Since its creation, From the Barber’s Chair has focused on history in Morris County, Kansas. Moving to Ithaca, NY in 2016 prevented extensive research and writing for the Council Grove Republican. Therefore, my blog entries have been few since then. Now that my family is settled back in the Flint Hills of Kansas, this time in Cottonwood Falls, I’m seeing potential for more research and writing. However, I also see a change in scope coming too.
My current focus is researching, collecting, preserving, and sharing traditional music here in the Flint Hills. I’ve always had an eye out for any mention of music and dance while researching, but I think now I have a more defined goal. I’m trying to do what I wish someone had done for me 50 to 100 years ago; document repertoires or tunes to be passed on. My great grandfather played fiddle for dances at and around our family farm in Osage County, located on the old Sac and Fox reservation. I never had the opportunity to learn from him, and traditional fiddlers were almost nonexistent in my area. So, I was faced with a break in continuity with the fiddling tradition, and had to learn on my own.
What do you do when there’s a break in continuity? Doesn’t that mean the tradition has ended, it’s lost? Well, in some respects yes. That particular fiddler’s repertoire is lost, if no one was there to learn from them and continue it. But, tradition is not so cut and dry, black and white. Tradition is complex, and fluid, it’s not static. Sometimes traditions are short lived. Even if a musician learns from and continues another musician’s tunes, some of those tunes can fall out of use, they are no longer a part of that tradition; either because the current musician isn’t particularly fond of it or maybe it’s too difficult to play. Likewise, new tunes will become a part of that musician’s repertoire, as suits their taste and ability.
So how did I begin? Since my great grandfather didn’t read music, or so I understand, there were no physical books of music handed down, certainly no recordings. I asked some older family members that remembered ‘grandpa Orville’ and the tunes they recalled were what I would classify as general tunes known to every musician (or what many would consider ‘traditional’ tunes); e.g. Turkey in the Straw, Golden Slippers, Ain’t Gonna Rain, etc. That wasn’t much, but it was a start. The next place to look is at the formal culture; music publications and popular tunes from that time, that were generally known throughout the country, but not necessarily specific to our region. For instance, one of the first books I learned to play banjo from was a 1922 publication I bought at Butler’s Music in Ottawa, Ks. It not only taught popular tunes like Swanee River, Old Folks at Home, Turkey in the Straw, Dixie, etc., it also taught me how to play in the style of that period, which was quite different from the bluegrass style that everyone else I knew was playing.
Fast-forwarding a decade finds me in Council Grove searching for mention of traditional music in that area. In going through old newspapers we get enough information to tell us there has long been a tradition of music and dance in the region. But what we often don’t get are the details; the names, of either musicians, tunes or dances. One example I recall seeing in an early 20th century Dwight, Ks. newspaper, was about a dance to be held at a skating rink. It didn’t say much else than that, and that the music would be provided by banjo and fiddle. Again, with dance, I have turned to the formal sources such as dance manuals or sheet music with dance figures, to get an idea of what type of dances our ancestors may have been doing here. And again, there are some dances that seem to have been widely known throughout the country, and continue to be so today; e.g. The Virginia Reel.
Very rarely do we find the details we’d like, as in a story related by John Maloy concerning Sampson (Sam) Pearson and the grasshopper invasion of 1867 at Council Grove. Maloy states that “Sampson was sitting in Bernstien’s saloon playing his favorite tune, ”Rock Island” on the public fiddle.” Not only do we get the name of the musician, instrument, time, and location, we get the name of a tune! But, this often leads to another dilemma. Which Rock Island? I’ve found two versions, one in 3/4 time and one in 4/4 time. Even Johnny Cash recorded a version of Rock Island Line. Sometimes we find completely different tunes with the same name. So, in the end we can’t know if Sam Pearson’s “Rock Island” was similar to any of the three we know today, or if it was an entirely different tune altogether. But we do have the story and we’ve provided context.
In closing, after many years of gathering material, I’ll be sharing what I’ve found with you, in an attempt to preserve what we can and provide context for traditional music and dance in the Flint Hills. I’ll be focussed on music in the Flint Hills, but more specifically Chase County for now.