John Clark’s ‘one size fits all’ bassline

Karen and I have started working our way through the huge collection of old fiddle books in Glasgow University Library, and one of our earliest finds was John Clark’s Collection of New Strathspey Reels, published in 1795 by Anderson’s music shop in Perth. Clark’s family members, plenty of local people, and even the music shop itself have tunes dedicated to them, and there is a strict copyright warning on the titlepage: ‘NB. Such copies as are not signed & numbered by the Composers own hand write, are a Forgery & will be strictly Looked after.’

But what struck me was the number of reels that had almost identical, or completely identical basslines in the first strain: here are some examples (there are plenty more). click on the images to see them more clearly


The first two bars have 6 beats of the tonic I followed by 2 beats of the note a step above (or sometimes below) O, and the other two bars are a walking bass followed by a V-I perfect cadence. The third example shows some slight variation in bar 3, but only just.

In these and other examples the 6+2 of the first two bars remains even when it’s very clear that the harmonic structure outlined by the tune is 4+4 beats: the bass line isn’t under any obligation to follow the tune slavishly. Perhaps you know a session player who always starts off with the same chord patterns under every reel? This is clearly a practice with a heritage!

musical terminology

Musicians in different environments use different words to describe the same things, and the same words can have very different meanings, depending on who’s using them and where.

For example, in musicology-land, a ‘part’ almost always refers to an independent voice within a musical texture. So, a piece of music in two parts has two voices or instrumental lines which are played or sung together, but are distinct from one another.

However, in many kinds of traditional music, a tune with two parts is a tune that has two sections, played one after the other. There’s the A part, and then there’s the B part. Musicologists tend to call these ‘strains’ (1st strain, 2nd strain) which can give their descriptions a sense of constipation.

Now if even a very basic piece of musical terminology like ‘part’ can have quite separate meanings to different musical communities, how are we going to describe detailed musical material in a way that’s comprehensible to more than one group? This is just one of our ongoing challenges.

index, locate, define

Index, locate, define is Karen’s neat summing-up of what she and I will first be concerned with over the next year or so, when we have our bass culture hats on (officially that’s two days a week).

So much of this work has been done already by Charles Gore, and is now available online at – fiddlers, pay your tenner and get access to an enormous library of old tunes. But the books which escaped Charlie’s notice won’t make it into our sights or anyone else’s, unless there is a record somewhere of which tunes are in them, so some indexing is required. Of the making of lists there is no end, so we’re aiming to be discriminating over which sources get Karen’s attention and which don’t.

Once we’ve narrowed down which books we want to look at, in most cases we still have to find a physical copy. Once our spiffy web resource is up and running in two or three years’ time, this will be less of a problem for everyone. But in the meantime, given that most of the books are over 200 years old, this means visiting libraries.

When we have located our fiddle basslines, we’ll have to develop a vocabulary to describe them in words, using terminology that as many musicians as possible can understand. This is more difficult than you might think and will no doubt be the subject of many a blog post in the future …


I couldn’t help but notice this sentence from the obituary for the Chieftains’ fiddler Martin Fay in today’s Guardian:

Although he had a classical training, Fay had a natural understanding of traditional music.

That little word ‘although’ betrays an assumption that being ‘trained’ in one species of music makes it unlikely that you will be fluent in another. The history of the Scottish fiddle tradition certainly suggests that this is not the case: Mackintosh and Scott Skinner are two obvious examples that spring to mind.  Note the contrast that the writer here draws between ‘classical training’ and ‘natural understanding’, implying that traditional music skills are innate rather than learned.

One of the aims of our research project is to challenge received notions about the interaction of oral and literate traditions: I think I just stumbled across two!

We’re off!

Finally, after years of preparation (yes, years) ‘bass culture’ is launched and under way. Barnaby is ensconced in Cambridge, Karen has two days a week away from her job at the Conservatoire, we have two very distinguished professors keeping a kindly and perceptive eye on the proceedings, and we have a budget – let the discoveries begin …

Karen and I have already been poring over 18th- and 19th-century fiddle books to get a rough overview of the kinds of material that we’re going to be dealing with. Last week up on floor 12 in Glasgow University Library, the nice folks at Special Collections gave us a room to ourselves with some key sources. It was the first time I’d looked through Alexander McGlashan’s fiddle books, and I was struck by the pure, uncompromisingly basic but brazenly confident style of the lines for bass fiddle. ‘King’ McGlashan’s band can’t have mucked about when they were playing the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms in the 1770s and Nathaniel Gow was serving his musical apprenticeship. Nathaniel’s own Select Collection (c.1815) includes, amongst many other things, a jig by Corelli, which he included because it was his father Niel’s favourite.

The Duke of Buccleuch has kindly lent the University a selection of music manuscripts from the Montagu Music Collection, and on a brief look through one of those, I came across a variant bassline for Miss Grace Stewart’s Minuet by Robert Mackintosh. It looks like it may be a later, slightly more elegant version than the one published in his Airs Minuets Gavotts and Reels of 1783.  The original was fresh in my mind as in the past week we’ve finally mastered Concerto Caledonia’s Mackintosh album for release in the spring.