Six-Eights Fiddling In Missouri

Six-Eights Fiddling In Missouri
by Charlie Walden


To hear Missouri fiddler render piece of music in 6/8 time is rare occurrence. Players may possess huge repertoires of
breakdowns, waltzes and “pieces” and yet be able to play only one tune in 6/8. “Breakdowns” are tunes traditionally played for the square dances and include the hornpipes, reels an hoe-downs. “Pieces” is a term used by R. P. Christeson to describe tunes for couple dancing, other than the waltz, such as the schottische, polka, or two-step tune.

Music in 6/8 time and other triple meter forms (3/8, 9/8 and 12/8 – the net effect of both 3/8 and 12/8 is 6/8 time) can be found in the antique tune collections and in the repertoire of contemporary players of the Irish, English and Scots musical traditions. The tunes are variously referred to as jigs, single jigs, double jigs, and scotch jigs. The reader desiring a more complete discussion of 6/8 music in the Irish and Scots tradition may wish to investigate Breathnach’s Folk Music and Dances of Ireland (Breathnach, 1971) and Emmerson’s Rantin’ Pipe and Tremblin’ String (McGill – Queen’s University Press, 1971).

Anecdotes support the idea than 6/8 music may have once been more common, but it has always been less popular when compared with other kinds of tunes. Such melodies as “Irish Washerwoman”, “Haste to the Wedding”, and “Campbells are Coming” have been collected in Missouri and doubtless have their origin in Celtic traditions. Three forms of 6/8 music have been collected in Missouri The first could be likened to the Irish single jig. Its predominant rhythmic pattern is quarter note followed by an eighth note. The second type is the same as the Irish double jig in which the rhythmic pattern is characterized by a succession of eighth notes.

Both of these types have essentially the same arrangement as the common breakdown. That is, most have two distinct melodic strains each of which is eight measures or sixteen beats in length. Calling the first strain “A” and the second “B”, the tunes will in all probability be executed in an AA-BB pattern. Although somewhat subjective and difficult for me to articulate, there seems to be a difference in the manner in which these two types of 6/8 tunes are performed.

Those with the quarter-eighth note pattern predominating are generally executed more slowly and with more grace than those with the eighth notes in succession as the main figure. Of course, there are tunes which will somewhat equally divide the two rhythmic pattern describe and are less amenable to this sort of classification. Another parallel between these tunes and the breakdown is that in most instances the same standard chord progression or pattern employed for accompaniment of breakdowns will apply to these 6/8 tunes, as well.

The third type of 6/8 music favors neither of the rhythmic patterns described above The individual melody parts are twice as long as those in the other two type, being 16 bars or 32 measures per part. The parts are played in succession with no repeat indicated until the entire piece has been played through.


Unlike the Irish and Scots, who have an abundance of names with which to refer to their triple meter music, Missourians seem to be lacking any universal term for their 6/8 music. Although R. P. Christeson employed the word “quadrille” to describe 6/8 tunes in his book, most Missouri fiddlers would not be familiar with or make use of this term. According to Christeson, the term was used exclusively by the Nebraskan Uncle Bob Walters (whose renditions make up the bulk of Christeson’s Old Time Fiddler’s Repertory, University of Missouri Press, l973) to describe tunes in 6/8 time with breakdown arrangement. He could not recall the word “quadrille” being use by Missouri fiddler. Cyril Stinnett from Holt County, Missouri calls his 6/8 tunes “quadrilles,” but he undoubtedly borrowed the term from his contemporary, Bob Walters.

The most common word for 6/8 music in the English, Scots, and Irish traditions is “jig.” This does not seem to be the case in Missouri. The term “jig” in Missouri is used to refer to a form of footwork which is done to the music of breakdown. Some fiddlers will offer the “Irish Washerwoman” when asked if they know any Irish jigs so the concept may not be totally foreign. They may be responding more to the word “Irish” than to “jig”. In the final analysis, most Missouri fiddlers will either have no word whatsoever to call these tunes or will simply refer them as “six-eighters.”

6/8 Music and Dance

As alluded to above, the word “jig” in Missouri refers to a form of fancy footwork usually performed to the old-time breakdown. It is done either as a solo exhibition, to fill-in while “inactive” in a square dance or while moving through the various figures in the square, especially in the Ozarks. Some solo jig dancers can practice their craft to 6/8 music. R. P. Christeson recalled that his father, Frank, could do a jig step to the “Irish Washerwoman.”9 I have observed an Audrain County man doing the same. Music in 6/8 time also works quite nicely for two-step couple dancing.10 There is no evidence that 6/8 music was ever used with figures such as those employed in square sets.

