Musical Transcriptions

This section was researched and written by Lynn Arthur Koch, a vocal music teacher at Cincinnatus Central School in Cortland County, a composer and arranger of church music, and author of Folk Songs of Upstate New York, KinderFolk Music Publications, 1990.

Notes on the Transcription of Songs and Tunes

These songs and tunes are best learned by listening to recordings of old ballad singers and fiddlers – often unaccompanied and free to adjust rhythm and pitch, and each with his/her own style of performance. No two singers or players performed these pieces exactly the same way. In transcribing this material into standard musical notation (some of it possibly for the first time), this transcriber and his editors have chosen to provide for the reader an average rendition of each piece with variations noted and some options provided. In regard to the songs, it is the singer’s job to make minor adjustments in rhythm, and sometimes in melody, to best accommodate the flow of the words, and make their meaning understood. Keep in mind that, to the singers who kept these songs alive for generations by way of the folk process, it was the story being told that was most important. For the fiddlers, who were often playing for dancing, the rhythm was of paramount importance, and minor variations in the tune were both expected and accepted.

In some songs, there are places where the number of syllables in a line changes, forcing a change of notes in the melody. In these places, melodic options have been presented (where it can be done unobtrusively), either on opposite stems or as ossias above the staff. In other instances where rhythm changes but pitch does not, the position of the words under the given notes approximates the intended rhythm. One needn’t get too concerned about rendering the songs exactly as they appear in print; remember that this is an approximation of what one singer did with a song.

Our notational system has its shortcomings, especially in representing a living and flexible art such as traditional singing styles. Keep in mind, too, that these are folksongs, not art songs. Part of the joy of listening to others sing these songs is hearing their personal imprints of interpretation, inflection and even inventiveness. That is precisely what kept these songs and tunes in the repertoire of traditional singers and players for so long without the benefit of recordings or printed music. In short, when learning and singing these songs, one should use one’s own informed judgment. Make the words clear; make the melodic rhythm fit the natural rhythm of the words; and don’t worry about doing it exactly the same way for each verse. For that matter, rhythms and pitches might be slightly different each time one sings the song.

Tune variation is also a hallmark of a fine fiddler, as the performer is not content to play the tune exactly the same way each time. Variations are often used to add spark to the endless repetitions of the basic tune. (This is somewhat akin to the tradition of free ornamentation and variation found in period performances of music of the Baroque era.) In transcribing the fiddle tunes, care has been taken to notate the best average performance. In some instances, certain specifics have been noted in regard to the variations, often as ossias (short alternate passages written in a smaller font size above the primary musical line) which appear in the PDF versions of the tunes. The occasional double stops on open strings are routinely ignored as slips of the bow, unless they are done repeatedly and are essential to the integrity of the tune. No bowing suggestions have been given;however it should be noted that, at least insofar as this transcriber’s experience with North Country fiddling is concerned, most notes in a tune are given separate bowings, though ornamental figures would likely be slurred.

Guitar chords are provided as a suggestion only. The songs are traditionally sung without accompaniment. If harmonic support is needed for the voice, strum lightly on a guitar or autoharp. (Please note the essay “Singing Folksongs in the Classroom – For the Musically Challenged” found ­ here.) When a song is in a key which is challenging for the guitar (e.g., F), guitar chords are provided for use with a capo (e.g., Capo 3). When using an instrument other than the guitar, the player will have to change all the chord symbols up the same number of half steps as is the capo number. (Think up 3 half steps from D: D#, E, F.) Likewise, fiddle tunes easily stand alone without accompaniment. Often, the chords suggested are either derived from the performance on the field recording or based on the harmonic implications in the tune itself. Ultimately, it’s up to the accompanist to listen to the tune as played by whatever fiddler might be handy and fit the chords as best he can. The chords provided are only a suggestion. Performers are encouraged to use their ears and the spirit of the moment to create an appropriate accompaniment for these wonderful tunes.

In any event, musical notation is but an approximation of a few aspects of a musical performance. When it comes to the nuances of style, interpretation, bowing techniques, vocal ornamentation and the like, the printed page falls far short of being adequate as a means of conveying these elements. The learner is well-advised to listen often and carefully to the archival recordings of these pieces (most of which are included on this website), borrow what one wishes from the tradition, then sculpt one’s own interpretation of the material. This gives honor to the past while bringing a fresh slant to some very old music.