by Kerry Blech (from notes to “Soon Be Time”):
One of the most venerable of American old-time fiddle tunes is Forked Deer. It is also one of the most widely-distributed tunes in the United States, being played, heard, and documented seemingly everywhere. What seems to be the earliest published folio of Forked Deer is found in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, Folio 1, published by George Willig Jr in Baltimore in 1839. In playing it from this folio, it sounds very similar to how it is played by most fiddlers today. We must assume that before George Knauff collected it and set it in the pianoforte arrangement we find in Virginia Reels that the tune had been in circulation for a while, as it seems to be quite robust, with nary a hint of old-world to it, to my way of thinking. This melody is oft-printed through the intervening 167 years since Knauff first notated it.
While most fiddlers have been content to render Forked Deer as a two-part tune, many of the “brag fiddlers” of yore in many communities decided to push the envelope. In essence, what they did was develop variations, straying from the basic melody in varying degrees. Eventually, some of these fiddlers set some of these variations as separate and discrete parts. Hence, we have Kentuckian J.W. Day’s (ca. 1861-1942) classic 5-part rendition from 1928 (Victor 21407). His, however, was not the earliest issued recording.
That honor went to Tennessee’s Uncle Am Stuart (1853-1926), whose Forki Deer was recorded in 1924 and issued several times on the Vocalion and Brunswick labels. Perhaps West Virginia’s Clark and Luches Kessinger’s (Clark, 1896-1975) torrid rendition of Forked Deer Hornpipe (Brunswick 247, 1928) was more influential? Then there is the exciting execution by Kentucky’s Jim Booker (1872-1941) and Marion Underwood (Gennett 6130, 1927). Most of these were two-parters, but Tennessee’s Charlie Bowman (b. 1889) issued another 5-parter (Columbia 15387) in 1929 that many people still talk about.
Another “brag fiddler” of that era never recorded commercially, but was a major figure nonetheless, the legendary (until relatively recently, when we finally got to hear his 1946 home recordings, and we discovered everything people had been saying about him was true, even moreso!) Ed Haley (1883–1951), born in West Virginia, but who lived much of his life in Kentucky. I won’t go into a biographical sketch here.
Instead, I suggest you check out the John Hartford website and also actually purchase the two 2-cd sets of Haley on the Rounder label (Rounder 1131/32 & 1133/34), in which Hartford’s notes extol this genius of a fiddler. Haley made his living from his music, unlike most of the others mentioned above. Most of his money was made playing on the streets and for private affairs, so he polished his work. He played a 5-part Forked Deer, or at the least, we have a home recording of him doing so. Who knows what other inventiveness he may have infused this tune with on other occasions. I think upon close inspection you will find him doing elaborate variations within each of the ‘set parts,’ as well, which is what we’ve come to expect from him.
We also sometimes are able to hear him ‘quote’ other fiddlers. One of my old friends, Rector Hicks, knew Haley in the 1920s and ‘30s and said that what came out on the Rounder issues of the Haley home recordings were quite different from how Haley had played earlier, which is to be expected. I tried to get Rector to describe how he remembered Haley’s earlier playing. Once, I brought over a tape of J.W. Day, not mentioning to Rector who it was. He immediately sat up and said, “That’s what Ed Haley sounded like when I was a youngster.” If you are familiar with Day’s phrasing and ornamentation, you will clearly hear Haley quote in him in some of his home recordings. I do firmly believe that Haley’s showpiece of Forked Deer was wrought from what Day had earlier manifested. I hear quotes from other fiddlers, too, that we can identify with some more intense scrutiny, but a lot of it is his own invention, and much may be influenced by fiddlers we have not yet heard in this day and time…