Open Musicology: William Litten
November 16, 2022•782 words
I have pushed a new music transcription project to Github.
This repository contains my digital transcription of a song in a book titled "William Litten's Fiddle Tunes: 1800-1802." The book was published in 1977 in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, by Hines Point Publishers. As far as I can tell the original had only a single run, maybe self-published by a company that only produced this one title. I came across it in the back stacks of a sheet music store in Boston ("The Beehive: Jazz Hive - No Jive!") around 1982.
Since then my copy has become badly worn. There seems to be no alternative to it. It's out of print, so I can't buy a new copy. There appear to be no digitized scans, though several academic libraries appear to have listings of hard copy versions. Letting this disappear seems wrong to me. This knowledge and these sounds shouldn't be lost.
Huntington's publication of Litten's hand-written original kept it alive for me. I hope that my digital version here will do the same for others.
Litten was a sailor whose duties included fiddling. He kept a notebook of tunes. His notebook wound up in a historical archive in a library in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The researcher who compiled the Hines Book book was Gale Huntington.
I have found one real reference to the book, in a blog called Vineyard Vistor:
In 1800, a ship’s fiddler named William Litten sailed with the British India fleet. On Tuesday, the Flying Elbows will perform some of his tunes at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum as part of a concert series that showcases Island music and its history. The ship fiddler’s job was to play rhythmic tunes to accompany the sailors’ work, sparing them the need to sing undignified sea chanteys to keep in time together. Unlike many ship’s fiddlers, Litten was musically literate, and wrote down the tunes he played in his journal. Allen Coffin of Edgartown acquired Litten’s journal and brought it home with him. It’s possible that the two men sailed together in the British Navy, or even played music together, but all of that is speculation. Eventually, Litten’s logbook landed in the collection of the Dukes County Historical Society, the organization which is now known as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, only to be discovered by another musician over a century later.
Gale Huntington was the founding editor of the Dukes County Intelligencer (now the MVM Quarterly) from 1959 to 1977. He taught Latin and history at the high school here, and was also a fisherman, musician, folksinger, and collector of sea chanteys. He discovered Litten’s manuscript in the historical society’s library, and copied the tunes in his own clear and legible handwriting. The resulting book, “William Litten’s Fiddle Tunes, 1800 – 1802,” includes historical notes on the tunes, as well as the music itself.
Out of the many songs in this book that I have played through, this one is easily the best. Its structure is uneven and varied without being crooked. Litten pulls phrases across bar lines to the point where the meter is almost 6/4 rather than 4/4, then pads the beat counts to maintain a danceable cadence. He has a constant stream of ideas: he never takes a motif and morphs it through a conventional series of transformations. Because there is so much detail I suspect this is an original composition.
It's not hard to play. What's hard is absorbing the quirks and irregularities. It's like a hand-made woodcut. Everything feels natural to the ear, yet no curve is perfectly round, no line is perfectly straight, no pattern repeats, nothing is predictable.
Regarding the title of the song, I never play this music without wondering who Litten was thinking of. As a working seaman, he was on board with people enslaved into the galley. Did he meet someone's eyes?
Playing It Yourself
The generated directory contains auto-generated versions of that source in visual formats for playing, audio formats for previewing, and MIDI for remixing. The formats include JPEG, PNG, SVG, FLAC, MIDI, MP3, MusicXML, PDF, and WAV.
To modify my source file, grab TheGalleySlave.mscz. Some useful things you might do:
- Add chord symbols
- Create tablature for guitar, banjo, mandolin, etc
- Reformat the graphical output to fit on a phone
I created this transcription using a music notation program called MuseScore 3. It is free software under the terms of the GPL Version 3. MuseScore is on Github at https://github.com/musescore/MuseScore and on the open web at MuseScore.org. Its repo description is:
I love hearing what other people create based on my work - post an issue to let me know.