrative metaphor, of course, is the march followed by the pyrotechnics of battle. horus kemwer discusses and links to YouTube clips of three traditional versions, by William Stepp, Luther Strong and Tommy Jarrell, and Stepp's influence . He says:
Now, despite Titon's comments above, Stepp does indeed perform "Bonaparte's Retreat" in a break-down, or hoe-down style. Nevertheless, to use this particular melody as a representative instance of such a dance demonstrates a profound insensitivity to both the particulars of the style and of this tune.

More striking than this, however, is the fact that Copland's version mimics the melody and rhythm of Stepp's version so precisely. Comparing the two, we find a far stricter melodic and rhythmic similarity than exists between any two of the performances of Stepp, Strong, and [Tommy] Jarrell. In following Stepp's performance so precisely, in fact, Copland has lost the distinction between the tune (its melodic and thematic backbone) and the interpretation of it (the idiosyncrasies of different players which emphasize different strands in the melodic / thematic core).

The three fiddle versions each illustrate a monotonous march punctuated by bursts of cannon, a trek, hastened and desperate, but also dignified and glorious. Stepp's version is more glorious than the others, yet there is still a sense of monotonous march punctuated by desperation and excitement. Stepp layers a frantic and ecstatic veneer onto the incessant flight, the chaotic running, of the underlying melodic structure. Yet Copland, in lifting the literal melody from Stepp's performance, lifts this ecstatic veneer without the underlying desperation. The monotony and rhythm of the march is absent from "Hoe-Down" where the melody, Stepp's idiosyncratic frills and all, is put through the paces of orchestral variation. The lull and swell of dynamics and instrumentation here is not motivated by any particular thematic or aesthetic narrative, but rather exemplifies the standard moves of a large orchestral spectacle.
Here are some YouTube clips of different versions:
Recorded for the Library of Congress 1937, Stepp's is the version of the tune that Copland incorporated in the "Hoedown" section of Rodeo. For the sake of comparison, here's the Artosphere Festival Orchestra at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark, playing it on May 17, 2011:

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