The Great Eastern 



“The Great Eastern” is a reel that, while not a member of a large tune family, is nontheless important in several traditions, largely on the merits of its strong, flowing and well-crafted melody.  It has a few names, but essentially they are the same tune, showing little of the variety and musical distance between versions that sometimes develops when tunes weave in and out of various traditions. It can be found in North American tradition as “Bennett’s Favorite” and “The Great Eastern,” in Irish tradition as “John Brennan’s Reel” and especially “The Silver Spire,” and in Québecois tradition as one of the “La Grondeuse” tunes.  It has a long recording history, beginning with the duet of Paddy Killoran and Paddy Sweeney in the 1930’s and continuing today with versions by Sharon Shannon, Tommy Peoples, John and Phil Cunningham, Natalie MacMaster and the groups Wild Asparagus and La Bottine Souriante, to name a few.


In Québec the title “La Grondeuse”—‘the grumbling woman’—is the title of many tunes, each fiddler seeming to have his or her own version based on a variety of melodies in the key of ‘D’. What they have in common is that the ‘G’ string is tuned up to ‘A’ (ADae, or ‘raised bass’ tuning), producing ringing overtones and lending itself to dense droned bowing on the low parts (i.e. ‘grumbling’). “La Grondeuse” is universally played in the Québec fiddle tradition and it is often employed as a vehicle for step-dancing. One “La Grondeuse” strain is the “Great Eastern”/”Silver Spire” melody and has made the contra dance rounds for many years, beginning with New Hampshire fiddler and caller Dudley Laufman.


Irish fiddlers know the reel by the titles “Silver Spire” and “John Brennan’s (Reel).” It was famously recorded for the first time in 1931 by the duet of fiddlers Paddy Killoran and Paddy Sweeney (who paired it with “Farrell O’Gara”), both from County Sligo and recent members of the New York city Irish immigrant community. Since no earlier record of the name “Silver Spire” occurs prior to the 1931 Killoran/Sweeney recording, I believe the original name had become detached, and that Killoran, Sweeney or the someone at the record company decided to call the unnamed reel after the then-current engineering marvels the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, both newly completed. The buildings dramatically altered the New York City skyline, and the art-deco Chrysler Building even features a silver spire the juts skyward from the top of the building. Through this influential recording the reel quickly became a staple of the Irish dance tradition and was picked up by such groups as the Ballinakill Ceili Band (who recorded it on a 78 RPM disk, set as a hornpipe).  The melody became associated with County Sligo flute player John Brennan in some Irish circles. He was a regular member of Dublin’s Church Street Club, site of a famous long-lasting session that began in the late 1950’s, centred around fiddler John Kelly, originally from County Kerry. The Tara Ceili Band and Tommy Peoples/Matt Malloy/Paul Brady have recorded it under the “John Brennan’s” title, to name a few. It is still a popular tune that is heard occasionally at modern sessions, and because of this, and through Irish recordings, it has re-entered other traditions, creating interesting juxtapositions where it exists simultaneously with other titles.


It is in American tradition, however, that the reel can be traced farthest; to 1883 and Ryan’s Mammoth Collection.  Therein it appears twice, first as “Bennett’s Favorite,” then again as “Great Eastern Reel;” the latter being the only tune credited to Clem Titus (who, like many of the names credited in Ryan’s, was probably a mid-18th century band leader).  The “Great Eastern” title is the one that the tune is usually known by, although some fiddlers picked up the “Bennett’s” version by perusing the Ryan collection or its successor, Cole’s 1000 Fiddle Tunes. Missouri fiddler Cyril Stinnett’s version is given below. Stinnett probably had his version from Burt County, Nebraska, fiddler Uncle Bob Walters, remarks Bill Shull, and although Stinnett did not read music, Walters did, and often picked up tunes from Ryan’s/Coles. Natalie MacMaster has also recorded “Bennett’s Favorite.” It is doubtful, especially given the tune’s appearance in the same publication under the “Bennett” title, that it was authored by Titus, about whom nothing is known.


