Old Time Tune of the Month for January 2016: Old Bunch of Keys

Here is a great cross-tuned old-time reel from North Carolina fiddle legend Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985), who learned it as a young man from fiddlers Fred Hawks and John Rector of Fancy Gap, Virginia. I learned this tune from Tommy some forty years ago back in 1975 when I spent a good part of the summer in Mt. Airy visiting with him.

Tommy always served his tunes up “fresh,” packed full of subtle colorations and phrasings which reflected his mood of the moment as well as the musical chemistry of whomever he was playing with.
When playing “Old Bunch of Keys,” Tommy would vary the number of repetitions of the low part of the tune, as the spirit moved him. Here he reflects on how he picked up that custom, and the signaling used to announce the return to the high part of the tune:
“Up on the mountain (near Fancy Gap, Va.) from my daddy-in-law (Charlie Barnett Lowe), an’ John Rector, an’ Fred Hawkes, an’ some of ’em…Well, we’d go on the high part twice, y’know, but we played the low part a long time ‘fore we’d go to the high part. We’d just keep playin’ the (low part) til one of us wanted to change an’ them we’d punch a knee. We’d sit (facing each other) with our knees together. An then if I took a notion to go on the high part, all I had to do is (bump knees), an’ if he did, why, he’d do the same thing to me. An’ we knowed exactly what the other one was gonna do thataway. In place of raising the fiddle up, that’s what we’d do, y’know. Course when Lawrence (Lowe) got to playing with us, we couldn’t do that, we had to raise my fiddle up when we’d go to go on the high part. Uncle Charlie and Daddy both (signaled by raising the fiddle) all the time. That’s when I knowed when they was a-gonna change, y’know. They played like that, played the low part of it maybe over half a dozen or a dozen times ‘fore they’d play the high part, an’ just go over the high part twice” (Old Time Herald, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 91-92, pg. 46).

Old Bunch of Keys (mp3)