The American Country Waltz

by

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excerpt from JEMF Quarterly VOL. V, PART 1, SPRING,1969, NO.13:

We all know the waltzes of art music, and many of us are familiar with the popular and folk waltzes of Germany, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Few folklorists know, however, that country dancers and musicians in our own Southern states are as fond of the waltz as they are of any of the livelier steps one usually associates with old-time fiddle music.

Few dances or old-time fiddlers’ contests pass without such favorites as “Over the Waves” and “Wednesday Night Waltz.” And yet even those few collectors who have carefully noted down the country reels and breakdowns have been content to let the waltz go with a passing mention, if indeed they mention it at all.

The typical “Wednesday Night Waltz” melody is a strain of 32 bars. Considered in the key of C, its range is from middle C up an octave and a fifth to G.  Its first three bars have three long notes; the first and third are double-stops on the high C chord, and the second is usually a half-tone below or a full-tone above the other two.

These are followed by a rapid descent to the low C.  At the fifth bar the melody jumps up to A, then drops stepwise to the E of the low C chord. The second 8 bars are the same except that the concluding bars form a G7 or dominant-seventh chord. The third 8 bars repeat the first 8 exactly. The final 8 can vary considerably, but nearly always end with a stepwise passage from the high E down to the high C.

Rather than going through that again, This is a recording made by the Leake County Revelers in 1926, which was in the catalog for over twenty years and is one of the all-time best-selling country records. 

The usual methods of classifying folk tunes—incipits, contours, emphasized and neglected pitches, and so on—are dependent on melody alone. And when we are studying music which is purely melodic, and not traditionally performed with harmony (such as Child ballads) we should certainly stick to these methods. But in the country waltz we are dealing with an essentially harmonic form.

We see this both historically and empirically: first by the historical connection of the country waltz with the obviously harmonic waltzes of Europe, and secondly by the inevitable presence in country waltz performances of a harmonic support
(usually a guitar or banjo) behind the melodic fiddle lead.

And if we can judge by the Leake County Revelers, the harmonic method represents not only a fast way of classifying tunes, but a way that agrees (at least subconsciously) with the folk attitude toward them.

 

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