Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom




This tune is simply labelled “Blackberry Blossom” on older recordings, but has picked up the nomen (perhaps originating with John Hartford) “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” to distinguish it from the Arthur Smith tune (a related, later tune).

Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett said he learned his version “from a blind fiddler in (Ashland,) Johnson County, (eastern) Ky., named Ed Haley” (elsewhere Burnett said he actually learned the tune from northeastern fiddler Bob Johnson, who had it from Haley {1883-1951}, who was a legendary fiddler in east Kentucky). The tune was in fact Haley’s signature tune, much associated with him, although he never commercially recorded it.

A story about the origin of the Garfield title comes from Jean Thomas’s book Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of Kentucky, collected perhaps from several sources. It seems that a General Garfield named the tune during the Civil War after hearing a soldier playing it on the harmonica. He remarked to the musician that it was his favorite tune but said he couldn’t remember the title, whereupon he expectorated a stream of tobacco juice onto a white blackberry bush blossom; this was noticed and the tune named.

As improbable as that story sounds, the tradition of General Garfield’s liking for the tune was insisted on by Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison on his Library of Congress recording (an influential version); he says Garfield used to whistle the tune frequently and it was Morrison’s harmonica-playing father who as a boy picked it up from the General.

Betty Vornbrock and others have noted a similarity between “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” and the West Virginia tune “Yew Piney Mountain,” a variant. This version is also played by Kentucky fiddlers J.P. Fraley and and Santford Kelly, has been recorded by Owen “Snake” Chapman. Jean Thomas recorded the tune for the Library of Congress in 1930 from fiddler Ed Morrison (Boyd County, Ky.) at the American Folk Song Festival (AFS 300A).


from Jean Thomas:

“I’ve learned another tune!  I ketched it from General Garfield his own self.  The General whistled it a heap o’ times as he rode ahead of our troops right off yonder at the mouth of Big Sandy.  And when we camped, one night I was sent to his headquarters with a message.  It had to do with Humphrey Marshall’s Confederate forces that Garfield was aimin’ to drive out of the Sandy Valley here in Kaintuck.

Well nohow, I packed along my mouth harp and whilst I was waitin’ for orders I played a tune… I had not played the piece oncet through ’till I hear-ed behind me a heavy tread and the clickin’ of sword agin’ boot top.  I poked my harp in my pocket quick as I could and riz to my feet in salute.  For thar stood General Garfield his own self lookin’ down at me.

‘Let’s hear that tune again,’ said the General, as friendly as a private, ‘that’s my favorite tune though I can’t recall the name of it.’

With that, he let fly a stream of tobacco juice into a clump of blackberry bushes growin’ nigh the foreyard.  The amber splattered all over the snow white blossoms on the bush and from then on we called the piece Blackberry Blossom.”





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