“Shenandoah Falls”

“Shenandoah Falls” is a peppy little reel which I first heard played on the hammered dulcimer. The melody makes you “perk up” and tap your foot along with the musicians who are playing the tune. The title makes me think immediately of the Shenandoah River. However, while researching the origins of the tune, it appears to have nothing to do with the Shenandoah River or the Shenandoah Valley. An Irish internet site, “The Session,” calls it “Shannandoah Falls.” Nevertheless, I felt a connection with the tune having grown up in the Shenandoah Valley. And so I arranged it for mountain dulcimer. It is one of those “mesmerizing tunes” which you can play for hours — lots of fun.

Tune’s Origins

I like to research the origins of a tune to get insight into its story and to make things more interesting. “Shenandoah Falls” is a quite ambiguous. I couldn’t find a composer for the tune or where it was first played. It is one of those true folk tunes which seems to be passed along by word of mouth from fiddler to fiddler (or from one hammered dulcimer player to another).

It was recorded by Vermont fiddler, Pete Sutherland, in 1982. The “Kitchen Musicians,” a group of musicians from the Midwest (Cincinnati) which includes hammered dulcimer players, published the tune in one of their folk tune books, “Kitchen Musician No. 2: Occasional Collection of Old-Timey Fiddle Tunes.” This group was active in the Midwest folk and hammered dulcimer scene for years. Perhaps this connection gives a clue as to how the tune was spread by fiddlers and hammered dulcimer players throughout the country. And, as mentioned in my introduction, “The “Session” includes the tune calling it “Shannandoah Falls” and listing it as a hornpipe. “The Session” is an Irish internet site dedicated to preserving traditional Irish music. It is not known if the tune originated in Ireland or in America crossing the Atlantic back to Ireland picking up an Irish accent along the way.

Waterfalls on the Shenandoah River?

Incidentally, having grown up in the area, I do not know of any waterfalls on the Shenandoah River. This river meanders through the flatlands of the Shenandoah Valley with not much change in elevation. The river does descend with rapids around Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, picking up speed as it merges into the Potomac River. But alas, no waterfalls. Even the three tributaries which feed into the Shenandoah River do not contain waterfalls — these are South River, Middle River and North River. Here is a damned section of North River at Bridgewater, Virginia, as this branch descends from the mountains and flows into the Shenandoah River.

I guess the name and meaning of this tune will remain unknown. It is simply a “peppy” old-timey American fiddle tune.

Playing the Tune on Mountain Dulcimer

The tune includes catchy syncopation in the B part and a minor chord. These features make this fiddle tune memorable and just a little different from many other fiddle tunes. Don’t skip these syncopated parts. There are lots of eighth notes in the tune which make great places for hammer-on’s and pull-off’s.

Internet resources for this tune show that it is played in the Key of A. On the mountain dulcimer this means adding a capo at the 4th fret and playing the tune at the higher frets. Although the tune is quite playable in this range of the dulcimer, I miss the bass or lower tones. So, another option is to play the tune on a baritone dulcimer tuned to AEA which gives a deeper, harmonious sound.

Of course, you can always play the tune on a standard dulcimer tuned to DAD in the key of D. In this case, the dulcimer tablature numbers for both AEA and DAD tunings are the same since both are 1-5-8 tunings. While it is definitely more authentic to play a fiddle tune in the original key (in this case the Key of A), sometimes adapting a tune to the dulcimer and playing in a key more fitting for a standard dulcimer (Key of D) isn’t a bad thing. It makes for a more pleasing dulcimer arrangement, in my opinion.

To be inclusive, I have given three dulcimer arrangements — for baritone dulcimer tuned to AEA and for standard dulcimer with capo 4. These two arrangements are in the Key of A. The third arrangement is for a standard dulcimer tuned to DAD, Key of D. It is your choice. Just enjoy playing! The PDF files which you can download follow these images.

Sad Note

On a sad note, this photo shows Bridgewater College (red brick building at the left) where recently an active shooter open fired on two campus security officers, fatally shooting both. This peaceful little town has not experienced any acts of violence in years. Growing up, this was always a “safe” place. The calm has been shattered by the senseless gun violence which jolted the community. I am sure this close-knit community will heal with the passage to time. But, what is the answer to gun violence?

In the meantime, music heals the soul. Let’s keep playing!





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