Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Playing violin with a dead man

Published July 17, 2007
I spent 90 minutes on Independence Day with George Bush. The George Bush I visited, though, is not the president; he fought in the American Revolution.
George Bush was an officer of the Continental Line under George Washington. He was born about 1753 in Wilmington, Delaware, and after the conclusion of a four-year apprenticeship to a Philadelphia merchant in 1776 joined the Army as a lieutenant, fighting at Staten Island, Brunswick, Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown and in encounters with Indians. He was wounded at the battle of Brandywine, Pa., in September 1777, and after Germantown, in October 1777, most of his time was spent on recruiting missions and as a paymaster. He wrote to a friend during the winter of 1781-82 that health had prevented his participating in the fighting at Yorktown.

Bush began his music collection in 1779 in a pocket notebook made of paper from the same Pennsylvania mill that supplied paper to Congress after the British took Philadelphia. After seven pages of index, he inscribed the title page with “A new Collection of Songs taken from three Volumes of the Songster’s Companion by George Bush ...” He soon abandoned his strict copying from that book and added songs, tunes and dance figures, most of British origin, as he found them, collecting 32 songs, 11 minuets, 30 marches and other airs, and 14 country dances. Leaves containing Army business notes were wrapped around music pages; they contain lists of supplies, monies paid and received, currency values and exchange rates, and a laundry list Bush sent to his washerwoman.
Dances of the 1700s included minuets, country dances, and Scottish and Irish jigs, hornpipes and reels. The minuet was a stately formal couple dance set to music in 3/4 time. Formal affairs, such as governor’s balls in Colonial Williamsburg or a dance attended by George and Martha Washington, opened with minuets, the persons of eminence dancing the first minuet alone while all else watched. The minuet, because it consisted of elaborate, intricate steps, was a dance for the gentry, who had the leisure time to practice. After the opening dance the other couples took to the floor for more minuets, and after minuets the company formed opposite lines for country dances. Country dances were the most popular dances of the 18th century and are the ancestor of square dancing, having bequeathed moves to square dancing. Country dances were performed in all levels of society with varying degrees of difficulty, in ballrooms and taverns and at weddings. They were progressive line dances, the couples moving together down the line, so that those at the head of the line ended at the foot. Originating in England, country dances were adopted by the French and renamed “contredanse,” that name refashioned into “contra dance” in the late 1700s when all things French were the rage in England and its colonies.
Contras are still danced today, especially in New England, southern Michigan and northeast Ohio, which in its northeastern counties bears the imprint of its New England origins. We live on a line of demarcation between New England and Appalachian culture and dialect, and the traditional music broadly reflects that line — generalizing, bluegrass to the south and Celtic to the north.
George Bush died childless in 1797, and the manuscript remained in the family until 1990, when it was donated to The Historical Society of Delaware. The tunes were published a few years ago by Kate Van Winkle Keller and the Hendrickson Group under the title “Fiddle Tunes From the American Revolution.” It was that book, my violin, and the spirit of George Bush that occupied my time on the afternoon of the Fourth. I played dances, marches and minuets, honoring independence and the founding fathers in the quiet manner I prefer while all around neighbors drank, hooted and hollered, and terrified my goat with fireworks. It’s my way — I prefer the company of dead men to live, drunken hooligans.

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