Tune histories are funny things, especially because different names are often given to the same tune, while, at other times, different tunes are given the same name. And often, some tunes seem to slip through the years without any name attached. Little Billy Wilson is a case in point. I think. Are we talking about the same tune?
Check out what the Traditional Tune Archive has to say about Little Billy Wilson. It names Billy Wilson, as recorded in 1926 by Uncle Jimmie Thompson, the first fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry, as the ultimate source for the tune as played today. Lynn “Chirps” Smith, formerly of Grayslake, Illinois, now living on the other side of the Cheddar Curtain in Wisconsin, can play the tune Uncle Jimmie’s way (as well as anybody can that I know.) But this recent recording by him mostly follows the common contemporary setting of the tune.
Little Billy Wilson, Chirps Smith of Lagrange, Wisconsin
That distinctive first strain appears in many other tunes. According to Guthrie “Gus” Meade, the tune scholar who compiled the incredibly mammoth and helpful reference work, Country Music Sources, Little or plain old Billy Wilson resembles such tunes as Ace of Spade, Jack of Diamonds, Possum Up a Gumstump and Indiana Home. Of course, some of those titles also float around a bit, and have been attached to dissimilar tunes. Nearly 25 years ago, I recorded an Indiana fiddler who played that first strain in a tune he called “Old Woman, Stop Your Quarreling.” Are we talking about the same tune? I’m not sure. And that first strain can be found in two unnamed breakdowns in A, printed in the Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory: one each in Vol 1 (#37) and Volume 2 (#14). R.P. Christeson collected both of these pieces from Bill Driver of Iberia, Missouri. Paul Gifford also learned a few unnamed breakdowns with that A strain from old-timers in Michigan.
But I think it is the second and/or third strain of Little Billy Wilson that carries some of the distinctiveness of this week’s Tune of the Week. That distinctive flavor is reflected in this unnamed tune found in a rare tunebook published in Fort Wayne, Indiana the same year that Uncle Jimmy Thompson recorded Billy Wilson. Check out old number 29 below from Charles Blee’s Ball Room and Country Dance Music: Quadrilles, Schottisches, Watlzes, Polkas and the Danish, Rye Waltz, Varsouvienna, Oxford Minuet.
And then give a listen to this unnamed tune on hammer dulcimer, recorded by Paul Gifford in 1975 (click on Paul’s name for more traditional dulcimer playing).
[Little Billy Wilson], Paul Van Arsdale, Frewsburg, New York
The Abcs that follow are fairly generic, based on how the tune has commonly been played since the old-time music revival of the 1970s.
- Paul Tyler, convener.