500 Miles

September 22, 2009

stalcupNow that sound archives can digitize and make available their holdings, many wonderful once-hidden treasures are awaiting our ears.  The Digital Library of Appalachia, a collaborative project created by Southern university collections with Appalachian folklore holdings, is a favorite of both mine and the great Cororingo.  Today’s tune comes from the archives of consortium member Berea College.  “500 Miles” is in the musical family of songs that includes “Reuben’s Train,” “Old Ruben,” and “Long Steel Rail,” among others, and is more broadly linked to songs that are railroad-themed.  Like many a common folk lyric, the words vary widely: the actual sung mileage varies from 90 or 100 up to 900, depending on the version, the location, and perhaps even the singer’s inclination that day.  I’m partial to 900, but only because it’s that way it is found in Brad Leftwich’s book, from which I happened to learn it.

I like this recording because it includes the banjo player, J. Roy Stalcup of western North Carolina, tuning his instrument and explaining what he is doing.  One of the coolest things about folk music (in my opinion anyway) is the variety of tunings used to get different sounds and colors, sometimes even just for one song.  Banjo pickers in particular seem to have a wide variety of tunings (probably has to do with accommodations made for the drone string), but fiddlers and guitarists certainly have their bag of trick tunings as well.  He calls this one the “500 Miles” tuning.

500 miles – J. Stanley


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