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George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and the History of American Fiddling

George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and the History of American Fiddling

By Chris Goertzen
Series: American Made Music Series

Hardcover : 9781496814272, 223 pages, 48 musical examples, 14 b&w illustrations, 6 tables, September 2017
Paperback : 9781496828163, 238 pages, 48 musical examples, 14 b&w illustrations, 6 tables, February 2020

A study of the seminal nineteenth-century fiddle tune collection and its lasting impact


George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels (1839) was the first collection of southern fiddle tunes and the only substantial one published in the nineteenth century. Knauff's activity could not anticipate our modern contest-driven fiddle subcultures. But the fate of the Virginia Reels pointed in that direction, suggesting that southern fiddling, after his time, would happen outside of commercial popular culture even though it would sporadically engage that culture. Chris Goertzen uses this seminal collection as the springboard for a fresh exploration of fiddling in America, past and present. He first discusses the life of the arranger. Then he explains how this collection was meant to fit into the broad stream of early nineteenth-century music publishing. Goertzen describes the character of these fiddle tunes' names (and such titles in general), what we can learn about antebellum oral tradition from this collection, and how fiddling relates to blackface minstrelsy.

Throughout the book, the author connects the evidence concerning both repertoire and practice found in the Virginia Reels with current southern fiddling, encompassing styles ranging from straightforward to fancy—old-time styles of the Upper South, exuberant West Virginia styles, and the melodic improvisations of modern contest fiddling. Twenty-six song sheets assist in this discovery. Goertzen incorporates performance descriptions and music terminology into his accessible, engaging prose. Unlike the vast majority of books on American fiddling—regional tune collections or histories—this book presents an extended look at the history of southern fiddling and a close examination of current practices.


"A welcome addition to the lengthening shelf of publications about fiddling organized around transcriptions that, from various points of view, help us try to figure out what makes a fiddle tune tick—and why traditional fiddle music and fiddlers matter. Highly recommended."

- Howard Wight Marshall, Journal of Folklore Research

"Goertzen is a meticulous and creative researcher and an engaging writer. His book is a model for integrating social history into the study of musical history."

- Gregory Hansen, Arkansas Review 49.3 (December 2018)

"Goertzen scholarship about Knauff and his tunes is strong and based on extensive research trips and interviews. His substantial notes are often as interesting to read as the main body of the book. . . . This collection of music, like much published music, was relatively popular when it was released. Its popularity waned as newer publications appeared, but we can now see that it broke new ground and influenced the evolution of American fiddle music. Suddenly the stories about George Knauff, the tunes in his Virginia Reels, and the social life of 19th century Farmville, Virginia, are important to consider in our quest to understand the musical heritage of the United States. Goertzen had the foresight to see this and wrote an excellent and thorough overview and analysis. The subject matter is somewhat specialized, but the book will be well received in libraries that maintain collections related to American music, American folklore, and ethnomusicology."

- Drew Beisswenger, The University of Arkansas Fayetteville, Western Folklore

"Goertzen has done an important service in bringing to wide accessibility Knauff's famed 1839 Virginia Reels pamphlet, the oldest available transcriptions of southern dance music catering to the violin. The volume will become a cornerstone of studies across many disciplines in study of the complex nature of traditional fiddle music and culture. Goertzen provides marvelous documentation and discussion of many elements in the alchemy of American fiddle music; he gives us much to enjoy and contemplate, such as his helping us know and appreciate George Knauff's life, family, and times as well as his invaluable tune transcriptions.

In his fascinating epilogue, Goertzen plumbs aspects of the ironclad tune 'Forked Deer'--the most familiar tune discussed in detail--and this is a model of explication that will be appreciated not only by scholars and fans but by the vast numbers of fiddlers around the world who play this great melody in countless styles and variations. This and much more make George P. Knauff's 'Virginia Reels' and the History of American Fiddling a significant contribution in musical analysis and an exciting journey into the cultural and social scenes in which fiddle music flourishes."

- Howard Marshall, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author of Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Old-Time Fiddlers in Missouri and Fiddler's Dream: Old-Time, Swing, and Bluegrass Fiddling in Twentieth-Century Missouri

"This is a delightful book. The history is carefully researched and brings much that is new to light. The inclusion of early accounts of fiddling is fascinating, as is the speculation related to tune titles and their persistence and change. All in all it is a great tour through our earliest glimpse into the origins of southern fiddling. Chris Goertzen has an inviting, accessible, and often amusing way of presenting the history, analysis, and his speculations on the content of Knauff's Virginia Reels. While delightful in book form, it's easy to picture him sharing his passion for this project over a slowly warming beer in a dark and cozy pub."

- Harry Bolick, coauthor of Mississippi Fiddle Tunes and Songs from the 1930s, published by University Press of Mississippi