The violin is to sing, the fiddle to dance.
The relationship between fiddling and dancing is undoubtedly as old as the instrument itself. Throughout the several-centuries scope of fiddle music literature and tradition that relationship has been cemented in honors to dancers that can be found in tune titles named for famous performers. Indeed, some are decidedly obscure and all-but-forgotten, although some are well remembered, even down through the centuries. The performances that inspired the titles have passed into the smoke of ages, but one might conjure up some of the spirit of their skill through a bit of research and a good dose of imagination.
Previous “Tune History” articles have discussed some famous dancers who have had tunes named for them, John Durang (see Fiddler, Spring 2004), Jackie Layton (Fiddler, Fall 2002), and Kitty O’Neill (Don Meade’s premier “Tune History” article in Fiddler, Spring 2001). However, many more dancers have been honored in every fiddle tradition, and, while there are numerous examples to choose from, I’ve picked out a few whose names are associated with interesting tunes that are heard occasionally today.
A number of renowned dancers of the 18th
century had tunes that were either written or associated with them that have
survived in fiddle literature, and indeed, one finds relatively many references
to famous dancers from that era. The
reason has to do with the rise of the musical stage and the more permeable
relationship of ‘art’ or theatre music with ‘folk’ or popular music. While
there were examples of ballad-operas prior to John Gay’s famous Beggar’s Opera of 1728, it was that work
that engendered a fashion in
One of the first dancers of the
ballad-opera era to be celebrated in fiddle literature was Nancy Dawson (c.
1730-1767). One version of her story has it that she burst upon the stage in
one of the first instances of every understudies dream—she replaced one of the
principal dancers who had become ill in a revival performance of The Beggars Opera at London’s Covent
Garden theater in October, 1759. However, according to musicologist Frank
Kidson, it appears that
Of all the girls in our town,
The black, the fair, the red, the brown,
That dance and prance it up and down,
There's none like Nancy Dawson.
Her easy mien, her shape so neat,
She foots, she trips, she looks so sweet,
Her every motion's so complete,
I die for Nancy Dawson.
It was recorded that Nancy danced the hornpipe for
the Beggar’s Opera, although at the
time ‘hornpipe’ and ‘jigs’ were likely to be used as generic terms to describe
a solo dance. The tune
Emmerson (Rantin’ Pipe and Trembling String, 1971) explains that toward the end of the 18th century a genre of tunes gained popularity as vehicles for stage hornpipes "performed by the numerous ent'racte dancers then so much in fashion." The name of the next hornpipe derives in all probability from the dancer for whom it was composed, Robert Aldridge, whom Chambers describes as “a famous pantomimist and dancing master.” A doggerel poem in Gentleman's Magazine (January, 1772) describes him as "a dancer of ease." The Irish born Aldridge was a familiar performer in the theaters of London and Dublin in the 1760's and 1770's, and even seems to have resided in Edinburgh for a time at the end of the 1770's, where he is recorded to have co-founded the Boar Club (a popular gentlemen’s club, where porcine terminology and nicknames were used in honor of the landlord, Mr. Hogg). His Edinburgh connections are reinforced by the several notations that tunes were “danc’d by Aldridge” in Alexander ‘King’ McGlashan's 1781 Collection of Scots Measures, Hornpipes, Jigs, Allemands, etc. Tunes bearing Aldridge’s name can be found in several other 18th and 19th century Scottish collections, and even in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection/Cole’s 1000 Fiddle Tunes.
