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Tune History

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The Stories Behind Your Favorite Tunes


Mississippi Sawyer

The Downfall Of Paris

Mississippi Sawyer is an extremely well-known old-time fiddle tune. One of the earliest printings appeared under the title "Love from the Heart" in 1839. The melody has been known to American fiddlers since the early 19th century, and older fiddlers frequently give the tune's title as "The Downfall of Paris."

The melody of "The Downfall of Paris" dates back to an old French composition. It eventually became a "traditional" British tune that dates back to the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1814), and became a popular marching song with British troops fighting in the Peninsular War (1807-14).  A listen to the fife and drum corps playing this march leaves little doubt that this is Mississippi Sawyer's origin. Here is a super detailed history of "The Downfall of Paris" if you are studying for an upcoming Jeopardy! appearance, or you ran out of your regular sleeping pills. 

Pretty sure that most people know that Mississippi is both a state and a river. But what exactly is a sawyer? A sawyer (in its basic definition) is a person who saws wood. However, a Mississippi sawyer is a river pilot's term for an uprooted tree in the water which sways back and forth with the current (like a sawing motion), with the tree breaking the surface suddenly in front of a boat.

River pilots had names for different types of snags, including sawyers, preachers, and planters, depending on how they moved in the current. On the Mississippi river, the problem was great enough that special government “snag boats” patrolled the river in order to remove these obstructions. (Of course, there is a related Old Time tune. Check out the video below of "Mississippi  Snag Boat".)  Mark Twain, a licensed riverboat pilot in addition to being a renowned writer, knew well the potential menace of sawyers in the river and used the term in creating the name of his title character, Tom Sawyer.

It is easy to envision musicians playing the popular melody to "The Downfall of Paris" for the numerous frontier and Mississippi River camps of the early 19th century, with the rhythm of the tune and the rocking/sawing of the bow reminding the men of a "Mississippi Sawyer" moving with the current. Plus renaming it would make it less "British". Remember that in the early 1800's the US was still very much at  odds with the Brits, which led to the War of 1812, which led to the Battle Of New Orleans, which led to another Old Time tune - The Eighth Of January,  which eventually led to the great Jimmy Driftwood lyrics about using alligators as cannons

Camp Chase Fife and Drums

Downfall Of Paris

Sawyers, Planters, and Preachers

Spencer and Rains

Mississippi Snag Boat

Downfall of Paris/Mississippi SawyerCharlie Acuff
00:00 / 03:26
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