Accompaniment for 6/8 Music

There are few accompanists in Missouri today who can provide suitable second to music in 6/8 time. The chord pattern, being in most instances the same as that used to accompany breakdowns, presents no problem.” The difficulty arises from the rhythm required. The uneven rhythmic pattern (shown below) is a source of total bewilderment to most modern guitar players one would encounter at fiddlers’ contests.

In the past, the reed organ and piano were the favorite instruments for accompanying the fiddle. It is relatively easy to
generate the necessary rhythm at the keyboard. It can also be readily accomplished on the guitar using the old-time “crowfoot” style. This is a nearly extinct form of guitar playing in which the guitarist, wearing picks on the thumb and first three fingers, sounds the bass with the thumb and answers on the off-beat by sounding a three note chord by plucking the fingers in unison. This is said to be the method employed by the black guitarist, Ola Gathright when he accompanied the black fiddle Bill Caton. Both were from Callaway County, near Tebbetts, and were celebrated performers over WOS Radio in the mid-twenties.

Using a flat-pick or a thumb pick alone, as most guitarists these days are likely to do, makes playing 6/8 time more difficult. There are but a few guitarists in Missouri who can execute the quarter note-eighth note rhythm effectively. Charley Daugherty, of Carroll County, was among the very few guitarists in Missouri who actually enjoyed playing 6/8 music and would request it specifically from any fiddler with whom he played. He developed his own twist on 6/8 accompaniments which deserves mention. His method was to play a strum on all six beats, (each an eighth note), accenting the first beat of each measure with a strong down strum and then alternating the direction of the strum on the remaining five beats. He rounded off every two measures with a dotted quarter note.

6/8 Music in Missouri Tune Literature

There are four tune books commonly associated with Missouri, all of which contain examples of 6/8 music. Of the fifty-one tunes in W. H. Morris’ Old Time Violin Melodies (St. Joseph, 1927), twenty-one are in 6/8 time. Of these, only ten have titles. Little is known about Morris or his informants. Judging from the many unfamiliar melodies in his book, it is possible that his transcriptions were drawn from the local tradition. Consistent with this notion is his use of the term quadrille in conjunction with many of his 6/8 tunes. If the term had been in use anywhere in the state, it would have been the in northwest.

Published in the same year in St. Louis, was E. F. Adam’s Old-Time Fiddlers Favorite Barn Dance Tunes. Only fifteen of Adam’s 74 tunes are in 6/8 time (see appendix A). Among the familiar titles are “Haste to the Wedding,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Irish Washerwoman” and “Ocean Waves”. The word “quadrille” does not appear in this work. Interestingly the term “cotillion” is used with one 6/8 tune. As with Morris, little is known about Adams, his research methods, or his fiddlers.

Ira Ford’s Traditional Music in America (Dutton, 1940), contains some 37 tunes in 6/8, eight 3/8 tunes and one in 12/8 time. It is believed that Ford collected much of his material in Missouri. However, since he does not offer any specific sources for individual tunes, it would not be appropriate to assume they are all Missouri music. Some could have been collected elsewhere. Others may have been borrowed from earlier tune collections (some of Morris’ and Adam’s tunes are suspect, as well). R. P. Christeson’s Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory (University of Missouri, 1973) contains 32 “quadrilles” and three “pieces” in 6/8. Only two of these, quadrille #177 and the Charleytown Two-Step were credited to Missouri. According to Christeson, Charleytown is a defunct settlement in Miller or Maries County. Jim Skiles, a fiddler from from Eldon, believed this to be the nickname for the community of St. Elizabeth, Missouri.

6/8 Music in the Missouri Fiddlers Repertory

As mentioned previously, nearly every fiddler in the state can be expected to play the “Irish Washerwoman”. This was a favorite of participants at the State Championship broadcast from the Capitol in Jefferson City over WOS on January 31, 1925. The next most common 6/8 tune would have to be “Haste to the Wedding”. Thomas’ History of St. Louis County Missouri published in 1911, includes a section on fiddlers. In it he describes the playing of the brothers Polite, “…for quadrille music they, with clarionet (sic) accompaniment, were never excelled.” Citing the “most popular tunes named” he includes the following pieces in 6/8 time: “Campbells Are Coming”, “Haste to the Wedding” and “Pop Goes the Weasel” (Thomas, William L. History of St. Louis County Missouri St. Luois: S. J. Clarke, 1911. p. 60).

