Gray Eagle


Gray Eagle

edited from Andrew Kuntz (

Charles Wolfe (1982) first suggested in print that the fiddle tune “Gray Eagle” was possibly named for a famous Kentucky race horse of the 1830’s. Writing in the now defunct occasional periodical The Devil’s Box, the late John Hartford expanded on this and found that the “Grey Eagle” title became attached to the tune following the famous race between horses known as “Grey Eagle” (1835-1863) and his opponent, “Wagner.” The race has been documented and took place in the Oakland Racetrack in Louisville in 1838 where “Grey Eagle,” a beautiful and talented Kentucky horse, set an American record for two mile heats in the sweepstakes that year.

He was described as “a magnificent horse nearly sixteen hands in height, said to be of almost perfect symmetry, although scarcely equal in his quarters to his forehand, which is described as sumptuous. His color, as his name indicates, was a fine silvery gray.” Soon after the event a tune folio celebrating both racehorses appeared (a copy of which is in the possession of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro).

American fiddlers continue to celebrate the two famous race horses in separate fiddle tunes, each of which has long been a fiddle classic in the traditional repertoire. “Grey Eagle,” one of the standard square dance tunes in the key of A major, is frequently heard at mid-western fiddle contests.  In oral tradition “Grey Eagle” was, however, heard all over the South and West, and was often considered part of the older fiddling repertoire. Arizona fiddler Kenner Kartchner, probably apocryphally, even maintained it had been played on wagon trains headed to Utah by Mormon fiddlers as the crossed the plains.

It was one of the older tunes in fiddle repertory in Patrick County, southwest Va., before such tunes were supplanted by tunes more conducive to the fiddle/clawhammer banjo combination—Uncle Charlie Higgins, known for his older repertoire, played it. In the Deep South the melody was in the repertory of Alabama fiddler D. Dix Hollis (1861‑1927), who considered it one of “the good old tunes of long ago” (as quoted in the Opelika Daily News of April 17, 1926) {Joyce Cauthen, 1990}.

Similar to many old-time American tunes, “Grey Eagle” exists in myriad versions and variants in the tradition, so that the title is sometimes qualified with the name of the source to differentiate it from other “Grey Eagle’s.” A ‘C’ major version was played by legendary fiddler J. Dedrick Harris, a Tennessee-born fiddler who played regularly with Bob Taylor when the latter ran for Governor of the state in the late 1800’s. Harris moved to western N.C. in the 1920’s and influenced a generation of fiddlers there. Guntown, Mississippi, fiddler W.E. Claunch recorded a version in the key of ‘G’ for the Library of Congress in 1939, and Sam Bayard noted ‘G’ versions from Pennsylvania fiddlers. One of the things that Professor Bayard found surprising about “Grey Eagle” was the tenacity of the title in the face of so many disparate versions.


3 Responses to “Gray Eagle”

  1. Brian Says:

    The origin of the name of the tune “Gray Eagle” was known and appeared in print long before Charles Wolfe’s suggestion. The April 8, 1900 edition of The Dallas (Texas) Morning News contained a article about an old fiddlers’ contest held there the previous day. Here is an excerpt:

    “Mr. Matthews of Sherman played ‘Waggoner.’ This is a Tennessee tune, a companion piece to the Kentucky tune ‘Gray Eagle.’ Fifty years ago they were the favorite airs of the country west of the Alleghanies.
    “They were named for two horses, Waggoner and Gray Eagle. The former was a Tennessee horse and the latter a Kentucky horse. They were pitted against each other, and the States bet all they had on the result. That day Kentucky dropped more tears and money than it had ever done before or has done since. Many a Kentuckian who is now working for newspapers and engaging in other menial employment would have been rich today if their grandfathers had not attended that race and had confidence in Gray Eagle.”

  2. Manco Sneed’s “Old-Time Grey Eagle”: polishing up a hidden gem | Wait Till You Hear This One Says:

    […] an interesting discussion of the tune name, and the horse pictured above, see this post on the Old-Time Party […]

  3. Manco Sneed’s “Old-Time Grey Eagle”: polishing up a hidden gem – Wait Till You Hear This One Says:

    […] an interesting discussion of the tune name, and the horse pictured above, see this post on the Old-Time Party blog, by the late John […]

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