GEORGE P. KNAUFF’S VIRGINIA REELS AND THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN FIDDLING
BY CHRIS GOERTZEN
Univ. of Miss. Press 9781496814272. Printed case binding, 256 pp., 66 b&w illustrations, $65. (Univ. of Miss. Press, 3825 Ridgewood Rd., Jackson, MS 39211, www.upress.state.ms.us.)
This is the second book on American fiddle music from the United States by this author. He uses the published volumes of George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels as a jumping off point to discuss fiddle music as it was then, as well as now. Publishing printed music was the media of the day. There was no other way to record music in the nineteenth century. Hits were measured as they are today by volume of sales. These volumes by Knauff were influential in bringing, and perhaps standardizing, some tunes in the collective repertory of fiddlers far from Virginia.
Using these volumes as a point of demarcation for the art of fiddling in the Antebellum South, Goertzen extrapolates on these tunes and their significance. These volumes are not published especially for fiddlers, but were books for pianists to play these tunes. This is in itself is an interesting point. Knauff changed titles and arranged theses pieces to be played in parlors on pianos. It speaks to the influence of fiddle music in that period that he would document fiddle tunes. Many such insights are revealed in this book. There are transcriptions of fiddle players’ versions of some of these tunes included, along with a reproduction of the original volumes of these publications. The included fiddle transcriptions are interesting for cross-referencing the different regional and fiddler’s individual stylistic approaches to the tunes. A necessary but unfortunate aspect here is that the transcriptions are printed in a small format, making them a challenge to read.
For the most part, this volume succeeds in exploring many aspects of the music. His theorizing on naming devices for tunes suffers when he says “The Flowers Of Edinburgh” is a thistle. References to the “flowers” are often a caustic reference to the old open sewer systems found in the cities in those more primitive times and not a specific plant. Also, he has Virginia fiddler Betty Vornbrock living in Hillsboro instead of Hillsville. These few notes aside, this volume will offer those who are inclined to delve deeply into the minutia that old-time fiddling has much to revel in.RCB