Wait Till You Hear This One

Old-time fiddle tunes and sources

“Zack Wheat’s Piece,” from George Helton

Key of D, ADAE tuning, although it works fine in standard, too. I learned it from this recording on Slippery Hill. Here’s my slowed-down and pitch corrected version:

In the video below, I play it once at medium speed with Martha’s fine piano back-up. Listen for that Missouri Turnaround chord progression that I talked about last time in the “Dark Haired Girl” post. It sounds great on this tune, too. Next I play it once through slow. I’ve decided to stop including a separate section where I separate the slow version into phrases, unless I hear from folks who like that. Finally, I talk through the tune, giving some pointers on phrasing and bowing. As I say in the video, in the piano/fiddle version there are a couple of tiny differences from the source, but I tried to correct those in the teaching parts.

My standard joke when I play this tune with people lately has been to start with a warning, in case anyone has dietary restrictions, that the tune is not gluten-free. Hilarious, huh? Actually, it didn’t go over very well the first time and doesn’t seem to be getting any funnier with repetition. I have tolerant friends.

The tune first caught my ear because it so strongly resembles the elegant and somewhat austere Marcus Martin tune, “Rocky Mountain.” I’ve known that tune forever but don’t tend to play it in sessions much since it’s kind of odd—crooked and with a sort of floating part that has no real melody, just two alternating chords, and comes in out of nowhere. It’s a great solo tune. But the more I played “Zack Wheat,” the more I liked it in its own right, and once I tried it with other live humans I liked it even better. It’s sort of a streamlined version of “Rocky Mountain,” straight ahead, and jam- and square dance-ready. It’s catchy and seems to really make other players smile, and it also likes to be played fast, although good luck playing it as fast and clean as George Helton: yikes!  I haven’t tried it for a dance yet, but I’m playing a wedding square dance on Saturday, and I can’t wait to try it out on a bunch of happy champagne quaffers (I’m planning on being one myself).

It’s a fairly easy tune and one that you can bow in all kinds of ways, although the higher notes in the A part seem to work best with the lift you get from bowing particular notes, rather than slurring, which I demonstrate in the video.

There are little fragments of information available about the tune. In volume 1 of Christeson’s The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory there’s a transcription, and he says that “Wheat was an earlier fiddler of some renown who lived near Argyle, Missouri” (page 65). In the book’s intro he has a nice paragraph about the fiddling Helton family and says, in his typically droll way, “Anyone by the name Helton and living in the general area of Dixon, Missouri, in the 1920s was a fiddler.” The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory was first published in 1973, and Christeson says, in the present tense, that George “plays quite a few of the old tunes of the area,” so I’m assuming Helton was still alive then. Christeson uses one of his favorite adjectives—one he also applies to Bill Driver—to describe Helton’s playing: he says Helton played “vigorously” (page xii). It’s not an exaggeration, and maybe even an understatement when you listen to the recordings like “Zack Wheat” or “Jinny Nettles,” which is on the Christeson recordings, but not in the books.

Howard Marshall, in his excellent recent book Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Old-Time Fiddlers in Missouri, says Helton played “unusual tunes.” That kind of thing always catches my eye, and I’d love it if anyone out there who has recordings of him might be willing to share them with me (I’d also love more Helton info, pictures, etc.). The book’s companion CD has a nice recording of Helton playing “Hickory Hornpipe” in 1963. This book is a great read, a goldmine of information, and also an incredible bargain. I just got my copy the other day and strongly recommend it.

The other Zack Wheat

Art Galbraith’s “Rocky Mountain Hornpipe” is a tune often compared to both “Zack Wheat” and Marcus Martin’s “Rocky Mountain, and there’s a transcription and recording of “Rocky Mountain Hornpipe” in another excellent book that all fiddlers should have, Ozark’s Fiddle Music, by Drew Beisswenger and Gordon McCann (also an incredible bargain). I coudn’t find an online version of the tune, but while looking I found a great article not exactly related to this post but interesting all the same: “Old-Time Fiddling: A Traditional Folk Art with Four Ozark Musicians.” Scroll down and watch for the heading with Galbraith’s name. It’s his own account of his life as a fiddler. He’s really eloquent and insightful, and he has a dry wit. There’s also lots of good stuff about him in Howard Marshall’s book, linked above, including a great section about how Galbraith resisted the change to modern “contest style” fiddling at Weiser and elsewhere.

One final fun fact about the tune is that there was a Zack Wheat who played in the National League between 1909 and 1927 and is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was from Missouri, but he wasn’t a fiddler. Seems possible he might have been a relative, though. Again, please comment if you know anything.

Have fun with the tune. It’s habit-forming. I had it stuck in my head for weeks after I learned it. Next time I’m going to try seeing how fast I can get a post online and how concise I can be. Honest.


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2 thoughts on ““Zack Wheat’s Piece,” from George Helton

  1. Wil Helton on said:

    George Helton was my great grandfather, I have a cd of about 10 home recordings that he did in the early 60’s if you’d be interested in a copy email me back and maybe we could share some material

    • Thanks so much for posting, Will, and sorry it took me a while to approve this and get it published. Yes, I’d love to trade some recordings with you and hear more of your grandfather’s amazing fiddling. I’m curious, do you have any photos? Anything available online?

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