Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Midnight on the Water" -- a standard fiddle tune in D for the Clayville and Prairieland Strings jam sessions

A couple of times lately we've played "Midnight on the Water," and it's a waltz tune I need to learn to play better (true confessions time here). It's got a nice Western Swing feel to it, and it's often played in "cross-key" fiddle tunings with a D string left open that should blend well with the drones on an Appalachian dulcimer. We made a pretty good start toward making it our own a couple of sessions ago, so let's take another run at it when we meet Thursday, Aug. 20, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Atonement Lutheran Church, 2800 West Jefferson. It's one of those tunes that keep growing on you as you get to know them better. Well worth mastering.

Here are a couple of YouTube videos:

  • Midnight on the Water - John Hartford. Lots of nice ornamentation by a master of old-time string band music.

  • Midnight on the Water/Bonaparte's Retreat - Jay Ungar and Molly Mason\. Two standards in the open D fiddle tuning often known as the "dead man's tuning." Our tune begins at 2:00, after some very interesting (to me) talk about fiddle tunings, etc., but "Bonaparte's Retreat" is worth a listen, too. We ought to add it to our list of tunes to learn.

Western Swing, like bluegrass, was heavily influenced by jazz. And we can hear that influence in "Midnight on the Water."

Chris Haigh, a British fiddle player who maintains the Fiddling Around website, has definitive information about the tune's pedigree at You can't find a better pedigree:

The most significant of the new generation of Texas fiddlers [in the 1930s and 40s] was Benny Thomasson, (1909-1984) for whom the jazz music on early radio was a huge influence. His father Luke was also a well respected fiddler, and wrote the famous waltz Midnight on the Water. Luke was a friend of Eck Robertson, and would often visit the house, proving a major inspiration for Benny as a child. Benny’s repertoire ranged from traditional reels, hornpipes, polkas and waltzes to jazz numbers such as Sweet Georgia Brown.

Haigh also has an interesting aside on jam session styles, which are a bit different in the world of Western Swing, more like bluegrass and jazz sessions:

I asked Bryan [Jimmerson, president of the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association] about the nature of the car park and campfire jam sessions which are an important feature of fiddle contests and conventions. In Britain we are used to the Irish trad session where a circle of players will do tune after tune in as near perfect unison as possible. In a tradition where improvisation and variation are valued, this surely could not be the same? I have rarely been around a jam session where folks play tunes at the same time. I have heard several young players do this from time to time but it's because they all take from the same teacher and have the exact same version of the tune so they are all playing the exact same notes. Generally at our jams the more seasoned fiddlers will play a tune and pass it to the next person to let them show what they can do with it. It's fun to watch them show off and try to out-do each other especially on swing tunes. Another jam scenario would be that one fiddler sits with the guitar players and plays until he is ready to let someone else play and then he gives up the "hot seat" to someone else and on it goes.

Old-time sessions fall somewhere in between. Most of us play slightly different versions of a tune, and some of us couldn't play it the same way twice if we tried. But our jams are more about blending with the other players in a group than individual performance, and we quickly learn we'd better not get too free with the melody!

Here, for the record, is the basic information about the tune from The Fiddler’s Companion, © 1996-2009 by Andrew Kuntz at (scroll down to title):

MIDNIGHT ON THE WATER. Old‑Time, Waltz. USA, Texas. D Major. DDad tuning. AABB (Spandaro): AA'BB' (Brody, Matthiesen, Reiner & Anick). This popular composition is usually credited to Texas fiddler Luke Thomasson, although it has been published that Luke's son Benny (a famous Texas‑style fiddler who popularized the melody) long remembered the night he heard both his father and uncle composing the tune on the family porch (c. 1900?). Several sources have noted this tune’s resemblance to an Oklahoma-collected tune called “Old Paint,” and there is an ongoing debate about whether “Midnight” is derivative of “Paint” (or vice versa). The Library of Congress recording "Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas" (LOC lp L28), collected by John A. Lomax and edited by Duncan Emrich, has a version of the “Paint” song by Jess Morris which has quite similar melodic material with “Midnight on the Water.” The liner notes to the album point out that Morris was born in 1878 and would perhaps have been contemporary with the Thomassons, who, like Morris, lived in the Texas panhandle. ...

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