Spotted Pony

March 18, 2017 12:05 AM

The old-time tune "Spotted Pony", played at a jam session at the 2016 Portland Old-Time Music Gathering.

A few years ago, when I was still what I consider an advanced-beginner fiddler, I went to a jam session at the house of Phil and Vivian Williams, pillars of the folk/bluegrass/old-time community in the PNW. I had maybe five or six tunes I felt confident playing at non-plodding tempo, so when it came around to my turn to call the next tune I picked the one that I liked best of those: Spotted Pony.

Now, Phil was kind of a known crank. He and Vivian had been active folk musicians and musicologists since the 50s, documenting the folk music of the PNW, recording and publishing local traditional players, helping start the NW Folklife Festival, winning fiddling contests, and the like. He was known to have strong opinions, and apparently I stumbled on one. When we'd finished playing the tune, he announced, "I hate that tune. And this is dance music -- that version takes all the danceability out of it!" I was, needless to say, a little crushed.

Luckily, the accordion player sitting to my right leaned over and told me that "Spotted Pony" was a sore spot for Phil -- apparently the tune's real name was "Snowshoes", but in the early 70s Phil and Vivian published on their record label a set of recordings from jam sessions at the Weiser fiddle contest, and one of the recordings was mislabeled. "Snowshoes" got published as "Spotted Pony", and a ton of people learned the tune from that record under the wrong name. Phil felt personally responsible for all these people learning the wrong title for a tune, and I guess as a musicologist and archivist it really rubbed him the wrong way. The accordion player told me to ignore him, and called across the circle, "when was the last time you danced, Phil?" Then he leaned back and told me that there were just a couple of tunes that Phil didn't like, and I'd called one of them.

The guy to my left called "Red Haired Boy" as the next tune. The accordion player leaned over to me and said, "and that's the other one".

I've listened to old recordings of "Snowshoes", and I think that in the last 40+ years there's been enough folk process at work that "Snowshoes" and "Spotted Pony" can legitimately be called different (but clearly related) tunes now. They're both good tunes, but I like Spotted Pony better. I've made it a point to play it at jams as often as possible. So as a result of Phil being kind of a dick to me that one time, I've been goaded into both becoming a better player and being more interested in the history and provenance of tunes.

Phil died of cancer a couple weeks ago, and there's no way I can separate that story from the tune, so I think it's going to be my Phil Williams Memorial Jam Tune from now on.

This particular recording is from a jam session at the Portland Old-Time Gathering last January. I was wandering around looking for a jam and found one with a few guitar and banjo players and one fiddler. As soon as I sat down, the other fiddler thanked me, because now he could go back to playing banjo, which he preferred. So I ended up being the only fiddle for a while. I think this is the first recording of myself I've heard where I don't think I sound terrible. I play it better now, but I don't have a banjo-heavy jam circle in town to play it with.

posted by hades (2 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

This is great!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:31 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Thanks!
posted by hades at 12:32 AM on March 27


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