The origins of the tune are somewhat obscure. It was in the repertoire of Albert Hash, a traditional fiddler of Whitetop or Rugby, Va. and identified by him as originally a British Isles tune, though stylistically that provenance is doubtful. Susan Songer and Clyde Curley (1997) report that New York fiddler Judy Hyman (of the Horseflies) believes it originally derived from the Québecois tune “Reel du Pendu” (Hanged Man’s Reel) and that it was rendered in a Southern old-time style by younger upstate New York fiddlers.
According to Hash’s nephew, Albert learned “Hangman’s Reel” from a 1968 recording by Texas fiddler Bill Northcutt (1935-1992), still remembered as a top-notch musician. Whether the tune was a Southern traditional tune or a “revival” processing, it has since become a very popular “festival tune” among younger old-time fiddlers and frequently heard at square dances.
Wayne Erbsen relates the following:
For many years I’ve been playing a tune called “Hangman’s Reel,” which I learned from the late fiddler Albert Hash, of Whitetop, Virginia. According to this legend, a fiddler was about to be hung. While waiting for his execution he could see workers constructing the gallows outside his jailhouse cell. Just then the prisoner noticed an old fiddle hanging on the jailhouse wall. He called the jailor over and claimed to be the best fiddler in those parts.
After a heated argument, they made a wager. If the condemned man would get up on the gallows before his execution and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the best fiddler, he would be set free. Otherwise, he would get the noose. The jailer gave the prisoner the fiddle to practice on and left him alone in his cell.
Unbeknownst to the jailer, the condemned man had never even touched a fiddle in his life, but he decided this was his best chance at freedom. You can bet he practiced that night. When morning came, the prisoner was escorted to the gallows where he expertly played the tune now known as “Hangman’s Reel.” Unfortunately, history forgot to record if he was set free or instead received the “suspended sentence” he so richly deserved. Nevertheless, it makes a damn good story!