Let’s get this out of the way right now, the way most of us learned about Thanksgiving is problematic. This article isn’t meant to offend anyone and through the course of these fiddle tunes we’re going to touch on some tough topics. Much like the problematic nature of the Thanksgiving holiday, bluegrass music and bluegrass history can be equally difficult. Remember many of these fiddle tunes date back to a different time in history.
That being said, most folks I know don’t use Thanksgiving as a way to celebrate European settlers eradicating indigenous cultures. For most of my family and friends it is an excuse to get together, play music, and practice eating so we’re ready for the great Pagan holiday of Festivus in December.
5. Lost Indian
This tune is incredibly difficult to pin down the history on, many folks across history have played tunes with different melodies and called them “Lost Indian”. Some historians believe that the term “Lost Indian” used to refer to a number of tunes played on the fiddle out of AEac# tuning. Another retelling of the history says that the tune is descriptive in nature, representing the calls of a lost Native American in the wilderness and that accounts for the extreme variations in melody and chords.
Kentucky fiddler Ed Hayley has a version, that The Traditional Tune Archive says represents “an Indian squalling in the wilderness.” The only solid lead we have in more recent history is fiddler Tommy Magness’ home recordings of “Lost Indian”. Later Magness made some revisions to the tune and released it with his Orange Blossom Boys changing the name to “Lonesome Indian”. From here, Tommy Jackson is said to get a hold of the tune, change it to the key of A, write a new B part and call it “Cherokee Shuffle”.
In the modern day, both of these tunes have somewhat escaped a troubling history and Cherokee Shuffle in particular has become a jam favorite. It might be a good time to have that uncomfortable discussion about the roots of these tunes. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to recognize the National Day Of Mourning.
4. Turkey In The Straw
This is one of the most wildly known American folk songs, it dates back to 2009 when rapper Jibbs released “Chain Hang Low“. I’m just kidding, that is a terrible, terrible song but it does quote “Turkey In The Straw” which you may know from as “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” or the ice cream truck song. “Turkey In The Straw” is potentially derived from the ballad “My Grandmother Lived On Yonder Little Green” which is said to come from the tune “The Rose Tree“.
It’s an innocent playful melody that has been around for centuries. The thing is, the name “Turkey In The Straw” originated in the early 1800’s from minstrel shows. That’s not a good sign. The tune did go by alternate titles but they aren’t any better, here’s the “Old Zip Coon“.
In the modern day, this tune has again somewhat escaped its problematic history. Now we all know it as a children’s song or a rap song with some set of lyrics attached. Wikipedia has archived many of the different lyrics throughout history and they’re worth a read. This is far from the only tune with such a tangled history involving race. To learn more you might consider this article.
3. Soppin' The Gravy
I can’t find any history on this tune, so we’re going to call it a palette cleanser. Sop up some gravy and enjoy your Thanksgiving before I ruin it anymore for you. If you have any history on this tune feel free to share it in the comments below!
2. Kitchen Girl
“Kitchen Girl” is a traditional fiddle tune that was popularized by Henry Reed in the 1960’s. The A part is in A major (or more correctly, A mixolydian) and the B part is in A minor (or more correctly, A dorian). Fiddler Bill Hicks has said that the term “kitchen girl” was slang for a female slave who worked in the kitchen. However, the term seems to generally have a broader definition referring to any underclass laborer who worked in the kitchen. In colonial times the term “kitchen boy” wasn’t uncommon either. That’s right boys, set the guitar down and go help with the got-danged dishes once in awhile. It’s called a dish washer, you literally just put them in there and hit the button that says start and it runs better than half the cars in your front yard.
Joking aside. If you are unfamiliar with the history of slavery in the kitchen, I suggest this eye opening article.
1. Ride The Wild Turkey
This is a fantastic Darol Anger tune that is not for players that sometimes get lost in the form. It is a more modern tune and free from any problematic history, perhaps for that reason it has become a bluegrass standard around Thanksgiving. Also, no spoilers but there will be a YouTube video coming out on the Lessons With Marcel YouTube channel teaching this very tune on Wednesday.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone and remember to be aware of the history when you play traditional music. Our ancestors may have been great musicians but socially they were not the most inclusive. Let’s continue to make bluegrass a community where everyone feels welcome.