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Tune History

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The Stories Behind Your Favorite Tunes


Duck River

From The Playing Of John Salyer

Taken from the playing of Eastern Kentucky fiddler John Salyer (1882-1952), Duck River and many other tunes were recorded by his sons in 1941-42 on a portable disc cutting machine. Thank goodness for the recordings done by Salyer's sons, because they are the only recordings that exist. In 1933 Salyer, while working with his horse in the fields, was approached by a record company scout to make commercial recordings. After hearing their pitch, he reportedly said "Get up Kate; we can make more money plowing than making records!" Interesting to note how little has changed in the relationship between musicians and record companies.

It is unknown if Salyer first heard the melody somewhere or wrote it himself, but as with a lot of Old Time tunes, the person who named/renamed it, recorded/registered it first gets the credit for it being "their" tune.

Dubuque and Duck River sound a lot alike - enough to where you probably wouldn't play them back to back in a jam setting. (Having said that, below is a solo clawhammer banjo slow medley of the two tunes that works well.) Are they two distinct tunes - or variants of each other? Remember that Dubuque, Iowa and Magoffin County, Kentucky are quite a distance apart. Historically, geographic distance was a major factor in tune sharing. But it only takes one traveling fiddler to change that! As always, listen and decide for yourself.

Berea College sells a 2 volume CD set of Salyer recordings taken from the original discs. You can also listen to all the Salyer recordings on the Digital Library of Appalachia website.

By the way, the Duck River is the longest river located entirely within the state of Tennessee.

Learn more about John Morgan Salyer in the MUSIC section.

Matt Brown Plays Duck River

Duck River - Old Dubuque

Clawhammer Banjo Medley

Duck RiverJohn Salyer
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