The late Vance Randolph, noted Ozark Folklorist, provided a list of all the fiddle tune titles he encountered (Randolph, Vance. “The Names of Ozark Fiddle Tunes.” Midwest Folkfore (Summer: 81-86, 1954). Among those in 6/8 time are “Campbell’s Are Coming”, “Happy Jack”, “Haste to the Wedding”, “Hull’s Victory”, “Irish Jig”, Irish Washerwoman”, “Life on the Ocean Wave,” “Mistress McCloud’s Jig,” “Pop Goes the Weasel”, “Drippy Toe Rag”, “Rosin the Bow,” and “Wiggle-Ass Jig.” Adam’s book contains “Happy Jack” in 6/8. However, a breakdown by the same title is played by fiddlers in Boone County. To which tune, if either, Randolph was referring may never be known. I have also included those with jig in the title. Irish “jig” refers most likely to “Irish Washerwoman”. Mistress McCloud’s Jig may or may not be “Miss McCloud’s Reel” (often called “Uncle Joe” in the Ozarks). “Wiggle-Ass Jig is anybody’s guess.

Nile Wilson, a fiddler from Linn County, remarked that his father could play several 6/8 tunes. He advised Nile that when bowing these tunes, the timing of the bow stroke could not be broken or the 6/8 effect would be lost.

Three important Missouri fiddlers who had significant contact with Bob Walters of Nebraska are Casey Jones, Cyril Stinnett and Lonnie Robertson. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that any unusual 6/8 tune that these fiddlers might know could be attributed to Walters.

Hollis Shumaker’s great-grandfather moved to Macon County, Missouri from Ohio around 1850. Coming from a long line of fiddlers, Hollis plays an obscure 6/8 tune which he attributed to his father Thomas Hayes Shumaker. The famed collector of Irish music, Captain Frances O’Neill, dwelled in and played around the Missouri community of Edina in the late 1860’s. There were apparently numerous Irish performers in the region at this time. Edina is only a short distance from where the Shoemakers settled. Given that Hollis’ 6/8 tune sounds remarkably Irish, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that this tune was derived from the Irish-Americans at Edina. If this is the case, then the Shumaker 6/8 tune is a Missouri “jig” in its truest sense.

Dwight Grover, a native of Nebraska, has lived in Missouri since 1933. He learned to play as a boy under the tutelage of Ed Holman
who was a native Missourian, originally from the Springfield area. Dwight played a surprising number of 6/8 tunes which he learned from Ed Holman. He believes that Holman brought these tunes from Missouri. These tunes may be representative of a 6/8 repertory which existed in Southwest Missouri before the turn of the century.


As indicated above, music in 6/8 time has never had the popularity that other tune types have enjoyed. In all probability it will become even less popular in the future and could even be in danger of fading into oblivion. There are several reasons for this. Most important, I believe, is the fact that the fiddler’s contest has supplanted all other performance settings. The rules and popular conventions at fiddlers contest tend to restrict repertory and style of playing to conform with the popular concept of what is good fiddling. This circumstance is also threatening other tune types such as the schottische, polka, two-step, and other such tunes as would be heard at a dance but not necessarily at a contest. Another consideration, already alluded, to is the scarcity of accompanists who can follow these tunes properly. Finally, since most young fiddlers are relying more heavily on records as sources for tunes, the absence of 6/8 music on the popular fiddle records of today is a factor as well.

Titles of 6/8 Tunes in Missouri Collections

Morris, W.H. Old-Time Violin Melodies. St. Joseph, MO 1927

Right About Face
Sugar Lake
Old Friend
Haste to the Wedding
So They Say
Favorite Quadrille
Picnic Fiddler
Bows Quadrille
Paddy Murphy’s Garden

Adams, E.F. Old-Time Fiddlers Favorite Barn Dance Tunes St. Louis, 1927

Pop Goes the Weasel
Irish Washerwoman
Broken Chord Jig
Captain Jinks
Buckwheat Batter
Haste to the Wedding
Yonder She Goes
Garry Owen
Ocean Waves
By the Fireside
Big Chief
Old Rosen The Beau
Illinois Cotillion
Larry O’ Gaff
Happy Jack