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Tune History

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The Stories Behind Your Favorite Tunes


Booth Shot Lincoln

From The Collection Of Bascom Lamar Lunsford

“Booth Shot Lincoln”, also known as “Booth Killed Lincoln", or just “Booth”, is a well known and frequently played Old Time fiddle tune. The title refers to an important historical event - the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. It is in the key of A and can be played at most any tempo; the speed seems to be a regional preference. Western North Carolina fiddlers Marcus Martin, Osey Helton, and Bascom Lunsford are commonly associated with this tune.

The melody for “Booth” most likely comes via the British Isles. One theory considers “Old Rosin The Beau”, a good candidate. This popular drinking song was first published in Philadelphia in 1838, but the melody itself goes back to the 1700’s or before. Another more likely possibility is the Scottish tune “The 100 Pipers”, which was published in 1852 (but there is little reference as to the actual age of the melody). See the videos below - listen to the two tunes and decide for yourself. 

Did you know “Booth" has lyrics that tell the story of Lincoln's murder? It has been widely accepted that the song’s lyrics were written shortly after the event, much in the tradition of a broadside ballad. Song collector Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973) from Mars Hill, NC documented the song for the Library of Congress Folk Song collection in 1949 with 14 verses. Lunsford stated, “The title of this ballad is ‘Booth’, or ‘Booth Killed Lincoln.’ It’s an old fiddle tune, and there are a few variants of the song. I heard my father hum it and sing a few of the stanzas when I was just a boy about six or ten years old.” (see center video below) Lunsford documented several of the tune’s variants, but interestingly, a version with lyrics was not recorded until 1935. 

According to author Stephen Winick, writing for the Library of Congress Blogs, “Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s three recordings of “Booth” leave us with the following probable timeline: sometime around 1890, Lunsford first heard the fiddle tune “Booth” in the form of humming and singing of some verses by his father. Sometime before 1925, he learned to play the fiddle tune, but he did not yet know the ballad in 1925. By 1935 he had learned the ballad. By 1949, he had either changed it intentionally or he remembered it imperfectly.”

“Unfortunately, while we now know more about when Lunsford picked up this remarkable ballad text, we don’t know anything about where or from whom he learned it. It would still be possible, of course, for the song to have been created in 1865, transmitted entirely orally, and collected only by Lunsford, and for him then to have recorded it several times without ever divulging where he got it. That would be consistent with there being no recorded version until 1935, and no printed version until the 1952 liner notes.”

“This leaves us with a few possibilities: the “Booth” ballad was never written down, but came down to Bascom Lunsford from its author purely orally; it came to Lunsford in writing in a unique manuscript; or it was written by Lunsford himself”.

Like a lot of Old Time music, who wrote what, or when, will likely never be clear. What is clear is that "Booth" is a good fiddle tune! A fast version by Uncle Earl can be heard in the mp3 player below.

Old Rosin The Beau

The 97th Regimental String Band

Booth Killed Lincoln

Ballad and Fiddle Tune (1949)

(fiddle tune starts at 2:50)

Bascom Lamar Lunsford

The 100 Pipers

Kevin Lees (fiddle) & Sebastian Bloch (guitar)

Booth Shot LincolnUncle Earl
00:00 / 02:10
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