Music of Our Mountains: June Apple

Mac Traynham's Music of Our Mountains

I know June is past, but this week I want to feature the tune June Apple. Thanks to Andy Buckman for inspiring me to study this tune in the past few days.

It is one of the first old-time tune titles that I heard back in the early 1970s when I was beginning to get on a deeper track beyond Americana and bluegrass. I was intent on discovering the older music. I think I wanted to connect with the distant past through my music and lifestyle and figure how to get a ‘sound’ that wasn’t so generic. Instead of playing more tunes I desired to play fewer tunes better. This path meant having a basic knowledge of the source and detailed knowledge of the playing techniques to get that “sound” that drew me in.

Going to Galax Fiddler’s convention for the first time in 1975, I found out that the tune June Apple was considered a local tune. Dan Williams was a friendly middle-aged guitar player from the area who seemed to know the details of old-time music history as he dropped by our camp when we were playing this tune.  Dan mentioned that players from elsewhere played it differently than the players from around Galax. Looking back, I think he was drawn to us by his sensitivity to chord choices, which are different depending on who is playing what version of the tune. I think he was referring to players from nearby Surry County, NC.

It took a few years of listening to recordings, meeting players young and old from different localities, and discussing the different ways to play June Apple. In my experience, it was a “festival tune” played in jams in the key of A (cross-tuned to AEAE on fiddle). Tommy Jarrell from near Mt Airy NC recorded the tune on an LP entitled “June Apple.” The sound of that rendition is probably the biggest influence on how the tune is played today. The recording includes Kyle Creed (banjo), Bobby Patterson (guitar), and Audine Lineberry (bass), allowing for a big sound with excellent renditions of many tunes from Tommy’s repertoire. So many fiddlers of my generation appreciate Tommy Jarrell for his rhythmic playing, his ‘partying’ ways, and interesting stories.

Charlie Higgins and Wade Ward
Charlie Higgins and Wade Ward

In studying the banjo versions of the tune, I was first drawn to the version by Wade Ward on “Clawhammer Banjo Volume 1” from County Records. I first noticed it was the same tune but it didn’t line up with the festival version. It was particularly intriguing in the low part of the melody. The version isn’t as good for singing as the festival version but has a darker flavor than on the Tommy Jarrell recording. Upon listening to the fiddling of Charlie Higgins from Galax, I noticed the same modal ‘dark’ sound but with a even more detailed variation.  

When I tried adjusting my fiddling of the tune to incorporate Charlie Higgins’ version I discovered it was awkward to catch some of the lower notes on my fiddle when it was cross-tuned to AEAE. I remembered that the olderGalax fiddler Emmett Lundy said in a recorded conversation that cross-tuning was ‘a cheat’, I then tuned my fiddle back to the standard GDAE tuning and found that I can get those low notes and the darker sound easily. 

As you hear Wade and Charlie say on the recording (by Alan Lomax), June Apple was apparently “just an old hillbilly tune.” 

So here goes: play both clips.

~Mac

June Apple Interview
June Apple by Charlie Higgins, Wade Ward, and Dale Poe

Mac Traynham’s Music of Our Mountains: Tunes and Stories of Our Local Virginia Blue Ridge Region
This program is provided by Handmade Music School with funding in part by a grant from Virginia Humanities. Visit the Handmade Music School website to learn more or read past entries.

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