THE PARTY LINE – by Andrew Bachell

Is there nothing new under the sun? It sometimes seems not. While 2020 will be remembered as the year we all discovered Zoom and online sessions, it is interesting to note that this is a phenomenon that has a precedent right back at least to the early 20th Century, when telephone lines were few and for most people a shared line was the only option. Today, as I write, it is the 8th of January and I am looking up the origins of the Old-Time reel, The Eighth of January and its association with the song The Battle of New Orleans, made famous in this country by Lonnie Donegan, who took it to No.2 in the UK charts in 1959. The tune, like many, is of disputed origin, and it may even predate the great battle of 1815, at which a somewhat ragtag American army of around 4700 routed the much larger, 8000 strong army of British regulars. The casualty ratio was even more dramatic. It seems it was all down to passion and tactics. This victory over the colonialists continues to inspire celebrations to this day.

I digress. There is a marvellous web-resource called Tunearch, a wiki site with a growing treasure of information about traditional tunes from across Britain, Ireland and North America. So naturally I ended up there when tracking down the Eighth Of January, previously known as Jackson’s Victory, after Major General Andrew Jackson, who led the American army. Jackson, later seventh US President Jackson, once claimed that a Presidential election had been “stolen from him”. As President he fired people from the opposition, engaged in fake news campaigns and supported slavery. President Trump would later replace a picture of Liberty’s torch with one of Jackson in the Oval Office. But I digress again. The comic words for the Battle of New Orleans were added about 140 years later by Jimmy Driftwood, and it is interesting to see, on the 7” vinyl, that Driftwood is credited only with the arrangement. Having said that, he claimed to live well on the royalties.

When we get back to playing ceilidhs, The Eighth of January is going to appear in a new set I have put together for the Virginia Reel. It will sit with other Old-Time tunes, between Old Joe Clark and Santa Anna’s Retreat, both taken from the old-fashioned paper resource – The Fiddler’s Fake Book. While I may be no purist about my sets, I do at least like to find out about the tunes and where they came from before thrusting them together.

There are many things to like about Tunearch, one being that people can add additional information, much of which is very well referenced. Which takes me back to there being nothing new under the sun, be that removing colonialists, spinning news or finding ways to keep in touch. At this point, I’ll let Tunearch do the talking.

“Missouri fiddler Glenn Rickman, born in 1901, was featured in an article in Bittersweet magazine and played ‘The Eighth of January’ as part of his core repertoire. He had a seemingly curious habit:

I play the ‘Eighth of January’ over the telephone to a department store here. Every eighth of January I call up the department store and they put it on their loud speaker. This time I had it taped. I played ‘Carroll County Blues,…Sally Goodin’,…Forked Deer’ and ‘Eighth of January.’ I’m glad to get to do this. The ‘Eighth of January,’ that was known way back before my grandpa was born…

Rickman’s playing over the phone for a department store audience is less curious when one considers that playing over the phone was at one time not unusual:

When the party line came in, telephones were used sort of like the radio was later. Ten to fifteen families on a line could all listen in. On lines like Slim Wilson’s line, the neighbors would get a treat. The Wilson family that lived near Nixa, Missouri, were all good musicians, and when they were ready to play, they’d signal over the telephone line. Everyone would take down the receivers and listen to the Wilson family fiddling. Some would let the receiver hang down in a bucket to help amplify the sound. (Allen Gage, Bittersweet, Volume IX, No. 3, Spring 1982)

To all of you, for whom Zoom and the internet have been a cultural lifeline over the past year, my sincere wishes that you can manage a few more months until our “herd” is sufficiently immune. And to those who have organised Zoom sessions, workshops and other online participatory events, there are many like me, waiting to buy you a drink, to have a tune and discuss the removal of colonialists, wherever we find them.

Andrew Bachell

Andrew is an organiser for the Blackford Fiddle Group, Perthshire and Board member of the Traditional Music Forum