George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and the History of American Fiddling

By Chris Goertzen. 2017. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN: 9781496814272 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Howard Wight Marshall, University of Missouri

[Review length: 1051 words • Review posted on April 19, 2018]


[Cover ofGeorge P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and the History of American Fiddling]

Musicologist Chris Goertzen’s new book in the University Press of Mississippi’s well-regarded American Made Music Series is devoted to the stories behind the famed 1839 transcriptions of Virginia dance tunes prepared and published by George Knauff. Virginia Reels is considered the first gathering and publication of transcriptions of fiddle tunes in the American South, as well as one of very few extant known collections from the early nineteenth century in the United States. A precursor study to this book is Dr. Goertzen’s 1987 article with Alan Jabbour on Knauff’s Virginia Reels, and the new book expands on their findings.

The book lays out the basics of Knauff’s life, and Goertzen does a fine job giving us a sense of Knauff in the context of life and times in the early nineteenth-century small-town Virginia cultural landscape. An 1820 German immigrant from the university city of Marburg in Hesse, Knauff settled in Farmville, Virginia, a tobacco market town in Prince Edward County. There he was able to establish the Farmville Music and Fancy Store and enjoyed a respectable position in the town, rearing a family, and giving piano lessons (pianos at this time were “piano forte” or fortepiano instruments, precursors to the modern piano that became immensely popular and widely available in the later nineteenth century).

Knauff was attracted to and absorbed the region’s fiddle and dance music in oral tradition. His interest in transcribing the tunes became the basis for Virginia Reels--which he seems to have published for the benefit of piano players (rather than as a learning tool or sourcebook for violinists and fiddlers) in a time and place when pianos, piano teaching, and musical literacy were linked. Goertzen considers the mere existence of Virginia Reels to be remarkable, and so it is, and suggests that more unpublished collections of dance music may be lurking unrecognized or unappreciated in attics and local historical agency files (Phil and Vivian Williams recently tracked down and published significant manuscripts of notated dance tunes from pioneer times in the Pacific Northwest).

Fiddlers may or may not have made use of the Knauff publication. It is received wisdom that, in George Knauff’s time and place, few folk fiddlers could read musical notation or obtain tunes directly from sheet music, but, just as in modern times, many a fiddler learned tunes by listening to a piano player play the melodies. It is interesting to contemplate the dynamic process by which a fiddler would listen to a piano player play a tune from sheet music containing a notation of a version of the tune that had been notated from a previous fiddler’s performance and published. (Also, in Knauff’s region of Virginia there was more musical literacy and access to violin lessons in comparison with other regions of the Commonwealth.)

Goertzen’s focus on the tune titles helps the reader comprehend the vagaries and complexities of titles, particularly as tunes percolate through musicians’ minds over time. Many of the tunes will be familiar to fiddlers and fiddle scholars throughout North America and around the world as well, if under different and localized (and as yet undocumented) titles. Unlike many fiddle scholars who considered tune titles almost trivial, Goertzen appreciates the tune title as a vital ingredient in the study of the music and its culture (much as Vance Randolph was suggesting, though in far lesser depth, in documenting fiddle tune titles in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks in the 1940s and 1950s).

We can’t know to what extent the Knauff publication led to the dissemination of the tunes among folk fiddlers (and piano players!) across the nation. Certainly, a number of titles in Knauff do crop up in the broader fiddling world, where they remain ironclads and essential tunes in seasoned fiddlers’ kits. One of the most familiar and widespread is the Scottish reel “My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet” (“Richmond Blues” in Knauff; aka “Miss Farqhuarson’s Reel,” “Too Young to Marry,” “Lady Botinscoth’s Reel,” “Chinky Pin,” “Hair in the Butter,” “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” “Lead Out,” etc.), “Forked Deer,” and “Billy in the Low Ground (s)” (“Johnny in the Nethermains” in Scotland). Analyses of tune titles have many payoffs, not the least of which is increasing our understanding of tune families and the many possible meanings and functions in the vast if not bewildering number of alternate titles for fiddle tunes--for “My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet,” I’ve documented more than thirty alternate titles, and I keep stumbling across more.

Goertzen is especially interested in fiddling in the American South. He is interested also in the complexities of today’s Texas style and Texas-style-based National Contest Style (with its violinistic performance values and well-honed controlled improvisation) that for the past three or four decades has been sweeping through the contest scene across the continent (to some critics, rubbing out or disrespecting local, regional, and ethnic styles and repertoires). His transcriptions of hot contest tunes that come from early dance tunes, such as “Money Musk” and “Forked Deer” (the tune Goertzen analyzes in the most detail), make fascinating studies alongside transcriptions of the same tunes in Appalachia, New England, and other regions--and alongside George Knauff’s 1839 transcribed versions. The examples remind us of the vivid variations that accrue in traditional music.

Chris Goertzen’s George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels and the History of American Fiddling happily defies easy categorization (it is as much local history as musicology) and is a welcome addition to the lengthening shelf of publications about fiddling organized around transcriptions that, from various points of view, help us try to figure out what makes a fiddle tune tick--and why traditional fiddle music and fiddlers matter. Highly recommended.

Works Mentioned

Goertzen, Chris, and Alan Jabbour. “George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and Fiddling in the Antebellum South,” American Music 5 (1987): 121-144.

Goertzen, Chris. Southern Fiddlers and Fiddle Contests. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.

Randolph, Vance. “The Names of Ozark Fiddle Tunes,” Midwest Folklore 4 (1954): 81-86.

Williams, Vivian T. The Peter Beemer Manuscript: Dance Music Collected in the Mining Camp of Warren’s Diggins, Idaho, in the 1860s. Seattle: Voyager Recordings and Publications, 2007.

Williams, Vivian T. The Haynes Family Manuscript: Pioneer Dance Music from the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Seattle: Voyager Recordings and Publications, 2009.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.