“Old Dubuque,” Bob Walters
Key of D, standard tuning. Learned from the 2-CD set, “Bob Walters: The Champion” and used with permission. The tune can be played fairly simply and still sound close to the source—that’s how I played it when I first learned it. But trying to capture the nuances makes it more difficult, and lately I’ve been working on adding those in. Here’s a slowed-down version of the source recording:
And here’s a video of me playing the tune, first with piano backup (by Martha Thompson), then once slow, then with some comments about style. Sorry that my voice is a little quiet at points: I shot this all on my new ipad with no external mic. I’ll either use an external mic next time, or shout.
“Dubuque” is a lot like the more common tune “Duck River,” which a lot of the fiddlers I know play from the John Salyer version. There’s a free recording of Salyer’s “Duck River” under “D” on this page from Slippery Hill. If you want to know more about the title and history of the “Dubuque” tune family, you can read this article. You can also see a list of recorded versions of the tune from the Folk Music Index.
I’ve known some version of “Dubuque” or “Duck River” as long as I’ve been playing fiddle. But Bob Walters’ “Dubuque” suits my current tastes perfectly, and it has pretty much crowded out my memory of the other tunes. I like how it has some breathing room in the low part. There are some nice long, resonant A-unison notes, and the fiddle is able to sort of “float” on top of the rhythm, letting the rest of band do most of the work. Also, there’s something truly magic that happens to this particular melody, the low part, when superimposed on the “Missouri Turnaround” chord progression. Gives me chills every time every time I play it at a dance.
Another interesting thing it has going for it is a very creepy effect you hear a lot in some of the most archaic recordings of D tunes, particularly J.W. Day’s–for example, his “Martha Campbell.” It’s in the B part, second measure, where Walters holds down the two high strings with one finger at the “second fret” of the fiddle—a B note and an F# together, on the second and first strings. I demonstrate it in the video. I love this sound, and when you combine it with the I-IV-V back up, it’s extremely cool. But you have to play it confidently, otherwise it sounds “off.” Of course, it’s a matter of taste, and if it sounds too weird to you, or if you have a hard time playing both notes in tune, feel free to leave it out. The tune works fine without it: just play the F#.
According to Mark Wilson’s extensive notes on “The Champion,” almost all of the recordings on the CD were made by Dwight Lamb between 1953 and 1960, or by his father for Dwight when Dwight was in the service and stationed in France. On some, Bob will address Dwight, making references to Dwight’s being overseas. On one tune he doesn’t know the title of, he says that maybe Dwight can name it after one of those pretty French girls. At the beginning of this tune, he says, “Well, we’re gonna play ‘Old Dubuque'” in a way that sounds as if Dwight isn’t present. I’m guessing it’s one he made in 1957 when Dwight was overseas.
Bob had emphysema during the time of the recordings, and he died in 1960, the day after Christmas. So he was recording right up to the end, even though he had terrible problems with his breathing. This makes the quality of performances like “Dubuque” even more amazing. At the end of his introduction to “The Champion,” Mark Wilson says that Bob’s performances on the CD are “the equal, in my opinion, of any fiddle music ever recorded.” As one of the foremost experts on old-time fiddle, he ought to know. And for what it’s worth, as a lowly fiddle geek, I strongly agree. Wilson’s statement isn’t any way an exaggeration, but simply a statement of fact. The recordings stand right along Luther Strong’s, Bill Stepp’s, and any other legendary fiddle recordings I’ve ever heard. Walters’ playing has subtlety, drive, taste, utter confidence, beautiful and distinct phrasing, gorgeous tone and resonance—I could go on.
I think some of us whose ears were initially caught by grittier fiddle styles hear how clean and notey and smooth Walters’ playing is and think of it as too violinistic, not “fiddley” enough. At least, I was guilty of that, many years ago. In reality, though, he’s a master of the full range of American fiddle techniques—drones, unisons, ornaments, bow rocks, syncopations, etc.—but in a very subtle, below-the-surface kind of way. Midwestern fiddlers know all this, and probably so do many other readers. I’m hoping one thing this blog does is to help spread the word to the unconverted, since Walters isn’t generally as widely known and admired, among younger old-time fiddlers outside of the midwest, as some of those other legendary masters.
By the way, one other thing really hit me as I was re-reading the “Champion” liner notes for this post. In his reminiscences of Bob Walters, Dwight Lamb says, “Bob almost never said anything critical about any other fiddlers.” And later, “. . . Bob never criticized anybody that I can remember.” Something to try to live up to.
Have fun with “Old Dubuque.” You won’t find a more elegant square dance tune. It tends to elevate the proceedings.