Tune of the Month

Sarah Armstrong’s (Old Reel)

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Sarah Armstrong, as pictured in Hill Country Tunes

The tune most of us know today as ‘Sarah Armstrong’s Reel’, Sarah Armstrong herself knew as ‘Old Reel’. Mrs. Sarah ‘Sadie’ Elizabeth Gary Armstrong (b. March 18, 1883 Gray Station, PA [now part of Derry, PA] – d. August 12,1957 Latrobe, PA) played this tune on November 18, 1943, for songcatcher, Samuel Preston Bayard. This tune was included in Bayard’s collection, Hill Country Tunes: Instrumental Folk Music of Southwestern Pennsylvania, published in 1944, of which Sarah Armstrong ultimately contributed 37 of the 95 tunes.

Sarah started playing fiddle at age 5, learning fiddle by watching and listening to her Uncle Laney. Uncle Laney, Sarah’s father Charley, and their 3 brothers, Dan, Joss (Joshua), and Abe (Abraham) were in a band called ‘The Gray Boys’ and Sarah would join them on cello. In 1910, the band broke up and Sarah shifted to playing dances, radio, and theater productions with her daughter on piano and her son on guitar or banjo. Bayard notes that Sarah was eager to have her tunes recorded as she knew old time tunes were being lost. Unfortunately, there are no known audio recordings of Sarah Armstrong.

“Old Reel” as it appears in Hill Country Tunes
“Sarah Armstrong’s” as heard around Seattle
Mandolin tab written by a non-mandolin player

 

 

 

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