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The Year of Ward Jarvis: A Look Back

In January I dubbed this the "Year of Ward Jarvis." My intention was to start learning the repertoire of what I've come to call the Ohio River Valley Fiddlers, primarily those old-time musicians who lived in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Starting with the repertoire of Jarvis, an Athens County, Ohio-based fiddler, I identified six of his tunes to learn from the field recordings by Jeff Goehring and David Brose.

Those tunes were:
  1. "Head of the Creek"
  2. "Icy Mountain" 
  3. "Tomahawk"
  4. "Pretty Little Indian"
  5. "Three Forks of Reedy"
  6. "Cattle in the Cane"
Goehring's recordings of Jarvis are available via the Field Recorders Collective. Brose produced two LPs that included Jarvis and his family in the 1979, Rats Won't Stay Where There's Music and Traditional Music from Central Ohio, both of which are now out of print. I received digital copies of these recordings through generous members of the Fiddle Hangout.

Photo by Kerry Blech, c. 1977
I decided to start with Jarvis because I already owned some of his music and because I had secondary recordings by Goehring that I could also use as a source. In fact, it was through Goehring's fiddling on the Field Recorders Collective album "Jeff Goehring with Friends & Family" that I first learned of Jarvis. It seemed like every time I heard that made go, "Ooh! What was that?" The tune turned out to be one that Goehring learned from Jarvis.

In addition to the source recordings, I also relied heavily on notation found in The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes. The first four tunes I learned were all available in written form in the book.

Through the combination of using software to slow down and play along with the recordings and translating the standard notation to a basic fiddle tablature, I made pretty good progress. It seemed like a tune every two months would be no problem. But then I got to "Three Forks of Reedy."

I only had Jarvis's recordings to go by for the last two tunes on my list. I have found a couple banjo versions of "Three Forks of Reedy" on YouTube, but no other fiddle versions. My progress slowed down rapidly. Right now, after about a month and a half, I have a rough sketch of the tune.

Here's a recording I made Dec. 13.

Here's the source.

Considering it's halfway through December, there's no way I'll even start messing around with "Cattle in the Cane" until next year.

With all that in mind, now seemed like a good time to reflect on the past year in relation to my learning the fiddle and playing the banjo.

The Good

The Year of Ward Jarvis gave me clear direction for my playing goals this year. Now, that I've moved beyond using instructional books and videos, I felt it was important to have something to guide my playing. Learning these tunes gave my playing a purpose. I always knew how I was doing, where I needed to improve and what I was going to do next.

It has been a great challenge learning these tunes mostly by ear. I know that I still have a lot of opportunity to improve my intonation and bowing, but I feel like I'm continually making progress.

The Bad

Choosing six tunes was two too many. I probably rushed a bit on some of the tunes in order to start on the next one and keep on track for the year. I'm already considering a second set of Ward Jarvis tunes to learn in 2018. If I follow through on that plan, I'll keep my list limited to four.

One drawback of focusing on these Jarvis tunes is that it has made me feel a little secluded in my playing. That's coupled to the fact that I haven't gotten out to play in as many old-time sessions this year as I would have liked. When I have had those opportunities to play with others, I didn't have the confidence to introduce or lead one of these Jarvis tunes.

The Ugly

This is supposed to be a banjo blog, right? Well, I must say, the five-string has continued to take a backseat to my fiddling. It spends way more time hanging on my wall than ringing in my ears. I originally wanted to learn all of these Jarvis tunes on banjo too, but I've only succeeded in learning "Icy Mountain" on both instruments. I have a recording of Jarvis playing "Pretty Little Indian" on banjo that I hoped to learn, but I found it too daunting. I would like to find more time to play my banjo next year.

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