Dancers sometimes went to great lengths to display their skill to audiences. As noted in a previous issue, John Durang and others performed ‘hornpipes’ while riding bareback on a horse circling around a ring, the centrifugal force helping them maintain balance. Another oddly famous dancer of the same era was a man named Richer, who is said to have had some celebrity during his hey-day. Richer was a rope and circus dancer on the popular stage at a time when the character-based (usually nautical) solo hornpipe was in vogue. William Hazlett, in his essay “The Indian Jugglers” from Table Talk (1828), wrote:
It is a great many years since I saw Richer, the famous rope-dancer,
perform at Sadler's Wells. He was matchless in his art, and added
to his extraordinary skill exquisite ease, and unaffected natural
grace. I was at that time employed in copying a half-length picture
of Sir Joshua Reynolds's; and it put me out of conceit with it. How
ill this part was made out in the drawing! How heavy, how slovenly
this other was painted! I could not help saying to myself, 'If the
rope-dancer had performed his task in this manner, leaving so
many gaps and botches in his work, he would have broke his neck
long ago; I should never have seen that vigorous elasticity of nerve
and precision of movement!' - Is it then so easy an undertaking
(comparatively) to dance on a tight-rope? Let any one, who thinks
so, get up and try.
The tune that bears Richer’s name (sometimes given as “Riker”) dates to around 1798 and has a first strain that hints at the more famous “Rickett’s Hornpipe.” It survives in Ryan’s/Cole’s and in O’Neill’s Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody.
It was a mark of status of the 18th and 19th centuries to elevate a performer by inserting a honorific in front of their names—Miss, Mister, and Mrs. not being in use for the common individual—upgraded perhaps by the added flair of a Continental appellation, such as Madame or Monsieur. Madame del Caro, whose first name was Maria, was a famous stage dancer of the late 18th, early 19th centuries, who is credited in ballet circles with being one of the first to wear slippers made expressly for dancing. The tune that bears her name was the first published composition of a very young John Field (1782-1837), an Irish pianist and composer and a pupil of Clementi, who spent much of his mature life working in Russia. “Del Caro’s Hornpipe” was written when he was aged 15 and was published by London publisher Broderip in 1797 (as “Del Caro’s Hornpipe with Variations”). It entered fiddling tradition in England and can be found the William Mittell (1799) and Joseph Kershaw manuscripts (Kershaw was a fiddle player who lived in the remote area of Slackcote, Saddleworth, North West England, who compiled his manuscript from 1820 onwards).
The great Scottish
strathspey composer William Marshall (1748-1833) re-named one of his tunes for
(1840-1900) was a celebrated stage performer of clog and step dancing in the
“Big John MacNeill” was the hot reel to learn a few
decades ago in contra-dance circles, well worth the effort of nailing the ‘A’
notes with the pinky finger in the coarse part for fluid bowing. We thought
then it was vaguely Canadian, and, indeed it has long been popular with
Canadian fiddlers, especially by the influential “Down-East” recordings of Graham
Townsend, Ward Allen, and Don Messer (who recorded it in 1942). Ken Perlman
(1996) notes that it is a well-known tune on
dancers live on in fiddle literature who have little or no claim to fame
whatsoever, but who have been remembered, if only locally, simply for the joy
they took in their exercise. When the Donegal band Altan burst on the scene
some twenty years ago one of their first ‘hit’ tunes was “Dinkie Dorrian’s,”
often called simply “Dinkie’s”. It was a great tune and much emulated, becoming
a staple of the Irish session scene in the following years. “Dinkie’s” was
composed and locally popularized by Donegal fiddler Francie Dearg Byren of
Cashel, Kilcar, southwest Donegal in honor of a friend, Hughie ‘Dinkie’
Dorrian. Dorrian was from nearby Killibegs and was, according to Donegal fiddle
researcher Caoimhin Mac Aoidh, a gaelic footballer and regionally renowned
step-dancer (although sometimes his is identified as a butcher-fiddler). Supposedly this was Dorrian’s favorite tune
to step-dance to. Francie Dearg (dearg
is Irish Gaelic for red-haired) had a brother, Mickey Ban (ban = fair-haired), who also played the tune. Paul Cranford notes
that the tune was introduced to
The last tune is a relatively modern composition by
musician and caller Dudley Laufman, of
8 Veatch St.
Wappingers Falls, NY 12590