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On the Trail of the Lost Cherokee

21 November 2012

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”— United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002

Do you know this tune?

Yes, that’s “Cherokee Shuffle” as performed by Darol Anger (fiddle), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin) and Emy Phelps (guitar) at a recent concert in Boston’s historic Loring-Greenough House.

I would count “Cherokee Shuffle” among two dozen canonical bluegrass fiddle tunes. It seems to have only gained in popularity with the passing of the years. I can still recall the first time I heard it played. I came upon a jam session in the back room of a bar where a bunch of pickers were already in medias shuffle. When the tune had finally run its course, I asked the mandolin player what it was called. Instead of answering straight up, he got this puzzled look and asked his fellow fellers, “Now, was that ‘Cherokee Shuffle’ or ‘Lost Indian?’” I was stunned. Though a bluegrass tenderfoot, I had already experienced the common affliction of struggling to recall a tune based on its title. “Leather Britches,” “Sally Goodin,” “Fire On The Mountain” and “Cumberland Gap” often blurred into a sonic haze in my memory. Even so, it had never occurred to me that the obverse could occur: that you could be unable to name a tune even though you had just played the Hazel Dickens out of it.

But of course— the tune being new to me— I knew not of what the mandolin player spoke. In the fullness of time, I came to understand his confusion, for the more I looked into the past of “Cherokee Shuffle” and/or “Lost Indian,” the deeper my own mystification grew. Were these one, two or three tunes? What was or were the “home” key or keys? Who wrote it/them?

Many a folklorist has attempted to untangle the histories of “Cherokee Shuffle” and “Lost Indian” with only partial success. A wiser man therefore wouldn’t venture into this treacherous corner of bluegrass scholarship. Be that as it may, heedless of caution and thirsty for fame, I’m going to attempt to sort out this whole Shuffle/Indian morass once and for all.

Tommy Magness, who played fiddle with Bill Monroe, established a tune he called “Lost Indian” in the bluegrass fiddling repertoire. You can hear a version that is probably close to Magness’ here. This performance is from Kenny Baker, Monroe’s longest serving fiddling companion.

Tommy Jackson is generally credited with transforming Magness’ “Lost Indian” into “Cherokee Shuffle.” The salient changes between the tunes are a key shift from D to A and the addition of a more varied B part that has a distinctive brief descending chromatic figure.

Just to throw kerosene on the fire, I’m going to say that Jackson’s adaptation of Magness’ “Lost Indian” is just that, an adaptation or arrangement and not an original composition. In the same vein, Steve Earle’s “Dixieland” is also fundamentally an ingenious arrangement of “Cherokee Shuffle” and not a distinct tune, notwithstanding its wonderful lyrics.

So far, so good, but we ain’t out of the woods just yet. There are in fact two old-time fiddle tunes, both called variously “Lost Indian” or “Lonesome Indian,” one being the composition Magness adopted, the other being a horse of an entirely different color. This alternate tune gets widely credited to Ed Haley, the blind Appalachian fiddler who either wrote or popularized many classic fiddle tunes. You can hear Mark Campbell’s take on Haley’s “Lost Indian” using a clever non-standard tuning here.

To my ears, there really is no connection between Haley and Magness’ tunes, but at this point I have taken the narrative as far as I can. Did these two tunes spring from a common source, and what does any of this have to do with errant or solitary Native Americans, Cherokee or otherwise? Here, gentle reader, I fear we have arrived at the frontier of the “known unknowns.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing.

    Sharon, as you may know, was a member of old time string band Uncle Earl. I am talking with two other members about bringing them to the Boston area in the Spring, maybe sooner. Watch the notloB Folk Concerts website – https://sites.google.com/site/notlobmusic/ or Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/notloBFolkConcerts

    And since the Loring-Greenough concert, Darol and Emy have performed as a part of the new “Lord Geoffrey” series in Somerville and are sure to be back. Watch the Lord Geoffrey Presents website – http://lordgeoffreypresents.blogspot.com/ or Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/LGPresents


  2. […] have held forth in the past on the tune played here, “Cherokee Shuffle.” See my earlier post for an inventory of what is known and not known about that old […]



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