The fiddle tune Blackberry Blossom has come down to us via a convoluted journey. Most fiddlers have been familiar with one or more of its versions. Here is a concise “history” of the tune.
Many thanks to Kerry Blech for providing the soundclips, photos and information below.
This is Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison (1891-1951) whose father Christian Morrison allegedly learned “Blackberry Blossom” from the whistling of Col. James Garfield (he did not become a general until later) in 1863 during the Civil War activity in Kentucky. This was recorded in Ashland, Boyd Co., KY during the American Folk Song Festival, 1934. Ed lived in the Big Sandy River valley, south of Ashland.
In the 19-teens or 1920s Ed Haley (born in 1883 in Logan county, West Virginia, though he lived much of his life in Ashland, Kentucky) learned Blackberry Blossom from Ed Morrison (Haley’s son Ralph made a home recording of Ed playing it in 1949, when Ed and family were living in Ashland).
Dick Burnett (born 1883), of Monticello, Kentucky, had learned this tune from Bob Johnson of Paintsville, KY, who in turn had learned it from Ed Haley. Burnett recorded it on fiddle in 1930 for Columbia Records, backed by Oscar Rutledge on guitar. The tune as played by Morrison and Haley is in “Dorian mode” (modal) though Burnett played it in major and called it in the plural, Blackberry Blossoms.
It’s probable that Arthur Smith (born in 1898 in Humphries Co., Tennessee) heard Burnett’s recording or maybe heard him playing the tune in person (or perhaps he had even heard Ed Haley play it) and used that basic melodic contour to concoct a new tune which he recorded (backed by the Delmore Brothers) in 1935 on the Bluebird label. It is in the key of G major (with the second part in E major), though later some musicians decided to make the second part sound in the relative minor mode, but it is clearly in major on Smith’s original recording.
Charlie Higgins (born 1878), of Galax, Virginia, was a huge Arthur Smith fan and learned the tune either from Smith’s recording or from hearing Smith play it on the radio. As we can hear from this 1958 Higgins’ recording, he rearranged some of the tune. He is backed here artfully by Wade Ward’s finger-style banjo accompaniment and solid guitar by Dale Poe. They too use the E major chord in the last part of the tune.
Blackberry Blossom probably was dispersed the furthest when Nashville session fiddler Tommy Jackson (born 1926 in Alabama) recorded it on a single in 1952 and it travelled even further when it appeared on LP collections of his singles. This recording, of Nashville studio musicians, goes to the relative minor (E minor) in the second part, which was highly influential, as Jackson’s recordings were gobbled up nationally and he regularly appeared on the clear-channel radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry.
All versions included here are in the key of G with the fiddles in standard tuning.
A tune in the key of A with a similar melodic contour to Blackberry Blossom that has been popular in West Virginia is called Yew Piney Mountain (played in AEAE tuning), but that is another story for another time.
Respectfully submitted by: Kerry Blech