If Titus is unknown, however, his title is certainly not, for it was the name of one of the most famous ships of the mid-19th century and instantly recognizable to anyone living at the time, albeit almost forgotten nowadays. The Great Eastern was the last of three great transatlantic steamships designed by the colorfully-named Isambad Kingdom Brunel (whose father was an expatriate French-born engineer resident in England after the Revolution, who constructed the first tunnel under the Thames, still in use today as part of the London Underground). The ship was an astounding engineering feat. It was the largest vessel of its age—originally called The Leviathan due to its huge size—and six times larger than any ship ever then built. Instead of the usual wood, the Great Eastern was made of iron, weighed 19,000 tons and measured 689 feet.  In fact, it was so huge it had to be launched sideways, although when the moment came she only managed to shift three feet before stopping. It would be three months before she was finally pushed into water. Unfortunately, her luck did not improve. During her sea trials a terrible explosion occurred caused by a stuffed ventilator, and the foremost funnel was launched like a rocket. Members of the crew, scalded by blast, emerged on deck, and one agonized sailor threw himself over the side, only to be mangled to death by the huge blade wheels on the side of the ship. Poor Brunel, whose health had suffered during the long construction, had a stroke when he heard the news and he died soon afterward.


The Great Eastern was built so large in order to run from Europe to Australia with only one stop for fuel, but she was never employed in that task. Instead she was assigned the run to New York, although she never was able to attract the number of passengers needed to become profitable. For one reason, she was famous for rolling in the great waves of the Atlantic, producing monumental bouts of sea-sickness. Her port visits were mismanaged, alienating potential passengers. Even more ominously, during her fourth voyage a storm tore away her rudder, causing eight months of repairs, and on a subsequent passage she struck a rock, tearing a gash in her side 75 feet long (she was saved by her unique double-hull, which kept her afloat). After a few years of mounting losses the great ship was taken out of service.


Soon, however, she was resurrected for a task that finally befit her, for the Great Eastern became the steamship that laid the first permanent transatlantic cable.  Only a ship of her size could carry the enormous amount of cable necessary to span the Atlantic, and she was finally a success. By the mid-1870’s, however, her time was passed, and she languished in harbor for twelve more years, more-or-less as a floating billboard. Finally, in 1888 she was sold for a pittance for scrap, although it took the better part of two years to dismantle her. During this process a skeleton was found between her double hulls, one of the workmen who was on the original building crew from the 1850’s and perished unknown.


Perhaps the most bizarre incident in the ship’s career occurred in New York harbor in 1860. One night, months before the great vessel entered port, a feared thug named Albert E. Hicks, commonly called Hicksey, fell asleep in the lodgings of a Cherry street dive after a night of drinking. He was given a nightcap laced with opium by the owner, robbed and knocked unconscious with a blackjack. Hicksey awoke to find himself shanghaied aboard an oyster sloop, the E.A. Johnson, and by the time the hoodlum regained enough of his senses to protest, the vessel had rounded Staten Island and was headed out to sea. His rage soon gained momentum, escalating to a murderousness that he discharged upon the boat’s captain and two young brothers who were crewmembers. The E.A. Johnson was found abandoned and adrift a few days later and the slaughter revealed in all its horror. Meanwhile, Hicks made an escape in the ship’s dinghy and retreated to his haunts in lower Manhattan, but not before robbing his dead victims of their valuables and carrying off anything of worth he could find.  He might have gotten away with it, but instead it turned out that the hapless Hicks had been observed being taken to the boat in the original act of being shanghaied. After a quick investigation he was arrested and a subsequent search of his belongings revealed loot positively identified as his victims’.


