Hounding The Hamblen Collection

It was Spring of 2007. The previous year Whitt and I had released our first CD of fiddle tunes from frontier America just in time for a CD release party at Mt Airy. Whitt Mead and I had collaborated to create a collection of tunes from those early days; Whitt played gut strung banjo, Joe LaRose accompanied six tunes on an old parlor guitar, I fiddled. Bill Hicks gave us a shining review in the Old Time Herald. Life was good.
On this day, another fiddle and banjo playing friend, Mark Ward, was visiting me for a weekend of fiddle tunes, luthier talk, and the downing of a dram or two in the interim. As he opened the door of his pick-up truck, I heard unmistakable sounds of an archaic fiddler coming from the stereo system, yet it was too “clean” to be from old recordings. “What’s this I’m hearing?” I asked. “It’s a CD of tunes from the early 1800s. Kerry sent it to me,” he replied and handed me a homemade J-card – a print-out -- with tune titles in one column and in the opposing column, the name of one David R. Hamblen repeated over and over with an occasional Williamson Hamblen interspersed. Tune names included “Three Forks of Cumberland,” “Pride of America,” “Speckled Apron” and many others. Some, like “Flowers of Edinburgh” and “Cotton-eyed Joe,” were familiar, many were not.
I was excited. I couldn’t wait to hear all about this CD and listen to its treasures. I had known Kerry Blech since the 1970s from the Old Time Music scene in Kent, Ohio. If Kerry sent them, their authenticity was unquestionable. Many of the Old Time Music CDs out there reference Kerry Blech as a reputable source for the history of our music. So who was the fiddler? Where do these tunes come from? How did Kerry get them? All these questions and more needed answers. How could I not know about this collection?
You see, for years I have attended eastern and western rendezvous and living history re-enactments; those gatherings of buckskinners and American history aficionados, who celebrate the fur trade era that ended around 1840, back through the French and Indian War of the 1750s. I went mostly as a musician with the North Fork Rounders, an Old Time band from Newark, Ohio. My involvement with this band began in 1980, along with my first rendezvous. We fired our muzzleloader rifles and threw our tomahawks and then got down to the business of playing music. We arranged a variety of Old Time Music with a concentration on its entertainment value. Historical authenticity was not a consideration and even though the band dis-banded in 1994, several of us continued the rendezvous and the music. It was fun.
Then in 2004 after the release of my first effort, “Gate to Go Through,” a CD largely of Melvin Wine tunes accompanied by Mark Olitsky and Dave Rice, I got more interested in that authenticity factor and started researching archaic tunes and senior source fiddlers, all in an effort to be more “period correct” at historical events. I accumulated many recordings of fiddlers, whom many affectionately call “old dead guys,” and immersed myself in all their imperfections (scratches, pitch alterations, mistakes, etc.) until I often preferred them to contemporary renditions of the same tunes. The above mentioned 2006 CD entitled “Lost Indian” was the first to include the subtitle “Fiddling on the Frontier.” I owe Alan Jabbour for his approval of my re-appropriation of his phrase “Fiddle Tunes on the Old Frontier,” which refers to the Henry Reed tunes he has collected in 1966/67. On this CD I chose tunes from Henry Reed, Emmett Lundy, Edden Hammonds, John Salyer, Ed Haley, Melvin Wine and several others. All (except Melvin born in 1909) were born in the middle to late 1800s and learned from family members or other mentors one or more generations older. For example, Henry Reed learned much of his repertory from Quince Dillion, a fifer and fiddler during the Mexican War, born around 1810. Emmett Lundy’s mentor was Green Leonard, also born in the first decades of the 1800s. My belief was (and still is) that many of those fiddlers recorded by the Library of Congress and others from the 1930s through the 1970s were stylistically similar to their mentors. Now I do not mean they played the same way. For example, Bob Wine, Melvin’s father from whom he learned many tunes, was by Melvin’s own account, a “clean” fiddler, meaning single note melodies, whereas Melvin rarely hit only one string. But by studying these fiddlers and adopting some of their characteristics, perhaps I could approach sounding like a fiddler from the early 1800s. That was, and still is, my goal. But this fiddler who was playing these Hamblen tunes, to my mind, was well on his way to achieving my goal.
