It is said that all rivers run into the sea, which serves as a fine metaphor for the connectedness of seemingly disparate things in this world. My world contains realms of thought that are political, musical, educational, historical, and etc. that don’t always seem to meet, much less, overlap. It is always fun, then, when I find evidence that things we keep in entirely separated mental boxes can, at times, leak into one another.
I have been reading a wonderful book called “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” by Stephen Wade, a banjo player, playwright and musicologist. In it, he investigates the stories behind original field recordings of songs that were collected for the Library of Congress. Many of these songs were examples of regional music that found their way into the popular culture after being nearly lost. One of the songs he discusses is a fiddle tune called “Bonaparte’s Retreat”. He goes back to search out the origins of the version by Bill Stepp, whose recording became the basis for Aaron Copeland’s classical music piece, “Rodeo”, and which later became ubiquitous when used as the background for an ad campaign by the Beef Industry (Beef. It’s what’s for dinner). Here is what Mr. Wade says about this how Napoleon became a central figure in American vernacular music:
“Napoleon Bonaparte’s career fired the imagination of nineteenth-century America, an impression expressing itself in songs, set pieces, and marches wherever local militia drilled to the fife and drum. From ‘Napoleon Crossing the Rhine’ to ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat from Moscow’, a profusion of tunes and titles has traced the peregrinations of the French leader…Even in the era of the internet, traditional histories continue to circulate in cyberspace, commenting on Napoleon and the music he inspired.”
Interesting. But what really captured my attention, at a time when fake news and “alternative facts” have been so large a part of the public political discussion, was the next paragraph:
“The most famous of these accounts concerns Uncle John, a fiddler at Pine Mountain, Kentucky. After running through a few tunes for an inquiring college professor, the old-timer launched into his favorite. Taken with the beguiling melody, the scholar asked the grizzled musician for its title. The mountaineer answered, ‘That one’s called ‘Napoleon Crossing the Rockies.’ ‘Mindful of his duty to the truth, the professor diplomatically averred, ‘That was a lovely tune, Uncle John, and I’m terribly grateful that you played it for me, but you do know that Napoleon never actually crossed the Rockies.’ After a moment’s reflection the musician replied, ‘Well, historians differ.’ “
It appears that Napoleon career is somehow connected to the origins of alternative news. I guess there are some things on which we will simply have to agree to disagree.