“Soldier’s Joy” is one of our favorite fiddle tunes, and one of the oldest and most widely distributed tunes in the English-speaking world. There are numerous renditions of this piece located throughout Library of Congress collections, many of which are online. Let’s take a brief tour of this American classic.
“Soldier’s Joy” appeared in late eighteenth-century sheet music and dance instruction manuals on both sides of the Atlantic. By the nineteenth century, it was published in numerous books of fiddle tunes, usually classified as a reel or country dance. Yet the lively tune could be played on just about any instrument, as the piano score below, published in Boston in 1885, illustrates.
Printed publications can be used as evidence of the tune’s age and popularity, but most musicians who played it and dancers who danced to it did not learn the tune from a printed page. They learned it by hearing it. Some heard it at dances in their communities; some heard it at home, played by a family member. Others may have heard it played by Army bands during wartime, to lift the spirits of troops in camp or as they marched to battle.
The invention of recording equipment near the turn of the twentieth century allowed even more people to hear the tune. In the early twentieth century, it was already being arranged and recorded by popular bands. You can hear the Victor Band, conducted by Josef Pasternack, performing Emma Howells Burchenal’s arrangement of the tune, in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox. Forty years later, in 1957, Country singer Jimmie Driftwood wrote lyrics to “Soldier’s Joy;” he recorded it as a song on more than one occasion.
From Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed — pictured above at age 19 playing the banjo with his older brother Josh — to C.E. Summers, a Dust Bowl migrant in a Farm Security Administration camp in Visalia, California, in 1940, musicians carried the tune with them as they traveled around the country. A fisherman from Tiverton, Rhode Island, documented by the Depression-era Federal Writers Project in 1938, said:
Now he’s playing the Soldiers Joy — see them all get up, too — you can’t sit still when he begins that one. Lets go. Whew — that’s a rouser, limbers up the old joints and no mistake…
“Soldier’s Joy” was so popular it even gave its name to several places in America, including a historic home in Nelson County, Virginia, and a New-Deal-era cafe in Florida (right).
In 1940, in a Farm Sevices Administration Camp in Firebaugh, California, Robert Sonkin and Charles Todd documented a square dance at which Earl Stout (fiddle) and A. L. Mitchell (guitar) played the tune, while dance-caller George West called the figures. Let’s listen to this great example of a classic tune in a dance setting.
Under the auspices of another New Deal project, documented in AFC’s online collection California Gold, folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell made field recordings of various artists. California native Mrs. Ben Scott learned to play music by ear when she was growing up in Monterey County, California. Mrs. Scott and Myrtle B. Wilkinson of Turlock, California performed “Soldier’s Joy” on the fiddle and tenor banjo for Cowell’s recording machine in October 1939. Sidney Robertson Cowell also recorded fiddle players John Selleck, of Camino, California, and John Stone, a gold miner in Columbia, California. Pat Ford, who performed “Soldier’s Joy” on harmonica for Cowell, came from Wisconsin to California with his brothers to work on the Shasta Dam.
In May 1938, Congressman Albert Gore, Sr., father of the future Vice President Al Gore, played “Soldier’s Joy” at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C. He was introduced by Fred Colby, leader of the Tennessee Mountain Boys:
Some thirty or forty years ago, two brothers ran for governor of Tennessee. The one on the Republican ticket, and one on the Democrat. And they went around over the state fiddling. The Democrat was the best fiddler, and he was elected. But the Republican was a very shrewd man, as they have to be in Tennessee. So, he waited until the Democrats nominated a man who couldn’t fiddle, and then he ran again and was elected, about twenty years later.
Well, our–the music for our square dance tonight is furnished by Albert Gore’s band. Albert and six other men, they ran for Congress in the fourth Congressional district. And Albert, he was a little young, but he was the best fiddler, and we thought he’d be the safest man. His band is going to give us the music for the square dance tonight.
We’ll give the last word on “Soldier’s Joy” to folklorist Jim Griffith, a good friend and colleague from Arizona, who had this to say to about the classic fiddle tune:
Just about every old time fiddler I’ve met knows the tune ‘Soldier’s Joy.’ It’s one of the real standards, played in dozens of styles, all over the country. When my Cherokee friend Bob Thomas was alive, he would always request that tune for jig dancing. One day his son Stanley told me why. It seems that when the Cherokee veterans of the Civil War returned to Tahlequah, in Indian Territory, they were greeted by musicians playing that tune. And ever after, when those old men would get together, there would be a fiddler playing ‘Soldier’s Joy’ as an honoring song.
Note: this blog post was based on one of the first online presentations the American Folklife Center produced for the Library’s American Memory project in the early 1990s. It didn’t quite fit the model of what American Memory became, so it hasn’t been linked to any Library web pages, or searchable on the Library web site, for several years. No one who currently works at AFC remembers who wrote the original text, but we suspect it was then-director Alan Jabbour and my predecessor as editor, Jim Hardin. We thought folks might like to see it again, so I added some updates, merged several articles and sidebars into one post, and posted it here. We hope you enjoy it!