That fiddler turned out to be Steve Green, former Folklife archivist at the Appalachian Center at Berea College in Kentucky, also for the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and since 1999 at the Western Folk Life Center in Elko, Nevada. I could easily see how his association with those senior source fiddlers and old recordings could have influenced his fiddling. Now I do not mean to suggest this influence is inevitable, but a choice a fiddler might make, i.e. to adopt more archaic techniques and leave the modern ones behind. And Steve was doing a pretty good job of it. I still have the e-mails from May of 2007 when Kerry told me about Steve Green and what little he knew of the Hamblen family fiddlers and tunes. In one message dated May 16, I mentioned that I had learned eight of the tunes from the playing of Steve Green and Kerry promised to send me a data disc of the tune transcriptions. That summer at Clifftop my friend Nikos Pappas, extraordinary Old Time fiddler with an impressive classical violinist background, sight-read and played (while I recorded) all 38 of the Hamblen tunes for me. Kerry was there and we discussed some of the different interpretations between Steve and Nikos. I was mesmerized by the wealth of knowledge held by these two musicians and I felt myself fortunate for having such talented musician friends.
That summer I was introduced to Garry Harrison at Clifftop, thus beginning several years of sharing our mutual interest in the Hamblen tunes. Garry had worked for a time at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana and had seen their photograph(s) of Williamson Hamblen. He too had been gifted the Hamblen manuscripts by Kerry Blech. So we would talk. Garry would say that Hamblen’s “Big Tennessee” was very similar to “Muddy Road to Kansas” and I would suggest they may be within the same tune family, yet their differences might make them distinct tunes, depending on whether you are an “includer” or an “excluder.” We debated these highly technical terms -- Includers want to group like-sounding tunes together, while excluders treat each tune as an individual with a spirit all its own. I favored the latter approach, but it soon became clear that since Garry knew four times as many tunes as I, there was a greater probability of him knowing similar sounding tunes. I was, therefore, persuaded to expand my horizons. Then there was the Harvey Taylor tune “Bonaparte’s March” from Garry’s “Dear Old Illinois” collection that was nearly note for note with David R. Hamblen’s tune by the same name.
In June of the next year Whitt Mead and I visited Garry at his home in Bloomington to play some tunes and see some of the fiddles he was making. By this time he had made several, the first of which of which is owned by his daughter Genevieve, and had the pieces for several more all cut out. These fiddles were to be in the style made by Williamson Hamblen in the later 1800s with only two points. (More about the points later) Garry was playing a two-pointer he had made (his second), but I could see it had different dimensions from the average fiddle. The body was slightly enlarged, yet did not have quite the depth of most fiddles. As it turned out Garry’s luthier friend, Bruce Taggart had purchased a fiddle in pieces from an old man who had stored it in his barn for 50 years. It was one of the Hamblen two-pointers made in 1888. Bruce said it was the only Hamblen fiddle that got outside the family and had been displayed in a local museum at one time. (correspondence) Before Bruce reassembled it, Garry took its measurements and built an exact copy, the very one he played with us. I remember him saying it was not a very loud fiddle and in subsequent two pointers Garry pulled back on the dimensions and increased the depth to improve the volume. Mark Ward then visited Garry and measured his reproduction and developed his own line of two-pointers, one of which belongs to this author.
