Last Saturday (5May) on a whim I played an instrumental version of the fiddle tune ‘Maple Sugar’ (sans fiddle) from White Mountain Bluegrass, and mentioned that the first version I recalled was from Doc Williams, “with words.” As it turns out, in one breath I managed not only to get the facts wrong, but garbled my own memory. Fortunately I was set right by a friendly note from veteran Boston broadcaster and folk-music specialist Dave Palmater. Writes Dave,
Doc & Chickie were friends of my late father. He had driven their bus on tours of New York and New England in the thirties. Just the thought of them makes reminds me of Chickie’s version of “Little Joe the Wrangler.” Even the thought of it brings a tear to my eye.
You mentioned Doc in conjunction with “Maple Sugar.” To set the record straight, it was a fiddle tune written by the great Canadian Fiddler and Composer Ward Allen. The song, Maple Sugar Sweetheart, to the tune was written, and first recorded by, Hank LaRiviere who also performed as Hank Rivers. If you’re interested I can provide a copy.
I am interested! I remember now that I did hear ‘Maple Sugar’ first as a fiddle tune, in 1963 in the Cree Indian village of Rupert House, on James Bay. Although they learned country music tunes by listening to clear-channel WWVA in Wheeling, bouncing off the ionosphere, and might have heard Doc Williams sing ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’, Ward Allen’s fiddle tune was first released as the B side of a single in 1956,* and became a radio hit; in a few short years it was practically a national anthem in Canada.
What is it about this melody that conjures up an emotional effect in listeners? It is ostensibly an up-tempo, cheerful number, but I can’t hear it without the pang of sadness, of remembering lives come and gone, like wind in old leaves. It can’t be just me, given the popular appeal. But see for yourself; here’s Ward Allen:
Tom Towle, a fiddler who posted Ward Allen’s recording on YouTube, writes:
. . . a young Ottawa valley couple got married this summer and asked me to play this song for about a hour. Just after they exchanged vows they wanted me to play as they walked down the aisle. A happy newly married couple. The groom said he could listen to that song all day and night.
As Dave Palmater notes, Hank LaRiviere, who was a good friend of Ward Allen and toured with him, wrote lyrics within a year or so after the tune became popular (so he says in a live YouTube performance from much later, unfortunately truncated); Hank called the vocal ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’.
Doc Williams’s version is on YouTube:
* An excellent biographical note on Ward Allen is on a website called ‘Lonesome Lefty’s Scratchy Attic’, accompanied by downloads of three long out-of-print albums of his fiddle tunes on the Sparton label. I don’t know what the legal status of those downloads is, but finding the physical records elsewhere would be a challenge, to be sure. /CL