Sunday, August 31, 2014

Eighth of January ("Battle of New Orleans"), a new (old) fiddle tune for Clayville, Prairieland Strings

Coming up this week are the Prairieland Strings (7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday), the Clayville Pioneer Academy of Music (10 a.m. to noon Saturday) and, over at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site, the annual Bluegrass (a.k.a. Traditional Music) Festival all day Saturday. Why don't we have our session at Clayville and head on over to New Salem afterward? New Salem has been good to us -- over the years we've attracted quite a few new members by playing at the bluegrass festival, and they could use the support.

For the occasion(s), I'd like to highlight a tune we introduced at our last session of the Prairieland group in mid-August. It's called the "Eighth of January," a.k.a. the "Battle of New Orleans," and there's a lot of history to it. There's even a local connection (well, kinda, sort of) between New Salem and the actual historical battle, which was fought almost exactly 100 years ago on Jan. 8, 1815. I'll point it out below.

To get us started, here's Johnny Horton singing "Battle of New Orleans" on the Ed Sullivan Show, complete with some hijinks with a (stuffed?) alligator:

With its original title "Eighth of January" it's a staple in bluegrass jams, but it's a fine old, very intricate fiddle and clawhammer banjo tune. It's also made to order for dulcimers, hammered and mountain alike.

In the YouTube clip below Rich Carty, owner of the Highlands Folk Music Center in New Jersey, talks about mountain dulcimer technique, but he also shares his thoughts, honed by 33 years of playing, about how a dulcimer played well can fit in with other stringed instruments. Carty begins from 0:00 to 0:52 by playing the melody through twice at a moderate tempo: Well worth listening to even if you don't aspire to be a virtuoso mountain dulcimer player, for his sense of how all the instruments in an old-time jam session blend together.

Mountain dulcimer tab is available in Steve Siefert's Join the Jam. I'm not able to find any on line. A lead sheet with chords is available on the Kitchen Musician website at It's written for hammered dulcimer, but it has chords, melody line and everything else (except tab for those who are wedded to the DAD dulcimer lockstep) that anybody could ask for.

The Kitchen Musician is an extremely valuable source for folk musicians and anybody who loves trad Irish music by Sarah Johnson, who plays hammered dulcimer and has been writing a music column for Smoke and Fire for re-enactors, buckskinners, etc., for a long time. She has books (those old-fashioned things with ink on paper) of Turlough O'Carolan, Irish slow airs, Scots fiddle tunes, all kinds of older British, colonial and early American music.

Also an "Alpha List of Downloadable Music for Hammered Dulcimer, Fiddle, Tinwhistle, Recorder, etc." at: Along with the Carolan and beautiful Irish slow airs, she lists a three-part "Back of the Schoolbus Suite" with such musical masterworks as "Found a Peanut" and "The Worms Go In, the Worms Go Out." Hey, they're in the oral tradition.

A couple of "Eighth of January" performances

Hank Williams Sr., here recorded on a vintage radio show as Jerry Rivers And The Drifting Cowboys:

Here's a high-octane bluegrass version by Rhonda Vincent & the Rage at the Dumplin' Valley Bluegrass Festival in Kodak, Tenn.:

And here's a nice solo on clawhammer banjo by YouTube user Ron Hudiberg:

For what it's worth, I like the nice, relaxed tempo of that clawhammer banjo the best.

A little bit of local (and not-so-local) history

"Eighth of January" originated nearly 200 years as a fiddle tune commemorating the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. In the online Fiddler’s Companion, another indispensible source of information, Andrew Kuntz explains:

This victory, by a small, poorly equipped American army against eight thousand front-line British troops (some veterans of the Napoleonic Wars on the Continent), came after the peace treaty was signed and the War of 1812 ended, unbeknownst to the combatants. The victory made Jackson a national hero, and the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was widely celebrated with parties and dances during the nineteenth century, especially in the South. Around the time of the Civil War, some time after Jackson's Presidency, his popular reputation suffered and ‘Jackson’s Victory’ was renamed to delete mention of him by name, thus commemorating the battle and not the man.

(Link here and scroll down.)

The lyrics were written in 1936 by a high school history teacher in Arkansas named Jimmy Driftwood, as Kunz delicately puts it, "supposedly to make the event more interesting to his students." The version we've all heard was by country novelty singer Johnny Horton, who topped the charts with it in 1959.

If you're interested in local history or want to know more about that "kinda, sort-of" local angle I mentioned, check out my piece on how the Rev. John Berry, pastor at Rock Springs Presbyterian Church and father of Abraham Lincoln's parter in what we now call the first and second "Berry-Lincoln stores" at New Salem State Historic Site, served in the Battle of New Orleans. It's titled "What does an old fiddle tune have to do with Rev. John Berry’s service in the War of 1812?" in the New Salem interpreters' newsletter, The Prairie Picayune" in the fall of 2009. I posted it Oct. 24, 2009.

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