One of the high points of the visit was when Garry played for us a recording that the New Mules had recently made. It was the David R. Hamblen tune, “Pride of America,’ and would be the title cut of their next CD. By this time Whitt and I had recorded the same tune on our Chadwell’s Station CD and we could not help but notice the difference. Garry’s setting was a wonderful rendition in a minor key, while ours was my interpretation of Nikos’ recording, a major and modal mix. There followed a half hour discussion of how two fiddlers well acquainted with sheet music could come up with two different “versions” of the same tune. Perhaps the writer was ambiguous in conveying the right key. That explanation seemed unlikely, since the transcriber, the grandson A. Porter Hamblen, was a fiddler and composer. Could he be unfamiliar with conventions of traditional fiddling of the area? A. Porter was 18 when his grandfather died and his father was highly influential in his fiddling, so he was, we would say, “steeped in the tradition.”
The explanation might be on the page itself. Throughout the manuscript there are notes written by Steve Green as he was learning the tunes back in the 1970s. (Green correspondence) For example the unnamed tune on page 32 he calls “a relative of “Boys of Blue Hill” and for “Flowers of Edinburgh” he writes, “crooked as hell but it works if you keep at it.” Now the tune “Pride of America” is plainly written in A major with three #s. But Steve’s note written next to the music says, “Weird! I recommend playing as if in A minor or rather A modal. Use C♮ and G♮ instead of sharps.” Perhaps some musicians will play the notes as written, while others may think it strange and search for notes that will be more within their Old Time music experience, as revealed by the rest of this note that reads, “Very strange B part but it works. Sort of.” Of these notes, Steve has said, “It’s okay [for me] to quote them…but I repeat that they were a) written at a time when I was extremely rusty with regards to fiddling and sight reading and b) not intended to be shared publicly.” (Green correspondence) I might add that some of these tunes are “weird,” even to those familiar with archaic fiddling. Whatever the reason for the different interpretations, Garry’s comments were so relevant and moving. He recognized how these differences were very understandable; each setting was within the range of possibility, and that this was old time music, historically passed on and learned by the incredibly fallible ear within a music genre where there is no right or wrong way to play.
So who is behind this Hamblen Collection and what are its origins? One place to start is Cumberland Gap, Lee County, Virginia at its intersection with Tennessee and Kentucky. Here the Wilderness Road passes through a break in the Cumberland Mountains, and is immortalized in the famous 1852 painting by George Bingham of Daniel Boone escorting settlers through that Gap in 1773. This was the first of thousands of Scots-Irish, English and German settlers, who were to move through the Gap only to encounter severe winters, a harsh wilderness and attacks from Shawnee and Chickamauga Cherokee during the Cherokee Wars, which lasted until 1794. Yet still they came, rushing from one defensive blockhouse to another on their way to fort settlements near Nashville, Louisville and Lexington, all destinations along different forks of the Wilderness Road. Notably among these defensive palisaded way-stations was Chadwell’s Station, some ten miles east of the Gap near present day Ewing, Virginia, the very stockade that inspired the Hamblen tune by the same name. At these wilderness “rest stops” traveling families, hunters and frontiersmen could postpone their hardships for a night before resuming their journey.
Among those settlers was Job Hamblen, born in 1762 of English descent, left Maryland after the Revolution and settled in Lee County, Virginia with his wife, Eleanor, near the present town of Rose Hill some 18 miles east of the Gap. His first son, John Mullins was born there in 1783, married Mary Campbell, of Scots-Irish descent in 1807. Two years later they had their first son, the patriarch of the Hamblen Collection, David Russell Hamblen.
The Hamblen manuscript opens with the wordy little title “A Collection of violin tunes popular during the early 1800s as played by David Russell Hamblen (1809-1893) and his son Williamson (1846-1920) arranged and copied by A. Porter Hamblen (1895-195-) son of Williamson.” Thus follows a list of 39 tunes, 24 from David R, 14 from Williamson and one written by A. Porter himself. This introduction continues,” It is believed they were never published” but “were passed by ear from one local player to another and were composed by some local musician of that region.”