After a quick trial Hicks was condemned to die. The sensational case had garnered much fanfare, however, and as the date for his execution neared he became something of a celebrity. P.T. Barnum visited him in his cell and arranged to purchase a plaster cast of his head and bust for his museum, and later also acquired his clothes. On the appointed date, a Thursday in July, Hicks said his farewells, and, accompanied by a priest, a sheriff, and chief and deputy United States Marshals dressed in their finest, he was escorted to a carriage. They joined a procession led by a fife and drum corps playing by a dirge, followed by a string of black draped carriages, and waded through cheering crowds from the old Tombs prison down to Canal Street. Since the place of execution was designated as Bedloe’s Island (where the Statue of Liberty is now located), Hicks was transferred to a steamboat for his last short ride. By this time the harbor was filled with boats, all jockeying to witness the hanging. Upon embarking, however, the marshals found the procession had moved faster than anticipated and by the time the steamboat entered mid-stream it was determined that they had plenty of time. Believing it undignified to land on the island too early, the chief marshal decided to take the party for a sight-seeing sail up the Hudson. The Great Eastern was anchored in the river above them, recently arrived from Europe on her maiden voyage, and when the marshal’s boat approached, Hicks was brought to the rail. The chief stationed himself on the bridge, sword in one hand and speaking-trumpet in the other, and explained to the surprised Great Eastern passengers the purpose of the cruise while pointing out Hicks’s shackles and chains.  


The smaller steamship then descended the river and arrived at the island, where a detachment of soldiers and the scaffold awaited them. Since it had been erected not thirty feet from the water, the throngs of sightseers in their excursion boats had an ample view of the proceedings and it was estimated that some 10,000 witnessed Hicks go to his maker that day. His body was returned to Manhattan for burial in Calvary Cemetery, where he did not long repose in peace, for his grave was soon robbed and his corpse sold to medical school students for dissection. (This story appears in The Gangs of New York, 1928, by Herbert Asbury).


(The author wishes to thank Bill Shull for communications and permission to use his transcription of Cyril Stinnet’s “Bennett’s Reel.” Also, thanks to communications from Guy Bouchard)


Andrew Kuntz     09/10/02

8 Veatch Street

Wappingers Falls, New York 12590



T:Bennett's Reel



S:Cyril Stinnett


Z:B. Shull, trans.; R.P. LaVaque, ABCs

S:Cyril Stinnett, transcribed by Bill Shull





((3A,B,C)|D2)FE (DF)A(B|dc)df e(cA)F|GBEG (FE)D(F|GF)ED CEA,C|! D2FE (DF)A(B|dc)df e(cA)F|GBEG (FE)DF)|(ED)CE D2:|! |:D(B,|A,B,)CD (EF)G(E|FD)EC (DF)A(c|dc)dA FAd(e|gf)g(f e)(dc)A|! (de)fd (cd)ec|(Bc)(dB) A(GF)D|(GF)EG (FE)DF|(EDCE D2:|



T:Silver Spire







dcdA Bcde|fdgf ecAc|defd ceAc|dcdB AFDF|GABG FADF|EDCE D2:||



T:La Grondeuse




D2FE D2FA|dc de fd AF|G2BG F2AF|EF GE DC B,A,|

D2FE D2FA|dc de fd AF|G2BG F2AF|EC A,C D4:|

|:A,B, CD EF GF|ED EF GA Bc|dc dB AB cd|fa gf e2A2|

d2fd c2ec|Bc dB AF DF|G2BG F2AF|EC A,C D4:|



T:Great Eastern Reel, The



S:Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (1883)

Z:AK/Fiddler’s Companion


D2 (F>E) D>F A2|({dc}d>c)(d>e) fcA(F|G)BE>G F>AD>F|

G>(E {F}ED) C>E A,>C|D2 F>E D>F A>d|(3edc d>e f>dA>F|

GBE>G F>AD>F|1 E2A,2D3A,:|2 E2A,2 D4||

|:A,>B,C>D E>FG>E|(3FED E>F G>AB>c|dcd>A Bc d>e|

f>a (3baf e2 (3ABc|d2 fd cdec|dcd>B A>FD>F|GBE>G F>AD>F|1

E2A,2D2^G,2:|2 E2A,2 D2A,2||