Back to my Roots: Tommy Jarrell’s “Susanna Gal”
I freely admit, my roots are in Southern California, and I never met Tommy Jarrell. But this is one of the first tunes that made me want to play the fiddle, so it does take me back to my roots in that sense. I made two videos this time, one of me playing the tune, and one of me analyzing a video of Tommy playing it. Tuning in both is ADAE. Here’s the entire video of Tommy. Thanks to James Stiltner for permission to use it. (See below for a less shaky version of the video, created by friend of the blog, Josh L.)
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of teaching fiddle for the weekly string band class put on by my friends Maggie and Patrick Lind, and Sophie Enloe (Sophie was sick and asked me to sub for her). I’d heard from lots of people over the years how much fun this class was, but I still wasn’t quite prepared for just how fun. Afterwards Maggie said, “Don’t you feel kind of high now?” And I did.
Being around the energy of this group reminded me how exciting it was for me when I first started playing old-time music. I took a string band class just for fun when I was a grad student in English at UCLA in the late ’80s, and looking back, it kind of changed my life. Eventually, learning to play the fiddle became more important to me than finishing my PhD, with predictable consequences, although it all worked out just fine in the end. The class is still going, apparently, and they have a concert coming up—a double bill with UCLA’s West African ensemble.
These days, I often tell beginners, “Enjoy it, because it’ll never be this exciting again.” I don’t mean to be discouraging, because it continues to be exciting, as long as you keep learning and challenging yourself. But it’s a quieter kind of excitement, maybe because as we get more confident, we tend to risk less. That’s been true for me, anyway.
The tune I helped teach a couple of weeks ago, “Susanna Gal,” just happens to be one of the very first tunes I remember trying to learn when I started playing fiddle. I’ve had it rattling around in my head ever since the class, so I decided to revisit the original and see what new things I could pick up. Also, I was really impressed with the level of playing in the class: I wanted to give them a more authentic version than the one I taught, because I think a lot of them can handle it. And even if you’re not quite ready for it, if you love Tommy’s playing like I did, it is at least really nice to see what’s going on and have a target to aim for.
I just have to say what a difference it makes to study a tune like this with modern technology. There are several online videos of Tommy playing the tune, and now we can play them at half speed with Youtube’s amazing slowdown feature. Do you folks learning fiddle now have any idea how good you have it? The first time I tried to learn this tune, I was using the LP version of June Apple, picking up and dropping the tonearm by hand over and over to try to hear specific parts. I slowed things down by pressing on the edge of the LP with my hand. I also wore out many cassette tapes of OT fiddle music. Anyone out there remember those days?
Going back to recordings of Tommy after not listening to him much for the last few years (I’ve been on a Bob Walters jag, as regular readers of the blog know) gives me a new respect for how great he really was. “Susanna Gal” isn’t one of his fancier tunes, and in the video I’m using, he plays it pretty consistently, with few variations, but still it is just so . . . right. Here’s the whole video, at full speed, with the image stabilized by reader Josh L.:
I feel a tiny bit of sadness as I play along with it, because I realize that, after years and years of listening to his playing in baffled wonderment, I now can see most of the things he’s doing and actually bow in sync with him. When I was first learning fiddle, I hungered to know how he did it. Now that I do sort of know, I find myself a little nostalgic for the time when it was a mystery. Of course, I still sound like me, not him, and that’s probably a good thing.
I know the bowing video is super geeky, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean to suggest we should all be trying to play it exactly like that. You have to play it your own way. But I’ve always found it really useful to have a few touchstone tunes where I learn the bowing as exactly as I can, and then let that knowledge and muscle memory filter into my other playing.
In the video, I’m playing my second fiddle, which is set up with a low action and flattish bridge. It really struck me this time around how much of Tommy’s sound comes from his fiddle setup—that slippery, squirrelly intonation really can only happen with low action, and it’s hard to keep that delicate shuffle rhythm going when you have a very curved bridge and are constantly having to make big arm gestures to hit the drone strings, rather than just flicking your wrist. If you have two fiddles and are interested in this style, I really recommend getting a low, flat bridge made for one of them, if you can find a sympathetic luthier to do it for you. The detail below from this photo shows just how flat Tommy’s bridge really was.
As I watched the slowed-down video, I was amazed to see just how much he uses the bow-shake ornament, which I talk about in other posts, and which I’ve heard that Tommy called “taking up the slack.” It runs through the whole thing. The real surprise is that the two places where he almost always puts it in are on melody notes—he shakes the bow over moving notes, not over single, resting ones. While the bow shake itself is really common among earlier generations of old-time fiddlers, it’s usually done over single notes.
But don’t be put off by the bow shakes: you can play a nice and very authentic sounding version of the tune without them. And the basic bow direction comes out the same, whether you do it DOWN-UP, without the shake, or DOWN-up-down-UP, with the shake. So you can still follow the bow directions in the video. I never seem to hear anyone talking about the old-time bow shake or trying to do it. I’m on a mission to bring it back—and to learn to do it better myself. I’m afraid my version of it sounds kind of sluggish in the first video. It’s a little better in the second. It’s a work in progress. I do it more subtly when I’m warmed up and playing with live humans, honest!
Tommy’s fiddling is so compelling that it’s easy to just concentrate on that and forget that this is actually a song. I think it’s always nice when you’re playing tunes that are also songs to at least make an effort to shout out a few lines, to sort of help keep them alive. Here’s a nice discussion of the words, with a few different theories about what the heck he’s saying in the more indecipherable parts. I did an image search for the line “drinking whiskey and playing cards” and turned up this amazing public-domain photo from the Library of Congress. Wrong gender, and wrong army, but it’s too good not to share:
Finally, I know there are many of you out there whose roots in Tommy’s style run much deeper than mine, and who actually visited and learned from him. I’d be very interested to hear what you think about my analysis of the video—what I got right, what I didn’t. Please post in “Comments” or on the Facebook page if you’re so inclined.
Thanks for reading, as always. Many fiddlers who follow the blog are probably more interested in the videos than the text. I mostly just do these write-ups for my own enjoyment and to help those few out there who are hungry for this sort of thing, the way I would have been when I was starting out. It’s always a nice surprise to hear from people who’ve actually read them. 🙂