In 1940 A. P. Hamblen wrote A History 0f the Hamblen and Allied Families in which he recounts some of the exploits of the Great Grandfather, Job Hamblen, a Revolutionary War soldier and his son John Mullins Hamblen, a veteran of the War of 1812, both of whom were fiddlers. The paragraphs about Job reveal his efforts at building and furnishing his home, growing food crops, making clothing for the family, in short, homesteading on the frontier. One paragraph is particularly relevant to our discussion:

Another accomplishment that this ancestor possessed, and one that has been handed down to many individuals through all branches of his descendants, was the fact that he made music on the VIOLIN. (p 75)

But by far the author has the most information about David R Hamblen. He had little formal education, yet excelled at the three R’s and was “ever the student….(even) in his advanced years, peering deep into the limited supply of books of the sciences of our school days.” Furthermore, with “ingenuity” and his “industrious habits” he would “thrive where others might fail.” And his “self-established motto was [the] gem of a sage; oft repeated and always followed: ‘A thing worth doing, is worth doing well.’” (p. 123)
He was a shoemaker by trade, having learned in his father’s shop; member of the Virginia Militia, Jacksonian Democrat, and, of course, a fine fiddler. Here A. Porter just says that David R. learned as a boy and that when age seventeen, he had a local merchant travel to Baltimore to buy him a “violin which he named Betty.’” When A Porter published this history, he was in possession of the instrument and commented that “Betty” is “pronounced by experts to have exceptional quality of tone, and to be of considerable value.” But what is most relevant to this discussion is how David R. played:

His performance on this instrument brought high compliments from professional, as well as joy to the amateur, admirer of violin music. He could not read the written scale, but possessed a vocabulary in memory that, it was claimed by some of his friends, he could recite some seven or eight hundred compositions in his playing. (p.124)

One of several stories told by A Porter demonstrates the extent to which David R. would go to protect his family. In 1857 the family (by now he and wife Ruth had five children) moved to Brown County, Indiana near David’s brother, William. By 1864 the Civil War had been raging for several years and David R. had tried to maintain a neutral position. His friends and relatives in Virginia and Tennessee were fighting and dying, yet he felt an attachment to his new home in Indiana. Then two of his sons were drafted by the Union Army. Unable to justify fighting against their homeland, they wished to re-locate. Without funds to support them, David R. mortgaged his farm and the sons fled. When the war ended, the boys returned, the family continued to prosper and David R. died in 1893. (p.127)
The second major fiddler of the Hamblen Collection is David’s son Williamson, born 1846 in Lee County near the Gap and was eleven years old when the family moved to Indiana across the section of the Wilderness Road through Kentucky towns that still exist today: Pineville, Barbourville, London, Mt Vernon, Richmond, Lexington, and then into Indiana to Madison, and Columbia and finally Hamblen Township, Brown County. Like his father, he received very little formal education, but began learning the violin at age six. Much like his father, he could not read music, but was lauded as a skilled performer who could “play from memory more than 700 compositions. It was conceded by experts that his playing was of the highest order.” (p. 199)
As if his talent as a fiddler were not enough, Williamson began making violins at age 37. From a grouping of 12 violins in the book one can see that the second fiddle, “Tilda” (#2) purchased in 1868, was a two-pointer, i.e. the bottom two “points” are missing and replaced by a smooth transition to the waist. (see picture) Nothing in the book says where he got this fiddle, but it impressed him so much that his first effort at making a violin in 1883 resulted in a two-pointer (#3). (see picture) Four years later he built another and continued to make violins, both two and four-pointers, until his death in 1920. (pp. 199-204)
Armeanous Porter Hamblen, the third fiddler concerned with the collection, finished township schools and went to Central Normal College in 1893 in Danville, Indiana. Most of what he says about himself involves working as a farmer, getting married, buying part of his father’s farm, later moving to Oklahoma City, taking up carpentry, running a general store, and , oh yes, playing the violin. In 1915 he relocated in Franklin, Indiana and helped organize the Hamblen Family Association, which concentrated on researching the Hamblen genealogy and history. He says little about his own musical abilities, yet most of the tunes in the collection were either “translated by” or “arranged by” him. He was also a composer of “songs, sacred, sentimental, and comic, as well as some instrumental numbers for violin,” (p. 280) particularly one entitled “Spirit of David R“ The subtitle says “Dedicated to David R. Hamblen (1809 – 1893), attempting to record the melodious tones he brought forth from his violin.” (Hamblen MS # 15) A. Porter passed on in 1958 leaving behind a major contribution to the Old Time Music world, as well as the fascinating history and genealogy of his ancestors.
