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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 12-09-2011 Martha Campbell

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Mtngoat - Posted - 12/09/2011:  04:02:04

I’ve chosen Martha Campbell for this week’s installment of TOTW.  This tune has long been associated with Kentucky and it seems that anyone there who can saw a fiddle has recorded a version at one time or another.   Guthrie T. Meade compiled a list of early field and commercial recordings of Old-Time fiddlers and found that Martha Campbell was the most frequently recorded tune from Kentucky.

Historic banjo recordings of Martha Campbell are much harder to find.  The Digital Library of Appalachia (DLA), for example, has 11 fiddle versions but not a single banjo recording.  Of the 17 Kentucky banjo players archived in the Library of Congress Folk Life Collection only one, Bert Gevedon of West Liberty, plays Martha Campbell.   He was recorded by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in October of 1937.

Martha Campbell has been called the “Kentucky National Anthem” but that’s a bit of an exaggeration.   Historically the tune was well known in a central swath of the state but seldom heard anywhere else.  I can attest to the veracity of Pike County fiddler Snake Chapman’s (b1919) observation that a tune popular in his neighborhood might be completely unknown thirty miles away.   Having grown up in one of the southeastern counties still retaining a diminished traditional music culture in the 1960’s, I didn’t hear Martha Campbell until I moved to Lexington, sixty miles away, in 1971.

Most authorities consider Martha Campbell to be of African-American origin.  White Kentucky Fiddlers Doc Roberts (b1897) and Darley Fulks (b1895) both acknowledged learning the tune from Black musicians.  Those wishing to explore the history of the banjo and European / African interactions in Kentucky might find these articles and essays  interesting:  Banjo History , Black Musicians in Ky , and Gourd Banjos from Africa to the Appalachians.   

Martha Campbell is included in recent tab collections/instructional books by Levenson (Old-Time Festival Tunes for Clawhammer Banjo) and Parker (Clawhammer String Band Favorites) and there is an online tab here .  You can get more information and a discography from the Fiddler's Companion.

The recording which popularized Martha Campbell was the 1925 Gennett  release by Madison County fiddler Doc Roberts.  This scratchy recording is the ultimate source of just about all of the performances, transcriptions, and tabs in the current Old-Time repertoire.   A highly regarded 1973 recording by Lewis County fiddler Buddy Thomas (b1934), for example, can be found on the Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes  site.  Thomas is known to have owned a copy of the Roberts recording.

The Digital Library of Appalachia holds a high quality 1954 home recording of Roberts, a fine pizzicato version by Travis Wells (b1912) who is better known as a banjo player, and other field recordings of the tune.  It’s interesting to compare the various DLA recordings of Martha Campbell from Kentucky fiddlers born in different counties near the turn of the 20th century.   While the diversity in the DLA certainly represents interpretations of the tune by individual fiddlers, it may also illustrate localized versions of Martha Campbell.  Modern versions show but much less variety, possibly signifying a common source.

A good selection of banjo performances can be found on the internet.   Here is a fiddle and banjo duet by traditional Kentucky musicians Billy Stamper and Earl Thomas  and another by Joe Dobbs and Judy Jones .  Banjo solos by Michael Merinda,  vrteach ,  Clifftop 09 ,  hudie , and a gourd banjo version by zeppmusic  give an idea of the current state of the art.

So give Martha Campbell a shot.  It’s not terribly difficult to learn and it’s just plain fun to play, as can be seen in this Annie and Mac Video. 

ScottK - Posted - 12/09/2011:  08:41:15

Great tune choice and great write up Mtngoat! I learned this tune from Portland, Oregon, fiddler Alan Garren and have always enjoyed playing it. I love that old recording of Doc Roberts playing Martha Campbell!


strokestyle - Posted - 12/09/2011:  13:29:51

Great tune and fun to play!

vrteach - Posted - 12/09/2011:  15:03:03

I didn't learn this tune until early in this year. It came to my attention on a recording of a concert by Billy Mathews and Colin Blair in which they combine it with New Five Cent Piece. I like combining Martha Campbell with some other D tune as it seems to be easy to move into the A part from other tunes.

I particularly enjoyed hearing the Doc Roberts version you post.

derwood400 - Posted - 12/10/2011:  08:42:30

I love this tune.  I used to play it all the time.  Somehow it fell out of my rotation, and I forgot about it.  Thank you for bringing it back to mind.  I am going to start playing it again today.

Mtngoat - Posted - 12/11/2011:  11:44:13

I had some time on my hands so I plotted the locations of each recording of Martha Campbell archived in the Digital Library of Appalachia, those refernced in Titon's Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes book, and some other sources.


Clawdan - Posted - 12/11/2011:  13:36:15

Love that tune! (And thanks for the book plug.) Here is my playing of it. on the new Eastman Whyte Laydie banjo.  (Full review coming up in January's Old Time Way in Banjo Newsletter).

I'm tuned to double C (or there abouts) but most fiddlers - including myself - play it in D. So, tuning up to double D is how I would do it with a fiddler. Buddy Thomas' version is the most well known and he plays a pretty notey version of this tune which I love.

I remember talking with Joe Dobbs while doing his radio program "Music From The Mountains" on WVa Public Radio. He was telling me about some young new-old time fiddler asking him why he played so many (ie. too many) notes. His response was priceless, "Because that's the way Buddy Thomas taught it to me!" Like I said, love this tune. Miss Jennifer says it is one of her favorites also! You should hear us together.

Thanks for bringin this tune back to light.

Play Nice,



Edited by - Clawdan on 12/11/2011 13:45:20

WaDavis - Posted - 12/12/2011:  03:00:08

Nice tune Dan.  Just listened to it at 4 AM  shock

jojo25 - Posted - 12/13/2011:  10:40:28

a tune I am often accused of playing too fast...oh I move into and thru geezerhood it is nice to be known for doing a few tunes mostly I go slower these days 

Edited by - jojo25 on 12/13/2011 10:41:49

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