Today’s mandolin song breakdown is Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom (which is not the same as “Blackberry Blossom”).
The main story of how this song came to be is essentially that general James A Garfield (later President Garfield) heard this tune being played on a harmonica during the Civil War but couldn’t remember the name of the tune. At some point he spit some tobacco juice on a blackberry bush and apparently that was enough to name the tune Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom (though, if that story is true, I feel like it should have been called “Garfield’s Tobacco Spit” or “Garfield’s Spittoon”). Below is a the excerpt of this story from the Old Time Party blog.
A story about the origin of the Garfield title comes from Jean Thomas’s book Ballad Makin’ in the Mountains of Kentucky, collected perhaps from several sources. It seems that a General Garfield named the tune during the Civil War after hearing a soldier playing it on the harmonica. He remarked to the musician that it was his favorite tune but said he couldn’t remember the title, whereupon he expectorated a stream of tobacco juice onto a white blackberry bush blossom; this was noticed and the tune named.
As improbable as that story sounds, the tradition of General Garfield’s liking for the tune was insisted on by Fiddlin’ Ed Morrison on his Library of Congress recording (an influential version); he says Garfield used to whistle the tune frequently and it was Morrison’s harmonica-playing father who as a boy picked it up from the General.https://oldtimeparty.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/garfields-blackberry-blossom/
While this tune is old (Civil War old), it’s new to me. I first heard this around when I moved to Seattle in 2022. The weird melody hooked me quickly and I’m glad that this song persists in some of the local Seattle bluegrass jams. That said, since it’s a bit esoteric and not regularly played in most circles, this could be a jam buster. Hopefully this Mandolin Song Breakdown for Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom helps!
Below are a few recordings of this tune. I worked my arrangement up based on the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Adam Steffy versions.
Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom is a basic AABB form fiddle tune. One note, at least to me, the A part sort of feels like it should be the B part – maybe because of the G double stop in the middle of it. Either way, this did make the tune a little more difficult to remember at first.
The A and B parts for Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom are really similar. The only real difference is the A part has the I bVII | I | (G F | F) change where the B part just hangs on the I or G.
Given the similarity in the progression, it’s pretty easy to get lost when playing in a jam – especially if the soloist takes a non-melody focused break. For tunes like this, I highly recommend silently singing or humming the melody to yourself when you’re playing rhythm.
Soloing on Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom can be tough since the melody is so strong. On tunes like this, I find it’s great to play a measure of the main melody more or less exactly as written, then a measure of more improvised or embellished melody. This helps keep the song structure intact while simplifying the soloing process.
Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom is in the key of G major which includes the notes G A B C D E F#. The main melody however includes both C# and F natural – which don’t normally exist in a basic G major scale. Both notes do exist in the D Melodic Minor scale (D E F G A B C#). The F natural (but not the C#) exists in G Mixolydian scale (G A B C D E F). Keeping in mind that the C# (or Db) is the b5 of the scale, you could use a variation of the Mixolydian with a focus on the b5 to 5 relationship. The G minor pentatonic (G Bb C D F) can be useful here too as it contains the F. The Bb and C natural here can be useful as a chromatic notes (Bb B C C#). Any of these scales can be a good choice to use as a base.
When I’m playing over the A part, I’ll emulate the first measure of A1 with some harmony or similar idea of going from up and down 1 step from the starting note. During the B3 part, I like to either emulate the scale run down while accenting certain notes – that’s either a straight run down the notes like the melody or a running thirds type.
Over the B Part I think a bit more modal since it’s primarily just vamping on G major pentatonic and focusing on hitting the F and C# at the right time. To keep things a bit cohesive, I often add the C natural around the C# to create a chromatic run to B or D. Another fun tip is to play a run that ends with an F and just hang on the F note like the melody does.
Another point to remember is that the A and B parts are pretty similar – so in a jam setting, it can be easy to lose your place. In tunes like this, it’s important to use ideas from the main melody of each part to help announce the parts better.
I love Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom’s melody. It was a little tricky to learn at first for me due to the raised 4th (C#). I had to really focus on those notes at first to avoid the C natural. That said, the raised 4th (C#) is really unique among fiddle tunes and stands out.
I’d recommend breaking this tune into parts and practicing each part individually. Below is a quick run down of the parts. I like thinking about this when I’m learning melodies to better understand what parts to highlight (like a hook) in my soloing later.
- The first measures of A1 and A2 are the same, but the 2nd measures are slightly different.
- On A3 you could simply repeat A1 if that’s easier
- A4 is the tag back to the top. Side note – practicing this riff (and similar traditional type tag endings) in several positions and keys is a great way to improve your soloing overall.
- Similar to A1 and A2, B1 and B2 have the same first measure. The second measure for these parts is really similar with the only difference that B1 repeats the riff where B2 only plays it once.
- B3 repeats B1 except it adds the 8th note of F at the end to start the tag ending
- B4 is the same tag ending as A4
Harmony lines for this are a bit difficult, but can help lend some ideas on how you can solo over this song.
The best thing to take away from Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom is embracing strange sounds. The raised 4th (C#) is really unique and helps this tune really stand out. That said, it’s not a really easy tune – so take your time with it.
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