“‘SHANGHAI ROOSTER,” fiddler Emily Elam says with a sigh, “I won’t ever forget.” Though she’s got less-than-pleasant memories of the transcription process—when she sat down at a computer two years back and committed the tune to the electronic page—it wasn’t so much the tune that gave her trouble. It was the notation. Much like Banjo Billy, the legendary fiddler whose tunes she’d given herself the task of transcribing, she’d learned to play by listening, rather than reading sheet music. And the notation software? With all its quirks, it presented a steep learning curve. All told, those couple of lines took her 10 minutes or so, which wasn’t so bad—until she realized she had 499 songs to go.
The thing is, she’d grown up hearing these tunes—she’d learned by listening to Billy’s music. When she first started playing, she’d attended his workshops at the Inn at Mountain View, a historic structure just off the square, and had marveled at how people had committed hundreds of songs to memory. A few years later, however, immersed in the oral folk-music traditions, she was one of them. Going into this project, she estimates she knew some 400 tunes—375 of which she’d learned by ear. Of those, she’d picked up probably half from a set of Billy’s CDs: 500 Fiddle Tunes: Old-Time Archive.
But as Emily says, these weren’t your standard old-time tunes. Drawn from Billy’s extensive travels, they ranged from tunes he’d picked up in places from the Ozarks to Appalachia, from Irish fiddlers and minstrel banjo tunes and even a few culled from vintage vinyl polka records. “They are from everywhere, Emily says. Over the course of two years, she transcribed all 500 tunes (by the end, she says, it wasn’t taking her longer than two minutes to transcribe a tune, tops) and is now working with Billy to do another hundred. (They’re shooting for 1,000.)
But of course, given the nature of the music—so often passed between musicians, carried forth on the bow rather than the page—the question then becomes, why put this oral tradition into writing?
“It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?” Emily says. “Billy and I both brag on this being an oral tradition and that we both learned from people sitting in front of them and learning by ear. And that’s the way we both prefer to learn. … Then we come up with this, Oh, let’s write it all down. And for me, it’s inclusivity.
“I think this is a way of keeping old-time music alive, [by] broadening the number of people who can play it.”
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