There is a fourth, a cousin to A. Porter, whose work is represented in the collection. John Marshall Gillaspy (1877-1952) was a professional musician, band leader, and composer, who played the violin well as a small boy and studied piano at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music. He “translated” three of David R’s tunes in the collection. Here is what he wrote about “Three Forks of Cumberland” when he sent it to A. Porter for the book.

This tune was my favorite of all dear Uncle David’s library and I believe it is the hardest tune to put on paper I have ever tackled. This haunting melody will come to you as you play it. Tune your violin with D and G strings up (to E and A). David called it [the]“Italian Key.” I am mailing you as perfect a photograph of Uncle David’s playing this tune as it would be possible for me to make. You know it has been a long time since I sat at his knee to record it and he pronounced it perfectly. Let us hope that nothing has slipped.
(Hamblen MS # 1)

I am guessing he is referring to the sheet music as a “photograph” and “to record” must mean “writing it down,” while “pronounced it perfectly” stands for “played it well.” Since David R. died in 1893, the likelihood of recording devices out on the frontier is slim. It seems Mr. Gillaspy was trying to replicate as best he could the playing of his Great Uncle David. I find this admission revealing because there are stories of fiddlers altering a tune to make it their own, increasing the pitch of the fiddle to distinguish themselves in a contest, changing the key; all these efforts would, of course, have the fiddler playing the tune further from the source. Here is at least one instance where the fiddler consciously tries to play close to the source. Mr. Gillaspay “translated” two more tunes, “Big Tennessee” and “Calahan,” which, if he treated them in the same way, would presumably be close to the way David R. played them. (more about this later)
According to Judith Gray at the Library of Congress, records have A. Porter Hamblen submitting a letter to the Music Division in 1952 describing the manuscript. Duncan Emrich, then head of the Folklore Section, responded that “we regret, however, that we are not in a position to pay for this material, but hope that you may, nevertheless, be willing to deposit this material with us for preservation as part of our pioneer record.” (Gray correspondence) Then in January 1955 A. Porter himself donated the manuscript. There it sat until sometime in the 1970s, when at least two people are involved in its “discovery,” Joe Hickerson, then head of the Archive of Folksong and Gus Meade. To quote Steve Green, “Gus was a computer programmer with a special interest in developing systems for libraries and archives.” He lived in Washington DC and “fed his voracious appetite for old-time music” by spending his time searching for information about 78 recording artists and music on field recordings. Steve remembers that Gus told him how one day Joe Hickerson called his attention to the Hamblen manuscript. Now Gus, with all his enthusiasm for and vast knowledge of fiddle tunes, could not (by his own admission) read music very well. He could slowly pick out a melody and determine whether it was similar to or different from other tunes. So Gus stood at the photocopier on his lunch hour and Xeroxed some of the pages. Steve says “he copied only those fiddle tunes that seemed most interesting and relevant to whatever his research was at the time.”
