Roots of Southern Fiddling (#2)

by

From “CASCADING TUNES: ON THE DESCENDING CONTOUR IN THE FIDDLE TUNES OF THE UPPER SOUTH,” by Alan Jabbour

The fact is that American Indian music of the Eastern Woodlands and Plains favors a descending tune contour.  Today’s American Indian powwows are an excellent contemporary window into the same musical tradition, and one can hear thousands of tunes that follow the same overall melodic contour as the Upper South fiddle tunes.  It is worth reminding ourselves that powwow tunes are dance music, and they are often sung using vocables instead of words.  In effect, they are tunes of a class and function comparable to the fiddle tunes of British-American tradition.

We cannot prove this cultural influence on fiddling from the world of American Indian culture, and the evidence is more tenuous than in the case of syncopation and African American influence.  But no other cultural influence is in sight that can account for those thousands of fiddle tunes of the Upper South that, in contradistinction to all other regions of the English-speaking world, start at the top of the tune and cascade down.

We tend to picture American Indian traditions as isolated from the new emerging society of the Upper South in the 18th and early 19th century.  But the evidence suggests much more sustained cultural interaction in the early South than in the West later in the 19th century. There was extensive intermarriage in the South between American Indians and both Whites and Blacks.  And although we are not used to thinking about American Indian influence in the musical realm, there are many examples of American Indian cultural influence on Southern life in other realms, such as foodways and material culture.

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