Then in 1976 both Bruce Greene and Steve Green were hired to work at the bicentennial Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall. They arrived in DC and stayed several days with Gus and his wife, Mary, in Alexandria while they looked for a place to rent for the duration of the festival -- May to September. But Gus invited them to stay with them. Gus had a basement music room where they listened to old 78s and had many music gatherings. It was then that Gus passed along the Hamblin Collection to both Bruce and Steve. Later in the 1990s Steve contacted a friend at the American Folk life Center, David Taylor, to send him the additional pages of the manuscript that Gus did not copy. But as often happens, life gets in the way, and it would be a few years before Steve finally got around to sitting down and playing through some of the Hamblen tunes. He admits it was difficult because, “I was never very good at reading music either and the tunes in the Hamblen Collection confounded me each time I tried to make sense of them.” But slowly he worked through them, recorded some roughed-out versions on a homemade a CD he called “Three Forks of Cumberland,” and shared it with Kerry Blech in Seattle. Kerry gave it to Mark Ward, who then gave it to this writer. I should also mention that along the way Gus, Kerry and others have shared the manuscript with some of their musician friends and others have chosen to record some of the Hamblen tunes. The Canote Brothers, as well as Rusty and Nancy Neithammer, recorded “Chadwell’s Station.” The Foghorn String Band, as well as Bruce Greene, recorded “Three Forks of Cumberland.” “Pride of America” was recorded by Garry Harrison, in addition to Whitt and myself. arrison and Whitt and myself.And there must be others of whom I am unaware. Each of these settings of Hamblen tunes, being quite different from one another, is a testament to the wide degree of interpretation possible, even when all are reading the same sheet music.
So how are we to evaluate this collection of “violin tunes popular during the early 1800s?” And why are these “violin” tunes even being considered by fiddlers? In spite of being associated with the violin, there are many fiddlers past and present who call their instruments by that name and violinists who call their violin a fiddle. After all they refer to the same instrument. But the names of many of the tunes are well known to contemporary fiddlers; tunes like “The Mocking Bird, “Turkey in the Straw,” “Sally Goodin,” “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Then some of the names are unfamiliar, yet have come down to us by another name, as in “Big Tennessee” and “Hell on the Nine Mile.” And Steve Arkin has pointed to the strong similarity between “Unnamed tune on page 16” and P.T. Bell’s “Cacklin’ Hen.” So call them what you will, violin or fiddle tunes, they are a small and rare window into some of the tunes played on the frontier in the early to late 19th Century.
Finally there is a general concept that affects the accurate interpretation of written tunes. Bruce Greene, from his many years of association with source fiddlers and sheet music inspired by their tunes, suggests “that trained musicians cannot escape some of the prejudices and preconceptions of their training when trying to play or write down traditional tunes from traditional performances.” This idea affects all the tunes in the Hamblen Collection, especially the ones John Gillespie claims to have transcribed correctly. Furthermore, Bruce continues, ”they may think they have been faithful to the source, but they are perhaps just unable to hear the nuances and non-formal sounds and timing because of filtering them through their training, especially when memory is involved. I have observed this from….scholars who claim they faithfully reproduced on paper what they heard, but who, in fact, only got the skeleton of a tune or song, without the many microtones and subtle rhythmic nuances.” And in the case of older generations of fiddlers who played solo, “they would have had their renditions of tunes change considerably over their lifetime.” Bruce concludes his comments with the important qualification, especially to those who pursue archaic fiddling, that “the Hamblen Collection transcriptions can only be considered a snapshot of how the transcriber might have heard them and remembered them.” (correspondence)
All this having been said does not diminish the importance of the Hamblen Collection. We learn what some of the tunes were, how their melodies are different from the same tunes 200 years later, and what keys were used for many of them. How the tune was played, i.e. the bowing, microtones, timing, slurs, rhythm and a host of other techniques that color old time fiddling, must still be gleaned from extant recordings of senior source fiddlers who learned from their mentors.


1. Hamblen, Armeanous Porter: A History of the Hamblen and Allied Families, The Franklin Democrat, Franklin, Indiana, 1940. All pictures, except the Harrison fiddle, from this book.
2. Sarsfield, Norbert: “The Adventures of a Delta Boy: Garry Harrison and Illinois Fiddling,” The Old Time Herald, Volume 11, Number 8, December 2008-January 2009.
3. Wig, Christian: “Mark Ward: Multifaceted Luthier,” The Old Time Herald, Volume 14, Number Two, November, 2015.
4. “The Hamblen Collection of Violin Tunes Popular During the Early 1800’s ….,” Manuscripts transcribed by A. Porter Hamblen (three by John Marshall Gillaspy) and donated to the Library of Congress, in 1955.